Bombing in Beirut Caps Day of Violence in Lebanon

BEIRUT — Lebanon was rocked by violence today with dozens killed in fighting in the country’s north and a car bomb in a predominantly Christian neighborhood of Beirut that killed one person and wounded up to a dozen.
“The day started with clashes in the northern city of Tripoli”:http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070520/ap_on_re_mi_ea/lebanon_violence;_ylt=Aksp6EN.OKSYmUdJcZiKdcULewgF between the Lebanese Army and the Palestinian militant group, “Fatah al-Islam”:http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/05/20/africa/ME-GEN-Lebanon-Violence-Militants.php, which the Lebanese government says is backed by Syria and shares an ideology with al Qaida. At least 22 soldiers and 17 militants were killed in fighting that lasted through much of the day.
But by the time calm had been imposed up north, a car bomb shattered windows and collapsed a building in the east Beirut neighborhood of Acrafiyeh. Reports say a woman was killed and about a dozen wounded.
The bomb was placed in a car lot next to the popular ABC Achrafiyeh mall, and the timing of the blast — at 11:40 p.m. — suggested that its intent was to cause panic and fear among the crowd exiting the movie theaters at the mall.
“It was just to scare people,” said a man in the car lot who declined to be identified. “If they really wanted to cause damage, they would have put it in the parking garage.”
As the AP reports:

The bomb left a crater about 4 feet deep and 9 feet wide, and police said the explosives were estimated to weigh 22 pounds. The blast — heard across the city — gutted cars, set vehicles ablaze and shattered store and apartment windows.

Hamid and Claudine Saliba, both 39, live across the street from the parking lot where the car exploded.
“In Lebanon, you expect anything,” said Claudine, and after today’s violence up north, she and her husband were on guard. “But not in Achrafiyeh!”
They spoke from Hamid’s mother’s home, which is two doors down from their own, and the devastation in the house was near total. Graceful Ottoman windows jambs were ripped from the walls and heavy doors torn from their hinges. Luckily for Hamid, his mother had left the house on vacation two days previously, so there were no injuries.
This is the latest in a string of car bombs that many in Lebanon suspect is aimed at destabilizing the country so that Syria can re-impose its hegemony it enjoyed for 29 years.
Initially welcomed as protectors during Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil war, Syrian maintained an iron control over Lebanon after the war ended, effectively occupying it from 1990-2005, when it withdrew its troops. The withdrawal was forced upon Damascus following massive popular protests, which the Lebanese call the “independence uprising,” in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many in Lebanon blame Syria for that killing and the waves of violence that have followed.
Lebanon has been on a knife’s edge since December of last year when Hezbollah and its allies, who support Syria, pulled out of the government in protest over legislation forming an international tribunal that would handle the Hariri case. Syria and its supporters vehemently oppose the tribunal, forcing the Lebanese government to petition the United Nations to impose the tribunal under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, meaning it does not require Lebanese parliamentary approval. The tribunal is widely expected to indict high-level members of the Syrian regime, including the brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Tonight’s bombing — which may or may not be tied to the fighting in the north — could be seen as a message that Syria’s agents in Lebanon are prepared to unleash more violence if the tribunal is imposed on Lebanon.

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.

