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Iraq Report: September 29, 2006


September 29, 2006, Volume 9, Number 34

NEW SECURITY INITIATIVES AIM TO LESSEN VIOLENCE. Two new security initiatives were launched this week in Iraq. The first, initiated by tribal leaders in the Al-Anbar Governorate, seeks to confront Al-Qaeda fighters operating in the area. The second, a joint operation by Iraqi and British forces, seeks to rein in militias operating in the southern governorate of Al-Basrah.

Despite the announcement of the two initiatives, several senior U.S. officials continue to question the Iraqi government's resolve in confronting some of the worst violators -- militiamen and security personnel tied to rogue death squads -- saying Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government is either unwilling or incapable of establishing order.

Western Tribes Take Up Fight

The Al-Anbar initiative is the most promising development to come out of the volatile western region in months. Sunni Arab tribesmen in the governorate first vowed to crack down on Al-Qaeda's operations there in January, after two suicide bombers attacked a police recruitment drive supported by tribal leaders in Al-Ramadi, killing 80 and wounding 60 others (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," January 27, 2006).

The attack came at a time when local support for Al-Qaeda was waning, as innocent civilians were increasingly victimized by indiscriminate attacks. Despite a commitment at that time by tribal leaders to drive out Islamic insurgents, Al-Qaeda in Iraq retained its hold over the area.

By late May, a local security force established by tribesmen under an agreement with the U.S. military had all but ceased operating, and nearly a dozen tribal leaders were dead -- assassinated in revenge attacks by Al-Qaeda insurgents operating under the banner of the Mujahedin Shura Council.

At the time, local tribal leaders said they were afraid to be seen associating with U.S. forces, lest they be targeted by insurgents (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," June 2, 2006). They continued to be targeted by Al-Qaeda, however.

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi was killed, and Prime Minister al-Maliki launched his national reconciliation initiative (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," June 30, 2006), which seeks to bring resistance groups and others in the opposition into a national dialogue with the government. These events appear to have prompted Sunni tribal leaders in Al-Anbar to restart their fight with Al-Qaeda.

According to Iraqi media reports, tribal leaders informed al-Maliki at a September 27 meeting of their intention to establish a "salvation council" to confront terrorism in the governorate and an agreement was reached to establish a tribal security force to maintain security on the main roads that traverse the governorate to Jordan and Syria.

Al-Furat television reported on September 27 that the tribal security force would be 11,000-strong, comprising members of several tribes. The security force would be divided into smaller units, with each unit taking responsibility for designated areas of the highways. The government will compensate the security force for maintaining order.

Al-Fayha television also reported the formation of an 11,000-strong force, which the satellite news channel said would be comprised of members of 11 tribes, with each tribe committing 1,000 men to the force. The Communist Party's newspaper, "Tariq al-Sha'b," on September 20 quoted Sheikh Faysal al-Ku'ud as saying that 15 of the governorate's "original 18 tribes" have committed to the initiative.

In addition, al-Maliki pledged Iraqi security forces to help establish security in Al-Anbar. At the same time, local clergy would encourage able young men to join the police and military, while pushing local residents to return to work. The government also committed to undertaking projects to restore the governorate's infrastructure.

Security Operation Launched In South

Meanwhile, the British military announced the launch of Operation Sinbad on September 27. Some 2,300 Iraqi and 1,000 British soldiers will take part in the operation, which is aimed at rounding up insurgents and militias operating in Al-Basrah. The operation is supported by another 2,000 British soldiers stationed in the area, U.K. military spokesman Major Charlie Burbridge told AP.

Burbridge said the operation is akin to Operation Together Forward, launched in Baghdad in June. Operation Sinbad is expected to last several months, he said. "We're gradually inching our way forward," he noted, adding that the end goal is to secure the city so that Iraqi forces can take over security responsibility.

A key focus of the operation will be police corruption, with a special team going station by station to weed out corrupt officers. It is believed that much of the insecurity in Al-Basrah is due to militiamen operating from within the local police force.

A source familiar with the situation in the city told RFE/RL in May (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," May 19, 2006) that every political party operating in Al-Basrah -- from the governor's Al-Fadilah Party, to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, Hizballah, and those civilians loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- have an active militia. The police force is dominated by members loyal to their parties or militias, with each competing for control.

The security situation in Al-Basrah Governorate became so dire in May that both the Presidency Council and Prime Minister al-Maliki personally intervened. In addition to political infighting, instability was spurred by competition between tribes, criminal gang activities, and terrorists, al-Maliki said at the time. He held British forces responsible for much of the deterioration.

Indeed, British forces, which have been responsible for southern Iraq's security since 2003, have taken a much different approach from U.S. forces. While their hands-off approach may have contributed to less combative relations with the local population than their U.S. counterparts faced in the north, it has also contributed to the dire security situation seen in Al-Basrah today.

