Tuesday, September 1, 2009. Chaos and violence continue, huge leap in the monthly death toll as reported by Iraqi ministries, Black Wednesday gets serious TV attention (from Qatar), Amnesty International reports over 1,000 Iraqis are on death row, an Iraq War veteran may have taken his own life (and possibly the life of his wife as well) while another fights for the right to see her daughter, and more.
Jasim Al-Azzawi declared at the opening of Friday's Inside Iraq (video links), "The powerful bombs that rocked Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in the last few weeks have shattered the myth of improved security." BBC reports that, according to Iraqi ministry figures, August saw the most civilian deaths in the last 13 months. AFP explains, "Statistics compiled by the defence, interior and health ministries showed that 456 people -- 393 civilians, 48 police and 15 Iraqi soldiers -- were killed, the highest toll since July last year when 465 died in unrest." Those figures are incorrect -- not a surprise. But they're incorrect just in terms of deaths reported by media outlets in August. As noted yesterday, there were 509 reported deaths and 1919 reported injured. A number from the second category would be expected to slide from the wounded into the death column. (True of any victims of violence in any country.) Ned Parker and Raheem Salman (Los Angeles Times) cover the release of the ministry figures here. Today Steven Lee Myers (New York Times) lists the death toll for Black Wednesday as 132. I don't doubt that's possible, but I haven't seen that reported elsewhere. The day after, the death toll had risen from 95 to 101. Again, wounded frequently do not recover. That's 31 more deaths than we've included in the count. If Myers is correct, that would mean at least 540 deaths were reported in August. Tim Cocks and Philippa Fletcher (Reuters) observe that the ministry's number is also higher than August 2008 which was 382. As Jasim Al-Azzawi noted August bombings shattered the myth of improved security.
"In the aftermath of the horrific explosions," Jasim Al-Azzawi declared on Inside Iraq, "fingers of responsibility were directed not only at al Qaeda and the Ba'ath Party but have also included the political differences among the ruling coalition." His guests on Friday were Constitutional Movement of Iraq's Al-Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, the Center for a New American Security's John Nagl and Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
Jasim Al-Azzawi: Mr. Zebari let me start with you. Immediately after Black Wednesday, several statements were made. The most important perhaps was made by you when you said "The worst is yet to come." What did you mean by that?
Hoshyar Zebari: Yes, thank you Jasim. It's good to be on your program again. And as you said actually, Wednesday the 19th of August was a sad day in Iraq and I think it was a turning point. The attack was at the heart of the government, at the heart of the Iraqi state and the number of casualties were enormous. And because really that the terrorists managed to come this far we believe that still they are preparing for more and more attacks because still there goal is to bring this government down, to paralyze the government, to create as much chaos as possible and also we have to be mindful of the foreign intervention, of the regional interventions and efforts and attempts to destabilize the situation in Iraq. Some still believe in living in the past, they believe the situation in Iraq is reversible to pre-2003. They are dreaming actually. This will not happen. The Iraqi people as these attacks demonstrated are unified, united behind the government, behind their new political regime.
Jasim Al-Azzawi: Let me in that case, Mr. Zebari, let me engage Mr. Al-Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein. On the last sentence Mr. Zebari said and that is "This government is united," the other statement that I was alluding was the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, when he said immediately, I believe the day after that explosion, he said, "The political differences is causing this." He said "The political differences is causing this." Did he put his finger on the right diagnosis, Shairf Ali bin al-Hussein?
Al-Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein: Well clearly the perception in Iraqi public opinion is that the reason, the reason for these explosions is rivalry between the different political parties. And they are using terrorist organizations to settle scores. Whether this is true or not, time will only tell. But I think it will have repercussions on the government parties for the main reason is that the Maliki government or the premiership of Maliki's main achievement is bringing security to the country. Clearly this is being severely undermined. Also there is the accusation as in -- as in your trailer [footage of Iraqis speaking about the bombings], it said that many believe that ISCI [Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq] was responsible. I think, whether this is true or not, perception is everything in politics and that the Iraqi man in the street and woman in the street believes that the reason for these explosions is political rivalry between government factions as opposed to a terrorist objective of bringing down the government and re-establishing the old regime.
