June 14, 2008

Amara

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki gave militants in the southern city of Amara four days to lay down their weapons or be faced with his security forces. Emboldened by what appear to be successful operations in Basra, Sadr City in Baghdad and Mosul, Maliki is taking on the Sadr-stronghold of Amara. But it's expected to be bloodless compared to the battle that ensued in Basra in March. The Mahdi Army, Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's militia, rose up in both the southern port city and the Shiite slum of Baghdad, Sadr City. The battle only subsided when Sadr called for calm. 

Already Iraqi Security Forces have descended upon the poor Shiite area. Tomorrow the four-day grace period begins, a good amount of time to stash weapons before security forces spread through the city.

Sadr's spokesman, Salah al Obaidi, said the Mahdi Army would not resist and had spoken to Maliki's political bloc about cooperating.

"We do not want the same massacre as Basra," he said.


A Celebration Marred

After we finished editing this video of Iraqis celebrating a soccer win, the happiness we saw in the streets was marred. For Iraqis, happiness never seems to last.  A female suicide bomber walked into a cafe where crowds were celebrating in a Kurdish area of Diyala province. At least 29 people were injured, seven are in serious condition in an area north of Baghdad.

We returned to Baghdad from the west where we spent the day reporting a story of loss, pain and the pursuit of justice. Emotionally drained from the stories we'd heard, the sight of celebration lifted our spirits. My colleague, Mohammed al Dulaimy, perched himself out of the window of the car and filmed. He jumped out and captured scenes of people dancing and then he looked at me.

"From the sadness of today to the joy of a soccer win," he said. "I hope there isn't a suicide bombing today."

He didn't get his wish.

The story from the west will be out this week.


June 09, 2008

Traffic Woes

Cartoon_3620081_2Iraqi traffic is at the whim of U.S. military convoys, Iraqi Army convoys and Iraqi officials. Nearly every politician or that politician's advisors travel with gun toting convoys. They shoot bullets in the air and force traffic to take detours that slow to a crawl.

A fifteen minute drive can take up to two hours depending on road closures and passing VIPs. Often Iraqis are forced to take one side of a two-way street as officials breeze by. It doesn't exactly endear the isolated government into their constituencies' hearts.

The cartoon above shows a black vehicle with the word "official" on it as it drives by the Baghdad traffic crawl.


June 07, 2008

What is Normal in Baghdad?

On Wednesday we watched a burning fire and plumes of smoke fill the air from a nearby car bomb. The ambulance lights flashed and the air was filled with the sounds of sirens.

At that point we didn't know if it had hit our favorite restaurant where children play in an outdoor garden and brides favor the beautiful scene for weddings.  Next door is the grocery store where I buy my favorite ice cream.

Our security advisor worried about a secondary bombing so he wouldn't let us drive the few blocks to check it out. We waited on a death toll from police and watched the distant flames with sadness. Later we found out just three people were killed and we sighed with relief. Three lives are better than 20 lives lost.

That night I talked to Hussein, one of our Iraqi reporters. We talked about whether or not he would apply for refugee status in the states. He is eligible for a resettlement program that would give him eight months of help in the states because of his dangerous job. Journalists are targeted and killed here.

"They'll ask you if you're afraid," I said. "Are you afraid for your life?"

"I was," he said.

"Are you still?" I asked.

"Not anymore," he said. "I got used to it. Even you got used to it. What if that car bomb was in the United States would it be the same?"

I hung my head. Car bombs, suicide bombings, assasinations are so common they are the thing of jokes. Yes violence has dropped but it is still here and the most troubling thing is it is normal.

Today we found out a female suicide bomber killed one and injured six in Fallujah. One of our reporters joked that women didn't make good bombers. She'd only gotten one person. We laughed because it is easier than crying.


Jaafari Back?

Jaafari_2 Former Iraqi Prime  Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari broke off from the Dawa party, the Shiite Prime Minister's party, and announced the formation of his own political bloc, Islah or Reformation Party.

Jaafari was ousted from his position as head of the Islamic Dawa Party and head of the state in 2006 due to rejections by President George W. Bush and a parliament of Sunnis, Kurds and secularists who did not want his premiereship to continue. He refused to stand down until the top Shiite religious leader in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani intervened.

