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Iraq Report: August 16, 2005

16 August 2005, Volume 8, Number 27
UNREST IN SAMAWAH DOES NOT BODE WELL FOR HANDOVER. The south-central Iraqi city Samawah has been touted by Iraqi and U.S. officials as one of the calmest cities in Iraq. Some 550 Japanese ground self-defense troops (GSDF) have been stationed in the city for more than a year, carrying out humanitarian activities. But a recent surge in violence and reports of growing public hostility to the Japanese presence are prompting many to question the prospects for continued humanitarian assistance there. Moreover, the growing unrest leaves many wondering whether Samawah -- named as one of the first cities where the coalition is expected to hand over control to Iraqi forces -- is ready for self-governance.

Like Al-Basrah, it appears that the governorate has fallen into the hands of extremists in the al-Sadr camp who are bent on imposing their vision of Islamic rule on the population. The impact of this turn of events will likely weigh on the presence of Japanese forces, who are stationed in the governorate to provide humanitarian assistance through December. The Japanese government has already hinted that it would be interested in remaining in the governorate for an additional year, and media reports indicate there is an interest in bringing in private sector assistance. With al-Sadr loyalists essentially in control of the city and governorate, it is likely that the Japanese -- labeled "occupiers" by the group -- would be forced out.

The city had seen little violence since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, but a number of incidents attributed to Sunni insurgents have occurred. Meanwhile, Shi'ite extremists loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have infiltrated the city and appear to be attempting to impose their vision of Islamic mores on the city's residents.

The unrest in Samawah culminated last week in a massive demonstration by locals outside the governor's office protesting unemployment and poor water and electricity services. Protesters threw rocks at police and police fired into the crowd, killing one and injuring dozens. The ensuing violence left several police cars burned and forced the governor to impose a curfew on the normally calm city.

Al-Sadr's group is said to be behind a string of demonstrations in the city that began in June. The group also appears to be at odds with the leading Shi'ite party in Iraq, Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and pressured the local Al-Muthanna Governorate Council to remove SCIRI member and Governor Muhammad Ali al-Hasani from his position this week. Al-Hasani has enjoyed good relations with the Japanese forces.

For Japanese forces, the situation appears vastly different from the one eight months ago. In January, five Iraqi landowners gave a written pledge to help prevent attacks against Japanese troops coming from their properties. That same month, a local newspaper poll found that nearly 80 percent of residents in the governorate supported the presence of Japanese forces there. Half of the respondents said that the aid mission was too limited, however. According to Kyodo World Service, which requisitioned the poll, the positive responses were down about 8 percent from the year before, the news agency reported on 16 January.

An al-Sadr-funded newspaper claimed that its own January poll found that 86 percent of locals were dissatisfied with the reconstruction and humanitarian activities of the GSDF, Kyodo World Service reported on 7 January.

Some Violence Attributed To Sunni Insurgents

At the same time, the Sunni-dominated Ansar Al-Sunnah Army has purportedly claimed responsibility for at least one attack on Japanese forces in Samawah. A leaflet attributed to that insurgent group distributed in February threatened to kill Iraqis working with Japanese forces unless they quit their jobs. The group claimed to know the names, tribes, and addresses of locals working with the Japanese.

Fifteen self-proclaimed members of Ansar Al-Sunnah Army identified as Syrian and Iraqi nationals were captured in the city on 14 February and confessed to planning an attack on the Japanese camp, "Asahi Shimbun" reported on 16 February.

In addition, a number of Sunni Arab foreign fighters have also been arrested in the governorate, which borders Saudi Arabia. Border police arrested four Saudi nationals who entered Iraq on bicycle and purportedly in the company of a drug smuggler in the Al-Muthanna governorate in January. The men confessed to intending to carry out terrorist attacks in Samawah and Mosul, according to Japanese and Iraqi media reports.

