Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Senators Casey & Cardin Call for Humanitarian Strategy to Assist Vulnerable Iraqis

New Senate legislation has brought much needed attention to the plight of Iraqis, a move that has energized organizers and advocates for peace and justice in Iraq. On September 17, 2008 U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) introduced S.3509 ‘Support for Vulnerable and Displaced Iraqis Act of 2008’. The bill would require the Secretary of State to develop a comprehensive plan to:
“address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Iraq and potential security breakdown resulting from the mass displacement of Iraqis inside Iraq and as refugees into neighboring countries.”
Senator Casey’s bill cites some startling statistics. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), up to 2,000,000 Iraqis have fled their homes due to instability and violence within the region. Most of these refugees are unable to obtain legal status needed to work in the host countries and have limited access to healthcare and education. Lack of NGO and UN resources to identify and aid the refugees compounds the crisis. Within Iraqi borders the situation is just as unsettling. Another 2,700,000 estimated Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) as well as other vulnerable populations are currently lacking adequate food, shelter, healthcare, clean water and other basic necessities. According to a recent statement made by Senator Casey,
“We have a moral responsibility to help the millions of Iraqis who have been displaced from their homes. It is my hope that this bill will take the necessary first steps to develop a long-term strategy to address the needs of vulnerable Iraqis.”
Additional findings made by Congress emphasize the destabilizing affects of massive displacement within Iraq and the overwhelming social, economic and security stresses placed on bordering host countries due to an immense influx of refugees. The bill asserts that these factors have yet to be addressed by the government. In a recent statement, Senator Cardin highlights this point:
“The lack of planning on the part of this administration and the absence of any long-term comprehensive plan to deal with refugees, threatens to destabilize the entire region and undermine security in Iraq.”
S.3509 further states that the U.S. should take the lead in combating the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. However, the bill stresses that Iraq’s direct involvement and cooperation with the U.S. is key if the two countries want to alleviate suffering in the short-term and ultimately have successful resettlement of refugees, IDP’s and other vulnerable populations. Identifying what conditions are necessary for “voluntary, safe, sustainable” return of displaced Iraqis is a pivotal part of this process. The final objective stated in the bill calls for Congress to decide what policies are most urgently needed to reduce instability in the region.

There is enthusiastic backing for S.3509 among the non-profit community. Some of the organizations who have already given their full support are:

Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC)
CHF International
EPIC: Promoting a Free & Secure Iraq
International Medical Corps
International Rescue Committee
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
Mercy Corps
Presbyterian Church (USA), Washington Office
Refugees International
Save the Children
U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL)

Endorsement of this bill is growing because the 2008 ‘Support for Vulnerable and Displaced Iraqis Act’ is groundbreaking. Iraq is a frequent topic of debate in Congress yet the humanitarian aspect of the dilemma was often sidelined or given inadequate attention until now. S.3509 centers on the millions of Iraqis who have been forced to flee or relocate. If passed, this bill will bring the plight of displaced Iraqis squarely into the debate surrounding future U.S. policies toward Iraq. Call your Senators and urge them to support this important legislation.

Photo caption: Senators Casey and Durbin with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih in the Green Zone.

Cold War Between Baghdad and Kurds Turns Hot

The following commentary was originally posted on Musings On Iraq

On September 27, Iraqi police and Kurdish forces got into a shoot out in the town of Jalawlaa in the Khanaqin district of Diyala province. There are two versions of what happened. According to Iraqi forces, a unit of the Emergency Police raided the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) headquarters in Jalawlaa and arrested two members. According to UPI, the target was the Kurdish intelligence agency the Asayesh. Kurdish officials then went to the Emergency Police Unit’s offices to demand the release of the two Kurds, but that resulted in a shootout that left a policeman and a member of the KDP dead, and two officers wounded. The other version comes from the Peshmerga who claim that two Arab policemen stopped three members of the Asayesh in a market. When they refused to show their identity cards they were arrested and taken to a police station. A member of the KDP went there to demand their release. He was successful, but as they were exiting, police began shooting at them, killing one of the Asayesh officers. A police official said the police who opened fire were being investigated.

The Khanaqin district has been the scene of growing conflict between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). On August 11, 2008 Iraqi forces reached the outskirts of Khanaqin as part of Operation Omens of Prosperity. They entered the towns of Qara Taba, Saidyah, and Khanaqin and demanded that the Kurdish Peshmerga militia withdraw within 24 hours and that all government buildings be evacuated. The Kurds refused at first, but after high level negotiations, agreed to pull their forces out of Qara Taba and Jalawlaa, but not Khanaqin. The security forces immediately broke that deal by moving into Khanaqin on August 24. The Kurdish parties organized demonstrations against the Iraqi forces and refused to leave. By the end of the month, another round of negotiations led to both the army and Peshmerga to withdraw leaving the Kurds still in political control of the area. By September 9 however, a Baghdad spokesman denied that any deal had been signed. On September 18, the Iraqi army again announced that the Peshmerga had to pull out of Jalawaaa. Three days later it appeared the Kurds had agreed when they announced that they would evacuate government owned buildings. All that has gone up in smoke with yesterday’s shootout.

Although the Kurds represent one of the foundations of Prime Minister Maliki’s ruling coalition, the two sides have been disagreeing more and more. The most prominent was when the Kurds vetoed the provincial election law in July 2008. The Kurds also occupy 300 square miles of territory outside of Kurdistan, which they wish to annex. The Khanaqin district is one of those. There was no security situation to speak of there when the Iraqi forces moved into the area in August. Maliki’s action was an attempt to pressure the Kurds and assert the central government’s control over all sections of the country. The Prime Minister must have been pleased to have so many high level Kurds come to his office, including Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, to work out a deal over Khanaqin. The arguments between the two sides were heated, but stayed verbal. Yesterday’s incident was the first time they turned violent, and obviously threatens all the talks over the future of the area and Maliki’s power play. Already Kurdish President Barzani and the speaker of the Kurdish Assembly have begun talking about conspiracies against the Kurds and the return of Baathism to Baghdad. This shootout will only lead to the growing paranoia of Kurdish leaders, and will probably make working with them even harder.

