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Iraq Report: May 19, 2006

19 May 2006, Volume 9, Number 20

DESPITE REPORTED CABINET DEAL, SOME PARTIES NOT SATISFIED. As leading Iraqi politicians announced this week that a deal on the cabinet was at hand, a number of political parties voiced their displeasure with the negotiations, saying sectarian politics were getting in the way of forming a national-unity government, signaling a possible setback in the talks. Under Iraqi law, Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki has until May 22 to announce his cabinet.

The news that an announcement on the cabinet was imminent came on May 17 when parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani told the Council of Representatives that he had received word that al-Maliki would present his cabinet to the parliament on May 20.

But Sunni and Shi'ite leaders representing various political blocs have said their parties were not satisfied with the cabinet posts allocated to them. While most complained that the cabinet was being formed along sectarian lines, in reality, most appeared more disgruntled over the quality of posts on offer. Nearly all of the parties criticizing the negotiations said they were offered what they considered low-profile ministries.

'Unfair' Offer

Hamid Majid Musa, secretary-general of the Iraqi Communist Party and a leading negotiator for the secular Shi'ite Iraqi National List, told reporters at a May 17 press briefing in Baghdad that his bloc was still in negotiations with the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA).

"Our list is still in dialogue with our brothers in the UIA over forming a national-unity government and we all hope that the negotiations will end with positive results," RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) quoted Musa as saying. "The list is moving forward based on a strong will to form a strong government as soon as possible, to uphold a national balance away from [sectarian] quotas and in order to respond to the will of the people in nominating the best-qualified people and offering the best expertise to this government," he added.

Musa described the posts offered to his list as "unfair," saying the positions would not give the bloc the opportunity to play an effective role in "saving the country from the crises and complications it has been facing."

Iraqi National List member Izzat al-Shahbandar told Al-Sharqiyah television that the communications, justice, human rights, and science and technology portfolios were offered to the bloc, the satellite news channel reported on May 17.

While Musa insisted that the list would not withdraw from the government should it fail to receive more high-level portfolios, al-Shahbandar said that the list would restrict its role to support in the National Assembly, rather than assume the ministerial posts offered to it. Citing unidentified list members, Al-Sharqiyah also reported that the bloc might withdraw from the government altogether, but that has not been independently verified.

Meanwhile, Sabah al-Sa'idi, spokesman for the Shi'ite party Al-Fadilah, repeated his claim that negotiators continue to nominate individuals "whose failure in the first stage [in previous governments] has been established," RFI reported. "The problem does not lie in assuming this or that ministry because we do not regard ministries as booty as some do by talking about getting a piece of the cake," al-Sa'idi said.

The party withdrew from the negotiations last week after other parties to the UIA rejected its bid for the Oil Ministry post. He called the sectarian tactics of more influential parties, "treachery against the poor people who elected those politicians." The more dominant parties still believe they can "impose their will" on smaller, less influential parties, he said.

Al-Sa'idi also complained of constant foreign interference in the distribution of posts, which he said influenced his party's decision to boycott the talks.

Sunni Arabs Express Disappointment

Sunni Arab leaders also expressed concern over what they called a sectarian-based negotiation process.

Salih al-Mutlaq, the head of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, told Al-Arabiyah television on May 17 that his bloc has withdrawn from the government to protest the sectarian distribution of ministerial posts.

Al-Mutlaq said that despite reports that negotiators are close to finalizing an agreement, huge differences remain. "We held discussions with our brothers in the Iraqi National List and the Iraqi Accordance Front. We made our decision today not to participate in the government on the basis of the current distribution of ministerial posts between the Shi'a, Sunnis, and Kurds," al-Mutlaq said.

He added that the sectarian allocation of portfolios posed a serious threat to Iraq's future. Al-Sharqiyah television quoted members of the front as saying that the front was offered the ministries of Environment, Women's Affairs, and National Dialogue. The members, who were not identified, described them as "secondary ministries."

Al-Mutlaq accused U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad of forcing the formation of a government of sectarian and ethnic quotas in a May 18 commentary published in the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat." U.S. President George W. Bush "is today telling his people that he is pleased because the Iraqis formed a government representing all the components of the Iraqi people, which is completely untrue. The truth is that the U.S. administration managed to form a government along sectarian and ethnic bases, which [could] pave the way for igniting a civil war and for dividing and weakening Iraq," al-Mutlaq wrote.

"All we are asking for is to reconsider this [cabinet] configuration, which will not last long and which will lead the country to more massacres and strengthen the presence of terrorists, thus posing a threat to the region and the world," he added.

Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front spokesman Zafir al-Ani told Al-Jazeera television in a May 17 interview that negotiators from his bloc are not managing cabinet negotiations in a satisfactory manner. The negotiators' concern for their own personal interests have clouded their ability to properly negotiate, he added.

Given the "kind of ministerial portfolios offered to [the front], there is now a communal and group feeling that this deal is not a fair deal," he said. "The number and kind of portfolios offered to the front in no way lives up to the popular expectations of the constituencies of the Accordance Front regarding the need to extricate them from the catastrophic circumstances from which they are suffering."

