Ali Al-Fadhily

The Third Siege of Fallujah

FALLUJAH, Jul 21 (IPS) -- U.S. and Iraqi forces are preparing another siege of Fallujah under the pretext of combating "terror," residents and officials say.

Located 69 km west of Baghdad, the city that suffered two devastating U.S. attacks in 2004 has watched security degrade over recent months.

"Ruling powers in the city fighting to gain full control seem willing to use the security collapse to accuse each other of either conspiracy (in lawlessness) or incapability of control," Sufian Ahmed, a lawyer and human rights activist in Fallujah told IPS.

"They suddenly changed their tone from saying that the city was the safest in Iraq to claiming that al-Qaeda is a serious threat. Fallujah residents know their so-called leaders are using security threats to terrify them for their own political interests."

In the face of U.S. military claims of improved security, violence has been rising by the day this month. The city has now been placed under tight curfew while U.S. and Iraqi military forces prepare for a new offensive, according to the local Azzaman daily.

Iraqi security forces have established new checkpoints around the city and are forbidding movement of people and traffic. Pick-up trucks are roaming the city warning residents that al-Qaeda has once again infiltrated Fallujah.

Iraqi police officers insist that the situation is under control despite the "occasional incidents that take place all over Iraq."

The indications on the ground belie these claims. "The Americans and their allies transferred our leader, Colonel Fayssal al-Zoba'i from his post because they have bad plans for the city," a major in the Fallujah police force told IPS. "He has all the right to keep his post because he was the one who led us to defeat the insurgency while the Americans failed. They (the U.S. military) seem to have a plan to destroy the city again."

Iraqi police and troops from other areas are being deployed in the city in what police officials say is a build-up for a huge offensive. U.S. occupation forces are on the ready in nearby bases.

The government in Baghdad has made it clear that direct U.S. military involvement is critical for an "imminent offensive" in Fallujah, sources in the Iraqi military have been quoted as saying in Iraqi media.

The two U.S. sieges of the city during 2004 led to the destruction of approximately 75 percent of the city, thousands of civilian deaths, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, according to the Fallujah-based Iraqi NGO Monitoring Net for Human Rights.

Some officers in the Fallujah police believe Iraqi politicians are using the threat of "terror" for election purposes, ahead of provincial elections scheduled for October.

"The resignation of Colonel Fayssal is not yet definite," another police officer, speaking on terms of anonymity, told IPS. "But I agree that the Americans and the Islamic Party are planning something bad for the city before the provincial elections."

The officer added, "We learned that such plans could not be conducted in a quiet atmosphere, so politicians are adding gas to the fire just to make sure they win the elections. We, policemen and citizens, will be the victims as usual." Residents fear parties will use the violence to accuse one another, and perhaps sabotage the election itself.

A police spokesman told IPS that "the media is exaggerating things once more" in speaking of another military operation in the city. The spokesman declined to give his name.

Everyone IPS spoke with in the city expressed fear of an impending attack.

There are meanwhile no signs of improvement of any other kind in Fallujah. Walls now divide the city into sectarian sections, with poverty, unemployment and suffering on all sides.

Food Crisis Hits Fallujah

FALLUJAH, May 12 (IPS) -- Sharp increases in food prices have generated a new wave of anti-occupation and anti-U.S. sentiment in Fallujah.

"This is a country that was damned by the Americans the moment they stepped on our soil," Burhan Jassim, a farmer from Sichir village just outside Fallujah told IPS. "This is Iraqi land that has always been blessed by Allah with the best production in quality and quantity, but now see how it has been turned into a wasteland."

Fallujah faces this new crisis after much of the city was destroyed by U.S. military operations in 2004.

The area around Fallujah city, which lies 70 km west of Baghdad, has traditionally been one of the most agriculturally productive in Iraq. Farmers planted tomatoes and cucumbers north of Fallujah, others grew potatoes south of the city near Amiriya. Both areas had plenty of date palm trees and small fruit plantations. Now production is down to a fraction of what it was.

Farmers have been struggling with changing times. "We changed our motors from electric to diesel oil to avoid electricity failures during the UN sanctions (during the 1990s)," Raad Sammy, an agriculture engineer who has a small farm in Saqlawiya on the outskirts of Fallujah told IPS. "We used to have a minimum of 12 hours electricity per day under the programmed cut, but there is practically no electricity now. And now we also have to face lack of fuel for our pumps, and the incredible increase of fuel prices on the black market."

The price of agricultural products has skyrocketed. "The average price for one kilogram of tomatoes is approximately one dollar," Yasseen Kamil, a grocer in Fallujah told IPS. "This price is when there is no crisis such as Americans blocking the entrance into the city. It is naturally doubled in winter when we have to import everything from Syria and Jordan."

