Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Iraqi Cleric Is Wild Card for Washington

WASHINGTON - The United States is adamant it wants to hand over political control to Iraqis on July 1. The Iraqis are adamant they want to take control then. The big question is how committed Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani is to that day.

The U.S. insistence on the transition date has given the Iraqi cleric enormous leverage as the United States begins a final push toward Iraqi sovereignty.

The most powerful cleric for Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims, al-Sistani has already stepped into Iraq's political process at three key junctures. Each time, he forced the U.S.-led coalition now running Iraq to revise or delay its plans.

American officials appear leery of challenging him openly, but haven't been able to talk to him directly, either.

The July 1 deadline could be the most critical moment yet. Any significant delay could raise doubts about the U.S. commitment to restoring Iraqi control, possibly fueling anti-American violence. The Bush administration also wants a peaceful transition well before the U.S. presidential election.

With al-Sistani's support, the transition could go smoothly. But it could be derailed if he's dissatisfied.

Al-Sistani may choose to use that leverage carefully. Iraqis want to regain control of their country and al-Sistani, who has proven to be pragmatic and politically astute, may not want to be seen as standing in the way.

U.S. officials say they are not worried about him impeding the handover. But they do recognize his importance.

"He needs to be consulted and that's what we're trying to do," said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I wouldn't really put it in the category of a problem. He's one of the people that we know we need to work with."

But working with al-Sistani isn't easy. He refuses to meet with U.S. officials. And he has frustrated Americans by not publicly expressing his views on key issues until after decisions have been made.

Marina Ottaway, a post-conflict reconstruction specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said al-Sistani "is increasing the uncertainty of a process that was uncertain to begin with."

U.S. officials "do not challenge him openly because they are afraid he will issue a fatwa (edict) telling Shiites to resist the occupation," she said.

Some Americans may find it unsettling to watch the United States nervously await the edicts of a reclusive Iranian-born Shiite cleric. It doesn't help that al-Sistani, with his black eyebrows, white beard and black turban, bears a resemblance to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's late revolutionary leader.

But al-Sistani is no Khomeini. He shuns a direct involvement in politics. He has accepted a temporary U.S. occupation as a step toward building a democracy that would likely favor Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population.

Al-Sistani "might well be America's biggest ally in Iraq," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director of the International Crisis Group, a think tank based in Belgium.

"He has held the Shiites at bay," he said. "He has told them not to attack the Americans with arms, or go into violent opposition. He has restrained the Shiites whenever the Shiites were attacked in the suicide bombings.

"Very few Shiite cleric leaders could have done that," Hiltermann said.

Al-Sistani's role in sidetracking U.S. plans has been difficult to characterize.

Danielle Pletka, a Middle East analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said, "Either he is a genuine, religious Iraqi patriot — of Iranian origin — or he is a very shrewd political operator. Or perhaps he's both."

Every time al-Sistani has become involved, Pletka said, "You say to yourself, `Who is this pain?' And in every aftermath you look back and say he really didn't play a pernicious role. It's actually been interesting. He's never pushed too far."

Al-Sistani has met with U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, and U.S. officials hope the United Nations will help form the interim government to run Iraq until elections are held.

Iraqis, though, have not invited Brahimi's team to return. Some Shiites on the Iraqi Governing Council see the team as representing U.S. interests, but Brahimi said Tuesday that al-Sistani has informed the United Nations that he wants it to play a role.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Iraq Constitution Faces Tough Critics

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's interim constitution faces powerful critics: two influential ayatollahs, the leader of a Shiite party and other Iraqis who dismiss it as the work of the United States and its Iraqi allies.

The criticism again places post-Saddam Hussein Iraq at a crossroads — whether to allow sectarian politics to prevail and put the nation's unity at risk, or close ranks and continue toward democratic rule.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the most influential cleric for Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, initiated the latest political wrangling. His objections to the interim charter prompted his supporters on the 25-seat Governing Council to refuse to sign it as scheduled March 5.

Citing a pressing need to safeguard national unity and push forward the political process, they signed Monday, but made clear they have reservations about parts of the document and their wish to change them.

Al-Sistani hardened his opposition to the document Monday. On Tuesday, another grand ayatollah, Mohammed Taqi al-Modaresi, warned of civil war or the dismemberment of Iraq because of the charter's adoption of a federal system of government. Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the largest Shiite political party, said the document encroached on the powers of a future parliament.

