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May 25, 2010

Iraq militants deny plot to attack World Cup

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – An al Qaeda-affiliated group in Iraq on Tuesday denied plotting to attack the World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa that starts next month.

An Internet statement by the Islamic State of Iraq, widely considered an affiliate of the Sunni militant group al Qaeda in Iraq, dismissed the suggestion as the work of wild imaginations.

May 24, 2010

Did Iraq’s Allawi lose by winning the election?

BAGHDAD, May 24 (Reuters) – Despite winning Iraq’s March election with a cross-sectarian coalition and a secularist platform, Iyad Allawi could turn out to be the big loser in Iraqi politics in a government dominated by Shi’ite parties.

The Shi’ite former prime minister whose Iraqiya coalition won two seats more than his nearest rival in the parliamentary vote, in part by winning overwhelming support from minority Sunnis, has often said that secularism is the only way forward for a country nearly destroyed by sectarian violence.

But even a senior member of his bloc concedes Allawi may walk away empty-handed from a new government controlled by the mainly Shi’ite State of Law coalition, led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and the Iraqi National Alliance, which has close ties to Shi’ite neighbour Iran.

"All indications are that the formation of the next government will be done on a sectarian and ethnic basis," said the Iraqiya official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The gulf between the reality of sectarianism and the idea of secular government in Iraq could open a door to more regional interference, especially from neighbouring ideological arch-rivals, Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Allawi campaigned for better ties with the Arab world and for keeping Iran at a distance. Analysts say Tehran has been actively promoting a Shi’ite alliance to push Allawi, which Iran sees as the U.S. favourite, to the sidelines.



OUT IN THE COLD?

Allawi’s win at the polls stands on shaky ground.

Iraqiya, which includes major Sunni figures such as Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and popular former lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq, won 91 seats in the election to 89 for State of Law.

To form a government, a bloc would need to assemble a parliamentary union of 163 seats. The tight election — third place INA got 70 seats and Kurdish parties took about 58 — promised difficult negotiations for the needed majority.

State of Law and INA, former allies, have already announced plans to unite in parliament, giving the combined group 159 seats and making likely another Shi’ite-dominated government more than seven years after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Sunni ruler Saddam Hussein.

With the Shi’ite blocs united and the Kurds expressing interest in joining them, Iraqiya, although led by the Shi’ite Allawi, is likely to be seen as the "Sunni" bloc in talks to form an inclusive government, and government posts will be distributed accordingly, the Iraqiya official said.

That means Allawi, who has said a State of Law-INA merger would effectively mark a return to sectarian government, could be left out in the cold.

"The idea that Allawi’s list may be considered in the coming days as a Sunni list is a possibility that could actually come true," Baghdad political analyst Hazim al-Nuaimi said.

If a Shi’ite government designates certain ministries and top jobs for Sunnis and gives them to Iraqiya, Allawi’s Sunni partners may want to keep them out of his hands because he is Shi’ite.

"The Sunni figures of his bloc will not accept giving Allawi any of the posts that will be given to them on a sectarian basis," the Iraqiya official said. "This will make Allawi the big loser and push him out … with empty hands."

Gala Riani, an Iraq analyst with IHS Global Insight, said that while Maliki’s bloc and Kurdish alliances also ran on secular agendas, the election results have confirmed the depth of Iraq’s sectarian and national divides.

"The elections also unfortunately confirm the limitations at this point for political lists running on a cross-sectarian political platform," she said.



‘SECTARIAN’ GOVERNMENT

Iraqiya insists it has the right to first crack at forming a government as the election winner. But Maliki’s bloc also claims that right as the result of its alliance with INA because their union would create the biggest grouping in parliament.

The constitution is not clear on the issue and the nation’s Supreme Court has left open the two possibilities.

Maliki himself said last week that attempts at a truly national government had failed, and that the next government would be formed on a sectarian basis.

"We need another term to finalise this principle: the principle of forming and establishing a state not on a sectarian and ethnic basis but rather on a national basis," he said.

Allawi has repeatedly warned that Iraq could face a return to violence if the two major Shi’ite blocs join forces and try to exclude his Sunni-backed coalition. Iraq was torn by sectarian bloodshed that killed tens of thousands in 2006-07.

"The retreat of some parties to the sectarian approach could push the country again into sectarian conflict," Nuaimi said. "This will effect those who advocate secularism, especially Allawi … and may make him the big loser." (Editing by Jim Loney and Samia Nakhoul)



May 23, 2010

Fresh appeals lodged in Iraqi election impasse

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Election officials in Iraq said Sunday they had received new appeals stemming from March’s parliamentary election but did not expect more than a brief delay in ratification of the results.