Fallujah residents say the price of food now exceeds their income. The average income for government employees is 170 dollars a month, and no more than 100 dollars for labourers and salesmen.

Residents say unemployment in the city is well above 50 percent. Under these circumstances, a food crisis has hit people harder than it might elsewhere.

"The social effects of the situation are enormous," Ahmed Munqith from the city told IPS. "We believe that people are carrying out illegitimate acts in order to obtain their daily life necessities. The food crisis has led to vast corruption, and raised crime rates to peak point."

As with any difficulty now, many Iraqis believe that the occupation forces want it this way.

"It is obvious that the prices are up and life is difficult in this city and all of Iraq because it has been so planned," Sheikh Ala'in, a cleric in Fallujah told IPS. "Occupation planners designed this poverty in order to make Iraqis work for them as policemen and spies. Iraq is floating on a lake of oil, but there is no gas to run water pumps. What an irony."

Residents say they are told of a world food crisis that may be affecting them. But their crisis arises mainly from local factors like shortage of water, fuel and electricity.

Whatever the reason, residents simply want relief. "We just want our lives back," said a college student who gave her name only as Nada. "We want to eat, buy clothes, get proper education and breathe pure air. No thanks to Americans for their effort to bring us democracy that killed half of us by their bombs and is now apparently killing the other half by starvation. Can you pass this message to the American people for us?"

According to the UN, at least four million people in Iraq do not have enough food, while approximately 40 percent of the 27.5 million population do not have access to clean drinking water. At least 30 percent do not have access to proper health services.

Iraqi Refugees Caught Between Deportation and Death Threats

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis driven out of their country by violence are now faced with detention abroad, or a homecoming to death threats.

More than two million Iraqis, in a population of about 25 million, have taken refuge in many countries. Only a few have won official status as refugees. Most refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and many other countries stay on as illegal residents, facing threats of deportation and imprisonment.

"To deport an Iraqi refugee is to issue a death warrant," Ali Jassim, an Iraqi journalist recently deported from Lebanon told IPS in Baghdad. "The Lebanese authorities are applying regular migration rules to Iraqis, meaning that most Iraqis in Lebanon will be deported."

The Human Rights Watch report titled 'Rot Here or Die There: Bleak Choices for Iraqi Refugees in Lebanon' released Dec. 4 says Lebanese authorities are arresting Iraqi refugees who have no valid visas, and detaining them indefinitely to coerce them to return to Iraq.

"Iraqi refugees in Lebanon live in constant fear of arrest," Bill Frelick, refugee policy director for Human Rights Watch told reporters. "Refugees who are arrested face the prospect of rotting in jail indefinitely unless they agree to return to Iraq and face the dangers there."

There are at least 40,000 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Complaints of mistreatment by Lebanese authorities pushed many Iraqis to flee Lebanon for Syria earlier, but this is no longer possible. As of Oct. 1, the Syrian government requires Iraqis to obtain visas.

The Iraqi refugees already in Syria are struggling.

The World Food Programme (WFP) reported Dec. 4 that about a third of Iraqis in Syria are skipping one meal a day in order to feed their children. WFP officials said nearly 60 percent of Iraqi refugees reported purchasing cheaper, less nutritious food in the face of a dramatic increase in food prices.

"My 55-year-old brother is now under Lebanese police custody," Zahra Naji, a schoolteacher in Baghdad told IPS. "He can choose to come home in order to be released, but he will definitely get killed by militiamen who keep coming to our house looking for him because he was a Ba'ath Party member before the U.S. occupation of Iraq."

Jordan has at least 750,000 Iraqi refugees, according to UNHCR. The majority of these do not have legal residency permits.

To get those, Iraqis need either to be investors who can deposit more than 100,000 dollars, or others who can get government jobs. Approvals for full residency to Iraqis are scarce, and now few Iraqis are allowed into Jordan.

Many in Jordan have been deported for all sorts of reasons.

"It is true that Jordanian migration offices have stopped deporting Iraqi illegal residents if they do not represent a threat to Jordan, but any minor trouble could lead to deportation," said Omar Ahmed Saleem, a 28-year-old student who was recently deported. "I had a fight over a soccer game with some Jordanian guys, and so the police decided I would be deported."

Omar said he could not return to his family home in Baghdad, and was staying with a friend in a different area of the city.

"I cannot go to my family house because of my (Sunni) first name, 'Omar' which is like a death warrant on me because sectarian militias are still active in my area (the Sha'ab Quarter)," he told IPS.

Tens of thousands of Sunni Iraqis have been killed simply because their names were Omar, Bakr, Othman or other such, targeted by the Shia Badr and Mehdi militias.

"Jordanian migration officers ask Iraqis sometimes whether they prefer to be deported to Syria or to Iraq," Sammy Hamid, an Iraqi technician who was deported from Jordan recently told IPS in Baghdad. "I worked as a taxi driver and I knew they would deport me if they caught me, but I could not find any other job. The new Syrian visa regulations made it certain that I come to Iraq and take my chances."

