Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Iraq snapshot

Tuesday, January 25, 2010.  Chaos and violence continue, Nouri's attempted power grab receives more attention, two witness contradict Tony Blair in their testimonies today before the Iraq Inquiry, and more.
Last night Hari Sreenivsan (PBS' NewsHour, link has text, audio and video) noted, "At least 26 people died in Iraq today when twin car bombs targeted Shiite pilgrims south of Baghdad. The blasts occurred just outside Karbala, where annual religious rituals were being held. Some 75 people were wounded. A recent surge in violence has claimed the lives of more than 170 people in Iraq in just the last week." In this morning's New York Times, John Leland adds, "American and Iraqi security forces have regularly reported discovering collaborations between former Baathists and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a Sunni extremist group, though the two groups are radically different in their orientations and goals. Recently Lt. Gen. Robert W. Cone, second in command of American forces in Iraq, said he had seen little evidence of such collaboration, though some Baathists might work for Al Qaeda for money."
Despite the violence, Abdelamir Hanoun (AFP) reports Shi'ite pilgrims poured into Karbala today, "Arbaeen marks 40 days after the Ashura anniversary commemorating the slaying of Imam Hussein, one of Shiite Islam's most revered figures, by the armies of the caliph Yazid in 680 AD. Throngs of mourners overflowed Hussein's shrine in Karbala, demonstrating their ritual guilt and remorse at not defending him by beating their heads and chests in rituals of self-flagellation. Sad songs blared from louspeakers throughout the city and black flags fluttered alongside pictures of Hussein and his half-brother Imam Abbas, both of whom are buried in the city." Muhanad Mohammed, Ahmed Rasheed, Jim Loney, Michael Christie and Tim Pearce (Reuters) quote several pilgrims including 57-year-old Abdul-Khaliq al-Hathal who states, "It's my first visit . . . and I feel stunned by the vision of a sea of pilgrims. I can't say I'm not afraid, but how long should we be deprived of practicing our rituals?"  38-year-old Aqeel Fadhil states, "I'm happy to finish the rituals and I'm not afraid at all because when I left Baghdad I was expecting death at any moment, but that would never deter me."  Alsumaria TV notes, "Iraqi Forces tightened security in the city of Karbala to protect pilgrims coming from inside Iraq, Arab and Islamic countries.  The annual Arbain pilgrimage draws hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims from Iraq, neighboring Iran and other Shiite communities in the Muslim world."  Nabil al-Haidari (Iraqhurr.org) reports this year's pilgrimage saw a marked increase in the number of participants and that the estimates from locals on the number of visitors was ten milliong with approximately 300,000 being non-Iraqis.  England's Press and Journal notes that in the wake of this week and last week's violence, "Followers of anti-US Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who have been blamed for some of the worst sectarian violence in past years, criticised Mr al Maliki for not naming new defence, interior and national security ministers. Mr al Maliki formed a new government on December 21 after months of deadlock but has said he needs more time to find security ministers who are apolitical.  He meantimes controls the ministries."
