Sunday, January 28, 2007

Sources: Operation Baghdad starts on February 5.

The preparations for Baghdad's security operations and the reactions of politicians, people and militant groups are still taking the most prominent headlines of local news in Iraq.

The head of one of the two city councils in Sadr city told AFP that he's ready to cooperate with the Iraqi forces in implementing the security plan. In the statement that appeared on al-Mada Kareem Hassan said "The presence of popular armed committees [Sadr militias] will end automatically when Iraqi forces enter the city because the need for the committees will cease to exist"

We talked earlier about insurgents and terrorists fleeing Baghdad to Diyala, and today there's another report about a similar migration, from al-Sabah:

Eyewitnesses in some volatile areas said that large numbers of militants have fled to Syria to avoid being trapped in the incoming security operations.
According to those witnesses, residents and shopkeepers are no longer concerned about militants whose existence in public used to bring on clashes that put the lives of civilians in danger.
A shopkeeper in al-Karkh [western Baghdad] said that many of them [militants] packed their stuff and headed to Syria to wait and see what the operations are going to be like.
While experts consider this a failure in protecting the plan's secrecy which might lead to the loss of the surprise factor, they also say it indicates the seriousness and resolve in this plan that is already scaring away the militants. PM Maliki pointed out that seeing them run away is a good thing but he returned and said the security forces would chase them down everywhere after Baghdad is clear.

As we said in the last update, Maliki won unanimous support for his plan in the parliament and despite some opposition from the radical factions the major blocs are expressing their support and approval of the plan:

Spokesman of the Accord front Saleem Abdullah said after the session that the principles of the security plan have the approval of the front and "constitutes a quality leap toward serving Iraq's people".
Hussein al-Sha'lan of the Iraqi bloc stressed on the importance of cooperation among political powers to ensure the success of the plan which he called "realistic and well-thought".
Abdul Khaliq Zangana of the Kurdish alliance said the plan would deal a heavy blow to Iraq's enemies and put an end to the crimes of outlaws and their backers.

On the other hand citizens we talked to after the prime minister made his speech before the parliament say that there's no place for mistakes or weakness this time but they also seemed confident that Maliki has prepared the right tools for success.

Meanwhile Azzaman says it learned from "informed sources in Baghdad" that major operations will start on the 5th of February. The anonymous sources, according to Azzaman, said that operations against leaders of militant groups and vital targets will be performed to as part of the preparations for major operations that will start on the first week of February.

Immediately after president Bush authorized the US military to capture and kill Iran's agents who are involved in the violence in Iraq, the Iranian Khalq opposition group released a list with the names of 31,000 Iraqis the group said are paid agents for Tehran operating in Iraq, story in the same report linked above.
Jawad Dberan the spokesman of the national council of Iranian resistance, the political wing of Khalq duing a press conference in Germany, accused Tehran of sending weapons and millions of dollars in cash to Iraq every month.
According to Azzaman which quoted from Jawad's statement, that list includes only elements who were directly recruited by the Quds force in Iran. The list is said to provide the Arabic and Farsi names of recruits, their monthly payment in Iranian money along with the code name they use during operations.

Finally, fierce clashes erupted early this morning between US and Iraqi forces with a large group of militants northeast of Najaf. News reports are giving contradicting accounts on the identity of those militants; on the one hand we have the Washington Post and Reuters say they are Sunni insurgents.
On the other hand the Iraqi website Sot al-Iraq says they are a radical Shia group who call themselves "Jama'at Ahmed al-Hassan" or the followers of Ahmed al-Hassan and that their leader, Ahmed al-Hassan claims to be the messenger of Imam Mehdi. An Iraqi journalist from Najaf told a similar story on the phone to al-Jazeera and said the group is a radical Islamist one that was formed after the fall of Saddam's regime.

A Najaf police spokesman, colonel Ali Jrew told al-Hurra TV that the name of the group is "Soldiers of Heavn" and that their leader's name is Abu Gumar al-Yamani and explained "This terrorist group was planning to kill a number of senior clerics and they claim Imam Mehdi is going to appear soon…our action was based on intelligence we gathered recently and we had arrest warrants". The BBC is still not sure of the group's identity.

I'm personally more inclined to believe the story of the two Iraqi sources. After all it's hard to believe that Sunni insurgents could establish a base that hosts several hundreds of armed men this close to Najaf.

More updates will follow later…

Friday, January 26, 2007

It looked quiet from my place...

This one was posted on Pajamas Media yesterday, but here it is again in case you missed it.

In Baghdad when it is suddenly quiet around you for any length of time you can expect someone nearby to turn to you and say suspiciously, “Isn’t it quiet outside?”

By “quiet” the speaker means that there have been no sounds of explosions or gunfire for a few hours. Those sounds are now part of normal daily life in Baghdad while “quiet” is a state that invites amazement and suspicion. In this city it’s usual to respond to the above question with “Let’s hope it stays like this.”

My Baghdad neighborhood today was “quiet” compared to the last few days; but Baghdad is a big city and a Baghdadi gets to hear about most incidents through TV or radio just like everybody elsewhere in the world. The difference is that for us Baghdad news is local news. For example, today I heard about fighting in Dora where 10 insurgents were arrested; I heard that 8 more were arrested in Latifiyah; I heard that Iraqi forces are now in control in Haifa street. I heard all of that but I saw or heard nothing about these incidents firsthand.

The news also said that many of the 35 suspects who were arrested yesterday in Haifa street are not Iraqis, but more significant than that was the discovery of a large weapons cache in al-Karkh high school, the very school Saddam went to back in the 1950s.
Away from the streets the biggest battle I saw today was aired live on TV — the latest session of the parliament that witnessed loud arguments between some of the MPs, during which the speaker decided to cut media transmission from the hall.

