Saturday, January 8, 2011

It’s Iraq but It’s Not, Part 2

We arrived at the checkpoint that separates Iraq from Kurdistan and waited to get in, counting the seconds. It felt as if we were in a prison and now waited to be released to a place where other Iraqis feel free – and fearless.

We live in Baghdad, the capital, which in most countries would be the cleanest and most developed city. Now, nearly eight years after the invasion, we feel only disappointment. The lack of security and services made us excited about leaving.

We were traveling to another part of Iraq, the Kurdish region in the north, but it felt like we were visiting another country.

The checkpoint, on the road from Kirkuk to Erbil, feels like a border. You don’t need a visa, but you can’t just cross either, the Kurdish authorities checking everyone, especially Arabs from the rest of Iraq.

The Arab-Kurd divide in Iraq is often called a potential flashpoint, a “trigger line” of a conflict not yet resolved. It’s more than a political barrier; it is an ethnic one, a social one, a psychological one.

“That checkpoint seems to be a separate line – between paradise and hell,” one of my colleagues said.

We passed into Kurdistan and started making plans, just like tourists. We didn’t want to waste a single moment, to take photos of everything.

One of the most striking things in Erbil – almost inconceivable in Baghdad today – is a shopping center, the newly opened Majidi Mall.

It could be in the United States or Europe, in another country in other words. “It looks like we are in a dream,” my colleague said. “The lighting, the floor, the shops – and even the people are different.”

He complained, not unhappily, that the quality of the goods for sale — many of them from Turkey — “took my attention and took my money”.

Such a mall is new to Iraqis. In Baghdad, despite improved security, such a place would just be a target for attack.

Most Iraqis would love to see the time when one could be built there, in Baghdad. Another friend back home told me he dreamed of a place where he could go with a girlfriend “watch a movie and eat popcorn as any other man in the world.”

Maybe that day will come. Until then, we have Erbil. On the road back to Baghdad, getting closer to the checkpoint again, we felt sadness again, but also eagerness to return the next time.

Gunmen kill five in their Iraq home: police

Gunmen shot dead five people, including the sister of an Iraqi policeman, in their beds in a house northeast of Baghdad early on Friday, a police official said.

The gunmen killed the policeman's sister, her husband's mother and father, their daughter and a child in their house in Husseiniya northeast of the capital, the official said.

The policeman had called his sister, who did not answer the phone. He then went to the house and discovered she and the others had been killed, the official said.

The gunmen are suspected of having used silenced weapons because no one heard the shots.

It was unclear why the five were targeted, with the official saying an investigation had been launched into whether it was a "criminal or terrorist" act.

Also on Friday, two people were killed when a car bomb demolished part of a house in the Sikak neighbourhood west of Nasiriyah, which is 305 kilometres (190 miles) south of Baghdad, police said.

The circumstances of the explosion were unclear.

According to Iraq Body Count, an independent Britain-based group, 4,021 civilians were killed in violence in Iraq from January 1 to December 30 last year, a figure down from 4,680 in 2009.

"2010?s civilian death toll in Iraq is the lowest since the war began" in 2003, IBC said in its report, while noting there was still an average of almost two explosions daily, with attacks occurring in 13 of Iraq's 18 provinces.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who was approved for a second term by parliament along with a national unity cabinet on December 21, has named security as one of his top priorities.

Spain's Courage: Holding Iraq Accountable

By Allan Gerson - Thank goodness someone -- the Government of Spain--has shown humanitarian concern about the plight of 3,400 Iranians in Camp Ashraf, Iraq. On January 4, 2011, an Investigative Court of the Spanish National Court summoned Iraq's Lt. Gen. Abdul-Hussein Shemmari to appear in Spain on March 8, 2011, or face charges of complicity in murder for having directed an assault on 3,400 Iranians who are supporters of the Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK). The MEK seeks the peaceful replacement of the regime in Iran with a democratically elected government, and for this reason its supporters face death under the mullahs' regime in Iran.

The attack on Camp Ashraf directed by the Lt. Gen. Shemmari left 11 dead and 500 wounded. Today, the people in Camp Ashraf are beset day and night by 180 blaring loudspeakers urging them to end their struggle and return to Iran--there to face death. Iraq has also constrained food deliveries and medical services to Camp Ashraf.

The tragedy is compounded by the fact that the United States, having expended enormous treasure and over 4,000 lives, allows its influence to wane in Iraq even as that of Iran rises. Caught in the middle are the MEK dissidents at Camp Ashraf. Never mind that the U.S. military had pledged to protect them under the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 Relative to the Protection of Civilians in Times of War. Now, as America gets ready to leave Iraq, America's pledge of protection is going by the wayside.

