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Iraq: Sectarian Militias Blocking The Road To Security

The scene of a suicide bombing at a Baghdad restaurant on July 12 (epa) PRAGUE, July 12, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Senior Iraqi leaders warned this week -- nearly one month into Operation Together Forward -- that their country was on the brink of civil war. Meanwhile, Sunni and Shi'ite leaders tied to rogue groups faced off on television airwaves, each blaming the other for the most recent surge in violence in the capital.

The government's inability to stabilize the security situation has led to an upsurge of violence in recent days, especially in Baghdad, which has seen tit-for-tat sectarian-motivated attacks. Officials concede that Iraqis are increasingly becoming the victims of violence at the hands of sectarian militias, some of which are tied to parties in government.

The majority of the Shi'a killed in recent days have died as a result of bomb attacks. For their part, Sunnis claim they are subject to attack by Shi'ite militiamen who identify their religion through their identification cards.

A Disintegrating Security Situation

To the outside observer, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's security plan for Baghdad appears to be faltering. The 50,000 security forces that entered the city on June 14 have proven incapable of stemming the violence. Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Abd al-Aziz Muhammad told reporters at a July 11 press briefing that the Interior Ministry's response time to the previous day's incidents in the Al-Jihad district of the capital "was not expeditious or appropriate."

"Security can never be established in Baghdad with the presence of gunmen and armed groups," he asserted.

"As this institutional foundation is strengthened, the Iraqi government will be in a position to reestablish the state’s monopoly on force," said U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad. "The need to demobilize unauthorized armed groups, including militias, is a critical part of this."

Al-Maliki continues to talk tough on security. He told parliamentarians on July 12 that security forces had thwarted an attempt by an unnamed insurgent group to occupy areas of Baghdad west of the Tigris River.

Parties And Militias

The prime minister also admonished political parties, telling parliamentarians that he would no longer tolerate accusations and counteraccusations by political parties over their rivals' militias. Every party has militias, al-Maliki contended, adding it is time for each party to take responsibility for members' actions and to help restore order.

The divisions surfacing from within al-Maliki's administration reflect the divisions on the street. Deputy Prime Minister for National Security Affairs Salam al-Zawba'i, a Sunni Arab, on July 9 laid blame on the Shi'ite community, saying the Shi'ite-dominated police force is incapable of establishing order in Baghdad because of its ties to Shi'ite militias.

A new security checkpoint in Baghdad on July 7 (epa)

Al-Zawba'i's comments elicited a sharp response from the prime minister's office, which said in a same-day statement that the deputy prime minister's comments did not reflect the official government position.

Two days earlier, al-Zawba'i told Al-Jazeera that several major generals and high-ranking officers were colluding with terrorists. "The Iraqi people are paying a big price because of this chaos," he said.

Parliament Speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab, told Al-Sharqiyah television in a July 9 interview from Bahrain that Iraqis who carry out sectarian attacks are fulfilling a "Zionist sectarian agenda." He said the perpetrators of such acts "whether they know it or not, are linked to the most malicious agenda the world has ever known, that being the Israeli [intelligence agency] Mossad's agenda that entered Iraq through the occupation."

Al-Mashhadani also claimed that those behind the sectarian violence received "their orders from Tel Aviv and the leaders of the death squads."

"The Jews hiding behind Iraqi faces are known to us, and the day will come when we purge our country of them," he warned ominously.

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party accused the U.S. and Iraqi armies of laying siege to Al-Miqdadiyah, in Diyala Governorate. The party said on July 8 that the town had been under siege for five days, and civilians had no access to health care, electricity, or water, while "not a single weapon has been found."

'Conflicting Duties'

Interior Ministry Commander Major General Adnan Thabit told reporters the "conflicting duties" of the security services, militias, and armed groups "confuse the plans that have been drawn up to restore security in Baghdad, Al-Sharqiyah television reported.

Several members of al-Maliki's government have criticized the premier for backtracking on two key points of his national-reconciliation initiative: no negotiations with those who attacked U.S. soldiers, and the proposed integration of militias into the army and security services.

The scene of a July 1 car bombing in Baghdad (epa)

Iyad al-Samarra'i, parliamentarian and deputy secretary-general of the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party told Al-Arabiyah television on July 7 that the campaign by Shi'ites to pool terrorists and national resistance fighters into the same category will ultimately undermine al-Maliki's initiative and have "momentous consequences."

"When we speak of reconciliation, this reconciliation should not be conditional," he said.

Minister of State for National Dialogue Akram al-Hakim, a Shi'ia, told the same program that al-Maliki's initiative "does not exclude anyone" from taking part in the talks.