Before it was cut off, PM Maliki spoke to the parliament to explain the goals and strategy of his new plan and to hear their feedback, suggestions and reservations.
Maliki’s speech was sharp and straightforward. He stressed that the Baghdad plan was not directed against one faction over the other. He called it a plan “enforce the law” and said it would use force to apply the law against those who kill Iraqis and displace them from their homes.
Maliki didn’t forget to criticize the media that accuse the plan of being biased and he asked the local media to support the plan and encourage the citizens to cooperate with the authorities.

Maliki’s most important warning was when he said that no one and no place would be immune to raids. Mosques (Sunni or Shia), homes or political offices will all be subject to searches and raids if they are used to launch attacks or hide militants.
He added that the government will soon begin an operation to arrest anyone who occupied homes belonging to displaced families, and described such occupation an attempt to make displacement a permanent situation.
The parliamentary majority was supportive of Maliki’s approach but of course there were voices that criticized his plans and threw all sorts of accusations in his face. The Sadrists objected the arrest of some of their colleagues. Others complained that the participation of the Multi-National Force is wrong and would undermine the sovereignty of the government.

The biggest argument was when a Sunni cleric MP harshly criticized what he called a policy to target only certain parts of Baghdad (apparently referring to Haifa street and Latifiyah), and said the troops were killing civilians. The MP told Maliki that “We’ve lost trust in you as a head of the state….” An uproar began with many shouting from their seats. The cleric continued his verbal attack and the speaker tried to silence him by telling him he exceeded his time limit. He wouldn’t stop. The speaker then shut off the cleric’s microphone.
Maliki returned fire saying, “You in particular will regain your trust in this government when we send your file to a court of law. You talk about Latifiyah when you know, and everybody knows, that terrorists are right now holding 150 innocent citizens hostages in that city”.
This direct threat was met by applause from the members of the UIA.

The speaker (al-Mashhadani) didn’t like this response from Maliki and turned to the lawmakers and said “You applaud this? The Prime Minister is openly accusing one of your colleagues of being a terrorist and you applaud! This is unacceptable!”
The session descended into chaos with members in white and black turbans shouting at each other. The speaker lost his patience and screamed back “Enough of this sectarian speech making! You will set the streets on fire! How are we going to succeed if we’re divided like this?”

We don’t know what happened later but it seems the situation escalated beyond that and pushed al-Mashhadani to cut the transmission.
These fights inside the parliament always frighten me because they all too soon roll out of the Parliament and transform themselves into car bombs and tortured bodies.
The weird and ironic finale to the whole argument we witnessed is that — after all the tension we saw on TV — , the state TV news line later reported that the parliament approved the Baghdad plan unanimously.
Now it is quiet again. Too quiet.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Baghdad Plan Update.

Apache attack helicopters are constantly hovering over Baghdad now. Tracking them from my home in this city I can often estimate where the action is taking place.

In many cases these are combat missions, not routine surveillance patrols, and the sounds of the helicopters heavy machineguns can often be heard in the distance; sometimes far away, sometimes coming closer.

If the star in the sky is the Apache, the star on the ground is the Stryker armored vehicle. One can hardly avoid meeting Strykers in Baghdad these days. Everybody here is talking about the astounding presence of this armored castle with its surrounding steel bars. With its huge mass and powerful headlights that can be seen from hundreds of meters away it is pure intimidation.

Today in Baghdad, American troops not only man checkpoints on main streets, but are also running daily patrols through the inner streets in residential blocs. Typically a patrolling unit will choose a number of homes to meet their occupants. It’s more like getting familiar with the locals than searching; the commander of the patrol talks to the head of the household and meets the members of the family. If one of them happens to know English the commander usually ask the translator to stay outside; most Iraqis prefer not to speak before other Iraqis when it comes to security concerns.

During such meetings the American officer introduces himself to the locals and explains to them the nature of his unit’s mission in the neighborhood. This is always followed questions on whether there were terrorists around and on the type of security issues in the area. The meetings sometimes end with taking a photograph with the head of the household; to memorialize the occasion and possibly for the unit’s records.

In our area the sounds of gunfire have hardly stopped the past few days. This morning I heard some explosions nearby, but I couldn’t figure out what was going on. The explosions intensify from time to time depending on the intensity and proximity of clashes. In general, the news reports we get in the city, and the information we hear from friends and relatives, indicate that most of the fighting is going on in Sleikh, Qaqhera, Azamaiya, al-Fadhl and Haifa street.
The fuel shortage is still a big daily concern for Baghdadis. State electricity is available for only a couple of hours a day; sometimes not at all.

It’s becoming very difficult to predict what’s going to happen the next hour. In addition to the dangers of militia or insurgent attacks, you can’t tell when a bridge or a street will be suddenly blocked. At any minute you can find yourself stuck between two groups of Humvees or Strykers, or even in the middle of a military operation standing between you and your destination. That’s when you call home or work to explain the delay, or calm down a worried friend or relative.
Although the major Baghdad plan isn’t officially launched yet, every day we see several joint operations against targets in and around the city. Still, according to the latest leaked reports, it seems as if the major implementations of the plan are going to wait until the beginning of next month,.

The government here says they are waiting for the buildup of participating troops to be completed, but I think it’s more likely that they are waiting for the Ashura ceremonies to end to allow pilgrims to travel between Baghdad and the shrines safely.
The waiting is proving to be more of a burden on the people of Baghdad than the operation itself would be. Patience is fading under the pressure of the increasing numbers of suicide attacks and the civilian deaths they cause. Baghdadis are desperately waiting for the operation to begin because they hope it can reduce the occurrence of these deadly attacks that distribute death equally among civilians.

