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Saturday, July 15, 2006

A few views from Iraq

Salon.com reports that the US military appears to have routinely utilized the kidnapping and detention of the innocent relatives of Iraqis it sought to question or capture as a way to pressure them to reveal information or turn themselves in.
It now appears that kidnapping, scarcely covered by the media, and absent in the major military investigations of detainee abuse, may have been systematically employed by U.S. troops. Salon has obtained Army documents that show several cases where U.S. forces abducted terror suspects’ families. After he was thrown in prison, Cpl. Charles Graner, the alleged ringleader at Abu Ghraib, told investigators the military routinely kidnapped family members to force suspects to turn themselves in.
The article relates one particular incident:
In a hearing before Shays' Government Reform subcommittee last February, Provance testified that the Army had retaliated against him. Provance also made the disturbing allegation that interrogators broke an Iraqi general, Hamid Zabar, by imprisoning and abusing his frail 16-year-old son. Waxman was shocked. "Do you think this practice was repeated with other children?" he asked Provance. "I don't see why it would not have been, sir," Provance replied.

Zabar's son had been apprehended with his father and held at Abu Ghraib, though the boy hadn't done anything wrong. "He was useless," Provance said about the boy in a phone interview with Salon from Heidelberg, Germany, where he is still in the Army. "He was of no intelligence value."

But, Provance said, interrogators grew frustrated when the boy's father, Zabar, wouldn't talk, despite a 14-hour interrogation. So they stripped Zabar's son naked and doused him with mud and water. They put him in the open back of a truck and drove around in the frigid January night air until the boy began to freeze. Zabar was then made to look at his suffering son.

"During the interrogation, they could not get him to talk," Provance recalled. "They said, 'OK, we are going to let you see your son.' They allow him to see his son in this shivering, freezing, naked state," Provance said. "That just totally broke his heart and that is when he said, 'I'll tell you what you want to know.'"
Such detentions and torture appear to have become routine.

Meanwhile, Times of London correspondent James Hider reports on the ongoing and escalating chaos in an ominously titled piece, "Baghdad starts to collapse as its people flee a life of death". Hider describes the exodus of Baghdad residents from the city, as they desperately seek to escape, focusing on the stories of regular Iraqis.
Ali phoned me on Tuesday night, about 10.30pm. There were cars full of gunmen prowling his mixed neighbourhood, he said. He and his neighbours were frantically exchanging information, trying to identify the gunmen.

Were they the Mahdi Army, the Shia militia blamed for drilling holes in their victims’ eyes and limbs before executing them by the dozen? Or were they Sunni insurgents hunting down Shias to avenge last Sunday’s massacre, when Shia gunmen rampaged through an area called Jihad, pulling people from their cars and homes and shooting them in the streets?

Ali has a surname that could easily pass for Shia. His brother-in-law has an unmistakably Sunni name. They agreed that if they could determine that the gunmen were Shia, Ali would answer the door. If they were Sunnis, his brother-in-law would go.

Whoever didn’t answer the door would hide in the dog kennel on the roof.

Their Plan B was simpler: to dash 50 yards to their neighbours’ house — home to a dozen brothers. All Iraqi homes are awash with guns for self-defence in these merciless times. Together they would shoot it out with the gunmen — one of a dozen unsung Alamos now being fought nightly on Iraq’s blacked-out streets.

“We just have to wait and see what our fate is,” Ali told me. It was the first time in three years of bombs, battles and kidnappings that I had heard this stocky, very physical young man sounding scared, but there was nothing I could do to help.
He goes on to describe the mounting spiral of violence in the city, that now terrifies even residents already grown used to regular violence with its ferocity and randomness:
West Baghdad is no stranger to bombings and killings, but in the past few days all restraint has vanished in an orgy of ethnic cleansing.

Shia gunmen are seeking to drive out the once-dominant Sunni minority and the Sunnis are forming neighbourhood posses to retaliate. Mosques are being attacked. Scores of innocent civilians have been killed, their bodies left lying in the streets.

