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Iraq Report: April 18, 2008

Awakening Councils Change Sunni Arab Insurgency

By RFE/RL analyst Kathleen Ridolfo

Are Sunni tribes still with the insurgency 'in their hearts'?

U.S. military leaders have warned for months that awakening councils, formed by Sunni Arab tribesmen last year in several governorates to fight Al-Qaeda, may be infiltrated by Sunni Arab insurgents.

Recent comments by leading figures in the insurgency reveal that insurgent groups are indeed trying to influence awakening councils, but by their own account, they are meeting stiff resistance. Though some cooperation takes place, major rifts have obstructed the insurgents' ability to make any significant inroads in terms of infiltration. Insurgent leaders contend that the insurgency is not crumbling, but say they have had to reorganize their efforts to carry out more selective operations.

In the five years since the U.S.-led invasion, there have been few occasions at which the Sunni Arab insurgency could be described as having a cohesive, united position. Though nearly all insurgent groups purport to share a common ideology and goals, groups have always been divided by rivalries and ambition. The decision by nationalist insurgent groups to target Al-Qaeda in Iraq as a common enemy last year diminished much of the ill will felt among them, but significant problems remain.

Those problems appear to have been compounded by the appearance of the awakening councils, which drew criticism from insurgent groups for their willingness to work alongside coalition and Iraqi security forces. Though they applaud the awakening councils' decision to fight Al-Qaeda, insurgent leaders say the tribesmen went too far in their alliance with the U.S. and Iraqi government.

Despite existing differences, insurgent leaders still share many common positions, which relate to negotiations with the United States, the legitimacy of the Iraqi government, and the possibility of working with what they view as Shi'ite nationalist groups, such as cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army.

In an interview with the London-based daily "Al-Quds al-Arabi" published on April 2, Harith al-Dari, chairman of the Muslim Scholars Association, which backs the 1920 Revolution Brigades insurgent group, spoke extensively about the need to unify "national powers." "It is in the interest of the national powers opposing the occupation to unite their aims and focus of attention, and to adopt the same stances toward the issue of occupation, and to have a clear, unconfused outlook," he said of the nationalist insurgent groups.

Al-Dari said all those opposed to the occupation should resist it politically, militarily, and by all legitimate means, each according to its abilities -- by hand, by tongue, by sword, or by any means that can express the Iraqis' hatred of the occupation.

Analyzing the fragmentation among nationalist insurgent groups, al-Dari surmised that Iraqis weren't prepared for the events that followed the U.S.-led invasion, and therefore had no plan in place to work together as a cohesive unit. This contradicts al-Dari's previous narrative, in which he has argued that the resistance was ready and waiting for the U.S.-led invasion.

Al-Dari admitted that insurgent groups are extremely suspicious of each other, and said personal ambitions tend to impede the groups' ability to work together. "I do not say that all these reasons put together have caused the noncrystallization of a united anti-occupation stance, but they have certainly prevented such crystallization," he noted. The groups should make efforts to reconcile, work closely together, and show good intentions toward each other, he advised.

Awakening Councils 'Need To Be Reformed'

Al-Dari described the emergence of awakening councils as a "setback" rather than an "awakening." He claimed that the battles between nationalist insurgent groups and Al-Qaeda last year were a window of opportunity for the U.S. military, which exploited the security situation to encourage the emergence of the tribal-led councils. "The greedy, unemployed...and the [former intelligence] agents woke up, and gathered under the headline of the awakening," he contended. "This was established with the practical and intelligence support of the occupation forces; it is not only against Al-Qaeda, but also against the entire real resistance."

The emergence of the awakening councils forced nationalist insurgents to retreat from their usual bases in the Al-Anbar, Baghdad, and Diyala governorates for some time, he said, but they have since regrouped and returned to those areas. Al-Dari claimed the resistance is better positioned now than it was seven months ago, and it now moves from place to place rather than staying in a fixed area, carrying out what he described as high-quality attack-and-retreat operations.

Likewise, Ibrahim al-Shammari, the official spokesman of the Islamic Army in Iraq nationalist insurgent group, told Al-Jazeera in an interview broadcast on April 9 that the resistance is not falling apart, but rather it has changed its tactics. "The resistance has brought the pace of its military operations under control [and is] no longer dealing with matters on the spur of the moment or with logic based on spontaneity," he claimed. "It has started to weigh matters carefully. It started to economize its resources."

