Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Iraq snapshot

Tuesday, March 31, 2009.  Chaos and violence continue, the US announces another death, Bob Casey holds a hearing on Iraqi refugees, tensions continue in Baghdad, and more. 
Today Senator Bob Casey chaired a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommitee hearing on the "The Return and Resettlement of Displace Iraqis."  The hearing started late (one minute shy of an hour late) and lasted approximately one hour and thirty-two minutes.  The turnout among senators was dreadful.  On the plus side, I've never attended a hearing where witnesses were asked to be frank, given additional time to be frank, offered the chance clarify and to raise issues that they had not been asked about.  Casey ran a very effective hearing and did it all by himself because no one else asked any questions.  (Senator James Risch passed on speaking and Senator Edward Kaufman just noted that they were voting and had already voted on three budget proposals).  Casey opened by noting the refugee crisis and called it "one of the most tragic humanitarian consequences" of the Iraq War.  He entered his statement into the record and skipped reading it out loud ("for the purposes of moving" the hearing along).  He noted the UNHCR numbers of 2.7 million internal refugees (IDP -- internally displaced persons) and 2 million external refugees for the total of 4.7 million refugees and wanted the three witnesses to discuss the numbers at the start.  Appearing before the committee were Ellen Laipson (Henry L. Stimson Center), Nansy Aossery (International Medical Corps) and Nabil al-Tikriti (University of Mary Washington).
Ellen Laipson worries whether Iraqi refugees will be seen as the new Palestinians?  That's a thread that came up throughout her responses and one she introduced in her opening remarks.  She feels that countries such as Jordan and Lebanon are motivated to help the Iraqi refugees today in part because of scars from being less helpful to the Palestinians in earlier times.  She noted that there were "definitional problems" regarding the refugees because some of the returnees (to neighborhoods, IDPs) are returning from pre-2003 exits.  The current terminology does not help clarify the situation.  She noted there were two big refugee waves since the start of the Iraq War.  You had the 2003-2005 wave and then the 2006 wave which was larger and came in response to the fighting between Shia and Sunni sects. 
She would like to see:
1) Work to improve conditions in Iraq and make returns viable
2) More support for host countries
3) Encouragement and support for Iraqis to find long term solutions
Nancy Aossey's International Medical Corps has been in Iraq since 2003 and they have a staff of 5,000 ("primarily outside the Green Zone").  She would touch on the issue of women and children -- which make up the bulk of the refugee population -- throughout the hearing.  She noted the number of returnees from outside Iraq is small and she noted the "debt of gratitude" the international community owes those countries who have taken in the refugees.  She would stress repeatedly who decides on returns: "Return, and I repeat, can only occur when Iraqi families feel it is safe to do so."  She explained that even when they leave, they are in contact with "relatives and friends from the community" and they do get news and updates from them which provide a sense of how things are in Iraq, specifically in their home neighborhoods.  On the numbers of refugees, she agreed with Laipson that the numbers were fluid but she pointed out that the United Nations uses the same methodology when determining any refugee crisis in the world.  And she noted that some do not register for relief programs or with the UN refugee program because they fear being forced to return to Iraq.  Her recommendations were:
1) US policy towards Iraq needs to develop a strategy for IDPs and refugees.
2) Increased support for humanitarian efforts
3) Additional resources should be provided to the US State Dept and USAID
4) Urge and support the Iraqi government to develop a safe and sustainable return
5) Capacity building measures within Iraqi ministries ("managing this crisis must be an Iraqi process")
