7 March 2005, Volume 8, Number 8
IRAQI GROUPS DISCUSS TRANSITIONAL GOVERNMENT. Iraqi political groups have held numerous meetings in recent days as they work to negotiate the shape of the transitional administration. There is no word on when the transitional National Assembly -- responsible for naming a presidency council that will appoint a prime minister -- will hold its first session.
Kurdish leaders have led the way in the ongoing consultations, meeting with representatives from the winning Shi'ite list, United Iraqi Alliance, and with Sunni leaders from the Iraqi Islamic Party. The Kurds are reportedly also scheduled to meet with representatives of the Iraqi Turkoman Front. Shi'ite leaders have held at least two meetings with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and one party to the alliance, Iraqi National Congress (INC), has met with members of the Muslim Scholars Association. The series of meetings have left the media scrambling to predict the face of the new government. All parties continue to maintain, however, that they remain undecided on which candidates they will lend their support to for positions in the transitional administration.
Perhaps the most interesting development this week stems from the meeting between Kurdish leader and presidential contender Jalal Talabani and members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which led to that party's endorsement of Talabani for the presidency. Party leader Muhsin Abd al-Hamid told KurdSat television on 28 February: "We welcome [Talabani's nomination]. Jalal Talabani is a well-heeled and experienced politician who understands very well the state of Iraqi society, and he is a true Iraqi." Abd al-Hamid also voiced support both for the implementation of Transitional Administrative Law Article 58 that calls for the "normalization" of Kirkuk, and for "the return of Kirkuk or the boundary of the Kirkuk Governorate to its previous state."
Talabani has called for the inclusion of Sunnis in the transitional government, and it appears that some sort of deal has been cut that might perhaps lead to Talabani's support for an Islamic Party member to assume a high-level position in the government. Abd al-Hamid told the Saudi-daily "Ukaz" that his party will not participate in the new government, adding, "This decision is final," the newspaper reported on 23 February. The party will, however, seek a strong role in the constitutional drafting committee, he told "Ukaz" in a 28 February report. "We should be primary members of the higher committee entrusted with drafting the constitution. This is an essential condition that we will not concede.... We are an integral and indivisible part of the Iraqi structure and fabric," he said.
Some members of the Iraqi Turkoman Front, a grouping that is regularly at odds with the Kurds, proposed on 1 March that Turkomans and Kurds enter into a "serious dialogue" over the issue of Kirkuk. Riyad Sari Kahya, of the Turkomaneli Party, told the PUK daily "Al-Ittihad" that some parties within the grouping have called for the dissolution of the front and its transformation into a specific party. He added: "We are hoping for a serious dialogue with the Kurdish leadership, particularly with Talabani, to work toward establishing a joint administration in [Kirkuk]. We want Kirkuk to have its own independent status."
In an interview with Istanbul's "Vatan" published on 28 February, Talabani was asked to comment on a reported statement by Turkoman Front member Abd al-Qadir Bezirgan that expressed regret for not aligning with the Kurds in national elections. Bezirgan reportedly called the decision a "tactical error." Talabani told "Vatan" that he had advised the Turkoman Front before the election to join the Kurdistan list, adding: "The Turkomans' interests lie with the Kurds. Because we have been living together for hundreds of years. Despite this, the Turkomans [historically] reach agreement with the Ba'athists, they reach agreement with the Arabs, but they don't reach agreement with the Kurds."
Hizballah head Karim Mahmud al-Muhammadawi has accused the Kurds of implementing a policy of "arm twisting" with transitional National Assembly members, "Al-Hayat" reported on 1 March. "The demands that the Kurds presented for forging an alliance with the other parliamentary blocs expose the political blackmail that the Kurdish bloc is practicing by using the policy of arm twisting to pressure the other blocs to accede to their demands, especially in the matter of recognizing the peshmerga as a regular force and the annexation of Kirkuk city," he contended.
Talabani may also soon face increased tension with members of the Shi'ite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim told AP in an interview published on 28 February that the new Iraq must be an Islamic state with laws that do not "violate Islam." Talabani has reportedly said: Kurds "will not live in an Iraq ruled by an Islamic government," "Al-Hayat" reported on 25 February. SCIRI is a member of the Shi'ite-dominated list, the United Iraqi Alliance.
The alliance's candidate for premier, Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, led a five-member delegation to a meeting in Salah Al-Din with Kurdish leader Mas'ud Barzani on 1 March. Barzani said after the talks: "We share some points of view. We stressed the need for continued talks, as well as for achieving accord in the formation of the next Iraqi Government," Al-Sharqiyah television reported on the same day. Al-Ja'fari said that the two parties managed to overcome a number of outstanding issues, but did not elaborate. "We highlighted the importance of national unity and the need for Sunnis to participate in the next Iraqi government," he added.
