Accessibility links

Iraq Report: August 17, 2007

Killings In Shi'ite Holy City Expose Growing Splits

By Kathleen Ridolfo

Is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani being targeted indirectly?

August 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Four aides to Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have been killed in Al-Najaf over the past two months, raising many questions as to the safety of Iraq's supreme Shi'ite leader and the motives of the perpetrators of the attacks.

According to media reports, aides to Iraq's three other grand ayatollahs have also been threatened. "The assassination operations are organized and big resources are allocated [to carry them out], which makes it difficult to accuse any local side of being behind" the attacks, the assistant director of the office of Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, Muwaffaq Ali, told the London-based "Al-Hayat" this week.

Sources in Al-Najaf have told RFE/RL that nongovernmental-organization and civil-society leaders have also been targeted for assassination in and around the holy city of Al-Najaf in recent months. Police and local residents say it is unlikely that any one group of perpetrators are responsible for the killings.

Ali al-Najafi, son and spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, told "Al-Hayat" that the attacks have prompted senior ayatollahs to question the allegiance of employees and volunteers, many of whom arrived in Al-Najaf before the 2003 war and stayed on, assuming duties that put them in close contact with the senior clerics, the newspaper reported on August 11.

Al-Najafi said that Al-Hawzah (seminary) students had also received threats from unknown persons, prompting the ayatollahs to arrange for scores of students to leave Iraq to study at hawzahs in Lebanon and Syria.

Tribal Differences?

Meanwhile, Hazim al-A'raji, an aide to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told "Al-Hayat" that recent assassinations of police personnel in Al-Najaf targeted those officers involved in the January security operations against the Army of Heaven. At the time of the incident, Iraqi officials accused the group of planning to storm the city of Al-Najaf, seize the holy shrine of Imam Ali, declare that Al-Mahdi had returned, and assassinate senior Shi'ite clerics, including Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani.

But Sunni media reported that the operation actually targeted Shi'ite tribesmen from the Al-Hawatimah tribe opposed to Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. When another Shi'ite tribe, the Al-Khaz'al tribe, came to the defense of the Al-Hawatimah tribe and fighting escalated, Iraqi security forces called in U.S. air support, which led to 263 deaths and 500 injured. Both tribes were fiercely opposed to the Shi'ite-led government's close ties to Iran.

The tribes were also opposed the two main parties comprising the ruling United Iraqi Alliance -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (now the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council) and the Al-Da'wah Party -- which control Al-Najaf and its security forces.

Inner Circle Violated

Among the aides to al-Sistani that have been killed in recent months was Sheikh Rahim al-Hasnawi, a representative of the cleric in the city's Al-Mishkhab district. Al-Hasnawi was gunned down outside his home by unidentified assailants on June 6.

Then on July 20, Abdallah Falak, the financial manager of al-Sistani's office, which collects a religious tax known as khoms, was stabbed to death in his office. The tax brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and is used to fund Al-Najaf seminaries and charities.

Falak's killing caused alarm amongst al-Sistani's inner circle, not just for its brutality, but because the crime was carried out inside al-Sistani's compound in Al-Najaf. The compound was thought to be impenetrable, and the killing occurred just yards from the ayatollah's personal residence.

On August 1, Iraqi authorities announced the arrest of Haydar Abbud Musa, Falak's personal servant. Citing Al-Najaf officials, Al-Sharqiyah television reported that the knife used to kill Falak and $170,000 stolen from the office were found in Musa's possession at the time of the arrest, although other sources in the holy city said that the money in Falak's safe had not been touched during the attack, and that the key to the safe was still in its place when police arrived to investigate the murder.

Another aide to al-Sistani, Kazim al-Budayri, who was in charge of protecting the Imam Ali Shrine, was gunned down along the Al-Kufah-Al-Najaf road days after Falak's killing. Al-Budayri served as a personal guard to al-Sistani before his appointment to guard the shrine, one of the holiest to Shi'ite Muslims.

On August 2, Sheikh Fadil al-Aqil, a representative of the ayatollah, was gunned down outside his home. Then on August 6, a bomb went off at the entrance to the Al-Mustafa Cultural Institution in nearby Al-Hillah, a foundation funded by al-Sistani.

