July 31, 2007

Iraqi National Anthem?

This blog is written by both our Cairo Bureau Chief, Hannah Allam, who is in town helping out and me:

Sports was on the agenda for a meeting of the Iraqi cabinet Tuesday, specifically whether the nation’s embattled, fragile government could mimic the national soccer team’s ability to transcend sectarian lines and win widespread popular support.

Everybody agreed it was a very good boost for the people and we wanted to know how we could capitalize on it, use it,” said Fawzi Hariri, Iraq’s minister of industry and minerals.

Hariri said members of the cabinet discussed how regional commentators crowed that the cohesive, mixed-sect soccer team should serve as a lesson to sectarian-minded legislators. Why couldn’t Iraq’s so-called “national unity government” achieve the same results?

Members of the cabinet took the question to heart, Hariri said, and spent a long time coming up with two main reasons why it was impossible.

Soccer players occupy the clearly defined area of a sports field. “They are all playing on one team with the clear aim of scoring a goal against the opponent,” said Hariri, an Iraqi Christian who’s affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party. “In politics, regrettably, we have people on the team whose primary objective is to score goals against other members of the team"

Soccer players don’t have to worry about interference from the crowd. “Nobody else is allowed to run down the pitch with them,” Hariri said. “In politics, everybody in Iraq is playing his own game. And we’ve got the spectators, the neighboring countries, playing on the field.”

In short, the ministers concluded there probably was little chance that the kind of unity Iraqis saw on the field could be replicated in the halls of government. Still, Hariri said, the ministers ordered a thorough review of “the Iraqi government’s attitude toward sports.”

The government plans to increase programs for the ministry of youth and sports, and work harder to build bridges with sports federations and the Iraqi Olympics committee. That task is complicated by the fact that the head of the Olympics committee has been missing for over a year, when abductors kidnapped him from a sports conference in the middle of the city.

While Iraq boasts 18 athletics colleges, violence and fear has cost untold hours of lessons and practice. And Iraq is in no position to hold a victory parade for its soccer heroes; it can’t even hold a large-scale soccer match for fear of bombings.

So as the new Iraqi cabinet pondered how to capitalize on the nation’s only unifier, the soccer team victory celebration was in Dubai. On Tuesday night Iraqis were told to cheer and celebrate in this Arab country where their players were welcomed safely. Iraqis, wore their flags as bandanas, waved them in the air and wrapped them around themselves as they hailed their heroes.

On the soccer player’s jerseys, next to the Iraqi flag, team members had a picture of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. No pictures of Iraqi leaders were in sight.

Then the Iraqi National Anthem played. It wasn’t the unofficial anthem, Mawtani, my homeland, a popular Arabic folk song.

Out rang the words that were cast out when Saddam Hussein was deposed. “The Land of Two Rivers,” an anthem about national pride and pride in his party, the Baath.

"A homeland that extended its wings over the horizon,

And wore the glory of civilization as a garment-- Blessed be the land of the two rivers,

A homeland of glorious determination and tolerance."

And thousands of Iraqis in the stands of the indoor stadium sang a long, holding two fingers up to make a peace sign. They broke into screaming cheers and chants of “with our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice for you Iraq.” An accident?

A pretty announcer with her head wrapped in a fashionable headscarf told the audience they were proud “to celebrate on Arab land.” A statement directed at Iraq as it struggles with its own identity. Many liken its new Shiite-led government to tools of the Persian regime next door and the constitutional review committee debates how to define Iraq. What it has settled on is something like, "An entity active in its Arab and Islamic environment,” the head of the committee, Homam Hammoudi, said in an interview last month. We all looked at the television in shock.

“I hope it’s insulting,” said an Iraqi friend as he looked up with a smile. “I hope that Maliki wakes up tomorrow and says am I nothing? Are we a state?”

Later, the head of the Iraqi Football Federation spoke. He congratulated the team, thanked Dubai for its hospitality and expressed remorse at the anthem mix up.

Mix up?


July 30, 2007

A hero's wish

The captain of the Iraqi soccer team, Younis Mahmoud, the man who scored the winning goal in the Asia Cup on Sunday, is a national hero now. But he can't come home.

