Michael's Feed
Apr 19, 2010

Analysis: Al Qaeda’s top Iraq leaders killed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The killing of al Qaeda’s top two leaders in Iraq dealt a heavy blow to a weakening Sunni Islamist insurgency and boosted Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki standing as he seeks support to form a new coalition.

Al Qaeda’s Iraq leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the purported head of its affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), were killed in a joint operation by Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops on Sunday.

Apr 19, 2010

Al Qaeda’s top Iraq leaders killed in raid

BAGHDAD, April 19 (Reuters) – The killing of al Qaeda’s top two leaders in Iraq dealt a heavy blow to a weakening Sunni Islamist insurgency and boosted Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki standing as he seeks support to form a new coalition.

Al Qaeda’s Iraq leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the purported head of its affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), were killed in a joint operation by Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops on Sunday.

Maliki, who is negotiation with various factions to hold onto his post after an inconclusive election on March 7, personally announced the deaths and will try to benefit from the breakthrough against al Qaeda in Iraq.

The key to Iraq’s future stability, however, is the outcome of the coalition talks and whether they result in a government capable of easing sectarian tensions, rather than the continuing fight against remnants of the Sunni Islamist insurgency.

Many Iraqis may be skeptical over whether Masri and Baghdadi are dead. Previous government claims to have killed or captured senior al Qaeda figures sometimes have turned out to be wrong.

But this time U.S. Vice President Joe Biden went on record saying "their deaths are potentially devastating blows to al Qaeda Iraq". When the Iraqi government has made erroneous claims in the past, U.S. officials have tended to remain silent.



AL QAEDA IN IRAQ’S DEATH KNELL?

The al Qaeda-led insurgency has been driven back over the past two years after Sunni tribal chiefs turned on the militant group and allied themselves with the U.S. military.

A surge in U.S. troop numbers and the growing capabilities of Iraqi security forces — now 670,000-strong — have also put Sunni Islamist insurgents on the defensive.

Al Qaeda’s activities have been largely confined to volatile Nineveh province in the north and Baghdad’s urban sprawl.

Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government will be hoping that the removal of Masri, believed to be the militants’ main strategist, will put a final nail in the coffin.

"I would not say they are totally defeated, but I would tell you right now they have been severely degraded with the pressure on that network," the U.S. military’s spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Steve Lanza, told Reuters Television in Washington.

Yet analysts say the group is loosely structured.

It is not hierarchical and dependent on top-down leadership but composed of independent cells operating on their own.

Killing its leaders may have little immediate impact on operations in the pipeline.

Masri may be hard to replace. But Baghdadi may not be.

U.S. intelligence officers have long believed that Baghdadi was not a single individual.

Rather, they think the name "Baghdadi" is merely a title given to a number of Iraqi operatives who were handed leadership status within the ISI in order to dispel the notion that al Qaeda in Iraq was a mainly foreign-led organisation.



AL QAEDA THE ONLY THREAT?

Al Qaeda possibly inspires much of the Sunni Islamist insurgency, but it is not the only group carrying out attacks.

The government has also blamed suicide bombings on remnants of Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party, saying they have been working with al Qaeda despite not sharing its Islamic fundamentalist ideology.

Violence in Iraq, particularly during the political vacuum created by the inconclusive election, is also likely to be carried out by factions seeking to undermine rivals or manipulate public opinion.

Politically motivated violence will continue.



MAIN THREAT: LACK OF RECONCILIATION

Most of the tens of thousands of Iraqis killed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion were victims of sectarian fighting between once dominant Sunnis and the majority Shi’ites, who shot to power after the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam.

The sectarian slaughter has subsided and much of the violence now involves Sunni Islamist suicide bombers targetting government buildings, foreign embassies, and hotels.

While they still kill hundreds, they have largely switched away from soft targets like Shi’ite mosques and bazaars in Shi’ite areas.

But reasons behind the sectarian war haven’t gone away.

Sunnis resent their loss of power and remain deeply mistrustful of the Shi’ite-led government — convinced it is out to marginalise them and align Iraq with Shi’ite neighbour Iran.

A cross-sectarian alliance led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi got the most seats in the March 7 election after winning broad backing from Sunnis.

He is a secular Shi’ite who many Sunnis think would at least have something in common with Saddam by opposing sectarianism and meddling by Iran.

But Maliki’s bloc and the country’s main Shi’ite group, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), may end up forming a union that could sideline Allawi.

That would anger Sunnis and could refuel the insurgency, whether figures like Masri and Baghdadi are alive or not.

One of the main stumbling blocks to a Shi’ite-dominated governing coalition is the refusal so far of anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to back Maliki for prime minister again.

