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Iraq Report: August 4, 2006

August 4, 2006, Volume 9, Number 28

IRAQI PREMIER FACES SHI'ITE PRESSURE ON SECURITY. As if he didn't have enough problems getting Sunni Arab leaders to support his security and reconciliation plan, Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has come under increasing pressure from Shi'ite leaders who claim he isn't moving fast enough to address the deteriorating security situation in the country. The Shi'a want al-Maliki to take a tougher stand against the insurgency, but they are unwilling to compromise on key issues that are prerequisites to peace.

Shi'ite leaders are anxious to put down the Sunni-led "resistance" once and for all. While they criticize al-Maliki for taking a slow approach to terror, prominent Shi'ite leaders have become increasingly vocal in their calls for a withdrawal of multinational forces from Iraq, viewing the presence of such forces as an impediment to their attempts to cement control over the country.

A Militia By Any Other Name

Hand in hand with this belief is the perception by some that al-Maliki's national reconciliation plan, which calls for the disbanding of all militias, would serve to weaken the raw power of the Shi'a vis-a-vis Sunni insurgent groups and Kurdish peshmerga forces.

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), publicly endorsed al-Maliki's reconciliation plan when it was announced in late June. But the Shi'ite leader has criticized al-Maliki for not taking more decisive steps against insurgents. Al-Hakim also opposed an agreement forged last week with the U.S. government to post another 4,000 U.S. troops in Baghdad in an effort to bring security to the capital, and instead has lobbied for Iraqis to take greater responsibility for security.

And although he publicly endorses key components of the plan, including disbanding militias, in reality he is unlikely to dissolve his own militia. The Badr Corps is arguably the largest militia operating in Iraq. The militia claimed to have disbanded and changed its name in 2004 to the Badr Organization to reflect its purported reform into a humanitarian organization. Thousands of Badr militiamen joined the ranks of the country's security services, particularly Interior Ministry forces.

Al-Hakim has also begun promoting what he calls the work of "popular committees" in recent weeks. The committees appear to be nothing more than refashioned militiamen -- gangs of armed men enforcing security in some areas of the capital in an effort to support the official security forces and prevent terrorist attacks at the local level.

Militias To Replace U.S. Forces

He has referred to the work of the popular committees in two recent speeches, on July 29 in Al-Najaf and on August 2 in Baghdad, and has promoted them as an alternative to the multinational forces, claiming that the latter have actually hampered efforts to secure the country. "The security file should be handed over to Iraqi forces and no one should interfere with it. Interference in the work of Iraqi security forces prevents them from catching terrorists," he told supporters in Al-Najaf.

Al-Hakim's viewpoint is supported by fellow SCIRI member and Badr Organization chief Hadi al-Amiri, who told the same Al-Najaf gathering that rumors were circulating that some politicians had proposed replacing al-Maliki's government with a government of national salvation. Calling the proposal a plan to install a "military coup government," al-Amiri said the plan would bring the political process "back to square one...and we will not accept that."

Al-Amiri has also been vocal in his criticism of multinational forces in recent weeks. He told London-based "Al-Hayat" in a July 21 interview that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, "using the excuse of concern for the success of the political process, is impeding the [Iraqi] security forces' operations to confront the Saddamists."

Intra-Ethnic Power Struggle

The SCIRI-Badr resistance to multinational forces is partly related to a power struggle with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army. While al-Hakim supports the disbanding of the Al-Mahdi Army, he does not consider the Badr Corps a militia, because it preceded the 2003 war and operated, much like the Kurdish peshmerga forces, as a national resistance group.

Badr and the Al-Mahdi Army have vied for the hearts and minds of Iraqi Shi'a since 2003, and have faced off in armed confrontations on several occasions.

Nevertheless, SCIRI and Badr are engaged in their own power struggle with al-Sadr for control over southern and central regions of the country. While they consider al-Sadr a rogue cleric, they are aligned with him (or more accurately, he has aligned with them) politically, and al-Sadr supporters hold 30 of the United Iraqi Alliance's 128 seats in parliament. Al-Sadr supporters also took control of a handful of ministries in al-Maliki's government, but three ministers have subsequently resigned (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24, 2006).

