An Iraqi army soldier poses for a picture with his weapon during a mission in Mahmudiyah, Iraq, March 30, 2008. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Richard Del Vecchio) (www.army.mil)
The deadline for the exit of all U.S. combat troops from Iraq is set for the end of the year. Sporadic and devastating violence continues. Last month saw more than 350 violent incidents and has seen the deaths of many more than 100,000 civilians since 2003. In Baghdad on Wednesday there were three attacks: a suicide bombing, a bomb under a car, and an assassination. From The Guardian:
Maliki said on Wednesday night that Iraq now had an army, one that was capable and able to “respond to any threat”. “It doesn’t mean it is going to be easy. But we are going to train, we are going to work. And we will protect Iraq.”
The next few months will be a crossroads for Iraq. The nation faces both near and long-term challenges to its stability. There are weak political institutions and a weaker economy, constitutional ambiguity, lingering sectarian tensions and persistent security threats. America Abroad zeros in on a couple of pieces of the complex puzzle that is Iraq today. Listen to Iraq, the Next Act.
A suicide bomber targeting Iraqi army recruits blew himself up in Bagdhad killing 61 and wounding at least 125 people. This attack comes on the heels of another suicide attack on July 18th targeting a government-backed Sunni militia, killing 39 and wounding 41. Iraqi citizens are concerned that a new wave of insurgent attacks may target ordinary citizens and are wondering if the Iraqi security forces are up to the challenge.
All but 50,000 Americans will leave the country by September 1st leaving the majority of security challenges to the Iraqis themselves. As the US forces change the nature of US engagement in Iraq from combat counter-insurgency operations to stability operations, the remaining force will focus on training, not fighting.
In an event hosted by the Center for a New American Security, Michael Corbin, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq, and Dr. Colin Kahl, Deputy Assistent Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, discussed the roles the State and Defense Departments will play in the following months.
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The Iraqi Electricity Minister resigned Tuesday amid protests by Iraqi citizens demanding more hours of electricity and fewer power outages. Demonstrations in Basra turned violent as security forces opened fire and two people were killed. In Nassiriya, fourteen police were wounded as citizens took to the streets to protest the inability of the government to provide basic services, most notably electricity. Nationwide, electricity is limited to a few hours a day as the hot summer months of Iraq can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. From USA Today:
“Prison is more comfortable than our homes,” signs carried by angry demonstrators said. A coffin on the roof of a van had the word Al-kahraba (electricity) written on it.
Iraqi citizens claim their government has mismanaged the oil industry and wonder aloud why a country with the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves can’t fuel power plants. They complain that seven years after the fall of Saddam, the government is still unable to provide reliable electricity. This issue is seen as more potentially destabilizing than the continued car bombs and suicide attacks.
Adding to their frustration, there is no clear party of power, and providing basic essentials, like electricity are necessary for a stable country. A shortage of electricity impedes progress at all levels in Iraq. Listen to an excerpt from America Abroad‘s Exiting Iraq on the challenges of providing electricity to power the Iraqi economy and promote stability in the country.
Listen to the entire segment >
As I look out from the balcony of my hotel room, I can’t help but see the swimming pool down below as a metaphor for much of Baghdad and Iraq. Right now, the pool is empty and coated with a heavy dusting of sand and dirt, the grass around the pool half dead. The buildings and kids play areas rundown and long past their prime.
At the same time, it’s easy to see what it once was and could be. Sitting on the west bank of the Tigris, the pool and grounds could easily be a lush and luxurious oasis on a hot summer day. And, it really wouldn’t take much money or work to restore the pool to full glory, but it probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
For that matter, you should see my hotel room. I’m sure it hasn’t been updated since the hotel opened – which I’m guessing was in the 70s when it was probably a top-notch establishment. Certainly the bathroom tile screams 1975, and the peeling wallpaper looks about 35 years old. None of the cabinets or drawers close properly, you can see the raw ceiling through the various vents and cracks in the interior ceiling. Oh, and then there’s the fact that the door was kicked in at some point, and they simply glued the wood back together rather than replacing it.
And that’s what things feel like in general in this country. It’s easy to see the signs of past and potential future glory. The infrastructure is basically there. Roads, bridges, buildings, parks, monuments, museums… it’s all there – it’s just all dirty, chipped, rutted, neglected, or cordoned off behind massive slabs of T-Wall.
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April 7, 201
Rain is supposed to be cleansing and rejuvenating, and in a way it is in Kirkuk. Here the rain returns the sand, dust, and smoke residue hovering in the air back to the ground. The rust-colored drops match the color of the exposed ground and fade into the soil until it’s thirst is quenched and pools begin to grow. But the drops stain everything else they touch – cars, buildings, and people. Each muddy drop is a potent reminder of all the particulate matter – natural and man made – that’s hovering in the air in Iraq.
