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Iraq Report: December 30, 1999

30 December 1999, Volume 2, Number 47

IS AN IRAN-IRAQ AXIS IN THE OFFING? A regular meeting between Iranian and Iraqi officials concerning the repatriation of POWs from grew into a high-level meeting between intelligence officials of both sides, according to a story published in the Paris-based, pro-Saudi news magazine "Al-Watan Al-'Arabi" on 24 December. Present at the meeting in mid-December were three Iranian intelligence officials, one of whom represented a faction in Iran led by Ayatollah 'Ali Khamene'i. The chief of the Iraqi delegation was Tahir Habbush Al-Tikriti, who ranks second only to Qusayy Saddam Husseyn.

A secret report, acquired by "Al-Watan Al-'Arabi" from Tehran, said that Al-Tikriti had come with a plan to establish a strategic alliance, "expressing Baghdad's readiness to set up an axis and a front with Iran in order to coordinate their positions at all levels and to confront the dangers of the expected U.S. onslaught in the Gulf and Middle East regions."

Owing to the nature of the proposals, the leader of the Iranian delegation decided to return to Tehran for consultations. Two days later he returned, and the two sides began to discuss ways to handle developments in the Arab-Israeli peace process, particularly the likely impact of the Syrian-Israeli talks. Both Iran and Iraq believe that a successful resolution of the Golan heights issue would be a victory for the US, something neither wants.

Each side has its own reasons for participating in such conversations. Khamene'i clearly hopes to boost his standing in advance of the Iranian elections in February. And Iraq is extremely concerned about Syria's apparent shift. But there are a large number of questions concerning these reported talks.

On the one hand, there is the very real question as to how much these two governments are prepared to rely on one another. And on the other, there are questions about the "secret report" itself. While both sides may be interested in disrupting the israeli-Syrian talks, each has its own reasons for doing so, thus limiting the potential for a real alliance. For that reason alone, the "report" may be nothing more than a Saudi message expressing Riyadh's concerns about the continuing threat posed by both Iran and Iraq. If this assumption is correct, it is probably connected with the recent meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council at which foremost on the agenda was the establishment of a unified command and control system, especially for the airforces of the member states, to reduce reliance of the American defense umbrella for the region (David Nissman)

ZHIRINOVSKY AGAIN IN BAGHDAD. During a visit to Baghdad, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Russian ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, in Baghdad for talks, came under sharp criticism for Moscow's failure to veto a UN Security Council resolution linking any easing of the sanctions to a new weapons inspection regime for Iraq. According to a 28 December Reuters report, a senior member of Iraq's ruling Ba'th Party, 'Abdul-Ghani 'Abdul-Ghafur told Zhirinovsky that "with our due respect to the abstention of Russia, China, France, and Malaysia, Russia's use of the veto was necessary to confront this resolution." (David Nissman)

IRAQI OPPOSITION HAS LOW EXPECTATIONS. According to a survey of Iraqi oppositionists conducted by London's "Al-Zaman" newspaper, most opposition leaders do not believe that the situation in and around Iraq will change much in the coming year.

'Abd-Al-Majid Kho'i, president of the Kho'i Islamic Foundation, was quoted by the paper in its 22 December edition as saying that "the Iraqi opposition factions abroad cannot crystallize their dialogue and meetings nor coordinate their action to activate their efforts, since they are scattered in different countries. All these factions without exception are, one way or the other, influenced by the policies of the host countries..."

According to Ayatollah Shaykh Muhammad Mahdi Al-Khalisi (the leader of the Islamic Movement in Iraq), "the real Iraqi opposition is limited, but it is deprived of all resources. There is an opposition in the media which has all resources available to it. In fact, this opposition is nothing but political shops."

Former Iraqi Prime Minister 'Arif 'Abd Al-Razzaq was even more scathing. He said "I do not expect anything new for the Iraqi opposition. As long as U.S. support is [its] only option, accord will not be achieved among its forces." He added that the outlook may improve if Arabic support became available.

