Tuesday, September 27, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, the International Crisis Group releases a report whose findings on Iraq are fairly damning, the school year resumes in Iraq today, Jalal Talabani's $2 billion visit, and more.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has exacerbated the problem by interfering in anti-corruption cases, manipulating investigations for political advantage and intimidating critics to prevent a replication of the type of popular movements that already have brought down three regimes in the region. The government's credibility in the fight against corruption has eroded as a result, and this, together with troubling authoritarian tendencies, is giving ammunition to the prime minister's critics. To bolster its faltering legitimacy, Maliki's government will have to launch a vigorous anti-corruption campaign, improve service delivery and create checks and balances in the state system.
What can end corruption and bring confidence in the government?
Not much according to the report. The Parliament is hampered by a number of issues including the "delicate politcal ballances" necessary to end Political Stalemate I (the period following the March 7, 2010 elections through November 10th). Iraq's judicial system isn't independent and has demonstrated that fact repeatedly. The report notes, "It decided a number of high-profile disputes in a way that gave the Maliki government a freer hand to govern as it pleases, unrestrained by institutional checks." All of this means that the people aren't served by their government, that millions and millions of dollars continue to disappear and that one of the richest countries in the region is also a country that can't provide its people with potable water, reliable electricity, etc.
The report concludes with steps the Iraqi government and the US government can take. For the Iraqi government, there are six listed. It's the sixth one that needs to come first: "Enact a law that would prevent the head of the Higher Judicial Council from occupying the position of chief justice, and protect the Supreme Court's independence by forbidding any political interference."
That needs to be number one. If that step's not taken, none of the other five matter. Why do I say that?
Per the Constitution, following parliamentary elections, the slate or party that has the most votes is allowed first-shot at forming a coalition. Per the Constitution, following the March 7, 2010 elections, Ayad Allawi should have been named prime minister-designate since his slate (Iraqiya) came in first.
How was the Constitution violated?
By a ruling of the Supreme Court.
Until the Court is independent, all the other steps can be taken and they don't mean a damn thing. Failure of independence has meant repeatedly that laws and the Constitution can be bypassed to meet the demands and whims of Nouri.
Moving over to the three suggestions for the US government ("and other members of the International Community"), the most important one?
Operating under the premise that admitting the truth is the first step, "Publicly express disapproval of the Iraqi government's and parliament's failures regarding long-overdue reform." The White House really, really wants US troops in Iraq beyond the end of this year. For this reason, they blocked calls -- during the eight months plus of political stalemate following the March 7th elections -- for the United Nations to create a temporary, caretaker government (as Nouri refused to budge or abide by the Constitution). Nouri's promised them troops on the ground and they've decided to remain in bed with Nouri.
While the White House was pretending to support the Arab Spring and the right to protest, they ignored Nouri's attacks on protesters and on reporters who covered the protests. They looked the other way despite a few alarming reports filed out of the US Embassy in Baghdad. Currently, they're expecting the Kurds and Iraqiya to give again so that Nouri can get his way (see Saturday's "Iraqiya and the Kurds on the verge of being screwed over again"). The US government criticize puppet Nouri?
I support the recommendation, just don't see it happening in the near future (which I'll translate as between now and the end of the year). We're going to spend some time sketching in some areas the report mentions but doesn't go into great detail about.
Violence continues throughout Iraq. Al Mada notes that Nouri al-Maliki is grandstanding and demanding answers from Parliament for the continued and increased violence. Answers, of course, might be embarrassing to Nouri as some State of Law MPs realize and voice concern over what political rival Ayad Allawi might do with any findings. In November 2010, Nouri was named prime minister-designate and was mandated by the Constitution to come up with a full Cabinet in 30 days. He never did that. Three security ministries lack permanent heads. Those are the sort of facts that would not reflect well on Nouri.