Those inside Al-Najaf's inner circle of Iraq's senior ayatollahs are surely questioning why those around al-Sistani have been targeted. The most obvious answer is that someone is trying to send a message to the cleric.

A host of possible perpetrators exist, and as local officials admit, it may be difficult to identify the source behind the attacks. All agree however, that the perpetrators are well-trained and well-funded.

Long List Of Enemies

The fact that Iraq's most senior Shi'ite religious leaders have been critical of the government and its failures is reason enough for certain parties to target them.

Al-Sistani has gone to great lengths to distance himself from Iraqi politics in the post-Hussein era, and is rarely seen in public. However, Iraq's Shi'ite leaders visit him regularly to inform him of changing political events and to seek his blessing for their programs and positions. For one to be able to say that al-Sistani "blesses" a political plan or program brings immense credibility to the project at hand.

The cleric and other senior ayatollahs are also seen as the voice of moderation in Iraq, calling for unity among Shi'a and Sunnis. In recent months, however, the representatives of senior ayatollahs who often convey the positions of the ayatollahs through their Friday Prayer sermons have criticized Iraq's Shi'ite leaders, questioning their commitment to the Iraqi people.

For example, cleric Ahmad al-Safi, an al-Sistani representative in Karbala, criticized political leaders in late June for their inability to bring security to the country. During a Friday Prayer sermon on June 29, al-Safi asked why, after $19 billion was put into building up Iraqi security forces, that security remains elusive. He criticized security forces for their inability to secure the borders, and called on politicians to take their positions seriously and end sectarianism. A week later, he called on politicians to stop hiding in the Green Zone and get out among the people.

Other possible perpetrators are Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, or loyalists/breakaway supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr. The Shi'ite cleric has riled Al-Najaf's clergy over the past 4 1/2 years because of his behavior and threats -- both direct and indirect -- against the Al-Najaf hierarchy.

Iran is another likely suspect in the targeting of Al-Najaf's senior religious leaders for a number of reasons, such as al-Sistani's unwillingness to assert himself into the political process, following the Vilayat-i faqih model of Iran's clerical government, or the cleric's criticism of foreign interference in Iraq.

International, Domestic Shi'ite Rivalries

There is also the age-old rivalry between Qom and Al-Najaf as the center of Shi'ite Islam. Should Al-Najaf return to its standing as the center of Shi'ism, Iran's influence, both political and religious, will be tremendously reduced. Already, Qom has arguably lost millions of dollars due to the reopening and expansion of Shi'ite seminaries in Iraq since the fall of the Hussein regime, not to mention tourist dollars.

Moreover, the criticism of senior ayatollahs of Iraqi political developments and the direction in which the country is heading is troublesome for Iran, which continues to work to spread its influence across southern Iraq.

The targeting of religious figures, politicians, academics, and security officials in central and southern Iraq also comes as a result of growing fractures within the Shi'ite community. Intra-Shi'a rivalries, particularly between al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army and Al-Badr forces loyal to senior Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, appear to be escalating again.

As the groups vie for power and control, and continue to clash over their vision of a future Iraq, killings will continue, and the religious establishment may not be immune from this battle.

"We are going to witness an escalation of this conflict...the Shi'a were never united, the question now is who's going to represent the Shi'a," Mustafa al-Ani, an analyst with the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, was quoted by the "Christian Science Monitor" on August 13 as saying. For Iraq's Shi'ite clerics, that reality has already hit home.

U.S. Sees Little Will To End Political Crisis

Will Nuri al-Maliki's 'crisis summit' find a solution? (file photo)

WASHINGTON, August 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is weathering a political storm of intense proportions.

He’s called an emergency summit, as yet unscheduled, of Iraqi political leaders to try and solve some of the most intractable differences among his cabinet members -- half of whom have walked off the job in recent days.

Patrick Clawson is the deputy research director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a frequent media commentator on Iraqi and Iranian affairs. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked Clawson to assess al-Maliki’s political situation and consider what the United States might do if he is unable to bring his unity government back together.

RFE/RL: Half the seats in the prime minister’s cabinet now stand empty. What is al-Maliki up against on the eve of this summit?

"The actions of the principle political leaders inside Iraq have suggested that none of them is terribly interested in seeing a nonsectarian, effective central power."

