Insurgents in Iraq hack U.S. drones

Insurgents in Iraq hack U.S. drones

Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations.

Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes’ systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber — available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet — to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.

U.S. officials say there is no evidence that militants were able to take control of the drones or otherwise interfere with their flights. Still, the intercepts could give America’s enemies battlefield advantages by removing the element of surprise from certain missions and making it easier for insurgents to determine which roads and buildings are under U.S. surveillance. [continued...]

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NEWS, OPINION & FEATURE: The cult of the suicide bomber

The cult of the suicide bomber

No one doubts that the road to Baghdad – or Tal Afar or Fallujah or Mosul – lies through Syria, and that the movement of suicide bombers from the Mediterranean coasts to the deserts of Iraq is a planned if not particularly sophisticated affair. What is astonishing – what is not mentioned by the Americans or the Iraqi “government” or the British authorities or indeed by many journalists – is the sheer scale of the suicide campaign, the vast numbers of young men (only occasionally women), who wilfully destroy themselves amid the American convoys, outside the Iraqi police stations, in markets and around mosques and in shopping streets and on lonely roads beside remote checkpoints across the huge cities and vast deserts of Iraq. Never have the true figures for this astonishing and unprecedented campaign of self-liquidation been calculated.

But a month-long investigation by The Independent, culling four Arabic-language newspapers, official Iraqi statistics, two Beirut news agencies and Western reports, shows that an incredible 1,121 Muslim suicide bombers have blown themselves up in Iraq. This is a very conservative figure and – given the propensity of the authorities (and of journalists) to report only those suicide bombings that kill dozens of people – the true estimate may be double this number. On several days, six – even nine – suicide bombers have exploded themselves in Iraq in a display of almost Wal-Mart availability. If life in Iraq is cheap, death is cheaper.

This is perhaps the most frightening and ghoulish legacy of George Bush’s invasion of Iraq five years ago. Suicide bombers in Iraq have killed at least 13,000 men, women and children – our most conservative estimate gives a total figure of 13,132 – and wounded a minimum of 16,112 people. If we include the dead and wounded in the mass stampede at the Baghdad Tigris river bridge in the summer of 2005 – caused by fear of suicide bombers – the figures rise to 14,132 and 16,612 respectively. Again, it must be emphasised that these statistics are minimums. For 529 of the suicide bombings in Iraq, no figures for wounded are available. Where wounded have been listed in news reports as “several”, we have made no addition to the figures. And the number of critically injured who later died remains unknown. Set against a possible death toll of half a million Iraqis since the March 2003 invasion, the suicide bombers’ victims may appear insignificant; but the killers’ ability to terrorise civilians, militiamen and Western troops and mercenaries is incalculable. [complete article]

Stuck in the Iraq loop

There is a paradox in the current situation in Iraq. We are told that the surge has worked brilliantly and violence is way down. And yet the plan to reduce troop levels—which was at the heart of the original surge strategy—must be postponed or all hell will once again break loose. Making sense of this paradox is critical. Because in certain crucial ways things are not improving in Iraq, and unless they start improving soon, the United States faces the awful prospect of an unending peacekeeping operation—with continuing if limited casualties—for years to come.

In a brilliant and much-circulated essay written in August 2007, “Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt,” David Kilcullen, a veteran Australian officer who advised Gen. David Petraeus during the early days of the surge, wrote, “Our dilemma in Iraq is, and always has been, finding a way to create a sustainable security architecture that does not require ‘Coalition-in-the-loop,’ thereby allowing Iraq to stabilize and the Coalition to disengage in favorable circumstances.” We have achieved some security in Iraq, though even this should not be overstated. (Violence is still at 2005 levels, which were pretty gruesome.) But we have not built a sustainable security architecture. [complete article]

Iraq’s insurgency runs on stolen oil profits

The Baiji refinery, with its distillation towers rising against the Hamrin Mountains, may be the most important industrial site in the Sunni Arab-dominated regions of Iraq. On a good day, 500 tanker trucks will leave the refinery filled with fuel with a street value of $10 million.

The sea of oil under Iraq is supposed to rebuild the nation, then make it prosper. But at least one-third, and possibly much more, of the fuel from Iraq’s largest refinery here is diverted to the black market, according to American military officials. Tankers are hijacked, drivers are bribed, papers are forged and meters are manipulated — and some of the earnings go to insurgents who are still killing more than 100 Iraqis a week.

“It’s the money pit of the insurgency,” said Capt. Joe Da Silva, who commands several platoons stationed at the refinery.

