Election Day

BAGHDAD—Almost one hour since the polls opened here, I’ve only heard one faint boom, and it was far away. So far, so good, knock on wood.

BAGHDAD—Almost one hour since the polls opened here, I’ve only heard one faint boom, and it was far away. So far, so good, knock on wood. I’ll be heading out shortly after we’ve had our security guys make an assessment of the safety situation.

But one thing is different. Before, as a Westerner, I felt a bull’s-eye on me whenever I left compound. Today, I think the kidnapping threat is less (the insurgents have better things to do today) so everyone on the street is a target. This gives me a feeling of solidarity and responsibility. If the Iraqis can go out there and risk their lives in the lines to vote, then the least I can do is the same to cover them doing it.

More later today as things develop. Let’s hope the worries of violence prove overblown.

8:39:11 AM (All times local Baghdad time): We have our first suicide bombing outside a polling place in Mosul. No word yet on casualties. Explosions in the Green Zone, probably mortars. Police report a car bomb in west Baghdad, with some casualties.

9:34:37 AM So far, not as much violence as everybody feared. The question is why? Is the insurgency taking a pass on this one? (It’s possible. Our sources in the insurgency say the election will make no difference to them, so why expend a lot of energy?) Is the insurgency much weaker than previously thought? Or is the level of security sufficient to keep it in check? If that’s the case, then that is discouraging, too, because the measures that have kept today safe (so far) are truly draconian. No driving, dusk to dawn curfews, states of emergency. If that’s what it takes to provide security in Iraq, why erase one police state only to replace it with another?

9:43:33 AM Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi just voted, and didn’t even bother to put on a tie. Casual-vote Sunday?

10:40:11 AM Just got back from the local voting station in my ‘hood, Karada, which is a heavily Shi’a neighborhood. The polling took place in the Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim High School, named for the former leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The security for the neighborhood is being handled by Iraqi Police, New Iraqi Army and Badr/SCIRI militiamen. And—quelle surprise!—the list topped by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the current leader of SCIRI and the brother of Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, is the favored list. Almost everyone is voting for that one in this area. But for all that, there were a lot of women, and everyone looked happier than I’ve seen them in months.

There were no Americans in sight, except for the Apache choppers circling above.

This is a safe neighborhood and turnout seems pretty good. I can’t speak for the other parts of the city or the country however, because despite assurances from the Ministry of Interior, press cars are being stopped at checkpoints and turned away. We’re all walking today, looks like.

11:32:34 AM Four suicide bombings, all in west Baghdad. Seven dead and several wounded. We can’t get to them because the bridges are blocked off and west Baghdad is on the other side of the Tigris River.

12:22:58 PM Sixth suicide bomb kills six people at a polling center in Baghdad. Unsure on where it is. Some of our other staff are our on the streets right now, and I’ll be heading out again when they get back. (We only have so much security.)

12:29:48 PM Interesting. I’m watching CNN International, and the shots of long lines and happy voters are almost all coming from Iraqi Kurdistan where the voters are motivated and the environment is (relatively) safe. The rub is that CNNi is not identifying the images as coming from Kurdistan; the only way I knew it was from up north was the single shot of someone waving a Kurdish flag. But if you don’t know what the flag looks like (red, white and green bars with a yellow starburst in the center), as I suspect most Americans don’t, you wouldn’t know the context of these images. Shi’ites are also coming out in droves in the south. But Sunnis are staying home. I will be surprised if the Sunni vote hits double digits at this point.

1:03:55 PM The Iraqi Army and Police have been very polite and even friendly at the polling stations, but several reporters have been shot at as they go about in their cars. (Which is why I’m walking around as soon as my security guys get back.)

1:15:38 PM Nine suicide bombs in Baghdad alone, with at least 20 dead. A bomb went off near the home of the Justice Minister. There are a number of outgoing mortars from my neighborhood in the last 10 minutes.

4:56:55 PM Just got back from a couple of polling stations. Things have gone very smoothly, all things considered. Everyone out on the streets is happy, even the Iraqi security forces who will laugh and joke with journalists—the first time they’ve done it in months. I saw one American convoy patrolling around, but that was it. A few American choppers. But the promise to put the Iraqis front and center seemed to have been kept.

Interesting results from the two polling places I to: the Al-Amil Primary School and the Arabiya Preschool. Almost everyone voting is Shi’a, and the rush came around mid-day. By 2 p.m. when I was out, there weren’t a lot of voters. Most people are voting for Sistani’s list, No. 169, but a significant portion of women are voting for Allawi. They worry about the influence of the religious parties such as SCIRI and Dawa, which dominate No. 169.

