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Iraq Report: February 17, 2006

17 February 2006, Volume 9, Number 7

BRITAIN FACES PREDICAMENT IN AL-BASRAH. The Al-Basrah Governorate Council cut ties with the United Kingdom on 14 February after a 2004 videotape surfaced in the British media that appears to depict British soldiers beating Iraqi youths. This follows weeks of mounting tension between the council and the British military, and could lead to an earlier-than-expected pullout of British forces from southern Iraq.

The council said in a statement that it was cutting ties with the British because earlier demands have not been met, including the release of prisoners, the forwarding of the security file to Iraqis, and a withdrawal of British forces from the city center, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on 15 February. Those demands were first made in January after British troops arrested five local police officers for alleged criminal activities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2006).

Britain said the arrests were made at the request of the Iraqi Interior Ministry. In the raid, the troops confiscated weapon stockpiles and arrested five Iraqi police officials affiliated with the former Department of Affairs, Criminal Intelligence Unit, and Serious Crimes Unit; all were suspected of kidnapping, extortion, and the assassination of civilians in the governorate, as well as participating in attacks against multinational forces.

Al-Basrah's Slow Decline

Some 8,000 British forces have been stationed in Al-Basrah since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. While widely hailed for their approach to interacting with the community -- British soldiers often patrolled on foot, and reportedly established good personal relations with locals -- they also appeared to distance themselves from local political developments. Consequently, gang-like associations linked to Shi'ite political groups have come to rule the streets of Al-Basrah over the past three years, locals say.

There were indications early on that democratic institutions were not taking hold in Al-Basrah. In January 2004, the existence of a secret police force operating in Al-Basrah was uncovered by the British media. The members of the Istikhbarat al-Shurta (Police Intelligence) unit were accused of kidnapping, detaining, and even killing former Ba'ath Party members. British forces were reportedly aware of the group's activities, London's "Sunday Times" claimed (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 30 January 2004).

By May 2004, relations had further strained following a series of crackdowns on radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army in cities across Iraq. A representative of al-Sadr in Al-Basrah, Abd al-Sattar al-Bahadili, promised a 250,000-dinar (about $170) reward to anyone who captured a female British soldier and delivered her to al-Sadr.

By August 2004, al-Sadr's spokesman in Al-Basrah, As'ad al-Basri claimed there were over 1,000 martyrdom candidates ready to carry out suicide attacks against British forces in the city.

Taking Toll On The Public

The growing domination of the militias has taken its toll on the public as well. Many voters outside polling stations in the city said they would vote for anyone but the Shi'ite parties in the January 2005 national election. But Shi'ite parties were victorious in the end, and they subsequently solidified their control over the city.

Part of the challenge facing the British in southern Iraq is that there are now few unaffiliated people left to deal with. Two competing Shi'ite militias roam the streets of what was once called one of Iraq's most liberal cities, enforcing their own brand of justice, and the groups have infiltrated police and intelligence departments.

The militias, linked to al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army, and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) Badr Forces, target the "un-lslamic," as well as Sunni Arabs and Christians, and those with ties to the former Ba'ath Party. The militias also target each other as part of their ongoing turf war.

Dozens of reports have surfaced in the past year documenting the lawlessness and brutality of rogue police and militias operating across southern Iraq. In March, students described the situation in Al-Basrah following a militia attack on picnicking students. "The intelligence service that arrested students is staffed by Al-Badr forces. The police stand with the [al-Sadr] militia against the students. [The police] do nothing." Asked whether the new governorate council intervened, one student said: "The governorate council also does nothing, because it is new. The governor says, 'I am new, I can't do anything.' The situation is growing worse by the day, and [the militias] are trying to impose armed terror on the people" (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 28 March 2005).

Later, Al-Basrah police chief General Hassan al-Sade admitted that he had lost control of over three-quarters of his officers to militias that infiltrated the police and used their positions to carry out political assassinations. "The militias are the real power in [Al-Basrah] and they are made up of criminals and bad people," he said. "To defeat them I would need to use 75 percent of my forces, but I can rely on only one-quarter" (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 4 November 2005).

British Inquiry Ongoing

So far, a U.K. inquiry into the video has led to the arrest of three soldiers. Meanwhile, two Iraqis who claim they were among those beaten by British soldiers in the video, taped in 2004 in the town of Al-Amarah, north of Al-Basrah, have come forward, telling reporters at al-Sadr's Al-Amarah office that they would be seeking compensation for their ordeal, British media reported this week.

But local officials are sticking to their demands. "No department of Al-Basrah city or the governorate [will] cooperate or deal with [Britain]. This series of aggressions [by British forces] aired by the satellite channels including the humiliations and attacks on unarmed demonstrators have pained us," Governorate Council member Baha al-Din Jamal al-Din was quoted by Al-Manar television on 14 February as saying.

The council has been aided by statements of support from Sunni Arab groups. The influential Muslim Scholars Association criticized British forces in a 14 February statement posted to the association's website ( The association declared that the videotaped "incident represents a policy adopted by British forces and [was] not just a passing accident as [U.K. Prime Minister] Tony Blair claimed. What is [going on] behind the scenes is far worse. Once the truth is revealed, the world will see scandals that humanity would recoil at."

