Friday, October 05, 2007

Perspective: On this day in Iraq -- October 5th edition

October 5, 2004: A soldier from the 1st Infantry Division kicks open a gate in during house-to-house searches in Samarra.

October 5, 2002:

Saddam foes divided in the wake of US offer

A US strategy to train and equip an Iraqi opposition force that would join American military units in Iraq has bitterly divided the Iraqi opposition, underscoring fractures among opponents of Saddam Hussein that could haunt efforts to rebuild Iraq in the event of his overthrow.

Representatives of Kurdish and Shiite opposition groups complained this week that they were not contacted by Pentagon officials, who discussed the plans with members of the Iraqi National Congress in London. Some of those officials questioned the advisability of and the need for such a force. Others expressed fears that the force could be used by some factions as leverage in a power vacuum that could follow Hussein’s fall.

“It’s really going to harm the unity of the opposition,” said Farhad Barzani, Washington representative of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two main Kurdish groups in northern Iraq. “Many of them are really upset.”

Added Hamid al-Bayati, a spokesman in London for the main Shiite opposition group: “We are against the idea of training Iraqis from outside Iraq and sending them inside.”

One former US official who attended the meeting downplayed it, saying it was an informal gathering.

US officials have said they envision an Iraqi opposition force as playing a support role to US soldiers. The recruits would serve as advisers, scouts, interpreters, and liaisons with the Iraqi population. One State Department official said they could even serve as a police force for Iraqi POWs. But the official cautioned that no decision had been taken and stressed that the recruits would not serve as an independent fighting force.

That point was reiterated in talks that Ryan Crocker, a senior State Department official, held with the opposition in London last week.

The plans would be carried out under the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which authorized the Defence Department to spend up to $97 million to train and equip up to seven Iraqi opposition groups. Those groups include: the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmed Chalabi and a favourite among the Pentagon’s civilian leaders and some lawmakers in Congress; the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is supported by Iran and represents, among others, the Shiite Muslim majority in Iraq; the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which control much of northern Iraq; the Iraqi National Accord, which enjoys ties with the Sunni Muslim military establishment in Iraq and was long a favourite of the CIA; the Constitutional Monarchy Movement; and another small Kurdish group.

Only a fraction of the authorized funds was ever spent. The Clinton administration, over the strong objections of the Iraqi National Congress, insisted that only “nonlethal” aid be provided. Some Iraqi opposition officials have hailed the move to arm the opposition as a key sign of Washington’s seriousness in overthrowing Hussein’s government.

“Iraq, in the aftermath, will be in a state of war and revolution,” said Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, leader of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement. “There will be a great deal of confusion, and this force will play an important role in overcoming this confusion.”

Iraqi opposition officials say the Pentagon opened the discussions in a conference call early last month from Washington between William Luti, deputy assistant secretary of defence for Near Eastern and Asian affairs, and the Iraqi National Congress office in London. That call was followed later in the month by a meeting in London between Iraqi opposition officials, Richard Perle, and Harold Rhode. Perle, a former Pentagon official in the Reagan administration and longtime supporter of the Iraqi National Congress, is chairman of the Defence Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group. Rhode works in the department’s Office of Net Assessment.

Luti, through a Defence Department spokesman, declined to comment on the initial call and would neither confirm nor deny that it took place. The spokesman also declined to comment on opposition complaints that the Pentagon is favouring the Iraqi National Congress.

Perle downplayed his later meeting, saying that it was coincidental. According to Perle, he and Rhode were at another meeting in London near the Iraqi National Congress offices and that, at Rhode’s suggestion, they decided to drop in on Chalabi, the group’s leader. The Iraqi National Congress meeting was in progress when they arrived. He said that he did not participate in it beyond saying a few words about the situation in Washington. They did not, he said, specifically discuss arming the opposition.

“There was nothing official,” Perle added. “If the meeting hadn’t been in progress when I showed up, I would have said hello to Ahmed, had a cup of tea, and been on my way in 15 minutes. As it is, I was on my way in 15 minutes.”

The speculation that it was the Pentagon’s way of favouring one opposition group over another “shows you how supercharged this atmosphere is,” he added.

Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, who also serves as Iraqi National Congress spokesman, said opposition officials understood from the call with Luti that training could begin as early as mid-October in the United States and elsewhere. He said the figure of 10,000 recruits was discussed, but expected training to start “at a smaller level.”

He said he expected it to be lightly armed. “We’re not looking for tanks and heavy artillery,” he said, adding that one of the group’s key responsibilities would be to serve as a go-between for US forces and Iraqi military units that defect after an invasion. General Peter Pace, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that they are considering plans to arm the opposition.

