Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Tribal group plans mobilization against federalism

Something called the Central Council for Iraqi and Arab Tribes, headed by Ali al-Faris al-Dulaimi, and a related group called the Republican Gathering, described their current activities as the start of a nation-wide mobilization for national unity, and reported on the first two general meetings, the first for tribes in the area around Baghdad, and the second in Karbala, with participation of a lot of tribes in the Middle Euphrates district, stressing that in both cases the consensus was opposition to any form of federalism. The statement said those promoting federalism as a cover for their narrow interests will earn nothing but disappointment and loss, because the tribes of Iraq have prepared themselves for the sacrifices that will be necessary in the struggle for the preservation of the unity of Iraq, its honor, and its sovereignty.

Azzaman reports the content of these statements on an inside page of the newspaper today (Tuesday October 31, on page 4) without comment or elaboration, under the heading: "Tribal council: Federalism aims at the breakup of Iraq". It appears the groups referred to could be new, or at least the reporter was unable to immediately assess their importance.

Monday, October 30, 2006

One US-coup candidate taken to Amman for safekeeping

As noted a couple of days ago, Azzaman reported on the weekend details of what Washington had in mind as a possible military government for Iraq, and one of the points was there could be nine to eleven military people involved. Today's Al-Quds al-Arabi (Tuesday October 31) tells what happened to one of these persons already, Muhammad Abdullah al-Shahwani, described as head of Iraqi intelligence. Citing sources close to Shahwani in London, the paper says US forces had to suddenly airlift him to Amman after learning of a plan to assassinate him, along with members of his group. The Americans told Shahwani to stay in Amman until further notice, and someone else has been appointed to replace him as head of Iraqi intelligence. This report says the supposed assassination plot was involved "armed militia tasked with the protection and escort of senior officials in the government and ministers, and the protection of their houses in the Green Zone".

The journalist adds: Shahwani's name has been one of those repeatedly mentioned as one of the "American candidates for an role in the military government "which Washington is rumored to be planning to set up in Baghdad at the end of this year." The latter point about rumored timing is new. The Azzaman item cited above implied this might be a November 7 thing.

Government-Baath meetings, and US-resistance "communications" continuing

Al-Hayat says there were meetings for two days in a row, Sunday and Monday, in Amman, between a delegation from the Iraqi government and "Iraqi personalities including former Baathist leaders and officers in the disbanded [pre-2003] army." And there were also "communications" [apparently not necessarily meetings] between "factions of the resistance and the Americans". The journalist's source for this was the Iraqi ambassador to Jordan, Saad al-Hayani. The main demands of the "opposition personalities" and the "Iraqi resistance" were the following: A timetable for withdrawal of "the occupation forces" and a return of the disbanded [pre-2003] army, dissolution of the militias, revocation of the law on dissolution of the Baath party, and return to work of those fired under that process, and a cleaning-out (literally "whitewashing") of the Iraqi prisons.

Al-Quds al-Arabi, for its part, reports the Iraqi-government meeting with "Iraqi [political] personalities of various orientations" in a somewhat less dramatic way. Al-Quds says the main purpose of the meeting was simply to invite Iraqi political people living abroad to participate in the Baghdad National Reconciliation meeting now scheduled for sometime in the first half of November, and give voice to their opinions in complete freedom. In this version, the former Baathists views on repealing the de-Baathification legislation and so on were brought up, but this wasn't the only topic. Several participants said they all agreed there aren't serious differences between Iraqis, and one said they wonder who is behind the recent wave of killings. The Al-Quds piece doesn't mention the US-resistance contacts.

The Baghdad meeting will be the next in the series of National Reconciliation meetings, this one planned for political parties and groups. They are expecting 200 people from within the country and around 70 to 80 Iraqis living abroad to come and attend too. The meeting has already been postponed a couple of times in the past few weeks, the first time following the disputed federalism vote on October 11. Earlier meetings in this series have not received good reviews. See for instance this earlier post on criticism of the last meeting.

Other related events were going on at the same time:

(1) US National Security Adviser Steven Hadley paid a surprise visit to the Green Zone, to confirm to Prime Minister Maliki some of the things that Bush said to him in their teleconference on the weekend. Hadley was accompanied by Ambassador Khalilzad, and one of the things agreed on was a joint council to coordinate US-Iraqi relations, including General George Casey and Zal for the US, and the ministers of defence and interior for the Iraqis.

(2) Foreign Minister Zebari said the Syrian Foreign Minister Muallam has agreed to visit Baghdad, probably next month, and Zibari called this a test of Syrian behavior. Zebari also said Iraq is requesting another year extension of the UN mandate for the multinational forces because their presence is necessary to keep the peace.

Al-Qaeda gaining on the national resistance: Mutlak

Saleh al-Mutlak, leader of the second-biggest Sunni coalition in Parliament, the National Dialogue Front, said on Sunday that US tactics are causing AlQaeda to make gains at the expense of the Iraqi national resistance. He said US prisons in Iraq are in effect schools for new AlQaeda recruits, turning moderate Iraqi civilians into radicals. And he said some existing members of the Iraqi national resistance are starting to lose confidence in the resistance, and are joining AlQaeda. Fundamentalists used to comprise no more than two to four percent of the resistance, Mutlak said, but "AlQaeda is growing day by day in Iraq. That is a fact." Moreover, he said, the recent passage of the law on procedures for creation of federal regions has "emboldened AlQaeda to establish governments in those areas they controlled", with the idea of establishing that "we have our region", in the form of the Islamic Emirate. Mutlak described this as a frightening development, adding that AlQaeda plans to use these as launching bases for further gains.

The remarks were reported in Arabic by Reuters on Sunday, and were picked up by Al-Hayat in its Monday edition. The interview took place in Amman, where there have been reported contacts between the US and the national resistance. Mutlak has been promoting these talks, and these remarks are by way of warning that delays will be to the benefit of AlQaeda, whose aims the national resistance does not support. The interview wasn't picked up by any of the mainstream US papers, because it doesn't fit. Readers of the US media only would have no way of knowing that there is an Iraqi national resistance, there being only a vague category of "Sunni insurgents", a phrase often used to blur the distinction between the domestic resistance on the one side, and AlQaeda on the other. (See the earlier post here called "Meet the resistance" and prior posts).

Here is what Fareed Zakaria has to say about the Sunnis in his latest fatwa:
The Sunnis, for their part, seem consumed by their own anger, radicalism and feuds. They remain so incensed with the United States for their loss of power that they have been, until recently, blind to the reality that if not for U.S. forces, they would be massacred. What political leadership the Sunnis have is weak and does not appear to have much leverage with the insurgents. There is no Sunni with whom to make a deal.
The Sunni political parties are not "consumed by their own ...radicalism". They are threatened by the radicalism of AlQaeda, and what Mutlak is saying is that it isn't crystal clear which side of that divide the US administration is really on.

(Mutlak isn't the only one who thinks US policies in Iraq are continuing to nourish AlQaeda. See the fine summary by AbuAardvark the Academic of a recent piece in Al-Quds al-Arabi for the overall picture). What is new here is that a moderate Sunni leader is complaining that this American-nourished AlQaeda popularity is eating into the domestic Sunni base, with which, supposedly, the US is interested in negotiating.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Bush to Maliki: Don't pay any attention to the Nov 7 coup stories

Azzaman reports this morning from Washington (Saturday October 28) that US officials say the option of an emergency Iraqi "salvation government" is on the table for discussions in the Bush administration, adding the following details: The anonymous Bush administration sources say Prime Minister Maliki "could" be himself head of the new government, "however" it could be composed of between nine and eleven individuals, who could be Iraqi military people who enjoy the confidence of the people. And "observers" say the idea of a salvation government is based on the idea of a suspension of Parliament, and a freezing of the constitution, for a period of at least two years, which would be followed by new elections under the supervision of the UN. Purposes of the hypothetical government would naturally include provision of basic services, security, and so on.

The Washington observers added there could be surprises in the Iraqi situation, not least because the US congressional elections are upon us. They said: "Anything could happen that might improve the situation by way of reflecting positively on the US administration of Iraq, which is under heavy criticism from the Democratic Party, which is looking forward to a better position in the coming Congress". And the writer adds that the Democratic criticism is especially strong given the spike in US casualties this month.

Maliki, for his part, dismisses this coup talk as election-time posturing, and says the Iraqi security situation would be much improved if it were not tied to the US-administration's apron strings. The journalist quotes Maliki: "If there is a single party responsible for the shaky security situation, it is the occupation".

The above is the top Azzaman story this morning, spread across the top of the front page.

LATER that day, Maliki phoned Bush just to talk, and they arranged a confidence-building teleconference session, after which press secretary Show said (according to Wapo.com):
Snow said that Bush assured Maliki of continuing U.S. support despite midterm election criticism of the war. "Both leaders understand the political pressures going on. But the president told him: Don't worry about politics in the United States because we are with you, and we are going to be with you," Snow said.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Meet the resistance

Al-Quds al-Arabi reported on Friday October 27 (here is the permanent PDF link) the creation of a 25-person group to represent the Iraqi resistance, representation to include: Baathists, the Iraqi Patriotic Alliance, the general leadership of the armed forces, Patriotic Socialists against the Occupation, the Muslim Scholars Association, the Ayatollah Ahmad al-Hasani al-Baghdadi, the Nationalist Nasserist Movement, the Islamic Army, the Rashideen Army, and the Brigades of the 1920 Revolution. This brief article also names ten individuals in the group, not all of them well-known.

