jeudi 5 juillet 2007

Nermeen Al-Mufti writing from Baghdad

More death and political intrigue

The violence and political scheming continue unabated in Iraq, writes Nermeen Al-Mufti from Baghdad

For the past two weeks, President Bush has been talking about a hot summer in Iraq, saying that the violence is likely to keep escalating through August. His sombre predictions may already be taking their toll on the Iraqi government. The Iraqis seem to have reached the conclusion that Nuri Al-Maliki's government, arbitrarily named a government of national unity, works only for the interests of its own parties and the agendas of other countries.

Operation Arrowhead Ripper is wreaking havoc on Diyali, about 80km northeast of Baghdad. The target, according to statements released by the occupation forces, are the bases of the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq. A media blackout remains in force and little is known about what is taking place in the city, especially in the areas of Muallimin, Mafraq, and Gatoun.

Um Omar, a woman who arrived in Baghdad from Diyali with her grandchildren, said they had to walk for over two hours to get to the highway leading to Baghdad and catch a ride. US shelling of residential areas is intense, she added.

According to statements released by the occupation forces, most Al-Qaeda fighters fled Diyali, while others have been killed or detained. A statement issued last Sunday by the Iraqi Islamic Party (ISP) accused the occupation forces of committing a new massacre in Baquba. "The operations led by the US forces in western Baquba led to the death of more than 350 people, most of whom are still under the rubble," the statement noted. The ISP is part of the Sunni Accordance Front (SAF). It claimed that US forces used aircraft to bomb residential areas, destroying more than 150 houses.

About 7,000 US troops and 2,500 Iraqi servicemen are taking part in the fighting in Diyali. Their aim is said to be the elimination of presumed members of Al-Qaeda. The US army, however, admits that nearly 80 per cent of Al-Qaeda leaders have fled the area.

The ISP describes the current offensive as one of "collective punishment of the population". It called on US forces to differentiate between civilians and fighters. It also urged the US forces and the Iraqi government to stop the "massacre" and allow humanitarian aid into the town.

In Baghdad, coalition forces shelled several parts of Sadr City, which is the stronghold of the Mahdi Army of Moqtada Al-Sadr. Some 26 people are believed to be killed in the shelling. The shelling was so ferocious that Prime Minister Al-Maliki severely criticised the US forces and called, for the first time ever, on the Iraqi security forces to stop carrying out orders from the coalition forces unless approved by the government. Interestingly, Al-Maliki had nothing to say about the US operation in Diyali.

A statement from the US and its allies said that 26 gunmen were killed and 17 others arrested in searches targeting pro- Iranian "cells" in Sadr City. According to Iraqi police and medical sources, the victims were all civilians and died in their homes.

US military spokesman Colonel Christopher Garver said the victims were all "terrorists" who had shot at US soldiers. Witnesses from Sadr City said that US troops came into their neighbourhoods just before dawn and fired at homes without warning. Hassan Dakhel, who lives in Sadr City, says a sizeable US force came to the area and started shooting. "What did we do? We didn't return the fire. There was no resistance," he added.

The Iraqi government accused Al-Qaeda of mounting the suicide attack on Al-Mansour Hotel during a meeting of Sunni and Shia clan leaders, including Sheikh Fassal Al-Guood, a key figure of the Anbar Salvation Council. But several Sunni parliamentarians accused the Al-Maliki government of carrying out the attack with explosive charges, claiming that no suicide attack took place.

The government and Sunni officials traded accusations following the issue of an arrest warrant for Asaad Al-Hashimi, former culture minister and member of the Accordance Front, on charges of killing the two sons of parliamentarian Mathal Al-Alusi in 2005. Al-Hashimi denied the charges and the Accordance Front suspended its participation in the cabinet until further notice. Six pro-Sadr ministers resigned from the government some time ago.

Parliamentarian Iyad Al-Samaraai told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Accordance Front ministers would boycott cabinet meetings until an impartial investigation into the accusations against Al-Hashimi began. "Our information indicates that Al-Hashimi's bodyguards were tortured to extract false confessions." Other members of the Accordance Front said Al-Hashimi's case was a smokescreen designed to distract attention from the attack on the Al-Mansour Hotel. They want the government to find out who killed the brothers of the vice-president and the head of the Islamic Party.

Sources close to Al-Maliki explained that the boycott of the cabinet may lead to the formation of a smaller government. The Daawa Party, the Higher Islamic Council in Iraq and the two Kurdish parties have enough supporters in the parliament to form a new cabinet of 19 members. But a public row seems to be brewing between the Iraqi Alliance Block and the Kurdish parties.

Hammam Al-Hammudi, a key figure in the Higher Islamic Council (part of the Iraqi Alliance Block) and chairman of the Constitutional Amendment Committee, stated that the UN mission in Iraq told him that it would be difficult to hold the Kirkuk referendum in November as scheduled. The news came as a blow to the Kurds, who want the referendum to take place on time, in accordance with Article 140 of the constitution. Adnan Al-Mufti, chairman of the northern administration's parliament told the Al-Zaman newspaper that the UN mission had no right to interfere in such matters. If it continues, the row may bring down Al-Maliki's government, which has so far refrained from commenting on the matter.

Saleh Al-Mutalek, leader of the National Dialogue Party, last week warned of Kurdish ambitions. "If you give the Kurds half of Iraq, they will ask for half of the planet," he said.

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