Agence France Presse, “Man dies as Iraqi forces raid Kurdish peshmerga post,” 9/27/08
Gera, Vanessa, “Iraq: Kurdish politician killed in disputed region,” Associated Press, 9/27/08
Al-Ily, Naseer and Aziz, Hewa, “The Baghdad-Arbil Crisis Escalates,” Asharq Alawsat, 9/12/08
Middle East Online, “Iraqi forces raid Kurdish peshmerga post,” 9/27/08
Muhammed, Ako, “Kurds and their Iraqi allies see differences,” Kurdish Globe, 9/11/08
Paley, Amit, “Strip of Iraq ‘on the Verge of Exploding,’” Washington Post, 9/13/08
Press TV, “Iraq army sets deadline for Kurds,” 9/18/08
Russo, Claire, “The Maliki Government Confronts Diyala,” Institute for the Study of War,” 9/23/08
Voices of Iraq, “2 killed in clashes between policemen, Kurdish party supporters in Jalawlaa,” 9/27/08
- “Consensus solution about Khanaqin achieved – lawmaker,” 9/16/08
- “Kurdish parties to flee offices in Diala,” 9/21/08
- “No deal struck between central gov’t, Kurds over Khanaqin-spokesman,” 9/5/08

Monday, September 29, 2008

Back To Mosul

The following commentary was originally posted on Musings On Iraq:

On Wednesday August 17, 2008, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki admitted that the security operation in Mosul had failed to reach its goal of improving the situation in Ninewa. Maliki blamed the citizens for failing to secure their province. He said in other security crackdowns, the population had cooperated and helped the government forces round up militants, but this didn’t happen in Mosul. A member of the Interior Minister said that security forces would launch a new operation there soon.

On May 10, 2008, Maliki announced the beginning of Operation Lion’s Roar/Mother of Two Rivers that was aimed at dislodging insurgents from their last major urban stronghold in Mosul. Maliki had been talking about clearing the city since December 2007, and early operations began in February 2008. Because of the crackdowns on the Sadrists that started in March, large numbers of Iraqi forces were not able to deploy to Mosul until May. The offensive was considered a success, but as reported earlier, it actually had little affect on the number of attacks and deaths in the city.

Here is a breakdown of attacks and incidents in Mosul before and after Operation’s Lion’s Roar/Mother of Two Rivers:

January 2008:
  • 32 attacks/19 incidents – 1.03 attacks/day – 1.65 attacks & incidents/day
  • 109 killed – 3.52 deaths/day
  • 362 wounded – 11.68 wounded/day
February 2008:
  • 47 attacks/8 incidents 1.62 attacks/day – 1.9 attacks & incidents/day
  • 86 killed – 2.97 killed/day
  • 80 wounded 2.76 wounded/day
  • 6 kidnapped
March 2008:
  • 54 attacks/13 incidents – 1.74 attacks/day – 2.16 attacks & incidents/day
  • 97 killed – 3.13 killed/day
  • 147 wounded – 4.74 wounded/day
  • 3 kidnapped
April 2008:
  • 53 attacks/10 incidents – 1.77 attacks/day – 2.1 attacks & incidents/day
  • 71 killed 2.37 killed/day
  • 209 wounded 7.0 wounded/day
  • 42 kidnapped
June 2008:
  • 49 attacks/incidents – 1.63 attacks/day – 1.97 attacks & incidents/day
  • 100 killed 3.33 killed/day
  • 279 wounded 9.3 wounded/day
  • 4 kidnapped
July 2008:
  • 67 attacks/7 incidents – 2.16 attacks/day – 2.39 attacks & incidents/day
  • 96 killed 3.1 killed/day
  • 111 wounded 3.58 wounded/day
  • 2 kidnapped
August 2008:
  • 50 attacks/16 incidents – 1.61 attacks/day – 2.12 attacks & incidents/day
  • 55 killed 1.77 killed/day
  • 111 wounded 3.58 wounded/day
  • 5 kidnapped

The numbers show little change in the number of attacks or the amount of people killed or wounded before and after the offensive until August. That month, the number of attacks did drop by an average of one per day, and deaths were down by almost two a day, but the amount injured stayed the same. If you include incidents that involved violence, there was little drop off from July to August.

The major reason why the situation in Mosul has remained unstable is because the offensive did not address the underlying causes of the violence there. Unlike in Basra, Sadr City, and Maysan where the Sadrists were directly challenged on the military, political, economic, and social fronts, Operation Lion’s Roar/Mother of Two Rivers turned out to be solely a military affair that only nabbed, killed, or ran off insurgents. Maliki promised $100 million in reconstruction after the offensive, but little of that has shown up. The political situation remained untouched, with the city divided between Kurds and Arabs, with Kurds controlling the eastern half and the Arabs the west. The presence of the Kurds has allowed insurgent groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq to portray themselves as the protectors of the Arabs. The Kurds have not helped since they do have aspirations to annex the city to Kurdistan and control the Ninewa provincial council. Until those issues are addressed there will probably still be latent violence in the area, with the new offensive reducing attacks while it is in affect, with a likely rise afterwards as happened after May.

