May 07, 2009

Everyday life in Baghdad

McClatchy's Baghdad bureau employs a host of local reporters and drivers. Without them our work wouldn't be possible.

Besides shuttling us to appointments, translating, gathering news, and catching the cultural mistakes of the Western reporters here, they also contribute to a terrific blog, called Inside Iraq. It contains first-hand accounts about what it's like to live here, day in and day out.

Sometimes the staff has trouble coming up with things to blog about. They often say their lives aren't interesting enough to warrant sharing their stories. I always argue the opposite. To McClatchy's mostly Western audience, everything about their daily lives is fascinating.

But "everything" is probably a little too broad of an answer to give when the staff asks for blog ideas.

So I thought I'd ask you, our readers.

What questions do you have about daily life here in Iraq? What do you want to know?

Send your suggestions by commenting on this blog post, and I'll forward them on to our local bloggers.

Answers will appear here, at Inside Iraq.

May 05, 2009

Did Baghdad security forces capture the head of al Qaida in Iraq?

From guest blogger Corinne Reilly, Merced Sun-Star:

Short answer: Who knows?  

On April 23, Iraqi security officials announced they had arrested Abu Omar al Baghdadi, who they claim is the head of al Qaida in Iraq. As Iraqi officials tell it, he is the elusive mastermind behind scores of attacks against innocent civilians here, and his capture severly undermines al Qaida's ability to kill. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki called Baghdadi "the head of evil."

But it's uncertain whether the man in custody is actually Baghdadi, and there are even questions over whether Baghdadi is real.

Iraqi officials have claimed to have captured or killed Baghdadi several times before, and they've been wrong every time. U.S. military officials have said in the past that they that think Baghdadi may be a fictional character meant to give a local face to a foreign-led terrorist organization.

So far this time, the Iraqis haven't backtracked. But they also have yet to provide any proof they have him, except for one grainy headshot broadcast on state television this week. It's anyone's guess as to how officials might prove Baghdadi is who they say he is, however.

American officials aren't offering any more answers. Maj. Gen. David Perkins, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, told reporters here Friday that the Americans have yet to see Baghdadi.

"We have not had any access to him," Perkins said. "We are in discussions with the Iraqis to determine how we can confirm or deny who he is."

Adding to doubts that the true head of al Qaida in Iraq is behind bars is the fact that Iraqi officials stand to gain by fibbing about his arrest. They may be using it to try to bolster confidence in Iraq's security forces ahead of an upcoming drawdown in U.S. troops here. There's widespread fear among Iraqis that violence will increase when Americans leave Iraqi cities at the end of June, a timeline mandated by the Iraqi government.

So for now, reporters and the public are waiting for more information, which Iraqi officials have promised to provide. No word on when it might come.  

April 15, 2009

Not enough power to go around

From guest blogger Corinne Reilly, Merced Sun-Star

Iraq's scarcity of electricity is a telling, widespread problem, and journalists have written plenty about it. So it's surprising to me that it's surprising to my friends and family in the U.S. that power outages are still so common here.

I was talking to a friend in the states yesterday when the government power grid cut out. Thankfully, our bureau has a generator. It makes a loud grumbling sound when it kicks in. My friend heard the sound and asked what it was. When I explained the ongoing need for private generators here, she asked why the government isn't providing adequate power. 

A lot of Iraqis are still asking the same question, and a lot of them still cite the outages as one of their top complaints about the government.

I'd estimate the power goes out at McClatchy's Baghdad bureau at least 10 times a day. Usually the generator kicks right in, so it's not a big deal. 

But for Iraqis who can't afford generators, or the fuel to run them, it's a very big deal. The power outages aren't quick. Our generator will run for as long as the government grid is out, and sometimes it grumbles for hours.

And the situation now is far better than it will be in a few weeks when Iraqis start using their air conditioners to fight the summer heat. 

"No one is looking forward to that," one of McClatchy's Iraqi reporters recently said to me. "It might seem like the electricity problem is getting better for Iraq. But it's not. It's just the season."

