Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iraq Report: July 20, 2007

Refugee Crisis Could Become Regional Security Threat

By Sumedha Senanayake

Iraqi refugees registering in Damsacus in April

July 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In a mid-year report issued on July 17, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) warned that the rate at which Iraqis are being driven from their homes since the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in February 2006 has not subsided.

According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 2.2 million Iraqis are currently internally displaced and an additional 2 million have fled to neighboring countries, particularly Jordan and Syria.

With Iraq experiencing such massive displacement, the situation may soon become a regional crisis with major security implications.

Rising Resentment In Jordan, Syria

The influx of Iraqi refugees into neighboring Jordan and Syria has created a huge burden on the resources of both.

In Jordan, which is hosting up to 700,000 Iraqi refugees, some officials as well as economists have claimed that the prices of basic commodities such as well as housing have tripled over the past three years because of the Iraqis. According to the International Monetary Fund, Jordan's consumer price index rose 6.3 percent in 2006, the highest increase since 2003.

In addition, with an unemployment rate of 15.4 percent and with 30 percent of the population living below the poverty line, the flood of refugees has increased the competition for unskilled labor. Iraqi refugees have allegedly driven wages down across the board by working for significantly less than the previously prevailing rate, thereby sowing resentment among the local population.

Syria has taken in some 1.4 million Iraqis and by UNHCR estimates the number is growing by 30,000 a month. While Syria has continued to abide by an "open-door" policy towards the refugees, the tremendous goodwill displayed by the Syrians has begun to show signs of strain. The sheer number of refugees has created a huge strain on Syria's education, health, and housing infrastructure. Schools and hospitals are flooded with Iraqis. Housing costs and prices for basic goods have increased, leading to bitterness among many Syrians.

"Little by little, the attitude of the Syrian population to the Iraqis is changing," Laurens Jolles, a UNHCR representative based in Damascus, said at press conference on May 13. "While there still is a degree of empathy, they are also starting to feel the consequences of this very large number of Iraqis in terms of schooling and access to clinics."

Marginalized Population

Many Iraqis who have fled the violence in Iraq to neighboring countries have been left in limbo. Both Jordan and Syria have refused to officially label the Iraqis refugees, instead referring to them as "visitors."

Jordan is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and it has no asylum procedures. According to the UNHCR, Iraqis are treated as guests and allowed entry via temporary visas, but those who cannot renew them become illegal and are either asked to leave or are sent back to Iraq.

Are the Iraqi refugees ripe for radicalization? (AFP file photo)

Furthermore, Jordan has put in place more stringent security measures for Iraqis who want to enter. Since the November 2005 suicide bombings in Amman that killed 60 people, Iraqis seeking to enter Jordan now must be over 40 or under 20 and have sufficient funds to support themselves while staying in the kingdom. Those who do not meet these criteria are turned away.

Those Iraqis who manage to stay in Jordan are often stigmatized and treated as second-class citizens. With violence showing no sign of abating, the overwhelming image of Iraq is a state caught up in a vortex of sectarian bloodshed. Among the local populations, Iraqi refugees are viewed with suspicion and could be unfairly labeled as "carriers of conflict," potentially marginalizing an entire population.

In fact, a Congressional Research Services report on Iraqi refugees released on March 23 warned that Sunni-Shi'a tensions may have followed the refugees into Jordan and are simmering below the surface.

'Security Time Bomb'

While Iraq's neighbors struggle with the flood of refugees, humanitarian organizations bemoan the lack of funding from the international community to help them. The creation of a so-called "humanitarian assistance vacuum" potentially opens the door for armed groups to establish a foothold within the refugee populations.

If the Gaza Strip is any indication, then these are legitimate concerns. The Islamist organization Hamas emerged as the preeminent movement among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, not only for its vigor in fighting the Israeli occupation, but also for providing much needed social services that the Palestinian government did not or could not. In fact, Hamas's 2006 election victory may have had less to do with broader ideological goals of the movement than the basic services they provided to people on the ground.

