State of Iraq 2008

Two Iraqi Soldiers on patrol in Mosul. Photo courtesy of Ayub Nuri.

This week on War News Radio, we hear how President Bush's State of the Union address syncs up with the reality faced by Iraqis. Listen now to Jess Engebretson's report.

And we learn about an Oscar-nominated documentary exposing the darker side of the war in Afghanistan. Listen now to Haley Loram's report.

We also hear about a new non-violent organization in Najaf and Karbala that is helping Iraqis rebuild their lives. Listen now to Kevin Kim's report.

Finally, in our series, A Day in the Life, a professor in Mosul tells us about conditions in his city. Listen now.

These stories, plus the week’s news, from War News Radio.

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VARIOUS: From Swarthmore College, this is War News Radio.

EMILY HAGER: I’m Emily Hager.

CYRUS STOLLER: And I’m Cyrus Stoller.

GEORGE W. BUSH: The American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago.

CYRUS STOLLER: In President Bush’s State of the Union address, he praised recent security gains in Iraq. He says the Iraqi government has made real progress on political reconciliation. This week on War News Radio: the State of Iraq. We’ll speak with experts and Iraqis to see how their views of the situation match up with the president’s.

EMILY HAGER: And in Najaf and Karbala, Iraqis rebuild from the ground up. We hear about a local organization that’s providing health, protection, and other services while remaining strictly non-violent.

CYRUS STOLLER: In our series “A Day in the Life,” we speak with a professor in Mosul who gives us a ground-level view of the ongoing American-Iraqi offensive in his city.

EMILY HAGER: Finally, an Oscar-nominated documentary exposes the dark underbelly of the Afghan war. We hear about a reporter’s experience investigating the murder of two Afghan taxi drivers.

CYRUS STOLLER: But first, a roundup of this week’s news.

EMILY HAGER: Afghanistan may be on its way to becoming a failed state, according to a trio of new studies. The reports, issued by the Afghanistan Study Group, The Atlantic Council and National Defense University, all call for major overhauls of diplomatic and military strategy in Afghanistan. Former NATO Commander General John Jones, who led two of the studies, said that NATO is not winning the war in Afghanistan. He presented the findings to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, along with Afghanistan Study Group Co-Chair, former UN ambassador Thomas Pickering.

THOMAS PICKERING: We neglected to understand that after in fact we were quickly victorious in Afghanistan, we had a huge mountain of work to do to follow up to make sure that it didn’t roll out from under our feet.

EMILY HAGER: The studies recommend several strategies for improving the situation in Afghanistan, including separating the funding for Afghanistan and Iraq, and trying to spread the burden of the war in Afghanistan more evenly among NATO members.

CYRUS STOLLER: The deputy governor of Helmand province and five others were killed in a suicide attack that came during afternoon prayers at a mosque. At least 21 people were injured in the bombing. A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the blast.

EMILY HAGER: Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior member of al-Qaeda who was considered to be one of al-Qaeda’s top commanders in Afghanistan, died this week, according to the BBC. He may have been killed in a U.S. missile strike that also killed 12 militants in Pakistan, near the Afghan border. Al-Libi has been blamed for several attacks on coalition forces, including the bombing of an American air base during Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to Afghanistan early last year.

CYRUS STOLLER: Several hundred Afghan women rallied in Kandahar this week, to condemn the recent kidnapping of an American aid worker and her Afghan driver. Dressed in burqas, they called on Afghan officials to work for the release of Cydney Mizell, an American woman who taught English at a local girls’ school. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, but NGOs are taking precautionary measures to protect their staff.

EMILY HAGER: It’s uncertain how much longer Canadian troops will remain in Afghanistan. Canadian Prime Minister Stephan Harper has said that Canada will withdraw all of its 2500 troops when their current commitment expires early next year, unless other NATO nations step up and commit more troops to Afghanistan’s dangerous southern regions. Canadian troops have borne the brunt of operations in dangerous Helmand province, where other NATO countries have been reluctant to send forces. NATO has promised to provide the 1,000 backup troops that Canada requested by the end of this year.

