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Iraq Report: June 8, 2007

Kurds, Shi'a Lash Out At National-Unity Project

By Kathleen Ridolfo

Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is leading a bid to create a nonethnic, nonsectarian government

June 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Attempts by Sunni Arab leaders and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to reorganize the Iraqi political landscape received a bitter response from the country's Shi'ite and Kurdish leaderships this week.

After months of back-room talks and promises by Allawi supporters to establish a new alliance -- and with it a national-salvation government, the Kurds and Shi'a went on the defensive in an effort to maintain their hold on power.

The Kurdistan Alliance issued a statement on June 4 on behalf of its leading parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, saying it was astonished at reports that the Islamic Party and Allawi's Iraqi National Accord (a constiuent of the Iraqiyah List) established a new political front on April 29 that includes "Saddam [Hussein's] thugs and hangmen who are staunch traitors of the Kurdish nation and are chauvinist figures standing against the aspirations" of Kurds and Arabs.

"There will never be any room for plots that are hatched in this or that Arab capital," Prime Minister al-Maliki said.

According to reports, the new front was formed during an April meeting in Cairo organized at the behest of the Egyptian government to bring together representatives from the Iraqi Islamic Party, Allawi's Iraqi National Accord, and smaller Iraqi parties with former Ba'athists from the Hussein regime.

The Kurdish Reproof

The Kurdistan Alliance contended the front was formed through the assistance and urging of foreign intelligence services. The alliance implied in its statement that the Islamic Party had been duped by Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors.

"How does this stance relate to previous calls for independence and rejection of foreign intervention in Iraq's affairs?" the statement said. "Isn't this an exercise of odious sectarianism and chauvinism, when they ignore the majority Shi'a and Kurdish forces?"

The Kurds also asked why the Sunnis would cooperate with "representatives of the traitors, ...the racist and chauvinist Turani people," in a reference to Turkey.

The Islamic Party issued a rebuttal on June 5 denying that a front was announced on April 29.

"What took place were talks among Iraqi parties and forces at the Council of Representatives on the principles and policies related to the formation of an Iraqi political front," the party contended. The party added that it was surprised by the Kurdish reaction, which came more than a month after the meeting, and questioned the timing of the Kurdish statement.

It also criticized the Kurds for the tone of their statement, saying: "They had better turn a new leaf with all their Iraqi brothers."

The party said that although it was concerned about the state of affairs in Iraq, it would not conspire, but rather "work under the umbrella of the law in broad daylight. We have nothing to hide...and our plan is open to all Iraqis," the party asserted.

As for its plan, the party said: "We are working to establish a broad alliance in the parliament based on national unity and rejecting sectarian and ethnic positions."

Shi'a Parties Object

It claimed the Shi'a-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) and the Kurdistan Coalition, as well as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani were aware of the Islamic Party's efforts.

The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), led by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, said in a statement posted to its website that it was also "astonished" at the announcement because the front was formed by "names and forces that have been participating in the government" since the fall of the Hussein regime. It denounced calls to reinstate "Saddamists" and their supporters from the former "regime of oppression" into state institutions.

SIIC leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim (epa file photo)

"While we exert feverish efforts to activate the issue of participation and give it tangible and genuine dimensions, ...we find out that the parties that participate in the government and support...the establishment of a national-unity government have made unilateral decisions in a secret document" on matters of interest to all Iraqis," the SIIC statement declared.

The SIIC called on parties to distinguish between the forces that "stood against the former regime and those that supported it," adding that national reconciliation should be tackled pragmatically.

The Kurdistan Islamic Union, which apparently attended the Cairo meeting, issued a statement saying that although it took part in the meeting, it did not endorse or join the front, nor had it followed any of the front's activities. The union, in an apparent attempt to save face, said it opposed "any attempt directed against the political process and conducted outside the framework of the parliament and the constitution."

No Place For Foreigners

Al-Maliki also weighed in, saying that any interference by Iraq's neighbors would meet a swift reaction. During a speech to a conference of military commanders on June 6, he cautioned that regional Arab states were supporting terrorists and trying to destabilize Iraq.

The prime minister called on commanders to retaliate with an iron fist.

"There will never be any room for plots that are hatched in this or that Arab capital," he said.

Al-Maliki contended that states that back terrorists in Iraq believe a weak Iraq "is an opportunity for their survival in the region, an opportunity that allows certain states to emerge on the regional scene."

He called on Iraqis to reject sectarianism and urged them to move toward unity and equality. The prime minister also criticized Iraqi politicians who support Arab interference in Iraq, without identifying the parties by name.

