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Iraq Report: July 5, 2005

5 July 2005, Volume 8, Number 22
CHRISTIANS IN IRAQ FACING THREATS FROM ALL SIDES. As Iraqis work to draft a permanent constitution that may deem Islam a source of legislation for the country, the Christian community faces the prospect of a life where they may worship freely, but will have little representation or benefits from government.

The protest by Christians from a number of Iraqi towns and villages in northern Iraq who were not afforded the vote in January's elections has been well documented. Ballot boxes never arrived at polling stations in several towns, and an investigation carried out by the Independent Election Commission deemed that it would not allow the vote to take place at a later date. The National Assembly election resulted in six Christians gaining seats in the 275 member parliament; Christians argued they were entitled to twice as many seats.

Many of Iraq's Christians see their plight in ever-disheartening terms, and view their fate as part of a history in which their community has suffered at the hands of more dominant groups in Iraq.

Since the fall of the Hussein regime, Christians have been targeted in bombings against churches, shrines, hair salons, and liquor stores. Christian women and children were routinely kidnapped and held for exorbitant ransoms. Muslim zealots have forced women to veil in markets, universities, and schools, some Christians claim.

A 26 June report in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) daily "Kurdsitani Nuwe" contends that many families have sought shelter from the attacks in the PUK-controlled areas of eastern Kurdistan. Other families -- as many as 40,000 people according to some reports -- have migrated to foreign countries, most notably Syria.

Those families who relocated to PUK areas are considered internally displaced people, and PUK head and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has ordered the Kurdistan local government to provide these families with plots of land, homes, and employment, according to the report.

Assyrians living in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)-controlled area of western Kurdistan also experience good relations with their Kurdish neighbors. However, some Assyrians claim there is tension between them and the KDP. The tension appears directly related to aspirations by some Assyrians for an autonomous self-administered area comprising their towns and villages in northern Iraq. Residents of these villages and towns have claimed that the KDP has not allowed for the implementation of Article 53 of the Transitional Administrative Law issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority last year that states: "This law shall guarantee the administrative, cultural, and political rights of the Turkomans, Chaldo-Assyrians, and all other citizens."

The villages in question further claim that the KDP government has not distributed revenues to their towns, and they want their fair share. U.S.-based Freedom House's Nina Shea has supported the claim, saying Kurdish administrators have withheld U.S. reconstruction funds from Chaldo-Assyrian areas and confiscated Christian farms and villages, reported on 14 March.

Christians south of the Kurdistan region face greater difficulties. More than 20 churches have been bombed since the fall of the Hussein regime. Purported Islamist militants have kidnapped, killed, and in some cases beheaded Christians.

Insurgent propaganda in Iraq has always portrayed U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq as "Christian Crusaders" who have made Iraq the first stop in their quest to conquer the Arab world and destroy Islam. The comparison has left Christians in Iraq more vulnerable to insurgent attacks. However, it appears until now to have had little impact on Iraqis' views of indigenous Christians.

There is a growing fear among Christians in Iraq, however, that proselytizing evangelical Christians who entered the country after the war may inflict the most harm on the Christian communities. Christian leaders are worried about their congregations dwindling after the mass exodus of Christians before and after the war. Moreover, proselytizing has never been accepted among Muslims in Iraq and religious communities have long practiced a policy of not trying to convert other religions to their fold. Indigenous leaders fear the practice may strain Muslim-Christian relations.

"The way the preachers arrived here...with soldiers...was not a good thing," the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, Jean Sleiman told on 23 June. "I think they had the intention that they could convert Muslims, though Christians didn't do it here for 2,000 years," he continued, adding: "In the end, they are seducing Christians from other churches." Sleiman posited that new churches were creating a "new division" among Iraq's Christians because they impacted the cultural tradition of Christians there.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) addressed the issue of Kurdish Muslims who have converted to Christianity in recent months through the efforts of evangelicals in a 29 June report ( Converts told IWPR that the Muslim community tends to ostracize converts. "I consider that those who turn to Christianity pose a threat to society," said Muhammad Ahmad Gaznayi, Kurdish religious affairs minister. The Kurdistan Islamic League has called the practice an "unhealthy phenomenon" and a "strange and terrible act," IWPR reported. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

RFI: SADDAM HUSSEIN'S COUSIN TO RUN IN ELECTION. Radio Free Iraq's Amman correspondent Hazim Mubaydin interviewed Muzahim al-Majid, cousin of the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on 29 June. RFI reported that al-Majid leads a group of "Iraqi political activists" in Amman who operate under the name National Salvation Front [Jabhat al-Khalas al-Watani]. The front intends to run in December elections.

