Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The incomplete cabinet.

In the latest development regarding the shape of the cabinet, sources close to the PM Maliki told New Sabah newspaper that PM Maliki might make a decision to do a wide ministerial change in his cabinet to make space for including the Dialogue Front of Salih al-Mutlaq which formerly boycotted the government.

The anticipated change will supposedly include 6 cabinet posts and the sources also mentioned that the purpose of this change is not only to include the Dialogue Front but will also involve replacing some current ministers with more qualified people explaining that some ministers were chosen in a haste merely to meet the deadline of announcing the cabinet.

As to the issue of choosing ministers for defense and interior, al-Maliki is indirectly warning the political blocs that if they fail to nominate those two ministers within a week, he will probably resort to using his constitutional right to appoint ministers on his own but those ministers will be in office on temporary basis to fill the gap (for six months until permanent ministers are chosen).

This shows clear that the UIA and Accord Front are still far from reaching agreement on this subject and in fact this dispute has even extended to reach the inner corridors of those blocs.

In a comment on this subject, Mr. Hameed Mousa from the Iraqi list said he expected the ministers to emerge from names already proposed and that no new names are likely to surface but said the major blocs are being very careful (I'd say obsessively careful) in studying the names that "if three blocs find one name unobjectionable, a fourth bloc will object so in this case we will need more time" while Khalaf al-Ilayan from the Accord Front said his bloc had presented some new names for filling the defense post including Abdul Qadir Mohammed (commander of ground forces), Ahmed Nouri al-Samerra'i and Nouri Ghafil, a general in the former army and a resident of al-Anbar province and pointed out that if general Ghafil gets appointed, he will contribute positively to improving security in the western region of Iraq.

Observers here and I myself do not expect any considerable progress to happen soon and it seems that there will be more obstacles to deal with before the cabinet is complete.
It makes me feel that the sound and smoke of explosions in Baghdad yesterday and today were not enough to wake up our politicians from their deep sleep.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Lost in translation?

Does the CNN have problems with translation from Arabic to English or is it a case of deliberate twisting of facts?

Yesterday Iraq's and Iran's foreign ministers had a joint press conference in Baghdad after which the CNN ran a headline that reads "Iraqi minister defends Iranian nuclear program" and wrote:

Iran has a right to develop nuclear technology and the international community should drop its demands that Tehran prove it's not trying to build a nuclear weapon, Iraq's foreign minister said Friday.


"Iran doesn't claim that they want to obtain a nuclear weapon or a nuclear bomb, so there is no need that we ask them for any guarantee now," Hoshyar Zebari said after meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki.

I wasn't there at the press conference but I was able to find an audio clip of the same part of minister Zibari's statement through Radio Sawa, and what he said here is so much different from what the CNN claimed he did (my translation):

We respect Iran's and every other nation's right to pursue nuclear technology for research purposes and peaceful use given they accept [giving] the internationally required guarantees that this will not lead to an armament race in the region…

Audio clip available here (Arabic)

Listening to the 2nd version of the story (in Zibari's own voice) it is clear that Iraq recognizes Iran's right to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes exclusively and is moreover asking Iran for guarantees, not the other way around CNN!

Friday, May 26, 2006

New de-ba'athification law proposed to the parliament.

The de-ba'athification committee is currently trying to better its work by making its regulations more flexible and less aggressive towards former members of the ba'ath party. This move seems to be part of the efforts to give more momentum for national unity after the formation of a national unity government.

According to al-Sabah the committee proposed to the Iraqi parliament a new law that includes considerable loosening of previous stiff de-ba'athification rules, mainly treating former "innocent" baa'th members of the 4th highest rank as retirees giving them full retirement rights and allowing those of the 5th highest rank to go back to their old jobs in the government offices and removing restrictions that banned those ba'ath members from assuming important positions in government offices (as high as general director or deputy minister). In fact the new law-once ratified-will oblige government offices and ministries to put those "clean members of the ba'ath" back in their jobs.

Al-Sabah interviewed Ali al-Lami executive director of the de-ba'athification committee who said the committee recognizes that some ministries used the laws of the committee in "an unacceptably wrong way" and said that the new legislation is designed to clear the misinterpretation of some government ministries to the older laws of the committee and correct the mistakes that misinterpretation had led to adding that clear separation should be made between ba'athist criminals and ba'ath members who are innocent and not proven to have committed atrocities against the people with the former still liable for prosecution under the law while the latter should be treated as normal citizens.

Collective punishment is totally rejected and it's one of the reasons why Saddam was a hated criminal in the eyes of most Iraqis and it's good to see the new government making steps to prevent this from happening again and it's even better to see a branch of the government admit its earlier mistakes.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Not only medieval mentality, but also medieval communication means!

Azzaman yesterday had a report on its English page on some insurgent groups in Iraq abandoning the internet and all kinds of phones and going back to word of mouth and written letters for their communication after the former apparently led the US military to locate and kill or capture many insurgents:

“You are not to use electronic communication or even land lines when communicating,” said a leaflet which the groups distributed recently.
The instructions are apparently a response to what are described as ‘moderate successes’ U.S. troops have achieved in the past few weeks in their fight to flush out rebel cells.
Internet material, mobile messages and phone calls which the rebels use are now the U.S. military’s major source of intelligence.
“The U.S. army has carried out successful raids in the light of the tips obtained from the Internet and mobile phones,” said a source close to a major armed group involved in fighting the Americans.
“Therefore we have decided to rely on oral or written messages,” he said.

Sounds like encouraging news to me.

Freedom of faith flourishes in Iraq's Kurdistan.

This story from Radio Sawa brought some encouraging news about the state of freedom of faith in Kurdistan where hundreds of people have recently converted from Islam to to Christianity without facing the threat of being persecuted.

Of course it doesn't matter much if they converted to Judaism or Buddhism instead of Christianity or even the other way around; one's faith is one's choice and what we should care about is to see people practice this right without fear from being punished.

