Fragile post-election Iraq suffers sectarian bomb attacks

Baghdad bombings in wake of inconclusive election bargaining in Iraq. Suspicions mount of North Korean involvement in Cheonan sinking. Murders taint government-opposition relations in Ethiopia. US warns Burma over purchases of North Korean weapons. All this and more in today's briefing.
Andrea Glioti
11 May 2010

On Monday, a large scale bombing attack launched by al-Qaeda left 85 dead and 300 injured in Hilla, south of Baghdad. The blasts are considered retaliation for the recent killing of Abu Ayub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, two leading figures of the terrorist network in Iraq.

While the deadline for US troops’ total withdrawal from Iraq is scheduled for the end of August, the country still appears in need of help to achieve internal security. Ayad Allawi, the winner of 7 March elections, called for American assistance during this fragile transition, asserting that, regardless of the August withdrawal, Americans ‘still have obligations [in Iraq] to safeguard the democratic process under the agreement, a UN resolution and Chapter 7 of the UN Security Council Charter that continues to prescribe international powers to maintain peace’. Nonetheless, Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi political analyst based in Washington, underlined the importance of the military pull-out, as ‘the US occupation of Iraq has been one of the best tools that al-Qaeda has to kill more Americans, to drain the US treasure and money and to recruit more extremists’.

In an interview with The Guardian, Allawi emphasized the urgency of forming a new government, The major parties are still quarrelling on possible alliances more than two months after the polls. Allawi, who was the head of the interim government between 2004 and 2005, also expressed concern at the risk of sectarian violence if an agreement between the State of Law Coalition and the Iraqi National Alliance takes government. Such a deal between Prime Minister al-Maliki’s Shia coalition and the other major Shi’a force, the Iraqi National Alliance, would reproduce a politics unrepresentative of the Sunni population.

Moreover, Allawi’s party, al-Iraqiyya, is facing charges from the Accountability and Justice Commission, the de-Ba’athification board created under the US provisional authority in 2003. At least six members of the party face allegations, thus seriously threatening al-Iraqiyya’s precarious majority (91 seats) over al-Maliki (89 seats). Allawi defined the attempts to ban the party’s candidates as a political plot orchestrated by Iran to maintain its protégées in power, in support of which are cited the Iraqi National Alliance’s pressure on the Commission to proceed in the enquiries and its 17 parliamentarians who form part of the Iranian-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

All this protracted delay could result in a government not being formed before the beginning of Ramadan on 11 August and the likelihood of a definitive cabinet being put off until mid-September. Al-Qaeda will only to benefit from such protracted political disorganisation.

The openSecurity verdict: The most stable option would probably be an alliance between al-Maliki and Allawi: a joint agreement between the two strongest coalitions would have enhanced the federalist project and renewed ties with the Sunni world, allowing a fair political representation of Iraq’s multi-faith composition. However, this is nothing more than utopia given the rivalry between these two political figures and the pre-existent framework of different loyalties and interests. It is likely that the profits are shared by the Kurdistan National Alliance and the Iraqi National Alliance, which are in the position to shape any compromise: some analysts even hypothesize the choice of secondary figures, if al-Maliki is considered an obstacle to including the State of Law Coaltion in the new government.

The other main actor taking advantage of the situation is clearly Iran, whose leverage on the Iraqi National Alliance has resulted in the prevention of the formation of a strong Iraqi nationalist bloc. Washington is focused on Afghanistan and close to military disengagement from Iraq, thus being satisfied with a provisional cabinet, in spite of its stability. On the other hand, Allawi, himself being part of the exiled elite installed by the US after 2003, is naturally attempting to attract the sympathy of the White House for al-Iraqiyya by blaming Iran. Regardless of US-Iranian skirmishes in the region, the fact that 26% of Iraqi politicians were previously living abroad is indicative of the embryonic status of their legitimacy.

As pointed out by Allawi, an alliance between the State of Law Coaliton and the Iraqi National Alliance will not succeed in forming a cross-sectarian government. In this respect, the country bears the consequences of the terrorist brand imposed by the US on the Sunni-Ba’thist resistance during the war as a result of which al-Qaeda is out there ready to exploit Sunni electoral discontent. The American invasion has already shaped the lines of sectarian division, replacing Tikriti dominion with the Shi’ite countryside’s rule and Kurdish autonomy. The political blocs exploit the lineages along which power has been already distributed, thus exposing the internal security to sectarian violence.

