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Iraq Report: April 23, 1999

23 April 1999, Volume 2, Number 16

YUGOSLAV CHEMICAL WEAPONS: THE IRAQI CONNECTION. The Yugoslav Army has some 40 metric tons of the poison gases Sarin and mustard gas in an underground facility in Lucani, according to Zagreb's "Globus" newspaper on 16 April.. These gases reportedly are a legacy from the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY).

But the "Globus" report suggests that there may be an Iraqi connection as well. It notes that "chemists from Iraq often spent time in Lucani [south of Belgrade] just as often as former JNA [Yugoslav National Army] experts traveled to that Arab country." Yugoslav-Iraqi cooperation in the field of chemical weapons was particularly active in the early 1980s, the paper said, adding that the "SFRY had silent support for such a form of cooperation because of the war between Iraq and Iran."

After 34 years of poison gas production, the Yugoslav factory was officially closed down in 1992. The Yugoslavs tested their weaponry in Macedonia. "Globus" reports that "the ground and wild animals were contaminated without check." In Iraq, the poison gas was used on the population of several villages in Kurdistan, of which the best known incident is the village of Halabcha in 1988, wherein some 5,000-8,000 were killed and unknown thousands have or are suffering aftereffects (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 2 and 9 April 1999). (David Nissman)

BAGHDAD MOVES TO IMPROVE ARAB RELATIONS. Iraq is currently making a number of diplomatic moves to bolster its standing with other Arab countries. Particularly noteworthy are Iraqi contacts with Algeria, one of the Maghreb states which refused to join the seven-member Arab committee assigned by the Arab foreign ministers to discuss a mechanism for lifting the sanctions on Iraq (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 16 April 1999).

On 18 April, Iraqi President Saddam Husseyn congratulated Algerian President-elect Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika on his election victory and said he wants to strengthen Iraqi-Algerian ties, according to Reuters. The following day, Iraq "condemned the tendentious statements of the U.S. State Department spokesman regarding the Algerian elections, INA reported. Bouteflika in fact was declared winner of an election with only one candidate.

Iraq has also been active in the Gulf states. On 19 April, Iraq's minister of higher education, Abdu'l-Jabbar Taufiq, met his Saudi counterpart Khalid Al-Ankari "on the sidelines of an Arab education summit," AFP said. An unnamed Arab diplomat said that the meeting had no political significance because "no bilateral issues were discussed." Iraq and Saudi Arabia broke off relations in 1991.

At the same time, Iraqi Finance Minister Hikmat Mezban Ibrahim arrived at Doha, Qatar, to attend a meeting of Arab financial institutions. While Qatar signed a defense agreement with the United States following the 1991 war, it has become increasingly critical of British and U.S. policy toward Iraq since "Desert Fox" began.

There is a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in May, and Iraq hopes to win support there. Baghdad is much involved in some preliminary meetings, and GCC Secretary-General Jamil Al-Hujailan said that these meetings "are pursuing their efforts on several issues, notably the situation in the Gulf and in Iraq."

Baghdad representatives were also able to meet with with Arab parliamentary delegations at the Brussels meeting of the Interparliamentary Union. Speaking on Baghdad radio, Dr Sa'dun Hammadi, National Assembly speaker, said that the purpose of these meetings was "to coordinate views in order to arrive at an Arab stand in solidarity with Iraq, particularly with respect to the unjust blockade imposed on it."

Iraq's attempts to regain its position among the Arab countries began two months ago when Yemeni Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Abd Al-Qadir Ba-Jammal was able to reach an agreement with Iraqi Foreign Minister Muhammad Sa'id Al-Sahhaf to stop Iraq's media campaign with neighboring and other Arab countries, according to "Al-Hayah" on 22 February. And Baghdad clearly hopes that a large number of relatively low-level contacts will help more than a few high-profile events. (David Nissman)

IS AN ORGANIZED OPPOSITION EMERGING INSIDE IRAQ? Recent reports in London's Arabic-language press suggest that an organized opposition to Baghdad's current government may be forming inside Iraq. The appearance of such a group or movement has long been viewed as a precondition for toppling Saddam Husseyn.

"Al-Quds Al-Arabi" on 15 April reported that it had received a fax from one such group, the Iraqi Democratic Arab Movementn (IDAM). Signed by five members of a preparatory committee, IDAM calls for "constructive" cooperation of all Iraqi national parties to topple the "ugly dictatorship in Baghdad," establish national unity, evolution without foreign tutelage, an end to the embargo, an end to "continuing foreign military aggression on Iraq," democracy, and respect for human rights. Such a platform suggests that IDAM may be either a front group for Saddam Hussein's government or a naive grouping of people with little understanding of the problems they face.