Al-Ja'fari met the following day with Talabani in Al-Sulaymaniyah. Talabani told the press at a briefing following the meeting that he will endorse al-Ja'fari for the post of prime minister, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 2 March. "We support the nomination of al-Ja'fari for the post of prime minister in the new Iraqi government," Talabani said, adding that he and al-Jafari have agreed to form a joint coordination committee that will work to build an alliance between the Kurds and Shi'a. KurdSat television said the committee will work to formulate a joint policy for the groups. Al-Ja'fari voiced his support for Talabani's nomination as the transitional president at the press briefing, Al-Sharqiyah reported.
But Kurdish politician Mahmud Uthman told elaph.com on 3 March that no deal was struck between Talabani and al-Ja'fari at the meeting. Uthman contended that al-Ja'fari could not commit to Shi'ite support of Kurdish demands, including on the status of Kirkuk, and that the Shi'ite leader will convey those demands to the United Iraqi Alliance in order for the alliance to take a position on the matter. However, on 3 March KurdSat television broadcasted excerpts from the 2 March press briefing in which al-Ja'fari addressed the Kurdish demands, saying: "These issues were discussed.... There were no differences between us. There have been dialogues and a series of detailed dialogues that took place during the Governing Council phase, and these dialogues left their marks in the [Transitional Administrative Law]. We will proceed on the basis of that. The law deals with the issue of Kirkuk and all its special aspects and the peshmerga. We have expressed that on many occasions. We will adhere to that, God willing."
"Al-Hayat" reported on 1 March that the United Iraqi Alliance has held an internal meeting to draw up the mechanisms for alliances with other blocs and choose the ministries it wishes to hold. Alliance member Ali Faysal al-Lami told the daily that the "discussions focused on the distribution of the sovereign ministries between the winning blocs," adding that the alliance has been instructed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to include Sunnis in the government.
Al-Lami contended that the current proposal under consideration by alliance members would give the parliamentary speaker's position to a Sunni, either interim President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir or Constitutional Monarchy Movement head al-Sharif Ali bin al-Husayn. Al-Yawir has been cited in the press as saying he would not accept the position; he told Al-Sharqiyah in a 27 February interview that the presidency should be reserved for a Sunni Arab. He contended that a Sunni Arab president would lead to a state of balance and accord, the television channel reported. Islamic Al-Da'wah Party member Jawad al-Maliki reportedly hinted to the London-based daily "Al-Hayat" last week that the alliance might seek to place a Sunni in the position of deputy prime minister, it reported on 25 February.
Sunni leader Adnan Pachachi's Independent Democrats Grouping said in a 1 March statement that representatives from 23 Iraqi political parties and groups have met at the grouping's headquarters to discuss how to participate in the drafting of the constitution. An 18-member committee was set up to examine the issue, Kurdistan Satellite Television reported on 1 March.
Meanwhile, Iraqi National Congress member Qays Wattut told "Al-Hayat" that Muslim Scholars Association leaders told the INC that the association remains concerned that the federalism supported by some parties (i.e., the Kurds) might be part of a plan to divide Iraq. Both Talabani and Barzani have demanded a federal Kurdistan; a demand that has the backing of the United Iraqi Alliance. (Kathleen Ridolfo, 4 March)
TARGETING OF JOURNALISTS CONTINUES IN IRAQ. The targeting of journalists in Iraq has taken a dramatic turn in recent weeks with the release of videotaped messages by kidnapped Italian and French journalists, the subsequent withdrawal of the Italian press corps from Iraq, and the targeting of Iraqis working for U.S.-funded broadcasters. The trend is worrying because it illuminates the effort by insurgents to control the media through a perverse attempt to intimidate the media and influence "what" and "how" the news is reported.
In the kidnapping of foreign journalists, the hostage-takers' demands tend to lie in the insistence that troops from the hostage's country be withdrawn. But that is not always the case. For example, the 5 January kidnapping of French national Florence Aubenas, a veteran journalist with the daily "Liberation." Aubenas appeared on a videotaped message this week describing her poor state of physical and psychological health, and pleading with French parliamentarian Didier Julia to help her.
