Saturday, March 31, 2007


The worse things get in the Middle East, the more it seems English language analysis begins and ends with the realization of the important fact that Bush is an ignorant bully. Unfortunately this often lends itself to melodrama, in the sense that other Mideast actors are assigned only secondary roles, with less than three-dimentional characters. And an incomplete and cartoon-like representation of the players lends itself to further public-relations manipulation. An example: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia referred to the American occupation of Iraq as "illegal" (or "illegitimate") in his opening speech at the Riyadh summit, and this clearly took the American administration by surprise. Since American public opinion had been convinced for a long time that Abdullah was another poodle, this seemed to be little short of a rebellion on the farm. Certaintly it was another manifestation of American policy gone haywire. One part of the PR response from Washington has been to stress that "No, Abdullah has long been impatient with the Bush's lack of action on Palestine; he brought pictures with him to Crawford; he almost walked out until Bush promised to do something; and so on." And the other part is that Abdullah is still on board with the idea of "resolv[ing] the Palestinian issue so they can turn the region's attention to combatting the threat from Iran." In other words, the new spin on Abdullah is that his impatience over the inhumanity of Palestine finally boiled over and he lashed out, in the context of the more-urgent need to get that out of the way so as to combat the threat from Iran. In this way, one cartoon-version of Abdullah, the rebellious poodle, is in the process of being replaced by another, Abdullah the angry humanitarian, cornered.

It is true that what boiled over was the Saudi realization that their regional influence was under threat not only from Iran, but now increasingly from Iraq too. The reference to an illegitimate occupation of Iraq was really an attack on an illegitimate regime, and for Abdullah a threatening regime, in Iraq, sponsored by his supposed ally Bush. It had just recently become clear that the Allawi-American scheme for creation of an alternate, and more Sunni-friendly Green-Zone regime was being discontinued. If there was any one development that pushed Abdullah into using unexpectedly harsh language, that was probably it.

It is true that the feeling of growing threat from Iran and Iraq has changed the Saudi perspective. The Saudi regime now feels an urgent need for local allies, and given the lack of Arab leadership elsewhere (meaning Egypt), this means taking on the missing Arab-leadership role itself, and that in turn means: Promoting action, or at least apparent action, on Palestine. The Saudis are hoping not only for good PR on the Arab street, but also for an end to their feud with Bashar Assad's administration in Syria, weaning Syria away from Iran and back into the Arab fold (and similarly of course with Hamas). While it isn't clear how the proposed Palestinian negotiations will relate to the possible Syria-Israel talks on Golan and other issues, at least the Saudi-Syrian relationship is friendlier than it has recently been (the two having in effect taken opposite sides in the Israel-Hizbullah war). And this is additionally important because Syria and Saudi Arabia have been rivals for influence in Lebanon. What the Saudis are looking for is authority and problem-solving influence in all of these areas. This is not the same as "turn[ing] the region's attention to combatting the threat from Iran".

Condoleeza Rice also wants action, or at least apparent action, on Palestine, so on that point Condoleeza and Abdullah are in apparent agreement. However, this is a question of incremental steps, and the first incremental step that Condoleeza is looking for is gradual de facto recognition of Israel by the Arab regimes in the region generally, so that in any eventual war with Iran, America can be seen as simultaneously on the side of its traditional Arab allies, and on the side of Israel, at the same time. That accounts for the importance of this question of Arab-Israel diplomatic recognition as a first step. The first incremental step for Abdullah is quite different: It is the closing of ranks in the Arab world including Syria and including also Hamas, in order to split both of them from their Iranian relationships and bring them back into the Arab fold. Recognition or otherwise of Israel has nothing to do with it, except in relation to a Palestinian settlement.

To put it another way: From the Saudi point of view, the role of Israel will be as interlocutor in talks aimed at peace and ending the Palestinian occupation. By contrast, from American point of view, Israel is something that needs to be grafted into the Arab world as part of an anti-Iran strategy. For the Saudis, the road will hopefully lead to stability and balance, and it starts and ends with their establishment of their own Arab leadership and influence, including in Palestine. For the Americans, the road leads to confrontation with Iran, and an important way-station is the unification of Israel with the Arab regimes in the same anti-Iran camp. These are two very unrelated, and in many ways contradictory, aims.

What does the exclusive focus on Bush-the-incompetent-bully have to do with this? Just this: We know Bush. I know him as the milk-fed punk learning about strategy on the bar-stools of Yale. You perhaps know him in some similar way, but the point is that we know him as well as anyone can know anyone. We don't feel the need to study texts in order to understand what he is about. It is not the same with Abdullah. Yesterday he was a poodle, today a rebel, tomorrow an impatient humanitarian. The same goes for others in the region. Try to imagine an Arab person interpreting America without any understanding of the English language, and maybe you will see what I mean. Or look at it this way: Americans sometimes complain that Arabs and others don't appreciate America's motives, judging us only by our actions, which of course are full of technical errors of implementation that so often obscure our real aims and objectives. They don't "know" us. I am not belittling that.

But the point is that before you try and walk you should put the shoe on your other foot too. Given the stick-figure approach by the US administration and the media, it is to be expected that public opinion in America will now oscillate between thinking the Saudis are really Bush-allies in his anti-Iran strategy, and the opposite view, namely that they are Bush-opponents in their Palestine strategy and their overtures to the diabolical Hamas and Assad. They are what they are, and the problem for institutional America is that there isn't the cultural or linguistic underpinning to understand, not only what they are, but even (it sometimes seems) that there is such a thing as fully human aspirations and motivations in other cultures, at least not in a depth that would be able to withstand the cartoon-oriented propaganda. And the more the shock-a-minute thriller narrative takes hold, the less it seems to matter, and the more it actually does matter. Because the thinness of understanding creates volatility in public opinion just the same as thin markets foster volatility in financial trading markets, and it is a far more dangerous thing, because central banks cannot clean up after violence.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Riyadh Summit

Al-Hayat leads its Riyadh-summit coverage with this:
High-level sources participating in the Arab solidarity summit that started yesterday in Riyadh told Al-Hayat that the summit "Launched a climate aimed at reclaiming Arab "qaraar" [word meaning in this case "firm decision-making power"], which in the past had been eroded in a way that led to a multiplication of foreign interventions and allowed the initiative to fall into non-Arab hands". And the sources added: "Exchanges in the sessions and between sessions all indicated a common desire to regain the initiative in all of the open files, from Palestine to Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and Somalia, and this involves unifying our discourse in addressing the great powers, and also in addressing the neighboring states.

This atmosphere of taking back Arab decision-making powers appeared in the opening statement [of the Saudi king] ...when he said: "When credibility returns, a new wind of hope will begin to blow over the ummah, and we will not allow powers foreign to our region to design the future of our region. No flags will fly in Arab lands but Arab flags". And the king touched on the need to end the oppressive blockage against our brothers the Palestinian people, at the earliest possible time. And he took up too the "illegal foreign occupation" of Iraq, and the "hateful sectarianism which threatens the unity of its people".
The theme of the conference, in other words, according to Al-Hayat, was a common desire to see the Arab regimes take control of strategic decision-making in the region, with the implicit admission that their credibility in this had reached a very low ebb. On this reading, the reference to the illegal foreign occupation of Iraq was not really an about-face in Saudi policy vis-a-vis the Bush administration. Rather it was part of a attempt by the Saudi king to show leadership in permitting the Arab regimes to claw back some degree of credibility in the Arab world. The king "took up" the issue of the illegal American occupation of Iraq in the same way that he "took up" the problem of "hateful sectarianism" in that country, and the need to lift the Palestinian blockade: These are problems that have resulted from foreign interventions in our region (so goes this reading); we leaders have in the past been lax in allowing openings for these foreign interventions to occur; we recognize that; and from now on we will be making our own decisions, to roll this back and make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again. Given the fact that the "foreign interventions" can be understood as Iranian in addition to American, this isn't a theme from which policy moves automatically flow. It is a general statement of principle.

Al-Quds al-Arabi, for its part, adds to its summit coverage this:
Israeli newspaper Yehdioth Ahrunoth reported on Wednesday that the Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel have held secret meetings at which they have drawn up a new proposal for solving the question of Palestinian refugees. The paper said this includes a proposal for financial compensation for refugees displaced in the 1948 war, in exchange for their staying in the countries where they currently reside. And the paper said the proposal would permit those who didn't agree [to the financial compensation offer] to return to Palestine. And it said the US and Saudi and other Gulf states would provice multi-billion-dollar financing to improve the quality of life of those who choose to stay in the countries where they now live.
The reporter doesn't comment on the YA report, limiting himself to background on the number of refugees involved, and so on. I haven't seen the YA story referred to anywhere else.

