News & Current Affairs

January 31, 2009

Iraqis vote in landmark elections

Iraqis vote in landmark elections

A man casts his vote in Baghdad, Iraq (31/01/2009)

Voters had to pass through strict security to cast their ballots

Iraqis are electing new provincial councils in the first nationwide vote in four years, with the Sunni minority expected to turn out in strength.

Sunnis largely boycotted the last ballot. Correspondents in Baghdad, where there has been a total ban on vehicles, said voting started slowly.

The vote is seen as a test of Iraq’s stability ahead of the next general election later this year.

Security is tight and thousands of observers are monitoring the polls.

Up to 15 million Iraqis are eligible to cast votes.

“This is a great chance for us, a great day, to be able to vote freely without any pressure or interference,” a Baghdad voter identified as Hamid told Reuters news agency.

Another voter said he had not slept in order to be first at the polling station.

“I want this experience to be a success, and that there will no fraud,” said Adnan al-Janabi.

Security tight

Voters had to pass through stringent security checks to reach the polling stations, which were mostly set up in schools.

As voting got underway, several mortar rounds landed near polling stations in Tikrit, hometown of late ruler Saddam Hussein, but no casualties were reported.

Hundreds of international observers are monitoring the vote, as well as thousands of local observers from the various political parties.

We didn’t vote and we saw the result – sectarian violence
Khaled al-Azemi
Sunni speaking about 2005 boycott

At least eight of the 14,000 candidates have been killed in the run up to the election.

Three of the candidates – all Sunni Muslims – were killed on Thursday, in Baghdad, Mosul and Diyala province.

While the recent level of violence around Iraq is significantly lower than in past years, Iraq’s international borders have been shut, traffic bans are in place across Baghdad and major cities, and curfews have been introduced.

Hundreds of women, including teachers and civic workers, have also been recruited to help search women voters after a rise in female suicide bombers last year, according to the Associated Press.

Iraqi and US military commanders have in recent days warned that al-Qaeda poses a threat to the elections.

Setting the stage

Sunnis largely boycotted the last ballot, a general election which resulted in Shia and Kurdish parties taking control of parliament.

Despite intimidation, many Sunni voters say they will vote this time.

PROVINCIAL ELECTIONS
Baghdad prepares for Saturday's election

Some, like Khaled al-Azemi, said the boycott last time had been a mistake.

“We lost a lot because we didn’t vote and we saw the result – sectarian violence” he told the News.

“That’s why we want to vote now to avoid the mistakes of the past.”

The drawing of alienated Sunnis back into the political arena is one of the big changes these elections will crystallise.

On the Shia side, the results will also be closely watched amid signs that many voters intend to turn away from the big religious factions and towards nationalist or secular ones.

If they pass off relatively peacefully, these elections will set the stage for general polls at the end of the year and for further coalition troop withdrawals, our correspondent says.

The election is also being seen as a quasi-referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

Saturday’s elections are being held in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces, with more than 14,000 candidates competing for just 440 seats.

There is no vote in the three provinces of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of the north and the ballot has been postponed in oil-rich Kirkuk province.

Iraq’s provincial councils are responsible for nominating the governors who lead the administration and oversee finance and reconstruction projects.

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November 1, 2008

Crucial battle on Pakistan’s frontline

A tank fires at militant movement detected at the edge of the town of Loi Sam in Bajaur

A tank fires at militant movement detected at the edge of the town of Loi Sam

Entering the combat zone, we drive past mile after mile of flattened buildings, crops and trees, razed to prevent ambushes.

Even still, soldiers are on high alert, watchful for possible attacks.

They race down the road at top speed, firing occasional rounds from the guns mounted on the backs of their vehicles. Cobra attack helicopters circle overhead.

This is the tribal area of Bajaur near the Afghan border, or rather a small part of it.

The Pakistan army has wrested control of a 38km (24-mile) region from the Taleban, and it has given us rare access to the frontline.

We arrive in the town of Loi Sam, now in ruins. Militants here were targeted by the air force and artillery, followed by a ground offensive that lasted five days.

Civilians fled long ago – hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the fighting.

