Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iraq Report: September 13, 2007

Political Landscape Still In Flux As Parliament Reconvenes

By Kathleen Ridolfo

Sunni leader Tariq al-Hashimi's attempt to bring about the government's fall may be running out of steam (file photo)

September 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- As the United States makes progress in talks with Sunni and Shi'ite tribal leaders toward ending the armed conflict in Iraq, Iraqi politicians who form the core of the opposition are facing defections from cabinet members who would rather return to work than support their boycott of the government.

Iraqi Planning Minister Ali Baban, who hails from Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party, returned to work on September 11 following a meeting with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, citing his commitment to serving the country.

The Islamic Party belongs to the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq), which ended a parliamentary boycott on July 19 only to pull its ministers from the government on August 1, citing al-Maliki's refusal to meet the front's 11 demands, including the release of Sunni detainees not charged with crimes.

Baban told Al-Sharqiyah television on September 11 that al-Maliki had informed him that the Planning Ministry's investment program has slowed in his absence. "More than $10 billion was allocated to the investment plan for this year. The Planning Ministry is in charge of coordinating, following up, and monitoring the implementation phase. The prime minister told me that the implementation process is not going as rapidly as it should and that my two-month absence has played a role in this. He asked me to take over again on a temporary basis at least in order to avoid further delays," Baban said.

Baban's decision drew sharp criticism from leading Al-Tawafuq members. Umar Abd al-Sattar told Al-Sharqiyah that the front will hold Baban accountable for his actions. Meanwhile, front leader Khalaf al-Ulayyan called Baban's decision a "complete surprise," saying it is a huge embarrassment to the front and weakens the front's stand. Al-Ulayyan said Baban's decision was a "dangerous" one, which he likened to "an act of high treason," and called on the minister to reconsider.

Baban is not the only minister to regret the boycott. Several ministers reportedly opposed the decision of their parties or blocs to boycott the government, including some ministers aligned with former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqis List. According to an August 12 report in "Al-Zaman," most of the ministers who took part in the cabinet boycott are keen to return to their posts.

Parties Come, And Parties Go

Less than a week after parliament reconvened following its summer break, the Sunni-led Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, headed by outspoken politician Salih al-Mutlaq, ended its three-month boycott of the parliament on September 8. Al-Mutlaq said the decision to return to work reflected a desire by the front to work toward formulating a national plan to save Iraq. Part of that plan, he asserted, includes pushing for a change in government.

Meanwhile, parliamentary representatives aligned with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to pull out of the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) on September 11, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. The announcement comes days after al-Sadr-aligned parliamentarian Salam al-Maliki said the cleric's supporters may form a parliamentary alliance with the Shi'ite Al-Fadilah party, Allawi's Iraqis List, and others in the opposition to counter the newly formed moderates' front.

Al-Sadr spokesman Salah al-Ubaydi told reporters at a press briefing in Al-Najaf that parliamentarians were discussing a possible pullout with the cleric, because the bloc is not satisfied with the government's performance.

Al-Ubaydi said the government has failed to achieve the minimum requirements in terms of security and public services. He also criticized the UIA, saying the two major parties in the Shi'ite alliance, al-Maliki's Islamic Al-Da'wah Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), are monopolizing power and practicing a "double-standard" policy.

The threat to withdraw from government, however, appears to have more to do with ongoing tensions that began in 2003 between al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, and what came to be the SIIC-dominated police force. That tension has most recently played out through a series of violent events in central and southern Iraq.

In his statement to reporters, al-Ubaydi criticized a decision by the two leading Shi'ite parties to join ranks with the leading Kurdish parties in parliament to form the so-called moderates' front, saying Al-Da'wah and the SIIC should have consulted all the parties in the UIA before reaching such an agreement.

SIIC parliamentarian Abbas al-Bayati responded to the threat on September 12, saying that no party would withdraw from the UIA, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Al-Bayati stressed that any internal conflicts should be addressed through talks among the parties in the alliance, adding that the official position of the al-Sadr bloc is that the bloc should remain part of the UIA.

Talks Continue To Bring Ba'ath Into Government

Recent media reports also indicate that progress is being made toward encouraging Iraqi tribal leaders and members of the deposed Ba'ath Party to participate in the political process.