However, and despite the spike in suicide bombings there’s a good sign. The numbers of unknown bodies that carry signs of torture have decreased significantly over the last two weeks, an official in the health ministry told al-Sabah:

The source told al-Sabah that the number of unknown bodies that are collected by the security forces and brought to the morgue has drastically decreased…the number of bodies in the refrigerators is only 35 now and was as low as 11 on one day. Through daily presence near the morgue Al-Sabah noticed a significant decrease in the number of people searching for missing relatives.

Just so you get the picture — these numbers do not represent daily tolls but the number of bodies that accumulate at the morgue waiting for relatives to identify and receive them.
While officials in the defense ministry wouldn’t talk about specifics they are making statements about the general scope of the Baghdad plan.

The spokesman of the ministry Mohammed al-Askari said, “The army is going to receive new weapons and equipment from the US and South Africa this March and he pointed out that units that received orders to redeploy to Baghdad from other provinces have been replaced by other units from elsewhere but he didn’t elaborate.”
On the other hand the defense minister said in a televised statement that: “The new plan will focus on securing Baghdad and its suburbs, and a security belt will be established around the city…the army will later carry out operations in Diyala, Salah Addin and Anbar to chase down the militants.”

The two statements indicate that operations will not be limited to Baghdad alone but will include other provinces in a number of phases. It also suggests that more troops and weapons will be poured into the battlefield as the operation proceeds.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Kerbala attack: An inside job.

These days have been terribly bloody for both the American military and the Iraqi civilians as large-scale sweeps in Baghdad are being prepared.

While most attacks have much in common when it comes to their goals and the destruction and pain they leave, some attacks are of a quality that suggest some messages that are more dangerous beyond the immediate harm they cause.

I’m particularly referring to the incident last week in Kerbala when US military personnel came under attack as they were meeting with local officials to coordinate security plans for the Shia religious season of Ashura.
There’s more than one reason that drive me to think that the Iraqi story wasn’t even close to what really happened. I suggest you take a look at the story first before reading further here.

So, the place is Kerbala, the Iraqi city that hosts the Shrine of Imam Hussein and the time is just days before the anniversary of his martyrdom, commonly regarded the holiest day on the Shia calendar.

The significance of the ceremony and the crowds of pilgrims have always been a favorite target for terrorists and this means security measures are always tightest at this time of the year in that city.
The story of the local officials says that a convoy of SUVs with tinted windows and passengers dressed as US and Iraqi soldiers who spoke some English and passed through checkpoints. Now I don’t buy this!
Maybe they spoke some English but, did they actually look like Americans?
Suppose they fooled one checkpoint or two but how could they fool all the checkpoints all the way to the provincial headquarters?

Let’s assume the attackers fooled the Iraqi guards with their broken English, uniforms and vehicles, but what about their weapons? Were they carrying AK-47’s or M-4’s and M-16’s? Someone in the checkpoints must have seen some of the weapons and at least got a little bit suspicious seeing no American weapons in the vehicles.
Even stranger, no one chased the attackers after that and the excuse is even harder to accept:
When asked why Iraqi police did not intervene to stop the gunmen from fleeing, al-Mishawi said “they assumed it was American-on-American violence and wanted to stay out of it.”
As if this “American-on-American” violence were a daily occurrence!

No Iraqi soldiers, policemen or officials were hurt in the attack. The attackers knew about the timing and location of the meeting and they were certainly not al-Qaeda fighters or Sunni insurgents. I mean why would al-Qaeda or Sunni insurgents risk making the very dangerous trip to the heart of Kerbala to kill American soldiers while they could’ve inflicted more casualties by planting a few IED’s in the streets of places they control? Plus, they wouldn’t have spared the lives of the Iraqis in the building.

If I remember well, some time ago the head of the provincial council was arrested under charges of terrorism, so the local authority in Kerbala isn’t exactly trustworthy.
The governor said there was a security breach but what I smell here is the stench of an inside job at the highest levels in Kerbala.
Like I said earlier, this was not just a brazen attack by some militia or terrorists; behind this is a message and a threat from Iran and its surrogates to turn even the calm parts of Iraq into a dangerous war zone for America and the government in Baghdad.

Friday, January 19, 2007

A last chance or a new beginning?

The last chance…I hear these words a lot these days that it became the common description or question by the media for/about the new security plan—last chance for Maliki, last chance for Bush, last chance for Iraq…as if the new plan was a coin that can be flipped only once carrying victory on the one face and doom on the other.

I think people who use this "last chance" idea are not helping Iraq or America here or they are of the type of people who do not want to deal with the challenge seriously. This term has a tone of defeatism, it's as if Iraq was a totally lost case while in fact the huge change that's been happening in the form of replacing a totalitarian regime with a democratic one is a lengthy process that cannot be accomplished through military action alone; success has economic and social elements along with the military one in addition to international and regional cooperation. It is no wisdom to think of closing this file or abandoning it based on the results of one security operation.

It is unfair to demand the impossible from the coming operations; total eradication of terrorism and militias within months is a long shot because the violence in Iraq is a result of domestic and regional conflicts that are not limited to Baghdad and it is part of heavy legacy of mistakes and evil the Baath era left.

I see that those who talk about last chances are in fact rushing failure in Iraq by putting a very high bar that is technically impossible to pass within months or a year.
We need to identify what we really want to accomplish and can accomplish through this plan and in my opinion total victory over militias and terrorists is a fantasy, and there are several examples of advanced nations that still suffer from persistent armed factions like in Spain or even the UK until recently.
Let's look at what's possible, it is possible to stop the deterioration of security, limit the extension of insurgency and limit the influence of militias; these in my opinion should be the slogan of the new campaign.

Let's explore what can be technically done considering the capabilities and the challenges; I have a few points in this regard that I'd like to share:

-Liberating the sectors of Baghdad that are totally occupied by insurgents or militias through clearing and holding these sectors with sufficient troops after clearing them. In this way life can return to an acceptable condition similar to late 2003-early 2004.