The report quotes an interesting statement of the PM of Kurdistan Nejervan Barzani (a Muslim himslef) who commented on the news by saying "I'd rather see a Muslim become Christian than to see him become a radical Muslim…"

Reminds me much of this lady when she said "worship a stone if you like but don't hit me with it".

The war of the generators.

I was just about to go to work in the morning yesterday to see some of the neighbors gathered around the corner of our street. All were still in their pajamas staring at the lamppost and long faces were abundant, so I figured something bad must have forced them out of beds in this way.

It wasn't long before I found out that someone used the shadows of dawn to cut and steal the wire bundle that delivers electricity from the neighborhood's generator to the homes.
My neighbors were all pissed off obviously as they lost the wires they depend on for 8 hours of daily electricity and replacing the stolen wires will involve expenses and a day or two without the much needed electricity.
It looks like the thief did not commit the theft for money; used segments of wires aren't worth much if sold in the market and at a time when people take guard shifts at night ready to open fire at anything that moves, a thief is expected to choose a more worthwhile target.

I heard two theories about the motive of the theft; one says the theft was committed by those who want life to stop and want to fight Iraqis in all aspects of their life, i.e. sabotage. The second theory suggests the theft was motivated by commercial competition among the various generator owners in the area.

I like honest free market competition; just a few days ago generator owners started to compete on who provides electricity more than the other to attract more subscribers, I personally heard one of them say "if Abu…..gave 8 hours I will give 9 and if he gave 10 I will give 11". Of course this is in the interest of the consumer but if that competition took the form of deliberate sabotage then it's certainly not.

If the 2nd theory proven correct, I'm afraid this competition will become similar to the competition among political parties, who knows! Maybe one day militias will marginalize all electricity providers to force the people to buy electricity from one provider affiliated with this or that militia.

The case is still unsolved but some of the neighbors are suggesting we take shifts at night to guard the wires!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Iran flirts with Iraq's Sunni extremists.

This report published on today's Azzaman talks about efforts by the regime in Iran to open dialogue with the Association of Muslim Scholars which represents the extreme Sunni clergy in Iraq.

Iraqi political figures residing in London rejected an Iranian request to mediate talks between Iran's government and the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq…

It's interesting that despite the huge ideological difference between Iran and the Association-that goes as far as that each one of them considers the other one Kafirs-the announced Iranian willingness to support anyone who wants to fight foreign troops and force them out of Iraq makes the leadership in Iran overlook the ideological difference.

The reports mentions that Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has secretly allocated an annual budget of up to 1 billion dollar to support Iraqi parties and trends that share the same interest; fighting the MNF that is. An IRGC former officer is supposed to be in charge of spending under this budget.
The report also indicates that there are efforts underway to bring in some Kurdish groups.

I am not the least surprised by this information, and if this report is accurate then it shows clear that Iran wouldn't mind allying with even al-Qaeda if that could make Iraq fail.
This is how Iran had been planning to keep the war going on in Iraq because they think this is the best way to keep war away from Tehran.

The SCIRI becomes the SICI.

In this morning's al-Mada newspaper I read of an interesting change about to happen in one of Iraq's most prominent Islamic political parties.
I know that some might thing this is of no significance but I think it will have value in the future and marks a beginning for efforts among some Islamic political parties to become less revolutionary and more civil.

The news says that some leaders of the SCIRI (Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq) are considering changing the name of the party by dropping the "revolutionary" part to make it the "Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq" and this is supposed to be accompanied by structural reforms in the party.

Reading this gave me some feeling of relief, of course I still hope our parties stop using religious words in their names like in Islamic Dawa, Fadheela Islamic Party, Iraqi Islamic Party, etc, etc…but changes like these do not happen overnight and a step like the one to be taken by the SCIRI stands as a nice start.

A new oil policy.

While a few months ago we were hearing calls from inside the former government for giving a big role for Russian investments in Iraq's oil, now we're hearing a new and different tone; one that calls for opening the door for investments from countries that "stood with Iraq".

Nori al-Maliki also said during a meeting with the S. Korean ambassador that he appreciated the humanitarian role of the Korean troops in Erbil and called for reactivating the Iraqi-Korean cooperation committee to give it a bigger role in Iraq's reconstruction.

This new orientation is going to apparently gain more momentum; the new oil minister Hussein al-Shahristani said in a press conference that it is very likely for British oil companies to win big contracts in Iraq and said that there are many oil companies that are willing to bring capital and new technology to Iraq's oil sector and "our policy for signing contracts with such companies will be based on securing bigger revenues for the Iraqi people".

The interesting point here is that there's an obvious change in speech, from using the language of we're-a-rich-country-and-can-do-anything to "we do not have the sufficient local capital to improve this sector thus we need foreign investment" as al-Shahristani said.

I think these are encouragingly positive statements and they indicate that democracy is working in the right way, slowly though. But apparently the competition among politicians to prove competence and win trust in addition to the lessons learned from the previous stage is pushing the new leaders to pick a new course with less emotional speech-making and more pragmatic thinking.
Officials now realize that they did not inherit their seats from their fathers and that there are other people waiting for them to make the slightest mistake to expose them and discredit them.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Looking at the new government...

After five long months from the day we elected our representatives the government finally saw the light, though lacking two key members who hopefully will be named within a week.

The remaining part of the task requires the PM to find two independent, qualified, competent and nonsectarian Iraqis to fill the defense and interior ministries and a third for the national security ministry but five months were not enough to find such people which indicates that either such people have become very hard to find or that the distrust between our politicians have grown bigger.

As you could see from the news, the inauguration of the cabinet didn't pass without objections but that's a normal if not a healthy sign; no government can win 100% of votes unless we're talking about governments under Saddam or other shameless dictators, so it was natural to see some intense arguments during and after the cabinet was sworn in but I look forward to seeing this argument turn into a base for building active objective opposition that will work to monitor and correct the performance of the government.