The men, however, all voted for No. 169, because they felt it represented them and the people on it would act in the best interests of Iraq. Also because of the tacit support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. “It’s a patriotic list and it has the support of the marjariya,” said Hamid al-Mousawi, 39, an agricultural engineer. His six-year-old daughter, Abrar, also said she supported the Sistani list and said her father voting was “good” and that she wants to vote, too, when she’s old enough. One word: adorable.

“It’s the first time for the Iraqis to express their opinions,” her father said. “It’s the greatest national eid (holiday) for us.”

“It’s the future, in one word,” said Abdel Karim Ahmed, 51, an agent for the Ministry of Trade in charge of distributing food under the ration-card system. “We are going to elect who will represent us in the National Assembly.”

He declined to say who he was supporting, saying it was a secret ballot, which was completely understandable. But he did say he would waiting anxiously to see who if his list would get seats in the Assembly.

The polling stations were housed in schools, by and large, and several rooms were taken over for the balloting. In each, the cardboard screens were held together with red tape, and then the ballot was dropped in those plastic bins you see on television. The ones I saw were all about three-quarters full.

It was a marked departure from Iraq’s elections in the past, which Saddam won handily, of course.

“I feel like a free man,” said Muhammad Abad al-Badawi, a shopkeeper who had just finished voting. “For the last 35 years, we were electing nothing. They were fake elections.” He’s supporting Allawi, “because he’s a decent man” and he will fix the security situation.

But I have to say, it seems like he’s already fixed it, at least for today. Today’s highly restrictive measures are untenable, of course, and no one can live like this for long, but for a day, the insurgency was kept at bay.

Which is why, several of us journalists here are going to call this elections for the Iraqis. My friend Mitch and I were discussing this and regardless of who wins in the polls, the Iraqis won here and proved themselves—for a day, at least—stronger than the insurgency. And that’s a very big symbolic victory. A huge one, in fact, and Iraqis should take great pride in themselves. When they had the opportunity, they stood up and were counted. The real losers were the Sunnis who didn’t participate. They missed a golden opportunity to take part in a process that, while flawed, were the only game in town. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, and a civil war may still erupt, but if it does, the elected government—one elected by Shi’a and Kurds, for the most part—will have the moral high ground in it.

Desperation or Hope?

BAGHDAD—Tomorrow Iraqis go to the polls and, inshallah, will get a better government that they have right now… Eventually. But for now, Sunday’s vote is taking place at the intersection of optimism and desperation.

BAGHDAD — Tomorrow Iraqis will go to the polls and, inshallah, get a better government that they have right now… Eventually. But first they will have to vote, and that’s an activity fraught with peril.

The security situation is unreal. No cars tomorrow — except those with special passes, which includes media, cops, political guys, etc. in short, if you’re an insurgent and you hit a car tomorrow, you’re bound to get someone vaguely important. Only five polling stations in Baghdad will allow cameras or other electronic gear, so bear that in mind when you look at photographs of the election.

I’ll be out in the thick of it for a while at least… Out with my photographer and seeing what goes on. Not sure if I’ll be driving or walking. That will depend on my security guys. This is a free election? Insurgent pamphlets are being distributed that anyone walking to a polling center is a target. Several centers have already been blown up. The fear is thick enough to cut with a knife. The Iraqi security forces — with their American patrons — have tanks at the end of my street. Old Soviet T-55s, but tanks, nonetheless.

No one knows what’s going to happen, whether it’s the level of violence, the level of turnout or who will win. The Sistani-blessed United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) list is expected to do well, but I would be shocked if it got an absolute majority. My predictions for the elections:

The UIA list will get 30-35 percent, with the Kurdish list and Allawi’s list battling for second place. Allawi is polling much more strongly than I expected; his tough guy image plays well here and many, many Shi’a are suspicious of the UIA list, which is dominated by Shi’ites who spent time in Iran. Thousands of Shi’ites died to keep Iran from breaking through the Fao Peninsula in the 1980-88 Gulf War, and they’re not anxious to see the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution — widely seen as an Iranian cat’s-paw — come to power. Not too long ago, the Iraqi Interim Defense Minister, Hazim al-Shalaan, called the UIA list an “Iranian list.”

But, not surprisingly, Haadhi Al-Ahmeri, head of Badr Corps, more or less the military wing of SCIRI, took great umbrage with this. When I asked him about this, he drew himself up and scowled, saying Badr would not dignify the Defense Minister’s remarks with a reply. Then he went on to do just that.

“His statement was no different from statements from the former regime,” he said. “And as a result of that war, Iraq and Iran lost 100,000 men. The other result was to destroy the economies of Iraq and Iran. And after all of that Saddam admitted he was wrong.”

