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Daily Column
Kurdistan Elections Heat Up, US Hands Over Control over Iraqi Cities
By AMER MOHSEN 06/29/2009 5:26 PM ET
Az-Zaman
Az-Zaman
According to al-Jazeera, the Iraqi government intends to make June 30th, the official date of US withdrawal from Iraqi cities, into a national holiday. “The day of sovereignty” it will be called, reports al-Hayat, which says that large festivals and parades are organized in Iraqi cities in celebration on the 29th, while the 30th will be a holiday for the public and private sectors.

In effect, the withdrawal was mostly completed yesterday, Az-Zaman points out, reporting that the Iraqi forces received the old building of the Defense Ministry on Monday – the last structure under the control of US forces in the capital.

Expectedly, “the day of sovereignty” is reported with much pomp in government-owned As-Sabah, which announces in its headline: “Iraq celebrates its sovereignty,” claiming that “signs of joy” are apparent in Baghdad and the provinces and that “popular” preparations are being made for the festivals today – despite the blinding sandstorm that enveloped Baghdad. The city is organizing a “central” celebration in the Zawra’ park and a number of Iraqi artists have been brought in to perform.

Meanwhile, Az-Zaman says that the approaching date of withdrawal is marked by massive arrest campaigns by the government, especially in Baghdad and the South, “amid threats by Premier Nuri al-Maliki against those who wish to violate stability.”

On the other hand, Sadrists are doubtful towards the American move, with MPs from the Sadrist bloc claiming that the US Army is maintaining military bases inside Iraqi cities “especially Sadr City.” Sadrist MP Zainab Kareem told the paper that the recent bombings in Baghdad were executed by “hands working for the US forces, in order to give the impression that Iraq will not be stable if foreign troops leave the country.” MP Ahmad al-Mas'udi, meanwhile, described the withdrawal as “a formality,” adding that the US Army maintains fixed bases inside cities, “especially in Babil and Najaf.”

On a related front, the paper quoted the US Ambassador in Baghdad as denying that he made any contacts with the Sadrist Current.

In other news, al-Hayat’s Mushriq 'Abbas files a report from Kurdistan on the upcoming elections that will represent a test to the power of the two mainstream Kurdish parties, which will run on common lists. 'Abbas says that the results of the 2005 elections, where the KDP and the PUK gained 90% of the seats of Kurdistan’s Parliament, are not likely to be repeated. In Talabani’s “capital,” Sulaymaniya, the Kurdish leader is facing a serious challenger in his ex- friend and comrade, Nusherwan Mustapha, who seceded from the party and is now waging a campaign under the slogans of “reform” and “change.”

Corruption and the quick enrichment of party leaders have led to popular resentment, the report claims, with Kurdish activists now dividing society between “a poor proletariat” and “rich party figures.” This resentment has caused popular support to gravitate towards Mustapha to the point that, two months ago, his victory over Talabani in Suleymaniya seemed like a real possibility. The “savior” of Talabani may be Barham Salih, his likely successor who was ushered in from Baghdad to lead the party list in the local elections. The report says that Salih is viewed as incorruptible and benefits from a good reputation among the youth and the educated, which may have swayed the balance in Talabani’s favor.

In any case, on the level of Kurdistan as a whole, the parties of Talabani and Barzani seem assured of garnering a majority, even if not as decisive as the current one. Mustapha on the other hand, is insisting that his “change list” vies to replace the current “class” that leads Kurdish politics or, at the least, create an effective opposition to its figures within the next Kurdistan Parliament.

Daily Column
Badr Accused of Involvment in Recent Violence, Russian Oil Contracts "Revived"?
By AMER MOHSEN 04/08/2009 8:46 PM ET
Al-Bayyna al-Jadeeda
Al-Bayyna al-Jadeeda
On the sixth anniversary of the Iraq invasion and the fall of Baghdad, few Iraqi papers - even those closely aligned with the government and US policy – are celebratory about the occasion. In addition to the exorbitant cost of the war and its aftermath on Iraqi society, a recent return of bombings and security incidents is overshadowing the narrative of stability and increased security that Iraq has witnessed in the past year. Az-Zaman’s front page story opened with a gloomy note: “On the sixth anniversary of the war waged by the US to occupy Iraq and change its government, Baghdad looked yesterday like a vast military base with broken limbs.”