Sunni Sheikh Majid Abd al-Razzaq Ali al-Sulayman told the London-based "Al-Quds al-Arabi" in late August that Iraqi tribal leaders have been working since June to form a council that will work to support social cohesion. The council, which will be called the Council of Tribal Sheikhs and Notables of Iraq, would reportedly include the participation of Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, and Christians. Al-Sulayman contended that the council would stand ready to fill a vacuum and preserve the unity, sovereignty, and independence of Iraq, should Prime Minister al-Maliki's government collapse.

Meanwhile, Iyad Allawi continues to tout his role in facilitating talks between Sunni insurgents and the U.S. military. Allawi told Al-Arabiyah television in an interview aired on September 7 that he initiated dialogue with the Ba'ath Party several months ago at the request of the United States. The purpose of the talks was to "find a joint understanding between these Ba'athists and the U.S. government," Allawi said, referring to Ba'athists aligned with former Iraqi Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri.

Allawi contended that the talks were attended by high-level U.S. officials, as well as representatives of unspecified Western and Arab governments.

Grabbing A Piece Of The Pie

As more Sunni tribal leaders join the Iraqi government's effort to bring stability to the country, their Shi'ite counterparts appear destined to follow suit, out of both a need to stay engaged politically, and to take advantage of the economic and financial support being offered in return for their participation.

U.S. military officers and diplomats have been holding talks with senior members of al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on September 12. The discussions, which have been under way for about a year and a half, apparently began to yield "tangible results" following the cleric's decision to suspend the activities of his militia for up to six months.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the "Los Angeles Times" that while there are rogue elements of the Al-Mahdi Army that cannot be negotiated with, "There are others who we think we might be able to work with."

According to the report, the breakthrough in talks with the militia came after the U.S. military made inroads with local Shi'ite tribal leaders. That revelation was hardly surprising, as both Sunni and Shi'ite tribal leaders are expected to help forge national reconciliation by urging their followers, who form the core of Iraq's militias, to lay down their arms.

U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Frank, who has met with tribal leaders belonging to the Al-Mahdi Army, said that al-Sadr's cease-fire gave the United States "an opportunity that was very helpful to the discussion effort." While it may take time to yield practical results, Frank told the "Los Angeles Times" that the United States is committed to forging reconciliation between the Iraqi government and the Al-Mahdi Army.

"We have to craft a way ahead. We have to find a workable solution with the community leaders, the religious leaders and essentially the local political leaders within Jaysh Al-Mahdi," Frank said.

With the political landscape in flux, it remains unclear whether parliamentarians will be able to push through key outstanding legislation, including the draft oil law, the draft law on governorates, and the draft law on revising de-Ba'athification. In the week since it returned from summer break, the parliament has already agreed to delay a constitutional review until next year. Given the sensitivity of several key issues, more delays are likely to come.

Kirkuk Referendum Likely To Be Delayed

By Sumedha Senanayake

Ethnic-Turkish Shi'a protest against Kirkuk 'normalization' (file photo)

September 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Since the ratification of the Iraqi Constitution in 2005, Iraq's Kurds have viewed the issue of the Kirkuk referendum as a "red line." They have held steadfast that Article 140 of the constitution be implemented to determine the political future of the oil-rich governorate, which is estimated to hold 6 percent of the world's oil reserves.

Article 140 calls for a three-step process, starting with "normalization," which aims to reverse the Arabization policies of the former regime, when thousands of Kurds and non-Arabs were driven from Kirkuk or were relocated and replaced with Arabs from central and southern Iraq. This is to be followed by a census and then a referendum -- scheduled to be held at the end of 2007 -- to determine whether Kirkuk Governorate will be incorporated into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

The Kurds have stood firm in their desire to see Article 140 implemented and hope that Kirkuk will become part of the Kurdish region. Indeed, Mas'ud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan regional, has warned that "if Article 140 is not implemented, then there will be a real civil war."

However, there are clear indications that the referendum may not take place as previously planned. The Firat news agency reported on September 10 that the Kurdish Alliance had agreed to postpone the referendum until May 2008. The alliance, which unites the two most powerful Kurdish parties, was clear to stress that the postponement was due entirely to technical reasons and not political pressure exerted by opponents of Article 140.

Signs Point To Delay

Rumors of a delay have been circulating for weeks. On August 16, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said it seemed highly improbable that the referendum would take place by the end of the year, citing the lack of preparation, sectarian wrangling, and missed deadlines.

The original timetable called for the census to be conducted by the end of July, but the normalization process is far from complete. In fact, the normalization process continues to be bogged down by technical problems and internal bickering. The Iraqi government on August 2 appointed Ra'id Fahmi as the new chairman of the committee charged with carrying out the implementation of Article 140, after the former chairman, Hashim al-Shabali, resigned.