He paused and then said, “Does he, Shalaan, want another war with Iran? If he’s accusing Badr and SCIRI because they were in Iran, then where was he? If we’re agents of Iran, then he’s an agent of the country he lived in. Is Hazim Shalaan more popular in Iraq than Abdul Aziz Hakim and SCIRI? It’s a silly statement and it proves that he’s intellectually bankrupt. We don’t deny that we used to live in Iran. We would like to thank the Iranian government for their hospitality. And we would like to thank the Iranian people for their hospitality.”

(Not exactly a denial of Iranian influence now, is it?)

He went on to say that many Badr and SCIRI members were “martyrs” in the fight against Saddam’s regime and that the groups took pride in that. Then he said SCIRI and Badr were more popular with the Iraqi people. And finally, Shalaan is a liar when he says the Badr and other Shi’ite groups are behind the waves of assassinations in Iraq.

“Hazim Shalaan is telling lies to the Iraqi people,” he said. “Everyone knows that all the terrorism is done by the former mukhabarat people.” (Not entirely inaccurate — CA) They are more dangerous than Zarqawi, he said. “I’m not saying there are no foreign fighters,” he said, “but the financial support, training and sup-plies, logistical support — all of these things are from Ba’athists, from the mukhabarat.”

Who wins?

The UIA will get a plurality. Then Allawi or the Kudish list will be in second place with about 20 percent each. That leaves about 25 percent of parliament’s seats to be split among elder statesman Adnan Pachachi’s and president Ghazi Al-Yawer’s lists, as well as a number of minor lists including a Moqtada al-Sadr list and various tribal lists.

How this is going to work is the percentage of the vote a single list gets determines the percentage of seats in Parliament. If the UIA gets 30 percent of the vote, the top 82 slots of their list goes to Parliament. After the seats are allocated, the Parliament must choose a presidency council, with a 2/3 vote. The new council then selects a Prime Minister, who is approved by a simple majority vote in the chamber.

I’m going to go out on a limb here: I think Allawi will keep his job. The UIA list is a hodgepodge of Shi’a parties, both secular and religious. It’s a coalition for getting elected, but not for governing. Allawi’s list is more unified, with his Iraqi National Alliance party at the core. (Ahmed Chalabi and his Shi’a Political Council — the new version of the Iraqi National Congress — is on Sistani’s list.) I think once in Parliament, the UIA coalition will break, allowing Allawi to form a working coalition with the Kurds, al-Yawer and secular Shi’a parties from the UIA. This will give him the 2/3 votes he needs to form the presidency council, which will then go on to choose him as Prime Minister.

He could also end up being the compromise PM, when Dawa and SCIRI can’t agree. Allawi — a Shi’ite, secular but with no real ties to Iran — could be perceived as the least bad option. And flyers for the UIA list have been spotted that say, “if you like Allawi as Prime Minister, you can still vote for us.”

That’s not to say members of the UIA aren’t working to oust the old guy. Hussein Sharhistani, the former nuclear scientist and a serious contender for the Iraq’s prime minister slot if it’s not Allawi, was certainly robust in his criticism of the Prime minister.

“Iraqis were hoping that a government with authority to act and supported by the MNF would be able to improve the services for the people. But all the services have deteriorated measurably in the last eight months.

“He said his priority was security, and yet we see the security situation has deteriorated,” he said. “He has spent more time improving his own party membership.”

As for his own plans were he to find himself in Allawi’s seat, Sharhistani pointedly noted that he had been the first pick for Prime Minister job back in June 2003, but that he declined because he preferred to be elected rather than appointed. Like all good politicians, he expresses great reluctance for the power most plebeians would grasp after. And he continues to express his reluctance even as his eyes twinkle whenever the phrase “Prime Minister Sharhistani” is mentioned.

In the middle of all of this is the “campaign,” such as it is. Sharhistani said there was no current horse-trading between lists, but that some members of the Iraqi List — Iyad Allawi’s list — had misused their government positions to block legal campaigning by the UIA. He said he’s seen Iraqi police and National Guardsmen putting up posters of Allawi when they should have been working or, worse, intimidating UIA campaign workers and harassing them when they try to do the same. He added that such complaints were not widespread, however.

“Given that this is the first free election in Iraq’s history, one should expect some harsh words here and there,” he said archly. Then he proceeded to dish out some harsh words of his own, complaining that Allawi’s government was handing out “gifts” of cash to civil servants, students, teachers and others.

“The Iraqi people deserve a better democracy,” he said. “The exiles have lived in democratic countries and they know how they’re supposed to act.”

