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Iraq Report: August 25, 2006

August 25, 2006, Volume 9, Number 30

SECURITY, POLITICAL PRESSURE AFFECT IRAQI MEDIA PERFORMANCE. Increasingly frequent threats from insurgents and fear of government reprisals may be affecting the performance of journalists in Iraq.

Much as been written about the difficulties faced by Iraqi journalists, who, like their foreign counterparts in Iraq, have increasingly become the target of insurgent groups, political parties, and even government authorities for a myriad of reasons. But there is growing evidence that the security situation, coupled with weak governmental and institutional support for journalists, is impacting how Iraqi journalists report the news.

Insurgents target journalists either as a means of controlling what is being reported, exacting revenge for what a journalist has reported, or as in most cases, out of animosity for the journalist's employer. Much the same can be said for attacks on journalists carried out by militias and political parties. More disturbing is a recent upswing in attacks on journalists from government forces, both in Baghdad and in the Kurdish autonomous region.

Attacked From All Sides

Iraqi journalists today report feeling more under threat than at any other time since the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003. In addition to the dangers that come with navigating the dangerous streets of Baghdad, journalists in the capital say they must also navigate the sensitive political scene, censoring themselves to prevent reprisals.

Fear of beatings or arrests at the hands of police and security forces have left some journalists feeling particularly vulnerable. One Iraqi journalist recently recounted how a police officer stood idly by as others beat him (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," August 4, 2006). When the journalist asked the officer why he did not intervene, the officer reportedly responded: "I can't do anything for you. You don't know [who they are]. All I can tell you is that those guys are from the police."

A subsequent government press release on the incident referred to members of the media as "troublemakers."

As in Baghdad, journalists have faced continued arrests this year in the Kurdish region, particularly when covering demonstrations against the regional government. Dozens of journalists were jailed and had their cameras and equipment confiscated while covering demonstrations against the regional government in Halabjah in March, and again in several towns in early August (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," March 31 and August 11, 2006).

Journalists have also faced arrest for reports critical of the regional government or the two main ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Such was the case with the arrest of an Austrian Kurd, Kamal Sayyid Qadir, last year (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," May 12, 2006), and in the arrests of two editors working for the independent newspaper "Hawlati," which is highly critical of both parties.

No Independent Voices

In Kirkuk, where tensions between rival ethnic and sectarian groups run high, some journalists have argued that an independent media no longer exists. Rather, journalists operating there are tied to either state-run media, which tends to reflect the position of the Shi'ite alliance; political parties; or Islamist groups present in the city.

The result has been the development of a media that fuels instability rather than providing independent news, analysis, and opinion. Political rivalries for control over the oil-rich city are reflected in the antagonistic and biased reporting of party-run newspapers, radio, and television, which in turn, raises tensions.

Such an atmosphere breeds bad journalism, with journalists working for their own interests. Journalists know that if they cannot provide reports that satisfy the particular demands or political slants of their editors or newspapers, they can easily be replaced by others willing to promote a specific line. In a country where unemployment runs at around 50 percent, it is much easier to tote the party line than to face what could potentially be months of unemployment.

Lack Of Institutional Support

Still, as many journalists point out, the press is far freer today than it was under decades of Ba'athist rule, where the state-run media was the only news provider. This attitude in itself is troubling, as it promotes an acceptance of low ethical and journalistic standards as the norm.

Part of the problem is that Iraq still lacks strong supporting institutions that could act as a counterweight to government pressure. Though journalists unions exist in every part of the country, they are, by and large, considered weak, and remain linked to political parties and agendas. For example, the Baghdad-based Iraqi Journalists Union, established in 1969, continues to act as a bastion of support for the deposed Ba'ath Party.

Iraqi laws related to the press also need to be strengthened. The new constitution calls for freedom of "press, publishing, media, and distribution," but only "as long as it does not violate public order and morality." Such language leaves media outlets vulnerable to the government's interpretation of the law.

Moreover, as IREX's 2006 Media Sustainability Index on Iraq reported earlier this year: "Iraq's political powers do not differentiate between journalistic reporting of facts and viewpoints and the information and opinions themselves, and the fledgling Iraqi legal system does not protect journalists in this context."