Jasim Al-Azzawi: Let me bring in John Nagl who not only served in Iraq for awhile but he's also the president of the New American -- the Center for New American Century. You write about Iraq. Looking at the two suspects -- and that is the Ba'ath Party residing Syria as the Iraqi government is demanding the extradition of two senior officers of that defunct party as well as what the chief of the Iraqi intelligence, military intelligence, Mr. [Mohammed Abdullah al-] Shehwani said. He says he firmly believes that it is Iran, it's al Qaeda trained Iran. What is your take on the two culprits?
John Nagl: I'm not in a good position from Washington [DC] to say which of those two culprits conducted the attacks on Black Wednesday or if, in fact, it was a combination, or it could have been any number of insurgent groups dedicated to achieving political objectives through the use of violence against innocent people and in particularly through the use of extraordinarily aggressive and large attacks such as those that occurred on Black Wednesday. What I am most concerned about frankly is I don't think this is, uh, the beginning of something bigger. This strikes me as-as a reaction to some-some vulnerability, some openings that were actually created by the Iraqi government. And I well understand the desire of the Iraqis to return to normalcy but the insurgency is not yet over and it is not yet time to dismantle all of the protections that have been erected over the past few years.
Jasim Al-Azzawi: Exactly. That's what Mr. Zebari said immediately after the explosion. Mr. Zebari said "The worst is yet to come. We have to stop painting rosy pictures about improved security and we have to brace ourself for what is coming next." Exactly what is coming next, Mr. Zebari?
Hoshyar Zebari: I don't have the crystal ball, you see, to read the future. But this is political analysis. I said in my earlier remark, Jasim, that there are a number of countries and governments around us who believe that the situation in Iraq is reversible to pre-2003. And this attacks were the signal you see to-to bring down the government, to attack the heart of the government, to create as much chaos and devastation as possible. So if they still believe in that theory -- that the situation is reversible -- you would expect some even worse attacks actually to be perpetrated by these terrorist groups inside Iraq that come from outside --
Jasim Al-Azzawi: Being the consummate politician that you are, Mr. Zebari, let me see if I can ferret out the information out of you. There were a few statements made. One of them by a senior adviser to the prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, he said, "Saudi Arabia is spending millions of dollars in order to destabilize Iraq." That is one accusation, one neighboring country. And now it is no secret Iraq is asking for these two senior Iraqi Ba'athist to come back and that is, in one way or another, blaming Syria for it. Am I right in assuming that Iraq is thinking that Saudi Arabia and Syria is behind this?
Hoshyar Zebari: No, no, Jasim. I mean few followed the statements of the Iraqi politicians and ministers and parliamentarians. Everyb -- everyone would accuse the country that fits his own political position or his flavor. There are those who accuse Iran, there are those who accuse Saudi Arabia, Syria, others and so on. Really we are talking here about intelligence, about evidence. Who was behind this Black Wednesday attacks? I said from day one, from the next day almost, after seeing the footage and the videos from our closed-circuit cameras about the truck that this is an archetypal attack of al Qaeda. It was well organized, executional, those were suicide bombers and the procedures of al Qaeda.
Jasim Al-Azzawi: Are you telling me that you disagree with the Iraqi government's assessment?
Hoshyar Zebari: You-you are putting words in my mouth, Jasim. Now let me finish. This is the first part. But this would not have happened without foreign assistance. I mean this was not the work -- these attacks -- of amateur al Qaeda or young people who would get all this material from the internet and so on. I think this was a very well organized attack. And what we have said -- we have not accused even Syria. In fact, we said this was organized and commanded by two leading Iraqi Ba'ath members who live in Syria. And there is a background to these two cases. We have repeatedly requested them and even there is an arrest warrant by Interpol. They have been served red notice. So even when the prime minister was in Damascus recently, he did raise this issue but he didn't get any response. So here we want these two people. We believe they are responsible. There's evidence to support that. There is a background. There is a history. It is true that the Syrian told us and my colleague the Foreign Minister that even when Iraqi opposition leaders were in Damascus in the past during Saddam, we didn't hand over anyone. That's true. And we appreciate that. But the situation is different. Saddam's regime was against Syria, against the Iraqi people, against the Iraqi democratic position. We are friend to Syria. The situation is different here.
