Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Oil and Gas Law: Behind the "agreement"

(Subsequent note: In the piece that follows, I put a lot of weight, possibly too much weight, on a single sentence that Othman reportedly said to the reporter, and while it seems clear that Khalilzad somehow made this "agreement" finally happen, the exact nature of what Othman was talking about should probably be taken with a grain of salt. See the first comment).

Al-Hayat provides an explanation how the Americans (and the British) finally got the Iraqi cabinet to agree on a draft oil law, the point being that main unresolved issue (as far as the draft text of the law is concerned) had to do with the competing claims to control over oil and gas extraction contracts in Kurdistan, by the regional government on the one side, and the central government on the other. The Al-Hayat reporter quotes Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the national parliament, but not a member of either of the two big Kurdish parties, on how this was settled: US ambassador Khalilzad, on his latest trip to the region, proposed that they simply agree between them that half of the contracts would be under the auspices of the regional government, and the other half under the auspices of the central government. The implication is the text of the law can be left vague, but that there is a side-understanding between the US and the Kurds, to the effect that they will split oil jurisdiction 50-50 between the Kurdish regional government, and the US-controlled central government. Here is the text of what Al-Hayat says Othman said:
Kurdish deputy Mahmoud Othman said "the British and the Americans, who were in a hurry to decide on an oil and gas law, had a major role in convincing the Kurds to accept [this version]"... Othman explained some of the details of the process, that led to the council of Ministers approving this after so many months of disagreement between the central government and the regional government. The British and the Americans, who were bound and determined to accelerate the process of deciding on an oil and gas law, had a major role in convincing the Kurdish parties to accept this, after intensive discussions between the parties leading to haggling about exploitation, contract-management, and distribution. Othman added: "The latest visit by US ambassador Khalilzad to [the Kurdish region] focused on convincing the Kurds to accept [the current version] after promising them that the new law would protect Kurdish interests," and Othman explained: "The Kurds had wanted the authority to enter into contracts for oil and exploitation and the granting of operating permits to corporations, on a par with the authority of the central government [elsewhere in Iraq], while the Baghdad government wanted to have a presence in overseeing contracts [in Kurdistan] equal to that of the the Kurds." Othman said: "That was finally agreed, but only after an agreement that one-half of the contracts signed would be within the jurisdiction of the Region of Kurdistan".
In other words, if I am reading this right, where the text of the law calls for joint participation by the Baghdad and the Kurds in contract-management for properties in Kurdistan, the side-agreement arranged by Khalilzad, which finally brought the Kurds to agreement, was that the contracts would be split 50-50, with one side controlling one-half of them, and the other side the other half. Naturally it would be impossible to include something like that in law, for one thing because of the impossibility of designating which contracts are under the control of which government, and for another thing because it would cast doubt on the idea of genuinely shared jurisdiction.

On another point, the Al-Hayat reporter quotes a spokesman for the Iraqi Accord Front, the biggest Sunni bloc in the national parliament, Salim Abdullah, who said: "Current circumstances are not appropriate for the adoption of an oil and gas law...We look on this law with skepticism and concern, in the light of the continuing security situation, which doesn't help in establishing a low like this one, particularly since it concerns the exploitation of oil, which is the most important element in Iraqi national income". He added: "We in the Iraqi Accord Front have a feeling foreign corporations had a role in deciding on this in their own interests, and we reject what the law suggests by way of privatization of the oil sector and transferrence of its management to foreign exploitation companies." And he added that revenue distribution should be free of sectarianism.

And the reporter quotes a member of the Oil Gas and Natural Resources committee of the national parliament who said there will not be quick passage of in parliament, "because of existing differences between the political blocs..."

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Major points in the federalism-and-oil debate are still undetermined

Historian Reidar Visser has made available an 18-page draft of an essay on "Basra Crude, the Great Game of Iraq's 'Southern' Oil", which will be published in a final form by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI in Norwegian) next month. It is always an event when he publishes, because all of a sudden the picture comes more into clearer focus and loses that disturbingly vague quality of an out-of-focus satellite photo that characterizes a lot of what we generally have to work with.

The major missing facts, in broad terms, are these: (1) The vast concentration of Iraqi oil reserves are in the governates of Basra and two neighboring governates. The rest of the supposedly "oil-rich south" is actually relatively oil-poor. (2) In oil-rich Basra and the surrounding governates, SCIRI is weak and the Fadhila party (Shiite and close to the Sadrists) is strong. (3) There is a lot of uncertainty about what the final, definitive oil law will lay down with respect to the likely competition between a one-governate (or few-governates) "federal region" that might be favored by the dominant Fadhila forces on the one side, and the SCIRI project for a big nine-governate federal region on the other side. (4) It is equally uncertain whether local Basra opinion will side with a one-governate "region", or will instead lean to the Iraqi-nationalist position espoused by the oil-workers union and others.

In other words, there are still key parts of the legislation (for instance powers of governates vis-a-vis powers of "regions") that aren't decided or at least aren't know with certainty; and even if they were, it is by no means certain how the interplay between Fadhila-localism, union-based nationalism, and SCIRI big-region ambitions, will play out when and if the law is passed. (It is scheduled for presentation to parliament in March, Visser says).

These are some of the issues and conflicts that have been so well-obscured by the corporate media (and which persons like myself haven't done such a great job of unearthing either). Visser discusses how these conflicts have been developing since the Samarra bombing of February 2006, a date he takes as a benchmark for the launching of the federalism-for-the-sake-of-security theme. SCIRI appears to have been the more successful at maneuvering on the national level, Visser notes, but one of his main points is that the way the federalism legislation seems to be set up, it is local referendums that will be decisive, and locally in and around Basra, SCIRI has not been doing well.

Another highlight of the essay is Visser's finding of wilful blindness on the part of Democrats who support the Biden three-part federalism proposal, but rather than try to summarize any further, I think the only alternative people have is to read the whole essay, which in only 18 pages long, although you do have to go slowly and carefully through it.

"Major agreement" on oil should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt

Both of the major London-based pan-Arab dailies lead their Iraq news with the reports about the attempt to assassinate vice-president and major SCIRI leader Adel Abdul Mahdi, during a meeting at the Ministry of Public Works and Municipalities, focusing on comments to the effect this shows security services are penetrated by armed groups at a very high level. Al-Hayat quoted another SCIRI leader (Jalaladdin al-Saghir, who was himself object of a US search operation in recent days) who said the operation yesterday, which killed seven government officials and injured 30 others, with explosives concealed in the ceiling of the meeting room, bears the earmarks of the Mukhabarat of the former regime. Saghir said the terrorists continue to target SCIRI and Abdul Mahdi in particular because of their opposition to terrorism, adding this recent operation won't have any effect on the new security plan. But the reporter puts the event in the context of government disunity and uncertainty, noting a couple of recent public comments by Mahdi, including: (1) Recent remarks to the BBC to the effect he was not excluding himself as a potential successor to Maliki as prime minister; and (2) remarks published yesterday in the government-run newspaper Al-Sabah, in which Mahdi criticized the cabinet committee that is supposed to coordinate security matters, saying: "Those of us in the trenches are still not operating as a single team, nor are we bound together by shared concepts [or a shared vision]."

(Al-Quds al-Arabi leads on its front page with the same story and the same concern about penetration of the security forces at a high level. The journalist quotes Shiite member of parliament Sami al-Askari to the effect this indicated the penetration of the security forces, and the journalist adds various security sources said they were inclined to agree, expressing particular surprise at the access the perpetrators had to this Ministry meeting-room.)

By contrast, the NYT reports on its front page "a major agreement among the country's ethnic and sectarian political blocs on one of Iraq's most divisive issues [oil policy]" merely because "the Iraqi cabinet" approved a draft petroleum law, without of course mentioning the (above-noted) criticism by vice-president Mahdi of the lack of government unity, not to mention the question of the disfunctional parliament.

Monday, February 26, 2007

How European diplomats are reading the mind of Bush

(For quick background, please recall the points in "Wheels falling off the political vehicle" of a few days ago, and before that the speculation in Azzaman and Al-Hayat about the "real" US demands ahead of the year-end meeting in Amman of Bush and Maliki).

