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Archive: March 2007
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Baghdad Buzz
Deputy PM's Cousin May Have Been Suicide Bomber
03/26/2007 11:20 AM ET
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie
MUSTAPHA AHMAD/AFP/Getty
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie

The assassination attempt against deputy prime minister Salam al-Zubaie last week may have been an inside job carried out by his own cousin and bodyguard, according to the latest accounts in the media.

Many publications have reported that the suspected attacker was a guard to Zubaie, and yesterday AP spoke with "a senior security official and an aide to the victim," who confirmed that the suspect, Wahab al-Saadi, a cousin and bodyguard to Zubaie, was the only person present at the prayer service who remained unaccounted for.

The AP also cited an aide to Maliki as explaining that al-Saadi had once been arrested on suspicion of insurgent activities but that al-Zubaie had successfully lobbied for his release and then made him a part of his security detail.

It is assumed that al-Saadi was the suicide bomber, though there is a missing cook under suspicion as well, and it was the guard's car that exploded outside the compound moments after the initial attack inside the mosque.

Zubaie is said to be in stable condition following his surgery in the US military hospital in the Green Zone.

Baghdad Buzz
Is Baghdad Like a Wachowskis Film, or a PlayStation Game?
03/24/2007 3:00 PM ET

Baghdad's climate of constant peril and sudden death leads many residents to feel that the endgame could come at any time.

One Iraqi told Slogger that the imminent dangers make him feel like he's living in a sci-fi film, or a video game:

I was thinking that the specialists should make a PlayStation game representing life in Baghdad, since life in Baghdad is like a game in PlayStation: Everybody wants kill you.

Sometimes I imagine myself, instead of Keanu Reaves, in his movie The Matrix. We are just digits and the bad guys kill me by a simple click, and delete me from life that easily.

But in Baghdad, unlike the movie, there's no blue pill that would make it all go away.

If Your DHL Package Was A LIttle Late...This Might Be Why
03/24/2007 2:50 PM ET
Most journalists start their first trip to Baghdad with the usual corkscrew spiral story. Depending on your aviation experience it can be terrifying or simply entertaining. Most figure out that the idea is to stay within a safe box over Victory and BIAP that keeps aircraft out of range of RPG's and hopefully make it more difficult for Surface to Air missiles to connect. (not true, but comforting to the uninitiated.) But what is the real threat? Well we dug up this report to show what can happen and end up smiling.

This PowerPoint from 2003 pretty much says it all.DHL_In_Bagdad___Testimony.pps

What is more bizarre is that French photographer Jerome Sessini was with insurgents and videotaped and photographed them firing the missile at the DHL plane. He captured the damaged plane in flight and insists he didn't know the Iraqis were going to down a civilian aircraft.

...and if you were wondering about security outbound. Outbound flights from BIAP usually do a sharp bank after take off and then begin climbing upward in a spiral.

Back in late 2003 a Mercedes was loaded on a similar plane loaded with explosives. A mercury switch from a common household thermostat was set to detonate the trunk full of high explosives. The only reason it didn't detonate is that the pilot did a smooth take off and forgot to do the Surface to Air avoidance drill.

The Latest
Serious-Not Serious, Iraqi Public Awaits Solid Info on Deputy PM
03/23/2007 3:20 PM ET
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie
MUSTAPHA AHMAD/AFP/Getty
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie

Conflicting accounts of the seriousness of Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie's condition after an attempted assassination by bomb this morning is leading to suspicions that his wounds may be graver than official accounts are admitting.

Reuters reported that Maliki has visited the deputy prime minister and reported back that his condition is "not serious," but AP is reporting that Ziad al-Ani, a top official from the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, said al-Zubaie was in "serious condition" at the hospital's intensive care unit.

Ani "said the politician's condition was worse than initially thought because shrapnel had penetrated his chest."

Brigadier Qassem Atta al-Mussawi, chief of the Baghdad security operation, told state-run al-Iraqiya TV "Sallam al-Zawbaie, who escaped an attempted assassination on his life and is being operated on at Ibn Sina Hospital inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, was wounded and his health condition unstable."

However, Zubaie's office released a more reassuring statement that his condition was "stable," adding that he did not need to be transferred overseas for more intensive medical care.

US military spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Garver declined to comment on Zubaie's condition, but did confirm that he was being treated in the military hospital in the Green Zone.

In other developments:

State-run Iraqiya television used a "special source" to report that the attacker was one of al-Zubaie's bodyguards, and Reuters is reporting that one of Zubaie's aides named the suicide bomber as Wahab Saadi, one of the deputy prime minister's guards.

