June 23, 2007

Slander

Twenty-four young special-needs orphans were discovered by U.S. soldiers June 10, naked, starving and laying in their own excrement. Some of the emaciated little boys were chained to cribs in a government orphanage. The Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, Mahmoud al Sheikh Radhi, was outraged according to Iraqiya State Television after the images of these abused boys were aired on CBS. Who wouldn't be outraged to see emaciated children treated like this, when in a locked closet there were shelves of new clothes and food?

However Radhi's outrage was with U.S. troops, according to state television. State television reports that the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs wants to sue the U.S. military for "slandering" Iraqi children.

In a press conference earlier this week the minister told reporters that U.S. soldiers put "terror into the souls" of the abused boys by rescuing them at the Al Hanan orphanage at 2 a.m., according to Iraqi news outlets.   

"I believe that those who conducted this raid deserve to be tried," he was quoted in Iraqi news outlets as saying. "Can a reasonable person accept horrifying these sons and putting terror into their souls at such a late time."

He said the boys were naked because of the summer heat. He didn't explain why they had been beaten and starved.

In an interview with state television Ahmed, one of the little boys, tells a reporter that he was beaten and stripped.

"Majed is a dog. He hit me with a stick," he tells the reporter, referring to one of his caretakers. "We didn't do anything.  He hit me in my heart, hit me in my heart with a stick."

Last month the United Nations Children Fund issued a report saying that the situation of children in Iraqi is at a "critical point" with lack of healthcare, education and money for them. About 50 percent of displaced people both inside and outside Iraq are children.

Iraqis are outraged by the comments, calling them insulting.

An Iraqi blogger asks for accountability, something Iraqis rarely see.

"Oh Mr. Minister it is so exposed and it is a big crime against these innocent children. You don't need justifications ... Why do you blame your mistakes on media and the American troops. You say the images were fabricated and the truth is something else. Stop the excuses and justifications...please your highness Mr. Minister, expect that every failure from your governmental establishments will harm the structure of the state and the Iraqi government. Because if the state with it's president and prime minister and parliament and staff knew what was going on it is a disaster. If they didn't know it is a bigger disaster."


June 22, 2007

Shiite fear of the Mahdi Army

Sahar, my Iraqi colleague, and I ventured out this week to the Baghdad neighborhood of Hai al Salam. In the office we hotly debated the risks, weighing whether the trip was worth it. The neighborhood is run by the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia of Muqtada Sadr that is accused of brutal killings of Sunnis and in some cases Shiite Iraqis.

In the mixed neighborhood, where Sunnis and Shiites have long lived together, checkpoints are set up where the militia round up people they suspect. We decided we would go. A resident from the area assured us we would be safe. I put on a flowing black abaya and a scarf and he came to get us.

Fouziya_5

There we met with a Shiite woman named Fouziya Hmoud. Her son was shot by the Mahdi Army and she was inconsolable. Her son's three little girls wandered around the bare living room, almost every piece of furniture sold to support the family.

She wondered a loud how these men could believe that God would bless the killing of her son and all the killings that have happened here.

Her young daughter-in-law was curled up on the floor in a back room. The black cloth that covered her face and body masked her tears.

This Shiite family is paralyzed by their fear of the Mahdi Army. They barely leave the house and even at home they are afraid. Hmoud told me people had been burned alive in their homes by the militia while the door was padlocked. 

It has long been touted among Shiite politicians that the Mahdi Army's killings were only a reaction for all the Shiite blood that has spilled in this war.

The toll has been high for Shiites. Al Qaeda, the Sunni extremist group, plant car bombs in their neighborhoods that kill up to 100, sometimes more. Others are killed at checkpoints for being unbelievers. They are pushed out of their neighborhoods by the group.

But Al Qaeda has also targeted Sunnis who don't agree with them. Now Sunni Iraqis are turning against the deadly group.