British Withdrawal An Option?

The U.K. Defense Ministry announced earlier this month that it likely to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq by mid-year. Defense Secretary John Reid said on 7 February that four conditions would need to be met before troops could depart: a manageable level of threat from insurgents; the ability of Iraqi security forces to deal with the terrorist threat; an effective local government, and coalition confidence in its own ability to provide backup for local forces.

It appears unlikely, however, that those conditions could be reasonably met anytime soon. In Al-Basrah, it would require a complete rebuilding of Iraqi police forces and the establishment of a new local government not tied to militias. Finding Iraqis willing to take on the powerful militias will be no small task.

For now, the U.K. military is burdened with the challenge of rebuilding public trust following the abuse video. Groups like al-Sadr's have not hesitated to use the videos to stir up public sentiment through daily demonstrations against coalition forces.

Iran's Arabic-language television and newspapers -- aimed at an Iraqi audience -- have sought to capitalize on the situation as well. The official news agency IRNA claimed on 15 February that the continued presence of "occupation forces" has led to the emergence of an atmosphere even worse than that which existed under Saddam Hussein. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on 17 February.)

QUESTIONS ARISE OVER AL-JA'FARI NOMINATION. Kurdish and Sunni Arab political parties raised concerns about the future shape of the Iraqi government after the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) nominated Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari on 12 February to retain his position in the incoming Iraqi government. His nomination has raised concerns among secular Shi'a as well, who have supported recent calls for the formation of a national unity government.

Al-Ja'fari, who leads the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, beat out Adil Abd al-Mahdi, a member of the Shi'ite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), in the internal UIA election by just one vote, 64 to 63.

The closeness of the vote reflects the growing split between the two powerful Shi'ite political parties. SCIRI head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim began distancing himself from al-Ja'fari last year, after the latter came under increased public criticism for the poor performance of his transitional government. Other Shi'ite leaders left the UIA ahead of the 15 December parliamentary elections, complaining the government was wrecked by favoritism and a monopolization of power.

Courting The Radicals

The growing split within the UIA prompted al-Ja'fari to court Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr in the weeks leading up to the elections, prompting al-Sadr to allow his supporters to run as members of the UIA (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 30 November 2005). The 30 al-Sadr supporters who won seats in the parliament supported al-Ja'fari in the UIA vote. Al-Sadr loyalists in parliament were quick to point out in comments to the media that without them, al-Ja'fari would not have won the nomination.

It remains unclear what, if anything, al-Sadr will gain for his efforts. He has typically shied away from politics, but may be angling for a position for himself or a loyalist in the incoming government. Should that happen, it is likely to provoke greater tensions within the UIA, because of decades-old animosity between al-Sadr supporters and SCIRI. Al-Sadr has spent much of the new year on a regional tour, meeting with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, and Syria in recent weeks.

In reality, al-Sadr has little in common with either SCIRI or Al-Da'wah. Those two parties support federalism for southern Iraq, and are opposed to amending the constitution, while al-Sadr is opposed to federalism and supports changes to the constitution. But both al-Ja'fari's Al-Da'wah and al-Sadr are against any role for former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in the incoming government, while SCIRI is on the fence.

Thus, al-Ja'fari's motive in aligning with al-Sadr was twofold: first, to gain support for his retention of power. Second, he may be hoping to use al-Sadr's relations with Sunni Arab groups as a means to establish relations with those groups on his terms, thereby bypassing any need for Allawi -- who spent much of 2005 working to engage Sunni Arabs in the political process.

Sunni Arabs and Kurds Disappointed

Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders were quick to express their disappointment over al-Ja'fari's nomination. President Jalal Talabani, who was critical of al-Ja'fari's leadership of the transitional government, had supported calls for Abd al-Mahdi's nomination to the premiership. He issued a strong warning to the Shi'a on 12 February, saying the Kurdistan Coalition would not participate in the new government unless it included a role for Allawi.

Speaking to reporters alongside U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad at a press briefing in Baghdad, Talabani said: "I reiterated to the U.S. ambassador the position of the Kurdistan Coalition, which rejects the exclusion of any parliamentary bloc, particularly [Allawi's] Iraqi National List, from the makeup of the next government. The Kurdistan Coalition will not participate in any government that discriminates or vetoes against Iyad Allawi's bloc," RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported.

Kurdish leaders have invested much of their time since the parliamentary elections toward forging a national unity government that would bring Sunni Arabs greater participation in the incoming government.

Given the Sunnis' negative view of al-Ja'fari, much could be lost by his nomination. Sunni leaders said they hoped for a stronger leader, saying al-Ja'fari failed to prove himself in the transitional government. Sunnis also cited the UIA's monopolization of power in the transitional government and the brutality of SCIRI-dominated Interior Ministry forces.