He controls a great deal more.  Over the weekend, Ahmed Rasheed (Reuters) reported that the easily manipulated court system in Iraq had again bended to Nouri al-Maliki's will in what some are terming a "coup" as independent agencies -- such as the Independent Higher Electoral Commission, the High Commission for Human Rights and the Central Bank of Iraq -- put under the control of Parliament by the country's Constitution are being turned over to Nouri by the Supreme Court.  Ned Parker and Salar Jaff (Los Angeles Times) quoted opposition group Iraqiya's statement, "The decision of the federal court to connect the independent boards to the council of ministers directly instead of the parliament . . . is considered as a coupl against democracy."  Prashant Rao (AFP) reports today, "Several of the agencies affected have already criticised the supreme court ruling, noting it harms their non-partisan reputation, while opponents of the decision have said it was a move by the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to consolidate power.  Among the most prominent critics of the move was central bank governor Sinan al-Shebibi, who warned on Tuesday that the ruling threatened Baghdad's assets overseas."  AFP explains al-Shebbi is arguing that tying the Central Bank to Nouri al-Maliki, as opposed to allowing it to be an independent body, might lead to claims and/or seizures from Iraq's creditors -- "a host of potential claims, dating from the 1991 Gulf War, from several countries and many businesses and individuals" in five months when it no longer has the United Nations Security Council to protect the monies. Alsumaria TV notes that the Central Bank has requested "the Supreme Court [. . .] issue a second explanatory ruling that clarifies its first ruling placing it under the supervision of the cabinet, and not of parliament."   Shashank Bengali and Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) note, "The controversy illustrates the widespread anxiety over Maliki's tendencies toward authoritarian rule, two months into his second term, even after he unveiled a Cabinet last month that includes members of rival parties. It underscores the fragility of Iraq's democratic institutions less than a year before U.S. troops are to complete their withdrawal."  And they quote Judge Qassim al Aboudi (and Independent High Electoral Commission member) stating, "The move has no legal basis.  This will have very grave consequences for the course of democracy in this country."  Liz Sly (Washington Post) explains, "The ruling, sought by Maliki in an unpublicized case brought in December and posted without fanfare on the court's Web site late last week, went largely unnoticed for several days because it coincided with a major Shiite holiday. But as the holiday winds down, opposition is building, with critics denouncing the ruling as further evidence that Maliki, a Shiite, is bent on consolidating power at the expense of democratic institutions." And Nizar Latif and Phil Sands (The National) provide this perspective:
Since starting his second term as prime minister last month, Mr al Maliki already had unprecedented personal control over the ministry of defence, ministry of interior and ministry of national security. After this latest move, he is now also in charge of overseeing how elections are run in Iraq, how the central bank allocates funds and how human rights abuses and corruption inside his government are to be investigated.
Civil servants as well as Mr al Maliki's political opponents - and even some of his allies - have reacted with alarm, saying Iraq's fledgling democracy may have been fatally undermined.
"It's a coup," said Leyla Khafaji, a National Alliance MP, part of the coalition that Mr al Maliki heads. "How can you have a working democracy if the institutions monitoring the government are under government control?
"From this moment onwards, we cannot know if elections will be fair and independent, and if the integrity commission answers to the government, how will it fight the legions of corruption that stand behind that government?"
In addition, Ned Parker (Los Angeles Times) reported that Nouri's Baghdad Brigade "is holding detainnes in miserable conditions for months at a time" at Camp Honor. Khalid Walid (Iraqhurr.org) reports that the Deupty Minister of Justice, Busho Ibrahim, continues to deny the charges of abuse and mistreatment including during an interview with Radio Free Iraq. He insists they are being dealt with a timely and fair manner and that their families and attorneys can visit them in the prison within the Green Zone but Walid notes that just to get into the Green Zone you have to have special identification and this can prevent many from entering which has led human rights activists such as Hassan Shaaban to argue that the prison needs to be moved outside the Green Zone.
In today's violence, Fang Yang (Xinhua) reports a Baghdad roadside bombing "hit a minibus carrying Shiite pilgrims" leaving seven of them injured.
Last last Friday War Criminal Tony Blair testified to the Iraq Inquiry. Patrick Cockburn (at Belfast Telegraph) shares these thoughts on Blair:

But, in truth, the war that he started has yet to finish. The wounds inflicted on Iraqis since the invasion of 2003, coming on top of the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war and sanctions, will take decades to heal.
The main impression I got from both Mr Blair's evidence to the inquiry last year and his autobiography was his extraordinary ignorance of Iraq.
Even more damning than what he did before the war was Mr Blair's failure to learn much about the country after the invasion.

