|The latest wave of attacks puts Iraq’s stability in question as US troops prepare to pull out [AFP]|
A number of prominent Iraqi politicians and analysts are voicing concern that the national army will be unable to secure the country in the absence of US troops which could enable neighbouring countries to interfere in the country’s internal affairs.
Despite some of the concerns, Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, insists that the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraqi cities proves that Iraq can handle its own security, despite a recent spike in bombings in the past month.
“We are on the threshold of a new phase that will bolster Iraq’s sovereignty. It is a message to the world that we are now able to safeguard our security and administer our internal affairs,” he said in a televised event on June 27.
He has called on Iraqis to mark June 30 as a national holiday earmarked as Sovereignty Day.
Usama al-Nujaifi, an Iraqi MP from the Iraqi Nationalist List said: “We think Iraqi forces are not up to the standards of maintaining Iraq’s sovereignty and dignity and this could jeopardise Iraq’s security.”
In November 2008, the Iraqi and US governments signed the Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa) which stipulates the withdrawal of US troops from Iraqi cities to several bases throughout the country on June 30, 2009.
While Iraqi forces step in to take charge of security in the cities, the US army will be tasked with securing Iraq’s borders and airspace until its full withdrawal in December 2011.
Saad Qandil, a member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is part of the Shia-majority ruling coalition, thinks declaring and celebrating national sovereignty is premature.
“We know it is not full sovereignty, but it is a step in the right direction. We are still looking forward for the full withdrawal of all foreign troops.”
Dhafir al-Ani, an opposition member of the parliament and head of the al-Tawafuq Party, the largest Sunni bloc (44 seats out of 275 seats), agrees with Qandil.
He said: “Sovereignty means you are capable of free decision-making, defending your national soil, airspace and waters. Iraq is definitely far from achieving all this, I think the title of ‘sovereignty day’ should be reserved until we achieve the full sovereignty.”
|Al-Nujaifi: Iraqi forces are not up to the standards of maintaining Iraq’s sovereignty|
For the first time since the March 2003 US-led invasion, Iraqi security forces and the army will take sole responsibility for overcoming security challenges posed by local militias, groups like al-Qaeda and foreign infiltrators.
Although the Iraqi security situation has improved somewhat since 2006, hundreds of Iraqi civilians and a number of US soldiers have been killed in a recent spate of attacks.
Major General Qassim Atta, the commander of Baghdad security operations, believes that cadres of the outlawed Baath Party, al-Qaeda and “extreme religious groups” are responsible for the latest wave of attacks in Iraq.
“It is not only al-Qaeda, there are networks calling themselves al-Naqshabandiya, the Baath Party and foreign-backed organisations, all of them aim at defeating the government and foiling the political process,” he said.
Khudair al-Murshidi, the spokesperson for the Baath Party in exile, strongly denied that his organisation was behind any of the attacks and accused the government of “distorting the facts”.
Uncertainty remains, however, over whether US troops will fully withdraw from Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, 380km north of Baghdad.
The multi-ethnic city has been plagued by near-daily violence from al-Qaeda and other militia groups. According to local police and media reports, kidnappings, assassinations, and roadside bomb attacks have largely continued unabated in Mosul while security has noticeably improved in other parts of the country.
There are fears that ethnic tensions between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen could be exacerbated now that the Iraqi army as well as peshmerga troops, the Kurdish paramilitary force, patrol Mosul.
In three separate incidents in Mosul and on the outskirts of the city, seven Iraqi security troops, including a Kurdish peshmerga, were killed while trying to defuse roadside bombs.
Fearing Iranian influence
Some Iraqi parties have voiced concern that the withdrawal of US troops from urban centres could enable regional powers such as Iran to play a greater role in Iraq’s domestic affairs.
The Iraqi Nationalist List’s al-Nujaifi says he believes the US withdrawal “is a deal with Iran; in return Iran would help them in resolving regional issues like Afghanistan.”
He believes Iran’s influence on the Shia-majority Baghdad government “means Tehran will dominate the political scene in Iraq”.
But US officials say the Sofa withdrawal pact was reached only after intense negotiations with Baghdad which culminated in a signing ceremony between Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador on November 16, 2008.
The Iraqi parliament then went into session to hear fierce debate on the agreement with several Shia and Sunni parliamentary blocs voicing their disapproval.
On November 27, 2008 parliament ratified the security agreement, but only after al-Maliki granted a concession to hold a referendum on the US withdrawal in July 2009.
Nabil Ali, a Jordanian expert on Iranian affairs, believes the lack of Arab diplomatic involvement in Iraq has also made the country more susceptible to Iranian influence.
“I think the Arabs should now reconsider being in Iraq through their embassies and economic and cultural activities.”
Hasan Zada, the chief editor of Mehr News Agency, an Iranian government-owned news agency, denies Iranian ambitions in Iraq.
He said: “Iran is a friend and neighbour of Iraq. The Iranian government would never think of intervening in Iraq’s internal issues. All that the Islamic Republic of Iran wants is to see the US army leaving Iraq.”