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Baghdad Buzz
Iraqis Offer Their Own Security Assessment of Baghdad Neighborhoods
By ZEYAD KASIM 06/30/2007 00:55 AM ET
Baghdad, IRAQ: An Iraqi rides his bicycle past the wreckage of a car at the site of a car bomb in Baghdad's Al-Kadhimiyah district, 28 June 2007.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Baghdad, IRAQ: An Iraqi rides his bicycle past the wreckage of a car at the site of a car bomb in Baghdad's Al-Kadhimiyah district, 28 June 2007.

In their distinctive style of morbid humor, resourceful Baghdadis are circulating emails presenting their own personal assessment of the security situation in the capital. The detailed lists of what neighborhoods and areas are safe and what to avoid completely, because of Mahdi Army or Al-Qaeda activity or the random car bomb, are quite different from those found in Iraqi government or U.S. military statements. As many parts of the capital have become no-go zones for members of either the Sunni or Shia sect – or sometimes for both, it is a challenge for Baghdadis to identify areas where they are able to move freely and areas where they should better stay out.

The following is a translation of one such email making the rounds among residents of Baghdad and on Iraqi Web forums. The sarcastic email, which was written in Iraqi slang, attempts to classify the districts of Baghdad based on their level of danger. According to the author, the safest neighborhoods are the ones where the odds of staying alive are 50%:

The situation in different areas of Baghdad in regard to takfiri gangs of the new age: Al-Qaeda, the Mahdi Army, and their spiritual leaders – the forces of liberation.

fall into four different categories: safe, relatively safe, dangerous, and relatively dangerous. They are classified as follows:

- A safe area: where the probability of you staying alive is 50%.
- A relatively safe area: where the probability of you staying alive is 40%.
- A relatively dangerous area: where the probability of you staying alive is 30%.
- A dangerous area: where the probability of you staying alive is 20 to 10%.

Here we go:
- The Bayya’ garage, the periphery of Bayya’: No one can ever reach them because the Mahdi Army is randomly abducting people and killing them for what they say is in retaliation for the husseiniya bombing a week ago.
- Shu’la: No one can reach it.
- Thawra (Sadr City): No one can reach it.
- Sha’ab: No one can reach it.
- Amil: No one can reach it.
- Jami’a and Khadhraa’: No one can reach them because Al-Qaeda fled Amiriya and Yarmouk and took refuge there.
- Mishahda north of Baghdad: No one can reach it because of the presence of gangs that collectively burn people alive.
- Jadiriya is relatively safe.
- Karrada is relatively safe.
- Mansour is relatively safe.
- Harthiya is safe (because of the presence of Kurdish militias).
- Yarmouk is relatively safe.
- Amiriya is dangerous.
- Adhamiya is relatively dangerous (in some parts of it) but there are constant clashes.
- Kadhimiya is safe.
- Grai’at is relatively dangerous.
- Utaifiya is safe.
- Haifa Street is relatively dangerous.
- The highway that connects Amiriya with the Baghdad gate is relatively dangerous.
- Ghazaliya is relatively dangerous because of clashes.
- Iskan is safe.
- Alawi is relatively dangerous.
- The Suq Al-Arabi area is relatively safe.
- Dora is not under the authority of the Republic of Iraq. It is currently an Islamic emirate complete with its own Islamic departments and ministers. Islamic CDs have been distributed to residents to explain the laws of the emirate.
- Saidiya is dangerous.
- Camp is relatively safe.
- Baladiyyat is safe.
- Jisr Diyala is dangerous.
- Arasat is safe.
- Masbah is safe.
- Baghdad Al-Jedida is relatively safe.
- Jezirat Baghdad is dangerous.
- Abu Ghraib is relatively dangerous.
- Mashtal is relatively safe.
- Qadisiya is safe.
- Hurriya is dangerous.
- Dola’i is dangerous.
- Adil is dangerous.
- Zayouna is safe.
- Washash is relatively dangerous.
- Bab Al-Sharji is relatively dangerous.
- Sa’doun Street is relatively dangerous.
- Waziriya is relatively safe.
- The Mohammed Al-Qassim highway is relatively safe.
- Bab Al-Mu’adham is dangerous.
- Fadhl is dangerous.
- The Baghdad International Airport highway is relatively safe.
- Hutteen or Qudhat is relatively safe.
- Ma’moun is relatively safe.
- The Dora intersection is dangerous.
- Abu Nuwas Street is safe.
- The Baghdad-Ba’quba road is bloody dangerous.
- The Green Zone is safe, and sometimes it is dangerous.

I apologize if I left out any areas of our beloved Baghdad but I’m writing and racing with electricity at the same time.

As to Iraqi governorates:
- The north of Iraq is safe, except the Ninewa governorate, which is dangerous.
- The northern center governorates are relatively dangerous.
- The southern center governorates are relatively dangerous.
- The governorates of the south are safe, except for Diwaniya and Basrah, which are relatively dangerous.
- The west is relatively safe, except for the western highway , which is dangerous sometimes.
- The governorates of the east are all dangerous.

Map by Zeyad Kasim

The Latest
Dulaimi: Legal Proceedings Against Culture Minister Hashemi Must Halt
06/29/2007 2:16 PM ET
Baghdad, IRAQ: A picture dated 24 June 2007 shows Iraqi Sunni Minister of Culture Asad Kamal al-Hashemi attending a ceremony in Baghdad to honour journalists who were killed in acts of violence in Iraq.
Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty
Baghdad, IRAQ: A picture dated 24 June 2007 shows Iraqi Sunni Minister of Culture Asad Kamal al-Hashemi attending a ceremony in Baghdad to honour journalists who were killed in acts of violence in Iraq.

The Sunni Accordance Front will suspend participation in the cabinet until the government halts legal proceedings against one of its leading members, the head of the three-party Sunni coalition, Adnan al-Dulaimi, announced Friday.

"We have suspended our membership in the cabinet until the government puts an end to procedures being taken against Culture Minister Asaad Kamal Hashemi," Dulaimi told Reuters by telephone from Amman where he is on a visit.

"We have told our six ministers not to attend cabinet meetings until the government halts these legal steps."

Iraqi security forces attempted to serve an arrest warrant Monday night against Hashemi, charging him with acts of terrorism.

Two suspected militants reportedly fingered Hashemi as the mastermind of a Feb. 8, 2005, ambush against then-parliamentary candidate Mithal al-Alusi, according to governmental spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. Al-Alusi escaped unscathed but two of his sons were killed in the attack.

"The two who planned and carried out the killings of Mithal al-Alusi's two sons confessed that they took orders from him," al-Dabbagh said Monday.

Yesterday, Mithal al-Alusi accused the US embassy of shielding Hashemi from arrest by not ordering security contractors to allow Iraqi police entrance to the al-Rashid hotel, where Hashemi is rumored to be hiding.

Today, the NY Sun reports Alusi planned to hand deliver a letter to the American Embassy in Baghdad Friday, asking President Bush to order Ambassador Ryan Crocker to assist.

The Latest
Mosques Spread Word During Friday Prayers: Government Can't Protect Us
06/29/2007 10:43 AM ET
Baghdad, IRAQ: An Iraqi Shiite weeps after a cleric announced that the march to Samarra was postponed during the weekly Friday Prayers at Musa al-Kadhim's shrine in Baghdad's Al-Kadhimiyah district, 29 June 2007.
Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty
Baghdad, IRAQ: An Iraqi Shiite weeps after a cleric announced that the march to Samarra was postponed during the weekly Friday Prayers at Musa al-Kadhim's shrine in Baghdad's Al-Kadhimiyah district, 29 June 2007.
Moqtada al-Sadr has decided to cancel next week's planned march to Samarra, the Imam of the al-Kufa mosque announced during Friday services.

According to VOI Sheikh Assad al-Naseri said that “Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr issued an order to cancel our march to Samarra after the government decided to abandon protection for the visitors.”

A number of mosques announced the latest development during Friday prayers, facing shouts and, occasionally, tears as worshippers reacted to the news that the July 5 march was being called off. Naseri directed the enmity at the Maliki regime, telling his followers at the al-Kufa mosque, “If the government is no longer able to protect citizens it has to step aside.”

Just Thursday, Sadr released a statement pledging the march would go forward as a demonstration of Iraqi unity.

"We want Iraqis, tribes, community leaders and officials to show goodwill and cooperation to make this visit successful and a turning point in broken relations because those criminals who destroyed the shrine will not be pleased (by this march)," said the statement from Sadr's office in Najaf.

Al-Sadr appealed to the entire spectrum of religious and ethnic groups, saying "We hope that this year will be good for Iraqis when they get closer to each other by breaking all the barriers that were placed by the occupiers and takfiris."

Maliki's office publicly responded with a formal statement saying more time is needed to secure the road to Samarra.

"While we take into account the emotion of people who want to march peacefully to Samarra, we say that the task of securing the road is still incomplete according to reports from field leaders on the ground," the government statement said.

The Coalition
Downer Reassures Iraqi, US Leaders in Baghdad Visit
06/29/2007 10:06 AM ET
Baghdad, IRAQ: Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer (L) meets Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (R) in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, 28 June 2007.
AFP/Getty
Baghdad, IRAQ: Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer (L) meets Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (R) in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, 28 June 2007.

The Australian government is committed to a long-term presence in Iraq, foreign minister Alexander Downer said he told the Iraqi government after a visit with US and Iraqi officials in Baghdad on Friday.

"I made it clear that Australian troops would stay,'' Downer told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio following talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

With campaign season underway, Australian Prime Minister John Howard has been facing sharp criticism from political opponents for his support of the Iraq war, a widely unpopular policy decision for most of the public. Labor leader Kevin Michael Rudd has pledged to enact a staggered withdrawal of the 515 Australian troops still based in southern Iraq if elected prime minister.

"The Labor Party is saying the Australian Government's thinking of just pulling the troops out before the election for political reasons. We are not doing anything of the sort," Downer said.

"I made it very clear to the Iraqis while I was there that we wouldn't abandon them. It was for us a very important component of geopolitics that extremism in Iraq was defeated and that was a very, very difficult challenge and not to be underestimated, as is the case in Afghanistan as well, and that we were not going to walk away."

Downer reported that US and Iraqi officials expressed distress at the ongoing level of violence in Iraq, but optimism that the situation is improving.

"There is no doubt about that. The Prime Minister is obviously very concerned about it and (US forces commander) General (David) Petraeus, who I spent a good deal of time with... is as well," he said.

"I was heartened by some of General Petraeus's analysis, which was that the Americans feel they are making very good progress now against al-Qaeda."

Downer also said all the troops had just gotten in place for the surge and that it was too early to really discern what kind of impact the strategy was having.

"They haven't finished deploying the troops. We will have to give it plenty of time," he said.

"It's not a time at this stage to make that judgment. I made the point to the Prime Minister that it is very important that the Iraqis take this whole process of reconciliation further forward and do it more quickly than they are the moment. They have got a lot of work to do, in particular reconciling between the Shia and the Sunnis."

Baghdad Buzz
South American Contractors Reportedly Barred Iraqi Police From al-Rashid Hotel
06/28/2007 09:45 AM ET
Baghdad, IRAQ: A picture dated 24 June 2007 shows Iraqi Sunni Minister of Culture Asad Kamal al-Hashemi attending a ceremony in Baghdad to honour journalists who were killed in acts of violence in Iraq.
Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty
Baghdad, IRAQ: A picture dated 24 June 2007 shows Iraqi Sunni Minister of Culture Asad Kamal al-Hashemi attending a ceremony in Baghdad to honour journalists who were killed in acts of violence in Iraq.

