Sunday, February 17, 2008


They were then told by Abu Mohammed to get a plane to Cambodia and take a bus to Vietnam. Though their money was fast dwindling, they did so. Somehow, still speaking only Arabic, they made their way from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City. The plan was to get a ticket to Sweden by way of France (Bassim now thinks that this was a mistake and it would have been better to travel first to Lithuania, posing as citizens returning home, but this would have left the two Iraqis with the problem of explaining to officials there why they did not speak Lithuanian).

In the check-in queue at the airport in Vietnam on 5 January this year, Bassim was desperately worried he would be detected. He had staked all his remaining money and his family's future on getting to Sweden. In fact, he and Ibrahim had little chance of being allowed on to the plane. Too many Iraqis, claiming to be citizens of small East European states, had tried this route before. Suspicious Vietnamese immigration officials took them to an investigation room where Bassim felt ill and asked for a glass of water, which was refused. He and Ibrahim continued to protest that they were Lithuanian citizens and demanded to be taken to the Lithuanian embassy, knowing full well that Lithuania is unrepresented in Vietnam.

It was all in vain. The officials guessed that they were Iraqis. They sent Bassim and Ibrahim back to Cambodia. Half-starved because he did not like the local food – "I was used to Iraqi bread," he recalled later – and with his money almost gone, Bassim made his way back to Kuala Lumpur by the end of January. He last saw his friend Ibrahim heading for Indonesia in a small boat.

Abu Mohammed in Sweden became elusive and, when finally contacted by phone after six days, admitted that "for Iraqis, all the ways from Asia to Sweden are shut". He did not offer to return Bassim's $6,900. Demoralised, and hearing that many Iraqi refugees trying to get to Europe through Indonesia simply disappeared, Bassim used his last few dollars to fly to Damascus and took a shared taxi across the desert to Baghdad. "The journey took three months but it felt like 10 years," he said. "I have lost everything."


Meanwhile, my brother-in-law, who has been trying to escape Iraq for months, tried to enter Jordan again (perhaps foolishly) only to be detained and sent back to Iraq again.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Sadrists and the Surge

Be sure to check out the latest Iraq report from the International Crisis Group on the background of Muqtada Al-Sadr's freeze on Mahdi Army activities and the dynamics of the Sadrist/Badrist conflict, also including a comprehensive roundup of the events that led to the Mahdi Army's expanded control over the capital and its current status and ambiguous relation with Iran. Since the report is largely based on in-depth interviews with local players and interested parties, you'll get much raw information and insight from these reports minus the political pandering that you find in most of the Iraq coverage these days. If you haven't already, I urge you to read up their back reports on Iraq (and the Middle East in general, if you're interested).