Friday, September 29, 2006

Curfew in Baghdad Until Sunday (updated)

The Iraqi government declared a curfew in Baghdad Friday affecting both vehicles and pedestrians. The curfew is to run until Sunday morning. The last time the government imposed such a curfew was during the violence that followed the bombing of the Askari shrine in Samarra last February.

Omar reports clashes through the night in several areas of Baghdad.

Earlier at Ghazaliya, west of Baghdad, gunmen murdered the brother-in-law of Judge Mohammed Uraibi Al-Khalifa, the presiding judge on Saddam’s trial, while he was trying to pack his belongings to flee Ghazaliya.

Iranian military communication equipment used by the Mahdi army The Ansar Al-Sunna insurgent group captured a Mahdi army militiaman during a raid by Shia militias against the town of Khan Bani Sa’ad, on the Baghdad-Ba’quba road, northeast of Baghdad. The insurgent group published photos of what they alleged were Iranian military communication equipment, mortars and Katyusha rockets, with the logo of the Iranian Ministry of Defense, used by the militias in the attack. More photos here (link in Arabic).

On Thursday morning, American and Iraqi forces closed down all entrances to the Hurriya district and started a wide house-to-house campaign to search for weapons. Following the bloody sectarian attacks that I mentioned in my last post, the situation at Hurriya almost escalated to all-out war between Sunni and Shi’ite militants in the district after two car bombs exploded near the Hurriya market Wednesday. After the first explosion, Mahdi militiamen dragged two Sunni brothers from the street and shot them in front of Sadr’s local office at Hurriya Al-Uwla. Hours later, the office was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, sparking violent clashes that lasted about an hour. After the Iftar at sunset, an armed group gunned down 10 Sunni men heading to the Al-Mashahda mosque for the Taraweeh prayers.

At neighbouring Tobchi, a mixed district also known as Hayy Al-Salam, a similar situation is rapidly unfolding. The Washington Post published a profile of the district two days ago, which I strongly recommend. The report - unusually comprehensive for a Western news outlet - details incidents over a full week that turned a tribal dispute into a brutal conflict of sectarian nature, pitting long-time neighbours against each other.

Another Washington Post story on the daily horrors Iraqi citizens are facing at checkpoints of the so-called Iraqi security forces.

***

The mixed Al-Amin district, east of Baghdad, is also suffering from frequent sectarian attacks by the Mahdi army militia.

The main hideouts of the Mahdi army at Al-Amin district, posted by citizens in the area on an Iraqi message board:

1- The Al-Muhsin hussainiya, controlled by the Al-Shahman clan of the Mayyah tribe, who also run minibus lines between Al-Amin and Baghdad Al-Jedida.
2- The former Ba’ath party headquarters, near Al-Su’ud church.
3- The Muhsin Al-Hakim mosque, near the Amin roundabout. The mosque was raided by American troops and 15 suspects were detained and handed over to the Iraqi police. They were released the next day.
4- The Al-Wa’ili husseiniya at Al-Amin, near the residence of MP Nadim Al-Jabiri, a Fadheela party member. This husseiniya was also raided by American forces weeks ago, but weapons had been smuggled into neighbouring houses before the raid.
5- The Imam Ali husseiniya, near the shelter between the Mu’alimeen and Mashtal districts.

According to Al-Amin residents, Mahdi army militiamen routinely round out Sunnis for interrogation at these 'husseiniyas,' where Shari'a kangaroo courts are set up. One local Mahdi army leader is known as Thamir Al-Mayahhi, and people say he is as brutal as the infamous Abu Dera' of Sadr City, who is wanted by American forces. This satellite image of Al-Amin with locations of the husseiniyas was included in the posts:

Mahdi army hideouts at Al-Amin district
During the day, militiamen guard local fuel stations and sell black market fuel. The Health Ministry has employed a number of those militiamen as security guards at Baghdad’s Medical City. I should remind that the Medical City is where several Sunni patients, medical students, professors and physicians are being kidnapped almost daily and later executed. Baghdad’s Medical City Hospital, Adnan Khairallah Hospital, the Health Ministry, the Medico-legal Institute (Baghdad’s main morgue), and the colleges of medicine and dentistry are all located at the Medical City.

