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IRAN - Ja'fari's Response To US Pressure.

In the face of growing US pressure for him to step down, PM Ibrahim al-Ja'fari has vigorously asserted his right to stay in office and warned the Americans against undue interference in Iraq's political process. In an interview with The New York Times published on March 30, he defended his recent political alliance with the radical anti-US Shi'ite mullah Muqtada al-Sadr, now Ja'fari's most powerful backer, saying Sadr and his thousands-strong Jaysh al-Mahdi militia were a fact of life in Iraq and needed to be accepted into mainstream politics. He said he would work to fold Iraq's myriad militias into the official security forces and ensure that recruits and top security ministers abandon their ethnic or sectarian loyalties.

The existence of militias has emerged as the greatest source of contention between US officials and Shi'ite leaders like Ja'fari, with Ambassador Khalilzad arguing in the past weeks that militias were killing more people than the Sunni Arab-led insurgency. Dozens of bodies, garroted or killed with gunshots to the head, turn up almost daily in Baghdad, fuelling sectarian tensions which are pushing Iraq closer to full-scale civil war.

The embattled Ja'fari made his remarks in an hour-long interview with The NYT at his home, a Saddam-era palace with an artificial lake at the heart of the fortified Green Zone. The NYT said he spoke in a calm manner. Ja'fari said: "There was a stand from both the American government and President Bush to promote a democratic policy and protect its interests. But now there's concern among the Iraqi people that the democratic process is being threatened. The source of this is that some American figures have made statements that interfere with the results of the democratic process. These reservations began when the biggest bloc in Parliament chose its candidate for prime minister".

The soft-spoken Ja'fari is at the centre of the deadlock in talks over forming a new government. The main Kurdish, Sunni Arab and secular blocs in the 275-member parliament are staunchly opposing the Shi'ite bloc's nomination of Ja'afari for PM. Senior Shi'ite politicians on March 28 said Khalilzad had weighed in, telling the leader of the Shi'ite bloc that President Bush did not want Ja'fari as PM. That was the first time the US had openly expressed a preference for PM.ThePoliticians said that showed the Bush administration's acute impatience over the stagnant process.

Relations between Shi'ite leaders and the US have been fraying for months, and reached a crisis point after a bloody assault on a Shi'ite mosque compound in Sadr City on March 26 by US and Iraqi forces. Ja'fari said Khalilzad had visited him on March 29, but had not indicated that he should abandon his job. The two spoke about forming the government, he said.

US reactions to the political process could be seen as either supporting or interfering in Iraqi decisions, said Ja'fari, head of one faction of the Islamic Da'wa movement and a former exile in Iran and London. Ja'fari added: "When it takes the form of interference, it makes the Iraqi people worried. For that reason, the Iraqi people want to ensure that these reactions stay in a positive frame and do not cross over into interference that damages the results of the democratic process".

According to the constitution, the largest bloc in parliament, in this case the religious Shi'ites, has the right to nominate a PM. Ja'fari won that nomination in February in a secret ballot among the 130 Shi'ite MPs. But his victory was a narrow one: He came out on top by only one vote after getting the support of Sadr, who controls 32 seats.

That alliance has ignited US concern that Ja'fari will do little to rein in Sadr, who led two fierce rebellions against the US in 2004. Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi went rampaging in Baghdad after the Feb. 22 bombing of a revered Shi'ite shrine in Samarra' and after a series of car bomb explosions on March 12 in Baghdad's Sadr City. The violence left hundreds dead and Sunni mosques burned to the ground.

After the secret ballot in February, Sadr politicians said Ja'fari had agreed to meet all their political demands in exchange for their votes. Sadr had been pushing for control of service ministries like health, transport and electricity. Ja'fari did not say in the interview what deals he had cut with Sadr, but asserted that engagement with the Sadrists was needed for the stability of Iraq. He said he had disagreed with L. Paul Bremer 3rd, the former US proconsul in Iraq, when Bremer barred Sadr and some Sunni groups from the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) in 2003. Ja'fari said: "The delay in getting them to join led to the situation of them becoming violent elements. I look at them as part of Iraq's de facto reality, whether some of the individual people are negative or positive. Anyone who's part of the Iraqi reality should be part of the Iraqi house".