Many Iraqis appear divided on the constitution, which for the first time guarantees their freedom and human rights. Some have celebrated its adoption, some rejected it, and some said they didn't know its contents.

"I did not understand the interim constitution. Most people don't," said Amir Ali, a university official in Baghdad. "It was America who wrote the constitution. It was America who nominated those to write it."

In a fatwa, or religious edict, issued Monday, al-Sistani said the interim charter would only gain legitimacy if adopted by an elected body. He described the document as an "obstacle" to Iraq's permanent constitution, which will be drafted by a parliament elected by Jan. 31, 2005, and put to a referendum later in the year.

In an unusually blunt statement, al-Modaresi, who lives in the holy city of Karbala, said clauses pertaining to federalism in the charter were "a time bomb that will lead to a civil war in Iraq." Referring to the 14-year-old self-rule enjoyed by Kurds in three northern provinces, he said: "This federalism will end up breaking up Iraq and lead to a civil war."

Al-Hakim, a Governing Council member and leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said Iraqi society was cohesive enough to prevent civil war, but added: "Our main problem lies with the imposition of restrictions set by an unelected body on an elected body.

"No one believes that this document reflects perfection or embodies the ambitions of everyone," he said.

Like fellow Shiite politicians, al-Hakim tried to allay fears that Shiites wanted to use their newfound powers to dominate Iraq after decades of oppression at the hands of the Sunni Arab minority. He and other Shiites on the council, he said, would try to reach a consensus on amending the clauses in question.

Conciliatory rhetoric by Shiite leaders does little to conceal the fierce competition between the nation's three main groups — Kurds, Shiites and Sunni Arabs — to gain leverage ahead of the June 30 transfer of power to Iraqis by the U.S.-led coalition. At stake is the Shiites' cherished dream of political power, the Kurds' desire to formalize self-rule in their areas, and the Sunni Arabs' struggle to stay politically relevant without Saddam's patronage.

There are two clauses in dispute, and both suggest sectarian concerns.

The first stipulates that if two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces reject a permanent constitution to be drafted by an elected parliament next year, then the document cannot be adopted, parliament will be dissolved, and a general election will be held. Suggested by the Kurds and supported by the coalition, the clause protects Kurds against any encroachment on their self-rule in a permanent constitution drafted by a parliament dominated by the Shiites.

Sunni Arabs also see it as a safety valve against Shiite domination.

Kurds and Sunni Arabs are believed to make up 30 percent to 40 percent of Iraq's 25 million people; Shiites are widely believed to make up 60 percent.

Shiite politicians say the clause gives 10 percent of Iraqis the power to block the will of the rest and could result in instability if one draft after another are rejected.

The other disputed clause prohibits any changes in the interim constitution without the approval of three-fourths of the elected parliament and the consensus of the proposed president and his two deputies. Shiites view it as an attempt by an unelected body — the Governing Council — to bind an elected assembly, which they are likely to dominate.

Songul Chabook, a Sunni and the only representative of Iraq's ethnic Turks on the Shiite-dominated Governing Council, fueled tensions Tuesday when she cast doubt on the widely held belief that Shiites were a majority in Iraq. She argued that an "honest and clean" census will find that Sunnis — Arabs and Kurds — now make up more than half the population.

"I hope that we will not have a Shiite majority when we have an elected parliament," she said in an interview. "Let us not repeat what we have in the Governing Council. I hope that Iraqis will elect deputies in the next parliament on merit so that its decisions will be respected."

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Attacks Expose Divisions in Pakistan, Iraq

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Attacks on Shiite Muslims in Pakistan and Iraq killed at least 193 people and exposed the deep fissures that have opened in two key battlegrounds in the U.S.-led war on terror.

Tuesday's carnage — while not necessarily linked — apparently was carried out by militants marching to the same anti-American drumbeat and feeding off sectarian tensions that have been around for centuries.

"The terrorist attacks in both these places are by people who follow the same philosophy of religious extremism," said Mehdi Hassan, a political analyst and retired professor from Punjab University in Lahore. "Pakistan and Iraq have one thing in common — and that is the policies of the United States and the resentment of those policies."