Julia was involved in an unauthorized attempt in September to free two French journalists held captive in Iraq, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot. French authorities accused him at the time of interfering in the government's attempts to free the two men, an attempt that failed and arguably delayed the liberation of the two journalists. Julia has said that he would not take steps to intervene in Aubenas' case, unless formally asked to do so by the French authorities. On 2 March, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin made an unforeseen intervention at the French Assembly and officially requested Julia's help. However, on 3 March Raffarin said he would not support any initiative launched parallel to the French government's attempts to free the hostages, news agencies reported. No demands have been issued for Aubenas' release, and the secretary-general of the French advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (http://www.rsf.org), Robert Menard, said he believed the hostage-takers put Aubenas up to appealing to Julia, AP reported on 1 March.
Meanwhile, French intelligence experts are reportedly studying the video for clues in the kidnapping, along with a second, unreleased video, received last week. AFP reported on 2 March that the reference to Julia in one of the videotapes has raised speculation that Syria may be linked to the kidnappers. Julia reportedly has longstanding ties to Syria. Julia told French TF1 TV channel on 1 March of the kidnappers: "These are people who know me, and probably people I know."
At least two groups have claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena -- who was released on 5 March in Baghdad after being held for a month -- the last being an unknown group identifying itself as Mujahedin Without Borders. The group's banner was seen behind Sgrena in a videotaped message sent to AP Television News on 16 February. In the tape, Sgrena pleads for Italian troops to be withdrawn from Iraq, and asks her partner Pierre Scolari to help free her. "Nobody should come to Iraq. Please help me. Get the government to withdraw its troops. My life depends on it," she said.
The Italian government refused to yield to the kidnappers' demands for a withdrawal, and it is not yet known under what conditions she was released. Italian Agriculture Minister Giovanni Alemanno said it "was very probably" that a ransom was paid. The Italian government did issue a stern warning to journalists in Iraq, prompting all remaining Italian journalists to leave the country on 22 February. One day before that, an Italian embassy official said that fresh threats had been made against four journalists, Reuters reported on 23 February. Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni was kidnapped and killed by his captors in August.
Two Indonesian journalists kidnapped in mid-February were released after about a week in captivity. Their captors said in a videotaped message that the journalists were freed after showing their "goodwill" and because of religious ties -- the hostages were Muslim.
Iraqi journalists and their families are perhaps the most vulnerable targets. Al-Iraqiya television presenter Ra'idah al-Wazzan was found dead in Mosul on 26 February, six days after her abduction. Her 10-year-old son, abducted with her, was released after three days in captivity, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (http://www.rsf.org) said in a 26 February statement. Al-Wazzan's husband said that his wife had received several death threats before the abduction, with insurgents demanding she quit her job with the U.S.-funded television station. Al-Iraqiya came under mortar attack on 16 February and three technicians were injured, cpj.org reported on 28 February. Al-Iraqiya producer Jamal Badrani was also targeted in a kidnapping attempt on 14 February, the International Federation of Journalists (http://www.ifj.org) reported on 1 March.
U.S.-funded Alhurra television employee Muhammad Sharif Ali sustained serious injuries after militants attacked his car in Al-Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad, on 25 February. The attack came just weeks after the 9 February assassination of Alhurra correspondent Abd al-Husayn al-Basri outside his home in Al-Basrah. His infant son was also killed in the attack.
Iraqi journalists are taking action to address the unique problems that confront them. Following four days of meetings at the International Federation of Journalists headquarters in Brussels, a group of Iraqi journalists established the Iraqi National Journalists Advisory Panel. The panel brings together more progressive members of an older journalists' syndicate together with leaders of a newer union, and Kurdish journalists, the IFJ announced in a statement posted to its website. "Besides trying to end attacks against journalists, the panel intends to help foster ethical, independent journalism, opposing the political manipulation still endemic to the Iraqi media," the statement added. The federation contends that more than 70 media workers, half of whom were Iraqi, have been killed in Iraq over the past two years. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
AL-NAJAF CRISIS SOLVED FOR TIME BEING. RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on 1 March that the crisis that has been building for several weeks between Governor Adnan al-Zurufi and police chief Ghalib al-Jaza'iri has subsided after multinational forces entered the town to help provide security.
The tension between the two men began following the 30 January election, in which the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) won the majority of seats in the governorate election. Al-Zurufi has been at odds with SCIRI, the political party of which al-Jaza'iri is reportedly a member. On 17 February, al-Zurufi announced that al-Jaza'iri had been relieved of his duties as police chief for failing to obey an order reassigning him to Baghdad, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 18 February. (Al-Jaza'iri's two sons were kidnapped and killed by unknown assailants on 17 February as they traveled from Al-Najaf to Karbala to take part in the Ashura).
