Inter Press Network

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The City Of Defiance

By Donald Macintyre in Najaf

They came from across Iraq, marching in solidarity with Shia brothers. Civilians ­ they bear no arms, for the moment anyway ­ who are willing die on the steps of the Imam Ali shrine. Thehuman shields have arrived in Najaf.

Hundreds have come to what is one of the most holy Shia sites on solidarity marches in recent days. Many more have made their way in smaller groups from nearby towns and neighbourhoods. More than 2,000 have now pledged their allegiance to the Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr and are based in the compound at the shrine.

Sheikh Ahmed Shaibani, a Sadr spokesman, said the presence of the civilians was intended to deter American forces. By simply turning up, they have maximised the loss of human life that could result from any attempt to storm the holy sites, a course already fraught with danger because of the outrage that serious physical damage to the shrine would provoke across Iraq and well beyond. The human shield supporters also appear ready to take up arms left by insurgents killed or wounded in the fighting.

Battles continued yesterday as insurgents used their extensive local knowledge of the huge Wadi al-Salam cemetery, a section of which remains within the area under the control of Sadr's Mehdi Army's to play what one US officer called a "cat and mouse game" with US forces.

Insurgents inside the shrine in alleyways and on rooftops with AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades sporadically fired at US troops in the cemetery.

The fighting, which has killed at least two US soldiers since the collapse of peace talks on Saturday, overshadowed and divided the Iraqi National Conference yesterday on the second day of its Baghdad session to elect a new interim national assembly.

A delegation from the conference was to arrive here in hope of persuading Sadr to disband his Mehdi Army and turn it into a political party. Sheikh Ahmed Shaibani, a Sadr spokesman, warned that the issue of disarming the militia could only be solved by "negotiations and not a unilateral decision".

His response came as Najaf police followed up earlier threats by arresting one journalist, Ahmed al-Saleh, who is working with al-Arabiya TV network and firing warning shots at the Sea of Najaf hotel, where nearly all foreign and Arab journalists are staying. Their strategy appeared to be a continued harassment campaign against journalists.

A police lieutenant arrived at the hotel at 6.30pm in a convoy of two Toyota Land Cruisers from the local police station. He demanded to know the whereabouts of correspondents from al-Arabiya and the Reuters and AP news agencies.

As journalists protested, the lieutenant said above the hubbub: "We are going to open fire on this hotel. We are going to smash it up. I will kill you all. You did this all to yourselves." In a threat that did not immediately appear to have been carried out, he said four snipers would be positioned on the roof of the police station to fire at any journalists who left the hotel.

His visit was the fourth by police in just over 24 hours and followed a threat earlier in the day by the chief of Najaf police, Ghaleb al-Jazaari, that he would arrest the correspondent from al-Arabiya. But the police chief, who on Sunday ordered all journalists to leave Najaf, added that reporters were free to stay at the hotel at their own risk. "We are not responsible [for you]" he added."

Scuffling broke out as a hotel employee angrily remonstrated with the policemen saying "Are you Iraqis? You are police but you have no right to do this." The police then drove off, stopping 300 metres down the road and fired warning shots in the direction of the hotel.

Later, Mr al-Jazaari sounded a more conciliatory note when he summoned reporters and promised them: "You are not under any kind of threat. We respect your job." He said the order to leave the city was "still technically valid"' but that he had told the Ministry of the Interior that it was not "practical to have a city without any media''. He said that the original order had been issued because the ministry were perturbed that media organisations were giving succour to Sadr's militia.

Meanwhile, the conflict reignited in the main Baghdad battleground of Sadr City where insurgents attacked an American tank, setting it on fire. The crew were rescued and evacuated with minor wounds, according to a spokesman for the US 1st Cavalry Division. While witnesses were reported as saying the tank was hit by a Mehdi Army rocket-propelled grenade, US forces said the insurgents had planted a roadside bomb.