There is no obvious reason why the killing of Masri and Baghdadi would change the mind of Sadr, whose group controls around 40 of the INA’s 70 seats in the next parliament. Indeed, rivals may view Maliki as even more of a serious threat. (Additional reporting by Nick Carey in Baghdad, Deborah Lutterbeck in Washington, William Maclean in London; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)



Mar 10, 2010

Iraq expects to step up T-bill activity in 2010

BAGHDAD, March 10 (Reuters) – Iraq expects to step up its
treasury bill activity in 2010 to help plug continuing budget
deficits and foster a secondary treasury market, the Central
Bank and Finance Ministry said in a submission to the IMF.

Iraq, only just emerging from sectarian war but still
battling a stubborn insurgency, also wants to develop foreign
exchange markets outside the framework of dollar auctions
currently conducted by the Central Bank.

Feb 24, 2010

Iraq’s March 7 poll could bring peace or chaos

BAGHDAD, Feb 24 (Reuters) – Iraq holds a parliamentary election on March 7 that could set it on a path to peace and prosperity or bring back the bloody sectarian chaos of the years that followed the U.S. invasion of 2003.

U.S. and U.N. officials hope the general election will bring Iraq’s once dominant Sunni Muslims back into the political process, dampening the resentment at the rise to power of majority Shi’ites that still fuels a stubborn insurgency.

The next government will be in power when the last U.S. soldier withdraws by the end of 2011, and will reap the rewards of multi-billion-dollar oil deals with foreign firms in Iraq, which has the world’s third biggest reserves.

The conduct of the election will also determine the kind of democracy that Iraq might become once U.S. oversight bows out, and how democracy in Iraq might affect the fate of more autocratic nations in the Middle East region.

"I will go to vote even if I have to crawl because I do not want the past to be repeated," said Abdul Amir Ali, a Shi’ite Muslim who owns a clothes store in Baghdad, adding:

"The election is so important for Iraq and, God willing, things will get better and better."

Yet the campaign for Iraq’s first sovereign vote since the invasion has deepened sectarian divides, rather than healed them, after candidates, including prominent Sunnis, were banned for supposed links to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party.

The Sunni dictator’s oppression fell most heavily on Iraq’s Shi’ites and ethnic Kurds. [ID:nLDE61D0A2]

While overall violence has fallen, the election is unfolding against a backdrop of a rise in attacks by suicide bombers who revealed the shortcomings of security forces with devastating assaults on Baghdad starting in August, and bomb strikes against Shi’ite pilgrims.

Shi’ites, united in the last election, are now divided, with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki running alone after deciding he could win without the help of his former allies. [ID:nLDE61B1ZH]

That is a step forward from purely sectarian politics, but it may also lead to turmoil after the vote if no one is strong enough to form a government. A political vacuum in 2006 allowed sectarian warfare to grip the nation. [ID:nLDE61F0VH]

Known to the ancient world as Mesopotamia, modern Iraq was carved from the ruins of the Ottoman empire in 1920 by Britain under a League of Nations mandate and became independent as a kingdom in 1932. Iraq became a republic in 1958, but was in effect run by military rulers until 2003.



CORRUPTION AND INCOMPETENCE

Widespread despair at the corruption and incompetence that has marked government in the last four years may deter many of the 18.9 million eligible voters from casting ballots, while fear of attacks will keep others at home.

Most Iraqis will only have a few hours of electricity on election day. Some neighbourhoods, turned into a maze of canyons by the towering blastwalls set up to protect Sunni from Shi’ite, and vice versa, will not have seen a garbage truck for weeks.

"There are no jobs, just bombings," said Hassan Yousif Aamash, 40, a Sunni. "I will not take part in the election. What did the people we voted for last time do for us? Nothing."

Despite the fall in violence, Iraq remains a shambles.

At least 18 percent of the population is unemployed and twice that are underemployed. The public sector provides two-thirds of all full-time jobs, according to U.N. estimates.

The outgoing government sealed 10 deals with global oil firms that could make crude oil output rival top producer Saudi Arabia’s and give Iraq the billions it needs to rebuild after decades of war, sanctions and economic decline. [ID:nLDE60U051]

Yet outside the oil industry, foreign investment has been confined to Shi’ite tourism in the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, and the relatively stable Kurdish region in the north.

Here and there, workers renovate crumbling villas or the bomb-shattered facades of public buildings. New cars ply crowded streets, but there are few signs of burgeoning economic growth.

The U.N.’s special representative to Iraq, Ad Melkert, cautioned against "persistent scepticism and impatience" about Iraq, saying that it is making progress.

Hazem al-Nuaimi, a political analyst in Baghdad, said the March 7 election should be viewed as a milestone in Iraq’s political transition, not a final destination.

"Definitely this election will not establish a new fully stable political system but it will sow the seeds to change it."

Some Iraqis harbour hope, no matter the outcome of the vote.

