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Daily Column
Leader of "Major" Insurgent Faction Speaks to the Press
By AMER MOHSEN 05/22/2009 7:10 PM ET
Az-Zaman
Az-Zaman
The saga of Abu 'Umar al-Baghdadi, presumed leader of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, is dragging without conclusion. The government renews its insistence that the leader of the fearsome AQI is in its custody, while al-Jazeera points to a new AQI tape that it received, featuring al-Baghdadi mocking news of his arrest. In parallel, the “confessions” of al-Baghdadi (or the man in government custody) are causing a political crisis between security services and the Islamic Party.

As for the local Iraq media, which tends to compliantly tow the government line when it comes to security-related matters, most papers are treating the government allegations as truth. Az-Zaman in its local edition, for example, fronted again with a story on the capture of al-Baghdadi, this time featuring an interview with his alleged wife. The London edition of the same paper (which tends to be freer in its coverage) made no references to the entire al-Baghdadi affair.

However, Az-Zaman’s (Iraq edition) description of “al-Baghdadi’s” wife leads one to question the validity of the government’s allegations. The paper spoke to a lawyer who said that the wife of the man in government custody, whose “confessions” were recently published, came to him to represent her husband. According to the paper, the woman “did not confirm nor deny her husband’s identity (as AQI leader) ... but contented to say ‘he is my husband.’” The lawyer Tariq Harb told Az-Zaman that the woman who hired him, and who is claimed to be the wife of a fundamentalist leader, did not wear a Niqab. She also said that her family (originally from Diyala) was displaced multiple times due to “gunmen,” and that her husband “is the only provider for her children,” hardly the description of a professional terrorist leader.

And while the regional and international media remains largely incredulous vis-à-vis the government narrative, leaders in the Da'wa party are saying that “they will take the confessions of al-Baghdadi very seriously;” these confessions linked the Sunni Islamic Party to the activities of the AQI, and – if used as legal evidence – could lead to dramatic political consequences. The party is insisting that the confessions are “fabricated” and that they are being “exploited politically ... to unknown ends.”

In other news, London-based al-Hayat says that relatives of the Janabi family are dissatisfied by the sentence handed by a Kentucky Jury against Steve Green; the “mastermind” of a group of US soldiers who – in March 2006 – raped and murdered 14-year old 'Abeer al-Janabi after killing her entire family. Green pleaded guilty to the charges and was handed a life sentence, which the Janabi clan found “unjust,” the paper says. The head of the Janabi clan in Mahmudyia (the hometown of the victims) said that Green deserved the death sentence; it should be noted that three other accomplices to Green were given life sentences as well.

On a different front, al-Quds al-'Arabi published a revealing interview with 'Ali Husain Abu al-Fadl, one of the known leaders of the armed resistance to US forces in Iraq, whose voice was heard by the Arab public on al-Jazeera eulogizing Saddam Husain after his execution in December 2006. Abu al-Fadl was a General in the Iraqi Army and he currently leads “the Organization for the Liberation of Iraq,” which is active in the middle Euphrates region and the south of the country.

The leader presented a “map” of Iraqi organizations that currently combat US forces, claiming that over 50 factions are active in the country. The largest of these, he said, is “the supreme command for jihad and liberation,” led by 'Izzat al-Duri and active in the north and northwest, followed by the Islamic Army (“and we have reservations against them,” he added),) the 1920 Revolution Brigades, and his own group.

Interestingly, Abu al-Fadl – who considers 'Izzat al-Duri to be “the legitimate president” – is critical of the Ba'th, and says that the party has no “competence” to govern Iraq anymore. The insurgent leader spoke critically of the Ba'th management of Iraq, noting that “the party has noble ideals,” but that the rule was monopolized by Saddam’s family and entourage. While he was extremely critical of Saddam’s family that occupied key posts in his regime, he remained appreciative of Saddam himself, claiming that the ex-President personally carried weapons and fought in the famous airport battle, before the fall of Baghdad.

Furthermore, Abu al-Fadl revealed that his group’s main fight is now against “agents and spies,” claiming that they are focusing on targeting “those left by the US” as its Army gradually departs Iraq. “It is now a battle of small arms, not one of explosives,” he said.

Daily Column
Alleged Confessions of AQI Leader Cause Political Crisis
By AMER MOHSEN 05/20/2009 5:36 PM ET
Az-Zaman
Az-Zaman
On the same day as Gen. Qanbar, the commander of Baghdad operations, told Baghdadis in a radio broadcast that they will be “blessed with full security” in the near future, a blast in the Iraqi capital led to the death of over 35 Iraqis. Al-Jazeera reports that the explosion hit the poor Shu'la neighborhood (predominantly Shi'a,) through a car bomb that was placed near a popular restaurant. Earlier reports claimed that only 10 civilians perished in the attack, the news channel said, but “sources in the Iraqi police and in hospitals” have raised the toll to 35 dead and 72 wounded.

Regarding the statements of Gen. Qanbar, Az-Zaman said that the officer addressed the Iraqi public by radio, claiming in a speech that “full security” will prevail in 2010, and that “the battle against terrorism will be limited to the current year.”

