Bomb kills 18 at Shia funeral in Iraq
30 September 2011
At least 18 people were killed when a large car bomb exploded among mourners crowding into a Shia funeral in Iraq’s Hilla city on Friday, local authorities and witnesses said.
The blast left burned bodies and damaged vehicles near a Shia mosque where relatives had gathered in a tent for the funeral of a local sheikh, witnesses said. Ambulances ferried three or four people at a time from the scene.
“I was standing on the other side of the funeral tent, and suddenly the place turned into hell, all my relatives were cut down and their bodies were burned,” said Haider Qahtan, 37, whose hand was injured in the blast.
At least 18 people were killed and 48 more wounded, a police official at the scene said.
Hilla, 100 km (60 miles) south of Baghdad, is a mainly Shia city on a route used by pilgrims visiting Shi’ite holy sites in the south of the country.
Violence in Iraq has eased since the sectarian strife took the country to the brink of civil war a few years after the U.S. invasion. But Sunni Islamists tied to al Qaeda and Shia militias still carry out daily attacks.
Sunni insurgents often target Shia pilgrims with car bombs and suicide attacks in an attempt to rekindle sectarian tensions and test Iraq’s government as the last U.S. troops prepare to withdraw by the end of the year.
Recent attacks and incidents in the Sunni heartland of Anbar in western Iraq and in the Shia holy city of Kerbala have fuelled worries of resurgent sectarian violence.
Shi’ite militias rather than Sunni Islamist al Qaeda are behind a recent wave of assassinations of Iraqi government, police and military officials in Baghdad, security officials said.
Militants have used silenced guns and bombs stuck to their targets to kill more than 38 officials in the last five months, according to Baghdad security operations. Interior Ministry sources have reported at least 51 such killings to Reuters in the same period.
"This issue is the biggest concern for the security apparatus currently," said Major-General Hassan al-Baidhani, chief of staff for Baghdad’s security operations command.
لندن: يصدر قريباً في لندن كتاب جديد بعنوان "تاريخ العالم منذ 9/11" لمؤلفه دومنيك ستريتفيلد، يتهم فيه المؤلف الجيش الأميركي في العراق بأنه تصرف على نحو غير مسؤول وساعد تنظيم "القاعدة" في الاستحواذ على أكبر مخزن للأسلحة في العالم، ولدى اكتشاف ما حصل جرت محاولات للتغطية على التقصير الأميركي ومنع تسرّب المعلومات عنه إلى وسائل الإعلام. وحصلت صحيفة "الغارديان" على حق نشر أحد فصول الكتاب الجديد
الذي يروي فيه المؤلف كيف تمكن تنظيم "القاعدة" من الوصول إلى ترسانة الأسلحة في ربيع 2003، أي بعد أيام من سقوط نظام حكم صدام حسين.تبدأ القصة في قرية صغيرة اسمها اليوسفية تقع جنوب غرب بغداد، حيث فوجئ فلاحان عراقيان، أحدهما يدعى حقي محمد، كانا يعملان في أرضهما بجندي عراقي اقترب منهما فألقى بسلاحه وطلب منهما أن يمنحاه دشداشة فاستبدل بها ملابسه العسكرية ومضى راكضاً بين الحقول. كانت بندقية الجندي وملابسه تحمل علامة "منظومات الأمن العراقي". ويقول المؤلف أن اليوسفية قرية منسية تبعد عن بغداد 25 كيلومتراً ونحو30 دقيقة بالسيارة من مطار بغداد الدولي، ما جعلها صالحة كمخبأ، أو كمكان سري. لذلك في عام 1977، وقع اختيار الرئيس العراقي في حينه أحمد حسن البكر على اليوسفية، حيث أنشأ على بعد 15 كيلو متر منها مصنعاً ومخزناً كبيراً للذخائر. ونقل المؤلف عن خبراء يوغسلافيين عملوا على إنشاء المصنع أنه حمل في الأصل اسم "البكر"، إلى أن جاء صدام حسين إلى الحكم، فغيّر الإسم وأطلق عليه اسم القائد الإسلامي العراقي "القعقاع بن عمرو"، بطل معركة القادسية الثانية ضد الفرس في القرن السادس عشر. فيما نقل عن مفتشي الأسلحة الذين أوفدتهم الأمم المتحدة إلى العراق للتفتيش عن أسلحة الدمار الشامل بأنه "أكبر مخزن أو ترسانة أسلحة رأوها في حياتهم". فالترسانة التي تقوم على مساحة 36 كيلومتراً مربعاً وتحتوي على 1100 بناء وعمل فيها نحو 14 ألف عامل وموظف كانت مدينة قائمة بحد ذاتها ولم تكن بحاجة لأي شيء من الخارج لدرجة أنها كانت تتزود بالكهرباء من محطة خاصة بها لا علاقة لها بالشبكة الوطنية لكهرباء العراق، مما ساعد على بقائها موقعاً سرياً لمدة طويلة. كان صدام سعيداً بوجود هذا المصنع الذي أثبت فائدته عام 1980 لدى اندلاع الحرب مع إيران، ما دفعه لإنشاء مصانع وترسانات أسلحة سرية أخرى شبيهة في الصحراء ليس بعيداً عن اليوسفية. ويروي المؤلف أن صدام أمر خلال الحرب مع إيران باستيراد كميات هائلة من البارود والمواد سريعة الاشتعال والمتفجرة الأخرى من الخارج، حيث وصلت إلى العراق شحنات بمئات الأطنان من هذه المواد من شرق أوروبا وتشيلي. وأضاف أن المفتشين الدوليين الذين زاروا العراق بعد الغزو العراقي للكويت اكتشفوا هذه المواد المتفجرة فقاموا بجمعها وأمروا بوضعها في مخزن خاص تحت الأرض في الناحية الجنوبية الغربية من موقع القعقاع ويقدر وزنها بحوالي 341 طناً. كانت تلك عملية سرية لم تكشف الأمم المتحدة عنها مثلما تستر صدام ذاته عليها لأسبابه الخاصة. فسكان المنطقة لم يعرفوا عن هذا المخزن شيئاً مثلما أنهم لم يكونوا على اطلاع على ما يدور داخل الموقع، سوى أنهم مع مرور الوقت أدركوا أن الموقع عبارة عن ثكنة عسكرية لا أحد منهم يعرف بالضبط ما يجري فيها. في الثاني أو الثالث من أبريل 2003، وصل الجنود الأميركيون إلى القعقاع واحتلوا الموقع من دون مقاومة، إذ أن الجنود العراقيين الذين كانوا في الحراسة هربوا، تماماً مثلما فعل الجندي الذي وصل إلى اليوسفية وطلب الدشداشة من حقي محمد وأخيه. بالطبع عندما فرّ الجنود استيقظ حب الاستطلاع لدى مواطني اليوسفية الذين كانوا خلال السنوات الماضية ممنوعين من دخول "موقع القعقاع"، فبدأوا يتوافدون للتعرف على أسراره. فهدم الأهالي السور المحيط بالموقع من دون أن يعترضهم أحد. وبعد ساعات فقط، كان أكبر مخزن للأسلحة في منطقة الشرق الأوسط مفتوحاً أمام الجمهور والدخول إليه والخروج منه يتم بحرية تامة. حتى الجنود الأميركيين التابعين للفرقة 101 المحمولة جواً التي أقامت معسكراً قريباً لها من القعقاع لم تكن معنية بالتعرف على ما يحتويه الموقع. إذ أن الجنود الأميركيين كانوا منهمكين في ترتيب أمر وصولهم إلى بغداد والاحتفال بالنصر على صدام، ولم يعيروا اهتماماً لما كان مخزوناً بقربهم. وذلك دليل على أن القيادة العليا للجيش الأميركي لم تقدم للجنود معلومات دقيقة عمّا كان يصادفهم على الأرض. كان العالم ما زال مأخوذاً بالنصر السريع الذي حققه الجيشان الأميركي والبريطاني في العراق، حينما بدأت وسائل الإعلام تنقل أخبار الفوضى التي انتشرت في العراق وعمليات السلب والنهب. ونقل المؤلف عن حقي إبراهيم، الذي وصل إلى موقع القعقاع مع أخيه فوق سيارة تجارية رفعا فوقها علماً أبيض، أنه وجد باب الموقع مشرعاً والتقى فيه بالمئات من أبناء اليوسفية. وروى حقي كيف نهب المواطنون محتويات الموقع ولم يتركوا فيه شيئاً ليتحول إلى ما يشبه الخربة، بما في ذلك مخازن الأسلحة، مستعينين بالرافعات التي كانت موجودة في الموقع لسحب الآلات والمحركات أو الأسلحة الثقيلة التي تم نهبها. ولم يقتصر النهب على أهالي اليوسفية، بل انضم إليهم أهالي بلدة أخرى تقع إلى الشمال الشرقي للموقع تدعى محمودية. يقول المؤلف أن "موقع القعقاع" نهب عملياً قبل سقوط صدام بيومين وكانت المنهوبات عرضت للبيع في أسواق المنطقة وجرى تبادلها بين الناس في شكل واسع. غير أن المواطنين الذين لم يتركوا شيئاً ونهبوه، لم يعثروا على المخزن الذي كانت المواد المتفجرة وشديدة الاشتعال مخبأة فيه. ويقول المؤلف أن هذه الحقيقة يعرفها الجميع لأن صحفيين أميركيين وصلا إلى الموقع في 18 أبريل وهما اللذان اكتشفا المخزن، وكتبا تقريراً حول المخزن السري. إذ قام الصحفيان اللذان رافقا وحدة عسكرية أميركية بجولة في الموقع واكتشفا المخزن. بل أن جاك بوتيه، رئيس فريق المفتشين الدوليين عن الأسلحة في العراق زار العراق بعد أسبوعين من سقوط صدام فوجد مخزن المواد المتفجرة مغلقاً فطلب من الجيش الأميركي أن يوفر حماية للمخزن الذي كان ما زال غير مكتشف من جانب الناس. ويروي أهالي اليوسفية والمحمودية أنه في ذلك الوقت المبكر بدأ مقاتلون عرب من جنسيات مختلفة ينتمون الى "القاعدة" يصلون إلى المكان. فهؤلاء المقاتلون هم الذين أبلغوا أهالي المنطقة بأن "القعقاع" يحتوي على ما هو أكثر من الأسلحة التقليدية التي عثروا عليها ونهبوها وبدأوا يبيعونها في الأسواق.