A political vacuum since the inconclusive vote is fuelling tension, with a proposed Shi’ite alliance causing concern that minority Sunnis could be pushed to the sidelines.

Apr 19, 2010

Al Qaeda’s two top Iraq leaders killed in raid

BAGHDAD, April 19 (Reuters) – Al Qaeda’s top two leaders in Iraq have been killed, officials said on Monday, in a strike the U.S. military predicted would deal militants a "potentially devastating blow" but whose impact analysts said may be limited.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said al Qaeda’s Iraq leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the purported head of its local affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, were found dead in a hole in the ground inside a house after it was surrounded and stormed by troops.

The deaths could be a major setback to the stubborn insurgency at a time when Iraq is emerging from the sectarian slaughter unleashed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion but still struggling to end suicide bombings and other attacks.

"The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency," said the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno. The military described it as "a potentially devastating blow".

The killings may boost Maliki’s stature as he tries to ensure his reappointment as prime minister following a March 7 general election that produced no outright winner.

Maliki’s ambitions for a second term are proving to be a stumbling block to the formation of an alliance between Iraq’s two main Shi’ite Muslim political groups that would give them the clout to form a government.

Maliki said Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and thought to be an Egyptian, and Baghdadi were killed in Thar-Thar, a rural area 80 km (50 miles) northwest of Baghdad that is regarded as a hotbed of al Qaeda activity.

"This operation is a fatal blow to al Qaeda groups and promotes Iraqi efforts for rebuilding and reconstruction," Maliki said at a news conference. The U.S. military said the operation took place on Sunday 10 km (six miles) southwest of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town.

A U.S. soldier died in a helicopter crash during the assault, the U.S. military said. It had previously said the crash was an accident and not due to hostile fire.

An assistant of Masri’s and a son of Baghdadi’s were also killed in the fighting and at least 16 people were arrested.

Maliki said the house was destroyed and the bodies of Masri and Baghdadi were found in a hole in the ground in which they had been hiding.

The Iraqi government has frequently claimed it has arrested major al Qaeda leaders only to be proved wrong, and the reaction of Iraqis was mixed.

"Abu Ayyub passes away and another Abu Ayyub pops up," said Baghdad resident Hussein Taher.



‘ELIMINATING TERRORISM IS GREAT’

Another Baghdad resident, Abu Nabiel al-Humairi, said "eliminating terrorism is great".

"We want to walk freely in our country and live safely," Humairi told Reuters Television.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said in Washington that the operation was Iraqi-led.

"These are two significant individuals. And it demonstrates again a capability, a growing capability of the Iraqi security forces to go after these threats in their country. And it’s very positive that neither of those individuals will be operating in Iraq anymore," he said.

Analysts said Masri and Baghdadi were the highest-ranking al Qaeda figures to be targeted in Iraq since the organisation’s former Iraq chief, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed by U.S. aircraft in June 2006.

But they also cautioned against reading too much into the strike against a network that did not appear to have much hierarchy but operates mainly through independent cells.

The outcome of negotiations to form the next government was far more relevant to Iraq’s future and stability, they said.

"This political situation in Iraq is very volatile at the moment, so while this will be good for Maliki and make headlines for 48 hours it will be forgotten amid the ongoing post-election story," said Peter Harling, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.

"From what we’ve seen in the past killing leaders like this has never made that much of a difference." (Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed, Suadad al-Salhy, Nick Carey and Reuters Television in Baghdad, William Maclean in London, and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Noah Barkin)



Apr 15, 2010

Iraq president says Kurds to join Shi’ite alliance

BAGHDAD, April 15 (Reuters) – Iraq’s president said minority Kurds can be expected to join the country’s main Shi’ite blocs if they unite to form the next government following inconclusive elections in March.

Kurdish support would give the Shi’ite parties the muscle needed to sideline former premier Iyad Allawi, whose cross-sectarian alliance won the most seats in the March 7 vote after gaining the broad backing of Iraq’s Sunni minority.

That could fuel Sunni anger at a time when the slaughter between majority Shi’ites and Sunnis who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein has subsided but attacks by Sunni Islamist insurgents continue to threaten Iraq’s fragile security.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said the Kurdistan list consisting of his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, stood ready to back a tie-up between Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA).

Talabani made his comments after a meeting on Wednesday night with former Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, whose faction is part of the INA.

"As everyone knows, we are natural allies," Talabani told reporters, recalling Kurdish-Shi’ite solidarity when the two communities were oppressed under toppled Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein.

"In addition, we will support whichever candidate (for prime minister) our Shi’ite brothers propose."