The Al-Quds al-Arabi lead editorial says the important practical effect of the Riyadh summit has been to initiate a new stage in the process aimed at Arab-country recognition of Israel, a crucial step, the editorialist says, in laying the groundwork for confrontation with Iran "whether political or military", in his words. Specifically, on the Israel-recognition question, the editorialist says this:
If reports are true about a joint meeting of the foreign ministers of the "international quartet" with those of the "Arab quartet", along with the contending parties Israel and Palestine, then we can expect the start of an unprecedented new round of normalization [of Arab states with Israel]. This is because the Arab quartet includes two states that don't currently have relations with Israel, namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE..."
Similarly, the editorialist says, the Rice meetings with Abbas and Olmert, quite apart from any substance, have had as their aim the further creation of a climate of opinion putting Israel on the side of the Arab states ahead of an eventual confrontation with Iran.

So there you have part of the assortment of Arab views on the Riyadh summit, from the regimes pulling up their socks to regain credibility (Al-Hayat), to another step in the adoption of Israel as an ally against Iran (Al-Quds al-Arabi).

The American coverage puts all of this in kids-story mode. While King Abdullah did call the US occupation "illegal", the NYT misleadingly implies this was some kind of a policy about-face, lifting it out of its context of overall self-criticism. The more-colorful Juan Cole writes: "King Abdullah is hopping mad to talk this way...It augurs ill for US-Saudi relations....[The king] is so angry he sounds a bit like Harith Al-Dhari, who is connected in some shadowy way with the Sunni guerillas fighting the US," focusing on this as if it was meant as a specific threat to the Green-Zone government.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Bad news in Arabic

De-reconciliation: Chalabi version

Al-Hayat says the director of the existing Iraqi government DeBaathification agency, Ali al-Lami, is bitterly critical of the announcement earlier this week about a proposed new De-Baathification law. (Lami's agency is headed by Ahmed Chalabi). First of all, al-Lami said, this was not done in coordination with the existing agency, in fact he said we were as surprised as anyone by the announcement. Second, in terms of content, it would give Baathists "free rights" that they didn't even enjoy under Saddam. And finally, he said the effect of such a law would be to revive the Baathist schemes to re-take control of the government, and would ultimately increase violence instead of diminishing it. And al-Lami added the announcement appeared to have been timed to coincide with the end of the term of office of the American ambassador Khalilzad.

De-reconciliation: AlQaeda version

Al-Hayat also notes, in the same news-story, that a pair of car-bombs in the Abu Ghraib district west of Baghdad yesterday took the life of Harith al-Dhari, not the head of the Muslim Scholars Association, but a nephew who was named after him. The young man's father, Zahir al-Dhari, Al-Hayat reminds readers, is head of the Zaubaa tribe, one of whose members is deputy premier Salaam Zubaie, the target of the assassination attempt last week, an attempt claimed by the AlQaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq. Zahir al-Dhari lost no time in blaming AlQaeda for the killing of his son. It isn't hard to conclude that the AlQaeda organizations consider Dhari and his circle to be among those referred to by Khalilzad in his farewell address as "reconciliable insurgents".

US ground-troop involvement in Iran-war preparations?

Al-Quds al-Arabi prints on its front page a summary of a news-item in the Russian news agency Novosti yesterday, which said Russian intelligence has noted unusual activity by US forces on the Iraq-Iran border, consistent with preparations for a combined air-land attack on Iran. (Previous reports have talked about an air attack; this talks about an air-land attack). The unnamed Russian intelligence official said the US hasn't yet decided on the timing of the attack, which would depend on calculations for "bringing Iran to its knees while minimizing [US] losses". The Novosti story is available here. It reminds readers about statements last week by Russian military expert Leonid Ivashov to the effect the Pentagon is planning a massive air strike on Iran in the near future. And it says the USS Stennis with eight support ships and four nuclear submarines is headed for the Gulf to join the carrier group USS Eisenhower, which has been deployed there since December 2006. The reference to US ground-troop movements in Iraq in connection with this doesn't appear to have been picked up by any of the Western media.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Another question

The government-run newspaper Al-Sabah ran a tiny three-sentence note about a proposed draft to amend the law on DeBaathification, stressing that the announcement from the President and the Prime Minister contained no details whatsoever. Al-Mada, which is a pro-Talabani paper, said nothing about the proposal. Azzman, in its domestic Iraq edition, said nothing about it either, but ran a story in its international edition that concluded: "Some fear that the timing of this proposal reflects an attempt to calm Arab anxieties [likely to be expressed] at the Riyadh summit on the collapsed situation in Iraq". Al-Sabah al-Jadida ran a small item that described the proposal in terms of technical adjustments to already-existing DeBaathification provisions.

In other words, although the Sunni-oriented Azzaman was slightly more interested in this than the government-oriented papers (but not in its domestic edition), the broad consensus in the Iraqi press was that this is not history-making. By contrast, the NYT, WaPo and AP all took this up as if it represents a definitive change in policy-direction for the Maliki administration, and the culmination of months of hard work by the departing US ambassador Khalilzad. Good work, Ambassador! One problem seems to have been that the Iraqi journalists, untrained in Western journalistic standards, would have asked questions of the Embassy about this, like: If this is a major reconciliation measure, why is there only minimal Iraqi coverage of it; why are there no expressions of support for this from the Sunni parties; is the Chalabi De-Baathification organization in fact going to be disbanded; why is this being announced on the day of Khalilzad's farewell press-conference; and so on.

But the other question this raises is: What is the intended audience for this, if it is not the Iraqi people? Part of the answer is suggested in the Azzaman excerpt cited above, namely the easing of pressure from the Riyadh summit. Another target could be the US Congress.

Monday, March 26, 2007


Al-Quds al-Arabi reported on Friday in a very definitive way the demise of Allawi's attempt to put together a coalition what would represent an alternative to the Maliki administration, based on statements of non-support by a key member of the Islamic Party of Iraq (part of the big Sunni coalition); by a spokesman for the Kurdish parties; and by the head of the Fadhila party, which had most recently been in talks with Allawi. The Al-Quds story was on page three, under its own by-line. Then on Saturday, the Shiite news-site reported the same story verbatim, attributing it to "international news agencies". The story is unusually solidly-sourced, but to me at least it's not entirely clear where it originated. Western media haven't mentioned it, which may or may not mean anything.

In any event, it is worth highlighting a remark attributed to a leader of Allawi's own group, Izzat Shabandar, who said that in spite of Allawi's efforts, the initiative "lacked American support." This comes as Khalilzad is being replaced as US ambassador, suggesting (to me, that is) the possibility that what these reports reflect is an American decision to fold the Allawi initiative and replace it with something else. But what?

Meanwhile, Al-Hayat continues to talk up the idea of cooperation between tribes, armed groups, and the government in fighting the AlQaeda organizations. (Sorry for a missing link here. The latest I cited was here, but there has been at least another item along the same lines in Al-Hayat since then). Some of this at least is undoubtedly wishful thinking, but it is worth underlining the fact that from Al-Hayat's Sunni perspective, it makes sense to talk about cooperation between some armed groups and the Maliki administration, at least in this tactical way. I don't think anyone knows the relative strength, within the resistance, of the AlQaeda affiliated international jihadis on the one side, and the domestic nationalist resistance on the other. But the point here is merely that Al-Hayat, for its part, sees the threat from AlQaeda as having triggered talk of government cooperation with some of the domestic groups. Whether this will prove to be at all meaningful remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Condoleeza Rice met in Aswan on the weekend, not only with the foreign ministers of the so-called "Arab quartet" (Saudi, Egypt, Jordan and UAE), but also, separately, with the heads of the Mukhabarat (national-security/intelligence) of those countries, including Omar Suleiman of Egypt and Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia. (She had a similar meeting with the Mukhabarat chiefs in Amman last month.) The Aswan meeting with the Mukhabarat chiefs wasn't elaborated on in any of the Western accounts, but Abdulbari Atwan, writing in Al-Quds al-Arabi, explained that for instance in Egypt, the foreign minister handles things like economic cooperation with Sri Lanka, while the Palestinian file is in the hands of Suleiman, and the same in Saudi Arabia, where Bandar is the person in charge of the Lebanon and Iran files. Atwan, who is well-connected, didn't say specifically what was talked about in those Rice-Mukhabarat meetings, suggesting he doesn't know. Did they talk about Iraq?