Then he whipsawed back to the generous mood of a man who thinks he will soon hold some power in his hands. Despite Allawi’s low-rent Boss Tweed-style politicking, it’s extraordinary that in the Arab world it’s being done at all. And also, it may not be enough! “It’s enough that the governing party is not going to be in the majority, but may not even be in second place.”

He predicts his own list to receive 40 to 50 percent of the vote.

“Why was it set up like this?” asks Hussein al-Mousawi, secretary of the Shi’a Political Council. “I don’t know why, but I know it was a mistake and it was a big mistake. And it’s going to let the Islamists have a majority.”

(He considers Sharhistani an Islamist, even though they’re both on the UIA list.)

Then al-Mousawi shifted to talking about where groups such as SCIRI are getting their support. In a word, Iran. Iran has long been suspected of supporting SCIRI and Dawa because of those groups’ Shi’a roots and long years in exile in Tehran. Appointing senior members like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI, and Jafari to strong positions of authority in the Iraqi Governing Council, and then in the interim government was a big mistake, al-Mousawi said, allowing these parties to use the levers of power to build their base of sup-port and reward their followers.

“Why has American been so stupid?” he asked. “It’s been the wrong structure from the beginning. It started with the Governing Council and just got worse from there. Why didn’t they support Chalabi? They should have supported democratic and liberal parties.”

Chalabi founded the SPC after his own Iraqi National Congress ran afoul of his enemies in the U.S. State Department and CIA, causing him to fall out of favor with the Americans. The suspicions of spying for Iran, lying about weapons of mass destruction and fiscal chicanery didn’t help either.

Americans are “foolish,” al-Mousawi said. “And they don’t understand what happens in Iraq.”

It is this attitude among the Chalabists and others on the UIA list that lead me to predict a split that will favor Allawi, who is anxious to win the election because he’s keenly conscious of his appointee-status and thinks that if he gets the voters’ nod, he will have the legitimacy to crack down on an insurgency that so far has resisted most efforts to contain it.

Democracy in Iraq is a “generations-long” effort, a U.S. official in Baghdad said, and the election is just the first step. “But it’s an event that needs to happen if you’re going to take the steps to see that democracy. You have to have these hopes. You need to believe you can get it done.”

The Sunni non-Vote

I have a bet with a Major in the American Special Forces here. He thinks Sunni turnout will be more than 50 percent; I don’t. He gets a free subscription to TIME if he wins. The stakes of the bet are low — for us — but for the Iraqis, they’re very high. If the Sunnis don’t turn out, the Parliament will be heavily weighted toward the Shi’ites and the Kurds. The Sunnis, already feeling the the tumbling feeling of falling from the seat of power they’ve occupied for centuries, will have less of a reason to back down and work at ending the insurgency, which is still a Sunni-dominated phenomenon.

“People in Mosul, Ramadi, Samarra want to participate, but they are scared,” said Dr. Sa’ad Abdul al-Razzak, a member of the executive committee for the Iraqi Independent Democrats, Pachachi’s group. No one will vote in Mosul, he said, because they are really scared. Security is the main thing, he said. “For this reason or another, they will not participate.”

He suspects few Sunnis would vote, and anecdotal evidence indicates that he will be proved correct. I’ve yet to meet a Sunni who plans to vote or has faith in the process. The concern among many is is that if the Sunnis don’t participate, the elections will be seen as illegitimate. “Many people from Arab countries will say this is not a correct election,” said al-Razzak.

Still, he doesn’t “necessarily” think there will be a full-scale civil war.

The U.S.’s insistence on the timetable mystifies al-Razzak. He said it grew out of the Nov. 15, 2003 agreement between Paul Bremer and the Iraqi Governing Council. He wanted mid-2005 for the election, but the IGC — which was heavily influenced by Kurds and Shi’ites, who have been pushing for the election the most — pressed for early elections.

“I know it is very important for Mr. Bush,” said al-Razzak. The Americans, he said, have only the relatively smooth experience of Afghanistan, which is very different from Iraq, he said. “They think they can do the same here. But this is our problem here. It’s important to restore security first.” He expects only 5 percent to 10 percent of the people to vote in the cities of Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah, Baqoubah, parts of Baghdad and the provinces of Diyala.

What happens next?

Well, the constitution is next on the agenda, then ending the occupation. Parliament will convene a committee to draft the constitution which will be voted on in October. But what will it look like? Islamic? Secular? Something in between? And who will negotiate a withdrawal of American forces? What will the outlines of the Memorandum of Understanding look like?

First of all, don’t expect a timetable from the UIA leaders. Even though they said a timetable was a central part of their platform when they introduced the list in December, high-ranking members of the list have now backed off that demand, conditioning it instead on the efficacy of Iraqi security forces.

