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April 30, 2006

We like silly statistics

The US government thinksIraq accounts for 55% of people killed by terrorism last year. This is the kind of skewed statistic you get when you define everybody attacking the US as a terrorist, when you'd call them soldiers or guerillas if they were fighting anyone else.

[needless to say I'm shooting from the hip here; I've not actually read the report and I guess it's not impossible that their methodology makes sense somehow]

Talking the talk

Iraq president says deal with some rebels possible (Reuters). Talking is good, but I'm not too optimistic about the chances. As context, read this excellent report from the International Crisis Group, on the nature and tactics of the insurgency. They conclude that:

Despite recurring contrary reports, there is little sign of willingness by any significant insurgent element to join the political process or negotiate with the U.S. While covert talks cannot be excluded, the publicly accessible discourse remains uniformly and relentlessly hostile to the occupation and its “collaborators”.

The problem is the insurgents can't negotiate, because they don't have a program. Three of the four biggest groups are held together by papering over the differences between their nationalist and their salafi support bases. If they were to start seriously negotiating, they would need to decide on policy positions, and in the process would risk breaking themselves apart.

So my guess is that the Iraqi government has been having some vague negotiations with some members of insurgent groups - but those people won't be in a position to make any commitments. The best we can hope for out of these talks is a better understandign of the insurgency, and developing lines of communication which will doubtless be of some use later.

April 24, 2006

Jawad al-Maliki

The main news from Iraq this weekend was that Jawad al-Maliki is now Prime Minister of Iraq, following the US-UK campaign to keep Jaafari out of the job.

You won't learn much from the papers, where journalists are having a visibly hard time filling up their biographies of Maliki. Here they are anyway: Guardian, AP, New York Times, Times. Slightly better is Juan Cole 's dump of old news articles referring to Maliki's work on the constitution and elsewhere.

But Helena is about the only person putting the appointment into context. She has followed it through from the nomination of Jaafari by the UIA back in february (a surprise choice, the pundits were expecting Abdul-Aiz al-Hakim to be Prime Minister), to what she identified as a campaign by Britain and the States to block Jaafari's appointment.

With that background, Maliki looks like a face-saving candidate, keeping power within Jaafari's Daawa party while removing the man himself. Nothing wrong with a compromise choice, of course, but remember that Jaafari will still be the power behind the throne. I just looked at my notes on Iraqi politicians, and the entry for Maliki said one thing only one thing: "close to Ibrahim al-Jaafari".

As for actual policies, there isn't any difference between him and Jaafari. The US ambassador describes him as "tough-minded" and "strong", which sounds ominous in terms of democracy. The best that the Iraqi Islamic party has to say is that he is "more practical" than Jaafari. Because he's an unknown they don't have much to throw at him, but what there is doesn't look good. In particular, it can't be long until Maliki's opponents bring up his role in the debaathification program, which has angered many by turning into a de-Sunnification program.

That said, this isn't a bad compromise, and the chance that Iraq will finally form a government is a Very Good Thing.

Gold farmers roundup

Gold farming in MMORPGs is a trendy topic, so there are countless superficial articles about it. This is a partial attempt to sift out the drivel, and summarise the real information. I doubt I'll do this regularly, but maybe I'll try to revisit it now and again.

PhD Student Ge Jin has filmed several Chinese sweatshops. It's been discussed everywhere, most interestingly at Terra Nova

PC Gamer has refused to carry ads from real-world traders like IGE:

"PC Gamer's official stance on these types of companies is that they are despicable: Not only do they brazenly break many MMOs' End-User License Agreements (EULA), but they all too often ruin legitimate players' fun. As a company, we have agreed to turn down what literally amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual ad revenue so that you, as a reader, can game easy knowing that we've got your back."

In Gamestudy there is an interview with a Korean gold farmer, translated from a Korean gaming magazine. Interesting points: the confirmation that "hacking tools tuned for a specific game make it possible to handle incredibly many accounts/characters per worker", and the discussion of how Korean shops are mostly priced out of the market. I'm not surprised; comments elsewhere have claimed that gold farmers are even being priced out of Beijing, so how they could survive in a city as expensive as Seoul is beyond me. He also says that almost all sweatshop characters are automated. I wonder how true this is beyond Lineage; presumably the mechanics of each game will determine whether it's worth a real person running a character.

Meanwhile, games have been cracking down on the gold farmers in public: RuneScape have adjusted their game mechanics to reduce one common way for farmers to profit. They also claim that "Over the last few weeks we have banned literally hundreds of accounts a day for macroing at the rune essence mine". Earlier Blizzard too banned or suspended some 15,000 players for "participating in activities that violate the game's Terms of Use, including using third-party programs to farm gold and items."

April 16, 2006

Coalition pressures Iraq to adopt detention without trial?

Reading this article, I find myself desperately struggling to find an innocent explanation - and failing. The gist is that the US can't hand over control of prisons to Iraqis, because the Iraqi government has too much respect for human rights.

The commander of U.S. prison operations, which include Abu Ghraib and three other sites, said he could not predict when the Iraqi government will match U.S. standards of care for detainees and pass laws allowing it to hold people without trial -- key conditions for handing over detainees, numbering 14,700 today.

