January 22, 2008

No More Stars

In the pNewflagarliament today Iraq changed its flag. Gone are the three stars to represent unity, freedom and socialism, the motto of the Baath party. Gone is Saddam Hussein's handwriting where the flag reads "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest).

In parliament they chose a red, white, and black flag with the same phrase "Allahu Akbar" in Green in the Kufic script, the oldest form of Arabic calligraphy founded in Mesopotamia. They removed the stars and declared it Iraq's flag.

The change was pushed forward so the Iraqi government could avoid the embarrassment of being banned from flying its own flag in Iraq's Kurdistan during a March meeting of the pan-Arab parliament in Irbil. There the regional government has refused to fly the national flag they see as a representation of the crimes against them by Saddam Hussein and the Baath party.

In the past proposals for a flag have sparked massive controversy, one model, that resembled the Israeli flag, had people protesting in the streets in 2004.

The latest version of the Iraq flag, which is to be raised across the nation and in Iraqi embassies immediately, is temporary. Today the parliament passed two amendments to two Iraqi laws, removing the requirement that "Allahu Akbar" on the Iraq flag must be written in the handwriting of Saddam Hussein and another that allowed them to remove the three stars and change the interpretation of the colors from Arab colors to Islamic colors.

But it is another band-aid solution. The constitution requires that the parliament pass a new law to pick a flag for Iraq and a national anthem. 

"Iraqis your council has chosen the new flag that will be raised over constitutional and non-constitutional establishments and Iraqi embassies and the Kurdistan Region until the certification on a permanent flag for Iraq," the speaker of the parliament, Mahmoud al Mashhadani said today.

In technical terms Iraq still has no flag and no anthem. Little has been decided that lasts in Iraq. The heads of political blocs put the problem off for another year. In a year maybe the problem will again be solved at a later date.


January 21, 2008

Friendly Forces

We drove through the traffic jams that clog the roads mid-day in Baghdad. Here and there we stopped to do reporting, then picked up a pizza before heading to an appointment at an Iraqi ministry.

We got an early start so we had half an hour to kill, or so I thought. As we neared the ministry we came to a halt, the cars ahead of us were not moving. The road was blocked. A series of Private Security Details passed in front of us, guns pointed from their vehicles directly at our window. Finally they were gone and we crept forward before seeing a U.S. military convoy in front of us.

Immediately we pulled off the road, a learned behavior to get out of the way or risk getting shot. As they passed I turned to look at the back of the humvees. Gone were the signs "Warning stay back/Deadly Force Authorized."  Instead it was a simple phrase  "Please be safe," in English and Arabic.

While tens of thousands of bombs are being dropped south of Baghdad where Al Qaida, a Sunni extremist group, is still rampant, in Baghdad the U.S. military seems to be trying on a new persona.

But we won't be changing our policy of getting off the roads to make way any time soon. 


January 20, 2008

American Intervention

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker, has an ax to grind with the United States. He's sick of watching American officials make statements on television every time the Iraqi parliament makes a move.

He was angry when President Bush, last week, said he hoped a law that was supposed to soften restrictions on former Baathists would pass; angry that when the law did pass with a slim majority in the parliament, many linked the passage with his statement. An hour after the law was passed the U.S. President congratulated Iraq on its passage, Othman said.

The law itself in some ways is more stringent than the one it was supposed to soften, and former Baathists, thousands of which can now claim pensions, do not trust the government enough to return and admit their positions in Saddam Hussein's government.

"They talk about it as if we are children and they are directing us," he said, exasperated. "When we passed the accountability and justice law after one hour bush said publicly we congratulate you so that everybody will say 'we told you this is an American law.'"

But there are other things that bother him about what he called a black and white American foreign policy.

He remember in 1989, he went to the United States for a month, the last 19 days of Ronald Reagan's presidency and the first 11 day's of President George Bush senior's presidency. He begged to see someone in the State Department about what had happened to the Kurds, he wanted to talk to them about the gassing of Kurds in Halabja and the Anfal campaign, a campaign against the Kurds in the 1980’s that was estimated to have killed between 100,000 and 200,000 Kurds in bombings and chemical bombardments of Kurdish villages. Officials in the State Department agreed but said they didn't want to hear anything about overturning Saddam Hussein's government. At this time he was an American friend.