Haki Mohammed and his brothers were shovelling manure on their farm in Yusifiyah in the spring of 2003 when the soldier arrived. Dishevelled and distressed, the man had run a great distance. "Please," he entreated, "are you true Arabs?"
The Iraqis, raised in a culture of obligatory hospitality towards needy strangers, immediately understood the subtext. The man needed help. Even had he not been a soldier (Haki thought he recognised the uniform of a Special Republican Guard), they were honour-bound to offer assistance. "Of course," Haki assured the man. "What is it you need?"
The soldier held out his AK-47. "Take it." He indicated the webbing around his waist, stuffed full of charged magazines. "Take them all. I don’t want them. But I need a dishdasha or a robe. Anything that isn’t a uniform." Then the soldier started to undress.
The Mohammeds were indeed good Arabs. They fetched a dishdasha and the man slipped it on. Then, without warning, he flung the ammunition and the rifle down and ran off into the desert. Bemused, the Yusifiyans examined his belongings. He wasn’t a Republican Guard at all. His uniform, bereft of rank badges, was that of a rarer outfit: Manzaumat al-Amin, the Iraqi military’s security and protection agency.
A small, nondescript town of a few thousand souls 25km south-west of Baghdad, Yusifiyah is known for its rich soil, which enables the production of potatoes famous throughout Iraq for their size and flavour. The singer Farouk al-Khatib was born here. But that’s about it. For those uninterested in either potatoes or Iraqi popular music, there’s little of interest: farms criss-crossed by irrigation ditches, a great deal of sand, and not much else.
Yusifiyah’s obscurity, however, together with its convenient location – less than 30 minutes’ drive from Baghdad airport – make it perfect for certain purposes: hiding things, for example. Things you’d rather no one ever knew about. Secret things.
Sure enough, 15km to the south lies a big, big secret. The secret dates back to 1977, when the then-president Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr ordered the construction of a vast munitions plant outside the town. Built by the Yugoslavs, the factory was originally to be named after Bakr himself, until Saddam Hussein seized power in 1979. In a fit of patriotic zeal, the fledgling dictator named it after the Iraqi general Qa’qaa ibn Umar, who in the seventh century inflicted a most glorious massacre on the Persian army in the second battle of Qasidiya: Al Qa’qaa.
Weapons inspectors who visited the facility were dumbstruck by the scale of the place. "Huge," comments one senior figure familiar with the site. "The biggest chemical plant I’ve ever seen." Covering an area of 36 square km, containing 1,100 buildings and employing more than 14,000 staff, the site was essentially a secret, self-sufficient city, 10 times the size of New York’s Central Park – in the middle of the desert. It even had its own power station.
Saddam was so pleased with the facility that, when the Iran–Iraq war broke out in 1980, he built a number of other weapons factories nearby. Soon, Nahir Yusifiyah, the sparsely populated crescent-shaped region surrounding the town, was teeming with facilities engaged in the manufacture of free-fall aircraft bombs, small arms, ammunition, scud-missiles, as well as nuclear centrifuge development and bio-warfare experiments: all huge, clandestine weapons sites with their own research staff and agendas.
From the outside there was little to indicate what was going on in Qa’qaa. Surrounded by tall earthen walls, all that was visible was a series of chimney stacks producing huge plumes of acrid brown smoke. Employees in the facility were not allowed to speak about it; nobody else was allowed in. To Yusifiyans, however, it was obvious the plant made military equipment of some sort: repeated explosions emanated from within the walls when things went wrong, and from the facility’s test ranges when things went right.
At the heart of this big, big secret lay further secrets, some so huge they bordered on the preposterous. In the late 80s, the facility was involved in the construction of the largest rifle in the history of the world: a monstrous weapon with a 150m barrel and the ability to shoot a 600kg projectile into space. The Supergun required 10 tonnes of propellant for each shot – doubtless the reason why research was underway at Qa’qaa, where the explosive material was to be made.
Unfortunately, even this state-of-the-art facility was not up to the task. At the end of the decade, suppliers were sought for a pair of compounds that the facility was unable to synthesise purely: RDX (the basis for a number of explosives, including C4) and PETN (used in small-calibre ammunition and Semtex). The materials, ordered from eastern Europe via Chile, arrived in shipments of hundreds of tonnes.
Then the project stalled. In 1991, following the Iraqi rout in Kuwait, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gained access to Qa’qaa, where they found 145 tonnes of pure RDX and PETN. On a whim, one enterprising inspector asked technicians whether they had imported any other explosives of note. Qa’qaa staff exchanged glances and shuffled their feet, before leading him to a series of bunkers containing hundreds of drums of an off-white, crystalline powder. About as highly explosive as high explosive gets, High Melt Explosive (HMX) is used to detonate nuclear warheads. Qa’qaa had nearly 200 tonnes of it. The IAEA moved all the explosives to secure bunkers on the south-west corner of the facility, then closed the doors with tamper-proof seals. And there the 341 tonnes sat for more than a decade.
Of course, inhabitants of Yusifiyah and the surrounding towns had no idea about any of this. In Saddam’s time, there were many things one didn’t inquire about. But that was before the curious incident of the soldier, the rifle and the dishdasha.
Looting by the truckload
For Haki and his brothers, Operation Iraqi Freedom had started in the early hours of 3 April 2003, when they were woken by the sound of low-flying aircraft. Moments later, the first American artillery shells zipped overhead, eliminating with pinpoint accuracy the Republican Guard checkpoints and roadblocks around Yusifiyah, in effect neutralising all threat of resistance.