A second movement reportedly also has surfaced. Called "National Options," this group plans to prepare a memorandum addressed to the presidency aimed at "dealing with the Iraqi crisis at home and abroad," "Al-Zaman" reported on 15 April. Whatever the origins of this group, it has not passed without notice from the Iraqi authorities: reportedly, "security organs have arrested over 30 Iraqi national figures including former minister Nizar Al-Tabaqjali and several retired officers, and have also begun questioning former Communist leader Majid Abd-Al-Rida."

But "Al-Zaman" suggests that opposition to Saddam Husseyn may nonetheless be growing: It points to the emergence of what it says is "a new phenomenon in Baghdad." This is the growth of cultural salons which provide forums for intellectuals and national figures to discuss the general situation in Iraq and look for ways out of the Iraqi political crisis. A potentially interesting aspect of this development involves a number of people who have recently left the ruling Ba'th Party. Summoned by the security organs and questioned about their reasons for doing so, they have been given the choice of returning to the party or being branded elements opposed to the regime. That they are given a choice suggests that there could soon be a split in party ranks. (David Nissman)

BA'TH PARTY ORGANIZES INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE. An international conference is to be held in Baghdad on 1 May under the slogan "The Aggression and Siege on Iraq: An Arab and an International Issue," INA reported on 21 April. The foreign office of the Arab Socialist Ba'th Party said the invitations were sent out to "numerous foreign parties and political figures in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Russia."

This meeting is to focus on such questions as "U.S. aggression on Iraq in 1991 and the latest episodes of the evil U.S.-British aggression of 17 December 1998, as well as the imposition of no-fly zones in the northern and southern areas of Iraq."

The Ba'th Party reportedly believes such a session is necessary "because it is no longer possible to rely on the non-aligned movement which has no role in the face of the United States, AFP reported on 21 April. (David Nissman)

'WORST DROUGHT IN FIFTY YEARS' HITS IRAQ. Iraq is suffering under the effects of what could be "the worst drought in 50 years," a senior UN official told AP on 19 April. As a result, water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers have dropped so low that people can cross them on foot. But more importantly, wheat, barley and rice yields this year will be some 75 percent less than last year. And this drought is at least partly to blame for the hoof and mouth disease epidemic in the country. In response, Baghdad is expected to impose strict water rationing.

This drought may also reopen debate among Iraq, Syria, and Turkey over control of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. If so, the lack of water could trigger greater regional tensions. (David Nissman)

IRAQ FLEECES IRANIAN PILGRIMS. Iranian tourists who fly to Syria to visit Syrian Shi'ite pilgrimage sites who intend to go on from Damascus to visit the Shi'ite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq now have to pay double the amount in the past.

Formerly, the charge was $450 from Damascus to Karbala; now it is between $900 to $950, "Jomhuri-ye Eslami" reported on 19 April. An Iranian source in Damascus says the Iraqi Al-Hoda company, managed by Saddam's son Uday, is generally responsible for the visits of Iranian pilgrims. A recent communication from this company to Syrian travel agencies announced that they should observe the new higher rates. The way it breaks down is $600 is paid to the Iraqi state plus $100 for the visa, and $150 for the ticket and food. Furthermore, each pilgrim must exchange $50 into Iraqi dinars at the border.

The Islamic Republic of Iran considers the visit of these pilgrims to the sacred cities of Iraq to be illegal. Iraqi law does not protect the Iranian tourists either, but Baghdad currently makes about a million dinars from every pilgrim. (David Nissman)

IRAQI ARMOR ADVANCES ON KURDISTAN BORDER. Iraq reportedly is massing troops on the periphery of Iraqi Kurdistan to prevent the area from being used as a base for opposition attacks on Baghdad, according to AFP on 18 April. According to the report in "Al-Hayah," which AFP cites, Iraqi officials in Amman said the troops would "respond firmly" to all "American projects" aimed at transforming Kurdistan into an opposition base.

Iraqi Kurdish sources, "Al-Hayah" said on 20 April, report that the movements of some Republican Guard units and some armored brigades on some major salients leading to the Kurdistan region are a message from Saddam Husseyn to both the Kurds and the opposition. But these sources maintained that the conditions that paved the way for the Republican Guards' entrance to the region in 1996 no longer exist, primarily because the feud which had existed between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan has been resolved.

