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Iraq: Sunni-Shi'ite Tensions High On Eve Of Arab Conference

  • Kathleen Ridolfo

Sunni leaders announcing the formation of a Sunni electoral bloc in October (AFP) Reports of the alleged torture of Sunni Arab detainees by Interior Ministry security forces led to an escalation of tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs in Iraq this week ahead of an Arab League-sponsored Iraqi reconciliation conference scheduled to convene in Cairo on 19 November.


The conference seeks to bring together representatives of all Iraqi sects with the goal of staving off further sectarian tension that some fear might spark a civil war.


Iraqi leaders have been unable to agree on the participation of groups outside the political process at the conference. Sunni Arab groups have lobbied for the participation of Ba'athist leaders and armed Iraqi "resistance" groups. Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders rejected the participation of any armed groups, saying they would not hold talks with Iraqis who they believe to have blood on their hands.


Officials from the United States, the United Nations Security Council, Arab League member states, Iran, and Turkey will attend the opening session of the conference and expectations are running high, with many likening the event to the 1989 Al-Ta'if conference that led to the end of Lebanon's civil war.


No Surprises


Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari expressed the hope that the Arab League would abide by the government's demand that no armed groups be present at the talks, telling reporters on 15 November: "After telephone conversations [with Arab League officials], I was given assurances over the matters we tackled with [league Secretary-General] Amr Musa and [Deputy Secretary-General] Ahmad bin Hilli. I hope that there will be no surprises."


Musa told reporters at a 17 November press briefing in Cairo that members of the Iraqi Ba'ath Party would attend conference, but said no armed men would take part in the meeting "because the meeting is about dialogue." Musa is expected to push however, for the participation of armed groups at an expanded reconciliation conference planned to take place in Baghdad following the 15 December parliamentary election. However, Iraq's fractured sects appear ill prepared to lay the ground work for comprehensive talks.


Controversial Operations


Sunni Arabs continue to maintain that ongoing U.S. and Iraqi security operations in the Al-Anbar and Diyala governorates are part of an "ethnic cleansing" campaign against Sunnis. Iraqi officials insist that the operations are aimed at eliminating Sunni insurgent elements from those areas and sealing the Iraqi-Syrian border to prevent new foreign fighters from entering Iraq. Officials have said that the operations would help pave the way for greater Sunni Arab participation in the December election, while Sunni Arabs have countered that the operations seek to scare Sunni Arabs away from the polls.


This week's allegations surrounding the abuse of Sunni Arab detainees at detention centers run by the Shi'ite Arab-dominated Interior Ministry only exacerbate tensions between the rival sects.


Interior Minister Responds


Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr downplayed the abuse allegations at a 17 November press briefing in Baghdad, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. Jabr said he believes only seven detainees had been abused at the Al-Jadiriyah detention center out of 170 detainees. He added that General George W. Casey, commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, told him that only five prisoners had been abused at the detention facility. "Nobody in the facility has been beheaded or slain," Jabr said, responding to some Arab media reports.


"Those who have beaten seven out of 170 or 176 prisoners will be punished in accordance with the law," Jabr said, responding to a question from RFI. He invited international journalists to visit any prison and to film detainee conditions. CNN reported on 18 November that it attempted to visit a detention center the previous day but was turned away.


Jabr said he had no previous knowledge of abuse at his ministry's detention centers. "I reject any acts of torture," he said. "I said at the very beginning that I will bring to account anyone who commits acts of torture. We do not need to torture anybody."


Interior Ministry Undersecretary for Intelligence Major General Husayn Kamal also claimed in a 16 November interview with Al-Jazeera television that neither he nor Jabr had any previous knowledge of the abuse. "When we know of any violation of human rights or detainee mistreatment, we do not remain silent. We took action in the past," Kamal said. "There are firm directives and orders from the Iraqi Prime Minister [Ibrahim al-Ja'fari] on the need to treat the detainees well."


Officials Deny Iranian Role


Both Jabr and Kamal have also denied reports alleging that Iranian security agents were in charge of prisoner interrogation at the Al-Jadiriyah detention center in Baghdad.


The ministry's security forces are staffed from remnants of the Badr Corps, which is the former armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI was based in Iran for 20 years and only returned to Iraq following the fall of the Hussein regime. Since that time, critics of the party have maintained that SCIRI continues to receive financial support from the Iranian regime. The Badr Corps changed its name to Badr Organization in 2003 to reflect its claim of transforming itself into a civil society organization.


" Badr Organization forces are there in the police and armed forces and [in] all domains of life in Iraq," Kamal told Al-Jazeera. "They are part of the Iraqi people. There is no harm if they act within the limits of the law. During my work at the Interior Ministry, I did not meet any Iranians or persons speaking Persian, for example."


The U.S. Embassy also acknowledged that militias have infiltrated Iraqi security forces in a 17 November statement posted on its website. "We have made clear to the Iraqi Government that there must not be militia or sectarian control or direction of Iraqi Security Forces, facilities or ministries," the statement said.


The United States will now participate in a joint investigation with Iraqi officials into the allegations of detainee abuse. "The [Iraqi] Prime Minister has agreed to a six-point plan for dealing with all allegations of detainee abuse and to institute means to provide accountability by Iraqi Security Forces to ensure humane treatment of all detainees," the U.S. Embassy said.


Sunnis Call For International Probe


Sunni Arab leaders responded to the reported abuse by calling for an international investigation into the allegations.


Iraqi Islamic Party Secretary-General Tariq al-Hashimi told reporters at a 16 November press briefing in Baghdad that the party has lodged 50 complaints with the Interior Ministry in recent months over the disappearance of Iraqis taken into custody by ministry forces, but the ministry denied the allegations. "We have been telling them: If you do not have any information, can you tell us where our citizens and brothers have gone? They were arrested by people who wear your uniform, use your communication equipment, drive your cars, and carry your identity cards," al-Hashimi said. "We are now fully convinced that the Interior Ministry is actively participating in the harm that has befallen us."


Al-Hashimi contended that the Al-Jadiriyah detention center "is not the only place where detainees are being tortured," and claimed to have documents and compact discs full of evidence which he said he gave to U.S., UN, and Iraqi officials. He called on Iraqi citizens possessing information of secret detention centers to come forward.


Warned The UN


Meanwhile, Muthanna Harith al-Dari, spokesman for the Sunni group Muslim Scholars Association, told Al-Jazeera television in a 17 November interview that the association warned the United Nations six months ago that Sunni Arab detainees were being abused by Iraqi security forces. The association also called on the Arab League to intervene in the issue in October, al-Dari said. "We do not fully trust the government agencies that currently exist [in Iraq]. Under these agencies, all these kinds of torture were practiced. Now, the interior minister is admitting frankly...that there is torture at that place. He is trying to reduce the number and say that seven [were abused]. What is the difference between one, seven, or 100?" al-Dari asked.


Association member Abd al-Salam al-Kubaysi told washingtonpost.com that "thousands" of association members were taken to Interior Ministry detention centers in recent months, and that at least one detainee disappeared. He claimed that detainees suffered abuse and torture, including broken bones. A purported detainee interviewed by the website said he was suspended in the air by ministry security personnel, who whipped him with sticks and electrical cables, and submerged him in barrels of cold water while administering electric shocks to his body, the website reported on 17 November. The former detainees allegations could not be independently verified.

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