Friday, February 26, 2010

Attacks on press freedoms and the elections

Before the U.S.-led invasion, billed as the liberation of Iraqis, newspaper journalist Nadjha Khadum was as close to a trailblazer in her field as the era permitted.
During the 1980s war between Iraq and Iran, she was embedded with the Iraqi army and filed dispatches from the front lines. Her 1991 exposé of corruption at the Iraqi tax agency led to a minister's dismissal.
Her latest venture -- launching an independent online news site -- offers a snapshot of the present travails of Iraqis who yearned for basic freedoms during years of dictatorship. As Operation Iraqi Freedom draws to a close, Khadum is finding that the brand of freedom the United States ushered in is at best tenuous, at worst a temporary illusion.

That is the opening to Ernesto Londono's "Iraqi journalist sees threats to press freedom" (Washington Post) which is an important story and the one filed from Iraq to read today if you only have time to read one. Londono reports on the climate to the press which became more deadly following the start of the Iraq War and which has become more restrictive with each year of the occupation. New rules are already having an effect (my editorial comment, not Londono's story). It's not just that the US outlets have cut back on their staffs in Iraq (which was never that large to begin with, it should be noted), but it's also these new rules which prevent the kind of coverage you might expect on the elections. Might expect?

Supposedly this elections (voting starts March 5th and ends the 7th) are monumental. The press and the US administration has invested all this meaning in them which, alone, would mean the campaigning would be covered. When you add in that the increase in violence as well as the bannings give it an increased 'timely' quality and news value (conflict is always news), you should expect to read tons of coverage on the campaigning. That's not happening. And it's in part because Nouri's insisting that those covering the elections register with the government. Most outlets rely on Iraqi journalists to be stringers and eyes and ears as well as to be the co- or sole reporter on news reports but many of the Iraqis cannot register as journalists due to threats that might follow as a result of their occupation being known. This has seriously curtailed a great deal of coverage news consumers would otherwise be receiving.

Voting will take place in 16 other countries besides Iraq due to Iraq's large refugee population. Bassel Oudat (Al-Ahram Weekly) reports from Damascus:

Although elections in Iraq will be held soon, so far there has been no real campaigning among Iraqis living in Syria and certainly nothing when compared to the electioneering currently taking place in Iraq itself. The general sense among Iraqi refugees living in Syria is that the political manifestos and candidates in this election are not trustworthy.
The overall electoral atmosphere among the refugees is different from that back home in Iraq itself. Many had expected changes in the electoral process, but their hopes have been dashed. Now, the refugees believe that the forthcoming Iraqi elections may well turn out to be a farce.
Iraqi refugees in Syria have been shocked by the rhetoric accompanying the election law, passed some weeks ago, which allocates seats for refugees living outside Iraq. The passage of this law came hot on the heels of the Iraqi government officially rejecting UN statistics on the number of Iraqi refugees living outside the country, unilaterally estimating the number of refugees in Syria at a meagre 200,000.

Sami Moubayed (Asia Times) offers some details on those vying for office:

Two of the candidates running for parliament, for example, are former football (soccer) champions Karim Saddam and Ahmad Radi, who mesmerized Iraqis in the 1980s with their football skills. They are now challenging each other once again, this time not for goals and trophies, but for a parliamentary seat in Baghdad.
In Karbala, a massive turnout of poor people showed up at a rally for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, breaking through security to present him with petitions, knowing that no time is better for ordinary Iraqis to reach out directly to top officials - and have all of their requests answered immediately.
Also last week, during a live television debate between Abbas al-Bayati, a senior member of the prime minister's coalition, and Sabah al-Saidi, a Maliki opponent, yet another surprise took place. Just as the program was coming to an end, Saidi took out a handgun - sending shivers down the spine of all those present at the studio - saying he bought it at one of the old markets of Baghdad for US$3,000.