Indeed, greater awareness is needed. Contributors to the IREX report noted a general ignorance on the part of politicians over the meaning of media freedom. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on August 25.)

RADICAL CLERIC CHALLENGES IRAQI SHI'ITE ESTABLISHMENT. Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Mahmud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi grabbed the spotlight last week when he challenged the authority of Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani through a brazen attempt to gain access to Karbala's sacred Imam Husayn Shrine.

In his attempt to wrest a greater role for himself and his followers in Karbala, the cleric's militia clashed with government forces, leading to the arrest of some 300 militiamen, according to a statement issued by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office on August 16. While observers say the cleric poses no real threat to Iraqi security, al-Hasani claims thousands of supporters across southern and central Iraq.

Against All Foreigners

Al-Hasani appears to have risen to prominence following the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 through his staunch opposition to the U.S. invasion and the subsequent establishment of the Iraqi Governing Council. He later opposed the interim and transitional governments, as well as the December 2005 election that brought the current government to power.

Al-Hasani stands strongly opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq, and has criticized Iranian-backed political groups operating in Iraq, such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Al-Da'wah Party, which is led by Prime Minister al-Maliki.

While he opposes Iranian influence, al-Hasani does support the establishment of an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy in Iraq. A former student of Iraqi Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, al-Hasani subscribes to vilayat al-faqih, or rule of the jurisprudent, as practiced in Iran.

His spokesman Haidar al-Abadi claimed in 2004 that the cleric had some 25,000 to 30,000 supporters. In April 2005, al-Hasani announced the creation of his religious seminary and the establishment of his militia, called Husayn's Army, apparently named after Imam Husayn, over whose tomb he recently clashed with the government in Karbala.

Al-Hasani believes himself to be the supreme religious authority, above all other ayatollahs, including al-Sistani and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Meanwhile, his detractors have questioned the 40-year-old cleric's elevated status of ayatollah, and have balked at his delusions of grandeur. Indeed, as a Lebanese cleric pointed out in June, al-Hasani has crossed the line, going so far as to claim he has shared tea with the revered hidden imam, al-Mahdi.

Back on earth, al-Hasani has even clashed with his onetime ally Muqtada al-Sadr, the son of his deceased former teacher Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. Although al-Hasani was once described as the religious authority for the majority of al-Sadr supporters, hiss relationship with the younger al-Sadr today is severely strained.

Al-Hasani's supporters backed al-Sadr militiamen in their clash with Ayatollah al-Sistani in Karbala in October 2003 and again against U.S. forces in Al-Najaf in 2004.

But in recent months al-Hasani has grown critical of al-Sadr, particularly after the latter's decision to allow his supporters to take part in the December parliamentary elections. Subsequent differences have further strained the relationship.

Drawing Ire Of Police, Religious Authority

While al-Hasani claims to have a base of support in Karbala, he was widely criticized in Karbala as early as 2003 for confrontations between his supporters and coalition forces. At least one Iraqi newspaper, "Al-Nahdah," blamed al-Hasani for the October 2003 standoff between al-Sadr forces and the U.S. military there.

In August 2005, his supporters demonstrated in Baghdad and Karbala, demanding that the Interior and Defense ministries close the file against him and drop an arrest warrant.

Al-Hasani's most recent clash with the government follows demands for a greater role for him and his supporters in Karbala. The cleric's supporters have held several demonstrations in the holy city in recent months, including at least two in June, demanding an end to Iranian interference over Iraq's holy shrines and the closure of the Iranian Consulate in the city.

Earlier this month, al-Hasani and his supporters demanded the cleric's participation in daily and Friday Prayer sermons and in the caretaking activities of the Imam Husayn Shrine after guards at the shrine denied entry to al-Hasani's supporters on several occasions, the cleric claimed.

Since 2003, a committee appointed by Ayatollah al-Sistani has been responsible for the assignment of shrine duties and the prayer leadership in the holy city. The committee is headed by al-Sistani representatives Ahmad al-Safi and Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala'i. The committee was responsible for security for the shrines and security teams were reportedly staffed by Shi'a with diverse political leanings. Members of SCIRI, Al-Da'wah, and Iraqi Hizballah provided extra security support during religious festivals and holy days.