“There is no one around the world who would accept occupation,” said Badr’s Al-Ahmeri. “But in Iraq, we live in unusual circumstances. If they [the Americans] leave, a lot of serious problems will appear.”

After security is established, then the Americans will be asked to leave. “We should have security services to protect law and order,” he said. “Then, maybe, at the end of 2005, we can start a dialogue to set up a schedule.” Not exactly the full-throated “Yankee Go Home!” most of his supporters are asking for, according to multiple opinion polls.

And then, there’s the inclusion of Sunnis in the constitution-writing process. There’s no stipulation that members of the Constitutional Committee must be elected, so there’s a window of opportunity to bring in Sunni leaders, tribal leaders and any number of representatives who haven’t participated in this election. This is the one sliver of hope. If the U.S. can convince/encourage/threaten the anticipated Shi’a-Kurdish leadership to reach out out to Sunnis, Iraq’s new government might — might! — not be a complete disaster that collapses into civil war.

“The hope is, even they choose not to participate in this election, they will have other chances,” said the U.S. official. “It only gets really desperate if the constitution falls apart. And if it comes to that, we’ll have to start from zero. And that will make all this look like a walk in the park.”

Speaking like a man who’s already in office, Sa’ad Jawad, head of SCIRI’s political department, attempted to reassure me that there would be no Shi’a-Sunni retribution when the Shi’ites got their hands on the levers of power. “Even if we get 70 percent of the seats, we will not exercise our right unilaterally to decide who the next government will be,” he said, with an air of aggrieved generosity. This is not going to be a Shi’a government or a Sunni government or a Kurdish government or Arab government or whatever.”

What will the constitution look like?

This is a good question. There are elements in the coming government — cough, cough, I’m looking at you, Sharhistani and Al-Ahmeri — who say they don’t want a mullah-run system like Iran, but that any constitution must respect the Islamic values and identity of Iraq. Sharhistani said the Iraqi people will not accept any law that goes against their Islamic principles. He also dismissed the Transitional Administration Law (TAL) as a starting point, saying that although there were many good things in TAL, there were several points that were unacceptable. He referred to the “three province veto” clause that allows the rejection of the permanent constitution if 2/3rd of the electorate of three provinces vote it down. He also cautioned that requiring the presidency council to unanimously approve of all laws, allowed any singler person veto power over legislation.

But the basic point is that the TAL was imposed by the Americans. “The TAL was passed by an unelected group,” he said. “It was the best that could be done under the circumstances.”

Al-Ahmeri goes a bit further. If he equivocates on the urgency to end the occupation, he’s spirited in his insistence that the constitution will be Islamic. What exactly that means, however, is unclear. In short, don’t expect the TAL to be the baseline for the new national charter.

“The TAL is not a constitution,” he said. “It was just an agreement to run the current set-up.”

To succeed the TAL, he said, “we would like to make a constitution to include all facts of life.” He said that the new constitution would be Islamic. “There was agreement in London, Sulahadin and in the TAL that Islam should be the official religion and one of the main sources” of legislation.

“We should not make any laws that would be against Islamic shari’a,” he said. But, he added, “We don’t want an Islamic government.” (Huh? — CA)

And while he denies any plans for a theocratic regime along the lines of what’s in Tehran, he argues, “Islam contains the real, practical mean-ing that your country and countries in the West have.” The principles of Islam will be followed, he says, pointing to how marriage and divorce law will be handled as an example. “Of course, we will not write it according to American tradition. We will write it to follow Islam.” Islam, if you read the Qur’an, “makes women like queens,” he said. And he sees no need to take inspiration from elsewhere. “Islam is a wealthy religion,” he said. “You don’t needs to take from other sources.”

So? What about Sunday?

Tomorrow is shaping up to be a big day. Lots of security issues, worries about the future and general anxiety. Will the elections be successful? What would constitute successful? To be honest, I don’t know anymore. A high turnout would definitely help, but even that may not be enough if the Sunni don’t come to the polls and can’t be enticed into the constitutional process. One thing is certain though: The insurgency will continue unabated. Our sources in the insurgency — the Ba’athists and nationalists, not the jihadis — pledge that Sunday means nothing. As long as Iraq is occupied by Americans and their puppets, “brought in on the back of their tanks,” as the saying goes, the violence will continue. And since I don’t see the government changing much, I don’t see much changing in Iraq. The infrastructure will continue to limp along or deteriorate further, Americans and Iraqis will continue to die, in large numbers in the case of the latter. And Iraq will further disintegrate into a failed state.

