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PETROL POLITICS
Experts Says Revenue-Sharing Settled, Paving Way for Law's Passage
By BEN LANDO 09/27/2007 12:07 PM ET
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (UPI) -- J. Jay Park's work on international legal petroleum regimes has taken him around the world. He helped craft Somalia's new hydrocarbons law and has led training sessions for officials in Iraq's Oil Ministry.

He also represented Western Oil Sands, a Canadian firm, in its deal with the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government.

Earlier this month in Dubai, Park held a daylong workshop on the ins and outs of Iraq's draft oil law, as part of the Iraq Petroleum 2007 summit, organized by The CWC Group. Also at the summit were representatives from oil firms around the world, as well as top Iraqi oil officials, including Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani.

United Press International sat down with Park on the sidelines of the summit to discuss the mind frame for crafting an oil law; what decisions the Iraqi government now faces; what type of regime Iraq can choose from; and what types of contracts -- including the controversial production sharing agreement -- work for Iraq's oil.

UPI: You’ve worked either with companies working within certain legal regimes or helped the governments set up legal regimes, so you’ve seen this from both sides. Looking at the Iraq situation, how do you see them being able to find compromise, to agree on ... to pass an oil law, either this (draft) one or another one?

Park: When I’m looking at a resource law from a legal standpoint there are certain attributes that I want to see it addresses. The attributes from the point of view of the state are: is there going to be fair share of resource revenue going to the state? Is there going to be adequate addressing of environmental, health and safety issues? Are they going to ensure there are local benefits accruing to the economy through employment, through training, through technology? Are they going to ensure that opportunities for development in respect to the resource can be seized within the economy and not just exported? And is there a transparent process for the award of rights and the administration of the business?

From the point of view of the investor, what they want to know is: is this a regime in which if they make a discovery they will be able to complete that development so they can monetize the investment that they make? Number two, is the agreement a stable agreement so that once they make an investment they’re going to be able to recover what they’ve invested, so the deal won't change on the them, which is a problem we see in a lot of places, what we call the problem of the obsolescing bargain? And then finally, are they going to be able to have adequate legal means for remedies if there is non-compliance with the agreement?

So if you’ve got all those features addressed in a petroleum law then I think the law itself is a good law because it addresses well the issues that arise between a state and investor. That’s what I look at. That’s a technical kind of analysis.

When you then say, politically, how are they going to get this passed, that to me is really an issue for Iraqis. One of the things that I always look to is this issue of the sharing of the resource. In Iraq, they address this issue in part in the constitution. It needed more definition in the petroleum law and a revenue-sharing law, and that is part and parcel of the process.

Now the biggest issue you have with respect to sharing of the resource revenue is who gets to receive the revenue. And I’m advised that there has been a deal, that they have agreed to share the revenue resulting from the resource economy on a demographically equal basis. That’s the biggest issue. If they have solved the biggest issue, all the other issues about who controls activity, they’re less important. So if they’ve solved the big issue, then already then in my view the other issues are surely able to be solved and therefore I’m optimistic the (oil) law is going to be passed. Because once you’ve solved the revenue issue and how you’re going to share it, then it’s in everyone’s interest to make the revenue pie bigger. And when you’ve got everybody aligned in that sense, then I think you’re going to see success.

Q: In the oil minister’s presentation, when asked about what happens if the law is dragged out for so long, and he said ‘well we have the legal right to move forward on our own because we need to develop whether there is a new law or not,’ can you explain that, what he bases that on?

A: Iraq has an oil law. It was passed in the 1980s. It is a short law, seven or eight pages, 17 articles. It grants the power to the government to manage the industry and award rights in respect to petroleum activities. It doesn’t contain a great deal of detail on how that is to be done and you can follow from that then there is a great deal of discretion in the government as to how it may run the industry under the terms of that law.

What I believe the ministry is saying by that is ‘there is not a vacuum with respect to petroleum law in Iraq. We’d like to see the new law passed because it’s a better law than the old law,’ and I’m inclined to agree. From a technical petroleum law viewpoint, the new law is a better law than the old law. What I think the minister is saying, in effect, ‘we want this law passed and if it isn’t passed then we’ll have to just work with the old law.’

Q: You started your presentation explaining your frame of mind when you go into drafting an oil law. We have the Iraq scenario where we know there’s a lot of oil and gas and we assume there’s a lot more oil and gas and the industry is already established for a long time. Compared to, for example, Somalia or another country where we think there might be oil and gas but we don’t know so that’s why we’re creating this regime so we can figure it out, we can have the legal tools to do the exploration and development. So what are your thoughts when you’re creating, what is the difference when you’re creating the law, your mind frame when you sit down to write it.

A: The difference between developing a law for a regime that does not know if it has any oil and gas versus developing a law for a regime that knows it has a substantial existing base is what do you do with a substantial existing resource base?

What many countries have done is they’ve established a state oil company and give it the management and ownership of the existing resource base. The enhancement and the development of that resource base is then within the control of that state oil company. But new exploration operations would then be open for assessment as to how the state should deal with that. Many states take different approaches to that.

Mexico says only the state oil company can do any exploration. Consequently, there’s not a great deal of exploration and Mexico’s production is declining because their state oil company lacks the capital to explore it extensively.

Other countries, I come from Canada, says ‘no, we’re not going to have a state oil company but we’re going to award these rights to private investors.’

Iraq has chosen a middle ground. Iraq has said a state oil company will hold the existing producing base. It will also hold the discovered but undeveloped areas that are close to existing production and it may invite other companies to assist it in developing those resources but fundamentally they will be owned by the state oil company.

Then with respect to exploration areas and other discovered areas that need a lot of work to develop them, the scope is broader for how that can be done in terms of many different types of petroleum contracts that could be used, with many different structures, although it's clearly suggested that a joint venture with Iraqi participants is to be encouraged.

Q: What would you say are the risks in entering Iraq’s oil sector?

A: The principle risk that oil companies are designed to address is geological risk ...

Q: Is there oil or not, will you put the money in and come up with nothing ...

A: ... Exactly. That generally the record on exploration is that out of every 10 exploratory wells only one or two are going to be successful. But the geology and opportunities around the world vary widely and so clearly Iraq is one of those places where the geology offers wonderful opportunities because we’ve already seen how much exploration there’s been and there’s a great deal more yet to be explored. Clearly the geological risk in Iraq is less than it is in Ireland.

Q: In your presentation you had the four annexes up there. (The annexes are a draft list of the categories of Iraq’s oil fields and exploration blocks, which the Iraq Oil Ministry has created.) You said this is the contract that you would use for each. Can you explain what specific contract per annex and why not the other ones?

A: Annex 1 is just producing fields. It’s likely the existing producing fields involve minimal to no risk in terms of, you know, it’s producing and what’s needed is services to enhance production and enhance facilities to allow production to occur. In those regimes around the world that use a service contract, that’s the type of contract that it’s used for.

Other fields that need development work, drilling of further wells, construction of more significant facilities because they are not currently producing, often a development type contract is designed differently and has different work commitments and even you might need a different skill set as well, so that’s why I deduced from the language of the draft law that a development contract is something that is suited to that kind of an arrangement.

And finally when it comes to areas that don’t have a discovery, that’s where there is a more significant degree of risk and a risk exploration contract is best suited to that. It’s designed to encourage exploration activity and if exploration is successful, to allow development.

Q: What’s the difference between the risk contract and the exploration and development contract?

A: In my opinion you’re just mixing up different terms. An exploration and development contract and a risk exploration contract, to me, would mean the same thing.

Q: So the terms that they’re (Iraqi government) putting up there, why do they have these two mixed terms?

A: One, I believe, is intended to be a broad term to describe a wide range of contracts called exploration and development contracts and then the other term, the risk exploration contract, is a specific contract they have in mind. It’s one of the details of the law that needs to be further elaborated, either in the regulations or in the model contract.

Q: And if they decided to go the route of the production sharing agreement or some modified version that would fit within the law, where within these annexes would that fall? Would that be Annex 4?