Another Sunni insurgent group, the Islamic Army in Iraq, claimed responsibility for a 4 July rocket and explosives attack on the Japanese camp in Samawah, "Asahi Shimbun" reported on 7 July. The daily reported that police were skeptical that Sunnis had been behind the attack and were looking into the possibility that al-Sadr supporters might be the real perpetrators. The report noted that Sunnis "have recently been conducting visible activities" in Samawah, including the organization of meetings in local mosques by the political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party.

Al-Sadr's Influence Grows

Loyalists to al-Sadr began stirring up discontent in Samawah last fall by protesting the presence of Dutch and Japanese forces. (The Dutch pulled out of Iraq in March, and 800 British and Australian forces took over security operations in the governorate.) Al-Sadr's office, estimated to be between several-hundred- and 2,000-strong, steadily increased its negative rhetoric and threatened in December that its "peaceful protest" against multinational forces in the governorate would become "another kind of protest" should multinational forces fail to withdraw.

In early January, an unidentified senior member of al-Sadr's Samawah office told "Asahi Shimbun" that the group was responsible for an attack on the Japanese camp. The al-Sadr office later denied any role in the attack.

The news agency reported on 15 January that some 300 al-Sadr supporters marched on the provincial governor's office during a demonstration and handed a petition to Governor al-Hasani demanding better services and complaining of government corruption. The demonstrators reportedly carried a banner that read: "Today we have a peaceful demonstration and tomorrow [we will protest with] RPGs and guns."

Police battled insurgents in February, but it is unclear whether they were from al-Sadr's group or from opposing Sunni Islamists. In April, insurgents attacked a residence in the city, injuring one resident. Media reports indicated that similar attacks had taken place against locals who were involved in the illicit sale of alcohol. Similar attacks in Baghdad have been attributed to al-Sadr's group.

Anti-Japanese graffiti began appearing in the city in May, but local councilmen assured the GSDF that the council, at least, still supported Japanese assistance. A roadside bomb targeted a Japanese convoy on 23 June in Samawah, resulting in the Japanese suspending activities outside their camp until 12 July.

Al-Sadr's group organized a demonstration on 28 June against unemployment in the governorate that attracted 400 protesters, who clashed with police. Nevertheless, Japanese Defense Agency Director Yoshinori Ono contended that the demonstration had nothing to do with frustration with Japanese and multinational forces.

An Iraqi sports group and another unidentified association planned a pro-GSDF rally in Samawah for 3 July in support of Japanese assistance, but the rally was canceled because an armed group threatened to "punish" those taking part, "Asahi Shimbun" reported on 5 July. The Islamic Army in Iraq claimed responsibility for a 4 July attack on the camp in which one of five shells fired at the camp landed inside the compound. More demonstrations followed, and on 24 July a jewelry shop run by the former head of the Japan-Iraq Friendship organization was bombed.

On 29 July, two explosions rocked a job-training center for women funded by the Japanese through the United Nations Development Program. Flyers distributed in the city after the attack said the facility was bombed in protest of the activities it carried out. Al-Sadr supporters sponsored at least three demonstrations in July.

The 8 August demonstration was the most violent to date, however, as demonstrators attacked police and set fire to police vehicles. Al-Sharqiyah reported the following day that some 200 gunmen could be seen roaming the city center. A number of newspapers reported on 11 August that relative calm had returned to the city following the governor's removal. Meanwhile, the al-Sadr weekly "Ishraqat al-Sadr" took responsibility on 11 August for organizing "recent demonstrations" in Samawah.

Al-Sadr reportedly called for Friday protests in Baghdad this week against the lack of power and water "The Christian Science Monitor" reported on 10 August.

The removal of Governor al-Hasani in the wake of the violence has been questioned by some because only 24 council members out of 39 were present to vote. Of those 24, 18 voted in favor of dismissal, while five abstained from the vote and one voted against it. Safa al-Safi, minister of state for national assembly affairs and the prime minister's envoy to Samawah, told the city council that its decision to dismiss al-Hasani is illegal.

