By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 27, 2005
BAGHDAD -- The leader of Iraq's most powerful political party has called on the United States to let Iraqi fighters take a more aggressive role against insurgents, saying his country will only be able to defeat the insurgency when the United States lets Iraqis get tough.
"The more freedom given to Iraqis, the more chance for further progress there would be, particularly in fighting terror," said Abdul Aziz Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Shiite Muslim religious party that leads the transitional government and whose armed wing is the most feared of Iraq's many factional forces.
Instead, Hakim asserted in a rare interview late last week, the United States is tying Iraq's hands in the fight against insurgents. One of Iraq's "biggest problems is the mistaken or wrong policies practiced by the Americans," he said.
In more than an hour of conversation at his Baghdad home and office, Hakim denied accusations that the Shiite-led government's security forces -- with alleged involvement by his party's armed wing -- have operated torture centers and death squads targeting Sunni Arabs. He also renewed his call to merge half of Iraq's 18 provinces into a federal region in the oil-rich, heavily Shiite south, and he played down Iran's interests in Iraq, saying that the Shiite theocracy to the east wants only what the United States claims to want: a stable Iraq.
During much of the interview, Hakim was critical of U.S. policies toward Iraq, though he acknowledged that U.S. forces must remain in the country as a "guest" of the Iraqi government while it builds its security forces. The Americans are guilty of "major interference, and preventing the forces of the Interior or Defense ministries from carrying out tasks they are capable of doing, and also in the way they are dealing with the terrorists," Hakim charged.
Hakim gave few details of what getting tough would entail, other than making clear it would require more weapons, with more firepower, than the United States is currently supplying. He also urged the United States to take a tougher stand against countries harboring insurgents and their supporters, and called for faster trials of insurgent suspects.
His repeated assertion that the United States was being too weak against Iraq's insurgency, allowing attacks to mushroom, appeared to suggest that any future Iraqi government that included him would share his view. With Iraqis scheduled to vote Dec. 15 for the country's first full-term government since the U.S. invasion in 2003, some analysts predict that Hakim will come from behind the scenes into direct political contention.
Until now, Hakim has opted not to hold office; the highest-ranking member of the Supreme Council in the current government is Adel Abdel-Mehdi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents. But as head of the Supreme Council, which was founded by exiles in Iran as an armed Shiite opposition group to Saddam Hussein, Hakim commands the largest bloc of seats in Iraq's transitional parliament.
In addition, Hakim oversees the party's armed wing, formerly known as the Badr Brigade. Its fighters are widely feared for what even many Iraqi Shiites say are habits of torture and other ruthless tactics learned from Iranian intelligence and security forces. Now officially converted into a private security detail and political group, the renamed Badr Organization is widely alleged to control many command-level and the rank-and-file officers in the Interior Ministry -- police, commandos, intelligence agencies and other branches.
The United States, at times openly distrustful of the Supreme Council's Iranian links and of its armed wing, took the allegations of Badr involvement in a secret Interior Ministry prison that was discovered last week seriously enough to publicly warn the government against allowing factional militias to control Iraq's security forces or ministries.
In the interview, Hakim, the son of an ayatollah, wore the black turban signifying descent from the prophet Muhammad and the long, close robes of a scholar of Islam. He spoke in a spare, formal marble-floored audience room in his Baghdad home, which until the U.S.-led invasion had been the Baghdad residence of Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.
Sitting straight and intently in a high-backed chair, Hakim repeatedly invoked the assassination of his brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim, who was killed by a car bomb in Najaf in August 2003. He evinced distrust of the Iraqi government's principal ally, the United States, even more often.
In Iraq, "there are plans to confront terrorists, approved by security agencies, but the Americans reject that," Hakim said. "Because of that mistaken policy, we have lost a lot. One of the victims was my brother Mohammad Bakir, because of American policies."
"For instance, the ministries of Interior and Defense want to carry out some operations to clean out some areas" in Baghdad and around the country, including volatile Anbar province, in the west, he said.
"There were plans that should have been implemented months ago, but American officials and forces rejected them," he said. "This has led to the expansion of terrorism.
"We have a capacity to move more quickly than currently," he said.
The issue points to a key difference between U.S. officials and some of Iraq's conservative Shiite leaders about what it will take to end the insurgency. Even the top U.S. generals say the ultimate solution is a political one, bringing minority Sunnis into a democracy that without them stands to be dominated permanently by the Shiite majority. But the leaders of many Shiite religious parties, reflecting their years in exile and their bitterness over the killing of relatives and supporters during Hussein's dictatorship, say the endgame is a military one.
Hakim charged that the United States, evidently fearful of alienating Sunnis, was blocking the arrests of Sunni political leaders who had ties to insurgents. "The mixing of security and political issues" was just another U.S. mistake, he said. "Terrorists should know there would be no dealing with them."
Indeed, some former members of Hussein's Baath Party who initially took up arms against U.S. forces and the new Iraqi government have said they have abandoned the insurgency and sought a political role largely because of the effectiveness of what they alleged to be Shiite death squads rounding up and executing Sunni men since the Shiite-led government took office last spring.
Hakim said "the problem is not with the Sunnis, it is with the terrorists. There are Sunnis who have strong ties with us, who speak frankly and in pain, asking for help in getting rid of the terrorists."
Yet suspicion of the Badr forces runs strong among Iraqis, especially since the discovery by the U.S. military this month of a secret prison in central Baghdad containing what Interior Minister Bayan Jabar, a Shiite, acknowledged were at least five to seven detainees who had been subjected to torture.
Hakim said charges of torture have long been drummed up by Hussein loyalists, and he asserted that the U.S. military is often present in Interior Ministry facilities. American troops, he said, had been in the building where the prison was discovered "four times a week."
"These are all baseless allegations," he said. "We say, bring us one single piece of evidence to prove these allegations."
Hakim also made clear he wanted leaders elected in December to move forward toward creation of a massive federal region in the Shiite south, an idea he first broached in August before thousands of supporters in a ceremony in the Shiite holy city of Najaf marking the second anniversary of his brother's assassination.
Some Americans and Iraqis have charged such a state would put much of Iraq, and its oil, under a Shiite-controlled theocracy heavily influenced by Iran. But Hakim noted that the Kurdish-populated north already has such a region, and he contended that Baghdad, with its mixed population, and the heavily Sunni west should form separate regions as well.
The draft constitution voted in this year "approved that Iraq should become regions," he said. "While we want to form a region in the south, we strive to maintain the unity of Iraq."
Hakim said the United States could find "many areas" of agreement with Iran on Iraq, if it wanted to. For example, he said, "from the Iranian point of view, it is in the Iranian interest that Iraq be stable. That is also supposed to be the American intent."
Hakim made clear his own role would remain at the national level, rather than limited to any new Shiite region. Asked twice if he would seek political office directly, he said both times that he seeks only to be a servant of all Iraqis and showed one of his few, small smiles of the night.
Asked how different Iraq would look five years from now, Hakim said the answer depended on the actions of the United States. "For sure, the policies of America will have great influence on whether security and reconstruction are present," he said.