Sunday, July 29, 2007

Mesopotamia: The Champions of Asia

I wouldn't be exaggerating if I said hat today has been as exciting as one of those election days in Baghdad. Our national soccer team is playing for the Asian cup for the first time in its history. By comparison this is as if the American team is playing for the cup of Copa America against the team of Brazil or Argentina! But of course here in Iraq we care way more about soccer than Americans do. No offense meant of course!

The government had already announced shorter work hours in all government offices, including the parliament, for today so that people can go home early enough to watch the match.

2:00 pm…

I went out in the early afternoon to bring some food and gasoline for the generator as I had only a few liters left in the generator's tank and I didn't want to take chances.
I found that small crowds have gathered around gas vendors, obviously the demand is higher today and no one seems willing to miss part of the match because of a stupid gallon of gas. As a result gas price rocketed to more than 4 dollars a gallon; that's a 30 % increase from just two days ago.

Curfew was imposed at 4 in the afternoon and will last until tomorrow morning but in fact the streets were going to be empty even without a curfew.

Everyone seemed in a hurry buying what they need to before they all go home to sit in front of the TV sets.
I returned home, filled all three generators with gasoline just in case one of them fails us, which is something that happens quite often. I also put several cans of beer in the fridge and brought some Pringles chips. The ultimate snack when watching soccer, or pretty much everything!

The good surprise came at 4:30 when the state electricity came after two days of
absence; I assume it's a small "gift" from the government and the electricity department.

4:35, the match begins!

The first half (45 minutes plus 3 minutes of added time) showed clear Iraqi supremacy but it also showed the level of tension between the two teams. There was a lot of rough playing and as a result 5 yellow cards were shared by Iraqi and Saudi players. Actually it's well known that Arab teams become more aggressive when playing against another Arab team reflecting the kind of "brotherhood" among Arabs!

So, the first half ended without scoring any goals and the result remains 0-0.


I used the half time break to write these few notes and now I must put the laptop aside and go back to pop another can of beer and watch the second half.

Many Iraqis said they will be celebrating their team regardless of the result, so tonight there will be joy no matter what.


No, the joy is not for "no matter what"….Our team has just won the Asian cup for the first time in our soccer history. The win came through a magnificent goal by the head of our heroic forward Younis Mahmoud at the 71st minute of the match..
Our team ruled the game by all standards; in defense, midfield and attack our players proven that they are the best…they are now the masters of Asian soccer!

Today is definitely the happiest day for Iraqis in years. Tears of joy mixed with prayers for hope on the faces of millions of Iraqis…Words truly fail me and I can't describe the feeling so please pardon me if the post doesn't sound coherent; I hear the cheering and music outside although the bullets of celebration keep falling on the ground and roofs here and there. But no one seems to worry about that, the moment is so great that fear has no place in the hearts of the millions of fans, neither from bullets nor from crazy suicide bombers who tried to kill our joy last week.

Our players, tonight our heroes, learned that only with team work they had a chance to win.
May our politicians learn from the players and from the fans who are painting a glorious image of unity and national pride, and let the terrorists know that nothing can kill the spirit of the sons of the immortal Tigris and Euphrates.

The fear is gone, the curfew is ignored, tonight Iraq knows only joy...

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Flight to Nowhere

Catching any flight from Baghdad International Airport is an extraordinary experience in and of itself, but when the destination of your flight is Amman, Jordan, it reaches a whole different level.
I made this particular trip several times in the last three years, but my last journey was by far the worst.

I was used to the mild discrimination the Jordanians have been practicing against Iraqis at the airport in Amman in recent years. Passengers on a flight coming from any airport in Iraq do not exit from an ordinary gate like other passengers. Instead we are taken by bus from the plane parked hundreds of meters from the terminal under the watch of guards armed with automatic guns. Then we pass through extra security X-ray, metal detection, and a body search - before they get to the passports counters, even though all of us had passed through the strictest airport security system on earth before getting on board.

But that’s OK and we got used to it.

But recently our Jordanian brothers came up with a truly outrageous practice of discrimination against Iraqis. All disembarking Iraqi passengers now are taken to special passport counters in a hall separated from the rest of airport facilities regardless of the origin of their flights or the airlines they came aboard. Attached to this hall is what Iraqis call “the prison”.