Sammy now faces detention by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior on charge of revealing national secrets while working as a freelance cameraman who covered many violent events. He is now forced to live away from his home and work as a porter.

"Now I am a porter instead of a reporter," Hamid laughed as he told IPS of his plight.

But the situation remains deadly serious for millions of displaced Iraqis.

"Millions of Iraqis are suffering the consequences of the U.S. occupation, and we hope our Arab brothers will think twice before deporting Iraqis," Ammar Shakir, a human rights activist in Baghdad told IPS. "No matter what crime an Iraqi refugee might have committed, the punishment should not be deportation that might lead to death."

According to UNHCR, there are more than 2.25 million Iraqis internally displaced within their country, besides more than 2.5 million who have fled Iraq.

Iraqi Government Fragments Further

As sectarian tensions escalate politically, a new fissure is appearing within the already fragmented Iraqi government.

Adnan Al Dulaimi, head of the Sunni political bloc the Accordance Front in the Iraqi Parliament, has been placed under house arrest by Iraqi and U.S. security forces in the Adil neighbourhood west of Baghdad.

Iraqi security forces also detained his son --Makki -- and 45 of his guards. They were accused of manufacturing car bombs and killing Sunni militia members in the neighbourhood who have been working with the U.S. military.

"Two car bombs were found at Dulaimi's office area ready to be blasted and we believe they were going to be used against the Awakening Forces [men the U.S. military is paying to work with them] in the Adil Quarter," Kassim Ata, spokesman for the Baghdad Crackdown Force -- which is part of the Awakening Forces -- told IPS. "Dulaimi's office guards testified against his house guards and so we arrested all of them as well as Al Dulaimy's son Makki," Ata said.

Abdul Karim al-Samarraie of the Accordance Front told reporters that the group would not return to parliament until Dulaimi was allowed to leave his home. On Saturday al-Samarraie stated, "When I went to meet him I was stopped and told that he is under house arrest. This is a violation of the rights of an MP who wants to come to the parliament."

The Accordance Front warned that the crackdown against them could derail Iraq's already struggling political process, and the Front said in a statement before walking out of parliament, "It will increase political tension at a time when Baghdad is relatively peaceful."

"Al-Dulaimi is a terrorist just like other Sunnis who pretended to be participating in politics and peaceful efforts of reconciliation," Haydar Kathum, a follower of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) -- a Shia political and religious group led by Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim -- told IPS in the Karrada area of Baghdad. "Sunnis are all terrorists, but they pushed some of their leaders to the parliament so that they can fight the new Iraq project from the inside."

Similar accusations toward members of the Sunni political group -- which holds 44 seats of the 275 seats in parliament -- were heard throughout 2007 from Shi'ite groups in the Iraqi Parliament, especially the Shi'ite Coalition led by the SIIC and the Dawa Party, led by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.

"This man [Al-Dulaimi] should be held responsible for the terrorist acts that he conducted without any consideration for the possible political consequences," Jalal Al-Sagheer, one of the Shi'ite leaders of SIIC in Baghdad told IPS.

But, "what happened in the Adil neighbourhood must be dealt with away from politics," Al-Sagheer stressed.

Al-Sagheer also referred to the new SIIC's policy to eliminate yesterday's allies as they are no longer necessary given the completion of sectarian cleansing of Baghdad and other mixed areas of Iraq.

The other side of the story comes from Dulaimy's supporters.

"Doctor Adnan Al-Dulaimi is a well known academic in Iraq and the whole Islamic world," his nephew Laurance Al-Dulaimi told IPS, "He worked hard to establish peace in Iraq and he exposed himself to threats by al-Qaeda by joining the political operation in Iraq."

"It is unfair that he is rewarded with such cheap accusations by those cheap corrupt officials and politicians," the nephew added.

Dulaimi has been targeted many times by Iraqi resistance fighters, but they failed to assassinate him. He has insisted upon keeping his house and office in the Sunni neighbourhood that was controlled by resistance fighters rather than moving to the Green Zone where he would have had better protection.

Sunni observers talked to IPS about the arrests, and expressed other opinions.

"This man was one of the reasons that the Shi'ite Coalition controlled the situation in Iraq the way they do now and he deserves what is happening to him," Omar Mahmood, a lawyer who is close to the Iraqi Association of Muslim Scholars led by Harith Al Dhari, told IPS in Baghdad, "He drew Sunnis to be cheap cover for the faked political operation that helped American occupation have routes in Sunni areas."

An Iraqi resistance fighter spoke with IPS on condition of anonymity.

