Saturday, December 25, 2004

Winter Crises 

I always have the best of intentions when it comes to more regular blog posting, but somehow weeks swiftly pass by while I am attending to daily mundanities and the keyboard is left, barely touched. So once again, apologies for the absence.

Since much has been going on locally I am at loss on where to start, but let me first account a few of the 'crises' with immediate effect on day-to-day activities of Iraqis.

The weather has been a bit extreme these last two weeks with Baghdad recently experiencing -2 Celsius degrees (that's 28 Fahrenheit, I think) which is at least 6 degrees lower than December averages of the last few years. We actually had hail a few nights ago which is a rarity over here. The abrupt change in temperature coincided, much to our misfortune, with a severe nation-wide fuel shortage (probably the worst since April 2003) and significantly decreased electricity hours.

Last week we had a total blackout lasting two days, before that we used to get 6 hours of 'scheduled' electricity, meaning one and a half hours of power for every four without. At the moment, it has slightly improved to two hours for every four totalling 8 hours a day with recent promises from the Minister of Electricity to increase the electricity hours to 12 per day very soon as a New Year gift for Iraqis. Jolly! The same minister who, just three weeks ago, advised Iraqi citizens, with a straight face, to go buy electric generators instead of relying on his ministry.

Purchasing a generator is fine advice if an Iraqi family has not already done so, but apparently they would also need an extra amount of petrol in order to supply at least a few hours of light during the darker hours of day, as only a fool (zawj or
ghasheem) would use the generator during the day under the circumstances. In this case, the good minister refers us to the Minister of Oil (if he is not abroad) since these extra details are entirely out of the realm of his expertise and jurisdiction.

The Oil Minister simply dismisses the matter altogether and flatly denies any kind of fuel shortage with a surprised "What are you talking about?" look on his face, claiming that the ministry continues to provide the stations daily and has enough reserves for the entire country but that the irregular power supply to oil refineries sometimes causes delays which brings us back to the minister of electricity again. And so, a vicious cycle of blame shifting has become characteristic of most governmental officials. Well, that and the endless shuttle trips abroad.

But to be fair, that has improved as well. Now you can get your 30 litres of gasoline (not one drop over 30 is allowed) in just 3 hours, as opposed to 6-12 hours just two weeks ago with queues at petrol stations extending for miles. This was a result of mobilising National Guards to control the stations instead of the police. They started by enforcing the odd number/even number registration plates schedule (one day for vehicles with odd numbers and the next for those with even numbers).

The black market, on the other hand, continues to prosper. At one point the police were brought in to control the chaos at the stations, they inevitably ended up selling black market fuel from their police car trunks in no time. A 3-5 thousand Dinars bribe to the guard in charge of the station gates would some times earn you a favourable position in the queue or even to skip it, of course that is if you have the nerve to refuel your vehicle while pretending not to hear the colourful curses hurled at you from the direction of people that have been waiting for hours in the queue. Usually it's best done by avoiding eye contact and leaving hurriedly, as one smug look at the wrong person can get you quite hurt.

Another clever yet lowly trick is to send a female family member to fill up the tank, since women have a seperate, much shorter queue line. This used to work even if there was no queue for women, as your typical unsuspecting and chivalrous Iraqi male would gladly offer his front position for a lady. This method didn't last long though and nowadays women are allowed to refuel only if the car is actually registered to a woman.

It is also not uncommon to trade your position in the queue with someone far behind for an appropriate price which gets higher the closer you are to the station. This has become a profitable business for a few, and an effortless one for that. After all, you can find all the services you can imagine at the queue, tea stands, cigarettes, soda drinks, tasty Felafel and boiled egg sandwiches, hot chick peas, beans or turnips, beer (at certain hidden locations), even people renting out pillows and blankets in case you need to spend the night waiting in the queue.

