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Iraq Report: June 15, 2007

Killing Of Journalists On The Rise In Iraq

By Kathleen Ridolfo

Journalists are being increasingly targeted in Iraq (file photo)

June 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi journalists have been targeted for kidnappings and assassinations at an alarming rate in recent weeks. Though journalists have been targeted routinely since 2003, attacks and threats by insurgents are on the rise.

At least 18 journalists have been gunned down since January, and 10 relatives of journalists have been killed -- in one case, seven members of one family.

While Western journalists in Iraq often operate with the support of a security team, Iraqi journalists primarily operate on their own, primarily because they work for media outlets unable to float the high costs of a security detail. While journalists who live and work within their communities may also be relatively safe operating in familiar terrain, it is becoming more apparent that the opposite is true.

Warnings Not Heeded

Family members of slain journalists often report that the victim had received threats prior to their killing. Some journalists try to address threats by changing their residence, residing with friends or relatives, or relocating their families outside Iraq.

Sahar Hussein Ali al-Haydari, a correspondent for Aswat Al-Iraq (Voices of Iraq), had received several death threats prior to her June 7 killing in Mosul. In 2006, she was targeted twice for abduction, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). One attempt failed, while she was rescued the second time. She was shot in March 2006, and then in August, gunmen killed her daughter's fiance. In 2005, al-Haydari had moved her family to Damascus due to death threats.

Al-Haydari told the CPJ in a March 22 e-mail that her name was fourth on a "death list" of journalists and police officers compiled by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq. The group circulated the list around Mosul and posted the list on the door of her home. Gunmen answered her mobile telephone after her death, telling a Mosul police captain, "She went to hell."

"The constant threats and abductions she endured, and her eventual murder, are stark reminders of the sacrifice she made to tell the Iraqi story to the world," CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said.

The Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, an insurgent group with ties to the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility for al-Haydari's killing in a June 11 Internet statement dated June 8. "We had received information that this journalist worked for the Kurdistan media and she was aided by the apostate police force," the Ansar statement said. " We already knew, prior to receiving this information, that her work was aimed at ruining the mujahedin's reputation."

The statement continued: "When she walked into the trap set for her, the mujahedin brothers pounced on her and showered her with a torrent of bullets from their machine guns, killing her instantly. The brothers then took her cell phone and found numbers and pictures in it that belonged to police officers. This assured us that her work was for the benefit of both the police and the apostate [Prime Minister Nuri] al-Maliki government."

Casualties Of War

Al-Fallujah-based journalist Abd al-Rahman al-Isawi was shot dead along with seven of his relatives on May 30. Al-Isawi was killed in his home along with his wife, son, parents, and three other relatives. Al-Isawi worked for the online NINA news agency, and he was also the media representative of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, a gathering of Sunni Arab tribal leaders from the governorate who have committed to fighting Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

TV reporter Atwar Bahjat was killed in February 2006 (AFP file photo)

Nazar Abd al-Wahid al-Radhi, a correspondent working for RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) was gunned down outside a hotel in Al-Amarah on May 30. He was the second RFI correspondent killed in Iraq in as many months. According to witnesses, armed men in a pickup truck opened fire on al-Radhi and four other journalists as they left a workshop at the hotel. Al-Radhi was the only journalist killed in the attack. Al-Radhi was a well-known journalist in Iraq, and also worked for the Internet news agency Aswat al-Iraq and the daily "Al-Sabah al-Jadid." RFE/RL President Jeff Gedmin said that RFE/RL "mourns his loss and honors his memory."

RFI correspondent Khamail Muhsin Khalaf was abducted in Baghdad on her way home from work on April 3. Her body was found two days later. Following her abduction, an unidentified caller telephoned her family using her mobile phone, but no further communication was made. Khamail had received several threats after joining RFI in 2004, where she reported on social and cultural life in Iraq. She was a highly regarded former Iraqi television journalist and newscaster.