Three of them, however, are leaders of the Iraqi Patriotic Alliance, which was known pre-2003 as the Iraqi National Alliance (no name-change in Arabic), and represented the mostly exile Iraqis who opposed the Saddam regime, and who were not connected either with the CIA-supported Iraqi National Congress, nor with the Iranian-supported SCIRI group. The Iraqi National Alliance met with Saddam in 2002 in an attempted reconciliation ahead of the US invasion, then devoted itself to armed resistance following the invasion.

Needless to say this group of independent resistance fighters has received no attention whatsoever in the Western press, where the the correct line has been rigorously enforced to the effect that the only armed opposition was composed of Saddamist dead-enders and radical Islamists.

The leader of the IPA, and a member of this 25-person group, is Abdul Jabar al-Kubbaysi, a civil engineer, a member of the Socialist Arab Baath party in his youth, then a Saddam opponent in exile, joining the armed resistance to the US occupation in 2003, arrested and held by the Americans from September 3 2004 to December 28 2005. Another member of the 25-member group is Ahmad Karim, ex-Iraqi Communist Party, then part of a breakaway "patriotic" branch of that party when the leadership of the Iraqi party supported the US-inspired economic sanctions. And a third IPA representative in this 25-member group is Awni al-Qalamji, currently the official spokesman for the IPA, and the person who wrote the Al-Quds al-Arabi piece summarized here a couple of days ago.

The best introduction to the world of the Iraqi National Alliance is this interview with al-Kubbaysi dating from December 2002 and translated into English. The whole thing is well worth a read, but I would like to highlight a couple of parts, first on their relationship to the Saddam regime:

Al-Kubaysi: Yes, we have a mass following inside Iraq. This is because we haven't come out of nowhere. But we don't have organized forces. Historically, the Arab nationalist current in Iraq had two wings: the Baath and the Arab Nationalists' Movement. We paralleled or more than paralleled the currently ruling Baath current. Our masses are in agreement with the regime in broad patriotic and
Arab nationalist terms, but not on the issue of freedoms, which are still a matter on which we differ. The ruling party rules by itself. The masses whom we met when we came here support the regime in its patriotic and Arab nationalist orientations, and are ready to fight in defense of Iraq against the embargo and any aggression. But they believe that the spread of political openness will strengthen the resiliance of the homeland to aggression and embargo. These masses welcomed our arrival. They considered it a step on the right path. Even if the regime wants to kill us we must
fight together with it against aggression. If we don't, we will lose the justification for our existence.
Then there are these remarks on the sectarian and/or racial nature of most of the other opposition groups at the time (this is 2002 and al-Kubbaysi is being interviewed in Iraq):

FAV: Are we to understand from all that that there is no Iraqi opposition abroad with any weight or credibility which could form an alternative to the regime?

Al-Kubaysi: No! [There isn't.]

FAV: Even those who are with the Iranians?

Al-Kubaysi: You said "Iraqi", not extensions of the Iranians. Be aware of the fact that the opposition abroad is split up along ethnic and confessional lines. If America brings them in, there will be massacres in Iraq, because they are oppositions that are narrowly restricted in terms of what religious and ethnic groups belong to them. Not only that, but there are six or seven Turkmen parties, for example. In addition there are three Assyrian organizations. These have never established Iraqi organizations; rather they have established a climate and a basis for the growth
of real domestic civil warfare. There will be blood-letting if they are fated one day to take power. From this we see the importance of the movements in our Iraqi National Alliance and of the rank-and-file of the Communist Party (whose leaders are now pursuing a destructive and unpatriotic course).

The real patriotic Iraqi oppositionists today are the ones who own nothing and are supported by no foreign state. If they came to Iraq, they would come together on the basis of their patriotic line in it. Even the Kurds...

A preemptive strike on the so-called "Biden plan"

Reidar Visser is a historian, known for his Shiite research, and the go-to person for understanding the internal ins and outs of the Shiite parties and movements in Iraq. He is also the person who has most closely followed the Iraqi federalism debate and the federalism legislation. While he doesn't often comment publicly on the US so-called "debates" on Iraqi issues, occasionally on key issues he does, and today he publishes, via JWN, a piece warning that the "Biden plan" for the partition of Iraq is "illusory and spurious", violates the Iraqi constitution, attempts to revive the post WW I imperialist approach, risks alienating vast numbers of Iraqis, alarms Iraq's neighbors, and feeds the theory that the US is in the region not to plant democracy, but to divide and conquer. In case you missed the point, the title of the piece is "There is no Biden Plan".

On specific points, he notes that the "plan" is unconstitutional because federal regions under the constitution would have to be created "from below" via local votes, and cannot in any way be imposed from above. And the "plan" would require a prior constitutional amendment respecting sharing of oil-revenue, but given the agreed-on legislative timetable this could only be based on the current 18-governate structure, so that too is illusory.

Readers of this blog don't need any help understanding the importance of one of Visser's other points, namely that the whole concept of federal regions and separation can exascerbate rather than ease inter-group tensions, so that imposing a concept like "the Biden plan" by fiat would be not pacifying but extremely inflammatory.

Given the superficial, illusory and perverse nature of the "Biden plan", Visser says he is alarmed by the prospect that this could end up not only mudding the waters in the US political debate on Iraq, but could actually dominate the debate and define its terms.

If you're not alarmed too, you haven't grasped the situation.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Bush's Shiite relationship on the rocks; Who will be his next partner?

There's broad agreement Bush is threatening to topple the government he himself created in Baghdad, but the unanswered question is: What will his next creation look like?

One immediate reaction to the recent threat is to welcome the boost this gives the opponents of the occupation generally. An editorial in the Egyptian opposition daily Al-Gomhuria says the latest developments are evidence not only of the failures on the military and security levels, but more importantly the failure of the effort in Baghdad to stigmatize all opponents of the occupation as terrorists. This is a great victory for the national resistance, the editorialist says it is also an incentive for the Iraqi population to continue "with all strength and defiance" on the road of resistance, taking care to prioritize national unity at the same time, "lest the occupation be forced out the door of nationalism, only to return by the window of factionalism."

But from the other side, the follow-up question has to be: Bush will replace Maliki with what? The Al-Quds al-Arabi editorial today is titled "The days of the Maliki government are numbered" and it says Bush is looking for new interlocutors on the Iraqi scene, now that the honeymoon with the Shiites is over. The editorialist says the "political and possibly military coup" that will oust Maliki is just a matter of "time and timing", adding this could come faster than most people in and outside of Iraq think, because the "situation is has gone beyond what is tolerable for the US, not to mention the Iraqis". But the editorialist doesn't say much about who the new local allies will be, except to note recent intermittent reports about US meetings with armed Sunni resistance groups, leaving that puzzle really unanswered.

A columnist in Al-Hayat today (link gone missing) poses an interesting and relevant question in a piece called "Why is the resistance in Iraq limited to the Sunni Triangle?" (by Hasham al-Dajani, Thursday October 26, on the opinion page). He notes that the traditional type of "national resistance" groups, focused on fighting the occupier, are pretty much limited to central Iraq, aka "the Sunni triangle". And he calls attention to what he says is the non-ideological nature of a lot of the Sunni resistance, which he links primarily with the disasterous decision to disband the Iraqi army at the same time that the general security situation was deteriorating, and families were struggling economically. What the Americans did was to create a whole class of people with their backs to the wall economically, and who possessed weapons, knew how to use them, had military training, and had ample reason to hate the occupation. While the Americans tarred all of these groups with the Baathist-Saddamist stigma, this writer cites one group that specifically denied it had any Saddam loyalties. If anything, the writer says, these groups had more Islamists than Saddamists.

(With respect to the Shiite south, this writer says immediately after the American invasion, there were signs of Shiite resistance, but this suddenly went silent, and the Shiites under Sistani's leadership devoted themselves to the democratic process. The writer speculates: This could be partly an Iranian strategy to ward off real American pressure on their nuclear program. Putting the matter the other way, he says the fact the US is keeping the Iran-sanctions issue alive could be to make Iran think twice before unleashing Shiite resistance in Iraq.)

In any event, his main point is that heart of the resistance is in Sunni territory, and a lot of it is non-ideological. It could be just coincidence, but this does look like an effort by a Saudi intellectual to highlight a potential answer to the question: Bush to replace Maliki with what? How about non-ideological resistance groups in the Sunni heartland?

This would answer another question, about the nature of the mistakes that have been intimated, both in Bush's own statements, and also in the subsequently-repudiated statements in Arabic on Al-Jazeera by State Department official Fernandez ("there has been stupidity and arrogance"). The specific reference, on the above hypothesis, would be to the Bremer decision to disband the Iraqi army, and the aim would be to ingratiate the Bush administration with some of these Sunni groups.

"Islamic Emirate" extending its presence "under the cover of political darkness"

Elaph.com is a Riyadh-London news agency. Probably a good description would be to say that if Asharq al-Awsat is pure Saudi regime, and al-Hayat is somewhat less so, and more news-oriented, then Elaph is even a further step away from the regime and in the news-oriented direction, with the added caution that it doesn't appear to believe in consistent or tight editorial control in any direction, which can be a good thing.

