Monday, October 08, 2007

Perspective: On this day in Iraq -- October 8th edition

October 8, 2004: Farmers line up to receive seed and fertilizer from U.S. troops, each given one bag each of wheat, barley and fertilizer for every two acres of land they own.

October 8, 2002:

U.S. hesitant to plan post-Saddam Iraq

The Bush administration is resisting calls by Iraqi exiles and their U.S. supporters to form a provisional government that could fill the power vacuum in Baghdad if U.S. forces oust the regime of Saddam Hussein.

"It may be better to wait than do it now," Zalmay Khalilzad, the senior Middle East expert on the National Security Council, told a weekend conference of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The United States doesn't have "a formula that defines" the immediate aftermath of a war with Iraq, he said.

Khalilzad, who supervised Afghanistan's transition from the Taliban government, is the most senior administration official to comment publicly on U.S. thinking about the political aftermath of Saddam's ouster. His remarks suggest there is no U.S. plan, even though an invasion could come by year's end.

"The signs are inauspicious," says Rend Rahim Francke, an Iraqi exile who is executive director of the Iraq Foundation, a non-profit group promoting democracy and human rights in Iraq.

A key element of the Bush administration's rationale for changing Iraq's regime is that democracy would replace Saddam's dictatorship. President Bush has said repeatedly that he hopes to achieve "liberty for the Iraqi people."

In the past few months, the State Department has organized working groups on post-Saddam governance issues, including a new judicial system and a discussion of "democratic principles." Critics say the project does not go far enough and lacks a structure for implementing recommendations. "It's not that people are not working the issues," says Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "It's that no one is vested at the top."

A senior State Department official says the administration is focused on the issue and has had made progress bringing together Iraqi exiles to discuss the future of their country.

The administration's unwillingness to try to organize a post-Saddam government reflects a number of factors:

-- U.S. officials hope the threat of military action will inspire Iraqis to overthrow Saddam. Naming a provisional government could be a disincentive to disgruntled officers in Iraq who anticipate gaining a share of power.

-- Washington does not want to be seen as imposing a puppet regime.

-- The opposition outside Iraq is divided into more than a half-dozen factions, and there is no consensus choice for a leader who could represent the country's major ethnic groups.

The absence of a coherent political plan could increase the burden on the U.S. military.

"How long can Tommy Franks be the president of Iraq?" asks Alina Romanowksi, director of the Near East-South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. Army Gen. Franks heads the U.S. Central Command and would be in charge of any military action in Iraq.

Read the rest at USA Today

October 8, 2003:

Jobless soldiers fuel anti-US riots in Iraq

Former infantryman Khadim Hasan has spent the better part of a week in the desert sun outside a US military compound in Baghdad waiting for $40 that will never come. He considers himself a victim of Saddam Hussein's regime, and rolls up his sleeves to show scars up and down both arms that he says were inflicted after criticizing Mr. Hussein in front of an officer.

Mr. Hasan was delighted with the US invasion, which he believed was a chance to start on a new life. But six months later, tired, hot, and frightened of a future in which he may not be able to provide for his wife and three children, he blames the US-led coalition for his problems and is growing increasingly angry.

He'd been hoping to get the $40 - a one-time payment the coalition had promised to some 370,000 demobilized conscripts from the old Iraqi army - but like many, he'd been told at the US base that he wasn't on the list. "I'm glad that America invaded, but you have to give us our rights or there will be more trouble,'' he says. "They're not giving any money to us. They should get out."

For the past four days, angry former soldiers like Hasan have been at the center of violence in at least three places in the center and south of the country. Police stations and cars have been burned in Baghdad, Basra, and the oil-producing town of Bayji, 150 miles north of Baghdad; rioting ex-soldiers destroyed four shops in a wealthy Baghdad neighborhood; and at least four Iraqis were killed in the violence.

The jobless conscripts are perhaps the most volatile of the 60 percent of Iraqis that the coalition estimates are unemployed. Their bleak prospects were brought home this week by the swearing in of the first battalion for a new Iraqi Army slated to number just 40,000.

Coalition officials say Baathist loyalists incited the violence. But the speed with which the crowds grew out of control illustrates the mix of poverty, disillusionment, and anger that continues to confront the coalition, even as basic security improves for Iraqis and services like electricity are restored and schools reopen.