By sunrise, American tanks were trundling north up Highway 8 towards Baghdad Airport. Ali, one of Qa’qaa’s senior administrators, recalls the invasion well. "The Americans came in on the second or third of April," he says. "There was no fighting. Most of the soldiers and officers just took off their uniforms and ran away."
It took Haki Mohammed next to no time to deduce that the man who showed up on his doorstep had come from the secure compound at Qa’qaa, and an even shorter time to figure that, if the soldiers had left, the site was unguarded. For a quarter of a century, the facility had been off-limits. Here, finally, was an opportunity to find out what had been going on in there.
Haki’s neighbours had the same idea. "Lots of people went in," he recalls. "They destroyed the fence and they went in that way . . . There was no army, no guards, nothing." The period between the guards fleeing and the first Yusifiyans breaching the compound was remarkably short. "About an hour," he says. By the afternoon of 3 April, the largest explosives plant in the Middle East was open to all-comers.
A week after the first Yusifiyans breached Qa’qaa’s perimeter fence, the US 101st Airborne Division pitched camp just outside the facility. There appears to have been no briefings about the site. The soldiers’ attention was elsewhere: the 101st was itching to get to Baghdad. As far as the troops were concerned, they were sitting on their behinds while higher-ups attempted to jump the queue, to manoeuvre their own divisions into the capital for a share of the glorious victory. They were missing the show.
And what a show it was. On 9 April, the day before the 101st arrived at Qa’qaa, US troops had taken the capital, symbolically pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. The image, broadcast around the world, delighted the commander-in-chief back in Washington. "In the images of falling statues," President Bush later announced, "we have witnessed the arrival of a new era."
Unfortunately, by the time the 101st arrived in Baghdad on 11 April, the foundations of the new era were looking distinctly shaky. As the troops settled in to the capital, news began to break that the city was descending into an orgy of lawlessness and looting. Reporters told of mobs roaming the city, stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down.
Back in Yusifayah, Haki was unable to contain his curiosity any longer. Many of his neighbours had been into Qa’qaa and had returned with fantastic stories of all the useful bits and pieces lying about. He decided to take a look for himself. On 6 April Haki and his cousins and friends piled into a grey Kia minibus, hung a white flag from the window to placate passing American troops, and made their way to the main gate. Finding it open, they drove in to the compound.
Hundreds of Yusifiyans were roaming around inside. They were gutting the place. Some targets were easier than others. Trucks vanished fairly quickly. The first few were simply hotwired and driven away. When locals realised there was no rush, however, they became more brazen, using the stolen trucks to return and carry away further loot. The next day they came back for more. "Lathes, machine tools, electrical generators," says Haki. "They were even taking the iron posts from the buildings." Qa’qaa was assaulted from all sides. From the north-west came the Yusifiyans; from the north-east, the inhabitants of Mahmudiyah.
Some of Qa’qaa’s senior staff lived in an executive employees’ compound just west of the town. When the power went out after the Americans passed by, they returned to the complex to fetch an electrical generator. By the time they arrived, two days before the Saddam statue ceremony, Mahmudiyans were operating a market inside the walls, selling and bartering plundered goods. Ali, the site administrator, was flabbergasted at the scale of the operation. "It was astonishing, the way they managed to steal such big pieces of kit. Some of them were using cranes." He shakes his head. "They even took the electrical cables. They dug them up from the ground and took them. The water pipes. Everything."
As yet, however, the looters had not discovered Qa’qaa’s real treasure: the vast stockpiles of HMX, PETN and RDX. We know they had not discovered the explosives because of a somewhat fortuitous event. On 18 April, two weeks after the looting began, a pair of American journalists did.
Discovery of the high explosives
Over the course of the month that they had been embedded with the 101st Airborne, reporter Dean Staley and cameraman Joe Caffrey had seen more than their fair share of action. Now, however, they were stuck. At the end of the second week in April, the 101st had established their base a mile south-east of Qa’qaa, from which they serviced Black Hawk helicopters and ferried military bigwigs around. A week later, they were still there. With no obvious route to Baghdad, the journalists’ chances of an exclusive were growing slimmer by the minute. So when, on the morning of 18 April, a sergeant and a warrant officer offered them the opportunity to tag along on a trip outside the camp, they were all ears.
"It was a sightsee," recalls Caffrey. "Non-sanctioned. They basically decided on a whim, because they weren’t assigned to fly that day, to check out the base."
Within a quarter of an hour, they started finding things. Paved roads. Watchtowers. Perimeter fences. And, within them, munitions of every possible shape and size. There were fat bombs, thin bombs, cartoon-style bombs with big fins and, lying in the hot morning sun, bombs that appeared to be leaking corrosive brown material. Some of them were as big as Volkswagens.
Outside one bunker, the soldiers and the journalists stopped. A length of thin steel wire snaked around the lock, the chain and the hinges of the door, secured by a copper disc the size of a coin.
Clearly, the wire wasn’t strong enough to keep anyone out. So what was it for? The soldiers wondered aloud whether it wasn’t so thin because it was meant not to be seen, that it was a booby trap. In the end, curiosity prevailed. One of them broke the disc apart and the wire fell away. Nothing happened. They walked in.
There were no warheads in this bunker. Only crates of what appeared to be chemicals. And some strange-looking drums. Cautiously, the soldiers opened one. Inside was a clear plastic bag containing coarse powder. Caffrey went in for a look. "It was very flour-like, yellow, bright yellow in colour." Further bunkers also contained the yellow, flour-like substance. In fact, the more the journalists looked, the more they found. Many of the buildings appeared to be filled with it: in one corner there might be 30 crates or boxes, in the other, 60 or 70 barrels. The quantity was staggering. "What is this stuff?" one of the soldiers murmured.
For a moment the soldiers and the journalists had the same idea. Had they accidentally discovered Saddam’s WMDs? No one knew. But just in case, Caffrey filmed it all.
While Caffrey, Staley and the soldiers were exploring the bunkers outside Yusifiyah, officials at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna were becoming increasingly concerned. Prior to the invasion the agency had told the Americans of the dangers of allowing the security situation to collapse. Two weeks after the start of the war, Jacques Baute, the head of the Iraq nuclear inspection teams, visited the US mission to advise, again, that the weapons sites needed protection. He specifically mentioned Qa’qaa. Just days before the invasion, he told officials, inspectors had inventoried the facility’s HMX, RDX and PETN stores and ensured that the seals were still intact. This kind of materiel, the Frenchman suggested, should be kept out of the hands of looters. There was no reaction.
Privately, IAEA officials wondered whether the Americans really understood what they were doing. Qa’qaa had made the propellant for the Nasser 81 artillery rocket programme, itself at the heart of the administration’s case for war. On 3 May, an internal memo at the IAEA warned that, if Qa’qaa was not secured, the result could be "the greatest explosives bonanza in history".
The arrival of al-Qaida
Initially, looters at Qa’qaa had targeted consumer goods such as fridges and air-conditioners. Although munitions had been taken, no one really knew what to do with them. It soon dawned, however, that they might be intrinsically valuable. Weaponry was rapidly emerging as a second currency.
"After the invasion, we started seeing these Arabs, these foreign fighters," recalls Haki, "Palestinians, Egyptians, Libyans." Most Yusifiyans were wary of these new arrivals, but a number of local tribes took them in: "Karagol, Jenabies, Rowissat . . ."
Yusuf, an emerging leader in the insurgency who belongs to one of these tribes, confirms the story. "We allowed the Arabs into our houses and our farms. We welcomed them properly. Some of them even married our daughters." The fact they were Arab strangers was sufficient to ensure hospitality, but these foreigners had extra pull. They were fedayeen. They were al-Qaida.