A: A production sharing type contract could be a form of risk exploration contract that would be suited to Annex 4. The word development and production contract doesn’t to me define a specific type of agreement, it defines what the activities will occur under the agreement. Consequently, that’s another area that needs better definition in the regulations and in the model contracts that will follow.

Q: But when you just take a production sharing agreement or production sharing contract, and if those were to be one of the model contracts that are available for the Iraq government to sign with an oil company, where do you see this being applicable, in the four annexes, and where would it not make sense to do a production sharing agreement, from the government’s standpoint? In Annex 1, would you sign a PSA in Annex 1?

A: The problem is we’re using a set of terms that are designed to apply to a different concept, which is exploration activities and all the types of activities we tend to see for exploration type petroleum activities, and seeking to apply it to an existing, producing resource base.

Q: So you’re saying a PSA is for when exploration is involved.

A: It would be rare to see a production sharing agreement used and granted at a time of, for a field with existing production.

Q: What about for a discovered but not producing field?

A: A discovered but undeveloped field could conceivably be the subject of a production sharing contract if the state decides that that’s the appropriate tool to use.

Q: But there’s far less risk because you know that there’s oil there.

A: The usual kinds of activities under a production sharing contract would need to be suitably revised to suit the development, instead of an exploration and development situation.

Ben Lando is UPI's energy editor. (energy@upi.com) This article was re-printed by permission.

© Copyright United Press International. All Rights Reserved.

RUMOR MILL
Unconfirmed Reports Predict Impending Battles in Southwestern District
09/26/2007 4:37 PM ET
Southwestern Baghdad.
Map by Zeyad.
Southwestern Baghdad.

IraqSlogger’s sources in a southwestern Baghdad district expect heavy fighting to break out in the near future between local Shi'a militiamen and tribal forces from outside the neighborhood, as a rumor circulates of violations committed by the Sunni tribesmen against Shi'a civilians in the area.

The unconfirmed buzz in the Saidiya district of Baghdad is that tribal forces, brought in from outside of Baghdad province, stopped cars that were circulating in the area and killed Shi'a passengers inside.

Tension has descended in the neighborhood with the circulation of this rumor, and residents expect a reprisal attack by the Shi'a Mahdi Army against the Sunni tribal forces.

Given the level of controversy over the deployment of tribal forces from outside of Baghdad, locals tell Slogger that the attack could erupt into heavy clashes between the Shi’a militias and the Sunni tribal forces.

IraqSlogger reported earlier that Sunni tribal forces of the “Anbar Awakening,” from Anbar province, have been deployed, with US and Iraqi military support, across provincial lines into the restive district of Saidiya in southwestern Baghdad. This appears to be the first deployment of irregular tribal militias across provincial lines since the formation of the pro-US tribal “Anbar Salvation Council” in the fall of 2006.

The “Anbar Salvation Council” evolved into the “Anbar Awakening” and several “salvation councils” and “awakenings” have sprung up in other Sunni and mixed areas, with US support. These groups are generally staffed by locals from the area.

Earlier in the week, hundreds of Shi'a residents of Sayidiya traveled to the city center to protest in front of the Baghdad provincial council over the presence of the “Awakening” forces in Saidiya. The protestors accused the approximately 250 tribal fighters in the area of connections to “terrorist groups,” AFP reported in Arabic, and held them responsible for killings, forced displacement, and property destruction in the area.

AFP also writes that the “Awakening” forces were brought into Saidiya with coordination from the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni Arab party in the Iraqi parliament.

RUMOR MILL
Report of US-MEK Partnership: Iranian Counterspin or New US Policy?
09/24/2007 7:28 PM ET
Maryam Rajavi, a leader of the MEK.
Maryam Rajavi, a leader of the MEK.

An unconfirmed report alleges a deepening connection between US intelligence and a controversial Iranian exile organization based in Iraq since the 1980s, especially in the Kurdish northern area of Iraq, where the US-Iran standoff has escalated recently in the wake of the American capture of an Iranian national last week.

The Sadrist Nahrain Net carries a report in Arabic, citing unknown “well-placed sources” in Iraqi Kurdistan who say that members of the Mujahadi-e Khalq (MEK), or People's Mujahadin, were deeply involved in the recent reported operation by US special forces at the Suleimaniya Palace Hotel that led apparently to the capture of an Iranian national, identified by Kurdish and Iranian sources as Mahmudi Farhadi, who had entered the country on a trade delegation.

US forces, who did not name the captive, accuse him of involvement with the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and say he was training Iraqi militia fighters and smuggling deadly armor-piercing weapons into the country.

Nahrain Net writes that its information “confirms that the US intelligence is now coordinating in the Kurdistan region in a complete way with the Iranian Mujahadi-e Khalq Organization, and a group of elements of this organization moves about with the Americans in this region and espeiclaly in Sulaymaniya with all freedom, and these elements are what entangled the Americans (in the operation),” and convinced them that Farhadi, the captured member of the delegation, was an Iranian Republican Guard operative, rather than a member of a peaceful delegation, as Kurdish officials insist.

MEK logo.
The MEK has been identified as a terrorist organization by the US State Department, but US forces have not cracked down on the group since the 2003 occupation of Iraq, leading to protest by Iran and its allies in Iraq. The MEK was reportedly disarmed and confined to a base in Ashraf, north of Baghdad, under US guard. Iran has recently accused MEK leaders of slipping from Iraq into Jordan. Pro-Iranian factions in Iraq have repeatedly accused the MEK of conducting intelligence and even military operations inside Iraq since 2003.

Pro-Iranian parties such as the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (formerly SCIRI) and its Badr militia, have objected to the MEK presence in Iraq, and called for the camp to come under Iraqi control. On the other hand, some Iraqi factions wary of Iranian power in Iraq, even those opposed to the US presence in the country, have defended the MEK. The MEK, a longstanding opponent of the Iranian Islamic Republic regime, was hosted by the Saddam Hussein after it was forced into exile during the consolidation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Some reports even suggest that the organization helped the regime repress the 1991 Shi'a uprising in Iraq. In January, the organization released a list of what it said were “Iranian agents” operating in Iraq.

The report of US-MEK cooperation in northern Iraq cannot be confirmed. Similar reports are carried in Iranian media.

However, if the unconfirmed rumor of MEK deployment in Kurdistan, with US cooperation, were true, it could signal a part of a larger shift in US policy as it moves towards a more confrontational position with Iran.

On the other hand, the report may only be a piece of Iranian counterspin after the capture of the Iranian national in Suleimaniya. The Iranian government is in the habit of accusing the MEK of involvement of much of the anti-Iranian activity in Iraq, in part in an attempt to point out the tolerance, if not alliance, between the US and a “terrorist” organization.

TURF WAR
How the Death of Reviled Mahdi Commander Put Sunnis on the Run
09/24/2007 12:07 PM ET
The death of a Mahdi commander rarely elicits more than a paragraph in Western press coverage, but the LA Times' Ned Parker takes a closer look at unrest in Baghdad's Washash area this weekend, after the killing of a widely-despised local militia leader Thursday sparked reprisal violence and the exodus of many local Sunnis.

Mahdi Army commander Hamoudi Naji had negotiated a truce five months ago with the tribal leaders of Ugaidat neighborhood in Washash, though it's clear his leadership was far from enlightened.

Naji was widely-despised by both Sunni and Shia, as most thought he led little more than a gang of thugs--men who would squeeze local businesses for protection money, or evict Sunnis from their homes so they could be rented out.

Parker reports even Mahdi militiamen had mixed feelings about their commander. He reports one applauded his death: "We are much better off with Naji dead," the fighter said. "We feel safer. Hamoudi Naji did so many bad things."

But other fighters praised Naji for the truce he had forged and considered his killing in a Sunni neighborhood to be a betrayal. "He was a great man and from the good elements of the Mahdi Army," said a fighter in west Baghdad.

Regardless of the mixed feelings towards Naji, once he was shot by unknown gunmen while walking through Ugaidat on Thursday, small gangs of his followers began hunting down Sunnis across the district--killing between five and twenty.

Abu Yasser, a Sunni tribal leader who had lived in the area for more than 50 years and had negotiated the truce with Naji, consulted with the Iraqi and US military on whether or not his family should stay or flee.

