August 14, 2008

RIP

A female suicide bomber killed at least 19 people according to police. As the pious walked to the southern city of Karbala they were hit with a blast from a woman in the crowd, police said.

Most of the dead were women, police told us. Up to 99 people were wounded. So many families mourn today.


Save the Date?

The Foreign Minister to Iraq, Hoshyar Zebari, said that a security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, still in negotiations, would have U.S. troops out of Iraq in three years and bar them from moving outside their bases unilaterally beginning in 2009.

The comments by the foreign minister, first made to the Times of London, confirm what two Iraqi officials told McClatchy Newspapers last week. Zebari said by phone Thursday that the dates would still be based on conditions in Iraq.

If the U.S. has agreed to set a specific date for the end of American operations in Iraqi cities and the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces it marks a major turnaround for the Bush administration, which until last month had refused to discuss a timetable for withdrawal.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and other Iraqi officials were insistent that a date of some sort needed to be set. During Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's visit to Iraq last month, Maliki's national security adviser said that Iraqi officials hoped that U.S. combat troops would be gone by the end of 2010.

Iraqi and American officials had planned to come to a security agreement by the end of July which would replace a United Nations mandate that allows the American-led coaltion forces to occupy Iraq. So far no agreement has been made although both Iraqi and U.S. officials have been saying the deal is close for weeks.

Once negotiations are complete the agreement must still pass the executive council, the political and national security committee and finally the parliament.

Maliki has already voiced concerns over the issue of immunity. Zebari said that Americans and contractors on their bases would come under American law but outside their bases they would be referred to both Iraqi and U.S. military commands.


Casualties

This is from our visiting reporter Nicholas Spangler of The Miami Herald:

A U.S. soldier killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad was the 14th to die this month in Iraq, one more than died in the entire month of July, according to the website icasualties.org.

Casualties are still lower than they were in the spring, when improvised explosive devices killed dozens of soldiers every month in Baghdad.

            IED attacks there continue to account for the majority of U.S. troop deaths in hostile incidents, but troops in two major operations in the north of the country are also encountering IED’s on roads and in buildings.

            “We don’t see insurgents mounting a more concerted resistance,” said Major General Mark Hertling, U.S. commander for the region said this week, speaking about an operation in Diyala Province. “We – the U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces – are going to where we haven’t been before, what we term their support areas. “We are finding that those areas have their forms of early-warning devices – that is, IED’s planted on roads to let them know when forces are coming into their zones.”

            At a press conference earlier in the week, Hertling described the northern provinces as “the most volatile area in Iraq right now.”

            Insurgents were pushed into the region, he said, by the U.S. troop surge in Baghdad and the Awakening movement in the western province of Anbar, under which the Pentagon paid Sunni tribesmen to fight al Qaida.   

            As of Thursday, 4,138 American service members had been killed in Iraq. 

               


August 10, 2008

Small Victories

Parliament adjourned this month and by Sunday most Iraqi parliament members had flitted off to London or Paris or the province they represent.

A lot of them didn't even wait until parliament ended. Their last controversial session before their summer break was attended by just over half of the legislators.  And those that stuck it out didn't pass the provincial elections law after a bitter dispute over the oil rich city of Kirkuk.

So while most parliament members were unavailable the government chose to open the new parliament building housed outside the heavily fortified Green Zone. The audience was so small at the televised ceremony that the camera zoomed in on one section of the seating to give the illusion of a full crowd.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki attended and gave a twenty minute speech about the new democratic Iraq, the continued intent to find and catch terrorists and how reconstruction was the next step for the new Iraq.

As he spoke people fanned themselves with newspapers and notebooks in the 120 degree heat. A typical scene in the suffocating heat of Iraqi summers.

Finally he gave up.

"I can’t talk for a very long time because it’s very hot," he said. "I hope they put in the air conditioning soon."

After the opening ceremony the parliament sent out a press release to clarify what the celebration signified. The ceremony was to commemorate the basic construction of the building. But it was still not ready for parliament to use as a meeting space.

Small victories. One step at a time.


August 05, 2008

Bridges and Water and Power, Oh No!

Driving through Iraq you feel the neglect here. In Basra the city is rivers of sewage, destroyed buildings and bridges from war after war after war.

Every day I pass by the same buildings destroyed years ago during the U.S. led invasion in my neighborhood in Baghdad. Every day they look exactly the same, a pile of rubble. The electricity problem seems to be getting worse; Iraqis have an average of about four hours of electricity a day. While there is talk of reconstruction, a bridge here, flowers planted there the people don't feel a change.

