Thursday, November 30, 2006

Al-Hayat confirms the "Sunni wish-list or else" threat

Al-Hayat today (Wednesday November 30) offers the following background to the Amman meetings.

First, it says its reporters in Washington were told by their Bush-administration sources that the patience of the Bush administration in Maliki is starting to wear out, and Bush is going to give Maliki "a final deadline" to improve the security situation in Iraq, and these sources mentioned the following points in particular: Take firm action against the militias, especially the Mahdi army; strengthen the "moderates" for example the Ayatollah Ali Sistani; establish and maintain constructive relations with Sunni groups. These points are very general.

But the Al-Hayat reporter then says sources in the Iraqi delgation to Amman added the following more specific points as part of the Bush demands: Security should be strengthened by including in the Iraqi law-enforcement regime "a large number of officers in of the former [Saddam era] army", and "exclusion of those leaders who are accused of supporting the militias, while at the same time issuing a general amnesty so that the armed groups will be able to participate in the political process, via early elections, and that is a proposal that has [already] been rejected by the Shiites."

There is quite a bit packed into that last sentence attributed to the Iraqi sources. They said: Bush is demanding inclusion of Saddam-era officers in the law-enforcement agencies; a full amnesty for the resistance groups; and early elections, the latter a point already rejected by the Shiites. In other words, it looks like a version of the Sunni-resistance wish-list (minus the commitment for a US withdrawal).

And the paper said its Washington sources added: Patience is wearing out, and this will be the "final deadline", after which Bush will have to consider "other alternatives."

The only major points that are included in the Azzaman version of the "Amman alternative" that aren't included in this Al-Hayat account, are those that would come after the "or else": namely new government of technocrats, rollback of the federalism law and constitutional amendment to secure central control over resources, and a new Security Council resolution to reorganize the occupation forces. Apart from those elements, the two accounts are essentially the same. Accept these demands, or else. As a commenter in the earlier post has pointed out, elements in the Azzaman account relating to the "or else" clause, including the UN part, would be completely unfeasable in the real world. Which is of somewhat limited relevance, when you think about it.

Finally, Al-Hayat, like the other major papers, quotes the remark attributed to Abdulaziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) in his meeting Tuesday evening with Jordanian King Abdullah, to the effect that if there is all-out civil war, "the biggest loser will be our brothers the Sunni population of Iraq". People were surprised. Juan Cole scolds Hakim and says he was supposed to be promoting good relations. But it was only surprising if you overlook the context.

Presumably Hakim was told about the Bush ultimatum including the "or else" clause, and his reponse was a very predictable one.

The big picture according to Al-Quds al-Arabi

Abdulbari Atwan cites five examples of a recent "sudden shift" in the attitude of the major Sunni-Arab regimes with respect to Iraq, as follows:

(1) Egypt hosted Harith al-Dhari in Cairo and permitted him the use of the press-club facilities for his press conference attacking the legality of the Maliki government, a government that up to recently had enjoyed Egypt's staunch support.

(2) Saudi national security adviser Obeid wrote in the Washington Post that Saudi Arabia would have three options if the Iraqi situation deteriorates, including (a) flooding the oil market so as to collapse prices and hurt Iran, (b) forming and financing new Sunni armed units in Iraq to fight the Shiite militia; and (c) most interestingly for Atwan, financing and arming the existing Sunni-resistance groups in Iraq. Atwan's main point is that while the Shiite leaders have enjoyed the hospitality of Riyadh in the recent period, the armed Sunni resistance movements have not. The Saudi regime has not supported the armed Sunni resistance in Iraq up to recently, so this is a very dramatic shift.

(3) There has been a recent upsurge in expressions of anxiety about conversions to Shiism in the Sunni world, including from the regimes of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Morocco and its neighbors.

(4-5) There is also the leak of the Hadley "Maliki incapable" memo, and the cancellation of the three-way meeting with Maliki Bush and King Abdullah of Jordan. The connection to a change in Sunni-regime attitudes isn't as clear with respect to these points.

But the Egyptian and Saudi examples do point to a 180-degree shift in the Arab-regime attitudes to the Maliki regime, from "pro" to "contra", and Atwan rhetorically asks for the explanation, which has to fall into one of two categories: Either it is a shift sponsored and supported by the US, or it represents an independent "late awakening" of the Arab regimes to their own self-interest. For Atwan, this part is a no-brainer. For one thing, if the Arab regimes are suddenly supporting Arab resistance movements, how come they aren't supporting the Hamas? Clearly the shift is US-inspired.

The rest of the argument is easy to follow: The US is well on its way to getting the Arab regimes involved in the internal Iraqi civil war, as a way of laying the groundwork and setting the table for their involvement in the coming war with Iran.

(Atwan doesn't mention the Azzaman reports about the "Hadley program" and the "Amman alternative". But if his analysis is correct, then something like the Sunni-coup scenario would be a logical next step. The Arab regimes would become involved up to their necks in the Iraq civil war, and unable to extricate themselves when the US attacks Iran).

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The real Hadley "proposal"

Wait a minute. Take a look at this post from Tuesday, with its summary of the Tuesday Azzaman piece, and alongside that the text of the leaked Hadley memo, printed and reported Wednesday by the New York Times.

Azzaman referred to a six-point set of options that it said Hadley evolved following his visit to Baghdad last month. The NYT version Hadley memo is also (on the face of it) a summary of Hadley's thoughts following that visit. And the Hadley memo NYT version includes three of the six points referred to in the Azzaman piece, to wit: Disbanding militia and bringing leaders involved in crimes to justice; a broader National Reconciliation program; and suspending De-Baathification. What the Hadley memo NYT version doesn't include is the following: any reference to rolling back or suspending the federalism legislation; to setting rules for oil-revenue distribution; or for employing former Baathists or compensating them for the last four years.

In other words, where Azzaman reported a six-point list including frankly pro-Sunni points, the Hadley memo NYT version refers to three points, and leaves out three. The three points that are left out of the Hadley memo NYT version are the points that take the package out of the realm of classic "reforms" and make it a clear "pro-Sunni" policy: Compensating ex-Baathists, and rolling back the federalism legislation, for example.

So: Either Azzaman made up the latter points, which is doubtful to the point being unthinkable, or else what we have seen so far is two versions of the Hadley policy, a soft version as outlined in the Hadley memo NYT version for English-speaking eyes, and a hard version summarized by Azzaman for the edification of the Sunni Arabs.

I mention this because actually there seem to be three versions. This morning (Thursday November 30), Azzaman prints on its front page what it calls the "alternative, Amman program", by which it means "alternative" to the six-point Hadley program it had outlined on Tuesday.

The "alternative, Amman program" is basically a program for a coup under another name. Here is the whole Azzaman piece:
Observers are asking about the alternatives to the Stephen Hadley policy, and high-level sources talked about an "Amman program" which they described as the ready substitute for the Hadley program. They said Bush is going to give Maliki a deadline which won't go beyond the end of the year to improve the situation in Iraq, in default of which he [Bush] will initiate an alternative program which consists of five points: (1) Initiation of military action by Iraqi special forces supported by the multinational forces to disarm the militias; (2) issuance of a new resolution by the Security Council reorganizing the multinational force in Iraq under the supervision of the international organization, with the US retaining the leading role, but including forces from Arab and Islamic countries, and also Asian and European ones, excluding however the six neighboring countries; and this would be done simultaneously with the creation of an Iraqi government composed of technocrats, without any type quota-measurements; (4) this Iraqi government would undertake the re-organization of the armed forces and guarantee their loyalty to the state only; (5) preparation of a new elections law in preparation for new elections for a parliament which would undertake revisions to the constitution and revision of the law respecting federal regions and guaranteeing central government control over natural resources including oil and minerals.
This appears at the bottom of the newspaper's front page this morning, the top half of which is devoted to the excitement of everyone in the Iraqi political world having descended on Amman for the appearance of Bush. The cancellation of the Bush-Maliki Wednesday-evening get-together was reported elsewhere to have been Maliki's answer to the leaked Hadley memo, NYT version. On that line of reasoning, publication of this "Amman program" looks like the riposte by the Sunni loyalists in the Bush administration. If that is a permissible expression.

ADDED NOTE: Two knowledgeable commenters point out that (1) the Azzaman reporters don't know Washington as well as they know Baghdad; and (2) the content of the "Amman alternative" includes completely impractical points. I agree on both counts.

The "Amman alternative" is not a responsible program for action such as you would find at any respectable white-collar institution. It seems to be a tool for gathering together the broadest possible Sunni support from across the spectrum (political groups, resistance groups, and so on) for getting behind the idea of replacing the Maliki government with a Sunni-oriented one, regardless of the "seriousness" or otherwise of the program that would follow.

