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Iraq Report: June 28, 2007


RFE/RL has released a book-length study entitled "Iraqi Insurgent Media: The War Of Images And Ideas." The study documents the media efforts of the Iraqi insurgency and how global jihadists are using those efforts to spread their destructive message.

Sunnis Fear Being Forced Out Of Government

By Sumedha Senanayake

Mahmud al-Mashhadani's ouster as parliament speaker has raised tensions (file photo)

June 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's Sunnis, who were once at the top of the political hierarchy, have found themselves looking up at the Shi'a and Kurds, who now form the new political elite in post-Hussein Iraq.

Four years after the U.S.-led invasion, Sunnis now complain that although many of them have joined the political process, they continue to be marginalized. Two recent incidents underscore this perception.

Speaker's Ouster Leads To Boycott

Iraq's two major Sunni political blocs, the Iraqi Accordance Front and the National Dialogue Council, announced on June 23 that they were boycotting the National Assembly until Sunni speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani was reinstated to his post. Al-Mashhadani was voted out by 113 of the assembly's 168 legislators during the June 11 session after it came to light that he or his bodyguards had allegedly attacked a Shi'ite lawmaker.

Rather than nominating a replacement for al-Mashhadani, the two blocs stood firm and demanded that he be reinstated. Al-Mashhadani himself claimed that he was unfairly removed, since he did not get a chance to explain the incident before the vote.

Sheikh Khalaf al-Ulayyan, one of the leaders of the Iraqi Accordance Front, said al-Mashhadani's dismissal as demanded by Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance, the largest bloc in the assembly, was done under false pretenses and was seen as "an unfair decision based on the dictatorship of the majority," Al-Sharqiyah television reported on June 23.

Al-Ulayyan's comments are telling and encapsulate many of the problems the Sunni Arab leadership has with the current Shi'a-dominated government, namely that it is carrying out a sectarian agenda that aims to marginalize the Sunnis. And demanding a vote without giving al-Mashhadani a chance to defend himself underscored this notion.

While it was true that al-Mashhadani had a confrontational style and had several physical altercations with fellow lawmakers, it may have also been his vocal opposition to several of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's major policies that led to his ouster.

In early January, al-Mashhadani described al-Maliki's highly anticipated Baghdad security plan as "illegitimate," adding that al-Maliki had never consulted the parliament about the plan. Al- Mashhadani's rejection of the plan was most probably due to fears he and other Sunni leaders had that Sunni Arab communities would be disproportionately targeted during the security operation.

Furor Over Culture Minister's Arrest

Then on June 26, an arrest warrant was issued for Culture Minister As'ad Kamal al-Hashimi, a Sunni, on terrorism charges. It was the first time in the post-Saddam era that an arrest warrant has been issued against a sitting cabinet minister.

Al-Hashimi is alleged to have ordered the killing of Sunni lawmaker Mithal al-Alusi's two sons in Baghdad in 2005. It is unclear if al-Alusi or his sons were the target, but Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Al-Arabiyah satellite television that several individuals involved in the killing confessed that al-Hashimi had ordered the attack when he was the imam of a local mosque.

The warrant for al-Hashimi's arrest has drawn furious reaction from Sunnis (AFP file photo)

A raid on his Baghdad home and the arrest of more than 40 of his bodyguards -- al-Hashimi was not at home during the raid --were furiously denounced by Sunni groups and leaders. Many wondered why the government was aggressively looking into an incident that occurred two years ago.

The Sunni-led Iraqi People's Conference issued a statement on June 27 accusing the Shi'ite-led government of purposely targeting Sunni lawmakers in an effort to further marginalize the Sunni community, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported.

"The government is stupidly playing with fire in continuing a policy of lies meant to exclude Sunni officials and politicians," the statement said. The Iraqi People's Conference threatened "to expose those high-ranking officials, ministers, members of parliament, and even Shi'ite religious figures who are involved with crimes of extermination against the Sunni people, such as killings, kidnappings, and forced relocations."

The day before, al-Hashimi himself told Al-Jazeera satellite television that the arrest warrant was only a pretext for the government to systematically target Sunni lawmakers, particularly those from the Iraqi Accordance Front.

"This has always been the case when they [the Iraqi government] want to frame anyone," al-Hashimi said. "The easiest way is to accuse him of involvement in terrorist acts. They are used to targeting and framing leaders from the Iraqi Accordance Front on a daily basis. They want to say that their [the front's] ideology is against coexistence and cooperation to build this country."

Perception Is Everything

While it is highly unlikely that the Iraqi government is systematically trying to target Sunni politicians, there is a prevalent belief within the Sunni community that it is actively trying to do so. The perception among Sunnis that the Shi'ite-led government is trying to lock them out of the political process could lead to the eventual collapse of that process.

It may stall or completely jeopardize efforts toward national reconciliation and further politically marginalize the Sunnis. While the United States has been pushing for Sunnis to have a greater role in the political process, the al-Mashhadani and al-Hashimi incidents may force Sunnis to reevaluate their situation within the current political landscape.