An American, at an anti-American rally

From guest blogger Corinne Reilly, Merced Sun-Star:

Thursday marked the sixth anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein's government. To observe the occasion, Muqtada al Sadr called for a demonstration at Baghdad's Firdous Square, the place where a crowd of Iraqis cheered the destruction of a statue of Saddam on April 9, 2003.

Sadr, an influential Shiite cleric who has long decried the American occupation, has a lot of pull here. When he tells his followers to demonstrate, lots of them do. Even in the rain, tens of thousands turned out Thursday.

I wanted to go. Our local staff, whose advice I always trust to decide whether something is too risky, said I could. So I set out with Sahar, one of McClatchy's Iraqi reporters, around 9 a.m.

Our driver could only take us so far, as the streets were blocked by the Iraqi Army and national police in preparation. So we got out a few blocks from the edge of the crowd and walked.

When we reached a check point, where Iraqi soldiers and police were patting down demonstrators for bombs as they entered, a man stopped us and pointed us to two women responsible for patting down the few female protesters who attended.

As one of them searched my bag, she asked me in Arabic if I was Kurdish. (When I dress like a local and cover my hair, I can pass for a Kurd). I understood her but I couldn't answer. Sahar responded that I wasn't. They figured out pretty quickly that I was American.

The screener called over her superior, a tall Iraqi soldier. She told him something I didn't understand. He looked at me, then looked at Sahar.

I didn't learn what was said until later, when Sahar recounted it all for me in English, but it went something like this: The soldier told Sahar she was crazy for bringing an American to an anti-occupation Sadrist rally and that I wasn't allowed in. Indignant, Sahar objected, telling him we were journalists and he couldn't deny us access. We showed him our press badges.

Then the soldier asked how we planned to document the events. "With paper and pen," Sahar said. He responded that he thought that was an outdated method, which Sahar and I laughed about later. A principled and brave woman, Sahar told the soldier he was welcome to make an appointment to come to our office later to discuss how we do our work and offer his journalistic advice. "But for today, you are wasting our time and causing us to miss the events we came to cover," she told him. "We'd like to pass."

Finally, the soldier agreed to let us go, but not before warning Sahar that I was her responsibility. I'm not sure exactly what he meant by that, but we got what we went for and we made it home safely.

April 08, 2009

Iraqis can fix anything... 'except our country'

From guest blogger Corinne Reilly, Merced Sun-Star:

After spending two months here last fall, I returned to Baghdad on Saturday for another six-week reporting tour. Overall, it feels good to be back.

Baghdad isn't the easiest place to live. It's still dangerous and, consequently, still sad and still fairly restrictive. Already I've written about several bombings. I can't really go out at night. Some neighborhoods are still too risky for westerners.

But there's lots I missed about Iraq, too. Foremost was McClatchy's terrific local staff of reporters and drivers. They are warm, tireless and endlessly helpful.

On my first day back, I mentioned to one of our reporters, Laith, that the phone in my room wasn't working. I figured he'd say it'd been that way for a while. Or maybe he'd suggest calling someone to look at it later.

I should have known better.

First he lifted the receiver. No dial tone. He walked down the hall, unplugged a phone in the newsroom and brought it to my room. That phone didn't work either. The problem must be with the phone cord, he decided.

So he followed it with his fingers to the other end and pulled it from the jack, revealing frayed wires. "Here is the problem," he said.

He fetched a few tools and a cigarette lighter. I watched him peel back the plastic that surrounded the wires, snip something off, cauterize something with the lighter and twist something else with his fingers. Then he plugged everything back in.

"Pick it up and try it, dear," he told me.

Dial tone. It worked.

Impressed, I though about what Laith's ingenuity said about his country. I would have never tried to fix the phone myself, nor would I have known how. Forced to live through years of sanctions and embargoes under Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraqis know how to live with what they have, and how to make what they have last.

"Iraqis can fix anything," I told Laith.

"Except our country," he replied.

