السبت، نوفمبر 20، 2004

Fierce fighting has been going on in several areas of Baghdad for the last 4 hours. I was supposed to leave for Basrah this morning, as soon as I walked out of the front door I was face to face with ten or so hooded men dressed in black carrying Ak-47's and RPG's. They had set up a checkpoint right in front of our door.

Someone barked at me to go inside. Nabil was also about to leave for his school. His driver had just called him and said that he was turned back at the street entrance by another checkpoint. We looked at the main intersection and it was swarming with armed men running about and motioning drivers and pedestrians to leave the area.

We watched them from behind the door with my mother frantically trying to get us inside. There was an exchange of fire and someone was bellowing "Where are the National traitors? (referring to the National Guards) Let them come and taste this." More shooting followed.

Tens of voices on the street were chanting "Allahu Akbar" and the ground beneath us suddenly shook from a nearby explosion. The shooting was frantic now and a series of explosions followed. Everyone in the house rushed to open windows to prevent their shattering from the pressure.

We got phonecalls from relatives in other areas asking what was going on. There was fighting in Adhamiya, Sulaikh, Haifa street, Sha'ab, Ghazaliya and Amiriya according to a brief news flash on Al-Jazeera.

Nabil was complaining about an exam he had at school and I was getting called every now and then by a friend who was supposed to meet me at Al-Nahdha garage at 8 sharp. Needless to say, I cancelled the trip.

A jet fighter was now screeching over our heads and it let off some flares apparently in an attempt to scare away the 'Mujahideen'. They left their positions for a while and slowly people started to come out. Parents nervously dragging schoolchildren behind them and youngsters who were undecided whether to move on or return home.

A few explosions were heard followed by further shooting around the street corner which sent everyone in our street running in the opposite direction. The hooded men in black reappeared.

The shooting seems less intense at the moment but we can still hear it going on.


UPDATE: I had to sleep during the day since I was up all night yesterday. The fighting hasn't ceased yet. I woke up several times to hear nearby explosions and then I drift back to sleep.

Just in case you were wondering. Yes, we did contact the police in our neighbourhood using the public phone numbers they had given out a couple of months ago. Guess what? They were surrounded by insurgents and couldn't do anything about it. In Adhamiya, the police station was set on fire and four policemen were killed in the fighting, the rest seem to have left their posts. The National Guard base in Saddam's former palace near the Adhamiya bridge was also under attack for the whole day.

Relatives calling us from other areas confirmed that the clashes erupted all at once around 6:30 am indicating that this was a coordinated movement. Many say this was in response to the incident yesterday at the Abu Hanifa mosque in Adhamiya which is a sacred Sunni shrine. Apparently storming the mosque during the friday prayers has provoked Arab and Muslim clerics to call for Jihad yet again. Qardhawi reiterated his call for Jihad in Iraq yesterday on Al-Jazeera describing it as a "religious duty", and the International Union of Muslim Scholars based in Pakistan has also called all Muslims to head to Iraq for Jihad.

One can't help but notice that the clerics who usually incite holy wars in Iraq against the US occupation on the expense of Iraqis are based in countries allied to the US such as Qatar, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. On the other hand, you have Sheikh Salah Al-Din Kuftaro, son of Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro, the late Grand Mufti of Syria, publicly denouncing the behaviour of Iraqi insurgents yesterday during Friday prayers at the Kuftaro mosque in Damascus. He described them as the "present day Kharijites" and their actions as "unislamic".

الجمعة، نوفمبر 19، 2004

Eid afterthoughts

I haven't been writing these last few days for a combination of reasons. I desperately tried to enjoy the Eid holiday despite the chaos around me but it was a futile attempt. I could see that other Baghdadis were trying to do the same. Youngsters and children were probably the least affected by the situation. You could see them trotting around in groups, donning their brand new Eid clothes with Eidiyas filling their pockets, totally oblivious to the dangers that might be lurking around any corner.

The streets were almost empty during the first day of Eid, as people were still apprehensive and undecided on whether it was safe enough to venture outside. I took the family out for lunch on the second day and was surprised to find that most restaurants were crowded even though the streets looked desolate. We passed through several areas of Baghdad, trying to find a decent place to eat. We toured the Adhamiya, Mansour, Karadah and Arasat districts. Everything looked quiet and I couldn't help but notice the absence of police from the streets.