Sunnis, who once cautiously joined the political process thinking it was the appropriate route to change their lot in the post-Hussein era, may now completely abandon it. And those who are currently taking up arms may point to the perceived marginalization as further evidence that armed resistance is the only legitimate means for change.

Frustration within the Sunni Arab community may be at an all-time high. The review commission responsible for recommending proposed constitutional amendments missed its May deadline and there are rumors that it will not be ready for the new September deadline. Legislation to reverse the de-Ba'athification process to allow thousands of ex-Ba'athists to return to their jobs has ground to a halt.

With so little progress on the political front, the perception that Sunnis may be being muscled out of the political process may force many in that community to look for another alternative.

Mild Reaction To 'Chemical Ali's' Sentence Is Telling

By Sumedha Senanayake

Chemical Ali's death sentence did not evoke the same reactions as when Saddam Hussein was sentenced (file photo)

June 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The death sentence handed down by the Iraqi High Tribunal on June 24 against Ali Hasan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali" for his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, for his role in the Anfal campaign elicited a surprising response among those who both loathed and applauded him.

In contrast to the near circus-like atmosphere that swept Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish communities after former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death, the sentencing of al-Majid, the former secretary-general of the northern bureau of Iraq's Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party and Hussein's cousin, for his role in the 1987-88 campaign against the Kurds was greatly subdued.

This shift in Iraqis' reactions to the sentencing is perhaps a telling indication of where the collective Iraqi psyche is four years after the fall of Baghdad.

Kurds Welcome Verdict, Quietly

Reactions to the death sentence fell along the predictable sectarian and ethnic lines, though it was fairly muted on both sides. In Irbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, reports indicated that Kurds overwhelmingly welcomed the sentence, although the intensity of their joy paled in comparison to the death sentence Hussein received in the Al-Dujayl trial, when Kurds flooded the streets in jubilation.

Even statements by prominent Kurdish officials regarding the sentences were scarce. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih issued a statement on June 25 hailing the verdicts in the Anfal trial, but also used the occasion to underscore the Kurds' desire for federalism, the Kurdish daily "Aso" reported.

"Chemical Ali and other criminals should become an example for all those thinking of persecuting and threatening our people," Salih said. "The occasion of sentencing the criminals gives us the opportunity to insist on our legitimate struggle for a democratic and federal Iraq that can secure the country's future, so that the dreadful days of Anfal, chemical bombardments, and mass graves will not occur again," he added.

However, there were mixed reactions in the Kurdish town of Halabjah, where 5,000 people were believed to have been gassed in 1988. Those killings were not part of the Anfal trial, but will be the focus of a separate trial to be scheduled at an unspecified date.

Many residents of Halabjah fear that with the conclusion of the Anfal trial, combined with the execution of Hussein and scheduled execution of al-Majid, they may never get to see justice. Muhammad Faraj, the director of the Halabjah Chemical Victims Association, worried that the atrocities committed in Halabjah may never fully be recognized, reported on June 25. "We see ourselves as martyrs because we see ourselves as already dead," Faraj said. "We are dead because the world does not recognize our suffering."

Sunnis Condemn It, Quietly

On the other hand, Sunnis were even more subdued. There were no reports of the pro-Ba'athist demonstrations or confrontations with security forces that were reported after Hussein's sentencing. In fact, the lack of any visible unease within the Sunni community may be an indication that many believed that the verdict and the sentencing were a forgone conclusion.

Saddam Hussein inspired more passionate reactions (epa file photo)

After the fiasco that ensued following Hussein's execution, where an illicit video showed the former Iraqi leader being verbally taunted by several guards, and the "botched" hanging of former intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Sunnis may have come to feel resigned to being victims of a vindictive government.

However, Ba'ath Party spokesman Abu Muhammad issued a statement on Al-Jazeera television on June 24 depicting al-Majid and his co-defendants as courageous men who sacrificed much to defend Iraq, but were now being sentenced to death on unjust charges by an illegal court. "This trial is invalid because it has taken place under an unjust occupation of Iraq and the destruction of the state. The great crime is the crime of occupying Iraq," Muhammad said.

The anger expressed by the Ba'ath Party is all the more biting, considering that the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government has yet to make significant moves toward revising the de-Ba'athification law that could allow thousands of ex-Ba'athists to return to their jobs. Many U.S. and Sunni officials believe this would give a boost to national reconciliation by enticing former Ba'athists, who are believed to form the backbone of the nationalist insurgency, to lay down their weapons and enter the political process.

Muted Coverage Reflects The Times

Coverage of the Anfal sentencing was fairly muted in the Iraqi press, particularly when compared with the media frenzy when Hussein was sentenced to death in November 2006. Reports from the courtroom indicated that only a few Iraqi journalists were present when the Anfal sentencing was read, and none from Iraq's Kurdish papers.

While the Kurdish press lauded the death sentence handed down to al-Majid and his two co-defendants, the collective euphoria that was expressed in the Shi'ite and Kurdish communities after Hussein's sentencing in the Al-Dujayl trial was clearly absent.

