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Iraq Report: July 17, 2006

July 17, 2006, Volume 9, Number 25

ISRAEL-LEBANON CONFLICT THREATENS ENTIRE REGION. Arab League member states are virtually helpless in confronting the threat of further regional instability. Regional players have little leverage against groups like Hamas and Hizballah. The Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese government are largely in the hands of both groups. Thus international intervention will likely be crucial to calming the situation. The UN announced on July 13 that it would send two envoys to the region immediately, first to Cairo, then Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.

Lebanese Hizballah seized an opportunity to reassert itself on the international stage on July 12 with its seizure of two Israeli soldiers along the Israel-Lebanon border.

The militant group's actions could serve as much to satisfy the policies of its Iranian and Syrian patrons as they do to challenge internal Lebanese politics. UN Security Council Resolution 1559 called for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, but at present Hizballah and a few Palestinian groups remain as armed entities in addition to the Lebanese army. Moreover, the Lebanese cabinet has declared that Hizballah is the "resistance," rather than a militia. Some Lebanese politicians have decried Hizballah's influence in the country's affairs, and they also have spoken out against their country serving as a battleground for Iran and Syria against the United States.

Hizballah's Role In Lebanon's Government

Nevertheless, Hizballah, which has two ministers in government and 12 representatives in parliament, is confident of its power vis-a-vis the Lebanese government, despite the government's ability to force a redeployment of Syrian troops from Lebanon last year. Hizballah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah warned the government in a July 12 press briefing to choose its position on the current crisis carefully.

Nasrallah said he was not asking for the government's support, but warned "officials and non-officials" from "acting in a way that would encourage the enemy against Lebanon or speaking or acting in a way that would provide cover for the Israeli aggression against Lebanon." He added that it is time for solidarity and cooperation to carry out what he called a "national obligation."

Following a closed cabinet meeting, the government issued a statement saying it had no prior knowledge of the operation and would not take responsibility or credit for what happened along the international borders.

Nasrallah's apparent power vis-a-vis the Lebanese government makes Hizballah an authority unto itself. The Hizballah leader justified the July 12 attack by reasoning that his organization was in a stronger position vis-a-vis Israel than the Hamas-led Palestinian government and hence it should aid Hamas in its struggle.

Confident Of Negotiations

Nasrallah appealed to the Palestinian people to be patient, saying he believed the Hizballah attack would help Gazans out of their current crisis. "Israel usually negotiates with us," Nasrallah said. "At first they say 'no,' but then they accept. This might take place after a week, month, or year, but finally they will say, 'Let's negotiate.'" Israel on July 10 refused a demand by Hamas to negotiate a prisoner swap for the Israeli soldiers seized in Gaza on June 25.

The timing of the attack may also be linked to Hizballah's perception that some parties in Lebanon are aligning too closely with the United States. Just days ago, it was revealed that Lebanese intelligence agents cooperated with the FBI in an investigation that led to the arrest of eight alleged terrorists purportedly plotting to blow up a tunnel connecting New Jersey and Manhattan. Such cooperation between the United States and Lebanon is sure to draw the ire of Hizballah.

Broader Regional Tensions

The decision to strike at Israel also reflects the broader regional conflict, which has pitted Iran and its allies against the United States and its allies in the region. Iraq has been the focal point of the struggle for the past three years, with Iran's influence now extending from Al-Basrah to Baghdad through its support of Shi'ite militias.

The Hizballah operation provides another opportunity for Iran to flex its muscles in the region -- and the timing couldn't be better with international pressure mounting on Iran to accept a proposal of incentives to halt its uranium-enrichment program or face sanctions.

Nasrallah told reporters on July 12 that he believed Iran and Syria would continue to support "Lebanon and Palestine" despite international pressure.

Nasrallah stopped short of acknowledging any direct support for his group's actions. "At the end of the day, it is our land that is occupied, and I will not wait to see who supports me and who opens their front -- everyone is free to make whatever decision they want," he said.

Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, met in Damascus on July 12 with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mu'allim, where both lent their support to regional resistance to foreign occupying forces, IRNA reported. Both men reportedly agreed that continuation of the resistance in Palestine and the resistance of Iran and Syria to foreign pressures have been fruitful, the news agency reported, and that resistance is the only route to success and victory.

Syrian President Speaks

For his part, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has already said he does not feel his country is in a weak position vis-a-vis the United States.

"Currently, Syria appears to be isolated in form, but in content, nothing at all has changed," he told London-based "Al-Hayat" in an interview published on June 29. "We continue to have the same role, and in fact, the Syrian role has now become much better than it has been in years."

Asked if he feared a U.S.-Iran rapprochement that could ultimately weaken Syria's hand in the region, al-Asad replied: "No, particularly with regard to Syria. I don't want to speak about the rest of the Arabs. Syria has a role in various matters, particularly regarding Iraq, and it will have a positive role, for the benefit of Iraqis, of whom we have received many. One cannot ignore the role of Syria, as an Arab state, and a neighboring state."

Al-Asad was asked if he feared for regional security should Hamas and Hizballah launch attacks on Israel, prompting a U.S. response on Iranian nuclear facilities.

"Certainly," he answered.

The daily also asked about Syria's role in any Iranian response to a U.S. strike. "We are not a part of it," al-Asad responded. "However, with all certainty, when the region becomes so chaotic, it is unreasonable to think that things will be stable with you. Perhaps events will push you toward becoming part of this chaos, when the issue is a huge and very dangerous one. But there is a more important question, in isolation from the military scenarios. When you carry out such an operation, where do the radioactive materials go? What will happen? If you think about striking a state with a nuclear capacity, imagine the chaos in a nuclear state - what does it mean? The issue is much more dangerous than a mere case of a military response here, and the launch of a missile there."

Need For International Involvement

Meanwhile, Arab leaders are nervously watching the escalation. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih called for the convening of an emergency Arab summit on the deteriorating situation in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon on July 12, MENA reported the same day. The Arab League responded, calling for an emergency meeting in Cairo on July 15.

Jordan's cabinet convened an emergency session on July 13, Petra reported. While noting that King Abdullah was exerting efforts to calm the situation, the cabinet called on the United Nations and the international community to intervene.

In Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Ghayt warned on July 13 that the situation could spiral out of control. "The rhetorical escalation by all parties threatens to provoke an explosion of the situation and to herald a dangerous phase for the region," he told reporters.

The minister's comments came one day after Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood applauded the Hizballah operation.

"These men pulled off this great act to champion our brothers in Palestine, whom the Arab and Islamic governments failed to help in any way," Muhammad Mahdi Akif, general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, said in an interview with Hizballah's Al-Manar television.

Arab League member states are virtually helpless in confronting the threat of further regional instability. Regional players have little leverage against groups like Hamas and Hizballah. Likewise, both the Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese government are puppets in the hands of both groups. Thus international intervention will likely be crucial to calming the situation.

The UN announced on July 13 that it would send two envoys to the region immediately, first to Cairo, then Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on July 13.)

SECTARIAN MILITIAS BLOCKING ROAD TO SECURITY. Senior Iraqi leaders warned this week -- nearly one month into Operation Together Forward -- that their country was on the brink of civil war. Meanwhile, Sunni and Shi'ite leaders tied to rogue groups faced off on television airwaves, each blaming the other for the most recent surge in violence in the capital.

The government's inability to stabilize the security situation has led to an upsurge of violence in recent days, especially in Baghdad, which has seen tit-for-tat sectarian-motivated attacks. Officials concede that Iraqis are increasingly becoming the victims of violence at the hands of sectarian militias, some of which are tied to parties in government.

