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Iraq Report: May 20, 2005

20 May 2005, Volume 8, Number 16
SUNNI-SHI'ITE POLITICAL RIFT INTENSIFIES. Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi might well have been pleased with the turn of events this week in Iraq. While his insurgency cannot take sole credit for the escalation of tension between Sunnis and Shi'a, his 18 May statement justifying the killing of innocent Muslims and labeling Iraq's Shi'a as collaborators who have betrayed the Muslim cause has added momentum to a rift that appears to be reaching crisis proportions. Meanwhile, attempts by the transitional Shi'ite-led government to respond appear to have been drowned out by political accusations on both sides.

Harith al-Dari, head of the Sunni Muslim Scholars Association, issued a call on 18 May for all Sunni mosques to close for three days following noon Friday prayers on 20 May to protest the recent arrests of Sunni imams and the storming of mosques by Iraqi security forces. Adnan Muhammad Salman al-Dulaymi, president of the Sunni Al-Waqf Council, backed the decision following a meeting with Sunni clerics at the Nida Al-Islam Mosque in Baghdad, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on 19 May. The Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party has also supported the closure.

Al-Dari accused the Badr Brigades, the armed wing of the Shi'ite-led Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), of being behind the recent assassinations of Sunni clerics in Iraq, and said that Badr forces have targeted "anyone it felt opposed it, be they armed or unarmed." SCIRI has close ties to Iran, and the Badr Brigades were reportedly trained and armed by Iranian intelligence from their inception in the 1980s.

The Badr Brigades, which officially changed its name to the Badr Organization following the disarming of militias under the Coalition Provisional Authority (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 21 September 2003), has rejected the allegations, claiming that statements made by al-Dari and his son, Muthanna Harith al-Dari, "encourage terrorism and set a low price on Iraqi blood." "Muthanna Harith al-Dari perceives al-Zarqawi's terrorist and criminal operations as justified and religiously warranted," Badr Organization Secretary-General Hadi al-Amir, said in an 18 May interview with Al-Arabiyah television.

Shi'ite Political Council Secretary-General Husayn al-Musawi also rejected the allegations, telling RFI on 19 May: "It is impossible that Badr [Organization] or the Iraqi government perpetrated any killing of any person. The government is now able to arrest any criminal, put him in prison, and proceed him to justice, thus performing its natural role.... We wish that the tongues of the Muslim Scholars Association, or of people with some social and political reputation in the country, be not inciting sectarian strife."

Media reports indicate that armed gangs disguised as police and National Guard forces may be behind a string of attacks on both Sunnis and Shi'a across Iraq. While Sunni Islamist militants may have perpetrated the attacks in an effort to spark ethnic strife, some reports indicate that the perpetrators could in fact be members of the Badr Organization bent on seeking revenge against its perceived enemies, including rebel Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers clashed with police in Al-Kufah following Friday prayers on 6 May.

That same day, the Muslim Scholars Association accused police, and later the Badr Organization, of killing 14 Sunni farmers who were abducted as they set up a farmers' market near Al-Sadr City the day before. The victims all hailed from the Al-Dulaymi tribe in Mada'in. That town was the scene of an intensive search in April for masses of Shi'a purportedly kidnapped by Sunnis in the city in April. The kidnapped victims were never found, although more than 50 bodies later turned up in nearby Al-Suwayrah on the Tigris River, leading transitional President Jalal Talabani to connect the two incidents. Interim Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib accused "terrorist groups and Iranian intelligence" of instigating the kidnapping claims in an effort to cause sectarian strife. Meanwhile, dozens of bodies have been discovered in recent days in Baghdad and surrounding cities in groups ranging from 10 to 40, all bound and shot execution-style, in what appears to be tit-for-tat killings.

The Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party has also criticized what it described as "militias and armed groups that meddle in the security of citizens" in an 8 May statement published in its weekly newspaper, "Dar al-Salam." The statement criticized the transitional government for not being more inclusive of Sunnis in its distribution of cabinet posts, and called on the government to "ease the campaign of arrests and raids" that it said "contributed to the aggravated security situation." Sunni groups, including the National Dialogue Council, an umbrella organization comprising the Islamic Party and 30 other Sunni groups, have described the posts given to Sunnis as marginal, while council head Fakhri al-Qa'isi has labeled Sunni Defense Minister Sa'dun al-Dulaymi, a former Ba'athist, a "double agent."

