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Iraq -- Rescue teams recover bodies from the scene of a massive explosion outside the foreign ministry in Baghdad, 19Aug2009
Iraq -- Rescue teams recover bodies from the scene of a massive explosion outside the foreign ministry in Baghdad, 19Aug2009
After spending some time with RFE/RL's Iraq service recently, here's a little taste of the most interesting stories they broadcast last week:

"The people were panicking, very afraid"

RFI correspondent Sa’ad Kamil was at the scene when a massive truck bomb destroyed the Iraqi Foreign Ministry last week:

"The blast near the Foreign Ministry was the most violent. There are reports that seven blasts occurred in Baghdad. A medium-sized truck bomb filled with explosives caused the destruction of the front of the Foreign Ministry, and some of the adjacent buildings as well. 800 cars were also damaged. The Al-Rashid hotel was damaged as well. The people were panicking, very afraid. I saw more than 40 dead bodies. There are serious flaws [in the security plans]. How was this truck able to enter [the area]?"

Iraqis' confidence in ability of security forces shaken by bombings
RFI interviewed a number of Iraqis regarding their reactions to the deadly coordinated bombings that rocked Baghdad last Wednesday, and found that their confidence in the Iraqi security forces has been severely shaken. Echoing some sentiments being expressed over the weekend in Western media outlets (i.e. USA Today and the Guardian), some Iraqis even told RFI they wouldn't mind if the American forces returned:
"The return of the Americans would be better than the present Iraqi forces, because the security forces have failed and are not ready, as evidenced by the recent bombing campaign. It would be better if the Americans came back," said one Iraqi.

"Why has the bombing campaign coincided with the election period? Where is the development of safety and security?" another citizen asked. "If I was carrying just one gun and I could not get through these checkpoints, then how can these car bombs get through?"

However, RFI also reported that many other Iraqis reject any possibility of asking Americans to return to help with security, which is possible under the SOFA. "We will oppose any demand from the government for the return of U.S. forces to the streets," said Falah Hassan, a member of the parliamentary Defense and Security Committee. "We think that the U.S. forces are part of the problem and not part of the solution."

Review of security planning and counter-terrorism laws underway
The Iraqi government has initiated a full-scale review of security measures and counter-terrorism strategy following the devastating bombings last week. In an emergency meeting of the parliamentary Committee for Security and Defense this weekend, measures discussed included finding a mechanism to deal with the "indiscriminate" release of terrorism detainees from prisons, a review of security checkpoints set up throughout the capital, and the need to distance security responsibilities from the conflicts between political and security officials, which has had a negative impact on their duties, according to committee member Abbas al-Bayati.
Officials corrupt journalists, journalists corrupt officials
In Karbala, the giving of "gifts and rewards" to journalists by some institutions and officials has raised considerable controversy about the neutrality and professionalism of the media. Many journalists in Karbala, including Majid al-Khayat, believe that granting these rewards to journalists is contributing to the corruption of the media, as journalists' coverage of certain officials will be influenced by these gifts.

Some officials are trying to frame these rewards as marginal to the way journalists cover their activities, but rather as a form of goodwill, claiming that providing these gifts and rewards simply aims to help journalists materially. Remarkably, however, these gifts are limited to those journalists who cover the activities of these officials.
"Journalists that wish to remain neutral should not accept rewards, because this will challenge their freedom of opinion," said journalist Ghanem 'Abd al-Zahra. But the story is more complex:

But perhaps the blame cannot be directed only at the officials who grant these gifts and rewards, but also at some journalists who force these officials to give them gifts before they cover their activities.

Ahmed Taqi, Director of the Euphrates Center for Studies and Research, said that some journalists bargain or haggle before agreeing to attend some of the activities put on by the center, and have repeated this action with many other officials.

Journalist Salam al-Bannai agreed that “some journalists engage in extortion and demand rewards from certain institutions or officials.”

Their defense?
Some journalists already known to be receiving gifts refused to speak on the record, but many of them claimed that they were forced to resort to this tactic because of the low salary which they were paid by the media organizations.

Selling alcohol in Basra? That'll be a $4,345 fine.
The provincial council of Basra has banned the sale, purchase, and production of alcoholic beverages -- a decision that has sparked some considerable controversy.
One citizen, Awad Nasr, disagreed with the decision, saying it was “incompatible with the personal freedoms guaranteed in the constitution, and contrary to other national charters and treaties, especially those regarding human rights.” He also believed prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages would be counterproductive, because “everyone wants what is forbidden.”

However, another citizen, Hasan Dawr, said that the provincial council’s decision was predictable and in line with the opinions of most members of the council, who belonged to Islamic parties which aim to implement shari’a [Islamic law]. “I support the decision of the Basra provincial council to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages, because their circulation is forbidden [haram] and this phenomenon is having an undesirable effect on society," he said.

Offenders will face a steep penalty, according to council member Sheikh Ahmed al-Sulaiti:
“The decision to ban the sale, purchase, and production of alcoholic beverages carries a fine of 5 million dinars [about US$4,345] imposed on the offenders, and if they are not able to pay this fine, they will face a prison term of up to 6 months.”

“We have the right to take such measures of deterrence, because the phenomenon of selling alcohol is spreading quickly, even to the point of being sold on the sidewalks,” al-Sulaiti said.

The Basra provincial council made a similar decision last year, but never implemented it due to objections from various parties and civic organizations. However, this decision, according to al-Sulaiti, is "a result of the recent spread of this phenomenon on a large scale never before seen in Basra."
-- Alex Mayer