-The above should be accompanied by collecting weapons off the streets. It is no secret that enormous amounts of weapons became in the hands of the people following the looting of camps of the former army in addition to weapons that were already stashed by members of the former regime and its security apparatus. This had not been dealt with seriously so far and it's still not considered an act of terror by the government, on the contrary some describe possessing weapons, even illegal weapons an act of self-defense.

Yes, having a weapon for defensive use is a justified need at this time but registering those weapons is of great importance to security.
I'm not saying it's possible to collect or register each and every weapon in Baghdad but serious effort must be put into this.

-Another possible and effective thing to do is helping a decent number of displaced families return to their homes. This would diminish the sectarian lines that are dividing the city and reestablish the diversity that is an integral part of Baghdad's identity and social structure.
We must act to reverse forced displacement and stop this alien phenomenon from becoming an unwritten law, so returning those families to their homes and providing them with protection will add a lot to stability and normalcy in Baghdad.

It was good to see the economic factor getting some good attention in both Maliki's and Bush's plans because unemployment is one of the reasons young frustrated men choose a violent path to make money and this is more evident with militias such as the Mehdi army whose main bulk belongs to this category.

Speaking of the Mehdi army, the word here is that they will try to avoid a direct confrontation as they've been through it before and had seen its heavy price. Moreover, militias have an advantage over insurgents or al-Qaeda that they occupy many seats inside the parliament and cabinet and enjoy privileges that they wouldn't like to lose. That's why their response to the threat came in two elements to avoid a costly confrontation and to maintain the no-peace, no-war status that serves this faction's interests.

The first element is represented by ending their boycott of the cabinet and parliament that was started when Maliki met with Bush.
Back then the Sadrists put high demands in return for ending the boycott but now things have changed as they began to realize the change in Maliki's attitude so they are now presenting much lower demands.

Al-Sabah had a brief report about this:
Nassar al-Rubai'i the chief member of the Sadr's bloc in the parliament said in a statement that the movement would resume political work very soon "talks are under way in this regard and progressing well. The Sadr bloc will be back in the parliament and government very soon...

The second element is tactical military; Azzaman reported that Sadr made direct orders for the ranks of his militia to avoid open war with the US military:

Commanders of the Mehdi army in Baghdad received strict orders not to fire a single bullet during the American military campaign in Baghdad…an informed source told Azzaman that the meeting was held in a place in sector 42 of Sadr city and many of the Mehdi army leaders attended it while others missed it because they were already in Iran since last week. The top lieutenants as well didn’t show up because they were ordered a few days ago to abandon Sadr city and spread in the southern provinces and other parts of the capital…the source explained that the orders were given to show full cooperation with the American forces during the raids and show no resistance even when arrests are made. The commanders were promised that the police would take care of releasing any detainees once "the storm is gone"…

What options will the Iraqi and US military have when the militia melt and avoid the confrontation? We know that the Mehdi army does not have camps or barracks or any solid foundations that can be targeted; the militia is merely a network of civilian-looking people who can turn into a deadly force at any time they choose to do so.

However, what troops can do is to target the top leaders and lieutenants of the militia who have a criminal history and made mistakes (whether by physical act or statements) for which they can be legally prosecuted. When this is done the network will be dealt a serious blow and will be weakened by the subsequent loss of command and financial support and then the wide network would disintegrate into isolated gangs that can be dealt with through limited operations following the main operations.

After all, the plan must involve cleaning up the security forces from bad elements by excluding those with who joined the forces to serve a certain party or sect and rehabilitating the army and police forces on basis of competence and loyalty to the country.
This country will not be able to enforce the law and contain the violence until the people can trust the security forces and the latter will not be strong enough until they get rid of the harmful elements who are breaking the law and causing much of the trouble.

Again, I hope to see realism in setting achievable goals by the Iraqi and US leaderships…fixing our eyes on the possible and achievable for now will pave the ground for more steps forward in the future.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Mourning the Fallen Angels of Iraq...

Nothing was more painfully clear than this message; they are killing our future by killing students and knowledge. They are killing the flowers who filled the world with laughter, energy and hope since the first school was built thousands of years ago somewhere on this very land.

65 families or maybe more mourn their sons and daughters today and I know their feeling very well…I've been through it when I lost my loved ones and I know what their obsessions are telling them; why did send them to school? Did I have to, was it the right thing to go on with our lives and defy terror? Oh God, they threatened and they did it but what future would we have if my son didn't go to school!?
Why did I let her go? Oh God help me answer my bleeding heart.

A policeman says: the cell phones didn’t stop ringing in their pockets and purses but there was no one to answer…they were gone.
The ringing will keep me awake tonight angels of Iraq…you were the bravest when you chose to go on in the face of danger. I will not close my eyes tonight; your phones and your voices echo in my head waking up the demons who want revenge in cruelty that splits heads from shoulders.

Isn't this sight enough for the world to stand with us? Doesn't it look clear now? Damn you if you watched this and saw only new numbers for your counts.

I bet my life on it; tomorrow students will go to their schools again carrying their books, wearing their best clothes. Even if one student remains I bet you these crimes will not stop life from going on.

Please, go light a candle for their souls and let the world hear your voice…let's expose the criminals and let's fight them with all the strength we can find so that our sons and brothers can walk to school every day.

Oh, angels of Iraq, I mourn you like I mourned no one else.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

What? Already running away!?

Insurgents and terrorists are already abandoning some of their positions in Baghdad and moving to Diyala, al-Sabah said:

In Diyala, politicians, religious and tribal figures demanded that their province be included in the security plan of Baghdad. This came after dozens of foreign Arab militants ran away from Baghdad to areas across Diyala in order to avoid raids by the Iraqi and American forces during the incoming security plan to secure Baghdad.