At Hayy Al-Mu'alimeen in Dora, the Al-Kadhimain husseiniya at Abu Dshir, south of Dora is used as a base to launch attacks against residential apartment buildings for Sunni citizens. The husseiniya is controlled by a person named Sheikh Falah Al-Sa’di.

Other districts and suburbs of Baghdad that have witnessed sectarian attacks over the last few days: the Fadhl and Kifah neighbourhoods in central Baghdad; Al-Amil district south of Baghdad, near the Baghdad airport highway; the Intisar village near Rashidiya, north of Baghdad; the Fahhama and Gmeira suburbs, north of Baghdad; Jisr Diyala, east of Baghdad; Madain, southeast of Baghdad; and Khan Bani Sa'ad.
Baghdad under curfew
The American military seems to have a good idea on the militias behind the mass sectarian murders in the Baghdad area over the last few months. But since those militas have strong ties to several officials and lawmakers in the current Iraqi government, as high up to Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, and have thouroughly infiltrated security forces, I can't see how these militas can be confronted without alienating a large number of Iraqi officials that the U.S. is counting on, as well as the security forces they have trained to assume control of the country.

I'll post updates as they come in.

UPDATE: The Iraqi governmental Al-Iraqiya channel is strangely off the air. It's almost 10 a.m. in Baghdad now.

Relatives of mine at the Adil district, west of Baghdad, reported that an American force raided MP Adnan Al-Dulaimi's heavily guarded compound last night. They had a list of names and detained one of Dulaimi's bodyguards. They also used dogs to search the compound but did not enter Dulaimi's residence. The curfew was declared after this raid but I'm not sure if there is any relation.

UPDATE:The Buratha News Agency, a Shi’ite news organisation sponsored by SCIRI, just reported that a large number of American armored vehicles have entered the vicinity of sectors 47 and 48 of Sadr City. Their correspondent added that helicopters are circling the area and that flares can be seen burning in the night’s sky with sporadic gunfire.

The Baghdad rumour mill is in full-throttle today. Many Baghdadis are convinced that there was a coup planned in Baghdad and that the curfew was declared to clamp down any attempts by insurgents to topple the Iraqi government. Some have tied that with the detention of one of the bodyguards of MP Adnan Al-Dulaimi, head of the Sunni Accord front in parliament. An Iraqi army spokesman dismissed the rumours as creations of ‘Takfiris’, adding that the curfew had nothing to do with the arrest or a coup attempt, but was in response to intelligence information on wide scale attacks planned in Baghdad to relieve the pressure on terrorist groups in Anbar and Diyala.

Meanwhile, an insurgent website announced that leaders from several clans of the Dulaim tribe met today in Ramadi at an Iftar banquet held at the residence of a tribal leader from the Mahamda clan, known for its strong support for the insurgency. The tribal chiefs decided to excommunicate and ‘shed the blood’ of tribal leaders who had pledged to fight Al-Qaeda fighters in Anbar during meetings with PM Nuri Al-Maliki and American military commanders at Baghdad.

The tribal leaders are: Sheikh Sattar Bizai’ Al-Fitaikhan, leader of the Al-Bu Risha clan; Sheikh Hameed Farhan, of the Al-Bu Dhiyab clan; Sheikh Amer Ali Al-Salman, of the Al-Bu Assaf clan; and Sheikh Khalaf Al-Tarmouz, of the Al-Bu Ghanim clan. All are influential leaders of the Dulaim tribe.

An ultimatum was sent to their family members to disavow them within three days. Their clan members will meet to elect new leaders at a forthcoming meeting in an undisclosed location at Ramadi.

Sheikh Sattar Bizai’ Al-Fitaikhan had announced Friday that his clansmen had captured five Al-Qaeda members, three of whom were Yemeni, between Ramadi and Hit in the Anbar governorate. The 1st and 7th divisions of the Iraqi army backed by American troops are still stationed near entry points to Ramadi.

