Friday, August 17, 2007

Perspective: On This Day In Iraq -- August 17th edition

August 17, 2004: A militiaman armed with a rocket-propelled grenade passes a burning British vehicle after it came under attack in Basra.

August 17, 2002:

Saudi Arabia next in line?

Gulf oil experts are seriously worried about an American attack against Iraq. Oil prices are nowadays settled at around US$25 a barrel - an overvaluation considering the current global economic slump. The contrast could not be more striking when the high price of oil is compared to the very low price of raw materials such as copper, nickel and aluminum, which are all victims of the global contraction in industrial demand.

Gulf analysts consider that the fundamentals of the oil market are good news as far as consumer countries are concerned. There is an accumulation of positive factors: new oil fields now discharging their production, cheaper cargo freight, the end of the civil war in Angola, intense internal debate regarding production quotas at the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and a diminished role for Iraq (second largest reserves in the world, but producing only around 1.5 million barrels a day because of United Nations restrictions). Analysts conclude that if the price of a barrel of oil remains high it is because the markets have integrated the risk of an attack against Iraq.

Immediately after September 11, North Sea crude shot up to $30.5 a barrel. A few months later it was down to around $17 to $18. In the second quarter of 2002 it started to rise again. The risk is above all a political risk - because Iraq is a major component of OPEC, and nobody at the moment can seriously envisage OPEC's reaction to an American attack. There are all sorts of scenarios flying about in the Gulf: A barrel of oil could go for $6, or it could go for $60. George W Bush wakes up every day to meditate on the fact that during the Gulf War conducted by his father more than a decade ago the price of a barrel shot up to $35. This precipitated a recession that ultimately cost Bush senior his reelection...

Only one player is bound to gain from an American attack on Iraq. Russia is the world's second largest oil producer, immediately behind Saudi Arabia. Gulf analysts acknowledge that at the moment that nobody can tell how Russia would react: cooperation with OPEC, or the pursuit of its own goals to further enlarge its share of the world market.

A Gulf analyst says that in the event of war, "OPEC will be paralyzed. Arab solidarity will dictate that Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council and Algeria will refuse to raise their production. The price could easily reach $40 a barrel. The Bush administration will be in trouble."

The US imports half of its consumption of oil. It is desperately trying to get rid of its dependence on Saudi Arabia and Venezuela by importing more from Africa and by an ever closer cooperation with Russia. America's hawks and the oil lobby consider control of Iraq absolutely essential to finish off American dependence on Saudi oil. No amount of spinning will disguise that this is the real reason for the war.

But at the same time this is the main reason for the Saudi opposition to an attack. The American officials most hawkish on Iraq are by no coincidence the most hawkish on Saudi Arabia. Leaks to the press, such as the recent obscure Rand Corporation analyst report denouncing Saudi Arabia are nothing more than a smokescreen to disguise what really drives the Americans crazy: the increasingly good relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Prince Abdullah's interest in really finding a solution for the Palestinian tragedy.

Gulf diplomatic sources confirm that the Saudi royal family has been closely monitoring the mood of the Arab street regarding Ariel Sharon's devastating "policies" in Palestine. The Arab street is undeniably silent. So the Saudi family is not worried about a violent popular reaction in the event of an invasion of Iraq. But its more conservative elements definitely worry about the transformation of Iraq into an American base. Iraq is potentially richer than Egypt, and it is invulnerable to Wahhabi proselytizing. Saudis believe that in the long run, with the de facto annexation of Iraq as a client regime, America would inevitably turn against Saudi Arabia.

Read the rest at Asia Times

August 17, 2003:

Iraqi Clerics Unite in Rare Alliance

A popular Sunni Muslim cleric has provided grass-roots and financial support to a leading anti-American Shiite cleric, a rare example of cooperation across Iraq's sectarian divide that has alarmed U.S. officials for its potential to bolster festering resistance to the American occupation, senior U.S. and Iraqi officials say.

