Inter Press Network

Sunday, August 15, 2004

More surprises from Iraq

By Hasan Abu Nimah

Surprises continue to flow from Iraq, and there are no signs that we are close to the end of what seems to be an endless list. The man, Ahmed Chalabi, who “six months ago maintained the status of being the Bush administration's favoured leader in Iraq”, as The New York Times described him on Aug. 9, is now ordered arrested by an Iraqi judge for counterfeiting money.

His nephew, Salem Chalabi, who has also been the best American choice for heading the tribunal entrusted with the historic task of trying the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, has also been ordered arrested for a much more serious crime: involvement in the murder, last June, of the director general of the Iraqi finance ministry, Haitham Fadil.

The surprise is not that Ahmed Chalabi is accused of financial corruption and unlawful dealings. Long before he was picked up by the Washington neoconservatives as the figure who would lead the post-Saddam Iraq, he had been convicted in a Jordanian court (in 1991) for bank fraud and sentenced to 22 years in jail. This fact, of which the American authorities were constantly reminded, was totally ignored, obviously because the role which had been planned for him was much more important for Washington than respecting the requirements of Jordanian justice.

The “competence” of the nephew, on the other hand, was clearly exposed in the brief footage shown to the world when Saddam was brought to court before “judge” Chalabi to be informed of the charges upon which he would be tried. Probably very few people at the time thought judge Chalabi would be up to the task; but fewer people believed that the trial would be genuine anyway. That Salem Chalabi himself is now served with an arrest warrant by the same Iraqi law which he was assigned to serve is no surprise either. The real surprise is that since the toppling of the Saddam regime, one can hardly point to one successful decision the occupation authority has taken without being proven wrong later. Actually, the time mark should be pushed back a bit further, and it remains right to say that the Iraq war project has been only reaping failures and proving how disastrously this venture was planned and how badly the war party was advised.

It is generally believed now that much of the bad advice was offered by Ahmed Chalabi and the other stooges who were recruited by him but handsomely financed by American taxpayers' money to fabricate lies about Iraq's military capabilities, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Iraq's links with the terrorists, and the danger Iraq posed to its neighbours and the world.

It may, accordingly, be logical to assume that Washington started to distance itself from Chalabi for being misled by his and his operators' fabrications. Other reasons were added, as the months passed by, such as his dubious dealings with Iran or his pushing for disbanding the entire Iraqi army and the Baath Party (both actions which were deeply regretted by the occupation authority for proving seriously counterproductive).

Without disputing the validity of any of that, it is necessary, on the other hand, to highlight other much more significant factors relating to Chalabi's part in this extremely costly, politically, financially and in terms of human life loss, military adventure. More important than Chalabi's misinformation and fabricated lies, which Washington was pleased to hear even as lies, was Chalabi's promise to the Bush administration to abolish the Arab identity of Iraq, in line with the neoconservative thinking (David Wurmser in particular) that the seeds of “pan Arabism” in the Middle East should be eradicated. Wurmser's prescription for a trouble-free-for-Israel Middle East was to remove the two Baathist regimes from Iraq and Syria for being the two existing “dangerous” pan-Arab regimes. It is for this particular reason that one of the earliest decisions of the American governor of Iraq was to disband the Baath Party, and to ban Baathists from being part of the new administration, with or without Chalabi's prodding. This was the plan.

Chalabi promised to do in Iraq just what Wurmser planned once he was installed at the head of the post-Saddam administration. He also promised to sign a peace treaty and to normalise relations with Israel, including the opening of the pipeline which would transport oil from Kirkuk to Haifa.

President George W. Bush's promise that Iraq would become the model for other Middle Eastern countries was actually meant that Iraq would become a non-Arab country, with full normal relations with Israel; an Iraq totally disengaged from any Arab commitment to reverse the Israeli occupation of Palestinian and other Arab territories; an Iraq freed from any form of opposition to the Israeli expansionist plans in the Arab world. And for this particular reason, again, one of the occupation authority's earliest decisions was the disbanding of the Iraqi army.

The plan was that a neutral Iraq would not need more than a small security force, not an army, to deal only with internal security matters, and not to pose any threat, at any time, to Israel. Once that phase of the plan was successfully achieved in Iraq, the idea was to move to Syria to implement the same plan there by whatever means deemed necessary, and from Syria, the project would move for the same objective to Iran. That is the neocon plan for the “new Middle East” through Iraq.