However, maybe it's still early to expect too much from this, especially that a good deal of the objections were directed from within some blocs against other members of the same blocs, like the case with the Dialogue Council which lashed out at the Islamic Party, its partner in the Accord Front and went as far as accusing the leaders of the Islamic Party of "stabbing them in the back". But the spokesman of the Front said later yesterday that these objections reflect only individual positions and that the Front "is holding together firmly".

The louder objections were those of the Dialogue Front and its leader Salih al-Mutlaq who said his group didn’t accept the cabinet in its entirety and explained this position by saying that he "refused to be part of this government after being explicitly asked by the UIA to change our political tone in exchange for a certain number of ministries".

Internal splits also hit the lines of the secular Iraqi List; 5 of its 25 members (Wa'il AbdulLatif, Maysoon al-Damlouji, Mehdi al-Hafidh, KhirAllah al-Basri and Izzat al-Shabendar) were outraged by the "despotic decision of Iyad Allawi to join the government without consulting the rest of the members and in contrast with what has been agreed upon previously…".

Those members said they were shocked by Allawi's decision to accept 4 ministries (justice, science and technology, communications and human rights) because there was an agreement among all members to stay out of the government if not granted the 5 ministries they demanded from al-Maliki.
And although Fadheela Party did technically give trust in the cabinet after the dispute that erupted between the party and the rest of the UIA I still think new axes and alliances will start to form in the near future similar in a way to what happened after election results were announced.

The Iraqi 'street' although was looking up to the formation of the cabinet as something that can ease the congested situation, a lot of people still doubt the ability of the new government to handle the toughest files and many Iraqis are having a hard time choosing between trusting the new cabinet and its determined-looking head and between the feeling that what happened yesterday was a mere change of names with no value on the ground.

It is widely agreed that the greatest challenge the new government will face is security and it was clear from Talabani's and Maliki's latest statements that they realize that time is due for firm action against terror groups and armed militias; Talabani said he hopes these efforts commence sooner rather than later while Maliki insisted that efforts to deal with militias and restrict arms to the hands of the government will soon be underway as he vowed to use "maximum force" against terrorists and militias.

Other new ministers in various statements pledged to improve performance in their fields of work and maybe the most important of those promises was the one given by Hussein al-Shahristani, the new oil minister who said he'll be working on improving the productivity of refineries and putting an end to smuggling. In fact I do not doubt the honesty of Shahristani who I consider as a very clean person but I'm not sure about the circle around him or the joints far from the center's supervision; we're hearing ugly reports about the extensive smuggling operations taking place in Basra, maybe this report from Azzaman shows the depth of the corruption and the mafias running it.

In short it says that there are 8 illegal ports in the southern part of Basra controlled by 8 different militias working for Islamic parities represented in the government and that these militias use intimidation and bribes to make the 'oil protection force' facilitate the constant flow of oil that is smuggled to neighboring gulf countries.

Shahristani added that he's going to focus on exposing those who steal the fortunes of Iraq for themselves and he urged the people to cooperate with the government and report suspicious activities through tip-receiving offices, a mechanism that I think is still of controversial benefit in Iraq.

Aside from all this, I feel that this stage is very appropriate for efforts to establish a patriot liberal trend that reflects no ethnic or sectarian orientation; liberal powers can make benefit of the modest performance of the government and the divisions arising inside the religious sectarian trends especially that these divisions have had direct impact on the daily life of citizens who in turn are showing growing contempt and frustration from these blocs. I hope that today's objectors rise to the level of responsibility and act as a peaceful and rational opposition and I really think they will be able to attract more members, mainly other secular/liberal or moderate parliamentarians who unwillingly found themselves under the umbrella of sectarian or ethnic blocs.

I do believe we have a good chance to correct our mistakes and build a modern state and although the new government isn't a perfect creature it is a positive step forward mainly because it is much widely representative of the population than the previous one.

Yes, it does not meet our ambitions but also our ambitions have no limits and we must expect a lot of bumps on the road before we reach our goal.

Friday, May 19, 2006

On nothing in particular...

I think most of you noticed that ITM is getting updated with new entries less frequently compared to earlier times and there are plenty of reasons behind this reduced activity, some I'd like to share and others I prefer to keep for myself. I honestly do not know which is which so I'm going to let my fingers take the lead and type whatever they like to type, so, this is going to be rather a rambling post…

First of all we're having a hard time getting reliable electricity and internet access, as you could tell from Mohammed's latest post, thus we're getting fewer hours of online time and this of course is not enabling us to read enough material that is needed to know what's going on and connect events and news.
There's also our satellite TV receiver which died all of a sudden (maybe the news it was forced to show was the cause of death!).
I'm also not getting my newspapers regularly enough for a number of reasons, so we're technically not receiving enough material to be able to blog in the way we wish we were especially when it comes to things happening outside Baghdad.

More over, my car is giving me headaches with all the maintenance it's demanding from me, temperature is rising beyond 40 centigrade and soon will be well above 50 and my neighbor is complaining about the noise and smoke of my little backup generator, and, and, and …not to mention the big bangs that occasionally kick me out of bed denying my alarm clock its natural right.

Some might wonder how someone living in a place as eventful as Baghdad would face difficulty choosing a story to write about. Yes Baghdad is full of events, almost no day passes without breaking news or big stories about the government, the al-Qaeda, security, economy, etc, etc.
Of course most of headlines bring bad news and every once in a while we find some good news or potentially good news but regardless of that, they all can be considered as good raw material for blogging but the thing is that we're growing numb over news whether good or bad.

I very well realize that this numbness is dangerous but I can't help it, I'm surrounded by these news, events and incidents. I see them on TV, hear them on the radio, read them-and write about them-on the web and chat about them with friends, family and workmates and occasionally witness them first-hand. And this is leading me to the threshold where they stop to be interesting but I'm trying hard to keep a distance from this threshold or at least slow down its arrival and that's why I'm still writing till this moment.

