The Middle East Channel

Coordinated attacks across Iraq kill an estimated 60 people

At least 60 people were killed and over 200 injured in a wave of car bombings and small arms fire across Iraq. Although the attacks targeted security installations and government buildings, civilians suffered the greatest casualties. The worst violence was concentrated in neighborhoods in Baghdad, many of which were predominately Shiite, during the morning commute between 6:00 am and 8:00 am. Suicide bombers and gunmen also hit mainly Shiite provinces north and south of Baghdad. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the government suspects al-Qaeda linked militants, under the umbrella group of the Islamic State of Iraq, who have carried out similarly coordinated attacks in the past. Violence has significantly dwindled since its peak between 2006 and 2007, but attacks have nonetheless swelled since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in December, and this was the most widespread operation since the U.S. departure.

Headlines

  • The siege on Homs rages on as the "Friends of Syria" say they will first call for humanitarian access.  Meanwhile, U.N. investigators submitted a list of top officials suspected of crimes against humanity in Syria.
  • The judge in the case against Hosni Mubarak and 7 others, charged with ordering the killing of protesters, will announce a verdict on June 2 when the ousted leader could receive the death penalty.
  • After two days of meetings, Hamas leaders approved of new demands for a unity deal with rival Palestinian faction, Fatah.
  • Iran sent a letter to the U.N. Security Council accusing Israel of assassinating nuclear scientists in a "war game" but denied last week's attacks on Israeli diplomats.

Arguments & Analysis

'Egypt stands to lose more than aid' (Stephen McInerney, Foreign Affairs)

"Many observers have argued that the U.S. must maintain its assistance in order to preserve its leverage with the Egyptian military. But this crisis is exactly the moment to use this leverage. The fate of civil society in Egypt and beyond is very much at stake. If the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid can attack pro-democracy organizations with no real consequences, authoritarian governments worldwide will be emboldened to follow suit. As such, the administration should take a tougher line, making clear that military aid will certainly be interrupted unless the attacks on NGOs are halted and all charges are dropped. The White House deserves credit for having made support for civil society an important pillar of its approach to strengthening democracy worldwide. Now is the time to demonstrate the strength of that commitment." 

'From football fans to revolutionary heroes' (Daniel Steinvorth, Der Spiegel)

"These days, though, animosity between the two ultra groups has been overshadowed by a new common enemy. A few weeks ago, they even came to a reconciliation agreement. In a statement on their website, the White Knights offered a truce "for the good of Egypt." The Red Devils accepted by putting a smiley-face icon on their homepage. "We have a common enemy that we both profoundly despise: the ravens," says Omar, referring to the black-uniformed and universally hated security forces. Al-Ahly has even come up with a song about the ravens that has achieved cult status throughout the ultra scene. One part goes: "He was already always incapable, and he was only able to get a proper high school degree with a bribe. Come on, you raven, why are you destroying what's beautiful in our country?" The song is one of many meant to taunt the police. Omar even believes the songs might have led police to take revenge on al-Ahly fans on that tragic night in Port Said."

'Egypt's judges in a revolutionary age' (Nathan Brown, Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace)

"Much of the political focus in Egypt in the year after the January 25 revolution was on the tension between the military council and the Brotherhood; between Islamists and non-Islamists; between civilian political structures and the institutions of the security state; and between older authoritarian ways and newer more participatory ones. Such contests are vital and real. But they should not lead us to overlook another likely contest that is apt to grow even as the other ones diminish: between the forces of politics, popular sovereignty, and democracy on the one hand and bureaucracy, expertise, and professionalism on the other."

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

Voting Saleh out

"Where do I stamp?" said the old man, flashing a wry smile as he dipped his thumb into a pot of ink and peered down at the piece of paper in front of him. With a picture of Yemen's balding vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, next to a map of Yemen in the colors of the rainbow, the card looked more like a ticket for a Ferris wheel ride than a ballot paper. Pausing for a second, the man pressed his thumb into the circle next to the face of the vice president -- the only candidate on the ballot paper. "I'm voting to save Yemen," he told me, before folding the ballot in half and stuffing it into the voting box.

It was a year ago this month that young men and women, spurred on by the dramatic downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, first flooded the streets of Sanaa with noisy demonstrations against the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. On Tuesday, Feb. 21, the wily, 65-year-old leader was pushed out of his 33-year presidency through the ballot box. Millions of Yemenis turned out to vote in a one-candidate election, ushering in Yemen's vice president as leader and making Saleh -- who is in New York undergoing treatment for burns suffered in a bomb attack against him in June -- the fourth Arab leader to be ousted by the mass uprisings of last year.

To the outside world, the idea of settling a million-person uprising with a one-man vote might seem farcical, but most of the Yemenis I spoke to in the capital, Sanaa, on Tuesday were treating the election with the utmost seriousness.

"We are drawing a line in the sand," said Sara Al-Maqtari, a 26-year-old student who stood under a hot sun outside a hospital in a line of veiled women waiting patiently to cast their votes. "It's hard for you to understand just how much of a relief that is for us. One man and his family ruling, plundering your country for a third of a century -- try to imagine it."

"Yes, I consider this the first democratic election in the Republic of Yemen," said Samir Radhman, a surgeon, overhearing our conversation and cutting in. "People are coming to vote without pressure, without bribes. I'm not voting Hadi in; I'm voting Saleh out," he said, holding up his purple thumb to the sky as if to prove his conviction.

Tawakkol Karman, the joint recipient of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, was among the mass of voters, insisting that however imperfect the exercise was, it still represented Yemen's final refutation of Saleh's rule.

