The bottom line is clear: Our vital interests in Afghanistan are limited and military victory is not the key to achieving them. On the contrary, waging a lengthy counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan may well do more to aid Taliban recruiting than to dismantle the group, help spread conflict further into Pakistan, unify radical groups that might otherwise be quarreling amongst themselves, threaten the long-term health of the U.S. economy, and prevent the U.S. government from turning its full attention to other pressing problems. -- Afghanistan Study Group

Thursday, March 27, 2008

News & Views 03/27/08

Photo: Demonstrators chant slogans during a protest in Baghdad's Sadr City on Thursday. Kareem Raheem/Reuters

REPORTS – LIFE IN IRAQ

Thursday: 222 Iraqis, 1 US Soldier, 3 US Contractors Killed

Wednesday: 2 GIs, 1 British Soldier, 76 Iraqis Killed; 367 Iraqis Wounded

Protesters denounce Iraqi prime minister as clashes continue

Tens of thousands of Shiites took the streets to protest the government's crackdown against militias in Basra as heavy fighting between Iraqi security forces and gunmen erupted for a third day. Mounting anger focused on Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is personally overseeing an operation against Shiite militias dominated by followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr amid a violent power struggle in Basra, Iraq's southern oil hub near the Iranian border. The events threatened to unravel a Mahdi Army cease-fire and spark a dramatic escalation in violence after a monthslong period of relative calm.

U.S. airstrike kills 60 gunmen in Hilla

"U.S. copters bombed sites used by gunmen in Hilla's neighborhoods of al-Askari, Ahmed Nader and Muhaizem, killing more than 60 militants and destroying some houses," the source, who requested anonymity, told Aswat al-Iraq- Voices of Iraq- (VOI).

Sadrists' grip on Iraqis' health care takes toll

The Health Ministry has been under al-Sadr's control since 2005, when his political party gained more seats than any other group. His ensuing decision to staff the Health Ministry with his loyalists provided al-Sadr with a critical boost to his reputation among his followers, said Agron Ferrati, the Iraq director for the International Medical Corps, a non-profit group. "It was a brilliant move," Ferrati said. "Provide medicines, doctors and services, and you become a hero in your society." During the height of Iraq's sectarian violence in 2006, many Sunni patients avoided hospitals they knew were Shiite-controlled, fearing they'd be targeted by al-Sadr's militia. Militia members frequently used ambulances to ferry around weapons instead of patients. Al-Sadr's control over Kimadia, the state-run company that is responsible for importing and distributing drugs and supplies to Iraq's hospitals, also poses problems, Ferrati said. "Kimadia has a stranglehold on the whole medical sector, and that is a source of power through which Sadr can control the health sector and threaten the country," Ferrati said. "If they decide to stop working, then you cut off all the drugs into Iraq."

IRAQ: Humanitarian situation deteriorates in Basra

The humanitarian situation and aid operations continued to deteriorate in Basra as heavy fighting between government forces and militiamen of the Mahdi Army led by radical Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr entered its third day, Salih Hmoud, head of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society’s office in Basra, told IRIN. "The humanitarian situation is getting worse by the minute - not the hour or the day - due to clashes taking place in the streets; as a result, the humanitarian effort has been severely hampered and paralysed," Hmoud said on 27 March. "Shootings, explosions and roadside bombs are preventing our teams from getting out and reaching people in need of our humanitarian aid, and we can no longer reach government hospitals to supply them," Hmoud said. He said the need for drinking water and food was still the "most critical”: Cases of diarrhoea had started to appear, but there were no reliable figures. Lack of resources leaves ancient sites unprotected The government has reduced allocations earmarked for the Antiquities Department and currently hundreds of significant sites are without proper protection, said Ali Kadhem.

