Iraq Round-up!

The big story this week is that the fledgling Iraqi government is, in the words of the Christian Science Monitor's Sam Dagher, in "deepest crisis." The hapless regime of Nouri al-Maliki took fire hit from all sides.

A week after I noted that the largest Sunni bloc in the Iraq parliament, the Iraq Accord Front, had ended its month-long boycott of the legislature, the group of 44 lawmakers (and five cabinet members) announced that they were "suspending participation" in the ruling coalition and will pull out altogether unless their demands are met. Those are: "a pardon for security detainees not charged with specific crimes, a firm commitment by the government to human rights and the disbanding of militias." Those are obviously demands that Maliki, whose coalition includes parties connected to many of those militias, is going to have a hard time meeting. Never mind the fact that the bulk of Iraq's "security detainees" are in American hands.

Dagher reports:

At the moment, Iraqi politicians are simply trying to keep the government from disintegrating. On Friday, top Iraqi officials were set to convene in the Kurdish north for a crisis summit, in the hopes that talks held outside of Baghdad's politically poisonous atmosphere may bring some resolution to the current political standstill. President Jalal Talabani and his two deputies, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the president of the semiautonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, were set to meet at the Salaheddin summer resort at the end of a difficult week.
"We are frankly in the midst of the worst crisis," says Fakhri Karim, a close adviser to Messrs. Barzani and Talabani who also publishes the independent Al Mada newspaper. He says he doubts the Friday meeting will find any resolution because of the new political tussle with the Iraqi Accordance Front.
Maliki already had seven unfilled vacancies in his 39-person cabinet; now it's up to 12.

With Sunni lawmakers enraged, Iraqslogger reported that a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani blasted the government for the country's poor services and terrible security situation, and warned against what he described as new "dictatorships" arising. "Seven months have elapsed from 2007, yet the citizen finds no improvement in the services rendered to him," Sheikh Ahmed al-Safi told worshippers in a shrine in Karbala. (al-Sistani himself has stepped away from the public political stage to a degree, reportedly finding it unseemly.)

With Sunnis and Shiites alike on his back, Maliki also had to face pressure from Congress, and especially war supporters who have tried their damndest to shift blame for the disaster caused by the invasion onto the Iraqi government. Never mind that it is entirely dependent on US forces for its existence. The pressure was such that Maliki asked parliament to cancel its much-criticized summer "vacation." The problem is that the whole issue is just a bit of demagogic fluff -- the Constitution specifies that the Iraqi parliament meets during two annual sessions with the month of August in between.

It's 120 degrees in Baghdad, where residents can still only count on an hour or two per day of electricity, according to US Ambassador Ryan Crocker (The Los Angeles Times reported this week that the electricity situation in Baghdad is so embarrassing that the State Department stopped sending the data in its regular reports to Congress back in May). That's still well below pre-war levels, some four years and gazillions of dollars after the invasion. Can you really blame them for taking August off?

Anyway, it's not like the Iraqi government is getting a lot done when it is in session, at least according to the LA Times:
Missing from Thursday's session of the Iraqi parliament were about half of the members, including the speaker, the former speaker and two former prime ministers.
… Even as parliament's monthlong August break approaches, key issues aren't being discussed. Quorums are marginal, or fleeting.[…]
Thursday's session, the 50th of the year, convened half an hour late.
A bell rang in the Convention Center in the fortified Green Zone reminding members to take their seats and raise their hands for roll call (the electronic system is broken). It showed 145 in attendance. That dropped to 137 as some members walked out after the first vote. The speaker on occasion has dismissed parliament for falling below the quorum of 100 legislators, but on Thursday, they proceeded. The opening Muslim prayer and 275-name roll call took half an hour, a quarter of the time, in what turned out to be a roughly two-hour session.
If all that weren't enough, the San Francisco Chronicle reported this week that Maliki has to sit through hour-long "soul chats" with George W. Bush every week or two. Dealing with the daily bloodfest, the restless political groups, a crisis in legitimacy, the constant rumors of an impending coup and all the rest that being Iraq's Prime Minister entails seems bad enough, but a weekly hour talking "faith" with a crazed dry-drunk? It's more than any man could bear.

