October 11, 2008

Darkness

It wasn't a good couple of days for journalists in Iraq or a positive reflection on a government that is supposed to be a fledgling Democracy.

When a press conference by the advisory commission of the Shabak, an Iraqi ethnic minority demanding their rights, turned heated today parliament security guards held 35 journalists against their will and confiscated their equipment. They stopped broadcasts and cut off internet lines so no journalist could file the news to their offices, the Journalistic Freedom Observatory an independent Iraqi organization that monitors violations of press freedom.

An Arabic satellite television station reported that a young cameraman was beaten by guards and in Kirkuk a young man named Diyar Abbas Ahmed was shot down as he left the Artist Union in the Northern city.

The Kurdish man left the union with a friend and gunmen drove up. They leaned out of the windows of their vehicle and yelled for people to move out of the way so they could shoot Ahmed. Ahmed's friend tried to protect him but the men shot bullets into the air and then shot the 25-year-old, friends and police said.

Diyar was a young journalist who worked for The Eye, a privately owned Iraqi News Agency. He is one of 222 media workers who've been killed in Iraq since the start of the war, according to Reporters without Borders.

His death is a tragedy and his life was a light. The more journalists that are killed or intimidated the more darkness there will be.


October 10, 2008

Sadrists Mourn the Loss of an MP

Thousands of followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr marched in mourning on Friday. They bereaved the death of Sadrist parliament member Saleh al Ugaili. The man was known as a moderate voice among the Sadr movement, a man of reason, his colleagues say.

Sadrists accused the Americans of killing Ugaili because of their opposition to a security agreement being negotiated between the United States and Iraq.

Ugaili was killed in an attack by a motorcycle-rigged with explosives. He was transported to the hospital but died on Thursday evening. His body was taken to the holy city of Najaf on Friday to be buried in the Valley of Peace, the largest Shiite Muslim cemetery in the world.

As men walked through the streets in eastern Baghdad a statement by Muqtada was read:

"Here is another star that brightens in the sky of martyrs, of Sadr followers and the sons of Iraq. Another martyr waters the land of Iraq with his blood, a martyr that sacrifices himself for the sake of Iraq and the people of Iraq, a martyr that gave all of his time to expel the occupier and not to sign agreements with him."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki formed a committee to investigate the death. We will probably never know who killed Ugaili. Just as it is unclear who are behind the assassinations in Iraq right now. Who is sticking magnetic bombs on peoples' cars? Who are shooting officials and civilians with weapons equipped with silencers? The questions are clear, why and who benefits? The answers are so much more murky.


October 06, 2008

"Don't marginalize us."

Picture_2200_2 The provincial elections law is at the center of a controversy once again.

First it was the oil-rich city of Kirkuk that stalled the law as Kurds and Arabs battled over a power-sharing proposal that would divide seats among Arabs, Kurds and ethnic Turkmen.

To solve the problem they passed the law and postponed elections in Kirkuk, which Kurds believe, should be part of their semi-autonomous region.

Now it's about minority rights. On Tuesday dozens of Christian Iraqis and Muslim friends walked about a block and held a protest against the provincial elections law. When the law was passed, an article that gave a portion of seats to minorities was nixed from the legislation.

Only a couple dozen Christians showed up, urged by church leaders to make their voice heard.

"We are the roots of this country, of Iraq itself," said Adeeba Youssef, 43, a teacher from New Baghdad. "Don't marginalize us."

Many of her friends did not show up, afraid of car bombs.

Now the law has been passed but the minority question is rife with pitfalls. Parliament members will try to pass a seperate law for minority rights. But who is a minority and how many representatives do they get are questions slowing the process.


October 03, 2008

A Cycle of Life and Death

The Eid al Fitr has come for all Muslims, Sunni and Shiite, in Iraq now. The first day of the holiday, when Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting when Muslims believe the holy book of the Quran was revealed to the prophet Mohammed, was once again marked with revelry and tragedy.

At least 20 people were killed at Baghdad mosques as people went to pray on this holy holiday.