The incumbent prime minister’s Shi’ite-led State of Law coalition came a close second in the hotly contested March election with 89 seats, just two behind the 91 won by Allawi’s Iraqiya list.

The election results have to be certified, a process that may yet take weeks.

The INA, which is led by overtly religious parties with close ties to Tehran, came third with around 70 seats and Maliki’s bloc has been in talks with INA on forming a working majority in the 325-seat parliament.

But Maliki himself has become a sticking point. One of the main parties in the INA, anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement, opposes his reappointment as prime minister. Maliki send troops to crush Sadr’s paramilitary Mehdi Army in 2008.



OTHER KURDS LIKELY TO JOIN

Protracted negotiations on forming a government raise the risk of a spike in sectarian violence. Lengthy coalition talks after Iraq’s last election in December 2005 saw the country plunge into a bloody war.

A rise in violence could threaten U.S. plans to end combat operations in August ahead of a full pullout by the end of 2011. There are still around 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, seven years after the invasion.

Most Iraqi Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but mainly vote according to their ethnic, rather than their religious identity.

The Kurdistan list gained 43 seats in the election in March. A handful of smaller Kurdish parties also gained seats, taking the total potential Kurdish bloc to 58 in the next parliament if they join forces, as expected.

That would give a Shi’ite-Kurdish coalition government just enough seats for a two-thirds majority that would allow it to amend the constitution. (Writing by Nick Carey; Editing by Michael Christie and Jon Hemming)



Apr 14, 2010

Iraqi Shi’ite blocs inch toward power-sharing deal

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Talks on an alliance between Iraq’s two main Shi’ite Muslim blocs to form the next government appear to be nearing a conclusion, with the main sticking point being how to nominate a prime minister, officials said.

A hotly contested but inconclusive general election on March 7 brought Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition 89 seats, two behind the cross-sectarian Iraqiya coalition headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

Apr 12, 2010

Iraqi PM’s prospects of second term increasingly slim

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s chances of being reappointed appear to be fading as potential coalition partners turn against him a month after a general election that produced no clear winner.

Maliki, a Shi’ite leader, claims credit for stamping out widespread violence between once dominant Sunnis and majority Shi’ites, but is viewed as a divisive strongman by his foes. His coalition finished a close second in the March 7 vote.

Apr 8, 2010

Iraq bourse sees boost from securities package

BAGHDAD, April 7 (Reuters) – The Iraq Stock Exchange expects to boost its business by 50 percent once new securities legislation is in place as it will help to draw needed foreign investment, the bourse’s chief executive said.

As the fledgling bourse approaches its first anniversary of automated trade, its next step is to put in place regulations and tools to help boost volumes, which average only $1 million to $1.5 million a day, Taha A. Abdulsalam told Reuters in an interview.

"Now we are going forward with the necessary things that make it easier for everyone to invest. I am convinced that I am doing right," Abdulsalam said on Wednesday.

"I believe we will see an increase of about maybe 50 percent (in volumes and sales once the securities legislation is approved) from what we see (now)."

Iraq is facing possibly months of political wrangling to form a government after inconclusive parliamentary elections in March while attacks, widely blamed on al Qaeda, seem designed to tip Iraq into all-out violence. [ID:nLDE63607L]

Abdulsalam did not know if the securities bill had cleared Shura Council, the top government review panel, and gone on to parliament. However, he was optimistic it would be passed soon, once parliament began sitting again.

He said on a normal parliamentary timetable, the legislation would be approved by the end of the year or perhaps as early as in six months.

Passing the legislation would result in the creation of such tools as custodian banks and mutual funds, allow online trading and let the bourse handle initial public offerings, Abdulsalam said.

The tougher capital requirements in the proposed legislation could also result in billions of new shares from banks, he said.



REGULATIONS NEEDED

The new regulations were "needed to make many possibilities happen for investors, for brokerage firms, to make it (the bourse) acceptable for everyone," Abdulsalam said.

The Baghdad bourse is a rare outpost of capitalism in an oil-heavy economy dominated by state companies. Launched in 2004, trading at the exchange was done using whiteboards, until April 19, 2009, when automated trading started with five companies.

Shares from 82 of the bourse’s 91 companies now are traded on the electronic system. The rest will join when their annual books are approved, said Abdulsalam, who was head of research at the current exchange’s predecessor bourse before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

About half the shares trade daily, and volumes were up 40 percent last year from 2008. Banks make up 70 percent of the bourse’s weightings, trailed by industrial shares and insurers, he said.

Although the bourse allowed foreign investment in August 2008, non-Iraqi money makes up only 3 percent of trade.