They also informed the tribes that some of Qa’qaa’s contents were considerably more valuable than rocket launchers and pistols. It wasn’t long before Yusuf finally stumbled upon Qa’qaa’s real treasure. "We found something that we didn’t recognise. It was like a powder. It was stored in specific conditions, in special barrels." Yusuf had no idea what it was, but he thought he might as well take some. Only later would he learn that it was pure, crystalline high explosive.
Following the rush to appropriate munitions, Yusifiyans had to figure out where to store their loot. Many hid it in their homes. This soon led to tragedy. Rival groups fired rocket-propelled grenades into each other’s houses, knowing they were full of explosives. Accidents also led to fatalities. One of Yusuf’s barns blew up.
After a few such incidents, the powder was decanted into flour sacks, then dispersed and loaded into subterranean potato stores. Portable air-conditioning units were installed to keep it cool. By 8 May 2003, when the Pentagon’s Exploratory Task Force arrived at Qa’qaa to search for WMDs, all of the PETN, RDX and HMX was gone.
Yusifiyah became a boomtown. Each potato sack of the explosive formula went for $300 (£194) to $500 (£325). "People from Yusifiyah had never seen a dollar bill. They certainly hadn’t seen a $100 bill," says Haki. "But when [the Arabs] arrived, everyone was talking about tens of thousands of dollars. We started seeing people holding bundles of wads of dollars."
In this seedy, lottery-win atmosphere, locals rushed to spend their hard currency, throwing lavish weddings, buying cars, trucks and houses. Some used their share of the cash to travel. The sensible ones didn’t return.
Meanwhile, bored with waiting for the Americans to establish security and tired of living without electricity, sewerage, clean water and other basic facilities, Iraqis turned in their droves to jihadist organisations, then attacked coalition troops. More violence meant less reconstruction, which led to more dissatisfaction, more anti-American sentiment and more violence. The insurgency became self-fuelling.
Throughout the summer of 2003, the insurgents’ bombing campaign increased. In November, with attacks on coalition forces running at more than 1,000 a month, a classified Defence Intelligence Agency report finally stated the obvious: the vast majority of munitions used in the attacks had been pilfered from weapons sites that coalition troops had failed to protect.
In September 2003, a month after the bombing of the UN building in Baghdad (an attack in which munitions from Qa’qaa appear to have been used), Ali, who had worked at Qa’qaa for 14 years, was invited to the Green Zone to confer with the US military. The meeting had been called to discuss how best to get Iraqi industries back on their feet. Ali had other plans.
After the conference, he pulled the senior US general to one side and explained that he had come from Qa’qaa and that it had been severely looted. He then handed the general a dossier containing his senior staff’s assessment of the damage. Such was the extent of the looting, the report stated, it had to be assumed that all explosive materiel inside the facility – not just the RDX, PETN and HMX – had gone. The total quantity was staggering.
"We told him that we had lost 40,000 tonnes," Ali recalls. "The gunpowder, anything that burned energetically, could be used as an explosive, so you could consider that part of the missing explosives." If the general was concerned, he concealed it well, especially when Ali informed him that among the looted munitions were 1,000 suicide-bomb belts manufactured at Saddam’s orders in February 2003. "There was no reaction. He took the records and didn’t say anything."
The Iraqi Islamic Army was one of the insurgent groups formed in the wake of the US invasion. Abu Shujaa, one of its founders, sits in an armchair and thinks for a moment. "One of the operations we did was the attack on the al-Amyria police station. This was in October 2003. We received information from our intelligence service that one of the high-profile military generals would be there. We decided to use a car bomb."
Shujaa is a hard man to track down. After a month of negotiations in Baghdad, we found him through intermediaries, and intermediaries of intermediaries. Shortly after our interview, he fled Iraq for Syria.
"We used two cars: Nissan Patrol 4×4s that had previously belonged to the Iraqi Special Services. We used TNT and the explosives taken from the western bunkers of Qa’qaa. They had been removed and hidden in western Baghdad, near Abu Ghraib. In total, we used about 24kg, which we mixed with the formula [powder from Qa'qaa] to make the explosions more effective. The formula was available through the farmers to the west of al-Radhwania and al-Rashid area [Yusifiyah is in this area]. Most of the explosives had been taken and hidden in flour sacks near the railway tracks."
Shujaa’s first car detonated outside the police station at 9.45am on 27 October 2003. Passerby Hamid Abbas was killed, along with his daughters Samar (25) and Doniya (16) and his one-year-old granddaughter. "The other car didn’t explode," continues Shujaa. "The explosives were a bit moist. They had been stored in a place that was too humid. Although the amount that had been taken from Qa’qaa was very large, we were concerned that we would finish it all if we didn’t use it wisely. So after that we decided to mix a little more TNT with the formula, in case it was too humid."
IAEA staff in Vienna were livid about the Americans’ failure to contain the explosives. Munitions sites in Iraq had been heavily looted, but the Americans would not allow the IAEA to visit them; it was reliant on secondhand news. When nothing was heard about Qa’qaa, inspectors chased up the interim government directly. What had happened to the sealed RDX, PETN and HMX? Was it safe?
A year later, on 10 October 2004, Jacques Baute, the agency finally received a one-page letter from the Iraqi Planning and Following-up Directorate: "The following materials, which have been included in Annex 3 (item 74) registered under IAEA custody, were lost after 9-4-2003, throughout the theft and looting of the governmental installations due to lack of security." The letter contained a table detailing the "lost" materiel: 5.8 tonnes of PETN, 141.233 tonnes of RDX and 194.741 tonnes of HMX. At last, the truth: 341 tonnes of high explosive were missing.
The letter created consternation. What was the agency supposed to do with it? The American presidential election was three weeks away. If the IAEA went public with the news, it would look as if the agency – supposedly apolitical – was taking a swipe at the Bush administration. If, on the other hand, it sat on its hands, it would be open to charges of sabotaging the campaign of Bush’s opponent, John Kerry. Potentially, the letter was a political trap.
IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei attempted a compromise, contacting the UN security council. The explosives were gone, he told them. There was every chance the news would leak. Perhaps, however, it was possible to keep a lid on it for a while, giving the coalition a chance to try to find some of them before the news broke.
The diplomatic approach came to nothing. On 14 October, the agency received a call from CBS’s 60 Minutes in New York. The programme had managed to obtain a copy of the letter. So had the New York Times. Realising the cat was out of the bag, the next day the IAEA officially informed the US-led Multinational Force (MNF) that the explosives were missing. News of the report made it almost immediately to Condoleezza Rice and the president. David Sanger of the Times hastily drafted an article, while travelling with the president on Air Force One in the last days of the election campaign. No date was set for its publication.
Then, suddenly, the story leaked. On Thursday 21 October – 13 days before the presidential election – Chris Nelson, the author of a respected Washington political online report, received an anonymous phone call. A huge quantity of high explosives had gone missing, he was told. They had been stolen. They were being used to attack US troops. Nelson did some checking, discovered the story stood up and posted it on the internet that weekend.
Sanger, still waiting for the editors of the Times to publish his exclusive, discovered that the story was leaking on Sunday. The article went out the next morning: "Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished from Site in Iraq." Shortly after the newspaper hit the streets, Bush’s chief political strategist Karl Rove swept into the media area of Air Force One and started shouting at Sanger. "Rove came and screamed at me in front of all the other reporters," he says. "Declared that this had been invented by the Kerry campaign." Apparently, the report had hit a nerve.
It was at this point that the story of the looting of Qa’qaa got really dirty.
Bush administration cover-up
With the presidential election just eight days away, it now became crucial for the White House to neutralise the story. If voters suspected that American GIs were dead because of sheer official incompetence, they might be tempted to vote the wrong way. Evangelistic certainty and moral clarity were one thing; US soldiers dying needlessly in the sand in a faraway country was quite another. Had the explosives been stolen? Why had they not been protected? Had there not been enough troops?
