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Iraq Report: November 3, 2006

November 3, 2006, Volume 9, Number 39

AMMAN TALKS COULD BRING POLITICAL BREAKTHROUGH. Iraqi officials held meetings this week in Amman, Jordan, with representatives from at least a dozen Iraqi resistance groups, including former Ba'athists, in the hopes of bringing them into the political process. The talks, held on October 29-30, have been seen as a precursor to a national reconciliation conference slated to be held next month in Baghdad.

Media reports indicated that U.S. officials and members of the resistance also held bilateral talks in Amman this week, generating considerable optimism that the talks may bring a reduction to the bloodshed.

Hopes For Breakthrough

Arriving on the heels of the Mecca conference in Saudi Arabia on October 20, the Amman talks were aimed at arriving at agreements to curb violence, as well as to steer Iraqi resistance groups and opposition figures into the political process under the idea of Iraqi national reconciliation.

The Iraqi opposition also issued several demands, namely, setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign forces, ending arbitrary attacks and raids on houses and cities, and the release of Iraqi prisoners held in U.S.-run detention centers. Furthermore, they called for the elimination of all militias, canceling the law dissolving the Ba'ath Party, and restoring the rights of those who were dismissed from their jobs after the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003, international media reported.

Sources close to the talks told Jordan's "Al-Ghadd" on October 30 that the success of these talks would create enough momentum to push the political process forward.

"Iraq as a whole is counting on the success of these contacts and talks in terms of building a new free and democratic Iraq, and in terms of putting an end to the vortex of violence, which has resulted in the death and injury of thousands of Iraqis," one source said.

In addition, Iraqi officials indicated that unlike earlier talks, these discussions offered all resistance groups, including the Ba'athists, an opportunity to enter the political process. A leading member of the government delegation to the talks, Shi'ite parliamentarian Falih al-Fayyad, told the daily: "The talks target Iraqi political forces that are opposed to and in support of the government." Adding, "We have no reservations whatsoever in this regard, even if those participating are Ba'athists."

The prospects for assimilating the resistance groups into the political process seemed good after al-Fayyad announced that the national reconciliation conference, slated to begin on November 4, will be postponed until the middle of the month to allow more time for a dialogue with members of the Iraqi opposition, Jordan's "Al-Ra'y" reported on October 31. Al-Fayyad's statements suggest that the meetings were succeeding in opening up a frank and serious dialogue with the resistance groups.

Al-Fayyad said the talks were aimed at "paving the way for the reconciliation conference and creating the appropriate climate for rendering it successful; the aim is not to make specific decisions now, but rather to discuss various issues in a frank and open manner without putting any restrictions on introducing any problems or issues to the agenda."

Talking To The Ba'athists

It is difficult to determine whether the Amman talks will lead to anything tangible or whether they will be viewed as just another empty meeting. The inclusion of the Ba'athists is important and underscores the Iraqi government's earnest intentions to reach out to all opposition groups, except those linked to terrorist groups. Previous attempts at opening a dialogue with the Iraqi resistance excluded the Ba'athists, after objections by lawmakers who were wary of the Ba'athists' checkered past during the Hussein regime and fears that they might regain too much influence.

Furthermore, the Ba'athists' inclusion in the dialogue may drive a deeper wedge between the domestic insurgency and Al-Qaeda and create a counterweight to the rising influence of Al-Qaeda in the Sunni heartland.

Salih al-Mutlaq of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue warned earlier this week that Sunni Arabs have become radicalised by the brutal tactics of the U.S. military and have become disillusioned by the mainstream insurgency, Reuters reported on October 29. As a result, many have turned to Al-Qaeda and have been filling its ranks. Political inclusion of the Ba'athists could steer disillusioned Sunnis away from Al-Qaeda and renew hope in the political process.

U.S. Role As Mediator

Conversely, reports of talks between Iraqi resistance groups and the United States, while not new, indicate a greater willingness by those in the resistance to lay down arms. Moreover, because many armed groups refuse to engage in talks with the current Iraqi government, it is crucial that the United States act as mediator. The United States could play a major role in forging a negotiated settlement between the resistance and the government.

In an interview posted on the Internet on October 5, the alleged spokesman for the Islamic Army in Iraq, Ibrahim al-Shammari, said the insurgent group would be willing to enter negotiations with the United States if certain conditions were met (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 6, 2006). The London-based "Quds Press" reported on November 2 that the armed group will meet with U.S. officials in Amman on November 9.

The success of those talks will rest largely on the United States' ability to convince the Islamic Army and other resistance groups of the need to recognize the post-Hussein political environment. The "Quds Press" report indicated that members of the resistance still see no role for the Shi'a in Iraq. The report quoted "sources" as saying Iraq has two key players only: the national resistance and the occupation forces.

Finally, many of the same demands the resistance groups stated in the Amman talks were previously mentioned in the reconciliation conference held in Cairo under the sponsorship of the Arab League in 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2005).

The final communique called for the withdrawal of foreign troops, the release of innocent prisoners, and stressed resistance as the legitimate right for all people. However, three months later, Iraq was plunged into its current state of sectarian strife by the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in February. Thus, Iraqis may be somewhat skeptical about the Amman talks and the reconciliation process as a whole. (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on November 3.)