There have been no claims of responsibility in either country for the attacks on one of the holiest days on the Shiite calendar, but the killings bore a similar pattern. In the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, three suicide bombers detonated explosives at the Kazimiya shrine, killing 65 and wounding 200. In the holy city of Karbala in southern Iraq, at least one suicide attacker blew himself up and preset explosives detonated, killing 85 and wounding over 200.

Less than two hours later, at least three attackers in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta opened fire and hurled grenades at a procession of Shiite worshippers, then blew themselves up as troops moved in. Two attackers died and the other was in custody in critical condition. At least 43 people were killed, including the attackers.

Tuesday was Ashoura, the climax of the 10-day festival marking the killing of the 7th-century Shiite saint Imam Hussein, which is commemorated across the Muslim world and often sparks bloodshed.

U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, couldn't rule out any connections among the attacks in Iraq and Pakistan, and are looking into what — if any — links there may be. At this point, one official said, there isn't any evidence indicating the attacks were coordinated.

Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said there was no evidence to indicate the Iraq and Pakistan attacks were linked.

But others said the attacks bore the hallmarks of international terror.

"What happened in Quetta, this was a massive operation, and it would have required Arab elements, maybe even al-Qaida," Sen. Nisar Memon of the ruling PML-Q party told The Associated Press. "I think they would like to destabilize the country, particularly President (Pervez) Musharraf."

In Iraq, U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt identified Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an al-Qaida-linked Jordanian militant who trained with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, as a chief suspect in the attacks there, and said the aim was to spark a Sunni-Shiite civil war.

Since ousting President Saddam Hussein, U.S. forces have struggled to put down a fierce insurgency and bring order to Iraq. On Tuesday, many Iraqis took their venom out on American forces, accusing them of orchestrating the bloodshed or at least failing to provide the security to prevent it.

Sectarian violence is nothing new in Pakistan, but the level of attacks on Shiites, minority Christians and foreigners has been striking since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

Though no al-Qaida nexus has been traced to the Quetta attack, past sectarian violence in the restive city has been linked to bin Laden's terror network.

Daud Badini, a leading suspect in a July 2003 attack that killed 50 Shiite worshippers in Quetta, was a brother-in-law of Ramzi Yousef, who is serving a life term in the United States for the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. Badini remains at large, but four other suspects from the outlawed Pakistani Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have been jailed for 2003 killings in Quetta.

Allama Mahdi Najfi, the chief Shiite Muslim cleric in Quetta, blamed pro-Taliban and al-Qaida militants within Pakistan's main Sunni extremist organizations — Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi — for Tuesday's attack.

"We know that pro-Taliban and al-Qaida people were involved in previous terrorist attacks against our people," he told AP. "We are certain that the same people did it today."

Afghan and U.S. officials have also long suspected the ousted Taliban regime of using Quetta as a base for launching attacks inside Afghanistan. U.S., Afghan and Pakistani authorities believe bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, are likely hiding out along the mountainous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan and have recently stepped up their efforts to find them.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Musharraf has been a staunch ally of the United States. He has also become a prime target of extremist groups, narrowly escaping two assassination attempts in December.

Musharraf's decision to crack down on al-Qaida and turn his back on his former Taliban allies has polarized this Islamic nation of 150 million. Hassan said the president's insistence on toeing the U.S. line is undermining his rule in the eyes of even more moderate Pakistanis.

"American forces have occupied Iraq against the wishes of the Iraqi people, and in Pakistan, the leaders have adopted pro-U.S. policies that are resented," he said. "The government is losing credibility day-by-day."

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

U.N. Joins Debate Over Iraq Government

Rather than breaking the impasse over how to form a new government, a much-awaited U.N. report has simply told the Iraqis it's up to them to determine how to form an administration to take power from the Americans on June 30.

That opens the door to protracted deliberations within an Iraqi leadership which has shown little sign of cohesion and whose members are seeking to position themselves for power in the new Iraq.

The U.N. report, released Monday in New York, took two options off the table. It said elections by June 30, as demanded by the Shiite Muslim clergy, are not feasible for the reasons Washington had long cited — no electoral structure, no reliable census and an untenable security situation.

And the report, by U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, also found what the Americans already knew — that the U.S. plan to set up a government through regional caucuses to take power June 30 lacked support among Iraqis, who feared it could be manipulated by the United States to install its favorites in power.

