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Iraq Report: March 30, 2007

Progressing Toward National Reconciliation

By Kathleen Ridolfo

Will reinstating former followers of Saddam Hussein lead to better security, or worse?

March 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Iraqi government this week took another step toward reconciliation with Sunni resistance groups with the announcement of the draft Law of Accountability and Justice (also referred to in the media as Accountability and Reconciliation).

The law, announced in a joint statement by Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, is reportedly one of four proposals calling for the revision of the de-Ba'athification law established by the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003. If it is ratified by parliament, it could move the country closer to ending the growing sectarian divisions plaguing the country.

The introduction of the draft law follows several months of negotiations by Iraqi leaders, both inside and outside government, with Sunni Arab insurgents, many of whom joined the resistance after losing their military or technocratic positions following the fall of Saddam Hussein's government.

U.S. Envoy Meets With 'Patriotic' Groups

Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, who left his post earlier this week, told reporters at a March 26 press briefing in Baghdad that he had met with some insurgent leaders, whom he called reconcilables, in an effort to encourage them to lay down their arms and join the political process.
Khalilzad said coalition commanders have also been in contact with insurgent leaders "to explore ways to collaborate in fighting the terrorists."

Khalilzad did not identify the leaders or their groups by name, but said they come from "more patriotic" groups. He added that the leaders are opposed to the activities of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups operating in Iraq, which they view as incompatible with their own goals.

U.S. and Iraqi officials said Khalilzad met with representatives of the Islamic Army in Iraq and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, "The New York Times" reported on March 26.

Khalilzad said coalition commanders have also been in contact with insurgent leaders "to explore ways to collaborate in fighting the terrorists." U.S. commander in Iraq General David Petraeus told ABC news in an interview published earlier this month that there were encouraging signs that Sunni insurgents would join the political process. "They want their place at the table," he said.

Government Talks With Insurgents

Days before Khalilzad's revelation, the London-based "Al-Hayat" reported that the Iraqi government was in dialogue with seven factions that are active in Al-Anbar, Salah Al-Din, and Diyala -- the most restive governorates outside Baghdad. The dialogue has resolved a host of disagreements between al-Maliki's government and the insurgency, the newspaper reported on March 20.

According to "Al-Hayat," members of al-Maliki's government met with insurgent leaders during the second week in March to coordinate the fight against Al-Qaeda. Iraq observers have long noted that once Sunni Arab Iraqis could be brought into the political fold, Al-Qaeda -- which for the most part is comprised of non-Iraqi Arabs -- would be defeated on Iraqi soil.

Former Hussein official Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri in 1999 (epa)

"Al-Hayat" noted that members of the Islamic Army in Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, and the Al-Rashidin Army, groups largely comprised of former members of Saddam Hussein's army, are at odds with Al-Qaeda and are moving toward reconciliation with the government.

The report also claimed that Syria has sponsored talks between former Ba'athist leaders and the Iraqi government. Those talks resulted in the defection of several Ba'athists from former Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri's insurgent group, which is believed to be headquartered in Damascus. The leaders defected after being guaranteed certain conditions, including constitutional amendments, a revision of the de-Ba'athification law, and a program to bring a Sunni-Shi'ite balance to the military, which has been dominated by Shi'ites in the post-Hussein era, according to "Al-Hayat."

Sunni parliamentarian Ala Makki told Al-Arabiyah television this week that the insurgent groups in question have shown a clear desire to contribute to the political process in Iraq, but cautioned that talks with other groups remained ongoing. Makki said the negotiations have been going on for three years.

Winning Them Over, One By One

The sensitivity of the issue has precluded U.S. and Iraqi officials from commenting on the record about the identity of the groups in question. For their part, insurgent leaders appear hesitant to admit they are taking part in the talks, lest they draw the ire and retaliation of fellow fighters.

Given the independent and localized nature of insurgent groups, it is unlikely that any would decide to lay down arms and join the government in one fell swoop. Rather, it is more likely that factions of groups will decide to break away and join one by one, once they are satisfied of the government's intentions toward reconciliation.

