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Daily Column
Nineveh Witnesses Sharp Political Crisis, Baghdad Metro to be Finally Built?
By AMER MOHSEN 06/09/2009 6:18 PM ET
Media outlets agreed that the release of Laith al-Khaz'ali, an alleged activist in the 'Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH) organization, is part of a deal to release five British hostages who have been detained since 2007 by a Shi'a armed group.

According to al-Jazeera, Sadrist sources confirm that Laith al-Khaz'ali has returned to his home. Al-Khaz'ali is accused of participating in an attack that killed five US soldiers in Karbala two years ago. His brother, Qais, who was arrested along with him, is a key leader in the 'Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq group, and rumors state that the release of Qais and other AAH leaders was the ultimate goal behind the kidnapping of the British nationals in 2007 (an “administrative expert” and four “aides” according to al-Jazeera.)

While the negotiations were probably conducted through British and US channels, and while al-Khaz'ali was let go by US, not Iraqi, orders, Az-Zaman pointed to al-Maliki as the man who plied to the kidnappers’ requests. The daily’s headline read: “Al-Maliki submits to the kidnappers’ conditions by releasing al-Khaz'ali.” Interestingly, Az-Zaman presented contradictory British claims, quoting a Foreign Ministry spokesman who confirmed that the release was made “on the basis of a mediation with the kidnappers.” On the other hand, the paper says that it received an official British statement denying that al-Khaz'ali’s release was part of a deal involving the kidnapped British nationals, and claiming that the event was merely a part of Iraqi government efforts to pacify armed groups and bring them into the political process (which does not sound truthful given that the detainee was in US custody and was transferred to the Iraqi government only last Saturday.)

In other news, a political crisis is developing in the northern Nineveh province, which is sharply divided between Arabs and Kurds, especially after the last provincial elections where the “Arab” list won the majority of the vote.

According to Az-Zaman, the vice-Parliament Chair, 'Arif Tayfour, said that Nineveh should be divided into two distinct provinces, one ruled by the Arab coalition and the second (including Kurdish-majority areas) by the Kurdish bloc. According to the daily, an Iraqi MP demanded that Tayfour be relieved from his position after these statements “that threaten the integrity of the province.”

On the same theme, London-based al-Hayat reported on the calls of local Kurdish leaders who asked that two provincial councils be formed in Nineveh: one for the Arabs and another led by the Kurdish parties. Atheel al-Najeefi, the current governor of Nineveh, described this proposition as “unconstitutional,” claiming that it is mere “media talk.”

In the last elections, the “Arab” list gained 19 seats out of 37, while the Kurdish list (also supported by the Sunni Tawafuq coalition) garnered only 12. Subsequently, the Kurdish coalition was denied any of the main administrative positions in the province – including the governor, vice-governor and Council Speaker, which led the Kurdish coalition to boycott all the activities of the provincial council. The same policy was adopted by local governors of Kurdish-majority counties, who announced that they will refrain from dealing with the new provincial council and threatened to affiliate their counties with the Kurdistan Region.

On a different front, a Canadian court has rejected Kuwait’s request to impound Iraqi aircraft in Canada as part of Kuwait’s compensation for the 1990 Iraqi invasion. The Iraqi aircraft should be released soon, according to sources, and the main reason for the rejection of the Kuwaiti lawsuit was technical: Kuwait had filed the suit against Iraqi Airways, while the aircraft in Canada are owned by the government and the Ministry of Finance.

Lastly, government-owned As-Sabah says that the mayorship of Baghdad may revive the Baghdad metro project, which has been placed on hold since the 1980s. According to the daily, Baghdad’s city council invited international companies to apply for the construction of the first phase of the Baghdad metro, which should include two lines, the first (18 Kilometers long, with 20 stations) linking Sadr City to the A’dhamiya district, and the second (21 Kilometers with 21 station) linking southeastern Baghdad to the Mansour district and the center of the Capital.

