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    Middle East
     Feb 9, 2008
What 'Mrs Smith' didn't see in Iraq
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - United Nations Goodwill ambassador and Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie landed in Baghdad on Thursday, where she wanted to talk about refugees with members of the Nuri al-Maliki government. Speaking to CNN, the Oscar-winning actress said, "There are over 2 million displaced people - 58% of them below the age of 12 - and there never seems to be a real coherent plan to help them."

But there's nothing new in what Angelina is saying: the Iraqis have been saying this since 2003. She met with Maliki, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Refugees Minister Abdul-Samad Rahman Sultan, US commander General David Petraeus, and

Staffan di Mistura, the head of the UN mission to Iraq.

One thing is clear: she is unimpressed by how both Iraqi authorities and US troops are dealing with the refugee crisis in Iraq and she is equally unimpressed at how they were dealing with the humanitarian problem as a whole in Iraq.

Twenty-four hours prior to Jolie's visit, hundreds of Iraqi actors and actresses had demonstrated in Baghdad, chanting against the prime minister, demanding better living and work conditions. Their demonstration - the first of its kind - was staged in front of the Iraqi National Theater (a national cultural landmark) in Baghdad. Hussein Basri, the president of the Artists' Syndicate, complained that "actors and actresses suffer from government negligence".

Actresses in particular are treated harshly by the increasingly religious society that surrounds them, with clerics condemning actresses as "immoral". Basri added that "the Iraqi theater has lost some of its finest performers due to immigration, or unemployment". The monthly salary of an actor or actress is comical, ranging from 100,000 dinars (US$67) to a maximum of 300,000 dinars.

Showing just how miserable their condition is, one needs to compare their income with the box-office success of Angelina's films - her showpiece Mr & Mrs Smith grossed $478 million worldwide. Or against the fact that Angelina makes up to $20 million a movie. As one of the world's top-paid actresses, she has also generously shared her wealth and adopted children from Cambodia to Vietnam.

Iraqi actresses don't have that luxury. If only they could be Angelina, they say to themselves - in looks, international appeal and income!

Maliki looked elsewhere
Maliki did nothing to help the actors and actresses. He heard out the Hollywood beauty, however, smiled - and then did nothing to answer her numerous concerns about Iraq. He was too busy this week changing the national holidays in Baghdad.

To avoid controversy, between Ba'athists, Shi'ites, Sunni tribesmen and fanatics, Maliki proposed making October 3 National Iraqi Day. This marks the date in which Iraq joined the League of Nations in 1932. For obvious reasons, several public holidays were canceled. First was April 7, marking the birth of the Ba'ath Party in 1947. So was February 8, marking the coup of 1963, which co-brought the Ba'athists to power in Baghdad. And finally, so was July 17, the date in which Saddam Hussein came to power, along with president Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, in 1968.

Several new holidays were added - thanks to the newfound status of Iraqi Shi'ites- including Shaaban 15 (Muslim calendar) marking the Shi'ite rebellion against Saddam in 1991, and 10 Muharaam, marking the religious holiday Ashura, revered by Shi'ites throughout the Muslim world.

Strangely, the authorities did not tamper with the national holiday on July 14, marking the bloody revolution that toppled the Iraqi throne in 1958 and killed King Faysal II, his uncle Prince Abdul Illah, prime minister Nuri al-Said, and the entire royal family - women and children, and pets included. The Maliki government, although not overly fond of the revolution, nevertheless observed it as the "birthday of the Iraqi republic".

Meanwhile, on the same day the new holidays were revealed to the public, 31 people were killed in different parts of the country - reminding Iraqi authorities of how difficult their reality was - and how correct Jolie was when observing the situation in Baghdad. While criticism was mounting on Maliki for his lack of action on a variety of issues related to reconciliation, he announced plans to rebuild the Golden Dome in Samara, which was destroyed in a terrorist attack by al-Qaeda in February 2006.

More damage was done to the holy shrine in June 2007. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization once described it as an "endangered world heritage site", claiming that reconstruction would cost no less than $8.4 million.

Though it's an important step, it comes as too little too late. It is long overdue, given that the bombing took place 24 months ago. It does nothing to heal the wounds of Sunnis, who have also complained that their mosques were ransacked, in some cases bombed, and their community leaders have been massacred by Shi'ite militias.

Rebuilding holy sites should start simultaneously for both Shi'ites and Sunnis, to heal open wounds and shake off the impression that many have that Maliki, as a sectarian prime minister, favors the Shi'ite community.

