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Iraq Report: March 19, 2004


19 March 2004, Volume 7, Number 10
INSIDE IRAQ
SEVEN KILLED IN BAGHDAD HOTEL BOMBING... Militants detonated a car bomb outside a small hotel in central Baghdad on 17 March, killing seven people and wounding 35, Reuters reported on 18 March. The U.S. military said on 17 March that the bombing of the Mount Lebanon hotel appears to be the work of the Ansar Al-Islam terrorist organization, which has been linked to Al-Qaeda. U.S. Colonel Ralph Baker told CNN on 17 March that it is believed that the automobile used in the attack was carrying about 455 kilograms of plastic explosives and artillery shells mixed with explosives to cause the greatest number of injuries. Iraqis and Arab businessmen reportedly frequented the hotel, according to international media. Reuters reported that two British civilians were injured in the blast, and both Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah television stations reported that a number of U.S. civilians were wounded in the attack. Western media did not confirm the latter claims, however. Husayn Ali Kamal, the Iraqi Interior Ministry's undersecretary for Baghdad police and security, on 17 March disputed the high casualty figures, telling Al-Jazeera that five people were killed and 40 injured. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

...AS APPARENT CAR BOMB KILLS FIVE IN AL-BASRAH. An apparent car bomb detonated in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah on 18 March, killing at least five civilians, international media reported. The vehicle detonated outside the Mirbad Hotel, located in the city center and used by British military and civil administration officials for press briefings. A civil administration official in Iraq's second city told Reuters that the hotel was popular with both Iraqis and foreigners and was considered one of the most secure in the city. British military officials said it was not known whether the car exploded as a result of a car bomb or an improvised explosive device placed in the road. Iraqi police said four men and one boy were killed in the bombing. Elsewhere in Iraq, militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at the municipal-council building in Al-Fallujah on 18 March. Reuters reported that a gun battle with U.S. forces ensued, and one man and child were caught in the crossfire. Meanwhile, in Ba'qubah, militants attacked a minibus carrying employees of a U.S.-funded local Diyala television channel, killing three and wounding eight, the news agency reported. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

POLL FINDS MOST IRAQIS OPTIMISTIC BUT NO STRONG CONTENDER FOR NEXT PRESIDENT. A survey of some 2,500 Iraqis carried out by Oxford Research International between 10 and 28 February found that most Iraqis are optimistic about their future, BBC reported on 16 March. The BBC, ABC News, and other international broadcasters commissioned the poll. Seventy percent of respondents interviewed said things are going well or quite well in their lives; while only 29 percent believe things are bad. Fifty-six percent said things are better now than before the war, and 49 percent said the invasion of Iraq "was right," although 41 percent believe the invasion "humiliated Iraq." Seventy-nine percent of respondents said they favor a unified Iraq, and 20 percent said they want an Islamic state.

Asked about their confidence in a number of groups, more than 40 percent said they have no confidence in the occupation forces, around 35 percent have no confidence in the Coalition Provisional Authority, and around 25 percent have no confidence in the Iraqi Governing Council. More than 40 percent said they have "a great deal" of confidence in Iraq's religious leaders.

The survey results showed that there is not one Iraqi leader who enjoys overwhelming support in the country. While more than 70 percent support "an Iraqi democracy," and more than 60 percent said Iraq needs "at the moment" a "single strong Iraqi leader," abcnews.com reported that when asked whom they trust the most, 8 percent named Iraqi Governing Council member Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, while Kurdish council members Mas'ud Barzani and Jalal Talabani each received 6 percent, and Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani received 5 percent. Ten percent of respondents said Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi is a leader they "don't trust at all."

Asked about leading political parties, 10 percent of respondents said they would vote for the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party in a national election, 7.7 percent for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and 6.9 percent for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Almost 28 percent of respondents refused to say who they would vote for, while 30.2 percent said they didn't know. Over 30 percent of respondents said that the Iraqi government is responsible for regaining public security in Iraq, while 5.3 percent said it is the job of coalition forces. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

GOVERNING COUNCIL OFFICIALS DISCUSS INTERIM CONSTITUTION. Iraqi Governing Council member Muhsin Abd al-Hamid told London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on 14 March that all Iraqi parties were forced to compromise in some way in order for the interim constitution to be passed, however, all council members agreed that the document would only remain in effect temporarily. A permanent Iraqi constitution is expected to be written and ratified by an elected national government no later than 31 December 2005. "In brief, this law represents the common ground that we share and in the final count, it does not spoil anything," Abd al-Hamid said. "I expect that in the future, all objections to the law will be remedied by the permanent constitution."

Asked whether, as a Sunni, he felt that the interim constitution marginalized his group, he said: "We in the Islamic Party do not accept sectarianism and do not even talk about these issues." However, Abd al-Hamid later added: "The Sunnis have indeed felt that they were being marginalized, especially as we are convinced that we are the majority in Iraq, whether we are Arabs, Kurds, or Turkomans. I believe that this situation will not continue and will be remedied in the coming elections." He also contended that Sunnis would prefer that the disagreement over a Sunni versus Shi'a majority be seen as a political disagreement, rather than on sectarian or ethnic terms. He noted that a population census would also help remedy the matter.

