Plight Of Displaced Iraqis Worsens
The UN estimates that more than 2.2 million Iraqis have fled the country, mostly to neighboring Jordan and Syria. In addition, there are another 2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Iraq's borders.
While the continuing violence shows no signs of abating, it would be safe to assume that the number refugees and IDPs will continue to grow, worsening an already bleak situation.
New Syrian Visa Requirements
Since the Iraq conflict began and Iraqis began fleeing, Syria has been the only country not to impose strict regulations to limit the number of Iraqi refugees that can enter. Jordan, which hosts up to 750,000 Iraqis, has largely limited access to new arrivals.
Since the triple suicide bombing in Amman in November 2005 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.
According to UN figures, Syria is currently hosting 1.5 million Iraqi refugees and the Syrian government has indicated that between 30,000-60,000 Iraqis enter Syria every month. The sheer number of Iraqis has become a huge burden on the country's economy and infrastructure. Damascus has estimated that the refugees are costing the state approximately $1 billion a year.
This strain, coupled with the international community's failure to provide adequate financial assistance to Syria, has forced Damascus to take stringent measures to curtail the number of Iraqis pouring into the country. Currently, the country technically has an "open-door" policy that allows most Iraqis to easily enter Syria. Iraqis are initially granted a three-month visa that is easily renewable.
However, starting on September 10 a new visa system will be implemented that will grant visas only to Iraqis involved in the economic, commercial, and scientific sectors. These restrictions will almost certainly limit the number of Iraqis allowed in. Furthermore, the new documents will only be single-entry visas valid for three months and qualified Iraqis must obtain them from the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad.
The new visa requirement has created concern among human-rights groups and humanitarian agencies that Iraqis will be turned away if they do not have a visa or are unable meet the criteria to obtain the new documents. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has urged Damascus not to turn back desperate Iraqis who are fleeing to Syria to escape the violence.
Moreover, there are also concerns that those Iraqis that have the current renewable three-month visa will be forcibly expelled from Syria once their visas expire or if they try to renew them. The UNHCR said it has so far received assurances from Syrian officials that there would be no forced returns.
Poor Conditions At IDP Camps
Iraqis who have fled their homes but lack the financial means to leave the country are essentially trapped in overcrowded, makeshift refugee camps with poor sanitary conditions. The Iraqi government lacks the funds to provide adequate resources to assist those in the camps and the perilous security situation in many parts of Iraq has prevented international humanitarian organizations from reaching some camps.
According to the UNHCR, many of the camps are situated far from towns or cities, and residents have to search for sources of water. The Iraqi Aid Association, a local nongovernmental organization, received reports that peoples at camps in Ba'qubah and Al-Najaf resorted to taking water from nearby open sewage drains, using cloths to filter it, and then drinking the water without boiling it.
Poor sanitation can lead to outbreaks of waterborne diseases. The Kurdish-administered regions of northern Iraq declared a state of emergency after a cholera outbreak in Al-Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk. Dr. Juan Abdallah, a senior official in Kurdistan's Health Ministry, said the outbreak was the first of its kind in nearly a decade and may have resulted from the poor sanitary conditions at IDP camps, IRIN reported on August 30.
"The bad sanitation in Iraq, especially on the outskirts of cities where IDPs are camped, has put people at serious risk," Abdallah said. "In Al- Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk, at least 42 percent of the population has no access to clean water and proper sewage systems."
Some IDP camps have become so overcrowded, such as the Al-Manathera camp outside the holy city of Al-Najaf, that it had to declare itself closed to new arrivals in early August. Local officials said they had no choice, because the camp lacked the resources to assist new arrivals.
A recent announcement by the UNHCR on August 28 indicated that the number of Iraqis being driven from their homes due to violence is rising, to a monthly rate of over 60,000. These grim statistics indicate that more funds and resources are desperately needed to assist Iraqi refugees and IDPs.
While Jordan and Syria have taken in the largest amount of refugees, they have bitterly complained that their respective infrastructure and resources cannot maintain such a large population indefinitely. Syria's new visa system is the latest indication that Iraq's regional neighbors can no longer shoulder the burden, and need more help from the international community.
Is Al-Sadr Saving Face, Or Biding His Time?
