Saturday, May 26, 2007

Off for a few days

maybe a week or so

Friday, May 25, 2007

A possible explanation

The words of the day in Lebanese and pan-Arab reporting today are hasm ("deciding" or "shutting down"), tasfiya ("settlement" or "liquidation"), nihaya ("termination") and similar expressions, all expressing the idea of completely shutting down Fatah al-Islam, once and for all, whatever it takes. This is no ordinary political expression of determination. Al-Akhbar stresses the Saudi ambassador is among the proponents of this, stressing that some fighters are people wanted in Saudi Arabia for belonging to AlQaeda. Along with Condoleeza Rice, who said from California that shutting down Fatah al-Islam will be a good lesson to other terrorist groups in the region challenging democratic regimes. The senior representative of the PLO in Lebanon, Abbas Zakiy is also part of the planning.

But what about the point that Fatah al-Islam and other similar groups had support and sponsorship from the Saudis (via Prince Bandar) and the Americans (Cheney faction) as a deterrent to Iran and the Shiite revival; and from the Hariri group, for domestic sectarian reasons? Didn't we just read in Al-Akhbar that it was Saudi and American pressure that impeded adequate surveillance of this group?

If the idea of supporting Sunni extremist groups was a Bandar-Cheney project, then today's over-the-top expressions of determination to exterminate, wipe out, and finish off Fatah al-Islam, from Saudi and American officials in addition to the Lebanese government itself, sounds a little like a repudiation of Bandar-Cheney. Bandar has already been reported to be on the skids, but what about Cheney?

Interestingly enough, back in Washington, Steve Clemons reported yesterday:
Multiple sources have reported that a senior aide on Vice President Cheney's national security team has been meeting with policy hands of the American Enterprise Institute, one other think tank, and more than one national security consulting house and explicitly stating that Vice President Cheney does not support President Bush's tack towards Condoleezza Rice's diplomatic efforts and fears that the President is taking diplomacy with Iran too seriously....This White House official has stated to several Washington insiders that Cheney is planning to deploy an "end run strategy" around the President if he and his team lose the policy argument....On Tuesday evening, I spoke with a former top national intelligence official in this Bush administration who told me that what I was investigating and planned to report on regarding Cheney and the commentary of his aide was "potentially criminal insubordination" against the President.
Strong words. Quite apart from the details of what Cheney is alleged to be doing, clearly some high-level people think it is time to shut him down if at all possible. This is something that would definitely dovetail with a decision to shut down his idiotic joint-venture with Bandar to fund Sunni terrorists for the purpose of deterring Shiites.

(ADDED NOTE: The Franklin Lamb piece in Counterpunch provides an interesting corroboration: He says the recent trouble started when the Bush administration started backing away from the project. He writes:
According to operatives of Fatah el-Islam, the Bush administration got cold feet with people like Seymour Hirsh snooping around and with the White House post-Iraq discipline in free fall....
This led the Hariri group, via one of its banks, stopping the paychecks of the Fatah al-Islam people, and the trouble mushroomed from there).

And there was the brief remark in an Al-Quds al-Arabi piece on the recent Cheney mideast tour, to the effect that the Palestinian issue wasn't brought up at all (in spite of the fact that official US policy ties Palestinian progress to Arab cooperation elsewhere in the region), and that the reason it wasn't brought up is that there had been a division of labor in Washington, in which Condoleeza Rice was to be in charge of Palestinian policy. Again, the point isn't to immediately try and understand all the details, but rather to ask ourselves: Who would be so idiotic as to assign foreign policy in one place to the Secretary of State and policy in a nearby place to her rival the Vice-president? And I would say the answer is that it is someone who would be idiotic enough to approve of the Cheney-Bandar scheme, then later, perhaps during a lucid spell, decide to let the rival group have it shut down.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The war scenario

Whatever the detailed history of the Fatah al-Islam incidents, the main result strategically will probably be to provide cover for US arming of the Lebanese army with modern weaponry, not to confront groups like Fatah al-Islam, but rather to provide deterrence against Hizbullah, on the assumption that a US attack on Iran would trigger attempts at retaliation from Hizbullah and elsewhere. This is the view of Abdulbari Atwan, writing in Al-Quds al-Arabi this morning, under the title "Nahr al Barid: Prelude to a hot summer".

And he notes this coincides with US funding of the anti-Hamas elements in Palestine. Both suggest US moves to create a military situation in the region that would deter or minimize retaliation, from either Hizbullah or Hamas, in the event of a US attack on Iran.

These remarks come at the end of a lengthy op-ed piece that lists eight other events that Atwan thinks show a pattern of preparation for war with Iran: (1) Nine additional warships joining the two aircraft-carrier groups in the Gulf, bringing the total US deployment to 17,000 military personnel and over 140 fighter planes. (2) A recent statement by the IAEA that Iran is still ignoring UN demands to stop uranium enrichment. (3) State Dept official Nicholas Burns making hard-line statements against any Iranian uranium enrichment at all (contrary to a compromise proposal by Baradei), echoing the hawkish remarks on the subject by Cheney from the deck of one of the aircraft carriers on his recent trip. (4) Bush signing the recent "Finding" authorizing covert activities against Iran, including stirring up the ethnic populations. (5) Bush administration leading of a document accusing Iran of conspiring with Sunni terrorist groups in Iraq. (6) Sarkozy joining the hard-line Bush position on Iran. (7) Detailed war preparations including US provision of Patriot missiles to Israel, assurances by Cheney to Gulf leaders that the Bushehr reactor on the Gulf coast will not be hit, and so on. (8) Rising trend in the price of oil and gold, and falling trend in stock prices.

Atwan says if you study the pattern you will see that this is very similar to the way things evolved just before the 1991 and 2003 attacks on Iraq.

He acknowledges that there is another point of view that can't be rejected out of hand, namely that the two sides are merely taking up bargaining positions ahead of an expected agreement that would permit the US an honorable withdrawal from Iraq, in echange for Iranian influence in Iraq and regionally.
However [he writes], we have to remember that most of the attacks on the American occupation troops and the Iraqi forces that are cooperating with them, come from resistance groups that are inimical to Iran. [In other words] it would be hard for the US to give Iran control of something it doesn't itself control. Those who have thwarted the Iranians' control of Iraq are a mix of Sunni Islamist resistance groups and factions connected with the former regime.

Cheney asked the Arab authorities with whom he met on his recent trip to help set up talks with these resistance groups, and to try and bring them over to the US side in the event that the US goes ahead with a confrontation with Iran. And the conversation went so far as to talk about a response of revenge on the part of these Sunni groups against the Shiite factions, in the case of the start of bombing of Iran.
In other words, Atwan is arguing, the US can't plausibly offer Iran control of Iraq because it doesn't have control of Iraq to give. What it can do, and reports of the Cheney conversations suggest this, is try and market a scheme in which it would, in effect, offer the Sunni resistance free rein to take back Iraq in the context of a US bombing campaign against Iran. Atwan doesn't comment on the idea. Who could?

Atwan concludes the piece with the point outlined above, namely the idea that events in Lebanon and Palestine both suggest the US is moving to minimize the ability of resistance groups there to retaliate against such a US bombing campaign.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What went wrong

Ibrahim al-Amin writes in Al-Akhbar about how Lebanese intelligence ended up seriously underestimating the security threat posed by Fatah al-Islam, and in the course of the discussion he mentions the role of foreign intelligence services, including those of Saudi Arabia and the USA. In particular, he says American and Saudi pressure contributed to this intelligence failure, in the following way: Fatah al-Islam and other groups were designed to be threats to the Shia and Hizbullah in particular, so they had to be permitted to exist within a certain "general climate". They also were supposed to be kept under surveillance and control, but American and Saudi pressure discouraged that, resulting in what turned out to be an excessively relaxed Sunni-Sunni relationship between the groups and the Lebanese Intelligence Division.

His first point is by way of background, explaining how the Intelligence Division of the national security service came to be the predominant security agency, with power gradually concentrated in the hands of the Hariri group, the biggest turning point being the expulsion of the Syrians following the assassination of the elder Hariri in 2005.
Political and administrative confusion followed the transfer of power from the team backed by Syria to a team backed by the United States, which worked intensely on various support measures, which including those relating to the Intelligence Division, providing it with modern equipment and the possibility of new techniques not [otherwise] available in Lebanon...
The writer goes on to outline the recent bureaucratic history of intelligence organizations in Lebanon, including the fact that there is still a "plurality of heads of intelligence". But obviously the problems don't stop there, he writes, outlining three major problems with the intelligence handling of the Fatah al-Islam problem.

