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Iraq Report: February 26, 1999

26 February 1999, Volume 2, Number 8

WILL THE ASSASSINATION OF AYATOLLAH AL-SADR LEAD TO A SHIITE UPRISING? The assassination of the Grand Ayatollah Al-Sadr and two of his sons in the Shiite center of Al-Najaf late last week is the latest and most serious indication of deteriorating relations between Iraqi Shiites and the Baghdad government. The Special Republican Guards and the Special Security Organizations have stepped up their attacks against Shiites in the south of Iraq, especially in Nassiriya, Kufa, and Najaf, as well as in Baghdad itself. And these attacks have led to numerous deaths.

According to the Iraqi Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) on 20 February, Al-Sadr had defied Saddam's authority over the past few months; at the same time, the regime increased measures to harass him and his followers throughout Iraq. Although Baghdad sent a team under the command of Muhammad Hamza Al-Zubaidi to the Mosque in Kufa to prevent the faithful from conducting their prayers under the direction of Al-Sadr, Al-Sadr still insisted on leading the prayers and delivering the Friday sermon on 12 February. He also encouraged citizens to fulfill this holy duty in all parts of Iraq in order to defy the orders of the regime. Shortly thereafter, many members of his staff were arrested.

On 21 February, the IBC said that Al-Sadr had earlier refused the Iraqi regime's request to issue a fatwa of jihad (holy war) against the U.S. in the wake of Desert Fox.. And it also reported that "the late Ayatollah Sadr led the prayers clad in a death shroud," thus anticipating his own murder by the regime. Also on that date, the IBC reported that 27 people had been killed in Al-Thawra city (also known as Saddam City) and that Special Republican Guards had attacked a Shi'a religious center near the city's market. Violent clashes were also reported in other cities in southern Iraq.

The assassination of Sadr was the fourth murder of a Shi'ite cleric in recent years. In June 1998, the Ayatollah Mirza Ali Al-Gharavi was shot on his way back to Najaf; two months before that, Ayatollah Murtadha Ali Muhammad Ibrahim Borujerdi was shot shortly after he had been warned by Baghdad not to lead prayers in a local mosque. Earlier, in 1994, the Shi'ite leader Muhammad Taqi Al-Khoei was killed in a staged motor accident on the road between Kerbala and Najaf. According to the 21 February "Sunday Times," Shi'ite religious leaders claim the murders are part of a systematic campaign by Saddam Husseyn to eliminate their leadership. The population of Iraq is roughly 60 percent Shiite; most of the Sunni population -- some 20 percent -- are in central Iraq.

The Iranian response to the murder of the Ayatollah was sharp. The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on 21 February that "Baghdad will be held accountable to the entire world, especially Muslim countries, for what has been happening in Iraq. The oppression of Shias has reached its peak now." According to the "Financial Times" on 21 February, Iraqi authorities said that the assassination in the southern holy city of Najaf was part of a conspiracy against the Iraqi government and that it was designed to create internal unrest. The government said that the killers had been arrested and denied that demonstrations had taken place in Najaf and a suburb of Baghdad.

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) maintains that the Iraqi Army shelled areas of Al-Nasiriyyah over which it had lost control. Hamid Al-Bayyati, SCIRI's London representative, said that 250 people had been arrested in Baghdad's Shi'ite suburbs of Saddam City, as well as in Qazimiyah and Al-Kifa on Saturday. A SCIRI statement issued in Damascus said that the unrest was restricted to Nasiriyah by Sunday where the buildings of the Nasiriyah Governate and Ba'th Party headquarters were attacked by the crowds, the "Tehran Times" reported on 22 February.

Muhammad Baqir Al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI, said in a 20 February interview with the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran that Al-Sadr's assassination "is part of the killings and assassinations launched by the Iraqi regime." He added that "we believe the regime, through these operations, is trying, first, to liquidate the Shi'ite ulama and second, to sow sedition among them."

Over the last month, SCIRI has largely completed the planned transfer of approximately 20,000 of its fighters and supporters from areas where they are based inside Iran, near borders with Iraq into the marshland areas in Iraq, according to Abu Dhabi's "Al-Ittihad" on 19 February. It is unclear whether the "Al-Ittihad" report is accurate. The timing of this action was either fortuitous or based on some advance knowledge of the way in which events concerning the Shia in Iraq were going to develop.

