What Politicians Say

Politicians say a lot of things — very few of which should be taken seriously.

BAGHDAD — Lately, there’s been a lot of talk: reconciliation talks, talks about the government, talks about Sunni-Shi’a partnership, talk, talk, talk.
Don’t listen to most of it. While many are thankful all-out civil war was averted after the violence of the last five days, many others are still spoiling for a fight and now distrust their leaders. In the south, I just heard, many Shi’a in Karbala are very angry over the decision by Moqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Organization to stand down, angry over the public shows of national unity between al-Sadr and other Sunni leaders. My fixer from Karbala tells me the mood in much of the south is, “The politicians just want to keep their positions and they’re willing to sacrifice our lives and our mosques for themselves.” He was especially alarmed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call to form more tribal militias to protect the Shi’a.
Karbala is a stronghold of Sistani, who is usually considered a moderate. Chew on that for a while.
He thinks that while this week didn’t spark a full-on conflagration, it will take only one more massacre, one more bombing for this can of gasoline we call Iraq to burst into flame. I tend to agree with him. The government talks are pointless unless something is done about the various militias that are staking out territories and security portfolios. Sunni policemen patrol western Baghdad while Shi’ite Army troops patrol the Shi’ite eastern half. Meanwhile, SCIRI and the al-Sadr Current compete for who can be the most anti-American. They’re barely keeping their militias in check. They’re not leaders; they’re captives of the passions they inflame.
On the Sunni side, the Muslim Clerics Association is calling for its followers to be prepared to descend on Baghdad and protect their comrades and their mosques. Weapons are being stockpiled in the western neighborhoods and roadblocks are going up at the ends of streets.
What Iraqi politicians say to U.S. Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad and to Green Zone-based reporters is largely meaningless. What is much more influential is what they say to their followers through sermons in the mosques, their tribal allies and pernicious whisper campaigns. For example, shortly after Wednesday’s bombing, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim said Khalilzad bore some responsibility. Although he recanted shortly after, the calls for Khalilzad’s expulsion were as strong as ever in mosques loyal to SCIRI and the Badr Organization on Friday.
Not to be outdone, al-Sadr said in Basra it made no difference if Khalilzad stayed or left, as long as the occupation remains.
“Listen, loved ones, look what the feeble-minded want us to do,” he said in Basra. “They want us to expel the U.S. ambassador. No, we want to expel the occupation, not the U.S. ambassador.” He added: “Whether the U.S. ambassador leaves or not, what will that do if the head of the snake remains here? Cut off the head of the snake, then the entire evil will go away. So we want the occupation troops to leave Iraq, even according to an objective [mawdu’i] timetable, as they call it.”
For the last 18 months, we’ve been in a low-grade civil war. The Askariya bombing kicked us up to “medium-grade,” I guess you might call it. Both Sunnis and Shi’a I’ve spoken with are waiting and preparing for it, and that very preparation might make for a self-fulfilling prophecy. For to many Iraqis, it’s only a matter of time.

Attack on Doura

As I type, the mixed neighborhood of Doura, to the south of me, is reeling under a mortar barrage. The refinery there is on fire, it looks like. Fifteen people have been killed and 45 wounded as of last count. I have no idea how many mortars have landed, they’ve been so numerous. The sky is abuzz with Coalition choppers and Iraqi Army units have been seen crossing the Two-Story Bridge from Karradah to Doura.

BAGHDAD — Well, maybe “I spoke too soon”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2006/02/dodging_a_bulle.php.
As I type, the mixed neighborhood of Doura, to the south of me, is reeling under a mortar barrage. The refinery there is on fire, it looks like. Fifteen people have been killed and 45 wounded as of last count. I have no idea how many mortars have landed, they’ve been so numerous. The sky is abuzz with Coalition choppers and Iraqi Army units have been seen crossing the Two-Story Bridge from Karradah to Doura.
Doura itself is a mixed neighborhood, with both Sunni and Shi’a residents. For months now, it’s been a very nasty place and it’s the current HQ for Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters in Baghdad. You don’t go to Doura unless you’re looking for trouble.

