Category Archives: baghdad

gertrude of arabia: british intelligence officer

The Daily Beast Clive Irving

06.17.14

Gertrude of Arabia, the Woman Who Invented Iraq

The story of the British intelligence agent who rigged an election, installed a king loyal to the British, drew new borders—and gave us today’s ungovernable country.
She came into Baghdad after months in one of the world’s most forbidding deserts, a stoic, diminutive 45-year-old English woman with her small band of men. She had been through lawless lands, held at gunpoint by robbers, taken prisoner in a city that no Westerner had seen for 20 years.It was a hundred years ago, a few months before the outbreak of World War I. Baghdad was under a regime loyal to the Ottoman Turks. The Turkish authorities in Constantinople had reluctantly given the persistent woman permission to embark on her desert odyssey, believing her to be an archaeologist and Arab scholar, as well as being a species of lunatic English explorer that they had seen before.She was, in fact, a spy and her British masters had told her that if she got into trouble they would disclaim responsibility for her. Less than 10 years later Gertrude Bell would be back in Baghdad, having rigged an election, installed a king loyal to the British, re-organized the government, and fixed the borders on the map of a new Iraq. As much as anyone can be, Gertrude Bell could be said to have devised the country that nobody can make work as a country for very long—no more so than now.The Middle East as we know it was largely the idea of a small coterie of men composed of British scholars, archaeologists, military officers and colonial administrators who were called the Orientalists—this is the “orient” according to the definition first made by the Greeks, meaning everything east of the Mediterranean as Alexander the Great advanced to seize it.For decades, beginning in the mid-19th century, the Orientalists had explored the desert and found there the ruins of the great powers of the ancient world—Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia. Through archaeology they revealed these splendors to the modern world and, from their digs, stuffed Western museums with prizes like the polychromatic tiled Ishtar Gates of Babylon, moved to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, or the Cyrus Cylinder, containing the Persian king Cyrus’s new creed of governance as he conquered Babylon, shipped to the British Museum.

They wondered why such resplendently rich and deeply embedded pre-Christian urbanized cultures ended up buried by the drifting sands of the desert, completely unknown and ignored by the roaming Arab, Turkish and Persian tribes above. The many glories of Babylon, for example, lay unexplored not far from the boundaries of Baghdad.

The Middle East as we know it was largely the idea of a small coterie of men composed of British scholars, archaeologists, military officers and colonial administrators who were called the Orientalists.

Among the explorers, a state of mind developed that was patronizing and paternalistic. If they had not made these discoveries, who would know of these great cities? If Arabs took the artifacts it would be, to these men, mindless looting; if the Western scholars shipped them home, often in vast consignments, it was to preserve them for posterity.

The Ottomans had managed Arabia through a decentralized system of provinces called valyets, run by governors they appointed. Tribal, sectarian and territorial conflicts made it a constantly turbulent place, despite the hammer of Ottoman rule. Under a more centralized system the place would have been ungovernable. But the Turks never entertained the Western idea of nation building, it was as much as they could do to keep even a semblance of order.

The Orientalists thought differently. The Western idea of nation building was the future of Arabia. As World War I drew to its end and the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the Orientalists saw an opportunity to bring modern coherence to the desert by imposing new kingdoms of their own devising, as long as the kings would be compliant with the strategic interests of the British Empire.

Into this coterie of schemers came two mavericks, both scholars, both fluent Arab speakers, both small in stature and psychologically fragile, both capable of extraordinary feats of desert exploration—a young man called T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, a more seasoned connoisseur of the desert life.

Both had been recruited before World War I to gather intelligence on the Ottomans. Both were hard to accommodate within a normal military and diplomatic machine and so ended up working for a clandestine outfit in Cairo called the Arab Bureau, which was more aware of their singular gifts and more tolerant of their habits.

Bell’s epic desert trek in 1913-14 was already legendary. Her objective had been a city called Hail that no European had reached since 1893. Under the cover of archaeological research, her real purpose was to assess the strength of a murderous family called the al Rashids, whose capital Hail was.

The Rashids had been kicked out of Riyadh by the young Abdul Aziz bin Abdurrahman al Saud, otherwise known as Ibn Saud, who was to become the founder of Saudi Arabia.

Despite the rigors of the terrain, Bell was as susceptible to the spiritual appeal of the desert as others like her young protégée Lawrence. “Sometimes I have gone to bed with a heart so heavy that I thought I could not carry it through the next day,” she wrote. “Then comes the dawn, soft and benificent, stealing over the wide plain and down the long slopes of the little hollows, and in the end it steals into my heart also….”

