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Iraq Report: May 14, 1999

14 May 1999, Volume 2, Number 19

WEEKLY NEWSPAPER CLOSED DOWN FOR "INCORRECT NEWS." A weekly newspaper, "Al-Musawir Al-Arabi," was closed down by the Iraqi cabinet, chaired by President Saddam Husseyn, for publishing "incorrect" news. The newspaper is published by Udayy Saddam Husseyn, the president's son.

On 25 April, the newspaper published a report that the Iraq Central Bank was intending to issue a large banknote. Baghdad traders and businessmen claimed that this news had led to a major fall in the value of local currency and a rise in the price of essential foodstuffs in Baghdad (Reuters, 6 May). After the Central Bank's denial of the news item, the dinar recovered slightly on foreign exchange markets. Another factor may also be in play: 'Udayy's power base may be eroding. Although there is no direct evidence of this, one only need compare the rapid ascent of his younger brother, Qusayy, with Udayy's relative anonymity over the last few months. (David Nissman)

SECTARIANISM VERSUS GEOPOLITICS: IRAQ AND KOSOVA. A CNS report filed from Jerusalem ("Zenda," 10 May) claims that Middle Eastern Christians support the Serbs against the Kosovars.The primary reason is, as Pierre Chamoun of the Chicago-based Assyrian Network, which represents the Assyrian minority in Iraq and Turkey, claims that "U.S. policy has become a slave to Arab -- and especially Saudi -- interests."

Arab sources tend to present a different, less sectarian, picture. A commentary in the Paris-based Arabic newspaper "Al-Watan Al-'Arabi" by Abd Al-Karim Abu Al-Nasr on 7 May with the title "How Did Saddam Husseyn and Milosevic Drive the Superpowers To Wage War Against Them," discusses in a comparative manner the conflicts in Kosova and Iraq. He mentions that it is difficult for a leader, either Arab or not, to embroil his country in a real war; thus, he says, in the last 10 years there have been only two major wars: Kosova and the Gulf War. He makes the observation that "both wars were aimed to strike at and foil the efforts of a regional leader who has crossed the basic red lines and sought by force to enforce his domination and dangerous political policies on his region, and to change the existing balance of forces within it."

Saddam Husseyn's Iraq posed a threat to the security and stability of, and balance of forces within the Arabian Gulf region, and Milosevic did the same in the Balkans -- the heart of Europe. As Abu Al-Nasr poses the issue, both cases involve classical geopolitics. And both cases also involve preserving the status quo.

The basic question involved in the Kosova conflict is one of ethnic cleansing, not of religion. It is odd that the Assyrian Network would not make this distinction, especially since the Assyrians of Iraq have themselves been exposed to ethnic cleansing. In fact, within the last six months, Assyrian communities in northern Iraq have been ethnically cleansed, their Assyrian populations deported elsewhere in Iraq and replaced by Arabs, and this has often been reported by Assyrian media (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 13 November 1998, and others). In the Yugoslavia of Milosevic, the Kosovars are being subject to ethnic cleansing not because they are Muslim, but because they are not Serbs.

Yet, Chamoun's analysis of America's motives in aiding the Kosovars is closely akin to that held by official circles in Iraq. Abd-Al-Mun'im Ahmad Salih, Iraq's Minister of Awqaf (religious endowments) and Religious Affairs, claimed that "America does not protect the Muslims and its interference in the Kosovo question is aimed at imposing hegemony on the world countries" (Republic of Iraq Radio Network, 10 May). The fact that he made this assertion at an expanded meeting for the chairmen and members of religious affairs committees in the governates implies that this approach will characterize Iraq's approach to the Kosova issue for the present time. The fact that the U.S. is not the only country involved in trying to resolve the Kosova issue is overlooked.

The major point in this issue of the question of sectarianism versus geopolitics was perhaps made by Professor Amatzia Baram at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on 29 April; namely, the end of the accusations directed against the U.S. for upholding a double standard in its international affairs. He said that "Saddam has long fed off a notion in the Arab world that the United States has a double standard with regard to Iraq and Israel, meaning that it bombs Iraq for its violations of United Nations resolutions, but does nothing about Israel because it is not a Muslim country." He stated that "now that the United States has come to the aid of the Muslim Kosovars against the Christian Serbians, the double standard argument has been shattered." (David Nissman)

MALAYSIA SUPPORTS IRAQ IN LIFTING OF SANCTIONS. Xinhua reported on 11 May that Malaysia has assured Iraq of its support to get the sanctions lifted. This assurance was given by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhamad to Iraqi Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan, who is visiting Malaysia. Malaysia is now a temporary member of the Security Council.

