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Iraq Report: March 9, 2007

Sunni Arab Leader Discusses National-Salvation Front

Salih al-Mutlaq (file photo)

March 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Controversial Sunni Arab politician Salih al-Mutlaq, who heads the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, tells RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo that his party and several other political groups will join the national-salvation front proposed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

RFE/RL: What can you tell us with regard to Allawi's proposal to form a national-salvation front?

Salih al-Mutlaq: As you know, the political situation in Iraq is very complicated now, and anyone who has a personal interest or shows a personal interest cannot lead at the moment. The only ones who can lead are those who put their self-interests aside and advance the country's interests.

Unfortunately, most of these political leaders nowadays look out for their own interests before the country's interests. Therefore, the blocs they are trying to make, they [rush] in order to [see] who will speak first, who will speak second. They made the situation in Iraq more complicated. We, as you know, asked for the formation of a national-salvation front, and it includes those who are in the political process and those [opposition] who are outside the political process, who believe in specific aims.

"One of the problems we faced in announcing this front is the place -- where? The best place is Iraq, but in fact most of the leaders of these groups cannot come back to Iraq because they are threatened, either by the government or by the militias or by the Americans."

These are the formation of a liberal government, nonsectarian, nonethnic front that could lead Iraq to be free from the occupation. In other words, it ends the occupation, and it ends sectarianism and ethnic attitudes in Iraq.

There were about 32 political groups in it. At that time, Al-Tawafuq [the Iraqi Accordance Front] was part of it; Allawi's group was part of it, Al-Fadilah; some of the Sadrists; the Ba'athists; the old army leadership; the Arab tribe organizations; some influential political groups from the south; especially [Ayatollah Mahmud al-Hasani] al-Sarkhi's group; the [Iraqi] Turkoman Front; the Kurdish movement, apart from the two Kurdish parties. So we only excluded the two Kurdish parties -- to be negotiated with them later because they have their own project, which is a non-Iraqi project nowadays.... And we excluded SCIRI [the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, headed by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim] because it's looking for sectarianism in Iraq and its aim is to divide Iraq.

So all those who believe in the unity of Iraq, the freedom of Iraq, and the unity of the country, could be [included] in this front.

RFE/RL: What makes this the right time for this national-salvation front to be formed?

Al-Mutlaq: Actually, for this front to be formed, it actually needs some political support from the region, especially from Arab countries. And we were negotiating with them [for the past] six months. And it looks [as if] these Arab countries are waiting for the Americans to give them the green light to support this movement, because the Americans are changing from time to time and they are gambling between [Prime Minister Nuri] al-Maliki's plan and the other plans. They are trying to take their last chances to prove that they were right in occupying Iraq. And every time they fail, they look for another attempt, another security plan, another strategy. So we know eventually they will have to come back to this front, because we believe this is the only alternative that is left for the Iraqis.

RFE/RL: Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi was in Damascus on March 6, and at a press conference he said one of the key requirements will be an end to de-Ba'athification. There are so many people who are in the "opposition" who are outside of Iraq. If a national-salvation government is formed, those people must return to Iraq to take part -- but will they?

Al-Mutlaq: You are very correct. One of the problems we faced in announcing this front is the place -- where? The best place is Iraq, but in fact most of the leaders of these groups cannot come back to Iraq because they are threatened, either by the government or by the militias or by the Americans. So we wanted a place [from where] to announce this front, but we could not find it.

So if you are asking me if there will be a chance for a national-salvation front to be formed and there will be an agreement with the Arab regions and with the Americans to let this front work in Iraq without taking action against them, of course they will come back.

Salih al-Mutlaq speaking to reports after talks with other political leaders in Baghdad in February (epa)

Nobody likes to stay outside Iraq. It is a bad thing for all of us who stayed outside Iraq for longer than we should. This is why I have decided to come back to Iraq and to take all the risks. And I know it's very risky, but we cannot wait [any longer].

And I think this is the feeling of most of the political leaders. They want to come back, including the Ba'athists, the old army leadership. All of them want to come back to Iraq and participate. But in such a situation, it is really very hard for the leaders to come back because maybe they will lose their lives. And we don't want them to lose their lives at this moment, because their presence is important for the projects we are working on.

RFE/RL: Why is it important for you to have the support of the Arab states?

Al-Mutlaq: Well, simply because the others have Iranian support. And, after they dissolved the army and they dissolved all the foundations in Iraq, Iraq now is really not a country that can stand on its own. It needs help from its brothers, from its neighbors, especially the Arab states and Turkey, in order to strengthen [its] position and stand against Iranian influence.

