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Iraq Report: February 23, 2007

Rape Case Highlights Sectarian Power Struggle

By Kathleen Ridolfo

Prime minister Nuri al-Maliki's government is under increasing fire over the allegations

February 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's Sunni Arab politicians have attempted in recent days to increase public criticism of the Shi'ite-led government through an all-out media campaign criticizing the government's handling of the alleged rape of a Sunni woman at the hands of Shi'ite security forces.

The incident, reported widely on February 20, occurred when Interior Ministry forces detained the women, identified by the pseudonym Sabrin al-Janabi, for several hours on February 19 on suspicion that she was aiding insurgents.

Al-Janabi told Al-Jazeera television later that day that four officers raped her over a four-hour period. She claimed the officers threatened to kill her if she talked of the attack, and that they took her picture in order to remember her. She was freed after U.S. forces arrived on the scene.
"What is the value of the security plan if our honor is violated?"

In reaction, Sunni parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani told Al-Jazeera on February 19: "Yesterday we were suffering at Abu Ghraib.... Today, what can I say? Shall I say we [Iraqis] are violating our own honor?" He called on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to punish those responsible for the alleged crime and not let the security plan be carried out in such a way. "What is the value of the security plan if our honor is violated?" he added.

The Iraqi government initially promised a thorough investigation, then said hours later that al-Janabi's claim was fabricated. Government spokesman Yassin Majid told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television that the woman "was not subject to any sexual harassment at all." Majid added that there were three outstanding warrants against al-Janabi at the time of her detention -- a revelation Sunnis later claimed was aimed at discrediting the woman.

The government said it would reward the officers accused in the alleged incident, and vowed to take action against Al-Jazeera for spreading fabricated information.

Government Response Attacked

The government's February 19 response prompted a backlash from Sunni Arab politicians, who quickly took to the airwaves to criticize al-Maliki's handling of the case. Umar al-Juburi, an adviser to Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, contended that the woman's medical report, obtained from U.S.-run Ibn Sina Hospital, substantiated her claims of rape, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on February 20. Al-Juburi also disputed claims by al-Maliki's office that there were three outstanding arrest warrants against the woman at the time of her detention.

Al-Mashhadani has led Sunni attacks (epa file photo)

Several other Sunni Arab politicians criticized al-Maliki's handling of the case in interviews with Iraqi and regional media. Parliamentarian Izz al-Din al-Dawlah, a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, claimed in an interview with Al-Jazeera television that Iraqi soldiers raped another woman in Tal Afar in recent days.

The Sunni Waqf (religious endowments office) issued a statement on the rape, calling it proof of the failure of the Baghdad security plan. Meanwhile, the Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association said in a statement that it was not surprised that al-Maliki denied the rape, but was surprised that he "swiftly honored those accused of committing the crime." That move, it said, showed clear disregard for the dignity of the Iraqi people and sent a message to soldiers taking part in the Baghdad security plan that their actions were above reproach.

At least one Sunni insurgent group has said it will take revenge for the attack. In a February 20 Internet statement, the Islamic Army in Iraq vowed to avenge "every free woman whose purity and honor was robbed." It called on its forces to declare all operations during the Islamic month of Safar, which began this week and ends around March 20, in the name of the victim. The statement also paid homage to Abir, the 14-year-old Iraqi girl who was raped and killed by U.S. soldiers in Al-Mahmudiyah last year.

Prime Minister Returns Fire

The prime minister's office fired back on February 21, releasing what it said was al-Janabi's medical report, which stated in English that "no vaginal lacerations or obvious injuries" were observed during the exam. When asked to comment on the release of the report, U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver told Reuters: "We don't know how the prime minister's office got it but we would not normally comment on the specifics of a medical report. We follow the same privacy rules as in the [United] States."

Al-Maliki also dismissed Sunni Waqf head Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i. Al-Samarra'i told Al-Arabiyah television in a February 21 interview from Amman, Jordan, that al-Maliki could not dismiss him, since this is the responsibility of the president, according to the constitution.

The Sunni leader contended that Shi'ite security forces commit rape regularly, telling Al-Arabiyah: "There are many girls who have been exposed to sexual assault. I have met with them...I also tell you that I have imams and preachers who were raped in prison.... Major crimes are being committed in the prisons." He said more victims have not come forward because they want to preserve their dignity.

