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Iraq: Initiatives On Armed Groups Raise Concerns

Nuri al-Maliki has put forward a plan to bring the militias into the security forces (AFP) Iraq's president and prime minister-designate have announced separate initiatives in recent weeks aimed at reining in the violence that has plagued the country. Both plans are highly controversial, raising concerns that they might further strain sectarian relations in Iraq.

The first initiative, put forth by Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki, seeks to merge militias into Iraq's security forces. The plan has raised concern among Sunni Arabs, who claim militias are responsible for months of attacks -- including arrests and killings by former militiamen working within the Interior Ministry -- against members of their community.

The second initiative, announced by President Jalal Talabani on April 30, seeks an agreement with seven armed groups to lay down their arms and join the political process. Shi'ite Arabs have speculated that the armed groups involved in talks with Talabani are linked to terrorists and Ba'athists.

Al-Maliki: Militias Must Disband, Join Army, Police

Al-Maliki told reporters at an April 22 press briefing in Baghdad that the incoming government would take steps to integrate Iraqi militias into the armed forces, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. "Law No. 91 will take care of integrating [militias] into the armed forces according to rules that don't downplay the rights of those who struggled against the dictatorship," al-Maliki said, adding that 11 militias affiliated with parties and political forces are named in the law, which was drafted by the Coalition Provisional Authority in June 2004.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters in Salah Al-Din the following day that he was aware of the plan, RFI reported. "Unauthorized military formations are the infrastructure of a civil war. I have been encouraged again through my conversations with Prime Minister-designate al-Maliki that he will focus on this issue. And that there is a need for a decommissioning, demobilization, and reintegration plan for these unauthorized military formations so that the monopoly of use of force will be in the hands of authorized people in the Iraqi government," Khalilzad said.

This initiative also has the support of Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who met with al-Maliki on April 27 in Al-Najaf. A statement issued by the ayatollah's office following the meeting said that only government forces should be allowed to carry weapons in Iraq, reported the same day. "His eminence stressed [to al-Maliki] that the main task of this government is to address the security situation and put an end to the criminal operations that target innocent people on a daily basis through torture, displacement, murder, attacks, and the like. Therefore, carrying weapons should be limited to the government forces. These forces should be established on national and sound bases so that their loyalty would only be to the homeland, not to any political party," the statement noted.

Al-Maliki defended the plan, telling reporters in Al-Najaf on April 27: "Our approach, which is supported by the authority and all the Iraqi people, calls for keeping weapons only under the control of the government because it is the only party that protects Iraqis and faces up to those who break the law," he said. "Not only is the government responsible for disarming people, it is also responsible for providing people with security. In conclusion, there is an order to merge the militias [into the army]. This would not belittle their role in resisting the dictatorship, but it is a reward for them and a solution to a problem [that would persist] if weapons do not remain under the control of the government."

Sunnis Criticize Initiative...

Muslim Scholars Association member Muhammad Bashar Amin criticized the announcement, saying al-Maliki intended to "merge militias with the security forces instead of bringing those who committed crimes and atrocities to justice," reported on April 24. "Thousands of Iraqis have been killed by those militias."

Sunni leader Salih al-Mutlaq criticized the plan as well. "Militias are plaguing Iraq. They, along with the occupation, are responsible for the current state of Iraq. We feel that retaining the militias within the security services is extremely dangerous," al-Mutlaq said on May 3, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. "We are opposed to retaining them in, or further integrating them into the armed and security forces."

Secular Shi'ite politician and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has also voiced opposition to al-Maliki's proposal. "We want militias to end. We do not want to have them integrated in the military and similar structures of the state. No integration. The integration would mean creating one regiment Shi'ite, another one Sunni, another one loyal to the [Iraqi National] Accord, another one loyal to the Supreme Council [of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq], another one loyal to someone else -- and what will be the result? There will be fights. We want an army built in a style that is recognized," Allawi told RFI in an exclusive interview on April 26 in Amman, Jordan.

...While Shi'ite Leaders Back It -- In Theory

Shi'ite leaders have said they support al-Maliki's initiative, but their interpretation of what constitutes a militia differs from that of the Sunnis. Hadi al-Amiri, secretary-general of the Badr Organization, told Al-Jazeera satellite television on April 23 that his group favors the disarmament of militias and their merging with the national army. "However, I agree with Jalal Talabani that the Badr Organization is not a militia. This organization proudly carried weapons against the Saddam [Hussein] regime. After the downfall of the Saddam regime, it turned into a political organization," he said.

