Suspected fighters vent frustrations

When dozens of suspected fighters showed up for a so-called peace conference in Baquba on Tuesday, they told the governor sponsoring it why they would not lay down their weapons ahead of elections.

    Baquba residents were asked not to speak against elections

    Midnight raids by US and Iraqi forces that rudely awaken women and children in the conservative Arab country were
    unacceptable.

    Arbitrary arrests and unemployment were driving more men,
    young and old, to the insurgency.

    When the suspected guerrillas and their sympathisers were
    handed an oath of non-violence, few asked "where do I sign"?

    Many of the men - from clerics and tribal leaders to ex-army
    officers and professionals - just wanted to know when US forces would leave.

    "I will not sign because if I sign I will have to stick to it," said Ahmad al-Obaidi, who said he was accused of being a fighter, and hinted that he actually was.

    "I would have signed it if it said no attacks on Iraqi forces, but no attacks on US forces when they are occupying the country?"

    The men were seeking money and jobs, not promises of
    prosperity and security almost two years after U.S. troops
    invaded.

    As they aired their grievances to the governor, police chief
    and a senior Iraqi National Guard officer, armed US troops
    lining the walls of the room looked on.

    American diplomats sat in the back and listened.

    Growing frustrations

    A US soldier detains witnesses
    to a shooting near Baquba

    One day earlier, gunmen killed eight Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint near Baquba, whose governor, Abdallah al-Jibouri,
    said he had survived 14 assassination attempts. The violence prompted him to look for new ways of ending the bloodshed.

    "Some of them have been deceived and some have done it for money. They sign a piece of paper saying they are no longer insurgents," said Jibouri.

    He said those who sign gain amnesty, making them eligible
    for jobs in a grim town where thousands were left unemployed
    after Iraq's former US occupation power disbanded the army.

    The oath, printed in Arabic and English, committed signatories not to participate in or support any attacks against Iraqi security forces, the government or US-led troops.

    It demands they pledge not to support acts of violence or intimidation against voters during the 30 January polls and not to speak against US-led and Iraqi forces or the elections.

    Freedom of speech

    Those at the conference were sceptical.

    "This pledge commits you to not even speak against the Americans. I cannot sign it," said cleric Fuad Attia, 40.

    "If I call from my mosque for occupation forces to leave my
    country does that make me a terrorist? Is this the freedom and democracy they are bringing us?"

    The conference was the third of its kind in Baquba, a mixed city of Sunni and Shia Muslims 65km north of the capital.

    But most of those invited to the conference were Sunnis, like Jasim al-Obaidi, who has felt increasingly marginalised since the U.S.-led invasion.

    "I was arrested by the Americans and spent five months in
    Abu Ghraib (prison) because they accused me of being a Wahhabi," said the 64-year-old former army officer, referring to radical groups blamed for many bombings and hostage beheadings.

    "I may be a Baathist, but I am not a Wahabi. They have raided my house three times since then. I live across the road
    from a National Guard station. Every time someone attacks it
    they raid my house."

    Some Iraqis say the Americans and the government should not assume all rebels are radicals determined to derail the elections. But night-time raids, checkpoints and arbitrary
    arrests are merely creating more enemies.

    "The raids happen around 3am," said shopkeeper Muhammad
    Kamil. "We open the door before then so they don't knock it
    down."

    SOURCE: Reuters


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