Eyewitnesses told al-Sabah that areas such as New Baquba, Gatoon and al-Zour in Miqdadiya have become convenient bases for terrorists and foreign al-Qaeda members from Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.
This movement of terrorists forced most of the families in these areas to leave either to neighboring countries or to the southern provinces.
The people are asking the interior and defense ministries and the MNF to seal the entrances and exits in order to contain and capture those terrorists in order for Baghdad's plan to succeed. In the same regard a knowledgeable security source stressed that the success of Baghdad's plan depends on the stability of surrounding provinces, especially Diyala…

Actually the people in Diyala have every reason to worry about such migration of terror cells because in fact even without reading what those eyewitnesses and officials had to say one would expect insurgents and terrorists to choose hiding in Diyala rather than other provinces until the security operations are through.
I can see some reasons for this choice; Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda fighters would prefer Diyala over Anbar because:

-They have established many bases in the both, but;
-Anbar is expecting 4,000 additional troops. This along with increased pressure by the tribes in Anbar and the fact that reaching Diyala would be easier than Anbar make Diyala the alternative.

On the other hand and at the same time Sadr's militiamen seem to have chosen Diwaniya to be their destination in case they come under fire in Baghdad, the same al-Sabah report adds:

The national security officer in Diwaniya Mehdi Abu-D'ayna stressed that his province that enjoys stability would possibly turn into a shelter for militants escaping areas of tension similar to what happened in the past.
But he also pointed out the security measures that are underway to stop militants from entering the city such as increasing the number of checkpoints and asking the locals for more cooperation in monitoring strangers.

And the reasons to expect this movement here are clear as well; first of all Diwaniya is not far away from Baghdad, and the past few months had shown the level of the Sdarists strength in that city when order was restored only after reinforcements were summoned from neighboring provinces.

The Sadrists feel they are very strong in Diwaniya and what their man in the city said yesterday shows the level of extremism of the Sadr followers in this city. This is the same man who ordered the execution of unarmed Iraqi soldiers last summer and his threat this time shows a strange lust for violence that is likely to attract militiamen who want to keep fighting regardless of place.

Both cases indicate that the bad guys are adjusting their plans as the government and US military adjust theirs. The clear and hold tactic means militants will have little chance to maneuver within Baghdad like they used to do to work around previous crackdowns so now they are planning to make long-range maneuvers in provinces outside Baghdad.

Although the main objective of the new security plan is securing Baghdad, it would be a good idea for the military commanders to keep an eye on a few other provinces because we don't want to fight the same men twice, or thrice!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Baghdad, between Maliki's plan and Bush's strategy...

In Baghdad, Iraqi and US forces are still targeting what seem to be pre-selected spots.
According to local TV, Iraqi troops made an airborne assault in al-Iskandariya area south of Baghdad in a quality operation where 6 al-Qaeda local commanders were arrested. In addition to that large weapons caches were discovered near Taji north of Baghdad and containers full of aircraft parts and an entire helicopter were unearthed in Mada'in southeast of Baghdad.

Last morning we woke up to rocking explosions that were perhaps caused by air strikes. The explosions echoed across Baghdad and they were many that I couldn't count them all; the state TV says these were American raids against insurgents strongholds in Dora but a friend of mine said there were also raids on Zafaraniya and specifically on Arab Jubour village which is also known for harboring insurgents.

I heard rumors that in Amiriya in western Baghdad militants put up posters calling the neighborhood "The Islamic Emirate of Amiriya", and I heard the same about Adhamiya and Raghiba Khatoun in the east. These are some of the most dangerous areas in Baghdad now that extremists dominate and almost totally isolated them from the rest of the city.
Walking into these areas has become scary even to Sunnis. In fact I see that the isolation is more geographic than sectarian; the insurgents suspect any stranger, for example most Sunnis from outside Adhamiya fear going into it or Amiriya and the same applies to Shia Baghdadis when it comes Sadr city or Hurriya…it's hard to convince militiamen or insurgents of your background when you're a stranger to the neighborhood.

The problem is that it’s the peaceful and terrified majority in such neighborhoods who suffer the most from this siege, for example the price of a kilo of any vegetable in the inner markets of those areas is twice as much as in the rest of the city. Let alone that cleaning workers and fuel distributors fear going into those areas.

Yesterday one of our relatives who decided to leave Haifa street permanently visited us. We had a long talk and she described to me what happened there, and said it all started when militiamen dressed as soldiers made an attack.
She couldn't explain how the locals could tell that the assailants were fake soldiers but I wasn't surprised because Sunni clerics have been warning that Shia militias had intended to attack Sunni neighborhoods and I think that's what made residents in Haifa street interpret any operation as an attack by militias.

She went on and described how the attackers set two homes on fire and how armed locals in the districts of Meshahda, Fahhama and Sheik Ali managed to repel the attacks later and captured some of the attackers.
She told me that the news about executions and hangings on electricity poles were true but that no one could tell the toll. When I asked whether the bodies had military uniforms on them she said "no, they were all in civilian clothes but were all young men"
I asked her if she thought that harboring insurgents and outlaws was the problem in the first place and she agreed "yes, but what are we supposed to do! We don't trust the government's forces either. The police and army say they are here to protect us from terrorists and the militants say they are here to protect us from militias; we're stuck between two fires here!"

