May 12, 2008


A four-day cease-fire born from an agreement reached between followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr and a government approved Shiite delegation on Friday began Sunday. The halt in violence would give residents a refuge from weeks of gun battles, rocket attacks and U.S. airstrikes between the U.S. and Iraqi forces against the Mahdi Army militia.

The battle began in late March in what seemed to be a politically motivated offensive by the Shiite Dawa party and Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq to wipe out the opposition Sadrist movement in the south and their stronghold of Sadr City. The Sadrists said they were victims and Maliki looked like an aggressor with an ill-equipped army.

But after weeks of fighting, Basra is showing signs of change for the better and popularity for the Sadr movement and their militia, the Mahdi Army, has waned in their strongholds.

Sheikh Salah al Obaidi, a top aide to Muqtada al Sadr, said he hopes the ceasefire will bring calm to the people of Sadr City. On the southern edge of the vast Shiite slum people were fleeing with little access to clean water and food and no refuge from the violence. There U.S. forces are holed up in abandoned buildings and the Iraqi Security Forces are battling the militia.

Rockets launched by Shiite militants, meant for American targets, were hitting civilian homes, roadside bombs were killing civilians, erratic shooting by the Iraqi Army was killing civilians and U.S. airstrikes meant for militants were in some cases killing civilians. Residents were stuck, terrified and angry at all three groups.

"This will help the situation be relieved and during these four days all the armed groups have to vanish," Obaidi said. "This agreement is a change for the normal relief of Sadr City to stop the suffering of people in general."

It sounds like it gives militants a good amount of time to hide their weapons as well.

May 06, 2008

A Night in Baghdad

In an outdoor garden we ordered sweet, fresh orange juice and shared plates of chickpea dip, salads and grilled meat and chicken. For the first time in a long time we went out as an office and stayed out what would be considered late in Baghdad. We were living on the edge. We didn't get home until a whopping 8:45 p.m.

Picture_045_9The occasion was a sendoff for McClatchy’s Africa Bureau Chief, Shashank Bengali, who graciously swept into town to help while I was out of the country.

In the sea of trees and grass we sat away from the crowds of families to avoid people hearing us speak softly in English. Inside the restaurant we heard the melody of celebration. A young woman in a white halter gown was getting married. The older women celebrated with ululations that wafted out into the serene garden. The party was still going as we left and families still coming in for dinner.

Two couples behind us seemed to be on a first date. Nearby a family with three children ate and chatted, away from the devastation that was likely just a few neighborhoods away.

It was refreshing to be out at night as cool air replaced the intense heat of the day. We didn't need to interview people about their lost loved ones, U.S. airstrikes, roadside bombs or general misery. We just laughed and chatted as people around us did the same.

At one point the electricity went out and the colored lights, wrapped around trees and bushes turned off. Within minutes the generator kicked in and the children in the garden shouted with elation "Yay!" Then they returned to running through the grass.

In war and peace life goes on and everyone looks for their oasis. 

May 03, 2008

Between IEDs and Hellfire Missiles

I returned to Iraq and greeted all the staffers at the hotel. One of my friends works in the cafeteria. He's a rotund young man, with a kind face and a great sense of humor. On his downtime he would read the grounds of my coffee cup to tell my fortune and joke about the rich owners of the hotel who pay them barely anything.

But it's been hard to smile lately.

Two days ago he packed up his family in the northeast district of Sadr City. He took mattresses, rice, sugar and a few changes of clothes and left his home. He was tired of the fighting and scared for his children.

For weeks Sadr City has been plagued by a battle between the U.S. Military along with the Iraqi Security Forces and the Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army. The district is the stronghold of the militia which is both a militant and social organization. They fight but also provide services and aid to poor Shiites.

His home is now scarred with bullet holes. A few days ago he saw the Mahdi Army plant a roadside bomb across the street. He worried that if it detonated, his family would be killed.

U.S. missiles targeting the miltia often hit just near his house. He took to sleeping in the kitchen, the only room in the house without windows. He, his two children and his wife huddled on the floor hoping no stray bullets or shrapnel would hit them.

