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Salam Pax's Window on Iraq

Return of the Baghdad Blogger

  • Salam Pax
  • 17 Jun 08, 12:41 PM

pax203watch.jpgHello. This is the Baghdad Blogger. It's been a while since the last blog online and on television so I'll try and not be too sad if you've forgotten about me and moved on to more interesting blogs and bloggers.

About a year ago my family decided to leave Iraq. I was coming to the UK for a year to study and most of my extended family had already left Iraq as the levels of violence on the streets rose and we all felt frustrated by the lack of any improvement.

It wasn't an easy decision to make. We as a family stayed in Iraq and witnessed the death of friends and relatives; sat at home through days of waiting for good news from kidnapped acquaintances and clung to every little change on the political landscape in hope that this will be the moment things will change to the better.

We left our home as my neighbourhood somehow became a Sunni enclave and became less safe for my mother. And helped my aunts and uncles do the same.

There was a moment when most of the things I loved about Baghdad became a memory as I sat in our new home.

My father's brief involvement in politics meant that we had to live within a protected area and his fear for us meant that if we were to go out on the street we would have to be escorted.

I put my camera aside, my mother stopped visiting her siblings or going to the shops.

One morning we were woken up by one of the guards assigned to protect my father and told that American soldiers are at the door, they want to search our house.

They suspect we were hiding explosives. As we stood outside while the house was searched we were told that the neighbours had told the nearby American check point that they should check us out.

It was a Shia area, my father's Sunni tribe made them suspicious. The American soldiers left after finding nothing. And for us it was clearly time to move out.

This is when we, like almost two million Iraqis, decided it was safer for to leave for a while. Most of us who have left Iraq looked for refuge in neighbouring countries.

Like my own family most Iraqis are in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon or the United Arab Emirates - my own is spread throughout three of those four, as not all of us were able to get some sort of legal residence in the same country. And a much smaller percentage made it to shores farther away including the UK.

In the next couple of days I will be trying to find out more about the situation of Iraqi asylum seekers in the UK and will be making a film about their situation here to be shown on Newsnight in July.

I will be finding out what is happening to Iraqis whose application for refugee status here has been refused and also talking to Caroline Slocock from Refugee Legal Centre about what appears to be the Home Office's decision to accelerate forced deportations of failed asylum seekers.

I will keep you posted.

Salam's report will be broadcast on Newsnight in late June.

Blogging - a new era

  • Newsnight
  • 18 Apr 08, 05:49 PM

blog203.jpgAs many of you who've used the BBC's blogs will know, it has for some months been a deeply frustrating experience, not just for you but for us too.

The point of blogging about our programmes is to have a swift and informal conversation with our viewers. That's impossible if it takes hours to get your comment or our response through.

I'm relieved to say that as of yesterday we have a new system which should be much more robust and which I hope will usher in a new era of blogging for Newsnight.

One change is that in order to comment you'll need to register by filling in a simple form.
Once signed up, you'll be able to comment on any BBC blog using the same login.

Many of you have already commented on how it's working and one or two have suggested it's designed to introduce more censorship.

That's certainly not our intention. The aim is to encourage much more open discussion about the programme and much more interaction with the programme-makers. I'm sure it isn't perfect and that you'll let us know how it could be improved.

Thanks very much to all those contributors - the Bob Goodalls, Barrie Singletons, Mistress76UKs and many others - who have persevered through all the blog problems. Apologies for all the Error 502s, and welcome to the new era.

Blog fix imminent

  • Newsnight
  • 16 Apr 08, 04:32 PM

Blog closed temporarilyFrom 1800 this evening (UK time), we'll be doing some essential maintenance to the blog. As a result of this, you won't be able to leave any comments on our blog posts from that time until Thursday morning and the comments function on all old posts will close. We apologise for any inconvenience.

The work will fix the very frustrating problems we've encountered for some time now with the whole comments system.