The committee continues to wrestle with the sensitive issue of how to implement the normalization process, which inevitably involves removing Arab setters who were brought in during Saddam Hussein's Arabization program. While the committee has steadfastly denied that Arabs would be forcibly relocated, it adopted a controversial plan in early February to entice Arab families to voluntarily leave Kirkuk in exchange for a compensation package of approximately $15,000 and a plot of land to return to in their town of origin.

However, some critics of the plan describe it as tantamount to gerrymandering ahead of the referendum, while others call it another form of forced migration. The Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association issued a statement on September 11 warning that the plan would harm the integrity of Iraq and lead to its eventual partitioning. "The conspiracy to divide Iraq enters a grave phase with the occupation puppet government officially encouraging through financial incentives, to expel Kirkuk's Arabs and facilitate their transfer to other regions of Iraq," the statement said.

Finally, there is the specter of violence among the Kurds, Turkomans, and Arabs who all have a stake in Kirkuk. There is a fear that holding the referendum in the ethnically mixed governorate could lead to the type of sectarian bloodshed that has gripped Baghdad and central Iraq.

Oil Deal Sends A Message

Considering the circumstances, the Kurdish regional government (KRG) may have had no choice but to acknowledge that a postponement of the referendum was inevitable. However, the anticipated postponement of the referendum may have emboldened the KRG to sign a production-sharing contract on September 8 with the U.S.-based Hunt Oil Company and Impulse Energy Corporation to conduct petroleum exploration in northern Iraq.

The deal was roundly denounced by Iraqi Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani, who described it as illegal, since it was not approved by the central government in Baghdad. The KRG previously signed several contracts with foreign firms, all which have been condemned by al-Shahristani and the Baghdad government. This was the first contract the KRG signed with a foreign corporation since passing its own hydrocarbons law in early August.

The new oil contracts were certain to roil the Baghdad government, which has yet to pass its own oil and gas law after nearly a year of negotiations. While there is no doubt that the KRG was in negotiations with the two foreign firms, the timing of the deal sends a message that the Kurds are determined to control the resources in their region, in light of the Kirkuk referendum postponement.

Indeed, the postponement of the Kirkuk referendum, particularly after Kurdish leaders were so insistent that it be conducted by the end this year, was bound to create a certain degree of anxiety among the Kurds. What the Kurds worry about most is that the delay may become an open-ended postponement, which may leave the status of Kirkuk languishing indefinitely.

RFE/RL Correspondents Describe Local Security Conditions

Some aspects of daily life continue uninterrupted -- depending on the security situation (file photo)

September 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- What does the security situation in Iraq look like through Iraqi eyes? We posed the question to RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondents in several cities, as top U.S. officials brief Congress this week on how well the troop surge strategy is working in Baghdad and central Iraq.

Hassan Nassir in Al-Khadimiyah, Baghdad

The security situation in my neighborhood in northwest Baghdad is more or less stable, but there are situations when we have gunfire, mortar fire, and confrontations.

It is a working-class neighborhood; the standard of living here is average. There used to be a mixture in this neighborhood of Shi'a, Sunnis, Kurds, and even Christians, but many people have left. Now it is basically Shi'ite.

About four months ago, U.S. forces began to build a small, simple base in the area. They are active during the night. After midnight, they begin patrols, or walk along the street, or they may target particular houses or individuals.

The militias are also present; they call themselves "popular committees" but we can call them militias. They don't appear constantly; they are in contact with each another and withdraw when the Americans move in, but they are here.

The militiamen do not have formal checkpoints, but there are points where they observe the cars entering the area, though they don't stop and search cars. When you go to talk to them, they say that they are there to protect the area. There have been many bombings, with cars infiltrating the markets and the neighborhoods, and there have been assassinations.

I can move around my neighborhood, but a sense of anxiety accompanies me everywhere. There is no guarantee there will be calm, because it can be transformed by confrontations, or a sudden explosion.

There are only particular neighborhoods I can go to, and not those that are far away; I don't go for hours over long distances, or ride more than one public-transport car. I can go to some nearby neighborhoods, and even then, only to particular neighborhoods, despite their being nearby.

Expulsions took place in my neighborhood during a specific period prior to the U.S. forces coming, and prior to the "imposition of law" plan. Almost all the homes now are Shi'ite, with the exception of some Sunni homes that are here, of course, with the permission of the people here.