Candidates are running to become one of the 325 members of Parliament. The Parliament elects the Prime Minister. Technically, the current Parliament and Prime Minister (Nouri) aren't 'in office' -- their terms have expired. Elections were supposed to take place in December and then moved back to January and now March. In Iraq, the process is such that the votes will not be counted for several days or weeks. After the vote tallies are released, the Parliament will be known. However, it could be (could be) weeks before a prime minister is named. The naming could take place quickly. If, for example, State of Law holds a large number of seats and enters into political alliance with other major blocs, Nouri could be re-named prime minister in a matter of days. How likely is that? Well, when you run off all your competition, you make it a lot easier. But naming any prime minister may take much longer. There are new factions and parties and the creation of those may have led to grudges that could be hard to put aside. December 15, 2005, the last Parliamentary elections were held (for only 275 seats back then). The election results were not 'official' until January 20, 2006. (They still weren't certified at that point.) And Nouri, who was not the first choice, was not named as prime minister until April 22, 2006.

Something similar may take place this time around. If it took as long as last time (which most observers -- including at the UN -- do not expect), it would be July before a prime minister was selected. On the subject of the UN, Matthew Russell Lee (Inner City Press) reports on questioning the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative to Iraq, Ad Melkert:

Melkert's main job right now is, like Kai Eide's was in Afghanistan, to try to make national elections appear credible. Inner City Press asked him about barred candidate Saleh Mutlak, who has been told he cannot run for office because he was a member of the Baath party. Mutlak says he quit in 1977, and was only goaded into saying he was still a member.

Melkert called the grounds for exclusion "legitimate," and said the UN only advocates for transparency in the application of the rules, citing Iraq's "Accountability and Justice Law of 2008." While speaking about reconciliation, Melkert said that excluding former Baath party members is similar to what happened in Europe "after the Communist regimes."

While Melkert told Inner City Press that the UN "has a permanent position against the death penalty" -- one that Ban Ki-moon backtracked on during his first day in office, on the subject of Iraq -- when Melkert was asked about the execution of former Baath party members, he replied, "I could not take your point on that, the way you formulated it, so I could not comment further."

Many press reports on the elections today reflect on the 2005 boycott by Sunnis but few note the widespread allegations of voter fraud -- allegations the UN refused to take seriously. Also in 2005, women were to have 25% of the seats in Parliament. 25% is also the number of seats women must hold in the new Parliament. Mariwan Hama-Saeed (Global Arab Network) reports:

Female political candidates warned this week that the constitutional quota guaranteeing Iraqi women parliamentary seats has failed to deliver them real political power.
Five female contenders vying for parliamentary seats in Sulaimaniyah and Baghdad laid out their positions on women’s issues, the economy and education in a rare all-women debate on February 20.
The Sulaimaniyah forum, which was organised by the United States-based International Human Rights Law Institute, included candidates from two secular parties and two Islamic factions.

Last year, provincial elections were held. 14 provinces voted in January 2009. The Kurdish provinces voted in July 2009. The KRG will be voting at the same time as everyone in the national elections (March 5th through 7th). And I need to state that because they've fallen off the radar here. That wasn't intentional. I'd hoped all week to pick them up but other events cried for attention. I told myself I'd grab it in the "I Hate The War" entry and then when I was ready to write that last night, the big news was the judge dismissing the case against KBR due to jurisdiction issues. Michael Busch (CUNY Advocate) reports from the region:

