Neighbors Unlikely To Provide Support On Security
While Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki traveled to Turkey and Iran to discuss border security and terrorism, Iraqi leaders met representatives from neighboring states in Damascus to follow up regional commitments made at the May Iraq neighbors meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
Reaching Out To Syria
The Damascus meeting of the Security Committee for Coordination and Cooperation on Iraq, which was formed during the May neighbors meeting, sought concrete commitments from neighboring states in terms of security and border control, as well as support for al-Maliki's floundering national-unity government.
"We hope that this meeting will not be a routine one and will be effective and will come up with effective results that achieve a goal of supporting it in its current dilemma," Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi told reporters ahead of the two-day event, AP reported. "Iraq expects real and genuine support in passing through this dilemma and suffering of terrorism and violence."
The fact that the meeting is being held in Damascus, long seen as a conduit for the crossing of Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists into Iraq, raises questions as to the level of Syrian commitment to Iraq's security and may signal that Iraq's western neighbor may be ready to take serious action against terrorist infiltration into Iraq.
Syrian Interior Minister Lieutenant General Bassam Abd al-Majid said at the start of the meeting that Syria has gone to great lengths to control its border with Iraq, through the establishment of fixed checkpoints and patrols along the border. It also tightened measures on the crossing of persons under the age of 30, and arrested and repatriated would-be infiltrators headed for Iraq, he said.
Damascus took steps last month to cancel a conference for so-called opposition groups, including the outlawed Iraqi Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party, that would have established a "Front of National Forces Opposing and Resisting the Occupation." There were contradictory reports as to the reason for the cancellation, but the overriding consensus among observers was that Syria had signaled that the timing was not right to host such a gathering.
Cooperating Or Dividing?
Some observers of Syrian political developments have said that although Syria may be seeking to publicly distance itself from Iran, in light of a possible restart of U.S.-Syria dialogue and peace talks with Israel, in reality its commitment to Iran is as strong as ever. Some Arab commentators have also suggested Syria may be working to help further fracture the Arab unity in support of Iran.
Dawud al-Sharayan wrote in the London-based "Al-Hayat" on August 1 that Syria's refusal to attend the Arab foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo that week was a sign that Damascus "is trying to create a schism within the Arab rank in order to consolidate Iran's influence in Iraq, continue implementing Iran's policy in Lebanon, and protect its own regime from the repercussions of the assassination of [former Lebanese Prime Minister] Rafiq Hariri.
Iran and Syria presented a unified stance on Iraq in July when Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. The final statement of their meeting mentioned that the two countries express support for the Iraqi government -- a concession some say by anti-Shi'ite Syria -- and support for national reconciliation between "all components of the Iraqi people," which one observer has argued was a concession by Iran, which supports Shi'ite militias against Iraq's Sunni Arab community.
Saudis Stay Away
Meanwhile, regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia boycotted the Damascus meeting amid strained relations with Syria and an ongoing feud with Iran over Tehran's growing regional designs. Saudi Arabia has also had terse relations with Nuri al-Maliki's government for months, and views the prime minister's close relationship with Iran as a threat. According to media reports, Saudi officials refused to disclose the reason behind their refusal to attend the meeting.
Saudi Foreign Minister Sa'ud al-Faysal told reporters at an August 7 press briefing in Jeddah that Iraq needs to live up to its commitments to provide for more participation by the country's Sunni Arabs made at Sharm el-Sheikh.
Al-Faysal said that his country remains concerned about the recent boycott by cabinet ministers from the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front. "No doubt that the withdrawal of this coalition must have its impact on Iraqi national interests.... This is what has prompted us to stress the responsibility of the Iraqi government with regard to trying to avoid this situation because disagreement between the Iraqi factions and sects can only lead to the continuation of the cycle of violence," he said, which will "not serve Iraq's interests nor those of the region."
Baghdad Faces Daunting Challenge
The ability of the Iraqi government to prompt its neighbors into following through with commitments by taking concrete steps that thwart violence and sectarianism is a formidable challenge.
Al-Maliki told pro-Sunni Al-Baghdadiyah television in an interview that aired on July 30 that Iraq's neighbors still fail to realize that the terrorist threat from groups like Al-Qaeda is coming to their states soon. "We have told these countries that according to terrorists' confessions, Al-Qaeda will target them and trigger sectarian sedition here and there. Some operations have been carried out in Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia," al-Maliki said, adding that Al-Qaeda has also threatened Iran.
Al-Maliki speculated that U.S.-Iranian dialogue could pave the way for smoother relations between Iraq and its Arab neighbors. At the same time, he criticized Saudi Arabia for allowing 50 Sunni religious scholars to issue fatwas (religious edicts) against Shi'a. The fatwas labeled Shi'ite Muslims unbelievers and called on Sunnis to destroy Shi'ite shrines in Iraq and other Arab states.