They called the next day and said they would see him but they wanted to hear nothing about secession of the Kurds. Othman agreed, he would just tell them the story of what had happened.

The next day they called and said they could not meet with them. How would this look to their ally, Saddam Hussein?

He called powerful friends and journalists to intervene on his behalf. Finally the State Department agreed to let someone meet with him from the Human Rights section. But Othman could not come to the State Department. He must act as if he bumped into the official in the lobby of a D.C. hotel, he was told. Othman refused.

During the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the Kurds were the American's most steadfast allies. Still in the north, Americans are welcomed, he said.

"You talk to a communist, an Islamist, anyone they all love America," he said.

But he is angry at the U.S. policy on the Kurdistan Worker's Party, the PKK, a militant Kurdish nationalist group that wants an independent Kurdistan in parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

The conflict between Turkey and the PKK has been fought for decades and in recent months Turkey's shelling of villages and incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan has angered the Kurds in the north. But in this conflict the U.S. did not play a role as a broker, he said.

Where they could have begun negotiations between the PKK and Turkey, instead they took Turkey's side and called the PKK the enemy of America, the enemy of Turkey and the enemy of Iraq.

"The PKK has been trying to talk to America," he said. "If you push them and always say they are terrorists their policies will become more militant and they will turn somewhere else."

Othman believes the United States could have brokered a deal for amnesty for PKK fighters in Turkey and a concession on Kurdish rights and changes in the Turkish constitution.

"They support Turkey wrong or right," he said "Why are their relations with Turkey at the expense of our relationship with them."

PKK is a listed terrorist organization in the United States.

"Did they (Turkey) help America during the war? They didn't let one soldier on their land," he said. "Faith hasn't grown between America and Iraq."


January 18, 2008

No where to go

It's a lazy day here. There's a curfew and we can't go anywhere. The government put the curfew in place for the Ashura commemoration. The curfew is to stop car bombs from driving into crowds of pilgrims.

But it's a strange curfew. First the curfew banned all vehicles on the road, but upset pilgrims complained that they could not make it to the holy city of Karbala where Shiites converge to commemorate the slaying of Hussein, the Grandson of the Muslim prophet Mohammed.

So the government changed the curfew to allow cars with four or more people to travel. In essence buses and mini-buses can be on the roads today. Tomorrow the 10th day of the commemoration and the anniversary of the death of Hussein, his family and his followers no vehicles can be on the road.

It leads to desperation for little things. A woman who needed to run errands tried to bribe a family of three with ice cream. They would get in the car with her; she would shop, and then buy them ice cream.

I have a hankering for Falafel. But we don't have enough people willing to load up in the car to run out and buy food. So I'm sitting here, craving crispy fried chickpea patties, but there's no way to get there.

It's a lazy day here and I'm hungry.


January 16, 2008

Kuwait still wounded

Sorry for the lapse in posts. I left Iraq to visit Istanbul and Beirut before heading back here via Kuwait. In Kuwait I covered the President's visit to the small oil-rich nation.

It was an odd experience. Companies took out full-page ads emblazoned with the U.S. and Kuwaiti flag and the words "friends forever." Newspaper columnists lauded the deep friendship between the two nations while imploring the President to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the Crowne Plaza, where the traveling White House press corps stayed, the reason for that uncompromising friendship was apparent. The hotel was among those looted when Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard invaded the nation on August 2, 1990.  The lobby was completely burned and a small glass case carries melted telephones, ashen typewriters and artillery casings that the Republican Guard left as they pulled out.

The lobby was completely renovated but a strip of ashen black remains on one hotel balcony as a reminder of those seven months.

In January of 1991 the U.S. military intervened and within weeks the Republican Guard had pulled out.

