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Iraq Report: September 27, 2007

UN Meetings Fail To Make Clear Breakthrough

By Sumedha Senanayake

Al-Maliki told Iraq's neighbors on September 26 at the UN that their security is tied to Iraq's

September 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A series of meetings at UN headquarters in New York to bolster international support for Iraq began with considerable fanfare on September 22 with a high-level meeting of Iraq's neighbors, the permanent members of the Security Council, the Group of Eight industrialized countries, Egypt, Bahrain, the League of Arab States, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the European Union.

The sheer size of the meeting was impressive, with representatives of 22 states taking part. The rhetoric following the meeting was also encouraging; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that there was strong international support for UN Security Council Resolution 1770 to enhance the UN's role in Iraq, while Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki insisted that the time was right to expand the UN's role.

But the meetings have so far failed to produce anything substantially new. While the pledge of an expanded UN role is undoubtedly positive, there is no guarantee that the security situation will stabilize enough to allow the UN to conduct its operations effectively.

Moreover, hopes that Iraq's neighbors would come together to resolve their differences for the benefit of Iraq failed to materialize. There were also no high-level contacts between the United States and Iran or Syria. In fact, it was up to al-Maliki, during his UN General Assembly speech, to underscore the importance for Iraq's neighbors of stopping the flow of arms, money, and fighters into Iraq. In a not-so-veiled warning, he said that failure to do so would lead to disastrous consequences for the region and the world.

Blackwater Issue Overshadows Meeting

One of the main objectives of al-Maliki's visit to UN headquarters in New York was to rally more international support and highlight Iraq's accomplishments 4 1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion and the overthrow of the former regime.

But while he was able to make his case during meetings with world leaders and in his address to the UN General Assembly, the issue involving the alleged killing of 11 Iraqi civilians by the U.S. private security firm Blackwater USA in Baghdad on September 16 seemed to dominate the news. The Blackwater issue was allotted significant coverage in both the Western and Iraqi media, but the issue came to a fore during al-Maliki's brief meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush on the sidelines of the General Assembly on September 25.

While neither leader publicly mentioned the incident, Iraqi and U.S. officials clearly indicated that the issue was broached during the 75-minute closed-door meeting. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told reporters after the meeting that al-Maliki stressed the need to respect Iraq's sovereignty. U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley made similar comments regarding the need to recognize Iraqi sovereignty.

Having the incident framed, by both Iraqi and U.S. officials, as an issue pertaining to Iraq's sovereignty underscores the severity of the Blackwater incident and how it may impact U.S.-Iraqi relations.

Difficult Issues Face Iraqi Leader

One of the issues al-Maliki repeatedly stressed during his meetings at the UN was the importance of fostering national reconciliation. During his September 25 meeting with Bush, he said, "the future of Iraq goes through the gates of national reconciliation." If Iraq is to achieve this, then some of the thornier issues need to be resolved.

One is the ongoing political paralysis due to the continuing boycott of al-Maliki's government by the biggest Sunni-led political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front. The front's six ministers withdrew from al-Maliki's cabinet in early August after he failed to meet its demands including the release of Sunni detainees not charged with specific crimes, the disbanding of Shi'ite militias, and wider inclusion for the front in the decision-making process.

Almost half of the ministerial posts are currently vacant and al-Maliki has threatened to fill those posts, including ones formerly held by members of the Accordance Front, with "qualified technocrats" -- a move that would further isolate the Sunni Arab community and put an end to the idea of the formation of a true "unity government." Indeed, pushing the Accordance Front out of the government would seriously hamper any notion of achieving national reconciliation.

Another is the lack of a comprehensive hydrocarbon law. After nearly a year of negotiations, the Baghdad government has yet to pass the petroleum revenue-sharing law that many Iraqi and U.S. officials consider vital to promoting national reconciliation. In fact, the lack of a federal oil law has led the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) to ratify its own oil law. The KRG has also announced the signing of contracts with the U.S.-based Hunt Oil Company and Impulse Energy Corporation to conduct petroleum exploration activities in northern Iraq.

The federal government has called these deals, as well as past deals between the KRG and foreign firms, illegal. The KRG contends that their deals are valid since no federal oil law has existed since the fall of the former regime. The KRG deals may arguably mark the first steps toward greater autonomy, which could damage any hopes of national reconciliation.

After his meeting with Bush, al-Maliki acknowledged the difficulty of the many issues facing him and his government in achieving national reconciliation when he said, "the task before us is gigantic."

Blackwater Incident Could Further Undermine Premier

By Sumedha Senanayake

Prime Minister al-Maliki may be powerless to deal with the Blackwater incident

September 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The killing of 11 Iraqis in Al-Nusur Square in western Baghdad on September 16, allegedly by Blackwater USA security contractors, has enraged Iraqis for more than a week.

Details of the incident remain unclear, but Iraqi officials and witnesses at the scene contend that the contractors opened fire on unarmed civilians without provocation. This contradicts claims by the company and U.S. officials that a State Department convoy guarded by Blackwater contractors came under fire, and the contractors reacted in a defensive manner by returning fire.