Today the Sadrist news-site reports that sources in a number of European capitals are seeing evidence confirming a US strategy that is quite different from the support-Maliki program that most people seem to believe in. The immediate news-hook for this is the recent arrest, with its humiliating circumstances, of the eldest son of Abdulaziz al-Hakim, head of SCIRI. The strategy the Europeans are said to anticipate is to use the Maliki administration for as long as possible to try for the elimination of the Mahdi Army as a force in the country, and then, depending on the results of that, to attack SCIRI and the Badr Corps. If none of that works, then there would be two alternatives as followup. First would be the creation of the "alternative political base" (talked about in the famous Hadley memo), to set up a "government of national salvation", and this would include the Iraqi List (Allawi's group), the Iraqi Accord Front (Sunni), and the two big Kurdish parties. And finally, if that doesn't work, the strategy calls for setting up a military government that would shut down parliament, close newspapers radio and TV, and so on. Here are the main parts of the Nahrain report:
[The European sources, summarizing dipolmatic dispatches from Baghdad and Amman] said the reports talk about a strategy that is something like the theory of "creative chaos" which has governed a lot of US administration thinking since the 2003 invasion, and they summarized the current US plans as follows: (1) Definitive and final application of the current "Law and Order" security plan, with particular emphasis on striking at the Sadrist currrent and liquidating the Mahdi Army. (2) Initial application of a plan to strike at the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), including arrest and assassination of leaders of the Badr Corp, and kidnapping of responsible officials. (3) In the event of success in the above two points, efforts to topple the Maliki government, and preparation for the application of the concept of a government of national salvation, [based on the alliance described above: IAF, Kurds, and Allawi]. (4) If that doesn't work, then proceed to the imposition of a military government that would control the political/security situation, and would announce imposition of a state of emergency, with the closing of Parliament and newspapers radio and television.

These European diplomatic sources said the plan has been ready within the US administration since the middle of last year, and it was looking more and more likely in the months of October and November of last year [recall the political furor over the federalism legislation, then the runup to the Saddam execution], and it was supported by forces from Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and Jordan. But then it was postponed following the success of the Bush-Maliki talks in Amman at the end of last year.

And the European sources added: The fact that US forces went ahead with the arrest of Ammar al-Hakim in that provocative way, confirmed that the American scenario for opening a front with SCIRI is full steam ahead, and the time for a naked confrontation with SCIRI is getting closer, and it is dependent [only] on whatever success materializes in the strikes against the Mahdi Army and the arrest of its leaders and its paralysis as a military force."

I am not sure I understand the exact sequencing of events that they are talking about, but the gist of it is clear: Use Maliki to inflict maximum damage on his own base (so this wouldn't look like a Sunni pogrom against Shiites), then replace Maliki with a military government or the next thing to it, to finish the job of establishing a US-compliant regime acceptable to the Sunni regimes of the region. No one is saying it is feasible or anything like that: What the Europeans diplomats are saying, according to Nahrain, is that this is what is in the mind of Bush.

Why I'll miss Joseph Samaha

Lebanese writer Joseph Samaha died suddenly on the weekend of a heart attack. He was a beacon for thoughtful Lebanese, but you won't see any appreciation of his life and work in the English-language press. As a last resort, you could punch "Samaha" into the search-box at the top of this page, you will find a number of summaries or attempted summaries of recent columns. Don't miss "The Rice doctrine" (Oct 1), "The hand of fitna" (Nov 22), and a couple on where the Mecca agreement fits in the American strategy (Feb 8 and 14).

For my part, being self-taught in Arabic and never having visited his country, I was struck, first, by how difficult it was to render what he had to say into English, compared to other commentators, and the reason soon became apparent: Samaha avoided the prefabricated phrases and sentence structures that characterize a lot of daily journalism in any language. He let the events in question speak in their own language, and you will see that very clearly in the "hand of fitna" piece. Secondly, he short-circuited the party-political aspects of events when other, social and economic, factors were more important, or rather he kept both the political and the social elements in focus at the same time. In writing about the Hizbullah Beirut sit-in, while examining the roles of the various "government" parties in trying to foment crisis, he didn't forget that the contemptuous language being used to describe the Hizbullah people was fundamentally class-based and that the dynamics were those of fascism. This wasn't a case of name-calling, but rather a careful consideration of what was actually being said, plain and simple. I remember struggling with that piece, to try and summarize it in English, then giving up.

The same ability to keep in focus the political and the social side of things was evident in his treatment of the Mecca agreement and the question of what the Saudi role would really amount to. Having considered all of the technical-political details, Samaha didn't forget to remind readers that the real question was whether or not the Saudis would use their influence to help the Palestinians free themselves from the occupation, or not. The point was that the key, simple, questions can get lost in the labyrinth of political "analysis".

It was a style of thinking and of writing that you don't see in English. In English you will see party-political discussions, and you will see cookie-cutter "sociology", but you won't see the two sides of things brought together in flesh and blood, in the way that Samaha was able to do. (In the wasteland of acceptable newspaper English there isn't even such a thing as "occupation", and certainly there isn't such a thing as "fascism", heaven forbid!) Instead, on the one side you have political-party and sectarian analysis that goes out of its way to ignore the social and economic basis of politics, and on the other side you have "social and political science" coming out of the think-tanks. If you're not following me, try this: Re Iraq, read James D. Fearon of Stanford in Foreign Affairs magazine on the Iraqi "civil war", for the views of the white-coated laboratory technician, then read the latest piece by Seymour Hersch in the New Yorker, where he takes you down into the boiler-room where there are all the levers of power, and reflect: They are talking about the same goddamn thing. The civil wars that Fearon collects like baseball cards are the result of the dismantelment of existing governing structures by the type of people Hersch tells us about. But Fearon doesn't want to tell you about those people, he is into science, not filth. Conversely, the coming special-ops projects that Hersch tells us about are going to be manifested in the real world of Mideast political configurations, but the discussions--take my word for it--will be limited to how the executive-branch levers of power ought to be merged with the legislative-branch levers of power. They are each, Fearon and the scientists, and Hersch and the Washington-junkies, one-dimentional in what they present to us. (This is too generous to Fearon and completely unfair to Hersch, who obviously makes important contributions to our understanding of what is going on, but it is in the interests of making what I think is an important point about the overall picture).

Someone asked the old Chinese philosopher Mencius how his thought differed from the thought of his predecessors, and he said: "I know words, and I nourish the great flowing spirit". No
one really knows what he meant, but personally I think he would have been a fan of Samaha, who knew words and the discipline of using them, at the same time that he didn't lose sight of the great flowing spirit. It is a tradition we don't have. Did I mention that Samaha also wrote some recent pieces on the superficiality of the American left and the fact that Clinton and Edwards are looking to outflank the Republicans to the right, not to the left, on Iran?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Badger's progress report

There are at least six story-lines that are woven into the English-language coverage of Iraq, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. They are the following:

(1) The "US withdrawal: victory for the left" story (Helena Cobban)
(2) The "Victory for the middle-class Shiites" story (Juan Cole)
(3) The "Sunnis fight back" story (Arabic language only)
(4) The "Augmented catastrophe" story (Arabic language only)
(5) The "Indomitable American perseverance" story (IraqSlogger)
(6) The "No real American defeat, but a civil war" story (James D. Fearon, Foreign Affairs magazine)

As you can see, these come in pairs. Cobban and Cole mirror each other, and compared to the two other story-pairs, their stories are mainly the elaboration of a desired and desirable outcome, with reality subordinated to that. They are the "good-outcome" stories, suitable for polite discourse.

By contrast, the "Sunnis fight back" story is part of the mainstream reporting in the big US-allied Arab countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, while the "augmented catastrophe" story builds on that and warns of a new regional conflagration that could well result from this sectarian approach. Unlike the Cobban-Cole narratives, these Arabic-language stories deal not with what has supposedly been accomplished, or soon will be (US defeat and withdrawal; a stable Shiite-led regime in Baghdad), but rather with what is to come. And since they include accounts of what is actually happening in the region, they get no English-language coverage, or only very out-of-context.

Finally, there are the IraqSlogger and the PoliticalScience narratives. If Cobban and Cole tout some kind of ultimate victory for the edification of the left or whoever, these, by contrast, represent ideology for the rest of America. Fearon's story, which was told in another version in his congressional testimony a few months ago, and is now refurbished in the white-shoe Foreign Affairs magazine, is that the Iraq conflict must be understood not as a resistance to foreign occupation, but rather as a civil war, and this means that the American military will have a positive (although diminished) role to play in trying to mitigate the damage and help bring about the best possible outcome in the circumstances. IraqSlogger is the retail version of that, with its denigration of Iraqi participants in the conflict, and its highlighting of American exploits.

In terms of English-language coverage, there is no meat in the sandwich. Eventual stability under Shiite rule (Cole) and definitive US withdrawal (Cobban), while they are very nice ideas, they mean not paying any attention to the next phase of the US-runs-Iraq story, once Bush "runs out of patience" with Maliki. For Cole, it is unthinkable that the SCIRI establishment would be in any meaningful way dislodged from its current position, and for Cobban, it is politically incorrect to discuss any new government, coup-generated or otherwise, that isn't based on the idea of a definitive US withdrawal. So their story ends with this (probably illusory) US withdrawal/Shiite-led stability.

Instead of continuing the story of American involvement in Iraq and the Mideast along the lines of the Arabic-language coverage, with careful attention to the Arab and American efforts to create a Sunni "moderate alliance" against an alleged Shiite threat, the risks involved in that, and what it means for Iraq, that story is for all intents and purposes abandoned, and in its place we have a return to the comic-book tales of public-spirited Americans fighting evil, under the heading of civil war in Iraq.