I called a friend to wish her a happy holiday. She’d given birth the day before the day before the holiday in a place that she does not consider home. The Arab Sunni fled to the Kurdish north when things grew too dangerous in her Baghdad neighborhood. She still hasn’t decided that Baghdad is safe enough for her to return.

She named the baby Leila, after her mother. Her husband’s mother flew to the north to help her with the baby.

The next morning they got word that her husband’s uncle had died in custody. He and his nephews were all detained in an operation in Diyala province led by Iraqi troops titled the “Glad Tidings of Benevolance.”

My friend, Shatha, looked at her mother-in-law and told her to return to Baghdad to pick up her brother’s body.

The operation was to weed out the vestiges of Al Qaida in Iraq and Shiite militants in the area but residents complained that the Shiite-dominated security forces targeted Sunni Arab men. The governor’s secretary was killed, a Sunni provincial council members was arrested, leaders of the U.S. backed paramilitary of mostly former Sunni Arab insurgents fled the country in fear of persecution and men like my friend’s uncle and his nephews were detained.

He was a moderate and his farm, in a small Sunni village, was often the target of American raids in the first three years of the war. He was also a victim of the extremism that took over his province. Like all men who needed to survive, at his local mosque he was forced to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al Qaida front that declared a religious state in Sunni Arab parts of the country. He couldn’t smoke in public and militants threatened him if his wife didn’t cover her face.

Just a few villages away Shiite militants controlled the area and the drive to Baghdad became too dangerous as a Sunni man.

When Al Qaida in Iraq’s grip was loosened the man was relieved. But now he is dead. It is unclear what happened and the family is too afraid to ask. They were told he had a stroke. But the man’s nephews are still in detention and they don’t want to hurt them by asking too many questions, the family said.

So they didn’t ask whether he was in American or Iraqi custody, they didn’t ask if he’d received treatment following a stroke he had in custody. They picked the body up from the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad and buried him silently.

As my friend revels in the birth of her baby, she mourns the death of her uncle and worries about the future of her cousins.


September 25, 2008

Cholera

With the summer heat still in full swing, some 306 cases of cholera have broken out in Iraq. At least 12 people, including four children, have died from confirmed or suspected cases of cholera a United Nations statement said today.

But a mission to Iraq lead by the World Health Organization and UNICEF said the cases were being contained and the government has responded swiftly.

Picture_295The number so far is much smaller than the 4,700 cases reported last year and "below Iraq's annual average of 600." a United Nations statement said Thursday.

The outbreaks and ensuing deaths have built up in "rural areas" where people live with no clean water and sewage running through the streets.

According to the July quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction only 20 percent of families outside of Baghdad province have access to sewage facilities.

Driving through Iraq's province is all the proof one needs. In many southern provinces the sewage runs like rivers through the towns while children play nearby and young kids swim through the dirty river water.

Some 66 percent of the cholera cases broke out in the southern province of Babel which is a concern, the United Nations statement said. The WHO is monitoring 950 surveillance sites in Iraq that watch for suspected cases and UNICEF is working with partners to "provide water, hygiene supplies and information for over 45,000 people and schools."

The cholera outbreak has been the talk of Iraqi newspapers over the past few weeks.

Below a political cartoon from today's Al Mutamar newspaper shows a monster rising from a heap labeled "filth" and "foul water." The monster is labeled "cholera," and he chases after a man who thinks "This is what was missing!"

Cholera1


September 24, 2008

The War's Forgotten

Picture_1756 Ansam Imad Ahmed is just 25 and a war widow. Like tens of thousands of others her husband was killed. In November of 2006 men in a vehicle with tinted windows shot him from their car. Under the mask of black glass they stole away a husband and father of three.

At just 23 Ansam was left alone. She had no skills and no money. At first she lived in one small room in her husband's family home with her three children. The place they had lived together when her husband was alive.

But five months after her breadwinner's death the family grew tired of the burden. They contributed nothing to the household and her eldest brother-in-law told her she and the children had to leave.

Ansam packed up her children and went to the only place she knew _ home. But there her five brothers refused to help and once again she was alone.