Five years after the war in Iraq began, the insurgency remains a lethal force. The steady flow of cash is one reason, even as the American troop buildup and the recruitment of former insurgents to American-backed militias have helped push the number of attacks down to 2005 levels. [complete article]

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NEWS: Change or war

‘If there is no change in three months, there will be war again’

A crucial Iraqi ally of the United States in its recent successes in the country is threatening to withdraw his support and allow al-Qa’ida to return if his fighters are not incorporated into the Iraqi army and police.

“If there is no change in three months there will be war again,” said Abu Marouf, the commander of 13,000 fighters who formerly fought the Americans. He and his men switched sides last year to battle al-Qa’ida and defeated it in its main stronghold in and around Fallujah.

“If the Americans think they can use us to crush al-Qa’ida and then push us to one side, they are mistaken,” Abu Marouf told The Independent in an interview in a scantily furnished villa beside an abandoned cemetery near the village of Khandari outside Fallujah. He said that all he and his tribal following had to do was stand aside and al-Qa’ida’s fighters would automatically come back. If they did so he might have to ally himself to a resurgent al-Qa’ida in order to “protect myself and my men”. [complete article]

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NEWS: The foreign insurgent network; Sunni rivalries in Anbar

Papers paint new portrait of Iraq’s foreign insurgents

Muhammad Ayn-al-Nas, a 26-year-old Moroccan, started his journey in Casablanca. After flying to Turkey and then to Damascus, he reached his destination in a small Iraqi border town on Jan. 31, 2007. He was an economics student back home, he told the al-Qaeda clerk who interviewed him on arrival. Asked what sort of work he hoped to do in Iraq, Nas replied: “Martyr.”

Algerian Watsef Mussab, 29, who arrived in Iraq via Saudi Arabia and Syria, said he had come for combat. He complained that the Syrian smugglers who brought him to the border took his money, but he contributed what he had left to the insurgent cause — a watch, a ring and an MP3 player.

Hanni al-Sagheer, a computer technician from Yemen and aspiring suicide volunteer, gave the clerk his home telephone number and also that of his brother.

Their stories are among the individual records of 606 foreign fighters who entered Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007. The cache of documents was discovered last fall by U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar.

Some include pictures — bearded men in a turban or kaffiyeh, some smiling and some scowling — in addition to names and aliases, home countries, birthdays and dates of entry into Iraq. Many list their occupations at home, whether plumber, laborer, policeman, lawyer, soldier or teacher. There is a “massage specialist,” a “weapons merchant,” a few “unemployed” and many students.

The youngest was 16 when he crossed into Iraq; the oldest was 54. Most expressed interest in a suicide mission.

The records [PDF] are “one of the deepest reservoirs of information we’ve ever obtained of the network going into Iraq,” according to a U.S. official closely familiar with intelligence on the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. [complete article]

In Anbar, Sunni rivalries surface

Hadi Hussein, a Sunni fighter working with U.S. and Iraqi forces, was receiving well-wishers Sunday when his 18-year-old cousin walked up with a box of chocolates. The teenager offered a candy, but didn’t wait for a response. He detonated hidden explosives, killing himself, Hussein and four others.

“This is life, we have two brothers, one is good, one is bad in the same family,” said Aftan Sadoun Aftan, the head of Hussein’s Sunni Arab paramilitary unit in the village of Ameriyat Fallouja in Anbar province.

Hussein had just been freed by the Americans after being wrongly detained for a week, said Aftan, who left the party a few minutes before the blast. About 20 clansmen were drinking juice and eating candies when the teen, Ali Abdullah Hussein, set off his explosives.

The bloodshed Sunday, one day after two suicide bombers killed a pair of policemen in nearby Ramadi, was a reminder of how complicated the dynamics remain in Anbar, where the violence is not just strictly a matter of tribesmen rising up against Islamic radicals. [complete article]

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NEWS: Diyala attack too big to be secret

U.S. attack in Iraq is no surprise to many insurgents

With extraordinary secrecy, and even an information blackout aimed at most of their Iraqi Army comrades, American troops began a major offensive on Tuesday to drive Sunni insurgents from strongholds in Diyala Province. But many insurgents still managed to flee the first villages the Americans went into, showing just how difficult it is to trap the elusive militants.

Because at least half the insurgents escaped before an offensive last June, American planners deliberately kept most Iraqi units in the dark before this one, a tactic that suggests they cannot fully trust the allies who are supposed to pick up more of the fighting as American troops scale back their presence this year.