A report from the Government Accountability Office explains a few things. By the end of this year Iraqi will have made $80 billion in oil profits and U.S. tax payers have paid out $48 billion in money for reconstruction. Of Iraq's total expenditures only one percent has been spent "to maintain roads, bridges, vehicles, buildings, water and electricity installations, and weapons for security forces."


August 02, 2008

Slaying of a Detainee to Transfer of Authority

Here are a few tidbits of Iraq news today:

Two U.S. soldiers were charged with pre-meditated murder in connection with the death of an Iraqi detainee, a U.S. military statement said.  Other charges include assault, making a false official statement and obstruction of justice.

Staff Sgt. Hal M. Warner and First Lt. Michael C. Behenna of D Company, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry are accused of killing Ali Mansur Mohammed, a detainee who the U.S. military believed had been released in May of this year. After a criminal investigation the soldiers were charged with the slaying of Mohammed.

Also in what seemed to be a swift move, the U.S. military transferred authority to Iraqi Forces following two operations that were deemed successful. It is unclear if that means all U.S. troops will now be withdrawn from the once restive province.

It also may be an indicator of further U.S. troop cuts as pressure for a timetable for withdrawal in Iraq and America increase. So far top U.S. commanders have refused to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq.

The U.S. detainee population has also decreased from 24,000 and growing last year at this time to just under 21,000 detainees. This year 10,000 Iraqis were released. The U.S.-led coalition forces say that under the U.N. mandate they can detain and hold on to Iraqis for as long as they want without trial if they believe they are an imminent threat.

In Hawija, near the oil rich city of Kirkuk, hundreds of Arabs and Turkomen protested Kurdish desires to absorb the province into the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region.

The area is at the center of a crisis over the recently passed provincial elections law which stipulated equal distribution of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen in the local council, now dominated by Kurds and their allies. The law was vetoed by the presidential council after the President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, criticized the legislation.

The parliament will meet on Sunday in a special session to resolve the issue. Before Talabani flew off to the Mayo Clinic in the United States he said the issue had been resolved. We'll see what tomorrow brings.




August 01, 2008

Freedom to Pray

In the southern port city of Basra the followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr went from kingmakers to lepers in weeks.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki descended upon the Shiite militant stronghold and most of the Mahdi Army, the militia attached to Sadr's movement, fled or were detained. Other Shiite militias were also attacked. The Sadrists, a political and social movement, were ousted from their office and the outdoor prayer area was taken away.

Since the battle in March they've been afraid to pray publicly. In one instance when they gathered to pray in a new location security forces broke up the crowd by shooting into the air when the cleric that lead the prayer spoke against the government.

But this Friday they'd struck a deal with the local government and were back in the vast space where they once prayed. About 5,000 men gathered to pray together and a Sadr spokesman praised government officials for being "honorable." This is not a typical statement from the now opposition movement to a government dominated by rival Shiite parties. But it is unclear how much his large following has dwindled.

Sadr's statement over the past year and a half have been more and more peaceful calling for his militia to stand down and eventually disband, save an elite fighting force that would resist the Americans.

Most recently he offered the government his support if they refused to sign a security agreement with the United States that is still in negotiations.

Some say Sadr has smartened up and realized he has to wait the Americans out and then take on his Shiite rivals. Others believe he is significantly weakened by recent operations in his strongholds of Basra, Amara and the vast Shiite slum in Sadr City. There have been Shiites who have turned on the militia, happy to be rid of a group that in some cases went from a protector to violent intimidator.

He no longer holds the ground in the heartland of poor Shiites. The question is does he hold their hearts?


July 26, 2008

A Deadly Fate

Arkan Ali Taha, 14, often stayed late at his father's newsroom in Kirkuk. The editor-in-chief of the weekly Voice of Villages, Ali Taha, treated his son as a journalist in training.

This week the teen was in a cab rushing from home to bring in a flash disk with needed information. He never made it to the paper.

He got caught in the crossfire between gunmen and the U.S. military. Arkan was killed in the back of a taxi. The coroner determined it was an American bullet that caused the fatal wound, his father said Saturday.

"I had four sons and now I have three," he said. "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

With the soothing rhythm of the verses of Quran being read in the background to mourn his son's passing, Ali Taha, recalled his son's loves.

The teen listened to pop music and was obsessed with computer games. He loved the weekly trips he took with his father to sites in the area.

