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In Aftermath of Bombing, Demands for National Unity and Purge of Security Forces
06/26/2009 6:16 PM ET
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Supporters of the Sadrist Current demonstrated in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk on Friday demanding that the Iraqi government provide protection for minorities, especially the Turkmen minority in the province.

Followers of the populist Shi'a trend took to the streets after the Friday prayers in the Sadrist Khaz'al al-Tamimi mosque in central Kirkuk, chanting slogans and carrying signs and Iraqi flags.

Shaykh Ra'd al-Sarkhi, the director of the Sadrist offices in Kirkuk, said “We came out to day to demonstrate our demands that the government protect minorities and guarantee their rights, especially those of the Turkmen.”

A bomb blast in Taza Khurmatu, a predominantly Turkmen town in Kirkuk Province, killed over 80 people last Friday.

“Today we ask the Iraqi government to remain committed to the specific date for the American withdrawal and to hand over the security file to the Iraqis” in Kirkuk, al-Sarkhi added.

The local Sadrist leader also said the protestors demanded that the government install machinery to detect explosives in Kirkuk and to pass a national security law.

“We ask the Iraqi people to support the security forces in the province to preserve the security and unity of Iraq, and especially Kirkuk,” al-Sarkhi said. Oil-rich Kirkuk province is the subject of overlapping claims to its territory, pitting the province’s Kurdish population, many of whom seeking to attach the province administration to the Kurdistan autonomous zone to the north, against its Arab and Turkmen populations who have opposed these demands.

The Sadrist demonstrators also asked the Iraqi government to purge the security forces of “followers of the occupation, of terrorism, and of the Ba'th, all enemies of the Iraqi people,” al-Sarkhi added.

Demonstrators carried signs bearing the slogan “No to America, No to Israel, Unity among Iraqis,” along with Iraqi flags and photos of the Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist Current.

Daily Column
Sadrists not to Re-Join Shi'a I'tilaf, Kuwait-Iraq Crisis Continues
By AMER MOHSEN 06/08/2009 9:56 PM ET
In contrast with official Iraqi statements claiming that the crisis with Kuwait is on its way to resolution, al-Bayyna al-Jadeeda predicts that negotiations with Kuwait are not likely to succeed and that Iraq may resort to the International Court of Justice to demand the re-delimitation of its borders with Kuwait if the southern neighbor refuses to renegotiate the current status of the borders.

Relations between the two countries have been strained because, with Iraq’s wish to emancipate from the UN Chapter VII mandate, Kuwait remains insistent that these sanctions should remain until all war compensations are paid, the status of Kuwaiti prisoners and missing persons is determined, Kuwaiti possessions are returned, and water and land borders demarcated. Resolving all these files that date from the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the paper notes, “requires a very long period,” meaning that the Iraqi state cannot enjoy full sovereignty for years to come.

Az-Zaman reports that Kuwaiti officials have called for an urgent meeting for the Iraqi-Kuwaiti commission to discuss the thorny issues separating the two countries. The legal situation could be re-assessed, the paper claims, because of a recent US Supreme Court decision affirming that the current Iraqi government cannot be made responsible for the actions of Saddam’s regime.

The ruling came after three Americans attempted to sue the Iraqi government for being imprisoned and mistreated in Iraq in the early 1970s. The plaintiffs included a CBS correspondent and two US nationals who worked in the oil sector.

Government-owned As-Sabah, meanwhile, quotes in its front page statements by President Talabani, who attempted to soften the crisis between the two countries by calling for “a calm resolution of the controversial matters between the two countries.”

On the same front, London-based al-Hayat quoted Ayatollah Sistani, who also stressed that “solutions have to be found to tensions between Iraq and neighboring countries ... because Iraq is bound by common interest with its neighbors.”

In security news, al-Jazeera news channel says that seven Iraqis were killed when a bomb went off in a bus garage in southern Baghdad. The district of Abu Dhsheir, where this last bombing took place, has been disproportionately hit by attacks recently. Several cafes in Abu Dsheir have been targeted by bombings in the last weeks.