The looting of Qa’qaa raised a whole swathe of issues that the Bush administration was not keen to address. Not this close to an election, anyway. Over the course of the next week, the White House deployed a number of tactics to make it go away. The first tactic was simply to assert the story was untrue. There were different angles of attack. One was that the explosives had not been there in the first place. Various figures were presented to show that the IAEA had got its sums wrong. In conjunction with this argument came a second, more formidable one: that the explosives had been there, but Saddam had moved them prior to the war.
The Pentagon brandished satellite photos of heavy trucks at Qa’qaa the day before the US invasion began. To bolster its case, the Pentagon wheeled out Colonel David Perkins, commander of the troops that took the area in April 2003. According to Perkins, it was "highly improbable" themateriel had been stolen after the invasion. "The enemy sneaks a convoy of 10-tonne trucks in," Perkins asked rhetorically, "and loads them up in the dark of night and infiltrates them in your convoy and moves out? That’s kind of a stretch too far."
Donald Rumsfeld agreed. "Picture all of the tractor trailers and forklifts and caterpillars it would take," the secretary of defence told Voice of America. "We had total control of the air. We would have seen anything like that."
Even if the explosives had been there at the time of the invasion, the administration argued, they had probably been destroyed by US troops. Another officer was wheeled out. Austin Pearson of the 24th Ordnance Company had visited the site on 13 April 2003 and removed 250 tonnes of ordnance, including TNT, detonator cord and white phosphorous rounds. The materiel had later been destroyed. There were photographs of the operation, Pentagon spokesman Larry di Rita told journalists, "which we may provide later".
Finally, the administration added another point: even if the materiel had been at Qa’qaa, even if it had been looted, the loss wasn’t significant. Iraq had been awash with munitions at the end of the war. Some 402,000 tonnes of armaments had been destroyed. It was estimated that Iraq’s total holdings were in the region of 650,000 tonnes. Compared with this vast figure, 341 tonnes was a paltry 0.06%. The New York Times was making a mountain out of a molehill.
On this issue there was a double deception. Qa’qaa’s administrators had already informed the US, in writing, that the sum total of munitions looted from their facility was not 341 tonnes but 40,000. On this accounting, the missing explosives constituted more than 6% of all explosives in Iraq, a very great deal more than 0.06%, in fact.
Further statistical manipulation was afoot, too. While the missing materiel from Qa’qaa was pure high explosive, the 402,000 tonnes destroyed by US forces included some very heavy objects that contained no explosives at all. "[The Pentagon] was trying to compare the weight of the guns and stocks and metal and all of that stuff," says a senior weapons-intelligence analyst. "They were counting tanks and guns and bazookas – metal – as opposed to the raw explosive that can be directly used . . . It’s an absolutely dishonest comparison."
On Friday 29 October, Osama bin Laden succeeded where the White House’s spin doctors had failed. The first videotaped message from the al-Qaida leader for more than a year pushed the looted explosives story out of the public eye. Four days later, Bush won a second term in office.
Torture and murder
News of Bush’s glorious second victory left Yusifiyans cold. Haki and his neighbours had other concerns. Top of the list came the recently arrived Arab strangers. For al-Qaida, Yusifiyah was important not only because it was home to Iraq’s largest armaments facilities, but also because it was strategically extremely well positioned. Eventually, the mujahideen fighters settled in the area permanently. For the locals, the situation rapidly became intolerable. Instead of buying explosives, the Arabs simply took them, forcing potato farmers to store the materiel in their underground bunkers, then killing them later. "Those guys started ruling the whole area," says Haki. "They weren’t guests any more." In fear of his life, the farmer fled to Baghdad to become a security guard.
In 2004, al-Qaida established a camp inside the Qa’qaa complex itself. "We had a firing range, like a tunnel. It was used to shoot small-calibre bullets," says Ali. "It became a training camp for terrorists."
Anyone entering the facility without permission was killed. Al-Qaida spread horror stories about its activities, intimidating locals into collaborating. An execution room was set up with a makeshift gallows. Yusuf was part of the operation. "We used to kill people in terrible ways, torturing them to give al-Qaida more influence." Mutilations, murders and decapitations were filmed and copies were distributed around Yusifiyah to discourage dissent.
The violence increased. Anyone suspected of attempting to join the Iraqi military or police was executed. Shias were executed. People with Shia names were executed. People who did anything regarded as Shia-like were executed. When Haki’s uncle was caught smoking a cigarette, al-Qaida broke all his fingers with a hammer. Then they killed him.
Soon even Yusuf recognised that things had gone awry. "We realised that al-Qaida hadn’t come to rescue us. They were killing all kinds of people, saying they were atheists and that they idolised statues," he recalls.
When Haki returned from Baghdad in 2005, he found the main road into town littered with corpses, bound, tortured and shot. "We hadn’t seen anything like this before in our lives. It was like a horror film."
By 2005, commentators were dubbing the Yusifiyah region the "Triangle of Death": the most dangerous sector in all Iraq. Palm-tree plantations were rigged with explosives to bring down low-flying helicopters; soldiers were abducted, tortured and murdered. Bombs went off everywhere.
It was, of course, no coincidence that Nahir Yusifiyah was so favoured by insurgents. It was where all the weapons were.
MOSUL, Iraq — Staff Col. Ismail Khalif Jasim, the top intelligence officer in Nineveh Province, was scrutinizing faces last week as he walked through what the police say is the most dangerous neighborhood in Iraq’s most violent city. The place is so risky that some of his colleagues apologetically offered reasons why they would be unable to accompany him there.
One major admitted he was simply too scared. He was forced, though, along with more than 200 other soldiers and police officers, to go to the neighborhood, Amil. Iraqi security forces claim to control it. But in reality Amil is in the throes of another spate of killings, as the American military works to root out Islamist militants from the area before it reduces the number of its troops in Iraq to 50,000 from about 90,000 by the end of August.
Colonel Jasim’s visit there was aimed at persuading groups of stone-faced residents to cooperate with the Iraqi Army — an entity almost universally loathed here for its unapologetically rough treatment of the area’s people. But, he suggested, the authorities were better than the insurgents holed up there.
“They are not just outlaws,” the colonel was saying, suggesting that they were far more dangerous and had none of the romance sometimes associated with criminals. The men regarded him impassively.
“They say you have to slaughter soldiers and police,” he said. “We found information that they want to slaughter more people. Do you want more people killed?”
No luck. The men did not answer. The colonel, his sunglasses hiding his eyes but not the look of contempt that curled around his lips, moved on to the next cluster of men.
Soldiers walked on either side of him, and in front and behind. Armored police and military vehicles were parked on every corner in the neighborhood, its entrance points blocked to traffic. The street had been strung with concertina wire. Only a few people dared to leave their houses.
Amil is a stronghold for Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a largely homegrown group of Sunni insurgents, but that is something the neighborhood does not want to discuss. Questions about the group elicit only nervous, evasive responses in the largely Sunni Arab enclave. No one dares mention its name.
During the past several weeks, United States forces have aggressively begun to try to root out Qaeda operatives in Amil before the last of the American combat troops leaves. This month, the American military said in a statement that it had arrested a man who had committed “assassinations against Iraqi judicial and police officials, and has allegedly coordinated improvised explosive device attacks against” the Iraqi police and army. The man’s identity was not released.
Four days later, gunfire in an adjoining neighborhood killed two Iraqi police officers on patrol. The same day, in central Mosul, the deputy governor survived a bomb blast that demolished his armored car. The next day, a bomb in a public market near Amil killed 2 people and wounded 27.
Several days later, United States forces announced the arrest in Mosul of another senior member of Al Qaeda, along with several other men.
The violence goes on, however, seemingly unabated. There are car bombs every day. Some are defused. Some blow up.
Colonel Jasim’s patrol posed a specific problem for people in Amil: Being seen talking to an Iraqi Army or police officer, regular targets for Al Qaeda, would mean trouble. Talking to an American soldier, even exchanging hellos, could mean torture and death.
“We believe they have many supporters in the neighborhood, so we’re afraid of them,” Majid Riyadh Ahmed, 40, said about a group of men who in broad daylight recently gunned down a politician on a sidewalk.