The militants may have been tipped by leaks or by the visible movements of troops and machinery that precede any operation. [complete article]

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NEWS: The threat from the militias; divisions among Sunnis

Exit al-Qaeda. Enter the militias?

In 2007 the United States military put its most dangerous enemy on the run. In 2008 it may face an even more entrenched foe. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the primary target of the American troop surge and counter-insurgency strategy, appears to be on its last legs after a year of being attacked from all sides. But Shi’ite militias, which have deep roots in Iraq’s Shi’a communities and the Shi’ite-dominated government, may now pose a more serious long-term threat.

In some ways AQI was a victim of its own success. It is practically the only organization in Iraq that all the other players in the country saw as an unacceptable threat. Both the U.S. military and the Shi’ite-dominated government had fought the Sunni jihadist group for years. By the beginning of 2007, Sunni tribal leaders and nationalist insurgents had also begun battling with their former allies in AQI in order to retake control of Sunni communities. [complete article]

Sunnis divided in Anbar province

From a podium decked in flowers and the Iraqi flag, a Sunni Muslim sheik in a pinstriped suit politely welcomed the Shiite guests who had driven up from Baghdad, before launching into a tirade about the lack of jobs and essential services in this former insurgent bastion.

The focus of his anger, however, was not the Shiite-led national government, but fellow Sunni Arabs on the Anbar provincial council.

Anbar is the success story of the U.S. strategy to combat the insurgency from the ground up by striking alliances with local leaders. But though the tribal sheiks’ rebellion against the militants they once backed has calmed the region and opened the door to political dialogue with Iraq’s majority Shiites, it has deepened divisions among Sunnis.

As violence has faded, an argument has been raging over who really speaks for Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority: the province’s largely secular and fiercely independent tribal leaders, who resisted the U.S. invasion, or the main Sunni political party, an Islamist group led by former exiles who cooperated with the Americans from the start. [complete article]

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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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NEWS, ANALYSIS & FEATURE: Conflicting signals from Iraq

Iraq progress feeds a new nationalism

Improved security, an expanding economy, and new understandings with Iran, Syria and Turkey are fomenting an almost forgotten emotion among leaders of Iraq’s Shia-led government: optimism. But for Sunni Arab neighbours in the Gulf, Baghdad’s returning confidence raises the ghosts of troubled times past. Saddam Hussein is no more; Iraqi nationalism never died.

Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s national security adviser, typifies Baghdad’s brash boosters. Speaking on the sidelines of a weekend security conference in Bahrain, he warned Saudi Arabia’s princely rulers and other Gulf potentates to watch out.

“We are out of the woods … We are building a new Iraq under a democratic parliamentary system. There is a new sense of belonging in Iraq,” he said. “These people should understand the new Iraq is going to lead the region in a new way, with democracy and a new nationalism and a western orientation. They should understand these upstart Shia are not going to go away … Our strategic direction is very clear to everybody in the region. We are heading west.” [complete article]

Will Iraq’s great awakening lead to a nightmare?

American casualties in Iraq have declined dramatically over the last 90 days to levels not seen since 2006, and the White House has attributed the decline to the surge of 35-40,000 U.S. combat troops. But a closer look suggests a different explanation. More than two years of sectarian violence have replaced one country called Iraq with three emerging states: one Kurdish, one Sunni, and one Shiite. This created what a million additional U.S. troops could not: a strategic opportunity to capitalize on the Sunni-Shiite split. So after Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr decided to restrain his Mahdi army from attacking U.S. forces, General David Petraeus and his commanders began cutting deals with Sunni Arab insurgents, agreeing to allow these Sunnis to run their own affairs and arm their own security forces in return for cooperation with U.S. forces against Al Qaeda fighters. As part of the bargain, the Sunni leaders obtained both independence from the hated Shiite-dominated government, which pays far more attention to Tehran’s interests than to Washington’s, and money—lots of money.

Striking such a “sheikhs for sale” deal (whether they be Sunni or Shiite) is nothing new in the Arab world. The men who ran the British Empire routinely paid subsidies in gold to unruly tribal leaders from the Khyber Pass to the headwaters of the Nile. (Of course, British subsidies were a pittance compared with the billions Britain extracted from its colonies in Africa and Asia.) While the arrangement reached by U.S. military commanders and dubbed the “Great Awakening” has allowed the administration and its allies to declare the surge a success, it carries long-term consequences that are worrisome, if not perilous. The reduction in U.S. casualties is good news. But transforming thousands of anti-American Sunni insurgents into U.S.-funded Sunni militias is not without cost. In fact, the much-touted progress in Iraq could lead to a situation in which American foreign-policy interests are profoundly harmed and the Middle East is plunged into even a larger crisis than currently exists. [complete article]

See also, A powerful awakening shakes up Iraqi politics (Trudy Rubin).