As Sunnis grew more vocal in their criticism of mosque raids and arrests this week, Defense Minister al-Dulaymi addressed the press on 16 May, saying the army and National Guard will be banned from entering mosques, churches, and university campuses. "There are those who are donning military uniforms that are similar to those of the Defense Ministry or...those worn by the members of the Interior Ministry, and they are then carrying out terrorist operations. Then they inform people that they are from the National Guard.... These people are terrorists and do not represent this ministry." Al-Dulaymi also vowed to interrogate and release the mosque imams in custody as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, Muslim Scholars Association head al-Dari told that Iraqi police and Interior Ministry commandos from the Wolf Brigade were inflicting a "state terror policy" on Sunnis. The Muslim Scholars Association also blamed the Wolf Brigade for the assassination of Sheikh Hasan al-Nu'aimi, who was detained and later found dead.

For al-Zarqawi, the crisis supports his goal of destroying the Shi'ite hold on government and helps promote his call to Sunnis to rise up against the Shi'a. In an audiotape released on 18 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2005), the avowed terrorist leader criticized Shi'ites for their "allegiance" to multinational forces and what he termed their betrayal of Islam and the Sunni fight.

In an attempt to disparage the prewar Shi'ite opposition to Saddam Hussein and point to what he sees as hypocrisy by Iraqis who criticize his insurgent movement, al-Zarqawi listed a number of operations purportedly carried out by the Badr Brigades in the 1980s and 1990s against the Hussein regime that left scores of civilians dead. He asked why those attacks were never condemned. "The reality is those [Shi'ite hypocrites] do not care about the welfare of the Muslims or their lives. Their only objective is to please their masters among the apostates and the Crusaders," he claimed, adding, "Has anyone ever dared to speak up and expose the crimes of these military rejectionists, like the Badr forces?" He also accused the Badr Brigades of displacing Sunni families from southern Iraq, occupying Sunni mosques, killing doctors and teachers, and of "joining the Crusaders in raping Sunni women."

The transitional government has come out in recent days with a number of directives aimed at curbing the violence, but it has yet to convey a forceful stance on the growing sectarian rift. Al-Dulaymi reversed his order banning mosque raids on 18 May, saying that the army will attack mosques and places of worship if they accommodate terrorists or stockpile weapons. Meanwhile, the government announced its intention to reinstate capital punishment, and said it would push to enact laws to punish those who provide logistical support for terrorist networks. The laws would also prosecute citizens who fail to share information about terrorist networks with the government.

U.S. military officials reportedly urged Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari last week to take decisive action against the escalating violence before the situation spirals to worsening levels. But it is unclear whether the transitional government, only a few weeks in office, has the capacity to meet that demand. Several government officials last week declined requests from RFI for interviews on the Al-Qa'im operation, and only came forward for press interviews at the week's end. For his part, al-Ja'fari appeared more preoccupied with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi's visit to Baghdad this week than with the escalating violence, and has since left Iraq for meetings with Turkish officials in Ankara. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

TENSIONS LINGER BENEATH IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER'S BAGHDAD VISIT. As Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi arrived in Baghdad on 17 May to stress Iran's support for a stable, unified Iraq, Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam television station was broadcasting footage showing desecrated Korans strewn across a mosque floor in Iraq.

Exploiting allegations made recently in "Newsweek" that U.S. soldiers desecrated a Koran at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the news channel claimed the footage was taken following a U.S. military raid on an Iraqi mosque in March.

The mood in Baghdad, however, was one of rapprochement. Iraqi leaders praised Kharrazi's "landmark" visit, stressing the need to build on brotherly relations with Iran.

The position of the transitional government is starkly different from the position taken by the interim government towards its eastern neighbor. During Iraq's interim administration, Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan routinely criticized Iran for interfering in Iraq's internal affairs on a variety of levels including the regime's purported financial support of political parties and its funding of the insurgency.

Historic Visit

As Iraq's leadership was quick to point out, Kharrazi is the first minister from an Arab or Islamic neighbor to visit Iraq. From that perspective, the visit can be viewed as historic for Iraqis, who fought an eight-year war with Iran that left some 1 million people dead. In addition, many of Iraq's Shi'ite leaders --including Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari -- spent years of exile in Iran, and are said to be on good terms with the Iranian regime.

