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Iraq Report: August 31, 2007

Can Ba'athists Be Brought Back?

By Kathleen Ridolfo

Tariq al-Hashimi (left) and Nuri al-Maliki hope this agreement fares better than previous ones (file photo)

August 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- An agreement was forged this week between the Sunni Arab-led Iraqi Islamic Party and the country's Shi'ite and Kurdish leaderships calling for the revocation of the de-Ba'athification law and establishment of a higher national commission for accountability and justice which ostensibly paves the way for former Ba'athists to return to Iraq.

The agreement also paves the way for the release of thousands of Sunni Arab detainees who have been held without charge in U.S. and Iraqi detention facilities.

Several questions have emerged over what the agreement will mean in practical terms. The text of the accord, published in "Al-Sabah" newspaper on August 27, did not outline the details of the agreement, but Iraqi politicians have said that former mid-level Ba'athists not charged with a crime would be allowed to return to their civil-service jobs.

Members of Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party hailed the agreement, but said other outstanding issues with the government remain unresolved. Ba'athist leaders said little, but pan-Arab dailies speculated that the Ba'athists -- split into two wings since the execution of former President Saddam Hussein -- may be on the verge of reaching a formal agreement with the government that would give the party permission to return to Iraq and possibly engage in the political process.

Ba'athists Split

The London-based "Al-Hayat" quoted sources from Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri's wing of the Ba'ath Party as saying al-Duri is prepared to sever his ties with Al-Qaeda and launch a dialogue with the Iraqi government. Al-Duri is the former vice president and deputy chairman of Hussein's Revolutionary Command Council.

Since Hussein was executed in January, al-Duri has been engaged in a bitter battle with several former senior Ba'athists, led by Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmad and Mazhar Matni Awwad. The split emerged after al-Duri tried to assume control over the party, and al-Ahmad and Awwad objected. The latter two command insurgent cells inside Iraq, and complained that al-Duri had gone against Ba'athist principles when he aligned with Al-Qaeda elements inside Iraq.

When al-Ahmad and Awwad tried to convene an extraordinary session of the party to elect a new leadership, al-Duri reacted by expelling them and some 30 others on the grounds of treason.

While doing so, he also exposed the identities of Ba'athist insurgents operating inside Iraq, an unidentified Ba'ath Party leader opposed to al-Duri told on May 2.

'Enemy Of Our Enemy Is Our Friend'

Former Major General Ghazwan al-Kubaysi, who is deputy secretary-general of al-Ahmad's wing, known as the Iraqi Command of the Ba'ath Party-Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmad Wing, told Al-Arabiyah television in an August 28 interview that tensions within the Ba'athist leadership surfaced after Hussein's arrest in December 2003.

The main Ba'athist insurgent group, Muhammad's Army, which was under Hussein's command, fell apart upon his arrest, and al-Duri crossed what others considered unacceptable lines in his assumption of power, reorganizing the leadership without party approval.

Al-Kubaysi said the regional command formed by al-Ahmad has some 300 key leaders who "represent dozens and hundreds of Ba'athists at home and abroad." He later contended that the membership was in the "thousands and millions." He further claimed that 80 percent of the Ba'athists were with al-Ahmad's group.

Asked about a Ba'athist alliance with Islamist insurgent groups in Iraq, al-Kubaysi said, "We are allied with all those who raise arms against" the Iraqi government and coalition forces. When asked about the strength of Islamist groups vis-a-vis the Ba'ath, he said, "It does not matter who are leading, whether the Islamists or Ba'athists are leading," adding: "The [nationalist, homegrown] Islamic factions include large numbers of [former Iraq] military personnel and of armed forces personnel. They also include many civilian Ba'athists."

When asked about the obvious ideological differences between the Ba'athists and Islamists, al-Kubaysi reiterated that the Ba'athists will fight with anyone who shares their common enemy -- except Al-Qaeda in Iraq -- although it agrees with Al-Qaeda's targeting of U.S. forces and Iranian "agents" in Iraq. He also expressed the wing's firm support for Muslim Scholars Association head Harith al-Dari, calling him "one of the national figures whom we love."