Trading Accusations

To outside observers, it is conceivable that the alleged incident was fabricated in order to provide certain Sunni leaders with an opportunity to discredit the Baghdad security plan and portray the Sunnis as victims of a hostile, Shi'ite-led regime. After all, in an area of the world where rape is viewed as a shame on the family, the victim came forward with her allegations with incredible speed. It would be more likely in such a case that were it revealed publicly, it would be done through a male family member or tribal representative.

Sunnis claim the Baghdad security operation targets them (epa file photo)

Meanwhile, a Shi'ite man alleged at a 21 February press briefing in Baghdad that Sunni Arab parliamentarian Muhammad al-Dayini, from the Iraqi Accordance Front, was involved in the killing of his brother. Samir Awwad said al-Dayini waved his deceased brother's photo on Al-Jazeera television claiming the deceased was a Sunni victim of Shi'ite violence. Awwad asked reporters how al-Dayini could have acquired the photo of his dead brother's body when Awwad himself hasn't been able to find the body after a year of searching.

Al-Dayini later claimed to Al-Arabiyah that the press briefing was organized by a Shi'ite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, "which is linked with Iran and its intelligence services [and] implements the policies of Iranian security agencies" to make those Iraqis opposed to the "Iranian occupation" look bad. He also implied that Awwad may have been no more than a hired actor.

Power Struggle Thwarts Progress

As sectarian groups vie for political domination, it is of less importance to the parties involved whether this crime or others like it occurred or not. Of greater importance is which side comes out on top in terms of street credibility.

Many of Iraq's Sunni Arab leaders have in the past treated such violations as a political card to be played, caring less about human rights and more about raising public criticism -- in Iraq, the wider Arab world, and in the Western press -- against the government.

Of greater concern is that the furor over the alleged incident could diminish public support for the Baghdad security plan -- and the government in general. And this is the crux of the problem faced by al-Maliki's administration: the ongoing power struggle in Iraq precludes any progress. Movement forward in any one area inevitably leads to a step back in another area.

PUK Official Discusses Turkey, Kirkuk

February 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Bahruz Galali, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's (PUK) representative to Ankara, said Iraqi Kurdish leaders are optimistic about the possibility of improving relations with the Turkish government. He also commented on Kirkuk, saying a referendum on the status of Kirkuk would likely be held on schedule, and calling those who say there is ethnic tension in the city 'propagandists.' Galali spoke to told RFE/RL Iraq Analyst Kathleen Ridolfo.

RFE/RL: Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul has made overtures toward strengthening relations between the Turkish government and Iraq in recent days. What has been the reaction of the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG)?

Bahruz Galali: I think the relationship between [Kurds] and Turkey will be better in the future. We are working on it, and I think it is in the interests of both [parties] to have a good relationship with each other.

RFE/RL: The United States has appointed a special representative to mediate issues of importance to Turkey and Iraq, specifically dealing with the Turkish-Kurdish opposition group PKK. Has this helped to facilitate better relations between Turkey and Iraq?

Galali: Now the United States and Iraq -- it is in the interests of all to have good relations between the KRG and Turkey and also between Iraq and Turkey. We are thinking now about this, and I hope that developments will be better than before. We think that both [parties] need to have a good relationship with each other. Today there will be an important meeting [of the National Security Council or MGK] in Ankara, and I think maybe [the situation] will become more clear.

RFE/RL: Turkish Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit took a strong position against Iraqi Kurdish leaders last week in Washington, accusing Kurdish leaders [Iraqi President Jalal] Talabani and [KRG President Mas'ud] Barzani of supporting the PKK and saying he objected to holding meetings with Iraqi Kurdish officials. He also criticized the Iraqis for what he called lax border security. Is this an area where perhaps the KRG can help smooth relations with Turkey?

Galali: Now we have too many problems in Baghdad, and in Iraq and [we are dealing with] too many terrorist groups in Baghdad, in Kirkuk, in all the regions. Our government now in Baghdad is working very hard to bring security to Iraq. For us as Kurds also, as Iraqis, we are part of Iraq as a federal, regional, government.... We are trying to have security in all of Iraq for our people.

RFE/RL: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week asked [KGR Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi] for a delay in the referendum on Kirkuk, which is slated for December.

Galali: The Iraqi people decided through Article 140 [of the Iraqi Constitution] on Kirkuk. All Iraqis -- Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomans. I think we will hold the referendum [on schedule], and we are not thinking about postponing it.

RFE/RL: So you believe that Turkomans and Arabs living in Kirkuk would be open to holding the referendum in December?