Today Elaph reports on events in Diyala province, which lies just to the northeast of Baghdad, between Baghdad and the Iranian border. Its capital is Baaquba. Elaph said there was a "spread of bloody fighting in the province between police [Iraqi Interior Ministry] and armed groups, which have imposed complete control over parts of the province following announcement [in those areas] of an Islamic Emirate. Police have asked from military reinforcements [from the Iraqi Defence Ministry], following death or injury to 14 of the police personnel, among them [a senior police person], along with death and arrest of dozens of the rebels".

The journalist says residents report that "administrative and economic life in the capital Baaquba has come to a halt, with intermittent armed confrontations within the city, and bloody fighting in surrounding areas, which has escalated since the armed groups announced an Islamic Emirate in some of those areas, together with shows of force in villages and towns [around Baaquba] starting three days ago".

"And they [the residents of Baaquba] noted there are contradictions in statements by the American authorities respecting the Iraqi situation, given the dark (or murky) cover over political and security scenes, to the extent that armed groups are now starting to exploit this [the dark or murky political cover] to extend their armed operations, and this led today to the deaths of five Americans [in Anbar province], which brought the death toll to..."

By "contradictions" the journalist is referring to what he calls Bush's "tough warning" to Maliki about American patience running out, as contrasted with the ongoing military cooperation.

Back on the local Diyala situation, the journalist quotes the provincial police chief who said there have been battles between police and AlQaeda around Muradiya and Bani Saad resulting in five police deaths and nine wounded, and five AlQaeda deaths and dozens of arrests. "And the police chief confirmed that the armed groups have been staging parades and distributing pamphlets urging support for the Islamic Emirate, but [the police chief] said they have been "driven out and finished off."

But the official spokesman for the Interior Ministry said these fights are continuing, and he confirmed that there is a request for help from Defence Ministry (Iraqi Army) help to reinforce the position of the police in the region.

For comparison, here is the entire CNN report on these events:

Iraqi security forces clashed with gunmen Thursday morning in two cities in Diyala province, a Diyala Joint Coordination Center official said.

One firefight erupted in Muradiya, just south of Baquba, and a second began in Kan Bani Saad. Baquba is about 35 miles north of Baghdad.

In Kan Bani Saad, at least four people were wounded in fighting and taken to a hospital in eastern Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, a hospital official said.

There were no immediate reports of casualties in Muradiya.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

On the connection between the federalism vote and the recent escalation in violence

Al-Hayat (Wednesday October 25) quotes two Iraqi political leaders with explanations of the connection between the October 11 federalism-procedures vote and the recent escalation in violence, and one dissenter who said there isn't any such connection.

Sadrist member of parliament Baha al-Araji said it is well known that the Sadrist position is no federalism as long as there is occupation. He noted his group has pressed for passage of resolutions in parliament calling for a fixed timetable for withdrawal, and also the revocation of the infamous Order # 17 of Paul Bremer, which granted immunity from prosecution for US troops, and which helps explain a lot of the recent US attacks on Sadrist offices.

Al-Araji added that under the current electoral system, people were elected to the national parliament merely because their names were put on "closed lists" by the various coalitions, referring to the "proportional representation" system in which people vote for a coalition and not directly for individuals. He said the Sadrists are waiting for the occupation to end, so that there can be new elections that would clearly indicate the will of the people, on questions as important as the political shape of the country.

To explain the situation in the South, he notes that the first step in any application for creation of a specific federal region would be a vote of the provincial council. Thus it is in the interest of proponents of federalism to discredit the Sadrists, in order to reduce their chances in provincial-government elections. And he said it is for this reason that stories circulate attributing the recent wave of riots, killings and chaos to the Sadrists.

Next the journalist quotes Omar Wajie, a member of parliament for the Islamic Party, part of the Accord Front (Sunni), who essentially agrees that there is an important connection between the federalism vote and the recent escalation in violence. Wajie said the Sadrists are under tremendous pressure in the South, because of their stance against federalism, and also because of other positions of theirs, and "we" (meaning the Accord Front) agree with a lot of what they say, including their call for a fixed timetable for withdrawal (of the US troops) and other points.

Wajie added that this political connection is also something that has to be understood as background for the recent escalation of violence in Baghdad too. His point is that the heated-up rivalry has spilled over into Baghdad, referring to what he calls the creation of "artificial crises, where certain political forces find it in their interests to strike out at this or that other group in order to advance their own interests."

The journalist concludes with a dissent from Fadhila party member Karim al-Yaaqubi, who said there isn't any real connection between the federalism vote and the spike in violence. He said the Sadrists have a very large presence in the South, and there isn't any possibility they could he hindered from getting appropriate representation in the provincial councils. He said what has been happening in the South is owing to internal causes in the Mahdi Army and the Sadrist party.

Al-Yaaqubi added that the next real issue in the South will be creation of a new electoral system (for the provincial councils), and here he agreed that the old system, with its "proportional representation" system for putting candidates on closed lists had a lot of drawbacks.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"Political failure means a better environment for the national resistance"

An Iraqi writer says the failure of the political process since the October 11 vote on federalism-procedures means the US will be putting more, not less, into its military campaign, but it also means new opportunities for unity in the ranks of the national resistance.

Awni Al-Qalmaji (spokesman for the Iraqi Patriotic Alliance, the coalition of resistance groups, see this post), writes a lengthy piece on the Al-Quds al-Arabi opinion page today called "The Baker Commission, the law on the creation of Regions, and the Bush fiasco". (Now there seems to be the right title, wrong article there. If they don't correct that, you can find the text in pdf format here: it is at the bottom on the page). He takes as his starting point the commonly-held idea that Bush was pushing hard for the October 11 passage of the law on the creation of regions as part of the US strategy for the weakening of Iraq under the umbrella of a parliamentary process. This is a point that isn't particularly controversial in Iraq, in spite of which, or because of which, the point isn't mentioned in the Western press. For instance, under the procedures outlined in the law, the Fadhila branch of the Shiite coalition could hope for an autonomous Basra, something they consider ultimately one of the Gulf states, while Hakim would consider it part of his nine-province Southern confederation. Turkmen groups are able to dream of an autonomous Kirkuk (where they would have some influence, more at least than in bigger units). There are the Sadrists to consider; and so on. It was a recipe for intensified civil strife, and that was the result. But it was also the end of the parliamentary political process.

Al-Qalmaji writes at length about the vote and the ill effects of the vote, including the alienation of the Sunni political parties, and the creating of an entirely new dynamic: It no longer matters whether you are in Parliament or not, what matters is your local power-base (in preparation for the various federalism procedures contemplated in the law). So rather than uniting the "legal" Parliamentary participants to confront the "illegal" resistance (thus promoting the parliamentary process), the result is the opposite. Local interests of the same origin, whether "legal" or "illegal", are united to confront competing interests. (An example would be ex-Baathist army officers joining with Sunni parliamentarians in the creation of ad hoc fighting units in Al-Anbar province). The political process has been blown apart. (This isn't a theory or an ingenious interpretation; it is an accepted fact. In spite of which, or no doubt because of which, it doesn't appear in the Western press.)

Al-Qalmaji stresses the point: Part of what Bush was trying to accomplish here was to keep the parliamentary process plausible and alive, and this he clearly failed.

But what is interesting and original in Al-Qalmaji's piece is his following argument. Having failed in control via the political process, America is going to concentrate its efforts on the military side. The main battleground will likely be Baghdad, with more troops assigned there (see the link below), and in addition to that, more US troops sent to Iraq, perhaps in the tens of thousands. Al-Qalami adds there is a possibility Arab states will be pressured to sent troops to stand shoulder to shoulder with the occupation forces. And he doesn't rule out the possible use of "limited weapons of mass destruction". "Because--and we should never forget this--the United States considers the struggle on Iraqi soil to be a fateful struggle, and a defeat there would mean a defeat for its empire globally".

"But will resort to the behavior of the wounded lion be enough"? Al-Qalmaji resorts to the "I will not discuss..." rhetorical device to remind readers of the success of popular resistance against the Americans in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia. Another thing he says he will not discuss is the particular difficulties the American forces find themselves in currently, such as frequent inability to safely go outside their fortified areas. What he does want to talk about is this: Popular support for the resistance has been the main reason for the Americans' military failure so far. And the recent events (the October 11 vote and the disintegration of the political process) can only intensify that factor. The other options have been closed off; the only hope for the future is with the resistance.

Moreover, where often in the past there have been shifting alliances and "hesitant and uncertain" behavior in the resistance, the conditions have now been created for a clear polarization between the resistance on the one side, and the occupation on the other, and this will be a great incentive for the eventual unification of all the resistance factions in a "national front, with a common political program and common leadership."

There are lengthy concluding discussions on the need to differentiate the national resistance front from "other armed groups" and avoid the stigma of "terrorist". Also on the need to keep the focus on national interests and avoid reverting back to notions of carving up the country.

In fact this is about a 1500 word essay, so I've left out a considerable amount. What makes this interesting isn't all the detail anyway. It is the idea that the failure of the political process presents new opportunities for the national resistance. It is perhaps worth noting in this connection that the US military (according to the NYT today) is now talking about increasing, not diminishing the level of its forces in Baghdad.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The view from Riyadh: It should be possible to fit the pieces together

It's Monday already, and time to check in with Maamoun Fandy, former senior fellow at the Baker Institute, confidant of Saudi King Abdullah, and currently weekly columnist with Asharq al Awsat. Today's column (Monday October 23) helps us understand how an influential Saudi see the current regional crises.