The ties mark one of the first signs of coordination between anti-occupation elements of the Sunni minority, the traditional rulers of the country, and its Shiite majority, seen by U.S. officials as the key to stability in postwar Iraq.

The extent of the cooperation remains unclear between Ahmed Kubeisi, a Sunni cleric from a prominent clan in western Iraq, and Moqtada Sadr, the 30-year-old son of a revered Shiite ayatollah assassinated in 1999. But ideologically and practically, it represents a convergence of interests between the two figures, who were left out of the Iraqi Governing Council named last month and, in their own communities, have emerged as influential if still minority voices of opposition to the four-month-old occupation.

Supporters of the two clerics acknowledged cooperation, but denied there was any financial support.

U.S. officials say they are especially worried that such cooperation will strengthen Sadr. U.S. officials were taken by surprise by the young cleric's rise to prominence and have remained publicly dismissive of his influence. But they privately acknowledge his support among the poorest and most alienated in cities such as Baghdad and Basra -- a constituency that has long played a role in Iraqi politics -- and express frustration over their inability to curb his influence at a time of growing criticism of U.S. reconstruction efforts.

"This is a political challenge, and it is a distraction, and it keeps the show from getting on the road," said a senior U.S. official in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We cannot afford the distraction."

Kubeisi, a charismatic speaker and respected religious scholar, enjoys support in conservative Sunni regions as a political and spiritual leader. Since the fall of the Sunni-led Baath Party, he has emerged as one of a handful of figures seeking to speak on behalf of the Sunni community, which has been left largely leaderless and adrift since the war.

The senior official said reports of financial support from Kubeisi to Sadr -- widely circulating among Iraqi officials -- came from U.S. intelligence in Iraq. According to one report, Kubeisi provided Sadr with $50 million, though the official cautioned that it was "unevaluated intelligence."

"He's getting a lot of money from Sunnis. I can't put a figure on it, but it's really a lot of money," he said.

Maj. Rick Hall, the executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, said the support was confirmed to him by Iraqi sources, though he had no specific figure. He called the reports "very reliable."

"We feel very confident" that Sadr had meetings with Kubeisi and "we believe reports we are told are true, reports of him receiving financing," Hall said at the Marines' base in Najaf, one of Iraq's holiest Shiite cities.

A senior official with the 25-member Governing Council, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the financing as "100 percent true" and said it was common knowledge among Iraqi politicians and parties on the council.

U.S. officials declined to say where the money was coming from, but the Iraqi official said he believed it came from private individuals in the Persian Gulf, whose conservative, Sunni Muslim states have viewed with anxiety the prospect of a Shiite-dominated government in neighboring Iraq. By supporting the most radical Shiite elements, he said, they hope to prevent a united Shiite front in the contest for postwar power.

U.S. and Iraqi officials offered different assessments of how Sadr's group may have spent the money. At least some of it, they said, appears to have gone to supporters, part of the social welfare that has proved remarkably effective with Islamic groups elsewhere in the Arab world.

Hall said he believes it has been used in part to bring supporters from Baghdad and other Sadr strongholds to the Friday prayers in Kufa, near Najaf. The senior Iraqi official said he believed money was going to powerful tribes in southern Iraq, long a key source of support for the competing ayatollahs who vie for influence and supporters from their base in Najaf.

The U.S. and Iraqi officials said they believe Kubeisi has also encouraged followers from the restive cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in western Iraq -- the region where he draws his greatest support -- to attend Sadr's Friday sermons in Kufa.

Those sermons, which have at times drawn tens of thousands of supporters over the past month, have served as a key public venue for Sadr. Wearing a white funeral shawl to signify his willingness to sacrifice himself, he has railed against the Governing Council, calling it a tool of the U.S. occupation that should be dissolved, and repeatedly urged the creation of a religious army, albeit unarmed.