"We have no information that the Saudi government has directly asked a terrorist group to operate in Iraq," al-Maliki said, adding that he hoped Saudi Arabia would work to fight sectarianism rather than allowing sectarianism and incitement to violence to grow on its soil.
Outcome Of Talks Predictable
The Damascus talks are unlikely to produce anything that will bring real and lasting change to the Iraqi security environment. The regional states are more concerned with their own domestic and regional agendas, to which Iraq is a pawn in the game.
Syria's overriding concerns vis-a-vis Lebanon, Iran, and Israel mean that it will continue to operate according to its own needs, and will seek to satisfy its commitments to Iraq only through a quid pro quo formula. Given its difficulties with the UN inquiry into Hariri's assassination, and its support for Iran and Lebanese Hizballah, and its preoccupation with a possible Arab peace deal with Israel, Iraq comes up low on Syria's list of priorities.
Saudi Arabia, which has recently been identified as the source of 50 percent of the foreign fighters going to Iraq, is preoccupied with regional Arab relations as well, including a possible Arab-Israeli peace deal, not to mention its preoccupation with the looming Iranian threat to regional stability.
For Iraq's Arab neighbors, the democratic experiment in Iraq, viewed as one that promotes Shi'ite governance and federalism to the detriment of Sunni Arabs, is one not to be supported.
Iran, Turkey Unlikely To Stay Out
Neighboring Turkey has its own concerns over a federal Iraq, and more specifically, over Kurdish attempts to expand their region to include Kirkuk.
Turkey fears its own Kurds will attempt to repeat the successes of Iraq's Kurds towards gaining autonomy. Hence the Iraq-Turkey talks this week focused on security, but primarily on Turkey's demand that the Iraqi government crack down on Turkish-Kurdish separatists from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) hiding out in the Qandil Mountain range in northern Iraq.
Prime Minister al-Maliki agreed that the PKK should be dealt with and that Iraq should not be a haven for terrorists. But the prime minister's ability to force a military solution to the PKK problem in a region over which he has little control is questionable.
Moreover, the possibility that a military solution -- imposed by either Iraq or Turkey -- will bring further instability to Iraq is real and al-Maliki is no doubt cognizant of that.
As for Iran, Iraq is keen to develop strong relations with its eastern neighbor. During his visit, al-Maliki will meet with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and its lead negotiator in the dispute over its nuclear program.
Al-Maliki told AP while en route to Tehran that the two countries "have a joint understanding that they are keen to solve problems and sufferings of Iraqi people." However, it is clear that Iraq can do little to persuade Iran to stay out of its affairs as long as Iran is preoccupied with the presence of multinational forces on the ground in Iraq and the threat of international sanctions over its nuclear program, not to mention a possible U.S. military threat.
For the time being, it appears that regional states will pay little more than lip service to their commitment to secure Iraq. As long as they remain preoccupied with other domestic and regional issues, Iraq will remain of little concern, and unfortunately the preferred territory on which regional states can wage their political battles.
Iraq: Al-Maliki Seeks To Strengthen Ties With IranAugust 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will go to Iran today where he will hold talks on August 8 with Iranian officials on economic and political cooperation. The two countries have greatly expanded bilateral relations following the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo discusses what al-Maliki hopes to achieve.
RFE/RL: What is the purpose of al-Maliki's visit to Iran?
Kathleen Ridolfo: This is al-Maliki's second visit to Iran since he took office and it comes within the context of bettering political relations and economic relations and -- of course more importantly -- securing relations between Iran and Iraq. Al-Maliki is, of course, a Shi'ite leader and the Shi'ites have very close ties to Iran and so there are a lot of questions in the minds of some observers wondering whether or not this is aimed at colluding or in some way strengthening those ties between the [Iraqi] Shi'ites and the Iranian regime or whether the talks are more general.
RFE/RL: Is this visit connected with the recent Iranian-U.S. talks on Iraq's security? The two sides have already had three sessions where they have discussed security issues, including the creation of a committee aimed at bringing security and stability to the country.
Ridolfo: It's very likely that the talks will come up, as you know some demands were asked of the United States and Iran by the Iraqi government [on August 6], so there was a list of 10 requests that they addressed in terms of security and border control so this will come up in the talks; in addition there will probably be some discussions...[about] internal matters among the Shi'ite parties in Iraq. A delegation from [former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim] al-Ja'fari's Al-Dawah Party already headed to Tehran earlier this week to have meetings with Iranian officials ahead of al-Maliki's visit; so the relationship between al-Maliki and some members of [Al-Dawah]...particularly Ibrahim al-Ja'fari...are quite tense at the moment and there is some question as to whether Iran will intervene in these affairs and try to weigh in on the situation emerging from within the Shi'a parties in Iraq.