DD Guttenplan (Middle East Online) offers:

It has often been said, and with considerable justice, that the Iraq Inquiry panel is far too deferential in the way it treats its witnesses. Of the four members of the panel, only Sir Roderic Lyne, a veteran career diplomat, ever comes close to asking a probing question -- and even he seems hampered by an overwhelming fear of appearing impolite. (Though for connoisseurs of the inquiry his remark today that "what is not clear is at what point you were actually asking the cabinet to take decisions" is a masterpiece of understated disdain.)

However it was Sir Martin Gilbert, a distinguished historian but no one's idea of a grand inquisitor, who asked the $64,000 question: "Can you tell us at what point you took the decision to join the United States is using force?" He could, but he wouldn't. However, if the tone of the questions is any indication, the Inquiry may have already arrived at an answer -- and the indications are that history is not going to be very kind to Tony Blair.

Today the Inquiry heard from Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service (1998 - 2002) Richard Wilson and Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service (2002 -2005) Andrew Turnbull.  Wilson testified that, by the time he left in September 2002, the Cabinet was "in the thick of it" in determing what actions to take (or not take) with regards to Iraq.  We're going to emphasize some sections that stand out and then note what the press took away from today's testimonies.
Richard Wilson: If you had said to me "Is the Prime Minister as the man who devises and drives through strategy serious about military action?" I would have said "There is a gleam in his eye which worries me."  I think I used that phrase at the time.
[. . .]
Committee Member Roderic Lyne: On what you describe as the gleam in the Prime Minister's eye, that gleam found expression in quite a loft of correspondence with President Bush between December of 2001 and the end of July 2002 and continuing beyond. Did you see that correspondence?
Richard Wilson: No.
Committee Member Roderic Lyne: Are you surprised you didn't see that correspondence?
Richard Wilson: Not necessarily.  The Prime Minister spent a lot of time on the phone to is opposite numbers in other countries. It was one of the revelations to me about the life of a Prime Minister. I had no idea how much time, when I became Cabinet Secretary, how much time they spend talking to people in other countries.   My history is as a domestic civil servant, so it is a side of life which on the whole I had not seen. So I would not have necessarily expected to see all the letters unless they were really important.  I saw one --
Committee Member Roderic Lyne: That's an important qualification. Some opposite numbers are rather more important than others?
Richard Wilson: For instance, I did see the letter that Mr Blair wrote to President Bush, I think it was the day after 9/11, but it may have been the 13th, because I remember it came round -- we all knew there was going to be a phone call.  It was a hugely tense time.  We all knew there was going to be a phone call. It was a hugely tense time.  We all knew there was going to be a phone call.  We had been sort of, you know, up all hours on this, and a copy of what -- a record of the discussion came round to me and I read it and it said at the end the Prime Minister promised Mr Bush a note or paper or a letter which he would -- promised to write giving him his views.  So I went instantly round to Number 10 and I said "Do you want a draft?", which is a good bureaucratic response, and Jonathan Powell said "No need, he's done it".  I will not -- and he showed it to me and indeed he had done it and it was recognisably his drafting, because I know his style.  So at that time I saw the transcript -- not the transcript -- the record of the discussion and I saw the paper which he sent. I htink that was the last time I saw any such document.
We're jumping ahead to the discussion of the 2002 meet-up between Bush and Blair in Crawford, Texas.
Committee member Lawrence Freedman: I mean the July, 23rd meeting. A version of this is in the public domain -- recommended the establishment of an ad hoc group of officials under the Cabinet Office chairmanship to consider the development of an information campaign to be agreed with the US.  Tom McKane told us in his evidence that this was not connected to the dossier and that work had not really started when he handed -- you left the Cabinet Office.  Do you have any understanding of this ad hoc group?