One of Iraq's two main oil export pipelines blown up

Iraq burn clinic offers healing touch

Burn injuries are common in Iraq. Last year, more than 3000 Iraqi children were treated at the clinic. Most of the injuries are caused by the Iraqis’ kerosene stoves and clay ovens, which are unreliable and often explode. “We see a lot of kids burned because (refueling) is one of their chores,” said Sgt. Joe Barzeksi, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the clinic. “There is really no supervision. The kids really fend for themselves.” The clinic is unique because it is only for Iraqis and is run on donations from U.S. hospitals and citizens. When the Minnesota National Guard left, many of the clinic’s donors stopped sending supplies, Barzeksi said. In the last six months, Barzeksi has rebuilt the list of donors that keep the clinic stocked with gauze pads, bandages, antibiotics and Medihoney, an antibiotic ointment. Seven medics help the clinic on a rotating basis, but Welsh and Barzeksi are there all the time. The clinic sees more than 40 people three times a week. The number of patients decreases in the summer when the Iraqis don’t use their heaters. [If they had electricity, like they did before the US invasion, then these burns would not be happening. – dancewater]

GLOBAL: Killer wheat fungus a threat to global food security?

The Ug99 strain of the killer wheat fungus (stem rust), which recently infected wheat farms in western Iran, is a serious threat to global food security, agricultural scientists have warned. They have said the fungus may affect additional wheat-producing countries. Mahmoud Solh, director-general of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), was quoted in a 20 March ICARDA press release as saying that he and his fellow scientists were convinced that Ug99 would quickly spread beyond Iran and that, with the long distance travel of rust spores, Ug99 would soon affect farms in the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia and East Asia.

REPORTS – IRAQI MILITIAS, POLITICIANS, POWER BROKERS

Iraqi lawmakers to hold emergency session Friday

From Missing Link’s blog:

In other words, what is at issue between the Sadrists on one side and the Supreme Council and the government on the other (according to this exposition) is the question of Sadrist political power in the provincial councils. And one important aspect of that is the question of federalism. I think this is important to keep in mind, because it has been pointed out that there appear to be differences on federalism-strategy between Maliki and the Supreme Council, and some might conclude that this makes it doubtful whether they are really ganging up on the Sadrists. It doesn't follow. They are ganging up on the Sadrists because the Sadrists are a rival political power with a nation-wide, national-unity, anti-occupation program, and this is a threat to both of them.

From Missing Link’s blog:

To the intense disappointment of the other Arab leaders, it was announced today that Prime Minister Al-Maliki will be unable to attend the Damascus Arab summit starting the end of this week, because he is busy conducting a military campaign on behalf of his US sponsors against his co-religionists in the Baghdad area. The announcement was made by Ali Dabbagh, government spokesperson, who however described the military campaign a little differently: He said Maliki can't come "because he is busy conducting a security operation in the governate of Basra." This is particularly disappointing because it was expected that there would be some discussion at the Damascus meeting of Iraqi national reconciliation in connection with the Arab League. [I believe that Missing Links blog adds a lot to our understanding of the situation in Iraq. – dancewater]

In Basra, Elections, Oil Drive Conflict

The eruption of violence comes on the heels of the Iraqi presidential council's approval of the "provincial law," which clears the way for elections within Iraq's 18 provinces. Maliki's decision to order troops to Basra may well have been prompted by the law's passage Monday, as it sets the ball rolling for a decision on whether Iraq will be partitioned or remain a unified state, according to Raed Jarrar, Iraq consultant to the American Friends Service Committee. "It's a reaction to the provincial law," Jarrar told Truthout. "Separatist Shiites want to make sure nationalist Shiites won't win the election - by killing them. In other places, the candidates use TV advertisements. But this is an election, Iraqi-style." The separatists - allied with the Maliki government and the Bush administration - support the partitioning of Iraq, the privatization of oil and a continued US presence in the country. The nationalists - including the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr and much of the Iraqi Parliament - support a unified, sovereign Iraq. Jarrar compares the split to the two sides of the US Civil War - with the notable exception that the US was not under the influence of an occupying force. Under the new law, after provisional governments are elected, those representatives will vote in October on whether to join one of three "regions" (partitioning the country) or remain a separate province, part of one united country.