I started "missing links" about six months ago, with the idea that a person self-taught in Arabic, could by merely pointing to highlights in the Arabic-language coverage, to some degree improve the quality of the discussion. Not much to show for it so far.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

US planning a new regional expansion of the Sunni-Shiia confrontation with Iran

According to Glen Kessler of WaPo, Cheney got the bigger of the two government planes currently available, so journalists with the Rice junket were bumped and have had to fly commercial, hence in many cases have to fend for themselves, for instance in Germany they had to figure out how to get in from the airport. In an exciting reportage, Kessler says the group made a collective decision to get on a train that, it turned out, had already ended its run.

The coverage in the NYT reflects the new light touch too. Running with an AP story, they head it: "Rice to Confer with diplomats about Iran. This is in contrast to the fact that in Amman she met, not with diplomats, but with the intelligence-agency chiefs of four Arab states including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, so the underlying story is "Rice meets with the Mukhabarat in the Arab world and reports to diplomats in Europe". And of course the joke yesterday was that the discussions with Suleiman, Bandar and the others were aimed at creation of a government of national unity in Palestine!

I'm kidding. The Kessler story wasn't an allegory about the robots of pack journalism operating on low power. And the unprecedented meeting of Rice with the heads of the Mukhabarat, then reporting to diplomats in Europe, wasn't funny at all. First of all, there are levels of incompetence , such as here, where people become incapable of embarassment, and that explains the fact that Rice's meeting with the Mukhabarat was reported as a routine affair, even though what is supposed to happen is that a foreign minister meets with her counterparts, or with heads of state, who then formulate policy, and in each country that policy is transmitted to domestic agencies including the Mukhabarat and others, for implementation. Rice's direct meeting with the assembled Mukhabarat is a sign that the security apparatus of the Arab regimes have become an integrated part of the US administration. The point is made by Abdulbari Atwan in Al-Quds al-Arabi this morning.

Moreover, the meeting had nothing to do with Palestine, he says. Rather, it was about turning up the heat on Iran, and he devotes the rest of his column to a consideration of likely coming events with respect to this.

First of all, says Atwan, the selection of these four countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE) indicates that these will be the central supporting regimes in the event of a military strike against the Iran to wipe out its nuclear facilities, to rein in the defiance of its allies in Iraq, and maybe even to put an end to them. Washington has been the instigator and proponent of Sunni-Shia fitna in the region, but it is also true that the Iranian regime has lacked the wisdom to counteract that, by holding its Iraqi allies back from falling into the sectarian trap. But his main point is that the level of fitna is now entering an even more dangerous period:
The state of sectarian polarization has entered a more dangerous phase in recent days, because instead of being limited just to the Arab neighbors of Iraq, it is now spreading to the Islamic neighbors of Iran, because according to the latest American plan, Iran is to be surrounded by a "Sunni square or octagon", on the pretext of the danger that its nuclear ambitions pose to the region. In other words work is already well under way aimed at expanding the "Arab moderage" alliance into a "Sunni Islamic". The recent trip of Pakistani president Musharraf to a number of Islamic capitals is part of the attempt to lay the groundwork for this new alliance, and it has been decided that Islamabad will host this coming Sunday a meeting of foreign ministers of seven Islamic countries: Egypt, Saudi, Jordan, Turkey, Malasia and Indonesia [in addition to Pakistan] to study issues of interest starting with Palestine, and to prepare for a summit of the respective heads of state in Mecca thereafter.
Clearly there has not been a sudden pan-Islamic awakening to the need to help the Palestinians, Atwan says. Otherwise there would have been an invitation to Syria to attend these meetings: Syria which has sacrificed a lot for Palestine, and part of whose land is still occupied by Israel. And what about Iran: is it not an Islamic country? Why isn't it being invited? And what about the timing? If there was this urgent need to help the Palestinians, why wasn't it manifested before the US started its campaign against the Iranian nuclear program? If the idea is to help the Palestinians, what about working to break the economic blockade? In other words, this clerly has nothing to do with Palestine. It is an escalation in the American strategy for isolating and pressuring Iran, using the Sunni versus Shia theme: a theme whose catastrophic effects are already to be seen in Iraq, and which the Americans are now bent on augmenting.

When you read the papers you will see that "Rice to confer with diplomats about Iran," but if you read more widely you will see that our journalists got on the train that had already ended its run, so clearly the train they should have been on left the station a long time ago.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

AP humour story falls flat

Condoleeza Rice met yesterday in Amman with the heads of the national intelligence agencies of four countries: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE. According to a variety of different accounts, an anonymous US source told reporters their main topic of discussion was--you guessed it--formation of a national unity government in Palestine! (I'm pretty sure I saw an AP story to that effect, but in any effect that is also the gist of the Azzaman version this morning). However, Al-Quds al-Arabi says "observers think this meeting was in preparation for an American escalation against the Iranian presence in Iraq".

Participants included the big names, Omar Suleiman for Egypt and Prince Bandar bin Sultan now head of national security for Saudi Arabia, which shows the importance attributed to whatever it was they were talking about.

The Al-Quds reporters leave it at that. They then note that the biggest Jordanian opposition party, the Islamic Action Front, welcomed Rice to Jordan with a statement accusing her of inciting breakup of the unity of the Palestinian people, and of working to sabotage the Mecca agreement, fairly straightforward points. It would be interesting to see if they are included in the AP version of this. The leader of the IAF warned the government against cooperating with Rice "in sowing the seeds of fitna in the region, and in blowing up the Mecca agreement", adding a warning against "yielding to this American and Zionist usurpation [of the Palestinian process]".

The IAF leader also said the Jordan government needs to reply to a tendentious story that appeared the day before in the Israeli paper Maarif, that talked about a Jordanian plan to sideline Hamas, by first having Abbas form a peace agreement of some kind without the participation of Hamas, then arrange for new elections where Fatah could run on the peace platform. The Maarif story added that King Abdullah of Jordan commited to getting the big Arab regimes (in particular the four mentioned above, which Maarif has taken to calling the "Arab quartet") to approve of this plan and also to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. The implication seems to be that Maarif described the Jordanian "initiative" as having been foiled by the Mecca agreement. In any event, the IAF leader said the Jordanian administration needs to reply to the story.

Found it! The AP story is available here.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Allawi versus Chalabi ?

I will say what I think this all amounts to at the end of this, but first we have to wade through the latest news.

Al-Hayat reports on a couple of events in the twisted but apparently ongoing history of national reconciliation. (1) The paper says the De-Baathification council, which is headed by none other than Ahmed Chalabi, has prepared a draft law that would somehow change its terms of reference (never explained exactly how), and this is described by a spokesman for the council as a compromise between those who want to eliminate the De-Baathification council on the one side , and those who want to tighten its anti-Baath provisions on the other. (2) A spokesman for another council, the Agency for National Reconciliation and Dialogue, which has organized and supervised the series of National Reconciliation conferences (last one mid-December, for political groups), says his group is planning a followup meeting (followup to the mid-December political-groups meeting, that is) that will be able to overcome some of the objections that were raised by participants in the prior meeting.

(1) The executive director of Chalabi's De-Baathification Council, Ali al-Lamy said he is under pressure from political blocs, some of which want to toughen current measures against Baathists, and others of which want to end the existence of the De-Baathification Council and terminate its activities. Al-Lamy said the draft law represents a compromise, under which the existence and the activities of the De-Baathification Council will continue, but he added the question of whether or not the existence and activities of the Council continue or not is a matter for Parliament to decide. This is of course complete double-talk, as you would expect from an agency controlled by Chalabi, but the journalist does his best to put us in the picture. He explains that the blocs that want to end the existence of Chalabi's agency include the Iraqi List, led by that other US-sponsored politician Ayad Allawi, and the Iraqi National Accord, led by Adnan al-Dulaimi, and their reason is "because it has come to have a political character and it is impeding the chances for [success of] the National Reconciliation project".

In other words, we get just enough information to see that for Allawi, Dulaimi and others, this is a case of National Reconciliation versus Chalabi.

(2) Which brings us to the second of Al-Hayat's topics this morning, namely plans for a follow-up National Reconciliation meeting.

A spokesman for the National Reconciliation agency, Nassir al-Aani, said the followup meeting will be held in Baghdad very soon, and he stressed his agency is still commited to what was decided at the first meeting [the mid-December meeting, including decisions having to do with easing the De-Baathification measures], and is still "trying to win over a lot of the parties that stayed away from the mid-December meeting, and that includes the Muslim Scholars Association, the Sadrist current, and the Baathists." Al-Aani added that a visit to Syria by the Minister responsible for National Dialogue, and the head of the Reconciliation Agency is for the purpose of meeting with Baathists there, in an attempt to win them over to the political process, ahead of this next meeting.

The journalist explains that some Baathists did attend the mid-December meeting, but they quickly backed away from decisions made there, alleging that "Prime Minister Maliki disavowed agreements that the government had made with them outside of Iraq".

