Showdown Looming

JUST OUTSIDE NAHR EL-BARED REFUGEE CAMP — Just at the edge of this now devastated refugee camp, the Lebanese Army is showing signs of preparing for a showdown with the “Fatah al-Islam jihadist group”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2007/05/more_violence_and_an_update_on.php.
Trucks full of ammunition have been seen rumbling north on the road from Tripoli toward the camp. Many of the Palestinian refugees who are able to leave have left, leaving fewer civilian targets to be hit — although the toll on that end is already crushingly high, too high for a people who have seen nothing but pain and hardship since 1948.
Since 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, an informal truce has held between the militants still holed up in the camp and the Lebanese army, but Fatah al-Islam has vowed to fight “until the last drop of blood” (usually a sign that they’re getting close to the last drop) and the Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr told al-Arabiya television: “Preparations are seriously under way to end the matter. The army will not negotiate with a group of terrorists and criminals. Their fate is arrest, and if they resist the army, death.”
At the moment, it’s still quiet up here. But it’s unclear how long that will last.

For those living in and near Palestinian camp, an escape

NAHR EL-BARED, Lebanon — Ali Said Mearbani, 64, mopped his brow and gratefully accepted a cool glass of water offered to him by a worker in the cafe. Mearbani had more reasons to be thankful, though. He had just escaped Lebanon’s latest war zone.
Mearbani lives in the village of Ard al Hamra, which borders Nahr el-Bared, the teeming Palestinian camp that for the last three days has been brutalized by a volley of tank shells, 155mm mortar rounds and machine gun fire from the Lebanese Army, which is in a fierce battle with Fatah al-Islam, a radical jihadist group.
Early Sunday morning, his four-story home was invaded by the jihadis, who forced him, his wife, his three daughters and his daughter-in-law into the basement before taking up sniper positions on his roof.
“They told us, ‘We won’t leave unless we’re dead,'” said Mearbani as he juggled cell phone calls from concerned relatives.
Three of the four were foreign, he said, saying he could tell from their accents that one was from Saudi Arabia, one was from Yemen and one was Sudanese. He said he couldn’t tell where the fourth was from.
Finally, after a terrifying night with his children huddled around him while shells fell around them, the women in the family — his wife and his daughter-in-law — went up to beg the Fatah al-Islam militants to leave them in peace.
They refused and soon the Lebanese Army was shelling his home. He only escaped because he had a friend in the Lebanese Army and was able to tell him where they were and what checkpoint he was near. The friend, a sergeant, told him to wear a white T-shirt so the Army would know he meant no harm. He did, and the Army spirited him out to safety.
Lebanese and not a Palestinian, he praised the Army for firing on every sniper position Fatah al-Islam had taken up.
“Even when they were hiding in a mosque,” he said, “the army shot at the mosque.”
Walking out of his home and through his village, he said he passed at least 10 dead bodies. “They were not from the camp, so I assume they were terrorists.”
Such scenes will be increasingly common when Lebanon’s latest violence eventually winds down. By the end of the day Tuesday, the death toll stood at about 67 people and thousands of refugees were streaming from the camp waving anything colored white.
At least 30 Lebanese Army soldiers, 18 militants and 19 civilians have been killed since Sunday in the worst violence to hit Lebanon since the end of its 1975-90 civil war, according to Army and Palestinian sources.
