Political faultlines deepen between Iraqi groups

Hostage-taking dramas continued to dominate the headlines in late September, with some of the victims’ families given cause for celebration and others becoming increasingly desperate. Against this backdrop, both the US and UK governments came under renewed pressure from various quarters over their pre- and post-war strategies. Faultlines also deepened between the various factions vying for power within the new Iraq.

Two Italian aid workers were freed on 28 September and returned to Rome to a rapturous reception the following day. However, the release immediately provoked controversy. Widespread reports emerged, greeted by half-hearted official denials, that a $1 million ransom was paid to the kidnappers, breaking with the traditional refusal of governments to accede to terrorists’ demands.

This is the line that has been taken by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, under increasing pressure to secure the release of British hostage Kenneth Bigley. Bigley was captured by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid & Jihad group in mid-September with two Americans, who were both subsequently beheaded. Video footage of the shackled hostage in a cage was broadcast on 29 September, coinciding with the annual conference of Blair’s Labour Party. Asked what was being done, the premier changed tack, blaming the lack of progress on the kidnappers’ failure to make any contact. ‘If they made contact with us, it is something we would immediately respond to,’ he told reporters.

Also under pressure from a party that was overwhelmingly opposed to the decision to go to war, Blair acknowledged that the pre-war intelligence was flawed. ‘The evidence about Saddam having actual biological and chemical weapons – as opposed to the capability to develop them – has turned out to be wrong,’ he said. ‘I accept that.’ However, that was as far as his contrition went. Blair strongly defended the decision to invade, on the now-preferred grounds that the world is a better place without the former Iraqi leader in power.

As the US presidential campaign enters its final month, Iraq and the broader war on terrorism continue to dominate the duel. President Bush’s bid will not be helped by the latest report from the respected Washington-based think-tank the Centre for Strategic & International Studies, released on 29 September. Efforts to train the new Iraqi security services are criticised, and splits between US and Iraqi leaders on the best way to conduct the process partly blamed.

And as the January target date for Iraq’s elections approaches, political divisions are sharpening among some of the aspiring forces. Salem Chalabi, nephew of Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, attacked interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi on 23 September, accusing him of seeking a show trial for Saddam Hussein to raise his own political standing. Salem Chalabi was formerly head of the tribunal established to prepare for the judicial process, before leaving in disputed circumstances in May when murder charges were filed against him. These charges still stand. Fraud charges against his uncle were dropped in late September due to lack of evidence.

Adding to the political maelstrom, discussions are reported to be ongoing between councillors of the three southern provinces of Basra, Missan and Thi-qar over establishing a federal region, along the lines of the northern Kurdish area. The talks are said to be motivated by a feeling that the central government is failing to represent their interests. The three regions contain about 80 per cent of Iraq’s proven oil reserves. Allawi gave an interview in late September in which he echoed US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in suggesting that the most violent areas will be excluded from the January vote.