We enjoyed a meal at a busy restaurant in Arasat, after an hour of waiting, and set back home. The streets were gradually filling up by now. Maybe after a day and a half of watching news word slowly got out that it was reasonably safe to visit friends and relatives as the Eid holiday has no taste without family gatherings.

The main course of discussion during these meetings, as usual, was about politics. There is never a consensus when discussing the current situation in the country, every family is divided. The explosive situation in Fallujah and other areas north of Baghdad has provided a starting point for the debates and they usually end with much table banging, fist shaking and a chorus of deafening voices and screams which result of everyone trying to speak at the same time. Usually, the one with the loudest voice (not argument) wins.

The above scene is a very common and normal one in an Iraqi household. Family discussions have always been that way as far back as I can remember.

***

Fighting resumed on the morning of the third day of Eid. A police station was encircled by armed groups in Adhamiya and we heard mortar shellings throughout the day. As a result, the streets were empty again. We also watched with horror the video of the Marine soldier shooting an injured Iraqi inside a Fallujah mosque. Everyone in Baghdad was talking about the incident. The casual manner in which it was done suggests that this was not something out of the ordinary.

I heard all the justifications from the US military; insurgents were placing booby traps on their dead and injured, the soldier was disturbed, he had a bad day, etc. None of them stand the test. This was a vile and despicable act, a crime of war, pure and simple. True, the man might have been a foreign fighter, a potential suicide bomber, a baby killer, whatever, but he might have also been an injured civilian caught in cross fire during the heat of battle crawling to what he perceived a safe area.

Such questions are irrelevant in war, though. We can write a whole book about the subject but it would still achieve nothing.

I mentioned before that I was not optimistic to the outcome of this assault on Fallujah. The city is in shambles and violence has spread to other locations. Here is another map for your perusal.

I have plenty on my mind but I'm too tired to write more. I have to prepare for another trip back to Basrah.

السبت، نوفمبر 13، 2004

Outbreak

The general situation in Baghdad these days is sinisterly reminiscient of the war. You keep hearing distant and sometimes not so distant thuds and explosions that make windows rattle. Helicopters hovering 24 hours a day almost at palm tree levels and jet fighters screeching high above with an increasing urgency that makes one cringe from apprehension. Electric power is almost non-existent and there has been a serious shortage in petrol since Tuesday, most gas stations have been closed for days and it's hard to find even on the black market, which means
less electrical generator time for Iraqi households.

Fighting seems to have spread to several areas in Baghdad, including my neighbourhood. Haifa street, Dora, Amiriya, Khadhraa', Bayaa', Adhamiya and Zayuna districts have all witnessed clashes, mostly between hit-and-run armed groups and IP or NG's. IED's are all over the capital and several key roads and bridges have been blocked.

A cryptic threat was circulated a few days ago in both Baghdad and Ba'quba by insurgents warning people to stay away from "governmental departments and schools" causing widespread panic. A couple of primary schools in Baghdad were reportedly stormed by armed men wearing scary gorilla masks, so schools and colleges have been almost empty lately. The air is rife with outlandish rumours and conspiracy theories, aggravated by the lack of news about what is exactly going on since most Arab media outlets are more interested in the funeral and the
death circumstances of Yassir Arafat than the Iraqi scene at the moment.

I returned from Basrah Wednesday and was greeted by hooded men in a Kia minibus firing their AK-47's in the air close to the entrance of our street. The troubled taxi driver dropped me off with my suitcase and drove away to safety. The Kia went by and then into a sidestreet where
they seemed to have found a target since frantic shooting followed. Not a living soul was on the street except yours truly and I froze for a few seconds uncertain on which way to head. A close 'whizzzzzz' followed by a loud metallic clang behind me got me moving, so I scurried to my destination keeping as close as possible to the walls while I was reflecting on a friend's description of what it felt like to have a bullet tear through his loin. It was definitely not a fun
experience but I luckily made it home. I have been scared stiff to put my nose out of the door since. This is the fourth occasion in which I get myself caught in the middle of a shootout and something tells me I won't be as lucky next time if we follow probability laws.

Nobody is following the situation in Fallujah anymore since the whole country seems to have plunged into chaos. There has been fighting in Ramadi, Khaldiya, Hit, Haditha, Garma, Abu Ghraib, Qaim, Mosul, Kirkuk, Hawija, Baiji, Tikrit, Samarra, Tarmiya, Balad, Muqdadiya, Salman Pak, Jurf Al-Naddaf, and most likely in dozens more areas that go unreported. Attacks on pipelines supplying power stations in Baiji have caused the lack of electricity for the last few days. Any other talk about 'collective punishment' is pure nonsense and the ramblings of
lunatics.