As'ad Kamal al-Hashemi, the culture minister being charged with acts of terrorism for a 2005 attack on Iraqi MP Mithal al-Alusi which killed his two sons, has been in hiding since Iraqi security forces raided his house in attempt to arrest him on Monday night.

Now Mithal al-Alusi is charging the US embassy with shielding Hashemi from arrest. As Eli Lake reports for the NY Sun:

Mr. Alusi said the wanted man, As'ad Kamal al-Hashemi, had fled to al-Rashid Hotel inside the American-protected international zone in the center of Baghdad. Iraqi national police on Tuesday went to this location, only to be told by the South American mercenaries guarding the al-Rashid compound that they could not enter the grounds of the hotel where Mr. Hashemi was staying. Mr. Alusi then called the office of the American ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, to ask the Americans to order the guards to allow the national police to enter the premises. He was, in so many words, refused.

"I called Ambassador Ryan Crocker's office today and yesterday and they did not give any kind of answer. They are playing with us. They say this is an Iraqi issue, we are not going to be involved. And normally this is a very good attitude, but not when it stops us from arresting terrorists," Mr. Alusi said.

According to Lake, an American officer close to the situation reported that US troops had been ordered by Petraeus to accompany Iraqi forces serving the arrest warrant on Hashemi Monday, but the Pentagon ordered them to turn back en route.

Lakes writes, "On the way to his home, the GIs were ordered to turn around after the Pentagon decided no Americans should be involved in the arrest. 'The order was overturned in Washington,' the officer said."

Diplomatic Buzz
Future US-Iran Contacts, Detention of Iranians Top Items for Discussion
06/26/2007 5:19 PM ET
Tehran, IRAN: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (L) shakes hands with his Iraqi counterpart Jalal Talabani during the latter's welcoming ceremony upon his arrival in Tehran, 26 June 2007.
FARS/Getty
Tehran, IRAN: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (L) shakes hands with his Iraqi counterpart Jalal Talabani during the latter's welcoming ceremony upon his arrival in Tehran, 26 June 2007.

Iraqi president Jalal Talabani arrived in Tehran Tuesday for talks with senior Iranian officials, and a visit with SCII leader Abdul Aziz al Hakim, currently undergoing a second round of cancer treatments in Iran.

Expected topics for discussion include expanding bilateral economic ties, increased cooperation on security matters, the prospect of future US-Iran contacts, and the detention of five Iranians by US forces in Iraq.

Iraq's ambassador to Iran, Mohammad Majid al-Sheikh, said Monday in advance of Talabani's arrival, "We prefer to form a joint security committee among Iran, Iraq and the US to help beef up security in Iraq, the Middle East and the world. Iran-US-Iraq tripartite negotiations are vital to stem the current humanitarian crisis and bloodbath in Iraq."

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said earlier this month that Baghdad was working to set up a second meeting between Iranian and US officials soon to prevent the arch-foes from using Iraq as a "battleground to settle scores."

Regarding the US detention of five Iranians seized in Iraq, which Iran claims are diplomats, though the US says were fomenting the insurgency, Sheikh said "We will convey their demands to the Iraqi government through diplomatic channels, however, I advise Iranian pilgrims to avoid entry into Iraq without visa, because of its security problems."

In other developments in bilateral Iraq-Iran relations, the head of Kurdistan's Chamber of Commerce and Industry said that an Iranian commercial delegation, including representatives of 52 companies, arrived in Arbil on Tuesday.

"The visit comes within the framework of strengthening cooperation and coordination between Iranian and Kurdish companies," Dara Jalil Khayat told VOI.

"A meeting was held between the Iranian delegation and a number of Kurdish businessmen," he also said, noting that the delegation will visit a number of reconstruction and investment projects in the region.

A member from the Iranian delegation said that "the visit aims at boosting commercial relations between Iranian and Kurdish companies and examining investment opportunities in the region."

"The delegation consists of representatives of 52 Iranian companies from various sectors-- industry, construction materials, oil, electricity, water and drugs," he added.

Life Goes On
Estimated $8.4 Million Reconstruction to Begin as Soon as Security Permits
06/26/2007 12:47 PM ET
SAMARRA, IRAQ - JUNE 13: The destroyed shrine of the Askariya mosque is seen on June 13, 2007 in the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, Iraq.
Getty
SAMARRA, IRAQ - JUNE 13: The destroyed shrine of the Askariya mosque is seen on June 13, 2007 in the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, Iraq.

UNESCO pledged assistance on Tuesday to help Iraq rebuild the Askariya mosque in Samarra, badly damaged by attacks last year and earlier this month.

The reconstruction will start “as soon as security conditions are guaranteed and will continue over a period of ten months,” UNESCO said in a news release. The Iraqi Government is expected to provide $3 million of the $8.4 million project, with the rest coming from the UN Development Group Iraq Trust Fund.

“The commitment of the Iraqi authorities and the international community to work together on the reconstruction of this highly symbolic site is a reason for hope,” said UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura. “Respecting cultural heritage is one of the fundamental principles of the reconstruction process for a country such as Iraq, and a decisive step towards national reconciliation.”

The Memorandum of Understanding was signed in Amman by Mohamed Djelid, Director of the UNESCO Iraq office, and Hak Al-Hakeem, advisor to Iraq's Prime Minister for Reconstruction and Environment Affairs.

BATTLE ZONE
Iraqi Red Crescent Reports Disruption in Transport and Delivery of Aid
06/26/2007 11:53 AM ET
BAGHDAD, IRAQ APRIL 12:- Iraqi police officers secure the destroyed al-Sarafiya bridge after a suicide bomb attack, on April 12, 2007 in Baghdad, Iraq.
Wathiq Khuzaie/AFP/Getty
BAGHDAD, IRAQ APRIL 12:- Iraqi police officers secure the destroyed al-Sarafiya bridge after a suicide bomb attack, on April 12, 2007 in Baghdad, Iraq.

BAGHDAD, 26 June 2007 (IRIN) - The delivery of humanitarian aid in war-torn Iraq is being hampered as bridges and key transportation arteries come under attack from insurgents, the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS) said on 26 June.

“Our humanitarian work has been hampered since the main bridges and highway overpasses in Baghdad and other provinces started to come under attack,” said Abdul-Hamid Salem, director of the IRCS's Baghdad office.

“Sometimes it takes us a very long time to transport aid between the two main parts of Baghdad as the authorities do not allow trucks capable of carrying more than two metric tonnes to cross before 3pm to prevent further attacks,” Salem said.

“So we have to wait until after 3pm to cross and that of course undermines our efforts to help those who need our help,” he added.

The IRCS, he said, was investigating the possibility of having at least six two-tonne trucks travel freely around Baghdad.

Baghdad bridges under attack

Three of Baghdad's 13 bridges over the River Tigris have been targeted by large explosions since March. Iraqi and US commanders say they are studying the attacks, which they term “desperate acts by insurgents who are under pressure from the five-month old Baghdad security operation”.

Some analysts see the attacks on the bridges as an attempt to make it difficult for Iraqi and US troops to bring supplies from one side of the river to the other. Others believe the goal is to divide the city’s predominantly Shia east bank, known as Risafa, from the mostly Sunni west bank, or Karkh.

“Obviously we see a shift in their tactics and we are taking appropriate security measures to make sure all supply lines continue to stay open,” said Col Ahmed Abdullah Hassan of the Iraqi Interior Ministry.

“The extremists, the terrorists, are looking to find ways to divide and create terror and make life difficult for the people of Iraq,” Abdullah added.

Recent attacks on bridges

The first attack on a bridge took place on 21 March, when security forces discovered a booby-trapped truck parked on the Mohammed al-Qassim bridge in northern Baghdad. The explosives were covered with boxes of fruits and vegetables.

Security forces did not have enough time to de-activate the bombs so they evacuated the area and blew up the truck, causing some damage to the bridge. Although the area was evacuated, one civilian was killed and seven were wounded in the powerful blast.

The most serious attack occurred on 12 April when a suicide truck bomb destroyed a steel girder on Sarafiyah Bridge, causing cars to plunge into the water. Eleven were killed and 39 wounded. Seven cars were pulled from the river.

Two days later, a suicide car bomb killed 10 people on Jadriyah Bridge, which, however, suffered little damage.

In June, suspected Sunni insurgents bombed and badly damaged a span over the main north-south highway leading from Baghdad.

A few days prior to that, another bridge south of Baghdad was destroyed by what was believed to be a suicide truck bomber. Three US soldiers guarding that bridge were killed in the blast.

In another place, a parked truck bomb destroyed a bridge carrying traffic over the River Diyala in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. There were no casualties, but vehicles were being forced to make a detour.
Full Report PDF
New Crisis Group Report Assesses Failures of Operation Sinbad
06/25/2007 1:05 PM ET
Basra, IRAQ: A British soldier takes position in front of graffiti reading, Imam al-Kumaini said God gave no authority to infidels over Muslims, salute the Army of Imam al-Mahdi, our souls are for you oh Mahdi, our souls are for you oh Mahdi.
Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty
Basra, IRAQ: A British soldier takes position in front of graffiti reading, "Imam al-Kumaini said God gave no authority to infidels over Muslims, salute the Army of Imam al-Mahdi, our souls are for you oh Mahdi, our souls are for you oh Mahdi."

The British experience in Basra, far from being a model to be replicated in the rest of Iraq, is an example of what to avoid, according to a report released Monday by the International Crisis Group.

Where Is Iraq Heading? Lessons from Basra examines the city's descent into chaos under British occupation, outlining lessons for Baghdad and the nation as a whole. Coalition forces there already implemented a security plan in many ways similar to the current "surge" in the capital and its environs. As in Baghdad, one of the putative goals was to pave the way for a takeover by Iraqi forces. Today, however, Basra is controlled by militias which are even more powerful than before.

“With renewed violence and instability, Basra illustrates the pitfalls of a transitional process that, instead of building legitimate institutions, has led to collapse of the state apparatus”, says Crisis Group Senior Analyst Peter Harling. “Fierce intra-Shiite fighting also disproves the notion of an Iraq neatly partitioned between three homogenous communities”.

In the overall assessment of recent developments in Basra, the ICG reports:

Basra’s political arena is in the hands of actors engaged in bloody competition for resources, undermining what is left of governorate institutions and coercively enforcing their rule. The local population has no choice but to seek protection from one of the dominant camps. Periods of stability do not reflect greater governing authority so much as they do a momentary -- and fragile -- balance of interests or of terror between rival militias. Inevitably, cycles of brutal retaliatory violence re-emerge.

As the U.S. prosecutes its security plan in Baghdad and other parts of the country, the lessons from Basra are clear. First, the answer to Iraq’s horrific violence cannot be a military surge that aims to bolster the existing political structure and treats the dominant political parties as partners. Secondly, violence is not solely the result of al-Qaeda-type terrorism or sectarian hostility, however costly both evidently are. Thirdly, violence has become a routine means of social interaction utilised by political actors doubling as militiamen who seek to increase their share of power and resources.

The Basra experience suggests the most likely outcome in Iraq is its untidy break-up into myriad fiefdoms, superficially held together by the presence of coalition forces. If this is to be avoided, the priority should be to confront the power structure whose establishment was supported in the wake of the 2003 invasion, as well as the parties that now dominate it, by insisting on genuine political compromises and a more inclusive system of governance.

quote of day
Iraqi Foreign Minister Tells Newsweek the Iraqi Leader "Needs More Leverage"
06/24/2007 11:52 AM ET
Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and General Petraeus in Ramadi in March.
Photo by Patrick Baz/AFP-Getty Images
Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and General Petraeus in Ramadi in March.