Ramadan also gave Mahathir a written message from President Saddam Husseyn. The message stated that Saddam was happy to note the friendly bilateral ties between Iraq and Malaysia and looked forward to enhancing them in the future.

Subsequently, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi claimed that "sanctions and military actions against Iraq have gone overboard in terms of the letter and spirit of the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions" ("New Straits Times," 11 May). He also said that Malaysia rejected the imposition of the no-fly zones over Iraq.

Ramadan is the most senior Iraqi leader to visit Malaysia since the start of relations between the countries 35 years ago.

Abdullah also stated that "Malaysia would continue to cooperate with Iraq under its technical cooperation program."

Following his four-day visit, Ramadan left for Hanoi. where he discussed the areas in which the two countries could intensify their cooperation such as in agriculture, communications, transportation, and oil and natural gas. It was conceded by both sides that trade relations between the two countries have not been fully exploited (Voice of Vietnam Network, 12 May).

Also, the meetings of the 13th round of the Joint Iraqi-Vietnamese Committee were held, attended by the undersecretaries of the Iraqi Ministry of Industry and Minerals, Agriculture and Finance; the Vietnamese were represented by the undersecretaries of the Ministry of Trade, Industry, Finance, and Transportation. (David Nissman)

IRAQI AIR DEFENSE COMMAND TALLIES AIR STRIKES. According to a spokesman for the Iraqi Air Defense Command, since 17 December (the beginning of operation "Desert Fox") there have been 4,863 violations of Iraqi air space from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and 1,242 violations from Turkey (Republic of Iraq Radio, 11 May). And as of 14 May there have been a total of 6,105 air strikes. (David Nissman)

IRAQ LIFTS BAN ON SHI'ITE ACTIVITY. An attempt is being made to resolve the question of Shi'ite activity in Iraq. Although Shi'ites compose more than half of the population of Iraq, they have been excluded from government and political activity by the ruling Sunni elite.

According to "well-informed and reliable Iraqi sources" ("Al-Quds Al-'Arabi," 11 May), President Saddam Husseyn has approved a political approach and mechanism whereby Shi'ites would participate in the political process within "reasonable limits" that would not pose any threat to government establishments. In essence, it means that the leadership will no longer oppose the existence of politico-religious parties that share the aspirations of other Shi'ite political groups.

At the same time, Shi'ite groups known to be linked with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led by the Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir Al-Hakim in Tehran, will continue to be monitored.

In a similar vein, the government has brought together a number of shi'ite religious figures in Baghdad and discussed the formation of a bilateral committee of moderate shi'ite and sunni 'ulama (religious scholars). Allegedly, this will permit shi'ite mosques the freedom to practice their religious rites "provided that the religious sermons in the mosques...focus on issues of national unity amongst Iraqis."

This greater toleration on the part of the regime is aimed at counterbalancing the activities of SCIRI in the south of the country where they are putting a great deal of effort into wooing the moderate shi'ite leaders allied more closely to Baghdad to their cause.

At the same time, SCIRI's offensive in the south is continuing. In Nasiriya, a Shi'ite city some 200 miles south of Baghdad, government troops, backed by tanks and artillery, have attacked four nearby villages (AP, 11 May). This area has been a hotbed of anti-government activity since the assassination of the Iraqi Shi'ite leader, the Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq Al-Sadir, on 19 February. (David Nissman)

SADDAM FORMS 'EMERGENCY MINI-CABINET.' President Saddam Husseyn has formed an emergency mini-cabinet consisting of his two sons and several senior state officials. The members of the mini-cabinet include Udayy and Qusayy, Vice Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council Izzat Al-Duri, Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan, and Lieutenant General Ali Hasan Al-Majid, also a member of the Revolutionary Command Council and former defense minister ("Al-Zaman," 12 May).

Iraqi sources say that this measure was taken "in anticipation of an escalation of the confrontation with the United States."

All members of the mini-cabinet have been granted "wide powers to confront any events in Iraq." (David Nissman)

IRAQI GENERAL TAKES RUSSIAN PAYOFF. According to the new journal published by former Iraqi military intelligence chief Wafiq Al-Samarra'i in London, Staff Major General Ismat Hammudi Muhammad, the chief of the Military Equipment and Armament Department of the Iraqi army, has been arrested on the charge of accepting commissions from Russian companies.

The General admitted accepting a payoff of some $380,000 from Russian arms companies in return for recommending to the Iraqi Defense Ministry that certain weapons be purchased. These included air defense systems, spare parts for Russian T-72 tanks, and other equipment.