"I don't want the Iraqi people to be angry with me," he told reporters. "If I go back with the team, anybody could kill me or try to hurt me."

A wave of text messages and online instant messages between Iraqis spread through cell phones and computers late Sunday and Monday.

"Congrats. Congrats. Congrats. Tell the politicians we want this team to lead us. Step aside, step down and go back to where you came from," one mass message reads.

Throughout the day today our Iraqi staff got pictures of celebrations across the world from their friends and family who have fled.

And the national hero, Mahmoud, made one wish after the game.

"I want America to go out," Mahmoud said. "Today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, but out. I wish the American people didn't invade Iraq and, hopefully, it will be over soon."


July 29, 2007

One smile

It's been a long time since Mohammed, an Iraqi reporter here, has truly smiled. It's 3:30 a.m. and we walk into the office. He is sitting alone in the newsroom smiling. One television is on as he watches a rerun of the soccer game where Iraq finally had a victory, the Asian Cup. They beat Saudi Arabia.

We'd stolen him away to watch the game among a bunch of politicians at the Deputy Prime Minister's house. They sat in business suits and whispered politics, shcmoozed and looked up at the screen. But Mohammed wouldn't let it stop his excitement.

"I hope you're not embarrassed, because I'm going to yell," he said.

His voice carried through the high-ceilinged room as he called out each players name with the title "hero," always attached. Soon Barham Saleh, the Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister, was standing by his side laughing, gravitating towards the excitement.

As the time ran out and the Iraqi team won, the room erupted and there was Mohammed leading victory chants.

Now in the early hours of the morning he relives the victory in this small room. He jumps with suspense as if he didn't watch it all this afternoon and claps and hoots when the goal was made that brought the cup home. For once Iraqis flew the flag proudly across Iraq.

"Forget about killings. Forget about ocupation. Focus on joy," the commentator says. "They did the impossible, they brought hope, Baghdad will come back....congratulations to the Iraqi people

This afternoon Barham Saleh said, see "this country will succeed."

In these early morning hours I watch revelers with Mohammed. Many wear T-shirts with the words "I am Iraqi."  Then there is Mohammed's smile, a longing for this moment to last.

If only the soccer field represented the government, the parliament, the security forces and the streets.


July 26, 2007

born Iraqi

Hussam, our Iraqi stringer in Karbala, called me today.

"Leila can I come to work in Baghdad," he asked.

"I'm sorry I filled all the positions," I told him. He's done amazing work for us in the south. When five U.S. soldiers were killed in Karbala, four kidnapped and slain, he worked until all hours of the morning to get every detail on the attack. Men posing as U.S. soldiers in military uniforms and suburbans walked into the provincial government compound where U.S. soldiers were helping local leaders prepare for throngs of pilgrims expected in the city for Ashoura, to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, the Islamic prophet Mohammed's grandson.

He went on to tell me that he needed the money. Our full time staff in Baghdad make a pretty good salary, while part timers get a monthly stipend that covers their help throughout the month.

"I'm the one responsible for my parents, my sister is in college, there are more and more expenses," he told me.

Sadly I had no open position to offer him. Although Hussam is single he is the financial backbone for his entire family. I had to figure out what I could do. 

Finally he told me that another news agency had offered him a Baghdad position. He didn't want to tell me or take it but needed the extra cash, he said. 

"You should do what's best for your family Hussam," I told him, guilt crept up my spine. I had nothing to offer him. "If I had a position I'd give it to you in a second. But I don't have the budget right now, I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault, the fault is I was born Iraqi," he answered. "I thought things would get better but that was a dream.

"I couldn't fill the generator with gasoline," he said. "Do you know how that feels? I'm the only one providing for the family."


July 23, 2007

serving in Iraq

A U.S. soldier serving in Iraq sent me a note recently after coming across this blog. He told me he was a fan and read the web log to hear the story of Iraq through Iraqi voices quoted here.

I wrote him a quick note thanking him for his comments and the soldier sent me back an e-mail with his story. 