It is actually the failure of Chalabi to make himself, or his ideas, acceptable to the Iraqi people that put an end to his role, and consequently, his usefulness.

It proved difficult for Chalabi, who left Iraq as a child more than five decades ago, to secure easy acceptability by the Iraqi people, particularly when his quest was not simply to be part of them but to be their leader, with no convincing credentials. The fact that he was to be imposed upon them by foreign occupiers made his mission all the more impossible.

The two disgraced Chalabis aside, it is time that the occupiers understand that planting incompetent and corrupt leaders, and planting foolish ideas, such as has been repeatedly tried in Palestine, and now in Iraq, will neither succeed nor will it lead but to disasters. It is precisely because of that that what is unfolding in Palestine and in Iraq is only violence, chaos and disasters.

First published on Aug 11, 2004 in the Jordan Times


World's Shiites Warn That U.S. Is Treading on Sensitive Ground

By Henry Chu and Teresa Watanabe
LA Times Staff Writers
August 12, 2004

BAGHDAD — With its twin minarets and glinting gold dome, the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf has been a beacon for the Muslim faithful for more than a thousand years. But with fighting raging around the Iraqi shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam is reprising a different historical role: rallying point against foreign forces.

In 1920, rebels intent on kicking out British troops occupying the region gathered at the mosque and readied for revolt. Among their leaders was Sayyid Mohammed Sadr — the scion of a prominent Shiite family and a future prime minister.

Eighty-four years later, cleric Muqtada Sadr, one of Sadr's descendants, wants the U.S. military out. All eyes are once again trained on the shrine, where a final showdown between Muqtada Sadr's militia and American troops may yet take place.

"Keep fighting even if you see me detained or martyred," Sadr said Wednesday to his armed followers, many of whom are holed up in the shrine. "I thank the dear fighters all over Iraq for what they have done to set back injustice."

With U.S. military officials saying they have received permission from Najaf's governor to strike the mosque if necessary, religious and political leaders from Iran to Los Angeles are voicing grave warnings that an American assault on the shrine could be catastrophic to the U.S. image in Iraq and the Muslim world.

"The United States is slaughtering the people of one of the holiest Islamic cities, and the Muslim world and the Iraqi nation will not stand by," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of neighboring Iran, said in an address on Iranian state television.

Three major American Muslim organizations also issued statements Wednesday calling for negotiations to end the conflict.

"Illegal under the Geneva Conventions, any fighting or destruction to the mosque would result in incalculable damage to the image and interests of the United States and would be widely condemned across the world," the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council said.

U.S. authorities, while repeatedly declaring that Sadr has made the mosque a legitimate military target, also have pledged to proceed with caution. "We have always respected that as a holy site," one senior U.S. military official said this week, on condition his name not be used.

Believed to have been erected in the 8th century and rebuilt at various times, the Imam Ali shrine is the heart of Najaf, each year attracting hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. The mosque sits in Najaf's Old City amid a dusty, raucous maze of shops and alleys.

Shiites revere the shrine as the burial place of Imam Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, and in their eyes, his legitimate successor. Ali, who was assassinated in 661 in the nearby town of Kufa, was said to have been buried in secret so his enemies could not desecrate his tomb, but the spot was discovered decades later and a shrine was built over it.

Religious tourism has been Najaf's lifeblood for centuries, and the mosque is a repository of riches: Precious gifts from sultans and potentates are housed there, and offering boxes are stuffed with currency from all over the world.

Abutting the mosque is a cemetery known as the Valley of Peace. One of the world's biggest graveyards, it is a treeless expanse dotted with gravestones and mausoleums containing the remains of millions who wanted to be interred close to Ali.

Though some Muslims are critical of Sadr for courting a military attack on the shrine, others say they are disturbed by news reports showing U.S. soldiers stepping on graves and destroying the photos of loved ones laid on top of the crypts.

Shiites "worldwide are shocked and outraged over what is going on in Najaf," said Imam Moustafa Al-Qazwini, a prominent Shiite leader in Southern California. "They consider it an assault on the sanctity of Islam and in particular Shia Islam. Any attack on that city will destroy America's future in Iraq completely. It will completely discredit America and make it the new tyrant in the eyes of Shias worldwide."

