Lots of busywork by the occupiers this week, reports Nermeen Al-Mufti
President Bush arrived on 3 September in Iraq on his third surprise visit to the country. He landed at Al-Asad Airbase near Al-Baghdadi in western Al-Anbar province accompanied by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The fact that he didn't land in Baghdad was generally interpreted as a sign of his dissatisfaction with the performance of the Iraqi government. But the Iraqi government is not the only one in a crisis. President Bush is facing difficulties at home ahead of a final report to Congress about the US troops in Iraq and the success of the administration's "new" strategy.
At hand to welcome the president in Al-Anbar was Defence Secretary Robert Gates, CENTCOM Commander William Fallon, the commander of US armed forces in the Middle East, and General David Petraeus, the Multinational Force Commander. After reviewing the situation with US officials, Bush conferred with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Vice- President Tareq Al-Hashemi, and Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. Bush's visit lasted for only six hours and was not announced in advance even to Iraqi officials for security reasons.
Presumably Bush will be informed of a preliminary report by the US embassy in Iraq about corruption in Al-Maliki's government which has been leaked to the press. Another report by the US army criticises sectarianism in the police force. US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker also slammed the four-way coalition between two Kurdish and two Shia parties. The ambassador told Iraqi television that the agreement between the Kurdish and Shia parties would not further national reconciliation or unity. Political decisions "should be made by all: the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shias," Crocker said.
Commenting on the political stalemate in the country, the US ambassador said that imposing order is an easy task, but reaching political solutions through an open and democratic system is a much harder process. He added that the political process would take time and that tangible results cannot be expected within one year or even two. Crocker said that his government's policy on Iraq is unlikely to change rapidly or drastically.
The Americans consider Al-Anbar a success story. Their tactic of getting clan chiefs to fight Al-Qaeda has restored peace to the governorate, ending an insurgence that broke out in April 2003, or so the Americans claim. On the day Bush arrived, four policemen were killed and ten civilians injured in two suicide car bombings targeting police personnel near Al-Ramadi, Al-Anbar's largest city. Al-Asad airbase is situated in Al-Baghdadi, 240 km west of Baghdad. Prior to the occupation, Al-Baghdadi was a splendid tourist resort on the Euphrates. Due to attacks by Al-Qaeda, many of the inhabitants left the area and now live in make-shift camps along the international highway linking Iraq with Jordan and Syria.
A US spokesman said that the meeting in Al-Anbar was the last "major meeting" between the president's military advisers and Iraqi leaders before the president assessed his current strategy. Bush visited Iraq only twice before: in November 2003 and June 2006.
Iraqi commentators said that the arrival of the US president in Iraq without prior notification is yet another sign that Iraq is no longer a sovereign state. Janat Ali, an expert in Iraqi politics, said that "one can only hope the visit wasn't in support of Al-Maliki."
Although both the Iraqi government and the occupation forces continue to shower praise on Operation Imposing Law, statistics tell another story. August was the second bloodiest month since the invasion of March 2003. According to Iraqi authorities, 1,805 people were killed, one-quarter in the bombings targeting the Yazidi community. The death toll among Iraqi troops however declined nearly a third to 87. The American army lost 81 troops.
The Americans suspect that some members of the Iraq police force may be involved in armed attacks against US troops. Iraqi and US authorities have dismantled a police station in the dominantly Sunni Al-Khadraa section of west Baghdad, citing the failure to curb "insurgent and criminal activities." The US army had discovered explosive charges planted less than 100 metres from checkpoints manned by Al-Khadraa police station.
As for the British, they completed their withdrawal from their base in a complex of palaces in Basra, where they had been stationed since the invasion amid fears that local militias would engage in a final battle to control the city. Basra is Iraq's second largest city and only port. Since the beginning of the year, rival Shia groups have been fighting for control over the city, its main port, and smaller ports from which oil is smuggled from the country to finance weapons purchases. Basra is one of the closest Iraqi cities to Iran, with only the waterway of Shatt Al-Arab separating the two. Three groups are fighting over control of the city: Moqtada Al-Sadr supporters, the Higher Islamic Council, and the Fadila Party to which Basra's former mayor belongs.