The journalist adds that a spokesman for Dulaimi's National Accord Front told the reporter his groups's position is unchanged, and that "the participation of opposition [groups] in the political process is an essential thing." He said the National Accord Front "is still commited to calling for participation in the national dialogue by those who are outside the political process, and that includes Baathists against whom there are no charges".

It should also be noted: One of the demands Condoleeza Rice made during her latest visit to Baghdad in the last few days (in addition to the demand for immediate action on the oil law) was for immediate action in the national-reconciliation process. It can be assumed that these above-mentioned announcements, at least in their timing, are by way of response to that. The announcement of preparations for another national-reconciliation meeting would be a natural response for the government to make. The US has pressed Maliki to do more to bring ex-Baathists into the process, partly to weaken the resistance, and this represents the government's reply, namely that "we are trying as hard as we can".

The wild card is Chalabi and his De-Baathification Agency, which now says it is preparing some kind of "compromise" legislation to continue to exist, and which Allawi and others say is political and oppressive, and should be disbanded. Recent announcements by various people in Allawi's bloc show he is trying to position himself to be the leader of a post-Maliki political arrangement, and certainly opposition to Chalabi's de-Baathification program would be a good way of promoting a "new-broom" image and bolstering support from the Sunnis. But Chalabi, what is he? A rival? Someone bargaining for leverage? A person consumed by his hatred of the Baath, everyone and everywhere? Probably the simple answer is that he is still who he was in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

Iraqi political disintegration continues

Asharq al-Awsat, along with other Arab papers, reports uncritically the ridiculously-timed NYT piece about striking oil in Sunni-Iraq territory (actually this was nothing but a reexamination of old seismic reports that boosted reserve estimates all over the country, no reported figures for Sunni versus Shiite areas and not even any names of who did these reports).

More in the real world, Asharq al-Awsat also says on its front page that the Maliki government and the biggest Sunni parliamentary bloc yesterday traded charges of being infiltrated by armed groups. A spokesman for the Iraqi Accord Front said the Baghdad security plan started off in the right direction, but recently there have been operations where the government forces were assisted by the Mahdi Army, and he said this threatens to derail the plan. In rebuttal, Maliki security adviser Sami al-Askari said the problem is that the Accord Front hasn't made up its mind whether it really supports the government and the current plan, or not.

And al-Askari went on to say that the Accord Front is under pressure from armed groups in the areas it represents:
Askari said [in a telephone interview from Baghdad], in reply to the Accord Front charges, that "the Accord Front hasn't yet made up its mind whether it is with the government and the political process, or against it", adding that "the Accord Front makes a practice of criticising the government even though it is a part of that government". Askari explained that the Iraqi Accord Front is under pressure from "armed groups that are deployed in its areas, in fact the Front has been penetrated by those armed groups, moreover some of its members are accused of being involved in some of the violent acts in the country".

Askari urged the Accord Front to get behind the government and the security plan, noting that important figures in that bloc have expressed support for the plan, including vice president of the republic Tareq al-Hashimi, and deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie.
This continuing process of Iraqi political fragmentation isn't part of the corporate-media story, which is no doubt understandable. But it isn't part of the "alternative" North American coverage either, which is a little more puzzling. For some reason it doesn't seem to compute, so to speak, within any of the prevailing templates.

Monday, February 19, 2007

More on the Allawi plan for a national-security government

This could get confusing because there are two different lines of thinking with respect to a new Iraqi government that would, among other things, be more to the liking of the Bush administration.

The first line of thinking goes back to the famous "Hadley memo" that was leaked ahead of the Bush-Maliki meeting in Amman, and it is based on the idea of an "alternative political base" for Maliki that would include SCIRI and the two big Kurdish parties, along with Tareq al-Hashemi's Islamic Party (Hashemi was the one Sunni leader lucky enough to be invited to the White House following Bush's meeting with Hakim of SCIRI). The meaning behind "alternative political base" is that Maliki would be able to govern without the support of the Sadrists. There have been various announcements about ongoing discussions along these lines.

The second line of thinking is that Ayad Allawi would put together an alternative government ready to take over in the event of failure of the Baghdad security plan. This was broached in the newspaper Al-Bayina al-Jadeeda on the weekend (what I saw was a summary by Aswat al-Iraq, quoting a member of Allawi's parliamentary bloc), and there is a followup today in Al-Hayat, which cites another member of Allawi's parliamentary bloc. Today's Al-Hayat piece goes like this. After stressing the seriousness of the latest market bombing as a breach of the security plan, the reporter writes:
Al-Hayat has learned that US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice welcomed an alternative plan, in the event of failure of the current security operations, that calls for ministerial changes and political and economic remedies and broadening the base of the multinational forces to include Islamic and Arab forces, excluding however [forces] from the neighboring countries.
Then following more detail about the bombing, the journalist writes,
Adnan Dulaimi, leader of the Iraqi Accord Front expressed skepticism about the chances for success [of the Baghdad security plan] given the early leaks of the content of the plan, which permitted militias and those accused of escalating the violence, to flee and prepare for renewed violence later.

And the American administration has tried to listen early to alternatives proposed in case the security plan fails. Ibrahim al-Janabi a spokesman for the [parliamentary bloc] led by Ayad Allawi, told Al-Hayat that the plan [Allawi] proposed recently as an alternative in the event of failure of the security plan "was received with a big welcome" by Rice during a meeting [with Allawi] the day before yesterday in Baghdad.
The Al-Hayat reporter adds a few more very sketchy details of the Allawi plan, including the idea that security matters would be in the hands of a "ministerial council" that would include the director of the intelligence agency, and would rely on non-sectarian expertise. The broader-based multinational force would help establish an Iraqi security force, and would gradually withdraw.

But it appears this Allawi initiative, if you could call it that, is being merged, so to speak, with the "alternative political base" concept (centered on SCIRI and the two big Kurdish parties, along with Hashemi's group) that goes back to the Hadley memo. Apparently an announcement of the results of those discussions was expected soon, but Aswat al-Iraq says it has been decided to postpone any such announcement, lest it be taken as "sending the wrong message" or as lack of support for the current plan. The person making that announcement was--you guessed it--another Allawi spokesman. Aswat al-Iraq says:
The parliamentary blocs seeking the formation of a new coalition with a national agenda away from sectarian affiliation adjourned the announcement of the new alliance in a bid to lend support to Baghdad security plan in place since Wednesday, a legislator said.

"The new security plan needs political support for success and thus the political parties adjourned the announcement of the new formation to avoid any misinterpretation of the move," legislator Safiya al-Suhail, of Iraqi National List, told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI). She added "all the parties are backing up the government in its effort to render the new security plan (Rule of Law) a success."
After listing the blocs that have been mentioned as part of this new coalition, the Aswat al-Iraq reporter adds at the end of his piece: "And there have been talks aimed at having the Iraqi List [Allawi's group] join this alliance".

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Saudi view: America's choice is catastrophe or a return to its ideals

Here's today's editorial in the Saudi mass-circulation newspaper Al-Okaz. It is short, with a catchy heading: "Rice, again--Why?"
The repeated visits of US secretary of State Rice to the Middle East are an expression of the US administration's sense of the crisis the region is growing through, a crisis that now threatens world peace, and also threatens the Bush administration, and this intensifies with the intensification of the US presidential election campaign.

These repeated visits are also an expression of the American feeling of latent responibility for the crisis where the region has ended up, first of all because the region's problems have resulted from American policies engendered by decisions that weren't based on any real knowledge of the nature of the region, or of its centers of power and the cultures that animate them, which [policies, I think he means] inevitably brought America fo find itself enmeshed in a quagmire no less serious that of Vietnam at an earlier time.

Finally, these visits show that Washington understands it has a responsibility to the world and to humanity to arrive at a solution to the regional crisis, based on its role as a great power trying to confirm to the world its sponsorship of peace and and that it stands against terrorism and the stripping of peoples of their rights, [enabling them to live] in stability and a secure and honorable life.

But in spite of all of that, these repeated visits are testimony to something else too, namely that America is still uncertain how it can use its mediation to end the Mideast problem, without setting down in its history another decision like that which its history records with respect to Vietnam at an earlier time.

And if in fact Washington is in search of a solution, then it should start by re-examining its policies and their implementation with reference not only to the will of the people of the region, but also with reference to the moral principles on which the their founders tried to establish [America]: justice, equality, and the right of a people to decide its destiny for itself. And as long as America fails to do that, the repeated visits of Rice will do nothing to bring about the peace and stability that we hope for.
The Bush administration, the editorialist says, has behaved in an ignorant and arrogant way, and this has inevitably led to a crisis that threatens not only the Mideast but America as well. But it is to be hoped that a sense of responsibility will come to their rescue. That and a return by America to the principles of its own founding, which in this case translate into fighting not only terrorism, but also self-determination and fighting the stripping of a people of its rights, referring to the Palestinians. That, he says, is their, and our, only way out of this situation unless they are to record another Vietnam in their history. If he writes, if a solution is in fact what they are looking for.