Ali, Fadhil, “Iraqi Government Launches Operation to Expel al-Qaeda from Mosul,” Terrorism Focus, Jamestown Foundation, 5/20/08
DPA, “Iraq’s Islamic Party leader assassinated in Mosul,” 8/7/08
Gamel, Kim, “UN unveils plans to step up efforts in Iraq,” Associated Press, 8/31/08
Hammoudi, Laith, “Round-up of Daily Violence in Iraq – Wednesday 13 August 2008,” McClatchy Newspapers, 8/13/08
- “Round-up of Daily Violence in Iraq – Wednesday 27 August 2008,” McClatchy Newspapers, 8/27/08
Issa, Sahar, “Round-up of Daily Violence in Iraq, Monday 11 August 2008,” McClatchy Newspapers, 8/11/08
- “Round-up of Daily Violence in Iraq, Friday 22 August 2008,” McClatchy Newspapers, 8/22/08
Kuwait News Agency, “Iraqi PM admits failure of Umm Al-Rubai in military operation,” 9/18/08
Levinson, Charles, “Mosul offensive illustrates U.S. challenges,” USA Today, 2/10/08
Monsters & Critics, “Policeman, soldier killed in two incidents in Iraq (Extra),” 8/14/08
Reuters, “Bombs hit northern Iraq, forces expect more,” 8/13/08
- “FACTBOX – Security developments in Iraq, Aug 4,” 8/4/08
- “FACTBOX – Security developments in Iraq, Aug 5,” 8/5/08
- “FACTBOX – Security developments in Iraq, Aug 6,” 8/6/08
- “FACTBOX – Security developments in Iraq, Aug 8,” 8/8/08
- “FACTBOX – Security developments in Iraq, Aug 15,” 8/15/08
- “FACTBOX – Security developments in Iraq, Aug 18,” 8/18/08
- “FACTBOX – Security developments in Iraq, Aug 21,” 8/21/08
- “FACTBOX – Security developments in Iraq, Aug 23,” 8/23/08
- “FACTBOX – Security developments in Iraq, Aug 25,” 8/25/08
- “FACTBOX – Security developments in Iraq, Aug 27,” 8/27/08
- “FACTBOX – Security developments in Iraq, Aug 28,” 8/28/08
- “FACTBOX – Security developments in Iraq, Aug 30,” 8/30/08
- “FACTBOX – Security developments in Iraq, Aug 31,” 8/31/08
Voices of Iraq, “2 civilians injured, gunmen kidnap 2 truck drivers in Mosul,” 8/12/08
- “2 gunmen killed in eastern Mosul clashes,” 8/3/08
- “2 unknown bodies found, arms seized in Mosul,” 8/2/08
- “2 wounded, body found in Mosul,” 8/12/08
- “3 Iraqi soldiers wounded in Mosul,” 8/8/08
- “3 Turks wounded in Mosul blast,” 8/30/08
- “4 wounded as car bomb explodes in Mosul,” 8/25/08
- “92 targets achieved during operations’ first day – Ninewa operations commander,” 5/10/08
- “Cart bomb kills 3 cops in Mosul,” 8/7/08
- “Civilian, child injured by gunmen in western Mosul,” 8/5/08
- “Gunmen wound policeman in central Mosul – NOC,” 8/26/08
- “IED targets U.S. patrol, U.S. army denies incident,” 8/18/08
- “Maliki allocates $100 million for Mosul projects,” 5/18/08
- “Mortar shell hits al-Iraqia, al-Mosuliya channels in Mosul,” 8/19/08
- “Mosul university president’s bodyguard killed,” 8/25/08
- “Policeman killed by gunmen fire in Mosul,” 8/25/08
- “Security member wounded in 2nd Mosul blast,” 8/18/08
- “Violence in Diala reduced, Mosul the coming target – MOI,” 8/17/08

Sunday, September 28, 2008

EPIC Guest Blogger: Reidar Visser Offers a History Lesson for Senator Obama

Reidar Visser is research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs with a background in history and comparative politics (University of Bergen) and a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies (University of Oxford). He's the author of Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Lit Verlag, 2006) and co-editor of An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? (Columbia University Press, 2007). The following commentary was originally posted at http://www.historiae.org/

Senator Barack Obama to Senator John McCain during last Friday’s presidential debate: “You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong.”

Since this is forceful claim about Iraqi history which was presented during a contest for the position as the world’s most powerful leader, it is worth examining in some further detail. Let’s take a closer look at that “history of violence between Shiite and Sunni” in Iraq. Shiites and Sunnis have coexisted in Iraq since they crystallised as two distinctive religious communities in Baghdad in the tenth century AD, when the struggle for power between various factions of the Islamic caliphate that had been going on since the seventh century became transformed into a theological one with the (Shiite) doctrine of the imamate. In the subsequent centuries, there was certainly tension between these two communities at times (not least because the rivalling ruling elements of the caliphates chose to cultivate links with particular communities to further their own power struggles), but outbreaks of violence on a large scale were extremely rare. In fact, not more than three cases stand out before the late twentieth century, and these were all related to invasion by foreign forces rather than to internal sectarian struggles between the Iraqis.

The first major case of extensive Shiite–Sunni violence was in 1508: A massacre by invading Persian Safavids of Sunnis and Christians in Baghdad. The Safavids returned a little more than one hundred years later, in 1623, and once more went ahead with a massacre of Sunnis in Baghdad. Later, in the nineteenth century, extremist Sunni Wahhabis from the Arabian Peninsula would regularly overrun the settled areas of Iraq; on one occasion, in 1801, this took on a clearly sectarian nature as Bedouin warriors massacred Shiites in the holy city of Karbala. The list can be completed down to 2003 and the US invasion with a series of ugly episodes that took place in the late twentieth century: Between 1969 and 1971, the Sunni-dominated Baathist regime performed mass expulsions of Shiites (including a high number of Fayli Kurds); in 1980 there was another wave of mass deportations of Shiites in the wake of the Iranian revolution; finally, in 1991 there were massacres of Shiites after the failed intifada that followed the Gulf War. (Conversely, some of the other historical episodes that are occasionally described as instances of “sectarian violence” simply do not fit this label. For example, the conflict between the government and the mostly Shiite tribes on the Euphrates in the 1935 was interwoven with questions relating to agrarian issues and conscription, and Sunni politicians had ties to both the government and the opposition camps.)

On the one hand, there can be no doubt that this is a grim record: it involves thousands of innocent people who were massacred simply because they belonged to the wrong sect. On the other hand, however, it is important to keep things in perspective. These six cases of widespread sectarian violence took place in a time span of more than 1,000 years. Moreover, they were mostly instigated by foreign invaders. The Iraqis themselves repeatedly closed ranks against these aggressions, uniting Shiites and Sunnis against the foreign forces. For example, in 1623 when the Safavid army was about to massacre the Sunni population of Baghdad, Shiites of Karbala intervened to save Sunnis from Shiite aggression. Similarly, in 1801, when Sunni Wahhabis sacked Karbala, the Sunni pasha of Baghdad punished the Sunni governor of Karbala for having failed to prevent the attack on the Shiites. Also, in none of these cases did the victims propose separative solutions. Never in Iraqi history has there been any call for a small Sunni state. And with the exception of feeble and short-lived attempt by some low-ranking clerics and notables of Baghdad in 1927, the Shiites have also consistently shied away from a call for a small Shiite breakaway state. None of the major upheavals of twentieth-century Iraqi history – 1920 and 1958 – featured sectarian conflict as the main mode of political action.

