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Iraq Report: March 31, 2006


31 March 2006, Volume 9, Number 13

INDEPENDENT MEDIA QUESTION PRESS FREEDOM IN IRAQI KURDISTAN. Freedoms of speech and of the press in Iraqi Kurdistan are being called into question following the arrests of several journalists and intellectuals in recent months. As independent Kurdish media outlets push for greater press freedoms, Kurdish government officials blame outdated laws for the arrests.

Justice Minister Hadi Ali has said that part of the problem is that many Kurdish judges are beholden to security and intelligence agencies of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), latimes.com reported on March 27. Ali, a member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, a political party that clashed with the KDP last year (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," December 9, 2005), said the regional judiciary is open to abuse because there aren't adequate laws to guarantee civil liberties.

"Because of the problems between the two parties, the parliament has not been able to make laws to help justice work as it should," said Ali. "We canceled Saddam Hussein's revolutionary court, but in Kurdistan we are still using the old Iraqi judicial system that we used 80 years ago."

Several journalists said they were beaten, arrested, and had their equipment confiscated on March 16 following a government crackdown on demonstrators who violently interrupted a ceremony marking the 18th anniversary of the Hussein regime's chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabjah.

Some 500 Kurds had planned a sit-in during the ceremony to protest the lack of services and compensation for the victims of Halabjah, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported a day before the demonstration. Protesters claimed the two leading Kurdish parties -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the KDP -- had kept the town in a dilapidated state for publicity purposes, IWPR reported. The government brought in security forces to confront the 2,000 demonstrators on March 16, and violence broke out. Some demonstrators charged the memorial museum, burning down the Halabjah monument to the martyrs.

Immediately, television channels owned by the two parties identified the attackers as "outsiders" and implied the perpetrators were linked to Islamist terrorist groups.

Journalists caught up in the melee reported being beaten by both security forces and demonstrators. Several journalists working for independent Kurdish media outlets said security forces destroyed or confiscated their cameras and video recorders. The journalists claimed no similar action was taken against party-owned media, implying that the PUK and KDP would prevent their own press from broadcasting footage of the incident.

Other journalists said their equipment and film were confiscated at checkpoints outside the town.

Later, investigative Judge Karwan Wrya Ali told IWPR that the 42 demonstrators taken into custody could face the death penalty if convicted. Ali said the punishment for destroying government property is life in prison or death by hanging. Deputy Prime Minister Emad Ahmad (PUK), who earlier labeled the incident an "act of sabotage," told IWPR, "I don't think those convicted will be executed if the charges are proven."

IWPR reported on March 23 that Kurdish authorities had demanded that journalists cooperate with the investigation by turning over any notes, photographs, and footage taken at the demonstration. The Kurdish Journalists' Syndicate, widely seen as an arm of the government, supported the demand, IWPR reported.

Twana Osman, editor in chief of the independent weekly newspaper "Hawlati," refused the request, saying the government was making undemocratic demands.

"Hawlati" called the March 16 demonstration "a form of expression that reveals people's discontent and anger against the policies of the two Kurdish governing parties" in a March 22 editorial. The newspaper also contended that the government does not tolerate independent Kurdish media.

The newspaper refuted claims by both parties that the demonstration was carried out by "outsiders." "For over 13 years, no demonstrations have been staged for which the hand of sabotage has not been found on which to peg all the shameful deeds and scandals of the two party-led regional governments," the weekly wrote.

Journalists Jailed for Criticizing Parties

A day after the Halabjah incident, PUK security forces arrested Hawez Hawezi, a teacher and journalist working for "Hawlati," on the grounds that he had criticized the two parties in the press. Citing corruption and cronyism within both administrations, Hawezi called on Kurdish officials to step down in a March 15 article published in "Hawlati."

"Today, a history of nightmares is about to be repeated, but it enters our daily lives in different images and forms which are not different from those Ba'athist policies which had killed our souls," Hawezi wrote. "The complacence and indifference of Kurdish officials over the daily crises of the lives of people have reached the degree of blindness. Therefore, I ask the officials...either leave this country and go into exile or give up power now."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a March 22 press release that Hawezi was released on bail on March 19 after appearing before an investigating judge. "The judge told the journalist he faced unspecified defamation charges," the organization reported.

"We oppose the imprisonment of journalists for what they write or for expressing their opinions. But there is writing, and there is insult," PUK spokesman Azad Jundyany told CPJ. "There is a difference between the two."

"Hawlati" criticized Hawezi's arrest in a March 22 editorial. "The detention of a journalist for expressing his views and charging him with 'going too far against public rights' and 'inciting an uprising' is nothing but a sign of the unsettlement and cracking up of a force that is afraid that an article, a criticism, or a boo would lead to its downfall," the weekly wrote.