Tensions were compounded when the Interior Ministry appointed a new police chief, Abd al-Shahid Abd al-Razzaq, in February. The latter reportedly withdrew from his position after al-Jaza'iri refused to leave his post. To compound matters, al-Zurufi appointed a new security supervisor for the governorate, Abd A'al al-Kufi. Al-Kufi's security men took over a number of police stations in the old city of Al-Najaf and the surrounding areas, RFI reported on 27 February. Al-Jaza'iri told RFI in a telephone interview that day that he believed al-Kufi intended to dispatch the police to prevent the newly-elected council from convening after the council said it would take action to decide the duties of both al-Jaza'iri and Governor al-Zurufi. The council, according to a 4 March report on ft.com, wanted to appoint a new governor, SCIRI member As'ad Abu Kalal. Al-Zurufi has said that such an appointment does not fall within the council's authority. RFI reported on 1 March that al-Jaza'iri has reopened the highway between Al-Najaf and Al-Kufa, which his forces had closed for the preceding 72 hours. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
RFI INTERVIEWS IBRAHIM BAHR AL-ULUM. RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) interviewed United Iraqi Alliance member Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum on 28 February to ask about the alliance's meeting with Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The interview was broadcast on 1 March. A transcript follows:
RFI [Ahmad al-Zubaydi, correspondent in Baghdad]: One of the candidates of the United Iraqi Alliance announced that [supreme Shi'ite] religious authority Ali al-Sistani urged the [United Iraqi] Alliance to support the unity of all Iraqis. Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum, a member of the Coordination Committee of the United Iraqi Alliance, said that Ali al-Sistani had given "important" advice to the delegation from the [United Iraqi] Alliance that had visited al-Sistani in Al-Najaf recently.
Bahr al-Ulum [speaking on telephone]: In fact, our visit to His Eminence [supreme Shi'ite] authority Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, conducted by the Coordination Committee of the United Iraqi Alliance, was initiated by the brothers' wish to present thanks and gratefulness to His Eminence. It was a positive encounter where His Eminence offered several instructions and advice relevant to the political work. Among the most important of them was his exhortation to keep the unity of Iraqis and to work collectively for the defense of the rights of Iraqis in general. [Al-Sistani said as well] that the law of majority and minority must be given a precise respect. The minority must respect the opinion of the majority and the majority must respect the feelings and rights of the minority. This must become the guarantee of political progress. He also stressed that as there have been some Iraqis suspicious of the participation in the political process, we have to guarantee their rights and to respect them as much as we respect ourselves. In this way, we should secure the cohesion of the Iraqi people. He also pointed out that it is necessary to give Iraqi women an active role in the political field, and it is also necessary to give an active role to young people and to be interested in them.
RFI: As one of the forefront candidates of the [United Iraqi] Alliance and a member of the [National] Assembly, how do you find Jalal Talabani's statements on Kirkuk governorate?
Bahr al-Ulum: In fact, the United Iraqi Alliance has entered into consultations and negotiations with the Kurdish brothers. A series of negotiations took place three days (note: he later says "two days") ago and those negotiations were, as a whole, positive. We had known there would be a number of hot issues that cannot be solved in a moment but can be solved gradually and dealt with thoroughly in the coming time. We can focus on the political process and head it in this direction. I suppose that the Kurdish brothers really understand the situation, the political process, and the sensitivity of conditions. Therefore, if there is the Kirkuk issue or other issues that can be solved according to the provisions of the Transitional Administrative Law, then they will be dealt with in the coming time, but they must not be an obstacle for progress in the political process.
RFI: Can we understand from this that Dr. [Ibrahim] al-Ja'fari's visit to Al-Sulaymaniyah Governorate, or to the Kurdistan region, was set in this framework [of the talks conducted between the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish Unity List]?
Bahr al-Ulum: Dr. [Ibrahim] al-Ja'fari's visit came in the context of the ongoing negotiations between the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish [Unity] List that aim at arriving at a clear and united political vision of the political process. There was a series of negotiations between the brothers representing the Kurdish [Unity] List and the representatives of the United Iraqi Alliance two days ago and it was, as a whole, positive. [Al-Ja'fari's visit] was only a continuation of those negotiations. Moreover, the Kurdish Unity List represents the second [strongest] candidates' list in the parliament and the Kurdish brothers represent their proportion in the Iraqi society. That is why the negotiations with them have been going on, as well as they have been going on at the same time with the [third-strongest] Iraqi List and with small candidate lists. Also a meeting with the candidates list [known as Iraqis] of president of the republic, Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawir, and with some small blocs has taken place. So there are open channels and open dialogues with all, irrespective of their backgrounds. The political process requires close contact with all political segments of the Iraqi people. (Translation by Petr Kubalek)