Patrick Clawson: The basic crisis facing the government is that the principle actors on the political scene seem to want to have a weak government which is paralyzed and unable to act. There isn’t an interest, in other words, in resolving the government’s crisis because there isn’t an interest in having the government work effectively.

RFE/RL: With the exception of al-Maliki, right?

Clawson: I don’t think that Prime Minister al-Maliki is interested in finding a solution to the crisis because there is little indication that al-Maliki places high priority on a well-functioning government. His actions, the actions of the principle political leaders inside Iraq, have suggested that none of them [is] terribly interested in seeing that there be a nonsectarian, effective central power.

RFE/RL: What are they interested in, then?

Clawson: The people are much more interested in building up their own communities and their own institutions outside of the government than they are in seeing an effective central government work. So there’s been much more interest in how to grapple the part of the government’s resources and use it for one’s own sectarian purposes.

The agreements that have been reached have been effectively to divide up the pie and give different parties the ability to set up their own institutions, their own militias in many cases, at least their own patronage networks, and to heck with whether or not the ostensible job of the government gets done. That suggests that this is the pattern with which all the principle politicians are comfortable.

RFE/RL: How politically vulnerable is al-Maliki? Is there a chance the United States will abandon him as a leader, or will he retain U.S. support even though he is failing to meet the benchmarks?

Clawson: The United States would like to see a more effectively functioning central government. The individual -- al-Maliki -- is not particularly important. In fact, the United States has not been terribly impressed by Mr. al-Maliki and at times has looked around the political scene in Iraq and asked if anybody else could do better and generally come to the conclusion, no, the problem here is really a systemic problem, and not the problem of the individuals.

So, if al-Maliki were to be replaced by any other individual, the same problem would remain -- that the principle actors don’t want a powerful government. And that’s going to be a real problem for the United States, which would rather see central government institutions that are more effective and that can undercut all of these militias and these sectarian-based groups.

RFE/RL: How do you see al-Maliki’s future playing out?

Clawson: I think al-Maliki will remain the figurehead to run an ineffective government because that’s in the interest of the principle political parties, is to have an ineffective government. And the United States will be frustrated about this, and keep wanting to see al-Maliki do more to bring unity and to make the ministries function effectively and al-Maliki will probably be largely unsuccessful at doing that. Modest progress at best is what we should expect.

RFE/RL: Is the United States actively advising al-Maliki through these crises, or is it standing back and letting events unfold?

Clawson: The United States’ role has to be one of urging all the parties themselves to settle and come to conclusions, and at the same time the U.S. has to be very delicate about not being the one who dictates the terms. After all, what matters to the United States is that all the parties are happy with the deal. So the United States is in the frustrating position of saying, "Would you people please come to an agreement," but the United States is not going to dictate that agreement.

If it would appear to U.S. officials that the two sides are, in fact, very close to an agreement but that for some reason are not able to make that leap to an agreement, then I could see the United States playing a more active role, pointing out to everybody that, "Look, you all do agree on this." Not that the United States is going to dictate the solution, but the United States may help facilitate reaching agreements that the two sides want.

RFE/RL: The leader of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament has just accused al-Maliki of being too close to Iran, which he says is arming Shi’ite militias. U.S. military leaders in Iraq also believe Iran is supplying weapons. Is al-Maliki now in a position where he needs to reevaluate his relationship with Iran, or at least try to give the impression that he’s cutting ties?

Clawson: Not necessarily with Iran, but with the most radical elements in these militias who the Iranians have been working with. Because it would appear that in many cases, if you listen to both U.S. intelligence and to Sunnis inside Iraq, what we hear is reports of the Iranians working with the most radical elements and not even necessarily with the leaders of the political parties but the leaders of the militias. And so there is some basis for going to al-Maliki and saying, "Look, could you please get all these different political parties and militias to discipline their members and to be under better control and to work together better with the government?" It’s tough for al-Maliki to do that, but it’s not necessarily impossible.

RFE/RL: Finally, what's your prediction? Are the news headlines after this Iraqi summit going to read “Maliki Government Fails To Reach Agreement?”

Clawson: There may be an agreement reached on how to share power and authority, but it’s unlikely that the fundamental problem of a badly working government is going to get solved. And it’s unlikely that there’s going to be any agreement anytime soon on having a government that works better. People don’t want it.