Japanese reconstruction projects in the governorate include the provision of humanitarian aid and supplies including water, medical equipment and training, rebuilding schools and medical centers, and paving roads. Plans are also under way to construct a 60,000-kilowatt power station at a cost of some 12.7 billion yen (approximately $110 million). (Kathleen Ridolfo)

OUSTED BAGHDAD MAYOR SPEAKS TO RADIO FREE IRAQ. RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) correspondent Ahmad al-Zubaydi interviewed ousted Baghdad Mayor Ala' al-Tamimi on 9 August by telephone after he was forcibly removed from his position on 8 August by armed men supporting Baghdad City Council Chairman Mazin Makkiya.

RFI: Baghdad Mayor Ala' al-Tamimi has confirmed the news reported in the media on what he called "the occupation of Baghdad mayoral headquarters by Baghdad Governor Husayn al-Tahhan, [Baghdad] Governorate Council Chairman Mazin Makkiya, and a number of armed men." They attacked and beat a number of administrative employees at the Baghdad Municipality, al-Tamimi says.

Al-Tamimi: Baghdad Governor Husayn al-Tahhan entered the municipality, accompanied by [Baghdad] Governorate Council President Mazin Makkiya and some 120 armed men. He summoned an assembly in my office where he announced that he was now assuming the post of acting mayor and that he is now expecting to receive orders. He was asked who had entitled him with this action as the mayor is subordinate to the Council of Ministers. He replied [to the person who asked], "I am not receiving orders from you." Then he started, supported by the armed men, to arrest some administrative employees and beat some of them. I have no militia that would guard me. Thank God, I was not present in the office when it was stormed. Now it is he [al-Tahhan] who has abused the responsibilities of his office.

RFI: What reaction have you received from the government at the occupation of Baghdad mayoral headquarters?

Al-Tamimi: I telephoned the secretary of the Council of Ministers. He confirmed the action was unacceptable and condemnable. It is not worthy of the position [of Baghdad governor] to conduct such an action. I have also telephoned a number of politicians, all of whom have expressed their astonishment over this behavior that is not worthy of the new Iraq, of a democratic country, and of elected political forces. The behavior is typical of the era of military coups, an era that Iraq has already departed from as I had hoped. What happened yesterday, however, is a very dangerous development.

RFI: Did you speak with Husayn al-Tahhan? Did any meeting take place between you that would clarify the reasons of his action?

Al-Tamimi: You may know that a week ago, the Baghdad Governorate Council named Husayn al-Tahhan to the post of acting Baghdad governor. While I was on vacation outside Iraq, a campaign to denigrate my image was launched here. I was apprehended in the airport and remained in detention for one day. All that was based on unfounded allegations.

At that time, the decree naming Husayn al-Tahhan as acting Baghdad governor was sent by the municipality to the Council of Ministers. A reply from the Council of Ministers said they would be dealing with the issue, adding that the Council of Ministers is the only party entitled to repeal or appoint the Baghdad mayor. The issue had been raised earlier and it will be discussed tomorrow as I announced my resignation and was pensioned from the post already on 21 June. I did not know that such problems would appear on the part of the Baghdad Governorate Council and Baghdad governor. I have already decided to withdraw. I am a man of work, not a man of conflict. I do not get involved in conflicts, I do not belong to any political party. I do not have any militias and no political party supports me. This is what I can say to the attack.

RFI: Iraqi government spokesman Laith Kubba has confirmed in a telephone conversation to RFI that the Baghdad mayor had indeed filed his resignation and that this resignation has been accepted. He added that the Council of Ministers would in its next session discuss the names of three candidates for this post. (Translated by Petr Kubalek and Diar Bamrni)

UN CHIEF SEEKS MISSION EXTENSION, AMID CORRUPTION ALLEGATIONS AGAINST FORMER OIL-FOR-FOOD HEAD. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked the UN Security Council on 5 August to extend the mission of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq until August 2006. The request comes as the UN-established Independent Inquiry Committee released its third quarterly report on allegations related to corruption within the UN-administered oil-for-food program, which ran from 1996 to 2003.