Iraqis in Al-Basrah Governorate have complained on several occasions over the past three years that British forces stood by while militiamen and rogue police officers attacked locals in an effort to impose their "laws" on the population.

While the initiative is praiseworthy, it is unclear whether it can bring any real results after three years of deterioration. For one, there is an absence of strong, independent actors to replace the powerful parties and militias that currently hold sway over local politics. The fact that many of the militias are backed by the neighboring Iranian regime makes the task all the more difficult.

U.S. Officials Weigh In On Prime Minister

Unidentified senior U.S. military officials told journalists this week in Baghdad that they have begun to question Prime Minister al-Maliki's resolve to rein in militias, the most powerful of which are tied to parties belonging to his ruling Shi'ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance.

The two most powerful militias, Shi'ite cleric al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army and the SCIRI's Badr Brigades, are behind the death squads targeting Sunnis, the officials said.

One military official complained that al-Maliki shot down a plan for U.S. and Iraqi troops to launch an operation in Baghdad's Al-Sadr City on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on September 28. The daily further reported that the 8,000 U.S. troops recently moved to Baghdad have largely been prevented by the government from confronting the militias.

Officials said that the Badr Brigades were responsible for the majority of Shi'ite death-squad killings last year, while the Al-Mahdi Army moved to the forefront of death-squad attacks following the February 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. An official said that the Interior Ministry, largely comprised on Shi'a tied to militias, was complicit in many of the killings.

More troubling is the assessment by one U.S. military official that al-Sadr has lost control of some militiamen, who have ignored his commands to stand down on more than one occasion. The same official said the militia is now heavily armed, possessing Iranian-manufactured explosives and shoulder-fired rockets capable of taking down aircraft, the "Los Angeles Times" reported.

U.S. military officials have also been issued "no touch" lists with the names of politicians and other high-ranking officials who should not be arrested, and the Iraqi government has designated certain areas of Baghdad "off-limits" to U.S. troops without specific permission, an official said.

Indeed, al-Maliki is walking a tightrope. His national unity government is weak and fractured on several levels. Sunni Arab parties continue to question the government's pledge to follow through on agreements to revisit issues of importance to Sunnis, such as the constitution. The situation is much the same inside al-Maliki's ruling coalition, with parties in the United Iraqi Alliance split over a host of issues. The prime minister's desire to deal with the hard issues, such as the elimination of militias, is overshadowed by the knowledge that he is not in a position to take unilateral action lest he lose key political allies.

Rumors Of Military Coup

Meanwhile, elaph.com reported this week that former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has been linked to an alleged plot to overthrow the government. According to the website, an Internet statement signed by "observers of the Iraqi affair in Britain" alleged that Allawi hosted a three-day conference in London this month that was attended by current high-level members of the Iraqi military, 100 former Ba'athist officers, former Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib, Allawi's former spokesman Tha'ir al-Naqib, current National Security Adviser Wafiq al-Samarra'i, army Chief of Staff Babakr Zebari, and Iraqi Ambassador to the United Kingdom Salah al-Shaykhali. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officers and U.K. military officers also allegedly attended the conference.

The aim of the coup is reportedly to install a national salvation government. An Allawi aide has denied the reports and claimed they were fabricated to tarnish the former prime minister's reputation. The website report followed comments by Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zawba'i that the government has received intelligence that army officers were plotting a coup (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 2006).

The website also reported this week that Arab intelligence organs in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and North Africa are coordinating to form a strategic security plan in the wake of the increasing threat coming from the Iran-Syria axis. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on September 29.)

PKK, TURKOMANS DIVIDE TURKEY AND IRAQ'S KURDS. Despite a visit by a Turkish parliamentary delegation to Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region this week, Turkish and Iraqi officials remain strongly divided over how to deal with the issue of Turkish Kurdish rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the state of affairs between Kurds and Iraqi Turkomans living in Kirkuk.

Mutual distrust continues to drive relations between the Turkish government and the Kurdish regional government, prompting media speculation that armed conflict is just around the corner. This distrust can be seen in the array of comments -- ranging from outright threats to statements of support -- coming from Turkish officials, which points to possible confusion over how to deal with the Iraq issue.

Iraqi President and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan head Jalal Talabani addressed the status of PKK militants hiding out in northern Iraq's mountainous border area during a recent interview for the October 2 issue of "Newsweek" magazine. "We convinced the PKK to stop fighting and within days it will officially announce a cease-fire. This will help Iraq open a new chapter in relations with Turkey," he said. "We are urging the Turkish Kurds to be moderate, to wage their struggle through democratic means."

'Double Standard'

Continued pressure by Iraqi Kurdish officials for a peaceful solution to the PKK-Turkey conflict has largely been brushed off by Turkish officials who see an armed solution as the only way to end the conflict.

Iraqi and U.S. officials, they claim, follow a double standard when it comes to dealing with terrorism. "Turkey has no tolerance for applying double standards in the fight against terrorism," Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told the UN General Assembly in a September 22 speech.