Daily Column
Signs of "Normalization" in Baghdad: Sunni Mosques Re-Open in Shi'a Districts
By AMER MOHSEN 02/18/2009 5:02 PM ET
Rumors of plots to unseat Premier al-Maliki may have been greatly exaggerated. But London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat interviewed an Iraqi MP who confirmed that “a scheme is underway to unseat Maliki by using the Parliament.” The MP was 'Azza al-Shahabandar, who is affiliated with 'Allawi’s Iraqi List and who revealed that the current debacle over the election of a new Parliament Speaker may be the last straw for Maliki, leading to the formation of a broad alliance “composed of the Kurds, the Supreme Council (Al-Hakeem) and other forces who are attempting, quasi-publicly, to limit al-Maliki’s influence or even unseat him through a no-confidence vote.”

Relations between al-Maliki and the four-party alliance that made him Prime Minister have gone through major shifts. Rather than being a representative (or an arbiter) for the interests of the Kurdish Parties and al-Hakeem’s bloc, al-Maliki has lately been siding with the “opposition” on most Parliamentary issues. The Premier is also locked in a bitter rivalry with the leadership of Kurdistan, and more importantly, has been attempting to build his own personal authority at the expense of the parties that brought him to power.

The distance between al-Maliki and his former Shi'a ally, 'Abd al-'Azeez al-Hakeem, have become so strained that, according to al-Shahabandar, “being allied with Maliki right now means opposing 'Abd al-'Azeez al-Hakeem ... while standing with Hakeem implies a position against Maliki.” According to the MP, her bloc’s leader, ex-Prime Minister Iyad 'Allawi, “is on his way to striking an alliance with Hakeem, or has already done so.”

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Parliament remains without a Speaker since the ousting of Mahmud al-Mashhadani last year. A situation that prevents the normal functioning of the Assembly and keeps important laws (such as the budget law and the oil law) shelved in waiting. Yesterday’s session finally resulted in a vote, but did not produce a winner. Ahmad al-Samirra’i, the candidate of the Islamic Party received 123 votes according to Az-Zaman, placing him ahead of the competition but short of the 138 votes needed to win from the first round (his direct competitor garnered a mere 43 votes.)

According to the paper, a second round of voting should take place today between al-Samirra’i and the candidate of the National Dialogue Council, which is expected to favor al-Samirra’i (the absolute majority is not needed in the second round.) However, Az-Zaman indicates that al-Samirra’i’s backers – the Kurdish Parties and al-Hakeem – have decided to propose new “consensus candidates” to avoid a political battle in the Parliament. These personalities include the veteran Iraqi politician 'Adnan al-Pachachi and MP Hajim al-Hisni.

On a different front, al-Hayat has some good news to report. The Pan-Arab Saudi-funded newspaper says that Sunni mosques in Shi'a areas and Shi'a mosques in Sunni districts are beginning to re-open, a sign of the dissipation of the sectarian strife that has afflicted Iraq for the last years. Many of these mosques were destroyed or gravely damaged during the civil war, making the task of rehabilitation expensive. The Yaseen mosque in Baghdad’s district of Abu Dhseir for example, was reduced to ruins hours after the bombing that devastated a sacred Shi'a shrine in Samirra’ in February 2006, signaling the ferocious explosion of sectarian violence. As a symbolic gesture, the calls to prayer are being made again above the collapsed dome of the Yaseen mosque.

Even in al-Bayya' district, which used to be seen as a bastion of the Mahdi Army, the Sunni al-Rahman mosque was re-opened “amid popular joy from both sects,” al-Hayat reports. While sectarian segregation is still the rule, these acts of normalization could be a prelude for the return of displaced Iraqis to their neighborhoods, especially in the capital. Noteworthy is that the populace and local political factions are supportive of the return of the displaced; the al-Hayat report quoted Sunni religious officials who said that Sadrist leaders contacted them offering to re-open Sunni houses of prayer in Sadrist-dominated districts. Shi'a clerical officials, on the other hand, confirmed that Shi'a Husayniyas that were closed for a long time are re-opening in the Sunni districts of Jihad and Ghazaliya.