On the other hand many of my friends, relatives or the people I know have either left Iraq or are planning to do so, actually instant messaging and emails have long ago become the only way I stay in touch with my friends.
"I'm going to take my family to Syria next month and will be staying there for a year or two until things calm down" or "I've been granted admission to a university in the UK" or "my uncle found a job for me in Egypt and I'm leaving next week"…
These are examples of what I get to hear from people I know and it's getting more and more frequent lately.
Not all people have the resources or the urgent need to leave Iraq; so they chose to be refugees inside Iraq; I have friends who left Baghdad and went to Najaf or Kurdistan seeking the nearest place where safety can be found.

One friend told me the other day that "Iraq is no longer a place for civilians like us, let politicians, militias and soldiers settle their accounts but I am leaving indefinitely". I don't know what to tell these people; I can't advise them to stay and risk their lives with all the violence happening around and I feel sorry they are leaving, sorry for them and for the country; it's never easy for them to leave the place where they were born and had lived their entire life to go start from zero in a place where they'll be total strangers and at it's not possible to build a country without people but at the same time, you can't help your country when you are dead or living in fear all the time.

This is the kind of dilemma unfortunately many Iraqis are facing these days and time is a very important factor here and Iraqi's are not sure whether it's on their side or on the enemy's…some people tell me they don't want to quit now that they endured so much and been through a lot. The other day I was with some friends at home and the subject eventually surfaced "let's just wait for another six months, I'm sure things will improve by then" one friend said and I nodded in agreement "I'm not willing to take the risk, what if I get killed or kidnapped tomorrow or next month!? I'm leaving Iraq to live somewhere else until I believe it's safe to return, we live only once guys!" and I nodded in agreement too.
Both opinions make a lot of sense and I could never say the first friend was a coward since he's still living through what I and the other friend are living through.

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and so do many people but they wonder if the tunnel is going to collapse before we reach its end.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Summer in Baghdad, the Baghdad furnace…

Suffering from lack of reliable electricity supplies increases as the summer season invades Baghdad, and when temperature averages above 45 centigrade during the long season, life is almost paralyzed when electricity goes off and you can do nothing, not even sleep.

This summer electricity in Baghdad is almost nonexistent, the national grid provides one hour every five other hours; reasons are numerous and government excuses are even more but maybe the straw that broke the back of the camel was the shut down of Biji station which one of the biggest in the country. The reason in this case is supposed to be that the 200 employees and their families were forced to leave the station and their homes at gun point; most of those people are not from the same town or province and they lived for years in a small housing compound near the station and if this is the real reason then I wonder how the government failed to protect those families who live in a relatively easy-to-protect isolated area around the station!

People here had long ago stopped to expect anything good from officials' statements and promises which became a source of inspiration for countless cartoons on the papers and jokes that circulate through text messages and emails.

In general, Iraqis depend on neighborhood diesel generators for electricity, actually these generators have become a good source of income for people who have enough money to install one and would not mind the headache of keeping it. In our neighborhood for example there are three large generators within a radius of 500 meters and their owners compete to have more subscribers. The cost is around 7,000 dinars for the ampere and households would usually subscribe for 5 or 10 amperes which suffice for operating lights, TV, fans, air-cooler and a fridge.
There's some kind of agreement among generator owners here regarding the amount of electricity supplied over the day; these generators do not work 24/7 but mostly 8 hours a day and in many cases the operator would ask the subscribers about their preferences on how they want these 8 hours divided. In our case we suggested the following schedule:

Two hours of supply from 3 to 5 pm: after lunch which is the traditional nap time for most Iraqis who prefer to kill the hot afternoon by sleeping.

Break from 5 to 8 pm so that the generator can get some rest.

Four hours from 8 pm till midnight: this is the golden time for most Baghdadis; people are usually home to watch TV and have dinner.

Another break from midnight to 1 am.

Another two hours from 1 to 3 am: these two hours are critical for going into deep sleep and fans and air-coolers would prepare the house for that; people usually keep the bedrooms' doors shut in order to preserve the cold air for as long as possible after power goes off.

Of course these diesel generators are not problem-free; they are mostly used and not brand-new so they require frequent maintenance let alone their high consumption of fuel (a gallon of diesel costs ~2$) and the owner would always complain to the subscribers from the hardships of his job every time they go to pay the monthly fee and he'd warn from a possible raise in fees or from maintenance that would put the generator out of work for a couple days. And he does that with teary eyes cursing the day that made him choose this job but at the same time counting the money so carefully.

When you stand near any of those generators you'll see a huge mass of wires coming out of the circuit-breakers box. These hundred or so wires usually climb the nearest grid lamp post and pass from one to another for a few hundred meters as the shortest route to the subscribers' homes.

In addition to the owner and the operator/mechanic there's the ladder guy or (Abu il-daraj) and this is a man of great importance in the process; you can always spot him accompanied by one or more of the subscribers tracking wires that occasionally get cut or short-circuit with other wires as a usual consequence for rain or high winds. Of course the wire is the responsibility of the subscriber and he pays for it but the owner would offer his advice for the best choice of wires.

Some time ago there was a suggestion from the electricity ministry for a plan to provide uninterrupted supply of electricity. The proposed plan suggested that each household gets 24/7 of electricity but at a limited amount of 10 amperes each.
I found the plan convenient but unfortunately it was rejected by all district councils after residents' opinions were surveyed.

I asked one of those who refused the plan why he refused it because I thought this refusal made no sense at all; I mean we already are buying the same 10 amperes from local generators at high prices and for only 8 hours a day so why not take 10 amperes 24/7 and at a negligible price?!
He said "I'm afraid if we accept 10 that we will be stuck with 10 forever" and added "do you believe they don't produce enough electricity? They cut it on purpose!".