Galali: I think [yes] because the majority of Turkomans need this. [Deposed Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein also displaced Turkomans from Kirkuk [as he did with Kurds], and the Turkomans need to be returned to their homes in Kirkuk. We have a constitution, and the constitution says we have a plan, an agenda [regarding Kirkuk]. This is not something on the side of Kurds alone. The Arabs, the Turkomans, the Kurds, the Assyrians, Christians -- everyone supported this [through the constitution].

RFE/RL: Do you think there will be a resolution to the dispute in Kirkuk? Can Kirkuk become peaceful?

Galali: This is propaganda -- those who are saying there will be a war between the ethnic groups in Kirkuk. We don't think that because we have a good relationship with the Turkomans. We have a good relationship with the Arabs, the original Arabs who are living in Kirkuk. The people who are living in Kirkuk are relevant for each other. And we think we can [implement] Article 140 with our brothers -- Turkomans, Arabs, and other communities -- in Kirkuk.

RFE/RL: What is the status of the commission set up to compensate Arabs [moved to Kirkuk under Hussein's Arabization program] who return to their original towns?

Galali: The committee has decided to compensate the Arabs who return to their homes, and [Arabs] are ready now to go back.

Refugees Under Pressure in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon

Iraqi refugees demonstrating in front of the UN in Damascus on February 11

February 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Washington-based NGO Refugees International recently made a study of the situation of Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Irina Lagunina spoke with Kristele Younes, a Refugees International researcher who went to all three countries to talk to people who fled from Iraq.

RFE/RL: What are the general conditions of Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries? Do those people who fled Iraq have any savings that they can use now, any income at all? Or have they just left everything and moved?

Kristele Younes: It used to be at the beginning of the war in 2003-04 that most of the refugees who were leaving had some sort of resources. They were middle-class or upper-middle-class people, and they had some money, some goods with them that would enable them to live in Syria, Jordan, or Lebanon. But now as the violence increases all the people who can make it to the border and who can get into Jordan and Syria are trying to do so. And we see more and more people with few resources going into these countries. And even for those who had some money, now it's been a while. And they are not allowed to work in these countries and they don't have those resources any more. They are falling very quickly into the ranks of the urban poor in these countries. And they really need assistance now.

RFE/RL: You said that they are not allowed to work in those countries?

Younes: No, they are not. Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon do not recognize the refugee status. They are not signatories of the refugee convention, and basically they treat these refugees as guests or tourists. These refugees do not have the right to work in their country of asylum.

RFE/RL: There were reports from Jordan that local authorities complain that refugees are a strain for the country but for different reasons: the majority of them are well educated, better educated than the local population, and they take jobs from local population.

Younes: This is not what we saw at all. We saw a lot of Iraqis who were actually educated and who were skilled workers, but very few were actually able to get jobs in Jordan and Syria. Those who were able to get jobs were getting jobs under the table, in the black market, were underpaid, were exploited, and could not basically defend themselves because they are not entitled to anything under Jordanian or Syrian law for that matter. The very vast majority of the refugees do not work.

RFE/RL: Is there such a thing as refugee camps? Are those people at least somehow organized? Or have they simply spread among the local population?

Younes: They are a few camps, but the camps are very small and are there for particular minorities. For instance, the Palestinians who come from Iraq are stuck in camps in between borders -- in between the Syrian and Iraqi borders. They've been living in a no-man's land for almost a year now. Similarly, the Iranian Kurds that were trying to cross into Jordan from Iraq have been stuck at the border for three years now living in a camp as well. But most of the Iraqi refugees, the very vast majority, the millions of them are basically urban poor. They come, they settle in urban areas and they are a ghost population. And it almost works to their detriment because they are much harder to see, they are harder to reach, they are harder to assist. And they speak the same language, they look like the host communities. So, it's much harder for the international community to assist them. But it's not because we do not see them, that they do not need our help.

RFE/RL: Let's go around the countries that host refugees. You were in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. What is their response to this problem? In legal issues, in dealing with the international organizations, etc. Let's start with Jordan.

Younes: Jordan has been very generous in the past. It basically allowed more than 700,000 Iraqis to come in and to seek asylum, to seek safety in Jordan. However, Jordan is not a rich country. It is not a very populous country. We are talking about less than 6 million people. And 700,000 Iraqis, or even more than that, is a huge percentage of that. With those Iraqis coming in, we have seen the increases in the price of rent, real estate has become very expensive. Also public systems, health care, and education have been completely overburdened. As a result Jordan does not allow Iraqis to access public systems any more.