First, the bureaucracy:
The cracks in the system that showed up in the recent events in the north demonstrate, first, that monitoring of Fatah al-Islam was based on a local approach, and this is a problem that bedevils security agencies throughout the Arab world, because agents don't talk frankly with their political leaders about things like the implications a case could have socially or on a national-political level, or regionally, and so on. This caused the Intelligence Division, and in fact the other security agencies too, to minimize the size of [Fatah al-Islam] and convert it, by a political decision, into an instrument run by foreign intelligence services, which the authorities say means the Syrian mukhabarat, while others have many indications of connections with other Arab intelligence agencies, including an increased number of Jordanian agents (the Jordanians handle the coordination of the US and Israeli agencies with the Arab agencies, and the number of Jordanian agents has increased over the past two years). [In any event], when the confrontations in the north occurred, suddenly it was evident that Fatah al-Islam had an extensive presence outside of the camp [in addition to inside the camp], and capacities making it a real security threat in more than one location, and for extended periods of time.
Some of that isn't crystal clear in detail, but the main point is that there is a bureaucratic practice of sticking to your local tasks and not raising big issues with the political bosses, and this resulted (perhaps he means almost by default) in a situation where the big issues connected with Fatah al-Islam were left to the foreign agencies.

Second, the point that they missed about Iraq:
It appears a major aim was to understand the number of "Arab fighters" that were coming to Lebanon from other countries, via all land and air points of entry, including groups coming from Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia in particular. Saudi and American intelligence people provided a lot of information about their movements, including some information deriving originally from Syria. ...Substantial information made available over the last two days shows that there was a serious defect in followup with respect to the export-center for Arab fighters, because the situation in Iraq was in fact different from what it had been previously. The change was this: All of the entities within the "AlQaeda" framework are now without any manpower problem, and they have started requesting that less people be sent there, so there arose problems for fighters expelled from Iraq, including dozens of Lebanese...
And the writer explains that local people in the north were alerted to the problem, and some locations for "assistance and support" were changed to locations for "action and attack". The implication seems to be that the Intelligence Division failed to understand that Iraq had become a net exporter of "Arab fighters" even though this was having spillover effects in Lebanon. But the he doesn't get into the question of the reasons for that part of the intelligence failure.

Third: They misunderstood what Seymour Hersh and others were talking about

The Lebanese security service, and the Intelligence Division in particular, misunderstood the political warnings [about not overlooking the scope of these groups]. What Western experts were talking about and Seymour Hersh wrote about concerning the political function of these groups vis-a-vis the so-called Shia wave brought things to the point where it was necessary to create a general climate for these groups [like Fatah al-Islam] for the purpose of intimidating the Shia or Hizbullah in particular, but on the other hand [it was also necessary] to keep these groups under surveillance and control. But it soon came about that foreign political pressure from the Ameicans and the Saudis closed the door for maneuvering [in this regard], considering that the Intelligence Division, which had the biggest margin of maneuver [of any of the Lebanese agencies] ended up treating these groups as being "non-enemy territory" the sense that the sectarian-political makeup of the Intelligence Division teams seemed to give them chance to operate with a greater sense of relaxation, being in a predominantly Sunni area. But this margin proved to be narrow indeed once the confrontations started.


Khalid Saghiyyah writes in Al-Akhbar :
One day [several years ago], after a long civil war, the Lebanese decided they were brothers, some shook hands with others, and they pointed the finger at those Palestinians who came to cause them trouble. They imprisoned them in a few square meters sealed off the camp thoroughly and denied them air.

And one day [referring to a few days ago] after a bitter political struggle, there started to arise voices from among the hawks of the opposition and the vipers in the government laying on that small camp the responsibility for the arrival of the country, once again, at the edge of the abyss. The two sides (government and opposition) don't lack for persons and parties with a long history of racist dealings with "the outsider" (al ghariib: literally the strange) and with the Palestinians in particular.

And their passion [referring to the determination by the March 14 movement to press the issue militarily rather than look for a political solution respecting the camps] has not been lessened by the number of civilians who have been killed... And it doesn't factor into their sense of compassion the fact that ...Fatah al-Islam is nothing but another of those extreme Islamist groups that exist outside of the camps as well as within the camps. And their expressions of enmity toward the Palestinians is not limited in any way by the existence of several reports that blame influential Lebanese entities for the financing of these groups.

Those who are awake to their inveterate racism haven't raised the issue of deliberate neglect of whole areas of Lebanon [ and there follows a reference to electoral politics that I don't completely understand].

There is a heavy price attached to this kind of bitter political division in societies where there is little to rally people together, just as there is a heavy price for extravagant economic policies in societies that are lacking in social services. Now, there are signs that chaos in Lebanon has been unleashed. Fatah al-Islam is not the cause of that. It is nothing but the chaff that has floated to the surface.

The basic idea is that there is a need for overhauling the policies for treatment of the Palestinians and the camps. But this comes with a feeling of horrible inevitability about the fact that the March 14 parties and other influential groups thought to have financed Fatah al-Ismal in the first place, are not interested in that, because, on the contrary, racism serves them well in their sectarian political plans.

The idea of approaching the current crisis by reforming camp policy first, and avoiding the kind of military solution the government is leaning toward, is explained in more prosaic terms in the lead editorial in Al-Quds al-Arabi this morning.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Nicaragua veteran finds sudden fame in northern Lebanon

First, lets look at four points about the current Lebanese crisis that have been drummed home to Western readers, all of them wrong, and all pointing to a scheme to justify increased Western intervention in that country.

(1) The leader of Fatah al Islam, Shaker al-Absi has meaningful al-Qaeda connections.

This appears to be based entirely on a Jordanian indictment in connection with the murder of US diplomat Laurence Foley in 2002, which said Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was in charge of planning for that assassination, and Shaker al-Absi worked on logistics. Stories circulated that he had fought in Iraq too, but in a March 1 interview in the Nahr al-Bared camp with Al-Sharq al-Awsat, al-Absi denied having fought in Iraq, adding "but I did fight at one time in Nicaragua." He said he was never jailed in Jordan, but he was jailed in Syria "because I had tried to get into Palestine via the Golan Heights". He claimed his group (whose existence was first announced in November 2006) already had a presence in other countries of "the belt" (apparently meaning surrounding Israel) as well as in other Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, the aim being to liberate Jerusalem from bases in all of the countries, not just from Lebanon. Thus, by his own account, al-Absi's pre-Fatah al-Islam resume included having fought in Nicaragua, and getting jailed in Syria for trying to sneak into Palestine via the Golan Heights, not exactly the stuff of charismatic leadership. The picture then changes dramatically, according to his account, and now he is leader of a group with a vast presence throughout the region and a world-historical program to go with it.

(2) Fatah al-Islam is being manipulated by Syria.

This is the easy one. There isn't any evidence for it, moreover a fundamentalist group like this would be a natural enemy of the Syrian regime.

(3) The AlQaeda-like sophistication and power of this group was demonstrated by the casualties they inflicted on the Lebanese army.

Abdulbari Atwan makes the point this morning that the army casualties were the result of lack of experience and poor training in the army, not any particular sophistication by this small group. Moreover, the second-day shelling of the Nahr al-Bared camp was a clear demonstration of something else: The Lebanese army was reacting to its losses by retaliating against the civilian population, with indiscriminate shelling of the camp.

(4) Lebanese politicians stand foursquare against groups like Fatah al-Islam.

In fact, there is said to be a long history of support and sponsorship by the Hariri movement (father and son) for groups like this, moreover this kind of support has been a natural outcome of the sectarian nature of Lebanese society and politics, where the Hariri group is the main representative of the Sunni population. I say "said to be" only because I myself lack the background to chronicle this. If you know a lot of recent Lebanese history, you might find this piece in Al-Akhbar this morning to be enlightening in this respect.

There you have it, one part of it anyway. A Nicaragua veteran with a lackluster history finds sudden and almost miraculous fame in the sectarian environment of northern Lebanon, as a supposed Syrian tool capable of standing up to a supposedly well-trained Lebanese army. In the echo-chamber of Western media, this "AlQaeda/Syria" theme plays into a supposed need for increased Western "support" for a democratic government under threat. Do you really need Seymour Hersh to tell you Fatah al-Islam has US support?

But domestically in Lebanon, there is another dimension, which is even farther from the grasp of the Western newspaper-reader: the Hariri tribunal. Atwan in his Al-Quds al-Arabi piece this morning puts it this way:
What is going on in Lebanon today is nothing but a small rehearsal for what could happen if the Security Council, at the suggestion of the [Lebanese] government, decides on an international tribunal. because everyone is arming themselves, and arms are being stockpiled, in anticipation of a major war. And it is very clear, from the poor security response to the crisis in Nahr al-Bared camp, that the chances of controlling the coming explosion are very limited, if not non-existent.
The meaning of an international tribunal as another form of Western intervention is lost on Western readers. Chances of explaining that to a Western audience are remote indeed, given the ease with which the media have been able to drown out the facts about the Nahr al-Bared crisis.

Monday, May 21, 2007

US Ally Hariri's role

From the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar this morning, following the clashes between the Lebanese army and a group called Islamic Fatah in northern Lebanon, around the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared yesterday:

[Army commander Michel Suleiman] informed the security cabinet headed by president Fouad Siniora that the military does not recommend that the politicians take a decision to expand the scope of the confrontations, or to think of entering the camps, which is something that enjoyed the cover of many political groups including the Future movement, whose leader Saad Hariri persisted that in exchange for that [not entering the camps and so on], that there should be taken all necessary steps to see to the dismantelment of this group.