In case you haven’t heard, Iraqi refugees stopped going to Jordan long time ago now because they know they would be turned away.
So the Iraqis I’m talking about are not refugees. Every one of them had a good reason for visiting Jordan; businessmen, official delegations, people who have family members who are residents in Jordan (residency in Jordan requires keeping $100,000 permanently in a bank in Jordan) and others who simply come to that airport in transit — to fly to another destination that is not among the limited destinations of the Iraqi airlines.

There are also people like myself who had to go there to apply for, or receive, a visa to the US, since ironically, the US embassy in Baghdad processes only two types of visas!

Last year, I received an admission offer from a prestigious American university to a master’s degree program in international affairs. It was a project I invested much time, hope and resources in for over a year. The story is long and I won’t bore you with the details.
Long story short, the American embassy in Amman recently notified me that my visa was ready to be stamped. I bought a ticket and got on a plane on my way to Amman confident that the documents I had would grant me access to Jordan for the week I needed…I was wrong.

I was ushered into the separate hall along with other Iraqi passengers, while foreigners on our plane were taken somewhere else. I was surprised by this new arrangement. “This isn’t looking good,” I thought, but I followed the procedure, handed my passport to the officer and sat down to wait as told.
Three hours later, I had been interrogated three times, shown every paper I had a couple times and got yelled at twice.

Finally I was taken to the other hall - “the prison”. At that point, I didn’t know what it was, and thought it was just another waiting stop. But the Iraqi guys who arrived before me briefed me on the situation. “Put your hand luggage over there in that room and quickly find yourself a blanket before they are all taken. You’re staying here for a long time brother!” one of the Iraqis said.
I was shocked by what I saw inside; a small passage with two rooms on the side and a third at the end; many Iraqis were chatting or lying on the floor with their bags littering the rooms. There were also some noisy children running around and sometimes crying. One room was designated as “women’s” room, another was for the men, the third was pretty much for children.

An hour passed before I could absorb what happened to me; locked up in a crowded room and just been denied the rare opportunity I had been working on for a year, for no other crime than being Iraqi.
There were about forty or fifty of us there at any point and the number went up and down as new arriving flights brought in more unfortunate Iraqis, or departing flights took some of us back home.

It wasn’t the typical scene of impoverished and suffering refugees, but in it’s own way it was painful to watch educated and professional people, doctors, businessmen and even diplomats with their red passports being treated this way; sleeping on the floor and asking for permission from a guard to go to the restroom.
No documents, letters, recommendations or pleads worked, even a phone call from the Iraqi ambassador couldn’t save the dignity of an Iraqi diplomat from being relinquished to “the prison”.
The most painful scene was of families of four being torn apart; half of the family would be allowed to enter Jordan while the other half would be rejected and ordered to go back. Many preferred to go home together over being separated like this.
One scene like this nearly turned to a tragedy when an old lady suddenly collapsed on the floor from a case of heart attack from all the stress she suffered that day. If not for the good Iraqi doctor among us, she would have died waiting for the medics to arrive.

The night was the longest ever. All of our stories were not enough to kill the time. and sleeping was not an option with all the noise and insufficient number of blankets. Many of the guys ran out of cigarettes early in the evening but luckily I had a full carton in my relatively large laptop bag! One elderly man somehow managed to get some hot water, a large kettle and some plastic cups. So we made tea and gathered at 4 am for a long tea and smokes party, waiting for the sun to rise and for the plane to come and take us home…

On the next day in the early afternoon, I boarded the plane that was returning to Baghdad with about a dozen other Iraqis. The kind stewardess was apparently familiar with cases like ours and noticed how tired we were so she immediately welcomed us with bottles of cold water and some kind words to comfort us, “There’s a few of you this time, yesterday we returned 75 passengers!” she added.
The guy sitting to my left said “There will be a day when they [Jordanians] will beg us to let them enter Iraq”.
No, the guy sitting to my right objected. “They were mean to us and they hurt us, but if we do the same we’ll have sunk to their level. Let’s instead hope that one day our country will become a better place.”

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Home Alone

I know I haven't been a loyal blogger to the readers recently and I apologize for that but I said before this is partly because of the summer season in Baghdad and all that comes with it.

