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Iraq Report: April 17, 2007

Al-Qaeda Tactics Lead To Splits Among Insurgents

By Kathleen Ridolfo
April 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The insurgent group Islamic Army in Iraq spoke for several armed groups when it criticized the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq last week for recent operations against homegrown Iraqi insurgent groups.

The Islamic Army claimed Islamic State assassinated more than 30 of its members after the Islamic Army refused to join the Islamic State -- a "super group" that includes the Mujahedin Shura Council, formerly led by Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, and other smaller armed jihadist groups.

The Islamic State appears to have begun its campaign for dominance among armed groups in Iraq more than two months ago. Perhaps motivated by the need to establish dominance on the ground after losing support from locals in Al-Anbar Governorate in recent months, the Islamic State attempted to seize control over areas of Diyala Governorate, including Ba'qubah and surrounding villages. According to some reports by insurgent leaders, the Islamic State sought to drive out insurgent groups that refused to come under its umbrella through a campaign of murder and intimidation. It unleashed a similar wrath on the local population.

One lesson of the past four years is that time is of the essence if one is to deal effectively in matters pertaining to the insurgency.

Struggle For Dominance

The situation unnerved Iraqi insurgent groups. Whereas they had once been united in a common cause with Al-Qaeda -- to drive coalition forces from Iraq-- now they were forced to take a stand against it. Echoing the position of other armed Iraqi groups, the Islamic Army appealed to Islamic leaders, members of the Iraqi resistance, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq to address transgressions carried out by the Islamic State, which it said violate Islamic law.

U.S. forces conducting an operation in Ba'qubah late in 2006 (epa)

The Islamic Army's April 5 statement accused the Islamic State of attacking citizens, pillaging homes, and stealing civilians' money. It also said the group has banned satellite television and requires women to wear a full face veil, which the army argues makes them vulnerable to harassment and possible assault by Iraqi police and National Guard.

The statement claimed that the Islamic State has also attacked members of the Al-Mujahedin Army in Iraq, the Iraqi Resistance Movement-1920 Revolution Brigades, the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, and the Islamic Front for Iraqi Resistance.

The transgressions of the Islamic State are not new. Under al-Zarqawi, its predecessor organization -- Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn (Al-Qaeda Organization of Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers) --routinely violated the so-called rules of jihad, and flagrantly ignored warnings by Sunni clerics that it had crossed the line.

Leaders from several insurgent groups have acknowledged in the Arab press that although they disagreed with the Islamic State's tactics for months, they withheld criticizing the Al-Qaeda organization in order not to present a divided front to the world. Their common goal of driving multinational forces from Iraq was enough to silence their opposition to the group's rogue tactics.

Its targeting of their members was enough to break their silence. It may also be enough to drive Islamic State from Iraq once and for all. "As for fighting to kick [multinational forces] and those collaborating with them out of the country, we support [Islamic State] in this regard," Mahmud al-Zubaydi, spokesman for the 1920 Revolution Brigades, told Al-Arabiyah television in an April 9 interview. "However, we are against [their policy] of killing civilians, bombings, indiscriminate attacks, and attacks on the mujahedin groups in the country."

A 'Bitter' Choice

Iraqi insurgent groups opposed to the Islamic State have struggled over the decision to fight the Al-Qaeda affiliated group. Abu Hudhayfah, a leader from the 1920 Revolution Brigades told London-based "Al-Hayat" in a March 31 interview that the Islamic State's assassination of a prominent Brigades leader last month "left the resistance groups with two options: either fight Al-Qaeda and negotiate with the Americans, or fight the Americans and join the Islamic State of Iraq, which divides Iraq." He called both options "bitter."

"Al-Hayat" cited "gunmen disloyal to Al-Qaeda" as saying that "the leaders of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq have left the resistance with limited options and have changed the conflict map and turned it into a sectarian conflict," thereby embarrassing the resistance.

In this circumstance one can find reason for optimism. Iraqi insurgent groups like the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Islamic Army in Iraq, though they claim to be Islamist in nature, are also nationalist. Unlike Al-Qaeda, their goals do not traverse Iraq's borders, and they would be loath to allow any group, whether they identified with their goals or not, to destroy the state.

Moreover, the Islamic State, unlike the other groups, is primarily comprised of foreign fighters. And, whereas other insurgent groups set their primary goal as driving multinational forces from Iraq, al-Zarqawi set his organization's goals as dual: driving out foreign forces and declaring war on the Shi'a, which he claimed were propped up by Iran. Several Iraqi insurgent leaders have stated clearly in recent weeks that they stand opposed to Iran, but hold no agenda against Iraq's Shi'ite community.