The young soldier joined the military for college tuition. At the behest of his father, a Vietnam veteran, he talked to a recruiter. The day he was to enlist in the National Guard his father threatened the recruiter.  The metal hip, the bad knee, hand and shoulder where he had been shot, were reminders of what this man's father had been through in Vietnam. Something the man rarely spoke of to his son.

His father taught him about the "evil American military/politcal machine."

He thought things had changed.

"My theory was that we had learned our lesssons from Vietnam and that Americans would never let that happen again. Wrong!" he wrote.

The father and son struck a deal. The teen-ager would enlist in the ROTC and become an officer. When he donned his uniform tears rolled down his father's cheeks.

"I had never seen my father cry," he wrote.

Today he serves his second deployment in Iraq and this is his description of his military service: "Our job is to go around the world killing people at the American citizens' expense."

Somewhere in Iraq this soldier is hurting.

"Orwell wrote in 1984 that the most rational views of "war" reside with the subjects of the disputed territories. The most delusional views occur with the most intellectual, educated people of the occupying power," he wrote to me.


July 21, 2007

A moment of joy

It's a snapshot of joy and unity in Iraq that we rarely see here. As the Iraq national team scored the winning goal against Vietnam in the quarter final match of the Asian Cup, the echo of ululations filled McClatchy's Baghdad Bureau as celebratory gunfire broke out in the streets.

I've been Baghdad Bureau Chief for six months now and traveling in and out of Iraq for two years. But I've never seen anything like the throngs of people that took to the street today. Throughout the night and into the morning the celebrations were broadcast on state television. A united Iraqi population took to the streets in central Baghdad touting the victory as triumph over tragedy. There were no sectarian chants as little girls waved Iraqi flags and as the pop-pop-pop of gunfire in the background signified happiness rather than  death. On state television one man repeatedly kissed the Iraqi flag.

Yesterday morning was nothing like today. Sahar, one of our Iraqi journalists, came into the office and broke down into tears in the office. I hugged her as she told me about the two babies that were killed in an explosion in front of their mother. "I didn't get to say goodbye," the mother told Sahar.

"It made me think of Mazen," she told me haltingly. It is rare to see Sahar in tears. She absorbs the blows of this war and continues.  Mazen is Sahar's son who was shot and killed in this war, caught in a crossfire. The doctors wouldn't let her see his body. They didn't want his wounded corpse to be her last image of Mazen.

"It's better for you to remember him the way he was," they told her. The mother asked if she would ever heal. Sahar told her no, the heart break is always there.

Today for one moment what so many Iraqis like Sahar feel melted away. Hannah Allam, Cairo Bureau chief and former Baghdad Bureau Chief for McClatchy Newspapers who is here helping out,  wrote about the occasion. She came back with a wide smile on her face. We flipped through pictures close to tears. It would be the second time she uses the term "jubilant Iraqis," in a story. The first being election day in January 2005.

As we sat in the newsroom we reveled in a rare moment of joy for Iraqis.

Tomorrow will be nothing like today.

"Tomorrow, back to same ol' same ol'," Hannah said sadly. 

 


July 19, 2007

Progress?

I called Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish legislator, to ask how things were going after the parliament finally had its members back. Now they could actually pass laws if they could agree on something.

Sadrists, followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, returned Wednesday after weeks of boycotting the parliament until the Shiite shrine in Samara is rebuilt. Sunnis came back today after striking a deal to re-instate the Sunni speaker of the parliament. Now he gets to step down gracefully after he leads the sessions for a few days. If he doesn't, he'll be thrown out a legislator told me.  The speaker, Mahmoud al Mashhadani, was ousted after one of his guards apparently beat up a law maker. He published poetry while he was away, according to an Iraqi newspaper.

"Are you going to make these benchmarks before the assessment," I asked, referring to the mid-September assessment by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and Commanding General David Petraeus.

"I don't think so," he said.

The parliament is under intense U.S. pressure to meet political benchmarks to show progress in Iraq. But the only legislation in the parliament right now is the oil law, which will regulate the petroleum industry. In less than two weeks the parliament breaks for a month of vacation.

That might not be enough time to get the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Sadrists, who all take issue with the law, to compromise. The law's companion legislation the revenue-sharing law will actually divide the wealth between Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Shiites.

