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IRAQ - Focusing On The Non-Oil Sector - Part 6-Z - Sunnis Seek US Protection.

As sectarian violence soars in Iraq, many Sunni Arab political and religious leaders once staunchly opposed to the US presence in Iraq are now saying they need American troops to protect them from the rampages of Shi'ite militias and Shi'ite-run government forces. Sunni pleas have been growing in intensity since an eruption of sectarian bloodletting after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Shi'ite shrine in Samarra', but they have reached a new pitch in recent days as Shi'ite militiamen have brazenly shot Sunni civilians to death in broad daylight in Baghdad and other mixed areas of central Iraq.

The New York Times on July 16 quoted a senior US diplomat as saying: The Sunnis also view the Americans as a "bulwark against Iranian actions here". Sunni politicians have made their viewpoints known to the Americans through informal discussions in recent weeks. Many Sunnis still sympathise with the insurgency and despise the Bush administration and the fact that the invasion has bolstered the power of Iran, which backs the ruling Shi'ite parties. But the Sunni leaders have dropped demands for a quick withdrawal of American troops. Many now ask for little more than a timetable. A few Sunni leaders even said they want more American soldiers on the ground to help contain the widening chaos.

The new stance is one of the most significant shifts in attitude since the war began. It could influence White House plans for a drawdown of the 134,000 troops in Iraq and help the Americans expand dialogue with elements of the insurgency. But the budding reconciliation is already stirring a backlash among the Shi'ites, who make up about 60% of the population but were brutally ruled for decades by the Sunni minority - mostly at the hands of Saddam's Ba'thist dictatorship.

In A'thamiya, a northern Baghdad ares, Sunni insurgents once fought street-to-street with US troops. Now, mortars fired by Shi'ite militias rain down several times a week, and armed watch groups have set up barricades to stop drive-by attacks by black-clad Shi'ite fighters. So when an American convoy rolled in recently, a remarkable message rang out from the loudspeakers of the Abu Hanifa Mosque, where Saddam made his last public appearance before the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. "The American Army is coming with the Iraqi Army - do not shoot", the voice said, echoing through streets still filled with Saddam supporters. "They are here to help you".

The NYT quoted Abdul Wahab al-Adhami, an imam at the mosque, as saying: "Look at what the militias are doing even while we have the American forces here. Imagine what would happen if they left". Even in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, where insurgents are carrying out a vicious guerrilla war against foreign troops, a handful of leaders are turning to the Americans, asking commanders to rein in Iraqi paramilitary units. Shaikhs in Falluja often complain to US officers there of harassment, raids or indiscriminate shooting by Iraqi Shi'ite forces.

A year ago, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) of Iraq's Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, the largest among the Sunni groups, was calling for the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops. Hashemi says: "The situation is different now. I don't want the Americans to say bye-bye. Tomorrow, if they were to leave the country, there would be a security vacuum, and that would lead inevitably to civil war".

US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been at the lead of US efforts to bring Sunni Arabs into the political process. Part of that strategy is to crack down on Shi'ite militias and push for amnesty for some guerrillas. This month the US military has stepped up operations against Jaysh al-Mahdi, a volatile Shi'ite militia loyal to radical mullah Muqtada al-Sadr. The top US commander, Gen. George Casey Jr., has said the Americans would hunt down "death squads" which are a driving force behind the rising bloodshed.

Some Shi'ite leaders deride the US policy towards Sunnis as appeasement. "This strategy will destroy their goal of establishing democracy in Iraq", said Abbas al-Bayati, a Shi'ite Turkoman MP, adding: "Compromising with the insurgency will encourage the insurgents to do more and more violence in the region".

Investigations into possible wrongdoing by American troops in two major cases - the deaths of 24 civilians in Haditha last November, and the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl and the killing of her family in Mahmudiya in March - have ignited anger among Sunnis, but not nearly to the degree as they might have in 2004, when the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal emerged. But back then, Iraq had not crept to the brink of civil war.

Of much greater concern now is the massacre of 50 Sunni civilians in Baghdad's Jihad neighbourhood on the morning of July 9, when Shi'ite militiamen dragged people from cars and homes and shot them in the head. The massacre of Sunnis only stopped after US military intervention. "The problem is that American crimes are only a hundredth of the crimes committed by the [Shi'ite] militias", said Omar al-Jubouri, the human rights officer for the IIP, adding: "It's like one hair compared to all the other hairs on a camel". He said: "We want to tell the American people to increase the presence of the Americans here, to control the situation".