Exclusive
IraqSlogger Takes You Inside The Profits of War
By DAVID PHINNEY 03/23/2007 11:55 AM ET
Getty Images

In February 2004, the US State Department selected Texas-based DynCorp for a massive multi-year contract to train over 100,000 Iraqi police officers, a top-priority project of the Bush administration’s effort to stabilize the war-torn country and strengthen the fragile civilian government there. But State Department wanted a contractor with strong ties in Iraq, so DynCorp obligingly teamed up with a company known as Corporate Bank Financial Service, a Washington-based business better known as The Sandi Group.

It seemed to have the makings of a winning partnership. DynCorp had a track record for building police forces in Haiti, Bosnia and other trouble spots around the Globe for the State Department since the early 1990s, so it easily won the contract with little competition and supplied 700 or so trainers largely recruited from police departments in the United States and other coalition allies.

The Sandi Group, run by Rubar Sandi, an Iraqi who immigrated to the United States in the late 1970s, would perform the logistics, provide security, hire interpreters, and perform other services as required. The 54-year-old Sandi, a member of a wealthy Kurdish family, had the well-established political and social connections in Iraq. Those connections and his entrepreneurial know-how served Sandi very well, not only in Iraq, but at the State Department where he had been an influential advisor to the "Future of Iraq Project", a pre-war planning effort,

After the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Sandi immediately opened shop in Iraq where he took control of major Baghdad hotels, a newspaper, and several banks. The one-time Kurdish resistance fighter also recruited an armed private security force with a payroll of 7,500, laid plans for establishing an Iraqi airline, and positioned himself for US-administered contracts in the reconstruction effort. Those contracts included dozens with DynCorp for construction projects, leases on posh hotels, security, logistics and other support services as needed.

“Could You Determine Any Value Added?”



All the while, The Sandi Group kept a low profile in Washington until its affiliate, Corporate Bank, was singled out in a February 7 Congressional hearing for its controversial handling of a multimillion-dollar DynCorp contract to build an Iraqi police training camp in Baghdad near parade grounds of Adnan Palace, a once luxurious domed castle used by Saddam Hussein’s family.

Two weeks after receiving the $55.1-million DynCorp contract in August 15, 2004, Sandi’s Corporate Bank hired an Italian company, Cogim SpA, for $47.1 million to do all the work in the contract, which included providing 1,048 living trailers and building an Olympic-sized swimming pool. On paper, the deal had the look of an effortless $8-million profit for Sandi at the US taxpayers expense -- just for being the middleman and flipping the contract to Cogim.

A skeptical Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., laid out the arrangement before the crowded House congressional hearing teeming with scribbling reporters and TV cameras.

“The problem is the tiering of all these contracts. You have a general contractor, a subcontractor and a sub-subcontractor and a sub-sub-sub contractor,” Lynch noted to witness Stuart Bowen, the leading investigator of the US-funded reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

Chances are there could be plenty of sub-sub-sub-subs in the final mix, but Lynch was especially keen on Corporate Bank’s $8 million handling fee. His eyes widened with the puzzled look of a straight man setting up the punch line: “I just want to understand, is that right?”

Bowen didn’t crack a smile. Sitting with hands calmly folded on the witness desk during his testimony before the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee, the special inspector general for Iraq Reconstruction cascaded into what is now a familiar, but still opaque, explanation for deciphering the contracting chaos in Iraq. The mess squandered $10 billion in taxpayer money through sloppy bookkeeping, job delays, bloated expenses and work that was paid for, but never performed.

“Quality assurance,” Bowen said, “expects that the contractor execute a quality control program over his subcontractors and the lack of visibility by the operational overseer of the government doing the program results in the loss of visibility and cost control.”

(Translation: The government tossed cost control and job performance issues to DynCorp. The government didn’t have a clue to what was going on except for what it learned from DynCorp.)

Lynch reframed his question about the $8 million flip: “Could you determine any value added?”

“No we didn’t,” Bowen said, but stopped short of singling out a possible bad guy.

Someone using the screen name Nancy Pelosi instantly uploaded the C-SPAN video of Bowen's testimony on to youtube.com, but Lynch may have had his curiosity more satisfied by catching a short cab ride to The Sandi Group’s elegant office just 1 ½ miles away on Connecticut Avenue in the fashionable DuPont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC.

After passing a wall-sized collage of folded dollar bills portraying an American flag near the front door, Lynch may have found a digital trail littered with dozens of contracts and agreements of Sandi’s work for Dyncorp with apparently even larger paper profits.

