Race for Baghdad

Published : Jan 26, 2007 00:00 IST

A MAN SIFTS through the rubble of a destroyed house on Haifa Street, Baghdad, a day after sectarian clashes rocked the city. The government said Iraqi and U.S. forces killed 50 people in operations that day.-STRINGER/REUTERS

A MAN SIFTS through the rubble of a destroyed house on Haifa Street, Baghdad, a day after sectarian clashes rocked the city. The government said Iraqi and U.S. forces killed 50 people in operations that day.-STRINGER/REUTERS

With the endgame nearing and the sectarian divide deepening, insurgent groups are making all-out efforts to take control of the capital.

THE latest statistics from the Iraqi Health Ministry put the number of Iraqi deaths in the latter half of 2006 at more than 17,000. This reflects a sharp increase in the numbers of those killed; in the first half of the year, the official Iraqi death toll was around 5,600. Everybody agrees that the dramatic rise in civilian deaths is the result of the civil war ignited by the bombing of the mosque in Samarra in February 2006. In a report published in November, the United Nations put the number of the Iraqi deaths at 28,000 in the first 10 months of 2006. Iraq Body Count, a Britain-based research group, is of the view that the numbers given out about Iraqi deaths are underrepresented because many civilian deaths go unreported. The prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, concluded in an article published in October 2006 that more than 600,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the violence unleashed by the United States-led invasion.

With the sectarian strife deepening, the numbers of those killed, even if one goes by the Iraqi Health Ministry's estimates, have more than tripled. Most of the killings have happened in and around the capital, Baghdad. With the endgame nearing in Iraq, different insurgent groups are each making desperate bids to take control of the city and thus hold decisive sway over the future of the country.

In the last couple of months Sunnis seem to be fighting with their backs to the wall. Various militias of the numerically superior Shias have infiltrated the security forces and the decks are stacked in their favour. An average of 50 bodies are brought to Baghdad morgues each day and most of them are of Sunnis. Things are so bad in the capital that even hospitals are separated on "confessional" lines.

The main rationale advanced by the Bush administration for the "surge" in American troops in the country is that more soldiers are needed to pacify the capital. A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office released in the second week of January stated that the American-supervised Iraqi army had not succeeded in curtailing violence: "Rather, attacks increased throughout 2006. Although more Iraqi troops have been trained and equipped, high absenteeism and divided loyalties have limited their overall effectiveness." Another report prepared by the U.S. Central Command and leaked to The New York Times described Iraq as a country heading towards "chaos". An intelligence summary concluded: "[V]iolence was at an all-time high, [and] spreading geographically."

It is not only Baghdad that burns. The fighting in Diyala province, where the population is evenly divided between Shias and Sunnis, has been described as fierce and more than 9,000 people have been killed. In the Sunni and Turkmen-dominated city of Mosul, more than 70,000 Kurds have fled. Towns near Baghdad such as Balad and Mahmudiyah witness fighting on an almost daily basis.

The U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) made an emergency appeal in the second week of January for $60 million to help Iraqi refugees fleeing from the bloodshed. In its report the agency said that two million Iraqis now lived outside their country as refugees and a further 1.7 million had been internally displaced. "The current exodus is the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East [West Asia] since the displacement of Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948," a statement from the UNHCR said. The agency noted that half a million Iraqis became refugees in 2006 following the bloody upsurge in fighting and that "unremitting violence in Iraq will likely mean continued mass internal and external displacement affecting much of the surrounding region".

There are credible reports that U.S. forces are tacitly backing Shia death squads, which have been busy cleansing Baghdad's Sunni areas. A spokesman for the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said recently that the U.S. was trying "to inflame a civil war". Sadr forthrightly stated in early January that if he had the power to issue a fatwa, he would order "a ban" on the killing of "our Sunni brothers". An influential Iranian cleric, Ahmad Khatami, told worshippers in Teheran at Friday prayers in the second week of January that "America's method is to start sectarian differences. They want to use Saddam's death to portray divisions among Shias and Sunnis."

The so-called "Baghdad security plan" was implemented following a teleconference between U.S. President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki in late December. Sunni groups say that the plan is meant to drive out their kinfolk from Baghdad. The once cosmopolitan city is now under the control of the Shias. Fifty of the 51 senior officials involved in administering the capital are Shias and the security forces, which were created and trained by the Americans, are heavily infiltrated by Shia militias. The Association of Muslim Scholars, a prominent Sunni clerical group, alleged that it had credible information linking senior Iraqi government officials with Shia militias involved in the attacks on Sunni neighbourhoods. The Association said that it held "the current Iraqi government and the occupation forces responsible for any injustice against Iraqi people".

The Iraqi Interior Ministry is under the control of the Shia Badr militia. The Badr militia owes allegiance to one of the major Shia parties - the Supreme Command of the Islamic Revolution (SCIRI). The Ministry, according to reports appearing in the media, runs unauthorised jails where prisoners can be held without charge under the control of a Special Interrogations Unit. When John Negroponte, currently U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, was the U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad two years ago, he presided over what was described by the American media as the "Salvador Option". That is, U.S. military officials trained members of the biggest Shia militias to target the leadership and support network of the Sunni resistance.

Anthony Cordesman, a respected American military analyst, wrote recently that the situation in Iraq had "evolved to the point that the most serious threat to stability now seems to be a form of `soft ethnic cleansing' that relies on pressures, threats, blackmail, and kidnappings as well as actual killings". Negroponte, who was ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, was reputed to be the godfather of the "death squads" that operated against left-wing groups in the Central American country at the height of the Cold War.

It is therefore no surprise that many Iraqis, especially Sunnis, view the "surge" of American troops in Iraq as a last-ditch attempt to put Shia and Kurdish forces friendly to Washington in the key positions of power. As part of the game plan, Sunnis are being driven out of Baghdad and forced to settle in the Sunni triangle area. The fear is that if the plan succeeds it could lead to the de jure partition of Iraq, with the Kurds in the north seceding. Many senior American officials are known to favour this scenario. At this juncture only the Kurds are certain to follow American diktats in the region; if the Kurds take over the oil centre of Kirkuk, an independent Kurdistan will be able to join the ranks of oil-exporting states.

Most Iraq watchers, however, are of the opinion that the creation of an independent Kurdish state will remain a pipe dream. Most nations in the region are vehemently against the Kurds breaking away. Turkey, a close military ally of the U.S., has said that it will deploy forces if the Kurds in northern Iraq declare independence. Reports in the American and Arab media state that Saudi Arabia is preparing to fund and arm the beleaguered Sunnis in Iraq. Such a move would further complicate the situation and send sectarian violence spiralling beyond Iraq's borders.

In a statement made in the first week of January, French President Jacques Chirac, who has remained steadfast in his opposition to U.S. intervention in Iraq, said that the stability of the entire region had been undermined. He said that the war had "offered terrorism a new field for expansion" while "exacerbating between the communities and threatening the very integrity of Iraq".

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