And because Jordan is worried about security, a year ago three suicide bombers -- all of them Iraqis -- blew themselves up in the international hotel in Jordan, Jordan is worried about it's security and has therefore decided to not let in any young Iraqi men aged 18 to 35. Which is basically forcing families to separate and sending back very vulnerable people to Iraq. Although we are not seeing a massive deportation yet in Jordan, there are cases of deportations and Iraqis in Jordan live in constant fear of been sent back into Iraq.

RFE/RL: Is the situation in Syria any better?

Younes: Until very recently the situation in Syria was better. Syria was by far the most welcoming, hospitable country in the region for Iraqi refugees. Its borders were entirely open. It took at least 700,000. The UN is now talking about a million people, Iraqi refugees in Syria. Until 2005 Iraqi refugees had access to all public systems -- health care, education, etc. Now because the systems have been completely overburdened -- Syria has not received much international assistance. In fact, it has not received any international assistance in dealing with this. Now the Syrians are asking Iraqis to pay for access to health care.

You know, Iraqis were able to come for six months at a time; they made a visa and stayed indefinitely. And the Syrian government was turning a blind eye. But now Syria has basically started giving Iraqis two-week visas instead of six months and forcing them to go back to Iraq for a month in between each stay in Syria. And this is having a dramatic effect on the population in Syria and it's having a dramatic effect on Iraqis who are trying to leave Iraq but don't know where to go any more, because the options are being extremely reduced now.

RFE/RL: The fate of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon is practically unknown. How many people are we talking about there?

Younes: There is about 40,000 of them. Most of them transited through Syria; they entered Lebanon illegally because Lebanon does not have open borders for Iraqi refugees. And they live pretty much in hiding in Lebanon. They live in fear to be arrested in the street without papers and to be sent to jail. Basically, if you are a refugee, if you are Iraqi who left Iraq since 2003 and you get arrested in Lebanon, you are detained for a month and then have the choice between staying in prison or going back to Iraq. Which is not a choice we would wish upon anybody, really.

RFE/RL: You said that those three countries are not signatories of 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees. What is there relationship with the UN High Commissioner for Regugees (UNHCR) in this case?

Younes: UNHCR is trying to operate the best it can. And because these countries have not signed the convention, UNHCR has instituted a system of temporary protection, which means that it agreed with governments to treat all these refugees as people who are in need of temporary protection and who are in need of asylum. But it does not have any legal weight. It basically means that if those countries want to arrest refugees and deport them, they can. Those people do not have any form of legal protection.

Also, UNHCR is operating under memorandums of understanding with all these countries. These memorandums say that if UNHCR recognizes the refugee status for anyone, it is under an obligation to resettle them to a third country within six months to a year. So UNHCR is very reluctant to label anyone a refugee because they either have to send these people to a third country or send them back to Iraq.

RFE/RL: Refugees International testified at U.S. congressional hearings organized by Senator Edward Kennedy on January 16, 2007, on the situation with Iraqi refugees. What were your recommendation to the U.S. administration and Congress?

Younes: Our first recommendation was an acknowledgement of this crisis. We really need to see a lot of political will going into that and acknowledge the fact the violence in Iraq has created a humanitarian tragedy, that millions of people are at risk and that they are in need of our protection and our assistance. A second recommendation is much increased funding to UNHCR. And we are glad to see that this recommendation has been followed. The United States has just announced a contribution of $18 million to UNHCR to be done immediately. While this is a positive first step, we need to see much more. Our third recommendation was bilateral assistance to the governments of these countries, to assist them in building the capacities of their ministries, of their schools, of their hospitals to be able to host refugees.

RFE/RL: But even if there are funds and assistance, as you said those refugees are ghost population. How does one organize and reach them? We don't even know the exact number of Iraqis who fled the country.

Younes: This is the first step that needs to be done. And it was done already in Syria. We need to see it happening in Jordan. A study and assessment must be conducted to try to identify where these refugees are, what there main needs are and who the most vulnerable are. It is an exercise that is difficult to make but it is feasible. These communities are organized. In Syria for instance we know that most refugees live in three different neighborhoods -- there are churches, mosques, community organizations that can direct us toward who the most needy are. We just need to put the resources into doing such an exercise.