‘Corporate Stuff’: Cash Margins and Profit



According to Adnan Palace agreements leaked out on the Internet more than a year ago, Sandi indeed planned to make $8 million on the Adnan Palace while giving the work to Cogim. That was the charge to DynCorp an -- 11 percent for general administration costs, known as G&A, and 6 percent profit for an exact total of just over $8 million. The contracts between DynCorp and Corporate Bank and Corporate Bank and Cogim read almost exactly the same. An administrative assistant sitting at a computer could have easily employed a copy-and-paste approach and just replaced a few words with “Cogim.”

Tim Crawley, who left DynCorp as vice president of contracting last June to join The Sandi Group as executive vice president and general manager of The Sandi Group, defends the standard G&A and profit included in the contract as an industry standard. The G&A reimburses the back office administration; it keeps the office lights on, pays for health insurance, payroll systems, legal advice, business development, “thought processes” and operational “guidance.”

“There’s a lot of confusion about this,” he said. “It pays for the corporate stuff.”

Meanwhile, the profit is, well, profit. “Six percent is pretty low, especially in Iraq,” he said, before concluding his interview at The Sandi Group’s office. “There was a large cash outlay and it took 90 days from the first notice to proceed to the time of reimbursement.”

Crawley did not comment on a dozen other draft contracts, represented by sources the actual ones. Agreements that reflect a business practice that Sandi may have repeated again and again when tasked with building almost 30 police camps and providing other services to DynCorp. By all appearances, those agreements could have left Sandi with a hefty cash margin sometimes reaching 50 percent or more above the sum that DynCorp agreed to pay.

Here’s how those agreements apparently worked: Sandi’s Corporate Bank would first sign task orders with DynCorp, include charges for profit and administration costs, and then pass them off to a handful of construction companies from Baghdad, Jordan, Turkey and Italy for much less money. The contracts read very much the same as those between DynCorp and Corporate Bank except for an opening paragraph. Sandi supplied the “guidance” while the subcontractor would “direct the project.”

And so, according to the draft agreements, when DynCorp hired Sandi’s Corporate Bank in October 2004 to build a regional camp with 24 living trailers at Ad Diwaniyah, Corporate Bank billed $1,194,197. One month later, Corporate Bank then hired the Hozan General Construction Company of Baghdad for $605,000 to do the work. Similarly, DynCorp agreed to pay $833,680 for a 16-trailer camp at Al Kut. Corporate Bank then hired Hozan for $388,000. In Karbala, DynCorp agreed to pay $809,520. Corporate Bank turned to Hozan for $388,000. In effect, one dollar of reconstruction money became 50 cents, with subs hiring subs to do the work. But it would appear that the first contractor in line gets the lion share of profit and benefit. If this tiny shaft of light into the world of reconstruction is typical then it would be American corporations, not Iraqis who are the major beneficiaries of America's largesse.

Neither Sandi Group and DynCorp responded to repeated inquiries about the amounts being charged for the camp building, nor did representatives comment on whether or not the companies viewed the charges as “fair and reasonable,” an industry standard in government contracting laid out in sometimes ambiguous federal procurement regulations.

Once DynCorp paid Corporate Bank for its services, it would then charge the State Department – with another 4 percent to 6 percent markup for handling and management.

Tomorrow
Marking Up The Reconstruction Part 2


David Phinney is a journalist and broadcaster based in Washington, DC, whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, New York Times and on ABC and PBS. He can be contacted at: phinneydavid@yahoo.com and www.davidphinney.com

Life Goes On
Business Booming At US Military HQ Outlet Despite Free Coffee Elsewhere on Base
03/21/2007 1:41 PM ET
Photo by Eason Jordan

Price check today -- March 20, 2007.
BATTLE ZONE
Sells Their Food Rations to Generate Funds to Flee Violence
03/21/2007 11:01 AM ET
BAGHDAD, 21 March 2007 (IRIN) - Marwan Hussein is a 31-year-old unemployed father of two - Hala, 5, and Yehia, 7 - who is internally displaced and living in an abandoned school in the outskirts of Baghdad. Before being unemployed, he was working as mechanic and earning enough money to support his family in Dora neighbourhood. His wife, Abdya, works as a housekeeper for some families.
"We've tried different ways to survive in a dignified way but we've reached the end of the road now. We need to leave the country but we don't have money for that.

"For the past seven months, I've been selling half of our monthly food rations to raise some money to flee to Syria. We don't need that much to get the whole family there - about US $400 for a taxi ride. I might soon have enough money.

"On average, I get about US $20 a month from the half a food ration that I sell. . The supermarkets are the best buyers as they pay from $15 to $20.

"Abdya earns about $30 per month as a housekeeper. She gives me that to add to our funds for leaving Iraq.