The US authorities believe that they, unlike Iraqis, do have the right to waive due process:

while the United States points to a United Nations Security Council Resolution allowing it to detain people without charge as suspected guerrillas, the Iraqi government would need to pass its own legislation to do that

I'm not sure where they think this legal authorization comes from. All I can see is that Resolution 1511

authorizes a multinational force under unified command to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq

Resolution 1546

Decides that the multinational force shall have the authority to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq

If that's all there is, this is as legally dubious as it is morally dubious - but quite possibly I've missed something elsewhere. Anybody want to see what information Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have collected on this?

I won't go into the ethical and political dimensions to why this is bad; no doubt anyone reading this post will already be convinced that giving people a trial before jailing them is a Good Thing.

[Cross-post from the Iraq Analysis Group blog]

Technical woes

As Francis has helpfully pointed out, large chunks of this blog are defunct - including comments, individual entries, and all the archives. I've not worked out why yet, but bear with me and eventually things will be back to their usual semi-functionality.

UPDATE: I'm still not sure what was causing this, but I've turned off dynamic publishing and now things are mostly working. if you find things still broken.


April 11, 2006

Meeting the Yezidis

One positive byproduct of the war in Iraq has been the increased contact between outsiders and some of the smaller cultural groups in Iraq. I'm thinking particularly about the Yezidis, a religious group in North Iraq. Frequently misunderstood - even seen as devil-worshippers - they have been the objects of prejudice within their own country, and confusion outside it.

Then suddenly in the past few years a steady stream of outsiders have made their way to the Yezidi villages near Mosul and Dohuk. Most recently there is Michael Totten's report, written in February. Before that Michael Yon did something similar. And back in April 2005, Jacob Appelbaum wrote his own two-part account of the Yezidis, with many pictures he's taken.

All three have written touching and human portraits of the Yezidis, as well as collecting ever more accurate information about their beliefs and lifestyles. They certainly compare favourably to this account of them written back in 1941, and even to the photographs from the same time, recently shown at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

April 5, 2006

Iraq's death toll in historical perspective

[warning: the following is fairly macabre]

I'm trying to get my head round the death toll in Iraq. I don't know what the latest estimates are (some past ones are collected here, but it's clear that we're well over the 100,000 that the Lancet guessed back in October 2004. Compare that to this collection of 20th century death tolls , and you'll see Iraq is in the running as a serious catastrophe on historical scales. It's caused more than these wars and atrocities (e.g. the Boxer rebellion), and is comihng close to some of these (e.g. the Lebanese Civil War). Worse, it feels like we're only getting started.

Displacement in Iraq

[cross-posted to the IAG blog]

Since the bombing of the Samarra mosque, nearly 1000 Iraqis have been forced to flee their homes every day. I've just added a report from the IOM, which sources these figures, and gives an (incomplete, but still interesting) breakdown by region and cause of migration.

As Rachel wrote recently, this is part of a change over the past few months, which has deeply affected the country in all kinds of ways.

People are refusing to carry their identity cards: the cards give their names and hence hint at their creed, and have been used by gangs to choose victims for execution. 30% of children are absent from school, largely because parents are too frightened of the violence to let them leave home, but also because schools are becoming ever more divided on religious lines.

I don't think we yet have a good understanding of what's going on here - but much of the information is available, just waiting to be pulled together. Some questions I'd like to see answered:

  • How regionally-limited is this? Examining the figures in the IOM report above would tell us something
  • How much public support is there for the militias among different communities? We might be able to find this out from opinion polls
  • Who is conducting the executions, and why? Analysts with more of a military background than IAG have already devoted a lot of effort to answering this question
  • Can we blame this all on the bombing of the mosque in Samarra, or did that event just exacerbate a trend that already existed?

And then there's the money question that nobody has an answer to:

  • How can the violence be stopped?

April 3, 2006

Blogs with content

I'd like to point you all towards a few blogs with real content, written by people who know what they're talking about. I'm biased about all three: I'm a contributor to the first (and member of the group running it), I was taught by the author of the second, and the driving force behind the third is a close friend who I spent a year sharing a house with. Despite that, they're all great!

First, the Iraq Analysis Group have just launched their new blog. This is one of the most awesome groups of people I've ever worked with. They've been campaigning and thinking about Iraq since the 1990s, first as the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq, and then as this group after sanctions were lifted. They (OK, we) have accumulated a large collection of resources to learn about Iraq. It isn't yet comprehensive, but it's probably the best listing of it's kind on the web. I strongly recommend this site: of the project I've been involved in, this is one of the few that I believe in 100%, and I'm continually impressed by all the people involved.

Then there's sarasvatam cakshuh, a blog about Sanskrit written by Somadevah Vasudeva. The focus is on primary texts, so this probably won't be your thing unless you read Sanskrit. That that doesn't stop me squeeing about it, I'm afraid. There's a good amount of snarkiness aimed at people who write about Sanskrit based on translations and small selections of original texts. Totally justified snarkiness: Somadevah is one of the few who has read immense amounts of Sanskrit literature. Some of it he's committed to memory, and the rest is stored on his Mac, with copious annotations and some weird geek-fu that lets him instantly find any reference. Reading this blog makes me very aware of how little I know, but it also spurs me on to look at more Sanskrit texts.

Finally, another blog on the borderline between research and campaigning. This one is from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which has been pluggin away at its issue for some 30 years, has kept going through thick and thin, and has a great body of expertise on the basty bits of British foreign policy and corporate nastiness. As with anything focussed on content rather than memes, this might be heavy going if you don't care about the issues.