Abu Yasser said one Iraqi officer told him: "What are you still doing in the middle of this Shiite area? Why haven't you left already? You are bringing us all troubles."

Yasser agreed and joined a caravan of Sunni families in cars escorted by the Iraqi army that left Washash on Friday. "We left our houses. We only took the important small things and some clothes," he said. "I don't think we will ever go back to our houses, especially after what happened."

Rebuilding
Campaign of Intimidation, Violence Leaves Project Behind Schedule
09/21/2007 3:16 PM ET
Basra, IRAQ: An Iraqi security man guards the site where construction workers are building a wall at the children's hospital in the southern city of Basra, 19 December 2006.
Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty
Basra, IRAQ: An Iraqi security man guards the site where construction workers are building a wall at the children's hospital in the southern city of Basra, 19 December 2006.

A state-of-the-art children’s hospital which was meant to improve the quality of healthcare in the southern province of Basra has been severely delayed as a result of attacks on project staff.

Since the project to build the new paediatric and teaching hospital in Basra began, dozens of people working on it have been killed; it has run significantly over-budget; and some doubt if it will ever be finished.

Hospitals in Basra, which is home to two million people and some of the country's largest oil reserves, lack vital medicine, supplies and staff. A healthcare crisis has now hit the province, which has seen a rise in life-threatening diseases, such as typhus and kala azar - a potentially fatal illness transmitted by a sandfly parasite.

In May 2005, hopes were raised that healthcare for children in the province would improve when the cornerstone of a state-of-the-art paediatric and teaching hospital was laid. Among those promoting the construction of the Basra Children's Hospital were United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Laura Bush, wife of US president George W Bush.

The project was set to finish on December 31, 2005, but more than a year and a half after its scheduled completion date, the planned new facility remains a building site.

The US Agency for International Development, USAID, gave the 50-million US dollar contract for the hospital to Bechtel Corporation - the largest engineering company in the US - in August 2004. Project HOPE, a non-governmental organisation, promised to provide 30 million dollars in medical equipment and training for hospital staff.

The construction of the hospital was part of the US government's 18.4-billion-dollar reconstruction package for Iraq, an estimated 2.4 billion dollars of which went to Bechtel. The San Francisco-based company was also given other reconstruction contracts that included rebuilding power, water and sewage plants across Iraq.

The finished hospital would cover 71,000 square metres and have 94 beds - with plans for at least double the amount of beds in the future. Its facilities were to include three operating rooms, an emergency ward, a cancer treatment ward, up-to-date medical equipment, laboratories which could be used by medical students at the University of Basra, and dormitories for physicians.

At that time, Basra was in many ways an ideal location for development and reconstruction projects. It was quiet immediately after the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's regime - its Shia population had suffered greatly under the dictator and was glad to be rid of him.

Bechtel said in a later report, from September 2006, that in the early days of the project it had believed Basra "was one of the most peaceful locales in Iraq".

But then Shia militias started to take over the city. They targeted hospitals in particular, threatening doctors, demanding control over medical facilities, and even re-naming them. One of the largest hospitals in Basra has officially been renamed al-Sadr Hospital, following pressure from members of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army.

The Basra Children's Hospital project ran smoothly for a couple of months before the bloodshed began.

One by one, project workers were targeted. Bechtel's site security manager, a former colonel in the Iraqi army, was murdered in July 2005. The site manager received death threats and resigned, and Bechtel's senior Iraqi engineer quit after his daughter was kidnapped.

The regional director of the project, Bassam Albu-Riyala from Jordan, moved his office to Sulaimaniyah in northern Iraq after being threatened. The project's chief engineer, Hussein al-Samarai, a Sunni, also left Basra because of intimidation. Twelve employees of a subcontractor in charge of the hospital's electricity and plumbing were killed in their offices. Eleven workers of another company supplying the project's concrete were murdered too.

Senior Bechtel executive Cliff Mumm said the company constantly reviewed security and was satisfied with the protection it offered its people. "We didn't stay under duress," he said. "I think all of our people...got involved in , and no one wants to leave a job half-done."

But in the face of escalating intimidation, other companies decided to get out.

Subcontractor Fayha Company, which supplied concrete blocks to the project, cancelled its contract after its workers were executed. Another subcontractor Ibtikar Company also quit when militants attacked their office and threatened to kill all their staff if they didn’t stop work on the project. Ibtikar later resumed its work, but under a new name.

Director of the project Talal Hussein al-Saloom - who works for Mid Contracting, one of the largest construction companies in Jordan, and formerly one of Bechtel's primary subcontractors - said that the project came under attack because it was difficult to convince locals that its aim was to create a children's hospital, and not a prison or a detention camp to be used by the Americans.

“Eventually, everyone realised that it’s a vital national project,” he said.

The security problems have caused massive delays in the project, which has also run vastly over budget.

In mid-2005, Bechtel warned USAID of delays and increased costs as a result of violence and labour disputes. In March 2006, it estimated that that the hospital would not be complete until July 2007 and that costs had soared to 98 million dollars.

Just three months later, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction estimated that the project would cost 150 million to 170 million dollars.

The US government then dropped Bechtel for falling nearly a year behind schedule and exceeding the budget. The construction company consistently cited security problems as the main reason for increased costs.

Work on the project resumed in August 2006 with the US Army Corps of Engineers taking over as project management in the autumn of 2006, and Mid Construction staying on as the primary subcontractor.

As of spring 2007, about 60 per cent of the construction work had been completed.

Mumm, whose employer Bechtel no longer works in Iraq, said he doubted that the hospital could be finished under the current circumstances in Basra, which is now controlled by rival Shia militias.

However, Saloom said project staff are now are on good terms with local militias and clerics in the city. The construction deadline now is September 2008, and the hospital is expected to be fully furnished, equipped and receiving patients by January 2009, he said.

Acting minister of health Amir al-Khuzai remains hopeful that Basra Children's Hospital will be completed, “despite all of the challenges, it is in everyone's interest”.

This article was written by an Institute for War & Peace Reporting based in Basra.

RUMOR MILL
Locals: New Forces on Streets of Capital May Be from out of Town
09/19/2007 9:10 PM ET
Sunni tribal leaders at a summit with Iraqi officials on September 6, in Ramadi, where the central government announced that Anbar would receive $120 million for development and reconstruction.
John Moore/Getty Images.
Sunni tribal leaders at a summit with Iraqi officials on September 6, in Ramadi, where the central government announced that Anbar would receive $120 million for development and reconstruction.

Rumors are circulating in a restive Baghdad district that tribal forces from outside the capital have moved into the area to patrol the neighborhood.

Locals in a predominantly Sunni area in the south of the capital tell IraqSlogger that armed tribal forces from outside the area have been spotted conducting patrols along the district’s streets.

Residents of the Saidiya area in southern Baghdad told IraqSlogger that a new force began patrolling the area on Wednesday.

IraqSlogger’s sources in Saidiya confirm that unfamiliar irregular forces are patrolling the streets, apparently hunting for al-Qa'ida in Iraq operatives, but cannot at this time confirm the origin of the new fighters in the area.

However, unconfirmed rumors are circulating that the unrecognized paramilitary forces patrolling Saidiya are not in fact from the area, and may be tribal forces from Anbar province.

There have been unconfirmed reports, sourced to Iraqi security officials, that US forces planned to move Sunni tribal forces from elsewhere in the country into Baghdad’s Sunni areas.

One such report, which appeared last month, also sourced to an anonymous Iraqi security official, told of an undisclosed US order to redeploy the Iraqi Interior Ministry security forces into the south of the country, and impose control over Baghdad with Iraqi Defense Ministry troops along with tribal fighters brought into the capital from elsewhere in the country.

Such reports have not been confirmed by the Americans, nor has the redeployment of tribal forces from outside the capital to Baghdad been confirmed on the ground in the capital.

Saidiya has earned a reputation as one of the dangerous lawless areas under Sunni control in Western Baghdad. However, MNF and the Iraqi army have recently deployed to the district, and Slogger sources report modest improvements in the security situation in the area.