"I have taken my children out of school to save money and, in any case, with this level of violence in the country, education is no longer important.

"I have now found another good way to get additional money. Some companies are buying empty cans so I spend all day collecting as many cans as I can from rubbish bins. I take my son Yehia along to help me so that we can finish early.

"Sometimes I'm lucky enough to pass near the scene of a recent attack or explosion and I don't waste time in picking up what I can from the remains that can be sold. I try to sell in markets where anything can be bought.

"I know all this sounds strange for a family that was once living in a nice house, good car and a good job. Unfortunately, we lost everything in the past year as sectarian violence increased and we ended up with thousands of other Iraqis who had become displaced.

"We are all tired of living without government support. We are on our own. My parents were assassinated during former president Saddam Hussein's regime and my wife's parents were killed by US troops in Najaf during the August 2004 attack.

"In the past, I used to pray every day for someone to invade Iraq and take Saddam away from us. These days, I ask God to forgive him because we are paying the consequences of our betrayal with more death, torture, hunger and thirst than was the case during his time."

The Latest
Remains of Taha Yassin Ramadan Transported to Tikrit for Burial
03/20/2007 3:50 PM ET
Awja, IRAQ: Iraqis pray over the body of Taha Yassin Ramadan, Iraq's former vice president and Saddam Hussein aide, who was executed this morning, before his burial in Saddam's home village of Awja 20 March 2007.
Dia Hamid/AFP
Awja, IRAQ: Iraqis pray over the body of Taha Yassin Ramadan, Iraq's former vice president and Saddam Hussein aide, who was executed this morning, before his burial in Saddam's home village of Awja 20 March 2007.

The US military flew the body of former Iraqi vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan, who was executed early this morning, to Tikrit today for burial near his former boss, Saddam Hussein. Ramadan reportedly dictated his wishes for his final resting place in his will.

After landing in Tikrit, the US military turned Ramadan's remains over to local Iraqi police, who then transported it to Awja, Saddam's hometown just north of Tikrit.

The AP reports that hundreds of people turned out to mourn Ramadan, following the flag-draped casket as it made its way to the burial yard.

Just outside the building in which the former dictator is entombed, the courtyard also holds the remains of Ramadan's former co-defendents, Awad Hamed al-Bandar and Saddam's half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim. Saddam's grandson, Mustafa, is also buried in the yard, and sons Uday and Qusai were recently relocated to be placed near their father.

Locals plan on holding a three-day wake to commemorate Ramadan's passing.

Baghdad Buzz
Captors Demands Threatened Execution on Tuesday
03/20/2007 09:10 AM ET
BERLIN - MARCH 19: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Afghan President Hamid Karzai speak to the media after talks at the Chancellery on March 19, 2007 in Berlin, Germany.
Sean Gallup/Getty
BERLIN - MARCH 19: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Afghan President Hamid Karzai speak to the media after talks at the Chancellery on March 19, 2007 in Berlin, Germany.

As Germany awaits word on the fate of two citizens held hostage in Iraq, Chancellor Angela Merkel reaffirmed her government's refusal to bow to captors demands. Ten days ago, the kidnappers gave Angela Merkel 10 days to begin pulling German troops out of Afghanistan, under threat of execution of the two hostages.

The little-known "Swords of Righteousness" insurgent group released a video on March 10 showing a German woman and her son, who were kidnapped from their Baghdad home in early February.

The woman, Hannelore Marianne Krause, a longtime Iraq resident and German citizen married to an Iraqi physician, read the demand of their captors--that Germany withdraw the 3,000 troops it has in Afghanistan.

Merkel met with Hamid Karzai in Berlin on Monday, and Deutsche Welle reports that the German leader reassured him that Germany would not abandon Afghanistan.

"Naturally, given the situation, we are greatly concerned," Merkel said of the kidnapping victims. "We know what our commitment to the civilian rebuilding means to the Afghan government, and we should not be blackmailed by people who are terrorists."
Life Goes On
With 3-0 Win, Iraqi Police Gain Commanding Lead in Baghdad Soccer Tournament
03/19/2007 2:36 PM ET
Both teams face their next matches Wednesday -- Police vs. Industry and Army vs. Air Force.

BATTLE ZONE
Radical Mahdi Faction Suspected of Carrying Out Assault
03/16/2007 11:36 AM ET
Gunmen opened fire on the convoy of Sadr City mayor Rahim al-Darraji as it drove through eastern Baghdad on Thursday, seriously injuring him and killing two of his bodyguards.