One civil defense worker in charge of collecting bodies, who gave his name only as Mazen, said there were “lots of bodies” just inside the north entrance to the camp where Fatah al-Islam, a radical jihadist group with an al Qaeda-inspired ideology and possible ties to Syria, was holding out against hundreds of Lebanese troops. He didn’t know, however, if they were fighters or civilians.
For the past three days, Fatah al-Islam’s positions have been hammered by 155mm mortars, tank blasts and 50-caliber machine gun fire from the army, but so far they seem to be holding fast.
As the worker moved to collect more bodies, Lebanese troops rolled up to the secured entrance to the cheers of dozens of young men from the the surrounding area. Atop their armored personnel carriers, the soldiers grinned and flashed victory signs.
Khoder Taleb, 36, the regional manager for the civil defense forces, said Fatah al-Islam had “hundreds” of fighters and that many were foreign. He said that two bodies around the corner, near the checkpoint and which reporters were not allowed to see, were burned because of an explosion, but their identity papers on them said they were Bangladeshis. There was no way to confirm this.
Another civil defense worker showed this reporter a photo of one of the bodies on his cell phone he said he had snapped and offered to take the reporter’s phone to snap more photos of the bodies. Taleb prevented him from doing so, however.
Around mid-day, a United Nations convoy entered Nahr el-Bared loaded with food, water, medicine and even generators for the camp, which has been cut off from most supplies since the fighting started on Sunday. Taleb al Salhani, a security officer for the convoy, said he was waiting for a cease-fire to be put in place before he would send his trucks in.
It was in vain, however, as when a truce appeared to be in place by late afternoon, his convoy was attacked while it was in the camp unloading its good. Robin Cook, Lebanon director for the UNRWA, said seven trucks went in, but three were disabled and were abandoned in the camp.
The Palestinians aren’t much liked by the Lebanese, who often blame them for starting the civil war in 1975. Palestinians, in turn, aren’t too fond of the Lebanese who host them because Beirut won’t grant them citizenship or allow them to work in almost 70 professions, consigning most of the 350,000 refugees to poverty.
Tuesday’s fighting continued intermittently throughout the day, with a long truce starting at about 4:30 and apparently holding so far through the night. Up to 10,000 panicked and miserable Palestinians have taken this opportunity to flee to another nearby refugee camp, Beddawi, also near Tripoli. Many hung white sheets from their vehicles or held white plastic bags out the windows. So desperate to escape that many were driving on flat tires.
By all accounts, they’re fleeing what many Palestinians call a massacre.
Between 30,000 and 40,000 people are wedged into a tiny area, barely a few square miles in size. Fatah al-Islam has taken over buildings in the area and in surrounding hamlets, often without fully ejecting the families living there. The Lebanese Army, in turn, is shelling those buildings, and often reducing them to rubble.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has said that dozens of buildings have been destroyed with the residents inside. The total number of casualties has so far been impossible to determine, however, as the Lebanese Red Cross has not been inside the camp yet. Joseph Boutrous, the North District chief of logistics for the LRC, said his men had managed to get to hospitals 17 wounded civilians on Monday and 10 wounded by mid-day Tuesday.
“We have 15 cars waiting to go in if we get a cease fire,” he said, surrounded by eager men ready to go in.
Later that day, a tentative truce took hold and his men took off. There is as yet no confirmation on the number of civilians wounded or killed.

