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Iraq Report: March 24, 2006

24 March 2006, Volume 9, Number 12

MIXED REACTIONS IN IRAQ TO POSSIBLE U.S.-IRAN TALKS. Several Iraqi politicians have expressed concern over proposed talks between the United States and Iran on the issue of Iraq's security. Some detractors have speculated that the issue of Iranian involvement in Iraq might become intertwined with the U.S.-Iran nuclear dispute, opening up the potential for Iraq to be sacrificed in any forthcoming agreement between the two.

Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who proposed the talks last week, said they would aim to dispel mounting accusations of Iranian interference in Iraq. Some Iraqi lawmakers say that the call for talks amounts to an admission by al-Hakim of the Iranian presence in the country.

Sunni Suspicions

Not surprisingly, Sunni Arab leaders have been the most vehemently opposed to the proposal. Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab-dominated administration fought a bitter eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s. During this time and after, Hussein cultivated a fear among Sunni Arabs that Iran would undertake any means to bring down his regime and establish an Iranian-style government in Iraq -- all with the support of Iraq's Shi'a.

"This [call by al-Hakim] is a clear signal of the Iranian presence in Iraq.... When this initiative came, it was only to uncover this situation rather than to introduce a new one. It is an explicit demonstration of what is really happening," Sunni Arab parliamentarian Husayn al-Falluji said in a March 20 interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI).

The influential Muslim Scholars Association, which remains outside the government, called on "neighboring states" to stop harming Iraq in a March 18 statement posted to its website. "The Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs is not new and its harm has reached its peak. What is new, however, is [attempts by some Iraqis] to legitimize this interference and grant [Iran] an international cover based on a full disregard of Iraq's sovereignty and will," said the association, referring to al-Hakim.

In some cases, objection to the proposed talks is based on the supposition that the talks would be held without the presence of Iraqi political forces, and more specifically Sunni Arabs.

The Iraqi Accordance Front, the most powerful Sunni Arab grouping in parliament, has also condemned the proposed talks, saying they amount to a flagrant interference in Iraq's internal affairs. Front member Nasir al-Ani told "The New York Times" that it is the Iraqi government's responsibility to hold talks with Iran. "It's not up to the American ambassador to talk to Iran about Iraq," said al-Ani, the newspaper's website reported on March 18.

Former Sunni parliamentarian Mish'an al-Juburi, who is currently wanted in Baghdad on charges of corruption (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," February 10, 2006), told RFE/RL that allowing any of Iraq's neighbors to become involved in Iraqi affairs would be a dangerous development. "If we allow a country like Iran to interfere in Iraqi affairs and take it as a discussion partner on the future situation of Iraq, it can mean that all other neighboring countries -- Kuwait, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia -- may be party to these type of discussions" in the future, he said.

Calling Iran's interference in Iraq "expansionism," al-Juburi added, "We need to stop the Iranian role by supporting and boosting Shi'ite patriots who do not accept Iranian influence in Iraq." Al-Juburi blamed outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari for the growing Iranian influence in Iraq, saying al-Ja'fari "has surrendered Iraq to Iran. This man is the origin of the mistake. He proved unable to do anything to prohibit Iran, its intelligence and institutions, from taking hold on the whole of Iraq's executive bodies: economic, intelligence, and security" organs, al-Juburi said.

Kurds Recall Historic Betrayal

For some Kurds, the issue of Iran-U.S. talks is of special concern. Kurds claim they were betrayed by Iran and the United States after Iran concluded the 1975 Algiers Accord with Saddam Hussein. The accord, demarcating the Iran-Iraq border, led the Shah of Iran to withdraw his support for Iraq's Kurds. The United States followed suit, leaving the Kurds to fend for themselves against Hussein.