A number of insurgent groups have issued statements suggesting a split among factions in recent weeks. For example, the insurgent website carried a statement by the 1920 Revolution Brigades on March 18 announcing its two brigades are free to make their own decisions about how and whether to cooperate and integrate with other groups.

Meanwhile, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on March 27 that the Diyala branch of the 1920 Revolution Brigades is distancing itself from Al-Qaeda because of the latter's tactics, including its targeting of civilians.

A leader of the Mujahedin Army in Iraq told Al-Jazeera television in a March 26 interview that the army -- an umbrella group that purportedly includes the Al-Mujahedin Army (an armed faction of the same name) as well as the Islamic Army in Iraq, the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, and the Al-Rafidayn Army -- "has no coordination with the [Iraqi] government or the Americans." He later added, "Once these factions, along with all good mujahedin, see that negotiations serve the interest of the country, the people, and the nation, they will not hesitate to do so, will not hide it, and will take this option immediately."

Can insurgents be convinced to stop fighting one at a time? (epa file photo)

Ansar Al-Sunnah leader Abu Abdallah al-Hasan Ibn Mahmud said in a March 24 Internet statement that two mujahedin leaders had participated in talks (not further explained), purporting to represent the entire Ansar Al-Sunnah group but in fact did not have the leadership's permission to do so. "They do not represent anyone but themselves," Abu Abdallah contended.

He cautioned members of Ansar Al-Sunnah against participating in any initiatives without executive approval, adding, "There must not be any alienation or division among us because of any marginal issues, the details of which might not be known by some among us, leading an oppose his brother on a ruling." Abu Abdallah also warned the mujahedin against "ideas that are proposed for the purpose of weakening the mujahedin and dividing them."

Abu Abdallah's cryptic statement leads to many questions about the state of Ansar Al-Sunnah, but one thing is clear: members of the group operate independently and at times, contrary to the leadership's wishes. This is of little surprise given that Ansar Al-Sunnah, like other insurgent groups, is thought to be comprised of both hard-core Islamists and more secular elements.

Sunni Arab leader Muthanna Harith al-Dari of the Muslim Scholars Association, an organization that is critical of the government and closely tied to the insurgency, claimed in a March 27 interview with Al-Jazeera that Khalilzad's statements were contrived to cover gains by the insurgency. Such statements "prove these [insurgent] factions are on their way to achieving something." He further claimed, "It seems that the unity plan among these factions or at least [the process of] reaching a political understanding among them in order to coordinate their efforts to expel the occupier is imminent."

Selling It To The People

Some of Iraq's Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders have criticized the draft law, saying it is wrong to welcome former Ba'athists, who persecuted the Shi'a and Kurds, back into the fold of Iraqi politics. The de-Ba'athification Commission, a government body responsible for reviewing the cases of thousands of Ba'athists who lost their jobs after 2003, issued a statement this week saying that a ratification of the draft law would lead to an escalation in sectarian violence across the country. It claimed victims of the Ba'ath Party would seek revenge against those people returned to their jobs.

The statement quoted commission head Ahmad Chalabi as saying that it is too early to present the law to parliament because the wounds of the victims of the Ba'ath Party have not healed yet.

Chalabi told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television in a March 6 interview that the commission has worked to protect former Ba'athists from those who would harm them -- a claim many Sunnis challenge. The commission has been criticized for its sectarian composition -- it is heavily Shi'ite, and the al-Maliki-Talabani plan calls for its dissolution. It would be replaced by a panel of judges that would be more independent and ethnically balanced.

Chalabi denied claims in the March 6 interview that his commission has been used to seek revenge on Sunni Arabs, and claimed that U.S. officials tried to place unfair blame on the commission for the sectarian violence taking place in Iraq. "There may be a faction in Iraq that is not happy with de-Ba'athification, but there are many groups in Iraq that do not accept the ending of de-Ba'athification at present," he contended.