Abd al-Hamid also expressed support for the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq, but said that his party does support the transfer of power over domestic security to Iraqi hands. He added that the United States is responsible for the deterioration of security in Iraq, saying: "They dissolved the army, the security forces, and the security agencies on the grounds that all these establishments were pro-Saddam. But they were not pro-Saddam. They were state organs and their absence created the chaotic conditions."

Meanwhile, Iraqi Governing Council Spokesman Hamid al-Kifa'i told Manama's "Al-Ayyam" in an interview published on 16 March that the controversial Article 61 (C), which states that the permanent constitution would be ratified "if a majority of the voters in Iraq approve and if two-thirds of the voters in three or more governorates do not reject it," should be considered a guarantee for minorities. Asked to comment on claims by some Shi'a that their group was treated unfairly in the interim document, al-Kifa'i said: "How were they treated unfairly? If we talked about the three governorates, they could be Shi'a governorates. In other words, it is possible for the governorates of Al-Najaf, Karbala, and Al-Hillah to object to the constitution, and in such a case it would become null and void. So, where is the injustice?"

Asked whether religious personalities such as Ayatollahs al-Mudarrisi and al-Shirazi would be allowed to participate in drafting future political plans for Iraq, al-Kifa'i said, "We hope that they would be present in the coming elections for the General Assembly, which would elect the government."

Shi'ite Iraqi Governing Council member Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on 16 March that he and others would continue to criticize Clause C of Article 61 through legal means, adding, "There must be struggle, fight, and jihad to change the shortcomings in the Iraqi State Administration Law." Asked if that meant he supported student demonstrations, he said yes, adding, "How can we change the laws if we do not do this by publicly voicing our rejection?" Asked why he signed a law and then brought out the masses to protest it, al-Rubay'i said, "This is not wrong. I do not believe there is any inconsistency. Do you think that this law we wrote was sent down from heaven? It is not a Koran that cannot be objected to."

Al-Rubay'i also denied that rejection of Clause C in Article 61 did not mean that Kurds or Arabs would be denied their rights. "The issue is not, honestly and truthfully, a political one but a purely technical one and does not target any group, nationality, or creed," he said. "Let us suppose that Karbala, Al-Najaf, and Al-Diwaniyah provinces tomorrow agree and demand application of Islamic shari'a over all Iraq otherwise they will suspend the constitution. What will we do then?" he asked. He insisted that the clause would be removed from a future Iraqi constitution, saying, "We will discuss the ways for giving the Kurds other guarantees that secure what they want but which do not impede the constitution and place it in a constitutional crisis." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

KURDISH LEADER DISCUSSES KIRKUK, SECESSION FROM IRAQ. Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Mas'ud Barzani told the weekly magazine "Der Spiegel" of 15 March that the demographics in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk must be changed to reflect the city's historical Kurdish majority.

"The majority of the population in Kirkuk has always been Kurdish -- this was a thorn in Saddam Hussein's side. Therefore, he expelled us from this city...and replaced us with nonresident Arabs," Barzani said. "We have to re-establish the old status, otherwise all the talk about justice and democracy is worthless." He added that the Kurds "insist" that the provinces of Irbil, Dahuk, Al-Sulaymaniyah, and the city of Kirkuk "be one connected part of the country."

Asked about reports that Kurds are circulating maps of an envisioned state of Kurdistan that extends to Armenia in the north, Barzani said: "There is no Kurd who does not want independence. I know, of course, that there is a difference between ambitions and the practical possibilities of implementing them." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IRAQI JUDGE SAYS HUSSEIN WILL BE TRIED LAST. Judge and Iraqi Governing Council member Wa'il Abd al-Latif told London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on 13 March that he believes that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would be tried on charges of genocide and war crimes after the trials of all other former regime members, the daily reported on 14 March.

Abd al-Latif said although a trial date has not been set, it would take place in Baghdad. He declined to say exactly where for security reasons. He did say however, that a panel of five judges has been selected -- the panel consists of a chief judge and four assistants. "They were trained with the public prosecution so everything will be ready," he added. Abd al-Latif noted that Hussein would stand before an open court rather than being placed inside a bullet-proof glass box. He said that special security measures would be taken however during the former dictator's trial.

Asked about fears that Hussein would be assassinated before his trial, Abd al-Latif contended that indeed Hussein might never make it to trial, saying that he told an unnamed American envoy that Hussein "will be killed or he will die, and he will not stand in the dock" for his crimes. Abd al-Latif also told the daily that Iraqi Governing Council members have demanded that former Iraqi National Assembly Speaker Sa'dun Hammadi and former Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf be returned to Iraq to stand trial on war crimes charges. Both men were arrested and later released by the coalition. They have since left the country. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IRAQI FINANCE MINISTER DISCUSSES UPCOMING FINANCIAL MARKET REGULATIONS, NEW INCOME TAX LAW. Iraqi Finance Minister Kamil Mubdir al-Kaylani told London-based "Al-Hayat" that new regulations would soon be issued regarding Iraq's financial markets, the daily reported on 15 March. He spoke on the sidelines of a two-day seminar in Beirut attended by representatives of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the Paris Club, and the U.S. Treasury Department. The seminar focused on ways to manage public debt in Iraq.