"The poor old guy sacrificed his faith and reputation for a cheap chair in the parliament and now they are throwing him into the garbage can like used Kleenex tissue," the man told IPS in Baghdad, "We always advised him that the Islamic Party and the Shi'ite Coalition would definitely get rid of him as soon as he is no more needed, but he listened to his pocket more than listening to the voice of reason."

Maliki has ordered the fifth brigade of the Iraqi Army to "guard" Al-Dulaimy's house.

"My father is detained in our house and my brother Makki is being tortured so that he gives any information that could lead to convicting my father," one of Al-Dulaimi's several sons, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS, "My father's life is threatened and so is my brother's life and the other guards. These army people hate us and they might do anything. We find Maliki and the Americans responsible for anything that might happen to our father."

Shia-Shia Conflict Fuels Instability

Increasing conflict and finger pointing between leading Shi'ite political blocs are heightening instability in war-torn Iraq.

"It is said in the Arab world that if thieves were not seen while steeling, they would be seen while dividing the loot," Wayil Hikmet, an Iraqi historian in Baghdad told IPS.

"That is what goes for the accelerating collapse of the Iraqi political system that was made in the USA. The thieves of the Green Zone are now giving me and my colleagues good material to write down for the coming generations," Hikmet said, referring to new scandals floating to the surface of the political scene in recent days.

The Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq (SICI) led by Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, and The Sadr Movement led by anti-occupation cleric Muqtada Al- Sadr are accusing each other of committing serious crimes against humanity in the southern parts of Iraq.

In early September, clashes between Sadr's Mehdi Army militia and the Badr Organisation militia of SIIC erupted in the holy city of Kerbala, 100 kilometres southwest of Baghdad.

Kerbala, with a population of about half a million, is a holy city, particularly for the Shias, as it is home to the tomb of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

The shrine of Imam Hussein is a place of pilgrimage for many Shia Muslims.

The clashes between the two powerful militias left at least 52 people dead and over 200 wounded.

"Hakim and Muqtada were brought to the scene by the Americans who employed the two ambitious clerics in order to fight side by side against any Iraqi resistance," Lukman Jassim, a former Baath Party member, told IPS in Baghdad.

"But it is well known in Iraq that the two groups cannot put up with each other because of the historic disputes between their fathers and grandfathers and the conflict between them over power in Iraq. It was another American mistake," Jassim explained.

Jassim overlooks the fact that there have thus far been two anti-occupation uprisings led by al-Sadr, but his comments nevertheless underscore the rising tensions between the two groups.

Bahaa Al-A'raji, an MP with the Sadr movement, told journalists in Baghdad this week that his movement is being targeted by the SICI that dominates the Ministry of Interior. Many Sadr followers have been arrested and tortured by police loyal to the SICI in different parts of Iraq, Al-A'raji said.

SICI operates militarily via the Badr Organization militia, which was created in Tehran in 1982 and has been armed, trained and advised by Iranian intelligence since then.

Recently in Baghdad, footage was displayed on many local TV stations showing a woman with cut lips accusing police of having tortured her and her two baby girls in Kerbala.

"It is a crime against humanity committed by police for political reasons," Liwa' Smaissim, the spokesman for the Sadr Movement in Kerbala, told IPS via telephone.

"The SICI is trying to eliminate our movement so that it controls the scene on its own," Smaissim said.

Accusations regarding the woman and her babies were aimed at a Major Ali of the Iraqi Police third Battalion in Kerbala.

"This man and his battalion have committed hundreds of crimes under the flag of maintaining peace in the city," Smaissim told IPS, "our followers and other citizens were exposed to torture and many others were assassinated."

Al-A'raji told IPS that he contacted the Ministers of Interior and Defense to complain, but the two ministers told him that the third Battalion does not take orders from them.

"We are an official unit of the Iraqi police and naturally we take orders from the Minister of Interior," Major Ali, who was accused of the torture and other crimes against civilians, told IPS via telephone.

"The CD distributed of a woman and her babies been tortured is a fake and was made up by a 'certain group' for political reasons. I was off sick during the period of the presumed arrest of that family," Major Ali claimed.

"The third battalion is an official force of the Ministry of the Interior and Major Ali is targeted by a 'certain group' because he risked his life in order to reveal the hundreds of crimes they committed here and else where," an Iraqi police general, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS, stressing that, "This particular group has committed the ugliest crimes in the Iraqi history and we are determined to put them all to court."

Iraqi police general's references to the Sadr movement show the now deep divisions between those who were allies not long ago.

"I believe what is being said by both sides," a general at the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad, speaking under terms of anonymity, told IPS.

"It is true that the Badr militia and the Mehdi Army have committed thousands of political crimes against civilians as well as looting the economy of the country all along the years of the U.S. occupation to Iraq," he said.

