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Iraq Report: January 26, 2007

Growing Numbers Flee Sectarian Violence

By Sumedha Senanayake

The UNHCR estimates that up to 2.7 million Iraqis may be displaced by the end of 2007

January 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The ongoing sectarian violence in Iraq has created a massive refugee problem, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the UNHCR estimates that 12 percent of Iraqis have fled their homes due to violence, which it says is the largest long-term movement of people in the Middle East since the creation of Israel in 1948.

The organization also warned in a report issued on January 9 that the scale of internal displacement in Iraq is beyond the capacity of humanitarian agencies, including the UNHCR, to deal with, the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks reported.

In response to the growing humanitarian crisis, the organization has issued an appeal for $60 million in emergency aid from the international community to assist the thousands of Iraqis displaced because of the sectarian violence.

Fleeing Ethnic Cleansing In Baghdad

The epicenter of much of the sectarian violence, and by extension the source of internal displacement, has been Baghdad, where thousands of Iraqi families are fleeing mixed Sunni-Shi'ite areas for the safety of neighborhoods in which their own sect dominates.

Both Sunni and Shi'ite officials and media have been saying for some time that what has been occurring in Baghdad is sectarian cleansing. Adnan al-Dulaymi, the leader of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, asserted that Shi'ite militias are in the process of trying to turn Baghdad into a Shi'ite city, "Al-Hayat" reported on January 9.

"Shi'ite militias have driven the Sunnis away from Al-Sadr City, the Al-Amin, Ur, Baghdad al-Jadidah, and Al-Husayniyah areas as well as the areas east of the Baghdad canal, and are now moving toward the other parts of the capital and shelling Al-Sulaykh and Al-A'zamiyah with mortars," al-Dulaymi said.

At the same time, Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a prominent member of the Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance, believes that Sunni insurgents have launched a campaign to drive out the Shi'ite population in Baghdad's predominantly Sunni quarters of Abu Ghurayb, Al-Amiriyah, Al-Khadra, and Al-Durah, Al-Arabiyah satellite television reported on January 20.

Moreover, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced on January 25 that Iraqi security forces would soon begin evicting squatters from Baghdad homes they occupied illegally after the original owners were driven out. "Today or tomorrow, we will start arresting those who are living in the homes of refugees, to open the way for their return," he said.

Violence Drives Internally Displaced

The UNHCR estimates that 1.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) currently live within Iraq's borders, and that number that could reach 2.7 million by the end of 2007. Since the February 22 bombing of the Al-Askaria shrine in Samarra, which set off a wave of sectarian killings between Shi'a and Sunnis, about 432,000 Iraqis have fled their homes, Deputy Migration Minister Hamdiya Ahmad told Reuters on December 28.

The human dimension of the sectarian violence (epa)

"The main reason behind the rise of displaced families is the deterioration of the security situation and the death threats that people have received to flee their houses, in addition to the bombing of safe areas," Ahmad said.

Several Iraqi officials have said that many of the IDPs have fled to the relatively secure semi-autonomous Kurdish north. But as the number of refugees there swells, the region has begun to feel the strain.

Imad Maruf, the head of the disaster-relief program for the Iraqi Red Crescent in Irbil, said that his office has registered more than 5,000 families, or approximately 30,000 people, as refugees since 2005, Middle East Online reported on January 22.

Citing security concerns, Kurdish officials have begun to impose new restrictions on who can settle in the area, such as requiring a Kurdish sponsor for each refugee family.

"We started to impose new regulations relating to immigrants after September 2004, to secure the Kurdish region from any terrorist infiltration, which could destabilize security." said Yazgar Ra'uf, the head of the residency office in Irbil, Middle East Online reported on January 22.

Neighbors Feel The Strain

The growing number of IDPs in Iraq has also led to an influx of refugees into neighboring states. The UNHCR estimates that the number of Iraqis who have fled to neighboring states includes 500,000 to 1 million in Syria, up to 700,000 in Jordan, 80,000 in Egypt, and 40,000 in Lebanon.