During his visit, Kharrazi stressed to reporters Iran's support for a stable, unified Iraq. "We believe that security on the border with Iraq is security for the Islamic Republic of Iran," he said. He also said that Iran has gone to great lengths to secure its border with Iraq over the past two years. "Had the Islamic Republic of Iran exploited the situation in Iraq to interfere in Iraq's affairs and allow terrorists to enter Iraq from Iran, the situation in Iraq would have been much worse," he said.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari defended Iran, telling reporters: "We do not deny that infiltrations occur but we cannot say that these operations take place with the approval of the [Iranian] government." He acknowledged, however, that the transitional government views some of Iran's interests in Iraq to be "illegitimate," but cautioned that the Iraqi government is "against anything that harms relations between the two peoples and countries."

Iran's Southern Influence

Despite Iran's relations with the United States, Kharrazi said, "We consider it our duty to help the people of Iraq." In previous statements he has espoused the viewpoint that the United States intends to harm Iraq and the region -- a viewpoint that many analysts believe aims to sow internal Iraqi discord.

Iranian presidential frontrunner Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani elucidated this position when he told a group of Iraqi Assyrians in Tehran on 16 May, "The colonialists and the Zionists are sowing the seeds of discord to rationalize their presence in the region." The U.S. intention, he claimed, is to "seek inroads to the region's resources" through its domination of Iraq.

While both al-Zebari and Kharrazi stressed the need for noninterference in Iraq's internal affairs, no mention was made of widespread reports of Iranian militias ruling the streets of Al-Basrah and other southern cities. Nor was there any mention of the growing drug trade that flows from Afghanistan through Iran to Iraq. As London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 12 April: "An infiltrator from Iran...needs only to cross a small land barrier in the Al-Shalamjah area to get to Iraqi territory. Alternatively, this infiltrator can go through the palm orchards and then cross into Iraqi territory. If the infiltrator wants to use the river, he can use a small boat to cross the Shatt Al-Arab to be in Iraq."

The report illustrates the level of Iranian penetration in Al-Basrah, and substantiates earlier reports by RFE/RL that Basrans are fearful to speak against the growing Iranian presence on the streets of Iraq's second city. In addition to a thriving smuggling trade, Iran has taken what the daily calls "humanitarian steps" to spread its political influence while distributing much-needed aid to the elderly and poor, much like the tactics successfully employed by the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas to win political support in Gaza. Iran has allocated $1 billion in aid that "is meant to implement projects that reinforce its intervention in Iraqi affairs," the daily reports.

Other media reports, including a 14 May article in Baghdad's "Al-Furat," talk of armed militias seizing the homes of Iraqis and redistributing them to Iranian families, in what the author calls "an organized process by Iranians to occupy Iraqi towns under various pretexts."

Iraqi Islamic Party member Iyad al-Azzi told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in early April that Iran and Syria "have plans to further drown the United States in the Iraqi quagmire at the expense of [Iraq's] security, blood, and citizens" in order to divert U.S. attention away from those states.

While the transitional government has claimed that it has no intention of duplicating an Iranian-style regime in Iraq, it appears to be taking the high road at least publicly in its dealings with Iran. As transitional President Jalal Talabani told Jordan's Television 1 on 8 May: "We should not forget that Iran and Syria had thankfully assisted the forces ruling in Iraq now when they were in the opposition. Therefore, even if there are differences with these two countries, we seek to solve them in a brotherly manner. We do not want to export these differences to the press or television. We will exert efforts to solve differences cordially and through direct contact if such differences exist."

Both Iran and southern Iraqis might interpret that position as tacit approval of Iranian domination in the south. Like Hamas in Gaza, Iran's control over southern Iraq could slowly solidify -- and later prove difficult to remove. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

BRITISH MP REBUKES U.S. PANEL AS OIL-FOR-FOOD INQUIRY WIDENS. British parliamentarian George Galloway on 17 May angrily rejected accusations he helped Saddam Hussein exploit the UN oil-for-food program. Galloway also used his appearance before a U.S. Senate panel investigating abuses of the program to criticize the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the impact on Iraqi civilians of UN sanctions. He was the first of several prominent figures to address in person charges of participating in an elaborate kickback scheme. The widening investigation has also brought greater scrutiny of U.S. government actions that appeared to permit some revenue to flow to Saddam despite the sanctions.

