x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

US troops may need to stay in Iraq's cities

A senior Iraqi official says he would support an extension of the military presence in parts of his country to prevent an upsurge in violence.

Children watch a US soldier yesterday in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where troops may be asked to remain past the June 30 withdrawal deadline.
Children watch a US soldier yesterday in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where troops may be asked to remain past the June 30 withdrawal deadline.

American troops may have to remain in violent cities such as Mosul and Baquba after the end of this month, despite plans for a complete US pull-out from urban areas, according to an official in one of Iraq's most powerful political parties. Mohammed al Gharawi, of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), the largest single party in Iraq's parliament and the group in control of the ministry of interior, said he would support an extension for the US military presence to prevent a worsening security situation. "There is the pull-out agreement and there is a schedule for that, but scheduling is related to developments on the ground," he said. "No Iraqi, in the government or among the people, wants foreign troops in Iraq. But we work hard to have the security and stability we now have and if the foreign troops need to stay in certain cities to maintain that, why not? "Then when all is secure, they can move out." A series of recent bombings in largely Shiite areas, and the assassination last week of Harith al Obaidi, a leading Sunni moderate, has raised fears of increased attacks by insurgents trying to re-ignite a sectarian war. Some of the attacks have been blamed on al Qa'eda-inspired Sunni extremists, others on Shiite militants. Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, has warned that anti-government forces will attempt more strikes before the end of the month, when US troops are due to leave urban zones and hand over control of all cities to Iraqi security forces. The commander of US forces in Iraq, Gen Ray Odierno, said on Monday that his units would stick to the pull-out timetable, declaring himself comfortable with the situation in Mosul. Ali al Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, said June 30 would be a day "written in Iraqi history", insisting that the timetable would be met. "The American troops will complete withdrawal by leaving some technical limited members for training purposes of Iraqi government." However, questions still remain about the readiness of the Iraqi army and police to counter an insurgency that, while diminished from 2007, remains powerful and capable of staging deadly attacks. If government troops do appear weak or incapable of preventing violence, it could bolster insurgents and undermine both Mr al Maliki's hold on power and the political process. National elections are scheduled to take place in January. Such concerns, said Mr al Gharawi, SIIC's long-time office director in Damascus, meant there was a case for US troops to stay on past the end of June. "Al Qa'eda works to have a sectarian civil war in Iraq, and the Iraqi people are aware of that, and we will not allow them to fulfill their agendas," he said. "Al Qa'eda uses the presence of foreign troops as the excuse to attack us and to attack Iraqis. They are not just targeting Shiites, they kill everyone who disagrees with them." The SIIC was established in exile in Iran in 1982 and subsequently worked to overthrow Saddam Hussein, a dream realised with the US-led invasion of 2003. Led by Abdul Aziz al Hakim and his son Ammar al Hakim, SIIC is a Shiite religious and political party that closely follows Iran's revolutionary Islamic ideology. These roots make it highly controversial within Iraq. Although part of the ruling elite, its nationalist critics accuse it of both taking orders from Tehran, and of supporting a US occupation of Iraq. Sunnis have also accused it of carrying a vindictive, violent purge of former regime officials and Baath Party members. Such claims were dismissed by Mr al Gharawi, who said the SIIC wanted good relations with all of Iraq's neighbours, although he did pay tribute to both Iran and Syria for the role they played in confronting Saddam's brutal regime. "We will never forget what the Islamic Republic of Iran did for us, just as we will never forget how Syria offered us sanctuary," he said. "Both supported us in the dark days." Opponents to the SIIC also claim it wields excessive power in Iraq, far out of proportion with its real level of grassroots support. It won the largest number of seats in the current Iraqi parliament in the 2005 national elections but fared less well in the provincial elections of January this year, losing control of provincial councils and losing ground to the Dawa Party of Mr al Maliki and more secular politicians. That turnaround was interpreted as a reaction against the incumbent provincial authorities, largely viewed as corrupt and ineffective. SIIC leaders, with their good connections to interior ministry forces, including the police, special commando squads and prisons, were additionally accused of using the powers of state, including arrests and detentions, to silence opponents. Mr al Gharawi described the provincial elections as a political setback to the SIIC but said they proved the vigour of Iraq's fledgling democracy. The party would not oppose freedom to vote in Iraq, even if that meant it lost more ground at the next elections, he said. "We support everything that helps the political process and if that means the Supreme Council doesn't win, that is OK," he said. "We are confident of our street level popularity, even if we don't hold a big number of provincial councils." This year's political defeats had led the SIIC to examine itself and reformulate tactics and policy in time for the January 2010 ballot. "We didn't win in the 2009 provincial elections and that will surely push us to review our policies. In general terms we feel we went backwards at the last set of elections but our popularity will be shown in the coming elections. "We are currently studying our weak points. This is like democracy in the West, in the US or Britain. The big parties come and go, they have a setback, they study and change." Iraqi intellectuals confirmed that in the wake of the January election defeat, the SIIC has been soul searching about its policies and methods. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, stung by heavy losses, city level SIIC leaders across the south of Iraq met with the local educated classes. "We were all afraid of the Supreme Council, you just wouldn't dare to criticise it in public," said Abu Mohammed, a teacher in Wasit province who was asked to attend a post-election SIIC meeting. "When they asked us to come talk to them, we were surprised. There were about 30 of us and the Supreme Council imam in our town just said, 'What are your criticisms of us, why didn't you support us; please, speak freely'." After initial reservations, Mr Mohammed said the gathered teachers, doctors, engineers and local government bureaucrats spoke freely, and there came an outpouring of complaints. "We told them [the SIIC] they were abusing their power, that people were afraid of them, that they were doing nothing to help the ordinary people, that they were working for Iran, that they were against democracy and that we all feared they were religious fanatics not secular. "The SIIC local leader didn't say anything, he just wrote everything down and then said, 'Thank you', I will be sure to convey that to our leadership'. We were all shocked, we expected something different. It was a very good sign, maybe the Supreme Council is changing." Despite his concerns over possibilities for rising violence, Mr al Gharawi said the worst days of sectarian violence were behind Iraq, and would not return. He also said efforts to reconcile former Baathists and Sunni groups, including the Sahwa or Awakening Councils, would continue.

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