The Azzaman people would be in a better position to know about schemes like this than the NYT or any of the North American expert groups would be.

Finally, another unspoken assumption I guess I am making is that the Bush priority has to be a Baghdad administration that is some way or other goes along with its "Sunni bulwark against the Shiite menace" ideology. If all the other routes are dead ends, then isn't the "Amman alternative" the logical place where this is all heading? Not "serious" or "responsible", to be sure.

Saudi press: The problem is Bush

Here's the first sentence from the lead editorial in the Saudi regime-oriented newspaper Al-Riyadh today:
President Bush and Pope Benedict XVI are visiting our region trying to undo their errors, for instance the former has learned that when you plunge politically and militarily into an abyss of tensions, then finding the way out is going to require something far different than occupation, and [far different than] looking at the Palestinian situation as an ordinary case of troublemakers and terrorists, as Israel insists, on the one side, and absolute force on the other, the latter driven by historic hatreds, and there is the collapse of the situation in Iraq, representing the Bush administration's worst reversal, so that this visit has its origins in domestic politics in America, as well as the politics of the region, which represents the most dangerous of the challenges facing Bush in the remainder of his presidency . . .
The dots are in the original. The spotlight is on Bush; on the facile use of military occupation; on the exploitation of ancestral hatreds and namecalling; on the question how he is now going to extricate himself from these problems of his own making. The tone is not one of panic over the fate of Iraqi Sunnis, as the Washington rumor-mill has been suggesting. The tone is that of quiet anger. Let's look at another Saudi paper, Al-Jazeera (no relation to the more famous satellite TV people operating out of Qatar). Here's the start of the Bush-Mideast summary on their international news page:
Iran agreed on Tuesday to talk to Washington about Iraq, and confirmed its readiness to assist in Iraq, but it conditioned this on the withdrawal of the American forces, which it accused of supporting Baathists and spreading divisions and chaos in the country. An Iranian official told Al-Jazeera that the Talabani delegation brought a proposal for Iranian talks with Washington, and he said Iran has agreed to assist the Americans in withdrawing from Iraq and restoring [normal]conditions in for Iraqis.
Bush finally has his say in the second half of the fifth paragraph, his points being that most of the current violence in Iraq is sectarian, and he will not order US troops to withdraw until the mission is completed, implicitly presenting these as clear non-sequiturs in the context of any discussion of regional cooperation. The implicit point here is the same as in the Al-Riyadh editorial: the underlying problem has a name, and the name is Bush.

Which in turn suggests that the Saudi intelligensia (can I use that word?) perhaps sees itself more in the role of a critical observer, than in the role of the half-crazed partisan which is so often assigned to them.

Arab reflections of the latest Bush "strategy"

Asharq al-Awsat says this morning that its Washington sources assured it that Bush plans to rely primarily on his "Arab friends" to help him in Iraq, rather than relying on direct talks with Syria and/or Iran, as recent reports had suggested. Specifically, Bush will be relying on Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt to "support [Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki] in facing down the Shiite religious figure Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army is behind a lot of the attacks in Iraq." The newspaper cites a high official in the Bush administration.

This suggests that Washington, by elevating Moqtada to Public Enemy # 1, is marketing to Riyadh a campaign focusing initially on what you could call the Shiite "near enemy", Moqtada (in contradistinction to the Shiite farther enemy, Iran).

With respect to Jordan, Al-Quds al-Arabi reports that Amman has rejected a request by Hamas leader and Palestinian Prime Minister Haniya to visit Jordan as part of a Mideast tour, providing further evidence (if any were needed) that Jordan is adopting the "near enemy" strategy too, Hamas being supported by Iran. It is worth recalling King Abdullah's remarks over a year ago about the dangers of a "Shiite crescent", remarks dismissed at the time as an exaggeration. Increasingly it seems he really meant it.

(However, there is something about Washington's approach to the Palestinian issue that seems to be bothering King Abdullah. In his speech yesterday for the opening of the new session of Parliament, he repeated Jordan's support for the Palestinians, but he also said Jordan would reject "any solution that is oppressive, or that is achieved at the expense of Jordan." The Al-Hayat report didn't explain what he was getting at exactly).

More important, it appears that since Cheney's Saturday visit to Riyadh and the resignation of Zelikow, Saudi Arabia, at least, is worried about US plans with respect to the farther enemy, Iran. The Saudi cabinet held its first meeting Monday November 27 following the Saturday Cheney visit, and they issued this statement (according to Al-Hayat on Tuesday):
[Cabinet] took up [the question of] the direct influence the United States exercies in the region, and the importance lf [seeing that] this influence is in keeping with the reality of the region, and is in conformity with the historic balances, and [is exercised] in support of [the region's] stability, and is in search of equitable methods for participating in the ending of [the region's] disputes.
Here we have the Saudi government post-Cheney-visit telling the United States it should "respect the reality" of the region, including its "historic balances", and that when it comes to solving regional disputes the United States ought to search for "equitable methods" for its participation in the problem-solving. A pretty clear indication that they heard something from Cheney that frightened them.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Americans bearing gifts

The Iraqi newspaper Azzaman prints a curtain-raiser on tomorrow's the Bush-Maliki meeting in Amman that makes it appear Bush will be "choosing" among a number of points on the Sunni-Iraq wish-list, and will be pressing Maliki to implement some of these on his own, or face serious consequences. The newspaper, which is nationalist in its editorial line, does not describe these points as particularly Sunni in nature, rather as reforms. But in the current circumstances, it is clear that Azzaman thinks this meeting will support a major pushback by Sunni opponents of the Maliki regime. Here is the opening sentence:
American president Bush will be selecting tomorrow in Amman the solution that observers are calling the final one from a basket of options that has been presented to him by [the Baker group] and by a policy that has been evolved by national security adviser Stephen Hadley since his [Hadley's] visit to Baghdad last month as a solution to the question of Iraq, and there are six options: [First], issuance of a general amnesty to all of the resistance groups, and an expansion of the National Reconciliation program; [second], shutting down the de-Baathification agency; [third], including former Baathists in government and paying them conpensation for the last four years; [fourth], disbanding the militias and turning over the leaders that have been involved in crimes to the courts for trial; [fifth], freezing the law relating to establishment of federal regions; and [sixth], set a policy for the fair distribution of oil [revenues] to the people of Iraq.
In the same vein, the writers says King Abdullah, who met with Harith al-Dhari (head of the Sunni-opposition Association of Muslim Scholars) on Monday, wants to bring al-Dhari "within the environment of the talks with Bush", and although he doesn't suggest exactly what al-Dhari might do, the suggesting does give a further unmistakable Sunni/resistance-oriented tone to this.

Their take on the US political dynamics points in the same direction. They cite a number of statements by Democrats who will be in key positions in the new Congress to the effect Bush should press Maliki harder to end the violence, with serious consequences to him if he fails to do so. The discussion suggests the consequences would involve withdrawal of support, sometimes suggesting ready-or-not troop-withdrawal, but sometimes left ambiguous.

And they say the US State Department has been pressing the Sunni regimes in the region to press al-Dhari to join in the process (adding however that he continues to adhere to his prior conditions).

There are many ways of reading the newspapers, but I think is the right reading today is the following: If the above-noted Azzaman piece represents a question-mark (because it suggests such an abrupt toughening of American policy), then the lead opinion-piece in Al-Quds al-Arabi suggests a logical reply.

Abdulbari Atwan writes this morning about a speech by Israeli prime minister Olmert which appeared to represent another abrupt turn in policy, this time a softening toward the Palestinians. (Here is the Haaretz take and here is the NYT take on that speech). In a nutshell, Atwan says the 1991 war was accompanied by a promise to the Palestinians of an international conference to solve their problems (the Madrid Conference), which however produced nothing for them; and the 2003 attack was preceded by the famous Bush promise of a sovereign contiguous state for the Palestinians by 2005. In other words, these promises are attempts to rally Arab support ahead of major wars. While the two prior cases (1991 and 2003) involved support from both the Sunni-Arab regimes and the Shiite-Iranian regime, this time the situation is a little different. The pattern is going to be Sunni support for an attack on Shiite Iran. It's hard to believe that a century after having acquiesced and even cooperated in the Ottoman-British dismemberment of Palestine and division of the rest of the region into British and French areas, the leaders of the Sunni Arab regimes still don't seem to understand how the game works. What they are now doing is acquiescing in an attack on Iran, which will result, via Iranian counter-attacks, in untold destruction in the region. What this means ultimately is that the dissolution of Iraq into Sunni-versus-Shiite civil war will be generalized to the whole region.

Amman, says Atwan, has become the holy Kaaba to which Arab leaders hoping to be part of this "Sunni crescent" are making their pilgrimages, and he mentions in particular Mahmoud Abbas and Harith al-Dhari. And naturally he mentions the Cheney visit with the Saudi king earlier this week.