Saudi editorialists certainly don't criticize the Saudi regime, and generally they don't offer advice either, but it seems the implicit message here could be: We should help bring America to its senses and make it support the Mecca agreement and lifting of the blockade and so on, if only on the basis of that right of self-determination that America is supposed to represent. Or is it just belles lettres?

Wheels falling off the political vehicle

While the English-language corporate media continues to focus on the military and security aspects of the Baghdad plan, there are increasing signs that the political structure isn't holding together. One Iraqi paper quotes an ally of former prime minister and CIA asset Iyad Allawi to the effect Allawi has been meeting with some of his former ministers, other p0liticians, and with US embassy people, by way of laying the groundwork for the post-Maliki phase. Unfortunately the paper in question isn't available on the web, and the summary in Voices of Iraq doesn't provide a lot of elaboration. In other reflections of the high-tension atmosphere, Al-Hayat says Rice told Maliki he is expected to clear Sadr City, but he rejected the idea; and an Iraqi Sunni political party under seige by Iraqi forces at its Baghdad headquarters reportedly appealed for help to the Americans.

Aswat al-Iraq includes in its Iraq press-roundup, for today Sunday (unfortunately not among its English-translated selections), the following summary of a piece in the paper Iraqi newspaper Al-Bayyina al-Jadeeda which "said the Iraqi government has recently, in secret, issued a list including more than 70 Iraqi individuals, most of them political leaders and heads of political or parliamentary blocs, accusing them of incitement to violence and "terror" [not my quotation marks] in the country". And the summarizer goes on:
On the same front page, the newspaper reports on political preparations for the case of failure of the security plan. Under the heading "Allawi returns to Baghdad with a political plan...And Abdul Mahdi denies he is a candidate to succeed Malaki", the paper says: "Parliamentary member Izzat al-Shabandar [who is a member of Allawi's parliamentary bloc and ha been described as his spokesman] told Al-Bayyina al-Jadeeda that a representative of former Prime Minsiter Iyad Allawi has met with a number of people who were ministers in the interim government Allawi headed, and has also met with officials in the American embassy. Shabandar told the newspaper that Allawi urged political leaders not to be caught off guard and not to allow a political vacuum in the coming period, whether there is victory over terrorism, or a deterioration in this security plan".
On page five of the same newspaper there are interview remarks by a member of the Sadrist bloc in parliament, Baha al-Araji, who said
"[T]he recent series of arrests of Sadrist leaders, the latest one being the arrest of the Health Minister's secretary Hakim al-Zamali, and before that Abdul Hadi al-Darraji, are aimed at drawing the Sadrist current into confrontation with the American forces." And he added, "Wiping out the Mahdi Army means wiping out the majority of the Iraqi people."
Al-Hayat, for its part, gives readers a whiff of the US-Maliki tension, with this reported exchange between US secretary of state Rice and Maliki yesterday:
AP attributed a remark to Rice in which she said the security forces need to begin operations in Shiite areas as they have in Sunni areas, and they [the security forces] must clear Sadr City. According to an Iraqi government source who refused to be identified, Maliki and his assistants informed Rice that the Mahdi Army and its leader Moqtada al-Sadr are cooperating in the campaign, adding "Why waste resources on an area that is secure?"
In a similar vein, there is a report of Iraqi forces attacking the Baghdad headquarters of a Sunni political party, which reported appealed to the American forces for assistance: This is according to a report that was included in the Aswat al-Iraq translated selections, datelined late Saturday:
Iraqi forces on Saturday laid a siege around the Sunni National Dialogue Council headquarters in western Baghdad, a source at the council said. "Iraqi forces laid today afternoon a siege around the National Dialogue Council in Nafaq al-Shurtah area in western Baghdad and ordered the headquarters guards to hand over their arms," the media spokesman for the council told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI) over the phone.

Inside the headquarters was legislator Nasser al-Janabi who refused the hand over of the guards' arms to the Iraqi forces outside the building and contacted the U.S. forces by telephone asking for intervention, the source said.

"Negotiations are under way between the Iraqi forces and the council," he said. The source did not give further details. The Sunni National Dialogue council is taking part in the political process in Iraq. It has 11 seats out of 275-member-parliament.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Border-closings along with market-bombings causing food-shortages in Baghdad

Al-Quds al-Arabi says food prices in Baghdad have risen sharply in recent days, a phenomenon some attribute to the fact that major food-wholesale markets are closed following the bombing of the biggest such market, Shurja, on Monday February 12, and earlier market-bombings. With respect to the market-bombings, the Al-Quds reporter says, a lot of people think
[T]he aim of these market-bombings ahead of startup of the security plan was to launch a campaign to starve the people of Baghdad, in order to increase popular resentment against the government and cause [the security plan] to fail. And while most markets have closed in recent weeks because of the (general) security-collapse and the reluctance of merchants to sell, fearing additional cost-increases ...most Iraqis think the hunger campaign that Baghdadis are facing is the result of the recent events, and [Iraqis think] that the security plan, along with popular fears, has motivated many to start hoarding foodstuffs, and this has resulted in severe shortages in markets. And this is together with the bombings of major Baghdad markets, such as the Shurja market, which suffered three such attacks over a two-week period, in addition to other market...
In other words, people cite hoarding by households fearing shortages, and reluctance by merchants to sell, fearing additional cost-price increases, this behavior on both sides having been caused by the security-deterioration generally, and the market-bombings in particular.

But the journalist says the announcement of the closing of borders with Syria and Iran has had an effect on this too. Having canvassed the market-bombing and hoarding factors, (along with the related problem of getting goods into Baghdad in the face of increased roadblocks and checkpoints) the journalist continues:
However, wholesalers in Baghdad say the reason for the recent price-increases in the last few days has to do with the closing of the Syrian and Iranian borders, because most commodities and foodstuffs come to Iraq from those two countries, in addition to the market-bombings. Recent sharp increases in foodstuff prices coincided with the announcement of the border-closings, particularly in the case of fruit and vegetables, most of which come from those two countries.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Al-Hayat: Chalabi and Hashemi's group are put in charge of the "popular committees"

Al-Hayat reports very briefly on a number of Iraqi political developments. Two of them have to to with the Islamic Party of Iraq (Sunni) headed by Tareq al-Hashemi. The first is that Hashemi (who is also one of the two vice-presidents of Iraq) has made a statement critical of the Association of Muslim Scholars of Iraq, to the effect that they have stopped being a religious body and having become more of a political entity, "and this is a big reproach to them". And the second is that a leader of Hashemi's Islamic Party of Iraq is being described as one of the three persons appointed to supervise the system of "popular committees" in Baghdad that are supposed to cooperate in implementing the "new security plan". The other two are Ahmed Chalabi, who is still described as head of De-Baathification Council, and another person who is also a member of that Council.

(Tareq al-Hashemi is the one Sunni leader who was invited to Washington for meetings with Bush following the Bush-Hakim meeting. At that time there was a lot of speculation (based on a passage in the famous "Hadley memo") about an attempt to form a US-friendly "alternate political base" for Maliki, including SCIRI and the Islamic Party, partly to marginalize the Sadrists.)

What today's Al-Hayat report boils down to is that Hashemi and presumably his party have taken a couple of steps in the US-friendly direction, by first of all criticising the Association of Muslim Scholars, and secondly by participating, along with Chalabi, in actual implementation of the "new security plan." The idea of having the de-Baathification chief head a system of local councils in what is supposed to be a non-partisan project seems bizarre, but the Al-Hayat reporter doesn't comment on that. His first sentence gives you the flavor:
Sunni political elements took pains to distance themselves from the "extremist" position of the Association of Muslim Scholars, particularly with respect to the new security plan, in its efforts to rein in armed [persons] and militias, in the area of organizing popular committees, which the head of the de-Baathification Council Ahmad Chalabi has been assigned to set up, along with a member of that [de-Baathification] Council Ali al-Lamy, and a leader of the Islamic Party, Nassir al-Aani.
The journalist notes that the whole popular committees idea has been suggested before, but was rejected "on many levels", because of the risk that the committees themselves could become armed groups in a way that could make problems worse instead of solving them.

(On Chalabi, there was this Al-Quds Al-Arabi report in October (pdf, bottom of the page, I thought I summarized that somewhere) that said he was planning to resign from the De-Baathification position and start up a new political party; and there was this NYT puff-piece that didn't even mention his De-Baathification role.)

On another point, the reporter also says good sources told him Sadr and leaders of the Mahdi Army have taken refuge in the marsh country near the Iranian border, an area, he notes, where the opposition used to take refuge during the Saddam era.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

An important distinction

Judging from Al-Hayat's news from Washington, there appears to be an important difference between two sides of new Iraq security plan, as far as the Americans are concerned, one focused directly on Baghdad security, and the other having to do with tracking down and publicizing anything that could be described as part of a arms-network traceable to Iran.

