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U.S. Military
Senator's Upbeat Assessment Indicates He May Not Have Gotten Them
05/31/2007 3:49 PM ET
Baghdad, IRAQ: A picture released by the US army 31 May 2007 shows Senator Joe Lieberman paying an Iraqi vendor for a pair of sunglasses at a market in the New Baghdad neighborhood, 30 May.
STAFF SGT CURT CASHOUR/AFP/Getty Images
Baghdad, IRAQ: A picture released by the US army 31 May 2007 shows Senator Joe Lieberman paying an Iraqi vendor for a pair of sunglasses at a market in the New Baghdad neighborhood, 30 May.

Sen. Joe Lieberman visited Baghdad this week, offering a positive assessment of what he learned during his trip.

"Overall, I would say what I see here today is progress, significant progress from the last time I was here in December," the Connecticut senator reported, "And if you can see progress in war that means you’re headed in the right direction."

It's impossible to know what Lieberman was told in his conversations with Iraqi and American soldiers, but Leila Fadel reports for McLatchy what one group of soldiers had intended to communicate.

Spc. David Williams, 22, of Boston, MA, was chosen to have lunch with the Senator. The night before, about 30 fellow soldiers crowded around him to suggest questions they wanted Lieberman to answer.

He wrote them all down. At the top of his note card was the question he got from nearly every one of his fellow soldiers:

"When are we going to get out of here?"

The rest was a laundry list. When would they have upgraded Humvees that could withstand the armor-penetrating weapons that U.S. officials claim are from Iran? When could they have body armor that was better in hot weather?

Williams missed six months of his girlfriend's pregnancy when he was given six days' notice to return to Iraq for his second tour. He also missed his baby boy's birth. Three weeks ago, he went home and saw his first child.

"He looks just like me," he said. "I didn't want to come back. . . . We're waiting to get blown up."

Williams wasn't sure if he would say how he really felt. But if he could, he'd ask about body armor.

"I don't want him to snap his fingers to get things fixed," Williams said, referring to Lieberman. "But he has influence."

The Senator arrived wearing the sunglasses he'd just purchased on his one-hour heavily-guarded tour of a Baghdad market, telling the soldiers in his opening comments:

"I think it's important we don't lose our will," he said. "To pull out would be a disaster."

The soldiers smiled, stood with him for pictures and sat down to lunch.

It was unclear if they asked their questions.

As Lieberman walked out, he said that congressionally mandated withdrawal would be a "victory for al Qaeda and a victory for Iran."

"They're not Pollyannaish about this," he said referring to the soldiers. ''They know it's not going to be solved in a day or a month."

It isn't clear whether Williams mentioned the last line on his note card.

"We don't feel like we're making any progress," it said.

BODY COUNT
Roughly 20% Increase in Breast Cancer, Child Leukemia Since 2005
05/31/2007 11:59 AM ET
Unemployed widower Asif Muhammad, 32, received numerous offers of help from Slogger readers and is in Jordan now while his daughter Maysoon, 7, undergoes treatment for cancer.
Afif Sarhan/IRIN
Unemployed widower Asif Muhammad, 32, received numerous offers of help from Slogger readers and is in Jordan now while his daughter Maysoon, 7, undergoes treatment for cancer.

BASRA, 31 May 2007 (IRIN) - Recent studies by medical colleges, and statistics from local morgues and hospitals, have shown a higher than expected number of cancer-related deaths in Iraq's southern provinces. According to specialists, the main causes are the increased use of unsafe products in agriculture and the long-term effects of war on health.

Psychological stresses and strains engendered by years of conflict, violence, displacement and uncertainty have weakened people's natural resistance to disease. This has been compounded by the lack of skilled medical staff and poor facilities and equipment.

"Lack of treatment for cancer patients and outdated radiotherapy and chemotherapy techniques have led to lower survival rates of patients. The shortage of oncologists, who have fled to neighbouring countries, has worsened the situation," said Hussein Abdel-Kareem, an oncologist and senior official in the Basra Health Secretariat.

"Exposure to radiation from old cluster bombs, the high use of chemicals in agriculture as well as water contamination is having a serious impact on the health of local people, since these factors are important promoters of cancer related diseases. Many of the patients could have been treated but they died because of lack of facilities," Abdel-Kareem added.

Study

According to a study entitled The Increase in Cancer Cases as Result of War Debris - published in early May by Basra University Medical College with input from researchers at the Ministry of Health - cancer-related diseases are now one of the main causes of a large percentage of deaths in the southern provinces.

"At least 45 percent of deaths in the southern provinces are caused by cancer. Some patients develop related diseases which worsen their condition, leading to a faster death. The statistics are having a serious impact on the health system and urgent funds are needed," said Imad Hassan, a health specialist and member of the commission which produced the study.

"Southern governorates have been seriously affected by wars, especially in the past 20 years and it is a region in which chemicals and pesticides are used in fishing and agriculture," Hassan said.

He added that in Basra, Muthana, Dhi Qar and Missan governorates, the drinking water has been found to be unsafe and in some places, especially in and near rural areas, the water was highly contaminated, including with pesticide residues.

Leukemia, breast cancer

More cancer-related deaths among women and children have been found in Basra and Missan governorates, where leukemia among children has increased substantially by 22 percent compared to 2005, and where a lot of women have developed breast cancer, with the figures showing an increase of 19 percent compared to 2005, the study said.

"Over the years the local population has been exposed to the most serious radiation and chemical factors resulting from war, including the use of unsafe and cheap pesticides, and now we see the results," Abdel-Kareem said.

A number of children - some say at least three per day - are born in hospitals in the southern provinces without limbs or without organs. The phenomenon, specialists say, is a result of years of war. "We have had cases of children who showed cancer-related diseases after only four weeks of life," he added.

Specialists and the provincial heath secretary have called on the central government to provide funds to improve health services in the southern provinces.

"We need funds, new equipment and availability of medicines to try to save the lives of hundreds of innocent indirect victims of the war," Abdel-Kareem said.
UNDER FIRE
Iraqi Police Arrest Six Army Officers Under Suspicion of Involvement
05/30/2007 4:35 PM ET
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Unidentified gunmen near Karbala reportedly ambushed a Iraqi military convoy transporting money for the Army unit's salaries, making away with 350 million dinars (nearly $240,000) in the attack.

None of the Army officers were injured in the attack, causing police to arrest the men under suspicion of complicity in the robbery.

“Unknown armed men in three civilian cars managed to capture salaries of an Iraqi army unit, 350 million Iraqi dinars, in an ambushed prepared for two army vehicles,” an official, who asked not to be named, told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI).

“The gunmen stopped the two vehicles, which were carrying six officers, from a military unit in al-Nasr neighborhood, southwest of Karbala, disarmed them, confiscated the money and fled to unknown place,” the source explained.

“The police arrested the six officers and started an investigation on the incident,” he noted, adding no further details.

Fleeing Iraq
Internally Displaced Iraqis Fleeing Violence to Poverty of IDP Camps
05/29/2007 3:33 PM ET
Karbala, IRAQ: An Iraqi displaced child from the restive province of Diyala attends with his parents 25 April 2007, a photo exhibition organized by the province's displaced residents in the holy city of Karbala, central Iraq.
Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty
Karbala, IRAQ: An Iraqi displaced child from the restive province of Diyala attends with his parents 25 April 2007, a photo exhibition organized by the province's displaced residents in the holy city of Karbala, central Iraq.

BAGHDAD, 29 May 2007 (IRIN) - Escalating fighting and sectarian violence are forcing hundreds of families in Iraq to flee their homes on a daily basis, aid agencies say.

According to a report released on Sunday by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), an estimated 822,810 Iraqis are now displaced within their country.

Muhammad Abdul-Yassin, 39, was forced to leave his home nine months ago after continuous fighting near his home and being targeting by militias. He said he had to change his place of residence more than four times.

“There are no safe places in Iraq. Militants or insurgents find you wherever you are,” Abdul-Yassin said.

“Each time we arrived in a new camp, dozens of other families arrived with us. Most of the places are full to bursting and some of the displaced families are forced to sleep rough on the ground without tents until aid agencies can give them some protection and food. In the camp where we are staying now, we were forced to sleep in the open air for three days and drink dirty water because the aid agencies couldn’t reach us,” he said.

Contaminated water

“Displaced families in Anbar, Baghdad, Karbala, Najaf and all the southern provinces are suffering from a shortage of potable water,” a spokesperson for the Iraq Aid Association (IAA) said. “Some are drinking contaminated water and children can be seen nearly starving, requiring urgent water and food.”

The UNHCR report confirmed the above, adding that there was an urgent need for shelter, food and non-food supplies, as well as jobs.

Aid agencies say they face difficulties accessing IDPs many of whom face severe water shortages.

Unemployment

Unemployment remains the main cause of growing poverty among IDPs, according to Professor Jamal Obeidi, a displacement expert from Baghdad University and an analyst in the Ministry of Displacement and Migration.

“If at least one person from each family was working, they would have been earning money and been able to buy food for their families, despite the insecurity. The lack of jobs has put these families in the worst conditions,” Obeidi said.

Income and employment are reported as priority issues for 65 percent of IDPs, according to the UN-affiliated International Organisation of Migration (IOM).

Lack of food

Forty seven percent of displaced families in Iraq have no access to the national food programme, according to the country’s Ministry of Trade and the UNHCR.

“Lack of security has prevented families getting to warehouses and many others have moved to southern provinces which have been tardy in registering the newly displaced. Some areas cannot cope and lack food to give to the population,” said Maruan Muhannad, a senior official in the Ministry of Trade.

Obeidi recommended to the Ministry of Trade that it organise convoys to deliver food parcels directly to IDPs in displacement areas. “They could take the warehoused food which has no owner, fill a convoy and deliver directly to such families.”

“Our children are sick because they do not receiving enough food. They are eating badly because we cannot get our share of the national food programme since we got displaced a year ago and have lost our documents,” said May Kareem, 34, a displaced mother of three who lives on the outskirts of the capital.

“We cannot get food and cannot leave our place. If the government really wants to help, they could deliver food parcels to us,” she said.

April 2007 breakdown by UNHCR of the location of refugees who have fled Iraq.
United Nations
April 2007 breakdown by UNHCR of the location of refugees who have fled Iraq.
Only on Slogger
Hostages Freed by U.S. Forces in Baquba Offer Glimpse of al-Qaeda Tactics
By JANE ARRAF 05/29/2007 11:28 AM ET
Iraqi hostages freed last week in Baquba by U.S. forces wait at Iraqi security station.
Photo by Jane Arraf
Iraqi hostages freed last week in Baquba by U.S. forces wait at Iraqi security station.

Baquba - He wasn’t anyone rich, or important – he only sold used clothes for a living but they saw him smoking at the bus depot and that was enough for them to take him away.