Al-Kaylani said that the new law to regulate the financial market in Iraq would be issued "within a month and a half," and that the law would "be modern and similar to the laws observed in neighboring countries or Europe," adding, "It will be tied to the New York market in the future."

Regarding the new income tax law, al-Kaylani said that the income tax has been set at 15 percent "with grace periods." "The percentage may be small, but we took into consideration the social situation now and how it has been over the past years. We wanted to pave the way for improving the economic situation." Iraq previously did not have an income tax.

Asked whether the income tax rate, oil revenues and a customs rate of five percent would be enough to help the Iraqi economy get back on its feet, he said: "At the initial stages, we are trying to lighten the citizens' burden and keep customs low in order to encourage companies to invest and trade." "These resources may be few, but the budget is more operational than investment oriented," he added. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

PURPORTED NOROUZ SUICIDE-BOMBING PLOT THWARTED IN AL-SULAYMANIYAH. An unidentified Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) official told turkishdailynews.com of 15 March that PUK security forces have uncovered a plot by Al-Qaeda to carry out a series of suicide bombings in the northern Iraqi city of Al-Sulaymaniyah during celebrations on 21 March of the Kurdish new year, or Norouz.

The unidentified official said that Kurdistan Regional Government security forces recently seized a vehicle near Kifri carrying 10 explosives-packed vests that could be used in suicide attacks. Other explosives were also reportedly found in the vehicle. The men in the vehicle were reportedly traveling from the Al-Ramadi area west of Baghdad and using a safe house in Kifri, according to one of the men arrested. When the security forces stormed the safe house, they reportedly found a number of detonators and electronic devices that can be used for making bombs. A woman in the house was also detained.

The suspects confessed under interrogation to a plan to use the vests in suicide attacks on 21 March in Al-Sulaymaniyah. They also reportedly confessed to being members of Ansar Al-Islam, which has been linked to Al-Qaeda. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL STAFFER'S VISIT TO IRAQ SHROUDED IN SECRECY. The London-based newspaper "Al-Zaman" reported on 16 March that U.S. National Security Council staff member Ambassador Robert Blackwell's visit to Iraq this week is shrouded in secrecy under a total media blackout. Sources told the daily that the media blackout would allow the presidential envoy to hold talks with Iraqi officials away from the spotlight. Fatih Khashif al-Ghata, deputy to Iraqi Governing Council member Salamah al-Khafaji, said that Blackwell has been taking notes and listening to the views of council members regarding the transfer of power, but is not offering his own views on the process. "Al-Zaman" reported that Blackwell's trip is addressing two topics: the transfer of power, and the upcoming status-of-forces agreement between Iraq and the coalition that is expected to be agreed upon by 31 March. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

STUDENTS IN THREE IRAQI CITIES PROTEST INTERIM CONSTITUTION. Students in Baghdad, Karbala, and Al-Najaf protested on 13 March against the interim constitution, Al-Jazeera television reported on 14 March. University students reportedly questioned the legitimacy of the law on the grounds that it was drafted by the Iraqi Governing Council rather than an elected body.

The demonstrations were apparently organized following an appeal by Ayatollah Muhammad al-Ya'qubi. The Shi'ite cleric has been vocal in his rejection of the interim constitution because it does not name Islam as the sole basis for legislation. One protester interviewed on 13 March in Baghdad said the council and the coalition should refer all issues to the Shi'ite religious authority in Al-Najaf. Another protester in Karbala demanded an Islamic constitution.

Students gathered at Firdaws Square in Baghdad one day earlier to hear al-Ya'qubi voice his opposition to the document. The Baghdad daily "Al-Zaman" reported on 26 February that al-Ya'qubi sent an open letter to CPA head Bremer saying the West should not fear Islam or an Islamic state in Iraq. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

CPA HEAD PROMISES JUSTICE TO VICTIMS OF HALABJA ON 16TH ANNIVERSARY OF MASSACRE. On the 16th anniversary of the deadly chemical-weapons attacks carried out against the Kurdish town of Halabja by the deposed Hussein regime, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer on 16 March promised justice to the victims, international media reported the same day. The chemical-weapons attack left an estimated 5,000 dead and another 10,000 wounded.

