Tsunami donation

B2I money goes to tsunami relief efforts

The B2I fund has been languishing in PayPal limbo for some time, so I was surprised today when I checked it to see there is $800+ in there. My apologies for not acknowledging the donations. But what I’ve decided to do is donate the entire amount in the account to one of the aid agencies for tsunami victims. (Probably ICRC or MSF.) Since I’m not actively soliciting donations anymore, nor blogging as much, I think this is a much better use of the donated funds than wasting them on my sorry ass in Baghdad.
I just wanted to let everyone know that that’s what their donations have gone to.
UPDATE: Just to let you all know… I’ve sent in $885.40 to Doctors Without Borders and marked it for special distribution to the tsunami victims. I hope it can do some good.
Please, if you feel the need to donate, do it to someone who can help those folks and not me. I don’t need the cash, but thousands and thousands of people do. Try the following aid agencies:
* “American Red Cross”:https://www.redcross.org/donate/donation-form.asp
* “UNICEF”:http://www.unicefusa.org/tsunami
* “Médecins Sans Frontières International”:http://www.msf.org/donations/index.cfm
* “Oxfam”:https://secure.ga3.org/02/asia_earthquake04
* “Direct Relief International”:https://www.directrelief.org/sections/support_us/d_donate_now.html
I hope that people will help through these agencies.

Christmas in Baghdad…

Christmas in Baghdad kind of sucks.

Happy Holidays, everyone!
Baghdad is cool and slow today, this Christmas Eve, and the Green Zone has become even more fortified, if that’s possible. The entrance where journalists are allowed to go in looks like Normandy Beach, with tank caltrops, razor wire and sandbagged defensive positions that have taken over half of Tahir Square. A Bradley squats in the middle of a briar patch of concertina wire facing out into the city, ready to shred whoever would be so foolish as to attempt to storm this Fortress America.
There were very few Iraqi civilians manning the checkpoints, too, and when I asked one of the 1st Cav soldiers if they had fired the Iraqis, he said, “We didn’t get rid of them; I guess they just decided not to show up today.”
Perhaps the Mosul suicide attack have led to a breaking of the trust between Iraqis and Americans working together. That would be a crushing win for the insurgents. Or it just might have been Friday evening on Christmas Eve, and no one wanted to work. Many of the Iraqis working in the Green Zone are Christians.
Speaking of Christians, this is possibly the “worst Christmas ever”:http://washingtontimes.com/world/20041224-090128-5890r.htm for Iraq’s Christians. What used to be a pretty fun holiday for all Iraqis has almost completely vanished from the streets. Iraq’s Christians are staying in, keeping their heads down and hiding their faith because of fears from _jihadis_ who have bombed churches, threatened families and leafletted neighborhoods warning the Christians either to convert, to leave or else.
Back in September, I wrote about the “Christians’ flight from Iraq for TIME”:http://www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,995198,00.html. (Paid archive, sorry. Note to TIME: Let the stories go free!) This modern exodus has continued apace, with Christians numbering about 500,000 now, down from 800,000 before the war. And even that’s down from a population of 1.2 million before the Gulf War in 1991. It’s yet another tragedy in the breakdown of Iraqi culture since the invasion in March 2003 — especially since George W. Bush has made his own Christian faith the central pillar of his personality and presidency. Ironic, no?
Finally, I will be on a C-SPAN call-in show at 7:30 a.m. EST (egad) with Robb Harleston on Sunday, Dec. 26. I understand the questions on such shows can be … creative.
Happy Holidays everyone. Wish us peace here in Iraq. We need it.

Suicide bombing?!

Mosul appears to have been a suicide attack by Ansar al-Sunna. I’m stunned they were able to pull this off.

The Pentagon has admitted that it appears the Mosul attack was a suicide bomber. From a press release:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 22, 2004 — It appears that a suicide bomber was responsible for the attack on the mess hall at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul that killed 22 people Dec. 21, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said during a Pentagon news briefing today.
Of the 22 dead, 13 were U.S. servicemembers, five were U.S. civilian contractors, three were Iraqi security force members and one a “non-U.S. person,” Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers said. Myers briefed the press with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
A total of 69 others were wounded: 44 U.S. servicemembers, seven U.S. contractors, five Defense Department civilians, two Iraqi civilians, 10 contractors of other nationalities and one of unknown nationality and occupation. “Twenty-five of the 69 who were wounded were returned to duty,” Myers said. Others are being transported to Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany.
The chairman said investigators in Mosul said that at this point it “looks like it was an improvised explosive device worn by an attacker.”