From Thursday a new system will be in place - this will mean you will need to complete a simple registration form in order to post a comment on the blog. Once signed up, you will be able to comment on all BBC blogs using the same login. There will be more details in the morning. In the meantime - if you wish to comment on the programme you can email us via newsnight@bbc.co.uk.

Blog problems - a solution is nigh

  • Newsnight
  • 10 Apr 08, 11:40 AM

blog502error.jpgAnyone who regularly reads the Newsnight blog will know that we have suffered from a series of technical problems for some time now. Comments disappear, the dreaded 502 'not available' message appears, and multiple copies of comments get submitted in error. (More on the problems here.)

Well, to much relief (not least here at Newsnight), a solution is about to be unveiled.

In the very near future the comments system that causes all the problems is being replaced by a BBC-wide system.

Under the new system, anyone wishing to leave a comment will need to sign in - a relatively swift and painless affair that comes with the added bonus of enabling you to leave your thoughts on blogs and message boards across all BBC websites.

Finally, we hope to revamp and relaunch the whole Newsnight blog shortly, with more bloggers, more variety, and the odd bit of video thrown in. But one step at a time...

We'll update you on the changes next week.

'I have no future in Iraq'

  • Newsnight
  • 23 Apr 07, 04:19 PM

As part of Salam Pax's Window on Iraq - for Newsnight's continuing in depth Iraq coverage - Baghdad student Ahmed despairs of life in Baghdad after university.

US checkpoint in Baghdad
The security situation in Iraq is very bad and maybe this affects us young people the most. We can't find jobs, there is nothing to do for fun and even going to college is difficult.

I was hoping things would get better after the war. And in the begining they did: we saw things in Iraq which we have not seen before like satellite television and mobile phones. It was a good period but it didn't last for more than a couple of months. Then the explosions, the killings and the kidnappings began.

I never thought it would get this bad. Who would have thought that we would have curfews at six in the afternoon and all shops closing at 5pm? Shops used to stay open until 10pm at night in Baghdad.

About a year ago I had a conversation with a friend about the situation and our future. He told me that maybe by the time I graduate many local and foreign businesses would open in Iraq and we would have lots of job opportunities.

Unfortunately what I see today is that the few businesses which did start up after the war are closing down.

Most of my friends who graduated can't find any work and many have left the country. Those who are working here are in professions which have nothing to do with their university degrees.

I would be lucky to find work at a private business because they pay better than the government does but then again working in government buildings is safer because they have better security.

Sun over BaghdadWherever I find a job it has to be well paid because the cost of living has gone up so much, with every salary increase everything around us gets more expensive.

Nothing I see on the news shocks me anymore. I have seen worse on the streets with my own eyes, there is so much violence and not all of it gets mentioned in the news.

I don't really see any difference in the situation since the start of the new security plan. There are more checkpoints and more house-to-house searches but the explosions are the same and so is the kidnapping and the killing. Nothing different.

I find it very difficult to talk of my future in Iraq. Who knows where the next car bomb might go off? If I do stay alive until I get my degree the first thing I want to do is leave. I don't have any hope that the situation in my country is going to get better.

Kidnap and veils - student life in Baghdad

  • Newsnight
  • 4 Apr 07, 05:11 PM

As part of Salam Pax's Window on Iraq - for Newsnight's continuing in depth Iraq coverage - Baghdad student Ahmed explains the dangers and drawbacks of university life.

Veiled young Iraqi womanUniversity isn't like it used to be. The number of students has gone down and no one keeps a record on attendance any more. We used to have 250 students, now there are less than 120 on what used to be a very popular course. Many have left the country; more took this year off. Then there are those who got kidnapped, like my friend Y.

It happened in the morning just one week after the start of the academic year. He had arrived with his two friends at the university car park when three black Hyundai Sonatas with 4 thugs in each bundled them all into the Sonatas. Quite a feat when you consider my friend Y is as big as a three-door-wardrobe.

Y later told us they were taken to a house in the east of Baghdad. The kidnappers told him they were from the Mahdi Militia and were going to kill him because he was Sunni. Then they made Y take his clothes off and beat him with plastic hosepipes.

