18 November 2005, Volume 8, Number 39
SUNNI-SHI'ITE TENSIONS ESCALATE AHEAD OF ARAB LEAGUE CONFERENCE. Allegations surrounding the torture of Sunni Arab detainees by Interior Ministry security forces led to an escalation of tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs in Iraq this week ahead of the Arab League-sponsored Iraqi reconciliation conference scheduled to convene in Cairo on 19 November.
The conference seeks to bring together representatives of all Iraqi sects with the goal of staving off further sectarian tension that some fear might spark a civil war. Iraqi leaders have been unable to agree on the participation of groups outside the political process at the conference. Sunni Arab groups have lobbied for the participation of Ba'athist leaders and armed Iraqi "resistance" groups. Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders rejected the participation of any armed groups, saying they would not hold talks with Iraqis with blood on their hands.
Officials from the United States, United Nations Security Council, Arab League member states, Iran, and Turkey will attend the opening session of the conference and expectations are running high, with many likening the conference to the 1989 Al-Ta'if conference that led to the end of Lebanon's civil war.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari expressed a hope that the Arab League would abide by the government's demand that no armed groups be present at the talks, telling reporters on 15 November: "After telephone conversations [with Arab League officials] I was given assurances over the matters we tackled with [league Secretary-General] Amr Musa and [Deputy Secretary-General] Ahmad bin Hilli. I hope that there will be no surprises."
Musa told reporters at a 17 November press briefing in Cairo that members of the Iraqi Ba'ath Party would attend the conference but said no armed men would take part in the meeting, "because the meeting is about dialogue," (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2005). Musa is expected to push, nonetheless, for the participation of armed groups at an expanded reconciliation conference planned to take place in Baghdad following the 15 December parliamentary election. However, Iraq's fractured sects appear ill-prepared to lay the ground work for comprehensive talks.
Sunni Arabs continue to maintain that ongoing U.S. and Iraqi security operations in the Al-Anbar and Diyala governorates are part of an "ethnic cleansing" campaign against Sunnis. Iraqi officials insist that the operations are aimed at eliminating Sunni insurgent elements from those areas and sealing the Iraqi-Syrian border to prevent new foreign fighters from entering Iraq. Officials have said that the operations would help pave the way for greater Sunni Arab participation in the December election, while Sunni Arabs have countered that the operations seek to scare Sunni Arabs away from the polls.
This week's allegations surrounding the abuse of Sunni Arab detainees at detention centers run by the Shi'ite Arab-dominated Interior Ministry only exacerbate tensions between the rival sects (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 November 2005).
Interior Minister Responds to Allegations
Interior Minister Bayan Jabr downplayed the allegations of torture, telling reporters at a 17 November press briefing in Baghdad that the claims of torture were exaggerated, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. Jabr said that he believed that only seven detainees had been abused at the Al-Jadiriyah detention center out of 170 detainees. He added that General George W. Casey, commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, told him that only five prisoners had been abused at the detention facility. "Nobody in the facility has been beheaded or slain," Jabr said, responding to some Arab media reports.
Responding to a question from RFI, Jabr said: "Those who have beaten seven out of 170 or 176 prisoners will be punished in accordance with the law." He invited international journalists to visit any prison to film detainee conditions. CNN reported on 18 November that it attempted to visit a detention center the previous day but was turned away.
Jabr said he had no previous knowledge of abuse at his ministry's detention centers, telling reporters, "I reject any acts of torture. I said that the very beginning that I will bring to account anyone who commits acts of torture. We do not need to torture anybody."
Interior Ministry Undersecretary for Intelligence Major General Husayn Kamal also claimed in a 16 November interview with Al-Jazeera television that neither he nor Jabr had any previous knowledge of the abuse. "When we know of any violation of human rights or detainee mistreatment, we do not remain silent. We took action in the past" against such misconduct, he contended, adding: "There are firm directives and orders from the Iraqi Prime Minister [Ibrahim al-Ja'fari] on the need to treat the detainees well."
