Thursday, December 29, 2005

A Year of Major Events

For years to come, the people of Lebanon will remember 2005 as the year of major and unexpected events. Hardly anyone thought that during this year the Syrian army will leave Lebanon or that former Prime Minister Michel Aoun will return from exile or that Lebanese Forces commander Samir Geagea will be freed from jail. It was the same year that witnessed dark and bloody events such as the assassination of Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri as well as other politicians and journalists. 2005 was a bloody year for me from the first day. I was in Iraq where I had to cover explosions, suicide attacks and shootings that left dozens, if not hundreds, of people dead in January. Few days after the January 30 elections in Iraq I returned to Lebanon hoping to have some rest after nearly two months of hectic work in Iraq. I thought Lebanon would be violence-free after Iraq but it was not. On February 14, a day before when I was supposed to go on a two-week vacation to Egypt, I heard a massive explosion as I walked near Beirut's Bliss Street. I ran all the way to the scene of the explosion in front of the Saint Georges Hotel where former Prime Minister Hariri was killed along with more than 20 people and covered the story. Hariri's murder was for sure Lebanon's equivalent of America's September 11 since the events that followed changed the track that the country had followed since the civil war ended in 1990. In March I went to Damascus and covered President Bashar Assad's speech at the Syrian parliament in which he declared that the troops will withdraw from Lebanon. Many Syrians told me while there that they felt betrayed by the Lebanese since their army was in the country to keep the country in peace and prevent Lebanese from fighting each other. Some said they were going to withdraw their money from Lebanese banks in protest. Massive anti-Syrian demonstrations followed Hariri's killing and the Syrian army was out of Lebanon on April 26. In May I went to Iraq for three weeks and came back the same month to cover the parliamentary elections that gave anti-Syrian candidates majority seats in the 128-member Council of Representatives. I was in Iraq when General Michel Aoun returned from France. In June well-known journalist Samir Kassir was killed in an explosion in his car, followed by former leader of the Lebanese Communist Party George Hawi. In the summer, Samir Geagea was released and went to Europe immediately before returning weeks later. In August Defense Minister Elias Murr was wounded in a car bomb while four of the country's most powerful pro-Syrian generals were detained in Prime Minister Hariri's case and are still in custody. In September I was in New York watching CNN when they had breaking news from Lebanon saying that famous television newswoman May Chidiac was seriously wounded by a bomb in her car. As 2006 got closer, outspoken anti-Syrian journalist Gibran Tueni was killed in a bombing on December 12, a day after he returned from France. His killing shocked everyone in the country. Few days before Christmas I returned to Lebanon from Iraq and was happy to see that the airport is full of people who are coming the spend their vacation in Lebanon but few days later I found that Lebanese are worried about further explosions. Many Lebanese accuse Syria of being behind the explosions and until this day the Syrians strongly deny any involvement. President Assad told Turkish Television this week that his country is not involved in any of the killings.
As 2006 approaches, we hope that the new year will be violence-free in our beautiful country.
Bassem Mroue
Beirut December. 29, 2005 2 a.m.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Worried Lebanese

It was 8:30 a.m. Friday December 23, 2005 when my cellular telephone rang. I picked it up and my friend Naji asked "are you still sleeping?" I asked him what's up and his answer was that the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. has breaking news about an explosion in downtown Beirut. I told him that I haven't heard anything about such an explosion and did not hear an explosion. Few minutes later I jumped out of bed and headed toward the television and tuned to LBC. "An oxygen cylinder explodes in downtown Beirut," a breaking news tag read. I told myself thank God it is an oxygen cylinder since the last thing Beirut needs these days is an explosion. An increase in explosions in Lebanon in the past months have left most people living in fear. Every now and then rumors spread around the capital about a bomb threat or an expected attack on a major mall. Guards at the entrances of shopping malls and office buildings search people now going in. Guards at public parkings use special machines that detect explosives. Soldiers and security agents are seen in most of Beirut's streets. Moving around Beirut makes it clear that this year's Christmas is not like that of previous years. There aren't much decorations in the streets and the giant Christmas tree that was seen in the past years in Beirut's Martyrs Square won't be there this Christmas. The assassination of well-known journalist Gibran Tueini three weeks ago has scared people. People in Lebanon these days expect more assassinations.
"The scary thing these days is that we feel we cannot do anything but wait and see who will be assassinated next," a Lebanese journalist said.
Bassem Mroue
December 24 at 12:15 a.m.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Iraqis Vote Again

