April 18, 2009

Independent Iraqi politics, 2006

Reading Blair Unbound, Anthony Seldon's political biography of Blair since 2001, I've been struck by how forcefully it confirms the view much of the outside world had of Number 10 in that time. Namely, that everything was driven by personalities rather than policies, with Blair rarely hearing -- let alone listening to -- the outside world.

Naturally I've been paying particularly close attention to the treatment of the Iraq war. This was the first political event I was deeply involved in, and re-viewing it as history provides a chance to see what I interpreted correctly and falsely at the time. Generally, the lesson is I was most likely to be right when I was at my most cynical.

A good example of this is the casual way in which Blair and Bush controlled Iraqi politicians -- including elected politicians, whose democratic selection was one of the last remaining justifications for their war.

So, when Nouri al-Maliki's selection as Iraqi Prime Minster in early 2006, replacing Ibrahim Jaafari, most reports treated it as a decision made by Iraqis. Relatively few journalists discussed it as a selection determined by the Americans. I did, correctly cynical for once, mainly because I had been paying attention to Helena Cobban:

The US and British governments...have been using the power of their countries' military position inside Iraq to try to subvert the results of the December election by pursuing a determined campaign against the nomination of Ibrahim Jaafari as Prime Minister.

Now it is safely in the past, Seldon is free to show that the cynics had it right:

[Blair] became convinced that al-Jaafari should, in the interests of Iraq's future, step down. But how? Al-Jaafari did not want to relinquish office, and so the full weight of the Bush administration would be required to shift his view....Blair told Bush that he had asked Straw to go to Baghdad to 'bang heads together' and suggested that Rice join him....Straw and Rice were unable to dislodge al-Jaafari during their visit, but, in making clear that they spoke with the full authority of their bosses, they made their point. Sawers and the NSC's Megan O'Sullivan remained behind to maintain the pressure. Blair kept in close contact with them, and on 20 April, al-Jaafari eventually stepped down.

November 18, 2007


The Islamic Republic [of Iran] has repeatedly blamed the violence in Iraq on the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003.

Um...and this is a controversial position how, exactly. Is anybody suggesting militias would be killing thousands if Saddam were still in power OK, OK, I admit secret police disappearances, torture, etc. count as violence. Still, a strange way of phrasing things...

May 3, 2007

International Compact for Iraq

In Sharm el-Sheikh, Ban Ki-moon and a gaggle of presidents finally launched the International Compact for Iraq today, supposedy gathering billions of dollars in aid for Iraq. [1] They're probably eviscerating their webmaster right

[1] They claim $30bn, but most of that is debt relief (i.e. it is only worth a fraction of the face value)

December 12, 2006

I hope this article is the result of "Iraqi officials" messing with the New York Times:

After discussions with the Bush administration, several of Iraq’s major political parties are in talks to form a coalition whose aim is to break the powerful influence of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr within the government, senior Iraqi officials say.

The US wanting to form a new coalition - I can live with that. The idealist in me says that Iraqi politics should happen without international meddling, but I realise that isn't going to happen. Openly making it a specifically anti-Sadr coalition, though? That's just going to needlessly piss off Sadr and his followers. Worse, openly making it an American-backed anti-Sadr coalition. No way that'll energise the Shiite militias, is there?

December 8, 2006

moderate hat-eating

Hmm...I may have been a little hasty with that last post - the Israel reference in the ISG report has actually gone down quite well in many places. Here's Jordanian daily al Ghad

The report showed a deep understanding of the Middle East when it drew the link between regional conflicts. It was clear in its reference to the impact of the failure to solve the Palestinian issue on the situation in Iraq

[NB: I don't read Arabic: these iraq posts are beng put together with Google translate, Mark Lynch's bookmarks, this Iraqi blog, and whatever other snippets I can find]

Don't mention the intifada

The Baker report's brief mention of Israel didn't get so much attention in the West, but it got much more in the Arab world.

Talking about linking Israel into a solution in Iraq might have sounded like a good, open-minded approach from an American perspective. But it is never going to look good in Arab eyes, because any American position on Israel and Palestine will always be an thousand miles away from anything popular with Arabs. So Al-quds al-arabi complains (English)

The report focused on the need to find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It criticized the American administration, which has neglected this issue in the last few years. However, it did not provide acceptable solutions taking Arab and Palestinian interests into account. It did not touch on Israeli terrorist practices and the silence of the American administration.