Server problems

Ack! Server problems.

I seem to be having some server problems. When you attempt to see an individual entry, most people are only seeing a blank page. And forget about comments, etc. The work-around is to just read the entry on the “main page”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com.
I think this has to do with my server in NYC. I’ve been thinking of moving to a new server anyway, with cheap rates and reliability. Can any one suggest a service? I really don’t want to move this over to TypePad.
Thanks for your patience and your advice,

Dodging a Bullet?

We may have dodged the bullet. The immediate threat of violence seems to be ebbing, but tomorrow will be the first day without the curfew and that will be a test of the new environment.

BAGHDAD — We may have dodged the bullet.
Readers of this blog in recent days know that I’ve been very alarmed about the violence going around me. I don’t live in the Green Zone, so I’m not insulated from it as much as they are, and I don’t give much heed to diplomatic happy talk. But so far today, it seems quiet around Iraq and politicians seem — for the moment, at least — to have convinced their followers to stand down. The Sunnis have made noises about coming back to the negotiating table and that’s a good sign. There also was no evidence of any conflict between various parts of the security forces, which was a chief concern of mine, considering how deeply embedded the various militias are to the police, Army, etc.
But still… The curfew is due to lift tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. Baghdad and its surrounding towns are still piano-wire tense. The potential for mayhem remains high. That said, I hope we won’t see a resumption of violence tomorrow, despite the carnage of the past four days.
It is as yet impossible to tally up the death and destruction, but many (mostly Sunni) shrines and mosques have been either occupied and rededicated, damaged or destroyed. At least 200 people have been killed across the country and it’s probably higher. I simply don’t believe the Iraqi “government’s” assertions that only a few mosques were damaged and the loss of life much less than reported in the “exaggerating” media. The track record for truth-telling by Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s “government” is too tarnished to take their soothing words too seriously.
But, as I said, perhaps we dodged a bullet on this. I said in an earlier post that we would be very, very lucky to avoid a civil war. Well, we may have gotten so lucky.
This time.

Where Things Stand Tonight

It’s Saturday night in Baghdad, and it’s been an busy day. The funeral of a well-known journalist was attacked west of Baghdad and one person was killed and four people injured. On the way back to town, it hit an IED destroying a car or two. An unknown number of people were injured, but no one (else) was killed, thank goodness.