Nevertheless, Iran's borders were open to fleeing Iraqi Kurds -- and Shi'a -- during crucial periods in the 1980s and 1990s and many would argue that countless Iraqi lives were saved as a result.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, for one, has backed the talks. "I am one of those who support this and worked for this purpose. When I visited Tehran, I met with Iranian officials and raised this issue with them, since I believe that the Iraqi problem has become an international problem.... If this action serves Iraq and its sovereignty and independence -- provided there is no interference in its domestic affairs -- and if it serves security and stability, prevents infiltrations, and ends terrorism...then this is welcome," Talabani said at a March 19 press briefing in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Fu'ad Husayn, spokesman for Kurdistan Regional President Mas'ud Barzani, told RFI in a March 20 interview that he believes the Kurdistan Coalition has no official position on the talks. "We must be realistic, as the borders of Iraq are open and every [neighboring] country has some influence in this country. It may be better, and maybe in the Iraqi interest, that these countries arrive at concluding agreements amongst themselves," Husayn said. "If the agreements are in the interest of Iraq, then why not?" He did caution, however, that the talks should not be held at the expense of the Kurdish issue.

Independent Kurdish politician Mahmud Uthman said that Iraq must be represented at any talks. "The dialogue between Iran and the United States alone will be at the expense of Iraq's interests," Uthman told London-based "Al-Hayat," the daily reported on March 18.

Shi'a Split Over Talks

Shi'ite leaders currently at odds with al-Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) over other issues related to the formation of the incoming government, such as cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc in parliament and al-Ja'fari's Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, are vehemently opposed to the proposal.

Al-Sadr supporters in parliament -- like their Sunni Arab counterparts -- have claimed the very proposal itself amounts to tacit recognition of Iran's interference in Iraqi affairs.

Nadim al-Jabiri's Islamic Virtue Party, which is part of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) along with SCIRI and the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, is also opposed to the talks, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on March 18.

SCIRI member Rida al-Taqiy defended the proposal, however, telling "Al-Hayat" that the talks were necessary because they are obstructing talks over the formation of the next cabinet. "The U.S. Ambassador [Zalmay Khalilzad] has frequently accused the [UIA] of establishing relations with Iran in order to remain in power and control [Iraq's] resources and security. These accusations have a negative effect on the formation of the government because the [UIA] won a majority in parliament, which cannot be ignored in the government formation."

Former Shi'ite parliamentarian Ali al-Dabbagh told Paris-based "Le Monde" that while al-Ja'fari is very much aware of Iranian infiltration in the Interior Ministry, he is reluctant to do anything about it, the daily reported on March 17. Al-Dabbagh withdrew from the UIA in October to protest the alliance's monopolization of power in the transitional government.

If al-Ja'fari is indeed hesitating to publicly confront Iran's growing role in Iraq, it may be because of his diminishing influence in the government and the fact that any infiltration -- though it may have occurred without his knowledge -- came under his administration. Al-Ja'fari has also clashed with SCIRI after al-Ja'fari beat out SCIRI's nominee to the premiership, Adil Abd al-Mahdi, by one vote in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2006).

Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told Reuters in a March 21 interview that he supports the talks, but only if Iraqi officials, and regional Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, were represented at the talks. "It would be inappropriate for two countries to discuss the affairs of the people of a third country," Allawi said. "The Iraqi political blocs, as well as the region, should be a major part of these discussions." (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on March 23.)

SECTARIAN VIOLENCE HIGHLIGHTS INCREASING POWER OF MILITIAS. As Iraq this week marked the third anniversary of the start of the U.S. invasion on March 19-20, some Iraqi leaders are saying the biggest security threat today is not the insurgency but the possibility of civil war. Many other Iraqi and U.S. officials say that threat is exaggerated. But the debate has focused new attention on the many sectarian-based militias in Iraq, some of which appear to be waging tit-for-tat attacks on rival groups.

The starkest warnings of civil war have come from Iyad Allawi, Iraq's former interim prime minister. "We do not have a clear definition of what a civil war is," he told Reuters on March 21. "It varies from one place to another, but if we do not avert and reverse where we are now, then of course, we will go into much more serious [situation], into a civil strife."

