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Iraq Report: February 9, 2007

Pressure For Success Mounts Ahead Of Baghdad Offensive

By Sumedha Senanayake

Iraqi soldier at Baghdad checkpoint on February 8

February 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military announced the official opening on February 5 of the joint Iraqi-U.S. Baghdad operations command center in preparation for the massive security operation to take control of Baghdad. U.S. military officials described the operation as unlike anything the city has seen and expressed optimism that the violence in the Iraqi capital could be suppressed.

This will be the third attempt to take control Baghdad since Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki came to power in May 2006. Previous attempts failed because too few troops were used. Now, with the influx of 21,000 additional U.S. forces and three Iraqi Army brigades, in theory this operation seems to have adequate strength to succeed where the others failed. And pressure is mounting on the U.S. and Iraqi governments to ensure that it does.

Off To Inauspicious Start

While Iraqis wait for the start of the much-vaunted Baghdad security plan, al-Maliki acknowledged for the first time during a speech to military commanders on February 6 that the government had erred in its efforts to launch the operation, and the subsequent delays could help insurgents, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day.
"If this plan fails, the U.S. administration's scheme in Iraq will fail as well. In addition, the whole Iraqi political scheme will fall apart." -- Iraqi parliament speaker

"I feel that the delay of military operations has sent a negative message -- the opponents will say that the operations will fail from the very beginning," he said.

In fact, Al-Sadr City Mayor Rahim al-Darraji said the delay in the security plan was due to Iraqi forces being unprepared and that the operation would not be implemented for another 15 to 20 days, "The New York Times" reported on February 5.

After great fanfare from both al-Maliki and U.S. officials, the delay only strengthens the perception among Iraqis that the government and its security forces are incapable of stemming the violence and protecting its citizens.

Iraqi parliament speaker Mahmud Mashhadani bluntly declared on February 7 that the plan was the last opportunity for Iraq and the United States to pacify the city, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day.

"If this plan fails, the U.S. administration's scheme in Iraq will fail as well," Mashhadani said. "In addition, the whole Iraqi political scheme will fall apart. If there is not serious and genuine public cooperation in this regard, the plan will be facing serious failure."

Impatience Expressed

Unprecedented violence has increased pressure on al-Maliki to show signs of progress regarding the Baghdad security plan that was announced more than a month ago. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry announced that 1,000 people were killed last week, AP reported on February 5.

Many Shi'a are feeling less secure without al-Sadr's militia in the streets (epa)

The most spectacular attack occurred on February 3 when a massive suicide truck bomb carrying 1 ton of explosives exploded in the predominantly Shi'ite Al-Sadriyah district, killing 130 people and wounding more than 300.

The bombing was widely described in the Arab and Western press as the single deadliest bombing since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and it underscored the severity of the security situation. The lack of quick results coupled with more brazen and deadly attacks creates an untenable political situation for al-Maliki and weakens his grip on power.

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi brusquely said on February 2 that the government would lose what credibility it had left in the eyes of the Iraqi people if it continues to fail to curb the violence and protect innocent Iraqis, Al-Arabiyah satellite television reported the same day.

"Things have become intolerable. We must reach the day when the Iraqis see no bloodshed, car bombs, or abductions," al-Hashimi said. "The government needs to prove its credibility and seriousness in implementing the general principles it announced today."

Militia Crackdown Leaves Security Void

The efforts by Iraqi and U.S. forces to crack down on Shi'ite militias, particularly Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam al-Mahdi Army, have created an inadvertent security vacuum in Shi'ite neighborhoods. Sunni and U.S. officials have long accused al-Sadr's militia of carrying out sectarian attacks and the crackdown was meant to quell sectarian violence. However, many Shi'a claim that the militia is an effective deterrent against Sunni insurgents.

Checkpoints and security stations usually manned by al-Sadr's militia have been dismantled and militiamen have either gone into hiding or have been arrested by U.S. forces. This has left a security void in Shi'ite neighborhoods, where insurgents have been emboldened to step up their attacks, as witnessed in the February 3 bombing in the Al-Sadriyah district.

