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Iraq Report: September 22, 2006

September 22, 2006, Volume 9, Number 33

IRAQ'S NEIGHBORS PLEDGE SUPPORT ON SECURITY, BUT IS IT MORE EMPTY TALK? The interior ministers of Iraq's neighboring countries pledged at a September 19 conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to help boost security along their borders to prevent terrorist infiltration into Iraq. Similar commitments were made at a meeting of foreign ministers from Iraq's neighbors on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York on September 21. Indeed, such pledges have been routine since 2003, but it seems few states have taken steps to truly buttress their border areas.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" last week that nearly all of Iraq's neighbors were interfering in Iraqi affairs to some degree, the daily reported on September 16. "There are interferences in Iraq's affairs from all neighboring countries to one degree or another, with the exception of one or two countries," he said. Zebari added that several states were betting on the failure of the political process and, with it, the democratic project in Iraq.

Zebari said that the government has raised the issue of external involvement in Iraqi affairs on several occasions. For example, a specialized team working on security affairs accompanied Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on his recent trip to Iran. "They took files, information, and evidence, and made a clear request to end the Iranian interference in the Iraqi security file," he said.

Homegrown Motivation

The ministers from Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran, as well as Egypt and Bahrain attended the September 18-19 Jeddah conference and pledged their willingness to help Iraq.

Two countries that have been praised for taking an active role on border security are Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Both have had their own experience with terrorism and Al-Qaeda. For Saudi Arabia, it was homegrown terrorism inspired by Osama bin Laden himself; for Jordan, it was Al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian national Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, which launched two major attacks in the past two years on the Jordanian capital Amman and the port city of Al-Aqabah.

Both countries have sponsored training camps for Iraqi police and security forces. "We need to improve the security situation in Iraq with more border control," Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Ala al-Ta'i told Reuters this week. "We want...logistical support including more equipment and training of Iraqi police in [other] countries, like Saudi Arabia, as Jordan have done," he added.

Kuwait has also taken steps to beef up its border security, while Syria and Iran remain problematic neighbors. The majority of foreign fighters now present in Iraq are believed to have entered the country through those two countries' porous borders.

Long, Difficult Borders

Syria's border with Iraq is some 605 kilometers long, and has been the main focus of Iraq's border police since the force was established in 2004. Iran's border with Iraq is significantly longer, about 1,458 kilometers long. Both borders cover vast desert regions, and the Iran-Iraq border includes mountainous regions that are difficult to patrol.

Syria has claimed that it has done all it can to secure its border area with Iraq. In 2005 it insisted it could do no more without advanced night-vision equipment, which it attempted to purchase from Britain before the United States blocked the sale on the grounds that the Syrians might use the equipment to aid the terrorists (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," June 27, 2005).

Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani presented the ministers attending the Jeddah conference with a list of foreign fighters now under arrest in Iraq. U.S. Major General William Caldwell, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq, told reporters at a September 20 press briefing in Baghdad that Iraqi and coalition forces have arrested 630 foreign fighters from 25 different countries since January 2005. Some 370 of them remain in custody, with the majority coming from Egypt, Syria, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia.

The ministers signed a protocol at the Jeddah meeting for security cooperation and coordination "to support and assist the Iraqi government in the field of training police and security forces in order to boost Iraqi security and stability and safeguard its unity and territorial integrity." Highlighting "the need to crack down on the activities of terrorist groups which jeopardize Iraq's security as well as the security of its neighbors," the final statement of the meeting noted, "We denounce terrorist activities targeting the population, security forces, political and religious leaders and the places of worship which basically target Iraq's security and unity."

Region's Security Interconnected

While all of the interior ministers from Iraq's neighbors vowed to help boost security, it is clear that some are more intent on keeping their commitment than others.

"The continuation of violence in Iraq and the impact of that on the social fabric in the country could lead to extremely sensitive the whole region," Turkish Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu said. Saudi Arabia's interior minister, Prince Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz, warned of the dangers of escalating insurgency and sectarian violence. "The dangers of such a situation, God forbid, are not a jeopardy to Iraq alone, but they will have an impact on the security of the international community and [Iraq's] neighbors," he said.

