Rumsfeld warns Iraqi regime not to purge US allies

Posted in Iraq | 13-Apr-05 | Author: Patrick Cockburn| Source: The Independent

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld speaks to reporters following a meeting with Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani in the northern Iraq town of Salah Addin April 12, 2005.

The US has warned against a purge of its allies in the defence and interior ministries - crucial to real power in Iraq - by incoming Shia ministers.

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, issued a coded warning against the removal of officials from the security ministries which lead the fight against insurgency.

"It's important that the new government be attentive to the competence of the people in the ministries, and that they avoid unnecessary turbulence," he said on his ninth visit to Iraq since the invasion.

The US is increasingly isolated in Iraq, with the announcement yesterday that 1,700 Polish troops in Iraq would leave at the beginning of next year. Poland has been among America's staunchest allies.

The Shia parties, who won a majority in the parliamentary election on 30 January, are pressing for control of the interior ministry in the new government. They also want to take charge of the the intelligence agency. The defence ministry will probably go to a Sunni Arab.

"The Americans have remained largely in control of intelligence, interior and defence despite the handover of power to Iraqis in June last year," an official said.

Under the interim government of Iyad Allawi, former Baathist intelligence officers, often Sunnis, were recruited to the security ministries. The Shia United Iraqi Alliance, with more than 140 out of 275 seats in the new assembly, would like to purge them. Mr Rumsfeld suggested that a purge might lead to more corruption in the Iraqi government, although Mr Allawi's administration was notorious for taking bribes and for allegedly taking a percentage on all contracts.

More understandably Mr Rumsfeld warned against delays in the political process - it is two months since theelection results were announced - and said parliament should seek to draw a constitution by 15 August.

After meeting Mr Rumsfeld, the Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari played down the problems ahead. "I am sure we are going to form very good ministries. All of [the ministers] are good technocrats. They are very effective and from good backgrounds." If Mr Jaafari fails to form a government, Ahmed Chalabi, a leading member of the Shia bloc, is likely to step in and be asked to try again. Though distrusted by many, no one doubts Mr Chalabi's political agility. As an ally of the American neoconservatives, he played a central role in fomenting the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein. He later fell out with the neoconservatives and was denounced for allegedly passing information to the Iranians, with whom he has good relations. He is also close to Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric.

The failure to form a government stems in part from differences between the Kurds and the Shia, the two main groups in parliament. The Shia list is also very divided, containing some 15 groups all hungry for jobs. Even in an administration with 31 ministers there may not be enough to go round. The Kurds also want to see Mr Allawi and his supporters in the new government.

Ironically, Mr Rumsfeld's concern over a purge of Sunni officers is in contrast with the speed with which the Pentagon disbanded the Iraqi army and security forces in May 2003. This was the single most important development fuelling the insurgency which exploded in Sunni areas in the following months. Just how dangerous Iraq is for foreigners was underlined yesterday when an US contractor was kidnapped.

Differences over jobs continue to fuel ethnic and religious animosities at all levels of society. In the oil city of Kirkuk, the Kurds, once persecuted and now in control, are eager to reverse that discrimination.

Nagat Hassan, a Kurdistan Democratic Party leader in Kirkuk, said: "There are only 300 Kurds out of 11,000 oil workers here. The majority come from the centre of Iraq." He said there were Kurds qualified to do many of the jobs.

The purge of low-level members of the Baath party in the mainly Sunni Hawaija region of western Kirkuk led to schools closing because so many Baathist teachers were fired. In one case students threatened to burn down their school unless their Baathist headmaster was reinstated.