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Iraq Report: September 2, 2005

2 September 2005, Volume 8, Number 30
THE GROWING SUNNI-SHI'A DIVIDE. As the debilitating security situation in Iraq threatens to widen the Sunni-Shi'ite rift, leaders on both sides are trying to allay fears of a sectarian war -- a tall order in an atmosphere charged with accusations, power struggles, and growing animosity.

Part of the problem stems from the Iraqi transitional government's failure to completely disprove allegations that government forces are behind a recent surge of attacks on Sunnis -- particularly in Baghdad, but also in areas north, south, and west of the capital. Sunni leaders opposed to the government use the attacks to fuel the notion that the government is supporting a campaign led by former Shi'ite militiamen from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) Badr Corps -- many of whom now work for the Interior Ministry's commando Wolf Brigade -- and other sanctioned security forces.

The Shi'a are also regularly targeted in Iraq by Ba'athists and Sunni Islamists working under Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn, as well as the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, and scores of other armed groups sympathetic to the Sunni insurgent movement. Al-Zarqawi's group claims attacks daily against Badr Forces and officials on Internet websites.

The situation is compounded because attacks against both sects are often carried out by men in uniform, leaving the victims to question whether the attackers are government forces or insurgents in disguise. There are dozens of documented incidents over the past two years in which insurgents disguised as police or security forces attacked civilians at makeshift checkpoints, in home raids, car bombings, and in suicide attacks inside government-controlled buildings (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 20 May 2005).

Iraqi leaders have said that insurgents and foreign elements are killing both Sunnis and Shi'a in an effort to stifle political development and spark a civil war.

For Sunni Islamist insurgents, the struggle is for an Islamic state based on Salafist ideology. Al-Zarqawi and his sympathizers view the Shi'a as "takfir" (declaring someone a nonbeliever; from "kafir" -- infidel). Sunni Islamist insurgents also refer to the Shi'a as "alqami" -- a reference to Mu'ayyad al-Din Muhammad Ibn al-Alqami, a Shi'ite minister in the last Abbasid caliphate, who purportedly assisted the Mongols in conquering Baghdad in 1258.

The motivation for Ba'athists and other secular Sunni insurgents is to wreak havoc, destabilize the Shi'ite-led government, and stifle the political process while driving the multinational forces from Iraq, thereby creating the opportunity for a Ba'athist return to power.

Outside agitators Syria and Iran are motivated by a desire to keep Iraq weak, thwarting what they see as the "American project" in Iraq; and preventing the Shi'a from gaining any real power. Syria would also prefer to see a Sunni-led state. For Iran, the goal is to keep the Shi'a dependent on Iran and to maintain the dominance of the Shi'a clergy from Qom -- which gained prominence during the Saddam Hussein era when the Shi'a were oppressed -- rather than in Al-Najaf, the historical seat of Shi'a Islam.

There is little doubt that some Shi'ite and Sunni Iraqis are also engaged in infighting, retaliatory attacks, and power struggles. And both sides have elements that are linked to insurgents and outside agitators. The extent of infighting among Iraq's Muslim communities is therefore difficult to gauge.

Tensions between Sunnis and Shi'ites have escalated in recent weeks. Sunni leaders -- including Iraqi National Dialogue Council Secretary-General Khalaf al-Ulayyan, blamed Shi'ite members of the Interior Ministry's security forces on 30 August for the arrest of more than 70 Sunnis who were later found dead -- bound by hands and feet and shot execution style (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 August 2005).

The claim was supported by Justice Minister Abd al-Husayn Shandal, who accused "local and foreign groups" of carrying out massacres against the Sunnis in Iraq, "Al-Hayat" reported on 31 August. Shandal cited the existence of detention camps that are outside the control of the ministry as one of the reasons for human-rights violations against the Sunnis. Sunni parliament deputy Mish'an al-Juburi told "Al-Hayat," "An official figure from the [Shi'ite] 'Alliance' list heads a special assassination department and we know him very well. He supervises the kidnapping and execution of the Sunnis."

A former leader of the Shi'ite Badr forces, Abu Akbar al-Sa'idi, denied that Badr has had any role in the kidnappings and assassinations of Sunnis, and pointed out that "hundreds" of Badr members identity cards were taken in attacks on Badr offices, suggesting that they may have been used by the real perpetrators of the attacks on Sunnis. He added that Ba'athists, supporters of Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi and extremists on both sides, are trying to provoke Muslim infighting.

