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Iraq Report: November 4, 2005

4 November 2005, Volume 8, Number 37

AL-SADR MILITIA TAKING LAW INTO OWN HANDS. Militiamen loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have increasingly adopted a policing role in recent months. In both Baghdad and Al-Basrah, al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army has claimed to have fought alongside police forces against terrorists, and has carried out its own operations to free hostages from terrorist safe houses.

In other towns like Samawah, Al-Najaf, and Al-Kufah, al-Sadr militiamen have clashed with police, and the militia also continues to engage U.S. and U.K. troops in combat, going so far as to kidnap two undercover British soldiers in Al-Basrah in September.

In the months following the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, Al-Mahdi Army fighters wrested control from police in a number of Shi'ite cities, including Al-Kut, Al-Kufah, and Al-Najaf. Police in these cities abandoned their stations or stood aside as the gunmen roamed the streets. Following the Al-Mahdi Army's occupation of Al-Najaf in August 2004, makeshift courts containing "mutilated bodies and torture machines" were discovered (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 10 September 2004).

Since that time, al-Sadr's militia appears to have solidified its control over some Shi'ite cities through it's militia's presence on the ground and its infiltration of local police forces (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 28 March 2005). Moreover, the militia has carried out dozens of arrests in Baghdad, Al-Basrah, Karbala, Al-Kut, and Al-Musayyib, according to published Iraqi media reports. In reality, the figures may be much higher.

While some of the militia's activities appear aimed at increasing grassroots support for the cleric, there is much to fear from a militia that increasingly believes in its right to level its own brand of justice outside the rule of law. A number of recent incidents testify to this activity.

On 27 October, police responded to a gun battle that erupted when Al-Mahdi militiamen tried to free a hostage held by insurgents. Twenty-five people were killed in the fighting, including two policemen, and nearly 20 were wounded.

On 5 October, "Al-Huda" reported that the Al-Mahdi Army had arrested a gang in Karbala that it accused of plundering the people's funds.

On 2 October, Al-Sharqiyah television reported that the Al-Mahdi Army freed Abd al-Jabr Sulagh, the brother of Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a day after he was kidnapped in the capital.

On 18 September, "Al-Bayyinah" reported that the militia asked permission from the Bani Tamimi tribes to seek revenge for the killing of 17 tribe members in Al-Taji. The newspaper also reported that the militia arrested a terrorist who was driving a booby-trapped car in Baghdad's Al-Sadr City.

On 13 August, "Al-Manarah" reported that the militia had released one Iraqi and three Syrian hostages from a terrorist safe house in Baghdad.

On 19 September, Iraqi police arrested two British soldiers and took them to a local police station. A British unit dispatched to retrieve the soldiers on 20 September was attacked outside the police station and forced to retreat.

A larger force was then sent in, and discovered that the soldiers had been moved to a nearby building controlled by Al-Mahdi militiamen. The soldiers were retrieved, but not before police accused them of plotting to carry out a terrorist attack against Iraqi civilians. The soldiers were allegedly disguised in traditional Arab clothing when they were arrested.

The kidnapping of the two soldiers by the Al-Mahdi Army appears to have come as revenge for the arrest of Sheikh Ahmad al-Fartusi, an Al-Mahdi Army leader who, along with his brother, was detained by British forces in September on suspicion of organizing terrorist attacks against multinational forces. The incident also points to collusion between al-Sadr militiamen and police in the city.

Al-Basrah police chief General Hassan al-Sade reportedly told London's "The Guardian" newspaper in May that he had lost control of over three-quarters of his officers, to militias that infiltrated the police and used their positions to carry out political assassinations, the daily reported on 31 May.

Al-Sade said that half of his 13,750-member police force secretly worked for political parties, including the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and al-Sadr's militia. Other officers remained politically neutral, but had no interest in policing or following his orders, he said. "The militias are the real power in [Al-Basrah] and they are made up of criminals and bad people," he said. "To defeat them I would need to use 75 percent of my forces, but I can rely on only a quarter."

This spring, in the southern town of Samawah, al-Sadr loyalists began stirring up discontent by protesting the presence of Dutch and Japanese forces. (The Dutch pulled out of Iraq in March, and 800 British and Australian forces took over security operations in the governorate.)

Months earlier, al-Sadr's Samawah office, estimated to number between several hundred and 2,000, steadily increased its negative rhetoric and threatened in December 2004 that its "peaceful protest" against multinational forces in the governorate would become "another kind of protest" should multinational forces fail to withdraw.

