Middle East

Iraq speaker warns on civilian deaths

File - Iraq's Sunni parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri speaks about Musab bin Omair Mosque, where Friday's attack killed tens of people, during a press conference in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry this week that airstrikes on ISIS militants should not kill civilians, the speaker said to Reuters in an interview.

United States President Barack Obama has promised to destroy the extremist Islamist militants using a “systematic campaign of airstrikes.” Washington has already conducted more than 150 strikes in Iraq in recent weeks.

“The only condition that we made was that the airstrikes must be concentrated and accurate and against the terrorist groups,” Jabouri said at his house in Baghdad Wednesday after meeting Kerry.

ISIS fighters have seized large chunks of Iraq’s north and parts of western Anbar province this year. The group has been tolerated by some of the Sunni minority who accuse the Shiite-led government of marginalizing their community and arresting them indiscriminately.

Jabouri, a 43-year-old Sunni, is considered a balancing force in a political system dominated by Shiites.

A doctor of law, Jabouri says he believes in Baghdad’s government; two of his brothers were killed by the Sunni militant group Al-Qaeda in Iraq. But he also appeals to Sunnis who are skeptical of Iraq’s Shiite political elite.

Washington hopes that Sunnis like Jabouri can help bring the country together to defeat ISIS. Until now, many Sunni tribal fighters and members of armed factions have sided with ISIS rather than the government, convinced Baghdad is the greater of two evils.

To help win Sunnis over, Jabouri argued that the Iraqi security forces needed to stop immediately their use of indiscriminate “barrel bombs” and artillery to batter Sunni areas of Iraq where ISIS fighters are in control.

Residents in Fallujah and Gharma in Anbar, where ISIS has a large presence, regularly report massive shelling that kills civilians and destroys homes.

The U.S. supplied munitions to the Iraqi military for its fight against ISIS this year in Anbar, where hundreds of thousands have been displaced.

In June, the U.S. military asked the Iraqi government to stop the use of barrel bombs, but according to the New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch, Anbar residents and security officers, barrel bomb attacks have resumed.

“Random shelling that targets civilians is rejected by us, naturally, and is not considered as a constructive military practice,” Jabouri said.

“Because civilians will receive the greatest degree of harm and in truth we will lose many lives and they will hate us more.”

Fourteen barrel bombs were dropped on Fallujah city Thursday, killing 22 civilians, a source at a hospital in the city said.

Washington only agreed to deepen its involvement in Iraq on the condition that newly appointed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi formed an inclusive government, bringing in Sunnis who had been isolated by his controversial predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.

The speaker was a key figure in forming the government, pushing parliamentarians to stop bickering and vote on Abadi’s Cabinet Monday.

Kurdish politicians had threatened to pull out of politics in Baghdad unless they were given a greater share of government revenues but joined the parliament session halfway through, finally agreeing to give Abadi a three-month trial period.

Sunni politicians also expressed deep reservations but many eventually voted to support Abadi’s Cabinet.

“Political differences should not be shouldered by the Iraqi people who were waiting for the government to start its work,” Jabouri said. “The important thing was that the session ended with the formation of the government.”

Jabouri, who has served as head of the human rights committee in parliament, also warned of the threat posed by increasingly powerful progovernment militias.

Iraq’s national army lost several northern cities in quick succession to ISIS this summer. Following the U.S. strikes it was largely the irregular Shiite militias who counterattacked against ISIS, winning praise. But the militias also torched homes.

Prime Minister Abadi has both praised and condemned the militias, which are loosely attached to the state’s military command, but act with little supervision on the ground from the security forces. Abadi has pledged to bring them into the formal state security forces, a move Jabouri supports.

He said: “If we want to respect the state and its institutions ... we should recognize that weapons must be in the hands of the state exclusively.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 13, 2014, on page 9.




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