Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The Iraqi interior minister, Falah Al-Naqib, just made a statement on Al-Arabia that the situation in the old city would be resolved in a few hours. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I seem to remember that he has been saying that every day during the last two weeks.

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground in Najaf remains the same. Al-Mahdi still control the shrine of Imam Ali and the cemetery of Wadi Al-Salam, while Iraqi and US troops are situated about half a kilometre away, supposedly surrounding the area. I made this map for details. Muqtada Al-Sadr is rumoured to have left Najaf, how he would have managed to escape such a tight hold on the old city is beyond me. The Najaf IP commander, Ghalib Al-Jaza'eri, mentioned that he was in Suleimaniya, someone else said he was in Nasiriya, others say he is in Iran. It might be possible that he is still in hiding somewhere in Najaf with his supporters spreading these rumours as a distraction.

Ahmed Al-Shaibani, a deputy of Sadr, dismissed these allegations as rumours and insisted that 'al-sayyed al-qa'id remains in the battlefield'. He also mentioned that all negotiations with Sistani's office on the current status of the shrine have been 'suspended'. Sistani seems to have given instructions to his office in Najaf not to accept the keys to the holy shrine unless a neutral committee inspects the contents of the shrine and an inventory is made to ensure nothing is missing from the treasury of the shrine.

This treasury which is located inside a safe locked basement beneath the shrine contains historical artifacts, priceless manuscripts and a significant amount of gold and gems. These have been gifted and donated to the shrine by Shia from all over the world for centuries. No one has ever dared touch that treasury except the family that holds the keys to the shrine. Radhwan Al-Rufai'i was forced to give over the keys to one of Sadr's aides last April. Al-Rufai'i had taken over the responsibilities of the shrine after his cousin Haider Al-Kelidar who was murdered with Abdul Majid Al-Khoe'i on 10 April 2003 by Sadr's followers.

Sistani's office has been placing these obstacles on Sadr in response to rumours that a large part of the treasury has been stolen and possibly smuggled to Iran. If true, Sadr would be in a very bad position since he was practically responsible for the shrine's contents and would also expose him as the gangster he is.

Another troubling development was the kidnapping of Sayyed Mahdi Al-Hakim, the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sa'id Al-Hakim who is one of four senior clerics in Najaf. He was at the house of Mahdi Al-Khorassani with Mohammed Ridha Al-Mar'ashi when armed militiamen broke into the house. The three clerics were violently beaten and Mahdi Al-Hakim was taken with them. Another reason why the marji'iyah are not going to be very forgiving with Sadr.


In the south, Al-Mahdi and Sadr followers are wreaking havoc and seriously threatening to cripple Iraqi economy. After setting the Al-Halfaya oil field south of Ammara ablaze, they broke into SOC (South Oil Company) headquarters at Al-Asma'i in downtown Basrah. The whole second floor was set to fire after the building was looted. This is deeply troubling, especially when the SOC police station is less than 200 metres from the building and the British base is about 5 kilometres away. Al-Mahdi have threatened to kill SOC employees if they show up at work. The same in Ammara, where governmental employees have been prevented from going to work for days.

A group of militiamen broke into the Ammara prison setting hundreds of prisoners free under the eyes and noses of Iraqi and British forces. A convoy of 70 trucks loaded with rice and flour sacks belonging to the Ministry of Trade heading to Baghdad from southern ports in Basrah have been held by Al-Mahdi in the city since Saturday. The minister pathetically called Sadr followers in an interview published in Azzaman to return the trucks. Makes you wonder who controls this country, Sadr or the Iraqi government. This country is in deep shit if somebody doesn't put an end to this farce.

Something else has been bothering me for a while. How come there are NEVER any suicide bombings whenever there is trouble in the south with Sadr? And why do the Sunni areas seem so peaceful?

Thursday, August 19, 2004

National Council is born

Watching the proceedings of the controversial National Conference for the last three days, most of it transmitted live on Al-Iraqiya channel, has been an enjoyable experience. I have to mention here that the majority of Iraqis are unfamiliar with the rules of parliamentary sessions. The closest thing we had to a parliament was abolished in 1958 with the introduction of 'Revolutionary' Republican rule. Whatever the level of political maturity Iraqis had accumulated at that stage, it slowly disintegrated year after year under the successive totalitarian ('Revolutionary') regimes. Today, 45 years later, we are back again at point zero.

Under Ba'athist rule, proceedings from the so-called National Council were televised from time to time. The Revolutionary Command Council was the sole source of legislation, so basically the National Council had no other function but to approve and stamp the endless amendments. Votes were always unanimous. It was a joke really. A farce.

The National Conference also looks like a farce on the surface, but of a totally different kind. Here you have 1000-1300 delegates from all over Iraq, from all ethnicities, religions, sects and social backgrounds. A curious mix of people all put together in one room to try and choose 81 individuals that are supposed to represent Iraqis.