When she reached Hail, the Rashids were suspicious and put her under what amounted to house arrest in the royal complex.

But as a woman, Bell enjoyed an advantage over male colleagues that she was to deploy on many missions: molesting or harming women was contrary to the desert code of conduct, even in a family as homicidal as the Rashids. For a week or so, Bell was warmly entertained by the women of this polygamous society, and the women’s gossip provided a rich source of intelligence on palace intrigues, of which there were many. From this she was able to see what her British minders valued: That the Rashids were yesterday’s men and the Saudis would likely be a formidable and independent power in Arabia. The Rashids released her, and she went on to Baghdad, Damascus, and home to London.

It was inside knowledge like this that put Bell in an influential position when the war ended and the European powers decided how they would carve up Arabia. Lawrence had committed himself to the princes of the Hashemite tribe, notably Feisal, with whom he had fought against the Turks, and promised Damascus to them. But unknown to Lawrence, a secret deal had been cut with the French, who wanted control of the eastern Mediterranean and were to get Damascus while Britain would fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire by re-drawing the map of Arabia.

The British were more aware than the French of the importance that oil would assume. Syria, the new French subject state, was unpromising as an oil prospect. The first Middle Eastern oil field began pumping in Persia at the head of the Persian Gulf in 1911, under British control, and geologists suspected, rightly, that vast oil reserves lay untapped in both Persia and Iraq.

While Lawrence left the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 stricken by the guilt for a British betrayal of his Arabs to which he had not been a party, Bell was sent to Baghdad, where Feisal was to be given his consolation prize: the throne of a new Iraq.

As well as the prospect of huge oil reserves, this new Iraq was crucial to the lines of communication to the great jewel of the British Empire, India. And, ostensibly, it was the diplomats and generals of the Indian administration who ran the show in Baghdad. But they depended on Bell as an expert and a negotiator, fluent in Arabic and used to the schisms and vendettas of the region. In fact, many of the decisive meetings as the British struggled to create a provisional government took place in Bell’s own house.

On August 23, 1921, at a ceremony in central Baghdad, Feisal was installed as the monarch of Iraq, even though he had no tribal roots in the country to assist his legitimacy. “We’ve got our king crowned,” wrote Bell with relief. And she made a claim about this election that would be echoed decades later by Saddam Hussein, that Feisal had been endorsed by 96 percent of the people, even though he was the only candidate and the majority of the population was illiterate.

Indeed, Bell was so carried away with her confidence in the nation she had helped to create that she crowed: “Before I die I look to see Feisal ruling from the Persian frontier to the Mediterranean.”

In reality, the Iraqi borders had been arbitrarily drawn and disregarded 2,000 years of tribal, sectarian, and nomadic occupation. The Persian frontier was the only firmly delineated border, asserted by mountains. Beyond Baghdad the line drawn between Syria, now the property of France, and Iraq was more cartography than anthropology. Nothing had cooled the innate hostilities of the Shia, in the south, who (in a reversal of the current travesty in Baghdad) were virtually unrepresented in Bell’s new assembly, and the Sunnis to the north, as well as the Kurds, the Armenians and the Turks, each with their own turf. Lawrence, in fact, had protested that the inclusion of the Kurds was a mistake. And the desert border in the south was, in Bell’s own words, “as yet undefined.”

The reason for this was Ibn Saud. Bell wrote in a letter to her father, “I’ve been laying out on the map what I think should be our desert boundaries.” Eventually that line was settled by the Saudis, whose Wahhabi warriors were the most formidable force in the desert and who foresaw what many other Arabs at the time did: Iraq was a Western construct that defied thousands of years of history, with an alien, puppet king who would not long survive and internal forces that were centrifugal rather than coherent.

For a while, Bell was the popular and admired face of the British contingent in Baghdad. An American visitor pleased her by calling her “the first citizen of Iraq.” The Arabs called her “Al Khatun,” meaning a noble woman who earned respect. She went riding and swimming every day, somewhat diminishing the benefits of that by chain smoking in public. She also made no secret of the fact that she was an atheist. It seemed that she was more comfortable in the company of Arabs than she had been among her peers in Cairo.

Lawrence, for example, while respectful of her scholarship, thought that Bell “had no great depth of mind” and politically was a poor judge of people and “changed direction like a weathercock.” Sir Mark Sykes, a crusty diplomat who had colluded with the French to give them Damascus, was more defiantly a misogynist. He called her “a silly chattering windbag, an infernal liar, a conceited, gushing, rump-wagging, blethering ass.”

