Sunday, January 30, 2005

Hold Your Head Up High, You Are Iraqi

I chose to cast my vote in Amman this very day, even though Iraqi exiles have been voting here since Friday. Voter turnout in Jordan was exceptionally lower than in other countries and I was quite surprised to hear some of the same rumours that infest Baghdad repeated over here in Amman.

One problem was the special ink that voters have to dab their fingers with. Many Iraqis were concerned that insurgents would catch them on their way back to Baghdad and recognise people who had voted.

Some resourceful Iraqis had already devised several methods to get rid of the stain. One of these is to paint your fingers with skin lotion before you enter the polling station, wipe your finger clean immediately after voting and before the ink dries, on returning home dip your finger in boiling detergent and rub it repeatedly.

The turnout in Iraq was really like nothing that I had expected. I was glued in front of tv for most of the day. My mother was in tears watching the scenes from all over the country. Iraqis had voted for peace and for a better future, despite the surrounding madness. I sincerely hope this small step would be the start of much bolder ones, and that the minority which insists on enslaving the majority of Iraqis would soon realise that all that they have accomplished till now is in vain.

Another surprise was to see some Iraqis who had fled the country in fear of reprisals, such as the families of ex-regime figures and ex-Ba'athists, actually voting and encouraging others to vote! I know some of those from school and college and I imagined they would be bitter about the whole process, but many were not.

Jordanians were wishing Iraqis luck these few days everywhere on the streets. One young man at a mall, on recognising my Iraqi accent, asked me who I would be voting for. I politely told him that I would vote for who I believe is sincere. Strangely, he said that he personally preferred Allawi and hoped most Iraqis would be voting for him. I wished his country luck as well since the King had promised direct elections for municipal councils as a first step. He dismissed that as nothing much and said that "One should start from the 'Head' down, not the other way around". This last remark played on my survival instincts, even though the fellow looked far from being a Jordanian Mukhabarat agent, so I left the man in peace.

I really want to write much much more but I have to run for now. I promise I will post again soon. In the mean time: Hold your head up high, Remember that you are Iraqi.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Friday, January 21, 2005

I probably won't be blogging for a while because I'll be in Amman, Jordan, for the next few days until after the elections. A police officer that I know mentioned something to the effect that movement would be very restricted this week in Baghdad after the Eid.

The interim government had announced that elections day will be a holiday, together with the day before and day after, so there probably won't be any work at all after Eid and until February.

There are rumours circulating that telecommunications and the Internet will be blocked during this period although the government seems to have denied them. Curfews will be imposed at 6 pm according to the police, borders will close and traffic between the governorates will be halted. All in all, it's going to be a tough two weeks.

Will post again as soon as this mess is over.

Countdown to Elections

One week to elections day and the general atmosphere in the capital is eerie, yet strikingly familiar. I suspect the streets of Baghdad will look as if a war is looming this week. There is no doubt that many Iraqis regard the date of 30 January as a day of renewed hope, one they have been awaiting all their lives, but at the same time, many others are already dreading it.

The interim government has promised security measures that would reduce the violence on the day of elections, but I fail to see how they will be able to protect all 5,000 (or so) balloting centres. Many voting centres have already been successfully attacked or destroyed in many areas.

Now that the picture is clear, the two main competing lists seem to be the United Iraqi Coalition list and Allawi's Al-Iraqiya list. Ayad Allawi, and other ministers running on his list, have quite expectedly used their governmental positions in campaigning. One minister reportedly handed out 100 dollar 'gifts' to journalists attending a press conference for Allawi, a practice that brings back bad memories to many Iraqis.

Sheikh Naji Al-Abbudi, a spokesman for Sistani, affirmed the claims that the Grand Ayatollah is backing the United Iraqi Coalition list. Indeed, Sistani's agents all over the country have been quite active in educating Iraqi Shia on the merits of elections, which has led to the assassination of at least two of them. Al-Abbudi stated that "His Emminence" decided to openly support the list because "others" (obviously a reference to Allawi) have been abusing official state positions and media outlets in their campaigning. Again there is no official written statement from Sistani's office confirming this allegation, which I think is intentional.

Ahmed Al-Chalabi and defense minister Hazim Al-Sha'lan have been engaging in shrill public attacks over the media. Chalabi describing Sha'lan as a "Ba'athist" and a "former double agent for Saddam and the CIA", while Sha'lan dismisses Chalabi as a "thief" and an "Iranian stooge who longs for his own origins by defending Iran". One remark made by Sha'lan on Al-Arabiya TV, that he couldn't say more about Chalabi because he would embarrass himself and the viewers almost made me roll on the floor. It was an extremely amusing episode, watching Chalabi looking smug and amused, contrasted with Sha'lan, all serious and barely keeping himself from swearing. Fistfights, please.

