Robert Collier / San Francisco Chronicle – 2007-01-07 23:38:40
SAN FRANCISCO (January 7, 2007) — As President Bush prepares this week to announce a new plan for the war in Iraq, doubts are growing in Baghdad and among some international analysts over whether US attempts to reconcile Iraq’s warring factions are excluding the very people who need reconciling — the Sunni-led insurgents and their archenemies, the Shiite militias.
Put simply, the question is this: With more than 3,000 American troops and many tens of thousands of Iraqis killed since the US-led invasion in 2003, is it time to speak to the killers themselves?
In interviews with Chronicle correspondents in Iraq and by telephone with a Chronicle reporter in San Francisco, two dozen Sunni and Shiite hard-liners revealed a paradox. None could fully explain how to bring his side’s sectarian killings under control, yet all emphasized that peace cannot take hold without the approval of those holding the weapons.
“The US administration’s problem is that it has been negotiating with (Iraqi) politicians and parties that have no public support, so they are unable to help the United States withdraw from Iraq,” said a former brigadier general in Saddam Hussein’s army who said he is “close” to the Sunni-led insurgency and asked that his name be withheld for security reasons.
A more virulent anti-Americanism was voiced by backers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army militia is believed to be responsible for many death-squad attacks on Sunnis. “We are now very certain that the occupation forces are supporting the attempts to inflame a civil war in Iraq and are supporting the terrorist groups directly and indirectly,” said Bahaa al-Arajy, a member of al-Sadr’s parliamentary bloc. “Therefore we believe that these forces must withdraw from Iraq soon, within a few months.”
The Bush administration has reportedly been pressing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to expel al-Sadr’s group from the governing coalition and to replace it with moderate Sunni and secular parties. Similarly, the report issued last month by the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., emphasized the need to bolster the moderates against Sunni and Shiite radicals.
This US preoccupation with Iraq’s political center was sharply criticized in an equally detailed report issued Dec. 19 by the International Crisis Group, a respected Brussels-based research organization that receives funding from Western governments, including the United States.
“Contrary to the Baker-Hamilton report’s suggestion, the Iraqi government and security forces cannot be treated as privileged allies to be bolstered; they are simply one among many parties to the conflict,” the Crisis Group report said. It called for “a clean break” with current US policies and the start of intensive, U.N.-led negotiations with the Sunni-led insurgency — although not al Qaeda — and with al-Sadr’s group, in coordination with Iran and Syria.
In Chronicle interviews, the former army general and a former division general of the Republican Guard, the elite branch of Hussein’s military, said leading factions of the insurgency are willing to engage in negotiations through the United Nations. Neither man gave details of his relationship to insurgent activities, and like nearly everything about the shadowy, many-headed anti-US movement, the veracity of their claims could not be independently confirmed. Nevertheless, many details of their accounts square with reports in Arabic-language media.
Both men said that leaders of several insurgent organizations — Mujahedeen Army, Muhammad’s Army, Iraqi Islamic Army, General Command for Armed Forces, 20th Revolution Brigades and “some groups” from Ansar al-Sunnah Army, but excluding al Qaeda — met early last year and agreed on a common negotiating position that would be led by Izzat Ibrahim, Hussein’s former second-in-command.
However, the chaotic Dec. 30 execution of Hussein stoked the insurgents’ anger against the United States and soured them on direct talks with Americans.
“After the execution of President Saddam, now the Baath Party and all resistance groups reject any negotiations with the United States,” said the former army brigadier general.
Mudafar al-Amin, who was Iraq’s ambassador to Britain from 1999 until the US-led invasion in March 2003, said most insurgent leaders are willing to negotiate. “Look at the Lebanese civil war, look at Angola. They each fought for 20 years, and finally they had to talk and find a reasonable solution to take their countries out of the ruins,” said al-Amin, who lives in Jordan. “The situation now is to nobody’s benefit. The country has been made into hell.”
Yet the insurgents’ demands seem to leave little ground for compromise. The former Republican Guard general said the current government must be dissolved and replaced with “a military or political command council.” He did not explain how this council should be chosen, except that it would be made up of “patriotic Iraqis” who are “not loyal to Iran” — a demand that presumably excludes members of the leading Shiite organizations.
Then, he said, the US military must grant recognition to the insurgents and allow them to make a televised appeal to the former army to muster its ranks.
“What is most important is to call the former army back to service and implement the obligatory deployment of the army to show the national unity of Iraqis,” he said. Within a month and a half, he claimed, more than 100,000 members of the former army could report to duty, followed two months later by withdrawal of one-half of all US troops. Within another six months, new elections would be held, followed by departure of the remaining Americans.