Sometimes Bell revealed a dark self-knowledge. In 1923 she wrote to her father: “At the back of my mind is that we people of war can never return to complete sanity. The shock has been too great; we’re unbalanced. I am aware that I myself have much less control over my own emotions than I used to have.”

By then she had only three years to live, and was becoming frail from overwork. She described her routine in a letter: “I get up at 5:30, do exercises till 5:45 and walk in the garden till 6 or a little after cutting flowers. All that grows now is a beautiful double jasmine of which I have bowls full every day, and zinnias, ugly and useful. I breakfast at 6:40 on an egg and some fruit…leave for the office by car at 6:55 and get there at 7…”

As well as administrating in the manner of a colonial official, she often acted like a viceroy, receiving a stream of tribal sheiks, Arab officials or simply citizens with grievances. The king had to be managed, as he sat in his garden “in full Arab dress, the white and gold of the Mecca princes.” But she also devoted much of her time to a personal passion: creating the Iraq Museum in Baghdad where she gathered a priceless collection of treasures from the world of antiquity—reminding herself and the Iraqi people how the earliest urban civilizations had flourished around the Tigris and Euphrates.

There were, though, other loves that belied the appearance of a desiccated, workaholic spinster. She lived with the memories of two passionate romances, both thwarted.

At the age of 24 she became engaged to a young diplomat but her rich industrialist father deemed it an unsuitable match and, in the compliant Victorian manner, she ended it. Her second affair was far deeper, tragic and, in its effects, everlasting. She fell in love with Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie, a soldier with a record of derring-do with appropriate movie star looks. But Doughty-Wylie was married, and as long as the war occupied them both neither could see a way out. Bell was, however, completely besotted:

“I can’t sleep,” she wrote to him, “I can’t sleep. It’s one in the morning of Sunday. I’ve tried to sleep, every night it becomes less and less possible. You, and you, and you are between me and any rest; but out of your arms there is no rest. Life, you called me, and fire. I flame and I am consumed.”

He responded in kind: “You gave me a new world, Gertrude. I have often loved women as a man like me does love them, well and badly, little and much, as the blood took me…or simply for the adventure—to see what happened. But that is all behind me.”

Doughty-Wylie died in the amphibious assault on the Turks at Gallipoli in 1916—ill-conceived by Winston Churchill as an attempt to strike at the “soft underbelly” of the Ottoman Empire.

Bell died at her house by the Tigris in Baghdad in July 1926 at the age of 57.  She had taken an overdose of barbiturates, whether deliberately or accidentally it was impossible to tell. Lawrence by then was a recluse, in flight from the road show devised by the American journalist Lowell Thomas that had turned him, as Lawrence of Arabia, into the most famous man on Earth.

But it was Gertrude Bell, who was never a public figure, who had left the greater mark on the Middle East, for better or worse.

King Feisal, who had been ailing for some time, died in Switzerland in 1933, at the age of 48, to be succeeded by his son Prince Ghazi. The monarchy was brought down by a pro-British military coup in 1938, a regime that would ultimately mutate into that of Saddam Hussein’s in 1979.

 

 

© The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University
© The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University

“Coming towards me was a party of camel riders. They were clearly all Arabs, except one who seemed to be a woman. It was Gertrude Bell. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a well-­dressed Englishwoman, looking spick and span in spite of her weeks of desert travel. I never forgot that first striking impression.”  Sir William Willcocks,1914

An advisor on Arab affairs during World War I, she was the only woman with a diplomatic role at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the only woman (invited by Winston Churchill) at the Cairo Conference in 1921.

In 1925, Bell drafted a new Law of Antiquities which safe-guarded Iraq’s right to hold onto excavated artifacts. She championed education for Muslim girls, helping to establish one of the most progressive educational systems in the Middle East.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was part proper Victorian and part modern woman. The precocious daughter of a wealthy industrialist family from northern England, her life was a series of “firsts”:

  • The first woman to receive highest honors in Modern History at Oxford
  • The first person to climb all the peaks of the Engelhörner range in the Swiss Alps
  • The first woman to do a solo journey into the uncharted Arabian desert (traveling by camel for 1500 miles across Central Arabia in 1914)
  • The first female Intelligence officer employed by the British Military
© The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University
© The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University

iraq timeline

SUNDAY, JUN 15, 2014 12:00 PM EDT
How the U.S. helped turn Iraq into an al-Qaida haven in just 53 steps

Eleven years after the U.S. invasion, Iraq is on the brink of collapse. We have only ourselves to blame
PETER GELLING, KYLE KIM AND TIMOTHY MCGRATH, GLOBALPOST

How the U.S. helped turn Iraq into an al-Qaida haven in just 53 steps
Militants from the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) people raising their flag at the entrance of an army base in Ninevah Province. Iraq. (Credit: AP)
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Here’s the short version: The United States invaded Iraq in 2003, claiming that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had both weapons of mass destruction and connections to Al Qaeda. He had neither. Today, both Saddam Hussein and the United States are gone from Iraq.  In their place? Al Qaeda.