Hawezi's arrest follows the arrest and subsequent conviction of Kurdish-born Austrian Kamal Sayyid Qadir by KDP security forces last year. Qadir had accused KDP head Mas'ud Barzani and his party of corruption in a series of Internet articles. He was arrested in October upon entering Kurdistan. In December, he was sentenced to 30 years in Kurdish prison for "defamation of the Kurdish leadership." That conviction was overturned and Qadir was sentenced to 18 months in prison on lesser charges on March 26.

At the time of his initial conviction, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) defended its action, saying Qadir (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," March 14, 2006) was charged according to the Kurdish 2003 law No. 21, Article 1, on the defamation of public institutions.

Judge Faridun Abdallah called the most recent sentence "fair" and "proportionate to the charges against" Qadir, Reuters reported on March 27. "We helped him," Abdallah said. "We took into consideration that he is an academic and has served in the education field. So we sentenced him to a year and a half. Otherwise we would have sentenced him to five years."

Irbil provincial Governor Nawzad Hadi Mawlud told the "Los Angeles Times" that Qadir's writings endangered Kurds. "Kamal wrote that we sold Kurdish land to Israel -- that kind of talk is very dangerous to us," Mawlud said. "Our neighbors -- Turkey, Iran, the Arabs -- nobody would accept this, and the fact that a Kurd is writing these accusations makes them more credible. These writings could lead them to try to destroy us, to attack us."

Meanwhile, PUK representative to Washington Qubad Talabani told CNN on March 26 that Barzani might pardon Qadir. "Maybe it's time to revise certain laws. We are an emerging democracy. We need to improve our institutions," Talabani said. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on March 31.)

U.S. RELATIONS WITH MAIN SHI'ITE ALLIANCE FRAYING. 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 tensionion 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 (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," November 23, 2005).

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 (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," March 24, 2006).

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 mnf-iraq.com.

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. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on March 29.)

DOCUMENTS ALLEGE RUSSIAN ENVOY GAVE BAGHDAD INFORMATION ON U.S. PLANS. On March 23, the American television company ABC News reported that the U.S. military recently released two documents that it says are "unverified" but which suggest that in 2003, during the lead-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Russia's ambassador to Iraq allegedly provided Iraqi officials with information about the U.S. military presence and plans in the Gulf.

The documents are publicly available online with the disclaimer that the U.S. government "has made no determination regarding the authenticity of the documents, validity, or factual accuracy of the information contained therein."

Below are both documents translated in full. The first details a March 24, 2003, meeting between Iraqi officials and Russian Ambassador Vladimir Titorenko (identified by ABC News as "Vladimir Teterenko"). An undated second document recounts a meeting between Titorenko and Iraqi officials that apparently took place in early March 2003.

Document No. 1 (CMPC-2004-001117)

Secret and Urgent

Keep your enemy before your eyes, act before he does, and do not let him behind your back.
-- President Saddam Hussein (God keep and preserve him)

Date: March 25, 2003

To: The Office of the President, Mr. Secretary

Subject: American Aggression against Iraq

First: The Russian ambassador informed us on the evening of March 24, 2003 of the following:

Point 1: In relation to the position paper that we delivered to them on March 23, 2003 (the subject of our report 459 dated March 23, 2003), he noted that the Russian foreign minister is in agreement. The time has come to raise the subject of American aggression against Iraq in the [UN] Security Council. For this reason, he has directed the Russian envoy to the UN to meet with his counterparts from China, France, Syria, and Germany to discuss elements of the Iraqi position paper and to prepare a draft resolution to present to the [Security] Council. The Russian foreign minister feels that the resolution's chances of success in the Security Council are nil because the Anglo-Saxons have a veto. But Russia considers talks in the Security Council important to convey that the American-British military effort consists of aggression and the unilateral use of force in violation of international law, the UN Charter, and Security Council resolutions. If the Security Council fails to adopt the resolution, the matter will be transferred to the UN General Assembly. The Russian foreign minister proposes that Iraq coordinate with Arab countries and the non-aligned movement to demand the holding of a session of the Council.

Point 2: As concerns the proposals by Kofi Annan to introduce changes to the Oil for Food program, the Russian foreign minister has directed Russia's permanent representative to the UN to freeze any discussion of Kofi Annan's proposals. There will be a meeting in Paris on March 27 at the level of departments within the foreign ministries of Russia, France, China, and Germany, to agree on proposals about the program that these countries will present.

