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.

“We’re closer now than ever…”

Concerns grow as Friday prayers loom.

BAGHDAD — I’ve been talking to some folks today about the political crisis, and was struck by a few quotes:

“We’re closer now than ever, if we’re not already in civil war, and I don’t know what can stop it now. Except maybe U.S. troops back on the streets.” — senior Coalition advisor to the Ministry of Interior.

“This is their chance to take the political process hostage.” — from MP Mithal al-Alousi, secular politician worried about the Shi’ites using yesterday’s attack to push back against American/Kurdish/Sunni pressure to loosen their grip on the levers of power.

“We did our best to bring him into the political process.” — head of SCIRI’s political relations committee, Redha Jawad Taqi, on Moqtada al-Sadr. He is concerned that members of parliament loyal to al-Sadr resorted to threats of violence to get their way in parliament. “They believe wrong things about democracy. We hope they can be taught the rules.”

In other news around Iraq, three journalists from al-Arabiyah Television were killed in Samarra after being kidnapped some time last night. They were correspondent Atwar Bahjat, cameraman Adnan Abdallah and sound engineer Khalid Muhsin. They were covering the attack on the shrine in Samarra.

Today, the office of Moqtada al-Sadr issued a statement denouncing the attack on the Askari shrine and blaming the government, the Americans and “crusaders.”

Game On?

Men dressed as Iraqi police commandos slipped into Samarra’s shrine of Imam Hasan al-Askari last night, set explosive and blew it up this morning, causing the golden dome to collapse and with it, hopes for a national unity government.

BAGHDAD — Men dressed as Iraqi police commandos slipped into Samarra’s shrine of Imam Hasan al-Askari last night, set explosive and blew it up this morning, causing the golden dome to collapse and with it, hopes for a national unity government.

(How important is the Al-Askari shrine? It’s one of the holiest shrines for Shi’a Muslims because Hasan al-Askari is the father of the 12th Imam, or the Mahdi, a messiah-like figure for Muslims world-wide. The father’s remains are buried in the Shrine.)

Violent protests are now sweeping Iraq. People from the predominantly Shi’ite Shu’lah neighborhood in western Baghdad have attacked Sunni mosques in Ghazaliya, a nearby Sunni area. Sadr City, home base for rebel cleric — and parliamentary powerbroker — Moqtada al-Sadr, has reportedly re-armed. A Shi’ite mob also reportedly killed a man in the street they said was a Salafist or Wahabbi.

In Basrah, there are reports of heavy street fighting between Sunni and Shi’ite gunmen, and Sunni political party offices have been attacked. There are reports of attacks on a British and Danish base in Basra, but no reports of casualties yet.

This all happened when I was in the Green Zone today to interview Lt. Gen. Dempsey, commander of the training command. He cancelled his interview, which baffled his poor public affairs office. He commented that what was happening must be really big if Dempsey is canceling interviews as he’s usually not involved in the day-to-day war fighting details. (“He’s not in the 5-meter knife fight,” the PAO said.) Also, I saw several Apache helicopters taking off from the Green Zone, which is also unusual. Usually, it’s Blackhawks that fill the air. Other military source sources have said the Americans have scaled back all patrols, especially in Shi’ite neighborhoods.

If this doesn’t spark a much-feared civil war, we’ll be lucky. This is the tensest Baghdad has been in two years, and this attack is especially provocative coming as it does during Arba’een, the 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussayn that follows the Shi’ite commemoration of Ashura.

Of course, Sistani might still ride in and save the day — again. We can hope.

But quite apart from all that, this will derail Washington’s hopes for an inclusive Iraqi government that includes Sunnis in meaningful positions. The Shi’ite alliance in parliament is already pushing back against statements made by Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad on Monday, in which he said the security ministries (Interior and Defense) should go to “people who are non-sectarian … who do not represent or have ties to militias.” (Yeah, he’s talking to you, Badr Corps.) Yesterday, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari fired back and said, in effect, bugger off.

“When someone asks us whether we want a sectarian government the answer is ‘No, we do not want a sectarian government’ — not because the U.S. ambassador says so or issues a warning,” he told a news conference. “We think that sovereignty means no one interferes in our affairs.”

Memo to Prime Minister: That ship has sailed, habibi. I guess interference in internal Iraqi affairs is only OK when you’re the one being installed in power after riding in on the back of an American tank.

Snark aside, today’s attack will mean it will be much, much harder to make the case for including Sunnis in the government, especially if it means giving up any of the important ministries. (Maybe the Sunnis would like the Youth and Sports ministry? The Olympics are coming up in a couple of years.) And even if the Shi’ite coalition wanted to include Sunnis, today’s attack on the shrine will make it very hard to keep their constituencies loyal if they’re seen as rewarding “terrorists,” which many Shi’a now call all Sunnis.

Also significant is that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shi’ite in Iraq, called for seven days of mourning and protests — although he urged them to remain peaceful. I can’t help but wonder, “Is he serious?” This is an emotional, volatile time and any protests are likely to turn violent, either from their own accord or through agent provocateurs who might use them as kindling for more fireworks.

Outside now I can hear chanting and the occasional gun shot. There have been two deep whumps nearby, the signature of car bombs. I can hear jets over Baghdad. The situation is tense and everyone is on high alert.

