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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Baghdad by night -- gunfire and television

by Bryan Pearson
1 hour, 36 minutes ago



BAGHDAD (AFP) - Television, DVDs and computer games -- that's entertainment in war-torn Baghdad. That's if you're lucky.

Even the simple pleasure of sharing dinner with friends and relatives has fallen victim to fear of sectarian death squads and, more recently, by a strictly enforced 8:00 pm to 6:00 am curfew.

Picnics by the Tigris, a drive to Fallujah for a swim in the lake or a kebab, nights out at the theatre or movies, meeting friends at street cafes -- all now just memories blurred by car bombs, mortar fire and late night gunfire.

Visits to restaurants by night -- out; clubs where belly dancers would entertain until two or three o'clock in the morning -- closed; rooftop discos in big hotels -- in ruins.

An evening cruise on the Tigris that could turn into an all-night party -- forget it. Meeting at the club on a balmy evening for drinks with mates -- once upon a time maybe.

"We are now like camels carrying a heavy load and eating dry grass," said Ahmed al-Zahrawi, a 25-year-old teacher now working as a driver to support his family.

"There is no outside entertainment at all in Baghdad. Long before the curfew comes into effect we are all in our homes, watching television -- if we have electricity," he said.

"We have no generator at home so when the power goes we just go to bed," added Zahrawi, who lives with his parents and three adolescent siblings.

Favourite programmes are action and adventure movies -- "lots of bang bang" -- he said.

Roadside money changer Abdul Mohammad Hassan said his favourite weekend pastime used to be taking his wife and four children to Jadinia park on the banks of the Tigris for a picnic.

"That is all gone," said the 45-year-old former government employee now trying to make ends meet through black market foreign exchange deals and selling old notes bearing the image of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.

"No more picnics, no more cinema, no more theatre. There is no longer any entertainment in Baghdad. Many of the clubs are now occupied by the military," he added.

He makes sure he and his family are safely inside the house by 4:00 pm "and we don't leave again till the morning."

While his children watch cartoons and movies on television, he plays computer games, his favourites being those with lot of action.

"The more violence the better," he added with a smile, showing scars on his arm he said were wounds received when he was a soldier fighting against Iranian forces during the reign of Saddam.

Hassan Farhan sorrowfully said his second name -- which in Arabic means "happy" -- no longer applies.

"I am sad all the time," said Farhan, a security guard outside the once-popular Rasheed cinema complex, now lying in ruins.

"We used to visit friends and relatives at night, or go to the movies. Now all that is finished," said the 47-year-old, his eyes bloodshot from standing guard for 48 hours at a stretch.

"Now we just watch television at night."

Those shuttered behind their doors when the curfew begins and streets empty of all but the security forces and emergency workers are spoiled for choice when it comes to television.

Over the past three years some 30 stations have sprung up, and for those with satellite dishes -- according to vendors at least seven million across Iraq -- the number of channels available runs into the hundreds.

Favourites, as to be expected, are Arabic channels offering fare from across the Middle East, with Egyptian movies and series most popular.

For those able to afford DVD players, latest films -- usually pirated and sold at less than a dollar (less than a euro) a shot -- offer at least some alternative to an outing to the cinema or to the theatre.

For adolescents deprived of discos and a night out with friends, computer games offer some escapism from the brutal reality of being trapped in a city riven by sectarian strife.

But DVD players, computers and even games are within the reach of those in the middle to upper income brackets only -- as are the generators needed to run them due to the frequent power cuts in the city.

For most households, the option remains television -- or reading a book.

"Mostly we just sleep at night. There is not much else to do," said money changer Hassan.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

U.S. tracking Iraqi cleric Sadr, sees cooperation

More By Claudia Parsons

BAGHDAD, March 14 (Reuters) - U.S. forces are keeping a close track on Moqtada al Sadr and they believe he is in Iran, a U.S. general said on Wednesday, but he declined to say whether the anti-American Shi'ite cleric was a wanted man.

