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Iraq Report: February 10, 2006

10 February 2006, Volume 9, Number 6

IRAQI CARTOON PROTESTS SPUR WIDER DEBATE. Like Muslims around the world, Iraqis have condemned the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that were originally published in the Danish newspaper "Jyllands-Posten" in September and subsequently reprinted around the globe. Several demonstrations against the newspaper broke out across Iraq over the past two weeks, as Iraqis vented their fury against the West, including the United States.

But few Muslims have stopped to ask if they themselves bear any responsibility for allowing terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda to create the widespread impression that associates Islam with terrorism.

Iraq-based Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani addressed this issue in a statement recently posted to his website. In a thinly veiled reference to Al-Qaeda, al-Sistani wrote: "The unjust and stray faction that has misinterpreted and manipulated the values and sacred meanings of the noble faith changed [the reputation of Islam] and devastated the earth with injustice and [moral] corruption, choosing the path of extremism.... This has reflected a gloomy picture of the religion of love, justice, and brotherhood, which has led elements hostile [to Muslims] to exploit this dangerous flaw, disseminate their malice, and revive old hatreds through new methods -- the latest being a pathetic attempt by a Danish newspaper, and then a Norwegian one, to insult the sanctity and the divine status of the holy Prophet."

While al-Sistani's assessment that the newspapers -- and by extension the West -- are hostile to Islam seems an inaccurate generalization, his point about the perversion of Islam by extremists is well taken.

The fact that protests in Iraq and other parts of the Islamic world have morphed into demonstrations against broader issues of concern to Muslims says much about Muslim perceptions of the state of relations with the West -- perceptions that have been adversely affected in recent decades by international political developments.

Today, many Muslims feel under attack from the West, just as many in the West feel under threat of attack from Islamic extremists. The argument that both sides have politicized the cartoon issue -- with some Europeans arguing that freedom of the press justifies the publication of such cartoons, despite the offense they cause, and some Muslims linking the cartoons to Israeli and American designs against the Islamic world -- warrants consideration.

Al-Sadr Foundation Organizes Demonstrations

Many of the demonstrations that sprouted up in cities and towns across Iraq over the past two weeks were sponsored by Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Sadr Foundation. Demonstrators at an 8 February march in Ba'qubah shouted: "No, no to America! No, no to Israel! No, no to Denmark! No, no to Norway!" "Our people are angry at all Danish people, at Israel, and everybody who is with them," a participant told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI).

Hasan al-Kindi, director of the Ba'qubah bureau of the Martyr (al-Sadr) Office described the al-Sadrist response to RFI: "We are the followers [of the Prophet Muhammad]; we are his mobilized army. This [demonstration] is a cry in the face of tyrants and wrongdoers [who think] there is discord among Muslims. We are telling them: Listen! Even though all those united to cause disunity among Muslims, God has turned it into unity among Muslims, whose slogan is there is no god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God."

In Al-Hillah, south of Baghdad, another demonstration on 8 February broke out among Shi'a taking part in a mourning procession marking the Ashura festival. A co-organizer of the march was Babil Governorate Council member Kazim Majid Tuman, who told RFI, "All of us are ready to find martyrdom in defending the honor of the Messenger of God."

Sayyid Sa'd al-Musawi, a preacher from the Imam Ali Mosque in Al-Najaf, was on hand at the demonstration but called for calm. "All the nations, countries, and people must hear that the personalities of prophets, peace be upon them, must not be attacked," he told RFI. "Evidence of that is that we, the Islamic community, have not attacked any prophet, be it a prophet of Jews or Christians. So they too must respect our prophets and the things holy to other peoples."

Calls For Calm

Other Shi'ite leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, have called for peaceful protests against the cartoons. Al-Sistani, in a statement posted to his website, called on "freedom lovers in the world and the Islamic nation with its scholars, intellectuals, and academics to stand up against all forms of practices that undermine religious values." Al-Hakim, in a nationally televised speech on 8 February, also called for peaceful protests. "We are against the idea of attacking embassies and other official sites," he said.

Meanwhile, non-Muslim Iraqis expressed fears of increased interconfessional violence as a result of the cartoons.

Pir Khidr Sulayman, president of the Lalish Social and Cultural Center, a Yezidi organization, condemned the cartoons, telling RFI on 7 February that they would have "very negative and grave ramifications." Sulayman said the cartoons come at a time when people are fighting for tolerance and dialogue. "The pictures...have irritated over 1.4 billion Muslims, thus igniting religious strife and encouraging the terrorist current around the world. I must ask: 'What is the purpose behind publishing such items?'" Sulayman said. "Muslims calling for peace have been put in an unsustainable position, in which they cannot last long against the obstinacy of the terrorist segment."

Chaldean Democratic Party Political Bureau Secretary Ro'el Dawud said the cartoons are an insult to all religions, RFI reported on 7 February. "The insults to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon Him, that have been published in the Danish newspaper have riled not only the feelings of Muslims but [the feelings of the followers] of all religions," he said. "This act was intentional because the same newspaper had earlier published pictures insulting Jesus. At that time, our people in Denmark and other countries protested against these pictures. It must not happen that, under the name of the freedom of expression and the like, people are insulted. Every freedom stops where the freedom of others begins." (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Published on 10 February.)

