Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iraq Report: October 20, 2006

October 20, 2006, Volume 9, Number 37

SHI'ITE MILITIA CONTINUES TO POSE DILEMMA. The last few weeks have seen intense activity within the Iraqi Interior Ministry to clear its ranks of rogue elements, criminals, and officers linked with death squads, but the ministry's inability to rein in the militias, particularly that led by radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, continues to be the most contentious issue.

In his boldest moves so far to clean up his Ministry, Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani announced on October 13 the dismissal of 3,000 ministry personnel on charges of corruption and human rights violations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006). Then on October 18, al-Bulani dismissed three top police commanders, whom Sunni Arabs accused of having links to Shi'ite death squads and reassigning them to administrative duty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2006).

But al-Bulani still faces difficult challenges, most notably the issue of reining in the militias, particularly al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army, which has been blamed for carrying out many of the sectarian attacks. While al-Sadr has denied the allegations, he has repeatedly, and more often, called on his followers to stop carrying out these attacks and vowed to go after any of his militiamen who have been accused of taking part in death squads under the banner of the Al-Mahdi Army.

Empty Promises?

The calls to his followers seem somewhat of an empty promise, since al-Sadr has made similar statements in the past. After the February bombing of the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra, al-Sadr joined Shi'ite leaders in calling for an end to revenge killings. While the killings subsided somewhat, they still persisted.

Moreover, U.S. military officials have said they have evidence that rogue elements within the Al-Mahdi Army are carrying out some of the sectarian attacks, indicating that al-Sadr may be losing control of some of his militiamen.

A report by the National Security Ministry indicated that hundreds of criminal gang members have joined the militia and some have been elevated to leading positions, the United Arab Emirates-based "Gulf News" reported on October 17. Meanwhile, "The New York Times" reported on September 28 that since al-Sadr has taken a more active role in politics, some of his followers have become disillusioned and splintered off into criminal gangs and freelance death squads.

It is difficult to determine whether these are splinter groups beyond al-Sadr's control, or whether they are militia members ordered to carry out attacks that al-Sadr can then attribute to rogue elements. Lydia Khalil, an independent analyst at Georgetown University's Security Studies Program, asserts in a report posted on the Global Terrorism Analysis website on October 10 that some members of the group might be doing the dirty work for the Al-Mahdi Army, but are then denied public affiliation with the group, so as to shield al-Sadr and his militia from any responsibility.

Al-Maliki's Dilemma

The issue of the militias, particularly the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, presents a huge dilemma for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is being pressured from all sides to quell the sectarian violence. The Americans have urged him to rein in al-Sadr's militia, and privately, some U.S. officials expressed frustration at al-Maliki's inaction against them.

This notion was underscored when U.S. forces arrested Sheikh Mazin al-Sa'idi, a high-ranking al-Sadr aide who was suspected of leading a cell that carried out sectarian attacks, on October 17 in Baghdad. He was later quickly released at al-Maliki's behest, suggesting that he does not have the political will to control al-Sadr.

Furthermore, the U.S. frustration and impatience came to the fore when the international media reported on October 16 that al-Maliki asked President George W. Bush in a telephone conversation if rumors were true that the United States was planning to replace him if the security situation in Iraq did not improve. Although Bush assured al-Maliki that he had the full support of the United States, the notion that al-Maliki had even asked underscored the severity of the situation and the impatience of the U.S. administration.

Conversely, if al-Maliki acquiesces to the United States and allows them to crush the al-Sadr's militia, he may be perceived as a U.S. puppet and a weak leader. Thus, al-Maliki finds himself in a position similar to that of his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Ja'fari -- he cannot disband the Al-Mahdi Army outright because he needs al-Sadr's political support.

The cleric's movement is a key partner in al-Maliki's coalition, and with 30 seats in parliament and four cabinet posts, al-Sadr wields considerable influence. It would be almost unthinkable for al-Maliki to call for a major crackdown on al-Sadr's militia and risk a bloody conflict and put his political coalition in jeopardy.

A major confrontation between al-Sadr's forces and the Iraqi Army could be disastrous for a nation already having to contend with an ongoing insurgency and sectarian strife. Therefore, al-Maliki must continue to walk a fine line and carefully try to rein in al-Sadr's militia without coming down too hard on it and risking a violent showdown. (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on October 20.)

VIOLENCE, GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION TAKE TOLL ON IRAQI JOURNALISTS. The working conditions of Iraqi journalists have become increasingly difficult as they continue to be targeted by insurgents and militias, while at the same time, media outlets are being threatened and pressured by the Iraqi government.