But the memories are still here. To this day Kuwaiti channels and radio stations refuse to play the music of any of Iraq's musicians. Relics from the war are preserved throughout Kuwait City.

But popular support for the war next door has waned. While Saddam Hussein's capture and execution were welcomed in Kuwait the deterioration of a nation caught people off guard.

A Kuwaiti friend explained it to me in simple terms.

"Before they had water, now they do not. Before they had electricity now they do not, before they had security now they do not," she said. "This was not liberation or democracy.”

Her mother sat nearby

.

"They liberated us after they gave Iraq the green light to invade,” she said. “This is not friendship.”


December 22, 2007

Sacrifice

The Eid al Adha, the festival of Sacrifice, started Wednesday, and Thursday and Friday.

The Sunni Muslims woke up the morning of Wednesday to do their Eid prayer and listen to the sermon, or Khutba, before donning new clothes and visiting family and friends with gifts and money for young children. Sadrists, followers of the Shiite Sadr family, awoke on Thursday to begin their holiday and followers of the supreme Shiite leader in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, repeated the ceremony on Friday. They could not agree upon the start of the Eid that marks the end of the holy Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Sacrificing an animal whose meat is largely distributed to the poor commemorates it.

Today we had a holiday party, the Eid lasts three days. Yesterday I went out to buy gifts for many of our drivers' and reporters' children. We walked through a central Baghdad market place and I kept hearing the sharp cracks of what I thought were gunshots. My immediate response was to duck and run back to the car, worried that a gunfight was nearby. But Sahar looked at me with a smile on her face, today they were sharp booms of celebration, young children setting off firecrackers.

In the streets we weaved through pretty women fresh from the salon with their makeup meticulously done and their hair shiny and flowing. Other girls donned glittery scarves wrapped stylishly into pseudo-buns and young men walked the streets in leather jackets and new polo shirts.

We slipped into a toy store where little boys crowded around toys, picking their holiday gifts. They all wanted the same thing, toy guns, just like the men they see on the street. A 10-year-old carried a very real replica of an Ak-47 and the younger boys chose pistols.

I opted for cars

.

"Why," Hussein asked. "They all want guns, all the boys want to play with guns."

The toys here are a reflection of the reality they live, humvees, military helicopters and guns. All the little boys want to emulate the violence on the street.

The shop owner showed me a few battery-operated cars. A yellow hatchback spun in circles, with lights flashing. But instead of the "vroom, vroom" of a car, a haunting Arabic love song wafted from the cartoon-like vehicle. I passed on that and opted for remote control trucks. I didn't try them out though, I hope they don't operate to the theme song of lost love.

Our staff's families came to eat lunch and celebrate. As we ate and chatted the reality of life slipped into our celebration. One of our guests asked if I was married.

"No, are you?" I said.

"My fiancée was killed at the beginning of the war," she said. "I've never found anyone like him."

Haider, one of our drivers, brought his two children and wife. She came at my insistence, but needed to head to Iran to see her brother. He was sick but there were no doctor's here suitable to treat him. He was rushed to Tehran. Although a trickle of people are returning so many professionals are absent and simple medical procedures are only available outside Iraq.

The night before, I watched celebratory programming on Iraqi state television. The main celebratory program was not in Iraq, but neighboring Jordan. Iraqi children were given gifts, music was played and people were asked what they wished for this holiday.

“I wish to return to Baghdad, to be with my family and my people,” a young displaced woman said.

On a random but interesting note families sacrificed 100 sheep in the “Big Mosque” in Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, on Friday. The sheep were in honor of “the late President Saddam Hussein,” they said.

Happy Holidays everyone. May the New Year usher in better times, mend what is broken and help everyone overcome all that they have lost.


December 12, 2007

Stray Bullets

Suheila Hammad held her daughter in her arms before dawn on Tuesday. Outside she heard the U.S. Special Forces and the Iraqi Army in her area just south of Fallujah.

First they raided a home two doors down, blew the doors out and went in looking for their target. The soldiers pulled the family out of the home and the second floor was destroyed, the family said. A picture shows a burned out room and shattered glass.