"In the beginning, I heard from many foreigners that, ‘When you have automation, we are going to invest in your stock exchange,’" said Abdulsalam, who was dressed casually in an open-necked shirt.

"Now I understand they are interested in seeing custodian banks, many developments, not only in the stock exchange but the country itself."



NO FOREIGN BROKERS

The bourse has 45 brokers, including 25 who can trade from off-site offices, and the exchange has been adding three to five brokerages a year. None so far is foreign.

Abdulsalam said the bourse’s main challenge was not low liquidity but assuring investors that they could enter and exit the bourse without problems.

"This is the problem, this is the real problem," he said.

The stock exchange, on a Baghdad side street, is protected by blast barriers and a guard with a light machine gun at the entrance. Inside, dozens of investors, many grey-haired men, checked prices on wide-screen displays while brokers trade shares in full view on a glassed-in trading floor.

Many investors fled the exchange on Sunday when suicide car bombs shook the capital, killing 41 people.

"You know the Iraqis are new at this business and new to automation and new to democracy. We didn’t have democracy before. We take every day and we learn every day from our mistakes," Abdulsalam said. (Editing by Karen Foster)



Apr 3, 2010

Gunmen storm Sunni enclave in Baghdad, kill 24

ALBUSAIFI, Iraq, April 3 (Reuters) – Gunmen wearing military uniforms stormed a Sunni Muslim village near Baghdad and killed 24 people, some of them former insurgents who turned against al Qaeda, Iraqi authorities said on Saturday.

The Iraqi military blamed the attack late on Friday on al Qaeda militants. The gunmen may have been pretending to be U.S. soldiers because they wore U.S.-style uniforms and sunglasses and spoke some English, according to a military source at the scene.

A police source said the gunmen handcuffed the victims in Albusaifi, a former al Qaeda village south of Baghdad, and shot them in the head.

At least seven people were left alive, their hands tied behind their backs, Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi said.

Ibrahim Talib, 14, told Reuters armed men came to his home with a list of names and asked for his mother, Ayda Hasan, 35.

"They said, ‘Come outside, we want to ask you some questions.’ When she went outside, they shot her," said Ibrahim, whose father was kidnapped by al Qaeda in 2007 and has not been seen since.

Iraqi authorities had warned of a possible escalation of violence due to rising tensions surrounding a March 7 parliamentary election that produced no clear winner.

A Defence Ministry spokesman said 24 people had been arrested and 15 others were being sought.

Iraqi and U.S. troops sealed off the village at the end of a winding dirt road that had many security checkpoints on it. Troops escorted reporters to the site, limited contact with villagers and forbade filming.

Asked who he suspected, a man in his 40s pointed at soldiers and said, "Don’t ask me, ask the Iraqi army. They know who did this."

The attack was launched from a nearby village that is an al Qaeda stronghold, a Defence Ministry spokesman said.

"We call this area Kandahar," an Iraqi officer said, referring to the Afghan city that is a Taliban strongpoint.



SONS OF IRAQ

Moussawi said some of the victims were members of the Iraqi security forces and others of the Sahwa movement, or the "Sons of Iraq". The group comprises Sunni former insurgents who joined the Iraqi government and U.S. forces to fight al Qaeda militants and are credited with helping turn the tide of the Iraq war.

The attack was the largest of its kind in Baghdad in recent months, although the capital has been the target of large-scale bombings.

Violence has fallen sharply in Iraq in the last two years following the sectarian slaughter of 2006-07, but assassinations, bombings and mortar attacks still occur daily.

A source in the Iraqi security forces’ intelligence service said 10 to 15 gunmen in pickup trucks were involved in the attack. He said Sons of Iraq members were targeted because they were loyal to the government.

"We have intelligence information that says al Qaeda is trying to re-organise itself," he said.

Nearly four weeks after the election, political coalitions are negotiating alliances that could give them the majority in Iraq’s 325-seat parliament needed to form a government.

Iyad Allawi, whose cross-sectarian Iraqiya alliance narrowly edged Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law for a plurality of seats, has warned of possible violence if majority-Shi’ite coalitions unite in a bid to exclude his bloc.

Iraqiya won strong support from Sunnis in Baghdad and Sunni-dominated provinces in the north and west. (Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary and Muhanad Mohammed; Writing by Jim Loney and Ian Simpson; Editing by Myra MacDonald)



Apr 1, 2010

Iraq Shi’ite party open to alliance with Allawi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A leading Shi’ite Muslim party said on Thursday it will not join any Iraqi government without Iyad Allawi, a move that could boost the chances of the election winner of becoming a prime minister.

Ammar Hakim, head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), said his party, with strong ties to Iran, was open to an alliance with Allawi’s cross-sectarian Iraqiya list.