There have been no expulsions since the law, and since the Americans arrived. Such actions have stopped. I think that the neighborhood has been "purified" -- there are no Sunnis left.

Those who can get to work are continuing to work. Those who can bring their work to their own neighborhoods have done so. Those who cannot remain at home, and the majority are sitting at home.

School hours are not regular. The children have also been affected by the events in the neighborhood, so that they are terrified by the sounds of gunfire, the police cars, and by U.S. forces. On such days, they may not go to school. So their attendance is irregular; they might attend or they might not. It's all tied to the security situation, of course.

People have practically forgotten there is such a thing as electricity; it's unavailable except for an hour or two per day, and even then it is sporadic. But recently, electricity has somewhat stabilized, so people are relieved: they no longer set aside money for fuel and generators.

The subject of water is important, because water is scarce. If you try to use a pump, you might get contaminated water. People have also become preoccupied with water: they may buy bottled water, or they may boil their water.

As an Iraqi, I have stayed in my country so far. I hope -- and optimism is inevitable -- for something simple: an improvement or a change in the situation, an increase in forces, more movement of forces deployed in the streets.

We hope not only for the American forces; why not Iraqi forces? We don't see Iraqi forces deployed in all the streets; even when they're present, it's only at the checkpoints where they only wave to stop you or to let you move on; nothing more, nothing less. The areas around the checkpoints are crowded, but there are areas where there are neither Iraqi nor U.S. forces. One cannot go there, even now.

Zainab Hasan in Al-Jamil, Baghdad

My neighborhood, Al-Jamil, close to Al-Sadr City, is primarily Shi'ite, but there are a number of Sunni and Christian homes, because the neighborhood residents have prevented their expulsion. It's a neighborhood with an above-average standard of living.

U.S. forces have taken over a site to use as a camp or a base about 200-300 meters from where I live. The truth is that since the Americans have been stationed here, we have been aware of a number of operations, but I don't think that there is any link between the Americans and this neighborhood. We see them three or four times a day in their vehicles and Hummers, but they have never stopped to talk with the neighbors or other people.

Girls in Baghdad take advantage of a quiet moment

There are no militia checkpoints in my neighborhood, and frankly I don't see the presence of such forces. Our neighborhood is maybe quieter than other neighborhoods. We can move freely around our neighborhood. I see girls and women who go out shopping normally.

As for going to other neighborhoods, I only go to particular neighborhoods. For example, there are areas I cannot reach; I used to buy my clothes in Al-Adhamiyah or in the "Camp" neighborhood, but I am now forced to keep out of these areas. However, I can do my shopping on Palestine Street, which is crowded with shoppers, both male and female, even girls wearing trousers and without hijabs.

I don't feel that the situation has improved specifically with the surge of U.S. forces, but I do see a relative improvement in the security situation in general. I feel comfortable when I go somewhere and see security checkpoints separated by 100 or less meters, and this makes me feel safe. I don't see so many operations taking place anymore; I'm not seeing many bombings or hearing about them, even the car bombings that used to take place four or five times a month.

There is a college nearby, and in the morning you can see the students and other people, in their cars and walking, very normally. The children play in the playgrounds. The situation is very normal.

But there are problems, for example, with electricity. There are many generators in the neighborhood, and we share one of them. They are noisy and annoying, but they generate electricity for us.

And there is the problem of water; my neighborhood is known for its water shortage. At the start of summer, they dug up the ground and laid new pipes, and this has increased the water supply. The problem is that the streets they excavate to lay water or sewage pipes are left as they are. Most of the streets are dug up and unpaved, and when winter comes we will suffer.

In truth, I am always optimistic and I always hope that what is coming is better than what we have now. For example, the U.S. forces came and there has been a greater presence, but now they are talking about a reduction. I wonder if there is an alternative plan: is there going to be an alternative to the vacuum they will leave behind?

Samir Abd al-Rahman in Babylon

The neighborhood where I live is not really mixed in terms of Shi'a and Sunnis. There are very few Sunnis.

We find that some of those with a limited education are anxious to carry guns at night, and sometimes hand grenades. We sometimes hear gunfire for a particular reason or for no reason at all. At the same time, we see that culture survives -- artists and writers are also living here.

We have not seen any U.S. forces. I haven't seen any Americans in the neighborhood, but some time ago there was an attack on the house of someone who was working as a contractor for the Americans. His house was attacked, and we then saw an American presence, but only for a very brief period.