However, the flood of refugees has placed a huge burden on these countries. The situation is particularly acute in Jordan, where Iraqi refugees account for 10 percent of the total population. The government has complained that the new arrivals place a huge strain on the economy.

Alex Haxton, the director of operations for World Emergency Relief, says the situation in Jordan is becoming critical, Reuters reported on January 23. "As Jordan struggles to cope with the influx of refugees crossing into the country, the cost of living within Jordan is continuing to soar," he said. "Hundreds of thousands of people within Jordan, including both Jordanians and Iraqi refugees who have sought safety within the country, are finding that their income cannot compete with the escalating cost of living."

Also, the growing number of refugees means more people are competing for limited resources and jobs, resulting in resentment among the indigenous population of the refugees. In Jordan, where 30 percent of the people live in poverty and unemployment is at 15 percent, the refugees create a potentially volatile situation.

"The welcome mat is starting to wear pretty thin in some of these surrounding countries, because they already have such a huge burden, and that is what we are concerned about, as well," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond was quoted by Voice of America on January 9 as saying.

Resettlement In U.S.?

As the conflict continues and the number of Iraqi refugees swells, some humanitarian organizations have called on the United States to take a greater role and admit more refugees. They contend that the United States has a moral duty to take in more Iraqi refugees because the U.S.-led invasion preceded the refugee crisis.

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on January 16, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Ellen Sauerbrey acknowledged that only 466 Iraqi refugees have been admitted to the United States since 2003. Human Rights Watch has called on the United States to admit 20,000 Iraqi refugees in 2007, including Iraqis who have been persecuted because of their associations with the United States.

However, large-scale resettlement in the United States may be a difficult proposition, because of the post-September 11 security precautions, anti-immigration sentiment, and "Islamophobia." Likewise, Kathleen Newland, director of the Migration Policy Institute, believes that despite a high degree of antiwar sentiment in the United States, the U.S. public has yet to see the refugee crisis as a result of U.S. actions in Iraq, "The San Francisco Chronicle" reported on January 16.

"I think people in this country don't see the United States as being the main cause of the refugee flows," Newland said. "I would guess they see it more as result of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence."

Cracking Down On Al-Sadr No Easy Task

By Sumedha Senanayake

Four people were killed in this Baghdad car bombing on January 23

January 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- On January 23, the U.S. military announced it had arrested more than 600 fighters from Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam al-Mahdi Army. Just four days earlier, Iraqi special forces backed by U.S. troops arrested senior al-Sadr aide Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji in Baghdad.

While Washington has often urged Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to rein in al-Sadr's militia, which has been blamed for much of Iraq's sectarian violence, he never seemed to make a move. Last week's crackdown, however, suggested to many that al-Maliki may have finally acquiesced to the U.S. demand.

Taking Serious Action

The initial crackdown on the Imam al-Mahdi Army by Iraqi and U.S. forces may be an indication that the militia's end is near. The mere fact that a crackdown actually occurred is important, since al-Maliki was previously unwilling to go after al-Sadr's fighters. It seems that his demands for the militia to disarm have finally been backed by tough action.

Although Prime Minister al-Maliki's current willingness to crack down seems to be genuine, if he is seen as bowing to U.S. pressure to crush al-Sadr's militia, then Iraqis -- particularly the Shi'a -- may perceive him as a weak U.S. puppet.

In addition, the lack of major public displays of outrage by al-Sadr supporters is perhaps an indication the movement does not currently have the popular support to withstand the moves against it. Previous attempts by U.S. forces to arrest high-ranking members of al-Sadr's circle provoked street protests and threats of retaliation.

Last week, by contrast, al-Darraji's arrest brought no protests or serious condemnation. In fact, the arrest was followed by what seemed to be a conciliatory gesture by al-Sadr toward al-Maliki, when al-Sadr's political faction announced that it had ended its boycott of the political process and decided to return to the Iraqi government.