Zebari said the government can't reconcile with everyone (epa file photo)

Commission member Ali Faysal al-Lami claimed that the United States pressured Talabani and al-Maliki into revising de-Ba'athification, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on March 28. "Our opinion is that this is an attempt to return Ba'athists to the highest echelons of power within the coming six months...without taking into account the many innocent victims who suffered from the Ba'athists," he said.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari stressed the government's need to take a firm position on who it will negotiate with during a March 27 interview with Al-Iraqiyah television from Riyadh. "We should come up with something concrete. It is not enough to call for reconciliation. The time will come to determine who you should achieve reconciliation with. With whom should we achieve reconciliation? Is it with Al-Qaeda, or with the Saddamists and Ba'athists who are killing us every day," he asked.

Despite the opposition of many Shi'a and Kurds to the draft law, there are few options left for al-Maliki's administration. Faced with the possibility of a sooner-than-expected withdrawal of coalition forces and increased regional pressure -- highlighted at this week's Arab League summit in Riyadh, not to mention key commitments undertaken at the March 10 neighbors meeting -- the government recognizes the urgent necessity of bridging the Sunni-Shi'ite divide. The final decision, however, will rest with the parliament.

Plight Of Refugees In Neighboring States Worsens

By Sumedha Senanayake

Iraqi girl in camp for displaced in Baghdad

March 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The continuing violence and instability in Iraq has forced an ever-greater number of Iraqis to flee and seek refuge in neighboring countries. However, these countries, particularly Jordan and Syria, have voiced concern that they cannot take in more Iraqi refugees indefinitely.

Humanitarian organizations and human rights groups have called on the international community to do more to help ease the strain on these countries. While the international community debates on how to deal with the crisis, the plight of the Iraqi refugees worsens.

Surge In Numbers Seeking Asylum

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced on March 23 that fleeing Iraqis topped the list of those seeking asylum in the 50 most industrialized nations. Despite the increasing number of Iraqi asylum seekers, the overall number of asylum applications of all nationalities declined for a fifth straight year.
"It is difficult to say how many are actually getting outside Iraq, because it is getting more and more difficult to leave."

Asylum applications by Iraqis rose in 2006 to 22,200 from 12,500 in 2005, a 77 percent increase. It was the largest number of Iraqi asylum seekers since 2002, the last full year Saddam Hussein was in power, when 50,000 Iraqis applied for asylum. The rise was particularly sharp in the last quarter of 2006, when 8,100 Iraqis applied.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said that during the Hussein regime, Iraqis mainly fled because of persecution, whereas now they are fleeing because of violence and instability. He stressed that recent data indicated that the security situation in Iraq was grave and no solution was in sight, Voice of America reported on March 23.

"It is difficult to say how many are actually getting outside Iraq, because it is getting more and more difficult to leave," Redmond said. "But we fear that this situation in Iraq is going to get worse before it gets better, and that you are going to see increasing numbers of Iraqis fleeing inside and also externally."

Iraqis Being Turned Away

The influx of Iraqi refugees into neighboring Jordan and Syria has created a massive strain on the resources of the two nations. The UNHCR has estimated that there are 700,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan and 1.2 million in Syria. To stem the flow, authorities in both countries have imposed stricter border controls, particularly in Jordan.

Iraqis seeking to enter Jordan now must be over 40 or under 20, have sufficient funds to support themselves while staying in the kingdom, and most importantly, posses the new Iraqi passport.

In 2005, the Iraqi government announced that passports issued under the former regime, called the N series, and those issued shortly after fall of the Hussein government, called the S series, would no longer be valid. These passports were to be replaced by the G series, which is more difficult to forge.

However, the new passports were never delivered to Iraqi consulates abroad, meaning that anyone needing the new passport can currently only obtain them in Iraq, where they are often expensive and difficult to obtain. Not possessing the new passport essentially amounts to being refused entry into Jordan.

Although there no figures on the numbers of Iraqis denied entry into Jordan, a Jordanian Interior Ministry official speaking on condition of anonymity told the UN Integrated Regional Information Services (IRIN) on March 1 that more than half of those who attempted to enter had been denied.

Regardless, the decision by Jordanian officials to essentially turn away Iraqis fleeing the violence presents refugees with a stark choice: remain at the border, where conditions at the border camps are dire, or take their chances and return to Iraq.