And the mud here on FOB Warrior is tenacious. Like a tacky bread dough, it sticks to your shoes. It clumps up under your feet making it difficult to walk, and then as you step forward, it flies up off your shoes and clings to your pant cuffs. By the time you get to where you’re going, your shoes and ankles are caked in muck.
Yet, people here hope that the rain means the years of drought are finally giving way to an era of agricultural rejuvenation that can help put people back to work and bring down the price of food in a country struggling to rebuild itself physically, emotionally, and economically. But, it will take much more than steady rain to wash away all of the problems and challenges confronting this nation.
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April 5, 2010
It turns out this morning’s incoming round was a 57mm IRL as it’s called – which is basically a small homemade rocket that can travel about 5 km. It landed inside the base, but away from anyone or anything and caused no damage beyond a small crater (which I have yet to see myself).
So, the morning’s mission with second platoon, Bravo Battery of the 2-3FA went off as planned – although a few minutes behind schedule as the battery had a promotion ceremony this morning for seven soldiers, followed by a drug test.
After that was dispensed with, the soldiers loaded up and hit the road to visit Lt. Colonel Mohamed of the 1-1 Peshmerga Battalion out in the hinterland east of Kirkuk City. As FOB Warrior is located inside the city, in order to get to the hinterlands, the convoy has to travel through the city, which can be the most dangerous part of any mission as there are still insurgents planting IED’s and launching, or in some cases throwing, explosives at convoys. According to people here, there has been an uptick in these small-scale incidents, and they don’t make the news because they pale in comparison to the car bombs that kill dozens in Baghdad.
Fortunately, the drive through the city was uneventful, and the hour-long ride out to the Peshmerga outpost passed quietly – I actually slept through the ride since I was in the back of an MRAP with zero visibility, so there was no reason to stay awake.
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April 2, 2010
Shortly after a typically stellar military dining hall breakfast (insert sarcasm emoticon here), I link up with the Alpha Company of the 1-30 Infantry Battalion to join on a patrol with the “Combined Security Force.” The US stood up the CSF’s in January. The goal is to improve security in the disputed areas that border the Arab and Kurdish regions of Iraq, and to also help promote integration and reconciliation among Iraq’s various populations.
The CSF consists of Iraqi Army troops, Iraqi Police (equivalent to US National Guard), and Peshmerga (the Kurdish military), all partnered with US forces under the command of Captain Nick Loudon. The CSF brings together Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Sunni, Shi’a (I don’t know if there are any Christians in the CSF).
There are a number of CSF units spread along the disputed territories of Kirkuk, Ninewa, Diyala, and Tamim provinces. They have generated plenty of opposition and controversy – largely from Arab and Turkmen groups who fear the CSF units legitimize the presence of Kurdish troops in areas they claim are being “colonized” by Kurds seeking to expand the footprint of Kurdistan.
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Iraq is a stable Middle Eastern democracy, facing sectarian conflict head on and building a new political culture based on rule of law and international cooperation – at least that’s the picture Iraqi Prime Minster Nuri Al-Maliki presented in a speech at the United States Institute for Peace earlier today.
Taking a break from meetings with President Obama and other high level U.S. officials, Maliki said “national reconciliation would not have been possible without good cooperation between United States and Iraqi forces.”
He went on to say:
“This is an attempt for the Sunnis and Shia to live in harmony. The national reconciliation really laid the foundation of harmony for the Iraqi people.”
Those foundations will be tested in the January 2010 Iraqi presidential elections. A United States Institute for Peace report found that only 50% of the Iraqi population turned out for the February 2009 provincial elections – a reality that has Iraqi political parties becoming increasingly aware of the need for stronger organization and coalition-building to make the most of every vote.
The report also found that “Maliki has emerged as the dominant force in Iraqi politics. The prime minister has become the ‘point of reference:’ all Iraqi political factions and leaders can be understood by their stance toward him.”
Maliki said “elections will be based on a national platform with nationalist tendencies – not on racist or sectarian grounds.”
Maliki went on to criticize “political corruption and regional and international interference in Iraqi affairs” including “others who implement agendas.” Although he declined to elaborate on who might be interfering in Iraqi affairs, Maliki noted “all countries have various components, ethnicities and religious sects. We feel these components have not yet reached the level that we have with the constitution and democracy in Iraq.”
Some critics claim that Maliki – who initially was an unknown candidate from a fragmented political party – has grown too strong. Responding to reports of abuse and a failure of rule of law within Iraqi prisons, Maliki said:
“There will be a prison within any city where there will be violations of the law or against the people. What would be a source of concern is if one sectarian or ethnic group was being targeted….we have sympathy with the families of victims and not those who are committing crimes.”
Maliki said he was surprised at U.S. media reports questioning whether U.S. troops are allowed to defend themselves in Iraq and added “there is cooperation at all levels. If any problem arises, it does not mean there is something wrong with the [Status of Forces] agreement.”
“Today the security relationship between the U.S. and Iraq is a relationship based on cooperation and all of the requirements in the [Status of Forces] agreement. If Iraqi forces need further training and further support we will look at those needs at that time.”