Meanwhile, the affair of Abu 'Umar al-Baghdadi, the alleged leader of al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI) who – the government claims – was arrested by its forces, continues to evolve. Days after the government’s announcement of al-Baghdadi’s capture, an audio tape was released on the internet featuring a man claiming to be al-Baghdadi who denied claims of his arrest.

However, the security forces remain insistent that the man in their custody is indeed the mysterious Baghdadi (whose real name and identity are a matter of speculation.) In a press conference, Brigadier Qasim 'Ata presented journalists with tapes of al-Baghdadi’s “confessions,” which, in themselves, engendered a political crisis.

The problem began because the “confessions” claimed that al-Qa'ida was coordinating with members of the Sunni Islamic Party, which prompted the party to release a harsh-worded statement accusing Brigadier 'Ata of “fabricating” the confessions for political purposes.

Al-Hayat said that it received a statement from the Islamic Party claiming that the Baghdadi “confessions,” which were shown on the public TV channel, are “a new desperate attempt to divert attention from the interrogation of ministers ... in the Parliament and the revelation of administrative and financial corruption, which has plagued the country after 2003.”

The pan-Arab paper said that the party requested a closed session with Brigadier 'Ata in the Parliament to examine the confessions’ tape and to answer questions pertaining to the veracity of these confessions.

According to Az-Zaman, the Islamic Party’s statement attacking the Brigadier prompted a response from “the Command of Baghdad Operations” describing the accusations as “dangerous threats.” 'Ata later claimed that Islamic Party officials have committed to “correct” the party’s statement.

In other news, London-based al-Quds al-'Arabi highlighted the statements of an Iraqi MP who said that the defense ministry is populated by ex-Ba'this who were returned to service to help in the reconstruction of the Iraqi security forces. MP Hasan al-Rabee'i, whose parliamentary committee recently interviewed the minister of defense, said that the minister revealed “scary figures” regarding the number of ex-Ba'this in the ministry and their roles.

Al-Rabee'i said that the situation is similar in the ministry of interior, and that both ministers claimed that the sacking of officers who served the Saddam regime will create “enormous gaps” in their departments. The MP used the example of the aforementioned General Qanbar, who served in Saddam’s Army and is currently the commander of Baghdad’s operations. Qanbar received a special exemptions from the de-Ba'thification law “due to his services to the country.” Reportedly, the ministers of defense and interior said that, since the suspension of the de-Ba'thification laws, it became practically impossible to purge ex-Ba'this from the administration, especially that the “Accountability and Justice” law (which came to replace earlier de-Ba'thification measures) was never implemented in force.

Lastly, government-owned As-Sabah published the draft law for the formation of a “National Security Council,” which it said will be voted by the Parliament in the coming days. The law calls for the establishment of a “Higher National Security Council” tasked with “the coordination of security and intelligence activities.” In effect, the new department will formalize the “National Security Committee,” which has been headed by Mouaffaq al-Rubai'i since its formation. Henceforth, the National Security Adviser will have the rank of a Minister, and the National Security Council will have an expanded membership including the Prime Minister, the ministers of defense, interior, foreign affairs, justice and finance, in addition to commanders of the military and intelligence agencies.

Daily Column
al-Hakeem's Attempts to Revive Shi'a Coalition Unsuccesful
By AMER MOHSEN 05/13/2009 5:16 PM ET
Az-Zaman
Az-Zaman
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.

Only on Slogger
Ring of Five in Babil Province Was Planning to Bomb Wedding Party
By SLOGGER NETWORK 05/12/2009 7:03 PM ET
Google Earth image/IraqSlogger.com.

Two wanted criminals who were arrested south of Baghdad on Sunday were planning reprisal attacks against local tribesmen in retaliation for that tribe's embrace of the locally organized Sahwa organizations that have operated in Iraq's predominantly Sunni Arab areas.

A source in the al-Karghul tribe told Slogger that members of the tribe, which is involved in the local Sahwa organization, provided intelligence information to Iraqi Army forces on the whereabouts of two wanted men on Sunday, which led to their arrests.

The men, Abdullah Fadhil Khdayr and Ahmad Daham Khdayr, were wanted for several crimes against civilians in the area, the source said, adding that they also revealed the location of hidden explosives and weapons, including suicide belts.

The men also confessed to belonging to a cell of five other militants, leading Iraqi forces to conduct raids against alleged members on Sunday. The suspects reportedly escaped before they could be captured.

The captured men said that the ring of militants had been planning attacks against members of the al-Karhul tribe as retaliation for that tribe’s backing of the Sahwa initiatives in the province, the scheme that saw former insurgents paid by US forces to cooperate in repressing armed groups.

One retaliation plan against local Sahwa elements involved sending a suicide bomber to detonate himself at an al-Karghul tribal wedding party, the source said.

Locals say that on Sunday evening Sahwa and Army forces showed heavy deployment near an irrigation project in the Yusufiya area. Local security sources said the deployment came after obtaining an intelligence tip that the other suspected members of the militant ring were planning an escape in that area, but did not provide further information.