Meanwhile, the editor-in-chief of al-Bayyna al-Jadeeda wrote an op-ed rife with “self-criticism” entitled: “six years after the fall of the idol ... legitimate questions.” The paper’s editor, Sattar Jabbar, noted that “our people ... bled profusely to be liberated from slavery and from the butchers of the Ba'th ... tomorrow is the sixth anniversary of the fall of the Saddamist regime of oppression and the liberation of Iraq ... but the dangerous question is: were we able after these six years to build an exemplary experiment of which we can be proud?” The author continued: “were we able to build thousands of housing projects to house the Iraqis who sleep under tin roofs? How many model schools and advanced hospitals did we build? How many skyscrapers and bridges? Where is the industry? Where is agriculture? Where are the giant projects? Where is the Iraqi citizen?”

On another front, the Sadrists have been preparing for weeks for their “million-man march” against the US occupation, which has become a sort of a Sadrist “tradition” every April 9th. Pan-Arab al-Hayat said that important positions are expected to be launched by Muqtada tomorrow in a statement that will be read to the demonstrators.

According to Sadrist sources, al-Sadr is anticipated to speak about the “freeze” that he imposed last year on the military activities of the Mahdi Army, with the expectation that the freeze order will be maintained. Also, the Shi'a cleric will reportedly speak about the dissentions plaguing the Sadrist movement on the occasion.

The demonstration, which is receiving scant coverage in Iraqi papers, will be an attempt for Sadrists to group the largest number of Iraqis, including non-Sadrists and non-Shi'a, in Baghdad for the occasion. Asma’ al-Musawi, a member of the political bureau, told al-Hayat that “hundreds of thousands” of Sadrists have begun arriving in Baghdad in preparation for the event.

In security news, al-Jazeera relayed dangerous accusations made by “a high-ranking member in the Iraqi intelligence who refused to reveal his name” to the effect that the Badr militia, the armed wing of al-Hakeem’s SIIC, stands behind the recent explosions in Baghdad. Opponents of the SIIC, namely among the Sadrists, have alluded to Badr involvement in violence in the past, but these accusations, stemming from sources within the state, necessitated a strong denial from the SIIC, whose officials claimed that these allegations are due to “the consistent position of Badr and the SIIC against the return of the Ba'th (to political life.)”

In other news, Al-Mada reports that President Talabani is heading towards NATO for aid in arming and training the Iraqi security forces. Following a meeting between Talabani and “a high-level NATO delegation,” NATO officials affirmed that a memorandum of understanding will be signed with Iraq aiming at “supporting the Iraqi forces in the field of training.”

Lastly, government-owned As-Sabah reports on a trip by Premier Maliki to Russia, which, the paper claimed, will witness the “revival” Russian oil contracts signed with Iraq during the reign of Saddam Husain.

In 1997, the Russian company Lukoil was contracted by the Iraqi state to develop the giant Qurna West oilfield. The Russians, however, stopped their operations in Iraq even before the 2003 invasion, when conflicts with the previous regime led to the company’s expulsion from the country.

Russian press agencies said, according to As-Sabah, that the talks of Maliki with Russian leaders will include the possibility of “renewing” these contracts and “finishing the business that was halted in 2003.”

Daily Column
Car Bombs Strike Again in Baghdad, Tensions Rise in Kirkuk
By AMER MOHSEN 04/07/2009 6:55 PM ET
Az-Zaman
Az-Zaman
The “surprise” visit by US President Barack Obama to Iraq dominated the headlines of most Iraqi papers. While al-Jazeera and al-'Arabiya focused on the President’s commitment to stick with the existing withdrawal timetables and his pronouncement that the next 18 months will be critical for the US and Iraq, Az-Zaman chose to highlight Obama’s statements in support of political reform and the inclusion of the opposition in the political process. “Obama: everyone should be represented in governing Iraq” went the paper’s headline.

The form and the extent of national reconciliation are critical matters for the US and the Iraqi government. Al-'Arabiya claimed that “Obama is pressurizing Maliki more than Bush” to be more inclusive in his governance. But the Iraqi Premier insisted that the participation of the government opponents can only take place “within the proper legal and constitutional channels.”

Instead of visiting Iraq’s leaders in Baghdad, the combination of a sandstorm and a volatile security situation necessitated that the Iraqi Premier be spirited to a US military base to meet with the President, an awkward situation in terms of protocol. Fortunately for Maliki, most papers publishing in Iraq avoided focusing on the issue.

On a related front, al-Jazeera reported that the ex-Iraqi vice-President – and the highest-ranking Ba'thi still at large - 'Izzat al-Duri released a recording where he flatly rejected notions of political reconciliation through the current “political process.”

“The political process is a project of the occupier, who wants to achieve what he could not do militarily,” al-Duri said. Interestingly, Saddam’s Vice-President expressed his wish “to establish good relations” with Washington, but conditioned that on the withdrawal of US troops and the ending of the current government.