The Badr Organization is the successor to the Badr Corps, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which claims that the organization is not armed. Sunni Arabs have claimed that members of the Badr Corps that were integrated into the security forces of the Interior Ministry have waged a campaign of arrest, torture, and murder against Sunni Arabs in recent months.

What remains unclear, however, is what will become of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army, a rogue militia that reportedly draws thousands of supporters. The Al-Mahdi Army has clashed repeatedly with Badr forces since 2003, reflecting al-Sadr's long-standing grudge against the SCIRI leadership.

Al-Mahdi militiamen also bitterly fought U.S. and Iraqi forces twice in Al-Najaf in 2004. Since that time, Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, Iraq's outgoing prime minister, has worked to bring al-Sadr's group into the government. Al-Sadr supporters joined SCIRI and al-Ja'fari's Islamic Al-Da'wah Party in the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) ahead of December's parliamentary elections, and now hold some 30 seats in parliament.

Baha al-Araji, an al-Sadr supporter in the UIA, said on April 30 that he is not concerned about al-Maliki's initiative, because the Al-Mahdi Army should not be considered a militia, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Saying that there are many laws that apply to militias, al-Araji noted: "But if they mean the Al-Mahdi Army, then this army is not affiliated with any institution. It represents a popular trend. It was formed according to a natural reaction."

Sunnis Support Talabani Plan, But Doubt Effect...

Sunni Arab leaders, while opposed to al-Maliki's proposal to merge militias into the security forces, have voiced support in recent days for Talabani's dialogue with armed groups, while cautioning that the groups are probably not major players in the insurgency.

Sunni leader al-Mutlaq told reporters in Baghdad on May 3 that although he doubts Talabani is involved in talks with "real resistance factions," he supports the president. "I encourage him to stick to this approach and try to reach the real [resistance] factions so that they may be contained within the political process, because the resistance's endurance means that we will not achieve stability in the country," Al-Sharqiyah television quoted him as saying. Al-Mutlaq added that the talks would provide the resistance an opportunity to fulfill its agenda of securing an eventual withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq.

Talabani has refused to identify the seven armed groups that he is in talks with, but he did say that they are not Saddam Hussein loyalists or "Zarqawi-types" referring to Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi.

Isam al-Rawi, member of the Muslim Scholars Association's Shura Council, claimed that four main resistance groups are not taking part in dialogue with Talabani or the United States. He identified those groups as the Islamic Army in Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Mujahedin Army, and the Islamic National Resistance Movement. "I do not believe their leaderships have the intention of adopting dialogue and giving up" their weapons, said al-Rawi, whose organization is said to have close links to Sunni insurgent groups operating in Iraq.

Meanwhile, an unidentified resistance leader told London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" this week that the groups he represents are not engaged in talks with Talabani. "We took part in dialogues with the U.S. ambassador during the period that started on January 16, 2006. The first meeting was held in Amman and was followed by several meetings in Baghdad outside the so-called Green Zone," said the leader, who maintained that the talks have since stalled, the daily reported on May 2.

...While Shi'ite Leaders Skeptical

Shi'ite leaders are wary of the talks. SCIRI member Rida Jawad Taqiy said SCIRI had no prior knowledge of the dialogue with armed groups. "We are eager to know if there is such a thing as armed groups that are not involved in terrorism and the shedding of Iraqi blood.... We would like to learn of the identities of these armed groups that are not involved in terrorist acts and crimes against civilians," Al-Sharqiyah television quoted him as saying on May 3. Taqiy said SCIRI will seek reassurances from Talabani that he is not in talks with terrorists or Ba'athists.

While both Talabani and al-Maliki's initiatives have elicited negative reactions from Iraq's Sunni and Shi'ite communities, those communities in reality have little to fear. Both initiatives will eventually require an extensive political agreement, which would need the support of the National Assembly. Al-Maliki's initiative, if supported by the UIA and the Kurdistan Coalition, would have the support of two-thirds of the Council of Representatives.

On the other hand, Talabani's initiative would require Shi'ite support in parliament if it were to succeed. If the seven armed groups in question are indeed not tied to Hussein loyalists or Islamic insurgents, then the UIA would likely support their laying down of arms and participating in government.

What is clear is that the level of mistrust between Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs almost necessitates that a political agreement be reached simultaneously on armed groups and militias in order to ensure the feasibility of either initiative.

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