NEWS & ANALYSIS: Iraq’s shifting alliances; diminishing authority; imperiled culture

Ruthless, shadowy — and a U.S. ally

“Abu Abed, you’re a hero,” the retired Shiite teacher shouted from the home she had fled last winter, when the bodies of Shiites were being dumped daily in the streets of her Amiriya neighborhood.

The fighter, wearing green camouflage and dark wraparound sunglasses, kept walking, his hand swinging a black MP-5 submachine gun.

No more than 5 feet 6, with a roll of baby fat, this Sunni Muslim gunman is an unlikely savior of Amiriya: a former intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein’s army, a suspected onetime insurgent, a man who has photos of his brothers’ mutilated corpses loaded in his cellphone.

To many Iraqis, Abu Abed is a Sunni warlord whose followers have spilled the blood of Shiite Muslim civilians and U.S. troops. But to the people in Amiriya, he is the man who has, with ruthless efficiency, restored order to a neighborhood where the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq held sway. [complete article]

Shiite lauds, warns ‘Awakening Councils’

Former Sunni insurgents – wearing masks and wailing in grief – joined a funeral procession Friday for a leader killed for turning his guns on Islamic extremists instead of America in a contested city that al-Qaida in Iraq once considered its capital.

The burial of 29-year-old Naseer Salam al-Maamouri, placed in a casket draped with the Iraqi flag, also served as a show of resolve for the tribes that have chosen to back the U.S.-led struggle to regain control of Baqouba, the strategic urban hub of Diyala province northeast of Baghdad.

For the moment, the tribal militias – known as Awakening Councils, Concerned Citizens and other names – have given U.S. and Iraqi forces a key advantage in seeking to clear extremist-held pockets in and around Baghdad. But the Sunni militiamen are demanding something in return: permanent jobs and influence in Iraq’s security forces.

The Shiite-led government has been slow to respond, despite Washington’s fears that the tribal support could collapse into chaos without swift integration into the standing forces. [complete article]

Do U.S. prisons in Iraq breed insurgents?

American officials have detained thousands of insurgents in the months since the surge of forces began this spring, in an effort that most agree has improved security in Iraq. But now the commander of the American detention facilities in Iraq is wondering aloud if holding all those detainees is breeding a “micro-insurgency” and asking whether it’s time to begin releasing thousands of people.

The two main detention facilities operated by the US military in Iraq, at Camp Bucca near Basra and Camp Cropper in Baghdad, have swollen to hold nearly 30,000 detainees. That’s not the 40,000 individuals Army Gen. David Petraeus allotted for when American forces began to implement the Baghdad security plan this spring. But it may be too many, says Marine Maj. Gen. Doug Stone, who oversees detainees for the US-led force.

Holding thousands of “moderate” detainees runs counter to the notion of winning over a population in a classic counterinsurgency, he says. General Stone believes many of these Iraqi insurgents were never motivated by anything more than money and most only desire to live peacefully. Many can be safely released back to society, back to their families and in their neighborhoods without straining security or their communities, he says. [complete article]

Disaffected Iraqis spurn dominant Shiite clerics

Two years after helping to bring to power a government led by Shiite religious parties, Iraq’s paramount Shiite clerics find their influence diminished as their followers criticize them for backing a political alliance that has failed to pass crucial legislation, improve basic services or boost the economy.

“Now the street is blaming what’s happening on the top clerics and the government,” said Ali al-Najafi, the son of Bashir al-Najafi, one of four leading clerics collectively called the marjaiya. Speaking for his father, the white-turbaned Najafi said he wished that the government, all but paralyzed by factionalism and rival visions, was more in touch with ordinary Iraqis.

“We were hoping that it would have been better,” he said.

The marjaiya, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, still wield enormous power in Iraq. But if a critical mass of Iraqis stops listening to them, it could hinder efforts toward political reconciliation and strain the fragile unity of the Shiite parties that head the government. The loss of clerical influence could also hurt the political fortunes of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, one of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite politicians and America’s main Shiite ally, who has closely aligned himself with Sistani. [complete article]

Can Iraqi sites that have survived seventeen centuries survive the US military?

American soldiers in Iraq have been issued with thousands of packs of playing cards urging them to protect and respect the country’s archaeological sites, in an effort to curb the destruction and plunder of Iraq’s antiquities.

Each card in the deck is illustrated with an ancient artefact or site, with tips on how to preserve archaeological remains and prevent looting.

The seven of clubs, for example, is illustrated with a photograph of the great Ctesiphon arch in Iraq, with the words: “This site has survived for seventeen centuries. Will it survive you?” The seven of spades declares: “Taking pictures is good. Removing artefacts for souvenirs is not.” The jack of diamonds is even more blunt. Alongside a picture of the Statue of Liberty, it asks: “How would you feel if someone stole her torch?” The effort to induce greater cultural awareness among US troops comes amid dire warnings from international archaeologists that Iraq’s ancient heritage is in greater peril than ever. [complete article]

U.S. convoys struggle to adjust to policy change

In the first month that they were in Iraq, someone threatened, shot at or tried to blow up the soldiers of the Kentucky National Guard’s B Battery, 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery 12 times. Last month, there were only three such incidents.

But confirmation that the roads have become safer came a few weeks ago when a flier went up in the 2-138’s office at this base 20 miles north of Baghdad.

“Effective immediately,” it read, “assume all civilian vehicles are friendly.” [complete article]

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