The soldiers progressed to the second house, searching for their target, an Al Qaida in Iraq member who was believed responsible for attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.

At the second house in this place, once an Al Qaida bastion, they blew the doors off and pulled the residents from the house. The Iraqi soldiers toyed with them, telling them to raise their arms up, drop their arms and raise them again.

A few soldiers walked away speaking a language the families didn't understand. It was then that a bullet pierced the window where Suheila held her daughter Hadil. The bullet pierced Hadil's neck and passed through her, embedding in the wall of the room. No one came into the house and Suheila was too afraid to call out for help, she said.

Hadil bled to death in her mother’s arms. Three men were detained, two were later released. The U.S. military said the man detained is an Al Qaida in Iraq member. There were no reports of Hadil's death, they said.

This morning Ali walked into my room. He works at the hotel where our offices are housed. We chat while he works most mornings. Today he was visibly tired.

"How's your neighborhood," I asked.

"Not good Leila, not good," he replied. He stopped his work and walked over to my desk.

"They came at 3 a.m. looking for someone from the Mahdi Army," he said, referring to the U.S. military. The Shiite militia loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr controls his neighborhood.

He described how the "Amerkan," the Americans, pulled him and his family from their beds and forced them against the walls, guns pointed to their backs. The U.S. soldiers had broken down the doors and taken them by surprise, looking for their target.

His daughter and son , Wafaa, 6, and Hussein, 7, shook with fear. Because I didn't understand the word shiver,  he impersonated his children quivering. The soldiers searched the home and found nothing. They told Ali he could file for compensation for the damages they caused.

"After this, why would I want their money," he said.

Last month a child and two men were killed as they rushed through a military checkpoint while the U.S. military were conducting an operation in Bayji. A U.S. military official estimated the child was about three years old. In Baghdad up to four people were killed, including three women, when a mini-bus ended up on a road meant only for car traffic. Bank employees on the bus were killed when soldiers fired warning shots that fragmented and hit the bus.

These deaths were not deliberate. But Suheila does not have her daughter, a three-year-old was shot as he huddled in the back of a car and two young people forever associate Americans with the fear they felt in the middle of the night when foreign soldiers burst into their home. 


December 06, 2007

"I just want one real friend"

My friend and Iraqi colleague's son walked into the newsroom tonight and banged his head against the desk gently.

"I'm bored," he said and looked down.

For a few days the rambunctious 13-year-old's been down. For security, he's lived in the hotel where our offices are housed for a few months.

After school he runs up the three flights of stairs and eats lunch with us. Then he heads up to his room that he shares with his mother and sister, unpacks his backpack and does his homework. At night he comes down to the newsroom and watches movies, listens to music or plays video games.

I suggested playing with his PSP or listening to his iPod. He looked down thoughtfully, consdering what I'd said.

"Sometimes you want a real person to hang out with," he said. "I just want one real friend."

Naively I worried the kids at school were being mean.

"What's wrong? You don't like anyone at school?" I asked.

"No. It's just a part of me is always a secret," he said. "I can't have a real friend."

Even if he befriended someone, he couldn't bring him or her home to play. No one can know his mother works as a journalist. Not only does she work with us, she and her family live here. Working for a foreign news agency could put her and her children's lives in danger.

He isn't lucky enough to have the typical teen-age angst. At 13, most kids start to resent their parents and rules. They fight for a little bit of independence. 

"I wish I had those problems," he said. "I could get killed coming home from school."

He talked about his dreams. He wished that he could sit outside in the garden on this cool windy day. He wished that he could go to the movies and one day have a girlfriend.

But in Baghdad, even this Baghdad that has gone from terrifying to a little less terrifying, these dreams are not within his reach.

A month ago gunmen came to his school and shot three guards during his last period. The U.S. Military came and the students ran out the door to catch their rides. That day he made it home safe. Tomorrow, he doesn't know.

The burden he carries is not fit for a 13-year-old. But this is not an R-rated movie; you can't keep the children out.