Camp for displaced Iraqis outside Karbala (file photo)

"The fundamental question is whether the Jordanian government will continue to do this despite the fact that customary international law prevents you from effectively pushing someone back into a burning building," said Bill Frelick, refugee-policy director of Human Rights Watch, "The Christian Science Monitor" reported on March 20.

Refugees Or 'Guests'?

Those Iraqis who are lucky enough to enter Jordan or Syria face a precarious situation. Both countries have refused to label the Iraqis "refugees," but instead refer to them as "guests" or "brothers."

"Some governments prefer to keep people as guests, or brothers, or visitors, so as to avoid the firm and solid obligations stemming from the refugee status," UNHCR director for the Middle East and North Africa Radhouane Nouicir said.

Jordan is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and, according to UNHCR, it has no legislation regarding the status and treatment of refugees. Iraqis are allowed entry via temporary visas, but those who cannot renew them become illegal. Iraqis who are seized by the authorities may be sent back to Iraq, but those who manage to stay are often stigmatized and treated as second-class citizens, potentially creating a disgruntled and marginalized population that could become radicalized.

In Syria, Iraqis are given a 15-day visa and have to apply for a longer stay. Iraqis applying for extensions must leave Syria for a month before reapplying, most likely a temporary stay in one of the decrepit refugee camp along the border. On February 5, nearly 200 Iraqi refugees protested outside the UNHCR offices in Damascus against Syria's treatment of refugees. Many described being forced to leave Syria for a month as akin to deportation.

Indeed, there are concerns among international humanitarian organizations that the increased burden on the resources of Jordan and Syria may force them to shut their borders altogether to the refugees. In order to prevent this, the UNHCR announced on March 26 that it would start building emergency camps in Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, separating the refugees from the local population and economy, AP reported.

"The countries neighboring Iraq would prefer that we establish what they call 'safety zones' inside Iraq," the UNHCR's Nouicir said. "I don't want to imagine the scenario whereby Syria and Jordan would close their borders, because that would be really a humanitarian tragedy."

International Community Urged To Do More

While there seems to be no end to the continuing violence and the ensuing influx of Iraqi refugees, the UN has implored the international community to do more. In a blunt statement issued by UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler to the BBC on March 20, he accused the international community of systematically ignoring the worsening plight of Iraq's refugees.

"There has been an abject denial of the impact, the humanitarian impact, of the war, the huge displacement within Iraq of up to 1.9 million people who are homeless because of the war, and those people who are homeless and never got back to the homes after Saddam Hussein was overthrown," Kessler said.

The U.S. recently announced that it would accept 7,000 Iraqis in 2007, up from 202 the previous year. However, Jordanian officials said that figure would barely make a dent in helping alleviate the problem. They claim that one-tenth of Jordan's total population is now Iraqi.

Amnesty International said in a statement on February 12 that the United States bears a particular responsibility to protect those who have been displaced due to the conflict in Iraq.

"U.S. policy and military action helped create the dreadful situation that now prevails in Iraq, yet up until now very few Iraqis displaced as a result of war have been allowed to take refuge in the U.S.," Malcolm Smart, the director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa program, said. "The U.S. authorities must stand up to their obligations on this issue and help lead the effort to provide long-term, durable solutions for Iraqi refugees."

NGO Works To Help Children Caught Up In War

A woman begs in Baghdad while her child plays with a toy gun (file photo)

March 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For more than a decade, the nongovernmental charity War Child has been helping children caught up in armed conflicts around the world. RFE/RL correspondent Irina Lagunina spoke to War Child program coordinator Leila Billing, about the group's work in Iraq.

RFE/RL: You will soon be issuing a report on Iraq. Where in Iraq did you conduct your research?

Leila Billing: It was a piece of research with approximately 400 children from [Al-Basrah] and Al-Nasiriyah in the south of Iraq. And the research also involved talking to the children's families, to local community members, and also to people who work with vulnerable and marginalized children. It could be people who work for the state or for local child-protection organizations. This methodology is known as participatory research. And that involves using a whole host of research tools that the children kind of develop themselves. For example, there is a lot of role-playing and social-drama activities that the children do. There is a lot of drawing. The children are mapping out their daily lives on paper. And also training children to talk to their peers and act as researchers themselves. It's a very child-centered approach.

