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Iraq Report: March 16, 2007

Former Premier Pushing New Plan For Reconciliation

By Kathleen Ridolfo

Iyad Allawi (file photo)

March 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is currently courting Iraqi political parties and blocs in an attempt to forge a new national-unity government.

Allawi has criticized the government of current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for its sectarian nature and claims he has a plan to end sectarianism in Iraq. He says he has presented his plan to the United States, Britain, and regional states, and has received positive responses. There are suggestions, however, that it is short on substance and is little more than an attempt to grab the reins of power.

Supporters of Allawi's plan have all complained that their parties have been shut out of decision-making processes within al-Maliki's government. While several parties hold high-level seats, their leaders say that power rests in the hands of a small group of Shi'ite leaders who control key facets of the government.

The End Of Quotas?

A key element of Allawi's plan is to form a national-unity government not based on sectarian quotas. He has said that he supports the appointment of qualified persons based on competence rather than affiliation. It is debatable, however, whether Iraq's political parties are mature enough -- or patriotic enough -- to put the country's interests over their own aspirations. Moreover, Allawi's own track record offers little promise of change: his interim administration was based on quotas.
"They [the government] want to marginalize us for many reasons, including the fact that we differ with them over the issues of militias, the sectarian-sharing system, and the building of the modern state."

Allawi supporter Izzat al-Shabandar told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in January that a "sectarian spirit controls the political process in Iraq because the Shi'ite community's amirs are clinging to power, since they believe this is their right that they lost several centuries ago, while the Sunnis' amirs fear the Shi'a control over everything." While many believe al-Maliki himself is not sectarian, they are not confident in his ability to fashion a nonsectarian government.

Allawi told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on January 20 that part of the problem in Iraq today is that the government does not want to amend de-Ba'athification (al-Maliki has promised to review the de-Ba'athification process). Meanwhile, former Ba'athists do not want to sit at the table with the current government because they do not recognize it as legitimate, he said. Allawi has met regularly with former Ba'athist and "resistance" leaders since 2004.

He then told Al-Iraqiyah television on February 27 that he has lobbied with the U.S. military to release several supporters of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, as well as former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad, who he said had cooperated with the United States and Iraqi parties "before and during" the 2003 war. Hashim is currently being tried in the Anfal case for crimes against the Kurds.

As for his Iraqi National List, Allawi said, "They [the government] want to marginalize us for many reasons, including the fact that we differ with them over the issues of militias, the sectarian-sharing system, and the building of the modern state." He added: "We also differ with them on the issue of Iraq's Arab and Islamic affiliation. We believe that Iraq is part of the Arab and Islamic nations. It appears that the government and many other parties do not want Iraq to have an Arab or an Islamic wing." Because of his bloc's position, several of its members have been targeted for arrest, he added.

Political Maneuvering

Allawi's plan emerged some weeks after "moderate" parties attempted their own restructuring of the political landscape, according to Arab media reports. Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi said attempts were made in December to bring together his Iraqi Islamic Party, the Kurdistan Coalition, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and al-Maliki's Al-Da'wah Party. "Al-Maliki was unable to persuade the party to join because of its alliance" with al-Sadr's supporters, al-Hashimi told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on January 18.

Al-Abadi said it needs to be determined who is responsible for the violence (epa file photo)

Parliamentarian and Al-Da'wah member Haidar al-Abadi told the daily in a separate interview published the same day that his party's refusal to join was based on the fact that it believes in the current political process, while other parties do not. He accused the disgruntled parties of having no vision, and said al-Maliki is committed to political reconciliation.

"The prime minister [al-Maliki] has sent envoys to Cairo, Amman, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries.... The envoys have met with Ba'athist groups and other groups that are far from the Ba'ath [Party]. The only party they did not meet with is Al-Qaeda," al-Abadi said.

All those parties claimed they wanted a role in the political process, al-Abadi said, adding: "But the problem is that we should determine...who is responsible for the acts of violence. So far, this has not been determined." He noted that some of the parties claimed to represent armed groups but those groups turned out to be small and uninfluential.

In addition, the government was unwilling to meet demands that the political process go back to square one -- a demand that Allawi appears to be advocating at the moment. Al-Maliki's alternative, it appears, will come in the form of his upcoming cabinet reshuffle.

The 'Plan' Takes Shape

Allawi told the Amman daily "Al-Dustur" in an interview published on January 22 that the plan has four points: declaring martial law for a period of two years; forming a ministerial security group headed by a competent, nonsectarian prime minister and including the ministers of defense, interior, national security, and justice, along with the head of the intelligence service; working to build national institutions, combat militias, and purge state institutions of those militias; and holding a UN-sponsored regional conference similar to the Sharm el-Sheikh conference that was held in November 2004.

The Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference would co-sponsor the conference. Allawi told the daily he has elicited and received the support of Jordan's King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Allawi has said he also advocates bringing troops from Arab countries -- though not including Iraq's neighbors -- to maintain security in Iraq. The same idea was floated under Allawi's interim government, but was opposed by several political parties.

Allawi spokesman Ibrahim al-Janabi told "Al-Dustur" on January 20 that the former prime minister presented his plan to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as an alternative to the Baghdad security plan during a recent meeting in Baghdad and that Rice welcomed the plan.

Regarding Iraq's neighbors, Allawi told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television on February 27, "Syria and Saudi Arabia are ready to help Iraq," and "Iran is likely to contribute to Iraq's stability."

Support Forms Behind Allawi

Sunni Arab politician Salih al-Mutlaq told RFE/RL last week that several political parties would support Allawi's national-unity front. "There were about 32 political groups in it. At that time, Al-Tawafuq [the Iraqi Accordance Front] was part of it, Allawi's group was part of it, Al-Fadilah, some of the Sadrists, the Ba'athists, the old army leadership, the Arab tribe organizations, some influential political groups from the south, especially [Ayatollah Mahmud al-Hasani] al-Sarkhi's group, the [Iraqi] Turkoman Front, the Kurdish movement, apart from the two Kurdish parties. So we only excluded the two Kurdish parties -- to be negotiated with them later because they have their own project, which is a non-Iraqi project nowadays.... And we excluded SCIRI because it's looking for sectarianism in Iraq and its aim is to divide Iraq."

Al-Dulaymi at the March 6 press conference (epa)

Adnan al-Dulaymi, the head of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the major Sunni bloc, announced at a March 6 press conference in Baghdad that his front intended to join Allawi's new front, which would be called the Iraqi National Front. Later that day, he told Al-Sharqiyah television: "Correcting the course of the Iraqi political process is the demand of all Iraqis. Everybody wants the course of the political process to be corrected."

The next day, the Al-Fadilah Party withdrew from the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance. "We consider the first step of saving Iraq is to dismantle these blocs and to prevent blocs [from] forming on a sectarian basis," Al-Fadilah leader Nadim al-Jabiri told reporters. The party has yet to announce whether it intends to join Allawi's front.

Wooing The Kurds

Allawi has been rumored to be courting the two major Kurdish parties in recent press reports. Al-Iraqiyah spokesman Izzat al-Shahbandar told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that Allawi discussed the front when he and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad visited Kurdistan region President Mas'ud Barzani, who heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party, during the first week of March. Allawi also reportedly met with representatives of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan the same week.

The fact that Allawi and Barzani are now both in Saudi Arabia is no coincidence, al-Shahbandar said. "I believe that this visit was coordinated so as to have both Allawi and President Barzani in Riyadh....within the framework of the joint efforts of Dr. Allawi and President Barzani to back the Iraqi national plan," he noted.

Should Allawi succeed in forming his front with the support of the Iraqi Accordance Front (44 parliamentary seats), the Kurdistan Coalition (55 seats), and Al-Fadilah (15 seats), he will prove a strong rival to the current government. Allawi aide Falah al-Naquib told London's "The Times" that with Al-Fadilah and the Kurds, the front should have 140 of the 275 seats in parliament, the daily's website reported on March 14. The ruling Shi'ite alliance currently has 113 seats following the departure of Al-Fadilah.

A Step Back

The problem with Allawi's plan is that in essence, he advocates a step backward. His call for the imposition of martial law equates to a call for a prime minister, heading a war council, with unique powers that essentially cannot be checked by other governmental bodies. Two elements of the plan -- Arab troops and de-Ba'athification -- are likely to be greeted by Sunni Arab groups but encounter stiff resistance from Shi'ite political parties, meaning he would trade one opposition for another.

The participation of the Arab League, which has never proven to be an effective body, will produce little change, and again, satisfy the Sunni Arab groups and agitate the Shi'a. In addition, opinion polls show that public support for Allawi is about equal to that for al-Maliki.

A more productive alternative might be to work with al-Maliki to amend the current political landscape, which will help bring about the required policy changes.