Ali Hassan al-Majid, aka Chemical Ali, a cousin of Saddam Hussein, was charged with carrying out the 1988 attacks. During a memorial service in Halabja honoring the victims of the attacks, Bremer said: "For those in my country and elsewhere who unaccountably still ask if [war] was worth ridding the people of Iraq of Saddam Hussein, I say: Come to Halabja. Come see the tombstones of the 5,000 men, women, and children killed here by chemical gases. Come and look in the faces of their survivors." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

FOUR SUNNI MOSQUES ATTACKED IN BAGHDAD. Four Sunni mosques were attacked in the Iraqi capital over a 24-hour period from 10-11 March, Dubai's Al-Arabiyah television reported on 11 March. Two explosive charges were detonated at the entrance to two mosques, while worshippers were attacked with hand grenades at two other mosques in the city. "Our mosques are attacked daily with hand grenades, light machine guns, and even heavy machine guns," said Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i, spokesman for the Sunni Awqaf Office. At least two imams were also gunned down this week in Baghdad, Al-Arabiyah reported. The Iraqi Governing Council issued a statement on 12 March condemning the attacks, Voice of the Mujahedin radio reported on 12 March. "While we strongly denounce these criminal, cowardly acts against the houses of God and the faithful, we know very well that the aim is to shake the national unity and stir sedition," the statement read. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

CPA HEAD SAYS MORE ATTACKS EXPECTED IN IRAQ. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer on 11 March said he expects more attacks to take place in Iraq before the 30 June transfer of power, Reuters reported the same day. "We predicted that the situation would become more dangerous and I think it will," Bremer said, adding that security will be tight in Karbala next month, when 5 million Shi'ites are expected to gather for the religious festival of Arbain, which commemorates the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson. The holy day is expected to fall on 10 April, which would coincide with the anniversary of the overthrow of the Hussein regime, Reuters reported. Bremer noted that only six individuals carried out the 2 March attacks at Karbala during the Ashura religious holiday. "There were a million people there and you can't search a million people," he said. "We have to be realistic, there's no such thing as 100 percent security." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

CIA DIRECTOR SAYS 'LOW' CHANCE OF CIVIL WAR IN IRAQ. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on 9 March that the CIA sees a low chance of civil war in Iraq, Reuters reported the same day. "The political process that has emerged and the apparent intent of all sectors of this community to participate in this process I think mitigates" the possibility that civil war will break out, Tenet said. "We have to watch this very carefully however. Trends [in Iraq] change very, very quickly." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IRAQI TRANSLATOR, FOUR U.S. CITIZENS KILLED IN SEPARATE INCIDENTS IN IRAQ... A female Iraqi translator working for the coalition was killed in Mosul on 16 March, international media reported. The woman, who worked at the main U.S. military base in Mosul, was gunned down on her way to work. Her brother, who was traveling with her, was injured in the attack against their vehicle, Reuters reported. The attack came one day after four U.S. citizens working as missionaries for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, based in Virginia, were gunned down while driving through the city. The missionaries' automobile reportedly came under fire as they were delivering aid supplies. They were traveling without an escort. A fifth occupant of the vehicle sustained injuries and has been hospitalized. Last week, two U.S. civilian contractors and their Iraqi translator were killed south of Baghdad. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

...AS POSSIBILITY THAT IRAQI POLICE CARRIED OUT ATTACK ON COALITION CONTRACTORS PROBED. U.S. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez told reporters in Baghdad on 11 March that coalition officials are concerned about the possibility that Iraqi police might have carried out the 9 March killing of two coalition contractors and their translator, AP reported on 11 March. Sanchez noted that the attackers "were in police uniforms," although he said it has not been established that they were actually police officers. "We are concerned about it," he added. "We know that this has gone on...that there are some policemen that have done criminal acts in the past." According to AP, the contractors were gunned down after they were stopped at a fake checkpoint by five Iraqis in police uniforms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2004). The assailants took the contractors' automobile, with their bodies still inside, and were apprehended when Polish troops stopped the car. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

AL-SADR AIDE DENIES AL-MAHDI ARMY IS AN ARMED MILITIA. Shaykh Hasan al-Zarkani, the chief of the Martyr Al-Sadr Information Office and an aide to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said in a statement to London's "Al-Hayat" that the Al-Mahdi Army established by Muqtada al-Sadr is not an armed militia, the daily reported on 11 March. "We are an ideological army, not armed militias," he said. "All we have are no more than small guns that do not constitute an army. We have no financial resources, manpower, training camps, or any facilities to build an army." However, al-Zarkani rejected U.S. demands that militias disband, saying: "Why should they demand that we dissolve our armed militias," seemingly acknowledging that the Al-Mahdi Army indeed has an armed militia. Al-Zarkani also criticized the Kurdish peshmerga for not disbanding its forces. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

REGIONAL NEWS
COALITION TO CLOSE ALL BUT THREE IRAQ-IRAN BORDER CROSSINGS. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq has announced that it will close 16 of the 19 official crossing points between Iraq and Iran as of 20 March and require those using the remaining three posts to obtain a permit to enter Iraq, washingtonpost.com reported on 14 March.

CPA spokesman Dan Senor said that individuals wishing to cross the border into Iraq would be required to apply for an entry permit and provide personal information that will be held in a computer tracking system. Meanwhile, CPA head L. Paul Bremer also announced in a statement that the number of Iraqi border police might be doubled from 8,000 to 16,000, the newspaper reported. The move comes following increased criticism of the coalition for not properly securing Iraq's borders after the 2 March Ashura bombings in Karbala and Baghdad. Foreign fighters have long been suspected of playing a major role in terrorist attacks against Iraqi and coalition forces since the fall of the Hussein regime. Bremer said last week that more attacks are expected next month in Karbala when 5 million Shi'ites are expected to gather for the religious festival of Arbain (see this report).