Wait-And-See Approach

For now, Sunni leaders are taking a wait-and-see attitude, saying much will depend on upcoming negotiations over cabinet positions in the new government, and in particular, who will control the Interior and Defense ministries. Should al-Ja'fari choose "new ministers of no ethnic motivations and no background of corruption, there will be a chance to cooperate with him," quoted Sunni leader Salih al-Mutlaq as saying. UIA representative Sami al-Askari (Al-Sadr Bloc) has maintained that the alliance intends to retain control over the Interior Ministry, "Al-Dustur" reported on 14 February.

One option that may help ease tensions between rival political parties comes in the form of a proposal by Kurdistan Regional Government head Mas'ud Barzani for the establishment of a consultative council that would advise the cabinet on issues impeding national unity. The council would comprise leaders from the political blocs that won seats in the parliamentary elections, including Allawi's party, to work toward solutions to issues affecting political progress.

"This entity must incorporate the elements of national unity and these elements -- regardless of the votes they received and as long as we agree among ourselves in determining the elements of the national unity government -- will share in decision making, regardless of the ministries allocated" to those parties, Allawi told Al-Sharqiyah television in an interview broadcast on 10 February.

Some members of the UIA have rejected the proposal outright, while others have yet to comment publicly on it. Al-Sadr supporter Baha al-Araji rejected the proposal on 5 February, claiming it would ignore the results of the parliamentary elections, and leave the UIA without a plurality in parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2006). Al-Ja'fari is also unlikely to support such as council.

Meanwhile, in their latest attempt at maintaining a unified front, two Sunni Arab lists, the National Dialogue Front and the Iraqi Accordance Front, joined Allawi's Iraqi National List in establishing the United Front, a pressure group that will work to "contribute to creating a political balance" in negotiations with the more powerful UIA over the shape of the future government. The front, comprised of 80 parliamentarians, has called on other lists to join its effort. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on 15 February.)

SHI'ITE PARLIAMENTARIANS COMMENT ON INCOMING GOVERNMENT. RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) interviewed two United Iraqi Alliance members, Al-Sadr bloc representative Sami al-Askari and Virtue Party head Nadim al-Jabiri, to ask about the alliance's efforts to form the next government. The interview was broadcast on 13 February.

Sami al-Askari: Indeed, the [United Iraqi Alliance] has started to work with other candidate lists, especially with the Kurdistan Coalition List and the Iraqi Accordance Front. Preliminary talks were conducted at the time for exploring the atmosphere and reaching an agreement on principal points. After the final and definite election results were announced [last week] and the prime minister [candidate for the United Iraqi Alliance] was named, this body entered serious negotiations with bodies representing those candidate lists on forming the government.

RFI: What are the reasons that have led the United Iraqi Alliance to negotiate with the Kurdistan Coalition List and the Iraqi Accordance Front in particular?

Al-Askari: The number [of seats] they have in the Council of Representatives and the support they have enjoyed on the Iraqi scene. Besides that, each of them represents a specific segment of Iraqi society. These three segments [represented by each of the three political blocs], when they reach agreement, cover the whole of the Iraqi scene.

RFI: Some parts of the Iraqi National List, the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, and the Iraqi Accordance Front have most recently united in a single bloc. Will you negotiate with this bloc as a whole, or will you focus only on one part of it, the Iraqi Accordance Front for instance?

Al-Askari: No. When those three candidate lists agreed on forming one bloc, the talks are naturally held with representatives of the bloc, irrespective of who they represent. In the end, they represent this broad bloc, and that may facilitate our dialogue with them. Instead of talking to several parties, there are talks with one single delegation and various issues are discussed with it for reaching an agreement.

RFI: Have any views incompatible with yours come out during the negotiations, especially on the part of the Iraqi Accordance Front?

Al-Askari: There may be some difficulties and objections from any of the candidate lists but, through the dialogue, we are determined to reach some common attitudes and an agreement based on them.

RFI: Nadim al-Jabiri has confirmed that the Iraqi National List [led by Iyad Allawi] will be present at the meeting where candidate lists will discuss the United Iraqi Alliance's nomination of Ibrahim al-Ja'fari for the next prime minister.

Nadim al-Jabiri: The National Iraqi List, the Iraqi Accordance Front, the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, and the Kurdistan Coalition List will gather today to discuss their views and opinions on the United Iraqi Alliance's decision on nominating Ibrahim al-Ja'fari for the next prime minister, and on the form of their participation in the next government.

RFI: The United Iraqi Alliance has formed a body in charge of distributing the ministerial posts. Can you reveal any details whether decisions have been reached?

Al-Jabiri: There is no secrecy in these issues. The United Iraqi Alliance has formed a seven-member committee that represents the leaderships of the member parties [in the alliance]. This committee is a part of the institutional structure of the alliance. It discusses decisive and strategic issues and makes decisions according to what it sees as the most convenient and the most beneficial for the country.

The United Iraqi Alliance has not determined yet what ministerial posts it will assume. That is open to discussion and dialogue with the other candidate lists that will be allotted their proportions of ministries. In the process of talks and negotiations with them, it will be agreed which ministries will go, let us say, to the Kurdistan Coalition List, and which ones to the United Iraqi Alliance. After the ministries assigned to the United Iraqi Alliance are determined, talks and agreements between the member parties of the alliance will distribute those ministries.

(Translation by Petr Kubalek)