But we have no army now. And the leaders of the [Iraqi] Army now and the leaders of the government now are pro-Iranian. So if they leave us like that, we cannot stand against the existing government, and the existing political groups that are connected to Iran, and against the Iranians. We cannot do it alone.

RFE/RL: But there are Sunnis taking part in this government. So is it really a pro-Iranian government?

Al-Mutlaq: What are they doing?

RFE/RL: So you're not happy with Vice President al-Hashimi's performance, for example?

Al-Mutlaq: Tariq al-Hashimi is doing nothing actually. He's only visiting countries and speaking and pretending that he's a vice president. But he knows that [even the] president himself does not have any authority. So what can [al-Hashimi] do? What can [the Sunni Arab Deputy Prime Minister] Salam al-Zawba'i do? What can the others…they have no role in this government.

RFE/RL: Would you support a withdrawal of multinational forces, and in such a case what happens -- as if you say there's no army or no side to support the Sunnis?

Al-Mutlaq: Well, what I am asking for is a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops in parallel with a timetable to correct the mistakes they have [made] in Iraq. They should bring back the previous army. They should end de-Ba'athification, and they should end sectarianism in Iraq and the militias, in parallel with their timetable to withdraw from Iraq. And these are mistakes about which they confessed -- [former Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul] Bremer himself confessed that these are the major mistakes that the Americans [made] in Iraq. They should put a timetable to correct these mistakes, in parallel with a withdrawal of their troops from Iraq. Then Iraq will be a safe country.

But if they withdraw directly, and they leave us with a pro-Iranian government, I don't think that it's good for [America] and [I don't think] it's good for us.

RFE/RL: The Iraqi government sponsored a reconciliation conference for former officers of the Iraqi Army in Baghdad on March 4. If former officers are given the opportunity to return to the army, would they?

Al-Mutlaq: [It's like] asking a former professor to come and be a student for his student. Those army leaders, they have their dignity and they are proud. They defended the country for so long. They cannot come back and be under some people who even do not have the qualification of being an officer.

Iraqi Army officers watching the trial of deposed President Saddam Hussein in June 2006 (epa)

You know they way they brought or they established this army? They [came] with the services of the Badr Brigades [the former armed wing of SCIRI, which has reportedly been dissolved] in Iran, and they gave them promotions according to [the length of] their service in Iran. No self-respecting leader from the previous army will accept to come and work under this leadership.

The way they should do it is to bring back the previous army as an establishment. They would say "Brigade number so-and-so will be established in the area of so-and-so," and they [choose] the leaders for these brigades and they will establish the army. But to come back and be in an army that is built in sectarianism or ethnic divisions. I don't think that any previous army officer would come back.

RFE/RL: But the government said at the officers' conference that more than 85 percent of the current officers are from the former army (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2007).

Al-Mutlaq: Well, even if they were, they were not the leaders. The influential ones are those who are [now] part of the militias.

RFE/RL: Regarding the Iraq neighbors' meeting slated for March 10, do you think anything will come out of this meeting?

Al-Mutlaq: I think when they realize this conference is not going to do anything, it will be helpful [toward] forming the national-salvation front. I don't think, at least reading the title of this conference [which] says this conference is coming to support the Iraqi government. If they are coming to support the Iraqi government, they are coming to support the failure of the Iraqi government. It will only prolong a losing fight for the Americans and the British and the Iraqis.

But if they accept the agenda of the Arab League…I think serious changes can be [made] in the country, and maybe they will come back to the national-salvation front or something near to it. You know, we are not [saying] this is the only solution. If we find another solution that will change the trend of this political process to bring the country together and to end the political violence in Iraq, to have an uncorrupted government, a technocrat government, we don't mind it -- we will be part of it.

RFE/RL: So what is the end goal for you beyond forming this national-salvation front?

Al-Mutlaq: This national-salvation front will form the [basis] for a successful government that can control the country. The mechanism -- how this national-salvation front will change the current government -- we have different scenarios. The best scenario we are looking for is to do it through the parliament -- drawing up the government by the parliament. The second one is to have a referendum in the country supervised by the international [community] to see what is the percentage of the people supporting this government. We know that this [current] government will not have more than 10 percent of the support of the Iraqis. Then we will have all the excuses to change the government either [through] national elections or [through] an international conference which takes the action to establish a new Iraqi government, a transitional one to bring security to the country and stability, and arrange for new elections.