"I was desperate," she said. "My children's five uncles abandoned them and I had nothing."

But unlike so many women Ansam got help.

At a small center in Arrasat in central Baghdad run by Salma Jabou, the advisor to the President of Iraq on women's affairs, she learned skills. They teach simple things here, sewing, basic computer skills and nursing.

As Ansam recounts her tale this week, the tale of so many women, she smiles and sews the petals of a flower onto a blue sheet.  She works here now for about $200 a month.  She learned basic skills and stayed on at the center.

She also found support. She met other women who'd lost their husbands to the violence and they to found themselves alone, broke and desperate to feed their children.

"I can feed my daughters now," she said.  She smiled and looked up to continue her conversation with another widow.

Ansam is one of tens of thousands. It is unclear how many widows there are in Iraq. Numbers vary from 700,000 to as many as five million.

"It is a terrible situation," Jabou said. "The woman goes back to the fold of the family with no skills and she is open to the violence of family members. She will have no option but to bear the violence or take her children to the streets."

Many turn to prostitution or begging and the children suffer as well, Jabou said. Most often they are forced to work and cannot go to school.

Jabou hopes that her center can alleviate some of the problem. But every two months only 50 women are trained _ a small fraction of the number of women who need help.

So many are forgotten.


September 22, 2008

Another Day

A bombing in central Baghdad today killed two and injured at least five. Shattered glass littered the streets and Iraqi police and American soldiers cordoned off the area.

But for store owners it was another day. They swept up the shards of glass as they have done countless times before. They called the glass repairman to come and install panes of glass in their storefront and they planned to open up later that afternoon.

Yaarub Abdul, 46, a stationary store owner brushed the debris around his shop into a dust bin. He reorganized the disheveled shelves and restocked recordable CDs.

"Thank God for your safety," passing patrons called out as they walked by the crowd of Iraqi police and American soldiers that responded to the incident.

"I'll be open in an hour," he said. "God will protect me."

By the afternoon the debris was sure to be gone and business would be back to normal until the next time.


September 20, 2008

Ramadan Kareem (A Generous Ramadan)

I've just returned from break to Iraq in the midst of the month of Ramadan.  During this time Muslims fast from sun up to sun down. The month is a time of self-reflection, piety, kindness and self-sacrifice. The first days of Ramadan were marked with the heat of the summer months here. At Iftar, the time to break one's fast, the staff chugged water after working in the heat throughout the day.

Just before dinner the streets are empty and people are at home with family feasting and the next day at dawn their fast begins again.

Television caters to fasting patrons with Arabic soap operas that last through the month and other Ramadan programming. A favorite show was already scarred by violence in Iraq, "Your Iftar is on us." Last week four members of the show were killed. But still the show goes on with a TV crew that surprises a needy family each day with a specially cooked dinner and household appliances on the Iraqi Sharqiya channel.

But generally Ramadan is better than last year in Baghdad. Families can go out to dinner if they like, shop after the Ramadan feast or lounge in parks. Life is not back to normal though; today a prominent cleric in the southern port city of Basra was killed. Three women's corpses were found west of Mosul and the head of the Journalist's Union was injured. Earlier this week 22 people were killed in one bombing. These are just a few of the incidents that have pockmarked the week.

Violence is still here but maybe this month will be a generous one for Iraq.



August 26, 2008

Rania, Her Story Changes

Rania It's been two days since Rania Ibrahim, 15, was detained by Iraqi Security Forces when they discovered the explosive packed vest around her chest in the northern city of Baqouba.

At first she told police that she had no idea where the vest came from, the next day she told me her husband's relatives gave it to her but she didn't want to die, she didn't know what the vest was.

Today her story changes yet again. She tells us that her husband told her about the beauty of death, convinced her that paradise awaited her if she killed herself and others for the cause of Al Qaida in Iraq.

Today she may be telling the truth as she sits in a small cell with three other women and once again recounted her tale with new lies and new truths.

"My husband started talking to me about the pain of the grave , about praying , the beautiful women in paradise and the river of honey waiting for those who fight the Americans and explode themselves," she said.