Barzani, the Kurdish representative, said his group was informed of the plans at an all-Iraqi meeting in London last month, but complained that Pentagon officials had not contacted them directly. “There are some people on the [Iraqi National Congress] who are trying to make it a one-man show. It’s not that way,” he said.

The main Shiite opposition group had similar complaints. Hamid al-Bayati, the spokesman in London for the Supreme Council, said they were not contacted either. Even if they were contacted, they had no plans to participate, he said. “We think this is the wrong thing to do,” he said.

Other officials privately spoke in stronger terms, accusing the Pentagon and other departments of pursuing divergent policies, despite promises at a meeting at the State Department in August to maintain a unified stance with the opposition. Some opposition officials suggested the Iraqi National Congress was seeking to position itself with men and arms for the power vacuum that many expect.

“They want to guarantee a place for themselves in a future government, because they can see Iraqis aren’t going to elect them,” one opposition official in London said. “They want a force that is trained and equipped and financed by the Americans so they can go with the American troops.”

Bin al-Hussein said the Iraqi National Congress still had hopes of bringing the Shiite opposition into the force. He discounted suggestions that creating the units were part of a power play. Rather, he said, it was a way to diminish the chaos that many fear the invasion and fall of Hussein may unleash. Both the Kurdish and Shiite groups already maintain armed opposition forces in northern Iraq and in exile in Iran.

“We would hope they would understand the unit is not a threat to them and it is a way of preventing militia-ism from occurring in Iraq, where political parties try to create their own militia units,” he said. “That would be definitely undesirable for the future of Iraq.”

A US official said that while “certainly there are favourites,” the United States hoped to bring the Shiite opposition into the fold. He said the problem was less US policy and more Iran’s determination to limit ties between the United States and the Shiite opposition.

Read the rest at the Daily Times

October 5, 2003:

Staying the Course May Be the Hardest Battle

SOME prominent Americans said this time would come, and now it is here: the season when American staying power in Iraq is being seriously tested.

In Congress, many Republicans are joining Democrats to challenge President Bush's decision to spend $20 billion on reconstruction without any commitment for repayment from this oil-rich land. The American military is as overextended as it has been since Vietnam, with tens of thousands of reservists facing career and family dislocations. The United Nations, with no discernible mission, is fleeing, having sacrificed some of its best and brightest diplomats in a vicious car bombing. Many humanitarian organizations are following.

And Iraqis -- even those who welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein -- are rebelling against occupation. More Iraqis say they admire the French president, Jacques Chirac, than Mr. Bush. Go figure.

Yet on the ground here, despite the staccato of gunfire in the night, optimism has never been stronger that Iraqis will pull through, if America can find a formula for letting them take control of their destiny as the allied armies and occupation administrators recede.

The streets of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul bustle with commerce. Restaurants are filled late into the night as the heat of summer abates along with the fear of crime. Schools, many refurbished with the help of Americans, reopened last week. New textbooks, cleansed of Saddam Hussein's image, are being printed. The curfew has been extended an hour, until midnight.

Iraqis are voting with their feet, figuring that it is time to reopen their shops because the violence here is not directed at them, but at the American military and, less, at Iraq's new police and politicians.

Still, consensus in postwar Iraq is as elusive as Mr. Hussein, who remains in hiding. And the war over Iraq policy has moved into a complex phase.

There are three wars, really: the guerrilla campaign inside Iraq, the diplomatic war between the United States and the international community over nation-building and peacekeeping, and the partisan war in Washington, where Mr. Bush's critics are challenging almost everything about the course he charted here.

The war inside Iraq is now about occupation, a word that conjures the worst memories in a region that has been a battleground for empires and still seethes over the plight of Palestinians under the Israelis.

In Khaldiya last week, tribal elders surveying the wreckage of their cousin's home from an assault by 82nd Airborne troops railed against the foreigners in their land. Bash Abid Shehab, 74, said the resistance here that drew American fire was not about bringing back Mr. Hussein, nor was it about religion.

''We need our freedom and prosperity,'' he said. ''The Americans should walk with us in freedom without pointing guns at us, and if they don't we will keep resisting them until we force them to leave the country.''

The resistance in Iraq began growing in May, when the Bush administration decided against handing power immediately to a provisional government of untested exiles, Kurds and Shiite groups, and opted for a lengthy occupation strategy that seemed necessary to free up Iraq's assets and to get the oil flowing and United Nations sanctions lifted.

