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    Middle East
     Apr 23, 2005
Squabble over Iraqi militias
By Valentinas Mite

PRAGUE - Iraqi Kurdish and Shi'ite militias are all strong fighting forces. Three political parties - the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP; the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK; and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI - possess the strongest militias in the country. Other political parties also have their own armed militias, but retain much smaller numbers of         men.

David Hartwell, Middle East editor at the British-based Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments, says the KDP has thousands of seasoned and well-armed fighters. "The KDP, who are the Kurdish Democratic Party, have got 15,000 guerrillas, with another 25,000 tribal militia," says Hartwell.

The PUK, the party of President Jalal Talabani, has some 15,000 guerrillas and some 20,000 tribal militia fighters.

Before the fall of Saddam Hussein, Kurdish forces fought the Iraqi army for several years, while PUK and KDP militias also fought a war against each other.

Hartwell says that the Kurdish fighters, or peshmergas, are not badly armed for a militia, but are not on the same level as a regular army. "I think the heaviest thing that they've got probably is heavy artillery. You know, rocket launchers. I don't think there's anything particularly sophisticated about the weaponry they've got," Hartwell says.

The analyst says Kurds bought heavy weaponry on the black market abroad and also in Iraq itself. Many of the fighters received training when they were army conscripts in the Iraqi army. Others were likely trained by US Special Forces before the war.

Another prominent militia, the Shi'ite Badr Brigade is an armed wing of SCIRI. The exact number of fighters in the brigade is not known, but there are estimates of several thousand. The force consists mainly of men who fled to Iran under Saddam's rule.

Alireza Nourizadeh, director of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, says the Badr Brigade is a serious fighting force. However, he adds that the group's close ties with Iran cast some doubts about its loyalties.

"I'm sure among them, at least a couple of thousand are real fighters and they will be very good fighters, but the problem is about their loyalty. First of all, many of them never saw Iraq before the collapse of the Iraqi regime, the toppling of the Saddam regime. Some of them were born in Iran and they were educated in Iran. Their Persian is much better than their Arabic. And their loyalty is to Ayatollah Khomeini, to the Iranian government, to Iranian security, not to the Iraqi [state]," says Nourizadeh.

Hartwell also speculates that the Badr Brigade has likely received training along the same lines as the militant group Hezbollah, although its weaponry is unsophisticated.

In the recent BBC interview, Talabani regretted that the US was opposed to using militia forces. He argued that "we have inner forces [able] to eradicate the terrorists" and that they should be brought into the fight.

However, analysts say they cannot imagine these Kurdish and Shi'ite fighters coming to Sunni areas to introduce law and order. Hartwell says this move would only make the security situation worse and could bring the country to the brink of a sectarian war.

"In the wider picture, it doesn't really work when you knit it all together with the Shi'ites and the Sunnis and how that is perceived, I can't imagine the Americans are in the mood for this [militias suppressing the insurgency]," Hartwell says.

Nourizadeh agrees that militias will only gravely exacerbate the situation in Iraq. However, he says the new Iraqi government should do everything it can to integrate both Kurdish fighters and the Badr Brigade into the national army. This, he says, would not only elevate their status, but it would also increase the fighting capabilities of regular troops.

Gruesome find
Talabani, announcing the discovery of more than 50 bodies in the Tigris River south of Baghdad, said the victims were believed to be Shi'ite Muslim hostages executed by Sunni militants in the city of Madain. Reports earlier this week said the militants had taken tens of Shi'ite civilians hostage and had threatened to kill them unless all of Madain's Shi'ite residents left the city. But Sunni authorities denied the claim, and the Iraqi army failed to find any hostages after entering Madain.

Talabani's announcement is deepening the intrigue surrounding the alleged massacre and kidnapping, which was officially dismissed as rumor earlier this week. Talabani said Thursday pictures would soon be released of the bodies found in the river. He added that the government knew all of the key details surrounding the crime.

"They [insurgents] threw the bodies in the Tigris and more than 50 bodies have been brought out of the Tigris. And we have the full names of those who were killed and the criminals who committed these crimes. And Mr Prime Minister, Dr [Iyad] Allawi, is going to deal with it," Talabani said.

An American military spokesman in Baghdad said he had no information about the finding.

It is still not clear if the bodies found in the Tigris are those of the people said to have been taken hostage in Madain. Police in the area say the bodies have been gradually recovered over the past several weeks, not only since the hostage crisis. Some bodies were said to be badly decomposed.

But even if only some of the bodies are determined to be those of the hostages, it will bring Shi'ite-Sunni tensions to a dangerous new level.

Yahia Said, an Iraq researcher at the London School of Economics, says the incident underscored the potential for sectarian violence in the country. But he said many questions remained about the Madain hostage story, and it is too soon to tell what actually happened.

"I've heard millions of rumors and explanations, from the fact that it was actually a tribal feud that ended acrimoniously, to the fact that these are old [decomposed] bodies were dumped into the river. It's a very murky story. We will never get to the bottom of it, given the lack of intelligence and information we have in Iraq," says Said.

Hartwell said the incident clearly showed the government was not in control of some parts of the country - particularly Sunni regions. But he, too, says it is difficult to determine what may have actually happened to the more than 50 victims. "My sort of instinctive feeling is that probably theses bodies are the bodies of the hostages. It is difficult to understand, to figure what is fact and what is fiction," Hartwell says.

More than two years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, no one seems to be safe in the country - even top government officials. Allawi, the interim prime minister, was targeted Thursday evening by a suicide bomber. His convoy was attacked as he was traveling home after government talks. He survived, but the bombing was only one of at least five in Baghdad that day. Militants loyal to Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the attempt on Allawi's life.

News agencies are also reporting that 19 Iraqi National Guards were killed in a football stadium in Hadith, northwest of Baghdad, after they were taken hostage. More than 400 Iraqi police and soldiers have died in the past two months, many ambushed while off duty.

Thursday, a roadside bomb hit a convoy carrying foreign security contractors on the road to Baghdad airport, killing at least two people. Three foreign contractors were killed on the same stretch of road earlier. Two US soldiers were killed in the same area the day before.

Copyright (c) 2005, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC 20036

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