January 31, 2009

Voices at the polls


It seemed the secular slates and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Coalition of the State of Law reigned supreme today during provincial elections in Iraq. Most voters interviewed by McClatchy across the country expressed resentment towards religious parties they'd voted for in the past. While Maliki comes from the Islamic Dawa Party both Shiite and Sunni Arab voters cast ballots for him. He recast himself as a nationalist last year and the election will be an indicator of just how popular he's become. The elections are a litmus test of what's to come during national elections at the end of the year.

Below are quotes from across the country on provincial election day in Iraq some show hope, others resignation and others disdain for a system they feel has brought them nothing:

"We came to the center with enthusiasm, but we didn't vote. We couldn't find our names. This is the third center we've gone to – and don't find our names. I don't want to lose my voice. I'm afraid that if I don't vote, my form will be used for me to vote for God knows whom." -- Umm Atheer, a Sunni Arab mother of two in Baghdad

"The last election I voted for the Supreme Council and got nothing. Today I voted for Maliki's list even though I know nothing about the candidates. I just voted so the Supreme Council doesn't take it. They would steal my vote. I didn't give them the chance to commit forgery."  Bassim Mohammed, 24, a Shiite Arab in Najaf. He refers to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the most powerful Shiite party in Iraq who control most of the southern provinces.

"A long time ago we only dreamed to have something like this in our country. Not long ago we were deprived of a voice." -- Nawal Salam, 48. She and her family were displaced to the Shiite district of Kadhemiyah in Baghdad. Her brother was killed during the sectarian war. She voted for Maliki's party.

"We are voting today with the hope of change. Change in everything – everything. Our lives are a nightmare. We mustn't stand aside silent. We want security. We want harmony in our lives, this has been lost to us for so long now and we miss it, We want normal lives." -- Nemeer Mohammed, a Sunni Arab graduate student in Baghdad.

"I voted for the Fraternity of Nineveh (Kurdish slate) because it represents my race and we hope it would help us get our rights as Kurds. We want to live in peace like others." -- Leila Solaiman Mohammed, 45, a Kurdish housewife in Sheikhan a village in the northern fields of Nineveh province

"Before we were displaced and today I entered the election center safely and chose those who represent me freely." -- Sliwa Najah Matti, 23, an Assyrian college student in Nineveh province

"It's our duty to vote and it is the duty of everbody as well. We are saturated by unjust treatment of the previous people and we hope that the new people will be better than them in time. I do not really believe it can change." -- Abdullah Ahmed, 35, a laborer in Fallujah in Anbar province. The Sunni Arab boycotted the last election

"To elect is a duty for us, the followers of the family of the prophet. I voted for the honest and decent candidates who supports the people with comfort. We didn't have services in the past and we hope to have them in the future." -- Mohammed Ali, 59, a Shiite Arab in Basra and Sadr supporter     

January 29, 2009

Days Before Elections Three Candidates Die

Provincial elections are on Saturday and candidates are dropping. Today three were killed. One in Mosul, another in Baghdad and one in Diyala province.

It's almost expected here. Two others were killed recently as well.

In the United States this would be big news. Here it's a line in the violence report of the day. Better then other days, a huge improvement over the frightening times of more than a year ago but yet still more bloodshed.  

In Diyala Abbas Farhan al Jubouri went to  the village of Mohammed al Maleh to campaign. He is running with the National Movement of Reformation and Development also known as "The Solution."

But he never made it home. He, his cousin and his brother were taken and later their dead bodies were found just north of the village.

He was number six on his party's list. Now he is gone. He leaves behind twelve children.


January 28, 2009

A test for the vote

Today was special voting day. Prisoners with a term of five years or less, hospital employees and security forces went to the polls on Wednesday in advance of Saturday's provincial elections in Iraq.

It was also a small glimpse of what is to come. According to a local organization to protect journalist rights 64 journalists rights were violated across the nation. In Basra, Babil and Anbar journalists were beaten or prevented from entering polling sites by security forces. Their camera equipment was confiscated and in many cases they were cursed at with foul language.

In the southern port city of Basra at Al Mina center where prisoners were voting 15 journalists tried to cover the vote. They were beaten and guards cursed them as they forcibly confiscated or destroyed their equipment, the journalist association reported.