Nabil al-Tirkirit stressed that the ethnic and religious identities do go back in Iraqi history but not sectarian conflict and that outbreaks of sectarian conflict have been rare in Iraq's history.  He would stress various groups (including MEK which he wrongly stated at the end had not been mentioned) in his opening statements -- bascially the entire demographics of Iraq -- and note that the three divisions most utilized and noted (Kurds, Sunni, Shia) were a division that the US brings along to 'explain' Iraq when he would characterize the division in Iraq prior to the start of the Iraq War as "between Baghdad and the rest of the country."  On the issue of refugee numbers, he would point out that the low is 3.8 million while the high if 5.5 million -- general range -- so 4.7 million seems to be a reasonable average.  His recommendations included:
1) Property adjudication and returnee assistance
2) Radical increase in housing across
3)  Ensure that all Iraqis -- regardless of where now located -- are able to vote in the upcoming Parliamentary elections
4) Make the public distribution cards easily transferable (if you move from one neighborhood to another, your rations card does not transfer in most cases and you're required to go back to your former neighborhood)
5) Increase protection for "micro-minorities" possibly through the creation of a micro security council
6) Create a look-and-see program for Iraqis to return to their neighborhoods to determine if there are improvements.  If not, they should easily be allowed to leave (not always easy to enter or leave due to border policies).
7) Speed up the process for refugees applying for asylum and increase US programs.
Aossey spoke of capacity building in her opening statement and Chair Casey wanted to know if she could expand on her remarks about the Ministry of Displacement and Migration?  Aossey explained, "Our expereince with this Ministry is that they do have the will.  I mean, we've worked very closely with them and we do believe that they [. . .] are very interested in doing the right thing thing with their people."  The issue is the capacity building she feels is needed.  "We haven't seen within Iraq, throughout the country, that there's an ability for the people and for people within the ministries -- they just literally don't have any historical experience with setting up systems, with delegation . . . to not only make decisions but to implement them as well."  She would touch on the historical experience in the time immediately prior to the Iraq War (Saddam Hussein period) and how there was a need for capacity skills to be increased through civilian internation and programs.  Bob Casey would sum it up as "experience in operation" and she would agree with that and note that "the history there is that people there were not necessarily empowered to do these things." Bob Casey wanted to know about other agencies working to assist with the crisis and Aossey stated that bolstering "the civilian capacity is very, very important. . . . A lot of this is just management training and adminstrartive expertise."
al-Tikriti pointed out that the Ministry of Displacement and Migration was "a post-2003 cretation itself" (by Paul Bremer) and that, as late as 2007, it still "had a small staff and budget."  He wasn't sure how they'd do with the issues today but stated that prior to the creation of the Displacement and Migration Ministry, the issues would have gone to the Ministry of the Interior and the Red Crescent.
Senator Casey notes that he and other senators wonder "what's happening at the senior levels of the government.  One of the challenges we face is determining whether the central government, which has Shi'ites in charge, whether the govenrment is discriminating against the displaced Sunni population."  Before going to the answers, note that both women's organizations interact with and are dependent upon the al-Maliki government.
Laipson felt that if there was a problem it might be that the Sunnis are "not fully testing the system."  They might not, she stated,  believe that the rule of law is in place and would be followed.  She then made an interesting comment that Jalal Talabani, President of Iraq, "sees the return of some refugees as part of Iraq's credibilty" and image to other countries but "others such as the prime minister . . . are simply enjoying being the ones on top."  Really?  Talabani's more concerned than al-Maliki?  al-Maliki and his spokespeople have repeatedly lied and said it was safe to return to Iraq.  Talabani's never publicly made those statements.  Talabani's also noted he's stepping down from his figure head post at the end of his term (this December).  al-Maliki would like to continue as prime minister.  Again, her organization depends on al-Maliki to continue its work.
