While Petraeus sees military progress, Iraq's US-backed political scene lurches from crisis to crisis, writes Nermeen Al-Mufti
President Bush said August would be hard on Iraqis, and he was right. It was the second bloodiest month since the invasion, with 1,888 civilians dead. He also said that Ramadan would be bad, and he's probably right again. On the first day of Ramadan, a suicide bomber blew up a car at the entrance to the house of Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, leader of the Anbar Awakening Group, killing the sheikh and two of his bodyguards.
The attack came two weeks after Abu Risha met President Bush during the latter's surprise visit to Iraq. Abu Risha had promised to wage a war against Al-Qaeda in Baghdad after his successes in Al-Ramadi. Al-Qaeda boasted of killing Abu Risha in a statement on the Internet. Still, some of Abu Risha's assistants think that Nuri Al-Maliki's government may be involved in the attack. Al-Maliki made no secret of his aversion to the US-backed group of Abu Risha, suggesting that it could turn against his government.
The Anbar Awakening appointed Ahmed Abu Risha, brother of the slain sheikh, as successor. Fawwaz Al-Jerba, head of the Shemmar clan, one of the largest Arab clans in Iraq, vowed to continue to fight Al-Qaeda in northern Iraq. Al-Anbar clans promised to avenge the killing of Abu Risha.
Meanwhile, Abu Ammar Al-Baghdadi, leader of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group known as the Islamic State of Iraq, released an audiotape threatening to hunt down and kill all Arab clan leaders cooperating with the Americans. He added that his group had formed "special security committees" to track down and eliminate clan leaders who collaborate with the "soldiers of the crusade" and Al-Maliki's government. Baghdadi promised to publish the names of collaborators and "shame them in front of our blessed clans".
The Iraqi Ministry of National Security honoured the slain sheikh by naming a police brigade after him. Plans have been announced for a statue of Abu Risha in Ramadi.
Yet again, the government of Al-Maliki was shaken by the withdrawal of a main group of supporters. The Sadr Group has withdrawn from the Iraqi Alliance Bloc, the largest Shia bloc in parliament. The head of the Political Council of the Sadr Bureau said Saturday that the Sadr group was pulling out of the government "because its demands haven't been met".
Sadr spokesman Sheikh Salah Al-Obeidi said that representatives of the Sadr group and the Islamic Fadila Party intended to discuss "future cooperation". His remarks were interpreted as a reference to possible cooperation in Basra and other oil- rich southern governorates. Obeidi said that the "alliance is suffering from many crises, especially because some of the leading partners are double dealing, controlling certain decisions and forging alliances without consulting with other partners."
For his part, Nadim Al-Jabiri, secretary-general of Al-Fadila Party who had withdrawn earlier from the Iraqi Alliance Bloc, didn't rule out cooperation with the Sadr Group and other parties. The withdrawal of the Sadr Group is unlikely to have an immediate effect on the government, for it still has the backing of four major groups (the two main Kurdish parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the Daawa Party) and a number of deputies loyal to Ayatollah Al-Sistani.
US occupation forces are chasing down the leaders of Sadr's Mahdi Army in Baghdad and the southern governorates. They also still deny Mahdi Army officials access to Sadr's offices, which were shut down last month.
In other news, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) has expelled Planning Minister Ali Baban from the party. A statement by the IIP said that Baban was dismissed for breaching the decision by the Accordance Front to pull out of the government. Baban's decision to stay in his post was "ill-advised", the statement added.
Baban's decision to stay in the government may affect the referendum on Kirkuk's future. The referendum has to be preceded by a census and it is Baban's declared position that no such census is possible due to inadequate technical means.
In reaction to the suicide bombing that killed and wounded dozens of Turkoman in Tuzkhormatu, 75 kilometres south of Kirkuk, on the third day of Ramadan, Turkoman parliamentarian Fawzi Akram told Al-Ahram Weekly that, "the government is turning a blind eye to the genocide campaign against the Turkoman."
"For the last time, we urge the government to coordinate with the Turkoman parties and form protection forces for Turkoman cities. Should the government fail to do that, we would knock at every door and exert every effort to achieve this goal, for this issue cannot wait any longer. The Turkoman people know how to defend themselves," Akram said.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that US troops in Iraq can be slashed from their current level of 169,000 to about 100,000 by January 2009, but a limited military force would be kept behind for the sake of "stability" in the country and the region.
President Bush's recent announcement that over 5,000 troops would be pulled out of Iraq by Christmas was greeted with concern by US-backed politicians who argued that such a move might lead to civil war. President Bush's decision followed a report by Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus suggesting that the surge in US forces brought about some progress. Iraqi politicians remain sceptical, however.
Fadila Party Secretary-General Jabiri said that, "the surge of troops in Iraq improved the situation in Baghdad, but it also caused the insurgents and the militias to move out of Baghdad." "We cannot ask the citizens to lay down their arms when the current government is a US-backed sectarian government," Jabiri added.
A recent US report suggested that a safe and orderly withdrawal of all troops from Iraq would take a minimum of two years. The report, prepared by Anthony Cordesman and published in The Washington Post, noted that the US has 160,000 troops on the ground, 100,000 contractors, some 200,000 tonnes of hardware, and about 20,000 vehicles. Getting all these out of Iraq would take anywhere between nine and 12 months, Cordesman said.
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