Just a few months ago, Washington called Sadr's Mehdi Army militia the greatest threat to security in Iraq. The radical young cleric headed uprisings against U.S. forces twice in 2004, but his political movement is now an important party in the government of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

"As of 24 hours ago he (Sadr) was not here in Iraq. All indications are that he is still in Iran," said Major General William Caldwell, chief spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq.

Asked at a news conference in Baghdad why U.S. forces were tracking Sadr if they were not hunting him, Caldwell declined to say if he was a wanted man or not.

"Obviously he's a very significant part of this entire political process," Caldwell said. "We are in fact tracking his whereabouts, we do stay concerned. But ... we're very encouraged by what we're seeing on the ground right now in Sadr City."

The Mehdi Army is blamed by Sunni Arabs and Washington for operating death squads that were killing dozens of people every day in Baghdad in the year since the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra in February 2006.

Washington is trying to strike a delicate balance between cracking down on Mehdi Army militants responsible for sectarian killings and attacks on U.S. forces, while backing Maliki in his efforts at reconciliation and reintegrating militias, including some linked to his allies, into the political process.

Caldwell said recent U.S. and Iraqi military operations on the Mehdi Army stronghold of Sadr City in northeast Baghdad were enjoying good cooperation from the local mayor and residents, and a dozen rebuilding projects were underway as a result.

The operations in Sadr City are part of a major U.S. -backed security crackdown in Baghdad aimed at stamping out sectarian violence that threatens to become outright civil war.

Sadr City, long a no-go area for U.S. forces, was viewed as a test of the government's determination to deal as firmly with Shi'ite militias as it does with Sunni Arab insurgents, blamed for many of the car bombs in the city.

At the same news conference, U.S. Embassy Charge d'Affaires Daniel Speckhard was also reluctant to spell out Sadr's status.

Asked about U.S. State Department policy in the light of Iraqi government comments Sadr was not wanted, Speckhard said Iraqis were "in the lead" in all such political negotiations.

"In the past we've been very concerned about the Jaish al Mehdi," he said, using the Arabic name for the militant group.

"We've been pleased with some of the statements we've heard in recent months about the desire for that organisation to no longer be a militia, that the leadership say that they called for constructive engagement, an end to military or militant roles for those that are in the organisation."

As yet there has been little or no resistance in Sadr City -- a sign U.S. officials will be hoping indicates a genuine change of heart on the part of the Mehdi Army rather than just a decision to lie low and avoid confrontation in the short term.

U.S. tracking Iraqi cleric Sadr, sees cooperation

More By Claudia Parsons

BAGHDAD, March 14 (Reuters) - U.S. forces are keeping a close track on Moqtada al Sadr and they believe he is in Iran, a U.S. general said on Wednesday, but he declined to say whether the anti-American Shi'ite cleric was a wanted man.

Just a few months ago, Washington called Sadr's Mehdi Army militia the greatest threat to security in Iraq. The radical young cleric headed uprisings against U.S. forces twice in 2004, but his political movement is now an important party in the government of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

"As of 24 hours ago he (Sadr) was not here in Iraq. All indications are that he is still in Iran," said Major General William Caldwell, chief spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq.

Asked at a news conference in Baghdad why U.S. forces were tracking Sadr if they were not hunting him, Caldwell declined to say if he was a wanted man or not.

"Obviously he's a very significant part of this entire political process," Caldwell said. "We are in fact tracking his whereabouts, we do stay concerned. But ... we're very encouraged by what we're seeing on the ground right now in Sadr City."

The Mehdi Army is blamed by Sunni Arabs and Washington for operating death squads that were killing dozens of people every day in Baghdad in the year since the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra in February 2006.

Washington is trying to strike a delicate balance between cracking down on Mehdi Army militants responsible for sectarian killings and attacks on U.S. forces, while backing Maliki in his efforts at reconciliation and reintegrating militias, including some linked to his allies, into the political process.

