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Iraq Report: June 23, 2006

June 23, 2006, Volume 9, Number 23

IRAQI PRIME MINISTER TO ANNOUNCE AMBITIOUS RECONCILIATION PROGRAM. As Iraqis await the formal announcement of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's national-reconciliation plan, many politicians appear poised to support the initiative, which proposes a multifaceted approach to resolving the security crisis plaguing the country.

The plan, set to be announced to parliament on June 26, is expected to include a general amnesty for those members of the resistance who do not have blood on their hands, as well as an initiative to reexamine the controversial de-Ba'athification program.

Al-Maliki told reporters at a June 6 press briefing in Baghdad that de-Ba'athification is a constitutional issue that should be reconsidered by the Council of Representatives and revised to "right wrongs and not harm those who would like to join the political process." The government will also continue a program begun earlier this month aimed at releasing those detainees not charged with crimes.

The plan is also expected to call for the implementation of large-scale reconstruction projects in 14 of the country's 18 governorates, where the security situation remains relatively stable. Al-Maliki has said that he also intends to crack down on corruption within his government.

The second phase of the plan will likely seek to activate the antiterrorism law, and will include a security crackdown on those groups who continue to hold weapons and oppose the government.

Once the government is able to gain control over security by collecting illegal weapons, there will be no need for armed gunmen or militias to roam the streets, another key point in the prime minister's plan.

Reining In Militias Key To Plan

Al-Maliki has said he intends to rein in militias by integrating some within the official security forces, and pensioning off others. While the details of the plan are not yet known, the core idea was one that the Coalition Provisional Authority attempted but failed to implement in 2004.

The proposal has already raised concerns among some members of his cabinet, including the national intelligence chief, Muhammad al-Shahwani. Al-Shahwani, who has headed intelligence since 2004, told "Al-Zaman" in a June 11 interview that "integration is not the solution."

"Integration means officially recognizing the militias and condoning their acts," al-Shahwani said. "This should not happen at a time when the government, the parliament, and the political forces are trying to put the task of maintaining security and defense solely and exclusively in the hands of the armed forces."

Moreover, it is doubtful that the two largest Shi'ite militias, Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's Badr Corps, would actually abide by any commitment to dissolve their militias. Both have previously committed to laying down arms, but neither has actually done so.

The Badr Corps changed its name to the Badr Organization in 2003 as part of its declared transformation from a militia to a civil-society organization. Thousands of its members subsequently joined the ranks of official state security forces, but the militia remains active.

The Al-Mahdi Army has also claimed on at least one occasion to have laid down its arms, but by some accounts is better armed today than ever before.

Meanwhile, it is unclear whether the government will redefine the role of the Kurdish peshmerga, which is responsible for security in the northern Kurdish region.

Too Ambitious?

While several Sunni and Shi'ite politicians have already voiced support for the plan, as has President Jalal Talabani, some observers fear it may be too ambitious.

For one, it remains unclear which members of the resistance the government is willing to negotiate with. Press reports last week indicated that the government might offer amnesty to insurgent groups that have waged attacks on coalition forces, a claim the prime minister's office denied.

Al-Maliki has already said he would not engage in talks with insurgent groups that had blood on their hands, raising questions among some Iraqis about just how effective the talks would be.

Few politicians on both sides have acknowledged that unless talks are opened with all groups -- including hard-line Ba'athists and Islamists -- little change can come, since the latter two constitute the core of the insurgency.

But al-Maliki is likely to focus on his comprehensive approach. Critics have said that the failure of the interim and transitional governments to stabilize the country rested on simplistic approaches that sought to address certain aspects of security, while ignoring others. Al-Maliki will argue that his approach will offer both carrots and sticks to all sides in the conflict.

His administration's ability to succeed will rest on its ability to elicit the cooperation of the country's fractious ethnic and religious groups at a time when factionalism is at an all-time high. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on June 23.)

EXPERT SEES FURTHER DWINDLING OF COALITION. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has announced plans to withdraw Japan's 600 noncombat troops from Iraq. The decision comes one day after Iraq's prime minister said Iraqi forces will take over security operations in the southern Al-Muthanna Governorate where Japanese troops have been engaged in reconstruction and humanitarian work. RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan discussed the state of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq with Charles Heyman, editor of the journal "The Armed Forces Of The European Union."

RFE/RL: Given the nature of the Japanese troops' work in Iraq -- where they have carried out a humanitarian, noncombat mission -- what effect will their troop pullout have on the overall coalition effort there?