Well, looks like my “lucky shot” thesis was wrong. Really wrong. I just didn’t imagine that a suicide bomber could get on a Forward Operating Base, walk into a dining hall and blow himself up.
What the hell? How the hell does this happen? He must have had help from inside, which means the Iraqis working with U.S. forces in the bases have just had their lives changed forever. Whatever bonds of trust between Iraqis working with U.S. forces have been frayed — perhaps to the breaking point.
I’m just stunned that insurgents were able to get inside and do this. This also makes the debate over whether the still-under-construction concrete dining facility was behind schedule moot. A concrete roof wouldn’t have made a whit of difference. This was an attack from inside.
How was this allowed to happen?

Hell in the North

The attack in Mosul was the single biggest attack in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. It won’t be the last.

The attack in Mosul yesterday was the single worst attack against U.S. military personnel in Iraq to date. U.S. military spokesmen in Baghdad say 19 American soldiers were killed and three other military personnel were killed. (Probably Iraqi military, as I don’t think there are too many other nationalities up there.) Other reports put the number of dead at 24 and include contractors and Iraqi civilians in the toll. Needless to say the situation is confusion and such discrepancies are normal in the “chaos following such events”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A17891-2004Dec21.html.
[UPDATE 1150 +0300 GMT: In a release dated today, the U.S. military says, “Of the 22 people killed, 14 were U.S. military personnel and the remainder four U.S. civilians and four Iraqi Security Forces. Of the 72 wounded, 51 were U.S. Military personnel and the remainder U.S., other country civilians and ISF. Twenty-nine people have been released from the hospital.”
“Other reports”:http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2002127159_iraq22.html say 15 U.S. military dead and five civilian contractors. Two Iraqi soldiers were killed. The same report says the attack was a 122-mm rocket, although “some security experts said the extent of injuries indicated that it was possible a bomb had been planted inside the hall.”]
_The Washington Post_ “reports”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A17892-2004Dec21.html: “Before yesterday, the worst incidents were the deaths of 17 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division in the November 2003 collision of two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, also in Mosul, and, two weeks before that, the loss of 15 soldiers when a CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter crashed west of Baghdad. All three occurred after President Bush’s May 2003 declaration that major combat operations in Iraq had ended.”
The insurgent group Ansar al-Sunna claimed responsibility. An offshoot of the Ansar al-Islam group, which operated mainly on the Iranian border near Halabja in the Kurdish areas before the war, Ansar al-Sunna is made up of Salafists and a few nationalists and former Ba’athists. It is friendly with the Wahhabi groups such as Abu Massoud al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and it has a significant Kurdish membership, reflecting its roots in the north.
I’m doubtful that it conducted a suicide operation, as Ansar al-Sunna has claimed on its Web site, although I suppose it’s possible. It’s more likely it was a mortar or a rocket that finally managed to hit something. U.S. bases are peppered everyday with incoming indirect fire, but they usually fall harmlessly. This time, however…
But a real question is why were these soldiers sitting down to lunch in a soft-roofed structure? They were in a tent with concrete walls while a hardened dining facility (DFAC) was being built nearby. The new DFAC was supposed to be ready by Thanksgiving, I’m hearing from my guys up there, but it wasn’t. Why not? Was there a screw-up? Was it just that some things take longer than expected in the military some times? Was it because of too many attacks that slowed down the construction? I don’t know, and I’ve not been able to get any answers, because the public affairs officer for Camp Marez turned his phone off last night or it was out of the coverage area.
Iraq is beginning to look more and more like Lebanon in the 1980s. Sectarian violence, a brewing civil war and now a large attack on U.S. forces. In 1983, “241 Marines were killed”:http://www.beirut-memorial.org/ in a suicide truck bombing that led to the pullout of U.S. forces from that beleaguered country.
In the same _Post_ article I referenced above, experts are worried that this attack may show either the ability to gather precise intelligence from _inside_ U.S. bases or mark an escalation of violence that could end in a storming or ground assault of a U.S. base.
As the article continues: “If anti-American violence does hit a new level, pressure is likely to increase on the Bush administration to either boost the U.S. military presence in Iraq or find a fast way to get out.”
Indeed. And neither option is a good one for the White House. With the war already “increasingly unpopular”:http://news.ft.com/cms/s/846d780a-5394-11d9-b6e4-00000e2511c8,dwp_uuid=c1a5b968-e1ed-11d7-81c6-0820abe49a01.html, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld even more so, what will the political fallout of this attack be? Especially if it turns out that the Camp Marez dining tent was the equivalent of a “hillbilly armor” humvee?
In all of this, please remember that although for the American public, the deaths of their countrymen and countrywomen obviously hit close to home, it is the Iraqi public that is really suffering. The twin attacks in Karbala and Najaf two days killed more than 70. and literally hundreds of Iraqis die every week month in violence. The security situation is dire and it’s likely to get worse as the elections approach. There will be many more grieving families in America and Iraq before this is all over.

