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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
Oil Minister Interrogated by Parliamentarians
By AMER MOHSEN 06/24/2009 6:34 PM ET
Az-Zaman
Az-Zaman
Today, Sadr City was the victim of the latest bombing in Iraq. Al-Jazeera reports – based on police sources – that over 50 Iraqis were killed when a bomb (apparently fixed to a motorcycle) exploded in a popular marketplace in the Shi'a district, six days before the official date of US withdrawal from Iraqi cities.

And with the approaching date of US withdrawal from Iraqi urban centers, the news channel reports that an insurgent faction, “Jaish al-Mujahideen,” announced the launching of a new campaign against US forces with the purpose of stepping up pressure in these critical days. Al-Jazeera says that the group sent a video portraying an alleged attack against an American vehicle in eastern Baghdad with a thermal grenade.

Otherwise, original news from Iraq was extremely scarce today, Az-Zaman (local edition) focused on new regulations concerning the salaries of retired Iraqi officers (in addition to the international visits of the paper’s publisher and owner, Sa'd al-Bazzaz.)

Pan-Arab al-Sharq al-Awsat, meanwhile, focused on the debates surrounding the Oil Minister, Husain al-Shahrastani, who is being interrogated by a critical Parliament whose members are insisting that the coming round of oil contracts not be handed out before being approved by the legislature.

Al-Shahrastani, however, has stated that the decisions regarding the contracts will be made by the end of the month, parliamentary protests notwithstanding. During his session in the Parliament, the Minister defended the oil contracts and their utility, pointing out that the first round will pertain to fields that are already producing, with the aim of raising production levels by 2 million barrels per day. A Sunni MP belonging to the dialogue front exclaimed that al-Shahrastani defended the technical aspects of the contracts, but did not clarify questions regarding their legality and constitutionality.

Lastly, London-based al-Quds al-'Arabi relayed statements by the leader of the KDP in Nineveh – which is witnessing political tensions between its Arab and Kurdish leaders – where he denied earlier reports claiming that he ordered schools in a Kurdish-controlled district to ban the teaching of Arabic and instruct students exclusively in Kurdish. Khusro Kuran, who heads the Kurdish-backed alliance in Nineveh said that he places Arabic in high regard and that he merely told the teachers in the district to focus on Kurdish instruction alongside Arabic.

The Latest
Jami'a District Resident Says Families Depart, Fearing "Sectarian" Detentions
06/18/2009 8:23 PM ET
Google Earth image/IraqSlogger.com.

Iraqi forces have conducted a widespread raiding and arrest campaign in the western Baghdad district of al-Jami'a, according to a report in Arabic citing eyewitnesses.

The al-Haq News Agency reports that eyewitnesses in the predominantly Sunni Arab area of western Bahgdad say that “many families in the district have left their homes empty for fear of sectarian arrests.”

One resident of the area, identified as Abu Ahmad, reportedly told the online news agency that the Iraqi government statements to the media claiming an improvement in the security affairs of the area were false.

“The truth of the matter is that security situation has deteriorated . . . and I fear for my children, that they will be thrown in prison and become just forgotten numbers, like their colleagues who are subjected to all manner of torture,” the al-Jami'a resident reportedly said.

Al-Haq takes an editorial line opposed to the post-2003 Iraqi political order and the presence of foreign forces in Iraq.

Al-Haq agency does not provide arrest figures in its report, nor does it provide further information as to the nature of the raids or the targeted sites.

Iraqi forces for the last two weeks have intensified their arrest and raiding campaigns across the country, the agency reports, citing official statements that the raids come in preparation for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraqi cities, scheduled for the end of the month.

Daily Column
Talabani "Too Hasty" in Congratulating Ahmadinejad?
By AMER MOHSEN 06/18/2009 02:12 AM ET
Az-Zaman
Az-Zaman
Pan-Arab al-Sharq al-Awsat quotes security sources who claim that the “mastermind” behind the assassination of MP Harith al-'Ubaidi was captured during a raid in the Ghazaliya district. According to security officials, the culprit was a 45-year-old mosque guard who occupied a high rank in al-Qa'ida’s military wing. News channel al-Jazeera quoted the Associated Press, which was told – by a “high level security official” that the man in question was linked to an Iraqi MP – reviving theories of official involvement in 'Ubaidi’s death.

Meanwhile, President Talabani was among the first Presidents to congratulate Iranian incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad for his re-election, even before the official results of the Iranian polls were finalized (Iraqi news outlets mistakenly reported Talabani as the “only” world President to congratulate Ahmadinejad, which was not true – many heads of state, including Afghanistan and the member countries of the Shanghai Organization already extended their good wishes for the re-elected Iranian leader. )

Talabani’s statement was met by criticisms from Iraqi politicians. An independent MP, Wa’il 'Abd al-Lateef, told the Kurdistan news agency that Talabani should not have been “hasty” and that the elections “are not effectively over ... as Iraqis ... we should not hastily announce our loyalty for a specific candidate as long as matters have not been decided in Iran yet.”