I had entered Iraq over­land a week ear­lier through the bor­der town of Zahko which hugs the Turk­ish fron­tier, where I hired Mohammed, a chain-smoking taxi dri­ver, to bring me to the country’s north­ern­most city of promi­nence, Dohuk. The jour­ney there begins with a chaotic tan­gle of dusty, dilap­i­dated roads snaking through moun­tains and farm­land drained of their color by the sun and drought. Any feel­ings of pass­ing through the bleached land­scape of an old pho­to­graph soon sub­side, how­ever, on the approach to Dohuk. Here, the coun­try­side gives way to the most extra­or­di­nar­ily emer­ald pas­tures -- elec­tric greens famil­iar to north­ern­most Syria -- framed by the gen­tle slopes of a purple-tinted moun­tain range to the east. As he tore through at break­neck speed what seemed to be end­less waves of lum­ber­ing lor­ries on their way to and from Turkey, Mohammed waved a cig­a­rette out the win­dow, smil­ing. "Iraq," he said, clearly pleased. "Beautiful."
Dohuk itself offers a glimpse into the Iraq of neo-con wet dreams. The city boasts a rapidly devel­op­ing infra­struc­ture, street graf­fiti cel­e­brat­ing Eminem, an Amer­i­can style mega-mall, bustling mar­kets, and the rep­u­ta­tion as a safe week­end get­away for vaca­tion­ing Amer­i­can GIs. Indeed, the groups of troops I saw there were treated like celebri­ties, unfail­ingly fol­lowed by a paparazzi of young men and women ask­ing for pho­tographs and con­tact info. Alarm­ingly, the down­town hotel I checked into fea­tured a large por­trait of George W. Bush in its foyer, and the hotel man­ager -- an Adi­das tracksuit-wearing, Raul Julia carbon-copy -- feigned dis­ap­point­ment to learn I was not a dis­tant rel­a­tive of the for­mer president.
Sim­i­lar dis­plays of explic­itly pro-American sym­pa­thies are not as eas­ily found south of Dohuk, but the trap­pings of a nascent pros­per­ity have taken hold in urban areas through­out the Kur­dish con­trolled north. The impe­r­ial splen­dor of the main road alone that leads into the regional cap­i­tal Erbil -- miles of mag­nif­i­cently mas­sive, arch­ing light posts hang­ing over the four-lane high­way -- its state of the art inter­na­tional air­port, and the for­mi­da­ble bomb-blast walls sur­round­ing the fancy, VIP-only Sher­a­ton hotel, unques­tion­ably announce the city’s ambi­tious pre­ten­sions to twenty-first cen­tury regional dominance.
More impres­sive still, per­haps, the south­east­ern city of Suli­maniyah -- long con­sid­ered a free-spirited hotbed of lib­er­al­ism and resis­tance to out­side influ­ence, not to men­tion a per­sis­tent thorn in the side of Sad­dam Hussein's regime -- has been tamed by the twin influ­ences of Iran­ian invest­ment and an Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity. All over the city, con­struc­tion teams frame high-rise office build­ings, money-lenders hawk impos­si­bly tall piles of Iran­ian rials, and young peo­ple prac­tice their Eng­lish in cafes adver­tis­ing wifi, Red Bull, and "Kan Tucky Fried Chiken."
Yet evi­dence sup­port­ing the argu­ments that Kur­dish Iraq offers a model for the rest of the coun­try to fol­low in order to achieve peace and sta­bil­ity are largely con­fined to urban cen­ters, and belied by a num­ber of sober­ing real­i­ties. Chief among them is the vio­lent anar­chy destroy­ing any hope for a nor­mal life in the north­ern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. Both cities -- the most eth­ni­cally and reli­giously diverse spots in the coun­try -- fea­ture highly com­bustible mix­tures of Sunni and Shia Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen, and a slew of other reli­gious minori­ties includ­ing Assyr­ian Chris­t­ian and Yazidi groups. As it hap­pens, both cities also sit astride mas­sive oil deposits, and there­fore, not sur­pris­ingly, have served as play­grounds for the some­times vio­lent power strug­gles between regional Kur­dish author­i­ties and the cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad. These con­tests for con­trol have left power vac­u­ums filled by unbri­dled sec­tar­ian vio­lence and mark the cities as vir­tual no-go zones for outsiders.

As Liz Sly (Los Angeles Times) reports on the extra-legal Justice and Accountability Commission's decision to remove 580 Iraqis from the country's security forces for being alleged 'Ba'athists.' Mohammed Tawfeeq and CNN report on the simultaneous announcement yesterday that 20,000 military officers under Saddam Hussein would be reinstated, "Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said al-Maliki was simply trying to secure more votes. 'This contradicts his anti-Baathist election campaign and it is very obvious that he wants to appeal to voters'." Meanwhile Leila Fadel and K.I. Ibrahim (Washington Post) quote the extra-legal commission's Ali Falial al-Lami stating they have proof that banned candidate Saleh al-Mutlaq is a 'Ba'athist.' Apparently, they've forced some more confessions in Iraq yet again or maybe forged some -- didn't Chalabi forge a few documents when he was selling the Iraq War?