RFE/RL: What are the main problems of the children in Iraq, of those kids who were forced onto the street? What picture did you get from this survey of the status of children in the country at the moment?

"Boys and girls are engaging in sex work; they are selling weapons on the streets, alcohol, pornography. You know, children as young as eight are involved in these kinds of trades. Obviously, this results in increased stigmatization because the community brands them as 'bad children.'"

Billing: I think it showed the precise way that this conflict is impacting upon children. It's leading to the increased criminalization and stigmatization of children. For example, we are witnessing high levels of family breakdown and an increase of female-headed households in certain parts of Iraq. And basically what it means is that children are being forced to assume income-generating roles because their families are suffering from acute poverty. That means children leaving school, going out on to the streets and looking for paid work. And it's on the streets where many Iraqi children are being exposed to illegal livelihood activities. Say, for example, boys and girls are engaging in sex work; they are selling weapons on the streets, alcohol, pornography. You know, children as young as eight are involved in these kinds of trades. And it's kind of an economic necessity that is forcing them to do this. Obviously, this results in increased stigmatization of these children because the local community brands them as 'bad children.' And so, not only they are being impacted by poverty and are they being drawn into this criminal activities, they are also facing strong forms of social exclusion.

RFE/RL: So, children are forced onto the streets to earn a livelihood. But what do the families think about it? The families must see the problem as well as you see it, don't they?

Billing: Well, the families that we spoke to during the course of this research, some of them, or many of them, wish that they had another option. They wish that they did not have to put their children in this kind of position. But they feel that they have no other option but to do so because they are living a hand-to-mouth existence. But also other children we spoke to, their families have been the primary perpetrators of abuse against them. For example, we spoke to some young boys and girls whose parents or members of their extended families had actually forced them to engage in sex work. So the family as well as being a force that protects, can also be a force that causes extreme forms of abuse.

RFE/RL: Did you study only the lifestyle of these street children? Or did you go further in analyzing their behavior and the impact of the abuse they are living through?

Billing: Another interesting finding of the research was the psychological effect the conflict has had on them. These children were asked to rank their problems. And quite apart from poverty and family breakdown, they all mentioned terrorism and the lack of security in Iraq as one of their primary concerns.

Children in Baghdad watch as police secure the area following a car bombing in July 2006 (epa)

And I think what we are witnessing is -- the children, because they are surrounded by violence and insecurity on a daily basis, it's having an adverse effect on their own behavior and their own development psychologically. It's quite common for kids to be playing with guns. They demonstrate violent behavior on a daily basis because that's what they see all around them. And although it's not true for all children, I think for a large proportion it's having a really adverse effect on their psychological well being.

RFE/RL: This violent behavior of the kids, why do they manifest it? Does it give them the sense of security, is it for self-protection?

Billing: Yes, I think it's a way of protecting themselves. Quite a few of the kids that we spoke to, particularly the boys, the boys who were forced to engage in sex work, for example, they carry knives as a routine. And it's a way of protecting themselves. Some of them display quite aggressive behavior, again, as a kind of protection mechanism. They are trying to say: Look, don't mess with me; I'm capable of defending myself. But deep down, I think we are dealing with quite scared children. And this kind of behavior is an example or symptom of their fear.

RFE/RL: Are all the problems of the street kids common for both boys and girls? Or do girls have different problems?

Billing: Since the conflict started there has been an increase in the prevalence of mota (pleasure) marriages in Iraq. The muta'a marriages are mainly practiced by Shi'ite Muslims. Muta'a marriage is a marriage for a fixed period of time. It is also something that is called a temporary marriage. And what we are seeing is muta'a marriages on the increase, especially for young girls. Now, this could be, again, a livelihood strategy for poor families who give permission for their daughters to conduct a muta'a marriage, say, for a period of a month or two week, or even an hour, in fact. So, it's kind of a pretext for prostitution.

RFE/RL: Your NGO has existed since 1993, since the war in former Yugoslavia. I presume that those problems are more or less common for all countries at war. What should be done to save those kids?