When I asked my relative about the backgrounds of the insurgents in her neighborhood she said that most of them are originally bandits, thieves and notorious thugs but the interesting thing is that she told me that some of the worst one were killed in the latest clashes "Noori al-Aqra' [Noori the Bald] for example was the 6th in his family to be killed in clashes with government forces. The whole neighborhood knows he was the one who murdered the Kurdish reporter that worked for al-Iraqiya TV and robbed her jewelry and cell phone…"

The other news was that the area of Haifa street had seen an influx of militants from Amiriya sent by the infamous terrorist "Ibn Quoza" who's a former bandit and a wanted criminal.
The curfew in the area has been lifted but only through one passage at al-Talayi' Square and only women and children are allowed on the street so they can shop for food and other needs. She explained that men wouldn't go out because they are afraid the troops might get suspicious and arrest them…"most of the militants are now hiding in basements or in the nearby cemetery…there are many Afghan-Arabs, they are like ghosts; they come from nowhere and disappear just like that. Like I said before, those do not care to distinguish between Sunni and Shia and they'd kill anyone they suspect"

While Baghdad is preparing for the main plan to begin we're getting rumors that the government is considering terminating the curfew since it didn't help in limiting the violence, and occasionally restricts the movement of students, workers and ordinary people. However Baghdad's streets look less crowded than usual and many people avoid going out except for urgent matters, and although the curfew begins at 9 pm, most people return home before 7 after which you can hardly find cars on the streets.

The awaited security operation still occupies the headlines and the conversations of people as well as the statements of politicians. Yesterday PM Maliki's office confirmed that Baghdad now has a new commander and two assistants, neither was named.
On the other hand extremist parties like the Sadrists and the Muslim scholars are attacking the plan and telling the people that it would cause too much collateral damage and casualties to innocent people.

Perhaps the most important headline in the papers yesterday was of the statement Sistani made after meeting with the national security adviser al-Rubai'i where he said that weapons must be only in the hands of the official security forces. I think the government should make use of this statement to the maximum limit because it leaves no excuse for anyone who claims militias exist to protect the innocent or to compensate for the weakness of the government. This statement gave Maliki a green light to disarm Sadr's militias and he should use this chance.
Sistani had another meeting a few days earlier than that. It was with Sadr this time and it was the first in a year actually. Little was revealed about what was discussed during this meeting but al-Sabah paper said Sadr was trying to convince the Ayatollah that the plans to form a new political bloc were not in the interest of the UIA or Iraq and were motivated by personal ambitions of some politicians. Sistani's response to this was not revealed but his position from disbanding militias looks clear now.

Despite being concerned about security developments, the people were very interested in learning about the new strategy of president Bush but since the speech was aired at 5 am in Baghdad, the morning has seen a rush to radio and TV to find out what the president had said.

A few hours later a flood of comments from Iraqi politicians filled the media here and maybe the earliest and most interesting argument was the one that took place between Abdul Kareem Al-Inizi of the UIA (from a branch of the Dawa party that split from the original Dawa of Jafari and Maliki) and Mithal al-Alusi during yesterday's session of the parliament.

Al-Inizi said "Iraq is not an American state and Bush must consult with us before making such decisions about sending troops…" to which al-Alusi responded by saying "We have an elected prime minister and he was consulted…you and others like yourself wouldn't be sitting here had America not helped us. They are trying to protect this democracy and they possess what they can offer to help us with the security situation, but what do you have?? Cut the nonsense, ok? Do you think the parliament wants to vote about this? Fine, let's ask everybody if they want such voting…"

There was only silence in the hall after this and no one said another word about voting.

Another lawmaker from the UIA told the press that Bush was successful in identifying the problems and the ways to fix them.
The Accord Front on the other hand had their reservations and said they were concerned the new strategy might cause more harm than good.
The Kurdish bloc is totally satisfied with the plan to send in more troops.
Ayad al-Samerra'i, a senior Islamic party lawmaker said he supports the presence of American troops and said that terrorists and militias "are the two sides of the same coin" obviously reflects his hope that the new strategy would deal strictly with militias.

The association of Muslim scholars as expected said it was against the new strategy of Bush and warned that new security plans would cost Iraqis and Americans a heavy price.

From the above and from more that we heard we could see that there are different opinions even among members of a single bloc but I also see that a majority supports the new strategy while opposition is coming from extremists who realize that they will be the next target for the government and allied forces.

This was how Baghdad looked to me….

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Did the operation actually begin?

The sounds of furious battles filled Baghdad's skies for the past two days. In the largest battle Haifa street and its surroundings were the field in which all sorts of guns were used.

Actually yesterday was the first time in months that I hear the familiar characteristic sound of the 30 mm cannon that is usually mounted on A-10's and Apache helicopters. This particular weapon is an indication of the seriousness of the battles even though was fired only a few times. Anyway, military aircrafts are still roaming the skies above us occasionally at low altitudes and making significant sounds.

The battles left more than 50 militants killed and more than a dozen captured, seven of whom are Syrians and this supports what we reported in our last post that eyewitnesses said. Meanwhile there have been more clashes in Al-Aamil district in western Baghdad yesterday and we learned that all roads and bridges leading to that area are now closed, with helicopters hovering above.

With all of this going on, the government still insists that the new security operation in Baghdad hasn't started yet according to the spokesman of the government Ali al-Dabbagh who, in a statement to Al-Mada has also denied the news about the Peshmerga or The Badr brigade being involved in the new security operation:

The operation will be conducted by the troops of the Interior and defense ministries supported by the MNF…redeployment of units and relocating them from one area to another within the borders of the nation is a normal action

Al-Dabbagh also told l-Mada paper that this operation would be different:

This one will differ in terms of tactics, supervision, deployment plans and size of the participating troops who are well equipped and prepared… this plan is built on what we learned from the shortcomings of previous ones

Al-Dabbagh delivered more details to al-Sabah:

He denied the reports that the government had set a specific starting date or duration for the operation but he said that the operation would be decisive, focus on confiscating unlicensed arms, strike militants no matter what their backgrounds or affiliations were and would commit to enforcing peace and order by all possible means putting the issue of militias on the top of its priorities.
What al-Dabbagh said reflects that the government is determined on dealing firmly with any security breach "this time there will be raids on targets without putting in consideration that they represent this or that political or partisan front" and asserted that troops would reach their targets no matter what side effects

The debate among politicians here about the operation continues; some are for and others are against and perhaps among the major points of controversy is the participation of the Peshmerga. This one is already clarified after the participating units have been identified. It appears that some of the participating brigades in fact have a Kurdish majority but they are IA brigades though and they answer to the defense ministry, not the Peshmerga organization.