The general added, "Evidence at the ministry show how terrible their behaviour was, but it was a political will of all the Iraqi prime ministers, from Iyad Allawi, to Ibrahim Jaafari, to the current Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki to conceal the facts for personal and political reasons. The Americans definitely knew what was going on, but they had their reasons to keep quiet about them too. It is the Iraqis who will pay their blood at the end of the day."

Iraqis Are Running Out of Food

The lack of security in Iraq is leading now to a collapse in food supplies.

"Look at us begging for food despite the fortunes we have," 60-year-old Um Muthanna from Baghdad said. Standing at a vegetable market in central Baghdad where vegetable supplies are not what they used to be, Um Mahmood despaired for Iraq.

"A country with two great rivers should have been the biggest exporter in the world, but now we beg for food from those who participated in killing us." Iraq is rich in oil and agricultural resources.

Local and international aid flooded into Iraq in 2004, the year following the invasion, but much of the supply was blocked off after the kidnapping of many aid activists in the country.

The food the Iraqis did get was often not what they needed, or wanted.

"Iraqis do not feel at ease receiving food aid when they exported food in the past," economist Dr. Jassim al-Rikabi said.

"Iraq has been a field of aid NGOs since the U.S. occupation began, and many of those NGOs brought foodstuff that is not what Iraqis were used to, but they had to take it due to the need they were facing."

Barley, wheat, pulses and the famous Iraqi dates are staple diet, and are also exported. Common meals in Iraq include rice, lamb, chicken and locally grown vegetables like cucumbers, onions and tomatoes.

Under the occupation, Iraqis are getting much of their food from companies in Australia and other countries who assisted the United States during the invasion and occupation. This food has often been of low quality.

During July 2006 the Iraqi Ministry of Trade rejected or destroyed thousands of tonnes of contaminated food or food past its expiry date. The food had caused widespread poisoning.

Dr. Rikabi holds both the U.S.-backed Iraqi government and U.S. occupation authorities responsible for the failing food supply. "By the end of 2005 most international NGOs had withdrawn from Iraq on the orders of their governments, who saw the writing on the wall of increasing sectarian violence."

The security situation and lack of petrol mean that local farmers are often unable to get their food to the markets.

Changes in Iraqi import laws introduced by former administrator L. Paul Bremer, dropped tariffs on import of foreign products, making it impossible for Iraqi farmers to compete. Countless Iraqi farms went bankrupt.

But now prices of imported goods have increased dramatically. And so most of the food in Iraqi markets today is imported, and more expensive due to skyrocketing fuel costs and lack of government regulation. Imported foods like chicken, fruits and vegetables now cost more than locally grown foods.

"Local agricultural production is almost nil," Majid al-Dulaymi from the Ministry of Agriculture said. "The limited loans given by the ministry to farmers and planters are misused simply because it is not possible to maintain the agriculture production for reasons well known to everybody here. Now the private sector is importing everything, and the prices are too high to afford."

An official from the Ministry of Trade said his ministry is struggling to provide Iraqis with food rations as before, but the circumstances make it difficult.

"There is the security ordeal that we suffer as well as the problems we had with many companies that supplied us bad quality food," he said.

Australia provided Iraq with wheat last year that when distributed was found to contain steel fragments. An investigation conducted by Iraqi officials has still not held any company accountable.

The majority of Iraqis still remain dependent on the monthly food ration, a programme set up during the economic sanctions period in the 1990s after the first Gulf war. But a growing number of Iraqis no longer receive their monthly ration due to corruption or sectarian favouritism in the distribution channel.

Statistics compiled by the Washington-based Brookings Institute during 2005 showed that nearly 60 percent of the Iraqi population regularly consumes the monthly food rations. And 25 percent, 6.5 million people, are "highly dependent" on rations to meet their nutritional needs.

According to Abdul-Lattif from Iraq's Ministry of Trade, only sugar, rice, flour and cooking oil remain from the original 12 foodstuffs provided by the former government. Other items such as lentils were removed from the list in May 2006 as a result of budget cuts.

"What food ration are you talking about," 35-year-old Um Jamila, a mother of five complained. "The whole country has been stolen from us. If this goes on another six months, we will be just like any starving country."

A report released Jan. 30 by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) showed that 1.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Iraq lack basic necessities such as adequate food, drinking water, sanitation, and health and education facilities.

Entitled 'Iraq Displacement 2006 Year in Review', the report puts food at the top of the list of the most urgent needs for IDPs in Iraq.

"I was so happy when my salary was increased to around 300 dollars, but I now wish for the times when it was 30 dollars as it used to be before this occupation," engineer Kamil Fattah from the Ministry of Industry said. "Inflation in the Iraqi market has made it impossible for us to eat decently while earlier we used to get every basic need for almost free of charge."

The World Food Programme is sending aid to Iraq but its officials say this is running into difficulties.