According to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, at least 182 journalists and media assistants have been killed, and another 77 kidnapped in Iraq since 2003. Of those kidnapped, 23 have been murdered, 40 have been released, and 14 are still being held by their abductors.

The targeting of journalists serves the insurgent cause and its attempt to influence and direct public perceptions of the security situation in Iraq and the work of the Iraqi government toward reining in the insurgency. Should insurgents succeed in their campaign to intimidate journalists into leaving their profession, the loss, in terms of civil-society development will be devastating.

RFE/RL Iraq Correspondent Killed In Baghdad
Radio Free Iraq correspondent Khamail Muhsin Khalaf was found dead in Baghdad on April 5. more
RFE/RL Correspondent Shot Dead In Iraq
Abd al-Wahid al-Radhi, was shot and killed in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Amarah on May 30. more

Mosque Bombing A Test For Emerging Political Climate

By Kathleen Ridolfo

Samarra's Al-Askari Mosque following today's attack

June 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Sunni insurgents have once again attacked the Al-Askari (Golden) Mosque in an apparent attempt to goad Shi'a into launching retalitory actions.

The attack comes just weeks after Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr extended an olive branch to Sunni Arabs and called on his followers to protect and defend their Sunni brethren in the wake of Al-Qaeda's increasingly bitter attacks that target all Iraqis without distinction.

The February 22, 2006, bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque, which destroyed the shrine's famous golden dome, was a watershed moment in Iraq. It set off a firestorm of sectarian attacks and counterattacks between Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs in the country that continues to this day, pushing the country to the brink of civil war.

As Iraqis brace for more violence in the wake of today's attack, which toppled two minarets at the partially destroyed mosque, the Iraqi government imposed a curfew in the capital until further notice.

PHOTO GALLERY: The Destruction Of The Golden Mosque

The shrine, which houses the tombs of the 10th and 11th Shi'ite imams -- Imam Ali al-Askari and his son, Imam Hasan al-Askari -- is immensely symbolic to Shi'a worldwide. Shi'a believe that the revered 12th Imam, al-Mahdi, went into hiding at the site and will only emerge on the day of judgment.

The site is also immensely symbolic to all Iraqis as a historic artifact, and its destruction signifies a further degradation of Iraqi history and culture.

As Iraqis brace for more violence in the wake of today's attack, which toppled two minarets at the partially destroyed mosque, the Iraqi government imposed a curfew in the capital until further notice. A curfew is likely to be called in Samarra as well; the city has a majority Sunni population and is a base for several insurgent groups, including Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq.

Divided Insurgency

Just how Iraqis respond to the bombing will reveal much about the emerging climate in the country. In recent weeks, homegrown Sunni insurgents have taken up arms against the Islamic State, which, due to its composition of foreign fighters, is viewed as an outside force that is doing more harm than good to the homegrown Sunni insurgency.

The Islamic Army in Iraq, one of the most powerful Sunni insurgent groups, has publicly chastised the Islamic State for its attacks on Iraqi civilians. The Islamic Army has also clarified its position on the Shi'a, saying Iraqi Shi'ite civilians should not be targeted; only those Shi'a working to support the so-called Iranian agenda in Iraq -- including the U.S.-supported Iraqi military and police -- should be seen as legitimate targets.

The Al-Askari Mosque following the February 2006 attack that brought down its golden dome (epa)

That position has cost the Islamic Army dearly in terms of wider support among Arab mujahedin and their supporters, though it is a position largely supported by other homegrown Sunni insurgent groups. Such a position matters because it speaks to the extent that sectarianism in Iraq has largely been fomented by an outside force (Al-Qaeda) and implies that Muslim unity in Iraq, though it may take years to salvage, is not beyond repair.

Al-Sadr's Role

While many of Iraq's most influential Shi'ite religious leaders have tried to maintain support for Muslim unity over the past two years, their message has largely been drowned out by sectarian hate speech of Sunni and Shi'ite politicians, and by the actions of Shi'ite militias, which have contributed to internecine violence through their actions and rhetoric.

