Monday, January 31, 2005

Customer service in DC

So, today I finally decided that I want to open a bank account in DC and go to Citi Bank near my work & their customer service SUCKED! Since my fellowship doesn’t provide a direct deposit, the bank would charge me $7/month for my checking account & not allow me to have a student account since I was not technically a student, so I simply walked out. My next stop was Bank of America & they have tons of ATMs around the city & country & the manager was great – not only did he allow me to have a student checking account so it would be free for 6 months, he was so helpful – I totally signed up & Citi Bank just lost a good business. I was very tempted to send a nasty e-mail to the guy I spoke to but then decided against it. I guess since I come from Minnesota, I’m really used to the friendly customer service so typical of Midwesterners & banking was so much for convenient – free checking account was never an issue! I have also been warned that restaurants, doctors, retail stores & everything else in DC suck big time at customer service too – ah well…I’ll just make sure I don’t spend my Christmas holidays in the city!

Before I provide any analysis on the Iraqi elections, I wanted to point out that Israeli forces have killed many young children recently. The latest is a10/11 yr old girl who was killed while she was at school. From a UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees press release: “Noran Iyad Deeb, a pupil at the Rafah Elementary Co-Ed “B” School run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), was shot and killed today while lining up in the school yard for afternoon assembly. She was ten years old. A second girl, Aysha Isam El-Khatib was injured in the hand by a second bullet fired at the same time. At the time of the incident, firing had been heard from the direction of the Israeli-controlled border area. The school’s teaching staff were attempting to clear the children from the school yard when Noran was hit. The bullet hit her in the face. This is the fifth incident in the last two years in which children have been killed or seriously injured inside UNRWA school premises in the Gaza Strip. Two girls were killed in separate incidents in Rafah and Khan Younis last year and a little girl was permanently blinded in Khan Younis in March 2003.

I personally like the analysis on Iraqi elections from
Informed Comment the best because he provides sources from various Western & Arabic sources for his analysis. Although I don’t deny that it was a historic moment, we need to keep in mind that Iraq is under US occupation, security is terrible, and Iraqis live a miserable life: “Anthony Shadid on Sunday in WaPo captured the edgy reality of life on the ground in Iraq in the build-up to the elections, and the anxieties of the Sunni Arabs before the advance of the Shiite political tsunami. The death toll in Sunday's guerrilla attacks rose to 44, with about 100 wounded. One attack late in the day in Mosul wounded 7 US troops. It is unclear whether the NYT estimate includes the 10-15 British soldiers lost in an air crash. The Iraqi election commission backed off its initial estimate of 72% turnout rather quickly. It then suggested that 8 million voted, or 60%. I don't think they really know, and would be careful of using these figures until they can be confirmed as the vote is counted. I saw them on Arab satellite tv estimating the turnout in Irbil in the Kurdish north at 60 percent. The turnout in Irbil should have been very high, since it is Kurdish and security is good. If that figure is true and holds, it would be an argument against the overall voting rate being 60 percent. Muhammad Bazzi at Newsday discusses Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's role in the recent elections and his likely role in crafting the new constitution. He writes:

