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Iraq Report: April 5, 2005

5 April 2005, Volume 8, Number 12
IRAQIS REMEMBER POPE AS ADVOCATE FOR PEACE. Iraq's Christian community mourned the passing of Pope John Paul II on 2 April. In Baghdad, Father Butros Haddad, head of Church of the Virgin Mary, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI): "The pope had many positions on Iraq. He was against the war in Iraq until the last minute, and even after the war. In every place and every international event, and every meeting with presidents and with kings, he was against the war."

Father Haddad recalled to RFI Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel Delly's last meeting with the pope in February. "The pope told him, 'I love Iraq. Iraq has a very big place in my heart.'"

Pope John Paul II was an advocate not just for Iraq's Christians, but for all Iraqis. "All Christians, even the Muslims, will hope for another pope to reestablish peace in this world," Rabban al-Qas, the Chaldean bishop of Amadiyah, told Reuters on 3 April.

The pontiff strongly opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 1991, refusing to declare it a "just war." He was also a vocal opponent of international sanctions, and appealed on several occasions to the international community to not make the "innocent Iraqi people" pay the consequences of a destructive war.

In 1999, the pope expressed a wish to visit the ancient city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. The visit prompted controversy in the West because Iraq remained under UN sanctions, and the trip was ultimately "postponed" with Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls saying that Saddam Hussein's government claimed it could not guarantee the pope's safety due to the strictly enforced no-fly zones.

The United States opposed the trip on the grounds that any meeting between the pope and President Hussein might send the wrong message to the world. "We have expressed our concerns in diplomatic channels because of the likelihood the regime in Iraq would attempt to manipulate the visit for political purposes,'' State Department spokesman James Foley said on 27 August 1999.

Pope John Paul continually stressed the need for Muslim-Christian dialogue. "Together with the Muslim countrymen, Iraqi Christians wish to work for unity and harmony. Their Christian faith and values inspire them to cultivate a spirit of mutual respect, with pride in their national identity and concern for the progress of their country. In Iraq, as in the world at large, dialogue between Christians and Muslims is more necessary than ever," he told Iraqi Ambassador to the Vatican Abd al-Amir al-Anbari in an April 2001 letter. The pontiff reiterated the responsibility of governments to "ensure that the equality of all citizens before the law is never violated for religious reasons."

On the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the pope voiced his opposition to the pending war, saying military force in Iraq should be considered "the very last option." Even when war seem inevitable, the pope persisted, dispatching envoys and issuing appeals to world leaders to avert a war.

The Vatican's special envoy to Iraq, Roger Etchegaray, traveled to Baghdad in early February to convey the pontiff's plea to Hussein that Iraq abide by UN Security Council resolutions and cooperate fully with weapons inspectors. The pope reiterated his plea to Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz at a 14 February 2003 meeting at the Vatican. In a statement that followed the meeting, the Vatican reiterated the "necessity of faithfully respecting, with concrete commitments, the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, guarantor of international legality."

In a 22 February 2003 meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the pope called on Blair to resolve the crisis through the United Nations. "Special consideration [in the meeting] was given to the humanitarian situation of the Iraqi people, already tried greatly by long years of embargo," the Vatican said in a statement following the meeting.

The pontiff expressed concern the next day that a war in Iraq could stir Muslim animosity against Christians. "For months the international community is living in great apprehension for the danger of a war, which could unsettle the entire Middle East region and aggravate the tensions unfortunately already present in this beginning of the third millennium," he told followers in St. Peter's Square on 23 February.

Just days before the war, Vatican envoy Cardinal Pio Laghi met with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House and stressed the Vatican's position that the crisis could still be resolved through peaceful avenues that existed through international law and institutions. In a 5 March statement on the meeting, Laghi said a decision for war must take into account "the suffering of the people of Iraq and those involved in the military operation, a further instability in the region and a new gulf between Islam and Christianity." Days into the conflict, the pope said the war threatened the whole of humanity.

The pontiff remained concerned over developments in Iraq after the war, and asked President Bush in June 2004 to help normalize the situation in Iraq "as quickly as possible." John Paul called for the "active participation of the international community and, in particular, the United Nations organization, in order to ensure a speedy return of Iraq's sovereignty, in conditions of security for all its people." In August, the Vatican volunteered to mediate the standoff between rebel Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and multinational forces in Al-Najaf.