"The issue is not what this or that person used to be called five years ago, whether he was a Ba'athist or not, whether he now calls himself part of the resistance against the occupation or not," al-Hakim said. "The question is do they actually support the constants that the new regime upholds?"

Alternative Programs

Some Iraqi politicians are apparently dissatisfied with al-Maliki's plan and are working on initiatives of their own. Salih al-Mutlaq, head of the Sunni Arab party Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, told London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that he plans to present a new reconciliation plan to parliament this week, the daily reported on July 9. The parliamentarian said al-Maliki's national-reconciliation plan had some good ideas, but he criticized al-Maliki for backtracking on amnesty for insurgents who had targeted U.S. soldiers.

Al-Mutlaq said the plan calls for canceling the decisions of former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer, dissolving the militias, revoking the de-Ba'athification law, and abolishing the sectarian quota system on which the current government is based. He added that he would also present the plan to the Iraqi people, as he has little faith in the Council of Representatives. Al-Mutlaq said the council "votes for the party before it votes for the homeland."

The growing schism between followers of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association exploded across the airwaves on July 9 when al-Sadr's spokesman, Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji, faced off against association spokesman Muhammad Bashar al-Faydi on Al-Jazeera television.

Both men claimed the tension between the one-time allied groups – bound by their commitment to drive foreign forces from Iraq – has grown because the other party had chosen a path that contradicted its original goals.

A Baghdad shop damaged by a car bomb on July 12 (epa)

Al-Faydi claimed for example that although it was not critical of the al-Sadr movement's decision to join the political process, it cannot ignore the actions of al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, which he claimed began systematically targeting Sunni Arabs following the February 22 bombing of two Shi'ite shrines in Samarra.

Al-Darraji countered that the Muslim Scholars Association had adopted a hard line, saying the association rejected all national-reconciliation proposals rather than pursuing a path of brotherhood and unity.

Al-Darraji denied reports of several incidents in which the Al-Mahdi Army allegedly attacked Sunni Arabs, and suggested the perpetrators were actually Sunnis working for jihadist groups or Ba'athists carrying out the work of the United States.

Al-Faydi countered by claiming to have sworn statements by Sunni Arabs who said they were arrested and tortured by the Al-Mahdi Army. He said Badr Forces, a militia tied to the Shi'ite party Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), were responsible for some of the attacks on Sunni civilians.

Association spokesman Muthanna Harith al-Dari went a step further, telling Al-Arabiyah television on July 9 that the Imam Al-Mahdi Army was responsible for the killings of some 50 Sunni Arabs that day in the Jihad district of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr's movement has also reportedly been linked to the kidnapping of parliamentarian Taysir al-Mashhadani. Representatives from the Iraqi Islamic Party, the parliamentarian's party, have declined to comment on the purported link.

Association head Harith al-Dari, Muthanna's father, directly blamed Iran for the killing of some 100,000 Sunni Arabs in Iraq since 2003.

"There is a simple solution, if Iran wants it," al-Dari said. "It can ask [Abd al-]Aziz al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr to stop the activities of their followers and to leave their Sunni brothers to live in this country like others."

Al-Dari alleged that Iran had supplied weapons and funding to the two Shi'ite leaders' militias.

Plan Of Action

In the near term, it appears al-Maliki's best chance of regaining control of the security situation in Baghdad rests upon his ability to persuade political parties active in government to rein in their militias.

The premier's plan to dissolve militias will prove a far greater challenge, and is likely months off, as U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad hinted during a speech at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on July 11.

A slain gunman is loaded onto a truck in Baghdad during street fighting on July 10 (epa)

First of all, Iraqi leaders must build a consensus to address several issues that arise out of the new constitution, including federalism, national resources, and de-Ba'athification. Second, they must enhance unity through national reconciliation. Third, they need to build up the capability of security forces while purging sectarian forces in the Interior Ministry and police, thereby gaining the trust of all communities.

"As this institutional foundation is strengthened, the Iraqi government will be in a position to reestablish the state’s monopoly on force," said Khalilzad. "The need to demobilize unauthorized armed groups, including militias, is a critical part of this."

The Iraqi government and the coalition will then take advantage of reconciliation efforts to weaken and destroy the terrorists and other irreconcilable elements, and carry out focused stabilization operations to develop enduring security in major cities, particularly Baghdad. After that, U.S. forces can begin withdrawing from Iraq, the ambassador concluded.

Sectarian Iraq

Sectarian Iraq

Click to enlarge the image.

SUNNI, SHI'A: Iraq is riven along sectarian lines, faults that frequently produce violent clashes and are a constant source of tension. Sectarian concerns drive much of Iraqi politics and are the main threat to the country's fragile security environment.

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.