This week, an Al Qaeda splinter group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized the country’s second-largest city — Mosul — and several other towns. Latest reports have the militant group at the gates of Baghdad.

With US-trained Iraqi security forces now frantically fleeing the arrival of the ISIL militants — who are so extreme even Al Qaeda couldn’t hang with them, causing the two groups to split — and a central government in total disarray, it’s looking bleak. Someone call the Coalition of the Willing!

So how did it all go so wrong? In these 53 steps.

1. May 28, 1990: Saddam Hussein says oil overproduction in Kuwait is “economic warfare”

2. Aug. 2, 1990: Iraq invades Kuwait

3. Aug. 6, 1990: UN imposes economic sanctions on Iraq

4. Jan. 17, 1991: US launches air operations to liberate Kuwait (and its oil)

5. Feb. 24, 1991: US deploys ground war in Kuwait

6. Feb. 26, 1991: Saddam Hussein orders withdrawal from Kuwait

7. Feb. 28, 1991: US President George W. Bush Sr. says Kuwait is now free

8. April 3, 1991: UN extends sanctions on Iraq for next 10-plus years. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children die as a result of ballooning poverty, malnutrition and disease

9. June 26, 1993: Bill Clinton launches cruise missile attack on Baghdad in retaliation for failed assassination attempt on Bush Sr.

10. Dec. 16, 1998: US and UK launch four-day bombing campaign against sites in Iraq thought to be housing weapons of mass destruction

11. Dec. 19, 1998: Clinton is impeached for lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky

12. Sept. 11, 2001: The 9/11 attacks kill almost 3,000 people. 15 of the 19 Al Qaeda militants are from Saudi Arabia. US launches war in Afghansitan, where Al Qaeda is believed to be based

13. Oct. 1, 2002: CIA report alleges Iraq is in possession of WMDs, launching build-up to war

14. Feb. 5, 2003: US Secretary of State Colin Powell tells UN that Iraq has WMDs and Al Qaeda links

15. March 19, 2003: Bush Jr. launches Iraq invasion

16. May 1, 2003: Bush declares “Mission Accomplished”

17. July 2, 2003: Turns out mission not yet accomplished. Bush declares, “Bring ‘em on.”

18. Aug. 19, 2003: It’s brought. UN headquarters attacked in Baghdad, killing 17 people. Al Qaeda claims responsibility

19. Jan. 28, 2004: It’s official: no WMDs in Iraq. Bush maintains Iraq War made the world safer

20. Feb. 10, 2004: Iraqis invite Al Qaeda militants to help fight US occupation

21. April 21, 2004: Spate of suicide bombings hits police stations

22. April 27, 2004: Images of US torture at Abu Ghraib prison air on 60 minutes. Shit hits fan

23. Jan. 12, 2005: Search for WMDs fails, is officially declared over

24. Sept. 9, 2005: Powell says he regrets pre-war UN speech

25. June 8, 2006: Al Qaeda leader killed in US air raid

26. Aug. 21, 2006: Bush acknowledges Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 attacks

27. Sept. 12, 2006: Media reports reveal that US spy agencies believe Iraq War increased terror threat

28. Oct. 4, 2006: A 2005 memo made public reveals that Al Qaeda said prolonging Iraq War is in its interest

29. Jan. 10, 2007: Bush announces escalation of Iraq war

30. May 20, 2007: CIA officials say Iraq War has become big “moneymaker” for Al Qaeda

31. June 11, 2007: US forces arm Sunni militias, known as the Sunni Awakening, to fight Al Qaeda

32. Aug. 8, 2007: Roadside bombs reach all-time high

33. March 10, 2008: Pentagon-funded study finds no connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda

34. Sept. 5, 2008: Outgoing Gen. David Petraeus says Al Qaeda remains dangerous threat in Iraq

35. Feb. 16, 2010: Sectarian tensions soar

36. April 19, 2010: US raid kills top 2 Al Qaeda leaders in Iraq

37. May 10, 2010: 71 dead in widespread attacks blamed on Al Qaeda

38. July 23, 2010: Four Al Qaeda suspects escape from Iraqi prison

39. July 29, 2010: Iraqi insurgents plant “Al Qaeda” flag in Baghdad

40. Aug. 31, 2010: Obama announces end of combat mission in Iraq

41. Sept. 27, 2010: Report says Al Qaeda in Iraq, which many thought had been “defeated,” is actually responsible for wave of terror attacks over the summer, causing the highest casualties in more than two years