Caldwell said recent U.S. and Iraqi military operations on the Mehdi Army stronghold of Sadr City in northeast Baghdad were enjoying good cooperation from the local mayor and residents, and a dozen rebuilding projects were underway as a result.

The operations in Sadr City are part of a major U.S. -backed security crackdown in Baghdad aimed at stamping out sectarian violence that threatens to become outright civil war.

Sadr City, long a no-go area for U.S. forces, was viewed as a test of the government's determination to deal as firmly with Shi'ite militias as it does with Sunni Arab insurgents, blamed for many of the car bombs in the city.

At the same news conference, U.S. Embassy Charge d'Affaires Daniel Speckhard was also reluctant to spell out Sadr's status.

Asked about U.S. State Department policy in the light of Iraqi government comments Sadr was not wanted, Speckhard said Iraqis were "in the lead" in all such political negotiations.

"In the past we've been very concerned about the Jaish al Mehdi," he said, using the Arabic name for the militant group.

"We've been pleased with some of the statements we've heard in recent months about the desire for that organisation to no longer be a militia, that the leadership say that they called for constructive engagement, an end to military or militant roles for those that are in the organisation."

As yet there has been little or no resistance in Sadr City -- a sign U.S. officials will be hoping indicates a genuine change of heart on the part of the Mehdi Army rather than just a decision to lie low and avoid confrontation in the short term.

IRAQ: Children's education gravely affected by conflict



BAGHDAD, 14 March (IRIN) - Eight-year-old Ahlaam al-Hasnawi and her three brothers, aged between seven and 13, should be at school but their widowed mother recently demanded they stay at home for fear that they might be killed on the streets of Baghdad or in school.

"I love my school, my teachers and my fellow pupils. Even though my class was often empty, there was still much more to do there than stay at home where my mother forbids me from even going to our neighbour's house," Ahlaam said.

"I cannot just stay at home watching television but my mother told me last week that the situation in our neighbourhood was getting dangerous and she had to take me away from school until things improve. But I don't believe that will happen soon," she added, with tears in her eyes.

Last year, Ahlaam was one of 35 students in her class but today there are only 11 left. Some have fled the country with their parents, others are displaced and now live in improvised camps, and at least half of them stay at home for security reasons.

According to a report released last year by NGO Save the Children, 818,000 primary school-aged children, representing 22 percent of Iraq's student population, were not attending school.

A joint study by the Iraqi Ministry of Education and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) found that of those who do not attend school, 74 percent are female. Aid agencies estimate that thousands of Iraqi parents do not send their daughters to school for cultural reasons and because of the general insecurity in the country.

Schools likely to continue emptying

They add that schools and universities are likely to continue emptying throughout 2007 if there is no let up to current levels of violence and the displacement it causes.

Mohammed Abdul-Aziz, a statistician at the Ministry of Education, told IRIN last week that at least 110 children had been killed and 95 injured since 2005 in attacks on schools. These numbers do not include children killed or injured on their way to or from school.

In addition to pupils dropping out of education, teachers have been equally affected by insecurity in Iraq.

"Teachers are fleeing the country on a daily basis, leaving schools without experienced teachers. Educational standards in Iraq have severely worsened," said Muhammad Tammin, a spokesman at the Ministry of Education.

"Violence against teachers is making them look for more secure places to work or even stay at home. We must also not forget that hundreds of teachers are themselves displaced and can no longer go to teach at their regular schools," Tammin added.

Last September, the Ministry of Education increased teachers' salaries by 20 to 50 percent in an attempt to entice teachers to stay in their jobs. More recently, the government hired 13,000 guards to protect schools and universities.

However, specialists say these measures have had little impact on the rate of teachers leaving their profession and children continue to be deprived of both an education and social support system.

"Iraq's education system needs a great deal more investment and attention to survive this time of crisis," Roger Wright, UNICEF representative for Iraq, said in the joint study with the education ministry. "Schools are the best place to give psychological support to children affected by violence and displacement, providing a focus for stability and healing within Iraqi society."

as/ar/ed