The other reason is that my family is taking a long vacation outside the country, mostly to run away from the hottest part of the season; Aab al-lahaab (August of flames). Some in our parliament want to take a month-long vacation too but I'm inclined to think it's responsibility, not the flames of August they are trying to run away from…we'll see.
This leaves me basically with lots of cooking, shopping and cleaning to do since my brother Ali isn't that good at any of this kind of work.

While I'm going to particularly miss my two little nephews their absence also means I can enjoy weeks of quiet, you know, I love the idea that if I choose to not make a sound then there will be silence! I am glad I can enjoy this privilege for some time and I hope the silence will help me focus more on writing.

On the other hand being in charge of everything at home makes me pay attention to some details that I don't notice otherwise. The funnies and oddest so far was the phone bill I received a few days ago. It's the first bill we receive in more than three years which should be the case since our land line, along with a few dozen others in the neighborhood were cut when a cable was damaged in fall 2004. The funny thing is that the bill demands fees for the first six months of 2005 when we technically didn't have a land line!
I haven't decided whether or not I'm going to pay this bill but what could they do if I don't!?
The other thing I noticed, which was quite a surprise is that this little "daughter" as we say of one of our date palms is already carrying what soon is going to be sweet yellow fruit. Isn't that cute?

The main even that's been keeping me excited an entertained is the participation of our national soccer team in the Asian Cup. The results are excellent so far including this afternoon's match in which the team won 2-0 over Vietnam. This means for a change lots of the gunfire we hear in Baghdad are celebratory these days. Two hours after the match ended I still hear some gunfire but I can't tell whether or not it's still of the celebratory type.

These lines were not meant to be a serious post but I will end it with a quick update on some of the important parameters for assessing living conditions in Baghdad; the part where I live to be accurate.
Gasoline shortage is much less severe these days. It takes typically less than an hour to fill the car at the station and black-market price is down to only 3/2 the official price (60 cents/liter instead of 1.2 dollars last month). This can change in either direction at any minute though.
In electricity the supply has technically doubled. Don't get excited because by "doubled" I mean in increased from 2 hours/day to 4 hours/day. It's still better than nothing especially that we were expecting supply to decrease as the heat rises.

Like I said above I'm doing at least one shopping errand every day and this means I get to move around between groceries, butcher shops and bakeries more than I usually do and here too I noticed a new trend. The number of small businesses and shops did not decrease in and around our neighborhood as I used to think. In fact they just relocated from the main streets to the inner streets and alleys making it safer for both shoppers and store owners alike to do what they have to.

If I could do a short tour with a camera you would see that many of the stores the once busy commercial main street are now closed but at the same time many stores are budding from homes or simply appear in no time as new stalls are erected. It's one example of how the people have adjusted to the changing situation in some parts of the city.

One last thing, I will be on the air with a couple radio interviews next week. I will provide the when and where once they are decided.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Summer logistics, and more on summer politics

The weather in Baghdad is painfully hot. And the constant struggle with daily life logistics is depleting by energy reserves.
I tried so many times to hold a pen or touch the keyboard but I couldn't finish even one coherent paragraph although there's no lack of ideas or events…it's frustrating but, I'm trying to force myself to accept it because there are still two more months to go before the annual visit of hell to Baghdad ends.

These months have been the worst in electricity supplies ever. We're getting an average of one hour per day of electricity from the grid. The last time we had such hour was three days ago! And I assume some of you are familiar now with what it takes to maintain those small generators we use at home.
And it just gets worse; my internet connection has been down for 10 days now and the backup connection is having some mysterious problem with all google-based services including of course blogspot and gmail which are indispensable to me.

I'll borrow a few lines from an Iraqi journalist I forgot his name to put it shortly. This is what he said describing life in Baghdad summer "people in normal places wake up in the morning feeling they had enough rest to start a new day. Here we wake up feeling as tired as people do when they return home from work"

But I digress….

Let's move to some serious topics but first of all I want to suggest a moment of silence to honor the souls of the innocent victims of Yesterday's terrorist attack in Emirli and other attacks elsewhere in Iraq…thank you.