Richard Wilson: I think Tom McKane would be right.  If you remember -- you don't remember, because I have not told you -- after the -- this is memory -- after the Crawford meeting David Manning -- my memory is that David Manning sent me a minute, which has not been found on the file, so it is perfectly possible it is a figment, but I can see page 2 in my mind, and it had -- it simply said -- my understanding of Crawford, which you have very kindly not asked me about -- my understanding of Crawford, which is another twist in the story, was that we came back realising -- because the purpose of Crawford was to find out what the Americans were thinking, what Bush himself was thinking, because there were all sorts of people around him thinking all sorts of things -- where was Bush on this -- was that he was more serious about regime change and about the possibility, if necessary, of military action than we had grasped.  The Prime Minister had asked for further work to be done on three areas, and this is relevant to in answer to your question.  One of those areas was building up opinion both in this country and overseas for United Nations action on Iraq.  My understanding of the group that was being set up on 23rd July was that was about this process of building up a campaign of public understanding in this country and overseas.  I think Tom McKane's evidence is right.
Committee Member Lawrence Freedman: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about Crawford?
Richard Wilson: No, other than I would quite like to know what happened to Crawford.
Committee Member Richard Wilson: All will be revealed.
Will it.  An argument can be made that a great deal has been revealed.  Richard Norton-Taylor (Guardian) reports, "Two former cabinet secretaries -- the country's most senior civil servants -- mounted a devastating critique of the way Blair handled the run-up to war.  The cabinet were trapped in a position where they had to agree to attack Iraq or bring down the prime minister, the inquiry heard.  Today's witnesses disputed Blair's claim to the inquiry last Friday that cabinet ministers might not have seen official papers but would have known about plans from the media."  Mark Stone (Sky News) notes, "Two former Cabinet Secretaries have disputed Tony Blair's claim on Friday that the Cabinet knew military action against was likely a year before the invasion. The former Prime Minister told the Iraq Inquiry on Friday that his cabinet were aware from early 2002 that they had endorsed a policy that would probably lead to an attack on Iraq. But Lord Wilson, who was Cabinet Secretary from 1998 until 2002, and Lord Turnbull who was his successor, have both told the Inquiry that this was not the case." BBC News adds, "Former Cabinet Secretary Lord Wilson told the Iraq Inquiry he alerted Mr Blair to legal concerns -- which he saw as being a brake on military action.  In separate evidence, his successor, Lord Turnbull said the cabinet 'did not know the score' about Iraq when they were asked to back military action." Rosa Prince (Telegraph of London) also emphasizes this, "In some of the most damning evidence heard by the inquiry to date, the respected former mandarins rejected claims made by Mr Blair to the committee last week in which he insisted that cabinet ministers were kept informed of the progress to war.  Lord Turnbull said that the cabinet was not asked for their approval until the eve of the invasion in March 2003, by which time they were 'imprisoned' and had little choice but to consent -- or bring the prime minister down." Chris Ames (Iraq Inquiry Digest) offers this analysis:
I'm not sure that this is word for word but it gives the same impression -- that Wilson suspects that Tony Blair was moving more definitively towards war at that time than he understood.
Wilson also said that during the full discussion of Iraq policy on 7 March 2002 (ie pre Crawford) the concerns expressed by the cabinet and Blair's discussion of it, did not represent any kind of approval for a policy that would lead to war. He said the same of the much shorter discussion that followed Crawford. Wilson appears to be contradicting Blair's claim on Friday that the cabinet knew where the policy was leading. Wilson twice repeated and endorsed the account given in Alastair Campbell's diaries, that the general feeling was "where is all this going?" Wilson said later that the concerns raised were about possible bombing of Iraq, not the possibility of a military invasion.
At the end, Wilson said that a sobering and humbling point for him was that he now realises, having read the papers, that "I didn't know what was going on -- enough."
As the Inquiry may be making some head way, Chris Ames notes a new area of concern: Margaret Alread:
The secretary to the inquiry, Margaret Aldred, is on secondment from her role as deputy head of the Cabinet Office Foreign and Defence Policy Secretariat, formerly Defence and Overseas Secretariat (DOS), where she has worked since 2004.
When the inquiry announced Aldred's appointment in July 2009, it made no mention of her role in Iraq policy during the previous four and a half years. But parliamentary questions, freedom of information (FOI) disclosures and my investigations show that it was a significant one -- and the main reason for her appointment.