The report released on 8 August concludes that former oil-for-food head Benon Sevan took $150,000 in bribes from Fred Nadler, a friend and relative by marriage to a "Fakry Abdelnour," whom Sevan's lawyer has identified as the principal of the African Middle East Petroleum Company. The company earned some $1.5 million from oil allocations through the oil-for-food program.

Sevan resigned on 7 August in a letter to Kofi Annan, saying, "These charges are false and you, who have known me all these years, should know they are." He contended that the secretary-general and the UN abandoned him, making him a scapegoat rather than defending the program.

Annan has come under increasing pressure, particularly by the United States, in recent months after a series of scandals, including oil-for-food, marred his management of the world body. The United States, partly in response to allegations of UN mismanagement, appointed John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the UN last week. Bolton is expected to push for UN reform.

Annan Still Under Investigation?

The second quarterly report by the Independent Inquiry Committee, which is headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, was released in March. The report cleared Annan of allegations related to his possible role in the oil-for-food scandal but criticized him for failing to thoroughly investigate charges of conflict of interest when they arose. At the time, Annan said his exoneration came as a "great relief" and disputed claims by his detractors that it was time for him to resign and allow for fresh leadership in the UN.

However, Annan may not be out of the woods yet. A 14 June statement by the Independent Inquiry Committee said it was looking into "newly disclosed information" concerning possible links between Annan and representatives of Cotecna Inspection, a Swiss contractor based in Geneva that bid for a contract under the oil-for-food program while Annan's son, Kojo Annan, was a consultant for the company.

The March report also the questionable behavior of several top Annan aides during the investigation, including Undersecretary-General for Oversight Services Dileep Nair, who was responsible for administrative oversight of the program. Nair reportedly misused funds to hire a special assistant in his office, although the assistant performed "virtually no [oil-for-food] program-related work during the two years that he was funded by the program." Nair was replaced in June by Swedish inspector and auditor Inga-Britt Ahlenius.

Benon Sevan has denied that he took kickbacks while administering the oil-for-food program, and contended that the $150,000 came as funds from a now-deceased aunt. Furthermore, as he stated in his resignation letter to Annan on 7 August, he would not have compromised his career for a mere $150,000.

Annan said earlier this year that he would take action against anyone identified as complicit in the corruption scandal. If he did so, it would go against a previous agreement between Annan and Sevan in which Sevan came out of retirement at a $1 annual salary that gave him diplomatic immunity from prosecution and allowed the UN to cover Sevan's legal fees with revenue existing from the now-defunct oil-for-food program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2005). As part of the deal, Sevan was expected to cooperate with the Volcker investigation. However, investigators have said that Sevan refused to cooperate, and Annan later refused to pay the legal fees. Sevan's resignation would theoretically clear the way for prosecution.

The Bilking Continues

While the oil-for-food program ended in the fall of 2003, the UN remained, as of February, in control of some $400 million in oil revenues from the program. Iraqi Ambassador to the UN Samir al-Sumaydi'i called on the UN that month to transfer the money into the formerly U.S.-administered (and now Iraqi-administered) Development Fund for Iraq.

Last year, the UN allocated some $30 million of revenues from the oil-for-food program to investigate fraud and corruption allegations related to its administration of the program (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 15 October 2004).

In March, Iraq rejected attempts by the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) to extend its mandate. UNMOVIC was established in 1999 to verify Iraq's compliance in ridding itself of its weapons of mass destruction. It, along with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA), pulled out of Iraq in March 2003 on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The IAEA briefly returned to Iraq in 2004 to carry out a limited inspection.

The Iraqi government argued in March that UNMOVIC costs the country $12 million annually. This is in addition to the $12.3 million Iraq will provide the IAEA over the next two years for its monitoring activities. It is unclear how the UN could justify continuation of the program, since UNMOVIC and IAEA inspectors found no evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction before the war, and subsequent U.S. investigators working for the Iraq Survey Group came to the same conclusion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 April 2005).