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Security Most Important Issue for New Iraqi Government

  • Scott Bobb

In Iraq, a string of suicide bomb attacks, which have killed dozens of Iraqis, underscore the continuing lack of security, two years after the fall of former dictator Saddam Hussein. Most Iraqis say security should be the number-one priority of the government, which was elected in January.

Oum Fadl, 70, lives with a relative in a small house in Baghdad, just across the Tigris river from the fortified Green Zone that houses the Iraqi interim government.

For Oum Fadl, the violence that plagues Iraq hit close to home, the other night. Standing in her back yard, clutching her black headscarf, she describes how she was watching television when there was a loud explosion and all the windows in the house shattered onto the floor.

A Katushin rocket shell, aimed at the Green Zone, had smashed through the orange trees in her yard and crashed against the back wall. No one was hurt and no one claimed responsibility.

In subsequent days gunmen struck a nearby shop, killing several workers and customers. And, a suicide bomber blew up a car beside an American patrol, injuring several U.S. soldiers.

Thousands of civilians and more than 1,200 foreign soldiers have been killed in such incidents since American-led forces overthrew Saddam Hussein two years ago.

A senior advisor to Iraq's interior minister, Sabah Kadhim, says a great deal of the violence is by ordinary criminals. He notes that security began to deteriorate during the economic sanctions of the 1990's, when unemployment surpassed 50 percent and some Iraqis turned to crime to survive.

"It [criminality] was compounded by the release of [by] Saddam of major crime syndicates in 2002," said Mr. Kadhim. "After the release of these people, you had the war and the whole of Iraq was open in terms of arms and looting."

The violence further increased after the war, as Iraqis settled old scores amidst a general collapse of law and order.

Baghdad's central morgue says it received more than 8,000 murder victims last year, 2,000 more than in 2003 and four times higher than in 2002, the final year of the Saddam regime.

Experts acknowledge that many attacks are criminal, but say that some of the deadliest are by groups resisting the new Iraqi government and the foreign troops that back it.

The resistance is said to be spearheaded by members of the minority Sunni Arab group, which dominated political life under Saddam and opposes the new government led by Shi'ite Arabs and Kurds.

A representative of Sunni groups that boycotted the elections but reject violence, Professor Naebil Younis, says most Sunnis condemn terrorist acts that kill innocent civilians, such as attacks against aid groups, embassies, mosques and churches. But they take a different view of attacks against what he calls the occupying forces.

"When they see any act against the American troops or any other foreign troops, they say this is an act of national resistance, which is legal and legitimate," he said.

A Sunni politician who participated in the elections and won a seat in the assembly, Mishan al-Juburi, says to counter this violence, Iraqi leaders must address the alienation felt by many Sunnis.

He says that opening a dialogue with disaffected Sunni leaders would help reduce the violence.

Iraq's newly elected leaders have been trying to include Sunnis in the new government, although they won less than 20 seats in parliament. They want them to help draft a new constitution.

They hope that leaders of the resistance can be persuaded to participate in the political process and abandon violence.

Political leaders are less optimistic about negotiating with international terrorists who have infiltrated Iraq by the thousands.

These groups, who claim to be fighting a holy war backed by the al-Qaeda network, have executed scores of hostages and killed thousands of civilians through suicide bombings.

Interior Ministry advisor Sabah Kadhim believes that the strength of these groups has declined because of several government offensives.

"Their program has been disrupted substantially," said Mr. Kadhim. "The evidence is what they seem to do lately. Their tactics now go for the spectacular type of operations, so it's very much a media operation on their part with limited resources."

A leader of the Shi'ite coalition in parliament, Ali al-Dabbagh, says the best way to counter the work of Islamic extremists is to educate people that true Islam advocates peace and tolerance.

"I don't think that they will go to zero, but we will minimize, isolate them from the people," he said. "And, finally they will find themselves minorities and having less effect on the people."

The head of the Iraq Foundation for Democracy and Development, Ghassan al-Attiyah, says the security problem in Iraq is merely a symptom of the real problem, which he says is political.

"Once you find a political solution, then gradually you will find a way to overcome the question of security. This doesn't mean that some terrorist acts will disappear totally but the question of security will be much easier to overcome," said Mr. al-Attiyah.

Professor al-Attiyah says force is not enough to counter terrorism. Political vision and national reconciliation are necessary. He says the process of drafting a new constitution could provide the opportunity for a political solution.

Many observers, however, believe that some violent groups will never join the political process. And, as a result, they say that, in addition to negotiations, a strong government and an effective security apparatus will be needed to control the violence.