As always, the analysis starts from the threat of Iranian influence in the Arab world. In current circumstances, most of that influence and that threat is exercised through Syria, so the aim is to try and wean Syria away from Iran. That much has been said many times before, but here is where the discussion gets interesting.

First: The former Syrian regime of Assad the father also had a relationship with Iran, but in that case Syria was able to use Iran. In the current regime of Assad the son, the relationship is reversed, and Iran is using Syria as a tool. Next: On the question of what could entice the Syrian regime away from Iran, the answer is the return of the Golan Heights. To get the Golan Heights back, you need to negotiate with Israel, and that means getting Washington to pressure Israel to do that. So the question becomes: What would Washington want in exchange, and the answer is clear: Stability in Iraq. Summarizing the argument up to there, Fandy says the old formula was "land for peace", but Arab regimes have to understand that this has changed, and the formula is now "stability in Iraq for peace".

So what does "stability in Iraq" involve? The way Fandy sees it, this is primarily a matter of solving the Shiite question, and that from two standpoints, the religious and the political. With respect to religion, he says the aim should be to move the locus of ultimate Shiite authority from Qom to Najaf (he doesn't say how tht is supposed to be done). And politically he says this involves the Arab regimes recognizing a role for the Shiites in Iraq, but this would also involve "dealing with the Shiite issue" elsewhere in the Gulf region.

This reader would have liked Fandy to elaborate on these points about solving the Shiite issue, so that this wouldn't sound quite so glib, but instead me moves back to his macro anti-Iran argument. He asks: Even accomplishing this (he means weaning Syria away from Iran via all of this circuitous route), would the result be stability in the region? Only, he answers, if it was also possible to "neutralize" the Iranian influence on groups like Lebanese Hizbullah, Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and others. For this to happen, again, Syria is the key. And thus the solution of the main equation is this: Exchange of Golan Heights for neutralizing Iranian influence on these groups. (Depending however on the other equation: trading Iraq stability for US pressure on Israel). In other words, Syria would have to show itself capable of playing a role that would involve "swapping Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad for the Golan Heights".

Easier said than done! Fandy recognizes it would be an awful risk for Syria to make concessions based on something as uncertain as US pressure on Israel re the Golan. Arab regimes could help in the process, especially the rich ones, with what he calls "economic bribery". But there is an even more important possibility, and that is Arab regime intervention in the extremely complicated Syria-Lebanon question to assure Syria of a return to its rightful historical importance in Lebanese affairs, as the closest of the Arab regimes to Lebanon, and the best-situated to help fend off Lebanese civil war. So that Syria, having left Lebanon via the door of UN Resolution 1559, would be able to return via the window of Arab cooperation.

A side-benefit of this approach would be the possibility of Arab pressure on Washington to let the Syrian question revert from being an "international" one (referring to the current focus on the Hariri investigation) to being an Arab one, for resultion via the Arab League or any other Arab mechanism.

Putting the two "scenarios" side by side (meaning return of the Golan Heights, or return to Lebanon), Fandy says the first would be by far the preferable one, adding it might not be as difficult as it looks, when you consider that even some in Israel recognize that the Golan Heights don't have nearly the strategic importance that was ascribed to them in 1967, (partly a reflection of new longer-range rocket technology). The "return to Lebanon" scenario--and he stresses he doesn't mean a military return, or a return of the Syrian mukhabarat--has more drawbacks, not least that it would upset a lot of Lebanese.

Fandy concludes: Given the Arab aim of bringing Syria back into the Arab fold, and the parallel American aim of weaning Syria away from Iran, there are really only two main options for getting Syria to do this: Golan or Lebanon. "If we exclude, that is, the alternative of confrontation!"

Sunday, October 22, 2006

"America dictating the Iraqi partition scheme"

Al-Quds al-Arabi prints a selection of recent gems from the Iraqi press, as usual picking papers that mostly aren't themselves available on the web, leading off with an article in the weekly Al-Shahid al-Mustaqbal (independent, publishing since summer 2003, I believe), bearing the title: "Open Bidding for Import of new Rulers for the Democratic Iraq". Actually the bidding hasn't started yet, but this is the threat the journalist says Condoleeza Rice brought with her on her recent visit to the Green Zone.

By way of background, the journalist notes there have been many governments in Iraq in the last three years, the original Governing Council of Lords (Bremer and his group), then the two "provisional" governments, the first (Allawi) with a strong reputation for skimming and corruption, and the second (Jaafari) with an "international reputation for the disregard of human rights, violating the honor of Iraqi men and Iraqi women, with the identity and the nationality of [here Al-Quds inserts three dots]." Bush, faced with the need to boost his sagging approval ratings, and "raise the level of his terrorist occupation administration of Iraq", decided to send Rice to meet in the Green Zone with people called "the business coalition", apparently meaning the Malaki group, and told them that they had a probationary two-month period, after which if the performance wasn't satisfactory, there would a call for bids from the "rulers in the anterooms of the Bush administration", for creation and import of a government that would provide security and basic services. Criteria would include low-cost and low-maintenance. And it was made clear that the candidates would include persons from the same factions as those who came to Iraq with the advancing tanks, but they would be personally unknown, either to Iraqis or to Arabs in general.

Al-Quds doesn't give a date for the article, but clearly it was published before the NYT announcement--I beg your pardon, the "leak"--in its edition of Sunday October 22 to the effect the US is working out details of just such a threat. Nicer language though.

Another item in the Al-Quds selection for this week is an editorial in the newspaper of the Muslim Scholars Association, (Sunni), Al-Basa'ir, about the recent vote on the bill respecting procedures for federalism. The editorialist says this isn't just a case of feeling our way, of the free play of domestic politics. On the contrary this is "literally the application of the American wishes", for a division into sect- and race-based regions. It was already their policy in the Bremer era. And the extraordinary efforts that went into passage of the bill [in the famous disputed vote of October 11] appears to have been the result of specific instructions from Rice during her visit of Oct 7. The idea is to first partition Iraq, and then to partition the rest of the region, to produce what they are calling the "New" or the "Greater" Middle East.

Naturally acceptance of the idea of partition has a lot to do with the Iraqi negativity and pessimism respecting not only the security situation but the occupation-controlled political situation as well. But there is another factor the editorialist notes in closing, and it is from the American point of view. In their search for an exit strategy from the "quagmire" of Iraq, the idea of partition is something that meets the American need for "anything that could be called with American logic a victory in this preemptive war that America originally launched with the conviction it would be restoring national security".

Prediction: Democrats will roll over for a continuation of the federalism/partition strategy

It could come as a disappointment to Democratic activists working their hearts out for a Democratic breakthrough on Nov 7, but the coming debate on Iraq policy risks being a debate about nothing, no matter what the Democratic Party input. Having ridiculed the major Iraqi nationalist groups as "ex-Baathist dead-enders", "followers of fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr", not even sparing the mainstream Sunni political parties, to the point where they can't be treated seriously, the Bush administration has set the table for the almost-inevitable continuation of a federalism/partition policy. Not only are major players scrubbed from the media accounts, there isn't any chronology either.

Take Ramadi. In the US media, this is another case of armed groups fighting one another. While US forces would like to stop the fighting, they are unable to do so. Likewise in the South, with Sadr and the SCIRI forces doing the fighting and the UK trying to restore peace. There isn't any real chronology or structure to the events, because in the US government/media view there doesn't need to be. It is the same thing repeated over and over.

In the Arab press, on the other hand, there are nationalists, and there is a chronology, and some of its main points are the following:

Weekend of October 1: Rumors of a Sunni coup. US forces arrest a bodyguard of one of the main Sunni political leaders and accuse him of plotting with an AlQaeda person. Several Sunni political-party leaders accused of connections to "takfiiri" (extremist Sunni terror) groups. Government leader boasts of cooperation from Al-Anbar tribes in fighting AlQaeda in that province (pointedly not mentioning any participation by the Sunni parties). The honor of the Sunni political parties and their leaders is impugned.

October 11: The bill setting out procedures to set up regional-government units is pushed through parliament by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Kurds, with the cooperation of the US, in the face of a boycott by the nationalist groups, including the Arab Sunni parties and Shiite groups including the Sadrists and the Fadhila party. There are many alleged irregularities in the completely secret voting process. Not only the honor, but the political relevance of political Sunni groups is impugned. Sadrists too feel sidelined.

The Sadrists and other anti-SCIRI Shiite groups in the South prepare to fight for preservation of their spheres of influence on the ground, ahead of the menace of SCIRI-dominated federalism. Weapons prices in Basra skyrocket.

October 19: AlQaeda parades through Ramadi in Al-Anbar province, to mark the declaration of an Islamic Emirate of Iraq (to include all of the Arab Sunni provinces). Local tribal leaders say they have the cooperation of former Baathist army officers for a confrontation with AlQaeda, but needed supply of weapons and vehicles from the Iraqi government is in doubt. The government-Sunni connection has been put in question, pitting in ad-hoc fashion tribes, Baathists and others on the one side against AlQaeda on the other.