“It is a hot spot,” he said, using the term that has become synonymous with Amil.
Like many here, Mr. Ahmed differentiated between the types of violence that take place.
“There are some terror actions and there are some jihad actions,” he said. Jihad actions are those aimed at American forces or their Iraqi security force allies. Terror actions are those directed at residents.
Asked if he felt safe, Mr. Ahmed, a father of four, did not hesitate. “I am scared,” he said.
On this warm morning, Amil was swarming with soldiers and police officers. People peered through their windows and expressed amazement. They said there were normally very few security force members around, leaving members of Al Qaeda to roam freely, extorting shop owners and intimidating everyone else.
“I’m wondering why the police, who know this area is dangerous, don’t move on it,” one resident said.
But Atheel al-Nujaifi, the provincial governor, said the issue was more complicated.
“The security forces are deployed everywhere in Mosul, but there are areas we call unsafe because it is easy for Al Qaeda to commit actions, and then to hide among the people in those areas,” he said. “A hot spot doesn’t mean there isn’t any army or police. The neighborhood is under the control of the federal police.”
He said Al Qaeda was able to operate in Amil because “the people are either sympathetic or afraid.”
Whatever the reason, no one has been able to quell Mosul’s violence: It is one of the few urban areas in Iraq where American combat troops patrol the streets. Some 18 Iraqi Army battalions are stationed in the city, and hundreds of Iraqi police officers staff checkpoints.
But in Amil, people say they want nothing to do with the Iraqi Army in particular — which in Mosul is composed primarily of Shiites from southern Iraq. Residents complain the soldiers do not understand their culture, and are rude at best, brutal at worst, suspecting everyone in the neighborhood of being a member of Al Qaeda.
“There’s no trust between the security forces and the people,” said one resident, Hazim Mahmud al-Sahan, whose son was recently killed in Amil, not far from an Iraqi Army checkpoint.
For years, though, the greater scorn was poured on Americans. But in a few months they will be gone, it seems regardless of whether places like Amil descend into worse violence.
“There will be greater problems when the Americans leave,” said Didar Abdulla al-Zibari, a member of the local provincial council. He paused for effect, before saying that America “will be blamed” for leaving.
Zaid Thaker contributed re- porting.
They turned the tide for America. Now, as withdrawal nears, Sons of Iraq pay the price – Martin Chulov
Lauded band of rebels helped on the frontline of the insurgency from 2006, in many eyes saving Iraq from the abyss
Hours after burying his slain cousin, Muhammad Jassem stood in the scorching dirt of a former al-Qaida parade ground speaking about a lurking foe that he knows is hunting him, too.
Nearby, guards waited furtively at the entrance to the Islamic mourning tent for Sheikh Alman al-Shijah, blown apart last Friday by a bomb placed under his car. The rows of plastic seats set up to receive those paying condolences sat mostly empty, melting on the hard-baked plain in the village of al-Qadoon, in Diyala. It was here, Jassem says, that al-Qaida’s former leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, would receive cadres.
"I saw him here in 2005," he said. "He was appointing al-Qaida princes and assigning military roles. This was a difficult neighbourhood – and still is.
"They have tried everything to get us," he added, referring to militants he believes are still doing Zarqawi’s bidding. "And they will keep trying. This is still war up here. Our enemy may be cowards, but they are strong."
Sheikh Alman was a leader of the Sons of Iraq, the lauded band of rebels who helped turn the tide of the insurgency from 2006, in many eyes saving Iraq from the abyss. His killers had tried to slay him six times before they finally succeeded. His cousin, Jassem, is also a member. He says he has been the target of 13 would-be hits.
All around the country, Sons of Iraq leaders, also known as members of the Awakening Council, or al-Sahwa, rattle off similar numbers of attempts on their lives with a fatalistic calm. It is hard to find any member operating on the frontlines against Iraq’s rejuvenated insurgency who isn’t still being regularly threatened by hit squads. Most of their persecutors they claim to know. Many they believe have recently been freed from the now defunct US prison system in Iraq, which at its peak held almost 30,000 detainees. Many others had been rotated through the system during the blood-soaked years of 2006-07. Earlier this year, 15 Awakening members were killed in one night in Abu Ghraib. Things have got a lot worse since.
This week alone, nine members were killed in five days in one of the most lethal weeks the homegrown counter-insurgents have endured. One was slain along with his entire family of five.
Attempts on their lives are becoming such that even battle-hardened leaders, who have known little else but violence for almost five years, are now fearful for themselves and their families.
"I am very worried," said Sheikh Moustafa al-Kamal Shabib, a decorated Awakening Council leader from the south Baghdad suburb of Arab Jabour. From 2005 until early 2008, Sunni insurgents had full rein over the area’s farmlands and ran weapons into Baghdad across the Tigris River, which snakes through the area’s heart.
Sheikh Moustafa was one of many local leaders the US turned to in 2007 to capitalise on mini-rebellions in Sunni areas against al-Qaida groups which had begun to overplay their hands.
Initially, Iraq’s disenfranchised Sunni groups had largely welcomed as reinforcements for a burgeoning resistance the hordes of Arab jihadis who had swarmed across porous borders and sought refuge in places such as Ramadi, Fallujah, west Baghdad and Diyala. But when the guests started imposing sharia law, beheading people on street corners and demanding access to their daughters, hospitality turned into hostility.
"They were wrong and we fought them and killed them by the dozens," said Sheikh Moustafa. The US military locked up hundreds more alleged militants in the Dora neighbourhood of Baghdad alone who had operated with impunity during a total collapse of law and order. "For three years you couldn’t drive through here," he said as he pointed out homes flattened by US fighter jets during the surge of 2007.
Militants are not here in the numbers that they were before. But they are active: "Their preferred method is assassination with silencers. But they also put bombs under the cars of leaders."
Like all of Baghdad’s 241 remaining Sons of Iraq leaders, Sheikh Moustafa has been given three bodyguards paid for by the Iraqi government. The 1,400-odd foot soldiers who report to him throughout Arab Jabour have been paid $300 (£205) a month by the Iraqi government since the US military handed over responsibility from late-2008 as part of moves to take Iraq to full sovereignty and pave a way for an American exit.
Ever since, it has not been an easy road. The government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has had an uneasy relationship with the rebels, who 12 months ago numbered 130,000. Now they are down to 91,405 and within two months of an election result they are set to be no more.
By then, the government aims to integrate all remaining members into government ministries and security forces – budget shortfalls not withstanding.
The Americans came to trust the Awakening Council, with former US commanding general David Petraeus offering amnesties to some leaders.
However, Maliki and his advisers have not felt the same way, fearing the Sons of Iraq are infiltrated by Sunni militants who could use them as a Trojan horse to wreak further terror.
Major general Mudhir al-Mawla, the director of the Sons of Iraq file in Iraq’s national reconciliation commission, confirmed the scepticism in the government: "Ever since they began, there have been members of Maliki’s administration who oppose them," he said. "They said they are like a militia and they all need to be disarmed. But they have played a very important role in giving precise information because they are locals. They know the locals and they know where their allegiances lie."
In March last year, in a move that underscored the distrust, Maliki’s troops arrested a Sons of Iraq leader in the central Baghdad district of Fadhil and a two-day battle ensued. Ever since, he has been reluctant to travel to the frontline areas.
"[Maliki] came here once," said Awakening Council leader Sabah al-Mashadani in what was once another no-go zone in Baghdad, the former battlefield suburb of Adamiyeh. "He was very surprised when he was well received. He said: ‘I thought everyone hated me here’."
In Arab Jabour, Sheikh Moustafa has never seen the prime minister, but he has seen his special forces, who arrested the sheikh in January on trumped up charges that he had killed five local men in 2007. The US military quickly took responsibility for the killings and Sheikh Moustafa was released in Maliki’s name.
