22 March 2005, Volume
PROGRESS AND CHALLENGES
A recent poll of Iraqis has found that more than 60 percent of those surveyed believe their country is heading in the right direction, more than twice the percentage who thought the same in a poll taken in mid-January.
The poll, conducted by the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute (IRI) (http://www.iri.org) between 25 February and 7 March, says much about the progress that has been made in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion to topple the Saddam Hussein regime two years ago.
Much of the progress has been made on the political front in the past year. The interim Iraqi Governing Council appointed by the U.S.-headed Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) as Iraq's first post-Hussein governing authority, passed an interim constitution in March that was widely hailed as one of the most advanced in the region for its recognition of individual and minority rights. Despite predictions that the country might be heading toward civil war, the CPA successfully transferred power to an interim government in July. It was led by Iraqi National Accord head Iyad Allawi, who oversaw the formation of an interim National Assembly in August.
The most marked achievement thus far, however, were the national elections. In less than one year, the Iraqi Electoral Commission overcame enormous obstacles -- especially an unrelenting insurgency -- to hold national elections on schedule on 30 January. They were Iraq's first free elections in more than 50 years and ushered in a new era. A reported 5,171 polling centers out of 5,230 opened on election day and more than 8 million Iraqis cast their ballots in defiance of insurgent attacks and threats.
While Sunnis by and large boycotted the election, they have not wavered in their desire to participate in the drafting of a permanent constitution later this year. Some Sunnis even expressed regret about the election boycott and have subsequently entered into talks with the winning lists in the National Assembly elections in an attempt to assume positions in the transitional government.
In northern Iraq, Kurdish parties appear more united than ever before, having been dubbed the "kingmakers" in Iraq after winning 75 seats in the 275-member parliament. The Kurds see the coming phase as their best chance to secure their rights during the upcoming work to forge a constitution. Meanwhile, the long-oppressed, majority Shi'a are on the cusp of assuming power for the first time in Iraq's history, having won 140 seats in the parliament.
Insecurity remains the biggest threat in the new Iraq and, while improvements have been made in gathering intelligence, and Iraqi citizens appear more forthcoming in divulging information on suspected insurgents, progress has been slow. Foreign fighters continue to wreak havoc, targeting government officials, police, and security forces. Kidnappings and beheadings reached a peak in the past year, with foreigners -- particularly journalists -- bearing the brunt of such attacks.
Iraq weathered two violent confrontations last year between rebel Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces, with much of the credit for their resolutions going to Shi'a negotiators led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The Al-Fallujah Brigade, established as a possible solution to the Sunni insurgency and comprised of former Hussein-era troops and commanders, was dismantled in September after only four months when it was learned that members of the brigade were aiding the insurgents.
The dismantling of the brigade was followed by a massive U.S-Iraqi incursion into the city in an effort to root out terrorists based there. The city suffered heavy damage and the insurgency regrouped somewhat in the northern city of Mosul. It appears that Sunni Islamists have come to dominate the insurgency, but Hussein loyalists remain key players. Mounting pressure on Syria appeared, in recent weeks, to have led to the handover of Hussein's half-brother, Sab'awi Ibrahim al-Tikriti, who was alleged to be funding the insurgency from Syria.
The interim government claimed success in the arrests of other former Ba'ath Party insurgents in recent months, as well, and the government claims to be close to capturing the man who many say is Al-Qaeda's chief in Iraq, Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. There is no apparent end in sight to the insurgency, and Iraqi political groups continue to hold fast to the belief that the insurgents' goal is sectarian strife. Consequently, politicians have presented a united front and have urged citizens not to allow the attacks to divide them.
Iraqis continue to join the police and security forces despite numerous attacks against them. Iraq remains years away, however, from developing a wholly sustainable security apparatus. A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit recently determined that U.S. commanders and administration officials have inflated the number of trained Iraqi security forces. The latest Pentagon figures said that some 142,000 Iraqis have been trained as police and soldiers. But the GAO said these numbers include tens of thousands of police officers who had left their jobs without explanation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2005).