Now, I may be surprised by the turns of events here. And Lord knows I’ve been wrong before. But from here in Baghdad, people are voting not because they want democracy, but because they’re grasping onto anything they think will help. For Iraqis, hope is fleeting and life is short. This isn’t optimism, it’s desperation, and that’s no basis for a democracy.

Shahwani’s interview—Finally!

A while back, I mentioned that I would post the full al-Sharq interview with General Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, Iraq’s intelligence chief, from Jan. 4. I got snowed under by election deadlines, but here it is finally.

A while back, I mentioned that I would post the full al-Sharq interview with General Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, Iraq’s intelligence chief, from Jan. 4. I got snowed under by election deadlines—sorry about that—but here it is finally. More information on what the official line is on the insurgency. Shahwani’s generally been a good source, and I’m inclined to believe a lot of what he says—mainly because it matches a lot of what I’ve gotten from other folks.

What is your opinion about the number of the armed fighters in Iraq?

Officially call them terrorists because they are doing terrorism against the people and they are outlaws. Their number is between 20,000, 30,000, in the whole of Iraq, distributed in the Sunni area. The people who live in this area emotionally support them, and they are about 200,000 without offering them money or logistic support. For example, they don’t give any information about their activities if they have this information.

That means those 200,000 do not fight with the fighters?

It’s impossible that the fighters’ numbers reach 200,000. These are those who live in those areas where the fighters are active—for example the right side of Mosul is completely out of control—and in this area, the terrorist are very active without any information about them from the local people, and very often they offer them shelter (hospitality).

Are those fighters from one group or many different groups?

They are from the remnants of the Ba’ath Party, from Islamic extremists and others.

The Iraqis and Americans have claimed the Jordanian extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is behind this terrorism, but recently they’ve started pointing to the Ba’ath party and its leaders. Is there any changes or some new facts?

There are no changes, but the Ba’ath Party has been organized for a long time. What happened is they reorganized themselves and they are getting money and support from their leaders in Syria. Their operations are well-developed because or their large number, their experience and their financing ability.

How many Ba’athists are involved in the armed operations now?

I can’t tell the exact number but we expect the Ba’athists before numbered two million and if we expect 20% of them are involved now that mean the number is very huge and all of them are well-organized and armed and some start working with them after they found themselves jobless. Most of them are from the former Iraqi army.

Who leads these organizations now?

As we know the Ba’ath Party divided into many parts, and now there are three wings, the most powerful wing, which belongs to the former regime, got a large quantity of money.

Who are those leaders?

There is Izzat al Douri, Mohammed Unis al Ahmed, who is moving between Syria and Iraq and Sabawi al Hassan and other Ba’ath leaders who live in Syria.

Do you think that there is foreigner or Arab support?

They don’t need financial support. The Ba’ath Party, as you know, was the richest party in the world, and was gaining 5% from the oil benefits since 1970 for the party budget.

Has the Iraqi government asked the Syrian government to hand them over?

There have been such attempts, but there are no results so far.

But hasn’t the Syrian government denied their existence in their territories?

No. We are sure that they are in Syria and they are moving easily between Syria and Iraq border,

Are there any other Ba’ath leaders?

There is a group that split itself from the former regime under the leadership of the Taih Abdul Karim and Naim Hadad and both working inside Iraq.

Did the American military operations in Fallujah lead to a decrease in terrorist operations?

It became less only in Fallujah.

And in the rest of Iraq?

In gangs war which acted by the terrorism groups we can’t get the results as we get in the organized army war, or the traditional war. The goal from Fallujah operation was to destroy the terrorism gangs or to capture their members but the results in Fallujah we could not capture the terrorists or kill their leaders, we did not see or hear about capturing or killing any big leader of terrorism, all the leaders of the terrorism have left Fallujah before the operations started already.

And they went working in other sites or hiding outside Fallujah in each fight there is a goal and the goal of Fallujah operation was to destroy the terrorist and their leadership but the goal was not done actually in spite of the full controlling of Fallujah.

What are the sources of the armed group?

The Ba’ath Party, extremist Islamist organization like Ansar al-Sunna, Tawhid w’al-Jihad, Ansar al-Islam, the 1920 Revolution and other from these names and its reached about 12 groups.

All these groups you mentioned are Sunnis. Are there any Shi’ite groups?

The group of Moqtada al-Sadr was fighting just like the others before, but now there is no Shi’ite group carrying weapons against the government.

The statement of the Iraqi officials pointed to Iran and Syria consider them the two sources of supporting these operations, is there any changes in this subject?

I am personally did not notice any changes in their attitudes and the problems still coming from those two countries because the borders are open and the support is still coming in.

What are the effects of the armed operations on the elections process?

For sure there is a negative effects on the elections. Some of the Iraqi people will not be able to reach voting centers, and this will affect the election process.