But Brahimi avoided suggesting a roadmap to the Iraqis, as the Americans had hoped when the mission was approved by Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Instead, Brahimi urged the Iraqis themselves to come up with alternatives and offered U.N. assistance in working out a formula.

The strategy has some merit. The Iraqis have already rejected two American plans for setting up a new government, and they need to begin taking responsibility for their own political future.

However, the U.N. strategy also opens the door to protracted haggling among disparate factions on the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council at a time when the different groups are promoting their own interests. Meanwhile, time is running out before the June 30 power transfer date.

The Arabic-language newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, published in London and distributed throughout the Arab world, quoted an unnamed Governing Council member as saying the body is sharply divided over several major issues.

"As soon as we finish discussions on one topic, agree on it and begin talks on another, digressions come up and pull us back to the matter we just agreed on, and one member or another brings up a new dispute over it," the newspaper said Wednesday.

Shiite members of the council are calling for elections as soon as possible. Sunni Arabs, fearing domination by the Shiite majority, prefer delaying elections. Kurds remain focused on protecting and expanding their system of self-rule in their northern homeland.

Mouwafak al-Rubaie, a Shiite councilman, said he prefers to see a weak caretaker government assume power June 30 with his main task "to prepare for elections." Others would like to see a government with greater powers.

"If there is no election or an elected legislative council, then who is going to take over sovereignty from the coalition authority?" asked Hamed al-Bayati of the Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. "We're open to suggestions, but if it doesn't result in a representative body, then the body that takes over has to be very limited in its powers."

At the same time, the United States, anxious to end the formal occupation well ahead of the November U.S. presidential elections, lacks the leverage it enjoyed soon after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in April.

Before the war, U.S. officials envisaged an American-run military government would run the country in transition to democracy for about two years — a timetable that angered even the most pro-American opposition figures.

As U.S. casualties began to mount last November, the Americans accelerated the date for transferring sovereignty from 2005 until June 30. The Iraqis, anxious to regain control of their own country, have accepted the new timetable. The only thing all factions agree on is the immutability of the June 30 date. What they haven't agreed on is how to govern thereafter.

With the coalition authority a self-declared lame duck, new Iraqi power blocs have emerged. The Shiite clergy, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, is now arguably the main political force in this country — where Shiites make up an estimated 60 percent of the 25 million people.

Kurdish factions, the most pro-American group, are making overtures to al-Sistani, clearly hoping for his support as they lobby for autonomy in a new, federal Iraq. Several Shiite members of the council, notably al-Rubaie, have taken up al-Sistani's positions, clearly lobbying for his blessing.

The Sunnis, who have long dominated Iraq despite their minority status, are struggling to find a unified voice. Most of the insurgents attacking U.S. and coalition forces are believed to be Sunnis.

In part, al-Sistani's new prestige has been helped along by the Americans. Last year, the cleric's opposition to U.S. plans for organizing a constitutional convention prompted Washington to scrap a seven-point plan for setting up an Iraqi government.

The second plan, adopted Nov. 15, is now in ruins after al-Sistani demanded that the new legislature be chosen by the voters rather than in regional caucuses.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Iraqi Official Backs Off on Islam Issue

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The president of Iraq's Governing Council said Wednesday there was no final decision on the precise role of Islam in the country's draft interim constitution, which is to take effect at the end of this month.

Mohsen Abdul-Hamid appeared to back away from an earlier demand when he called for Islam to be the principle basis for Iraq's laws.

His remarks came two days after L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, suggested he would block any such move.

"This question has not reached its final stage," Abdul-Hamid, a Sunni Muslim, told reporters. He said, however, that the majority in the Governing Council agreed that "Islam is the official state religion."

He and another official, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite Muslim and spokesman for council member Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, stressed that at this stage, the draft interim charter says Islam is "a primary source of legislation" — as opposed to the primary source.

"It is still 'a' that's in the draft," said Abdul-Mahdi, of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. "Bremer was in today's Governing Council meeting and said that he generally agreed with this."

Bremer must sign into law all measures passed by the 25-member council, including the interim constitution. Iraq's powerful Shiite clergy, however, have demanded the document be approved by an elected legislature. Under U.S. plans, a permanent constitution would not be drawn up and voted on until 2005.