Since al-Darraji has been the main negotiator with the US military in talks aimed to reign in Mahdi fighters, suspicions are that he was targeted by a more radical wing of Sadr's militia that has become disillusioned because of the cooperation with the Americans.

The AP reported that a local Mahdi Army commander "said suspicion fell on a group of disaffected militiamen who are angry about the deal. 'This is a faction that enjoys some weight,' the Mahdi Army commander said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject."

The relative calm that has fallen over Mahdi operations since the beginning of the Baghdad security sweep has been seen as one of the plan's most significant successes, but the attempted assassination of the Sadrist leader responsible for negotiating the temporary half-truce does not bode well for future security. The attack on Darraji may be the clearest indication yet that the fissures in the Mahdi militia could lead to the complete spin-off of an even more radical paramilitary unit.

The Latest
US Spokesman Maj Gen Caldwell Says Sadr Still in Iran
03/14/2007 1:27 PM ET
All indications, "as of 24 hours ago," show that Moqtada al-Sadr remains in Iranian exile, according to US military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, at a briefing marking the end of the first month of the Baghdad security drive.

“He’s a very significant part of this political process. We do continue to track his whereabouts,” he said.

Moqtada al-Sadr disappeared from public view a week or so prior to the US-Iraqi security sweep into Baghdad, and rumors have swirled about his whereabouts and reasons for lowering his profile.

Sadr's aides have denied reports that their leader fled the country for Iran, though Slogger sources indicated that even his closest associates may not have been aware of Sadr's plan.

Iranian officials have also denied Sadr is in-country, though there is no reason to take what they say at face value.

Doubts still remain about whether or not Sadr's disappearance resulted from a warning by Maliki.

Despite his absence, Sadr has remained outspoken about his views of the American security plan.

Baghdad Buzz
Celebratory Gunfire Alert as Iraq Takes on N. Korea in Olympic Soccer Qualifer
03/13/2007 00:40 AM ET
Many Iraqis will put their ethnic and sectarian differences aside for two hours tomorrow to unite in rooting for their national soccer team, which means bullets likely will rain down nationwide if Iraq is victorious in its Olympic soccer qualifying match against North Korea in Pyongyang tomorrow.

Celebratory gunfire is a chronic problem in Iraq, and it often kills.

Exclusive
Spencer Ackerman Reports from Baghdad with the 57th MP
By SPENCER ACKERMAN 03/12/2007 11:23 AM ET
BAGHDAD -- Any uneventful day in Khadimiya, a Shiite neighborhood just west of the Tigris, gives cause for celebration. But Saturday's non-events were especially significant since the streets teemed with processions for Arba'een, the end of the mourning period for Ashura. The neighborhood's namesake mosque, one of the holiest in Iraq, remained untouched. That's no small victory. Sadr City wasn't as fortunate, as a car bomb killed 18 on the other side of the city.

The Iraqi Police here deserve a great deal of the credit for securing the area. The much-derided force makes its presence felt on the streets, setting up extensive checkpoints and enforcing a partial vehicular curfew south of Khadimiya. Spot checks on the neighborhood's patrol station with the 57th Military Police Company's 3rd Platoon, commanded by Lieutenant Jonathan Sherrill, found most of the usable vehicles -- unarmored, vulnerable cars -- and senior commanders out of the station and into the field.

That's not to say the police are free of their reputation for weakness, sectarianism and corruption. What several senior IP officials emphasize, however, is that they're at the mercy of a Ministry of Interior that's vastly more corrupt and sectarian.

The neighborhood's district commander, a Colonel Haidar, is a tough guy -- a man with a black mustache, literally and figuratively. He's well-respected by Sherrill, who says he's turned the command around. But when asked about militia penetration, the commander gets agitated. Haider, a Shiite, says that a full fifty percent of new IP recruits belong to one militia or another. "They come here to collect information on members of the other sects," he tells me, meaning, principally, Sunnis. The Ministry of Interior (MoI) knows "everything" about who the new recruits are.

Haider's deputy is Major Ali, a bulky, garrulous man who begs Sherrill to show him how to use Microsoft Access in order to keep track of his multitude of logistics, personnel and finance tasks for the command. (Amazingly, Sherrill quickly and expertly walks Ali through it, despite the program being in Arabic.) Ali, who is Haidar's cousin, fears that the influx of new recruits are turning his station into an intelligence-gathering apparatus for sectarian attacks. "When they get into civilian clothes, they go out and kill members of the other sect," he says. "I have no control over that. The recruits come to me from up higher," -- that is, from the MoI.

Sherrill dissents from the idea that the Ministry is fundamentally corrupt, but he definitely sees corruption within it. "It's all about weeding out the bad apples," he says. But sectarianism is just one of MoI's problems. Today Ali is troubled by a rare instance of the ministry's responsiveness.