"I felt like I was closing a heavy door on Saleh's regime," she told me with a sigh over the phone shortly after casting her vote with one of her sisters. "This ends Ali Abdullah Saleh era. Now we will build a new Yemen."

After a year of skyrocketing food and gas prices, mass layoffs, daily power cuts, and shelling matches that left parts of the capital in rubble, an almost-infectious sense of relief and excitement swirled around Sanaa on Tuesday. The prospect of a break with the politics of the past coupled with the slow return of electricity -- for months families have been eating their supper by candlelight -- kindled a newfound sense of optimism not seen here in a long time. Yellow microbuses decked out with speakers whizzed around the capital blaring out pop songs and the national anthem as fierce political discussions broke out between Saleh's supporters and opponents as they stood side by side waiting to vote in lines that wrapped around schools and universities.

But not everyone shared this newfound sense of optimism. Many of the youth groups that spearheaded the pro-democracy street movement remained adamant the election was a farce. For them, Hadi's inauguration offers only the perpetuation of the Saleh regime rather than the convincing break with the past they believe they saw in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.

"The street is what brought the previous government to its knees, and it is the street, not a fake election, that this government will have to answer to," said Leila, a mother of three and part-time English teacher who refused to vote.

Although Yemen's ministries are now split between Saleh's ruling party and Yemen's mainstream opposition -- dominated by the Islah Islamic party -- many believe that the same old faces are still ruling the roost, that the "transition to democracy" is more akin to "a game of musical chairs," as one protester put it, than the complete overhaul of governance they are seeking.

"The same old machinery is still running the works," said Sami, a student from among a group from a "Che Guevara" tent in the capital's sprawling shantytown-like protest camp, known as Change Square. He and his friends had assembled a mock election booth where protesters could sign fake ballots decrying the election and dip their thumbs in red ink in memory of the hundreds slain by government troops last year.

Outside the capital, opposition to the election took on a wholly more sinister form. In the southern port city of Aden, ballot boxes were dragged out into the streets and set alight by mobs of anti-election protesters bearing machine guns and wearing balaclavas. Gunfire crackled and explosions ripped through buildings throughout the morning as militants launched sporadic attacks on polling stations, forcing many of them to close early.

"It's all bombs and bullets," said a breathless British baroness as her car sped away from a polling station that she and two female Yemeni ministers had been observing before it came under gunfire.

Southern separatists, who want to restore a socialist state that Saleh merged with the north in 1990, had called on their supporters to boycott the vote. Years of maltreatment and neglect at the hands of the Sanaa government have left many in Yemen's south questioning the value of the 1990 merger between the then Marxist-led south and the tribal-dominated north. Many believe the separatists are now seizing the opportunity of a weakened central government to try to push through their claim to independence.

The jubilant scenes of the capital were not to be found in Yemen's northern province of Saada, where the Houthis, an insurgent group that Saleh tried to crush before a cease-fire in 2010, have carved out their own state-within-a state thanks to crumbling government authority. Like the southern separatists, the Houthis also shunned the election, deriding it as an "American-imposed plan."

"The elections are part of a deal imposed on Yemen by America who from day one aimed to hamper the impact of Yemen's revolt, fearful it would unsettle their allies in the ruling elite. The elections are a response to American pressure," said Dayfallah al-Shami, a member of the Houthis' leadership council.

Karim Abaadi, a university professor manning a polling center in Saada city, told me in a shaky voice over the phone that the few who did turn out to vote had asked not to have their thumbs inked for fear they would face retribution from the Houthis.

"They [the Houthis] blocked roads to the polling centers; they toured the city in trucks with speakers saying that voting is against the revolution and participating amounts to the killing of martyrs."

The United States is fearful that Saada, a wild, rugged, and impoverished province nestled in Yemen's north, bordering Saudi Arabia, could become the arena for a proxy war between Yemen's neighboring oil giant and Iran, both accused of meddling in the country. "We do see Iran trying to increase its presence here, in ways that we believe are unhelpful to Yemen's stability and security," the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, said in an interview with Reuters on Monday. "We do think that we have evidence of Iranian activities that will build up military capabilities as well. It's a relatively recent phenomenon. Iran is taking advantage of this period of political instability and loss of government control over large parts of the country."

In a bizarre twist of events, Saleh's eldest son, Ahmed, who heads the elite Republican Guard, also appeared in public on Tuesday to vote his father out of office. He is one of a number of relatives who still hold positions of power, heightening suspicions that Saleh -- who will return to Yemen as head of the ruling party -- and his entourage plot to retain an unwarranted influence over Yemen. The fate of his relatives, or "the family problem," as some Yemenis call it, remains shrouded in uncertainty, a thorny topic, not least due to the relatives' centrality in U.S. "counterterrorism" strategy. Although a military committee is meant to oversee a complete restructuring of the armed forces during the transitional period, most here doubt the Saleh boys will be going anywhere anytime soon.

Rumors are already swirling that Ahmed, whom many believed the president had been grooming for the spot before being ousted by pro-democracy enthusiasts, may still have his eye on the presidency. There is nothing in the GCC agreement that bars him from running for president in 2014.

In a written statement read out by a weeping female anchor on state television Monday, Saleh hinted that he would continue to remain in the political picture.

"I say farewell to the authority, but I remain with you a citizen loyal to his homeland, his people, and his nation as you have known me through thick and thin," he said. "I will continue to perform my duty and my role in serving the country and its just causes."

Tom Finn is a freelance journalist based in Sanaa, Yemen.

GAMAL NOMAN/AFP/Getty Images