"If I die before you I'll be waiting for you for marriage in paradise," she recalled him saying.

Three days before she donned the explosive vest her husband's female cousins took her measurements and prepared the vest.

"The night before I went out, my husband saw me off with kisses on the forehead and chin, hoping to see me in heaven," she said. 

In her cell with an investigative judge and a police officer she seemed more alert and spoke more freely on Tuesday.

"I still love my husband and he was good with me," she said.

The child bride was forced into marriage at 14-years-old. 

"I discovered that he was fighting the Americans recently. He told me once that they planted a roadside bomb with a friend and waited for a long time for an American patrol, but it was in vain. After that they brought a donkey to detonate so civilians wouldn’t die."

But her husband decided that Rania and he should die for the cause, she said on Tuesday. While her story changed today the fear of a young girl remained. Rania did not want to die, she said.

"I was frightened when they put it on my body," she said referring to her husband's female cousins. "I was worried that it might explode on me...They said I wouldn't feel it."

Once the vest was wrapped around her chest the woman who dressed her, Umm Fatima, told her to go to a school called al Ameen and there she would die.  With fear the teenage girl followed the directions, she said. Before she arrived at her destination she was caught.

Read the original story here. Today's interview was conducted by our Iraqi reporter in Diyala who asked not to be named.


August 17, 2008

He Paid the Price

Picture_1505 I met Farouk Abd al Sattar al Obeidi last week. He wore a military uniform because in his heart he felt he was a part of the army. He was a deputy to Abu Abd who leads the revolutionists in the Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiyah.

Now al Obeidi is dead, killed by a man who road by on a bicycle and detonated on Sunday. Obeidi along with five of his men and nine civilians were killed.

The men are part of a U.S. backed Sunni militia paid a salary to protect the neighborhood once so violent no one left their homes. They are one of tens of thousands across the country. Many of them are former insurgents who once considered it an honor and a right to fight the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Obeidi was a man who believed in the right to "resist the occupation," he told me a few days before he was killed.  But he said he realized that there were two occupations in Iraq. One by the U.S. and another by Iran, he said. He believed, as many Iraqis do, that Shiite Iran gives money to al Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni extremist groups that consider Shiite unbelievers, to cause unrest in Iraq.

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend," he said. "We put our hands with the American hands to get rid of these people."

Now the U.S. backed militias are targets of al Qaida in Iraq and al Obeidi believed they were also targeted by Iran.

We talked about life last week and how many members of the Sons of Iraq, as the U.S. has coined them, had been killed for their fight against the Sunni extremist group al Qaida in Iraq and Shiite militias.

"If our leaders are killed our sons will lead on," he said. "We are people who believe in the road of freedom. If it is our lives, we will pay that price."

He paid that price today.

I could see that Al Obeidi was proud of the small office the group rented in a strip mall in Adhamiyah. He sat behind a large desk and pulled out the pictures of the men they had helped catch. He helped pay for the uniforms his men wore, military uniforms although they were not in the army. On the floor green and red lights danced from a light projector attached to the wall to jazz up the drab room.

But he also lamented that the government was sectarian and would not take in the young men who fought for the neighborhood into their forces. They had no respect for the movement, he said. This was a movement that brought down violence in Iraq when U.S. forces and the Iraqi government could not, he said.

"We are an oppressed people," he said. "Our leaders are oppressors."

Personally he had no interest in joining the security forces. He rolled up his pant leg to show me why. He had a scarred pink whole in his leg. It was a reminder of the day he'd survived a grenade attack, he said. He'd helped a Shiite man leave the neighborhood of Adhamiyah after he was threatened by Sunni extremists in the once insurgent-dominated neighborhood. 

He took the man out of Sunni Adhamiyah and returned home, he knew what it was to be displaced. He'd been displaced by Shiite militants.

But someone came to his home to kill him for the crime of moving the Shiite man to safety. They threw a grenade in the house. But before the man with the grenade could run away al Obeidi pulled him to him and the grenade went off. The man was a shield for al Obeidi. The attacker died and al Obeidi lived.

This time he wasn't that lucky.


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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