On the political front there are some interesting developments. You probably heard about the message Maliki sent yesterday to the Sadr movement demanding they clarify their position from the violent elements among their followers. It wasn't as tough a message as we were hoping but it's still an interesting step that broke the fear barrier that Maliki put between himself and Sadr.

In fact it seems that this statement is part of government plan to weaken Sadr's position through public frank statements.
On Saturday there was a demonstration in Nasiriyah against militias. The governor called for the demonstrations and the tribes answered the call and took to the streets demanding rule of law and limiting the use of arms to the forces of the government only.
Not long before that there was a similar and larger demonstration in Babil demanding the same thing. The attitude in Babil is remarkably good in this respect. Sadr's militiamen and aides are often targeted by local police. In my opinion the local government in this province is one of the most realistic ones we have. They were the only local government that refused plans for security handover and explained straightforward that the local ISF was not ready yet to handle security in the province. Unlike others who rushed like fools to assume security responsibility while they know they don't have enough tools to do so. That's if not they did that on purpose, I can't tell.

Before I forget I think it's also worth mentioning that Al-Sabah-for the first time in over a year-mentioned the Mahdi army by the name in its report on clashes in Diwaniyah, Samawa and Basra in the south.

These are all signs of change in attitude but they can't be considered a true change unless magnitude and frequency increase significantly in the little time Iraq has to show that tangible progress is being made.

In earlier posts we talked about the attempt by the four main Kurdish and Shia parties to establish some sort of "moderate front".
These days another initiative to improve power sharing is emerging, apparently an idea endorsed by Talabani since he's been speaking enthusiastically about it more than he did about the moderate front idea.

The idea is basically about forming a coalition of individual leaders at the level of presidency and premiership. Talabani called it the "3+1" formula to distinguish it from the "2+2" formula for parliamentary rearrangement.
The concept is simply to give the two vice presidents, president and PM more or less equal voice power when dealing with critical decisions. The constitutional foundations for such arrangement are ambiguous but maybe that's not a big problem at this point, after all the constitution itself is going to be subject for several amendments.

The "3+1" idea is somewhat attractive; these four men are arguably among the most moderate (relatively) leaders in their respective parties and so if they can actually make this deal for sharing executive authority then perhaps they will be able to make a difference.
In my opinion it could be easier to make Abdul Mahdi and Hashimi for example agree on something that if we had Hakim and Duleimi. And at this point there could be a good chance for that the former couple to become more influential in their parties than the latter as Hakim fell sick and Duleimi is about to be ousted from leading the Accord Front.

And yes, I heard about the CBS report and I doubt its accuracy for more than one reason. But I didn't follow any news today so I'm not aware whether there have been updates; anyway the 15th of July is only a week from now.

That's all for now…

Monday, July 02, 2007

More Baghdad Summer Politics

News about the creation of a so-called ‘moderate powers front’ is making the headlines in Baghdad’s papers again. This time headed by the ruling parties, not the opposition, al-Sabah reported last Wednesday:
The two Kurdish parties (PUK and KDP), the Dawa Party, and the SIIC agreed yesterday (Tuesday) to form a national political front that will be officially announced next week.

And as usual the Dawa and SIIC can’t move forward on anything without the blessing of Ayatollah Sistani, so the SIIC sent Abdul Mahdi to Najaf to brief Sistani on the plan:
Vice president Aadil Abdul Mahdi briefed Ayatollah Sistani about the national front that was reached among the four major parties as well as the efforts to broaden the participation [in this front].

Abdul Mahdi said during a press conference after meeting his eminence in Najaf that, “We support the elected government,” [to answer questions about replacing Maliki before they are asked] and added, “We have informed Sayyid Sistani of the new coalition that would soon be announced, and we reassured [him] during the meeting that there was no intent to undermine the current government.”

I think that the new-old Kurdish-Shia coalition needs to have something more than God’s blessings via Sistani. Seeking the approval of senior clerics, and similar shows of support, have become obsolete, boring, and likely as ineffective as they have been in the past.

The formation of this coalition seems to be a precursor to Maliki’s plan to radically reshuffle his cabinet. Perhaps by dropping all of the “extra weight” and replacing the current cabinet with a slimmer one of just 20 posts:
Haider Ibadi, a member of parliament close to PM Maliki said the latter is seeking a radical cabinet reshuffle, Ibadi added that there’s been a suggestion to reduce the number of ministries down to 20, and [to move] away from political quotas.