October 20: In the South, Amarah exlodes as the Sadrist Mahdi army moves to take back from SCIRI a traditional sphere of influence. The federalism vote has had the effect of re-igniting Sadrist-SCIRI violence.

(The above-mentioned events and their background is all covered to some degree in previous postings here, starting with "Significant political timing in Baghdad coup allegations" on October 2 and working forward to yesterday. Leaving out, obviously, the postings that don't relate to Iraq).

You could say Bush's Kurd-Sunni-Shiite tricycle has lost two of its wheels. The credibility of the Sunni political parties has been trashed, ending any pretence of inclusive central government involving the Sunni parties. Among other results, this set the stage for the AlQaeda confrontation with ad-hoc local alliances including Baathists in Anbar. And in the Shiite south, the Sadrists also saw their political influence reduced to zero, so that the question of spheres of influence in the South was also taken out of the political arena and back onto the streets.

The federalism scheme failed politically, driving the Sadrist and Sunni parties out of the political process. But that won't be part of the coming "Iraq-policy debate", because the underlying facts haven't been adequately reported, or else not reported at all. And that sets the stage for the easiest of conclusions: "The strategy wasn't bad, but there was poor execution. On with the federalism/partition project".

For nationalists and others in the region, US policy is synonymous with breaking up and cantonizing the region in an overall divide-and-conquer strategy. In this, the US government is planting the seeds of enormous resentment. It would be a shame if the Democrats didn't think about that, and instead roll over for the continuation of the federalism/partition project just out of sheer ignorance.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


(Please Note: At the end of this there is a link to an excellent essay on the meaning and background of the current SCIRI-Sadr situation. "Nonarab-Arab" agrees with me on the negative role of the US in this, he spells it out better than I do, and he offers useful historical background. He's interested in critique, so please offer him your views on it. --Badger)

Azzaman is the Iraqi newspaper that has been threatened with penalties and possible closure on account of its forthright coverage of the disputed federalism-procedures vote of October 11. (See earlier post "Azzaman stands tall").

The New York Times reported the federalism-procedures vote as non-problematic, and a victory for SCIRI leader Abdulaziz al-Hakim, with a big picture of him. (See the earlier post "Iraqi federalism vote: Behind the disputed numbers...") Hakim is the leading proponent of a big SCIRI-controlled nine-province federal unit in the south and center of Iraq. This is opposed by other powerful Shiite groups including the Sadrists and the Fadhila party. (And of course also by the Sunni nationalists).

One result of this disputed vote has been the exit of Sunni political leaders from the Baghdad political process, exemplified by the Al-Anbar Salvation Council (see previous post).

But another result of this disputed vote is a sudden rise in tensions in the South, as groups jockey for position ahead of actual implementation of the federalism procedures. Here is a paragraph from today's Azzaman account of the Amarah fighting:

Sources said Baghdad has been isolated from the South, with traffic stopped on the main road connecting the capital with the provinces of the South. And they said Basra has witnessed an unprecedented wave of weapons smuggling across the Iranian border. They said weapons prices have multiplied to unprecedented levels. [And at the end of the piece, the journalist quotes specific examples by type of weapon]. And they said these developments come in the wake of passage of the law respecting regions [the federalism-procedures law], with the religious parties attempting to re-divide [their areas of influence within the South] ahead of application of [the eventually expected] implementation laws.

For the New York Times, not only was the October 11 federalism vote non-problematic, but the resulting escalation in violence in the South naturally has nothing to do with it either. What the NYT piece tells us this morning is this: "...[this exposed] deep fissures in the country's Shiite leadership...[including] a dynastic rivalry between families, dating back decades". Adding that "[Sadr's] role in the assault remained murky". Culminating with a quote from Rumsfeld: "It's their country, he said at a news conference, they're going to have to govern it. They're going to have to provide security for it, and they're going to have to do it sooner rather than later."

The trick here is to intimate, by leaving key things out, that the US has had no role in the political evolution of this: it is all a question of innate Iraqi violence. It is a commonplace and a cliche among Iraqi nationalists and others that the US aim is to split the country up. Instead of taking this up and reporting the key events in the political process, the official US press instead resorts to this filthy story about innate Iraqi violence.

Here's the link to the excellent essay I referred to above: It's at http://nonarab-arab.blogspot.com
He has lots of other very thoughtful posts. Take a look. I think he has a patient but clear style, a nice change from the brittle harshness of the Badger. What do you think?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Anbar Salvation Council versus AlQaeda: Prologue

Thanks to political failure in Baghdad, it appears (Al-Hayat, Friday October 19) Bush is getting ready to negotiate with the Islamic Army of Iraq and other resistance groups, "secretly" in Amman. The likely content of those talks is so far a complete mystery. But closer to home, in Ramadi, the new Iraq is getting ready to witness the first of the new type of armed confrontations, pitting AlQaeda against Sunni Iraqi nationalists, the latter including local tribal groups, existing armed resistance groups, and also Sunni political groups that have now become fed up with the government.

Al-Anbar province extends all the way from the western outskirts of Baghdad to the Syrian border. Ramadi is one of its main cities, close to Baghdad, and it is where AlQaeda held a parade or demonstration on Wednesday to underline startup of the Islamic Emirate which they claim will include all of the Sunni-Arab provinces of Baghdad. Arrayed against AlQaeda and promising to dislodge them from Ramadi is a new organization called the Al-Anbar Salvation Council (pending a better English version of the name), whose exact makeup is still a little unclear, but whose concept is to include all of the Al-Anbar tribes, along with officers in the former (Saddam era) army, and also current personnel in the Iraqi police and army.

Remarks made to Al-Hayat paint a mixed picture of the new Al-Anbar Salvation Front, as it tries to organize to take back Ramadi from AlQaeda. On the one hand, the person described as the leader, one Abu Risha, says the tribal people, former army officers, and others, are all available, and in fact already control the outskirts of Ramadi, but they are waiting for the necessary material and armaments support from the Iraqi government. But others say Abu Risha isn't the man to organize the tribes because too many of the urban leaders object to him. Moreover, some oppose the idea of accepting any support from either the Iraqi government or the US. Finally, relations with the existing armed resistance groups, including Islamic Army of Iraq and others, is completely unclear.

According to remarks to Al-Hayat published in the Saturday October 21 edition, the leader of the Salvation Council, or perhaps better described as the would-be leader, Abdul Satar Abu Risha, said all of the tribes and former army officers and current government police and army personnel are standing by waiting to hear from the office of Prime Minister Maliki the government's final answer to their request for assistance in the form of vehicles and arms. Abu Risha says the group as it now stands lacks the "material military capability" to sustain a military operation on the scale that taking back Ramadi would require. The group controls the area surrounding Ramada and all access points, he said, but lacks the wherewithal to go into the city proper.

As for relations with the existing armed national-resistance groups like Islamic Army of Iraq and the Brigades of the 1920 Revolution, Abu Risha said the tribes traditionally fight on their own, and would not be coordinated with other groups like these, but in the case of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, he said coordination should be possible in the future.

But Abu Risha's viewpoint isn't the only one. This Al-Hayat piece also cites remarks by Khalif Alyan, a leader in the Iraqi Accord Front, which is the biggest of the Sunni coalitions in parliament. Alyan's remarks are particularly interesting as an expression of the new Sunni rejection of the Maliki government. Alyan said the followers of his group would object to joining in the Anbar Salvation Council if any of the tribes were to accept Iraqi government support or US support. And he said he was skeptical of the ability to Abu Risha to actually bring the tribes together in the way that he claims to be able to do. Alyan added that the clan leaders in Ramadi and other cities in Anbar that he has spoken to object to the idea of any group "based on Abu Risha". And to drive the point home, he said if the Salvation Council ends up accepting Iraqi government or US government support, the result will be fitna or all-out civil war in Anbar.

On the question of overall strategy, Alyan said the creation of a balanced security force, and a political process "open to all resistance groups" both require the elimination of AlQaeda from the province, and the reason is that the AlQaeda aim of setting up an Emirate ultimately supports the US aim of breaking up the country. In other words AlQaeda and the US are in some sense partners in the project of breakup, while his group (Iraqi Accord Front as a potential partner or member of the Anbar Salvation Council) is nationalist and anti-breakup.

There are also remarks by Salvation Council member (apparently a tribal person) Hamid al-Hayish, who complained that one of the obstacles to moving on Ramadi right now, is that at least part of the sensitive area is supposed to be in the particular bailiwick of the Mayor of Ramadi, Ma'moun Rashid, and of the Islamic Party. The mayor seems to be a particularly unknown quantity. Abu Risha said the government wants the Salvation Council to coordinate with him, but the AlQaeda parade went right in front of his house, and apparently he isn't that keen on taking them on.

There is no mention in this lengthy piece of the fact that Ramadi is said to be "occupied" by US troops. It does not seem to be a consideration, at least for the people cited here.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Tale of two so-called "nations"

Yassir abu Hilala, writing today Thursday Oct 19 in the Jordanian newspaper Al-Ghad, says yesterday's AlQaeda parade in Ramadi didn't have any practical significance, being merely part of the ongoing "public relations war." He backs up to tell us a little of the history of the group that has functioned in Iraq, starting after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, initially as a more or less nameless group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then as "Unity and Jihad", until eventually Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Bin Laden, and the group became known as "AlQaeda in the land of the two rivers".

