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Iraq: U.S. Relations With Main Shi'ite Alliance Fraying

  • Kathleen Ridolfo --> U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is increasingly unpopular with Shi'ite leaders (AFP) Relations between Iraq's Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) and the U.S. government continued to sour this week following allegations that U.S.-backed Iraqi forces opened fire on a group of worshippers inside a Baghdad mosque on March 26. The incident follows months of increasing tension between the UIA and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

Shi'ite supporters of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told RFE/RL on March 28 that they are now pushing for Khalilzad's resignation. UIA members Baha al-Araji and Abbas al-Bayati denied the claim, telling RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) on March 28 that they do not want Khalilzad to resign, but they cautioned that the ambassador should take a less aggressive approach.

Nevertheless, the crisis threatens to further stall the political process. Shi'ite leaders suspended talks with other parties on the forming a new Iraqi government on March 27.

Clashes Over Shi'ite Intransigence

Relations between Khalilzad and the UIA have been worsening for months. In October, Shi'ite leaders resisted the ambassador's pressure to meet some Sunni Arab demands over the draft constitution in an effort to bring them on board prior to the constitutional referendum. The Shi'a grudgingly capitulated after the Kurds negotiated an agreement allowing for the draft to be reviewed during the next government's first four months. But soon after, Shi'ite politicians began suggesting that they might renege on that agreement.

In November, Shi'ite leaders resisted attempts to bring some Sunni Arab groups into the mainstream political dialogue at the Arab League-sponsored meeting on national reconciliation in Cairo.
According to Shi'ite leaders, U.S. forces entered a mosque on March 26, tied up the worshippers, tortured some, and then opened fire on them, killing at least 16. The U.S. military denies the charges, saying that the military operation targeted a building complex, not the mosque in question.

The same month, Khalilzad strongly criticized the Shi'ite-managed Interior Ministry after U.S. forces uncovered a torture chamber inside a ministry prison in Baghdad. Khalilzad has since said that the ministry, currently run by Shi'ite leader Bayan Jabr, should be free of sectarian tendencies. Jabr has labeled such comments "interference."

Khalilzad has since supported calls by Sunni and Kurdish leaders rejecting the UIA's nomination of Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to retain the premiership, drawing further fire from the Shi'a, who alleged that the United States is trying to influence the shape of the next Iraqi government.

The Shi'a also resisted postelection proposals for the formation of a national-unity government. Khalilzad's pressure on the Shi'a prompted Prime Minister al-Ja'fari to tell reporters on February 21 that any decision to form a national-unity government would not be done "in compliance with the demand by an ambassador or something like that" but rather because Iraqis chose so.

When Khalilzad claimed that Iran was wielding too much influence on Shi'ite political parties, UIA leaders countered by saying the claims were part of a U.S. effort to lessen the alliance's power in the government.

Now, Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) member Rida Jawad Taqiy has claimed that U.S. President George W. Bush has personally tried to intervene in that process. "George Bush sent a letter via Khalilzad to Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, as head of the alliance, telling him that George Bush does not wish or want Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to be prime minister," Reuters quoted Taqiy as saying on March 28. An unidentified spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy denied the claim, the news agency reported.

U.S. Credibility Threatened

As the crisis between the UIA and the United States intensifies, the United States stands to lose more credibility among Iraqis. Shi'ite-dominated media, including state-run Al-Iraqiyah television, have devoted much of their broadcasting this week to the March 26 operation, sparking further anticoalition sentiment in the streets.

The UIA views its position in the government as its natural right, as the alliance that represents the majority of Iraqis, and after winning the December parliamentary elections. Its rejection of power sharing through a national-unity government can be seen in this light.

However, the UIA is probably willing to compromise on some sort of power-sharing agreement (its leaders claim they support a national-unity government) but would only be willing to do so on its terms. That means maintaining control of key ministries, including the Interior Ministry and the Oil Ministry.

With regard to Iran, the UIA sees Iraq's eastern neighbor as an ally rather than a threat, and views the U.S. rhetoric as part of the 27-year standoff between those two countries rather than any real threat to Iraq's security. Moreover, given the UIA's historic relationship with Iran, which sheltered the UIA leadership from Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and 1990s, the alliance is not likely to subscribe to the U.S. point of view on Iran anytime soon.

To the UIA, Iran offers a counterweight to the Ba'athist insurgency. As SCIRI head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim told CNN this week, Iran is important to Iraq's security. "First of all, they've got strong and capable security forces. They can help in controlling the borders," he was quoted on March 27 as saying. "Secondly, they've got a lot of information that would benefit Iraq regarding terrorism operations. And third, we can benefit from the experiences of all neighboring countries."

As more information comes to light regarding the March 26 U.S.-Iraqi military operation, Iraqis may further question U.S. goals in Iraq. RFI reported that the operation was carried out by Iraqi commando forces linked to the army, but separately trained and working under U.S. military control.

"What these forces have done is considered an organized crime that has serious political and security dimensions that seek to trigger civil war to serve political ends aimed at manipulating current political formulas during critical political circumstances" surrounding the formation of a national government, Islamic Al-Da'wah Party member Jawad al-Maliki told reporters at a March 27 press briefing in Baghdad, RFI reported the same day.

Conflicting Accounts Of Attack

According to Shi'ite leaders, U.S. forces entered a mosque on March 26, tied up the worshippers, tortured some, and then opened fire on them, killing at least 16. The U.S. military denies the charges, saying that the military operation targeted a building complex, not the mosque in question, adding that military forces only opened fire after being fired upon by insurgents holed up inside the building.

"U.S. troops besieged the Al-Mustafa Husayniyah [Shi'ite religious center] in the Al-Sha'b area [of Baghdad]. They stormed the husayniyah and besieged worshippers. There is an office for the [Islamic] Al-Da'wah Party in this husayniyah as well. The U.S. troops went in and opened fire on the worshippers who were in one room, resulting in the martyrdom of 16 to 17 people. Three were wounded. Afterward, the U.S. troops detained the rest of the worshippers in the husayniyah," Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji, a spokesman for Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told Al-Arabiyah television on March 26.

"The building complex that was attacked was blocks away from the Mustafa Mosque. This operation was led by Iraqis who confirmed that this was not a mosque, and at no time did they enter any mosque or damage a mosque in any way," U.S. Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli said in an undated press release on

President Jalal Talabani said on March 27 that he would head an investigation into the incident. Meanwhile, Baghdad's municipal council has suspended all contacts with U.S. forces to protest the operation.
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