His overall point is that the Rice verbiage about "horizons" and "active diplomacy" and so on, refer to US pressure to get the Arab states to water down their 2002 Israel-Palestine peace proposal by dropping the Palestinian "right of return" and by front-ending Arab recognition of Israel. In today's column, Atwan calls attention to Thomas Friedman's Saturday op-ed in the NYT (recommending the Saudi King re-launch the peace initiative with a surprise visit to Israel and Palestine right after the Riyadh summit) as another piece of this scheme for a watered-down peace-proposal with front-ended recognition of Israel. Atwan said he regrets to have to say it, but the fact is Friedman is not just blowing bubbles; the King might actually do it. After all, he notes, the original 2002 proposal involved collusion between Friedman and the King, so this might be the same type of thing.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

NYT misinformation in context

Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei yesterday delivered a televised Newyear address, and according to the summary in Al-Quds al-Arabi, it included this:
In its psychological war, [the West] is trying to intimidate the authorities, and weaken Iranian solidarity. They are trying to spread fear by spreading rumors about the imposition of sanctions, and about the use of force, and they are promoting (or "feeding") divisiveness within Iraq.
On the first point, people should carefully note the New York Times piece by Elaine Sciolino on Tuesday, March 20, which cited anonymous US, European and Iranian sources to the effect Russia told Iran it would withhold fuel from the Bushehr plant unless Iran complied with UN demands about stropping uranium enrichment. The NYT trumpeted this in an editorial on Wednesday as an historic milestone in Russian behavior, but it was denied the same day by Russian foreign minister Lavrof, who said the report was "an indecent attempt to provoke an argument between us and ...Iran", and added there is no connection between fuel for Bushehr and the UN matter. And Lavrof said in the Russian parliament that his government will not support "excessive" (or "extreme") sanctions against Iran. Which does make the NYT report look less like a bona fide news report and more like part of the pattern of intimidation Khamenei was referring to. (This astute blogger smelled a rat in the NYT piece immediately, suspecting the "sources" were in the US and British delegations to the IAEA, which had been used in similar ways as "propaganda distribution points" in the runup to the 2003 invasion).

On the second point, please recall the report in a Russian paper that was picked up by the Novosti news agency, according to which the Russians had told Iran the US was going to attack its nuclear installations on April 6. A commenter here noted that the Russian paper in question is not of the highest reputation in that country, which I guess would put it about on a par with the New York Times. And certainly there are various factors which would suggest this was another part of an attempted-intimidation strategy, rather than a bona fide warning, given the timing. (US troops in Iraq are exposed to retaliation; political talks are under way in a number of forums, not just the UN; and so on).

And Khamenei mentions a third point, in connection with this, which is the accusation that the US is contributing to divisions in Iraq. In this connection, recall that a Russian military think-tank official was quoted in a Novosti interview earlier this week accusing the American special forces of fomenting Shiite-Sunni violence in Iraq. This was part of his summary of the Iraq situation on the occasion of the start of the fifth year of the Iraq war. In the context of the Khamenei speech, this is brought up as part of the pattern of threats and intimidation directed at Iran.

The Khamenei speech yesterday focused on the the need for firmness and determination in meeting whatever the West plans to do: Full military retaliation in the event of a military attack; and scrapping the international nuclear agreements if the West ignores the Iranian rights that are part of those agreements. I have focused on the specific point about a pattern of intimidation because I think it helps clear up ambiguity in recent reports, and particularly because it puts the NYT misinformation piece into the right context.

(The IRNA summary of the speech is here).

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Iraqi resistance cites Russian expert accusing the US of instigating sectarian bloodshed

Iraqi resistance groups, in the course of their regular daily summary of incidents, (for Tuesday, March 20, under the heading "Baghdad") yesterday cited an interview by the Russian news agency Novosti with a Russian military think-tank official, who said among other things that American "special forces" are instigating Shiite-Sunni fighting in Iraq. The point came up in the course of the following report about a mini-bus bombing:

Bomb rips through Kia passenger bus in Baghdad, as mysterious bombings increase. Russian expert cites US special services as source of sectarian tension in Iraq.

In a dispatch posted at 1:20pm Makkah time Tuesday afternoon, Mafkarat al-Islam reported that a bus carrying civilian passengers exploded in the Baghdad district of al-Karradah according to an announcement by the puppet police.

The correspondent for Mafkarat al-Islam reported the source as saying that a bomb went off in a Kia vehicle in a shopping center near the al-Karrahda area, which is predominantly Shi‘i. The source said that two people were killed and four more wounded. The injured were ambulanced to nearby hospitals.

The bombing was one of a growing number of mysterious attacks that have rocked Baghdad on a daily basis, killing or wounding thousands of Iraqis amidst claims that regional powers are attempting to keep sectarian violence raging in the country. Since no groups of the Resistance take responsibility for the mysterious blasts, suspicions are widely expressed that intelligence services are behind the bombing campaign.

Russian geostrategic expert Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov alluded to precisely this reality in an interview with the RIA-Novosti Press Agency correspondents Valery Yarmolenko and Zalina Tsopanova on Monday. Ivashov, who is Vice-President of Russia’s Academy of Geopolitical Problems, reviewed America’s military and political defeat in Iraq and noted the failure of US troops to counter the guerrilla movement, despite America’s advanced technological edge and the primitive armament of the Resistance. Ivashov remarked that, “the only thing that is working is not being done by the US troops but by their special services, namely to organize fighting between Shi‘ah and Sunnis.”

Here is a summary I prepared using a machine translation of the Monday March 19 Novosti article:

Americans suffer military and political defeat in Iraq: Expert

Vice president of the Academy of Geopolitical Affairs Leonid Ivashov said the state of affairs in Iraq demonstrates the military and political defeat of the USA and warned Washington against agression against Iran. He said to put it mildly the Americans' military results are unsatisfactory, in spite of their technological superiority. Regular army units in the south were easily defeated, but it was a different story as soon as they met guerilla resistance in the cities. Pentagon officials looked in Eastern Europe for expertise on what was done against guerilla formations in the WWII period, but this doesn't appear to have helped either. The only thing they are able to do, he said--and not the army but their special services--is to organize fights between Shiites and Sunnis. High-tech weaponery such as electronic spy planes and so on have proven absolutely ineffective. The war has cost over 3000 killed, 24,000 wounded, and will have $500 billion by end 08. Republicans have lost prestige and will lose the White House. EU China India and Russia looking for alternatives to US monopoly on world order. Anti-americanism everywhere, even among allies in Europe, is helping consolidate efforts for a new approach. He said Russia can be one of the leaders of the multipolar world.

Note that Ivashov also "warned [the US] against agression against Iran", but the point isn't elaborated.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Al-Hayat: Non-Qaeda resistance groups talking to the government about tactical cooperation around Baghdad

Al-Hayat says there have developments in the relationship between the Maliki administration on the one side and armed groups and/or ex-Baathists on the other.


First, the paper says "talks are ongoing between the government and seven armed-group factions that are active in the governates around Baghdad (including Anbar, Salahuddin and Diyala), following an announcement by these groups that they oppose the 'Islamic State' which AlQaeda is promoting," attributing this to sources both in the government and "close to the armed groups".

The journalist quotes an Iraqi army officer, Riyadh al-Shamari who said representatives of "seven well-known factions" were in Baghdad last week for talks with the government "that centered on cooperation in fighting AlQaeda in the outskirts of Baghdad." And the journalist explains that the government thinks the outskirts of Baghdad is currently the originating source of all terrorist activity. The same army officer said these groups have had some success in limiting the activities of Al-Qaeda in areas including Abu Ghraib and Falluja, and he said this has been an important support for the Baghdad security plan that Maliki has been carrying out for the last month.

The sources said the recent Baghdad discussions "went beyond the differences" that separate the armed groups from the government, which (differences) include the question of revising Sunni representation in the government. In other words, according to this account, they focused on a common interest in fighting AlQaeda in the area around Baghdad, leaving the political discussions for another day.

In the same vein, the writer quotes a government official in Salahuddin who said the Islamic Army in Iraq opposes the Islamic State of Iraq, and is supported in this by local tribes that have refused to pledge allegeance to AlQaeda, and they have faced AlQaeda in Tikrit and in Samarra and Al-Dawra, and in other areas adjacent to Diyala governate. And this Salahuddin official said the local government is trying to act as an intermediary in arranging for an agreement between the [Islamic] Army and the government.

By way of background, the writer reminds readers of a recent announcement of an attempt to form an alliance of non-Qaeda armed groups, including Islamic Army, Brigades of the 1920 Revolution, Army of the Rashidin and others, to offset the "Mujahidin Shura Concil" which they say is controlled by AlQaeda, itself recently morphed into the "Islamic State of Iraq". The writer describes the non-Qaeda alliance as an "attempt to redraw the map of the resistance."

So the gist of this part of the report is the reported polarization of the armed resistance into a Qaeda-affiliated part and a non-Qaeda-affiliated one, with the latter now (according to this report) actually talking to the government about tactical cooperation in fighting the Qaeda groups in the area around Baghdad.


This same Al-Hayat piece also takes up the question of Syria and the Baathists. Here the writer sources the story with a little less assurance, writing only that "some reports indicate" that Syria has been sponsoring Iraqi negotiations with Baathist leaders, including Mohamed Yunis al-Ahmad, and other Baath leaders from the Saddam era. (This is the group that the Saddam loyalists led by Izzat al-Douri consider traitors). Ssomeone in the Yunis camp said they have succeeded in winning over some from the Douri camp, but he says this is in exchange for action of the full list of Sunni demands including "re-drawing the political map", constitution-reform, de-Debaathification, and so on, and including "finding a suitable formula for requiring the foreign forces to leave Iraq..." so there seems to be some wishful thinking involved, at least in this part of the report.