Abdel-Hamid, this month's Governing Council president and a member of a drafting committee, said last week that he wanted "a constitution that represents the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people, with all the respect due to other identities."

Abdul-Hamid heads the Iraqi Islamic Party, which espouses a conservative view of Islam.

His proposal could have broad effects on secular Iraq, taking away rights of women in divorce and inheritance cases, shuttering liquor stores and banning gambling, legal experts say.

Representatives of Iraq's Kurdish and Christian parties, and those with liberal Western views, have voiced opposition to the Islamization of Iraq's legal code.

To take effect, the Islamic law proposal would have to be approved by the framing committee and added to the transitional law, which must be accepted by the full Governing Council.

The transition law is to act as Iraq's constitution until a permanent constitution replaces it, probably by 2005.

The United States has been trying to balance its plans for Iraq with the wishes of its Sunni and Shiite Muslim leaders.

Shiite leaders are challenging the U.S. plan to choose an interim government through regional caucuses, saying only direct elections are acceptable. The United States believes elections are not yet possible because of continuing violence and the difficulty of registering people and holding the vote.

The United Nations has sent an envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, to determine if early elections are possible. He is due to report his findings to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Thursday.

Annan is expected to support the Bush administration's advice against holding direct elections, but will delay other recommendations until he consults with other governments, a U.S. official said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Al-Hakim said Wednesday any future government must stem from the will of the people, or else Iraqis will be shoved aside as they were under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.

Al-Hakim spoke to more than 1,000 tribal leaders — including Sunnis and Shiites — bringing some sheiks to tears with his vows to fight for a united Iraq.

"The first foundation of the new Iraq must be a real dependence on the people. Otherwise the people would be marginalized as was the case in the past," al-Hakim said.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

U.N. to send election team to Iraq.

PARIS, France (CNN) -- Hoping to break a stalemate over how to transfer power in Iraq, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday he was ready to send a mission to Iraq to decide if and when elections can be held.

Key in the process is the ability of the Coalition Provisional Authority to provide adequate security, he said.

Most U.N. staff pulled out of Iraq in October, following an August bomb attack on the group's Baghdad headquarters that killed 22 people, including top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.

"I have concluded that the United Nations can play a constructive role in helping to break the current impasse," Annan said in a statement.
"The mission will ascertain the views of a broad spectrum of Iraqi society in the search for alternatives that might be developed to move forward to the formation of a provisional government."

The Governing Council and U.S.-led coalition want caucuses to choose a transitional national assembly by the end of May. That assembly would pick a transitional sovereign government, which would take power July 1.

But Shiite critics of the plan, particularly Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, want direct elections for the transitional legislature. Thousands of Shiites have marched to demand direct elections, putting pressure on the United States to find a compromise.

The United States maintains that it is too difficult to organize direct elections before the July 1 deadline but has asked the United Nations to gauge the possibility of direct elections within the timetable.

A leading member of the Governing Council, Ahmed Chalabi, has also called for early nationwide elections.

"I strongly hold to the idea that the most sustainable way forward would be one that came from the Iraqis themselves," Annan said. "Consensus amongst all Iraqi constituencies would be the best guarantee of a legitimate and credible transitional governance."
Iraqi Cop Killed During Insurgent Attack.

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Insurgents attacked the headquarters of Polish forces in a southern city, triggering a gunbattle that killed one Iraqi policeman, and guerrillas fired a rocket into the U.S. compound in Baghdad, officials said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Iraq's interim interior minister blamed Osama bin Laden's terror network al-Qaida for many of the suicide car bombings in the country in recent weeks.

Late Monday, gunmen fired at a hotel housing Polish troops in the holy city of Karbala, but were repulsed by Iraqi police, said Karbala police spokesman Rahman Mashawi. He said the police and the attackers fought a gunbattle that left one policeman dead. Police arrested two of the gunmen and there were no Polish casualties.

Poland heads a multinational force in south-central Iraq to which it has contributed 2,400 troops based in Karbala, 75 miles south of Baghdad. So far, two Polish soldiers have been killed in Iraq.

A bomb exploded outside a liquor store early Tuesday in a south Baghdad neighborhood, shattering windows but causing no casualties, witnesses said.