An unidentified al-Sadr aide in Al-Najaf told "Al-Hayat" on February 7 that the crackdown and the ensuing lack of security has led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent Shi'a. He added that the insurgents "exploited the [security] gap with the Americans' help and started to send the booby-trapped vehicles to the Shi'ite markets."

If attacks on the scale of the February 3 bombings continue, this could lead to reprisal attacks by Shi'ite militias. If the Baghdad operation fails to deliver soon enough, it could create a scenario where militias may need to be deployed to maintain security. A populace living in fear and feeling under siege may demand their return.

Committee Decision Increases Tensions In Kirkuk

By Sumedha Senanayake

Violence has increased in Kirkuk in recent weeks

February 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The status of Kirkuk remains one of the most controversial and explosive issues in Iraq.

On February 7, approximately 500 Arabs demonstrated in Kirkuk to protest the decision by a government committee to relocate thousands of Arabs living in the province. The decision was the first major salvo in the contentious issue of applying Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which concerns the future of the oil-rich province.

Article 140 calls for a three-step process to determine the political future of the province, through normalization, a census, and finally a referendum, which is scheduled to be carried out by the end of 2007. The process aims to reverse the Arabization policies of the former regime, when thousands of Kurds and non-Arabs were driven from Kirkuk or were relocated and replaced with Arabs from the impoverished south.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, there has been a dramatic demographic shift. Iraqi and U.S. officials have said that up to 350,000 Kurds have returned to Kirkuk, with many trying to reclaim land and homes. At the same time, there have been reports that thousands of Arabs and ethnic Turkish Turkomans have fled because of violence and intimidation.

While all sides are preparing for the upcoming referendum, the recent move by the Iraqi Higher Committee for the Normalization of Kirkuk has increased tensions among Kirkuk's multiethnic population that could potentially plunge the region into turmoil

Arabs To Be Relocated

On February 4, the committee made a controversial decision calling for the relocation of thousands of Arabs who have been living in Kirkuk. The committee ruled that Arabs who had come to reside in Kirkuk as a result of the former regime's Arabization policies would be returned to their places of origin in central and southern Iraq and be given appropriate financial compensation, including a plot of land and approximately $15,000, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on February 5. In essence, the thousands of Arabs to be relocated would lose their right to vote in the referendum.

Kirkuk's Turkomans fear the city will be absorbed by the semi-autonomous Kurdish region (epa file photo)

The head of the committee, Iraqi Justice Minister Hashim al-Shibli, said the decision was not final and the resolution needed to be approved by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Kurdish lawmakers insisted that the decision is legally sound and there would be no action taken against the Arabs to force them to leave.

However, Kurdish National Assembly deputy speaker Kamal Kirkuki told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on February 7 that "the execution of the resolution is binding and no one is capable of standing in the way of its implementation."

Some Kurdish officials have suggested that even those who were not relocated would not be able to vote. Kurdish regional parliament speaker Adnan Mufti said that even Arabs born in Kirkuk to parents who came from the south would not have the right to vote, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on February 1. "I don't believe they have the right to vote in the referendum. It's the mistake of their fathers," he said.

Accusations Of Ethnic Cleansing

Arabs have vehemently rejected the committee's decision to relocate Arabs from Kirkuk. On February 5 the Arab Republican Union (ARU), an organization representing Arabs living in Kirkuk, rejected the decision, dpa reported the same day.

Muhammad al-Khalil, a leading member of the ARU as well as a member of the normalization committee, denounced the proposal and threatened to resign from the committee unless it amended the decision. "We reject these new decisions and consider them forced migration," he said.

The Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association issued a statement on its website on February 7 saying it "strongly condemns the process of ethnic cleansing by certain political parties in the Kirkuk Governorate, the decision moves the country towards a new crisis that will only serve the enemies of Iraq."

A leading member of the Iraqi Turkoman Front, Saad al-Din Arkij, said the committee's decision was an attempt by the Kurds to radically change to the city's demographics, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on February 5. He warned that given the increased tensions among the city's different ethnic groups, "issuing a decision such as this one at a time like this will lead to a clash between the nationalities."

Threat Of Violence Looms

The decision by the Higher Committee for Normalization, if implemented, has the potential to plunge northern Iraq into chaos. As the referendum planned for sometime this year approaches, there has been much speculation that violence may also increase.