Monday, March 19, 2007


When Andrew Krepinevich briefed senior congressional staff on the government/military thinking behind the current "surge" at the end of February, what he left with them by way of "materials" was only a bullet-point outline. Colin Kahl tried to flesh out the presentation in his listserve essay that Juan Cole excerpted. The whole available package, such as it is, (bullet-point outline and Kahl essay) is available at See also the two prior posts here.

What first jumps out at you is what Krepinevich very delicately called the "Roman option" (aka, on his p 21, the "Roman and Halliburton options"), which he glosses on page 4 as "massive retaliation", with the proviso that this is not likely to be implemented by the US "except in the most dire of circumstances". In expanding on the idea in his listserv essay, Kahl doesn't make the obvious point you would expect to hear, namely that this would involve war crimes and crimes against humanity, rather he says only that it is "incompatible with norms against targeting civilians embraced by the U.S. military and political leadership". You don't have to think back very far to remind yourself of the big difference between crimes against humanity and "norms...embraced by the US military and political leadership". Just think of the discussion about torture. In any event, this "massive retaliation" option is something that comes up in the Krepinevich briefing on counterinsurgency, and in the widely-circulated discussion that followed it. Widely-circulated, but of course we do not know who attended the briefing, or who is on the listserv that Kahl posted to, or who else has been in on the discussion.

That's point one: There has been a widely-circulated discussion of counterinsurgency doctrine and practices, and it included discussion of the "massive retaliation" option, tagging in only as something currently "incompatible with norms...", and not tagging it as a crime against humanity. Point two is that some of the same people are trying to promote another discussion, this one that the general public is being invited to participate in, and that has to do, importantly, not with counterinsurgency doctrine and practice, but rather with "civil war" doctrine and practice.

Here's where the flim-flam comes in. In the counterinsurgency discussions, the "massive retaliation" option is left hanging, something currently "not compatible with norms", or as the Krepinevich outline puts it: not likely to be implemented "except in the most dire of circumstances." The alternatives in this discussion are either (1) success of the current "COIN best practices" approach, or (2) what to do in the (very likely) event of failure. The discussion comes down to how to respond to a likely failure, and the last of Krepinevich's bullet-points on page 21, having discussed the decline in numbers and quality in the official US armed forces, reads: "Hired Guns: The Roman and Halliburton options" (where "Roman", as noted above, is Krepinevich's euphemism for massive retaliation against civilians).

The "civil war" discussion being proposed for public discussion in the vibrant American democracy, is a little different, in a big way. Kahl himself has published a version of this on the Foreign Policy magazine website, and it is quite interesting how this differs from the "counterinsurgency" discussion. The "civil war" options, Kahl says, are essentially two: (1) Stay, and take sides, by which he means side with the Shiite majority fighting Sunnis; or (2) withdraw, and provide only humanitarian or palliative assistance in things like ethnic relocation. (In other versions, there is also a third option, which is to withdraw to mega-bases and carry out the odd bombing raid here and there, as necessary, in order to maintain some degree of leverage in the outcome).

So the problem being proposed for urgent public discussion in the vibrant American democracy is a completely different problem from that being discussed in private by the policy elite. The policy elite is discussing what to do if America can't quell the resistance to its occupation using "best practices", and the options are to withdraw, or kick back and try the last-resort "Roman option", perhaps with the help of some "hired guns". The vibrant democracy is discussing what do do if the civil war continues, and the options are to withdraw, or stay and take sides. And curiously enough, what happens is that staying and taking sides (fighting Sunnis, in other words) is presented as something that is more in keeping with America's "moral obligations in Iraq", because having American soldiers along side Shiite forces "might be the only way to minimize atrocities". So when you boil it down, the policy-elite is discussing non-withdrawal in the interest of a last-resort scorched-earth policy by America, but at the same time presenting this as non-withdrawal in the interest of fulfilling America's moral obligation to help minimize atrocities.

That's the flim-flam. If you say "civil war" enough times, you create the illusion that America doesn't have a dog in the fight, and staying would be the only morally-right thing to do.

Who can we expect to beat the drum for this? That's what Krepinevich wanted to know. As he said on page 18 of his presentation: "The administration has lost control of the narrative, and lost popular confidence--who can/should explain the war to the American people?" That's easy, really: start with political scientists.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

When all else fails, Congressional staff are told: There are always the "Roman and Halliburton options"

Colin Kahl, the political scientist featured in the prior post, points out that his essay was by way of commentary on a briefing by one Andrew Krepinevich, who is president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and a person with an illustrious military career including having served on the personal staff of three Secretaries of Defence, and so on and so forth. The Krepinevich presentation is only available as a point-form outline, dated February 27 of this year, and titled: "The 'New' Conterinsurgency Doctrine and the Baghdad Surge: Formula for Success?"

It begins like this: First there are a few one-liners under the heading "The Situation" starting with "The Bush Administration: Victory on the Cheap"; "The Opposition: Withdrawal without consequences"; that kind of thing.

But the next section gets into substance, and asks about available strategies. The first one goes like this:
The Roman Model: Massive retaliation
Strategy: Rome creates a desert and calls it peace
Success Rate: Very high
Examples: Britain revolt c 60 AD; Israelite revolt c 70 AD
US adaptibility: Low. Owing to US political culture, it is unlikely the Roman model would apply, except in the most dire of circumstances.
Got that? "Except in the most dire of circumstances."

Proceeding on, other possible strategies include "Attrition" which Krepinevich pretty much dismisses with a one-liner about "Whack-a-Mole" strategies, and then what he calls the "The Oil Spot", a confusing name for the idea of creating secure areas where there could be economic development, as a way of winning the population over. This is apparently the "new counterinsurgency strategy" of his title. His one-liner here takes the form of a quotation he attributes to someone called Lawrence Kaplan: "Population security depends on the assumption that US forces can insulate the populace from insurgents and militias. But how do you isolate the population from the population?"

In a nutshell, I don't think it is unfair to conclude Krepinevich is skeptical about the chances for success of any of these approaches. You could read the whole thing and see for yourself. But pay particular attention toward the end at page 21: "The thin green line", where there are four bullet-points:
(1) 92,000 force structure increase
(2) Army recruitment/retention costs are up and numbers are down [followed by some details]
(3) ...And the quality is down too [also followed by some details]
(4) Hired Guns: The Roman and Halliburton options
Recall the opening point about the Roman option of "massive retaliation" being "unlikely [to] apply, except in the most dire of circumstances". Then after running through the obstacles in the way of any of the other options, and the weakening of the US military, his final point is "Hired Guns: The Roman and Halliburton options".

So thank you, Colin Kahl, for that clarification. It is not the Roman option, but the Roman and Halliburton option. I was wrong about something else too. The briefing was not primarily for academics. It was primarily for congressional staff (see the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments website). Which explains why it has not been in the media.

Here's how US political scientists are talking about Iraqi civilians

Colin Kahl is the political scientist who wrote in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs that "US compliance with noncombatant immunity in Iraq has been relatively high by historical standards, and it has been improving since the beginning of the war". By "historical standards" he was alluding to the fact counterinsurgencies in Philippines at the turn of the 19th century, and in South Vietnam more recently killed somewhere around 3% of the entire civilian populations in those countries, while the civilian death-toll in Iraq has been much lower on a dead-persons-per-capita basis. To understand what he means by "improvement since the beginning of the war", you would have to steel yourself, put on your white lab-coat and the read the whole article.

Today, thanks to the public-spiritedness of one of Kahl's scientific colleagues, we are offered some hints about the latest thinking about this. First of all, it seems the military-academic community has actually borrowed from the medical community the concept of "best practices", only in this case they are called "COIN [which means counterinsurgency] best practices", and this "COIN best practices" is something that is being implemented under the new leadership of Petraeus. So not only have efforts to "spare the civilian population" been improving, they are actually now part of an ideal approach: They represent "COIN best practices". There appear to be two main components of this: First of all, naturally you try not to do too much shelling of civilian neighborhoods; you try to minimize atrocities, and so on. Secondly, this appears to involve "spreading American troops out into smaller bases from which they can work with Iraqi forces to provide local security".

The next thing we learn is that there has recently been a "briefing", but the details of the briefing are kept out of sight, behind the three dots. All we can glean is that it appears US military authorities were doing the talking, and academics including Kahl were doing the listening and the nodding of the heads. Here's what Kahl says about the briefing:
. . .This shift [in COIN strategy] makes sense from the perspective of COIN best practices and the new COIN field manual. There are other successful approaches to COIN, including what the briefing calls "the Roman Strategy" ("make a desert and call it peace"), which was basically the approach Saddam used to prevent sustained insurgency in Iraq. But, as the briefing properly notes, adopting this approach (or even somewhat softer, but still highly coercive COIN practices, such as those used by the Americans effectively in the Philippines between 1899-1902), is incompatible with norms against targeting civilians embraced by the U.S. military and political leadership. So, with the Roman strategy off the table, that leaves the "clear, hold, and build" option. However, as the briefing makes clear, this strategic shift may simply be too little, too late. What the briefing doesn't say is that it is also unclear whether employing COIN best practices will work in the context of not only a raging insurgency (in Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala), but also a sectarian civil war (in Baghdad, Diyala, and increasingly Kirkuk), diffuse criminal anarchy and militia rivalry (in the South), and endemic separatist tendencies (in Kurdistan).
In other words, among the other successful approaches to counterintelligence is the "Roman strategy", or scorched-earth approach, where the occupying forces annihilate target civilian populations. Kahl doesn't say this (along with its "somewhat softer, but still highly coercive" variants) is recognized as a shameful crime by every decent human being, he merely says it is "incompatible with norms against targeting of civilians embraced by the US military and political leadership." That is the first point. We have his word for it that the "Roman strategy" was "taken off the table," but only because they are "incompatible with the norms..." of the Bush administration. Am I the only person who hears an echo of the verbiage that has been used in the discussions about torture?

