Earlier this month, Iraq’s government announced a new temporary national flag. This week on War News Radio, we hear the reaction of Iraqis in the Kurdish North. Listen now to this report.
And as US-backed Awakening militias become more powerful in Iraq’s Sunni provinces, we find out about a standoff between the Awakening and Iraqi police in Diyala province. Listen now to Wren Elhai’s report.
In Iraq 101, we learn about the status of Iraq legislation in the US Congress. Listen now to Kevin Kim and Eugene Kim’s report.
And, in our series, A Day in the Life, we speak with Beau Shelton, an American veteran who’s adjusting to life as a civilian elementary school teacher. Listen now.
These stories, plus the weekâ€™s news, from War News Radio.
VARIOUS: From Swarthmore College, this is War News Radio.
EIZABETH THRELKELD: Iâ€™m Elizabeth Threlkeld
WREN ELHAI: And Iâ€™m Wren Elhai
[Arabic] In reality, everyone in Kurdistan wishes there was only the Kurdish Flag. But since we are part of Iraq, we should raise the Iraqi Flag, and this new flag is better than the old one.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Earlier this months Iraqâ€™s government announced, to great fanfare a new temporary national flag. It does away with some of the Saddam Era symbolism. This week on War News Radio: Raising the Flag. Weâ€™ll hear the reaction of Iraqis in the Kurdish north to the new emblem of national unity.
WREN ELHAI: US-backed Awakening militia groups have become increasingly powerful in Iraqâ€™s Sunni provinces. Weâ€™ll hear about a standoff between the Awakening and Iraqi police in Diyala province and consider what the future might hold for political reconciliation.
EIZABETH THRELKELD: In Iraq 101, an update on the status of Iraq-related legislation in the US Congress.
WREN ELHAI: And, in our series, A Day in The Life, we hear from a former US soldier whoâ€™s adjusting to civilian life as an elementary school teacher.
EIZABETH THRELKELD: But first, a roundup of this weekâ€™s news
WREN ELHAI: It was a close call, but this week the Iraqi Parliament passed three key pieces of legislation. They approved a 48 billion dollar budget for 2008, together with laws that defined the division of powers among Iraqâ€™s provinces and provide amnesty to thousands of detainees. The budget has been controversial because it allocates 17% of the year’s funding to Iraq’s Kurdish north, which legislators from other provinces say is an unfair distribution of resources. The second bill passed will release any prisoners in Iraqi – but not US – custody held for more than 6 months without being charged, as well as those who don’t appear before a judge within a year. The provincial powers law requires elections in most of Iraq’s provinces to take place by October 1st this year.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: The laws passed just a day after the speaker of parliament threatened to disband the fragmented legislature for failing to move on the bills. Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions each backed one of the measures, and feared that the group whose bill passed first would walk out and prevent a vote on the other two laws. It was only when MPs compromised and voted on the bills as a package that the stalemate was broken, although some have called the combined vote unconstitutional.
WREN ELHAI: The measures now go to Iraq’s 3-person presidency council for final approval, which is far from certain. The representative of a key shi’a party – the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq – has threatened to veto the provincial power bill which would require new elections and likely give more political power to sunni groups who boycotted the 2005 elections.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Defense Secretary Robert Gates made an unannounced visit to Iraq this week, where he met with General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq. It was Gates’ seventh trip to the country since his appointment. Gates supported Petraeus’ request for a “pause” in the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of July, when the 22,000 troops who arrived with the Surge in 2007 will have been pulled out. According to Secretary Gates’s comments, both he and General Petraeus believe that some time will be needed to assess the state of security in Iraq in light of the reduced U.S. troop presence before further drawdowns can begin.
ROBERT GATES: A brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense.
REPORTER: How brief would that be?
ROBERT GATES: Well, that’s one of the things that we’re still thinking about.
REPORTER: Has General Petraeus explained to you his thinking on that subject?
ROBERT GATES: Sure, and I must say that in my own thinking I had been kind of headed in that direction as well.
WREN ELHAI: The presidential campaigns of senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama each released responses to Gates’ announcement, criticizing the plan for a pause in troop withdrawals, and calling for the swift removal of American military forces from Iraq.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Also making the rounds in Iraq this week was US Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who visited the country for the first time since taking office in November last year. In Iraq, Mukasey met with key Iraqi legal figures and US Justice department employees working in Iraq, as well as with Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus. During his visit, he expressed optimism about the Iraqi legal system, saying that the Iraqi people are â€œfirmly committedâ€ to the rule of law as opposed to the rule of might.