BAGHDAD — It’s Saturday night in Baghdad, and it’s been a busy day. The funeral of a well-known journalist was attacked west of Baghdad and one person was killed and four people injured. On the way back to town, the funeral procession hit an IED, which destroyed a car or two. An unknown number of people were injured, but no one (else) was killed, thank goodness.
In Karbala, a car bomb exploded at a police checkpoint on the outskirts of the Shi’ite holy city, killing several policemen and an unknown number of civilians. Weirdly, a man was apprehended nearby who allegedly detonated the bomb via remote control. Reports are that he said the real target was the shrine to Imam Hussayn in Karbala, which holier than the Askariya shrine destroyed in Samarra.
One of my staff members reports that there is fighting on his street tonight, and several neighbors have already been killed. He lives in a primarily Sunni neighborhood in west Baghdad.
The curfew was extended today to 6 p.m., but it is to be lifted tomorrow at 6 a.m. We’ll see what happens. Right now, there’s a feeling that the tension has eased somewhat, but that may be false security. Shi’ite militiamen, probably Mahdi Army, and Sunni gunmen fought pitched battles in the streets of southern Baghdad yesterday and today, while the Iraqi police and Army — praised by the Americans and the Iraqi “government” for their professionalism and efficacy — stood by and watched. During the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the Lebanese Army sat out much of the conflict there, allowing militias free reign. The same is happening here in Baghdad today.
It’s clear the authorities, at least the ones who appear on television with titles such as “Defense Minister” and “U.S. Ambassador,” have no clue what to do. Their strategy seems mainly to consist of betting that Moqtada al-Sadr and the hardline Sunni group, the Muslim Clerics Association, “really will make nice”:http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,18278442%255E1702,00.html. Four sheikhs associated with al-Sadr and MCA spokesman Abdel Salam al-Qubasi publicly pledged a “pact of honor” and promised to end attacks. That’s nice. While these men were on television playing political footsie, we had reports that their followers were still trying to kill each other. There’s a real history here of saying one thing and doing another. We’ll have to see.
More balderdash from the Americans, of course. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad gave another press conference tonight in which he said the Iraqi “government” was holding lots of meetings, and that was good. Also, the Iraqi “government” has decided to ban people “who should not have arms” from patrolling the streets. “I think the government decision to ban that was a good thing,” he said.
Well, sure. But in my experience, men with guns in their fists and rage in their hearts don’t wait around for their weapons license to come through when there’s killing to be done. And who is going to enforce this ban? The police? Badr Brigade members control the police of most of the southern cities. An entire Public Order Battalion in Baghdad is composed of Mahdi Army. In Anbar, most of the Army units are Shi’ites and Kurds. What happens when Mahdi militiamen run into a squad of their brothers in the police? Do you think they’ll turn in their guns? Or what happens in Anbar, where many of the police forces in the cities are now local (Sunni Arab) guys? Do you think they’ll confiscate the AK-47s of their _mujahideen_ brothers off to fight the Shi’ite members of the 1st Division down the road?
I don’t.
We have reached a point where the facade of the “political process” has been shredded. The real power lies — and has always lain — in the hands of the sheikhs, the clerics — especially Moqtada — and the gunmen. The politicians in Baghdad can continue their silly little exercise in government building and the Americans and the foreign diplomatic corps can tell their audiences in their home countries how much progress Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is making at building bridges with Saleh Mutlak. But we on the ground know the truth. We’re on the edge of a hot knife, and it’s getting hotter. There may be a pause now, but only for now. And we might have pulled back from the abyss just in time. This might end soon after all and my doom-saying will be proven wrong.
But I don’t think so. If there’s another bombing of a Shi’ite shrine, or some other massacre of Sunnis, then all bets are off. Sistani has already instructed his followers to take matters into their own hands if the government can’t keep them safe. For Iraqis, their fate appears to lie with the scruffy young men standing at the ends of their streets, not with the politicians in the Green Zone.

Head in the Desert Sand

In which the State Department demonstrates its cluelessness.


In Washington, the State Department insisted that US policy in Iraq was succeeding and denied that political negotiations had collapsed, only that they had paused. “Come on, let’s not blow this out of proportion,” said spokesman Adam Ereli. He denied reports of widespread violence, speaking of “some incidents”.

Look, I’m really sorry reality is intruding on your little fantasy but a lot of people are probably going to die in the coming days and weeks because of the idea that if you just repeat something enough times, it will come true.
Enough already. Shut your mouths; you people in Washington have caused enough damage already.

Journalist’s Funeral Attacked

A funeral in western Baghdad is attack because of police cars and fear.

BAGHDAD — In an ominous sign reminiscent of the atrocities committed in the Balkan Wars, the funeral of “Atwar Bahjat, an al-Arabiya journalist killed Wednesday”:http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=1655859, is under attack right now in a western suburb of Baghdad.
As I watched the coverage this morning, a correspondent traveling with the funeral party called into al-Arabiya, saying the funeral procession was under attack by gunmen in the neighborhood of al-Haswah, a Sunni area. The sound of gunshots could clearly be heard around the correspondent and there was a note of panic in his voice. Four people have been injured and one killed, so far.
The funeral procession was a mixed Sunni and Shi’a affair, because Bahiat, a stylish 26-year-old female correspondent for al-Arabiya who was killed Wednesday in Samarra as she was covering the bombing there, came from a mixed family. The funeral procession had police cars on either end of it, and this may have caused the inhabitants of al-Haswah to believe the procession was led by Shi’as coming to attack them with government support.
Tensions here are so high that any no one should think of moving between neighborhoods, or within a mixed neighborhood. The Americans have been almost invisible, except for an air presence. Apaches and Blackhawks buzz the city, snarling by overhead as their pilots watch the city’s militants entrench themselves for a battle that, from the ground, seems inevitable.