RFE/RL: So is al-Maliki looking for Iran to mediate?
Ridolfo: I don't know actually that al-Maliki is looking for Iran to mediate. A delegation did go to Tehran, according to media reports, so someone from within or some elements from within the Al-Dawah party may be looking for Iran to mediate, but at this point it's really unclear who is behind that.
RFE/RL: What is al-Maliki hoping to gain from his talks with Iranian officials?
Ridolfo: Probably some more concrete assurances from the Iranian as far as what they will do toward the security [situation], although generally when we see these talks very little does emerge. In the past when there have been talks between the Iraqi government and the Iranians we see more concrete movement in terms of economic accords but in terms of political accords very little happens.
I want to add that it will be interesting to see what does emerge on the political front between al-Maliki's talks with the Iranians because Wednesday, August 8, is the 19th anniversary of the cease-fire agreement between Iran and Iraq coming out of the eight-year war between the two countries. So it will be quite interesting a) to see if al-Maliki makes a statement about that anniversary, and b) if the anniversary is noted in any other context such as agreements between the two countries in terms of strengthening their relations.
RFE/RL: How would you describe Iran/Iraq relations at this point?
Ridolfo: I would say that the Iraqi government has gone to great lengths to have good relations with Iran because Iran is its neighbor. In fact, [Iraqi] President [Jalal] Talabani has said on several occasions -- most recently over the weekend -- that Iraq has strong ties with Iran and Iraq appreciates the efforts of the Iranians toward promoting better security in Iraq.
That being said, of course Sunni Arabs in Iraq are distrustful of Iran and they are quite concerned with the Iranian involvement in Iraq, as are U.S. forces. If you recall, the second in command of U.S. forces in Baghdad said on [August 5,] that Iranian-trained Shi'ite militias were responsible for 73 percent of the attacks on U.S. forces in Baghdad...in July.
Suicide Bombers Seen As Phantoms Of Death
The victims of suicide bombings are most frequently Iraqi civilians as they go about their daily business in public places like markets. Few people ever see the faces of the bombers who blow themselves to pieces in the attacks.
So how do average Iraqis regard these phantoms who suddenly appear to transform sidewalks, shops, and even public buses into bloodbaths? Mostly, they view them as so incomprehensible that they label them all foreigners, saying Iraq itself has no tradition of such perverse actions.
But not everyone on the street agrees with that easy explanation. There are also people who regard the suicide bombers themselves as victims -- as simple individuals who have been brainwashed to destroy themselves and others.
Ahmad, a restaurant owner in central Baghdad, says that he regards the suicide bomber "as a criminal, and I imagine him as being a simpleton who has been subjected to some form of brainwashing. He is a simple person."
Ahmad says the Iraqi street itself now provides the conditions of despair and ignorance that he says breeds suicide bombers, and he offers a story to support his view.
"Yesterday I saw an incident here near the restaurant. A 10-year-old child came along and asked for some sandwiches, but it seemed he was pulling my leg, so I turned him away. He went over to that patch of grass over there and began eating it. All these people are witnesses: he was pulling up leaves and eating them. So we called him back and gave him a sandwich," Ahmad says.
"Any security agency -- whether Shi'ite or Sunni, let's be frank when we speak --would not discount the possibility that he might have his mind filled with talk about heaven and hell," he continues. "He's a simple person; whatever you say to him, he will accept. This is a child, a blank page, ready to accommodate anything you tell him."
Clerics At Fault?
Many Iraqis of all classes say extreme religious views are responsible for creating suicide bombers and for spreading the suicide culture in Iraqi society. But people differ over who to blame.
There are those, such as Ass'ad, a civil engineer, who lay the blame exclusively on clerics.
"This is the ultimate crime," says Ass'ad. "You know those who call for jihad and so on? This is brainwashing. The sheikhs and the Islamists who are brainwashing this or that person, claiming that this is a humanitarian act that would lead to having lunch with the Prophet, and that this act will be credited to you and you will enter heaven...that is the real crime."
...Or Misreading Of Texts?
Others, like journalist-writer Ali al-Maliki, say the problem lies in the multiple interpretations that can be given to religious texts by extremists.
He says this includes "Islamic texts, relevant to the concept of jihad and the acceptance or nonacceptance of others, and the violence implied in the texts, [as well as] demands from adherents for actions that please God."
Mudhhir al-Alusi, a specialist in Islamic studies, also sees the problem as improper interpretation of texts.