I'd feel bad for the regime if not for their incompetence and corruption.

Speaking of which, Iraq's Oil Minister, Hussein al-Shahristani, said this week that the country's oil unions, long a major bulwark against the Great Iraqi Oil Grab by Western powers, are not legitimate and have no more standing in the debate over the oil law than an ordinary citizen. "There are no legal unions in Iraq," Hussein al-Shahristani told my friend Ben Lando at UPI. "Those people who call themselves representatives of the oil workers have not been elected to the position," he said. A ban on public-sector unions was one of a very small number of Saddam Hussein's laws that the Coalition allowed to stand.

Also this week (and also reported by Ben Lando), the Iraqi parliament passed a law privatizing Iraq's refineries.

Onto some regional news. The big story this week was that Iranian and US officials sat down for the first time in memory to discuss the situation in Iraq. I hate to be right about such things, but a while back I pointed out that one consequence of the popular idea that sitting at a table with one's opponents amounts to a concession to them, is that if the administration decides to meet with Iran, they'd likely bring nothing to the table with which to negotiate. According to a report by IraqSlogger that's pretty much what happened: the meetings didn't do well, mainly because the US made demands, without putting any of the issues the Iranians wanted to discuss -- especially the Iranian diplomats held by US forces since last year without charge -- on the table.

Elsewhere in the region, Iraqi papers are reporting that the effort to create an alliance among anti-occupation forces -- a kind of Iraqi government-in-exile -- hit a major snag this week as a key meeting scheduled in Damascus was cancelled (other reports indicated it was only delayed). There are two versions of what led up to the cancellation:
One version claims that an acute conflict occurred between two wings of the Iraqi Ba'th party: the 'Izzat al-Duri faction, which considers itself as the legitimate inheritor of the Saddam leadership, and Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmad's faction, which has a limited presence in Iraq, but - allegedly - sports a considerable base among Ba'thists in Arab countries, namely Jordan and Yemen.
Another explanation concludes that the Syrian leadership itself demanded the postponement, in order to stem US and Iraqi government accusations of a Syrian role in the fomenting of terrorism in Iraq.
Speaking of regional issues, I remember back in 2003, when Republican senator Richard Lugar spoke of successes in Iraq "that are measured as much by what didn't happen as what did." He was especially proud that "There was not the refugee crisis that many predicted would destabilize the region."

Yeah, those were good times…
The UN refugee agency says more than two million of Iraq's 26 million people are in refugee camps in Syria and Jordan, while the advocacy group Refugees International says "most … are determined to be resettled to Europe or North America."
There are another 2 million people thought to be displaced within the country's borders. Add them up and, proportionally, that's like 46 million Americans losing their homes since April of 2003. It's a catastrophe that's not getting as much attention as it should.

As if that's not enough displacement for one small country, the UN this week released a map of the tens of thousands of refugees from other countries in living in Iraq -- the Iranians and Turks and Sudanese and Palestinians and … what a disaster. You can download it here if you like.

At an international conference on Iraqi refugees held in Jordan this week, Iraq's deputy foreign minister Mohammad al-Haj Hamoud asked Iraq's neighbors to cut Iraqi refugees some slack, complaining about Iraqis being forcibly repatriated and saying the regional actors "had a moral imperative to help them cope better with difficult living conditions and meager incomes by giving them access to public schools and medical centers."

Speaking of refugees, Maura Stephens followed up her earlier piece about "Andy," the Iraqi translator who was targeted for exceution for working with US forces and is now caught in a nightmare of red tape. Ambasssador Crocker called this week for visas to be issued to thousands of Iraqis who have helped the coalition.

Meanwhile, back in DC, Congress passed legislation denying funds for permanent bases -- of course not even the great Pyramids are permanent, nothing is -- and Jack Murtha's promising to reintroduce legislation that will start bringing troops home in two months. The government's top expert on al Qaeda testified before Congress that everything Bush says about "al Qaeda in Iraq" is a lie. That, however, is not news to AlterNet readers.