Although, Hamas has moved into the political mainstream, it is still considered a terrorist organization by many Western states, and it is currently in a power struggle with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas.

Indeed, there are concerns that today's Iraqi refugees could end up like the Palestinians: a large population of displaced and disenfranchised people with the potential to become radicalized. And such a large and radicalized population would not only be potentially destabilizing force for the host country, but by extension the entire region.

Human Rights Watch's U.K. director, Tom Porteous, described the refugee crisis as a security time bomb, Reuters reported on June 26. "Unless this crisis is addressed, we may well look back in 10 years' time and see the seeds of the next generation of terrorists," he warned.

Intelligence Chief Says More Cooperation Needed To Stop Attacks

Al-Shahwani says better interagency cooperation is needed to thwart terrorist attacks (file photo)

BAGHDAD, July 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) – The director of Iraq's National Intelligence Service, Major General Muhammad al-Shahwani, says that the failures of other government agencies to respond to intelligence reports of threats are responsible for some of the success of groups carrying out bombing attacks.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondent Imad Jassem spoke with al-Shahwani on July 16 about the structure of the intelligence service and the challenges it faces.

RFE/RL: The complications of the Iraq security affairs, according to many of those involved, require the use of advanced techniques to deal with them. There are some who attribute the failure in controlling this multipronged file to the absence of an intelligence effort. How do you respond to such charges?

Muhammad al-Shahwani: Our reports are clear, and most of the [government's counterterror] operations in Baghdad are based on our reports. There are many things we have known about before they happened: for example, the bombing of the Samarra shrine was reported by us one month before it was carried out. I personally informed the ministerial committee and the prime minister that this was about to happen. Although discussions on the matter were held, the appropriate measures were not taken to ensure protection, and it happened.

Security is not all intelligence work. Security is partly intelligence, and partly the work of other security agencies that act on our information in pursuing the terrorists. We hope that those agencies will develop themselves so that they can go out and carry out arrests based on our information.

RFE/RL: What are your ideas for developing the National Intelligence Service further?

Al-Shahwani: You know that the Iraqi Intelligence Service is, I believe, the only agency that is not politicized and nonsectarian. It includes all the various affiliations, and they all work together as brothers, and that is why our product is clear. We do not have any internal problems.

RFE/RL: Are there any plans to reinstate former intelligence officers from the deposed Ba'athist regime?

Al-Shahwani: No, we had a few of them in the beginning. When we [took over] there were a number of intelligence officers that had been appointed by the [U.S.-led] coalition -- those who were above suspicion -- whose [Ba'ath]-Party rank did not exceed that of "member" or "team member." There were a few of higher rank, and we dismissed them. We were able to develop a new cadre of young men -- university graduates -- and we now have a good cadre.

RFE/RL: Is there cooperation with other countries that have highly developed experience in the intelligence field?

Al-Shahwani: Of course, we have relations with the United States, obviously, and with Australia. We send groups for training in Australia and Italy.

RFE/RL: Does the cooperation include working with sophisticated equipment?

Al-Shahwani: Yes, on sophisticated equipment, which is basic to intelligence work. First, there is basic training, and then they move on to specialize: such as surveillance, case officers, [etc.]. As you know, these require experience, and the advanced countries have the prerequisites for such training.

We have courses being held in Jordan; actually a large number of training courses in Jordan. Some courses are conducted here [in Iraq]; we have a training center. Thank God, we are always trying to develop but -- I can't say that we are the best of the security services -- but we do have an impressive cadre.

Saudis Vow Greater Cooperation On Security

Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i (file photo)

BAGHDAD, July 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i says that nearly half of the foreign militants targeting U.S. and Iraqi security forces and civilians are from Saudi Arabia. Al-Rubay'i recently visited Saudi Arabia to hold talks with officials there about curbing the flow of militants into Iraq.