Ja'fari used similar language when laying out his policy towards militias - that inclusion rather than isolation was the proper strategy. The Iraqi government, he said, will try "to meld them, take them, take their names and make them join the army and police forces. And they will respect the army or police rather than the militias".

Recruiting militia members into the Iraqi security forces has not been a problem under the Ja'fari government. The issue has been getting those fighters to act as impartial defenders of the state, rather than as political partisans. The police forces are stocked with members of Jaysh al-Mahdi and the Badr Organisation, an Iranian-trained militia, who still exhibit obvious loyalties to their political leaders.

The police forces have performed poorly when ordered to contain militia violence, as in the aftermath of the Samarra' shrine bombing. They even cruise around in some cities with images of Sadr or other religious politicians on their squad cars.

There is growing evidence of uniformed death squads operating out of the Shi'ite-run Interior Ministry, and Khalilzad has been lobbying the Iraqis to place non-sectarian people in charge of the Interior and Defence Ministries in the next government. That has caused friction with Shi'ite leaders. Some have even accused Khalilzad of implicitly backing the Sunni-led insurgency. But Ja'fari supported the goal of the Americans, saying: "We insist that the ministers in the next cabinet, especially the ministers of defence and the interior, shouldn't be connected to any militias, and they should be non-sectarian. They should be experienced in security work. They should keep the institutions as security institutions, not as political institutions. They should work for the central government".

So far, the entire Shi'ite bloc has publicly backed Ja'fari despite the growing opposition to his candidacy. But the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) could split over this issue. Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the US-favoured politician who lost to Ja'fari in the secret vote, has hinted he would step forward as a candidate again if he had enough support.

Shi'ites look on US forces as a necessary evil: a reality which will help cement their rule, but still an "evil" force given its pro-Israel posture. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the powerful religious leader to whom Shi'ites defer, probably has the best idea of exploiting the US presence in his country: he has used it to institutionalise Shi'ite dominance, with a clear Islamist twist. The problem, from the Shi'ite perspective, was the decision of Sunnis on Dec. 15 to participate in elections and they emerged as a respectable bloc with determination to become involved in the government.

The UIA lost its dominance of the elections. So did the Kurds. However, in the horse-trading to choose a PM, a major split emerged among the Shi'ites and between the Kurds when Ja'fari was chosen. President Talabani, a Kurd who holds a largely ceremonial position, was unhappy with the choice of Ja'fari, and has said he will not accept him. These are some of the undercurrents playing an important role in the inability of the various Iraqi factions to formulate a national government.

The US is increasingly wary of the growing power of Sadr. The young and relatively junior mullah has proved to be an adept political actor. By securing the election of Ja'fari as MP designate, he established himself as a power the US military had to reckon with. He started making confusing statements regarding Iran, with which the US has signalled it will hold talks on Iraq's future. Sadr has stated that Iraq would not follow the Iranian example of adopting a vilayat-e-faqih (rule of the jurisprudent) model of governance. On other occasions, he showed a clear affinity towards Iran by stating that any US attack on Iran would be deemed as an attack on Shi'ite identity. Sadr has also made a point of building an alliance with Sunni groups. The Sunnis do not exactly trust him, but they have ample reason to have more positive feelings towards him than towards other Shi'ite leaders closer to Iran.

These Shi'ites want Iraq to be carved into virtually independent zones, something which would marginalise the Sunnis, at least economically, as they would be excluded from oil-rich areas. As the US becomes focused on creating a national unity government, Sadr's role is appearing as a major obstacle. Besides, the bloody role played by Shi'ite militias in Iraq has provided ample reasons for the US military to confront Jaysh al-Mahdi.