Sunni leaders in the strife-ridden area of Dawra recently secured an explicit agreement with Shi'ite-led commando forces based there which said the Iraqi forces would not raid a Sunni mosque or private homes without being accompanied by US forces. A new brigade of Iraqi forces has just moved in, and the Sunnis are likely to reach the same agreement with them. A similar but more informal agreement exists in A'thamiya.

Leaders of the Sunni Endowment, which helps administer Sunni mosques, have asked MP Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to extend the Dawra agreement to all of Baghdad. "If the Iraqi forces come without American soldiers, people will shoot at them, because we'll know they're militias", said Akrim al-Dulaimi, the head imam of the Holy Mecca Mosque in Dawra, adding: "Civilians don't trust the government".

The Sunni fear of Shi'ite militias and government forces - and a growing affinity for US soldiers - extends to other mixed areas of Iraq. In Diyala Province, Sunni fighters and members of Jaysh al-Mahdi battle regularly. The town of Muqdadiya there is an epicentre of sectarian killings; on July 12, at least 20 people were abducted from a bus station and later found killed. In late June, gunmen set afire 17 shops in the town centre as the Iraqi Army stood by, said Hamdi Hassoun, a provincial council member and a Sunni. He added: "We have called on the Americans for help, we have called on the prime minister's office. The infiltration of the police and army is common".

Gunmen on July 19 kidnapped 20 Sunni employees of the Sunni Endowment, and the organisation suspended its work until further notice. At least 20 people were killed in a string of bombings and shootings on July 19, mostly in Baghdad. They included a senior Interior Ministry official slain on his way to work. Sixteen other people were found slain in widely separated parts of the country, apparently earlier victims of sectarian death squads. Two rockets exploded July 19 in the Green Zone, which houses the US and British embassies.

PM Maliki accused al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a Neo-Salafi group, of having targeted civilians because it was afraid to face Iraqi security forces. A Sunni Endowment spokesman Mahdi al-Mashhadani said the employees were seized as they drove from Baghdad to their homes in Taji just north of the capital. He said the agency would stop working immediately.

In a report released on July 17, the UN said 2,669 civilians were killed in May and 3,149 were killed in June. The report charts a month-by-month increase in the number of civilians killed, from 710 in January to 1,129 in April. In the first six months of the year, it said 14,338 people had been killed.

In a statement on July 19 Gen. Casey and Ambassador Khalilzad deplored the violence and encouraged Iraqis to implement Maliki's pledge to disband sectarian armed groups. They urged Iraqi leaders "to take responsibility and pursue reconciliation - not just in words, but through deeds as well".

In west Baghdad, gunmen killed Maj. Gen. Fakhir Abdul-Hussein Ali, legal adviser to the Interior Ministry. To the south, clashes erupted between gunmen and Iraqi security forces in the tense area between Yousufiya and Mahmodiya, another flashpoint of sectarian tension. A member of a Shi'ite party and two of his bodyguards on July 19 were gunned down on the highway between the two towns. One person was killed and five were kidnapped in Mahmudiya. A roadside bombing killed two people in Kirkuk, 290 km north of Baghdad. Three others were killed in smaller attacks in Baghdad and Yousufiya.

The violence came a day after a Neo-Salafi suicide bomber killed 53 people near a Shi'ite shrine in the city of Kufa, south of the capital and adjacent to Najaf, by luring a group of labourers into his van. The driver then detonated the vehicle on a busy street. A 24-hour driving ban imposed by the police in Kufa and Najaf to prevent attacks expired on July 19 amid relative calm, as shop owners began clearing debris.

PM Maliki, a Shi'ite, has urged all political groups to band together to halt violence, warning last week that this could be Iraq's last chance. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has called on religious leaders from both Sunni and Shi'ite sects to condemn violence, which he said aimed to destabilise the country.

Dozens of men went on a chaotic rampage through a mostly Shi'ite market area in Mahmudiya on July 17, killing at least 48 civilians and wounding scores by firing off assault rifles, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Many of the attackers wore the uniforms of Iraqi security forces. The attack and other violence on July 17 brought to nearly 100 the number of people killed in two days, marking one of the deadliest periods of the war since the appointment of the new government in late May.

An obscure guerrilla group, the Supporters of the Sunni People, posted an Internet message saying it had carried out the attack to avenge the July 9 massacre of Sunni civilians by Shi'ite militiamen in Baghdad's Jihad district. In protest, Shi'ite MPs of Sadr's group walked out of the House of Representatives.