Joining Fight Against Al-Qaeda

Former Ba'athist leader Abu Wisam al-Jash'imi, who is aligned with al-Duri's wing of the Ba'ath Party, told "Al-Hayat" in an interview published on August 22 that al-Duri, meanwhile, is trying to formulate a national resistance plan to offset the strength of al-Ahmad's wing.

"Al-Duri's wing has decided to end its coordination with Al-Qaeda and to engage in a national resistance plan, manifest in carrying arms in the face of Al-Qaeda, and launching a dialogue with the [Iraqi] government and multinational forces through several channels, including permitting field leaders of the wing's armed groups sufficient space to negotiate directly and reach an agreement with the U.S. forces," al-Jash'imi said.

Al-Jash'imi took credit for the recent local successes against Al-Qaeda-affiliated elements in "Abu Ghurayb [referring to Al-Anbar Governorate], Diyala [Governorate], Samarra [Salah Al-Din Governorate], and southern Baghdad," adding that in these provinces "Ba'ath military wings have enjoyed indirect government cover by [the government] allowing its elements to join the Iraqi police and army to achieve a common goal, and that is, eliminate Al-Qaeda elements."

Al-Jash'imi also told "Al-Hayat" that al-Duri has taken steps on the political and military level to broaden contacts with the Iraqi government. "This is in addition to coordinating with the Sunni and secular parties that are engaged in the political process," as well as the party's contacts with tribal sheikhs, clerics, and other intermediaries.

Al-Jash'imi maintained that preparations are under way to convene a conference in Iraq before year-end that would set an agenda in anticipation of a U.S. withdrawal. He did not say who would take part in the meeting.

Talking To U.S., Government

This is not the first time that Ba'athists are alleged to be in negotiations with Iraqi and U.S. representatives. London-based reported in May 2005 that the United States was in contact with Ba'athist leaders through intermediaries, including tribal leaders. At the time, Ba'ath Party leaders issued demands including U.S. public recognition of the Ba'ath as a legitimate political party; the revocation of the de-Ba'athification law; return of Ba'ath Party members to their technocratic jobs; release of detainees; and compensation of those harmed by the war.

Former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who was himself a member of the Ba'ath Party before joining the opposition, launched talks with the Ba'ath after leaving office in 2005, and has claimed to be prepared to forge a reconciliation between the party and the Iraqi government.

"Al-Hayat," which has arguably provided the most coverage on the activities of the Ba'ath Party since 2004, quoted "informed Iraqi government sources" on June 23 as saying Basimah al-Sa'idi, an adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, met a delegation representing al-Duri's wing of the party in Baghdad earlier that month to discuss national reconciliation.

The chief negotiator representing the Ba'ath was Muhammad Falah al-Assafi, a former army officer, who "presented himself as a speaker for all armed groups in Al-Anbar," and set a number of preconditions, including the withdrawal of government support for some tribal leaders in the governorate.

An earlier report by "Al-Hayat" in late March quoted al-Jash'imi as saying Minister of National Dialogue Akram al-Hakim had spent a year in talks with Ba'athists aligned with al-Ahmad's wing.

However, it remains unclear if Iraq's Kurds and Shi'a are prepared to accept reconciliation, or more importantly, the participation of former Ba'athists in the Iraqi political arena. It is equally unclear to what extent the pan-Arab news reporting is accurate.

'U.S. Defeat 'Imminent'

An unidentified Ba'ath Party member, who appears to be aligned with al-Duri's wing, told London's "Daily Telegraph" in an interview in Damascus published on August 24 that with the reduction of British forces in southern Iraq, the United States is all but defeated in Iraq. The party member said the Ba'ath will then set preconditions for talks with the United States that will help it withdraw from Iraq.

The man said that the Iraqi government will crumble alongside a U.S. withdrawal. The United States "cannot add new troops to achieve a military solution in Iraq, it is now looking for a political solution," he said. "But it will not find it in those structures it has set up. They will collapse and the agents and traitors [a reference to the government] will run away with the occupiers."

He also maintained that Iran's sponsorship of Shi'ite militias will force the United States into negotiating with the Ba'ath Party. "To keep their national pride, [the United States ] should sit with resistance leaders to put in place a plan to fix Al-Qaeda, achieve stability in Iraq, and end Iranian intervention," the man said.