As video of the events in the last 24 hours showed the scope of the security breakdowns, the attempts of the March 14 group (the governing coalition) to exploit these events politically in connection with the discussion of the international tribunal [i.e., spinning the events as a Syrian plot against the tribunal] didn't have a very long life, once it became clear that the majority of the armed individuals fighting the army outside the camp were people of the north [meaning natives of north Lebanon] and that these individuals were members of extreme Islamist groups, and that among them were people from circles close to the Future movement [of Saad Hariri].

Information and comments are fragmentary, but it is worth noting that there while most Western accounts tend to echo the "Syrian plot" idea, the meaning of the events of Sunday could be the opposite. In the same vein, Robert Fisk includes in his account of the events of yesterday this:
This is the same Saad Hariri whom at least one American reporter - I refer to Seymour Hersh - suggested was indirectly helping to funnel Saudi money to these same gunmen in a recent article in The New Yorker. The Shia Muslim Hizbollah are supposed to be the bad guys in this scenario, not a Sunni group.
And maybe it wouldn't be out of place to refer back to remarks by Lebanese lawyer Issam Naaman who said recent congressional delegations to Lebanon included remarks to the effect that the US is working with extremists to carry out destabilizing acts in Lebanon that will be blamed on AlQaeda.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

GCC official says the Gulf regimes continue to oppose a strike against Iran

The Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes two of the states that were included in the recent Cheney trip, namely the UAE and Saudi Arabia, held a scheduled "consultative" meeing earlier this week, and on Wednesday Al-Hayat summarized points in the communique and in press-conference statements by the GCC's secretary general, Abdulrahman bin Hamad al-Atiya. The communique included the expected exortations to the Palestinians to return to the Mecca accord; to the Maliki administration to work toward national reconciliation; regret on continuing tensions in Lebanon; and so on. They studied details of the recent Cheney trip, and and they heard a report on the visit of Ahmedinejad to the UAE, by the UAE president, who said his talks with Ahmedinejad focused on the Iranian desire for friendly and brotherly relations with all the countries of the Gulf. The GCC group talked about the need for a peaceful settlement of the issue of the three UAE islands occupied by Iran.

But what stands out is the following: Atiya said in his press-conference that the cause of the instability in Iraq is the illegal American occupation of that country; he noted he was using the same expression that was used by the Saudi king at the recent Riyadh summit; and he said the meeting affirmed the GCC policy against a military strike against Iran. Atiya's remarks were in the following context:
Where the final communique...warned against external intervention in Iraq, Atiya, in his press-conference remarks, laid upon illegal American occupation of Iraq the responsibility for the crisis in Iraq. And he added that was the expression used by the guardian of the two holy places king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz at the recent Riyadh summit.

And with respect to Iran, where the communique was limited to a call for a peaceful solution that will spare Iran and the region any more tension, Atiya said the Sunni leaders studied the danger of a military strike against Iran, and he said this consultative summit stuck to the fixed position of the GCC to the effect that it does not support the resort to a military strike against Iran.

No exit

Al Masry al-Youm reporters canvassed the Washington policy elite to see what the plans are for the Mideast, but what they found was ignorance and passivity.
We were part of a delegation of Arab "media and political" people invited by the US State Dept to get to know how US foreign policy is made, but when we posed difficult questions expecting clear answers, what we instead heard was one single question back: How are we going to exit from our entanglement in Iraq?

At first we thought they just wanted to become better acquainted with the views of the Arab street, but the look of confusion in their eyes, and the tone of regret in their voices indicated another level of "not knowing": They don't know why--precisely--they went into Iraq in the first place; they don't know a thing about the intertwined structure of that country; they don't know where the violence and the bloodshed is coming from; they don't know how to get out with their honor and their self-esteem in tact--as Condoleeza Rice once put it; and they don't even know how to get out without their honor or their self-esteem.

They start with the remarks early on in their visit by a high government official who told them he realizes any discussion of Iraq is going to start with the question why they went there in the first place, but he added, in effect, the priority now is to fix the situation, leaving discussions of causes for later.
The official says nothing about [the allegations] of nuclear weapons; he says nothing about going there to spread democracy...; and for that matter he says nothing about the role of the Israel lobby in pushing the administration to launch a war on Iraq. This [latter] reality is something we will hear from experts, observers and researchers everywhere. In the words of a Mideast researcher at one of the top American think-tanks: "Our society is controlled by pressure groups, the president merely carries out [what they decide]. The Israel lobby made the Iraq file the top priority in terms of pressure on everyone, president and congress. What the Americans didn't realize was that Iraq would end up being a gift to Bin Laden and Zawahiri and AlQaeda, because the ongoing war there is between the American forces and AlQaeda.
The reporters go on to describe discussions with government officials who explained that Iraq has forced the US to adopt more of a negotiating stance with Iran and Syria (since it cannot afford to open two fronts on the borders of Iraq), and more particularly the difficulty of managing the latent Iran-Saudi conflict.
A senior diplomatic source with direct contacts with the US administration said the American administration received a message from the Saudis to the effect they would not stand idly by in the face of a Shiite wave, and the message included a clear warning that if US forces withdraw from Iraq without first making complete arrangements guaranteeing the security of Sunnis in Iraq--if that were to happen then Saudi Arabia will be obliged to intervene directly in Iraq to protect its Sunni citizens from the slaughter and violence that can be expected from the Shiites. [The message explained] that the Saudis consider this a fundamental right of theirs in the protection of Sunnis from liquidation campaigns directed by Iran.
The context, for these Egyptian journalists, is that in a Washington where the predominant tone is ignorance and uncertainty about Iraq and the Mideast, here is the latest example of something they don't the slightest idea how to deal with. This Saudi "message", the writers imply, was the immediate cause for the latest Cheney tour of the Arab capitals. What the Americans heard at these meetings, they say, was that the Arab regimes have a "complex attitude" to the Iraq situation, and the Americans were "displeased with the lack of appropriate support from some of [the Arab regimes]." The reporters don't say support for what, exactly.

Their conclusion: A lot of parties would like to help Washington exit from Iraq, but what they have concluded from their Washington discussions is that there isn't anyone who can find the "scenario" that would permit this: "Even with a diminution in their 'honor'".

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

How to negotiate with Iran

We last heard from Isam Naaman, Lebanese lawyer and former cabinet minister, when he summarized some of the interesting points that Lebanese think-tank types were hearing from the recent US delegations led by Pelosi and others (including the AlQaeda/false-flag plan among others).

Today he has an op-ed piece in Al-Quds al-Arabi on the coming US-Iran talks, called "America facing two AlQaedas, one Sunni and one Shiite?" He says it isn't realistic to think these talks will be limited to Iraq, in fact, watching Fox news so we don't have to, Naaman notes that Cheney himself appears to be casting a wide net, insisting that Iran not only interferes in Iraq, but also in Lebanon and Syria, adding that he (Cheney) is confident high-level AlQaeda leaders have been in Iran since 2003, and in short: his whole recent trip to the region centered on the position of Iran, and this is not unconnected with its nuclear ambitions. Given this view of Iran, it isn't conceivable that the coming talks will be limited to Iraq. Rather they will have to take up the place of Iran in the whole regional picture. The respective positions taken as a whole seem irreconcilable: Washington wants the Iranian influence in the region to disappear; and Iran wants the US to withdraw fully and completely from Iraq, end its support for the Palestinian occupation, and so on. Naaman breaks the positions down as follows:
If the first priority of George Bush is a face-saving withdrawal from the Iraq, then it will be difficult for president Ahmedinejad to help him in that, unless his adversary concedes to him the right which Iran considers its first priority for the time being, namely the right to enrigh uranium without reservations or threats...
And vice versa, it would be difficult for Bush to concede on Iran's priority without getting his priority. So this would seem to be a puzzle-crisis without a possible solution. Naaman has a suggestion:
However [he writes going back to the Cheney TV interview], the coded remark by Cheney about the presence of AlQaeda in Iran since 2003 adumbrates a future possible solution to the crisis. How? By bringing the two sides back to an agreement that AlQaeda constitutes a serious, clear, and present threat to both of them. Because Iran was pleased with the American attack on Afghanistan in 2001 [because it considered the AlQaeda-related Taliban a threat, and it was pleased with the American invasion of Iraq because of the removal of Saddam, another enemy]. Then there were two important developments. The first was that the American administration stumbled in Iraq and was unable to put down the resistance, and the second was that in spite of US and European pressure, Iran not only continued with its nuclear program, but also started supporting the Iraqi resistance. And accompanying these developments was the spread of AlQaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its extensions into Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in a direct way, and more indirectly into Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Somalia.

These developments gave rise to a specific anxiety in Washington: namely whether Tehran might not form an alliance with AlQaeda on a regional level, either as a way of deterring a possible US military attack, or else as strategic preparation for waging a fierce war once an American attack was under way.