The majority of the Shi'a killed in recent days have died as a result of bomb attacks. For their part, Sunnis claim they are subject to attack by Shi'ite militiamen who identify their religion through their identification cards.

A Disintegrating Security Situation

To the outside observer, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's security plan for Baghdad appears to be faltering. The 50,000 security forces that entered the city on June 14 have proven incapable of stemming the violence. Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Abd al-Aziz Muhammad told reporters at a July 11 press briefing that the Interior Ministry's response time to the previous day's incidents in the Al-Jihad district of the capital "was not expeditious or appropriate."

"Security can never be established in Baghdad with the presence of gunmen and armed groups," he asserted.

Al-Maliki continues to talk tough on security. He told parliamentarians on July 12 that security forces had thwarted an attempt by an unnamed insurgent group to occupy areas of Baghdad west of the Tigris River.

Parties And Militias

The prime minister also admonished political parties, telling parliamentarians that he would no longer tolerate accusations and counteraccusations by political parties over their rivals' militias. Every party has militias, al-Maliki contended, adding it is time for each party to take responsibility for members' actions and to help restore order.

The divisions surfacing from within al-Maliki's administration reflect the divisions on the street. Deputy Prime Minister for National Security Affairs Salam al-Zawba'i, a Sunni Arab, on July 9 laid blame on the Shi'ite community, saying the Shi'ite-dominated police force is incapable of establishing order in Baghdad because of its ties to Shi'ite militias.

Al-Zawba'i's comments elicited a sharp response from the prime minister's office, which said in a same-day statement that the deputy prime minister's comments did not reflect the official government position.

Two days earlier, al-Zawba'i told Al-Jazeera that several major generals and high-ranking officers were colluding with terrorists. "The Iraqi people are paying a big price because of this chaos," he said.

Parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab, told Al-Sharqiyah television in a July 9 interview from Bahrain that Iraqis who carry out sectarian attacks are fulfilling a "Zionist sectarian agenda." He said the perpetrators of such acts "whether they know it or not, are linked to the most malicious agenda the world has ever known, that being the Israeli [intelligence agency] Mossad's agenda that entered Iraq through the occupation."

Al-Mashhadani also claimed that those behind the sectarian violence received "their orders from Tel Aviv and the leaders of the death squads."

"The Jews hiding behind Iraqi faces are known to us, and the day will come when we purge our country of them," he warned ominously.

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party accused the U.S. and Iraqi armies of laying siege to Al-Miqdadiyah, in Diyala Governorate. The party said on July 8 that the town had been under siege for five days, and civilians had no access to health care, electricity, or water, while "not a single weapon has been found."

'Conflicting Duties'

Interior Ministry commander Major General Adnan Thabit told reporters the "conflicting duties" of the security services, militias, and armed groups "confuse the plans that have been drawn up to restore security in Baghdad, Al-Sharqiyah television reported.

Several members of al-Maliki's government have criticized the premier for backtracking on two key points of his national-reconciliation initiative: no negotiations with those who attacked U.S. soldiers, and the proposed integration of militias into the army and security services.

Iyad al-Samarra'i, parliamentarian and deputy secretary-general of the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party, told Al-Arabiyah television on July 7 that the campaign by Shi'a to pool terrorists and national resistance fighters into the same category will ultimately undermine al-Maliki's initiative and have "momentous consequences."

"When we speak of reconciliation, this reconciliation should not be conditional," he said.

Minister of State for National Dialogue Akram al-Hakim, a Shi'a, told the same program that al-Maliki's initiative "does not exclude anyone" from taking part in the talks.

"The issue is not what this or that person used to be called five years ago, whether he was a Ba'athist or not, whether he now calls himself part of the resistance against the occupation or not," al-Hakim said. "The question is do they actually support the constants that the new regime upholds?"