"The food is either stolen on the way or cannot be inspected on arrival by third party inspectors," a retired staff member of the Food and Agriculture Organisation which runs the World Food Programme said. "Each shipment needs to be checked by a third party inspector, but the company is facing difficulties in conducting such inspections due to the security situation."

No Safety for Women in Iraq

Nobody is safe. Taysseer Al-Mashadani, the Sunni woman minister from the al-Tawafuq political party was abducted by members of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi army militia July 1 this year. After being held for nearly three months, she was only released after much pressure was applied from both the U.S. and Iraqi governments.

Thousands of other women have not been so lucky. Many have been executed, assaulted, or released only after their families paid considerable ransom money.

Few women like to talk about what they have to go through. "I was taken by Americans for three days recently," Um Ahmed said in Baghdad. "They told me they would rape me if I didn't tell them where my husband was, but I really didn't know."

She said that she was turned over to the Iraqi National Guard "who were even worse than the Americans."

Her husband eventually surrendered to the U.S. military, but she continued to be held "to apply pressure on him to confess things he never did," she said. "They told him they would rape me right in front of him if he did not confess he was a terrorist. They forced me to watch them beat him hard until he told them what they wanted to hear."

The Organisation for Women's Freedom in Iraq has estimated from anecdotal evidence that over 2,000 Iraqi women have gone missing in the period from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 until spring 2006.

But numbers are not always reliable here. Thousands of cases of abduction of women are never reported for fear of public disgrace.

According to a study published by the Washington-based Brookings Institute Dec. 4, between 30 to 40 Iraqis were being kidnapped every day as of March this year. "The numbers on this table may be lower than the actual number of kidnappings as the Iraqi Police suggest wide underreporting," the study noted.

These estimated numbers have drastically increased from a reported rate of two kidnappings a day in Baghdad in January 2004, and are up from the 10 a day reported in the capital city in December 2004 according to this study.

Untold numbers of women, believed by many to be in the thousands, have been abducted for money, and others have been abducted for sectarian reasons. "My family had to pay 30,000 dollars to have me released," a 25year-old woman said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Several abducted women have later been found dead, sometimes beheaded. Others are never seen again.

Fifty-two-year-old Um Wasseem from Baghdad was abducted by U.S. forces and held at the Baghdad airport detention camp, her family said. She was eventually released after political pressure from family and friends who had some political muscle.

"I wish she had not been released," her 20-year-old son said. "Militias then abducted her, and we found her body torn to pieces in March this year."

Many Iraqi academics and aid workers say most of those being kidnapped now are women.

"Women in Iraq used to go to work, participate in social activities and even take part in politics," sociologist Shatha al-Dulaimy said in Baghdad. "Iraqi women studied and worked side by side with men, and they formed at least 35 percent of the national working power in various fields of work until the U.S. occupation came. The occupation has brought nothing but suffering, death or kidnapping to women here now."

The U.S. administration promised Iraqi women a better life with new opportunities, but the reality after three-and-a-half years of occupation is far different. Iraqi women were promised 25 percent of the seats in parliament. As it turned, out, the Iraqi National Assembly has 85 women in a total of 275 members following elections held Dec. 15, 2005. But that has not translated into more rights for women across Iraq.

"We are just a part of the décor arranged by Americans who wanted to convince the world of the 'tremendous' change in Iraq," a female member of the Iraqi parliament said on condition of anonymity. "Our (women's) voice is never heard inside or outside parliament."

Female members of the new Iraqi Parliament take little part in major political decisions or when it comes to forming committees. Many female members were elected for religious or tribal reasons, she said.

The MP expressed concern over a rise in "religious extremism" because people are being "led by clerics who spent their lives learning how to make women obey their orders and present them with the best services at home." Such extremism has been a large factor in the rising number of women being kidnapped, she said.

"What women's rights?" asked 38-year-old schoolteacher Assmaa Fadhil. "Those who talk about it are ignorant people who want women to be slaves and concubines rather than partners in life. They are using old traditions to crush women and keep them away from any real participation in society."

Fadhil says lack of respect for women's rights has increased the threat of women getting abducted simply as they step out of their homes.

"Most of us now stay at home unless we absolutely must go out for food," Fadhil said. "Because we know so many women who have been kidnapped, it is only a matter of time for us if we continue traveling around the city."

Denial of rights for women in the name of Islam is not what Islam is all about, Sheikh Ahmed of the Sunni religious group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, said. "Muslim women are granted full rights of work and social participation. It is tradition that limits women's activity nowadays, rather than religion."

Most Iraqi women are fearful about their future as long as the country is led by Islamists.

Business Is the Next Big Casualty in Iraq

"Iraq got the foreign investment rules long sought by U.S. corporations," says Antonia Juhasz, a visiting scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

Juhasz said the new laws, which were a part of the 100 'Bremer Orders' instituted by former U.S. administrator Paul Bremer when he headed the Coalition Provisional Authority during the first year of the occupation, provided a flood of benefits for U.S. companies.