Moreover, the infiltration of Hussein loyalists into the police, National Guard, and army has arguably become a key component of the insurgency. While actual figures on the number of infiltrators are not known, insurgents have clearly been aided in a number of attacks by inside information. Former Ba'athists have also infiltrated a number of ministries and government institutions, according to officials.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi interim government has moved forward with a plan to retrain Iraqi soldiers from the Hussein regime despite the objection of key political groups. More than 3,000 of these "direct recruit replacements" are on the job in Iraq, according to U.S. Central Command figures (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2005). U.S. and interim government officials have argued that an improved vetting process will thwart the infiltration of Hussein supporters into security bodies.
Progress was also made by Iraq on the international front, as NATO states -- including France and Germany, which objected to the war -- agreed to participate in the training of Iraqi security forces. The interim Iraqi government gained key recognition from Arab League member states, and began reestablishing diplomatic ties with its neighbors. But Syria, Iran, and, more recently, Jordan, have been widely criticized for either directly or indirectly contributing to terrorism in Iraq.
Corruption remains a key problem within government ministries in Baghdad as well as in the Kurdistan Regional Government. There is evidence of "high levels" of corruption in Iraq, particularly in the reconstruction sector, Transparency International said in its "Global Corruption Report 2005" released last week.
On the reconstruction front, progress remains hampered by security problems. Recurrent sabotage attacks have led to constant setbacks in raising electricity and oil production. Attacks on convoys have obstructed the flow of vital reconstruction equipment and foodstuffs needed to fill the monthly food basket still rationed to some 6.5 million Iraqis.
While salaries have increased, unemployment remains a major problem with officials estimating that nearly 50 percent of Iraqis are out of work. Poverty -- 11 percent of Iraqis suffer from extreme poverty and lack of sustenance according to the Health Ministry -- has contributed to an increase in preventable diseases, particularly among children and the elderly. Adult cancer and childhood leukemia rates continue to rise after decades of war that wreaked havoc on the environment. The UN Environmental Program last year launched a $4.7 million pilot project to investigate environmental "hot spots" in the country, but all the effects of war will take many years to fix.
One environmental bright spot has been an internationally funded project to reinvigorate Iraq's southern marshlands, 93 percent of which were destroyed over two decades by the Hussein regime. Since the program began last year, 20 percent of the drained wetlands are filled again, and 60 percent of the wildlife has returned to the marshlands. Plant species native to the area have also returned and the water quality has proved to be better than expected by scientists studying the area.
Overall, many observers would say that Iraq has made great progress in a short time in many areas and, while much work needs to be done in terms of stability, Iraqis -- many of whom were quite critical in the early months of the war -- appear increasingly optimistic that change will come. A reported 56 percent of respondents to the IRI survey responded that they are confident that things will "slowly" get better in Iraq. (Kathleen Ridolfo) (Originally posted on www.rferl.org on 19 March)
NEGOTIATIONS STALL IN FORMATION OF IRAQI GOVERNMENT
Iraqi Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders negotiating posts in the transitional government predicted on 18 March that a deal would be reached in about week. Negotiations between the United Iraqi Alliance and Kurdistan Coalition lists reportedly reached an impasse on 12 March, just one day before the two groups were expected to formalize a preliminary agreement reached on 10 March for the formation of a transitional government.
Despite last-minute talks on 14 March, the two sides failed to reach agreement on the composition of a new government before the transitional National Assembly held its first session on 16 March. The impasse effectively leaves the interim cabinet of Iyad Allawi in power until an agreement can be reached.
The vaguely worded preliminary agreement did not provide the Kurds with the guarantees they were hoping for in the transitional government. The sticking points in the negotiations reportedly center around issues related to the status of Kirkuk; peshmerga control over northern Iraq; and the distribution of ministries. Kurds have also reportedly demanded control over oil revenues from Kirkuk in addition to 25 percent of the central government's budget.