A jihadist forum contributor published a statement by the "brave Iraqi resistance" to a pro-Ba'athist website on August 25 promising a "great revolution soon." The statement claimed U.S. President George W. Bush has washed his hands of al-Maliki's government and said the "imminent defeat" of the United States in Iraq and the eventual fall of al-Maliki's government is due to the Iraqi resistance.

"Soon you will see the great revolution, which is the pearl of all Arab revolutions. It begins from the tribes located south of Iraq -- our people and the people of the 1920 revolution -- to end in our lands in the north, where it will join forces with the brave, faithful Kurds along with our brothers of different Iraqi sects and [ethnicities]." The statement advised the police and military not to intervene, but to join the great revolution.

Can Agreement Be Trusted?

Meanwhile, a man identified as Abu al-Muhib al-Baghdadi, a spokesman for the Ba'ath Party, told Al-Jazeera television in an August 26 interview from Damascus that the agreement with the government is a trap and not binding because it was not endorsed by parliament. He added that the Ba'ath Party will not negotiate with U.S. and Iraqi forces until there is full withdrawal of coalition troops, all post-Hussein laws are revoked, and Iraqi and Arab detainees are released from prison.

Al-Baghdadi added that the agreement was an insult to Ba'athists because the signatories to the agreement acted as if they had "done a favor" for the Ba'athists.

Meanwhile, some of Vice President al-Hashimi's allies are also not pleased with the new agreement. Iraqi Accordance Front member and pro-Ba'athist Khalaf al-Ulayyan voiced his opposition to the Accountability and Justice Law, telling Al-Sharqiyah television in an interview aired on August 28: "The new de-Ba'athification Law...stipulates that those who used to hold the rank of a member of a section at the Ba'ath party or above do not enjoy the right to be appointed or employed [at government agencies] and will be fought. This article will harm all patriotic people -- especially the Sunnis -- as they will be excluded from assuming posts and will not enjoy any right because of this article."

Al-Ulayyan insisted that the Accordance Front calls "for canceling this law as the Ba'athists have the right to join the government like any other normal Iraqi citizen," adding, "However, if it is proved that a Ba'athist harmed Iraqis then he can be referred to the judiciary and punished just like any other citizen who broke the law."

While the August 26 agreement promises to be a major step toward much-needed national reconciliation in Iraq, it is clear that Iraqis have far to go before peace and security can be achieved.

The agreement must still be ratified by parliament, and while it is likely that the Kurds and Shi'a who support Prime Minister al-Maliki's administration will toe the party line, some Shi'ite parliamentarians will oppose it given the Ba'athist legacy. Likewise, as al-Ulayyan indicated, Sunni Arab parliamentarians may oppose the agreement if it doesn't go far enough to support their demands.

As to what the agreement will mean in practical terms, only time will tell. But if recent history is any indication, it will mean little. Al-Hashimi has been lured into agreements with Kurdish and Shi'ite parties before, only to find out later that the commitments of those parties were worth little.

Karbala Fighting Raises Specter Of Broader Shi'ite Clashes

By Valentinas Mite

Fighting in Karbala on August 28

August 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Fighting among rival Shi'ite militias and police in the Iraqi city of Karbala has killed some 50 people, forcing authorities to curtail a major pilgrimage and order a curfew.

Reports say the clashes involved gunmen loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and those connected to the Badr Brigades of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC).

Clashes between powerful Shi'ite militias in Iraq may mark the beginning of a new phase of fighting in the southern part of the country.

Local officials say that about 5,000 assassinations have occurred in Al-Basrah in the past two years.

Brits Pulling Back

The situation may become even more explosive with British troops leaving the heart of Al-Basrah. The British command has announced it will withdraw its 500 soldiers from their Al-Basrah base on August 31 and redeploy them outside the city.

Mustafa Alani, the director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, says British troops never managed to seal Iraq's border with nearby Iran, as they had too few soldiers for the task. Currently, there are only some 5,000 British soldiers left in Iraq -- down 50 percent from the start of the conflict.

However, Alani says that soon, without the British presence, the situation may become worse in Al-Basrah and the surrounding area.

