Friday, July 20, 2007

Perspective: On This Day In Iraq -- July 20th edition

July 20, 2006: Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division are briefed on Operation Starlit in Salah Ad Din Province.

July 20, 2002:

The appliance of silence

What I don't understand is, if Osama bin Laden is dead, why is the fact not trumpeted from the rooftops? Why has the government not proclaimed a national holiday? Most news is not good. Stock markets are crashing all over the place. Crime is soaring. Yet we and the US have possibly achieved the greatest objective in our war on terror: the elimination of the master-mind who caused the collapse of the Twin Towers and the deaths of thousands around the world.

But since there is no public rejoicing and no smiles on the faces of George Bush and Tony Blair, it would seem to follow that Bin Laden must still be alive. Why, then, do people keep telling us that he is dead? The first article I read announcing this was in the Spectator a week or two ago. It was by Mark Steyn, a Canadian living in New Hampshire. How on earth would he know? Pooh-poohing an apparently authentic al-Qaida audiotape stating that the terrorist chief was "in good and prosperous health", Steyn said that, on the contrary, he was definitely "six feet under". The evidence he gave for this was a bit flimsy: that Bin Laden had not been heard from since December, that members of his personal bodyguard had been found dispersed around the world and that it was in Bush's interest to hush up his death lest it erode popular support for the war on terror.

I might have paid little attention to Steyn if I had not then read a piece in the New York Times saying the same thing. This had a more plausible ring to it. The author was Amir Taheri, the Arab editor of a political journal in Paris, who referred back to some widely forgotten old intelligence reports, supported at the time by Pakistan's President Musharraf, that Bin Laden died in December and was buried in the mountains of south-east Afghanistan. Taheri went further: even if (impossibly, in his view) Bin Laden were still alive, "Bin Ladenism" was certainly dead - it had "committed suicide in New York and Washington on Sept 11 2001". The conditions that had enabled Bin Laden's brand of politics to prosper had disappeared, he said. Its ideas were being discredited in the Arab world as "a pseudo-Islamic version of western fascism". Its sponsors had stopped giving it money. The countries that had harboured its activists now rejected them. And the belief among Islamic militants in US cowardice - as exemplified by the once popular joke that "the only thing the Americans would do if attacked was to sue" - had been proven very wrong.

Could it be that Bush and Blair know that they have won the war on terror, but don't want to tell us? It sometimes seems so. Their warnings that some new terrorist outrage is about to happen have been suspiciously vague. July 4 passed without mishap. Indeed, the worst that al-Qaida has been able to do since September 11 is to place an incompetent shoe-bomber aboard a transatlantic airliner and to send a would-be "dirty bomber" to Chicago, where he was arrested before he even had time to concoct a plan.

And what's happened to stage two of the great western crusade? With the Taliban dealt with in Afghanistan, we were supposed to be taking on the "Axis of Evil": that triumvirate of rogue states, North Korea, Iran and Iraq. But the first two quickly ceased to be regarded as potential war targets, leaving only Iraq in the firing line. Now even US plans for an invasion of Iraq also seem to have gone a bit mushy.

First, the invasion was planned for this autumn, then postponed until next spring. But now even a spring offensive is in doubt. Quoting Bush administration officials, USA Today reports that the US would be unlikely to invade without significant provocation by Saddam Hussein - such as invading a neighbouring country, fielding a nuclear weapon or attacking one of Iraq's ethnic minorities.

Other reports suggest that Bush is beginning to fall back on the slender hope that he can overthrow Hussein by fomenting rebellion within Iraq, rather than staging an invasion. Of course, the terrorist threat may still be as great as Bush and Blair would have us believe. But even if it's not, and even if the war is as good as won, we can be sure that they won't tell us, for they have invested far too much political capital in a titanic struggle destined to last for years.

Read the rest at the Guardian

July 20, 2003:

History Proves We're Doing Fine

In the summer of 1945, occupied Germany's cities lay in rubble. Hunger and disease prevailed, and tens of millions of displaced persons foraged to survive. Criminals thrived on the black market. De-Nazification had barely begun. That July, three months after the war's end, no one could have foreseen Germany's political future, its economic miracle and astonishing reconstruction.