In the edition of Newsweek hitting newsstands today, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari describes the relationship between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the top US military commander in Iraq, David Petraeus, as "difficult."

Here's a key excerpt from the Newsweek Q & A with Zebari:

Can you describe the relationship between Maliki and Petraeus?

Relations are difficult. Who's in charge? Who decides? I sympathize because the lines are blurred. The prime minister cannot just pick up the phone and have Iraqi Army units do what he says. Maliki needs more leverage.

Here is the interview transcript as posted on the Newsweek Web site.

Life Goes On
Proposed Law Reignites Kurd Debate: Does Polygamy Hurt or Help Women?
06/23/2007 11:15 AM ET
By Najeeba Mohammad in Sulaimaniyah
Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR) - iwpr.net

Iraqi Kurdistan's parliament is challenging social and religious tradition by considering legislation that would officially ban polygamy in this northern region, in a move that has divided some Kurdish political leaders and women's groups.

According to Iraqi legislation concerning the individual, which is largely derived from Islamic law, men can be married to as many as to four women at the same time.

The proposed legislation would make the practice illegal in Iraqi Kurdistan, and has reignited a long-standing debate among Kurds about whether polygamy hurts or helps women, and whether legal restrictions would stop multiple marriages.

"It has become a part of the culture," said Roonak Faraj, head of the Women's Media and Cultural Centre in Sulaimaniyah. Faraj is one of many women's rights activists and political leaders who support a ban on polygamy, but she does not believe the law will work unless it is accompanied by an awareness campaign.

Polygamy is a traditional practice in Iraq that is supported by many clerics, leaders and citizens, both men and women. At the same time, other politicians and women's groups have fought against the practice for years and argue that it is time to outlaw the tradition.

>From 1994 to 2005, Iraqi Kurdistan was divided into two administrations. In Sulaimaniyah, the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, banned polygamy. However, many polygamists from the area simply married in the areas run by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which allowed multiple unions.

The two administrations were unified in 2005 and are now drafting laws to cover the three provinces in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Under the proposed law, men who married more than one wife would be fined the equivalent of 6,000 US dollars and face three to five years in prison, while women who became second, third or fourth wives would face a 3,000 dollar fine. Clerics who issue licenses for such marriages would also be punished, although legislators have not determined yet what the penalties would be.

The law would also give women the same inheritance rights as men, and accord equal value to legal testimony given by women. Current Iraqi legislation follows Islamic law by giving women a lesser share in inheritance, while the testimony of one man is worth that of two women in court.

However, these provisions have not resulted in as much public controversy as the proposed change in the polygamy statute.

"I believe polygamy should be totally banned," said Arez Abdullah, a PUK member of parliament who has pushed for women's rights in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The current laws, Abdullah said, "are not in line with human rights principles or the protection of women".

But advocates of the right to polygamy argue that in Iraq, multiple marriages help women with limited options gain financial support or freedom from their own families. Women rarely live on their own in Iraq, and many women in their mid-thirties or older say it is difficult to find an unmarried man.

Sheeran Ali, from Chamchamal, south of Sulaimaniyah, wants to get married but does not believe that at 37, she can find an unwed husband. The Iraqi regime arrested her older brother during the Anfal campaign of the Eighties, when tens of thousands of Kurds went missing following a crackdown by Iraqi forces.

Tradition dictates that older siblings should marry before their younger brothers and sisters, so Sheeran waited for her brother to come back. He never did. After Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in 2003, mass graves were found containing Anfal victims, and many families accepted that their loved ones were dead.

"In this society, people tend to look down at unmarried women," said Sheeran. "I'm ready to marry a married man because I don't want to hear the demeaning comments. I have the right to be a mother like any woman."

According to Kharaman Mohammad, a media officer with the Kurdistan Islamic Sisters’ Union, which opposes the bill, "Women will be the first victims of a total ban on polygamy. We don't support a total ban on polygamy. We want to impose regulations and limitations on how it is practiced."

Mohammad said polygamy should be allowed under extenuating, unforeseen circumstances that occur after a couple get married, such as if the wife becomes chronically ill or is unable to bear children.

Even those who support the ban admit that it will be difficult to enforce because Iraqi national law will continue to allow polygamy. Under Iraqi law, judges can approve a polygamous marriage if the husband demonstrates that he can provide for his wives and that the union is legal. They can also refuse to sanction polygamist unions if they believe the wives will not be treated equally.

Khalil Ibrahim, a member of the Kurdistan parliament, said that even if the law is passed, polygamists will still be able to marry outside the three Kurdish provinces.

"Even if this law is passed, it won't be implemented," he said.

Ibrahim is a member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union party which opposes the ban, but supports a law requiring that wives must give their consent before their husbands can enter into additional marriages.

Kwestan Mohammad, who heads the committee to defend women's rights in the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament, said the penalties envisaged in the draft law were severe enough to deter people from ignoring the ban.

"I'm certain the law will be successful," she said. "No man will be prepared to serve three years in prison for marrying a second wife."

------

Najeeba Mohammad is an IWPR trainee journalist in Sulaimaniyah.

PETROL POLITICS
Kurds Agree to Redistribution Plan, Much Work Remains to Complete Full Package
06/22/2007 1:45 PM ET
WASHINGTON, June 21 (UPI) -- While Iraqi negotiators have made a major breakthrough on sharing revenue from oil sales, the key issue of exactly how to govern the country's vast reserves is far from settled.

Negotiators from the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government will now tackle that issue, having spent the past month working out a law whereby revenue from oil sales -- as well as other income -- would be collected into accounts and redistributed to the federal government, regions and provinces.

But control over Iraq's 115 billion barrels of oil reserves -- the third-largest in the world -- isn't easily decided; arguments that have held up negotiations and threaten approval evolve from the 2005 constitution and, when resolved, will determine who in Iraq has control over developing which oil fields and what access foreign oil companies will have.

The Bush administration has been pressing Iraq to decide revenue sharing as both a semblance of a bone to show for an occupation thus far gone poorly and a potential first step toward interfactional cooperation. The Democratic-led Congress included revenue sharing as a benchmark for success in its recent approval of Iraq war funding. (It should be noted, however, that both sides pressed Iraqi leaders not to pass the revenue-sharing law but the oil law that they mistakenly said would include revenue sharing.)

The negotiators have been holding discussions since August on a package of four bills, including the reorganization of the Oil Ministry and the Iraqi National Oil Company. They approved the proposed revenue-sharing law Wednesday night, KRG Minister of Natural Resources Ashti Hawrami, who led the Kurdish delegation in the talks, told United Press International from a mobile phone in Baghdad.

The law would allocate 17 percent of the revenues to be redistributed to the KRG, after the federal government gets what it needs. Now it must be passed by the council of ministers, which is likely, then the full Parliament.

And that's where the momentum stops, at least for now. The four bills are to be taken up as one package, not individually. The oil law, the common name for the hydrocarbons framework law, was approved by negotiators and the council of ministers in February. But in April, when the Oil Ministry unveiled four annexes to the law -- the breakdown of oil fields under central government versus regional/provincial control -- the Kurds protested and the law was kicked back to negotiations.

"Having agreed to the revenue sharing law, now our focus will go back to the remaining issues of the oil law, which is basically the annexes and the role of INOC," Hawrami said.

Per the constitution, any oil beyond what has already been discovered -- with Iraq underexplored, there is likely a lot to be found -- is given to the provinces and regions to develop. (Kurdistan is the only official region.) But the constitution is vague, and various sides have their own interpretations. The Kurds contend that too many producing and discovered oil fields have been designated to the federal government, via INOC.

"We all want to maximize revenues to the Iraqi people," Hawrami said, adding INOC doesn't have the technical capability to do that, though it deserves a role in the country's oil sector. "We should not tie ourselves down to a single entity and then regret it later on."

Tariq Shafiq, an Iraqi now working from London and Amman, Jordan, as an oil consultant and one of three authors of the oil law, argues for a strictly central control over the country's oil sector with regional and provincial participation in INOC.

He warns that outside the federal strategy the oil will be developed in haste, with provinces overly dependent on foreign oil companies. "They are so embryonic they have no institutions to take on oil and gas development projects," Shafiq said, adding "though the KRG may be approaching it."

Iraq's current infrastructure is in need of repair and modernization after decades of war, sanctions and mismanagement by Saddam Hussein. This could be funded by internal oil revenue as well as foreign investment, which is necessary at some level.

Iraq exports 1.6 million barrels per day of the average 2 million bpd it produces (though it dropped to 1.85 million bpd last week, according to the U.S. State Department). Last year exports brought in $31.3 billion, which funded 93 percent of the federal budget.

With this, Shafiq said, Iraq's reserves could handle a sustainable production level rivaled only by Saudi Arabia.

That's without bringing brand new fields online, which he said a regional/provincial control over the reserves will lead to, causing too much competition with INOC and flooding the oil market.

"Do we need to negotiate adding more reserves?" asked Shafiq, who now opposes the law. He's joined by members of Sunni political parties and the powerful oil unions, among others, who fear the law will allow for overly lucrative contracts with foreign oil companies. The unions, which went on strike for three days this month for a number of reasons including opposition to the law, support only limited foreign investment.

Passage by Parliament, racked by unstable political friction inside a country with a rapidly deteriorating security crisis, isn't guaranteed.

"The pledge by some Iraqi politicians to pass the new oil law by the end of June is not likely to be fulfilled," Greg Priddy, global energy analyst at the business risk consultant Eurasia Group, wrote Tuesday in the firm's Energy Trendwatch. "And Iraqi lawmakers are not expected to tackle this issue until after the parliamentary recess scheduled for the end of July."
Stay Tuned
US Commander Sees Potential for Iraqis Taking Over
06/22/2007 1:25 PM ET
US Army Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, commander of the Multi-National Corps Iraq
Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty
US Army Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, commander of the Multi-National Corps Iraq

The US could possibly begin to reduce the number of troops in Iraq as early as next Spring, according to Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, a top US commander in Iraq.

Speaking during a press briefing from Baghdad on Friday, Odierno said U.S. and Iraqi troops have been making important progress.

“I think if everything goes the way it’s going now, there’s a potential that by the spring we will be able to reduce forces, and Iraq security forces could take over,” he said. “It could happen sooner than that. I don’t know.”

He did not make any specific predictions, and also warned that circumstances could change.

“There’s so many things that could happen between now and then,” he said.

Odierno's comments Friday on the progress being made in Iraq mark a dramatically optimistic turn for the commander, who just last week said US and Iraqi forces had a long way to go before the nation's capital would be stabilized. He said then only about 40 percent of the city is "really very safe on a routine basis" – with about 30 percent lacking control and a further 30 percent suffering "a high level of violence."

TURF WAR
Says Arming Tribes His Idea, Confirms Vetting Committee to Oversee Selection
06/22/2007 10:47 AM ET
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in a statement Friday that his objections to the US plan to arm Sunni tribal factions had been misunderstood. Not only does he approve of the plan, but he claims it was his idea in the first place.

"The Prime Minister was the initiator of the policy of aiding the Iraqi tribes in all the cities and regions, especially those which have seen terrorist and outlaw activities," according to a statement.

In an interview in Newsweek last week, Maliki warned that the new US tactic was "dangerous because this will create new militias."

"I believe that the coalition forces do not know the backgrounds of the tribes. It is a job of the (Iraqi) government," he added.

In Friday's statement, Maliki's office claimed there was a "misunderstanding of the prime minister's prior statement".

"The government does not fear the arming of tribes but fears the chaos and disorder and the appearance of new militias." Though the statement attempts to backpedal Maliki's statements in Newsweek, it makes no mention of his aide reporting that Maliki had ordered Iraqi forces to treat US-armed groups as "outlaws."