Alternative Programs

Some Iraqi politicians are apparently dissatisfied with al-Maliki's plan and are working on initiatives of their own. Salih al-Mutlaq, head of the Sunni-led Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, told London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that he plans to present a new reconciliation plan to parliament this week, the daily reported on July 9. The parliamentarian said al-Maliki's national-reconciliation plan had some good ideas, but he criticized al-Maliki for backtracking on amnesty for insurgents who had targeted U.S. soldiers.

Al-Mutlaq said the plan calls for canceling the decisions of former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer, dissolving the militias, revoking the de-Ba'athification law, and abolishing the sectarian quota system on which the current government is based. He added that he would also present the plan to the Iraqi people, as he has little faith in the Council of Representatives. Al-Mutlaq said the council "votes for the party before it votes for the homeland."

The growing schism between followers of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association exploded across the airwaves on July 9 when al-Sadr's spokesman, Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji, faced off against association spokesman Muhammad Bashar al-Faydi on Al-Jazeera television.

Both men claimed the tension between the one-time allied groups -- bound by their commitment to drive foreign forces from Iraq -- has grown because the other party had chosen a path that contradicted its original goals.

Al-Faydi claimed for example that although it was not critical of the al-Sadr movement's decision to join the political process, it cannot ignore the actions of al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, which he claimed began systematically targeting Sunni Arabs following the February 22 bombing of two Shi'ite shrines in Samarra.

Al-Darraji countered that the Muslim Scholars Association had adopted a hard line, saying the association rejected all national-reconciliation proposals rather than pursuing a path of brotherhood and unity.

Al-Darraji denied reports of several incidents in which the Al-Mahdi Army allegedly attacked Sunni Arabs, and suggested the perpetrators were actually Sunnis working for jihadist groups or Ba'athists carrying out the work of the United States.

Al-Faydi countered by claiming to have sworn statements by Sunni Arabs who said they were arrested and tortured by the Al-Mahdi Army. He said Badr Forces, a militia tied to the Shi'ite party Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), were responsible for some of the attacks on Sunni civilians.

Association spokesman Muthanna Harith al-Dari went a step further, telling Al-Arabiyah television on July 9 that the Imam Al-Mahdi Army was responsible for the killings of some 50 Sunni Arabs that day in the Jihad district of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr's movement has also reportedly been linked to the kidnapping of parliamentarian Taysir al-Mashhadani. Representatives from the Iraqi Islamic Party, the parliamentarian's party, have declined to comment on the purported link.

Association head Harith al-Dari, Muthanna's father, directly blamed Iran for the killing of some 100,000 Sunni Arabs in Iraq since 2003. "There is a simple solution, if Iran wants it," al-Dari said. "It can ask [Abd al-]Aziz al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr to stop the activities of their followers and to leave their Sunni brothers to live in this country like others."

Al-Dari alleged that Iran had supplied weapons and funding to the two Shi'ite leaders' militias.

Plan Of Action

In the near term, it appears al-Maliki's best chance of regaining control of the security situation in Baghdad rests upon his ability to persuade political parties active in government to rein in their militias.

The premier's plan to dissolve militias will prove a far greater challenge, and is likely months off, as U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad hinted during a speech at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on July 11.

First of all, Iraqi leaders must build a consensus to address several issues that arise out of the new constitution, including federalism, national resources, and de-Ba'athification. Second, they must enhance unity through national reconciliation. Third, they need to build up the capability of security forces while purging sectarian forces in the Interior Ministry and police, thereby gaining the trust of all communities.

"As this institutional foundation is strengthened, the Iraqi government will be in a position to reestablish the state's monopoly on force," said Khalilzad. "The need to demobilize unauthorized armed groups, including militias, is a critical part of this."

The Iraqi government and the coalition will then take advantage of reconciliation efforts to weaken and destroy the terrorists and other irreconcilable elements, and carry out focused stabilization operations to develop enduring security in major cities, particularly Baghdad. After that, U.S. forces can begin withdrawing from Iraq, the ambassador concluded. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on July 12.)