Iraq’s youthful militiamen build power through fear

On the first day of class, two male teenagers entered a girls’ high school in the Tobji neighborhood, clutching AK-47 assault rifles. The young Shiite fighters handed the principal a handwritten note and ordered her to assemble the students in the courtyard, witnesses said.

“All girls must wear hijab,” she read aloud, her voice trembling. “If the girls don’t wear hijab, we will close the school or kill the girls.”

That October day Sara Mustafa, 14, a secular Sunni Arab, also trembled. The next morning, she covered up with an Islamic head scarf for the first time. The young fighters now controlled her life. “We could not do anything,” Sara recalled.

The Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is using a new generation of youths, some as young as 15, to expand and tighten its grip across Baghdad, but the ruthlessness of some of these young fighters is alienating Sunnis and Shiites alike. [complete article]

Budget deal would probably give Bush victory on war funding

Democratic lawmakers and staffers privately say they’re closing in on a broad budget deal that would give President Bush as much as $70 billion in new war funding.

The deal would lack a key provision Democrats had attached to previous funding bills calling for most U.S. troops to come home from Iraq by the end of 2008, which would be a significant legislative victory for Bush.

Democrats admit such a move would be highly controversial within their own party. Coming just weeks after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, vowed the White House would not get another dollar in war money this year, it would further antagonize the liberal base of the party, which has become frustrated with the congressional leadership’s failure to push back on Bush’s Iraq policy. [complete article]

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NEWS: Mosul “center of gravity for the insurgency”; Gates cautiously optimistic; Cheney irrationally exuberant

Pushed out of Baghdad, insurgents move north

Sunni insurgents pushed out of Baghdad and Anbar Provinces have migrated to this northern Iraqi city and have been trying to turn it into a major hub for their operations, according to American commanders.

A growing number of insurgents have relocated here and other places in northern Iraq as the additional forces sent by President Bush have mounted operations in the Iraqi capital and American commanders have made common cause with Sunni tribes in the western part of the country.

The insurgents who have ventured north include Abu Ayyub-al Masri, the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a predominantly Iraqi group that American intelligence says has foreign leadership. American officials say the insurgent leader has twice slipped in and out of Mosul in Nineveh Province to try to rally fellow militants and put end to infighting. [complete article]

Gates cautiously upbeat on Iraq

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Wednesday that a stable and democratic Iraq is “within reach.” But he cautioned that threats remain, pointing to insurgent efforts to create a stronghold in northern Iraq as U.S. commanders seek more than 1,400 additional Iraqi and U.S. troops there.

Gates, who during Senate confirmation hearings a year ago stated that the United States was neither winning nor losing in Iraq, was unusually upbeat in his remarks. He said several recent trends have given him hope, including the lowest levels of violence since early 2006, a substantial increase in the number of displaced Iraqis returning to their homeland, rising international investments and the willingness of more than 70,000 Iraqis to volunteer to protect their neighborhoods.

“More than ever, I believe that the goal of a secure, stable and democratic Iraq is within reach,” Gates said at a news conference in the fortified Green Zone. “We need to be patient, but we also need to be absolutely resolved in our desire to see the nascent signs of hope across Iraq expand and flourish.” [complete article]

Top U.S. military brass in Iraq resist quick drawdown

The U.S. military’s internal debate over how fast to reduce its force in Iraq has intensified in recent weeks as commanders in Baghdad resist suggestions from Pentagon officials for a quicker drawdown.

Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the day-to-day military commander in Iraq, said he was worried that significant improvements in security conditions would sway policymakers to move too quickly to pull out troops next year.

“The most important thing to me is we cannot lose what we have gained,” Odierno said in an interview last week with The Times after he toured Nahrawan, a predominantly Shiite city of about 100,000 northeast of Baghdad with a market that is now showing signs of life. “We won’t do that.” [complete article]

Cheney: Iraq to be self-governing by 2009

Vice President Cheney today predicted Iraq will be a self-governing democracy by the time he leaves office, calling the current U.S. surge strategy “a remarkable success story” that will be studied for years to come.

In an interview with Politico, Cheney offered a remarkably upbeat view of Iraq, despite continued violence and political paralysis in the war-torn nation.