The Mahdi Army may have the same fate. In this neighborhood Shiites fear the militia, one word against the group, "haram," the arabic word for forbidden, could get them killed. Those who criticize them for killing and displacing Sunnis or consider Sunnis their "brothers," as a Mahdi Army Commander told me are punished with death.

In Hai al Salam, the Arabic words for the neighborhood of peace, Hmoud grabbed my hand tightly before I left. 

"Please," she cried. "Please get our rights back from the Mahdi Army."

She hugged me and I could feel her hot tears on my cheek.

Outside, I saw three young teen-age boys walking across the street.

My Shiite Iraqi friend, a man in his 40s, pointed at them subtly. He whispered, scared they might hear.

"They are Mahdi Army."


June 19, 2007

Baghdad children

It was an emotional day. My Iraqi colleague and I returned to the bureau in tears after hearing one story after the others of brutal killings at the hands of the Mahdi Army. It was Lord of the Flies, young boys ruling and killing in a Baghdad neighborhood.

Sahar went to the office and I went to my room to pull myself together. Then I walked towards the office and saw Mohammed, one of our staffers, staring out the window. His eyes were red. He didn't hear me call him. Then he looked at me blankly.

He described the pictures of the 24 starving special-needs children, some chained to cribs that CBS had aired and Children_4 Arabic news station were now broadcasting. Orphans in a government orphanage were discovered by U.S. soldiers. Their bodies were naked and emaciated. Nearby there were shelves of new clothes wrapped in plastic and canned food.

"A warehouse full with clothes and food and there are children starving and naked. This is the story of Iraq. This is just the story of Iraq," he said. "The government must go. Just quit."

At least 60 people died in a bombing. Surely just as many orphans were created from today's tragedy.

"60 more people dead, 60 more fathers and mothers," he said. "What happens to the orphans?"

He turned and walked away. Throughout the day he got calls from Iraqi friends in tears, enraged. One asked for the address. He wanted to find the man who did this. Another asked how he could help.

"We don't do this to children," he said. "They are too precious."

Read CBS transcript here.


June 18, 2007

High school detention

Hussein was completing an English final Monday morning when he heard explosions nearby in the mixed Baghdad neighborhood of Saidiyah, he told us over the phone. The 15-year-old continued to write. Then he heard a gun battle and tried hard to focus on his test, a government exam for all ninth-graders. But suddenly the sounds were close. A gun battle ensued outside his high school and he heard men shouting and people running through the hallways.

Four National Police Commandoes walked into his classroom. Commandoes are known to be infiltrated by Shiite militias. The teacher walked towards them.

"Who are you and what do you want?" he asked.

"Wekhir (Remove yourself)," they shouted. The teacher backed away and the uniformed men demanded that the teens take out their National Identification Cards. They checked the names and tribal affiliations, which often signify what Muslim sect a person is from; Sunni or Shiite. Hussein is a Shiite. He was left alone.

"We escaped death," he told us.

Men's shouting echoed from other classrooms and Hussein looked out the windows as commandoes took at least three of his fellow students to their vehicles; three police pick ups and two civilian cars. Two school guards were also taken.

Teachers ran after them.

"Where are you taking them," they cried out.

“These are not to be trusted,” the commandoes replied, referring to the young teen-agers.

"They were entrusted to us, we are their safekeepers," they said.

Were you afraid, we asked Hussein.

"Of course we were not afraid," he said, a macho teen-age response. "But my knees were rattling."

He looked at the last question on the test and started to write.

Please help me. Everyone is running for their lives. I can’t continue...


June 17, 2007

What to do about the Sunnis

After a Sunni shrine was leveled and a historic Sunni mosque's minaret was destroyed in the past two days, the head of the emergency committee in Basra, Major Gen. Ali Hammadi, said 350 people from the Iraqi Security Force who were involved or neglected to act were dismissed.