Al-Hayat quotes an impeccable source for a description of the second part, namely Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute. The reporter describes Donnelly as well-connected and as having given a lot of advice to Bush in preparation of the current plan. The reporter says:
[Donnelly said] the Bush administration [in the recent Iran-arms show] wanted to send a message to two parties, namely to Iran, and also to Iran's allies in Iraq. ... [Washington] is getting ready to carry out more arrests and pursuits of Iranian agents in Iraq [adding that] this is not something that will end in a month or two months, but will be long enough to make all the parties understand that the US is serious about this fight.
In its lead-in to this story, the Al-Hayat reporter refers to "present advisers and and former officials" who said the recent Iran-weapons show was "in the context of an implied warning" to Iran
[And] they expect that more escalating measures will follow, in the form of arrests and the pursuit of arms networks, or the targeting of leaders of militias allied with Iran. A high American official stressed that Washington already has a lot of other evidence, which will be disclosed at the appropriate time. [The official said this is all part of] "a complete file that includes clear proof of the negative role of Iran in Iraq".
And the official repeated that information will be disclosed at appropriate times (suggesting a preoccupation with the PR aspects of this).

Interestingly, the Al-Hayat reporter adds:
Washington is bearing down on the preparation of evidence, but it is taking all the time needed to coordinate between the different agencies in the Pentagon and the CIA, so as to avoid the intelligence lapses that preceded the war. Media reports talk about hesitations and divisions within the administration, specifically between the White House and the CIA on the subject of the recent [Iran weapons show]. The Agency opposed it, and finally there was agreement to go ahead on condition that the identity of the officials not be disclosed.
Getting back to Donnelly, the reporter says he emphasized that the pursuit of Iran-connections is going to stay within Iraq, adding the US isn't about to attack Iran. But the reporter adds: Wayne White of the Middle East Institute and a former US intelligence official, said such operations are going to be necessarily focused on border areas, because the Iranians prefer to minimize their actual presence inside Iraq, and that explains, White said, the relative infrequency of searches relating to this inside Iraq. White's other point was that the US has to take a targeted, arrest-related approach to this, because the troop level, even after the additional 20,000, isn't enough to confront the militias head-on.

It would appear from the above comments that what you could call the "Iran-connections operation" is distinct from the "Baghdad-security operation", and that is exactly what senior cleric and SCIRI politician Jalaladdin al-Saghir said after his mosque-office in Baghdad was raided by US forces yesterday. Saghir told the Al-Hayat reporter:
The forces that raided the mosque yesterday were from US intelligence, and they were looking for personal correspondence...This wasn't part of the [Baghdad] security plan, and they weren't looking for weapons. Rather it was part of the hidden agenda [literally, the implicitly-directed agenda] relating to Tehran".
I think an understanding of the distinction between the two operations (Baghdad security and Iran-connections) can be a help in sorting out likely misinformation. For instance, there is the vast US-sourced rumor-mill about Sadr having fled to Iran. But the point, quite likely, is that to show any connection between the two operations, there is a need to paint Sadr, illogically and un-historically, as somehow Iranian. What better way than to say he is hiding there?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

US seen as more aggressive, not less, in Lebanon, following the Mecca agreement

Joseph Samaha, in his regular column in Al-Akhbar, writes about the relationship between the "Mecca agreement" respecting Palestine, and the situation in Lebanon. There has been optimism recently, he says, about the chances of applying the Mecca-agreement idea to Lebanon, partly bolstered by the reported Saudi-Iranian talks. Samaha explains where he thinks the big difference lies.
The "Mecca agreement" fits, in one way or another, into the American strategy for the region. It is a strategy that calls for starting movement in the Palestinian negotiations, [but this is] in order to facilitate the regional re-alignment, and give the "moderate powers" a political weapon against the "extremist powers". Now it is true that Hamas is classified as part of the extremist camp, and it is true that some clauses in the agreement weren't what America and Israel were hoping for. However, acceptance by America of the agreement is a good bet insofar as it paves the road for the overall American strategy, even if this is something temporary and partial.
So the first point is that the Mecca agreement didn't represent a change of heart, or a Saudi declaration of independence, or anything like that. Rather it was still part of the plan to give political cover to the "moderate" Arab regimes in the overall "re-alignment". But Samaha goes further:
I think we can even say that the Mecca Agreement, as some kind of a preliminary to a Palestinian common front, is seen in Washington as strengthening their attack on the two other regional fronts against "extremism", namely in Iraq and also in Lebanon. Which would mean that the Lebanese crisis is developing in a completely different framework from that in Palestine, as far as the Americans are concerned. ... Naturally this is merely tactical, but it is the case, and it will be for a while yet. If this is the right analysis, and I think it is, it becomes possible to understand the purport of the statement by read by the US ambassador [to Lebanon] Jeffery Feltman [on Monday], namely that it is a statement against domestic accord, against agreement, against the domestic interests, against the opposition forces, and so on. It was an open invitation to continue the crisis with all of its dangers.
(The Feltman statement in question doesn't appear to have been reported anywhere in English when it was made, but the gist of it is explained in this Daily Star news item reporting on the Hizbullah rebuttal). Feltman apparently accused Hizbullah of working to restore Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, of contributing to the destruction of Lebanon's constitutional institutions, of having triggered the summer war with Israel, and so on. Samaha's point is that issuance of a belligerent statement like that, at a time when optimism was building for a meeting of the minds, underlines his hypothesis that the US is currently becoming more hawkish, not less, with respect to Lebanon, and is treating the Mecca agreement as a form of political cover in the broader regional "re-alignment". And consequently, he says, the nice idea that the Mecca agreement might be soon copied in Lebanon, is probably the wrong way of looking at this, at least as far as American strategy is concerned.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


I have some comments on the whole question of Arab-language news and opinion in North America.

In a nation of 300 million souls, there is a lack (to put it mildly) of broad and deep coverage of public discourse in what is currently a region of great concern, namely the Middle East. This lack, in itself, is a fact that should be highlighted, because it is the source of a whole lot of other problems. The damage isn't limited to having facilitated the "dancing in the streets" demagoguery ahead of the Iraq invasion. On the contrary, it continues to make American policy unstable and prone to other forms of demagoguery, new and old. The underlying problem is the lack of broad cultural literacy. I happen to think that as a long-term issue, the low esteem in which language-learning is held is an important part of that.

(If I had the energy and I was completely consistent as a person, I would cut back on the "missing links" format and instead post excerpts in Arabic with explanatory notes, vocabulary and so on, as an encouragement to autodidacts and others, and to show that while learning a language is difficult, getting a toe-hold in newspaper-Arabic with its repetitive structures and vocabulary is not as impossible as it is made out to be, so as to promote the idea of a culture of language-learning, which to put it mildly again, there isn't.)

If there was a broad enough Arabic cultural literacy among commentators and others, you wouldn't have this situation where people say "I know what is going on because I read so-and-so and I have read him for a long time". I hope people never say that about me, because my coverage is as inadequate for that as the next person's. Specific issues, having to do with who says this and who says that, are in large part the result of this thinness.

Each person has his aims and ideals and his perspective on the world. Mine is that people need to appreciate the variety of different views held by commentators and others in that part of the world. People need to understand these views and not just in a superficial way. And of course some of them I often agree with (for instance the consistent Bush-criticism of Samaha and Atwan); some of them I don't (for instance the quasi-official Saudi views of Mamoun Fandy); and some I find sort of in-between (some of the writers classified as "liberals" for instance). But the risk is in not understanding people at all. This is not only dangerous for America policy-wise, but also it is a shame just on the human and cultural level.

Among the academics, Marc Lynch runs an open-minded and accessible blog at, useful not only because of the posts and the comments, but also for the thumbnail summaries and links in the column at the left, which I have often pillaged. No doubt he has his aims and ideals and perspectives on the world, which I wouldn't presume to try and summarize, other than to note that he is a political scientist, so if I had to say something it would be about the dangers of scientism, and I would preach the need to drill down into what exactly people's views are, avoiding the temptation to merely classify them. At Joshua Landis' you can get a cross-section of opinions about the Syrian regime and its interesting strategic position, not only via Landis' posts, but even more from the outspoken commenters, many of them Syrian, and many often at loggerheads with one another. No danger of getting only one side of the story there.

Among the non-academics, Helena Cobban at, like myself, thinks in addition to the surface problems, there is a problem with ways of thinking, and her focus is often on the need to think about the resolution of conflicts and not always just about the conflicts themselves.

And there is Juan Cole at, a hard worker, to be sure, and whose archives can be a useful tool as well. But I think it is clear his aims and ideals are a lot more specific, and have to do with the solidification of an Iraqi regime controlled by SCIRI. There is nothing against having that as an aim, as long as it doesn't get in the way of an even-handed account of what is going on. I think recently in a lot of cases it has gotten in the way of that, and given his influence, I think it is incumbent on a person to point that out as clearly as possible.

