Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Baghdad Returns to 'Normal', Night Skirmishes Continue 

cellphone photo
Life in Baghdad slowly returned to normal this morning after the extended curfew was lifted, while the Defense Ministry ordered Iraqi armoured units to take positions in several areas of Baghdad. A spokesman for the ministry added that the armoured vehicles will fly the Iraqi flag, as a symbol of Iraqi unity. However, the Iraqi army will not patrol the areas of Dora, Bayaa', Abu Dshir, Al-Amil and Salman Pak, since these were the Interior ministry's 'areas of responsibility,' according to the military spokesman.

I witnessed four of these vehicles in my area today.

Although the Iraqi Army (or National Guard) is often targeted by insurgent attacks, it should be mentioned that most Iraqis tend to have higher trust in them, compared to the notorious Interior Ministry forces (Maghaweer Al-Dakhiliya). The Interior Ministry forces were formed early last year as special forces or commando units to backup regular army units. The earliest unit was the renowned Wolf Brigade, trained by US forces and comprised of elite members of the former Iraqi special forces. It operated in Sunni governorates and helped restore order in Mosul.

Following Baqir Solagh's (SCIRI) appointment as Interior Minister, he started forming his own units, the Scorpion Brigade, the Public Order Brigade, the Al-Karrar Brigade, and the Al-Hussein Brigade. These units were explicitly named after Shi'ite religious symbols, and are thought to be entirely composed of former members of Badr brigade (SCIRI's armed wing). Solagh started a purge in his ministry around July, 2005, disposing of several Sunni officers -whom he labelled as ex-Ba'athists- and replaced them with high ranked officers of unkown origins. General Muntadher Al-Samarra'i, one of the purged officers, defected to Jordan and started disclosing secret documents proving the existence of death and torture squads inside the ministry. He uncovered a campaign of assassinations by the ministry against former Iraqi air force pilots, who took part in the Iraq-Iran war, as well as orders to assassinate several Iraqi academics, political and religious figures. Solagh strongly denied these allegations and pointed out that the assassinations and kidnappings were carried out by insurgents in stolen police uniforms and vehicles. When the Jadriya prison scandal was uncovered, he proposed that Ba'athist elements that had infiltrated his ministry were behind the torture and extrajudicial executions.

A few months ago, when Baghdad was ripe with news of Interior ministry's death squads raiding Sunni neighbourhoods at night, the local National Guard commander in our area started touring mosques to warn them from uniformed security forces operating at night. The commander's own words were "Never, never open your doors to security forces after dark. If they attempt to force their way in, be prepared to defend yourselves." That was the time when people started forming neighbourhood watch teams again.

But I digress.

The Defense Ministry spokesman also stated that orders have been issued to arrest 'anyone who carries weapons, regardless of their religious or political backgrounds.' A committee was formed to place a mechanism to disarm militias and to ban armed demonstrations on the street. The Interior Ministry also formed a committee to incorporate the militias in the armed forces, except the Peshmerga. Now, that is deeply troubling.

General Rasheed Flayih, commander of Interior Ministry forces, stated to Al-Mada newspaper that his forces have the authority to conduct raids and detentions in any area of Iraq, without returning to the Multinational Forces or the Defense Ministry. He also mentioned that several units from his ministry have been assigned to police stations, and at 18 'hot' districts of Baghdad as undercover agents, named 'Field Intelligence units.' He announced that a new department called the 'Department of Night Patrols' has been formed, and that it would start operating night patrols in several areas of Baghdad on March 15. I sense major trouble coming.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Accord front expressed its preparation to return to talks, but only after the return of mosques still occupied by Shi'ite militas in Baghdad and Salman Pak. Tariq Al-Hashimi, general secretary of the Islamic Party also demanded that Shi'ite security forces be replaced with Sunni soldiers in Sunni areas. He warned that the situation was still tense and threatening to explode again any minute, since fighting continued in several areas of Baghdad.

I talked to a friend in Salman Pak (Madain) on the phone yesterday, and he mentioned that the Salman Al-Farisi shrine was still occupied by Shi'ite militias. He denied that the shrine was retaken or blown up as some media outlets had reported, but it was targeted with mortar shells. I asked him if the 'men in black' were Salman Pak residents, and he said that he has never seen them before, but people in town believe they came from southern governorates Thursday. They are refusing to abandon their positions, even though a delegation of both Sunni and Shi'ite tribal leaders and clerics requested it Saturday. The men in black said they did not have orders from the Marji'iya to clear the shrine. It also seems that clashes and raids are still taking place, especially in rural areas around the town, at Dar'iya and Ja'arra. The mixed town of Salman Pak (ancient Ctesiphon) has been a hotbed of violence since 2004, and has been under the control of Interior ministry forces (the Karrar and Hussein brigades) since March, 2005. They mantain a heavy presence inside and outside the town.

The Al-Fursan village near Nahrawan, east of Baghdad, was raided by Interior ministry forces yesterday, and there were reports that several houses were burned down.

Clashes continued in Dora, Saidiya and Amiriya yesterday, involving mortar fire, while over 60 Shia families fled their homes in Sunni areas west and north of Baghdad after receiving threats. Several families were also reported to have left the Tarmiya and Abu Dshir suburbs. Most of the violence seems to be concentrated around Baghdad now, especially in mixed suburbs.