Allawi told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television on February 27 that he supports al-Maliki, but needs to see changes made in the prime minister's administration. Allawi said al-Maliki told him privately that he is against militias and power sharing. "If [al-Maliki] tries to entrench the power-sharing system, we will not stand by him," Allawi said, adding, "If the policy of exclusion, punishment, and the use of militias continues, we will not be able to take part in the executive authority."

Views Of Security Conference Reflect Sectarian Divide

By Kathleen Ridolfo

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki addressing the March 10 conference

March 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The March 10 Baghdad security conference was hailed as a success by Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who labeled the meeting "constructive and positive." But other observers tended to view the event through the prism of the country's sectarian divisions.

Zebari said he was pleased with the substance of the meeting, telling reporters at a March 10 press briefing following the conference that neighboring states were eager to support Iraq, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. He also hailed the meeting as a first step to better relations between the United States and Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Syria.

Zebari later told London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that the conference sent a positive message that Iraq can act successfully and that life in the country is not as bleak as some imagine.

MORE: RFE/RL spoke with Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi.

The Iraq government's consensus was that the conference was important because it was held in Baghdad, meaning it was a recognition of the political process that resulted in the current, elected government and a show of solidarity with the Iraqi people. It was also the first such high-level meeting to take place in Baghdad in 17 years, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Rafi al-Isawi said.

Few Concrete Results

The conference produced few concrete results though. Conference participants decided to form three committees to tackle security cooperation; refugees and displaced Iraqis; and fuel and energy imports for Iraq.

Zebari said he expects it will take some time to see results from Iraq's neighbors, since the committees will discuss and review neighbors' previous commitments before any new actions are taken, RFI reported.

A follow-up meeting will likely be held in April on the level of foreign ministers, but the venue has not been decided, the foreign minister said. He still prefers a Baghdad venue, but said he is considering offers from both Egypt and Turkey to host the meeting.

Among Iraqi observers, opinions on the conference reflected sectarian positions. Both Sunni and Shi'ite observers criticized organizers for failing to produce a list of recommendations at the meeting's end. Some said the lack of recommendations reflected a lack of sincerity by participants. Others claimed it proved the meeting was held only to improve the images of participants, with no real intention of achieving change.

Moreover, comparing the government's view of the conference with the perspective of Sunni "resistance" groups highlights the continuing disconnect between the opposing sides: Sunnis continued to talk about reshaping the current Iraqi government, rather than focusing directly on the issue of the conference, which was strengthening security and ending violence.

The Sunni View

Sunni Arab leaders outside the political process also complained that the conference would have been more productive had it included those members of the so-called resistance who have thus far shied away from participation in the political process.

The March 10 security talks in Baghdad (epa)

Several Sunni Arabs also argued in Arabic-language print and broadcast media that the conference was only held to prepare the way for a U.S. withdrawal, claiming the United States had failed in Iraq. The fact that no timetable was discussed at the conference riled some Sunni leaders outside Iraq. Days earlier, former leaders in Saddam Hussein's government -- including former Central Bank Governor Khayr al-Din Hasib, former minister and Deputy Secretary-General of the Arab Nationalist Movement Abd al-Karim Hani, and former minister Salah Umar Ali -- announced an initiative to "save Iraq," claiming it would not be possible to make peace between the "resistance" and the Iraqi government because, in their view, the Iraqi government is sectarian.

Instead, they contended, a timetable should be set for the withdrawal of multinational forces and a two-year interim government established. In addition, all political detainees should be released, they demanded.

Some Shi'ite leaders also contended that the setting of a timetable would reassure nervous neighbors. But Foreign Minister Zebari said a timetable would not be established for the sake of Iraq's neighbors.

"Iranians have public fears and we answered them that these forces have an international mandate and the decision is in the Iraqi government's hands," Zebari said, the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on March 12.

Talking Shop?

Iyad al-Samarra'i, a parliamentarian from the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front told Baghdad Satellite Channel that he did not think the conference would bring the political process back to square one but rather "amend the course of political progress, taking into consideration a number of principles, including Iraqi national reconciliation."

Independent Kurdish politician Mahmud Uthman told "Al-Hayat" that "meeting for few hours and under a deteriorating security situation and the presence of parties that have major problems between them rendered the conference's success limited."

"Iraq does not need international conferences as much as internal meetings that include the parties to the conflict inside the country," he said.

But Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim had a different take on the meeting. Before it convened, he said in an interview published on his political party's website: "Continuing to hold conferences and meetings with official and nonofficial figures will have an effect. They have indeed had an effect, although they did not solve the basic problem in Iraq."