OIL SECTOR FACES TOUGH TIMES. Iraq's struggling oil sector is once again being rocked by scandal, following an announcement on 5 February that the Public Integrity Commission has filed criminal charges against a member of parliament for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars intended to improve security of a key pipeline.

The scandal comes amid reports of growing tension between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which administers one of Iraq's key oil-producing areas.

Control of Iraq's oil is a highly sensitive issue, so the claim made by outgoing Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi on 31 January that the KRG had failed to obtain approval from the central government for a number of oil-exploration projects in Kurdistan could complicate talks to form a new government.

Among the most important oil-exploration efforts is in Zakho, a town on the Turkish border. Kurdish officials said in late January that the exploration there had already produced "very good results." Kurdish officials maintain that the Oil Ministry was aware of the drilling. Back in November, in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, the governor of the oil-rich Dahuk Governorate, Tamir Ramadan, said, "the Oil Ministry has helped and expended great effort [on the project] so it was a party in this project."

Under the new Iraqi Constitution, ratified in October, regional governments are supposed to work closely with Baghdad to develop the oil sector. "The federal government and the governments of the producing regions and provinces together will draw up the necessary strategic policies to develop oil and gas wealth to bring the greatest benefit for the Iraqi people," the constitution stipulates.

Chalabi, who briefly took control of the Oil Ministry in December, said that no such agreement between the KRG and Baghdad exists about oil exploration, Dow Jones Newswires reported on 6 February.

That places Det Norske Oljeselskap (DNO), the Norwegian oil-exploration company drilling at Zakho, in an uncertain legal position. DNO maintains that it has "a legal valid agreement in full compliance with the constitution."

Chalabi begs to differ, saying that "negotiations have not started yet." DNO "may have some deal with the Kurds," Chalabi said in an interview with Reuters published on 1 February, "but they need to have a deal with Baghdad to explore."

Chalabi believes "we need a law before we can get to exploration and production." He gave no indication, though, when such a law might be passed and, in reality, at this point the central government can do little to stop the drilling, something Kurdish officials are acutely aware of.

Oil Ministry In Disarray

Corruption and the growing dispute with the KRG are just two of the problems besetting the Oil Ministry. The Oil Ministry itself has been in disarray since the start of the year, after Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum tendered his resignation on 2 January. The reason was the government's decision in December to put him on leave after the minister openly criticized a planned increase in fuel prices.

Bahr al-Ulum returned to his post one week later at the behest of President Jalal Talabani and Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, but, at the minister's urging, al-Ja'fari finally accepted his resignation last week.

His replacement as acting oil minister, Hashim al-Hashimi, has raised questions, with media reports saying that the former tourism minister has no expertise in the oil sector. Chalabi told Reuters that, in his view, al-Hashimi's lack of expertise is not an issue.

Insurgents Cripple Already Decrepit Infrastructure

A raft of news this year has only served to underline that the oil sector, too, is in disarray.

Despite its wealth of oil, Iraq has had to rely heavily on oil imports since the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003. In January, its oil debt to Turkey topped $1 billion, prompting 34 Turkish companies to stop exporting to Iraq. The Iraqi government says payments will begin shortly, but Turkish State Minister Kursat Tuzmen said exports will remain suspended until the debt is paid.

The situation worsened, rather than improved in 2005, with insurgent attacks on pipelines and refineries crippling the country's oil industry. Oil production fell by 8 percent in 2005, averaging between 1.5 and 1.8 million barrels per day -- 1 million barrels fewer than it was producing before Operation Iraqi Freedom began in 2003.

For a country that relies on oil revenues to finance more than 90 percent of its annual budget -- and with foreign aid expected to be cut drastically this year -- the impact could be disastrous for the incoming government.

Leaving aside the additional damage that the insurgency could wreak, Iraq needs billions of dollars to modernize its oil production system. A World Bank estimate says it would take $8 billion to raise output to 3 million barrels per day. Speaking at a gathering of members of the Oil Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna on 31 January, Chalabi said that he expects $4 billion in investment, but did not say from where it would come.

But until insurgent attacks on oil infrastructure are addressed, the industry will continue to suffer. An increasing amount of information is emerging from Oil Ministry insiders that points to massive criminality, including indications that some ministry personnel are acting, for example, as paid informants for insurgent networks and for oil-smuggling mafias.

In January, a security guard working at the Bayji complex in northern Iraq told the U.S. magazine "Newsweek" that his colleagues were known to be paid informants for insurgents.

Finance Minister Ali Allawi, quoted in a 5 February report by "The New York Times," estimated that between 40 and 50 percent of all profits from oil smuggling go into the pockets of insurgents. He added that members of the insurgency hold senior management positions in the Bayji refinery, one of the country's key oil installations.