The dilemma of whether to negotiate with the United States or not has already led to a split between factions within the 1920 Revolution Brigades. Those that opposed negotiations left the Brigades to form The Islamic Resistance Movement in Iraq-Hamas.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (right) meeting with local leaders in Al-Anbar Governorate last month (epa)

Ordinary citizens need little prompting to oppose the violence that the Islamic State has unleashed on Iraq, and their active opposition would be key to driving the Al-Qaeda organization from the country. Just as the leaders in Al-Anbar did, Iraqis in Diyala, where it appears the Islamic State has now headquartered itself, would need to take action. Should they choose to do so, it is clear the Iraqi government would support the initiative as it did in Al-Anbar. Should local leaders be joined by Iraqi insurgent groups, their chances of success would be even greater. Moreover, driving Al-Qaeda from Iraq could be the starting point for reconciliation between the Iraqi government and armed Sunnis.

No Time Like the Present

It is likely the rationale of armed groups operating in Iraq over the past four years has been that once their own conflict with U.S. and Iraqi forces was resolved, they could easily drive Al-Qaeda out of Iraq. It's clear that there is little love for Al-Qaeda among Iraq's Sunni Arab population. The reason Iraqis support the Islamic State and give it shelter is because it fights the coalition. The lesson the Islamic State should have taken from their experience in Al-Anbar Governorate was that their safe haven should not be misinterpreted as allegiance.

One lesson of the past four years is that time is of the essence if one is to deal effectively in matters pertaining to the insurgency. The Islamic State's presence in Diyala Governorate poses a threat not only to the governorate's inhabitants, but to Kurds and Baghdadis living in the areas that flank Diyala. Recent reports indicate that the Islamic State is massing militants in and around Mosul, close to the border with the Kurdish region.

Meanwhile, members of Ansar Al-Islam are apparently regrouping and waging attacks on the Iran-Iraq border in the Kurdish city of Penjwin, northeast of Al-Sulaymaniyah. Should they be aligned with the Islamic State -- and they likely are based on reports of al-Zarqawi's ties to Ansar -- the consequences could prove disastrous for the Kurds, who have seen relative peace and prosperity in recent years.

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Displaced Persons Face Dire Situation In Northern Iraq

Displaced Iraqis in Irbil (file photo)

April 3, 2004 -- Kristele Younes from Refugees International traveled to northern Iraq last month to study the situation of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Kurdish-administered area. RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Irina Lagunina spoke with her about her trip.

RFE/RL: What is your assessment of the situation with IDPs in Iraq?

Kristele Younes: The situation of internal displacement in Iraq is deteriorating in general. The UN estimates that there is now about 1.9 million internally displaced, including around 700,000 to 730,000 since the Samarra bombing of February 2006. In the north alone, which I visited along with a colleague last month, we estimated that there were about 160,000 internally displaced who moved there since 2003.

RFE/RL: What are the main causes for people leaving their houses? Is it just violence or more of a kind of ethnic cleansing that is going on certain parts of the country?

Younes: Certainly violence is the No. 1 reason people are leaving. Now, violence can take several forms. Some people are leaving because they are targeted because of their sectarian [affiliation]. For instance, we met with some Sunnis who had to leave [Al-Basrah], even though they were born and raised there, because they have received threats from Shi'ite militias. We also met with Christians who were prosecuted in Baghdad and had to go to the north to seek safety.

There are also people who are leaving not because of ethnic cleansing or sectarian cleansing, but also because the violence around them has just reached the point where they can't live any more. Even though they were not particularly targeted personally, their children could not go to school anymore, they could not go to the markets anymore. And so they tried to go anywhere where they could lead some sort of a normal life.

RFE/RL: Who are those internally displaced, in socioeconomic terms? The poorest? Those who did not want to leave Iraq or cannot leave it?

Younes: I think what you see with the internally displaced is that every single socioeconomic class inside Iraq is represented. You have upper middle class and middle class people, professionals -- doctors, for instance, academics, -- who are leaving Baghdad for the north where they can find jobs and where they will be able to practice their profession in safety.

"So there is definitely a lack of political will from both the central government and the Kurdish government to help the displaced, to facilitate the transfer of this incredibly vital assistance to the areas of displacement."

But you also have, of course, lower middle class and impoverished people who are also leaving their homes because of the violence. And those indeed in general tend to be internally displaced. They cannot afford to get a passport. They cannot afford to cross an international border. And more importantly, they can't even afford to live in Syria and Jordan even if they were able to get there. So, these are the people who usually stay in Iraq. But, again, all social and economic classes are represented, and you have people displaced throughout the Iraqi society.