Over the last 18 months, the station hasn't received a single 9 mm round for any of its officers, despite repeated requests, assisted by Sherrill, who says they "worked that for months." The request has finally come through, as Ali demonstrates by showing the MoI approval form to the young American lieutenant. But Sherrill is hardly relieved by what he reads: "What happened to the 25,000?" Apparently, MoI is only giving Ali 2,000 rounds. Sherrill promises to take the request back up to his command, and "work it up the chain."

The Interior Ministry has been a hotbed of sectarianism for years. The hope was that Jawad Bolani, the Interior Minister in the Maliki government, would prove to be a corrective force, but while Bolani has been more responsive to American pressure than his predecessor, ex-Badr Corps commander Bayan Jabr, senior Iraqi police commanders say the ministry is getting in the way of their best efforts at creating a professional force.

Whether Haider and Ali's charges amount to buck passing is unclear, but Sherrill and his superior officer, Captain Rob McNellis, have confidence in the two leaders, and Khadimiya has become one of the safest areas for the 57th. Their frequent presence out on the streets in the neighborhood doesn't even subject them to small-arms fire these days. And today, with Haider and Ali's men out in Khadimiya, the locals are safe to celebrate the holiday.

Spencer Ackerman is a senior correspondent with The American Prospect currently on assignment in Iraq.
Diplomatic Buzz
Peace Conference Setting Leads to 'Constructive' Conversation
03/10/2007 3:54 PM ET
Iran's deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs Abbas Araghshi addresses the media at the end of the Baghdad peace conference 10 March 2007.
Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty
Iran's deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs Abbas Araghshi addresses the media at the end of the Baghdad peace conference 10 March 2007.

Zalmay Khalilzad, US ambassador to Iraq, and Abbas Aragachi, deputy foreign minister of Iran, had a brief but reportedly constructive exchange of words Saturday at the international peace talks in Baghdad.

Khalilzad "declined to give details of the contacts — calling them only 'constructive and businesslike and problem-solving' — but noted that he raised U.S. assertions that Shiite militias receive weapons and assistance across the border from Iran," acording to the AP.

Aragachi reportedly reiterated Iranian demands for a scheduled date of withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq, which he insists makes the country a magnet for Islamic extremists.

"Violence in Iraq is good for no country in the region," said Araghchi, deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs, at a post-meeting news conference.

Araghchi said he did not meet privately with Khalilzad, but that all dialogue "was within the framework of the meeting" — which he said had "very good interaction by all the delegations."

Khalilzad, too, called it a "first step."

Full Report PDF
New Report Focuses on Gender-Based Violence Since US Invasion
03/08/2007 5:00 PM ET

Amidst the chaos and violence of US-occupied Iraq, the significance of widespread gender-based violence has been largely overlooked. Yet Iraqi women are enduring unprecedented levels of assault in the public sphere, "honor killings," torture in detention, and other forms of gender-based violence.

In honor of International Women's Day today, MADRE, a global women's human rights organization, has released a new report on the incidence, causes, and legalization of gender-based violence in Iraq since the US-led invasion.

Houzan Mahmoud, representative of the Organisation for Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), said at a panel discussion at the UN launching the report:

"Women are not only being targeted because they are members of the civilian population, women--in particular those who are perceived to pose a challenge to the political aspirations of their attackers--have increasingly been targeted simply because they are women."

The report, Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-Based Violence and the US War on Iraq, documents the use of gender-based violence by Islamists seeking to establish a theocratic state and makes the case that US policy decisions have empowered radicals at the expense of women's rights.

Baghdad Buzz
Could He Be Khalid al-Mashhadani, aka "Abu Zaid"?
By CHRISTINA DAVIDSON 03/08/2007 11:39 AM ET
A few days ago, al-Iraqiya TV cited an Interior Minister spokesman as identifying Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, as one Khalid al-Mashhadani.

One of my favorite Iraq bloggers, Nibras Kazimi, now has a post up at Talisman's Gate exploring the background of Mashhadani. It looks like there might be some substance to claims that Baghdadi and Mashhadani are one and the same.

Kazimi makes a disclaimer that he has no absolute confirmation, but his digging into Mashhadani's background uncovers information that meshes with other rumored details of Baghdadi's past--namely that he is a Salifist who had been arrested under Saddam's regime, and that his Islamic pedigree claims descent from the Prophet's grandson, al-Hussein bin Ali. According to Kazimi:

"This is the best I could do to tie all this up together, according to my sources: al-Baghdadi’s full name is Khalid Khalil Ibrahim al-Mashhadani. He is in his early 40s, and is known as ‘Abu Zaid’. He had been a Salafist under Saddam, and was briefly detained then over some unknown infraction....