In a city where war made hospitals a source of great fury, a new one is welcomed
10/17/2008 8:31 PM ET
Photos: Daniel W. Smith / Iraqslogger

“I wanted to kill the Americans for taking the hospital, and for the other things that they do,” a young man in Fallujah said, yesterday. “Now, the situation is better,” he adds, shrugging. “The new hospital will be good.” He did not want to give his name, but said he was “from an important tribe”.

Among the controversial events of the fierce fighting that occurred in Fallujah in 2004 and 2005, one is that the old general hospital had been either “secured” or “stormed” (depending on the source) by American and Iraqi forces. Whatever the tactical reasons for doing so, it wasn’t the best PR, to say the very least - claims that the hospital was secured to keep inflated or “unconfirmed” body counts from being released to the media by doctors met with little acceptance in the international press. Another smaller hospital in the city center was also destroyed by U.S. bombing.

This week, the new $46 million dollar, 400 bed, bright orange Fallujah General Hospital was completed by an Iraqi construction company. Gathered together at the commemorating ceremony was the Deputy Prime Minister, governor of Anbar Province, Minister of Health, some American and British soldiers, and the young man from the important tribe.

The city is still a very dangerous place, and not quite the bastion of peace and security that the Iraqi government might have you believe, but work is really being done and money spent to improve its services and image (presumably for the latter, all the reporters who attended even got unmarked “gift” envelopes with a little over $100 in crisp, new Iraqi Dinars inside).

Whatever is happening, the young, well-tribed fellow’s attitude can be looked at as something of a barometer of the current progress of Anbar province in general, and Fallujah in particular. Let’s hope it’s a meaningful change, and that the most visible services provided to the embattled people of Fallujah aren’t the kind you need to get sick to receive.

Daily Column
Iraqi students in Syria get shot at American college; British bailed on Basra
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/14/2008 01:11 AM ET
Well, today is a yet another light day, with both The New York Times and the Washington Post checking out. But it's also time to say goodbye.

Stacy Teicher Khadaroo of Christian Science Monitor has a feel-good feature on 15 Iraqi students who are on their way to American colleges to become members of the class of 2012. All tuitions and fees have been waived. The Iraqi Student Project was created by two American peace activists, Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasak. It sounds like a really good cause for some needy students who have had a hell of a time just surviving.

USA Today's Charles Levinson has a feature on Kirkuk's ethnic tensions, approaching it from the perspective of a mixed Kurdish-Turkmen couple. They both agree there will be a fight for Kirkuk. "Things are getting worse day by day," says Hiwa Assad, the Kurdish member of the couple. Kirkuk has been a pot ready to boil over since the 2003 invasion, but this time it feels different as Iraq looks forward to a new, post-American phase. The city's status has become one of Iraq's most pressing challenges. Levinson also manages to get to one of the most frustrating aspects of reporting on Iraq, as evidenced by this exchange:

Just as Sunnis and Shiites in Baghdad once pointed to mixed marriages, jointly owned businesses and a long history of coexistence as proof that a civil war would never occur, Kirkuk's people make similar arguments now.

During a lunch of spiced rice and salted fish at the Assad house, the mix of languages -- jokes flew in Kurdish, Arabic and Turkmen -- reflects the patchwork of ethnicities and tribes that have long lived side by side.

"The problem is between politicians and political parties," says Rizkar Mohammad, Assad's brother-in-law and lifelong friend, who also is married to a Turkmen.

"There are no problems between the people," he says.

Assad listens politely to such talk -- and later dismisses it, when no one else is around.

"Don't believe a word they say," he says. "With their tongues they say everything is alright, but in their hearts they want to kill each other.”

While features like this have popped up every six months or so over the years, this is one of the better ones in the Kirkuk-as-powderkeg genre.


Wall Street Journal
The Journal editorial board blasts the Brits over Basra, again.