The "logic" that is suggested in these two articles is a consistent one. It is the season of gifts to the Sunni Arabs, and this is not out of a sudden welling-up in the heart of the Americans of good-will and remorse for their past tribulations. For the Iraqis, it is a harbinger of a decisive move to Part II (back-the-Sunnis) of the American divide-and-conquer strategy, and for the region generally it is a harbinger of war and the spread of the Sunni-versus-Shiite wave of destruction to the whole region.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Another strategy based on unsubstantiated demonization ?

Let's listen to James Fearon, Theodore and Francis Geballe Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, PhD, University of California, Berkley.

He was Edward Wong's lead witness in the "Iraq in civil war" piece on Sunday.

On September 15, a couple of months ago, Fearon gave expert evidence on Iraq at the House Committee on International Relations. His recommendation: "Gradual redeployment" of US troops, rather than rapid withdrawal (or "staying the course" or "ramping up").

His evidence against rapid withdrawal was pretty straightforward, and it consists really of two essential points:

(1) "I am not a specialist on the politics of the Middle East..." (page 1)

(2) A rapid withdrawal would be less desirable than a "gradual redeployment" for the following reason: "[Rapid reduction in US troop levels] may spur Moqtada al-Sadr to order his Mahdi army to undertake systematic campaigns of murder and, in effect, ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods in Baghdad and other cities where they are strong. Obviously a murky subject, some recent reports suggest that such plans exist." And later in his report: "In addition to being logistically problematic, rapid US troop-withdrawal from Iraq would yield rapid escalation of militia violence and empowerment of the extremely brutal Sadrist faction on the Shiite side. Redeployment and repositioning of US troops therefore needs to be gradual..." (pages 6 and 12)

This is very unusual. A person with no particular expertise on Iraq is able to say with assurance that a rapid US withdrawal would be wrong primarily because of the alleged brutality and aggressiveness of Moqtada al-Sadr.

He cites "some recent reports" about Sadr's plans to lead a mass murder campaign. I think we can be confident he will post a comment here or somewhere else explaining where these "recent reports" came from. He is a scholar after all.

And we are talking about something that should sound familiar.

The decision to attack Iraq was supported by the "intelligence community" with its concoctions about Saddam's WMD and so on, much of it touted by the New York Times. What is going on now is development of the case for staying in Iraq ("gradual redeployment"), and sure enough, this too is appears to be based on the same type of murky "reports", this time targeting the Shiites. This time coming from the mouth of the political science community. Which is absolutely not the same thing as the intelligence community. It's completely different, right? That's why we can be confident Professor Fearon will clear this up for us.

Yesterday we saw Professor Fearon elevated by the New York Times to the status of expert on Iraq, but they didn't get around to his attack on Al-Sadr, perhaps for tactical reasons. Because (forgive me for saying it this way) when you consider what Wong did to that other leading resistance figure Harith al-Dhari, clearly it is the sleaze and the slime that is the giveaway.

Baghdad collapses in violence; US troops keep out of sight

Yesterday, Sunday November 26, was really the day. Please read what Baghdad bloggers at Healing Iraq report was going on around them, and what was on the message boards from other Baghdad neighborhoods. Al-Quds al-Arabi reports on mortar attacks on residential areas; on bodies piling up at the morgue with people unable to come for them on account of the curfew that continued until 6:00 am today (Monday); on expectations for further escalation once this is lifted. Reuters, for its part, quotes "experts" from all over to the effect the situation is completely out of control and the state has collapsed.

US troops kept mostly out of sight, says the Al-Quds al-Arabi report, or limited themselves to observing the events. (US army said three of its soldiers were killed in Baghdad, but gave no details).

There appear to be no further plans for any measures at the Green Zone political-coalitions level to try and stem the violence, al-Quds al-Arabi added.

Aswat al-Iraq, an independent news agency, says schools, universities and government offices opened on Monday morning, and attendance by students and government officials was "moderate". The agency said traffic was moving on the streets and there was a degree of congestion. There were still no newspapers available on the street, since the curfew had continued through Sunday evening. The online editions of Azzaman, Al-Mada and New Sabah weren't updated through Sunday.

Meanwhile, in America, the NYT goes dark on Baghdad, following its brilliant analytical pieces of the last few days. Washington Post leads its web edition this morning with this: "How the President can beat the Mid-term Blues".

By 8:30 PM Baghdad time on Monday, the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada had posted its Tuesday edition on its website, assuring readers that "life returned to normal yesterday Monday, after several days of curfew imposed on account of destructive attacks across many districts of the capital, not the least of them Sadr City, where there were 400 victims, including the martyred and the injured. Eyewitnesses said traffic in Baghdad (on Monday) was limited, and there were rumors among the citizens of a new curfew, which forced the government to issue an announcement denying [any new curfew] at noon yesterday".

Al-Mada added that President Talabani talked about recent meetings among political groups to work toward fending off any threat of fitna, and "to renew the commitment to work within the unified national government of Prime Minister Maliki".

The latter comment was in response to renewed calls for the Sunni parties to withdraw from the government. One such appeal was the subject of the lead editorial in the Monday edition of the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi.

The Al-Quds al-Arabi editorialist said the original decision by the Sunni parties to join in the political process had been "mistaken and catastrophic", because it had lent an appearance of legitimacy to the "sectarian government" of Maliki, who has monopolized decision-making and encouraged its militias in the direction of sectarian killings and the formation of death squads. The writer says while the Sunni parties criticized Zarqawi and others and were still condemned, nothing was ever done or said about the sectarian killings on the other side.

The Al-Quds editorialist added that primary responsibility for the situation rests with the occupying force, which on Sunday "took the position of bystander", but the Maliki government shares equally the responsibility. He said Iraq needs to be freed not only from the occupation, but from "those who came to government on the backs of the tanks, and set the bad example of killings and destruction..." (Worth noting that "those who came with the tanks", meaning with the American invasion in 2003, would include SCIRI and the Badr organization, but wouldn't include Moqtada al-Sadr).

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Badger's Week in Review

Before getting down to Badger's Week in Review, I have some important information that will be difficult for some readers to accept, but I think we should face up to it. There was actually a useful bit of Iraq news in the New York Times this morning, Badger's relentless attacks on that institution notwithstanding. James Glanz writes that the 2003 US strategy going in included alliances with Shiite militias to help topple the Sunni regime, and the strategy now is to look for Sunni allies, including among the Sunni tribes, to help topple the Shiite groups. He does not put it quite that simply, but some of the facts are there, and it is worth a read. Up to now this idea of sectarianism at the heart of US strategy has been a talking point of the resistance and the other groups that are barred access to Western media.

Of course, that isn't the point of the Glanz piece, and if you had not been made aware of the importance of this point to people in the region, you could easily have missed it.

Getting back to the Week in Review: At the beginning of the week, Bush's decision to ask for help from rogue-nation Syria was seen as an indication he had run out of palatable options (such as relying on his moderate friends in Riyadh, Cairo and Amman); and at the end of the week remarks in Al-Hayat and A-Quds al-Arabi indicated he was still trying to get a toehold for talks with the armed resistance groups. Mid-week (you probably missed it, under Miscellaneous Updates), there was a report to the effect that al-Anbar "tribal leader" Sattar abu Risha, or Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, decided that the uniform of its US-supported tribal-alliance fighters would be the uniform of the Saddam-regime Special Forces. And as James Glanz tells us today:
[T]he United States is stepping up efforts to identify militias associated with Iraqi tribes, political parties, geographic regions and even insurgent groups — to placate and co-opt those they can, and even play some off against each other....Such efforts have sometimes seemed promising. In September, 25 tribes in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province [referring to the abu Risha group, the ones who will be dressed in Saddam Special Forces uniforms] agreed to cooperate militarily in order to combat the local influence of Al Qaeda. But so far, that agreement seems to have had little influence on security; American and Iraqi troops continue to die at a disheartening rate in Anbar.
That's it for the Week in Review.

But while we're in a reflective mode, let's take a moment to look ahead and pay attention to the next big thing in the Western media coverage of Iraq: Social Science. Here's how it works, according to our friend Edward Wong, of Abu Risha fame. First: "American professors who specialize in the study of civil wars say that most of their number are in agreement that Iraq’s conflict is a civil war", and one of the very important scientific indicators of that is what he calls with clinical precision the "spiraling bloodshed". We are at the forefront of something very important here, because "Scholars say it is crucial that policy makers and news media organizations recognize the Iraq conflict as a civil war." Why? A Stanford professor provides the answer: "There is a scientific community that studies civil wars, and understands their dynamics and how they, in general, end. This research is valuable to our nation’s security."