Other things that can cause violence? Shutting people out of the political process, making people feel that they have no voice. Aswat al-Iraq reports: The Director of the UN Iraq Assistance Mission (UNAMI)'s office in Iraq has charged that the conditions of human rights activists in Iraq as "fragile and miserable," and that the activists are facing many challenges and difficulties. "The human rights activists in Iraq are facing a lot of challenges and difficulties," Francesco Muta said in a speech at the Conference of Civil Activists, held in Arbil on Tuesday and attended by Aswat al-Iraq news agency, adding that "Iraqis are being affected by the economic deterioration."
Hossam Acommok (Al Mada) reports on Moqtada al-Sadr's criticism of Nouri al-Maliki swearing out an arrest warrant for Sabah al-Saadi claiming that criticizing Nouri is a threat to national security (see yesterday's snapshot). al-Sadr has called out the move and compared it to a new dictatorship and issued a call for the government to work on inclusion and not exclusion. Another Al Mada report notes Sadr declaring that Nouri needs to drop this issue and focus on the needed political work. It's noted that the Sadr bloc waited until Moqtada issued a statement to weigh in and that the Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barazni declared that the Kurdish bloc would not support a vote to strip al-Saadi of his immunity. As a member of Parliament, Sabah al-Saadi should be immune to Nouri's arrest warrant for the 'crime' of speech. Currently, the warrant exists but cannot be executed due to the immunity members of Parliament have. So in addition to filing charges against al-Saadi, Nouri and State of Law (his political slate) are also attempting to strip a member of Parliament of his immunity. But that's not all. Nouri has a back up plan. Should the Parliament not agree to strip al-Saadi of his immunity, the warrant will stand through 2014 when al-Saadi's term expires (al-Saadi's decided not to run again or Nouri's made that decision and intends to utilize the Justice and Accountability Commission to keep him from running?) at which point all-Saadi would be a citizen (without immunity) and then the warrant can and will be executed. In addition, Al Mada notes the claim that immunity can be stripped of a member of Parliament if half-plus-one of those in attendance vote in favor of the motion.
For those wondering how an insult, any insult, rises to the level of criminal, this AFP report (in French) explains that Nouri's complaint utilizes a law from the reign of General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, Article 226 of the 1969 Criminal Code which made it a crime for anyone to insult a member of Parliament, the government, the courts, armed forces, etc.
Over the weekend, Al-Badeal noted Nouri's efforts to have Sabah al-Saadi arrested led to a rebuke from the Popular de-Baathification Movement (established in August 2009) which stated it rejects Nouri's efforts and finds them unconstitutional. The Movement also warns that dictatorship isn't born in a day and that they must remain faithful to all of those who died defeating Iraq's previous dictatorship. This Movement is a group that would normally be alligned with Nouri. For example, they keep a blacklist of people that they allege are Ba'athists and publish it online. If he's alarmed this group, he's alarmed pretty much Iraq's entire political spectrum with his moves. Kholoud Ramzi (niqash) reports:
Outside of a press conference he called last Thursday, al-Saadi has mostly refused to give interviews on the subject. But in a statement to NIQASH, he intimated that he was not overly concerned about the arrest warrant. "I didn't become an MP through currying favour with al-Maliki so I won't be removed by him either," al-Saadi told NIQASH. He added that the arrest warrant doesn't bother him and that he would "continue to expose the corruption cases inside al-Maliki's government, no matter what it took". The warrant for al-Saadi's arrest was issued by Iraq's Higher Judicial Council, the federal body that oversees the country's supreme court, and the Council also requested that Iraqi's parliament lift the immunity al-Saadi currently has from prosecution; like many Western democracies, Iraq practices a form of parliamentary privilege where MPs enjoy immunity from prosecution for certain actions or statements while they are in office. "The judiciary is a politicized body and much affected by partisanship," al-Saadi told NIQASH. "If Iraq had a fair justice system, then the two trade ministers - Abdul Falah al-Sudani and his successor, Safauddin al-Safi - against whom arrest warrants were issued, and even al-Maliki himself, would all have been held accountable for covering up corruption".