Clashes spread as U.S., Iraqi forces attack Shiite militia

With the United States providing air cover and embedded advisers, the Iraqi government on Wednesday expanded its offensive against Shiite Muslim militias from the port city of Basra to the capital of Baghdad — and many of the provinces in between. The day saw street battles in Baghdad and Basra, mortar attacks by Shiite rebels against Baghdad's Green Zone, bombing by U.S. aircraft and encounters that left government tanks in flames. More than 97 people were reported killed and hundreds were wounded since the operation began early Tuesday. In Baghdad, at least nine Iraqi civilians were killed and 42 were wounded in mortar attacks, police said. The Mahdi Army, loyal to firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, opened fire on civilians in downtown Baghdad and clashed with Iraqi security forces in Kadhemiya in north Baghdad.

Iraq's Sadr calls for talks to end days of violence

Powerful Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Thursday called for talks to end days of widespread clashes between his followers and Iraqi security forces in southern Iraqi towns and cities and Baghdad. "We ask everyone to adopt the political resolution and peaceful protest. Do not shed Iraqi blood," Sadr said in a statement read to Reuters by Hazem al-Araji, one of his senior aides in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, however, said earlier in the day: "No talks. No negotiations."

Government is the only authority and no negotiations with "the gangs"-PM

Premier Nouri al-Maliki said from Basra on Thursday that the government is the only authority, rebuffing to negotiate with what he described as "the gangs" responsible for killings and criminal acts in the southern Iraqi city. "We emphasize that the state is the ruler, none else, and it is capable of facing any force anywhere," said a release issued by Maliki’s office and received by Aswat al-Iraq – Voices of Iraq – (VOI).

Iraqi government hold talks with Shiite clerc movement-spokesman

Iraqi government spokesman on Thursday said the government is holding talks with the shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's movemen, accused of flaring up violnce in several Iraqi cities. "Talks with al-Sadr movement are ongoing through different channels", Ali al-Dabagh, spokesman for Iraqi government, told Aswat al-Iraq-Voices of Iraq(VOI) in exlusive statements. He added "parliament's political blocs are participating in stopping the bloodshed and imposing the rule of law in all Iraqi cities including Basra".

Militias in power grab

In Baghdad, the Mahdi Army took over neighbourhood after neighbourhood, some amid heavy fighting, others without firing a shot. In New Baghdad, militiamen simply ordered the police to leave their checkpoints: the officers complied en masse and the guerrillas stepped out of the shadows to take over their checkpoints. In Jihad, a mixed Sunni and Shia area of west Baghdad that had been one of the worst battlefields of Iraq’s dirty sectarian war in 2006, Mahdi units moved in and residents started moving out to avoid the lethal crossfire that erupted. One witness saw Iraqi Shia policemen rip off their uniform shirts and run for shelter with local Sunni neighbourhood patrols, most of them made up of former insurgents wooed by the US military into fighting al-Qaeda. In Baghdad, thousands of people marched in demonstrations in Shia areas demanding an end to the Basra operation, burning effigies of Mr al-Maliki, whom they branded a new dictator, and carrying coffins with his image on it. Estimates of the death toll in Basra reached as high as 200, with hundreds more wounded. “The battle is not easy without coalition support,” lamented one Basra resident, who had worked as a translator for the British forces. “The police in Basra are useless and helping the Mahdi Army. The militia are hiding among the civilians. This country will never be safe, I want to leave for ever. I don’t know how to get out of this hell.” [He might start by recognizing who started this hell. – dancewater]

REPORTS – US/UK/OTHERS IN IRAQ

Again, he proves he is evil: Bush: fresh violence in Iraq is a 'positive moment'