During the federal occupation of the South after the Civil War, a hostile, impoverished population lived amid ruins and cholera. Deadly riots and murders were common. The terrorists of the Ku Klux Klan enjoyed far greater support among the population than do today's Baath Party dead-enders in Iraq. Attempts to achieve inclusive democracy were frustrated for a century.

By historical standards, our progress in Iraq is extraordinary. While we cannot predict the character of the future Iraq with precision -- and we must have realistic expectations -- we already may claim with confidence that we will leave the various peoples of Iraq a more humane, equitable political environment than they ever have experienced. It will then be their own to improve upon or ruin.

With unprecedented speed, we overthrew a tyrannical regime that ruled 25 million people. A few million of Iraq's citizens had personal stakes in that regime as the source of their livelihoods and privileges. Should anyone be surprised if hundreds of thousands passively resist the occupation forces and some tens of thousands are willing to engage in or support violence against the force that robbed them of their power? Theirs is the violence of desperation, not of confidence. We face criminals, not a quagmire.

Yet the breathless media reporting of each American casualty in Iraq implies that the occupation has failed. Yes, every soldier's life matters. But we also need to keep the numbers in perspective. In one recent week, as many Americans died in a workplace shooting in Mississippi as were killed by hostile action in Iraq. The total casualties for the war and its aftermath hardly rise to the number of deaths on America's highways over a long holiday weekend. Considering the dimensions of our victory, the low level of our losses is something entirely new in the history of warfare. But the quest for daily headlines is not synonymous with a search for deeper truths.

Most of Iraq is recovering -- not only from the recent war, but from a generation of oppression. The Kurdish region is prospering, a model of cooperation, and the Shiites have behaved far better than initial worries suggested. The violence is isolated in the Sunni-Arab-minority region, a sliver of the country just west and north of Baghdad, which benefited most from Saddam's rule and has the most to lose under a democratic government. The absence of broad support for anti-coalition attacks is heartening. There is no general insurrection and there are no violent, massive demonstrations. Individual soldiers are assassinated, but our overall presence is not endangered. The resistance of die-hard elements should surprise no one but the most naïve neoconservatives in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Meanwhile, our focus on micro issues such as individual casualties or a disgruntled shopkeeper's complaints obscures our macro success, both within Iraq and beyond its borders. Change has come to the Middle East with remarkable force and velocity.

Read the rest at the Washington Post

July 20, 2004:

Death stalks US marines in heart of Iraq's rebel triangle

For the "Magnificent Bastards" battalion of 2/4 US marines, stationed in the heart of Iraq's Sunni triangle, taking battle casualties is an almost daily occurrence. Off duty, life continues only in the shadow of elaborate rituals of death.

With 31 "KIA" - killed in action - and 178 wounded since their arrival less than four months ago, the unit of 1,100 men has suffered the highest attrition rate of any in Iraq.

The latest marine to die was Sgt Kenneth Conde, 23, killed instantly when a piece of shrapnel from a roadside bomb hit him just above the right eye.

At a memorial service held this week outside a palace once owned by Saddam Hussein that now serves as battalion headquarters, Sgt Conde's comrades gathered to pay tribute to a man who became a legend in their midst on April 6.

That day, when 12 marines were killed in the city of Ramadi, a bullet ripped through Sgt Conde's shoulder but he continued to lead his men and fight on for several hours afterwards. "He fought at times like a man possessed," recalled Lt Col Paul Kennedy, the battalion commander.

"He was one of the few, one of the proudest, one of the special marines we held above all others, an exemplar of our corps . . . he was so dearly loved and respected the full impact of his loss has not fully been felt."

After he was wounded, Sgt Conde joked that he was pleased the bullet had not spoilt the "Ride or Die" tattoo he had emblazoned across his back. In a videotaped account of the action, he barely mentioned being hit.

"We had a shootout with those guys, killed them," he said, describing a battle with insurgents armed with AK-47s and machineguns. "After about the first 30 minutes, I was shot from a cross street."

The battle lasted all day and Sgt Conde and his squad were in the thick of the action again the next morning. "After that it started getting easy," he concluded in his videotaped account. "That's it."