What follows is interesting. People talked about the fact that Zarqawi wasn't Iraqi, and neither were Bin Laden and his circle, and there were questions whether the leadership understood the ins and outs of the Iraqi situation. The result was the formation of the Mujahideen Shura (advisory) Council, nominally headed by an Iraqi, Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi by name, and supposedly open to Iraqis. But operations (including financing and "conceptual" issues) remained in the hands of AlQaeda, i.e., the foreigners. Here is where it might start to dawn on the astute reader what Hilala's point is: This problem of public-relations Iraqization is exactly the issue that the Americans have faced.

Resuming, when Zarqawi died there was a natural expectation that his successor as head of operations would be an Iraqi, but instead the successor was Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, who is Egyptian. So this issue of Iraqization continued, and the next move in that direction was the recent announcement about the Alliance of the Mutayyibin whose point was that AlQaeda was joining itself with tribal leaders. The writer explains that in pre-Islamic times, there was a ceremony of washing the hands in perfume (Tayib) before making important alliances, and there are aspects of the old stories that apply here, supposedly giving the name resonance and importance. (If I could follow the details I would offer them here, but I fear getting it wrong). (NOTE: A fellow blogger kindly posted an explanation with background of the "perfumed hands" reference here). In any event, the Mutayyibin Alliance was preparatory to this announcement about the Islamic Nation, supposedly, or in a public-relations sense, the culmination of the Iraqization of the movement. And naturally, the head of the Islamic Nation has a good Iraqi name: Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

The parade yesterday didn't mean much in practical terms, and certainly the geographic scope of this is very narrow. But then so is the Green Zone, Hilala notes. They each have their Green Zone and their public relations apparatus, the "nation" in the Green Zone and AlQaeda's "nation". What is certain, says Hilala, is that what we don't have in Iraq is a real nation.

Mind over matter

AlQaeda paraded through Ramadi on Tuesday, and Iraqis continued preparations to try and retake the region from AlQaeda. But US experts, in their various ways, are exploring alternative worlds where maybe this isn't really happening. Juan Cole assures us this morning that the Marines already occupy Ramadi, so those paraders had better watch out! (Technically he's right, apparently. See the comments. MarkfromIreland, who knows about these things, says the Marines do occupy the place. Whether they control it or not is another question). Other academics are toying with the idea the whole Islamic Nation announcement might be a psych-ops hoax. And the NYT doesn't mention the Ramadi situation in their main Iraq stories this morning.

Knight-Ridder published a piece in July indicating that US forces had pretty much abandoned the idea of controlling Ramadi. Earlier this week, Al-Hayat reported the formation of a "Council for the Salvation of Anbar", described by its leader as including Anbar tribal people, and also army officers from the Saddam era standing ready to "put down [AlQaeda-controlled] Anbar", once they got the go-ahead from the government, from which they were expecting assistance in this.

This morning, the Iraqi newspaper Al-Sabah reports on further plans along these lines. It says the US forces are "coordinating with the Anbar tribes to establish a better security situation". And it says the above-mentioned Council for the Salvation of Anbar was "continuing its efforts to free the province from the terrorists that are followers of AlQaeda." The Al-Sabah journalist adds that "companies from the private sector are undertaking the supply of goods for the rebuilding of the city of Qa'im".

More particulary, the Governor of Anbar, Ma'moun Rashid held a joint press conference with the head of US forces in the western region (mostly Anbar), in which he (the Governor) said that he and the Anbar tribal people were "studying security operations in Ramadi and other cities in the province". And the Governor added that he has already obtained good results, including agreement to set up a joint commitee half from the tribes and half from the provincial council, for discussion and studies of proposals for the rebuilding of Anbar, from several points of view: Security, the economy, and the fight against corruption.

For its part, the Salvation Council said one of its units attacked on Wednesday morning an AlQaeda base "in the Zanqura region south of Ramadi", killing three, taking three prisoner and seizing a vast quantity of weapons.

In Ramadi itself, according to Reuters, AlQaeda people paraded through the city, while mosque loudspeakers read out the Mujadideed Shura Council statement about establishment of an Islamic Nation in the Sunni provinces of Iraq. A leader told the Reuters reporter: "With God's help, we will establish the Shariah here, and we will fight the Americans."

For an explanation what the parade was supposed to mean in public-relations terms, see the following post: "Tale of two so-called nations".

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Local resistance groups, tribal leaders, and ex-Baath people uniting under the National Resistance banner

A wide range of groups is coming together to distance themselves from the AlQaeda declaration of a mini-state in the middle of Iraq, criticising not only the politics of the move, but also the terror strategy. The groups, says Al-Hayat (Tuesday October 17) include well-known Iraqi armed groups, Baath party people, other political groups, and tribal leaders.

Armed national resistance groups generally criticized the AlQaeda announcement as an "Islamist scheme", adding that the AQ terror tactics harm the national resistance movement. In particular the writer quotes Abdurrahman abu Khawla who said he represented 17 different groups with names like Islamic Army, Army of the Mujahideen and so on, active in various areas including Baghdad and Anbar, and one of his complaints against AlQaeda was the following: "They rely as part of their strategy on hidden explosive devices, but that only means that the occupation forces themselves, along with the intelligence services of neighboring countries, are able to carry out the same kinds of operations, and lay the responsibility on what they call the Baathists and the former Saddamists." He said the national resistance groups' door remains open to negotiations with the occupation forces, based on their withdrawal, release of all their prisoners, Iraqi and foreign, and recognition of the national resistance, because it is the legitimate representative of all Iraqis.

Particularly on the issue of Baath party involvement, the journalist says a meeting yesterday in Kirkuk including tribal leaders and others, was attended by Baath leaders as observers, and this was the first public appearance of any Baath party leader since the party was outlawed by Paul Bremer in 2003. This is part of a Baath resurgence, the writer says, and he notes in this connection the public statement issued by Saddam Hussein via his lawyer, calling on Iraqis to renounce killing each other, and concentrate on ending the foreign occupation. Saddam Hussein said he forgives those who betrayed the location of his sons, leading to their being killed by the Americans . An adviser to PM Maliki told the journalist that the question of involving the Baath party in the National Reconciliation process was in fact the major reason (in addition to "technical difficulties) for the recent postponement of the next scheduled meeting in that series, originally to have taken place October 21.

In connection with this, the journalist quotes Satar abu Risha, head of something called the Council for the Salvation of Anbar, "a group emanating from local tribal confederations." Abu Risha said he has completed the organization of "special batallions" including officers of the former Iraqi army, and they are standing ready to "put down [the AlQaeda-controlled] Anbar", once they receive the go-ahead from the government. More specifically, the group says it is ready to attack Ramadi and free it from AlQaeda, and is expecting help from the Interior Ministry in this. There is a lot going on these days, so the journalist doesn't stop to underline this point: Local groups including those formerly outlawed or shunned by the government, are organizing to fight against AlQaeda with the government's expected approval.

The journalist ends his account of this with the following one-sentence paragraph, one of those gems of British understatement: "British State Minister for Army Affairs yesterday urged his country to hold discussions respecting its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan". Good idea.

In case you're having trouble following the thread of this: What has happened is that the Iraqi nationalists in Parliament were brushed aside in the disputed vote last Wednesday, leaving a vacuum to be filled. The candidates for this are (1) AlQaeda with its proposal to represent the Sunni part of the country, and (2) local groups still convinced that the main obstacle to national unity is the foreign occupation, but before dealing with the US-led occupation, there is now the additional need to clean out the AlQaeda occupation of Anbar.

Azzaman stands tall

Reuters reported on Monday that the Iraqi parliament had asked the government of president Talabani to close down the newspaper Azzaman and the TV station Al-Sharqeya as punishment for their coverage of the federalism vote last Wednesday. Then a few hours later Reuters said the administrative office of Parliament issued a clarification that said the request wasn't specifically to close down those institutions, but merely to "call them to account", and the statement stressed Parliament didn't define what this "calling to account" should involve, leaving that up to Talabani. But Azzaman had already published its Tuesday edition, reporting this as a threat of closure (which a reading of the original announcement would certainly lead one to believe was the intent), and taking the opportunity to review its honorable history in Iraq, and to note that Reuters saw fit to testify both to Azzaman's success as one of the very few independent papers in the crowded Iraqi newspaper field, and also to note that the sister TV station had risen to a top position in the local TV field in the three short years of its existence. Azzaman also took the opportunity to repeat its point about the key role of the four Iraqi List (Allawi group) members in the disputed vote. The parliamentary announcement fulminated against Azzaman and Al-Sharqeya in very general terms as unprofessional, biased, and having posed a theat to the national security, without spelling out any actual errors of fact. It was a statement echoing the "liberal media bias=encouragement of our enemies" media strategy of the Rove White House.

In its Tuesday piece, Azzaman stressed the independent nature of its coverage, and in particular its independence from any political parties or groupings. The newspaper and the TV station both were deluged with messages of solidarity from Iraqis who recognized (as the paper put it) that these are independent media outlets that represent, not party views, but the point of view of Iraq and Iraqis generally. This may sound like a cliche, but in this case it isn't. In fact, the whole point of this struggle over the bill (according to Azzaman, and I agree), is that there is such a thing as legitimate Iraqi nationalism, with the aim of holding the country together and preserving the millenium-long tradition of different sects living side-by-side under the same political umbrella. (NOTE: It would have been better to put this in a less grand way. See the comments).