Waning Public Support?

Al-Sadr may have realized that his position had reached an indefensible point and, fearing an all-out attack by U.S. forces, sought to present himself as more of an ally of the al-Maliki government and less of a pariah. Indeed, with the political process grinding to a halt, the al-Sadr movement's boycott was seen as one of the main obstacles preventing the parliament from carrying out its legislative duties.

However, despite the much-touted achievements, there are also some signs that the al-Mahdi Army crackdown is coming up short. It has been widely reported that movement leaders have ordered their fighters not to confront U.S. forces while they conduct security sweeps in Baghdad.

Baha' al-Araji, a leader in the al-Mahdi Army, told "Al-Zaman" on January 23 that militia fighters would not hinder the Baghdad security plan and would not retaliate against U.S. forces for the arrests of their comrades. The arrests of al-Darraji and the 600 militiamen did not produce any reprisal attacks.

"Al-Zaman" reported on January 15 that militiamen would temporarily disband and disappear into the populace, only to reemerge once U.S. forces have withdrawn from Iraq.

A Good Time For A Purge?

Moreover, the mass arrests of al-Mahdi Army fighters may directly benefit al-Sadr's leadership in the long run. There has been wide speculation among U.S. military officials that as the militia increased in size, it became more difficult for al-Sadr to control. It is believed that some of the militants may have broken away and formed "freelance" criminal gangs that have been operating beyond al-Sadr's control.

Al-Sadr supporters demonstrating in June 2006 against U.S. raids in Shi'ite neighborhoods (epa)

A crackdown by U.S. forces could be the ideal means by which to purge the militia of undesirable elements, resulting in a more streamlined and disciplined force.

The arrest of al-Darraji, a leading figure in al-Sadr's movement, was seen as the most explicit indication that al-Maliki's government was serious about going after the al-Mahdi Army. However, soon after al-Darraji's arrest, Iraqi government officials began sending conflicting signals concerning his detention. Sadiq al-Rikabi, an adviser to al-Maliki, criticized the raid that led to al-Darraji's capture, Al-Arabiyah satellite television reported on January 19.

"I do not think the arrest of Sheikh al-Darraji is part of the security plan," al-Rikabi said. "I would like to explain...that al-Darraji's arrest was not conducted in coordination with the Iraqi political leadership."

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the government was planning to release al-Darraji as soon as he is questioned, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on January 20. "I am not positive whether he will be released today. However, after the interrogation is over, he will be treated and released in a respectful manner," he said.

The perceived reluctance by the Iraqi government to hold al-Darraji, who is suspected of having links to illegal armed groups, in custody is perhaps an indication that the crackdown will only focus on low-level figures, while sparing the leadership.

This scenario has been seen before. On October 17, U.S. forces arrested Sheikh Mazin al-Sa'idi, a high-ranking al-Sadr aide who was suspected of leading a cell that carried out sectarian attacks against Sunni Arabs. He was quickly released at al-Maliki's behest.

A U.S. Puppet

Although al-Maliki's current willingness to crack down seems genuine, if he is seen as bowing to U.S. pressure to crush al-Sadr's militia, then Iraqis -- particularly the Shi'a -- may perceive him as a weak U.S. puppet.

While al-Sadr's militia seems to be keeping a low profile during the crackdown, Sunni insurgents have not. A double suicide bombing on January 16 at Al-Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, which has become a bastion for al-Sadr's political party, killed 70 Iraqis and wounded more than 170. Another double bombing at the Shi'ite commercial district of Al-Bab al-Sharqi on January 22 killed 78 and wounded 150.

Muqtada al-Sadr (epa file photo)

If these attacks continue, then it might be a matter of time before Shi'a demand the protection of the al-Mahdi Army. The leadership of al-Sadr's movement has continued to stress that the militia exists solely to protect Shi'ite citizens.

The al-Mahdi Army "are voluntary armed manifestations of self-defense," said the head of the Al-Sadr bloc in parliament, Naser al-Rubay'i, during a January 21 interview with Al-Jazeera satellite television. "This type of armament exists due to the government's weakness to ensure security for the citizens. The other type is terrorist armament. This type must be eliminated."

Another attack on the scale of the Al-Sadr City attack on November 23 that killed 215 people may force al-Maliki to end his hard-line policy against the militia. Worse yet, it may incite al-Sadr's followers to carry out reprisal attacks against Sunnis in the name of protecting their own.

New U.S. Commander Lays Out His Plan

By Valentinas Mite

General Petraeus testifying in the Senate on January 23

January 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Army Lieutenant General David Petraeus, U.S. President George W. Bush's nominee to become the top commander in Iraq, has outlined his strategy to crush the insurgency.

Petraeus laid out his plans for Iraq in detail on January 23 before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, which is considering whether to confirm him.

'Hard Is Not Hopeless'

"The situation in Iraq is dire," Petraeus told the senators. "The stakes are high. There are no easy choices. The way ahead will be very hard. Progress will require determination and difficult U.S. and Iraqi actions. Especially, the latter, as ultimately the outcome will be determined by the Iraqis. But hard is not hopeless."

"Should I determine that the new strategy cannot succeed, I will provide such an assessment," Petraeus promised lawmakers.

Petraeus said progress would require time, even with the help of the more than 21,000 additional troops that Bush plans to send to Iraq.

"It will take time for additional forces to flow to Iraq, time for them to gain an understanding of the additional areas in which they will operate, time for them to plan with and get to know their Iraqi partners, time for them to set conditions for the successful conduct of security operations and, of course, time for them to conduct those operations and build on what they achieve," Petraeus said. "None of this will be rapid. In fact, the way ahead will be neither quick nor easy, and there undoubtedly will be tough days."

Petraeus says he will push tens of thousands of additional U.S. and Iraqi troops deep into the capital's neighborhoods. Their task will be to root out insurgents and militias, and then maintain control of the neighborhoods as secure areas.

Results By Late Summer

Petraeus told the legislators this shift to "controlling" terrain could be risky for U.S. troops -- who until now have been based outside neighborhoods in Forward Operating Bases.

And he said that by late summer it should be clear whether the new plan is working or not. "Should I determine that the new strategy cannot succeed, I will provide such an assessment," he promised lawmakers.

Petraeus is widely considered in Washington to be the best-qualified man for the job. He has twice before held command positions in Iraq and is credited with bringing stability to the northern city of Mosul in 2004.

Petraeus, 54, is also considered to be one of the most intellectual of U.S. commanders. He has a doctorate from U.S.-based Princeton University and helped draft the Army's new counterinsurgency manual.

The general maintains that an insurgency cannot be beaten without popular support, and he stresses the need for intelligence and for the intelligent use of force. He also puts high importance on training local forces as partners.

These views are fundamental to his new plan for Baghdad.

Before moving into neighborhoods, U.S. units will assess their partner Iraqi units, meet the local leaders, and learn about the sectarian tensions specific to the locale.

Petraeus said the strategy has worked in other Iraqi cities, including Al-Fallujah and Tal Afar, where the U.S. worked to create "gated communities" to monitor and control the flow of people in and out of an area.

Turkey Keeps Nervous Eye On Kirkuk

By Sumedha Senanayake

Iraqi Turkomans protesting federalism in Kirkuk in October 2006

January 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish officials have recently voiced their concerns over the fate of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. Turkey fears that if the Iraqi Kurds annex Kirkuk into their autonomous region, they will eventually want to carve out an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq and thus stoke separatist desires in Turkey's own sizable Kurdish population.

Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution calls for a three-step process to be implemented to reverse the "Arabization" policies of the regime of former President Saddam Hussein to expel and/or displace non-Arabs in the area around Kirkuk. The article also stipulates that once the province has been "normalized," a census is to take place, followed by a referendum, which is to be carried out sometime in 2007 to determine whether the city and its environs will join the Kurdish region.

