Hard at work

BEIRUT — Sorry for the radio silence. I’ve been hard at work on a story about Iranian influence in Lebanon and what it means for the region, and I’ve not had much time to blog.
But this “new reconciliation plan from Maliki”:http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/world/AP-Iraq.html is interesting, to say the least. Possible amnesty for killers of U.S. troops? No firm time-table for withdrawal, but Casey says “significant troop reductions by end of 2007”:http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/25/world/middleeast/25military.html. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out in American domestic politics. It seems, at first blush, to hand the Democrats much of what they’re asking for (conditions-based plan for redeployment), but it also seems to take away the Republicans’ and George Bush’s “Dems are ‘cut-and-runners'” card. I suspect the GOP will do an about face, say it’s what they wanted all along and run with it.
At least, that would be the smart thing to do. What remains to be seen is whether the Sunni insurgents will buy into this. I have a feeling a good portion will, although how significant that portion will be is unclear. “To those who want to rebuild our country, we present an olive branch … And to those who insist on killing and terrorism, we present a fist with the power of law to protect our country and people,” Maliki told Parliament.
This deal has been in the works for a long time, since November 2004, actually. Michael Ware of TIME, now CNN, reported on the secret negotiations between the Ba’athists and the then-Allawi government and the U.S. military commanders. If Maliki is announcing this, there’s a fair chance that most of the kinks have been ironed out. You don’t drop this on a war-weary public if it doesn’t have a fair chance of working.
This is a sketchy entry, I know, but more on this later… Discuss amongst yourselves if you wish.

More from Abu Ghraib

BAGHDAD — Well, it was bound to happen. Australian papers and news shows are publishing 60 new photos from Abu Ghraib. They snapshots were attained by the American Civil Liberties Union after a federal judge ordered their release. That was delayed however because the U.S. government appealed the ruling.
And yet the photos were leaked.
That the government sat on these photos for almost two years is stupid and pointless. _Of course_ they would get out. Did they really think they wouldn’t? They should have released all of them immediately and taken their blows. (A little fit of humility or even — gasp — an apology would have been nice, too.) Even better: NOT TORTURING OR ABUSING PEOPLE TO BEGIN WITH.
These photos are already being spun as “isolated incidents” that are no longer occurring, and that may be true. The Americans may be “scared straight” by the reaction around the Muslim world to the photos.
Alas, the same can’t be said for their allies in the Iraqi government whose Shi’ite-dominated security forces are torturing Sunni men to death and dumping their bodies at sewage plants in southeast Baghdad. Yeah, at least the U.S. never did that.
God, how did the bar get set so low?
These photos come at a bad time, obviously. The Danish cartoon furor is still going on and the British have been caught on video beating the snot out of teenagers in Basra. This will do little to calm things down. And I don’t even want to think how this may complicate things with Jill Carroll, the American journalist currently being held in Iraq. (I’m not sure what to make of this report, though, in which Iraqi officials say the United States actually “delayed the release of several women”:http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=32147 prisoners — the key demand of Carroll’s kidnappers — so as not to appear to be negotiating with terrorists. _Disclaimer: Jill is a friend of mine and I know her pretty well._)
But this is just par for the course for this administration. When faced with choosing between secrecy and openness, stubbornness and a willingness to get things done, the Bush people will always choose the secret, stubborn path — even if the easy thing to do is also the right thing to do. If they can’t turn back the clock and undo the torture at Abu Ghraib, then by all means come clean and get it out of the way. When faced with the kidnapping of an American civilian, they could get her out by either speeding up prisoner releases or at least not impeding it. They were going to happen anyway! In both cases, doing the right thing is, well, the right thing to do and it’s good politics.
But that’s too complicated for these guys.

Here be Dragons…

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of email from aspiring foreign correspondents who want to cut their teeth in Baghdad…. But at this time, I think it’s an unwise course of action and I’d like to take a little space to outline why…. I started this blog in August 2002 after a dash into Iraqi Kurdistan the previous summer.

