Thursday, October 29, 2009

Iraq snapshot

Thursday, October 29, 2009. Chaos and violence continue, the US military announces another death, the Iraqi refugee crisis continues, problems with the public inquiry into the Iraq War the UK government plans to hold, no election law passed by the Iraqi Parliament, and more.
Today the US military announced: "JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq – A Soldier who was currently assigned to the 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) died Wednesday of a non-combat related injury at Camp Adder, Iraq. The name of the deceased is being withheld pending notification of next of kin and release by the Department of Defense.The names of service members are announced through the U.S. Department of Defense official website at The announcements are made on the Web site no earlier than 24 hours after notification of the service member's primary next of kin. The incident is under investigation." The announcement brings the total number of US service members killed in Iraq to 4353.
Meanwhile Sunday's Baghdad bombings have pretty much erased the August Baghdad bombings ("Bloody Wednesday," "Black Wednesday," "Gory Wednesday," "Iraq's 9-11," etc.).  Press TV reports, "Iraq has arrested some 60 security forces over the weekend twin bombings which targeted government buildings in Baghdad, killing up to 153 people." The Sentinel states the 60 were compoes of "11 army officers and 50 security officials". Xinhua adds, "The arrested were in charge of providing security for a downtown Baghdad district which was hit by the deadly suicide attacks that targeted government buildings, Major General Qassim Atta said." BBC News notes, "The BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse in Baghdad says it is not clear whether those arrested are accused of negligence or collusion. However, he added, it seems to confirm what many people have suspected - that the security forces are susceptible to infiltration by insurgents or are just not up to the job." Reuters reports Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesperson for Baghdad security, "said that officers, foot soldiers and police in areas where attacks happen would be arrested in the future and placed under investigation."  Jomana Karadsheh (CNN) adds, Baghdad Governor "Abdul Razzaq said security forces made mistakes and were negligent in their work, and he demanded a court-martial for those who allowed explosive-laden vehicles to get through checkpoints." Karadsheh also notes the number arrested is 61. Timothy Williams and Mohammed Hussein (New York Times) explain, "The statement Thursday that announced the arrest order came from Baghad Operations Command, which is responsible for security in the capital and reports directly to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. The statement did not offer any further details, so it remained unclear whether the 61 security force members were suspected of having adied those who carried out the attacks."
The death toll for the Sunday bombings is at least 155 and does include children. Mohammed Jamjoom (CNN) reports:

The force of the blast threw Rawnaq against the wall of her office at the Ministry of Justice. She instantly thought of her two children in the day care center just two floors below.
"I rushed downstairs and found all the children under the rubble," says Rawnaq, "My daughter Tabarak was standing near the stairs. My son Hamoodi outside. Me and a colleague took them out, running. A police car drove us to the hospital."
Both children were injured, 3-year-old Tabarak much more so than her 2-year-old brother. Severe head and back injuries have left the little girl needing extensive surgery and unable to sleep due to unceasing pain. She is also deeply afraid.
Back in August, the day before Bloody Wednesday, Iraqi Thug and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was in Syria where he was demanding that nearly 200 Iraqis be handed over to Iraq.  It was all like a bad acid flashback since Nouri spent years in Syria and the Syrians refused to turn him over at the whims of Saddam Hussein.  Nouri was grateful back then, now he's just a raging drama queen.  Bloody Wednesday came the next day and Nouri immediately blamed the bombings on Syria.  He and his spokespeople and cabinet would sometimes say that it was former Ba'athists in Syria.  Sometimes.  Mainly they would rail against Syria.  That hasn't ceased all this time later. Phil Sands (Le Monde) offers today that "Syria is perhaps the only country in the Arab middle east that can truly claim to be independent from the US, and Damascus remains a thorn in the side of American regional ambitions. [. . .] In the post-Saddam Hussein world, the Iraqi government is jealous of its sovereignty, an independence that goes only as deep as the presence of more than 100,000 American soldiers on Iraqi soil allows. There is little sign a planned pull-out will be complete."  Syria has a huge number of Iraqi refugees and we'll turn now to the topic of Iraqi refugees. Joseph A. Kechichian (Gulf News) explains:
According to the International Organisation on Migration, there are still 1.6 million internally displaced Iraqis who cannot "return home". Many are trying to survive "without work, their own home, schooling for children, access to water, electricity and health care". These refugees are Iraqi citizens who are not represented in government but whose fates will probably determine whether the pool from which opposition forces can recruit bombers will shrink. As it is widely recognised, remnants of the Baath party or any number of the security services created by the old regime are still active, even if Baghdad and its allies continue to hearken to Al Qaida.
The United Nations' World Food Program has launched "a pilot project in Damascus" in which food vouchers are distributed "in the form of mobile phone text messages to Iraqi refugees. [. . .] Around one thousand families are involved in the four-month pilot phase, which will be extended if it is successful. The project has been developed in cooperation with the Syrian government, enabling the refugees to redeem their vouches in state-run stores in the Jaramana and Sayeda Zeinab neighourhoods of Damascus. The mobile phone service provider MTN has donated SIM cards for the project."  Cassandra Vinograd (Wall St. Journal) reported Tuesday, "In the WFP program, each family will receive one $22 voucher per person every two months. After each transaction, families will receive an updated balance, also sent by SMS to their mobile numbers -- free of charge. There are more than 1.2 million displaced Iraqis in Syria, according to government figures. To date, about 130,000 regularly receive food assistance from WFP with complimentary food and non-food assistance from the U.N.'s refugee agency."  Though some have criticized the WFP for targeting people with cell phones (under the mistaken belief that refugees wouldn't have them), Richard Spencer (Telegraph of London) reports, "The discovery that most of the 130,000 people to whom the organisation provided food vouchers had mobile phones gave officials the idea for the pilot scheme, to be targeted at 1,000 families in the first instance."  Laura MacInnis (Reuters) quotes Emilia Casella, WFP spokesperson, stating, "They will be able to exchange their electronic vouchers for rice, wheat, flour, lentils, chickpeas, oil and canned fish, as well as cheese and eggs -- items that cannot usually be included in conventional aid baskets." Saeed Ahmed (CNN) quotes Casella stating, "It infuses some contribution to the communities, because we're not giving food away. They have to go to the local shops to buy it." Staying with Syria, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expects more Iraqi refugees to flee to Syria as a result of Sunday's bombings.  EU News Network states UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic "told a delegation in Geneva earlier this month that the United Nations recommended the resettlement of more than 80,000 Iraqi refugees to other countries." Meanwhile UNHCR is building homes in Taza, Iraq following bombings there this sumemr which ledft many people homeless, "Immediately after the blast, UNHCR field staff visited Taza to assess the damage and to distribute emergency aid to the survivors. The team found that about 160 houses, mostly made from mud bricks, had been totally destroyed and some 400 damaged. As a result, around 3,500 people were left without shelter. The refugee agency immediately swung into action, funding the reconstruction of 150 collapsed homes and the renovation of 73 shops and two other buildings in Shorja Market. The work was carried out by an Iraqi implementing partner as part of UNHCR's emergency shelter programme which has helped rehabilitate some 10,000 conflict-damaged buildings for refugees and internally displaced Iraqis and aims to double this figure in 2010." But in Syria, IRIN reports, a significant number of Iraqis are attempting to win asylum "across the Middle East to Europe and North America" and they note, "A year after its launch, strikingly few Iraqis have taken up the UN's Voluntary Repatriation Programme. Less than 300 families from Syria have returned to Iraq under the programme, though the number claiming resettlement has grown rapidly."