Mustafa Yaacoubi, a spokesman for Sadr, denied the reports that Sadr has received money from Kubeisi. He said the group raises its funds entirely from religious taxes and then, only from inside Iraq. Another spokesman, Adnan Shahmani, has put the taxes at $65,000 a month.

Taghlib Alusi, a spokesman for Kubeisi, who is currently in the United Arab Emirates, also denied that money had gone to Sadr. "There's no truth to it," he said. Sadr "has a lot of money. There's no need for Sheik Ahmed to give it to him."

But Alusi acknowledged cooperation between the two, beginning with a meeting in Najaf in late April. He said Sadr had sent a delegation from Najaf to Baghdad two weeks ago to explore greater cooperation. In the interests of sectarian harmony, he said that Kubeisi has encouraged his followers to pray with Shiites, who traditionally worship in separate mosques.

"We are friendly and we are brothers," he said.

Beyond their roles as religious officials, Kubeisi and Sadr share little in background. Kubeisi, who had a long, if ambivalent relationship with Hussein, went into exile in the United Arab Emirates in 1999. He returned soon after Baghdad fell on April 9 and then electrified a crowd of Sunni Muslims with a speech that warned U.S. troops their time was limited in Iraq.

"You are the masters today," he said. "But I warn you against thinking of staying. Get out before we force you out."

Sadr, the son of Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, who was killed with his two sons by Hussein's government, has inherited at least part of his father's popular, largely youthful following. His group, dominated by junior clerics engaged in grass-roots work and community organizing, remains one of the few mass-based movements in Iraq and draws on the deeply resonant symbols of Shiite suffering and martyrdom. In the past month, he has become increasingly vocal in his opposition to the occupation.

Both Kubeisi and Sadr have preached unity among Shiites and Sunnis. Those divisions run deep in the history of Iraq, where the Sunni minority has long dominated and Shiites were often brutally repressed by Hussein.

Both have also run afoul of U.S. authorities. U.S. officials criticized Kubeisi's newspaper, Al Sa'a, when it published a report in June about soldiers raping two Iraqi girls. U.S. officials said the story was false. Last week, soldiers visited Kubeisi's office after the newspaper published a story -- disputed by them -- that said U.S. soldiers had killed six children in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya.

The senior U.S. official said authorities were also on the verge of closing a religious and anti-Baathist newspaper they said belonged to Sadr. Last month, it published a list of 134 Iraqis, many of them former senior government figures and party officials. The list declared them "tails of Saddam's tyrannical regime and his gang who will be caught by our hands sooner or later" and promised "the worst torture." Yaacoubi denied the newspaper, "The Echo of Sadr," was published by Sadr's group.

In the broadest terms, the senior U.S. official said he worried that funding from Kubeisi would add to Sadr's ability to organize his supporters, creating what he called an obstacle to U.S. efforts to oversee a new Iraqi government and constitution.

In Basra, for example, a group linked to Sadr holds one-third of the seats on the local council. While it denied having any hand in riots there earlier this month, it nevertheless supported the protests and warned of more. In a statement, it also accused British troops who control the city of depriving the population of basic services as part of "the enemy's conspiracies and imperialist schemes."

"He's a populist, a critic and a rabble-rouser and he's gotten awful, awful close to the line," the senior U.S. official said of Sadr. He added, "If the Shiites end up in an eye-gouging, ear-biting dispute among themselves, that's going to be bad for them, and it will certainly retard the progress that is supposed to be accomplished at a time in Iraq when time is important."

Reluctant to act themselves, U.S. officials have turned to Iraq's most senior Shiite clerics, also known as mujtahids, who have privately dismissed Sadr as a figure with no religious standing but are hesitant to publicly criticize him. Traditionally, the clergy have sought to keep disputes among themselves, projecting an image of unity. Given Sadr's lineage from a long and storied clerical family and his street support, the clerics seem unwilling to pick a fight with a potentially unpredictable and even violent outcome.