On Monday night, a rocket landed in an empty parking lot inside the "green zone," the sprawling headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad, a central command spokesman said on condition of anonymity. There were no injuries or casualties.

The attack occurred a day after guerrillas killed seven policemen in two separate hit-and-run attacks on checkpoints in Ramadi west of Baghdad, which is part of the Sunni Triangle, the stronghold of Saddam Hussein loyalists.

The insurgents have been blamed for most of the violence since President Bush declared an end to major hostilities on May 1. But frequent suicide bombings have also raised suspicion about involvement of foreign fighters including al-Qaida operatives.

On Monday, Interior Minister Nouri Badran told a news conference: "There is a presence of al-Qaida in this country. We've announced that directly and indirectly,"

"A lot of the suicide attacks have the fingerprints of the crimes committed by al-Qaida," he said.

Badran provided no evidence to back his claim. There was no immediate comment from U.S. military commanders who have been wary of drawing a clear connection between al-Qaida and the insurgency even though a handful of non-Iraqi Arab and foreign fighters have been detained or killed in Iraq.

A U.S. official in Washington said Saturday that Kurdish forces had captured a senior al-Qaida figure, Hassan Ghul, as he tried to enter northern Iraq. Ghul was turned over to the United States for interrogation, the official said on condition of anonymity.

The suicide vehicle attacks have been aimed largely against U.S. forces but also claimed the lives of hundreds of Iraqi civilians.

The latest attack was on Jan. 18 when a pickup truck exploded at the gates of the U.S.-led coalition's headquarters, killing at least 31 Iraqis and wounding more than 120.

Earlier this month, a U.S. military commander in the "Sunni Triangle" said al-Qaida and other foreigners might be trying to come into Iraq.

"I think al-Qaida and foreign fighters are trying to get involved in Iraq," said Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of the 4th Infantry Division. "I think in the next six to eight months, they (will) start to really try to infiltrate the area." .

Badran also said the insecurity in the country does not allow for holding direct elections, which is at the heart of a political dispute between the coalition administration and Iraq's majority Shiites.

A U.S. plan for transfer of power calls for setting up a provisional government through a caucus system. But the Shiites are demanding direct elections. The United Nations is considering sending a team to Iraq to find out if elections can be held.

In the north, military divers were still searching the muddy waters of the Tigris River on Tuesday for three missing U.S. soldiers, including two pilots of an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter that crashed Sunday in Mosul during rescue operations after a patrol boat capsized, a military spokesman said.

It was the fifth U.S. helicopter lost in Iraq this month, three of which were downed by hostile fire.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Japanese Coalition Partner OKs Iraq Plan.

TOKYO - The ruling party's coalition partner threw its support Monday behind Japan's plan to send ground troops to Iraq, paving the way for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government to issue a dispatch order.

Japan's Self-Defense Forces have already sent an advance team of ground soldiers to Samawah in southern Iraq, but Koizumi's government wanted an additional show of support before deploying the bulk of the 550 troops planned for the mission.

The steps are part of a total deployment of some 1,000 military personnel to Iraq and neighboring countries, marking the first time that Japanese troops have been sent to a combat zone since World War II. The soldiers will purify water and perform other non-combat tasks.

Air force pilots and other personnel are also in Kuwait to ferry supplies to the Iraq contingent, and an additional group was scheduled to leave Japan on Monday.
The support of the New Komeito Party was backed in a meeting of rank-and-file members in the morning, and party leader Takenori Kanzaki endorsed it in later talks with Koizumi. The New Komeito is allied with Koizumi's ruling Liberal Democrats.

Defense Agency Director Shigeru Ishiba was expected to issue the dispatch order later in the day.

The moves come despite strong reservations about the mission in Japan. Concerns about security were heightened on Monday, when the government said a trailer carrying a prefabricated housing unit for Japanese ground forces was attacked west of Baghdad.

The Jordanian driver of the trailer was killed, the Defense Agency said. Officials, however, doubted that the attack targeted Japan, since there was no sign connecting the vehicle to Japan and no Japanese personnel were in the area at the time of the assault.

"The trailer was not marked with anything indicating it was Japanese," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda "The situation wasn't one where the trailer would have been attacked because it was hired out by the Japanese government."