That decision, made in the Oval Office, was announced with the arrival of L. Paul Bremer III, the occupation administrator. There was no consultation with Iraqis. Now many Iraqi political figures say that despite Mr. Bush's declared commitment to rebuild the state as a democratic model, the failure to consult them distorted Iraqi assessments of Mr. Bush's intent.

The occupation model put American troops into immediate confrontation with the minority of Iraqis invested in American failure and, more important, it antagonized a majority, who supported Mr. Hussein's overthrow. A blistering summer of power failures, water shortages and Mr. Bremer's practice of working with Iraqis only as token advisers made things worse.

In an off-the-record conversation three weeks before he died in the car bomb attack on Aug. 19, Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations envoy here, said he considered his mission one of persuading Mr. Bremer to trust the Iraqis to rule themselves during the transition to a new state. He later admonished the Iraqi political leaders to take Mr. Bremer's offer of a ''governing council'' despite their reservations. Once in the council, he said, they should seize all the power they could because ''Bremer will not be able to stop you.''

But the experiment with the 24-member governing council may be failing, its members say. Mr. Bremer returned from Washington last week and scolded council members at a meeting for having taken independent decisions. Four times, members said, Mr. Bremer reminded them that he held supreme authority. One member walked out.

Mr. Bremer's authority has done little to quell the daily attacks on American forces. Some of those responsible are Mr. Hussein's men. Some are paid to do it. Some convince themselves that Islam demands it. Most are Sunnis in the arc around Baghdad. Some may be Shiites under the influence of radical clerics. Some are infiltrators from Syria and Al Qaeda. Some are tribal people seeking revenge for a humiliation or loss of a relative. Some are just criminals.

But the sum of this resistance does not necessarily amount to a military challenge to the United States. Many Iraqis see the security problem as an issue of policing -- which Iraqis should perform. Security is undermined, they say, when M-1 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles roar through the streets with young American soldiers isolated behind machine guns they keep pointed at the people they have liberated.

The war inside Iraq feeds the conflict between the United States and those countries that questioned whether a war to oust Mr. Hussein was really necessary.

Many Iraqis are less concerned about this debate, aside from the fact that any sign of American and British duplicity about the evidence marshaled for the war undercuts the moral position of the occupation. For many Iraqis, the discovery of mass graves, the opening of the torture chambers, the discovery that Saddam Hussein sent his son to clean out the Central Bank in March is more than enough to convince them of the moral rightness of toppling the dictator.

But the United States does not get a pass. Many Iraqis look to the United Nations and to Europeans as more detached in their judgment of how to put things right. In this view, putting the Iraqis in charge under a United Nations mandate, as the Europeans argue, makes sense.

But for the Bush administration, any loss of control threatens not only the economic payback for the $20 billion the United States is spending on reconstruction, but also the image of American pre-eminence in reshaping the world. And this fuels the third war -- the one inside the Washington Beltway, where American anxiety about the cost of the war in Iraq plays into the hopes or fears of anyone with a stake in the debate.

For most Iraqis, though, the deed has been done. Mr. Hussein is history. They are ready to move on. If members of Congress demonstrate that Mr. Bush went to war based on intelligence that did not support the assertions about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or support for terrorists, where does that leave the commitment for rebuilding Iraq?

The anonymous guerrillas trying to blow up American convoys and shooting American soldiers hope they can break American will and send them home, as Mr. Hussein once thought he could with the ''mother of all battles.'' The Iraqi politicians challenging Mr. Bremer's authority, making end runs to Congress and making nice with the French are trying to gain control of the country because they think they can do a better job than the Americans.

They don't want America to leave, but they fear an erosion of American staying power under the current policy. And this is the season in which that power will be tested.

Read the rest at the NY Times

October 5, 2004:

Bremer: More troops were needed after Saddam's ouster

The former U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq says the United States "paid a big price" for not having enough troops on the ground after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime.

L. Paul Bremer, speaking Monday at an insurance conference in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, said "horrid" looting was occurring when he arrived to head the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad on May 6, 2003.

"We paid a big price for not stopping it because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness," Bremer said. "We never had enough troops on the ground."

Bremer added that ousting Saddam was "the right thing to do."

A senior Defense Department official said that Bremer never asked for more troops and expressed annoyance the ambassador appeared to be second-guessing the advice of military officials. Bremer stepped down after the June 28 handover to an interim Iraqi government.

Bremer attempted to clarify his comments in a statement released Tuesday, saying his remarks referred only to "the situation as I found it on the ground, when I arrived in Baghdad in May 2003, and when I believed we needed either more Coalition troops or Iraqi security forces to address the looting."