And we'll note this issued by the KRG:

Kurdistan Region applauds US Congress resolution calling for protection of religious minorities

Legislation reinforces need to implement Iraqi Constitution Article 140

Washington, US ( - The Kurdistan Regional Government to the US today expressed support for the passage of US House of Representatives resolution 944 calling for steps to be taken to protect religious minorities in Iraq. The reosulution was introduced by Democratic Party Representative for Michigan Gary C. Peters.

The Kurdistan Region is home to a diverse collection of ethnic and religious groups, including Chaldeans, Syriacs, Assyrians, and other Christians, Sabean Mandeans, and Yezidis, Turkmen and Arabs, many of whom have fled violence in other parts of Iraq. Consistent with requests made by the resolution, the KRG has made repeated calls for full adherence to the federal constitution, which has provisions designed to protect these groups.

Mr Qubad Talabani, the KRG’s Representative to the US, said, “The resolution introduced by Congressman Peters reinforces the need for swift implementation of Article 140 of Iraq’s federal constitution, which will put to rest conflicts over Iraq’s disputed territories - issues that have indirectly led to the neglect, and at times, oppression of religious minorities in these areas.”

The disputed territory issue, if left unresolved, has the potential to contribute to the degeneration of the situation in Iraq. As stated in the House resolution, these minority groups “…are caught in the middle of this struggle for control and have been targeted for abuses and discrimination as a result.” Article 140 of the federal constitution was written and approved to solve this situation, as it calls for a referendum by the people within the disputed territories to determine their own destinies. Since the approval of the federal constitution, the KRG has worked to implement Article 140.

In his official floor statement during debate on the resolution today, Congressman Gary C. Peters said: “This resolution calls upon the combined efforts of the United States Government and United Nations to ask the Iraqi Government to protect religious minorities by encouraging free and fair elections, training Iraqi security forces and providing safe places to worship.”

The KRG candidates (not covered in the above) have been on hold as have other topics. For example, among the hearings we attended this week were ones where Don't Ask, Don't Tell was addressed. There hasn't been time for that in the snapshots due to other topics (and the template switch). Hopefully, we'll do something on the topic at Third this weekend. If not, I'll probably pass my notes over to Marcia (who will do a fine job with the topic and covers it regularly at her site). On the template switch. As I noted earlier this week, "You get one." Last night, before I did "I Hate The War," I logged into the e-mail accounts and complaints were again on the language as the s-word was used in full in a headline by Random Notes. The template switch means that the if you're on the permalinks/blogroll, your most recent post title shows. We can't have the s-word. That's not a judgment call on Susan who is an incredible writer. That's just that we have to be work safe here. So she's removed from the permalinks. She is a valuable writer and probably the strongest voice calling out so-called education 'reform' -- strongest voice online to be sure. If you click on "About me," you'll see her blog title on "Following" and can access her site there. We will continue to link to her in entries. Probably not in the next weeks due to the elections and the Iraq Inquiry which is starting back up and due to the Congressional hearings that we're planning to attend. But that's not anything 'wrong' with her. That's I'm just too busy right at the moment. She is a strong writer and remains a strong writer. She does not have a 'filthy' mouth or any other problems. On our end, from the start, we've been work safe. We have to maintain that, there are members who need that because they check the site from work computers.

And this should have already been up. I'm dictating it around links already in. And I didn't realize we needed background so pretend there are links here on the snapshots. Monday the top US commander in Iraq, Gen Ray Odierno, gave a briefing in DC where he noted that the draw down could be slowed. This was a testing the water move (by the administration -- though some want to pretend Odierno was a 'loose canon' acting alone). Wednesday morning's New York Times featured a column by former journalist Thomas E. Ricks (speaking for Michele Flournoy to be sure) advocating for a longer US presence in Iraq. Thursday, it was learned that slowing the draw down was actually a request currently submitted to the administration. That's the background. Jason Ditz ( observes that Barry O's "soft pullout" just got softer while Michael Hastings (The Hastings Report, True/Slant) takes on Rick's suck up to Australian -- who really needs to take his ass home -- David Kilcullen's assertion that entering stupidly doesn't mean you have to depart stupidly. Hastings observes, "So, if you never leave, there's no worry of acting stupid. Except that you never leave. Which seems kind of stupid, too."