In January, some 300 al-Sadr supporters marched on the governor's office during a demonstration and handed a petition to Governor al-Hasani demanding better services and complaining of government corruption. The demonstrators reportedly carried a banner that read: "Today we have a peaceful demonstration and tomorrow [we will protest with] RPGs and guns."

Police battled insurgents in Samawah in February, but it is unclear whether they were from al-Sadr's group or from opposing Sunni Islamists. In April, insurgents attacked a residence in the city, injuring one resident. Media reports indicated that similar attacks had taken place against locals who were involved in the illicit sale of alcohol. Comparable attacks in Baghdad have been attributed to al-Sadr's group.

Relations between al-Sadr and rival Shi'ite parties have always been contentious. The cleric, whose father and two brothers were assassinated by the Hussein regime, views SCIRI and Al-Da'wah as illegitimate parties that fled Iraq rather than face the regime, only to return "riding on the back of American tanks" once Hussein was toppled.

The fighting that broke out in August between al-Sadr militiamen and Badr Forces loyal to SCIRI appeared as a concerted effort by al-Sadr and his supporters to thwart the constitutional process, particularly after some 21 parliamentarians and the health and transport ministers suspended their work and threatened to resign in protest against what they deemed as attacks against al-Sadr and his followers (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 16 August 2005).

In Al-Najaf, clashes erupted after local residents objected to the reopening of the Martyr Al-Sadr office, closed a year earlier after Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani put an end to al-Sadr's standoff against U.S. and Iraqi forces in the holy city in August 2004.

Demonstrators reportedly set fire to al-Sadr's office on 24 August, and the clashes spread to other cities -- with al-Sadr militiamen setting fire to SCIRI and Al-Da'wah offices in Baghdad and Al-Amarah. Clashes also erupted in Al-Basrah, Samawah, Al-Diwaniyah, Al-Nasiriyah, and Al-Hillah on 24 August; and in Ba'qubah on 25 August, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported.

Smaller-scale clashes continued between Badr Forces and the Al-Mahdi Army in September. In Al-Basrah, al-Sadr supporters destroyed the municipality building used by SCIRI as a headquarters in the city, and set fire to a SCIRI newspaper office.

Meanwhile, former Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan contended in a June interview with that Iranian fighters were found inside the Imam Ali Shrine in Al-Najaf after the 2004 clashes between al-Sadr militiamen holed up there and U.S. and Iraqi security forces.

Despite numerous attempts by the Coalition Provisional Authority and the subsequent interim and transitional Iraqi administrations, al-Sadr's militia -- potentially the most dangerous militia in Iraq -- refuses to disarm. Al-Sadr aide Sheikh Hasan al-Zarqani presented the movement's position on its militia in slightly different terms, telling Al-Arabiyah television in a 20 June interview: "We proved our position by the sacrifices we made and the martyrs we offered. Sacrificing one's self is the greatest form of generosity," adding that al-Sadr was eager to preserve the blood of Iraqis -- purportedly blood in danger of being spilled at the hands of the "occupation."

Al-Sadr political adviser Abbas al-Rubay'i told "Al-Zaman" in an interview published on 31 October that the militia will not disband until the occupation comes to an end. "[All] the militias' refusal to dissolve, whether they are against or for the occupation, is not patriotic. I believe that the Al-Mahdi Army is not a mere armed militia. It is actively involved in social activities, helping people who incurred damage and participating in clean-up campaigns and other social and public services."

Indeed, al-Sadr has followed in his late father's footsteps and oversees a slew of charitable activities, from caring for orphans and widows to seeking medical care for the injured, to lobbying on behalf of those believed to have been wrongly detained. By giving money, food, and other assistance to Iraqis in need, the cleric has established himself among his followers as a humanitarian who cares for the people's needs. The distinction is not missed by many living on the edge of poverty, who claim that the current government, led by leading figures from SCIRI and Al-Da'wah, has done little in terms of raising the quality of their lives. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

POLITICAL PARTIES (RE)ALIGN FOR DECEMBER ELECTIONS. As Iraqi political parties and lists announced their intention to participate in the 15 December National Assembly election last week, new alliances were formed that reflect the changing political landscape. Some individuals and parties defected from the Shi'ite and Kurdish alliances in favor of forming their own lists that more accurately reflect their ideologies. Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted January's parliamentary elections, announced their own lists, which tend to reflect a nationalist, pan-Arab stance.

The Iraqi Independent Election Commission (IECI) announced that 228 lists -- including 21 coalitions -- had registered by 28 October deadline, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on 30 October.