The second point is Kahl's own contribution to this.
What the briefing doesn't say [he writes] is that it is also unclear whether employing COIN best practices will work in the context of not only a raging insurgency (in Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala), but also a sectarian civil war (in Baghdad, Diyala, and increasingly Kirkuk), diffuse criminal anarchy and militia rivalry (in the South), and endemic separatist tendencies (in Kurdistan).
If "COIN best practices" don't work, what then? Could the "norms" be relaxed and some of the "other successful approaches" be tried? Think of the language this administration has used in support of torture.

Kahl's little essay is something he sent to other experts who participate in a listserve, and he gave Juan Cole permission to publish it. Cole's own point in publishing it is no doubt that Iraq is on the brink, and this is no time to be thinking of toppling the SCIRI-led administration. But I think this tells us more than that.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Arab paper says Gulf regimes taking imminent Iran-strike reports seriously

Al-Quds al-Arabi and Al-Hayat both give prominent play to a report in a Russian newspaper that said the US has past the point of no return for an attack on around 20 Iranian nuclear and military locations, scheduled for April 6 and code-named "Sting". The report also said the plant the Russians are helping build (Bushehr) will be spared. Russia, for its part, has warned the Iranian authorities of the planned attack and said it can't count on Russian support if it doesn't cooperate with the UN process. The original report was in a Russian newspaper called Argumenti Nedelja or some such name, and picked up from there by the Novosti news agency. Al-Quds cites the news agency; Al-Hayat cites the paper.

Al-Quds, after summarizing the gist of the report, adds that the countries of the Gulf are taking steps to get ready for Iranian retaliation, the idea being that although Iran has hinted at preparations for retaliation against the US directly, the Al-Quds reporter says Arab military people don't believe they have the capacity for that, so the more likely targets (according to these Arab sources) would be US installations and other assets in the region. He mentions Saudi Arabia and the UAE as places where authorities are taking intensive steps for the protection of US installations. "And," he adds, "they are intensifying domestic intelligence operations within the communities [no doubt meaning Shiite communities], fearing the possible existence of sleeper cells".

The Al-Hayat coverage comes under a subheading "the strike", following news about the UN sanctions proceedings. Al-Hayat adds this (still citing the Russian newspaper report): "Russian military people say the American strike will help improve the domestic position of George Bush, and it will also serve to accelerate the proceedings respecting a missile shield in Europe". The Russian newspaper said Russian military sources expect Iranian retaliation, adding that this could target the United States, including such things as blowing up bridges in Manhattan. Another result will be oil prices over $75 or $80 for a long term, and the "neutralizing" of Iran and weakening of its ability to intervene in regional affairs. Al-Hayat doesn't include reference to Gulf-regime preparations for dealing with the blowback.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Spitting in the wind

Back in October 2006, Arab papers began reporting news of plans and threats by the Bush administration to topple Maliki and replace him with a "government of national salvation", complete with suspending the constitution, and so on. I reported that, but it was ignored everywhere else. Maliki was said to have dismissed this as pre-election (US congressional election) posturing, but it was enough of a concern that a confidence-building teleconference session was arranged. At about the same time, there was news of direct or indirect talks between the US and the Baathist resistance in Amman, followed by news of Maliki's displeasure with that development. National security adviser Hadley visited Maliki in Baghdad, and the reports of those talks were a little more explicit about the gathering hints: It appeared that, to some degree, Washington was shifting from an anti-nationalist (pro-federalist) to a pro-nationalist stance, or at least that Washington was sufficiently dissatisfied with the way Maliki was handling the situation to start threatening him with regime-change.

The execution of Saddam had a number of side-effects which can only have served to heighten Washington's concern with a process gone off the tracks. Arab-language papers carried reports that said the disgust felt by a lot of Sunnis was strengthening the armed resistance; and was further derailing the National Reconciliation process.

So far, this was a process that was described in the Arab-language press, and it is important to notice that this wasn't reported in any consistent way in the English-language press. Hopefully you get the picture: If you scroll through Oct, Nov and Dec in the missing links archives (in each month, the earliest is at the bottom, so you scroll up), you will see the history and how it evolved. The Bush administration, alarmed about the fact that Iraq was coming apart, developed a plan to threaten Maliki with being replaced by a government that would do the things Washington now understood were urgent: Reconciliation with Sunnis, ending sectarian infiltration of the government security apparatus, and if necessary suspending the constitution in order to do so. There were also reports about post-Rumsfeld Washington connecting the cleanup of the militias with withdrawal of its troops. And as soon as that became apparent, Abdulbari Atwan, writing in Al-Quds al-Arabi, pointed out the longer-term issue: This could well represent, he said, a last-ditch attempt to pacify Iraq, but only in order to smooth the way for the long-planned attack on Iran.

That pretty much set the stage for the current drama. At the Amman Bush-Maliki meeting, Bush gave Maliki his deadlines. The emergency-government hypothesis came to be personified in Allawi. The government, complying to some degree, started arresting Iranians, and taking other steps showing that SCIRI was no longer sacred territory. Sadr decided to take himself out of the equation. As the US and Allawi turn up the heat, you see Maliki even making an unprecedented visit to the Sunni stronghold of Ramadi (or at least to a US base nearby).

Given the history outlined above, you don't have to be a political scientist to understand that the Allawi scheme is part of current US policy to try and pacify the Iraqi situation in order to make possible some degree of orderly and face-saving US troop-withdrawal. The big question is: As Allawi tries to put together a coalition to make this regime-change as "legal" as possible, negotiations will be going on with respect to a number of questions, but the biggest question will be: What if any degree of commitment will be demanded, or obtained, from the US with respect to the troop-withdrawal part of this ? In this sense, what is going on now is a continuation of the sporadic negotiations that have gone on with various resistance groups respecting "joining the political process" in exchange for US commitment to withdraw its troops.

Within this broad picture, obviously there are a lot of very important specific problems. Will the parliamentary numbers permit this to be done "legally"? What about Sadr and the Shiite masses? And so on. But my point is that the broad picture has been distorted for English language readers, obscuring understanding of even the most basic points. The Allawi scheme has become like a UFO sighting. One report claims the US is violently opposed to it. Another ties it to passage of the oil law (even though it is Allawi and his friends that are blocking parliamentary discussion of the oil law).

Regrettably, the outline published yesterday by Marc Lynch didn't really help. By putting the person of Allawi ahead of the question of US policy, Lynch pretty much obscures the whole point of the exercise. His main points are that Allawi has a corrupt and violent history (true, but so does the Maliki administration); that this could inflame Shiites (true, that could be a major problem); that in sponsoring him the US would be commiting itself further when what people want is withdrawal (an interesting theoretical point considering the depth of the existing commitment), and that a coup would end "democratic aspirations" in Iraq (if it was a coup, it would certainly end the Bremer-to-Maliki history, if you want to call that "democratic aspirations"). What he doesn't explain is that this has been from the beginning an American initiative, and that its aim is pacification and reconciliation of Iraq sufficiently to permit a face-saving withdrawal. The question is can it be done in this way; and if it can, what comes next in terms of Iran. If it can't, what comes next in terms of Iraqi disintegration. It is discouraging to have followed this issue via some of the Arab-language coverage, to no effect. I am spitting in the wind.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"Changes in the political map"

Al-Hayat's Iraq reporter Mashraq Abbas pulls together recent events in a coherent picture of "changes in the political map" of Iraq.