When the Shiite Askariya shrine in Samarra was attacked 15 months ago most turned a blind eye to the sectarian violence against Sunnis that followed the attack on Samarra. Today Sunni mosques again are under attack on a smaller scale.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki told Newsweek he had forces out protecting Sunni mosques and now people from security forces are actually getting fired, not arrested, fired. Interesting development from what is seen as a sectarian government and a militia infiltrated security force, among most Sunnis.

Maliki also condemned the U.S. forces for working with Sunni tribes, calling it a "mistake." The policy has been heralded as the path to success here by U.S. military officials, but the Iraqi government worries the U.S. is arming militias that will eventually fight them.  He also tells Newsweek that he and President George Bush commiserate over their unruly parliament and congress respectively. Read the interview here.


June 15, 2007

Hometown Baghdad

In this time of danger when every trip I take out of the hotel is planned, meticulous and short; Iraqis can tell their stories better than any observer.

A group of young Iraqi filmmakers working with a New York production company provides tiny glimpses into their lives in Hometown Baghdad: dating, music, danger and family. The latest one brought me to tears. One of the young mens' uncle is killed by U.S. forces. Watch here.


The Cry of Baghdad

One song has captured a nation. It is a haunting melody that wafts from Iraqis' cell phones and plays over images of car bombs and crying women on local television. Guards at hotels and young men hanging out at a street vendors' shops send it to each others' cell phones via blue tooth. It asks someone to be the Sunni man who saved Shiites as they were trampled on a bridge in Baghdad in 2005, then uses a story from Islamic history. 

"I heard Baghdad call upon me/Taken by timidity and ask me about the people/Is there any revolutionist who will avenge me and heal my wounds/I'm in you ear Sukayna's cry/Which one of you will be my Abbas and the mother of churches and minarets"

Click here to listen.

He compares Baghdad to Sukayna the great granddaughter of the Islamic prophet Mohammed. She cries for water as Hussein, the grandson of the prophet, is beseiged in Karbala by the army of Yazid under the Ummayad Caliph in the seventh century. It was a gruesome battle where Hussein and his followers were killed and Shiites now mourn annually during Ashura. Abbas, her uncle, takes a leather satchel from her and bravely walks to the Euphrates River to quench her thirst and the thirst of the other children. On his return he is attacked and loses an arm. But he goes again. On his way back he loses another arm and is killed.

My Sunni Iraqi friend told me, "Baghdad is a woman. And a woman is asking for the help of a man like Imam Abbas."

"Tell me how Najaf can become Texas," the song continues referring to an Iraqi city in the south. "Yesterday sidewalks were like mirrors, now dead bodies are gathered by a cleaner."

Hussam al Rassam, the young singer, once asked people to plant flowers instead of "IEDs" now his songs are desperate. In another he laments:

"Oh our beautiful homeland where did your sweetness go/It left and became black banners on the walls/people once begged to see you and now it became the opposite/they beg to leave you."


June 13, 2007

Just finish this...

I rushed downstairs already late for a morning appointment at a Sunni mosque Wednesday. Mohammed, my Iraqi colleague, stopped me as he urgently spoke on his cell phone.

"We can't go. The Samarra mosque was attacked," he said. "Do you want to be inside the mosque when it's burned to the ground?!"

This was the second Samarra that everyone talked about, the one that Iraqis said would destroy Iraq. Fifteen months ago the Golden Dome of the Shiite al Askariya Mosque was destroyed in the northern city. Shiite anger overflowed at the Sunni-backed insurgency and sectarian killings heightened. Hundreds of people were killed, Sunni mosques burned on the skyline and Mahdi Army militiamen roamed the streets in trucks waving green flags and weapons. Now the minarets, where loudspeakers issued the melodic call to prayer, were gone. They'd been carefully exploded.

We drove through west Baghdad looking for signs of the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr, arming and preparing for revenge. They were blamed for much of the killing after the first attack on Feb. 22, 2006.