Also, if one reflects for a moment on the abovementioned areas that are now supposedly in rebellion we come to a realisation that not one bullet was shot against the advancing US forces in these areas during the war. Why is that? The deadliest resistance to occupying forces was
in Umm Qasr, Basrah, Abu Al-Khasib, Nasiriya, Kut, and Karbala. In fact we all heard during the war about banquets for US special forces thrown by tribal Sheikhs in Haditha and other areas of the Anbar governorate. The 'resistance' only started after the de-Ba'athification and the
disbanding of the army and security forces which tells us a lot about the mentality of the 'freedom fighters' who claim to be fighting to end occupation.

What is worse is that the first chapter of the future Iraqi civil war is currently being written. The Sunni armed groups have made no secret this time of their true intentions. According to them, the Iraqi NG's are now just infidel 'Kurd and Shi'ite' militias taking their revenge against the peace-loving Sunnis. The Association of Muslim Scholars issues fatwas calling Iraqi security forces 'apostates' because "Iraqis should not be fighting Iraqis under the occupation". This fatwa implies that if the occupation ends tomorrow then it would be okay for Iraqis to kill each other then, since that has always been the case over the last three decades. Harith Al-Dhari might have regained whatever credibility he previously had by stating that "No Iraqis should kill other Iraqis period", which would apply to the insurgents who insist on blowing up other Iraqis in police stations, churches and hospitals.

Will write on further developments later.

الاثنين، نوفمبر 08، 2004

Fallujah's 'Final Solution'?

The interim government declared a state of emergency in Iraq excluding the Kurdish region for 60 days, according to the National Security Law introduced last August which states that emergency laws can be declared in the country for a period no more than 60 days provided a serious threat against Iraqi national security is recognised by the interim government.

Obviously, this is a necessary step that should have been taken at least two months ago. Suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks carried out by insurgents and foreign terrorists based around Baghdad have escalated to alarming levels particularly during Ramadan.

Deputy governor of Diyala along with several council members from Ba'quba were ambushed and killed in Latifiya south of Baghdad, an area which has supposedly been 'cleared' from insurgents a couple of weeks ago. Four suicide attacks in Samarra, also a recently 'liberated' area, against National Guard units and the governorate building. Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Three police stations in Haditha, a small town west of Ramadi, were assaulted by groups of insurgents. Some 30 policemen were captured, tied up and executed in cold blood against the walls following a confrontation which lasted two hours. Zarqawi's group, again, claiming responsibility.

A full-scale military operation against Fallujah, which is apparently underway already, seems to be the government's 'final solution'. I'm not optimistic to the outcome, especially when significant civilian casualties are unavoidable.

Note, that I'm not suggesting a peaceful or political solution would work either in these areas. Insurgents west of Baghdad have quite obstinately made it clear that nothing but full control of the country, or at least the Anbar governorate, will satisfy them. They have refused to participate in the political process, they have repeatedly announced their intentions to boycott the elections and to disrupt them in other areas, and they do not recognise the government or any other authority in the country beside themselves.

The demands of the Fallujah negotiants from the government weeks ago were obscene and they clearly reflect the overt sectarianism and regionalism of the armed groups in the area. The demands were not released to the Iraqi public at the time for unkown reasons but they have leaked out days ago. Here are just a few of them:
-A clear timetable for the withdrawal of foreign occupation forces (fair enough).
-Immediate withdrawal of US and Iraqi security forces from the Anbar governorate and the handover of security responsibilities to former army officers from Anbar.
-The appointment of ministers from the Anbar governorate to the ministries of Interior, Defense, Oil and Finance.
-The removal of certain officials (most of them from Shi'ite Islamic parties such as Ibrahim Al-Ja'fari) from governmental positions.
-The complete return of Ba'athists, army officers, Republican Guards, Mukhabarat, intelligence and security personnel to their former positions.
-The removal of Shi'ite Edhan (call for prayers) from official television and radio programs.
-Incomes of Shi'ite sacred shrines should be returned under the control of the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs.

These last two demands have been allegedly added by Sheikh Harith Al-Dhari (head of the Association of Muslim Scholars) and are said to have been a major reason behind the failure of negotiations with the government.