Meanwhile, Iranian Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi refuted accusations that his country was helping to fuel the insurgency in Iraq, through its support of Shi'ite militias. "Freedom and democracy cannot be achieved by accusing other countries and conspiring against neighboring states to shift blame on others in the region to cover up failure," he claimed.

The problem remains that as long as some states ignore the potential for a spillover effect, and the threat that it causes to their own regimes, they will continue to pay lip service to the issue. "Iraq's security is the region's security," Iraqi police commander Major General Fakhir Marbush al-Ka'bi said in an interview with Jeddah's "Ukaz" published on September 17. "Terrorism is a disease. Unless we combat it now, it could spread to other countries. Therefore, all the countries must cooperate to combat it." (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on September 22.)

POPE'S COMMENTS SPARK THREATS, CONDEMNATION. Iraqi religious leaders were quick to react to reports of statements made by Pope Benedict XVI regarding comments the pope made last week regarding Islam and violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2006), with many saying the statements threatened to harm Muslim-Christian relations in the country.

International media reported that the pope implied that Islam was spread by the sword during a September 12 speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany. In the speech, the pope recounted a conversation between Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a Persian scholar around the year 1391 on the subject of Christianity and Islam.

Centuries-Old Argument

In the course of the conversation, which revolved around the issues of faith and reason, the emperor says to the Persian, "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Arguing that violence is incompatible with the nature of God, the emperor continues, "Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly without violence and threats."

The pope then quoted professor Theodore Khoury, his source for the above-mentioned dialogue, as observing that while the Byzantine outlook on faith was influenced by Greek philosophy and the concept of reason, for Muslims, "God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality," Benedict said.

The pope went on to quote French Islamist R. Arnaldez, "who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry."

Uninformed Reaction

The pope's brief comments on Islam and Christianity, taken out of context from a seven-page speech, could easily be misconstrued, as the reaction of Muslims in Iraq, and worldwide for that matter, illustrates. The very tone of many of the reactions reported in the Iraqi media show that few, if any, Iraqi leaders read or heard the pope's speech in its entirety.

Their quick reaction, supported by media bent on sensationalizing the news and highlighting a Muslim-Christian divide even where one does not exist, only contribute to the grave state of sectarian relations in Iraq today.

Iraqis interviewed on Iraqi satellite channels reflected the general reaction inside the country. A number of viewers expressed outrage, while admitting that they did not know exactly what the pope had said.

But more disturbing was the reaction by some Iraqi leaders, whose comments could potentially threaten the safety and security of Iraq's Christian community, which has routinely been targeted by insurgent groups in the post-Hussein era ( see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," August 6, 2004).

Christian Community Seeks Clarification

Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel Delly told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television on September 15 that the pope's statements were misinterpreted. Delly contended that inaccurate reporting by the media was to blame for the crisis.

The heads of Iraq's Eastern Orthodox denominations issued a joint statement on September 16, calling on the Vatican to clarify the pope's statements. "We express solidarity with our Muslim brothers wherever they may be, and we do not accept what was said by the Vatican's pope about Islam and the encroachment on the religious feelings of our Muslim brothers," the statement said.

The Catholic Archbishops Council issued its own statement on September 17, also blaming the inaccurate reporting of the media. The council affirmed its desire for strong relations with all sects in Iraq.

Sunni Arab Leaders See Crusader War

The Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association, in a September 15 statement posted to its website, claimed the pope's comments were part of a broader "crusader war" started by U.S. President George W. Bush to "kill thousands of Muslims." The pope's statements "make the soldiers of this war [in Iraq] feel that they are committing a legitimate act," the group claimed.

The association further argued that the pope was inciting terrorism against Muslims, and claimed Benedict "does not have a thorough vision of history."

Sunni imam Mahmud al-Sumaydi'i demanded the pope issue an apology to the Islamic nation, and asked why the pope has not condemned the actions of "occupation forces" that "wreak havoc on our country."

The Iraqi Islamic Party also issued a statement on September 16, warning Christians not to be incited to violence against Muslims.

The Kurdistan Islamic Union expressed concern that the pope's comments would result in negative consequences for Christians in Iraq, while Mullah Yasin, who met the pope last year as part of a delegation from the Al-Sulaymaniyah Ministry of Endowments, called for a proper analysis of the pope's comments and dialogue between Christians and Muslims, saying, "People do not need to make a fuss about it."