There are no militia checkpoints in this area, because our neighborhood is within the city, and because the security agencies are somewhat alert and they spread out after 11 at night. But how do we know if there are any armed elements around? Any minor incident is accompanied by concentrated gunfire; this shows that people have weapons.

I can move around in complete freedom; I can move around in all the areas that I can see. But it is hard to measure the security situation accurately. For example, you can see that there are no incidents for 10 days or so and then suddenly you can see an abnormal change: streets being closed, one or two explosions in one day, assassinations. So in fact, there is no standard of measurement.

Still, I can see activity in the streets -- people going to work or about their business -- from the time when the call to prayer comes in the morning, and up to 11 at night, the curfew deadline. The children go to school completely normally.

As individuals in just one neighborhood, we hope that services will improve. And we see a large number of unemployed graduates in the coffee shops. You see them there in the morning when you go out to work, and again at noon and at night. They kill their time playing dominoes and backgammon.

We also hope that the administrative corruption that exists now -- it is the talk of the streets -- lessens. It is eating into the heart of society even more than the car bombs. The citizens of Iraq long for change, for recreation sites, even tourist attractions in the neighborhoods. Now we have empty spaces that have become trash dumps. They could be converted into parks where our children can go to play.

I look at the security situation and don't see it as requiring additional forces, but rather a cure for all the internal conditions. We now need a revision of the security operations; we need a revised map, we need to replace officials, we need to replace the security forces that include militias and political parties, and which do not have a sense of national loyalty.

Sa'id Mustafa in Tikrit

With regard to the security situation, we cannot call it good or bad. There is a police presence, and there is control over security, and there have not been any incidents in our actual neighborhood. But we hear that incidents do occur in the market and in the crowded areas, incidents involving explosions, assassinations at night.

U.S. soldiers on patrol in Tikrit

My neighborhood's standard of living is low to medium. Most people are government employees. It does include the various sects: there are Shi'a, Sunnis, etc., but there is no differentiation here.

The U.S. forces are not present in our neighborhood, but they do pass by on the main street. They have fixed bases where they are centered. Nobody is involved with them, nor does anybody go near them, except for those who work at their bases -- they are distant from us and people do not mix with them.

There are no checkpoints here manned by militias, and the control of the streets is in the hands of the police and army. We sometimes hear about armed elements, but not in our neighborhood. The armed elements are at the governorate level, and on the main roads and highways.

In general, the security situation is good, thank God. This is a working-class neighborhood. Everybody moves around -- they go to the market and it's safe. But of course, freedom of movement depends on the security situation at the moment; if there is an explosion, the streets and roads will of course be closed, and there will be confrontations.

On the question of whether the security situation has improved since the U.S. surge began -- no, on the contrary, it gets worse day by day. We haven't felt any change... The U.S. forces protect themselves in their bases and go on patrols. They actually increase tensions rather than the opposite. We have not observed anything positive.

One thing that has not happened here, as unfortunately happens in Baghdad, are sectarian-based evictions. There have been some people who, out of fear...for example there are Shi'a who have said that they won't stay in a Sunni area, they prefer to leave. But they did that on their own, no one approached them. So, on the contrary, we have coexistence, and evictions have not happened here.

People go to work normally, each according to his type of work. If there is an explosion, everyone will of course close his shop and stay at home. When the security situation is calm, people will go to work.

And the children move around normally. They do not go to distant schools; in a working-class area, every neighborhood has a school.

Beyond security, the other problems -- like water, jobs, prices -- they are beyond count. We have problems with water pollution and unemployment; cronyism and favoritism have become standard in the government offices. A kilogram of tomatoes now costs 1,000 dinars ($.81) and the high taxi fares are taking their toll. All of this affects one's income; even if one is earning 400 or 500 dinars ($.32-$.41) a day, it is still not enough.

I am not optimistic, whether the U.S. forces stay or not. In any case, if they stay or leave, they neither add anything nor are they useful. What I say is that if we had Iraqi forces, or if they reorganize and bring back the former security agencies, the situation would stabilize like before. Our dependence is ultimately on the Iraqis, and that is a million times better than relying on foreign forces, whether they are Americans or others.

Jabbar Musa in Al-Najaf

In general, the situation where I live is quiet up to a point, but we often hear about "the calm" before the storm. My neighborhood has as an above-average or good standard of living. The people there are mostly educated employees with government offices.

There is no presence at all of U.S. forces, but there are two checkpoints manned by the local police in our area.

