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News from Iraq: Under siege in Baghdad's Mahdi army stronghold

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  • Zafar Khan
    Under siege in Baghdad s Mahdi army strongholdThe violence that began in Basra and spread to the capital continues as fears of a new civil war grow Sudarsan
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 30, 2008
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      Under siege in Baghdad's Mahdi army strongholdThe
      violence that began in Basra and spread to the capital
      continues as fears of a new civil war grow

      Sudarsan Raghavan The Observer, Sunday March 30 2008


      The gunfire built to a steady rhythm. American
      soldiers in a Stryker armoured vehicle fired from one
      end of the block. At the other end, two groups of Shia
      militiamen pounded back with machine guns and
      rocket-propelled grenades. US helicopters circled
      above in the blue afternoon sky.

      As a barrage erupted outside his parents' house, Abu
      Mustafa al-Thahabi, adviser to the Mahdi army of Shia
      cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, rushed through the gate to
      take shelter. He had just spoken with a fighter by
      mobile phone. 'I told him not to use that weapon. It's
      not effective,' he said, talking of the
      rocket-propelled grenade. 'I told him to use the IED,
      the Iranian one,' he added, referring to an improvised
      explosive device. 'This is more effective.'

      After nearly a year of relative calm, US troops and
      Shia militia engaged in pitched battles last week,
      underscoring how quickly order can give way to chaos
      in Iraq. On this block in Sadr City, the cleric's
      sprawling stronghold, armed men and boys came out from
      nearly every house to fight. From Thursday afternoon
      to Friday morning, this correspondent spent 19 hours
      here, at times trapped by intense crossfire inside the
      house of Thahabi's parents. Fighters engaged US forces
      for seven hours. They lost a comrade. They launched
      rockets into the Green Zone. Around the same time,
      rockets killed a US government employee, the second
      American killed there last week.

      Between battles, fighters spoke about politics and
      war. There was no sign of grief or fear. Death was a
      short cut to some divine place. As the two sides
      exchanged fire, Thahabi's mother, Um Falah, clutched a
      Koran and began to pray to Imam Ali, Shia Islam's most
      revered saint. Her eldest son, Abu Hassan, is a Mahdi
      army commander.

      Earlier that morning, Sadr City had been eerily quiet.
      Cars moved slowly. Residents ferried food and water,
      preparing for the worst. Rubbish littered the charred
      streets. On one road, two green Stryker vehicles were

      Outside Um Falah's house, Mahdi fighters gathered,
      standing against the walls, peering down the street.
      Clashes were unfolding on an adjacent road. One group
      joined the fighting, but the others remained in place.
      Their job was to protect their end of the block. Um
      Falah continued her chores: 'I have got used to war,
      to all the battles in our lives.' It was not the first
      time her son had gone to fight US troops and in her
      heart, she said, she knew it would not be the last. 'I
      have sent my son on the right path,' she said.

      In their living room, her husband and Abu Mustafa sat
      on red carpets set with colourful pillows. The room
      was prepared for battle, with plastic windowpanes and
      drawn curtains. On the wall hung tapestries depicting
      Imam Ali and other saints.

      Thahabi, slim and gaunt-faced, said the Mahdi were not
      fighting only the Americans but also their Shia rivals
      - the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the ruling
      Dawa party. Thahabi believes the government launched
      an offensive in Basra last Monday to weaken the
      Sadrist forces ahead of provincial elections scheduled
      for this year. He thought Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri
      al-Maliki, who leads the Dawa party, was taking
      advantage of a ceasefire imposed by Sadr last August.

      Iraq's government said it began the offensive to wipe
      out Basra's Shia militias and criminal gangs. 'They
      know the Sadrists will win the elections,' Thahabi
      said. 'So they are using the Americans against the
      Mahdi army. People have reached a point that they will
      sell their refrigerator to buy a rocket launcher to
      kill Americans.'

      At around 2pm, three solemn-faced fighters entered the
      room, fresh from battle. 'Akeel, son of Riad, just got
      killed,' said Abu Zainab al-Kabi. The room fell
      silent. Kabi, 34, said Akeel had been planting a
      roadside bomb when he was shot several times by a US
      soldier. Akeel was 22 and had followed his father and
      uncle into the Mahdi army when he was 17. The fighters
      took his body to the hospital mortuary. If they could
      break away from the battle, they planned to carry it
      on Friday to the southern holy city of Najaf, where
      the Mahdi has built a cemetery for their dead, their

      'We are proud that he died,' said Abu Moussa al-Sadr,
      31. 'Whenever one of us dies, it raises our morale.'

      'It intensifies our fighting. If we defeat them, we
      win,' Kabi said. 'If we die, we win.'