Cheney, who has been widely criticized for overly optimistic — and sometime flat wrong — projections in the past, sounded as confident as ever that the Bush administration will achieve its objectives in Iraq. [complete article]

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NEWS: “More a cease-fire than a peace” in Iraq

A calmer Iraq: fragile, and possibly fleeting

The reduced violence in Iraq in recent months stems from three significant developments, but the clock is running on all of them, Iraqi officials and analysts warn.

“It’s more a cease-fire than a peace,” said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd, in words that were repeated by Qassim Daoud, a Shiite member of Parliament.

Officials attribute the relative calm to a huge increase in the number of Sunni Arab rebels who have turned their guns on jihadists instead of American troops; a six-month halt to military action by the militia of a top Shiite leader, Moktada al-Sadr; and the increased number of American troops on the streets here.

They stress that all of these changes can be reversed, and on relatively short notice. The Americans have already started to reduce troop levels and Mr. Sadr, who has only three months to go on his pledge, has issued increasingly bellicose pronouncements recently. [complete article]

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NEWS, OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Time to get out, not dig in

Iraqi insurgents regrouping, says Sunni resistance leader

Iraq’s main Sunni-led resistance groups have scaled back their attacks on US forces in Baghdad and parts of Anbar province in a deliberate strategy aimed at regrouping, retraining, and waiting out George Bush’s “surge”, a key insurgent leader has told the Guardian.

US officials recently reported a 55% drop in attacks across Iraq. One explanation they give is the presence of 30,000 extra US troops deployed this summer. The other is the decision by dozens of Sunni tribal leaders to accept money and weapons from the Americans in return for confronting al-Qaida militants who attack civilians. They call their movement al-Sahwa (the Awakening).

The resistance groups are another factor in the complex equation in Iraq’s Sunni areas. “We oppose al-Qaida as well as al-Sahwa,” the director of the political department of the 1920 Revolution Brigades told the Guardian in Damascus in a rare interview with a western reporter. [complete article]

U.S. No. 2 general in Iraq cites 25-30 percent reduction in foreign fighters entering Iraq

The U.S. second-in-command in Iraq said Sunday there has been a 25 percent to 30 percent reduction in foreign fighters entering Iraq, and he credited Syria with taking steps to limit the flow.

The Americans and Iraqi officials have demanded that Syria do more to stop foreign fighters from crossing its borders to fight in Iraq, where they threaten U.S. forces as well as Iraqi civilians.

Damascus says it has taken all necessary measures but that it is impossible to fully control the sprawling desert along the porous 570-kilometer (354-mile) border. Syrian authorities say they have increased the number of outposts to one every 400 meters (yards) in some zones along the frontier. [complete article]

Iraq as a Pentagon construction site

The title of the agreement, signed by President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki in a “video conference” last week, and carefully labeled as a “non-binding” set of principles for further negotiations, was a mouthful: a “Declaration of Principles for a Long-Term Relationship of Cooperation and Friendship Between the Republic of Iraq and the United States of America.” Whew!

Words matter, of course. They seldom turn up by accident in official documents or statements. Last week, in the first reports on this “declaration,” one of those words that matter caught my attention. Actually, it wasn’t in the declaration itself, where the key phrase was “long-term relationship” (something in the lives of private individuals that falls just short of a marriage), but in a “fact-sheet” issued by the White House. Here’s the relevant line: “Iraq’s leaders have asked for an enduring relationship with America, and we seek an enduring relationship with a democratic Iraq.” Of course, “enduring” there bears the same relationship to permanency as “long-term relationship” does to marriage.

In a number of the early news reports, that word “enduring,” part of the “enduring relationship” that the Iraqi leadership supposedly “asked for,” was put into (or near) the mouths of “Iraqi leaders” or of the Iraqi prime minister himself. It also achieved a certain prominence in the post-declaration “press gaggle” conducted by the man coordinating this process out of the Oval Office, the President’s so-called War Tsar, Gen. Douglas Lute. He said of the document: “It signals a commitment of both their government and the United States to an enduring relationship based on mutual interests.” [complete article]

See also, Big Media blackout on Iraq (Jeffrey Feldman).

Editor’s Comment — The fact that the U.S. military is now offering some qualified credit to both Syria and Iran for the reduction of violence in Iraq is a tacit acknowledgment that even while it claims “success” in the surge, the current respite is as much a gift — it can easily be taken away. This is the time to get out — not dig in.