The Iraqi Rabita website reports that the Al-Rubai'i (Al-Qazzaza) mosque in Rubai'i street, Zayouna, was attacked and the funeral reception hall set to fire by black clad militiamen yesterday. Residents report that police vehicles had blocked the street but did nothing to prevent the attack. Here are photos of the burnt mosque. Also, photos of the damage at the Fendi Al-Kubaisi mosque in Shurta district that was surrounded and attacked by militiamen supported by Interior ministry forces, reported on my blog two days ago. Here is a video clip of two men in black that were killed by National Guards and Adhamiya residents near the Abu Hanifa shrine after they crossed the river from Kadhimiya.

The Al-Badeel Al-Iraqi website has an interview with Radio Nawa's reporter, Anmar Ashour, who was at the scene when Atwar Bahjat, the Al-Arabyiya TV reporter was abducted. He mentions that they were north of Samarra near the Al-Dor road at 6:30 pm. The Al-Arabiya team were interviewing a large crowd of locals, when a pickup truck with 2 unmasked gunmen stopped nearby. One of them started shooting in the air and shouting "Where is the anchorwoman?" The cameraman, Khalid, tried to talk to him, explaining that they were from Al-Arabiya TV, but the gunman brushed him aside and headed for the screaming reporter. The team was taken in the pickup truck, while Nawa's reporter mingled with the crowd and escaped to a nearby village. He contacted Al-Dor police at a checkpoint half an hour later. The police command and Interior Ministry forces in Samarra refused to send out reinforcements to search for the team, since the area was dangerous. He added that the gunmen were unmasked and looked like locals. When he asked the villagers why they didn't help rescue the team from the armed group, they answered that this area was under their control, and that no one could risk fooling with them.

Residents of Adhamiya, Sulaikh and Iskan continue to operate neighbourhood watch teams, and streets are still barricaded to prevent further attacks.

Shi'ite and Sunni families in Dora assisted in cleaning the debris from the Yassin mosque, to hold unified prayers.

Shi'ite Iraqi shakes hands with Sunni Iraqi at Grand Hilla mosque

Joint Sunni-Shi'ite prayers in Tikrit, Basrah and Hilla.

Muqtada Al-Sadr prohibits his followers in the Mahdi militia from dressing in black. He continues to call for peaceful demonstrations and joint prayers.

Cartoon by Khudhair Al-Himyari

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Curfew Extended, Situation Still Tense 

The daytime curfew in the capital, and surrounding governorates of Salah Al-Din, Diyala and Babel has been extended to Monday morning, as was announced during a live press conference for the ministers of Defense and Interior today.

Both ministers downplayed the significance of the violence over the last three days. Interior minister, Baqir Solagh described the armed demonstrations and mob attacks as 'natural' reactions to 'let off steam' building up by the Shia masses over the last two years. The Defense minister, Sa'doun Al-Dulaimi released some numbers on the attacks against Sunni mosques and civilians:

"Out of a total of 51 mosques reported to be attacked by small fire arms and RPGs, only 21 mosques were verified by our units to have been attacked. 23 mosques were reported to have been badly damaged or burned down, but only 6 were verified. Only one mosque was verified to have been occupied, and it was evacuated later today. 183 civilians were reported to be killed in the violence, but the verified number is actually 119."

The minister went on to explain that most of the 'attacks' were actually drive-by shootings or rocket-propelled grenades from a distance. He also mentioned that a mosque cannot really be occupied by anyone, since they are 'houses of Allah' and were open to all Muslims, including, I assume, armed gangs. I can only guess this means none of the attackers will be apprehended or arrested.

However, both ministers had a strong warning for Iraqi media outlets that "tend to exaggerate the news, or to report unverified attacks and incidents," threatening extreme punishment against them. He did not mention Iraqi bloggers in name though, so it probably means we are exempt from punishment.

The Defense minister strongly reminds me of an old Iraqi information minister who once said "I have detailed information about the situation... which completely proves that what they allege are illusions... They lie every day."

Personally, I'm not sure which is better. Should we all stay quiet and pretend things are 'not that bad' for fear of exaggerating, or blowing things out of proportion, or should we just continue to report what we see and hear around us?

***

In Karbala, a remote controlled car bomb explosion killed 4 civilians and injured 10 close to a popular market, according to police officials. A suspect was arrested at the scene with no further details.

In Buhriz, south of Ba'quba, gunmen broke into a Shi'ite residence and killed 13 men from one family, Ba'quba police said.

Two rockets were fired at a Shi'ite mosque in Tuz Khurmatu, a Shi'ite Turkomen town northeast of Baghdad.

The Salman Al-Farisi shrine in Madain, southeast of Baghdad, still occupied by Interior ministry forces was bombed with mortars. Madain residents say the town has been blocked for the last 3 days and dozens of people have been detained. They sent an urgent appeal to the Iraqi government to intervene.

The Anas bin Malik shrine in Shu'ayba, west of Basrah was attacked and vandalized. My old friends in Basrah have confirmed this over the phone. Things are now quiet in the Sunni towns of Zubair and Abu Al-Khasib, south of Basrah. Sadr's followers continue to demonstrate, but in general, things appear to have calmed down there.