I have news for everyone. This is pseudo-science in the interests of maintaining US military involvement in Iraq on alleged humanitarian grounds. Suppose the Chinese take over California and the Stanford professors take up arms, but so do the local bikers. The professors fight the bikers, and other groups join in too in a pattern of "spiraling bloodshed". The Chinese say: Our experts say California is in civil war, and we must prolong our military involvement there until they work this out, which our scientific research tells us could mean years.

To put it another way, when the neocons were in power, the Social Scientists were nowhere to be seen. They weren't needed. Now that the Democrats are going to require a rationale for continued military involvement, they feel their moment has come. And like Sattar abu Risha, when they need a spokesperson, they know where to look.

Or as Azmi Bishara put it in the piece summarized here on Friday: "As befits a great nation, the lies and deceptions are never without a theoretical pseudo-scientific basis to rely on..."

Saturday, November 25, 2006

US still trying for talks with the resistance

Al-Quds al-Arabi says Iraqi president Talabani had to postpone his trip to Tehran because the Baghdad airport was closed as a result of the Baghdad curfew, which is still continuing. He said if the airport is open on Sunday he will go then.

Al-Hayat says it doesn't know whether it was Damascus, Baghdad, or both, that rejected the idea of a three-country summit in Tehran, which had been proposed by Iran, but in any event it isn't going to happen.

As for the planned meeting between Prime Minister Maliki and Bush in Amman, Al-Hayat has the following comments: First, (presumably relying on its Washington sources) it says this is in the context of American efforts to expand the range of solution-talks to include those countries it has up to now accused of supporting the violence (Syria and Iran), without explaining how a meeting with Maliki and the King of Jordan is supposed to help with this.

Next, the Al-Hayat reporter says this:
Iraqi government sources talked about expected meetings in Amman between Maliki and representatives of armed groups, whom Akram al-Hakim, minister of national dialogue described as prepared to join in the political process.
However, it appears the choice of Amman for the Maliki-Bush meeting was unrelated to the moves by the [Iraqi] government people and Americans to set up meetings with leaders of armed groups and former Baathists. It was undoubtedly the facts on the ground and the security collapse, which hasn't spared the Green Zone, that led to the choice of Amman as a substitute location for the Maliki-Bush meeting, which will also include King Abdullah of Jordan.
The implication here is that the Americans and Maliki are continuing to try for meetings with armed resistance groups. The journalist's point is that it is just a coincidence that the expected meeting place for coming meetings of that type is also Amman.

Abdulbari Atwan, writing in Al-Quds al-Arabi this morning, also takes as a basic assumption that the Americans are trying to get talks of that nature going. Atwan writes:
The noble Iraqi resistance, which has brought about the failure of the American occupation project and discouraged its collaborators, should not enter into negotiations with the American representatives who are currently making efforts in this direction, except on the basis of complete withdrawal; or [into negotiations] with the government except on the basis of their recognition of their direct responsibility for what has happened to Iraq, preparatory to their being turned over to [a court of] justice as war criminals...

Al-Quds al-Arabi's US press summary

A reporter for Al-Quds al-Arabi summarizes two US-media stories that appeared on Thursday, relating to the military picture in Iraq, reading them as two signs of the approaching US withdrawal. The NY Times piece said the Iraqi resistance, "suspected of having ties to AlQaeda in Mesopotamia" has begun well-organized training operations near Baghdad that have resulted in their ability to mount sustained battles against US forces, as opposed to the traditional hit-and-run methods. The training camps appear to be well-supplied, and their graduates are fanning out to other regions around Baghdad, including Diyala province to the north. The Times quotes American commanders to the effect the battle-discipline they are seeing in these groups is something they haven't seen before.

The Al-Quds reporter continues: "With the development of these new methods by the Iraqi fighters, the American military has begun a return to the old methods that were used in Vietnam, flooding the Iraqi army with [American military] advisers, and attempting [to speed up] transfer of security operations to the local forces, the methods which ultimately led to their gradual withdrawal from Vietnam." The reporter then reports at length on the LA Times account of discussions in the US about military strategy. The gist of this is that in Vietnam Creighton Abrams is described as having overturned prior strategy in order to concentrate instead on Vietnamization of the war, and in the same way John Abizaid is described as promoting what this Al-Quds al-Arabi reporter describes as a "vietnamization of Iraq", which is his shorthand for the end-game strategy turning over direct military operations to the local forces.

And the Al-Quds reporter is careful to include the LA Times observations to the effect that some are still touting the new strategy as correct but "too little too late", the main flaw being insufficient patience on the part of the American people, an approach echoed in the recent Bush-Cheney statements to the effect victory is still possible.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Superficiality of the US debate suggests a worse catastrophe could be coming

Al-Hayat printed yesterday (Thursday November 23) an opinion piece whose argument goes like this:

Everyone recognizes that the Iraq policy was based on lies (AlQaeda, WMD and so on), but what is now under discussion is merely how to extricate the troops, and not the formation of a policy freed from those lies.

In fact there is another swindle going on, namely that lying and lawbreaking of the type that the Bush administration indulged in is nothing more than what you can see in the Dirty Harry pictures where the heroic detective breaks the law in order to catch the criminal. (In this case, in order to replace dictatorship with democracy).

Not only that. As befits a great nation with an intellectual infrastructure, the lies are anchored to a quasi-scientific set of arguments. (Terrorists are bred and thrive mainly because they live under dictatorial regimes, etcetera) . Naturally there isn't any point in refuting these assumptions and arguments, because their proponents don't let reality bother them. We know that AlQaeda came to Iraq with the occupation and achieved unprecedented expansion thereafter, but that doesn't matter.

And then suddenly and without prior warning or justification, the great nation then shifted to a polarizing, cold-war model, justifying its alliance with any regime, of any character whatsoever, based only on its contribution to the "war on terror". The enemy are "nazis and fascists", and the war against them is a world-wide affair. And this wasn't just some momentary reaction to a threat, which would naturally lack a certain degree of precision. Rather, his was a deliberately created framework usable to justify any number of things, just as you would expect in a world war against naziism and fascism.

So what started as a story of toppling a dictator in order to fight terror, became a story of the "war on terror" justifying alliances with dictators.

What makes this more than just another irritating piece of doubletalk is the fact that the US continues its efforts to topple regimes it doesn't like on the basis they lack democracy and foster corruption, even at the very time when occupied Iraq is making its mark in the world-corruption league-tables.

[The argument so far: US policy is based on no consistent foundation at all. It is a shifting structure of quasi-scientific gibberish, for instance on the "roots of terror in dictatorships"; mixed with world-war grade propaganda. These are the foundations of existing policy, if you can call them that. And now, with all the talk about new directions and new policies, and so on, what do you get].

If you need someone to propound new policies without any critique of the old, without conscience, and without even any reference to coherence in logic or in morality, you have just the man: Henry Kissinger. This pupil of Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss doesn't see the need for coherence of any kind when the aim is to crush the enemy.

Going through the LA Times interview linked to, you can pile up the inconsistencies and the instances of gibberish. But what is really the most extraordinary part of this, is the failure to ask him: If your world involves the choice between either stability or democracy, how is it possible you support a war that brought about neither democracy nor stability? Putting it another way, Kissinger says the US should have concentrated on fighting Islamic jihadi fundamentalists instead of holding elections, failing to recall the fact that there weren't Islamic jihadi fundamentalists in Iraq to fight until the US troops arrived. And when Kissinger says the US should have immediately installed a military strongman instead of promoting elections, [the mind boggles]. Then there are his thoughts on promoting federalism and the involvement of neighboring countries. Public opinion in Israel and the US thinks all the US needs to do is express its needs and Syria and Iran will comply. Which however is not the generally accepted view in those countries.

America, which has failed in Iraq, now demands proof of good intentions from Syria and Iran, which until very recently American planned to subject to the same fate as Iraq. Clearly what is in question is the good intentions of America, not Syria and Iran.

In times like these, you naturally get a proliferation of committees, for instance one in the Pentagon and another emanating from Congress. Some are for taking the hit and withdrawing. Some are for another military push and then a gradual withdrawal. Some are for confederalism with the assistance of neighboring countries. Some are for not involving the neighboring countries. And for each there are the pros and cons. In all of this,

There is no guarantee that the result will not be catastrophic just as was the result of the discussions preceeding the 2003 attack, and the dissolution of the [Iraqi] army, and the dissolution of the [Iraqi] state, and the opening up of the gates of hell for the destruction of the country.
And the American papers are swarming with discussions of this and interpretative efforts, given the escalation in the vehemence of the opposition and of the sectarian violence and that of the occupation troops.
In fact the only thing that is diminishing in all of this is common sense: The common sense to realize that 40% of Iraqis live in what are called mixed areas of Shiites and Sunni, and to realize that separation will mean massive slaughter and migrations.
And yet: Kissinger lives on, with his interviews and his advice to presidents.