Gen. Abboud Qanbar, commander of the Baghdad Security Plan visited the area and met with the residents, and some displaced families have even returned to the area, locals told IraqSlogger, counting nine families who had returned to their homes earlier in the week.

However, the security of Saidiya is still not consolidated, Slogger sources say, and unidentified bodies continue to turn up on the streets of the district. An IED last week injured twelve people.

In late August, snipers in Saidiya killed at least two Shi'a pilgrims heading on foot from Baghdad to Karbala for the Sha'baniya pilgrimage.

Moreover, one rumor circulating in southern Baghdad holds that militants connected to al-Qa’ida in Iraq are slipping into the Saidiya area as they are driven out of areas south and west of Baghdad.

RUMOR MILL
Locals: District at Mercy of Factional War, International Conflict
09/18/2007 5:09 PM ET
A man stands at the entrance of his house damaged during a US air and ground raid in Sadr City on September 11.
Photo by Wissam Okali/AFP.
A man stands at the entrance of his house damaged during a US air and ground raid in Sadr City on September 11.

In the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, the bulk of the militia appears to have complied with Muqtada al-Sadr’s orders to stand down. However, several incidents and rumors reported by IraqSlogger’s sources in the district tell of tensions between elements inside the Sadrist current over the decision to “freeze” the militia, as well as frustration with the smoldering hostilities between rival factions – and international players – that often maps out in deadly ways on the district’s streets.

Slogger’s sources in Sadr City have watched for developments and rumors involving the powerful Shi'a militia in the Eastern Baghdad slum known for its loyalty to the Sadrist current after Muqtada al-Sadr gave the order to suspend all Mahdi Army activity for up to six months while the Sadrist organization pursues a “restructuring” of the Mahdi Army.

Residents tell IraqSlogger that a palpable tension is felt between those who appear to be loyal supporters of the young Shi'a cleric -- who seem to have stood down pending further orders -- and elements who also operate under the Mahdi Army rubric, but without the string attached of responsibility to Muqtada al-Sadr’s decrees.

An altercation that broke out over the weekend was particularly telling, residents report. At a market in Sadr City, a group of young men, claiming to be members of the Mahdi Army, initiated a fight with the shop owners, also residents of the district. Slogger observers suggest that the young men may have been seeking to extort goods or payments from the shops. No one was injured in the fistfight that ensued, but the shopowners forced the young men to retreat by reminding them that all Mahdi Army activity had been suspended, and threatened to complain to the Sadrist office.

Below the surface, a low-level war continues between elements of the Sadrist current and its primary Shi'a rival, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), especially those affiliated with the SIIC’s paramilitary wing, the Badr organization. Some Mahdi Army elements have continued armed operations, residents have reported, and rumors abound in Sadr City of other covert activity by Mahdi Army elements.

It is rumored that several acts of violence in and near Sadr City in the last week are rooted in this smoldering conflict between the two powerful Shi'a organizations.

In Sadr City, residents say that three young men who were found dead last week were killed by Mahdi Army elements because they were suspected Badr members, working as guards in one of the SIIC offices in the area.

Another incident involved a possible In the adjoining Shi'a district of Talibiya, a car bomb exploded on Thursday near the entrance to Sadr City from the northwest. As Aswat al-Iraq reported, the bomb seemed to target an Iraqi police patrol, but residents also report that the bomb is rumored to have been intended for a commander in the Badr organization who was expected in the area. The bomb blast missed the Badr member, but killed seven bystanders and wounded 17, residents report.

Before the explosion residents had reported the suspicious vehicle moving in the area, but the authorities did not respond, locals tell IraqSlogger, suggesting complicity of the authorities in the deadly blast and apparent assassination attempt.

These rumors, reported by local residents to IraqSlogger, cannot be confirmed at this time.

If they are true, however, it is also unknown at this time if whether the assassins of the SIIC guards and the perpetrators of the car bomb would have been acting with the approval of the Sadrist offices, or if they were possibly Mahdi Army-related vigilantes pursuing an anti-Badr agenda out of the control of the loyal Sadrist organization.

While Sadr City is known as a stronghold of opposition to the the US presence in Iraq, the opposition of many locals to Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs is often overlooked. Many residents view the deadly US airstrikes and raids that continue in Sadr City as an Iranian-US conflict fought in their neighborhood.

Locals blame Iranian intelligence for infiltrating the Mahdi Army and funding armed cells. These Iranian-linked groups have continued their operations against US forces in spite of the ordered “freeze,” and some residents blame them for the US operations that often claim civilian lives in Sadr City, implying that that an escalating proxy conflict between the US and Iran is visiting the horrors of war on noncombatants in the district.

As such, reports of an American military base to be built on the Iranian border in Maysan Province have received unexpected reviews among residents of the district, who are typically opposed to the US presence in the country. Some locals told IraqSlogger that they were willing to see the base constructed, so long as it reduced the power of the armed groups in Iraq that are linked to Iranian intelligence. That could lead, in their opinion, to an end to the American raids that they say kill harmless people in Sadr City.

Residents of Sadr City routinely protest US raids against Mahdi Army elements in the district, which US forces often describe as targeting Iranian-linked militants.

In one recent raid, Americans targeted militants in Sadr City in the early morning last Tuesday. Residents say US forces were searching for men with links to Iran, killing and capturing nearly two dozen individuals. Residents told IraqSlogger that at least 4 civilians were killed and 6 were wounded in the operations.

The Latest
Ministry Says License Revoked, But Expert Says Blackwater Never Had One
By CHRISTINA DAVIDSON 09/17/2007 10:37 AM ET
BAGHDAD, IRAQ: A security officer sits at the open door of a helicopter belonging to the US security firm Blackwater flies close to black smoke billowing from a fire in an area in central Baghdad 03 March 2005.
Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty
BAGHDAD, IRAQ: A security officer sits at the open door of a helicopter belonging to the US security firm Blackwater flies close to black smoke billowing from a fire in an area in central Baghdad 03 March 2005.

The Iraqi government announced Monday that it had suspended the operating license of Blackwater Security and plans to pursue those contractors responsible for an incident Sunday in which a number of civilians were killed.

But Iraqslogger's Robert Young Pelton questions the Iraqi government's ability to impact Blackwater operations, and warns that the issue might be masking a deeper confrontation between the US and Iraqi governments.

On Sunday, a Blackwater convoy was ferrying State Department personnel when it reportedly came under fire. The security detail is alleged to have responded with gunfire, which sprayed civilians in the area.

"The interior minister (Jawad al-Bolani) has issued an order to cancel Blackwater's license and the company is prohibited from operating anywhere in Iraq," interior ministry director of operations Major General Abdel Karim Khalaf said Monday.

"We have opened a criminal investigation against the group who committed the crime."

However, according to Pelton, author of Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, "Because Blackwater only works for the US State Department and CIA in Iraq, they do not have nor do they need a license from the Ministry of the Interior. Blackwater briefly held an MOI license (which puts them under Iraqi jurisdiction) but did not renew it. Currently they hold no license for the MOI to revoke."

Pelton points out that the security firm was recently kicked out of the running in a major bid to coordinate security for the military's regional operations center because the contract required registration with the Interior Ministry, which Blackwater had not done

The Iraqi government will also face frustration if it tries to pursue a criminal case against the contractors, Pelton says, because a CPA order that barred Iraqi prosecution of individuals operating under US contracts has never been revoked.

Another possible complication in this particular incident is that many Blackwater contractors working protective detail for the State Department have been issued diplomatic passports, which grants them diplomatic immunity.

Pelton says the most the Iraqi government could do in this case would be to expel non-Iraqi Blackwater contractors from the country, but he views that development as a remote possibility.

"If they kicked Blackwater out of the country, that would severely cripple the operations of the US government," he says. At any given time, the security company may only have 300 or 400 men operating on the ground, but those hired guns perform critical security functions for the CIA and State Department.

Pelton points out that the Iraqi government has made previous unsuccessful attempts to bring Blackwater to account for civilian fatalities, such as the Christmas Eve 2006 killing of an Iraqi man inside the Green Zone.

The Iraqi government has faced insurmountable obstacles in previous efforts to make Western security contractors accountable for civilian casualties they cause, but the high number of deaths in this incident may fuel enough animosity regarding their legal immunity to provoke some reform.