There's no doubt America is suffering from the the Sunni AlQaeda. How would it be it they were joined by a Shiite AlQaeda?
Putting the matter globally, Naaman says America is at war with the Arab world and with parts of the broader non-Arab Islamic world. An attack on Iran would enlarge this and make it a war of American against the entire Arab and Islamic world. The idea that an attack on Iran would do anything but that is a figment of America's imagination.
This will become a complete and comprehensive war against muslims throughout the Islamic world, in fact throughout the world as a whole, if the Bush administration gives in to his whim and attacks Iran, thinking that the Sunni Islam will stand idly by as an observer as he tries to destroy the seat of Shiite Islam. It is true that fitna is a present danger between some Sunni and Shiite groups. But that is a corrupt and hateful option, moreover one that won't survive once the ummah discovers that it is all muslims, of all sects and persuasions, that are the object of this attack by the American-Zionist empire.
There are two ideas here: First that an attack on Iran would be a mistake of incalculable importance, based on the idiotic premise that Sunni muslims wouldn't mind seeing America try and destroy the seat of Shia Islam. That is an idea that has occurred to many. But Naaman's more specific idea in this piece is that if the American administration were to be able to bring itself to think clearly about what has happened so far, it would see that there is a potentially important area of common ground with Iran, namely the threat that AlQaeda poses to both of them. Naaman doesn't develop this idea in a negotiating context. Rather, he ends his piece with a call for solution to the crisis by complete and unequivocal US withdrawal, "whether early or delayed, whether forced of voluntary..."

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Why Cheney didn't mention Palestine

Cheney only talked about Iraq and Iran on his recent tour of the Arab capitals, according to Al-Quds al-Arabi's Arab sources with knowledge of the talks, who stressed the parties "absolutely didn't bring up the Arab-Israel conflict". The sources explained this as follows:
[T]here has been an allocation of roles between Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, in which the role of the latter has been limited to the Israel-Palestine file.
I mention it for what it is worth, because the question of sorting out the fingerprints of Cheney-Abrams on the one side from those of Condoleeza Rice on the other has been one of the great mysteries.

For instance, Mark Perry and Paul Woodward of Conflicts Forum have a detailed piece in the Asia Times on the "Action Plan" that was presented to Palestinian president Abbas in February or March, and sets out very broad and detailed American-inspired plans for sidelining and eventually toppling Hamas, clearly an Abrams-type document. The Arabic version was leaked to, and published by, the Jordanian newspaper Al-Majd, first on its website, then, following a censorship incident, also in its hard-copy paper. Western media have bent over backwards to ignore the document, which is really a 16-page indictment of US hypocricy about supporting elected governments. I summarized the contents here. This was followed by another document, leaked to Haaretz, that called specifically, and much more narrowly, for "Benchmarks" for the easing of Israeli checkpoints and so on, clearly more of a Rice-type document, and there is a question of the relationship between the two documents, a relationship which Perry and Woodward think may well reflect the "turmoil in Washington" between the two camps.

In any event, for what it is worth, the above-mentioned sources cited by Al-Quds al-Arabi think there has been some kind of an agreement about spheres of influence between Rice on the one side and Cheney and his group on the other. These are not perhaps the most impeccable sources for Washington policy issues, but I mention it for what it is worth.

Al-Quds al-Arabi's summary of what Cheney said

Al-Quds al-Arabi prints a summary of what its Arab sources said about Cheney's trip, and the main idea, according to this summary, is that the liklihood of war in the region is greater now than it was before the trip, and they think the expected Baghdad US-Iran ambassadors' meeting could be the last chance to avert this. Cheney is described as having told his hosts that the American troop-presence in Iraq would not be a handicap or a vulnerability in the context of Iranian reprisals. On the contrary, he is said to have expounded a theory to the effect that Sunni armed groups in Iraq would side with the Americans in the event of a strike against Iran, as a way of settling accounts with the Shiite Iraqi administration, thus in effect siding with the Americans. Cheney is said to have urged the Arab leaders to get the Sunni armed groups to settle down and look forward to this.
The sources said Cheney explained his conviction that a strike on Iran would perhaps be the best solution for his country's entanglement in Iraq, because Tehran has the biggest influence in that country and arms the militias, and the sources added that American assessments don't expect Iraqi-Shiite retaliation against American forces in Iraq in the event of war with Iran. Rather, the opposite could happen, namely that the Sunni-resistance factions and movements would take advantage of an American attack on Iran to settle accounts with the organization that currently rules Iraq, with the support and protection of the Americans. And the sources said Cheney asked his Arab allies in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE to reassure the Sunni groups in Iraq, so that they switch their calculations to the American side, and to send them a message to the effect that the US has completely lost confidence in Maliki and his government...
Other parts of the discussions included war-related details, for instance Cheney said that the Bushehr reactor, located on the opposite shore of the Gulf, would not be hit, and even if it was, there isn't any risk of polluting the waters of the Gulf because there isn't any enriched plutonium on the premises. This is an issue that the states of the Gulf had raised with the Americans, because they get 90% of their water from desalinization plants on the Gulf. The Al-Quds al-Arabi journalist doesn't tell us what the Arab interlocutors had to say about all of this, but he implies they are already taking the war scenario seriously:
It has been noticed that the countries of the Gulf have in fact started studying alternatives to the Staits of Hormuz for oil-exporting, and there is a proposal for a pipeline to the Red Sea, and another for a pipeline to the sea via Yemen, taking in to account the possibility of the Straits of Hormz being closed.
And the writer goes over Western estimates of the likely extent of Iranian reprisals to any attack, underlining the idea that a lot of people take the idea seriously. But he doesn't say a word about what the Arab leaders' reaction was to this particular set of meetings.

Instead, the writer stresses that Cheney's warlike attitude was answered swiftly by Iranian president Ahmedinejad, who visited the UAE right after Cheney's visit, and said in a press conference in Abu Dhabi that the Cheney threats are bluster and in any event Iran is capable of defending itself.

(I don't know if it is worth dwelling on the above-mentioned far-fetched Cheney hypothesis about getting the Sunni armed groups to side with the Americans in Iraq, via an attack on Iran. But at least it should be noted that this is the mirror-opposite of another hypothesis, the so-called "unleash the Shiites" hypothesis that has been propounded by some in Washington (and originally promoted as a theory by Cheney's office) (latest version here and here). My own opinion is that this comes down to a matched-pair of threats being issued by Cheney: (1) To the Maliki administration: get serious about accomodation or else the Sunni groups will join us in a generalized anti-Shia campaign (following an attack on Iran). (2) To the Sunni regimes: Get the armed resistance to cooperate in an accomodation, or else we will "unleash the Shiites", who are after all the majority of the population. Since domestic Iraqi accomodation becomes more and more out of reach as each day passes, what this amounts to is that the US is left with only these two threats, both of them based on the idea of firing up an all-out sectarian-based war. To which the only alternative would be US accomodation with Iran, something suggested by the Al-Hayat op-ed summarized in the previous post).

Monday, May 14, 2007


An op-ed writer in Al-Hayat, Rana Sabbagh, summarizes the consensus in the capitals of the "Arab quartet" on Cheney's tour this way: Cheney seems to be narrowly focused on somehow creating signs of progress on Iraqi legislative and security issues, via a stabilized Maliki administration, so as to minimize pressure from Democrats in Washington on war-funding and on the question of a withdrawal timetable. It is not lost on them that this is a purely American aim and not an Arab one. Arab leaders are exasperated by the lack of candor respecting the chances of any real progress on national reconciliation under Maliki.
Authorities in the moderate-Arab capitals see Maliki as inclined to deviousness, and as buying time in order to nail down his sectarian agenda. And at the same time Washington is building separation walls between Sunni and Shiite sections of Baghdad, something that adds to their anxiety about a division of Iraq and the emptying of Baghdad of its Sunni population, preparatory to making in the capital of the Shiite southern region, rich with oil resources, and connected with Iran.
Some see this as case of a US "failure" resulting in a strengthened Iranian position, but there is another set of ideas in the background. She writes:
Iran, according to the [Arab] quartet, has been able to turn Iraq into an arena for the strengthening of its regional position in the face of the American project, or maybe as part of this or some other project. There are premonitions [or forebodings] about the existence of an America-Iran deal that involving an exchange of benefits by the two sides, leading to an early [American] withdrawal, in exchange for another agreement respecting related issues including the nuclear file. "Because" [she writes, quoting a Jordanian government source at this point] if the American aim was the restoration of security and stability in Iraq, they would have knocked on the right doors in the region."
In other words, according to this summary, the Arab leaders are pretty sure Maliki has been leading them down the garden path, with respect to Iranian influence, and now increasingly they aren't so sure about Cheney and the Bush administration itself. But while the thoughts about an America-Iran deal are described as forebodings, the Arab leaders aren't at all unsure about Cheney's short-term aims on this trip.
Another Jordanian official said "the Arab quartet is no longer in agreement with Washington on Iraq, not least because the [American] aims are domestic-American and not Iraqi. What Cheney is currently trying to market is something that falls into the category of trying to minimize Democratic party pressure on war-funding and on the issue of a timetable for getting the troops out within 18 months".