Charles Heyman: If we look at coalition operations across the whole of Iraq, the Japanese decision to withdraw the whole of their troops out of Al-Muthanna Governorate really doesn't make much of a difference. First of all, we've known about this for quite a long time now; there's been an enormous amount of debate going on in Japan. Those Japanese troops are assisting with reconstruction projects in probably the most sparsely populated province in Iraq, a province with a total population of about 300,000. And to help them do their reconstruction projects, they've been guarded by 400 Australian troops. And those Australian troops now are going to be redeployed elsewhere. So it is possible, actually, to say that the Japanese moving out might mean that some more troops are freed up for offensive operations against insurgents. Certainly, I think that the whole thing at the end of the day doesn't have as much of a negative impact as most observers initially believed.

RFE/RL: There has been some talk in Australia about the impact on Australian troops who have been guarding the Japanese troops. Are those Australian troops now going to be engaged in more offensive operations, as you seem to be suggesting?

Heyman: The first we've got, in fact, is that those Australian troops are going to be moved from Al-Muthanna Governorate to the Syrian border to help with security in northern Iraq. Now, if that is true, of course that does mean that those Australian troops will be subject almost certainly to some form of attacks by insurgents during the weeks to come. So it's going to be more difficult and more dangerous for them, and of course that will have some sort of reaction from domestic public opinion in Australia itself.

RFE/RL: Italy, meanwhile, has announced it will pull its troops out by the end of the year. Given Rome's and Japan's decision, and dwindling public support for the Iraq mission in other coalition countries, how do you see the rest of the year panning out for the U.S.-led coalition? Is it gradually falling apart?

Heyman: In Europe, the war in Iraq is far more unpopular than many people, certainly in the U.S., actually believe. I mean, there is no doubt about it: a significant slice of European public opinion is very much against what's going on in Iraq at the moment. So there is pressure on all of these smaller European contingents for their withdrawal. My gut feeling is that by the end of this year there will only be, coalition-wise, the Australians and the British helping the Americans, with maybe a handful of very, very small contingents from places like Latvia and Lithuania, and a few other countries. But really, really, pretty insignificant numbers overall. The only people we're liable to see there are probably British and Australians assisting the Americans.

RFE/RL: And Poland, which has had a pretty large presence, about 2,300 troops -- are they on their way out as well?

Heyman: They're not exactly on their way out at the moment, but there is tremendous pressure for the government to take them out. And it's debatable how long that Polish contingent is going to stay as large as it is. My gut feeling is that it's going to be very, very much smaller very quickly.

RFE/RL: And what about all these little contingents from countries like Hungary, Georgia, Mongolia, El Salvador, the Czech Republic. What are they really doing there? You look at the numbers. Lithuania, for example, has only 50 troops. Are these troops that are engaged in real combat?

Heyman: In some cases they're involved in helping the coalition in anti-insurgency operations. In other cases, they're helping to guard or they're providing some specialist military roles of one sort or another. But they are there for a sensible, sound political purpose, which is to tie themselves in to the United States and to make some sort of demonstration to the U.S. government that we are here with you.

These are generally countries that had a bit of a rough time over the last 40 or 50 years in terms of security and are relishing their newfound independence and want it to stay that way. When you look at them, you think, well, these are countries that are saying that their best guarantor of security, over the long-term, is probably the U.S. and NATO. So they're trying to keep themselves inside that security architecture, and one of the best ways they can do that is by showing a bit of [willingness] inside Iraq itself.

RFE/RL: The withdrawal of some of these coalition forces may not have an impact militarily on the coalition. But what about politically and diplomatically?

Heyman: I think politically and diplomatically, the presence of these contingents is very important. And having them leave the coalition is a sign, certainly for U.S. domestic opinion, that the U.S. is slowly but surely becoming isolated in its operations in Iraq. And there is also the chance that this isolation might translate itself to [U.S. President] George W. Bush's war on terror itself. And that's someone that no one in his right mind wants to see.

RFE/RL: So to sum up, by the end of the year you see the coalition becoming a mostly Anglophone representation – that is, the United States, Britain, and Australia?

Heyman: It begins to look like it. Certainly the numbers on the ground are going to be primarily Anglophone, as you describe it. We're look at about 150,000 [troops] in total, with about 7,500 British, just under 1,000 Australians, and some other coalition figures running up to about 2,500. And those numbers do change very, very quickly. And of course, the overall American figures change very quickly as well, as troops rotate in and out, and we've just seen a reserve brigade being deployed from Kuwait. So it's really difficult to pin those figures down. But I think that this point in time, across the board, we're probably looking at about 150,000 coalition troops in Iraq. (Originally published on June 20.)