Hazim Al-Sha'lan, by the way, is the son of the late Sheikh of Al-Khaza'il in Diwaniya and has the potential to replace former information minister, M.S. Al-Sahaf, in his nonsensical media statements, which can be passed as jokes.

The main Kurdish coalition list (PUK and KDP) is barely mentioned outside the Kurdish region. Even there, many Kurds look and act as if they are going to grab the chance to vote them out of power. I doubt that will be the outcome though.

Many Iraqis, including conservative and religious Iraqis, are surprisingly rooting for the Iraqi Communist party, probably in an attempt to counter the influence of Islamists in the forthcoming National Assembly. The Communist party has the largest number of registered party members in the country and can be considered as the oldest popular political party in Iraq. Its support base is much larger than what it seems.

***

Several candidates were assassinated and targeted these last two weeks, others have been forced under threats to withdraw and to follow the example of the Islamic party. Sectarian tensions are at their highest since April, 2004, with Sunni insurgents now openly attacking Husseiniyas and Shia mosques.

I had an interesting conversation with a middle-aged taxi driver who used to live in Fallujah and is now at relatives in Amiriya, Baghdad. After asking me which tribe I belong to (thus assessing my sectarian background) he started hurling abuses at the Shia, calling them Persians, Majoos (fire worshippers), rabid dogs and a handful of other descriptions that I can't mention here. He described Allawi's face as that of a f*ed horse and he dismissed the whole government as a band of thieves and traitors.

I didn't argue with him but I asked him what he believed would be a viable solution to this mess. He said that resistance was the only commonsense solution. First driving out the Americans, then fighting the Shia back into submission (as in 1991).

Sunni Iraqis contend that elections are impossible to hold under occupation. Leaving aside the fact that this views conflicts with other historical examples in the region, Sunnis have never offered an alternative choice, which eventually leads one to guess that the opinion held by the Fallujan taxi driver above is precisely what they are planning to implement.

I had another conversation some months ago with a retired Ba'athist old-timer who claimed that Ba'athists have the means to stage a third coup d'etat and return to power within 10 hours of an American withdrawal. On sensing my incredulity to his statement he asserted that Ba'athist cells exist in all parts of the country and that they do have a central command, even though many have formed seperate cells (often under Islamic labels) with their own leaderships. He said that they have the training and the funding as well as the support of neighbouring and regional governments.

I concur that Ba'athists and former security forces are capable of immediately controlling at least 5 out of 18 governorates, along with the capital, if Americans are to be removed from the picture entirely. But I also see that as a fatal misconception, which is doing Sunnis harm, because I don't believe the US is going anywhere so soon. Any government that assumes power after the elections also realises this, so not even Sistani is going to call the US to withdraw its troops, despite what he is saying now, not until they are ensured the insurgency is out of the picture, or that they have an alternative foreign power (in this case Iran) to back them up.

The only hope now is that, following the elections, the National Assembly would offer the hand of peace and reconciliation to the dissenting parties. I would suggest going for tribal Sheikhs rather than clerics, since they have the upper hand in their areas and can effectively root out any Ba'athists in their midst in return for a promise of sharing power and authority. Many of these Sheikhs have been disenfranchised and abused over the last two years. Very recently, US forces in Al-Anbar made a terrible blunder by accidentally killing Abdul-Razaq Inad Al-Gu'ud, Sheikh of the Al-Bu Nimr clan from the powerful Dulaym tribe.

Al-Gu'ud had favoured elections and was in good terms with the government. The Gu'ud family even accepted to be offered the seat of Al-Anbar governor some months back. The Al-Bu Nimr in Ramadi and Al-Qaim rose in arms against Saddam in the mid-nineties following the execution of Thamir Madhlum Al-Dulaymi, an Air Force general belonging to their tribe. The revolt took two weeks to be suppressed by the Republican Guard.

Another bad step was the recent arrest of Sheikh Hassan Al-Lihabi, of the Lihaib tribe which is scattered between the governorates of Al-Anbar, Mosul and Salah Al-Din. Al-Lihaibi was running in elections and is now said to have withdrawn following this incident.

I believe national reconciliation to be the only path forward to a new Iraq. The Shia cannot live without the Sunnis, and vice versa. Both have shared this country for the last 14 centuries and there is no possible way that one can live without the other. Even partition is not a possibility, there are no clear borders between the two.

Friday, January 14, 2005

The last few days have witnessed an upsurge in violence, a fact which is not in the least surprising. Suicide attacks have been carried out on a daily basis, mostly in Mosul and Baghdad, and political assassinations are alarmingly rampant in many parts of the country.