The position of the Accord Front, particularly the Islamic Party, continues to oscillate between the two options. Al-Sabah wrote on Wednesday:
Members of parliament from the Islamic Party Alla Makki said the party was currently considering the option of participating in the national front announced by major political parties.

On the other hand, the Iraqi List continues to move forward with its own plans to form the political mass we mentioned in earlier posts. Al-Mashriq wrote on Wednesday:
Sattar Bayir, member of parliament from Allawi’s party said, ‘The negotiations have gone decently so far to form the suggested Iraqi front. The movement is to form an Iraqi front from all national parties, organizations, associations and figures.’ And he added that there are ongoing negotiations with various parties including the Accord Front, the Dialogue Front and the Fadheela Party…

In a later, relevant development, Talabani announced a power-sharing agreement between the presidency (Talabani, Abdul Mahdi, and Hashimi) and the premiership (Maliki, Saleh, and Zawbai). Al-Sabah reported on Thursday:

Talabani added: There has also been an agreement between the presidency and the premiership to establish group-leadership according to the constitution which states the fact that the executive authority consists of these two leaderships, and by doing that the complaint of sidelining the representatives of Sunni Arabs in decision-making can be dealt with.

It looks like the two political poles—the ruling coalition and Allawi’s group—are competing for the votes of the Fadheela and the Islamic Party, but in slightly different ways. While Allawi needs the votes so badly that he’d even invite the Sadrists (as he himself said yesterday in an interview on al-Arabiyah); the ruling coalition is more interested in winning the Islamic Party to its side to gain a Sunni element in its lines. An overt attempt to give an ethno-sectarian coalition the national cover it needs.

In fact I’d even say that the Kurdish-Shia coalition since its inception has been ignoring logic and geography. Both of them have direct borders with the Sunni populated region, and almost no direct contact between their communities. The Kurds for instance allied themselves with the Shia, while it’s the Sunni who are in direct contact with them, standing between them and Kirkuk. Normally solving the problem would require dialogue and understanding with the influential party on the ground. Not with the party sitting hundreds of miles away.

The other side of this deliberate ignorance of logic is represented by the dream to build an ethnic Kurdish state in a region where neighboring countries have problems with significant Kurdish communities. Thinking about creating an ethnic state in the age of globalization reminds me of the Arab dream to create a racist mono-state in the last century. And the same is true of the Shia when they think of creating a state after the Iranian model when that very model is getting more isolated from the rest of the world with every move it makes. Here too there’s a geographic factor when they, the Shia, ignore the presence of hard-line Sunni states in the neighborhood.

So back to a short note on Allawi who made a rare public appearance yesterday. As usual his answers were elusive most of the time, but after some persistence from the host he finally voiced his frank opposition to Maliki, and said the latter was Prime Minister of the UIA, not of Iraq.
In general, the prospects of the two ventures are in critical equilibrium; Allawi’s has the appeal of non-sectarian secularism while its major weakness is the lack of a significant Kurdish component, which will no doubt reduce its chances to become the widely-representative ruling coalition unless it succeeds in snatching one of the major Kurdish parties and adding it to its ranks.

On the other hand the Shia-Kurdish core of the other camp has the weakness of still not having a Sunni component. The advantage it might enjoy from controlling key posts in the government which allow it access to resources and publicity, is counterbalanced by the heavy burden of a record of poor performance in running the state.
Finally, and although I don’t want to take sides in this, I have to note that the Kurdish-Shia attempt only seeks to secure a lasting parliamentary majority in order to pass legislation that fulfills their narrow ambitions. After all, the alliance between secular Sunni Kurds and conservative Shia Arabs highlights only the opportunist nature of the two sides.

Allawi’s ambitions on the other hand are more clear to some extent. He’s secular, but he’s also known to have some of the common qualities of authoritarian leaders.
However, time has shown that he too would play the game only if he is sure he can win. And the fear of the Kurds and Shia parties indicates that Allawi is taking the game seriously this time.

When this level of activity takes place while the cabinet has 13 void seats and the parliament has about 80 void seats we can expect that a big change is in the offing. Which front will lead this change is still up in the air.