42. Oct. 16, 2010: Members of US-backed Sunni Awakening return to Al Qaeda ranks

43. Aug. 15, 2011: 42 bombings rock country, killing 89 people

44. Dec. 18, 2011: Last convoy of US troops leaves Iraq

45. March 20, 2012: Dozens of bombs kill 52 across Iraq

46. July 23, 2012: More bombings, 107 killed

47. March 19, 2013: Al Qaeda plants car bomb, kills 56 civilians

48. April 15, 2013: Wave of bombings kills 75, wounds 350 across the country

49. May 15, 2013: Series of deadly bombings and shootings kill at least 450, injure 732

50. July 22, 2013: Suicide bombers drive car bomb through Abu Ghraib prison, freeing hundreds of convicts, mostly senior Al Qaeda members

51. Jan. 2, 2014: Fallujah and other parts of Anbar province falls to Al Qaeda-linked militants now known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL

52. May 28, 2014: A month after elections, attacks kill more than 70 across the country

53. June 10, 2014: ISIL, an Al Qaeda splinter group, seizes Mosul, Iraq’s second-lagest city, and Tikrit as US-trained security forces flee. ISIL marches on to Baghdad

out of iraq?

Last US combat troops leave Iraq

Operations officially end two weeks ahead of Barack Obama’s deadline, leaving 56,000 service personnel in the country

Adam Gabbatt, The Guardian
Link to this video

The last American combat troops left Iraq today, seven-and-a-half years after the US-led invasion, and two weeks ahead of President Barack Obama’s 31 August deadline for withdrawal from the country.

The final troops to leave, 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, rolled in convoy across the border and into Kuwait this morning, officially ending combat operations, which began in March 2003.

Former president George Bush launched the invasion, saying: “This will not be a campaign of half measures and we will accept no outcome but victory.”

The war saw the toppling of Saddam Hussein, but became increasingly unpopular against a backdrop of heavy civilian and troop casualties, arguments over the legality of the conflict and a growing sectarian battle in Iraq.

NBC News video this morning showed the last Stryker armoured vehicles rolling through the border gate into Kuwait, officially ending US combat presence in Iraq.

PJ Crowley, a spokesman for the US state department, said that despite the departure being “an historic moment”, the US mission in Iraq continued.

“We are ending the war … but we are not ending our work in Iraq,” he said. “We have a long-term commitment to Iraq.”

NBC News said that the last soldiers to reach Kuwait were proud of the collective effort in Iraq.

“We are done with operations,” said Lieutenant Steven DeWitt of San José, California, as his vehicle reached the Khabari crossing on the border.

“This was a professional soldier’s job,” he said, describing “a war that has defined this generation of military men and women”.

“And today it’s over,” he added.

The Obama administration had pledged to reduce overall troops numbers to 50,000 by 31 August. CNN, however, said that according to the US military there were still 56,000 US non-combat troops in Iraq, meaning another 6,000 must leave if the president is to meet his own deadline.

“Over the last 18 months, over 90,000 US troops have left Iraq,” the president said in an emailed statement published by the Huffington Post.

“By the end of this month, 50,000 troops will be serving in Iraq. As Iraqi security forces take responsibility for securing their country, our troops will move to an advise-and-assist role.

“And, consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all of our troops will be out of Iraq by the end of next year.

“Meanwhile, we will continue to build a strong partnership with the Iraqi people with an increased civilian commitment and diplomatic effort.”

Months of preparation were required before the convoy set off on the 300-mile drive through potentially dangerous parts of the country. The Strykers travelled by night because of security concerns, before finally crossing into Kuwait.

The withdrawal comes in a week when a suicide bomber killed at least 60 army recruits in central Baghdad, highlighting the shaky reality US troops are leaving behind, and the fears that al-Qaida is attempting to make a comeback.

There is unlikely to be much change on the ground in the country after the end of the month, as most US military units actually began switching their focus to training and assisting Iraqi troops and police more than a year ago, when they pulled out of Iraqi urban centres on 30 June 2009.