In political news, negotiations for the reconstitution of the Shi'a I’tilaf before the coming legislative elections are occupying the political arena. Several rounds of talks have been held between the leaderships of Maliki’s Da'wa and al-Hakeem’s SIIC without a clear resolution. Ex-Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari visited Najaf to meet with Ayatollah Sistani and advocate the rebuilding of a “reformed” I’tilaf, and according to al-Bayyna al-Jadeeda, Sadrists, who were one of the main pillars of the I’tilaf, are announcing that they will take no part in the Shi'a coalition, and that they are aiming instead at building a broad cross-sectarian alliance instead.

The daily quotes Sadrist MP Akram Tarazi who claims that talks have already been initiated with political factions to promote this prospective coalition. Tarazi, stressing the Sadrist Current’s alleged efforts to combat corruption, predicted that the coming elections will “completely change the map of the political process” and “bring new blood to the Parliament.”

Daily Column
al-Hakeem's Attempts to Revive Shi'a Coalition Unsuccesful
By AMER MOHSEN 05/13/2009 5:16 PM ET
The most important news item from Iraq is an allegation in Az-Zaman daily regarding the negotiations to reconstitute the Shi'a I’tilaf in preparation for the coming parliamentary elections. The paper quoted “knowledgeable, well-connected sources” who claim that the I’tilaf will not be resurrected, and that 'Abd al-'Azeez al-Hakeem, who campaigned for rebuilding the alliance with Da'wa, did not accept Maliki’s conditions for joining the coalition. The paper spoke to a leading figure in Maliki’s Da'wa, Hasan al-Saneed, who asserted that his party is opting for “a broad national formula, one that is wider than the current I’tilaf.”

These statements could be interpreted as a confirmation that the two Shi'a parties (al-Hakeem’s SIIC and Maliki’s Da'wa) will be on opposing sides in the coming elections, much like their confrontation in the recent provincial elections. This goes in line with what many observers of the Iraqi scene had predicted: that the coming phase in Iraq will be defined by rivalries among the major Shi'a parties, not inter-sectarian competition.

According to al-Jazeera, al-Hakeem made a public statement yesterday calling for “serious cooperation” in rebuilding the I’tilaf, which won the largest bloc in the 2005 Iraqi parliament. Out of seven Shi'a parties that constituted the coalition in 2005, two (the Sadrists and Fadhila) have officially left; and relations between the other main constituents (Da'wa and SIIC) have been minimal.

The news channel pointed out that al-Hakeem’s conciliatory tone reflects the weaknesses exhibited by his party in the recent provincial elections, where the SIIC (once described as the largest Shi'a party in Iraq) achieved pale results in the face of Maliki’s “state of law” electoral coalition.

Az-Zaman claims that Tehran is enthusiastically pushing for an electoral alliance between Da'wa and the SIIC, and that the Iranian Minister of foreign affairs, 'Ali Larijani, is mediating between the two parties. These attempts, the paper claims, have floundered over the division of seats between the constituents of the I'tilaf, with Maliki insisting that every party should receive a similar share. In 2005, the SIIC was allocated twice the number of MPs of Da'wa and the Sadrists.

The daily spoke to Hammam Hammoudi, the representative of al-Hakeem in the talks with Maliki. Hammoudi confirmed that there is a difference over the allocation of seats, adding that the matter will be discussed today. He also insisted that the reconstitution of the I’tilaf “will benefit all Iraqis.”

In other news, As-Sabah reports that conservative members of the parliament will be pushing for new legislation banning the import of alcohol and the operation of “un-Islamic” clubs. MP Radwan al-Keidar, who is a member of the religious affairs committee, said that the Iraqi constitution mandates that no legislation should contradict the teachings of the Muslim religion (a constitutional article that was included at the insistence of the religious parties,) which will be the basis of a law that will be proposed to ban the sale of alcohol and the granting of alcohol licenses. The MP predicted that the law will pass, revealing that the tourism directorate has revoked the licenses of many hotels “that have turned into locations for the sale and consumption of alcohol.”

In pan-Arab al-Sharq al-Awsat, a recent suicide bombing that killed seven Iraqis in Kirkuk was viewed as the work of foreign fighter cells that were recently brought into Iraq. US Army officials said that a Tunisian cell linked to al-Qa'ida entered the country recently through the Syrian borders, but the paper spoke to Kirkuk’s police chief who claimed that the cell was in fact Moroccan, and that the Kirkuk attack was executed by one of its members.