Unconfirmed news of Mahdi militiamen in pickup trucks crawling on the capital from areas south of Baghdad yesterday, despite the daytime curfew. Last they were heard of was in Mahmoudiya. clashes erupted in Hor Rijab, a rural area south of Dora, this morning (see map below).

Uncomfirmed news of black clad militiamen, accompanied by Interior ministry forces, spreading in several areas of Abu Dshir, south of Dora, near the Al-Kadhimain Husseiniya, led by an individual named Sa'di Al-Wahsh (Sa'di the monster).

Clashes between Interior ministry forces and insurgents at Khan Dhari, Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad. According to the Defence minister, the force was providing protection for a funeral procession of the slain Al-Arabiya TV, Atwar Bahjat, heading to the Karkh cemetary. They came under fire and roadside bomb attacks near Harith Al-Dhari's residence at Khan Dhari, resulting in a firefight. The Association of Muslim Scholar's website, and Muthanna Al-Dhari's statements on Al-Jazeera TV, say the residents returned fire after they were mocked and assaulted by the Interior ministry force which arrived in 20 vehicles early in the morning, before the funeral procession. American forces in the area seem to have intervened, and later freed 2 of Dhari's cousins taken as prisoners by the Interior ministry forces.

Tariq Al-Hashimi, general secretary of the Islamic party confirmed the attack on Adhamiya yesterday, and mentioned that the National Guard units, assisted by local residents, repelled the attackers. The Abu Hanifa shrine in Adhamiya, the holiest Sunni shrine in Iraq which is under tight protection since Wednesday, was attacked with mortar rounds this morning with no casualties. Several Sunni and Shi'ite clerics were meeting in the shrine to discuss the latest developments.

Al-Hashimi also acknowledged that some elements of Al-Mahdi were helping to protect the mosques, but the statements on the Islamic party website, and their Baghdad TV indicate the opposite.

Sheikh Ra'ad Al-Najdi, the Imam and preaher of the Ma'ruf mosque in Nasiriya, was found killed yesterday morning. He was abducted Thursday night by black clad gunmen assaulting the mosque. Iraqi police withdrew from the Islamic party office in Nasiriya after news of large demonstrations against the Islamic party in the city.

The Interior ministry's Hawk brigade conducted raids in the Iskan district of Dora yesterday, detaining over 70 Sunni residents.

The Iraqi Rabita website reports an interview with a Mahdi militia leader today, quoted as saying: "Strange things are happening these days. It's true that our guys often act as a bunch of spiteful, criminal thieves going on sprees of sabotage, murder and plundering. But the people who were running the act were clean young men, elegantly dressed, in modern vehicles, carrying the latest weapons, unlike our guys who are usually unkempt ruffians. No one knows were they are now."

A statement by the Mujahideen Shura Council, an umbrella organization of insurgent groups, comprised of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Ansar Al-Sunna, Ansar Al-Tawhid, and the Army of the Victorious Sect says it will not keep silent over the overt aggression and violation against Sunnis and their mosques. The statement blamed the Iraqi government and Iran for the Samarra shrine bombing.

Photos of the fearful 'men in black' that Iraqis say are loose on the streets.





Photos of Shi'ite militiamen on the roofs of Sunni mosques.





Photos of Samarra residents cleaning the debris of the Askariyyain shrine in Samarra.









Map of developments in Baghdad updated.



The situation seems to be getting worse at night. I was relatively able to move around my neighbourhood during the day, to visit some friends and neighbours, and to buy cigarettes. Fuel for the generators is running out, and the local neighbourhood generator is used for less than 5 hours a day.

Now that it's dark, I can hear nearby gunfire again, but not as bad as yesterday night. I'll try to update again if something comes up.

UPDATE: Sunnis fighting back:

An armed Sunni group was able to retake the Salman Al-Farisi shrine from elements of the Mahdi militia at Madain (Salman Pak), southeast of Baghdad, this evening. It was reported that they have seized a large amount of weapons and ammunition from the periphery of the shrine. It should be mentioned that there is a huge presence of Interior ministry forces in Madain, namely the Al-Karrar and the Al-Hussein brigades.

In Baghdad, 15 mosques were retaken, but no details on locations.

Clashes in Adhamiya and Sulaikh again.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Fierce streetfighting at my doorstep for the last 3 hours. Rumor in the neighbourhood is that men in black are trying to enter the area. Some armed kids defending the local mosque three blocks away are splattering bullets at everything that moves, and someone in the street was shouting for people to prepare for defending themselves.

There's supposed to be a curfew, but it doesn't look like it. My net connection is erratic, so I'll try to update again if possible. The news from other areas in Baghdad are horrible. I don't think it's being reported anywhere.

My father and uncle are agitatedly walking back and forth in the hallway, asking me what we should do if the mob or Interior ministry forces try to attack us in our homes? I have no answer for them.

UPDATE: Apparently, the attackers were fended off in our neighbourhood. The fight ended about 2 hours ago, about the same time electric power returned to our area. Now we are only hearing sporadic gunshots here and there. To have an idea of what was going on, listen to these small audio files I recorded using a cell phone.

News are conflicting. Some say the local National Guard unit (its commander is from our own area) helped repel the assailants. Others say the neighbourhood watch teams clashed with an armed group in several unmarked vehicles.