Jasim Al-Azzawi: We will find out whether the Syrians, Mr. Zebari, will hand these two people. But I am puzzled, I don't know about you, Mr. Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, when the man responsible for intelligence, Mohammed Abdullah al-Shehwani, thinks it is Iran and yet another branch of the Iraqi government says Syria, you must be lost as much as I am.
Al-Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein: Well, I-I think it's most likely that in the current upsurge in violence that there are probably many players involved and many interests that are intersecting. So one has to be clear that maybe the perpetrators -- the suicide bombers, the people on the ground -- have their own objectives, have their own purposes for doing this. But as Foreign Minister said, it would be very unlikely that this operation wasn't supported from outside and very likely from a foreign intelligence service. And that foreign intelligence service doesn't necessarily share the same ideology as the people that the suicide bombers. I think there is a-a, Iraq is now -- it's open season in Iraq for all regional countries to get involved. And each has their own agenda. So that's why it becomes very difficult to clarify who is doing what. What is clear is that there is a coming -- a campaign to destabilize the government and to undermine the security achievements which, in fact, weren't very great. I think the government and the Americans role in improving security was very limited. There is -- It was because mainly because of the rise of the Sahwa Awakening and the behavior of the al Qaede inside Iraq. When Mr. Shewani resigned in disgust at the government position, he clearly had intelligence that showed who was behind these campaigns and his conscience couldn't keep him in office watching this going on. So what we have to be careful about is-is to believe that only one group or one ideology or one faction benefits from this upsurge in violence.
Jasim Al-Azzawi: Yes.
Al-Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein: And, unfortunately, I think this will continue.
We'll stop there and hopefully note another broadcast later in the week. Inside Iraq begins airing on Al Jazeera each Friday (repeating Saturday, Sunday and Monday) and also streams online. The discussion (which goes past the above excerpt) took place Friday on Al Jazeera. Not in the US. US broadcast television is not interested in Iraq -- and devote the bulk of their time to Ghoul Watch. As they make abundantly clear every day. Hannah Allam (McClatchy Newspapers) reports Hoshyar Zebari stated yesterday if Syria doesn't hand over the two men Iraq wants their actions would be considered "unfriendly" ("Our accusation is directed toward the people in the Syrian territories who are involved in the explosions and we consider the Syrian stance of hosting them as unfriendly." Allam also quotes Bashar al Assad, Syria's president, stating, "When Syria is accused of killing Iraqis at a time it's hosting around 1.2 million Iraqis . . . the least that can be said about this accusations is that it's immoral."
While Hoshyar Zebari may think it's fine and dandy for countries to turn people over to Iraq (without meeting extradition requirements), others would disagree and Iraq's 'justice' system remains a joke. Amnesty International continues its campaign to eliminate the death penalty worldwide. Today they note that over 1,000 people are on death row in Iraq with 150 of those having "exhausted all means of appeal or clemency and are at immediate risk of death. The majority of the condemned (some 750, including 12 women) are held by the Ministry of Justice, while serveral hundred are detained by the Interior Ministry. At least seven facing execution are held by the US military at Camp Cropper in Baghdad. Ten female death row prisoners have recently been transferred to the al-Kadhimiya Prison in Baghdad, which suggests that their executions may be imminent. One of these, 27-year-old Samar Sa'ad Abdullah, facing execution for mudred, has alleged that she was tortured into making a false confession, including with electric shocks and beatings with a cable. She reported received a trial lasting less than two days, where one of her lawyers was ordered out of the court by the trial judge. Amnesty has repeatedly expressed its concerns about trials conducted by criminal courts in Iraq, whose procedures fall short of international standards for fair trials."