His tenureship was tarnished by infiltration of militias into the security forces and escalating violence in the nation.  He blames the U.S. for turning a blind eye to militias in 2004 and 2005.

While Maliki is trying to forge a semblance of national reconciliation between factions and sects in his government, his own party is splitting a part.

Jaafari is using the unpopularity of Maliki's negotiations for a Status of Forces Agreement with the United States, his alienation of the Sadrist bloc and his inability to bring the Sunnis back into the government to stage his come back.

He told reporters that the party would "renounce the sectarian quota system and fight the militias," according to Aswat al Iraq, an Iraqi News Agency. The soft spoken academic added that the negotiations of the agreement with the United States was "humiliating." A sentiment many Iraqis echo.

The Islamic Dawa Party later announced that Jaafari was out of the party.

The change could throw off the balance in the parliament. So far the Dawa party has barely beaten out the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq twice for the Prime Minister's seat. Sadrists will not go to Dawa in the next elections and Jaafari always handled the young Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr with care. Sometimes he spoke to him late into the night to calm him down. Maliki has largely ignored the Sadrists who are responsible for getting him enough votes to become head of state.

We'll see what this brings. 

(Photo above is from the Associated Press)


June 06, 2008

Scenes from Basra to Sadr City

Today was the second Friday in a row with no reported violence. Below are scenes from across Iraq. Enjoy.

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Basrawi musicians jam in their shops after years of music being a forbidden joy in this port city.

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Women eat out at a restaurant on the water in the port city of Basra.

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Little girls finish washing for Friday prayers in Sadr City.

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A little girl stands at the edge of a lake of sewage in a poor Shiite area of Basra.

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Ice vendors saw off chunks of ice and sell them in the summer heat.


June 02, 2008

Political humor

While Iraq is enjoying a lull in violence political developments are still stagnant. After promises of reconciliation between sectarian and ethnic factions there is little to show the Iraqi people.

Sunnis promised to rejoin the government and hav e suspended negotiations for now. Sadrists, the Shiite followers of militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, are completely isolated and Maliki's cabinet has not refilled either of the parties' spots. Below are some political cartoons depicting the situation. Ultimately everyone wants the power and compromises are few and far between.

Cartoon7_3

Abovet he man in red holds a paper that reads "The Foreign Agenda" as he stabs "National Reconciliation in the back."

Below the man on the right asks, "What happened with you after all these honeyed promises of reconciliation?" The man on the left sits on the floor with a broken chair underneath him.

"We've got diabetes," he answers.

Cartoon4_3


May 28, 2008

Sunnis Suspend talks with the Government

The Iraqi Accordance Front, known as Tawafuq, was supposed to return to the government about three weeks ago. They pulled their Sunni ministers from the Shiite-led government in August in protest.

Now after weeks of haggling about what Sunni ministers will go where they've pulled their list and suspended their participation threatening to extend the nearly year-long boycott to the government.

The Sunni bloc rallied around Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki following his operation in Basra that targeted the Shiite Mahdi Army and Iranian-linked groups. To most Sunnis Maliki was finally a Prime Minister. not a Shiite leader. The Sunnis said they would return to the government and videos of Tariq al Hashemi, the Sunni vice-president, and Maliki were broadcast with the two leaders smiling and chatting. The pair are known to dislike each other.

Now the Accordance Front is upset by the small number and what they describe as low-level ministries being offered to them by the government.So once again the talks have stopped and the proposed lists from the Accordance Front was pulled.

Dhafir al Ani, a parliament member from the Sunni bloc said they were standing their ground. The government gives in easily to the Shiite alliance and gives nothing to Tawafuq, al Ani said in a statement.


May 27, 2008

A Religion Hijacked

Jinan is in her late 30s. She wears boot cut jeans with lace flowers snaking up the right leg. Her top is a tight fitting pastel yellow and her chestnut brown hair flows just past her shoulder.

The devout Shiite Muslim prays five times a day and fasts during the holy month of Ramadan to focus on God and sacrifice. She was born and raised in the southern port city of Basra.