'Arab Identity'

Meanwhile, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who heads the Iraqi Islamic Party, wrapped up a three-day visit to Cairo by claiming Iraq's "Arab identity" is in danger. The Sunni Arab community, as well as secular and nationalist Shi'ite Iraqis, believe their Arab compatriots are increasingly falling under Iran's influence. At the same time, the view Kurds as an entity unto themselves, given their political and ethnic status.

Al-Hashimi said in a statement following a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on June 6 that regional Arab leaders should help protect endangered Arab identity by opening embassies in Baghdad. The vice president said Mubarak gave a "favorable response" to his request.

Allawi has long claimed to have the support of regional Arab states for his national-salvation government, and with the apparent support of the Iraqi Accordance Front, can now claim to have at least 69 seats out of the 275 in parliament. Should he gain the support of the nationalist Shi'ite party, Al-Fadilah -- which pulled out of the UIA in March -- the new front would have 84 seats.

If supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr join the front, the front would have about 30 additional seats, or 114 total.

By contrast, the UIA and the Kurds would be left with 138 parliamentary seats. It's unclear which way the other 23 seats would align, but the salvation front could gain 19 additional seats through the support of the National Dialogue Front (11 seats), the National Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc (five), and the Kurdistan Islamic Union (three), bringing the front's bloc to 125.

According to the Iraqi Constitution, parliament can withdraw its confidence in the prime minister through an absolute majority vote, or 138 ballots.

It remains unclear to what degree Kurdish and Shi'ite leaders would be willing to compromise on a restructuring of the national-unity government. Despite their rhetoric, both groups recognize the need to end sectarianism and allow for greater Sunni Arab participation in the political process. But the level and shape of that participation remains under dispute.

Until all sides can overcome their distrust of one another, it will be difficult to achieve real and lasting progress and resolve key outstanding constitutional issues. In the end, the issues must be decided by Iraqis, as more foreign interference -- on any side -- is a recipe for continued violence. For now, it appears it will be up to individual Iraqis to take the lead in bringing all three parties together.

Turkish Troops Near Border Spark Invasion Reports

Turkish armor moving near the Iraq border on May 31

June 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tensions remain high over Turkey's deployment of armor to its border region with Iraq. The build-up comes as PKK guerrillas have stepped up attacks in southeast Turkey and there is much speculation that Turkish troops will attack PKK bases in northern Iraq.

The Turkish military has strengthened its forces in southeastern Turkey with additional tanks and armored personnel carriers over the past weeks.

But so far, widespread speculation that the troops could cross into northern Iraq to strike PKK bases has not been borne out.

On June 6, the foreign ministers of both Iraq and Turkey denied reports of a cross-border raid.

Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said "there hasn't been any Turkish military incursion into Iraq territory."

Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah Gul said much the same.

"As far as I know the Turkish General Staff has issued a statement [on this issue]" Gul said. "There is no such thing. I would tell you if there was [such an incursion]. It needs a separate preparation period. But no one should forget that we are at war with terrorism. Therefore, we would do anything to eradicate the roots of terrorism. We will do anything to achieve a result on this issue."

The Turkish-Kurd PKK has been fighting a separatist campaign in Turkey since 1984. Some 30,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

In Washington, U.S. Army Brigadier General Perry Wiggins of the Pentagon's joint staff said, "We have no indications or no reports that the Turks have conducted a cross-border operation into Iraq."

PKK Bases In Iraq

The statements came after the AP reported on June 6 that several thousand Turkish troops had launched an offensive.

The PKK is reported to have several bases in northern Iraq, including in mountains along the Iraqi-Iranian border. There has been lively debate in Turkey for weeks over whether Turkish troops should strike them.

But Washington has warned that any incursion could destabilize Kurdish-administered northern Iraq. That area is one of the few stable regions in Iraq.

"We are 100 percent with [Turkey] in the fight against terrorism," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on June 6. "We work very closely with them in the fight against terrorism. And in our view, the PKK is a terrorist organization. All of that said, Turkey and Iraq are neighbors -- that's not going to change. And we don't think it is in the interest of either state that there would be a military incursion into Iraq."

Regional expert Michael Rubin, of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, told RFE/RL recently that Ankara is angry over both fighters and weapons coming across the border into southeastern Turkey.

"There are two problems here," Rubin said. "There is one issue whether PKK fighters are crossing the border and staging attacks in Turkey and returning. That probably isn't so much the problem. The second issue is whether there are explosives and other supplies being trans-shipped from Iraq into Turkey to support the operations. The bombs that are going off in Turkey aren't homemade bombs, made with fertilizer and so forth. Some of the weapons, which the Turks have discovered, are weapons, which were given to the Kurdish regional government. Somehow they got out of the hands of the peshmerga [Iraqi-Kurd soldiers] and into the hands of the PKK."