What is the need for the intelligence system in a democratic regime?

There is no country in the whole world that has no intelligence system to protect the country and the people and monitoring the gangs like drug gangs and all other cases to stop them including all the cases that is related to the security of the country. Usually we observe and collect information to be delivered to the security forces so security forces can do its duties to protect the country.

Do you think that the armed operation will increase or decrease?

It depends on the election. We have to wait for the result and then we will see. As a security system we expect this kind of operations will decrease within one year.

What are the most unsecured areas in Iraq now?

Mistakenly, they call it the Sunni triangle, but there are other unsecured areas like Diyala, which has 50% of its population Shi’ite and also the north of Babylon, which is extended to reach Sowera and Salman Pak. All these areas are very difficult to reach, for example the area between Hadhar and Mosul its out of control and those armed group in the streets searching the people and also the area which extend from Sharqat down to Baiji and Samara. All these areas are unsecured in addition to Ramadi, Fallujah and its surrounding areas, while inside Baghdad there is Haifa street and Adhamiya and Dora and Ghazaliya and Airport road and all these areas are unsecured and dangerous and may God give those terrorists their punishment.

200,000 in the insurgency?

There’s been a lot of talk about the number of people in the resistance, with the head of the Iraqi Intelligence Services, the new mukabarat, being quoted as putting the number at 200,000 — more than the number of U.S. troops in country. He’s been widely misinterpreted.

BAGHDAD — There’s been a lot of talk about the number of fighters in the insurgency, with General Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, the head of the Iraqi Intelligence Services, being quoted as putting the number at 200,000 — more than the number of U.S. troops in country.

He’s been widely — and literally — misinterpreted. I have a translation of the original Jan. 4 interview in Al-Sharq newspaper and it’s clear he’s talking about the passive support of the insurgency. Here’s what he actually said, as translated by one of my fixers here in Baghdad:

What is your opinion about the number of the armed fighters in Iraq?

Officially call them ‘terrorists’ because they are doing terrorism against the people and they are outside the law, Their number is between 20,000 and 30,000, in all of Iraq, distributed in the Sunni area. [The “Sunni Triangle” — CA] And the people who live in this area and emotionally support them, are about 200,000 without offering them money or logistic support. As an example, they don’t give any information about their activities if they have this information.

That means those 200,000 do not fight with the fighters?

It’s impossible that the fighters’ numbers reach 200,000. These are those who live in the areas where the fighters are active. For example, the right side [western — CA] of Mosul is completely out of control and in this area, the terrorists are very active without any announcement [informing — CA] about them for the local people, and very often they offer them shelter (hospitality). (Emphasis mine.)

I can’t believe Juan Cole missed this. He speaks Arabic, and he reads al-Sharq, often citing it. I’m not saying that Shahwani is right. I have my own theories that I’d like to confirm before I publish them. I’m just trying to correct an erroneous notion that is being floated in the blogosphere right now.

Alas, I’m on a wicked deadline at the moment, but after that’s over, I’ll clean up the translation and post the whole interview.

Passing the electoral buck; Mosul next?

Things are certainly confusing here regarding the timing of the elections. The Allawi government is divided over the elections. The U.N. has said the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq has the authority to make the decision to change the election date. And the Iraqi government wants to pass the buck onto the U.N.
And the game of electoral hot potato continues.

BAGHDAD — Well, well. Things are certainly confusing here regarding the timing of the elections. The Allawi government is divided over the elections, with the defense minister saying the elections could be postponed and even President Ghazi al-Yawer saying the U.N. should look into the matter. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s office is sending smoke signals that we all squint to interpret. However, Foreign Minister Hoshi Zebari, a Kurd, says elections must go on as scheduled.
[UPDATE 2:35:28 PM +0300 GMT: Well, Allawi said today in a press conference that the elections would go on as planned. I guess that settles it. … Not.]
In all of this, the U.N. has said the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq has the authority to make the decision to change the election date. The IECI says it’s a political decision — it’s the government’s call, in other words. The Iraqi government, as I explained above, is divided and al-Yawer wants to pass the buck onto the U.N. … and the game of electoral hot potato continues.
In all of this, the U.S. stands firm on the Jan. 30 date. And why not? It’s not Americans will bear the brunt of the violence. And the ones who will — the soldiers — are pretty heavily armed. Not so for the luckless Iraqis who get caught in the violence while queuing up to vote.
Also, the Shi’a and the Kurds are standing firm on the date — and again, why not? They’re the ones who stand to gain the most from the elections, especially since their traditional oppressors, the Sunnis, will most likely not take part in large numbers.
So I can’t begin to tell you what’s going to happen. I’ve changed my mind on whether elections will be held on schedule twice now, from thinking the definitely won’t be held, to thinking they will be held come hell or high water to — now — thinking, well, maybe. I really just don’t know, and from the noises coming out of the Iraqi Government, they don’t either.
In other news, Qasim Daoud, the Iraqi national security advisor, just said an operation to clear out Mosul will begin “soon.” Since most of the Mosul embeds for my colleagues have been put off until Jan. 8, we should probably expect a major offensive up there somewhere between Jan. 10-15. I don’t know how long it will last.
I’m supposed to go up there tomorrow, but I may not be able to blog it, depending on the connectivity.