The preliminary agreement worked out last week reportedly calls for postponing a resolution to the Kirkuk dispute until after the ratification of a permanent constitution, but it appears that the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurds have contradictory interpretations on how to implement Article 58 of the Transitional Administrative Law. The Kurds have called for the repatriation of Kurds displaced from the city under the "Arabization" policy of the Saddam Hussein regime and for the eventual inclusion of Kirkuk into a federal Kurdistan.
Article 58 (b) of the law states that the Presidency Council should make recommendations to the transitional assembly to remedy the "unjust changes" of administrative boundaries imposed by the Hussein regime. If the council cannot unanimously agree on a set of recommendations, it should appoint a neutral arbitrator to carry out the task. Should the Presidency Council fail to agree on an arbitrator, it should ask the UN secretary-general to appoint an international official to be the arbitrator. Clause C of Article 58 states, "The permanent resolution of disputed territories, including Kirkuk, shall be deferred until after these measures are completed, a fair and transparent census has been conducted, and the permanent constitution has been ratified."
Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Mas'ud Barzani has claimed, however, that an agreement should be reached on Kirkuk before the constitution is ratified. He told Al-Arabiyah television in an 11 March interview: "We must reach agreement on these issues, mainly the issue of Kirkuk, now. The issue of Kirkuk cannot at all be postponed" until after the constitution is ratified. When pressed by Al-Arabiyah, Barzani contended: "Historically and geographically, Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan. We are not demanding anything that is not legal or realistic. Kirkuk is an Iraqi city but with a Kurdish identity. We demand the implementation of Article 58 of the law."
Kurds have also demanded that the Iraqi Army seek permission from Kurdistan's parliament before it enters Kurdish areas. Barzani told Al-Arabiyah: "If Kurdistan is exposed to a foreign threat or a threat that is greater than the power of the internal security forces in the Kurdistan region, the Iraqi Army can certainly come and help." Jalal Talabani addressed the demand in the context of Kurdish suffering at the hands of the Hussein regime, telling Al-Arabiyah on 13 March: "This is an outstanding demand endorsed by the Kurdish parliament due to our bitter experiences. If there are no dangers posed to Iraq, such as a danger of foreign invasion or an enormous terrorist danger, there is no justification for the arrival of the army to Kurdistan without obtaining an approval by the Kurdistan National Assembly."
Shi'ite leaders call the demand extreme, adding that the central government has the right to dispatch the military to all parts of Iraq. "We told them that this is against federal law anywhere in the world," latimes.com quoted Islamic Al-Da'wah party negotiator Jawad al-Maliki as saying on 14 March.
The parties also failed to agree on the distribution of ministries in the transitional government. In addition to the presidency, Kurds reportedly want to control two of the five most powerful ministries (foreign, oil, interior, finance, defense), a sticking point for the Shi'a, who say that the Kurds had a disproportionate share of posts in the interim government.
Interim Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told Al-Sharqiyah television in an 11 March interview that the Kurdistan Coalition has a "clear stance on the ministries," adding, "We believe [that] we have the necessary qualified people who can serve this country." Salih confirmed that Kurds want to maintain control of the Foreign Ministry (Kurdish leader Hoshyar al-Zebari is the interim foreign minister). He would not confirm reports, however, that Kurds are vying for appointments in other ministries, saying, "I will not reveal our cards in the negotiations."
Kurdish and United Iraqi Alliance officials have given divergent views on the seriousness of the current impasse, with many saying they expect an agreement to be reached in the coming days. If the issue is not resolved, public support for the transitional government will deteriorate. A number of Iraqi newspapers last week cited the public's growing frustration over the delay in forming the new government. Elected candidates have also voiced concern over the delay. On 12 March, a number of United Iraqi Alliance members threatened to collectively resign from the transitional assembly if the alliance and the Kurds failed to agree on the formation of the government within 72 hours.