Iran Remains Suspicious After Baghdad Conference

By Vahid Sepehri

Iran's envoy to the Baghdad conference, Abbas Araqchi (file photo)

March 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's Foreign Ministry has called the March 10 Baghdad security conference a good "first step" toward the eventual restoration of peace in Iraq. But individually, Iranian officials have appeared wary of the United States and its motives at the conference.

The Baghdad conference brought together Iraq's neighbors and states including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. It was likely the first of at least two such meetings.

On March 11, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini claimed that any success "is closely related to a change of political approach" by what he described as "certain parties." Hosseini said Iran believes Iraqis should be given responsibility for "security issues and...government," "Etemad" reported the next day. And he extended Tehran's promise to "back all efforts...effective in taking the Iraqis out of their present problems."

Hosseini cited three factors that would help restore security: turning security over to the Iraqis; setting a timetable for the departure of foreign troops; and a "serious and indiscriminate" response to "terrorist groups."

That view was shared by the right-wing Iranian daily "Resalat." The paper argued on March 12 that the "authoritative" presence of Iraqi security forces prevented a massacre of Shi'ite pilgrims by insurgents at the Arbain religious ceremonies on March 10. "Resalat" said the Shi'ite ceremonies "showed once more that Iraqi security forces -- providing they have the necessary powers and room for maneuver -- are effective enough in assuring security in Iraq."

Call For Removal Of Foreign Troops

Another leading right-wing daily, "Keyhan," on March 11 cited calls by Iran's envoy at the Baghdad conference for the departure of foreign troops from Iraq. Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araqchi argued that "handing security arrangements over to the Iraqi government is most effective way of emerging from the present crisis."

Araqchi called on Iraq's neighbors to help train Iraqi police and boost the capabilities of Iraq's armed forces, and "consolidate [border] security" so Iraq can assert control over its internal affairs. The Iranian envoy warned of a "vicious circle" in which "foreign occupation causes insecurity and insecurity is used to justify continued occupation."

Ahead of the meeting, Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati argued that Washington "want[s] in this meeting to make sure Iraq is taken from the hands of its people and its government handed over to an American body ."

"Keyhan" claimed a split concerning Iran among what it described as "radicals" in the U.S. government. It suggested that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice harbor a more conciliatory attitude, while it ascribed more intransigent positions to former UN envoy John Bolton. The daily claimed that Khalilzad used to be in greater agreement with Bolton.

Washington Needs Tehran?

The daily "Resalat" claimed that the presence in Baghdad of Khalilzad and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield suggested the need by the United States to talk to Iran in its bid to escape from the "bog" of Iraq. The paper argued that the United States is trying simultaneously to pressure Iran and maintain a visibly dominant position, while conveying through the presence of the two diplomatists "the signals of America's need [for] Tehran in an indirect [but] telling and transparent manner."

"Resalat" predicted that this purported strategy would fail and "White House hawks" would have no choice but to openly express their need for Iranian help "in a diplomatic framework."

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati at Friday Prayers on March 9 (Fars)

Officials in Iran separately expressed skepticism of U.S. motives at the conference. Ahead of the meeting, Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati argued in Tehran's Friday prayers on March 9 that Washington "want[s] in this meeting to make sure Iraq is taken from the hands of its people and its government handed over to an American body -- Iraqi or non-Iraqi -- which is under American domination," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on March 11).

Tehran-based commentator and former Defense Ministry adviser Alireza Akbari expressed similar suspicion. He told ISNA that the United States has the greatest and Iran the "best" roles in Iraq. Akbari said the conference showed the need equitably to redistribute the respective roles and responsibilities of Iraq's neighbors and powers involved in Iraq. He suggested that Saudi Arabia was playing a role but was not accepting responsibility for security in Iraq.

Akbari urged the United States and Iraq's neighbors to respect the "one-Iraq, one-vote principle" and let democracy take its course. Akbari predicted the conference would yield results if -- in his words -- the United States and Saudi Arabia "decided" to allow security to be established in Iraq.

Such statements in Tehran suggest that while the United States suspects Iranian motives and involvement in Iraq, there is suspicion in Tehran, too. That distrust invites the assumptions that the U.S. superpower wishes to remain in Iraq or to install a friendly regime, and that the United States is unlikely to allow the westward spread of Iranian influence.

The other assumption behind such statements is that the departure of occupying troops would lead to a calming of religious discord and violence, renewed Iraqi government control of its territory, and predominantly Shi'ite Iraq falling into a "natural" state of symbiosis and cordiality with the Islamic Republic of Iran.