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Endgame in Iraq

N the weeks preceding the installation of the partially sovereign Iraqi government under Prime Minster Ayad Allawi, chaos and violence has escalated across the country. Top officials of the new government are targeted relentlessly. Staying alive seems to have become a priority of the officials running the new government. In the third week of June, the head of security of Northern Oil Company in Kirkuk was killed. He was a close relative of the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani. In the same week, Kamal Jarrah, the number two in the Education Ministry and Bassam Salih Kubba, the Deputy Foreign Minister, were also assassinated.

The turbulence had its repercussions in Saudi Arabia, where foreigners, especially Americans and British nationals, are being targeted by extremists. The beheading of a South Korean civilian working for a defence contractor by insurgents in late June hogged the headlines. The resistance forces had demanded the withdrawal of South Korean troops from Iraq. The decision by the South Korean government to send more troops to Iraq seems to have sealed the fate of the innocent South Korean. Saboteurs hit oil pipelines exporting Iraqi crude, bringing the oil industry to a standstill for more than a week. Allawi has estimated the losses to the petroleum industry as more than $1 billion.

Allawi is threatening to crack down on the resistance. He is also trying to acquire a Saddam-like image of an authoritarian ruler. In his first press conference after having been anointed to the job, Allawi said that he intended to use extraordinary methods to counter the insurgency. "We will do all we can to strike against enemy forces aiming at harming our country, and we will not stand by with our hands tied," Allawi told the media in Baghdad. He also said that for the foreseeable future, the Iraqi army and security services would be battling insurgents rather than securing the borders of the country. The Americans will continue to have around 150,000 troops in Iraq. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will have more than 1,000 Americans in its pay. They will be the real power behind the scenes after the so-called transfer of sovereignty on June 30. Every Iraqi Ministry will have at least one key American adviser.

Not surprisingly, Allawi supported the American missile attacks on a building housing civilians in the volatile city of Falluja. Twenty-two civilians, including women and children, were killed in the first attack. Another attack followed a week later. In the brutal attack, launched in April, more than 750 civilians were killed. As American casualties mount, there are signs that the U.S. army is once again planning to renew the offensive against resistance strongholds such as Falluja. Members of the disbanded Iraqi Army, which fought the Americans for Saddam Hussein, have now been invited to rejoin the security services. Re-Ba'athification of the Iraqi government and army seems to have gained momentum. Allawi has said that the disbanding of the Iraqi Army by the American occupation forces was a "big mistake". Former Ba'athists have now more seats in the new Cabinet than those representing religious parties.

The new government has also threatened to introduce "emergency rule". Allawi has a reputation for ruthlessness. He started his political career as a Ba'ath Party enforcer. He progressed to become a senior official in the Iraqi secret police - the Mukbarat. After his defection in the early 1980s, Allawi became a full-time employee of the CIA and had a hand in the bombing campaign against Iraqi civilians in the mid-1990s. One such attack targeted schoolchildren in a bus.

Allawi will have to tread warily now as not many Iraqis have a high opinion of him. Results of an opinion poll published in the third week of June showed that the most popular figure among Iraqis continued to be the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, closely followed by the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The rise in Sadr's popularity has a lot to do with the uprising his Mahdi militia launched against the American occupation. That uprising filled the political and military vacuum that had been created in southern Iraq. The other major Shia groupings that were accommodated by the Americans in the power structure in Baghdad have seen their popularity erode after Sadr audaciously launched the uprising. The Americans had at one time threatened to capture the young cleric "dead or alive". Many attempts were made on his life. However, despite his forces absorbing a lot of punishment, his militia fought on and he continued with his fiery Friday sermons urging "jehad" against the Americans.

Sadr suddenly changed tack in mid-June and accepted a cessation of hostilities in the holy city of Najaf where the Mahdi militia had engaged the American forces for several weeks. When the plans for the transfer of sovereignty were first announced, Sadr severely them and refused to recognise the authority of the government led by Allawi. Now, with tacit American approval, the new government in Baghdad has given Sadr the green signal to form his own party and participate in politics. His supporters may find a place in the new government. The Mahdi militia has, however, not disarmed and seem prepared for any eventuality. One of the most radical anti-occupation groupings - the Sunni-dominated Islamic Front for Iraqi Resistance - has described the government led by Allawi as the facade for the "hidden occupation" by Americans.