Speaking in the interview on the new political subject, Muzahim al-Majid said the party strives "for a democratically governed Iraq," for a "new, free, and united Iraq." Al-Majid expressed reservations towards the election of a Kurd (Jalal Talabani) as the president of Iraq, declaring: "The important thing is that Iraq has a personality [in the post] that represents all sides and all Iraqis.... The [National] Assembly [when electing the president] did not represent the Iraqi people but only a part of the Iraqi people."

Al-Majid commented further on January elections, saying: "From approximately 24 million inhabitants in Iraq, only 8 million voted [in the elections] as far as we have heard. The remaining part of Iraqis did not vote.... The fact that these did not pass their votes or present candidates in the elections, does not mean that they will not have any right or any role. On the contrary, they will play a [big] role and will have a great importance in Iraq. God willing, time will confirm what I have said." Al-Majid assured that his party would run in the next elections "if the elections are really correct and transparent."

Asked whether the National Salvation Front has established any connection with Arab countries, Muzahim al-Majid replied without specification: "My brother Izz al-Din al-Majid is the secretary-general of the National Salvation Front and he is a well-known personality on a certain level. Izz al-Din [al-Majid] has been a man standing in opposition to Saddam Hussein since the 1990s so he has established relations with some personalities who represent some states."

On the question whether the National Salvation Front had a clear position towards foreign interests in Iraq, Muzahim al-Majid said: "We will not be against the interests of America, Britain, or others. We will guarantee our [Iraqi] interests and will protect the well being of the people who will have their interests in our country. We want to preserve the relations but as a relation between two masters. It must not be a relation between a master and a servant. Good and firm relations of mutual respect will be binding between us."

Speaking on his stance towards the deposed Saddam Hussein regime, al-Majid claimed: "I was one of the victims of the dictatorship." He recalled his 1995-2003 imprisonment by the regime, which locked him in jail in place of his brother Izz al-Din al-Majid, who had fled Iraq. The latter is now among the former regime members now in Iraqi custody.

"He was arrested in November [2004] when he went to Iraq to campaign for the [National Salvation] Front and to meet with people. He was interested in the elections...but they arrested him. But after some time, approximately four months, Izz al-Din telephoned us and said what had happened. Of course, there is a striking difference between my imprisonment for the five years -- when I was even forbidden to send a letter -- and that of my brother Izz al-Din al-Majid who can take a phone and speak with his family [from jail]. The Red Cross has contacted us that we could send him what he needs and whatever necessary things may be reasonable to send," Muzahim al-Majid said of his brother.

"For five years of my eight-year imprisonment, I was forbidden to be visited or contacted [by phone] by my family. After the [first] five years, they allowed me to see my family once a month," al-Majid added.

Al-Majid denied that his brother is leading and instructing the National Salvation Front from jail, stressing that he (Muzahim) was elected "by the [National Salvation] Front from among all its members to represent it."

Commenting more on his recollections of the Saddam Hussein era, al-Majid said: "I remember sweet days and I remember bitter days. But there were much more bitter ones. Although we were Saddam's cousins, we did not think in the same way in which Saddam or his children were thinking. After the invasion of Kuwait, we were saying the opposite of what they were saying, we were giving them advice saying: 'Be open to the people and be open in your foreign policy.'" (Translated by Petr Kubalek)

IRAQ MARKS ONE YEAR OF SELF-RULE. One year has passed since the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) transferred power to Iraqis on 28 June 2004. While the ongoing terrorism against civilians and Iraqi and multinational forces dominates the media coverage, slow but steady progress has been made on the political front.