Billing: I think getting the community involved is the first step -- as a way of trying to break down the stigma that these children have. I'd take the example of our work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we also work with a similar group of children, street children who were very marginalized, very stigmatized by the community. And what we are trying to do is increase the involvement of the community in the lives of these children. Because if the community is on board, you can really help to promote a protective environment for the children themselves. But I think the key to community involvement is reaching those community leaders or authority figures and using them as a way of mobilizing the rest of the population. And this could involve talking to an influential religious spokesperson. It could involve speaking to district councilors. This is something we've done involving the local mullah in our work with children in conflict with the law and getting him to talk about the need to break down the stigma against these kids in his sermons, in the preaching that he does to the local community. And that had a really positive impact.

Baghdad Plan Shows Progress, But Challenges Persist

By Sumedha Senanayake

The number of car bombs, such as this near the entrance to the Green Zone, has reportedly gone down

March 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The first assessment by U.S. and Iraqi officials of the month-old Baghdad security operation, which was launched on February 14, has been positive. Initial signs indicate that the operation has significantly curbed violence in the Iraqi capital.

This is the third attempt to bring security to Baghdad since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki came to power in May 2006, and many observers regard the current operation as the last chance to avert an all-out civil war in Iraq. And while the initial assessment has been promising, questions remain as to whether the plan will have a long-term effect in stemming the violence that has engulfed Baghdad.

Some Signs Of Improvement

At a March 14 press conference, Brigadier General Qasim al-Musawi, a spokesman for the Baghdad security operation, released statistics for the first month, saying that the overall death toll had dropped by 30 percent. He said that 1,440 civilians were killed from January 14 to February 14, compared to 265 killed from February 14 to March 14. During the first period, 3,192 civilians were wounded, while 781 were wounded during the second period.
"The results of the past 30 days cannot be assessed by the numbers of explosions, car bombings, and acts of terrorism, but by the citizens' feeling that a new, positive development has taken place."

Since the plan was launched, car bombings have dropped by 36 percent, mortar attacks by 47 percent, hand-grenade attacks by 70 percent, Katyusha rocket attacks by 35 percent, and suicide bombings have dropped by 33.3 percent.

Al-Musawi also said that during the earlier period, 19 militants were killed and 169 arrested, while 94 militants were killed and 713 arrested in the second period. Since February 14, 24 hostages have been freed and more than 2,000 displaced families have returned to their homes," he said.

Lieutenant General Abbud Qanbar, the commander of operations for the Baghdad security plan, stressed at the same March 14 press conference that Iraqi civilians were expressing optimism over the security plan.

"The results of the past 30 days cannot be assessed by the numbers of explosions, car bombings, and acts of terrorism, but by the citizens' feeling that a new, positive development has taken place to reassure a large sector of society about the situation," Qanbar said.

The centerpiece of the United States' part in the security operation is a troop "surge" that will eventually see an additional 21,500 U.S. forces in Baghdad and the restive Al-Anbar Governorate to the west. In a BBC interview on March 18, U.S. General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, expressed cautious optimism, saying that the plan showed "encouraging signs", but he would have a better idea of the plan's success once all U.S. troops have been deployed in the coming months.

Al-Sadr: gone, but for how long? (epa file photo)

"By early June, we should then have everyone roughly in place -- and that will allow us to establish the density in partnership with Iraqi security forces that you need to really get a good grip on the security situation," Petraeus said.

Just Temporary Lull?

While initial statistics indicate that attacks in Baghdad have dropped off significantly, some Iraqi officials have indicated that the steep drop in violence is due to militia elements assuming a lower profile to avoid the security crackdown.

The Imam Al-Mahdi Army, the militia of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has become much less visible, for example. In fact, it has been widely reported in the Arab and Western press that al-Sadr himself may have left the country, to avoid being caught up in the security lockdown in Baghdad.

Major General William Caldwell, the spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Iraq, told reporters at a March 14 press briefing in Baghdad that al-Sadr's whereabouts were unknown and that he was probably outside Iraq.