      Signs of sorrow for Akeel soon vanished; they wanted
      to eat lunch. Over a spartan meal of bread, tomato
      paste and vegetables, they said they had woken before
      dawn to make sure all their fighters were in position.
      They ordered their men to check all the IEDs they had
      set and shared intelligence with commanders in other
      sections of Sadr City. Suddenly, they heard mortar
      rounds being launched outside with a boom like the
      sound of a wrecking ball.

      'This is to the Green Zone,' said Kabi. 'These are
      gifts to Maliki's government.' He and Abu Moussa
      al-Sadr both work for Iraq's Ministry of Interior,
      which runs the police and is viewed as infiltrated by
      the Mahdi army. They said many police officers had
      defected and were now fighting with the Mahdi army.

      The fighters also said they received neither support
      nor training from Iran, as American military
      commanders allege. Their Iranian weapons, they said,
      were bought from smugglers. They said they had been
      fighting only Americans and had not engaged with any
      Iraqi forces and insisted they were still obeying
      Sadr's cease-fire and would stop fighting if he gave
      the order. 'We are allowed to defend ourselves,' said
      fighter Abu Nargis.

      Around 3pm, it was time to leave. 'We're going to the
      hospital to see Akeel's body,' Abu Moussa al-Sadr
      said. 'Then we are going back to fight.' An hour
      later, another group were fighting US troops.
      Militiamen jumped into the street, then quickly
      vanished. The quick movements were a tactic. Outside
      his parents' house, Thahabi explained that fighters
      would direct a barrage of bullets at the Stryker to
      distract the soldiers while another group tried to
      slip a bomb under the vehicle.

      A father of four who studied psychology in college,
      Thahabi looked more like a professor than a militia
      adviser. He clutched three mobile phones, each using a
      different network. When the Americans drive by, they
      jam the signals of the main network provider to
      neutralise the use of phones as detonators.

      The fighters' larger strategy, Thahabi said, was to
      draw pressure away from the Mahdi army in Basra. Many
      Iraqi soldiers fighting in Basra had families in Sadr
      City. 'They will be worried for their families. They
      will fear what will happen to them. It's about
      reducing morale.'

      Thahabi received a phone call. 'The whole block has
      been surrounded by the Americans,' he said.

      Targeting the Green Zone, at 5.25pm, the Mahdi army
      fired at least 10 rockets from near the house. Within
      20 minutes, four more were launched. The rocket
      launches were followed by heavy gunfire at the

      'We have to keep the Americans nervous, on their
      edge,' Thahabi said. 'We can't make it easy for them.'

      Someone told him that there was a sniper on a nearby
      roof. After a silent pause, fighters sprayed a burst
      of gunfire at a roof; bullets tore into the wall. Then
      silence again. A few minutes later, gunfire was
      returned in the direction of the fighters. The
      Americans were still around.

      'They are facing heavy resistance," said Abu Nargis.
      He carried his baby daughter. 'They will raid the area
      tonight.' By 7pm, the Stryker had left.

      At 9.05pm, Abu Nargis received a phone call. He said
      he had been told that a police commander with 500 men
      would stop working with the government and join the

      At 9.09pm, screams tore through the street. A woman in
      a black abaya was walking toward the hospital wailing:
      'My mother! My mother!' Her house had been hit, it was
      not clear by whom. Ambulances and police vehicles
      drove past the house as an unmanned US drone flew by.
      The vehicles drove back, carrying dead and injured.

      At 10:35pm, Abu Nargis received another phone call.
      'The Americans are gone. Even the snipers,' he said.
      'I have to go and check on my daughter. She's afraid
      of the gunfire.'

      Next morning, Kabi was standing on a nearby street
      with a group of fighters, including two boys who
      looked no older than 13. They were getting
      instructions from an older fighter, who clutched an
      AK-47 assault rifle. They looked weary.

      At the edge of Sadr City, four Strykers rolled by. A
      white car waited patiently for the convoy to pass,
      then drove out, a wooden coffin strapped to the top.

      British and US forces drawn into battle for Basra

      As the Iraqi army's assault on Shia militias in the
      city falters, the government's strategy is looking to
      be a dangerous gamble


      Iraq's Collapsing Education
      Wed. Mar. 26, 2008


      BAGHDAD — Iraq's once high-caliber educational system
      is now on the verge of collapse with schools and
      universities lacking essential materials such as books
      and labs, and students and teachers terrorized by
      "A class can have nearly 100 students and the result
      is insufficient attention to students," said Hanan
      Youssef, a teacher at Mansour Primary School in

      "Especially for those sitting in the back, it is
      nearly impossible even to hear what the teacher has to
      say," he added.

      "Many students prefer stay at home."

      The Ministry of Education says all institutions are
      lacking essentials such as books and lab materials.

      Many schools suffer from overcrowding and are forced
      to operate multiple shifts.
      Most schools do not finish the curricula and displaced
      children are less likely to stay or complete the
      school year.