"It's doesn't look like anything can get done by then," I commented.

A more lenient version of the deBaathification law is still being discussed by the cabinet and the Constitutional Review Committee asked for an extension from May 15 to Sept. 4, no date has been set for the provincial elections.

Othman went off about the American pressures that undermine Iraq sovereignty, he said. The more U.S. officials talk about the oil law, he said, the more people think it's an American law to take advantage of the black gold, he complained.

"They insist and press and the Iraqi people react badly. In the last four years they haven’t gotten the message?" he asked. "When you ask America they say they don't need Iraqi oil. Then leave us alone.

I wake up and there is a declaration by the Americans about the oil law, at night there is another declaration about the oil law."

It echoed what Mashhadani had told me earlier this year.

"All this blood shed and they ask about the oil law," he said referring to U.S. officials. This was before his fall from grace.

A lot of Iraqis wonder how passing this law, which is touted as a key element to unifying Iraqis, actually stops the Mahdi Army from displacing and killing Sunnis or halts Sunni gunmen from ousting Shiites from their neighborhood.

"What do you think the Americans will do if you don't make significant progress by mid-September?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said. "I hope they will keep quiet and leave us alone."


July 18, 2007

Wizard of Oz

For months now I've been quoting statements by Abu Omar al Baghdadi. He is the faceless leader that declared an Islamic State in Sunni and some mixed Shiite and Sunni areas of Iraq last year. People were forced to pledge allegiance to him or face brutal punishments. His booming voice played in clips on the Internet for nine months. Defiant, he threatened the U.S. troops and the Shiite-led government.

The Egyptian leader of Al Qaida in Iraq, the Sunni extremist group that is believed responsible for many of the bloodiest bombings here, even paid homage to him.

At a U.S. military conference I'm told that he doesn't exist.

The U.S. military says Baghdadi was a deception, to make Al Qaida in Iraq, which is led by mostly foreigners, look like it's controlled by an Iraqi. (Most rank and file fighters are Iraqi)

Is Baghdadi a fake? I don't know.

No one has ever seen Abu Omar al Baghdadi. But Iraqi government officials have claimed to have killed him at least three times now.

So here is the latest story according to Khalid al Mashhadani, a detained senior Al Qaida in Iraq member, via the U.S. military spokesman. Mashhadani told his American captors that he and the leader of Al Qaida in Iraq, Abu Ayoub al Masri made Baghdadi up. Then they got an actor to be the voice on the Internet and voila; Abu Omar al Baghdadi was born.   

It's quite a bizarre thing to sit in the middle of a U.S. Military press conference in Baghdad and compare Al Qaida in Iraq to the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. Silently of course. 

At the hotel I head directly to the office.

"Hey, I've got the solution to the war," I told the staff after recounting the press conference to them. 

"Ruby slippers," I said. Only half of the room had heard of the Wizard of OZ. (You can imagine there weren't that many laughs.)

So after telling the tale we collectively tried to cast the characters. We decided that Dorothy would be (the Iraqi people) and home (peace/end of the war/lasting solution for Iraq). The analogy falls a part after that. After all, the man behind the curtain pretending to be a Wizard turns out to be sweet, flustered and endearing. Not exactly a description of Al Qaida in Iraq. 

But Mohammed, one of McClatchy's special correspondents, pipes in. He knows what the Ruby slippers represent.

"A visa to Sweden," he said as the rest of us laughed.

I wish it were as easy as a few clicks of the heels for them to find that peace. 


July 17, 2007

Home sweet home

It's July 17 and I'm back in Baghdad. After an hour and a half of sweating on a hot plane in Jordan as the airplane staff got proper documentation to fly to Baghdad, another hour in the air, I made it to the city before nightfall yesterday. Thank God! Sleeping in the Baghdad International Airport is not my idea of a good time.

On my way out of Iraq, the airport was filled with Iraqis carrying their posessions and fleeing their homeland. On my way in they were mostly American mercenaries.  One redheaded 20-something from California stood in front of me in the passport line.

"It's pretty awesome," he said. "I'd probably be in school right now if I wasn't here. I get to travel a lot now."

Hmm. I guess that's one way to look at the Iraq war, a travel opportunity.

