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Iraq Report: June 2, 2006

June 2, 2006, Volume 9, Number 22

"RFE/RL Iraq Report" will next appear on June 23.

SECURITY MAIN PRIORITY FOR NEW PREMIER. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has vowed to take stiff action against insurgents, militias, and other rogue elements that threaten the security situation in Iraq. But with violence on the rise in May, and no word on who will fill the crucial posts of interior, defense, and national security minister, many are questioning the ability of U.S. and Iraqi forces to pull the country back from the brink of civil war.

Still, al-Maliki has taken a tough stance against all criminal activity, and has vowed in a number of recent interviews to use all means of force necessary to curb the violence.

Four key governorates currently face daunting security threats: Al-Anbar in the west, Baghdad, Al-Basrah in the south, and Diyala, east of Baghdad.

Chaos In The West

Insurgents loyal to Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization have regained control over much of Al-Anbar Governorate, and are posing a major challenge to U.S. and Iraqi forces.

A local security force established by tribesmen under an agreement with the U.S. military has all but ceased operating, after nearly a dozen tribal leaders were assassinated in revenge attacks by insurgents loyal to al-Zarqawi's Mujahedin Shura Council since January.

Local tribal leaders now say they are afraid to be seen associating with U.S. forces, lest they be targeted by insurgents. They would rather appease al-Zarqawi and live.

Insurgents Establish 'Islamic Caliphate'

According to recent media reports, the Mujahedin Shura Council has declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in areas extending from Al-Ramadi to western districts of the capital.

Districts of Baghdad under the control of the council have appointed emirs to enforce the council's brand of Islamic law, and gunmen regularly distribute leaflets written by the council detailing acceptable dress and behavior, London's "Al-Hayat" reported on May 24.

According to the daily, two girls were recently abducted off the street in Al-Amiriyah and later released with their heads shaved as punishment for not wearing hijabs, or headscarves. Leaflets were then distributed saying that the shavings were commuted sentences, and the next violators will be put to death.

Shi'ite militiamen have exerted similar control over the Shi'ite districts of Al-Sadr City, Al-Sha'b, Al-Qahira, Al-Baladiyat, and Baghdad Al-Jadidah, where they run street patrols and inspect government offices and girls schools for violations in dress and conduct.

Women and girls are not the only ones vulnerable to such enforcement. A team of taekwondo athletes was kidnapped in Al-Anbar Governorate en route to Jordan on May 17. This week in Baghdad, gunmen stopped a car carrying a Sunni Arab tennis coach and two Shi'ite players, ordered them out of the vehicle, and shot them dead.

The killings came after armed Islamists distributed leaflets warning people in the Sunni Arab districts of Al-Ghazaliyah and Al-Saidiyah against wearing shorts in public.

Current Force Levels Inadequate

Meanwhile, U.S. forces announced that they would send a brigade-size unit to beef up security in Al-Anbar. An Iraqi army officer based in Al-Ramadi told Al-Sharqiyah television that he expects an all-out siege on the city, similar to the 2004 Al-Fallujah operation, the news channel reported on May 29. U.S. military officials have said otherwise.

Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces are also faced with a surge in violence in areas north and south of the capital. Sunni Arabs have accused multinational forces of laying siege to Al-Dulu'iyah, located just north of Baghdad in the Salah Al-Din Governorate.

Parliamentarian Abd al-Karim Yasin briefed the Council of Representatives on the situation there on May 29: "The city has been exposed to a severe blockade for eight consecutive days. All access roads and bridges have been closed and the blockade has been in force day and night. All services -- water and electricity supply -- are lacking. Such is the case with medical services, because the only health center in the town has been closed. Ill people cannot reach the center due to curfew," RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq quoted Yasin as saying.

"We have called on the Council [of Representatives] to immediately send an urgent appeal to the Iraqi and U.S. forces. They should remove the blockade from the town and allow food and medical materials to be supplied and services to return to the town," Yasin demanded

Civil War in Diyala

Insurgents have regained control over much of the nearby Diyala Governorate as well. The tension there is so great that one parliamentarian blamed those charged with security of fanning the flames of sectarianism.

"On Friday, [May 26,] five beheaded corpses were found [of family members] of a man whose house in Al-Miqdadiyah town was stormed during his wedding ceremony. We are daily stricken with such horrible news coming from Diyala Governorate, and with the clear and apparent upswing of terror there, observed by the security forces that are in charge of controlling the security situation in Diyala. There is a war with clearly sectarian features [that is] clearly pursuing a demographic change in Diyala Governorate. And, there is a strange silence on the part of the multinational force on the events that happen in this governorate, despite the fact that this governorate holds strategic importance, enabling any group that will dominate this governorate to block the northern road [to or from Baghdad]," parliamentarian Jalal al-Din al-Saghir told the same parliament session.

Diyala Governor Ra'd Rashid al-Mulla Jawad told reporters at a press briefing in Ba'qubah that insurgents have laid siege to the governorate and are now attempting to displace residents from their homes. "Diyala Governorate has been going through a severe, violent, and dangerous confrontation.... It started with attacks against patrols that hold the access points to Ba'qubah city and all parts of the governorate," he said.