CNN (link has text and video) spoke with Noor al-Deen Bahaa al-Deen, Iraq's Minister of Justice, about the report: "For us, there is no difference between men and women who commit crimes. A person who commits a crime should be punished. In general, this can't happen now or in a year or two, but I hope in the future, the death penalty would be abolished, because I am personally in favor of life sentences rather than the death penalty. [. . .] Even if I put in a request, this is a worthless request, because there is a law. As for abolishing the death sentence and replacing it with life imprisonment, that is an amendment of the law, and that has to happen through parliament. And parliament as the representative of the people decides if the punishment changes or doesn't." From CNN's video report:
Naamua Delaney: Six years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq has one of the highest rates of execution in the world. That is according to Amnesty International which just released a report that 1,000 Iraqis are currently on death row, about a dozen of them women. Arwa Damon met one woman who could be executed soon despite her claims of innocence.Arwa Damon joins us now from Baghdad. Hello, Arwa.
Arwa Damon: Hi, Naamua. And what is especially disturbing about that Amnesty International report is it says that many of the death sentences that were handed down followed court proceedings that did not meet international standards. Additionally many of the alleged confessions were extracted under duress. This is something that we have heard countless times from a number of different organizations over the last few years. Samar Sa'ad Abdullah's case is one which tragically embodies all the shortcomings of the Iraqi judicial system. We first met Samar Sa'ad Abdullah in the spring of 2007 at the al-Kadhimiya women's prison in Baghdad. She'd already been on death row for two years and she was terrified.
Samar Sa'ad Abdullah: Give me life in prison. Even 20 years. I don't care. Anything but this.
Arwa Damon: Samar was sentenced to death by hanging for being an accessory to the murder of three members of her uncle's family. She maintains her innocence and there are disturbing questions about her conviction. But now Samar is in a place that brings death a step closer. On the other side of this door is the corridor that leads to the cells here at Baghdad's maximum security facility. There are more than 500 prisoners who have been brought here waiting to be executed. We are not allowed to film anything outside of this room. And this is where we meet Samar again. This time we're not allowed to film her face. She looks frail, pale, her eyes bloodshot.
Samar Sa'ad Abdullah: (Crying) My life is meaningless. I can't think about anything else.
Arwa Damon: Once her life had meaning and joy. She had a financee, Saif.
Samar Sa'ad Abdullah: I was so happy before when he asked for my hand in marriage.
Arwa Damon: But she says one day Saif took her to her wealthy uncle's house. He shot three members of her family, including her cousin. They'd grown up like sisters. And then she says Saif turned the gun on her.
Samar Sa'ad Abdullah: There was nothing that made me suspect that this was a guy who would kill. I still remember him pulling the gun on me and saying take me to your uncle's room. I am in prison and he is outside wandering in the street -- happy. And I am in prison.
Arwa Damon: Her parents swear she's innocent. They say the Iraqi police picked her up the next day after Saif dumped her in front of their house and disappeared. "We keep trying to tell her everything is going to be okay and not be afraid," Samar's mother sobs. At her trial, Samar said that she'd been tortured by police into confessing that she went to her uncle's house to steal.
Samar Sa'ad Abdullah: They kept beating me. Finally they made me sign a blank paper, they filled it out afterwards.
Arwa Damon: Under Iraqi law, the courts should have investigated her claim that she confessed under torture but the judges disregarded that. Human rights groups say Samar's case is one of many where justice has failed. In a report about Iraq's Central Criminal Court which tried Samar, Human Rights Watch said, "It is an institution that is seriously failing to meet international standards of due process and fair trials. Abuse in detention typically with the aim of extracting confessions appears common." Local organizations welcome the support
OWFI's Yanar Mohammed: As a human rights organization in Iraq, we find out that we need some backup from abroad to put pressure on our government to -- as a first step to stop the executions of these women who -- some of whom are innocent and we also need to see a new Iraq where execution is not a right for the state anymore..
OK, so 1,000 is a lot of people and yet that's how many are on death row in Iraq right now. It's a staggeringly large number and it's sort of taken the world by surprise. It's just not what people think of when they picture Iraq. Sectarian violence and horrible bombings, yes; courts sentencing people to death on a weekly basis, no.
It's people like Samar Sa'ad 'Abdullah who we're talking about. She's a 27-year-old woman who's been found guilty of murder but only, she says, after she was viciously tortured (electric shocks, beatings with a cable) into making a false confession. If past examples are anything to go by, being beaten into making a phoney confession is common in Iraq, and meanwhile Samar's trial lasted a grand total of one and a bit days and one of her lawyers was even ordered out of the court by the trial judge.