April 03, 2009

Ice cream on a hot Baghdad night

By guest blogger Matthew Schofield, Kansas City Star

I went out for ice cream Friday night.

There's nothing special about that, in most places on Earth. But this is Baghdad. Everything in Baghdad is a little different.

It started as these things do: Hussein was looking at his lamb and rice dinner and shaking his head, clearly not interested in lamb and rice.

"We should go out," he said.

"You don't like that?"

"We should go out. Maybe shawrima?"

I wasn't up for a large sandwich. I explained that earlier in the day, Laith, another member of the staff, had insisted that I eat a real Iraqi breakfast with him, so he'd fixed Bagilla wa Beidh, bread soaked in broth, and cooked with potatoes and beans, covered by an egg.

He tutted. A big meal was out. Then his eyes lit up: "Ice cream?"


"Faqma's," he said. "We can walk."

And he was right, we could walk. Whether we should, or not, I wasn't sure. Faqma's is one of Baghad's favorite ice cream parlors. It's so popular that when it managed to open, even in the worst times, the crowds came.

Of course, that's also why the bombers came, three times. The most recent car bomb exploded just over a year ago, January 2008. Iraqi newspapers wrote about how the store cleaning staff helped clear the street of the dead. Six months earlier, another car bomb had killed 20, and ignited 15 cars parked nearby.

So it hasn't been so long since the idea of going out for an ice cream cone here screamed of danger.

Still, Hussein was craving ice cream, so we walked. Picking a path through Baghdad after dark is, in itself, a bit of a challenge. The sidewalks are in shreds, sometimes torn apart by roadside bombs, sometimes simply crumbling from age and neglect.

We walked by the shrapnel pocked facade of the long abandoned Australian Embassy.

I remember watching the rooftop snipers in there on patrol, as they scanned the city streets for danger. In bad times, I thought it was comforting.

That was before January, 2005, when Al Qaida sent a truck bomb to it. The Australians moved into the Green Zone, across the Tigris River, soon after.

But while our walk brings back memories, it also brings scenes of life. The sidewalks may be crumbling, but they're packed with stalls hawking kebab, roast chicken, fresh vegetables and, of course, black market gasoline. Lines at gas stations can be so long as to scare away those needing it, so the black marketers fill large clear plastic jugs, and sell it, at double the price, to those in a hurry.

And the people are out. A little girl pulls her father along by the hand, skirting chunks of missing sidewalk, pointing at a restaurant and laughing. Six boys have found a patch of unused dirt, and are using it to play soccer, and passionately argue about whether a ball shot over the shirt used as a goal post is in or out.

As the men fetch a meal, veiled and robed women sit in their cars outside restaurants. Hussein wonders how they can enjoy such a night out, sitting by the side of a honking, stinking street, but the car windows are open wide, and their voices sound merry as they chat.

The streets are that odd mixture of Baghdad traffic: lanes have long since vanished, the traffic just flows like water through a boulder strewn stream. On this night, the weddings are out in force, brightly lit cars for the wedding couples, vans packed with young friends, honking and cheering, and often ululating trailing behind. Iraqi military Humvees squeeze by them, their armored machine gun turrets slowly spinning, to watch the whole street. And every 100 yards, there's another police officer, just watching. A squad car pulls up to two and a hand comes out the window, holding a paper with new orders. The officers, who don't carry radios, grab it and read.

The walk is only a mile or so. When we reach Faqma's, despite the rips in the building facade, the fact that the old decorative awning still hasn't been replaced, and the memories, the place is packed, as is the pizza place next door.

The crowd is no different than it would be anywhere on a warm spring evening, people out enjoying friends, and colorful explosions of ice cream. I wonder if perhaps Iraqis aren't more in love with these moments than, say, Kansas Citians, because of the bad times they've come through, the bad times many fear are ahead.

But, on this night, it really doesn't matter.

Hussein turns to me, whispering in my ear so the English isn't heard in public (still a very bad idea): "What do you want?"

I think for a minute: "Just a vanilla cone."

He gives me a mock frown, laughing a little. "Not very adventurous tonight, eh?"