“Those that remain are conventional combat brigades reconfigured slightly and rebranded ‘advise and assist brigades’,” said the Washington Post. “The primary mission of those units and the roughly 4,500 US special operations forces that will stay behind will be to train Iraqi troops.”

However despite the 56,000 service personnel remaining, The New York Times reported this morning that a “remarkable civilian effort” would be required to fill the void left by the withdrawal, and suggested the number of private security guards could double in the country over the next 18 months.

The state department will assume responsibility for training Iraqi police by October next year.

“I don’t think [the] state [department] has ever operated on its own, independent of the US military, in an environment that is quite as threatening on such a large scale,” James Dobbins, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo and Somalia, told the paper. “It is unprecedented in scale.”

More than 4,400 US troops have been killed in Iraq so far. The current deadline for a full withdrawal of all US forces is the end of 2011, although last week Iraqi Lieutenant General Babakir Zebari said the US would need to maintain a presence in the country beyond then.

“If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the US army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020,” he said.

Iraq and the US are yet to structure an agreement spelling out future defence arrangements beyond the end of next year, but both sides have indicated that future bilateral ties could extend to border patrols as well as ongoing training and mentoring.

ratcheting up in iraq: violence escalates

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: December 8, 2009

Filed at 4:47 a.m. ET

BAGHDAD (AP) — An official at Iraq’s Interior Ministry says at least 90 people have been killed and more than 115 wounded in a series of coordinated blasts around Baghdad.

Three bomb-rigged cars exploded in quick succession on Tuesday, striking the Labor Ministry, a court complex and the new site of Iraq’s Finance Ministry — whose previous building was destroyed in an August blast.

Earlier, a suicide bomber struck a police patrol in southern Baghdad.

The Interior Ministry official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

BAGHDAD (AP) — A series of coordinated attacks struck across Baghdad Tuesday — including three car-rigged bombs striking near government sites — killing at least 72 people and wounding 115 in the worst wave of violence in the capital in more than a month, authorities said.

The total of four attacks, which also included a suicide car bomb on a police patrol, showed the ability of insurgents to strike high-profile targets in the heart of Baghdad in another embarrassment to Iraqi forces in their expanding role as front-line security as U.S. forces plan their withdrawal.

The blasts came as Iraqi officials prepared to announced the date for next year’s parliamentary elections — a move the security forces worry could bring an escalation in attacks seeking to discredit the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The core of the attacks hit central Baghdad with three bomb-rigged cars exploding in the span of a few minutes.

The targets were the latest assaults directly at Iraq’s authorities: the Labor Ministry building, a court complex near the Iraqi-protected Green Zone and the new site of the Finance Ministry, whose previous building was destroyed in major attacks in August.

An official for Iraq’s Interior Ministry said at least 72 people were killed and at least 115 injured. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give information to media.

The blasts marked the most serious spate of violence in Baghdad since twin car bombs on Oct. 25 struck outside Baghdad administration offices, killing at least 155 people.

The breakdown of casualties among the sites was not immediately clear, but the most serious bloodshed had been reported outside the new Finance Ministry building.

About an hour before the Baghdad blasts, a suicide car bomber struck a police patrol in the mostly Sunni district of Dora in southern Baghdad, killing at least four people and injuring five others, said a police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

In August, suicide bombers hit the Finance and Foreign ministries, killing more than 100 people.

Overall violence has dropped sharply around Iraq in the past year, but insurgents have stepped up attacks at government sites.

baghdad museum reopens remaining treasures

Restored Baghdad museum reopens with most of its greatest treasures

Six months ago it was unthinkable but now curators and historians alike celebrate as most of the Iraqi national museum’s original artefacts go back on display

A beheaded sculpture lies amonst rubble in the Iraqi national museum, April 2003. Photograph: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

Today the shelled, looted, bullet scarred and blockaded national museum of Iraq opens its doors again, with most of its greatest treasures safe and on display once more.

It is a remarkable feat. Even six months ago, when the antiquities department began to bring in small groups of specialists and journalists to see what had once been one of the world’s greatest and most famous collections, whole galleries were still wrapped up in plastic sheeting and the security situation was judged too precarious even to speculate on an opening date.

After the invasion of Iraq, the museum’s shuttered facade, punched by a tank shell, became a symbol of the destruction in war to museum curators and archaeologists around the world. .

In the security meltdown that was Baghdad, the building was judged too dangerous even for its own surviving staff, and its outspoken former director, Donny George, fled into exile after he found a paper wrapped bullet lying at the doorstep of his home — a potent death threat against his family.