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Assefi said on 14 March that any security problems in Iraq are the fault of the U.S.-led occupation, IRNA reported on 15 March. Assefi said the United States is trying to blame others for security problems in Iraq, and he added, "Americans, wherever they have gone, they have not only failed to boost security but they have also exacerbated the problems; and that is the case now in Iraq." Assefi added that border security is among the topics discussed with a visiting delegation that includes Iraqi Governing Council President for the month of March Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum and IGC member Ahmad Chalabi.

Iraqi Interior Minister Nuri al-Badran told Al-Jazeera television on 12 March that much work needs to be done to secure Iraq's borders and the $60 million allocated to his ministry by the Coalition Provisional Authority would not be enough to carry out that mission, the television channel reported on 12 March. "The border points need radars and electronic detectors.... A border point needs a water well, telecommunication devices, cars, radars, fuel tankers, and many other things. A border point does not simply mean 20 or 30 soldiers." He added that security agreements would need to be concluded with neighboring states, and Iraqi customs officials would need to coordinate with the trade, health, transportation, and oil ministries, as well as the coalition forces before they could effectively carry out their work. (Kathleen Ridolfo, Bill Samii)

TEHRAN DISCOURAGES PILGRIMS FROM VISITING IRAQ. Iranian Deputy Health Minister Dr. Akbari said on 15 March that although Iranians are eager to visit Shi'a shrines in the Iraqi cities of Al-Najaf and Karbala they should postpone their visits, state radio reported. "Visiting the Iraqi territory at present and under the existing circumstances is definitely detrimental to health," he said. "The reason is that Iraq's health system has totally disintegrated." Akbari cited reports of measles in the north, cholera in the south, and three cases of Rift Valley Fever. He also said drinking water is contaminated with sewage. "We therefore do not recommend such visits," Akbari said. (Bill Samii)

JORDAN GRADUATES 500 IRAQI POLICE RECRUITS. Jordan has graduated another 500 Iraqi police lieutenants following their completion of an eight-week training program in Muwaqqar, jordantimes.com reported on 12 March. Jordan has pledged to graduate some 32,000 Iraqi policemen over the next two years. The training program, which began in October (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 31 October 2003), offers classes in human rights, international law, riot control, and the English language. Instructors from Austria, Canada, Finland, Sweden, and the U.K. are assisting Jordan in the training program. The website also reported that the Jordanian director of Public Security General Tahsin Shurdum met with Iraqi Interior Ministry Undersecretary Hassan Ali on 11 March to review the coordination of the police training program. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

THE UN AND IRAQ
IRAQI GOVERNING COUNCIL TO INVITE UN TO RETURN TO IRAQ. The Iraqi Governing Council has reportedly agreed to invite the United Nations to return to Iraq to help oversee the establishment of an interim government, Reuters reported on 17 March. Word of the pending invitation came from Emyr Jones Parry, the U.K.'s ambassador to the UN. The invitation comes following statements by an aide to Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who denied that the ayatollah sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan regarding the UN's future role in Iraq, Reuters reported on 17 March.

UN special adviser Lakhdar Brahimi told a press briefing (http://www.un.org/News/briefings/docs/2004/Brahimi.brf.doc.htm) at the UN on 16 March that al-Sistani sent a message to Annan a few days ago saying that he had nothing to do with Iraqi press reports that contended the ayatollah does not want the UN to play a role in Iraq. According to Brahimi, the letter said that the ayatollah supports the return of the UN to Iraq. Brahimi added that the UN was "waiting for the [Coalition Provisional Authority] and the [Iraqi] Governing Council to tell us if the UN was required to play a role, and we will take it from there."

Hamid al-Khaffaf, director of al-Sistani's office in Lebanon, said on 17 March that "we affirm that there was no letter sent from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to Mr. Kofi Annan...regarding the return of the United Nations to Iraq," Reuters reported. The news agency reported later on 17 March that some of the criticism lodged against Brahimi and the UN came from Iraqi National Congress head and Shi'ite Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi.

Some Iraqi Governing Council members did express reservations about the possible return of the United Nations to Iraq, Reuters reported on 14 March. The Shi'ite members of the council reportedly voiced opposition to working with Brahimi, who is a Sunni Muslim widely described as having a secular background, because they claimed he would not be able to fully appreciate their desire for a greater religious role in politics. Shi'ite leader Hamid al-Bayati reportedly said that Brahimi "has achieved what the United States wanted for him," implying that Brahimi's elections assessment was influenced by the United States, AP reported on 15 March (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 27 February 2004). (Kathleen Ridolfo)

UNHCR REITERATES CALL FOR CONTINUED BAN ON FORCED REPATRIATIONS. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on 16 March that Iraqi asylum seekers in host countries should not be forced to return to Iraq even if their applications for asylum were rejected, the UN News Center reported on the same day (http://www.un.org/news).