Meanwhile, Shi'ite leaders were quick to claim that the 31 August stampede on a bridge leading to Al-Kadhimiyah that left more than 800 Shi'a dead was the result of a terrorist attack on the procession of worshippers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 August 2005). Seven people were killed about two hours before the stampede in a mortar attack on the crowd that was later claimed by the Victorious Sect Army. The stampede, they say, came after rumors spread that there was a suicide bomber among the thousands of worshippers.

A number of people familiar with the bridge said that concrete blocks were recently placed on the bridge to control traffic, which added to the tragedy.

A spokesman for Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told Al-Jazeera television that al-Sadr's Office held the Iraqi and U.S. governments responsible for the tragedy. "We and our Sunni brothers lived for centuries in harmony and such things never happened until the occupation forces entered Iraq in such a barbaric, savage way and started trying to fragment unity between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites, and between the Shi'ites themselves in a sick attempt to divide and fragment Iraq," claimed Abbas al-Rubay'i.

Meanwhile, Sunni leaders extended their condolences. Sunni Imam Mu'ayyad al-A'zami told Al-Jazeera that the incident was an "act of fate" and the result of overcrowding, adding: "There were no terrorist attacks or any collapses in the bridge." A number of Sunni leaders called on their followers to assist the Shi'a in whatever way, including through the donation of blood.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari appealed for calm, and declared three days of mourning for the victims. He also reiterated calls for national unity.

Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i was able to find one unifying action during the tragedy. He told Reuters: "My heart goes to those who have reacted in a patriotic way, not in a sectarian way, and also the next-door neighborhood, which is a Sunni neighborhood -- al-Kadhamiyah -- their inhabitants came out to help visitors, who are mainly, or exclusively, Shi'ite visitors, and this shows the unity of these people." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

SUNNIS WEIGH IN ON DRAFT CONSTITUTION. Iraq's Sunni Arab leaders have expressed varying levels of opposition to the draft constitution since it was announced on 28 August. As with other turning points in Iraq's post-Hussein political development, it is clear now that Sunnis do not have a united stance on the draft. However, a number of Sunni groups have given the draft a lukewarm reception, indicating that they could be swayed to support the draft in the national referendum set for 15 October.

Media reports indicate that at least one Sunni group remains engaged in negotiations with government officials over the draft, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. (See "Iraqi Draft Constitution Finalized, Despite Some Sunni Objections".) U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters at a 30 August press briefing that he does not believe a "final, final, draft" has been presented, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported.

Iraqi Islamic Party Secretary-General Tariq al-Hashimi told reporters at a 29 August press briefing in Baghdad that Sunni leaders felt slighted by the drafting committee when the draft was released on 28 August despite a lack of consensus on its content.

The Principle Of Consensus

Al-Hashimi said his party took an advisory role in the negotiations on the draft only after Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders vowed the draft would be written under the "principle of agreement," RFI reported. "Regretfully, this draft constitution does not reflect our aspirations, concerns of Iraqi, nor fulfills our legitimate and national principles as much as we had hoped it would," he said.

"Not the entire draft is bad," al-Hashimi conceded. "It includes good and bad elements.... The Islamic Party contests this draft constitution, but does not reject it part and parcel."

Sunni and Shi'ite leaders confirmed that behind-the-scenes negotiations are continuing with al-Hashimi, who is trying to "make amendments" to the articles his group opposes, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 30 August.

Likewise, Sunni tribal leader and Vice President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir told reporters at a 29 August press briefing that although he was not satisfied by some aspects of the draft, he might encourage Sunni Arabs to vote for it in the hopes that Sunnis could better influence contentious issues -- such as federalism -- once the draft is approved and National Assembly elections are held in December, bringing more Sunni Arabs into parliament.

Al-Yawir contended that Sunni Arabs might not be able to vote down the referendum in three governorates in October. "I think it will be extremely hard to defeat. That's why I think we have to aim at the next elections.... Whoever feels grievance now has to work harder in order to be in the next [government]," he said, reported on 30 August.

Meanwhile, Faysal Jarullah al-Shammari, deputy head of the Sunni Al-Waqf Council in the Dhi Qar Governorate, told RFI on 30 August: "We can say in general that the positive spirit dominating the constitutional drafting committee, where discussions have been held and opinions shared openly and without fanaticism for a certain ideology or orientation, is a step in the right direction. As far as the draft in general is concerned, it includes some unclear points that offer several likely eventualities. These could lead Iraq, God forbid, to disintegration and weakness. All of us, without any exception, want a strong and united Iraq. All of us: Sunnis and Shi'a, Kurds and Arabs, and other members of the Iraqi people."

Intimidation Campaign?