Zarqawi Killed in Airstrike

zarqawi_release_04.jpg

Photo courtesy of IntelCenter

In a crucial development, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/blog-mt/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=Zarqawi, has been killed in an airstrike north of Baqouba in Iraq, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki is saying right now. Also, later today, Maliki says he will present his candidates for Defense and Interior ministers. These two stories are intricately related.
Details are very sketchy, obviously, as this is breaking now, but Maliki, U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and American commander Gen. George Casey said a reliable tip on Zarqawi’s location came in and allowed the U.S. to call in the bombers. The attack occurred last night at about 6 p.m., BBC says, and he may have been betrayed by someone in his inner circle. Zarqawi’s body was identified by facial recognition, Casey said.
[ADD 2:57:40 PM +0200 GMT: Intriguing detail: Jordanian intelligence was involved, apparently. No friend of AMZ they, seeing as they had a number of scores to settle with the guy. But considering Jordan’s ties with the Ba’athist insurgency, which mostly hated AMZ, this looks more and more like the Ba’athists saw the time had come to turn in AMZ to cement the political deal in Baghdad.]
If true, and this should be a very big conditional, This is a big, _big_ success for the Iraqis and the Americans. Zarqawi wasn’t the sole force behind the insurgency, but he was the driving personality behind the _jihad_ aspect of the Sunni fighting, which has much larger influence within the Iraqi insurgency than the size of its roster would suggest. It was his connections that brought in a lot of money from the Gulf, and with that cash and influence was able to bleed off some of the Ba’athists and Iraqi Islamists to his part of the insurgency.
*Also, this indicates that bringing the Sunnis into the government seems to has worked.* One of the gambles of bringing the Sunnis in was to see if they could start ramping down the violence through tips, turn-ins and general cooperation. That has always been the central question: Do the Sunnis in government have control over their factions in the insurgency? I’ve argued here that they don’t, but if today’s news is true, I may very well need to admit I was wrong on that. Gut feeling is that I was.
Casey said they got information on the safehouse where Zarqawi was hiding from local tips, so that indicates the Sunnis have started cooperating with Maliki’s government, which means this government may hold up after all. But it is important to realize that this will _not_ end the insurgency. It has numerous factions, not all who are loyal to Zarqawi (obviously, since someone tipped the Americans off.) And it won’t end the sectarian violence, because Shi’ite death squads are still operating out of the Interior ministry and other police forces and many Sunni insurgents are not foreign jihadis. They have their own fight with the mainly Shi’ite Maliki government, which they see as a tool of Iran. Remember how happy everyone was after Saddam was captured? And remember how it just kept getting worse and worse?
But it is also significant that Maliki says he will announce his new Defense, National Security and Interior minister later today. (He declined to give their names at the press conference on Zarqawai, saying that would wait until the parliamentary meeting in the afternoon.) This indicates to me that the Defense and Interior slots have been being held open as a carrot for Sunnis to start bringing their fighters to heel. Now that the Sunnis have delivered a big prize in Zarqawi’s alleged corpse, it’s time to reward them with a big post. Will they get both Interior and Defense? No. In fact, Reuters is already reporting that Interior will go to Shi’ite Jawaad al-Bolani, formerly of the Fadhilla Party, and Defense will go to Sunni Gen. Abdel Qader Jassim.
Al-Bolani is an interesting choice, because he is reportedly a former Army colonel under Saddam and has been affiliated with numerous factions in Shi’a politics, including Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress and Sheikh Karim Al-Mohammadawi, the “Prince of the Marshes,” a local Shi’ite boss in the south opposed to Iran, Chalabi and sometimes — but unreliably — allied with Moqtada al-Sadr. Mohammadawi is reliably in favor of Mohammadawi. Jassim, a Sunni, is currently the commander of the Iraqi ground forces and has worked closely with the Americans. He also was the general who advised Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait in 1991, further endearing him to Washington.
Both choices seem likely to be approved, or at least not opposed, will be supported by the Sunnis, as neither is closely tied to Iran. (The former Interior Minister, Bayan Jabr, was tied with the Badr Organization _neé_ Corps, which is still closely connected with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.)
[ADD 2:18:08 PM +0200 GMT: Going back through some old notes, I found a brief interview I did with al-Bolani in January 2005, before the first elections, when he was president of the Shi’a Political Council, a rival group to the United Iraqi Alliance. At the time, he said he didn’t think the constitution will be based on Islamic _shari’a_, even though Islamic parties are calling for this. “Democracy is a strange idea in Iraq, but democracy is a demand of everyone,” he said. “I can assure you there are many Islamic political movements that don’t want government like Iran’s. But this Islamic identity and the Islamic traditions cannot be removed from this country. … So I think the Iranian system will never happen in Iraq, and most Islamic movements agree wth me on that.” That will please the Sunnis and the Americans.]
So now we’ll have to wait and see what happens in the coming days and weeks. There will no doubt be a flare of violence thaht could last up to a week or so, but after that, If the level of violence starts to decrease, then that means the Sunnis are playing ball. Now it is time for the Shi’ites to curb their militias; that’s the deal. If that doesn’t happen, expect the Sunnis to let their fighters loose again.
[UPDATE 5:49:39 PM +0200 GMT: DefenseTech has “a good roundup”:http://www.defensetech.org/archives/002483.html of news on Zarqawi, including links to the “video of the bombing run”:http://www.mnf-iraq.com/zarqawi/video/Zaqarwi_Clip.wmv.]
[UPDATE 6:18:34 PM +0200 GMT: The story I did for TIME Magazine is “here”:http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1201993,00.html.]
[UPDATE 7:05:36 PM +0200 GMT: Right on schedule. Several suicide car bombs have gone off in Baghdad killing an unknown number of civilians.]