Insurgents fled Ba'qubah and took shelter in outlying areas, the governor said. "They have now launched systemic operations within Diyala Governorate that consist of planting roadside bombs, kidnappings, and daily cases of murders. Most recently, we have entered a phase of threats to expel people from their homes and a consequent fulfillment of these threats, especially targeting ordinary poor families."

Jawad pleaded for help from the central government, telling reporters: "We in the [Diyala Governorate] Council have agreed to suspend council sessions. This should be a message to the central government, [calling on it] for an improvement of the security in Diyala and sending human and material reinforcements to the police and the army."

Still, it remains unclear whether reinforcements alone could reestablish security in the volatile area. "Some administration, army, and police officials carry high ranks, but I cannot see that they would have any abilities sufficient for the confrontation [with terror] other than on paper," Jawad said, and demanded that Baghdad grant him special powers to deal with the security situation in Ba'qubah.

Criminals, Armed Gangs Destabilize Southern Port

In Al-Basrah, Shi'ite infighting, corrupt police and security forces, and armed gangs have destabilized the governorate to such a degree that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki this week personally led a delegation to address the situation. The delegation follows up an earlier initiative by the Presidency Council, which sent Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi to Al-Basrah (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 19, 2006).

"We must restore security in Al-Basrah and if anyone defies peaceful solutions, then force will be the solution," al-Maliki told Reuters in a May 30 interview. "There's no way we can leave Al-Basrah, the gateway to Iraq, our imports and exports, at the mercy of criminal, terrorist gangs. We will use force against these gangs."

Al-Maliki's comments came three days after someone close to the Al-Fadilah Party threatened to block oil exports from the city, Reuters reported, a charge party spokesman Hassan al-Shammari has denied, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on May 30.

Al-Maliki said the security crisis in the city cannot be blamed solely on terrorists, and that tribes and organized criminal gangs are also a problem. "We will work on reconciling tribes and religious figures and political parties, and also increase the security presence to stop the criminals," he said. Al-Maliki also criticized the role of British forces in the governorate, but failed to give specifics.

Al-Maliki: Security Must Be Priority

The prime minister told Al-Arabiyah television in a May 25 interview that all issues plaguing Iraq, whether political, economic, or social, are related to security. "If we want to rebuild the country, we need to provide security. If security is lost, the country cannot be built."

He said the priority for his administration would be to disarm all armed groups and militias, reiterating early calls for weapons to only remain in the hands of official security forces. He predicted that militias tied to political forces could easily be disbanded, while it will be harder to convince the general public to give up arms, since they must come to trust in official security forces first.

The second task is to form a policy to confront armed gangs, including those released from prison. The government must monitor their movements and keep their actions under control, al-Maliki said.

The prime minister noted that it will be crucial that the armed forces place their loyalty to the nation above political affiliations. "In our new military culture, the security or military man must serve all citizens.... Affiliations weaken the security institution and consequently, they pose a threat" to Iraq, he added.

Al-Maliki also made reference to his oft-mentioned "Baghdad Plan" to restore security to the capital, saying select units would be charged with protecting the capital. Part of their mission would be to halt further sectarian- and ethnic-cleansing campaigns being carried out in some districts of the capital.

The prime minister's plan for dealing with armed insurgent groups remains less clear. He told Al-Arabiyah that the administration would merge armed groups together, in an attempt to find a framework for national reconciliation, but did not say how. It is expected, however, that he will have a more concrete plan in place by the June 20 national-accord conference in Baghdad.

Some Signs Of Success

While violence continues to rage, there are some signs of success in battling the insurgency. U.S. Major General Bill Caldwell told reporters at a May 18 press briefing in Baghdad that the number of citizens calling in tips on insurgent activity is on the rise. In January, 4,025 tips were called in to a Baghdad hotline; by April, the number had risen to 5,855. "I don't think you're seeing a rise of 1,300 tips in a month just because all of a sudden there's that much more violence. I think you're seeing a rise because the Iraqi people, many of them are very tired of the violence," Caldwell said. He added that 70 percent of all tips called in are "actionable," meaning they lead to an arrest, confiscation, or other successful operation.

The recent arrest of a number of high-level aides to al-Zarqawi is also reason for optimism. In addition, coalition press releases indicate an increasing number of arrests and prosecution of insurgents.

There are signs as well that coalition gains are forcing insurgent groups to change their tactics to avoid capture. "Al-Zaman" reported on May 24 that insurgent groups have been forced to resort to low-tech means of communication such as oral or handwritten messages to avoid being detected.

Commanders of insurgent groups have instructed new recruits coming into Iraq not to use mobile telephones, land lines, or the Internet to communicate. "The U.S. Army has carried out successful raids due to tips obtained from the Internet and mobile telephones," a source close to an armed group said. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on May 31.)