I look back down the path we've just walked. A path I wouldn't have dared take on previous visits to this city. A path I would have believed would never have been open to me.

"Tonight," I say. "Vanilla is about all I can take."

April 02, 2009

May the (Multi-National)-Force be with you?

From guest blogger Matthew Schofield, Kansas City Star:

BAGHDAD - It began as a quiet night here.

 Not quiet in the sense that the constant thumping of the mini-van sized generators outside my window had ceased. They hadn't. And not quiet in the sense that we weren't surrounded by gunfire. We were, but, to be fair, it was celebratory - a nearby wedding.

Just quiet in the sense that this is Baghdad, and we weren't overwhelmed when Sahar, one of our local reporters, had a question. She'd gotten a report from Iraqi police in Dhuluiyah, about 50 miles north of Baghdad. The report was fairly action packed, and she was wondering if it was true, or, at the very least, if the U.S. military had any comment on it.

She handed it over to me, and I sent it on to the U.S., or, more accurately, Multi-National Force - Iraq (MNF-I, in military alphabet lingo). This is a slightly edited version of what I sent:

We have the following report from Iraqi police, is it accurate?

Gunmen attacked a U.S. military convoy with thermal charges ... at 10.30 p.m. Tuesday hitting one U.S. military vehicle squarely, said Iraqi Police. Police said the U.S. military returned fire, randomly, hitting two Iraqi Police cars that were escorting the convoy and a civilian car. They then raided nearby houses, detained three suspects, and imposed a curfew for several hours.”

 I also, thinking of myself as a bit of a smart-aleck, asked: “On the idea of thermal charges, I thought those were things used in "Star Wars" movies. What the heck are they here?”

  See what I did there, I had a vague "Star Wars" memory of one of the robots saying: "Because he's holding a thermal detonator!" I was being cute.

 A couple minutes later, I got a note back.

  The folks at MNF-I said they were pretty sure no curfew was issued, but that they were looking at the matter and would let me know anything, as soon as they did.

This is standard operating procedure here. We hear a lot of things, some of them are true and can be confirmed, some are probably false but there's no way to tell. Probably, some are false and can be confirmed as true, though we don't like to think about those.

 In any case, on this night, it might have been another hour before Maj. Derrick Cheng got back to me. He'd combed through U.S. reports and found that, aside from the facts, the report we'd had was almost accurate:

  “According to our reports, at approx. 2130 Tuesday night, a joint U.S. and Iraqi Police patrol came under grenade attack and small arms fire that caused minor damage to an MRAP and no injuries to any Soldiers or IP. The Soldiers returned approximately 20 rounds of small arms fire at the location of the muzzle flash from the enemy.

 Local Duluyiah IP responded to the scene and questioned two individuals and determined they had nothing to do with the attack. There is no indication that any IP vehicles were hit by US small arms fire, nor was a separate curfew established in the area in response to the attack.”

And then, not to be outdone by a journalist smart-aleck, Cheng added: “I believe you're correct; "thermite" grenades were used in "Star Wars," which I've heard are somewhat effective as a bargaining tool for bounty hunters.”

See what he did there. He one upped me, actually remembering the context.

So I responded, rather wittily, I thought: “Maj. Cheng: Just to be clear, does this mean insurgents in
Iraq  are now being armed by The Empire?”

The Empire, as every Star Wars geek knows, are the bad guys - Darth Vadar and company fighting the good guys - Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance.

  And, while it might have made him chuckle, I have to admit he was too good for me on this night. His response, dutifully under an UNCLASSIFIED notation: “In "Star Wars," the 'Rebel Alliance' was the insurgency.”

    Touche, Maj. Cheng. But it makes you think, doesn't it?            

March 24, 2009

Observed while hunting camels

  From guest reporter: Matthew Schofield, McClatchy Newspapers

KUT, Iraq -  When my daughter Genevieve asked for a camel for her birthday, I knew it was a joke.

     She's turning 17, and 17-year-olds are past wanting such things for birthdays, I figured.