The trip had to be quick. We crossed the bridge that connects the east bank of Baghdad to the west bank. We were caught in the traffic of people rushing home before the government-imposed curfew started, before reprisal attacks could hurt them.

I looked out the window and saw two women standing in front of piles of boxes and garbage bags filled with their things. I couldn't imagine the fear in their hearts as they stood on the side of the road with everything they owned in a neighborhood that was once their home. Now it no longer welcomed them. My Iraqi colleague assured me these displaced women were Shiite. This is where they waited for Shiite drivers to pick them up. Sunnis waited somewhere else.

We came to Amil in west Baghdad, where the Mahdi Army had been pushing Sunnis out. Shiites feared the Sunni area of Janabat. They say a sniper prays on passing Shiites. Sunnis are cornered in one small piece of the neighborhood, fearful the Mahdi Army will come for them.

A gaping hole in the row of buildings caught my eye. A burned picture of the grandson of the prophet Mohammed hung over a pile of rubble, the homes around it destroyed.

This is the Shiite mosque that was bombed two weeks ago. I wrote about this in a story just a few days prior. I used the word "leveled" to describe it. I gave it one line.

People who died inside their homes were likely raised from their sleep by the pressure of the powerful blast that ripped through their buildings. Neighbors dug them out from beneath the rubble. I gave their misery one line in story.

So many peoples' lives get only a few words: 25 anonymous corpses on the side of the road, a bombing killed 10, mortar attacks killed two. No one ever knows about their families' grief, where they worked, not even their names.

Mahdi Army militiamen casually leaned against buildings studying faces, looking for strangers. A red Hyundai sped past us filled with men wielding AK 47s. The streets were largely empty save a few stragglers searching for taxis.

Back at the office the reports started to come in. Five Sunni mosques attacked in Basra, three set on fire or bombed in Baghdad, three south of Baghdad. Muted compared to last years attacks. I sent everyone home before the three-day-curfew began, save two of our guys.

Sahar, one of our Iraqi reporters, called and told me about a woman in Adhamiya. Her husband, her protector, could not get home before the curfew started. As darkness fell upon Baghdad the cancer-ridden woman shook with fear, her three children around her, as mortars fell nearby. She would be alone tonight and two more nights.

I called downstairs for stress-relievers _ chocolate and coffee. One of my favorite hotel staffers brought them up from the cafeteria.

"What do you think about this?" I asked.

"Just drop two nuclear bombs on us and finish this," Dhia said wiping his hands together as if to wash his hands of Iraq.

"But we'd die," I replied.

"So what. I just want to finish from this," he said. With a sad laugh he walked away toting his metal tray.


June 09, 2007

We've got it all wrong

Let me tell you this version of the truth in Baghdad.

Qassim Atta, the spokesman of the the almost four-month long Baghdad Security Plan in Iraq, showed a map of the capital during an interview on state television. The map was color coded with red dots, yellow dots and green dots.  Red, meant danger, yellow meant a little less danger and green meant it was under control. Here and there were a few red dots in Sunni neighborhoods and a sea of green.

As sectarian violence is on the rise Qassim Atta pointed to the map inside the safety of the heavily fortified Green Zone and declared Baghdad was safe.

"When the media say it's not safe I tell them look at the map," (rough quote) he said. "It's all green."

He repeated with anxious anger.  "Look at the map it's all green!"

That day there was a mortar attack on a mosque, three roadside bombs killed eight people and 32 corpses with shots to the head and chest surfaced across the capital.

The next day mortars rained down inside the Green Zone and at least three other Baghdad neighborhoods. At least 28 corpses surfaced across the capital, executed, with arms bound.

This is only the violence we know about. But ignore what's beyond the walls of the Green Zone. As Atta said, look to the map it's all green. Baghdad is safe. We've got it all wrong.

         


June 06, 2007

A late welcome

For five months Baghdad has been my adopted home. After three trips here over the past two years, I packed up my one-bedroom apartment into a storage unit in Irving, Texas and flew out.