BAGHDAD — Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of email from aspiring foreign correspondents who want to cut their teeth in Baghdad. I understand the sentiment, I really do. But at this time, I think it’s an unwise course of action and I’d like to take a little space to outline why.
First off, about my situation for the newcomers here: I started this blog in August 2002 after a dash into Iraqi Kurdistan the previous summer. I had a hunch that war was coming and I wanted to get some time in, at least where I wouldn’t be hanged if caught in Iraq illegally. It was a thrilling time, running around Erbil and Suleimaniya, always worried if those shifty guys in the lobby of the Suleimaniya Palace were Iraqi _mukhabarat_ or Kurdish _pesh merga_ or both, warily eyeing each other over cheap coffee tables and fake flowers. I journeyed to Halabja and found myself enormously moved by the plight of the victims of the 1988 chemical attacks there. I met senior members of the Barzani and Talabani clans, all major players on the Iraqi political scene now, and by my questions annoyed the hell out of the current president’s wife, Hiro Talabani. (No hard feelings, ma’am!)
Next, I did the whole blog-raising thing, changing the paradigm for DIY reporting in a war zone in the process. Who knew? Back-to-Iraq became a phenomenon and donations eventually topped more than $11,000 that all went to cover the war in April 2003. It was thrilling and dangerous — and surprisingly easy reporting. I really just wandered around, following explosions and writing about my day. In the process, I captured a bit of the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan in its struggle against Saddam’s regime. I was there when “Kirkuk”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2003/04/heading_south.php was taken back by the Kurds. I was in Tikrit when the last holdouts melted into the landscape, leaving the field to the Marines and “Arab fighters”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2003/04/inside_saddams.php more interested in defending their homes from Kurdish looters than shooting wandering journalists. (Some of the greatest hospitality I’ve been shown in Iraq was at the hands of the Tikritis as they stood around two dead _pesh merga_ and offered me protection against the Marines, knowing full well I was an American journalist. All they cared about was that I wasn’t Kurdish.)
Ah, those were the days. Even “Baghdad”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2003/04/clutching_for_a.php immediately after its fall felt open and watchful instead of boarded up and scared as it does today. The Marines and the 3rd ID walked the streets without helmets or body armor. They stood in queues waiting to buy food, amusing Iraqis to no end, for whom queues are a bit of an alien social arrangement. They’re more partial to crowds.
When I returned for the third time in May 2004, however, things were different. I had raised money again, this time as seed money for a more traditional freelancing career. I figured the donations and my savings would see me through a couple of months. However, TIME Magazine snapped me up immediately and I’ve been working with them ever since. So much for the two months I thought it would take to find a steady gig. And it’s a good thing, too, as by May 2004, the situation had become very bad, with an insurgency we all thought would not get worse but most assuredly did (and still is.) But even in those days, I remember just hiring a couple of guys to drive and translate and run around the city at all hours of the day and night. One of my best memories was a drunken evening at Dragon Bay, the Chinese restaurant outside the Green Zone that had a karaoke machine. My colleagues and I warbled away until 1 a.m. or so and then made my poor driver — who didn’t much like Chinese food — take us home. Along the way, we saw John Simpson, of the BBC, doing a standup report in the darkness of the city. Drunken with cheap red wine and the thrill of the forbidden, one of my friends yelled out “John Simpson sucks!” Sorry, John. Professionalism did not rule the night. Hope the standup went OK.
Such stunts are unimaginable now. I don’t know any Western colleagues who go outside our compound at night. Our social life has been reduced to dinner parties and pool parties. But the work is what’s even worse. Every day we venture out with eyes peeled for kidnappers (who like soft targets such as journalists), IEDs, American patrols and trigger-happy Iraqi troops. The ambient threat has risen far past Condition Red. the Committee to Protect Journalist has listed Iraq, for the second year in a row, as “the most dangerous place in the world to work as a journalist”:http://cpj.org/attacks04/mideast04/iraq.html. “Sixty-sevennine journalists have been killed”:http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/meast/08/28/iraq.journalists.reut/ here since March 2003, according to Reporters without Borders. That’s more than the _20 years_ of the Vietnam War (1955-1975). Some have been killed by American negligence and error. Others were “murdered by terrorist thugs”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2005/08/steven_vincent.php. Five of my friends have been kidnapped, but thankfully all were released. One kidnapped journalist, Italy’s Enzo Baldoni, was killed. I didn’t know him.
My point is that this is no longer a freelancer’s war. I’m lucky. I have the entire security apparatus of TIME Magazine to back me up. I am protected by guards, have access to cars, the entire secure compound, you name it. I have an editor who would miss me if I didn’t show up. (All of the kidnapped journalists have been freelancers who didn’t check in regularly and people often didn’t know there were missing at first.)
All of these protections cost money, something most freelancers are short of. It is simply no longer advisable to hire a driver and translator and go running around the city like I did last summer. I’ve been getting a number of emails from young journalists asking to do just this, and I tell them not to come and do this unless they have the backing of a major media organization’s security infrastructure. Steve Vincent ended up dead because he cowboyed around Basra — and that’s one of the safe cities, we’re told.
One option, however, is to embed with the U.S., British or other Coalition forces. You will be safe, relatively, and you’ll get to see parts of the country other than Baghdad — which is thick with journalists anyway. It’s an interesting experience, and I’ve found, in my experiences, the accusations of censorship — with one exception — to be grossly exaggerated. If you get a cool commander, he probably won’t give you any grief.
(Of course, there are some common-sense and reasonable restrictions: don’t give away troop positions, don’t show the faces of dead soldiers before their family has been notified or 48 hours, whichever comes first. Things like that.)
Oh, and forget about embedding with the Iraqi forces. The Ministries of Interior and Defense don’t allow this and they don’t operate independently of Coalition troops anyway. Also, they’re often so poorly trained and possibly infiltrated you would be in even more danger from the Iraqi troops than from random, street-level violence in Baghdad — which is why the Coalition and Iraqi ministries don’t allow embedding solely with Iraqis. A journalist killed or betrayed by the troops he’s supposed to be embedded with is very bad PR.
This is all very frustrating I’m sure. I can still remember the hustle that got me out here, and it pains me to discourage new people, but “I’ve already seen one friend die”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2005/04/our_heart_and_c.php because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I’m in constant fear that it will happen again. All the freelancers I know, including me, now have long-term relationships that provide us the infrastructure to “work.” And many organizations seem to be cutting back on their coverage and, thus, their hiring.
There are plenty of places that need energetic, young journalists. Darfur, southern Thailand, Indonesia, even Syria (if you can swing the security apparatus.) For those without experience in extremely dangerous work conditions, this is no place for on-the-job training.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Iran’s role in Iraq

All those hints of Iranian involvement can finally be explained.

Finally! I’ve dropped numerous hints over the last few months of Iranian involvement in Iraq, but I never went into detail. Now, thankfully, this is the story that has informed my Iranian comments. I didn’t want to spill too much of the beans because it’s not cool to scoop your own magazine on a blog, but this is an important story. I wish I could say I contributed to it, but Mick is a hell of a reporter and this is his baby.

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.