In a statement made to "Al-Ittihad" newspaper on 22 February, Shaykh Husayn Fadlallah, spiritual leader of Hizballah in Lebanon, has also blamed the Iraqi leadership for the murder of Al-Sadr and claimed that "a Shi'ite uprising seed is waiting for an appropriate time to move." Other opposition sources told "Al-Ittihad" that SCIRI forces are preparing to enter various areas of Baghdad to carry out military and suicide operations against the Iraqi regime.

In other comments, Hizballah's Fadlallah said that he did not believe the United States would be able to promote such a rising: "I do not believe that America is serious in this direction, because for this regime to remain in power is probably in America's interests more than any other country."

And SCIRI's leader, Al-Hakim, told Rome's "La Repubblica" on 24 February that "we are willing to negotiate with the United States to guarantee our people international protection and to overthrow the Baghdad regime." He added that his initial reservations were based on the lack of a specific reference "to Saddam's bloody regime" in the Iraq Liberation Act. He also pointed out that the spontaneous Shi'ite revolt, which had broken out in 20 cities after the assassination of Al-Sadr, has already been suppressed "by crack troops and heavy weapons." (David Nissman)

PUK, KDP ON OCALAN'S ARREST. Both Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) have issued statements on the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK. But these statements were couched in generalities.

Talabani made reference to articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in his statement as carried by the PUK-controlled radio station, Voice of the People of Kurdistan, on 18 February. He argued that Ocalan, like any human being, "has the right to have his case reviewed by an honest and independent court" and that "any person who is accused of a crime is considered innocent until he is legally convicted in an open trial." He also appealed to Turkey "to embark on a democratic and just solution to the Kurdish issue -- one that would protect the territorial integrity and national unity of the Republic of Turkey. It should not be driven to embrace intimidation and repression as a policy."

A spokesman for the Political Bureau of the KDP said tersely in a statement carried by the Voice of Iraqi Kurdistan, the KDP-controlled radio station, on the same day that "we hope that this new development will help halt the violence and bloodshed and lead to finding a just political and peaceful solution of the Kurdish question. We hope that justice will be served in the trial of Ocalan."

The Kurdish Regional Government has not yet issued a statement on Ocalan's arrest. But when Ocalan was still in Italy it sent a lengthy memorandum to the Italian Ministry of Justice detailing crimes committed by the PKK over the past year and recommended that Ocalan either be tried in Italy or by an international tribunal (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 15 January 1999). (David Nissman)

ASSYRIANS UNDER ATTACK IN NORTHERN IRAQ. A recent dispatch from the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA, 19 February) paints a dark picture of the present fate of the Assyrians in the Kurdish-controlled regions on northern Iraq. It details the "escalating violence" taking place: a series of murders, the bombing of a convent as well as the destruction of the home of an Assyrian priest in early January. So far, there has been no investigations by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Assyrians believe that "the bombing campaign is intended to intimidate the Assyrian community still residing in the northern provinces and that "the bombings appear to be part of a greater policy to ethnically cleanse" Assyrians from the Kurdish-controlled regions of Arbil, Dohuk, and Suleymaniyah.

The AINA report claims further that "efforts to Kurdify the Assyrians have led to restrictions on the Assyrian language." In fact, there have been restrictions on the teaching of Assyrian since the passage of the current Iraqi Constitution, because it recognized only Kurds and Arabs as ethnic communities within Iraq. And this body insists on the teaching of all languages in the Arabic script, meaning that languages not in the Arabic script, such as Assyrian (which is in Syriac) and Turkoman (which has been in Latin since the 1980s), cannot be used in the educational system.

According to AINA, this has blurred ethnic identity and led Baghdad to classify the Assyrians as "Kurdish Christians." And the Assyrian agency suggests that "demographic data referring to the Assyrians have been further diluted by defining Assyrians and Chaldeans as two distinct ethnic groups, despite proclamations by Assyrian and Chaldean patriarchs as well as American national organizations that Assyrians and Kurds are one and the same ethnic group (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 19 February 1999). The Armenian government adopted a similar approach concerning its Yezidi (Kurdish) population, when it claimed that Yezidis and Kurds were ethnically separate entities. (David Nissman)

TURKOMAN BUILDINGS IN NORTHERN IRAQ ATTACKED BY KURDS. MED-TV on 23 February reported that Kurdish demonstrators have launched attacks against six buildings belonging to the Turkomans, now allegedly used as bases by the Turkish intelligence organization, MIT, in Iraqi Kurdistan. MED-TV also says that the "attacks, in which missiles were used, continued for three nights." No casualties resulted from the attacks because the buildings were evacuated on the first day of the attack but the buildings were totally destroyed.