He rolls up his pants to show me the scars inflicted during four days in captivity by suspected al-Qaeda members – this 24-year-old Iraqi man afraid to give his name and afraid to show his face on camera.

His legs are painfully thin from what appears to be a lifetime of near malnutrition. On his ankles, feet and hands are the raised round scars where he says his captors butted cigarettes out on his skin. He pulls up his striped cotton T-shirt to show me the same marks on his chest.

“They told me the Islamic State prohibits smoking,” he said. They were wearing masks, he said. When they checked his ID they found a Shiite name. They shoved him face-first into a car, blindfolded him and took him to the house in Baquba crowded with hostages.

Iraqi kidnapped by -- and later freed from -- al Qaeda shows his torture wounds.
Photo by Jane Arraf
Iraqi kidnapped by -- and later freed from -- al Qaeda shows his torture wounds.

The vendor was one of seven Iraqis rescued by soldiers from the 3-2 Stryker Brigade’s 5th Battalion 20th Infantry Regiment when they swept through an area of Old Baquba last week known as an al-Qaeda stronghold.

Nine others they were holding – including four Iraqi police – were shot dead just before the Americans arrived and the insurgents fled. Police officials here said two of the police who were killed at the house had been kidnapped the day before when they responded to a call that the Rafidayan bank in central Baquba was being robbed. In a grimly ironic Iraqi twist, the bank had no money in it, US military officials said.

“I heard the shots in the courtyard and I thought we’re going to be next,” said Abdul Karim Yahya who had also been held hostage. “We heard fighting all around us but I was afraid to try to escape – an hour later the Americans came.”

Yahya is Sunni but says he was kidnapped because his son is an Iraqi policeman – seen as traitors by Sunni insurgents “They told me they were going to wait until they found my son and then they were going to bring him here and kill him.”

Lined up in a row, some of the men looked ecstatic but most seemed dazed, sitting in hard plastic chairs in the waiting room of a joint security center for Iraqi and U.S. forces, waiting to be released.

“I told him to say he was Sunni,” Yahya said, pointing at Najah Hasan, a grim looking man wearing a red and white headscarf. “They would be able to tell it’s not true by the way I hold my arms when I pray,” Hasan said. “I asked them why did you take me and they said ‘because you are a Tamimi’” a prominent Shiite tribe, he said.

U.S. officials said the area of town and the fact that some of the hostages were killed pointed to al-Qaeda. Baquba is a volatile mix – A Sunni majority with a large Shiite population on a major route important to Iran. Al-Qaeda linked groups have declared the area the capital of their self-declared Islamic State in Iraq.

The head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. air strike just a few miles from here last year. His successor, despite twice being declared dead by the Iraqi government, is thought to be still alive. But intelligence officials say it doesn’t much matter.

“We didn’t see a big shift when we got Zarqawi,” said a U.S. military intelligence officer who did not want to be identified by name. “The fighters aren’t impacted as much by the leadership as we are.”

The real problem officials say is the ability of al-Qaeda to recruit a new generation of local members. While the leadership is still dominated by foreign fighters trained outside Iraq, the membership is increasingly young and home-grown – and therefore harder for coalition and Iraqi forces to eradicate.

“The real problem has become the ability of al-Qaeda to recruit – and their strength is to be able to pull more local fighters in....they know the terrain, they know where they live, they know who to kill and who not to kill,” said the intelligence officer.

She said she believed coalition forces should focus more on hindering al-Qaeda from recruiting and stopping the spread of terrorism rather than simply defeating al-Qaeda cells.

“So much of the focus is on the direct action piece – we need to kill al-Qaeda or these emirs (local al-Qaeda leaders). They make emirs everyday...You know we’ve been killing and killing and killing and all that does is cause more brothers and sisters (to turn to al-Qaeda),” she said. We need to focus on jobs and ‘how do we quit making it attractive.”

American and Iraqi officials say while al-Qaeda is able to draw marginalized young men with few prospects, when they don’t come willingly, they are using increasingly brutal recruiting methods.

“People used to be able to get by by saying ‘We’re with you’ and offer passive support by turning a blind eye to a lot of things that are going on. Now they say ‘you’re with us or against us’ and if you say ‘I’m with you’, they make you prove it,” the officer said.

She said one 15-year-old boy arrested in Baquba said he was kidnapped by al-Qaeda, raped and beaten and told they would kill his family unless he joined them. His first test was shooting someone, she said.

She said while US forces had discovered lists of fighters and weapons from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq indicating a relatively high level of organization, their inability to communicate between themselves meant that many of the al Qaeda cells were operating independently. Cell phone transmission towers in the area have been repeatedly blown up, hampering telephone service.

Officials described some of the al-Qaeda members as increasingly undisciplined, imposing rules of their own making - including fining vegetable vendors for displaying cucumbers and tomatoes together – deemed to be sexually suggestive.

Baghdad Buzz
Secret Dossier Lists 15 MPs Allegedly Guilty of "Ties to Terrorists"
05/25/2007 1:02 PM ET
Partisan politics make for a dirty game, but nowhere more so than in Iraq. Lt. Gen. Aboud Qanbar, the Iraqi in charge of the Baghdad security plan and the Interior Ministry, reportedly presented Prime Minister Maliki with a dossier of 15 parliamentarians who should be stripped of immunity and prosecuted for ties to terrorists last month.

Now the NY Sun's Eli Lake reports that one of the names on that list, Khalaf al-Ayan, is suspected of involvement in the April 12 Parliament bombing.

An American military official this week confirmed to The New York Sun that on April 3, American forces raided Mr. Ayan's house in Yarmouk and found stores of TNT that matched the kind used in the suicide belt that detonated on April 12 at the Iraqi parliament's cafeteria. That blast killed a member of parliament, Mohammed Awad, a Sunni Arab member of Mr. Ayan's Dialogue Front, yet the terrorist who killed him is believed to have been a member of Awad's security detail.

But the background on Mr. Ayan, who has threatened to return to "resistance" if the political process does not yield to the demands of his Sunni constituency, also implicates him in a string of attacks in Mosul on May 17 that detonated bridges and blew up a police station, according to one senior Iraqi Sunni official and an American intelligence officer who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the investigation. A raid last week on his parliamentary offices, in which American forces participated, yielded time-stamped before-and-after photos of the attacks, according to these sources.

An American military official conceded to Lake that only a handful of the names on Maliki's dossier of targets for prosecution had any serious ties to terrorism, but said Ayan was one who deserved to be charged.

Only on Slogger
Workers Warned Some Food Types to be "Severely Limited or Unavailable"; MREs?
By CHRISTINA DAVIDSON 05/23/2007 5:34 PM ET

All those working with "US Mission Iraq" -- embassy, consulate, and provincial reconstruction team employees and military personnel and contractors at State Dept.-funded facilities in Iraq -- are being warned of food supply disruptions, with some food types soon to be "severely limited or unavailable."

The memo gave no explanation as to why the food convoys have been delayed, but warned that their dining facilities (DFACS) would not be stocked as usual and that MREs might have to serve as a replacement for their regular food if the disruption was not soon corrected.

Though this memo only seems to apply those eating at cafeterias at US State Department facilities across Iraq, including US military personnel who eat at those cafeterias, news that food deliveries in Iraq are experiencing supply-side disruption theater-wide raises questions about whether US troops may be dealing with the similar supply challenges.

IraqSlogger has as yet been unable to determine how widespread the anticipated food shortage may be, but will update this story as more information comes available.

Food Delivery Delays

Transcript
Iraqi FM Boasts of Living in Red Zone, Claims Green Zone More Dangerous
05/23/2007 10:16 AM ET
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in Egypt May 4.
Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP-Getty
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in Egypt May 4.
In a wide-ranging interview on Australia's ABC TV network Monday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari made a striking claim: "The Green Zone is the most dangerous place in Iraq these days. So outside the Green Zone is much safer."

Such a startling assertion would surely be disputed by most Iraqis, US forces, and western journalists in the 99.9% of Iraq that is the so-called Red Zone.

In fairness, the Green Zone has come under increasing and increasingly effective attack in recent weeks in months, although on most days there are no killings in Baghdad's Green Zone.

Here is the exchange from ABC's "Lateline" program that prompted Zebari's comment.

TONY JONES: You're not at all worried that like so many Vietnamese who were backed by US military might that when the US finally pulls out you'll all end up having to be choppered out of the Green Zone to some safe third country?

HOSHYAR ZEBARI: Not indeed, not indeed, and for your information I don't live in the Green Zone, I live in the Red Zone you see, and I work and operate there for the last three and four years and there are thousands of Iraqis who work or operate outside the Green Zone. In fact the Green Zone is the most dangerous place in Iraq these days. So outside the Green Zone is much safer.

Amazingly, Zebari's assertion on the program went unchallenged.

Here is the transcript of the full, lengthy interview.

The Bush Plan
Coming Soon To A U.S. Official or Analyst Near You
By JANE ARRAF 05/22/2007 1:29 PM ET
MyRaq is a happy place.
Photo by David Furst/AFP/Getty Images
"MyRaq" is a happy place.

We were sitting on the banks of one of Saddam's man-made lakes on one of those lovely, fleeting early summer evenings last week. The lake is on a military base in Iraq and it was the kind of conversation usually accompanied by cigar smoke. There was a line I liked, I said, from Ali Allawi's recent history of Iraq - that the U.S. had tried to impose an 'imagined country' on the harsh realities of Iraq.

"He has a word for that!" said one of the officials - among the miltary's best and brightest.

"It's MyRaq ," said his uniformed colleague in a line so good it's a shame I can't quote him by name. "Capitol 'M ', small 'y' ,capital 'R'. It can be anything you want it to be."

In this MySpace nation, the line has particular resonance. The ability to create your own reality. So much easier to find solutions when you have complete freedom to reframe the problem.

At another base a mock campaign flag for the war in Iraq: "Partial Success/Total Failure".

And I'm still looking for one of the coveted coffee mugs with the tongue-in-cheek line beloved to those deployed here in 2003 and 2004: "We were winning when I left."

BATTLE ZONE
Photographer "Shoots" Gunmen Fleeing Attack on British Forces
05/21/2007 6:18 PM ET
Basra, IRAQ: Armed men run through the streets during brief clashes after gunmen ambushed a British military supply convoy in the Iraqi southern city of Basra, 21 May 2007.
Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty
Basra, IRAQ: Armed men run through the streets during brief clashes after gunmen ambushed a British military supply convoy in the Iraqi southern city of Basra, 21 May 2007.

A group of insurgents attacked a British re-supply convoy in Basra on Monday, sparking a fierce gun battle during which an oil tanker truck was set ablaze. The civilian truck driver died at the scene, and a British soldier, though evacuated for emergency treatment, did not survive his injuries.