In other news, Az-Zaman reports that the Iraqi government has finally conceded and decided to form an investigative committee to look into the claims of Iraqi prisoners who have been on an ongoing hunger strike to protest their conditions. An official statement said that Premier al-Maliki has formed a committee to examine the conditions of the Rasafa prison, where 300 detainees have participated in a hunger strike since Monday. Press reports claimed that a prisoner has died, which was denied by government sources, who affirmed that “all prisoners are in a good health condition.” Most of the detainees seem to belong to the Sadrist Current, whose leaders insist that the strike will continue, accusing administrators of abusing the prisoners and claiming that no representatives of the state or its human rights’ commissions have been sent to the prison as of yet.

On a different front, London-based al-Quds al-'Arabi quoted a Sunni Parliamentarian who claimed that recent diplomatic appointments were made based on sectarian and power-sharing criteria, producing many Ambassadors “with little or no qualifications.” The IAF MP, Salman al-Jameeli, said that these appointments will be presented to the Parliament for confirmation and that they include many names of officials and relatives of leaders who have no experience or qualifications for diplomatic representation. Those include, according to the MP, the Iraqi government spokesman 'Ali al-Dabbagh, the current Baghdad governor and the nephew of Mas'ud al-Barzani.

Lastly, the Iraqi national soccer team has been eliminated from a top international competition, the Continents’ Cup, after losing by one goal to European champions Spain. Despite being eliminated, observers considered Iraq to have managed a reasonnable result, having tied with Africa’s Champions, South Africa, on their home turf, and closely lost to Spain, one of the world’s best teams. Iraq’s Serbian coach expressed his satisfaction with his team’s performance, noting that “it was not easy to contain the Spanish team,” but that his squad executed an effective defensive plan.

Daily Column
Official Agents Accused of Assassinating MP, Treaty Referendum to be Postponed?
By AMER MOHSEN 06/15/2009 6:17 PM ET
Az-Zaman
Az-Zaman
The official funeral of Harith al-'Ubaidi, the slain chairman of the Sunni IAF bloc, was attended by high state dignitaries, including Premier al-Maliki and several Ministers. The responsibility for the assassination, however, remains a matter of intense contention, with security agencies claiming that the MP was killed by al-Qa'ida operatives and sources in the IAF insisting that state officials were involved in the murder.

According to al-Hayat, details of the assassination are beginning to transpire: a young teen, said to be between 14 and 16, allegedly approached al-'Ubaidi in the Shawwaf mosque where he was leading the prayers, and shot him at close range. The London-based paper quoted security officials who said that "initial investigations" point to al-Qa'ida, and to its assassination squad known as "the birds of heaven" - a group of young teens who are allegedly recruited to execute dangerous missions relying on their young age and ability to escape security screenings.

Official sources add that the assassin was killed by the police while trying to flee the scene, 300 meters from the mosque, and that a hand grenade as well as a fake ID was found on him. Meanwhile, IAF officials continue to imply that al-'Ubaidi's assassination was an "inside job" related to his role in the Human Rights' Commission and his revelations of torture, rape and other transgressions committed by security forces against Iraqi detainees. An unnamed source in the IAF was quoted by al-Hayat as saying that "a political conspiracy was executed carefully and has fulfilled its objective by killing al-'Ubaidi." Furthermore, an IAF MP was quoted as accusing "security organs" of killing 'Ubaidi, referring to state elements who "benefited" from 'Ubaidi's death.

Local Az-Zaman, meanwhile, adorned its front page with a large obituary for al-'Ubaidi paid for by the Finance Ministry and signed by the Minister of Finance, Baqir al-Zubaidi.

On a similar front, Az-Zaman reports that another general of the old Iraqi Army was assassinated by "unkown gunmen" in the northern city of Mosul. And in Baghdad, the head of the Tarmiya "Awakening" militia miraculously escaped death after an IED targeting his convoy killed and injured five of his bodyguards.

In other news, the popular referendum over the US-Iraqi Security Treaty may be postponed amid wide protests from political factions. According to rumors, the Iraqi legislature may decide not to hold the referendum this summer, as is mandated by the treaty, and to postpone it until the next year in order to hold it simultaneously with the legislative elections. The argument of the government is that such an arrangement would save over $99 million, which is the estimated cost of holding a national poll.

However, sources in the Parliament and the elections’ commission claim that no official request has been filed yet to postpone the referendum, which is necessary to ratify the treaty. MP 'Abbas al-Bayyati was quoted by al-Hayat as saying that the government does not have the right to postpone the referendum, pointing that a proposal has indeed been made to combine the poll with the upcoming legislative elections.

On the withdrawal theme, Az-Zaman spoke to a Coalition spokesman who affirmed that “no individual operations” will be waged by the US forces after the US withdrawal from urban centers, which is set to be completed by the end of the month. The US officer said that all structures currently occupied by US forces will be handed over to the Iraqi government, and that US action in Iraq will be dependent upon Iraqi government requests. Simultaneously, the US Ambassador in Baghdad reported that 100 military positions have been handed over to Iraq, and that 3,000 Iraqis detainees have been released since the beginning of the application of the Security Treaty in the end of 2008.

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