Not because the clashes took place during a religious festival marking the birthday of the 12th Imam al-Mahdi, but because it was one of the most gratuitous displays of Shi'a-on-Shi'a violence since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, leaving 52 people dead and 279 wounded.
Attacks during Shi'ite religious festivals by Sunni extremists have been relatively commonplace, but it was rare to see such a blatant display of intra-Shi'ite hostility. The violence underscored the growing rift within the Shi'ite community, which has gone to considerable lengths to project an image of unity.
Signs Of Shi'ite Rift
The clashes in Karbala were only the latest incident pitting al-Sadr's militia against the SIIC's Badr Organization. On October 19, 2006, clashes erupted between the two groups in Al-Amarah that left 25 dead and more than 160 injured. The fighting began after the Badr Organization blamed the Al-Mahdi Army for the assassination of Qassim al-Tamini, a senior Iraqi intelligence officer and a member of the Badr Organization.
In addition, the assassination of four aides to Shi'ite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the last three months has only underscored the growing Shi'a rift and dissolution of Shi'ite unity. The SIIC has pledged its allegiance to al-Sistani, while al-Sadr's followers were seen by many as being behind the assassinations. Although al-Sadr has publicly denied that his followers were involved in the assassinations, hard-liners in al-Sadr's movement view al-Sistani as an obstacle to the group's influence in southern Iraq.
An all-out "intra-Shi'a civil war" in the south could lead to further political instability in Iraq. The Shi'ite-dominated political coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which has offered crucial support for the United States, would probably fall apart. The chaos in the south would lead to a power vacuum, with the SIIC, Al-Sadr movement, and other disparate Shi'ite groups scrambling to stake out their places.
The complete rupture of the Shi'ite alliance would mean that the already tenuous political position of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki would be further weakened. Al-Maliki vitally depends on the support of the UIA for his political survival; an irreparable rift could mean the end of his tenure as prime minister.
Moreover, a full-fledged armed conflict in southern Iraq would signal the opening of another violent front that the U.S. military would have to deal with. Already burdened with trying to root out Al-Qaeda-linked elements and stabilize central Iraq, the United States can ill afford to shift valuable resources to quell a major conflict in the south.
Indeed, with the gradual departure of British forces from southern Iraq, if Iraqi security forces themselves cannot prevent a major intra-Shi'a conflict, the responsibility will inevitably fall on the shoulders of the U.S. military. The involvement of U.S. forces in the south would give an impression to the Iraqis, as well as the American public, that the conflict was, in fact, spreading.
Al-Sadr's Surprise Call
Following the fierce fighting in Karbala, al-Sadr made a surprising announcement on August 29 when he ordered the Al-Mahdi Army to suspend all activities for six months in order to weed out rogue elements within the militia. U.S. and British officials have long suspected that some of the factions within his movement are operating outside al-Sadr's control.
Moreover, the Shi'a-on-Shi'a violence during an important religious festival has badly tarnished al-Sadr's image. Locals in Karbala and media reports have depicted his fighters as being the instigators, after armed Al-Mahdi Army members began provoking security forces who were guarding the shrines. Other reports also indicated that his fighters set fire to SIIC offices in Kufa, as well as in the Al-Iskandariyah and Al-Hamzah districts of Babil and in Baghdad's Al-Kadhimiyah neighborhood.
The six-month suspension could be seen as a form of damage control on the part al-Sadr, who is desperately trying to shed his reputation as a rabble rouser and project an image of a competent and mature leader of a nationalist movement bent on ridding the country of the occupation. The decision to withdraw his militia could be his way of deflecting some of the criticism and showing that he is trying to preserve Shi'ite unity and prevent the Shi'ite rift from spiraling out of control.
However, al-Sadr's decision may have been based more on self-preservation than upholding Shi'ite unity. The SIIC has developed relatively close ties to the United States and prolonged fighting between the Al-Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, or continued provocation by al-Sadr's militia, whether by rogue elements or legitimate members, would almost certainly have drawn in U.S. forces. The prospect of confronting the Badr Organization backed by U.S. firepower would not have appealed to al-Sadr's militia.
An Empty Gesture?