What the report said was about as innocuous as a US government statement on Israel could get:

The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability. There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts: Lebanon, Syria, and President Bush’s June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. This commitment must include direct talks with, by, and between Israel, Lebanon, Palestinians (those who accept Israel’s right to exist), and Syria.

The problem is that the Iraq Study Group has its tactics all wrong: Iraqis and Americans will never agree over Israel, and talking about it only causes trouble. The best solution is to take the same approach as with Iran's nuclear program: keep the issues separate, try to negotiate on each problem separately. If the US follows the ISG recommendations and talks about Israel and Iraq in the same breath, they're hobbling themselves, making it politically much more difficult for any Iraqi groups to negotiate.

Also, note that Dar al hayat (English) has a much more neutral comment that the report "calls for action on the Arab-Israeli conflict andt he establishment of the Palestinian state".

Some less negative Arab press reactions to the report here and here. And bear in mind that Israel is slightly less all-consuming within Iraq than it is for the pan-Arab media - although it is still an immensely emotive topic.

December 7, 2006

Blind governors

One of the breathtaking nuggets in the Iraq Study Group report is the following:

"All of our efforts in Iraq, military and civilian, are handicapped by Americans' lack of language and cultural understanding. Our embassy of 1,000 has 33 Arabic speakers, just six of whom are at the level of fluency."

How did that happen? One explanation is bureaucratic closed-mindedness:

The pathetic language skills at the embassy are as I understand it largely a side-effect of the security clearance process. Anyone who has spent time in an Arabic speaking country outside the framework of military or diplomatic service is generically excluded, leaving only those trained stateside at DLI and similar institutions, whose pedagogical techniques are basically back in the 60s.

This isn't unique to the Baghdad embassy; the FBI, coincidentally, also has only 33 Arabists of its own - and again, one reason cited is that "it is easier to get a security clearance if you don't have any interaction with foreigners".

I can only hope that competent linguists are hired to work on a contract basis - because the idea of America's Iraq policy being run almost entirely by people who can't communicate with Iraqis is frightening.

[another IAG crosspost]

Health in Iraq

I realise I shouldn't obsess over numbers, but whenever I stop reading Iraq news for a few weeks, it's the numbers that bring home the scale of things, and how much worse they're getting.

The annual budget for Iraq's health ministry is $1.1 billion, according to this article, compared to just $22 million in 2002 - not to mention the sanctions back then. Yet infant mortality has risen over that time (130 deaths per thousand now, compared to 125 then). Meanwhile 7,000 doctors have left the country, at least 455 medical staff (including hospital guards) have been killed, and entire lorries of medical equipment are vanishing.

I'm not sure where all those figures are coming from (is that $22 million figure plausible?), but before the war I'd hoped this was an area that would improve just through Americans throwing money at it. Obviously I was wrong.

Also, up to 1.6 million internally displaced Iraqis (425,000 of them fleeing home since February), and about as many again living outside Iraq - so say UNHCR.

[cross-posted from IAG]

December 1, 2006


UN agencies might not be known for their elegant prose, but when things are this bad the plain facts are more compelling than journalists' waffle:

Iraq is haemorrhaging. The humanitarian crisis which the international community had feared in 2003 is now unfolding. The massive displacement has emerged quietly and without fanfare but the numbers affected are in excess of what many agencies had predicted in 2003. Since the February 2006 Samarra bombings UNHCR, as Cluster Coordinator for displaced groups inside Iraq, estimates some 425,000 Iraqis to have been recently displaced. In addition, some two to three thousand Iraqis are leaving per day via neighbouring countries as the extent of the tragedy becomes obvious. UNHCR estimates that there are at least 1.6 million Iraqis internally displaced with at least another 1.6 – 1.8 million(4) in neighbouring states.

[UNHCR, via Reliefweb]

October 18, 2006

Civil war? What Civil war?

From Anthony Cordesman's latest paper, via Abu Aardvark, a chart of violence in Iraq:

Spot the Askariyya mosque bombing.

October 14, 2006

Interesting take on the Lancet figures from Marginal Revolution:

A very high deaths total, taken alone, suggests (but does not prove) that the Iraqis were ready to start killing each other in great numbers the minute Saddam went away. The stronger that propensity, the less contingent it was upon the U.S. invasion, and the more likely it would have happened anyway, sooner or later. In that scenario the war greatly accelerated deaths. But short of giving Iraq an eternal dictator, that genie was already in the bottle. If the deaths are low at first but rising over time, it is more likely that a peaceful transition might have been possible, either through better postwar planning or by leaving Saddam in power and letting Iraqi events take some other course. That could make Bush policies look worse, not better. Tim Lambert, in one post, hints that the rate of change of deaths is an important variable but he does not develop this idea.