Key crossroads

A tank guards one of the approaches to the town, firing whenever there is movement in the distance.

Already a bulldozer has begun clearing away the blasted shells of buildings.

“You have to either occupy or remove the structures,” says one soldier, “otherwise the militants will return to them once we’ve left.”

For the army, this is a crucial victory: Loi Sam lies at a key crossroads between Afghanistan and Pakistan. From here local and Afghan insurgents could launch attacks in both countries.

“The militant activities from this tribal agency were radiating in different directions, towards Afghanistan, the rest of the border region and [Pakistan’s] settled areas,” says army spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas.

“Now we have this area under control, it will affect militant activities elsewhere, and we’ll capitalise on that.”

“The worst is over,” agrees Maj Gen Tariq Khan, who is in charge of the offensive. “I think we have turned the corner.”

Guerrilla warfare

The battle has been slow and deliberate. It took six weeks for the army to secure the road from the headquarters of the local security forces, the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC), to Loi Sam, a distance of 13km.

Troops fought compound to compound in a terrain ideal for guerrilla warfare.

“There are road bends, there are depressions, there are houses located inside the depressions, trenches prepared, caves, tunnels, everything prepared,” says Col Javed Baloch, commander of one of the posts along the road, “so it was difficult to find them, to spot them, and then take the area.”

The Taleban has made extensive use of bunkers and tunnels which connected different compounds.

One commanding officer, Maj Kamal, took me 5m underground for a tour of the network.

He says his men blocked 20 or 30 passageways, including one that stretched 100m to a stream.

Many in Bajaur trace the roots of the uprising to a suspected US missile strike on an Islamic seminary, or madrassa, in November 2006, which killed around 80 people.

That radicalized local Islamists, they say, who were reinforced by militants from other Pakistani tribal areas. There was also an influx of fighters from Afghanistan.

A soldier keeps watch
Until and unless Afghanistan is made stable, you can do a million development activities in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and there will be no result
Shafir Ullah
Government representative in Bajaur

The battle for Bajaur was triggered when the FC tried to re-establish a check post in Loi Sam in early August. Fierce resistance led to the siege of the FC base before the army was called in.

Like other army officers, Maj Gen Tariq Khan criticises unilateral US air strikes on suspected insurgent targets as deeply counter productive.

But, he says, during the Bajaur operation there has been improved intelligence sharing and co-ordination with coalition forces, which has reduced cross-border militant infiltration from Afghanistan. “We’ve seen practical on-ground adjustments in relevance to our operations,” he says.

“I’ve got a very positive response and I feel we’ve set up some system in which we’re in some kind of regular touch, and I think that’s the way to go.”

Hearts and minds

Now that the fighting has subsided, attention is turning to reconstruction and development: acknowledgement that winning hearts and minds in the impoverished tribal region along the border is essential to fighting the insurgency.

Map

But that won’t be enough, says Shafir Ullah, the government representative in Bajaur who deals with tribal elders.

“The reasons [for the insurgency] are poverty, backwardness and others, but the real problem is linked with Afghanistan,” he says.

“Until and unless Afghanistan is made stable, you can do a million development activities in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and there will be no result.”

The Taleban have been pushed back – the army claims it has killed 1,500 – but they haven’t been defeated.

Two soldiers were killed by rocket fire in Loi Sam shortly after we left the town, bringing the army’s death toll to 75. Nearly 100 civilians have also died, says Shafir Ullah.

One hillside post is so exposed to Taleban fire that the soldiers have dug in for protection.

Forty men can fit in the massive bunker at any one time, a few are saying their prayers and reciting the Koran in a makeshift underground mosque when we visit.

This is not a popular war in Pakistan: some have criticized the military for killing fellow Muslims.

Others accuse it of fighting “America’s War”. But the army insists it is fighting to defend Pakistan, not just responding to US pressure for action against the Taleban.

Even as dusk falls artillery guns continue to pound militant positions. The war in Afghanistan has spilled over into Pakistan.

This is the other, rarely seen, side of the battle against the Taleban.

September 18, 2008

Karadzic’s broken Bosnia remains

Karadzic’s broken Bosnia remains

In the old days we would trot along to see Radovan Karadzic often. He would see us at the drop of a hat.