Considering the growing combustibility of the political situation in Iraq and amid increasing speculation about the outbreak of full-blown civil war, the last thing the US needed was to confront Shi'ite forces. But this is exactly what is developing. In the wake of the Feb. 22 explosion at Samarra', Ambassador Khalilzad has urged Shi'ite leaders to be politically accommodating towards Sunnis, even as the incident inflamed sectarian violence between the groups.

However, the Shi'ites are depicting Khalilzad's suggestion as an appeasement of Sunnis. Thus, the March 26 raid is being interpreted by Shi'ites as more evidence of a strong-arm tactic used by the US to force a concession from them regarding Sunnis, including the "real" objective of the Bush administration - to drop Ja'fari as the nominee of the UIA for PM.

The most important aspect of the growing rift between the US and Shi'ites is that Sistani's reaction has not been forthcoming. It appears that he is unwilling to show his hand until he is convinced who is at fault in this latest development. Sistani is no fan of the US forces, but he is not likely to be critical of the Americans at this sensitive time.

The US is not interested in unnecessarily inflaming the situation by confronting Sadr. At the same time, however, the US is not likely to back down if there is no unity government in the near future. The chief culprits, in the US estimation, are Sadr, his Jaysh al-Mahdi and other Shi'ite militias. The US seems to have concluded that it has reached a point when it must confront or even help the Iraqi security forces in dismantling these militias, and as they do this it is likely to realise that, in most instances, the security forces are an extension of the militias.

In Baghdad's Green Zone nine visiting US senators led by Vietnam War veteran and presidential hopeful John McCain have had talks with Iraqi politicians, urging them to form a national unity government. At a press conference last week, Sen. McCain said: "We have conveyed to them [Iraqi politicians] a sense of urgency". McCain was alluding to the underlying concerns bedevilling negotiations between the US occupying authority and Iraq's politicians, that a stable national unity government must be put in place if Iran is not to fall further apart.

Increasingly, it is dawning on the US that it must leave Iraq sooner rather than later. Asia Times Online (ATO) quoted McCain as saying of the Iraqis: "I think they want us out, but not now. And we want out". To do that, the US has had to turn to Iran, with which it has had no diplomatic relations since 1979, which it accuses of developing a nuclear weapons programme and which it consistently accuses of meddling in Iraqi affairs.

ATO quoted one of the senators that talks with Iran "have been ongoing for some time and I feel that they've reached some tentative agreement". This, ATO said, confirmed an "earlier comment by a European diplomat in Tehran...that the "talks have been going on for some time through the Iranian and US embassies in Kabul". The US Embassy in Baghdad, however, denies that the talks have begun.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi was on March 27 quoted by the official IRNA news agency as saying Iran would talk with the US to pave the way for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. Asefi said: "Although Tehran does not trust Washington, it is seriously concerned about the repercussions of wrong US policies in Iraq, which is the main reason it [Iran] has accepted Iraqi officials' request that it hold negotiations with the US".

Secretary of State Rice has confirmed that the US will talk to Iran about Washington accusations of Iranian destabilisation of Iraq. The political deadlock and rising violence have deepened the rift between Ja'fari and Jalal Talabani. Talabani was angered by a recent trip to Ankara by Ja'fari to meet arch-rival Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkish diplomats have increasingly sought to build an alliance with Iraq's Shi'ites as they have seen traditional allies such as the Turkmens failing to project their power at the ballot box. Ja'fari was reported by IRNA as saying: "I hope the US and Iran will start their meetings and talks as soon as possible and the knot in relations between the two countries would be untied through the negotiations". But ATO reported American officials in Baghdad as disclosing that Talabani had demanded that no negotiations take place over his head.

ATO added: "His objection centered on the absence of an Iraqi government. Talabani's Kurdish constituency has increasingly accused Tehran of hiding behind attempts to destabilize the north, such as the recent riots in...Halabjah that was the target of a gas-attack by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. These allegations mirror similar charges made by Iranian officials in the aftermath of the rumbling ethnic violence that has plagued Iran's western Kurdistan and Khuzestan regions, along the long border with Iraq".