Traces of explosive in the remains of the Cheonan increase suspicion of North Korea

South Korea defence minister, Kim Tae-young, revealed that traces of RDX – generally used to make torpedoes – were found among the wreckage of Cheonan warship. The Cheonan sunk on 26 March near the North-South Korean maritime border. However, a spokesman for the inspections team pointed out that it is too early to derive conclusions on the culpability of North Korea, as RDX is also used in mines. The Pyongyang regime has denied responsibility for the incident. This is not the first confrontation on the contested maritime borders since the 1950-53 Korean War, since which a state of belligerence has prevailed in the absence of a peace treaty.

Meanwhile, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, has just returned from round table talks hosted by the Chinese government to discuss his country’s controversial nuclear programme. Logically, in this critical moment the invitation of Kim Jong-il to China has angered South Korean officials, but the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, reassured that ‘his visit to China was arranged months before and the sinking of the Cheonan and Kim’s visit are separate issues’. Jiang Yu also called for prudence in the relations between the two countries while enquiries were on-going.

South Korea is considering curbing trade with the communist North and banning its ships from passing through the JeJu Strait, which is located between Jeju Island and the Korean Peninsula. On the other hand, Seoul is concerned about breaching pre-existent agreements, such as the 2004 treaty, by which both the North and the South promised to refrain from propaganda in the demilitarized zone. There is also another pact signed in 2004 that allows North Korean ships to use naval passages between the two countries. Moreover, Seoul would be more bound by international law to restricting military provocation than its Northern counterpart. Consequently, the southern government is more likely to lobby for UN sanctions, in the case of proven culpability of Pyongyang in the Cheonan affair.

Ethiopian opposition complains about political murders on the eve of elections.

In the run-up to the 23 May national elections, the Ethiopian main opposition alliance, Medrek, is angry at what it considers the latest political murder staged by the ruling party. Girma Kabe was shot dead on Monday in a rural area of the Oromiya South-Western region, being the third victim in one week in the same area. Negaso Gidada, a Medrek leader, affirmed that Kabe was putting up an electoral poster a few moments before being murdered.


On the other side, Bereket Simon, the government’s head of information, complained that this was a well known opposition tactic, by which the Medrek alliance claims political affiliation with people killed for completely different reasons; Bereket noted that Kabe was not even registered as a member of the Medrek and that he was murdered during a personal and non-political confrontation. The government rebutted the opposition’s allegations, accusing them of Saturday night’s assassination of one its candidates and a policeman. The Medrek is also among the suspects for throwing grenades at a meeting of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation on Saturday, where two people were killed and 14 wounded.  The Organisation is part of the ruling coalition in Ethiopia.

These episodes are of paticular concern following the outbreak of violence after the 2005 elections resulted in the massacre of 193 people on behalf of the presidential militias. Birtukan Mideksa, the leader of Medrek, is facing a life sentence for national treason in the aftermath of the 2005 disorder. However, despite factional violence, around 30 million Ethiopians have already registered to vote on 23 May.

US Far East-envoy warns Burma over purchasing weapons from North Korea.

On Monday, Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of state for east Asia, warned Burmese top officials against procuring military supplies from North Korea. The US admonition stems from UN Security Council resolutions 1718 and 1874, banning all North Korean arms exports and requiring member states to seize and destroy any goods discovered to be traded by North Korea in violation of the sanctions. China and North Korea have been so far the main suppliers of weapons for the military junta following the 1988 coup. Following the slaughter of hundreds of protesters, the US led moves to isolate Myanmar, but Obama decided to re-open talks with the military junta.

Some intelligence source have hypothesized that Myanmar is pursuing a nuclear programme with the help of these countries: China is formally opposed to Burma’s development of weapons of mass destruction but this does not mean that Beijing will prevent the Burmese generals from securing North Korean nuclear technology, for example. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald in August 2009 exposed such intentions, arguing that Burma was aiming at creating a nuclear arsenal within five years, thanks to North Korean assistance.

China is the only power to maintain good relations with both the Burmese army and Pyongyang. Intelligence sources revealed that the military junta bought mid-range missiles and rocket launchers from China in April, taking advantage of new year celebrations to distract public attention. According to the military analyst, Andrew Selth, ‘Pyongyang needs Burmese primary products, which Naypyidaw [the city where the junta’s headquarters are based] can in turn use to barter for North Korea arms, expertise and technology’.

The Myanmar regime has also recently purchased military equipment from India, Pakistan and Russia.

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