"We're watching him and some of the big mujtahids are watching us and we're both hoping the other does something," said the U.S. official.

Yaacoubi, the Sadr spokesman, said U.S. officials had no reason to act against the group and accused occupation forces of trying to provoke them, most recently when a helicopter knocked down a religious banner in Baghdad last week. In sermons and statements, aware of the crackdown it might bring, Sadr's followers have assiduously avoided any call to arms.

"Until now, we can say our office hasn't trespassed any red lines," Yaacoubi said in the group's headquarters in Najaf, which sits along a winding alley near the shrine of Imam Ali, one of Shiite Islam's most revered figures.

Read the rest at the Washington Post

Iraqi Shiite leader wants to form militia

The most combative group of Shiite Muslims announced during their main prayer sermon on Friday that they would proceed with a controversial proposal to form their own militia to safeguard holy sites from any transgressions by US troops.

More than 3,000 of the faithful flooded one of the dusty main thoroughfares in Sadr City, a predominately Shiite slum in Baghdad, to hear the prayer leader, Sheik Abdel Hadi al-Daraji, denounce the US forces accusing them of defiling sacred places after an incident on Wednesday in which a US Blackhawk helicopter forced down a flag near a Sadr City mosque.

"Yesterday Saddam the infidel used to assault our sacred sites and especially the people of this holy city," Daraji said. "Now the Americans are doing the same thing. So what is the difference between Saddam and America?"

The sheik also belittled America's ability to improve the lives of Iraqis, who get about 10 hours of electricity per day in Baghdad.

He hinted that the US might be selling Iraq's electricity elsewhere, perhaps to Israel, and led the crowd in special prayers to ask God to provide power 24 hours a day.

"To denounce the lack of services provided by the Americans, pray to Muhammad," the prayer leader said as the crowd roared back their prayer. "To denounce the lack of electricity, pray to Muhammad."

The proposal for a Shiite religious militia initially received a tepid response from other, senior clergymen. Its revival could set the stage for renewed tension between the older, more respected, scholars who control the influential seminary movement -- known as the Hawza -- and Sadr's young clerics who enjoy a wide street following in Baghdad.

Also on Friday, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, in a sermon in the holy city of Najaf, called on the Arab and Islamic world to support the Iraqi Governing Council, an interim government organized with US backing. But in what appeared to be a stab at mollifying growing anti-US sentiment, he also suggested that the US had initially pushed the council away from Islamic principles.

The mood in Sadr City was subdued on Friday after the incident on Wednesday.

The US military and local residents gave conflicting accounts of what happened. Residents said someone on the US helicopter seemed to be trying to remove a holy banner intentionally. That led to a violent riot and US gunfire ultimately left one Iraqi dead and four injured.

US officials said downward "rotor wash" generated by the hovering helicopter stripped the flag from the tower.

The US forces issued an apology for the incident that seemed to largely mollify the public. But the followers of Moktada al-Sadr, a militant young cleric descended from a long line of illustrious clergymen, seized on the response to the incident to revive a proposal he made last month to form a special clerical army, the Army of Muhammad.

Daraji said during his sermon that it would consist of eight units deployed in different Baghdad neighborhoods. Women would be among the fighters.

"It is only to tell the enemy that we have the ability to respond," Daraji said. "That will prevent them from assaulting us."

At the same time, he said, the US forces should welcome the militia because it will give the clergy a means to control the inevitable anger of the crowds after any incident like the one involving the helicopter.

"We think the situation has deteriorated and I think people will move against the Americans whether the army interferes or not," the sheik said of the new force. "One person could use a Kalashnikov to express his frustration, so how can we quell these masses?"

During the sermon he told the worshipers to control their emotions, and they dispersed peacefully. Indeed, the powerful influence of the Hawza in telling the Shiites not to confront the Americans accounts for the minimal attacks against US and British troops in the predominately Shiite southern parts of Iraq. Shiites form some 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people.