WREN ELHAI: This week, Iran postponed the fourth in a series of talks on Iraqi national security, originally scheduled for February 15. The planned meeting between Iranian, Iraqi, and American security experts was to be a continuation of earlier meetings, the latest in August 2007. The talks have dealt with border issues and other aspects of security. Iranian officials blamed “technical issues” for the delay. So far, no new date has been set for the meetings.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Meanwhile, it was announced this week that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a group of Iranian government ministers will travel to Iraq on March 2 for a meeting with their Iraqi counterparts, including Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. The visit is part of an effort to warm relations between the two countries. Itâ€™s visit will be the first visit to Iraq by an Iranian president since the Iranian revolution almost 30 years ago.
WREN ELHAI: Earlier this week , Pakistanâ€™s ambassador to Afghanistan, Tarik Azizuddin, went missing in north western Pakistan, near the Afghan border. His driver and a bodyguard are also presumed abducted. The ambassador was on his way back to Kabul from Peshawar, and had refused a security escort. Their car disappeared in the tribal Khyber region, which has seen increased militant activity over the past several months. The Taliban denied involvement.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Earlier in the week, Taliban commander Mansoor Dadullah was captured by Pakistani forces while attempting to cross the border from Afghanistan with a small group of men. Dudallah may have been wounded in the incident, though the details are still unclear. The commander’s brother, also a prominent Taliban leader, was killed last year in Helmand Province.
WREN ELHAI: Russia agreed this week to forgive 12 billion dollars of Iraqi debt– more than 90% of the money Iraq owes the country. The debt is mainly left over from Saddam-era military equipment contracts. Under the deal, Iraq will have almost 20 years to repay the remaining 900 million dollars owed to Russia. The United States has asked that other nations forgive Iraq’s pre-war debts to allow for faster reconstruction in the country. In this case, Russia is likely to reap clear returns from the debt deal. The 12 billion dollars of Russian largesse might help persuade Iraq to honor Saddam era oil contracts signed with Russian oil companies.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Much of Northern Iraq was without electricity this week, after Sunni insurgents bombed a gas pipeline, causing a huge fire near Tikrit. The blaze destroyed the pipeline, which provides fuel to power stations in Kirkuk and Beiji. Local authorities said that it will likely take several days to repair the pipeline, leaving the region temporarily without power. Also this week, Baghdad Police found a large bomb in the entrance to the Ministry of Electricity, but defused it before it could do any damage. Iraq’s energy infrastructure is frequently targeted by insurgents, but authorities insist steps are being taken to improve security.
WREN ELHAI: This is War News Radio. Two weeks ago the Iraqi parliament adopted a new design for the national flag. It looks very similar to the old red, white, and black design, but no longer includes the three green stars that symbolized the Ba’athist principles of unity, freedom, and socialism. Also, the phrase “Allahu Akbar”, or “God is great”–written on the old flag in Saddam Hussein’s handwriting–is now in a different font. The national flag flew for the first time this week in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq. The Kurdish government had refused to fly the previous national flag since it was a reminder of the Ba’athist regime. But opinions on the new flag remain mixed, especially in Kurdish regions which enjoy autonomy from the national government in Baghdad. We spoke with several Iraqis throughout the Kurdish region, who shared their thoughts on the new flag.
HARDI AHMED: My name is Hardi Ahmed. I am a photographer in Erbil.
The Kurdish government refused to raise the previous flag because they said it belonged to the Ba’ath party. Now they have removed the three stars and changed the font of the Allahu Akbar. But in fact it doesn’t have any Kurdish symbol on it. If the Kurdish leadership raises the flag because we are part of Iraq, that’s alright–but I believe the flag ought to have symbols of all the different minorities in the country. But it is all a political game. They change and raise the flag for sake of some political gain. Kurdish leaders have won the game because they refused to raise the Iraqi flag unless it was changed. Finally they did it. It doesn’t benefit the Kurdish people in any way. Only the leaders win politically.
NAZ HIWA: I am Naz Hiwa; I am a student at Suleimanya University, studying political science.As a Kurdish citizen, I think that the new flag will change nothing. In Kurdistan, we have many other problems that our leaders need to address. Members of parliament should meet to solve these other issues instead of just trying to decide whether or not to change the flag.
One of our problems is the education system. Like Europe and America, we have to first work on our education system. But here we have done very little work on our schools. The leaders here need to try to help the universities. I am a student myself. There hasn’t been any change or progress in our university. Students who stay in dormitories do not have services. In the cold of the winter, most of the students were out in the streets demanding services. This was a major problem, and the whole city get involved in the issue. Our government had to meet and seek a solution for that problem.
