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Iraq Report: December 29, 2006

December 29, 2006, Volume 9, Number 45

TORTURE ALLEGATIONS HANG OVER GOVERNMENT. On December 25, a thousand British troops accompanied by Iraqi forces raided the Al-Jama'at police station in Al-Basrah after being told that dozens of detainees were about to be put to death.

At the police station, the troops found 127 prisoners being held in conditions that U.K. military spokesman Major Charlie Burbridge described as "appalling." He said all the men were crammed inside a single 9-by-12-meter cell with two open toilets and a few blankets spread over a concrete floor. Many of them also showed signs of abuse and torture, such as crushed hands and feet, cigarette burns, and gunshot wounds to their knees.

The Al-Jama'at raid was only the latest incident in which allegations of torture have been leveled against Iraqi security forces. It is a common scenario: the systematic torture of detainees by a rogue Iraqi security force suspected of being infiltrated by Shi'ite militiamen.

While these continuing revelations could erode support for an already weakened Shi'ite-led government, they may also encourage influential Sunni groups like the Muslim Scholars Association to continue their boycott of the political process.

Abuses Go Beyond Sectarian Violence

The Al-Basrah raid was aimed at a renegade police force referred to as the Serious Crimes Unit, which British officials claimed had been infiltrated by Shi'ite militia elements, who used the unit to carry out sectarian attacks against Sunni Arabs and settle scores with political rivals, London's "The Times" reported on December 26. The incident recalled the dismissal on November 7 of some 57 members of a police unit charged with torturing hundreds of detainees at an infamous Baghdad prison called "Site No. 4" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 2005).

While many instances of prisoner abuse fall along sectarian lines, with Shi'ite militia members using the cover of security forces to target Sunnis, other instances of prisoner abuse have also surfaced. In the semi-autonomous Kurdish north, which has been spared much of the sectarian violence, Kurdish security forces have been accused of randomly arresting members of rival political parties and torturing them.

The leader of the Kurdistan Islamic Group, Ali Bapir, on December 14 accused forces linked to the two main Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, of arresting and torturing a number of his group's members without charges, the Kurdish daily "Aso" reported the same day.

"Some statements have been squeezed out of prisoners under interrogation and torture, and later they were indicted," Bapir said. "There are people serving three or four years in prison without any charges. Some prisoners have been threatened that members of their families could be raped if they did not confess and sign certain documents."

Also, a December 13 report by the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks found conflicting accounts concerning the treatment of female prisoners in Iraqi detention centers. The Interior Ministry declared that there are very few, if any female prisoners, but those that are detained are held in special facilities and treated with respect. The U.S. military contends that it has no information regarding women detainees being held in Iraqi prisons.

But according to Women's Affairs Minister Fatin Abd al-Rahman Mahmud, female prisoners are being held in "appalling conditions, often without charge, and are sometimes raped and tortured."

She added: "We don't know the exact number of female prisoners, but there are many being held in different prisons -- even though the [other ministries in the] government and U.S. forces deny it. They are afraid of a counterattack from the country's conservative society."

Allegations Undermine Government, Security

The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has taken significant steps to combat corruption and weed out militia elements from the Interior Ministry and its associated security forces. On October 17, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani reassigned three top police commanders suspected of having links to Shi'ite death squads (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2006). And on October 4, the government suspended an entire brigade from the national police and ordered them to undergo re-retraining and revetting after allegations surfaced that some of them were linked to Shi'ite death squads (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2006).

Despite these efforts, continuing allegations of prisoner abuse at Iraqi-run detention facilities hang like a cloud over the Iraqi government. These charges recall the similar brutality displayed during the regime of former President Saddam Hussein, which undercuts the government's legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people.

Moreover, suspected "rogue" elements such as the unit at the police station in Al-Basrah underscore the impression that the government is unable to control these forces, heightening the fear among Sunnis, who may feel obliged to take up arms to protect themselves. This increases the likelihood of a serious armed conflict and continuing instability.