Khalid’s family belongs to the Albu Mu’alleg branch of the Mashhadanis. The Mashhadani’s believe that they are descended from Al-Hussein bin Ali, which would make them Hashemites."

Interestingly, Kazimi goes on to note:

"Both Iraq’s Vice President, Tariq al-Hashemi, and the Speaker of the Parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, who are the leading Sunnis in the Iraqi government, belong to the Mashhadabi tribe. I wonder how it would have passed their notice that one of their own is allegedly the head of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Qaeda’s candidate caliph."

BATTLE ZONE
US Forces Detonate Shells Without Incident
03/07/2007 3:44 PM ET
Baghdad, March 7, (VOI) - The Iraqi police said on Wednesday that U.S. forces set off explosives planted inside a primary school in eastern Baghdad after the forces had dismissed all the pupils unharmed.

"We have received reliable intelligence that militiamen planted explosives inside al-Nabaa primary school in Ur neighborhood," the source told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI).

The source added, "Pupils were dismissed unharmed while U.S. forces blew up the bombs."

There were no casualties but the school fence was damaged and some windows were broken in the operation, he added.

Slogger notes (Updated): The Arabic-language version of this story describes the explosives as "missile shells" that inside the school's front garden, and refers to them as "Austrian made." It is unknown at this time how the shells were delivered to the site, nor if they targeted the school or landed errantly.

Full Report PDF
New Report Addresses the Plight of Non-Sunni, Shia, or Kurdish Iraqis
03/05/2007 3:36 PM ET
Religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq are facing unprecedented levels of violence, and in some cases, risk being eradicated completely from their ancient homeland, according to a new report from Minority Rights Group International.

In a major survey of the plight of Iraq's minorities, the report finds that these groups - some of whom have lived in Iraq for over two millennia - are being targeted by Sunni, Shia and Kurdish groups as the battle for power and territory in Iraq intensifies.

The report titled Assimilation, Exodus, Eradication: Iraq's minority communities since 2003 outlines the precarious position of the country's minorities - Armenian and Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, Bahá'ís, Faili Kurds, Jews, Mandaeans, Palestinians, Shabaks, Turkomans and Yazidis - who make up ten per cent of Iraq's population.

According to Mark Lattimer, Director of MRG, 'Every day we hear news about the carnage in Iraq, yet the desperate situation of minority communities is barely reported. Subject to a barrage of attacks, kidnappings and threats from all sides, some communities which have lived in Iraq for two thousand years now face extinction.'

Religious communities are being targeted because of their faith. Christians are attacked often because they are believed to be associated with the West, while the Mandaean and Yazidi religions have been dubbed "impure" by Islamic extremists.

The flight of minority groups is immense - it is estimated that they make up a third of the 1.8m Iraqi refugees now seeking sanctuary across the globe.

But says Lattimer, 'Despite the fact that many Iraqi Christians fled because they were accused of association with the American or British forces, hardly any Iraqis have been offered refuge in the US or the UK.' MRG is calling on the international community, especially the UK and US, to share the refugee burden and not leave it to fall disproportionately on neighbouring states.

In oil-rich Kirkuk, minorities also find themselves under pressure, in advance of a 2007 referendum on whether Kirkuk should become part of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Minority representatives report that they are being pressured to support Kurdish political parties or to state their identity as Kurdish, which will strengthen Kurdish claims to land.

Preti Taneja, author of the report says, 'MRG is calling on the international community and the Iraqi government to recognize the special vulnerability of the country's minorities. This should be the basic starting point, if Iraq's minority groups are to survive the current onslaught.'

The full text of the report is available here.MRGIraqReport.pdf

News Magazines
Sistani, Iran Possibly Reigning in the Shia Militia
03/05/2007 11:23 AM ET
Iraqis chant slogans as they carry the coffin of a member of Moqtada Sadr (poster) Mehdi militia during his funeral in Baghdad's impoverished district of Sadr City, 18 December 2006.
WISSAM AL-OKAILI/AFP
Iraqis chant slogans as they carry the coffin of a member of Moqtada Sadr (poster) Mehdi militia during his funeral in Baghdad's impoverished district of Sadr City, 18 December 2006.

Moqtada al-Sadr has remained out of sight for the past weeks, and reports have indicated a drop in sectarian killings in his absence.