Iran supplying Zarqawi?

Omar over at Iraq the Model translates an article from az-Zamman that claims Iranian Revolutionary Guards are supplying Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with advanced weaponry, with Lebanese Hizbollah as the intermediary.
Here’s what you should know about this: Zarqawi _hates_ the Shi’a community, with the fiery passion of the Sun’s core. When I was with TIME, we monitored al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) pronouncements through the Web, market DVDs and audio tapes. If the stack of Zarqawi fulminations against the Americans and Jews were a foot high, for example, his tirades and sermons against the Shi’a were 10 times that. He hates ‘em, which is pretty much in tune with hard-core Wahhabi doctrine.
On the other hand, he never said a word against Iran. Instead, it’s the Ba’athists who see the Persians as the bogeyman to the east. Thanks to an 8-year war with Iran, the Ba’athists are fighting an insurgency against the Iraqi government, which they consider an Iranian plot. Zarqawi’s aims are much bigger than that, and focus more on the American presence.
Now, one of my old sources — who I hear has since been picked up by the Iraqi Interior ministry, the poor guy — told me once that Iran _was_ supplying Sunni insurgents in Iraq in a bid to keep the Americans bogged down to the tune of $100 million to $200 million a year. The Iranians were acting through what the CIA would call “cut-out” groups and the Sunni insurgents often didn’t know who their ultimate bankrollers were. My source was neither insurgent, nor American, nor tied to the Shi’ite parties. He moved between all the parties because of his apparent neutrality and his information was always top-notch. He told me about the shaped charges of IEDs months before they started becoming mainstream knowledge.
Back to Zarqawi. Thanks to Zarqawi’s virulent anti-Shi’ism, it is highly unlikely that he would deal with Lebanese Hizbollah, or that Hizbollah would want to deal with him anyway, unless they’re complete lapdogs to Tehran. I don’t believe they are, despite such accusations from right-wingers in Washington and Tel Aviv Israel.
So what are we are to make of all this?
# Probably, the story is fundamentally true, in that Iran is sending advanced weaponry, including Strela-7 missiles and lots of Kalashnikovs, to Sunni insurgents. Some of these weapons will inevitably find their way to Zarqawi’s boys. Iran is also lending support to the Shi’ite militias such as the Badr Organization and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. A certain amount of chaos next door benefits Tehran.
# Thanks to a network of middlemen, it is unlikely the Sunnis fighters know the ultimate source of the weapons, and if they do, they possibly don’t care. The Ba’athists, mainly, are fighting alongside Zarqawi now because their enemies are more or less the same, but Ba’athist commanders know that should they dislodge the Shi’ites from power — a highly unlikely event, in my opinion — Zarqawi will turn his guns on them. They (mostly) cooperate with AQI anyway, because he’s got the money.
# Iran is willing to fund guys to blow up Shi’ites if their larger aims — keeping America off-balance and bogged down, and cementing their hold on Iraq’s government — are met.
No. 3 is a controversial claim, I know, and some people (*cough, cough* Juan Cole) refuse to entertain the idea that Iran would sacrifice Iraqi Shi’ites for their plans.
That kind of thinking works well in logical, algebraic formulations of the issue, but it doesn’t work well with the hard, geopolitical facts on the ground in Iran and Iraq. Iran was _quite_ willing to send 15-year-old Shi’ites to their deaths on the front-line with Iraq in that 1980-88 war because they’d be martyrs, which has a long tradition in Shi’ism. Plus, they’re dealing with Iraqi _Arab_ Shi’ites. A lot of Iraqi Shi’ites died so that Iran wouldn’t break out of the Fao during the Iran-Iraq War, and it’s unlikely Tehran has forgotten that. Iraqi Shi’ites may share a faith, but they don’t always see eye to eye.
So, the mullahs in Tehran could regard the Shi’ite losses in Iraq as a) regrettable but acceptable losses and b) a convenient reason to expand their influence next door, in much the same way that Turkey regards violence against Turkomans as a reason to keep their fingers in Kurdish affairs. (“We must protect our Shi’ite brothers!”)
Hard-nosed power politics makes for strange bedfellows indeed.