"This election is the start so the country can stand on its own feet," said female college student Maab Mohammed, a Sunni. (Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Peter Millership)




Feb 23, 2010

Iraq Badr militia opposed to broad unity government

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – One of Iraq’s main Shi’ite Muslim political groups is opposed to forming a national unity government after the March election to patch together jostling Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish interests, a top Shi’ite leader said.

Hadi al-Amiri, a parliamentarian who heads the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council’s (ISCI) former armed wing, the Badr Organization, said democracy in Iraq would be better served by a government of like-minded political factions, facing a strong opposition capable of keeping the authorities in check.

Feb 5, 2010

Q&A-Iraq’s Baath party furore – what’s it all about?

BAGHDAD, Feb 5 (Reuters) – Iraqi politics is in turmoil over a list of nearly 500 candidates barred from an election because of alleged links to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party.

The furore at first pitted once dominant Sunnis against the Shi’ite-led majority. Sunnis, who dominated Iraq under Saddam and whose resentment at their fall from power helped fuel a powerful insurgency, suspected the ban unfairly targeted them.

The controversy is now pitting the Shi’ite-led authorities against an appellate panel that ruled that a decision on banning the candidates should be left until after the March 7 polls.

It has also generated attacks against perceived foreign meddling. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill not to overstep his bounds, without elaborating.

What’s the fuss all about?

WHAT IS A BAATHIST?

The Baath party was originally established in Syria to promote secular Arab nationalism. Its Syrian and Iraqi branches subsequently split and the Iraqi branch ruled Iraq under Saddam.

Iraqis of all sects were forced to join to secure good jobs or promotions but most of the party’s senior leaders were Sunni and it brutally suppressed the majority Shi’ite and minority Kurdish populations during attempted or suspected uprisings.



WHY BAN BAATHISTS?

Tens of thousands were killed or disappeared under Saddam and hundreds of thousands more perished in his wars, such as against Iran. Kurds were slaughtered with poison gas and mass graves have been found all over the country since Saddam’s fall. Iraq’s current Shi’ite leaders were forced into exile, particularly in neighbouring Iran and Syria, and many of Maliki’s colleagues in the Dawa party were assassinated.

Some leaders of Iraq’s majority Shi’ite community consider the Baath party to be as evil as Germany’s Nazi party.

The U.S. administrators who ran Iraq after the 2003 invasion purged Baath party loyalists, disbanding the Sunni-led army and hunting down senior Baath party leaders.

The party was banned under the constitution and a de-Baathification committee set up to stop Saddam loyalists from returning to power.



WHY HAVE CANDIDATES BEEN BANNED NOW?

Ostensibly, the candidates were found to have links to the Baath party. But the opaque and arbitrary manner in which the list was put together raised suspicions that the commission had been misused in order to eliminate potential election rivals – in particular the cross-confessional coalition headed by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite.

Sunnis initially thought that the list targeted them.

But once the names filtered out, it was clear there were more Shi’ite politicians on it, particularly from the secular, cross-sectarian alliances like Allawi’s that are expected to fare well against the Shi’ite Islamist parties that have dominated Iraq since the invasion.



WHO GAINS FROM THE TURMOIL?

Two of the de-Baathification commission’s leaders, Ahmed Chalabi and Ali al-Lami, are viewed as being close to Iran.

Chalabi was instrumental in persuading former U.S. President George W. Bush to invade Iraq but fell out of favour. Lami spent a year in U.S. military detention on suspicion of links to an Iranian-backed militia group that had killed U.S. soldiers.

Iran has been a strong supporter of the Shi’ite Islamists that dominate the government now and, mindful of the eight-year war fought with Iraq in the 1980s, is widely believed to want to ensure its allies remain in power after the March vote.

In Iraq, the factions that gain the most from paranoia about the Baath party are the mainly Shi’ite alliances — Maliki’s State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance led by powerful Shi’ite group the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISC).

Maliki has accused Baathists of siding with al Qaeda to carry out suicide bombings and ISCI has warned of an attempt by Baathists to return to power.

The warnings could scare Shi’ite voters who had been thinking of backing secular alliances in the election, such as Allawi’s slate, back into the fold.

Maliki must tread warily. Having vowed to keep Baathists from power, he could appear weak and suffer politically if the ban on Baath loyalists is not enforced.



COULD THE VOTE BE DELAYED?

There is no indication at the moment that a delay is likely in the election. It had already been delayed from January due to political disagreements over how to conduct the balloting in the city of Kirkuk, which is disputed between Arabs and Kurds.

However, the official start date of the electoral campaign has been pushed back to Feb. 12 from Feb. 7 while the government seeks a supreme court verdict on the panel’s decision to suspend the ban and also summons parliament for a session.