CYRUS STOLLER: And there were major shake-ups in the U.S. led coalition in Iraq this week as well: Australia and Poland both announced their intentions to withdraw all their forces from Iraq by the end of October. Both countries’ newly elected prime ministers are fulfilling their campaign promises to pull their troops out of Iraq. But Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephen Smith said that Australia will stay involved in Iraq after its troops withdraw:

STEPHEN SMITH: Australia stands ready to consider, as we are currently considering, what other avenues of support there may well be to support the effort in Iraq. This, of course, goes to aid matters; it goes to building Iraq capacity in governance issues, in infrastructure, in civilian activities.

EMILY HAGER: The Northern Iraqi City of Mosul is the latest flashpoint in the battle against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. For weeks, violence in the city has been on the upswing. War News Radio’s Elizabeth Threlkeld brings us up to date on the situation in Mosul.

ELIZABETH THRELKELD: The bloodiest attack Iraq has seen this year came last week in Mosul, when a house packed with what U.S. and Iraqi military officials say were bomb-making materials exploded. The blast killed as many as 60 and left nearly 300 wounded, many of them women and children. The next day, the provincial police chief visited the site of the explosion, where he was stoned by local residents angered by the attack, and then killed by a suicide bomber, along with two other officers. On Monday, five American soldiers were killed in Mosul, as their convoy struck a roadside bomb planted by Sunni militants, who then opened fire on the surviving servicemen.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has pledged to wage a decisive battle against Al Qaeda in the region. Iraqi forces have been deployed to the city, and there are plans to recruit 3,000 Mosul residents into city’s police force. Further complicating the situation in Mosul are ethnic tensions dividing the city’s Kurdish and Arab populations. The Arab majority worries that Kurdish Pershmerga forces combating al Qaeda in Mosul will attempt to take over portions of the city currently under Arab control.

Mosul is one of the last strongholds of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Fighters took refuge in the city after the recent U.S. crackdown in al Anbar and Baghdad. This latest effort to root out Al Qaeda cells is accompanied by new security plans in nearby Kirkuk province designed to keep al Qaeda from simply moving its bases once again. For WNR, I’m Elizabeth Threlkeld.

EMILY HAGER: Later in the show, we’ll speak to Dr. Waad, a professor in Mosul about how the campaign is affecting life in the city.

CYRUS STOLLER: A massive fire raged through the central bank of Baghdad early on the morning of January 27th. Thousands of valuable documents were lost in the blaze, and authorities suspect arson might be behind the fire. Police detained eighteen people, though none have been formally charged in connection with the fire.

EMILY HAGER: Firefighters discovered that one of the banks’ safes was torn open, though investigators are not yet sure of what it contained. An official of the Iraqi Interior Ministry claimed that no information was lost in the fire, because “additional copies” of all the destroyed documents are available. However, Mousa Faraj, the ex-chair of the Parliamentary Transparency Committee, says that the documents had not been digitally backed-up. Some Iraqi MPs have suggested that the fire was deliberately set in order to destroy evidence of corruption.

CYRUS STOLLER: Suffering a concussion in Iraq can have serious long-term psychological effects, according to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Of 3000 U.S. soldiers studied, nearly half of those who lost consciousness in Iraq later experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And concussion rates are high. Fifteen percent of the surveyed soldiers had been knocked out during their tours.

EMILY HAGER: Iraqi soccer fans were saddened this week when star player Nashat Akram was denied a work permit to play in England. Akram was hoping to join the English Premier League’s Manchester City team. The British Home Office denied the Iraqi midfielder’s work permit because the Iraqi national team isn’t ranked in the top 70 in the world. The Iraqi government is lobbying for the decision to be overturned. Akram was vital to Iraq’s Asian Cup championship in July and was hoping to be the first Iraqi soccer player to play in the UK.

[Music break]

EMILY HAGER: This is War News Radio. This week, after President Bush gave his final State of the Union address, we decided to look into the state of a different union. We asked an American expert, an Iraqi journalist, and an Iraqi citizen about how Iraq is holding up on measures of security, the economy, and politics. So here it is: the State of Iraq Report 2008.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Madam Speaker, Vice President Cheney, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens…

JESS ENGEBRETSON: After listening to President Bush’s State of the Union address earlier this week, we spoke to Tom Donnelly, Resident Fellow in Defense and National Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and to Omar al-Mansouri, a TV journalist from Fallujah, who gave us their own perspectives on recent developments in Iraq.