Ministry Officials Deny Iranian Role
Both Jabr and Kamal have also denied reports alleging that Iranian security agents were in charge of prisoner interrogation at the Al-Jadiriyah detention center in Baghdad.
The ministry's security forces are staffed from remnants of the Badr Corps, which is the former armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI was based in Iran for 20 years and only returned to Iraq following the fall of the Hussein regime. Since that time, critics of the party have maintained that SCIRI continues to receive financial support from the Iranian regime. The Badr Corps changed its name to Badr Organization in 2003 to reflect its claim of transforming itself into a civil society organization.
"The Badr Organization forces are there in the police and armed forces and [in] all domains of life in Iraq. They are part of the Iraqi people. There is no harm if they act within the limits of the law. During my work at the Interior Ministry, I did not meet any Iranians or persons speaking Persian, for example," Kamal told Al-Jazeera.
The U.S. Embassy also acknowledged that militias have infiltrated Iraqi security forces in a 17 November statement posted to its website (http://iraq.usembassy.gov). "We have made clear to the Iraqi Government that there must not be militia or sectarian control or direction of Iraqi Security Forces, facilities or ministries," the statement said.
The U.S. will now participate in a joint investigation with Iraqi officials into the allegations of detainee abuse. "The [Iraqi] Prime Minister has agreed to a six-point plan for dealing with all allegations of detainee abuse and to institute means to provide accountability by Iraqi Security Forces to ensure humane treatment of all detainees," the U.S. Embassy said.
Sunnis Call For International Investigation.
Sunni Arab leaders responded to the reported abuse by calling for an international investigation into the allegations.
Iraqi Islamic Party secretary-general Tariq al-Hashimi told reporters at a 16 November press briefing in Baghdad that the party has lodged 50 complaints with the Interior Ministry in recent months over the disappearance of Iraqis taken into custody by ministry forces, but the ministry continuously denied the allegations. "We have been telling them: If you do not have any information, can you tell us where our citizens and brothers have gone? They were arrested by people who wear your uniform, use your communication equipment, drive your cars, and carry your identity cards," al-Hashimi said, adding: "We are now fully convinced that the Interior Ministry is actively participating in the harm that has befallen us."
Al-Hashimi contended that the Al-Jadiriyah detention center "is not the only place where detainees are being tortured," and claimed to have documents and compact discs full of evidence which he said he gave to U.S., UN, and Iraqi officials. He called on Iraqi citizens possessing information of secret detention centers to come forward.
Meanwhile, Muthanna Harith al-Dari, spokesman for the Sunni group Muslim Scholars Association, told Al-Jazeera television in a 17 November interview that the association warned the United Nations six months ago that Sunni Arab detainees were being abused by Iraqi security forces. The association also called on the Arab League to intervene in the issue in October, al-Dari said. "We do not fully trust the government agencies that currently exist [in Iraq]. Under these agencies, all these kinds of torture were practiced. Now, the interior minister is admitting frankly...that there is torture at that place. He is trying to reduce the number and say that seven [were abused]. What is the difference between one, seven, or 100?" al-Dari asked.
Association member Abd al-Salam al-Kubaysi told washingtonpost.com that "thousands" of association members were taken to Interior Ministry detention centers in recent months, and that at least one detainee disappeared. He claimed that detainees suffered abuse and torture, including broken bones. A purported detainee interviewed by the website said he was suspended in the air by ministry security personnel, who whipped him with sticks and electrical cables, and submerged him in barrels of cold water while administering electric shocks to his body, the website reported on 17 November. The former detainees allegations could not be independently verified. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
IRAQI RESISTANCE READY TO NEGOTIATE, BUT ONLY WITH U.S. The self-described spokesperson for the Iraqi resistance, Ayham al-Samarra'i, told reporters in Baghdad over on 12 November that seven Iraqi resistance groups are ready to enter into dialogue with the United States in a bid to end the violence in Iraq. But resistance groups will not enter into talks with the Iraqi government, which has labeled them terrorist groups, he said. Al-Samarra'i is the head of the Independent Iraqis Grouping, and served as electricity minister in the interim government.