Official Says Neighbors 'Must Do More'

March 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- On March 10, Baghdad will host a meeting of representatives from neighboring countries, as well as regional powers and permanent members of the UN Security Council, to discuss cooperation to improve security in Iraq. Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi discussed the government's expectations for the meeting with RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo.

RFE/RL: What does the Iraqi Foreign Ministry expect to come out of the neighbors meeting?

Labid Abawi: Well, first of all, you know, this is the meeting in a series of neighboring countries -- this is supposed to be the background of this meeting. This one we look forward to because, first of all, it's going to be held in Baghdad and secondly, that we have managed to expand the participation to include the permanent members of the [UN] Security Council and their ambassadors in Baghdad to participate in this meeting.

Thirdly, we think this is the time after the Iraqi political process has taken very big steps forward, and now we are in the position to ask our neighboring countries to do more to help the Iraqis and support Iraqis rather than just to issue political statements.... We think it is time now that all neighboring countries take a serious decision to implement all what they have promised to do before, and we look forward to participating.

We will discuss measures and call on them to follow up commitments towards Iraq from all neighboring countries. So we really look forward to this meeting and we look to the positive contribution of every country that will be present.

RFE/RL: Do you think that there will be a different outcome this time, because as you said, Iraq has been asking its neighbors to do something about the situation in Iraq and we've seen very little movement from some neighbors. What makes this meeting different?

Abawi: First of all, this is the first time this meeting is going to take place after the general election in Iraq and after a government of national unity. Also, we have during the past months...embarked on several initiatives in order to alleviate all of the political problems we faced.

For instance, reconciliation and national dialogue, the Baghdad security plan, the reappraisal of the law of de-Ba'athification. As an example, yesterday we had a conference of all the ex-army officers. Now we have about 85,000 [members of the] ex-army that have been recruited back to the new army. So we have [taken] very important steps towards the political solution of Iraq, as well as [with] security matters.

So we think now that it is needed, after we have made such steps forward, that tangible measures of support are needed.... Now, everybody -- these neighboring countries -- see that we are moving forward, they know that we have scored some successes, marginal as they are, but still they are positive.

Second, I think in the last months or so the Iraqi diplomacy has also scored some marginal success in trying to redevelop its relationship with some of our neighboring countries which we had very negative stances before -- like with Syria -- as you know, the [restart] of diplomatic relations, the visit of the President [Jalal Talabani] to Syria, the signing of some agreements between the Iraqi security apparatus and their Syrian counterparts.

Also there was a very important [progress] with Iran, to get the Iranians to cooperate more with stability in Iraq. I think also that...the Iranian visit to Saudi Arabia, they agreed that they should work together to diffuse any sectarian violence in Iraq. So there is a lot of movement on the regional and political scene in the region which necessitates that the neighboring countries do take some tangible measures.

I think now everybody realizes that terrorism, which has been spreading in Iraq, is not just an Iraqi issue -- it's a regional and international issue. If we cannot cooperate in combating terrorism, it will spread and engulf neighboring countries. I think now it is needed more than ever a sort of coordination and cooperation to combat terrorism. So, all this makes us feel that maybe the neighboring countries would be able to or can do more than they did before.

RFE/RL: Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari had initially expected senior officials to attend the meeting, but now we hear that the meeting will take place on the ambassadorial level. Was there some disappointment on the part of the Foreign Ministry that more senior officials wouldn't be attending this meeting?

Abawi: No, I wouldn't say disappointment. It is true that we had hoped this meeting would take place on the Foreign Ministry level, but in our consultations with all the countries concerned, we heard a lot of argument about the timing of the meeting, which is near the Arab summit which is going to take place in Saudi Arabia at the end of this month.

Secondly, there are still some [concerns]...that because of the security situation, Iraq wouldn't be able to organize such a big event. Also on the political scene, they knew that the government would show more credibility on the political scene especially after the Baghdad security plan has been initiated. [Neighbors] prefer to see some progress in this....

We accepted the idea that we, maybe we would have a meeting on the experts and higher-official level to prepare for the forthcoming meeting of the neighboring countries, to [assess] what the Iraqis need at this time, so that...the foreign ministers will know what the Iraqis [expect] from this gathering [in terms of need] so that when they come, they will have the possibility of signing any declaration that might come out of this meeting.

So, I think that better preparation is needed and that's why we decided to have this preparatory meeting on this level and also this is the first time that the P5 [permanent members of the UN Security Council] are participating in this meeting.... So I think it is part of a good preparation, so we are not really disappointed.