Also Monday, a poll published in the national Mainichi newspaper showed respondents split on the deployment, with 47 percent supporting it and 47 percent opposing it. The poll, which surveyed 1,023 people by telephone on Saturday and Sunday, however, showed opposition to the plan dropped from 54 percent in December. The poll included no margin of error, Mainichi said.
Kay Doubts Presence of Illicit Iraq Arms.

WASHINGTON - The outgoing chief U.S. weapons inspector says his inability to find illicit arms in Iraq raises serious questions about American intelligence-gathering.

Last year, David Kay had confidently predicted weapons would be found. But after nine months of searching, he said Sunday: "I don't think they exist."

"It's an issue of the capabilities of one's intelligence service to collect valid, truthful information," Kay said on National Public Radio.

Asked whether President Bush owed the nation an explanation for the discrepancies between his warnings and Kay's findings, Kay said: "I actually think the intelligence community owes the president, rather than the president owing the American people."

The CIA would not comment on Kay's remarks, though one official, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that Kay himself was vocal in predicting he would find weapons.

Kay said his predictions were not "coming back to haunt me in the sense that I am embarrassed. They are coming back to haunt me in the sense of `Why could we all be so wrong?'"

The White House stuck by its assertions that illicit weapons will be found in Iraq.

But Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a Democratic presidential candidate, said Kay's comments reinforced his belief that the Bush administration had exaggerated the threat Iraq posed.

"It confirms what I have said for a long period of time, that we were misled — misled not only in the intelligence, but misled in the way that the president took us to war," Kerry said on "Fox News Sunday." "I think there's been an enormous amount of exaggeration, stretching, deception."

Kay's comments came as no surprise to Hans Blix, the former chief U.N. inspector whose work was heavily criticized by Kay and came to an end when the United States went to war with Iraq.

Blix said the United States should have known the intelligence was flawed last year when leads followed up by U.N. inspectors didn't produce any results.

"I was beginning to wonder what was going on. Weren't they wondering too?" he told The Associated Press by telephone. Speaking of Kay's resignation, Blix said, "If you find yourself on a train that's going in the wrong direction, its best to get off at the next stop."

Kay told The New York Times in a later interview for Monday's editions that U.S. intelligence agencies did not realize Iraqi scientists presented Saddam with fanciful plans for weapons programs and then used the money he authorized for other purposes.

"The whole thing shifted from directed programs to a corrupted process," Kay told the Times. "The regime was no longer in control; it was like a death spiral. Saddam was self-directing projects that were not vetted by anyone else. The scientists were able to fake programs."

Kay said Iraq did try to restart its nuclear weapons program in 2000 and 2001, but that evidence suggests it would have taken years to rebuild after being largely abandoned in the 1990s.

He said it is now clear that the CIA's basic problem was that the agency lacked its own spies in Iraq who could provide credible information, but that he does not believe analysts were pressed by the administration to make their reports conform to a White House agenda.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was surprised Kay "did not find some semblance of" banned chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Iraq. Roberts said a report on Iraq intelligence, to be delivered to his panel Wednesday, should help clarify the CIA's prewar performance.

"It appears now that that intelligence — there's a lot of questions about it," Roberts said Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition."

In October 2002, Bush said Iraq had "a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for and is capable of killing millions." In his television address two days before launching the invasion, Bush said U.S. troops would enter Iraq "to eliminate weapons of mass destruction," or WMD.

Kay returned permanently from Iraq last month, having found no such weapons, nor missiles with longer range than Saddam was allowed under international restrictions.

But on Sunday, Kay reiterated his conclusion that Saddam had "a large number of WMD program-related activities." And, he said, Iraq's leaders had intended to continue those activities but had not decided whether to begin producing such weapons at the time of the January invasion.

Kay also said chaos in postwar Iraq made it impossible to know with certainty whether Iraq had had banned weapons.

And, he said, there is evidence that Iraq was moving a steady stream of goods shipments to Syria, but it is difficult to determine whether the cargoes included weapons, in part because Syria has refused to cooperate in this part of the weapons investigation.

Kay said he resigned Friday because the Pentagon began peeling away his staff of weapons searchers as the military struggled to put down the Iraqi insurgency last fall.

Kay hopes to draw on his experiences to write a book on weapons intelligence.

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