Several Shiite Muslims likened any attack on the mosque to bombing the Vatican, and predicted that it would spark retaliatory attacks on U.S. facilities in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Lebanon and other nations with significant Shiite populations. Parvez Shah of the Universal Muslim Assn. of America called for Iraqi forces to replace U.S. troops in Najaf to defuse growing tensions.

Although the governor of Najaf, Adnan Zurfi, reportedly gave U.S. troops permission to fire on the mosque if necessary, Al-Qazwini said that few Shiites regard his word as authoritative. They say he was chosen for the post by U.S. officials, not elected, only recently returning to Iraq after a decade in the Detroit area.

Early today, the Iraqi government issued a statement on behalf of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi assuring Iraqis "that the holy shrine will remain safe from all attacks that could possibly harm its sacredness." Allawi "is holding the armed elements inside the shrine responsible for any harm or damage that may occur."

In the eyes of most Shiites, Al-Qazwini said, only a leader with the standing of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani could issue permission to attack at the mosque. Sistani, who is based in Najaf, is in London, reportedly for medical treatment.

Over the last century, the mosque and nearby cemetery have been marred by numerous incidents of violence.

In the 1920s, the shrine was a center of unrest during the revolt against British rule, used by Sayyid Mohammed Sadr, the leader of a secret Shiite society, to rally thousands of fighters.

The insurrection failed, ending with heavy losses on both sides. After the fighting, Winston Churchill, then Britain's colonial secretary, said he was astonished at how the British had "succeeded in such a short time in alienating the whole country."

In the 1980s, men who wanted to avoid service in the Iran-Iraq war hid in some of the graveyard's underground crypts. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, President Saddam Hussein had part of the cemetery bulldozed following a failed Shiite uprising.

The bloodshed continued last year. In April, a young cleric was stabbed to death near the mosque's entrance — a slaying in which Muqtada Sadr is implicated, Iraqi officials say. Four months later, a car bomb killed nearly 100 people.

And this spring, there was widespread anger when outer parts of the shrine were damaged, apparently by mortar fire, in fighting between U.S. troops and Sadr's forces. The U.S. denied that it was responsible and suggested that Al Mahdi militiamen may have inflicted the damage to provoke outrage.

Now U.S. officials say Sadr's fighters are using the graveyard as a weapons storehouse. The fierce combat of the last week, some of it hand-to-hand, broke hundreds of tombstones in half. U.S. military officials said militants had punched openings in crypts to use as sniper holes and stashed weapons in coffins.

Although the cemetery is considered less sacred than the mosque, many Shiites are dismayed by the militarization of the final resting place.

"Imagine turning this Valley of Peace into a valley of destruction," Al-Qazwini said. "People are offended. They believe anyone taken to that cemetery will enjoy peace and tranquillity. They can't stand seeing Apaches and other military aircraft bombing the area and disturbing the graves.

"It's very outrageous and sad."


NAJAF: NO way back

As tension mounts around al-Sadr’s sanctuary, Iraqi journalists, Dhiya Rasan and Mohammed Fawzi make the dangerous journey through the strongholds of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army from Baghdad to Najaf

“The Office of the Martyr” – the headquarters of the Mahdi Army in the Shia neighbourhood of Sadr City in Baghdad – is closed. With US tanks sitting a few hundred metres up the street, a lone gunman wearing the green headband of the militia stands guard at its back door.

Outside, Mahdi Army militiamen dig holes in the pavement, plant explosives, and run the wires to nearby buildings in case US troops storm into this northeast Baghdad slum to break the militia’s hold over this district.

For over a week, Sadr City and other strongholds of the Sadrist movement have been up in arms in solidarity with its leader, the young Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, still holed up in the shrine of Imam Ali in the holy city of Najaf after the collapse of peace talks yesterday.

The heart of Najaf remains in the grip of the US marines who, backed by tanks and aircraft, seized it in a major assault last week. They have so far remained outside the shrine itself, a site sacred to millions of Shiites around the world, although planes and Apache helicopters have pounded militia positions in a cemetery near the Imam Ali Mosque, igniting protests in at least five other cities as an uprising that has killed hundreds across southern and central Iraq entered its second week.