However, the episode underscored the fragility of his position, a feeling he claims is shared by the rank and file. "We are being hunted down. It has never been worse. I have been targeted by roadside bombs six times in the past four months."
Ten days ago, at the back of his family home, a $40,000 pond of fish was poisoned during the night by people he is adamant were linked to al-Qaida. Worse still, Sheikh Moustafa’s son spent February in hospital after buying an orange juice that was also laced with poison.
He strongly suspects that he knows who is targeting him. In the village of al-Qadoon, Muhammad Jassem also thinks he knows his family’s tormentor.
"That is the benefit of doing what we do," he said. "We know the people and we know where they have been."
In the nearby Diyala police station, Major Hisham al-Jalil, who has locked up most of the area’s criminals since 2006, said the spike in attacks was being perpetrated by men who had returned from the US prisons and who blamed the Sons of Iraq for having sent them there.
"They see them as traitors," he said. "They hate the security forces too, but their vengeance is even stronger for the al-Sahwa, some of whom they fought alongside as insurgents. It is only going to get worse here."
With the US military only three months away from having no further combat role in Iraq, the Sons of Iraq are feeling isolated and abandoned. Their legacy will shape the declining months of the seven-year occupation, a fact the US military knows well.
Pressed on the hardships the US-backed rebels are facing, US major general Joseph Reynes, who is responsible for the remaining American side of the Sons of Iraq project, said leaders he spoke to felt they had a national duty to ward off the resurgent militancy.
"I went to Fallujah recently and spoke with a Sahwa leader who said as an Iraqi he must stand his post. They are soldiers on the front lines. This is an insurgency. It’s tough. That’s why we stand here as brothers moving forward in this fight."
But Sheikh Moustafa feels that brotherhood may fade away as the US withdraws from the bitter battleground of Iraq. "We were there when the Americans wanted us and we have never left," he says. "But there will be no one here for us when the Americans are gone."
From local heroes to al-Qaida’s national nemesis
The Sons of Iraq grew out of a series of mini-rebellions against militants associated with al-Qaida that started in late 2006 – first in Anbar province, then spreading to Baghdad and elsewhere in the country.
The initial rebels included those who had been co-opted by al-Qaida, or had willingly offered their services as anti-occupation fighters before realising what that entailed. Al-Qaida were hounded out of Anbar, with American military backing, after over-playing their hand with locals. The then US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus (pictured), was quick to capitalise on the regional uprisings, which morphed into a nationwide rebellion against al-Qaida.
The US military offered many Sons of Iraq members amnesty and set up a formal programme, which at one stage paid 130,000 members, many of them former insurgents, $300 (£205) each a month.
The Sons of Iraq have been credited with a prominent role in stabilising the country. However, they have struggled to win the trust and full backing of the Shia-majority Iraqi government, which fears the Sons of Iraq ranks have been infiltrated by Sunni militants.
The Iraqi government has pledged to give all members jobs in either the security forces, or government departments. However, as the project winds down, Sons of Iraq members are being hunted down by insurgents who have been freed from US and Iraqi prisons and are determined to avenge old scores.
They turned the tide for America. Now, as withdrawal nears, Sons of Iraq pay the price | by Martin Chulov, reporting from Baquba | The Guardian
Over half of the 1.4 million Christians who lived in Iraq before the 2003 invasion have fled the country. If they could, most of the others would have departed as well if some nation was ready to take them in. Nearly every human rights organization and numerous parliaments are in agreement that an ethnic and religious cleansing has been underway in Iraq (report). Non-Muslims are not welcome any longer in large segments of the country. Kidnappings, rapes and executions are daily occurrences for the non-Muslims of Iraq. Sixty churches have been bombed, sometimes systematically on the very same day in different places in the country.
One of the worst attacks happened on May 2nd. A busload of Christian Assyrian students was attacked between two checkpoints. In the place where they should have been safest, two roadside bombs were detonated. The next morning I received a video taken with a mobile telephone at one of the hospitals where the wounded and injured students were being cared for (Watch video of victims at hospital).
In Sweden there are thousands of Assyrian Iraqis hidden from the authorities because they have been rejected as refugees and are forbidden to remain in Sweden. They are hunted down by the Swedish police. If they are arrested, they are put in prison or in custody until the authorities have enough refugees to fill a plane with which to fly them to Baghdad. They are dumped by the Swedish police back to that very city where they can be slaughtered for their religion or ethnicity.
During the past two years I have followed some thirty persons who have been forcibly expelled. Nearly all of them have fled Iraq again. In the beginning of last week one of the refugees I helped conceal informed me that "a pregnant refugee woman looked for a hospital where she could give birth but the local hospital refused to accept her. She desperately needed a caesarean and they wanted her to pay SEK 50,000 (7,000 Dollars) which she did not have." Two days later the organization Läkare i världen, (Médecins du Monde) in Sweden (which helps refugees who are hiding) arranged medical care for this pregnant woman.
The woman’s husband and I spoke about the consequences of the war in Iraq and the Swedish authority’s cynical treatment of those who have fled for their lives. He showed me a photo of his brother and said "It made no difference how much evidence that my brother presented to the Migrationsverket (The Migration Board) and the Migrationsdomstolen (The Immigration Court): for example threatening letters and a list of people who were to be executed. Despite all this they sent him back. Shortly after he was dumped back in Baghdad he was kidnapped by the very same Islamist group that he had described to the Migration Board. The group later returned him as a corpse."
On Tuesday May 4th, I was at the Migration Board’s main office in Norrköping. Fredrik Beijer, the chief of staff at the Board, had called a group of activists from the Swedish and Middle Eastern churches to a meeting. Among them was the Bishop of the Eastern Assyrian Church, Mar Odisho Oraham, as well as the Swedish priest Henrik Törnqvist. This was because the action group and I had collected 88 cases that concerned Christian Iraqis who had earlier been rejected. The chief of staff of the Board wanted to examine these cases to find out if the Board had made any errors in those that concerned Christians from Iraq. But he claimed that he couldn’t find any errors. "A number of them had remained in the country (Iraq) after the threats began," Beijer claimed, among other things. I replied that it is correct that they had fled from their homes to hide among family and friends until they could find a smuggler who could help the leave Iraq. In some cases, those who had hidden them had been exposed and were forced flee in turn.
The four people who represented the Migration Board that Tuesday obstinately claimed that "the people whose cases had been submitted had remained in the geographic area (Iraq) after the risk had become apparent" — playing with words. The Board’s head jurist, Mikael Ribbenvik, did concede that "as the situation has improved with time, it has become much worse for minorities." But it became obvious that this was of no help to those who are currently in hiding to be permitted to remain in Sweden. The Board did not feel that their fears were "well founded."
Not a single perpetrator, not a single terrorist who has kidnapped, raped or killed a non-Muslim has been convicted in Iraq. The country now has a constitution based on an interpretation of the Koran. During Saddam’s regime nearly all who applied for asylum to remain in Sweden received it. We knew that he was certainly a brutal dictator and people needed protection from him. Now in the midst of an ongoing genocide, minorities get rejected by the Swedish Migration Board. Since it has become worse for non-Muslims in Iraq today, Sweden cynically sends them back there. I cannot reconcile these facts.
The Board claims that there is no systematic persecution in Iraq. This despite the fact that everyone else, among them the foremost experts in the world, claims that it is ongoing. When I relate about persons who have been expelled from Sweden and managed to flee to Syria and other bordering countries, where they obtained refugee status from the UNHCR, this has no effect on the Swedish decision makers. When I relate that I have taped the voice of a Swedish civil servant working for the Board who has even encouraged Christian Iraqis to flee again as soon as they have been arrived in Iraq, Mr. Beijer red-faced and said "we are thankful that you informed us, it is unethical behavior which we want to know about."
Several employees at the Migration Board, who have been forced to hold a so-called returning interview with Christian Iraqis, feel ashamed. They are aware that these people should not be expelled but instead be protected.