Aossey sidestepped the issue by noting, again, the networks refugees have, the ones they're in contact with, and the communication which allows them to know whether or not it is safe to return or not.  She noted "it first starts with the feeling that safety must be durable" because no one's going to return if they don't believe it's safe.  She then noted that, in Iraq, "people who are Sunni have a more difficult time accessing services" ("our general experience" in working in Iraq with all the populations).  The Sunnis "seem to struggle more in accessing services that they need but we don't know why that is, we can't pinpoint it but there tends to be trends in that regard."
al-Tikirit pointed out "just this past weekend" you saw the tensions flare up with the move on the Sunni "Awakenings" which "may have set off the beginnings of a civil uprising in Baghdad."  He also noted the rising tensions between the Kurds and Arabs "happening right now."
Casey would follow with "a more blunt question" to al-Tikriti, "is it your sense or do you have any reason to believe that Prime Minister al-Maliki is actively inhibiting the return of refugees who happen to be Sunni?"  al-Tikriti responded, "No, I do not believe that.  I do, however, believe -- and think there's a lot of evidence to back this up -- that those who do not want to return do not trust al-Maliki."
Bob Casey noted that the Obama administration is committed to spending $150 million on Iraqi refugees this fiscal year and he wanted to know if the United States was providing adequate resources?  Assoey's response was that "additional resources are needed less for infrastructrue and more to do the things that USAID and the State Department have known all along are important: to build the capacity of the people."  She explained this civilian training needed to be emphasized.  "The training becomes a priority?" Casey asked and she agreed. 
al-Tikriti poined out that "$160 million is not so greatly different than it was in the last couple of years" under the previous adminsitration.  And that "much of the international community feels that this is a US crisis" and therefore that the US should be contributing more monies.
"Look at this problem just through the eys of a child," Bob Casey suggested noting that children make up a significant number of Iraqi refugees.  He asked them to think about not just what services they receive or not but whether they would be attracted to some "harmful" ideology.  Ellen Laipson's "deep concern" was Iraqi teenagers in Syria "who are idle all the time".  Nancy Aossey noted that 75% of the refugee population are said to be women and children and that "Refugee populations and IDP populations children suffer disproportionately and, if I could add, women and children."  She pointed out how many of the families suffering are now one-parent families due to the deaths and destruction of the war.  She futher pointed out, "Children living in poverty for a whole host of reasons is always a bad situation" and that the hardships are frequently "too much for an adult to cope with [. . .] let alone a child."  She stated children measure the world through their parents.  "If you don't help the mother and the father, if they aren't employed [. . .] if they are deprived, if they are afraid, then chances are so are the children."  Nabil al-Tikriti explained, "I'm personally uncomfortable with the paradigm of youth as a security risk."  He went on to state this could translate as, "Educate me or I'll blow up a building."
In terms of neighboring countries, Ellen Laipson declared that Jordan and Lebanon "are deeply, deeply nervous" that Iraqi problems will be transferred to their regions but she feels this was "more acute in 2006 and 2007" and that the fear "is down a bit".  On Syria, she stated there was frustratation on the part of Syria "that they have not been able to do business with Iraq."  She noted the US attitudes towards Syria and stated that the attitudes were seen (by Syria)  as having impacted Syria's chances. Nancy Aossey pointed out, "I can't think of many countries that want refugee populations in their country permanently."  She then talked about general concerns regarding influxes of refugees and how those "affect their own balance."
