By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
BAGHDAD, Dec. 20 -- Iraq's outgoing interior minister said Tuesday that forces loyal to former president Saddam Hussein's Baath Party posed the greatest security challenge to the next government and that their influence and capability grew while U.S. and Iraqi troops were focusing counterinsurgency efforts on foreign fighters.
The threat from groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq, led by the Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi, has waned in recent months, said Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a powerful and polarizing figure in Iraq's Shiite Muslim-dominated cabinet whose term expires early next year.
"I believe from my own sources that al Qaeda is weakening here and will be gone, in part because we have done a better job closing the border in the west. Now it's the Baathists," Jabr said in a wide-ranging interview at his office in a lavish marble palace that once belonged to one of Hussein's top lieutenants. "At first, all efforts were directed at the foreign groups. The Baathists were left alive, not chased and not hunted. They could carry on doing their thing."
The comparative strength of foreign and Iraqi forces within the broader, Sunni Arab-led insurgency here has been a matter of much debate. U.S. diplomats and military officials often stress the influence of foreigners, who they say conduct 96 percent of suicide attacks in the country. But some analysts say foreigners make up fewer than 10 percent of all fighters and that their role has been overstated in an attempt to portray the insurgency as something foisted on Iraq by outsiders.
In the past 30 days, only four foreign fighters have been captured or killed by Interior Ministry forces, Jabr said, compared with an average of up to 16 a month earlier this year.
The minister, a slight, soft-spoken civil engineer who favors stylish gray suits, also cast doubt on the hope expressed by U.S. and Iraqi officials that the participation of Sunnis in the political process would help stem the violence.
"As the election ended, the attacks went up and it was back to the old methods," he said. "Now I ask, as an observer not as the minister: Are the people who joined the political process representative of the insurgency? . . . We'll have to wait and see."
Jabr has been a lightning rod for controversy during his almost eight months in office. Iraq's Sunni Arab minority accuses the Interior Ministry of sanctioning hit squads, run by Shiite militias, that have carried out brutal executions of Sunni clerics and political leaders. In late November and early December, U.S. troops uncovered evidence of widespread torture of inmates at two Interior Ministry prisons.
"The main problem in the country is the Ministry of the Interior forces who are torturing and attacking people in Sunni regions," said Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni parliamentary candidate whose slate in last Thursday's elections included some former Baathists.
Asked about the recent allegations of torture, Jabr pulled out a copy of a report issued by Human Rights Watch that discussed the abuse of detainees under the previous government, headed by interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, who left office early this year.
"You can see things were bad even in that time. But why was there no public outcry?" he said. "I do not accept torture. Thirteen of my family members were killed by the Saddam regime. I know we have to protect human rights."
Iraq's turbulent recent history is partly to blame for occasional abusive behavior by security forces, Jabr said, adding that many of the officers who worked at the prisons being investigated had "lost brothers, sons, family members to Saddam.
"We went through 35 years of persecution," he said. "There's a psychological theory that says victims follow the persecutor. But we shall take big steps to change this culture."
Discussing the spate of recent killings allegedly committed by men in police uniforms, including the slaying of two lawyers involved with Hussein's trial on crimes against humanity, Jabr described them as rogue reprisals conducted in response to terrorist attacks.
"Anyone can go to the store and buy a police uniform," he said. "These are not police."
During his final few weeks in office, he said, Interior Ministry forces are working through a newly compiled list of 16,000 former military and intelligence officers in an effort to "capture, neutralize or reform" them. "It doesn't mean all of them are terrorists," he added. "But we are checking them out."
Describing a previously undisclosed operation, Jabr said stepped-up police efforts had led to the near-capture three months ago of Izzat Ibrahim Douri, the top-ranking member of Hussein's inner circle, who is still at large. He said Interior Ministry forces tracked Douri from near the northern city of Tikrit as he traveled south for a meeting with other Baathists in Zubair, near the Kuwaiti border.
"We knew he was in the house of a well-known family in Zubair, but he must have become suspicious of being observed, so he left," Jabr said. "We missed him by four hours."
The elections conducted last week appear likely to return to power the Shiite religious parties that control the current government, including Jabr's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The minister said, however, that he would prefer a new job when the next government is formed.
In an election day op-ed article in The Washington Post about the future of Iraq, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad warned that the country's next security ministers should "be trusted by all communities and not come from elements of the population that have militias."