'Crisis Summit' Aims To Shore Up Government

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is fighting to keep his government from collapsing

August 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has called for a crisis summit of Iraqi political leaders to chart a course for his faltering unity government. The move follows the withdrawal of the largest Sunni Muslim bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, from the cabinet. In all, half the seats in the cabinet are now empty. The head of Radio Free Iraq's Baghdad bureau, Moayed al-Haidari, spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke about developments.

RFE/RL: Why has the government of Prime Minister al-Maliki reached such a low point that he must call a crisis summit to try to strengthen it?

Moayed al-Haidari: The main reason for the crisis is that Iraqis are not accustomed to dealing with democracy yet. We know that this government was established as a result of an election, so it should be acceptable to all partners. But what happened from the beginning is that many parties did not welcome this cabinet. On the other hand, most of the ministers from the different parties behave as though the cabinet positions they occupy are their own personal ministries, and not enough respect is given to their technocrats. The new crisis stems from many parties pushing to bring the government down.

"The question is not one of Sunnis and Shi'a; it's deeper than that, it's a question of the politicians themselves. In the background you have other forces that affect things more than the problems of Sunnis and Shi'a."

RFE/RL: The Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front and Shi'a loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr have quit the government, while the secularist bloc of former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is boycotting cabinet meetings. Does the unity government really still exist?

Al-Haidari: The problem in Iraq now is the suffering of the Iraqi people, that's the most powerful issue right now. Millions of Iraqis are asking what promises of "later" mean; they say we need more services from the government, we need more work. And I think al-Maliki is now in a bad situation if other parties continue to push him into difficult corners.

RFE/RL: What can the prime minister do to secure vital Sunni representation to replace the Accordance Front? Can he look to recruit other Sunnis?

Al-Haidari: The question is not one of Sunnis and Shi'a; it's deeper than that, it's a question of the politicians themselves. In the background you have other forces pushing, maybe some Arab countries, maybe some others pushing from behind, and such pressures affect things more than the problems of Sunnis and Shi'a. I think the government lost a lot of its character and efficiency when it did not rely sufficiently on [public service] technocrats to show the public that it could help provide them with a better life.

RFE/RL: Has al-Maliki's paralyzed government become irrelevant?

Al-Haidari: The biggest problem Iraq faces is what comes after al-Maliki. If the government collapses now, I think the situation will become more complicated. If we believe in democracy, in elections and in parliament, we have to acknowledge the rules of the game; under these democratic rules we chose so-and-so -- so why are we rejecting them now? This is fundamental.

RFE/RL: Can the UN serve usefully as a conciliator among the Iraqi factions, and as a promoter of dialogue with Iraq's neighbors?

Al-Haidari: The United Nations can play an important role in the Iraqi crisis. We know that in the last few days the UN decided to increase its participation in Iraq. This is a clever decision at this time. The UN is widely respected in Iraq and if it plays a part, there is a chance to find some new solutions.

U.S. Analysts Say 'Surge' Progress Warrants Patience

By Andrew Tully

U.S. soldier approaches a Baghdad checkpoint (file photo)

August 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Leading U.S. foreign policy analysts who are often critical of the U.S. strategy in Iraq have just returned from a tour of that country with what some might see as surprising news. The analysts are pointing to tangible progress in the recent U.S. military surge in Iraq as a reason for the American people and Congress not to demand a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The analysts traveled to Iraq just weeks before top U.S. military and civilian officials in Iraq are expected to issue a much-awaited report on the progress of the so-called "surge."

That military strategy has involved a boost in U.S. troops levels to a record 162,000 and a fresh effort to crack down on insurgents. The objective: to give the Iraqi government time to work out reconciliation and power-sharing among the country's Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurdish populations.

The analysts aren't painting a rosy picture of military and political progress. And all three say the Iraqi government is moving unacceptably slowly toward political reconciliation.

But Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution and Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies say that the U.S. military surge is so far working well enough that the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki deserves a little more time to make progress on the political front.

'Keep Trying Well Into 2008'

O'Hanlon says that while he and Pollack do believe in the U.S. is in serious trouble in Iraq, pulling out troops now would be too soon.