Although the Mahdi army guard we meet in Sadr city says it is impossible to meet any Sadr representatives, he gives us the phone number of the army’s official spokesman, Abu Dhara al-Kinani. He confirms recent reports that al-Sadr was wounded by shrapnel in the latest fighting, and that across the Shia south local officials have vowed to disobey orders from the interim government of prime minister Iyad Allawi if fighting in the holy city did not stop.

“We want an immediate ceasefire in Najaf and the withdrawal of Americans from Najaf,” he says confidently.

In Baghdad’s Sadr City meanwhile, the sound of gunfire echoes through the streets – the Mahdi army mainly fires into the air to get the people’s attention and bring them outside to join protests.

A pick-up truck filled with militiamen cruises down the main highway, a mounted loudspeaker blaring a summons to Sadr City’s population.

“To all the faithful, come to a demonstration outside the Conference Centre.” – the downtown Baghdad office which serves as the seat of Allawi’s government – “Come peacefully.”

In the next few minutes, Sadr City residents emerge from the narrow streets, climbing aboard cars, minivans, and other vehicles, moving downtown.

They disembark some kilometres away, in Tahrir Square, just across the Tigris river from the centre. The crowds, now easily into their thousands, begin to move across the bridge.

“It’s a peaceful demonstration, we have no connection with police, army, or Americans,” announces one youth, with a name tag pinned to his chest identifying him as Mahdi army. He has no weapon.

Other Mahdi army militiamen have set up a makeshift checkpoint on the bridge, searching demonstrators to make sure that they too are unarmed.

The chant “Allahu Akbar”, God is great, swells from the crowd as they cross the bridge, marching in front of the main gateway to the Green Zone, the seat of the Americans in Baghdad.

From houses and shops on the other side, residents emerge bringing water to the thirsty marchers. The crowd comes to a halt outside the zone, with Mahdi army organisers linking hands to prevent any clashes with the American troops and Iraqi police standing guard.

From a vantage point on top of a nearby hospital, we can see the crowd stretching the entire two-kilometre route back to the bridge. Another avenue leading to northern Baghdad is also swollen with marchers.

A young police officer beams at the marchers, clearly moved by the display. “We’ve come here to protect them, not stop them,” he says. Word circulates in the crowd that the Muslim Scholars’ Board, a conservative Sunni organisation with links to Sunni insurgents, has issued a fatwa in solidarity with al-Sadr banning any Iraqi policeman or official from cooperating with the coalition and government forces.

“It’s a great step. Bless them,” says one of the demonstrators. As the time comes for noon prayers, and preparations are made, Sadrist sheikhs announce that the faithful should make the journey down to Najaf itself, to demonstrate at the gates of the holy city.

When prayers end, the marchers disperse, walking to a square on Baghdad’s outskirts where trucks are assembling to take them south.

That evening, the US military suspend operations in Najaf. Provincial governor Adnan al-Zurufi declares that he hopes negotiations will be a success, and that the Mahdi army will shortly leave .

Later al-Sadr himself, bandaged but clearly not seriously injured, is televised delivering a confrontational address to his followers outside the shrine. He tells them to continue fighting, and calls on Allawi’s interim government to resign, declaring it ‘‘worse than that of Saddam”.

Having decided to try to enter Najaf itself, we make the journey south, nerve wracking not least because we’re accompanied by an American reporter.

The road takes us through such citadels of Sunni radicalism as Mahmoudiya, Latifiya, and Iskandiriya, where foreigners have been attacked and even abducted. Rumours that police at checkpoints on the road might actually alert local insurgents to foreigners’ presence do little to reassure us.

As it turns out, the journey goes smoothly, with only one checkpoint – manned by the Iraqi National Guard – stopping our car.

After two hours, we come to the huge stele outside the ruins of Babylon, which once bore Saddam Hussein’s portrait, but now depicts the Imams Ali and Hussein, indicating that we have left the mixed Sunni-Shia communities south of Baghdad, and entered the almost exclusively Shia south.

Local drivers tell us that the road to Najaf is blocked, so we decide to take a detour via Najaf’s sister city of Kufa, al-Sadr family’s home, only 10km away. Neither Americans, police, National Guard, nor Mahdi army stop us as we drive over the bridge and into Kufa.