I woke up at 5:30 a.m. this morning and got myself ready for the big day. It is Thursday December 15 and Iraqis are supposed to elect a new parliament. This is the second time Iraqis elect a new legislature after the January 30, 2005 vote for the interim National Assembly. Today they will chose a four-year parliament, which will be called from now on the Council of Representatives. At 6:30 a.m. I left the office with my colleague K and headed toward the City Hall. There were no cars in the streets except for security forces because the Interior Ministry had banned movement of cars for three days staring December 14. The airports and borders were also closed for three days. We drove slowly with the flash lights on until we reached the Khilani Mosque near Sinak Bridge in central Baghdad. One of the many policeman in the area waved for us to stop from a distance and got closer to us carrying a pistol in his right hand. He looks at our press passes then searches the car. The man then said the car should be parked at a distance and we should walk to the City Hall few hundred meters away. As we crossed the first checkpoint and walked toward the other we heard the explosion of a mortar round. Few seconds later alert sirens could be heard from the Green Zone on the other side of the Tigris River. We were searched five times before we entered the building. Large numbers of people started coming in to vote shortly after the doors opened at 7:00 a.m. An 80-year-old woman was one of the first to cast ballots. She asked her daughter to show her where she should mark the election card then dipped her index finger in indelible ink before casting the ballot in the box. As she walked from the room where she voted along with her daughter, I asked her a few questions. "Why are you asking me who I voted for. Of course I voted for the clerics. They are the only ones who don't rob us," the lady said with a big smile on her face. "Oh. You are a journalist? What did you do to us yesterday. What have you done to the water?" she said then headed to the elevator. She was referring to rumors that spread around Baghdad Wednesday night that the water system in the city was poisoned. Until about 3 a.m. Thursday people were being told through mosques loud speakers not to drink water. The Health Ministry then issued a statement denying the reports. Until about 6 p.m. people kept going to stations and Farid Ayar, a senior official with the Independent Electoral Commission, said he believes that as much as 11 million of the 15 million eligible voters participated. It is not strange for Iraq, which is known to have high turnouts in such votes. Most of the people who I asked who they voted for said they chose the slates representing their sect or ethnic groups. Most Shiites I spoke to said they voted for the United Iraqi Alliance while Kurds said they voted for the Kurdish Alliance and Sunni Arabs for the Iraqi Consensus Front. Many Christians voted for the list of Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, and Rafidain List of Christian politician Yonadem Kanna. Three hours later I went to a polling station on the western side of the Tigris River and spent half an hour there before heading back to the office. As I was going in an Iraq soldier asked me to unzip my jacket apparently to make sure I am not wearing an explosive belt. On the way back we passed several checkpoints of masked policemen. Those who appear to have enjoyed the three-day ban on cars most were children who turned the streets of the sprawling city to playgrounds. Back to the office, wrote my story. It is incredible how much Iraq has changed in the past three years. Unlike the October 15, 2002 referendum in which Saddam Hussein won 100 percent of the vote now Iraqis chose who represents them and it is almost impossible for any group to win the vast majority. At the same time since the fall of his regime tens of thousands of people have been killed and Iraq has become one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to security. Car bombs, murder, robberies, kidnapping for ransom are very common in Iraq now. Election day was safe and apart from few mortar rounds and shooting all went well. An Iraqi man, poking fun at American President George W. Bush and his statements that Iraqi has become a democracy, told me a few months ago: "We are so happy we can vote now but God knows if we are going to be alive tomorrow."
Bassem Mroue
Baghdad Dec 17, 2005. 2 a.m.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Two Years After Saddam's Capture