October 11, 2006

More big numbers in Iraq

Update: The report is now available online

How credible is the study about to appear in the Lancet, estimating 655,000 excess deaths in Iraq as a result of the war?

All this is based on the media coverage I've seen (Wall Street Journal, WaPo, NYT). I haven't seen the report, so I can't say it is trustworthy. All we can say for now is that it is consistent with other figures, and using an appropriate methodology. First, the plausibility. Yes, 600,000 is a very big number. It is about 2.5% of the population of Iraq. But remember that this isn't anywhere close to saying that 600,000 people were directly killed by American soldiers. It is just that the overall death rate has increased massively - that might include inadequate healthcare or nutrition, more traffic accidents, whatever. It certainly includes the violent crime, which we know there is a huge amount of. Granted, it is at the high end of the scale, and I'll want to look at the methodology in detail before I say that I believe it. This is not inconsistent with other accounts. In particular, it isn't disproved by the fact that Iraq Body Count, give a much lower death toll, between 43,850 and 48,693 deaths. It's because they are counting different things. Iraq Body Count simply totals up the civilians reported in the media as having been killed. By their own admission this is will always be an undercount:

We have always recognised and made explicit that our media-derived database cannot be a complete record of civilians killed in violence, and have called forproperly supported counts since the beginning of our own project. What IBC continues to provide is an irrefutable baseline of certain and undeniable deaths based on the solidity of our sources and the conservativeness of our methodology.

The figures are higher than the death counts based on bodies in morgues. These generally relate only to violent deaths (narrower than this study), and count about 100 a day. Juan Cole doesn't find this discrepancy too large to deal with:

First of all, Iraqi Muslims don't believe in embalming or open casket funerals days later. They believe that the body should be buried by sunset the day of death, in a plain wooden box. So there is no reason to expect them to take the body to the morgue. Although there are benefits to registering with the government for a death certificate, there are also disadvantages. Many families who have had someone killed believe that the government or the Americans were involved, and will have wanted to avoid drawing further attention to themselves by filling out state forms and giving their address. Personally, I believe very large numbers of Iraqi families quietly bury their dead without telling the government of all people anything about it. Another large number of those killed is dumped in the Tigris river by their killers. A fisherman on the Tigris looking for lunch recently caught the corpse of a woman. The only remarkable thing about it is that he let it be known to the newspapers. I'm sure the Tigris fishermen throw back unwanted corpses every day.

I'm not entirely convinced by Juan Cole's line of argument here, simply because people generally were able to produce death certificates:

When people reported deaths, researchers asked them about the cause and obtained death certificates in 92 percent of cases (Baltimore Sun)

And at the Washington Monthly blog, Kevin Drum adds:

This time around, the figures from their new study buttress the previous one, and also match up with other data, which suggests their methodology is on target.

How reliable is their methodology? Not perfect, but better than anything else available. As far as I can see, the methodology is the same as what they used back in 2004 - see a collection of defences of it here. Probably the biggest criticism of the 2004 report was the small sample size. But now, as Rubicon says:

For statistical purposes, the sample size is very large, much larger (for example) than typical national voter polls in the US, which sample about 1,000 to 1,200 individual respondents. If we presume 4 persons per Iraqi household, the sample size is over 7,000 persons—in a country one-twelfth the population of the US. The data-gathering and estimation techniques are quite reliable; according to one of the lead researchers, Gilbert Burnham of Johns Hopkins, "This is a standard methodology that the U.S. government and others have encouraged groups to use in developing countries."

One likely methodological problem is 'recall bias' - that is, the possibility people will have forgotten deaths that happened in the past. This would decrease the figures for pre-war mortality compared to post-war mortality, and so give an inflated count of excess deaths. The issue was raised with the 2004 study, and the longer timescale of the latest report makes it an even bigger issue.

Note: I am updating and amending this entry as I find out more about the study. I haven't yet made up my mind on how much I believe it - and in any case, I still haven't seen the report.

Blogs defending the study: Amptoons, mahablog, Barista, Deltoid (not much yet, but likely will have more in time)

Blogs arguing against it (only the ones I think have halfway-decent arguments): Jay Reding. No doubt there are more decent arguments against this, but I've not been bumping into them much.