"The cause is the difference in the concept of Islam among Muslims," he says. "There are Muslims who attribute to the word God or Allah a meaning that is different to mine or that of others. And the meaning of Muhammad is similarly different. Therefore, jihad may have more than one meaning."
An Iraqi researcher who prefers not to give his name says improper reading of religious texts leads to "great mistakes."
"The wrong reading of anything creates a negative situation; even when you read a story with a negative attitude, that will generate a negative condition within you," the researcher says. "And when you read the Koran, the religious texts, the sayings of the Prophet and the caliphs, and others, and you understand them in a mistaken manner, that would all lead you to the 'great mistake' zone."
To cope with suicide bombers, Baghdad police frequently declare curfews, particularly ahead of religious festivals.
Memories in the capital are still fresh of the death of nearly 1,000 Shi'ite pilgrims in a stampede during a religious ceremony in 2005. The stampede began when a crowd heading toward a shrine was panicked by rumors of a suicide bomber.
The incident remains the greatest loss of Iraqi life in a single event since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.
(Hassan Rashid is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq based in Baghdad.)
Plan To Deploy Peshmerga To Kirkuk Alarms Minorities
Jabbar Yawir, the undersecretary of the autonomous Kurdistan region's Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, says the Kurdish self-rule government and the federal government in Baghdad have agreed to send the troops to protect sensitive sites in the oil-rich Kirkuk Governorate.
Those sites include power facilities and parts of the oil pipeline that leads from Mosul to the port of Ceyhan in Turkey -- the conduit for most oil exports from northern Iraq’s oil fields.
The forces belong to the government of Kurdish-administered northern Iraq, which is pushing for Kirkuk to be incorporated into the Kurdistan region. The plan to deploy peshmerga troops has therefore provoked controversy among minority groups in Kirkuk Governorate, which is under the control of the Baghdad government and outside the current Kurdish region.
Awaiting A Green Light
According to Yawir, the deployment can begin as soon as there is a final green light from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
It remains uncertain when that approval might come. But in the meantime, the proposal is being received with mixed opinions in multiethnic Kirkuk Governorate.
Jawad al-Janabi, a member of the Kirkuk Governorate Council and a representative of the predominantly Kurdish Kirkuk Brotherhood List, said that if peshmerga forces are deployed to Kirkuk, they will succeed in implementing security plans for the region.
“If we recall when the city of Kirkuk was liberated [with the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003], for six months during the presence of peshmerga forces there, we had a very good security situation, and people were able to come and go, even after midnight," al-Janabi says.
"These forces are Iraqi before being Kurdish; they are sons of the Iraqi people," he continues. "They are regular troops, and will provide support for the security forces in the [Kirkuk] governorate.”
Turkoman And Arab Concerns
But leaders of Kirkuk’s other two largest ethnic groups, the Turkoman and Arab communities, disagree.
Hassan Toran, a representative of the Turkoman group in the Kirkuk Governorate Council, says any deployment of peshmerga forces to Kirkuk should only be carried out with the agreement of all parties, and warned that the details of the planned deployment remain obscure.
"Some say that they are to protect the pipelines and power lines between Kirkuk and Baiji. And some say that they are to protect the Governorate of Kirkuk," Toran says. "I believe that this should be done only with the agreement of all the parties in the Governorate Council. Whether they agree or not, the subject should be open to discussion because it is a matter that concerns more than one ethnic group or one [party] list; it concerns the whole of Kirkuk Governorate.”
Muhammad Khail, a member of the Arab group in the Governorate Council, says any protection force should be composed of all the groups that form the governorate’s social fabric.
“The [Kurdistan] regional government intends to bring 6,000 peshmerga to Kirkuk, but I believe that this will not solve the problem,” he says. “There is a sufficient Iraqi Army [presence] in Kirkuk. They can form units. Why are the other units not being given the proper role in defending Kirkuk in a proper way?”
Khail recalls hearing of the formation of security units from other ethnic groups, such as Turkomans or Arabs, but he says he does not believe that such groups can solve Kirkuk's problems. "They need to form a security force for the national defense of Kirkuk. A national force can obtain information prior to an event, and that’s what's important,” he says.
Kirkuk, which also has communities of Chaldean Assyrians and Christians, is some 250 kilometers north of Baghdad.
The city has seen devastating car bomb attacks, mostly aimed at either of the two main Kurdish political parties in northern Iraq, and repeated sabotage of power lines and the oil pipeline.
If the peshmerga deploy to the province, it will not be the first time Kurdish forces have been sent to help secure areas outside the three Kurdish-administered provinces of northern Iraq.
Three battalions of peshmerga were sent to Baghdad in March to help with security in the capital.
(Mustafa Mafmud is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq based in Kirkuk.)