Global Policy Forum

Iraq's Good Terrorists, Bad Terrorists


By Sami Moubayed

Asia Times
March 27, 2007

Aides at the office of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki recently said that "people at the US Embassy" had informed them that the United States will withdraw support from the Iraqi premier if benchmarks are not met by June 3. Only Zalmay Khalilzad, the outgoing US ambassador, could have delivered such a message. During his 21-month tenure in Iraq, Khalilzad has tried to get Maliki to court Iraq's Sunnis and bring them into the political process. Courting them, showing them respect and making them share power, he has argued, would also make them share in responsibility for a stable Iraq, and use their influence to curb or end the Sunni insurgency. Neither Khalilzad nor Maliki has been able to bring order or stability to Iraq. The Baghdad security plan, which started in February, was their brainchild. When Khalilzad arrived in Iraq, the death toll of US troops stood at 1,324. It has now reached 3,234. Over the past 12 months, nearly 35,000 Iraqis have been killed, at a rate of about 100 per day. More testimony of their failure was a suicide bombing this weekend in which 47 people at a Baghdad police station were killed.

Not only have security conditions deteriorated in the Khalilzad-Maliki era, so have social and humanitarian conditions. According to research by Dr Nadje al-Ali of the University of Exeter in England, "Everyday survival is a priority in a context where lack of security goes side-by-side with incredibly difficult living conditions." She refers to electricity shortages, a lack of clean drinking water, malfunctioning sanitation systems and a deteriorating health system. Iraq has also witnessed a rise in vaccine-preventable diseases, and the mortality rate for children under five, which was 5% in 1990 under Saddam Hussein, is now 12.5%. But neither US nor Iraqi officials admit to any failure or take blame for this chaos. Instead, they speak of ambitious security plans that to date have not resulted in any material progress for ordinary Iraqis. The baseless optimistic talk continues at every level of Iraqi officialdom. Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Ubeidi has said that Iraqi troops are "ready" to take control of Basra from the British in May, four months ahead of the scheduled date.

According to a report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), more than US$15 billion has been spent on training the Iraqi army, and the Pentagon says it has trained and equipped more than 327,000 Iraqi troops. Contrary to the defense minister's statement, however, the GAO report adds, "While the Iraqi security forces are increasingly leading counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, they and the coalition have been unable to reduce the levels of violence throughout Iraq." Saad Yusuf al-Matlabi, a senior official at the Ministry of State for National Dialogue, said government efforts to reconcile with the insurgents "are close to finalization". Sunni Vice President Tarek al-Hashemi has called for renewed talks with insurgents from the Sunni community, saying that everyone is welcome, except al-Qaeda. He stressed "everyone" in reference to the armed Shi'ite militias of Muqtada al-Sadr, who are accused of fighting Iraq's Sunnis since February 2006. Hashemi has every reason to be serious about his call. On Friday, his colleague, Salam al-Zubaie, a deputy prime minister, was badly wounded in a suicide attack.

The Sunni-Shi'ite divide - and more

In addition to Sunni-Shi'ite dialogue, however, there should be Sunni-Sunni and Shi'ite-Shi'ite dialogue. Reference to the Sunnis and Shi'ites as cohesive groups fighting one another is a great misinterpretation of Iraqi affairs. The Sunnis have two fronts that are starting to combat each other. One comprises tribal leaders and Ba'athists loyal to Saddam. The other is headed by al-Qaeda. A third Sunni party actually operates in Iraq, making use of the chaos to carrying out attacks against both Shi'ites, fellow Sunnis and Americans, and blaming it on one of other Sunni groups. The same applies to the Shi'ites. One front is headed by Muqtada's Mehdi Army, the other by the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). They have a common enemy in fundamentalist Sunnis but often quarrel among themselves over supremacy in Shi'ite politics. The Mehdi Army is also at blows with the Fadila Party, a smaller Shi'ite party that recently split from the ruling United Iraqi Alliance that is headed by the SCIRI. Last Thursday, Sadrists in Basra stormed the Fadila Party headquarters, then invaded the Fadila-led Electricity Office, expelling its officials and arresting its director because he had punished an employee who is a member of the Mehdi Army.

The Mehdi Army, which is close to Maliki, is seemingly at odds with everybody. Its leaders are hated by the Sunnis, the Americans, rival Shi'ites, the Kurds and even the Iranians because they object to the increasingly influential role of Tehran in Iraqi politics. Sunni Speaker of Parliament Mahmud al-Mashadani described them as a threat to Iraqi security, no less serious than al-Qaeda, saying they were responsible for the sectarian war that is raging in Iraq. The Sadrists responded with an official declaration that Mashadani no longer differentiates between resistance and terrorism.