Fuel For Propaganda

What's more, revelations that Shi'ite militiamen under the cover of the Iraqi security services have participated in the torture of Sunni prisoners may dissuade members of the Sunni-led insurgency from laying down their arms and joining the political process. This would deal a severe blow to any efforts by the Iraqi government to initiate a national reconciliation plan.

While abuse allegations undermine the government, they also give legitimacy to the armed insurgency and terrorist groups. Accusations of torture are an effective means of mobilizing fearful and disillusioned Iraqis who have lost faith in the government, and serve as an effective recruiting tool.

On November 20, the "Mujahedin News" website posted links to a 57-minute video clip attributed to Al-Furqan Media Productions titled "Free the Prisoners." The video calls on Muslims to do their part to free Sunni prisoners in U.S.-run and Iraqi government prisons, and includes footage from Al-Jazeera television showing Sunnis displaying scars, allegedly the product of torture in government-run detention facilities. (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published n December 28.)

ISTANBUL CONFERENCE ENFLAMES SECTARIAN TENSIONS. On December 13-14, Turkey hosted a "Conference for the Support of the Iraqi People" in Istanbul that brought together more than 150 attendees, including politicians, religious figures, intellectuals and activists, from both inside and outside Iraq.

However, the one major caveat concerning the conference was that the participants were mostly all Sunni. While the object of the conference was to discuss the situation of the Iraqi people under the U.S. occupation, the current political crisis, and the seemingly unending violence, there was no denying the sectarian nature of the conference.

The conference highlighted the "systematic marginalization of the Sunnis; the targeting of their ulema [Muslim scholars], imams, areas, mosques; and the liquidation of their men and women based upon their identity," according to the final statement of the conference that appeared on the Muslim Scholars Association's website on December 15.

Moreover, the conference underscored the need for Sunnis throughout the Arab and Muslim world to assist their Sunni brethren in Iraq in the midst of the current sectarian violence. This call for assistance to the greater Sunni community could be a step in the beginning of a wider regional conflict.

Conference Highlights Sectarian Divide

Speaking at the opening of the conference, Harith al-Dari, the leader of the influential Muslim Scholars Association, stressed that the crisis in Iraq is not a sectarian conflict, but a political struggle, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on December 13. He said the struggle is not between sectarian beliefs; instead it is a struggle "between the Saddamists and takfiris [nonbelievers in God], on the one hand, and all the components of the Iraqi people." In this case, the takfiris are those who are in collusion with the occupation.

The leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front, Adnan al-Dulaymi, was less diplomatic in his language and stressed that the current crisis in Iraq is indeed sectarian in nature, with the aim of liquidating the Sunni Arab population.

"It is a sectarian war. It is a sectarian conflict that aims to destroy the Sunnis. Anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong and must reconsider his position. He also must consider all the events that are taking place in Iraq," al-Dulaymi was quoted by Al-Jazeera satellite television on December 13 as saying.

The reaction among Iraqi Shi'ite and Kurdish politicians to the conference was swift and severe, with many condemning it for enflaming the sectarian divide. The head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) Badr Organization, Hadi al-Amiri, said he found it unthinkable for a conference to convene under the pretense for supporting the Iraqi people, but to only invite Sunnis.

"We cannot accept this conference at all and we are against viewing it as a gathering for supporting the Iraqi people. We consider this conference an aggressive conference against the Iraqi people," al-Amiri told Al-Jazeera satellite television on December 13.

Indeed, the Iraqi government found the conference so distressing that the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee asked Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to review the commercial relations between Iraq and conference host Turkey, "Al-Mada" reported on December 19.

The Iranian Threat

There were reports that insurgent figures were either present or sent messages to the conference; one message of note was sent by the alleged spokesman for the Islamic Army in Iraq, Dr. Ibrahim al-Shammari. In an audio message, he warned that "many Sunni strongholds in the south had fallen" and stressed that "the [Iranian] Shi'ite aggression would continue into Kuwait and Saudi Arabia," "Al-Zaman" reported on December 16.