Young and old clerics in black and white turbans, groomed men in suits and carefully pressed shirts, tribal Sheikhs traditionally dressed, women shrouded in black abayas, others in the latest hairdressing style and glamorous fashion trends and some in headscarfs of every imaginable colour. Doctors, dentists, lawyers, judges, engineers, professors, teachers, generals, businessmen, artists, actors, activists, priests, imams, even sportsmen and a musician.

Several parties and groups had already boycotted the conference in advance arguing that it was a mere cover for the interim government and the occupation. Sadr's movement, the Associaion of Muslim Scholars, Imam Al-Khalisi's group, the Kurdish Islamic Movement and a coalition of about ten Pan-Arab and Nasserite political parties adopted this viewpoint. Other groups were critical of the voting process in the governorates weeks ago accusing the preparatory committee and governmental officials of behind the scenes manipulation and favouritism in the (s)election of delegates. Nevertheless, some chose to participate in the conference despite these objections.

Independents constituted the majority of the delegates, which shouldn't be surprising given the fact that the majority of Iraqis are distrustful of political parties, especially when theycontinue to pop up every day by the dozen with each claiming to represent a 'wide section of Iraqis' when in fact they represent only themselves. Also, the behaviour of major political parties that were represented in the defunct GC has not been very impressive, and their attempts to dominate the National Conference as well as the interim government is indeed troubling.

The remaining 19 former GC members that were not represented in the interim government have been appointed already to the National Council amid widespread opposition from Iraqis. And if that was not enough they have made painstaking attempts to ensure that the majority of the remaining 81 members of the council were members of their respective parties or at least supporters.

The conference proceedings were interesting as I said. What became known as 'the list' was the main point of dispute between delegates and the preparatory committee as well as the voting procedure itself. Several delegates described it as unfair and accussed the committe of a conspiracy. There was a list of delegates from both points of view who were supposed to state their opinions in turn. It started out fine, then other delegates started interrupting others, walkouts, delegates swearing and shaking fists at each other amid applause or laughter from the conference, it almost came to blows at one point. Here is an example:

[Delegate speaking to the conference]: "The 'list' is an act of dictatorship, this is unacceptable. I am going to--" [Someone taps at a microphone to attract attention and starts his own speech reading from 2 or 3 pages in his hand]

[First delegate's eyes almost pop out of his face in disbelief]:"Excuse me sir, it was my turn.." [interrupting delegate ignores him and continues to give his speech]

[he gets applause from the crowd]

First delegate starts shouting: "This is unbelievable. Sir? SIR?? It's my turn. Can't you understand?" [starts tapping frantically at his microphone]

Second delegate: "Yes, but they ignored my turn as well. I have been waiting for a long time." [continues to read]

President of the committee: "This is outrageous. Sir, sir. You.. yes you. Get seated please. Allow others a chance." [bangs on the table] "What are you doing on the stage??" [he almost screams at someone behind him] "People please if you have a suggestion or something, write it down on a paper.. We can't continue like this."

[commotion in the hall]

First delegate: "I don't believe this. SIR? Don't you have any decency at all?"

[Laughter in the hall followed by applause]

This situation continued for hours. People kept interrupting each other. Everyone wanted a chance to give fiery speeches. Another interesting incident was the objection of several fundamental delegates to one of the posters in the hall. It had half the face of a pretty (unveiled) Iraqi women on it representing the role of Iraqi women. They demanded the poster to be removed because 'it was improper'. Some commotion followed and one woman stood up and harshly addressed the objectors, she said that if they removed the poster now they might as well remove the women from the conference. She was met with a standing ovation from the audience and the poster remained. Another funny occasion was when the committee president asked delegates to vote for or against 'the list' by raising their hands. Someone shouted that this was silly and very undemocratic. The supporters raised their hands and on realising that they were the majority started clapping their hands in mid air. It was one of the funniest scenes and was followed with more walkouts. Someone described 'the list' as 'the government's list'.

At the end of the third day the voting was postponed and there was an agreement that independents submit their own lists to the committee for an open vote. Today, after much coming and going and more walkouts, one list was submitted. Delegates were supposed to vote for one of the lists. Ballot boxes were placed but after a while the list was withdrawn suddenly by its submitters leaving 'the list' uncontested and it appeared that it was approved at last by the majority of delegates. Time constraint and the security situation forced this last moment decision, it was almost 10 pm and delegates were complaining. The submitted list did not meet the standards set by the judges in the preparatory committee, the number of women was less than 25 and some minorities were not represented in it. The submitters announced that they withdrew their list and voted for 'the list' (which was by now described as 'the list of national unity') in order for the conference to succeed.

National Council members were selected from three categories; representatives from 18 governorates, civil society organisations, and Iraqi tribes. Members should be no less than 35 years old and should at least hold a secondary school degree. The role of the National Council is advisory to the interim government and the preparation for elections in January 2005 of a legislative National Assembly consisting of 275 members. The National Assembly shall elect a presidential council of three members, this council in turn selects a prime minister and a cabinet.

Update:Here are the National Council members.