RFE/RL Radio Free Iraq correspondent Imad Jassem spoke with al-Rubay'i on July 13, the day after he returned to Baghdad, to ask him about Saudi militants' role in the insurgency.

Dr. al-Rubay'i, you recently returned from Saudi Arabia. What is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's position regarding the Saudi militants?

Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i:
We have agreed with our brothers in the kingdom with those responsible, that Iraq and the kingdom are together in one trench in fighting terrorism and the "takfir" [declaring other Muslims apostates] ideology in the region as a whole and in Iraq in particular. Our Saudi brothers have promised that they will support Iraq on security matters, and we will exchange intelligence information and information on the movement of funds.

It is no secret that more than 50 percent of suicide car bombers in Iraq, and those using explosive vests, are of Saudi origin. Our Saudi brothers have promised us that they are working effectively to stem this flow. We are definitely not saying that the Saudi government is involved, but we do say that those individuals are still Saudis, and it is the Saudi government's duty to stem this flow.

You have previously stated that there were some fatwas [religious edicts] that have had a direct effect on the Iraqi street. Can the Saudi government play a part in stemming or decreasing the flow, and have they promised to do so?

Al-Rubay'i: This matter definitely occupied a very large portion of the discussions. The brotherly officials have a degree of authority over such [fatwas] and in controlling the [fatwas] that are not issued by the religious institutions. However, the problem is that those who claim to be scholars are those who are issuing these [fatwas], and they are outside the Saudi religious institutions. They use the Internet, and other broadcast and publication means.

RFE/RL: Are they operating from within Saudi Arabia?

Al-Rubay'i: Of course, they are within Saudi Arabia, but they are not a part of the religious establishment. They are individuals claiming to be [religious] scholars. The Saudi officials also pointed out that if we have particular names, or particular [fatwas], we should provide them with [such information] and they will take appropriate action.

RFE/RL: That was with regard to Saudi Arabia. Will there be a role for Saudi Arabia to play in reducing the so-called export of large numbers of terrorists from other neighboring countries, and not only from Saudi Arabia, in view of the Saudi influence throughout the region? Have you reached agreement on these aspects?

Al-Rubay'i: We believe that the kingdom has vast experience, and has achieved major accomplishments during recent years, in its fight against terrorism, extremism, and the takfir trend. We are benefiting from, and making use of, the experience gained by the kingdom in its fight against terrorism. Of course, movements of funds and individuals, and the organizations within the kingdom or elsewhere in the region, or in Iraq, require us to exchange information because we are in the same trench.

RFE/RL: Regarding foreign efforts, are there any plans to extend foreign activity, or in the economic sphere, such as with regard to economic and political cooperation, in addition to the security field? Have you agreed on any specifics?

Al-Rubay'i: The kingdom has a pivotal, and very strong strategic position, not only in the [Persian] Gulf region, but also throughout the Arab world and the Islamic world, and in the international arena. We are trying to utilize this position and this [clout], in addition to the kingdom's religious standing, and its influence in Iraq, to attract certain elements into the political process, to encourage them to take part in the political process. We have discussed the political aspect in detail; we presented the progress made by [Iraq's] national-unity government, the developments that have taken place in building the Iraqi armed forces, the taking over of security responsibilities in the governorates, and in the armed forces.

RFE/RL: There have been certain statements by certain former Saudi officials regarding support for a particular sect in Iraq, that is to say, support for the Sunnis in Iraq, in view of what they called the injustice with which they have been dealt during this period in Iraq. Has there been any change in this regard?

Al-Rubay'i: We explained that it is not in the interests of either the kingdom or Iraq to have an outside perception that the kingdom is supporting one group or one component at the expense of the other components. Our brothers in the kingdom are extremely interested in preserving the unity, sovereignty, and the independence of Iraq. They want a strong Iraq, an Iraq free from regional interference. In fact, that is what we felt from the kingdom's officials, and it is something that is precious to us and is in complete accord with our views.