Finally arriving at the essence of Maliki's objection to the US initiative, the statement adds: "It is essential that all of these activities are under Iraqi control and done with government supervision."

The release also confirmed, as IraqSlogger reported yesterday, that Maliki has established a central committee to oversee the vetting process of potential new allies.

The Latest
Talabani's Trip to Far East Turning Into Success for Iraq
06/21/2007 6:02 PM ET
Beijing, CHINA: Visiting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (R) walks with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao (L) as they inspect the honor guards during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, 21 June 2007.
Teh Eng Koon/AFP/Getty
Beijing, CHINA: Visiting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (R) walks with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao (L) as they inspect the honor guards during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, 21 June 2007.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani received a warm welcome on his first diplomatic trip to China, receiving an offer to forgive some Iraqi debt and assist with reconstruction reconstruction.

"China has always been supportive and has participated in the rebuilding of Iraq," foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a press conference Thursday.

"We will reduce or forgive Iraq's debt on a large scale, and help it to train people in the fields of economics, electrical power, diplomacy and management," Qin said, adding that Chinese companies were also willing to participate in the rebuilding.

No numbers were offered on the amount of debt reduction. Qin would only say, "We would like to reduce the debt by a large margin."

In a speech, President Hu Jintao said China will continue to do what it can to help Iraqi reconstruction by encouraging companies to take part in and train professionals needed for reconstruction.

He proposed that China and Iraq enhance cooperation in education, culture and health care, saying his country is ready to sign a yearly action plan with Iraq on cultural exchanges.

China will also enhance coordination with Iraq on international and regional issues, Hu said.

According to the AP, the countries also were expected to discuss a 1997 deal for China's National Petroleum Corp. to develop the billion-barrel al-Ahdab oil field. The US$1.2 billion contract was signed by the company, also known as PetroChina, and the government of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

PetroChina began renegotiating the al-Ahdab deal in October. The project could be reactivated if Iraq's Parliament passes a hotly debated oil law.

Analysis
Shafiq Warns Political Compromises Will Lead to Mismanagement of Resources
By BEN LANDO 06/21/2007 4:10 PM ET
Basra, IRAQ: A general view shows the Iraqi Pipelines Company in the southern city of Basra, 05 June 2007.
Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty
Basra, IRAQ: A general view shows the Iraqi Pipelines Company in the southern city of Basra, 05 June 2007.

WASHINGTON, June 20 (UPI) -- The role of Iraq's central government as a guiding hand over the country's vast oil reserves has been so altered in the current version of the controversial draft oil law that two of the document's authors now oppose it.

"The judgment of many is if the oil and gas is the property of the whole nation, it should be managed by whom? The custodian of the whole nation, and that's the federal government," said Tariq Shafiq, a London- and Amman, Jordan-based consultant and director of Petrolog & Associates.

Shafiq, who just last summer was crafting the legislation, told United Press International during a recent Washington visit that subsequent revisions have watered down the central government's role with political bartering that will lead to mismanagement of the world's third-largest oil reserves.

Shafiq also warned of overdevelopment of the country's oil and gas resources, especially if the undiscovered reserves are developed or Kurdistan or other regions develop their fields outside of a central oil strategy.

The law, which was approved by the council of ministers in February, is now stalled in a power struggle between the central government and Kurdistan Regional government over how much of the 115 billion barrels in proven oil reserves each side will control. Various factions, including the powerful oil unions and Sunni political parties, have warned against allowing international oil companies too much access.

And the Iraqi Parliament likely won't be able to overcome political friction, let alone the deteriorating security situation in the country, to move forward soon on the oil law.

"The pledge by some Iraqi politicians to pass the new oil law by the end of June is not likely to be fulfilled, and Iraqi lawmakers are not expected to tackle this issue until after the parliamentary recess scheduled for the end of July," Greg Priddy, global energy analyst at the business risk consultant Eurasia Group, wrote Tuesday in the firm's Energy Trendwatch. "By then, all branches of the Iraqi government will come under tremendous pressure from the U.S. administration, which has listed the new hydrocarbon law as a major priority to be addressed by mid September, when it is expected to submit a full report to the U.S. Congress."

The roots of the Baghdad row -- which highlights the future of Iraq: how strong the central government will be and how much power the regions and provinces will wield -- are seeded in the 2005 constitution. Key issues of federalism and control over oil were left vague to shore up enough support for passage. Nearly two years later, there is no political consensus.

Shafiq said he and his co-authors took this into account when drafting the law.

They created a Federal Petroleum Commission as a decision-making body to set policy and approve plans and contracts for developing the oil sector. It would incorporate two bodies: "A think tank" of technocrats "made up of nine members, at least three from (oil) producing provinces, but all Iraqis," and "a negotiating unit for grants of rights to third parties," taking contract negotiations out of the Oil Ministry's hands (though the ministry would prequalify companies). The governorate or region the contract applies to would be a part of the negotiating body, another way the drafters interlay federal/local authority, Shafiq said.

This was also embedded in the reconstituted Iraq National Oil Company, which was "independent from the state," Shafiq said, a holding company to develop the oil. (Here again the constitutional squabble takes hold, with the KRG and central government at odds over how much of Iraq's reserves should be centrally controlled.)

INOC would be owned by the state, but with an independent board of directors. Affiliate local companies, owned up to 50 percent by the respective regions or governorates, would carry out INOC's day-to-day, on-site operations. The directors of the local companies would sit on INOC's board, ensuring combined local control over the central government's oil arm.

Seven months after the original draft was presented, negotiators between the Kurdistan and central governments pressed for compromise on the issues. Shafiq, however, refers to it as "muhasasah," whereby all parties come to an agreement on power sharing via sectarian and religious breakdowns, "which at times doesn't work in the interest of the whole country" but for those in power, he said.

The most-recent draft of the law calls for the council's membership to "take into consideration a fair representation of the basic components of the Iraqi society."

"Should you qualify a member if he's a Shiite and a Sunni? Is that how we want to govern oil?" said Shafiq, indignant both because he feels the best candidates of Iraq's oil sector should manage it and because only a few months ago his brother was killed there in what appears to be a purely sectarian killing. "Now we want to rule Iraq by appointing decision makers for being a Sunni, Shiite, etc."

The March 15 draft of the law has changed Shafiq's commission to the Federal Oil and Gas Council, enlarged it, created overlap with the Oil Ministry and shifted more power to "embryonic regions," which Shafiq argues don't have the expertise to develop their sectors without central government support or heavy reliance on international oil companies.

"It's extremely difficult to optimize and manage an oil industry when each region and governorate has their own laws and regulations," he said, emphasizing a need for central policy with direct local participation. Shafiq said the latest draft has enlarged membership of the think tank, while politicizing it and weakening its scope.

Shafiq said he was asked last spring by Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani to help craft the law, along with two other Iraqis: Farouk al-Kasim, now a Norway-based consultant who is also against the law now, and Thamir Ghadban, the current adviser to the prime minister on oil issues, representing the central government in oil law negotiations.

© Copyright 2007 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

UNDER FIRE
Kurdish Families Abandoning Border Villages in Fear of Bombardments, Incursion
06/21/2007 10:35 AM ET
CIZRE, TURKEY: Turkish soldiers take part in a military exercise, in the town of Cizre, some 10 km far from the Turkish-Iraqi border, 05 June 2007.
Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty
CIZRE, TURKEY: Turkish soldiers take part in a military exercise, in the town of Cizre, some 10 km far from the Turkish-Iraqi border, 05 June 2007.

SULAIMANIYAH, 21 June 2007 (IRIN) - Hundreds of Iraqi Kurds have been forced to flee their homes after up to 30,000 Turkish soldiers massed on the Iraqi-Turkish border and launched attacks against Kurdish fighters, Iraqi border police say.

Local aid agencies said Kurdish fighters had prevented them from entering the villages, which were being targeted.

“The bombardments have forced hundreds to abandon their homes and leave for safer areas. Some houses were looted by Kurdish fighters, according to witnesses in the area,” said Rastgo Muhammad Barsaz, spokesman for the non-governmental organisation Kurdistan Campaign to Help Victims of War.

“Dashati Takhe village, on the border near Zakho, is one of the most affected areas. We have been informed of civilian causalities but we don’t know how many, as we are being denied access to the area. But by telephone, civilians have told us they are short of food and water,” Barsaz said.

Fear of Turkish invasion

In response to recent attacks, including a bombing in Ankara in May that killed eight people, Turkey expanded its force along the border, deploying additional artillery and dozens of tanks. Iraqi border police say Turkey has 20,000-30,000 soldiers along its border with Iraq, and has set up a special security zone that restricts movement in the area.

Iraqi Kurdish villagers living near the Turkish border fear a Turkish invasion similar to that of 1997, when large numbers of Turkish forces crossed the border to fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which wants an independent Kurdistan carved out of northern Iraq as well as parts of Iran and Turkey.

Turkey says the PKK is using mountain hideouts and friendly villages in northern Iraq to train and re-supply its fighters who operate mainly in Turkey.

Taking refuge

“The last time hundreds of innocent people died and we hope that won’t happen again. This time, we had to flee our house and are taking refuge with some relatives near Zakho, but we cannot stay there long. We really don’t know what to do as we’ve left everything behind. We’re scared that our home will be destroyed, as has happened to some of our neighbours,” said Ezdin Destan, 47, a resident of Dashati village, near the Turkish border.

“In some neighbouring villages, Kurdish rebels have entered homes and forced families to leave so they can use their homes as bases from which to launch attacks and for training... One of my relatives was killed last week because he refused to leave his house,” Destan said.

Massoud Barzani

The Kurdish authorities see the Turkish attacks as an offensive against the Kurdish people.

"Turkey has a problem with the existence of Kurds,” Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government in Iraq, told reporters on 13 June. “We have always advocated good neighbourliness on the basis of mutual interests and non-intervention. Nonetheless, we do not accept violations and threats.”

Local aid agencies have called on security forces on both sides to allow safe passage for the delivery of supplies to villagers, and have called for more assistance to be given to displaced families in Zakho, Arbil and Dohuk.

“We call on the authorities to prevent tension and more suffering for innocent civilians, and we hope urgent diplomatic negotiations can avoid further terror,” Barsaz said.

On 19 June the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a press conference in Washington, that the US and Iraqi governments were both opposed to Kurdish rebels using Iraqi territory for "terrorist" actions against neighbouring Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a press conference last week that his country should focus on the large number of militants operating in Turkey before seeking them out in Iraq, but that the problem should be tackled from both sides.
BATTLE ZONE
Police Source Reports No Casualties in Destruction of Three Sunni Mosques
06/20/2007 09:43 AM ET
Baghdad, IRAQ: An Iraqi policemen stands amidst the rubble at Al-Kholani mosque in Baghdad early, 20 June 2007.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Baghdad, IRAQ: An Iraqi policemen stands amidst the rubble at Al-Kholani mosque in Baghdad early, 20 June 2007.

The sectarian destruction of mosques continued on Wednesday, with police sources reporting that three Sunni places of worship north of Hilla were bombed and destroyed.

According to VOI, insurgents blew up the Osama Ibn Zayd and Abdullah al-Juburi mosques in al-Askandariya, and a third Sunni mosque in Jebla district, all north of Hilla. The source reported no casualties.

Last Wednesday's bombing of the al-Askariya mosque in Samarra raised fears of sectarian reprisals, which have largely been realized in the mosque bombing campaign of the past week.