October 8, 2006

Eep! The US is beginning a 'major operation' in Kirkuk. Not the kind of place you want Americans blindly wading in.

In Kirkuk, a volatile mixed city in the north, Iraqi and U.S.-led forces launched a major security operation, dubbed "the key to peace," to root out members of al-Qaeda and other Sunni Arab insurgent groups. Authorities imposed a 6 p.m. curfew and announced the detention of 155 suspected insurgents. (Washington Post)

I hope they know what they're doing; in particular I'd be worrying about the background of the Iraqi troops, the demographics of who they're arresting, and generally how much they're shaking things up :(

October 6, 2006

Revolution-proof fence

Two scary things about the Saudi plan to building a 550-mile fence to shut out Iraq:

  1. It'll take 5-6 years for them to complete. They reckon things will be bad for a long time
  2. The cost is some £13bn. I know this is a country rolling in money, but still: that's an awful lot to pay just to keep Iraq's rebels from getting out.

Now, maybe I'm overreacting. Building protection along a border is normal, and normally expensive. It's only the Telegraph spin linking this so directly to Iraq. But still, it does suggest that the Saudis are working on an assumption that Iraq is going to end up in civil war within the next few years.

Did the postmen give up?

Looking through Brookings Iraq Index for something else entirely, I came across this baffling table. The amount of post sent each year in Iraq:

Year Tons of mail
2001 148 tons sent (231 received)
2003 37 tons sent
2004 43 tons sent
2005 54 tons sent

Huh? Use of the postal system is a third of what it was under Saddam? Why on earth would that be the case?

Granted, dodgy statistics are the most likely culprit - the figures are sourced to an article in the New York Times, and its quite likely that the Baath figure is dodgy for some reason or other. Odder still: somehow the Times writer interprets the figures as "evidence of recovery".

Still, it'd be nice to think there's some mystery in those numbers, waiting to be uncovered.

Lara Logan, journalist with a brain

Parties, and not the government, rule Iraq now

One line that tells you more than most articles, out of an excellent piece of journalism by Lara Logan. It's also a perfect example of how compelling human interest journalism can be, when it's done on the basis of a lot of facts, not just telling the story of the first native you meet.

Lara has framed what seem like two of the most important issues in Iraq. The first is the role of parties, mentioned above. The other is this picture of befuddled GIs surrounded by two conflicts they don't understand:

...American soldiers are bearing the burden of a failed strategy and being forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs, suddenly caught in the midst of two distinct wars: a counter-insurgency and a rapidly escalating sectarian conflict. And their partners in the counter-insurgency war are participating in the sectarian conflict they're being asked to stop.

I'd not heard of Lara Logan before, but from here on in I'm reading everything she writes.

October 4, 2006

A well-regulated militia?

[crossposted to IAG]

A while back the New York Times and the BBC cheerfully reported that 25 Sunni tribes in Anbar had decided to support the Iraqi government in attacking insurgents.

Am I too cynical in thinking that the crucial sentence is this one:

In addition to the government’s blessing, Mr. Rishawi said, the tribes also wanted weapons and equipment to confront the Qaeda-backed insurgents.

Asking for weapons from the government isn't a sign of loyalty - it's about getting yourself the equipment to defend yourself against anybody - government, American, jihadi, whatever - who attacks you.

Every Iraqi grouping with an ounce of sense wants to keep itself heavily armed at the moment - and if the kit comes with a vague government permission to use it, so much the better.This isn't any different from the militias that were incorporated into the various security forces, or the employment of tribes to guard oil pipelines.

Or am I being too cynical?

Al Qaeda: "prolonging the war is in our interest"

This post deserves propagation. Abu Aardvark points out the key sentence in the letter to Zarqawi from al-Qaeda's central command: "prolonging the war is in our interest". As he explains, this makes perfect sense: the jihadis are unpopular in Iraq, and they would have no chance at all were the country not under foreign occupation. But while we are in the country, they can use their fight against us to build international support. Yes, that's been obvious for a long time, but it's something else to have it confirmed from the horse's mouth. Full letter, others captured in the same batch here

July 3, 2006

strains of social discord

A good fortnight after everybody else, I've finally read through the khalilzad telegram, which makes me realise what a chaotic Mad Max world it is out there in Iraq. Not that I've ever seen Mad Max, but the stereotypes fit.