We also have a budget problem. One of our professors recently told us that only 4% of the budget, which comes from Baghdad, has been spent on projects. The rest of it has disappeared in corruption. In just a few words I want to say that our parliament needs to deal with our education system and our budget. The flag has never been a problem.
DANA RAHEEM: My name is Dana Raheem. I am a school teacher in the town of Kalar. I have no problem with the new flag. Our Kurdish representatives in Baghdad have accepted it, so we as people should accept it too. The old flag had three stars that stood for the Ba’ath party. Now, as the three stars have been removed from the flag, it should be fine, it shouldn’t be a problem at all. In reality, everyone in Kurdistan wishes there was only the Kurdish flag, but since we are part of Iraq, we should raise the Iraqi flag and this new flag is better than the old one.
BURHAN MUHAMMED: My name is Burhan Muhammed. I am a government employee in Halabja. First of all, I don’t think the old flag was a representative of the Ba’ath party. But now as the parliament has agreed on this new flag, I think the Kurds should have had a say in this. So I don’t think this new flag is any different from the old one. Kurdistan is not an independent country. We are still part of Iraq, so we have to raise the Iraqi flag in our region.
But in fact we have other problems, like resolving the status of Kirkuk, and the budget problem. Every year we have to face the dilemma of how to deal with the Kurdish budget. So I don’t really know what the removal of three stars on our flag would change about the current situation.
LIZZIE THRELKELD: This is War News Radio. Events this week demonstrated the growing political power of the Awakening movement and the serious dangers the Awakening could pose for the Iraqi government. The Awakening Councils are militias made up mostly of Sunni tribesmen that are being paid to maintain security in their neighborhoods– and they are widely credited for the dramatic drop in violence in the Sunni provinces over the Last year. Now there are an estimated 80,000 Awakening fightersâ€” the US calls Concerned Local Citizens– and is paying each of them about $10 dollars a day, and the Iraqi government has budgeted 150 billion Iraqi dinar (about 120 million dollars) to pay the Awakening fighters after it starts picking up the tab this summer.
WREN ELHAI: This week in Diyala province, the local Awakening fighters left their posts and cut off all cooperation with American and Iraqi forces. They declared a general strike, and forcibly entered government offices to shut them down. They led thousands of Iraqis in street protests in Baquba, the capital of Diyala, and according to some reports, killed three Iraqi policemen. The strike came in response to a pair of murders– earlier this month, the naked bodies of two women who were last seen being taken into police custody were discovered in a village in the north of Diyala. The Awakening council demanded that the Diyala police chief, a Shi’a, be fired. We spoke with Wihad Yaqub, the news director at Iraqi satellite channel al-Nahrain TV, who explained that the Awakening had long-standing grievances with the Diyala police chief.
WIHAD YAQUB: They allege that the chief of police is a sectarian person and he has stood behind many assassinations. The Awakening council also says that the chief of police doesnâ€™t allow members of specific tribes to join the police force.
WREN ELHAI: Specifically, the police chief is accused of packing the police with Shiâ€™a officers, and not providing security for Sunni residents. Later in the week the situation deteriorated further when a mass grave was discovered in Diyalaâ€”it contained 13 corpses, handcuffed and all showing signs of torture. Some Iraqi sources say the Diyala police chief is being investigated for his role in these killings. And also this week a former Sunni police officer told the LA Times that he was tortured under the direct supervision of the Diyala police chief after participating in a joint US-Iraqi raid that arrested Iranian operatives based in a Shiâ€™a mosque. But itâ€™s still not at all clear what the outcome of the standoff between the Diyala awakening and the police chief will be.
WIHAD YAQUB: Some security officials announced that the police chief has been suspended and an investigation team will be formed to follow up his case. But in fact the governor of Diyala came on the TV and said that the police chief is still serving in his post and everything that has been said it is not true.
WREN ELHAI: The murky situation in Diyala speaks to a broader dilemma about the future of the Sunni Awakening. Having 80,000 armed men in organized units that arenâ€™t controlled by the Iraqi government isnâ€™t a recipe for long term stability. About 10% of the Awakening militiamen are being incorporated into the official Iraqi security forces. And the US is planning job training that would help thousands more get jobs that donâ€™t rely on their ability to carry a gun. Meanwhile, Awakening leaders, though split by internal rivalries, are planning to create a new political party that will represent their interests in Baghdad.
LIZZIE THRELKELD: The Awakening militias could make Iraqi politics, if possible, even more bitterly sectarian. Reports this week indicate that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, with help and encouragement from the US, is trying to form a new government that could promote reconciliation in Iraq. Al-Nahrain TVâ€™s Wihad Yaqub explained the motivation behind the cabinet shake-up.