The British force, numbering 500 troops, were redeployed to the airport, 25 km from the city centre. British troops earlier handed over three other governorates in the south to Iraqi authorities. The UK Ministry of Defence said that UK forces would remain in overall charge of security in Basra until Iraqi authorities take over later this year. The withdrawal is expected to reduce UK troops levels in Iraq from 5,500 to 5,000. Iraqi security commander in Basra said that "the Iraqi army has taken control of the palaces and declared them out of bounds pending a decision by the prime ministry on their future."
A Basra police officer speaking on condition of anonymity told Al-Ahram Weekly that the locals fear bloody clashes among parties seeking to control the city. Iran, he added, exerts immense influence in Basra. Since two Britons dressed as Arabs were caught in Basra two years ago and charged with planning terror attacks, the locals have been suspicious about British troops. Many of Basra's academics, journalists, and former Baath Party officials have been assassinated. Local Sunnis say that gunmen have asked them to leave the city or face the consequences.
Continued violence among Shias defies logic
IT WAS festival time in Karbala last week, and as usual it turned into bloodshed. Over two million Shias gathered to celebrate the birthday of Imam Mahdi, a Christ-like figure that the Shias believe will come back one day to save the world. The celebrations turned bloody when fire fights erupted near the mausoleums of Imam Hussein and his brother Al-Abbas. Dozens were killed or wounded in the clashes as well as in fires that erupted near the mausoleums.
Um Ali, a Shia woman who was in Karbala for the celebration, told Al-Ahram Weekly that her family had to disembark from the buses 10km before reaching the city on 3 September due to a precaution against car bombings inside the city. As they approached on foot, they could see gunmen stationed on the high walls of the mausoleums and nearby rooftops. A while later, supporters of Moqtada Al-Sadr arrived and started chanting "Moqtada". As the chanting got louder, the gunmen on the rooftops started firing. The gunmen turned out to be from the Force for the Protection of Holy Shrines (FPHS), an outfit loyal to Imam Al-Sistani. Um Ali's husband said that bullets were coming from another direction, and not just from the gunmen. A fire fight developed in which Mahdi Army, the FPHS, Badr Forces, and Iraqi police may have all taken part.
The government blamed the clashes on Saddamists who infiltrated into the town. Karbala Mayor Aqil Al-Khazaali spoke of a "plot by outsiders to destroy Iraq". Iraqi commander in Karbala General Othman Al-Ghanimi pointed the finger at a familiar foe. "We have arrested 42 people and they admit belonging to Al-Qaeda," he said.
Sources close to Moqtada Al-Sadr challenged the government's version, saying that over 200 Mahdi Army members were detained and 150 killed since the Karbala clashes. Al-Sadr supporters accused "political and security figures in Karbala of masterminding the detentions." Meanwhile, tensions continue between Al-Sistani's FPHS and Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Karbala. Moqtada Al-Sadr reacted to the Karbala clashes by freezing the activities of the Mahdi Army for six months. Prime Minister Al-Maliki welcomed the decision.
Sheikh Salah Al-Obeidi, spokesman for Al-Sadr group and preacher at Kufa Mosque, said in a news conference that the freeze on the Mahdi Army's activities was linked to "reorganisation" and called for a "just and fair investigation in the Karbala incidents and an end of the random detentions of Al-Sadr supporters. Obeidi warned that unless a prompt investigation was undertaken, Al-Sadr Office may take "decisions that the government cannot even begin to contemplate."
A spokesman for Al-Sistani, Sheikh Abdel-Mahdi Al-Karbalaie, accused Shia quarters of instigating the clashes, obviously hinting at the Mahdi Army. He denied that Al-Sistani's supporters were involved in the clashes. "The management of the two holy shrines was not involved in the clashes," Al-Karbalaie said.
C a p t i o n : An Iraqi soldier places his country's national flag atop the Basra Palace, soon after the withdrawal of British forces
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