The changing position of Shi'ite politicians like al-Sadr, who now purports to support and defend Sunni Arabs, is largely the result of the political climate surrounding Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's administration. Al-Sadr has always positioned himself as a "nationalist" Iraqi who, unlike many of Iraq's current leaders, never fled the country during Saddam Hussein's regime, but rather remained on Iraqi soil to defend his nation. The Iraqi opposition, he claims, returned to Iraq in 2003 as an outside force -- bent on exploiting Iraq's wealth with the help of the United States and with no knowledge of or interest in serving the needs of the Iraqi people. It is this position that enabled al-Sadr to emerge as a force to be reckoned with.

Though al-Sadr has called on his followers to remain calm and not retaliate, it is likely that reprisal attacks will be carried out. Al-Sadr has increasingly lost control of his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army in recent months. The militia has continued to carry out attacks on Sunni Arabs despite their leader's call to defend the Sunni Arab population. Media reports from Sunni-dominated neighborhoods in Baghdad in recent days indicate the Al-Mahdi Army continues to try to intimidate and impose its will on the Sunni and minority Christian populations.

Iraqi Religious Leaders Build Cross-Sectarian Dialogue

By Nikola Krastev

Iraqi Sunni and Shi'ite clerics at a joint conference in Baghdad on June 4

UNITED NATIONS, June 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Amid deepening challenges in Iraq, a dozen senior Iraqi religious and civil-society leaders have gathered at the United Nations to help forge global partnerships to rebuild Iraqi national consensus.

The two-day Iraq for all Iraqis conference, which concluded on June 12, aimed to advance dialogue and cooperation among the feuding social and religious factions in the country. Another goal was to rebuild bridges and advance cooperation between these Iraqi leaders and United Nations' institutions, U.S. nongovernmental organizations, and scholars.

If he could, says Iraqi Sunni scholar Sheikh Khalid al-Mullah, he would send his grown-up children to study in the United States.

But Western-style education for his kids is not among his priorities. Al-Mullah's family is now in Syria, where they live in relative safety.

"Today we can say that we are reaching a crisis of this distortion of religion," one participant said. "In this sense, I think, it's not exaggerated to say that religion is being hijacked."

Because of his moderate stance and attempts to bring Shi'a and Sunnis together, the chairman of the Sunni Islamic Scholars Movement in Al-Basrah says he has frequently been targeted with death threats.

The Radicalization Of Islam

Along with other prominent Sunni and Shi'ite religious leaders and scholars gathered in New York, al-Mullah was trying to convey the urgency of finding common ground and understanding amid the increasing violence in Iraq. He said that among major threats to the deteriorating security situation in the country is Al-Qaeda's radicalization of Islam:

"I think Al-Qaeda has a distorted ideology and vision and will pose a further threat to Iraq, to the region, and to the world," al-Mullah said. "People here in the United States, New York, Madrid, and London have already witnessed the lethal efficiency of such an organization. They have no respect and no boundary whether it comes to religion, or sect, or race. Their terrorism goes beyond all this."

Many conference participants shared al-Mullah's concerns. Among them were Ammar Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, a Shi'ite theologian and secretary-general of the Al-Hakim Foundation, and Sheikh Majid al-Hafid, who is a Sunni scholar from Al-Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq and the imam of a historic mosque.

Despite their sectarian differences, al-Mullah says all of them are worried by the threat of growing religious extremism in Iraq.

"Obviously, there's more than one problem, but the most profound is the religious extremism," he said. "This is a new problem and if I have to look into the number of casualties as a result of it, compared to the number of casualties related to the operations of the multinational forces in Iraq, I would say that 95 percent of the victims are dying from actions of religious extremism and only 5 percent are casualties related to the security operations of the multinational forces."

