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Iraq: Militia Members Could Have Role In Establishing Security

Members of the Iraqi Governing Council are proposing to give the militias of major Iraqi political parties a role in helping secure the country. U.S. officials have yet to give a final opinion on the suggestion. But Washington has stressed the militiamen would have to be integrated into Iraq's national institutions to ensure they don't promote the interests of their own parties.

Prague, 5 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Much about the proposal to utilize militiamen from Iraq's largest political parties to boost security in the country is still unclear.

The proposal was publicly presented at a news conference this week by the current head of the Iraqi Governing Council, Abdelaziz al-Hakim. He told reporters that the council, and the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), had agreed on creating a new force which -- by some estimates -- could number up to 1,000 fighters.

Hakim said, "There are many cadres -- the 'peshmerga,' the Badr corps, other forces -- and they may participate in solving [the security] crisis at this dangerous stage." The term "peshmerga" refers to the fighters of the two main Kurdish factions. The Badr corps is the militia of the best-organized Shi'a party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), of which Hakim is a top official.

Since that press conference, reporters in Baghdad have rushed to learn more about the proposal and how the U.S. views it. But the picture that has emerged is sketchy.

To date, the CPA has answered press questions about the proposed force very sparingly. CPA spokesman Don Senor said this week only that militiamen joining new national security structures would have to be vetted and serve as individuals rather than representatives of particular parties.

But U.S. officials and members of Iraqi political parties have confirmed privately that plans for incorporating some militiamen into security forces are moving forward steadily, though the details remain subject to change.

The reported U.S. endorsement of the new plan has surprised some observers because the CPA previously has responded coolly to suggestions that militiamen supplement the U.S.-led security operation. Indeed, in the early months of the occupation, the CPA demanded that the armed wings of political parties be dismantled.

At the time, the order was particularly directed at the Badr corps, because it was seen as closely linked to Iran. By contrast, the CPA tolerated the Kurdish militias, which were seen as strong supporters of the U.S. occupation.

Tim Garden, a regional expert at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, says the CPA's new position appears to be an attempt to solve an outstanding problem -- that is, what to do with the militias when they have nominally obeyed the order to disband but, in fact, remain very much active forces.

"The U.S. administration is reacting to circumstances. The militias are a real problem, and [U.S. officials] could have tried to enforce the ban on them and found themselves eventually in firefights with militias, because I don't think they would be able to disband some of the more popular ones very easily," Garden said.

He continues: "So, they presumably thought, well, if we can't do that, then better to legitimize them by making them part of the security forces for stabilizing Iraq."

All of the Iraqi parties involved in the proposal once opposed former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, have representatives on the Iraqi Governing Council, and are viewed by Washington as backing plans for a future Iraqi democracy. Those plans envision the handover of authority from the CPA to a provisional government by July, after which the country will adopt a constitution and move toward general elections.

According to news reports, up to seven parties could participate in the new security effort.

"The New York Times" yesterday quoted a top official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as saying his party and six others would contribute some 100 fighters each. The other parties are SCIRI, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Iraqi National Accord (INA), the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the Dawa Party, and the Iraqi Communist Party.

The PUK official, Nushirwan Mustafa, said the new force's responsibilities would include gathering intelligence about guerrillas and possibly conducting raids to catch them. He said the militiamen would work under the command and guidance of U.S. soldiers.

Britain's daily "Guardian" reported yesterday that the new force would be a counterinsurgency battalion operating chiefly in Baghdad within the existing paramilitary Civil Defense Corps. Washington formed the Civil Defense Corps to operate with coalition units as a new professional Iraqi Army is being recruited and trained.

The idea of now bringing some militiamen into security operations has been criticized by some members of the Iraqi Governing Council. One independent member of the council, Ghazi Yawar, said this week that the proposal was put forth only by the largest political parties themselves and not after full discussions with all council members.

Yawar called the plan a "blunder." He said "we should be dissolving the militias, not finding ways to legitimize them. This sends the wrong message to the Iraqi people."

Analysts say it is uncertain whether incorporating militiamen into new security structures will help reduce their political importance or merely perpetuate the notion that parties gain from having armed supporters. The issue is important for Iraq's future democratic development because militias can intimidate voters in election processes to ensure their parties win disproportionate amounts of power.

Many of Iraq's militias are already playing a sometimes highly visible role maintaining order in areas where their leaders hold sway.

In northern Iraq, the two Kurdish militias, whose members together number several tens of thousands of men, remain well-established forces.

In southern Iraq, SCIRI's Badr corps, estimated to number some 10,000 men, usually maintains a lower profile. But it openly took to the streets to enforce security in Al-Najaf when the then leader of the party, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, was assassinated in August.