Sunni parliamentary boycott in Iraq, to protest a Sunni politician being kidnapped. I don't much care for boycotts as a tactic, and tend to underestimate their power when used right. This doesn't seem to be using them right - the kidnappers will no doubt be overjoyed to have indirectly harmed both the Iraqi parliament and Sunni interests in the country. Juan Cole adds:

The announcement is a huge blow to the Maliki government, which had prided itself on presiding over a government of national unity that included the Sunni Arabs. The Iraqi Accord Front has 44 deputies in the 275-member parliament.

July 1, 2006

keep on missing, and you'll be fine

Nouri al-Maliki's planned amnesty is apparently running on a principle of 'only for the incompetent:

"The fighter who did not kill anyone will be included in the amnesty, but the fighter who killed someone will not be,"

June 27, 2006

don't need no education

The New York Times has an upbeat story about education in Iraq, claiming that between 2002 and 2005 primary school enrolment rose 7.4%, and middle/high school enrolment by 27%.

So, a cautious cheer. But the article claims that "direct attacks on schools have been relatively rare". I don't see how that can be true when the Ministry of Education reports 417 attacks on schools since November.

I'm sure I've also seen reports that, while school enrolment may be up, attendance is noticeably down, as frightened parents keep their children at home.

June 24, 2006

Formica report

More details emerge about what American interrogators have been doing to jailed Iraqis. The New York Times has some details:

One prisoner was fed only bread and water for 17 days. Other detainees were locked up for as many as seven days in cells so small they could neither stand up nor lie down, while interrogators played loud music that disrupted their sleep.

What I find most depressing is what the report finds acceptable:

three detainees were held in cells four feet high , four feet deep, and 20 inches wide, except to go to the bathroom, to be washed or to be interrogated. He concluded that two days in such confinement "would be reasonable; five to seven days would not."

I've spent a few minutes looking unsuccessfully for the text of the report - I suspect it will be linked here in due course.

Yes, you should talk to terrrorists

How do you expect to manage negotiations if you won't talk to the people attacking you?

This is a perfect case of pride, thoughtlessness and ill-considered patriotism making peace harder to achieve.

The Senate's debate over the war in Iraq turned highly emotional this afternoon, as the lawmakers reacted to reports of the killing of two American soldiers by adopting two measures opposing amnesty for Iraqis who attack United States troops. By a vote of 79 to 19, the Senate voted to declare that it objects to any such amnesty. By 64 to 34, the lawmakers voted to commend the new Iraqi government for not granting amnesty.

Also, does nobody (*) think it might be worth encouraging the Iraqi government to make decisions on its own, without undermining it even further by making it look like an American puppet

  • OK, apparently Senator John W Warner does think this. Yay for him!

June 16, 2006

Ramadi besieged

Dahr Jamail claimed that a major Coalition assault on Ramadi is beginning:

the US military has been assaulting the city for months with tactics like cutting water, electricity and medical aid, imposing curfews, and attacking by means of snipers and random air strikes. This time, Iraqis there are right to fear the worst - an all out attack on the city, similar to what was done to nearby Fallujah.

It looks as though he's right. Granted, there has been almost no mention of this in the British press. The US military have given the kind of semi-denial which all but confirms something is happening. According to a Pentagon spokesman discussions of large-scle offensive "may be somewhere off the mark" - but when George Bush himself has spoken of an offensive in Ramadi, "off the mark" likely means little more that that there will be more focus on putting Iraqi rather than American troops in the front line. The Americans, with 1500 troops recently brought from Kuwait to Anbar, will simply be "helping them do that with our own military forces and our forces that operate as embedded trainers and in other ways".

However it is spun, the offensive has already dramatically affected Ramadi for the worse. By one rport some 300,000 Ramadi residents have fled their homes this past week. And we're seeing use of the same tactics which were widely condemned when they were used in Fallujah, Tal Afar and elsewhere.

The city is now virtually cut off, with Al-Jazeera reporting that the roads are blocked, and ."a giant wall of sand has been piled up around the perimiter"

As we have documented in previous campaigns water and electricity supplies have been cut off, possibly as part of an illegal US tactic of denying essential amenities to besieged cities. One report talks of "outages in the water, electricity and phone networks". Dahr Jamail has been told that "Ramadi has been deprived of water, electricity, telephones and all services for about two months now", and former governer of Anbar province has said that:

"The situation is catastrophic. No services, no electricity, no water"

So, all in all it seems we're going back through the same mistakes and crimes seen in a half-dozen previous cases.