UPDATES 8:43:35 PM +0300 GMT: Outraged demonstrators have burned the Sunni Waqf office in Basra. (The Waqf is the Sunni Endowment Board, and is basically a trust set up to take care of Sunni religious properties. It’s funded by the government and has an appointed head. Adnan al-Dulaimi, the head of the largest Sunni coalition in parliament was once head of Iraq’s Sunni Waqf board.)

Large demonstrations are scheduled for tomorrow at 10 a.m. Yikes.

Moqtada al-Sadr is holding takfiris (those who call others infidels, i.e., the Salafists and Wahabists), Ba’athists and the “occupation” responsible for the shrine attack. “It was not the Sunnis who attacked the shrine of imam Al-Hadi, God’s peace be upon him, but rather the occupation; the takfiris, al-nawasib (a derogatory term the Shiites use to refer to Sunnis), God damn them; and the Ba’thists. We should not attack Sunni mosques. I ordered al-Mahdi Army to protect the Shi’ite and Sunni shrines and to show a high sense of responsibility, something they actually did.” Moqtada has also called for a vote in parliament on expelling “foreign forces,” the rascal.

Al-Sistani has condemned the attack on the Askari shrine, but also said — somewhat ominously — “The Iraqi Government is expected, now more than any time before, to fully shoulder its responsibilities and halt the wave of criminal acts that target the holy places. If the government’s security organs are not capable of providing the necessary protection, the believers are capable of doing so with Almighty God’s assistance.” (emphasis added.) That’s really not good.

Curious numbers in Ninevah

BAGHDAD — Ninevah province, home to the mixed city of Mosul and the besieged city of Tal ‘Afar, is seeing some very strange numbers. I’ve done back of the Excel envelope calculations and have found this: In the January election, which was boycotted by Sunnis, there were 165,934 votes cast, according to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.

BAGHDAD — Ninevah province, home to the mixed city of Mosul and the besieged city of Tal ‘Afar, is seeing some _very_ strange numbers. I’ve done back of the Excel envelope calculations and have found this:
* In the January election, which was boycotted by Sunnis, there were 165,934 votes cast, according to the “Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq”:http://ieciraq.org/English/Home.htm.
* In October, according to “AP’s preliminary results”:http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20051017/ap_on_re_mi_ea/iraq_vote_results, there were 419,804 votes cast in Ninevah, an increase of 253,870 votes, or +152.99 percent.
* The number of people voting *for* the constitution in Ninevah, according to the AP, was 326,774 (78 percent), with 90,065 voting *against* it (21 percent). Less than 1 percent, or 2,965 votes, was disqualified.
By way of comparison, Tamim province, home to the disputed city of Kirkuk, saw 542,000 votes cast — an increase of 35.2 percent over January — with 341,611 voting “yes” (63 percent) and 195,725 voting “no” (36 percent). You mean we’re supposed to believe that in Tamim, which is also a mixed province but which has had a steady stream of Kurds moving in for the last two-and-a-half years, had *more than twice as many no votes as Ninevah?* And with the Kurds already pretty much owning Kirkuk? Color me skeptical.
What’s truly eyebrow-raising is that the number of constitutional “yes” votes — 326,774 — is more than the total increase in votes over January’s turnout. That suggests that not only did all of the Sunnis in Ninevah province, who largely boycotted the January elections turn out, but that they _all voted for the constitution._ That’s a very strange idea to me, as I’ve not met a single Sunni who voted for it here in Baghdad.
Ninevah is home to Mosul, a mixed city of about 2 million Arabs, Turkomans and Kurds, as well as Tal’Afar, the mostly Turkoman city of 500,000 that U.S. and Iraqi forces stormed last month. Anecdotal reports are that a) Sunni Arabs have come out in droves, mainly to vote down the constitution, and b) the constitution was very unpopular in Tal’Afar because of military actions there.
Now, several possibilities spring to mind: Sunni Arabs in the north really _love_ the idea of the new national charter, but I find this unlikely, to say the least. In fact, I only suggest it for the giggle factor. Another possibility is that the vote was blatantly fixed. A third possibility is that the Kurds moved thousands of people into Mosul to skew the vote. Oddly enough, I heard Sunnis making just this charge in the run-up to the Saturday’s referendum. A third possibility is a combination of the last two. The vote was rigged _and_ the Kurds moved people in.
Now, contrasting points that prove I don’t know what I’m talking about, suggested by colleagues:
# Mosul is an Iraqi Islamic Party stronghold. The IIP called on its supporters to vote “yes” after a deal last week to open up the constitution to early amendments. This split the Sunni opposition to the charter.
# The Sunnis simply don’t make up 20 percent of Iraq. There hasn’t been a reliable census in years and not only do the Sunnis not make up 42 percent of Iraq as Saleh Mutlaq, a member of the National Dialogue Council, claims, but they’re much fewer than the 20 percent most people assume.
# Ninevah and Mosul aren’t Sunni strongholds. It’s conventional wisdom, but maybe that’s wrong.
# Mosul was a lot more violent in January, keeping the vote there down. Perhaps now, with less violence, more Kurds — perhaps half of the total increase — were able to come out and vote.
# The Turkomans aren’t a factor. Money quote from cynical colleague: “There are more Turkoman parties than there are Turkomans.”
# The AP numbers are so preliminary, they’re flat-out wrong.
The possibility exists that all of these possibilities have played into the dynamic in Ninevah, leading to wild numbers, and I’ve not been able to reach a stringer in Mosul yet to get more information. But if these numbers hold, there’s something very, very rotten in the north.
(Hat tip to various commenters who alerted me to the numbers here.)

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