Dictators don't generally endorse a free press. And under Nouri, life hasn't been pretty for journalists. Reporters Without Borders notes that already this year has seen the deaths of 7 journalists in Iraq. One of those is Hadi al-Mahdi. The journalist and activist who had previously been arrested for covering the Baghdad protests and tortured while in the custody of Nouri's security forces was assassinated in his home on September 8th. Majid al-Zubaidi (Kitabat) remembers Hadi and swears that his memory will be summoned by all writers, actors, artists and singers who dream of a free Iraq. Al Badeal calls the assassination a treacherous act, notes it was an effor to silence a voice of freedom and states it holds the government and its security agencies fully responsible for the cowardly crime. Kholoud Ramzi (niqash) observes that the assassination "raises fears that state repression is on the rise again." Ramzi quotes Hadi stating, one day prior to his death, "If my blood paves the way to freedom in the same way that the Mohammed Bouazizi's did in Tunisia, then I will not fear death or the threat of death." Nizar Latif (The National) ties together Hadi's assassination, Nouri's targeting of Sabah al-Saadi and Nouri forcing Judge Rahim al-Ugaeily to properly capture life in 'liberated' Iraq:
But the suggestion of official involvement in a campaign of violent intimidation has certainly found an audience with Iraqi journalists, who say the dangers of reporting truthfully on government actions are increasing.
Hakam Al Rubaie, a columnist whose writing appears in various Iraqi newspapers, said: "There is too much pressure on us now, and the murder of Hadi Al Mahdi was a clear attempt to stop free and independent voices from talking about what is really happening in this country.
"It was bad enough to be targeted by militia groups and Al Qaeda. Now we are seeing Iraqi politicians becoming more and more aggressive against journalists."
Mr Al Rubaie, and many of his colleagues, said they were now more frequently publishing under pseudonyms because it was too dangerous to write under their real names.
"If you want to talk about subjects like corruption, or even terrorism and militias, you are taking your life in your hands in Iraq today," he said.
The International Crisis Group's report notes, "Although the perpetrators have yet to be found, the killing on 9 September 2011 of a prominent journalist and leading organiser of weekly protests against government corruption has contributed to rising fears of the Maliki government's authoritarian streak." Again, the ICG feels that Parliament is ineffective as a result of the delicate alliance in place. That's the alliance which is falling apart as a result of Nouri al-Maliki's refusal to honor the Erbil Agreement. Dar Addustour reports that the divide between Kurds and Nouri continue and that a group of Kurdish delegates are in Baghdad today. There continue to be calls for the Erbil Agreement to be published. The agreement is what allowed Iraq to leave Political Stalemate I with all political blocs making concessions (all but State of Law). Once the Erbil Agreement was finalized and used to make Nouri prime minister, he tossed it aside creating Political Stalemate II which has now lasted over nine months. How bad are things? Dar Addustour reports Ahmed Chalabi is calling for the issues to be dealt with.
On the same day that more than 250,000 unredacted State Department cables hemorrhaged out onto the Internet, I was interrogated for the first time in my 23-year State Department career by State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) and told I was under investigation for allegedly disclosing classified information.
The evidence of my crime? A posting on my blog from the previous month that included a link to a WikiLeaks document already available elsewhere on the Web.
As we sat in a small, gray, windowless room, resplendent with a two-way mirror, multiple ceiling-mounted cameras, and iron rungs on the table to which handcuffs could be attached, the two DS agents stated that the inclusion of that link amounted to disclosing classified material. In other words, a link to a document posted by who-knows-who on a public website available at this moment to anyone in the world was the legal equivalent of me stealing a Top Secret report, hiding it under my coat, and passing it to a Chinese spy in a dark alley.
The agents demanded to know who might be helping me with my blog ("Name names!"), if I had donated any money from my upcoming book on my wacky year-long State Department assignment to a forward military base in Iraq, and if so to which charities, the details of my contract with my publisher, how much money (if any) I had been paid, and -- by the way -- whether I had otherwise "transferred" classified information.