Continue reading "Kidnap and veils - student life in Baghdad"

Padre video diaries 2

  • Newsnight
  • 26 Mar 07, 03:43 PM

Padre BarnburyThe second in an occasional series of video diaries from padres stationed with British troops in and around Basra as part of Newsnight's special Iraq coverage.

Padre Banbury is serving at a medical facility in Basra. He gives his thoughts on the difficulties of offering prayers for soldiers killed in the conflict and of trying to find a brighter side to life in Iraq.

Things to do in Baghdad when you're a student - Ahmed

  • Newsnight
  • 21 Mar 07, 12:28 PM

As part of Salam Pax's Window on Iraq blogging series for Newsnight - running during and beyond our in depth week of Iraq coverage - Baghdad student Ahmed's second blog entry (read his first) explains the extracurricular activities on offer in the Iraqi capital.

Playing dominoesThere aren't really many things you can do for fun in Baghdad today. Because of the difficult security situations and the curfews you can't go too far away from where you live. So for a month now my friends and I have been going to a tea shop nearby.

It is owned by an Egyptian guy called Mahrous. It is a very simple tea shop with simple chairs and tables and domino sets on each table. That's what we do, we play dominoes from 6 to 8 at night, that and drink tea and smoke nargila - a type of hookah with sweet flavoured tobacco.

Mahrous also offers sandwiches but these can be lethal. The first time you try his kabab you'll get food poisoning but then you are immune and you can have them without worrying.

Continue reading "Things to do in Baghdad when you're a student - Ahmed"

Magical thinking and the lost country

  • Salam Pax
  • 20 Mar 07, 08:44 AM

Baghdad blogger Salam Pax is providing regular despatches and thoughts as part of Newsnight's in-depth coverage of Iraq four years after the invasion.

Millions of Iraqis have been forced out of their homes by the conflictOne good thing to come out of George Bush’s reluctant acceptance that the power of Magical Thinking cannot make the situation in Iraq better is that we are now allowed to deal with issues which used to be political blind spots. The US administration is finally out of denial when the plight of about 4 million Iraqi refugees, displaced internally and abroad, is mentioned.

Although this has been going on since the start of the war we only recently learnt that “the international community had been overwhelmed by the problem, and needed to do much more to help”. Dear readers; behold the power of Magical Thinking (and maybe some political arm twisting), it can make millions of people vamoose only to suddenly reappear all over the place looking for refuge.

Before you panic and shout “close the gates, the Iraqis are coming!” you should know that half of those displaced are still within Iraq’s borders and the rest have only made it to neighbouring Arab countries.

Continue reading "Magical thinking and the lost country"

Iraq's failing health - Mayada, the GP

  • Newsnight
  • 19 Mar 07, 03:09 PM

For Newsnight's Window on Iraq - a series of audio, video and text blogs as part of our in-depth Iraq coverage - Mayada, a Baghdad GP, explains how doctors are finding it increasingly difficult to deliver healthcare.

mayada203listen.jpgI am a GP at a health centre in one of Baghdad’s poorer districts. It is not an area you would choose to work in but I hold on to my position for two reasons. The first is I get on very well with my colleagues and the second is because the area is relatively safe – at least during office hours – and this makes all the difference between having to give up your job or being able to continue.

The situation for the staff and patients has deteriorated a lot over the last year and as a result the services we are able to offer have suffered. It was much better when I started work here three years ago.


Continue reading "Iraq's failing health - Mayada, the GP"

Padre video diaries - 1

  • Newsnight
  • 15 Mar 07, 04:02 PM

padrecole203watch.jpgAs part of Newsnight's Window on Iraq series, padres stationed with troops in and around Basra are making a series of video diaries about their work and experiences with the British forces.

In this first Newsnight diary, Padre Cole, the joint force senior chaplain in southern Iraq, reflects on a difficult few days prior to the recording.

There are now more chaplains serving with the British armed forces than at any time since World War II. While we are concentrating solely on those in Iraq, former BBC correspondent Martin Bell has been looking at their role across all current conflicts for a BBC Radio Four programme, God and the Gun. One Padre who took part in that programme spoke to the BBC News website.