All of the "exit plans" being offered so far allow the continued basing of tens of thousands of US troops to protect "US interests." One Baltimore Sun reporter asked how many that would really be. The answer: nobody knows but it's a hell of a lot.

And while Congress fumbles towards an exit, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have developed a plan for the occupation to continue through 2009.

The big story in Washington this week was corruption, and lots of it. The AP reported that a third member of a Texas military family was arrested this week in the largest bribery scandal to date involving the Iraq reconstruction effort. The bribery in this case alone was worth 15 million dollars, 100 times the amount of bribes taken by the one UN official implicated (with credible evidence) in the Oil-for-food scandal.

And investigators unearthed "a sweeping network of kickbacks, bribes and fraud involving at least eight employees and subcontractors of KBR, the former Halliburton subsidiary, in a scheme to inflate charges for flying freight into Iraq in support of the war."

The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, issued a report this week on the wondrous job Bechtel did with its plush no-bid contracts:
Bechtel National, met its original objectives on fewer than half of the projects it received as part of a $1.8 billion reconstruction contract, while most of the rest were canceled, reduced in scope or never completed as designed, federal investigators have found in a report released yesterday.
The report put a lot of the blame on USAID officials for their weak oversight.

But the prize has to go the State Department and it's contractors -- including KBR -- for building the massive US embassy in Baghdad in such a shoddy way that its wiring melted down and most of it remains uninhabitable.

You've got to go over to the Dems' blog, The Gavel, and check out video of the hearings on the embassy project. The highlight was the testimony of Rory Mayberry, a former subcontractor employee for First Kuwaiti Trading & Contracting Company, talking about the use of forced labor:
Mr. Chairman, when the airplane took off and the captain announced that we were heading to Baghdad, all you-know-what broke out on the airplane. The men started shouting, it wasn't until the security guy working for First Kuwaiti waved an MP5 in the air that the men settled down. They realized that they had no other choice but to go to Baghdad. Let me spell it out clearly: I believe these men were kidnapped by First Kuwaiti to work at the US Embassy… I've read the State Department Inspector General's report on the construction of the embassy. Mr. Chairman, it's not worth the paper it's printed on. This is a cover-up and I'm glad that I've had the opportunity to set the record straight.
Finally, sports news. I wrote last week that the Iraqi soccer team had advanced to the semis in the Asian Cup Games. Sadly, the team's triumphal celebration was marred by twin suicide bombings that killed 50 and wounded over 100 more. Never say that the Iraqis aren't a resilient people: the team flew to Jakarta this week for a match against Saudi Arabia in the semi-finals. We're rooting for them.

That's the round-up for the week, but make sure to sign up for our weekly War on Iraq newsletter to get all of our Iraq coverage delivered to your inbox each week. I personally load it on the truck and drive it through the intertubes. Not only will subscribing make you cooler than that guy with the iphone, but it gets you all of our Iraq coverage, including the excellent stuff that doesn't get onto the front page.

This week, for example, we ran all of these stories in our War on Iraq special coverage area:

US Firms in Iraq Still Using Indentured Workers Despite Crackdown David Phinney: Charges of heinous abuses of workers have long dogged the reconstruction effort.

In Iraq, Women Increasingly Targeted for Violence IraqSlogger: One of the bright spots of Saddam Hussein's brutal rule was the full recognition of women's rights. Those days are long gone.

Amid Tensions with US, Iran's Presence in Iraq Grows Sam Dagher: Economic and political ties between Iran and Iraq are growing despite US criticism of Tehran's "meddling."

In Iraq's Kurdish Zone, The Children of Arab Refugees Face Tough Times Najeeba Mohammad: In Iraqi Kurdistan, the children of Arabs who've fled violence in the rest of the country struggle to settle in their new home.

Kirkuk Vote Could Touch Off New Civil War in Iraq Ben Lando: A historic vote in Iraq's northern territories could right past wrongs, but it might also spark a new front in the country's many-sided civil conflict.

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