Sadr's dilemma

Now that Muqtada has been cornered in the shrine of Imam Ali huddled with what is left of his militia and 'human shields', he agrees to the three conditions set by the National Conference to get him out of the trouble he put himself into. To abandon the holy shrine, to disarm Al-Mahdi and retreat from Najaf, and to turn it into a political organisation. The official agreement from Sadr's office in Baghdad was read today at the National Conference and sparked some hope for a peaceful end to the crisis in Najaf.

10 members from the National Conference met yesterday with Sadr's aides at the shrine. Sadr did not meet with them personally due to 'security reasons', although I doubt he had left the shrine under the circumstances. Two of his family members were among the delegation, Hussein Al-Sadr (his father's cousin) and Ruha Al-Sadr (his maternal aunt). News reports last night mentioned that the negotiations failed with the delegation returning to Baghdad which lead to the announcement by the Minister of Defence this morning to resume 'decisive' military operations. Sadr seemed to have changed his mind, as usual, in the afternoon and voiced his agreement to the conditions provided all military operations cease in the city. The Defence Minister mentioned that operations would resume tomorrow if the conditions were not carried out immediately.

I'm not very optimistic to tell the truth.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

I'am afraid to admit that most of my misgivings on the outcome of the
recent military confontation with Sadr have turned out to be
well-founded. The interim Iraqi government suddenly softened its
approach, in large due to internal divisions, and now appears to be in
a weaker position than that of Sadr.

Just a few days ago they were threatening the 'scoundrels' and
'criminals' with eradication if they did not disarm and surrender. Now,
'our brother Muqtada' will not be arrested if he leaves Najaf, and he
still has the choice to particpate in the government and turn
the Sadrist movement into a 'political' one, while Sadr calls them
'dictators' and offers outrageous conditions for a truce.

Negotiations continue, bringing back to mind the situation in May,
allowing Al-Mahdi to regroup and stockpile ammunition and weapons to
fight another day. Al-Sadr might as well announce his victory
Saddam-style since he is still alive and negotiating despite his
military defeat. Now he wants Najaf to turn into a 'Hawzawi
protectorate' with Al-Mahdi in control, joining Fallujah, Sammara, and
Sadr city as an independent safehaven for insurgents with its own local
government, Sharia laws, and private courts and prisons. And the
interim government is offering him that opportunity, sealing its own
fate in the process.

As if the suffering of thousands of Najafis who were caught in between
and the deaths of Iraqi policemen and soldiers were all in vain. As if
the silent approval of Najafis and the marji'iya meant nothing.
The Iraqi government has failed its first test. I know it is probably
too early to say that, but that's what we also said in April and May. A
20 something year-old outlaw is free to do whatever he pleases and gets
away with it just because he has a black turban on his head and can
claim a couple of thousand armed followers. What kind of a farce is
this? And what kind of precedent is it going to give others?

Sadr had already refused to participate in the National Conference. He
doesn't need it. All he has to do is to take refuge in the sanctity of
a holy Shi'ite shrine, send thousands of disgruntled young men to their
death, give fiery inconsistent sermons now and then, and emerge
unscathed and stronger than ever.


Allawi's 'emergency laws' are a joke. They might look good on paper,
but who is to enforce them? Allwai says it's not time yet to implement
them. Not when IP and ING's desert and swear allegiance to Al-Mahdi in
Ammara and Basrah. Not when Al-Mahdi have taken over governmental
offices and IP stations in Nasiriya and Diwaniya. Not when they have
checkpoints and patrols using IP vehicles in Sadr city. Not when they
declare their own emergency laws and a curfew in Baghdad. Not
when they are lobbing mortars daily at Iraqi ministries and residential
areas. Not when they can hold anyone hostage and force Iraqi officials
to resign. Not when they can control the flow of oil through pipelines
from the south. Not when Muqtada is al-sayyed al-qa'id. And
certainly not when Allawi is just the local mayor of the Green Zone.


From Basrah to Baghdad

Wednesday morning, and despite pleading calls of friends and colleagues
to stay until the situation was clear, I decided to leave Basrah for
Baghdad. I argued that the situation has never been clear for months
now (and probably never will be), that one should might as well get
used to it and learn to live through it. I also feared that the
situation in Basrah would deteriorate to the extent that I would be
trapped there for another week or two, something which I did not
consider an attractive prospect.

There were a couple of British checkpoints downtown with tanks which I
thought was out of the ordinary. I have never seen a British tank for
the whole 8 months that I have been in Basrah. The garage at Sa'ad
square was almost empty from travellers. I should have taken that as a
bad omen, but I didn't. I shortly hooked up with two passengers also
heading to Baghdad and we rented a taxi. Our driver looked like a witty
and resourceful young fellow which are important traits to look for in
a driver at such a time. You need someone who can easily dodge bandits
and bullets. I asked him half-heartedly if he had heard about any
trouble on the road, not that it would have affected my decision if he
had, but he said there was nothing to worry about.

IP and ING checkpoints were still at place north of Basrah, but they
did not seem as active as before. There are at least 10 of these
between Basrah and Al-Qurnah. At the Qurnah checkpoint we heard that
armed Al-Mahdi and Sadr supporters took to the streets and tried to
take over police stations. A force of local tribesmen from the area
immediately intervened and tribal leaders offered the troublemakers two
options, either to leave town or to deal with the heavily armed tribes.
They said the militiamen chose the first option and left the area.