So Samar is now living (if that's the right word) in the shadow of the hangman, one of at least a dozen women on death row in Iraq and one of about 150 who've exhausted their appeals and are perilously close to execution. (Take action here, calling on the Iraqi authorities to halt Samar's execution and all others, and for a death penalty moratorium to be implemented in Iraq).
Staying with numbers, a few years back we did some number crunching at Amnesty and worked out that there were about 20,000 people on death row in the world, with the largest number in Pakistan (about 7,000). The USA has about 3,500. The country that executes the most -- China, which kills thousands every year -- has an unknown number (massive secrecy) but may not have so many actually facing execution for the simple -- and very grim -- reason that killings are carried out quickly. So, from a figure of zero back in 2004 (rather ironically the American-led interim Iraqi government suspended Iraq's death penalty after Saddam's fall), Iraq five years later has one of world's biggest death rows and one of the planet's highest execution rates.
Turning to some of today's reported violence . . .
Laith Hammoudi (McClatchy Newspapers) reports a Baghdad sticky bombing wounded two people, a Mosul roadside bombing injured two Iraqi service members,
Laith Hammoudi (McClatchy Newspapers) reports 1 Iraqi army major shot dead in Mosul today and an attack on a Mosul mosque in which 2 people were shot dead and a third was injured.
OAIF's Yanar Mohammed was interviewed in the CNN segment on Iraq's death row and she is also cited in the current edition of Ms. magazine. From Anna Badken's "Baghdad Underground:"
On a bullet-scarred side street in Baghdad's downtown, where U.S. Marines famously helped tear down the statue of Saddam Hussein in April of 2003, an inconspicuous entryway tucked between a steel-shuttered shop and a rickety candy stall leads to a flight of steep concrete stairs. Rusted water pipes run precariously over and across the poorly lit top step, tripping first-time visitors. The second-floor landing bottlenecks into a dark, empty hallway. Women in black abayas hurry across the buckled floor tiles in silence and quickly disappear through an unmarked plywood door on the right.
The decrepit two-bedroom apartment behind this unassuming portal is an essential junction of what activists in Iraq and their U.S. supporters call the Underground Railroad. This Railroad is a small, clandestine network of several shelters, located mostly in Baghdad, for the countless but commonly overlooked victims of the war in Iraq: women who have been raped, battered or forced into prostitution, or women who, accused of bringing dishonor to their families by having been abused, have been rejected or even threatened with death by their relatives.
In a country ravaged by war and fractured along sectarian lines, these shelters serve women who have nowhere else to turn for help. Operated despite recurring threats and lack of government support by a team of 35 Iraqi activists who call themselves the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), the shelters offer a glint of hope for civil society.
The Underground Railroad was founded in 2004 by Baghdad-born architect-turned-feminist-organizer Yanar Mohammed, head of OWFI, along with MADRE, an international women's rights group based in New York. It provides the only sanctuaries for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence outside the quasi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, where the local government and NGOs operate several similar shelters. In addition to providing temporary asylum, it helps women resettle in places where their abusers cannot find them easily. Since its inception, says MADRE Policy and Communications Director Yifat Susskind, the Railroad has helped thousands of women. Several have been transferred to Turkey, at least two now live in the U.S., but most of the rescued women have remained in Iraq.
In other news, this morning BBC Radio's Worldwide Service featured a report on the draft law in Iraq for a smoking ban in public places that would make Iraq the first Arab country to have such a ban and it's met with some resistance including the belief that the government is focusing on a minor issue when "fundamentals like electricity and jobs are scarce". Andrew North travels around Baghdad speaking to people and ends up at "cafe by the banks of the river Tigris" where a man tells him that the government should be focused on "bombs, terrorists. Not a smart thing [the ban], not a smart thing. This [smoking] is a pleasure." Another man declares of smoking, "It's really important, if it weren't for smoking, Iraqis would be dead right now. Cigarettes might kill one or two people but car bombs kill hundreds." Andrew North notes there may be resistance in Parliament where a "majority of members are thought to smoke." A medical study is mentioned in the report -- an alleged medical study. When Iraq carries off a census, we'll pretend Nouri's regime can carry out a medical study.