Also, Obama’s visit was overshadowed by a new car bombing in the capital that killed eight Iraqis and injured 14 in the Shi'a district of al-Kadhimiya. The attack came a day after what al-Hayat dubbed “black Monday,” where over three dozen Iraqis were killed in a series of bombings that were described by an official in the Ministry of Interior (via al-Jazeera) as “the worst security breach in Baghdad this year.”

No groups have claimed responsibility for the attacks, and the government is pointing at Ba'this, noting that the explosions came a day before the anniversary of the founding of the Ba'th party. Az-Zaman claimed that Baghdad’s residents are now living in fear with reports of several car bombs strewn throughout the capital that could be detonated at any moment.

The paper quoted sources in the Interior Ministry who exclaimed that their forces are on the lookout for 12 bomb-laden vehicles which, they say, entered Baghdad on Tuesday. According to al-Hayat, however, Iraqi security officials are linking the attacks to Iraqi detainees who were recently released from US prisons, as well as to Sunni Sahwa militias that are allegedly infiltrated by insurgents. An unnamed source in Baghdad’s security told the paper that the attacks were carried out by “terrorist groups that were in detention, but got released by US forces.” An Interior Ministry official, on the other hand, opined that the attackers belonged to the Sahwa militias that were recently disbanded by the government “the crisis (between the government and Sahwa) gave a strong motivation for these groups to execute their terrorist operations through Sahwa members.”

In other news, Az-Zaman reports that a Kurdish campaign to collect signatures of Kirkukis who wish to affiliate the province with the Kurdistan Region is drawing the ire of Arabs and Turkomans in the province. Kurdish parties noted that the petition is a legitimate form of democratic activism, but a Turkoman party claimed that state functionaries are being “forced” to fill the applications, which pretend to survey the locals’ opinion of Kirkuk’s status, but also include detailed information on the name, employment and address of those surveyed.

Lastly, al-Bayyna al-Jadeeda claimed that, with Monday's attacks, Iraq has suffered over "7,800 car bombs and 1,000 explosive belts" that, according to the sectarian Shi'a paper, have targeted Shi'as exclusively and caused over "one million martyrs."

Daily Column
Britain Departs from Basra, AirForce Seeks F-16s to " Counter Syria and Iran" ?
By AMER MOHSEN 04/01/2009 6:35 PM ET
Az-Zaman
Az-Zaman
The British military presence in Iraq, which has so far cost 179 soldiers and around $16 Bn, is drawing to an end. A formal ceremony in Basra on Tuesday heralded the transfer of military authority in the region from British to American units. According to al-Jazeera, the 4,100-strong British contingent will formally end its mission on May 31st, and all the British troops, except for 400, will be out of the country by the end of the July. Az-Zaman noted that the British withdrawal comes almost to a day on the 50th anniversary of the “first” British withdrawal, in 1959, when British military units evacuated the Habbaniya airbase ending a military occupation that lasted since 1917.

In other news, Az-Zaman focused on statements by the Iraqi Airforce Commander Anwar Ahmad to the Reuters news agency, announcing that the Iraqi Army aims at acquiring a squadron of F-16 airplanes to re-equip its air force. The interesting bit was that Ahmad bluntly exclaimed that these armament plans seek to confront “Iran, as a source of potential threat ... and Syria” after the US withdraws from the country. These statements, highlighted on the paper’s front page, are likely to cause some embarrassment for the Maliki government and stir questions over the training, dogma and strategy of the “new” Iraqi Army.

Al-Maliki’s government has been attempting to regain its legitimacy in the eyes of Arab and regional governments; and the Iraqi state has been fervent in its affirmation that Iraq seeks peaceful coexistence with its neighbors and a break with Saddam’s legacy of regional enmities. In his dealings with neighbors, especially those in the anti-US camp, Maliki tried to construct a perception of the Iraqi government as distinct from US foreign policy. When a US raid last year targeted a location inside Syria, Iraqi officials hastened to say that they were not aware of the raid, nor did they approve it. Anwar Ahmad’s language, however, could be used by some as an affirmation that a “Saddamist” strain persists in Iraqi foreign policy – where countries like Iran are viewed as “eternal “enemies.” Other critics could see in the Airforce Commander’s statements a proof that Iraq is being recast as a US base in the region, with an Army trained specifically to combat America’s enemies.

Ahmad also stated his hope that a contract for 18 aircraft be signed soon, as part of a multi-billion-dollar armament package for the Iraqi Army. Eventually, he said, the target is to obtain as much as 96 F-16s by 2020. He added that he has been engaged in talks with officials from the US State Department and the US Air Force, and that the first F-16s piloted by Iraqis could be in the air by 2012 - provided that funding is guaranteed and a contract signed this year.