June 5, 2006


Back last week, I started writing a post about Basra. I forgot about it, and so now I'm returning to a half-congealed mess and trying to squeeze it into shape without covering myself in filth.

Continue reading "Basra" »

May 31, 2006

Enduring bases, and Iraq after troop withdrawals

I can't follow the mass of speculation on the timetable for leaving Iraq, and I don't think anybody else can either. On the one hand we see continuing large-scale coalition involvement, such as the largest air assault since 2003 and the move of 3500 US troops back into Iraq. On the other hand, Nuri al-Maliki is talking about getting troops out of Iraq by the end of this year.

But that doesn't matter so much. The real question is what 'withdrawal' means. It doesn't mean abandoning political control of Iraq - that's something I'll write about more in a couple of days. But even militarily, it's unlikely that all foreign troops will leave the country. More likely, the Americans will retreat further into a few small strongholds, retain bases to enhance their regional power. They will keep some control over the Iraqi military with 'trainers' and 'advisers', and by ensuring that air power and other heavy equipment is kept for the Americans only.

People have been writing about this for some time now. The Iraq Analysis Group has collected some of the more prominent, and Sarah Meyer of GlobalResearch has collated many relevant news reports.

Below the cut, I delve into the 'enduring bases' theory, and swerve dangerously close to conspiracy theories. Please, please take this as me collecting my thoughts, and not as a prediction of what will happen....

Continue reading "Enduring bases, and Iraq after troop withdrawals" »

May 30, 2006


Another brain-dump that's mainly for my own benefit. So once again it's going behind a cut.

Continue reading "Kirkuk" »

May 28, 2006

Police in Iraq

Below the cut is a braindump on what's going on with police forces in Iraq at the moment, and in particular why they are getting such heavy media coverage right now. I've not quite got my head around it, so it's a splurge more than anything coherent.

[not cross-posted to IAG until I can make more sense of it all]

Continue reading "Police in Iraq" »

May 23, 2006

The Washington Post tries to be snarky about Bush's language:

Bush has declared turning points and milestones in the war before. He called it "an important milestone" when a temporary governing council was formed in July 2003 and "a turning point" when sovereignty was turned over to the interim government in June 2004. Elections in January 2005, he said, were both "a turning point in the history of Iraq" and "a milestone in the advance of freedom." He called it a "milestone" in October when Iraqi voters approved a constitution and "a major milestone" two months later when they elected a parliament -- a moment he also termed "a turning point in the history of Iraq, the history of the Middle East and the history of freedom." The selection of a prime minister last month was "an important milestone toward our victory in Iraq" and, a week later, "a turning point for the Iraqi citizens."

The thing is, these really are milestones; they're some of the biggest dots you'd put on a timeline of Iraq. So

Bush 1 -- 0 WaPo

In more important news, I've just discovered Spurl, and started using it to keep track of articles on Iraq. I'm feeling pretty upbeat about my chances of using it to make a lot more sense out of what's going on in the country these days. But, as always, time will tell...

May 9, 2006

Channel 4 does Iraq

Channel 4 yesterday had two documentaries on Iraq - both with good aspects, but both quite seriously flawed.

The first was devoted to Dispatches: women in Iraq. It's quite poorly edited and planned for a mainstream documentary like Dispatches, the same footage keeps on cropping up multiple times, and there are some dubious-sounding statistics. Despite that, it's good to see footage of Iraq from beyond the usual 'violence and high politics' perspective, and having programmes made by Iraqis rather than Brits is a Good Thing.

Then a couple of hours later we had John Snow in "the real Iraq", talking about why documentaries like that one are made by Iraqis - or rather, about how impossible it is for Western journalists to get enough access to interact with the real Iraq. He's right, and it's a useful thing to drum on about. But it all falls down because his perspective is not "why the world can't know about Iraq" but "why Jon Snow can't know about Iraq".

It doesn't do the rest of us any harm at all to be forced to rely on Iraqi journalists and bloggers, and to ignore Western reporters for anything except high politics.

He did at least make a very good point about the lack of nuanced understanding of Iraqi current affairs, in what could almost be a mission statement for the Iraq Analysis Group:

"What we have in iraq as a result of bloggers, fledgling journalists, new media of all sorts, is a kind of scattergun effect - we have a a little bit of knowledge about different bits and pieces. What there is very little of, partly because there is so little western media here, is any real analysis or interpretation of events that we can relate to"

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.

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]

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.