Al-Shammari denied that the resistance has been weakened, but said it has had to change its focus to deal with "new facts in Iraq" such as the appearance of awakening councils. "The resistance has started to deal with the Sunni community in a mutually beneficial and positive way. Thus, we started to purge the Sunni community of what has afflicted it, with an operation of purification, to purge this community that has been poisoned by the awakening issue," he said, implying that the awakening councils are an obstacle to the operations and movement of insurgent groups.

He categorized the awakening councils into five groups, saying some were longtime U.S. allies, others wanted jobs after a long period of unemployment, others wanted to resist militias (he did not say which militias), while some wanted prominence and financial gain.

Al-Shammari contended that following the "purification process," many of those who joined awakening councils have realized that their behavior threatened the Sunni resistance movement. He noted that the rise of awakening councils was a natural reaction to Al-Qaeda, and implied that Sunni Arabs who joined the councils would be forgiven for their alleged indiscretion, which put them ultimately on the side of the so-called occupation.

Finding Acceptance

Several observations can be drawn from the two insurgent leaders' interviews. Both acknowledge that their groups are less active today than they were in previous months. The claim that the groups have adapted their tactics and become more selective in their operations may hold some truth, but it appears the change is due more to their inability to move about as freely as before, and perhaps due to constraints in their supply lines. Clearly, the formation of awakening councils has impeded both groups' ability to operate.

Though there is little doubt that resistance groups are sometimes assisted by awakening councils, that assistance does not appear to be the norm. One member of the Islamic Army in Iraq told "The Christian Science Monitor" last week that he would not dream of moving around if it were not for the help of Sunni militias and elements inside the security forces. He acknowledged that discord did erupt between insurgent groups in the resistance and the awakening councils, but insisted both sides worked to avoid discord. "Trust me, the sahwahs [awakening councils] are ultimately with the resistance, heart and mind," he claimed.

The ability of awakening councils to survive the current security and political climate will be challenged in the coming months by their Sunni Arab compatriots. Should they continue to obstruct insurgent operations, they may well find themselves in armed confrontation with Sunni Arab brethren who are more than likely also relatives and friends. However, such a stance would also make the awakening councils more palatable to the Shi'ite led-government, which has largely viewed their emergence as a threat.

The councils are also likely to face increasing opposition from the Sunni Arab political parties that came to power in the 2005 elections, because the councils, which have formed political parties, intend to contest the provincial elections in October. The awakening councils have a built-in base of support among the tribes that nearly ensures they will sweep the elections.

If the councils are to continue to play a positive role in policing Sunni Arab territory and leading the fight against Al-Qaeda, they must be supported and seen by the Iraqi government for the positive role they can play in Iraq's security.

Christians Say Targeting By Extremists Amounts To Genocide

By RFE/RL analyst Kathleen Ridolfo

Iraq's Christian community has been targeted by terrorists and sectarian militias

Iraq's Christian community says it is being targeted at an unprecedented level by insurgents, in what some claim amounts to a campaign of genocide carried out under the noses of Iraq and U.S. forces.

At least 10 churches have been bombed this year, two leading clergymen have been killed, and scores of worshippers targeted for practicing their religion. Though they make up only 3 percent of the population, Christians comprise nearly half the refugees fleeing Iraq, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Figures on the prewar size of the Christian community vary, with estimates ranging between 800,000 and 1.2 million. Today, estimates on the remaining number of Christians in Iraq put the community at between 500,000 and 700,000.

Unlike other groups in Iraq, Christians do not have militias or tribes to protect them. In their absence, they have relied on coalition and Iraqi forces for protection, and say they have been let down. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed to increase protection for the Christian community following the March killing of Mosul Archbishop Bulus Faraj Rahhu, but it does not appear that he has followed through on his pledge.

The first major attack against the Christian community in Iraq came in August 2004 when five Baghdad churches were bombed over a 30-minute period. The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) appeared to be responsible for the bombings, and for the majority of attacks that have since targeted the Christian community. The first bombings came in response to an influx of foreign Christian missionary groups following the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. Christians said the proselytizing of foreign missionaries to Muslims was seen as an arm of the U.S. occupation, and the indigenous Christian community was made to pay for the foreigners' actions.

ISI's main goal is to establish an Islamic state on the ground in Iraq that adheres to strict Islamic law. Christians who have fled Iraq report being pressured by Muslim insurgents, both Sunni and Shi'ite, to convert to Islam or leave Iraq. As ISI grew in strength, it increased its campaign against Christians, hanging posters in Baghdad's Christian neighborhoods demanding Christian women veil their faces. Locals reported in June 2007 that nearly 200 Christian families had fled Baghdad's Al-Durah neighborhood with just the clothes on their backs.