Wednesday's targeting of the three Sunni mosques near Hilla could be payback for Tuesday's deadly attack against the Shi'ite Sahat al-Khilani in central Baghdad. Witnesses said a truck loaded with fans and air conditioners was detonated by a suicide bomber outside the mosque, wounding over 225 people and completely destroying 25 other vehicles parked nearby.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused what he called "groups of takfirists and terrorists" of standing behind Tuesday's deadly bombing in Baghdad.

"The bombing is yet another proof that takfirists (Muslims who rule that others are disbelievers) and Saddamists are insisting on fanning the flames of sectarian sedition and trivializing all values and sanctities," Maliki said.

BATTLE ZONE
Unrest Has Iraqi VP Hashemi Asking Brits to Not Leave Yet
06/18/2007 1:50 PM ET
Basra, IRAQ: Iraqi children play amid the rubble of a Sunni mosque following an attack in the mainly Shiite city of Basra 16 June 2007.
AFP/Getty
Basra, IRAQ: Iraqi children play amid the rubble of a Sunni mosque following an attack in the mainly Shiite city of Basra 16 June 2007.

Basra's police chief, Major-General Mohammed Hamadi al-Mousawi, has been reassigned or fired in the wake of two attacks against Sunni mosques in the city, reportedly sectarian reprisals for last week's destruction of the minarets of the Shi'ite al-Askariya mosque in Samarra.

The latest unrest has Iraqi vice-president Tareq al-Hashemi telling the British ambassador that Iraqi forces are not sufficiently prepared to take over security for the city, complicating the prospects for a smooth transfer of power next month for the last Basra base under control of UK forces.

Insurgents disguised themselves as cameramen so as not to raise suspicion while planting explosives to destroy the Talha Bin al-Zubair shrine and mosque near Basra early Friday morning. On Saturday, bombers loaded into pickup trucks pulled up to the al-Ashrah al-Mubashra mosque in Basra at dawn and minutes after they left, a huge explosion leveled the building completely.

Mousawi had said Friday that security guards at the Talha Bin al-Zubair mosque had been detained under suspicion of involvement in that attack.

According to Reuters, Mousawi has been locked in a dispute with the governor of Basra province, a member of the small but locally powerful Fadhila party, who has accused him of inefficiency and refusing to obey orders.

The source said the police chief had never got on with the provincial governor, partly because he was seen as aligned to the Dawa party of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a rival to Fadhila in Basra, where Shi'ite factions are fighting for control of its oil revenues.

The provincial governing council has been in negotiations with the central government in Baghdad for months to resolve the dispute, a source in the council told Reuters, but the bombing of the two Sunni mosques was seen as "the last straw".

A new police chief would replace Maj. Gen. Mohammed Hamadi al-Mousawi on Monday, a Basra police officer told the AP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

Reuters reports he is to be replaced by Major-General Jalil Khalaf.

Al-Mousawi was 'seen as incompetent, because he couldn't stop attacks by Shiite extremists against two Sunni mosques in the wake of the Samara attacks,' the Basra police officer told AP.

Mousawi told Reuters he was being transferred to Baghdad to become a director general in the Interior Ministry.

An adviser to al-Maliki confirmed the report of Mousawi's removal as police chief, but would not elaborate. An official in the office of al-Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, confirmed it as well, saying only that the replacement came as part of the reconstruction of the police department.

Both men spoke to AP on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to speak about the matter.

In other related developments, Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi has met with the British ambassador to Iraq, asking that British forces undertake their role in maintaining the security in the city, a statement from al-Hashemi's office said.

"Al-Hashemi discussed with the British ambassador to Iraq, Dominic Asquith, the current political developments and the deteriorating situation in the southern province of Basra, during which the Iraqi official urged British forces to undertake their role in maintaining the security in the city in coordination with Iraqi forces," read the statement received by the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI).

"The demand came as the Iraqi forces are not able to efficiently assume this role alone," the statement added.

Hashemi's request comes just a month before the UK was planning to turn over control of the final British-controlled base in Basra to Iraqi forces next month.

Last week, defense secretary Des Browne said Britain was "on course" to hand over to Iraqi control the extensive Basra Palace base next month when the UK's military presence in the country is due to be cut by a further 500 troops, leaving a total of 5,000.

Mr Browne was careful, at a lunch with defence correspondents, not to describe the move as a certainty, preferring the term "probability". The government's position has been that it depends on the capability of Iraqi security forces to take on responsibility for security in Iraq's second largest city.

Sadr al-Din al-Qubanchi, a leader in the Shiite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), previously known as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), condemned the Basra mosque attacks on Monday, holding Iraqi security apparatus and the "occupying forces" responsible for the violence in Iraq.

"We are racked with pain because of what is happening to these sanctuaries. We consider this a blatant transgression against God's holy houses and we offer our sincerest condolences to Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites," al-Qubanchi said in a statement received by the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI).

Describing Iraqi security apparatus as having been "infiltrated," al-Qubanchi held Iraqi security forces and the "occupying forces," which he said "watch the slaughter of Iraqis, deliberately or in ignorance, and then shake hands with terrorists behind the scenes," responsible for all terrorist acts that have taken place in Iraq.

Al-Qubanchi also accused some of Iraq's neighboring countries of sponsoring terrorism and providing terrorists with vital support. "The Iraqi people, with all its segments and sects, is innocent of these heinous acts," he added.

"Attacks against the Sunni, their mosques and their sanctuaries, is as prohibited as those against Shiites and their mosques and their sanctuaries, because they all believe in God and his prophet and are united by their homeland's cause and interests," the statement read.

The Latest
Sistani Rep Condemns "Dereliction of Duty" of Those in Charge
06/15/2007 2:10 PM ET
Samarra', IRAQ: A general view shows one of the two destroyed minarets (L) at Shiite Imam al-Askari Shrine, in the restive town of Samarra, north of Baghdad, 14 June 2007 a day after it was attacked.
Dia Hamid/AFP/Getty
Samarra', IRAQ: A general view shows one of the two destroyed minarets (L) at Shiite Imam al-Askari Shrine, in the restive town of Samarra, north of Baghdad, 14 June 2007 a day after it was attacked.

Advance warnings indicated that a second bombing against the al-Askariya mosque in Samarra was in the works, charged a representative of revered Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani during Friday prayers.

"The authorities in charge had enough tips that the enemies of the people would blow up the tomb of the two Imams in order to hurl the people into sectarian strife," Sheikh Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie said at the Imam al-Hussein Shrine in Karbala.

Abdul-Mahdi did not specify if he meant the Iraqi authorities had specific intelligence forewarning of the Wednesday attack, or a more general understanding that further destruction of the Golden Mosque--which had sparked such bloodshed after the February 2006 bombing--would be on any sectarian agenda.

"There was dereliction of duty on the part of the organizations concerned because they had a clear picture about what happened in the first bombing of the shrine," he said.

Karbalaie appealed to the Iraqi citizens "not to resort to emotional reactions otherwise everybody will be loser."

Former Iranian president Seyyed Mohammad Khatami sent a letter to Iraq's top Shia cleric Thursday condemning the bombing, and arguing that the occupation forces have responsibility for protecting the Iraqi people and their possessions.

He expressed hope that the Wednesday desecration of the holy Shia shrine has not been a plot devised by the occupation to fan the flames of conflict among Muslims.

Part of the letter read, "When a land is occupied, all the responsibility for ensuring the security, interests and welfare of that territory rests with the occupiers."

A copy of the letter was also sent to the leader of the Supreme Council of Iraq Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.

BATTLE ZONE
US Forces Deploy Around Base North of Fallujah After Four Mortar Strikes
06/15/2007 1:18 PM ET
Unconfirmed eyewitness reports indicate that US forces deployed to protect their base north of Falluja after four mortars shell were fired into the camp.

Four successive blasts were heard on Friday afternoon as the U.S. base, north of Falluja, came under a mortar attack, local residents in Falluja said.

"Four mortar shells jolted the U.S. base in al-Saqlawiya district, north of Falluja," an eyewitness told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI).

"The attack took place at 4:00 pm and billows of black smoke were seen rising from the area," he also said.

Another eyewitness said "U.S. forces have deployed around the base after the attack."

Spc. Greene of the CPIC Press Information Center tells Slogger that they have no information on such an attack, but she pledges to look into the matter. Watch Slogger for updates as more information becomes available.

Fleeing Iraq
Desperate Man Helped 40+ Others Flee Involuntary Servitude for Contractor
By DAVID PHINNEY 06/13/2007 12:09 PM ET
Ramil Autencio sitting in front of his home in Manila, Philippines, Fall 2006.
David Phinney
Ramil Autencio sitting in front of his home in Manila, Philippines, Fall 2006.

The promise to build a better life in the Philippines for himself and his young family took Ramil Autencio to Kuwait. He never suspected that a month after leaving home in December 2003 he would be living a wartime nightmare in northern Iraq, pushing boulders 11-hours a day, seven days a week for a contractor fortifying a US military camp in Tikrit.

Showers to wash off the day’s sweat were an uncertainty, and in the chilly January and February nights of 2004, he and seven other Filipinos would live in an empty truck with no windows, sleep on cardboard boxes for a bed, and eat leftovers and meals-ready-to-eat from soldiers. It was the only way to have enough food. He says crackling gunfire and crashing incoming mortar would wake him at all hours of the night and the unfortified trailer would tremble and shake from nearby rocket blasts.

It was not what he had planned at all.

Recruitment

Trained as an air conditioning repairman and technician, Autencio says his recruiter in the Philippines agreed to place him in a two-year job at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Kuwait for $450 a month -- maybe more with overtime. But when he arrived at the Kuwait airport, he was quickly shuttled to a rundown apartment building managed by First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting, a Kuwaiti firm doing a booming multimillion-dollar business with the US military and the Pentagon’s primary support contractor KBR. To date, the company has billed the US government perhaps $2 billion for work in Iraq, including the $592-million US embassy in Baghdad now nearing completion.

There were no more jobs at the hotel, Autencio was informed, and because the job recruiter had only processed him for a one-month travel visa, he could not work in Kuwait. Autencio said First Kuwaiti offered him one of three options: pay a $1,000 penalty and work in Kuwait for free for six months, be arrested and jailed, or work in Iraq. As he weighed these choices, he would live in an apartment building with 800 other Filipinos where there were no mattresses or blankets. They ate only chicken and rice under the building’s crumbling ceilings.

“A jail would be better,” Autencio recalled. “We were ordered to go.... They forcibly brought us to Iraq.”

Former supervisors with First Kuwaiti who have since left the company call the three-story building Jaleeb.

“They would lock them in without documents -- no passports or IDs,” recalled one longtime supervisor. “The building was so crowded, you could barely breathe.” Many say one Filipino lost his mind and died while Autencio was there.

Another supervisor agreed the building was “a mess,” and said after much urging, it was cleaned up sometime in 2006.

First Kuwaiti’s general manager, Wadih Al-Absi consistently denies that his company would ever endorse such recruitment practices. During numerous conversations, he has said that First Kuwaiti never pressured workers into Iraq or violated international visa requirements. During one meeting in Washington, DC, in September 2005, he said that people were envious of his company’s success. “People will never criticize someone who fails,” he said.

Al-Absi also flatly accused Autencio of lying. His proof is a working agreement, purportedly signed by Autencio before leaving the Philippines. Although Al-Absi admitted that unscrupulous recruitment agencies do sometimes misrepresent jobs and take money from people eager to work, he provided Autencio’s undated contract with First Kuwaiti that identified the job site as both Kuwait and “mainly” Iraq.

The agreement also lays out salary: $346 a month for 8-hour days, seven days a week, plus $104 a month for a mandatory 2 hours overtime every day.