History Of Tensions

Turkey last sent forces into northern Iraq in 1997.

Tensions between Ankara and Kurdish-administered northern Iraq center not only on the PKK bases but also on Iraqi-Kurd claims on Kirkuk.

The oil rich Iraqi province of Kirkuk is home to multiple ethnic groups, including the Turkomans, a Turkic-speaking minority.

Turkey says inclusion of the province into the Kurdish-administered area would endanger the Turkomans, with whom Ankara feels a cultural and linguistic affinity.

Ankara also fears that an economically stronger Iraqi Kurdish region could seek independence from Iraq, fueling separatist feelings within Turkey's own ethnic-Kurdish minority.

The Turkish-Kurd PKK has been fighting a separatist campaign in Turkey since 1984. Some 30,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

Analyst Examines Possible Turkish Cross-Border Attack

Turkish forces moving toward the Iraqi border on May 31

June 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey is deploying tanks and other armor on its southeastern border amid speculation that Ankara may be about to launch a cross-border attack on PKK bases in northern Iraq. Turkey blames rebels of the PKK group for a recent suicide bombing in Ankara and guerilla attacks on Turkish troops in southeastern Turkey. RFE/RL correspondent Valentinas Mite asked Michael Rubin, a resident scholar from the American Enterprise Institute and a former political adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, about the situation.

RFE/RL: There is much debate in Turkey about whether to launch an incursion into Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region. Is Ankara really on the verge of invading Iraq?

Michael Rubin: I think they may be. There's a lot of frustration in Turkey. The Turks have been asking the Americans for more than four years now to take care of the PKK since 2003 and at the NATO summit in Istanbul in June of 2004 [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush had promised [Turkish] Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan that the United States would take action against the PKK. Now the PKK presence in northern Iraq is limited and its localized and so the Turks say, 'You can do something; it's not impossible.' I think the Iraqi Kurds may be a little bit too overconfident. After all, you have increasing violence in Turkey, an increasing PKK terrorism in Turkey. You have two elections coming up. You have the election for the Turkish parliament on July 22 and soon thereafter the parliament will select the president. And in an election campaign, you also have a situation where any episode gets amplified into the political debate. And therefore patience is really running out.

RFE/RL: Does Turkey have some proof that the Kurdish regional government is supporting the PKK?

Rubin: There are two problems here. There is one issue whether PKK fighters are crossing the border and staging attacks in Turkey and returning. That probably isn't so much the problem. The second issue is whether there are explosive and other supplies being trans-shipped from Iraq into Turkey to support the operations. The bombs that are going off in Turkey aren't homemade bombs, made with fertilizer and so forth. Some of the weapons which the Turks have discovered are weapons which were given to the Kurdish regional government. Somehow they got out of the hands of the peshmerga [the Iraqi Kurdish security force] and into the hands of the PKK.

RFE/RL: What you are saying is that Iraqi Kurds are supporting the PKK. Am I right?

Rubin: Passively, certainly. There is a dispute whether they are doing so actively. But there is no doubt anymore that they have supplied medical supplies to the PKK; they also sold foodstuffs and other material to the PKK. Whether they doing more is something that's debated. But there's very little argument that they have been supplying the PKK.

Michael Rubin at RFE/RL's Prague broadcasting center on June 4 (RFE/RL)

And recently for example, they provided medical treatment for senior PKK officials in the hospital in Irbil. And the Turks have also photographed senior PKK officials in the restaurants in Irbil and so forth, and that's escalated the crisis as well.

RFE/RL: Can this situation lead to the clash of the two NATO allies -- the United States and Turkey?

Rubin: Here, I think the Kurds are misjudging their position a little bit. The [Iraqi] Kurds would make an argument [to the United States] that 'we were your best friends and you should abandon the Turks.' What they don't understand is that if forced to make a decision, the United States is going to side with the Turks. The Turks have been a NATO ally and, despite the problems in our relationships since 2003, there's a longer history there. At the same when many Kurds a pro-American, the Iraqi Kurds have an unfortunate habit of playing both sides.

RFE/RL: Do you see a real possibility of solving the Kurdish question in Iraq?

Rubin: For the Iraqi Kurds, yes. If the issue of Iraqi Kurdistan is just the issue of Iraqi federalism, it's much more easily solved and, at the minimum, the Iraqi Kurds will have some degree, a major degree of, a major degree of federalism. They not going backward to where they were before 1991.

