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Iraq: Bomb Attacks Spark Debate Over U.S. Security Role

  • Charles Recknagel

The bomb attacks that killed more than 140 Shi'a in Iraq yesterday are sparking a fierce new debate over whether U.S.-led forces are able to provide adequate security in the country. RFE/RL looks at the row and whether it is likely to cause the coalition to change tactics.

Prague, 3 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Several top Shi'a leaders are strongly criticizing the U.S.-led coalition for what they say were inadequate security measures to protect their community from yesterday's deadly bombings in Baghdad and Karbala.

A spokesman for pre-eminent Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani blamed the coalition for both failing to provide sufficient security itself and failing to give Iraqi police enough equipment to do the job. Spokesman Sayyed Ahmad al-Safi said, "We put the responsibility on the occupation forces both directly and indirectly." He did not say whether al-Sistani specifically endorsed his comments. The attacks killed more than 140 people, with Iraqi officials saying it could be over 270 dead.

"With regards to the notion of not having coalition forces in the direct vicinity of the mosque, the plan was specifically meant to respect the cultural requirements and the cultural desires of those planning these events."
The head of the best-organized Shi'a political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), also faulted the coalition. "The occupying army bears responsibility for all the attacks on the Iraqi people, because they are in charge, but they failed to protect the Iraqi people,” Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim said. “At the same time, they are not allowing Iraqis to defend themselves in a proper way."

The U.S.-led coalition rejects the charges, saying it provided essential security services for the Shi'a community's observance of their holy day of Ashura. But, coalition officials say, those services were restricted to providing an outer cordon of security in shrine areas while direct on-site security was in the hands of Iraqi security forces by agreement with city officials.

Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of operations for the U.S. Army in Iraq, said that arrangement in Baghdad was made to respect Shi’a religious feelings. "With regards to the notion of not having coalition forces in the direct vicinity of the mosque, the plan was specifically meant to respect the cultural requirements and the cultural desires of those planning these events," he said. "The military forces, the coalition forces, set an outer cordon, the ICDC, the Iraqi Civil Defense Service, as well as the Iraqi police service set the inner cordon, these were coordinated plans that were done not only among ourselves but among other officials within the city and within the organizations."

The Polish spokesman for the multinational force in the Karbala region said local authorities there also wanted security to be mostly handled by Iraqis. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Strzelecki said his group met with religious leaders and local authorities beforehand and were told that those bodies wanted to be self-sufficient.

The debate over yesterday's security arrangements is heated because it again raises the sensitive question of how quickly and in what manner the coalition should hand over power to Iraq's political leaders. The United States has pursued a "ground-up" strategy of first disbanding then reforming Iraq's military and police forces in an effort to assure members are free of ties to the former regime of Saddam Hussein.

But many Iraqi leaders say this time-consuming approach has led to security shortfalls. Some leaders of former exile groups that have their own armed wings have long called for the coalition to let their militias help assure security, at least until the new Iraqi army and police are fully operational.

SCIRI head al-Hakim, a member of the U.S. led Iraqi Governing Council, called again yesterday for the coalition to hand over some authority for local security to his group. He said, "There is no getting around relying on forces on the ground that have had a role in facing the regime."

He is reported to have been referring to SCIRI's Badr Brigades, a militia of several thousand men who launched guerilla raids against Hussein's regime from their bases in exile in Iran. The Badr Brigades are believed today to control substantial areas of southern Iraq, making SCIRI the de facto power in them even as it participates in the U.S.-led plans to transfer power to a sovereign government by 30 June.

The coalition has previously called for disbanding the Badr Brigades and other militias tied to political parties because they could be rival centers of power to the new Iraqi army and police. But the coalition has made an exception for the militias of the two main Kurdish factions, which maintain security in a large area of northern Iraq. The Kurdish militias, unlike the former Iran-based SCIRI, have long-standing ties with Washington and were allied with coalition forces in toppling Hussein last April.

Analysts say yesterday's tragedy is not likely to cause the coalition to alter its security strategy in Iraq. But it may cause Washington to try to further speed up the training and deployment of Iraq's fledgling state security forces. General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced just such a speed-up following an armed attack on an Iraqi police station in Al-Fallujah last month. Myers, who is America's top military leader, said he wants to accelerate the building of Iraq’s security forces, which now number over 200,000 and include police, border guards, a civil defense corps, and guards for key facilities.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces will likely continue their policy of reducing their presence on streets in many Iraqi cities and towns and withdrawing to military bases instead. That enables them to provide backup for the Iraq security forces while reducing tensions with local communities. It also potentially minimizes U.S. casualties.

Phillip Mitchell, a military analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says the coalition strategy is for there to be a gradual process of Iraqis taking over security for cities and towns as U.S. troops withdraw. “I think we are seeing that effort being successful in the amount of both weapons that are being found and the arrests that are being made,” he said. “But there is still a long way to go, I mean, these attacks in Karbala show there is still a long way to go."

No group has claimed responsibility for yesterday's bombings, but U.S. officials say suspicion falls on an Islamist group operating in Iraq led by Jordanian extremist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi.