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Iraq Report: February 22, 2007

Neighboring States Call For Help With Refugees

By Kathleen Ridolfo

A thousand Iraqis are estimated to flee their homes every day (file photo)

February 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Syrian and Jordanian officials have asked for international help in dealing with the growing numbers of Iraqi refugees seeking refuge inside their borders. While exact numbers are not known, it is estimated that there are up to 1 million Iraqis now living in Syria, and nearly the same amount in Jordan.

The United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Egypt, and Lebanon also host large numbers of Iraqi refugees. Observers have called the crisis the largest Arab exodus in the Middle East since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

The Iraq refugee crisis, highlighted by the regional tour of UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres last week, received wide press coverage in the region both in print media and satellite television. Much of the focus was on the enormous financial and social burdens caused by the influx of refugees and debate over who will bear the costs of supporting them.

Economic Strain On Jordan

The Amman-based "Jordan Times" noted on February 12 that Jordan, which has historically hosted thousands of Palestinian refugees, did so with financial support from the international community. "For some reason, Jordan is now left to cope alone with the heavy burden of accommodating tens of thousands of Iraqis. This happens at a time [when] Jordan has to adjust for losing the Iraqi market for exports [Iraq was Jordan's biggest trade partner] and the Iraqi oil, which, for 12 years, was flowing at favorable terms," the daily reported.

Wealthy Iraqis have also disrupted the real-estate market, making it more difficult for average Jordanians to afford housing. "The extra demand on consumer products, especially fruit and vegetables, raised their prices sharply," it noted, not to mention the strain on the country's security services.

While the daily and many others said they would not advocate closing the borders to Iraqi refugees, they stressed the need for their countries to be compensated for the burden of supporting the influx.

There was also criticism in the media about a U.S. announcement last week that it would grant asylum to some 20,000 Iraqis, in that the figure was too low. However, there was little discussion of the February 5 announcement by the State Department's Iraq Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons Task Force.

Thousands Flee Monthly

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said last week that an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Iraqis are leaving their homes monthly, prompting the UNHCR to issue an emergency appeal for $60 million in international aid. The UNHCR also called for the convening of an international donor conference for refugees in April. Iraqi parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani issued a similar appeal on February 11, saying a conference should be organized to address funding for states that take in refugees.

Refugee camp outside Al-Nasiriyah (epa file photo)

Al-Mashhadani also said a parliamentary commission would be formed to discuss the issue with Arab and European states. He also recommended the Iraqi government allocate a portion of its emergency budget to aid refugees and displaced persons. There are an estimated 1.7 million Iraqis displaced from their homes inside the country.

Iraqis have been fleeing the country in growing numbers since 2003. Until now, many of those displaced outside Iraq's borders had not registered with the UN. Families with the financial means were some of the first to take up residence in neighboring states, buying homes, opening businesses, or joining the workforce.

The less fortunate ended up in slums, with many begging on the streets. While the influx of Iraqis in many ways benefited the economies of countries like Jordan and Syria, it also placed an enormous burden on them, with negative impacts on their infrastructure and society.

Iraqis Overwhelming Damascus

The UNHCR on February 9 quoted Syrian authorities as saying the influx of refugees, many of whom are in Damascus, has led to a huge strain on schools, medical facilities, and other social services, and has driven up rents and other prices in the capital. The effect is much the same in neighboring Jordan.

A decision by the Syrian government last month to regulate the number of Iraqis entering the country prompted demonstrations by scores of refugees, and garnered the attention of international organizations.

That decision has reportedly been reversed, at least for the time being, following a visit by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Guterres to the region. The threat of deportation, however, has prompted thousands of refugees to seek official status. Over a two-day period this week, UNHCR staff provided applications to over 5,000 people in Damascus, the agency reported.

International Assistance

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is slated to meet with Guterres to discuss the U.S. role in the crisis on February 14. A gathering of EU justice and home affairs ministers is expected to address the issue the next day.

Sweden's EU Affairs Minister Cecilia Malmstroem has already called on EU states to share the burden of refugees who make it to Europe more equally; Sweden currently takes in more than half of all Iraqi asylum seekers that come to Europe -- 9,065 in 2006, according to

It is a generally accepted figure that some 2 million Iraqis have left Iraq since 2003, though the exact numbers could be far higher. Once refugees are registered, the UNHCR will have a better idea of the number of displaced they are dealing with. However, a true number may still be difficult to come by, as it will not include the number of Iraqis living outside the country that have not sought assistance.

Samarra Bombing Set Off Year Of Violence

By Kathleen Ridolfo

The shrine in Samarra following last year's attack

February 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- On February 11, the Iraqi government commemorated the first anniversary of the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra. The February 22, 2006, bombing marked an escalation in sectarian tensions between Iraq's Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs that has yet to subside. February 11 coincides with the anniversary of the attack according to the Islamic calendar.

Few could have expected before the attack that fellow Muslims would go so far as to destroy a holy shrine. To Iraq's Shi'a, the attack struck at the heart of their faith, and was more devastating than even the assassination of their revered Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who was killed in an August 2003 car bombing outside the Imam Ali Mosque in Al-Najaf. That attack was blamed on Ba'athist insurgents.

The Samarra bombing, blamed on Sunni insurgents, appeared to be a response to the growing strength of the Shi'a in Iraq. It came as Iraqi political groups were locked in tough negotiations over the composition of the incoming, Shi'a-led, permanent government.

Sectarian Violence Affects Government

As winners of the December 2005 elections, the main Shi'ite alliance was pushing to secure Ibrahim al-Ja'fari's leadership of the government, much to the chagrin of Sunni Arabs and Kurds, who viewed the outgoing prime minister with disdain due to his poor leadership. A national-unity government, the detractors surmised, was the only way forward.

While Sunni Arabs and Kurds succeeded in their bid for a national-unity government, repercussions from the bombing, seen in the growing distrust between Sunnis and Shi'a, hung over the new government and prevented much progress from being made.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, reprisal attacks were carried out against Sunni Arab mosques, political parties, and individuals. The bodies of Sunni Arab men, kidnapped, tortured and killed, began showing up on the streets of the capital with increasing frequency -- the apparent work of Shi'ite death squads rumored to be linked to the government.

In June, the Iraqi government announced it had arrested a member of a seven-man cell that was allegedly responsible for the bombing. The man, a Tunisian identified as Abu Qudamah, said the cell was led by Samarra-born Haytham Sabah Shakir Mahmud al-Badri. The other members included four Saudis and two Iraqis, national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i said at the time. Before 2003, al-Badri was linked to the Hussein regime. He was subsequently linked to the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army and the Al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq.

The government announced on September 3 that it had arrested Al-Qaeda in Iraq's No. 2, Hamid Juma al-Saidi, who they said helped plan the attack.

Premier Says Muslim Leaders Should Have Done More

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki marked the anniversary on February 11 with a statement saying the bombers attempted to sever national unity with the attack, but failed thanks to the response of patriotic political forces and the Shi'ite leadership in Al-Najaf.

Shi'a commemorate the Samarra bombing in Karbala on February 12 (epa)

And he said that while Islamic leaders across the world condemned the attack, they could have done more to prevent the bloodshed that followed in ensuing months.

"We firmly believe that the booby-trapped cars and the belts of death would not have claimed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians throughout the past year had these authorities issued a religious fatwa [edict] declaring the parties that carried out the Samarra crime to be in violation" of Islam and ruling that "joining these deviant groups is religiously prohibited," al-Maliki contended.

In Al-Najaf last week, Shi'ite cleric Ahmad al-Safi asked Friday Prayer worshippers to take part in a demonstration marking the anniversary in Karbala on February 12. Al-Safi is a representative of Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Al-Safi also criticized al-Maliki's administration, saying it had not done enough to stem sectarian violence. "The government should tell the Iraqi people about who is blocking the way of conducting the security plan and we demand that the government not reveal details of the plan," he added in an apparent reference to press reports that details of planned operations under the Baghdad security offensive have been made public.

Ayatollah al-Sistani said in a statement posted to his website on February 11 that the bombing plunged Iraq into a cycle of blind violence. "We call on the believers as they mark this sad occasion and express their exercise maximum levels of restraint and not to do or say anything that would harm our Sunni brothers who are innocent for what happened and who do not accept it," the cleric said.

Caught Off-Guard

The decision of the Iraqi government to commemorate the anniversary of the bombing according to the Islamic calendar, which moves 11 days ahead each year, came as a surprise to many observers. It is likely that the Shi'ite-led government chose the Islamic calendar over the Gregorian calendar as a means of underscoring the attack's impact on Sunni-Shi'ite relations in Iraq.

Whether intended or not, the use of the Islamic calendar served another purpose -- with the announcement of the commemoration coming late in the day, Sunni Arab insurgents were deprived of the opportunity to mark the anniversary with similar attacks, while Shi'ite militias were also deprived of the opportunity to launch revenge attacks.

Security Analyst Discusses Accusations Against Iran

A U.S. Abrams tank on patrol in Baghdad (file photo)

February 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials in Iraq say they have evidence Iran is providing weapons and technology for powerful roadside bombs being used by some Shi'ite militia units to attack coalition troops. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke to weapons expert David Claridge, managing director of Janusian Security Risk Management in London, about how the bombs work and why U.S. officials make a direct link to Iran -- a link Tehran rejects.

RFE/RL: U.S. officials are not the first to make charges that Iran is connected to the most powerful roadside bombs -- in military jargon the "explosively formed penetrators" -- being used with deadly effect against coalition armored vehicles in Iraq. Could you recapitulate a bit the history of this story?

David Claridge: My first recollection of their use was against a private security company in the [Al-Basrah] area and then, fairly rapidly afterward, against British security military patrols there. And, to my recollection it was the British MOD [Ministry of Defense] that first highlighted, first of all, the use of the weapons, but also their potential connection to Iranian technology.

RFE/RL: These bombs have taken many British and U.S. lives since they were introduced. And many observers say their use has increased as U.S. forces, in particular, have put heavier armor on their vehicles to cope with the less powerful improvised explosive devices that characterized earlier phases of Iraq operations. Could you describe just how these bombs -- which are shaped to send a high-explosive charge directly into their target -- work?

Claridge: Effectively, it is an explosive charge within a tube which has a metal cap, usually a copper cap, and the enormous pressure of the explosion within the tube liquidizes the copper or other metal and, as it is forced out of the tube, it forms a liquefied, high-speed projectile which can pierce armor.

RFE/RL: Are these bombs improvised -- that is, being made in Iraq -- or are they coming direct from munitions factories, for example, in Iran?

It is not only in respect to shaped charges that the Iranians are suspected of playing a part in the conflict in Iraq. The use of intelligence, the use of training, the use of funding to support the Shi'ite portion of the war in Iraq is something that the Americans have had considerable concern about for some time.

Claridge: These devices can be constructed in an improvised fashion, but they do require the use of high explosives, which, obviously, is not always easy to acquire. And the knowledge of the technology and the triggering devices necessary is, I think, what the area of concern is and why there is a link made back to a state -- in this case Iran -- because of the level of sophistication involved in the knowledge and construction, rather than it necessarily being built in a munitions factory.

RFE/RL: There has been much prior attention to the sophistication of not just the bomb design, but the fact it is often triggered by equally sophisticated laser or infrared devices, so the bomb explodes exactly at the moment a vehicle is passing by and is most exposed. Similar technology is used by the Iran-supported Shi'ite Hizballah in Lebanon, and this, too, is often cited as evidence for an Iranian connection in Iraq. Do you agree with this?

Claridge: Well, the triggering device could be one of a number of things, and a charge of this nature could be set off manually, and it could be set off using a radio frequency, but the specific level of concern -- and this is where the issue about technology transfer comes in -- is around the use of laser or infrared triggering devices.

RFE/RL: As you have said, these kind of "shaped charges," and coalition concerns over Iranian involvement, have been around for some two years already. On February 11, U.S. officials added some new details, such as saying the weapons arrive in Iraq in the form of what they described as a "kit" containing high-grade metals and highly machined parts -- like the concave-shaped metal cap that penetrates the target. But if much of this story is not new, why is Washington warning Iran so publicly now?

Claridge: It is not only in respect to shaped charges that the Iranians are suspected of playing a part in the conflict in Iraq. The use of intelligence, the use of training, the use of funding to support the Shi'ite portion of the war in Iraq is something that the Americans have had considerable concern about for some time. And by bringing this into the open, they are, I guess seeking, to bring some level of international pressure to abate that.

RFE/RL: One irony in this situation is that the main Shi'ite militias are arms of the Shi'ite religious political parties that participate in the government in Baghdad. To what extent are the political parties themselves involved as Washington charges Iran with transferring deadly technology for attacks against coalition forces?

Claridge: My personal view is that there probably is some degree of connection between Iranian forces and Iranian political representatives and the political components of the main Shi'ite parties, but that the transfer of technology and the contacts between Iranian agents, if you like, and individual Shi'ite militia groupings on the ground is probably rather more ad hoc. So you have got some central direction, but also connection with Shi'ite militias who may be allied very closely, or officially part of, the larger Shi'ite militias, but which also act to some extent in their own territorial and political interest.