Faisal Binwan, a photographer for the Associated Press said he was beaten and cursed at when he tried to take pictures. Guards used their hands and the butt of their rifles to hit reporters and photographers. For an hour and a half they detained the men and finally allowed them to take pictures of one prisoner voting.

"We demanded to shoot other detainees then they got angry and attacked us by cursing and beating us and they destroyed some cameras," he said. 

The journalists were finally forced to leave.

In Baghdad 20 journalists were stopped from entering polling centers by the Iraqi Army, in Fallujah the Iraqi Army beat and cursed at journalists at at least one polling center if they didn't stay 100 meters away from the site.  Those are a few of the incidents we know of.

We'll see what Saturday brings.

January 23, 2009

Good Enough?

This morning gunmen raided a home in the small Shiite area of Baldrouz, north of Baghdad.  A poor Sunni family who’d moved to the area to work in the local brick factory were slaughtered. Two men, six women and a little girl were killed. The last two men were taken and the family is gone.

In the south in a town called Suaira in Wasit Province another family met the same fate on Thursday. A man, two women and a little boy were killed.  

It’s unclear who did this. Maybe it was revenge, militias, insurgents or a sinister crime. But what is clear that even though things are better they aren’t ok.  People are still dying here and they’re killed almost every day.

January 01, 2009

A New Day, A New Year and Tentative Future for Iraq

Today was a lot like yesterday. A day of unanswered questions in a place somewhere between war and peace.

 But there was one change today. It's not very visible yet but Iraq assumed responsibility for it's security. The United Nations Mandate that allowed U.S.-led forces to operate here expired and it was replaced by a bilateral security agreement between the two nations. The agreement spells out the end of the U.S. military presence here and the end of the Iraq war.

Basically the United States no longer has the legal run of the country authorized by the United Nations. Now an agreement that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities by this summer and from all of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011 goes into affect. 

The agreement changes a few things and here is a list of  some of them:

  • Iraqis take control of their air space
  • Iraqis take control of the most evoked image of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the almost six year occupation
  • The U.S. military must now get Iraqi issued arrest warrants and judicial orders
  • The U.S. military can only go on joint missions with the Iraq
  • The U.S. military must hand over all detainees to the Iraqi government 

As with everything in Iraq the process will be slow, gradual and unpredictable. The Green Zone was handed over to the Iraqis in an official ceremony framed by tall concrete blast walls.It was largely ceremonial.

The transfer of detainees will be a slow process. Americans are still holding almost 16,000 detainees that they will hand over at a rate of 1,500 a month. The military is trying to build cases on 5,000 of the men. Many human rights groups worry that their transfer would subject them to abuse in Iraqi prisons.

U.S. soldiers still manned the checkpoints in and out of the 5.6 square miles of the Green Zone in central Baghdad that houses foreign embassies, top Iraqi leaders' homes, the U.S. embassy and military installations.

Most had one Iraqi soldier looking at badges as U.S. soldiers looked over their shoulders. Badges in the Green Zone are still issued by the U.S. military and the general logistics are handled by them.  It will take at least another six months before everything is settled. About half the population of the Green Zone are U.S. led-coalition forces, including contractors.

On Thursday a tent was set up and officials were serenaded by a marching band playing bag-pipes on a red carpet. Just across the street there was a view of the green portable toilets soldiers use. The Baghdad Brigade, which reports to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's office, will become the Green Zone police. Some worry that it will become Maliki's personal force.

The U.S. military ushered reporters to one checkpoint where a group of Iraqi soldiers from the Baghdad Brigade stood. This was the picture they wanted the world to see _ Iraqis protecting the Green Zone.  At the entrance of the checkpoint U.S. soldiers stood guard deciding who could and could not enter the Green Zone.

The picture we didn't see was the U.S. flag that fluttered over the Republican Palace, the largest of Saddam's palaces, being lowered and taken away. That happened in an uncovered ceremony on Wednesday.

 It has been the home to the U.S. embassy and U.S. operations for years. The Green Zone was built around the ornate building. The ceiling and walls are engraved with Saddam Hussein's initials. And most recently it was the home of the Green Bean Cafe where U.S. officials picked up lattes near a hall turned into a deli-like cafeteria.

Now it is empty save the furniture that Saddam Hussein had in the palace. This morning Maliki called the return of the palace on  New Year's day a "dream that came true."