During the war the building was left defenceless and for three days it was ransacked as an American tank stood by useless because its crew had no orders to intervene.

Today, many galleries are still closed and hundreds of objects are still undergoing delicate conservation work – including some of the exquisitely carved Nimrud ivories, thought safe from the bombs in a bank vault but damaged by sewage-contaminated flooding as water pumps failed. Although visitors are unlikely to notice, thousands of objects are still missing and unlikely ever to be recovered.

In the joyful headlines over the recovery of iconic pieces such as the 5,500-year-old Warka Mask, a serenely enigmatic alabaster head smiling faintly at the absurdities of human folly, it was almost overlooked that thousands of small metal and clay pieces, inscribed tablets and amulets, seal cylinders, easy to smuggle, hard to trace, of little commercial value but priceless to historians, have almost certainly gone for ever.

The Warka Mask was recovered by the Americans after a tip-off, wrapped in rags and buried in farmland outside Baghdad. It is believed to have changed hands several times after it was stolen. The Warka Vase, a magnificently carved tall alabaster vase from the same period, snapped off at the base to steal it from its gallery, came back to the museum in pieces, wrapped in a blanket, in the boot of a car.

Many pieces were voluntarily returned by people who claimed to have held them for safe keeping. That may have been true in some cases but archaeologists believe that many were simply so famous they could neither be sold nor displayed.

That is not true of the little scraps of history, less beautiful but more precious to the experts: the poems and spells, star charts and family histories, shopping lists and tax bills inscribed on scruffy little lozenges of mudbrick or cough drop sized cylinder seals, which seeped out through Iraq’s borders into the world’s antiquities markets.

“I’m not aware of any major recovery of these pieces,” said Irving Finkel, curator of the current exhibition on Ancient Babylon at the British Museum.

“I’m not holding my breath for one.”

Finkel can read Babylonian cuneiform, and the treasures in his exhibition include a broken tablet recording Nebuchadnezzar’s capture of Jerusalem in 597BC, and a cylinder seal from 1300 BC, illustrating a ziggurat, almost certainly the origin of that wonder of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

There must be answers to gaps in the story of his exhibition in the thefts from the Baghdad museum — including objects never even catalogued, never mind published.

But today curators such as Finkel are celebrating. The museum is open. Tomorrow the work of patchworking together lost history resumes.

priest gunned down, al qaida stronghold found on tigris island

Christian priest gunned down in Baghdad

AFP
Published: Saturday April 5, 2008

   

 

Gunmen shot dead an Assyrian Orthodox priest near his house in central Baghdad on Saturday while a bomb on a bus killed three people amid a surge in violence in the Iraqi capital.

Iraqi security officials said Youssef Adel, a priest with Saint Peter’s Church, was killed by gunmen travelling in a car around noon (0900 GMT).

A medical official said Adel’s body had been brought to Ibn Nafis hospital in central Baghdad.

The Assyrian church has maintained its independence since the 5th century when it broke away from the rest of the Christian communion. Some of its followers still speak a modern version of Aramaic, the language of Christ.

Lord George Carey, who stepped down as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, three years ago warned that ethnic cleansing of Assyrians in mainly Muslim Iraq had worsened since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Christians of other persuasions too have have come under frequent attack in recent months, with clerics kidnapped and churches bombed.

Last month, the body of Paulos Faraj Rahho, Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul, was found in a shallow grave in the northern city two weeks after he was kidnapped.

Rahho, 65, was abducted during a shootout in which three of his companions were killed, as he returned home after mass in Mosul on February 29.

He was the latest in a long line of Chaldean clerics to be abducted since the US-led invasion of 2003.

Iraq’s Christians, with the Chaldean rite the largest community, were said to number as many as 800,000 before the US-led invasion nearly five years ago. The number today is believed to have dropped to half that figure.

In January, Pope Benedict XVI expressed his “spiritual closeness” to Christian victims of attacks in Iraq.

“Mindful that such attacks are also directed against the whole people of Iraq, His Holiness appeals to the perpetrators to renounce the ways of violence, which have caused so much suffering to the civilian population,” the pope said.

Security officials also said a bomb exploded on a bus near Baghdad’s eastern Sadr City district on Saturday killing at least three people.

Around 16 passengers were wounded in the blast that struck at around 8:30 am.

The explosion took place around 200 metres (yards) from Sadr City, bastion of the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, in Beirut Square as the bus was leaving the district.

A vehicle curfew has been in place in Sadr City since last Thursday when heavy clashes between Shiite militiamen and security forces broke out in the sprawling neighbourhood of some two million people.