Official sources have reported various casualty statistics resulting from Sunday's incident, but the number killed seems to be between 8 and 11, and the number injured about 13.

The shootings happened Sunday about 12:30 on Nisoor Square in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Mansour, a police officer told the Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.

The security contractors were in a convoy of six SUVs and left the scene after the shooting. The policeman said he did not have more details, but a witness said the shooting erupted after an explosion.

"We saw a convoy of SUVs passing in the street nearby. One minute later, we heard the sound of bomb explosion followed by gunfire that lasted for 20 minutes between gunmen and the convoy people who were foreigners and dressed civilian clothes. Everybody in the street started to flee immediately," said Hussein Abdul-Abbas, who owns a mobile phone store in the area.

AFP reports lawyer Hassan Jabar Salman was hit by five bullets while trying to flee the scene in his car, he said in Baghdad's Al Yarmukh Hospital, where he was being treated.

Salman said he heard an explosion near Nissur Square, and saw the convoy two cars ahead of him.

"The foreigners in the convoy started shouting and signaling us to go back. I turned around, and must have driven 100 feet when they started shooting.

"There were eight of them in four utility vehicles, and all shooting with heavy machine guns," he said as he lay wrapped in bloodied bandages on the hospital bed.

"My car was hit with 12 bullets, of which four hit me in the back and one in the arm."

Salman said he continued to drive fast and approached an Iraqi army checkpoint, which also opened fire on him, for fear that he was a suicide bomber.

"I hit a nearby truck full of gas cylinders, and that is when the soldiers came to me. They smashed the window of my car, and realized I was already bleeding. They took me to the hospital," he said.

Salman said he had seen a woman and a traffic policeman killed, and dozens of people hitting the ground to avoid the barrage of bullets.

"The security company contractors opened fire randomly on the civilians," said Brig. Gen. Khalaf. "We consider this act a crime."

A US embassy official said security vehicles of the "Department of State were involved in a shooting incident near Nissur Square.

"They received small-arms fire. One of the vehicles was disabled in the shooting, and had to be towed from the scene.

"The incident is being investigated by the Department of State Diplomatic Security Service law enforcement officials, in cooperation with the government of Iraq and multinational forces," the official added.

Blackwater officials were not available for comment on the incident.

Link To Report
Report: Despite Official Policy of Tolerance, Religious Violence Rampant
09/14/2007 5:59 PM ET
Religious freedom has declined in Iraq over the past year, as the sectarian violence has continued to touch adherents of all faiths, according to the State Department's annual International Religious Freedom Report released Friday.

The report's section on Iraq concluded that the past year has seen no significant change in the government's respect for religious choice, which it says has "generally not engaged in the persecution of any religious group" since 2003, though "some government institutions continued their long-standing discriminatory practices against the Baha'i and Wahhabi Sunni Muslims."

The biggest problem for Iraq's faithful, the report concludes, is the heightened sectarianism and rampant violence.

"What we're dealing with in Iraq is really a security situation that makes it difficult for religious practice to occur in a normal way," the State department's ambassador at large for international religious freedom said at a press conference Friday. John Hanford pointed out that Iraq's constitution has specific guarantees for religious freedom, but those freedoms were being hampered by the sectarian violence plaguing the country.

The report found that members of all religions in Iraq are "victims of harassment, intimidation, kidnapping, and killings" and that "frequent sectarian violence included attacks on places of worship."

"Many individuals from various religious groups were targeted because of their religious identity or their secular leanings," the report said.

While the assessment emphasizes the Iraqi leadership's implicit welcome to all faiths, it also highlights some instances of conservative Islam flexing authority in official circumstances.

In the past year, Basrah's education director instituted a policy requiring all females in the schools to cover their heads and all female university students in Mosul, even non-Muslims, were required to wear the hijab, or headscarf.

The Women's Affairs Ministry also reported that some male government officials, police officers, and Muslim clergymen will insist women cover themselves before these men will speak with them.

There were also allegations that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) engaged in discriminatory behavior against religious minorities. The State Departments reports Christians living north of Mosul claimed that the KRG confiscated their property without compensation and began building settlements on their land. Assyrian Christians also alleged that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)-dominated judiciary routinely discriminated against non-Muslims and failed to enforce judgments in their favor.

The Latest
LA Times Reports US Military Began Contacts With Sadr's Militia in Early 2006
09/12/2007 8:14 PM ET
The US military has been holding secret talks with members of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army since early 2006, working to broker a compromise with the Shi'ite militia, according to a new piece in the LA Times.

Baghdad-based correspondent Ned Parker reports:

The discussions have been complicated by divisions within Sadr's movement as well as the cleric's public vow never to meet with Iraq's occupiers. Underlying the issue's sensitivity, Sadrists publicly deny any contact with the Americans or British -- fully aware the price of acknowledging such meetings would be banishment from the movement or worse.

The dialogue represents a drastic turnaround in the U.S. approach to Sadr and his militia, the Mahdi Army. The military hopes to negotiate the same kind of marriage of convenience it has reached in other parts of Iraq with former insurgent groups, many Saddam Hussein loyalists, and the Sunni tribes that supported them. Both efforts are examples of how U.S. officials have sought to end violence by cooperating with groups they once considered intractable enemies.

U.S. officials now feel they have no choice but to talk to the militia. Despite its internal rifts, the Sadr movement is widely seen as the most powerful force in Baghdad. The Mahdi Army's grip is absolute on most of the capital's Shiite neighborhoods, where it sells fuel and electricity and rents houses, and it has reached deep inside the army and police. U.S. soldiers have marveled at the movement's ability to generate new leaders to replace almost every fighter they lock up.

U.S. officials fear that failure to reach a political compromise with the Sadrists could have severe consequences once U.S. forces begin to pull back from their current high levels.

"If there are no American troops and there is no American deal, the Mahdi Army seizes control of Baghdad. That's the vision. It's not a pleasant vision. It's a really bad vision. In situations like this, the most extreme elements tend to predominate," said a U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Only on Slogger
Rivals Taunt Cleric's Supporters as his Militiamen Stand Down
09/11/2007 9:17 PM ET
Muqtada al-Sadr leads prayers in Kufa on May 25 wearing a symbolic burial shroud.
Photo by Qassem Zein/AFP.
Muqtada al-Sadr leads prayers in Kufa on May 25 wearing a symbolic burial shroud.

As Mahdi Army militiamen stand down on the orders of Muqtada al-Sadr, rivals of the Sadrist current have invented a new nickname to taunt the young Shi'a cleric and his supporters, IraqSlogger sources report from several different areas of Iraq.

Playing on the cleric’s notorious bellicose style, members of rival factions in various areas of the country have begun to refer to Muqtada al-Sadr as “a soldier who has deserted,” openly deriding supporters of the cleric, many of whom have laid down their weapons after he ordered a “freeze” in Mahdi Army activity last month.

The Mahdi Army, the decentralized militia movement nominally loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, has been involved in parallel armed struggles around the country, whether with US and Iraqi forces who continue to conduct raids against Mahdi Army strongholds, Sunni militant groups with whom the militia has been locked in deadly sectarian wars in and around Baghdad, or with its predominantly Shi'a rivals in the capital and the Iraqi south.

Although the Sadrist militia is ostensibly laying low, the ongoing conflicts between the Mahdi Army and rival groups have not disappeared, Slogger sources explain, and the new mocking nickname for Sadr plays on the militia’s noted eagerness to confront armed rivals across Iraq. As Sadrist supporters are ordered to stand down, the new taunts against Muqtada are also calculated to provoke them, as they would have to defy Sadr’s orders in order to respond with force.

In Karbala, members of the security forces, loyal to Sistani and the rival Shi'a parties, have begun to openly taunt Sadr supporters by referring to Muqtada al-Sadr as al-jindi al-harib -- “the soldier who flees.”

Karbala is the continuing site of an ongoing struggle between the Sadrists and rival Shi'a factions loyal to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) and its Badr militia, the Da'wa Party of Prime Minster Nuri al-Maliki, and shrine forces under the control of Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Iraqi security forces in that city are generally under the control of the SIIC and Da'wa.