Afterwards we entered 'bandit territory' north of Al-Qurnah, but for
some reason, the possibility of a carjacking wasn't as threatening for
us than the unexpected surprises that might be waiting up north. The
road looked desolate, and with the exception of trucks and cargo
trailers, we are almost alone. We refueled at Qal'at Salih and learned
that the town was quiet, mostly SCIRI supporters over here. Nervous
looking IP at checkpoints kept asking us about the situation in Basrah.
Our luggage was searched at one of them, much to the dismay of our
driver. He told them that he carried a weapon and asked what were they
going to do about it. "Err.. nothing." they said. "Why do you have to
search us then?" our driver asked impatiently. We advised our driver to
quit being a smart aleck after we moved on.

The countryside looked quiet enough and as we approached the outskirts
of Ammara we grew a bit apprehensive. The Ammara checkpoint was
deserted. We entered town and stopped for cigarettes at a street
vendor. The driver asked him what was going on downtown and he said
that there were clashes just an hour ago between Al-Mahdi and British
troops. He also asked him if he was with the army of Al-Mahdi, the
vendor strangely replied that they were all with Al-Mahdi. Our driver
(being a smart aleck again) started to fool with him and said that
personally he was with the army of Al-Wardi (the pink army). A
middle-aged man in traditional tribal dress sitting nearby roared in
laughter at our driver's comment and said that he should better be
careful, "They are everywhere."

We saw plenty of British vehicles and tanks at the main intersection. I
actually saw a British Challenger for the first time. The soldiers
looked on the alert. No IP presence at all. A recently refurbished
building which belonged to the Ministry of Agriculture looked as if it
had been attacked and looted. Grafitti in support of Sadr was all over
the place. New posters of Muqtada were pasted over traffic signs and
buildings. A police station nearby had tens of police vehicles parked
in front of it and policemen were all huddled behind them. There were
remnants of burnt tires on the streets, bricks and barbed wire. As soon
as we were crossing the bridge over the Tigris we heard AK-47 fire
behind us, our driver had to speed up while we lowered ourselves in our

We reached a road block at Ali Al-Sharqi. IP were preventing vehicles
from going any further north. It seemed that clashes were ongoing at
Kut. A huge crowd of drivers and passengers were surrounding the IP
lieutenant in charge pleading with him to let them pass. A few jumpy
policemen were running back and forth trying to control the vehicles
and one threatened to shoot anyone trying to pass. I feared trouble
because the mob was growing restless and violent. The problem was that,
at this point, there was no other road to take except through Kut. We
were definitely not prepared to go back through Ammara. We tried to
convince the lieutenant to let us pass to Ali Al-Gharbi where we would
stop and wait. He was trying to tell us that this was for our own
safety and that he had orders but I think he was also wary of enraging
the crowd. He stood there with a distant look in his eyes holding a
radio in his hand that was spattering incomprehensible messages from
his superiors. Several cigarettes later, he allowed everyone to pass.

We stopped at Sheikh Sa'ad, as usual, for lunch. Drivers coming from
Kut were divided over whether it was dangerous or not to continue. We
decided to continue. The checkpoint at Kut was also abandoned and the
streets were empty. We noticed plumes of smoke from the governorate
building. Didn't look good but we passed through without trouble. No IP
presence here either. The rest of the road between Kut and Baghdad was
'normal'. We heard about fighting in Al-Aziziya. After an 8 hour
journey we reached Baghdad to find the Diyalah bridge blocked due to an
attack. We took a roundabout road to Za'faraniya and found the main
street leading to the bridge there blocked as well, we had to take a
bumpy side road which filled the car and our clothes with dust, but
that was a minor discomfort since we had reached home safely.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Sistani and the future of the Hawza

The media continues to speculate wildly on the timing of Grand Ayatollah Ali Taqi Al-Sistani's unexpected departure from Najaf to London for emergency heart treatment. While several of his spokesmen have denied that the medical condition of the 74 year-old cleric is critical, I have personally heard from an informed source who is a close relative of Sistani's agent in Basrah that he has been suffering from ischemic heart disease for some time and that he had recently experienced a myocardial infarction just 2 or 3 weeks before the fighting broke out in Najaf.

He was advised by his family and close supporters to leave Najaf immediately for treatment and rest in London. They had already coordinated with Iraqi, US and British authorities for the preparations. The old man stubbornly refused to leave, mentioning that he had remained in Najaf during even darker days. However, he resigned grudgingly to their suggestions later on. He was practically hauled to London by his son and his senior aides. My source also tells me that the other three senior clerics of the Hawza were also aware of what was to take place in Najaf, and that they had been advised by the governor's office and SCIRI to either leave Najaf for safer ground or lay low. He says that people from Sadr's office grew extremely uncomfortable on hearing this and that they had sent someone to either beg/convince or prevent Sistani from leaving Najaf. They have been claiming that Sistani was forced to leave Najaf by the Iraqi and US authorities ever since.

