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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December 14, 2008

Shoes thrown at Bush on Iraq trip

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A surprise visit by US President George Bush to Iraq has been overshadowed by an incident in which two shoes were thrown at him during a news conference.

An Iraqi journalist was wrestled to the floor by security guards after he called Mr Bush “a dog” and threw his footwear, just missing the president.

The soles of shoes are considered the ultimate insult in Arab culture.

During the trip, Mr Bush and Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki signed the new security agreement between their countries.

The pact calls for US troops to leave Iraq in 2011 – eight years after the 2003 invasion that has in part defined the Bush presidency.

Speaking just over five weeks before he hands over power to Barack Obama, Mr Bush also said the war in Iraq was not over and more work remained to be done.

His previously unannounced visit came a day after US Defence Secretary Robert Gates told US troops the Iraq mission was in its “endgame”.

‘Size 10’

In the middle of the news conference with Mr Maliki, a reporter stood up and shouted “this is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog,” before hurtling his shoes at Mr Bush, narrowly missing him.

PREVIOUS BUSH VISITS TO IRAQ
President Bush serves Thanksgiving dinner to US troops in Baghdad - 27/11/2003
Nov 2003: Serves Thanksgiving dinner to troops in Baghdad
June 2006: Meets new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki
Sept 2007: Visits Anbar province – former stronghold of Saddam Hussein

“All I can report is a size 10,” Mr Bush said according to the Associated Press news agency.

The shoe thrower was taken away by security guards and the news conference continued.

Correspondents called it a symbolic incident. Iraqis threw shoes and used them to beat Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad after his overthrow.

‘American security’

Mr Bush’s first stop upon arriving in Baghdad was the Iraqi presidential palace in the heavily-fortified Green Zone, where he held talks with President Jalal Talabani.

“The work hasn’t been easy but it’s been necessary for American security, Iraqi hope and world peace,” Mr Bush said during his talks with Mr Talabani.

The Iraqi president called Mr Bush “a great friend for the Iraqi people, who helped us liberate our country”.

The key issue at present is exactly how American troops will withdraw within the next three years and what sort of Iraq they will leave behind.

The US media has just published details of a US government report saying that post invasion reconstruction of Iraq was crippled by bureaucratic turf wars and an ignorance of the basic elements of Iraqi society.

The report is circulating among US officials in draft form, says the New York Times.

It reveals details of a reconstruction effort that cost more than $100bn (£67bn) and only succeeded in restoring what was destroyed in the invasion and the widespread looting that followed it, the newspaper said.

Troop promises

Mr Bush’s visit, unannounced in advance and conducted under tight security, follows the approval last month of a security pact between Washington and Baghdad that calls for US troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011.

US troops are first to withdraw from Iraqi cities, including Baghdad, by June next year.

Defence Secretary Gates said on Saturday that “the process of the drawdown” had begun.

US troops near Mosul

The end in sight for US troops in Iraq?

“We are, I believe, in terms of the American commitment, in the endgame here in Iraq,” he told US troops at an airbase near Baghdad.

Mr Gates has been picked to stay on as defence secretary by President-elect Barack Obama.

President Bush leaves the White House in less than six weeks. He said in a recent interview with ABC News that the biggest regret of his presidency was the false intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Finding these was one of the key justifications for the invasion. None were ever found.

Mr Obama has promised to bring home US combat troops from Iraq in a little over a year from when he takes office in January.

More than 4,200 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and security personnel have been killed since the invasion in 2003.

There are currently about 149,000 US soldiers in Iraq, down from last year’s peak of 170,000 after extra troops were poured in to deal with a worsening security situation.

As Mr Bush arrived in Baghdad, Gen David Petraeus, the head of the US Central Command, which includes Iraq, said attacks in the country had dropped from 180 a day in June 2007 to 10 a day now.

In a sign of modest security gains in Iraq, Mr Bush was welcomed with a formal arrival ceremony – a flourish that was not part of his previous three visits.

He arrived in the country on Air Force One, which landed at Baghdad International Airport in the afternoon, after a secretive Saturday night departure from Washington on an 11-hour flight.

September 5, 2008

US ‘spying’ on Iraqi leadership

US ‘spying’ on Iraqi leadership

US President Bush with Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad in 2006

Mr Bush says he has worked hard on his relationship with Mr Maliki

The US has been extensively spying on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a new book by renowned US reporter Bob Woodward claims.

A source in the book is quoted as saying “we know everything he says”, according to the Washington Post.

The book also says “ground-breaking” covert techniques have helped reduce the violence in Iraq.

This is the fourth book on the Bush administration by Mr Woodward, the Washington Post’s associate editor.

The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008, examines the handling of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and President Bush’s leadership and governing style, according to the Post.

Several sources in the book support the claim that Mr Maliki and other Iraqi leaders were being spied on by the US administration.

But Mr Woodward says the tactic was not universally popular in the White House – some senior US officials questioned whether it was worth the risk, given Mr Bush’s efforts to develop a close working relationship with Mr Maliki.

Growing rifts

The book also claims that the US “surge” in 2007, in which nearly 30,000 extra troops were sent to Iraq, was not the primary reason for the steep drop in violence seen over the last year.

Mr Woodward says new covert techniques have been used successfully by US military and intelligence officials to find, target and kill insurgents.

He does not go into detail about them, saying the White House asked him to withhold specifics in the interests of national security.

The book quotes from interviews given by Mr Bush himself, and looks at the how the decision-making of the war evolved and the internal clashes it caused.

It reveals a breakdown in the confidence between the president and his military commanders in the region, as well as discord between the state and defence departments.

US officials have not commented on the book, which is due to be published on Monday.

Mr Woodward is well-known for his investigative reporting, and first came to prominence for his role in exposing the Watergate scandal which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

August 7, 2008

Mehdi Army ‘stops carrying arms’

Mehdi Army ‘stops carrying arms’

Mehdi Army members in Basra, August 2004

The militia is weakened after many battles with US and Iraqi forces

A spokesman for Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr says his militia  will no longer carry weapons, but he stopped short of declaring an end to violence.

In a BBC interview, Salah al-Obeidi said future decisions about the Mehdi Army’s strategy would depend on the long-term status of US troops in Iraq.

“Resistance” would go on if a timetable for US withdrawal was not set, he said.

Iraq and the US are negotiating a status of forces agreement to decide the future role of US troops.

An announcement is expected to be read out at prayers in many Shia mosques in Baghdad on Friday.

The BBC’s Crispin Thorold in Baghdad says the Mehdi Army was once arguably the most powerful Shia military and political movement in Iraq, but it has been seriously weakened after military operations against it.

Local ceasefires were declared in Basra and Baghdad earlier year year after intense fighting, but the militia still retains its weapons.

In June, the militia announced a reorganisation along the lines of Hezbollah in Lebanon – turning it into a large social movement with small secretive fighting units.

Separately, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has given militants in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, a week to lay down their arms.

He said those that did so would receive an amnesty.

So far, almost 500 suspected militants have been captured in an offensive there over the past eight days.

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