NEWS, OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Iraq – the shifting narrative

Bomb at a market shatters lull for Baghdad

Last Friday, the Ghazil animal market was a crowded bazaar in a city willing itself into recovery. Cautious but hopeful parents led fun-starved children by the hand to show them parakeets, tropical fish and twittering chicks painted in bright, improbable hues.

As Baghdad’s relative lull in violence had extended from weeks into months, Sunnis and Shiites alike made the calculation — one shared by this reporter — that the Ghazil market was safe enough to risk walking around on a sunny Friday.

It was. But one week later, the market in the shadow of the Mosque of the Caliphs was a scene of carnage, a cruel reminder that the decline in violence in this city is relative and may not last. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — While American officials have been keen to attribute the recent drop in violence in Baghdad to the success of the surge, there seems to be evidence that this drop can also be attributed to another significant event: an isolated but effective disruption in the supply chain of suicide bombers.

A New York Times report last Thursday on a raid on an insurgent camp at Sinjar, close to the Syrian border, focused on intelligence findings that reveals where foreign fighters entering Iraq are coming from. The political significance of this data is obvious: At a time when Iran is frequently blamed for fomenting violence in Iraq, the U.S. military is making it clear that the most significant foreign element has actually been coming from Saudi Arabia. What this report and surrounding coverage has not focused on are the practical consequences that seem to have followed from this raid: a substantial drop in the number of suicide bombings. Friday’s bombing in the Ghazil animal market while apparently intended to look like the re-emergence of the trend of suicide attacks aimed at causing mass civilian casualties is noteworthy because it wasn’t a suicide bombing.

There’s no place like … Iraq?

Dawood is happy to be back in Baghdad. Not that he had much choice. Late last year the cautious, soft-spoken Shiite fled to Syria and on to Lebanon, leaving his wife and their three children in relatives’ care while he looked for a safer home. He had begun getting death threats after helping create an Internet hookup for the U.S. Army base at Taji. Dawood (he won’t risk the use of his full name) is a 33-year-old IT engineer, but he couldn’t find work outside Iraq. His Lebanese visa ran out, and Canada refused his asylum application. So a few weeks ago, practically broke, he returned to Baghdad. His old district is torn by an ongoing Shia-Sunni turf war, but Dawood says he feels safe in the family’s new, mainly Shia area. His youngest child, now 3, called him “Uncle” at first, and he’s still looking for work, but it’s good just to be with his family. “I’ll tell you something about missing Baghdad,” he says. “When I’m in Baghdad, I don’t want to hear any Iraqi music. But when I’m somewhere else, all I want to hear is Iraqi music.”

Thousands of Iraqis are finally returning, lured by news of lessening bloodshed in Baghdad and increasingly unwelcome in the neighboring lands where they tried to escape the war. Although they’re scarcely a fraction of the roughly 2.2 million who have fled into exile since 2003, they represent a big shift: for the first time since the war began, more Iraqis seem to be re-entering the country than leaving. At the desert outpost of Al Waleed, the main crossing on the Syrian frontier, border police reported 43,799 Iraqis coming home in October—more than five times the number heading out, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Other statistics remain patchy at best, but the signs point toward home. “I can tell you this,” says Abdul Samid Rahman Sultan, Iraq’s minister of Displacement and Migration (the job title alone tells how bad the problem has been). “Flights from Syria are always full. Flights out are not.” [complete article]

Railroading a journalist in Iraq

At long last, prize-winning Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein may get his day in court. The trouble is, justice won’t be blind in this case — his lawyer will be.

Bilal has been imprisoned by the U.S. military in Iraq since he was picked up April 12, 2006, in Ramadi, a violent town in a turbulent province where few Western journalists dared go. The military claimed then that he had suspicious links to insurgents. This week, Editor&Publisher magazine reported the military has amended that to say he is, in fact, a “terrorist” who had “infiltrated the AP.”

We believe Bilal’s crime was taking photographs the U.S. government did not want its citizens to see. That he was part of a team of AP photographers who had just won a Pulitzer Prize for work in Iraq may have made Bilal even more of a marked man.

In the 19 months since he was picked up, Bilal has not been charged with any crime, although the military has sent out a flurry of ever-changing claims. Every claim we’ve checked out has proved to be false, overblown or microscopic in significance. Now, suddenly, the military plans to seek a criminal case against Bilal in the Iraqi court system in just days. But the military won’t tell us what the charges are, what evidence it will be submitting or even when the hearing will be held. [complete article]

Iraq nullifies Kurdish oil deals

Iraq’s oil ministry has declared all crude contracts signed by the Kurdish regional authorities with foreign companies null and void, a government official said on Saturday.

“The ministry has nullified all contracts signed by the Kurdistan Regional Government,” the official told AFP, asking not to be named. “They will not be recognised.”

The government in Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdish region has signed 15 exploration and exportation contracts with 20 international companies since it passed its own oil law in August, infuriating the Baghdad government. [complete article]

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