Pictures uploaded by AFP/Getty appear to indicate that their photographer, Essam al-Sudani, captured shots of the insurgents in action, even catching the exposed face of one gunman whose mask fell away as he fled (above).

Basra, IRAQ: An armed man waits behind a building during brief clashes after gunmen ambushed a British military supply convoy in the Iraqi southern city of Basra, 21 May 2007.
Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty
Basra, IRAQ: An armed man waits behind a building during brief clashes after gunmen ambushed a British military supply convoy in the Iraqi southern city of Basra, 21 May 2007.

A statement issued by the British Ministry of Defence offers little detail about the attack, though Voices of Iraq cites a MNF statement that reported small arms fire and RPGs were both used against the convoy.

The BBC reports television pictures also showed jubilant Iraqis celebrating in the aftermath.

Major David Gell, a British army spokesman in Basra, said he was unable to confirm reports that Iraqis had dragged the civilians driver's corpse away from the burning truck and danced around it, flashing victory signs at press photographers.

"Some of the circumstances of events are still a little unclear," he said.

UNDER FIRE
Iraqi Christians Face Greater Danger as Sectarian Divide Widens
05/21/2007 1:10 PM ET
Arbil, IRAQ: An Iraqi Christian girl puts flowers on a statue of the Virgin Mary as she celebrates Palm Sunday in the northern Kurdish city of Arbil, 01 April 2007.
Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty
Arbil, IRAQ: An Iraqi Christian girl puts flowers on a statue of the Virgin Mary as she celebrates Palm Sunday in the northern Kurdish city of Arbil, 01 April 2007.

SULAIMANIYAH, 21 May 2007 (IRIN) - A Sunni extremist group - al-Qaeda in Iraq - has threatened to kill Muslim youths in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah should they convert to Christianity or Zoroastrianism.

“We are hunting those who have converted to Christianity or Zoroastrianism as we consider them renegades and God’s punishment must be implemented by killing them," said a statement posted on the al-Farouk website on 22 April and signed by al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The statement, whose authenticity could not be immediately confirmed, also urged the youth to join “ Mujahedin and hoist the jihad flag against the crusaders who are occupying Iraq, instead of supporting them.”

“We are not afraid of them; in fact, they are welcome if they want to kill us,” said Sabeer Ahmed, 37, who converted to Christianity seven months ago and works at Christ Church in the town of Pishdar in Sulaimaniyah province.

“We will be happy to be martyrs when we sacrifice ourselves for our religion,” said Ahmed who works as a freelance journalist with Kurdish media groups.

According to Ahmed, about 500 Kurdish Muslim youths have converted to Christianity since 2006 throughout Kurdistan. It is not known how many, if any, have converted to Zoroastrianism, once a dominant religion in much of Iran. The faith has now dwindled to very few followers.

Economic gain

Muslim residents of Sulaimaniyah say the conversions were motivated by economic gain, as many of the youths in the area are unemployed.

“Missionaries are exploiting the harsh economic situation that these youths experience in these areas as they are unemployed and almost depressed,” said Sheikh Hassan Abdullah, 57, one of the Sulaimaniyah elders.

“In some cases, the youths want to go abroad and this is an easy way to achieve their dream as they can say that they are threatened and need a safe haven," Abdullah added.

A priest in Sulaimaniyah, who refused to be named because of the sensitive nature of the issue, denied Christians were exploiting the harsh economic conditions of young people or that they were promising them material gains to convert to Christianity.

"We are not afraid of them; in fact, they are welcome if they want to kill us. We will be happy to be martyrs when we sacrifice ourselves for our religion."

“Those youths reached their decision after having become fully convinced about what Christianity teaches. They believe in Christ and nothing else and we’re sure of that,” the priest said.

“This is their decision and no one forced them to convert. We do not accept anyone who seeks only material gain,” he added.

Local officials in Iraq’s Kurdistan refused to comment.

Humanitarian aid “cover”

After the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Sunni and Shia religious leaders said that US missionaries, mainly evangelicals, were pouring into predominantly Muslim Iraq shrouded in secrecy or under the guise of providing humanitarian aid.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Shafie, a member of the hardline Association of Muslim Scholars in Sulaimaniyah, denounced it as a “negative phenomena in an Islamic country” and blamed the “weakness” of Islamic propaganda.

“We strongly condemn this disgraceful act against Islam and Muslims which demonstrates that there are hidden hands with foreign agendas to destroy the society of this country,” al-Shafie told IRIN.

“We have a real weakness in our Islamic propaganda owing to the difficult situation our country is facing, and that makes many of our youths convert to Christianity after defaming Islam as a terrorist religion,” he added without naming the foreign agents.

Another priest in Baghdad who also refused to be named said there had been “extensive efforts by US religious organisations immediately after the invasion of Iraq but now these efforts had faded as many churches were attacked and closed by extremists hunting down Christians.”

Following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the Jedda-based World Muslim League (WML) said that some “non-Muslim organisations” might exploit the humanitarian crisis in the country.

“Non-Muslim organizations are preparing to enter Iraq to start their activity under the cover of providing humanitarian aid, as they normally exploit crises, wars and tragedies, “WML Secretary-General Abdullah bin Abdumohsen al-Turki said.

He warned of “the dangers this poses to Muslims in Iraq” and called on the Iraqi people to adhere to Islam and to stay away from “ethnic and sectarian feuds.”

In March 2004, four US missionaries were killed in a drive-by shooting in the northern city of Mosul.
Stay Tuned
Shi'ite Leader Reportedly Suffering From High Blood Pressure
05/18/2007 3:47 PM ET
Shiite cleric Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council
Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty
Shiite cleric Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Shiite Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, has reportedly travelled the United States for a medical check-up, Iraqi government sources reported to the media on Friday.

"Sayyed Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim left Baghdad on Thursday heading for the U.S. to make a medical check up after suffering high blood pressure," Director of the public relations for the SIIC, Sheikh Hamid Maala, told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI).

Maala indicated that Hakim should have made the trip before his party's conference last week, but insisted on postponing the trip to the doctor until after the meeting.

The Associated Press reports an anonymous source in Hakim's office as saying the Shi'ite leader left for the United States on Wednesday.

Hakim reputedly smokes heavily, but is not known to have any serious health problems.

BATTLE ZONE
Gunmen Seize Social Security Money Intended for Poor Families
05/18/2007 12:38 PM ET
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Baaquba, May 17, (VOI) - Unknown gunmen on Thursday stole one billion Iraqi dinars ($ 860,000) from government accountants as they left a Diala bank with bags of cash, a security source said.

"Gunmen in four vehicles laid an ambush in central Baaquba for government accountants with one billion Iraqi dinars as a monthly social security program fund for poor families in Diala," the source, who asked not to be named, told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI).

He added, "The gunmen escaped with the equivalent of $ 860,000."

Baaquba, capital city of Diala province, is 57 km northeast of Baghdad.
Stay Tuned
Meeting Works to Develop Water Management Strategy
05/17/2007 1:11 PM ET
Baghdad, IRAQ: An Iraqi boy fills an urn with drinking water whilst a herd of buffaloes cool-off in the waters of the Diyala River east of Baghdad, 18 April 2007.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Baghdad, IRAQ: An Iraqi boy fills an urn with drinking water whilst a herd of buffaloes cool-off in the waters of the Diyala River east of Baghdad, 18 April 2007.

BAGHDAD, 17 May 2007 (IRIN) - The Iraq office of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has organised a three-day conference which ends today in Amman, Jordan, which establishes a water strategy in Iraq and will assist the government in developing its water management capacity.

In a statement on 15 May and emailed to IRIN, the UNDP said the principal aim of the conference was to highlight the major challenges facing the water sector and propose actions that include identifying a long-term strategy, strong coordination mechanisms and sound policies for water resource management.

"A country rich in resources that has two major rivers - the Tigris and Euphrates - yet bedevilled by years of conflict and war, the water sector in Iraq has faced a major deterioration in recent years," said the statement.

Like much of Iraq's other infrastructure, the national water networks have been allowed to fall into disrepair over the past 17 years largely as a result of the UN's economic sanctions during the Saddam Hussein era.

Sabotage, violence, disease

Iraq's water problems multiplied as the country's main water-treatment and pumping stations were stripped of vital equipment by looters immediately after the collapse of the regime in 2003.

Four years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the majority of Iraqis find it difficult to get safe water as acts of sabotage and violence have prevented the overhaul of water plants.

"Now sewage and effluent from government and private factories is being discharged into the rivers, and the lack of electricity and chemical agents make it very hard for water treatment plants to produce 100 percent potable water," said Ahmed Khalid al-Obeidi from Baghdad's health directorate.

"And that has caused many diseases like gastroenteritis, brucellosis, hepatitis and typhoid fever, now common among children due to bad drinking water," al-Obeidi added.

The UNDP statement said other contributing factors included "the serious lack of coordination between various public administration bodies, weak capacity to implement a national water resources plan and negotiate a more equitable share internationally, increasingly depleted resources and environmental degradation."

"No matter how challenging or grave the current events in Iraq might be, it is a national imperative for us to strengthen our capacity and establish a vision for managing our precious water resources. We owe it to our country and future generations," Iraq's minister of water resources, Abdellatif Al-Rashid, said.

The conference, which started on Tuesday, is being organised in collaboration with major donors, including the European Union, Canada and Australia as well as organisations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

Turkish dam

"There are challenges," said Jumaa Mohammed, an expert at the Ministry of Water Resources. "We need to reach more regional and international agreements to ensure the just sharing of water in accordance with international law to achieve ultimate benefits for the two neighbouring people and avoid conflicts."

One of these challenges, Mohammed added, is the massive dam which is being constructed by the Turkish government on the Tigris.

"The normal annual amount of water in the Tigris at the Iraqi-Turkish border is 20.93 billion cubic metres , but this amount will be reduced to 9.7 billion cubic metres per year when the dam is completed," Mohammed said.

"That will deprive at least 696,000 hectares of agricultural land of fresh water. And, of course, this will have a negative affect on agricultural production, potable water and electricity," Mohammed added.

The controversial Ilisu dam, located about 65km from the Iraqi border will be one of the largest dams in Turkey and is scheduled for completion by 2013.

Full Report PDF
Academic Writes Iraq on "Verge of Being a Failed State"
05/17/2007 12:52 PM ET
Basra, IRAQ: An Iraqi prepares to throw a tires into the flames at a demo against electricity cuts in the predominately-Shiite Iraqi southern city of Basra, 16 May 2007.
Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty
Basra, IRAQ: An Iraqi prepares to throw a tires into the flames at a demo against electricity cuts in the predominately-Shiite Iraqi southern city of Basra, 16 May 2007.

