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Daily Column
Arab Papers Mon: Hunger Strike in Iraqi Prison
Kurdish Arms Deal May Jeopardize Four-Party Coalition
By AMER MOHSEN 11/23/2008 5:03 PM ET
Pan-Arab al-Hayat published a list of 120 foreign prisoners in the Iraqi Sousa Prison who announced an open hunger strike in protest over their conditions. The list was passed to the newspaper by a Jordanian lawyer who is active in the Arab Human Rights Organization. The largest proportion of prisoners came from Saudi Arabia and the rest were divided between various Middle Eastern and North African countries, in addition to two French nationals. According to the Jordanian lawyer, 'Abd al-Kareem al-Sharida, the prisoners claim mistreatment and are calling on their governments to intervene for their release or to be transferred to prisons in their countries.

In other news, the conflict between the Prime Ministership and the Presidency has escalated into the open, a reflection of growing Arab-Kurdish tensions. There are several fronts of disagreement, including the limits of Kurdistan’s autonomy and the formation of pro-government tribal militias in areas “contested” by Iraq’s Kurdish leadership.

Following a strong statement by Kurdistan President Mas'ud Barzani where he described pro-government “Support Councils” as “illegitimate” and accused their members of being “traitors,” Maliki expected the other Kurdish leader, President Jalal Talabani, of siding with the government and defending the councils. Instead, the office of the Presidency, al-Hayat reported, released a statement today calling on the Prime Minister to suspend these councils, claiming that they enjoy “no legal cover.”

Maliki’s government has been sponsoring tribal councils all over Iraq, with political tensions sprouting in their wake. In areas where the power of the central government overlap with Peshmerga influence, however, the matter becomes even more sensitive. According to the London-based paper, Kurdish leaders are worried that pro-Saddam tribes (recruited in the past by the ex-Iraqi regime) will regain their influence under the auspices of the Maliki government.

Questions arise regarding the future of the four-party alliance that has effectively ruled Iraq since 2005 (composed of the two mainstream Kurdish Parties in addition to Maliki’s Da'wa and al-Hakeem’s SIIC.) In addition to the spar between Maliki and Talabani, the relations between Da'wa and the SIIC have been strained in the South, also due to the formation of pro-Maliki tribal councils, in addition to local electoral rivalries.

On a related theme, al-Jazeera reported the revelation that the Kurdistan Regional Government made an arms deal with Bulgaria without the authorization of the central government, in what could flare further debates over the limits of KRG autonomy. The Bulgarian weapons, mostly consisting of small arms and munitions, arrived on three American c-130 aircraft last September, US officials revealed yesterday.

Meanwhile, according to al-Quds al-Arabi, private security contractors in Iraq have been informed by the US government that they will lose their legal immunity with the end of the current year, one of the repercussions of the end of the UN mandate. The paper pointed out that, next to 150,000 US soldiers in Iraq, over 163,000 private security contractors operate in the country through 122 private security companies.

On the SOFA front, Iraqi officials made reassuring statements after the end of the Parliamentary session on Saturday. Pro-government Iraqi MPs expected the treaty to be voted on and passed on Wednesday, hinting that the 44 votes of the Sunni IAF have been guaranteed in favor of the security agreement. On the other hand, continuing divisions and the Hajj in Mecca (which will draw several Iraqi MPs for the coming week) prompted Parliamentary sources to predict that the vote will be postponed until the end of a religious holiday in the coming week.

Iraqi officials, however, seem concerned that the US may withdraw from Iraq before the assigned date in 2011 – an apocalyptic rant by the Iraqi Defense Minister today effectively bordered on panic. According al-'Arabiya, Defense Minister 'Abd al-Qadir Jasim warned that in the case of a premature American withdrawal, Iraq will become – among other things – a pirates’ haven rivaling the coast of Somalia! (in fact, the Iraqi coastline is extremely narrow making it unsuitable as a privateers’ refuge.)

Jasim also said that a “surprise” US withdrawal will threaten Iraq’s oil exports, cause an influx of “foreign spies” and will allow neighboring countries to encroach into Iraq.


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