In front of the mosque, in which Moqtada usually addresses his followers, police direct traffic as a militiaman, a canvas bag with eyeholes over his head to hide his identify, keeps watch.

Other militiamen stride confidently outside the shrine, heavily laden with ammunition for rocket launchers.

As we enter the shrine to try to speak to a Sadrist spokesman we are escorted by a young black-turbaned cleric into an office at the back of the mosque, and asked to wait outside.

From inside, however, we hear a more senior official angrily refusing to speak to us.

“Didn’t I tell you that nobody should enter here? Get him out right now. We do not talk to journalists here.”

The young cleric explains that if we want an interview we must go to the Sadrist office in Najaf itself. He claims the road is open – he has just sent five other journalists up there.

We take the dusty backroads through Najaf’s industrial and residential suburbs and stop a passer-by, who directs us to a hospital where, he says, the Mahdi army can be found.

Then he adds, “Are you Sadrists? If not, I’ll kill you.” It’s difficult to tell whether he is joking or not.

We meet a group of men outside the hospital, who claim to be Sadrists and who tell us to follow their car, they’ll take us into the centre of the city

But we decide not to follow. For all we know, these men could be a criminal gang, luring us into an ambush to take our car or kidnap the American with us. We drive on. In an empty street a few hundred metres from where locals told us the Americans and Iraqi National Guard had set up a roadblock, we pause to consider what to do next. We consider the wisdom of going further on foot.

Within moments, shots ring out. It’s impossible to tell from where.

“Get back to the car,” our driver shouts. He has just seen a police car cruise up the street, and gunmen hiding in the alleyways open fire upon it.

We speed off, parking by some shops. As we weigh up our options, a white-turbaned cleric emerges. His name, he says, is Sheikh Ahmed Ibrahim – a junior cleric in al-Sadr’s organisation.

“I accuse the Iraqi police of escalating the situation,” he says. “They don’t serve the people. They serve the government which belongs to the Americans.

“Police abroad, in Europe or America, would not shoot demonstrators or opponents of the regime. They fire in the air to frighten the people, here they kill the demonstrators.”

Driving on, we encounter, a convoy of Iraqi National Guardsmen which comes tearing around a corner, firing in the air. We watch as they pile out of their vehicles outside a factory. Some take cover behind heaps of earth, while the others storm inside.

As the shooting continues, we take shelter in the courtyard of a house owned by an elderly shopkeeper. He asks us only to identify him as Abu Jaafar, lest the Mahdi army take revenge on him for what he says. The Mahdi army has used the factory as an ambush position, he tells us, although the militiamen have probably departed.

He has no problems with the guardsmen, he says – they never shoot at civilians. But for the Mahdi army, who had occupied his town and forced him to shut his store, he has nothing but scorn.

“Outsiders and outlaws,” he says, echoing the belief – expressed by many in Najaf – that the Sadrists are primarily troublemakers from Baghdad and the south, who have turned Najaf into a battle zone and destroyed the religious tourism on which it had survived.

While we are in Najaf, US Marines are tightened their grip on the city blocking entry to the Imam Ali Mosque. Some 2000 US servicemen and 1800 Iraq security men are deployed around the perimeter and centre.

In the southeastern city of Kut, at least 72 people are killed in US air raids and fighting between Iraqi police and the Mehdi army.

In Najaf, militiamen respond to the American assault with rocket-propelled grenades and mortar bombs, firing at times from inside the mosque’s walls. Many civilians flee the city centre, some escaping on carts pulled by donkeys.

US forces say they have killed 360 al-Sadr loyalists so far in Najaf. Al-Sadr’s spokesmen say far fewer have died, in what is the second rebellion by the militia in four months.

A Reuters photographer reports seeing dozens of dead militiamen in houses in Najaf. He says the bodies have been taken from the battle zone and covered in ice to preserve them before burial. It’s unclear when they died.

After the collapse of talks yesterday and the interim government’s decision to resume military operations, the next few days will be crucial. From Baghdad to Basra, Kufa to Kerbala, thousands of Shiites are taking to the streets in support of al-Sadr and his Mahdi army.

“The morale of our fighters is very high,” says Ahmed al-Shibani, a senior Sadr spokesman in Najaf. That is the last thing Washington wants to hear.

Dhiya Rasan and Mohammed Fawzi work for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) London
Posted on 15 August 2004