But that isn't the point. The point is that in a democracy of 300 million souls you should have more than a handful of people working on this (the above obviously isn't complete, but there aren't a whole lot of others addressing a North American audience), so as to generate a broad and deep understanding of the views and of the culture you are dealing with. You then wouldn't have the risk of interpreters being thought of as shamans delving into the unseen world or something like that. Unfortunately I know only the problem, not the answer.

Monday, February 12, 2007

What triggered the Iran-weapons show

The focus of critical comments in the US on the "Iranian weapons" show in Baghdad (attended by journalists without cameras or recording devices, briefed by US officials without names) has naturally been on the theme of dubious hyping for a pre-planned war, this time with Iran. The second-most-enthusiastic purveyor of this was the NYT, one of whose "contributors" to this story, Michael Gordon, some people recalled, shared a by-line with Judith Miller in one of the main fraudulent WMD stories on Iraq back in 2003.

But even more enthusiastic than the NYT was another newspaper, the big-circulation Iraqi (Sunni) paper Azzaman (in its international edition, from which the quotes below are taken). As far as Azzaman is concerned, the point of all of this was not the issue of war with Iran. Azzaman swallowed the whole presentation and then some, but its focus was not on what this shows about American intentions with respect to war with Iran. Rather, its focus was on the question of how the Baghdad security plan is going to be executed, and implicitly on the question of Shiite organizations being targeted along with Sunni ones.

The Azzaman account goes like this:
The American army yesterday in Baghdad furnished journalists for the first time with proof of Iranian intervention in Iraq, by supporting militias of the parties that participate in the government with advanced weapons. An American military official said a group of rogue elements from the Mahdi Army, and a group run by a former official of the Badr organization who split from it and fled to Iran, received from the Quds Brigades of the Revolutionary Guards rounds of these weapons that they used in armed attacks against American forces. [And the journalist cites the numbers 170 and 620 as the numbers of US soldiers these anonymous briefers said were killed and wounded with these weapons since 2004. Then the journalist goes on]:

Prime Minister Maliki, for his part, said the Baghdad security plan is going to go through an escalation phase where units of the army and police will close off the ten districts [of Baghdad] all at the same time. And he said in a written statement: "The aim is to cleanse these areas of terrorists and weapons," adding, "this will not begin with one district, but rather with all districts simultaneously, and those participating in the execution of this will be distributed over all the colors of the Iraqi spectrum." And a senior American official said, "Iran is involved with supplying extremist Iraqi groups with explosives and bombs and other materials..." [and the journalist resumes the story of the what the anonymous briefers said, and how the briefing was run, how everyone got a CD with pictures on it, and so on].
Then after reciting the Americans' weapons-running allegations about the Iranians "arrested" in Arbil last month, and the two other Iranians "arrested" at the residential compound of SCIRI head Abdulaziz al-Hakim in December, the journalist continues:
[One of the briefers said] the groups that have used the Iranian-made explosives include rogue members from the Mahdi Army that had split from its leader Moqtada al-Sadr, and reports have said these are leaders of death squads who have fled to Iran ahead of startup of the [current] security campaign. And [the briefer] said another group, led by a former official of the Badr Organization, which is led by Abdulaziz al-Hakim, and who split with him and fled to Iran, has received similar weapons. The briefer said: "We have undertaken to pass on this information to the highest levels of the Iraqi government."
The story is a very neat and tidy one. Moqtada and Hakim, both of whom participate in the government, are not themselves accused of anything. But Shiites formerly in their organizations, Mahdi Army and Badr Organization, funnel Iranian weapons to groups fighting the Americans. This information will be transmitted to "the highest levels of the Iraqi government". This was General Petraeus' first full day on the job in Baghdad, and Azzaman links this story to the announcement by Maliki of an even-handed approach to the new Baghdad security plan. From which one might conclude that the "Iranian weapons" charges were mainly linked to the question of the new security strategy under Petraeus.

You would be right about that, says Al-Hayat:
People in the Iraqi political milieu link these accusations [about Iranian weapons and so on] with disagreements between the American forces and the Prime Minister Maliki. Maliki had been asking that the new Baghdad security plan be applied beginning with Sunni areas and exclude the special protection forces...while the Americans were bent on starting with Sadr City, which is Shiite and the Mahdi Army stronghold. It appears the two sides reached an agreement yesterday, with Maliki's accouncement that the plan will start with all areas simultaneously.
And lest you missed the point, the Al-Hayat reporter concludes his account with the exact same sentence that the Azzaman reporter used to close his account:
[One of the briefers] said: "We have conveyed this information [the Iranian allegations] to the highest levels of the Iraqi government".
In a nutshell: The Iran-weapons show was part of American pressure to make sure the Iraqi government agrees to include Shiite targets as well as Sunni targets in the new security plan.

Interestingly, it appears Iraqi newspapers actually circulating in Iraq didn't mention the Iran-weapons show at all. At least there doesn't appear to be anything at all about it in Al-Mada, New Sabah, or even in the government-controlled Al-Sabah, possibly because for public consumption this would have been regarded as further inflaming the public mood.

(The fire-breathing Juan Cole, by contrast, took the occasion to ratchet up his attacks on those he now calls the "Baathists and Salafi Shiite-killers," noting these are certainly not the groups to which Iran would be giving weapons. Good point.)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Two views of the Saudi initiative

Ahmed Rubaie, in an op-ed in Asharq al-Awsat, says the Mecca agreement between Fatah and Hamas should become a model for the resolution of a host of other Arab problems.
What about a meeting in Mecca between the countries of the Maghreb on mechanisms for the solution of the Sahara problem; or a meeting in Mecca to solve the Sudan problem? What about the "silent problems" between certain countries of the Gulf?

Are we dreaming if we suggest serious thought be given to solving Arab problems with quiet talk, away from the media and the satellite-TV wars? Hasn't experience confirmed for us that letting problems grow until they result in foreign intervention is an adventure with unforeseeable results, for which we have paid a heavy price? What happens is we let problems grow until finally others take the hatchet to them, and then we start blaming the foreigner and the occupier, without taking any responsibility for our prior silence.

Let's put this to the test. Let's start by inviting all of the warring paries in Iraq to Mecca for talks. If it doesn't lead anywhere, at least there will have been no harm done. And it might succeed, as the Palestinian talks did. Anyway let's try.
A look at the Asharq al-Awsat opinion pieces yesterday, immediately following the results at Mecca, indicates one big presupposition and potential flaw in this argument. Both of the top commentators on that day described the Saudi role as having been successful in and of itself, and they didn't mention any need for follow-up efforts by the Saudi regime to market this to the Americans and the Europeans, so as to ensure the end of the de facto blockade and the resumption of government financial and other aid. Their point was that everything is now up to the Palestinians, so that if this fails, the Saudi regime will have been blameless. In other words, the Saudis have done their job.

By contrast, the next-day stories in the critical papers Al-Akhbar and Al-Quds al-Arabi stressed the Saudi responsibility for the marketing of this agreement to the West (in addition, naturally, to the responsibilities of the Palestinian parties). Abdulbari Atwan's Al-Quds al-Arabi column, and the Al-Akhbar news report, both refer to the crucial importance of followup efforts by the Saudi regime to "market" this agreement to the West. The latter puts it this way:
[The Saudi regime was successful in hosting this]. However, the biggest challenge now for the Saudis, as sponsors of these talks, is going to be ensuring the marketing of the national-unity Palestinian government internationally, and lifting the blockade against its people. This isn't going to be an easy task, particularly since the initial reactions of the US and Israel [talked about the three conditions including "recognition of Israel" and so on]...
In other words, on this view, the job is by no means done.

So these are two different ways of looking at what happened in Mecca. The Saudi writers take the position the Saudi regime exhibited all of the initiative that could possibly be demanded of it, thus opening up, for the likes of Rubaie and others, a possible brave new world of Mecca-inspired solutions. The critics say the all-important question of Saudi political will is still an open question.

Which for one thing makes you wonder about the US corporate media presentation of this as already a case of Saudi-victory/US defeat.

Friday, February 09, 2007

"Sunni Arab guerillas": Why not name the groups?

According to Al-Hayat today, The deputy governor of Diyala province said: "members of AlQaeda and of armed groups allied with it" control entire cities in his province.

Juan Cole changed that to: "Sunni Arab religious radicals" control entire cities... Similarly he said yesterday "a radical Muslim group" claimed to have shot down the Chinook helicopter, adding "it isn't clear whether the Sunni Arab guerillas are getting better weapons..." even though that claim was actually made by a specific group, the Islamic State of Iraq.

Why not name the groups ? What's with the "Sunni Arab guerillas"?

USA today reports a resurgence of activity in the US by the KKK, but it doesn't call them "white Protestant terrorists", it calls them the KKK. Only combatants or partisans refer to specific combatant groups on the other side by their ethnic or religious names in preference to the specific group name, and the purpose behind that is often to stoke the underlying ethnic and religious hatred.

At some point in the future, post-Maliki, the question of Iraq-government power-sharing is going to be raised again, and died-in-the-wool partisans of the SCIRI-Dawa Shiite establishment would surely like to see the phrase "Sunni Arab" take on a negative coloration in the run-up to that. Juan seems to be helping out with that.