Options in Fallujah and about those elections…

My friend George over at Warblogging has a post today on the proposed ID system for Falujahns when they return to their shattered city. George is not amused. Here’s why he’s wrong.

My friend George over at _Warblogging_ has a post today on the proposed ID system for Fallujans when they return to their shattered city. George is not amused.
In short, the plan — as reported in “various media”:http://www.boston.com/news/world/articles/2004/12/05/returning_fallujans_will_face_clampdown/ — will mean that

troops would funnel Fallujans to so-called citizen processing centers on the outskirts of the city to compile a database of their identities through DNA testing and retina scans. Residents would receive badges displaying their home addresses that they must wear at all times. Buses would ferry them into the city, where cars, the deadliest tool of suicide bombers, would be banned.

George, and others, compare this to the Warsaw Ghetto in World War II, along with all the Nazi imagery you can imagine.
I’m not so sure I buy this. While I think the solution proposed is distasteful and highly unlikely to improve Americans’ rock-bottom standing in Iraq, I fail to see any realistic alternative. The problem is this: Fallujah was a nerve center of an insurgency that has killed U.S. soldiers and thousands of innocent Iraqis. (It wasn’t the brain or the hub, but it was an important staging area.) How do you let the citizens back while keeping the insurgents out while keeping it a free and open city? Well, after some thought, I think that you just can’t let it be a free and open city.
Is this a violation of Fallujans’ rights? Or course. But does the good it _might_ do for the rest of the country outweigh the bad that is done in Fallujah? That’s the question. I’m not sure what the equation is, but allowing insurgents back into Fallujah is not really an option.
The real crime here is not the requirement for Fallujans to wear ID badges or even to make the men work at reconstruction. The real crime is that poor planning and wishful thinking regarding the future of 25 million people has narrowed the universe of available options to a series of iron-fisted tactics that range from horrible to truly catastrophic.
The straitjacket election schedule isn’t helping matters either. Again, all the options are bad. Holding elections on Jan. 30 means that the Sunnis — about 20 percent of the country — will be excluded from a process that will result in a permanent constitution. This is not a scenario that suggests stability, even if Sunni members of the new 275-seat national parliament are somehow appointed. If the elections aren’t seen as legitimate by the Sunnis, they won’t see the resulting Constitution as legitimate, either. Can you say continued insurgency?
But postponing the elections is a non-starter, too, because the Shi’a will be royally pissed off. Sistani and the rest of the _merjariya_, the Shi’a religious leadership, have been working on elections for months. Dawa, SCIRI and Bayt al-Shi’a have been organizing and getting their lists together. They are fully expecting to win the elections and take the majority of seats in Parliament and form a new government.
But the stability in the Shi’a areas is tenuous. There are signs the Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army may be moving into positions to cause trouble again. Any moves to postpone what the Shi’a regard as their rightful opportunity to finally assert their control over Iraq as the majority party could be the trigger that starts a new insurgency. And with the rumors that Shi’a militia have formed to exact revenge on Sunni militia, you have yet another seed for sectarian conflict. There are real reasons for concern.
(Aside: The newly formed Shi’a militia, it is said, has a wicked cool name: The Fury Brigade.)
Sistani was only reluctantly persuaded to drop the idea of direct elections in June this year after U.N. special representative Lakdar Brahimi convinced him it wasn’t possible. Could he be persuaded a second time? I don’t know. I have hope that he could be, as he’s not completely unreasonable and the prospect of an election day carnage with Shi’a as the bulk of the victims might be too much for him to take.
Brahimi has said the country is in no shape for elections and many Sunni groups are pleading for postponement. But Dr. Farid Ayar, the spokesman for the Independent Election Commission in Iraq, told me that elections would not be postponed for “any” reason. Well, he allowed, maybe if an earthquake destroyed every city in Iraq, “including this convention center,” then maybe they would delay the elections. Or if all the planes carrying the ballots crashed and burned, they might delay the vote for five days to print new ones.
That Farid sure is a jokester.
[UPDATE: One commenter said the U.S. should just pull out, which is the same position that “George holds”:http://www.warblogging.com/archives/000991.php. I disagree and the spectre of civil is “why.”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/000807.php#000807 (Read down a bit.) In short, civil war on top of a major source of the world’s oil supply would mean astronomical oil prices, possible collapse of the U.S. — and world — economy and regional conflict that could lead to Turkish and Iranian interventions. Does that sound fun? I didn’t think so. And that’s not even considering the human cost.]
For what it’s worth, I think the elections will be postponed a while — and I even have $5 riding on the decision — even though there’s no legal framework to postpone them. That may just be my still-intact naïveté that with an insecure situation that would see 20 percent or so of the country disenfranchised and the fears of a high body-count, the U.S. and its allies in Iraq won’t be so obstinate to force flawed elections down Iraqis’ throats. I’m fully prepared to be wrong and pay that $5. I just hope the Iraqis and the Americans are prepared to pay a much higher price.
So you see why I’m not up in arms over the plight of the poor Fallujans. The problems of Iraq are so huge that forced name badges in one town are just the symbols of a much greater problem — which is poor planning, sectarian tensions and unrealistic expectations from a country that may be ungovernable except under a dictatorship. Don’t diminish the horrors of the Nazis by such facile comparisons. The Holocaust was policy; the Tragedy of Iraq is a series of horrific blunders.