The portfolios offered do not even meet the bloc's supporters' minimum expectations, al-Ani added. "I think that the way in which ministerial portfolios are being distributed in no way helps achieve political stability or civil peace."

The dissatisfaction expressed by parties marginalized in the negotiations is likely to have little impact on Nuri al-Maliki's ability to win approval for his cabinet. According to the constitution, the prime minister "is considered to have won confidence when his ministers are approved individually and his ministerial platform is approved by an absolute majority," or 138 of the 275 parliamentarians. Together, the UIA parliamentarians (without Al-Fadilah) and the Kurdistan Coalition could easily meet this requirement and push the cabinet through.

The problem will come after the cabinet is approved. Should the marginalized parties refuse the posts offered to them and resign, al-Maliki would be left with an incomplete cabinet, and more critically, a sectarian, rather than national-unity government. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on May 18.)

BRINGING SECURITY TO THE CHAOTIC SOUTH. President Jalal Talabani told reporters at a May 15 press briefing in Baghdad that the Presidency Council has formed a committee to look into the deteriorating security situation in Al-Basrah, where rogue militias now run rampant as the political parties supporting them vie for power.

Describing the ongoing assassinations, threats, attacks, and "security chaos" in the southern city as an "urgent situation," Talabani announced that Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi would head the committee, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on May 15.

'Security Chaos'

The security situation has deteriorated to such a degree that it is difficult to discern whether there are any legitimate, nonpartisan security forces operating there now.

Rampant violence continues, with Shi'ite militias fighting each other and enforcing their brand of Islam on the public. The militias have also launched a campaign of attacks and assassinations against members of the Sunni Arab community.

Meanwhile, tribesmen killed eight policemen in a revenge attack on a local police station on May 15, after men wearing police uniforms killed Al-Basrah chieftain Hasan Jarih al-Karmashi.

Governor's Intentions Suspected

Al-Basrah Governor Muhammad Musbih al-Wa'ili on May 13 accused two representatives of Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of inciting violence in the governorate, RFI reported the same day. He also accused Iran of interfering in governorate affairs. Al-Wa'ili's Al-Fadilah Party is not on good terms with Iran, which supports other political parties active in Al-Basrah.

Al-Wa'ili also announced the suspension of Al-Basrah's police chief and called on Defense Minister Sa'dun al-Dulaymi to dismiss the commander of the army's 10th Division for incompetence. At first glance, it appeared that the governor had the support of tribal leaders in the city against rogue militias operating there. But some observers have said that the allegiance of tribal leaders is little more than lip service, and their leaders' true loyalties lie elsewhere.

Meanwhile, British commanders in Al-Basrah are less than impressed with the governor's performance. Robert Collett, a spokesman for the U.K. Consulate in Al-Basrah, said that Britain did not "recognize" the validity of al-Wa'ili's claims, reported on May 15.

A source familiar with the situation in the city who asked not to be identified told RFE/RL on May 16 that every political party operating in Al-Basrah -- from the governor's Al-Fadilah Party, to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, Hizballah, and those civilians loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- has its own militia.

The situation in the governorate now resembles Lebanon before the civil war broke out, the source said. The police force is dominated by members loyal to their parties or militias, with each competing for control. The public is helpless against the dominant militias.

The Al-Basrah Governorate Council was appointed by the dominant political parties, and remains in power despite the rampant attacks and killing, lack of services, and corruption. The council rubber-stamps the decisions of the parties and does not effect any real change on the political scene.

Public Disappointed In British Peacekeepers

The source told RFE/RL that the general public believes that British forces stationed in Al-Basrah have done little to bring order to the situation. Initially, people welcomed the arrival of British forces in 2003 after decades of arrests, torture, and killings at the hands of Saddam Hussein's regime, and they were impressed that the British did not apply the same tactics used by U.S. forces in Baghdad and other areas that caused friction with locals, such as intrusive searches.

But there was a price to be paid for such a policy -- militias solidified their hold on the governorate, and particularly, the capital city of Al-Basrah. British forces saw the kidnappings, killings, and crime, but they did nothing, the source claimed.

There were indications early on that Britain's failure to police Al-Basrah was contributing to the rise of militias in the city. In January 2004, British media uncovered the existence of a secret police force operating in Al-Basrah. The members of the Istikhbarat al-Shurta (Police Intelligence) unit were accused of kidnapping, detaining, and even killing former Ba'ath Party members. British forces were reportedly aware of the group's activities, London's "Sunday Times" claimed.

A senior commander of the unit told a "Sunday Times" reporter that the unit employed members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) armed wing, the Badr Brigades (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," January 30, 2004).

Last year, British forces declined to get involved when militias led a crackdown on university students in the city (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," March 28, 2005). A student explained the complex security situation at the time to Radio Free Iraq, saying that the intelligence services were supported by militiamen loyal to SCIRI, while the police supported al-Sadr militiamen, who led the crackdown on the students.