ISI/AlQaeda making inroads north and south of Baghdad

Iraqi authorities including Maliki and Americans including Gen Caldwell acknowledged the AlQaeda/ISI forces have made inroads in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, and said more US and Iraqi troops would be sent there. The Al-Hayat reporter explains that the ISI forces appear to have made Diyala province their new headquarters, and members of the provincial council have appealed for greater military force in combatting them. The reporter adds the ISI carried out one of their parades recently in the border (with Iran) town of Mandali. And Maliki earned a sarcastic headline in Azzaman by attributing their inroads in Diyala to the prevalence of orchards and agricultural lands in that province.

But Diyala to the northeast of Baghdad isn't the only area subject to growing ISI control, according to Al-Hayat. Following up on the kidnapping of three US soldiers in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, the Al-Hayat reporter quotes the mayor of that city:
Muid al-Amari, the mayor of Mahmoudiya told Al-Hayat that the American forces have encircled the town and closed off the external road, in addition to [closing off] the region of "the triangle" (my quotation marks) which includes the towns of Yusufiya, Latifiya and Mudain, including broad searches and checkpoints in the orchards of Latifiya. And he stressed that these regions have reverted to the control of AlQaeda.
The reference is to the famous designation "triangle of death" for this area located in Babil province south of Baghdad. The paper introduces this combined account of troubles both north and south of Baghdad in the following way:
The deterioration of the security situation is casting its shadow over Iraqi authorities, who have admitted the control of the organization AlQaeda over the province of Diyala, and [have also admitted] the return of its activists to the towns of the "triangle of death"...

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Cheney likely to find the era of blind Arab-regime cooperation is over

Al-Quds al-Arabi says in its lead editorial Cheney has his work cut out for him in his visits to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, because he has two very tough problems: One is to find ways for the four countries to help pacify Iraq so as to create at least an appropriate environment for the start of a US troop-withdrawal; and the other is to try and make military and political arrangements in the event of a decision to bomb Iran. The UAE is included in the trip because of its geographic location on the Gulf opposite Iran, and because of the three small islands occupied by Iran, so it could play the role of that Kuwait played in the Iraq wars. Cheney has a personal relationship with the Saudi king, and with Hosni Mubarak, dating back to his days as defence secretary under Bush the elder, but chances of any success in any of his plans are extremely slim, the editorialist says, and for the following reasons:

First, these countries all supported the American attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, and yet they have nothing to show for it. On the contrary, Iraq is now a more dangerous threat to them than it was under Saddam. Al-Quds normally doesn't show a lot of respect, editorially, for the intelligence of the Arab regimes, but in this case, the editorialist says the Mubarak and Abdullah and the others will be looking for specific explanations and guarantees from Cheney with respect to details of US plans for both Iraq and Iran. They will want a commitment to the effect that the current instability in Iraq will not be allowed to continue; and particularly the Gulf states will want assurances to the effect they won't be subject to retaliatory attacks from Iran in the event the US decides to bomb that country.

And more generally there is a reluctance to continue supporting any and all US schemes, or as the editorialist puts it
It wouldn't surprise us if what Cheney hears from some of the Arab leaders he meets with is a lot of questions about what recompense they will be receiving in return for any additional cooperation with his administration, whether with respect to Iraq or with respect to Iran, because voluntary and unpaid cooperation has become impossible, given the popular uneasiness in these countries about this blind following of the American administration, whose only wars it launches are against Arabs and Muslims.
The refusal of the Saudi king to meet with Maliki during the latter's recent Arab tour, "despite strong American pressure to do so", is one indication of the degree to which the Saudis have distanced themselves from the Bush administration, and the refusal at Sharm el Sheikh to write off all of their Iraqi debts was another.

Al-Akhbar: Failure of the Surge is leading to a new level of confrontation in the Green Zone

The Lebanese opposition newspaper Al-Akhbar this morning publishes a Baghdad-based report indicating a heightened level of Green-Zone instability. The report begins like this:
Al-Akhbar learned yesterday from reliable sources that the Iraqi political scene is about to witness "fundamental changes" in the coming days, and that the Iraqi Accord Front, the Dialogue [Front], the Iraqi [List], and other political groups, including some from the UIA, are on the verge of announcing a broad political front, currently studying an alliance also with the Fadhila bloc and Kurdish groups, with the aim of announcing a "national salvation program". These sources said what is giving urgency to this plan is a feeling on the part of the above-mentioned groups about the seriousness of the security situation even within the Green Zone, which they say has become a security refuge infiltrated by militias belonging to governing groups or connected with them, in the guise of different types of "guards" or "work details", in preparation for putting down any attempt either constitutionally to deny confidence to the government, or a coup against it.

The sources said the IAF has received an implicit warning from Prime Minister Maliki, the gist of which is a withdrawal of the IAF from the government would compel [the government] to rely on "the Iranians" [the journalist's quotation marks] to maintain order, which some in the IAF saw as an explicit threat.

On a related point, some in the Islamic Party of Iraq [Tareq Hashemi's party] indicated that the "national salvation" plan that Allawi has been promoting has broad political support internally [not clear whether internally in Iraq or just in the Green Zone], moreover it has support from Arab countries, and the blessing of four Arab countries, namely Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait. [And in a similar indication of urgency] the Fadhila bloc proposed in Parliament two days ago the holding of early [Parliamentary] elections by the end of this year, to pull the country out of its current situation. A Fadhila party spokesman told reporters: This proposal springs from the inability of the present government or Parliament to solve the problems they are currently facing.
What is particularly ominous, or at least incendiary, about this, from a regional point of view, is the reference to the implicit warning by Maliki that IAF desertion would force him to rely on the Iranians for law and order, and the idea that the Allawi plan has the "blessing" of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait. In addition, or course, to the idea that government-related militias have been positioning themselves inside the Green Zone to put down any such attempt.

Al-Akhbar says the immediate trigger for this kind of talk is the failure of the Surge. The reporter puts it this way:
Observers have noted that these new political developments spring basically from "the bitter failure" [journalist's quotation marks] of the security plan, and the renewed control of the streets of the militias, with the knowledge of the government or under its supervision, together with a serious deterioration in living conditions, not to mention the exacerbation of financial and administrative corruption.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Hamas failure would be a Salafi victory

For background reading for what follows, take a look at the Conflicts Forum article posted yesterday, called "Blueprint for the third Intifada: America's reverse Midas-touch. The following is an illustration how this will could well be unfolding.

Al-Quds al-Arabi devotes its top story this morning to warnings by a senior Hamas person to the effect that if Hamas continues to be frozen out of Palestinian Authority affairs, the result will be a drift in the direction of the Salafi ideology of AlQaeda which denigrates and rejects the whole idea of this kind of particiption in government. The Hamas official, Yunis al-Astal said:
I don't have conclusive evidence of a presence of AlQaeda in Gaza; what I am saying is that the current political conditions are providing fertile ground for the growth of the ideas of AlQaeda, whether in connection with the specific organization, or not.
The journalist notes Palestinian security arrested seven members of a strict Salafi group earlier this week when they attacked a cultural festival in Gaza which they said included violations of strict Islamic law. And there have been previous attacks on internet cafes and cultural centers, along with statements issued from time to time by unknown groups with statements which (in the words of the reporter) "intersect with the ideas and the spirit of the AlQaeda organization which is led by Osama bin Laden".

It appears that the immediate news-hook for these observations was the deployment of hundreds of Palestinian security personnel at various key points in Gaza at dawn on Thursday , a deployment that the reporter says has triggered controversy about the respective roles of the various Palestinian authorities. The reporter explains:
The minister of the interior Hani al-Qawasami said he thinks this deployment was the result of efforts of "certain officers"; and a government spokesman said [this deployment] was not part of the expected security plan. [On the other hand] Palestinian security sources said this was the start of the security plan, explaining that hundreds of agents were deployed in northern Gaza, and at the entrances to Gaza city and at major street-corners, this being startup for execution of the security plan which is supposed to end the current state of security chaos.
Sure enough, the "controversy" exploded, and by Friday there was street fighting reported beween Fatah and Hamas loyalists.

What is missing from the Western accounts of this is the fact that there is a specific plan being promoted by the Americans to build up the prestige of Abbas, Fatah, and the office of the presidency, in order to sideline Hamas, largely but not entirely based on training and arming of security forces loyal to Fatah. A February-March version of this plan has been published in the Jordanian paper Al-Majd and entirely ignored by the Western media. (See here, and here, for details).