The pope condemned terrorist attacks against churches in Iraq in 2004 and, in a November meeting with interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, said in a statement read by an aide: "I wish to encourage efforts made by the Iraqi people to establish democratic institutions which will be truly representative and committed to defending the rights for all." He called for religious freedom in Iraq in a December meeting with interim Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari.

The pope's legacy of peace was not lost on Iraq's Muslim community. Islamic Party politician Muhammad Abd al-Jabbar told RFI on 3 April: "I am sending my condolences to all the Christians in the world and especially the Iraqi Christians on the death of the pope. His death was a big loss for peace in the world." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

ALLEGED TERRORIST LEADER TO BE DEPORTED FROM NORWAY. Media reports emanating from Norway in recent weeks indicate that the Norwegian government intends to deport purported Ansar Al-Islam leader Najm al-Din Faraj Ahmad, aka Mullah Krekar, to Iraq. Krekar sought asylum in Norway in 1991, but reportedly continues to serve as the titular head of Ansar Al-Islam, making frequent trips to Iraq since 1991. The group is deemed a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Iraqi authorities may attempt to charge Krekar with human rights abuses against Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq.

There appears to be sufficient evidence linking Ansar to numerous crimes against the Iraqi people. It is unclear whether Iraqi authorities have sufficient evidence, however, to link Krekar to the purported atrocities committed by the group. Iraqi Justice Minister Malik Duhan al-Hasan told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on 11 March that the Iraqi authorities do not have any criminal case or other charges against Krekar even though it is well-known that he founded and led the group. Krekar's brother has claimed that Krekar left the group in 2002. "The Iraqi judiciary is independent and it will not punish someone because he is sympathetic to armed organizations or opposes the occupation," al-Hasan said. "The Iraqi government has nothing against Krekar but it cannot guarantee his safety from his enemies."

Al-Hasan later told the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) daily "Al-Ittihad" on 14 March: "We will cooperate with the Al-Sulaymaniyah court regarding any case filed against Mullah Krekar, and he will face all the charges and the cases filed against him during his trial, whether it is held in Al-Sulaymaniyah or Baghdad," implying that the Kurdish authorities may prosecute the Ansar leader. Should Krekar be tried in Al-Sulaymaniyah, it is unlikely that he would get a fair trial.

The ramifications of a trial on the Ansar movement are also unknown. A trial would surely spark increased terrorist attacks against Kurdish civilians in the PUK-controlled areas. Those attacks might be limited in scope, however, depending upon whether they were launched by insurgents from Iran or from within the scattered Ansar battalions in Iraq. From all accounts, Ansar fighters have for years easily penetrated the long Iranian border, which is reportedly difficult to secure.

Ansar Al-Islam is a relatively new organization in Iraq, but has roots in the Islamist movement in Kurdistan. It is an outgrowth of a group called Jund Al-Islam (Soldiers of Islam) that was formed in 2001 by splintered factions from the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan. Jund Al-Islam, later renamed Ansar Al-Islam (Supporters of Islam) initially based its activities in the villages of Biyara and Tawela, along the Iranian border northeast of Halabjah.

A long-standing enemy of the PUK, Ansar Al-Islam fought the PUK, and later embraced a short-lived cease-fire with the group. Ansar later carried out a series of attacks against the PUK in 2002, including the killing of 42 peshmerga fighters in a surprise attack on a PUK village, and attempted to assassinate PUK leader Barham Salih in an attack that left five of Salih's bodyguards dead.

The United States bombed some 18 villages controlled by Ansar in the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 25 March 2003). That strike reportedly scattered Ansar militants, and many were believed to have fled over the border to Iran. Iran, however, denied reports of any relationship to the terrorist group (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 28 March and 2 April 2003). The group appears, however, to have an on-again-off-again relationship with the Iranian regime. PUK officials most recently charged Iran with aiding Ansar members and Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's group in November 2004 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 November 2004).