Senator Casey floated the idea of a Special Coordinator for Refugees in the White House.  Nabil al-Tikriti was in favor of this noting the government maze already existing with departments like State and Homeland Security and felt it was necessary for the issue of assistance when refugees manage to make it to the US.  Ellen Laipson feels it's all already "mindboggling complex" and "I'm not sure that Czar in the White House can break through all of that."  She'd prefer to see Homeland Security streamline its process and noted that the refugee process is stalled by many post-911 measures in the US. Nancy Aossey, like al-Tikriti, was in favor of the position, "I think it would show the extraordinary importance of this --  whether or not it would get muddled into bureaucratic process, it's difficult to know.  She feels it's "a good idea in large part because it would be someone's only job" allowing them to focus on the issue.  al-Tikriti felt there was much more the federal government could be doing with the refugees here in the US and pointed to the refugees from Vietnam and a program that allowed them to obtain jobs in which the federal government paid half the salary.  It provided steady income and allowed families to set down roots.  As an example, he offered Joesph Cao who was a Vietnam refugee and his family benefitted from that program.  (Cao is a US House Rep today.)   What of the issue of resettling the refugees, Casey wanted to know? 
This led to an interesting discussion.  I've tried to stay with they-said throughout but I'll be offering opinions here and it will be obvious when I do.  Ellen Laipson rightly noted that "we're doing poorly across the board.  I think the numbers are too low and I think once they get here we're not doing enough."   "American affiliated Iraqis" getting special treatment while others waited concerned her.  It concerns me as well.  However it does not concern al-Tikriti who thinks they should be able to jump in line and also thinks it is bad to help Iraqi Christians.  It causes problems back in Iraq.  Iraqi Christians are targeted.  For who they are.  Not because they collaborated with an invading force, not because they went against their own country.  They are targeted for who they are.  When you read of a liquor store owner shot dead, that's usually an Iraqi Christian.  The external refugee population has a huge number of Iraqi Christians.  Inside Iraq, a huge number have left their homes and relocated to the Kurdistan Regional Government where they feel safer.  (Relocated after threats and attacks.)  Just last summer you saw the attack on Christians in Mosul.  They are attacked for who they are.  They are real refugees.  Ellen Laipson was correct in her remarks and al-Tikriti was wrong in his.  It's just that simple.  Laispon did not say "No translators!"  She did note that refugee is a classification and that the US needs to be sure that they are meeting the needs of refugees which includes determining refugee status.  That goes beyond "I like ___ because they helped us with . . ." 
Nancy Aossey skipped the issue and took it back to the proposal of a White House level coordinator.  She stated there "needs to be some overall leadership at the highest level."
That's an overview (I've skipped PRTs -- and al-Tikriti had his best point there, we may return to it tomorrow).  In closing, Senator Casey asked them to offer what they would underscore as important. 
Ellen Laipson feels the "refugee story is an important test of American leadership" and she "would like the United States to pay more attention to the refugees.  Having said that I want to think about this refugee problem in a more holistic way" which, she explained, means looking at it in terms of the system and not just a group of people here, a group there, but the system and how the solutions can be integrated.
Nancy Aossey wanted to stress "that we take the hard won gains and the progress that have been made over the last few years and keep things progressing so that we don't bracktrack.  That is, we cannot rush the returns of the refugees or the IDPs.  People need to be comfortable. [. . .]  Certainly, I believe that this should be civilian led."
Nabil al-Tikriti stated that "the focus should be on the most vulnerable populations and it hasn't always been" (like in his remarks about Iraqi Christians?).  He listed three groups.  We'll note the Palestinain refugees -- "effectively trapped.  They need to go somewhere and they're stuck."  He again noted the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK) although he stated thay hadn't been noted.  He rightly pointed out that the US has been the only thing protecting the Irani refugees in Iraq -- since 1979 -- and that when the US leaves, what happens then?
That's the basic hearing.  Staying with the MEK, Lara Logan (CBS News -- link has text and vidoe) notes Camp Ashraf is their location:
Ashraf is home to Iranian opposition members from the PMOI --  or People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran. These people are the reason Iran's nuclear program was exposed --  it was their intelligence that brought it to the world's attention.       

