Thursday, July 13, 2006

Forward Together?

There are two horrific stories in today's (Al-Zaman) the first which can be found here [Arabic text] says that the militias who conducted what is best described as a pogrom on July 9th in Baghdad's Jihad neighbourhood knew who they were looking for. Here's what Juan Cole has to say about the same story.

"Shiite militamen who undertook the killings had with them long lists of ex-Baathists who had held office under the old regime but had been purged by the Debaathification Committee. The Debaathification Committee has been dominated by Ahmad Chalabi, and much of the documentation for its work was turned over to Chalabi by Donald Rumsfeld's Department of Defense. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki also played a central role in the Debaathification Committee."

For more on Chalabi see the Sunday Herald:
Unveiled: the thugs Bush wants in place of Saddam
'I examined my notes of the interviews I conducted with 82 Iraqi opposition leaders, and began identifying those on my list whose thinking resembles Saddam's. To my horror, I decided 75 of the people I interviewed were men who would kill to achieve their goal.' One can only wonder whether Washington has come to the same conclusion, or indeed really cares."

also see this Sourcewatch profile
Go read the whole posting on "Informed Comment," Cole entirely correctly discusses the role of the Debaathification Committee and explains its connection both to Ahmed Chalabi and Nour al-Maliki but I think that Cole is missing the significance of some very important points towards the end of the story.

The first is that according to the witnesses quoted in the story the killers were young, relatively well armed, well dressed, and not particularly choosy about who they killed - if they couldn't find the person they were looking for from their list they just killed somebody else in their place. The second though is a bit more telling. According to al-Zaman they co-ordinated their actions using walkie-talkies and radios, NOT, mobile 'phones and that they were observed using these apparently to "screen" people whom they had captured, the implication of the story being that they were asking for and getting orders about who to kill. That doesn't sound like any of the various groups loosely associated with Muqata al-Sadr's movement to me, and it certainly doesn't sound like his Mahdi Militia.

The membership of the Mahdi militia are young, true, but they're also impoverished and have to buy their weapons and other equipment out of their own pockets - even allowing for a certain amount of racketeering and "protection" money they just don't have the cash to equip themselves with sophisticated comms equipment. 'Nor is it likely that such equipment was "borrowed" from, for example the Ministry of Health, (which is under Sadrite control) because to the best of my knowledge and belief they don't have a plethora of such equipment either. Furthermore involvement by the Mahdi militia in such a pogrom would put the kybosh on al-Sadr's efforts to reach out to Sunnis. It's far more likely that this pogrom is associated with much more avowedly sectarian elements within the green zone government, some have suggested Badr brigade involvement which is far more intuitively plausible.

A Very Rough Guide to Baghdad: Baghdad has somewhere between 5½ and 6 million inhabitants. It is divided by the Tigris into two main areas:
  1. The left bank of the river is called Al Rassafa.
  2. The right bank is called Al Karkh.
Al-Rassafa is older and the population is mainly middle to low income. It's a very highly commercial area.

Al-Karkh is generally less heavily commercialised than Al Rassafa, the exception is Al Mansour which is an important commercial area and has a number of ministeries. The population in Al Karkh is generally middle to high income particularly in Al-Mansour.

A very rough guide to Baghdad Districts by Sect:
  • Adhamiya: majority sunni
  • Baghdad Al-jadida: mixed
  • Dora: mixed becoming mostly Sunni
  • Hurrya city: mixed
  • Kadhimya: shiite majority
  • Karrada: mixed
  • Mansour (Al-Mansour): mixed (many secular Al- Mansour is prosperous.)
  • Sadr City: majority shi'ite

The second story can be found here [Arabic text] it describes how residents in Amiriyah, Al-Dura (Dora), Ghazaliyah, Khadra, Jihad, and Sayyidiyah which are largely Sunni districts in Western baghdad have formed vigilante associations to keep deathsquads out. Cole has picked up on this article too but his posting is short, and some context is needed here's what he has to say:

"Al-Zaman/ DPA say that Sunni Arabs in the West Baghdad districts of Amiriyah, Khadra, Jihad, Ghazaliyah, Sayyidiyah and Al-Dura (Dora) have formed emergency neighborhood patrols for fear that Shiite militias from nearby Shiite-dominated districts to the east will make further raids into their areas. Muezzins or callers to prayer in the Sunni mosques of the Khadra district used amplifiers to call for volunteers, and dozens of young men responded by taking up arms. They especially hastened to do so after armed militiamen attacked the Muluki Mosque in al-Amiriyah District near Karkh late on Wednesday. They set up concrete blocks as barriers barring entry to the Khadra District. As soon as the callers to prayer broadcast the attack on the Muluki Mosque, shopkeepers and merchants in the commercial district closed their establishments.

This narrative of innocent Sunni Arabs policing their neighborhoods from predatory Shiite attacks on mosques obscures those other processes that PM al-Maliki described, whereby the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement is trying to take over these districts politically and extend its sway to Karkh [see: sidebox - mfi]. In a civil war, disentangling offense and defense is no easy task."

I don't agree with Juan that this is a case of a narrative being obscured. In a sense there's nothing particularly new about this development. Vigilante groups in Baghdad's middle-class and upper-class suburbs first sprang up in as a defense against looters in the chaos immediately following the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Residents manned checkpoints to protect their homes and shops. It makes sense in the current climate for residents particularly residents who feel themselves to be under threat to mount checkpoints again. This needs to be seen as part of post-Samarra Iraq. The post-Samarra bombing violence has come in two waves:

  • The first targeted Sunni mosques and the offices of political parties.
  • The second wave is targetting people and it is in response to this second wave of violence that these vigilante neighbourhood defense groups are re-forming.

As you might expect these groups are almost exclusively centred around mosques. There are three reasons for this:

  1. Mosques are social focal points, even in "secular" areas. They make natural storage points for arms and medical supplies.
  2. Their architecture (high rooves and minarets,) make them natural vantage points from which to keep watch.
  3. Mosques typically have reasonably powerful public loudspeakers (business for these is booming) also and these can be and are used to broadcast alerts to residents to get their guns and rush to defend the barricades.

As yet these groups aren't large armed formations. They typically operate as small separate groups of up to about 50 volunteers who take guard duty in shifts. So far they are are primarily defensive and are not formally linked to the anti-occupation fighters. I have no idea why on earth Juan Cole thinks Maliki's claims in this regard are reliable. When you read the article on it's describing a very typical "neighbourhood watch"/protection scheme. There are concrete and wire barricades put up to control access to the neighbourhood. These are typically manned by young volunteers. In the event of an attempted incursion or of an attack a combination of calls for defenders broadcast from the mosque and mobile telephone alerts issued by the perimeter defenders causes residents to pick up their guns, rush to close the roads into the neighbourhood, and repel the attackers. This pattern is identical to that everywhere else in Baghdad, Sunni, Shia, and mixed alike. In the light of the horrific events in Jihad on the 9th it is completely unsurprising that residents in Amiriyah, Dora, Ghazaliyah, Khadra, Jihad, and Sayyidiyah would step up their defenses. It is also completely unsurprising that people in those areas would ask why it is that many of these death squads seem to know who to look for and where they live. The article quotes one resident in particular - 75 year old Abu Omar as saying that the increasing attacks on mosques, especially after nightfall, have made these precautions necessary. Saying that there had been repeated attacks in Amiriyah, Jihad, and Sayyidiyah by attacksers wearing the uniform of the police. The article quotes other residents as saying that it was their duty to repel attacks by militia elements and that the absence of the State [would] create a law of the jungle and the rule of organised crime syndicates, the forces of terrorism and subversion, and out-of-control militias. It's worth noting that in al-Jihad, Sheikh Hussein, like al-Sadr preaches unity saying "It's the occupation which wants us to fight each other," and that the same is being said by community leaders in al-Furat, which unlike al-Jihad is almost entirely Sunni.

Cole and other western commentators seem absolutely determined to decree that full scale civil war has erupted. Baghdadis are by no means convinced of this, what they are convinced of is that it is the occupation itself which is driving the country towards one.



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