Iraqi Sunni leaders have long accused Iran of supporting the current Shi'ite government in Baghdad and arming and training Shi'ite militias, which have been widely accused of carrying out sectarian attacks against Sunnis.

Interestingly, one of the participants at the Istanbul conference was Sheikh Nasir Bin Sulayman al-Umar, an influential Saudi Islamist. "Al-Zaman" reported that he was introduced as the director of the website, which hosted the December 7 statement signed by 38 prominent Saudi clerics that called on Sunni Arabs throughout the Middle East to mobilize against Iraq's Shi'a and to support its Sunni Arabs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2006). The statement also warned that the occupation and the Shi'a were conspiring to dominate the region. Al-Umar was also a signatory of the statement.

"The Crusader, Safavid [Iranian] and Rafidi [Shi'ite] scheme to which the Iraqi land and people have been subjected, and which was preceded by Ba'athist rule, is one chapter of the conspiracy and an indication of the success of the octopus-like scheme that is sweeping through the region," the statement read.

Regional Concerns

The clear sectarian nature of the Istanbul conference, on the surface, suggests that Iraq's Sunni Arabs are moving away from national reconciliation and closer to civil war and perhaps a broader regional conflict.

The warnings delivered by the likes of al-Dulaymi and al-Shammari concerning Iran are possibly attempts to align Iraq's Sunni population with Sunni-dominated countries for what may turn out to be a proxy war against Iran within Iraq. "Al-Hayat" reported on December 16 that along with representatives from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, there were participants from Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Algeria, and Morocco, all Sunni-dominated states.

Furthermore, fearing an Iranian takeover of Iraq, Saudi Arabia allegedly informed the United States that it would intervene to support the Sunnis if the U.S. military pulls out (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006). Indeed, a Shi'ite-dominated Iraq could influence the kingdom's sizable and long-repressed Shi'ite population.

With regards to Turkey, its role in hosting the conference seems to be its latest attempt to influence Iraq's Kurdish population. Turkey and the Sunnis have one major thing in common: they are both opposed to federalism. The Sunnis are against it because it may lead to the breakup of Iraq, with the oil-rich north and south being controlled by the Kurds and Shi'a, respectively, while the Sunnis are left with the resource poor center.

Turkey opposes Iraqi federalism because it fears an autonomous Kurdish north could lead to an independent Kurdish state, which in turn may incite Turkey's large Kurdish minority to seek independence. (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published n December 22.)

IRAQI RECONCILIATION CONFERENCE FAILS TO DELIVER. There was much anticipation in the run-up to the National Reconciliation Conference held on December 16-17, with Iraqi officials billing the conference as the country's best attempt to find a political solution to end the rampant lawlessness and spiraling violence. However, as has been the case with Iraqi politics since the fall of the former regime, infighting, dueling political agendas, and notable absences have thwarted the latest attempt at national reconciliation.

While Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made some progress in reaching out to marginalized Sunnis and groups outside the political process, it was apparent that a wide gulf still exists between the current political establishment and those shunning the political process.

Al-Maliki Reaches Out To Sunnis

Speaking at the conference on December 16, al-Maliki reached across the sectarian divide to call on Iraqis to work for the unity and integrity of Iraq. He also promised to review the de-Ba'athification process that cost many Sunni Arabs the jobs they had under the former regime, as well as moving to rid ministries of sectarian affiliations -- two key grievances of many insurgent groups.

"We call for a serious review of the current political formations and restructuring them on national bases. We also call for the formation of an expanded national framework or front that will comprise all the political components, that will be above chauvinist affiliations and loyalties in a manner that will allow capable and qualified figures to run the country far from the sectarian, national, and partisan power-sharing system," he said.

In addition, he called on officers from former President Saddam Hussein's disbanded military to join Iraq's new army. He also indicated that those who do not wish to reenlist would be given their pensions, a longstanding demand by Sunni leaders. However, he made it clear that his offer was directed toward Ba'ath Party members who did not have "blood on their hands," a move to appease many in the Shi'ite community who still regard the Ba'ath Party with suspicion.