      According to the Ministry of Education, just 28
      percent of 17-year-olds sat their graduation exams in

      UNICEF estimates up to 600,000 Iraqi children have
      been displaced since early 2006.

      "School enrolment and attendance rates are dropping,"
      says Claire Hajaj, Chief of External Relations for

      "Initial data also shows that primary school net
      enrolment rates may have fallen from 86 percent in
      2004 to as low as 46 percent in 2006."

      The Ministry of Education, together with the Ministry
      of Higher Education, get the smallest share of
      investments and depend mostly on UNICEF to support
      schools projects.

      Iraqis enjoyed a high standard educational level under
      the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein.

      Until the 1980’s, Iraq was regarded as the center of
      academia in the Arab world.


      The educational system suffers a serious shortage of
      teachers and professors.

      "Thousands of teachers have fled the country because
      of threats from sectarian death squads," said Leila
      Abdallah of the Higher Education Ministry's studies
      planning department.

      "Some were evicted from their areas and moved to
      others inside Iraq for sectarian reasons," she added.

      "There are no exact numbers of teachers killed since
      the US-led invasion in 2003 but we believe it is
      nearly a thousand," Abdallah said.

      "The situation has deteriorated severely since then."

      In 2003, the US Coalition Provisional Authority
      instituted de-Baathification, under which party
      members – including at least 1,000 lecturers and
      professors - were fired from their jobs, many of who
      were forced to be party members.

      Available teachers are sometimes forced to give good
      marks to failing students under threats of violence
      from parents or relatives.

      Such threats have led to the killing of many teachers,
      mostly in Baghdad.

      "My husband was killed with four bullets at his chest
      after he refused giving a good mark to one student at
      Economy College," said Tahirah Mohammad, 37.

      "He had received a letter telling him to change the
      student’s mark from 3,0 to 9,0 but he refused and they
      did what they threatened to do," added the mother of
      five shocking at the memory.

      "My husband was a honest man and he would have never
      accepted such threats but the price he had to pay for
      this was his own life."

      Gloomy Future

      Students are the main victim of the deteriorating
      educational system.

      The low lessoning quality has caused students to fail
      or have marks under medium levels at an average of 62
      percent of countrywide.

      "Many aren’t able to take their exams because security
      issues prevented them of leaving their homes," said
      Professor Ibrahim Ayad, specialist in educational and
      social affairs at Mustansiriyah University.

      "The lack of power also affects their concentration,"
      he added.

      Whole sections of the capital Baghdad remain without
      electricity, while the lucky neighborhoods get power
      only sporadically.

      "But the main reason is still the bad educational
      quality," maintains the professor.

      "School enrolment and attendance rates are dropping,"
      recognizes Claire Hajaj, Chief of External Relations
      for UNICEF-Iraq.

      "Initial data also shows that primary school net
      enrolment rates may have fallen from 86 percent in
      2004 to as low as 46 percent in 2006, although
      outdated population figures and large numbers of
      children fleeing the country may be contributing to
      this fall."

      According to UNICEF, up to 600,000 children have been
      displaced since early 2006.

      "A child out of school is much more exposed to harm
      than one learning in the classroom," warns Hajaj.

      Manal, a 9-year-old primary school student, fears a
      gloomy educational future.

      "I love my school and it is the only place I can go to
      have some rest from all violence in Iraq," she said.

      "My father told me that he will take me out from
      school if my marks aren’t good and I’m sure it wont be
      especially with my teacher coming two days per week
      and nearly 100 students in one class."

      Farik, 11, has another problem.

      "Mum told me that it is my last year at school and I
      will have to leave it to help with family’s income,"
      he said.

      "She always tell me that I’m not learning anything and
      despite knowing that it is true, I would like to keep
      trying and be someone in the future."

      American warplanes join Iraqi troops in taking the
      fight to Shia militia· Sadr stronghold in capital
      comes under attack
      · British army holds fire as battles intensify


      We're fighting for survival, says Mahdi army commander


      Stalled assault on Basra exposes the Iraqi
      government's shaky authority


      The Iraqi army's offensive against the Shia militia of
      the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Basra is failing
      to make significant headway despite a pledge by the
      Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to fight "to the

      Instead of being a show of strength, the government's
      stalled assault is demonstrating its shaky authority
      over much of Baghdad and southern Iraq. As the
      situation spins out of Mr Maliki's control, saboteurs
      blew up one of the two main oil export pipelines near
      Basra, cutting by a third crude exports from the
      oilfields around the city. The international price of
      oil jumped immediately by $1 a barrel before falling

      In Baghdad, tens of thousands of supporters of Mr
      Sadr, whose base of support is the Shia poor, marched
      through the streets shouting slogans demanding that Mr
      Maliki's government be overthrown. "We demand the
      downfall of the Maliki government," said one of the
      marchers, Hussein Abu Ali. "It does not represent the
      people. It represents Bush and Cheney."