The more moderate members of the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) have withdrawn from the alliance, claiming that the alliance is increasingly Islamist in its outlook.

The Iraqi National Congress, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, left the UIA to form a new coalition, called the National Congress Coalition. The coalition list, which comprises both Sunni and Shi'ite candidates, is more secular than the United Iraqi Alliance.

Chalabi told Al-Jazeera television in a 30 October interview that he left the UIA because he does not agree with its calls for an Islamic state in Iraq. "Now that the constitution has been is obvious that there is a need to have a list that represents a large segment of the Iraqi people who are faithful Muslims [and] who also believe in a democratic, pluralistic, and a federal system of government. They respect the religious authority but they do not recognize the political Islamic ideology."

Other members to the National Congress Coalition include the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, led by Sharif Ali bin al-Husayn; Justice Minister Abd al-Husayn Shandal and former UIA member and parliamentarian Salama al-Khafaji; as well as moderate political and religious figures such as Sheikh Fawwaz al-Jarba (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 October 2005).

Parliamentarian Ali al-Dabbagh also left the United Iraqi Alliance to form a coalition list called the Independent Grouping of Iraq's Competent People. The 120-member list reportedly includes a number of National Assembly members in addition to candidates from 15 of Iraq's 18 governorates. Al-Dabbagh said that he withdrew from the UIA in protest of the alliance's monopolization of power in the current government, where he claims positions were awarded based on membership rather than qualifications, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on 28 October. President Jalal Talabani has also criticized the UIA for monopolizing power in the current government in recent months (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 12 August 2005).

Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum and parliamentarian Muntasir al-Imarah withdrew from the UIA as well and formed the Future Iraq Grouping (Tajammu Iraq Al-Mustaqbal).

Meanwhile, the United Iraqi Alliance announced its amended list, which includes supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who ran as independents in the January election. The 16 other parties to the list are: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI); the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party (both branches); the Islamic Virtue Party; the Badr Organization; the Justice (Al-Adalah) Party; the Islamic Hope Organization; the Hizballah Movement in Iraq; the Masters of the Martyrs Movement; the Central Grouping Party; the Iraqi Turkoman Loyalty Movement; the Islamic Union of Iraqi Turkomans; the Justice and Equality Grouping; the Reform and Construction Gathering; the Iraqi Democrats Movement; and the Free Iraqis Party.

SCIRI head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim commented on the alliance changes, telling reporters in Baghdad on 29 October: "Difficult circumstances prevented us from including some political entities.... Therefore, we are announcing that the door will remain open before all the virtuous forces to join the coalition after the elections," RFI reported the same day.

Al-Sadr political adviser Abbas al-Rubay'i told "Al-Zaman" in a 30 October interview that al-Sadr supporters joined the UIA because of shared political goals: "the liberation of Iraq, the formation of a nonpoliticized army, enhancing security agencies without turning them into terrorist organs as they were under the [Hussein] regime, reactivating the Iraqi judicial system, improving the performance of the de-Ba'athification Commission and the Integrity Commission, developing Iraq's relations with neighboring states...and enhancing human rights."

While they may share common goals, the decision by al-Sadr supporters to join the UIA does make for strange bedfellows. Al-Sadr militiamen have battled militiamen (Badr Forces) loyal to SCIRI repeatedly in the past two and a half years, most notably for influence in Al-Najaf in 2004. Badr Forces, supported by local citizens, waged a battle to drive Al-Mahdi militiamen from the holy city. Multinational forces were eventually drawn into the confrontation with al-Sadr, who only ordered his men out of the city after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani ordered him to do so.

But not all al-Sadr supporters will take part in the UIA list. Abbas al-Rubay'i said in a 26 October statement that National Assembly member Fattah al-Shaykh would set up a bureau in the governorate for a joint list with Sunni Arabs. Al-Shaykh told Al-Sharqiyah television that eight Sunni Arabs would run on the list (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 October 2005). He later told Al-Jazeera in a 30 October interview that while al-Sadr supporters are still working with Sunni Arabs in Al-Anbar, he is no longer involved, as he has been appointed head of the "al-Sadr bloc" in Al-Nasiriyah. He said that since an agreement was reached with the UIA, al-Sadr supporters in Al-Anbar would be considered "independents" in the election.