      Still, the idea of a camel, perhaps taking a photo as a birthday joke, was in my mind when I prepared to head south and east to Kut, 100 miles and about two hours away.

      I'd seen camels on the roads in Iraq before. Once, in a covered vehicle with Marines, a camel had shocked about six of us by poking a curious head inside and sniffing around.

       Hussein, an Iraqi co-worker, told me not to get too excited about camels this far  east.

      "Okay," I said. "But if we see one, I intend to stop and take a photo."

      "Of course," he answered, with a little chuckle. He was being nice to me, having already lectured me that it was useless, to cry "sick stomach" in hopes of avoiding a meal at our hosts home during a coming interview.

     He told me that, just getting over a bout of food poisoning or not, refusing what a gracious host provides is a terrible insult.

     I moaned. He said, "I will call and warn them, but you must at least try."

     In the meantime, he suggested I look for camels.

     The land was flat. Not flat like Kansas is supposed to be flat, meaning wide open and rolling. Actually flat. Where it wasn't irrigated, it was solid beige, scrub-brush and unbelievably hardy clumps of straw grass, dusted beige by sandstorms.

     And fields, mostly of wheat. We were leaving the Tigris and Euphrates river valley that feeds Baghdad, but there was still water, and a system of canals I've been told was first developed by Alexander the Great to move it around.

     Our trip was taking us through Kut, a provincial capitol built around a reservoir, one designed by the British during their colonial rule here.

     The last time I had been in Kut I'd caught a U.S. helicopter to a military base on the edge of town manned by Ukrainian soldiers. That trip was all about security. Even in military vehicles, there was a sense that we weren't exactly safe.

     This time, we were driving, un-armored cars, even. If felt like a simple Saturday drive. As we left Kut, however, still scanning for camels, I noticed a dead dog on the road's shoulder, and as we slowed, I realized it was only a dog skin stretched over a dull-black cylinder. We sped up again before I was able to figure out if it actually was an artillery shell, but it was surely explosives of some kind. A typical roadside bomb.

      In the end, we reached our destination only a few minutes before noon, 90 minutes late. Hussein reminded me this would mean a large meal, which I would eat. We were meeting with a wounded soldier, Abass Mushai, an Iraqi Army corporal who'd lost his left foot to a roadside bomb. I went to ask his perspective, as a man whose life was changed by war here, on the U.S. pullout from his country. He was eager to talk. He mentioned food as soon as we stepped in the door.

     It's tradition here: guests are to be honored. A guest should be treated royally. Iraqis quote the Quran, a man must serve first his guest, then his beasts and his family. There's an old Iraqi saying: If you have nothing else to offer a guest, slaughter the beast you ride. If you have no where else to sleep, take the floor and offer your bed.

     It's not unique to Iraq, of course. I once had an experience in Mozambique, meeting with a poor woman, looking after a household with nine children. We had met to talk about her struggles since the cashew plant at which she worked had closed, and they were many. The children, she noted, could eat only once every other day. The adults not that frequently.

     And yet she brought me food. I ate with the eyes of hungry children on me.

     The tradition of the guest is particularly strong here. Which, of course, was bad news for a queasy stomach. We settled on the thick rugs covering the floor of an adobe guest parlor on Mushai's farm. A pillow for our backs, another on which to rest an arm.

      And almost as soon as we started talking, a long plastic tablecloth was spread over the rug in front of us. Soon, platters of food started arriving. Heaping serving-bowls of chicken and rice covered in sha'ariyah (lightly sweetened brown pasta), that I realized weren't serving bowls: there was one for each. Similar sized bowls of Thiread, Iraqi flat bread soaked in broth. There were platters of fruit for each of us, and massive bowls of yogurt, of beans, of pickled okra.

      Hussein gave me a raised eyebrow, so I ate. Mushai apologized for it being a simple meal. We thanked him again and again for this kindness. And I was embarrassed to notice that my queasy stomach vanished as I ate. Soon, Hussein gave me another raised eyebrow, reminding me that what we didn't eat would feed Mushai's wife and children.