"I had to leave for the children," he said. "This isn't the way they should live." He's angry at both the U.S. military and the Mahdi Army and feels helpless in his quest to protect his family.

Many people in Sadr City feel fear and anger towards the militia that once was a group that protected them. But no one will say anything.

"It is like the time of Saddam," he said. "People are afraid to talk."

April 22, 2008

Sadr City to New York

I have to apologize to all of you for my lapse in posts. It's been a whirlwind couple of weeks. Last Saturday I was sitting with soldiers in a powerless abandoned home in Sadr City also now known by U.S. soldiers as "Sniper City" and by Monday I was in a hotel in New York City. It was quite a surreal experience. I should be back in Baghdad next week.

I spend most of my time unembedded in Iraq, so spending time with young guys from Tennessee, Illinois, Michigan and Texas was eye opening. They came under fire, slept with rats and no power. But when things quieted for a time they became men of their age. They sifted through clothes in the closet searching for something to entertain themselves, went through photo albums and took toy guns from the little store attached to the house.

Without power and little running water life was hard for the men, as hard as it is for Iraqis every day who deal with shooting in their neighborhoods, no running water and no electricity. People didn't want them there and shots were fired out against them. On the loudspeaker, speeches from the Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr said those who died at the hands of the occupation forces would go to paradise. He has long touted what he calls legitimate resistance against a foreign occupation.

One soldier found a copy of Grand Theft Auto, the video game where bandits hijack cars and do drug deals. "This place is like Grand Theft Auto for the terrorists, they do whatever they want."

A mother sent me a note that brought home why I write these stories. Her words are below and the story is here.

"Lt Adam Bowen is my son.  You were with him and his platoon a few days ago in Sadr City.  When I read your article, which so accurately depicted him, I could hear him talking and hear his tone of voice in each quote.  But then I saw the video.  I watched it, with lots of trepidation, hoping for a just quick glimpse of him.  When the camera panned around the room, and I found myself face to face with him, it was such an incredible moment. I’ve watched it over and over and have paused it repeatedly just to be able to look at him,  to see if he’s okay.  (He looks well—I hope you found him so.)  I play it again and again, hearing him in the background on the radio. "

Something Lt. Bowen said to me has stuck with me. "Nobody cares about what we're doing here, nobody but our families." I hope that's not true.

April 02, 2008

From a Friend

I wrote a story last night about people mourning their victims in Sadr City: a child wounded by shrapnel from a U.S. military air strike, a man who lost his wife and daughter. I explained that the U.S. military was going after armed people in the area and these people were not targeted, but victims caught in this battle.

But they were still wounded or killed and their families blamed the U.S. military. It is important to tell that story.

But a conversation with a friend in the military moved me. He read the story with sadness and some outrage. The two men in the piece who said they were shot by a U.S. sniper may very well have been hit by a stray bullet, he said.

When he read that Haider Jassim, a four-year-old boy, was wounded he was moved to tears. He thought of his own child that he had to leave behind to serve in Iraq.

But he also knows how difficult it is to make the decision on whether to strike or not to strike. Sadr City is a crowded urban area and militants use rooftops and backyards to fight the U.S. military and fire rockets and mortars that kill both Americans and Iraqis.

The Mahdi Army, a militia who has been blamed for much of the sectarian violence in Iraq in the past two years, feel it is their right to resist the occupation.

"Why are they putting their families and friends and neighbors in danger," he asked me. "Why are they shooting from rooftops of civilian buildings?"

In an email he made a valid point.

"I think you know that I am personally saddened to read about the innocent victims of war - particularly children. I am a father myself and can't help but think of my own little boy," he wrote in an email. "I am a U.S. serviceman and I know that our troops do not fire indiscriminately...I'm sure that the men that were firing mortars and rockets from rooftops knew that they were endangering those who lived in those buildings. These people often put others in danger by their actions. If we are being fired upon, we must fire back. We have a right and an obligation to protect ourselves and our troops. I would hate to be the company commander that has to make those life and death decisions every day."