Al-Shammari's take on the constitution is somewhat more restrained than Al-Waqf Council Chairman Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i, who told reporters at a 29 August press briefing that unnamed groups were attempting to intimidate Sunnis in an effort at keeping them away from the ballot box during the referendum, RFI reported on the same day.

Al-Samarra'i pointed to the discovery of the bodies of 36 Sunni Arabs in Wasit this week, saying: "These incidents and crimes are only aimed at stopping us before the elections. We are resolute by the will of God and decided by the power of God to enter the elections with full power. These acts of mob will not divert us from the participation in this process."

Al-Samarra'i also spoke about allegations he made last week against the Interior Ministry in which he claimed security forces working under the ministry had arrested Sunnis in Al-Mada'in and Salman Pak after imams encouraged worshippers to register to vote. "The arrests in Al-Mada�in are the strongest evidence that the arrests were deliberate," he said. "I can see that these killings happen at the same time when the constitution draft is presented and when people approach to registering in the lists of voters."

Other Sunni leaders are taking a more hard-line approach to the draft, including Salih al-Mutlaq, head of the National Dialogue Council and a member of the drafting committee. According to Al-Sharqiyah television, al-Mutlaq told reporters at a 28 August press briefing in Baghdad that the draft constitution "must either be accepted or rejected as a whole. If a single point in the constitution is unacceptable, voters would reject the constitution altogether."

Contesting The Draft's Approval

Al-Mutlaq told Al-Jazeera television in a 29 August interview that the council is weighing its options, and is considering contesting the legitimacy of the draft constitution through lawsuits in Iraqi and international courts.

Al-Mutlaq contended that the National Assembly should be considered dissolved. "The principle according to which the constitution is approved is not the vote but the principle of accord," he said. "Since [Sunnis] did not agree on this constitution, this constitution should not have been passed."

He contended that several other groups stand opposed to the constitution, including the followers of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; the Democratic Trend (which comprises about a dozen political parties and groups); and a bloc of Arab tribes in the National Assembly.

Al-Mutlaq has said he will work with other opposition groups to organize a national conference on the constitution in the coming days.

The Muslim Scholars Association appears to have not officially weighed in on the draft but is thought to have been a key organizer in the 29 August demonstrations in Tikrit against the draft. Protesters at the event carried posters of Saddam Hussein, along with Iraqi flags and banners claiming the constitution will divide Iraq. Supporters of Shi'ite clerics Muqtada al-Sadr and Jawad al-Khalisi reportedly also took part in the demonstration, AP reported on 30 August. Khalisi heads the Iraqi National Founding Conference, which consists of dozens of Shi'ite and Sunni groups and parties, including the Muslim Scholars Association and followers of al-Sadr.

Getting Out The 'No' Vote

So, do the Sunni oppositionists to the draft stand a chance in voting down the referendum? Despite Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir's contention that Sunni Arabs might only sway one governorate against the draft, Sunnis opposed to the document -- if united with the likes of Shi'ite cleric al-Sadr and other hard-liners -- might rally enough supporters in three governorates to vote down the draft, but it will be an uphill battle. They will need to set aside other differences and present a united stance, something they may not, in the end, be able to do. At this point -- despite the recent show of force through demonstrations and speeches -- they are far from mobilized.

In the end, the determining factor may be terrorism. Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi has already vowed to target polling centers on voting day and to kill all those supporting the political process.

Sunni leaders, including al-Mutlaq, have also contended that they are ill-prepared to run a "no" campaign, citing a lack of financial resources. And unlike Iraq's leading political parties, they lack their own television and radio stations needed to propagate their message.

Voter registration is also a factor. Sunni leaders this week said that citizens -- particularly in Al-Anbar -- could not register to vote because only some of the registration centers opened. The Independent Election Commission has responded by extending the registration period, which was due to end on 31 August, for an additional week. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

RADIO FREE IRAQ POLLS MINORITIES ON DRAFT CONSTITUTION. RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) interviewed members of minority religious communities in Ba'qubah, Al-Nasiriyah, and Dahuk this week to gauge their opinions on the draft constitution.

Christians and Mandeans interviewed in Ba'qubah on 29 August gave differing opinions on the constitution, with some voicing concern over minority and religious rights.

Joseph Faridun, a Christian, told RFI: "Regarding the constitution that all Iraqis were impatiently waiting for, it contains many points that do not [support] minor religious groups, especially Christians and Sabeans. Sincere and democratic attention must really be paid to not marginalizing these [minority] ethnic and religious groups. On the contrary, in a proper democracy as we understand it according to other constitutions in the world, every Iraqi citizen must simply be seen as an Iraqi citizen and nothing more. The constitution and all laws must apply to him or her as they apply to anybody else from any other ethnic, religious, or other community."