The proposal for a delegation to Najaf was put forward by a distant relative ­ and opponent ­ of Sadr, the Baghdad cleric Sheikh Hussein al-Sadr, who told the conference "There are inviolable conditions in civilised countries, particularly that there is no place for armed militias.

But Falah Hassan Shanshal of the Shia Political Council, a grouping of Shia politicians, said the proposal was all "smoke and mirrors".

First published in the Independent,UK on 17 August,2004


Iraq 4 - Portugal 2; Sadr 1 - United States 0"

By Rannie Amiri

The hearts of millions of Iraqis the world over were in two entirely different places Thursday night. One was Pampeloponnisiako Stadium in Patras, Greece and the other was Najaf al-Ashraf in Iraq. A more schizophrenic state-of-mind would have been hard to come by that day.

Jubilation coupled with joyful disbelief greeted Iraqis following the spectacular 4-2 upset victory of their soccer team over heavily favored Portugal in the first round of Olympic play (which made their own-goal quite less embarrassing). While much commentary involved reminding people of the sadistic punishments Udai Hussain once meted out on Iraqi athletes, the Iraqi fans were just happy to finally have something for which to cheer rather than protest. And nothing evokes national pride and celebration more than the triumph of one's underdog soccer team.

In another dimension, yet probably within earshot of many watching the match, was the siege of Najaf launched by American marines and a contingent of Iraqi "forces." Their objective was to oust the embattled Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army from the Imam Ali Mosque/Shrine and the adjacent massive Wadi as-Salaam cemetery. Nearly all of the so-called military/terrorism/Middle East experts seen on the cable news shows were claiming Sadr was firing on American troops from the mosque itself. They spoke with an air of self-assurance no less, as if the significance of the Imam Ali Mosque, the beliefs of Muqtada al-Sadr, and the complex history and plight of Iraq's Shi'a were always known to them (despite still mispronouncing the name of the country).

A quiet, polite, soft-spoken Iraqi cleric fluent in English representing the Sadr camp was interviewed on CNN. The validity of his claim that no one was firing from the mosque notwithstanding, the manner in which he was interviewed and rudely interrupted was most insulting and degrading. One had the feeling that the hosts of these shows wanted to ask their "experts" what would be wrong with just dropping a bomb on the shrine compound and be done with the whole affair?

Various clashes occurred in multiple cities in the south including Basra, Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah and Amarah, but there were no credible reports on the loss of life which occurred during the siege of Najaf. In a mighty show of force, U.S. marines were shown ransacking Sadr's empty home, making it much easier to film I suppose. There were accounts that Sadr himself was injured in the overnight fighting, suffering shrapnel wounds to his chest and leg. Iraqi government officials, no where near the fighting, somehow felt confident enough to deny these claims.

Remarkably by morning, all was quiet in Najaf. At the time of this writing, a temporary truce between the parties was in place and talks underway between Sadr aides and the government.

So, in summary for August 12:

The military offensive stopped, the Imam Ali shrine was not raided, Sadr survived and his popularity enhanced among some Iraqis, less so among others. The Iraqi Olympic Soccer team earned a great victory over Portugal, the United States reinforced its image as an occupying power with Allawi as its puppet, and the Mahdi Army lived to fight another day. It may have been Muqtada al-Sadr who earned a Purple Heart, but it was Najaf that bled.

[Rannie Amiri is an independent observer, commentator, and exponent of issues dealing with the Arab and Islamic worlds.]
Rannie Amiri encourages your comments:

Printed in on Friday,August 13,2004

Iraqi officers threaten reporters

By Stephen Farrell

Iraqi police have threatened to kill every journalist working in the holy city of Najaf, where US forces are locked in a tense stand-off with Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army.

After a series of veiled warnings to leave on Sunday, two marked police cars pulled up at dusk outside the Sea of Najaf hotel on the outskirts of town, where Arab and Western journalists are staying.