However, several Sunni leaders, who accuse al-Sadr's militia of being responsible for the majority of sectarian attacks against Sunnis, contend that the militia will only "lay low" as long as the security crackdown continues, and that once the Baghdad operation has ended and U.S. forces have withdrawn, the militia will reemerge and sectarian violence will resume.

Sheikh Khalaf al-Alyan, the leader of the Sunni-led National Dialogue Council, claimed in a March 23 interview with "Al-Quds Press" that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and al-Sadr had come to an agreement for the Al-Mahdi Army to be disbanded and its leaders sent abroad to avoid being captured by U.S. forces.

"The leaders of death squads and the Imam Al-Mahdi Army have been smuggled into Iran and those ranking second and third were sent to the south," al-Alyan said. "Most elements of this army were officially incorporated into the National Guard and [the forces of] the Interior Ministry in order to avoid confrontation with U.S. troops. This happened on the basis of an official letter signed by the prime minister in agreement with Muqtada al-Sadr," he added.

Indeed, the militia leadership realizes that time is on their side and the U.S. military most probably cannot keep up the troop levels needed to maintain the Baghdad security plan indefinitely, particularly in light of how unpopular the Iraq war has become in the eyes of the U.S. public.

Calls For Political Solution

While the security operation continues to attempt to bring security to Baghdad, some Iraqi leaders have stressed that the gains achieved by the Baghdad security plan will only be short-lived and that political reforms need to be instituted before the country will be secure.

Al-Mutlaq has called for a political solution (epa file photo)

In an interview with "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on March 22, Salih al-Mutlaq, the leader of the Front for National Dialogue, said that the drop in attacks since the Baghdad security plan was instituted is due to the presence of a large contingent of U.S. forces that cannot remain indefinitely. He argued that only a legitimate political program that convinces marginalized Sunnis, who are believed to form the bulk of the insurgency, to give up their weapons and join the political process, is the only long-term solution to Iraq's security woes.

"We do not believe these [U.S.] forces will remain in their position for long and we do not believe Baghdad can endure such a situation and such an anomalous situation as this one," al-Mutlaq said. "Therefore, there is a need to seek a political program to solve the current problems. If this is not achieved, no logical solution can be found for the current situation."

Indeed, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi made similar comments in a BBC interview on March 21 when he called for a dialogue to be opened with the insurgents and for political reforms to be carried out in order for Iraq to move beyond sectarian divisions.

"One of the political recipes might be that the Iraqis need to be convinced that to break up this polarization we have to go for, first of all, election-system reform and, second, to go for early elections," al-Hashimi said.

New Insurgent Tactics

Even in the little over a month that the Baghdad security operation has been in progress, there has been a noticeable shift in insurgent tactics, such as the use of chlorine-gas truck bombs. In low levels, chlorine gas causes respiratory problems and skin irritation, but it is lethal with heavy exposure.

On March 16, three separate suicide bombers driving trucks carrying chlorine gas detonated their vehicles in the restive Al-Anbar Governorate, killing six and wounded more than 350. It was the seventh attack involving chlorine gas since January 28, prompting government officials to keep closer watch on people who deal in toxic gas in private or government-run plants, the UN Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported on March 20.

Furthermore, at a March 20 press conference, U.S. Major General Michael Barbero accused insurgents of employing children in carrying out attacks. Barbero said that the vehicle used in a March 18 car-bomb attack in Al-Amadiyah that killed five and wounded seven was allowed to pass through a checkpoint after soldiers saw two children in the back seat. The driver parked the car near a market and fled, leaving the children still inside. Moments later, the car exploded. Although the U.S. military said the Al-Amadiyah attack is the only known incident in which children were used, Barbero suggested that the attack heralds a new tactic.

If this is indeed a trend among insurgent groups to alter their tactics to adapt to the new security environment, it underscores the difficulties U.S. and Iraqi forces face in trying to establish a more secure Iraq. While the Baghdad security plan has shown promise, it remains to be seen what would happen if there were another high-profile attack, such as the February 2006 Al-Askari shrine bombing, widely seen as the point when the conflict became sectarian in nature.