Hundreds — Sunni and Shia — are abandoning their homes. My driver said all his neighbours had now fled, their abandoned houses bullet-pocked and locked up. On a nearby mosque, competing Sunni and Shiite graffiti had been scrawled on the walls.

A senior nurse at Yarmouk hospital on the fringes of west Baghdad’s war zone said that he was close to being overwhelmed. “On Tuesday we received 35 bodies in one day, 16 from Al-Furat district alone. All of them were killed execution-style,” he said. “I thought it was the end of the city. I packed my bags at once and got ready to leave because they could storm the hospital at any moment.”

In just 24 hours before noon yesterday, as parliament convened for another emergency session, 87 bodies were brought to Baghdad city morgue, 63 of them unidentified. Since Sunday’s massacre in Jihad, more than 160 people have been killed, making a total of at least 1,600 since Iraq’s Government of national unity came to power six weeks ago. Another 2,500 have been wounded.
The country continues to lurch towards civil war as the US, having set it off with its 2003 invasion, now stands helpless to stop it. The new government's plan to clamp down on violence by flooding the streets with security (including 8000 US troops patrolling Baghdad) and offering amnesty has completely failed, and Jim Mannion, writing for the AFP, reported Friday that the surge in sectarian violence has effectively scuttled any US plans for troop withdrawals any time soon.

General George Casey, in a recent interview, seemed to confirm that Al-Qaeda in Iraq's strategy of setting off sectarian violence has succeeded. "What we are seeing now as a counter to that are death squads primarily by Shia extremist groups that are retaliating against civilians. And so you have both sides now attacking civilians." More troops may have to shift to the area around Baghdad, he suggested, although the numbers have already swelled from 40,000 to 55,000 in recent weeks - over a third of all US forces in the country - and that still has not stemmed the killing.

Meanwhile, Kim Gamel, writing for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, describes the conditions for Iraqis who choose to work with the US Military.
The 33-year-old Iraqi is among thousands who resort to disguises and subterfuges, who endure white-knuckle commutes through potentially lethal roadblocks, just to make a living.

George is the name he got from his American employer. To reveal his real one could be his death.

"It's bad to lie to people, but the situation is very bad," he says. "I don't want to lose my head."

His wife has tried to persuade him to quit, but he stays on the job because he feels his work - helping the Americans to avoid language misunderstandings - is important. Besides, his salary of $900 to $1,050 is about 10 times the monthly average.

For the young woman who calls herself Ismaeel, her father's name, even a minor inconvenience can be a big one. Like the time the helicopter flying her back to Baghdad from an out-of-town job was late. Her family thought she worked for an Internet cafe. How would she explain the delay?

"It's not a normal life," she said. "It's a very hard situation we suffer from. I hope it will pass and everything will be fine. We'll see."
Gamel reports on the complex variety of deceptions Iraqis - not just those who work for the US - utilize everyday just to get by in a city divided along ethnic lines. Fake ID's that disguise one's Sunni or Shia religion or real name are becoming increasingly common. Identity has become a matter of life or death throughout the city.

AP writer Bassem Mroue reports on one such area of Baghdad, the Sadr slum, dominated by the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr.
As a car enters the Shiite district of Sadr City, a group of men step from the curb and flag down the vehicle. "Who are you and where are you going?" one of them demands.

All is well after passengers produce papers, not from the government but from the office of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "We are sorry," one man says. "May God be with you."

Al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, keeps a sharp eye out for strangers in the teeming Baghdad district, home to 2.5 million people, as well as other Shiite areas across the country.

By day, militiamen in Sadr City keep weapons out of sight. By night, they set up checkpoints, where they search cars and examine IDs to guard against would-be suicide bombers and other Sunni Arab militants.
However, even though militias like the Madhi Army have been, like the US Army, unable to stop the violence (partly because, like the US Army, they engage in and provoke it themselves), residents have come to see them as vital to their protection and, indeed, survival.

An al-Sadr senior aid puts it this way, perhaps a little disingenously: "We hope the day will come when Iraqi forces are strong enough to be in charge of security. Then, we will be happy to see the Mahdi Army merged into the military and security forces."

Meanwhile, the violence continues to worsen.

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