The agency said that violent attacks in Iraq that "continue with alarming frequency" are creating a general climate of instability and insecurity. UNHCR also cited a severe lack of housing, irregular provision of basic services, unemployment, and ineffective financial and judicial systems as other reasons for allowing Iraqis to remain in their host countries for the time being.

Moreover, the Iraqi minister of displacement and migration, Muhammad Jassim Khudhayir al-Atib, has asked UNHCR to urge host countries not to force Iraqis to return home at this time. UNHCR said that it continues to discourage refugees from Iran and Saudi Arabia from voluntary repatriating themselves to Iraq, although the agency does assist those refugees intent on returning to their homeland (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 27 February and 13 March 2004). (Kathleen Ridolfo)

EUROPE, THE U.S., AND IRAQ
SPAIN'S PRIME MINISTER-ELECT SAYS HE WILL PULL TROOPS FROM IRAQ, HONDURAS FOLLOWS. Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose Socialists won Spain's 14 March general elections, has said he will pull out the country's 1,300 troops serving in Iraq when he assumes office as prime minister unless the UN requests that the troops remain there, international media reported on 15 March.

"The war in Iraq was a disaster, the occupation of Iraq is a disaster," Bloomberg news agency quoted Zapatero as telling a Spanish radio station on 15 March. Reuters reported the same day that Zapatero said in the same interview that no decision will be made without wide political consultation, but added that "the Spanish troops in Iraq will come home."

Meanwhile, the Honduran government said on 16 March that it would not seek authorization from lawmakers to keep its troops in Iraq past the 30 June deadline for the transfer of power, ACAN-EFE press agency reported on the same day. Honduran President Ricardo Maduro said that his country was satisfied with the role its military has played in Iraq. The Central American country has had some 370 soldiers in Iraq since last August. The soldiers are part of the Spanish-led Plus Ultra Brigade that includes Dominican and El Salvadoran troops. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

...AS POLAND HOLDS FIRM IN LIGHT OF SPAIN'S POSSIBLE PULLOUT OF IRAQ... Prime Minister Leszek Miller said on 15 March that Poland would maintain its contingent of 2,400 troops in Iraq, Polish media reported. Miller was reacting to the suggestion earlier the same day by Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero that Madrid will pull its 1,300 soldiers out of the 9,000-strong Polish-led division in Iraq by 30 June in the absence of a UN mandate.

Miller said such a pullout could be perceived as weakness in the face of terror following last week's bomb attacks in Madrid. President Aleksander Kwasniewski said on 16 March that if Spain decides to withdraw its troops from Iraq, Poland will not send more soldiers to fill the gap. "We are working according to a plan, and we cannot change it from day to day and send troops. We don't have them prepared, to be honest," PAP quoted Kwasniewski as saying.

Meanwhile, the right-wing opposition League of Polish Families has announced that it will soon submit a draft bill to the Sejm on holding a referendum simultaneously with elections for the European Parliament in June on Poland's military presence in Iraq. (Jan Maksymiuk)

...AND CZECH OFFICIALS VOW CONTINUED PARTICIPATION IN IRAQ... A host of senior Czech officials and other politicians said on 15 March that they are not considering a withdrawal of Czech soldiers from Iraq in the wake of the 11 March bombings in Madrid, CTK and local dailies reported. "I would not think of such an alternative because I am sure that it is in Europe's interest to stabilize the situation in Iraq. Our participation helps the affair," Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said, according to CTK. Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda and Interior Minister Stanislav Gross echoed Spidla's statement. Gross questioned whether the new Spanish government's vow to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq without a UN mandate would not send the wrong signals to terrorist groups.

The shadow defense minister for the opposition Civic Democratic Party, Petr Necas, said he believes a withdrawal of troops would represent a victory for terrorists. Senior members of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia were virtually alone in praising the Spanish Socialists' warning of a troop withdrawal from Iraq, according to local media. The Czech Republic has deployed dozens of military-police officers to Iraq, has peacekeepers in Kosova, and is currently dispatching troops to Afghanistan. (Andy Heil)

INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF JOURNALISTS ACCUSE U.S. OF TRYING TO CONTROL MEDIA. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) accused the U.S. authorities in Iraq of trying to "control and intimidate" the media there, according to press release posted on the organization's website (http://www.ifj.org).

The accusations come following the detention of three Korea Broadcasting System journalists on 6 March for four hours on suspicion of carrying explosives. According to the press release, the journalists were held according to what coalition officials said were "internal regulations," despite the fact that the Korean Embassy confirmed their identities. The organization claims that the "internal regulations" are not publicly known. "These regulations are used to control journalists, but journalists are ignorant of what they are and how they are applied," said Aidan White, IFJ's general secretary.

The organization also reports that the U.S.-led coalition has restricted the right of all journalists to enter Iraq freely. As of March, journalists must now register and obtain a press card from the U.S. authorities in order to work in Iraq, the press release said. "The detention of our Korean colleagues, like other incidents in recent months confirms our feeling that the U.S. military operate with a sense of impunity when it comes to dealing with journalists," White said. "They act like all journalists are potentially hostile and that puts all reporters and media staff at risk," he said.