He was affable, jocular, hugely confident that what he was doing was right.

From time to time he would roll out his maps. There were lines separating the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) in Bosnia from the rest.

There was a line through the heart of Sarajevo – these quarters for the Muslims, those for the Serbs.

The term “ethnic cleansing” was not invented by the foreign journalists he courted so warmly. It was how his own followers described what they were doing.

Radovan Karadzic in 1993

Radovan Karadzic would freely outline his plans to journalists

Republika Srpska is the land that Radovan built. Ethnic cleansing was the means by which he achieved it.Go back there today and you see, starkly, that while the ideologues and architects of the policy are, for the most part, behind bars, the foot soldiers of ethnic cleaning are still at large.

They are still, in many cases, at their desks in the town halls and police stations across Bosnia.

Mirsad Tokaca runs Bosnia’s Research and Documentation Center.

It collates evidence of crimes committed during the 45-month war.

He believes there are between 3,000 and 5,000 war criminals who should face prosecution.

The Hague tribunal has restricted itself to a few dozen “big fish” and has said it will issue no more indictments.

Bosnia’s own state-wide war crimes court came into existence three years ago and has so far brought prosecutions against about a hundred people.

The local courts are supposed to prosecute local war criminals. They do not.

Where it started

Bijeljina, in north-eastern Bosnia, is where it all started.

Ten times they took me outside and told me they were going to kill me – it was a terrible experience
Jusuf Trbic
Bosnian Muslim survivor

On 31 March 1992, a paramilitary unit led by the feared Zeljko Raznatovic – known as Arkan – crossed the river from Serbia and unleashed a reign of terror.

Civilians were shot dead in the street. Prominent Muslims were rounded up, and some of them murdered.

The Muslim (Bosniak) population – tens of thousands of people – was driven out.

Eighteen years on, only a small proportion of those who were expelled have gone back, despite the legal right to do so.

Saalem Corbo is one of the returnees. He remembers how Arkan’s men rampaged through the town. And, he says, they had local help.

Mirko Blagojevic, a Bijeljina Serb and head of the Serbian Radical Party in the town, formed and led his own paramilitary unit, according to evidence presented to the Hague tribunal.

“He knew where the prominent Muslims in the town lived,” says Mr Corbo.

“He led Arkan’s troops to their houses so that they could be rounded up. Few of them survived.”

Survivor

Jusuf Trbic is one who did survive.

“Mirko Blagojevic came to my father-in-law’s house at 1600 on 1 April,” he told me.

“He was with Arkan’s men. They took me to Arkan’s headquarters and told me I had to make an announcement on local radio instructing all the Muslims to surrender their weapons.

“But I didn’t know anything about weapons. They held me all night and beat me.

“Ten times they took me outside and told me they were going to kill me. It was a terrible experience.”

We live with the former war criminals, we see them every day in the streets
Branko Todorovic
Helsinki Committee for Human Rights

Mirko Blagojevic is not a convicted war criminal. No case has ever been brought against him, far less proven.

He is not hard to find. He has enjoyed a long career as an elected politician in the years since the war ended.

He emphatically denied co-operating with Arkan’s men. He denied all the allegations made by Mr Corbo and Mr Trbic.

Branko Todorovic runs the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bijeljina.

He said only two war crimes trials had been brought by local prosecutors since the war ended – and both of these were against Muslims who had co-operated with Serb guards in a concentration camp.

Karadzic and Arkan in Bijeljina, 1995

Arkan salutes troops in Bijeljina, where he unleashed terror in 1992

The Bijeljina courts, by the way, have jurisdiction over the Srebrenica area, where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered in a few days in July 1995.

“We live with the former war criminals, we see them every day in the streets,” says Mr Todorovic.

Why does it matter?

The ethnic partition of Bosnia endures. The Dayton agreement of 1995 ended the war. But it divided Bosnia into two, ethnically defined entities – Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation.

The leaders of Republika Srpska long ago abandoned their original dream of union with Serbia.

They have accepted some of the symbols of Bosnian statehood – a common currency, a shared passport, a flag.