Stepping into this vacuum has been Iran. And, Iraqi officials seem only too happy to cooperate. That the residents of Camp Ashraf are members of the dissident movement that the mullahs fear most, the MEK, only makes them a more inviting target.

To its credit, Spain takes seriously its law providing for universal jurisdiction of war crimes, recognizing that it can be misused for political ends. Having viewed the attack that occurred at Camp Ashraf in July 2009 as a war crime against protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Spain is ready to take action.

Were the Spanish court to find that Lt. Gen. Shemmari had been complicit in war crimes, it could ask for an investigation and prosecution at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

This is good news for all who favor the application of international law to combat and deter gross human rights abuses. Critics might, and in the past have contended that such an approach will lead to foreign courts subverting international diplomacy. They will say that the Spanish court is interfering in the internal affairs of the new government in Iraq, arrogating to itself powers over an incident that does not directly concern Spain as no Spanish nationals were involved.

But, to the eleven people killed and 500 injured at Camp Ashraf and their families it will not matter if justice comes from the International Criminal Court or the Spanish court in Madrid. What will be important is that justice is served. Correctly, they will point out that what Spain has done, in a sober and measured way, is hardly an "intrusion" into Iraq's internal affairs. International humanitarian law has advanced to the stage where the unwarranted killing of protected people are no longer a purely internal matter.

Sadly, Iraq has shown no serious intent to investigate the incident and punish those responsible. The Spanish National Court found "there is no actual [Iraqi] investigation and prosecution of the facts on hand."

Still, it is not too late for Iraq, as a fledgling democracy, to demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law.

It can begin by stating that it will comply in full with an international investigation with international observers aimed at bringing to justice those responsible for the outrage of July 2009. By the same token, it should also pledge to desist from tolerating further harassment of the residents of Camp Ashraf. So far, the government of Iraq, alas, has shown no willingness to undertake such measures. Ominously, today's reports indicate that the Iraqi government deployed both Iraqis and reputed Iranian agents, disguised as family members of the residents, to Ashraf where they hurled rocks and petrol bombs at the residents, wounding over 155, including 83 women.

Fortunately, in the face of Iraq's unwilling to shoulder its international responsibilities, Spain has stepped up to the challenge. By putting Iraq and the international community on notice that it will go forward on its own, Spain deserves the applause of all who value human life.

Iraq to begin preparation for oil new bid round

Iraq will start preparations next week to hold a fourth licensing auction to award several oil and gas exploration contracts to international companies, a senior Iraqi oil official said Saturday.

"God willing, we hope to hold the fourth bid round this year," Abdul Mahdy al-Ameedi, head of Iraq's Petroleum Contracts and Licensing Directorate, told Dow Jones Newswires.

Ameedi, whose office engineered three rounds in the last two years that led to awarding 15 oil and gas fields, didn't say how many exploration blocks would be offered in the new auction, but said it would include oil and gas ones.

Earlier, the country's newly appointed oil minister Abdul Kareem Luaiby said that Iraq would offer some 12 blocks.

"The plan is to tender for blocks in governorates where no fields were offered in the first three rounds such as Najaf and Kerbala governorates," he said, adding that Western Anbar province, home to the Akkas gas field could also be included.

Iraq has so far held three successful petroleum bidding rounds over the last two years that led to the award of some of the country's prized oil and gas fields throughout the country. These would help more than quadruple the country's production.

New oil fields explorations are needed to compensate for the huge amount of crude oil that the country is expected to extract from oil fields currently being developed by international companies, Iraqi oil officials said.

Exxon Mobil Corp. /quotes/comstock/13*!xom/quotes/nls/xom (XOM 75.59, +0.41, +0.55%) , Russia's OAO Lukoil , Royal Dutch Shell PLC /quotes/comstock/13*!rds.b/quotes/nls/rds.b (RDS.B 66.23, +0.26, +0.39%) , BP PLC /quotes/comstock/13*!bp/quotes/nls/bp (BP 46.08, -0.15, -0.32%) , Total SA /quotes/comstock/13*!tot/quotes/nls/tot (TOT 53.54, -0.62, -1.14%) , Eni SpA /quotes/comstock/13*!e/quotes/nls/e (E 44.24, -0.32, -0.72%) , China National Petroleum Corp., and Malaysia's national oil company Petronas are gearing up work to start substantial production from supergiant fields such as West Qurna phase 1 and 2, Majnoon, Rumaila, and Zubair, all in southern Iraq.

Ameedi has earlier announced that Iraq's crude oil production increased by 300,000 barrels a day to 2.7 million barrels a day. He expected Iraq's oil output to hit 3 million barrels a day by 2011.

Iraq, which depends on oil revenue for more that 90% of its national expenditure, last year raised its figure for proven oil reserves by nearly a quarter to 143.1 billion barrels--the world's third largest.