Death of a Scientist

Some bad news of a personal nature out of Iraq today. A scientist friend of my former fixer in Iraq was shot and killed in traffic Monday:

BAGHDAD — A leading Iraqi academic and prominent hardline Sunni political activist was fatally shot by three gunmen Monday as he was leaving his Baghdad home, police said.
The killers escaped in a car after gunning down Essam al-Rawi, head of the University Professor’s Union and a senior member of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, according to police Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razaq.
The association is a Sunni organization believed to have links to the insurgency raging against U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies. The group has boycotted elections and stood aside from the political process.
An association official confirmed the killing of al-Rawi, a geologist, saying he was behind the wheel of his car and had just left his home for the drive to work at Baghdad University accompanied by two bodyguards.
The gunmen drove in front of al-Rawi’s car, forced it to stop, then sprayed it with automatic weapons fire, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal. One of al-Rawi’s bodyguards was killed and the other was wounded, the official said.

I wrote about Dr. Al-Rawi in June 2004 for Seed Magazine, shortly after I got back to Iraq. I don’t remember if the story ever ran or not as there was a payment dispute, but here’s the story I wrote:

The scientists among the shell casings
BAGHDAD — Dr. Isam al-Rawi, a geologist at Baghdad University, sweeps his hand over a set of dog-eared journals. The arc of his gesture continues on to include a bare laboratory with a few slices of rock samples, a sagging chair and a dripping sink. The room is mean, long and narrow, with barely enough room for a colleague to squeeze past al-Rawi carrying a tray of glasses filled to their chipped rims with Sprite. Finally his hand returns to the journals and books, and he points an accusing finger at them.
“I am a university professor,” he says. “I need books!”
Indeed, he needs a lot more than that, but few things sum up the current state of Iraq’s scientific crisis more than its lack of books and journals. Al-Rawi’s most recent acquisition is a photocopied version of the 1998 edition of the Atlas of Rock Forming Minerals, which he bought in Libya on his last trip outside Iraq. His most recent journal, a copy of the Geological Society of America Bulletin, dates to August 1985. To a one, his books and journals are old, out of date and falling apart, much like the country’s scientific community itself.
Before the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq’s scientists were some of the most respected in the region and they made a good living. The country’s universities churned out engineers, technicians and Ph.D.s. They often did post-graduate work in the West and had access to the world’s scientific literature. They traveled to scientific conferences all over the world.
But things started to get bad in the mid-1980s when the Iran-Iraq war was raging; Saddam Hussein began restricting access to scientific journals. After the disastrous 1991 war and the impositions of sanctions, things took an even graver turn. Salaries plummeted. Al-Rawi’s monthly income went from about $2,000 a month before the 1991 war to about $400 a month. New scientists and professors earned about $100 a month. They could not travel; they could not subscribe to periodicals, as they were forbidden by the sanctions regime. New books were too expensive. Much needed equipment, which was often marked as “dual use,” was prevented from entering the country. The Middle East’s most advanced scientific community was effectively sealed up in a time capsule.
But now, even with most of the restrictions gone, things are still hard 15 months after Saddam Hussein was removed from power. While scientists are no longer prevented from ordering new books and journals and are allowed to leave the country, they often can’t for the simple reason that they have no money to do so. And a sinister series of killings has terrified and decimated the scientific community. In mid-June, Sabri Al-Bayati, professor of telecommunications at the college of Science and Education at Baghdad University was shot dead near his home in the Bab Al-Athamiya area in central Baghdad.‏ A few days previously, a physician, Dr. Mohammed Abdullah Faleh al-Rawi (no relation), was killed while sitting in traffic. Their deaths are just two of about 250 university professors, medical doctors and engineers who have been killed since May 1, 2003.
“No one knows why, no one knows who,” al-Rawi says, and flicked his prayer beads back and forth.
In such an environment, there is no work on new research, says Dr. Nuhad Ali, a mechanical engineer at the university. The only money being spent is to keep up the salaries of the professors, and the only new equipment are some computers paid for with the now-defunct oil-for-food program. The universities aren’t even accepting new graduate students, Ali says. All current graduate students, who used to receive a monthly stipend, were enrolled before the war.
But not all is hopeless, two solid state physicists, Dr. Izzat al-Essa and Dr. Raed al-Haddend, says they had been able to attend the Saudi Solid State Physics conference in Riyadh in March. The praised the lifting of travel restrictions, but says it was still very expensive.
Baghdad University was also lucky. Almost every other university in the country was looted in the civil unrest following the fall of Baghdad. But American troops decided to bivouac on the campuses of Baghdad University and the nearby Al-Nahrain University neé Saddam Hussein University. Their presence prevented the wholesale looting of everything down to electrical fixtures that was going on just across town at al-Mustansiriya University.
So now the scientific community must rebuild with limited financial resources in a security vacuum. It’s no wonder there’s an abiding sense of hopelessness among the professors. Al-Essa and al-Haddend dream of X-ray machines, electron microscopes and FT-IR spectrometers. Al-Rawi wants to replace his 1974 X-ray fluorescence machine so he can analyze some rock sections he recently took near Perispike in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. Dr. Emad T. Bakir, an industrial chemist with a specialty in polymers, hopes for research assistants, catalysts and solvents.
But the money is simply not there. The former administrator for the now-dissolved Coalition Provisional Authority L. Paul Bremer III was found of saying, “Iraq is a rich country that is temporarily poor.” The new government is inheriting many of Iraq’s old debts, including $29.8 billion for war reparations to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but the Transitional Administrative Law, which is the working constitution for the interim government, forbids deficit spending. All ministries, including the Ministry of Higher Education, headed by Dr. Taher Khalaf Jabur al-Bakaa, are feeling the vice grip of national poverty. The minister doesn’t even have a bullet-proof vest; he can’t afford one.
But if Iraqis are good at anything, it’s hoping. The scientific community is no exception. Fueling this hope is a promise promise from Bremer. Before he left June 28, he said he would attempt to increase communications between American scientists at universities and their Iraqi counterparts. An Iraqi delegation recently returned from the University of Oklahoma whose president Bremer went to school with.
“We hope our friends in America and England will come to see what has happened to us,” says al-Rawi.