The devastating scale of casualties inflicted on enemy insurgents - approaching a thousand dead - is a measure of the superiority of American firepower.

But the battalion takes its own losses to heart. After the memorial service, marines filed past Sgt Conde's M-16 rifle, on which his dog tags and helmet had been placed. Some paused to weep quietly. Others bowed their heads in prayer or clasped the dead man's boots in silent contemplation.

For some marines, the memorial services have become too much. "I don't have time for it," said Sgt Damien Coan, 26, who became a platoon commander when a lieutenant died of his wounds after being shot in the face. "I prefer to deal with it when we get back to the States."

The deaths had affected his men in different ways, he said. "I do have one marine who's a little too aggressive," he said. "We have to put him on a leash a bit. If it was up to him, he'd probably shoot everybody in Ramadi."

Most tend to bottle up their emotions. "They spend a whole lot of energy keeping it in," said Maj Kevin Roberts, a combat stress officer at brigade headquarters.

"It helps them keep on the job but it may not be the most effective long-term coping mechanism."

After a death, marines are encouraged to write to the bereaved families.

"We tell them their sons were courageous and warriors," said Capt Kelly Royer, who has lost 21 men from his Echo Company.

He uses the danger of being killed, or of causing the death of a comrade, as a powerful motivator.

"Let's not put any more of our guys in body bags," he told a young marine sniper manning an observation post overlooking the entrance to Ramadi.

"If you see someone out there with binoculars, put a bullet in his head. Then you get to celebrate and high five and everything."

At the end of the memorial service, before the playing of Taps and the volleys of gunfire, the first sergeant of Weapons Company stepped forward to conduct a final roll call.

"Sgt Kenneth Conde," he boomed. No reply. "Sgt Conde." No reply. "Sgt Kenneth K Conde, killed in action, July 1 2004, Ramadi, Iraq."

Read the rest at the Telegraph

July 20, 2005:

In Iraq, Sweet Promise Struck Down

Many of the boys in the dusty al-Khalij neighborhood of east Baghdad awoke to the news, rousing late on a hot, sleepy summer morning with no school. Their families recalled the excitement -- the American soldiers were here. And they were handing out candy.

Hamza Firas Khuzai, 11 years old, and his friends, many of them boys ages 9 to 12, rushed out without breakfast and mounted their clunky, hip-high bicycles, said Hadi Firas Khuzai, Hamza's father.

To boys Hamza's age, the words "American soldiers" meant mingling among armored troops who looked to them like action figures come to life. It meant laughs while clowning with the Americans, and candy, cookies or toys waiting to be dropped into their waving hands. Hamza's friends pedaled away, rushing toward the soldiers' Humvees at the far end of one block. Younger brothers and sisters trailed them, without wheels.

About 10 a.m. last Wednesday, a suicide bomber drove his brown Suzuki sedan and its load of explosives into the crowd of American soldiers and Iraqi children clustered around the Humvees, residents said. Twenty-six of al-Khalij's children died. The bomb killed boys old enough to play out in al-Khalij's streets and young enough to still want to. One U.S. soldier was killed and at least three others were wounded, the military said.

When the Americans first arrived, Hamza, the conscientious youngest son among six children, had stayed behind, according to his family. He had been helping his father repair a car. As word about the Americans spread, Hamza's father, Khuzai, sent him upstairs to fetch some car mats.

Khuzai looked around five minutes later, he recalled Monday, and realized that Hamza hadn't come back.

The boy seized the opportunity of being sent to fetch the mats to run outside the house. He met up with his friends by the American Humvees but came home crying five minutes later, his sister said. "He came back saying, 'The Americans were giving out candy and they didn't give me any,' " his father said.

Hamza headed indoors, where his sister demanded that he eat breakfast, she recalled. I'll be right back, he told her, and ran outside, through a side door to bypass his father.

"We all heard a big boom, and the metal came flying," Khuzai said Monday.

"I ran inside the house, saying, 'Where's Hamza?' "

Khuzai ran down the street, toward the smoke and dust.

He found the bodies of Karrar, Muhammed, Abbas and Ali, surrounded by their bicycles.

Hamza lay among them, facedown, a hole blown into his side. His right arm hung by the skin. White showed through his dangling right leg.