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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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NEWS, ANALYSIS, OPINION & FEATURE: In Iraq, it’s getting harder to find any bad guys

Who’s the Enemy?

Who is the enemy? Who, exactly, are we fighting in Iraq? Why are we there? And what’s our objective?

Nearly five years into the war, the answers to basic questions like these ought to be obvious. In the Alice in Wonderland-like wilderness of mirrors that is Iraq, though, they’re anything but.

We aren’t fighting the Sunnis. Not any more, anyway. Virtually the entire Sunni establishment, from the moderate Muslim Brotherhood-linked Iraqi Islamic Party (which has been part of every Iraqi government since 2003) to the Anbar tribal alliance (which has been begging for U.S. support since 2004 and only recently got it) is either actively cooperating with the American military or sullenly tolerating what it hopes will be a receding occupation. Across Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq, the United States is helping to build army and police units as well as neighborhood patrols — the Pentagon calls them “concerned citizens” — out of former resistance fighters, with the blessing of tribal leaders in Anbar, Diyala, and Salahuddin provinces, parts of Baghdad, and areas to the south of the capital. We have met the enemy, and — surprise! — they are friends or, if not that, at least not active enemies. Attacks on U.S. forces in Sunni-dominated areas, including the once-violent hot-bed city of Ramadi, Anbar’s capital, have fallen dramatically. [complete article]

Inside the surge

Joint Security Station Thrasher, in the western Baghdad suburb of Ghazaliya, is housed in a Saddam-era mansion with twenty-foot columns and a fountain, now dry, that looks like a layer cake of concrete and limestone. The mansion and two adjacent houses have been surrounded by blast walls. J.S.S. Thrasher was set up last March, and is part of the surge in troops engineered by General David Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq. Moving units out of large bases and into Joint Security Stations—small outposts in Baghdad’s most dangerous districts—has been crucial to Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy, and Thrasher is now home to a hundred American soldiers and a few hundred Iraqis. This fall, on the roof of the mansion, amid sandbags, communications gear, and exercise equipment protected by a sniper awning, Captain Jon Brooks, Thrasher’s commander, pointed out some of the local landmarks. “This site was selected because it was the main body drop in Ghazaliya,” he said, indicating a grassy area nearby. “There were up to eleven bodies a week. Most were brutally mutilated.” [complete article]

2008: The year of federalism in Iraq?

In all the speculation about the fate of the US “surge” policy in Iraq, many analysts have overlooked a date on the 2008 calendar which is bound to become fateful: 11 April. On that day, the current moratorium on creating new federal entities – a last-minute addition to the Iraqi federalism legislation in October 2006 – comes to an end. From April 2008 onwards, the administrative map of Iraq could change dramatically.

The Iraqi constitutional and judicial modalities for creating new federal entities are poorly understood in the West. Under the legal framework adopted in October 2006, there are two paths to a federal status for an existing governorate: based on grassroots initiatives (by one tenth of its voters or by one third of the governorate council members) any Iraqi governorate can call a referendum for the creation of a new federal entity – consisting either of itself, or of itself in union with other governorates where the same kind of initiatives are launched (except Baghdad). A successful bid for federal status requires a simple majority of Yes votes in all governorates concerned. This is a complicated procedure, but it is at least a method that is based on popular initiatives. As such, it is antithetical to the recent resolution by the US Senate on federalism in Iraq, where there are suggestions about foreign “assistance” and elite conferences to “help” the Iraqis design a new administrative map – in other words, a plan to impose federalism on the entire country, not only “from above”, but also from the outside. [complete article]

Iraq to ease Baghdad controls

Iraqi military commanders signaled on Monday that they will soon remove some roadblocks, blast walls and other restrictions that had been imposed over the past nine months as part of the effort to reduce violence here in the capital.

However tens of thousands of American troops will remain on the streets of Baghdad, and the announcement appears to have been made to indicate to their constituents the Iraqi leaderships’ desire to change the emphasis from the military crackdown in the earlier stages of the operation to providing vital utilities and social services to the Baghdad population. [complete article]

The plight of American veterans

As an unpopular, ill-planned war in Iraq grinds on inconclusively, it can be a bleak time to be a veteran.

There is little outright hostility toward returning military personnel these days; few Americans are reviling them as “baby killers” or blaming them for a botched war of choice launched by the White House. Indeed, both Congress and the White House have been hymning their praises in the run-up to Veterans Day. But all too often, soldiers who return from Iraq or Afghanistan — and those who served in Vietnam or Korea — have been left to fend for themselves with little help from the government.