December 02, 2007

"I'm here so someone else doesn't have to be"

I spent two days on a combat outpost with Bravo Company 4-64 Armor. The company surround themselves with blast walls in the key Shiite vs. Sunni battleground in Saidiyah. Their outpost is named for a fallen soldier from the company that preceded them.

Often these soldiers have no running water and as the cold rushes in they bundle up against the cold. Once a day they get a hot meal and the rest of the day they snack on pop tarts, muffins and trusty peanut butter and jelly. Their lives are far away from the semi-comforts of the military bases or the heavily fortified Green Zone.

They are far away from their hometowns and tasked with fixing this neighborhood, where one of the biggest Shiite and Sunni fault lines lie and government officials are constantly getting involved.

Capt. Sean Chase, a young smart commander, was trained to fight a war but here he does something completely different.  He is forced to play the diplomat and weed out the lies from the truth.

Here everyone claims to be the victim and it's unclear where loyalties lie. The Sunnis still complain about sectarianism in the mostly Shiite Iraqi Muthanna Brigade, and the Shiite will barely talk to the soldiers.

At night bullets ring out nearby, sometimes ricocheting off the building. But slowly things seem to be changing, moving in a better direction.

Lt. Matt Lacki, guides his men through a market, assuring the people that they are here to help train the Iraqi Army . This is a Sunni market, down the street another once bustling market street is dead. And the only time these men have been to the small Shiite quadrant in the north was for a raid.

They carry pictures in their wallets of young children and newborn babies they've left at home. Some of their marriages are falling a part and custody battles weigh on their mind.

In their down time they play dominoes, check e-mails and watch Survivor on DVD. At night they sit out in the dark surrounding a tin can for cigarrette butts and tell war stories, impersonate actors and wonder what the next day will bring.   

Most of the men here have a constant mantra, "I'm here so someone else doesn't have to be."


November 22, 2007

Sage?

It was my second Thanksgiving in Baghdad. There was no parade here, no football game or gathering with my family. But we had Turkey and I was determined to get the tastes of home. I think it's the smells that I love the most on Thanksgiving: the aroma of cinammon and cloves from the pumpkin pie, apples baking in the oven and the sage in stuffing.

So the morning started with a quest. First I had to figure out what celery was in Arabic. I stuck it in google translate, a nifty site that translates from language to language. My Arabic is ok but I have no idea what nutmeg, sage and celery are in the language.

Celery translates into krafes according to google translate. I ended up with some leafy looking parsley, no crunchy celery stalks to be found. I just used it anyway. After a whirlwind tour of every grocery store in the areas our security advisor said I could travel to, I actually found pumpkin pie filling. Not an easy feat in a place where no one cooks with pumpkin. My next quest nutmeg...never figured out what it was in Arabic so I gave up.

Then came sage, I needed sage for the stuffing. But no one knew what it was. Google translate said it was hakim, the word for wise. So I walked over to the office manager and asked for Hakim. He laughed at me. Eventually I figured out that I'd been asking for wisdom. Sahar, an Iraqi reporter in our office, helped me figure it out it meant Mariamiyah. It only took us about five hours to finally get it and Haider, a wonderful driver, searched everywhere for tart green apples.

The baking was complicated, every oven is slightly malfunctioning. Some oven doors don't close or the stove top doesn't work so I cooked all over the floor of our bureau. My room looked like a bread and pastry IED had exploded inside. I burned one pie but the other two gave us the smells of my home around Thanksgiving and the stuffing...well it was tolerable. The Washington Post got two Turkeys and we had Thanksgiving in Baghdad.

At home my parents, brothers and sisters and cousins are all together. But here I have another family who labored with me to find ingredients for odd looking dishes and helped me peel apples and potatoes.

I have a lot to be thankful for this year. I have a wonderful second family in the staff here and we've survived together this year with no deaths in our office. Inshallah (God Willing) we'll survive another.   


ABOUT THIS BLOG

Baghdad Observer is written by McClatchy journalists staffing the Baghdad bureau.

Feel free to send a story suggestion. Read their stories at news.mcclatchy.com.

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