And finally, this is my last column for It's been a great run, and I've had a lot of fun with it. Eason Jordan and Robert Young Pelton have created a great resource for people who want and need to know about Iraq, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have been part of it. Thanks, guys.

While my style has sometimes grated on people, I appreciate everyone's feedback and I hope what came through was not a disdain for the troops, journalists, Iraqis or anyone in particular. I tried to aim my ire at what I saw were dumb decisions from the top, poor journalistic practices or incompetency or corruption from governments in both Baghdad and Washington. Promoting good work and truth, whether they were the innovative efforts of the GIs in the field or great investigative journalism, was the goal.

Now I'm leaving for a fellowship at Stanford and I'll be following the news the same as everyone else, through Daniel W. Smith's writings. He's taking over the US Papers column as of tomorrow. I wish him, and everyone else in Iraq, luck. To my friends and colleagues still there, stay safe.

Daily Column
Militia continues its transformation; Sadr urges followers to join social wing
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/09/2008 01:20 AM ET
What do you get when the Olympics open and the Russians invade Georgia? Not a lot of Iraq news. But what news there is could be significant.

Earlier this week, I criticized Gina Chon and the Wall Street Journal for running her story on Moqtada al-Sadr's latest plans on the front page. From the coverage, I gathered Sadr's calls for a new spiritual path for the Mahdi Army was just more of what he had said a couple of months ago, with maybe some additional clarification. Well, Stephen Farrell of The New York Times and Amit R. Paley of the Washington Post both cover Friday's prayers at which Sadr's new plans were revealed.

In short, Sadr is offering a deal: He will end his movement's attacks on U.S. troops if the U.S. agrees to a timetable for withdrawal. And since all signs are pointing to that happening, we may be looking at the end of major combat operations in Iraq. Mission accomplished! Paley writes:

Salah al-Obaidi (a Sadr spokesman) said Sadr's paramilitary cells have already been ordered to stop fighting as U.S. and Iraqi officials negotiate an agreement over the presence of American forces in Iraq. He said the cells will be disbanded as soon as the United States agrees to a deadline for leaving the country.
The movement's new name will be al-Mumahidoon, meaning "those who pave the way." It refers to the belief among Sadr's followers that they are paving the way for the return of the Imam Mahdi, a messiah-figure for Muslims.

The question now is why? Is Sadr angling to get into the political process despite Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's best efforts to neutralize the Sadr Current? Is he genuinely committed to nonviolence? Is this another bob and weave the cleric is so good at? All of the above?

Paley writes that Obaidi said the Mahdi Army will not be dissolved, but will readjust its focus away from fighting. And the special cells dedicated to attacking the U.S. will also remain, but they'll stand down. That's big news, but it remains to be seen whether this is really something new or just a repackaging of the existing status quo.

Farrell seems to think it's the latter. He writes that the clerics urged Sadr's followers to join al-Mumahidoon, which would be the social wing that works alongside his Mahdi Army militia. As he writes,

Its formation follows an announcement in June that the movement would be divided into a specialized armed force, a core of fighters focused on opposing the American presence in Iraq, and another branch to concentrate on community and religious programs.

Sadrist officials insisted that the organization would remain a resistance movement and would concentrate weapons in the hands of the specialized fighters in the Mahdi Army.

It should be noted the similarity between the Mahdi Army's development into two wings and the public transformation of Lebanon's Hezbollah. I say "public," because Hezbollah, which many analysts say is the model for al-Sadr's militia, hasn't really split into a political and military wing, but there's a public perception -- thanks to a lot of propaganda from the group -- that it has. Indeed, Farrell makes the same observation. And he also brings up some possible problems. One senior Mahdi Army commander said that of course he would obey Sayyid Moqtada's orders, "but in this case we expect there are many members of the Mahdi Army who will reject this order," he added.

Both reports cover a car bomb in Tal Afar that killed at least 21 people and wounded 65.


Wall Street Journal
No Iraq coverage today.

Christian Science Monitor and USA Today
No weekend editions.


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