Iraq faces enormous challenges apart from the insurgency; its infrastructure today is arguably worse off than it was one year ago. One year ago, Baghdad was viewed as one of the only places with a near-functioning infrastructure, a contentious issue in Iraq's southern governorates, which were plagued by years of neglect under the Hussein regime. Today, Baghdad has three hours of electricity on, and six hours off. Targeted terrorist attacks have left many areas of the capital without drinking water for the past two weeks. Other areas of the country have faced similar problems as terrorists work to cripple already-dilapidated infrastructure. Oil exports from the north have been halted after repeated attacks on pipelines.

The most marked progress has come in political developments. The interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi was slow to start, and had to delay the convening of an Iraqi National Conference to elect an interim National Assembly for two weeks in the summer of 2004.

Once off the ground, the government took pains to keep to deadlines imposed on it by the CPA. Allawi also dispatched a delegation to Syria in mid-July to initiate security agreements with its western neighbor on border control. Iraq regained its right to vote in the UN General Assembly in October and dispatched its first ambassador to the UN in more than a year that month.

Political parties hit the ground running in early fall in an effort to organize their efforts ahead of the January elections. Two Shi'ite parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, initiated talks in September aimed at forming a coalition. The coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, was launched on 10 December.

Other parties also sought to form coalitions, the most notable being the two major Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), who campaigned in the Iraqi National Assembly election under the Kurdistan Coalition List and in Kurdistan's parliamentary elections under the name Kurdistan Democratic List.

The election season was brief and campaigning was limited to those groups who had the financial wherewithal to campaign through the media. The process, however, was overshadowed by a Sunni boycott of the elections, a decision many Sunni political leaders would later voice regret over.

Nevertheless, the governorate, national, and Kurdish elections can be seen as an achievement. The elections were carried out under incredibly difficult circumstances in a very short period of time, and with little violence. Iraq's Shi'a and Kurds assumed a majority in parliament following 25 years of repression at the hands of the Sunni-dominated Hussein regime.

The ensuing political environment was, however, slow-moving as political groups jockeyed for positions in the transitional government. Islamic Al-Da'wah Party leader Ibrahim al-Ja'fari was named prime minister and PUK leader Jalal Talabani was named president. The al-Ja'fari cabinet was not named until 28 April, and a number of key posts were left vacant for several more days. The Kurdish parliament faced even greater delays, and did not convene until June, as groups negotiated the presidential post and leadership of a planned unified Kurdish administration that could take many more months to unify.

The fracture within the Sunni Arab community has worsened in recent months, leaving Sunnis unable to present a common viewpoint on even the simplest of issues. Sunnis did agree to join the constitutional drafting committee on 13 June after weeks of talks with Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders.

Meanwhile, talks are under way between U.S. officials and supposed insurgent leaders in an effort to negotiate a laying down of arms in exchange for their participation in the political process. The talks, first initiated by Allawi in 2004, have sparked controversy among members of the Shi'ite community, some of whom are opposed to any dealings with terrorists.

The past year has also been marked by ongoing tit-for-tat attacks on community leaders by opposing groups. Nearly every major community in Iraq blames another community -- and in some cases the government -- of targeting its leaders through arbitrary arrests, kidnappings, or assassinations.

The most marked sign of political development can be seen in the media, where lively debates representing all political viewpoints can be seen on the pages of many Iraqi dailies. Despite all the hardships suffered under a despotic regime, war, and insurgency, Iraqis continue to push forward on the political front, exhibiting political acumen far above what many might have expected of them.

Still, the political arena is fraught with the problems typically associated with developing democracies. Political parties split and regroup, rifts are exposed, and backdoor dealings overshadow the democratic process. Corruption remains an enormous challenge in the local and national governments.

The insurgency appears worse than it did a year ago, though some claim it has lessened. There is no doubt it is more sophisticated, and Islamist groups, most notably Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn and the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, appear to be leading the attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces and civilians.

Insurgents have wreaked havoc on infrastructure, driven out most of the limited numbers of foreign aid workers in Iraq, and largely strangled the media's ability to get out and report. Foreign journalists are at such great risk of kidnappings and attacks that they now rely on Iraqi stringers as they sit confined to their hotel rooms. Arab journalists have also been attacked by insurgents as part of the insurgents' campaign of intimidation.