Sistani refused to take a US helicopter and instead was driven to Baghdad Airport by the Diwaniyah-Hilla-Baghdad road in a closely guarded yet inconspicuous convoy. He arrived in London via Beirut, and there was some footage of his arrival at Heathrow. He was with his son Mohammed Ridha and one of his aides, and they were received by his London agent under the eyes of gawking British security personnel. More footage was released yesterday of an old tired Sistani lying down in a bed at the Cromwell hospital. He is said to have been visited by an Iranian official who offered him Tehran's services, and that he snapped back at him that all he wanted was for Iran to leave him and Iraq alone.

So that settles all the conspiracy theories. Some people have been claiming that Sistani was flown away to London to 'remove' him from the scene in Najaf against his will. They underestimate the power of a supreme Hawza cleric, if Sistani wished, he could quite easily issue a fatwa or a statement from his hospital bed against the US actions. A supreme marji' can't easily be intimidated or silenced. They forget that Sayyid Mohammed Taqi Al-Shirazi issued the fatwa that sparked the massive 1920 uprising against the British while he was on his death bed, and he did indeed die days later but the revolt did not.

Also, the sensational media's talk of a power vacuum, or a struggle in Najaf among the clerics on the event of Sistani's death betrays their ignorance of the traditional Shia leadership hierarchy. Sistani would be succeeded by either Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Ishaq Al-Fayyadh or Grand Ayatollah Bashir Al-Najafi, with the former being the most likely candidate even though they are equals in terms of scholarship and Islamic jurisprudence. Al-Fayyadh is of Afghani origin, while Al-Najafi is Pakistani. Al-Fayyadh was also, together with Sistani, one of Al-Khoei's most favourite students and esteemed aides. Grand Ayatollah Abu Al-Qasim Al-Khoei (who is Sistani's predecessor) even allowed Sistani, Al-Fayyadh, and Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr to issue fatwas on his behalf at many occasions. His followers are all over the Shi'ite world from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

Furthermore, Grand Ayatollah Al-Fayyadh is known to be the most moderate of Shi'ite marji'iya, even more so than Sistani. He belongs to the traditional old school of the Hawza (that of Abu Al-Hassan Al-Asfahani, Sadiq Al-Shirazi, Al-Barujardi, Hussein Kashif Al-Ghatta', Muhsin Al-Hakim, and Al-Khoei) that calls for a distinct seperation of state and religion and an utter contempt for the notion of Wilayet Al-Faqih (the rule of the jurisprudent) that was preached by Khomeini and taken up by the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

So I wish to comfort the sensational media that there will be no power struggles in the Hawza after Sistani's death. There will always be a peaceful consensus on who would be the supreme marji' in Najaf, as it has always been that way for centuries.

Al-Mahdi in Basrah

Tensions have been high in Basrah city since last Thursday. I mentioned before that people have been circulating rumours that Al-Mahdi militiamen were preparing themselves for a show of power in the city. The next day they were literally all over the place. Sadr's main office at Al-Tuwaissa was watched closely by a small force of Brits maintaining a distance, while Mahdi militiamen at Asharr started shooting randomly at police stations. There were reports of clashes at Sa'ad square, Al-Harthah, Al-Garmah, and other areas in the city.

Mortar rounds have been fired on the governorate building and several police stations downtown since Saturday. Yesterday morning, there was a 'peaceful' demonstration by Al-Mahdi and Sadr supporters. They briefly surrounded the governorate building which was cleared from officials and employees earlier. British forces and IP blocked several main streets in Asharr and placed checkpoints, but it seems there was no real desire to engage or provoke the angry militiamen. A British Land Rover was burnt in the process at Al-Tuwaissa. Another one was burning today at Asharr, but no fighting took place as far as I know. Looks like Al-Mahdi are slowly testing how much they can get away with, or they are intentionally trying to pick up a fight.

Today, Basrah's streets were almost empty after a Sadr spokesman threatened yesterday to 'fight the occupiers in every street of Basrah'. Stores are closed and people are apprehensive. The governorate building has been abandoned since yesterday.

I've been watching Sadr's office at my location for the last few days, but it looks sinisterly inactive. Someone at work mentioned that Sadr's representative had stated that the area is under control of the Mahdi Army, and there is yet another demonstration over here this evening. People say that Sadr's office has asked everyone to participate, including IP and governmental employees. Almost sounds like a direct order.

I am supposed to leave for Baghdad early tomorrow, but I was told today that the Ammara-Baghdad road was blocked by Al-Mahdi and that they were practically in control of Ammara and the surrounding areas. The Nasiriya road doesn't sound much safer either.

Smothering the 'voice of truth'

That was Al-Jazeera's description of the action of the Iraqi government after their office in Baghdad was closed recently. They organised a sit-in complete with banners and placards in which reporters from several Arab stations participated outside the office. The only Iraqis that condemned this act of 'censorship' was the haiy'at ulemma almuslimeen (Association of Muslim Scholars). Other parties from the Arab world that condemned the ban were Hamas, the Union of Egyptian Journalists, and The Association of Islamic Media (which I have not heard of before).