RFE/RL: Can you confirm that all of Iraq's neighbors will attend this meeting?

Abawi: Up to this date, we have not received any negative [response] from any country.... I think all we be participating...I think we will have a full house.

RFE/RL: What about the follow-up meeting. We've heard that it may be held in Istanbul or in Cairo.

Abawi: This is going to be discussed in the Baghdad meeting itself because as you know, we still believe that a meeting on the foreign ministers' level should take place in Baghdad also. So this is going to be our position, but of course we will listen to other proposals.... As far as the Iraqis [are concerned], we prefer to have it in Baghdad.

Hopes High For Baghdad Security Conference

Nuri al-Maliki (file photo)

March 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki says he hopes an international conference hosted by Baghdad will help build a regional consensus on how to end violence in his country.

The Baghdad security conference starts on March 10 and will include representatives from neighboring countries as well as the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

"This conference will be the basis for the regional dialogue that we hope will lead to international and regional accordance and reconciliation, and to the support of the Iraqi government," al-Maliki said.

Al-Maliki's stress on the need for regional dialogue is shared by many of Iraq’s neighbors -- including Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Meanwhile, the U.S. alleges that Iran is interfering in Iraq, and that Syria is failing to stop cross-border activities which fuel the conflict.

Iraq's Neighbors Concerned

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly said it worries that violence in Iraq could escalate into a sustained sectarian-based conflict.

If so, the Sunni-Shi’ite confrontations in Iraq could spill across the border into the Saudi kingdom -- an officially Sunni state with a Shi’ite minority in its oil-rich eastern region.

That is one reason Saudi officials stressed during recent talks with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad that both Saudi Arabia and Iran see sectarian strife as the biggest threat to Muslims.

The Saudis and Iran have both vowed to fight that threat. Saudi Arabia and many other Arab states support Iraq’s Sunnis -- at least morally and, according to some reports, financially. So, the Saudis will watch what commitments Tehran is ready to make in Baghdad to help rein in Iraqi Shi’ite militias.

Iran is officially a Shi’ite state. According to Washington and Britain, Tehran also provides military expertise, weapons, and financial support to Iraq's Shi'ite militia.

Officials in Turkey are concerned that escalating civil strife could weaken Iraq's central government and, if uncontained, even lead to the breakup of the country.

In the short-term, that raises concerns in Ankara of the Kurdish-administered area of northern Iraq being transformed into an independent state on Turkey's eastern border.

Ankara fears that a neighboring Kurdish state would increase demands by Turkey's own Kurdish minority for autonomy. Kurdish separatists have been fighting a low-level guerilla war in southeastern Turkey for decades.

Russia Blames Washington

Russia, too, is watching Iraq with concern. Moscow blames Washington for trying to impose what the Kremlin calls a "unipolar order" on the world. Speaking last month in Munich, Russian President Vladimir Putin said violence in Iraq is a symptom of U.S. unilateralism.

Vladimir Putin (file photo)

"Everything that is going on this world today is a consequence of attempts to implement a unipolar concept of the world," Putin said. "And what is the result of that? Unilateral, often illegitimate actions have not resolved one single problem. On the contrary, they have caused new human tragedies and more tension. You can judge for yourself: the number of wars, local or regional conflicts has not decreased. And more people -- significantly more people -- are dying in such conflicts now.”

Analysts say Moscow may see the Baghdad conference as a chance to position itself as a mediator between Washington and Tehran -- the two powers now at odds with each other over deteriorating security in Iraq.

In the past, Russia has sought without success to play a mediating role in the crisis over Iran's controversial nuclear program.

A prominent role as a mediator at the Baghdad conference would help Moscow roll back what Putin describes as Washington's "unipolar concept of the world.”

As one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia also will have a representative at the Baghdad talks. So, too, will Britain and France.

British Withdrawal Plans

Britain is now preparing to withdraw 1,600 of some 7,000 troops from Iraq in the coming months.

With British troops deployed in Iraq's Shi’ite-majority south, London puts a premium on assurances that improved security that will allow that partial withdrawal to go forward. That makes any regional consensus that includes Iran a high priority to London.

France, which opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq without a UN mandate, says the Baghdad security conference offers both challenges and opportunities.

French President Jacques Chirac said in January that the 2003 invasion and its repercussions have destabilized the Middle East. He said the priority now, "more than ever," is to "return sovereignty to the Iraqis.”