RFE/RL: For at least four years now the Kurdish authorities have been more or less autonomous and independent in what they can do in the north of the country. How do they cope now with internally displaced people?

Younes: Well, getting to the north, getting to the Kurdish areas, is not the easiest of tasks. For a start, the roads to get to the north are not always the safest. And when you get there you have to get through a series of security checkpoints. And also families cannot get in if they don't have a Kurdish resident who guarantees their entry. Basically, everybody needs a guarantor who can attest to the identity and the morality of the displaced. It's also nearly impossible for a single Arab man to enter the Kurdish areas. So, there is some form of discrimination that is being played [out]. And even internal borders are no longer all open to the displaced. Some governorates like Karbala or [Al-Basrah] have even shut their borders to people who are not originally from there because they simple cannot take more people anymore. What we are seeing in the north is that there are still people getting in, but there is discrimination.

For example, even Kurds who come from disputed areas such as Kirkuk, whose status is to be determined by referendum before the end of the year, are discouraged or even prevented to get to the Kurdish governorates, because the Kurdish authorities want to keep their voting constituencies in Kirkuk. So we are seeing a very disturbing game of ethnic chess that is being played by the Kurdish authorities with Christians being favored, with Shi'a being discriminated against, and with Kurds sometimes being prevented to go to the north so that the Kurdish authorities can keep some Kurdish populations within Iraq to make sure that they have voting constituencies there.

RFE/RL: Is there any attempt to solve this problem with discrimination? Is there political pressure from Baghdad to lift those restrictions and regulations?

Younes: Frankly, when we were in the country we did not see any form of political pressure or assistance provided by the government of Baghdad to the displaced people. On the contrary, the government of Baghdad seems unable or unwilling to assist it's own population. One example of that is that is the fact that before 2003 most of the Iraqi population was benefiting from the public distribution system of food and diesel -- the PDS -- which was a result of oil-for-food program. This assistance was vital to most Iraqis. And it is today more vital than ever that they get this food and diesel assistance.

A security patrol in the disputed city of Kirkuk (epa file photo)

Unfortunately, the public distribution of food has also become the basis of the voter-registration system. Basically, your town of residence issues every family a card, a food-ration card, which is also a voter-registration card. It means that when the people get displaced, it is incredibly difficult for them to transfer their food-ration cards because it means that they are transferring as well their voter registration. And the central government does not have an interest in seeing its population moving away. Similarly the Kurds do not want to see Arabs have voting rights in the Kurdish areas.

So there is definitely a lack of political will from both the central government and the Kurdish government to help the displaced, to facilitate the transfer of this incredibly vital assistance to the areas of displacement. So not only people are leaving behind their homes, their lives, their friends and neighbors, they are also leaving behind this incredibly vital assistance that they were getting.

RFE/RL: What is the typical lifestyle of the internally displaced once they reach the Kurdish-administered areas? What do they do there? Are they able to get work? Are they able to find any housing there? When Iraqi refugees started to move into Jordan, the prices on real estate mounted. Is this the case in the Kurdish-administered areas of northern Iraq as well?

Younes: Certainly, it is extremely expensive to live in Kurdistan. Prices there are much higher than they are in Baghdad. For instance, fuel in Kurdistan is three times as high as it is in Baghdad. Most of the displaced are renting houses. In fact, less than 1 percent of the displaced in Iraq are in camps. So most of them are either staying with host families, or in public buildings, but the very vast majority is renting houses. And the cost of the rent is extremely high in Kurdish areas. Many are forced to contemplate the idea of going back or to actually go back to very dangerous areas because they simply cannot afford to live in Kurdistan any more.

We met with a Sunni family from Baghdad who had to leave because they had received death threats. And they were in Irbil, in the Kurdish area, and they were looking to go back to Baghdad because they simply could not afford life there any more. This is a type of situation that we really do not want to see happen. Most of the internally displaced are not able to find work. When they are able to find work, it's daily work. It provides no security, and it's not enough money to let them afford the cost of living. Schools are public but there are very few Arab-speaking schools in the Kurdish areas. They are only in the main towns. And even in the main towns they are not enough to cater to the entire Arab population. So really the economic situation of the displaced is very worrying.

Al-Sadr Tries New Tactics, But Strategy Still The Same

By Sumedha Senanayake

The Al-Najaf demonstration on April 9

April 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, have long been problematic for both the United States and the Iraqi government. Al-Sadr's militia has led two uprisings against U.S. forces, the last of which ended in August 2004 only when Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's supreme Shi'ite authority, brokered a truce.