What made me smile was Al-Jazeera's request to the Iraqi government for an offical explanation. I don't recall Al-Jazeera asking Saddam's regime for an explanation why they were not allowed to operate in Iraq in his time, nor do I recall any such requests to Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Algiers, or Sudan, since all of these countries have banned Al-Jazeera from reporting within their borders, while other Arab countries place close restrictions on their movement or only allow them to parrot official state-sponsored local news.

Having said that, I do blame the Iraqi government for such an irresponsible act. What were they thinking? They should have kicked out every last one of their crew outside the border, not to allow them to stage pathetic demonstrations inside. Though it is ironic that the same 'free speech' in Iraq that Al-Jazeera is lamenting is allowing them that.

I don't see anything changing though. They continue to spit out their vile news and commentary and they continue to display tapes and messages from kidnappers on every news hour. Yesterday, for example, there was a video with hooded Mahdi militiamen who had taken an Iraqi police officer as hostage, and it seems that their offices elsewhere in Iraq are still operating regardless of the ban.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Current developments

Fierce clashes and air strikes continue in Najaf for the second day in a row while fighting spreads to several southern Iraqi cities reminding Iraqis of the events of last April. The worst situation appears to be that of Najaf and Sadr city in Baghdad, while the situation in Nasiriya, Ammara, and Basrah seems to be less serious but still threatening to explode.

The news from Ammara indicate that armed Sadr supporters are controlling the streets under the eyes and noses of Iraqi police and National Guards. The limited British force in town has not yet interfered. Yesterday, Sadr's main office here in Basrah was surrounded briefly by British forces but no fighting took place. Today, people are saying that Mahdi militiamen are preparing themselves to take to the streets.

Several aides and spokesmen of Muqtada Al-Sadr appeared today on Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia blaming US forces and the 'so-called governor of Najaf' for the violence starting with the arrests of some Sadr supporters and the attack against Sadr's residence. When asked about the recent kidnapping of Iraqi policemen in Najaf last week by Mahdi militiamen, they hesitated then they dismissed the whole incident as a rumour. They all expressed the desire of the Sadr movement for negotiations and a truce which obviously reflects the hopeless position of Sadr. Muqtada conveyed two contradicitng messages, as usual, in his proxy friday speech delivered by one of his aides at the Kufa mosque; "the Iraqi prime minister says that America is a friend, and I say that America is our enemy", he also reiterated his call for negotiations and cease-fire.

The US move looks as if it was a planned one. The latest news from Najaf is that American tanks are closing in on the old city centre where the shrine of Imam Ali, Sadr's office and residence are located, as well as those of several senior Hawza clerics. Clashes are also reported from the Wadi Al-Salam graveyard in the north where Mahdi militiamen have taken refuge in the many basements there.

Over 300 militiamen are reported dead and a 1000 have been arrested according to the governor of Najaf. Overall, the situation looks bleak for Sadr, and one has to surmise if this would end in either his arrest or his death. I doubt that the Sadrist movement would be over with Muqtada's death, they would just have a third martyr from the Sadr family to add to their list.

One also can't help but wonder about the timing of Sistani's departure from Najaf to London for treatment. The man is known for his subtle messages, could this be a sign for his tacit approval to finish Sadr and his militia once and for all? The remaining Hawza clerics are highly unlikely to issue a collective statement in the absense of Sistani, even more so when they have been threatened and attacked by Sadr's supporters on many occasions. An aide of Sadr mentioned today on Al-Jazeera that Sistani was forced to leave Najaf and that the medical report of his ischemic heart condition was forged.

Chiefly about the supernatural

Every once in a while it does one some good to escape the mundane details of daily life (or death in the Iraqi case) to the fascinating realm of the unkown and the mysterious. It doesn't happen very frequently but I find it a pleasant and welcome distraction, and instead of discussing the endless politics, the explosions, the abductions, and the beheadings, we will turn to something more interesting, at least for once.

By the way, I just recalled an angry email from a reader who announced, quite rudely, that she won't be reading my blog any more. I believe it was three or four months ago. She mentioned that it was because I was losing touch with reality since the whole country was in chaos at the time and here I was blogging about some cheerful topic! She almost stopped short of saying that I was losing my sanity. Anyway, my point is don't expect me to comment or blog about every bad thing that goes on in Iraq because the truth is that sometimes I am either so depressed to write about it or I may not even have a reaction that can be easily put into words, or maybe I just don't care any more. Sometimes you have to take that into consideration, I am not a machine and I think there are enough blogs and websites out there that have in depth coverage of every small thing that goes on in Iraq.

So, there were three of us last night at the doctors residence, me, the Baghdadi pharmacist, and our humorous cook. We were heatedly discussing, as we always do, the many ideological differences between Sunnis and Shia (we had started this habit a couple of months ago after they had realised, with some shock, that I don't pray or fast in Ramadan and that I have absolutely nothing to do with religion). The conversation slowly drifted to discussing death and the afterlife, we cracked a couple of popular jokes, and the pharmacist carefully flirted with the idea that it may all be an elaborate trick and that there is nothing but nothingness after death. Our cook got a bit uneasy on hearing this and started to recount some supernatural experiences that had occured to him or his friends, offering them as proof of there being an afterlife.