But tempers are fraying given the heat, lack of electricity and rising prices needed for the fuel to power generators. No one interviewed in Sadr City on Friday had ever heard one of the explanations given by US officials, that a severely battered infrastructure suffering from years of neglect and recent sabotage would take time to revive.

Some thought it was time to put the Americans on notice that they should leave.

"Confrontation. Confrontation, we don't want them anymore," said Ghazak, a 23-year-old student who said he would join the Army of Muhammad because of the helicopter incident.

"When they assault the name of Muhammad's family, they assault all Muslims. This is the only response they could understand, confrontation."

Others, happy to be free of Saddam Hussein, said they were willing to give the Americans the benefit of the doubt.

The US has been channeling its efforts for a security force into a civil defense force, discouraging or disarming previously formed private armed forces. There was no specific reaction to the proposal for a clerical-run militia.

Read the rest at Taipei Times

August 17, 2004:

Najaf standoff holds key to Iraq's fate, U.S. goals

In Iraq, pivotal moments have a way of sneaking up on Americans. Soon after U.S. forces occupied Baghdad in 2003, a decision to disband the Iraqi army seemed logical. In hindsight, forcing thousands of unpaid, unhappy and armed Iraqis into the streets only fueled an insurgency that persists today. Likewise, abuses at Abu Ghraib prison seemed minor until the release of photos unleashed anti-U.S. furor.

Now the U.S. mission faces a new tipping point military commanders didn't see coming. Only months ago, Muqtada al-Sadr, a rebellious Shiite cleric in the southern city of Najaf, appeared to be a containable problem. His militia wasn't a real army, his support among other Shiite religious leaders was soft, and he agreed to a ceasefire in return for a promised political role in a new Iraq.

Instead, al-Sadr has resumed his rebellion, forcing a make-or-break showdown with Iraq's fledging transitional government and the U.S. in Najaf, where his militia is holed up in one of Iraq's holiest Muslim shrines.

If Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi fails to end the insurgency, through negotiations or force, Iraqi experts widely predict smaller flare-ups will grow, increasing the risks of all-out civil war. That would jeopardize the U.S. goals of protecting U.S. troops, building a democratic model for the region and keeping Iraq from becoming a terrorist haven.

On Tuesday, a delegation from a Baghdad conference meeting to form a national assembly carried a peace proposal to Najaf to end the standoff, but al-Sadr refused to see the group.

For the U.S., the crisis offers only lose-lose options. An Allawi-ordered, American-led attack that destroys the shrine might produce a tactical win but a strategic loss that turns Iraq's majority Shiites against the U.S.-backed government. If Allawi backs down, he will prove his government is powerless to halt factional fighting and broaden support for al-Sadr.

Like the U.S., Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are watching Najaf to see whether Allawi is up to the job of stabilizing the country:

• The Shiites, who were persecuted by Saddam Hussein's ruling Sunnis, were thought by U.S. planners to be reliable supporters of the Iraqi leader's ouster. But early U.S. failures to stabilize Iraq, restore electricity and bring jobs alienated many Shiites.

• Saddam's loyalists retain power in the Sunni triangle near Fallujah. The U.S. decision to allow Sunnis to stay in charge saved scores of lives but left the city an armed enclave awaiting signs of weakness from the central government.

• Kurds in northern Iraq agreed not to secede in June, when Allawi's government agreed to recognize Kurdish autonomy, at least until elections are held. Allawi's failure to neutralize al-Sadr could encourage the Kurds to break away from a unified Iraq.

To his credit, Allawi grasps the significance of this moment. An Iraqi moment, in which the Americans can do little but hope the turning point shifts in their favor.

Read the rest at USA Today

August 17, 2005:

In Iraq, Carnage, Anger and Grief

In the hours after a triple car bombing in the Iraqi capital Wednesday, state television broadcast a montage of faces of random children -- some appearing solemn, some smiling, some slyly glancing up at the camera. In the background, mournful music swelled, and the faces gave way to the bright flash of a car bomb, shown in slow motion.