Recent surveys have painted an appalling picture. Almost half a million of the nation’s 24 million veterans were homeless at some point during 2006, and while only a few hundred from Iraq or Afghanistan have turned up homeless so far, aid groups are bracing themselves for a tsunamilike upsurge in coming years. [complete article]

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NEWS, ANALYSIS, OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Looking for Iran in Iraq

Iraq: Call an air strike

“… the literature on counter-insurgency is so enormous that, had it been put aboard the Titanic, it would have sunk that ship without any help from the iceberg. However, the outstanding fact is that almost all of it has been written by the losers.”
- Martin van Creveld, in The Changing Face Of War, 2006

Amid the George W Bush administration’s relentless campaign to “change the subject” from Iraq to Iran, how to “win” the war against the Iraqi resistance, Sunni or Shi’ite, now means – according to counter-insurgency messiah General David Petraeus – calling an air strike.

On a parallel level, the Pentagon has practically finished a base in southern Iraq less than 10 kilometers from the border with Iran called Combat Outpost Shocker. The Pentagon maintains this is for the US to prevent Iranian weapons from being smuggled into Iraq. Rather, it’s to control a rash of US covert, sabotage operations across the border targeting Iran’s Khuzestan province.

With the looming Turkish threat of invading Iraqi Kurdistan and President General President Musharraf’s new “let’s jail all the lawyers” coup within a coup in Pakistan, the bloody war in the plains of Mesopotamia is lower down in the news cycle – not to mention the interminable 2008 US presidential soap opera. Rosy spinning, though, still rules unchecked.

The Pentagon – via Major General Joseph Fil, commander of US forces in Baghdad – is relentlessly spinning there’s now less violence in the capital, a “sustainable” trend. This is rubbish. [complete article]

Iraqi fighters ‘grilled for evidence on Iran’

US military officials are putting huge pressure on interrogators who question Iraqi insurgents to find incriminating evidence pointing to Iran, it was claimed last night.

Micah Brose, a privately contracted interrogator working for American forces in Iraq, near the Iranian border, told The Observer that information on Iran is ‘gold’. The claim comes after Washington imposed sanctions on Iran last month, citing both its nuclear ambitions and its Revolutionary Guards’ alleged support of Shia insurgents in Iraq. Last week the US military freed nine Iranians held in Iraq, including two it had accused of links to the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force.

Brose, 30, who extracts information from detainees in Iraq, said: ‘They push a lot for us to establish a link with Iran. They have pre-categories for us to go through, and by the sheer volume of categories there’s clearly a lot more for Iran than there is for other stuff. Of all the recent requests I’ve had, I’d say 60 to 70 per cent are about Iran. [complete article]

Broken supply channel sent weapons for Iraq astray

As the insurgency in Iraq escalated in the spring of 2004, American officials entrusted an Iraqi businessman with issuing weapons to Iraqi police cadets training to help quell the violence.

By all accounts, the businessman, Kassim al-Saffar, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, did well at distributing the Pentagon-supplied weapons from the Baghdad Police Academy armory he managed for a military contractor. But, co-workers say, he also turned the armory into his own private arms bazaar with the seeming approval of some American officials and executives, selling AK-47 assault rifles, Glock pistols and heavy machine guns to anyone with cash in hand — Iraqi militias, South African security guards and even American contractors. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — The path travelled by one of those Glocks is revealed in a report in The Guardian. The reporter describes interviewing a Sunni insurgent — one of America’s newly recruited fighters. “He pulled his pistol out and showed it to me. It was a Glock, supplied by the US to Iraqi security forces. ‘This belonged to the commander of al-Qaida here,’ he said. ‘They called him the White Lion. I killed him and got his gun.’”

Americans said to have proposed a six-month truce to the resistance groups

Al-Hayat says this morning that it has learned from “sources in the government and sources close to the armed groups” about a plan including a followup reconciliation meeting, to be arranged by the Iraqi Reconciliation Agency, but to be held under American and international auspices, along with a proposal for a six-month truce between the armed resistance groups and the American/Iraqi forces. [complete article]

Forced Iraq postings ‘may be necessary’

Four days before a deadline for Foreign Service officers to volunteer to go to Iraq or face the prospect of being ordered there, the State Department notified employees yesterday that “about half” of 48 open assignments there for next year have been filled.

“This reduces but does not eliminate the possibility that directed assignments may be necessary,” Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte wrote in an e-mailed update. Filling the remaining jobs is still “the Department’s priority,” he said, adding that he is optimistic that more will volunteer. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — The email had to come from Negroponte and not the Sectretary of State herself because madame secretary declines to use email. That’s right! “Rice does not use e-mail.”