The Oil Ministry proposed distributing large fuel tankers to several areas of Baghdad as a temporary measure to alleviate the crisis but since the suggestion is a bit risky it hasn't been implemented yet. A more long term solution would be to open up at least ten new stations in the capital and I doubt the ministry lacks the ability to achieve this because I have witnessed a dozen new stations on the road from Baghdad to Basrah over the last 10 months, most of which are left unused.

Liquid gas and kerosene have also been rare. Iraqis use an awful lot of kerosene during the colder seasons for their heaters. The most popular kind is the Aladdin (Alaa' Al-Din) heater originally introduced to Iraq by the British during the first half of the last century, also used as a stove for cooking. Its irresistable appeal to Iraqis is that the kettle and teapot can be kept on it for hours and hours, thus you can have tea or hot water any time of the day. As a rule, any heater that can't be used to brew tea with is not really a heater. Incidentally, my grandmother was complaining the other day because the new kerosene heater we brought for her wasn't designed for a kettle to be placed on.

The thing I dread most these days is washing my face or shaving in the morning. Tap water is freezing cold because of the short electricity hours. Water heaters over here are usually electric but a few have heaters that run on gas or kerosene. As a result, you have to fight with other family members in order to take a bath since everyone in the house seems to want one after the 2 hours of electricity while the water is still hot. Or you can devise a schedule since every little thing is scheduled these days. A small fun fact by the way, Iraqis call the water heater a geezer which is derived from geyser.

Both of our telephone lines have been dead for weeks but this is a local problem in our neighbourhood, probably as a result of rain or a roadside bomb or something of the sort. One of the lines mysteriously started operating again some days ago but then it went dead. Somehow even the promise of a handsome bribe hasn't succeeded in encouraging phone operators to come and fix the problem, usually just the scent of money is enough to bring the right people to pave your street if you feel like it. It isn't really a good sign when an outright bribe doesn't work.

I'm back to using Internet cafes since the phone isn't working, so sorry if I am behind in responding to emails.

As to the mobile phone network, specifically that of Baghdad, horrible doesn't even start to describe it. The service is totally unavailable during the day and only seems to work after midnight. All you get is 'network busy', 'unknown error', 'weak signal', 'service unavailable' and things like that. Most of the time if you are trying to call someone your voice just echoes back to you. Of course there is an array of other problems with the service but Orascom should at least ensure that subscribers can effectively call each other.

A mobile phone is extremely invaluable because it is the only way you can locate a family member if there is trouble somewhere in the capital. Nabil's school is very far from our neighbourhood and if he runs late for some unpredictable reason we can be reassured about his safety by calling him, the same for others. A few days ago I was holed up till dark at my old college because of roadblocks following an attack on an American patrol. I couldn't call home because there was no signal the whole time I was there. When I returned home I found them crazy with fright.

The Kuwaiti MTC Atheer network in southern Iraq is much more reliable, even though I saw many people in Basrah complaining of the service as usual. MTC recently announced that they would soon be available in Baghdad, in fact MTC subscribers in the south can already use their service while in Baghdad whereas Orascom/Iraqna subscribers can't make use of the service outside the capital. I haven't heard anything in regard to the northern network but it looks like it's going smoothly.

Nokia phones are the most popular in Baghdad, especially the 6600 model. Iraqis have already nicknamed it dabdoob (fat) because of its peculiar size and shape. The classic, cheap 1100 model is called taabuga (brick) because of its durability. Some people claim they have ran over it in cars, dropped it from the roof, or attempted to smash it with a hammer and yet it still worked.

At first, I predicted that phone cameras would cause a firestorm as it did in other Arab countries (phone cameras are illegal in Saudi Arabia) but there was nothing of the sort. They are, however, prohibited in governmental departments for security reasons.

A one minute local call costs 12 cents while costs for international calls are higher and vary depending on the country you are calling. Prepaid cards are valid for 40 days after which you would have to refill your subscription in order to use the phone. If you fail to refill for a certain number of days your account would be cancelled and you would have to buy another SIM card.

'Phonejacking' is not an uncommon practice these days. Similar to carjacking, a criminal would force you to give up your prized phone at gunpoint.

More 'crises' soon.