The other main perpetrator of violence against Christians in recent years has been the Shi'ite militia led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Imam Al-Mahdi Army. The Al-Mahdi Army waged a brutal campaign against the Christian community in Baghdad and Al-Basrah beginning in 2004, driving people from their homes, bombing Christian-owned liquor stores and hair salons, and imposing jizya, an Islamic protection tax on those wishing to stay in their homes. In May 2007, the militia ordered Christian women in Baghdad to veil or face grave consequences.

Dozens of churches across the country have since been bombed, and hundreds of Christians killed. Moreover, campaigns of kidnapping for ransom targeting Christians became a main tool of intimidation by insurgents. Those who have not fled Iraq entirely are internally displaced, with the majority living inside the northern Kurdistan region. Observers say those who remain in the south may be forced to worship underground if they are to survive. In Al-Basrah, which had a vibrant Christian community before the war, some say the community has fled altogether.

The Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) reported in May 2007 that families in Al-Durah were told their property now belonged to ISI. One resident of Al-Durah told AINA in a March 2007 e-mail: "This has been going on for the past week, and it started even before Easter. We talked to many people within the American Embassy and Iraqi government, but it seems nobody really cares, because they have done nothing, or sometimes I wonder if they care at all. Neither the Iraqi nor the U.S. Army have any activity there, and they have delivered Durah to insurgents; and above all the U.S. Army went and put a camp in the Chaldean church [the Pontifical Babil College for Philosophy and Theology] to raise the hate among those Muslims toward Christians, as they are seeing them as allies for Americans, and that worsens things more."

As RFE/RL reported last year, Saudi gunmen holed up in Al-Durah demanded that each Christian pay 50,000 dinars ($40) in jizya to the mujahedin as the price for maintaining their religion, while ISI demanded Christians pay 250,000 dinars (about $200, the average monthly salary) to stay in their homes. Those who fled Al-Durah had to pay "exit" fees of $200 per person or $400 per car.

Europe May Offer Temporary Asylum

French and German officials have taken up the case of Christian refugees in recent weeks, saying they will push for their countries to give preference to Christians over other refugees fleeing Iraq, citing the bond of common faith.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner confirmed last month that France will give refuge to nearly 500 Iraqi Chaldean Christians. The Chaldean church is aligned with the Roman Catholic Church and recognizes the authority of the pope. Kouchner said on March 19 that he hoped the Iraqis would be in France within weeks. Mar Emmanuel III Delly, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, told "Le Figaro" that visas for Christians were not a solution, the French daily reported on April 14. "What is needed is to work for peace in Iraq, rather than providing places for Christians so that they can go begging in Europe," Delly said.

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble pledged last week that his country may take up to 30,000 Christian refugees from Iraq. Schaeuble reportedly justified the focus on Christian refugees by saying Europe should accept those who were culturally closest to it. Schaeuble is offering temporary asylum, saying that those given shelter should return home once ethnic and sectarian tensions die down.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the advocacy group One Free World International has called on the government to make special provisions for taking in Christian refugees. Canada will reportedly admit some 2,000 Iraqi refugees this year, but has no specific provision in its quota for Christians. Nor does the United States, which says it will admit 12,000 Iraqi refugees by September 30. As of March 31, 2,627 Iraqis have arrived in the United States, according to State Department figures.

This week, members of the U.S. House of Representatives inaugurated the House Caucus on Religious Minorities in the Middle East. Iraqi religious minorities were on hand for the event, saying they would work to raise awareness in Congress to the violence and social displacement of minorities from once-integrated Iraqi cities.

It is debatable whether giving special preference to any group is a prudent policy. While there is no doubt that steps should be taken to preserve Iraq's Christian community, whose presence in Iraq predates the appearance of Islam, visas to far-flung countries may not be the best way to do it. Indeed, the decision by some countries to give preference to Iraqi Christians may backfire, and those Christians who remain in Iraq could become even more vulnerable to attack by insurgents than before.

U.S. Troops' Assessment Of Mission Fluctuates

By Richard Tomkins

U.S. troops resting around Forward Operating Base Normandy

AL-MUQDADIYAH, IRAQ -- Lost in the shuffle of U.S. Army General David Petraeus's testimony to Congress on the security situation in Iraq are the voices of the troops on the ground.