The groups' conditions for entering into talks are not likely to garner a positive reaction from the United States. According to a statement issued minutes before al-Samarra'i's 12 November press briefing, resistance groups have demanded an end to all military operations and the release of detainees; the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraqi cities, and the establishment of a timetable for the withdrawal for multinational forces from Iraq.
Another problematic issue is the refusal by the resistance to lay down their arms. The resistance "will continue to keep its weapons until peace and accord are established in the country," al-Samarra'i told Al-Arabiyah television on 12 November.
Talks Equal Weakness?
For Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari's government, the decision to negotiate with the so-called "resistance" groups could be the nail in the coffin of the Shi'ite leadership on the eve of next month's parliamentary elections. Al-Ja'fari's administration has already been criticized for its weak role in bringing security to Iraq, so any attempts to negotiation with insurgent groups would further diminish the prime minister's conservative Shi'ite Arab support base and potentially weaken the Shi'ite alliance's position ahead of the election.
Other Shi'ite leaders have attempted to bring Sunni Arab "resistance" fighters to the table in recent months, most notably, former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, al-Samarra'i's old boss. Allawi's campaign platform is based on national unity and an end to sectarian strife. The former head of the interim government spent most of the past eight months in talks with Sunni Arab leaders in Iraq and neighboring Arab states in an effort to bring Sunnis to the table.
Al-Samarra'i contended in an Al-Arabiyah television interview broadcast on 12 November that resistance groups were not interested in entering into talks with the Iraqi government, saying the resistance groups "believe the United States has the upper hand in Iraq," and therefore it must take the initiative by opening dialogue.
Which Resistance Groups?
Al-Samarra'i insisted however, that the seven resistance groups willing to come to the table are not terrorist groups, because they target occupation forces and not civilians. "The people who are resisting are doing so honorably to protect this country. The government must recognize them as legitimate representatives of the Iraqis," al-Samarra'i told Al-Arabiyah.
The former electricity minister claims that the seven groups -- which he refused to identify -- represent 90 to 95 percent of the resistance. He said attacks carried out by supporters of Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi amount to only about 5 percent of all attacks.
Meanwhile, al-Samarra'i told the "Al-Zaman" newspaper that the resistance groups would participate in the 19 November Arab League-sponsored reconciliation conference in Cairo, the daily reported on 14 November. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa has also supported the participation of resistance groups at the Cairo talks. Iraqi government officials have said they will not enter into talks with any terrorist organizations.
The U.S. And The UN
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made separate trips to Iraq in recent days, giving the impression to observers that they might be pushing the government to accept the presence of resistance groups at the 19 November Arab League meeting. Both the United States and the UN would like to see any political progress that might help bring greater legitimacy to the December elections, which will lead to the formation of a four-year government.
Asked by reporters on 11 November about her view on which groups should be allowed to participate in the meeting, RFI reported that Rice said: "I would hope that those who participate in the Arab League events...will recognize that they are participating with an Iraqi government that has indeed been elected and that the Iraqi government that is elected after December will be even more representative. And so the lead on this really ought to be with the Iraqi government, and any people coming out of a period of tyranny, as the Iraqis have, and now out of a period of violence, have to find a balance between inclusion and reconciliation and justice. And that is a process that I'm sure the Iraqis themselves will lead."
Al-Ja'fari responded to the same question, telling reporters: "We will not accept at this conference becoming a platform for terrorism and for high-level Ba'athist officials from the former regime. But it should be big enough for all patriotic Iraqis who believe in the political process...."
Meanwhile, Annan told reporters on 12 November in Baghdad: "Reconciliation is absolutely vital in Iraq," adding the conference "aims at building a new future for the Iraqi people," RFI reported on the same day.