A leading British think tank released released a report on Thursday projecting an exceedingly dim outlook for the future prospects of stability in Iraq.

Dr Gareth Stansfield of The Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA), also known as Chatham House, writes that, "It can no longer be assumed that Iraq will ultimately survive as a united entity.... It can be argued that Iraq is on the verge of being a failed state which faces the distinct possibility of collapse and fragmentation."

The report takes issue with the idea that the surge has caused a reduction in violence, pointing out that car bombings have remained constant throughout, and posting that many armed groups are lying low and waiting for the right time to re-emerge.

Dr Stansfield argues that with the myriad conflicts in Iraq following societal, religious and political divides and often involving state actors, the multinational forces are finding it exceptionally difficult to promote security normalization. A political solution will require Sunni Arab representatives’ participation in government, the recognition of Moqtada al-Sadr as a legitimate political partner, and a positive response to Kurdish concerns. Further, Stansfield warns it would be a mistake to believe that the political forces in Iraq are weak and can be reorganized by the US or the international community, arguing there must be ‘buy-in’ from the key Iraqi political actors.

Stansfield writes that holding on to hopeful notions of the Iraq ideal makes it difficult to adopt a realistic view of the situation and affects the judgment of US and UK assessments. "The governments of the US and the UK...continue to struggle with their analysis of Iraq, in particular of the country's political and social structures. This analytical failing has led to the pursuit of strategies that suit ideal depictions of how Iraq should look, but are often unrepresentative of the current situation."

The report outlines the most important realities Stansfield says need to be taken into consideration in the formation of an effective strategy.

* The social fabric of Iraq has been torn apart.

* There is not ‘one’ civil war, nor ‘one’ insurgency, but several civil wars and insurgencies between different communities and organizations; there is also a range of actors seeking to undermine, overthrow or take control of the Iraqi government.

* Iraqi nationalisms exist, but one distinct ‘Iraqi’ nationalism does not. Iraq has fractured into regions dominated by sectarian, ethnic or tribal political groupings that have gained further strength from their control of informal local economies.

* Al-Qaeda has a very real presence in Iraq that has spread to the major cities of the centre and north of the country, including Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul. Although Al-Qaeda’s position is challenged by local actors, it is a mistake to exaggerate the ability of tribal groups and other insurgents to stop the momentum building behind its operations in Iraq.

* Regional powers have a greater capacity than either the US or the UK to influence events in Iraq. This arises from a historical legacy of social interaction and religious association that exists irrespective of modern international state boundaries.

* The Iraqi government is not able to exert authority evenly or effectively over the country. Across huge swathes of territory, it is largely irrelevant in terms of ordering social, economic, and political life. At best, it is merely one of several ‘state-like actors’ that now exist in Iraq.

* Security in Iraq cannot be ‘normalized’ in a matter of months but instead should be considered within a timeframe of many years. If the Multinational Force is withdrawn, Iraq’s nascent security services would not be able to cope with the current levels of insecurity.

According to Dr. Stansfield, "The coming year will be pivotal for Iraq. The internecine fighting and continual struggle for power threatens the nation’s very existence in its current form. An acceptance of the realities on the ground in Iraq and a fundamental rethinking of strategy by coalition powers are vital if there is to be any chance of future political stability in the country."

The report recommends a political solution that includes engagement with organizations and individuals possessing popular legitimacy--such as Moqtada al-Sadr--and asserts that it needs to be an Iraqi accommodation, rather than a regional or US-imposed approach.

BPIraq0507.pdf

Missing
Tipsters Could Earn 200,000 USD For Information on Missing Soldiers
05/16/2007 5:37 PM ET

BATTLE ZONE
Report Indicates New Joint Security Campaign Began Monday
05/15/2007 4:04 PM ET
A picture released by the US military 05 April 2007, shows a US soldier watching for enemy activity during a patrol, March 31, 2007.
Photo by AFP/Getty.
A picture released by the US military 05 April 2007, shows a US soldier watching for enemy activity during a patrol, March 31, 2007.

US and Iraqi forces reportedly commenced a new campaign to secure Diyala on Monday, with a report in the Iraqi press indicating that the strategy for the volatile province may be shifting from urban to rural areas.

"Forces from the Iraqi 2nd and 4th Divisions, backed by U.S. troops, started on Monday a wide-scale security campaign to track down armed groups all over the province," a source told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI).

The source explained that "the operation began by tracking down groups that have strongholds in the Hamrin mountains and in adjacent spots to the area of al-Aazim during the first phase," adding, "Large military divisions will participate in the operation in order to close all outlets to gunmen."

A few weeks ago, Slogger profiled what one American commander called the "miniature plan Baghdad" for Diyala.

An American officer said that its strategy involved imposing a version of the Baghdad security plan in Diyala. US forces are deployed inside the region’s cities as well as forming a ring around the outskirts of urban areas, to cut off the supply lines and routes of passage to militants.

The plan also involves forward deployment of US forces into smaller security bases in the urban areas of the province.

Based on this latest report, it looks as though coalition forces may be shifting resources from urban centers and moving out to comb the mountains for al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents.

The Hamrin mountain ridge stretches from southwest Kirkuk by the borders with Salah al-Din province to Diyala, with the majority falling under the administrative authority of Diyala. Inhabited by a blend of Arabs, Turkomans and Kurds, the area offers a relatively easy border-crossing into Iraq's neighboring countries.

VOI reported in late April that members of al-Qaeda in Iraq were rumored to be trying to take Hamrin mountain and others areas in the mixed province as strongholds to set up training camps for Arab and foreign fighters.

Rural areas in Diyala province feature a mix of rugged terrain, sprawling agricultural areas, and dense orchards, which have slipped out of the control of the central and provincial governments.

A government-commissioned report about the disintegrating security situation in Diyala sparked such a debate in Parliament last week that Thursday's session was called off after only 30 minutes of discussion.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responded to the criticism that his government was unable to provide security by announcing Sunday the creation of a new centralized joint command in Diyala, and his intent to increase the number of police and Army recruits.

Maliki also told reporters Sunday, "In the next few days we will increase the number of troops in the Iraqi Army...and the police on a significant level," without specifying how many security forces would be shifted to the restive province.

Earlier this week, a coalition of 280 local figures, including tribal, military, police, and academics, formed an organization known as the "Baquba Salvation Council" to fight against al-Qaeda in the province.

Last week, Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon told reporters at the Pentagon via satellite hook-up that he did "not have enough soldiers in Diyala province to move that security situation forward." Mixon, commander of Multinational Division-North, expressed satisfaction with the progress in the rest of his domain--Salah ad-Din, Kirkuk, and Sulaymaniyyah provinces--but said that Diyala has left his troops straining to combat the recent spate of violence.

The media widely reported on Sunday that at a press conference in Baghdad US spokesman General William Caldwell "announced that an additional 3,000 forces have been sent to Diyala province," as the Associated Press phrased the development.

Most accounts quote Caldwell as stating, "There is a recognition clearly that up in Diyala there's been an uptick in the violence there," then continue on to place Caldwell's comment of 3,000 additional troops in the context of Mixon's recent request for reinforcements, implying that the Army is responding to the needs of its commanders.

Upon closer examination, its clear that the press missed the more significant part of Caldwell's comment:

"There is a recognition clearly that up in Diyala there's been an uptick in the violence there, due to that fact, General Odinero made the decision to move an additional 3,000 US forces up there over the last six weeks."

If the 3,000 troops have been moved to Diyala "over the last six weeks," that does not necessarily indicate that any troops have been shifted in response to Maj. Gen. Mixon's recent request, or in preparation for the offensive that now appears to have begun.

BATTLE ZONE
More Than 5,000 Individuals Leave Home in Past Six Days
05/14/2007 5:03 PM ET
Baghdad, IRAQ: A young refugee who fled the violence-striken Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, stands under the flap of a tent set up by Iraqi Red Cross workers in Baghdad's al-Husseiniya area 12 May 2007.
Wisam Sami/AFP/Getty
Baghdad, IRAQ: A young refugee who fled the violence-striken Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, stands under the flap of a tent set up by Iraqi Red Cross workers in Baghdad's al-Husseiniya area 12 May 2007.

DIYALA, 14 May 2007 (IRIN) - Thousands of Iraqis have been fleeing Diyala province – and others fleeing villages from within the province - over the past week after an increase in attacks by armed groups and a major offensive by US and Iraqi troops.

Diyala province is a volatile but religiously mixed governorate to the northeast of Bagdhad.

“In the past six days more than 900 families, about 5,000 individuals, have fled Diyala governorate. Some of them were forced out by militants and others were scared of the clashes,” said Faris Abdallah, media officer for Diyala governorate office.

The villages of Khalis and Ambugiya have seen considerable sectarian violence and the number of internally displaced people is greatest there, Abdallah said, adding that most are Shi’a. Most of the families which have fled Diyala have headed to places outside the province such as the southern provinces of Najaf, Kerbala or Basra. Some have moved to outskirts of the capital, Baghdad, where camps those displaced from Diyala have been set up. Few families have also been internally displaced within the province.

Map showing Diyala province
Saeed Kudaimati/IRIN
Map showing Diyala province
According to the Iraq Red Crescent Society (IRCS), local people are facing an imminent humanitarian tragedy. Most fled their homes with only the clothes they were wearing. The IRCS said it was trying to help the newly displaced but volunteers were having access problems owing to the continued violence.

Religious extremists

According to Abdallah, Sunni insurgents have been establishing a Taliban-style rule over the local population in Diyala province and this has caused the death of dozens of residents, including women and children.

“They banned smoking and the consumption of any kind of product that might have been imported. Also, in some areas girls are prohibited from going to school as it is considered unnecessary; men cannot wear Western clothes and the Internet has been banned,” Abdallah noted.

Other humanitarian workers say the situation in Diyala is desperate.

“In some districts, people have been without food and water for more than five days as clashes continue and militants have forbidden them from leaving their homes. We have spoken by phone to some locals and they are desperate since they are looking after sick children and a heavily pregnant woman,” said Fatah Ahmed, a spokesperson for the Iraq Aid Association (IAA).

“We cannot get close to the area for security reasons and are being forced to witness the start of a new catastrophe for hundreds of families who were already living in poverty and who have nothing to eat or drink. If they don’t find a solution soon, we will start finding the bodies of people who have starved to death in their homes,” Ahmed added.
Only on Slogger
What's to Become of "Saddam's Hands" and Those Huge Swords?
By JANE ARRAF 05/12/2007 10:43 PM ET
Hands of Victory Momument before casts of Saddam's hands were removed from the swords, 2005.
Photo by Ahmad al-Rubaye
Hands of Victory Momument before casts of Saddam's hands were removed from the swords, 2005.