Coalition officials complain that bad news is disproportionately reported. "We are making good progress in Iraq," President Bush said Monday. "Sometimes it's hard to tell when you listen to [critics]. The situation is improving on a daily basis."

But to a significant minority of Iraqis, the US military presence is a daily irritation, and it seems unlikely that incidents involving soldiers are going to abate soon. Though many Iraqis are delighted to be free of Hussein, they, like Hasan, increasingly blame their economic struggles on the US.

On top of this group is a smaller but still significant group of Saddam loyalists who are growing adept at manipulating such situations to create chaos.

"Very senior Baathist officers, some of whom are now in custody, were stirring up these crowds,'' said Charles Heatly, the coalition's chief spokesman.

Events yesterday illustrate the challenges the coalition is facing. A rocket-propelled grenade or mortar hit the Foreign Ministry, though there were few injuries. Protesting former members of Iraq's intelligence service threw rocks at American soldiers, demanding that they get their jobs back. US troops also faced a protest in response to the arrest of a Shiite cleric.

The violence began Saturday, the last day for demobilized conscripts to collect their payment. Though it seems a pittance, under Hussein, soldiers received a salary of just $3 a month.

Coalition officials say at least 350,000 former soldiers have received payments. Under Hussein, agencies were thoroughly corrupted and to make complaints about the government was quite literally to take one's life in one's hands.

Today, it's safe for Iraqis to speak out, but many have a deeply ingrained suspicion of any governing authority and a vigilante mentality engendered by so many years of abuse. Security is improving for average Iraqis on the streets of the cities.

But in Baghdad and in the southern city of Basra, angry crowds, roasting in the desert heat, roiled and surged outside the compounds guarded by coalition forces and Iraqi police.

Some claimed they were stiffed by corrupt clerks, others that they had been unfairly left off the list. Still others were just angry that they had no more money coming to them.

Two former Iraqi soldiers were shot and killed by coalition forces in Baghdad. A similar incident in Basra ended with one former Iraqi soldier killed by a British soldier. Dozens of Iraqis were injured, as were two US soldiers.

That there was incitement seems clear. But a visit to the area the next day, where around 500 former soldiers were still loitering in the hopes of receiving a payment, reveals how volatile Iraq's unemployed masses are after so many years of abuse by their own government and a period of postwar uncertainty.

In the crowd, there is both deep anger at the US and deep gratitude that Hussein was removed.

Sometimes both positions are reflected in the same man.

As Hasan speaks, an angry crowd gathers around, some shouting insults at America, others asking advice on how to get payments, still others just eager to tell their story.

In moments, the scrum is about 200 men pushing and shoving, and the mood turns ugly, with some grabbing for a reporter's bag and others beginning to pound on the car he has arrived in.

"I served 25 years in the Army and then the Americans came. Now I have nothing,'' spits Adnan Hussein, a 40-something former tank captain in a tattered shirt. "These American soldiers are insulting and the police that help them are traitors." Another man shouts out: "They are starving us."

As the crowd seems to veer toward another riot, a small detachment of US soldiers approaches, shouting and threatening, and the men begin to back off.

No shots are fired, and no one is hit, but some of these men will undoubtedly add the incident to their catalogs of US insults.

Read the rest at the Christian Science Monitor

October 8, 2004:

Contractor Accused of Overbilling in Iraq

A company hired to provide security for U.S. officials and installations in Iraq fleeced the government out of millions of dollars by submitting phony or inflated bills, a lawsuit by two former employees says.

The federal lawsuit unsealed Friday says Custer Battles LLC billed the former Coalition Provisional Authority for equipment and services that didn't exist and inflated other charges. The improper charges, the lawsuit says, included billing for fake leases on up to eight forklifts swiped from Iraqi Airways.

The Air Force suspended Custer Battles on Sept. 30 from obtaining new contracts on the ground that it has reason to believe the company broke federal contracting rules.

Custer Battles spokeswoman Jennifer Martin did not return repeated messages seeking comment Friday.

Lawyers for the two men suing Custer Battles say the firm's fraudulent charges amounted to $50 million. Federal law allows fines against companies that defraud the government in an amount equal to three times the fraudulent proceeds.

The Pentagon, Justice Department and other federal agencies are investigating several cases of alleged fraud among contractors in Iraq. Internal watchdogs at the Pentagon and CPA have said U.S. contracting officials did not follow proper procedures on many of those contracts.