Back in Baghdad

I have returned to Baghdad as of Monday. The city is as chaotic and choked as ever, but the level of violence in the last few days has been less than I expected. I’ve only heard two explosions near my house in eastern Baghdad, and they were far away. I get the impression that the Green Zone is not attacked as much. Perhaps I was wrong to pooh-pooh the Fallujah offensive… Or perhaps the insurgency has just gone to ground for a while.

BAGHDAD — I returned to Baghdad on Monday. The city is as chaotic and choked as ever, but the level of violence in the last few days has been less than I expected. I’ve only heard two explosions near my house in eastern Baghdad, and they were far away. I get the impression that the Green Zone is not attacked as much. Perhaps I was wrong to pooh-pooh the Fallujah offensive… Or perhaps the insurgency has just gone to ground for a while.
For the average citizen of Baghdad, however, things are not great. Queues for petrol are hundreds of cars long — up to five or six kilometers in some places. The wait is hours long because of the cold weather that is settling in, made all the worse by a worsening electricity situation.
In October, when I left, most people I spoke with said it was up to a four-hours-on, two-hours-off schedule. Now we’re back to one- or two-hours-on, five- to six-hours off. And generators can only run for six hours or so at a time before having to sit idle for a little while. It’s unclear why the electricity is so bad after it seemed to be improving for a while. The electrical heaters that more people are running use more juice than air conditioning, so perhaps that’s the reason.
The mobile network is collapsing, too, but everyone knows the reason for that: Insurgents are targeting the transmitters. Half the time, the phones don’t work at all, forcing us to rely on our satellite phones. Of course, the average Iraqi doesn’t have one of these, so they get an unreliable landline or nothing.
Yesterday was my first full day back in the city, and I started out by planning to take a ride-along with the minister of Housing and Construction, Dr. Omar al-Damluji. Things didn’t quite work out as planned.
My photographer and I got to the ministry at about 10:30 a.m., later than I wanted. Traffic (izdiham, in Iraqi Arabic) has become so bad that it takes 90 minutes to two hours to go anywhere, whereas before, during the summer, one could get anywhere in the city in half an hour, tops. Anyway, we got there, and didn’t get to see the minister. We were kept waiting for 30 minutes or so until armed guards and other aides suddenly rushed into the foyer and hustled us out the door into a courtyard. “Yella! Yella!” (“Let’s go! Let’s go!”)
We were bundled into one of the cars in the convoy — a fleet of white SUVs which might as well have “SHOOT ME” in big red letters on them — and took off. Within the first few hundred meters the SUV behind us rear-ended us causing our driver to swear into his radio at his colleague behind him. It was not something that inspired confidence. Nor did their behavior in traffic. It was amateur hour. The drivers tried to surround the minister’s vehicle, which was conveniently a different color than the others for easy spotting through RPG sights, but they consistently left large gaps between vehicles wide enough for the proverbial large truck. This is very bad driving when it comes to protective convoys. They seemed to think high rates of speed and liberal use of the horn would protect them. I sat in the back and fretted about an ambush.
This was not part of the plan. The plan was to follow along at a discreet distance in our own cars so that if something happened, we wouldn’t be part of the convoy. Now, I was in one of the vehicles — the unarmed one. I also imagined big irony arrows pointing at my vehicle. I had just arrived the day before. My photographer was leaving the next day. If fate has a sense of humor — and it often has a demented one — we were the perfect kidnapping targets.