The accumulation of cases of sectarian violence during the decades of Baathist rule calls for special comment. True, the measures taken against the Shiites in the early 1980s and in 1991 were extremely repressive, and in a one-off episode in the immediate wake of the 1991 uprising they turned into fully-fledged explicit sectarianism through a series of chauvinist Sunni editorials in the Thawra newspaper in which the Arabness of the Shiites was questioned. However, subsequent developments in Iraqi politics show that the “Sunni” character of the Baathist regime was not its real core and that it was first and foremost an authoritarian regime built on relations between patrons and clients: In the mid-1990s the dominant political trend in Iraq was intra-Sunni struggles, as tribe after tribe challenged Saddam Hussein, who ended up executing people from his hometown Tikrit and his own family. When the defector Husayn Kamil Hasan al-Majid returned from Jordan in 1996, he was put to death just like many Shiite rebels had been after the 1991 uprising.

Perhaps most importantly in the context of the US elections, this record needs to be compared with that of the country Barack Obama represents himself. Did not the Civil War cause some 600,000 deaths between 1861 and 1865? How many thousands of African Americans have been killed in KKK violence? What about the Native Americans? The numbers here are clearly higher than the number of deaths caused by sectarian violence in Iraq, and yet few are prepared to question the viability of the United States as a political project. So where did Senator Obama really want to go with those comments?

There is a problem in Democratic discourse on Iraq that consists of always trying to put the actions of the Bush administration is the worst possible light, even in situations when this forces the Democrats to twist the reality. It seems reasonable to criticise the Iraq War on several grounds: there were no weapons of mass destruction, no al-Qaida link and no 911 relationship, and the unilateral action without a UN mandate created yet another dangerous precedent in international affairs. But Democrats go further than this: they frequently claim that the sectarian problems seen in Iraq since 2003 and especially in the wake of the Samarra bombing in 2006 were a “natural” expression of Iraqi politics, and that the high degree of Iranian influence seen in today’s Iraq is somehow a “natural” phenomenon in a country with a large Shiite population. The argument is that the Bush administration should have known that any tampering with the authoritarian structures of Baathist Iraq would automatically have prompted a civil war with a strong Iranian role among the Shiites. It is also a way of ultimately blaming the Iraqis themselves for all the problems they are currently going through.

This is to ignore the historical record of coexistence between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq and the fervent anti-Iranian attitudes among large sections of Iraq’s Shiites. Of course, on this latter point, John McCain is off the mark just like Obama: by suggesting that “the consequences of defeat would have been increased Iranian influence” he overlooks the fact that some of America’s best friends in the Maliki government have extremely close ties to Iran and that Iran’s interests so far have been well served by the Republican “victory” project and Washington’s peculiar choice of alliance partners among Iraq’s Shiites. But on the whole, Republicans, to a greater degree than Democrats, at least seem to recognise the historical roots of Iraqi national unity. From the Iraqi point of view it simply seems more dangerous to have a US president who based on some extremely superficial reading pretends to know something about the divide between Sunnis and Shiites than to have one who reportedly is completely ignorant about the subject.

The bottom line is that there is nothing in Iraq’s history that should prevent the country from reverting to its natural role as one of the world’s great nations. Those who try to suggest otherwise either ignore the empirical record or do not care for the well-being of the Iraqi people. It is said that Obama has several top-notch, progressive and knowledgeable advisers who know about all these things, and who are unlikely to look to soft partitionist Joe Biden when it comes to actual policy-making. But unless these voices can have a real impact on what their candidate says in front of millions of Americans in prime-time televised debates, their usefulness seems unclear. If yesterday’s unfounded attack on Iraq's record of coexistence is the most inspirational thing Obama can come up with on Iraq then it is hard for a non-American observer to see any fundamental difference between his candidacy and that of all the others before him. Obama's remarks were yet another example of how American politicians can be careless in dealing with other sovereign nations and their histories, and they also go in exactly the wrong direction at a time when politics in Iraq is once more becoming more cross-sectarian.

Photo caption: Al Kadhemain Mosque, Baghdad 2003, photo by Jan Oberg

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Election Law Passed, Now To Get People To Vote

The following commentary was originally posted on Musings On Iraq:

Iraq’s parliament finally passed a new provincial election law on September 24, 2008. The thorny issue of Kirkuk that was at the center of the dispute over the vetoed election law in July was put off. A special committee is to be formed of all the major groups in the city made up of two Arabs, two Kurds, two Turkomen and one Christian. The group is to come up with some solutions to the city’s divided population and rule, and submit them to parliament by March 31, 2009. Afterwards, a separate vote is to be held there. The law also maintains the open list of the original election bill that allows voters to pick individuals instead of parties on the ballot, 25% of all provincial council seats need to go to women, it bans the use of religious figures on campaign material, and there are some limits on mosques being used. A quota for minorities to be represented on the councils was also discussed, but that too is to be sent to a committee for future consideration. The United Nations special representative Staffan de Mistura was greatly responsible for the series of compromises that allowed the law to pass.

Oddly enough, though the Kurds were the major roadblock to passing the original election law during the summer, and were the main group that needed to be appeased to approve the new one, Kurdistan will not be holding elections. The Kurds say elections are an issue for the Kurdish Assembly to legislate. The Kurds were mostly involved in the debate to protect their interests in Kirkuk, which they have de facto rule over, and wish to annex in the future. With that now done, they were a willing partner to the passage of the bill.