PUK and U.S. intelligence sources have linked Krekar to the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 10 August 2004). Krekar has reportedly been linked to Afghanistan since the 1980s and is known to have studied Islamic law in Pakistan under Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian who was said to be the mentor of Osama bin Laden, according to the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies.

When Krekar assumed the leadership of Ansar Al-Islam in 2001, he replaced Abu Abdullah Shafae, who was trained by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy said in a 2003 report that Ansar received start-up money from Al-Qaeda leaders in an August 2001 meeting in Afghanistan "with the goal of creating an alternate base for the organization in northern Iraq." Ansar was formally established in Iraq one month later.

Ansar fighters subsequently arrested by the PUK gave what Human Rights Watch described as "credible" details about Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. Documents obtained by "The New York Times" in an Al-Qaeda guesthouse in Afghanistan also pointed to an Al-Qaeda link.

The PUK claims that dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters joined Ansar Al-Islam in Iraq after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, with as many as 57 "Arab Afghan" fighters entering Kurdistan via Iran that month. Dozens of other Al-Qaeda fighters came later. The PUK has dozens of Ansar fighters in custody in Al-Sulaymaniyah, many of whom admitted the group's link to Al-Qaeda. Reports indicate, however, that the confessions may have been extracted through the PUK's torture of detainees.

Kurdish villagers that spoke to Human Rights Watch in September 2002 reported the presence of Arabs speaking various dialects and of other fighters from Ansar that spoke unrecognizable languages. Civilians interviewed by the human rights organization recounted attempts by Ansar to establish a Taliban-style rule over the Kurdish villages under their control. Reports suggested that Ansar was responsible for "arbitrary arrests of numerous Kurdish civilians, prolonged and illegal detention, the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and the killing of combatants after surrender." Villagers also told the media that Ansar imposed a strict religious code, banning televisions and music, and prohibiting women from leaving their homes.


As early as 2002, the Jordanian government claimed that fugitive terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi had sought refuge with Ansar. Al-Zarqawi had apparently joined up with some Ansar elements, while some reports indicated that other elements of the group branched off to establish the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army. U.S. officials released a letter in February 2004 purportedly written by al-Zarqawi requesting support from Al-Qaeda to fund terrorist operations in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi openly pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and declared his group in Iraq Jama'at Al-Tawhid wa Al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (Monotheism and Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers). The relationship today between Ansar Al-Islam and Ansar Al-Sunnah is unclear. Ansar Al-Sunnah continues to claim responsibility for attacks in Iraq, and it appears that Ansar Al-Islam remnants operate under al-Zarqawi's movement.

Krekar has made several trips to Iraq from his home in Norway since 1991, and has also traveled extensively in Great Britain, Germany, Sweden and Italy. Italian investigators claim to have found a link between Ansar and Al-Qaeda and claim that Ansar provided a ready-made infrastructure for Al-Qaeda in Iraq. "We found that principally Ansar served [Al-Qaeda] in terms of logistical support and help for their activity, especially for training their people in the area where they had already organized some camps," Italian prosecutor Stefano Dambruoso told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2004. An Ansar cell was reportedly uncovered in Germany in December 2004, and intelligence indicated that the cell was funneling money and fighters to Iraq.

The Norwegians have suspected that Krekar also made use of the Internet to command Ansar militants from Norway. Dutch authorities arrested Krekar in Amsterdam in 2002 (en route from Iran to Norway) and Jordan filed extradition papers on charges related to drug trafficking. He was later released for insufficient evidence and sent back to Norway.

Norwegian police have also detained Krekar on a number of occasions since he sought asylum there in 1991, but never accumulated enough evidence to prosecute Krekar. U.S. officials also sought Krekar's extradition, but Norwegian officials refused to oblige that request. Norway did revoke Krekar's refugee status in 2002, but pending court cases kept him in the country. With the cases resolved, the Norwegian government announced in March that it would deport Krekar to Iraq, after receiving assurances from the Iraqi government that Krekar would not face the death penalty there. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

UN INQUIRY CLEARS ANNAN, BUT FAULTS MANAGEMENT ON IRAQ PROGRAM. An inquiry into the Iraqi oil-for-food program has found that United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan did not improperly influence a contract for a company that employed his son. But the independent inquiry raises new criticisms of UN management of the Iraqi humanitarian program. The report could bolster UN critics in the United States who have called for Annan's resignation. A defiant Annan told reporters he had clearly been exonerated and was committed to pressing on with system-wide reforms of the organization.