Such comments often do not surprise me; they originate from the fact that we are not used to trust any government; for decades we kept hearing false promises, so why should we believe them now?
Lack of information also plays a role here; no one knows the facts about the situation of the worn-out infrastructure or amount of sabotage (or amount of possible corruption) and that's why some people think that electricity is available but accuse the government of not fairly distributing it as some sort of punishment.

Anyway, promises about an improvement in power production and supplies by 2008 is not largely convincing to people living under the burning sun of Baghdad under which promises evaporate and dreams of a cool A/C breeze evaporate as well.

Apparently we are destined to have more rough summers.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Iran supplied al-Qaeda in Iraq with AA weapons.

According to this report from Azzaman, Iran's revolutionary guard corps is supplying Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq with Russian-made anti-aircraft weapons including the infrared guided, shoulder-born missile Sam 7 (Strela) in addition to other weaponry like machineguns and improved IEDs.

Iran Focus provides a translation of Azzaman's report:

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) had provided the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq heavy weapons including anti-aircraft missiles, it emerged on Friday.

The Iraqi daily az-Zaman which is published in London and Baghdad quoted credible Iraqi sources as revealing that the IRGC had given al-Qaeda in Iraq, Strela-type SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles, modern explosives, and a large number of personnel arms including Kalashnikovs and BKC machineguns.

The report says Hizbullah of Lebanon played the mediator role in this deal:

Representatives of al-Zarqawi’s group met in Beirut with members of the Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah and through them established channels with Tehran.

And the network grows to involve Iraqi facilitators, Azzaman adds:

Three of Zarqawi's aides entered Iran through a border cross-point in the Amara region in the south east of Iraq, IRGC personnel instructed the Iraqi border guards guarding that cross-point to facilitate the movement of the al-Qaeda members.

Moreover, this doesn’t seem to be the first incident where similar weapons pass into Iraq from Iran; interesting that the state found al-Sabah newspaper-that is not normally in agreement with what Azzaman publishes-had a report on a similar smuggling incident that dates back to late April:

Sources in the border guards in Diyala province said that there are anti-aircraft weapons entering Iraq as part of deals between smugglers and insurgent groups in Iraq.
Brigadier Nadhum Sherif commander of Diyala border guards told al-Sabah that on April 24-2006 his forces foiled the delivery of weapons to terror groups in the area of Qara-lous…weapon smuggling operation take place in remote areas far from the eyes of our forces but our corps received intelligence that weapon smugglers were about to deliver large amounts of weapons to the terrorists including Russian-made anti-aircraft weapons produced in 2005…we found the weapons left in hidden caches in the mountainous area…

Just another example of how helpful a neighbor the Mullahs are, of course! They want everything to be stable on the ground.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Mutlaq and Fadheela walk out, Maliki anticipates a deadlock.

Politicians here were saying last week that a government would emerge within no more than a few days and I was hoping they were right this time but obviously they are going to request some more time…as usual.

A few issues are complicating the talks; Fadheela Party announced their boycott to the negotiations of allocating cabinet posts; meanwhile Salih al-Mutlaq's Dialogue Front is most likely to stay out of the formation as well. Of course this is in addition to the already existing points of difference regarding some major posts.

These two blocs comprise 26 seats in the parliament, that's roughly 10% of the legislative body of Iraq, that's why such boycotting would undermine the image of the government that bigger blocs want to be viewed as a unity government.
So there are two options before the bigger blocs; one is to ignore the boycotting blocs which may damage the image of the government before the public and also may not be seen as an acceptable option by one or more of the bigger blocs. The other is to try to persuade the Fadheela and Dialogue to end the boycott and come back to the negotiation table to figure out a compromise but this will certainly consume additional time which is exactly what we don't have much of.

But the reasons for the boycott in the case of Dialogue Front differ from those in the case of Fadheela Party; the Dialogue objected the mechanism of distribution of cabinet posts and described it as one based on sectarian/ethnic quotas while for the Fadheela, the issue is about winning one particular cabinet post, namely the oil ministry which the Fadheela has been running in the past few months through an acting minister after the resignation of former minister Mohammed Bahr al-Iloom.

Actually there's something quite fishy about the oil ministry case; many believe that obsession on this ministry is fed by the-supposedly-fact that the new minister will-once in office-deal with signing contracts for the construction of 3 large oil refineries with a capacity of 250-300 thousand bpd each at an estimated total cost of 6 billion dollars.

And there's also last week's underreported incident where a big fire destroyed the contracts and accounting offices in one of the ministry's building floors, these two points make a lot of people here believe that the name of the new minister will decide whether massive possible corruption is to be exposed or to be given a chance to continue.
In my opinion and given the reasons for the boycotts, I think it will be easier to reach a deal with the Fadheela than with the Dialogue; Fadheela will probably come back and join the talks if promised another ministry but the Dialogue object the whole deal, thus they're most likely going to be on the opposition side.

As to the rest of cabinet posts, they still appear to be floating among the blocs despite all the news reports that we read and hear about definite allocations of the X ministry to the Y bloc; Maliki said more than once that interior and defense ministries must go to independent figures, yet Bayan Jubor's name is still on the table as a candidate among 3 others (Chalabi, Qasim Dawood and a police general in the outgoing ministry).

There's also the deputy PM post which the Iraqi list of Allawi and the Accord Front are fighting for and are both alleging that they have affirmatively won it and the fate of this post in turn will decides who gets the defense ministry…

In reaction to these obstacles, Nouri al-Maliki is apparently preparing himself for the worst and is already making a plan to override a possible deadlock; al-Sharq al-Awsat reports that sources close to Maliki said that if no deal is reached he will consider announcing his cabinet in the middle of next week and may appoint himself as acting minister of defense and interior until the concerned blocs reach an agreement on the candidates for these two ministries.

Anyway, there are 10 days left before the constitutional deadline expires on May 22nd so it's still early to worry about a constitutional breach or a new deadlock.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Adhamiya clashes: counter-terrorism operations or sectarian violence?