It was Sunday December 14, 2003. I woke up in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and was very sick. It must have been the kibbe, which Mosul is famous for, I ate the night before. I must have been suffering from food poison. At about 12 p.m. my colleague Shaz came to replace me as I was heading back to Baghdad for a day or two before going back home in Lebanon. Shortly after Shaz arrived I left with my colleague A toward Baghdad. The trip took us about four hours and we passed through cities and towns such as Beiji, Tikrit, Samarra until we reached Baghdad. On the way we heard a rumor that Saddam Hussein was captured. The first thing we did when arrived on the outskirts of Baghdad was ask anyone about the news. A, an Iraqi who is known as al-Lubnani or the Lebanese because he says it was his dream to be born Lebanese, asked a traffic policeman whether he heard that Saddam Hussein was captured. The policeman replied "that is what I heard." In Baghdad we turned on the radio, since there was no signal on the 350-kilometer long Mosul-Baghdad highway. Then Radio Sawa began their news bulletin with the voice of then member of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council Naseer Chaderchi saying that Saddam had been captured. We could not believe what we heard. We were shocked with the news. We drove to the office and everyone was terribly busy with the news. We watched the television as Iraq's U.S. Governor L. Paul Bremer appeared with several Governing Council members and U.S. military commander Gen. Ricardo Sanchez. "Ladies and gentlemen. We got him," Bremer said. Seconds later fire was opened in the air by thousands of Iraqis in celebration. Shortly afterward, they showed Saddam's pictures with long hair and a beard. In one of the videos shown, a military doctor was seen looking in Saddam's hair. It was clear that the pictures were a message for Iraqis that this is the man who ruled you with an iron fist and fear for 24 years. Saddam Hussein was captured a day earlier before it was announced. The news that day were the most important in Iraq since the Iraqi capital was run over by the Americans on April 9, 2003. Saddam today is on trial by an Iraqi court and he looks much more strong and confident compared to the how he looked.
The last thing I thought that morning or most people in Iraq was that Saddam was captured a day earlier. Everyone was taken by surprise.
The next morning was not quite. Several explosions rocked Baghdad and I went to one of the sites in an northern Baghdad neighborhood called Husseiniyah. It was a suicide attack at a police station that killed eight policemen. As I looked around the stations that was badly damaged a lightly injured policeman called me saying "let me show you something." I walked toward him then he said "look" pointing his index to a head and a foot. "They are of the suicide attacker," the policeman said. It was another shocking image from Iraq that is still very clear in my head two years later.
As the days passed, it became more and more clear that Saddam's capture did not end the insurgency but on the contrary attacks rose sharply since then and they continue.
Bassem Mroue
Baghdad Dec. 15, 2005
01:00 a.m.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Getting Ready to Vote

Iraqis are getting ready to vote and Thursday's December 15, 2005 ballot battle is expected to be brutal. Politicians are openly criticizing each other and posters are being torn on the streets. Going on a tour in the streets of the Iraqi capital, you feel the fierce competition between candidates. Blast walls that fill the roads of Baghdad are now decorated with elections posters of politicians promising Iraqis security, stability, prosperity and bright future. What makes this week's elections interesting is the expected strong participation of Sunni Arabs after boycotting the January 30 2005 elections. Turnout among Sunni Arabs was very low then after many of them responded to calls by their leaders that they should not vote as long as the country is under occupation. When I used to ask Sunni Arabs in January whether they will participate the answer from most of them was a big NO. Today it is the opposite. I went for a drive in Baghdad and was surprised by the amount of posters in Sunni Arab areas. In Azamiyah, Baghdad's predominantly Sunni northern neighborhood, I was shocked by the people's zeal to vote. Even the Imam Abu Hanifa mosque was decorated with a banner calling people to vote for the sect's main slate the Iraqi Consensus Front. In Azamiyah's Antar square posters were cluttered all over the place. This is a major change compared to January's elections. In Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City it is the same story but different banners and posters. Many of them carry images of Shiite clerics. In Tahrir square, the city's largest, there was a bigger cocktail of pictures since it is a mixed areas. "Yes to national resistance. No to terrorism," read a poster carrying the picture of Sunni politician Ayham al-Samarai. Others carried picture of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi reading "the man of this time, the man of the future." Thursday is getting close and we will soon know the results.
Bassem Mroue
Baghdad December 2005

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Iraq's Proposed Anthem

السلام الوطني المقترح

شعر : اسعد الغريري
الحان : كاظم الساهر
توزيع : عمر خيرت

سلام عليك على رافديك عراق القيم
فانت مزار وحسن ودار لكل النعم

هنا المجد أم وصلى وصام ، وحج وطاف بلاد السلام
فبغداد تكتب مجد العراق وما جف فيها بلاد القلم

سلام لأرض تفيض عطاء واثرى ثراها دم الشهداء
فهذا حسين وذي كربلاء ، الى العز صار لسانا وفم

عراق العلوم ونهر الادب ستبقى تراثا لكل العرب
وتبقى الى المجد ام واب واكليل حب لخير الامم

باور وبابل عهد انتماء ، لأهل الحضارات والانبياء
تشرف بحمل اسم رب السماء لتبقى اعز واغلى علم