The central finding in the latest investigation of the oil-for-food program was that there is insufficient evidence linking Annan to the awarding of a multimillion-dollar contract won by a Swiss inspection firm in 1998.

Annan has denied for many months that his son's affiliation with the firm -- Cotecna -- led to improper actions on his part.

He told reporters yesterday that the findings should put to rest charges that he personally profited from a program meant to help Iraqi civilians.

After so many distressing and untrue allegations have been made against me," Annan said, "this exoneration by the independent committee obviously comes as a great relief."

Asked if he should resign to give the organization fresh leadership, Annan said, "Hell, no."

But the report raised new questions about UN management of the scandal-tainted program. The commission criticized Annan for failing to thoroughly investigate charges of conflict of interest when they arose, and it cited several top aides for questionable behavior.

It was the second time in two months that the commission raised concerns about UN management of the $64 billion program. In February, it found the head of the program, Benon Sevan, had directed contracts to a friend.

Former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who headed the inquiry, said the latest probe involved extensive questioning of Annan and persons associated with the UN's procurement practices.

The inquiry found that Annan appeared to be unaware in 1998 that Cotecna was bidding on a humanitarian inspections contract. But Volcker repeatedly said a later one-day investigation into a possible conflict-of-interest -- initiated by Annan -- was inadequate.

"We have had no suspicion of evidence from anybody we talked to that he interfered with the selection process for Cotecna," Volcker said. "The adequacy of [Annan's] investigation, I am sure, is a subject that has consequences, and how that will come up again in the future I don't know."

The report said Annan's son, Kojo, and Cotecna deceived the secretary-general about an ongoing financial relationship from 1999 to 2004. Annan said he has asked his son to cooperate with the commission.

"I love my son and have always expected the highest standards of integrity from him," Annan said. "I am deeply saddened by evidence to the contrary that has emerged and particularly by the fact that my son had failed to fully cooperate with the inquiry. I have urged him to cooperate, and I urge him to reconsider his position and cooperate."

Among the new details to emerge in the report was that Annan's former chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, last year destroyed three year's worth of documents linked to the investigation.

Riza said in a letter to the committee that the papers destroyed were extra copies of documents filed elsewhere and that shredding them was routine UN practice.

But Volcker said it was necessary to cite this in the report.

"It happened to take place just about the time this committee was formed and notices were going out about the need for a committee and for confidentiality," he said. "So that obviously raises a question which we felt we had to report. Whether that material contained any evidence that we could not otherwise get from UN files more generally, of course, is not known."

Annan's new chief of staff, Mark Malloch Brown, said Riza's explanation seemed plausible but that the circumstances surrounding the shredding of such documents required further inquiry.

"It was imprudent to have done this and clearly not consistent with the secretary-general's own memo on this, so we have to look further into it," he said.

The report also faulted Dilip Nair, the director of the Office of Internal Oversight Services. It accused Nair of hiring a man for a job that would be paid for by money from the oil-for-food program but was not directly related to the program.

Nair denied any wrongdoing.

A U.S. senator who heads a subcommittee investigating the oil-for-food program, Norm Coleman, said the latest report affirms his concerns about UN management under Annan and repeated his call for his resignation.

But a U.S. State Department spokesman, Adam Ereli, reaffirmed Bush administration support for Annan. Ereli said Washington expected Annan to address the problems covered in the report and that the United States was committed to working together with the secretary-general on his reform agenda.