The Governorate Council was unable to protest the situation due to its weak position vis-a-vis the militias, while Iraqi army forces sat by and watched militiamen round up students, the student said.

Too Late to Change?

Today, it seems that British forces cannot be expected to change much. According to local media reports, the situation has deteriorated to such a degree that it would take years, not months, to sort out.

Militias continue to operate with impunity, as evidenced by a series of increasingly brazen attacks against British forces in recent months. Last week, Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army openly claimed responsibility for the downing of a British helicopter in Al-Basrah earlier this month.

Governor al-Wa'ili suspended contacts with British forces in Al-Basrah in February, but said last week he was canceling that decision. But with his sincerity in doubt, and the Britain's apparent disinterest in taking on the colossal challenge of enforcing order, locals have little hope of change, particularly as the British military turns its focus to drawing down its numbers this year.

Indeed, a recent Danish intelligence report said that the security situation in Al-Basrah has gone from bad to worse, "Berlingske Tidende" reported on May 12. Danish troops are stationed alongside British forces in the area.

British forces did take steps to strip some police forces of their weapons in April, after a surge of kidnappings were linked to members of the police. But with the police so intimately tied to militias, such actions will have little impact, as the militias could easily resupply police forces loyal to them.

Nor is it likely that security forces dispatched from other areas of the country could bring order to Al-Basrah in the near term. Baghdad-based security forces would be ineffective, since they too are tied to militias loyal to Shi'ite parties, while stationing Kurdish brigades in the region would be a recipe for civil conflict. Vice President Abd al-Mahdi, a respected Shi'ite leader, can likely calm the situation through dialogue. However, it will not change the inherent problem facing the governorate. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on May 17.)

RUMSFELD AGAIN ACCUSES IRAN OF INTERFERENCE IN IRAQ. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has reiterated that he believes Iran is contributing to the instability in Iraq, telling U.S. senators that a hasty withdrawal from Iraq would merely serve Iran's interests.

Rumsfeld told members of the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 17 that U.S. forces continue to find Iranian-manufactured weapons in Iraq, though he conceded that there is no conclusive proof of Iranian involvement.

"The problem we've got is unless you catch somebody from Iran, from the government of Iran, physically bringing a weapon into Iraq, and you can tie a string between the two, you can't assert that it necessarily was government-sponsored," he said.

Rumsfeld was nonetheless clear in his conviction that it is in Iran's interest for Iraq to be weak. "The thought of having the Iraqi Constitution and the sovereign elected government fail there would be the best thing in the world from Iran's standpoint," he argued.

The U.S. defense secretary also appeared to suggest that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would encourage Iran in its confrontation with the international community over its nuclear program. Iran maintains that the program is strictly peaceful in purpose, but the United States and a number of allies fear Tehran may be seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

"If people are anxious to see Iran successful in the path they're on, it strikes me that that tossing in the towel on Iraq would be a boost" for Iran, Rumsfeld told senators.

The public pressure that Washington is under to cut the number of U.S. troops in Iraq was evident in the committee room when guards hauled off an antiwar protester after she shouted "Liar!" at Rumsfeld. Her T-shirt bore the number 2,450, an apparent reference to the number of Americans killed in the conflict.

Concern in Congress at the number of U.S. casualties and the uncertainty about when troops will return from Iraq was voiced by a number of senators. One of them, Dianne Feinstein (Democrat, California) said she feared U.S. troops are becoming "a kind of scapegoat for the militias to carry out operations against other civilians. I am really concerned about our people being caught in the middle of this, and it seems to me that the time is upon us to transition that mission and begin to confine our presence to logistics and support -- and move our people out."

Rumsfeld said he and U.S. military commanders in Iraq shared those concerns and are doing their utmost to shift more of the security burden to Iraqi forces. But, while saying that he hoped significant withdrawals might start soon, the U.S. defense secretary said he could make no promise. There are currently over 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. This is lower than early this year, but promises of a meaningful reduction in troop levels this year have yet to materialize.

General Peter Pace, who gave testimony along with Rumsfeld in his capacity as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that the process of transferring responsibility to Iraqi forces is accelerating as the Iraqi government consolidates and gains in confidence.

The senators, who are reviewing a request by the administration of President George W. Bush for funds for the fiscal year 2007, also briefly probed the behavior of U.S. troops in Iraq, a source of much criticism since revelations of the abuse and even torture of prisoners in the Abu Ghurayb prison.

Senator Richard Durbin (Democrat, Illinois) asked Rumsfeld if the Pentagon would object if U.S. soldiers had to undergo the same methods of interrogation as outlined in a new Army Field Manual, which lays down new rules governing the questioning of enemy combatants.

Rumsfeld's response was limited to one sentence: "If you're asking me, 'Will the Army Field Manual be recommending that [interrogation procedure] in every sense be complying with the law?' the answer is, 'It will.'" (By Andrew Tully. Originally published on May 17.)