The former employees, Robert Isakson and William Baldwin, sued under a federal law that allows citizens to sue on behalf of the government when they suspect fraud in federal contracting. Should they win, those who bring the lawsuit can get up to 30 percent of the money recovered from the contractor.

Lawyers for the former Custer Battles workers said the Bush administration refused to join in the lawsuit, arguing that the CPA was not a government entity and therefore the government could not have been defrauded. CPA documents say two of the contracts cited in the lawsuit were paid for at least in part with money seized from the former Iraqi government.

"This is corruption at its worst," said Alan Grayson, the lead lawyer for the whistle-blowers.

Custer Battles, a small company based in suburban Washington, was one of many private security companies which rushed into postwar Iraq to snap up contracts to guard people and installations. Two former Army Rangers active in Republican politics formed the company: Scott Custer and Michael Battles.

One of Custer Battles' first jobs was a $16.8 million no-bid contract to provide security at Baghdad International Airport. The U.S.-organized Coalition Provisional Authority, which provided civilian governmental functions during the occupation, then hired Custer Battles for $24.4 million to provide support such as housing and transportation for the program to replace Iraqi currency that had carried deposed President Saddam Hussein's portrait.

Custer Battles also won several other security or logistics contracts or subcontracts in Iraq.

Isakson and Baldwin say in the lawsuit they were fired when they objected to Custer Battles' business practices. When he was fired as the company's country manager for Iraq, the lawsuit says, Custer Battles employees held Isakson at gunpoint, disarmed him and sent Isakson and his 14-year-old son in a taxi from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan.

The lawsuit says Custer Battles billed the CPA for work that was never done, employees that were never hired and equipment that never arrived. The suit accuses Custer and Battles of setting up front companies in the Cayman Islands, Cyprus and Lebanon to create phony leases that boosted the firm's profits.

The lawsuit said Custer Battles took at least one and as many as eight forklifts from Iraqi Airways at the airport, repainted them to cover their former markings and billed the CPA for leasing them at thousands of dollars per month.

Battles got into the security business after losing a Republican primary for the Rhode Island U.S. House seat held by Democrat Patrick Kennedy. A Federal Election Commission audit of Battles' campaign found several violations of campaign financing laws, including the taking of more than the $1,000 limit from some individuals and failing to report its finances properly.

Read the rest at Fox News

October 8, 2005:

Baghdad elite flees Iraq and the daily threat of death

Quietly, in their ones and twos, the professional classes of Baghdad are slipping out of the country to avoid becoming another fatal statistic.

Iraq is losing the educated elite of doctors, lawyers, academics and businessmen who are vital to securing a stable future. There is also fear that their departure will leave a vacuum to be filled by religious extremists.

Outside the shelter of the Green Zone, home to the American and Iraqi political leadership, lawlessness has overtaken the capital.

Prof Abdul Sattar Jawad, the head of English literature at Baghdad University, will leave next month to take up a post in Jordan. Two of his colleagues left recently after being intimidated.

At his home in east Baghdad the professor answered the door with an outstretched hand. In the other hand he carried a loaded revolver "because I don't trust anybody nowadays".

While the lack of basic needs and a barely functioning infrastructure are considerable hardships, it is the daily threat of death that was the catalyst for his decision. Since the new government came to power in April there have been up to 3,000 civilian deaths, about half attributed to criminal activity.

"I love my country but I am unable to do any service for the people because it is overrun by fanatics and extremists," Prof Jawad said. "The streets are ruled by gangs, looters and goons."

Last month he resigned a position as dean of arts after "religious animals" surrounded his office and shouted "war-like slogans".

The threats have also forced him to close down two English newspapers he ran because "it now is anti-religious to have free speech, liberal minds and civilisation in this country".

Prof Jawad's wife Sarah, a former geography teacher, said she now wore a headscarf to avoid being harassed by religious extremists.

For his son Omar Jawad, a single 30-year-old lawyer working for a British company in the Green Zone, the one ambition is to leave Iraq "as quickly as possible, as soon as I find somewhere to go".

He added: "I see a lot of educated people leaving Iraq. I talked this morning to one of my friends who has a PhD in law. He has just resigned from his job and is going. You hear so many similar stories. It is more security problems than economic. Under sanctions [imposed on Saddam Hussein by the United Nations after the Gulf war] we had no problems like this."