Baghdad - The giant bronze hands were so much a part of the Baghdad skyline that seeing them dismantled was as shocking as finding a mountain or river had disappeared.

They were said to have been cast by the German company commissioned to construct them in the image of Saddam Hussein’s own fists and forearms.

The crossed swords they held were fabled to have been manufactured from guns from Iraqi soldiers melted down and recast into the 12-story-high statue rising over the parade grounds and park in central Baghdad.

It was the end of the Iran-Iraq war. From 1980 to 1988 a million soldiers on both sides were killed. The dead included Iranian child soldiers. Almost an entire Iraqi generation was lost. At the end, Saddam Hussein told his people they had won a great victory.

And he built a monument not just colossal in size but almost breathtaking in its portrayal of brute power and brutality.

Helmets of dead or captured Iranian soldiers spilled from the baskets swinging from his fingers. Others were pounded into the road to be used as speed bumps.

Iranian Army helmets at the base of The Hands of Victory monument.
Photo by Jane Arraf
Iranian Army helmets at the base of The Hands of Victory monument.

So you might think that anyone would be happy to see the statue go. But it’s not that simple.

An Iraqi government committee of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds ordered the statue dismantled earlier this year. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki later suspended the work after protests. The hands though that held the swords are now bronze sheets curled on the ground.

A US soldier peers out of a statue depicting the hand of Saddam Hussein holding a sword at the famous Baghdad Victory Swords statue now located inside the heavily fortified Green Zone. November 19, 2005.
Photo by Karim Sahib/AFP-Getty Images.
A US soldier peers out of a statue depicting the hand of Saddam Hussein holding a sword at the famous Baghdad "Victory Swords" statue now located inside the heavily fortified Green Zone. November 19, 2005.

I asked an Iraqi Army officer this week what he thought of the statue being demolished. He didn’t think much of it. ‘How do we know they were Saddam’s hands? They were the Iraqi people’s hands,” he said.

The officer was Shiite. Like almost all Iraqi Shiites he wouldn’t have dreamed of identifying with neighboring Iran during the two countries' eight-year-war.

“The government says this is about Saddam but I think it’s really about not insulting Iran,” said another Iraqi officer.

 Bronze cast of Saddam's hand now stripped away from huge sword.
Photo by Jane Arraf
Bronze cast of Saddam's hand now stripped away from huge sword.

Saddam himself now lies buried in a simple grave near his home town of Tikrit. The hands that tons of metal were modeled after – the hands that wrote the orders for the war against Iran and the destruction of Iraqi villages, the hands handcuffed behind his back as he went to trial and then was led to his execution are moldering under ground.

And the parade ground? I covered parades there in the late 1990s where we would wait for hours for Saddam to show up to review the troops. We were kept at a safe distance and when he did arrive we were never really sure whether it was him or a double. Like the statue, even from a distance he always seemed larger than life.

But more often it was used as a park, where Iraqis would stroll with their families and picnic on Fridays.

Now it’s part of ‘the international zone’ - home to the US embassy and the Iraqi government and off limits to ordinary Iraqis.

Crushed soft-drink cans and water bottles have been thrown among the helmets embedded in the concrete base of the sculpture. It’s not clear whether the metal hands can be repaired. Or whether it will be melted down and turned into something new. A metaphor as much as a statue.
----------
You have a question for Jane Arraf? She's in Iraq on a month-long assignment for IraqSlogger, embedded with US forces. She'll answer questions from readers in a IraqSlogger column every Tuesday this month. Submit your questions any time via the green "Tips, Questions, and Suggestions" tab in the left column of the IraqSlogger home page.

Life Goes On
MPs Protest Exclusion From Decision Designating Oct. 3 Iraq's National Day
05/11/2007 3:23 PM ET
By Santa Michael
Baghdad, May 11 (VOI)- Iraq's political and cultural figures agreed that the Iraqi government's selection of October 3rd as the national day for the country was "right" but it should have gone through the parliament.

Fouad Massoum from the Kurdistan Coalition told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI) "Choosing October 3rd as Iraq's National Day was totally right as at that day Iraq gained independence from Britain in 1932 and joined the League of Nations."

However, Massoum, who belongs to the second largest parliamentary bloc, noted that the selection should have gone through the parliament, the official body which determines official occasions and holidays.

Samiera al-Mousawi from the Shiite Unified Iraqi Coalition, the largest parliamentary bloc, agreed with Massoum saying "the cabinet surprised us with this decision as the parliament's culture committee is the body assigned for determining such things."

"Selecting that day may be good and appropriate but it needs studying, voting and passing through the parliament," she explained.

Another lawmaker, Safiya al-Suhail, from the secular Iraqi National List, said that "the day coincides with Iraq's historic glories and refers to what our grandfathers achieved for the country."

"We are proud of our glorious history and emphasize on the importance of independence and our revolution that led to gain independence (referring to 1920 revolution that broke out all over Iraq). Selecting a day is something good as it reminds us with the strong Iraq, which was capable of undertaking steps like what had happened in 1932. It is a historic day and everyone of us is proud of ," the parliamentarian also said.

Al-Suhail, the member in the fourth largest bloc, voiced hope that selecting the National Day could help motivating political parties and giving a push to the ongoing political process as it would remind them of Iraq's shining history.

"We hope that we will unite our political will and make decisions in the good for national interest," she noted.

Political analyst and legal expert, Tareq Harb, said that the cabinet has to prepare a draft resolution and send it to the parliament to study it and pass it later.

"As long as there is a law that organizes official occasions and holidays, these occasions could not be changed without another law," he added.

"Selecting the October 3rd as Iraq's National Day ends controversy over what day should be chosen as the National Day. There were many shining days in Iraq's history to select from like the al-Eshreen (1920) revolution day, Coronation of first King in modern Iraq and the day the republic was declared in Iraq," Harb said.

"In that day Britain officially ended its occupation in Iraq and the country became a member in the League of Nations," the legal expert explained.

Meanwhile, Political, cultural and media figures agreed that the cabinet was right in selecting the day when Britain ended it presence in Iraq to be Iraq's National Day.

Al-Motamar daily Editor in Chief Lo'ay Saud said "it is Iraq's independence day and it has to be a national day since it should be considered a historic day in Iraqis' life."

Iraqi plastic artist, Moayad al-Haydari, said that "choosing the day when Iraq entered to the League of Nations may be the most appropriate option for being Iraq's National Day."

Iraq's cabinet agreed during its ordinary session this week to select October 3rd as Iraq's National Day.

"Selecting October 3rd as Iraq's national day coincided with declaring Iraq's independence, ending the British presence in Iraq's territory and accepting Iraq as a member in the League of Nations," read a statement of the office of the cabinet's official spokesman.

"The day will be a national holiday throughout Iraq," the statement added.
The Latest
Iraqi President Says Foreign Troops Required Until Iraq Can Recruit Own Army
05/11/2007 11:37 AM ET
London, UNITED KINGDOM: British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) bids farewell to Iraq's President Jalal Talabani (2nd R) and members of his delegation after a meeting at 10 Downing Street in London, 11 May 2007.
Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty
London, UNITED KINGDOM: British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) bids farewell to Iraq's President Jalal Talabani (2nd R) and members of his delegation after a meeting at 10 Downing Street in London, 11 May 2007.

Iraq will need U.S. and British troops to help with security for another one to two years, President Jalal Talabani said on Friday.

"I think in one or two years we will be able to recruit our own army forces and say goodbye to our friends," Talabani told students at Cambridge University in England.

Reuters reports that after his speech, Talabani told reporters he wants the US Congress to reconsider votes to set a date for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

"We are concerned. We hope that Congress will review this decision and help the American army to stay until the Iraqi army will be ready, to train them and to protect the state of Iraq," he said.

At a joint news conference with the British Prime Minister earlier in the day, Tony Blair faced tough questions about his decision to support the US invasion of Iraq.

Blair announced his resignation this week, and it is widely believed that his policy decisions regarding Iraq, which ran counter to the wishes of a vast majority of the British public, will leave a dark stain on his legacy.

On Friday, Blair again defended his decision to send British troops to Iraq, but conceded that "things could have been done differently" after the overthrow of Saddam

"But I don't think that alters the basic point of what is happening in Iraq today," he added.

President Talabani told Blair, "I would like to tell everyone that we in Iraq look to you as one of the heroes of the liberation of 27 million Iraqis from the worst kind of dictatorship.

"This big historical achievement, of course it has its costs, but I am sure that the history will show the realities of the importance of liberating Iraq."

SURGE CREEP
Mixon Says Recent Spate of Violence Straining His Soldiers
05/11/2007 10:15 AM ET
Joe Raedle/Getty

"I do not have enough soldiers in Diyala province to move that security situation forward," Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon told reporters at the Pentagon via satellite hook-up from Iraq Friday morning.

Mixon, commander of Multinational Division-North, expressed satisfaction with the progress in the rest of his domain--Salah ad-Din, Kirkuk, and Sulaymaniyyah provinces--but said that Diyala has left his troops straining to combat the recent spate of violence.

The last brigade of "the surge" is scheduled to arrive in a few weeks, but Mixon, while not articulating an exact number, indicated that his current needs exceed the capacity of the surge.

Baghdad Buzz
"Child Labor" Means Something Different in War Zone
05/10/2007 5:11 PM ET
Baghdad, IRAQ: Iraqi children play football at an empty street in central Baghdad, 27 April 2007.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Baghdad, IRAQ: Iraqi children play football at an empty street in central Baghdad, 27 April 2007.

BAGHDAD, 10 May 2007 (IRIN) - Eleven-year-old Seif Abdul-Rafiz and his two brothers were left with no choice but to leave school and work so as to help their unemployed parents make ends meet.

Unable to find a job, Seif resorted to making bombs for Sunni insurgents who are fighting US troops in Iraq.

“We work about eight hours a day and are supervised by two men. They give us food and at the end of the day we get paid for our work. Sometimes we get US $7 and sometimes we get $10, depending on how many bombs we make,” Abdul-Rafiz said.

“The bombs are used to fight American soldiers. I was really afraid in the beginning but then my parents told me that it was for two good causes: the first is to help our family eat; and the second is to fight occupation forces,” he added.

Thousands of poor children in Iraq are forced to work to help their families. Many of them work in one way or another for a variety of armed groups that operate in the war-torn country.

“If I had choice, I would have preferred to be in a classroom but we need to eat. In the beginning, they were very kind with us but later they started to threaten us, saying that if we leave our work they would kill our family,” Abdul-Rafiz said.

According to NGO the Iraq Aid Association (IAA), reports from Anbar province and two mainly Sunni neighbourhoods of the capital show that children from poor families are helping insurgents make bombs.