WIHAD YAQUB: Everyone including members of the government itself knows that this current administration does not represent the various Iraqi groups or the Iraqi society. One party is in charge of security and the government, while other parties have only unimportant posts. So now Prime Minister al-Maliki wants to create a government that will be outside the influence of major parties and that will better represent the Iraqi society.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: The new government will also, hopefully, be a more streamlined one. Yaqub says the current cabinet is bloated with ministers who were chosen just for their partisan affiliations.
WIHAD YAQUB: There are now 33 ministries and many of them were just created because different parties wanted to have ministerial posts. But it is now said that the new government will only have 22 ministries.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: This week, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, traveled to the Shiâ€™a holy city of Najaf to enlist the support and advice of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for a new government.
WIHAD YAQUB: According to some information that has leaked, Maliki wants to form a government in which skilled technocrats serve. Ministerial posts are not given away based on party shares.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: According to Yaqub, a new cabinet could be announced within a few weeks.
WREN ELHAI: This is War News Radio. The Iraqi Parliament passed three key laws this week that could help political reconciliation in Iraq. Kevin Kim and Eugene Kim prepared this report on some of the Iraq bills that have been introduced in the American Congress lately.
EUGENE KIM: There are more than 20 bills dealing with the war in Iraq under consideration in the House and Senate, though most of them haven’t seen much action lately – in part due to the presidential campaigns’ focus on economic issues. Efforts to shut off funding for the war have met with little success, and Democratic legislators have shifted their focus to other aspects of the war, hoping to garner more bipartisan support.
One bill introduced in January would prevent any permanent security arrangement between the US and Iraq from getting funding unless it was approved by two thirds of the Senate. The bill was introduced in response to negotiations between the White House and the Iraqi government about possible long term security plans for Iraq.
Several other bills that were introduced late last year call for new diplomatic action in Iraq and the implementation of the Iraq Study Group proposals. One of the bills, aptly named The New Diplomatic Offensive Act of 2007, calls on the President to work with the United Nations Security Council to develop a regional diplomatic plan that would limit the spread of violence within Iraq and in the broader Middle East. The bill also calls for the establishment of a Presidential Special Envoy for Iraq Regional Security to work with the governments of Iraq and neighboring countries.
Other bills being circulated during this Congressional session include the Responsibility to Iraqi Refugees Act of 2007 introduced last May. The bill would give immigration status to Iraqis who are in danger because they worked directly with the US or the UN for at least a year. Among other actions the bill would establish a Special Coordinator for Iraqi Refugees in the State Department.
But despite the long list of bills about Iraq, the war seems to be on the legislative back burner. Most of these bills haven’t gotten out of committee. It’s uncertain whether any of the bills on Iraq will be passed before the House adjourns on September 26. For War News Radio, I’m Eugene Kim.
LIZZIE THRELKELD: This is War News Radio. Soldiers returning from war often have a hard time readjusting to the routine back home. This week in our series, A Day in the Life, we speak with Beau Shelton, an elementary school teacher, about his experiences since returning from four years of service in Iraq.
BEAU SHELTON: Iâ€™m a teacherâ€¦ I was a communications specialist in the military. Wake up at about 5 in the morning, do physical fitness, about 5 till 6, and then shower, go eat chow, from about 6:30 till about 7. And then depending on you know, whether you had a mission that day, or just whatever mission dictated, you know, from about 7 in the morning until 8 oâ€™clock at night, youâ€™d be just doing whatever you were told to do for that day, whether it was busy work or whether it was planning for the next mission â€“ maps, intelligence, routesâ€¦ I mean, like, I can tell you a typical day, but there wasnâ€™t that many typical days. Since it was a 24 hour operation, I could be up all night and all day for a couple days, then have a day or two off, or we could have a mission really early in the morning, you know, have to wake up at 1 in the morning, 2 in the morning, to get ready for like a 6 oâ€™clock mission, so be prepared to go at a momentâ€™s notice. So whatever the mission dictated was really how your day was going to go.
I think the hardest thing that I had dealing with was adapting to life over thereâ€¦ it was one of the most difficult things Iâ€™ve ever had to do, soâ€¦ you know, I guess because I did adapt to it, now that I got back, I have to come down a step down from that intensity and that sort of shutting your mind off from whatâ€™s going on in the outside world, so I had to turn my mind back on and get that feeling back that I shut off, in order to just get through what you had to deal with over there. So I think, you know, itâ€™s that whole process of being aware of feeling and being a compassionate person that cares about other people in the world, you know, instead of being like an automaton, a robot, somebody that just does because itâ€™s told or does because they feel like thereâ€™s nothing else they can do â€“ they want to get through and survive, so I think itâ€™s that process of flipping that switch and becoming a person again, what Iâ€™m having a hard time dealing with.