"We developed a plan to address this problem, which has been continued by Iraq's Interim Government," he said in his statement.

Read the rest at CNN

October 5, 2005:

Iraq revives Sunni-Shia tensions among neighbours

For Sunni-ruled Gulf states, seeing Iraq fall under Shia influence after the 2003 US-led war that ousted Iraqi military dictator Saddam Hussein was shocking enough.

Now they fear that rising tensions between Iraq’s disgruntled Sunni minority and Shia majority will erupt into all-out civil war that could surge across their borders and rock the fragile balance of power in the region.

From Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, to tiny Bahrain, with a Shia majority, Gulf rulers are facing a reality they spent decades striving to ignore.

“This Shia-Sunni tension is spilling into the region,” Dubai-based analyst Mustafa Alani told Reuters. “If the Shias of Iraq can come to power, Shias next door in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait feel why can’t they do the same.”

When Shia parties won elections in January to dominate Iraq’s government it was the first time in more than 800 years that Shias had taken power in a core Arab country.

The Shia-led government is a prime target for Sunni Arab insurgents and foreign militants, such as Iraq’s Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who has declared all-out war on Shias.

“The most dangerous phenomenon is not the war between Sunni insurgents and American forces in Iraq but the Sunni-Shia sectarian strife,” said Saudi reformist Mansour Nogaidan.

Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni power in the Gulf, this month sounded the alarm, warning that Iraq was heading toward disintegration and raising fears of a wider conflict.

Its concern is shared by other regional governments, some of which also have Shia minorities emboldened by the seismic shift in the power balance between Islam’s two main sects.

“The neighbouring countries are terrified of Shias and Iranian expansion. The biggest fear lies in Saudi Arabia which holds the banner of Sunni Islam,” said Nogaidan.

“For them the the biggest danger is losing the influence of Sunni Islam to Shia Islam,” he added.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, whose country and other Sunni Gulf states backed Saddam in his 1980-88 war against Iran, expressed Riyadh’s concerns in blunt terms on Sunday.

“The growing fear of an outbreak of a sectarian civil war in Iraq is not a chimera but a trend that is becoming clearer day after day,” he said after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers.

“We believe that interfering in Iraq threatens a wider conflict in the region... History will never forgive those who used the tragedy of Iraq to serve their vested interests.

“Stoking the fire of sectarian discord and civil strife will be a calamity for all,” the Saudi foreign minister said.

Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabor, a Shia, attacked Faisal for his previous remarks on Iran’s role, saying Baghdad would not be lectured by “some Bedouin riding a camel”.

He said Saudi Arabia treated its own Shias as “third-class citizens”. Saudi Shias, believed to make up 30 per cent of the kingdom’s native population of 17 million, complain they are marginalised by a government allied to purist Wahhabi Sunni scholars who consider Shiaism a heresy.

Iran has denied it is interfering in Iraq, but it has close ties to the new Iraqi leadership, dominated by Shia parties that found refuge in Iran during Saddam’s rule.

Diplomats and analysts say Iran also wields religious influence over Iraqi clerics and has access to military intelligence through the Badr Brigades, established by Iranian Revolutionary Guards as the military wing of the biggest Shia party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Animosity between Sunnis and Shias goes back to a centuries-old religious schism that still poisons relations.

Hardline Sunnis regard Shias as “rejectionists” who strayed from true Islam. Until recently Gulf states banned Shias from performing religious rituals in public. In some countries they are denied government and security jobs.

After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini swept to power in Iran in 1979, Western and Gulf states supported Saddam, a Sunni, in his eight-year war against the “export” of the Islamic Revolution.

For years Arab leaders put up with Saddam’s policies simply because they saw him as a guarantee against Shia power.

When the West and the region turned against Saddam after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, prominent US allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia opposed finishing off the Iraqi leader after the 1991 Gulf war, fearing the Shias would step into the vacuum.

The Saudis now believe US policy in Iraq is widening sectarian divisions and effectively handing the country to Iran.

“They (Americans) gave Iraq to Iran on a gold plate free of charge. They did what Khomeini failed to achieve. He must be celebrating in his grave, thanking the Americans,” Alani said.

Read the rest at the Dawn

October 5, 2006:

Battle for Baghdad ‘a critical point’ in the war

The Iraq war could be heading to its decisive moment: a battle for the capital of Baghdad that already has turned dramatically bloodier for American soldiers and carries enormous stakes for the country’s future.