And Kazim Habib, an academic specialist on Iraq, pointed out that "the Iraqi opposition has never been united" and that the United States' objective is one of "containing the entire Iraqi opposition." (David Nissman)

BAHRAIN-IRAQ SEA LINK REOPENS. The commercial sea link between Bahrain's port at Mina Sulman and Iraq's Umm Qasr, closed due to the sanctions, has now reopened as a result of a UN decision in September 1999. The first ship to make the 17-hour trip carriedtwo members of the Bahraini Shura. Most of the other passengers were Shiites, on their way to visit shrines in Iraq. The sea link is the second shipping line between a Gulf country and Iraq in two years. A ferry operation in Dubai and Iraq opened in November 1998. (David Nissman)

ILISU DAM CONTINUES TO GENERATE CONTROVERSY. London's announcement on 22 December that it is now prepared to provide 200 million pounds to build the Ilisu Dam in southeastern Turkey drew immediate reactions from environmental and Kurdish groups who oppose the project. That is not surprising: The dam, to be located on the Tigris River some 60 kilometers from the Syrian border, would cause the flooding of more than 50 Kurdish villages as well as potentially threaten water supplies to Syria and Iraq.

A group calling itself Peace in Kurdistan/Kurdistan Solidarity Committee is circulating a letter to be faxed by supporters to Tony Blair asking him to block the project. The group claims that forced resettlement has already emptied some villages in the area, that the total number of people likely to be displaced is unknown, and that no host areas have been identified for resettlement.

The letter further asserts that the Turkish Government has "conspicuously failed to implement its own procedures on resettlement as outlined in the GAP master plan of 1989 and that "there are serious doubts over the institutional capacity of the Turkish government to implement mitigatory environmental programs." (David Nissman)

RUSSIA TO BUILD IRAQ'S BIGGEST POWER STATION. Russia's Tekhnopromexport company has agreed to build what will ultimately be Iraq's largest power station under the "oil-for-food" program, ITAR-Tass reported on 22 December.

The station will be located 30 kilometers south of Baghdad and generate 1,680 megawatts ofpower. Tekhnopromexport had begun construction of the plant in 1988 but the imposition of sanctions in 1990 put the project on hold. (David Nissman)

KURDISH INFIGHTING "BENEFICIAL FOR BAGHDAD." An 11 December seminar sponsored by two Kurdish organizations, Kurdish Platform of Netherlands and the Kurdish Intellectuals' Association of the Hague, gave the podium to Ismail Zahir, a correspondent for the British-based Arabic newspaper "Al-Hayat", who argued that contined infighting among the Kurds "beneficial for Baghdad."

According to "Kurdish Media" of 22 December, he criticized the Iraqi administration for economic mismanagement and wide-spread human rights abuses. He also commended the Kurds for pushing out the administration of the Iraq regime in parts of Kurdistan and the establishment of the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government).

In other comments, Zahir condemned regional powers -- Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria -- because "they will never support the emergence of a Kurdish regional power." He claimed that "the aim of the regular foreign ministers' meetings is to sabotage the Kurdish experience in Iraq." And he said that the US has no clear policy on the Kurds in Iraq. (David Nissman)

ASSYRIAN CONGRESSIONAL CAUCUS FORMING IN US? Recent events have undermined earlier progress of the Assyrian cause in Iraq. Assyrians were not included in the leadership of the INC. Many Assyrians claim a wave of terror is directed against Iraqi Assyrians. And Baghdad has continued to wage its Arabization campaign against them. But these anti-Assyrian moves may now be generating additional support for the Assyrian community.

In October, US Representative Rod Blagojevich, together with California Representative Anna Eshoo and Virginia Representative Frank Wolf, sent a letter to the Department of State expressing their concern that the INC "did not include adequate Assyrian representation from legitimate Assyrian political organization", AINA reported on 18 December.

The State Department response, dated 24 November and written by Barbara Larkin, the assistant secretary for legislative affairs, said that the "INC remains very much a work in progress," adding that "we hope the Assyrians will continue to work within that movement, despite its remaining organizational shortcomings, to help lead it and strengthen it."

The letter stressed that "the United States Government does not recognize the INC as a government-in-exile"; but rather as "an important grouping of like-minded Iraqis who wish to work together, regardless of title and rank within the organization, to promote a positive change of regime in Iraq that will protect the right of all Iraqis -- most certainly including the Iraqi Assyrians."