The Volcker commission is due to issue a final report on abuses of the oil-for-food program this summer, detailing the actions of the UN Security Council and member states. U.S. investigators charge that the previous Iraqi regime profited by nearly $10 billion from corruption in the program. (Robert McMahon)

RFI ON THE ARBA'IN OBSERVANCE IN KARBALA. RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq provided coverage of the Shi'ite observance of Arba'in on 31 March from the holy city of Karbala. Arba'in marks an end to the 40-day mourning period observed in remembrance of the anniversary of the death of Imam Husayn and his brother Abbas in a battle over the Islamic leadership in the year 680:

RFI: This is Karbala today. People, wherever you look [you see] men and women of various ages. Dressed in black and carrying banners, they all head to the tomb of Imam al-Husayn. They walk in procession groups, each consisting of 200 to 300 people. Some of them beat their chests [with open palms] while others whip their backs with iron chains. The [latter] practice is called "chains' mourning." A little apart from them, there are groups of young men walking whose dress is similar to a white shroud. They carry swords and daggers, hitting with them their foreheads in the rhythm of drums. Their foreheads bleed like that of Imam al-Husayn almost 1,400 years ago. None of them has been discouraged by the tight security measures imposed by security authorities in Karbala. They are being checked every 100 meters [of the procession]. [It is not unusual for] one single pilgrim to undergo a security check seven times before reaching the tomb of Imam al-Husayn. The police and the National Guard are in charge of security, helped by male and female volunteers. Due to the possibility of using mobile phones in planning terrorist attacks against pilgrims, the mobile phone network in Karbala and surroundings has been nearly completely put out of order since yesterday. It seems that this will continue until the end of the pilgrimage.

In the middle of this enormous crowd and pilgrims beating their chests, some of them often lose their way. This mostly happens to children. [Voice of a crying child.]

RFI: This years' visitors are not limited to Shi'ite Muslims, as there are also their Sunni brothers and Christians. The number of incoming groups is high, reaching 200 [different ones] for now. The Organization for Al-Husayn Procession in Iraq, based in Karbala, has prepared a timetable for the movement of these groups one after another. According to the timetable, every procession starts at a different entrance to the city. It goes through the city, led by its streets along the two sanctuaries, and in the end entering one of the main gates of the tomb of Imam al-Husayn, peace be upon him. They express their mourning and then leave [the tomb] through one of the exit gates. They chant in chorus: "Even if our legs and arms were cut into pieces, we come to you in flocks, our lord, o' Husayn!" In this way they refer to the strict prohibition imposed on them by the previous regime.

It has to be mentioned that it is highly unusual in Karbala and its surroundings to see crying men, even in the worst and most tragic moments. But in these days, approximately 70 percent of pilgrims are men who cry their hearts out and beat their chests painfully as if their beloved had died. (Translation by Petr Kubalek)

PACHACHI ANNOUNCES CANDIDACY FOR VICE PRESIDENT. Veteran Sunni politician Adnan Pachachi announced his candidacy for the post of vice president at a 2 April press briefing in Baghdad, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Pachachi told journalists at the briefing that he found "a lot of support from a wide spectrum of political, religious, and tribal groups."

He called on Shi'ite and Kurdish parties to allow Sunnis the opportunity to appoint one of their own to the post. "As we all know, this post is reserved for the Sunni Arabs and therefore they and they alone have the right to nominate and choose whomever they believe is qualified to have this post. This position, in fact, has the support of Ayatollah al-Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, who asked the members of the national coalition group not to interfere in the nominations for posts reserved for the Sunni Arabs and to let them decide on their own whom they want to be in these posts."

He added that Sunnis will ultimately decide whether he is worthy of serving in the post. "Eventually I leave the matter to the Front for Iraqi National Forces which has been established recently which includes most of the religious, political, and tribal groups in the Sunni community, among them the [Iraqi] Islamic Party as well as the Council of National dialogue. This front is considered the ultimate authority for approving or choosing the candidates which are reserved for the Sunni community. I myself will accept any decision they take in this regard." He added that the front "is recognized by the others in the lists represented in the National Assembly as the only one entitled to negotiate with them on behalf of the Sunni Arabs."

He added that Shi'ites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, and Turkomans "unanimously" asked him to seek the post of vice president at a meeting -- which was not further identified -- several weeks ago.

"Now I am asking my brothers to give me this opportunity to render some service to this country, depending on what I have in experience and knowledge. And if they honor me by choosing me for this post, I should do all I can for the good of the people of Iraq in all its sections and segments. Because as you know I have never, never, made any difference between the people of this country because of their affiliations -- either religious, sectarian, or national. And I think my record is very well-known to you all." (Kathleen Ridolfo)