Daily Column
Sadrist Convention in Turkey Could Change the Face of Iraqi Politics
By AMER MOHSEN 05/06/2009 5:48 PM ET
A “surprise,” unannounced, convention for the Sadrist movement ended two days ago in Turkey. Headed by Muqtada al-Sadr himself (who was effectuating a formal visit to Turkey) and 70 of the Current’s key leaderships, Sadrist sources who attended said that the convention was a critical juncture for the Sadrist movement and will shape the future of its activism in the coming years.

According to al-Hayat, the Turkey visit and the convention represented Muqtada al-Sadr’s first public appearance since 2007, when he decided to limit his contacts with the outside world to letters and speeches communicated through his associates. The convention may thus mark al-Sadr’s return to the political life, with Sadrist officials affirming that al-Sadr has finished his religious formation in Iran and will soon return to Iraq as a full-fledged Marja' (source of emulation.)

Al-Hayat’s sources said that a major concern of the conference was designing an electoral strategy for the upcoming legislative elections, set for early 2010. Two important decisions emanated from the convention: on the one hand, al-Sadr asserted his refusal for transforming the Current into a traditional political party; on the other, the Current’s leadership formally decided to abandon its coalition with the Shi'a United Iraqi Alliance (UIA,) which has been the main platform for Shi'a representation since 2005.

Sadrist leader Akram Tarazi told the London-based daily that the upper echelons of the Sadrist Current, led by Muqtada, flatly rejected the notion of the Current turning into a classical political party, arguing that such a measure would limit the “large popular base” that currently identifies with the Sadrists.

More significantly, Tarazi confirmed that Sadrist leaders pronounced their alliance with the UIA “a failure” and that “a new map” of coalitions will be drawn for the coming elections. In that sense, the Sadrist convention has formally buried the broad and heterogeneous alliance that defined Shi'a politics for the last years, and has officially launched a new phase of political competition on the Shi'a scene in Iraq whose results and ramifications will – without doubt – be immense.

In security news, a car bomb in a busy vegetables market in Baghdad has caused more than a dozen deaths, al-Jazeera reports. The news channel noted that in last April over 290 Iraqi civilians died in similar acts of violence, the highest recorded number since November.

Meanwhile, Iraqi government officials keep reiterating that their forces will be sufficient to guarantee stability after the US withdrawal. Today, al-Maliki went on record as saying that the scheduled phases of the US withdrawal will not be modified and that his government has no intention to extend the mandate of US troops in troubled areas such as Mosul and Diyala. The Premier, however, said that his forces will require “intelligence” support from the US to thwart attacks and locate suspects, adding that the government can still ask the US forces for help if the situation worsens in the future.

In other news, Az-Zaman focused in its front page on statements by UN officials accusing the Iraqi government of meting out execution orders to suspects whose confessions were obtained under torture. These allegations began after 12 convicts were hanged on Sunday, after an 18-months unofficial moratorium on executions.

On a different front, al-Bayyna al-Jadeeda exhibited the unique situation of the media in Iraq, after it announced that it will (willingly) suspend its publication for three days as a form of self-inflicted punishment for a report that was perceived as attacking Muqtada al-Sadr.

The paper, which maintains an unapologetic Shi'a sectarian tone, fronted with a profuse apology to Muqtada: “if not for you, not a single Shi'a would have remained in Baghdad ... we apologize, Sayyid Muqtada, the symbol of resistance ... a thousand apologies” read the headline. Perhaps, as a form of “compensation” another front page item pronounced: “Italian expert: Muqtada al-Sadr dons a political mind and great tolerance.”

If all that was not enough, the paper’s editor wrote a piece explaining that he left the hospital (where he is being treated from cancer) “to express my solidarity and apologies.” Another item noted that the paper had originally decided to close for an entire week, but claimed that the Sadrist office and Muqtada himself said that they were against the closure of the paper! At any rate, the paper informed its readers that “al-Bayyna al-Jadeeda will not be published, as an apology to Sayyid Muqtada ... for three days (!)”