Members of IraqSlogger's network of Iraqi staff in Yusifiya contributed to this report but choose to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Daily Column
AQI Leader Arrest Remains Unconfirmed, Government Talks with Ba'this Closed
By AMER MOHSEN 04/24/2009 8:02 PM ET
Az-Zaman
Az-Zaman
In the last two days, successive suicide attacks have left hundreds of casualties in their wake, with early estimates suggesting that at least 150 people have perished, and twice that number injured, in the attacks of Thursday and Friday.

On Friday, Az-Zaman reports, at least 60 people were killed when a suicide bomber targeted the shrine of Imam Kadhim in Baghdad, “the majority of the victims were Iranian,” Az-Zaman’s headline claimed, but al-Jazeera said that 25 Iranian visitors were among the dead, and 80 among the wounded.

Targeting Iranian pilgrims may be a new tactic: in Thursday’s attacks, a suicide bomber detonated his charge in a Diyala restaurant teeming with Iranian pilgrims as well. The other attack, in southeastern Baghdad, struck an area where policemen were distributing aid to displaced families, according to official Iraqi sources, which led to the death of 28 Iraqis including 10 policemen, said al-Hayat. It should be noted that Az-Zaman’s (Iraq edition) reporting on the same incident left out any mention of policemen among the victims, contenting to say that “dozens of shoppers” died when a suicide bomber “detonated himself amid civilian crowds.”

Meanwhile, conflicting reports are emerging regarding the alleged capture of the leader of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, Abu 'Umar al-Bahgdadi (whose very existence remains a matter of debate.) Az-Zaman quoted General Qasim 'Ata announcing that al-Baghdadi has been indeed captured in Rasafa, Baghdad, and that “his interrogation is currently ongoing.” But al-Hayat and Az-Zaman (international edition) shed doubts upon the story, noting that al-Baghdadi’s arrest could not yet be confirmed.

Az-Zaman hinted that the announcement of al-Baghdadi’s capture coincided with the massive suicide attacks on Thrusday, and may have been a ploy “to absorb disaffection and raise the morale of the security forces.” Al-Hayat noted that the US Army had shed doubts, in 2007, over the existence of Baghdadi, claiming that he might be an invented character used to distract the US forces. It should also be noted that there were previous reports in the last two years of al-Baghdadi’s capture or death, all of which turned out to be incorrect.

In other news, al-Bayyna al-Jadeeda focused on a long interview with an ex-Ba'thi official which pertained to the state of ex-Vice President 'Izzat al-Duri, the highest-ranking Ba'thi still at large. Al-Duri was rumored to suffer from blood cancer, even before the 2003 invasion, and several reports indicated that he may not survive for long. But according to Salah al-Mukhtar, an ex-Iraqi Ambassador and media official, al-Duri never suffered from cancer, and his weak physical appearance was due to lactose intolerance, a disease which his doctors failed to diagnose. Upon a trip to Vienna, al-Mukhtar claimed, al-Duri’s condition was discovered and he suffered from no symptoms since then.

Al-Mukhtar also claimed that al-Duri still harbors ambitions to rule Iraq, “after liberation,” adding that the Ba'th no longer plans to rule the country by itself and that al-Duri is planning to include his non-Ba'thi allies in a governing coalition.

Meanwhile, the war of words in Nineveh between its Arabs (who recently won the local elections) and its Kurds is escalating, with Kurdish officials announcing their “boycott” of the provincial government and threatening to demand the affiliation of their counties with the autonomous Kurdistan Region.

Problems began when the Arab list that won the provincial elections appointed the key officials in Nineveh without including anyone from the competing Kurdish list. After announcing the appointments, the administrators of three Kurdish-majority counties announced their boycott of the provincial council and presented memorandums to “the Iraqi government, the government of Kurdistan and the UN” accusing the local government of excluding Nineveh’s Kurds.

The new Nineveh governor, Atheel al-Najeefi, told Az-Zaman that legal measures will be taken against these administrators, describing their threat of joining Kurdistan as “a transgression of the constitution, a mutiny against the legitimate government and is akin to a coup against democracy.” Al-Najeefi noted that the county administrators “are appointed employees and not elected officials. Their responsibility is limited to the administration of these regions, and not deciding their fate.”

Lastly, in a sign that Maliki's initiative towards Ba'this did not bear fruit, al-Hayat reports that the "National Reconciliation Committee" passed a resolution yesterday specifying both Ba'thi wings of al-Duri and Yunis al-Ahmad (exiled in Damascus) as part of the "Saddamist Ba'th," which means that all negotiations with them will be illegal and banned. In addition, the Committee affirmed that any wing of the Ba'th that wishes to return to political life will need (in addition to disowning Saddam) change the name of the organization.

A member of the Committee who spoke to the paper said that government negotiations with exiled Ba'this in Cairo and elsewhere "did not produce positive results." All these indications point that the government's attempts to attract Ba'thi leaders, or even play wings of the party against each other, have been abandoned, and that - faced with domestic opposition - Maliki will revert to his original position of rejecting any contacts with the Ba'th.

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