Major General Ismat, under torture, confessed within 24 hours. His involvement in the payoffs was revealed after there were some "misgivings" about a "serious operation linked to the import of equipment destined for the Iraqi nuclear program" ("Al-Zaman," 10 May). Other officers were also arrested for their complicity in the affair. (David Nissman)

BRITISH, DUTCH ATTEMPT TO WIN CONSENSUS ON IRAQ POLICY IN SECURITY COUNCIL. Britain and the Netherlands have submitted proposals that they hope will bridge the political gap in the UN Security Council on Iraqi policy. According to an AFP dispatch (13 May) by Anne Penketh, a precise text aimed at securing a consensus among all 15 members could be finished as early as next week.

The new draft would pose the resumption of strict arms monitoring in Iraq, but would not call for a lifting of UN sanctions against Iraq because such a move would be vetoed by Washington.

According to Penketh, U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright has written to all 15 security council members "to urge consideration of the British and Dutch ideas as a basis to move forward.

One diplomat, asked why Iraq should cooperate with UN weapons inspectors without any incentive, such as the lifting of sanctions, stated: "We're not negotiating with Iraq." (David Nissman)

SYRIA OBJECTS TO BUILDING OF 'ELEISO' DAM. According to the British daily "The Guardian" (8 May), Syria has submitted an official objection to the British Foreign Ministry to protest British support for building the Eleiso dam in Turkey. The dam is being built on the Tigris River. "The Guardian" also reported that Jordan, too, has objected to the dam's construction on the grounds that it represents a violation of international law and will damage Iraq's rights to the waters of the Tigris.

In fact, there is no commonly accepted international law on such riparian rights. This lack of law concerning river rights is a constant concern of 'downriver' countries such as Jordan, Iraq and Syria. In this case, Turkey controls the sources of both the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers. The waters are being used as part of the Southeast Anatolian Project, which will develop the region economically. While there are agreements between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq on control of the waters concerned, the "up-river" country (Turkey) maintains the upperhand in controlling the rivers' resources (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 13 November 1998 and 29 January 1999). (David Nissman)

OCALAN ON NORTH, SOUTH KURDISTAN. Shortly before his capture by Turkey, Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), granted an interview to "Middle East Insight" (January, 1999) magazine. He was asked "What interests does the PKK have with respect to Turkey and Iraq?"

He answered that since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, north and south Kurdistan have been arbitrarily divided, and this division is without "sound basis." He claims that the "struggles in both areas are connected." He stresses the common interests of both the Kurds in Turkey and the Kurds in northern Iraq, and points out that a "positive solution" for the South affects the North, and a "negative approach by the South towards the North will aggravate the situation."

As it happens, the South, as embodied by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), definitely has taken a "negative approach" to the PKK. When Ocalan was in Italian custody, the KRG sent a memorandum to the Italian Ministry of Justice detailing the role of the PKK in "destroying public facilities, kidnapping, and killing civilians." (The text of the memorandum is available at the website of the KRG: Ocalan also appealed to Masud Barzani and Jelal Talabani on 13 December, pointing out that accusing the leadership of the PKK of terrorism brings "no advantage" (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 26 February 1999). In his appeal, he also warned them against "a second Algerian treachery," referring to the abandonment of the Kurds by Israel, the U.S., and Iran in 1975.

The KRG is making a major effort to stand on its own feet despite the PKK. The Kurdish parliament, convened in northern Iraq, has taken several major steps towards creating many of the preconditions for an autonomous existence. There is now a uniformed Kurdish army, a police organization and a central bank. Education has received great emphasis. Above all, the KRG is now printing its own stamps, and, according to Kurdistan TV, an agreement has been signed with the Turkish Postal Authority to distribute the stamps ("Hurriyet," 9 May). The point is that the KDP and PUK have been able to make these strides forward in spite of the PKK and Ocalan. The greater to success of the KRG, the more marginalized are groups like the PKK and similar national liberation movements in the region. (David Nissman)

MILITARY COUP IN IRAQ 'ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE.' In an interview granted to the London-based Arabic newspaper "Al-Hayah" in Tehran on 10 May, Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said that the previous American policy which relied on a military coup as the having the best chance of toppling Saddam Husseyn's regime was "almost impossible."

He maintained that the failure to bring about change in Iraq is an alliance between the Sunni Arabs, the Shi'ite Arabs, and the Kurds. At the same time, he claims that the "realistic and genuine opposition -- not that which is abroad -- is very strong."

The reason for Talabani's journey to Iran was business. Matters discussed included exchanges and import-export issues. He said that his delegation included "businessmen and financial experts" whose purpose was to create ties between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Islamic Republic.

"Al-Hayah" notes that the Iranians consider Talabani to be one of their key allies in Iraq and the Kurdish region. He is believed to be making overtures to other Kurdish factions based in Iran, especially the Islamic Union of Kurdistan, which has been allowed to open a representative office in Tehran for the first time since the Islamic revolution (David Nissman).