The author of this opinion piece is Azmi Bishara, who if I am not mistaken is the same Azmi Bishara who is a Palestinian Israeli and a member of the Knesset, and author of books on the histories of Jewish and Arab philosophy and other topics.

At risk of ruining a good read with unnecessary comments, I would like to mention something. One of Bishara's points is that the whole American debate is dishonest because it is limited to extricating America from a situation, while continuing to leave unexamined and uncritiqued the propaganda and the quasi-science that got them there. If you did that examination and that critique, what would you come up with? Maybe that is a secondary question. Maybe he's right and the only point worth making right now is that since basic attitudes in Washington haven't changed, there is a real risk this could turn into an even bigger catastrophe than people can currently imagine.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

End-game in the Green zone

Bashir Nafie writes in Al-Quds al-Arabi: The recent attack on the reputation of Harith al-Dhari, head of the Muslim Scholars Association of Iraq, was triggered by his political activities in the region, and not by anything he said. He had been saying the same things about the illegitimacy of the occupation since 2003. What was new, and what so alarmed the Green Zone people, was his visit to Saudi Arabia and the fact he had a discussion with the Saudi King. This was shocking, because since 2003 the Arab regimes in the region have left Iraqi affairs up to their friends the Americans, prefering not to get involved themselves. Their confidence in this hands-off approach had been weakening with the reports of escalating Iranian influence in Iraq ("real or imagined" Nafie adds); then with the hit they took from their early criticism of Hizbullah in the Lebanon war; and most of all the gradual collapse of any semblance of Iraqi internal security. That isn't to say there are going to be any concrete short-term results from the King Abdullah-Dhari conversation, but it hit a nerve in the Green Zone nonetheless.

Nafie targets Iraqi president Jalal Talabani as the character who led the attack on Dhari, writing at length on Talabani's history, and not in a very flattering light either. His point is that the whole idea of arresting Dhari smacks of fear and desperation. Talabani and his associates were acting defensively, as they always do, and they were completely blind to the depth of support for Dhari, not only as "the representative of the Iraqi conscience", with considerable Shiite support as well as Sunni; but also throughout the region, citing for instance the Arab League support for him throughout this. Dhari, Nafie says, represents probably the most powerful voice of denunciation of the American occupation and its enablers.

But the miscalculations respecting Dhari are only a symptom of the way Talabani and his colleagues have lost their grip on reality. After all these years of propaganda, Nafie says, the Green Zone inhabitants are unable to grasp the fact that the resistance is at the gates.

With that as background, Nafie says the Americans have several options left: They could try "another push" in Iraq. Alternatively, we shouldn't rule out the possibility they could decide arm one set of armed sectarian groups to fight against another, as part of an overall stratgegy to divide the country into sectarian regions, no matter what the cost to the Iraqi people. Or, he says, they could decide to push the situation to total violence, "in order to teach the Arabs a lesson they will never forget," as he puts it.

(The New York Times hit-piece on Dhari isn't mentioned in this article. But if the Dhari arrest-warrant episode is a milestone in the collapse of the Baghdad government and perhaps a sign of desperate things to come, then surely that NYT piece deserves its miserable place in history too).

Miscellaneous updates

Al-Hayat publishes a lengthy account of statements by Sattar abu Risha (or Rishawi), head of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, the main point being the following: Abu Risha said he now has a plan to bring together tribal leaders from all over Iraq in a council which will be called the Unity Assembly, with the aim of applying traditional tribal methods to the problems of sectarian violence. His next task in this, he said, will be to travel through central and southern Iraq to convince tribal leaders in those regions to join. He said the idea is his own "personal" one, will be under tribal auspices, and there won't be involvement by any other parties, governmental or non-governmental. The reporter doesn't offer any comments, either his own or those of anyone else.

In other comments, Abu Risha rejected offers by some other leaders to negotiate a settlement of his lawsuit with Harith al-Dhari of the Association of Muslim Scholars, insisting on a public apology first. On another issue, he said there has now been issued an official document by the Interior Ministry relating to the battalions of the Salvation Council, without indicating what that document says. Presumably it is some sort of acknowledgement of their legality in the eyes of the Interior Ministry. He discussed at length the question of what the battalions will be wearing, noting this is something he is responsible for personally, "although their other requirements will be supplied by the Ministry". He said a uniform resembling that of the current police forces was rejected on the basis it "lacks dignity", and he has chosen instead the uniform that was worn by the Special Forces under the prior [Saddam] regime. Abu Risha also made remarks about what percentage of various regions of Anbar his group already controls, and promised a statement soon about the complete freeing of the province from AlQaeda.

Meanwhile, Harith al-Dhari, head of the Association of Muslim Scholars of Iraq, is in Cairo, where he made statements that the Iraqi newspaper Azzaman takes up as its front-page top story this morning (Thursday November 23). Unfortunately, it appears "missing links" has itself missed a link or two here, resulting in my inability to make it crystal clear what al-Dhari is talking about. Nevertheless, in the expectation we will be able to fill in any gaps later, here is what today's report said:

"[Al-Dhari] said he was cutting off any participation-links with the Accord Council which is expected to meet next year bringing together the different Iraqi groups, saying 'We met with them twice and we agreed with them, but the other parties are not comitted'". The problem here is the Accord ("wifaq") Council: What is it?

In any event, the reporter observes: Efforts to arrive at a meeting of the minds between the various groups that oppose the political process while the occupation continues, have failed all year long, which would seem to imply that the Accord Council is an attempt to unify the resistance to the occupation, or one of the attempts.

Moving on to another topic, the reporter says Al-Dhari included in his statement something that appears to represent a change of position. He is a person who has been known for his absolute rejection of the presence of foreign troops in Iraq. But in yesterday's statement he called for foreign troops not to be withdrawn before there is a national Iraqi security force that isn't accused of being under the control of the governing political parties.

Finally, Al-Dhari accused Maliki of working for the separation of Iraq [into regions].

The Big Three: Talabani rejects the three-country summit idea after meeting Khalilzad and Hakim says US ambassador Khalilzad met on Wednesday with Iraqi president Talabani and SCIRI head Abdulaziz al-Hakim, and the commemorative photo published by Elaph shows a room with the curtains drawn, with from left to right the ambassador, a fruit-bowl, Talabani, an Iraqi flag, another flag that is mostly dark green with what appears to be a map in the center, possibly not a map of Iraq, and Hakim himself. Following the meeting Talabani's office issued a statement that said the three of them studied the political and security situation in Iraq, and procedures for calling a future meeting of the national political-security committee. The statement also said in his meetings with heads of neighboring countries, Talabani will try be discussing economic and security issues, and will be trying to convince them to stop the infiltration of terrorists.

The Elaph reporter adds: Talabani said we have no intention of holding a three-country summit (Iraq-Iran-Syria), as had been reported in various places. He said he will be going to Damascus after his trip to Tehran; the Damascus invitation was a prior one, and Syrian foreign minister Moallem [also] conveyed it during his recent visit to Baghdad.

Also yesterday, the White House said Bush will be going to Amman on Wednesday November 29 for his own version of a three-country summit, to include himself, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, and King Abdullah of Jordan. Al-Hayat quotes Steven Hadley to the effect major topics will be the condition of the Iraqi armed forces, their training and development, the speeding up of that, and so on. But the reporter stresses the unhappiness of the US administration with Maliki's handling of the militias, noting a Time magazine story critical of Maliki's "leniency" in that regard.

The Al-Hayat reporter says Hadley mentioned that "the discussions will be limited to generalities, and there won't be a final communique." Which, when you dress it up for American consumption in the New York Times, comes out like this: "But White House officials appeared to play down expectations for the meeting, with Mr Hadley telling reporters, 'We're not looking for big, bold announcements'".

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The hand of fitna

Sometimes what you hear or read is so different from your expectations that it makes you stop and listen more closely.

I turned to the Joseph Samaha column in Al-Akhbar this morning (Thursday November 23) because I expected he would explain the post-assassination details, what happens next, why this, why that. Instead, what he writes this morning is something completely different. First he says there was a sense of foreboding leading up the assassination, a sense that Lebanon had formed into two equally-matched groups, with equally matched sense of self-confidence, headed for a confrontation with frightening speed. People thought the danger lay in what could happen during street demonstrations. Then he writes this:

"But the hand of fitna was faster than that. It wanted to take the public mood and turn it to its advantage. It understood the fragility of the situation and it knew that the fire would catch and spread. ... The hand of fitna aimed to cut the road to what had been about to be, no matter what, overruling the citizens."