The reality, however, is that Maliki, more than Mashadani, no longer differentiates between resistance and terrorism (which is relative depending on where one stands) but, more alarming, sees a difference between good terrorists and bad terrorists. To him, Sunni militias are bad, but the Badr Organization and the Mehdi Army, because they are Shi'ite nationalists, are tolerable. He has done nothing since the Baghdad security plan started to disarm either militia. Under pressure from Khalilzad he cracked down on some of their bases - particularly the Sadrists - and issued tough comments to the press on how he planned to deal with the militias. A media stunt was staged by Maliki and Muqtada, who disappeared shortly after the security plan started, ostensibly showing the world that he was afraid of Maliki's strict measures. It has been more than a month since the security plan began, yet the Mehdi Army is still there and still all-powerful in the slums of Baghdad.

Good terrorist, bad terrorist

Khalilzad is a friend of Iraq's Kurds, who are pro-American Sunnis, anti-insurgency, anti-Iran and anti-Shi'ite militias. He has encouraged the activities of Kurdish militias, particularly the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) operating against Turkey from Khaftanin and Qanimasi in northern Iraq. The PKK wants to create a Kurdish state out of southeastern Turkey, northeastern Iraq, northeastern Syria and northwestern Iran. The PKK rebellion, which has hit Turkey the hardest, has led to the deaths of 35,000 Turks (including 5,000 soldiers) and cost the Turks billions of dollars. These militias, because they are pro-American, are good militias, as far as Khalilzad is concerned. This patronage, and his latest farewell tour of Kurdistan, has set of red sirens in Turkey, which is threatening an all-out invasion of Iraq if PKK activity against its territory continues.

Senior US administrators have come out in recent days to assure the Turks that they will clamp down on PKK activity. That's what the Americans said last summer, to avert a similar showdown with Ankara. To date, however, the PKK in northern Iraq is alive and kicking, thanks to Khalilzad. And according to reports in the US media, the Bush administration is funding Iranian Kurds as well to destabilize the Iranian regime, making the threat to Turkey all the more serious. Abdullah Gul, the Turkish minister of foreign affairs, has said 3,800 PKK guerrillas operate from Iraq, under the watchful eye of the Americans, against southeastern Turkey. He said, "We will do what we have to do, we will do what is necessary. Nothing is ruled out. I have said to the Americans many times: suppose there is a terrorist organization in Mexico attacking America. What would you do?" Murat Karayilan, a PKK leader, acknowledged that the Turkish threat is real, and unless diverted, could lead to a "mad war".

This would be disastrous for Iraq and the United States and would certainly ruin Maliki. To date northern Iraq has been the most stable region since the US-led invasion in 2003. Violence in Kurdistan could spill over into more violence in central and southern Iraq. Last summer, Turkey mobilized 250,000 troops against the PKK (nearly double the number of US troops in Iraq), and Iran began attacking PKK offices in Iraq. Both countries cited self-defense, despite loud objections from Maliki. At the time, the Turkish message to Iraq was: "They [PKK] are the infiltrators and we are protecting our border. Do not allow the terror network to use your territory. Fight against the terrorists who will only terrorize you in the future."

Another communique issued by Turkey addressing the Iraqis read, "We are not considering ending our activity there [in Iraq] for as long as the PKK is also present and active in that area." General Hilmi Ozkok, commander of the Turkish army, asked whether Turkey planned to seek US permission before further invasions of Iraq, confidently replied, "We cannot take a decision of that kind based on the US. Every country is sovereign. Every country makes its own decisions. If the conditions change, you act by the changing conditions."

Then, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Ankara to get the Turks to back down. So did Iranian statesman Ali Larijani, however, who commented, "If the string breaks, and it is heading that way currently, it will not be possible to repair it. We are telling you this plainly now. Later, do not come and complain that we didn't warn you." While in Ankara, Larijani said he had documents proving US meetings with the PKK and asked: "If the US is fighting terrorism, why then is it meeting with the PKK?"

Although the US combated the PKK at one point, it has been very passive - and at times encouraging - toward its activities in northern Iraq. This pleases the Kurds, and the Americans are desperate for continued support within the Iraqi political community, since so many Shi'ites and Sunnis are at odds end with the US administration. Turkish media claim that PKK attacks on Turkey have in the past been authorized by the Americans and the two prominent Kurdish leaders in Iraq, US-backed President Jalal Talabani and Masoud al-Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Continued PKK activity, while the rest of Iraq is falling apart, raises more questions about the seriousness of both Khalilzad and Maliki. The PKK cannot be acting at will, without an okay from the Americans. Nor can it operate without approval from Barzani. If it is getting a green light from the Iraqis and the Americans, how can Maliki and company claim a security plan for Baghdad when the rest of Iraq might erupt into new violence? All of this casts serious doubt on Khalilzad, who has been widely praised in the Western media for his efforts in stabilizing Iraq. It also further tarnishes Maliki's credibility. If the Americans indeed gave him a deadline of June 3 to stabilize Iraq and meet his benchmarks, he will fail at achieving it as long as Iraq is governed with the mentality of "good terrorist, bad terrorist".

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