His first point is that Maliki's surprise visit to Ramadi yesterday was essentially part of an effort to present himself as a strong and non-sectarian leader, in response to new challenges to his government. He puts it this way:
[Maliki] is trying to overcome the contradictions in his government by showing support for the [Sunni] tribes in the al-Anbar stronghold of the armed groups, calculating that there are political changes going on that could alter the domestic political map, [changes] that have regional and US support, including an American plan for military withdrawal in the event of failure of the strategy of George Bush. ... [Maliki] met for the first time with Anbar officials and leaders of tribes fighting AlQaeda] in an effort to win them over to [the idea of] the national interest, and to confirm himself [Maliki] as a non-sectarian leader.
The idea of Maliki trying to get better PR as a strong and non-sectarian leader is straightforward enough. But what about the other part of what this writer is saying: namely about the "political changes that could alter the political map..." and the connection between those changes and "regional support" and a supposed "plan for US military withdrawal..." By "political changes" he isn't just referring to the highly-publicized Allawi scheme in and of itself. He is referring to something else that he thinks is behind the Allawi phenomenon. He puts it this way:
[Baghdad is the scene of] a race between a variety of different political groups to stake out positions on a political map that appears to be about to change--regardless of whether the security plan succeeds or whether it fails. With the appearance of proposals for new political alliances bringing together a variety of groups, sect-based or nationalist, Iraqi politicians are seeing that the "compass" that has up to now permitted the formation of fronts based on sect-cohesiveness, isn't going to last, given the changes in the public mood and the regional climate, in the direction of an easing of sectarian pressure
The journalist then tries out his own version of the Allawi-coalition arithmetic. But his point is that the "new political alliances" idea isn't synonomous with Allawi. It is something that is based on a change in the underlying political climate, both domestically and regionally. (For instance there have been various reports over the last few months about reform subgroups forming to pressure leadership of the big Shiite and Sunni coalitions to abandon their hard-line sectarian positions, without particular reference to Allawi or anyone else).

This of course is completely contrary to the emerging group-think in the West, where people on the left and the right are starting to come together in the thesis of inevitable religious war, mega-chaos and the threat of regional catastrophe. In some ways this looks like a repetition of the Saddam-WMD demagoguery: Scare-accusations that can't be falsified because at root they are nothing more than the cartoon-representation of Arabs with vicious plans; acceptance of the threat by people who find moral satisfaction in the lack of ambiguity. And so on. It is a subtle process in its own way.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

New military and diplomatic plans attributed to a decline in the influence of Cheney and his people

Azzaman and Al-Hayat both pay a lot of attention this morning to the LATimes piece that quotes Pentagon officials as getting ready for shift to more US advisory and training, and less actual troop involvement, something the papers say represents planning for withdrawal and a step in the direction of the Baker-Hamilton strategy on the military level.

But Al-Hayat also goes further on the political level. After quoting a Pentagon official as having been enlightened about the region's allergy to large foreign-troop presence, the Al-Hayat reporter continues:
And in spite of Washington's insistence that its policy in Iraq hasn't changed, particularly its rejection of any direct talks with Iran or Syria, the Baghdad conference did reflect a change in the American strategy, in the direction of pragmatism and a policy of containment in dealing with the Iraq crises. It has been noticed that Condoleeza Rice has been the "main engine" behind this, at the expense of Cheney, who did not express any support for the [Baghdad] conference.
And the headline over the Al-Hayat story drives the point home: "[There are] American reports of a plan to withdraw its forces from Iraq; and [there is] a decline in the influence of certain centers of power in the White House".

The journalist introduces the story as follows:
The Iraq problem has entered a new phase following the Baghdad conference, in the direction of regionalization, and perhaps internationalization, reflected in official visits to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Damascus and Tehran. The Baghdad conference laid bare the embarassment of certain centers of power in the US, where there is talk in political circles of a decline in the role of Dick Cheney to the benefit of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. And there were reports in the papers that US forces have begun preparing a plan for withdrawal from Iraq.
The journalist continues: Rice's allies in this include new UN ambassador Khalilzad, new Iraq ambassador Crocker, and Satterfield. Opponents include Eliot Abrams, and under secretary of defence for policy Eric Edelman, both of whom are in favor of continued isolation of Tehran and Damascus. In the diplomatic context, the reporter notes the latter two were recently defeated in terms of the approach to North Korea.

Monday, March 12, 2007

More Cheney-Rice choreography played out in Baghdad

A reporter for Al-Quds al-Arabi
says there was a four-way meeting on Saturday between the US, Iran, Syria and Britain, behind closed doors at the Rashid Hotel in the Green Zone. This was sandwiched in the middle of the overall 16-party conference that was taking place that day. The reporter says the only delegations that weren't surprised at the speed with which the four agreed to a private meeting were Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which were in on the plan. The four-way meeting was preceeded by the well-publicized exchange of charges ("you're smuggling arms"; "you should set a withdrawal timetable"). The Al-Quds reporter doesn't put it this way, but it seems the idea of a four-way meeting was a solution to the standoff re Iran-talks between the Cheneyans and the Riceites, the former holding out for only "multilateral" contacts; the latter favoring direct talks. The Rashid Hotel meeting was arguably both.

There was another element that the Al-Quds reporter tells us about. When first approached about this plan, Iran said to the Iraqis: "Well what about our kidnapped diplomats that are still being held," but the Iraqis said unfortunately we aren't the people who can release them, and the Americans refuse to. The Iranians raised this ahead of the Rashid Hotel meeting, and the Americans said: We will release them when our investigation is complete. Here too, the Al-Quds reporter doesn't provide us with the explanatory key, but this was a pretty clear backup for Rice to justify talking to Iran, namely that we are prepared to talk to the Iranians now, because we are in a stronger position than before, for instance (in addition to the gunboats and so on) we actually hold some of their diplomats hostage.

As for what was talked about at the Rashid, the Al-Quds reporter says the main part of the talks was between the US and Iran, and had to do with supply of energy to Iraq and curtailing supply of arms and weapons. The British and Syrian representatives mostly listened. But one point the Syrians did make, the journalist says, is that they wanted some recognition for their efforts in dealing with the refugee problem. He implies that the decision to set up three working groups was made here, not at the main 16-party gathering.

By way of follow-up, the Kuwaiti news agency KUNA reports on a statement by Talabani's office to the effect Khalilzad (who visited Talabani in hospital in Amman to bring him up to date) said there will be bilateral talks in Washington at some point between Iran and the US. It remains to be seen if that will come to pass, and if it does how it will be choreographed in the Cheney-Rice context.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

On to Istanbul

Al-Sabah, a newspaper controlled by the Green Zone government, pointed out that the main three-hour session of the Baghdad get-together yesterday was held in the strictest secrecy. Which means that the accounts in AFP, Reuters and AP (and Aswat al-Iraq, for that matter) are thus made up mostly of what the generally talkative Iraqi and American spokesmen had to say afterwards and in their public speeches. In a nutshell, Maliki said the violence that is killing Iraqis is the same violence that killed others in Madrid, London and the World Trade Center, adding this is something that requires a unified international response, sounding like Bush vintage 2003-4. David Satterfield even got to try out his Colin Powell imitation (according to AP), when he "pointed to his briefcase" and said we have proof of Iranian involvement, to which the Iranian representative replied that the US is only trying to cover for its own failures. But the media message was very tightly controlled, and it was the same in Arabic as in English, namely: Everyone has to help restore stability, including helping the Maliki government in its reconciliation program. (Saudi Arabia and the Iraqi groups of the Sunni persuasion appear not to have made public statements at all). And the Americans on the one side, and the Iranians and the Syrians on the other, "interacted", which is seen as a very positive thing.

The group agreed on the idea of creating three working groups, one to deal with security, the other to deal with the refugee problem, and a third to deal with natural resources. The Iraqi foreign minister Zebari, who vouchsafed this information, was unable or unwilling to say who would be on the committees, when they would meet, what their agendas would be, and so on.

There will be a followup meeting of the neibhbors, this time with the G-8 apparently, and the consensus seems to be that Istanbul was the lucky applicant for this, beating out Baghdad, Cairo, and Berlin. Khalilzad noted in his press-remarks that if it is held in Istanbul, then Rice will attend, and apparently this was taken as the decisive thumbs-up. The Istanbul meeting will be in April, apparently.

Interestingly, among the Iraqi-party statements in connection with yesterday's meeting, it was left to the Fadhila party to point out the meaninglessness of the mantra about "only talking about Iraq". There is also the little matter of the role of the United States of America and Britain, Fadhila said in its statement, considering that they have played quite an important role in changing the political equilibrium of Iraq since 2003 (Al -Mada, Sunday, p3).

But on the whole, the distilled reporting ended up creating a picture of teenage dating behaviour. They (US on one side and Iran and Syria on the other) succeeded in "breaking the ice", although Khalilzad noted he and the Iranians were never alone out of earshot of the others. And they agreed to meet again. Al-Hayat noted that it was only the sound of mortar fire outside that reminded the participants that there are other groups that need to be consulted in this.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Proliferation of conferences seen as a sympton of half-baked US policy

All of a sudden the idea of holding an international conference on Iraq has become a very popular idea, Azzaman notes in its curtain-raiser to the Baghdad conference starting today. In Baghdad, European sources told the reporter they think there will be a follow-up meeting in Berlin, with the same participants, if there is any progress at all in Baghdad this weekend. In Ankara, the news is that Turkey, for its part, is also making plans to host a meeting of countries neighboring Iraq. And The Egyptian foreign minister said Cairo will host a meeting of Iraq-neighbors, right after the Riyadh summit of the Arab League (the end of this month).

The Azzaman reporters don't offer any explanation for the sudden outbreak of meeting-announcements, but Abdulbari Atwan does, in his regular column this morning in Al-Quds al-Arabi.