That assessment is disputed by others. "Listen, we all recognize that there is violence [in Iraq], that there is sectarian violence, but the way I look at the situation is that the Iraqis took a look and decided not to go to civil war," U.S. President George W. Bush said later the same day. "A couple of indicators are that the army didn't bust up into sectarian divisions. The army stayed united and, as [U.S. commander in Iraq] General [George] Casey pointed out, they did, arguably, a good job."

Post-Samarra Sectarian Violence

The debate over civil war stems largely from the waves of tit-for-tat sectarian killings that followed the February 22 bombing of a key Shi'ite shrine in Samarra. The violence claimed some 500 lives before subsiding this month.

Iraqi Sunni groups have accused the Imam Al-Mahdi Army of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr of organizing the reprisals. Militia leaders denied those charges.

Still, many analysts say the events highlight the fragility of Iraq's political order -- one where most of the large parties participating in the government are sectarian-based and most have armed wings. Matthew Sherman was an adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 2004 until early this year. During that time, he worked closely with Iraq's Interior Ministry.

Sherman said the violence following the Samarra attack should be seen as part of a larger pattern of militia reprisals that began under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-based regime. "Right after the first [1991] Gulf War, Saddam Hussein set up the Fedayeen, which was an entity that was designed to suppress the Shi'a uprising that was going on throughout the country," he said. "And I think what you are seeing right now is that a number of these Shi'a militias are actually now going back out and trying to target these individuals, in a sense as a defensive measure, to make sure they aren't persecuted again, or they aren't targeted again, by Sunni groups. So, in a sense it is a much larger-scale tit-for-tat and we are just seeing this become much more evident within recent days."

Militias In Government

Sherman said that one of the most troubling developments today is that Shi'ite militia members have entered the new Iraqi army and police force "en masse" with the changeover to a Shi'ite-led government. He said the Badr Corps, the armed wing of the Shi'ite-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), "has slowly gained virtual control of the Interior Ministry."

In November, U.S. soldiers discovered a secret prison run by police officers associated with the Badr Corps. Some 170 people had been held there and some of these were tortured.

Sherman said that, similarly, the Al-Mahdi Army "has gained significant influence over chiefs of police and governors' offices in the south of the country."

Sunni-based groups and even some parties that are non-sectarian-based also have armed wings. "The Iraqi Communist Party, the National Dialogue Council, have their own militia groups," Sherman noted. "A lot of the Sunni political parties that you are seeing that are coming on board have their own militia wing. Now, it's just not as strong, or as many people, as Badr, or [Kurdish] peshmerga or Jaysh Al-Mahdi [Army]."

Sherman said there is no official count of the total number of armed men in all these militias. But in 2004, when the Interior Ministry held negotiations with the nine major groups, they represented "tens of thousands of armed men."

Neutralizing The Militias

The question now is what to do with Iraq's unofficial armies when, as Sherman said, there is no political will for doing so. "In order for a representative government to function, it must have a monopoly on power," he said. "And you are having these militia groups undermine that authority. There is one approach that you simply disband the militias, and while that might be possible for some of them, I don't think it is possible for all the militia elements."

Sherman said the best approach is to keep bringing the militiamen into the security forces but in a way that clearly identifies their allegiances. That would balance the numbers from each group and help defuse rival groups' fears that they being outflanked. He suggested that militiamen also could be absorbed by reviving units like the Hussein-era Shrine Police Force. He said this would enable Sunni and Shi'ite units to guard their own respective religious sites and possibly deter attacks such as the one in Samarra.

But Sherman said none of this can begin until government ministers are prevented from using their positions to build fiefdoms staffed by their own militant groups.

According to Sherman, the test for the next government -- still to be formed more than three months since Iraq's legislative elections –- will be whether it can make the militias subservient to the national interest. Until that happens, he warned, there will no stability in Iraq. (By Charles Recknagel. Originally published on March 22.)