“This palace is a symbol of Iraqi sovereignty and by its return it is a message to the Iraqi people that Iraqi sovereignty has returned," he said in a ceremony at the palace. “This day is an immortal day and it is our right to regard it as a National holiday.”

Both Maliki and President Jalal Talabani are trying to take the building as their residence.

So now we enter a new time in Iraq. A time between war and peace, a time between occupation and sovereignty. It is a nation in limbo and time will tell if a democracy that respects human rights here thrives or the nation reverts back to a dictatorship. Right now it is neither and many fear that is what Maliki is becoming.

Time will tell if the Iraqi Security Forces can secure the nation, time will tell if the U.S. military adheres to the rules of the agreement and the dates of withdrawal. The future, as always, is uncertain.

Happy New Year, may it bring peace and change.

November 20, 2008

Iraq's parliament turns into "circus"

Iraqi state television aired a controversial parliament session from Wednesday today after Sadrists accused the foreign minister's guards of manhandling Ahmed Massoudi, a Sadrist parliament member.

The session on Wednesday was to conduct the second reading of a contested law that would pass or reject a security agreement between the United States and Iraq. The agreement, which passed the cabinet on Sunday, was met with strong opposition from both Sadrist and Sunni legislators. Before it can be implemented  and replace a United Nations mandate, which legalizes the  U.S. led occupation of Iraq until the end of the year, the parliament must pass it with a simple majority.

Now that I've explained the basic boring ins and outs of the situation lets get to the fun stuff. The session made for great television a la Jerry Springer without the baby mamas or illicit affairs. Sadrists, as followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr are collectively called, demanded a new law of agreements before considering the long-term security agreement with the United States. Basically they want a law on how Iraq should handle international agreements.

 Mahmoud al Mashhadani, the speaker of the parliament, ignored the requests and said they needed to move onto the second reading of the law which parliament would need to pass by the end of the year to implement the agreement. That's when things went south.

Sadrists stood waving their hands in the air and banging binders on the desk. Hassan Sneid, a member of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's party, tried to read the law over the banging and yelling before leaning back in his chair and throwing his arms up in surrender.

He was rendered silent by the uproar and Mashhadani yelled like an overwhelmed teacher unsure how to control his classroom. Parliament members smirked in their seats as women in long black Abayas, the traditional modest dress of religious Muslim women, banged on their desks and yelled

Then the brawl began. Massoudi, one of the Sadrist members, bum-rushed the podium aiming for where the Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Finance Minister Bayan Jaber and Sneid were seated. A guard got in the way and pushed Massoudi out of the way. Other legislators followed, crowding around the podiums yelling and surrounding the speaker and his deputies.

An army of personal guards surrounded Mashhadani and his two deputies and Zebari was rushed out by his guards with what seemed to be a smirk on his face.  After Zebari, Sneid and Jabr left Massoudi swept the plastic flowers, papers and tissue boxes from the table with a few crazed swoops of his arms.

Mashhadani just stood there in the center of the crowd yelling as others yelled louder. First he demanded a recess of one hour then he gave up, encircled by angry legislators. For a few seconds his mouth gaped open.

"Ahhhhhh," he yelled. "Wait! Wait! we'll resume tomorrow at 10 a.m."

He gave a dismissive wave of his hand and his men maneuvered him out of the angry crowd.

The finale of the session was by far the most entertaining. A female Sadrist member shrouded in black walked up to the speakers podium and threw water bottles, notebooks and papers from the desk.

On Thursday the Sadrists banged their binders again but the second reading happened. Entertaining battles or not the parliament must decide by Monday whether or not to reject or agree to the security agreement.

November 08, 2008

Minorities, the victim of the powers that be?

The Iraqi Presidency Council ratified an amendment to the provincial council law that gives a quota of six seats to minority communities during the upcoming provincial elections in various provinces. Christians get one seat in Nineveh province, another in Baghdad and another in the oil rich province of Basra. Three other minority communities Yazidis, Shabak and Sabeans were each given a provincial seat.

The news was received by Christian leaders as an "insult." The original provincial elections law was passed after a section guaranteeing minorities a quota of representation was struck from the legislation. After nationwide protests from minority communities the parliament chose to pass a version of the law that gave minorities the least amount of representation. A United Nations proposal gave minorities double the number of seats.

Minorities drafted a letter to the presidency council asking them to reject the amendment. But they ratified the amendment today despite objections.

