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Iraq: Premier's New Security Plan Carries Heavy Risks

(RFE/RL) January 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- On January 6, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced a new plan to bring security to Baghdad and wrest control of the capital from the armed groups blamed for much of the sectarian violence. Although details remain sketchy, the plan has been attacked as being risky and likely to exacerbate sectarian tensions.

In a speech marking the 86th anniversary of the formation of the Iraqi Army, al-Maliki said the new plan centers on the deployment of additional Iraqi forces, including Kurdish fighters, into Baghdad, to be supported by U.S.-led coalition troops. These forces would then conduct neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweeps to rid Baghdad of extremist groups.

In addition, al-Maliki said the plan "will deny all outlaws a safe haven, irrespective of their sectarian or political affiliation," suggesting that he may be ready to crack down on radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army.

Sunni Arabs Denounce Plan

Sunni Arab leaders were quick to reject the plan, describing it as "unconstitutional." Iraqi parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani noted that al-Maliki had never consulted with the Council of Representatives over the plan, and therefore deputies were not given an opportunity to vote on it, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on January 7.
"The new plan will fail in the same manner as the previous security
plans failed, but this time it seems that there are attempts to purge
the city of Baghdad of certain segments of Iraqi society and thus
deepen the sectarian rift in Iraq."

"The Iraqi Constitution does not allow the prime minister to approve a security plan without referring it to the Council of Representatives, now that the Emergency Law -- which gave him extraordinary executive powers -- has expired. Consequently, this plan has no legal legitimacy," al-Mashhadani said.

Other Sunni politicians criticized the plan because they said it focused mostly in the western, Sunni part of Baghdad and left out Shi'ite Al-Sadr City in the east, "Al-Zaman" reported on January 7. Sunni leaders warned that this perceived lack of fairness would worsen sectarian tensions.

Salih al-Mutlaq, the head of the Front for National Dialogue, went so far as to describe the plan as the Shi'ite-led government's latest effort to cleanse Baghdad of Sunni Arabs, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on January 7.

"The new plan will fail in the same manner as the previous security plans failed, but this time it seems that there are attempts to purge the city of Baghdad of certain segments of Iraqi society and thus deepen the sectarian rift in Iraq," al-Mutlaq said.

Controversial Kurdish Participation

There have been conflicting reports as to whether several battalions of the Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, would be sent to participate in the Baghdad security operation. An official in the Kurdish regional government, on condition of anonymity, told "The New Anatolian" on January 9 that Kurdish forces would only be deployed under certain conditions.

Will Kurds be fighting Arabs in Baghdad? (CTK file photo)

"We will not deploy any peshmerga forces in Baghdad. The peshmerga forces are a special force that will only be used to protect the Kurdish region," the official said. "However, we may send troops as part of the Iraqi Army to be deployed in Baghdad only if the Iraqi parliament officially makes such a request and our Kurdish regional parliament approves it."

The issue of sending Kurdish forces into Baghdad is controversial. Since the fall of the Hussein regime, Kurdish forces have never been deployed in Baghdad and several Kurdish officials have indicated that this move would be dangerous and risk inflaming ethnic divisions.

It could also draw the Kurds into the sectarian conflict, which has been almost exclusively fought between the Shi'a and Sunni Arabs. Kurdish leaders have voiced concern over the perception that Iraqi Kurds, a majority of whom are Sunnis, would be fighting against their Sunni Arab brothers.

Mahmud Uthman, a prominent leader in the Iraqi Kurdish Coalition, has come out against sending Kurdish forces to fight Arabs anywhere in Iraq, "Al-Zaman" reported on January 8. "There are fears that a fight like this, pitting Kurds against the Arabs, is bound to add an ethnic touch to the conflict," he said. "The deployment of Kurdish forces in Arab areas is wrong and will create sensitivities and accusations that the Kurds are killing the Arabs."

Al-Maliki's High Stakes

Prime Minister al-Maliki's initiative, despite its seemingly noble intentions, carries great risks. The plan for Iraqi forces to move from district to district to drive out insurgents and militia elements will almost certainly result in considerable casualties. If the operation is perceived to be excessively heavy-handed, then al-Maliki could face a severe backlash, not only from the Sunni Arab population, but from his own Shi'ite coalition as well.

A prolonged and bloody confrontation with al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army could also prove disastrous to al-Maliki. Al-Maliki's political position has been tenuous for months, and he has been under tremendous pressure to rein in al-Sadr's militia, which is widely blamed for being the one of the main instigators of sectarian violence. If the Baghdad security operation goes poorly and casualties mount, it may signal the end of al-Maliki's tenure as prime minister.

In addition, if it appears that al-Sadr's militia is being crushed by Iraqi forces backed by U.S. firepower, it may force Iraq's Shi'ite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to intervene and call for an end to the operation, which would be highly embarrassing for al-Maliki. Indeed, the last time Iraqi and U.S. forces confronted al-Sadr's militia, in the holy city of Al-Najaf in August 2004, it only ended when al-Sistani brokered a truce.

While sectarian tensions have been running high since the attack on the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra in February 2006, the situation has been particularly tense since the execution of former President Saddam Hussein on December 30. The release of the unauthorized video of the execution incensed Sunni Arabs due to the exceptionally undignified manner in which the government carried out the hanging.

If Sunnis sense that their neighborhoods are being disproportionately targeted in the security operation, this will only exacerbate their distrust of the government. The armed Sunni groups thought to make up most of the insurgency would also be that much less inclined to disarm and enter the political process.

For this reason, U.S. Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno urged a balanced approach to the operation, which he said should target both Shi'ite militias and Sunni extremists, "The Washington Post" reported on January 7. Otherwise, al-Maliki's gamble on security in Baghdad may prove to be his last at the head of the Iraqi government.

On The Verge Of Civil War

On The Verge Of Civil War

The Imam Al-Mahdi Army on parade (epa)

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