Bush administration takes credit for Iraqi offensive in Basra

The White House and Pentagon claimed partial credit for the Iraqi government's new military offensive in Baghdad and the port city of Basra, calling it a "byproduct of the success" of the U.S. troop surge that showed that Iraqi forces are capable of assaulting Shiite extremists. Stephen Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser, called the Iraqi-led operation in Basra "an indication of the increased maturation of this (central) government," and he praised Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki for taking charge of the operation. "What he (Maliki) has really done is take that matter into his hands," Hadley said. [Nothing makes bush happier than seeing Iraqis killing Iraqis. – dancewater]

Green Zone Hit for Fourth Day This Week

Iran suspends pilgrim tours to Iraq - state TV

Iran has suspended pilgrim tours to Shi'ite Muslim holy sites in Iraq because of rising violence there, state television reported on Thursday. More than 130 people have been killed and hundreds wounded in Iraq since Tuesday, when the U.S.-backed government launched an operation against Shi'ite militias in the southern city of Basra. Fighting has since spread across southern Iraq. "In the wake of recent insecurities in Iraq, (Iran's) haj and pilgrimage organisation has suspended the dispatch of all Iranian pilgrims to the Shi'ite holy sites in Iraq until further notice," Iranian state television reported.

In Iraq, Was I a Torturer?

When I first set off to interview the rank-and-file guards and interrogators tasked with implementing the administration's torture guidelines, I thought they'd never talk openly. They would be embarrassed, wracked by guilt, living in silent shame in communities that would ostracize them if they knew of their histories. What I found instead were young men hiding their regrets from neighbors who wanted to celebrate them as war heroes. They seemed relieved to talk with me about things no one else wanted to hear -- not just about the acts themselves, but also about the guilt, pain and anger they felt along with pride and righteousness about their service. They struggled with these things, wanted to make sense of them -- even as the nation seemed determined to dismiss the whole matter and move on.

Britain admits its troops tortured Iraqi prisoners

Britain's Defence Ministry is to admit that its troops tortured and breached the human rights of nine Iraqi men they detained in southern Iraq in 2003, opening the way to potentially large compensation claims. The decision follows years of legal wrangling in which the family of Baha Musa, an Iraqi hotel worker who was beaten and died in British custody, and eight other Iraqis who survived the beatings, have sought justice. The ministry, which will make the admission in the High Court on Friday, said on Thursday it was doing so to try to smooth the process of paying compensation to Musa's family and the eight other Iraqis and end lengthy court proceedings. The case was one of the British military's darkest episodes in Iraq. All nine detainees suffered 36 hours of violent interrogation before Musa died with 93 injuries to his body, including a broken nose and ribs.

COMMENTARY

Five Years Of War Crimes

Five years after the U.S.-Britain initiated unprovoked aggression against the Iraqi people, U.S. leaders and their allies commemorate the mass atrocity of Iraqi civilians with empty rhetoric and the usual outright lies reserved especially for similar occasions. Five years of illegal and murderous Occupation, the Iraqi people continue to endure an unimaginable suffering under the highest form of tyrannical dictatorships. Credible surveys estimated at least 1.3 million innocent Iraqis — the majority of them women and children — have been brutally murdered in cold blood, making the Iraq’s Genocide the biggest single mass murder of modern time. Almost every Iraqi family has lost at least one close relative. The mayhem is continuing in an endless genocide waged by the world's largest and most offensive military machine, almost entirely against defenceless population. In addition, some 2.5 million have fled Iraq to neighbouring countries, and another 2-3 million Iraqis are “internally displaced”. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have bee wounded and hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, including thousands of women and children, are languishing in militias and U.S.-run prisons and torture centres throughout Iraq. They are subjected to horrific torture and abuses of human rights. Thousands more have simply disappeared in a systematic campaign of terror.

Bush and Bin Laden's virtual war

The George W Bush administration's "war on terror" could be summed up in three words - "fragmentation, diminution, destruction". That's fragmentation brought about by "creative destabilization", as in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine; diminution of American prestige, both military and political, and thus of American power; destruction of political consensus within the US for a strong global role. And all this to the advantage of Osama bin Laden.