I fell in love with Iraq the first time I arrived. I liked the "cha" sound that peppered the Iraqi arabic, the hot fresh bread, Samoon, that is shaped like an American football and the language that is filled with warm niceties. "Hello my eyes," you will hear someone say to a complete stranger.

On one trip to a poor neighborhood in southeast Baghdad where as many as 40 children were killed, grieving women screamed for their children and they scratched their faces until they bled. But they still welcomed me into their homes, offered me hot tea and their precious clean water. Even in their deepest moments of grief, they opened their home and hearts to a stranger.

In Najaf I mingled in the Shiite shrine, where the revered Imam Ali is believed to be buried. Women doused themselves in rose water and bowed to God under a ceiling of shimmering mirrors, kissed the golden gates and asked for help as they placed their hands on the gold bars that surround the tomb. I walked on the dead in the Valley of Peace, the largest Shiite Muslim cemetery in the world. Here Saddam paved the roads over many of these Shiite graves, anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army battled U.S. forces in 2004 and hid between the beige tombs and a man told me he only found peace among the dead here. "If your heart is heavy come to the Valley of Peace and it will lift your burdens," he told me.

But when I landed here in January ready to work with the six Iraqi journalists I'd worked with on all my trips, I realized things had degenerated much further then I even understood. The violence and fear was permeating life. Our office manager lived in the hotel now, his family safe in Syria. His name is Omar, a Sunni name, and a death wish if you run into a Shiite death squad. Our superstar reporter Mohammed hadn't had a home for over a year. He spends every night listening to songs in our office, chatting to friends online and lamenting that he was now a stranger in his own nation. Most of his friends were killed or fled.

Everyone of the office staff told me their plans to flee. I wanted them to go to a safer place, but I was devestated to lose my friends, my guides, my colleagues.

They are not alone, more than 2.2 million Iraqis are taking refuge in neighboring states and another 2 million are internally displaced as cleansing campaigns by Shiites and Sunnis in their respective neighborhoods continue. Palestinians are being forced out, Christians forced to convert or leave. But Iraqis say their passport is a curse, no one wants them.  UNHCR said this week that the "crisis is staggering" as they made a plea with the world to keep their borders open.

Shatha, my closest friend in Iraq, hugged me like she did the first day I arrived here in 2005 and told me she had to go. 

"I want to push my daughter in a stroller down the street," she said. "I've never done that." Dima, her baby girl, was already bouncing off the walls, she'll be two in the fall. On quiet days Shatha brought her to our office and she'd wreak havoc with the cutest face and a devilish smile. We let her.

I remember how Shatha would bravely wrap her up when she was a few months old to come on interviews with us. We worked on a story about pregnant women scheduling their births, afraid to be shot on the road as they sped to the hospital at night. Dima gurgled close by as I took notes and Shatha translated.

On Shatha's last night she spent the night in the bureau and we listened to music and danced with Dima. Later that night she cried.

"I'm so scared," she said. She'd sold her things, but no one would come to her neighborhood to pick them up. So she made the drive with her uncle to the bloody Diyala province, to drop the things off. On her last night she gathered up the tokens of her and her husbands travels and tastes. And in a pit of fire in the backyard she burned everything, Shiite books from Najaf from a reporting trip, a book on the constitution her husband picked up from Washington D.C., CDs and anything with English on it.

"What if someone searches the house," she said. "I don't want them to think we're spies." She lived in the Sunni part of her neighborhood and was caught in the middle of a violent Shiite/Sunni turf war.

Everyday there are stories like Shatha's. On this blog I hope to give you glimpses into what I see in Iraq. The sadness, the fleeting moments of joy and hope, the political battles and the stories of the about 170,000 U.S. troops here.  This is a story that everyone has an opinion on but sometimes we forget that at the most basic level it is just a story of people trying to survive. 


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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