Khuzai ran home with him. "They said he was still alive," Khuzai said, and shook his head.

The oldest child killed was a 13-year-old with Down syndrome, residents of al-Khalij said. The youngest injured was a 4-day-old infant cut by flying glass, news reports said.

The children were among at least 1,500 Iraqi civilians killed by attacks since Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari's government took office April 28. But it was not Iraq's deadliest bombing of the week; a suicide bombing south of Baghdad on Saturday killed more than 100 Iraqis, mostly civilians, when it blew up a nearby fuel tanker.

In a 110-degree-plus summer in Baghdad, with wartime water and electricity shortages, gas lines again stretching from the pumps through neighborhoods and across the spans of highway overpasses, kidnappings, killings and bombings, and a government struggling to secure the country, the killing of 26 children quickly became al-Khalij's tragedy alone.

Hamza's father reflected on the silence, and recalled the July 7 bombings in London, which killed at least 56 people, including the bombers. "What happened in England drew condemnation from all the presidents and kings of the world. But when all our children here are gone, not even an Arab leader says a word," Khuzai lamented Monday. In the neighborhood, black funeral banners hung on front gates, sometimes two or more, for each dead child within.

Funerals for the children ended Sunday. Because of space limitations, families took turns putting up traditional funeral tents in the streets. Families marked each tent with name tags to help guide mourners to the right child's funeral.

Iraqi police stopped a Libyan in an explosives-rigged suicide vest as he walked toward one of the funerals Sunday, the U.S. military said. Officers subdued him before he could detonate the explosives.

Victims of last Wednesday's blast included brothers Abbas and Ali, brothers 7 and 9 years old born to a couple who had tried for 17 years to have children, neighbors said. Another boy, Jasem, died with a piece of candy and a key chain from the Americans still in one hand, residents said.

Two girls, like many Iraqi children this summer forbidden to play outside because of the danger, were killed when the bomb exploded on the street just outside, collapsing much of their house, residents said.

On Hamza's soccer team, only three boys survived, one because his father had taken him from the neighborhood on an errand, and another, Adil, because he slept in, residents said.

And there was Hamza himself, at 11 a solidly built boy who tried to pull his weight in the world.

"Hamza had something different from other kids -- he loved to work," said his brother, Firas, 22.

Firas displayed a gold jewelry box that Hamza had given their mother for Mother's Day, with a battery-powered red light illuminating the box's heart-shaped frame. "He worked to buy this for her," Firas said. "Even I didn't do that."

The family locked the box and Hamza's possessions -- small T-shirts, a green bike, an Atari game he would play each day -- in a side room. The sight of them grieved the mother, sitting silently, blankly, against the wall in the family's back room.

Hamza had spent much of his childhood with war. Shattered glass hung in the frames of his family's front windows, which like many in Baghdad had been broken by bombs too many times for the family to bother replacing them. Shrapnel had wounded an aunt recently as the family slept on the roof to try to stay cool in the heat. An uncle, 22, lay in a hospital, able only to blink, following a separate attack after he signed up as a policeman.

Hamza's sister, Athra, 18, recalled of her brother, "Since the war, all his games changed -- all about killing." But he also liked riding his bicycle and playing soccer, and dreamed of growing up to be an engineer, family members said.

On Monday, Athra held out a recent snapshot showing Hamza at a birthday party with his friends. Wid Hussein, a neighbor and the teenage sister of Mustafa, another of the boys who died, sat beside her.

The young women identified each grinning boy in the photo. Hamza. Abbas. Muhammed. Mustafa. Adil. Bilal. Sajad. Karrar. Ali.

They tapped an index finger on the smiling face of Hamza, who was flexing a muscle and wearing a bright red shirt.

"Died," they said.

They tapped the face of the boy next to Hamza, and each boy after. "Died. Died. Died. Died. Alive. In hospital. Died. Died. Died."

U.S. troops, hoping to show their good intentions and win popular support, and mindful that boys among those Hamza's age will grow up to be the insurgents or soldiers of the next few years, often hand out candy bought from local stores or saved from meals-ready-to-eat ration packets while on noncombat patrols.

For the U.S. soldiers, Iraqi children often provide the relief of welcoming faces in a strange country of suspicious, wary looks. For soldiers with families at home, the children also are a reminder of their own.