The situation in Adhamiya remains tense, and I've seen that first hand yesterday; I crossed the bridge from al-Iskan to Adhamiya only to be immediately turned away by a group of men at a road block. I tried to ask what was going on but the only answer I got was "GO BACK!".

Later we heard that some clashes happened in and around Adhamiya but no details were available but this morning I found two contradicting reports on the Adhamiya developments from two credible and respectable Iraqi newspapers.

Azzaman put it this way:

Adahmiya repels an attack for death squads.

Azzaman reporter in Baghdad said that militia men in police uniforms riding vehicles with no registration plates tried to raid parts of Adhamiya in an attempt to kidnap some of the locals but the residents of Adhamiya fought back and forced the assailants to withdraw from the district. This was the second attempt within 24 hours, in the first incident armed men driving a vehicle and dressed in interior ministry uniforms opened fire on homes and pedestrians but also fled the district when residents raised to chase them.
According to the reporter, there were no official Iraq security forces or MNF units in the scene at the time of the clashes and the militia men failed in invading the district as the residents forced them to pull back.

Al-Sabah's reported the incident in a very different way:

An interior ministry source announced that fierce clashes erupted between terrorists and Iraqi security forces in Adhamiya district.
The source who did not give details on whether there had been casualties said that security forces are "encircling the district in its entirety".

(Emphasis added).

In this case I can consider myself lucky to have two versions of the same story (from two sources with different orientations/agendas) to compare and choose from but what about stories that come to us from one source?
Actually reading these two contradicting accounts makes me question the accuracy of much of the news we get and right now I'm reluctant to believe either of the two accounts in question.

In fact I am going to discard both and wait for the Adhamiya region bloggers to demystify the case.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The battle for Baghdad.

Politics, security and economy correlate to each other in a way that any shift in direction in any of the three elements affects the other two in one way or another.
Among the three, the economy has been relatively more stable than the other two in Iraq; two steps forward then one backward, then the other way around, stable exchange price of the dinar over the past two and a half years, more or less stable oil production and exports etc, etc. while politics and security are much more turbulent and obscure.

It is true that political stability assists greatly in improving security and it is true as well that economic growth and more money in the hands of people can reduce the potential for violence but such effects can be seen only in the mid-long term but not in the short term, that's weeks or months, an improvement in the political or economic status have very little if any immediate effect on security.

Let's stop thinking like chess players for a while and think like soccer or basketball players or coaches during an ongoing match in which your team is behind in score; you do have plans for improving the physical and psychological fitness of your team players and you have plans to improve their tactics and playing skills and you are confident that these plans are very well studied and will enable your team to compete for the world cup or playoffs ten years from now.
But at this very moment and at this very match you are losing points and therefore you must figure out how to reverse the score and win the match or face the threat of seeing your team move down from class "A" to class "B" if not even "C".

Let's take a look at the situation in Iraq, two years ago, that's May or April 2004, we had almost the same number of MNF soldiers in Iraq, much less force in the Iraqi police and a lot less than that in the army, yet there is more violence now than before.

We need to review our tactics and plans and we need to do it fast.
It's obviously not about how many trigger-pullers you trained or how many armored vehicles you deployed; it's about how you use these assets to achieve your goals and I'm afraid the commanders in the Iraqi government and in the MNF were not sufficiently good at doing this.

The future of Iraq depends largely on the ability of the government to provide security for the citizens and no political progress no matter how significant will have value on the ground if citizens do not sense real improvement in security and this improvement needs to be reached as soon as possible and since time is crucial here, the government and the coalition need to think of starting with relatively smaller regions (in size) yet of high security value for the country, more specifically Baghdad.

Why is Baghdad so important?

I was reading an old post by Alaa of the Mesopotamian and I want to second his words and add my two cents. He wrote:

Yes, you have attacked brilliantly. Yes, you have coerced the enemy in many a place and inflicted heavy casualties on him. Yet the present situation is such that it seems rather more urgent to provide some "safe havens" to the people rather than just denying them to the enemy.
Imagine the situation if power and essential services are restored more satisfactorily, and if assassinations, kidnappings and the daily genocide of completely innocent people is stopped. Would that not allow the political process to proceed more smoothly and the reconstruction effort resumed meaningfully?

The present situation is untenable gentlemen; and cannot continue like this. I have said it before and say it again; controlling Baghdad is controlling the country. The enemy understands this perfectly and is concentrating his efforts accordingly.

We have seen that attempts at fighting the insurgents/terrorists from the outside-in has proven to be costly and difficult so I think it would be a good idea to try a new tactic of fighting from the inside-out; Baghdad is the capital of the country, it is where the greatest chunk of the economy and politics is and it's where 25% of the population of Iraq resides, let alone its value in morale and history that makes this city so important to us as well as to our enemies.

Iraq like many other countries is a country that exists as long as the center (the capital) exists and there are many examples in history that prove that who controls Baghdad controls the rest of the country. Back during the era of the Abbasid caliph state, Baghdad was the center of the empire for most of the time and that empire extended to China in the east and to the shores of the Atlantic in the west; the rulers in Baghdad technically had no control over those remote counties yet their deputies in those remote areas were loyal and paid their taxes and the empire lasted for centuries. Until the day when the Mongols invaded Baghdad and that was enough to make the vast empire disintegrate.
A more recent example was OIF in 2003; the provinces expected to show the least resistance like Basra kept fighting longer than the provinces that were expected to be much more difficult to conquer like Tikrit, Mousil or Anbar. Once Baghdad was in the control of the US military all provinces surrendered and in a few cases without a single shot fired.

This mentality is still strong in the minds of the insurgents regardless of their backgrounds; they still think that seizing Baghdad will make controlling the rest of the country a matter of time; last week I had a debate with a former officer from the old school of thinking and he was still talking about a coup to seize Baghdad "and rid us of the corrupt politicians who reached power through fake elections…the army should move to control the palace in the green zone and we control the state TV and radio and the rest of the country will bow to the new legitimate rule…".