ETHNIC TENSIONS INCREASING IN OIL-RICH CITY. As the government committee charged with reversing the "Arabization" policy pursued in Kirkuk under former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein attempts to complete its constitutionally mandated task, ethnic tensions have increased as each community vies for control of the oil-rich northern city.

Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution outlines a three-step process to remove and reverse the Hussein-era "Arabization" policy in Kirkuk. The Ba'athist regime took extreme measures in the 1980s and 1990s to expel Kurds, Turkomans, and Christians from the city, including the Anfal campaign, and replacing the indigenous population with Arabs.

Post-Hussein governments have adopted a policy of "normalizing" Kirkuk through the repatriation of those displaced from their homes and the relocation of Arab settlers to nearby areas or to their traditional homes in the south.

The next 18 months will be crucial for the future of Kirkuk, as the Kirkuk Normalization Committee will need to have completed its task and the question of which region the city should belong to will be answered by 2007, when a census and referendum will take place. This should determine whether Kirkuk will be annexed by the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

Tensions Between Kurds, Turkomans

While members of the committee charged with implementing Article 140 are meant to be impartial, tensions have broken out among different ethnic groups, who accuse the committee of being one-sided. Many of these accusations have come from representatives of non-Kurdish groups who believe that Article 140 only supports Kurdish interests.

Under the pretext of reversing the forced Arabization campaign, more than 100,000 Kurds have returned to Kirkuk, thereby altering the city's demographics in their favor. Indeed, the implementation of Article 140 would most likely result in a Kurdish majority and Kirkuk will most likely be appropriated into the Kurdish autonomous region.

Jamal Shan, the deputy head of the Iraqi Turkoman Front (ITC), said on October 2 that the implementation of Article 140 would be detrimental to the Turkomans because it would adversely affect the Turkoman areas, the Kurdish weekly "Hawlati" reported. The ITC is known to have strong ties to Turkey and holds three seats in parliament.

"We will act as an obstacle in the way of implementing Article 140" because it will "endanger the geography of the Turkoman [territories]," Shan said.

Conversely, the Kurds were angry when on October 21 Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki appointed a Turkoman to the committee after the Turkomans complained that Article 140 only served Kurdish interests, (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 22, 2006). Qadir Aziz, a representative of Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Mas'ud Barzani, stressed that Kurds are the majority in Kirkuk "The decision was only meant to please the Turkoman Front," he said.

Turkish, Iranian Apprehensions

Turkey and Iran have voiced opposition to Article 140 and the upcoming referendum concerning Kirkuk, indicating that both Tehran and Ankara are well-aware of the current demographic situation in the city. At the same time, several Iraqi officials believe Turkey and possibly Iran are behind some of the recent violence in northern Iraq, especially in Kirkuk.

Turkey has been quite vocal in its opposition to an expansion of the Kurdish autonomous region, let alone an independent Kurdish state. Ankara fears such a state would become a focal point of nationalism and separatism within its own Kurdish population, and oil-rich Kirkuk could be the foundation of a powerful future Kurdish economy.

In addition, Turkey has consistently backed the Turkomans, who are ethnic Turks, and their historical claims to Kirkuk. This raises the suspicion among Iraq's Kurds that Turkey is interfering in Iraq's internal affairs by supporting Turkoman aspirations to counter Kurdish claims to the city.

Iran, too, has a sizable Kurdish population and Iranian leaders have indicated they are not comfortable with an independent Kurdish state, but prefer a Shi'ite-led central government that they could influence.

Iran and Turkey have cooperated for months in a military campaign against Turkish-Kurdish fighters holed up in the mountainous areas inside Iraqi territory. On September 5, Iran was accused of shelling the town of Mandali, deep in Iraqi territory, in an effort to oust anti-Iranian Kurdish guerrillas, international media reported.

In response, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani issued a sharp warning in an interview with U.S. National Public Radio on September 25, that his government was prepared to support opposition groups in Iran, Turkey, and Syria if Iraq's neighbors did not stop interfering in its internal affairs, (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 2006).

"We are asking them [Iraq's neighbors] to stop interfering in our internal affairs, and especially the sovereignty and independence of Iraq," he said. "If the violence doesn't stop, the Iraqi people will support the opposition of other countries and will try to make trouble for them as they have done for us."

Prospects For Kirkuk's Future

September was seen as one of the bloodiest months in Kirkuk, as the city witnessed an unprecedented surge in violence. According to the U.S. military, there have been 20 suicide bombings and 63 roadside bombs since August. For many, the attacks were seen as a warning to stop the implementation of Article 140, as well as an attempt to accentuate the ethnic tensions within the city. The wave of violence has increased tensions among the Kurdish, Arab, and Turkoman populations, and the next 18 months may witness even more violence as the referendum nears.

The stakes are extremely high. With Kirkuk housing the second-largest oil fields in Iraq and accounting for 70 percent of Iraq's natural-gas deposits, the issue of oil revenues further underscores the strategic importance of the city.

Kirkuk, in a sense, is a microcosm of Iraq, with its mixture of ethnic groups and religious sects jockeying for power. Thus, if the situation in Kirkuk could be reconciled, it could perhaps be a model for resolving the divisions and sectarian strife currently engulfing Iraq as a whole. As an unnamed Western diplomat told "The Guardian" on October 28, "If Kirkuk survives, then there is hope for Iraq." (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on November 2.)