COULD U.S. PLANS TO REDUCE TROOP LEVELS BE AFFECTED?

U.S. military officials say their plans to end combat operations in August this year ahead of a full withdrawal by end-2011 should not be affected.

But if Iraq is pitched back into sectarian conflict it will be difficult for the Obama administration to turn a blind eye.

Attacks by suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents on Shi’ite pilgrims this week and a series of major assaults on the capital in advance of the election, have heightened tensions.

Shi’ite leaders may garner more votes from Shi’ites by blaming Baathists, but that also stokes the row with Sunnis. (Editing by Samia Nakhoul)



Feb 4, 2010

New Iraqi media rules raise specter of muzzled past

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Battling what it says are broadcasts that incite sectarian violence, Iraq wants to impose new restrictions on the media that critics say could bring back draconian censorship last seen under Saddam Hussein.

The new rules from the Communications and Media Commission are being enforced ahead of a March 7 parliamentary election, in which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will be seeking re-election.

Jan 26, 2010

Joint Arab-Kurd patrols begin in tense north Iraq

BAGHDAD, Jan 26 (Reuters) – Joint patrols between Iraq’s largely Arab army and Kurdish Peshmerga troops that U.S. officials hope will build trust have started in tense disputed areas, the U.S. military commander in Iraq said on Tuesday.

General Ray Odierno, who leads the 107,000-strong U.S. force still deployed in Iraq, said around 70 percent of planned joint patrols, which are being supervised by U.S. soldiers, have been trained and deployed and the rest would follow within days.

"We hope that by the 31st, in a few days, we’ll be at 100 percent," Odierno told western media, ending months of speculation about when the controversial operations would begin.

"They all know that this is about protecting the population in these disputed areas who have been targets of al Qaeda and others who are trying to exploit the political differences," he added. "So far so good."

Tensions between semi-autonomous Kurds in their northern enclave and the Arab-led government in Baghdad represent a potentially explosive threat to stability in Iraq almost seven years after the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.

Overall violence has fallen sharply although Sunni Islamist insurgents continue to stage major attacks, such as suicide bombings against three hotels in Baghdad on Monday aimed at undermining the Shi’ite-led government before a March 7 poll.

Ethnic Kurds have staked a claim to the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk and other disputed territories in the north, many of which contain massive known oil reserves or potential deposits. Their aspirations to have them wrapped into their region are fiercely opposed by Arabs and Turkmen.

Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have come close to blows on several occasions over the past two years as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has sought to strengthen central government presence in and around disputed areas.

Intervention by the U.S. military has often been the only thing that prevented fighting from breaking out.

Odierno proposed the joint patrols as a way to foster greater trust between the two sides, arguing that al Qaeda and other groups were taking advantage of a lack of cooperation between Arab and Kurdish security forces to launch attacks.

Politicians in disputed areas, in particular on the Arab side, have opposed the move, fearing the plan would legitimize the presence of Kurdish fighters in areas where Iraqi Arab leaders thought they had no right to be.

Fouad Zaidan Mustafa, head of the Turkman Doctors Union in Kirkuk, which also includes Arabs, said he believed the Peshmerga could not be trusted.

"We look at this temporary solution like other temporary solutions. A mistake is being used to correct a mistake and we are the ones who will continue to suffer," he said.

Hussein Ali al-Salih, also known as Abu Saddam and head of the district council in the tense, predominantly Sunni Arab town of Hawija southwest of Kirkuk, rejected the idea utterly.

"There is no justification for this. We already have an Iraqi Army and police, and they include all ethnicities and sects," he told Reuters recently.

Odierno said he was pleased with the joint patrols to date.

"There will be some local political challenges to it," he said. "We’ll work our way through that." (Additional reporting by Missy Ryan; Editing by Noah Barkin)



Dec 9, 2009

Iraqi oil power may shake Iran more than Saudi

BAGHDAD/DUBAI, Dec 9 (Reuters) – The geopolitical power
balance in the Middle East faces upheaval if Iraq succeeds in
tripling oil output, and fellow Shi’ite power Iran will feel
more threatened than rival Sunni oil giant Saudi Arabia.

Iraq’s potential leap into the ranks of the top three global
oil producers could result in a strengthened Shi’ite Muslim
front within OPEC if Baghdad aligns supply policy with Tehran.

Dec 7, 2009

Q+A: Does a delay in the Iraqi election matter?

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq on Monday seemed likely to pick February 27 for its next election after overcoming political disagreements that had threatened to push the polls back further and derail U.S. plans to end combat operations in 2010.

The election date is later than a deadline mandated by the constitution.

WHAT WAS THE DEADLINE?

Parliament’s mandate expires on March 15, and therefore also that of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Under the constitution, new elections should be held at least 45 days before, so at the end of January.