"We completely differentiate between the Ba'athists whose hands are not stained with the blood of our people, and those who committed the ugliest of crimes against Iraqis and continue to shed the blood of the innocents," al-Maliki said.

However, it was unclear what criteria the government would employ to determine which Ba'athists had an acceptable past and which ones don't.

Notable Absences

Even before the conference began, there were questions as to whether representatives of extremist Shi'ite and Sunni factions would attend. In the end, it was apparent that the groups that are responsible for most of the sectarian violence were either not invited or refused to attend.

The Muslim Scholars Association, an influential Sunni organization with alleged links to insurgent groups, said it was not invited to the conference, but refused to attend even if it were, Al-Arabiyah satellite television reported on December 16. Furthermore, association spokesman Sheikh Muhammad Bashar al-Faydi said that the group was boycotting the conference to protest the government issuing an arrest warrant for their leader, Sheikh Harith al-Dari (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2006).

"We have not been invited to this conference, contrary to what government officials have said. They claimed that they have sent an invitation to the Muslim Scholars Association, which is not true," al-Faydi said.

On the other hand, the political bloc of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr refused an invitation, citing the presence of Ba'athists and Hussein loyalists. "Our position is very clear and we cannot negotiate with those whom we put to trial before courts, since they assisted the occupation forces to enter Iraq and handed Iraq over to them on a golden plate," al-Sadr deputy Salih al-Uqayli said, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on December 16.

Al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, has been widely accused by Sunni leaders of carrying out sectarian attacks against Sunnis. His absence perhaps underscored his unwillingness to reign in his militia, as well as sending a message to al-Maliki not to sideline him. In fact, there was no mention of al-Sadr in any of major speeches during the conference.

It was unclear whether the Ba'athists, who are thought to form the backbone of the insurgency, had actually attended the conference. Sources at the conference said that members of the former Ba'ath Party had taken part, but a statement issued by the party itself said it did not authorize any of its members to attend the conference, "Al-Zaman" reported on December 17.

More Of The Same?

It is difficult to say whether the conference will lead to any concrete changes. Several Iraqi leaders have praised the outcome of the conference, stressing that the involvement of the participants underscored a move toward national unity. Two earlier reconciliation conferences were postponed, and given the spiraling violence and increasing instability, the mere fact that the conference was held at all was a feat.

Prime Minister al-Maliki's call to former military personnel to return to duty indicated a genuine attempt to reach out to the disaffected Sunnis. The Ba'athists promptly rejected that appeal, describing the new Iraqi Army as "an army of collaborators with the occupation" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2006).

However, Iraqis have watched displays of national unity before, only to see them quickly disintegrate into chaos. On November 21, 2005, Iraqi leaders gathered during an Arab League-sponsored National Reconciliation Conference in Cairo and vowed to bring Sunnis into the political process. Three months later, on February 22, 2006, the Al-Askari (Golden) Mosque in Samarra was bombed, setting off a wave of sectarian violence.

Indeed, Muslim Scholars Association spokesman al-Faydi referred to the Cairo meeting when he indicated the group would boycott the latest conference. "We did not see any credibility on the part of the government in all meetings prior to this conference. The government always takes advantage of these conferences to polish its image without showing seriousness to put an end to the predicament the Iraqis are going through," Al-Arabiyah satellite television on December 16 quoted him as saying.

The conference itself, lacked any fresh ideas to end the political impasse or to help quell the violence. Moreover, while Iraqi leaders reiterated their broad calls for unity and for sectarian attacks to cease, they were unable to provide any details as to how this would come about. There were no new proposals on how to reign in the Shi'ite militias or Sunni insurgents.

Several sources also indicated that there was a great deal of discord among participants at the conference, "Al Zaman" reported on December 18. In fact, the government's decision to allow only state-run media to cover the conference was perhaps indicative of the amount of friction authorities anticipated, but did not want the public to see.

Indeed, Iraqi National List member Iyad Jamaladin told "The New York Times" on December 17 that before there can be any reconciliation with those outside the political process, there first must be broad agreement by those within the political process. (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published n December 20.)