According to police sources, 319 people were killed, 1,383 were wounded, and 69 unidentified bodies were found in Kirkuk in 2006, the Kurdish paper "Awene" reported on January 23. During the first three weeks of 2007, bombings and attacks have killed 23 people and injured 102, police officials said.

One of the most violent attacks to strike the city was on February 3, when five bombings in Kirkuk killed 10 people and wounded more than 50. One of the bombings targeted the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in central Kirkuk.

While much of the violence seems to be the result of communal tensions, Iraqi and U.S. officials have said there are indications that Al-Qaeda elements have recently surfaced in the city. The Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq has issued a statement claiming responsibility for the February 3 Kirkuk bombings, the SITE Institute reported.

Moreover, the majority of Arabs being relocated are Shi'a and the perception of a "forced relocation" of Shi'a by the Kurds could also raise tensions within the Shi'ite community.

Sheikh Ra'ad al-Najafi, a Shi'ite Arab cleric at the Kirkuk office of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's movement, rejected the committee's decision, and warned that it could lead to instability in the region, the UN Integrate Regional Information Networks reported on February 7. "We will not leave Kirkuk by force or without force," he said. "If they [Kurds] try to force us out of the city, then there will be dangerous reactions against them."

There is increasing anxiety among Iraqi and U.S. officials that the tensions in Kirkuk could develop into a new violent front in Iraq. While additional U.S. forces are planning to quell the violence in Baghdad and the western Al-Anbar Governorate, the situation in Kirkuk could rapidly deteriorate. With the country already mired in what some describe as a civil war, a major conflagration in the north would be disastrous for Iraq.

Premier Blames Hussein Supporters For Blast

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (file photo)

February 4, 2007 -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has accused supporters of former leader Saddam Hussein of being responsible for the deadly blast that ripped through a market in the Iraqi capital on February 3.

The suicide truck bombing in Baghdad killed some 130 people and injured 300 others in one of the deadliest attacks since the start of the Iraq war in 2003.

Al-Maliki said today the government will punish the "Saddamists" and other Sunni militants behind the bombing.

The prime minister vowed in January to crackdown on insurgents who have defied attempts by his government to increase security.

Iraq Makes Syria Link

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has said half of all insurgent attacks in Baghdad are carried out by militants from Syria.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told "Al-Arabiyah" satellite television today that Baghdad had provided Damascus with evidence to back up this claim.

Iraq and the United States have long accused Syria of failing to prevent militants crossing the border.

"I was inside my shop when the roof caved in and I did not know what happened afterwards.... All I know is that something blew up."

The blast took place in the mainly Shi'a Al-Sadriya district in central Baghdad as people bought food ahead of a night-time curfew. Major General Jihad al-Jaberi of the Interior Ministry said the truck was carrying 1 ton of explosives and was detonated by a suicide bomber.

The casualties swamped the capital's hospitals. There were chaotic scenes at Ibn Al-Nafis hospital in central Baghdad, where hallways overflowed with wounded on trolleys.

Emergency workers dragged bodies from the debris and piled them onto pickup trucks. A wounded man with a bandaged head and face splattered with blood, told Reuters television that the roof of his shop caved in.

"After that I lost consciousness. I was inside my shop when the roof of the shop caved in and I did not know what happened afterwards," he said. "I do not know [whether it was a truck bomb]. All I know is that something blew up. Whatever number [of casualties] you say is little, all the hospitals including Al-Kindi, Al-Jarrah, and Ibn al-Nafis are stretched to the limits."

New Violence Today

In new violence, at least 15 people were killed in Baghdad, including four policemen. Meanwhile, the U.S. military today confirmed that four helicopters that crashed in Iraq in the past two weeks had been shot down.

Around 1,000 people have been killed across Iraq in the past week in suicide bombings, mortar bomb attacks and fighting between security forces and militants, according to figures compiled by Reuters news agency from official sources.

In the worst previous single bombing in Iraq, a suicide car bomber killed 125 people in Al-Hillah south of Baghdad in February 2005. In November 2006 six car bombs in different parts of the Al-Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad killed 202 and wounded 250.