Iraqi nationalism has disappeared from the political vocabulary of the Western experts and the Western media, and I regret to say the latest example of this is Juan Cole's description of Azzaman and Al-Sharqeya as having a "mild secular, Arab nationalist tone". See what I mean? The newspaper spills its guts to keep alive a point of view that represents Iraq and all Iraqis, including Kurds who are not Arab, and any racially Persian Shiites who are also not Arab, with the idea of holding the country together, and our friendly expert tells us this newspaper is of an"Arab nationalist" tone. It was only a slip, but it illustrates how far our experts are from helping us understand what is happening.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Man in the know says the US might divvy the region between Israel and Iran

Mamoun Fandy had his weekly column in Asharq al-Awsat yesterday (Monday October 16). He's worth paying attention to, for one reason, because he is close to the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. For instance when the king wanted to impress the world with his concern for Lebanon and the Lebanese, August 26, in a spin-correction following his initial one-sided condemnation of Hizbullah, he chose as his interlocutor Mamoun Fandy, who came through with the right stuff. But Fandy also used to be on the US government payroll as a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace, an outfit funded by the US Congress, and after that he was a Senior Fellow at the James A Baker Institute. He's the quintessential missing link.

The earlier Fandy column that I summarized here was an analysis of the three factors threatening the Arab state: (1) US imposition of western-style democracy; (2) Iranian fomenting of internal dissention via the likes of Hizbullah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood; and finally (3) the whole idea of elevating Islam to an authoritative position that rightly belongs to the state as such (the "secular state" I said, but a commenter objected to that). I noted that his view of Iran reminded me of the McCarthyite era US attitude to communism: An Iranian under every bed.

Fandy said these three factors were linked together in the following way: US pressure for "democracy" merely gives the Islamists legitimacy, because they can scream against Western meddling, and people on the street say they are right to do so. And the Islamists, for their part, give cover to the Iranians, because people on the street think of Iranian (i.e. Islamic) influence as benign compared to that of Israel, for example. So it is a three-sided problem, but the nub of it is this issue of Iranian plotting to destroy the Arab state from within.

This week's column is interesting because Fandy appears to be making an effort to damp down the anti-Iran tones a little, making the assessment of the Iranian threat look more like a result of what he calls "cold analysis" rather than the knee-jerk impression that came through so strongly in the earlier piece. He says: Let's run through the various criteria and try and assess which is the most dangerous for us, Israel or Iran.

Inevitably, in the end, he takes us back full circle to the McCarthyite smearing of any opposition as "Iranian".

But there is a more important point tucked into the middle of this piece. Fandy says it is quite possible that the US, Israel and Iran could end up making a deal along the lines of the Sykes Picot line that carved up the region between France and England after WW I, in this case between Israel and Iran, with the US acting as overlord.

Here is a bit of a summary.

Fandy's first point in his Iran-Israel comparison is that they are both non-Arab states seeking influence in the Arab region. Second, they both occupy Arab lands. Israel occupies parts of Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon. Iran occupies three small islands in what it calls the Persian Gulf, actually belonging to the Emirates, so this is much smaller in area and population compared to what Israel occupies. (Never heard of that issue, did you? Neither did I).

Getting down to more serious issues, Fandy asks about the intentions of Iran and Israel. He says history shows both aim to be the sole agent of America, Iran in the limited area of the Gulf, but Israel in the whole of the Middle East. This idea of being the chosen American agent goes back at least to the era of the Shah in Iran, he says, and it is self-evident in the case of Israel. It follows, he says, that any struggle between Iran and Israel is going to be a struggle for the prize of being America's sole agent; only the geographic scope of the ambitions differs.

The dangerous prospect right now (for the Arab states), says Fandy, would be if the US Israel and Iran were to come to terms and agree that Iran would have influence over the Gulf, with the rest of the region put under Israeli hegemony. If we study the American scene carefully, says Fandy, we can see that precisely this kind of a "splitting of influence" is indeed possible. First, he says: "There are parties in New York and Washington that are convinced that the only route out of the Iraq crisis goes through Tehran." And secondly: "There are a number of oil majors which, pursuing their own interests, are applying pressure in the direction of arranging a deal between Washington and Tehran, the basis of which would be to permit Iranian gas access to American markets". Fandy adds: "I know very well that this [deal respecting gas] is something that has been discussed in circles close to the [Bush] administration, as a reasonable price in return for the concept of a division of influence."

Fandy inserts a lengthy digression on signs of "intellectual cover" for the idea of a US alliance with Iran, an alliance that no doubt seems strange to [Arab] readers when they first hear of it. He cites a couple of researchers at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York who have written extensively on Iran and are (Fandy notes in his irritating way) both of Iranian extraction, and only one of them Muslim. Fandy's main point here is that some think the number one enemy of the West is Sunni Wahabism, and in this Iran is a potentially important ally. This would be a major justifying piece in any US policy of divvying up the region between Israel and Iran. (The researchers he cites are Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh, but it would be risky to say what Fandy is attributing to whom and whether it is fair or not. His point is that this is an influential hatchery of policy ideas, and he sees the outlines forming for what he calls "intellectual cover" for the idea of a deal that would include Iran. Clearly it is not something that pleases him).

In any event, he says, the point is that this idea of "dividing the Arab body" between Iran and Israel is a serious possibility, a kind of modern Sykes-Picot agreement, only this time an undisclosed agreement.

This then, Fandy says, is the framework within which the Israel-Iran competition is taking place. (Meaning it is for a greater or lesser portion in an eventual deal). Still, he says, we should understand the tools at the disposal of the two sides in order to be able to participate in the struggle and not just be mere bystanders. The main point here is that while Israel is militarily more powerful, Iran is more powerful in its ability to infiltrate and cause social upheavals, the spectre of a lacerating sectarian war always lurking behind any discussion of Iranian influence.

Fandy has some choice remarks about media too, where he says Iran is the more influential. It has Manar (the Hizbullah TV channel in Lebanon) and a channel some call "Manar 2" referring to Al-Jazeera. And in newspapers, "it has [ostensibly Arab] dailies" that circulate in the capitals of the Mideast and Europe, but "we don't mention them by name", which he says is perhaps another sign of the Iranian influence.

And so we are back full circle to the McCarthyite smearing of any opposition as "Iranian".

Fandy concludes: And so in these respects (infiltration and media) clearly the Iranian threat is the more serious of the two.

My view: US opposition to Iraqi nationalism bears its grotesque fruit

The dismemberment of Iraq is well-advanced, and the nationalists are in disarray. How has this happened? Here's the chronology in a nutshell:

The Kurds have their traditional claim to the north, with potential for elbowing the Arabs out of oil-rich Kirkuk. That was what the academics call a "given". Then SCIRI in the person of Abdulaziz al-Hakim staked its claim to the south, winning a bitterly disputed vote in parliament on Wednesday, and effectively pushing aside other Shiite groups including the Sadrists and the Fadhila, which have their own power bases in the south and don't like the idea of a SCIRI empire in the whole southern region, and pushing aside also the Sunni parties and other nationalists focused on the need for a strong central government as the obvious priority. That was really the key event. And now, in what you could call the logical outcome, four days after the federalism vote, AlQaeda stakes its claim to the center, from Anbar in the west to the Iranian border in the east, and from the southern outskirts of Baghdad up to Kirkuk in the north.

The dream of the nationalists for unity around the re-establishment of a strong central government has increasingly become just that: a dream. That's because the Sadrists and Fadhila in the south now have the territorial ambitions of SCIRI to contend with; and the Sunni parties based in the center will have the impossible task of differentiating themselves from the Islamic Nation pretensions of AlQaeda. How did it happen?

Not long ago, it was still possible to imagine the nationalist aims of the Sadrists and those of the Sunni and secular parties coming together as the core of the new Iraq. That possibility has now been blown apart, and not just through violence, but also through politics. How exactly?

The simple answer is that the nationalists were effectively sidelined. If anyone ever has a chance to write the history of this period, they will undoubtedly point to a lot of things we currently have no inkling of, but that history will surely include at least the following three cornerstones (actually "missing links" as far as the Western media is concerned):

(1) US support for SCIRI. There was aggressive US support for the SCIRI candidate in the long-drawn-out dispute over appointment of a Prime Minister during the winter and spring of 2006.The question-mark that hung over this issue is still there: Why would the US support the candidate of the party generally recognized as closest to Iran? And the answer will turn out to be: It is because he supported federalism and opposed the nationalist trend of the Sadrists and others. (Eventually there was a compromise in the person of Nuri al-Maliki, who, as it is now clear to see, was just the person to stand aside and let the federalism campaign take its course under the guidance of SCIRI leader Hakim).

(2) Willful blindness in Washington. Lack of support for the nationalists in the US Congress. History will award at least a cameo appearance to Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, senior Democrat in the Senate Foreign Affairs committee, for his federalism proposal. You don't actually need to know anything about the proposal, except that it was wrapped in a thick blanket of generalities, and also this: When he was asked how he proposed to go about convincing the other side in the Iraqi debate (the nationalists) to switch to his proposal, his response was in effect to deny that there are any nationalists. Here's the exchange with a reporter at Biden's press conference:
The second question is, what’s your message to the people on the other side who are resisting that proposal? Why should they buy into your plan?