Since then buses have been picking up people from the edge of Sadr City.

A suspected Al-Qaeda hideout, meanwhile, has been uncovered on an island on the Tigris river in central Iraq by a group of Sunni Arabs fighting the Islamist militants, their leader said.

The hideout, from where Al-Qaeda’s operations in the provinces of Salaheddin, Anbar and Diyala are believed to have been coordinated, was found on an island in the Tigris near the city of Samarra, 125 kilometres (80 miles) north of Baghdad.

Majin Younis Hassan, leader of the local anti-Qaeda group, said the hideout was discovered early on Saturday following an “intelligence tip”.

“We found 1,500 heavy, medium and light weapons as well as several bombs,” Hassan told AFP.

He said the underground hideout had four big rooms, each with eight beds.

“We found documents which were messages between the base and other Al-Qaeda branches. One document had the names of Al-Qaeda members, another was a message from the group’s chief (Abu Ayyub al-Masri) to other members.”

baghdad security chief abducted

Spokesman for Baghdad security plan abducted

A spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, Tahsin al-Sheikhly, was kidnapped from his Baghdad home by armed men on Thursday, security officials told AFP.

An Interior Ministry official told the Associated Press that three of spokesman’s bodyguards were killed. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release the information.

The officials said Sheikhly, a Sunni who often appeared with U.S. military and embassy officials at news conferences to tout the successes of the crackdown that began in Baghdad and surrounding areas more than a year ago, was abducted from his home in Baghdad’s Al-Amin neighbourhood at around 2:30 pm (1130 GMT).

“Armed men stormed his home at a time when there were clashes in his neighbourhood,” a security official with the interior ministry said.

“They burnt his home and stole two cars and weapons before fleeing with him.”

baghdad bombings rise

Ominous Rise in Baghdad Bombings

Iraqis remove broken street shop stalls from the site of a bomb attack in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood.

Iraqis remove broken street shop stalls from the site of a bomb attack in Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood.
Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP / Getty

Thursday’s double bombing in Baghdad, which killed nearly 70 people and left hundreds more wounded, was the worst attack in Iraq since June 2007. It continues a troubling trend: a slow but steady increase in deadly bombings across the country. The troop surge is ending and the U.S. has begun withdrawing soldiers from Baghdad, but these attacks may indicate that a military or political solution to the Sunni insurgency may be as far off as it was a year ago.

The attacks capped off a violent week. Last Sunday more than 20 people died in bombings across the capital. And last month nearly 100 people were killed when two women detonated suicide vests in a crowded Baghdad market. According to statistics released by the U.S. military such attacks declined sharply for most of 2007, bottoming out in December. Since late last year, though, car bombings and suicide vest bombings have increased steadily.

Despite this week’s carnage the absolute number of bombings is still far lower than it was one year ago. The problem, however, is not simply lives lost, but also what the slow increase in attacks says about the resiliency of the Sunni insurgency. Battered by Shi’ite militias, the U.S. military and the defection of more moderate insurgents, al-Qaeda in Iraq and other radical insurgent groups are much weaker now than they were just last summer. But, as U.S. officials are quick to acknowledge, they still have the men, the money and the organization to pose a serious threat.

The question now is how that threat will be kept under control. American troop levels in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq will return this year to about the same level as 2006 — the year that saw the worst of the country’s sectarian violence. Helping to fill that void, supposedly, will be former members of the Sunni insurgency: thousands have become U.S.-paid counter-insurgents and, in some cases, members of the Iraqi government security forces. Unlike the mostly Shi’ite Iraqi army and police, these Sunnis have credibility in their towns and neighborhoods and have proven effective in fighting their former insurgent allies.

The trouble is that this ground-level military solution may be in conflict with other government efforts to reduce the violence and foster stability in Iraq. The Karrada bombing came on the heels of a state visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and struck a neighborhood that is home to Iraq’s largest Shi’ite political party and many Shi’ite government officials. The timing and location of this bombing may have been a coincidence, but Karrada makes a nice target for Sunni militants who frame their fight as a struggle against Iranian domination.

The long-term difficulty for the United States and the Iraqi government is that this suspicion of Iran is not simply a fantasy of radical Sunni insurgents. It is a very real fear of Sunni former insurgents currently cooperating in the fight against al-Qaeda. Former insurgent leaders routinely scorn the Iraqi government’s intentions, casting it as a pawn of the Iranians. So, as the Iraqi government strives to reduce violence by improving its relationship with Iran, it may be setting the stage for continued conflict with disaffected Sunnis.