The final step is for it to be passed by the Presidential Council. That was where Kurdish Vice President Jalal Talabani and Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi vetoed the original law in July. This time it is expected to pass. That means the actual election will probably happen sometime in early 2009.

Now that arduous process is over, the government needs to move forward with actually registering voters. As reported earlier, in July 2008 563 voter centers were set up across Iraq. The Election Commission gave Iraqis 30 days to sign up, but too few showed up, and the deadline was extended several times. As of the end of August, only 2.9 million new voters out of a possible 17 million registered. Of the 2.7 million internally displaced Iraqis, only 100,000 have signed up. Those that voted in the 2005 elections don’t have to re-register as long as they haven’t moved. Over eight million voted then, but since then around five million Iraqis have fled their homes for other parts of the country or to foreign lands. On the positive side, of the 2.9 million newly registered, 1.8 million are Sunnis, who boycotted the first election in 2005 and are therefore grossly underrepresented in Iraq’s provincial councils.

The Election Commission looked at the registration process as a measure of how much the public was looking forward to the vote. They have been disappointed with the low numbers. Several reasons have been given for the apparent apathy. One is that many Iraqis are more interested in finding jobs and getting basic necessities such as water, gas, fuel, and electricity than the elections. Many simply don’t believe voting will change their situation. There have also been reports that the security forces have been intimidating followers of Moqtada al-Sadr in areas such as Sadr City in Baghdad. Neither is good for a country that is attempting to move towards democracy.

Abouzeid, Rania, “Growing Apathy Toward Iraqi Elections,” Time, 9/5/08
al-Ansary, Khalid, “Iraq election law must pass mid-Sept for 2008 vote,” Reuters, 8/30/08
Chon, Gina and Naji, Zaineb, “Iraq Drive for Voters Lags,” Wall Street Journal, 9/18/08
Goode, Erica, “Iraq Passes Provincial Elections Law,” New York Times, 9/25/08
Levinson, Charles, “Misconduct seen at Baghdad voting centers,” USA Today, 8/14/08
Lynch, Marc, “definite maybe,” Abu Aardvark Blog, 9/24/08
Missing Links Blog, “Suggested scapegoats for poor voter-registration,” 8/23/08
Visser, Reidar, “After Compromise on Kirkuk, Finally an Election Law for Iraq’s Governorates,” Historiae.org, 9/24/08
Voices of Iraq, “IHEC opens 563 voter registration update centers – UNAMI,” 7/15/08

Friday, September 26, 2008

Is Honesty on Iraq as Elusive as The Great Pumpkin?

Today's Washington Post editorial once again challenges Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama to update his Iraq position. While EPIC takes no position on candidates running for political office, we have a lot to say about the policy prescriptions (or lack thereof) of both the Republican and Democratic nominees. Where one party seems to be blind to U.S. shortcomings in Iraq and the region, the other seems to be blind to any progress.

What progress you ask?!

Yesterday EPIC Guest Blogger Reidar Visser wrote about the successful passage of a special election law in Iraq, which opens the door for next year’s provincial elections. Today the editors of the Washington Post write:
Iraq's parliament on Wednesday took another major step toward political stabilization. By a unanimous vote, the national legislature approved a plan for local elections in 14 of 18 provinces by early next year -- clearing the way for a new, more representative and more secular wave of politicians to take office. The legislation eliminates the party slate system that allowed religious authorities to dominate Iraq's previous elections, and it provides for women to hold 25 percent of seats. Most important, it will allow Sunni leaders who boycotted the 2005 provincial elections -- and who have since allied themselves with U.S. forces against al-Qaeda in Iraq -- to compete for political power in the provinces that were once the heartland of the insurgency.
While the U.S. media exaggerates Baghdad gridlock and sectarian politics in Iraq, in truth, the real contest for power in Iraq (as put forward by Sam Parker of USIP and other respected Iraq specialists) is between the powers that be (PTB) and the powers that aren’t (PTA). The passage of a special election law not only shows progress in negotiations between the rival factions of the PTB, but the growing political power and influence of the PTA. Unrepresented communities like Iraq’s tribal leaders (both Sunni and Shia), secular Iraqi professionals in Iraq’s urban centers, many Iraqis in rural areas, and minority communities such as Iraq's Chaldean and Assyrian Christians are demanding free and fair elections that give them a competitive chance of winning seats on Provincial Councils and eventually in the National Parliament.

Real representation from the grassroots up trumping sectarian (read: partisan) party lists and political insiders (dominated by former political exiles in the case of Iraq)? That’s change that both Americans and Iraqis can believe in.

At the same time, we’re all looking for more intellectual honesty and less knee-jerk partisan rhetoric. The McCain-Palin camp ought to offer more “straight talk” about U.S. shortcomings in Iraq and the region (especially surrounding the displacement and vulnerability of millions of Iraqis). The Obama-Biden ticket ought to explain how their administration will withdraw U.S. forces in a way that leaves sustainable security and continuing political progress behind, and it's hard to do that without being honest and forthcoming about where U.S. efforts have done some good. The first candidate who breaks out of the partisan framing of the “Iraq issue” will be the first to look truly Presidential in the eyes of thoughtful American voters.

So here’s the hard-to-swallow pill that the Washington Post prescribes to Obama:
...it's now clear that the political progress that the Bush administration hoped would follow the surge of U.S. forces in Iraq has finally begun. How can the next president preserve that momentum? Democrat Barack Obama continues to argue that only the systematic withdrawal of U.S. combat units will force Iraqi leaders to compromise. Yet the empirical evidence of the past year suggests the opposite: that only the greater security produced and guaranteed by American troops allows a political environment in which legislative deals and free elections are feasible.
Indeed, it’s time for both sides to reckon with the realities of Iraq no matter how inconvenient to old partisan narratives. Do that and you’ll be offering change we all can believe in.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

EPIC Guest Blogger: Reidar Visser on the Passage of Iraq's Special Elections Law

Reidar Visser is research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs with a background in history and comparative politics (University of Bergen) and a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies (University of Oxford). He's the author of Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Lit Verlag, 2006) and co-editor of An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? (Columbia University Press, 2007). The following commentary was originally posted at www.historiae.org

Iraq’s parliament today approved the remaining article 24 of the provincial elections law that was partially approved on 22 July except for the provisions relating to elections in Kirkuk.