But in Iran's eyes, they are a terrorist organization. The current Iraqi government agrees and the group is still on the U.S. blacklist, although it has been taken off the list of terrorist organizations by the EU.

Tehran wants their camp shut down, wanted members arrested and handed over for trial - and their organization destroyed.

But the U.S. has an obligation to the people of Ashraf. In July 2004, the United States Government recognized PMOI members as Protected Persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention, meaning that they should not be deported, expelled or repatriated, or displaced inside Iraq.

Now, as U.S. influence wanes in Iraq, Iran's influence continues to strengthen and grow. Through Iran's allies in the Iraqi government, a noose has been applied around Camp Ashraf and the people living there, and is slowly tightening.

So far that has meant stopping fuel supplies, cutting off logistic trucks -- allowing only limited shipments of food to the camp. This month, when Iraqi forces occupied a building that had been housing Iranian women, there were clashes with the camp's residents and several were beaten by Iraqi soldiers, until U.S. forces stepped in.
Over the weekend, the uneasy tensions between the Shi'ite government of al-Maliki and the Sunni "Awakenings" erupted as Sunni leader Adel Mashhadani was targeted and arrested.  The response in his Fadhil neighborhood of Baghdad was outrage and many took up arms against the combined Iraqi and US forces.  Several Iraqi soldiers were kidnapped (later released) and people were killed and wounded.  NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro (All Things Considered) reported yesterday:
The Baghdad neighborhood of Fadhil is on lockdown.  Dozens of tanks and Humvees, and hundreds of Iraqi troops backed by U.S. forces now control the area.  They are conducting house-to-house searches looking for weapons and wanted men.  Until this weekend, the U.S.-backed Sunni paramilitaries known as the Sons of Iraq kept security here.
[. . .]
But on the streets of Fadhil, several residents said they feel there were sectarian motives for the crackdown.  Approching an NPR correspondent, an older Fadhil resident angrily denounced the raid, shouting repeatedly, "This is a war against the Sunni areas."
Iraqi army officers quickly arrested him, abruptly accusing him of planting roadside bombs. 
Nearby, another woman cries out that the army arrested her son for no reason.  Dozens of other residents line the street, silently watching the security operation.
In this morning's New York Times, Rod Nordland reports on yesterday's situation and the US military's claim that Fadhil was now weapon free -- the US military is presumably military spokesperson David Perkins who is quoted throughout the piece.  Weapon-free, as the house-to-house raids went on.  That timeline is what had a friend at M-NF laughing this morning who noted that "Awakenings" have seen this coming and have no doubt stashed weapons which, in Iraq, would include burying them and a house-to-house search (even a thorough one which would take some time -- more than was spent yesterday) wouldn't turn those up.  Nordland explains, "Only a week ago, Mr. Mashhadani had complained publicly about late pay and lack of jobs, warning that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia might well return to his community."  And then he was arrested.  Not unlike the elderly man attempting to speak to NPR only to be seized with the 'excuse' that he was wanted for planting bombs because, after all, don't most bomb planters want to go on NPR -- I believe they all covet an hour with Terry Gross. 
Rania Abouzeid (Time magazine) reports today continued unease among the Sunni population over Nouri al-Maliki's latest stunt.  Sheikh Hamid al-Hayess tells Time, "The Sahwa has been infiltrated by al-Qaeda.  A civil war is coming."  (Sahwa, "Awakenings" and "Sons of Iraq" are three interchangeable terms.)  Abouzeid writes:
In recent months, al-Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliates have been regrouping, recalibrating their targets and tactics; they have recruited disenfranchised members of the U.S.-allied Sahwa movement, planting them as sleeper agents among the mainly Sunni neighborhood patrolmen, who number some 94,000 nationwide, according to a highly placed source close to the insurgency. "Many of the Sahwa have returned after seeking forgiveness, but they are still Sahwa," the source tells TIME. "They wear the government's uniform, but they plant explosives and sticky bombs. The Sahwa is the biggest recruiting pool for al-Qaeda." (See the most dangerous streets of Baghdad at the height of the insurgency.)
The source claims that some 40% of the Sahwa are insurgent spies. A senior source in the Interior Ministry who requested anonymity does not deny the infiltration but puts the figure closer to 20%. The Interior Ministry source says intelligence agencies are reviewing the Sahwa files. Abdel-Karim Samarraie, the deputy leader of parliament's defense and security committee and a senior member of the largest Sunni bloc, the Tawafuk, says that al-Qaeda moles represent a small minority of Sahwa but should be weeded out. "The Interior Ministry fired 62,000 of its employees because there were legal accusations against them. The same thing can be applied to the Sahwa." The U.S military did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Maybe true, maybe not.  No one knows.  For one thing known, we'll return to Paul Jay's interview of McClatchy's Leila Fadel for the Real News Network:
Now it isn't a 100,000 people being detained but there are hundreds of them being detained and the people that are being detained or are in exile are the ones that were the faces of the movement when it was really dangerous.  When if you joined the police, you were killed.  When there were headless bodies in the streets of Diyala Province.  This was at a time when this was a really dangerous thing to do and those types of guys, if you look at it now, are the ones who are really getting targeted.
Author of the new bestseller The Gamble, Thomas E. Ricks, noted at Foreign Policy yesterday:

I thought some of the surge-era deals in Iraq would unravel but I didn't think that would begin happening this quickly. It's only March 2009, and already Awakening fighters are fighting U.S. soldiers in the streets of Baghdad.            
Anyone who tells you that the Iraq war is over should be forced to memorize this paragraph from the Sunday edition of the Washington Post:          

"As Apache helicopter gunships cruised above Baghdad's Fadhil neighborhood, former Sunni insurgents fought from rooftops and street corners against American and Iraqi forces, according to witnesses, the Iraqi military and police. At least 15 people were wounded in the gunfights, which lasted several hours. By nightfall, the street fighters had taken five Iraqi soldiers hostage."            