Despite being Iranian citizens, the Arab and Kurdish inhabitants of these provinces have been accused by Tehran of receiving aid from the British Army occupying southern Iraq. ATO said "Halabjah could be an example of Iran demonstrating that it can hit back, not only in Shi'ite southern Iraq, but also in the till now peaceful north". On March 27, more than 40 people were killed by a bomb explosion set off by a suicide attacker inside a joint US-Iraqi military base in Mosul in the north.

An emerging alliance between Iraq's Kurdish political elite and Sunni politicians has not gone unnoticed in Tehran, which - other than supporting Iraq's majority Shi'ite community - has cultivated both sides of the Kurdish leadership. The Kurdish "defection" and Iran's search for new strategic partners may have been part of the reason why Tehran now is willing to talk with Khalilzad.

These follow negotiations conducted between Tehran and Washington in the run-up and aftermath of the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan which were kept secret at the time. ATO quoted an Iranian academic as saying of the US-Iranian dialogue: "Informally they are cooperating with each other. It's better for Iran to see a balanced government than a Shi'ite state which could cause instability in the region. Even Iran is happy to see some important Sunnis taking key posts. It's not good that we put all our eggs into one basket".

While Tehran publicly complains about the US presence in Iraq, the Bush administration-led war against Saddam toppled Iran's most bitter enemy, against which it fought an eight-year war in the 1980s which claimed the lives of about one million soldiers on both sides. Historically, Iran has never managed to expand its influence in the region without the support of foreign powers.

The Shah's closest ally was the US. Before that, the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas allowed the British Empire into his sphere of influence so they could expel the Portuguese from the strategic Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. As current allies Russia and China become increasingly less supportive of Tehran, Iran is turning towards the US. ATO quoted a former Iranian deputy foreign minister as having said in 2005 that it was "neither in Iran's interest to have a stable Iraq, nor do we want a fragmented Iraq. Ambiguity is the cornerstone of the policy".

US CentCom On Iraq, Iran, Syria: Gulf News of Dubai on March 29 quoted Brig. Gen. Mark T. Kimmitt, deputy director in charge of strategy plans and policy at the US Central Command (CentCom), as saying the chance of Iraq descending into civil war is "very, very small". He said the infrastructure and "basic services" in Iraq were "getting measurably better". He warned that the commitments of US in Iraq would not prevent military action elsewhere in the region if leaders provoked it.

Kimmitt said: "We are seeing sectarian violence in Iraq and it's ongoing but it's not what I consider to be civil war. If you look at what happened in Lebanon and Yugoslavia and even the American Civil War, certain things happened. The government split up and a separate government was formed. The military split up. We're nowhere near that happening in Iraq". He insisted the security situation in Iraq today was not worse than that of two years ago, with similar numbers of attacks each day. He rejected suggestions that the US had plans to stay in Iraq long term and retain military bases in the country, saying he was "sure" there would not be a heavy military presence there permanently.

Kimmitt added: "We'll be providing military assistance for some time to come, but to have large numbers of forces and bases is not part of our plan. As the Iraqi security forces get stronger, there will be less need for coalition forces". He said the US government was not trying to oust the Ba'thist regime in neighbouring Syria, despite concerns the country was failing to stop terrorists crossing from its territory into Iraq, adding: "Syria is a wonderful country. The Syrian people are wonderful and it's dreadful to see what the regime there is doing to this country. We cannot understand why Syria would want to be unhelpful. It's to their benefit to have stability in Iraq". He said US commanders "still have concerns" that Damascus was harbouring terrorist groups and even providing funding for them.

Kimmitt said there was "unhelpful" behaviour coming from Iran, including the supply of intelligence operatives in Iraq. But he tried to downplay the likelihood that military action would be taken against Iran. He warned "Any nation that miscalculates and doesn't believe we have the capability to do whatever the coalition nations want us to do is making a dreadful mistake".
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Publication:APS Diplomat Strategic Balance in the Middle East
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Apr 3, 2006
Previous Article:IRAN - Saddam's View of US Plans.
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