The Peshmerga Minister of Kurdistan made this explanation to Al-Mada (same link as above):

"The news reports show some confusion, the media considers all Kurdish troops as Peshmerga while in fact there are three brigades; one in each of Duhok, Sulaymaniya and Erbil that are part of the IA and they receive orders from the Iraqi defense ministry." Sheikh Mustafa denied there would be any role for the Peshmerga in Baghdad's operations.

The other point of controversy, and the more important one indeed is the fear from having the operation turn into a selective operation that targets one sect and ignores the other. I think that although this might possibly be the case but those who are marketing this idea are the extremists in the first place; the ones who see a serious threat for them in this operation.
For example, the association of Muslim scholars which was yesterday calling the former army officers to lead a coup said the new operation would target Sunnis only. This sounds like a replay of a broken record that al-Qaeda always uses to deepen the sectarian tension, terrify, and win the sympathy of nonviolent Sunnis who still believe the political process has a chance. The statement came like this:

Reuters reported that a website carried a call from the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq to his followers to be prepared to confront the new American-backed security plan of Baghdad, calling the plan an Iranian conspiracy to strike the Sunni people.
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the leader of the so called the Islamic Emirate in Iraq sent an order to all armed groups to be ready to confront what he called Iranian gangs preparing to launch an offensive on Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods using the cover of the security plan to "annihilate Sunni Muslims and destroy their mosques"

Most people here expect the major operations to begin by Friday or early next week at maximum and actually it looks like nothing is going to stop the government from doing it.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

A new crackdown is about to begin...

A new security plan has been made and action is on the way to Baghdad's streets.
Our experiences with the various previous plans weren't exactly good and results were almost always below expectations for several reasons including the bad guys working around plans, incompetence of the Iraqi security element and in the last case political orders and one of the most recent examples to such interference among many others was when Maliki ordered the removal of barricades from around Sadr city.

This time it looks like the plan will perhaps be somewhat different, at least in its political side because there's a need and an apparent will to avoid the mistakes that surrounded previous plans as can be told from Maliki's words yesterday. He sent, or resent, a few tough-worded messages including:

-Political factions will not interfere with the implementation of the plan
-ALL outlaw groups bearing arms will be dealt with in the same manner
-Protecting the populace is the job of the official armed forces and not the job of militias

I think the most important point is the first one which indicates that there had been interferences in the execution of previous plans and such interferences were not good for the results of the plans.
Actually we had seen some parties over the past few weeks offer their "advice" to Maliki regarding the shape of the plan but Maliki was firm in refusing these offers. I don't know whether that included Maliki's party as well; although the Dawa has no militia but they are close to Sadr who might put pressure on Maliki to prevent the crackdown from reaching his militia.

The operation in its expected mass isn't launched yet but the situation on the streets indicates it's imminent. There was heavy deployment of troops this early morning and there were joint patrols and checkpoint at all important streets and squares but many patrols withdrew later in the afternoon as if they were checking the pulse of the streets.

There were some limited yet significant operations yesterday. The news here says that 30 militants were killed by the army in Haifa Street, one of the strongholds of insurgents in Baghdad, in fact I heard from one of the families that chose to leave the area for a while that they saw what they thought to be "Afghanis" in the neighborhood from the way they dress and their hair which might mean they are preparing for a confrontation.

Baghdadis have nothing but hope that someday peace and stability be restored to their city. Their expectations may be low but they still hope to see some progress when this operation is completed.

This plan will be the real test that will decide the future of Maliki and his cabinet and failure will not only reflect on the security situation but also on the future of the current government which is losing public support.
This test will stand as a chance for the government to reverse the deterioration in Baghdad and offer something worth of appreciation and respect.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Secret? What secret!?

Where's the secret in this!?

I mean really, with some good common sense and some humble analysis this would have never been a secret nor would it have taken years to figure out.

I think this stands as one example of the state information people in the west have about the geopolitics of the middle east. I can feel that ethnic and sectarian lines are perceived to be concrete lines that no one in the middle east would think of crossing to achieve goals.

Syria for example was on Iran's side during the eight year war with Iraq despite the fact that both Syria and Iraq were ruled by the Ba'ath party and both were bragging about being the beacons and defenders of the Arab nationalism.
The relationships between dictators and terror groups are complex and not the same as one can expect from normal states, take a look at Qaddafi who had also stood with Iran against Saddam, he is now building a statue to commemorate the dictator who used to call Qaddafi Qirdafi (means Monkey-Dafi)!

The same Ba'ath regime in Syria is now providing safe havens, financial and logistical support to the remnants of the same Iraqi Ba'thists they stood against during Iraq's war with Iran.
This is no secret and evidence of such support were visible since as early as summer of 2003.

The alliance between Iran and Syria is so deep that they will utilize anything they can get their hands on to dominate the middle east and defeating America in Iraq is the key to that.

Let's look at some of those "secrets"...

Iran is helping Shia militias = Direct strong support
Syria is helping Sunni militants and Ba'athists = Direct strong support
IRGC supports small and particular groups of Sunni extremists = Direct limited yet effective support
Iran is helping Syria and Hezbollah = Direct strong support
Syria is helping Hezbollah =Direct strong support
Hezbollah is helping the Mehdi Army = Direct limited yet effective support

Those two countries have focused their efforts on one mutual goal for now which is again defeating America in Iraq in order to go ahead with more future steps to dominate the region and they will support anyone and receive support from anyone in this quest, even some former or potential enemies.