Because of allegations of labor trafficking and other abuses, First Kuwaiti is now under investigation by the US Justice Department, precipitated by American employees reporting that workers transiting Kuwait were handed boarding passes for Dubai before landing in Baghdad.

The company was also investigated for similar allegations by US State Department Inspector General Howard J. Krongard, who did a site review of the US embassy in September. “Nothing came to our attention,” Krongard wrote in his nine-page memorandum released in late April. However, an addendum by the Multi-National Force inspector general in Baghdad did report complaints about deceptive hiring practices by recruitment agencies after interviewing 36 workers in a March 2007 site inspection.

Autencio recounted his tale last November while sitting in front of his home – a two-room shack assembled with old wood and sheet metal back a dirt alley off a busy commercial street in metropolitan Manila. A tattered curtain hangs across the front entrance. Jets fly overhead connecting some 8 million Filipino laborers, 10 percent of the nation’s population, to the global economy – all seeking more than the $10 a day that most make at home.

A stray dog and a few cats amble by as his wife Angela and his two small children watch Ramil carefully unfold a plastic bag holding his documents. Speaking in Tagalong, he holds each paper like a sacred text supporting his resolve to share the hell he says he endured.

Forced Into Iraq

While at Jaleeb in Kuwait, Autencio claims he signed papers as a supervisor placed his hand over the paragraphs. “I don’t read Arabic or English, but it was that, or jail,” he recalled. Before leaving the Philippines, the papers he signed at the airport were for work in Kuwait, he stressed again and again. He did not want to go to Iraq.

Autencio said after a few weeks in the Jaleeb, a hand-written memo listing his name among others was posted warning people to prepare for travel to Iraq:

"People received $100 salary deductions for failure to get on the buses. Furthermore, their daily deductions will be made from their salary until they reach Iraq, and their salaries will not be paid until the end of the month. If your name is on the list below and you wish to go back to the Philippines, you will still have to work until you can pay for your ticket expenses equivalent to USD$1,000.

“These people failed to meet their departure dates for Iraq, which means that they also delayed many of your departures. Delayed departures mean that you might receive your salary late bec no more salaries will be paid in Kuwait. All salaries will be paid in Iraq!!! If everyone wishes to receive their salary on time, you must make sure that you do not miss your departure date, and make sure no one else fails to go!!!"


Once in Tikrit, Autencio said he was not getting paid. He was told the money was waiting in Kuwait, but the conditions became increasingly unbearable for him and the Filipinos working with him.

The Escape

As if sharing a secret, Autencio carefully unfolds a dog-eared yellow piece of paper and passes it over. He had circulated it among the workers, and forty signed, agreeing to flee Iraq with him. Autencio quickly set about making arrangements for the 40 Filipino workers to escape their unwanted servitude.

Autencio got a sympathetic Filipino soldier in the US Army to convince the driver of a flatbed truck headed south towards the Kuwaiti border to give them a ride. For three nights they rode in darkness, packed tight in an empty transport container with very little food or water. “We were nearly starved,” Autencio said.

When they arrived at the border, the sheer number of desperate Filipinos arriving without papers stunned the Kuwaiti police. “We were even angrier then because one of us had died so there was nothing they could do to stop us,” Autencio continued. “We pushed them away when they asked for our papers.... We outnumbered them.”

The group made their way to the Philippines embassy, where the ambassador reluctantly allowed them shelter until their return home could be arranged.

Ramil claims he was only paid $300 for the entire three-month ordeal. He sued First Kuwaiti for back pay, but lost in court. He blames that on his lawyer who was unqualified. A second lawyer he hired disappeared.

That is enough for First Kuwaiti to conclude that Autencio’s allegations are nothing but fiction.

“He sued me in court over this, and he lost,” Al Absi said. “He doesn’t have a case against us.”

Investigating First Kuwaiti

The Philippine government placed First Kuwaiti on a Watch List on June 15, 2005 as a warning to the company to comply with worker contracts, though Al-Absi said he was unaware of that action. As Slogger reported Monday, a Filipino official announced last week that the government is looking into the recruitment practices of firms that supplied workers to First Kuwaiti.

One frequent complaint Filipino workers make to their government is that they are issued tourist visas when traveling to the Middle East for work, said a government official. That prevents them from getting the jobs they planned to have and they are then pressured to take work in Iraq. “So many were issued tourist visas,” the official said. “We have no concrete evidence, but there are so many workers with these complaints.”

In April 2006, the Pentagon confirmed in a new contracting order that an investigation of US-funded contractors in Iraq found significant evidence of deceptive hiring practices, excessive recruiting fees indebting workers for months if not years, substandard living conditions that include crammed sleeping quarters and poor food, and the circumventing of Iraqi immigration procedures. It also noted that the passports were illegally confiscated by employers and the lack of mandatory “awareness training” in labor trafficking.

“Leaders must understand the dynamics and indicators of trafficking and be vigilant in correcting and reporting suspected violations or activities,” the Pentagon stressed in the

No company or contractor is named in the Pentagon’s findings. Nor has the US government publicly penalized or prosecuted any US-funded contractor in Iraq for labor trafficking and abuse.

The US State Department recently awarded some $200 million in new contracts to First Kuwaiti for embassy work in Africa, India and Indonesia. The company also is said to be competing for a new US embassy project in Lebanon.

Autencio’s story is now featured in the new documentary Someone Else's War, currently circulating in the Philippines and at US film festivals.

Journalist Lucille Quiambao contributed research and translation to this report. David Phinney can be contacted at phinneydavid@yahoo.com.

IRAQ PARLIAMENT
Threatens to Sue if Pushed Out as Parliament Speaker
06/12/2007 5:21 PM ET
Baghdad, IRAQ: Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani speaks to journalists during a press conference in Baghdad, 12 June 2007.
AFP/Getty
Baghdad, IRAQ: Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani speaks to journalists during a press conference in Baghdad, 12 June 2007.

Mahmoud al-Mashhadani speaker showed defiance Tuesday, refusing to relinquish his position as speaker of Parliament and threatening to sue if his political opponents persisted.

Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab, told a news conference he had no intention of resigning as demanded by the lawmakers, who voted Monday to give the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, one week to name a replacement.

"The speaker of the Council of Representatives is not a toy in the hands of juvenile politicians," he said. "I refuse to resign and will take my case to the federal court if I must."

A number of incidents reportedly built up to the critical development this past Sunday, when lawmaker Firyad Mohammed Omar, a Shiite Turkoman, said the speaker's security guards dragged him by his tie and shirt and briefly detained him in an unused office in the Parliament building after he complained that they shoved him.

"The Council of Representatives should have heard my side of the story and should have waited for the findings of an investigation into the incident that I ordered," said al-Mashhadani, who acknowledged that he told Omar to "bang his head against a wall," the Arabic equivalent of "go to hell," when the lawmaker did not accept his explanation for the guards' behavior.

Mashhadani claimed the guards were on high alert Sunday after they received intelligence of a possible attack, and reacted to block Omar's approach to the speaker because they didn't recognize him.

"The guards were doing their job. The part between the chamber and my office is a high-risk area," he said. "My guards must act to stop anyone they don't recognize from coming too close."

Mashhadani claimed lawmakers had no grounds to oust him because they did not observe due process, but it was unclear if the incident gave any basis for legal action.

The Coalition
Incoming British PM Spent Six Hours Meeting With US, Iraqi Officials
06/11/2007 12:39 PM ET
Baghdad, IRAQ: British Finance Minister Gordon Brown (C) meets British troops in Baghdad in Iraq, during a visit to the region, 11 June 2007.
Andrew Parsons/AFP/Getty
Baghdad, IRAQ: British Finance Minister Gordon Brown (C) meets British troops in Baghdad in Iraq, during a visit to the region, 11 June 2007.

Incoming British Prime Minister made a surprise "learning" visit to Iraq on Monday, meeting with top US and Iraqi officials during his six hours in the city.

"I'm here to listen and learn ... to see what's happening with al Qaeda ... in relation to Iran ... to the sectarian conflicts, to see all the people on the ground and make an assessment of what's happening so I'm better informed," Brown told reporters.

His visit comes as the the British force in Iraq is being reduced by about 1,500 soldiers to 5,500 troops. Brown refused during his six hours in Iraq to confirm media speculation that he may speed up the pull out to assuage public anger.

Mr Brown stressed the UK had made commitments and promises both to the Iraqi people and the United Nations, adding: "This is not the right time to talk about numbers. I don't want to get into talking about timetables or numbers."

Joined by the British Defense Minister, Brown held talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, U.S. commander General David Petraeus and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker.

"He made clear to Prime Minister Maliki and President Talabani that British support for the Iraqi government is unchanged," a British embassy spokeswoman said.

Brown said earlier that in his talks with Maliki he planned to discuss national reconciliation between Iraq's warring sides.

"On political reconciliation I want to know how they are going to move forward ... and if I don't have suggestions from them I will put suggestions to them," he said.

He said in his talks with Maliki that he had also discussed rebuilding Iraq's economy, saying: "I think the issue in Iraq is this: how can we help the Iraqi people not only run their own security and build a democracy but offer a prosperity they are perfectly capable of doing?"

Follow-Up
Government Looking at Allegations of Forced Labor by US Embassy Builder
By DAVID PHINNEY 06/11/2007 10:26 AM ET
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - AUGUST 31: Cranes litter the skyline as construction workers continue work on the new United States Embassy compound in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone on August 31, 2006 in Baghdad, Iraq.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - AUGUST 31: Cranes litter the skyline as construction workers continue work on the new United States Embassy compound in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone on August 31, 2006 in Baghdad, Iraq.

As the US Justice Department cranks up its investigation into charges of labor trafficking by the Kuwaiti company currently building the $592-million US embassy compound in Baghdad, Philippine officials look to be independently pursuing reports of abuse against its nationals. In addition to the embassy project, First Kuwaiti is a major subcontractor to Halliburton’s KBR unit, which holds the multibillion-dollar service contract to support camps, dining facilities and transportation for the Pentagon.

Felixberta Romero, director of the Employment Regulation branch of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), told the OFW Journalism Consortium June 7 that the agency’s Anti-Illegal Recruitment branch will look at the recruitment agencies that have First Kuwaiti General as its foreign principal. Romero said the POEA had not yet been able to get hard facts about recruited Filipinos going to Iraq via Kuwait for First Kuwaiti.

First Kuwaiti has been on the POEA radar for some time because of complaints from Philippine nationals alleging abusive treatment, unpaid salaries and forced labor in Iraq. The company was placed on a “Watch List” on June 15, 2005, according to one high-level POEA official I interviewed in November.

“We are aware that some companies processed workers for other countries, but then they were taken to Iraq,” the official told me. “When we were informed about this, we issued advisories to employers to comply with contracts and warned them about sending workers to Iraq.”

One frequent complaint from workers is that they are not issued proper visas to work in the Middle East. That prevents them from getting the jobs they planned to have and they are then pressured to take work in Iraq. “So many were issued tourist visas,” the official said. “We have no concrete evidence, but there are so many workers with these complaints.”

The POEA official also acknowledged that many employers in the Middle East pressure Philippine workers to relinquish passports as insurance that they will stay in their jobs. That, said the official, is unacceptable.

“Passports are considered the legal property of the Philippines government. Taking them away is a violation of worker rights.”

First Kuwaiti placed a job order with POEA in November 2003 for more than 700 workers, according to the official. Only 41 of those jobs were listed for Iraq, while the remainder was advertised for being in Kuwait.

One former First Kuwaiti logistics manager who processed workers told me he witnessed the company send more than 500 Philippine laborers into Iraq in 2003 and early 2004 to work on the construction of US military camps.