“They are in direct contact with dangerous chemicals which when wrongly handled can result in their death. We have secure information that at least three children have died making bombs,” Fatah Ahmed, IAA spokesman, said.

But Abdul-Rafiz said that hunger was worse than anything.

“My mother cries every day we go out to make bombs but my dad prays for us and tells us to go because he cannot find a job. And the insurgents don’t let him work with them because he was injured in an attack a year ago and they consider him useless,” he said.

No choice

Insurgents say children work faster, are cheaper to hire than adults and attract less attention from security forces.

“They need to work and we have jobs. We don’t force them to come but if they come, they should work hard. If they do their job well, they won’t suffer any harm,” said Abu Katib, who says he teaches more than 40 children in Baghdad how to make bombs.

“We’re near them all the time. They work in safe conditions and rarely get burned by the chemicals they work with. If that does happen, we have nurses and a doctor for them,” he added.

"The families are aware of what their children are doing so we cannot be blamed for something that even the children’s parents agree to."
Abu Katib said that by giving poor children jobs, they would at least be helping their families to eat.

“The families are aware of what their children are doing so we cannot be blamed for something that even the children’s parents agree to,” the bomb-making instructor said.

Keeping Children Alive (KCA) president Ali Mussaw has called on the government and international organisations to intervene to save the lives of hundreds of children countrywide who work as bomb-makers and risk serious injury or death when handling dangerous chemicals.

“Someone should be able to help them. It’s disastrous. Their rights aren’t being recognised but the solution should be aimed at the roots of the problem,” Mussawi said.

Militia threat

“They came to our house asking for our two boys to work with them. We refused in the beginning but later we had to accept because they threatened to take away our two daughters if we disagreed,” said Bari’ah Hassan, 42, a mother of five from the Sadr City neighbourhood.

More on Iraqi children

“They know we don’t have money and my husband was killed months ago. I was forced to accept and each morning my children leave home to help them,” she added.

Bari’ah told IRIN that her children get US $3 per day of work. The job varies. Sometimes they clean guns; sometimes they carry explosives from one place to another while avoiding the police; and sometimes they cook for the militants, she said.

“I was scared in the beginning but now with my two boys working with them I have at least US $5 a day to buy food and can feed my daughters. I know that it is dangerous but unfortunately it is what the US troops have brought to us,” Bari’ah added.

IRAQ PARLIAMENT
Iraqi MPs in Session for 30 Minutes Before Speaker Calls Off Session
05/10/2007 11:11 AM ET
Baghdad, IRAQ: Parliament Speaker Mahmud Mashhadani (C) speaks during a special session in Baghdad, 13 April 2007.
Ceerwan Aziz/AFP/Getty
Baghdad, IRAQ: Parliament Speaker Mahmud Mashhadani (C) speaks during a special session in Baghdad, 13 April 2007.

Iraqi Parliament called off its session on Thursday only a half-hour after the day's business got underway when a heated argument broke out between parliamentarians.

The conflict was sparked by discussion of a report prepared to examine the security situation in Diyala, which had been commissioned after its residents staged a protest in Karbala.

According to VOI, the report submitted to parliament revealed that during one year in Diyala 11,200 people were killed, 9,500 families displaced, 8,250 women widowed, 16,500 children orphaned, 66 Shiite tombs destroyed, 350 groves set on fire and an equal number looted. The report also blames US forces for the deteriorating security situation.

Discussion over the report led legislator Shatha al-Mousawi, from the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, to call the government "weak" in its inability to provide security.

She also voiced calls for House Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani to summon Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to attend the session for further discussions on the deteriorating security situation. However, Mashhadani thought things were getting a bit out of control and canceled the rest of the day's deliberations instead. Mashhadani has called for Parliament to re-adjourn on Saturday.

This is the second day this week that Parliament has been called off. On Tuesday, a blackout caused that day's session to be cancelled after technicians failed to restore power.

IN THE STREETS
NGOs Estimate 20% Increase Since Beginning of 2007
05/10/2007 10:44 AM ET
AFP/Getty

BAGHDAD, 9 May 2007 (IRIN) - The increase in drug abuse among children and youths in Iraq is worrying specialists who say continued violence is responsible for the rising number of users - something that is compounded by the easy availability of different narcotics.

"Investigations by local NGOs showed an increase, compared to the beginning of this year, of at least 20 percent in drug abuse among children and youth," said Ali Mussawi, president of the local NGO Keeping Children Alive (KCA).

"In our preliminary reports, released in February 2007, there were more cases of addiction among street children but today the numbers have changed and there are more addicted children from the middle class," Mussawi added.

Mussawi said a survey was undertaken by five local NGOs working on children’s issues. They interviewed 1,535 people – children and their families – in central and southern areas of the country. The interviewees were from the areas most affected by drugs.

According to Mussawi the main reason for the rise in the number of children and young people using illicit drugs has been the psychological effects of violence. It is violence, specialists say, which has led to children finding easy ways to forget about the loss of their loved ones.

"Nowadays, you can find drugs being sold near school entrances in many districts of the capital and some children even smuggle drugs into school," Mussawi added. "We have informed the police about the situation but they say that are too busy with the daily violence to deal with such matters."

"Psychological stress"

UNICEF reports from the field suggest that substance abuse is becoming more of a phenomenon amongst Iraqi children.

''Nowadays, you can find drugs being sold near school entrances in many districts of the capital and some children even smuggle drugs into school.''

"Their environment makes them more vulnerable, with an increasing number ending up on the streets after being displaced, orphaned or separated from their families. Many are also living with intense psychological stress as a result of the ongoing violence," said Claire Hajaj, communication officer at UNICEF Iraq Support Centre in Amman (ISCA).

"We don't have specific programmes for tackling drug abuse in Iraq - but we do focus on providing support for children who are vulnerable to exploitation and harmful practices such as drug abuse - including psychosocial support for displaced children or children separated from their parents, re-integration programmes for children living on the street, care for children injured by landmines and UXOs , and assistance for orphaned children," she added.

Case study

Mas'ud Rafiq, 12, is a clear example of the drug usage increase in Iraq. Receiving support from KCA, the youth said he started to consume marijuana with his 14-year-old brother and then found from two of his school friends that it was easily available.

"They told me that the seller comes daily at our school gate and they buy from him very cheaply. I was using my pocket money to buy it. One day I got really sick and told my mother who looked for help as I was suffering from withdrawal syndrome and was in need of urgent help," Rafiq said.

Mussawi said sniffing glue or solvents from liquids such as paint, which have large amounts of intoxicants, were the most common forms of drug abuse among children but recently they have started smoking marijuana and cocaine.

Child beggars proliferate in Baghdad

"Drugs were forbidden before and were never available. Today you just have to go to crowded places or in any street of the suburbs to find them and unfortunately they are very cheap," Mussawi said.

Drug abuse amongst children and adolescents is a worldwide phenomenon, not limited to conflict zones. Tackling drug abuse in any country is complex and difficult - and needs to involve the full spectrum of families, communities, and national health, education, legal and social services.

"Providing these services in peace-time can be challenging - but in times of conflict and population movement, the challenges multiply exponentially," Hajaj said.

BATTLE ZONE
VP Holds Rally for Troops at Camp Speicher Before Leaving
05/10/2007 10:34 AM ET
Baghdad, IRAQ: US Vice President Dick Cheney (L) meets with Gen. David Petraeus (R), commander of US forces in Iraq at the US embassy in Baghdad, 09 May 2007.
Gerald Herbert/AFP/Getty
Baghdad, IRAQ: US Vice President Dick Cheney (L) meets with Gen. David Petraeus (R), commander of US forces in Iraq at the US embassy in Baghdad, 09 May 2007.

Dick Cheney's unannounced stopover in Iraq turned into a 29-hour stay, as the Vice-President spent the night on a US base near Tikrit Wednesday, holding a rally for US troops before boarding a plane to Abu Dhabi to continue his Middle East tour.

Cheney slept in the "distinguished visitors quarters" at Camp Speicher, a sprawling desert outpost seven miles from the northern city of Tikrit, and had breakfast with soldiers on the base.

Later, he spoke to several thousand mostly Army forces under a huge tent, where he took the chance to thank them for their service and acknowledge the hardship endured by troops and their families.

AP reports that Cheney was enthusiastically cheered and greeted when he stepped up on stage, but only politely applauded when he talked about deployment extensions.

"Many of you have had your deployments extended," Cheney told the soldiers. "I want you to know the extension is vital to the mission. The Army and the country appreciate the extra burden you carry."

"We're fighting a war against terror," Cheney said. "We are here, above all, because the terrorists who have declared war on America and other free nations have made Iraq the central front in that war."

Cheney's had lunch with Petraeus before leaving on Air Fore Two. The unannounced stopover in Iraq launched a week-long tour of the Middle East during which Cheney will meet with leaders in the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

BATTLE ZONE
Environmentalists Warn Source of Food, Water Being Destroyed
05/08/2007 12:56 PM ET
BAGHDAD, Iraq: Iraqis fish in the Tigris in central Baghdad.
Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty
BAGHDAD, Iraq: Iraqis fish in the Tigris in central Baghdad.

BAGHDAD, 8 May 2007 (IRIN) - The River Tigris has long been a symbol of prosperity in Iraq but since the US-led invasion in 2003, this amazing watercourse has turned into a graveyard of bodies. In addition, the water level is decreasing as pollution increases, say environmentalists.

Pollution in the river is caused by oil derivatives and industrial waste as well as Iraqi and US military waste, they say.

The river was one of the main sources of water, food, transport and recreation for the local population but after four years of war and pollution, it has been transformed into a stagnant sewer, according to environmentalists.

"The situation is critical. The river is gradually being destroyed and there are no projects to prevent its destruction," said Professor Ratib Mufid, an environment expert at Baghdad University.

"A large part of the river has been turned into a military area, forcing families to leave their homes around the riverbanks and close restaurants. Fishermen are prohibited from fishing where the river passes through the capital and all vessels are banned in the area," Mufid said.

The river is contaminated with war waste and toxins, and residents of the impoverished Sadr City suburb are often left with no alternative but to drink contaminated water from the Tigris. This is why, specialists say, many Sadr City residents are plagued by diarrhea and suffer from recurring kidney stones.

In the hot dry summer months, when the water level drops, mud islands can be seen, and water levels appear to be decreasing every year.

"The problem of decreasing water flow starts in Turkey's Taurus mountains. Between there and Kurdistan, many dams have been built which help to decrease the water flow. The idea was to prevent floods which over the years affected northern communities, but the consequence can now be seen with nearly half the previous water flow," Seif Barakah, media officer for the Ministry of Environment, said.

Ban on shipping, fishing

Military forces have banned shipping and fishing in the river, and many families who depend for their income on fishing have been deprived of their means of survival.