Keeping readers in the dark about US policy, and this plan in particular, helps foster the idea that what happens in Palestine is the spontaneous outbreak of group-rivalries. This obviously helps the Bush administration in two ways: (1) by obscuring the role of US policy in fomenting civil war; and (2) by contributing to the denigration of the Palestinians.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

ISI chief reportedly had Saudi-intelligence connections

Conflicts Forum has published two articles by its Baghdad correspondent, one on the ISI and the other on the Reform and Jihad Front, both of them required reading for anyone trying to follow events in Iraq, because they both include a lot of new information about the Sunni armed groups in Iraq. Since there are a number of new points raised, I would like to elaborate first on just one of them, lest it get lost in the shuffle. It has to do with the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. After writing about recent defections from the ISI, the correspondent writes:
That the remnants of the ISI remain strong and are able to mount successful operations throughout the Baghdad region is due to their experienced and dedicated leadership. The Emir of the state, Omar al-Baghdadi — who some American officials claim was killed on May 1 — is known as an effective strategist. Baghdadi, high on America’s list for capture or assassination, is a former Iraqi officer who left Saddam’s military in 1999 for Afghanistan and returned in 2002 through the border with Kurdistan. Our sources in Anbar Province report that Baghdadi had, for many years, close ties with the Saudi intelligence services.
Just by way of background, Seymour Hersh had this to say about Saudi influence in Afghanistan in his March piece on US Mideast policy:
[Iran scholar Vali] Nasr compared the current situation [between the Saudi regime and the Sunni extremists] to the period in which Al Qaeda first emerged. In the nineteen-eighties and the early nineties, the Saudi government offered to subsidize the covert American C.I.A. proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Hundreds of young Saudis were sent into the border areas of Pakistan, where they set up religious schools, training bases, and recruiting facilities. Then, as now, many of the operatives who were paid with Saudi money were Salafis. Among them, of course, were Osama bin Laden and his associates, who founded Al Qaeda, in 1988.
So the combination of experience in Afghanistan and a close connection with Saudi intelligence shouldn't be a complete surprise. Hersh goes on:
This time, the U.S. government consultant told me, Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that “they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.
"We've created this movement, and we can control it."

So not only is a Saudi connection with the ISI leader logical considering his Afghanistan experience, this is exactly the kind of relationship reported by Hersh with respect to overall US-Saudi policy. Interestingly, while Hersh was able to glean comments specifically respecting covert plans for Iran, Syria and Lebanon, the specific Iraq situation doesn't come up in his piece, in spite of the obvious question: Why would the US plan covert operations in all of the trouble-spots except for Iraq?

Meanwhile, just as an illustration of the currency of this idea of US/Gulf-region influence on Sunni extremists in Iraq: The idea was elaborated recently by the Baathist writer Salah al-Mukhtar, whose article dealing with this topic I summarized here.

Al-Mukhtar wrote:
Once [the Americans] understood that they had well and truly fallen into the Iraqi trap, from which they wouldn't emerge safely unless they could come up with an elaborately thought-out scheme, started putting moles in specific factions, and via these moles they offered the groups generous material and PR support. This enhanced the credibility of these moles, and raised their profile and role within these factions, and some of them came to have leadership roles within those factions....[A]t the same time that the American Mukhabarat toughens its campaign against the Baath by various means...[including] its extreme efforts to dry up the sources of funding for the Party and its resistance, and its arrest of tens of thousands of its fighters and mujahideen, at the same time it is making life easier in a remarkable way for the sectarian Sunni takfiris, offering them financial and military support, whether directly, or channeled via the Gulf, and this at a time when their takfir is being intensified against the nationalists and the patriots and the true Islamists....
There is another point: The Conflicts Forum correspondent talks about the nature of the leadership disputes that plagued the ISI project, as follows (the italics are mine):

While the new state quickly gained support from other groups in areas dominated by resistance forces, the ISI started to fall apart within weeks of the “Voice of the Caliphate” announcement. Clashes erupted between ISI militias and other Islamic groups (including some of those that had initially pledged their support), and squabbles broke out between ISI kingpins and the the leadership cadre of several resistance groups. The leadership disagreements revolved around ISI plans to mount attacks on Shias, even at the expense of protecting Sunni populations in Anbar, Gaditha, and Fallujah. Nor were resistance leaders satisfied with the ISI’s open support for al-Qaeda tactics that would amount to a purge of Sunni activists who did not meet al-Qaeda’s political standards. Finally, immediately after the formation of the ISI, al-Qaeda militia leaders began a program of forcibly extracting payments from Sunni families and imposing a conscription quota of young men in ISI areas.

This idea of "ISI plans to mount attacks on Shias" is exactly what Al-Mukhtar was talking about when he wrote about the plan to use Sunni takfiris and extremists to convert the war against the occupation into a civil war between Shia and Sunnis.

The points here are (1) that attacking Shiites was a bone of contention between the ISI and the nationalist resistance groups; (2) the ISI is led by a person who has had close ties with the intelligence agency of the biggest US ally in the Gulf. I think this raises new questions, or elevates old questions to a new level, and that is regardless of whether or not the Saudi person who reportedly said in effect "We've created this movement, and we can control it," was right or wrong about the second part of that.

It is the question that Abdulbari Atwan asked in a recent column when he wrote:
We respect the views of the liberals who criticize the fundamentalist Islamists and their ideas, but are we not entitled to ask them [the liberals] about what it is that supports this [fundamentalist] phenomenon, and uses it, one day, in the service of the American projects, and to strike at the liberalism, and the nationalism and the secular-left which they say should be encouraged.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Sadr and Hashemi both edging toward the door

Talk about volatility. IraqSlogger this morning headlines "AlQaeda on the run?", while CNN trumpets "Sunni demand could unravel Iraqi government." What a day for news!

Naturally these are exaggerations, but the point is that these "collapse" and "on the run" stories are part and parcel of the media fixation on finding a US "exit"-strategy, and soon. If AlQaeda is on the run, then maybe there would be one less argument for "staying". If the current Shiia government is on the verge of collapse, perhaps the next one will be more inclusive and somehow break the quagmire deadlock. Easy enough to debunk both ideas, but the point is this is what we are being fed.

Along with the fixation on US exit-strategy, we have also been fed a steady diet of self-cleansing blame. According to the NYT editorial yesterday, the whole Iraq problem is the result of the do-nothing attitude of the Maliki administration. And the "progressive" blog-jihadis have been at the forefront of this interpretation, dismissing internal UIA political tensions as "theater", describing Sadr as a thug and Sistani as a Mafia figure, all of them driven by narrow self-interest only, and together engaged in deceiving the Americans about the prospects for reconciliation. As if the sole purpose of the Americans in Iraq was to establish peace and tranquillity, like missionaries in a way, so as to be able to "leave" with a clear conscience. Given this, the Qaeda-on-the-run and the government-collapse stories fit in quite nicely. Perhaps enlightenment and inclusiveness will prevail after all! Or all-out civil war! Either way, it will be a good argument for "withdrawal".

Meanwhile, closer to the real world, Sadrists are telling Al-Hayat that Sadr is making efforts to regain his nationalist and resistance credentials, having emissaries talk with Sunni groups outside of Iraq, and trying to engineer a purge of lawless elements in the Mahdi Army. The Sadrist sources say the current is seriously considering exiting from the UIA, as a result of the ongoing dispute over demands for a US withdrawal timetable, and more immediately as a result of disputes over how to replace the Sadrist cabinet ministers who have been pulled from the government by the movement. Sadrists say it now appears SCIRI will be trying to have those positions filled, not with competent and politically neutral technocrats, which was the original idea, but instead with SCIRI partisans. As reported, there have been Badr-Mahdi Army military clashes in the south, probably not unrelated to these political disputes.

The Tariq al-Hashemi interview with CNN is a reflection of the same trend. Hashemi too is bent on trying to salvage some degree of nationalist credibility, saying his decision to participate in this government will have been the "mistake of my life" (if the constitution is not amended, he added). What both Sadr and Hashemi are trying to do is distance themselves from the existing political arrangements, Sadr from the UIA, Hashemi from the Maliki administration. Naturally, the integrity, self-esteem and continued existence of the groups they lead is uppermost, but also, and as part and parcel of that, the preservation of their own reputations and that of their groups as proponents of national unity. And both of them seem to have decided that this has to lie in some other direction than continuing to hope for a government-led reconciliation. That would be the resistance.

Hashemi's Islamic Party is a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, and the recent report by the AlJazeera bureau chief in Amman (in his Al-Ghad column) referred to the original MB directive that led to this kind of participation in the American-sponsored government as "catastrophic". Hashemi seems to be getting ready to concede that point.

Monday, May 07, 2007

A good question

Abdulbari Atwan, in his regular column in Al-Quds al-Arabi this morning, challenges the liberals and the academics in the West and in the Arab countries to use some of their vaunted research expertise to explain in a suitably scientific and reasoned way what exactly is behind the rise and spread of the Islamic fundamentalism which in principle they oppose.

Actually, his argument starts a couple of removes from that. First, he says there is a worrying trend to use the case of Iraq as a supposed support for the idea that all opposition to Arab regimes is bad in one way or another: Either it is barbaric, or it is bought-and-paid-for ("agents"). On the contrary, there have been examples all over the Arab world of honorable and nationalist opposition, although given the nature of the Arab regimes, the leaders tend to end up dead or in jail or in exile. The conditions for a flourishing bona fide opposition are pluralistic democracy, respect for constitutions, independent judiciary and so on, and unfortunately none of the existing Arab regimes meets those conditions. Atwan goes through the cases of opposition in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria, noting on the "good" side of the ledger a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt who probably holds the world's record for being jailed and then released and then jailed again in an endless cycle. On the "bad side" is the case of the Syrian opposition, which he notes doesn't really deserve that name.