GEORGE W. BUSH: While the enemy is still dangerous and more work remains, the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago. In the fall of 2006, Sunni tribal leaders grew tired of al Qaeda’s brutality and started a popular uprising called “The Anbar Awakening.” Over the past year, similar movements have spread across the country. And today, the grassroots surge includes more than 80,000 Iraqi citizens who are fighting the terrorists.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute says that the Awakening Councils raise as many questions as they answer.

TOM DONNELLY: Well, that’s been a huge success story in the last year; its future is somewhat questionable. That program is largely administered by Americans and by the American military. And again, while there’s been some success in integrating that movement into the Iraqi government, there hasn’t been enough.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: For Omar al-Mansouri, a journalist in Fallujah, there’s more to the story than just improving security.

OMAR AL-MANSOURI [voiceover]: The tribal awakening council has been able to take control of the security situation in parts of Baghdad. But this presence of the tribal council has at the same time led to a conflict. For example, the Islamic party and the Supreme Islamic Council are against the deployment of these tribal forces randomly. They consider them militias. In response, the Awakening Council was attacked with some car bombs. So there is a now a conflict in Baghdad, which might be more of a political conflict than a security one.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: Although many Iraqis feel that their parliament is gridlocked, President Bush sees the beginnings of political progress.

GEORGE W. BUSH: In the coming year, we will work with Iraqi leaders as they build on the progress they’re making toward political reconciliation. At the local level, Sunnis, Shi’a, and Kurds are beginning to come together to reclaim their communities and rebuild their lives. Progress in the provinces must be matched by progress in Baghdad.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: Donnelly at the American Enterprise Institute says that making this transition will be a challenge, and that the U.S. government is partially responsible for the difficulties now facing Iraqi politicians.

TOM DONNELLY: We have put a number of structural obstacles in the way of making that connection between progress at the local level and progress at the national level. People vote not for a candidate from their local district, but they vote for a party. It is a big obstacle to political progress at the national level, and it incentivizes the party leaders to be as cautious and as truculent as can be. It concentrates power in their hands; they have the power to say no and they don’t have very many incentives to say yes.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: Al-Mansouri in Fallujah agrees that the local government still has a long way to go.

OMAR AL-MANSOURI [voiceover]: There is now a widespread corruption. For example the head of the education department in Fallujah was removed from his post because of corruption. They held elections to select a new head, but even during the process there was a lot of forgery. So corruption in the administration level is a big problem here.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: But it’s not all bad, says President Bush.

GEORGE W. BUSH: We’re seeing some encouraging signs. The national government is sharing oil revenues with the provinces. The parliament recently passed both a pension law and de-Baathification reform.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: Not everyone agrees that these particular reforms are good measures of Iraq’s political progress.

TOM DONNELLY: Things like the oil law, for example, are just the wrong things to focus on. The goal that I would be most interested in is creating the conditions for successful provincial elections in 2009, which would go a long way to helping to redress this disconnect between local and national level politics.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: One measure of that disconnect is the national government’s inability to translate improved security into progress for local communities.

OMAR AL-MANSOURI [voiceover]: In terms of reconstruction, what is happening is just a symbolic reconstruction. For example, al-Yarmuk hospital in Baghdad is the biggest hospital in the city. When any work is done on it, it is just the repairing of the walls and providing electric generators. But essential needs are ignored, like medical equipment for the hospital.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: Al-Mansouri says Iraqis blame the government for the reconstruction efforts’ stagnation.

OMAR AL-MANSOURI [voiceover]: Four years after the war, Iraqis feel disappointed and people are even regretful that they participated in elections in the past. Iraqis are not satisfied with the government and they feel that the government did not provide to them the least that they expected. Everybody blames al-Maliki’s government.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: That’s the state of Iraq, from President Bush, Tom Donnelly, and Omar al-Mansouri. For War News Radio, I’m Jess Engebretson

[Music break]

CYRUS STOLLER: This is War News Radio. Taxi to the Dark Side is an Oscar-nominated documentary directed by Alex Gibney. It tells the story of a young Afghan taxi driver Dilawar, who is killed by U.S. soldiers in Bagram prison. Ruhullah Khapalwalk is a sophomore at Swarthmore College, originally from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Originally as a translator and stringer for the New York Times, he was closely involved in the reporting that lead to the uncovering of the story told in Taxi to the Dark Side. He spent his winter break doing translations for the project. Haley Loram sat down with him to hear the story behind the film.