Normal for Iraq?

  • Salam Pax
  • 14 Mar 07, 12:00 PM

Newsnight is following a number of people in Iraq over the coming weeks in order to gain some perspective on the situation across the country. Window on Iraq will feature a series of text, audio and video blogs hosted by Baghdad blogger Salam Pax - who will be posting regular entries himself. In this, his first, he examines claims that the situation in Baghdad is improving.

pax203watch.jpgJust a day before the recent international meeting in Baghdad many news sources published a piece about the Iraqi PM making a surprise appearance on the streets of Baghdad where he told reporters that "the conference is proof that the situation in Baghdad is getting back to normal and that the political process is strong and stable" (emphasis mine). If you ask me the headline to that piece should have read: Iraqi PM moves into his own Reality Distortion Field, finds it a very lonely place.

It seems Mr. Maliki's idea of what "normal" looks like is suffering from a severe case of Green Zone delusional disorder from spending all that time in the little oasis of false calm in that heavily fortified American enclave. Walking in the centre of a tightly closed circle of machine gun wielding bodyguards does seem to stretch any definition of normal you want to choose.

And as another indication of normalcy "his Iraqi bodyguards, armed with submachine guns, parted to allow al-Maliki to stoop down and kiss the foreheads of children huddled up against cement barriers." Now how is that for a "all is normal, folks" campaign poster? We obviously don't see him hurrying back to his armoured car right after the photo op.

The situation, dear Mr. Maliki, is far from normal.

And I will refuse to describe it as normal until I can move back into the home my family and I had to abandon two years ago when the neighbourhood was taken over by insurgents.

I had not been to my old house since we moved out and as the months went by I had less and less reason to do so. One after the other, my uncles and aunts who also lived in the same area, rented homes elsewhere or left the country. But yesterday I did go and now I wish I hadn't, I would rather remember my neighbourhood the way it was than see what it turned to now.

Not a single shop was open in the 1.5km stretch of the main shopping street, and from the amount of rubbish and rubble in front of these shops no one has bothered with opening these shops for a very long time. Cars which have caught fire during an explosion a couple of weeks ago are still there on the side of the road and more inexplicably the twisted and burned remains a huge 40 passenger bus can be seen at the entrance to one of the side streets.
The top of the street is flanked by the rubble of what used to be two flashy five story buildings. One was destroyed by a car bomb about a month ago and the second by two mortar rounds hitting it just last week. The only signs of life were the armed guards of a Sunni political group standing on the roof of a building they have commandeered, it used to be the Baath Party headquarters in the area.

The feeling you get driving down that street is of despair. People who have hope don't leave burned cars at the entrance of the street they live in. Although they would leave it there hoping that whoever has done this will have some mercy the next time and spare them another attack. People who still have hope in Mr. Maliki's political process go to pick the pieces of their shattered stores and repair the broken window panes. I know what having hope feels like because for two years after the war we did that, Baghdadis tried to act as if nothing was going wrong and tried to keep their lives on track. Today despair and hopelessness can be seen around every corner you turn in the west of Baghdad where I used to live. A place Mr. Maliki has obviously never been to.

I didn't make it our house. The empty streets and all the bombed buildings scared me and saddened me more than I expected them to and I decided to turn around and go back. My mother did not want to hear about what I saw, keeping things how you remember them is a much wiser decision.

Crossing Baghdad - Ahmed

  • Newsnight
  • 14 Mar 07, 11:26 AM

As part of Salam Pax's Window on Iraq series of text, audio and video blogs, Baghdad student Ahmed's first audio entry describes the difficulties of student life in Iraq's capital.

traffic203audio.jpgThese days the most difficult thing in my life is going through the streets of Baghdad. Besides the bombs and explosions we have to deal with many other troubles which guarantee a late arrival at university.

I travel to university in a taxi I hire with a couple of friends and while this makes travelling to university cheap as a group of young men in a car it also means that we get stopped at every check point.