The hand of fitna. I was expecting "Who did this" or "What should we do right away to cope with this". Reading on:

"Another way-station of blood. But this one a way-station with a special character, because Pierre Gemayel was assassinated at a moment of dangerous national division, representing a new crisis-point in the process of disintegration which began some time ago, and which the Lebanese people have not been able, and still are not able, to stop. [At the moment of the assassination] the crisis was growing, and the solutions were becoming ever more difficult and more complicated and more in need of historic decisions, something that was beyond the technical abilities of an administration of the traditional type".

Here was a process that even though people realized what was happening, they were unable to stop it. Reading this is quite a different experience from, say, reading NYT columnists telling us in their technocratic way what needs to happen. We are definitely in a different realm. Reading on:

"And when the Israeli attack came, some said the Lebanon that emerges from this will not be the same Lebanon they attacked, and to be sure there was [after the war] a different and deeper crisis, there was increased foreign pressure, but there was also a greater range of possible solutions. But unfortunately, at the same time, the Lebanese receptivity [to the new situation and the new possibilities], or at least that of some Lebanese, was lacking in wisdom and lacking in responsibility. And what happened yesterday was the shudder of awakening. It seemed as if there was a person looking into the abyss, trying not to throw himself in, but really the whole fear is just this shudder that comes when you realize that the parties are going to continue their struggle which was stopped only under pressure of the crime and of the requirements of condolences".

Finally, Samaha turns to the question what to do.

"After the grief and the condemnations of the crime, perhaps there are a couple of things we should focus on that could bring some comfort. First of all, there isn't a traditional solution to something that isn't a traditional problem. Lebanon is not in need of 'statesmen' in the usual sense of that expression. Lebanon needs historic leadership, it needs people of stature, someone able to look up first, and look to his base only secondarily. Statesmen improve the administration of the state, but what he need is someone who can invent the state. Secondly, there isn't any solution available from outside. Either there is a Lebanese solution or there isn't any solution. [For instance agreeing to the international court isn't a comprehensive solution]. Because Lebanese society, in this troubled region of the world, and in this pressurized international environment, isn't going to be stabilized via any formula of coexistence that doesn't include satisfactory solutions to the legitimate requirements of each segment of the population, and that doesn't include those solutions in the structure of the government".

"Being realistic in Lebanon today means being pessimistic. The question for every Lebanese person is going to be their ability to not lose sight, in the face of this pessimism, of those social requirements that they know to be just and that they wish to be able to implement."

That's it. The hand of fitna. The way-stations of blood and the demonic processes that the Lebanese themselves have been unable to stop. The abyss and the shudder of awakening. And finally, the legitimate requirements of each segment of the population, and not losing it in the face of pessimism.

You might say: What the hell is he talking about. The simple answer is he is talking about culture. He is saying: These are our experiences, this is what we have been through, which others may or may not understand, this is what we haven't had the stature to do, this is what we need to do.

For us non-Lebanese, it takes a little listening to.

Joe Biden our point-man in Damascus ?

Al-Hayat this morning (Wednesday November 22) says a senior person from the office of Senator Joe Biden is in Damascus trying to figure out what's going on.

What has ruffled important feathers is the idea of a three-way meeting between Ahmedinejad, Talabani, and Assad, subject of news reports two days ago, that said this was planned for Tehran on Saturday November 25. Al-Hayat says a source in Damascus rules out the possibility of a three-way meeting "within two days" (which would be Friday), adding this was a pre-existing proposal that is "still under study". The Baghdad newspaper Al-Mada says (1) Talabani's office confirms he will be in Tehran on Saturday, at the head of a big Iraqi delegation, for talks with his Iranian counterpart; and (2) an Iranian report published by AFP says Assad has been invited to come to Tehran on Sunday, implying this has been accepted. (3) Since the Talabani visit is expected to last for three days, there is a good chance of the three of them getting together during that period of time. But Al-Mada says there isn't confirmation or denial from Damascus about the Assad part of this. Al-Mada says a US State Dept person welcomed the Talabani visit to Tehran, but this part of the Al-Mada piece doesn't mention Assad.

Joe Biden's office only returns calls originating in the great state of Delaware, but who knows, maybe he won't be taking Delawarians into his confidence either.

Absent a miracle, the focus should be on damage-control: Al-Quds

Al-Quds al-Arabi editorializes: The question who was behind the Pierre Gemayel assassination shouldn't be the main preoccupation at the moment, for two reasons. First, because none of the putative suspects is likely to see this evolve the way they presumably had in mind. If this was done by people wanting to halt the establishment of an international tribunal into the Rafiq Hariri assassination, clearly the effect will be the opposite, and proponents of the tribunal will be all the more determined. If, by contrast, this was done in order to break the momentum of Hizbullah which was about to bring its supporters into the streets to press for a new Cabinet with more representation for them, at most this will be postponed for a few days or a week.

What is far more important than finger-pointing is coping with the danger. The Al-Quds al-Arabi editorialist talks about the possibility of retaliatory operations leading to civil war, "if not immediately, at least in the near future". For one thing, he says, some will be using this to try and "reorganize the Lebanese street according to the old sectarian model", prevalent in pre-Taif times (meaning during the Lebanese civil war that ended with the Taif agreement in 1989, which was supposed to be a first step in ending the sectarian model), with extremist Christians on one side, and extremist Muslims on the other. But he stresses no one can really imagine at this point where this will lead.

Hopefully, he adds, the calls for calm by Pierre Gemayel's father and others will create "an opportunity to save what can be saved", but really, he says, we will need a miracle, and unfortunately we are not living in the age of miracles.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Cronica de una muerte anunciada

The Pierre Gemayel assassination was probably the most quickly solved murder in history. In fact, even before the trigger was pulled, the Israeli intelligence groupies at MEMRI issued a report (dated November 21, the same day as the assassination) dramatizing the Hizbullah decision to hold street-demonstrations in support of their demands for bigger representation in Cabinet, under the scary heading "Lebanon on the brink of civil war". MEMRI added: "It should be noted that these statements and threats are supported by Syria and Iran."

And when the assassination news broke, the Western news outlets, as if with a single voice, referred to the victim as the anti-Syrian cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel. Knowledgable people everywhere "hinted" at the involvement of Syria in this. Or at least they referred to people who did, including Israeli foreign minister Livni, US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, and Saad Hariri. Quite a broad cross-section, in other words, of informed opinion.

Naturally, the guilty verdict against Syria isn't based on any forensic evidence in the traditional sense of the word. It is all based on motive, namely a supposed Syrian motive for destabilizing the Lebanese political process.

Which is surprising, since it seems clear that Syria stood to benefit from the current directions in political development, not only in Lebanon, but in the Mideast region as a whole. Hizbullah has been intent on exploiting the opportunity to advance its position domestically, and it is hard to see how any gains it made would have been upsetting to Syria. Meanwhile, the Bush administration had quietly asked the Syrian administration to help out in the pacification of Iraq, and this was reflected in the highly-publicized visit to Baghdad by the Syrian foreign minister on the weekend. Any such US request would have involved some degree of US concessions to Syria, and this would probably have involved an easing of direct US pressure on the Syrian regime, and a lighter US hand in Lebanon. Hardly the kind of environment that would make the Syrian regime anxious to stir up an international outcry over an assassination.

On the other hand, there are a couple of regimes that could well have felt they were losing control of the regional political evolution. Unexpectedly, the visit to Baghdad by the Syrian foreign minister was quickly followed up by the news about a three-country summit in Tehran next weekend. Maybe it's just me, but if I were in charge in Tel Aviv or Washington, I would have been more than a little upset to hear that. This was supposed to be a controlled process for the strictly-limited purpose of pacifying Iraq, and suddenly it was turning into a Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian summit. Without the US, and where none of the participants was particularly friendly to Israel.

Which is merely to say that if all there is to go on is motive for upsetting the card-table, I don't think the finger points that decisively at Syria. Quite the contrary.

Of course, once you realize that Western news media didn't point out to people the dramatic shift in the US-Syria dynamics, or the regional implications of the Tehran-summit idea, perhaps you can being to understand the Syria-is-guilty mentality. All you have to do is recall that for the entire six years of the Bush administration Syria has been the embodiment of evil. So I guess after all it wasn't that hard to pick them out of the lineup.

Bush: I would understand if Israel decided to bomb Iran

Haaretz reported yesterday (Monday November 20) that Bush told French president Chirac in a recent conversation that his administration "would understand" if Israel decided to launch an attack on Iran. It is a remark that French officials passed on to Israelis in discussions during the past few days, and the Israelis passed it on the Haaretz. The French officials told the Israelis they thought this would not be a good idea. In fact (according to the Haaretz account) the French officials said it would be a catastrophe that would (1) only set back the Iranian nuclear program by two years at most; (2) ensure Iranian exit from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty; (3) probably trigger a broad Iranian military response that would target more than just Israel; (4) cause enormous uproar in the Arab world; and so on.