Lacking the protection afforded Iraqi officials and their personnel who work in the heavily fortified Green Zone, Iraqi journalists move about among the general population, and as a result are much more at risk. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announced on October 17 that 48 Iraqi journalists and media assistants have so far been killed this year, making it the deadliest year for the Iraqi press since the start of the war in March 2003.

"Iraqi journalists get no protection and have to work with the population, which makes them more vulnerable," RSF said. "We reiterate our call to the Iraqi authorities to finally guarantee a safer work environment for all media personnel."

The Coalition to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which keeps a statistical analysis of journalists killed in Iraq since the beginning of the Iraq war, has so far recorded 85 journalists killed in the line of duty, with the overwhelming majority of them, 64, Iraqi. CPJ considers a journalist killed in duty if he/she dies as a result of hostile action.

In addition, CPJ gave the death toll of media-support workers, such as interpreters, drivers, and guards, at 35, and all of them but one were Iraqis. The organization also noted in a press release on October 15 that the combined death toll makes this the deadliest conflict for journalists and media support workers in 25 years.

In October alone, 14 Iraqi journalists and media personnel were killed, prompting UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Koichiro Matsuura to deplore the "ferocious and systematic attacks" on journalists and warn that the attacks undermine attempts to establish democracy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 17, 2006). UNESCO is the UN organization entrusted with defending freedom of the press.

"The international community and the authorities in Iraq must take determined action to support the media in this appalling struggle over freedom of expression, a basic human right that is at the cornerstone to all human rights" Matsuura said, the UN News Service reported on October 16.

Sectarian Violence Blamed For Many Deaths

After the fall of the Hussein regime, the Iraqi media experienced unprecedented freedoms and growth, and dozens of newspapers, websites, blogs, and satellite and terrestrial television stations sprang forth.

However, Iraqi journalists have complained that the press has become increasingly politicized, with many newspapers and television stations owned by political and religious groups being used to promote their individual agendas. This politicization of the media has sometimes led to reprisal attacks against journalists.

Lynn Tehini, RSF's Maghreb and Middle East desk officer, indicated that sectarian violence was responsible for most of the killings of Iraqi journalists. She said that as media outlets begin to take sides on contentious issues such as federalism, journalists find themselves at risk of being killed by those who take issue with their position.

"If a Sunni journalist is killed because his newspaper says something others do not like, there will be a killing of a Shi'ite journalist to take revenge...and so on," Tehini said, reported on October 9.

On October 12, armed gunmen stormed the fledgling Al-Sha'biyah satellite channel and killed 11 employees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 12, 2006). Although the owner of the station, Abd al-Rahim Nasrallah al-Shammari, is the leader of the secular-oriented Justice and Democratic Development Party, international media reported that some of the gunmen were wearing police uniforms, raising suspicions that the killings may have been a carried out by militia groups or death squads.

Nir Rosen, the author of "In the Belly of the Green Bird: the Triumph of Martyrs in Iraq," says that there is a perception that Iraqi journalists are working as spies for armed groups or political parties. "If you are working for Iraqi outlets, you can get killed for sectarian reasons." quoted Rosen as saying on October 9.

Press Freedoms Under Siege

While violence continues to take a toll on Iraqi journalists, actions by the Iraqi government are seen as trying to stifle press freedoms. Parliament urged Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on October 16 to shut down the Al- Sharqiyah news channel and "Al-Zaman" newspaper after what it described as their negative coverage of a recent draft law the parliament passed on turning Iraq into a federal state. The outlets warned that the law could lead to the disintegration of Iraq on ethnic and sectarian grounds, "Al-Zaman reported on October 17. Sa'd al-Bazazz, a Sunni Arab and the head of the media group that owns Al-Sharqiyah and "Al-Zaman," said that those seeking to censor the two outlets wanted to "muzzle the mouth of the free press" in Iraq.

A similar incident occurred in September when the government shut down the offices of Al-Arabiyah for one month after the news channel had adopted what the government called "a policy that incites sectarianism and promotes violence" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 8, 2006).

These troubling incidents could be seen as the beginnings of an oppressive regime. Some journalists, media watchdogs, and academics warn that continued threats and interference by the government echo similar conditions that affected the Iraqi press during the Hussein regime when the media was essentially state-run and did not deviate from the government's stance.

Dr. Juan Cole, professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, warned that the resolution by the Iraqi parliament could heighten sectarian tensions and that it was perceived by Sunnis as a power play and intimidation tactics by the majority Shi'a. "I see the resolution as an extension of a virtual doctrine of the tyranny of the Shi'ite majority, and aimed at silencing a major Sunni Arab newspaper," Cole was quoted as saying by on October 17. (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on October 18.)