New Zarqawi video online

Zarqawi holding weapon
Photo Courtesy of “IntelCenter”:http://www.intelcenter.com

Al Qaeda in Iraq has released a video of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on a jihadi web site, which is the first time he’s been seen in video since the Nick Berg beheading video.
“Your mujahideen sons were able to confront the most ferocious of crusader campaigns on a Muslim state. They have stood in the face of this onslaught for three years,” Zarqawi said on the video.
I’m working on getting a copy of the video, but so far, this is the first time AMZ (as he’s called in U.S. military parlance) has appeared in a video without a mask. (He was concealed in the Berg video.) It’s a well-produced video, with slick graphics and professional titling, of a kind with many videos from insurgent and jihadi groups. I’ve seen pictures of AMZ and this video appears authentic.
So the question now is why the video and why now? There are a number of factors. There have been persistent rumors that AMZ was replaced as the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) on Jan. 20 by an Iraqi, Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi, on the orders of the Mujahadeen Shura Council, the umbrella organization for the jihadi groups in Iraq. I’ve never quite believed that, and instead thought it was a ploy by AQI to make itself more palatable to nationalist Iraqis who don’t follow the extreme Islamism of Al Qaeda. AMZ has been catching a lot of flack for the last year or so because of his suicide bombers and brutal tactics. This is why you no longer see the gruesome beheading videos. There are still a lot of suicide bombings, but there are likely less than there were, and they seem aimed more specifically at American and Iraqi security forces with more care taken to reduce civilian casualties. So, by releasing this video, he’s showing the world — and Iraqis, insurgents and civilians alike — that he’s still around, still the man and still commands the loyalty of AQI.
Secondly, by literally putting a face on himself, AMZ is humanizing himself and attempting to quell the discord with the Ba’athist groups that has been splitting the Sunni insurgency — a split that has been exploited with limited success by the Americans. By putting himself forward less as a spectral bogeyman and more of a heroic leader — as the images in the video do — the thinking may be that when the civil war finally breaks out, as many in Iraq anticipate, AMZ will be seen as a leader among the Sunnis, and not as an outsider among Iraqis. While the Ba’athists and jihadis generally despise one another, they despise the Iraqi Shi’ites who hold power more. The Ba’athists see them as Iranian stooges (not entirely inaccurate, frankly) and the jihadis have adopted a toxic anti-Shi’ite ideology that holds the sect as unbelievers (_kafirs_.)
But this video’s audience is not primarily the West. Many people think the insurgents produce videos and stage attacks in sight of western media to influence the populations back home. This is only partially true. By creating the impression — and the reality — of chaos, they can undermine support for the U.S. presence in Iraq among Americans. But the real purpose of these videos is recruitment. Instead of scared westerners, the real audience is the disaffected and angry young men of the Muslim world. They will download this video, like they do all the others, and pass it among their friends and watch it at Internet cafés in Jakarta and Riyadh over and over again.
In the 1970s and ’80s, you couldn’t claim to have any juice as a terrorist group unless you had a decent media arm. This is why Hezbollah pioneered the filming of its attacks against the Israelis and started al-Manar, its broadcast arm. The need for an effective media campaign is still true, but there is no longer really a need for Western media to publish a screed or air a tape. It can be distributed online for less money, with more reach and hit a more targeted audience than before.
It’s likely not a coincidence that the video was released now, just a couple of days after the deadlock over PM Ibrahim al-Jaafari was broken with the selection of Jawad al-Malaki, the brains of Jaafari’s Dawa Party. While the Iraqi government remained in limbo, the political chaos allowed the Sunni groups room to move. But with the deadlock broken, the formation of the new government will probably proceed apace, with the further strengthening of the Shi’ite-dominated security forces. The Sunnis have to pre-position themselves if they’re to stand a chance in the coming civil war, and AMZ’s video is part of his effort to position himself with the Sunnis.
*UPDATE 4/26/06 8:58:50 AM +0200 GMT:* Interesting. According to “IntelCenter”:http://www.intelcenter.com, in the video, AMZ is briefed on two new rockets allegedly developed by the insurgents in Anbar province. The two rockets are the “Qaeda 1″ and the “Quds 1.” The first allegedly has a range of 40km and is capable of carrying a 50kg explosive, while the second is designed to be fired horizontally and is designed to pierce armor. “God willing, these rockets will be used in the next phase,” the briefer tells Zarqawi.

The Qaeda 1 rocket
Photo Courtesy of “IntelCenter”:http://www.intelcenter.com

Game On?

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.

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.