He was once out with his cousin on a walk in the country side south of Basrah, an area which is densely packed with palm groves, hundreds of small canals from Shatt Al-Arab running between them, and tens of scattered villages and habitations. Most roads here are unpaved and the whole place feels desolate and eerie at night especially during winter, dogs and wolves howl endlessly as in fear. They passed by some old ruins and a small graveyard which belonged to some Sadah (pl. of Sayyed, a descendant of Muhammed through his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali bin Abi Talib), it was very dark and a bit misty although it was a full moon.

They noticed some light shining from behind a grave stone in their direction, they stopped, wondering who would be in his right mind to be at such a place in the night. My cook described it as a white light that was getting stronger and stronger until what resembled a tall human figure emerged from it. He said they froze in horror at the sight of the strange figure. It looked as if it was dressed completely in a shiny white robe 'that was almost made of light', that it was faceless but it had a long white beard. The figure was about 20 metres away from them and it was moving closer to them as if it was gliding on the ground. They both snapped and started running for all they were worth, but the figure flyed behind them because they could see their shadows in the light. At one point his cousin looked behind while he was running and he missed the small bridge over one of the canals and plunged into the water. Our cook said he didn't pause for his cousin and that he kept running for his life until he was home.

On asking him what happened to his cousin, he said the cousin grew really strange after that incident, and denied seeing a ghost at all. When we started to joke about the Sadah, our cook recoiled in fear and begged us not to. It is a common superstition in southern Iraq that holy figures such as the Twelve Imams of the Shia, or basically any Sayyed can put a curse on anyone who says bad things about them. They describe Imam Al-Abbas as abu ras alhar (the hot-head) because he is supposedly known to punish people who swear falsely by his name. They tell the story of a woman who lied and sweared by the name of Abbas. She mysteriously disappeared afterwards and later they found her earrings hanging high on the ceiling of Al-Abbas' shrine in Karbala. During the last century it was common practice for the Iraqi government to ask witnesses to swear by Abbas when taking oaths in courtrooms instead of the Quran.

On this occasion, and seeing that I continued to joke about them, my cook predicted that something bad would befall me soon. He kept eyeing me and looked a bit hurt to see that nothing wrong happened to me.

There was a famous story during the nineties that took place in Najaf which is home to the largest graveyard in the world (This is because most Shia from all over the Middle East desire to be buried in holy Najaf close to the shrine of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, to this day corpses are brought from Iran, Pakistan, even India to be buried there, this was also how several plagues spread to Iraq centuries ago). Two friends challenged a third to enter the graveyard in the middle of the night and to hammer a large nail into a well known grave which belonged to a Sayyed. The man entered the graveyard, his friends waited for hours but there was no sign of their friend returning. They headed to the mentioned grave the next morning, and they found him at the grave babbling and acting as if he had lost his mind. On closer look, they found that he had driven the nail through the sleeve of his dishdasha and into the tomb. Since it was pitch dark the previous night, the man had apparently hammered the nail through his shirt unknowingly and on trying to leave imagined it as something or someone had snatched his hand and he went crazy on the spot.

Personally, I have no such experiences with ghosts. The only one that can be described as one was at high school when a friend of mine handed me a small khirza (a stone with purported magical powers). There are many kinds of these (that come in different colours and shapes) in Iraq, some bring good luck, some bring fortune, and some are used to entice ladies (something close to that is the chest bone of woodpeckers, adhm alhudhud). He said the stone would bring luck. It first rotated between a circle of our friends. One of them was kicked out of home by his father, another had a car accident, and the last failed miserably in a series of exams.

I accepted it because I was dubious and was instructed to put it under my bed pillow. Nothing happened on the first night, on the second I had some extremely erotic dreams that had me trying to keep the stone for myself and some of our friends, on hearing this, impatiently asked me for their turns to try the stone. The third night something strange happened, I felt the room was getting really hot, almost as if it was on fire. My imagination was running wild and I thought that I saw shadows on the wall dancing in fire. I returned the stone next morning and said I didn't want anything to do with it any more. Someone else took it and claimed that he lost it afterwards, he probably enjoyed those dreams too much!

At the time, my grandmother (who is a psychic) insisted that I was ridden by a Jinn (djinn) and she gave me a special hijab (not a headscarf!), which was an old faded paper with Quranic verses and strange numbers and triangular figures on it, she said it would scare the Jinn away. I admit that I did feel better then. She also has several of these stones that she keeps in a small bag of cloth. She claims that she bathes them and feeds them salt, and that they even have conversations with her.