You know, when I got there, I thought, â€œThereâ€™s no way I can do this; thereâ€™s no way I can do this for a year,â€ you know, but we adapt â€“ weâ€™re amazingly resilient and adaptable, and I really thought â€œthereâ€™s no way Iâ€™ll make it,â€ because, I mean, you just never know whatâ€™s going to happen; you have no idea. Everything over thereâ€™s just timing, whether itâ€™s your time, or what, whether youâ€™re in the wrong place at the wrong time, or however people want to look at it â€“ or if itâ€™s your time to go, nothingâ€™s going to stop it.
You know, I was so happy to get away from the military that it was a difficult transition back here. I think getting out after those four years, and then, I think, coming down off of what those four years actually entailed, I think thereâ€™s a gap there between the military world and the civilian world. The whole time I was in the military, I felt like it was so separated from regular life that I just felt I would separate from one and transition to the next, so I really didnâ€™t expect the level of support that Iâ€™ve gotten from ordinary people that didnâ€™t even know me. Everyone I know that Iâ€™ve met, post-military, has been very very supportive, regardless of their feelings of the war; theyâ€™re just very supportive of the sacrifice that people are making over there. I remember coming home and people on the airplane clapping for me, the whole airplane clapping that I was coming home.
Uh, a typical day now â€“ itâ€™s pretty much a typical day from before I joined the military, you know. 6 to 7, go into workâ€¦ my day starts at 8:30, and then Iâ€™m off at 3 oâ€™clock, so doing that and getting back into full-time work and everything has been fairly difficult, as far as separating myself from what I did the last four years, and then getting back into the regular civilian routine.
Iâ€™ve always had sleep issues, and Iâ€™ve had some depression since Iâ€™ve been out, so Iâ€™m still working through that stuff. But also, I think, when you live day to day, you know â€“when youâ€™re not sure whatâ€™s going to happen, or youâ€™re not sure at any exact moment whether youâ€™re going to be blown up or something like that, I think thereâ€™s going to be lingering psychological effects, no matter what, becauseâ€¦ I donâ€™t have flashbacks per se, and I donâ€™t really think about what I did on a conscious level, but I think itâ€™s more of a sub-conscious level, for me. Because of the heightened awareness I had for the last four years, I think sub-consciously, the way I deal with it, or the way my mind deals with it, is by perceiving that I might be under threat while Iâ€™m walking down the street, or when Iâ€™m in a safe area or when Iâ€™m anywhere. So my way, or my mindâ€™s way of dealing with it is, you know, to be on a constant heightened awareness.
Actually, you know, I really havenâ€™t had nightmares â€“ like, on a sub-conscious level, I probably do at night, but they havenâ€™t manifested into dreams or anything like that. My biggest â€“ I think about a lot of things I used to do, just, now I think kind of, whatâ€™s the point of doing? So I guess, yeah, Iâ€™ve lost some sensibility.
Things are familiar, Iâ€™m with my family, so, you know, theyâ€™re making things very easy for me, so I think itâ€™ll just be time and decompressing, and I think Iâ€™ll get out of the PTSD. I donâ€™t think itâ€™ll be, like, long-term future flashbacks and stuff like that, you know, I think itâ€™s just more of a short-term thing that Iâ€™ll work through, with the help and support of my family. When I first went to the VA, they streamlined me in because I was a returning vet, you know â€“ they set me up with a nurse practitioner, they did like a full evaluation on me. The people seemed very supportive. Now that I have my full-time medical benefits, you know, I got a doctor in Marin and a dentist whoâ€™s right down the street, so Iâ€™m pretty happy.
WREN ELHAI: That’s our show for this week.
LIZZIE THRELKELD: War News Radio is a production of Swarthmore College.
WREN ELHAI: Visit us online to listen to archived shows, learn more about the program, or subscribe to our podcast. That’s at warnewsradio.org.
LIZZIE THRELKELD: Our behind the scenes crew includes: Sam Barrows, Laura Bolger, Eric Chiang, Emanne Desjardins, Jess Engebretson, Emily Hager, Calvin Ho, …
WREN ELHAI: …Clare Kobasa, Haley Loram, Ben Mendelson, Marge Murphy, Ayub Nuri, Meghna Sachdev, Aaron Schwartz, Sonny Sidhu, and Michael Xu. I’m Wren Elhai.
LIZZIE THRELKELD: And I’m Elizabeth Threlkeld. Until next time, thanks for listening.