The battle for the neighbourhoods of Baghdad is raging on. Most of the fighting in Baghdad last night was near the entrance to the Sulaikh district, north of Baghdad. Sulaikh, a mixed district but leaning towards a Sunni majority, is entrenched behind the Army Canal, which separates it from the Shi’ite majority districts of Sha’ab, Ur and Binouk. About 20 mortar rounds were fired at Sulaikh during the day, killing 5 people and injuring 25 others. Police forces taunted residents with loudspeakers from the direction of the bridge on the canal, calling them ‘Nawasib,’ ‘Wahhabis,’ ‘dogs, sons of dogs,’ and ‘enemies of the prophet’s household,’ and that they were ‘coming soon to kill the Nawasib and rape their women.’ A firefight followed and lasted well until midnight when American helicopters fired flares above the canal intersection.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Meanwhile in Baghdad

In a very disturbing development at the Hurriya district, west of Baghdad, two women from the Sunni Al-Bu Khalifa clan were kidnapped from their residence by an armed group last Thursday. They were found dead later and their corpses are still at the Medico-legal Institute of Baghdad.

Residents of Hurriya have mentioned on several Iraqi websites that the two women, Hadiya Ibrahim Abd and her daughter, Karima Dawud Mutlag, attempted to resist the attackers but the house was broken into and the women were taken away. Some Sunnis in Hurriya claim that the attackers were members of the Mahdi Army, adding they were accompanied by several unmarked vehicles belonging to the Iraqi Interior Ministry.

It should be noted that the Hurriya district has been plagued by dozens of violent sectarian incidents over the last few weeks, with many Sunni families asserting that they are the victims of an ongoing campaign of assassinations and kidnappings by armed groups associated with the Office of the Martyr Al-Sadr (which maintains four branches in the Hurriya district), and that local police forces are heavily involved in many of these incidents.

An inside source at the Hurriya police station stated that sympathetic policemen would notify the local Sadr offices during unannounced visits by American forces so that they would have time to hide their weapons and any hostages held at the offices. He added that Sadr’s offices routinely collect information on Sunni families residing at Hurriya.

Hurriya is a Shia majority district of western Baghdad, located between Kadhimiya and Shu’la. Its population is mostly Shia but the first and third sections of the district (Hurriya Al-Uwla and Hurriya Al-Thaltha) contain sizeable Sunni communities, most of which hail from the Anbar governorate, west of Iraq. There have been countless tit-for-tat assassinations going on in the district and surrounding areas since the Samarra shrine bombing last February. Several husseiniyas and mosques have been attacked and there were a couple of suicide attacks over the last few months. A large number of Sunni families have been forced to leave the district.

The two victims were from the Al-Bu Khalifa clan, part of the powerful Dulaim tribe in western Iraq. Several members of the clan were kidnapped and assassinated in the vicinity of Hurriya. The two women were the widow and daughter of Dawud Mutlag Al-Dulaimi, who was assassinated earlier this year among several other relatives. The Al-Bu Khalifa clan, like most clans of the Dulaim, strongly supports the insurgency.

Not surprisingly, the Dulaim tribe has refused to reclaim the corpses from the Baghdad morgue until they have taken vengeance. Killing women is considered a major crime in tribal code. Friday sermons at Ramadi have mentioned the murders of the two women and have called on “the resistance to swiftly respond to this crime and to put an end to the criminal activities of these militias, at a time when the state is powerless to protect its citizens.” They specifically appealed to the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Islamic Army and the Mujahideen Army to take revenge for this “crime against the honour of Iraqi women.”

You can bet that the response will be in the form of more suicide attacks, like today’s bombing at Sadr City, and random assassinations of Shi’ite civilians in western Baghdad, since it’s virtually impossible to identify the killers.

Meanwhile, Muqtada’s influence on the ragtag army he created is waning, the same as his grip on reality. Yesterday, at the Kufa mosque, he was babbling that the Pentagon has a large file on Imam Al-Mahdi, complete save for mug shots of the 9th century Hidden Imam. “America has been preparing rapid intervention forces against the awaited Imam Al-Mahdi for the last ten years,” he told his audience. “They incited the Gulf War to fill the region with warships for just that purpose.”

UPDATE: The reprisals and counter-reprisals were sooner than I imagined. A Sunni insurgent group claimed responsibility for the bombing in Sadr City that targeted civilians stocking up fuel in preparation for Ramadhan, adding that it was to avenge the Sunnis that were killed in Hurriya, Thursday.

In return, nine Sunnis were arrested at a wedding feast in eastern Baghdad by gunmen in uniform. They were all found later executed. All nine men were members of the Dulaim.

***

Another alarming trend that continues is the kidnappings and assassinations of top Iraqi surgeons and physicians. Seven of Iraq’s finest specialists were found killed over the last two months, according to Iraqi health sources.