The alliance won a majority of the vote in the 30 January's National Assembly elections, but will need the Kurds to secure a two-thirds majority in parliament. The Kurds, for their part, do not want to miss what they view as a historic opportunity to obtain rights denied to them under previous Iraqi governments. As negotiations continue, the Kurds have said that they will work to bring other groups into the negotiations, in an apparent effort to gain support for their demands. In return, the Kurds could lend their support for Sunnis to assume some high-level posts in the transitional government. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
CONTRIBUTING TO INSTABILITY IN IRAQ
Iraqis took to the streets this week in three days of protests against an 11 March article published in Jordan's "Al-Ghadd" newspaper that claimed the family of an alleged Jordanian suicide bomber celebrated their son's "martyrdom" in Iraq.
The article claimed that Ra'id al-Banna was responsible for the 28 February suicide bombing in Al-Hillah that killed more than 130 Iraqis and contended that Ra'id's father, Mansur al-Banna, "proudly accepted congratulations on the martyrdom of his son" after it was learned that he carried out the attack. Al-Banna later denied those allegations, saying his son was killed in Mosul on 1 March.
The "Al-Ghadd" article also falsely claimed that "most" of the dead in the attack were Americans. In a correction issued on 12 March, the daily retracted that claim. International media reports indicated that the victims were mostly Iraqi Shi'ites.
The incident, however, goes beyond bad journalism and raises wider questions about the responsibility of Arab media in accurately covering the events taking place in Iraq, and the responsibility of those governments in helping to bring stability to their neighbor.
The Arab media have influenced the region's discourse on the war in Iraq by largely framing it in the context of "invasion" and "imperialism." Two years later, much of the Arab world has adopted this discourse, propagated over satellite channels such as Al-Jazeera. The broadcasts have no doubt contributed to the influx of foreign fighters to Iraq. One Tunisian insurgent arrested in Iraq said he was prompted to seek "jihad" after watching Al-Jazeera. The most-wanted fugitive in Iraq, Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, is a Jordanian.
Conversely, Arab media outlets have largely failed to accurately report on the discourse inside Iraq, where Iraqis have repeatedly called on neighboring states to keep foreign fighters out of the country and allow Iraqis to build a democratic state. The Iraqi interim government took steps against Al-Jazeera last year, banning the satellite news channel from broadcasting from Iraq. The decision was not fully enforced, however, and Al-Jazeera broadcast daily reports from Iraq using freelance journalists. By not properly enforcing the ban, the Iraqi government sent a message to media outlets that their reportage, however inaccurate and inflammatory, would not be penalized.
The Iraqi Shi'ite group the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) was quick to condemn the "Al-Ghadd" article in a 12 March statement on its website (http://www.sciri.ws), and criticized the Jordanian government, the media, clerics, and civil organizations for not taking "a clear and open stand against these crimes." "The Iraqi people are stunned and perplexed at the indifference of our brethren in Jordan about the bloody massacres that are being perpetrated against the sons of our people." The statement called on the Jordanian government to investigate the matter and to "prevent the exportation of murderers" to Iraq. It also called on the Iraqi interim government to "take the necessary measures against Jordan if the Jordanian government fails to deal seriously with this issue of exporting and honoring murderers of the Iraqi people."
Rather than issue an apology, Jordanian government spokeswoman Asma Khadr called the SCIRI statement "unjustifiable, harmful remarks [against] the Jordanian government and people." The Interior Ministry then summoned the journalist responsible for the article for interrogation on the grounds that he "published alleged news," and Khadr said in a 13 March statement that the journalist could face legal action.
Jordanian King Abdullah II visited the newspaper on 13 March, and spoke about the need for media outlets in the Arab world to take greater responsibility in their reporting. "Journalism should hold its monitoring role as a fourth authority within a responsible freedom and a high professionalism," he said. King Abdullah's statements, however, made no direct reference to the "Al-Ghadd" article. King Abdullah was cited in "Al-Dustur" on 5 March for comments he made expressing dissatisfaction with the Jordanian media. According to the daily, Abdullah "expressed his resentment and disappointment" with the way the Jordanian press covers events.