Meanwhile, nytimes.com reported on 13 March that CPA Administrator L. Paul Bremer has signaled support for Iraqi Governing Council legislation that would establish an independent interim media commission in Iraq to be called the Iraq Communications and Media Commission. The commission will regulate the press and issue broadcast licenses. The council is also expected to issue a law to transform the Iraqi Media Network (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 27 June and 27 November 2003), established by the coalition soon after the fall of the Hussein regime, into a PBS-style public interest broadcasting station. The changes would reportedly give Iraq the most advanced and comprehensive media laws among developing countries, the website said. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

RUSSIAN OIL GIANT RETURNS TO BAGHDAD LUKoil President Vagit Alekperov and Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum signed a memorandum in Baghdad on 11 March on Russian assistance in restoring Iraq's petrochemical infrastructure and in training personnel to work in the oil industry, Western and Russian media reported. Alekperov said the document is the first step toward restoring LUKoil's position in Iraq.

Under the Hussein regime, LUKoil was a leading player among the more than 200 Russian companies active in Iraq. Alekperov first of all hopes to regain a $5 billion contract to develop the West Qurna-2 oil deposit, a contract that was renounced shortly before the beginning of the U.S.-led military campaign to oust Hussein (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2002), the BBC reported on 11 March. If Alekperov, with U.S. consent, manages to reach an agreement with the Iraqi administration, LUKoil could gain access to fields with estimated reserves of at least 800 million tons of oil, the BBC noted. At present, LUKoil's total annual production is not more than 80 million tons. (Victor Yasmann)

JAPAN DELIVERS INCUBATORS, OTHER EQUIPMENT TO MATERNITY HOSPITAL. Japanese troops delivered 36 million yen (approximately $330,000) worth of medical equipment on 14 March to a maternity hospital in Samawah as part of its humanitarian mission in Iraq, Kyodo World Service reported the next day. The equipment included 10 incubators and five microscopes.

Japanese Colonel Koichiro Bansho who heads the contingent spoke at a ceremony marking the delivery of equipment, saying: "It is important to increase efforts little by little in order to improve local medical services." The 200-bed hospital delivers some 25 babies each day. Kyodo reported that the hospital is in dire need of supplies. One doctor told Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces medical officers on 14 March that he had to give a five-day-old child suffering from jaundice a blood transfusion using a syringe for a lack of proper medical equipment. The procedure took two hours. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

END NOTE
IRAQ: ONE YEAR AFTER THE START OF THE WAR.

By Kathleen Ridolfo

One year ago, Iraq was on the brink of war, still under the grip of Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime. Dissent was not tolerated, and even the slightest mumble of discontent could lead to arrest, torture, and even worse. News of the outside world was controlled by state-run media, save for a few illegal satellite dishes. The Ba'ath Party was the only sanctioned political party and membership in it was required if one sought to rise through the ranks. All other political parties were banned, and those linked to a movement opposed to the regime faced certain death. The country appeared crippled from nearly 13 years of economic sanctions, although we now know that the regime continued to get rich off the illegal sale of oil and other corrupt practices. By United Nations estimates, one in eight Iraqi children died by the age of five from malnutrition, a lack of medical care, and poor living conditions.

The UN, which had re-entered the country in November 2002 in search of weapons of mass destruction, had left Iraq by March 2003. Hussein appeared defiant and, by some accounts, optimistic, that war would be averted and he would continue his regime's 35-year hold on power. And, should war come, Hussein was confident that his forces would be able to contain and even drive out coalition forces. The U.S. case to remove the regime by force also led to a major fracture within the UN Security Council, with U.S. allies Russia, France, and Germany opposing war in Iraq.

The Iraqi opposition, with the support of the United States, said it was prepared to help usher in a new era of democracy in Iraq. Opposition members claimed to have made preparations in every field imaginable, from infrastructure to human rights. And indeed, when war came in the early morning hours of 20 March 2003, opposition members gathered in the Gulf awaiting permission to re-enter and claim what they saw as their rightful place in the country's new leadership.

So, where does Iraq stand one year after the U.S.-led invasion? Much can be said about the coalition's effort to bring stability to a country wracked by decades of dictatorial rule. Soon after the fall of the Ba'athist regime, the coalition moved to disband the Iraqi military apparatus and bar individuals belonging to Hussein's Ba'ath Party from holding positions in the new Iraqi government. The decision, originally applauded, was later criticized by Iraqi leaders for a host of reasons. Most notably, some Iraqis said that the decision to disband the security apparatus -- the same apparatus that had carried out Hussein's oppression of the Kurds and Shi'a -- ultimately contributed to the destabilization of security in the country. The decision also left tens of thousands of Iraqis out of work, and arguably might have contributed to terrorist attacks in the country. Later moves by the coalition to remedy the situation pacified some critics, yet many remained critical.