The power grid broke down several times these last two weeks resulting in country-wide blackouts sometimes lasting 2 or 3 days. At one point, oil exports were crippled from both Kirkuk and Basrah oil fields. Meanwhile, the shortage of local oil products has exacerbated and lines at gas stations are longer than ever.

Both the ministers of defense and oil have admitted that National Guard units and the police have been selling petrol in the black market. However, independent observers say that some people lining up at the stations are to blame. They harrass the station guards and offer large bribes in return for entry to the stations. Some pose as party or government officials and threaten the guards if they are not allowed to break the queues.

Since I've moved recently from Basrah to work in a suburb of the capital, I have discovered how problematic and difficult it is to cross Baghdad from one side to the other. Taxi drivers charge incredible fees and I don't blame them, so instead I have to rely on buses, the Kia or Pregio minibuses which Iraqis call Kayyat. I have to take 3 to reach the clinic with some walking between each. Normally, it takes about 2 hours to reach work, and much more if there is a problem on the road. Say, an American patrol, a roadside bomb, a suicide attack, an ambush or something of the sort.

For all the above reasons combined, I'm getting a bit nostalgic for Basrah. It's a curse to be in the beginning of your medical career in Iraq. We have this system called Medical Graduation, tadarruj tibi. Once you graduate from medical or dental college you spend a one or two year rotation period in the capital which is fine. After that you are required to spend another two or three years in the governorates. Once you pass this system, you are granted your practice license and you are free to work in the capital.

This horrible system was devised decades ago in order to overcome the shortage of medical professionals in most parts of the country, since Iraq has only 8 medical colleges and 4 dental colleges. As a result, all graduated doctors and dentists have to spend some time in distant villages to earn their licenses. In the past, a graduate could not even get his graduation certificate for years until they have passed.

I have one year to go and I'm already sick of it. But I digress.

***

The United Iraqi Coalition is almost frantic in its election campaigning. Their posters and banners are all over Baghdad which makes me wonder how it is in the south. Their slogans are scrawled on every wall in town, and of course you have the obligatory picture of Sistani stamped on every poster with the words: "vote for the choice of the Marji'iya.

Several political groups have objected to this overt use of religious symbols by the United Coalition list parties to sway Shi'ite voters in their favour. The Independent Electoral Commission also issued a statement warning against this kind of campaigning.

Nevertheless, the Marji'iya has not yet denied support for the list. Some of Sistani's agents have issued vague statements that the Marji'iya is behind all Iraqis, Sistani is a father figure, etc. etc., but they never deny when asked about support for this particular list.

No one doubts that the Grand Ayatollah would prefer to keep his position as ambiguous as possible, as he usually tends to do. The United Iraqi Coalition list is said to include many of his agents and representatives, and of course Hussein Al-Shahristani, on top of the list, is very close to Sistani. It is only natural that he would like to see this list gain a large presence in the forthcoming National Assembly.

The fatal mistake of boycotting the elections by Sunni Iraqis is going to make that easier. The Sunnis have been acting like spoiled unhappy children when things don't go their way. They start breaking up things and threaten to mess everything up. 'Either I play or I burn down the playground,' as we say here.

The threat of civil war and factional violence is a very real one. No matter what government results from elections, Sunnis would deem it illegitimate and the violence or the 'burning down of the playground' will continue. Two Shi'ite mosques have been attacked over the last week and a representative of Sistani was assassinated. Tribal Sheikhs from the south were kidnapped from a bus in Latifiya.

Some experts say that all Iraqi factions have coexisted peacefully for centuries and that nothing is going to change that now. I disagree. The tensions and the mistrust have always been there on both sides. Saying one thing in public while holding on to a different opinion is characteristic of both sides. The last three decades of oppression by the Sunni minority have only made things worse.

I have heard some terrible prejudices against Iraqi Shia from people I have contact with, some of whom are educated and sophisticated. Although I have heard these things for all my life, it has never been as widespread as it is now. This is the underlying reason for boycotting the elections, Sunnis know they will lose even if the whole governorates of Nineva, Salah Al-Din and Al-Anbar vote. They believe they can save face by not participating.

Zaydun Update

The verdict against one of the soldiers involved in the drowning of Zaydun was a major disappointment. The defense continues to claim that no body was found, hence no murder. No one brought up the point that US authorities in Samarra kept postponing the exhumation of Zaydun's corpse using the excuse of the security condition in the city.

The National Guard unit which helped Marwan out of the water was not brought in to testify and the court seems to have brushed aside the fact that they are important witnesses to the case. The lying and conflicting statements by the soldiers and their commanders was also not discussed.

Maybe we were simply naive to be led to believe that pursuing the case in a US court would help bring justice. But this is hardly the end of it.