The same situation occured in both Adhamiya and Al-Khadhraa'. In Adhamiya, armed groups in black crossed the river in boats from neighbouring Kadhimiya and took over the Nu'man hospital.

In Khadhraa', a combined force of Interior ministry forces and men dressed in black are surrounding 2 mosques with several families inside, threatening to burn them down on the occupants. Baghdad TV (the Islamic party's channel) is updating on the situation through telephone calls from inside the mosque. The families are crying for outside assistance.

Other bits from here and there:
An armed group in 10 vehicles with no number plates entered the Al-Iskan Al-Sha'bi district in Dora, and attempted to enter mosque, but was turned back by the residents. Eyewitnesses claim that as many as 40 bodies and 5 burnt vehicles are still in the area. 3 attackers were also killed in Dora when they attempted to enter the Al-Kubaisi mosque.

Another group dressed in black in one Daewoo and two Opel vehicles passed the Interior ministry forces' checkpoint at Abu Dshir square, south of Dora, with no resistance and entered the Yassin mosque with explosives in tin containers. The keeper was killed and the mosque blown up.

a Shi'ite armed group carried Sheikh Ghazi Al-Zoba'i in a pickup truck around Sadr city, shouting that they have a Wahhabi terrorist with them, before he was lynched on the streets by the angry mob.

Government officials and spokespersons are deliberately suppressing any news of these ongoing attacks on Sunni neighbourhoods and mosques. The official Al-Iraqiya channel is playing a historical movie, while other channels are playing Shi'ite mourning and Quran. The Interior ministry says it only has reports of 19 mosques attacked and one cleric killed. Go figure.

Samarra Attack, the Last Straw? Part 2 

Movement today was sparse. The government announced it a day off yesterday, while Sistani, the supreme religious Shi’ite authority, called for his followers to close their businesses for 7 days in mourning. Both he and Muqtada Al-Sadr have urged their followers to continue their ‘peaceful’ protests today, resulting in more retaliatory clashes and attacks against mosques in several areas of Baghdad. No one can really fathom the amount of damage since movement is very limited. We went out to buy supplies, food and fuel. Baghdadis tend to stockpile at any sign of a looming crisis.

There was not much to hear in our area, apart from the occasional thud and fire exchange, which are really usual everyday experiences for the last 3 years. There was no presence of security forces that I could witness. Friends from areas around Sadr city said pickups full of armed men in black were patrolling the streets, unchallenged by Iraqi security forces. Many people swear that the Interior ministry forces are explicitly siding with the Mahdi militiamen in their rampage of arson and plundering. Most of the mosques in Baghdad are now closed and surrounded by barbed wire.

So far, there has been no retaliation by any Sunni groups. There was news of a bombing at a small Shi’ite shrine in the Karrada district called Maqam Sayyid Edriess, but no details on that. A couple of insurgent groups with ties to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, notably the Mujahideen Council, have denied any responsibility of the Samarra attack. This leads us to wonder, if the Sunni groups have been planning to start a civil war all along, as many analysts have claimed, why are they so silent now? Where is Zarqawi? I am actually baffled by the lack of reprisals or any other response from the Sunni community. That could be the only glimmer of hope we have now. For how long, though? Friday prayers are tomorrow, and that is bad. But then again, maybe there won’t be any Friday prayers, as it looks like most of the mosques are either closed or taken over by Mahdi militiamen, at least in Shi’ite and mixed areas.

The timing of this incident is very ominous. Just as pressure was being mounted on the UIA to form a more inclusive government, and to disband its sectarian militias, we have this. I normally don’t resort to conspiracy theories, and I don’t like the ‘Who gets to benefit from this?’ explanations. People often commit stupid actions for stupid reasons, and lashing out in violence is also a very human reaction. But still, the extent and the spontaneity of the violence are deeply troubling.

Eyewitnesses and relatives from Samarra claim that American and Iraqi Interior ministry forces blocked the main street leading to the shrine at 9 pm on the night preceding the blast. It was opened again at dawn Wednesday and the troops pulled out of the area. The two blasts occurred at 6:40 and 6:45 am according to residents, while the official statement from Interior minister, Baqir Solagh has them around 7:50 and 8 am. The details on the operation are also very vague. Some sources say there was a force of 35 guards in the shrine, but there were only 4 or 5 that morning. The number of attackers has fluctuated between 4 and 15 armed men, one of them dressed in military uniform and the rest in black. PM Ja’fari mentioned yesterday that preliminary investigations pointed to ‘infiltration’ of the police, but he has not given any further details since. No word on the 10 suspects that were supposed to have been arrested yesterday either.

Another eyewitness from Samarra, who wrote to the Iraqi Rabita website, claims that 2 Iranians were arrested yesterday, and that the Al-Arabiya channel crew had filmed them. The Iranians were released when Solagh arrived at the scene. The Al-Arabiya crew was near Al-Dor, north of Samarra, surrounded by a crowd of locals, when a vehicle stopped and someone shouted: “We want the anchor,” and fired a couple of shots in the air to disperse the crowd. The Al-Arabiya anchor, Atwaar Bahjat (a very well known Iraqi journalist originally from Samarra), screamed for help but the team took her and the two cameramen. Their bullet-ridden corpses appeared this morning at the outskirts of Samarra; their footage tapes were confiscated.