Point 3: Information Russia has obtained from its sources in the U.S. Central Command in Doha [Qatar] indicates that the Americans have concluded that the occupation of Iraqi cities is impossible. They have changed their approach and now intend to spread out along the Euphrates River from Al-Basrah in the south to Al-Qa'im in the north, avoiding entering cities. The goal is to cut Iraq off from its Western border. The Americans also plan to occupy oil wells in Kirkuk.

Point 4: Information received indicates that Jordan has agreed to accept the American 4th Mechanized [Infantry] Division. It had been decided that this division would enter Turkey, but after the Turkish parliament's refusal to permit it entry, it changed direction and it is crossing the Suez Canal at present and is expected to arrive in Aqaba.

Point 5: The Russian ambassador noted that two days ago he gave us [information] on American special forces units Delta and Papa [sic] based on information from Russian intelligence (the subject of our report 446 dated March 20, 2003). He did not have instructions to convey to us the above-mentioned information. Yesterday, Iraqi intelligence officers contacted their counterparts at the Russian embassy and inquired about the matter, noting that the Russian ambassador in Baghdad was the one who gave them this information. This caused him embarrassment. He would like us not to mention in discussions with other Russian agencies the source of the information that he is giving us.

Second: Pursuant to the resolution of the Arab Foreign Ministers' Conference dated March 24, 2003, the Arab group in the UN held a meeting on the evening of March 24, 2003 and decided to send a letter to the chairman of the Security Council demanding an immediate emergency session of the Security Council [to ensure] a halt to the American-British aggression against Iraq; the immediate withdrawal of hostile forces beyond the borders of the Republic of Iraq; respect for Iraq's sovereignty, political independence, and territorial unity; and a ban on [other] countries' interference in its internal affairs. Kuwait objected to sending the letter.

The Arab group also discussed the issue of presenting a draft resolution to the Security Council and considered it appropriate to consult with the non-aligned movement to present a draft resolution that has the support of at least nine members of the Council so that it does not have a negative effect and so the Americans cannot use it to lend legitimacy to the aggression if the draft resolution fails in the Council without a veto.

Elsewhere, our permanent representative to the UN met with the Malaysian representative. It was agreed that Malaysia, acting in the name of the non-aligned movement, will present a demand for an emergency session of the Security Council on the American aggression against Iraq.

For your information. With respect,

Humam Abd-al-Khaliq
Acting Foreign Minister

Document No. 2 (cmpc-2003-001950)

[Handwritten, undated]

To: Office of the President, Mr. Secretary

Re: Meeting with the Russian Ambassador

Our warmest greetings!

We would like to inform you that the Russian ambassador met this evening with the general director for external economic relations and the general director for grain trade and he informed us of the following:

1. The provision of facilities for the departure of Russian specialists working on projects belonging to our ministry without delay for the period March 5-8, with the last plane departing on March 9, as he conveyed. He explained that the request for the evacuation of Russian citizens came at the order of the Russian president.

2. He explained that Russia has been working with France and Germany, and it is expected that they will be joined by Syria and China, to prepare a draft Security Council resolution in response to the U.S.-British resolution that has been presented to the [UN] Security Council. Voting will take place on the two resolutions on March 9. He indicated that it is expected that a number of countries on the Security Council will abstain, including Pakistan, Chile, and Kenya.

3. During this meeting the ambassador presented the following information about the American military presence in the Gulf and the region as of March 2:

- Number of forces: 206,500, including 98,000 marines and 36,500 infantry. Ninety percent of these forces are in Kuwait and on American military vessels.
- American forces have also reached Bubiyan Island
- Number of tanks: 480
- Number of armored vehicles: 1,132
- Number of artillery pieces: 296
- Helicopters (Apache): 735
- Fighter planes: 871
- Units of the American fleet: 106, including 68 in the Gulf and the remainder in Oman, Aden, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean
- Number of aircraft carriers: 5, including one nuclear-powered [carrier]; three of them are in the Gulf, one in the Mediterranean, and the other in [unclear, ed.]
- Number of cruise missiles: 583, belonging to the American navy, distributed among 22 naval vessels
- Number of aircraft-borne cruise missiles: 64
- Number of heavy planes (B-52H) in the Indian Ocean: 10
- Number of B-1B at the American base in Oman (Thumrait): 8

4. The ambassador indicated that what concerns us is the increase in the number of planes in Jordan. He explained that the number of these planes at Al-Salt base is now as follows:

- 24 F-16s
- 10 Tornadoes
- 11 Carriers [F-18s]

He also indicated that there are five A-10 tank killers at the King Faisal base in Jordan.

5. The ambassador also indicated that a number of individuals from the 82nd [Airborne] Division have begun arriving Kuwait. This division was located in Afghanistan, and the number of individuals who have arrived is 750. (By Daniel Kimmage. Originally published on March 24.)

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