Religious Extremism On The Rise

William Vendley, who is the secretary-general of the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Religions for Peace, says that the worsening situation in Iraq is a result of a continuous attempt to subvert religion, any religion, for nonreligious purposes.

"Today we can say that we are reaching a crisis of this distortion of religion," Vendley said. "In this sense, I think, it's not exaggerated to say that religion is being hijacked. This is true in Iraq, [but] it's not just true in Iraq. One could argue that it's true in Israel to some extent; one could argue that it's true in Texas to some extent; one could argue that it's true in parts of India to some extent. We have to ask ourselves why is this, what causes this?"

Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sa'id al-Hakim (CTK file photo)

Vendley identifies several causes for flourishing religious extremism. Among them is that religious extremists claim legitimacy, claim to be the proper interpreters of sacred texts. Often, he says they act in alliance with unscrupulous politicians who are using religious extremism to advance their own agendas and manipulate the public. Another major factor for the success of religious extremists in many parts of world is that half of the world's population lives in poverty.

"These people are easily championed by those who are using religious distortions," Vendley said. "So this is a potent cocktail that we are trying to present to ourselves to drink these days. And in Iraq you have this cocktail mixed and served on a daily basis."

Improving Security In Iraq

Muhammad Husayn al-Hakim is an Islamic scholar and lecturer at a theological institute in Al-Najaf. His father is Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sa'id al-Hakim, one of the most senior religious figures in Iraq. Muhammad Husayn al-Hakim says holding this reconciliation conference in New York, and particularly on the UN grounds, draws more international attention to Iraq's domestic problems.

"It is an essential prerequisite in any reconciliation process for people to sit together," al-Hakim said. "Obviously, we've done that before. And in a place like this, it is also to give a sense that Iraqis share the same goals. The situation today in Iraq is not exclusive to Iraqis. We all know that there is a international row within Iraq. And sending a message to the international community is important for making a change on the ground."

The al-Hakim family is an important element in Al-Najaf, and Muhammad Husayn al-Hakim is considered a voice of moderation and coexistence, despite a bomb attack on his father's house and occasional death threats. Al-Hakim says that at this juncture it is obvious that a sudden withdrawal of the multinational forces from Iraq would probably lead to the disintegration of the state.

"The important point obviously is that there is a security issue," al-Hakim said. "Everybody -- regardless of their opinion of the U.S. military presence in Iraq -- recognizes that a vacuum may lead to more death and bloodshed. What we want is the speedy construction and buildup of the Iraqi forces and as soon as that's ready, then there wouldn't be any need for the Americans or for any other forces to stay in Iraq."

Many of the participants in the New York conference have been meeting since May 2003 in a series of similar dialogues organized by Religions For Peace. The goal is to create an interreligious council in Iraq. Previous meetings took place in Iraq, Japan, Jordan, England, Norway, and South Korea.

Al-Sadr Calls For Restraint, But With What Objectives?

Reuel Marc Gerecht

June 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In the wake of the June 13 bombing of a key Shi'ite shrine in Samarra, radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr again finds himself the focus of attention. Forces loyal to him unleashed revenge attacks on Sunni militias in the wake of the first bombing of the mosque 16 months ago, taking the country to the verge of civil war.

This time, the reaction from the Shi'ite community has been restrained -- in large part because al-Sadr appears to be holding his forces in check. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with Reuel Marc Gerecht, a Middle East specialist with the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, about the prospects for renewed clashes.

RFE/RL: Al-Sadr is calling for restraint after the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra just, in fact, as he did after the first bombing in February 2006. But after the first bombing, militias loyal to al-Sadr launched revenge attacks, something that hasn't happened this time. Part of that may be that the already ruined mosque isn't such a lighting rod a second time around. But another part may be that al-Sadr has added the implication that this time the United States is responsible, not Sunni groups. Is al-Sadr using this occasion to pile pressure on the United States to pull out of Iraq?