Sunni Arab leaders claim that al-Sadr's militia is at least partly responsible for the violence that has engulfed the country since the February 22 bombing of Samarra's Golden Mosque. There is every reason to believe that SCIRI leaders subscribe to the same view.

The actions of the Al-Mahdi Army have so concerned multinational forces that the militia has become the object of several recent raids by U.S.-Iraqi forces aimed at capturing the leaders of "death squads" operating in the capital.

SCIRI and al-Sadr's movement do agree on one thing: both want the U.S.-led coalition forces out of Iraq. And both groups support a hard-line policy on Ba'athists.

Beyond that, the groups diverge. Al-Hakim and SCIRI support federalism, al-Sadr does not. Al-Hakim has openly battled Sunni groups linked to the insurgency, whereas al-Sadr, when the situation worked to his benefit, held cordial relations with at least one Sunni group purportedly tied to the resistance, the Muslim Scholars Association.

Moreover, some observers believe that al-Hakim is more focused on domestic Iraqi issues, while al-Sadr has broader regional goals, namely to establish himself as a regional player.

Can The Government Move Fast Enough?

Under normal circumstances, no prime minister would be judged so harshly for the performance of his administration less than three months after its formation, but the circumstances in Iraq necessitate action, and in the minds of many, al-Maliki's initiative has already failed.

That belief apparently prompted Iraq's four grand ayatollahs to issue a stern warning that the country was slipping further out of control. Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi issued a statement on behalf of the clergy claiming a popular uprising or intifada could soon erupt in southern Iraq, "Al-Zaman" reported on July 28.

Al-Najafi said that neither the government nor foreign troops have done anything to meet the needs of the people in the south. "We are afraid that the day of a massive popular uprising is approaching that will result in grave and unpredictable consequences," he added. Al-Najafi cited the government's failure to address security, the lack of public services, and rampant unemployment as contributing factors to the current public sentiment. "Al-Zaman" reported that security in the south has deteriorated to such a level that militias are almost in full control of the cities of Al-Basrah, Al-Amarah, and Al-Diwaniyah.

The government's announcement that it was moving forward with "Phase 2" of al-Maliki's security and reconciliation plan has also drawn the ire of many Iraqis, who say that it was never clear that the first phase of the plan had accomplished anything.

The August 2 announcement that Iraqi security forces will assume security for the entire country by year-end has many observers concerned that the government may be grasping at straws. Iraqi forces currently control security in only one of the country's 18 governorates, and such statements, without concrete progress to back them up, only negate the administration's credibility in the eyes of the Iraqi people. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on August 2.)

IRAQI JOURNALIST RECOUNTS BEATING BY POLICE. On July 31, Iraqi journalist Ali al-Yassi, a former RFE/RL correspondent now working for Alhurra television, was beaten by Iraqi police while reporting from the Arasat district of Baghdad on the kidnapping of employees of the Iraqi-U.S. Chamber of Commerce (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2006). Al-Yassi discussed the attack and the challenges facing journalists in Iraq in an August 3 telephone interview with RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo.

RFE/RL: What happened to you on July 31 in Arasat?

Ali al-Yassi: While I was going to cover a story about the kidnapping of 25 employees [of the Iraqi-U.S. Chamber of Commerce] with my camera crew and assistant, I found about three or four civilians carrying weapons guarding the [Chamber of Commerce] building. The street was empty.

In front of this building, there was a restaurant. I headed straight for the restaurant. The [restaurant employees] told me, "You cannot take your camera and shoot [footage] there because already those guards have arrested a crew." About 30 or 40 minutes before we arrived, [the police] arrested [another Iraqi film crew] and took their camera. So I kept myself in that restaurant and I made short interviews with the [restaurant] workers and they told us what happened during the kidnapping.

While I was doing my interviews, we were surprised by a police patrol. It was actually four or five cars from the police. And they came straight away to the restaurant, and I showed them my I.D. and I told them, "I work for Alhurra TV and [this] was my crew, and we are trying to take some interviews." And they said: "It's OK. You can do your interviews and you can also [film] the building and you can take a film for our patrols right there." And I said: "OK. It's quite better for us."

RFE/RL: These were uniformed police?

Al-Yassi: Yes....

