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By Robert Dreyfuss
September 27, 2005
Robert Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone. His book, Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, will be published by Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books in the fall.
A leading Iraqi voice in favor of a negotiated power-sharing arrangement between Sunni and Shiite forces in Iraq charged this weekend that militias in the service of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government in Baghdad tried to kill him, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, and other secular Iraqi nationalists by planting a car bomb in the Baghdad neighborhood where they live.
Aiham Al Sammarae, a former minister of electricity in Allawi's government, says that the bomb was discovered and defused. "I live next door to Allawi," says Sammarae, who returned to Iraq from a conference of leading Iraqi Sunnis in Amman, Jordan, on Sunday. "We found a car bomb behind Allawi's house. It would have destroyed the entire neighborhood." According to Sammarae, who spoke to me in a lengthy telephone interview from a hotel in Amman, militias tied to the Iraqi government are conducting death squad-style attacks against Sunnis who oppose the Iraqi regime, which is controlled by a pair of ultra-religious, sectarian parties. "A lot of our guys are being killed," he says. The attacks are being carried out "by the government, by militias that are part of the government."
For the past several months, Sammarae has tried to coax various Iraqi resistance groups, mostly Sunni, to embrace talks with the United States over a ceasefire and U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. At least eleven of the mainstream Iraqi opposition groups—including former Iraqi military officers, Baathists, and nationalist tribal leader, but not the jihadists tied to the Zarqawi-led Al Qaeda forces—have established links with Sammarae. Last week, Sammarae told me, he announced the executive committee of his National Assembly for the Unity and Reconstruction of Iraq, an organization of Sunni and Shiite oppositionists who want a negotiated end to the Iraqi insurgency. Leading the committee are Abdullah Al Dulaimi, from the Iraqi resistance, and Hussein Al Kalidar, a prominent Iraqi Shiite leader. "There are many other members," said Sammarae. "I am the spokesman."
But, within days of the announcement, Abdullah Al Dulaimi vanished. "He is the head of the movement, and after one week, he disappeared," says Sammarae. "I don't know if he is scared and went underground, or if [the militias] picked him up. We cannot talk with him. We cannot contact him."
Needless to say, despite the critical importance of the work of Sammarae and his allies, none of this news has been mentioned in the mainstream media. Virtually all U.S. news coverage is devoted to the insurgency—and to atrocities committed by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi's terrorists—but almost never mentioned is the nationwide pattern of death squad activity aimed at nationalists, Baathists, and former Iraqi military officers. In Basra, for example, where two writers for the New York Times have been executed, assassination-style, in recent weeks, hardly any attention—except for the work of Newsday's Tim Phelps and a handful of others—has been paid to the thousands of murders carried out by government-linked killers. Virtually no one who opposes the new regime in Baghdad is safe. Using Saddam Hussein-like terror tactics, the militia tied to the ruling Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an Iranian-backed paramilitary force, are eliminating the regime's moderate opponents. "A lot of these guys are being killed," says Sammarae.
You'd think the fact the government created and installed by the United States is using tactics associated with the dictator who was toppled by the March, 2003, U.S. invasion would be news. But you'd be wrong. The fundamentalist-led regime is portrayed as the victim of terrorist attacks in one-sided coverage, while the regime's brutal methods go mostly unmentioned.
So dangerous is the situation in Iraq for anti-government activists that Sunni leaders who wanted to map out their campaign to vote down the draft Iraqi constitution on Oct. 15 had to meet in Amman, Jordan, for security reasons. Not only did this extraordinary fact by and large escape the notice of U.S. newspapers, but not a single major U.S. news outlet bothered to cover the three-day opposition meeting in Amman.
Despite lip service in Washington for a policy to include Sunni oppositionists in a broad coalition government in Baghdad, U.S. policy is having precisely the opposite effect: driving Sunnis into a more hard-line stance against the government and destroying any possibility of a national accord. U.S. military operations, such as the recent assault on Tal Afar in northern Iraq, are intensifying just two weeks before the country is to go to the polls. "How," asks Sammarae, "can the United States attack Sunni cities so heavily now, and the election is in a few weeks? What message are you sending? People I talk to tell me, 'Shut up. How can we participate in talks? They are attacking us.'" Operations like the Tal Afar are increasingly carried out not just by U.S. troops but by thug-like armed forces comprised of Shiite and Kurdish militiamen armed and trained by the United States—a policy almost calculated to enrage and alienate the Sunni population.
Still, Sammarae holds out a slight hope that some sort of truce can be reached, and that the resistance will be invited to participate in Iraq's future. At a lower level—at the level of U.S. field commanders, junior State Department officials, and CIA operations people—there are contacts between the United States and the Iraqi resistance. "The U.S. is talking with more people than before," says Sammarae. "The State Department is pushing in that direction heavily. And the CIA is more involved, at least according to my information." Even Sammarae himself has received encouragement to pursue the peace initiatives led by the National Assembly for the Unity and Reconstruction of Iraq from mid-level U.S. State Department officials. But, at the higher levels, among the Bush administration's stay-the-course leadership, there is zero receptiveness to a deal with the Sunnis.
Allawi, too—a secular Shiite opposed to SCIRI and the Islamist fanatics in charge in Baghdad—is similarly engaged in talks with the Iraqi resistance. (Indeed, during his tenure as prime minister under the interim government in 2004, Allawi quietly met with Sunni resistance leaders, to the consternation of U.S. neoconservatives and Pentagon officials.) Sammarae, and probably Allawi, would favor some sort of international conference in Amman to bring together the resistance, the Baghdad government, and U.S. forces. "I think Jordan would be the best place for something like this," says Sammarae. "I think they would be the most reasonable. And even though they are Sunnis, the Shia accept them. But the United States has to give [King Abdullah of Jordan] more support, so he can operate more freely." So far, according to Sammarae—and confirmed by sources in Washington—there is no sign that the Bush administration is ready either to open serious talks with the Sunnis or to encourage Jordan, whose king just completed a lengthy U.S. visit, to pursue a peace strategy.