The Chicago Tribune did a multi-article series at the start of the week on Iraqi refugees in the US.  The paper noted of one group: "Back home, they worked for the Americans, as translators, project specialists and office managers. For that, they received death threats from militants opposed to the U.S., and they ask to remain anonymous, fearing retribution against relatives in Iraq." Then there's Layla Mousa whose husband is in Jordan while she and their three children are in Chicago where she struggles to make ends meet, find work (she's a hair dresser) and rebuffs offers of payment for sex and states, "Now I want to go back to Iraq, not even Jordan. America is just a lie." Layla Mousa is among the Iraqi refugees who Ahlam Mahmoud attempts to asist even though she herself is a refugee: "She didn't have it easy herself. When she and her two children arrived in Chicago in 2008, she had only the clothes she was wearing when she left Syria, where, she says, she was imprisoned for refusing to spy on foreigners. The apartment they got in Chicago had three beds, one plate, a fork, a spoon and two knives." In Syria, Ahlam Mahmoud was also someone refugees turned to.  Using her own resourceful nature, she quickly began developing a network of assistance and advice.  Due to her connections, the Syrian government attempted to force her to spy on other Iraqi refugees. She refused and was thrown into prison.  When the outcry and attention became too much, the Syrian govenment ordered her released from prison and she was quickly transported to the US. Also attempting to assist other refugees is Fatima Hindi who became an Iraqi government official, was then kidnapped and sought Egypt and then the US for safety along with her three-year-old daughter Takwa.  She states, "They kidnapped me because of America. America couldn't protect me. When I first got here, I cried on the street."
Today Nancy Eshelman (Patriot-News) reports on Iraqi refugee Zina Alkubaisy who ended up in the United States with her husband and their children following her husband's kidnapping: "Alkubaisy began working the phones. She contacted people who knew people and eventually learned what militant group had snatched her husband. Her connections arranged to have him released the next day. But a chilling phone call warned the couple they would not be so lucky the next time. It would be in their best interest to leave the country." 
UNHCR is concerned about the fact that some European states have begun forcibly returning Iraqi originating from the region of Central Iraq over the last few months. In our guidelines issued last April, we noted that in view of the serious human rights violations and continuing security incidents throughout Iraq, most predominantly in the central governorates, asylum-seekers from these governorates should be considered to be in need of international protection. UNHCR therefore advises against involuntary returns to Iraq of persons originating from Central Iraq until there is a substantial improvement in the security and human rights situation in the country.                      
This reminder comes after the UK attempted to forcibly return 44 Iraqi men to Baghdad earlier this month. They were reportedly unsuccessful asylum claimants held in immigration removal centres in the UK. Iraq only accepted 10 who were allowed to leave the chartered aircraft in Baghdad, and the remaining 34 were returned to the UK and placed in immigration centres.                
Other European states have signed readmission agreements with Iraq for voluntary and forced return. Denmark has forcibly returned 38 people originating mainly from Central and Southern Iraq since signing its agreement in May 2009. Sweden has undertaken some 250 forced returns with an unspecified number of returnees originating from the five central governorates of Iraq since signing an agreement in February 2008. UNHCR has also concerns about the safety and dignity of these returns.    
Concerning asylum-seekers from the three northern governorates, as well as those from the southern governorates and Al Anbar, UNHCR recommends that their protection needs are assessed on an individual basis.    
Colin Yeo (Guardian) evaluates the UK Home Office's attempt to forcibly deport Iraqi refugees this month:
The second problem is a profound lack of understanding or respect for the rule of law at all levels of UKBA. Six Iraqis were taken off the removals flight because they had managed to get in touch with good lawyers. A high court judge was persuaded that the flight might be unlawful because the route and destination were unknown and Iraq is a highly unstable country, as the appalling recent bomb attacks and interviews with those who did return to Iraq vividly demonstrate. The flight was no less unlawful for the other Iraqis yet UKBA went on regardless, simply because the other Iraqis did not manage to get a lawyer. Some may disagree with the refugee convention and human rights law, but they are the law of the land and while they remain so they must be respected.                
But like an unruly toddler, the Home Office believes that what matters is whether they are caught, not what the rules are. Time and time again the Home Office is found to be acting unlawfully: on prolonged unlawful detention, secret policies, misleading the courts and failure to respect court judgments in the last fortnight alone. Substantial compensation is paid to some of the victims as a result. What UKBA fails to appreciate is that there are many, many more victims whose rights are violated but who never manage to secure the protection of the rule of law.
Friday's snapshot noted that Christians in northern Iraq were under attack again and weighing whether or not to leave Kirkuk. Richard Spencer (Telegraph of London) noted "Baghdad's dwindling Christian population. Even in the darkest days of Saddam Hussein's rule, it was a thriving community. Now it is half gone,d riven out by the casual lawlessness of the streets." Iraqi Christians make up a significant number of external refugees. (It should also be noted that Baghdad's Jewish community has been decimated since the start of the illegal war.) While much attention was given to the government buildings damaged and destroyed in Sunday's bombings, Adirenne S. Gaines (Charisma Magazine) reports that St. George's Church in Baghdad was also badly damaged. Though the issue wasn't important enough for the New York Times to put it in print, they did post a blog by Rod Nordland: "Built in 1936 by the British military during their occupation of Iraq, the church loast some of its famous stained-glass windows when the United States military bombed a nearby building in 1992, and more were destroyed during the invasion in 2003, leaving only three examples remaining. They were mementos of British regiments stationed there. Sunday the last three stained glass windows were blown out by suicide bomb blasts that destroyed three Iraqi government buildings nearby, according to the church's lay pastor, Faiz Georges." Episcopal Life notes the church has approximately 2,000 members.
On the issue of Iraq's religous minorities, Senator Carl Levin's office released the following statement Monday:

WASHINGTON -- Calling the plight of religious minorities in Iraq "a tragic consequence" of the war there, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., today introduced a Senate resolution calling on the U.S. government, Iraqi government and United Nations Mission in Iraq to take steps to alleviate the dangers facing these minority groups. Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., joined Levin in sponsoring the sense of the Senate resolution.
"While violence has declined in Iraq overall, religious minorities continue to be the targets of violence and intimidation," Levin said. "Members of many minority groups who have fled other parts of the country have settled in the north, only to find themselves living in some of the most unstable and violent regions of Iraq. We strongly urge the Iraqi government, the United Nations and the U.S. government to address this crisis without delay."
Of approximately 1.4 million Christians of various denominations living in Iraq in 2003, only 500,000 to 700,000 remain. Another minority group, the Sabean Mandeans, has seen its population decline by more than 90 percent. Iraq's Jewish community, once one of the largest in the Arab world, has almost ceased to exist.
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, members of religious minorities "have experienced targeted intimidation and violence, including killings, beatings, abductions, and rapes, forced conversions, forced marriages, forced displacement from their homes and businesses, and violent attacks on their houses of worship and religious leaders." The U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees reported that in 2008, there were an estimated 2.8 million internally displaced persons living in Iraq. Of that 2.8 million, nearly two out of three reported fleeing their home because of a direct threat to their lives, and, of that number, almost nine out of ten said they were targeted because of their ethnic or religious identity.
The resolution introduced by the senators addresses the tragedy in several ways. It states the sense of the Senate that the fate of Iraqi religious minorities is a matter of grave concern and calls on the U.S. government and the United Nations to urge Iraq's government to increase security at places of worship, particularly where members of religious minorities are known to face risks. The resolution calls for the integration of regional and religious minorities into the Iraqi security forces, and for those minority members to be stationed within their own communities. The resolution calls on the Iraqi government to ensure that minority citizens can participate in upcoming elections, and to enforce its constitution, which guarantees "the administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights" of minorities. Finally, it urges a series of steps to ensure that development aid and other forms of support flow to minority communities in Iraq.
Iraq is the source of more external refugees than any other country currently; however, Iraq does have refugees in its own country including the Palestinians who are trapped on borders and largely ignored by the global community as they live lives as prisoners, unable to leave Iraq and unable to leave the tented, border communities they've been exiled to since the start of the illegal war.  In addition to the Palestinians, there are the Iranian refugees of the MEK.  Welcomed into Iraq by Saddam Hussein decades ago, they've called Iraq home for some time.  The Iranian government doesn't care for them so you know Nouri's going to jump when that government snaps. Until 2009, the US was protecting the MEK who reside in Camp Ashraf.  Nouri gave the US government repeated assurances that he would respect the refugees.  Then, on July 28th, he launched an assault on Camp Ashraf.
Saturday Jamshid Karegarfar's account of what happened was published in the Washington Times:
The situation came to a head July 28, when some 2,000 Iraqi forces stormed Ashraf, and to add insult to injury, used American Humvees and weapons to do so, while the Americans stood by and watched. The attack left 11 dead and 500 injured - and the Iraqis took 36 Ashraf residents as hostages. I was one of them.      
At first, we were held outside Ashraf. During the first days of captivity we were severely beaten, and went through physical and psychological torture. Some of us who were run over by Humvees and hit by bullets were in excruciating pain.                   
Then, we were transferred to the local prison in the city of Khalis. From there, they took us to an Iraqi military intelligence detention center and finally to the prison at al-Muthana airfield.The goal was to break us down. But we refused to give in.     
In protestof the raid and being taken hostage, we went to a hunger strike and refused food for weeks, and we prayed for deliverance. We had no idea what was happening or why we were being held. And we had no idea of the support we were getting around the world.
The government or 'government' out of Baghdad can't help the refugees or their own people.  They can't even pass an election law apparently.  "If it doesn't make a deal before this weekend, Iraq will run out of time to organize an election before Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's term expires," Renee Montagne observed on today's Morning Edition (NPR).