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FEATURE: “After we finish with al-Qaida here, we will turn toward our main enemy, the Shia militias.”

Meet Abu Abed: the U.S.’s new ally against al-Qaida

Abu Abed, a member of the insurgent Islamic Army, has recently become the commander of the US-sponsored “Ameriya Knights”. He is one of the new breed of Sunni warlords who are being paid by the US to fight al-Qaida in Iraq. The Americans call their new allies Concerned Citizens.

It is a strategy that has worked well for the Americans, on paper at least. This week, the US military claimed it had forced the extremist group al-Qaida in Mesopotamia out of Baghdad altogether, and cut the number of murders in the city by 80%. Major General Joseph Fil, commander of US forces in Baghdad, said: “The Iraqi people have decided that they’ve had it up to here with violence.”

Critics of the plan say they are simply creating powerful new strongmen who run their own prisons and armies, and who eventually will turn on each other.

A senior Sunni sheikh, whose tribe is joining the new alliance with the Americans against al-Qaida, told me in Beirut that it was a simple equation for him. “It’s just a way to get arms, and to be a legalised security force to be able to stand against Shia militias and to prevent the Iraqi army and police from entering their areas,” he said. [complete article]

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NEWS: Displaced, bribed, killed without provocation, Iraqis look forward to economic surge

Report: 14 percent of Iraqis now displaced

The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction offered a generally optimistic picture of security developments in Iraq in his quarterly report to Congress on Tuesday, but noted that while violence was down, one of every seven Iraqis — 14 percent of Iraq’s population — is now displaced by the war.

The report said that electricity production in Iraq reached its highest level since early 2003, in part because insurgent attacks on power-lines and repair crews have declined. Corruption, however, remains a major problem, the report said. [complete article]

Will ‘armloads’ of US cash buy tribal loyalty?

Inside a stately guesthouse on the grounds of Saddam Hussein’s palace in Tikrit on the banks of the Tigris, sheikh Sabah al-Hassani jokes that the initials “SH” of the former dictator etched on the walls are his.

“I have a weakness for Cuban cigars, French cologne, and Spanish-made loafers,” he says with a wide grin.

Since June, Mr. Hassani, who claims to be one of the princes of the legendary Shammar tribe, which numbers nearly 7 million across the Arab world, says he has received at least $100,000 in cash and numerous perks from the US military and the Iraqi government.

With his help, at least $1 million has also been distributed to other tribal sheikhs who have joined his Salahaddin Province “support council,” according to US officers. Together, they have assembled an armed force of about 3,000 tribesmen dubbed the “sahwa [awakening] folks.”

All of these enticements serve one goal: To rally Sunni tribes and their multitude of followers to support coalition forces.

The payments are a drop in the bucket given the billions spent annually in Iraq by the United States. And paying tribes to keep the peace is nothing new. It was one of Mr. Hussein’s tools in his selective patronage system designed to weaken and control all institutions outside his Baath party. The British also tried it when they ruled Iraq last century. [complete article]

Militant group is out of Baghdad, U.S. says

Soon, General Fil said, there will be fewer troops for the Iraqis to rely on. “Already we are at a point where we’ll see that as the surge forces depart the city, we’ll see a natural decline in numbers, and I’m very comfortable where that comes to,” he said.

With less than two months to go before his division heads home, General Fil offered a mixed vision of the military’s role for the coming year. He said that if 2007 was the year of security, 2008 would probably be “a year of reconstruction, a year of infrastructure repair, and a year of, if there’s going to be a surge, a year of the surge of the economy.” [complete article]

How Blackwater sniper fire felled 3 Iraqi guards

Last Feb. 7, a sniper employed by Blackwater USA, the private security company, opened fire from the roof of the Iraqi Justice Ministry. The bullet tore through the head of a 23-year-old guard for the state-funded Iraqi Media Network, who was standing on a balcony across an open traffic circle. Another guard rushed to his colleague’s side and was fatally shot in the neck. A third guard was found dead more than an hour later on the same balcony.

Eight people who responded to the shootings — including media network and Justice Ministry guards and an Iraqi army commander — and five network officials in the compound said none of the slain guards had fired on the Justice Ministry, where a U.S. diplomat was in a meeting. An Iraqi police report described the shootings as “an act of terrorism” and said Blackwater “caused the incident.” The media network concluded that the guards were killed “without any provocation.” [complete article]

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