IS AL-QAEDA TRYING TO ASSERT CONTROL OVER INSURGENCY? The U.S. military says Al-Qaeda in Iraq appears to have a new leader: Abu Ayyub al-Masri. If true, he would replace Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, who was killed on June 7 in a U.S. air strike.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq announced on the Internet on June 12 that its new leader is Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, which the U.S. military says is al-Masri's nom de guerre.

A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Major General William Caldwell, said al-Masri would be a likely candidate to take over the leadership of Al-Qaeda in Iraq after al-Zarqawi's death.

"Al-Masri's intimate knowledge of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and his close relationship with [al-Zarqawi's] operations will undoubtedly help to facilitate and enable them to regain some momentum if, in fact, he is the one that assumes the leadership role," Caldwell said on June 15.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been considered the driving force in the insurgency that arose after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. The group has tried to destabilize Iraq by attacking U.S. and other coalition forces and has been the leading Sunni Muslim antagonist in the sectarian violence aimed at Iraq's majority Shi'ite population.

Links To Al-Zawahri

Caldwell said al-Masri was a Muslim militant for at least 24 years before he joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahri, who is second in command to Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Later, al-Masri trained with explosives in Afghanistan.

In Iraq, Caldwell said al-Masri was responsible for bringing foreign fighters over Iraq's porous border with Syria. But Caldwell said it's not clear how much control al-Masri would be able to wield over Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"Al-Masri's ability to effectively exert leadership over the Al-Qaeda cells remains unclear," he said, "and how many Al-Qaeda senior leadership members and Sunni terrorists that may attempt to exert their influence and take charge is unknown at this time. We do know that he espouses -- in open press statements -- the same tactics of attacking and killing innocent civilians."

Al-Masri may also be hindered by his suspected Egyptian nationality, according to Frank Cilluffo, a former special assistant to U.S. President George W. Bush on counterterrorism. Cilluffo told RFE/RL that many Iraqi insurgents are suspicious of foreigners, and even if some follow al-Masri at first, their loyalty in the long run is less certain.

"What is significant is that he is allegedly an Egyptian, not an Iraqi," Cilluffo said. "And I think that that does question his sustainability in the long term. I think that it [al-Masri's accession to the leadership of Al-Qaeda in Iraq] could lead to a spike or a rise in short-term terrorist activity, but I'm not sure if its sustainable over the long haul."

Exerting Central Control?

Cilluffo said he believes al-Masri's accession to leader may have been influenced by al-Zawahri, who may want to impose some kind of central control over Al-Qaeda's Iraqi operations. He points to correspondence between al-Zawahri and al-Zarqawi that was seized recently by coalition forces and that indicates there was friction between the two men.

Those communications suggest that al-Zarqawi was acting too independently for al-Zawahri's -- and bin Laden's -- liking. At one point, al-Zawahri even told al-Zarqawi that mosques should be off-limits for his suicide bombers.

Cilluffo said this kind of exchange indicates the broad differences between al-Zarqawi, who wanted to focus attacks on U.S. operations in Iraq, and al-Zawahri, who wanted to keep Al-Qaeda's focus on strikes on U.S. soil and elsewhere in the world.

Making al-Masri the new leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq will help the group centralize control over its Iraqi operations, Cilluffo believes. "I do think you were seeing a split between al-Zarqawi and al-Zawahri, basically trying to identify the future of the Al-Qaeda organization," he said. "So I think that it [naming al-Masri as leader in Iraq] is an attempt to rein in a little more command and control. But most of the movement that we're seeing is going to a leaderless movement, and here [in Iraq] I think it is the franchising of Al-Qaeda."

Al-Masri's elevation to power underscores the power his predecessor enjoyed, Cilluffo noted. Al-Zarqawi was so respected among Muslim militants that he was able to maintain his independence away from central Al-Qaeda leadership.

In fact, Cilluffo said, it may be too late for al-Zawahri -- and even bin Laden -- to reassert their influence, not only in Iraq, but elsewhere in the world. These two men may be the inspiration for attacks against the West, he said, but they no longer control which targets get hit. Those decisions are now made by individual cells made up of Al-Qaeda members. Whether al-Zawahri will know what they're doing may be the first test of his leadership. (By Andrew Tully. Originally published on June 16.)