      Iraq implodes as Shia fights Shia
      Another tragedy as the Shia majority turn on each
      By Patrick Cockburn
      Thursday, 27 March 2008


      A new civil war is threatening to explode in Iraq as
      American-backed Iraqi government forces fight Shia
      militiamen for control of Basra and parts of Baghdad.

      Heavy fighting engulfed Iraq's two largest cities and
      spread to other towns yesterday as the Iraqi Prime
      Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, gave fighters of the Mehdi
      Army, led by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, 72
      hours to surrender their weapons.

      The gun battles between soldiers and militiamen, who
      are all Shia Muslims, show that Iraq's majority Shia
      community – which replaced Saddam Hussein's Sunni
      regime – is splitting apart for the first time.

      Mr Sadr's followers believe the government is trying
      to eliminate them before elections in southern Iraq
      later this year, which they are expected to win.

      Mortars and rockets launched from Mehdi
      Army-controlled districts of Baghdad struck the Green
      Zone, the seat of American power in Iraq, for the
      third day yesterday, seriously wounding three
      Americans. Two rockets hit the parking lot of the
      Iraqi cabinet. The mixed area of al-Mansur in west
      Baghdad, where shops had begun to reopen in recent
      months, was deserted yesterday as Mehdi Army fighters
      were rumoured among local people to be moving in from
      the nearby Shia stronghold of Washash. "We expect an
      attack by the Shia in spite of the Americans being
      spread over Sunni districts to defend them," said a
      Sunni resident.

      Forty people have been killed and at least 200 injured
      in Basra in the last two days of violence. In the town
      of Hilla, south of Baghdad, 11 people were killed and
      18 injured yesterday by a US air strike called in
      support of Iraqi forces following street battles with
      Shia militia members in the city's Thawra
      neighbourhood. In Baghdad, 14 have been killed and 140

      The supporters of Mr Sadr, who form the largest
      political movement in Iraq, blame the Americans for
      giving the go-ahead for Mr Maliki's offensive against
      them and supporting it with helicopters and bomber
      aircraft. US troops have sealed off Sadr City, the
      close-packed slum in the capital with a population
      that is the main bastion of the Sadrists, while the
      Mehdi Army has taken over its streets, establishing
      checkpoints, each manned by about 20 heavily armed
      men. It is unlikely that the militiamen in Basra will
      surrender as demanded by the government. Sadiq
      al-Rikabi, an adviser to Mr Maliki, said those who
      kept their weapons would be arrested. "Any gunman who
      does not do that within three days will be an outlaw."

      Streets were empty in Basra and Baghdad as people
      stayed at home to avoid the fighting. The Mehdi Army
      is enforcing a strike in Baghdad with mosques calling
      for the closure of shops, businesses and schools.

      In the Shia city of Kut, on the Tigris south of
      Baghdad, local residents say that black-clad Mehdi
      Army militiamen have taken over five districts and
      expelled the police.

      At the same time, Mr Sadr is clearly eager to continue
      the truce which he declared on 29 August last year
      after bloody clashes in Kerbala with Iraqi police
      controlled by the rival Shia political movement, the
      Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and their
      well-organised militia, the Badr organisation.

      He renewed this ceasefire in February, saying he
      wanted to purge its ranks of criminals. "The freeze
      that Sadr has ordered is still ongoing," said one of
      his chief lieutenants, Luwaa Smaism.

      Mr Sadr has sought to avoid an all-out military
      confrontation with American troops or Badr backed by
      American forces since he fought two ferocious battles
      for Najaf against US marines in 2004.

      Mr Sadr has sent emissaries to Mr Maliki asking him to
      remove his troops, numbering some 15,000 men from
      Basra, and to resolve problems peacefully. But his
      aides say there will be no talks until the Iraqi army
      reinforcements are withdrawn. The offer of talks is in
      keeping with Mr Sadr's past behaviour, which is to
      appear conciliatory but in practice to make few real
      concessions. The US is claiming that the Sadrists are
      not being singled out, only Iran-supported militia
      factions, but this will find few believers in Iraq.

      "This is not a battle against the [Mehdi Army] nor is
      it a proxy war between the United States and Iran,"
      said a US military spokesman, Major General Kevin
      Bergner. "It is [the] government of Iraq taking the
      necessary action to deal with criminals on the

      The Sunni population is pleased to see the government
      and the Americans attacking the Mehdi Army, which they
      see as a Shia death squad. "Before, the Shia were
      arresting and killing us and forcing us to leave Iraq
      for Jordan and Syria where we lived in misery," said
      Osama Sabr, a Sunni in west Baghdad.