Inside the airport there was no electricity and baggage handlers threw suitcases through the black drapes onto the motionless conveyer belt as people gathered around trying to identify their bags in the dark.

Mine came out last...of course. As we pulled up to our hotel I was excited to see the Iraqi staff. Leaving them always makes me feel like a part of me is missing. Most had gone home for the night.

This morning we reunited over Arabic newspaper headlines and gossip.

"So what's been going on since I left?" I asked. Everyone was pretty quiet.

Not much has changed. Legislators still arguing about what to do with the controversial speaker of the parliament whose guards beat up a lawmaker. He's refused to resign. Politicians are still promising that they are making progress on political benchmarks, more people are dieing. At least 76 people were killed the day before in car bombs in Kirkuk.

One person was missing. One of our senior drivers, an elegant man and former pilot, hasn't been to work in weeks. His neighborhood has deteriorated as Sunni insurgents and the Shiite Mahdi Army, radical cleric Muqtada Sadr's militia, fight for control of the area. He hasn't stepped foot outside his home, afraid that he will be killed. Instead his 22-year-old son is sleeping at the hotel and working in his place. His chubby young face is just like his father's. But he doesn't have the dark humor of his dad.

Hussein isn't here either. Our Iraqi reporter is in Basra visiting his father. The man was detained in May by the U.S. military. We weren't told why. I had been working to get him released and one U.S. military official promised me his papers were being processed for release. On my break in Beirut, I got an e-mail from the bureau. He had been transferred to Camp Bucca in Basra. No release in sight, no answers about why he is in detention.

I was out of passport pages so I needed to make a trip to the U.S. Embassy. I called the consulate but I was told I'd need an escort to get in, they didn't provide them. For an hour I called around searching for someone with the right badge to get me into the embassy so I could get basic American services. Finally the military came to my rescue. Nothing can be simple in Baghdad.

I called Shatha, a former Iraqi staffer, who had fled the country and after running out of money and options returned. "The Iraqi passport is a curse," she told me. 

Now she is living with her in-laws, unable to return to her own home in a neighborhood overrun by Sunni gunmen. She was frantically trying to find a place for her father to live. He was being forced to return home as well. But there was no home for him to return to. The rest of the family is split a part in various foreign countries.

She was dusting a storage room in her brother-in-law's home where he would sleep for now.

Tonight I did expenses and now I'm in the office typing my blog as Mohammed chats with friends. I transcribed some of my interview with Ambassador Ryan Crocker tonight. He told me about the fear he remembers under Saddam's time. It was pervasive, he said, people afraid of their neighbors.  We have three staffers living in the hotel now, virtually homeless because of fear of their own neighborhoods.

I'm glad to be home. But some days I wish I could write a story that says today is so much better then yesterday.

Someday I hope I can.


July 06, 2007

Apology

I'm so sorry. It has been over a week and I haven't updated.

I started a two-week break from Iraq on June 24 and I've tried to keep my mind off the country I now call home. But here in Beirut there are reminders everywhere. So many here fear that Lebanon could soon fall into a Sunni/Shiite war. An extended family member of mine tried to buy a plot of land. The Sunni man wouldn't sell to a Shiite buyer. Young men now gather in their neighborhoods at night watching for suspicious activity after a spate of recent car bombs. I can't get a pizza delivered after 10 p.m. because motor bikes (delivery method of choice) are banned from the roads late at night. There were a few incidents of men on motor bikes throwing grenades at police stations.

Of course this is not Iraq; people are partying at night, girls in halter tops and shorts sip on Starbucks lattes and lay out in bikinis on the beach.

For the first time in two months I can walk down the dark streets safely and speak English without flinching. I wish I could bring the Iraqi staff out on these breaks with me. They are time to recover and reenergize before returning to Iraq.

Our Iraqi staff don't have that time. Every morning they show up at 9 a.m. ready to work and before dusk they go home. Instead of rest they are greeted by traffic jams, hours-long fuel lines, unbroken heat and fear of whatever violence might come next.

In Beirut all I can think about is Baghdad. I will return on July 14 and begin regular blogs again.


ABOUT THIS BLOG

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

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