Newsweek's Rod Nordland reports that Sadr's low profile has resulted from Iranian pressure and the influence of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Nordland cites the Iraqi human rights minister Wijdan Salim as saying that Iran has been withholding advice and aid to Sadrists and pressuring them to stop the sectarian massacres: "Sadr is convinced that there's no real outcome of this struggle, and backfired," he says.

Nordland also recounts a Sistani-Sadr meeting of about a month ago where the Ayatollah reportedly presented his underling with his options:

Alarmed at the U.S. crackdown, Sadr had an 11 p.m. meeting with Sistani about a month ago, according to an aide to the grand ayatollah, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with practice in the cleric's office. "He asked the sayyid what he should do about the attacks against him, and told him, 'You have two options: bear the consequences, on you and Shias in general, or withdraw into a corner'."
Commentary
Iraq Oil Law Would Attempt Balance Between Regional, Central Control
By SANDRA HERNANDEZ 03/02/2007 3:16 PM ET
An oil tanker fills up at the port in Basra, southern Iraq, February 2007.
Essam al-Sudani/AFP
An oil tanker fills up at the port in Basra, southern Iraq, February 2007.

If a struggle for wealth and power lies at the heart of Iraq's sectarian violence, then a well-functioning oil industry and an equitable oil revenue policy may lie at the heart of national reconciliation. In the run-up to the 2003 invasion, U.S. officials predicted that oil finance the country's post-war development. That prospect languished as brain drain and insurgent sabotage eviscerated the oil sector.

Iraq's cabinet approved on Monday a draft law for the revival of Iraq's moribund oil industry, in a significant show of compromise among Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni lawmakers. However, key issues such as the ability of the oil producing Kurdish and Shiite regions to enter into contracts with foreign companies, and the distribution of revenues have yet to be elaborated.

Privatization or State Control?

At the heart of the bill is the provision that the governments of Iraq's oil producing regions - located in the Kurdish north and Shiite-dominated south - will have the power to negotiate production-sharing agreements with foreign oil companies.

Prevalent in Central Asia, production-sharing agreements (PSAs) generally assign ownership of the physical oil to the host country, while allowing foreign companies to manage and operate oil fields. Revenues from the oil are shared by the government and the oil company on a pre-specified basis.

Allowing regional governments to contract with international oil companies, with their abundant capital and technical expertise, "would allow the country to rehabilitate its oil sector more quickly -- thereby enriching the national coffers -- than were it to go the nationalization route," reports Radio Free Europe.

Alternet reports that the draft law, by allowing for production-sharing agreements, "would represent a u-turn for Iraq's oil industry, which has been in the public sector for more than three decades."

PSAs generally shift all financial and operational risk to the foreign oil company, and do not require the host government to invest its share of profits in further development. Depending on how they are designed, PSAs may be canceled or terminated, or they may be enacted into law to give the oil company greater security.

Writing for The Nation, Christian Parenti characterizes the legislation as "re-creating a single Iraqi National Oil Company, which will in turn dole out oil income to the regions on a per-capita basis." He takes a dim view of a proposed Federal Oil and Gas Council that would have veto power over all production-sharing agreements, noting that it will be "controlled by the prime minister" and will "effectively bypass Parliament."

The law would have "disastrous effects" by allowing for regional autonomy, Fadil Chalabi of the Centre for Global Energy Studies in London tells Al-Jazeera. "It will lead to fragmentation, it will have no central planning, no central policy-making authority - and if this is going to be the case, this law could negative effects on the oil industry in Iraq."

Sharing the Wealth

"All revenue from oil sales would go into a single national account," reports the LA Times, "but all regions and provinces would have a seat on an energy policymaking body, and provinces would receive shares of revenue and have control over how they spent it."

Voice of America reports that a not-yet-drafted "revenue sharing agreement" will determine how oil revenues are to be distributed, but it will most likely be based on "population distribution." The Nation's Parenti notes that this per-capita arrangement "might help de-escalate sectarian conflict."

Parliament Vote

The bill now goes to the 275-member Parliament, where the likelihood of its passage is "unclear," the AP reports.

Iraq and Turkey may have removed a potential obstacle to the law's adoption last week by shelving plans last week for a referendum on the autonomy of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk for another two years (see Azzaman report here).

However, Sunni lawmakers will almost certainly scrutize the bill's still-vague revenue-sharing provisions, while Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers may question the power of the proposed Federal Oil and Gas Council, with its power to veto regional contracts with foreign oil companies.

If the oil law does pass, it will by no means end the violence, incompetence, and corruption that paralyzes the oil industry and makes Iraq an abysmal investment climate for foreign oil companies - and there is little question that Iraq will need the latter's vast resources of capital, security, and technical expertise.

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