'Al-Sistani is especially keen to have a role in shaping the new constitution, which is supposed to be drafted by mid-August and put to a national referendum by Oct. 15. He is concerned about two issues: the role of Islam in Iraqi society and the extent of the political autonomy that would be granted to Kurds in northern Iraq. The ayatollah wants Islam to be declared the country's official faith and Islamic law to infuse civil laws. He is also resistant to giving Kurds a veto power over the constitution, as they currently have under an administrative law put in place by the U.S. occupation. Part of the reason for al-Sistani's backing of the unified Shia slate is to assure him a key role in drafting the constitution. But that is likely to rekindle the debate over the role of clergy in politics. "Al-Sistani wants to have a strong hand in drafting the constitution," Shammari said. "This will renew questions about what role he wants to play in politics." '
Sistani congratulated the Iraqi people on coming out to vote on Sunday. He expressed regret that his Iranian nationality made it impossible for him to vote. (Prominent Shiite Iranians declined to take Iraqi citizenship during the past century because being a foreign national often gave them immunity from harsh treatment by the Iraqi state.) Three views of the voting in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, Sistani's adopted city: Sistani's adopted city, Najaf, witnessed a high turnout of voters, who cast their ballots (from all accounts) heavily in favor of the United Iraqi Alliance, the list cobbled together under Sistani's auspices. Dan Murphy of CSM reports on the mood in Najaf in more detail. Rory Carroll of the Guardian reports from Najaf that rubble is everywhere and some think Allawi will survive as Prime Minister. He quotes a Western diplomat: ' "Sistani has played it brilliantly . . . By reining in his radicals and going for elections, power is falling into the Shia lap." ' William Walls of the FT reports on the festive and defiant atmosphere of the far-south city of Basra (pop. 1.3 million). He expects the United Iraqi Alliance to do very well there, also.

Ashraf Khalil at the LA Times covers the questions that have been raised about the durability of the Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, that Sistani has blessed. It is true that it is a hodgepodge of parties, but it seems to me that there is a good chance it will stay together on the whole. Khalil writes (and at the end quotes me): ' Disunity among the Shiite partners, "is one of the threats facing the list," said Ibrahim Bahr Uloum, a former minister of oil and Alliance candidate whose Iraq of the Future ticket is competing with the Supreme Council and Dawa in the Najaf provincial elections."Locally, there is some room for competition," he said, "but at the same time on a national level we have to cooperate."Uloum predicted that "mutual respect" for the Shiite religious elite of whom Sistani is the most prominent member would help keep the factions in line.Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor and expert on Shiite politics, predicted that enlightened self-interest would serve as "a powerful incentive for [the alliance's] various members to dampen down resentments and rivalries and cooperate.""Controlling the Iraqi parliament is worth $17 billion a year in patronage," he said. "Pulling out of the ruling coalition and depriving yourself of any part of that would be a strange thing to do. Some immature groups might do it out of anger and annoyance, but they'd be very sorry." '

Sunni Arab turnout in the elections was light. The Sunnis in Samarra, a city of 200,000, only cast 1400 ballots. Ash-Sharq al-Awsat also reported that Tikrit's polling stations were deserted. In eastern Mosul, where Turkmen and Kurds predominate, there was some turnout, but in the Sunni Arab western part of the city, firefights raged. The Arabs of Kirkuk appear largely to have boycotted the vote, whereas the Kurds came out enthusiastically (-al-Zaman). Evan Osnos of the Chicago Tribune writes, ' In the Sunni-dominated cities of Latifiyah and Mahmoudiyah south of Baghdad, streets were largely free of violence, but voters said they were fearful of retaliation for voting. Polling centers were largely empty all day in many cities of the Sunni Triangle north and west of the capital, particularly Fallujah, Ramadi and Beiji, The Associated Press reported. In Baghdad's mainly Sunni Arab area of Adhamiyah, the neighborhood's four polling centers did not open, residents said. '

Dexter Filkins of the NYT wrote, ' In the town of Baji in northern Iraq, election officials did not show up. In Ramadi, where Iraqi officials set up a pair of polling places just outside the city, a total of just 300 ballots were cast, many of them by police officers and soldiers. ' The idea, mentioned by Condoleeza Rice on Sunday, that any significant number of Fallujans voted, is absurd and insulting. Most of the 250,000 Fallujans are still in exile, and the city is still occasionally the scene of fighting. There are reports of some voting in refugee camps outside the city. It is almost certainly motivated by a desire to have a legitimate, elected government that could effectively demand a US withdrawal. Although some observers seem to be optimistic about the Sunni Arab vote, from what I could find out Sunday night, the signs were not actually good. As for the neighbors, this Turkish author clearly fears both the religiosity of the Shiite party and the possible subnationalism of the Kurds. In contrast, Iran clearly expects to benefit from the likely Shiite victory in the elections.”