Five Things You Need to Know to Understand the Latest Violence in Iraq

To better understand the nature of this latest round of conflict, here are five things one needs to know about what's taking place across Iraq.

1. A visible manifestation of Iraq's central-but-under-teported political conflict (not "sectarian violence")

Iraq, which had experienced little or no sectarian-based violence prior to the U.S. invasion, has been plagued with sectarian militias fighting for the streets of Iraq's formerly heterogeneous neighborhoods, and "sectarian violence" has become Americans' primary explanation for the instability that has plagued the country.

2. U.S. is propping up unpopular regime; Sadr has support because of his platform

One of the ironies of the reporting out of Iraq is the ubiquitous characterization of Muqtada al-Sadr as a "renegade," "radical" or "militant" cleric, despite the fact that he is the only leader of significance in the country who has ordered his followers to stand down. His ostensible militancy appears to arise primarily from his opposition to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

3. "Iraqi forces" are, in fact, "Iranian- (and U.S.-) backed Shiite militias"

Every headline this week has featured some variation of the storyline of "Iraqi security forces" battling "Shiite militias." But the reality is that it is a battle between Shite militias -- separatists and nationalists -- with one militia garbed in Iraqi army uniforms and supported by U.S. airpower, and the other in civilian clothes.

4. Colombia-style democracy

Basra has been engulfed in a simmering conflict since before the British pulled their troops back to a remote base near the airport and turned over the city to Iraqi authorities. But the timing of this crackdown is not coincidental; Iraqi separatists -- Dawa, SIIC and others -- are expected to do poorly in the regional elections, while the Sadrists are widely anticipated to make significant gains. It is widely perceived by those loyal to Sadr that this is an attempt to wipe out the movement he leads prior to the elections and minimize the influence that Iraqi nationalists are poised to gain.

5. Chip off the old block: Maliki's attempt to criminalize dissent

It's unclear whether Sadr has lifted the cease-fire entirely, or simply freed his fighters to defend themselves. He continues to call for peaceful resistance. Whatever the case may be, it's not entirely accurate to say that he "chose" this conflict. The reality is that while his army was holding the cease-fire, attacks on and detentions of Sadrists have continued unabated. Sadr renewed the cease-fire last month, but he did so over the urging of his top aides, who argued that their movement was threatened with annihilation. He later authorized his followers to carry weapons "for self-defense" to head off a mutiny within his ranks.

Sadr called for nationwide civil disobedience that would have allowed his followers to flex some political muscle in a nonviolent way. His orders, according to Iraqi reports were to distribute olive branches and copies of the Koran to soldiers at checkpoints.

The Maliki regime responded by saying that individuals joining the nationwide strike would be punished and that those organizing it are in violation of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Act issued in 2005. A spokesman for the prime minister promised to punish any government employees who failed to show up for work. This is consistent with a long-term trend: the U.S.-backed government's obstruction of Iraqi efforts to foster political reconciliation among diverse groups of Iraq nationalists. (Read more about this here.)

Quote of the day: “Have I ever told you what the river is like on a hot summer night? At dusk the mist hangs in long white bands over the water; the twilight fades and the lights of the town shine out on either bank, with the river, dark and smooth and full of mysterious reflections, like a road of triumph through the mist. Silently a boat with a winking headlight slips down the stream, then a company of quffahs, each with his tiny lamp, loaded to the brim with water melons from Samarra…And we slow down the launch so that the wash may not disturb them. The waves of our passage don’t even extinguish the floating votive candles each burning on its minute boat made out of the swathe of a date cluster, which anxious hands launched above the town — if they reach the last town yet burning, the sick man will recover, the baby will be born safely into this world of hot darkness and glittering lights…Now I’ve brought you out to where the palm trees stand marshaled along the banks. The water is so still that you can see the Scorpion in it, star by star…and here are Faisal’s steps.” Letter from Gertrude Bell to her family, September 11, 1921, reprinted in ‘Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.’

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