The inquiry has stated that it has been given papers from the section where Aldred worked but has declined to state whether it has documents relating directly to her. It has not published any Cabinet Office documents from this period.
Last week, Tom McKane, one of Aldred's predecessors at DOS was a witness at the inquiry. It appears that Aldred would herself have been called as a witness if she were not the inquiry's secretary.
Turning to the US where the Justice Dept is targeting activists.  Friday, September 24th FBI raids took place on at least seven homes of peace activists -- the FBI admits to raiding seven homes -- and the FBI raided the offices of Anti-War Committee. Just as that news was breaking, the National Lawyers Guild issued a new report, Heidi Boghosian's [PDF format warning] "The Policing of Political Speech: Constraints on Mass Dissent in the US." Heidi and  Michael S. Smith and Michael Ratner  covered the topic on  WBAI's Law and Disorder Radio including during a conversation with Margaret Ratner-Kunstler which you can hear at the program's site by going into the archives and the program has also transcribed their discussion with Margaret and you can read it here. Earlier this month (week of January 10th),  Law and Disorder Radio spoke with Maureen Murphy who is one of the people ordered to appear before a grand jury (click here for text excerpt).  Maureen was scheduled to appear today and explained why she wouldn't be testifying in a column at Ma'an News Agency:
So what is this investigation really about?           
The activists who have been ensnared in this fishing net with different groups to end the US wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, to end US military aid for Israel's occupation of Palestinian land and US military aid to Colombia, which has a shocking record of repression and human rights abuses. All of us have publicly and peacefully dedicated our lives to social justice and advocating for more just and less deadly US foreign policy.
I spent a year and a half working for a human rights organization in the occupied West Bank, where I witnessed how Israel established "facts on the ground" at the expense of international law and Palestinian rights. I saw the wall, settlements and checkpoints and the ugly reality of life under Israeli occupation which is bankrolled by the US government on the taxpayer's dime. Many of us who are facing the grand jury have traveled to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Colombia to learn about the human rights situation and the impact of US foreign policy in those places so we may educate fellow Americans upon our return and work to build movements to end our government's harmful intervention abroad.
Travel for such purposes should be protected by the first amendment. But new legislation now allows the US government to consider such travel as probable cause for invasive investigations that disrupt our movements and our lives.
The June 2010 US Supreme Court decision Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project expanded even further the scope of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 to include first amendment activity such as political speech and human rights training. 
Even former President Jimmy Carter feels vulnerable under these laws because of his work doing elections training in Lebanon where one of the main political parties, until earlier this month a member of the ruling coalition, is listed as a "foreign terrorist organization" by the US State Department. "The vague language of the law leaves us wondering if we will be prosecuted for our work to promote peace and freedom," Carter has said.

Citing Murphay, WGN reported this morning that "none of them plan to testify at the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago Tuesday." At OpEdNews, Kevin Gosztola profiles another of the targeted, Tom Burke whose wife  has also been subpoened leaving them to wonder what happens after they refuse to testify?  They are raising their five-year-old daughter.  Do they both get carted off for refusing to testify?
Lynne Stewart is a political prisoner. She's an attorney, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a cancer survivor, a national treasure.  And once upon a time, from across the aisle, people would admit they admired Lynne for her courage and dedication to the law, for feeling that the Constitution guaranteed everyone a defense.  The people's attorney is not a criminal or a terrorist and she broke no law but two administrations -- those of Bush and Barack -- have conspired to imprison her.  From Carswell Federal Prison, she sends this statement:
I  began my career as a political movement lawyer. The government was rounding up the last of the die hard militants, many of whom had been underground, and prosecuting them as a part of the panther movement.
They also subpoenaed anyone with any tangential relationship to those who had been arrested. I am talking about their daters, their lovers, their teachers, their religious leaders, their estranged relatives, those who had attended meetings, rallies, etc.