Shi'ite Leaders Claim Religion Under Attack

Shi'ite leaders were also critical of the pope's speech. The Imam Ali Foundation, which acts as the liaison office for Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in London, issued a statement on September 15 calling on the pope to "rectify his stance through accurate, sound, and comprehensive reading of the particulars of the Islamic religion," adding, "The Islamic seminaries (hawzas) are fully prepared to offer him the required assistance to embark on this task." The foundation also called for greater dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

In a September 16 statement posted to its website, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) claimed the pope made "unfounded and incorrect accusations against our true Islamic religion."

Several Shi'ite scholars commented for Iraqi news channels, with many claiming the pope's comments were part of a broader plan to denigrate Islam. Ayatollah Ahmad al-Hasani al-Baghdadi claimed in a September 15 interview with Al-Baghdadiyah that the pope's comments supported a recent statement by President Bush "in which [Bush] said that Islam and Muslims are fascist."

Cleric Talal al-Sa'idi, a supporter of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, claimed in an interview with the same station that the pope insulted Christians as well as Muslims through his comments. Meanwhile, Ayatollah Husayn al-Mu'ayyad claimed the pope's comments were part of "a greater political and cultural attack against Islam and its followers around the world," in a same day interview with Al-Diyar television.

For it's part, the Iraqi government has said little officially on the controversy. The Foreign Ministry said it summoned the Vatican's envoy to Baghdad on September 17 to inform him that it viewed Benedict's comments as "inappropriate and detrimental" to Muslim-Christian relations. "Though these statements or comments were unintentionally made, their timing was unfavorable. They evoked our deep regret and accordingly, we demand that the pontiff give official clarifications on these statements," the ministry said.

Insurgents Find Justification For Their War

Meanwhile, Sunni insurgent groups have vowed direct retaliation against Rome. The Mujahedin Army in Iraq said in an Internet statement dated September 14 that it was not surprised by the pope's "attempt to attack and cast doubt on the religion of God." History has shown that "Zionized Christianity...and the crusader...are a poisonous dagger and a treacherous sword," the group contended. "Those people have always been hostile to us and allied with our enemies." The group vowed that the soldiers of Muhammad would crush Rome. "They shall witness a lethal attack on their Vatican that will make the pope and patriarchs cry."

The Iraqi Jihadist Leagues claimed in a September 17 Internet statement that the pope's statements revealed the true nature of the Christian religion and its animosity toward Islam. The statement claimed Muhammad's Army would soon destroy the pope's throne, "shake the corners of your nation, and expose the evidence, which you and your predecessors have been hiding, that proves the validity of the message of Muhammad."

The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Mujahedin Shura Council said in a September 18 Internet statement that the pope's statements were made in "support of the crusader war," adding: "We say to the worshipper of the cross: you and the Romans have a rendezvous with defeat.... God will support Muslims and conquer Rome in the same way they conquered Constantine."

The Ansar Al-Sunnah Army claimed in a separate statement that Christians are engaged in a holy war to destroy Islam. It appealed to Muslims to take up the fight against the West and vowed that the "enemies of God" will "see nothing from us but the sword...until [they] return to the religion of God." It added, "The day when the armies of the true religion will tear down the walls of Rome are nearing."

Setback In Relations?

While many observers would argue that little can now be done to contain the controversy that has erupted as a result of Pope Benedict's remarks, some may see it as an opportunity for a more robust Muslim-Christian dialogue.

Muslims would argue that the pope, as the head of the Catholic Church, should have at the very least been more careful in his choice of words. Many Christians would counter that the problem lies not with them, but in the hypersensitivity of Muslims, who cannot see an academic discussion for what it is.

Observers of the pope and his previous comments on Islam will argue that the pope has always supported strong relations with the Muslim community. He condemned the Danish cartoons on the Prophet Muhammad, and has repeatedly called for interreligious dialogue. Scholars will note that many of the pope's observations on the current state of Christianity echo concerns by Islamic scholars over crises faced by their own faith.

Nonetheless, the position of the pope and the church will be overshadowed, at least for some time, by the perception among many of the world's Muslims that there is a widening divide between the two faiths, a perception shored up by recent historical events, including the September 11, 2001, attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on September 19.)