This is the way the interviews sound: "I know it will be difficult for you in Iraq but I have to tell you the way it is. If you agree to be expelled to northern Iraq where it is relatively safe we will not hand over your case to the police. If not, the police will hunt you down, arrest you, keep you in custody, force you on a plane and dump you in Baghdad. My advice is that you agree to do this voluntarily, in which case you can receive 30,000 kr ($3,900) as a resettlement fee. Take the money and flee to Syria." This is the conversation that Beijer claims is unethical.
That I, an investigative journalist and author, should hide refugees would certainly be considered unethical by Sweden’s migration minister Tobias Billström. He probably would have like to make the hiding of refugees illegal. In that case I will accept the punishment. I am proud that I can help. I want to continue to be proud of Sweden’s reputation of being one of the most welcoming countries for people who have fled to save their lives. I am ashamed about the current "unethical situation." An unjust law is no law at all. As a reply to my reaction to Beijer’s statement about the Board employee whom he claims acted unethically, he wrote to me the next day: "My reaction to your information regarding what an employee of the Migration Board had said, only concerned that I don’t believe that it is the employee’s duty to advise the person being interviewed how they should act after a future return to their homeland. How much one should like to do so, we cannot mix ourselves in the applicant’s life after they have departed our country."
No, but we can see to it that they are not sent back as long as there is a risk that they will be killed. As I was writing this text I was interrupted by a Christian Iraqi in hiding. He had just received a rejection by the court. Before fleeing from Iraq his brother had been beheaded in front of his eyes; the Islamists released him later so that he could tell other Christians of what had happened. This is a man who witnessed something horrible, a man whose name is on a death list, and a man that Sweden wants to send back.
Two Iraqi ministers have, in the media, asked that Sweden should stop sending back persons that Iraq cannot protect. Why do we do this? It’s not enough to say that the law isn’t adequate — we must change it now.
To the international community I say: Protect the non-Muslims in Iraq before it is too late. The majority of them are found in the northern part of the country, in what is known as the Nineveh Plains. This must become a defended protectorate. How many more must die? How many more have to be forced to flee. The United States must take its responsibility. It behooves the EU and the UN to take on this responsibility as well.
By Nuri Kino
Journalist and author Nuri Kino has been called by several human rights organizations one of the leading experts on the consequences of the war in Iraq. Kino has produced six radio documentaries on this subject, two TV documentaries, written a book of reports on the plight of the refugees and in the fall he will have a book published called "The Line in the Sand" that he has written together with the American journalist David Kushner. He has also lectured about the war at several universities and parliaments about the situation faced by non-Muslims in Iraq.
أفاد مصدر مسؤول في الشرطة العراقية بأن قوة أمنية عثرت على عبوة ناسفة كانت مزروعة أمام منزل أحد القضاة وسط بغداد، مبينا أن القوة تمنكت من تفكيكها من دون أضرار.
وقال المصدر في تصريح نشرته السومرية نيوز إن قوة من الشرطة عثرت على عبوة ناسفة كانت موضوعة أمام منزل قاض يعمل في محكمة الكرخ في منطقة الاسكان وسط بغداد، مبينا أن القوة طوقت المنطقة الموجودة فيها العبوة واستدعت خبراء متفجرات أبطلوا العبوة من دون أضرار.
ولفت المصدرالذي طلب عدم الكشف عن اسمه إلى أنه على إثر الحادث قامت الأجهزة الأمنية بقطع الطرق المؤدية إلى المنطقة وبدأت حملة تفتيش بحثا عن متورطين محتملين.
أصيب اثنان من عناصر الجيش العراقي بجروح إثر انفجار عبوة ناسفة استهدفت دوريتهم غرب بغداد صباح اليوم السبت.
وقال مصدر أمني في تصريح نقلته وكالة يقين للانباء إن العبوة استهدفت دورية للجيش العراقي في منطقة اليرموك، ما أسفرت عن إلحاق أضرار مادية بإحدى عجلات الدورية، فضلا عن إصابة اثنين من عناصرها.
وفي السياق ذاته أضاف المصدر نفسه أن عبوة لاصقة أخرى انفجرت في سيارة ضابط في الجيش العراقي بمنطقة البياع جنوب غربي بغداد، موضحا أن الضابط لم يصب لان الانفجار وقع بعد مغادرته السيارة.
• Greater rates of cancer and birth defects near sites
• Depleted uranium among poisons revealed in report
Areas in and near Iraq’s largest towns and cities, including Najaf, Basra and Falluja, account for around 25% of the contaminated sites, which appear to coincide with communities that have seen increased rates of cancer and birth defects over the past five years. The joint study by the environment, health and science ministries found that scrap metal yards in and around Baghdad and Basra contain high levels of ionising radiation, which is thought to be a legacy of depleted uranium used in munitions during the first Gulf war and since the 2003 invasion.
The environment minister, Narmin Othman, said high levels of dioxins on agricultural lands in southern Iraq, in particular, were increasingly thought to be a key factor in a general decline in the health of people living in the poorest parts of the country.
"If we look at Basra, there are some heavily polluted areas there and there are many factors contributing to it," she told the Guardian. "First, it has been a battlefield for two wars, the Gulf war and the Iran-Iraq war, where many kinds of bombs were used. Also, oil pipelines were bombed and most of the contamination settled in and around Basra.
"The soil has ended up in people’s lungs and has been on food that people have eaten. Dioxins have been very high in those areas. All of this has caused systemic problems on a very large scale for both ecology and overall health."
Government study groups have recently focused on the war-ravaged city of Falluja, west of Baghdad, where the unstable security situation had kept scientists away ever since fierce fighting between militants and US forces in 2004.,
"We have only found one area so far in Falluja," Othman said. "But there are other areas that we will try to explore soon with international help."
The Guardian reported in November claims by local doctors of a massive rise in birth defects in the city, particularly neural tube defects, which afflict the spinal cords and brains of newborns. "We are aware of the reports, but we must be cautious in reaching conclusions about causes," Othman said. "The general health of the city is not good. There is no sewerage system there and there is a lot of stagnant household waste, creating sickness that is directly affecting genetics. We do know, however, that a lot of depleted uranium was used there.
"We have been regulating and monitoring this and we have been urgently trying to assemble a database. We have had co-operation from the United Nations environment programme and have given our reports in Geneva. We have studied 500 sites for chemicals and depleted uranium. Until now we have found 42 places that have been declared as [high risk] both from uranium and toxins."
Ten of those areas have been classified by Iraq’s nuclear decommissioning body as having high levels of radiation. They include the sites of three former nuclear reactors at the Tuwaitha facility – once the pride of Saddam Hussein’s regime on the south-eastern outskirts of Baghdad – as well as former research centres around the capital that were either bombed or dismantled between the two Gulf wars.
The head of the decommissioning body, Adnan Jarjies, said that when inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived to "visit these sites, I tell them that even if we have all the best science in the world to help us, none of them could be considered to be clean before 2020."
Bushra Ali Ahmed, director of the Radiation Protection Centre in Baghdad, said only 80% of Iraq had so far been surveyed. "We have focused so far on the sites that have been contaminated by the wars," he said. "We have further plans to swab sites that have been destroyed by war.
"A big problem for us is when say a tank has been destroyed and then moved, we are finding a clear radiation trail. It takes a while to decontaminate these sites."
Scrap sites remain a prime concern. Wastelands of rusting cars and war damage dot Baghdad and other cities between the capital and Basra, offering unchecked access to both children and scavengers.
Othman said Iraq’s environmental degradation is being intensified by an acute drought and water shortage across the country that has seen a 70% decrease in the volume of water flowing through the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
"We can no longer in good conscience call ourselves the land between the rivers," she said. "A lot of the water we are getting has first been used by Turkey and Syria for power generation. When it reaches us it is poor quality. That water which is used for agriculture is often contaminated. We are in the midst of an unmatched environmental disaster."
Source: Iraq littered with high levels of nuclear and dioxin contamination, study finds | World news | guardian.co.uk by Martin Chulov in Baghdad