The point of the piece today was to show the general anger and sadness felt in Sadr City. Today our bureau will tell another story and tomorrow another. Everyone of them will anger someone, everyone will shine a light on a different struggle in this war.

March 31, 2008

Two Sides of the Cemetery

     This is the tale of two Shiite fighters buried in the same cemetery in the holy city of Najaf. In the Valley of Peace, the largest Muslim cemetery in the world, these men’s bodies were buried, blessed and mourned. One was an Iraqi soldier. The other was a Mahdi Army fighter from Muqtada al Sadr's army.

     Mohammed Sami was a father of three little girls and a boy. His wife will now raise them alone. Iraqi Security Forces descended on Basra last week to wrest control of the city from Shiite militants. The Mahdi Army fought back and the battle spread to Baghdad and neighboring provinces. Sami, a militia member, was killed in battles in Karbala with the Iraqi Security Forces.

     His cousin, Ahmed Moussa Hassan, buried him in one of the 100 graves dug for dead fighters by their Mahdi Army peers.

     "Mohammed was defending himself when they came to detain him, and the Sayed (the honorofic title for Muqtada al Sadr) told us that to defend one's self is a duty," Hassan said. "All the blood that has been shed is upon the conscience of Maliki and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, because it is them who caused this strife."

      He refers to Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the most powerful Shiite party in Iraq, ISCI. But ISCI is a party of mostly exiles who are much less popular than Sadr's national movement.

      "Our martyrs will gain the afterlife; God will defeat injustice and render us victorious," he said.

      Across the cemetery a poor Shiite family from Najaf laid their son to rest. The 28-year-old's job as an Iraqi soldier supported his sisters, brothers and his parents. His father, Malik al Shimmeri, paid a $500 bribe to get his son, Zuhair, his job. Now he is riddled with the guilt that the job ultimately killed his son.

      "He never wanted the job, he hated the violence," said Al-Shimmeri. "I wanted him to help with money. I made him do it and now he is dead."

      His son’s death filled him with both guilt and anger at the Shiite Mahdi Army that many people now support more out of fear than love.

      "My son, Zuhair, was martyred at the hands of the criminal terrorists in Kut," he said. "Maliki must pursue the criminals and execute them."

      Both of their families call their dead martyrs.

March 29, 2008


It's the second day of curfew in Baghdad. We can't go anywhere, although the government who imposed the curfew is still scheduling press conferences.

On Thursday in a drive through Baghdad areas controlled by the Sadrists, followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, were sealed off either by the militia or Iraqi Security Forces. People trying to reach their homes got out of their cars and walked.

In parliament on Thursday Sadrists tried to speak about the battle in Basra, an offensive that began Tuesday mainly between Iraqi Security Forces and their militia, the Mahdi Army. They couldn't get enough votes to speak.

They disrupted the session screaming, "Maliki's a dictator," referring to the Iraqi Prime Minister. Ali al Adeeb, a lawmaker from Maliki's Dawa party spoke up.

"Let them speak, but let's do it in a civilized manner," he said.

The Sadrist lawmaker Falah Shanshal stood up.

"You're not civilized," he said. Then threw a water bottle at him. The session was adjourned.

While the government claims it is going after outlaws in Basra, the southern oil hub, it is clear they are targeting Mahdi Army controlled area. With the group under attack they are reacting and a freeze that Sadr put on his militia is unraveling.

Sadrists feel targeted and isolated among the Shiite parties. They believe that this battle is to undercut their reputation and popularity before the provincial elections in October. Their Shiite rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, (ISCI), retains control of much of the south but is far less popular than the Sadr trend. Provincial elections would take ISCI's monopoly on power in the south away.

While the President is calling this a "defining moment in the history of a free Iraq," he is not acknowledging that the battle is forcing the Mahdi Army to react in perceived self-defense. It's unraveling a months-long ceasefire that U.S. officials said was a huge factor in a drop in violence in Iraq. In Baghdad violence is climbing, two U.S. citizens were killed in attacks on the Green Zone.

Maliki will not backdown and the Mahdi Army will not disarm.

We'll see what the coming days bring.   