Lastly, the Swine Flu scare has reached Iraq. In Basra, Az-Zaman reports, a campaign is being launched to exterminate the population of wild boars that inhabits the regions of Faw and some parts of the marshlands surrounding the southern city. According to the daily, Basra officials are demanding to be supplied with military aircraft to carry out the mission.

Daily Column
Talabani Makes Strongest Statements to Date Against the PKK
By AMER MOHSEN 03/23/2009 5:05 PM ET
Kull al-'Iraq
Kull al-'Iraq
According to pan-Arab al-Hayat, almost half of the fighters of the “Awakening” tribal councils have been placed on the payroll of the Iraqi government – a step preceding their integration into military and civil services – while the other half are still being funded by the US.

According to a member of the “Reconciliation Committee” who spoke to al-Hayat, over 100,000 individuals have been enrolled in the multiple Awakening groups, funded by the US in mostly Sunni regions to combat the influence of al-Qa'ida and insurgent groups. Out of those, the dossiers of 49,000 have been transferred to the Iraqi government, with 51,000 still on the American payroll.

For over a year, Premier Maliki has complained that the Awakening militias represent a threat to the sovereignty of the state if they remained outside of the control of the government, and a possible element of destabilization in the future. The original plan was to transfer these fighters gradually into the government payroll, assimilate a number of those into the security services (around 20%) and “rehabilitate” the others to fill civilian positions in the public administration.

However the recent drop in international oil prices, which caused the Iraqi state budget to shrink significantly, is making it difficult for the government to afford the incorporation of so many employees into its apparatus. The Iraqi government already employs a hefty percentage of the Iraqi workforce, with hundreds of thousands added to the various security services in recent years. Al-Anbar’s police chief, Tariq al-Dulaimi, told the paper that “the lack of allocations in the general budget” is postponing the assimilation of the Awakening members into the government apparatus.

On the security front, the paper said that the leader of the Awakening group in Sadr City was assassinated yesterday, while al-Jazeera reports that over 25 Iraqis were killed in a suicide bombing that targeted a Kurdish funeral in the province of Diyala.

In other news, the visit of the Turkish President to Iraq resulted in the strongest-ever statement by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani against the PKK. Turkish-Iraqi relations have been marred in recent years by the activities of the PKK, which leads a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey against the Turkish government. The PKK operates several bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, near the Turkish borders, and the Turkish government has accused the Iraqi authorities of not doing enough to stem the party’s activities and attacks against Turkish territories.

Today, after meeting Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Talabani announced flatly that the PKK has a choice of “either putting down their arms or leaving Iraqi territories.” The PKK is classified as a terrorist group by Turkey, the EU and the US, but Kurdish leaders in Iraq have been subjected to pressures by Kurdish nationalists (both in Iraq and Turkey) not to cooperate with the Turkish government in its war against Kurdish independentism.

On a different front, al-'Arabiya says that Moroccan authorities have closed the Iraqi school in Rabat, spurring protests from Iraqi families in Morocco. The argument for banning the school: it could be used in attempts to “spread Shi'ism” in the Sunni Maliki kingdom. The story has a background. Two weeks ago, the Moroccan government suddenly cut its diplomatic ties with Iran, claiming Iranian efforts to “spread Shi'ism” in Morocco and threaten the prevalent Maliki school. The theory is of course a stretch: the vast majority of Muslim Moroccans are Maliki and Shi'ism has a negligible presence in the westernmost Arab country. Sunni Sheikhs in Morocco who were contacted by al-'Arabiya said that Iranian efforts to encourage “conversions” to Shi'ism may be present, but with a very limited effect (reportedly, only “hundreds” of Moroccans have chosen to practice Islam according to Shi'a interpretation in recent years.)

Lastly, London-based al-Quds al-'Arabi quoted Premier al-Maliki who stated, from Australia, that Iraqi journalist Montadhar al-Zaidi, who hurled his shoes at President Bush during a Press Conference last December, was “lucky” to receive only three years in prison. Al-Maliki added that al-Zaidi received a “reduced sentence” and that he could have been subjected “to a longer sentence, or execution.”

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