The suspension of activities could also be a stall tactic to give his militia time to regroup and wait for a more opportune moment to act. And this would not be the first time that al-Sadr has called on his militia to suspend activities.
During the opening phases of the Baghdad security operation that began in February, he ordered his militia to fully cooperate with the security plan and not engage U.S. and Iraqi troops, even when confronted. Reports on the ground indicated that the militia had essentially melted away into the populace.
The low profile taken by the Al-Mahdi Army coincided with the steep reduction in the number of sectarian killings, which U.S. officials have long accused the militia of being behind. However, in time, unidentified bodies began appearing again, a sign that the militia had returned. And reports of clashes between the Badr Organization and al-Sadr's militia became more frequent.
Considering al-Sadr's history of ambiguous statements, it would not be beyond the realm of possibility to say that his militia will again be involved in another confrontation with either the Iraqi security forces or the Badr Organization. In fact, as British forces completely withdraw from the south and hand over security responsibility for the region to the Iraqis, the absence of a foreign military may embolden al-Sadr's militia to strike. Time is on the side of the al-Sadr and his militia, who know full well that coalition forces have to leave some time.
Baghdad Demands Iran Stop Shelling North
During an official visit to Tehran on August 3, Zebari said Iran had been bombarding Kurdish villages in northern Iraq for two weeks.
Zebari said the bombardment had forced as many as 3,000 Kurdish villagers to flee their homes in the Iran-Iraq border area.
Zebari told reporters in Tehran that “in a normal relationship between two countries, this amounts to an act of aggression.”
Tehran has so far refused to publicly acknowledge any such activity.
But Zebari quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki as saying privately in a meeting that the shelling was in response to attacks by a Kurdish-Iranian guerrilla group -- Pezak -- that maintains bases in the rugged mountains of northern Iraq.
Zebari described the Iranian shelling as indiscriminate and said it was achieving little against Pezak positions. Members of Pezak are said to seek autonomy for Kurds in Iran.
The government of the Kurdish-administered region of northern Iraq has also been sharply critical of both Iran and Turkey for cross-border shelling.
"We strongly condemn this Iranian-Turkish shelling, and we demand that Turkey and Iran cease it immediately, and especially we demand that from Iran because it crossed all limits with its hostile actions," the region's president, Mas'ud Barzani, said to the regional parliament in Irbil: "This shelling will not be in our common interest, and we never expected that Iran would act in such a manner against the Kurdish people."
Turkey is reported to be shelling Kurdish villages in northern Iraq, where it says fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighting against Ankara are finding shelter. Some reports say that Turkey presently has an estimated 140,000 troops near its border with northern Iraq.
Dilemma For U.S.
Yahia Said, a researcher at the London School of Economics who has several times traveled to Iraq, says Iran's actions can be understood.
"Iran has problems with [its] Kurdish minority just as Turkey does, though of less intensity," Said says. "And obviously they are concerned about eventual independence or autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan and what impact it will have. So they are trying, probably, to intimidate Kurdish parties."
Said says he does not believe the shelling will escalate into an open conflict but is more an effort to make Iraqi Kurdish parties do something about the situation.
Zebari also has said that the Kurd-dominated national army in the northern region should control Kurdish groups coming from neighboring countries.
However, many of those troops are committed to security operations in other parts of the country, and the Kurdish autonomous government is short of troops to send to the border regions.
Said says the United States is in no position to stop the shelling into northern Iraq from Iran and Turkey.
"I don't think the U.S. can stop Turkey from shelling Iraq actually. I'm not even sure they are applying any pressure on them [Turks]," he says. "Relationships have been very delicate ever since Turkey refused to support the  invasion [of Iraq]. The U.S. is in a very weak position to stop the shelling, because they are targeted at allegedly terrorist groups, who have been engaged in terrorist activity in both Iran and Turkey. So, from a moral perspective it is very difficult for the U.S."
The "The New York Times" reports today that the Iraqi government previously sent a letter of protest to Iran about the shelling.
The newspaper quotes the Iraqi ambassador to Iran, Mohammad Majid al-Sheikh, as saying “we have not received any sensible response from them.”
(Radio Free Iraq contributed to this story)