Surveillance and intelligence units of Kurdish armed organizations are supposedly monitoring the movements of the Iraqi forces, which are now some 35 kilometers from Erbil, a major Kurdish city within the Kurdistan Regional Government. Other Iraqi armored units are approaching the Sulaymaniyah Governorate. (David Nissman)

ILNUR CEVIK ON KTV: "TURKEY DID NOT SAY NO." Since the shutdown of MED-TV (a pro-Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] station formerly broadcasting from England and Belgium) last month, the new television station of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has a chance to gain a large audience share by default.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) announced that it would launch a satellite television station to its audience in northern Iraq (AP, 29 December 1998 and "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 8 January 1999). Its purpose was to counterbalance PKK propaganda broadcast over MED-TV aimed at the KRG as well as to provide its audience with Kurdish entertainment.

As recently as 4 February, "The Washington Post" said that this station was being constructed with at least Turkey's connivance. Another report that same month ("Kurdistan-Rundbrief," 4 February, reported through "Arm The Spirit," 23 February) claimed that the station was being financed from oil smuggling profits.

A recent interview with Ilnur Cevik, one of the Turkish planners behind KTV, casts both light and shadow over the development of KTV: light because he provides new details on KTV, shadow because some of his statements may be in dispute by the current management of KTV.

In an interview with "Turkiye" on 11 April, Ilnur Cevik explained how he became involved with the KTV project: "The Barzani administration (KDP) made a decision on the television project two years ago. They realized that MED-TV was hurting them. Their goal was psychological. The KDP sees the PKK as a rival in its region. It sees the PKK as a serious threat. They were upset that the PKK entered northern Iraq and established a presence in three traditionally KDP areas. They were concerned that the PKK wants to become the leader of the Kurds in those areas and leapfrog ahead of them."

Since the KDP, like many countries in Europe, considers MED-TV to be a mouthpiece for the PKK, they had to take into consideration that up until now MED-TV has had a virtual monopoly position--it was the only Kurdish broadcaster in the world and, thus, commanded the entire Kurdish audience. Cevik gives his view of the situation as perceived by the KDP: "The KDP have a serious problem. The PKK is recognized in Europe even though it is considered a criminal organization. When I talked to Barzani recently, he described how the PKK is organized. When Ocalan was captured in Africa, he was put on a Turkish plane at 2 a.m. in Nairobi, Kenya. In less than two hours this event was broadcast in Europe, and protests began at 5 a.m."

"Turkiye" asked Cevik about the balance of power between the PKK and the KDP, and how a television would help in this conflict.

He responded that Barzani "is fighting against the PKK. The PKK knows that it cannot gain dominance in northern Iraq without destroying such stations" as KTV. In this context, Turkey and Barzani's KDP have a common interest. The KDP "wants to eradicate the PKK with Turkey's assistance...The PKK is a threat not only to Turkey but also to the Kurds in Iraq. It is also a threat to the Kurds in Syria and Iran. The defense mechanism Barzani wants to build includes a television station. They think this would be a countermeasure against the threat posed by MED-TV. They are aware of the size of the audience MED-TV enjoys. They are aware of its influence. They want to attract that audience to the television station they want to start." Cevik was asked if Turkish approval for this aid to the Kurds was required, and he answered in the affirmative.

The cost of the project, as envisaged at its inception, was estimated to be between $6-7 million. A preliminary survey was conducted to ascertain the physical needs of KTV--buildings, technical equipment, and studio requirements.

Construction was begun and the electronic equipment purchased. Then, according to Cevik, the KDP ran out of money after only $2 million had been spent. Allegedly, this was because one of the allied bombing raids had hit an oil pipeline, which terminated the flow of oil northward. This, in turn, affected the revenues collected in the KRG as customs duties for the oil going by truck to Turkey, and transit fees for the pipeline. As a consequence, Cevik and his team were compelled to withdraw from the project. (David Nissman)

CORRECTION: A study of chemical weapons exposure in Iraqi Kurdistan reported in "RFE/RL Iraq Report" of 9 April was based on what was purported to be a press release by the Washington Kurdish Institute. The WKI advises that it did hold discussions on these issues at a U.S. State Department sponsored seminar in November 1998 but that it did not issue a press release on this. Further, WKI disassociates itself from the unauthorized dissemination of information about such discussions.