What concerns me here is that if it continues to take us this long to identify our enemies and figure out their ways and the shape of their networks we will be always allowing them to be a few steps ahead of us.
While America is facing difficulties in gathering intelligence but what concerns me more is that even what's being gathered is not being processed, interpreted and utilized in the right manner or mace.

This war is different from conventional wars; networks of terror and their relationships with their supporting regimes and the manner in which they work are complex and different than those of conventional enemies and this situation necessitates that our ways evolve and adjust accordingly.

In a war like this, one must be prepared for anything…if the enemy used civilian aircrafts to carry out massacres, it should not be a surprise to see Shia and Sunni extremists join efforts. We must not let small details distract us from seeing the bigger image.

Monday, January 01, 2007

The United Alliance at a Crossroads.

For some time now we're seeing renewed speculations about the state of unity of the Shia alliance that we can almost see a possible radical change in its structure on the horizon.
It looks like the crack that resulted from ousting Jafari and choosing a replacement after the last elections is still haunting the alliance and its future. The question now is, is this likely to happen again and will the crack deepen after the failure of the government-with the UIA being its bigger component-in providing services and containing the political crisis?

To understand the nature of this bloc we must not forget the underlying historical and ideological factors from which the idea of a unified Shia alliance had arisen.
Centuries of injustice and fear from extinction that reach the level of paranoia affect the thoughts and attitude of its poles; this combined with constant attacks from Salafi/Wahabi extremists and threats posed by statements from regional Sunni powers who are concerned about a rising Shia power in Iraq backed from Iran, all of this keeps pushing the UIA to adhere more to its unity. A unity that is of existential value to the leaders of the alliance; it means much more than a mere political asset.

Reaching the top of the political pyramid in Iraq was a significant achievement for the UIA but the aftermath of this brought with it the real challenge. The UIA seemed weaker than it was before elections and found itself facing a reality that exceeds the Shiasm of the bloc; the UIA had to lead a country of various components and to deal with regional and international situations that impose their own variety of terms and demands.
This has made sticking to the unity of the bloc an impractical idea that can't be salvaged by historical or ideological pretexts. In other words, the big mass of the bloc turned into a burden because it's near impossible for all of its factions to agree on a common policy that satisfies their various goals.

If we look at the political blocs we can say that the UIA now is not as strong as the Kurdish bloc but also not as fragile as the Sunni component. The latter being the most susceptible to disintegration.
Some inside the UIA discovered this early and predicted its impact on the political future of the Shia bloc but still, walking away isn't easy at all especially when the hierarchy in Najaf stresses that, in order to preserve the Shia identity, the unity of the alliance is a redline that politicians must not cross—the UIA became a divine entity and not just a political body and this combination is critical.

When signals came that there are ideas to reshape the political map by forming a 'front of moderates' the members of the alliance who needed the bloc to be in the offices they occupy today felt the danger. They all know that alone they wouldn't get as much votes as if within the UIA, especially the Sadrists and the Dawa; neither can get the same number of seats if enters elections alone. And here the Dawa has another weakness that it has no significant armed wing and they are also less politically powerful than the SCIRI, their traditional rival.
They (the Dawa) realize they won't be the winners from forming the new front and they also know an alliance with the Sadrists won't be fruitful either should the latter get sidelined or struck.

The Dawa is now hesitant between joining the new front which they won't gain much from, and staying away which will mean a loss. That's why it was mostly Dawa members who panicked and rushed to Sistani to explain the nature of the threat which was described to him as a recipe for breaking up the UIA rather than a new phase in political building…once again, the politician seeks shelter in the religious symbol at times of distress.

Sistani didn't hesitate and stood once more on the side of history and faith rather than the present and the state. This is a signal that will be in my opinion of negative impact on the reputation of the Ayatollah who has so far been considered relatively impartial but this time he was very far from being impartial and this will make those who used to trust him as a 'safety valve' for Iraq change their mind—the Ayatollah is now a figure in the Shia equation, not a national symbol. He has simply declared himself a safety valve for the UIA.

The parties afraid from a change did not only warn the Ayatollah about the serious situation but even put in his mouth the "best way" to solve the problem which is convincing the Sadrists to abandon their destructive stance that's been threatening the unity of the alliance.
Although the Sadrists said they would think about it and that they would rejoin the political process (on conditions) the facts on the ground and the constant irresponsible atrocities committed by their gangs makes it very difficult to trust any words they give.

I think the targeting of Aadil Abdul Mahdi in Karrada, the stronghold of the SCIRI shows the level of Shia infighting. This along with the constant challenging to the authorities, mass kidnappings and the attempts to take over Shia cities in the south; this bloody conflict that reached the doorsteps of the UIA leaders is making the moderates in the UIA less interested in preserving the alliance in its old form.

Others will try everything to keep the alliance united and so will Sistani but they will be facing the realism of the others. Even Sistani himself knows that the change is supported by other senior clerics in Najaf which means his word will be faced by opposition from other Ayatollahs who don’t agree with him and who also endorse members and parties within the same alliance.

Meanwhile Maliki and his party have not chosen their way yet and Maliki is torn between two choices; he and his party would like the situation to remain unchanged and at the same time hope the Sadrists come back to reason, but I think every day that passes is making him more willing to consider joining the moving train rather than missing it. Sadr's stiffness will fix Maliki on this track.

It will take some time and lots of talks for the new formation to emerge, and overriding Sistani's interference won't be an easy task at all because who used his influence to win in the first place can't just abandon him like that. a strong and good excuse will be needed to get over it.

In any case I can only see a change coming, the present suggests this, not the past. And perhaps the biggest event that I expect to come after the new front is formed would be calling for holding early general elections towards the end of 2007, and then the political map of Iraq will be different.