Do the men on the frontline of the fight see progress in security? Do they think Iraqis are moving forward in taking over responsibility for their own lives? Do they believe they are accomplishing something positive?

There are no quick, easy, or definitive answers to those questions. The responses they give vary from day to day and depend on when they are asked. Right after a mission outside the wire -- and all the tensions that go with it -- the gripes and voiced frustrations come fast and furious. Later, when the soldiers are a bit more relaxed, the responses are more reflective.

"They were shocked when we came [to Diyala Governorate's bread basket]. When we got here we walked around and the people didn't even want to make eye contact with us," said Sergeant Rudy Parrenno of the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment. "They were scared. All they heard from Al-Qaeda were these stereotypical things about American forces. It took them a little while to gain a sense of trust.

"An older man with his family came up to me the other day and said that for the first time he and his family have been able to have a good night's rest. That means a lot. That lets you know that everything you're doing in sector is paying off, you're making a difference."

The sergeant's Stryker regiment -- now based around Al-Muqdadiyah, around 80 kilometers north of Baghdad -- has been involved with both urban and rural combat operations. In 2004-05, they were deployed in the northern city of Mosul from their home base in Vilseck, Germany. In September and October 2007, they fought pitched battles against Al-Qaeda and various militias in southeast Baghdad. In January of this year, they chased Al-Qaeda out of Diyala's farming region where the terrorists ran rampant for two years.

Their mission today, conducted out of a forward operating base near Al-Muqdadiyah and satellite operations posts, is not only to keep terrorists out of the province but also to help Iraqis take control of their own security, bridge sectarian divides, and learn the ropes of local democratic self-governance.

Getting Back To Normal

When they left Baghdad, the districts of East Rashid and Dura were returning to life. Residents driven out by sectarian and terrorist violence were returning, schools were opening, and some repopulating neighborhoods had put up signs urging old neighbors to come back and help heal the sectarian divide gunmen had fueled and brought to a bloody explosion in 2006.

"I definitely think what we've done has been worth it," said First Lieutentant Brian Evans, from Oregon. "Just seeing the change in communities from the time we, for example, entered Dura; the effect we have had by our work and just our presence -- reassuring people [of their safety] and helping and allowing the IA [Iraqi Army] and IP [Iraqi Police] do their jobs better because we were there."

Evans, on his first tour of Iraq, believes the surge of troops to increase stability has worked. "I really do," he said. "But at the same time, when you add troops like that you have to expect a payoff. More troops means more security. The real test of time will be when the surge is over. Will the advances made during the surge and the big steps we took forward last, even when we go down to a lesser number of soldiers?"

The surge refers to the increase in the number of U.S. forces last summer to improve security enough for the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to institute reconciliation reforms and undertake infrastructure projects to win the confidence of Baghdad's population. At the same time, a U.S. hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency strategy was launched in other areas of the country.

By and large the soldiers spoken to over five months by this reporter are positive on what they are doing and what is being achieved. But they are also disheartened by the 15-month deployment schedule enacted as part of the surge. Most take it in stride. Others do not.

"I'm getting out [of the army]," a specialist by the name of Allen interjected while a reporter was talking to another soldier. "[Expletive] this 15 months stuff. We should just get the [expletive] out of this country. We never should have come here in the first place. We're spinning our wheels. This place has been war-torn since the beginning of time."

Another soldier, Staff Sergeant Jeremy Brown, said one evening after a long mission in the countryside: "I want to leave. Obviously there would be repercussions, but it wouldn't be an overnight. But [leave] sooner rather than later."

Brown, on his second tour in Iraq, said he was frustrated by "having to hold their [Iraqis'] hands." "When I came back, I expected that a lot more IA and IP would be doing the things I'm doing now."

Ups And Downs

Allen's anger and Brown's disappointment may have reflected their mood at the moment. But even if not, "everyone here gives 110 percent [to their missions] and they'll always be there for their buddies," a soldier said.

"You have to look at the positives as well as the negatives. On a day-to-day basis it's hard sometimes for us to see the good. But when you sit back, you can see the changes you made and see they helped make this place more secure."

At the halfway mark in the fiscal year, 90 of the 250 soldiers who have become eligible for reenlistment have done so. The year's goal is 188 and officials hope that will be achieved.

"In 2004, we were fighting out of the FOBs [forward operating bases] trying to win this by clearing or destroying the enemy," said a captain, on his second tour, who requested anonymity. "Now we understand the human dynamic of the counterinsurgency fight. We understand that to win this thing, we must leverage the population.