Similar taunts have been observed in Baghdad, residents tell IraqSlogger, while in Hilla, the principal city in mixed Babil province, Slogger sources report that members of the security forces have been chanting, “If Muqtada is a soldier, then he has deserted.”

Slogger readers will recall that Muqtada al-Sadr, upon his reappearance in Kufa after months in hiding, took the dramatic gesture of delivering the Friday sermon in a wrapped in a white garment meant to symbolize a burial shroud, an unspoken symbol that he was prepared to be martyred rather than give up his activism. To call Muqtada a "deserted soldier" will also symbolically question such claims of unwavering commitment to his followers and his cause.

Baghdad Buzz
Ministry Source: US Leads Major Reorganization of Iraqi Forces in Capital
09/10/2007 11:53 PM ET
Going or staying? Iraqi Interior Ministry commandos guard a construction site in Baghdad in March.
Ali Yussef/AFP.
Going or staying? Iraqi Interior Ministry commandos guard a construction site in Baghdad in March.

Are US forces orchestrating a major reorganization of the Iraqi forces operating in Baghdad?

At least one Iraqi ministry source says this is the case, according to an Arabic-language report on an Iraqi news website. According to the source, forces of an Iraqi ministry operating widely in the capital will be replaced by forces from outside the capital, in the context of a broad US plan to reconfigure the forces in control of the violence-torn city.

Al-Melaf cites an anonymous source in the Iraqi Interior Ministry as saying that “on the orders” of US forces, three brigades of Iraqi interior ministry commandos will redeploy out of the capital to three of Iraq’s southern provinces.

Baghdad’s major security operations will fall to other Iraqi formations, including recently formed Sunni tribal forces, the agency writes.

The source told al-Melaf that the Interior Ministry’s fourth brigade has been ordered to redeploy to Karbala, the fifth brigade to the city of Amara, in Maysan Province, and the sixth to Basra province.

The source reportedly told the agency that the plan in the books is for the Interior Ministry forces to leave the capital altogether, leaving Baghdad under the control of the Iraqi Army under the command of the Iraqi Defense Ministry, and US forces.

Moreover, Iraqi Army units in the capital are to be reinforced with forces from Anbar Province, the source maintains, including formations assembled by US forces from among Iraq’s Sunni Arab tribes.

Iraqi Interior ministry forces are notoriously infiltrated by Shi'a militia loyalists, especially of the Badr organization, the armed wing of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim’s Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, and a longtime Iranian ally. Many Badr members are know to have spent the Saddam years in Iran, some even fighting against Iraqi forces in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

While the reported plan, if true, could lead to a recalibration of the sectarian balance within the armed forces operating in Baghdad, such a redeployment may also have strategic repercussions in the predominantly Shi'a southern provinces, where Shi'a militias are locked in power struggles for control of the Iraqi south.

The unconfirmed report comes amid continuing US concerns regarding a rolling British drawdown in Basra, where one unit of interior forces are to be sent, and amid an open power struggle in the Shi'a shrine city of Karbala, as rival Shi'a forces loyal to the Sadrist current of Muqtada al-Sadr on the one hand, and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council on the other, stand off after fighting last month in the city during a recent Shi'a pilgrimage.

Moreover, the suggestions of moving forces from Anbar province into Baghdad -- an earlier report of which also appeared on IraqSlogger -- come as top US commander Gen. David Petraeus tells Congress that he recommends a possible draw-down in US combat forces in the coming months, possibly reducing the US combat troop numbers to pre-“surge” levels of around 130,000 troops.

The Interior ministry commandos have been dubbed the National Police, al-Melaf points out.

The Latest
Iraqi PM Cites Progress in Speech to Parliament, Warns US Troops Still Needed
09/10/2007 11:56 AM ET
Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki
Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty
Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki

Embattled Iraqi Pime Minister Nuri al-Maliki took to the podium in Parliament Monday in order to defend his administration's accomplishments, and to warn that Iraq's security forces are not prepared to take over from the US military.

"We have succeeded in preventing Iraq from sliding into the abyss of a sectarian war which was threatening our beloved country," Maliki told Iraq's Council of Representatives, adding, "I am fully confident that national reconciliation is our only way that takes Iraq into safety in spite of all the destabilizing actions by local and international groups."

Maliki claimed that the surge has led to a 75% reduction in violence in Baghdad, and that 14,128 "fighters" from armed groups linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq had renounced violence and joined the Iraqi security services, while 5,941 suspected "terrorists" had been detained.

But despite the security improvements, Maliki said, "We still need more efforts and time in order for our armed forces to be able to take over security control in all Iraqi provinces from the multinational forces that helped us in a great way in fighting terrorism and outlaws."

The prime minister has come under fire from US officials recently, who blame the Iraqi leader for his government's failure to make progress on measures of national reconciliation, such as de-Baathification legislation.

Just in time for Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker's appearance before Congress, Maliki's cabinet reportedly delivered the de-Baathification draft law to Parliament on Monday, and the legislative body is preparing to take up debate on the measure next week.

Perhaps fearing a further deterioration of his support resulting from US deliberations this week, the Iraqi premier responded strongly to critics who have argued that Maliki's leadership has hindered progress on reconciliation.

"Our constant and determined efforts to revive the reconciliation and national dialogue initiative have borne fruit by spreading the culture of tolerance, moderation and fraternity," he said.

Maliki termed the quadruple deal recently signed by four key parties--the major Shiite and Kurdish parties--to be "a step of paramount importance in the direction of activating and giving fresh impetus to the political process."

He pointed out that the national unity government "has exerted ungrudging effort to cement the political process, which recently faced a stalemate that could have led the country to serious, unfavorable conditions."

Speaking about the quintuple deal singed a few weeks ago by the parties to the four-way agreement plus the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, he described it as a "second step on the road to effectuating the political process and refreshing state institutions' performance in different fields."

Maliki also referred to the council composed of Iraqi tribes in a number of provinces, such as Anbar and Diala, describing the council as "one of the fruits of national reconciliation."

"Cooperation with Iraqi tribes that love their country has had a strong effect in eliminating terrorist organizations and restoring control over territories of Iraq," he said.

Salim Abdullah al-Jubouri, a representative of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is part of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, the Iraqi Accordance Front, agreed with al-Maliki's assessment of the security situation.

"The Iraqi security forces are not yet ready for filling the security gap that would follow a possible U.S. troop withdrawal," al-Jubouri told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "Iraqi forces might be able to face such a state after a certain period of time if they would be properly equipped and prepared."

But politically, al-Jubouri said al-Maliki did not address the real issues in his comments.

"He should have better emphasized the civil peace and national reconciliation, and on how a successful political process should be realized," He said. "There are many demands which have not been fulfilled or looked into by the Maliki government."

Smackdown
Iraqi General Claims Assessment Ignored Recent Reform Measures
09/07/2007 2:42 PM ET
Baghdad, IRAQ: Iraqi National Police security check motorists on Palestine street, close to the Iraqi finance ministry's information section in Baghdad.
Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty
Baghdad, IRAQ: Iraqi National Police security check motorists on Palestine street, close to the Iraqi finance ministry's information section in Baghdad.

The Interior Ministry takes offense at being called Iraq's most "dysfunctional" and sectarian government apparatus in the Jones Report, and has now responded with a little of its own name-calling.

The Director of the National Command Center in the Interior Ministry, Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf said Friday that "thousands of corrupted policemen have been sacked recently," describing the report as "retarded" and covering the period before the ministry enacted reform measures.

"The new recruitments in the ministry are now being done according to regulations and tough orders," Khalaf added.

"One of the conditions provided is that the policeman should be not a member of a political party or a religious movement," the Iraqi general added.

"The interior ministry is for all Iraqis and it does not deal only with a certain group or community. Its main target is to achieve security and stability throughout Iraq," he explained.

Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell on Thursday acknowledged the validity of the Jones Report criticisms regarding the sectarianism of the Interior Ministry, but said the Iraqi government also recognized problems exist and was taking steps to address them.