      The fighting is threatening to disrupt Iraq's oil
      production, most of which comes from the Basra area,
      because workers in the oilfields dare not leave their

      The militia

      The Mehdi Army

      Armed wing of the Sadr movement. Muqtada al-Sadr's
      militia is divided, with one wing supporting the
      radical cleric's ceasefire while another has rejected
      it and continued attacks on Iraqi government forces
      and the British base at Basra aiport.

      The Badr Brigade

      Armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The
      Badr Brigade has been involved in numerous clashes
      with the Mehdi Army and appears not to be the target
      of the current offensive by the Iraqi government
      forces. The group has organised "spontaneous"
      demonstrations against General Mohan and General

      The Fadhila

      A political party and armed group with a localised
      powerbase. The governor of Basra is a member of the
      party, and it controls a significant proportion of the
      region's oil supply.

      Secret Cells

      Said to be armed and trained by Iran and allegedly
      carrying out attacks ordered by Tehran.

      Out of hiding: The engineer whose 'evidence' led to
      war in Iraq


      An Iraqi engineer who provided the information that
      became one of the key planks in the Bush
      administration's case justifying the invasion of Iraq
      has been tracked down by undercover reporters to a
      drab residential block in southern Germany.

      Rafid Ahmed Alwan, code-named Curveball (a baseball
      term for deception), has been in hiding since the
      invasion five years ago, and lives under an assumed
      name. He was questioned by German intelligence in the
      late 1990s when seeking asylum in Germany and told
      them that he had witnessed a biological weapons
      programme in Iraq. His "evidence" was made public in a
      compelling speech to the UN security council by US
      secretary of state, Colin Powell on 5 February 2003,
      when he said that Iraq possessed stockpiles of
      biological weapons that threatened the world and the
      mobile weapons laboratories to produce them.

      Although German intelligence officials had warned the
      CIA that Curveball's claims were unreliable, and UN
      inspectors had failed to corroborate them, the Bush
      administration promoted the existence of such mobile
      labs for months after the invasion.

      Now Curveball denies having made the claims in the
      first place. The BBC 2 programme Newsnight broadcast
      last night secretly filmed footage of the discredited
      agent who was approached by Der Spiegel magazine in
      his German hideout where he declined to give a formal
      interview. His face was blanked out in the footage in
      which a reporter asked him on his doorstep whether he
      had ever spoken about Iraq's biological weapons.
      Curveball replied "No."

      Sunni militia strike could derail US strategy against


      The success of the US "surge" strategy in Iraq may be
      under threat as Sunni militia employed by the US to
      fight al-Qaida are warning of a national strike
      because they are not being paid regularly.

      Leading members of the 80,000-strong Sahwa, or
      awakening, councils have said they will stop fighting
      unless payment of their $10 a day (£5) wage is
      resumed. The fighters are accusing the US military of
      using them to clear al-Qaida militants from dangerous
      areas and then abandoning them.

      A telephone survey by GuardianFilms for Channel 4 News
      reveals that out of 49 Sahwa councils four with more
      than 1,400 men have already quit, 38 are threatening
      to go on strike and two already have.

      Dreams of reaching Europe grind to a halt in Beirut
      ghettoRabi'a is one of two million Iraqis who have
      ended up in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon in the hope of
      making a better life


      Rabi'a, an Iraqi refugee, is cooking in the narrow,
      filthy corridor that doubles as a makeshift kitchen in
      his tiny apartment in eastern Beirut. There is a gas
      burner, a sink, a cupboard and a small plastic bucket
      overflowing with garbage and potato peelings. At one
      end of the room a door leads to a reeking toilet. The
      heavy smell of urine mixes with that of the months-old
      oil he is pushing round the frying pan.

      "I fry the best tomatoes in the world, the most
      delicious dish," he tells me. "You must have some with
      In Iraq they used to call this dish the "dinner of the
      sanctions", after the decade-long economic blockade
      imposed on the country in the 1990s.

      Kitchen-sink drama

      Rabi'a lives in one of Beirut's poor Christian
      neighbourhoods. He is tall and well-built, with
      heavily muscled shoulders, thick wavy hair and a
      fashionable trimmed goatee. A small crucifix dangles
      from a silver chain around his neck.

      He carries the hot frying pan, a plate of potatoes and
      some yoghurt to the next room where he sits with
      another refugee friend around a small table.

      They have dinner and drink Iraqi tea from a kettle on
      the floor. Rabi'a is one of more than 2m Iraqis who
      have fled to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon since the start
      of the war, making up what the UN describes as the
      biggest movement of people in the Middle East since
      the creation of the state of Israel.

      In one way at least, Rabi'a and his friend are lucky.
      They have a bedroom, albeit a tiny one, where Rabi'a
      shows me his cracked leather bag.