All of this activities centered upon an expropriation in suburban NY of a Brinks armored truck and the people who were arrested then and later. Their purpose? To intimidate that branch of the movement that could be counted on to support militancy and troll for even the most insignificant crumbs of information that might be fitted together to enmesh suspects.
What happened? Most people who had been taped by the government, lawyered up with movement lawyers, guided in part by the legal work of Bob Boyle and Guild lawyers who had written legal representation before Grand juries which remains the standard on what to do and when to do it. A person subpoenaed is in the unenviable position of having only the vaguest idea of what the government may want, and is faced ultimately with the choice of testifying against comrades or spending long months in jail.
They may even face a possibility of being indicted for contempt and facing a sentence that is completely up to a judge. In the face of this challenge in that day, I can only say that most people chose not to testify and to wait out the government. They gave up an existence as they were living it-- jobs, relationships, and all that constitutes daily life, and they went to jail. And they stayed in jail for many months and they didn't give in.
Now we are in another era -- one that was not born from the euphoria and idealism of the 60's, and the government is once again arresting, subpoenaing, and tormenting movement people, hoping they will become informants. And the reaction of the movement? We resist.
We stand strong with the resisters who elect not to become part of the same prosecution team that has terrorized the world. Now the so-called Department of Justice [ha!] has decided to focus on support groups of the world's peoples and also on eco-terrorism. Why? Because they can! It sends a message to the people that it's dangerous, don't join, don't resist. That message must once again be shouted down, first by the resisters who will go to jail, and second by us, the movement who must support them by always filling those cold marble courtrooms to show our solidarity, and by speaking out so that their sacrifice is constantly remembered. 
Our principle of non-collaboration has so far proved robust. There has been no wavering. Our support must continue to convince everyone involved that these are issues of principle. There can be no compromise. Resisters must be defended to the utmost of our strength and abilities.
Lynne Stewart
Carswell Federal Prison
Iraq War veteran Kyle Wesolowski has become a Conscientious Objector.  We'll try to work that in tomorrow but I was hoping to do it today.  (Working it in requires overlapping it with another issue.  There's not enough space in today's snapshot.)  We'll close with this from Chris Hedges, author most recently of the book Death of the Liberal Class.  This is from his  "Where Liberals Go to Feel Good" (Information Clearing House):

We are now in Act IV, the one where the liberal class postures like the cowardly policemen in "The Pirates of Penzance." Liberals promise battle. They talk of glory and honor. They vow not to abandon their core liberal values. They rouse themselves, like the terrified policemen who have no intention of fighting the pirates, with the bugle call of "Tarantara!" This scene is the most painful to watch. It is a window into how hollow, vacuous and powerless liberals and liberal institutions including labor, the liberal church, the press, the arts, universities and the Democratic Party have become. They fight for nothing. They stand for nothing. And at a moment when we desperately need citizens and institutions willing to stand up against corporate forces for the core liberal values, values that make a democracy possible, we get the ridiculous chatter and noise of the liberal class.

[. . .]
The only gatherings worth attending from now on are acts that organize civil disobedience, which is why I will be at Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., at noon March 19 to protest the eighth anniversary of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Veterans groups on March 19 will also carry out street protests in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. You can link to the protests here. Save your bus fare and your energy for events like this one.
Either we begin to militantly stand against the coal, oil and natural gas industry or we do not. Either we defy pre-emptive war and occupation or we do not. Either we demand that the criminal class on Wall Street be held accountable for the theft of billions of dollars from small shareholders whose savings for retirement or college were wiped out or we do not. Either we defend basic civil liberties, including habeas corpus and the prosecution of torturers or we do not. Either we turn on liberal institutions, including the Democratic Party, which collaborate with these corporations or we do not. Either we accept that the age of political compromise is dead, that the corporate systems of power are instruments of death that can be fought only by physical acts of resistance or we do not. If the liberal class remains gullible and weak, if it continues to speak to itself and others in meaningless platitudes, it will remain as responsible for our enslavement as those it pompously denounces.