Iraqslogger first reported the story that the US Justice Department is eyeing First Kuwaiti on May 31. The company, which has billed up to $2 billion under US military and State Department contracts since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has been accused by dozens of low-paid migrant laborers from Nepal and the Philippines of forcing them to work on military camps in Iraq.

Several Americans working for First Kuwaiti at the new embassy site in Baghdad have also claimed plane loads of workers from India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Africa were issued boarding passes for Dubai, but that the planes flew directly to Baghdad instead. The workers were then transported to the embassy site inside the Green Zone. First Kuwaiti denies the allegations.

Another American reported several weeks ago to Slogger that he met workers from Ghana on the embassy site who said they were led to believe they would have jobs in Dubai but were then made to drive trucks in Iraq.

Credit for the Philippine government’s renewed interest into First Kuwait goes to journalist Lucille Quiambao. After researching and interviewing Philippine workers for several years now, her work provides the backbone of the documentary “Someone Else’s War,” recently screened for Philippine officials, according to Davao Today, and at US film festivals.

Likewise, it also showed an elaborate trail of hiring “third-country nationals” or TCNs –as these migrant laborers from the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal are called– through recruiters in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

David Phinney is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He can be contacted at phinneydavid@yahoo.com

Investigation
Slogger Reported Labor Abuses of First Kuwaiti Last Week, Now WSJ Has More
By CHRISTINA DAVIDSON 06/07/2007 4:48 PM ET
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - AUGUST 31: Cranes litter the skyline as construction workers continue work on the new United States Embassy compound in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone on August 31, 2006 in Baghdad, Iraq.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - AUGUST 31: Cranes litter the skyline as construction workers continue work on the new United States Embassy compound in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone on August 31, 2006 in Baghdad, Iraq.

David Phinney's groundbreaking story on Slogger last week, which exposed labor abuses by First Kuwaiti, the company building the US embassy in Baghdad, is leading to further coverage in the mainstream media.

New information on the DoJ investigation into First Kuwaiti is revealed in a new piece by Yochi Dreazen of the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.).

The DoJ declined to confirm or deny the investigation Phinney reported about last week, and First Kuwaiti obviously claimed no knowledge of it, but Dreazen confirmed it through multiple other sources.

As Dreazen's sources report, the investigation is "probing allegations that foreign employees were brought to work on the massive project against their will and prevented from leaving the country."

Of the two main sources for the DoJ investigation into First Kuwaiti, Dreazen writes:

Mr. Owens and Rory Mayberry, a second American who had worked for--and, unlike Mr. Owens, was fired by--First Kuwaiti, submitted written accounts of alleged labor trafficking and mistreatment of First Kuwaiti's foreign work force to U.S. officials late last year. They also have had frequent email and telephone conversations with the officials in recent months, according to the people familiar with the case.

Mr. Owens has filed a separate False Claims Act lawsuit against First Kuwaiti, alleging that the company overcharged the U.S. government and failed to properly install many of the embassy's security fortifications, according to a copy of the sealed complaint reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The False Claims Act allows private citizens to file suit alleging the government was defrauded, and to receive a portion of any penalties levied against a defendant.

The contours of the probe were detailed by government officials with direct knowledge of it, as well as by Mr. Owens and others who have been contacted by prosecutors. Several government officials said the inquiry had accelerated in recent weeks, but they said it is unclear when, or if, prosecutors would bring criminal or civil charges.

Owens and Mayberry both also report that they reached out to government officials after witnessing numerous scenes of deception and mistreatment of construction workers by First Kuwaiti.

Mr. Owens, who had supervised construction of the embassy building, said he was waiting for a First Kuwaiti charter flight to Iraq in March 2006 when he noticed that the Pakistani and West African workers held boarding passes for Dubai. He asked a First Kuwaiti official about the discrepancy, and said he was told it was a way to get the workers past Kuwaiti customs. Mr. Owens, who lives in the U.S., assumed the workers knew they were going to Iraq, he said.

Mr. Mayberry, the second former employee, said he himself had been given a boarding pass marked for Dubai on a First Kuwaiti charter flight that he knew was bound for Baghdad. "It was the first sign that something was a bit off with the company," he says.

A former Army medical technician who was hired to run the site's infirmary, Mr. Mayberry later wrote to U.S. military and civilian officials alleging that First Kuwaiti ran a dirty, dilapidated medical facility that lacked running water and needed supplies.

Mr. Owens, meanwhile, said he began to hear dozens of workers complain that they had been told they would be sent to Dubai and Kuwait, not Iraq. Later, he said he saw a large safe that contained the passports of hundreds of workers. He alleged the company began confiscating passports after 70 Filipinos fled in search of other work in Iraq.

Mr. Owens resigned, according to his statements in the sealed False Claims Act complaint, "because he could no longer countenance this misconduct" by First Kuwaiti.

Mr. Mayberry, who now is in Oregon, was fired by the company less than a week after he arrived in Iraq after the company criticized his medical skills. He questions the timing of the dismissal, though, since he says it came almost immediately after he began complaining about the infirmary conditions.

"I felt bad for those folks every day that I was in Iraq, and the feelings just built and built," Mr. Owens said in an interview. "They were basically being treated like slaves."

Baghdad Buzz
Too Dangerous to Play in Iraq, Olympic Qualifer Soccer Match Played in Amman
06/06/2007 4:08 PM ET
In a rare cause for celebration among all Iraqis, the Iraqi national soccer team triumphed 1-0 over North Korea in an Olympic qualifer soccer match tonight in King Abdullah II Stadium in Amman.

The stadium rocked with chants and cheers from thousands of Iraqi fans.

While the game was played in Jordan because Iraq was deemed too dangerous to host the match, Amman provided de facto home field advantage for the Iraqi team since roughly one million Iraqis -- mostly refugees -- now live in Jordan.

The highly-regarded Iraqi team has already qualified for the 2008 Olympics but is hoping for a top seed.

IRAQ'S OIL WAR
Qubad Talabani Presses Need to Settle Fate of Disputed City
By CHRISTINA DAVIDSON 06/05/2007 4:09 PM ET
WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 25: Qubad Talabani, son of Iraq President Jalal Talabani, September 25, 2006 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty
WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 25: Qubad Talabani, son of Iraq President Jalal Talabani, September 25, 2006 in Washington, DC.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, speaking in Kyrgyzstan on Tuesday, noted that the May 31 deadline for Iraq's passage of the hydrocarbons law had not been met, also stating, "We would certainly be happier if there were faster progress on the political front."

Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad told The Associated Press in a telephone interview this week, "We hope the ratification of this law will be achieved no more than one month from now. This law is considered a major national project and achievement."

But the Kurdish Regional Government's representative in Washington, Qubad Talabani, indicates that the thorny problem of the Kirkuk referendum requires resolution before the hydrocarbon law could hope to receive support from Kurdish politicians.

As Laura Rozen writes in a new profile of Qubud Talabani, the 29-year-old son of Iraqi president Jalal, in the Washington Monthly:

"Although he does not openly suggest a quid pro quo, he hints that if the referendum is delayed, the Kurds may not be inclined to support a law ensuring central government control and revenue sharing of Iraq’s oil wealth, which Washington considers critical to Iraq’s political reconciliation. At least some Iraq watchers believe that Talabani may yet get his way. 'The U.S. has found it very hard to go against stuff in the constitution,' said Patrick Clawson, a Middle East expert and deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 'I am not as convinced that this can be easily postponed.'"

The referendum on Kirkuk is supposed to take place by the end of the year. Given the current US domestic political environment, it's unlikely the Democratic Congress would stomach such a lengthy delay on passage of the hydrocarbons law without re-doubling efforts to withdraw American troops.

Exclusive
Accused of Skimming From Wages of Other Sandi Group Employees
By DAVID PHINNEY 06/05/2007 1:33 PM ET
Nashat Younis, Dr Ibraham Jaff (Rubar Sandi's brother-in-law), unknown Jordanian businessman, Nader Kamali (Rubar's brother in-law), Sabah Permos in the lobby of the Four Seasons Amman in 2004.
Nashat Younis, Dr Ibraham Jaff (Rubar Sandi's brother-in-law), unknown Jordanian businessman, Nader Kamali (Rubar's brother in-law), Sabah Permos in the lobby of the Four Seasons Amman in 2004.

Iraqi officials put two young men in jail last summer for allegedly pocketing the wages of hundreds -- if not thousands -- of Iraqis working under The Sandi Group, a Washington, DC, firm with multi-million-dollar contracts providing security, construction and other services throughout Iraq, according to sources familiar with the two men. Other people who should know the whereabouts of the young Kurds, Nashat Younis and Sabah Permos, say they don’t know or ignore the question.

How much money did they allegedly skim from payroll? Company executives with The Sandi Group who are not commenting, but inside sources say salaries for Iraqi security workers averaged around $600 a month, and Sabah and Nashat are thought to have skimmed $200 off each monthly salary. If the two were in charge of a thousand workers, that could be $200,000 a month. Multiplied by 12 months and it starts adding up to big money: $2.4 million.

“When a worker complained, he would be threatened with being fired,” one former Sandi employee says, who recalled Nashat driving around Iraq in a car with trunk loads of cash for payroll.

The Sandi Group and its affiliates once boasted of employing 7,500 workers and claimed to be the largest employer in Iraq during much of 2004 and 2005.

Former Sandi employees recall Nashat and Sabah as two handsome and charming men from an area around the northern Iraqi town of Zakho, near the Turkish border. Zakho also is the hometown of Rubar Sandi, the hard-driving businessman and head of the company bearing his name. Employees recall Sandi fondly introducing Nashat and Sabah as his relatives – some say Nashat even changed his name to Sandi. But the familial relations were more an expression of close national bonds and affection rather than blood.

Rubar Sandi and Sabah
Rubar Sandi and Sabah
After immigrating to the United States in the 1970s, Sandi earned advanced degrees in business and economics and staked out a successful career as an entrepreneur, developer and financier. Now in his mid-50s, Sandi also cultivated friendships with prominent Republicans and became an active voice in pushing for the liberation of Iraq at the US State Department where he was an advisor in a pre-war planning effort, the “Future of Iraq Project.”

Sandi returned to Iraq with the 2003 liberation and quickly scooped up interests in major hotels that were leased to other contractors, took an immediate interest in reconstruction, invested in the Al-Ahali Newspaper, and assembled the largest private security force in Iraq--said to have numbered in the thousands.

“The Sandi Group was like an octopus,” one former employee says.

At one time, sources say Sandi even entertained a bid for building the new $592-million US embassy in partnership with Philip Bloom, an American businessman who pled guilty in April 2006 to conspiracy, bribery and money laundering in connection to contracts in Iraq unrelated to Sandi. Although Sandi lost out on the embassy project, the State Department did award the company an open-ended agreement for work in Iraq when needed, including on the new embassy project.

Rubar Sandi boasted of his willingness to hire thousands of Iraqis and said it was fundamental to demonstrating support for the Iraqi people; something he encouraged other companies to do as well. Among those Iraqis that the company hired were Nashat and Saba.

“They knew Baghdad,” said Louis Brown, who ran Sandi’s Iraq operation until autumn 2005 and is now based in Washington, DC as vice president of special projects. “I trusted them with my life.”

Nashat, who began work with Sandi as a driver, and Sabah as an interpreter, soon rose to the highest levels of management in Iraq, Brown said.

Asked in March what happened to Nashat and Sabah and where are they now, Brown replied tersely: “I don’t know.”

One source laughed when told of Brown professing ignorance of his two Iraqi lieutenants, Nashat and Sabah.