Former Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan also announced a list, named the National Forces Parliament, Amman's "Al-Dustur" reported on 31 October. An arrest warrant was issued for al-Sha'lan last month on charges of corruption in the interim government, and he remains outside the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 October 2005). According to the daily, the parties to his list include the Democratic National Forces Congress; the Independent Iraqi Tribes Group; the Al-Da'wah Party -- Izz al-Din Salim Wing; the Democratic Revival Movement; the Expatriate Academics Group; the National Unity Movement; the Southern Arab Citizens Group; the Educated People's Unified Group; and the Iraqi Arabism Champions.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who spent the past six months courting Sunni Arabs across Iraq, announced the formation of the Iraqi National List, RFI reported on 29 October. Allawi told reporters that candidates on the list will run on a platform of national unity, and the list's goals will be to increase security and economic development. He added that all parties to the list put the benefit of Iraq over their own personal interests. Allawi told reporters that the list seeks to build a democratic, modern, and open Iraqi society "that renounces sectarianism in political work and improves relations with Arab and neighboring countries."

The parties on Allawi's list include the Iraqiyun List, led by Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir and Hajim al-Hasani; the Iraqi Communist Party, led by Hamid Majid Musa; the Independent Democrats Grouping, led by Adnan Pachachi (whose party failed to gain any seats in the last parliamentary election); the National Democratic Party, led by Nasir Kamil al-Chadirchi; the Arab Socialist Movement; and the Islamic Democratic Movement.

In a marked change from January elections, Karbala cleric Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala'i said on 28 October that Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani would not support any particular list in December's elections. Al-Sistani lent his support to the UIA in the January elections, a move that some said helped the alliance gain more seats in parliament. Iraqi media has speculated that al-Sistani was disappointed with the UIA's performance in the transitional administration.

The Iraqi Islamic Party, Iraqi National Dialogue Council, and the Iraqi People's Conference announced on 26 October that they would participate in the election as a coalition list named the Iraqi Accordance Front (Jabhat Al-Tawafuq Al-Iraqiyah), RFI reported the same day. Iraqi People's Conference Secretary-General Adnan al-Dulaymi told reporters during the 26 October announcement in Baghdad that the door is open for other political groups to join the coalition.

Sunni leader Salih al-Mutlaq opted not to join the Iraqi Accordance Front, preferring instead to form a coalition that is not sectarian-based. "The majority of the National Dialogue Council insists that the list is a national list that includes Iraqis from Al-Basrah to Al-Sulaymaniyah," al-Mutlaq said. "There is no room for us to be narrow-minded and focus on a sectarian bloc or entity, because this constitutes great damage to the country's interests. We know that we may lose some votes. However, the national project must succeed," he told Al-Arabiyah television on 26 October.

Al-Mutlaq announced his list, the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, on 1 November, saying the list comprises figures representing all Iraqi sects, RFI reported on the same day. The list's platform is based on ending the occupation, rebuilding government institutions, and improving the economic and security situation in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Hasan Zaydan, head of the National Front for a Free and United Iraq, announced at a 29 October press briefing in Baghdad that al-Mutlaq's party would take part in his still unnamed list, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Zaydan declined to speak about his list's platform but said that the basic platform will be built on maintaining Iraqi unity, liberating the country, and serving "the sons of Iraq."

The coalition includes Zaydan's party; the Christian Democratic Party, led by Minas al-Yusufi; the Arab Democratic Front, led by Farhan al-Sudayd; and the Sons of Iraq Movement, led by Ali al-Suhayri. Zaydan told reporters that the coalition includes all segments of Iraqi society -- Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, and Shabaks. "None of the segments of the Iraqi people were deprived of participating in this front," he noted.

Hatim Jasim Mukhlis, secretary-general of the Iraqi National Movement, announced the formation of the Wataniyun (Patriots') Grouping at a 30 October press briefing in Baghdad, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. The grouping includes: the United Iraq Council, the Al-Ahrar Party, the Al-Furatayn Bloc from Karbala, the Arab and Iraqi Tribes Council, and the Central Tribal Leaders of Iraq Council.

Mukhlis told reporters that the grouping's platform calls for the rebuilding of the Iraqi Army, stripping armed militias of power, addressing the security crisis, battling unemployment, and dealing with administrative and financial corruption.

Mish'an al-Juburi has also formed a list called the National Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc, which reportedly includes over 100 candidates, Al-Sharqiyah reported on 29 October. The news channel also reported that Mahmud al-Azzawi would lead a list called the Arab Front.