In reply to an e-mail in the public account about what Laura Rozen was referring to at Politico, I don't know. I didn't read her article. A joint-statement about Iraq, bi-partisan? Sounds to me like she was referring to the statement Senators John Kerry and John McCain are releasing (or planning to) on Iraq elections.

Press TV reports that at least 4 are dead when bombs in Baghdad targeted the temporary location for the Finance Ministry today. Reuters notes a Mosul dumpster bombing which claimed 2 lives and left ten people injured and a Mosul car bombing which wounded nine people (three were Iraqi soliders).

TV notes. NOW on PBS begins airing Friday on most PBS stations (check local listings):

In 1995 and 1996, 66 gray wolves were relocated from Canada to
Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho to help recover a wolf
population that had been exterminated in the northern Rockies. The
wolf relocation
is considered one of the most successful wildlife
recovery projects ever attempted under the Endangered Species Act; today
there are more than 1,600 wolves in the region. But a debate has erupted
between conservationists and ranchers over the question: how many wolves
are too many?

Last year, the Obama Administration entered the fray by removing
for some of these wolves, paving the way for controversial
state-regulated wolf hunts. The move has wolf advocates fuming, with
more than a dozen conservation groups suing the Interior Department to
restore federal protections. On February 26 at 8:30 pm (check local
listings), NOW reports on this war over wolves and implications for the

Staying with TV notes, Washington Week begins airing on many PBS stations tonight (and throughout the weekend, check local listings) and we'll note who joins Gwen around the table this afternoon in the snapshot. Right now? We'll ask a question. Has a president, in the 'modern era,' ever refused to deliver a State of the Union speech? Washington Week, as part of its site redesign and increased web presence provides an answer to that by dipping into the archives and making available a February 2, 1973 installment of Washington Week. You can also view the Webcast Extra for last week's show (or any other show this year or last year) which is an additional segment where Gwen and the guests discuss topics submitted by viewers of the show. Meanwhile Bonnie Erbe will sit down with Karen Czarnecki, Avis Jones-DeWeever, Melinda Henneberger and Tara Setmayer to discuss the week's events on PBS' To The Contrary. Check local listings, on many stations, it begins airing tonight. And turning to broadcast TV, Sunday CBS' 60 Minutes:

Stealing American Secrets
"60 Minutes" has obtained an FBI videotape showing a Defense Department employee selling secrets to a Chinese spy that offers a rare glimpse into the secretive world of espionage and illustrates how China's spying may pose the biggest espionage threat to the U.S. Scott Pelley reports. | Watch Video

Battle Over History
Bob Simon reports on what the Armenians call their holocaust - the 1915 forced deportation and massacre of more than a million ethnic Armenians by the Turks - an event that the Turks and our own government have refused to call genocide. | Watch Video

Kathryn Bigelow
Lesley Stahl talks to Academy Award best-director nominee Kathryn Bigelow about her award-winning film, "The Hurt Locker." If she's chosen, she would be the first woman ever to win in that category. | Watch Video

60 Minutes, Sunday, Feb. 28, at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

Radio notes. On today's The Diane Rehm Show (NPR -- begins airing on most stations at 10:00 a.m. EST and streams live online at that time), the first hour finds Diane joined by Naftali Bendavid (Wall St. Journal), Eleanor Clift (Newsweek) and Byron York (Washington Examiner) to discuss the week's domestic news, while the international hour (second hour) her panel is composed of Thom Shanker (New York Times), Farah Stockman (Boston Globe) and David Wood ( Remember that the show is also podcast.

The Democratic Policy Committee has a series of videos here and we were going to have them displayed in this entry but the type on them has gone huge since I copied and pasted this morning and I'm dictating this so I'm not at a computer and can't go into HTML to change code.
We may note it on Saturday but if you use the DPC link, they have daily videos you can stream online.

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