Election Mania 

The Independent Electoral Commission in Iraq has been far behind in educating Iraqi voters on the details of the voting system. I fear this can have catastrophic consequences on the whole process, since voters would be easily swayed by people with influence to one side or another.

There has already been evidence of manipulation attempts in the south. Azzaman newspaper reported a few days ago that tribal Sheikhs and clerics in Nasiriya were trying to obtain a large number of registration forms in return for money. Another troubling development was SCIRI's announcement that the Badr brigades would guard voting centers in Basrah. Any Iraqi with past experience and commonsense would immediately recognise what this could mean, a very high possibility that armed militias would influence the choice of gullible voters.

Secular Iraqis have not yet recovered from their shock when a spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Sistani (the highest religious authority in the country) stated that the United Iraqi Coalition's list, which is comprised of major Shi'ite Islamic parties, has the "blessings and the support of his eminence". This contradicts an earlier statement by Sistani, a couple of months ago, that he would back an independent coalition.

However, another spokesman for Sistani, Sayyid Ahmed Al-Safi, recently denied his endorsement of any particular list, but since there has been no written statement from Sistani's office backing this, the Shi'ite Islamic parties continue to claim the support of the Marji'iya, and indeed some of their campaign posters already have a large photo of Sistani with "the choice of the Marji'iya" typed across them.

The United Iraqi Coalition slate includes all the Shi'ite Islamic parties and movements currently operating in Iraq. With a total of 228 candidates, it consists of: SCIRI (Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim), Da'wa Islamic party (Ibrahim Al-Ja'fari), Da'wa Islamic party/Iraq's organisation (Abdul-Kareem Al-Annizi), Iraqi National Congress (Ahmed Al-Chalabi), Badr organisation (Hadi Al-Amiri), Hizbollah movement (Hassan Al-Sari), Hizbollah Al-Iraq (Abdul-Karim Al-Mahud), Al-Fadheela Islamic party (Nadim Al-Jabiri), Center Assembly party (Mahmud Mohammed Jawad), Shaheed Al-Mihrab organisation (Ammar Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakeem), Islamic Work organisation (Ibrahim Al-Mutayri), Sayyid Al-Shuhadaa organisation, Future Iraq Assembly (Ibrahim Bahr Al-Uloom), Justice and Equality Assembly (Suhail Al-Jaza'iri), Fayli Kurd Islamic Union (Tha'ir Al-Fayli), Islamic Fayli Assembly (Muqdad Al-Baghdadi), Turkomen Loyalty movement (Fariad Omar), and the Islamic Turkomen Union (Abbas Al-Bayyati).

It also includes Dr. Hussein Al-Shahristani, an Iraqi nuclear scientist who was nominated as prime minister of the interim government months ago. It should also be noted that most of the abovementioned parties also have their own seperate slates.

Personally, I would not like to see these movements gain any leverage in the forthcoming National Assembly. Some names have dubious ties to Iran, a large number of them believe in the doctrine of Wilayet Al-Faqih (rule of the jurisprudent), they utterly reject any attempts of national reconciliation, and their ambiguity over whether or not they would prefer Iraq to be an Islamic republic raises legitimate concern among a wide section of secular Iraqis.

Interim president, Ghazi Ajeel Al-Yawar, has his own list, a coalition named Iraqiyyun (Iraqis). It includes several figures already in the government such as the Defence Minister, Hazim Al-Sha'lan, and the Minister of Industry, Hachim Al-Hassani, who defected from the Islamic party during the Fallujah offensive.

PM Ayad Allawi heads the Al-Iraqiya coalition of 233 candidates also containing names in the present government such as Falah Al-Naqib, Qasim Dawud, Tahir Al-Bakaa', Aqil Al-Saffar, Raja' Al-Khuza'i, and other figures such as the Sheikh of the Azza tribe, Nazar Habib Al-Khaizaran. The Iraqi Communist party has an independent party slate of 275 candidates headed by its general secretary, Hamid Majid Musa.