There's nothing wrong with being a supporter of the SCIRI-Dawa establishment. What's wrong is propagandizing for them under the guise of objective reporting.

Americans said to be supporting moves to "change the political map"

On February 1, Al-Hayat called attention to the formation of subgroups within the main Iraqi parliamentary blocs, their common theme being to give a stronger voice to "independents" within the Sunni and the Shiite blocs respectively, as a first step in trying to overcome the entrenched sectarian party-structure. At that point, the journalist quoted spokesmen for these new sub-groups, within the Shiite UIA and the Sunni Accord Front, on the general undesirability of sectarianism, but there wasn't any indication what alternatives this might lead to.

Today, Al-Hayat returns to this topic, and says the coalescing of "independents" within the big blocs (1) is a movement that has strong support from the Americans; (2) could be an early indication of a "post-Maliki" political structure; and (3) even quotes a member of parliament (admittedly a member of Allawi's group) to the effect Iyad Allawi would be a good candidate for Prime Minister under such a non-sectarian structure, if it could be created.

The journalist introduces the story this way:
The Iraqi parliament is witnessing a broad movement with support from the Americans for the formation of "independent" blocs within the existing coalitions, in search of a meeting of the minds on certain crucial issues.

Politicians stress that this movement enjoys broad support from the American side, because the Americans recognize what a grave obstacle the current sectarian political formations are to finding an appropriate solution to the political and security crises, and also to the attempts to find an exit from the Iraqi quagmire, not to mention the question of preparing the ground for the post-Maliki era.

A spokesman for the independent group within the UIA denied this implies any opposition to existing UIA leadership, but by way of rebutting that, the journalist quotes someone from Allawi's Iraqi List who said there is what he called a "state of rebellion" within the sectarian blocs, and the new subgroups of "independents" represent the start of a movement to set new terms of reference for Iraqi politics that gets away from religious polarization. The Iraqi List person, Osama al-Najifi, told the reporter: "The Americans have a real desire to change the political map, which has been the cause of so many problems..." But he said this is can't be done without a "realistic basis, beginning with the creation of a nationalist bloc within parliament to bring together the moderate individuals", which could then be expanded to as to permit real change, and the creation of what this Iraqi List person called a "moderate government", thus getting away from the pattern of sectarian confrontations...

The Iraqi List person added he thought it possible to posit the name of Iyad Allawi, not least because he enjoys strong support from the Americans.

A spokesman for the Iraqi Accord Front (Sunni) agreed there is a state of rebellion within the main blocs, but he ruled out any change for making major changes in the political map (in the non-sectarian direction) at the present time, given the very broad movement toward formation of sect-based groups, which has taken on characteristics that are going to be very difficult to reverse.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

One bugbear at a time

Along with the report of the downing of a Chinook helicopter yesterday in Anbar province, northwest of Baghdad, the fifth US helicopter hit in a month, Al-Hayat adds this:
Military specialists said armed [groups] that control the outskirts of Baghdad have been able to acquire a new generation of ground-to-air rockets of the "Strela" type. ...[T]he AlQaeda organization in Iraq (actually the "Islamic State of Iraq", an AlQaeda offshoot) claimed [reponsibility for] the operation in an internet announcement... and sources close to the armed groups said they had obtained a new generation of shoulder-held Strela ground-air rockets, and one result of that is a change the nature of their operations against the American helicopters. The sources said various armed groups in Iraq have been able to buy these new-type rockets, and they have been used in four of the five helicopter hits this year....

And an expert in the former military-manufacturing program said new generations of weapons have come into the possession of armed persons regardless of their group-affiliation, including new high-power explosive devices that exceed [in sophistication] the remote-control explosive devices of the type that the Americans go after. And he said some of the new weapons, like a long-range version of the Katyusha rocket have been developed domestically in Iraq.

According to this Al-Hayat report: The new-type weapons including the new shoulder-held Strelas are in the hands of a wide variety of armed groups; the new weapons have led to new methods of attack against helicopters; and just in passing, the reporter refers to "armed groups...which control the outskirts of Baghdad," all without singling out any one group as against another. The NYT reports a US military official in Iraq as having no information about any new types of weapons, but the paper does say US officials are seeing a new coordination. The paper says: "American officials emphasize that a new sense of coordinated aggressiveness on the part of insurgents toward attacking aircraft, or even luck, may be playing as large a role in the high pace of crashes as improved skill and tactics among insurgents." (aka Mufkarat al-Islam) and are two websites that regularly report on attacks against the US military without making any particular distinction between the Islamic State of Iraq (the AlQaeda creation) and domestic groups like Islamic Army of Iraq. For instance Islammemo reported, and Albasrah repeated in English (at that link under "Baghdad") the gist of an allegedly all-group meeting supposedly held recently to plan the response to the new Baghdad security plan, including divisions of Sunni Baghdad into military districts, assignment of infrastructure and supply tasks, and so on, and the reporter said each group, including the Islamic State of Iraq, the IAI and others, promised surprises on the military level. The "reporter" said the overall plan was proposed by the Islamic State of Iraq and was approved by acclamation. Naturally there is propaganda and morale-building in all of this, just as there is on the other side. However, the suggestion of some kind of integration of the AlQaeda offshoot with some of the other resistance groups is a feature common to this and also to the above-noted Al-Hayat news about broad proliferation of the new types of weapons.

What is just as noteworthy is the demise of AlQaeda as the frightening bugbear in US corporate media, (having been replaced by Iran in that role). The NYT and the WaPo today bury the Islamic State of Iraq claim to having shot down the helicopter deep inside their stories, and they ostentatiously avoid mentioning the AlQaeda provenance of this group. One bugbear at a time, seems to be the idea.

What the Saudi-Palestinian meetings could lead to

With the meetings in Mecca between Fatah and Hamas under the sponsorship of the Saudi king still in their preliminary stages, there are interesting variations in the way Arab critics of the Saudi regime see this. Everyone agrees that the more proactive Saudi stance is new, and that it represents a margin of maneuver that has been granted to them by the American administration. Where views differ is in how the Saudis will use this.

Two heavyweight critics of the Saudi regime are willing to give the Saudi Palestine initiative the benefit of the doubt, within different limits. Abdulbari Atwan in Al-Quds al-Arabi sees the Saudi regime as having been given limited specific tasks by the Americans, first to lure Hamas out of the Iranian orbit, and secondly to pacify the Palestinian security picture ahead of the next appearance of Condoleeza Rice in the region, at a scheduled summit with Abbas and Olmert in Jerusalem later this month. Atwan prefaces his remarks with a historical overview of Saudi regional strategy since its opposition to Nasserist Egypt, and continuing through its support for the overthrow of Saddam, the top stragetic priority, he says, being always enmity to any rival for regional leadership. And in that context, any "accomplishments" by way of supporting the Palestinians are going to be extremely limited, says Atwan.

Joseph Samaha, writing in Al-Akhbar, takes a more existential approach. He agrees that the Americans have given the Saudis a "narrow margin" to operate in, but he says that isn't necessarily the end of the story. First, he notes that the fact the Americans have given the Saudis any room for maneuver at all reflects the "period of weakness" the US regime is going through, suggesting this could be a fluid factor. But more important: Suppose, he says, that the current Mecca meetings are successful in putting in place a joint Hamas-Fatah government of national unity, and that the Saudi regime is seen as having been the sponsor, something that isn't completely out of the realm of possibility. That would bring with it certain responsibilities, and the first one would be that Saudi Arabia should see to the lifting of the economic blockade, and second would be getting the Europeans to alter their conditions for resumption of financial and other assistance. These would be genuine accomplishments, Samaha says, but at the same time, the result would be to confront the Saudi regime with the real "touchstone" of regional leadership, and that means a program for freeing the Palestinians from the Israeli occupation.
The least that can be exected [of the Saudi regime] is that they announce a roadmap for reaching that conclusion [freedom from the occupation], or at least that the Arab regimes will stand by their minimum obligations to work for that end. ...Which means saying: This is our proposal for an agreement, these are the options, and these are the pressure-tactics we will use to convince people, and this is what we will do if it is rejected. Anything less than that belongs in the realm of rhetoric and not of policy. Anything less than that isn't worthy of a sovereign government, and certainly not of one that feels itself to have been given a regional role...
Putting it another say:
That means the measure of success or failure for the Saudis in this initiative isn't going to be the lack of any preference or taking of sides between this Palestinian faction or that. Rather the test will be whether they do in fact show preference and take sides on the side of the Palestinians in their enormous efforts to free themselves from the occupation.
And to put it even more clearly than that:
The measure of success will be how far [the Saudi regime] will go in preparing for a gradual confrontation with the powers and the nations that bar the Palestinian people from their rights, and that means first and foremost the United States of America.
At the moment, Samaha concedes, we have no indication whether the Saudi regime has made up its mind on this important issue. But there's nothing wrong with waiting to see.