HALEY LORAM: How did you become involved in the making of this film?

RUHULLAH KHAPALWAK: Uh, go back to 2003, when I was working for the New York Times in Afghanistan. We heard back from ICRC, the Red Cross, that two Afghan prisoners were, died in U.S. custody at a Bagram airbase north of Kabul. So, we got really interested in the story, me and the New York Times journalist Carlotta Gaul. We started looking for the families to find the story and finally write the story. So we had to travel a lot. The ICRC wouldn’t give us the address for the family because they’re not supposed to give us the address, so, uh, we traveled for many, many days, probably I would say more than 10 days we were traveling to different parts of Afghanistan. Finally we got the family and we went to see them.

HALEY LORAM: So, take us back to the time when you began working on this story at first in 2003. You said that the initial reaction was that no one believed that a prisoner could be killed in U.S. custody.

RUHULLAH KHAPALWAK: The journalist I was working with, she was talking to her editors, at the time, according to her she was telling me that her editors didn’t really believe that American soldiers would do that, kill a person in the U.S. custody. Well, this was before Abu Ghraib and all the other stuff. Finally, after Abu Ghraib they realized that yes, there might be some stuff that’s really going on and the Afghan story was also true.

HALEY LORAM: And, did Dilawar’s family even know that this, what had happened to their son?

RUHULLAH KHAPALWAK: Yeah, beginning when we went to see the family, they say, “Yes, we received the body from ICRC, Red Cross, but we don’t know. He has some bruise, you know, on his body.” But they really didn’t know what happened to their son or brother. They showed us a letter from the U.S. military, uh, which said, the box where it said “homicide” was checked. So we said, “Do you guys know what happened to?” and they say “No, we don’t know.” And we say, “He was killed in U.S. prison.” Basically, they can’t read English, and most of them also cannot read even local writing like Pashto or Fars Dari. So, um, they were shocked, but still they say it is God’s decision, we can’t change anything and we want justice from, from God. So they’re a pretty simple family, innocent family. And we saw the daughter of Dilawar. She’s such a cute girl.

HALEY LORAM: And so, how did he come to be, how did he even come to be in U.S. custody?

RUHULLAH KHAPALWAK: The story that, what I got from his family was, from visiting the family many times, was that Dilawar was not really interested in working in the fields. They’re farmers. So, he’s a young guy, he’s tired of farming, so he told his family that he’s going to buy a taxi and, you know, make some money. He’s going to do something different from all of his other family members. So he bought this taxi. So, the time when he bought this taxi, that was the religious holidays so his mom told Dilawar to go and pick up his three sisters for the holiday so that they could spend time together. So he said, well, I need some money to buy gas for my car. So he went to the nearby town to pick up some passengers so he could make some money, then go and pick up his sisters. Coming back to his village with three other strange passengers, they were stopped by Afghan, who were guarding the American base. They found an electronic stabilizer and they found, I think, a radio with them. So they, that day the American base was hit by a rocket, so the Afghans, they suspected them that they were behind the rocket. So, because finding the stabilizer, the electronic stabilizer and the radio they were suspicious of them. So, they put them in prison. There, they spent the night there and then they were sent to the central prison where is Bagram.

HALEY LORAM: And, what was your role in the making of the film?

RUHULLAH KHAPALWAK: So, I did some translation, I watched the documentary many times (laughter). I would rewind it and then translate and … but it was good experience. I believe in information so, that what I always believe in.

HALEY LORAM: Taxi to the Dark Side won the award for best documentary feature at the Tribeca Film Festival and is currently showing in theatres across the U.S. For War News Radio, I’m Haley Loram.

[Music break]

EMILY HAGER: This is War News Radio. The northern Iraqi city of Mosul is the site of the latest showdown with al-Qaeda forces in Iraq. To learn more about the offensive from the perspective of the Iraqis who live in the city, we spoke with Dr. Waad, a social science professor in Mosul.