I also enjoyed this
NY Times editorial by Bon Herbert: “You'd have to be pretty hardhearted not to be moved by the courage of the millions of Iraqis who insisted on turning out to vote yesterday despite the very real threat that they would be walking into mayhem and violent death at the polls. At polling stations across the country there were women in veils holding the hands of children, and men on crutches, and people who had been maimed during the terrible years of Saddam, and old people. Among those lined up to vote in Baghdad was Samir Hassan, a 32-year-old man who lost a leg in the blast of a car bomb last year. He told a reporter, "I would have crawled here if I had to." In a war with very few feel-good moments, yesterday's election would qualify as one. But as with any positive development in Iraq, this one was riddled with caveats. For one thing, dozens of people were, in fact, killed in election day attacks. And shortly after the polls closed, a British military transport plane crashed northwest of Baghdad. So there was no respite from the carnage. And we should keep in mind that despite the feelings of pride and accomplishment experienced by so many of the voters, yesterday's election was hardly a textbook example of democracy in action. A real democracy requires an informed electorate. What we saw yesterday was an uncommonly brave electorate. But it was woefully uninformed. Much of the electorate was voting blind. Half or more of those who went to the polls believed they were voting for a president. They weren't. They were electing a transitional national assembly that will have as its primary task the drafting of a constitution. The Washington Post noted that because of the extreme violence that preceded the election "almost none of the 7,700 candidates for the National Assembly campaigned publicly or even announced their names."

Also check out this Christian Science Monitor article on world reaction: “President Bush declared Iraq's landmark elections "a resounding success" in a brief White House appearance hours after polls closed Sunday. "Today, the people of Iraq have spoken to the world, and the world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East," Mr. Bush said. He said the voters had rejected "the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists." …Praise for the bravery of Iraqi voters was universal, as was acknowledgment of the hardships ahead. The differences came in the arrangement and interpretation of the notes. Reactions to the election dominated editorial pages of newspapers in Europe, reports Deutsche Welle. "Should we celebrate these elections in Iraq?" asked the French daily Le Monde. "Yes, without a doubt, as there have never been free elections in this country," it replied. But, the paper wondered how the elections could possibly reflect the political realities of modern Iraqi society, given the fact that they took place under the pressure of the occupation and the threat of terrorism. Bush can be satisfied for at least three reasons, opines Italy's Il Messaggero. He "made progress against the threat of terrorism; proved to the world that democracy and freedom can also be created with weapons; but most of all, paved the way for America's exit strategy out of Iraq." …In England, the responses were mixed as well. The Guardian writes that "the most obvious message to draw from yesterday's elections in Iraq is that it will be a long time before it becomes clear who the real winners are." …The Times of London emphasized both the bravery of Iraqi voters and the higher-than-expected turnout. Everyone knew the price of voting would be an ink-blackened forefinger that would prevent them voting twice – but could also have invited an assassin's bullet. It was a price they paid. ... The great question to be answered by Iraq's first free election in half a century was not who won but how many people voted.The answer must be: enough…The Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper, majority-owned by the governing Social Democrats, writes that the elections were neither free, fair, nor democratic." They weren't free because they took place in a state of emergency and under the threat of violence. They weren't fair because the candidates hand-picked by the occupier almost had a TV monopoly. And they weren't democratic because the names of most candidates were kept secret right up to the last minute." …The Saudi Arabian English-language daily Arab News reports that reactions among academics and business executives in the kingdom are mixed. An editorial in the paper acknowledges flaws in the election, but asks the question: "Was it really better than no election at all?".. Writing in the Australian daily The Sydney Morning Herald, executive director of the Sydney Institute Gerard Henderson lauds the election as a victory for the "real resistance" in Iraq. On Sunday, the real resistance in Iraq revealed itself. Namely, the resistance of courageous Iraqi men and women to the prevailing terror of Saddam Hussein loyalists and the Al Qaeda-aligned terrorist forces led by the Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.”