"They were young but were turned to pieces of flesh," the singers lamented, as the network then broadcast footage of previous attacks showing limp children, wailing men and distraught women dressed in black abayas pushing through crowds. "Oh, oh Iraq, the land of bloodshed."

The deaths of at least 43 Iraqis in the three car bombings Wednesday brought an outpouring of grief and anger rarely shown on state television, as broadcasts for the first time focused solely on the violence and call-in shows allowed citizens to voice their sorrow and frustration. The attacks targeted a police station, a crowded bus terminal and a hospital where many of the victims had been taken. Most of the victims were civilians.

"When will Iraqi blood stop being spilled?" asked a caller identified only as Um Hassan, or Mother of Hassan. As she spoke, the footage from the bombings hours earlier showed a man raising the arm of a lifeless boy.

The killings were among 54 reported across the country Wednesday, including the deaths of two U.S. soldiers in separate attacks.

In Baghdad, weeping families drove away from morgues with the coffins of loved ones killed in the blasts strapped to the rooftops of their cars. Other families searched burned hulks of buses for signs of the missing. As Iraqiya TV broadcast the scene, angry, weeping callers dialed in to the station, using the country's now ubiquitous cell phones. Call-waiting signals beeped on-air through their sobs. Martial footage of Iraq's new military and music videos of past bombings played throughout the day.

Coming in the middle of high-stakes talks among Shiite Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders over the country's new constitution, reaction to the bombings quickly became politicized.

"We put responsibility on the occupation forces," Jaleel Musawi, a spokesman for Moqtada Sadr, a rebellious Shiite cleric and political leader, said in a statement. It accused U.S.-led forces of failing to turn over full intelligence responsibility to Iraqi forces and for allowing detained insurgents to go free.

The Iraq Islamic Party, representing the mainstream of the Sunni minority from which many insurgents are drawn, condemned the bombings, as did Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was in Baghdad to review the U.S.-led effort to quell the revolt against the U.S. presence and the government it supports.

The bombings targeted a neighborhood in eastern Baghdad where an open-air bus terminal is located, a place where crowds gather to travel to and from the predominantly Shiite south.

Read the rest at the Washington Post

August 17, 2006:

Iraq Doubles Funding for Oil Imports

Iraq has doubled the money allocated for importing oil products in August and September to tackle the country's worst fuel shortage since Saddam Hussein's 2003 ouster, a senior Iraqi official said Thursday.

Even though Iraq has the world's third-largest proven oil reserves, it is forced to depend on imports because of an acute shortage of refined products such as gasoline, kerosene and cooking gas. Sabotage of pipelines by insurgents, corruption and aging refineries have been blamed.

Falah Alamri, head of the State Oil Marketing Organization, which is responsible for Iraq's imports of oil products, said the money normally allocated by the government to buy oil products was doubled in August, to $426 million. The normally allocated amount would be doubled for September, too, Alamri told Dow Jones Newswires.

A gallon of gasoline now sells on the black market in Baghdad for about $4.92, although its official price is $0.64. Lines of cars at many Baghdad fuel stations stretch several miles, and drivers sometime wait overnight to fill their cars.

Iraq has been plagued by periodic fuel shortages since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The current crisis comes amid higher demand for fuel to power generators and cool homes and offices as summer temperatures reach 120 degrees.

Alamri said the shortage was further aggravated by the closure of the Beiji refinery north of Baghdad, which produces 140,000 barrels a day. Sabotage of pipelines carrying crude from Kirkuk oil fields shut down the refinery for the last four weeks before resuming operations earlier this week, he said.

Iraq's three main oil refineries _ Dora, Beiji and Shuaiba _ are working at half their capacity, processing only 350,000 barrels per day compared to 700,000 barrels a day before the war.

Read the rest at the Washington Post