Renee Montagne: What, Quil, is at stake with the delay of this election law?

Quil Lawrence: Well, as you say, the Iraqi prime minister and his government's term run out on January 31st so the election commission here has said they need 90 days to organize a legitimate poll and Parliament is deadlocked on over a dozen or so complicated issues regarding the election. They may vote on it today. If the elections are delayed or if they are rushed, there's a risk that Iraq's government could be deemed illegitimate and then a whole Pandora's Box of problems can open up -- issues of legitimacy of the government, maybe even a crisis like we've seen in Afghanistan. One big question is whether the US has done enough to push it through, especially since their plan to pull out 70,000 troops by August can't really start until the elections are done.

Renee Montagne: Well six years on the ground in Baghdad, hasn't the American embassy there worked up a fair amount of what you might call institutional knowledge regarding Iraqi politics?

Quil Lawrence: Well the problem is it took the Obama administration four months to get an ambassador confirmed and out here and that's taken that ambassador another couple of months to assemble a new political team. So he's got a good number of people with expertise in the region -- a good number of Arabic speakers -- but they've never been to Iraq before, many of them. So before they can have much influence, they need to learn who the players are and build these personal relationships with them and that could take months and years.

Renee Montagne: Although haven't American diplomats been, in a sense, pressing the flesh at the Parliament.

Quil Lawrence: There's been as many as six of them at a time over at the Parliament but it's sometimes curious who they're meeting with or not meeting with on the Iraqi side. And like I said, they're just getting up to speed so it's possible they could walk right past a very important Iraqi politician in the halls of Parliament and not even know him by face.

Okay, on the above. On pulling out troops (which is the draw-down, not the "withdrawal" as so many outlets keep insisting -- confusing the two in a way that even the White House doesn't) and how it can't start until after the election?