Jinn stories are very popular in Iraq. Needless to say that Muslims are supposed to believe in Jinn because their existence is mentioned in the Quran, therefore it almost blasphemy to deny that they exist. The same as the human race, they say there are good Jinn and evil Jinn (even Muslim Jinn), they are also supposed to live in a parallel dimension so we can't perceive each other's presence. Some people are known to have contact with Jinn and can use their powers. In my family there is an old story that was passed down to us involving my father's great grandmother and her friendly relation with the Jinn. His great grandfather was a drunkard and he returned home every night and beat up his wife with a stick. On one of these nights, he entered the house to find his wife with the lamp in her hand standing in the hallway waiting for him with a strange expression on her face. She was surrounded by evil looking dwarves that sounded like elves from their description. He died on the spot, they found him the next day with his eyes wide open and with a gruesome look of sheer horror on his face.

Two popular supernatural figures in Iraqi folklore are the Tanttel and the Su'luwwa. The first is a tall and black hairy creature common in dark alleys and abandoned places. Old women are known to scare children with it. The second is a wicked woman that lives in the river and snatches young men from their boats at night. Some fishermen from Rawa even claimed to have captured one in a net.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Power shortages

The power shortage is still the same despite repeated promises and false statements by the Ministry of Electricity. Every now and then they give out a deadline (which is usually at the middle or the end of the upcoming month) in which outages are to be reduced to some unbelievable rates. Last time it was supposed to improve in mid July to 8 hours of outages a day, of course nothing happened and the opposite turned out to be true, the outages were increased to 16 hours a day, after a few days they returned to 12 hours a day.

In Basrah city it has been the same for over a month, 3 hours of power followed by 3 without. At the village where I work, it sometimes goes out for a whole day or more, and sometimes it stays on for a full day at random intervals, no rationing system over here it seems. Needless to say that Basrah (the whole south in general) used to get 2-3 hours of power a day for the last 12 years in order for Baghdad to get a relatively stable supply of power. After the assassination of Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr in 1999 and the small uprisal that followed in southern cities, the government stopped cutting off power at night in an attempt to control the security situation.

I remember a popular joke about the electricty situation from a few years ago; Gabriel had made a special device for God which was basically a large board with millions of tiny light bulbs on it to measure how many people were cursing God or uttering blasphemies at the moment. God was impressed with the device and they both proudly watched as a light here and there went on and off every once in a while. Suddenly a large portion of the board (over 20 million bulbs) lit altogether. God was shocked, and he turned to Gabriel, "What was that?" he asked. "Oh, the electricity just went out in Iraq" Gabriel said. Another related joke, Sajida (Saddam's wife) was sitting all sullen and cursing her bad luck. Someone asked what was bothering her. "It's nothing" she answered, "I just happen to have two widowed daughters, a crippled son, and a maniac husband who keeps switching the lights on and off all day".

As to what people do when the power goes out. It is a long established fact that the majority of Iraqis now own generators (usually 1-5 kV units) or have subscribed to the various 'neighbourhood generators' which were formerly government property. One Ampere usually costs 10,000 Dinars (about 6 dollars) a month. There are some streets in Baghdad where a vehicle higher than 10 feet cannot go through because of the network of wires and cables that go across the street.

Unfortunately, my neighbourhood doesn't have one of these so we have three alternate sources, one being a small 3.5 kV generator, another source is an 'invertor' which charges from a large battery and gives about 4 Amperes for 2 hours (depending on the charging period), we usually use this during the day and save the generator for the night until 1 AM which is when we turn it off. The last source (which is rarely used) is locally called a 'chattal', you only use that when you have an area close by with a different power schedule from which you 'borrow' a few Amperes via an ingenuously concealed cable or wire which are sometimes hundreds of metres long and pass over several houses. This technique was widespread from the days of the former regime. It was (and still is) illegal. The Ministry of Electricity recently started a campaign in various districts of Baghdad to remove these 'tresspassing' wires, they reportedly confiscated hundreds of kilometres of these wires. I believe the whole thing was useless since I am sure new wires were put in place. It might seem logical to advise people to stop overloading the grid, but sadly logic doesn't make sense in an Iraqi summer. Many Iraqis are convinced that the whole power shortage thing is just something to keep people busy, or a 'punishment' as some choose to call it.

The roof is a pleasant place to spend the night especially if washed beforehand and there are rural areas nearby, but in areas such as mine where mortar fire is frequent we can't enjoy such a previlege. The last time I tried I kept glancing at the sky in case there were red bullet tracers, or I would suddenly jump out of bed when an American helicopter would roar across the area flying incredibly low. Sometimes it would take just a small distant boooom to haul me inside to sleep naked on the floor of my bedroom.

Maybe we are in desperate need of an 'electricity emergency law' instead of the one proposed by the current interim government. All resources should be fully directed to restore the power grid to a sufficient level before anything else. I don't think there are any excuses not to do this, it isn't an impossible achievement. True there are obstacles such as the continuous mortar attacks against power stations and sabotage of power lines, no to mention the targeting of foreign experts, but it is doable. Iraqi technicians are efficient enough for the task if they are provided with the neccessary spare parts, something which they have been denied many times so more money gets pocketed by the foreign corporations that are involved in the reconstruction.