The funny thing is that this Haaretz item doesn't seem to have been picked up by any US news organizations, but it was picked up by Al-Quds al-Arabi on its front page this morning (Tuesday November 21), adding to the above-outlined information the following: Rice subsequently made more ambiguous remarks about the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, telling European diplomats the US lacks the necessary intelligence to launch such an attack itself; Iran announced further progress in its nuclear program; and the White House denied the existence of a US intelligence report that said there is no evidence of any secret Iranian nuclear-weapons program. The latter report had been referred to in a New Yorker article by Seymour Hersch.

Monday, November 20, 2006

As the world turns

Abdulbari Atwan offers his thoughts on the sudden, friendly Syrian involvement in Iraq, and where he thinks it fits in the evolving drama of American regional defeat.

In Al-Quds al-Arabi this morning, Atwan first reviews a couple of background points. The first is that the Syrian involvement is in response to a change in attitude in Washington, something that was brought about partly by the Baker commission leaks, but also partly by the recent Syria-Britain rapprochement, Britain being one of the access points "to the White House and its occupant". Atwan stresses this point, namely that the speed and timing of the Syrian move could well reflect its quick and opportunistic response to this US-British agreement on a new strategy.

The second point is that this change in attitude in Washington (and its decision to ask Syria for help) has an important corollary, and that is that Washington finally realized that it wasn't going to get anywhere with its first regional plan, which was to rely on the "moderate regime" Saudi-Egypt-Jordan trio, because this would be like herding cats. (Which doesn't mean the moderate trio won't be useful if other efforts fail and this ends up as a US-Israel confrontation with Iran, he adds). Washington has also realized that the Maliki government's many attempts to bring the internal security situation under any semblance of control have all failed, and that by contrast the resistance has grown in strength, and controls much of the country, pinning the government down in the Green Zone. All of which led to pinning hopes on Syria.

What does Syria expect in return? Atwan says the first installment would likely be an easing in the pressure on Syria and its allies in Lebanon, in a variety of areas: including dialing down the recent "impetuous support" for the Syrian-opposition alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and former vice president Khaddam (the so-called "Salvation Front", and likewise a toning down of US enthusiasm for the Lebanese government and its support for an international court to deal with the Hariri assassination. More in the future, Atwan says Syria will be hoping for a resumption of negotiations with Israel on the return of the Golan Heights, with a prearranged conclusion involving their complete return to Syria.

But Atwan's main point is that the US expectations for help from Syria, and Iran too for that matter, are likely excessive. Syria, says Atwan, can damage US efforts insofar as it opens its Iraq-border to inflows of fighters and weapons, but that isn't the same as being able to influence the situation in the other direction, via influence with the resistance, or control of the security situation, or any other actual help to the Green Zone government. Moreover, even if it could help in these positive ways, any Syrian efforts at helping the Americans control the situation could have negative reprecussions in Damascus (implying it is a little unlikely Syria would actually try to do that). And Atwan says he thinks US estimates of Iranian capacity to control the internal situation in Iraq are likewise exaggerated.

The US administration is confused and uncertain at the moment, Atwan writes, and this is reflected in the search for help first from the moderate-regime trio, and now from Syria and maybe later Iran, all of which represent looking for help in the wrong places. Far more promising, he writes, would be to actually negotiate with the domestic resistance directly. This would involve agreeing to most if not all of their prior conditions (including timetable for withdrawal). But in the tough situations, this is the approach that has actually worked, he says, citing the US experience in getting out of Viet Nam, and the British experience with the IRA.

The one constant in the recent US efforts is the idea of separating Syria from Iran in an effort to isolate the latter. But that has become almost impossible. The current Syrian flirtation with Washington is basically a question of playing for time, given the Syrian conviction that the countdown to the collapse of the American empire and its regional influence is picking up speed.

US promoting an international conference on Palestine, to strengthen Abbas and weaken Hamas

The Israeli newspaper Maariv reported yesterday (Sunday November 19) that there are secret talks going on between Washington and Tel Aviv aimed at setting up an international conference to try and revive the Palestinian peace process, based on the "road-map". The following is from a summary in Al-Quds al-Arabi, which it in turn attributes it to the Tel Aviv bureau of UPI.

A major US aim is to improve its image in the Middle East. The conference would include Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, in addition to the Palestinians and Israelis, and the overall concept for the US is to make this part of its hoped-for alliance of "moderate Arab states and Israel". For road-map fans, the technical aim of the conference will be implementation of phase two of the read-map, involving establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders. This would be followed by more "convergence" (getting rid of Israeli settlements outside the proposed borders), and eventually a Palestinian state with permanent borders.

The report says this is going to involve additional efforts to fend off Hamas and Hizbullah, and to strengthen Abbas with "abundant financing and power". The report says Saudi Arabia has already agreed not only to attent the conference, but also to provide a lot of financing for Abbas.

Finally, according to this summary, the US is described as concerned about weakness in the regimes of Prime Minister Siniora in Lebanon and president Abbas in Palestine, and this was a motivating factor for the Palestine-conference initiative.

Syria and Iran said to be ready for three-party talks with Iraq

NOTE: For updated information on three-country meeting arrangements, see the paragraph at the end of this posting.

After mentioning the bilateral-cooperation aspects of talks yesterday between Syrian foreign minister Moallem and Iraqi foreign minister Zebari, Azzaman adds: "Iraqi sources close to the talks said there is a Syrian-Iranian understanding about having a three-way summit meeting that would include [Assad, Ahmedinejad and Iraqii president Talabani] probably in Damascus. But the same sources were quick to add that the fate of this [idea of a] summit will be determined by the results of the talks yesterday (Sunday) between Moallem and the Iraqi foreign minister, and by the results of the visit scheduled for tomorrow (Tuesday) by president Talabani to Iran".

And Azzaman adds: Just ahead of his Baghdad visit, Moallem held a series of discussions with James Baker in Washington, where they discussed the Iraqi situation (citing the Syrian ambassador in Washington). And the reporter says: These Baker-Moallem talks came just at the time when Kissinger was ruling out any possibility of an American military victory in Iraq, and said an international meeting will be necessary.

The above-mentioned sources elaborated on what Moallem seemed to have in mind. "He proposed a three-country political and economic partnership, and the carrying out of a true national reconciliation in Iraq that would include ending the De-Baathification Law and permitting former Baath party members that aren't accused of crimes to participate in the country's political life, [and that would also include] control of borders."

Talabani, for his part (the sources continued) will be telling the Iranians that before there is a three-part summit, the Iranians should deal with the presence of AlQaeda in Iran, and border-control; while the Iraqis would expell the Mujadeen al-Khalq (MEK; armed opponents of the Iranian regime) from Iraq.

The sources also said something about a unified three-country policy vis-a-vis the countries of the Gulf, but I can't really follow the thread of what they are saying, so I won't try to summarize. (Something to do with "substituting Syria for those countries [of the Gulf]" in a sense I don't understand).

The journalist's next point is that someone close to the Egyptian foreign ministry said any talks about Iraq should include not only the neighbors, but also the main Arab regimes, naturally including Egypt.

Later in the day, offered this summary of the latest three-country meeting arrangements. Its reporter Osama Mahdi said Talabani will be going to Tehran next Saturday, November 25. And he said a member of Prime Minister Maliki's political party confirmed an Iranian report that Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad has also been invited by the Iranians to attend, and will be there too. The reporter says the Talabani visit had originally been scheduled for November 8, adding "it appears the reason for the delay was to allow time to prepare for the three-country summit", suggesting that this isn't some last-minute decision by the Iranians.

Separately, the Iraqi semi-official (meaning pro-government and pro-occupation) newspaper Al-Sabah reported on Saturday that "High-level sources told Al-Sabah that Washington has invited the leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance, Abdulaziz al-Hakim, and of the Iraqi Accord Front, Adnan al-Dulaimi, to visit it (meaning Washington)." The reporter doesn't say anything about a suggested date for this visit. But he adds: "The sources said this is in the context of US efforts to help bring about a convergence of views in the process of the National Reconciliation meetings". And he says vice president Barham Saleh is trying to organize a meeting of the main political-coalition leaders for the same purpose.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Badger's Sunday Magazine

Extremists loyal to the US-sponsored regime in Baghdad took control of a major American newspaper yesterday, and sources pointed to an article by Edward Wong as a bare-knuckle warning of what is to come.