New attacks on Sunni mosques today in several areas of Iraq:

The Al-Nidaa’ mosque which lies in a dangerous junction between a Sunni district, Adhamiya, and Al-Qahira was occupied by Mahdi militiamen. Green and black flags were hoisted on the roof, with Shi’ite mourning chants broadcast over the mosque’s loudspeakers.

The Imam of Al-Husseiniya mosque, Sheikh Safaa’ Al-Hayyali, was forced by Mahdi militiamen to curse Sunnis and the companions of the prophet over the mosque’s loudspeakers in order to be spared his life.

Two mosques in the Baghdad Al-Jedida district were burned down after noon prayers. This came after Muqtada Al-Sadr issued orders to the Mahdi milita to ‘protect’ Sunni mosques.

In Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad: The Ma’idat Al-Rahman mosque was taken over by Mahdi militiamen, locked and renamed to Husseiniyat Al-Imam Al-Askari. The Al-Jihad mosque in Mahmoudiya was taken over, and fliers from Sadr’s office condemning Sunnis, Wahhabis and Saddamist Baathists were distributed in town. The Amru bin Al-Aas mosque was attacked, and the son of the mosque keeper killed.

In the Babel governorate: The Al-Muttaqeen mosque in Mussayab was attacked with RPGs. The Mashru’ and Al-Mathrid mosques in Jibela was taken over, and 10 houses belonging to the Dulaim tribe were burned down. Several Sunni families in Iskenderiya were attacked, and a man from the Sunni Janabi tribe was killed, with his residence burned down.

In the Karbala governorate: The Al-Abbasi mosque in Karbala was burned down. A mosque in Hindiya was attacked and taken over. Several Sunni families in the Husseiniya area, north of Karbala were attacked.

In Amara: The Grand Amara mosque and the Sunni Endowments Board office were attacked and plundered.

In Madain, south of Baghdad: The Sa’eed bin Zaid mosque was burned down in front of locals at 8 pm. Mahdi militiamen supported by Interior ministry forces occupied the Salman Al-Farisi shrine (also a disputed holy shrine that the Shia have wanted to take over for 2 years).

In Tala’far, near Mosul: Two mosques were attacked.

A near total of 110 people have been killed in the violence. It's not known if that figure includes the 87 blindfolded, handcuffed corpses that surfaced today in several areas around Sadr city. Also 5 people attending mosque prayers in Dora were kidnapped by rioters yesterday when the mosque was attacked and torched. Their maimed corpses were located today south of Dora.

Map of nationwide attacks updated:



Historical background of the Samarra shrine:
The gilded dome of the Askariyyain shrine was completed in 1907 with donations from the Persian Shah Mudhaffar Al-Din. This Shia holy site is unique in that it is located in a predominately Sunni town, and that it hosts the last two Shi’ite Imams, Ali Al-Hadi, and Al-Hassan Al-Askari, the tenth and eleventh Imams according to the Shia. Samarra is also where the twelfth and last Imam, Muhammed Al-Mahdi is said to have gone into hiding when he was 5 years old, to avoid Abbasid agents. 65 years later, he sent out a message to his followers: “I will not appear again until Allah ordains it. Henceforth, whoever claims to have seen me is a liar.” His disappearance during the 9th century marks the beginning of the ‘Greater Concealment’ (Al-Ghayba Al-Kubra) to the Shia, which continues to this day. They believe the hidden Imam will reemerge once again from the same place at the end of time, to restore justice to the world. Many Islamic historical sources deny he ever even existed.

The shrine is registered to the Sunni Endowments Board, since it is located in their area of influence, much to the dismay of Shi’ite religious authorities. One of the main reasons of the unrest in Samarra, according to my relatives, is because of who gets to control this shrine. The shrine and its surroundings are a lucrative source of income for Samarra residents. Shia pilgrims from Iran and other areas have continued to pour into the town, even at the time when the town was under complete control of insurgents last year. Sunni tribes in the area revere this particular shrine as much as the Shia do (though they may not share their beliefs on Al-Mahdi), and I have often heard my relatives there swear by the name of ‘Abu Al-Hassan’. The gilded dome is considered a historical landmark of the town, and it can be sighted from miles away, along with Samarra's famous spiral minaret.





What kind of nation are we? What kind of nation kills its intellectuals and academics, its doctors and healers, its women and children, its clerics and preachers? What kind of nation blows up churches and mosques, hotels and schools, funerals and weddings? We have left nothing sacred. Yet we have the insolence to accuse others of offending us, of vilifying us. I announce today that we have proved ourselves worthy of that vilification. Ten years ago, I denounced religion and disavowed Islam. I do not want to be forced to disavow my country and nation today, but with every new day, I’m afraid I am getting closer to it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Samarra Attack, the Last Straw? 

The situation in Baghdad is bad, bad, bad. I had to flee work early and return home after news of large protests in Shi'ite districts, and several attacks against Sunni mosques in the Baladiyat, Sha'ab and Dora districts by angry rioters. Sunnis are being blamed for the attack against a Shia holy shrine in Samarra, a largely Sunni town.

The streets look empty now, and all stores seem to be closed. I can hear gunfire and American helicopters and jets circling the skies.