It should be noted that almost all of the murders of university professors have gone unsolved. Al-Rawi was working to change that when he became a victim himself.

Haggling over Amnesty

Muhammad over at Iraq the Model blogs on the seven (or six) insurgent groups coming in from the desert and proposing a truce.
He doesn’t really add much to my previous post, but he does have an interesting comment:

So far, everybody in Iraq feels good about Maliki’s plan and expressed their hopes for it to meet success and ease the suffering of the Iraqi people; everybody except for the Sadrists and the association of Muslim scholars who both criticized the plan and said it wasn’t acceptable and expected it to fail.

I’m not in Baghdad anymore so I have no idea if “everybody feels good” about the plan. I doubt that’s true, but I’m sure most people _want_ to feel good about it. That’s not my point. What’s interesting is the point he makes about the Association of Muslim Scholars, which is also the Muslim Clerics Association “I mentioned previously”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2006/06/coming_in_from_the_desert.php. The MCA, headed by Harith al-Dhari has alleged connections to the 1920 Revolution Brigades through al-Dhari’s son, Muthanna, and which is allegedly one of the groups seeking a truce. What gives?
I’m not sure at this point, but I suspect al-Dhari’s playing both sides of the field at this point, withholding his group’s support for more concessions from the government, while dangling the 1920 Revolution Brigades as a tease. Politics in Iraq are like haggling in a bazaar: outrageous demands, emotional appeals, walking away… all just before agreeing on a final deal. Middle Easterners _love_ this stuff.
Moqtada al-Sadr, who commands the loyalty the Mahdi Army, is certainly doing the same thing. If anyone wants to be declared a legitimate, national resistance who should get amnesty for killing U.S. troops, it’s those guys. Not only are they guilty of “killing American Marines in Najaf”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2004/08/inside_the_imam_ali_shrine.php, they’re also heavily enmeshed in the Shi’a-on-Shi’a violence in Basra as they “jockey for position against their rivals”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2005/08/clashes_between_badr_and_sadr.php, the Badr Organization and the Fadullah Party. Have they killed Iraqis? Yes. Will they get their amnesty? Answer hazy; ask again later.

Coming in from the Desert?

Interesting. The day after PM Nouri al-Maliki introduced his “plan for national reconciliation”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2006/06/english_version_of_reconciliat.php, seven insurgent groups from the Ba’athist/Nationalist side of the insurgency have reportedly contacted the Iraqi government in order to offer a truce.
The groups include the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Muhammad Army (jaysh al-Muhammad), Abtal al-Iraq (Heroes of Iraq), the 9th of April Group, al-Fatah Brigades, and the Brigades of the General Command of the Armed Forces. The seventh group was not named by the Shi’ite legislator who says these groups are seeking the cease-fire.
The 1920 Revolution Brigades is allegedly led by Muthanna al-Dhari, son of Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, who is head of the Muslim Clerics Association, a hard-line Sunni group. Harith al-Dhari’s grandfather was a leading figure in the 1920 revolution and allegedly shot the English Col. Gerard Leachman, sparking the uprising against the British in the west. “I’ve written about _jaysh al-Muhammad_ before”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2005/10/a_note_on_jaysh_almuhammad.php, and you can read about its place in the greater insurgency.
And here’s a chart from IntelCenter “showing the linkages between the various groups”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/Files/Iraqi-InsurgentsLinks13Feb2006.jpg (283KB .jpg).
As for the four other groups, I confess I don’t have a lot of data on them.