This no-nonsense piece said a Sheikh dressed up in flowing white robes swept into the Mansour Hotel in Baghdad yesterday, where Wong and a colleague were sitting. The man in white was surrounded by three gunmen, and a number of other Sheikhs. According to Wong's lede, the man in white proceeded to denounce the head of the Muslim Scholars Association as a "thug", apparently because of something he said, but we never actually find out what he said.

The head of the Muslim Scholars Association, Harith al-Dhari, is an opponent of the US-sponsored regime in Baghdad. The man in white is a supporter of the US-sponsored regime.

Eventually, by the fifth graph, we get the man in white's name. He is Sheikh Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, described as leader of the Rishawi tribe of al-Anbar province. He was accompanied by colleagues from Anbar, and also three Sheikhs from the south, Shiites, "in a show of sectarian unity". Sectarian unity is big right now, but since none of these other individuals were named, the depth of the cross-cultural warmth at this event wasn't entirely clear.

"The Sheikhs", Wong tells us, are the "founders of a group called the Anbar Salvation Council", formed in September to combat the proponents of the Iraqi Islamic Emirate in al-Anbar province. Actually there was some disagreement among the founders of this group on the question of the relationship to the Iraqi government and the US occupation, and al-Rishawi heads the pro-US wing. It may be the main wing, it may not. It was not necessary to go into this.

Dhari is called a thug in the lede to this story, and the Times says this reflects Dhari's "support for Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia," something that is not supported anywhere in the story. "The sheikhs", Wong writes, "were reacting to statements that the cleric, Harith al-Dhari, had made in interviews last week in which he criticized Sunni tribal leaders who had recently decided to take a stand against Al Qaeda". Wong doesn't tell us what interviews, or what he actually said. And there is a good reason for that. A reader given any facts at all would immediately realize that the issue between Dhari and the Sheikh isn't support or non-support for AlQaeda. It is support or non-support for the US-sponsored government in Baghdad.

Here's what I wrote last month about the formation of the Anbar Salvation Council and Abu Risha (or Rishawi), summarizing an Al-Hayat piece dated October 21.
On the one hand, the person described as the leader [of the Salvation Council], 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.

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 [this was just after the disputed vote in parliament on the federalism-procedures law]. 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.
This morning (Sunday November 19), Al-Hayat again mentions Rishawi, describing him not as one of "the founders of a group called the Anbar Salvation Council", but merely as a prominent person in the Anbar tribal grouping, who has filed a complaint against al-Dhari for calling his group "a gang of thieves and highway robbers." Nothing about a dramatic performance at the Hotel Mansour. Nothing about calling al-Dhari a supporter of AlQaeda. That's all New York Times exclusive.

There you have it. Fitna or all-out civil war, not just in Al-Anbar, but everywhere. And the Times is there, should you need to smear an opponent in the international press and pour additional oil on the fire.

But the journalistic excitement! The ballroom of the Mansour Hotel in Baghdad; the silent observer Wong, his sidekick Khalid al-Ansari, the white-robed al-Rishawi, the sinister thug al-Dhari!

And how are things going in al-Anbar? Well, let's see. About a week ago, US forces appear to have massacred over 30 civilians in al-Ramadi during the night from Monday to Tuesday of this week. No Times reporting there.

And the military activities of Al-Rishawi's group? Another good question.

Al-Dhari's offence: He had been in talks with five heads of Arab states and the Arab League

The Iraqi newspaper Azzaman leads its Iraq-crisis story this morning (Saturday November 18) with this: "The Association of Muslim Scholars asked the Arab League to intervene with the government of Iraq and to halt the arrest warrant against Al-Dhari...and a number of Arab governments have asked Prime Minister Malaki to calm the situation by rescinding the warrant, which has caused a storm of protest in Baghdad and in other Arab capitals."

The Azzaman account also tells us some of the activities Al-Dhari had been involved in just prior to this arrest-warrant being issued. "[He] had been having conversations about the political process in Iraq with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the Jordanian king Abdullah II, the president of Syria Bashar Al-Asad, the Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa, and the president of the UAE; and also he had discussions in Cairo with a number of Egyptian authorities and also with Arab League secretary-general Amr Musa. And this [series of high-level talks] was what stirred up the resentment in Baghdad."

Azzaman adds: A reliable source said there were even efforts to scuttle Maliki's recent visit to Ankara, where Al-Dhari has a close relationship with Prime Minister Erdoghan. As it turned out, the announcement of the arrest warrant came while Maliki was in talks with Erdoghan.

The ultimate effect of the warrant-issuance was to make Al-Dhari appear as the leader of the Iraqi Sunnis, the newspaper says. The major Iraqi Sunni political parties lined up in solidarity with him, including those that had had public differences with him as recently as last month, including the Dialogue Front (Saleh al-Matlak), Islamic Party (Hashimi) and the National Accord (Dulaimi).

The big London dailies, Al-Quds al-Arabi and Al-Hayat, for their part, display countervailing spins on the fallout from this: Al-Quds quotes a number of leaders of the parties that are components of the Iraqi Accord alliance, threatening to exit the political process. (For instance, the Islamic Party called the warrant the "bullet representing the coup de grace for the National Reconciliation process," putting it out of its misery). Al-Hayat, by contrast, quotes extensively from remarks by an official spokesman for the Iraqi Accord itself urging a resumption of the political process based on the original multi-party agreement that was the basis for the formation of the Maliki government, and a document the Accord has prepared, which includes something the Accord spokesman called a "road-map for an exit from the crisis".

And the Americans, what are they hearing about this? Juan Cole cites the Azzaman story this morning, leaves out the main point about talks with Arab heads of state, notes that a couple of Shiites support Al-Dhari, and takes care to remind us that Al-Dhari is "accused of inciting to terrorism". (Actually he isn't, if the government spokesman is correct and this is merely an investigation warrant). But you get the picture.

Friday, November 17, 2006

First indications of the regionalization of the Iraq civil war

Al-Hayat reports this morning (Friday November 17) on the escalation in sectarian violence in Baghdad then adds this sentence: "With the rise in the ferocity of separation, particularly in Baghdad, which has witnessed in the recent period of time campaigns of Shiite-Sunni separation (in particular neighborhoods respectively), the head of the Iraqi Accord Front [Sunni; 44 seats in parliament], Adnan Dulaimi, in a speech he delivered in Amman on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, called on the Sunni people to rescue Iraq from the Persian incursion, before Baghdad becomes a Safavid city." And the journalist immediately returns to a recitation of the Baghdad sectarian violence. There isn't any elaboration of Dulaimi's remarks, but the point clearly is that the Sunni leadership has started thinking of the Iraqi civil war in regional terms, and is starting to appeal to Sunni populations in the surrounding region for help.

Without getting into the question of authenticity or otherwise of the document, it is worth noting that one of the "incriminating documents" collection that referred to yesterday is purportedly a Badr organization analysis and action-advisory to all Shiites in Iraq, and it includes in its analysis what could well be considered background for the above-noted Dulaimi remarks.

The document describes the Sunni leadership as unhappy about their inability to achieve anything "through their comical participation in the political process", as a result of which the political and military leadership of the Sunnis has now decided on a "desperate attempt to break the blockade [that has been imposed on them] by means of alliances and treaties with neighboring governments (described as heretical Wahabi and 'propped up') particularly Saudi, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen and the Emirates, to change the political map-boundaries in Iraq and in the region, in coordination with the Anglo-American forces..."

It is for this reason, namely prospects of a pan-Sunni attack coordinated with the Americans, that the Badr organization calls for mobilization and closing of the Shiite ranks, in this document (which I repeat hasn't been confirmed as to authenticity). But my point is that whether this is a document composed by the Badr organization, or by parties pretending to be the Badr organization, doesn't alter the fact that what is assumed is this framework of Shiite anxiety about Sunni-regional cooperation with the Americans.

ADDED NOTE: Al-Dhari made remarks in an Al-Jazeera interview this morning, and among the points summarized by their website are the following: Al-Dhari said the Maliki government was trying to concoct a crisis with him in order to cover their blatant internal-security failures. In addition to that, Al-Dhari said, the government had tried to block him from visiting various Arab countries and forming relationships, in order that they (the Shiite government) could try and monopolize those relationships. This underlines the new (at least largely unreported) factor, namely the question of regional alliances.

There are some who think the issuance of the arrest warrant (now understood to be merely an investigation-warrant) was a Maliki ploy to prevent the Baker commission from promoting a tilt to the Sunnis in furtherance of a revival of the National Reconciliation. That is a somewhat Washington-centric view, where the situation is still seen as amenable to discussion. Naturally the Maliki administration wants to prevent any American tilt to the Sunnis, but the anxieties are now military ones, and the timing of the Dhari warrant seems clearly motivated by the desire to impede the current Sunni drive for alliances with the neighboring Sunni regimes.