"I truly believe we are making progress...[and] it takes time. "But if you watch American politics it would make you think we don't have a lot of it."

'Shoe Banger' Who Proclaimed Saddam's Downfall Still Waits For Normalcy

By Ron Synovitz

Abu Tahsin in the Al-Arabiyah images that transfixed the Arab world on April 9, 2003

Five years ago, with U.S. and allied forces continuing their rapid advance across Iraq, many Western viewers regarded the toppling of a statue of feared dictator Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad as a symbol of his regime's collapse.

Eight hours earlier, however, the Dubai-based Al-Arabiyah satellite television channel had broadcast images across the Arab world of 47-year-old Iraqi Abu Tahsin striking a portrait of Saddam Hussein with his shoe and declaring that freedom had arrived in Baghdad. The footage was broadcast repeatedly by the satellite station for much of the day.

This moment "was presented as the first proclamation [from an ordinary Iraqi] that the regime of Saddam Hussein had collapsed," Tahsin says in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq. "Although this stance lasted just a few seconds, it has come to represent the attitude of an Iraqi human being -- a person who announced the good news to Iraqis."

Now, Tahsin says, he is still waiting for life to return to some kind of normalcy for his family. He had to flee his Baghdad home with his wife because of the sectarian violence that has plagued the Iraqi capital in recent years. The couple now lives with seven relatives in northeastern Iraq -- the Iraqi Kurdish city of Al-Sulaymaniyah -- where he works as a public-relations manager for the Al-Fayha satellite television station.

What do the soldiers on the ground in Iraq think? Read U.S. Troops' Assessment Of Mission Fluctuates

"The pain and the gloom within myself pushed me to rise up against that scathing reality [of Saddam Hussein's regime]," Tahsin says of the thoughts running through his head as he struck Hussein's portrait with his shoe that morning in 2003.

He says it took time for him to grasp the historic significance of his televised rant long before the rest of the world watched live footage of Hussein's huge statue being toppled at Baghdad's Firdus Square.

Saddam's Legacy

One event that brought home to Tahsin the broader significance of his outburst was an offer from a Kuwaiti businessman to buy the shoe that he used to strike Hussein's portrait.

Communicated through Iraqi contacts in the southern Iraqi port city of Al-Basrah, Tahsin says the Kuwaiti businessman offered him about $250,000 for the shoe. And he says he was told he could get more money if he agreed to visit Kuwait for public-speaking engagements.

But Tahsin says he turned the money down because he wants to donate the shoe to a museum in Iraq that honors victims of Hussein's regime. That museum is now under construction in the northern city of Halabjah -- where thousands of Iraqi Kurdish civilians where killed by a chemical attack in 1988 by the Hussein regime.

"The most important thing is that an enormous boulder was removed that had been resting on the chests of Iraqis," Tahsin says.

A communist and avowed political opponent of Hussein, Tahsin says his first reaction to the fall of the regime had been to search for friends -- or information about friends imprisoned, tortured, or perhaps executed by Hussein's son, Uday.

At about 11 a.m. on April 9, 2003, Tahsin went to the Baghdad headquarters of Iraq's Olympic Committee, which, along with the regime's highest security apparatus, was run by Uday. Many people had been detained at committee headquarters, and Tahsin hoped to learn something about his missing friends.

No Regrets

When Tahsin failed to find traces of any of them, he took a huge portrait of Saddam Hussein from the building into the street. That was when he was filmed by Al-Arabiyah cameramen striking the portrait with his shoe, a sign of extreme disrespect across the Arab world.

"Hey people! Hey people! Freedom is here!" Tahsin told the camera. "This is who you have been suppressed by. This person was terrorizing us. This is your place. And this person has killed our youngsters -- has killed our sons."

Tahsin says that even with the violence and myriad of other problems that Iraq continues to suffer today, he has no regrets about the ousting of Saddam Hussein. And he says he is still dreaming about a better future for Iraq.

"Regarding what is happening [now], I believe that we expect such things in every revolution or changing process all around the world," Tahsin says. "I am one of the displaced people with a displaced family. I am not the only person who is dreaming of going back to Baghdad. All are wishing to do so. Baghdad is a sweet, lovely city. And despite its tragedy and what is happening within the city, it is still sweet."

Contributors to this story include Radio Free Iraq's Kefah Abbas in Prague and Ahmad al-Zubaidi in Al-Sulaymaniyah, who interviewed Tahsin