These included "100 percent repatriation of profits earned in Iraq by foreign companies; 100 percent foreign ownership of Iraqi businesses, including banks; privatisation of Iraq's state owned enterprises; 100 percent immunity for U.S. contractors and soldiers from Iraq's laws; and 'national treatment' which allowed for Iraqis to be all but excluded from the reconstruction for years while the U.S. government paid 50 billion dollars to some 150 U.S. corporations for work in Iraq."

What followed was "a U.S. corporate invasion of Iraq," says Juhasz. "Many companies had their sights set on privatisation in Iraq, also made possible by Bremer, which helps explain their interest in 'major overhauls' rather than getting the systems up and running."

In contrast, there was much state support for businesses under the previous regime, which followed a socialist system under which the government allowed Iraqis to establish their own factories and workshops, and supported them in many ways.

Businesses were granted low interest loans and permission to transfer foreign currency. They could get state-owned land to build on. Administrative laws facilitated enterprise, and so small industry business bloomed during the 1970s and 1980s.

Major industries in Iraq for oil products, phosphates and cement, along with the military industry, were mostly state-run under the previous regime. Foreign companies were allowed, under state supervision, to build factories as Iraq moved towards increasing industrialisation.

This growth was reversed during the 1990's under the U.S-backed UN economic sanctions. The sanctions crippled the Iraqi dinar and people's ability to purchase goods and services.

The business situation worsened further during the U.S.-led invasion when most factories ceased to function. Many were bombed, and for other factories employees stayed at home. Following the invasion several were looted, and were never able to start again.

Some private businesses held out, but eventually security problems, lack of electricity and fuel, a staggering inflation rate (70 percent) and lack of safe transportation led many of these too to close down. Unemployment now stands at more than 50 percent -- but most people believe the real situation is far worse.

Thousands of business and factory owners sold what they could and fled to neighbouring countries. Those who did not now wish they had.

"I used to employ more than 30 workers in my plastic products factory, and business was good before the occupation," Abbas Ali said in Baghdad. "It is impossible to work now, and I had to go back to my old job as school teacher. I was offered 200,000 dollars for the business, but now it is not worth anything. I blame myself for not selling it to flee, like some of my colleagues who live safely in Syria now."

And still, there are steel, textile, and other factories that continue to produce what they can.

Kais al-Nazzal built a set of steel factories about 60km west of Baghdad near Fallujah, and is fighting to keep them going. "We imported the best quality steel manufacturing equipment and spent millions of dollars on modern buildings to meet international standards," Kais al-Nazzal said.

"We have been able to work through the occupation period, but we must admit there are hardships under the recent domestic disturbances that are causing us considerable losses."

Local studies have found 85 percent unemployment in the industry sector. Many of the 15 percent who remain employed are registered at a few state factories that pay their employees even if they produce nothing.

"We are trying to do some work here, but the whole situation is not encouraging, so it seems that we will wait until a miracle takes place," a manager at a state-owned cement factory on the outskirts of Baghdad said.

The business and economic morass Iraq finds itself in today is evident in the market places across the capital city.

About 80 percent of domestically manufactured goods were distributed prior to the invasion and occupation through the Shorja market in the centre of Baghdad. The wholesale market is a bazaar along narrow roads where hundreds of small shop-owners display their merchandise.

"There is no Iraqi brand any more," plastic products distributor Johar Aziz told IPS. "Iraqi products flourished during the quarter century before occupation, but now we only sell imported products of the lowest quality, and people have to buy them because there is no alternative."

Other markets in Baghdad are suffering a similar crisis, like the Samarraii compound where tyres are sold, the Jamila market for fruits and vegetables, and the Sinaa market for computers.

The main shopping centres like Saadoon Street and Rasheed Street, and the once upmarket Mansour area and the Karrada district are now like ghosts of what they once were.

"We used to open our shops for at least 16 hours a day, but now we only open for a few hours because of the security threats," Duraid Abdullah, an electrical appliances shop owner in Karrada said. "We are facing all kinds of threats starting from being abducted for money or sectarian reasons, as well as being evicted from our shops by gangs supported by government forces."

A businessman who once owned a small textile factory that has gone bankrupt said he had not expected the coming in of a U.S. administration to be bad for business.

"The picture of Japan after World War II dominated the minds of businessmen in Iraq after occupation," he said. "Most of us thought the American invasion of Iraq was bad for many things, but it must be good for business in general and industry in particular. We were terribly wrong. The Iraqi economy was meant to be destroyed for political reasons."

Government Death Squads Ravaging Baghdad

Death squads from the Ministry of Interior posing as Iraqi police are killing more people than ever in the capital, emerging evidence shows.