The incident has touched a nerve and has angered Iraqis on several fronts. Blackwater contractors have long been accused of using aggressive tactics without regard for the well-being of Iraqis. In the aftermath of the Al-Nusur killings, the Iraqi Interior Ministry noted that Blackwater contractors have been linked to six other violent incidents, including the killing of three Iraqi security guards at a television station in Baghdad on February 7.

However, it is the issue of not holding Blackwater and other private security firms accountable for their actions that has truly roiled Iraqis and created the impression that Iraq's sovereignty is being undermined.

Iraqis Feel Sovereignty Challenged

The initial reaction by the Iraqi government after the Al-Nusur Square incident was to revoke Blackwater's license, expel the company from Iraq, and have the contractors involved in the shootings brought to justice in Iraq. However, it seems that none of this may actually occur.

Even as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki described the incident as a "crime" and many Iraqi lawmakers called for Blackwater to suspend all activities, the company continued to operate after a brief hiatus. While officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad indicated that Blackwater was carrying out only vital missions, this underscores the frustration expressed by many Iraqis that they do not have control over what goes on in their own country.

Moreover, according to Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Order No. 17, private contractors "shall be immune from the Iraqi legal process," essentially meaning there is no chance of the contractors allegedly involved in the Al-Nusur incident being prosecuted under Iraqi law. Iraqi officials have indicated that the recent shootings may prompt them to amend CPA Order 17 and create new guidelines for dealing with foreign contractors.

Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on September 23 that prior to the Al-Nusur incident, Iraqi officials had repeatedly complained to U.S. officials about Blackwater's overly aggressive methods and how they were operating without regulation. Deputy Interior Minister Husayn Kamal said, "Our complaints went nowhere."

Furthermore, the issue of Iraq's sovereignty continues to be raised after the arrest of an Iranian national, Mahmud Farhadi, by U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi city of Al-Sulaymaniyah on September 20. The United States accused Farhadi of being an officer of the Al-Quds Force, a secret military wing of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, who was trying to smuggle weapons into Iraq.

However, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani insisted Farhadi was a member of an Iranian trade delegation that was in the region "with the knowledge of the federal government in Baghdad and the government of Kurdistan." Both Talabani and al-Maliki condemned the arrest and demanded Farhadi's immediate release. The arrest prompted Iran to close its border with Iraq's Kurdish region in protest, and Kurdish officials have warned that the local economy would suffer as a result of the United States' unilateral actions.

A Further Blow To Al-Maliki

As the Blackwater incident continues to play out, it remains to be seen how it will impact al-Maliki's political standing. The country is still in the midst of a political crisis, with the major Sunni political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, continuing to boycott the government by refusing to allow its ministers to rejoin al-Maliki's cabinet. The absence of Sunni lawmakers has been a blow to al-Maliki's efforts at fostering national reconciliation.

Even within his Shi'ite-dominated coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), al-Maliki is facing defections and withdrawals that threaten his government. On September 15, the political bloc of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, with 32 seats in parliament, withdrew from the UIA, claiming that it was being sidelined from the political process.

Abd al-Karim al-Anzi, the head of the Al-Da'wah Party-Iraq Organization, later announced that his party too might consider pulling out of the UIA if the Shi'ite rift was not healed. This fueled speculation that opponents of al-Maliki were trying to bring a no-confidence vote against him and bring down the government.

There have been also murmurings in the Iraqi media that former Prime Minister and Islamic Al-Da'wah Party member Ibrahim al-Ja'fari was set to announce the formation of a new political coalition, the National Reform Grouping, that would counter the moderates' front established by the UIA and the Kurdish Alliance in mid-August. If it is formed, the new coalition is expected to be the largest in parliament and al-Ja'fari may seek to replace al-Maliki as prime minister.

Is Al-Maliki Powerless To Act?

Based on the current political landscape, those who oppose al-Maliki may use the Blackwater incident to further erode his already tenuous political position. If the joint U.S.-Iraqi commission set up to investigate the Al-Nusur incident finds that some of the Blackwater contractors opened fire without provocation, but are not punished or do not end up standing trial in Iraq, then al-Maliki could be seen as a U.S. puppet and lose any political credibility.

Indeed, al-Maliki's vociferous condemnation of the shootings and calls for those accused to face justice, despite his understanding that CPA Order 17 will make it virtually impossible to do so, is arguably an attempt to assuage public anger and shore up his political standing.

However, the reality of the situation is that nothing substantial may actually change regarding the Blackwater incident. The Iraqi government has already quickly backtracked from suspending the company's activities in Iraq outright, claiming it may actually lead to greater problems in the long run.

Tashin al-Shiekhly, a spokesman for the Iraqi security forces, said at a September 24 news conference that forcing Blackwater to freeze its operations would create a security vacuum in Baghdad that may have to be filled by redeploying U.S. forces from other parts of Iraq. Those redeployments could make less secure areas even more vulnerable, an apparent acknowledgement that the presence of Blackwater needs to be tolerated for the benefit of Iraq's overall security.