The new article, which has been crafted in cooperation with the United Nations special representative in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, delays the elections in the disputed Kirkuk province, but also establishes a committee which will deal with power-sharing issues in local government there. The committee will consist of 7 parliamentary representatives from Kirkuk – 2 Kurds, 2 Turkmens, 2 Arabs and 1 Christian – and will have until 31 March 2009 to prepare its report.

The Iraqi parliament will then proceed to create a special elections law for Kirkuk. (Or, if it fails to do so, the prime minister, the president and the speaker of the parliament will decree a suitable system for elections in cooperation with the United Nations!)

The new law is a compromise between federalists (in particular the Kurds) and nationalist centralists (now increasingly referred to as the “forces of 22 July”). Back in May this year, Kurdish politicians spoke in favour of postponing local elections in all disputed areas such as Kirkuk, arguing that their strong position in these areas – based on the heavily-boycotted January 2005 elections – would play to their advantage and could perhaps be a negotiating card towards a rapid settlement of territorial issues. The forces of 22 July, on the other hand, demanded more equitable power-sharing in the interim, thereby seeking to shake up Kurdish dominance in the local council and to challenge what they consider to be a number of pro-Kurdish placemen and figureheads that have been anointed by the Kurds to serve as “Arab” and “Turkmen” representatives in Kirkuk despite having little support in the communities they purport to represent.

The compromise is more than a mere postponement: it keeps Kirkuk and the issue of power sharing on the agenda, even if these issues are now lifted to the abstract realm of a parliamentary committee and with a timeline that stretches well into 2009. Also, it is noteworthy that the forces of 22 July scored at least a symbolic victory by gaining an explicit assurance that the central government would play an equally important role alongside the local authorities in facilitating the work of the parliamentary committee. The language on this disputed “fourth point” of article 24 is what held up the passage of the law for the last week or so, and in a testament to the lingering conflict between centralisers and decentralisers in the Iraqi parliament, both Kurds and ISCI (Jalal al-Din al-Saghir) had criticised the nationalists for insisting on a reference to the central government.

In the end, the role of the central government was confirmed, thus in some ways also confirming the diminishing parliamentary clout of the federalists in Iraq. This has apparently enabled many of the component elements of the 22 July forces – including MPs from Iraqiyya, Fadila and the Sadrists – to feel satisfaction about the passage of the law, as seen in a number of positive statements in the wake of the adoption of the law. Perhaps the more important result of the process – in addition to the fact that provincial elections may now actually be held in late 2008 or early 2009 – is the increased awareness, both inside and outside the Iraqi parliament, of this cross-sectarian bloc and the potential it represents. The big question now is whether the Maliki government is prepared to go ahead with free and fair elections given the increasing signs of a cohesive challenge from the opposition.

Postscript: After having blown hot and cold – mostly cold – with regard to Kurdish participation in the elections, Kurdish leaders according to press reports now say that local elections will not be held anywhere in the Kurdistan region, as the right to legislate on those elections is seen as falling within the domain of the regional government. While the Kurds are the most pro-federal force in Iraq, Kurdistan itself is quite centralised (with two competing centres in Arbil and Sulaymaniyya), with the local governorates having considerably less power vis-à-vis the Kurdistan Regional Government than their counterparts elsewhere in Iraq have towards Baghdad. This stance does throw into question the heavy Kurdish involvement in drafting the law, where they dominated parliamentary debates in long periods with their insistent demands that closed lists be used due to the supposed illiteracy of the Iraqi electorate – no such qualms when it came to the constitution back in 2005, apparently!

Photo caption: An Iraqi policeman stood watch under an election poster in Baghdad on Wednesday. Photo by Mohammed Jalil/European Pressphoto Agency

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Headlines 09/08-09/16

New York Times
September 16, 2008
“Odierno Succeeds Patraeus in Iraq”
Thom Shanker, Stephen Farrell

The position of Commander of multinational forces in Iraq changes hands during a formal ceremony in Baghdad. Former No. 2 commander, Gen. Ray Ordierno expresses caution about maintaining security gains resulting from the surge in the wake of troop withdrawals.

Los Angeles Times
September 16, 2008
“Iraq's Nouri Maliki breaking free of U.S.”
Ned Parker

Ned Parker explains how a series of pivotal military victories by the Iraq army have altered Iraqi opinion of Prime Minister Maliki. Now a “decisive commander in chief”, Maliki is asserting his power and demanding a U.S. troop withdrawal by 2011 leaving Iraq open to Iranian influence as U.S. control wanes.

The New York Times
Wednesday September 15, 2008
“Inside the new Green Zone”
Andy Arkell

From inside Iraq, Andy Arkell observes that in Baghdad there is a transition in checkpoint supervision from International military to Iraqi security personnel. Arkell notes that the interesting trend of Iraqi soldiers tightening checkpoint security denotes a strengthening of Iraqi control and confidence.

Weekend Edition Saturday
National Public Radio
September 13, 2008
“Evaluating The Surge In Iraq”

"I would characterize the surge as necessary but insufficient to bring about the violence reduction that we've seen." Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations talks with host Scott Simon about elements that made the military surge in Iraq effective, and about other key factors that reduced violence.

Morning Edition
National Public Radio
September 12, 2008
“Iraq Puts Sunni Paramilitary Groups To Work”

After strong pressure from the U.S. military, the Iraqi government has agreed to employ the so-called Awakening Councils. These are largely Sunni paramilitary groups who turned against al-Qaida and allied themselves with U.S. forces. But the Awakening membership mistrusts the Iraqi government. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Baghdad.

The New York Times
September 8, 2008
“Should We Stay or Should We Go?”
Stephen Farrell

Stephen Farrell hits the streets of Baghdad to ask the Iraqi people what they think about an American troop withdrawal. Farrell elaborates on three frequently expressed opinions he encounters during his conversations.