Iraqi children "always surround them, laugh, imitate the way they walk, go like this with them," Khuzai remembered, giving a thumbs-up as he and his family and other mourners gathered in the front room.

"Why?" Khuzai said. "They are using the children as shields."

U.S. military vehicles with loudspeakers broadcast Arabic-language warnings after last Wednesday's killings for civilians to stay away, news reports said. U.S. forces expressed regret at the bombings, which the Americans as well as the Iraqi families of the slain children said showed the barbarity of the attackers. Funeral banners echoed the sentiment.

"It wasn't the fault of the Americans," Hamza's father said later, relenting.

"It's their responsibility," said Wid Hussein. "The Americans brought all this tragedy to us."

"Don't say that -- it's not the Americans who are killing. It's the terrorists," Hamza's father answered.

"It's their responsibility," she shot back. "Why did they come here?"

On Monday, a single boy stood in the glare of the heat in the two blocks around Hamza's house, staring at something in his hand. He didn't look up as strangers passed.

"They didn't see anything of their life," said Hamza's uncle, Safa Khuzai, speaking of the boys who died. "They spent it with wars, no electricity, no water and no security," he added. "They were all the same age, born at the same time, went to the same school, played the same games, and died together at the same time."

"Even their funeral services at the same time," he said. "A whole generation of this neighborhood gone."

"The streets are so quiet now," Hamza's sister said. "So quiet."

Read the rest at the Washington Post

July 20, 2006:

Iraq breaks with U.S. and assails Israeli raids

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq has forcefully denounced the Israeli attacks on Lebanon, marking a sharp break with President George W. Bush's position and highlighting the growing power of a Shiite Muslim identity across the Middle East.

"The Israeli attacks and airstrikes are completely destroying Lebanon's infrastructure," Maliki said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon inside the fortified Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and the seat of the Iraqi government.

"I condemn these aggressions and call on the Arab League foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo to take quick action to stop these aggressions. We call on the world to take quick stands to stop the Israeli aggression."

The U.S. Embassy did not answer a reporter's request for a response.

The comments by Maliki, a Shiite Arab whose party has close ties to Iran, were noticeably stronger than those made by Sunni Arab governments in recent days.

Those governments have refused to take an unequivocal stand on Lebanon, reflecting their concern about the growing influence of Iran, which has a Shiite majority and has been accused by Israel of providing weapons to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group.

The ambivalence of those governments has angered many Sunni Arabs in those countries, despite the centuries of enmity between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.

Like many other people around the region, Ahmed Mekky, 40, an Egyptian lawyer and a Sunni Arab, said he supported Hezbollah because it was doing what he said the Arab leadership had been frightened to do for too long - standing up to Israel and the United States.

"We are praying that God would make Hezbollah victorious," Mekky said as he stood beside a newspaper kiosk in central Cairo on Wednesday. "All the Arab governments are asleep."

Perhaps more so than at any time since Iraq's occupation of Kuwait in 1990, the bloodletting between Hezbollah and Israel has highlighted the huge divide among many Arab countries, and between many people and their leaders.

Sunni Arab leaders in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have complained that since the rise of a Shiite majority governing Iraq, and with Iran pressing ahead with its nuclear program, Tehran stands to emerge as the regional power.

Unlike the other countries, Iran has only a tiny minority of Arabs, with Persians making up a slight majority. Azeris are the second-largest ethnic group there.

Some Sunni leaders see in Hezbollah a dangerous beachhead for Iranian influence in the region. And they have criticized Hezbollah for staging the raid into Israel and the capture of two Israeli soldiers last week that prompted Israel's attack on Lebanon.

A growing number of Iraqi officials have stepped forward in recent days to condemn Israel. On Sunday, in a rare show of unity, the 275-member Parliament issued a statement calling the Israeli strikes an act of "criminal aggression."

The resentment of the Iraqi government toward Israel calls into question one of the rationales among some conservatives for the U.S. invasion of Iraq - that a U.S.-backed democratic state would inevitably become an ally of Israel and, by doing so, catalyze a change of attitude across the rest of the Arab world.

Read the rest at the International Herald Tribune