His point is not just that the armed opposition in Iraq and Palestine belongs to the class bona fide "opposition" of the legitimate and honorable type. Rather, his point is that the Iraqi case is being used in a noxious and damaging way to suggest that there is no such thing as legitimate opposition, because it ends up being either fundamentalist-Islamic in a "barbaric" way, or else ends up in league with the Americans. And here Atwan gets to his point about the liberals and the academics:
We respect the views of the liberals who criticize the fundamentalist Islamists and their ideas, but are we not entitled to ask them [the liberals] about what it is that supports this [fundamentalist] phenomenon, and uses it, one day, in the service of the American projects, and to strike at the liberalism, and the nationalism and the secular-left which they say should be encouraged. And [are we not entitled to ask them about] the spending of billions for the proliferation of this phenomenon in the region as a whole. And [about the fact that] where this phenomenon developed and grew and turned its weapons against the American occupation, they then turned on it and supported its suppression and used all their public-relations energy in distorting it?

Why do they not call things by their names, come out from under their cloak of generalities, and analyze the roots of this phenomenon in a scientific way that would be in keeping with the academic degrees which they hold, and with the top-level research methods in use in the Western and Arab universities that trained them?
In other words, Islamic fundamentalism is by turns used and suppressed by the Americans and their Arab-regime allies, but for all of the attention academics and liberals apply to the day-to-day happenings, where is the research that gets to the roots of this phenomenon? An excellent question, to be sure.

Finally, Atwan repeats his introductory point, which is that not all Arab opposition movements are bad. Here is the connection: There has been a failure, whether politically motivated or not, to dig around and expose the roots of Islamic fundamentalism and its political uses, and whether or not the motivation for this has been political, one of the important results has been to help discredit all opposition movements. And that is something Atwan sees as another important step on the road to the self-destruction of the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Iraq strategy: A skeleton in the Muslim Brotherhood's closet

AlJazeera's Amman bureau chief Yasir abu Hilala writes a regular column in the Jordanian paper Al-Ghad, and today he broaches a topic that has been lingering in the background since the start of the media campaigns and reorganizations among the armed groups in Iraq: Given the fact that there was a Muslim Brotherhood organization in Iraq during the Saddam era, what became of it from 2003 onward, and how is this history playing out today? First Hilala reviews in very general terms the writings of the MB founder, Hassan al-Banna, stressing that there are a variety of possible readings of his overall position on the question of recourse to violence, and this was reflected in the multiplicity of different strategies adopted in different countries, depending on local circumstances, for instance in Syria the MB participated in elections, while in Yemen they took up arms against the government, even though it was an Islamic government; and so on. His point is that the MB, if you look at its history, isn't really a global organization with any kind of central control. Turning to Iraq, he writes
This multiplicity of readings caused consternation and disputes when the Americans came. Leaders outside of Iraq had been yearning for a return to Iraq like that of the Daawa and the Supreme Council (SCIRI). And those who had been active in Iraq under Saddam, cut off from the outside world, were convinced that their leaders abroad were the more knowledgeable and better-equipped to direct matters. The tragedy began with a fatwa from outside (of Iraq) telling the Brothers to abandon Baghdad, and to do nothing to defend the Saddam regime.

This secret fatwa constituted the first actual split within the Iraqi MB, because some did leave Baghdad pursuant to the fatwa, but others rejected it, calling it contrary to religion, political opportunism, and even treason. Those who obeyed the fatwa got involved, catastrophically, in the political process, voting yes for the sectarian constitution and finally ending up participating in the sectarian Maliki administration and lending it legitimacy. Those who rejected the fatwa got involved in armed [resistance] operations, in fact its leaders were founders [of the resistance] as happened in the case of the Brigades of the 1920 Revolution, the Army of the Rashideen, and other groups, including Jaamia ("the group"; I am not sure what he's referring to there) and Hamas of Iraq.
This has to be read, at least in part, as a commentary on the earlier columns (also in Al-Ghad) by Mohamed abu Roman on the significance of Hamas--Iraq as an Ikhwan-related form of resistance-group, and followup commentaries in English, where the implicit idea had to do with the possibility of finding a "pragmatic" resistance group to negotiate with. Hilala's point is that first of all, there isn't a single Ikhwan position on "armed struggle--yes or no" but rather there has been a whole range of opinions and strategies, both in the wider Arab world earlier, and in Iraq since 2003. And more important, this question of how to respond to the American invasion has already been the cause of a split in the Iraqi Ikhwan, in fact those who rejected the outside fatwa in 2003 have been among the leaders and founders of more than one armed resistance group, while those who accepted it have been among those most seriously compromised by their participation in the "political process".

Hilala continues: The taped message yesterday by AlQaeda leader abu Hamza al-Muhajir, although he perhaps isn't that well-versed in the history of the MB in Iraq, still the message almost seemed targeted at them, including accusations about the participation of "that tribe" in the runup to the American invasion, and remarks about the "treachery" of their participation from the Bremer era onward, (although Al-Muhajir added his group is not inclined to get into non-essential fights with them, because this would only benefit the occupation).

Yasir abu Hilala concludes:
There is no "global organization" that holds the Iraqi leadership to account. Rather, it is up to the Brothers themselves in Iraq elsewhere to hold their leadership to account, because these are leaders without the capacity to compete with the Shiite or the Kurdish groups in politics, or to compete in armed operations either. True, they did come up with the idea Hamas--Iraq, but this was way too late.
Not only too late, Hilala implies, but insofar as the MB brand is concerned, considerably damaged goods.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Badger's news roundup

So what happened Sharm al-Sheikh?

(1) The Saudis confirmed what was already apparent, namely that they will have nothing to do with the Maliki administration in Iraq, by refusing to agree even to a bilateral foreign-ministers meeting at Sharm al-Sheikh

(2) Syria appears to have already entered into some kind of a deal with the Americans, or is about to do so, reflected in the fact that, coinciding with the Rice-Moallem meeting, there was an announcement about a major effort by Syrian security forces against jihadis, not to mention the comments by Gen Caldwell to the effect there has been a diminution in infiltrations from Syria recently. (So far there aren't any indications what specifically they will be getting in return)

(3) The Palestinian government of national unity, which has made no progress at all in its recent efforts to break the economic blockade led by the Americans (and acquiesced in not only by Europe, but by Arab governments including Saudi Arabia as well), didn't see any progress at Sharm al-Sheikh either. In fact on Friday, Prime Minister Haniya of Hamas raised the tone of his criticism of the Arab governments on this score, and there continues to be pessimism about the survival of his government if, as expected, the blockade continues

These points are among those underlined by Al-Quds al-Arabi in the last couple of days (see in particular the lead editorials Friday and Saturday May 4 and 5).

In the English-language coverage, none of these points is made. Rather, the coverage has to do with things like the lady in red who played the violin at the dinner, and whether she was really the reason the Iranian foreign minister walked out; a new twist in the Condi-Nancy relationship now that both of them have met with the Syrians; and things like that. Normally we should also be seeing banner headlines about shifting tectonics the Arab world, but there isn't any of that either.

The problem for the Western headline-writers coming out of these meetings is that the Arab regimes are not following any identifiable party line. The Saudi king is willing to confront the Americans on the question of the Maliki administration, but not on the question of the Palestinian economic blockade. Syria appears willing to help America with respect to Iraqi security, for reasons of its own, but there aren't similar indications from Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries.

In other words, the events and non-events of Sharm al-Sheikh don't lend themselves to the kind of cartoon-like simplicity which alone entitles the Arab world to our attention.

Meanwhile in actual reality the ominous processes continue: Saudi alienated from its US-sponsored neighbor; Syria climbing into bed with America and exposing itself to the risks of becoming a new target for the jihadis; Palestinian government headed for collapse under US pressure.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Updating the US plan for Palestine

Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior Fatah person, and currently deputy Prime minister in the government of national unity, has said if the current economic blockade led by the US and Europe isn't lifted, the national unity government will collapse within three months at most, and the author of the lead editorial in Al-Quds al-Arabi (which leans to Hamas, as you know) says he agrees. And the editorialist adds: There isn't any prospect of the blockade being lifted, because the Palestinians' "friends" aren't putting any pressure on Washington to do so. He says Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas raised this with the Saudi king during his recent tour, "But the only response he obtained was advise to to to Washington and get their agreement first of all, then there wouldn't be any problem resuming funding of the Palestinian Authority".

And logic suggests the Americans may well be already planning for the post-collapse situation. Why else, the editorialist asks, would they continue spending millions on training and arming of security forces associated with Fatah, at the same time that they continue to block general funding for the government? He puts it this way:
The American administration, which earmarks millions for the Presidential Guards, and finances training and arming of its members in Jordan and in Egypt, is perhaps preparing in advance for stage that comes after the collapse of the government. It doesn't seem logical that they would earmark $60 million for the reconstruction of the [Presidential] Guards, and at the same time block [general] funding for the government, in spite of the fact that the Minister of Finance is friends with many of the American authorities, including Condoleeza Rice...
The scheme laid out in the February-March "Action Plan" (see prior post) called for building up of the role of Abbas and Fatah within the formal framework of the national unity government, via quick-fix economic funding, euphoria over negotiations with Israel, and security-improvements. Obviously that overall scheme has not worked out. What the Al-Quds editorialist is suggesting is what comes next for US policy: Namely continued economic squeeze, with generous funding only for the Fatah-related security forces in preparation for the period of lawlessness that will follow the national-unity government's inevitable collapse.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Unified explanation of the American scheme for Palestine, c February 2007

Sometime after the February 2007 Mecca agreement, which set up the framework for a Hamas-Fatah government of national unity, there was drawn up an Action Plan aimed at rolling back the idea of a Palestinian national-unity government, sidelining Hamas, and "building up Abbas' political stock" in a short period of time not to exceed nine months, with the idea that Abbas would call new parliamentary elections in fall 2007, which Fatah would win. The document refers to the February Mecca agreement, and looks forward to the March Rice-Abbas-Olmert summit, so it was written during that interval, making this in effect a last-gasp attempt to keep alive the divide-and-conquer scheme for Palestine promoted by Elliot Abrams at the National Security Council.