Although MED-TV reports link the attacks to popular anger at the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, this is not the first time that Kurds have launched attacks against Iraqi Turkoman property. Forces of the Kurdish Democratic Party attacked several Turkoman buildings in Erbil last autumn. Consequently, these attacks may also be part of the Turkoman campaign for the establishment of an autonomous Turkmeneli region (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 15 and 29 January 1999). (David Nissman)

A KURDISH TV WAR IN NORTHERN IRAQ? The December 1998 announcement of the start of a television station financed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 8 January 1999) has drawn a sharp response from MED-TV, which up to now has been the sole Kurdish-language sender in the world. A brief report in "Kurdistan-Rundbrief," no. 3 (1999), as translated and disseminated through "Arm The Spirit" on 23 February, notes that "the KDP, with Turkish assistance, has started an anti-PKK TV station," planned as a rival to MED-TV, generally considered a pro-PKK station. Recently, MED-TV's programming has generally been reportage on PKK activities and the Ocalan affair. According to Sami Abdurahman, the chief of the new Kurdistan Television Network, "Our goal is to report the objective facts about Ocalan to our Kurdish brothers around the world."

The "Kurdistan-Rundbrief" report maintains that the station was set up with tactical and logistical aid from the Turks. That is confirmed by others: A "Washington Post" report on 4 February quotes one Barzani aide as saying: "The Turkish military gave us the green light to transport the equipment from Turkey." The "Rundbrief" also suggests that the station was primarily financed with oil smuggling profits made by those violating the UN embargo. But it does not mention that the Kurdish oil smuggling profits are well known to other members of the international community which permit the smuggling to continue largely because it is recognized that Turkey has lost billions of dollars due to the embargo on Iraq.

The Rundbrief also makes the point that "Turkey has also (1999) helped to gain satellite access for the new station by means of a Bosnian TV network." Hikmet Tabak, director of MED-TV, said: "What worries me is that the people who are running this TV station are being used by Turkey as pawns to divide the Kurdish people."

The Kurdish Regional Government has gone on record to accuse the PKK and Ocalan of criminal activities. The Kurdish Regional Government has been very active with regard to the PKK. In December, its Council of Ministers sent the Italian Ministry of Justice a lengthy �Memorandum on terrorist interference into the affairs of Iraqi Kurdistan" in the last 12 months. (It is available on the KRG website, This document details the role of the PKK in destroying public facilities; kidnapping, killing, and wounding citizens and destroying their belongings; obstructing implementation of the "Oil For Food" program; looting and plundering villages; and mining of public roads as well as private farms and water springs. The memorandum also urged the Italian government to try PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in its own courts or turn him over to an international tribunal.

MED-TV now not only has a competitor but faces other pressures as well. Its director, General Hikmet Tabak, held a meeting with the Belgian prime minister in response to rumors which he claimed were circulated by the Turkish press that MED-TV would be closed down. Tabak briefed the prime minister on the station's broadcasting principles, which he maintained are in line with European broadcasting principles. He denied accusations that MED-TV was a PKK mouthpiece, MED-TV reported on 23 February. (David Nissman)

CHALDEAN PATRIARCH TO LEAD IRAQI DELEGATION TO ROME. Raphael I Bedawid, Patriarch of Babylon, is to lead a delegation representing Christian and Muslim men of religion to the Vatican to convey the thanks of the Iraqi people to Pope John Paul II. The thanks are for the Pope's efforts to end the suffering of the Iraqi people (Arabic 23 February). Raphael I Bedawid is the Patriarch of Babylon for the Chaldeans and the World. The delegation will consist of two Muslim men of religion and a "high-ranking Iraqi official from the Foreign Ministry."

The exact time of the visit is pending as a date is yet to be fixed with the Pope, but it will probably take place at the beginning of March.

The Arab News report says that "Pope John Paul II has repeatedly called for lifting the embargo imposed on Iraq to end its isolation and expressed regret over the double-standard policy toward Iraq."

Raphael I Bedawid has traveled abroad before. He last surfaced as a signatory to the "Pastoral Letter Sent Out by the Leaders of Middle East Churches" following the Nicosia meeting on 24 January 1998. (David Nissman)