Iraqi President (sorta) reverses himself on election timing.

Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar, who, just a couple of weeks ago said the date of the elections were firm, now seems to think maybe the date is not set in stone.

BAGHDAD — Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar, who, just a couple of weeks ago said the date of the elections were firm, now seems to think maybe the date is not set in stone:

Iraq’s president urged the United Nations Tuesday to look into whether the country should go ahead with its scheduled Jan. 30 election despite violence threatening to scare voters away from the polls.

“Definitely the United Nations, as an independent umbrella of legitimacy … should really take the responsibility by seeing whether that (timing) is possible or not,” Ghazi al-Yawar told Reuters in an interview.

Iraq’s interim government and its American allies have repeatedly said that the vote would not be delayed. But Yawar said the polls would fail if a raging insurgency kept a significant number of Sunnis away from voting stations.

“Definitely the United Nations, the party who is independent, who cannot be threatened or intimidated and who is credible in the international community, should really stand up for their responsibilities and obligations by saying whether that is possible or not,” he said.

“On a logical basis, there are signs that it will be a tough call to hold the election.”

There’s no doubt it will be a tough call. But as I argued previously, based on my reporting, there’s really no legal way to change the date. But perhaps it’s not as iron-clad as I was led to believe:

Iraq’s temporary constitution, endorsed by the United Nations, calls for elections to be held by end-January. The U.N. has said only Iraq’s Independent Electoral Commission can change the poll schedule. The Commission says changing the date is a political decision that would require wide consultation.

So maybe I’ll win that $5 bet I made with a colleague that they’ll delay the elections after all. I mean, I’ll admit that while there doesn’t appear to be any legal way to postpone the election, people may eventually bow to reality and just not hold them. I’m sure the Iraqi Bar Association would eventually recover. And the U.N. is used to being snubbed by now, I guess.

Oh, hell. I’m just giving into despair. From my perspective on the ground, it seems like a really foolhardy idea to hold an election when high-level officials are being assassinated, multiple car bombs are going of every day and U.S. troops — to say nothing of Iraqi civilians — are dying all the time. But hey, guys in the south say things are cool! And Sadr City has garbage pickup now.

Admittedly, the south is a lot better off than the center and west of the country and garbage pickup is progress, but such forced silver-lining spotting seems bit like bailing sea water with a thimble while you’re on the Titanic.

On another note, embed starts tomorrow, not today. And there’s a rumor that Abu Masoub al-Zarqawi has been nabbed. It’s from ITAR-TASS, however, so take it with a big grain of salt. Right now, American military spokespeople I contacted are neither confirming nor denying it — which probably means someone big was captured around Baqoubah, but they’re working to confirm the identity. Might be al-Zarqawi, might be someone high up in his organization. It’s too soon to tell and I’ve not heard back from my sources on the ground there.

(I know this talk of “sources” is frustrating. It is for me, too. But I don’t want to betray someone’s safety, and I can’t go out to these places myself. So I have to report by remote control many times. It’s far, far from the ideal, but Iraq has become the land of what’s necessary and what’s possible.)

[UPDATE 7:12:17 PM +0300 GMT: I’m hearing from the Embassy that they think they may have someone who looks like him, but it’s not al-Zarqawi.]

[UPDATE 8:03:37 PM +0300 GMT: The spokesman for Task Force 1-6, operating around Baqoubah, says, “We dont have him, and not sure where these rumors start.”]

Off on an embed

I thought I’d have time to work up some more stuff on Iraqi politics, but an embed I’ve been wanting to get in on has just come through, and it looks like I’m leaving for it tomorrow. I expect to be gone a week and it’s unlikely I’ll be blogging while away…. But when I come back, I hope to have some good stuff to put up.

Well, hell. I thought I’d have time to work up some more stuff on Iraqi politics, but an embed I’ve been wanting to get in on has just come through, and it looks like I’m leaving for it tomorrow. I expect to be gone a week and it’s unlikely I’ll be blogging while away. My apologies.

But when I come back, I hope to have some good stuff to put up. Until then… stay safe.