Ten uniformed policemen walked into the hotel and demanded that the al-Arabiya, Reuters and AP correspondents go with them.

Journalists told them they were not there, but the policemen found and arrested Ahmed al-Salahih, the al-Arabiya correspondent, who the day before had been given a special exemption from the earlier eviction orders.

A uniformed lieutenant then told the assembled journalists and hotel staff: "We are going to open fire on this hotel. I'm going to smash it all, kill you all, and I'm going to put four snipers to target anybody who goes out of the hotel. You have brought it upon yourselves."

After pushing and shoving in the foyer, another policeman pointed his gun towards a member of the staff, but was disarmed by an Arab television journalist.

The police left, taking the al-Arabiya correspondent with them, drove 300m and fired warning shots.

The attempt to drive journalists from Najaf came as US marines - supported by the nascent Iraqi army - step up the pressure on Sadr, whose forces remain in control of Najaf's old city and sacred shrine to Imam Ali.

The Government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is acutely sensitive to the maelstrom that would erupt if the shrine were to be damaged, and the media crackdown may be an attempt to limit the negative publicity should it be hit during any military operation.

After US marine commanders last week issued a hawkish threat "to finish this fight that the Moqtada militia started", Mr Allawi moved swiftly to defuse alarm even among his own senior government officials, reassuring Iraqis: "The holy shrine will remain safe from all attacks that could possibly harm its sacredness."

Any military operation will be hampered by the fact that Sadr's hundreds of fighters inside the old city and cemetery have grown by about 2000, swelled by volunteers who marched through US lines at the weekend to act as human shields. Yesterday they paraded around the marble white-tiled courtyard inside the golden-domed mosque, effectively turning it into a giant stadium for rallies to the renegade Shia cleric.

All were unarmed but insisted they would pick up the guns of any Mehdi fighters killed in renewed clashes.

In the streets outside the shrine, terrified Iraqis hid inside their homes, with intermittent fire between the US tanks and Mehdi Army guerillas, who have planted huge booby traps on almost every street. Few ordinary Najafis will now stray beyond their doorsteps.

- From The Times of August 18,2004
The Australian


US lawyers seek Australian abuse reports

By Marian Wilkinson
United States Correspondent

American lawyers acting for some of the accused Abu Ghraib prison guards are trying to get access to documents written by Australian military lawyer Major George O'Kane about abuse complaints by the Red Cross.

The documents were written by Major O'Kane while he was working at coalition headquarters in Baghdad.

Major O'Kane's numerous reports to his Australian commanders about his dealings with the International Committee of the Red Cross between November and January are one of the few clear paper trails that have emerged in the Abu Ghraib scandal, despite weeks of US Senate hearings.

"We're very interested in this Australian officer," said Gary Myers, a lawyer representing military police officer Sergeant Ivan Frederick, who is facing a court martial for his role in the abuses at Abu Ghraib. "We have already asked for the relevant documents in a discovery request," he told The Age.

Major O'Kane worked in the legal office of General Ricardo Sanchez, the head of the US-led coalition forces in Iraq, when the Red Cross made detailed complaints about abuses at Abu Ghraib and another Iraq detention centre, Camp Cropper.

Those complaints went to the head of the legal office, US Colonel Marc Warren, more than two months before photographs of the abuses were uncovered.

Most of the American military police who have been charged over the abuses depicted in the photographs claim they were instructed by US military intelligence officers at the prison to "loosen up" detainees for interrogation.

Evidence at the Australian Senate hearings in Canberra on Monday confirm that two working papers from the Red Cross, spelling out its abuse concerns, were given to Major O'Kane at coalition headquarters in Baghdad in November.

As a result, Major O'Kane visited Abu Ghraib to discuss the allegations with US military police and military intelligence officers on December 4.

But until Monday's Senate hearings, Major O'Kane's activities had not surfaced anywhere in the US media or during lengthy testimony before the US Senate Armed Services Committee, which has been investigating the scandal.