ENT surgeon at the Medical City Hospital in Baghdad, Dr. Mudhar Al-Ani, was kidnapped from his residence by an armed group in Interior Ministry forces uniform. He was found unconscious at a waste disposal location and survived.

Dr. Shukur Arsalan, a respected Maxillofacial surgeon from a Shi’ite Turkmen family in Kirkuk, and professor at the Medicine College of Baghdad University, was not so lucky. He was assassinated while leaving his clinic at Harthiya by unknown gunmen.

Dr. Adil Al-Mansouri, also a professor of Maxillofacial surgery at Baghdad University, was kidnapped by gunmen in uniform near the Ibn Al-Nafis Hospital in Baghdad. His mutilated corpse was found at the outskirts of Sadr City.

Oncoplastic surgeon, Dr. Ahmed Abdul Qadir Al-Rifa’I was kidnapped from his clinic, and the police discovered his corpse at the Al-Sadda, north of Sadr City.

Neurologist Dr. Lu’ay Mas’ud, also kidnapped weeks ago by men in uniform, was found killed in the same area.

Dr. Uday Al-Beiruti, ENT specialist and professor at Al-Nahrain University, was kidnapped from the garage of the University’s hospital at Kadhimiya by gunmen in Interior Ministry uniform. His battered corpse turned up behind Al-Sadda, north of Sadr City.

Internal Medicine specialist, Dr. Tawfiq Al-Khishali, was kidnapped from his clinic and his corpse was located at western Baghdad.

Five of the assassinated doctors were Sunni and two were Shia.

A large part of the corpses that are surfacing in Baghdad these days have been recovered from the area known as Al-Sadda (the levee), which separates districts northeast of Baghdad (Sha’ab, Ur, Sadr City, Ubaidi) from the vast waste disposal area. People in the area speak of dozens of tattered corpses amid piles of rubbish and fetid swamps, and they recount harrowing tales of gunmen, often described as Mahdi militiamen, dumping new corpses every night.

***

I just received word from friends back in Baghdad that two people on our street were assassinated yesterday. They were about my age and I knew them very well. Also, two Internet café owners were killed. One of them was my wireless internet provider until he was threatened by gunmen, who were collecting donations for ‘the resistance,’ and had to close down his café. The other guy I also knew closely because I used to frequent his café to post updates for this blog during 2003 and 2004.

As expected, things have deteriorated again in my neighbourhood despite a brief lull when American and Iraqi army forces closed down the area for a week to search for weapons. Not a day goes by now without someone I know getting killed. I feel tormented because my family is going back home from Jordan in a week or so. I fear the worst, and over the last few days I’ve been suffering tremendous guilt because I’m here and not there with them. They tell me that there’s nothing I can change anyway, but still. It’s starting to get in the way and I’m almost always distracted and thinking about this.

I had a bad dream last night. I was issued some sort of an ID card by the Health Ministry (I actually did have such a card when I was back in Iraq but I lost it somewhere), and I was showing it to my family. My father was not happy with it and said that there was no way I’m going out anywhere with that card. There was nothing wrong with it, except that it had my tribal surname. I was arguing with them that it was much more neutral than my national ID card because that one had the name of my district and anyone could get killed just for that.

I woke up in tears and realised that I had that dream because my brother, Nabil, had our home address on his student ID. Over two weeks ago, in Amman, I was yelling and strongly urging him to remove that detail if he is to go back. I don’t know what I would do if anything happened to my younger brother. The nightmares are still haunting me.

Friday, September 15, 2006

New York

First night at New York I finally made it to New York. Arriving last week at JFK, the 13-hour trip was uneventful: leaving a sunny Amman at 10:30 am, sleeping through most of the flight, waking up and asked by a flight attendant to fill out a couple of forms for “non-citizens” (my first taste of the ton of paperwork that was to follow later) and arriving at a rainy and chilly New York at 4 pm.

When it was my turn to pass through customs, the indifferent immigration officer took one look at my passport, quickly flipped through its pages and uneasily asked, “Where are you from, Sir?”

I had the sense that he was not quite sure what to do with me when I told him I was Iraqi. He looked around for a while then he slipped my passport into a file and asked me to follow him to another room.

“This won’t take long, Sir,” he reassured me.