Sadr's participation in the political process is considered indispensable in trying to build stability in Iraq. Iraqi forces and American soldiers appeared helpless to stop the bloodshed in Mahmudiya, arriving on the scene after the gunmen had already killed at least 48 people.

The volatile Mahmudiya falls under the watch of the First Battalion of the 502nd Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, the same US unit in which six soldiers have been implicated in the rape of an Iraqi girl in March and the murder of her, a younger sister and their parents.

"It has become obvious that the occupation forces are responsible for the devastation taking place in our country", senior Sadr MP Baha' al-A'raji said at a news conference. He said the Sadr bloc, which holds at least 30 of 275 legislative seats, was not permanently boycotting parliament, but had walked out of the July 17 session out of fury at both the massacre and recent US and British attacks on Sadr followers.

The assault in the Mahmudiya market took place around 9 am, as the streets were packed with shoppers and men going to cafes and teahouses. First came explosions from mortars or grenades. Then dozens of gunmen rolled up in cars and began walking through the market, shooting people left and right. Bodies lay strewn across the street and slumped in shops and restaurants. Men went into one house and shot and killed six people, including two women. The attack resembled the July 9 one in the Jihad area of Baghdad.

These incidents have raised fears among many Iraqis that the civil strife is about to erupt into full-blown war, with rounds of revenge killings, as in the Lebanese civil war or the Bosnian war. Mahmudiya has become an arena of sectarian combat, with Sunni fighters battling Shi'ite militiamen believed to be members of Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi.

Gunmen in vehicles resembling those of Iraqi security forces on July 16 kidnapped Adel Muhammad al-Qazaz, president of the Northern Oil Company (NOC), in Baghdad. The abduction, the second of high-profile government official in two days in Baghdad, underscored the danger that the most privileged Iraqi officials faced and the power of criminal groups who strike at them seemingly at will. In other attacks across Iraq on July 16, 31 people, including a British soldier in Basra, were killed by suicide bombers, roadside explosions or gunfire.

In the kidnapping incident, Qazaz was seized at about 3:30 pm after gunmen in two vehicles forced his car to stop and assaulted his bodyguards. Qazaz had just left a meeting at the Oil Ministry in Baghdad.

On July 15, scores of gunmen in masks and government-style camouflage uniforms stormed a meeting of the country's top sports administrators, abducting about 30 people including the president of the National Olympic Committee of Iraq. Six of those hostages were released on July 16 but the committee's president was not among them. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. But two Olympic Committee members, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect themselves from retaliation, said they believed the abduction may have been orchestrated by a group of Shi'ite militiamen intent on using the hostages to bargain for the release of a high-ranking militia commander captured by Iraqi and US forces nine days earlier.

The commander, known as Abu Der'a, ranks in the upper echelon of Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi. Na'eem al-Ka'bi, a member of the Sadr movement, was on July 17 quoted as saying the Sadrist group had not been involved in the kidnapping. One of the hostages released on July 16, Nash'at Maher, a former manager of the Iraqi military's sports teams, was dumped blindfolded on the side of a road in eastern Baghdad. Realising he had been abandoned, Mahir, 77, removed his blindfold and hailed a taxi.

The kidnappers also released a captain of al-Talaba soccer club, a driver and two government security guards. The sixth freed hostage was not identified. Sports teams have come under increasing threat across Iraq in the past year. In May, gunmen killed an Iraqi tennis coach and two of his players, apparently because they had been wearing shorts after Islamic fundamentalists had forbidden such clothing. A year ago, the body of the director of a local karate association was found floating in a river.

On July 16, suicide bombers and a series of armed attacks killed many people in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. The deadliest of them occurred in Tuz Khormato, a Turkish Shi'ite city 85 km south of Kirkuk, where a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a coffee shop, killing 19 people and wounding 24. On a highway south of Kirkuk, gunmen attacked a convoy of trucks transporting food, killing two drivers. In Mosul, a suicide car bomber attacked a US Army patrol, killing four civilians and wounding 10. No US soldiers were hurt.

US and Iraqi military forces captured a member of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and four other men during a raid in Yusufiyah on July 16. The Qaeda member is close to top leaders of the Neo-Salafi group in Iraq, officials said.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Operations in Oil Diplomacy
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Jul 24, 2006
Previous Article:Iranian Exiles Condemn US Overtures.
Next Article:IRAQ - Bakeries Hit.

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