At a Dec. 16-17 conference in Baghdad, al-Maliki’s government announced a new open-door policy toward former members of Hussein’s regime and invited former army officers to rejoin the military. So far, there appear to have been few takers.
For their part, Shiite hard-liners also say they support reconciliation efforts. But in interviews with The Chronicle, they called for US officials to stop advocating the inclusion of Sunnis and to give military backing to a full-scale Shiite offensive in Sunni areas. These Shiites described their opponents as “takfiri Baathists,” combining the term for Sunni religious extremists with the name of Hussein’s secular-leaning party — two groups that most outside observers say are often at each other’s throats.
“The American government must give the Iraqi government complete sovereignty, which means that the Iraqi army will have the authority to strike the takfiri Baathists with an iron hand, without any interference from the Americans,” said Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia that has been largely incorporated into the Interior Ministry and, along with al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, is widely blamed for death-squad attacks on Sunnis.
Many al-Sadr followers, including the Mahdi Army, appear markedly more sectarian than their leader.
“The state cannot negotiate with the insurgents because the weapons should be in the hands of the state, which should have sole authority over the country by using force,” said Nasir al-Saidy, an al-Sadr spokesman in Baghdad. But after a Dec. 18 conference in Istanbul of Iraqi Sunni clerics, al-Sadr issued a statement that endorsed the Sunni insurgents’ attacks on US troops, calling them “acts of self-defense of the righteous against the Western and hostile forces.”
Al-Sadr said he would be willing to attend any future reconciliation conference to end the Sunni-Shiite killings. “If I were qualified to give a fatwa, I would do so without hesitation in order to ban the killing of our (Sunni) brothers in Iraq and outside of Iraq,” he said, referring to an Islamic ruling that can be issued only by certain clerics.
None of the Iraqis interviewed for this article had a plan for disarming his side’s most sectarian killers.
The former Republican Guard general, for example, estimated that al Qaeda’s attacks represent “only 10 percent of the resistance,” and he said that if the Hussein-era army were remobilized, it could “easily” stamp out al Qaeda and other terrorists.
Al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Brigade, flatly denied that any of his men were involved in death-squad killings. Al-Saidy, the al-Sadr spokesman, blamed the killings on rogue militiamen, insisting, “The deeds of some members of the Mahdi Army do not represent the ideology of its leadership.”
Several of the more politically sophisticated radicals who have advocated negotiated solutions say they are losing hope.
“I don’t know anymore if it’s possible to stop this slide toward sectarian civil war,” said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University who is a leader of the National Foundation Conference of Resistance to the Occupation, a coalition of mostly Sunni and secular nationalist political groups. “Everything the government is doing is based on sectarian lines, and this has been reflected too much in society,” he said. “The violence has gotten out of hand.”
In recent months, several Sunni and secular groups have tried to cobble together a coalition with al-Sadr’s followers to oust the al-Maliki government and force an American pullout. This attempt has received prominent coverage in Iraqi, pan-Arab and Iranian media, and its main organizer, Saleh al-Mutlak, said US diplomats are trying to block it.
“The American officials have been doing everything they can to stop us because they know that would start the end of the occupation,” said al-Mutlak, who is leader of the National Dialogue Front, a secular coalition that holds 11 of the 275 seats in parliament.
On Monday, two of al-Mutlak’s bodyguards were killed and two National Dialogue Front buildings were destroyed by US troops in what the Americans later said was a raid on an al Qaeda safe house.
Al-Mutlak’s allies say that rather than unleashing a worsened civil war, a US troop withdrawal would have a calming effect.
“If there is a timetable for the US troops to get out, if a real Iraqi government has authority to make decisions, it can reach an understanding with the groups in the Mahdi Army to solve the situation, to stop the violence, and also with the insurgent groups,” said Jawad al-Khalisi, a Shiite ayatollah and seminary leader in Baghdad who has tried to reconcile the radicals under a nationalist, pro-withdrawal banner. “The Iraqi people will get rid of the extremist powers from both sides. We won’t allow them to continue their violent and terrorist acts.”
Bush already has begun rejuggling his civilian and military team, and his new Iraq strategy is likely to center on an increase in US troop numbers in Baghdad and Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold.
“The resistance has become more organized and more advanced,” said the former army general. “So even if the United States sends us another 20,000 soldiers or more, this will not change the final results. There will be more violence and more chaos.”
Two Iraqi correspondents for The Chronicle, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, contributed to this report.
E-mail Robert Collier at email@example.com.
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