Aside from the daily risk of kidnap, suicide bombers and drive-by shootings, his half hour journey into work is now a two-hour slog through roadblocks.

There are no land-line telephones, water has to be pumped from a well and electricity is on for only two hours a day compared with 21 under Saddam. In a country that perches on a lake of oil, the petrol queues last up to four hours.

"I am not very optimistic," Mr Jawad said. "We have this fear of civil war because when the Americans are out it will be left to the Iraqis.

"It is two years now since the war ended and we see no development."

For the past three years Mahir Mahmood, 37, has built a successful business importing cars and spares but by the autumn he will be gone because he fears his wife and four children will be held to ransom by criminals.

"I think the bombs, explosions and killings are enough for anyone to leave the country," he said. " What good has the government done for the people to make them stay?"

He has arranged an apartment for his family in Syria where he knows of half a dozen other Iraqi businessman who have already moved.

Baghdad's doctors suffer most of all. They are now authorised to carry firearms after some were killed by angry relatives of dead patients and after threats by police officers demanding immediate treatment for injured colleagues.

Dr Tariq Bahjat, who became a hospital director in Baghdad after his predecessor was killed and where a radiologist was recently shot dead, said: "No one can provide doctors with protection. I am afraid the same will happen to me; that is why I will go abroad."

A spokesman for the prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said: "It is a worry, of course, and they are going to be difficult to replace.

"Many people are getting jobs abroad and in terms of what the government can do about it? Very little."

Read the rest at the Telegraph

October 8, 2006:

Besieged by death, young Iraqis lose hope

In a dimly lighted living room in central Baghdad, Noor is a lonely teenage prisoner. Many of his friends have left the country, and some who have stayed have strange new habits: A Shiite acts holier-than-thou; a Sunni joins an armed gang.

At 19, Noor is neither working nor in college. He is not even allowed outdoors.

Three and a half years after the U.S.- led invasion, the relentless violence that has disfigured much of Iraqi society is hitting young Iraqis in new ways. Young people from five different Baghdad neighborhoods say that their lives have shrunk to the size of their bedrooms and that their dreams have been packed away and largely forgotten. Life is lived in moments. It is no longer possible to make plans.

"I can't go outside; I can't go to college," said Noor, sitting in the kitchen waiting for tea to boil. "If I'm killed, it doesn't even matter because I'm dead right now."

The U.S. military is trying to address the problem. In August, it began the most systematic series of sweeps of Baghdad since the war began, trying to make the worst neighborhoods safe for a return to normal life. It appears to be bearing some fruit, with deaths in the city down about 17 percent in August from July, according to a UN report based on morgue statistics.

But violence between the sects here continues at a frantic pace, wiping out ever more of what middle ground remains. Young Iraqis trying to resist its pull are frozen in an impossible present with no good future in sight.

The speed of the descent has been breathtaking. A few months ago, Noor was taking final exams, squabbling with his little brother and hanging out at home with his friends. But violence touched the family's outer edge. His father's business partner was killed on a desert road far from Baghdad because he was a Shiite, and things began to unravel.

Fearing that the man may have divulged details about them, Noor's parents accelerated their plans for Noor and his younger brother to leave Iraq. His brother was moved to the safety of northern Iraq, but Noor was forced to return after the British authorities rejected his student-visa application.

Since coming back, he spends most days in his living room on the computer, listening to the sounds of life outside his gate. He wants to enroll in college here and even had one of his friends sneak him an application, but his parents will not let him go. Campuses are volatile mixes of sects and ethnicities, and sectarian killings of students are no longer rare.

Before the epidemic of neighborhood assassinations began last year, it was a rare middle-class Iraqi who had a peer involved in sectarian killing. But as the killing spread, larger portions of the population have been radicalized.

For Noor, a secular Sunni who is solidly middle class, the sectarian killing has broken squarely into his circle of friends. A friend from Adhamiya, a Sunni Arab center in Baghdad, joined a neighborhood militia after his father was shot to death in front of their home. Noor heard through friends that he had set up a roadside bomb to kill Iraqi troops.

"He hates the Shia because they killed his father," said Noor, speaking in fluent English. "He became a different person. He became a monster."

It is that radicalization that most frightens Noor's mother. Most of the casualties and the perpetrators in the sectarian killing are young men. With few jobs and no hope for justice through the government, armed gangs and militias are extremely alluring to them.