The Bush administration, he notes, has run out of friends elsewhere, what with Congress threatening to cut off funds for the Iraq fiasco, Latin Americans preparing demos against his visit there [and Mayan priests announcing plans to re-purify national lands after they are defiled by the Bush visit] and so on and so forth. So the axis of moderate Arab regimes, ironically, has become the designated front-line ally and rescue team.

Their task: Somehow extricate the US from the Iraq quagmire, where troop-casualties are escalating, political support for the regime is eroding (citing the Fadhila exit from the UIA), and victory is not in sight. If necessary, it will even be permissible to talk with Syria and Iran about this [but the US will do this only over orange juice, according to the latest pronouncement from David Satterfield of the State Dept]. The moderate regimes would like to help, Atwan recognizes, but what can they do?

The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt are old, and suffering from the complaints attendant on senility, they surround themselves with experts in medical diagnosis, in place of economists or those familiar with international relations or politics. And their regimes are not that stable either.

For Atwan, the Bush adventure has resulted in a situation where the alternatives are stark. Iran's price for definitive settlement will be its recognition as a nuclear power. Syria's price will be return of the Golan Heights, restoration of its influence in Lebanon, and killing the international-court project re the Hariri murder. The other alternative would be interim pacification, in recognition of the one common-denominator of all participants, which is the undesirability of all-out civil war and eventual partition.

None of these alternatives is likely to be in the interests of the Arabs, Atwan says. Interim pacification, if it is part of, or facilitates, the US runup to an attack on Iran, will only mean untold catastrophe for the region once Iran is attacked. On the other hand, definitive settlement with Iran on the basis of its nuclear status would mean transferring the center of gravity in the Gulf region to Tehran and away from the Arab states.

The core problem, says Atwan, is that the Bush administration isn't prepared to face its primary adversaries, and is still attempting to deal with secondary factors as if they were the determining ones. Thus: Instead of dealing with the Iraqi resistance, which has been the root cause of its defeat in the country, the Bush administration wants to limit itself to conversations over orange juice with Syria and Iran. Similarly, while touting the importance of Palestine, the US continues its year-old starvation-blockade against the Palestinians, and continues to refuse to recognize the elected government. This penchant for not facing up to issues, Atwan says, is what has resulted in this spectacle of reliance on senile Arab regimes to try and reach solutions that would not, in any event, be in the interests of the Arabs themselves.

(The problem of Bush turning away from the main issues is sometimes recognized even in America, where it is seen as the result of an internal conflict between the Cheneyans and the Riceites. A couple of investigative pieces by Conflicts Forum, one a while ago on attempted negotiations with the resistance, and one more recently on the Mecca agreement, give you the picture. It is an insight that could be seeping into the mainstream. At the conclusion of the orange-juice citation above, someone from Brookings is quoted: “They want to be coy about it,” [the Brookings person said, referring there specifically to talking to Iran]. “But are they being coy because they’re really coy, or are they being coy because half of the administration doesn’t want any talks, which forces the ones who do to adopt this middle position?”)

Friday, March 09, 2007

Fadhila says they're skeptical about Allawi and his friends

An Al-Hayat reporter took the trouble to call Jabar Khalifa, head of the Fadhila Party, for comments on the announcement about that party's exiting the UIA parliamentary coalition, so let's take the trouble to see what he said, even if it's not all crystal clear. The summary starts off with responses to a couple of comments by others: (1) A UIA person had said they were blindsided by this and would like to discuss with Fadhila having them rejoin the coalition. Khalifa said no, the decision is a final, irrevocable one. He explained the UIA experience has led to entrenching the principle of sectarian allocations as the basis of political administration, and this is the opposite of what Fadhila had in mind when they joined. (2) With respect to speculation about motives, Khalifa said the decision was not the result of pressure or of a desire to join with the recently-formed National Iraqi Front (Allawi et al).

Elaborating on why he thinks the UIA failed, he said: "The complicated procedures that were in use within the UIA very often prevented the party from being able to communicate its concepts and its aspirations to others. And in spite of those constraints, it didn't deviate from its explanations of its point of view with respect to the state of the country. " This is a tiny bit unclear to me, but I think he is saying the UIA's internal procedures hardened in such a way that it became unable to speak to Iraqis except in standard cliches. Something like that.

He takes another run at this, which I find a little clearer, as follows:
From the beginning, [he says], we had faith that our joining [in the UIA coalition] would lead to a melting away of that type of polarization that characterizes political blocs, once Parliament was formed, and [we had faith that it would turn out that] national reconciliation was what was behind the formation of the fronts. But [as matters turned out] sectarian confrontations came to be dominant, and the principle of [sect-based] allocations between the blocs was confirmed, and [parliament] split into a Shiite unit, and a second, Sunni unit, and a third, secular unit, and the result was that we have been unable to unite our efforts.
Then, after reiterating that this was irrevocable decision taken by the majority of Fadhila's members, and not some response to pressure, Khalifa goes on to talk about the Allawi story:
Respecting the repeated reports about the possibility of his party joining the Iraqi National Front [Allawi et al], Khalifa said: "There is no clear agreement with respect to joining the new front, in fact we view them with skepticism and misgivings, even if their public position is to end [the system of sectarian] allocations". Khalifa explained: "All of the blocs have claimed that as their program, but there hasn't been any actual application of it".
The journalist then summarizes remarks by Nassar Rubaie, the Sadrist liaison with the UIA, who said the Fadhila decision to exit the coalition wasn't a surprise, since they have been outliers from the very beginning, or words to that effect. Rubiae added one factor was their feeling of alienation, having had proposals rejected and having no prospect of a cabinet position in the coming cabinet-changes.

And Rubaie said the Fadhila exit won't affect stability of the UIA or the government, "because they assured us of their [continued] support for the current government, and they gave assurances that they won't enter into any new coalition." That is the Sadrist Rubaie speaking, not the Fadhila leader Khalifa.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Why the Fadhila story got distorted

The leader of the Fadhila Party in his statement yesterday about pulling out of the UIA, made the point as clearly as he could: UIA leadership is sectarian, and the dissolution of this kind of sect-based parliamentary blocs is the "first step" toward pulling Iraq out of its crisis. And the UIA got the message. Al-Hayat says UIA spokesmen expressed anger and concern over this move because it could signal other splits in the UIA, and in any event it represents a challenge to the UIA and to the Maliki government. The UIA people expressed fear about a broad program to set up parliamentary bloc what could challenge UIA dominance. But while the Fadhila statement talked about willingness to join a (not "the") new coalition provided it is nationalist and not sectarian, this was clearly and pointedly not a declaration of alliance with Allawi, which is another issue entirely. As the Al-Hayat reporter puts it: "This withdrawal [of Fadhila from the UIA] could well cause Allawi's secular group to woo it in the context of the efforts it and Sunni groups are making to form a parliamentary counter-weight [to the UIA]". In other words, that is a union that hasn't taken place, but might.

In any event, the point was clearly the attack on the sectarian nature of the UIA. Which raises the question why IraqSlogger and Cole both immediately assumed that Fadhila has already joined with the Allawi group. I believe this is instructive. As a result of the parliamentary election of late 2005, the Shiite coalition led by Hakim has been dominant in the government and in parliament, and the political picture rapidly polarized. But any complaints that were heard in the Western media respecting sectarianism under the UIA regime were systematically denigrated as themselves sectarian. The Istanbul Conference is a good example. The UIA was America's ally and could do no wrong.

Fadhila is a Shiite party, and its attack on the sectarianism of the Shiite UIA leadership is an important event and a positive sign in and of itself. But for the supporters of the US-allied UIA government like Cole and IraqSlogger, this cannot be. Their solution: Fadhila didn't really attack UIA sectarianisn, the real meaning of what it did was to ally itself with Allawi and his Sunni allies. This enables Cole to continue with his sectarian comments without missing a beat. As he said yesterday (wrongly assuming Fadhila had already joined with the Allawi group): "I also just don't think a coalition with hard line Sunnis and with the Islamic Virtue Party as well as Shiite secularists is likely to be stable or to last long." The UIA is falling apart, and Cole's reaction is to warn against instability if this particular Shia group allies with non-Shia groups. It is the reaction of any dyed-in-the-wool partisan. He skips over the precise question that Fadhila is trying to raise: How about looking at problems through something other than this sect-based prism?

As for IraqSlogger, it has two items today, one originally posted yesterday that says Fadhila has already joined in the new Allawi coalition, and one posted today that says it hasn't, and the one that says it hasn't is headlined "Enter Allawi", so you know you're getting all the sides of this complex story.