Markets are open in Najaf, but public services are badly lacking

Sometimes when there are political activities, the militias appear and take control of the street, exhibiting all of their capabilities, to an amazing level. They have wireless communications devices, and they keep in contact. But they do not have a daily presence.

In our area, freedom of movement is practically total; there are no inconveniences or security pestering, except occasionally. But there are rumors that there are in fact assassinations, and they are aimed at political people, or those who had relations with the previous regime.

In reality, there is fear, because the assassinations that are taking place are random. This may be on purpose, in order to "mix the cards." Actually this is the only issue people talk about in our neighborhood.

The U.S. forces have not entered our neighborhood. But surely, when additional U.S. forces enter and carry out military and security operations in other neighborhoods, their presence, when added to the local police and army, creates additional security in our areas. That's for sure.

We top the list of all of Iraq's cities with regard to the problems of services. Cleaning is virtually nonexistent, electricity is like a transient visitor, and there are constant water shortages. There is also a real fuel crisis; some of the generator owners are declining to provide power, because there is no fuel available.

I am neither pessimistic nor optimistic; I am in the middle ground, and I make no secret of the fact that it is very strange for a person to say that he wants to change his country. It is a bitter pill to swallow; promises are plentiful and we are now in our fifth year of waiting, while the bloodshed continues, and the killings continue, and the poor quality of services continues. These things have begun to make us weary.

(Translated by Ayad al-Gailani)

As Third-Largest Contingent, Georgia Hopes To Show Its Worth

By Koba Liklikadze

Georgian soldiers training to deploy in Iraq in 2006

September 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia's decision to double its number of peacekeepers in Iraq has prompted concerns at home about deploying more forces at a time when many contingents are reducing their sizes or withdrawing from Iraq altogether.

Since Tbilisi boosted its troop numbers two months ago, Georgia now has 2,000 troops in Iraq -- the third-largest presence in the coalition, after the United States and Britain.

But in spite of the conflicted public opinion, for the Georgian military the Iraq operations are an opportunity to gain on-the-ground experience -- and bolster Tbilisi's case for entering NATO.

One Georgian commander, Major Zaza Kvaraia, arrived in late July in the eastern Iraqi town of Al-Kut to prepare accommodations for the 2,000 Georgian peacekeepers deployed to combat illegal weapons smuggling.

It's a sensitive operation that involves working alongside Iraqi troops in Wasit Governorate, close to the Iran-Iraq border.

"If we seriously want to become members of the alliance, naturally we have to assume partial responsibility and operate like the alliance members do." -- Defense Minister David Kezerashvili

But Kvaraia, who has previous experience as a part of a peacekeeping contingent in Kosovo, says the situation remains quiet as the troops wait for direct operations to begin.

"I can't say we've been playing football -- that hasn't happened yet," Kvaraia said. As for the province where we've been deployed, the situation's really calm, and it's been peaceful all this time. There were some incidents, perhaps, but nothing on a large scale. We interact with people who perceive our presence here as aimed at keeping peace."

Georgian soldiers have been serving in Iraq since August 2003, mainly in noncombat roles like checkpoint control in Ba'qubah and the Green Zone in Baghdad.

But the Al-Kut deployment marks a departure from support roles. It also marks a sharp contrast from the early months of Georgian engagement, when just 79 troops were based in Iraq.

'Georgians Never Run'

The Georgian parliament's Defense and Security Committee in June unanimously approved a proposal to more than double the country's troop contributions to Iraq from 850 to 2,000.

This followed the lead set by the country's pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who in early 2007 pledged to boost Georgia's support to the U.S.-led forces in Iraq.

"Georgians never run away from anything," Saakashvili said. "Even in the most difficult circumstances, we will not only maintain our presence, but also, within the next year -- which is a decisive period for this military operation -- we will increase our military presence in Iraq."

The gesture was widely seen as a bid to improve Georgia's standing with the United States and NATO. Tbilisi has long sought membership in the alliance, and has taken steps to improve its military capability and integration with the West.

Defense Minister David Kezerashvili defended the increased troop deployment as a valuable step toward securing NATO membership. "If we seriously want to become members of the alliance, naturally we have to assume partial responsibility and operate like the alliance members do," he said.

Mixed Reactions

Still, Saakashvili's decision sparked criticism in Georgia, even among those who favor his pro-Western course. Mamuka Katsitadze, a member of Georgia's New Conservatives parliamentary opposition group, says it's unwise to double troops in Iraq at a time when other countries -- like Ukraine, which also seeks to join NATO -- are partially or fully withdrawing.