ARAB LEAGUE PREPARES IRAQI NATIONAL-ACCORD CONFERENCE. Arab League envoy to Iraq Mukhtar Lamani spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) in Baghdad on May 28. Lamani discussed plans for the upcoming league-sponsored Iraqi national accord conference.

RFI: What can you tell us about the Iraqi national-accord conference, planned by the Arab League to take place in Iraq?

Mukhtar Lamani: A large conference of national accord will be held in Baghdad June 20-22. Of course, the Cairo conference [on Iraqi national reconciliation, held in November 2005; see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," November 23, 2005] was a great achievement for several reasons. First of all, the secretary-general [of the Arab League, Amr Musa,] successfully managed during the conference to bring together Iraqi groups that would never have met before that conference.

He also managed to lead all of them to an agreement on a final statement. This final statement included a clause providing that the conference was preparatory and a program [for a national-accord conference to follow] was set.

As you know, the national-accord conference was to be held in March. But because of circumstances obvious to everyone -- related to the formation of the Iraqi government and the long time the formation has taken -- this conference was postponed to the date that I have mentioned. There has been an agreement on its program. Not all groups agreed on updating this program so that it takes into account all the developments that have happened [since the conference in Cairo]. There is a definite desire to extend the conference to the complex spectrum of all Iraqi groups.

RFI: Some delegates at the first preparatory conference in Cairo demanded that invitations should not be issued to people labeled as "Ba'athist" and the "resistance." Will there be any groups absent from the conference in Baghdad?

Lamani: The final list of the Iraqis who will be invited to this conference has not been prepared yet. The secretary-general has personally invited the foreign ministers of all Arab countries, as well as the foreign ministers of Iran and Turkey because their countries neighbor Iraq. We have likewise addressed invitations to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and to the secretary-generals of Arab and Middle Eastern regional organizations, such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Arab Maghreb Union, and the Gulf Cooperation Council. The secretary-general has also addressed an invitation to the current president of the European [Commission] to come to the conference. We have invited as well the foreign minister of Malaysia, who is the current president of the Nonaligned Movement.

In addition, we have received requests from other countries that want to attend the opening [of the conference], such as Spain and Italy. Invitations have consequently been sent to them. There have been some invitations addressed by the [Arab League] General Secretariat to the foreign ministries of the five permanent member countries of the UN Security Council. These invitations are for the opening [of the conference], with more being sent if there is a request.

But regarding the Iraqi groups with whom we have been in contact, we want to preserve a real representation of all layers and tribes. In the coming days, I will conduct visits in order to continue these efforts. Within the next days, I will visit Al-Najaf to meet with the religious authority [i.e., Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani] there. I will also visit Irbil to meet with the politicians in Kurdistan. We are pursuing, until the last moment, our aim to make the conference successful.

RFI: Some Iraqi politicians have called for moving the conference to a neighboring country due to security concerns. How do you respond to these demands?

Lamani: Many ideas have been put forward on moving [the conference]. But concerning Baghdad, this was the agreement of the Iraqi groups that we brought together at the preparatory conference in Cairo. The provision was that the national-accord conference would be held in Baghdad, for the symbolic character of Baghdad as the capital of all Iraqis and all Iraqi groups, despite the awareness of the security situation. Nevertheless, all measures will be taken by the government and the arrival of all delegations to the place of the gathering will be secured, whether of the international delegations or of all Iraqi governmental and nongovernmental delegations. They will be brought to a secure zone so that the success of the conference is ensured.

RFI: After the conference issues its recommendations, who will be in charge of their implementation?

Lamani: According to a decision adopted at the summit [of Arab countries] in Khartoum two months ago, the Arab League has taken the responsibility of following closely the implementation of all recommendations that the Arab League agrees on.

RFI: What will be the major points discussed at the conference?

Lamani: This will be a conference of accord, of an agreement between Iraqis that will be the closest to reality. There will be no winners or losers. There will only be an agreement to restore trust among all Iraqi groups for building this country. Taken into account will be the historical role the country has played not only in the region but also on the level of humanity, looking back to the ancient civilizations that have marked this country.

RFI: In your opinion, as the representative of the Arab League, what is needed to get Iraq out of its present situation?

Lamani: I believe the most important for this is a mutual understanding among Iraqis.

RFI: Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has rebuked some Arab countries because they have not sent congratulations to the newly formed Iraqi government. How do you understand this rebuke?

Lamani: There is definitely a lack of Arab presence [in Iraq] and the secretary-general [of the Arab League] has contributed a lot to improving this situation. In this framework, the General Secretariat has opened a mission to secure communication [between member states and Iraq].

When we came here, we were generally guided by three main principles: the territorial integrity of Iraq, the full independence of Iraq, and the necessity of securing communication between Iraq and the Arab world, because we believe that Iraq's isolation from the Arab world is an anomaly that cannot be ignored.

Of course, diplomats from some countries have been attacked and even killed here [see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," July 18, 2005]. So, some attitudes may be understood due to the security situation. Nonetheless, I believe the time has come that Iraq restores its communications with the Arab world. We see it as a very positive step. (Translated by Petr Kubalek)