Had I, they asked, looked at the WikiLeaks site at home on my own time on my own computer? Every blog post, every Facebook post, and every Tweet by every State Department employee, they told me, must be pre-cleared by the Department prior to "publication." Then they called me back for a second 90-minute interview, stating that my refusal to answer questions would lead to my being fired, never mind the Fifth (or the First) Amendments.
Van Buren, who has been featured here on Antiwar.com and on Antiwar Radio, has written an explosive book about his time on a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Iraq. It is at turns cringeworthy in its descriptions of how we patronized, condescended to, misunderstood and neglected ordinary Iraqis, and outrageous in the amount of money we threw at them and the Iraqi government over there, only to have the vast majority of those taxpayer dollars lost down a rabbit hole. Van Buren is funny, acerbic, truthful and very sensitive -- which is probably why he felt the need to risk everything to write this book in the first place.
The State Department is going after the messenger, but we need to keep a laser focus on the message: that our post-invasion efforts to "reconstruct" Iraq in the name of "counterinsurgency" has been a gigantic failure, the proportions of which we will still be measuring for years to come.
DAVIES: It sounds like this was a case where there was a big, important problem like sewage treatment and water purification, but that you didn't have nearly the kind of resources that you would need to do something on that scale. People needed to think bigger?
BUREN: We were never able to do thing on a large enough scale to make a difference because the thinking was never long-term. Everyone in Iraq was there on a series of one year tours, myself included. Everyone was told that they needed to create accomplishments, that we needed to document our success, that we had to produce a steady stream of photos of accomplishments and pictures of smiling Iraqis and metrics and charts. It was impossible under these circumstances to do anything as long-term as a water and sewer project, particularly with the need for our work to dovetail with work being done to the left and to the right of us. We rarely thought past next week's situation update. The embassy would rarely engage with us on a project that wasn't flashy enough to involve photographs or bringing a journalist out to shoot some video of something that looked good. The willingness to do long-term work, to do the very slow work that reconstruction and development takes place, the idea that development work is a pyramid, you build the base that creates the possibility of a top, never existed in our world.
DAVIES: Now, there were some efforts to do things on a smaller scale. They bought some of these Mobile Maxes, a trailer-mounted, what, a water filtration system. What happened there?
BUREN: One day, a soldier literally trolling through the Internet came across something called Mobile Max. Mobile Max seemed like the solution to our problems. It was a solar-powered, trailer-mounted water purification device. You put the hose into dirty water, the sun shone on Mobile Max, and clean water would pour out the other end. The soldier told his boss, who told his commanding officer, who told some other people, and believe it or not, in the time it takes me to write a letter home to my wife, we found that the Army was buying five million dollars worth of Mobile Maxes and paying to have them shipped all the way around the world to the middle of the desert at a place called Forward Operating Base Hammer. It took months and months for these things to arrive, and the day that they showed up, it was like a fair at the base. They came on trailers. They were bright blue. People came out of their workstations and sleeping quarters to see this arrive, as if the circus had come to town.
DAVIES: And what happened?
BUREN: We set the first Mobile Max up, put the hose into a hole that we had dug and found water in, waited for the sun to warm up the engine. There was a hush, and poured out of the other end of it - nothing. It turns out that the groundwater in Iraq is too salty for Mobile Max. Mobile Max can clean all sorts of naughty stuff out of water, but it can't turn salty water into drinking water, and so it was a complete failure.
DAVIES: And you had 25 of these things. What became of them?
BUREN: The five million dollars worth of Mobile Maxes were moved off to a corner of the base where they were parked in very neat rows and left to sit there for the course of the year that I was in Iraq. I'm told that soon after I left, and we closed the PRT down, the commanding general forces there, General Odierno, came out, asked what those blue things were, was told the story and ordered them to be gotten rid of.
Again the Fresh Air interview is now listen or read. Turning to some of today's reported violence, Mu Xuequan (Xinhua) reports a Sherqat bombing which claimed the lives of 2 police officers and left two more injured, 1 government official shot dead in Baghdad, and "the killing of five people, including two policemen, and the wounding of six people in separate gunfire and bomb attacks in Iraq's western province of Anbar." Aswat al-Iraq adds that a Mosul grenade attack left fifteen people "in a crowded market" injured.