Frankly, fighting the insurgents for 3 years on multiple fronts did not bring the desired results, so let's just try to focus on Baghdad for a few months, put more troops in and around the city and make securing this city our top priority, because let's not forget that it is the city that terrorists drool for and they use their bases in other cities to launch attacks in Baghdad where attacks can do the greatest harm on the country in material let alone the media value of attacks in Baghdad that is much greater than anywhere else in Iraq and if we do not counteract their efforts with suitable measures, we will find ourselves moving in circles without reaching our goals, i.e. losing the match.

So why not try to expand the safe territory from the center out? We saw that when terrorists got kicked out of Fallujah how many of them moved to Amiriyah in western Baghdad, and when operations intensified in the "triangle of death" many others moved to Doura towards the center and so on. So let's try to reverse this situation and let's start with Karrada district for example, it is adjacent to the green zone and is relatively calmer than other parts of Baghdad, do intense cordon and search operations, put the district under strict supervision for some time then finally add to the green zone after it's safe.
Repeat this with more districts one at a time and add more districts to this bigger safe zone until eventually all of Baghdad becomes secure and it won't be a bad idea to make the procedures of entering the new safe Baghdad similar to the procedures currently employed in controlling traffic into the green zone.
How many roads lead to Baghdad, 10, 20, 50?

Why not put tough checkpoints at each entrance and inspect each and every passenger and vehicle, and for more safety for the soldiers manning these checkpoint we can install x-ray machines, explosive detectors and use trained dogs to sniff baggage.
Really, I was reading the other day that in average 200,000 passengers move through Heathrow Airport a day and those all go through security one way or another, so I don't think it's impossible to have something similar for Baghdad.

Another point that I think is worth mentioning is that the terrorists are feeding on Baghdad and the resources of its citizens to fund their operations; the thousands of abductions and raids on companies and major stores make a constant flow of millions of dollars to the insurgents. There are people in Baghdad who would pay hundreds of dollars in ransom to free a relative but such people virtually do not exist in many of the other provinces, simply because people do not have as much money.

Make the people safe from abduction and make firms and stores safe from raids and you will deny the insurgents an important source of cash.
These are a few things we can do to correct the score, win this match and gain momentum for more wins to come.

Can you imagine what things will be like when Baghdad becomes a safe place where diplomats are not afraid to come, businessmen are not afraid to invest their money, people are not afraid to go to work, passenger flights are not afraid to land like they do in other airports in this world?

I can, and it's a vision of beauty that can become a reality.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

A conversation at the barber's.

"I don't know why I hate going to the barber" I told my friend while we were on the way to get a hair cut to which he answered "maybe you hate their gossip and the idea of having to listen to them talk as long as you're sitting without having the least chance to respond".


We entered the shop trying to find other reasons for why we hate this inevitable more or less monthly visit, and I found that 5 other guys were in row waiting ahead of me "this is another reason" I thought, now I will have to watch the barber cut the hair of 5 other guys before it’s my turn. But the barber surprised me and invited me to sit at the 'operation chair' bypassing all the others. I looked with visible confusion on my face which the barber noticed immediately and he explained "the brothers here are not for a hair cut, these are owners of neighbor shops and they're here just to chat".

Oh great! Now I had to listen to the six of them chatting instead of the barber alone but then I thought it was ok since I'll be the first to get my hair cut.
The barber was busy proud of his new audio system which was playing loud some Arabic songs, one of the 'neighbors' said "you obviously have nothing to worry about now barbers; the mujahideen have turned to food stuff shops and are no longer running after you".

"What's the charge for those" I asked.

"Selling Iranian products" he said and nodded. Another 'neighbor' confirmed the story and added that wholesalers in Jamila marketplace were warned not to deal with Iranian products.

"What going to be next? We have to import a lot of items from other countries" I asked but no one responded and everyone's attention suddenly shifted to the muted TV which was now playing snap shots from Zarqawi's latest captured video, music went down and TV was loud now and seconds later a flood of comments came in.

"Look at him, he was so thin when he first came into Iraq and now he looks like a bull! He must be feeding on a sheep everyday. Do you really believe this man lives in the desert??" one remark was "no, he's under American protection, they brought him in a helicopter to the desert to shoot this video then he was flown back to a palace. No idiot can believe that America with all the technology and power cannot spot him" another guy added.
I held myself from responding because I'm tired of explaining things to people like these, and any theory I'd make in contrast with what rumors and conspiracy theories they say would be enough to make me perceived as a collaborator with the Americans.

"You see that, all his weapons are US made, isn't this enough proof that he's backed by the Americans? Er, by the way they say he's in Yusifiya now, right?"
of course this contradicts the former theory of a green zone palace but it passed without objections and the other guy just said "yes! This is how the Americans do it, every time they want to destroy an area they send in Zarqawi so they can justify their operations.

Here another guy joined the discussion and started by explaining that he has family that lives in Yusifiya "I went to visit my uncles last week and in fact the neighborhood has changed lately; women do not go out without full hijab and abaya and I could see more men in wahabi outfits on the streets…it didn't look reassuring at all, America and Israel want to kill us all; it's an obvious plot".

At this moment I couldn't control myself anymore and said "ok, if they want to kill us all why don't they just nuke us and get done with it?"
He looked at me in a questioning smile and said "they did use nuclear weapons against us, have you not heard of uranium shells?"

"I meant a hydrogen bomb, not uranium ammunition, one hydrogen bomb will rid them of us and will put us all to rest" I explained but he said NO explaining his idea with a theory not very uncommon here that some people attribute to Bush and other attribute to Rumsfeld, the theory quotes Bush (or Rumsfeld) saying he had vowed to make Iraq be like the Emirates (here the UAE is a symbol of wealth and prosperity in the Middle East) and that this plan would only succeed when the population of Iraq is cut down to 6 millions and only then Iraq would be a prosperous country.