Survivors of the Srebrenica massacre and their relatives watched the hearing

Mr Karadzic’s hearings at The Hague have been broadcast on TV

The one truly successful example of reintegration is – ironically – in the army, where former Muslim, Serb and Croat enemies now serve alongside each other.Beyond that, there is little that is truly Bosnian.

The entities, not the Bosnian state, have real executive power.

The Bosnian state barely functions. It is incapable of carrying out the reforms that Bosnia desperately needs.

And so as Croatia and Serbia continue their respective journeys to the European mainstream – to EU and possibly Nato membership – Bosnia, still broken, still paralysed, is being left behind, and is in danger of sinking further into corruption, poverty and organised crime.

Look at Republika Srpska today and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Radovan Karadzic got much of what he set out to get.

September 1, 2008

Kremlin critic shot in Ingushetia

Kremlin critic shot in Ingushetia

Magomed Yevloyev (photo from Russian news website lenta.ru)

Yevloyev’s website is said to be one of the most visited for Ingush news

The owner of an internet site critical of the Russian authorities in the volatile region of Ingushetia has been shot dead in police custody.

Magomed Yevloyev, owner of the ingushetiya.ru site, was a vocal critic of the region’s administration.

The Russian prosecutor’s office said an investigation into the death had been launched, Russia media report.

A post on Yevloyev’s site says he was detained by police after landing at the airport of the main town, Nazran.

The website owner was taken to hospital but died from his injuries.

Reports quoting local police said Yevloyev had tried to seize a policeman’s gun when he was being led to a vehicle. A shot was fired and Yevloyev was injured in the head.

Fierce critic

Yevloyev was a thorn in the side of Ingush President Murat Zyazikov, a former KGB general.

Ingushetia map

His website reported on alleged Russian security force brutality in Ingushetia, an impoverished province of some half a million people, mostly Muslims, which is now more turbulent than neighboring Chechnya.

President Zyazikov had been on the same flight as Yevloyev.

Ingushetia borders Chechnya and has suffered from overflowing unrest.

There is a low-level insurgency, with regular small-scale ambushes against police and soldiers.

In June 2008, the Human Rights Watch group accused Russian security forces there of carrying out widespread human rights abuses.

HRW said it had documented dozens of arbitrary detentions, disappearances, acts of torture and extra-judicial executions.

August 23, 2008

Muslims in huge Kashmir protest

Muslims in huge Kashmir protest

Muslims protest in Srinagar 22 August

The protests have been going on for two months

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have taken part in a protest rally called by separatist leaders in Indian-controlled Kashmir’s main city, Srinagar.

The rally ended with the leaders calling a three-day strike, beginning Saturday, in the Kashmir valley.

This is the fourth big protest in the Muslim-dominated valley in less than two weeks.

Anti-Indian sentiment has grown following a dispute over the granting of land to a Hindu shrine organization.

More than 21 people died last week in the valley after police fired on protesters.

Trouble began two months ago when the state government granted a small piece of land to a trust running the Amarnath Hindu shrine.

After violent protests by Muslims in the valley, the order was rescinded which led to equally violent protests in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Friday’s protests come after three days of relative calm in the valley which allowed residents to stock up on supplies.

Cheering supporters

Through the morning, hundreds of vehicles and thousands of people on foot marched towards the Eidgah ground in the old city area of Srinagar.

Schools, businesses and shops were shut across the region and a large number of troops deployed on the streets.

The support for the marchers could be gauged from the fact that a large number of people – including women – were lined up by the road-side cheering them on.

In many places, the marchers were offered fruit juices and women could be seen praying for their success, our correspondent says.

The crowds thronged the Eidgah ground where senior separatist leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Maulvi Omar Farooq, Shabbir Shah and Yasin Malik took stage.

However, they could not address the rally as the public address system got disconnected by the milling crowds.

The row started two months ago when the state government said it would grant 99 acres (40 hectares) of forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board.

Muslims launched violent protests, saying the allocation of land was aimed at altering the demographic balance in the area.

The state government said the shrine board needed the land to erect huts and toilets for visiting pilgrims.

But following days of protests, the government rescinded the order, prompting Hindu groups to mount violent protests of their own.


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