"I'm afraid he'll be drawn to certain currents," she said. "There is a lot of anger inside."

A few of Noor's Shiite friends feel a new passion for their identity, and he now finds it difficult to relate to them.

"I can't tell them my true feelings," he said. "I started to expect something bad from them."

As little as a year ago, most Iraqis dismissed fears of sectarian war. Iraqis of different sects had always mixed, they argued, and no amount of bombing would change that. But as the texture of the violence changed from spectacular car bombs set by Sunnis to quiet killings in neighborhoods of both sects, few still cling to that belief.

Another young man, Safe, 21, stands guard with a machine gun three nights a week to protect his block in the ravaged neighborhood of Dora. As a Sunni, he fears Shiite death squads and policemen. Seven of his friends have been detained and beaten. He has attended more than a dozen funerals for murdered Sunnis in recent months.

"Sectarian stuff has come into our life from all doors," Safe said, speaking in quick bursts."I am afraid of these checkpoints. They tell you five minutes, and keep you for a month."

The constant battle has left a bad taste in his mouth for Shiites who strongly assert their identity.

Safe got into a fistfight with a Shiite student at the medical school where he is a student. His campus is in heavily Shiite eastern Baghdad. A professor referred to the healing powers of a Shiite imam during a physiology lecture this year, to the fury of the Sunni students. Even the typical Shiite jewelry, silver rings with smooth round stones, he finds irritating.

"When you see them, you want to throw up," Safe said, referring to chauvinist Shiites.

Dora, once a mixed middle-class neighborhood, has been among the most lethal for Shiites over the past two years. Shiite residents report brutal killings for offenses as minor as pinning up posters of Shiite saints in shops. Now few Shiites remain.

Safe acknowledged that Shiites were singled out, but said insurgents only went after those working with Americans. Other Shiites received threats for spying on mosques, he said.

Safe's father died when he was young and his mother died of cancer last year. His neighborhood watch group helps him to have a sense of purpose, to feel connected, at a time when young Iraqis are more isolated than they have ever been.

As Baghdad grows increasingly divided into a Shiite east and a Sunni west along the Tigris River, neighborhood life is becoming equally as homogeneous for young Shiites.

Every morning, Ali Wahid, 27, rides his motorbike past a dusty soccer park in the capital's largest Shiite district, Sadr City, to work in southeastern Baghdad. He holds tightly to his job, a water project that is part of the U.S. effort here, but would never agree to go west of the Tigris, where Sunni neighborhoods are deadly for Shiites. A friend, Hamza Daraji, who does odd jobs in Sadr City, said he had not left the district in two years.

Wahid, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his modest two-story house, says his life has improved since the invasion. His job has allowed him to pay off debts, buy a house with his brothers and even afford to marry. There are fewer Sunnis in his life now than there were when Saddam Hussein ruled. In some ways, relations then were easier, he said, because as the ruling class, the Sunnis were less likely to lash out.

"Before I could joke with Sunnis about Saddam," he said. "Now if I talk against him, I'm afraid they might hurt me later in a secret way."

The Sharqiya Secondary School in Baghdad began the day one recent Thursday with a prayer. The new headmaster, a religious Shiite, took the unusual step of telling the entire student body, several hundred girls, that "the first way we hail the Iraqi flag is by giving prayers to Muhammad and his family," referring to the Prophet Muhammad and his family members, whom Shiites consider to be holy. Three Armenian Christians raised the flag.

"We feel desperate, desperate, desperate," said Sena Hussein, an assistant principal whose daughter is a high school senior. The school, once known citywide for its basketball team, no longer has after-school sports, as parents considered it too risky. Trophies in a dusty glass cabinet stand a short way from the entrance to the principal's office. Even enrollment is down. The school used to get 150 new students a year. This year it has about 60.

Prospects for higher education for women coming of age in the capital have also dimmed.

Sara, a graceful 10th grader with perfect English and straight A's, will not be allowed to go to college in Iraq by her parents, who fear killings en route and on campus. The caution will cut out the mixing of young Iraqi men and women, as college is the first chance they get to be together. High schools in Iraq are single-sex institutions.

"The future is totally unclear for me now," she said, standing in the courtyard of the school as girls buzzed behind her, busily cleaning classrooms. "I don't know what would happen to me in college. Maybe I would get killed."

Read the rest at the International Herald Tribune