In fact, that is a goal officially subscribed to all by all the participants in the Baghdad conference. How much each country does to make that goal a reality will be the most closely watched issue.

Official Says Refugees To Get New Passports Soon

Iraqi refugees in Damascus last month

March 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Jordan has agreed to allow Iraqis holding series S passports to remain in the kingdom until June. Iraq's neighbor had earlier said all Iraqis carrying the passport, which can be easily forged, will not be allowed to renew their residency in the country. Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi discussed the issues with RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo.

RFE/RL: The Jordanian government announced last week that it will no longer accept series S passports for Iraqis residing in or visiting Jordan. We also heard that the Iraqi Embassy in Jordan is only issuing 10 new series G passports each week. Has there been any change in policy as far as this is concerned, because it seems the majority of Iraqis living in Jordan will be forced to either return to Iraq or seek refuge in a third country.

Labid Abawi: We have talked to our Jordanian friends on this issue and we asked them to postpone the implementation of this decision for a few months to give the chance to [Iraqis] to get the new passports.

At the moment, the rate of issuance of new passports is not as quick as we expected it to be, but I believe that in the coming weeks we expect to speed up this process and we hope that this problem will be solved by issuing them [Iraqis] the new passports.

So the Jordanians have agreed at least at the first stage, to postpone [the] decision until June and maybe even...until the end of the year. So, I think this problem, at least temporarily has been [resolved] as far as the passport problem is concerned.

As for the refugees, of course, it is unfortunate that we see so many Iraqis leaving to neighboring countries because of the situation.... But we hope that if things move forward and we have some progress in the security plan, maybe things will get better and less people will leave and we will start getting people back [to Iraq].

As you know, more than 900 displaced families have returned back to their homes inside the country. We hope to increase this [number] as the stage of the Baghdad [security] plan moves forward.

Will the Iraqi Embassy in Jordan be issuing more than 10 passports a week?

Abawi: I haven't heard this [number]; I don't think this is true.

RFE/RL: How many passports is the embassy capable of issuing in one week?

Abawi: I don't know how many they are capable of issuing at [Iraq's] Jordanian Embassy but it's a large embassy, it has a lot of staff, and I think they issue definitely more than 10 passports a day.

It's not only a question of the new passport. They renew passports, and extend I think they are doing a lot of good work there. I don't know about the 10 and where this number comes from.

What about the stories we're hearing of people paying hundreds of dollars or thousands of dollars to obtain a passport faster from say, Baghdad or Kurdistan?

Abawi: You find this in every country of the world. Sometimes you have to pay extra to get a passport faster. I heard even in Europe you can get a new passport...if you pay double the rate, you can get a passport in 24 hours.

RFE/RL: Yes, in the United States we have this policy as well and it's stated on the embassy website, but this is different. This is Iraqis saying that they're paying bribes of $2,000 to get a passport.

Abawi: Yeah, there are people paying extra to get the passports quicker than others. We call it part of the corruption.... I think it is only because we do not have enough passports to go around now and manpower for issuing these passports is not enough [in terms of training] because, you know, this is a new electronic machinery for this passport; it's something that's very new. We're still in the process of training these people. So the rate of the work is a bit slow. Maybe in a few weeks' time we will open new centers in Baghdad as well as in the embassies [and] we can reduce this practice [of taking bribes].

RFE/RL: Is this an idea to open new centers or is this a plan?

Abawi: No this is a plan that we are planning -- I think at the moment we are issuing something like 3,000 passports per day. We hope to increase that to [9,000] or 10,000 per day.... And also in time we're going to open new centers in the governorates as well -- in the provinces -- once we get the machinery. So you know, we're talking about something more than...10 to 15 million [Iraqis need these] passports -- this new passport -- so definitely it's going to take a long, long time.

But people, unfortunately, they want their passports quickly so they go and bribe this man or people they know to get their passports quicker than others. It's an unfortunate thing that is happening. We try to control it and contain it but it is impossible to do especially when you're talking about the situation in Iraq. We have a lot of, unfortunately, corruption....

RFE/RL: How big do you think the corruption problem is in the Foreign Ministry?

Abawi: Personally, I haven't seen any evidence of corruption. We have a general inspector in our ministry who oversees all the things...the moment we hear there is something wrong, we [will] form an investigation committee either here or at an embassy, and we will try to get to the bottom of any problems and we will take action against any people [engaged in corrupt] practices. But I don't think that we have a major problem at the Foreign Ministry.