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Iraq: Sectarian faultlines widen amid chaos
by Staff Writers
Baghdad (UPI) Apr 30, 2013

Iraq media suspensions draw international criticism
Baghdad (AFP) April 30, 2013 - The United Nations and Human Rights Watch called on Iraq on Tuesday to rescind its suspension of the licences of 10 satellite TV channels, a move that bars them from working in the country.

Media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has also criticised the decision by the Communications and Media Commission, Iraq's media regulator, to suspended the channels for allegedly "encouraging violence and sectarianism."

"Press freedom is a fundamental pillar of democracy, one that the United Nations takes very seriously," UN envoy Martin Kobler said in a statement. "I urge the Commission to fully respect its commitment to press freedom."

Human Rights Watch condemned the suspensions, saying "Iraq's media commission should immediately reverse the licence suspensions for 10 satellite television stations and allow them to continue broadcasting."

"The authorities have admitted that there was no legal basis for their decision, which looks more suspicious given the government's history of cracking down on opposition media, particularly during protests," Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director, said in a statement.

The suspensions came during a wave of violence that began on April 23 with deadly clashes between security forces and Sunni anti-government protesters.

Dozens more were killed in subsequent violence, bringing the death toll to more than 240 in seven days and raising fears of a return to all-out sectarian conflict that plagued Iraq in past years and left tens of thousands dead.

The suspended channels included pan-Arab network Al-Jazeera and Sharqiya, a leading Iraqi station.

"We took a decision to suspend the licence of some satellite channels that adopted language encouraging violence and sectarianism," Mujahid Abu al-Hail, a top official from the CMC, told AFP on Sunday.

"It means stopping their work in Iraq and their activities, so they cannot cover events in Iraq or move around," he said.

RSF has also slammed the suspensions, saying in a statement on Monday that "this draconian and disproportionate decision has seriously endangered freedom of information."

The CMC should "quickly rescind this decision and to allow the media to cover all developments of general interest throughout the country," RSF said.

Iraq is approaching a security meltdown as a land-and-oil dispute between the Shiite-dominated government and independence-minded Kurds escalates along with sectarian violence between Shiites and minority Sunnis.

And in neighboring Syria to the west, the 2-year-old civil war between the Sunni majority and the minority Alawite regime is spilling into Iraq -- to the point regional analysts see the bloodletting as one big sectarian showdown between the mainstream Sunni sect, led by Saudi Arabia, and the breakaway Shiites under Iran.

If what seems to be developing into a major shootout between Islamic sects, who've been fighting each other since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the eighth century, reaches critical mass, the result is likely to convulse the entire Muslim world from Morocco to Indonesia.

Over the last few weeks, Sunni extremists of al-Qaida in Iraq and their allies have wrecked havoc across Iraq with a wave of suicide bombings in which more than 200 people have been killed.

The attacks have taken place in Baghdad, once a mixed city but increasingly dominated by Shiites, the disputed northern city of Kirkuk and all over the Shiite-dominated south.

The sectarian divide between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis, a pillar of Saddam Hussein's regime, has been etched deeper by the resurgence of another militant Sunni organization, the Men of the Army of the Naqshbandi Order.

The group, known by its Arabic acronym JRTN, is composed largely of members of Saddam's Baathist regime. JRTN is led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, one of Saddam's vice presidents with a record of ruthlessness and brutality. He's the only member of the late dictator's inner circle still at large.

Douri is 70 and reportedly in poor health but he's kept the organization intact and it's reportedly gaining new recruits among the Sunnis who see themselves being systematically crushed by Iraq's Shiite ruler, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

JRTN is determined that post-Saddam Iraq won't fall under Tehran's control following the U.S. military withdrawal in December 2011.

The sectarian confrontation shows every sign of getting worse as Maliki wages an increasingly harsh crackdown against what he perceives as a Saudi-inspired revolt centered in Iraq's Sunni-dominated western provinces.

The gloves came off April 23 when Maliki's Shiite security forces stormed a Sunni protest rally in the northern village of Hawija in Kirkuk province. More than 50 Sunnis were killed and 110 wounded.

"Retaliatory assaults against the security apparatus threaten to trigger an even tougher reaction from authorities," observed the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organization in Brussels.

"Only by credibly addressing the protesters' legitimate demands -- genuine Sunni representation in the political system -- can ... Iraq stem a rising tide of violence that, at a time of growing sectarian polarization throughout the region, likely would spell disaster."

Sunni protests have been building since late 2012 as Maliki displayed an increasing authoritarianism but the massacre at Hawija ended what was seen as a period of restraint. Sunnis are increasingly turning to violence and armed resistance.

Even so, the explosion many see as looming could come from another quarter: the increasingly fraught confrontation between Maliki's Iranian-backed forces and the rebellious Kurds in the north over ethnically mixed Kirkuk and its adjacent oil fields.

For months heavily armed forces on both sides have been squaring off around Kirkuk and the southern boundary of the Kurds' semiautonomous enclave.

The minority Kurds, who for decades battled Baghdad for self-rule, claim Kirkuk, which contains one-third of Iraq's oil reserves of 150 billion barrels, is historically their territory. But Baghdad cannot afford to relinquish the oil fields or allow the Kurds to break away because that could encourage other restive regions to do the same, and bring about the collapse of the federal state.

The Kurds have incensed Baghdad by attracting major international oil companies to their three-province enclave and have started exporting crude to neighboring Turkey from fields that have reserves of 45 billion barrels.

In recent days there have been reports Iraqi troops are deserting in the north in the face of escalating hostility by non-Shiites.

"There are signs the army can no longer cope with as crisis which in which it is confronting both Sunni Arabs and Kurds," observed veteran analyst Patrick Cockburn.


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