The coalition also moved swiftly to install an all-Iraqi Governing Council, comprised of individuals from both inside and outside Iraq, but dominated by those personalities from the diaspora that had forged a decade-long relationship with the United States. By some accounts, those people had no standing or relationship with the Iraqi people. Iraqi Governing Council members by and large, however, have proven themselves to be committed to securing a new and democratic country for their people, most notably in the ratification this month of an interim constitution. The document has been called the most advanced document concerning individual and minority rights to be found in the Middle East.

The council has not been free of criticism, though. Its detractors say that some council members are primarily driven by the desire to consolidate their meager hold on power. Regardless of the veracity of these claims, the council's performance has thus far been nothing short of a success, particularly given the history of the former Iraqi opposition, which was known for its inability at times to agree on even the simplest matters.

The United States has also put enormous effort into rebuilding the Iraqi infrastructure. Millions of dollars were poured into the economy, and, despite complaints that the repair work was not being done fast enough, electricity and water has by and large been restored to pre-war levels, and has even surpassed those levels in some parts of the country. The dilapidated oil infrastructure, still in need of upgrading, has largely been restored and oil production is nearing pre-war levels. As of this week, Baghdad has exported $6.4 billion worth of crude oil since the fall of the Hussein regime.

The work of U.S. Major General David Petraeus' 101st Airborne Division in northern Iraq is noteworthy. In less than one year, the division has trained nearly 20,000 Iraqi civil defense corps units, facility protection security forces, and police, and completed over 5,000 reconstruction projects, including the refurbishment of some 500 schools, plus capturing enemy insurgents and weapons caches. The division was also responsible for killing Uday and Qusay Hussein, the sons of the Iraqi dictator in Mosul.

There has been progress in virtually every community across Iraq. Local councils have been formed, NGOs are being established, and refugees are returning. In Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), once bitter rivals, have taken steps toward a cohesive leadership. Women across the country have stepped forward to demand their rights, and the media has flourished. More than 200 newspapers have been established since the fall of the regime. The Internet is now widely available. And Iraq has a new currency.

But unemployment and security remain the biggest obstacles to Iraq's recovery. Sixty percent of the population was estimated to be unemployed at the end of the war. A recent survey by the Iraqi Planning Ministry has set the figure at 48.7 percent. And while thousands of Iraqis join the workforce each week, more needs to be done to alleviate the situation.

A survey released this week by Oxford Research International found that 85 percent of Iraqis felt that regaining public security was the biggest priority for their country over the coming year. By contrast, only 30 percent of respondents said that holding national elections was a priority for them. The deteriorating security situation has clearly obstructed the return to normalcy in Iraq. Attacks by unknown militants -- identified alternatively as Ba'athist loyalists, foreign fighters, religious extremists, or even common criminals -- have left the country vulnerable. The violence has struck across the board, with major bomb attacks targeting the UN headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003, Shi'ites in Al-Najaf on 29 August 2003 and Karbala and Baghdad on 2 March, the International Committee of the Red Cross on 27 October 2003, and Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan offices on 1 February.

Countless Iraqi police stations have also been targeted. Improvised explosive devices have claimed dozens of victims, and assassinations of local leaders and former Ba'athists continue. Kidnapping and extortion are also on the rise.

Iraqi Governing Council members blame the coalition first for failing to secure Iraq's borders for months, allowing the infiltration of foreign fighters on Iraqi soil; and second, for its dismantling of the security apparatus, which the council claims could have functioned once the top echelon of Ba'athist leadership had been removed. Nevertheless, the U.S.-led coalition continues to capture militants and uncover cells linked to the Ansar Al-Islam and Al-Qaeda terrorist groups.

Moreover, in less than one year, the coalition has captured or killed 46 of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis from the deposed Hussein regime, and built a 200,000 strong Iraqi security force.

There are also growing concerns that terrorist attacks may lead to sectarian violence or even civil war. And, despite claims by some Iraqis that the country would never disintegrate in such a way, one only need look at the contested city of Kirkuk to see how volatile the situation remains. Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans are vying for control of the northern, oil-rich city. Each group claims a historical link and a current majority in the city, and tensions have led to bloodshed on more than one occasion in the past year.

Even more troubling to some Iraqis is the growing influence of the Shi'a groups and their increasing need to kow-tow to the wishes of Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The moderate cleric, who claims to have no desire to enter the political arena, has nonetheless voiced his opinion on a number of issues related to the future Iraqi state and Shi'a groups have scrambled to appease him. This was especially evident in the surprising last-minute refusal of Shi'a groups to sign off on the interim constitution, because of al-Sistani's reservations about the document.

As the 30 June deadline for the transfer of power approaches, Iraqis should be optimistic about their future. Enormous progress has been achieved in the past year. Problems do exist, and Iraq must still come to terms with the depth and breadth of damage after 35 years of Ba'athist rule. The Hussein legacy is this: 290,000 individuals disappeared over two decades; some 270 mass graves have been discovered, which may contain as many as 400,000 bodies. Compared to the tyrannical future they faced under Hussein, the future of the Iraqi people is bright.

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