Al-Sadr's political bloc, with 30 seats in parliament and control of six ministries, has become a significant partner in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's political coalition. Al-Sadr flexed his political muscle late last year when he suspended his bloc's participation in the Iraqi government to protest al-Maliki's decision to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush on November 30 in Amman, Jordan. This decision brought the Iraqi political process virtually to a halt -- and may have pushed al-Maliki to take a tougher stance toward al-Sadr.

Since the February 14 start of the Baghdad security plan, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army has taken an extremely low profile. Leading figures from the militia have insisted its fighters are cooperating with the operation and will not take up arms against U.S. and Iraqi forces even if confronted, thereby establishing a de facto truce. In fact, al-Sadr himself and many of his first-tier associates are rumored to have left Iraq for Iran to avoid the crackdown.

Al-Sadr's influence has not waned since he assumed a lower profile and the sheer size of the Al-Najaf demonstrations indicates that his support remains high.

Al-Diwaniyah An Ominous Portent?

U.S. military leaders have noted that since the militia has largely kept itself in check, the number of sectarian killings linked to death squads has dropped. However, the recent violence in Al-Diwaniyah and al-Sadr's call on April 9 for Iraqis to unite against the U.S. occupation may be an indication that his cooperation with the U.S. is waning.

On April 6, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched Operation Black Eagle in the central city of Al-Diwaniyah in an effort to drive out militiamen loyal to al-Sadr who reportedly had been clashing with local police for months. Two days of intense fighting ensued, with the U.S. launching air strikes and house-to-house searches. On April 8, a curfew was imposed and U.S. and Iraqi forces continued to patrol the streets.

Reports emerged in the Iraqi and Western press that members of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army had moved to Al-Diwaniyah and other cities in central and southern Iraq to escape the Baghdad crackdown.

The influx of Al-Mahdi Army members in Al-Diwaniyah has amplified tensions with a rival Shi'ite organization, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which dominates the provincial councils. The tensions have at times boiled over, with both sides accusing the other of instigating violence and carrying out reciprocal assassinations.

Residents have also accused al-Sadr's militia of terrorizing the local population, accusing them of killing dozens of civilians, including women who have refused to follow the group's austere brand of Islamic morality. Local officials said that up to 60 people had been killed in March alone.

The situation in Al-Diwaniyah became volatile enough for the U.S. military to launch an operation against al-Sadr's militia. After nearly two months of relative calm, this latest operation may signal an end to the de facto truce with al-Sadr.

'Avoid The Trap'

In response to the clashes in Al-Diwaniyah, al-Sadr issued a statement on April 8 calling for an end to the fighting, saying that it was a "trap" laid out by the United States to divide Iraq by stoking violence.

"My brothers in the Al-Mahdi Army and in the security services -- stop fighting," al-Sadr's statement said. "By fighting, you will be making successful the schemes of our enemy, your enemy, and the enemy of Allah. Infighting among brothers is not right at all, nor is following the dirty American sedition. Defending the occupier by some people is not right."

Demonstrators in Al-Najaf on April 9 (AFP)

Al-Sadr's words fell short of calling on his supporters to rise up against the United States, as it did on two occasions in 2004. Instead, he called on all Iraqis to unite to end the occupation.

Furthermore, he called on Iraqis to travel to the holy city of Al-Najaf on April 9 to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, underscore Iraqi unity, and to call for an end to the U.S.-led occupation. Some Iraqi officials estimated that as many as 600,000 Iraqis participated in that demonstration.

Salah al-Ubaydi, a senior al-Sadr official in Al-Najaf, described the rally as a call for liberation, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on April 9. "We're hoping that by next year's anniversary, we will be an independent and liberated Iraq with full sovereignty," al-Ubaydi said.

Nasr al-Rubay'i, the head of al-Sadr's political bloc in parliament, said the demonstration was in response to the persecution of the Iraqi people by the occupation. "There are daily raids on the homes of Iraqis and flagrant human rights violations," al-Rubay'i told Al-Jazeera satellite television on April 9. "These masses want Iraq's independence, a real independence, not one on paper. They want Iraq's sovereignty, a real sovereignty."

Political Posturing?

While al-Sadr's comments give the impression he may again resort to violence against U.S. forces, particularly after the Al-Diwaniyah clashes, they could also be viewed as mere political bravado used to reassert his authority. What is certain is that his influence has not waned since he assumed a lower profile and the sheer size of the Al-Najaf demonstrations indicates that al-Sadr's support remains high.