The Golden Dome is a must, no doubt about that, but where does prioritization come into play in Maliki's Iraq? What about the Iraqi actors actresses who make less than $100 a month? What about the 2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria? Or the 700,000 in Jordan? Last week, on February 1, two Iraqi women blew themselves up in two consecutive terrorist attacks in Baghdad, killing 91 people.

Maliki's team said the two women were mentally retarded - downplaying the horrendous attack, claiming they did not know what they were doing when they entered the marketplace. Then came US officials who added this was the doing of Osama bin Laden, claiming he had run out of able-bodied men to carry out terrorist attacks, and had to rely on deranged women.

Both arguments overlooked the important fact that there is desperation in Iraq. One doesn't need to be mentally retarded - medically speaking - to carry out a suicide attack. One needs only to be properly indoctrinated and brainwashed by the millions of terrorists roaming in Iraq, either from Saddam's loyalists, al-Qaeda, or Shi'ite militiamen.

Recent polls show that 43% of all Iraqis live in "absolute poverty". That in itself is enough to cause severe depression and lead someone into terrorism. This week, Defense Ministry officials showed videos they had captured in a raid on al-Qaeda in December 2007. The videos were of little children, aged 11-15, being trained in combat and murder by al-Qaeda.

Childhood is being perverted in Iraq and so is the role of women, who instead of getting a good education, falling in love, developing professionally, getting married, end up blowing themselves and others up in a crowded Baghdad marketplace.

According to the London-based Opinion Research Business, 1 million Iraqis have died as a result of the US invasion since March 2003. The cause of death was either directly or indirectly related to the war of 2003 and its aftermath - rather than natural causes.

Finally, Women's Affairs Minister Narmeen Othman said there are up to 2 million widows in Iraq, out of a total female population of 8.5 million aged between 15 and 80. Of this strikingly large number, only 84,000 receive assistance from the government (50,000-12,000 dinars a month). The two women who blew themselves up on February 1 might be one of the 2 million desperate Iraqi women who have been widowed as a result of the violence.

They might have also lost a brother, father or son. Under Saddam, widows were cared for by the government, and officers who married a widow were professionally rewarded by the Ba'athist regime.

Troubled reconciliation
Reconciliation in Iraq is not working. All the success stories from al-Anbar province - the one success story of George W Bush - are subject to collapse due to increased violence and lack of cooperation between the Ministry of Defense (controlled by Sunnis) and the Ministry of Interior (controlled by Shi'ites, allied to the prime minister).

Simply put, Interior Ministry officials, who control the police and security services, refuse to give Defense Ministry officials any duties - or information - about what they are doing in Anbar. To cover up for the increasing rift within Anbar province, which houses the now famous Anbar Awakening Council that is combating al-Qaeda, Maliki announced he would incorporate 12,000 Sunni militiamen into the Iraqi army and security services. They will be named, honorifically, Abna al-Iraq (The Sons of Iraq).

All of them, apparently, will be from the "Awakening Councils" that have mushroomed in Iraq over the past year, armed and funded by the Americans. In total they number 70,000 and the Iraqi government is expected to incorporate 20% of them, under the urging of the US administration. To date, only 240 members of the Awakening Councils have been allowed to join the Ministry of Interior.

Originally, Maliki had been very much opposed to the arming of Sunni tribesmen, claiming the minute they finished fighting al-Qaeda they would train their guns on the Americans and Shi'ites. His initial response to the arming of Sunni groups was ordering over 18,000 Shi'ite militias into the armed forces, in November 2007.

If the Sunnis were legitimizing their arms - he claimed - then so would he. He has apparently bent, due to US pressure, and agreed to "legitimize the arms" of the Sunnis as well, but given orders that they be incorporated into the Ministry of Interior, which is dominated by the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, a strong Shi'ite party that operates its own militia, the Badr Brigade.

Once the 12,000 Sunnis join the ministry, they will be further absorbed - then either expelled or eliminated - by the large number of Shi'ites who dominate the ministry. Last January, eight members of an Awakening Council were assassinated - a move that was supposedly taken with the tacit approval of the government. Since then, authorities have done nothing to investigate the murders. Several Sunni notables have accused Iran of masterminding the attack.

This is the part that Angelina Jolie did not see in Baghdad.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst. He is the author of Steel & Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria 1900-2000 (Cune Press 2005).

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The state of the (Iraqi) union (Jan 30, '08)

A bitter taste to Iraqi reality (Jan 29, '08)


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