"Many fishermen have been killed trying to fish at night because they encountered insurgents looking to plant bombs on the riverbanks. It is still possible to find some men trying to fish, but it is rare," Barakah said.

During the day, military boats can be seen making their daily patrols, and in more secure areas, such as those near the fortified Green Zone, snipers are on guard 24 hours a day preventing insurgents from entering the zone.

Dead bodies

Every day local police haul bodies from the Tigris bearing signs of torture. Locals who live near the river constantly see floating bodies.

The situation is even worse in Suwayrah, a southern area of the capital, where the government has built barriers with huge iron nets to trap plants and garbage dropped in the river but now this is also a barrier for bodies.

"Since January 2006 at least 800 bodies have been dragged from those iron nets, and this figure does not include those collected from the central section of the river. Most of the bodies are unidentified and buried without family claims," said Col Abdel-Waheed Azzam, a senior officer in the investigation department of the Ministry of Interior.

According to Azzam, 90 percent of the bodies found in the river show signs of serious torture. "Because of the state of the bodies, it is not useful to try to have an autopsy done, and if the bodies are not claimed within 24 hours they are automatically buried," he said.

Highly polluted

During Saddam Hussein's regime people caught dumping garbage in the river were punished, but today mountains of rubbish can be seen on the riverbanks; and these affect the normal watercourse and pollute the area.

"With dams decreasing the water flow, the salt level rises and in conjunction with the high level of pollutants dumped in the river by northern cities, this reduces oxygen levels, making an unpropitious environment for any living being," Barakah said.

Fishermen said that years ago it was easy to catch a fish in the river but today even if you use nets it is practically impossible to catch a fish and many can be found floating, having died of pollution and lack of oxygen.

"Today, the only fish you can catch are those floating and which died from pollution after ingesting toxic waste and eating rubbish," said Ateif Fahi, 56, a fisherman in the capital, Baghdad.

Baghdad Buzz
Source of Power Outage Remains Undetermined
05/08/2007 10:51 AM ET
Iraqi Parliament
Ceerwan Aziz-Pool/Getty Images
Iraqi Parliament

Iraqi MPs got an unexpected day off Tuesday, after a power outage left the Parliament building in darkness.

Though blackouts are a common plague throughout Baghdad, they don't usually affect the Green Zone, where the Parliament building is located.

Reuters reports that the lights went out just as the members were entering the hall to begin morning session. After waiting for the problem to be resolved for a couple of hours, officials decided to postpone the session until Wednesday.

The cause of the blackout has yet to be determined.

Investigation
Yazidi Teen Stoned Near Mosul for Converting to Islam
05/04/2007 3:40 PM ET

The Kurdish Regional Government is calling on the Iraqi federal system of justice to aggressively investigate the "honor killing" in early April of a 17-year-old Yazidi girl in Bashika, near Mosul in Nineveh province. The girl's death reportedly led to the reprisal massacre of more than 20 Yazidi factory workers a couple of weeks later.

Doaa Aswad Dekhil (also reported as Dua Khalil Aswad), a 17-year-old Yazidi girl, had converted to Islam to marry a Sunni man.

On April 7, Doaa went to the home of a Sunni sheikh, but was told that her relatives had contacted him and that she must return home, VOI has reported . Instead, she was stoned in the street by nearly two-thousand people, as confirmed by eyewitnesses, while police and army forces cordoned off the area and denied access to journalists.

The KRG government issued a statement this week calling on the central government to pursue the killers, and condemning the acts:

"The murder of Dua in a so-called honour killing is a tragedy for her family and the entire community in Kurdistan. There is no justification whatsoever for this crime. Dua’s death and the subsequent retaliation against the Yezidi community are a reminder to all of us, as individuals and as a society, that we have to continue to fight against the violent and archaic mindset that sadly persists today."

Bashika, in Nineveh governorate, is not a part of the Kurdistan Region and therefore does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The Kurdistan National Assembly (parliament) in 2002 repealed articles in Iraqi law which allowed for “honour” killings to go unpunished. Since then, there have been at least 40 convictions for such crimes in the Kurdistan Region, and at least 24 cases are awaiting trial, illustrating both the extent of the problem and the steps that the KRG is taking to address it.

Diplomatic Buzz
Secretary of State "Said Hello" to Iranian Delegation
05/03/2007 11:18 AM ET
Sharm El-Sheikh, EGYPT: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attends the opening of an international conference on Iraq, 03 May 2007 in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty
Sharm El-Sheikh, EGYPT: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attends the opening of an international conference on Iraq, 03 May 2007 in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Condoleezza Rice met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem on the sidelines of the international donors conference in Egypt on Thursday, in the first such high-level contact between the countries in more than two years.

Though the conference was organized to coordinate international assistance for Iraq, the potential of an exchange between the US and its two prime antagonists, Iran and Syria, has steered the focus of anticipation for the event.

Reuters is now reporting that witnesses saw Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit escorting Moualem to a meeting with Rice.

A U.S. official told Reuters that Rice wanted to talk mainly about security on the Iraqi-Syrian border, not about Lebanon or attempts to prosecute those who killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005.

Rice emerged from the meeting after about 30 minutes to tell journalists that she had urged Syria to stem the flow of foreign fighters crossing their border into Iraq, saying she had let Moalem know that "action will speak louder than words".

Earlier Thursday, U.S. military spokesman Major-General William Caldwell told a Baghdad news conference that there had been a recent decline in insurgent transit through Syria. "There has been some movement by the Syrians ... there has been a reduction in the foreign fighter flow making their way into Iraq, as we have observed here over the last month," Caldwell said.

Expectations are still high that Rice could meet with Iranian representatives at the conference, though thus far they seem to have done little more than acknowledge each others' presence.

Rice and the Iranian foreign minister "exchanged pleasantries" over lunch, according to the Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. "They said hello, that's about it," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

The Latest
Spokesman Says Reports May Confuse Death of Other Qaeda Leader
05/03/2007 10:02 AM ET
A TV grab taken from Al-Iraqiya shows the body the Iraqi Interior Ministry reported to be that of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi in an undisclosed location, 03 May 2007.
AFP/Getty
A TV grab taken from Al-Iraqiya shows the body the Iraqi Interior Ministry reported to be that of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi in an undisclosed location, 03 May 2007.

Days after the still-unconfirmed reports of the killing of Abu Ayyub al-Masri, more confusion has arisen on contradictory reports of the death of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the head of the militant organization "Islamic State of Iraq."

The state-run satellite channel al-Iraqiya aired footage Thursday of what Iraqi officials said was the corpse of Abu Omar al Baghdadi, and a spokesman for the interior ministry said earlier that the ministry had received the body of the leader of the self-styled "Islamic State in Iraq" armed group.

"The interior ministry has the body of the militant," the state-run television quoted the spokesman for the interior ministry Brigadier Abdul Karim Khalaf as saying.

The US has said it is unable to confirm the killing.

The station had earlier reported that al-Baghdadi was killed in the Ghazaliya region of western Baghdad, though did not give further details.

A “very informed security official” told Buratha News that the corpse was believed to be Baghdadi’s, the SCIRI-linked agency reports in Arabic.

The body was recovered Thursday morning in the Su'ad al-Naqib Mosque in the Ghazaliya area by forces of the sixth division of the Iraqi army. The source said that images of the body matched “pictures of the criminal al-Baghdadi” that Iraqi Interior Ministry intelligence possessed, the source said, according to Buratha News.

The Iraqi Defense and Interior Ministries used the knowledge of those in custody, and others, to confirm that the body belonged to al-Baghdadi, the source added.

However, Major-General William Caldwell, chief spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, told a news conference, referring to Baghdadi, "We have nobody in our possession ... alive or dead, who is going through testing at this point."

Caldwell also said, "We don't know anybody that does" have the bodies of either al-Baghdadi or of Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the leader of al-Qaida reported killed on Tuesday.

In addition to these unconfirmed reports of Baghdadi's death in Ghazaliya, the Iraqi interior ministry has also offerred conflicting versions of the claimed events. Al Sumeria TV also reported that Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Kamal announced Thursday that joint US-Iraqi Forces killed al Baghdadi in combat in "Northern Iraq," without specifying the date, also asserting that al Baghdadi’s body is being held by the authorities.

Abd al-Latif al-Jubouri

Caldwell did confirm that the US killed another suspected al-Qaeda leader in recent days during security operations north of Baghdad, and indicated that some confusion may have arisen from misidentification of the photos.

Baghdad, IRAQ: A picture displayed 03 May 2007 at a press conference in Baghdad given by US Major General William Caldwell, commander of the Multi-National Force Iraq, shows a man idenitified by the US military as a senior Al-Qaeda figure in Iraq, the information minister, whom he identified as Muharib Abdulatif al-Juburi, killed on 01 May in an area just north of Baghdad.
AFP/Getty
Baghdad, IRAQ: A picture displayed 03 May 2007 at a press conference in Baghdad given by US Major General William Caldwell, commander of the Multi-National Force Iraq, shows a man idenitified by the US military as a senior Al-Qaeda figure in Iraq, the "information minister", whom he identified as Muharib Abdulatif al-Juburi, killed on 01 May in an area just north of Baghdad.

Caldwell described Muharib Abdul-Latif al-Jubouri as al-Qaida's information minister, and said he had been killed on Tuesday while trying to resist being taken into custody in an operation west of Taji air base. Jubouri's identity was originally surmised through photo identification, but has now been confirmed through DNA testing, he reported.

Caldwell said that the US believes that Jubouri's killing led to a mistaken announcement on Tuesday that Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, had been killed.

Caldwell suggested that the confusion resulted from the release of Abdul Latif's body to a tribal member for burial. The tribesman was arrested at police checkpoint as he left the city with the corpse, he said.

Iraqi officials have claimed Jubouri and Baghdadi to be one and the same, AFP reports, adding to the confusion. However, US spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Chris Garver said that US forces could not say if the two men are the same.

"There is no evidence to link Latif to Baghdadi," he said. "Could he be? Possible. Can we prove it? No."

Since so little is known for certain about the militant's true identity, it's difficult to accept any assessment without hesitation.

Caldwell says the military believes Jubouri to have been involved in the kidnapping of Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll, Tom Fox, a Christian Peacemaker found shot in Baghdad in March 2006, and two Germans kidnapped in January 2006.

On Thursday, mourners gathered at al-Jubouri's house in Duluiyah, 45 miles north of Baghdad, as a huge funeral tent was being erected in the street, police said.

Confusion still surrounds the reported death earlier this week of Abu Ayyub al-Masri. Regarding al-Masri, Caldwell said Thursday "we in fact do not have in our possession nor do we know of anybody that has anybody or person at this time that we think is him."

"His overall status whether he is dead or alive is actually unknown to us at this point," he added.