BIDEN: Well, I don’t think the militia—some of the militia, I don’t think the jihadis, and I don’t think the—a lot of the former Saddamists are going to buy into it under any circumstance. The question is how do you buy away their support? How do you undermine their ability to continue to have the kind of sway and impact they have? And that’s the answer to your second question.

Translation: "Nationalists = militia, jihadis and former Saddamists". Biden is actually a Democrat, but his approach seems to owe a lot to the Karl Rove wing of the Republican Party, where the procedure is this: Opponents of the president = validators of terrorism, pre-9/11 anachronists. (Here's the link to the Biden q&a. The above text is toward the bottom, the questioner is Jeff Morley of Wapo.com).

(3) Adamant US opposition to a withdrawal-timetable. Sadr and the Sunni parties continued to demand a firm timetable for US withdrawal from Iraq. For the Sunni parties, this was a condition for helping to bring the armed Sunni national-resistance groups into the political process. The US priority has been to not commit to a US withdrawal timetable, and this was a major reason why the National Reconciliation process has stalled, and why the process has become one of increasing splits and divisions, culminating in the events of the last week.

(4) The skulduggery of October. Washington favorite and former CIA asset Iyad Allawi heads a group called the Iraqi List, with 25 members in parliament, and Allawi's ostensible position was to oppose this federalism bill and join in the boycott. But the federalism forces were having a problem assembling a quorum, and inexplicably eight of Allawi's people showed up and voted for the bill, something Azzaman and al-Hayat both agreed "tipped the balance" in favor of the bill. Embarassed, Allawi's group has now promised an internal "investigation" to see why this happened. This is what they call "sloppy execution". Washington ally Allawi ended up being centered out.

Consistent US support for the dismemberment of Iraq seems counterintuitive given the concerns about Iran. On the other hand there is no evidence of any US support for the nationalists, and there are at least the above four indicators of US support for the SCIRI federalism project.

Until recently, the predominant political debate in Iraq has been between two priorities: (1) Reconstituting a strong central government, keeping a sense of national identity, fighting the foreign agenda of dismemberment, and (importantly) ensuring the prompt removal of the foreign occupation forces; and (2) legalizing, via federalism, the formation of spheres of influence, where separation would calm violence because it is a form of apartheit, prioritizing local and sectarian aims. The nationalists and the federalists. It was at least a debate that stayed within the bounds of common human decency; it was a rational debate.

Now, in the circumstances that have come about, the predominant debate is a different one. The federalist position is the same. But imperceptibly, the nationalist position has been drowned out, and the alternative to Kurdish and Shiite federalism is a new one. It is the AlQueda position: Fighting the Kurds with their Jewish support in the north, and the "rejectionists" with their Safavid support in the south. The US position has been that legitimate nationalism doesn't exist, and that those calling for a withdrawal timetable were the terrorists and their supporters. Now the US policy-makers have significant support from AlQaeda, which also agrees that legitimate nationalism doesn't exist.

The lesson is that if you succeed, as the Bush administration has succeeded in doing on so many fronts, in squeezing out and demonizing the rational argument on the other side, the result will eventually be that your own position loses any connection to common sense (the Bush administration has already gotten that far), and eventually you could find yourself in a symbiotic relationship with groups that are just as crazy and just as atavistic as you are (this is the situation that is dawning in Iraq).

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Dramatic fallout from the federalism vote

The jihadis declare a Sunni state from Baghdad to Kirkuk, in response to the federalism vote; the main Sunni political coalition goes to court to challenge the legality of the federalism vote; Allawi's group "investigates" why its members facilitated the federalism vote; National Reconciliation meeting postponed indefinitely; and the Council for National Security meeting in continuous session.

The Mujahideen Shura Council, representing AlQaeda in Iraq and affiliates, announced the creation of an "Islamic Nation of Iraq" to include Baghdad, Al Anbar, Diyala (west and east of Baghdad respectively), Salahaddin, Kirkuk, Ninawa (to the north), and parts of Babil and Wasit provinces to the south of Baghdad. The announcement urged all Sunni leaders in these areas (religious and tribal and so on) to pledge allegiance to one Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, (an AlQaeda regional commander in Baghdad). The announcement said this is being done "following the evolution of a Kurdish nation in the north, and the decision on a federalism for the Rejectionists [Shiites] in the Center and the South, with the help of the Jews in the north, and the Safavids in the south". The announcement appeared on the right website to be considered authentic, and the newspaper al-Hayat today (Monday October 16) treats it as authentic, but there apparently hasn't been any actual confirmation.

Al-Hayat notes this is one part of the fallout from the disputed parliamentary vote last Wednesday approving prodedures for setting up federal regions. (See the earlier post called "Behind the contradictory numbers" Oct 12). In other fallout from that event, the newspaper says the Iraqi Accord Front, the main Sunni group that opposed the bill and boycotted the session, has filed a lawsuit with the constitutional court challenging the legality of the bill, alleging a number of violations of law during the procedure. A sopkesman for the Accord said his group was surprised by the whole proceeding, but particularly by the behavior of one of its own members (Mashhadani), who also happens to be Parliamentary speaker (and apparently was instrumental in making sure there was either the reality or the appearance of a there was a quorum present, before he too left the chamber to join the boycott).

And in a similar vein, the Iraqi List, led by former CIA asset Iyad Allawi, said it is going to hold its own "investigation" to see what reasons caused eight of its members to unexpectedly attend the session and vote for the bill, when Allawi had clearly instructed the group to join the boycott. On the day following the vote, both the newspapers Azzaman and al-Hayat pointed the finger at these Iraqi List members as having tipped the balance in favor of passage.

Meanwhile, faced with an escalation in sectarian slaughter, the Political Council for National Security said it is in continuous session since Sunday and continuing for the coming days, in order to keep track of the situation. And the Ministry for National Dialogue said a meeting in the National Reconciliation series, this one supposed to bring together "political groups", scheduled for October 21, has been postponed until further notice for unspecified reasons. See the earlier post on Sept 19 for some notes on the earlier meetings in this series.

Saudi regimes backsliding ?

There are two indications Arab regimes are getting cold feet about the whole idea of punishing Hamas and Syria just because the US said they should.

I. Saudi cold feet ?

Saudi media report with implied approval the views of an Egyptian ally of Hamas.

A hard-line news-site based in Riyadh give a respectful hearing to the views of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Akef (quoting an interview with him in the Saudi newspaper al-Riyadh). The news-site notes Akef said the scheme to remove the legitimate Hamas government is no longer just a US-Zionist scheme, but has become an "international" one, led by the US. Akef says the Palestinian crisis is part of a "comprehensive US strategy to close down the Arab League and foment sectarianism and divisions in the region generally, and in particular the fomenting of civil war in Palestine". (The reference to shutting down the Arab League probably refers to the fact that Syria, an Arab League member, was excluded from the recent Cairo meeting of GCC plus Jordan plus Egypt foreign ministers). Akef said although the immediate threat is in Palestine, people should realize this has region-wide implications, (it is part of an "attack on the ummah as a whole") because of the overall US plan for fomenting sectarianism and divisions everywhere in the region. The summary in al-Riyadh quotes Akef as summarizing motives for the US-Israel led attack on Hamas as follows: It is because Hamas has failed to "throw itself into the embrace of the American policy, and doesn't act in accordance with the Washington agenda".

As for the Hamas strategy itself, Akef described it as based on the unity of the ummah, and protecting its collective powers from the depredations of the Americans, in conjunction with the fostering of a culture of resistance as the basic way of dealing with the Zionist threat. This probably refers to Hamas hard line on recognition of Israel, because of the idea that caving in would shatter the unity of the resistance.

It was only about a week ago that Mamoun Fandy, a writer close to the Saudi king, wrote in Asharq al Awsat (see the earlier post "Echoes of the Cold War..." on Oct 8) that both the Egyptian MB and the Palestinian Hamas are creatures of Iran, and tools for the destruction from within of the Arab state. It looked to me like the inauguration of a joint Saudi-American project to demonize those standing up to the US as Creatures of the Evil Axis (Persian section). But here we have a mainstream Saudi newspaper, Al-Riyadh, and even a hard-line website like Islammemo linked to above, quoting with implied approval the quite opposite views of the MB leader.

One possible explanation is that while there is no longer any real diversity of opinion in the Western press (where no news organization is allowed to express support for either Hamas or the MB, not to mention Hizbullah), perhaps the liberal diversity-of-views tradition lives on in Saudi Arabia.

II. Egyptian cold feet ?

And Egypt deviates from the isolate-Syria line.

The pan-Arab London-based daily Al-Hayat printed a lengthy piece about a quick unnanounced visit to Damascus of the Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, said to have been in the context of Egyptian efforts to improve their relationship with Syria, bring the Assad administration back into the process of negotiating for a joint Israel-Palestian release of prisoners, and generally back into hoped-for discussions about a comprehensive settlement.

Citing unnamed sources, the journalist says Arab states represented at the Cairo meeting with Rice (where Syria was deliberately excluded) are now trying to smooth ruffled feathers. The Egyptians say Mubarak actually advised at that meeting against pressure on Syria and urged dialogue instead. Others said it was frankly a mistake to exclude Syria. And some pointed out you can't have a comprehensive regional peace agreement without Syria. If this friendship drive succeeds, the next step could be an Egypt-Syria summit, the journalist suggests.