The Kurdistan Islamic Union announced on 22 October that it would withdraw from the Kurdistan Coalition List, "Jamawar" reported on 24 October. The move appears to be a protest against the influence of the two leading parties -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- after the Kurdistan Islamic Union disputed those parties' claims of high turnout and support for the referendum on the constitution in Kurdistan.

The union's weekly newspaper, "Yekgirtu," reported on 18 October that few Kurds went to the polls, and speculated that Kurds are fed up with the Kurdish administrations and their empty promises to improve the quality of life in Kurdistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 October 2005). KDP Politburo Secretary Fadil Mirani commented on the party's withdrawal, telling "Jamawar" on 24 October: "The parties are free to join the coalition or leave it. This is the core of democracy."

Kurdistan Islamic Union member Abd al-Rahman Siddiq Karim discussed the union's decision to pull out in a 24 October interview with RFI (see below for interview).

Meanwhile, the KDP and PUK intend to run on their Kurdistan Coalition List, which appears to be identical to the one they presented in the January elections aside from the absence of the Kurdistan Islamic Union and the addition of the newly allied Kurdistan Islamic Group.

Independent Kurdish politician Mahmud Uthman told Al-Sharqiyah in a 30 October interview that he will remain on the coalition list. "As was the case in the previous elections, the list will include the two main parties in addition to other parties, including Kurdish, Turkoman, Assyrian, Chaldean parties, and others. It even includes some Arab brothers who live in Kurdistan and some independent figures," Uthman said.

RFI reported on 29 October that voter apathy in the Kurdistan region is growing due to disappointment over the lack of services and a monopolization of power by the two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and PUK.

Karim Qadir, chief editor of the daily "Khabat," told RFI: "This retreat of interest has its reasons. Among the most important ones is the weakness of public services. Also, the inability of the government to [put down] terrorist operations in the border areas between the Iraqi regions [administered from Baghdad] and [autonomous] Kurdistan Region has contributed to the people's lack of interest [in politics]. Also, the widespread corruption has contributed to discouraging people. There is also some disappointment over the [Kurdish] representatives in the central government because [the government] has not in any way enriched the previous experience in the crucial issues such as returning Kirkuk and other Arabized areas to Kurdistan Region. Also, the government has not fulfilled some of the promises that it gave to the people with respect to some national and patriotic issues as well as the issues of services." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

KURDISTAN ISLAMIC UNION PULLS OUT OF KURDISTAN COALITION LIST. RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on 24 October that the Kurdistan Islamic Union has pulled out of the Kurdistan Coalition List ahead of Iraq's December parliamentary elections. Kurdistan Islamic Union member Abd al-Rahman Siddiq Karim, who served as environment minister in Iraq's first post-Hussein cabinet, discussed the union's plans in an interview with RFI in Irbil.

Siddiq: Many other parties have praised this step. They believe this step will lead to boosting the spirit of competition on the [political] scene of Kurdistan before running for the new Iraqi [parliament that will be officially known as the] Council of Representatives.

Regarding the two main parties [in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan], we think they know that parties are free in making their decisions, especially as the Kurdistan Islamic Union has been known for its attitudes supportive of the national attitudes of the Kurdistan people. In a statement issued on this matter, the Kurdistan Islamic Union has mentioned that it will remain shoulder to shoulder with the Kurdistan Coalition List regarding the crucial questions such as [the demands of] returning Kirkuk and other Kurdistani areas to the Kurdistan Region, and all national attitudes.

But regarding other issues, the slogan of the Kurdistan Islamic Union is "The Reform," in a reference to the noble verse [in the Koran where God is believed to say], "I desire nothing but reform so far as I am able." Time has come for us now to undertake reform in the electoral process because the electoral process is one of the pillars of democracy.

RFI: Is the Kurdistan Islamic Union likely to revise its decision if the other parties of the Kurdistan Coalition List enter negotiations with it or if they offer it, so to say, some advantages or new promises? In any case, if the decision is not changed, will you try to set up a coalition with other parties?

Siddiq: As far as I know, the parties in Kurdistan have in general made their final decisions on entering the next elections. In this respect, we have heard that many parties in Iraq's Kurdistan Region have joined the Kurdistan Coalition List. With this step taken by the Kurdistan Islamic Union, we do not encourage others to change or confirm their endeavors to join this or that coalition.

But as far as I know, the majority of ordinary members of the Kurdistan Islamic Union have thought [the matters] out and come to the verdict of launching a separate list of candidates. The opinion of the leadership of the Kurdistan Islamic Union has also been to set up a separate list of candidates. That is why I think that this decision will remain the final one.

(Translated by Petr Kubalek)