One reason for this is the absence of Hussein, himself a defendant in the Anfal trial, who was executed in December. Hussein, more than any other single figure, came to symbolize the ruthlessness and repression of the former regime in the eyes of the Kurds and Shi'a. And for them, his absence from the latter stages of the trial and the sentencing perhaps made many in those communities lose interest.

Indeed, the laborious trial, which lasted nearly 10 months, may have taken its toll on the interest within the Kurdish and Shi'ite communities. Following the Al-Dujayl trial that lasted over a year, Iraqis may have become weary of the spectacle of prominent figures of the former regime being on trial.

However, a more cynical reading may be that Iraqis, in general, have other more pressing issues to deal with, namely the daily carnage and chaos that plagues their country. Even Iraqis, who were once persecuted by the former Ba'athist regime, are now perhaps too worn down by the seemingly unending cycle of suicide bombings and sectarian killings to be concerned about obtaining justice for crimes that were committed by the former government.

Critical Report On Al-Basrah Diagnoses Iraq's Ills

By Jan Jun

British forces secure the scene of a car bombing in Al-Basrah in February

LONDON, June 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The southern Iraqi port of Al-Basrah once appeared to be on the way to establishing peaceful coexistence among various religious and political groupings. Now, fratricidal violence among armed militias makes political settlement and peaceful development impossible, a new report has concluded.

The International Crisis Group is a respected body of former presidents, ministers, and other decision-makers from the world's leading democracies. And today it issued a new report on the lessons of fratricidal violence among militias in the Iraqi port of Al-Basrah.

Peter Harling, ICG's senior analyst in the Middle East, worked in Iraq for seven years and is now based in Damascus. He presented the findings at London's Royal United Services Institute.

One ICG analyst says leaders of the U.S.-led coalition should realize that the political parties that make up the Iraqi government are not building a democracy, but destroying what is left of one.

"We use this, the analysis of this dynamic, as a way of showing that Iraq's predicament now has much to do with the fact that we're facing a failed state which doesn't have the capacity to impose the rule of law, fair redistribution of resources," Harling told RFE/RL. "The political scene is actually dominated by armed Islamist parties fighting over local resources."

Harling explains that the report finds four major implications of the Al-Basrah situation applicable to the whole country.

Lessons From Al-Basrah

The first is that violence is multilayered and not solely the result of sectarianism and terrorism. There are also political killings and an ongoing vendetta among Islamist parties. And there is coercion of the local population, obliged to choose sides and seek protection from militias. This makes any three-way partition of Iraq impossible, the report says.

The second implication is that Al-Basrah shows that political actors operating through militias routinely resort to violence.

The third implication is that the answer to that problem cannot be bolstering existing political structures and treating political parties as partners, as the United States and Britain have been doing so far.

The last implication is that the supposedly more settled British dealings with locals in Al-Basrah make little difference, given the overarching dynamics.

Harling says leaders of the U.S.-led coalition should realize that the political parties that make up the Iraqi government are not building a democracy, but destroying what is left of one.

"The Baghdad government presents itself as a national-unity government," Harling says. "If it wants to deserve that label, it has to stand up to its responsibilities, which it hasn't been doing at all since the [security] surge has started [in February]. Very little has been done in terms of addressing the key causes of violence and, in particular, reaching out to the Sunni Arab population, taking into account its most legitimate demands."

The International Environment

At the same time, the Baghdad government must realize that the support and goodwill of the international community it relies on will not last forever. It must be told that it has got very little time left if it does not act, Harling says.

He concludes it's also useful to bear in mind that Iraq's neighbors -- predominantly Shi'ite Iran and predominantly Sunni Syria -- realize that they could end up at odds with one another if a conflict by proxy develops.

This Sunni mosque near Al-Basrah was destroyed earlier this month (AFP)

"There's a limit to how far they [Iran and Syria] are ready to go in terms of precipitating Iraq's breakup, which is not in their interest," Harling says. "So, I do believe that some dialogue and cooperation is possible with those actors, given how dire the situation on the ground has become."

Christopher Pang, head of Middle East studies at the Royal United Services Institute, says the ICG report correctly identifies the causes of why Al-Basrah has gone from a so-called oasis of calm to what it is today.

"It is often said that in the Iraq strategy there is no development without security and there is no security without development," Pang says. "I think the report highlights that for any strategy in Iraq to succeed to bring peace to the region, to quell the sectarian violence, it must address both policy options."

Can The Security Surge Work?

Pang stresses that the situations in Al-Basrah and Baghdad may not be comparable. He acknowledges that conditions in Baghdad are not yet conducive to the sort of negotiations that Iraq's government should be seen to be engaging in.

He says he does not, however, share the ICG report's pessimism because the current surge of thousands of additional U.S. troops could still work and push the Iraqi government into doing what it should have done earlier -- and what the report rightly deplores as lacking.

"The strategic rational behind the surge is to provide the Iraqi politicians with the appropriate breathing space so that they can undertake the required political negotiations on the critical issues that currently divide the country between Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi'ite," Pang says. "These include issues such as the redistribution of wealth with respect to oil [and] issues about reconciliation."

Pang concludes that this is why he is optimistic the surge is the right strategy.