Photo Caption #1: Gen. David H. Petraeus, seated, reacted Tuesday to a standing ovation in Baghdad. Max Becherer for The New York Times

Photo Caption #2: An Iraqi boy watches as American soldiers secure the scene in the aftermath of a car bomb that detonated near an American Army checkpoint. Moises Saman for The New York Times

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Phebe Marr Places Iraq Crisis in Historical Context

Renown scholar and author of The Modern History of Iraq Dr. Phebe Marr delivered a fascinating speech at this year's Iraq Forum. For many Americans, their first introduction to Iraq was Saddam Hussein's abrupt entrance onto the world stage on August 2, 1990 with Iraq's annexation of Kuwait and the subsequent 1991 Gulf War. But of course Iraq's modern history predates 1990 and has tremendous relevance to what's happening today. Spanning four decades, Marr brings Iraq's recent history to life. She documents key events that illuminate current trends, and explains why the past must be considered in finding the best way forward.

Panel 1 Part 1 (28:59) from Sarah Shannon on Vimeo.

Dr. Marr begins her address with a brief chronicle of the turbulence that overwhelmed Iraq beginning with the 1958 military revolt up until the U.S. occupation in 2003. Although the most recent wave of refugees and internal displacement may be the largest in Iraq's history, it is not the first. Military coups, a brutal dictator, numerous wars, failed uprisings, and more than a decade of sanctions created previous waves of refugees. Understanding those occurrences can help explain the present crisis, as well as the social and political upheavals since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

As Marr explains, the creation of a “political vacuum” in post-Hussein Iraq was a catalyst for a sequence of trends that contributed to the humanitarian crisis. Yet Marr's prognosis is refreshingly measured. She sees little value in "happy talk" or pronouncements of "The End of Iraq." Instead, she offers an historical framework on which to build practical solutions. Click the video above and watch the introduction by Prof. Marc Lynch (aka Abu Aardvark in the blogosphere) and Dr. Marr's engaging presentation.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

U.S. House Members Ask: Are Security Gains in Iraq Sustainable with Less Troops?

"The end of the war was never considered," declared Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, the second ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee. Thus began yesterday's hearing on U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen. A lot of discussion focused on plans to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq to pre-surge levels (less than 140,000) by February 2009.

According to Secretary Gates, "This continuing drawdown is possible because of the success achieved in reducing violence and building Iraqi security capacity."

However, Republican Rep. John M. McHugh of New York questioned the sustainability of security improvements and building up Iraqi security capacity while drawing down U.S. forces. He cited a July 2008 GAO report that finds significant deficiencies in the training of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), including a shortage of U.S. personnel. According to the GAO, the U.S. military has failed to develop a comprehensive strategy to solve the shortage of manpower for training the ISF. Admiral Mullen said plans for comprehensive training are being addressed and that the root problem is a need for more personnel to train private security contractors (PSCs).

Secretary Gates also expressed caution about the rate of future troop withdrawals. Covering the hearing, today's Washington Post reports:

Despite their focus on Afghanistan, both Gates and Mullen said that the situation in Iraq remains uncertain and could require more forces in the future. "I worry that the great progress" by U.S. and Iraqi forces could override caution and lead to an excessively rapid drawdown, said Gates, noting that U.S. commanders in Iraq remain concerned about "many challenges and potential for reversals." In sum, he said, "we should expect to be involved in Iraq for years to come, although in changing and increasingly limited ways."

Another challenge to ensuring sustainable security in Iraq is the flagging development of Iraqi institutions and civil society, something Secretary Gates acknowledged in his testimony. However, when a Representative pointedly asked if Iraq is "coup-proof", Gates failed to mention the role that a strong civilian government and civil society can play in preventing a military takeover or return to widespread sectarian violence. Instead, he highlighted the Government of Iraq's reappointment of new military leaders as helping to ensure that all factions of Iraqi society feel represented and protected.

Indeed, writing "How to Leave a Stable Iraq" for Foreign Affairs, coauthors Stephen Biddle at the Council on Foreign Relations and Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack at the Brookings Institution highlight improvements in the ISF's composition and leadership.

Sectarian, corrupt, incompetent, and turncoat officers have been removed. Aggressive recruitment and new amnesty and de-Baathification ordinances have led to increases in both the number of Sunnis, especially in the officer corps, and the number of people with prior military experience in the forces. Now, about 80 percent of the Iraqi army's officers and 50 percent of its rank and file are veterans of Saddam Hussein's military, and one of the most capable units in the Iraqi army, the First Brigade of the First Infantry Division, is 60 percent Sunni

Of course, making Iraq both "coup proof" and peaceful will require additional democratic safeguards and a more holistic approach to building security. For example, consider the stabilizing role of humanitarian relief and protection for 4.8 million displaced Iraqis (nearly 17% of Iraq's entire population). Large numbers of Iraqi middle-class professionals -- desperately needed for Iraq's recovery and development -- have fled to Syria, Jordan, and other nearby countries. In addition, women, young children, and the elderly -- all of whom are the least likely to perpetrate violence -- are disproportionately represented among the dispossessed. By working to ensure the survival of all of these displaced Iraqis and by creating conditions in Iraq that allow many to eventually return -- voluntarily, in safety, and with dignity -- the U.S. and international community can support a 'virtuouse cycle' that leads to lasting peace and prosperity in Iraq.

Likewise, strengthening civilian institutions, improving public education, expanding access to health care, providing reliable electricity, and supporting the development of a vibrant Iraqi middle class are essential elements of healthy democracies.

To phase out the heavy U.S. military presence in Iraq responsibly, safely and with the careful consideration that was lacking at the war's inception, a re-balancing of U.S. policy on Iraq is needed. Congress ought to hold additional hearings to assess the U.S. administration's response to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq and the region, and what more can be done to stabilize Iraq through effective humanitarian relief and development assistance.

Photo Caption: Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen testifies before a House panel on developing security conditions and U.S. military requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan (Source: Washington Post, 9/10/08, photo by Mark Wilson, Getty Images).