      "I keep it packed ready to leave," he says. Next-door
      there are more than 12 Iraqi refugees living in a
      three-roomed apartment.

      Rabi'a and his friend spend most of their time in
      Lebanon indoors. Like most Iraqi refugees they have no
      genuine papers, and if they are arrested they will end
      up in a Kafkaesque cycle of jail and police cells and
      fines which will eventually lead them back to Iraq.

      He is too scared to go out except for work. "When I go
      to work I walk, so that if there is a police
      checkpoint I can see it from a distance and take a

      Rabi'a now works in a supermarket loading crates of
      beer. Before that he had a job as a barman in a smart
      beach resort in the south of Lebanon, and before that,
      he was an electrician. Now, he says, he gets $250
      (£126) a month, out of which he pays $50 for the
      apartment and tries to save as much as $150 to send
      back to his family in northern Iraq.

      Rabi'a was a student in the Institute of Technology in
      the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. As a Christian, he
      and his family experienced the sectarian violence of
      Iraq two years before it reached Baghdad and became an
      open civil war. They were targeted by al-Qaida in Iraq
      and Sunni extremist groups.

      The first signs that they were being targeted were the
      letters that came to their Christian quarter. "They
      posted them to everyone in the street," he said. "They
      called us infidels.

      "My father and I and our friends would stay awake all
      night, waiting and guarding the street," he says.

      'We live in a nightmare. Death and carnage is
      everywhere' Ali, Baghdad resident
      Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Baghdad The Guardian, Thursday
      March 20 2008


      In most cities of the world a person might expect to
      be feted for surviving a single bomb attack. In
      Baghdad, survival stories can be found on every street

      Ali is a painter and a student at the academy of art
      in north Baghdad. A few years ago he moved to the
      Baghdad suburb of Karrada, where many artists live
      because of its art market.

      When I meet him, Ali is limping slightly. A white
      bandage protrudes from the sleeve of his striped
      jumper, and he frequently drops his left shoulder so
      that his arm rests on his thigh. These are the only
      outward signs of the injuries he sustained in the
      previous week.

      In a shy, soft voice Ali tells me how he had been
      standing with a friend in Karrada when a bomb went off
      at the side of the road. "I heard an explosion very
      close by," he says. "I saw smoke and chaos and people
      screaming. I saw my friend Hassan, who was running and
      carrying a child who had lost an arm. I saw a
      nice-looking girl - the Karrada girls, you know how
      beautiful they are. She was dead. And I saw a girl who
      had only one eye.

      "I couldn't bear it," he tells me. "I started to
      scream and cry.

      From Baghdad to Britain
      They come to Britain fearing for their lives back
      home, hoping for a new beginning. But for thousands of
      Iraqi asylum seekers there is no welcome and instead
      they face misery and destitution before they are
      deported. Hannah Godfrey hears their stories


      Trade in stolen Iraqi treasures 'fuels al-Qaida'


      The flourishing underground trade in Iraqi antiquities
      is helping fund insurgents in the war-torn country,
      the man credited with saving thousands of treasures
      plundered from the National Museum of Iraq said
      Nearly five years after looters ransacked the museum
      in Baghdad, al-Qaida and Shia militias are using the
      spoils to finance terror operations.

      "Trafficking in Iraqi antiquities is funding
      individuals who are killing people in the streets and
      detonating the bombs," said Colonel Matthew Bogdanos,
      the US marine who was in charge of recovering stolen
      works in the six months after the fall of Saddam

      Robert Fisk: The only lesson we ever learn is that we
      never learn


      Five years on, and still we have not learnt. With each
      anniversary, the steps crumble beneath our feet, the
      stones ever more cracked, the sand ever finer. Five
      years of catastrophe in Iraq and I think of Churchill,
      who in the end called Palestine a "hell-disaster".

      But we have used these parallels before and they have
      drifted away in the Tigris breeze. Iraq is swamped in
      blood. Yet what is the state of our remorse? Why, we
      will have a public inquiry – but not yet! If only
      inadequacy was our only sin.

      Today, we are engaged in a fruitless debate. What went
      wrong? How did the people – the senatus populusque
      Romanus of our modern world – not rise up in rebellion
      when told the lies about weapons of mass destruction,
      about Saddam's links with Osama bin Laden and 11
      September? How did we let it happen? And how come we
      didn't plan for the aftermath of war?

      Oh, the British tried to get the Americans to listen,
      Downing Street now tells us. We really, honestly did
      try, before we absolutely and completely knew it was
      right to embark on this illegal war. There is now a
      vast literature on the Iraq debacle and there are
      precedents for post-war planning – of which more later
      – but this is not the point. Our predicament in Iraq
      is on an infinitely more terrible scale.