But we made it to the inspection site without incident, although not without some hair-raising moments of reckless driving. But the “inspection site” was actually the al-Hamourabi Construction Co., which is fully owned by the Ministry. Again, we had to wait. Again, I didn’t get to see the minister as I was promised and again, I fumed out in the lobby.
Finally, a flunky brought me and my photographer into the room to behold His Excellency. He was holding a meeting and didn’t bother looking up as we came in. For 90 minutes he listened to his subordinates and answered their questions about concrete and tar factories. Then he told them he wanted all the factories profitable so they could be privatized and sold on the Baghdad Stock Exchange, noting approvingly of Margaret Thatcher’s actions in Britain in the 1970s and ’80s. Later, in the few minutes I had with him after the meeting, he admitted that he also wanted foreign investment but that he worried that if the companies weren’t profitable, there wouldn’t be any buyers.
Now, this is a big issue in Iraq. Many Iraqis point to former Iraqi Proconsul Paul Bremer’s economic program — such as it was — as a source of resentment, which fuels the insurgency. His policies led to widespread unemployment as Ba’athists of every stripe were kicked out of their jobs and the Army was shut down. Now, unemployment is bad enough that even a few hundred dollars to shoot an RPG at an American humvee is worth the risk of being attacked by soldiers’ .50-cal, which does terrible things to human flesh.
“The insurgency is fueled by unemployment,” al-Damluji said. “The workers need good salaries, dignity. Otherwise, someone from the outside will pay them $300 to attack here and there. And they will do it.”
But considering the role the state has played in Iraq’s economy for the last several decades, a program of privatization is likely to be unpopular. I’ve not had time to do any deep reporting on this, but I suspect there’s a good story there.
After this conversation, we decided to leave early, but because of the lack of phones and our own transportation, I sent my translator to go back to the Ministry, get our phones and send our drivers back to get us. We would all meet at the house. Unfortunately, some time after my translator left, His Excellency tired of inspecting the al-Hamourabi Construction Co. and decided to go home. The Ministry was closing up. We couldn’t return to the Housing Ministry with him because by now, my translator was already on his way home and our drivers were on their way to pick us up. And we couldn’t wait for the drivers because, we were told, we couldn’t wait in the company’s compound. Everyone wanted to go home. It was 2 p.m.: Quitting time in Baghdad. We were welcome to wait on the street outside the metal gates, however.
That didn’t seem too smart, and the irony arrows glowed ever brighter. So, after discarding my mother’s advice to never get into a car with strange men, we ended up taking a ride with some guy who worked at the company. He was named Ali, and he was nice enough, but I was very worried that at any minute we would learn that we had, actually, been kidnapped. However, fate’s sense of humor was otherwise engaged and we returned home all right, and Ali even tried to refuse the small payment I offered him. (He ultimately accepted when I insisted.)
Bullet dodged.
It was an interesting day. It reaffirmed my belief — sorely tested over the last few months — that kindness and honor isn’t dead in Iraq, even toward hapless foreign-looking guys like myself. It also caused me to wonder whether things might now be getting better in the realm of security, while infrastructure again takes a downward turn. Of course, I may be fooling myself about the security, for as I wrote this, I heard more explosions and nearby gunfire. It’s probably nothing serious, but it’s worrying nonetheless.
Ah, welcome to Baghdad.