Asked whether he, "as a Christian," supported federalism, Faridun said, "No, I do not support this point. The creation of [federal] regions would work to divide Iraq. We are people who have historically, for thousands of years, been known as one single people, with many religions and ethnicities. I am an Iraqi; I define myself as an Iraqi. I do not communicate with my colleagues, neighbors, and friends through the prism of their being Muslims, Sabeans, or Yezidis. I know that a person is an Iraqi and a colleague, neighbor, or friend of mine. I do not understand the issue of dividing [the country] into [federal] regions...I am, sincerely, against this idea."

Samira Qaysar, a Christian woman told RFI: "I wish all Iraqi people, with all their social and religious groups: prosperity, security, and an undivided Iraq. We all live in a single country, from the north to the south."

An unnamed Christian man complained there was no reference to the longstanding roots of Christianity in Iraq. "At the outset [I want to say]: is it possible to cover up the rise of the sun and moon? The first religion that entered the soil of Mesopotamia, and on the Chaldean soil of Babylon, was the monotheistic religion of Lord Jesus, peace be upon him. We have not found any confirmation of this in the constitution, while there have been references to other [religions]. Oh, constitution-drafting committee, where shall we find our rights that we were deprived of in the past?"

An unnamed Mandean man: "This constitution includes general regulations. These general regulations must be documented in the form of laws so that they guarantee the interests of minorities, be they Sabeans, or non-Sabeans, or even Muslims...or Kurds, and all [religious] groups in Iraq."

"By God, as a Mandean, I do agree [with this constitution]. It is better than nothing. This is on the one hand. On the other hand, this constitution is the beginning of the establishment of democracy in Iraq in the area that we live in, or in the Middle East in general."

A Mandean man identified as Abu Zayd also voiced support for the draft, saying: "The constitution basically represents two points: First, this constitution recognizes various communities in society; second, it guarantees the interests of those various communities and religious groups in a compatible way. It is by far sufficient if any religious group is mentioned in the constitution and [supported] by the existence of a human-rights law, which means the freedoms of thought, belief, and performing rituals.

"Well, I see [the constitution] as good when it includes this condition; it is not bad. But I can say at the same time that there has unfortunately been absolutely no mention of a law on [the proper] treatment of animals. This is an issue that hurts. I believe that [enacting] a law on the fair treatment of animals would be the best measure of the nobility of the constitution."

Another Mandean man said the constitution "has not brought anything to the Iraqi people as a whole, and especially not to the [Mandean] religious community. No ambitions that we would hope for [have been met]."

RFI spoke with representatives of various religious groups in Al-Nasiriyah on 30 August. Hakim Salim, head of the Mandean (Sabean) community in Dhi Qar governorate, called the constitution an "important document for all peoples," adding: "It represents their ambitions and progress. It is the same in all advanced societies. We wish that the Iraqi constitution, God willing, fulfills the ambitions of the Iraqi people, of all its communities and ethnic and religious groups so that Iraqis are able to complete their duties properly in this regard."

Asked whether he expects the constitution will guarantee the rights of his faith and other religious communities, he said: "We hope the National Assembly and the government will take all ethnic groups into account so that they are properly represented."

Musa Ibadi, member of the Mandean (Sabean) community told RFI: "We are positive about this constitution and its draft. Our rights are guaranteed in this constitution, God willing."

Izz al-Din Baqasri, a Yezidi representative in the Kurdish parliament, told RFI's Dahuk correspondent on 30 August that the draft, while not perfect, affords basic rights to minority religious communities. "The Iraqi people are comprised of several ethnic and religious communities. This constitution is for now, in my opinion, the best constitution ever drafted in the Middle East region and especially in a multiethnic and multireligious country like Iraq. This constitution includes the rights of all those religious and ethnic communities. We cannot say that every ethnic and religious community has gained everything it wanted from this constitution but it includes the basic rights of all these communities. Inevitably, when the constitution is drafted in a country like Iraq, stability must be secured by means of that constitution. Law must be the rule in the country. The logic of law must be ruling after this constitution is approved in a referendum," he said.

Baqasri contended that federalism "is one of the best systems for stabilizing the situation in Iraq," adding: "Terrorism has been decreasing in this country, and I think that there will be an even greater decrease after the constitution is approved [in a referendum]."

Asked about opposition to the draft, he said: "It is no wonder that some [groups] oppose this constitution, especially those who were ruling Iraq from 1921 up until now [a reference to the Sunni Arabs]. The only reason why these circles oppose it is that they have been deprived of their rule." (Kathleen Ridolfo, Petr Kubalek)