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ramadan in Iraq: Improving Security Sparks Revival of Traditions

On September 1st, the setting sun marked the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, a celebration which occurs during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The origins of Ramadan trace back to the 7th Century, known to Muslims as the year Ramadan 610. At this time, Muslims believe Muhammad received the initial verses of the Koran from the angel Gabriel, a messenger sent by Allah. Throughout the month of Ramadan, Muslims observe the tradition of fasting, one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith. From sunrise to sunset all those who are healthy abstain from eating, drinking (water included), sex and smoking. Daily fasting allows for self reflection and mastery over desires. Abstention from food also reminds Muslims of the suffering of others less fortunate.

The traditions of Ramadan are meant to unite families and neighborhoods in a spirit of charity, peace and hospitality. However, in Iraq, insecurity makes observing the holy month more difficult. In February 2006, the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra catapulted the region into severe sectarian conflict. 9 P.M. curfews and fear of more bloodshed kept most Iraqis from the games, feasts and gatherings that, in past Ramadans, stretched into the early hours of dawn. In an article published by the Washington Post in 2006, an Iraqi grocery clerk pessimistically asserts that “All of our traditions will soon vanish, and we will only hear about them in history books.” In the same article a young Iraqi girl speaks of the fears that taint the Ramadan celebrations:

Last year we were not afraid. But this year we are afraid. There are a lot of car bombs. I want security to come back and no terrorists.

Considering the unremitting conflict that plagued Iraq following the bombing in Samarra, hope for the revival of a peaceful Ramadan became an illusion for even the most optimistic Iraqi.

Over the past year, however, a quelling of violence revives the hope that was fading amidst constant bloodshed. On August 31st, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki praised the resilience of the Iraqi people stating:

Ramadan comes at a time when the Iraqis have earned the result of their patience and victory on terrorists, criminals and outlaws (…) There is progress in security and peace.

Security has indeed improved. Last month a total of 430 Iraqi civilians, police officers and soldiers were killed nationwide as compared to the 1,860 deaths during the same period a year earlier. The recent handover of security responsibilities to Iraqi forces in the province of Anbar, formally a stronghold for Sunni insurgency and the birthplace of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, is more good news for Iraqis longing for a calm Ramadan. Feeling secure, people are returning to the streets in the evening after breaking the fast. In interviews with residents in Baghdad and throughout the country, the Los Angeles Times reports "Iraqi Muslims Pray for Peaceful Ramadan":

Muqdad Hammed, 23, who never thought of going out during Ramadan last year. Now he looks forward to the nights after breaking the fast. "We hang around in alleyways as late as 1 a.m. playing the traditional games," he said. Among those games is mahaibis, in which one person on a team conceals a ring in his hand and the other team must guess who has it.

In Baghdad's eastern neighborhood of Shaab, Ali Mohammed, 24, said that despite high food prices, he wants to take his family out to celebrate in parks and restaurants. “There will be no bloody explosions and killing. I’m optimistic that Ramadan will be full of prosperity and peace for all,” Mohammed said.

Despite improvements in security, violent attacks continue to be a danger in less secure areas. On September 6th a car bomb exploded near shops and cafes in the northwestern city of Tal Afar. The blast killed six people and wounded an estimated 50 others as reported by the New York Times. Late August also saw a string of fatal attacks by suicide bombers targeting mosques and police stations. The recent increase of attacks mimic similar surges that occurred during Ramadan in the past. In 2003 and 2006, Ramadan prompted anti-Iraqi insurgents to launch offensives that killed more than 350 Iraqi Security Forces personnel and nearly 200 coalition service members.

Security, however, is not the most pressing issue distressing many Iraqis this month. Lack of electricity and other essential services undermine the attempts of Iraqis to rebuild their lives and observe Ramadan. The extreme heat during blackouts makes fasting more difficult. The loss of loved ones becomes amplified as well during the month of Ramadan. A time of celebration is also a time of mourning when many Iraqis are forced to recall bitter memories of family and friends lost or displaced due to the violence in Iraq. One Iraqi man, whose son died two months ago from a gunshot wound, laments:

Ramadan for us has always been a period of love and strength. The family was always together. But today, it means suffering and pain.”

Despite the challenges that still face Iraq; during this holy month of Ramadan, citizens can celebrate not only the Islamic traditions that unify them as Muslims but also the successes that unite them as Iraqis.

Photo Caption: "A baker prepares kunafa, a traditional Middle Eastern dessert pastry, in Baghdad’s Karada district. During Ramadan, Muslims fast during the day and feast at night (Ahmad al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images, 9/3/08)."

Thursday, September 04, 2008

A Crisis Too Big for Iraq Alone: a remarkable speech by Iraq's Ambassador to the U.S.

In the following video, Iraq’s first Ambassador to the U.S. in 16 years, His Excellency Samir Sumaida’ie, delivers an impassioned opening keynote address at the 2008 National Iraq Forum. Introducing him is former U.S. Ambassador to Jordan Edward Gnehm, Jr., a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Ambassador Sumaida’ie addresses the plight of his compatriots as a man who knows what it's like to flee one’s homeland. Following Saddam's seizure of power in 1973, he was forced to do just that. He was 29 years old.

The rapid deterioration of Iraq from 2003 through 2007 raises serious questions: How did a nation “liberated from tyranny and oppression” become less secure? Why is there a large-scale humanitarian crisis? How have pre-war conditions and post-war policies contributed to the violence? And, perhaps most critically, what can and is being done by the government of Iraq, the United States, and civil society to help Iraq's most vulnerable citizens, including an estimated 4.8 million Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs)?

Opening Keynote (21:12) from Sarah Shannon on Vimeo.

Ambassador Sumaida’ie offers answers and a certain pragmatism that neither condemns nor excuses his government from its responsibility to protect and assist Iraq's most vulnerable citizens. Yet, with modesty, Sumaida’ie acknowledges that Iraq cannot address the deepening crisis alone. The magnitude of the crisis is far greater than what the present capacity of Iraq's government can handle. Stronger international assistance is also needed to help alleviate the burden on refugee-hosting countries like Jordan and Syria.

It is a remarkable speech that I hope you’ll watch and share with your friends. To watch now, click the video above.
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