The death toll is high -- in all 1,536 bodies were brought to the Baghdad morgue in September. The health ministry announced last month that it will build two new morgues in Baghdad to take their capacity to 250 bodies a day.

Many fear a government hand in more killings to come. The U.S. military has revealed that the 8th Iraqi Police Unit was responsible for the Oct. 1 kidnapping of 26 Sunni food factory workers in the Amil quarter in southwest Baghdad. The bodies of ten of them were later found in Abu Chir neighbourhood in the capital.

Minister for the Interior Jawad al-Bolani announced he is suspending the police unit from official duties, and confining it to base until an investigation is completed.

But sections of the ministry appear responsible for the abductions and killing. Ministry of Interior vehicles were used for the kidnapping in this case, and most men conducting the raid wore Iraqi police uniforms, except for a few who wore black death squad 'uniforms', witnesses said.

The leader of the police unit is under house arrest and faces interrogation for this and other crimes, according to an official announcement.

"It is for sure that they did it," one of the victim's neighbours said on condition of anonymity. "The tortured bodies were found the second day. They came in their official police cars; it is not the first time that they did something like this. They do it all over Baghdad, and we hope they will get proper punishment this time."

Men of the police unit meanwhile do not face imminent punishment. "They are going to be rehabilitated and brought back to service," director-general of the Iraqi police Adnan Thabit said.

The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni party, blamed militias with ties to the government and the U.S. military.

"The Iraqi Islamic Party asks how could 26 people, women among them, have been transported from Amil to Abu Chir through all those Iraqi and U.S. army checkpoints and patrols," it said in a statement.

The U.S. military has denied any involvement in the killings.

General Yassin al-Dulaimi, deputy minister for the interior, has said on Iraqi television several times that death squads are composed mainly of Iraqi police and army units. His comments reflect differing allegiance and agendas even within the Shia bloc.

General Dulaimi has been trying for long to expose the organised criminal gangs that have been controlling the ministry since its formation -- a formation that was overseen by U.S. authorities.

Dulaimi says he does not believe that the Shia Badr organisation, a large, well-armed and funded militia, has complete control over his ministry. But most residents of Baghdad believe that Badr has complete control over the Baghdad Order Maintenance police force, and use this force to carry out sectarian murders. This force is one of several official security teams in Baghdad.

The force is led by Mehdi al-Gharrawi, who also led similar security units during the U.S.- led attack on Fallujah in November 2004.

"All criminals who survived the Fallujah crisis after committing genocide and other war crimes were granted higher ranks," Major Amir Jassim from the ministry of defence said. "I and many of my colleagues were not rewarded because we disobeyed orders to set fire to people's houses (in Fallujah) after others looted them."

Jassim said the looting and burning of homes in Fallujah during the November siege was ordered from the ministries of interior and defence.

"Now they want to do the same things they did in Fallujah in all Sunni areas so that they ignite a civil war in Iraq," said Jassim, referring to the Shia-dominated ministries. "A civil war is the only guarantee for them to stay in power, looting such incredible amounts of money."

Another official with the ministry of defence, Muntather al-Samarraii, said that both Iran and "collaborators" within the Ministry of Interior are to blame for the widespread sectarian killings.

"I have lists of thousands of corruption cases from within my ministry, and other files to expose to the world," he said, "But the world is not listening. When it does, I am afraid it is going to be too late."

A police officer in Samarraii's office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that he believed that murderers would not be punished for their crimes.

"They will reward them, believe me, and give them higher ranks," he said. "This is a country that will never stand back on its feet as long as these killers are in power. And the Americans are supporting them by allowing their convoys to move during curfew hours."

While there is little evidence of direct U.S. involvement, questions have arisen over what the U.S. forces have done -- or not done -- to encourage such killings.

A UN human rights report released September last year held interior ministry forces responsible for an organised campaign of detentions, torture and killings. It reported that special police commando units accused of carrying out the killings were recruited from Shia Badr and Mehdi militias, and trained by U.S. forces.

Retired Col. James Steele, who served as advisor on Iraqi security forces to then U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte supervised the training of these forces.

Steele was commander of the U.S. military advisor group in El Salvador 1984-86, while Negroponte was U.S. ambassador to nearby Honduras 1981-85. Negroponte was accused of widespread human rights violations by the Honduras Commission on Human Rights in 1994. The Commission reported the torture and disappearance of at least 184 political workers.

The violations Negroponte oversaw in Honduras were carried out by operatives trained by the CIA, according to a CIA working group set up in 1996 to look into the U.S. role in Honduras.

The CIA records document that his "special intelligence units," better known as "death squads," comprised CIA-trained Honduran armed units which kidnapped, tortured and killed thousands of people suspected of supporting leftist guerrillas.

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