Iraqis here in the south were shocked to hear of these demands and sectarian tensions are on the rise. It scares me to see the reaction of people around me whenever Fallujah is mentioned. The director of a primary health care clinic was remarking the other day that "Fallujah should be burnt upon its residents and then razed to the ground. They are the sons of Mu'awiya, may Allah curse them all." Sidenote: Mu'awiya bin Abi Sufyan was the governor of Syria during the 7th century and he fought Imam Ali bin Abi Talib (Muhammed's son-in-law) over the Caliphate after the assassination of Caliph Othman. He became the first Ummayid Caliph and two decades later, under the Caliphate of his son Yazid, Imam Hussein bin Ali (grandson of Muhammed) was killed by his armies at present day Karbala. Someone hushed the director and pointed out to him that I'm Sunni. He was a bit embarrassed and tried to explain that he was referring to Wahhabis and foreign fighters. It was a bit uncomfortable and I could feel that people were giving me furtive glances.

Refugees have been pouring out of Fallujah over the last few days into Baghdad and the surrounding areas. The military operation will undoubtly aggravate the humanitarian situation inside the city since there are definitely thousands of families with no place to go. Refugees in Baghdad have confirmed the rumours that the 'Mujahideen' are forcing men from 15-50 years old to stay and that they were threatened with execution if they refuse to carry arms in defense of the town. Majlis Shura Al-Mujahideen (The Mujahideen Advisory Council) are in control of Fallujah and they have distributed a statement inviting Arab and foreign (including American) media reporters to enter the town and cover the battles. The statement carried the insignia of Zarqawi's group Qa'idat Al-Jihad.

Everyone is closely watching what the next few days will bring, hoping the violence doesn't spread to the streets of Baghdad or other areas. I'm still holed up in Basrah but I'll try to be on the road as soon as possible.

Onset of Elections Fever in Iraq

I mentioned before in a previous post that a significant section of Iraqis seemed uninterested in the forthcoming national elections for various reasons, but that the general feeling in Kurdistan and southern Iraq was a bit different. My statement still holds true except that the last part of it is a gross understatement; Iraqis here in the south are ardently making preparations on all levels for the event, almost with religious zeal.

Posters with detailed instructions on voters registration are on every street corner and lamp post in Basrah, badly printed handbills and leaflets calling for people to vote are widely circulated, photocopied statements and fatwas from the Marji'iya and Hawza clerics in support for elections are hanging in stores, hospitals, governmental departments, and coffee shops. City councils, municipalities, civil society organisations, mosques and husseiniyas are all arranging and holding meetings to prepare for the voting procedures.

People in Baghdad and the surrounding areas may say that elections are irrelevant or that the outcome has already been decided by Zionists/infidels/neocons/imperialists/capitalists/Jews and that puppets/agents/lackeys/mercenaries/traitors will rule the country, but for the people around me here in Basrah, this is a historical moment they have all been waiting for. I admit that I may not share their enthusiasm but it is surely an encouraging scene to witness.

While many people in Baghdad still have no idea about the voting process or what/who they are supposed to be voting for, our janitor here at the doctors residence meticulously described the whole procedure to me. Many in Baghdad, for example, still erroneously believe that voting will be for presidential candidates, whereas people here are aware that they would be voting to elect a 275 member National Assembly and governorate councils, and that Iraqi Kurds, in addition, vote to elect Kurdish parliament members.

I observed that many posters on the streets in support for elections contained some inappropriate and insinuating slogans, such as "A small minority is trying to deny the right of the majority to choose its destiny. Vote and show the intruders who the true Iraqis are," and "Ba'athist remnants and people of the evil triangle oppose the elctions because it will demonstrate to all their true numbers."

A recent statement from Sistani advised local councils and clerics to help educate and assist people in distant villages to register for the voting. The statement also called for "people with disabilities, and even the elderly on their death beds" to vote because "every person counts and can influence the elections."

The Hawza also welcomed the decision to include Iraqis in exile in the elections. Some heated debates have been going on in Iraqi official circles on whether to include them or not. The Independent Electoral Commission claimed that there were a few technical difficulties. The National Council agreed on a further 90 billion dollars to the budget allocated for elections to ensure participation of Iraqi expatriates.

At least 4 million Iraqis live in exile with the majority living in the UK, Sweden, USA, Germany, Jordan, UAE, Iran and New Zealand. Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Syria, Libya and Yemen also have sizable Iraqi communities. Their votes have a significant importance since many of them are highly educated and have experienced western democracies firsthand.