That is Iraq 2009. Does it sound peaceful to you? Does it seem like the political questions vexing Iraq have been solved?
Turning to some of today's reported violence . . .
Laith Hammoudi (McClatchy Newspapers) reports 2 Baghdad mortar attacks which left five people wounded, a Mosul suicide truck bombing which claimed 4 lives and left thirty-eight injured, a Falluja sticky bombing which wounded one police officer.  Reuters notes a Baghdad sticky bombing  which claimed 1 life and that the Mosul suicide bombing claimed 7 lives and also a Mosul grenade attack which injured three people.
Today the US military announced: "AL ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq -- A Multi National Force -- West Marine died as the result of a non-combat related incident here March 31. The Marine's name is being withheld pending next-of-kin notification and release by the Department of Defense. The incident is under investigation." The announcement brings to 4262 the number of US service members killed in Iraq since the start of the illegal war.

Friend and filmmaker Rick Rowley comes to town with three films just shot on the ground in Iraq-- in typical high energy in-your-face style. Rick is joined by local IVAW organizer Carl "Davey" Davison and cutting-edge movement analyst Antonia Juhasz to do some collective thinking-discussing about how we can take on Obama to make the world a better place. Hope you can join us!

Please Invite your friends:
Bay Area Premiere
from the makers of "Fourth World War" & "This is What Democracy Looks Like"
A Big Noise Film
followed by a Public Discussion:
How Do We End Occupation & Empire Under Obama?   

Carl Davison, organizer with Iraq Veterans Against the War, served in the Marines and the Army, and refused deployment to Iraq. 
Antonia Juhasz, analyst, activist, author of Tyrany of Oil; The World's Most Powerful Industry--and What We Must Do to Stop It      
Rick Rowley, Big Noise film maker recently returned for Iraq.
Friday April 3, 7pm 
992 Valencia Street (at 21st), SF    
Everyone welcome, $6 donation requested, not required.         

Obama's Iraq is an evening of short films never before seen in America. Shot on the other side of the blast shields in Iraq's walled cities, it covers a very different side of the war than is ever seen on American screens. It reports unembedded from war-torn Falluja, from the giant US prison at Umm Qasr, from the Mehdi Army stronghold inside Sadr City -- from the places where mainstream corporate channels can not or will not go. Obama's Iraq asks the questions -- what is occupation under Obama, and how can we end the war in Iraq and the empire behind it? After the film, a public discussion will begin to answer that question. Join us.
Lastly, as Trina ("The economy"), Kat ("Stevie Nicks, music and TV") and Elaine ("Stevie Nicks") noted last night, Stevie Nicks releases her first ever live album today. (A DVD is also available -- and I believe it is her first made for DVD. Red Rocks and others originally filmed for home video were released on videotaped and transferred to DVD years later, but this is the first one recorded for the DVD technology.) That makes it big news but the fact that it's Stevie makes it big news period. The Soundstage Sessions is the name of the CD (or album downloadable at iTunes and Amazon) and Live In Chicago is the DVD.  Deborah Barrow (wowOwow) profiles Stevie today:
What's it like to be a rock goddess at the tender age of 60? "I would be lying to you if I told you it was easy. Our show is very hard and very long: two hours and ten minutes. Spinning around in seven-inch heels, it's long. You have to be in really good shape. You have to take care of yourself."      
In her new DVD, Stevie Nicks takes to the stage like the gypsy that she was: blonde hair to the waist. Morgane Le Fay wedding dress under a black jacket. Top hat. Feather. Ubiquitous scarves. As The Washington Post said about the Fleetwood Mac concert, "Nicks showed she still knows how to really work a shawl."