The Allawi government, in a bid to advertise its independence, had demanded the immediate handing over of Saddam Hussein to its custody. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that the continued detention of the Iraqi ruler was illegal under the Third Geneva Convention. The Americans are technically required to release Saddam Hussein because of his prisoner of war status before the restoration of limited sovereignty in Iraq. "In theory, when a war ends and when an occupation ends, the detaining force has to release prisoners of war," the chief spokesperson of the ICRC said in Geneva in the third week of June. The legal director of Human Rights Watch said that prisoners of war should be released at the end of the conflict or occupation if they were not charged with any crimes.

The new Iraqi government claims that Saddam Hussein will be handed over to it by the U.S.-led Provisional Authority. The director of Iraq's war crimes tribunal, Salem Chalabi, a cousin of Ahmad Chalabi, has already said that Saddam Hussein would face the death penalty if found guilty of war crimes and human rights abuses. If he is handed over by the American authorities to the present Iraqi government, he will be facing a murderous mob.

Internationally, very little credibility is given to the government that will be ostensibly running Iraq from July 1. Reports emerging from Washington talk about an alternative scenario for Iraq being envisaged in the corridors of power there. The more realistic officials in the Bush administration seem to have reconciled to a military and political setback in Iraq. Israel, Washington's closest ally and at one time the most enthusiastic backer of the Iraq adventure, is now actively working towards the balkanisation of Iraq. The American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who has access to the top echelons of the American and Israeli political establishments, has written that the Israeli government is betting on the creation of an "independent" Kurdistan that will be carved out of northern Iraq. The plan, which is said to have the support of the "neoconservatives" in the Bush administration, is to amalgamate Mosul and Kirkuk into a Kurdish zone. Kirkuk is the country's most important oil centre.

According to reports coming out of northern Iraq, ethnic-cleansing is already under way. Arab residents in many of the smaller towns in the north have been forced out and thousands of them are living in squalid refugee camps. Observers of the Iraqi scene feel that if the Kurdish militias forcibly try to expel non-Kurds from big cities like Kirkuk and Mosul, there will be blood-letting on a massive scale. As of now, Arabs and Turks constitute the majority in the two key oil cities. Hersh quotes former Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Barak as telling U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney that the only option for the Americans "was choosing the size of your humiliation". A senior foreign diplomat of European origin, who until recently was posted in Amman, told this correspondent that the Israelis had moved into Iraq in a big way, buying up real estate in Kirkuk, Mosul and Baghdad, exploiting their long-standing relationship with the two Kurdish factions, which today have enormous clout in Iraq.

Hersh quotes a senior American intelligence officer as saying that the Israeli priority after June 30 "is to build up Kurdish commando units to balance the Shiite militias - especially those who would be hostile to the kind of order in southern Iraq that Israel would like to see". The Kurdish militias will also be used to fight the Sunni militias, which are even more opposed to Israel than Saddam Hussein was. The Turkish government, which until recently was very close to Israel, is known to be alarmed at the developments in its backyard. The Kurds are claiming large swathes of territory in Turkey, Iran and Syria as part of Kurdistan. Many of Washington's European allies like Germany have warned that the creation of a new state in West Asia will have extremely damaging repercussions in the region and beyond.

Israeli intelligence officers told Hersh that they had trained Kurdish commandos to kill and eliminate the leadership guiding the Iraqi resistance. Israeli intelligence agents are also fomenting trouble in neighbouring Syria and Iran, using northern Iraq as a springboard. Hersh said that some Israeli agents along with Kurdish commandos have crossed the border into Iran to install sensors and other sensitive devices. The capture and brief detention of British navy men who crossed into Iranian waters along the Shat-al-Arab waterway in late June reflects Iranian anxiety about the activities along its borders. The British patrol boats intercepted by the Iranian Navy were carrying a lot of guns and high-tech equipment.

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