Of course the mind cannot bear with such lunacy and literally stops functioning upon hearing such theories that unfortunately breed well in our lands; I just laughed and wondered "how are they going to pick those 6 millions? will we have to flip coins for example to see who dies and who doesn't?" to which he answered confidently "not exactly, if you're lucky you'll survive and when the 6 million figure is reached, then killing will stop".

I asked "does Kurdistan have a share of this death?"

"No, they get along well with the Americans"

"Strange! You mean that anyone who agrees with America gets to live in peace?"


"Ah, interesting, what should we do in this case?" I made this question hoping I could find a grain of reason in any of them.

The barber said "things will calm down only if the Americans get to appoint a president of their choice".

"And why don't they just do it!?" I asked

"Because the people will not approve it"

"Hmmm, and what about Kurdistan?"

"The people there do not object to what America says"

"Hmmm" (no further questions!)

I chose not to waste my breath on more of this conversation as long as the guys were convinced that everybody wants to kill them supporting this belief with rumors and conspiracy theories that simple minded people love; they relieve the mind off the duty of making any effort to find answers and it allows them to not have to blame themselves for anything that goes wrong.

An Iraqi finds it so hard to admit his mistakes, not only that, he doesn't even want to review his history to avoid facing the reality that it was our mistakes over time that made us what we are now, so let's just blame the others for our failures and let’s believe that our enemies (who are virtually every nation other than us) have been putting one obstacle after the other in front of us to stop us from becoming an advanced and wealthy nation and let's just spare us the effort of finding out the real reasons behind our misery.

Ignorance is a plague nurtured by turbans that lack logic and knowledge and by media and political analysts who are keen to keep the people misinformed and to which truth is an enemy; a heavy legacy that will not be easy to escape.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

We're almost there…

The process of forming the cabinet has reached a good milestone that promises an end to the long disputes that consumed months over who-gets-what especially when it came to security-related posts that are no more a problem, actually some analysts and politicians expect the next 24 hours to witness the announcement of the final formation of a large part of the cabinet.

Tomorrow there will be another session for the parliament but this one is not going to about the government according to deputy speaker of parliament Aarif Tayfoor and will be dedicated to drafting the internal charter of the parliament as well as forming a temporary committee that will present suggestions for necessary amendments in the constitution according to article 142 of Iraq's constitution.

As pointed out above, the most important development is the agreement between the UIA and Accord Front on leaving the defense and interior ministries to two figures from outside these two blocs; sources from the UIA said that among the candidates for the defense ministry are Hachim al-Hasani (former speaker of parliament, from Allawi's bloc) and Mithal al-Alousi (independent secular Sunni parliamentarian) while some parties think that the US wants to see the security file in the hands of the Iraqi list for the friendly relationship between the US and Allawi which would allow the US to have more influence in this critical file.
Meanwhile Azzaman in today's edition reported that America's ambassador is trying to convince the rival blocs to pick ministers for defense and interior form outside the parliament and not only from outside the major blocs in the aim to discard the suggestion of picking ministers from the independents inside those blocs whose independence cannot be guaranteed. Ayad al-Samarra'i from the Accord Front confirmed this story to Azzaman and said there's a basic agreement among the blocs to answer this request.

It also seems that a solution for the foreign ministry as about to be reached as well; the compromise came with a suggestion from the Accord Front to create a new 'ministry of Arab affairs' to be the Front's share and end the race with the Kurds for the original foreign ministry, and I guess the phenomenon of creating new ministries has become a solution of choice whenever there's a disputed post, Ayad al-Samarra'i said that there's another suggestion to establish an 'intelligence ministry' to match the number of the so called sovereignty ministries with the demands of the blocs!
I really don't how many ministries we will end up with if we continue like this! We started with 21 ministries when Saddam was toppled and now we'll have more than 35 which in my opinion represents an administrative disaster.
However, I think this is only a temporary measure because the state will soon have to deal with the burdens of these unnecessary offices and their load on the budget and the government will find itself forced to drop some weight to be able to move forward but at this moment we will just have to bare with the disadvantages if establishing these new ministries can prevent bloodshed.

On the other hand one of two deputy PM posts is still unallocated but there's a greater chance for it to go to the Iraqi list (Allawi who's also a candidate for becoming secretary of the national security council) than to go to the Accord Front.
The other deputy PM post is allocated to the Kurdish Alliance but there's no final candidate for this one too, as it could be Noori Shawees, Barham Salih or Hoshyar Zibari, in case the latter didn't get the foreign ministry.

Inside the UIA there's another division over the oil ministry after Hussein al-Shahristani joined the list of candidates for this vital post while Fadheela Party insists that they should keep this one and supporting their argument by the 'accomplishments of the ministry when the Party assumed control over the ministry' saying that oil production increased from 1.6 million barrels to 2.2 million barrels in addition to a reduction in fuel imports from 500 to 213 million $ a month. But there are other powers that are pushing towards calling back Thamir al-Ghadban who was oil minister in Allawi's cabinet.

As a summary, Monday negotiations resulted in allocating 13-14 ministries to the UIA and 5 to the Accord Front who are demanding the ministries of agriculture, health, municipalities, youth and education, this means these demands will conflict with those of the Sadrists who want to get the health, education and transportation in addition to two other ministries since they have rooted their rule in these ministries.
I personally think this is a point that requires our attention; the education ministry must not be given to a sectarian or incompetent person just like it's the case with defense and interior ministries and politicians must realize that on the long term, education is just as important as security.

I do not expect these relatively small disputes to be an obstacle after the top posts had been decided and as the new PM Noori al-Maliki explained that consensus has been reached after "everyone agreed that each and every minister will need the approval of all the blocs" which means no one will be able to force the rest to accept a minister they do not find suitable.
And again, politicians expect the cabinet to emerge as soon as next week and I think this is quite possible.