      As the Americans came storming up Iraq in 2003, their
      cruise missiles hissing through the sandstorm towards
      a hundred Iraqi towns and cities, I would sit in my
      filthy room in the Baghdad Palestine Hotel, unable to
      sleep for the thunder of explosions, and root through
      the books I'd brought to fill the dark, dangerous
      hours. Tolstoy's War and Peace reminded me how
      conflict can be described with sensitivity and grace
      and horror – I recommend the Battle of Borodino –
      along with a file of newspaper clippings. In this
      little folder, there was a long rant by Pat Buchanan,
      written five months earlier; and still, today I feel
      its power and its prescience and its absolute
      historical honesty: "With our MacArthur Regency in
      Baghdad, Pax Americana will reach apogee. But then the
      tide recedes, for the one endeavour at which Islamic
      people excel is expelling imperial powers by terror or
      guerrilla war.

      Patrick Cockburn: This is the war that started with
      lies, and continues with lie after lie after lie


      It has been a war of lies from the start. All
      governments lie in wartime but American and British
      propaganda in Iraq over the past five years has been
      more untruthful than in any conflict since the First
      World War.

      The outcome has been an official picture of Iraq akin
      to fantasy and an inability to learn from mistakes
      because of a refusal to admit that any occurred. Yet
      the war began with just such a mistake. Five years
      ago, on the evening of 19 March 2003, President George
      Bush appeared on American television to say that
      military action had started against Iraq.

      This was a veiled reference to an attempt to kill
      Saddam Hussein by dropping four 2,000lb bombs and
      firing 40 cruise missiles at a place called al-Dura
      farm in south Baghdad, where the Iraqi leader was
      supposedly hiding in a bunker. There was no bunker.
      The only casualties were one civilian killed and 14
      wounded, including nine women and a child.

      Death, destruction and fear on the streets of cafes,
      poets and booksellersTo mark the fifth anniversary of
      the Iraq war, the award-winning journalist returns to
      the city where he was born and lived for 30 years


      Baghdad was never a beautiful city. A sprawling sea of
      low rise, dusty concrete cubes with few green spaces,
      it is a typical Middle Eastern architectural disaster,
      expanding without any real urban planning from the
      1950s. But if you knew the city you could find your
      corners: a narrow, zigzagging alleyway, an Ottoman
      courtyard, the shade of a lemon tree in spring.

      One of my favourites was the Mutanabi book market. The
      cafes and teahouses lining the old street had became a
      hangout for journalists, poets and artists, and with
      them had come the book market. It was here that I used
      to buy my illegal photocopies of Marx's Communist
      Manifesto - in Arabic - and Orwell's 1984.

      Last week, I went back to Mutanabi. To reach it I
      travelled through bullet-pocked Bab al-Mu'adham, past
      countless checkpoints: Shia police commandos, some
      carrying newly US-supplied M-16 guns, hunkering behind
      sandbags, Sunni militiamen in khaki trousers, T-shirts
      and trainers.

      Mutanabi street itself looks like a scene from a
      second world war movie, a couple of gutted buildings,
      heaps of garbage in the muddy road. Before the war,
      booksellers spilled into the road and you had to push
      and shove to walk down the street; now there were only
      half a dozen of them.

      Partick Cockburn: A gross failure that ignored history
      and ended with a humiliating retreat


      The war in Iraq has been one of the most disastrous
      wars ever fought by Britain. It has been small but we
      achieved nothing. It will stand with Crimea and the
      Boer War as conflicts which could have been avoided
      and were demonstrations of incompetence from start to

      The British failure in the Iraq war has been even more
      gross because it has not ended with a costly military
      victory but a humiliating scuttle. The victors in
      Basra and southern Iraq have been the local Shia
      militias masquerading as government security forces.

      Britain should immediately hold a full inquiry into
      the mistakes made before and during the war in Iraq
      out of pure self-interest. Gordon Brown's suggestion
      that holding such an inquiry now would somehow
      threaten the stability of Iraq is either a piece of
      obvious prevarication or, if taken at face value, a
      sign of absurd vanity. Iraqis show not the slightest
      interest in British policy and assume it will simply
      be an echo of decisions made in Washington.

      Iraq: Who won the war?

      Not the 90,000 Iraqi civilians or the 4,200 US and UK
      troops killed since 2003. The big winners are the
      money men who have made billions. Raymond Whitaker and
      Stephen Foley report


      Iraq's Lost Children


      BAGHDAD — For nations the young generation always
      holds the hope for a better future but with thousands
      of its children forced out of school into the labor
      market to make ends meet, Iraq seems to be an
      "My mother told me that I had to leave school and even
      knowing there isn’t choice, I tried to convince by
      showing my good marks in math and science but it just
      made her angrier," says Waleed Saleh, 11.

      One year ago his father, a waiter, was killed in a
      suicide attack on his restaurant in downtown Baghdad.