Yesterday, the KRG swore in their prime minister's cabinet. Yesterday. Elections were held in July. In December 2005, Iraq last held the national elections. Nouri comes along in April as the US-installed prime minister (after the US rejected the Iraqis first choice). In May, he announces his cabinet. Point? The counting of the votes, the verifying and assorted other issues mean the elections are not 'over' in January even if held then. As for a vote happening as early as today, CNN reports that as well but notes, "The Kurdish bloc in the Iraqi parliament intends to boycott the vote on a proposed election law if the oil-rich province of Kirkuk is banned from voting in next year's national elections, two Kurdish lawmakers say." Mu Xuequan (Xinhua) reports that "the Iraqi parliamentary legal committee again failed to reach a compromise over Kirkuk issue, and decided to delay Thursday's parliament session to Sunday, an official in the parliament told Xinhua."  This, Xuequan reports, despite efforts today by US Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill and the top US commander in Iraq Gen Ray Odierno to "urge" Iraqi politicians to pass a law.
No law was passed but violence continued . . .
Laith Hammoudi (McClatchy Newspapers) reports a Baghdad roadside bombing injured five people and a Mosul suicide bomber took his own life.
Laith Hammoudi (McClatchy Newspapers) reports an armed attack on a Mosul police checkpoint which left 3 police officers dead and an armed clash in Mosul in which one person was injured.
Today is the 2413 day of the Iraq War.  Jake Armstrong (Pasadena Weekly) notes that and other facts -- and he notes Iraq facts each week, by the way, in his "The Count." 
In England, Peter Walker (Guardian) reports that the inquiry into the Iraq War will hear evidence starting November 24th and that former Prime Minister Tony Blair will be offering public testimony. Chris Ames (at The Index on Censorship) reports:
As the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war announces its first public hearings, serious concerns about censorship and secrecy are beginning to arise. Some of those who are thinking about giving evidence are wondering how free they will be to do so and whether the evidence they present will ever see the light of day.           
Tony Blair's upcoming appearance at the Inquiry has taken centre stage, with his actions on Iraq threatening his bid to become the first EU president. While Blair won't face prosecution in this Inquiry for launching the war, witnesses fear they might be prosecuted for talking about it.             
Other political factors also play a role in the timing of the hearings, which will open on 24 November. Sir John Chilcot said that the Inquiry intends to stop these hearings during the general election campaign, expected in the spring. It appears that the move is intended to limit the possibility for highly charged appearances or new disclosures to influence voters. This should not be a consideration for the Inquiry, which is supposedly independent of government.                              
Chilcot has also suggested that the Inquiry's report, which is not expected until at least the end of next year, might not be published in full but might include a secret annexe dealing with intelligence matters.                             
Meanwhile in Malaysia tomorrow and Saturday, Meena L. Ramadas (Sun Daily) reports, a tribunal, the War Criminal Conference and Exhibition, will be held which will hear from "a Sudanese reporter and a Briton who were detained without trial in Guantanamo Bay" "in an effort to bring Iraq war perpetrators to justice."  Tun Mahathir bin Mohamad (Malaysia's prime minister from 1981 to 2003) will be the keynote speaker and he states, "International institutions and the courts established by the United Nations charter have done nothing in dealing with war crimes. Even the powerful nations like the United States and the United Kingdom have done nothing."
War is big business.  Tom Fowler (Houston Chronicle) reports that with KBR getting less work in Iraq, it "reported a 14 percent drop in third-quarter profit". KBR insists it did professional work.  Few not currently working for KBR who've seen their work in Iraq make the same assertions.  KBR's shoddy work may be responsible for multiple deaths of US citizens -- death by shower. On the topic of death by shower,  Jeremy Scahill's "Pentagon Investigation Iraq Electrocution Death" (The Nation) reports:

The Department of Defense has confirmed that the US Army Criminal Investigation Command has launched a formal investigation into the electrocution death of 25-year-old Adam Hermanson, a US Air Force veteran-turned private security contractor who died in a shower at the compound of his employer, Triple Canopy, at Camp Olympia inside Baghdad's Green Zone on September 1, 2009. The State Department's Regional Security Office is also investigating.                
The DoD appears to be placing responsibility for the deadly incident squarely on Triple Canopy. "As part of the terms and conditions of the JCC-I/A contract, Triple Canopy is solely responsible for providing billeting, showers, latrines and other life support activities to its employees at Camp Olympia," according to Under Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter. Hermanson is the nineteenth US soldier or contractor to die from electrocution in Iraq since 2003.                 
KBR denies having anything to do with the wiring which, if true, would mean they weren't responsible for the above shock . . . just approximately 230 other ones.
The heartbeat went out of our house
The rhythm went out of our romance
But in life that happens and you just have to remember to breathe . . .

That's from Carly Simon's "Coming Around Again" as redone on her latest album, Never Been Gone.  Today she was on NPR's Talk Of The Nation and discussed a variety of topics including singing with Lucy Simon in the Simon Sisters and recently on the phone. In terms of revisiting ten of her classic songs for the new album, Carly observes, "Yes, it was a very interesting kind of synergy between the old and the new." To hear her segment with host Neal Conan click here and note NPR online has paired it up with her 2008 concert which you can also stream. Click here to watch Carly on Monday's Good Morning America (ABC). Carly Simon appeared on NBC's Today Show yesterday and performed "You Belong To Me."