I'll update again when I get a grip on what is going on. Things look tense enough.

UPDATE:
I was disconnected for a while so I couldn't update any sooner.
Details on what is going on are still rather vague. I have to rely on Iraqi television and word of mouth to put this update together. But first, here is what the Iraqi Islamic party website (Arabic) is reporting:

The Al-Qudus, Al-Shaheed, and Al-Abrar mosques in Sadr city were evacuated and occupied by the Mahdi army. In the Baladiyyat and Binook districts, the Ahmed Ra’ouf, Al-Qudus, Dhiyouf Al-Rahman, Al-Fayyadh, Al-Muhannad, Al-Hassan bin Ali, and Ibad Allah Al-Muttaqeen mosques have been taken over by armed mobs from Sadr city.

Mosques in Baghdad attacked by armed rioters:

The Umm Al-Qura and Al-Hamza mosques in Ghazaliya.

Al-Khulafaa’ and Al-Fardous mosques in Hayy Ur.

Al-Haqq and Al-Sada Al-Ni’am mosques in Al-Sha’ab.

Al-Hajja Fawzia, Al-Faruq, Al-Hassan, and Ibad Al-Rahman mosques in Palestine street.
Abu Ubaida and Al-Nida’ mosques in Qahira.

Al-Rahma and Al-Battawi mosques in Shu’la.

Malik bin Anas, Al-Samarrai, and Uthman bin Affan mosques in Baghdad Al-Jedida.

Al-Mustafa, Ubaid Al-Kubaisi, Taha Al-Samarrai and Al-Bustani mosques in Saidiya.

Badriya and Mus’ab bin Umair mosques in Talibiya.

Al-Hamza mosque in Turath.

Al-Rahma mosque in Al-Utaifiya.

Al-Ani mosque in Waziriya.

Hayy Al-Umal mosque in Baladiyyat.

Al-Yassin and Al-Shuhadaa’ mosques in Dora.

Fendi Al-Kubaisi mosque in Al-Shurta.

The Al-Ashra Al-Mubashareen mosque in Basrah was attacked, and unconfirmed news that the shrine of Talha bin Ubaid Allah (a companion of Muhammed), south of Basrah has been set to fire by armed demonstrators.

The Islamic party’s Basrah branch at Al-Jaza’er district was also set to fire, following armed clashes between guards and Shi’ite demonstrators. Several members are reportedly still trapped inside, with Sunni parliament member Khalaf Al-Sheikh Eissa among them.

The Al-Fayhaa, Al-Salam mosques, and stores belonging to the Sunni Endowment Board have also been set to fire. A curfew has been imposed until morning.

Sunni mosques in Diwaniya, as well as the Grand mosque and Hutteen mosque have been evacuated, and occupants arrested during noon prayers.

Several mosques at Nasiriya and Suq Al-Shiyoukh have been threatened. The Islamic party office was set to fire.

The Al-Nijoom vermicelli factory at Baghdad Al-Jedida (owned by Hajj Nassar, a Sunni merchant) has been burned to the ground, and the Al-Safa, Al-Mustafa and Al-Isra mosques have been taken over.

The Rusafa and Za’faraniya Islamic party offices have been attacked.

The Mahdi milita stormed into the Qabaa’ mosque in Sha’ab district and renamed it to Al-Hadi mosque.

Al-Aqtab Al-Arba’a mosque near the Baghdad airport road was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades.

Interior ministry forces take over the Salman Al-Farisi shrine in Salman Pak (Madain) south of Baghdad.

Armed attack against the Sunni Endowments office in Saba’ Abkar, and American troops arrive at the location.

Al-Rahman and Yassin mosques at Abu Dshir attacked.

The Islamic party website says Shi’ite mourning chants and prayers are being broadcast now from the abovementioned Sunni mosques.

Clashes are being reported in Sulaikh, Ghazaliya, Al-Amil, Sha’ab and Dora districts of Baghdad.

And right now, they sound like they are near my doorstep. The Interior ministry forces and Mahdi militiamen are having a field day. Relatives from Palestine street and Baghdad Al-Jedida have called to report raid campaigns against Sunni neighbourhoods.

Is this the final straw? Or will it pass after a random spree of violence? No one can really tell at the moment.

UPDATE 2: It's almost 3 am and I can still hear gunfire in the neighbourhood. Word of the street in our area is that Sunni neighbourhood watch teams are patrolling several Sunni districts in Baghdad, such as Adhamiya, Ghazaliya, Khadhraa, Adil, Dora, Amiriya, Bayaa, Mansour and Al-Jihad. They say if any Interior ministry forces (read Badr brigade) enter the area, local mosques will shout three Allahu Akbar's through loudspeakers as a sign for residents to defend themselves.

Sistani called for calm, yet he urged his followers to continue with 'non-violent' demonstrations, like this one for instance:



Meanwhile, the Islamic party reports a total of 109 mosques attacked Wednesday. 11 Sunnis have been killed in the violence, 6 of whom were mosque Imams.

Map of the violence in Baghdad:



And another for nationwide attacks:


Friday, February 17, 2006

Avoiding Iraqi Death Squads For Dummies 

Interior Ministry's 'Death Squads'

More of the same: Abu Ghraib prison photos at Salon. Abuse, torture, and degradation. Why bother to publish them anymore?