The most recent trip was to the Dokan Dam, the primary water source in Kirkuk. He loved to stay late into the night at the Voice of Villages newsroom, a U.S. supported weekly, and help in any way he could.

Who knows what he would've been when he grew up. Who knows what life he would've lived. God had other plans, his father said.

"It was his destiny," he said. "He left at that time to meet that fate. We believe that everything that happens is the voice of God."

A U.S. military press release said that the soldiers were recovering a disabled vehicle when they came under fire. A soldier was wounded. When U.S. soldiers returned fire a "young Iraqi man" in the back of a taxi was shot, the statement said.

"This is an accident that could happen to any Iraqi living in this country today," his father said.

Taha looked to God for strength as so many other Iraqis do now. They mourn and they go on.


July 24, 2008

I'm Back

It was a month-long leave between Beirut, Madrid, Granada and Amman but on the beaches of Beirut and in the markets of Spain I was constantly reminded of Iraq.

Beirut felt like Baghdad minus the miles of blast walls, foreign troops and regular car bombings. The city is plagued by the same sectarian tensions.

The Sunni and Shiite areas are delineated by the posters on the walls and in the lobbies of apartment buildings throughout the city.

In the Shiite areas posters of Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, the Shiite political party and militant organization, drape the walls. In the United States it may be considered a terrorist organization but in poor Shiite areas and many upscale areas of Shiites they are considered heros. 

Inside the Kodak studios you can buy Hassan Nasrallah's 2008 visage for a few thousand Lebanese Pounds.

In Sunni areas Saad al Hariri's smiling face drapes the walls, sometimes accompanied by that of his father, Rafiq al Hariri, the former prime minister who was assasinated in 2005. Saad al Hariri leads the predominantly Sunni Future Movement.

A Shiite friend of mine just bought an apartment near Hariri's home. She lives near the airport now _ a mostly Shiite zone. But soon she will move away from what she's come to see as a comfort zone, a place among her own. She worries that if things go south she'll no longer be welcome in her new million-dollar apartment building.

It all sounds familiar to me. The richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor were forced from their homes because they no longer belonged. The sect that dominated their neighborhood no longer welcomed the other. It could happen in Lebanon as well.

I went to have my hair and nails done before a friend's wedding. Outside the salon a green chalkboard that usually advertises specials on beauty packages read, "Thank you for not talking about politics."

The owner of the salon moved her shop to a Shiite area after being harassed by young Sunni men in another neighborhood following a spate of violence between Hezbollah supporters and government supporters in May.

A young woman in her 20s and still unmarried was asked by her aunt when she would marry. "Sunnis are forbidden," to marry she was told.

The dividing lines are even being drawn on the internet. 

On Facebook, a social networking site, groups were formed to boycott Shiite stores. I don't know how Lebanese fashoinistas will stay away from European stores like Zara, Mango and Bershka.

The groups have hundreds of people and are named things like "I swear I will never buy from Shi3a stores anymore."

One page explained "I ask the help of all members in indicating the shops of ‘Shias’ on these Maps. I’m sorry for this racism act, but be sure, it is not an action taken by us, it is reaction of what had happened to Beirut these days, AND WHAT IS STILL HAPPENING!"

In response another forum was formed. On the page it states:

"Join this group to tell the future movement that we don't give a flying &*%*# if you boycott us or no. We will stay ballin' and we will make 10 times more money than you and we will WORK for our money but not STEAL.

----------------------------------------------------

"...THANK YOU FOR MAKING A LIST OF THE SHIITE STORES, MARKETS, CENTERS, STORES AND COMPANIES, BECAUSE NOW WE WONT BUY ANYWHERE BUT THEM! ;)"

In the middle of my break I flew to Spain away from the Middle East, away from the sectarian tensions and the battles for power between local, regional and international players. I walked through a tourist market in Granada and heard the sound of Iraqi Arabic wafting through. Iraqis spoke Spanish to their customers as they sold overpriced trinkets from the town, but to each other they spoke in the language of their home.

"I live in Baghdad," I told them.

"Oh my God," the merchant told me. She hadn't been home in six years.

"Is it still beautiful?" she said.

"Not like it once was I'm sure," I answered.

"It was so beautiful I wish you knew it then," she said. "I miss my home. Say hi to Baghdad for me, say hi to Baghdad."

I stepped off the plane in Baghdad and I passed on her greeting.


July 08, 2008

On leave

But I'll be back soon.


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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