After [some time passed], I told my cameraman to go to the street to shoot [footage of] the building. After two minutes, I was surprised by six civilians with weapons. One of them, I can bet that he was the leader, he was wearing a sport[suit and] carrying a gun, he came shouting at us, insulting us, especially the cameraman.... He insulted me and he beat me.

I was shocked. The police didn't move and didn't take any step [to intervene].

RFE/RL: The police were watching this?

Al-Yassi: Yeah, just watching me [be beaten].

RFE/RL: These civilians that were beating you, were they the same ones you saw outside the [Chamber of Commerce] building when you arrived?

Al-Yassi: Yeah, and also [some of them had come] from inside the building.

RFE/RL: Who were they? Police or militia?

Al-Yassi: Actually, I didn't know who [they were]. But after five or six minutes, the police interfered and they released us from them. I went to the commander of the police patrol, and I [asked] him: "How can you stand there watching? Why didn't you interfere? Why did you let this happen?"

RFE/RL: What did he say?

Al-Yassi: He was an officer, muqaddam [lieutenant colonel].

Then the office told me: "I can't do anything for you. You don't know [who they are]. All I can tell you is that those guys are from the police." [Al-Yassi later clarified that the officer told him the men in civilian clothes were from the Office for Confronting Capital Crimes (Maktab Mukafaha Jara'im Al-Kubra)].

RFE/RL: Was the officer afraid of these men [in civilian clothes]?

Al-Yassi: Yeah, absolutely.

RFE/RL: Did you get any formal response from the government?

Al-Yassi: Unfortunately, they didn't say anything. They had a press release -- not concerning the accident, but in general. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that the presence of members of the media in Arasat led to the destruction of evidence [interfering in a crime scene]. The press release referred to members of the media as troublemakers.

RFE/RL: As an Iraqi journalist who is out on the street every day, how has the situation changed for you in the last six months or the last year?

Al-Yassi: We worked in dangerous matters for a [long] time. I was threatened, and I've been held hostage [by the Imam Al-Mahdi Army militia] in Al-Sadr City and in Al-Najaf, but they released us. I accepted what they did to us, even if they insulted us or beat us [and] held us hostage. I can [excuse them] because they don't know...they are not a state, they are not the government. But when a threat comes from a government, this is the problem. This is the main problem; you are not dealing with certain groups [whom] you do not know.

RFE/RL: You were taken hostage twice?

Al-Yassi: Yes. In Al-Sadr City in the first conflict [2004] and in Al-Najaf [Al-Yassi later clarified that he was kidnapped in Al-Kufah during the first standoff between the Al-Mahdi Army and coalition forces in Al-Najaf in the spring of 2004. In both cases, he was abducted by the Al-Mahdi Army].

RFE/RL: Did they threaten you?

Al-Yassi: Actually, [in Al-Kufah] I was very afraid because there were a lot of people there and most of them were [uneducated]. So, when they noticed me, they [called me] an agent, saying I worked with the Americans. Even if they didn't know who I [was]; they just realized I was a journalist.

RFE/RL: Now, when you look at the situation in Baghdad and what is happening, what do you think?

Al-Yassi: It is horrible. To work as a journalist here, it is very horrible. We are asked to go and make a stand-up [report] in the street. Right now, especially in the last two months, I really feel afraid to go out in the street and make a [report] because a lot of our colleagues have been killed or assassinated in the Al-Mansur Street or in another street....

RFE/RL: Do you have any protection when you're out on the street?

Al-Yassi: No.

RFE/RL: Do you now feel afraid from both sides, militias and the government?

Al-Yassi: What happened to me [left] me confused. I can't judge myself right now, because it's [only been] four days since what happened to me. I can't make any reports or go to work....

RFE/RL: And how are your fellow journalists coping now with the security situation in Baghdad, are they working?

Al-Yassi: [I know of] three or four reporters who have left their jobs and [I know of others] who have received threatening letters. Some reporters work without showing their face or using their names.

RFE/RL: Does the security situation affect the way you do your job? Do you avoid some areas of the city?

Al-Yassi: Most of the districts in Baghdad are dangerous now, but I take the risk because it is my job. I go to those places even if it is dangerous. But right now, I feel that my soul is broken. I can't go anywhere. I need to have some rest in order to know which way I'm going.