After al-Hasani questioned al-Sistani's authority in Karbala in early August, al-Sistani reportedly asked Salih al-Haydari, the head of Shi'ite Endowments in Baghdad, to officially deem al-Safi and al-Karbala'i guardians of the Imam Abbas and Imam Husayn shrines, respectively.

Clashes subsequently erupted on August 16 between al-Hasani and his supporters and shrine security forces, with the latter eventually seeking backup from Iraqi security forces. Ten militiamen loyal to al-Hasani were killed and 281 arrested, Prime Minister al-Maliki's office said in a statement.

According to a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq in Karbala, militiamen connected with SCIRI's Badr Forces and al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army did not take part in the clashes with al-Hasani loyalists on August 16, but both militias were present in the city, offering protection to administrative buildings.

Calm was eventually restored but not before pro-al-Hasani protesters took to the streets in Karbala, Al-Nasiriyah, and Al-Hillah on August 16 and 17. Al-Hasani spokesman Mustafa al-Thabiti told Al-Sharqiyah television on August 17 that the cleric's supporters would continue to rally against Iran's influence in Iraq. Al-Thabiti claimed that the majority of Karbala Governorate Council members were Iranians "who hold both Iraqi and Iranian passports" and who take their orders from clergy in Qom. Al-Hasani has more than 500 "martyrdom seekers" at his disposal in 10 different governorates ready to die for his cause, al-Thabiti added.

Fringe Player

While al-Hasani's profile has certainly been elevated in recent months following his campaign to eliminate Iranian influence in Iraq, the cleric currently poses no real threat.

While he arguably garners sizeable grassroots support, particularly among Iraqi Shi'a weary of Iran's growing influence in Iraq -- "Al-Zaman" reported on August 20 that Persian is steadily replacing Arabic as the dominant language in Al-Najaf, Karbala, and Al-Basrah -- he has seriously damaged his own credibility by claiming elevated religious status and otherworldly contacts with the long-awaited Imam al-Mahdi.

Moreover, al-Hasani's strained relations with nearly every Shi'ite political party have elicited more criticism than respect, and further delegitimized his cause in several cities, including Al-Basrah, where he has clashed with security services on several occasions. Al-Hasani maintains the clashes were the result of a campaign by the Iranian-sponsored political party Al-Fadilah.

It is difficult to discern whether al-Hasani could ever rise to the level of al-Sadr in terms of on-the-ground support. While his message is one that resonates -- no to occupation, no to Iranian influence -- his opposition to federalism and the constitution and his desire to establish a theocracy would draw little popular support in the south.

Al-Hasani also poses no real threat to the Shi'ite militias that currently hold power over much of central and southern Iraq. Although the cleric has accused the Iranian religious establishment in Qom of trying to assassinate him, it is likely that Iran views al-Hasani as little more than an annoyance.

Al-Hasani will garner no sympathy from multinational forces should he run into trouble with his Shi'ite rivals, and not just because of his declared antipathy towards the U.S. military presence in Iraq. U.S. forces pledged a $50,000 reward for al-Hasani's arrest in October 2003 after the cleric's bodyguards allegedly gunned down three military policemen. With little Shi'ite support, a U.S. arrest warrant against him, and Iran as his enemy, it seems likely al-Hasani's star will soon burn out. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on August 24.)

HUSSEIN FACES TRIAL FOR GENOCIDE AGAINST KURDS. Former Iraq leader Saddam Hussein went on trial in Baghdad on new charges today, as prosecutors continue to try to prove his personal involvement in abuses committed by his regime.

The second trial against Hussein could be even more lengthy and complex than the first. That first trial -- which has yet to finish -- has focused on Hussein's culpability in the killing of 148 Shi'a after a 1982 assassination attempt in Al-Dujayl.

Attacks Against The Kurds

But the new trial focuses on Hussein's and his close associates' roles in the killings of tens of thousands of people in Kurdish-populated areas of northern Iraq.