While Morrell didn't reference the "thousands" Khalaf said had been dismissed, he did point out that the Iraqi government had fired two division commanders and nine brigade commanders deemed too sectarian as part of the process.

Baghdad Buzz
Anfal Convicts May Be Down to Final Hours, Though Reports Conflicting
09/07/2007 10:12 AM ET
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - JUNE 24: Saddam Hussein's cousin Ali Hasan Al-Majid also known as Chemical Ali stands in court as he listens to his verdict beign pronounced by Chief Judge Mohammed Oraibi Al-Khalifa (not pictured) during the verdict trial session on June 24, 2007.
Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - JUNE 24: Saddam Hussein's cousin Ali Hasan Al-Majid also known as Chemical Ali stands in court as he listens to his verdict beign pronounced by Chief Judge Mohammed Oraibi Al-Khalifa (not pictured) during the verdict trial session on June 24, 2007.

The US military said Friday it had no knowledge of any Iraqi plans to execute Chemical Ali in the "near-term," though a Saudi paper has reported that he and two of his co-defendants in the Anfal case have been informed their death sentences will be carried out on Saturday.

"The Iraqi Criminal Court notified Ali Hassan al-Majid, alias Chemical Ali, former defense minister Sultan Hashim and former chief of staff Hussein Rashid al-Tikriti that they will be executed tomorrow," Badie Aref Ezzat, lawyer of former Iraqi deputy premier Tareq Aziz, told al-Watan.

The lawyer said the three convicts told him that they only wanted to meet their families before the executions.

The men are being held in a US detention facility, and will be transferred to Iraqi custody before their sentence is carried out. Despite the report that the men have been informed their end is near, the US military on Friday professed no knowledge of the development.

"We control Chemical Ali. He has not been moved," said U.S. Navy Captain John Fleming, spokesman for U.S. detention operations in Iraq.

"We know of no plans for the near term for the execution of that sentence," he said.

On Tuesday, an Iraqi appeals court upheld the three men's death sentence for their involvement in planning and directing the Anfal campaign in the late 80s, which reportedly killed an estimated 180,000 Kurds. The sentence must be carried out within 30 days.

Ezzat also told al-Watan that officials from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad had held a meeting on Wednesday to discuss the lack of approval by the presidency council for the death sentences, but did not indicate the outcome of the meeting.

quote of day
Sydney Newspaper Claims Bush said so to Australian Deputy Prime Minister
09/06/2007 8:46 PM ET
President Bush arriving in Sydney Tuesday, September 4.
Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP-Getty Images
President Bush arriving in Sydney Tuesday, September 4.

President Bush made the comment to Australian Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile when the Australian asked Bush about his Iraq trip Tuesday, according to the respected Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.

White House Spokeswoman Dana Perino declined to confirm or deny the report.

Here is the newspaper report.

Stay Tuned
USO Tour to Hit US Bases in Iraq in Coming Days; Exact Dates, Places TBA
09/05/2007 5:07 PM ET

Here's the announcement from the USO:
ARLINGTON, Va., Sept. 5 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The celebrated Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders will soon journey to the Persian Gulf region as part of a USO/MNC-I entertainment tour. This is the 63rd USO tour for the squad, who will mingle with troops, eat with soldiers in dining facilities, pose for pictures and perform their fully choreographed Broadway rendition of "America & Her Music," a musical variety show. A staple USO entertainment ensemble, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders have performed for the U.S. military for nearly three decades. Since their first USO tour in 1979, they have visited with wounded soldiers, assembled USO care packages, delivered holiday note cards and entertained troops during Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year's holidays. The first of a large group of entertainers to travel with the USO to Iraq, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders have participated in more tours than any other entertainment group in USO history. Most recently, the troupe participated in a USO tour to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Puerto Rico. "Touring with the USO is the highlight of our careers," says Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader Megan Fox. "There's nothing more rewarding than having the privilege and the opportunity to extend America's gratitude to those serving and defending our country." Best known for their trend-setting dance routines, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are regarded as "America's Sweethearts." Synonymous with football, the troupe has become the darlings of the National Football League and comprises 39 accomplished dancers. Recognized worldwide, they have performed on "Saturday Night Live," starred in commercials and motion pictures, and appeared on game shows like "Family Feud." The troupe can now be seen on Country Music Television's "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team," a series revealing exclusive behind-the-scenes footage during try-outs. Historically, few events have left a more lasting positive emotional impression on service members and their families than USO celebrity entertainment tours. Since the USO's inception in 1941, thousands of celebrities have selflessly lent their time and talents, and traveled to military bases around the world to entertain the troops. USO tours are essential to fulfilling the USO's focus on boosting troop morale by bringing a small piece of home to them. AT&T, Inc. is the official telecommunications sponsor of USO entertainment tours. For a list of recent and upcoming USO tours, visit http://www.uso.org/whatwedo/entertainment/. To learn more about the USO and find out how to support the troops, visit http://www.uso.org. About the USO For more than 66 years, the USO (United Service Organizations) has been providing morale, welfare and recreational services to U.S. military personnel and their families. The USO is a nonprofit, charitable organization, relying on the generosity of the American people to support its programs and services. The USO is supported by Worldwide Strategic Partners AT&T Inc., BAE Systems North America, Clear Channel Communications, The Coca-Cola Company, DRS Technologies, Inc., Military Channel, S & K Sales Co., TriWest Healthcare Alliance and The Walt Disney Company. Other corporate donors, including the United Way and Combined Federal Campaign (CFC-11381), have joined thousands of individual donors to support the USO. For more information on the USO, please visit our Web site at http://www.uso.org. Contact: Oname Thompson, (703) 908-6471 othompson@uso.org
Full Text
Finland Meeting Brings Ulster, S. African Experience to Sunni, Shia
09/04/2007 10:53 AM ET
Former IRA member and northern Irish politician Martin McGuinness speaks to the press outside Number 10 Downing Street in London.
Bruno Vincent/AFP/Getty
Former IRA member and northern Irish politician Martin McGuinness speaks to the press outside Number 10 Downing Street in London.

Four days of clandestine discourse between Iraqi Sunni and Shiite politicians in Finland has drawn to a close, and participants have agreed to a 12-point plan--the "Helsinki Agreement"--as the starting point for further negotiations on national reconciliation.

Organized by a conflict resolution group headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, the conference brought together veterans of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland and South Africa to lead panel discussions on the long and painful process of reconciliation they helped foster in their own countries.

Martin McGuinness, former IRA member and current deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, told the Belfast Telegraph it had been made clear the Irish experience was not a prescription but that lessons from it could be learned, in particular that meaningful negotiations had to be inclusive of all parties.

Jeffrey Donaldson, a pro-British Northern Irish MP involved in the meeting, said the Ulster experience factored into the final agreement. "The agreement incorporates within it the George Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence which have been lifted from the Northern Ireland process."

Mitchell, a former U.S. senator, played a key role in increasing dialogue and negotiating a power-sharing deal between the Unionists and the Sinn Fein.

Though the meeting was deliberately held in secret, and the organization sponsoring it has declined to identify any of the Iraqi participants, according to Finnish media reports, the 16 attendees included Minister of State for National Dialogue Akram al-Hakim, senior official of Iraq's Supreme Islamic Council, as well as representatives of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq and a senior figure from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shiite Dawa party.

The leader of the largest Sunni Arab political group, Adnan al-Dulaimi, and Humam Hammoudi, the Shiite chairman of the Iraqi parliament's foreign affairs committee, were also reported to have attended the talks. It does not appear that any Kurds made the trip to Finland.

The "Helsinki Agreement" put forth by the Iraqi delegates agreed on 12 recommendations, and nine political objectives, which provide a starting point for future negotiations.

The recommendations include resolving political issues by relying on the principles of non-violence and democracy, prohibiting weapons during negotiations, protecting human rights, ending international and regional involvement in Iraq's internal affairs, ensuring an independent judiciary, and forming an independent disarmament commission.

They also agreed to take steps to end violence, killings, forced displacement and any further damage to infrastructure, and also seek to establish a committee to deal with the legacy of Iraq's past.

Economic measures, fighting unemployment and adequately equipping security forces were also discussed, while there was also an emphasis on the importance of foreign troop withdrawal and rebuilding the national army.