Meanwhile a political party officially has a new leader. As noted in yesterday's snapshot, Sunday Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's will was read at his funeral and he left the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (Shi'ite political party) to his son Ammar Hakim. In addition, party elders nominated him for the post on Monday with the board to vote today. In this morning's New York Times, Steven Lee Myers states, "His father, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who died of cancer in Tehran last week, provided for the succession in his will, heading off any potential leadership challenges. The party's television network announced the nomination, and a spokesman said it would be ratified by the party's leadership on Tuesday." Suadad al-Salhy, Aseel Kami, Michael Christie and Philippa Fletcher (Reuters) report the party has declared Ammar al-Hakim has been appointed following a vote and they state that is has allowed the party "to avoid a power struggle, at least in public." They quote Ammar al-Hakim stating, "We will work hard to make ISCI achieve a distinguished position in the political process in Iraq with the help of all other political powers. We will work together to achieve the highest levels of cooperation and harmony among the leadership of ISCI to succeed in this major task."
Turning to the US and Iraq War veteran may have taken his own life and possibly the life of his wife this weekend.
"They gave me a gun" he said
"They gave me a mission
For the power and the glory --
Propaganda -- piss on 'em
There's a war zone inside me --
I can feel things exploding --
I can't even hear the f**king music playing
For the beat of -- the beat of black wings."
[. . .]
"They want you -- they need you --
They train you to kill --
To be a pin on some map --
Some vicarious thrill --
The old hate the young
That's the whole heartless thing
The old pick the wars
We die in 'em
To the beat of -- the beat of black wings"-- "The Beat of Black Wings," words and music by Joni Mitchell, first appears on her Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm.
Meanwhile husband and wife Chad Olson and Jessica Armstrong were found dead on Saturday. Brenda Starkey (Omak Chronicle) explains, "The shooting happened at Olson's parents' house. Olson's brother, who lives in a separate residence on the property, suspected something was amiss and discovered the doors to the home were barricaded from the inside, so he called authorities, [Ferry County Coroner Mike] Sandona said." KXLY reports that neighbor Lester "Godfrey says Chad served two tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps and when he came back nearly five months ago he was struggling with what Lester calls demons." The station also adds that Olson reported suffered from PTSD and had sought out help for that at the Spokane VA Hospital. The Spokesman-Review reports:
Olson recently was charged with second-degree burglary, third-degree malicious mischief and third-degree theft after allegedly stealing a case of whiskey June 25 from the state liquor store in Republic, Sandona told the Chronicle. He and two other men were arraigned on those charges July 10 and a juvenile was arraigned July 24.
Lester Godfrey, a neighbor of the Olsons and chaplain for the local American Legion, said that Chad Olson came from a solid, well-respected family and had a normal small-town childhood.
"I've watched them grow up," he said of the three boys.
"He was very well-liked," Godfrey said. "The whole family is very well-liked."
He described Olson as strong, good-looking and charismatic. But he was apparently troubled with emotional problems caused by the violence he witnessed in Iraq, and had been drinking alcohol recently, Godfrey said.
In other stateside Iraq War veterans news, David Kocieniewski (New York Times) reported in today's paper on Iraq War veteran Leydi Mendoza who is being refused her custodial rights to see and visit her daughter Elizabeth by the child father Daniel Llares who claims that "more than a few hours" of a visit disrupts Elizabeth's schedule. Kocieniewski explains:
Custody disputes involving returning members of the service have long been an unpleasant fact of military life, but the increasing number of women involved in combat overseas has brought new wrinkles. The Pentagon does not keep statistics on such custody disputes, but military family counselors said they knew of at least five recent situations around the country like the struggle over Elizabeth, in which a mother who served overseas is fighting for more access to her child. Some advocates say an unspoken bias against mothers who leave their young children has heightened both legal barriers and social stigma when these women try to resume their role as active parents.
In an update, Kocienewski reports that a Family Court in New Jersey today granted Leydi Mendoza "daily visitation and weekly sleepovers with" 2-year-old Elizabeth.
the new york times
steven lee myers
start: 0000-00-00 end: 0000-00-00