Those mass killings -- which prosecutors will try to prove constitute genocide and/or crimes against humanity -- took place in a series of eight military campaigns over a six-month period in 1988. The series of operations was code-named Anfal (Spoils of War) after the title of a verse in the Koran. The verse promises "a chastisement of fire" for those who have "made a breach with God and his messenger."

Ammar al-Shahbander, an Iraq analyst at the London-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting, says the Anfal campaigns from February to September 1988 punished people of all ages and were well-documented by the regime. "The lists I have seen -- it is a number of lists, not one -- are basically official documents; security intelligence, and military reports; and documents about their actions during the Anfal operations," al-Shahbander said. "They basically registered every move they made. They made a register of the villages they destroyed, of the people they executed. They were so meticulous that they even wrote down how, where, and when they committed a certain act."

Chemical Ali

The most notorious of Hussein's associates on trial is his cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid. Al-Majid was given almost presidential powers in northern Iraq to attack Kurds and was nicknamed "Chemical Ali" because of the Iraqi Army's use of poison gas against civilians.

The Anfal operations came shortly before Iraq ended its 1980-88 war with Iran and was billed a counterinsurgency effort by Baghdad. The official goal was to wipe out Kurdish resistance that had driven Hussein's forces out of the mountainous interior of Iraqi Kurdistan, sometimes in loose cooperation with Tehran.

But prosecutors say the centrally planned military operations went far beyond a counterinsurgency effort and represent a deliberate campaign of genocide.

Was It Genocide?

Under international definitions, genocide is an intent to destroy in whole or part a particular group -- religious, ethnic, or national -- by engaging in such acts as mass killings and forcible deportations of civilians.

Al-Shahbander says mass abuses of civilians were a hallmark of the Anfal campaigns. "Abuses included everything, torture of all kinds, rape, beatings, there were no taboos, basically," al-Shahbander said. "And particularly in Anfal, with people who were not particularly wanted for certain reasons, they would usually just be executed on the spot."

A central part of the Anfal campaigns was the declaration of non-government-controlled areas of northern Iraq a "prohibited zone," where habitation was banned. Everyone living there was regarded as an opponent of the regime, to be dealt with in a shoot-to-kill policy. This included random artillery bombardments of broad tracts of northern Iraq, plus air raids designed to kill as many people as possible.

A typical Anfal operation combined bombing or chemical attacks from the air with ground troops enveloping a target. As troops looted and torched homes, convoys deported the population to government-controlled areas.

Eyewitnesses have described summary executions and disappearances. Most of those who disappeared remain unaccounted for today and are presumed dead.

Tragedy In Halabjah

The ruthlessness of the Anfal campaigns is clearly expressed in official directives of the time. One reads: "All persons captured in those villages...between ages of 15 and 70 shall be executed after any useful information has been obtained from them."

Perhaps the best-known attack on civilians during this time was the dropping of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin, on the town of Halabjah. That March 16, 1988, attack was not technically part of one of the eight Anfal campaigns, but underlined Baghdad's policy of turning its most powerful weapons upon its own citizens. Some 5,000 people were killed in the attack, which one day could form the basis of separate trial for Hussein.

The chief judge for the Anfal trial is Abdullah Ali Hussein al-Amiri, a Shi'a who will preside in the same courthouse in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone where Hussein's Al-Dujayl trial is being held.

Hussein's Al-Dujayl trial is to reconvene on October 15, when a verdict is expected. Prosecutors want the death penalty for Hussein and two of the seven other defendants in the Al-Dujayl case.

The opening of a new trial makes it clear that -- whatever the sentence in the Al-Dujayl case -- Hussein will still be in a courtroom for months more to come. Observers say the Iraqi government wants to convict Hussein in more than one case to underline the legitimacy of trying him and the justness of whatever final sentence he receives.

It remains unclear if Hussein would face further trials beyond those over Al-Dujayl and Anfal. Prosecutors say they have enough evidence to try him and his associates over at least four more cases, ranging from domestic political killings to the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. (By Charles Recknagel. Originally published on August 21.)