At a time when the Iraqi premiere's national reconciliation plan faces a hard test on the ground, Nuri Al-Maliki is intent on seeking Arab support for it
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Cared for by his mother, a 10-year-old Iraqi boy suffers serious burns following a roadside bomb attack on a popular produce market, at the Yarmouk Hospital in Baghdad
Of the many items on the agenda of the Iraqi premiere's Arab tour, the national reconciliation plan was at the centre of the discussions Nuri Al-Maliki conducted with the leaders of three Gulf states -- Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. At home, however, the plan which Al-Maliki launched one week ago took a back seat with news of ongoing violence and the revelation of the rape and murder of Abeer Qasim at the hands of the United States soldiers who also killed her family. The new most wanted list issued by the Iraqi government -- which included some of Saddam Hussein's family members -- also stole the spotlight.
Al-Maliki's tour is his first trip abroad since taking over as premiere in May. On Saturday, Al-Maliki met Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan. Al-Maliki's Arab tour was viewed as an attempt by Iraq's top officials to soothe the fears of its gulf neighbours of sectarian tensions spilling over into their land. Al-Maliki took time to assure the Arab leaders of his commitment to reconciling Iraq's Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, and also put much effort into seeking support for his government and plan. "We will revert to being the sons of one country in the full sense of the word," Al-Maliki said.
The reconciliation efforts, nonetheless, were faltering at home as they faced the hard test of the realities on the ground. This week Sunni groups continued to criticise Al-Maliki's conditional offer of amnesty for Iraq's armed resistance groups. Muthana Harith Al-Dhari, spokesperson of the Muslim Scholars Association, described the plan as "no more than a public relations exercise". Al-Dhari added that so many groups were excluded from the amnesty that it became "meaningless".
The association, along with other resistance groups, criticised the plan for putting those who fight the American occupiers and those who hurt Iraqis on equal par, since it states that amnesty will not be extended to any group found to have killed American troops or Iraqis.
Other resistance movements echoed the same view. The Islamic Army in Iraq and the 1920 Revolution Brigade -- two resistance groups -- have expressed their rejection of the plan because "it failed to include a timetable for the withdrawal of the US-led forces."
But in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on Tuesday, Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, took a surprising stand. He told the paper that the amnesty should include even those groups which took arms against the Americans except for "the Saddamists". Such statements ran in contradiction with what the Iraqi premiere has said earlier that "amnesty will not be extended to those who killed US soldiers".
In response to the Sunni groups' demand for the plan to include a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops, Al-Hakim said, "we support any initiative to have all foreign troops leaving Iraq but this issue should be addressed by the Iraqi government, which will make the decision in the interest of the Iraqi people."
The most striking development this week came from an unknown Shia group which calls itself the Islamic Resistance in Iraq-Abbas Brigade. The Shia group pledged in a statement on Monday to fight the US-UK forces and any other coalition forces in the country. "We have been patient enough and we have given the political process a chance," said the statement.
Although the statement, aired by the Lebanese channel New TV, could not be independently verified, this will be the first time that a Shia group claims a role in the resistance against the occupation forces. Muqtada Al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi army militia was perhaps the first Shia group to engage in a fight against the US troops in Najaf back in 2004 and has maintained an anti-American rhetoric. The group said its aim was to rid Iraq of foreign occupation and preserve its territorial unity.
While one of the aims of Al-Maliki's tour was to push Arab leaders into exerting more influence over Sunni groups -- and encourage them to participate in the political process -- developments at home were discouraging. Many questioned the reasons behind the Iraqi government's decision to issue a list of most wanted -- which includes Saddam's daughter Raghd who lives in Jordan and his wife Sajda who lives in Qatar -- when it calls for national reconciliation.
Muwafaq Al-Rubaie, national security advisor, said the releasing of the list was intended so "our people can know their enemy". He also added, "we will chase them inside and outside Iraq. We will chase them one after the other." But a spokesperson of the Jordanian government denied that his government received any requests from Iraq to hand over Saddam's daughter. The Jordanian prime minister meanwhile said that "Raghd was being hosted by the Hashemite monarchy for humanitarian reasons."
Many also questioned the timing of the release of the list, which came only one day after the revelation of the rape and murder of Abeer Qasim Hamza -- a five-year-old resident from Mahmoudiya -- at the hands of US soldiers. Qasim was brutally murdered along with her parents and her seven-year- old sister. The Washington Post published a lengthy account of the murder quoting the mayor of Mahmoudiya Omar Janabi who was the first to arrive at the scene of the murder. Qasim was shot in the head, her father Qasim Hamza had his head smashed by bullets, her mother Fakhriya Taha killed by gunshots to her head and her sister Hadeel was also shot dead. The revelation caused an outrage among Iraqis who, while not surprised, said the incident reveals "the real ugly face of America".
The Muslim Scholars Association condemned the incident in a statement issued on Sunday. "The act committed by the occupying soldiers -- from raping the girl to mutilating her body and the killing of her family -- should make all humanity feel ashamed," said the statement. On Monday Steven Green, a former private who was discharged from the US army this spring, was charged with rape and four counts of murder.
Iraqis saw the murder as yet another incident in a long chain of abuses committed by the US occupying forces in Iraq.
Violence continued to claim its toll on Iraqi civilians this week. On Saturday at least 60 Iraqis were killed in an explosion which rocked a market east of Baghdad. On Monday, eight died in bombings taking place in two crowded markets in Mosul and Mahmoudiya.
Tayseer Al-Mashahdani, an Iraqi MP from the Iraqi Accord Front, was kidnapped on Sunday. This led the front to boycott parliament sessions and they threatened to continue their boycott until their "colleague was freed by gunmen who seized her". No one claimed responsibility for the kidnapping but Sunni leaders accuse militias of targeting Sunni figures.