Meanwhile, al-Hayat reports that “Saddam’s Kurdish vice-President,” Taha Mihideen Ma'ruf, has “disappeared” from his residence in the Dukan resort in Kurdistan. Ma'ruf, a co-founder of the Kurdish KDP, broke with Barzani and became a Ba'thi in the 1970s. He has been one of Saddam’s vice-Presidents since the early 1980s. After being arrested for a short period following the 2003 invasion, the 85-year-old became a resident of the Dukan resort town, near Suleymaniya, where President Talabani lives. It is not clear whether he was under house arrest, but reports of him “escaping” suggest that his movement may have been restricted.

Sources in Kurdistan say that Ma'ruf was “smuggled” through the Suleymaniya airport to a foreign country mainly to obtain medical care, and because he fell to an “acute depression.”The paper says that Ma'ruf suffered from a dangerous illness that made him unable to speak.

Daily Column
Obama in Baghdad in April, al-Qa'ida Subverts the "Secret Informant" System
By AMER MOHSEN 03/27/2009 5:42 PM ET
Az-Zaman
Az-Zaman
Az-Zaman (international edition) fronted with an interview with a British foreign ministry spokeswoman, who affirmed that her government is not involved in negotiations to free five British nationals that were abducted in Iraq in 2007. British press reports on Friday claimed that the British government’s opening of negotiation channels with the Lebanese Hizbollah aimed at reaching an agreement to free the British hostages in exchange for 'Ali Musa al-Daqdouq, an alleged Hizbollah operative who was arrested in Iraq by US forces.

The (unnamed) spokeswoman said that the British government “does not negotiate with the abductors of its nationals in Baghdad, or any kidnappers.” She also refused to comment on the press reports, but claimed that the British government will not present “a fee or exchange prisoners” in return for the freeing of the British agent, who was kidnapped along with his four British bodyguards in Baghdad.

A report in the Guardian on Friday quoted a spokesman of a Shi'a group in Iraq who claimed that an agreement was reached with Great Britain and the US to release the hostages in exchange for several high-level prisoners detained by the US forces in Iraq, including Daqdouq and eight Sadrist activists. The Sadrists in question may include Qais al-Khaz'ali, a spokesman of Sadr who was detained by the US and accused of involvement in the formation of armed “special groups” that wage attacks against the Multinational Coalition in Iraq.

Meanwhile, pan-Arab al-Hayat quotes “trustworthy sources” in Iraq who claim that al-Qa'ida has been infiltrating the “secret informant” system set-up by the US forces and subverting it to target enemy leaders, especially those who became part of the “Awakening Councils,” which fought al-Qa'ida in 2007 and 2008.

According the paper, the US “secret informant” system relies on matching information received anonymously through e-mail, a secret telephone hotline and the testimony of an informant or a translator to identify and target suspects. Al-Qa'ida, the paper said, has worked on feeding the system, through all three channels, with information that lead to the arrest of anti-Qa'ida leaders. The vice-chairman of the “security committee” of the Awakening Council in Mada’in, who was issued an arrest warrant on terrorism charges, told the paper that al-Qa'ida operatives have supplied the government with information that led to the issuing of “dozens of arrest warrants against leaders in the Awakening council who fought against the organization.” Abu Munadil, an ex-1920 Revolution Brigades commander also affirmed that “al-Qa'ida has infiltrated the secret informant system to eliminate dozens of (Awakening) leaders and fighters.”

On the same front, the paper quoted Sadrist leaders who protested that the “secret informant” regime, which has been in place since mid-2006 and promises informants with rewards and protection in exchange for information, “goes against Iraqi laws.” Sadrist spokesman MP Ahmad al-Mass'udi said that “thousands” of Sadrists will be arrested, mainly due to information from that system.

In other news, government-owned Al-Sabah said that President Obama is likely to visit the country in the coming month, along with Foreign Secretary Hillary Clinton, to hold talks with the country’s leaders. The chairman of the security and defense commission, 'Abbas al-Bayyati, confirmed rumors of the visit, adding that the SOFA agreement and the withdrawal timetables will be the primary theme of discussions between Iraqi and US leaders.

Also in al-Sabah, the paper reported that “a strategic agreement” was reached by the two major Kurdish parties last week, permitting the parties to wage the coming Kurdistani elections, as well as the general Iraqi elections, under one list.

Rumors of conflicts and dissent between Talabani and Barzani prompted some analysts to proclaim that the two parties will run on independent, competing lists in the coming electoral contests; which was denied by the Parliamentary spokesman of the Kurdistan Alliance, Firyad Rawnduzy, who affirmed that “all coming elections” will follow the same model of alliance.

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