The previous day, on 4 February, police arrested the director of a Kirkuk processing plant, along with police officials and other employees, for a 2 February attack that destroyed much of the plant.

The Al-Juburi Scandal

It is against this backdrop that the multimillion-dollar embezzlement scandal broke on 5 February. Mish'an al-Juburi, who was nominated last year to serve as the speaker of parliament, is charged with graft after a government investigation revealed that he and his son embezzled government funds intended to pay for paramilitary forces to guard pipelines that run from Bayji through the Salah Al-Din Governorate to Baghdad. The paramilitary force proved to be fictitious. Through a company formed by one of his sons, he allegedly pocketed about one-fifth of a $102,000-per-month contract to feed the guards, who, according to a list provided by al-Juburi, were supposed to number between 200 and 300.

Al-Juburi is also accused of colluding to steal Kalashnikov rifles. The weapons were stolen from civilian vehicles after Al-Juburi had ordered soldiers not to transport the 200 rifles to his battalion in military vehicles, which would be the normal practice.

Al-Juburi, who once had strong relations with Saddam Hussein's deceased son Uday, is now in Syria, his son Yazin told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on 6 February. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Published on 7 February.)

JUDGE DESCRIBES CORRUPTION CASE AGAINST LAWMAKER. Radi al-Radi, head of the Commission on Public Integrity, on 7 February spoke with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) about the corruption charges against parliamentarian Mish'an al-Juburi. Al-Juburi has been charged with graft under suspicion that he siphoned off salaries for ghost employees of a pipeline-protection force he oversaw in the Salah Al-Din Governorate. His son, Yazin, has also been charged, as his company is accused of misusing funds earmarked for feeding the protection force.

RFI: What can you tell us about the background of this case?

Al-Radi: As the number of explosions targeting oil pipelines was growing, the Council of Ministers discussed [in 2005] the issue with the Defense Ministry and the National Assembly in order to make a specific decision to solve this problem. There were a number of suggestions, one of them being to delegate the protection to local tribes in the areas crossed by the pipelines. As a member of the National Assembly, Mr. Mish'an [al-Juburi], together with [his relatives in the] Al-Jubur tribes, was to be put in charge of guarding the pipeline north of Baghdad. He was charged with this task. He had to form, supervise, and command armed units.

Indeed, he presented lists [with names of members] of these units, and money was allocated for their subsistence allowances. But the problem was that no matter how much was spent and how much was paid to these units, explosions on that pipeline continued. That prompted the government to investigate the matter.

The issue was passed to us, and as we worked on it we came to see that it included numerous elements of corruption and embezzlement. It seems there were many fictitious names and that the funding was fabricated. In some areas, no one was protecting the pipeline.

Continuous explosions could be seen as a guarantee of the continued existence of the armed units and a continuous supply of financing -- but this also meant a continuous problem of embezzlement. Therefore, we presented the issue to the courts. Having found there is evidence, the court opened a case against Mish'an [al-Juburi], and issued a warrant for him.

RFI: The court might come up against a problem with the legal immunity that protects Mish'an al-Juburi as a member of the National Assembly.

Al-Radi: Of course, as a lawyer, I believe that the former National Assembly has been effectively dissolved and the next parliament has not held any sessions yet. For this reason, Mish'an al-Juburi had no immunity during this period. Measures have already been taken. When the court issued the warrant, a file was opened on Mish'an al-Juburi and his son Yazin, who is involved in the case. They have not been found, and there is information that they are in Syria.

On these grounds, the matter has been passed to Interpol so they can be arrested. But the problem of immunity is an issue between the court and the National Assembly. The court will reach some results only through the National Assembly, via telephone connections and correspondence.

RFI: Mish'an al-Juburi has said the case is based on purely political goals, aiming at his removal from politics. What is your comment?

Al-Radi: First of all, we are professionals, unrelated to politics. Mish'an al-Juburi should not have any problem with us because we are not politicians. The problem completely falls under the issues of corruption and embezzlement. We have received a file from authorities so we must act on it. We did act and have presented the issue to the court that has found it is an embezzlement case. A judge in a court would not issue a warrant unless there is evidence.

RFI: What is the amount of money that has allegedly been defrauded under the pretext of pipeline protection?

Al-Radi: The court has asked investigators to provide it with payrolls, including the names of all members of the protection unit in order to block the money. The amount is high, but I cannot tell you exact numbers at the present time because only now it is being blocked.

RFI: Is it worth millions of dollars?

Al-Radi: Of course. It has definitely been in the millions of dollars. Let us consider that a monthly wage of some 150,000 [Iraqi dinars, or $100] was paid for several months, in addition to high amounts for subsistence allowances. Therefore, [the damage] is naturally worth millions [of U.S. dollars].

RFI: How has the case affected pipeline-reconstruction projects?

Al-Radi: This issue has led to a number of projects being stopped. Moreover, the extent of the necessary protection was initially not properly taken into account in the projects. In the end, many people were recruited for the protection force, with enormous amounts of money allocated -- and this has happened at the expense of reconstruction projects. (Translated by Petr Kubalek. Published on 8 February.)