Kirkuk Conference Raises Tensions

On January 16, a two-day symposium titled "Kirkuk 2007," sponsored by the Turkish Global Strategy Institute, ended in Ankara with a final declaration calling for "the suspension of the referendum until the Iraqi Constitution is reviewed," the Ankara Anatolia news agency reported the same day.

The aim of the symposium was to discuss the future of Kirkuk with the participation of Iraqi Sunni, Shi'ite, Turkoman, Christian, and Assyrian groups. However, no representatives of Iraqi Kurdish groups were invited; the conference's organizers said the Kurds were asked to submit their views in writing.

Iraq's Turkomans, who are ethnic Turks, have voiced fears that tensions would spill over if the Kurds took control of Kirkuk. The leader of the Iraqi Turkoman Front, Sadettin Ergec, said on January 15 at the conference that due to the complex ethnic and religious makeup of Kirkuk, the referendum should be cancelled and the province be placed under the control of the federal government, Ankara Anatolia reported the same day.

"Kirkuk is not a normal province. Rather, it is Iraq's national asset. Therefore, all the Iraqis should have a say in its future and the city," Ergec said.

Several Kurdish lawmakers in the Iraqi parliament issued a joint statement denouncing the conference, "The New Anatolian" reported on January 17. "We condemn this interference in Iraqi affairs by the Turkish government [and] upon the Iraqi government and Foreign Ministry to take a decisive stance to stop this interference, and to threaten to cut political and economic relations with Turkey should Turkey continue its interference," the statement read.

Threat Of Military Intervention

The confrontational rhetoric from Turkish officials has been amplified in recent weeks as the Kirkuk referendum approaches. During a session of parliament on January 15, Turhan Comez, a leading member of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), warned that the Kirkuk referendum may lead to ethnic clashes in the city, which could force Ankara to intervene, "The New Anatolian" reported the same day.

Click map to enlarge"Turkey should announce that it will not recognize the results of a referendum on the future of Kirkuk under these conditions. And we should also announce that we are going to intervene if civil war erupts in Kirkuk," Comez said.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on January 9, "Turkey cannot stand idly by, watching the efforts to change the demographic structure of Kirkuk," the Cihan news agency reported on January 10. Erdogan's statement reflects a longstanding accusation by Turkey that Iraq's Kurds have been drastically altering the demographics of Kirkuk in an attempt to influence the outcome of the upcoming referendum in their favor.

Indeed, "The New Anatolian" reported on January 15 that Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT) had obtained information that since 2003 "an estimated 600,000 ethnic Kurdish Iraqi citizens have been moved to Kirkuk from different areas in northern Iraq and have subsequently been registered to vote in elections."

Moreover, the Turkish daily "Ortadogu" reported on January 17 that 240,000 Turkish troops deployed last March along the Iranian and Iraqi borders are awaiting orders to enter northern Iraq to go after Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters and to protect the Iraqi Turkoman population.

Crossing The Border

It is unclear whether Turkey would go so far as sending troops into northern Iraq if the Kurds continue with their drive to annex Kirkuk. Both the ruling AKP and the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) have on separate occasions asked for a closed-door session of parliament to discuss the Kirkuk situation. The session is to take place on January 23.

CHP leader Deniz Baykal indicated that an order to send troops to northern Iraq would be issued if the situation "warranted" it, "Milliyet" reported on January 16.

Iraqi Kurdish regional parliament speaker Adnan Mufti on January 19 denounced the upcoming session, calling it an attempt by Turkey to sow chaos in Iraq, Salah al-Din Kurdistan Satellite television reported the same day.

"I believe that the [Turkish] parliament's session is unnecessary. Now, since the session has become a fact, I hope that they will discuss the realities," he said.

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns moved to clarify the situation when he stressed on January 18 after a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan that the issue of Kirkuk was a matter for the "Iraqis, since they are sovereign in their country." However, as the referendum nears, tensions are bound to increase and Turkey will continue to watch northern Iraq anxiously.