March 26, 2008

War and Sightseeing

On my first day back after a break in Beirut we walked the streets of Kadhemiya near the Shiite shrine. Vendors sold pickles from colorful bowls and women and children shopped for silver, gold, food and toys. Street vendors sold everything from rosaries with clay beads taken from the holy Shiite city of Karbala to modern leather belts with skulls and cross bones. It was the first place I visited almost three years ago when I came to Iraq. Something about it always makes me feel at home. 

At the shrine Iranian tourists took pictures and searched for their compatriots and a man offered to take pictures of you in front of the gold-domed mosque for a price.

Inside Abu Ali's silver store he picked out pieces to show us. I picked out beautiful silver charms with verses from the Q'uran, a paper prayer encased in a glass case like a tiny scroll and another filled with holy water from Mecca.

But before we left he looked at me and another foreign reporter and warned in Arabic that times had changed. It's good that we were wearing scarves and the long black Abaya, this is a good cover, he said. People had changed in the market. Their minds did not work the same way, he said. He offered us juice and asked us to come back for a meal at his home.

The day was peaceful and fun, punctuated by searches to ensure no suicide bombers got into the crowds of people.

Back at the bureau big news was looming. The government announced a plan to control Basra. The city is largely controlled by the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, and to a lesser extent a few other Shiite militias. In Baghdad the Mahdi Army was forcing people to stay home from school and work in protest of the Iraqi government. Battles broke out in the south that Monday night and lasted into Tuesday night and today.

A ceasefire that Sadr called for in August and renewed in February seem to be unraveling. And a Shiite power struggle was coming to a head.

Today half of our staff couldn't make it to work because of the forced protest. Ali, who works in the hotel, snuck around the Mahdi Army checkpoints to come to work. He cannot afford to miss a day. He worried about the road home.

"We'll see what happens to me," he said.

March 03, 2008

Road Blocks

I've written a lot about the President of Iran, Mahmoud Admadinejad's visit. He told the media Iraqis don't like Americans and Americans should leave. It was expected and he's right, many Iraqis don't like Americans.

Of course he didn't mention that Iraqis have very similar feelings towards Iran. Both nations are generally seen as imperialists here. Many Iraqis fear the rise of Persian rule and many feel that most Shiite and Kurdish officials are more loyal to Iran than Iraq.

But this is not what I want to write about. What I want to explain to you is the inconvenience of his trip. To have Ahmadinejad safely cruise around Baghdad, the capital shut down.

I walked into the office on Sunday and our newsroom was empty, nearly our entire staff didn’t make it to work. Hussein, one of our Iraqi reporters, tried to take a taxi. Halfway through the trip he was stopped by security forces. No vehicle traffic was allowed on the roads to secure Ahmadinejad's path to President Jalal Talabani's compound.

So, poor Hussein walked nearly a mile. But when he reached a central Baghdad bridge close to Talabani's compound he was turned away. No one was allowed to walk on the roads ahead to ensure the safety of the Iranian President.

So he waited for two hours under the bridge before giving up and going home. He spent the day sleeping off the exhausting walk.

I asked a visiting reporter to postpone her trip, worried that we wouldn't make it to the airport. I couldn't go to the grocery store to stock my refrigerator.

It may sound trivial, but this is the reality of life here.

To secure visiting dignitaries and show them the improvement in the capital, roads are blocked and life comes to a halt for a while. When Ahmadinejad was whisked to the airport, our staff applauded. No more road closures.

Ahmadinejad did not experience the violence in the capital during his two-day visit. But as he wrapped up his trip at least 16 Iraqis died in two car bombs. Fifty six more were injured.

February 29, 2008

Where Are You?

       Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, will be here on Sunday. Many Iraqis are left wondering why no Arab head of states have visited the largely Arab nation of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

       The country, still largely controlled and secured by the United States. is largely ignored by their Arab counterparts. Ahmadinejad will be the first regional head of state to visit Iraq.

       Abdul Kareem al Samarai, a Sunni cleric, had this to say during his Friday sermon.

      "I have a message to the Arab leaders, where are you? Where are your ambassadors?" he asked.


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

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