Al-Kala'a Weekly reports the Minister of Communication, Mohammed Allawi, has declared several government buildings are radioactive as a result of their being shelled in 2003 by US forces. and it's noted that the US military has left "thousands of tons" of radioactive material and scraps outside al-Muthanna Province.
Today many Iraqi children went back to school. Al Sabaah notes over 8 million of them started the school year which would mean that approximately one-third of Iraq's population is school age. (Estimates of Iraq's population range from 25 to 28 million. In addition to the 8 million heading back to school, there is a large and uncounted number of Iraqi children who will not be returning to school today, orphaned by the war, they live on the streets. Streets that, Al Sabaah reports in Baghdad, are overlowing with sewage.) In the June 20th snapshot we were noting that the literacy rate the US was imposing in discussions on Iraq was incorrect and that is impossible for literacy rates to jump from 40% one year to over 70% the next in the midst of a war. Doesn't happen. Last week, Al Mada reported on a new crisis in Iraq: illiteracy. The Ministry of Planning says that illiteracy has increased by 40% among Iraqi children. That's more in line with reality. War provides no academic curve for school children caught up in it. And in the midst of a declared crisis, how much money is being spent on the education of Iraqi students? Not much. To process the students and supply them with books and schools, the paper says, will cost $51 billion dinars. That's US equivalent 4.3 million dollars. And, of course, yesterday the Iraqi government put down $1.5 billion dollars to purchase war planes. Yesterday, speculation was that the full cost for the order would be $3 billion. Today Viola Gienger (Bloomberg News) confirms that the planes will cost Iraq $3 billion. Yesterday, we noted that unless something had changed, the order would mean the US Air Force would be needed in Iraq beyond 2011. That has not changed. Geinger explains the first planes from the order will not begin arriving in Iraq until 2014.
War planes, Turkish war planes, continue to bomb northern Iraq. Supposedly, they are targeting the PKK (Kurdish rebels) but the Turkish government's well known opposition to a Kurdish homeland and northern Iraq being a semi-autonomous region for Kurds calls that claim into question. Al Mada reports today that there have been at least six suicides in the province of Erbil this month that can be traced to despair over the non-stop bombings which began August 17th. The government of Turkey has been stating for days now that the US government has agreed to provide them with predator drones (which they could then use to kill additional Kurds). Aswat al-Iraq reports that the Kurdish Parliament Sunday charged that the United States was providing Turkey with weapons to kill Kurds. Mahmoud Othman is quoted stating, "The Americans have taken a decision to supply the Turkish side with drones (planes without pilots) to kill the Kurds in Kurdistan [. . .] the American are playing a bad role in the Region." John Glaser (Antiwar.com) reminds readers of a piece he wrote last week in which he explained this "wouldn't be the first time and back when the Clinton administration 'donated' arms to Turkey for this same reason, it resulted in a signficant increase in violence and serious human rights violations."
Speaking before the United Nations on Friday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani declared of withdrawal or 'withdrawal':
At the end of this year, the United States Forces will withdraw according to the agreement signed between the two countries in 2008. During this year our security forces proved great ability to combat terrorism and provide security. These forces are capable and efficient to fill the vacuum that the withdrawal of United States forces will create and that will promote the Iraqi national abilities to keep the gains achieved in the new Iraq. But the need will push the government of Iraq to keep numbers of American experts and others to benefit from their experiences in the fields of training and capacity building and according to the need of Iraq to these experiences. On this occasion, I would like to express on behalf of the Government and people of Iraq our thanks and appreciation for the assistance and support that were provided by the people and government of the United States, other friendly states and the United Nations to promote democracy in Iraq and its reconstruction. I avail the opportunity to be here in New York to express to the people of New York and all Americans the feelings of sympathy and solidarity on the tenth anniversary for the terrorist attacks in September 11.