Poor attendance at Parliament possibly linked to Secret arrest program

A reporter for Al-Quds al-Arabi tried to track down details of the list of persons, including parliamentarians, named in arrest warrants either issued or to be issued. He says what is circulating among politicians is the idea that the list includes names of enemies of SCIRI among the Shiites, and names of persons in the Iraqi Accord Front, adding:
But a member of the Muslim Scholars Association Bashar al-Fayadi said from Amman there is also an arrest warrant naming him and a number of other members of that association, adding that a total of over 50 arrest warrants have recently been issued in Baghdad against politicians and tribal figures, and he urged the government to announce these publicly. [Others say the number is much less, for instance] a member of parliament by the name of Haydar Abadi said there are a number of parliamentarians and politicians with arrest warrants against them pursuant to the law on fighting terrorism, but the security and justice agencies are in possession of confessions respecting their involvement in supporting terrorism, and in any event the number of politicians involved is no more than ten.
Rumors abound. Some think recent raids on two members of parliament, one UIA and one Iraqi Accord Front, indicated they were targets, but a security source told the reporter this is merely cases of running down information obtained from the confessions of persons involved in terror, who have given information about involvement of politicians that needs to be verified. The reporter adds that parliamentary president Mashhadani, currently on a tour of London, Rome, Syria and Jordan, has nothing to say about the whole affair, and doesn't indicate he even knows anything about it.

The reporter concludes with this:
According to security sources, it is the American forces that are in control of the relevant documents, and of the raids and the arrests, maybe even without the knowledge of Prime Minister Maliki. And this perhaps explains recent statements issued by the office of parliamentary deputy Khalaf Alayan (Iraqi Accord Front), which said members of the IAF parliamentary delegation are thinking seriously about leaving Iraq or joining the Iraqi resistance, having become convinced that the Iraqi government is determined to drive all Sunni citizens out of Baghdad. And this is something being seriously considered by parliamentary leaders currently outside of Iraq, possibly not returning to Iraq in these circumstances.

But the American forces continue to not publish the names of the wanted persons, and this could well lead to the collapse of parliament, because of the secrecy and the fostering of doubts [about the scope and details of the program of arrests].

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Parliament fails to get a quorum for its inaugural session

Yesterday Adnan al-Dulaimi announced that the bloc he leads (Iraqi Accord Front, Sunni, 44 parliamentary seats) is joining with the Iraqi List or Wifaq party (25 seats) led by Ayad Allawi. (This was the first actual announcement of any other group joining with Allawi, although there have been a lot of premature claims along those lines).

Today, the Fadhila party, which has 15 seats in the legislature, and is probably the strongest local power in Basra, said it is withdrawing from the Shiite coalition led by Abdulaziz al-Hakim (United Iraqi Alliance UIA, alias Unified Iraqi Coalition, UIC), and will sit in parliament as an independent party, in order to underline its opposition to any coalition-forming based on religion or sect. Fadhila did not announce that it was joining the Allawi group, merely that it was withdrawing from the UIA. (The UIA includes Hakim's SCIRI, the Dawa party to which Maliki belongs, and, officially at least, the Sadrists). A report elsewhere that Fadhila and others have already joined with the Allawi group is incorrect.

Also yesterday, it was announced that the Iraqi parliament attempted to meet for the inaugural session of the new parliamentary period, but failed to reach a quorum. A member of the UIA explained to the Aswat al-Iraq reporter that they are going to try again on Monday. The reporter asked the UIA person about the list of potential criminal cases including against parliamentarians, said to be in the possession of Maliki, and the UIA person said: The first step will have to be a request from the judicial authorities for lifting parliamentary privilege for whatever persons they think should be investigated, and only then will parliament have to act.

The journalist notes that the new schedule means the next big political event will be the Baghdad meeting with neighboring countries, the US, and security council members, scheduled for Saturday.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Syrian role in Iraq talks ?

In a nutshell this morning:

(1) Sunni political groups and former officers said the results of the fourth National Reconciliation meeting on the weekend (on the topic of de-DeBathification) show that the process is dilatory at best and a mere public-relations show at worst, according to people canvassed by the Al-Hayat reporter in an article this morning. He apparently didn't find any Sunni individual or group willing to say anything positive about the program.

(2) Tareq al-Hashemi, head of the Islamic Party, said in Damascus it would be a good idea if the Syrian regime acted as go-between in negotiations between the Maliki administration and the ex-Baathists that are living in Syria and that were involved in the regional Baath-party "reorganization" (encouraged by the Syrian regime). The Azzaman reporter notes this is the second case of an Iraqi political leader urging Syria to take up a role in trying to bring the Syria-resident ex-Baathists into the Iraqi political process. Iraqi parliamentary president Mahmoud Mashhadani said about two weeks ago that the Syrian regime should open up a channel of communications between these Syria-resident ex-Baathists and the Maliki regime.

(3) Syrian sources said the Syrian regime is "satisfied" with the results of the Arab foreign-ministers meeting in Cairo on the weekend, among other reasons because the position enunciated there with respect to solving the Iraqi crisis is almost identical with the Syrian position. The points of agreement include more-serious de-deBaathification as part of forming a broader-based government that would represent all Iraqis, combatting any efforts to foment partition of Iraq, stronger efforts against the militias, and so on. [These are all points that are implicitly critical of the Maliki administration: meaningless de-deBaathification, SCIRI promotion of a nine-governate Shiite region in the south; reluctance to confront abuses in the security services and so on]. The Syrian regime is described as particularly satisfied with the fact that there seems to be a meeting of the minds among Saudi, Egypt and Syria on the major points. (The journalist notes: The only Syrian point that wasn't included in the foreign-ministers communique was the demand for a scheduled withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq). In other words, it seems the Baathist-integration issue has given the Syrian regime something it regards as a significant role, and a place at the table, in the Iraq-resolution talks.

Conflicts Forum has published a piece that tells in detail how Saudi mediation and the Mecca agreement re Palestine was in fact a serious setback for the neo-cons and Elliot Abrams in particular. If there is now going to be a genuine rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia on how to approach the Iraq crisis, then the same type of question arises, with respect to where the Bush administration, and/or its various parts, stands in all of this.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Deconstructing the Allawi scheme

Al-Quds al-Arabi devotes its top news story this morning to breaking down the Allawi-threat into its component parts. First, as for Allawi's own motives, the journalist cites "Iraqi observers" who prefer not to be named, to the effect that
[T]he escalation by former prime minister Ayad Allawi of his critical language vis-a-vis the government, and his threat to withdraw from it, are explainable by his [prior] knowledge of the approach of ministerial changes by Maliki, and [this is an] attempt by Allawi to get a bigger slice of the government pie, considering that he didn't obtain much of anything at the time of the formation of the current government.
The Bush administration, according to this way of looking at things, has its own fish to fry:
Washington, for its part [the journalist writes], is trying to use Allawi as an element of pressure against Maliki, to intimidate him and bring him into line so that he continues the fight against the Mahdi Army [even though it is] his ally. And the fact that US ambassador Khalilzad accompanied [Allawi] in visiting Barzani was a way of suggesting to Maliki that Allawi could be [Maliki's] replacement in the event that Maliki fails in carrying out the American orders with respect to fighting the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias.
According to this way of looking at things, the writer says, Allawi's calculation is that at least he should end up with a bigger share of ministerial appointments. But the writer also notes that while Maliki promised a shakeup, he didn't actually say which ministries will be involved, or whether or not the shakeup will involve the all-important security-related portfolios.

Moreover, says the journalist, there are a lot of flies in the ointment as far as Allawi's coalition-building aims are concerned. The discussion quickly gets complicated: The journalist starts by saying flatly that Maliki isn't going to be have the capability to impose his views in the coming cabinet shuffle, first because his Sadrist allies are suspicious of him and think he plans to push them aside and to arrest their leaders, which would, in that case, make him [Maliki] closer to a possible alliance with the Fadhila party (Shiite, Basra-based, related to the Sadr movement) which he angered in forming his government by not giving them the oil portfolio.
And that [Fadhila party being in play] could be the reason why Allawi is exerting such efforts to cozy up to the Fadhila party, which doesn't conceal its anxiety about current government policies, and which hasn't rejected the idea of joining in a new coalition [provided it was] not based on sectarian-allocations. But [Fadhila people] stress they haven't agreed yet with Allawi on anything, even though Allawi's people have been leaking [wrong] information about an agreement with Fadhila.
Same thing with the Sunni coalitions. The journalist notes the Islamic Party led by Tareq al-Hashemi hasn't announced any agreement to join in any new coalition; and as for Saleh al-Mutlak, leader of the Dialogue Front, he told the journalist that while he understands Allawi's scheme is supposed to be non-sectarian in nature, and his group is studying the idea, his group has not made a decision, and reports about his group's agreement to join with Allawi are "nothing but media [manipulation]".

In other news, Maliki made a rousing speech to former-regime military people and others, stressing the government's openness to their re-joining the system either via employment or pensions, and at the same time threatening dire consequences for those who stay with the resistance. The reports don't make this clear, but this was in fact the fourth in the series of National Reconciliation meetings, held over the last year or so, the first three of which were for tribal groups, NGOs, and political groups respectively. Despite the long history of this, actual details of the proposed deDeBaathification procedures seem to be still lacking. This speech, along with start of the Sadr City sweep, are part of Maliki's "non-sectarian" push, which will include the promised cabinet-shuffle (see above), in "a week or two".