The declaration also demanded an end to "continuous bombardment and military actions by foreign forces."

The meeting was organized by the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, with the assistance of the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), a conflict resolution group headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari.

CMI would not give details of the Iraq seminar or the participants, but CMI executive director Kalle Liesinen said: "It's not a question of peace talks, but an attempt at directing people's thoughts to the future."

Helsinki_agreement_English.pdf

Baghdad Buzz
Baghdadis Say No Coincidence in New Wave of Deadly Bombings
09/03/2007 8:46 PM ET
Iraqis gather around the wreckages of cars damaged in a roadside bomb blast in the Al-Allawi neighborhood in central Baghdad on Monday.
Photo by Ali Yussef/AFP.
Iraqis gather around the wreckages of cars damaged in a roadside bomb blast in the Al-Allawi neighborhood in central Baghdad on Monday.

A wave of car bombings and roadside bomb blasts has rocked parts of Baghdad for the second day, leading the Baghdad rumor mill to speculate as to the reasons behind the fresh spate of attacks.

Details are still emerging about the identity of the victims in the most recent explosions, but Baghdad's terrorized residents are already generating theories as to the motivations behind the new blasts, Slogger's sources in the capital report.

Speculation circulating in the Baghdad rumor mills holds that the new attacks are the handiwork of former members of Iraqi security forces who recently lost their jobs to a joint US-Iraqi operation that closed their police station in a militant stronghold in Western Baghdad, locals tell IraqSlogger.

On Wednesday of last week, US and Iraqi National forces disbanded an Iraqi police station in Baghdad’s Khadraa' district, a known stronghold of militant Sunni organizations. A statement issued by the US-led Multinational Forces (MNF) said that the station had “failed to prevent insurgent and criminal activity in the area,” and accusing the local staff of being “complacent with local insurgency efforts.”

“Improvised explosive devices were often found no more than 100 meters from Khadra IP checkpoints on main roads throughout the neighborhood,” the MNF statement says.

Policemen at the district were issued their last paycheck, the Coalition statement says, and instructed to report to Baghdad’s central police station for reassignment.

While the MNF did not go as far as explicitly linking the Khadraa' police with militant groups, rumors in the capital are not so restrained: Many Baghdadis believe that the dismissed officers of Khadraa' do indeed have ties to the extremist groups that control many of Baghdad’s Sunni neighborhoods, and many are speculating that that the recent wave of attacks in the south and west of the capital may be a form of reprisal by some of the disbanded officers, Slogger's sources say.

These rumors that are swirling around Baghdad in the aftermath of the deadly wave of bomb blasts cannot be confirmed at this time. The perpetrators and intended targets of the recent bomb blasts are not known, and the identity of the victims of the recent blasts has not yet been released.

After Sunday's explosion set cars ablaze and brought Iraqi security personnel rushing to cordon off the scene in the Aden Square area of Kadhimiya, several other deadly car bombs and explosive devices shook areas in the south and west of the capital.

Nine people died and injured at least 15 were injured in the Kadhimiya attack, Aswat al-Iraq reports in Arabic.

On Monday evening, a car bomb exploded in the Za 'faraniya area of Southern Baghdad, killing one and injuring six near the al-Qubaysi Market area, as well as damaging nearby shops, the agency adds in a separate report.

Also on Monday, two civilians died and two were injured when a car parked on the roadside detonated near Baghdad Cinema, in the Allawi area at the center of the capital, west of the Tigris. The explosives were detonated remotely, Iraqi authorities said, identifying the explosives-packed vehicle as an Opal, according to agency reports.

Deadly IED blasts were also reported by Slogger sources Monday in Zayyona, Ruba’i Street, and Yarmouk areas, although casualties of these reported attacks cannot be confirmed at this time.

As for the fate of the Khadraa' police station, the Coalition statement says: “National Police from the 2nd Battalion, 5th Brigade, 2nd Iraqi National Police Division, with the help of (American) Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, transformed the old Iraqi Police station into a National Police outpost. A joint security station already exists in the Khadra neighborhood, where National Police and Coalition Forces work side by side.”

Full Text
Massive, Risky UNICEF, WHO Campaign to Deliver Polio Vaccine to Iraqi Kids
09/02/2007 07:54 AM ET
An Iraqi nurse vaccinates a child against poliomyelitis today during a national campaign held at a hospital in central Baghdad.
Photo by Sabah Arar/AFP-Getty Images
An Iraqi nurse vaccinates a child against poliomyelitis today during a national campaign held at a hospital in central Baghdad.

In the midst of the war, 20,0000 "vaccinators" are fanning out across Iraq today on the first day of a five-day effort to provide the polio vaccine to all 4.8 million Iraqi children age four and younger.

Here is the announcement from UNICEF:

AMMAN/BAGHDAD 2 September 2007 – Another massive effort begins today to deliver a critical vaccine to as many Iraqi children under five years old as possible - 4.8 million children in total - even in the country’s most insecure and remote areas.

Almost 20,000 vaccinators will participate in the house-to-house drive, set to last five days. Their goal: to reach as many of Iraq’s under fives as possible with the oral polio vaccine (OPV), wherever they live, traveling by boat, car and on foot; Teams will also be working in every vaccination hospital and Primary Health Care Centre across the country.

OPV protects children against polio, a highly infectious and incurable paralytic disease that mostly affects the young. The current immunization campaign is part of Iraq’s ongoing polio eradication effort, which has kept Iraq polio-free since 2000, with support from UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO). Conflict and insecurity have regrettably eroded Iraq’s routine health services, making mass campaigns such as this critical to maintain immunity against infectious diseases.

But the challenges facing this campaign’s organizers and vaccinators are greater than ever. During the last campaign, in December 2006, only half as many children were immunized in parts of Baghdad and Diyala, as against the national average of 91 per cent. Reaching the most vulnerable and displaced children this time round is critical.

“Despite an incredibly high national coverage rate for these campaigns in the challenging environment within Iraq, we are committed to ensure that the most vulnerable children do not miss out,” said Roger Wright, UNICEF Special Representative for Iraq. “Over the next week, protecting vaccinators and enabling them to reach displaced children and those living in Iraq’s camps and conflict areas must be given top priority.”

Dr. Naeema Al-Ghasser, WHO Representative for Iraq, also praised the laudable efforts of the Ministry of Health and the vaccinators to ensure that a high quality campaign goes ahead. “This is a testament to the commitment and ability of Iraq’s health workers and families to protect children’s health, even under the most difficult conditions,” she said. “It is crucial that we maintain Iraq’s success in driving out polio by ensuring this vaccine reaches all children across the country.”

As well as posing risks to vaccinators, Iraq’s ongoing conflict has placed additional burdens on the “cold chain” network, which vaccines require to keep them safe and effective. Electricity shortages and insecurity have particularly affected the National Vaccine and Sera Institute in Baghdad - the central storage facility for vaccines for the whole of Iraq. The polio campaign was nearly delayed when access to the facility was compromised recently due to increased security measures in the area.

Last week, local health officials supported by UNICEF and WHO were successfully able to negotiate the removal and distribution of 10 million doses of OPV l, enabling the campaign to proceed on schedule.

Other WHO and UNICEF support to this campaign includes helping the government with planning and management, providing transport for vaccinator teams and assisting the engagement of local communities, as well as providing OPV to re-stock Iraq’s supplies. The European Commission has generously provided $4.25 million to UNICEF and WHO to support the drive.

“These campaigns are a major humanitarian effort to protect Iraq’s children,” Wright said. “Health workers need the full support of everyone in the country to succeed.”

For further information please contact: Claire Hajaj, UNICEF Iraq, +962 7969 26190, chajaj@unicef.org Ban Dhayi, UNICEF Iraq, +962 7965 05008, bdhayi@unicef.org Dr. Omer Mekki, WHO Medical Officer , mekkio@irq.emro.who.int

Note to editors: Iraq is part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, spearheaded worldwide by WHO, Rotary International, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and UNICEF. This effort is close to eradicating polio in the few remaining endemic areas and has saved 5 million children from polio paralysis since 1988.

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