At least 13 American soldiers have been killed around Baghdad since Monday — the highest four-day U.S. toll in the capital since the 2003 invasion.

That count is likely to rise higher as the U.S.-led forces step up their campaign to root out the extremist militias, death squads and terrorist cells that have turned the city into a collection of armed, ethnically divided camps.

No longer a limited security problem while the main war was being fought out west in Anbar province, the battle of Baghdad is turning out to be “a critical point in the Iraq war,” says former Pentagon analyst Anthony Cordesman.

“Securing Baghdad ... won’t win. But losing Baghdad will lose,” Cordesman says. “If they lose, Iraq is likely to slip into a major civil war.”

Much of Baghdad is yet to be targeted in the joint U.S.-Iraqi pacification operation. Top commanders — signaling the toughest fight is yet to come — say they need six more Iraqi battalions, or 3,000 soldiers, to join the 30,000 Iraqi security forces and 15,000 Americans already in the city.

U.S. commanders have defined victory as reducing violence in the capital to the point where Iraqi civilian police could handle security. With order restored in the capital, the Iraqi government then could focus on providing security and basic services to the rest of the country — thus creating conditions for U.S. troops to leave.

Baghdad is “the center of gravity for the country. Everybody knows that,” Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq, told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “The bad guys know it, we know it, the Iraqis know it. So we have to help the Iraqis secure their capital if they’re going to go forward.”

U.S. officials won’t say how they define defeat — insisting there is no choice but to win. Senior military officials concede it will take weeks if not months to turn Baghdad around. But they insist no effort can be spared.

In one sign of how crucial Baghdad is to the success of the U.S. war effort, top commanders have moved soldiers from western Iraq’s Anbar province to Baghdad for the offensive. Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the No. 2 general in Iraq, called the reshuffling necessary to “winning the main effort” in Baghdad.

The battle started relatively easily: U.S. soldiers encountered little resistance when the new offensive began Aug. 7 in the mostly Sunni Muslim areas of western Baghdad.

But that changed as operations shifted into Shiite strongholds near the Sadr City neighborhood — stronghold of the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Now, as the Shiites and Sunnis struggle for power, Shiite snipers fire routinely at U.S. patrols, even as Sunni insurgents plant roadside bombs west of the capital.

To achieve success, the Americans and their Iraqi partners are trying to weaken both the Sunni and Shiite extremist groups equally.

“I can’t drive (the Mahdi Army) into the dirt and let (al-Qaida) basically conduct suicide attacks at will,” one senior coalition intelligence officer said on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “I’ve got to take both elements out of the equation.”

The military tries to encourage the militias’ political patrons to reach a political deal, and offers benefits.

Once U.S. troops secure a neighborhood, reconstruction teams move in to map plans to restore electricity, water and sewage. Those teams have 90 days to make proposals, which are submitted to the Iraqi government for funding.

The operation has achieved some success: In July, violent deaths among civilians in Baghdad soared to an unprecedented high of 3,590, according to the United Nations. In August the figure dropped to 3,009, the U.N. said.

But the battle has proved politically tricky.

Many of the estimated 23 Shiite and Sunni militias operating in the capital have ties to the very politicians whom the U.S. encouraged to join the new government of national unity. Al-Sadr, for example, is a pillar of support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

And gunmen considered by the Americans to be a threat to Iraq’s survival are often viewed by their own communities as their best source of protection.

“There’s a lot of politics going on now, and we’re a police force, not an army,” said Sgt. Nicholas Sowinski, 25, of Tempe, Ariz., assigned to the 4th Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment. “It limits our options.”

Hurriyah, a once-quiet mixed neighborhood of north Baghdad, serves as an example of the dilemma.

Just over a year ago, al-Sadr’s militiamen quietly slipped in and set up an office in the main outdoor market. They told Shiites they would protect them from a Sunni militia called Omar’s Army.

By early October, Shiite militiamen were roaming the streets of Hurriyah, kidnapping, killing and intimidating Sunnis. Handbills circulating last month warned that 10 Sunnis would die for every Shiite killed.

Late last month, Shiite gunmen killed four Sunnis outside a mosque in Hurriyah. The next day, a Sunni extremist group detonated a bomb in Sadr City, killing 37.

Many U.S. soldiers say their biggest problem is that local people are not helping to identify militiamen.

“Unless you catch (them) in the act, you’re not going to catch them at all,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Nelson, 26, of Stockton, Calif. “The main thing that you think about when you take someone in is: How’s the public going to take this?”

Read the rest at Newsweek