Indeed, his call for Iraqis to demonstrate in Al-Najaf may be seen as an attempt to show that he still wields influence and power, even though he has remained out of sight.

In addition, the demonstration was relatively peaceful and al-Sadr cast himself as being part of the solution to achieve Iraqi unity, as opposed to the firebrand rabble-rouser who brought Iraq's legislative process to a halt in November and launched two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004.

In fact, al-Sadr's cooperation with U.S. and Iraqi forces during the Baghdad security operation, until the Al- Diwaniyah clashes, showed a willingness to make compromises for the sake of improved security and an ability to show restraint in face of ongoing insurgent attacks.

Finally, on the highly symbolic anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, al-Sadr cast the U.S.-led occupation as the real obstacle hindering Iraq's movement toward stability. On a day when one might expect Iraqis to be celebrating the fall of the previous dictatorial regime and the beginning of a new era, thousands of Iraqis instead were out calling for an end to their country's occupation.

Radio Free Iraq Reporter Found Dead In Baghdad

Khamail Muhsin Khalaf (undated)

BAGHDAD, April 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Khamail Muhsin Khalaf, a correspondent in Iraq with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, has been found dead today in Baghdad.

Khamail had been missing for the past two days amid fears she had been kidnapped.

According to official sources, she was shot in the head and there were wounds on her body.

Khamail, who began working for Radio Free Iraq in 2004, had received death threats in the past. She leaves behind three daughters.

"The tragic death of Khamail [Muhsin] Khalaf reminds us that each day Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondents risk their lives in pursuit of truth," Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S. foreign broadcasting, said today. "Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends, knowing that she paid the ultimate price for fulfilling her responsibility to the people of Iraq."

RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin also praised Khamail's professionalism and dedication.

"Mrs. Khamail was a courageous journalist who wanted the best for her country and believed that the people of Iraq deserve a peaceful and prosperous future. She died for that cause," Gedmin said.

Radio Free Iraq broadcasts to Iraq from its headquarters in Prague at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Slain RFI Journalist Focused On 'The Lives Of Simple People'

Khamail Muhsin Khalaf (file photo)

April 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi journalist risk their lives daily to report the news. On April 5, Radio Free Iraq reporter Khamail Muhsin Khalaf was found dead near her home in central Baghdad. She had been missing for two days and was found shot in the head. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with Radio Free Iraq bureau chief Nabil al-Haidari.

RFE/RL: Could you please tell us what we know about the death of Khamail?

Nabil Al-Haidari: Khamail, our colleague, was kidnapped on Tuesday afternoon [April 3] on her way from the bureau to her house. And in the early morning on Thursday [April 5] her body was found near to the area of her residence in Al-Karkh part of [central] Baghdad.

RFE/RL: How should we interpret what happened?

Al-Haidari: It is a message from the insurgent groups who don't like life, who don't like truth. And by the way, Khamail's work always gave attention to reports talking about the lives of simple people, for Iraqi families, for the children, for the women. She never worked in the political area; she liked social stories. In all her reports, when I relistened to [some of] them yesterday and the day before, I felt she was trying to be the real and true voice of simple Iraqi people.

RFE/RL: You say that Khamail had received death threats, both as a journalist and an individual. What was the reason for some of these threats?

Al-Haidari: Khamail received [some death threats] because she lived in an area where there is a lot of activity by extremists who are trying to displace some people from their district on a sectarian basis. And Khamail got many threats at her residence. And for that reason she transferred two of her daughters, children, to Syria from Iraq and stayed behind alone to keep fighting for life and to get her salary to feed herself and to feed her children abroad.

RFE/RL: Khamail was a very well-known journalist in Iraq, a professional with decades of experience. Could you tell us a little bit about why she was so well known?

Al-Haidari: She got a baccalaureate in English literature at the end of the 1970s and she worked from the end of the '70s in Iraqi television, it was at that time the only channel, the national Iraqi television, from that time until around 2003 or 2002, before the change of regime in 2003. She was well-known as an announcer, television star, all the people knew her that way because she was a television star for some 26 or 27 years. And after the war, after a few months, she joined us.

RFE/RL: The loss of your colleague is another blow to journalists in Iraq at time when those in the media remain under constant threat. How do you and other Iraqi journalists respond?

Al-Haidari: It is a message with two meanings. One is to keep strong in face of this life and its difficulties and continue the jobs and messages we want in our lives, especially the media message, the message of truth that all of my colleagues share as a value in their life, and to work with a radio that is respected by the Iraqi people these days, Radio Free Iraq.