Meanwhile, some Turkish officials last week expressed optimism over the position of the Iraqi government after Baghdad said it had closed all PKK offices in the country and banned the group from carrying out any activities.

"We welcomed the measures taken by the Iraqi government against PKK activities in Iraq.... We believe that the Iraqi government will take the necessary steps as soon as possible about recognition of the PKK as a terrorist organization, and closure of political parties associated with the PKK. If these measures are put into practice throughout Iraq, we will be able to further develop our cooperation," Turkish parliament speaker Bulent Arinc said in a letter to his Iraqi counterpart, Mahmud al-Mashhadani, Anatolia news agency reported on September 23.

Speaking at the Foreign Police Association in New York on September 25, Gul said that Turkey would be prepared to act unilaterally against the PKK should its allies, Iraq and the United States, refuse to take action. Gul added that Turkish attempts to pressure Iraq into driving the PKK from its territory and force a "permanent solution" have not succeeded.

"The PKK has been nourished in opponent countries for years. However, it lives in friendly nations, which is risky. From now on we expect genuine decisiveness," Zaman Online quoted Gul on September 26 as saying.

Gul added that U.S. President George W. Bush has committed to fighting the PKK. "I believe that there is a brand new opportunity regarding this matter. We will achieve success," he said.

Iraq Decries Interference

Iraqi President Talabani, also making the rounds in the United States, warned against interference by Iraq's neighbors in its internal affairs. Citing Turkey as one of the agitators, Talabani told U.S. National Public Radio in an interview broadcast on September 26 that should the interference continue, Iraq would take steps to respond in kind by supporting opposition groups in neighboring states.

The comment was widely reported in the Turkish press, leading to a backlash among policymakers and officials in Turkey. Justice and Development Party Deputy General Chairman Dengir Mir Firat told reporters on September 26: "Turkey will wage [war] as it has waged it until now. Whether [the PKK] will declare a cease-fire or lay down its arms, that is an issue that concerns them. Talabani's remarks on this issue are also his own concern. We will continue to fight."

Mehmet Dulger, the chairman of the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, also dismissed talks of a PKK cease-fire, telling reporters, "We do not sit and negotiate." Regarding Talabani's remarks about Turkey's interference in Iraqi affairs, Dulger claimed in essence that Iraq could do nothing to retaliate against Turkish interference.

Turks Support Turkomans

Meanwhile, a Turkish parliamentary delegation toured the northern Iraqi cities of Irbil, Tuz Khurmatu, Tal Afar, Kirkuk, and Mosul this week, holding a series of meetings with Iraqi Kurdish and Turkoman leaders, as well as U.S. and U.K. consulate personnel.

Justice and Development Party deputy Turhan Comez told reporters before leaving Ankara on September 25 that the delegation was on an "unofficial" visit to send the message that Turkey is ready to assist in a peaceful resolution to the Kirkuk conflict. Iraqi Kurds and Turkomans, who are ethnic Turks, are engaged in a bitter battle over oil-rich Kirkuk. Turkey has consistently supported the Turkoman population of Kirkuk, and Turkoman claims to the city.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Namik Tan also appeared eager to calm tensions. In a written statement issued on September 26, Tan called Turkey's Iraq policy "transparent," adding that Turkey supports the political unity and territorial integrity of Iraq and will work to offer "constructive contributions to Iraq's security and stability."

...And Anger Kurds

Meanwhile, Kurdish regional Minister for Peshmerga Affairs Sheikh Ja'far Sheikh Mustafa told "Yekgirtu" that the region's peshmerga forces had no intention of attacking PKK strongholds. "There is no such plan. We are not against any Kurdistani or non-Kurdistani force. We believe in dialogue.... We have to follow diplomatic routes to reach agreements," the weekly reported on September 26.

Kurdish press reports echoed the distrust felt by some Iraqi Kurdish officials, and widely reported that the delegation was in Iraq to help set up a coordination group for Iraqi Turkomans in the Turkish parliament.

"If the delegation aims to provide its government with guidelines on the conditions in Kirkuk, the referendum issue [on Kirkuk, slated to be held in 2007], and Article 140 [of the Iraqi Constitution regarding the status of Kirkuk], we would consider it interference and will never accept such moves," Kurdistan Democratic Party International Relations Director Saffin Dizay said, the "Hawler Post" reported on September 27.

While it remains unlikely that Turkey will follow up on its threat of armed conflict, the standoff between Turkish and Iraqi officials does not bode well for regional security. Turkey is likely to continue its intermittent bombing of Iraqi Kurdish areas where it claims PKK militants are based, while trying to agitate the Kurdish region's government with its support of Iraqi Turkomans, particularly in Kirkuk.

Meanwhile, there is little possibility that Baghdad can promise any more progress on the issue, as long as the regional government continues to promote a peaceful resolution of the issue over military action against the PKK. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on September 27.)

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