5 May 2006, Volume 9, Number 18
INITIATIVES ON MILITIAS, ARMED GROUPS RAISE CONCERNS. 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, alnajafnews.net 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," latimes.com 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 [President] 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 President 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. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on May 5.)
RFI INTERVIEWS HUSAYN AL-SHAHRISTANI. For months, the formation of a government in Iraq has foundered on the issue of who should be prime minister. The country now has a designated prime minister who appears to enjoy the preliminary backing of the key parties. Nuri al-Maliki (who is also known as Jawad al-Maliki) now hopes to be able to put a government together swiftly. How close is an agreement? And what key issues remain in the negotiating process? RFE/RL’s Radio Free Iraq (RFI) correspondent Layla Ahmad asked Husayn al-Shahristani, a former deputy speaker of parliament, about the positions of the various parties expected to form a government.
Chief among those parties is the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance, of which al-Shahristani is a leading member. It has 128 seats, compared with 53 for the Kurdistan Coalition, 44 for the Iraqi Accordance Front, and 25 for the Iraqi National List.
Al-Shahrastani: Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki has announced that he wants to have the cabinet ready by May 9. We have come a long way, in fact. Most of the ministerial posts, including the power [ministries], have been divided among the [political] blocs. But attitudes still differ on some ministries, either between the [Kurdistan] Coalition and the [Iraqi] Accordance [Front], or between the [Iraqi] Accordance [Front] and the Iraqi [National List] -- [in the latter case, the parties differ] on the post of deputy prime minister.
RFI: Whom do you support in this?
Al-Shahrastani: We support the one who has right on their side. We believe that the points system is a fair system, and, based on the points system, it is right that the Iraqi [National List] should get the post of deputy prime minister or, if they reject that post, to get a top leadership position [as deputy prime minister]. In fact, all the blocs, from the [United Iraqi Alliance] to the others, have nominated their strongest leaders to the cabinet. We therefore believe the cabinet will be one of strongest Iraqi cabinets possible and one of those most able to solve the crises in Iraq, God willing.
RFI: The leadership of the Kurdistan Coalition recently gathered in Kurdistan to discuss the points system, the key that will determine how ministries are allocated and a source of disagreement between the Kurdistan Coalition and the United Iraqi Alliance.
Al-Shahrastani: The position of the [United Iraqi] Alliance is: The number of points assigned to each leadership post and ministerial post must be allotted in line with the number of seats that the respective bloc has [in the parliament, the Council of Representatives]. For each post gained, the respective number of points will be subtracted from the total of points that each bloc has.
This is the position of the [United Iraqi] Alliance. We have been supported in this position by the Iraqi National List and the [Iraqi Front for National] Dialogue [a party with 11 seats]. But our friends in the [Kurdistan] Coalition think that the nine top leadership posts -- that means, the posts of president and his two vice-presidents, the speaker of the Council of Representatives and his two deputies, and the prime minister and his two deputies – should not be included in the points system. They want to have a post in each trio of posts, and to apply the points system only to the ministries as such. This is an issue on which we have not yet reached agreement with the [Kurdistan] Coalition.
RFI: Do you think this will be an obstacle to the formation of a government?
Al-Shahrastani: I would not call it an "obstacle" in any real sense. Indeed, we still have time for negotiations in which to reach positions that all can unite around.
RFI: It has been announced that Iraqi National List leader Iyad Allawi will run for the post of the secretary-general of the National Security Council. The United Iraqi Alliance has not objected to his nomination, adding, though, that any agreement would depend on a discussion with the remaining parties.
Al-Shahrastani: We have not yet entered dialogue on this issue with the other blocs. But the Iraqi National List has clearly shown its desire to revisit the question of how many members should be in the political section of the National Security Council. The blocs [that will form the government] have agreed that the number would be 19: nine members from the [United Iraqi] Alliance and the rest divided among the other blocs, based on their representation in the Council of Representatives. The Iraqi National List now wishes to reduce that number to nine.
RFI: Will you, then, object to Iyad Allawi if he does not occupy the post of secretary-general of the National Security Council but runs instead for a ministerial position?
Al-Shahrastani: We have not objected to Iyad Allawi, even as regards ministerial posts. But I cannot say whether the [United Iraqi] Alliance will approve something before it is discussed.
(Translated by Petr Kubalek. Originally published on May 2.)
SUNNI ARAB CLERIC SAYS NEW GOVERNMENT NO DIFFERENT. Harith al-Dari, secretary-general of Iraq's Muslim Scholars Association, an influential Sunni Arab organization, was interviewed by RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) correspondent Fa'iqah Rasul Sarhan in Amman, Jordan, on April 29.
Al-Dari began by denying reports that the United States has offered him a post in the new Iraqi cabinet.
Harith al-Dari: I have not been offered any post by anyone, neither by the [U.S.] occupiers nor by anyone else. We do not demand posts. We have not strived and will not strive for them, today as well as before and after, God willing. Concerning our views on the political opening, I think that the political situation has not been eased and will remain as it is.
RFI: Will the new government manage to lead Iraq out of the swirl of violence?
Al-Dari: We wish so if [the government] makes steps different from the previous governments, if it is indeed neutral and for all Iraqis, if it follows the correct methods for installing security and a stable situation.
This is what we wish but reality, statements, and attitudes of the leaders of this government have from the very beginning indicated that it will probably not leave the path of the previous governments. That is why we are pessimists on the foreseeable future developments of the situation.
RFI: Do you see any way out of this crisis?
Al-Dari: Yes. The way out of the crisis is that the occupiers leave Iraq.
RFI: [Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mus'ab] al-Zarqawi has recently appeared on television screens. What is your comment on al-Zarqawi's threats to Iraq?
Al-Dari: I have no comment on this. The issue is beyond our agenda and the area of our own particular concerns.
(Translated by Petr Kubalek. Originally published on April 30.)