The Assyrian lobbying effort in the United States received a tremendous boost this month when Representative Rod Blagojevich announced a plan to form an Assyrian Issues Congressional Caucasus. According to the congressman, the key to the success of an Assyrian Caucus "will be the aggressive energizing of the substantial Assyrian communities in the United States including Chicago, Detroit, Connecticut, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Modesto-Turlock, San Jose,and San Francisco into similarly engaging and supporting their congressmen. This would bring a "coalescence of like-minded congressmen" who could "form the nucleus of an even greater Congressional Caucus."

If the situation of Assyrian pressure groups in the United States appears to be improving, the situation of Assyrians with the Kurdish-controlled part of Iraq remains the same. A release from both the Ankawa Homepage on 19 December and a release from the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) on 16 December reported the assassination of an Assyrian businessman from Irbil. Ankawa said the attack was launched by "Islamic Kurdish Fundamentalists", whereas the ADM statement was less precise.

AINA's report on 25 December on the attack connects it with similar events which took place last year at Christmas. The report claims that "rather than openly investigating the scores of attacks against Assyrians, the armed tribal militias of the predominantly Behdinani KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party)and the predominantly Sorani PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) have instead intensified their efforts to intimidate vulnerable villagers and to threaten Assyrian political leaders into denying that the repeated attacks, murders, land expropriations, rapes, abductions and bombings against Assyrians actually occur." (David Nissman)

TURKMENS UNENTHUSIASTIC ABOUT NEW KRG GOVERNMENT. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) continues to be plagued by regional factionalism and ethnic disputes. When the KDP formed the new cabinet, it invited the Turkmens to participate. But even before receiving their answer, the KDP announced the new lineup, a step that has infuriated the Turkmens.

The Turkoman Front's Mustafa Ziya told "Turkish Daily News" on 27 December that "we asked for a little time to make our decision on this...but they didn't wait for our response and immediately formed the government. The new government does not represent us."

Safin Diza'i, the Ankara representative of the KRG, responded that "This is not the first instance in which we gave the Turkomans some time to think. We brought proposals to Turkomans many times in the past, but they never responded."

Ziya later expanded on his earlier statement: "Yes, it is true that they asked us to take part in the government and that we asked for some time...But without waiting for our answer, they announced the cabinet. There is nothing called 'Turkoman' in their government. The person they claim to be representing the Turkomans is their own man. The new cabinet will only serve to deepen the rifts, and also it does not fir in with the principles of the Washington Agreement."

The Assyrians, apparently, are somewhat happier with the new cabinet. An ANA report of 26 December notes that three Assyrians have been given ministerial portfolios: Younadam Y. Kanna, Minister of Industry and Power; Sarkis Aga Jan, Minister of Finance; and Hana Yousif Hana, a minister without portfolio. ANA said that "observers see this as a clear commitment by the KDP and Mr. Barzani in strengthening Assyrian participation and consolidating the historical relationship between our two peoples."

Comments by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan were only slightly more positive than those of the Turkmens. A representative of the PUK, Shazad Saib, said that "it would have been better if we had managed to form a temporary joint government to prepare the ground for the new elections. But despite everything we will continue to cooperate with the KDP to provide better services to our people."

In this context, the Sorani Kurdish PUK newspaper "Kurdistani Nuwe" reported on 27 Decmeber that Jalal Talabani, leader of the PUK, has called for municipal elections throughout Kurdistan. He further proposed that a coalition list between the PUK. the KDP and other parties should be prepared because "this will set an example for the unification of our society and the two parties' administrations in the future. It will also assure everyone that they can elect their representatives freely and democratically."

A few days earlier, a leading Turkish political commentator, Sami Kohen, observed in "Milliyet" on 24 December that "this government formed by Nechirvan Barzani only represents the region under its control and does not represent the region under Talabani control [Jalal Talabani is the leader of the PUK]. This event shows that the deep rift between Barzani and Talabani is continuing and the efforts by the US to bring them together has led nowhere."

The Turkish view is that its interests lie in not disturbing stability in the region. Turkey also feels that the KRG should be "temporary", meaning it supports the territorial integrity of Iraq. (David Nissman)