I have said it before, and will say again: Iraqis continue to live between the hammer of terrorists, so-called insurgents, and the anvil of American, British and Iraqi security forces.

Note that the detainees in the photos are not necessarily wanted insurgents. Any Iraqi could be caught in a raid and sent to Abu Ghraib, Camp Boca, or worse, to a secret cellar run by Iraqi Interior Ministry forces. No one is safe.

To better understand the extent to which Iraqis do not trust Iraqi security forces, read the following guidelines circulating in Iraq (my translation from Arabic):


Before reading the guidelines, please keep the following facts in mind:

1- The mere fact that you are arrested by security militias would mean possible death or deadly injury, even if you were innocent. Therefore, your main goal should be to escape arrest by any means possible.
2- The phrase "We have a few questions, and you'll be back in an hour" usually means your disappearance for months or, God forbid, your death. Therefore, do not be naive to trust security forces.
3- Remember, your presence in detention means 11 dollars a day for prison officers to feed you; a dollar for your food and 10 for the officers. As a result, keeping you in detention is a guaranteed source of profit for security officers, even if you were innocent.

The following security plan to avoid detention depends on organising neigbourhood watch teams, and in the following manner:

1- Look for trustworthy friends in your area and remind them that your cooperation is vital to save many lives in the neighbourhood.
2- Draw a simple map of your area. Put down the main streets and back alleys that would be used by Interior ministry forces to reach your area. Remember that security patrols will not land on your house from a helicopter, but will instead use main streets leading to your house.
3- You can use Internet services such as Google Earth to identify the streets leading to your area. Download it from http://earth.google.com/download-earth.html
4- Coordinate with your neighbourhood team to watch and to patrol surrounding streets, according to the diagram. This should be around usual raid hours.
5- Exchange landline and cellular phone numbers with your team. Upon noticing a patrol (usually modern 4 wheel drive vehicles with no number plates) entering your area, call to notify neighbours and the rest of your team members.
6- Train your family and friends to be alert to movement in the street, strangers or suspicious activities. Regularly discuss the neighbourhood’s situation with your team members.
7- Every person should be trained on the appropriate method to hide or escape. Learn to hide valuable items and jewelry within minutes of a raid. Remember that all cupboards and drawers will be opened. Beds and blankets will be turned over.

Things to remember:

1- In most occasions, the raiding force is unaware of your identity, until you tell them! Train yourself on impersonating someone else when necessary.
2- It might be a good idea to carry a second ID card, with your own photo but under a different name. Some people have escaped arrest by claiming they were guards with no relation to the family living in the residence.
3- If you are not familiar with your neigbourhood, now is the time to be so. Stay up to date with events and gossip in the area. The murder of your neighbourhood's baker, for example, could lead to the murder of the storeowner next door, as an act of vengeance by security militias. It does not matter if both were innocent.
4- Security militias rarely know you in person. They usually learn your name and address from an informer in your area. It is of the utmost importance to remain alert at all times. Do not enter and leave your residence at known intervals. Do not use the same vehicle if possible. Try to spend a few nights away at friends or relatives.
5- Arrange with your neighbours to place small roadblocks (palm tree trunks) at all entry points to your area. Every extra minute you gain is on your side, and would help you escape more easily.
6- Do NOT resist the raiding force, under any circumstances. Just try to escape capture, using any trick possible. Remember that you know the insides and outsides of your area better than anyone else.
7- Remove anything from your residence or your computer that might be interpreted by the raiding force as related to 'terrorism'. Books, posters, photos, religious leaflets printed in Saudi Arabia, websites, audio and video clips and CDs, even if they are commonly available on the market.
8- Important data on your computer might be lost forever. Use an online storage service to backup your important files, or use a well-hidden flash memory stick, or even your email inbox. If you are forced to destroy your SIM card, you can store your telephone contacts using the same method. Remember that cell phones are almost always stolen during raids. You might endanger your friends and family if security militias confiscate your cell phone.
9- People are commonly arrested and killed because of the surname in their ID cards. If you have a surname that identifies your sectarian background (such as Al-Dulaimi or Al-Janabi), try to issue a new ID with no surname or tribe name if possible. If your birthplace is Ramadi, Fallujah, or Madain, for example, be sure to issue a new ID to keep you safer. Do not drive a vehicle with Al-Anbar number plates in areas of sectarian unrest.

Important guidelines:

1- Women should arrange to hide valuables such as jewelry, money and important documents as they see fit. The raiding force rarely searches women.
2- Most victims of sectarian killings or torture had specific religious appearances. Try to shave your beard, and avoid behaviour, appearances and discussions that might identify your sectarian background.
3- Before you leave the house, watch for movements and any suspicious vehicles or strangers around you. Do not use the same road often, and try to leave and return at different intervals.
4- If you receive a threat, do NOT ignore it. Move to another area or governorate for some time.
5- Avoid entering sectarian or religious discussions, for whatever reasons, even when you feel you, or your beliefs, are intentionally provoked. Your life is more valuable than a pointless debate.
6- Be respectful and tolerant of your colleagues. Let them feel you are sympathetic and understanding to their feelings. Respect other people’s religious occasions. Close your store or business if necessary. Learn to compliment!
7- Keep the above guidelines in mind all the time. Pass it on to others. Reject sectarianism and remember that all Iraqis of all sects and ethnicities are paying dearly for this.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Saudi Blogs 

I stumbled on to some fresh Saudi blogs thanks to a link by new Iraqi blogger Ozmonsta (young Iraqi student living in London). First, you have to check out Ubergirl's blog. It's a fascinating and intriguing glimpse through the eyes of a young Saudi girl living in the secret Kingdom. And guess what.. She's into Green Day! Though I would hardly call Green Day the greatest band of all times; far shot, heh.