"Definitely the British withdrawal will deepen the crisis and increase the chaos because the militias are going to fight for what the British government leaves behind," Alani says. "Definitely Basra and the whole south of Iraq is controlled by groups of criminals and political militias, which are supported by Iran and other countries."

It is not only about armed militias. Criminal gangs with no political affiliation are especially strong in the city. Local officials say that about 5,000 assassinations have occurred in the city in the past two years.

Little Central Control

Al-Basrah, a city of nearly 2 million, is the main place through which Iraq exports oil. The provinces around Al-Basrah contain some 70 percent of Iraq's oil reserves and account for some 90 percent of the government's revenue. Supply routes from Kuwait for the U.S.-led coalition also run through the region.

However, Alani says the central government has little control over the region.

A British soldier on patrol outside of Baghdad (epa file photo)

"This government is not controlling the capital Baghdad, itself," he says. "And it is not even controlling the whole Green Zone, only a part of the Green Zone. We don't expect from this government, a weak government, to be able to control Basra, which is 400 kilometers from Baghdad and in an area which, since the downfall of the regime, has come under the control of militias. This is not a government which can have influence over stability in the south or [have] control over oil production or guarantee the safety of oil operations."

Yahia Said, a researcher at the London School of Economics in Britain, has traveled to Iraq several times in recent years. He agrees there is only small hope fighting will not erupt after the British pullback.

"So far, there are very little grounds for agreement between these forces [militias], particularly at the local level," Said told RFE/RL. "So if there is an arrangement made in Najaf or in Baghdad between the leaderships, the militias associated with them may not follow such an agreement, and they [will] continue to struggle for power at the local level."

Alani says Iran could do a lot to change the situation.

Tehran's influence in the south of Iraq, he says, is "far more important and visible than the Iraqi government's control or the British control."

However, he believes Tehran is not interested in stabilizing the region.

Iraqi Leaders Pledge Reconciliation Effort

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad on August 26

August 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish political leaders have signed a statement aimed at fostering reconciliation among the country's ethnic and religious factions.

Leaders from the main Iraqi factions held a rare joint news conference on August 26 to announce the agreement.

Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki appeared alongside President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi; Shi'ite Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi; and Mas'ud Barzani, the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.

President Talabani said the sides discussed many key issues and that agreement was near on some of them.

"We have also discussed important issues such as justice, law and inquiries that will replace the de-Ba'athification law," he said. "We have also agreed on important issues, some of their points have been submitted to the preparatory committee for reform. We have also discussed the law on provinces. The points of agreements were close, but some of the points have been submitted to the preparatory committee for reform and it will be approved soon. We hope this statement will be a good beginning."

At this point, however, the fate of al-Maliki's cabinet remains unclear, as major political groups in parliament are still critical of his policies.

The United States welcomed the Iraqi leaders' pledge to work toward reconciliation. A White House statement described the agreement as an "important symbol" of the commitment of Iraqi leaders to work together to benefit all Iraqis.

Al-Maliki's government has been weakened by the withdrawal of several mainly Sunni politicians from his cabinet, and is also under strong pressure from the United States to exercise more authority as a unified government.

Al-Maliki Rejects Foreign Criticism

In Paris today, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner expressed his apologies "for having interfered in Iraqi affairs" by criticizing al-Maliki and calling for him to be replaced.

Al-Maliki had demanded an official apology from France after Kouchner called for the prime minister's removal in an interview with the U.S. magazine "Newsweek."

Kouchner today told the French radio station RTL that if Maliki "wants me to excuse myself for having interfered in Iraqi affairs in such a direct way, then I do so willingly."

Al-Maliki on August 26 also lashed out at U.S. politicians who have called for him to be replaced.

Two U.S. Democratic senators, Carl Levin and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, urged Iraqi lawmakers to choose someone else to lead Iraq's ruling coalition and seek national reconciliation.

Al-Maliki said the senators "talk as if Iraq is their property," and should instead "respect democracy and its results."

He said the senators spoke "from a position of ignorance of what national reconciliation requires," adding that "national reconciliation is taking place, and although it might be seen as a slow process, it is fast if compared with other such processes" in other countries.

(with material from agency reports)