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NSN Iraq Daily Update 3/3/08

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IRANIAN PRESIDENT MAKES HISTORIC VISIT AMIDST PROTEST

Ahmadinejad: "We tell Mr. Bush that accusing others will increase the problems of America in the region and will not solve them...The Americans have to understand the facts of the region. Iraqi people do not like America." Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met with Iraq's leaders on Sunday, the first visit by a Middle Eastern head of state since the U.S.-led invasion. Declaring his visit "a new chapter" in Iran's relations with Iraq, the Iranian leader signaled that his country now rivals the United States in terms of influence. He announced a $1 billion low-interest loan to help reconstruct Iraq, and was welcomed with a red-carpet ceremony, a marching band and much fanfare. The pomp and ceremony sharply contrasted with the clandestine visits to Iraq by President Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. On Monday, Ahmadinejad announced that Tehran and Baghdad signed seven economic agreements in areas such as industry, trade and transportation. [Washington Post, 3/2/08. AFP, 3/3/08]

Many Iraqis, particularly its minority Sunni population, view Iran as meddling for strategic gains, using Iraq as an arena to undermine the proclaimed U.S. political project to bring more democratic government to the Middle East. Protests erupted last week in Sunni strongholds such as Diyala province and on Sunday in Fallujah, as well as in some Shiite and mixed areas. "We reject the Iranian interference in all its shapes and forms," said Falah Hadi al-Saadoun, a Sunni tribal leader in Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province. On Sunday, a crowd of 250 Sunni and Shi'a tribal leaders protested in the northern city of Kirkuk, clutching banners that read: "No to the Iranian interference in Iraq" and "We demand the Iranian regime stop its support to the militias and sabotage teams." [Washington Post, 3/2/08]

TOP US GENERAL: IRAQ NEEDS STRIDES IN ECONOMY AND GOVERNANCE TO CUT ATTACKS

Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the former No. 2 American commander in Iraq says that without economic and political progress, it will not be possible to reduce substantially the current level of violence. General Odierno said that literacy programs, vocational training and provincial elections that would enfranchise the country's minority Sunnis were needed to make additional security gains. "In order to have another significant decline, it is going to take economic progress, governance progress, and I think that's the next step," he said. One big problem, he said, is the large pool of young men who are not literate enough to be accepted into the Iraqi Army and police forces. Vocational schools and literacy programs are needed to provide an alternative to "being hired hands" for insurgent groups, he said. Holding provincial elections would reduce violence over the long run by enfranchising Sunnis who had boycotted earlier elections. The Iraqi Parliament passed a measure last month calling for provincial elections by October, but it was vetoed by the Presidency Council. [NY Times, 3/3/08]

SECTARIANISM MARS TRIAL OF 2 SHI'A EX-OFFICIALS

The highest-ranking Iraqi official to be charged with sectarian crimes stood before a court on Sunday, but the trial has been overshadowed by reports of witness intimidation and corruption of court officials, including a judge. Former deputy health minister Hakim al-Zamili and Brig. Gen. Hamid al-Shammari, former head of the ministry's security service, have ties to Shi'a cleric Moktada al-Sadr and are being accused of murder, kidnapping and corruption. While the fact that the trial opened at all was seen as a triumph for the Shi'a-dominated government's effort to show its impartiality in bringing justice, widespread reports of intimidation of witnesses and court officers in the weeks leading up to it also stood as proof that the days of sectarian terror are not as far in the past as many officials would like to claim. The trial was delayed when it was learned a judge had agreed under pressure to vote to acquit Mr. Zamili. Many witnesses failed to appear and of those who did, many recounted tales of intimidation. Some, speaking and acting very nervously, even tried to deny their previous testimony and paint a more favorable picture of the accused. [NY Times, 3/3/08]

VIOLENCE CONTINUES TO RAGE

Violence up in February as US Soldiers find a mass grave and two car bombs kill 23 and injure dozens Baghdad. The number of Iraqis killed by violence rose in February for the first time in several months. The increase was mainly due to two attacks in Baghdad and one near Karbala that killed at least 150 people. The sharp rise reverses a six-month trend of fewer casualties, but it is still down from 1,645 civilians killed in February 2007. In the deadlier of the two attacks in Baghdad, a parked car bomb killed at least 21 people and wounded 43 in central Baghdad. In the second attack, a man drove a minibus into the headquarters of the Interior Ministry's 4th Brigade, a special quick reaction force based in Baghdad's eastern Zayouna neighborhood. The blast killed at least two police officers and wounded six other people. In Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. military reported finding a grave containing 14 people, believed to be members of the Iraqi security forces and thought to have been executed by Islamist extremists. All the victims had their hands tied behind their backs and had been shot in the head -- execution style. A car bomb in Samarra killed seven people, including one child. [AP, 3/3/08. BBC, 3/1/08]

Gunmen have kidnapped the archbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Church in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and killed three of his aides, his church says. Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho had just left the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul, when gunmen opened fire on his car, killing his two companions and driver, before kidnapping the archbishop. Most of Iraq's estimated 700,000 Christians are Chaldeans - Catholics who are autonomous from Rome but recognize the Pope's authority. In January, bombs exploded outside three Chaldean and Assyrian churches in Mosul. Several Christian priests have also been kidnapped or killed during the past five years. The kidnappers have reportedly communicated their demands, but these have not been made public. [BBC, 2/29/08]