Egyptian Democrat Optimistic About Middle East's Democratic Prospects

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, speaking to RFE/RL in Prague today

June 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Saad Eddin Ibrahim is one of the Arab world's most prominent voices on behalf of democracy and human rights. An Egyptian, he was arrested in 2000 and sentenced to seven years but freed again in 2003 when Egypt's highest appeals court declared his trials improper and cleared him of all charges.

Ibrahim is founder and chairman of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies and a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo. RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sultan Sarwar spoke with Ibrahim at the Democracy and Security conference in Prague.

RFE/RL: You are optimistic about the long-term prospects for democracy in the Middle East. But how do you reconcile that with the current crisis in Iraq, which some critics say points to the failure of U.S.-led efforts to promote democracy?

"I think that the situation in Afghanistan will continue to be contested by these two camps, but I am taking comfort from the fact that the extremists, the terrorists, the violent ones are retreating; they are not making gains."

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: In the short run, the region seems to be in turmoil and this turmoil is bound to increase in the short run. But in the medium and long run, the region is discovering very slowly that democracy is a solution. The war in Iraq seems to have had mixed results. On the one hand, it gave dictatorships an excuse to say, "Look, pushing too quickly for democracy or foreign powers coming into the region to impose democracy has created havoc, has created confusion, and has led to war." But at the same time, the very fact that a dictatorship in Iraq had fallen seemed to have put all other dictators on notice, and all of them are now talking about reform. Whether they mean it or not, at least the language of reform has become a prevalent language. So whether sincere or not, everybody is talking about reform, and everybody is talking about democracy.

RFE/RL: How do you evaluate developments in Afghanistan, where democratic forces confront fundamentalists?

Ibrahim: I think that the situation in Afghanistan will continue to be contested by these two camps, but I am taking comfort from the fact that the extremists, the terrorists, the violent ones are retreating; they are not making gains. They always come back, but they do not make net gains, so far. I hope that this will continue and that with the country's social and economic development, people will become immune to the message of the Taliban and their likes.

RFE/RL: You are in Prague attending a meeting of democracy activists from many countries who are discussing ways to strengthen their efforts. Do you think this conference, where the keynote speaker is U.S. President George W. Bush, will have much impact on political decision makers in the Middle East?

Ibrahim: Well, everybody is taking note of it. My wife just talked to me on the phone. She told me that there is a lot of coverage in the Egyptian media on this conference and also a lot of criticism of me attending the conference, of why I'm invited to the conference and what I'm going to do or say to President Bush. They seem to be nervous, the government. The opposition, on the other hand, seems to be taking some comfort in the fact that at least a representative from civil society in Egypt is taking a prominent part in this conference.

RFE/RL: Let's talk a moment about the situation in Egypt. There the only strong opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood. Why are there not also liberal opposition parties or, when they exist, why are they so often weak?

Ibrahim: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood has an advantage and that is that they have the mosques. One hundred thousand mosques in Egypt, whereas the [Hosni] Mubarak regime has screwed down tightly on civil society, on the secular opposition, and therefore we could not operate. We could not do anything in the public square or in the street.

Supporters of Egypt's Islamist Muslim Brotherhood demonstrate in Cairo in February (epa)

We could not organize rallies, we could not organize marches or demonstrations because of emergency laws. Emergency laws have been in effect since 1981, since the assassination of President [Anwar] Sadat. So for the last 26 years, these emergency laws have prevented secularists from going out and organizing and mobilizing.

On the other hand, the Muslim Brothers have the mosques, and that is an advantage that is without design probably by the regime, but it has played in their favor. Meanwhile, I do not like to exaggerate their constituency because despite the fact that they have freer space to move in, still their share in the last Egyptian parliamentary election was 20 percent out of the 20 percent [of registered voters who actually voted]. So, 77 percent of the registered voters did not like to vote for them, nor to vote for the regime. And that is a 77 percent that I consider to be the silent majority, the potential constituency for liberal-democratic parties whenever liberal-democratic parties are allowed full freedom to operate.

RFE/RL: Do you think that there is a future for liberal parties in Egypt?

Ibrahim: Absolutely. Kefaya -- and there is a new party, a very exciting party called the Democratic Front Party that just obtained a license last week, and it is led by Dr. Osama Ghazali Harb and Dr. Yahia al-Gamal, two prominent public figures in Egypt, and young people have turned out in big numbers to join it. In a sense, it is like Al-Ghad Party, which was led by Mr. Ayman Nur, but since Ayman Nur is in prison, [the Democratic Front Party] is probably going to fill the vacuum that Ayman could have been able to fill had he been allowed some freedom.