And then you have this blog, Youmeyat Duba (translated to Diaries of a Fatso), also by a Saudi girl. The blog is mostly in Arabic (Saudi dialect), but the comments by other Saudis are in English. One Saudi bloke started blabbering about western infidels corrupting the morals of Saudi girls, and gets blasted by other Saudis in her comments section. Wild.

The prize goes to this conceited fellow, claiming to be a prince from the Al-Rashid clan of Shammar. The Al-Rashid clan ruled Najd up to the 20th century when Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi followers kicked their butts and forced them into submission. His writing is interesting, if only he bragged less about his cars, girlfriends and flats in Europe.

You can find links from these to about a dozen more Saudi blogs. I haven't checked them all, but I strongly suggest you do.

And I thought the Religious Policeman was the only Saudi blogger out there.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Our sweet, sweet government. Partisan shares of governmental seats, are far more important than running the country. Who needs technocrats, and who cares anyway? As long as we spend all our time throwing lunch banquets inside the green zone to negotiate our shares of the spoils.

The Kurd and Sunni brats want to create a Council of Elders with executive powers to oversee the government and parliament, probably to guarantee their own shares. Have they not read the constitution? Do they not understand Democracy? Do they not realize that it is our Allah-given, Sistani-endorsed, Iran-protected right to run this country the way we see fit? To hell with those newcomers who pester us about shares exceeding their electoral constituencies.

By the way, it is good governmental practice to label anyone we don't like as a Ba'athist, a former regime official, a supporter of the insurgency or terrorism. Call our friends in the good ole Deba'athification Commission to bar a few winners from entering parliament, because we have suddenly discovered their past now; never mind that they were members of last year's parliament. It also doesn't really matter that our own slate contains former Ba'athists, they have all repented their past sins, and his Excellency Grand Ayatollah Sistani himself has given them his blessings. Who are you to question that? And if that doesn't work, call our pious supporters and followers in the Higher Commission of Public Integrity to bring some winners, from slates we don't like, to court on charges of administrative corruption.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Ashurra Again 

Life in Baghdad has come to a complete halt the last two days. It's the holy month of Muharram, during which Iraqi Shia commemorate and mourn the slaying of Imam Hussein, grandson of prophet Mohammed, and several of his followers at Karbala in the 7th century.

The event includes rituals such as flogging processions (mawakib latum), and re-enactments of the battle of Al-Taff (tashabeeh) starting from the first day of Muharram until the culmination on Ashurra day, tenth of Muharram. Rituals are far more violent on Ashurra, and include self-mutilation, self-flagellation with blades, chain and razor whips, and practices of what I would call child abuse.

I normally keep the distaste to myself. It's not my business what other people enjoy to inflict on themselves. BUT, I am extremely concerned that with each year, these rituals are becoming more and more government sanctioned. As I mentioned above, daily life has been crippled in Baghdad; all bridges connecting Karkh and Rusafa have been closed to traffic since yesterday afternoon, districts surrounding Kadhimiya (the location of the Al-Kadhimain shrine) are blocked with concrete barriers and barbed wire, governmental offices are closed, so are most of the markets. Everyone is either frenzily participating in the rituals, or staying home out of fear from attacks, or the crazed mob itself.

I should mention that Sunni extremists find these beliefs and practices very un-Islamic, and some would consider them heretic. Others find them provocative and offensive.

An alarming fact is that Iraqi police and army vehicles are flying green, red and black flags, as well as posters of Shi'ite Imams, while supposedly protecting the processions. One police unit was patrolling my neighbourhood (a largely Sunni one) with Shi'ite mourning chants playing on the loud speakers. Some of them were dressed, not in police uniform, but in black. I wish I had the courage to pick up a camera and take pictures of them to prove my point, like I did two years ago, but the looks of them are intimdating.

On another note, here is a very amusing video clip of the late Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Al-Hakim experiencing what seems like an epileptic fit during an Ashurra ceremony at Qum, Iran.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Islamic Depictions of Mohammed Throughout History 

This is an interesting site that archives historical Islamic paintings and drawings of Mohammed throughout history. Most are Persian, Turkish, Indian, Afghan and Mongolian. The webpage also covers European medieval depictions of Mohammed, and a few contemporary images in print, literature, art and media. Some I have seen before, many are new to me.

And here is Wikipedia's article on the subject, where you can view the original images, published on Jyllands-Posten, that caused the uproar with plenty of related links.

I only saw these images of Muslim protestors in London today. For the life of me, I cannot understand how the British police let those demonstrators get away with it. The protestors are blasting free speech in Europe, yet they are using that same free speech to call for murder and bloodshed. I would strongly support deporting those people back to the miserable societies they originally came from.

I will try to comment further on the subject very soon.

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