"And what is important to know is that Sadr has never stated that he is opposed to the implementation of some kind of democratic system. To my knowledge, no Shi'ite radical yet has backed away from the structure that they have or suggested that the structure they have is illegitimate."

Reuel Marc Gerecht: If he can get the Americans out, then the odds of the radicals in the Shi'ite community becoming even more predominant -- or becoming predominant -- are fairly decent. I think he understands you would have a collapse of the center in Baghdad. And he has done rather well in the south, and the south is the model that you should fear; it is not the collision between the Sunnis and Shi'a in the central regions, which eventually the Shi'a will win. It's what is happening down in Basra and the south, where you are seeing profound internecine Shi'ite strife, and the radicals have done rather well because of that. The moderates have not.

RFE/RL: It does seem al-Sadr is at least as preoccupied with jockeying for power within the Shi'ite establishment as he is with what to do with Sunni militants and how to get the United States out of Iraq. How much of a challenge do his forces represent now to other, more established Shi'ite militias whose affiliated religious parties make up the bulk of the government?

Gerecht: Sadr has since 2003 become a much more organized force, I am not sure that militarily he is competitive with SCIRI, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq [note: SCIRI recently changed its name to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC). The Badr Organization is its armed wing.]. The Badr Organization is a professional paramilitary force and a head-on collision ... I am not sure Sadr would be prepared for that. But his military forces are getting stronger; they are not getting weaker.

RFE/RL: As al-Sadr presses for U.S. forces to leave, has he defined what kind of state he wants Iraq to be afterward and what role he would play in it?

Gerecht: He knows that he really can't become a religious leader, so he has to have a highly politicized religious system. I don't think an importation of the model of Velayat-e Faqih [Guardianship of the Jurist] even on an Iranian model, where you have an expressly, obviously political cleric in charge of the state and highly politicized mullahs who really aren't very religiously accomplished dominating society and politics -- that pattern and model really doesn't work terribly well in Iraq and you don't find even amongst the radicals that much sympathy or understanding for the Iranian model.

So, it's not clear that he actually at this time has an idea. And what is important to know is that Sadr has never stated that he is opposed to the implementation of some kind of democratic system. To my knowledge, no Shi'ite radical yet has backed away from the structure that they have or suggested that the structure they have is illegitimate. I think if he were to do so he would probably lose ground. So, he is conscious of that and he doesn't have a free hand. He knows that inside of the Shi'ite community, it is a competitive system for allegiances.

RFE/RL: In pressing for the United States to leave Iraq, al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi Army has fought pitched battles with U.S. forces, notably in August 2004. Now he seems to have abandoned armed confrontation as too costly and accepted the U.S. security surge into areas his forces control. Why?

Gerecht: He did not object to the American surge into Sadr City. [The Al-Mahdi Army] has been restrained, but it has done things that perhaps were helpful to him -- that is, it removed Shi'ite radicals who were not following his orders. And that is not a bad thing. So, Sadr has played a very good game and at times a cautious game. So he is not hell-bent for war, at least not with the United States.

RFE/RL: Finally, it would seem al-Sadr might have a hard time persuading the Shi'ite community that someone other than Sunni radicals -- i.e., the United States -- bombed the Samarra mosque this week. How can he hope that such a conspiracy theory will be accepted, even when there is no evidence to sustain it?

Gerecht: Conspiracy theories can occupy different parts of the brain simultaneously. So, there can be one part of the brain that knows the truth, that is that it wasn't the Americans or the Israelis that did it, that it was an affiliate of Al-Qaeda. It could be the Iraqi Sunnis in conjunction with Al-Qaeda or another radical Islamist group, which is probably the case. But at the same time, many individuals can want to believe in a greater Iraqi cause; they can want to believe that the Sunni Muslims are not beyond redemption, that they can see the light, that we can have an Iraqi state -- all these things can cohabitate and not cause that much contradictory tension.

The Al-Askari Mosque

RFE/RL presents a photo gallery of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, before and after the bombings of February 2006 and June 2007.