"Ken Pollack and I only argue that it's going well enough now that we should keep trying well into 2008 -- but that's not very far away -- and the Congress should not try to use this upcoming period of debate in the early fall to stop the war. Because there's enough going well that we should hope that we can see that momentum spread to other areas, such as Iraqi politics," O'Hanlon says. "And moreover, if we were to give up on the war now, it would lead to -- probably, in our view -- a worse outcome than most Americans are really braced for or ready for, or that the region could easily withstand."

As an example of progress, O'Hanlon and Pollack point to Sunni sheikhs in Anbar province west of Baghdad -- once the most hostile area for U.S. troops -- who now are helping U.S. commanders fight Al-Qaeda and other insurgent forces.

O'Hanlon was asked about U.S. President George W. Bush's comment on August 9 when asked about the seemingly poor performance of the Iraqi government. Bush blamed it on what he called "years of tyrannical rule" and their faltering efforts to learn how to govern democratically.

O'Hanlon agrees that the Iraqis have little experience in democracy, but he argues that there's another reason Iraqi politicians seem so ineffective.

"Mr. Bush might have added, 'Coming out of a couple years of chaos, which was in part due to the fact that his administration did not properly prepare for the post-Saddam [Hussein] period, listened too much to the [former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld doctrine,'" O'Hanlon says. "That makes it even harder, because it's not just the decades of tyranny -- it's the last few years of civil conflict that have really laid emotions raw and may be the single greatest impediment to progress right now of all. So I would take Mr. Bush's interpretation and go one further and remind him of the degree to which his own administration has contributed to the problem."

Ultimately, O'Hanlon and Pollack conclude that those problems are in the past and urge just a few more months to await concrete progress from al-Maliki's government.

"It's working, it's working in a way it never has before," O'Hanlon says. "There's a lot of momentum. It's still a very dangerous country. We have a lot of work to do even on the military front. It's a very difficult situation, but we're making progress, and I think it'd be a shame to give up at just the moment we're finally establishing some momentum."

O'Hanlon and Pollack presented their findings in an article in "The New York Times."

Not Yet A Gamble

Cordesman's conclusions were published by his think tank in a more detailed, 25-page report.

Even his examples of progress often are couched in pessimistic language. Yet he, too, advises what he calls "strategic patience."

But like O'Hanlon and Pollack, Cordesman tells RFE/RL that unless Iraqi politicians achieve some measure of reconciliation by early 2008, then the case for "strategic patience" evaporates.

"But if they do make that progress, then the only way to avoid further suffering and to create some kind of stability is to continue with political aid, with economic aid, and above all efforts to create Iraqi forces that are willing to work with each other enough to avoid the country being plunged into really serious division or civil conflict," Cordesman says.

Cordesman cites a person he identifies only as a "very senior U.S. officer" who says what the United States now faces in Iraq might be a risk, but it's not yet a gamble. No one knows when the risk does in fact become a gamble, he says, but either way, the Bush administration faces no guarantee of success.

Cordesman is also scornful of Bush's attributing poor political progress to a history of tyranny and the novelty of democracy.

"That's nonsense," Cordesman says. "It is not a matter of past tyranny, it isn't a matter of getting used to democracy. It is the fact [that] Iraq is divided into major sectarian and ethnic factions with directly competing interests, and where leaders put those interests above the search for conciliation or compromise, or fear each other so much that it's extraordinarily difficult for them to move forward."

It may be too much to ask Iraqis to establish true conciliation, Cordesman says. But it is reasonable and realistic, he adds, to ask them to accept co-existence under a limited central government and agree on ways to share control over both the country's vast oil resources and its security forces.

And, Cordesman says, there is what he calls the "moral and ethical" question.

"We have, in many ways, taken a country and reduced it to a far more poor, troubled condition," Cordesman says. "We do have a moral and ethical responsibility. We do have to look beyond the current costs and casualties and consider what the future of the region and the future of Iraq is going to be in terms of our strategic interests. And all of these factors require us to think far beyond the issues simply of U.S. force levels and actually face the complexity involved."

Even if Bush wanted a rapid withdrawal of troops from Iraq, Cordesman says, he couldn't achieve it simply because of the size of the operation. He says that whenever it's time to pull out, the United States must deal with about 300,000 troops and civilians, as well as up to 300,000 metric tons of equipment.

Cordesman says any politician, analyst or journalist who presents a quick and easy way for the United States to withdraw its military and civilian presence from Iraq is spouting what he calls "irresponsible nonsense."