The incident could have major repercussions on Iraqi-Jordanian relations when a Shi'ite-dominated government takes power this month. While the Jordanian government quietly aided multinational forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom and has played a key role in the reconstruction of Iraq, its citizens, by and large, take a wholly divergent view on the war. But the media is only part of the problem.
Support for deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein runs deep in Jordan for myriad reasons. Jordan benefited from relations with Hussein under sanctions, buying oil at subsidized, below-market prices. Hussein also supported the Palestinian cause, reportedly giving money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers -- an act not lost on Jordan's large Palestinian refugee community. On a trip to Jordan last fall it was evident that Jordanians -- from taxi drivers to educated professionals -- expressed support for Hussein while cursing the "American occupation." A mainly Sunni-populated country, Jordan has also expressed concern about a Shi'ite-led government being next door.
"Al-Ghadd" finally published an apology on 15 March, but rather than taking full responsibility for the inaccurate article, instead it blamed international media for the report, saying: "International news agencies and some satellite channels rushed to circulate the report without ascertaining the truth. 'Al-Ghadd,' like other media outlets, made this big mistake. U.S. and Iraqi satellite channels attempted to blow the matter out of proportion and portray the al-Banna funeral as a celebration." (Kathleen Ridolfo) (Originally posted on www.rferl.org on 16 March)
RADIO FREE IRAQ TALKS TO PREMIER CANDIDATE AL-JA'FARI
RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq spoke with the Shi'ite nominee for the premiership, Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, on the sidelines of the transitional National Assembly's opening session in Baghdad on 15 March and asked his opinion of the day's events.
Ibrahim al-Ja'fari: I am reflecting this day as a day of witnessed history. It has created a turn in Iraqi political history. We could see that all speeches concentrated on the idea of a reached victory. This victory is not detached from the older, previous Iraqi history. There were sacrifices, and these sacrifices are now crowned and embellished by this pluralistic and peaceful birth -- by this parliament to which all Iraqis have contributed.
RFI [Ahmad al-Zubaydi, correspondent in Baghdad]: Has there been any decision on the posts of president and two vice presidents?
Ibrahim al-Ja'fari: The dialogue has virtually come close to its conclusion as far as the posts of president of republic, prime minister, and parliament speaker are concerned. Despite that, I would not like to anticipate developments before they reach their final stage. I would rather say that the dialogue is still open. Nevertheless, a good portion of work has been done for arriving at a conclusion.
[Regarding the participation of election-boycotters in the political process, al-Ja'fari said]:
Ibrahim al-Ja'fari: I do not regard those who did not enter the parliament as rivals. I believe it is one of the advantages of democracy that those who vote in the elections are democrats and those who do not vote, unless they sabotage the elections, are democrats too. One of the choices in the elections is not to vote. You have the right not to vote. There is no democratic country in the world that would force its citizens to come from their home to ballot boxes. I believe I have seen their sobriety, confidence, and legitimate demands even though I need not agree with them. That is why there must be always some mechanisms for dialogue available so all of Iraq and all the Iraqi family is included.
[On the negotiations between the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish Unity List, al-Ja'fari said:]
Ibrahim al-Ja'fari: The Arab-Kurdish talks between the [United Iraqi] Alliance and the Kurdish brothers have covered a good deal. It has been agreed that the issues related to Kirkuk and to the [Kurdish] peshmerga militias will be solved on the ground of the [Iraqi interim constitution known as the] Transitional Administrative Law. Regarding other topics, agreement has also been reached on them from both [candidates] lists. There were remaining some questions of formulation by yesterday, but I do not think they would mean a substantial obstacle that would prevent us from arriving at a conclusion. (Translation by Petr Kubalek and Maysoon Abo al-Hab.)