The city was once reveled for its beauty and active role in culture, music and dance. Now it is dilapidated, devastated from war after war after war. Giant lakes of sewage tarnish the city and the infrastructure is collapsing after an eight-year war with Iran, years of neglect and sanctions and the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Following the invasion extrene Islamists slowly took control of the city. They firebombed music stores, forbade music at Muslim weddings when couples celebrated their matrimony. Slowly they controlled people's behavior and took away the choice Muslim women make to cover their hair out of modesty.

Jinan's choice was stolen, but she refused to succumb. The engineer went to work every day in her snug clothes, meticulous makeup and flowing hair. Every day she prayed to God as well.

Signs near the police station warned women to veil and to remove their makeup. Women around her were being killed. In just five months more than 50 women were killed, police said.

She returned home at the same time as she did every day a little over three months ago. As she walked to the door she felt cold metal pressed to her head.

"If you don't wear anything on your head then we will kill you and anyone with you," a man whispered in her ear as he held a gun to her head. She felt fear and then rage.   

Jinan wouldn't surrender her right to decide and she went out again with her hair uncovered, she said recently, her gold bracelets jingling and her dangling earrings swaying.

"There is an inner feeling that told me no one could threaten me," she said. "No one could tell me to do this thing and not that."

Then the Iraqi Security Forces descended upon the city in late March. She thought it was futile. She had no faith in Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. Once again she thought this would fail.

But now things seem to be getting better. She leaves her house without the terror and she hopes that the Islamists will stay in hiding and the threatening banners torn from the walls will never again be hung.

"Before when I moved in the streets I heard the whispers about my clothes," she said. People would admonish her.

"They will kill you," she recalled people saying. Now no one says a word about her white high heels, her toes painted pink or her red lipstick. One woman clapped her hands in approval.

"Last week I went to work and a police man gave me a thumbs-up," Haiya, her sister added. She also won't be forced to cover her hair. For the first time her defiance was met with approval.

Her anger isn't just directed at the extremists that ruled her streets for years. For a month now it has been better. It's also directed against the United States and the British.

"We all say the reason for this suffering is the English and the Americans," she said. "They didn't use powerful actions. They left us with the militias...When Saddam fell we were all very very happy but the British and Americans killed our happiness."

They now feel safer now but they wouldn't let a journalist take their picture. They worried that the people they feared would come back. 

"Five years of our life were ruled by guns," Haiya said. "They hijacked our religion. They might come back."


May 13, 2008

Potshots, Rockets and Tents

A cease-fire is in place to end the about six-week long battle in Sadr City _ a cease-fire that doesn't seem to be sticking. In the vast Shiite slum in northeast Baghdad the U.S. military and the Iraqi Security Forces are entrenched in an urban war with the Mahdi Army.

On Sunday the fighting was supposed to stop. But today the Iraqi Security Forces raided a Sadr office in the northwest of Baghdad, the Mahdi Army attacked a checkpoint in a nearby neighborhood and the U.S. military got caught in a gun battle. A U.S. air strike killed five and injured four people, hospitals in Sadr City reported. The military confirmed that one U.S. air strike was conducted. Fifteen other people were wounded and a child was run over by an Iraqi Humvee, the hospitals said. A U.S. soldier was killed in a roadside bomb blast in northwest Baghdad.

The militia doesn't seem to be standing down even with Muqtada al Sadr's approval of the agreement that would bring an end to the fighting.

“I’m still a little bit cautious they are out of control and nobody will control them,” Tahseen al Sheikhly, the civil spokesman for the Baghdad Operation Command said. “They are threatening the people and even threatening the Mahdi Army themselves…We have to wait and see for four days what will happen”

Sadrists are in danger of losing their base as families continue to flee. More than 8,500 families have been displaced from the more than 2 million people in Sadr City. More than 400 families are sleeping in tents in a football stadium in Baghdad, afraid to return home despite the agreement. But tents are not a true count because most people flee to cousins, brothers and tribesmen who open their homes to their families. The death toll inside the Sadr stronghold is about 1,000 people and more than 2,000 have been wounded in the district of 2.5 million.

The U.S. military continues to build a wall to isolate the southern edge of Sadr City where they have Joint Security Stations and their soldiers are holed up in abandon homes. Every time they continue to build the wall militants shoot at them and gun battles ensued.

It doesn't seem to be over just yet.

 


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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