General Sanchez told the Armed Services Committee on May 19 that he was not aware until February that the Red Cross working papers had been sent to his coalition headquarters in November. His top legal officer, Colonel Warren, told the committee that the Red Cross reports came into the office "in a haphazard manner".

However, evidence from Australian military officers in Canberra on Monday suggest that Major O'Kane handled the complaints systematically.

In a draft response to the Red Cross, Major O'Kane acknowledged receiving two working papers from the organisation on their visits to the two jails on November 12. Those visits turned up evidence of violations of the Geneva Convention.

US military legal expert Professor Scott Silliman said the draft letter responding to the Red Cross, while drawn up by Major O'Kane, appeared to be cleared by more senior legal officers, possibly even back in the Pentagon in Washington because of its careful wording on applying the Geneva Convention to detainees at Abu Ghraib.

• The army has opened investigations into at least 91 cases of possible misconduct by US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, a total not previously reported and one that points to a broader range of wrongful behaviour than defence officials have acknowledged.

The figure, provided by a senior army official, includes the mistreatment of dozens of Iraqis in US custody outside detention centres and as many as 18 instances of US soldiers in Iraq allegedly stealing money, jewellery or other property.

-with Washington Post.

First published on June 2,2004 in The Age of Australia


Can we allow this conspicuous silence to continue?

Excerpts from Ayatollah Sayyed Muhammad Hussain Fadlallah's Friday prayer khutba on August 13, 2004:

In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful

. . . Iraq is once again drowning in a river of blood in the wake of the US bombing. The US forces used sophisticated aircraft and attacked civilians with artillery and missiles and bombed those who refuse the occupation, which hides behind the official Iraqi cover. Attacks are being directed against the holiest place in Iraq; namely, holy al-Najaf, which houses the tomb of Imam Ali (AS0 and the 1,000 years old Wadi al-Salam Cemetery where the faithful are buried. They are attacking the Islamic seminary, which is over 1,000-year old, under the pretext of imposing law.

We do not support anarchy in this holy city, which the believers visit from various parts of the world. We do not support lawlessness in dealing with the city's conditions. However, we must study the background of these events, which led to the current difficult complications, and the controversial US provocations in several security situations. Is the current phase in Iraq at present appropriate for resorting to violence by the interim government? Has this government enough power to impose its will - a power that is not an Iraqi power but an international power under US leadership? The Iraqi people consider these forces an extension of the occupation even if they are covered by a flimsy sovereignty? Why did this government not learn a lesson from the tyrant regime, which bombed Al-Najaf and attacked the tomb of Imam Ali (AS) without respecting its sanctity? Does this government want to be the latest to bomb the holy places but by US hands this time?

How were the occupation forces given the right to bomb any place in the holy city, wittingly or wittingly leading to attacks against the holy tomb? Muslims in the world have moved against the Jewish threats to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, why should they not rise up now against the US and official Iraqi threats to the tomb of Imam Ali (AS)? The Iraqi people consider this official license to bomb Al-Najaf and its sacred places a result of US pressure to confront the current that rejects occupation - pressure which is aimed at promoting the chances of the current president in the forthcoming US elections. The issue is not that of dealing with an illegal development by force but is a threat to all the free and independent voices so that all the people will submit to the occupiers and the Iraqi voters would be forced to elect the figures that are submitting to the occupation.

We want holy al-Najaf to be the city of peace. Based on our legal Islamic position and responsibility, we issue a fatwa banning any cooperation by any means with all those who are committing the crimes of violating the sanctities of this holy city. We call on all organizations to move and stop this bloodshed because the neutral position was interpreted by a US officer to The Washington Post as 'a green light for us to do what we have to do' as he put it. The newspaper commented by saying that the official explanation is demonstrated by the smile of the US military commander. Can we allow this conspicuous silence to continue? . . .