“That sounds just like Lou,” said the former employee. “But he knows exactly what happened to them and why.”

The real story may yet unfold.

David Phinney is a journalist and broadcaster based in Washington, DC. In late March, he wrote a two-part series on the Sandi Group for IraqSlogger. See here for Marking Up the Reconstruction Part 1 and Part 2. He can be contacted at: phinneydavid@yahoo.com.
IRAQ'S OIL WAR
Two Pipelines Shut Down Monday, More to Go If Demands Not Met
06/05/2007 10:37 AM ET
Basra, IRAQ: An Iraqi worker shuts down a pumping tube at the Iraqi Pipelines Company in the southern city of Basra, 05 June 2007.
Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty
Basra, IRAQ: An Iraqi worker shuts down a pumping tube at the Iraqi Pipelines Company in the southern city of Basra, 05 June 2007.

The Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions began the second day of a strike in southern Iraq to protest labor conditions, wages, and the prospect of the hydrocarbon law currently under discussion in Parliament.

On Monday, the IFOU, which represents 26,000 oil workers in the south, announced it was shutting down two 14-inch oil and gas pipelines, and threatened to begin shutting down the 48-inch pipelines as a second phase of the protest if the government refuses to meet their demands.

According to a statement of support from the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mining and General Workers Unions, the immediate the catalyst for the strike occurred when the general manger of the Oil Pipeline Company, Adel Aziz, who is based in Baghdad rather than in Basra, blocked orders of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Mailiki to release delayed benefits due workers. Moreover, Aziz reportedly withheld a Iraqi Dinar (IQD)50,000 allowance which the workers are regularly entitled to.

The striking workers are demanding that the Oil Ministry take action to force the general manager of the pipeline company to resign. Further, they ask that the company be financially and administratively independent from the Baghdad-based central ministry, and that the pipeline company be managed locally.

Oil Ministry spokesman Asim Jihad said the strike will not have any effect on crude oil exports from the south, but the IFOU indicates that the longer the strike continues, the greater the intended disruption.

Hassan Jomaa, head of General Union of Oil Employees in Basra, said if the government refuses to negotiate with workers, then they will work on spreading the strike to all oil facilities in Basra, including exports and production.

But Jihad said it was not possible for the Oil Pipeline Company workers to stop exports because they have no influence in the Southern Oil Company, which is in charge of exports.

The IFOU had announced in early May that it would strike because the government refused to meet its demands, including participation in design of the hydrocarbon law and improved working and living conditions.

Hassan Jumaa Awad, president of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, told the unions don't have a good relationship with Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani but they delayed the strike to meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who pledged to look into their complaints.

UNDER FIRE
Interview: Cleric Spurns Iranian Role, Says US Will Try to Kill Him
06/05/2007 04:44 AM ET
Moqtada al-Sadr speaks to supporters at Friday prayers at his local mosque in Kufa, central Iraq, 25 May 2007.
Photo by Qassem Zein/AFP.
Moqtada al-Sadr speaks to supporters at Friday prayers at his local mosque in Kufa, central Iraq, 25 May 2007.

In a rare interview last Friday the Shia Cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr rejected direct talks with the US, threatened a new uprising and revealed that he fears the US will kill him.

Moqtada al-Sadr spoke to the British newspaper, The Independent on Sunday, after leading prayers in the Grand Mosque at Kufa for the second time in two weeks. The cleric recently reappeared after a long period in hiding.

Both times that he has led prayers at Kufa he has worn a white burial shroud which symbolizes his readiness to become a martyr.

During the interview Sadr spoke about his fears that the US would try to kill him.

"The Americans have tried to kill me in the past, but have failed... It is certain that the Americans still want me dead and are still trying to assassinate me."

"I am an Iraqi, I am a Muslim, I am free and I reject all forms of occupation. I want to help the Iraqi people. This is everything the Americans hate," Sadr said to the newspaper.

Sadr was asked whether he would accept US proposals for open direct talks with him. He rejected the idea.

"There is nothing to talk about," Sadr said angrily. "The Americans are occupiers and thieves, and they must set a timetable to leave this country. We must know that they are leaving, and we must know when."

"We are fighting the enemy that is greater in strength, but we are in the right," he told the Independent on Sunday.

"Even if that means our deaths, we will not stand idly by and suffer from this occupation. Islam exhorts us to die with dignity rather than live in shame."

American and British forces are continuing to conduct operations against the Sadrist movement and the Mahdi Army. Sadr is threatening a new uprising.

"The occupiers have tried to provoke us, but I ordered unarmed resistance for the sake of the people," he said to the newspaper.

"We have been patient, exercising statesmanship, but if the occupation and oppression continues, we will fight."

The shia cleric claimed that his movement was trying to follow the example of Hizbollah in Lebanon.

"Hizbollah and the Mahdi Army are two sides of the same coin," he said. "We are together in the same trench against the forces of evil," Sadr said to the Independent on Sunday.

Sadr claimed that recent fighting between the Mahdi Army and the military wing of SIIC, the Badr Organization, was based on a misunderstanding.

"What happened with the Badr organization and the Mahdi Army in many parts of Iraq is the result of a sad misunderstanding," he said. " We have held discussions to stop this being repeated."

On the relationship between Iraq and Iran, Sadr insisted that he was against Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs. Alluding to recent talks between the US and Iran:

"We reject such interference," he said. "Iraq is a matter for the Iraqis."

It is unknown what kind of behind-the-scenes engagement, if any, is underway between the Sadrists and Iran, or the Sadrists and Coalition, but from the interview, it is clear that the cleric is not shedding his defiant image.

The Coalition
Military Chiefs Propose Early Withdrawal to Incoming PM
06/05/2007 01:49 AM ET
British soldiers stand at attention at Shatt al-Arab Hotel base during a handover ceremony in Basra, April 2007.
Photo by Essam al-Sudani/AFP.
British soldiers stand at attention at Shatt al-Arab Hotel base during a handover ceremony in Basra, April 2007.

Military chiefs have drawn up plans to withdraw all British troops within a year or less, a number of UK newspapers report.

The new timetable, which would see nearly all 5,500 British troops return home by next May, will be presented to Gordon Brown when he takes over as prime minister in a few weeks.

The proposals suggest withdrawing almost all troops, leaving only a small number of teams in the south to advise Iraqi military forces.

Brown is currently the chancellor of the exchequer, and the British Labour Party has indicated that he will will succeed Tony Blair when the incumbent prime minister stands down at the end of the month.

Britain's next Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, speaks with British troops in Basra, November 2006.
Photo by AFP/Getty.
Britain's next Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, speaks with British troops in Basra, November 2006.
Gordon Brown will be told that Britain should withdraw from Iraq in "quick order" and concentrate on fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, a senior military official said to the Sunday Telegraph.

"Britain is not physically capable of fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at the same time. The question is: which do we give up? The Government and the defense chiefs have decided that we should give up Iraq,” he told the Sunday Telegraph.

"There is an agreed timetable, a glide path, which will see a complete unilateral withdrawal in 12 months" the military official told the newspaper.

"There is a belief within the Ministry of Defence and Government that success is easier to measure in Afghanistan and that makes it more attractive,” the official added.

The Times (UK) suggests that the majority of troops could be withdrawn as early as the end of December.

Major-General Jonathan Shaw, the British commander in the south, has produced “tactical advice” highlighting the risks of remaining in Basra too long and proposing the withdrawing almost all British troops by the end of the year, leaving only a small number of teams in the south to advise the Iraqi military, the newspaper reports.

General Jonathan Shaw, Commander of British troops in southern Iraq, speaks during a joint press conference with Iraqi General Abdul Latif Taban (L), Basra, February 2007.
Photo by Essam al-Sudani/AFP.
General Jonathan Shaw, Commander of British troops in southern Iraq, speaks during a joint press conference with Iraqi General Abdul Latif Taban (L), Basra, February 2007.

This plan has been endorsed by Lieutenant-General Graeme Lamb, deputy coalition commander and the most senior British officer in Iraq, writes the Times.

Shortly after he becomes prime minister, Brown is due to fly to Iraq to be briefed by Shaw and other commanders on when Britain’s troops should be pulled out of Iraq.

In the past few weeks the number of British troops in Iraq has been reduced from 7,000 to 5,500 in the past few weeks. The majority of British bases in and around Basra have closed, excluding the camps at Basra Palace and the airport on the western edge of the city, the Independent reports.

An early indicator that Britain was thinking about an early withdrawal from Iraq came last October when the chief of the defense staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said that Britain should withdraw troops "sometime soon" because "our presence exacerbates the security problems."

However until now, the British Government and military have insisted that the withdrawal of troops would be dictated by events and the needs of the Iraqi government. Reactions to these reports of early withdrawal have been varied.

The Ministry of Defence said that its policy on withdrawal from Iraq was unchanged and that it was still considering a number of options, the Independent reports.

However, senior figures in Whitehall, including senior civil servants and ministers, are also anticipating a more rapid withdrawal of troops, the Sunday Telegraph reports.

A former cabinet minister has been given the job of evaluating how the proposal would be presented to the public after Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister, the Sunday Telegraph reports.

"Gordon will not do anything foolish and will ultimately be guided by the views of the military commanders. But there is a chance for progress now. Our withdrawal schedule can be altered," a minister with close links to Mr Brown’s circle said to the Sunday Telegraph.

However a source close to Gordon Brown said "Gordon has made clear that we will continue to meet our commitments to our allies and to the Iraqi people, the Sunday Telegraph reports.

"All decisions on troop deployment will continue to be made according to our operational objectives - not political timetables," the source added.

The Latest
New Islamic Union Seeks to Defuse Sectarian Tension, Unite Iraqis
06/04/2007 9:05 PM ET
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - JUNE 4: Muslim scholars and religious leaders attend the opening of an association of Iraqi Muslim scholars on June 4, 2007 in Baghdad, Iraq.
Wathiq Khuzaie/AFP/Getty
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - JUNE 4: Muslim scholars and religious leaders attend the opening of an association of Iraqi Muslim scholars on June 4, 2007 in Baghdad, Iraq.

Baghdad, June 4, (VOI)- Muslim scholars announced on Monday the establishment of an Islamic union aimed at stopping bloodshed and sectarian violence in Iraq.

The founding conference for the Union of Muslim Scholars in Iraq, which was held in Baghdad under the title "Muslim scholars unity symbol for Iraqi people unity" and attended by more than 130 religious character, including Sunnis, Shiites and Kurdish leaders, agreed to leave the union membership open for all Iraqi scholars.

The conference urged in a statement "all Iraqi religious scholars inside and outside the country to join the new union during a conference due to be held in Sulaimaniya in Kurdistan region within the upcoming days."

They considered "Mecca Pledge Document", a document signed by Iraqi scholars of all sects in last September in Mecca of Saudi Arabia, as the ground for Sunnis and Shiites to preserve holy places and stop murders and sectarian violence, underlining "the necessity to maintain Iraq's unity."

Several Iraqi religious leaders signed in Mecca last year "the Mecca Document" calling for "banning the slaughtering of Iraqis regardless of their religious and sectarian affiliation." The document also called for bridging the gap between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims and underlined the gravity of the sectarian crimes that were being committed.

The statement strongly denounced the "terrorist attacks and the administrative corruption in the country."

It also criticized "the bombing attack that took place in Shiite holy shrines in Samarra." The participants called upon all political blocs to solve their political disputes and to find ways to end the foreign presence in Iraq.

They urged religious leaders in Najaf, an important center of the Shi'a religious hierarchy, and al-Azhar in Egypt, an important Sunni institution, as well as the Organization of the Islamic Conference to support the new union's efforts to end the Iraqi crisis.

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