The U.S. Senate panel's case against George Galloway and other prominent officials is tied to documents from Iraqi oil officials showing oil was allocated to those who defended Saddam's regime.

A legal counsel to the Senate subcommittee on investigations, Mark Greenblatt, told senators on 17 May that Galloway was able to hide millions of barrels in allocations through a charity for a young Iraqi cancer victim.

Greenblatt cited testimony from a former top aide to Saddam Hussein, Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, and other former Iraqi officials.

"Ramadan confirmed that Galloway was rendered allocations, quote, 'because of his opinions about Iraq, he wants to lift embargoes on Iraq.' Other regime officials confirmed that Galloway received allocations under the oil-for-food program," Greenblatt said.

The subcommittee, chaired by Republican Senator Norm Coleman (Minnesota), also accused Galloway of directing more than $300,000 of oil-surcharge payments back to Saddam Hussein's government.

But Galloway, speaking in a Senate chamber in Washington, dismissed the charges as "utterly preposterous."

"I am not now, nor have I ever been, an oil trader, and neither has anyone on my behalf," Galloway said. "I have never seen a barrel of oil, owned one, bought one, sold one, and neither has anybody on my behalf."

Galloway, a former Labour Party member who set up his own Respect Party, directed scorn at Coleman and other lawmakers who have supported the oil-for-food inquiry. He called it an attempt to divert attention from the U.S. government's own errors and abuses in Iraq.

"If the world had listened to Kofi Annan, whose dismissal you demanded, if the world had listened to President Chirac, who you want to paint as some kind of corrupt traitor, if the world had listened to me and the antiwar movement in Britain, we would not be in the disaster that we are in today. Senator, this is the mother of all smokescreens."

At least four U.S. Congressional committees are investigating alleged corruption in the UN oil-for-food program. Some critics say this is retribution for UN opposition to the U.S.-led war to oust Saddam. Coleman, a leading critic of the United Nations, has called on Secretary-General Annan to resign and has questioned whether a UN-commissioned investigation led by Paul Volcker is being too soft on Annan's alleged role in abuses.

AP reported that after yesterday's hearing, both Coleman and the panel's top member of the minority Democratic Party, Senator Carl Levin (Michigan), questioned Galloway's credibility.

The Senate committee also has charged that the former French interior minister, Charles Pasqua, and Russian ultranationalist and Deputy Duma Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovskii had received large oil allocations. Both have denied the allegations.

Overall, Russia received about one-third of the oil allocations under the oil-for-food program. Another Senate investigator, Steven Groves, told the panel of allocations given to the Foreign Ministry, the Unity Party and the head of the presidential council, Alexander Voloshin.

Citing a typical bribe, Groves said the Iraqi regime rewarded Russia in the spring of 2001 for opposing a new attempt to tighten sanctions.

"There was going to be a resolution floated to institute smart sanctions, where they were going to tighten up the sanctions and restrict border trade," Groves said. "And the Russian Federation made it known that if any such resolution was introduced they would veto it. The word got back to the Hussein regime and they specifically gave rewards to the Federation both in oil allocations and on the humanitarian contracts because of that action."

Russia's foreign ministry has criticized the Senate inquiry as unbalanced and said it is cooperating with the Volcker-led investigation.

The committee's investigation also renewed concern about lax U.S. oversight of the sanctions against Iraq. The Senate panel's investigators found that of $228 million in illegal oil surcharges paid to Iraq, more than half was paid on oil sold to U.S. companies. A U.S. oil company -- Houston-based Bayoil -- was said to be heavily involved in the scheme.

Levin accused the U.S. government of laxity in pursuing concerns about Bayoil. He also noted the government's willingness to permit Iraq to smuggle about $8 billion in oil to Turkey, Syria and Jordan.

He noted one instance just before the war in 2003 when Jordanian tankers were allowed to transport Iraqi oil through a naval quarantine.

"As part of that $8 billion, we even permitted Jordanian chartered ships to load oil illegally and gave them safe passage to the Persian Gulf past the Maritime Interdiction Force we were commanding to stop illegal oil ships," Levin said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher yesterday defended the shipments to Jordan and cited attempts to stop the flow of oil to Syria. He did not recall whether the shipments to Turkey were "acknowledged and reported." (Robert McMahon)