As Iraqi forces continue to grow in skill and numbers, they will assume much of the responsibility for dealing with the insurgency. Much of the insurgency's strength, however, lies in its ability to replenish its numbers, and adapt to accommodate circumstances on the ground. Moreover, the flexibility of insurgent groups in their alliances has aided their ability to function militarily and move throughout the country.

Some Iraqi leaders have speculated in recent weeks that the insurgency will only end once multinational forces withdraw from Iraq. That supposition, however, is highly unlikely. Iraqi and U.S. leaders argued a year ago that the insurgency would dwindle after Iraqi forces took power in June. The argument was made again before January elections, while the insurgency rages on. Why? Because insurgents in Iraq do not represent one single agenda. Hence, there is not one single solution to dealing with the insurgency that will quell it across the board.

The world community and the Arab world in particular has been slow to respond to Iraq's needs in terms of financial aid, offering more promises than action. In the nearly two years since Iraq's first donor conference, the insurgency has obstructed the delivery of much of the aid pledged. Iraq will push for more pledges next month, when donors meet again in Amman, Jordan. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

BRITAIN SEEN AS IMPORTANT LINK IN IRAQI JIHAIST NETWORKS. Terrorism experts say Britain appears to be an important link in an international network that is recruiting suicide bombers and jihadists for Iraq. They say the network has links via Damascus to the Iraqi border.

London, 30 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The problem was brought into focus after British police questioned a man detained in the northern city of Manchester recently. The man allegedly provided shelter to 41-year-old Idris Bazis, a French-Algerian who died as a suicide bomber in Iraq in February.

Bazis came to Britain from France one year ago and was allegedly smuggled through Syria to the Iraqi border province of Anbar.

"The security services in a number of different European countries know individuals that may have traveled out. They have disappeared. They have received information they're crossing into specific countries that are launch pads into Iraq," says Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "Also, we have investigations from Iraq of individuals, and we can trace back those individuals. They have a sort of potential network in individual countries."

London police have also arrested another man, 32-year-old Racid Belkacem. He is wanted by the Netherlands on charges of terrorist recruitment, possession of firearms, and forgery.

Amer Haykel, a Briton of Lebanese origin, was arrested in Mexico. He is thought to have links to Al-Qaeda and those who plotted the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States.

Ranstorp says the terrorist recruitment process is of great concern to the European Union. He says the bloc is working to prevent the next generation from "joining up to radical jihadist ideology."

"I think that Britain has expended a lot of energy in this area," Ranstorp says. "They are particularly working hard on the issue of terrorism finance. And I think this has been very successful in unearthing a number of different networks that have been engaged in the more logistical area or providing the building blocks for terrorism."

But David Carlton, a senior lecturer in international relations and a specialist in terrorism at the University of Warwick in Britain, takes a more critical view.

"There are considerable numbers of people who regard Britain as a relatively safe place in which to operate," Carlton says. "The French security services are very critical of the British. They speak of Britain as the kind of safe haven for people from North Africa who would not be allowed to move around freely in France."

Ranstorp points out, however, that several individuals holding French passports have been identified within the insurgent network in Iraq. He also points to Britain's Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, which he says is performing "excellent" coordination among different agencies. The task, however, is not easy.

"I think it's very difficult for them. They're expending resources on all sorts of other different threats that are in the vicinity, not just individuals going to Iraq," Ranstorp says. "They have to worry about elements that may pose a real and present danger to British security."

Also, no one knows exactly how many extremists there are. Ranstorp says their numbers, although small, can only be approximated.

"We should also remember that the European dimension is very, very small in comparison to the real bulk of all the foreign jihadists," Ranstorp says. "And most of them come from Saudi Arabia, and also from the Arabian peninsula, as well as, of course, from Syria and from North Africa."

Carlton says a combination of diplomatic pressure and better border controls could be used to close the European link through Syria. This, however, may not solve Iraq's border infiltration by terrorist networks.

"If for some reason the Syrian conduit were closed, maybe there are other conduits that cannot be easily controlled," Carlton says. "After all, Iraq has quite a significant number of neighbors, few of which are reliably pro-Western."

He says closing the North African link through Europe will be much more difficult. (Jan Jun)