"The most important point is that after all these deliberations the right of the minorities to fix their seats has become a standing right," the council's spokesman Nasir al Ani said.

Screwing the minorities seems to be the order of the day so that the powerful become more powerful. Arab and Islamic parties banned together to pass the law because they worried that giving minorities would help Kurdish expansion. Arab nationalists fear the expansion of the Kurdish region and the ultimate secession of the Kurdish north. Currently the Kurds control the local government in the mostly northern Sunni Arab province of Nineveh.

If Christians received three seats, Yazidis, a religious minority, got one seat and the Shabak, an ethnic minority, got one seat Arabs  believed that  Kurds would use minority seats as an extension of their own parties in the upcoming elections. 

Yonadam Kanna, a Christian lawmaker and Iraqi nationalist, called this a grave mistake and said it showed Christians who "were against them." They may boycott the elections but really what does that do?

November 04, 2008

Does a New American President Change Iraq?

In Iraq people's fate are tied to the fate of America. The decisions the next president will make about U.S. troop levels and U.S. dollars being spent in Iraq will trickle down to those who live in Fallujah, Najaf, Baghdad and beyond.

A long term security agreement known as the Status of Forces Agreement has been rife with tense negotiations. The final product may fall to the next administration. Already Iraqis are now calling it the "withdrawal agreement."

Many Iraqis tell me that America broke this country and it is still shattered. When they look at their lives they see the lack of electricity, the corruption, the lack of clean water and much more. Security has improved but everything here is tenuous and violence, which has dropped but not disappeared, may come back.

Some Iraqis want Americans to leave but are afraid of what happens next, others want Americans to stay until the mess is cleaned up. But most agree that a new president in the United States doesn't necessarily mean that change in their life will come.

Below are thoughts of Iraqis on this election day:

"I care so much about the American elections because the future of Iraq depends on them. I wish that Obama wins because if he wins he will withdraw the American forces from Iraq. I'm waiting, God willing Obama will win."  -- Nahla al Adhamee, 45, a Sunni Arab university lecturer at the University of Irbil in the northern region of Kurdistan.

"I feel sick of politics because the American policy will never change no matter who's president. The only thing I care about is the SOFA and I hope it is not signed because the Americans will steal all of Iraq." -- Haider al Azzawi, 38, a Shiite Arab taxi driver in eastern Baghdad

"The whole world cares about this...I expect Obama will win but I do not care about them only if Obama fulfills his promise to withdraw the American troops from Iraq and we get rid of this ugly occupation." -- Ibrahim al Azzawi, 40, a Sunni Arab mechanic in southeast Baghdad

"The American elections have no importance to me at all. Their presidency is one thing and their policy is another, therefore there is no real difference who wins. American foreign policy is constant. Iraqis are not ignorant, we have seen this over the years; one president goes and another comes and he does nothing to remedy his predecessor's mistakes only what concerns the American people. As for people in other countries they don't count because they don't vote." -- Aqeel Mohammed, 37, a Shiite minibus driver from southern Baghdad 

"What possible change can either of them bring? And if they do anything, it is only to the interests of their own country – not for our sake. They might "bring their boys home" and "stop spending their money in Iraq" and "let Iraqis shoulder their own responsibilities"…. Where are we in all this?

Maybe Obama would withdraw their forces – but is that good? I would be happy to see them go – but I am also afraid.

What they do, they do for themselves. -- Widad Hamid, 74, a Sunni Arab retired high school teacher from western Baghdad.

"We do follow the news, but I don't expect any change at all. I have no faith in their promises because they say only what they think the American people want to hear. They dissemble their own people – not others. They don't care about the Iraqi people. It's all about their security freedoms, their boys, their money and their democracy. American foreign policy is one line, presidents come and go." -- Khalid Abu Abdullah, a Sunni Arab shopowner from northern Baghdad

"The residents of Sadr city don't car about the American presidential election, now we care only about the blocked roads and the traffic jams...I don't think the American policy will change towards our country," -- Khaleel Abu Ahmad, 37, a Shiite engineer from the east Baghdad district of Sadr City. 

"I care about the lack of electricity and fuel, why should I care about the American elections?" -- Ammar, 30, a Shiite Arab from Baghdad.     

October 29, 2008

What to do with the detainees?