The promotion of Fatah and sidelining of Hamas was to involve not only financing and training of security forces connected with the office of the Presidency and loyal to Abbas; but also economic projects to be designed together with the World Bank and the European Union that would have short-term popular effects attributable to Abbas; and creation of an atmosphere of optimism with the initial announcement of negotiations with Israel, to be followed by subsequent negotiations in secret. To kick the thing off, the Action plan called for a positive response from Israel at the March 24-5 summit with Rice and Abbas, to be followed by a positive statement at the Riyadh summit, and formation of an Arab-states council to draw up a final version of the Plan, which council Israel would be able to join. Various elements of this scheme have been highlighted from to time, including the theme of using Palestinian negotiations to insert Israel into the group of Arab US allies, shattering the Hamas-Fatah unity government, and most notably US financial support for training of Palestinian forces loyal to Abbas, detailed in the Conflicts Forum article in January called "Elliot Abrams Uncivil War". What this document does first and foremost is to give us a unified explanation of how all of these parts were supposed to fit together.

The full text of this Action Plan document was sent out for printing by a Jordanian weekly publication called Al-Majd, only to have its printing banned by the Jordanian government. The text, however, remained available on their website. Al-Majd said the high-level source who provided this said it was drawn up by "Arab and American parties", and "presented to Palestinian president Abbas by the head of an Arab intelligence agency". The following is a summary of the first part of the document, with brief translations of certain parts, in order to offer an initial overall view of the document and the plan. It is filled with expressions that translate only too smoothly into English ("Action Plan"; "strong and effective steps"; "decline in credibility", "moving forward with political negotiations" and on and on) indicating to me at least that this is a document whose mother tongue is English. Persons more familiar than I am with State Dept jargon might recognize the style.

The unifying theme in this is the following: Everything that was to be done was for the ultimate purpose of enabling Abbas to call, and then to win, new parliamentary elections in fall 2007, so as to definitively and legally sideline Hamas. The document spells out the idea that World Bank financing was to be considered from that perspective; wage-payments were to be arranged with that in mind; even the idea of negotiating with Israel was to set up an atmosphere of optimism that would similarly help Abbas; strengthening of law and order were also for the purpose of enhancing the position of Abbas. What this document shows is that not only was the US still intent, after the Mecca agreement, on dislodging the elected government of Hamas, but that all of the component parts of the scheme, political, financial and economic, were all subordinated to that.

Here's how the document begins:

Action plan for the Presidency of Palestine, year 2007

I. The task

The president of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas has suffered a decline in credibility outside of Palestine following the signing of the Mecca agreement, and the failure of the government of national unity to respond to the requirements of the Quartet, or Abbas' basic conditions. In the absense of strong efforts by Abbas to protect the position of the presidency as the center of gravity of the Palestinian leadership, it can be expected that international support for him will diminish and there won't be enthusiastic coooperation with him (in light of the fact his effectiveness has been in continual decline). And a growing number of countries, including the European Union and the G-8, will start to look for Palestinian partners that are more acceptable and more credible, and more able to make advances in security and governance. And this would strengthen the position of Hamas within Palestinian society, and would further weaken Fatah and the Palestinian presidency. And it would also diminish the chances for early elections.

For this reason Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas needs to take strong and effective steps based on the Action Plan to make himself more acceptable and more credible, ahead of the talks with the Israelis and the Americans on the occasion of the visit of US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, expected in March 2007. Moreover, this Plan will remain the center of attention of the international community and the United States, to provide the necessary support for moving ahead with the political operations in their appropriate channels.

It is necessary to see the parts of this Plan as necessary components in the operation of building a Palestinian state (governance, sound economic measures, institution-building, establishment of the rule of law).

II. Objectives

This section starts by repeating the idea of putting Abbas back as the center of gravity in the eyes of foreign governments. In addition, there is a need to define what each of the parties has to do to implement this Plan, and the document adds: "And this means avoiding the wasting of valuable time trying to alter the ideology of Hamas, or turning back the clock to pre-Madrid times. Wasting valuable time in a political effort to get Hamas to join the parade will only weaken the basis for a peaceful agreement".

Then there is this: Abbas should be given the financial and political support necessary to "enable him to move forward with the political negotiations for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and to build up his political capital, so as to enable him to move to part B of the Plan (early Palestinian parliamentary elections).

And there is the corollary objective: "Delivering a strong political blow to Hamas by supplying the Palestinian people with their immediate economic needs through the Presidency and Fatah", in addition to the strengthening of government institutions within the Palestinian Authority.

The next objective is this: Providing the Presidency with the necessary wherewithal to establish its control over the security apparatus, which "will deter Hamas or any other faction from any attempt at escalation, as long as the security control of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah is on a firm basis".

Finally there is the idea of strict timetables for each of the components of the Plan (from three to nine months depending on the component), so as to focus the efforts of all the parties; and a reminder of the need for affirmation of full support for this Plan from Israel and the United States.

III. Components of the Plan

(1) Political

Getting into negotiations with Israel about the establishment of a Palestinian state, including discussions about final status, along with the necessary steps to change the reality on the ground in the short term--this is going to be a necessary element in building up the political capital of Abbas and of Fatah.

"From another angle", says the document, "the public launching of these negotiations, and then their continuation in secret, will guarantee the necessary optimism in this respect, while at the same time protecting the participants in this from political pressure. Likewise, the setting of a schedule for withdrawals, along with confidence connected with progress in the security plan will also aid the political process (programmed withdrawals, elimination of barriers and checkpoints, rrelease of prisoners, halting construction of new colonies, stopping excavation work in Jerusalem). And it is also important that the Palestinian Authority commit to the following: (and there is a discussion about internal commitments to end violence, recognize prior international agreements and so on).

(2) Governance

It will be necessary to supply Abbas with the means, both material and legal, to govern and to strengthen his credibility and legitimacy, so as to make him comfortably capable of calling parliamentary elections by the beginning of autumn 2007. This includes the need for internal reforms in Fatah, including election of a new Fatah Central Committee with more representation from the New Guard, ensuring a single unified slate in the elections, and getting control over the Al-Aqsa Matryrs Bridade.

(3) Security

Following introductory remarks about the need to control groups that violate the truce, and so on, there is this: "The security component of this Plan is in accordance with the security obligations that were earlier agreed upon between the Palestinians and the Israelis (Dayton -- Dahlan), and the agreements that were arrived at with the "Arab quartet" and the United States. Strict targets and timetables and so on respecting the security commitments will be necessary "to ensure the support of Israel and the other parties".

(4) Economic

This section starts off by saying there is a need for a mechanism for paying wages via the office of the Presidency, as long as Hamas refuses to comply with the requirements of the Quartet, and this is necessary in order to ensure payment "to those who are in agreement with it (apparently meaning in agreement with the Presidency)", and to make sure that the money doesn't fall into the hands of "any faction or organization". This would be another factor building up Abbas' credibility, the report says.

The first sub-head under "Economic" goes like this:
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas should propose, in consultation with the World Bank and the European Union, a plan that defines specific sectors and projects that are in need of financing, and that will show useful and tangible results on the ground in the space of six to nine months, centering on the alleviation of poverty and unemployment. And since some projects will take more than nine months, there should be a guarantee of adequate results within the nine months. This is so as to guarantee the usefulness of these projects before the elections.

There is a section with brief mention of measures for easing the flow of goods.

IV. Implementation of the Plan

The Plan should be presented to the Palestinians as something for them to support and to obtain the agreement of the United States and the Arab quartet, as a first step. And this would give Israel and the Europeans assurance that Abbas has a concrete plan. Followed by this:
The United States and/or Jordan and Egypt and Saudi Arabia could form a joint council (with representation of all parties) that could draw up the plan in final form, and it would be possible for Israel to participate in this.

What Israel needs to do: Israel should undertake parallel commitments, in connection with the presentation and agreement to this Plan at the coming summit, as indicated in the proposed draft joint communique for Rice, Abbas and Olmert, at the end of their March summit, and this in turn will motivate the Arab summit in Riyadh to issue a positive statement in support of the political efforts, and to reaffirm the Arab peace proposal. Just as the Palestinians can be expected to take a step forward, so too the Israelis need to demonstrate their commitment and seriousness in moving forward. And this is a necessity for them, if they hope to see the Arab inclusion that they have been hoping for for so long.