The two major Kurdish factions, the KDP (Barazani) and the PUK (Talibani), have nominated a joint list of 165 candidates with token positions given to less known Kurdish parties at the end of the list. Barazani and Talibani seem to have already reached an agreement on how they will share future power. Masud Barazani is to take the highest position in the Kurdish region's government while Jalal Talibani will take the highest position offered to a Kurd in the future Iraqi government. They have also divided the seats of the Kurdish parliament between themselves, 42 seats for each party. I do hope one of the Kurdish bloggers would elaborate on this, it doesn't sound very right to me.

The Islamic party, headed by Muhsin Abdul-Hamid, has an independent slate of 275 candidates. Orginally, their position was to participate in the elections on the condition that they would be postponed for six months. They seem to have changed their mind.

Adnan Al-Pachachi heads a slate of about 60 people most of whom are members of the Independent Democrats Assembly such as interim ministers Mahdi Al-Hafudh, Ayham Al-Samarra'i, Mishkat Al-Mumin and Layla Abdul-Latif. Pachachi has reportedly refused to join any coalitions with other groups and has turned down several figures offering to join his list.

The National Democratic Coalition slate is headed by Tawfiq Al-Yassiri, National Council member and the organiser of last December's anti-terrorism marches, and Justice Minister, Dr. Malik Dohan Al-Hassan.

The Al-Rafidain coalition slate is headed by Yunadim Ganna, former GC member and National Council member. This is a closed slate of about 30 Iraqis from the Christian Assyrian, Chaldean and Armenian minorities.

The Independent Democratic Trend slate is headed by Aziz Al-Yassiri and includes a curious mixture of doctors, lawyers, university professors along with tribal Sheikhs, clerics, former ministers and governmental officials. Some figures on this list such as former Health Minister Abdul-Sahib Alwan claim their names were included without their permission.

The Independent Progressive Front slate is headed by Abdul-Karim Al-Rubai'i, a tribal Sheikh from Kut, and is similar to the list above. It also includes former Iraqi football players, Karim Saddam and Laith Hussein.

The Watani (national) coalition list includes independents and technocrats headed by Dr. Wathab Dawud Al-Sa'di. It includes names such as the former judge Dr. Wathiba Al-Sa'di, the writer Jasim Al-Mutayr, women rights activists Hana Edward and Fawzia Al-Abbasi, and football player Abd Kadhum.

Dr. Ghassan Al-Attiya, an independent Iraqi politician whom I had the pleasure to meet in Amman a couple of months ago, heads the Iraqi Independents Bloc. Al-Attiya strongly advocates national dialogue and reconciliation. He recently called upon the leaders of the insurgency to come forth and announce their political programmes (if they have any).

Hameed Al-Kifa'i, Iraqi journalist and former spokesman for the GC, heads the Democratic Community Movement list. It includes Hashim Al-Diwan, commentator of the Iraqi Fayhaa channel along with several others such as Ahmed Al-Barak, former GC member, who abandoned the Iraqi United Coalition slate because of manipulation in the sequence of candidates without their knowledge.

The Constitutional Monarchy Movement list headed by Sharif Ali bin Al-Hussein and includes 275 public Iraqi figures who support a return of the monarchy.

The Civil Society Organisations Assembly is a coalition comprised of 172 representatives of Iraqi NGO's that were formed after the war.

In addition, a score of tribal Sheikhs from the Juboor, Dulaym, Rubai'a, Shammar, Ni'aim, Kaab, Maryan, Bazzun, Fatla, Bani Hassan, Mayyah, Bani Lam, Khaza'il, Ardhiat, Beidhan, Al-Bu Issa, and Al-Bu Hassaan tribes and clans will be running as independents.

The above are the most prominent coalition lists on the scene. The IEC had approved a total of 96 lists up until December 15 (3 of which were later withdrawn so the actual number is 93). The lists include 7200 candidates from over 220 political parties and organisations. A list should have a minimum of 12 candidates and the maximum numer is 275.