[Music break]

CYRUS STOLLER: This is War News Radio. Many Iraqi expatriates saw the fall of Saddam as a chance to go back home. But they returned to a country at war, with ethnic and sectarian tensions running high. Kevin Kim reports on an organization started by one Iraqi-American who sought to apply the principles of Islam to promote peace in two Iraqi cities.

KEVIN KIM: With violence consuming much of Iraq, a group of dedicated volunteers have come together in Karbala and Najaf to try to heal sectarian divides. Founded in 2005, Muslim Peacemaker Teams seek to respond non-violently to bloodshed across the country.

SAMI RASOULI: The main objectives of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams is to bring the Iraqi people together and help to sustain and to be efficient and to counter the lawlessness, the insecurities, and the divisions that begun since the invasion took place.

KEVIN KIM: That was Sami Rasouli in Najaf. After living in the U.S. for 29 years, Rasouli returned to his native Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion. Witnessing the blood shed throughout the country brought him to one conclusion: he had a responsibility to help solve the problems plaguing his nation. During a visit to Karbala, he met a group called Christian Peacemaker Teams. Founded by Brethren, Quaker, and Mennonite Churches, the group’s principles were based on values of brotherhood and self-sacrifice. They traveled throughout Iraq supporting communities that tried to stop the war non-violently.

SAMI RASOULI: The fine men and women of the organization affected us positively, so we thought we had to organize a similar organization working for the same thing.

KEVIN KIM: Mr. Rasouli found common ground between Christianity and Islam. So in founding the Muslim Peacemaker Teams he drew on the teachings of nonviolence found in the Qur’an.

SAMI RASOULI: The non-violence culture that we extract from the heart of the Islamic teachings which are there to Salaam. Salaam in Arabic means in English “peace,” and Islam is derivative of the word “Salaam.” So submission to Islam means submission to peace.

KEVIN KIM: While many peacemakers are Muslim, MPT is open to all who are interested. Dr. Najem Al Jashami is a member MPT:

NAJEM AL-JASHAMI: We represent different classes of Iraqi society. We have female and male members in the organization, each with his or her own specialty. Anyone who wants to work with us is welcome to do so; there is no religious, ethnic or any other condition for working here.

KEVIN KIM: Working from the politically and religiously important city of Najaf, MPT seeks to educate Iraqis about peace and to help improve day-to-day life. Dr. Al Jashami says that the group’s medical outreach programs are particularly important.

NAJEM AL-JASHAMI: Healthcare teams go from house to house, educating families about the risks of cholera, prevention methods, and treatment options. The teams distribute medicine and equipment to the people and help them deal with the disease. This happens especially in poor areas.

KEVIN KIM: Most peacemakers bring with them specific problems they want to deal with. For one member, Dr. Suad Al-Zubayduh, it’s women’s issues.

SUAD AL-ZUBAYDUH: I work closely with women because I think they need more support. The situation in Iraq has not been good for women. They need more awareness and education. Also they need to know their own rights.

KEVIN KIM: So far, MPT missions have included trash cleanup days, programs to mend roads, and the establishment of a scholarship program for Iraqis at Latin American universities. They’ve made many connections with people in cities like Karbala and Fallujah, as well as in their headquarters of Najaf. Mr. Rasouli explains why these connections remain strong.

SAMI RASOULI: We just get in touch with regular people, and we don’t represent, neither the U.S. government nor the Iraqi government. So the people accept us and trust us and ask us for help.

KEVIN KIM: For Sami Rasouli and the other members of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams, Salaam is not just a greeting. It is the goal. For War News Radio, I’m Kevin Kim.

EMILY HAGER: That’s our show for this week.

CYRUS STOLLER: War News Radio is a production of Swarthmore College.

EMILY HAGER: Visit us online to listen to archived shows, learn more about the program, or subscribe to our podcast. That’s at

CYRUS STOLLER: Our behind-the-scenes crew includes: Sam Barrows, Laura Bolger, Eric Chiang, Emmane Desjardins, Wren Elhai, Jesse Gottschalk, Alex Imas.

EMILY HAGER: Eugene Kim, Clare Kobasa, Michelle Liu, Marge Murphy, Ayub Nuri, Meghna Sachdev, and Aaron Schwartz. I’m Emily Hager.

CYRUS STOLLER: And I’m Cyrus Stoller. Until next time, thanks for listening.


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