Saakashvili "wants to prove something to someone -- something like 'look how great we are,'" Katsitadze said. "Ukraine, for example, is not lagging behind us in any way" in terms of Western integration, he added, "and still it took a concrete decision to move its contingent away from this zone, having suffered significant losses."

On the streets of Tbilisi, people have mixed feelings about seeing Georgian soldiers deployed in Iraq.

"It's dangerous, I'm very scared. My friend is in Iraq, and I am very afraid," one girl told RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "It's a big risk," added one woman. "If something happens, there's little chance of coming back."

But one man in Tbilisi told RFE/RL that soldiers "go there willingly. A person knows where he's going, right? And probably this is good for the country."

Georgia has not lost a single soldier during its entire engagement in Iraq. Still, Georgian officials concede their soldiers are at risk as long as they remain in Iraq.

Promoting Understanding

Members of the Georgian contingent in Wasit Governorate say the tour of duty is not just an opportunity to boost Georgia's standing with NATO. Father Gabriel, a Georgian Orthodox priest based in Al-Kut, says the new operation is a chance for his countrymen to promote interfaith understanding and tolerance.

"There are Arabs at the base too, and we have warm relations with them. But we also plan to meet with local sheikhs and spiritual leaders, in order to let them know why we're here, that we're not occupiers and that we're here to conduct a peaceful mission. That way, they won't think badly of us, and won't express their anger," he said.

With hostilities simmering between Tbilisi and the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, some in Georgia may be more concerned with security issues that are closer to home than Iraq. But Major Kvaraia, for one, sees his tour of duty somewhat differently.

"Of course, this is to Georgia's benefit. Achieving peace in this region would be very important not only for Georgia, but for all of the nations in the coalition," he said. It's important, he continued, "that the Iraqi people succeed in normalizing and continuing life. This affects us directly. This task is connected to our own well-being back in Georgia."

Strategy's Architect Assesses U.S. 'Surge' Progress

Frederick Kagan

WASHINGTON, September 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Frederick Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former professor of military history at the U.S. Military Academy At West Point, is regarded as the chief intellectual architect of the military "surge" in Iraq.

In January 2007, Kagan published a report entitled "Choosing Victory: A Plan For Success In Iraq," which advocated many of the steps later adopted by President George W. Bush. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked Kagan for his assessment of the surge, how it is being implemented by the U.S. military, and what the future holds for Iraq.

RFE/RL: The top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has told Congress that the surge is largely meeting its military objectives and that by next summer the U.S. force can return to its pre-surge levels. Do you agree with this forecast? Isn't this a bit shorter than the original 18-month timeline for the surge that you advocated?

Frederick Kagan: The situation on the ground actually has improved more rapidly than I or anyone had anticipated when we laid out our proposal in December 2006, because we did not foresee the changes in [the western Al-]Anbar [Governorate] moving as rapidly as they did. And we did not see them spreading as rapidly and completely as they have into Baghdad, Diyala, Salah Al-Din, and Babil [governorates].

And so we've found ourselves in the slightly weird position of doing better than expected from a security standpoint. And now we're playing not just for the aim of securing Baghdad and Anbar but actually for securing all of central Iraq. And it's a much more ambitious goal. But I think that we actually are on track to accomplish it right now.

That having been said, I would prefer to err on the side of delaying the drawdown, or at least delaying the announcement of the drawdown. And I would have been slower than General Petraeus to make it clear what his expectations are along those lines, because it is a war, the enemy has a vote and situations can change.

But he and Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker have both emphasized that the withdrawal has to be based on conditions on the ground and the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. And I think that's going to have to be the key at the end of the day, whatever everyone's expectations might be.

RFE/RL: Did anything come up during General Petraeus's testimony that surprised you?

Kagan: I'm a little bit surprised by the complete unwillingness of some members of Congress to recognize changing facts on the ground and their insistence on painting Iraq as they -- for reasons that escape me -- would like it to be, that is to say as a hopeless failure, without recognizing very obvious differences that have occurred, which you can tell if you have been visiting the country regularly, as some of them have, and as I have. So I've been a little bit surprised at the degree to which this discussion does not seem to be based enough on what the reality actually is in Iraq.

RFE/RL: Speaking about the members of Congress, two moderate Republicans -- Senators Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel -- have both expressed some degree of skepticism at the assessments presented by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. Hagel asked Petraeus directly, "Where is this going?" How do you answer that question?