Indeed, it did not. I left JFK five hours later.

I was ushered into a back room where dozens of South Asian, Indian, Pakistani and Arab visitors were waiting. They were discussing the case of a Pakistani fellow who refused to get back on a flight, opting instead to go to a hospital because he was not feeling well. They informed him, through an interpreter, that he would still be detained after seeing a doctor, unless he agrees to go back on that flight. He stubbornly refused again.

I started to feel uneasy being held in such company. 30 minutes later, it was my turn. I was asked whether this was my first time to the U.S., then I was handed another form to fill out. My passport and documents were put into another file and I was told to go to another booth and wait for my name to be called.

Another 3 hours passed and my name was called. An aggressive female customs officer was incensed because I didn’t have a form that I was supposed to fill (not my fault). So I was given the form and had to wait for another hour or so.

I had not smoked for 17 hours now, and my lungs were crying from withdrawal. I ventured into a restroom and ran into Bob, a senior customs officer, who was very sympathetic to my plight and immediately offered me a lighter and told me to smoke inside a toilet stall, as long as I didn’t tell anyone about it! Bob and I shared three more smokes by the time my name was called again. He badmouthed the abovementioned female officer and offered to expedite the screening process (there were only two officers processing about thirty people, with each interview taking about twenty minutes.) Bob kept muttering that this “isn’t the way it should be done.”

Anyway, to my disappointment, the interview consisted of entering basic information -most of which I had already submitted to CUNY months ago, and the U.S. embassy recently- into a computer by the same indifferent immigration officer. Unlike Jordanian immigration officers, he did not ask about my sectarian or tribal background. It took a while, so he casually asked if things in Iraq were getting better or worse, and we had a short chitchat while he entered the endless stream of information into his database. Strangely enough, the computer kept freezing and he had to restart several times.

“That’s it?” I asked with disbelief when I was finally handed my passport and documents. Even though I expected the screening in advance and was fully cooperative, I was just so frustrated that I was held for five hours just to give information that they should already know by now. Jeff and Steve Shepard, the school’s dean, had agreed to greet me at the airport and I was so embarrassed that they had to leave after waiting four hours without even knowing whether I had made it or not.

I felt so lost when I stepped outside JFK and I had absolutely no idea where to go first. There was an endless queue for the yellow taxis so I ventured further and got in with the first guy who offered a ride. I was warned beforehand not to take an unauthorized cab, but I told myself that it couldn’t be worse than a taxi ride in Baghdad. Fortunately, I had a friend’s address so that’s where I headed.

I checked in at school the next day and was greeted with a ton of paperwork to fill out. Everyone there was very concerned and relieved that I had finally made it, and I was sincerely touched by how kind and hospitable they all were.

Now that I’m a week late for school I really have to plunge right into assignments and homework. It’s difficult to catch up, especially when the last time I was at school was over four years ago, and at this stage I’m seriously worried that I won’t be able to live up to it.

One problem is that the school’s programme is very orientated toward local issues, most of which I have no clue about, and that the assignments I am to cover appear so mundane to me. For example, I was assigned to cover a neighbourhood in Brooklyn called Cobble Hill. I went there and circled the place for hours just wondering what kind of story could possibly be written about it. I was interested to learn that there was a small Arab community living there, but they were extremely distrustful and suspicious when I tried to ask about their issues.

Anyway, there will be more about that later. For now, I’d like to thank everyone for the generous support and encouragement over the last few months. I acknowledge that I would not have made it here to school in NY without it.

My first impression about America? It’s not at all what it appears like through Hollywood (well, perhaps just a little bit!).

Monday, September 04, 2006

Gunman Shoots Tourists in Amman

A lone Jordanian gunman opened fire against tourists near the Roman amphitheatre at downtown Amman. He managed to kill a British tourist and wound six others, before Iraqi exiles and Jordanian Tourist Policemen captured him.

Again, Al-Jazeera's first newsflash on the incident announced that Iraqis were behind the attack. It's almost as if it's a case of wishful thinking on the part of
Al-Jazeera. However, it turned out the gunman was a Jordanian of Palestinian origin from the town of Al-Rusayfa, near Al-Zarqa (the hometown of slain Zarqawi). He reportedly shouted Allahu Akbar before opening fire.

More on the incident from the Jordanian blogosphere.