     We had sugared hot tea, Iraqi-style chai, and said our farewells. On the ride back, I was furiously
searching for roadside bombs. Which, of course, is when I saw the camels.


February 15, 2009

Some fraud found but no revote

It’s been more than two weeks since Iraq held provincial elections and still no word on final results. The Independent High Electoral Commission has announced and then canceled a series of press conferences. Today they nullified 30 ballot boxes after finding fraud, most in the province of Anbar where tribal sheikhs accused the incumbent Sunni party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, of vote rigging.

Many worried the accusations of fraud would lead to violence but so far the province remains relatively calm. While the nullification of boxes will change results slightly, there will be no re vote in any of the 14 of 18 Iraqi provinces where the vote took place.

The number is tiny compared to the thousands of centers where Iraqis went to vote. The commission has no plans to rectify the thousands of displaced who could not vote.

So, for now, we wait and see final results of the elections.

February 04, 2009

No results, only declarations

IMG_7306                 So you may be wondering why we haven’t done a conclusive story on election results. It’s because there aren’t any conclusive results.

                Based on observing at polling stations across the nation political parties are declaring winners and losers. But there are no real exit polls here.

Based on a series of interviews McClatchy News did across the nation many Iraqis seemed to have cast their ballot for Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s Coalition of the State of Law. A large number of Sunni Arabs said they voted for Shiite secularist and ex-Baathist Ayad Allawi. But that’s about as scientific as it gets.

“I am astonished by these political arguments and this escalation by some political parties. Let them wait and be patient,” said Faraj al Haidari the head of the Independent High Electoral Commission. “We have no results.”

Preliminary results aren’t expected until Thursday and final results won’t be available for weeks. But it hasn’t stopped parties from declaring victory.

Already people are battling over fraud and declaring winners and losers. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq spent the past few days going back and forth, declaring victory in southern provinces and then calling it unclear. Currently they control most of the southern provinces.

In Anbar tribal fighters flooded the streets on Monday with accusations of fraud against their Sunni rival the Iraqi Islamic Party. Tribal leaders threatened to take revenge if results declared the wrong people the winner i.e. not them.  

Maliki’s party is likely right that they’ve taken a high number of seats if not the majority of seats in councils across the country. In Baghdad the campaign manager for the group declared victory.

I could go into a long analysis based on an educated guess.

 It seems that most Iraqis turned away from the Islamists they voted for in the past. This year Iraqis could pick specific candidates on a slate. Some said they picked a neighbor, a friend or a cousin. Others tried to pick a person who they thought might give them a few more hours of electricity, long-lasting security and clean water.

Many want someone who will stop foreign influence from Iran, end a foreign occupation and restore sovereignty to a nation whose government so often defers to the United States and Iran before making a decision.

Iraqis also seem to be searching for a strong man, a leader with an iron fist. In the past year Maliki grew into that at the behest of other parties in the government. His office often circumvented security ministries to deal with operations and he took down Basra where Shiite militias ruled as Americans looked on doubtingly.

Of course after he attacked and the militias took to the streets to fight back, American fire power and Iranian negotiations helped him succeed.

Despite Maliki’s role as a Shiite Islamist he’s been able to recast himself as a nationalist in the past year. He’s the only Shiite Islamist with some Sunni support as well as Shiite support. If indeed he has swept positions in provinces across the nation we are likely to see a government that morphs into a very strong central state versus a group of federalist states with a weak central government.   

Allawi is also seen as a strong man. The first U.S.-installed Prime Minister of post invasion Iraq is an ex-Baathist with once strong links to the CIA. He supported brutal military incursions in Najaf and Fallujah during his leadership and at the time was seen as a Washington puppet.

But his tough leadership and willingness to crush his enemies now seems to be one of the best options many voters said on Election Day. At least then they’d have security.

With all that said we don’t know who won and who lost. Without results we also don’t know what they could indicate for national elections at the end of this year.

When preliminary results come in we’ll tell you what it means and what the fallout could be.


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

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