There are also many new laws which make it even more difficult. For example there is the odd and even law; on one day only cars with odd numbers are allowed on the roads and only even numbers on the next. The aim was to reduce the number of cars on the streets and to keep the car bombs in check. But for us it means that we must have two cars to really be able to move around daily or use unreliable, crowded buses.

Another law strange law prohibits you from using a mobile phone when in a car. Not while driving but just while sitting in a car within sight of a check point. They are afraid you might trigger a bomb. But how do you call your family to tell them you are late because of road blocks not because you have been kidnapped? Or that the car bomb they just heard about is not near you and you’re still alive? For us mobile phones are our lifelines.

On a good day getting to my university is only a 15 minute drive. On foot it is half hours away. I know because I recently had to walk all the way.

I had an exam on the day the new security plan started and found that no cars were allowed to cross the bridge.

bridge203a.jpgIt was strange but nice to be walking on the streets with no cars. But I am my friends saw a couple of American Humvees on the side of the road we thought that could be trouble. You have to be careful when walking near American Army vehicles. They could be attacked and you end up as a casualty of that or the Americans might panic and shoot you. We found a small side street and quickly got into it.

In the end I had to run as the exam was going to start without me. I was allowed in even though I was five minutes late and I sat for 15 minutes catching my breath before even looking at the questions.

I have not yet received my grades but I have a feeling that my best score is going to be for the test on that day.

Is Baghdad violence a Kurdish problem?

  • Newsnight
  • 13 Mar 07, 10:32 AM

From Irbil in northern Iraq, Kurdish journalist Mohammed A Salih records concerns about local troops being sent to Baghdad.

mohammedarbil203.jpgThe other day, I woke early to go out for my usual reporting job.

The taxi driver tuned the radio to one of the local stations. The main story was about the sending of 1,800 Kurdish troops to Baghdad as part of the new Iraqi-American security plan to stabilise the capital.

This is in addition to a Kurdish brigade that left for Baghdad a few weeks ago. I could see the panic and dissatisfaction on the faces of the other taxi passengers.

"I see no sense whatsoever in sending our [Kurdish] soldiers to Baghdad," said the driver in a very disgruntled voice.

"I swear by God, the same with me," said the passenger in front sitting next to him.

"Just tell me what they can achieve in the chaos over there."

In no time I was in the middle of a heated debate about the general situation in Iraq. Although Kurdistan in the north has been spared much of the bloodshed of other parts of the country, many here are worried that with Kurds fighting in Baghdad, the violence may spill over in to Kurdistan.

"We can't calm down the situation in Baghdad," said someone sitting next to me.

"We would become part of the problem and would start receiving the dead bodies of our fighters everyday."

"It's not our business to get involved in the fighting between Arabs. Let them sort it out themselves," the driver yelled.

Kurds, who are ethnically distinct from Arabs, have very little sense of Iraqi identity these days. The accounts of persecution at the hand of Saddam Hussein's regime are still very fresh in their memories. While feeling deeply sorry about the bloodshed in the rest of the country, they still believe "we must not be involved".

The discussion reflected how unpopular the move to send Kurdish soldiers to Baghdad is with the ordinary people here. The next news item was about a deadly bombing in front of a university in Baghdad. The driver sighed deeply.

"This is brutality. Whose conscience can accept doing this? All these poor innocent students dying. What for?"

Others nodded in agreement.

With sectarian divisions running deep in Iraq today, US and Iraqi officials hope that Kurdish soldiers can keep the peace in Baghdad. The Kurds are neither affiliated with, nor against any of the conflicting Shia and Sunni Arabs there. But most of the people I talked to in Irbil, Iraqi Kurdistan's regional capital, didn't like the idea. They doubt Kurdish soldiers can make any positive contribution to the deteriorating security situation in Iraq.

Many of them question what Kurdish soldiers can do when tens of thousands of well-equipped Iraqi and American troops cannot change things for better. They feel the presence of Kurdish soldiers can only create more targets and increase the number of dead.

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