The U.S. and Iraq are currently negotiation a security agreement that would replace a U.N. mandate that allows their presence in Iraq. Of course there are a series of problems with Iraq wanting to prosecute U.S. soldiers and the U.S. wanting to protect Americans from Iraqi courts.

Iraq has had little power to protect its citizens from foreigners following heinous crimes inside Iraq. Following the killing of 17 civilians last year by Blackwater, security contractors that protect diplomats, the Iraqi government could do nothing. When a teenage girl was raped and her family killed, south of Baghdad, by a U.S. soldier, the Iraqi government could do nothing.

While the negotiations continue and seem to be hitting a wall we've forgotten about the detainees.

Right now the U.S. military is trying to pare down the number of Iraqi detainees in custody before the U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year. They've reduced the number by almost 10,000 since last year; currently there are 17,000 people in U.S. custody. Most are detained and are never charged or go on trial, many are held for months or years until they are no longer deemed a threat. If and when a security agreement is actually in place the U.S. will have to transfer the remaining detainees to Iraqi custody.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement today calling for the protection of detainees who fear abuse and toture in Iraqi prisons once they are transferred from U.S. custody.

Human Rights Watch and many journalists have documented abuse, torture and ill-treatment in Iraqi prisons. The organization ask that the U.S. military be responsible and put into place a process in which an Iraqi can ask not to be transferred for fear of torture.

“Since the United States made itself synonymous with abuse of detainees in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib scandal, the least it can do now is assure that a security agreement does not pave the way for further abuse,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Iraqis prefer to be detained by U.S. forces these days because of the terrible treatment in Iraqi prisons. But even there they often don't get access to legal council or a right to their day in court. Recently I interviewed a police chief in Fallujah who told me that since he took over everything was much better fo inmates in his jails.

"We feed them now," he said.

October 21, 2008

Another final draft is no longer final

After a 4 and a 1/2 hour meeting little was accomplished in a cabinet meeting to discuss the "final" draft of a long-term security agreement between the United States and Iraq that would replace a United Nations mandate that currently governs the U.S. presence here. Following the meeting it was no longer final, Shiite ministers once again raised objections to the wording of the draft.

The Foreign Minister of Iraq, Hoshyar Zebari, conceded that it was unlikely the agreement would be finalized before the U.S. elections on Nov. 4, he told Reuters. The clock is ticking; the United Nations mandate expires on Dec. 31.

The agreement, which now is set to end in 2011, includes a clause that gives the Government of Iraq the option to extend the agreement. Members of the Shiite Iraqi parties said it was too vague and also objected to wording of the jurisdiction of U.S. soldiers.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki asked for a list of objections to be submitted to his office by Wednesday afternoon.

The leader of Iraq sits in an uncomfortable position now as Iraq transitions from a nation with a foreign occupation to a nation with a mutual partnership and agreement with a former occupier.

The Political Council for National Security couldn't come to a decision on the latest version of the draft and so Maliki passed it on to his cabinet where most parties are represented, save the followers of Muqtada al Sadr who wholly reject the accord. 

Maliki does not want to take the blame if the agreement is rejected by the Iraqi parliament, who must pass it in order for it to take effect.

"He genuinely understands that there needs to be an agreement but he feels that he has been passed a hot potato by the political council," a senior Iraqi official said referring to the Political Council on National Security which represents the various Iraqi parties. "He felt they actually passed the buck and he didn’t want to be made a scapegoat for encouraging an agreement when there are disagreements."

So Maliki was indifferent during the hours-long meeting as minister after minister voiced their objections to specific clauses. The Kurdish alliance is the only group that has endorsed the latest draft.

"He doesn’t want to support a document and get an approval from the cabinet, then send it to the council of representatives where it might be rejected," the official said.

Maliki fears bearing the historical responsibility for an agreement that could be rejected by the Iraqi street as signing away Iraq's sovereignty.

But it is also unclear if Shiite legislators are genuine in their objections to the agreement. The agreement has changed significantly in the favor of the Iraqi government during the months-long negotiations. Shiite officials, including Maliki, have claimed to agree to an American compromise and then when the draft is finalized object the written product.

Soon there will be another "final" draft in this drawn-out process which was originally supposed to be finished by July.

But the door is closing and it is unclear what would happen if the United Nations mandate is not renewed and an agreement is not finalized by the end of the year. The United States would then be an illegal occupier and they would have no legal cover in Iraq while they withdrew their forces.


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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