Annan also held talks with Sunni Arab leaders on 12 November. "The secretary-general promised us that the UN will help in reviewing the constitution in the coming phase. We also informed him that the Iraqis are very worried over...the possibility of seeing the same thing happen again during the upcoming elections, meaning that they will be rigged," Sunni Arab leader Salih al-Mutlaq told Al-Sharqiyah television on 13 November. "We demanded international supervision as well as judicial supervision over the elections. Moreover, we called for injecting fresh blood into the IECI [Independent Iraqi Election Commission] and replacing the heads of ballot centers in the governorates." (Kathleen Ridolfo)
IRAQI PREMIER TALKS TO RFE/RL ABOUT AMMAN BOMBINGS. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) in an exclusive interview on 14 November that the Iraqi nationality of the Amman suicide bombers should not be a factor in people's opinions about Iraq.
Al-Ja'fari: The woman who was interviewed on Jordanian television [Iraqi citizen Sajida al-Rishawi] yesterday does not reflect the culture, values, mentality, or morality of Iraq. Being part of terrorism does not signify material membership in an organization as much as it means belonging to an aberrant system of thinking. So we cannot judge the people of a certain country, any country in the world, based on the behavior of an exceptionally delinquent minority in it consisting of murderers.
By the same token, we don't judge the Jordanian people through [Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Mus'ab] al-Zarqawi, or through this or that terrorist. Rather, we make our judgment based on the best sample in that people, which consists of its intellectuals and thinkers and patriots. After all, the victims who fell in Jordan didn't fall because of an Iraqi act done by patriots, but by an act perpetrated by a group of terrorists consisting of various elements.
Additionally, the victims belong to several nationalities, as they included Iraqis and Syrians as well as Jordanians. For instance, the late film director Mustapha al-Akkad was Syrian. And among the Iraqi victims, there were three very highly qualified experts and administrators from Iraq's Oil Ministry, who were charged with patriotic missions. So why don't we make our judgments through such people?
RFI: How could the terrorist acts in Amman, committed by Iraqis, influence the attitude toward Iraq of other countries and Jordan in particular?
Al-Ja'fari: This lesson [of not judging entire nations by the acts of a few individuals], which the Iraqis have learned -- I hope our brothers, the Jordanians, the officials, will learn as well. I'm optimistic because they are intellectuals and far-sighted. [This lesson] applies also to all the people [of Jordan]. I am addressing in particular the clerics so they spread awareness that the natural answer to [terrorists] is to eliminate terrorism as a tactic and to eliminate terrorism as an idea.
One of the characteristics of the ideology of terrorism is that it tries to drive a pluralistic society into a state of war. It tries to undermine cohabitation, which is being advanced step-by-step from a certain level to a better one, between us [Iraqis] and the Jordanians. It is trying to stop this process and to spread hatred of some Jordanians [toward Iraqis], saying that an Iraqi woman appeared on television. Why is it not a victim on Iraqi soil, in Iraq, that represents Iraq -- rather than this woman? This culture [of terrorism] does not know the nature and the culture of the people. It's a culture that came from beyond humanity, from outside civilization, and penetrated the souls of some sick people in Jordan, in Iraq, in Syria, and in Saudi Arabia.
We have to make a distinction between individuals, people, the government, and the state in a certain country. It is unjust and unfair to judge a people through one certain individual. We were victims before they [the Jordanians] were victims. With their victims, we had also victims. In Iraq, every day [people] are killed in Al-Hillah and [other places] and the al-Zarqawi [group] comes out and announces their responsibility [for this]. Still, we didn't judge the Jordanian people through those [individuals].
This is what I have to say to Jordanians and to all people in the whole world -- that they should not give terrorism the chance to shape a people and to pit us one against another. We are fully aware that the Jordanian people are not represented by a terrorist, just as the Iraqi people are not represented by terrorists.
RFI: Will the Iraqi government ask for the deportation of this woman who confessed on television?
Al-Ja'fari: Certainly, there must be coordination and cooperation between us and the investigative and judicial authorities in Jordan. Since the beginning, I said I was ready to cooperate with everything related to this criminal act, even before the name of this woman was announced on television. I said, as far as we are concerned, we are ready to cooperate with any piece of information if it gives some indications. We deal with each other. Since the victims are from every country, investigation and cooperation must include every country as well, and I hope we will always cooperate.