The Latest
Investigators Hear Testimony About Commander Charged With Treason
05/01/2007 6:49 PM ET
Lieutenant-Colonel William Steele, the former commander of Camp Cropper currently undergoing an Article 32 hearing in Iraq, allowed detainees privileges because they had not been found guilty of any offense and he felt empathy for their plight, John Nocella, special agent with the U.S. military counter-intelligence directorate in Baghdad told investigators on Tuesday.

Reuters reports that according to Nocella, Steele came to his office in early February and admitted that he had been violating protocol.

Chief Investigating Officer Colonel Elizabeth Fleming also heard testimony about what investigators found when they searched Steele's living quarters.

Special Agent Thomas Barnes, the U.S. military's senior fraud investigator for Iraq and Afghanistan, said he was shocked by the amount of classified material they discovered--up to 65 documents and piles of CD-ROMs.

"I'd never seen that amount of classified material not properly stored, not properly labeled and not properly protected," Barnes told investigators by telephone from the United States.

"In my opinion the documents that were found were extremely sensitive to the army's mission in Iraq. I believe if those documents were compromised it could have been devastating."

Yesterday's testimony saw Lieutenant-Colonel Quinten Crank, whose unit took over from Steele's on Oct. 5., testifying that Steele arrived during a family visitation day after phoning to say he had "college material" for a detainee's daughter.

He said he saw Steele having a conversation with the daughter of "a high-value detainee".

"He gave her a box containing some computer programmes and computer sheets," Crank told the investigation.

Steele, commander of the 451st Military Police Detachment, faces a range of charges that include fraternizing with a prisoner's daughter, illegally storing and marking classified material, maintaining an inappropriate relationship with an interpreter, possessing pornographic videos, failure to obey an order, dereliction of duty regarding government funds, and providing an unmonitored cell phone to detainees--the act that earned him the charge of treason.

Fleming, who is conducting the case against Steele, could conclude by recommending that no action be taken, that some or all of the charges be dismissed or that a court-martial be held, among others.

Her report will be forwarded to Steele's commanding officer, Col. Michael Galloucis, commander of the 89th Military Police Brigade, who will then forward his own recommendations to the No. 2 American commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno for a final decision.

UNDER FIRE
Little Known "Office of the Commander in Chief" the Power Behind the PM
05/01/2007 1:29 PM ET
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty

New accusations emerged today accusing the office of Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki of pursuing a sectarian agenda in enacting the Baghdad security plan, specifically highlighting the role of one "Office of the Commander in Chief," a 24-person team established four months ago ostensibly to advise Maliki on military matters.

US military sources tell CNN that the office is abusing its power, increasingly overriding decisions made by the Iraqi Ministries of Defense and Interior and potentially undermining the entire U.S. effort in Iraq.

According to a U.S. intelligence source cited by CNN, the Office is "ensuring the emplacement of commanders it favors and can control, regardless of what the ministries want."

A senior Iraqi army officer who is seeking help from the senior U.S. command also reported that. "The Office is not supposed to be taking charge like this. It's overstepping its role as an advisory office. It's not a healthy thing to have. It's people with no power who want to have power."

The Maliki government has been quietly purging officers from the Iraqi Army and national police, some of whom were “too aggressive” in confronting Shi'a militias, according to US military documents first revealed Monday by the Washington Post. Joshua Partlow reported that although the Iraqi government appears to have cited “legitimate”reasons for the dismissal, detention, or forcing out of 16 officers, US officials maintain that the Maliki government is purging the officer corps of officer who have been aggressive in combating the Mahdi Army.

Maliki’s office denied the allegations, saying that the government is implementing the security plan in the national interest. The Interior Ministry gave a similar denial. US officials’ concern centers on the Office of the Commander in Chief, which advises the Iraqi prime minister on security affairs, and within that office on one official in the office, Bassima Luay Hasun al-Jaidri, who, US officials say, has a Shiite agenda who uses her influence to intimidate, harass, and work for the dismissal of “nationalistic and fair” Iraqi commanders.

Iran Factor
Iran's National Security Advisor Blames US "Friends" for Assisting Insurgents
05/01/2007 12:42 PM ET
NAJAF, IRAQ: Iran's top security official Ali Larijani speaks to the press after his meeting with Iranian-born cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, central Iraq, 01 May 2007.
Qassem Zein/AFP/Getty
NAJAF, IRAQ: Iran's top security official Ali Larijani speaks to the press after his meeting with Iranian-born cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, central Iraq, 01 May 2007.

Ali Larijani, Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, emerged from a meeting with revered Shi'ite cleric Ali al-Sistani in Najaf on Tuesday with harsh words for the US, and defending his country against charges that Tehran assists the insurgency.

Larijani told reporters that countries who seek security and stability in the region have no choice but to support the elected Iraqi government.

"The Americans themselves know Iran has been supporting the political process in Iraq. The Americans also know from which countries those terrorists come to Iraq," said Larijani.

"These terrorists have come from countries that are friends of the US."

Larijani also said the violence which has plagued Iraq, is a result of the actions of the US.

"Without a doubt, the terrorist operations which rock Iraq are due to mistaken American conduct which give rise to wayward reactions," he said.

The Iranian official also committed a billion dollars in financial assistance to Iraq: "We are ready to carry out economic plans in Iraq and for this we have allocated $1 billion of credits," Larijani said, adding that it could include oil and other energy projects.

Larijani, on the second day of a three-day visit to Iraq, also confirmed attendance at the upcoming Iraq conference in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, though declined to comment on any plans to meet with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Rumors continue to circulate through the Arabic press that Larijani's trip was intended to secure the release of five Iranians held by the US since January, possibly in an exchange intended to secure Tehran's participation in the conference.

Baghdad Buzz
Local Groups Organizing to Feed Families Living in Poorly-Supplied IDP Camps
05/01/2007 10:48 AM ET
Baghdad, IRAQ: Iraqi displaced children play outside a camp for displaced people in Baghdad's al-Karrada neighbourhood, 25 March 2007.
Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty
Baghdad, IRAQ: Iraqi displaced children play outside a camp for displaced people in Baghdad's al-Karrada neighbourhood, 25 March 2007.

BAGHDAD, 1 May 2007 (IRIN) - Some families in Baghdad have started working together to collect food and essential items for displaced people living in makeshift camps on the outskirts of the capital - an initiative that has been welcomed by local NGOs.

"The idea came from a child who was missing two of his friends who were displaced. His family decided to take the child to visit them. When they got back home he asked his mother to send some food to his friends' families. His mother then spoke about it to a neighbour of theirs as the situation of the displaced was desperate," said Sa'ad Ruweidi, one of the organisers of the project.

"Since then, hundreds of families have been collecting food and other items from their neighbours to send to camps for IDPs . These items have been helping the displaced survive, as NGOs are not able to cope and with the increase in violence are scared to go to such areas," Ruweidi added.

Despite its extremely volatile situation, Baghdad has more displaced people living there than any other city in Iraq, with about 120,000 people displaced since February 2006, according to a recent report by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI). It added that many of these were displaced from within Baghdad.

Six neighbourhoods of the capital, with relatively less violence than others, are participating in the initiative.

"Every day we collect enough to fill five cars. Some women cook and we take fresh food to the families who are so happy to be able to eat the hot meals we bring them," said Ruweidi.

Fatah Ahmed, spokesman for NGO Iraqi Aid Association (IAA), said the families who are helping the displaced have changed the image of present-day Iraq and have helped NGOs, which are struggling to assist so many displaced families.

"Everyone should be aware of this initiative. If every neighbourhood in Baghdad does the same, we will have fewer children suffering from malnutrition and fewer men will become criminals to support their loved ones," Ahmed said.

Children also participate in the project by helping their relatives carry the collected items and going to the displacement camps to help distribute them.

"I feel so good helping those families. The looks on their faces when we arrive are amazing - they become so happy," Muhammad Haddi, a 14-year-old resident of Mansour district, said.

Local NGOs have been supporting the initiative and have been offering supplies to add to those already collected.

According to Ruweidi, the project will be replicated in cities such as Kerbala, Najaf and Kirkuk.

Religious leaders from four Baghdad neighbourhoods - Sunni-dominated Yarmouk and Mansour in western Baghdad, religiously mixed Harthiya, also in western Baghdad, and religiously mixed Arassat in the city's east - have been asking congregations during Friday prayers to participate in the project. Donations for assisting the displaced are kept in the local mosques or at the houses of organisers.

"It shows how Iraqis are brave not only in defending their country but also in helping their brothers in need. We're having success with the daily delivery of food items, which has helped many families to survive under such terrible violence," said Sheikh Abdallah Aydan, a religious leader from a mosque in Yarmouk district.

The Latest
Iraqi, US Officials Stress Reports From Sunni Tribes Have Yet to Be Confirmed
05/01/2007 10:24 AM ET
BBCBaghdad, IRAQ: (FILES) This file picture shows a grab taken from a video broadcast 01 October 2006 by the Iraqi government in Baghdad showing Al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri.
Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty
BBCBaghdad, IRAQ: (FILES) This file picture shows a grab taken from a video broadcast 01 October 2006 by the Iraqi government in Baghdad showing Al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

Confusion has begun to temper earlier reports that al Qaeda in Iraq leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, has been killed in a firefight between his followers and Sunni tribes north of Baghdad.

Earlier wire reporting cited various Interior Ministry representatives stating that Masri had been killed, but government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh has since clarified for Iraqiya state television:

"This does not represent an official government announcement but is only information that reached the Iraqi Interior Ministry about internal fighting between groups and within al Qaeda."

Dabbagh also added that "DNA tests should be done and we have to bring someone to identify the body. We will make an official announcement when we confirm that this person is Abu Ayyub al-Masri."

Us military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said they had not yet confirmed reports of Masri's death, stating "We are in discussions with the Iraqis over how they obtained this intelligence. If we do have a body, we are going to conduct DNA tests, and that will take several days. If there is no body, that makes it harder."

Interior Ministry spokesman, Brigadier-General Abdul Kareem Khalaf, earlier told Reuters that Masri was killed in a battle near a bridge in the small town of al-Nibayi, north of Baghdad.

"We have definite intelligence reports that al Masri was killed today," he said.

Both Khalaf and another Interior Ministry source said the Iraqi authorities did not have Masri's body, but the source added that "our people had seen the body".

Khalaf also told Iraqiya in a phone interview that, "We have strong intelligence that he was killed in clashes today" near the town of Taji, he said. "The clashes took place between groups within al-Qaeda. Our forces were not involved."

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, citing security and intelligence reports, also told Reuters he understood Masri had been killed on Monday.

Masri took over from Abu Musab al Zarqawi after the insurgent leader's death in June 2006, and the US has had a $5 million reward on his head.

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