One out of every three candidates in sequence on all lists should be a woman to ensure a minimum percentage of 30% female members on the National Assembly. Several political parties had complained earlier that their slates were limited because of the difficulties in finding female candidates.

Recent polls by the IEC indicate that some 80% of eligible voters (all Iraqis over 18 who can prove their Iraqi identity) in the country have registered. Registration forms for each family were compiled from their existing ration cards since there was no national census following the war. The forms were not without errors so the IEC provided details on the back of the forms on how to fix them, the deadline was December 15.

Iraq is regarded as a single constituency since this is a nationwide ballot. 7000 voting centers (most of them in schools) across the country have been prepared to receive voters. Iraqis shall also vote to elect members of their local Governorate Councils and voters in the north shall elect members of the Kurdish Parliament

Iraqi exiles abroad (estimated to be about 3 million) with proof of their Iraqi nationality can vote at Iraqi embassies and consulates. About ten voting centers will be available worldwide in the UK, Sweden, USA, Jordan, Iran, Australia, and the UAE. Germany, Syria and Canada, all of which contain sizeable Iraqi communities, have refused to allow Iraqis to vote inside their borders.

A registered voter will cast his vote for ONE of the 93 lists. The National Assembly will consist of 275 members. A candidate would need (total number of voters/275) votes to get a seat in the assembly. For example, if 10 million people vote, divide 10,000,000 by 275 and you get 36,363 votes required for a candidate to be on the assembly (actually it's 36363.6 votes but I'm not quite sure how they are going to deal with fractional numbers).

So, for a list that gets 11% of the votes (1,100,000 votes), they are allocated 11% of the 275 seats which is [275/11=]25 members. If that particular list has 200 candidates, only the top 25 members on the list get the seats. Therefore it's easy to conclude that the higher a candidate's name is on the list, the more likely they would get a seat. I hope I haven't confused anyone!

I should add that the majority of Iraqi voters are in fact confused and unfamiliar with these details and I have a feeling that the major players intend to keep it this way. The IEC has promised to distribute pamphlets and handbills explaining the above process in simple terms to Iraqi voters.

Voting should commence no later than January 31, 2005.

The elected National Assembly should first elect, from its own members, a president for the Assembly and two deputies [Article 32(B), Transitional Adminstrative Law].

The Assembly would then proceed to elect a Presidential Council for the country (a president and two deputies). The Presidential Council should be elected from a single list and by a two-thirds majority of votes [Article 36(A)]. Any member of the National Assembly elected to a position in the Presidential Council or the Council of Ministers should resign his membership in the National Assembly [Article 28(A)]. The Assembly has the power to remove a member of the Presidential Council by a three-fourths majority of votes.

The Presidential Council should unanimously choose a Prime Minister and a Council of Ministers within two weeks. If it fails to do so, the National Assembly would handle the task of choosing a PM by a two-thirds majority of votes. If the PM fails to nominate a Council of Ministers within one month, the Presidency Council should name another PM. The PM and the Council of Ministers should obtain a vote of confidence from the National Assembly by a majority vote in order to be approved [Article 38(A)]

However, the primary task of the National Assembly is to draft a permanent constitution for the country by no later than August 15, 2005 [Article 61(A)]. The draft should be approved by Iraqis in a general referendum no later than October 15, 2005 [Article 61(B)]. Following the approval of the constitution, elections for a permanent government should be held no later than December 15, 2005 [Article 61(D)].

Note that if the National Assembly fails to draft a permanent constitution by August 15, 2005 or if the draft is rejected in the referendum, the National Assembly should be dissolved and elections for a new National Assembly held no later than December 15, 2005 [Article 61(E)]

I will try to post more on the elections in the next few days.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

I am quite fine. Thank you all for the concern.

I am finally done now with Basrah and will start working in Baghdad again. Trying to get a convenient post here in Baghdad close to where I live is what has been keeping me away. Well, that and a few other difficulties that seem to have become part of our daily life. Note that we are getting less than 6 hours of electricity per day.

I will try to start posting again very soon.

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