      Saleh, the elder of his four brothers, had to find a
      job to help support the family with his house-keeper

      "She found me a job as helper in a carpentry factor
      near our home," he said.

      New Iraq…Sex for Life


      BAGHDAD — It was eight o’clock in the morning when
      Fadia (not her real name), received an unexpected
      visit in her home.
      Her children, who were still asleep, awoke to the
      hysterical screaming of their mom.

      Fadia, a recently-graduating biologist, was told by
      the guest that her husband had been kidnapped by
      militants and she had to pay 10,000 dollars to have
      him back home.

      But, he said, she had to first make a visit to someone
      who would like to explain which steps she had to take
      to save her husband's life.

      "I wore my abaya, washed my face and took the children
      to my neighbor without saying a single word," said
      Fadia, 26.

      Iraq's Decadent Health System


      BAGHDAD — Iraq's health care system, once the pride of
      the region, has become the worst in the Gulf and
      With a lack of investments and an ever-increasing
      brain drain, the decadent heath structure is putting
      the lives of millions of Iraqis at risk.

      "Unfortunately we aren’t able to cope with the
      requirements countrywide," says Taha Abdel-Rahman, a
      Health Ministry media officer.

      "There aren’t investments and thousands of
      professionals have fled Iraq, leaving locals without
      proper assistance," he added.

      The pharmaceutical factories producing basics,
      including antibiotics, decreased production as
      investments nearly stopped.

      Rewriting Iraq Invasion History


      CAIRO — As the world prepares to mark the fifth
      anniversary of the US and British invasion of Iraq,
      the British Ministry of Defense has released an
      imbalanced and erroneous guide about the war for
      school pupils, whipping a storm of criticism from the
      country's biggest teachers' union, the Independent
      reported Friday, March 14.
      "When you are dealing with something as controversial
      as Iraq and different events which led up to the
      invasion, teachers are under an enormous duty to
      present material which is balanced," Steve Sinnott,
      the secretary general of the National Union of
      Teachers (NUT), said in a letter to Schools Secretary
      Ed Balls.

      The MoD has provided schools with a guide about the
      2003 US-led invasion of Iraq to be taught during
      classroom discussions in general studies or personal,
      social and health education (PSE) lessons.

      Robert Fisk: The cult of the suicide bomber

      Few players in the 'war on terror' are more chilling,
      or misunderstood, than suicide bombers. Yet the true
      scale of their grisly activities has never been
      properly calculated. Five years after the invasion of
      Iraq, Robert Fisk details the shocking extent of the
      most widespread campaign of self-liquidation in human


      Iraq: teachers told to rewrite history
      MoD accused of sending propaganda to schools


      Oil giants are poised to move into BasraBrown's
      business envoy says that investment is the next step
      in bringing stability to the region


      Western oil giants are poised to enter southern Iraq
      to tap the country's vast reserves, despite the
      ongoing threat of violence, according to Gordon
      Brown's business emissary to the country.

      Michael Wareing, who heads the new Basra Development
      Commission, acknowledged that there would be concerns
      among Iraqis about multinationals exploiting natural

      Basra, where 4,000 British troops are based, has been
      described as 'the lung' of Iraq by Prime Minister
      Nouri al-Maliki. The region accounts for 90 per cent
      of government revenue and 70 per cent of Iraq's proven
      oil reserves. It has access to the Gulf and is
      potentially one of the richest areas in the Middle
      East, but continues to be plagued by rival militias.

      Wareing, international chief executive of KPMG, was
      asked by Brown to help kick-start business in the
      Basra region in the hope that prosperity will bring
      stability. On his first visit last week, he met
      officials and business leaders but a sandstorm forced
      him to cancel a flight to Baghdad to meet Maliki and
      General David Petraeus, the US's commanding officer in

      Pilgrims killed as al-Qa'ida resume Iraq attacks


      A suicide bomber detonated an explosive belt in a tent
      filled with Shia pilgrims walking to one of their
      holiest shrines south of Baghdad, killing at least 40
      of them and wounding 60.

      The attack shows that al-Qa'ida has restarted its
      bombings of Shia Iraqis, whom it sees as heretics, and
      remains capable of launching numerous suicide attacks
      on the same day in different parts of Iraq.

      The claim by the US military of a significant drop in
      violence in Iraq is being dented by a rise in
      sectarian killings and by the Turkish invasion of
      Iraqi Kurdistan last Thursday in pursuit of Turkish
      Kurd PKK guerrillas.

      People taking part in the traditional Arbain
      procession to Kerbala, commemorating the 40th day of
      mourning after the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in AD680,
      had stopped at a refreshment tent near the town of
      Iskandariyah 30 miles south of Baghdad. As the
      pilgrims ate and drank a bomb exploded, spraying metal
      ball bearings in all directions.
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