Kagan: I think General Petraeus has been very clear about where this is going. The overall effort is moving in the direction of creating the capability within Iraqi society to maintain order, to support the turn against Al-Qaeda, to support the growing disenchantment with Iranian-backed extremist militias in a way that will allow the United States to begin withdrawing combat forces in a conditions-based way, without compromising our successes.

I think senators keep hammering on Petraeus about the fact that he's not telling them where we're going. But he's been very explicit about that, and I think he's right. This is where we are headed. Again, it's impossible to make firm predictions in war and this is one of the problems with the discussions, with a series of congressmen and senators saying: "When are we going to be able to bring the troops home? When is the war going to end?"

The problem with wars is that you can only know the answer to that question if you're prepared to surrender. The only way that you can know for sure when a war will end is if you choose to stop fighting it.

RFE/RL: Writing in "The Washington Post" last March you said -- among other things -- that a national law on sharing oil revenue in Iraq seemed close to approval. But according to this month's report by the General Accounting Office, the Iraqi government has only met three of the 18 "benchmarks" for progress on political and security issues, set up by Congress. And passing a revenue-sharing law was one of the key benchmarks that the government missed. Do you think you were too optimistic about the Iraqi government's ability or willingness to act?

Kagan: One of the things I think Ambassador Crocker has emphasized in the testimony that's very important is that even without that law, the Iraqis have been sharing oil revenues among the Sunni, Shi'a, and Kurds de facto on the ground in large amounts, because the only revenue that the Iraqi government really gets is from oil. And they have recently sent, I think, $107 million to Anbar in reconstruction money and I think about $28 million to Diyala in reconstruction. And all of that is coming from oil revenue.

So the interesting thing is that I wasn't overly optimistic since they're actually doing this. But it turns out that getting the legislation passed is a very hard thing to do. This is true in a number of other areas as well: [such as] de-Ba'athification -- Ambassador Crocker has described how these things have been going on, on a day-to-day practical level where it matters most, even while it has proved very difficult to get them through the Council of Representatives.

But are you disappointed in the lack of progress at the central government level? And what's your assessment of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's ability to bring people together and work toward common legislative benchmarks? After all, the surge, as it was explained, was implemented to give the government breathing room to reach these benchmarks.

Kagan: I think that we are trying to evaluate the effect of that "breathing room" before there's been very much of it at all. The major military operations of the surge began in mid-June. We're now in mid-September. We have violence coming down, but it's still at high levels.

When you're talking about this legislation, you're talking about the different groups in Iraq making compromises that would harm their ability to fight one another if the situation collapsed and fell into civil war. In order to get them to do that, you have to make it clear that there isn't going to be a civil war; they don't have to position themselves for that eventuality. And that's something that takes more than a couple of months' worth of working to get security under control.

But to me the most important issue is why did we establish these benchmarks, why do we care about this? We care because we thought it was a way to get the Iraqis to reconciliation. What we're seeing is that getting the legislation passed is very hard, but that the Iraqis are willing to do that work on a local level and also on a pragmatic level, with the central government reaching out and doing things instead of trying to pass laws. I don't think that we should sit here in Washington and say to the Iraqis, "You didn't do it the way we want you to do it, so it doesn't count."

RFE/RL: As you know, there will be U.S. elections in November 2008 and a lot of the people listening to the Petraeus and Crocker testimony in Congress this week are up for reelection. They're going to want to tell their constituents that they're asking for measurable progress in Iraq. What's a fair standard to ask the Iraqi government to meet? How much progress should we be seeking and by when?

Kagan: We need to be clear about something. American forces are fighting and dying in Iraq in pursuit of American interests. We are concerned about the stability and the functionality of the Iraqi government for a variety of reasons.

But the test of our success at the end of the day is: Are we achieving our vital interests, which include fighting Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which include preventing Iran from establishing itself in control of all or part of Iraq, and which also includes establishing some degree of security or stability so that the country isn't actually falling apart and making it possible for it to become home to terrorism and so forth? Those are the American interests that we are pursuing and we are succeeding on all those grounds.

I do ultimately still believe that we will be able to accomplish the goal of establishing a stable, democratic state that respects the rights of minorities and so forth and is an ally in the war on terror. I do believe we will be able to do that. But I think we need to get away from this question of: Will we do that by next November, will we do that by next March, when will that happen? [I think we should] simply ask ourselves the questions: Why are we there, what are our interests, and are we accomplishing them or not? And that's the measure that we should be concerned about.