Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Moqtada preparing to meet with Adherents of the Mahdi re complaints about the Najaf authorities

Azzaman, sandwiched in an unrelated story about inaction respecting the recent suspicious fires at the Central Bank and elsewhere, says:

An authoritative source in the Sadrist trend said Moqtada al-Sadr is preparing to meet with a representative of the Mahdawiyya movement (Mahdists, general name for the groups focused on the appearance of the 12th Imam) that have been asking for a curtailment of the role of the Najaf marjia [authority, a collective word for the Najaf authorities of whom the most powerful is Sistani] in connection with the accusations repeatedly made by the Maliki government and its PR and security branches--destructive accusations that need to be fought. The source said Al-Sadr didn't spell out the form these discussions will take, but said he is preparing to accept the request of one of the spokesmen for the Adherents of the Imam Mahdi, made on Al-Sharqiyya TV. Recall that Al-Sadr himself has begun studies in the Najaf Hawza to complete the studies necessary to himself obtain the title of marjia, studies that could take several years.
The state of play seems to be that the government continues to spin conspiracy accusations against the Mahdawiyya movement as a whole. What makes this a little ambiguous is that a major feature of the Mahdist ideology is opposition to the influence of the Najaf authorities, so some of this could amount to Najaf McCarthyism, if you will pardon the expression. The Mahdists say that kind of fixed institutional intermediation is unnecessary and harmful, because knowledge comes either directly by revelation, or via the precursors of the twelfth Imam. Al-Sadr was probably referring to this problem when he said immediately after the Ashura violence that Iraq needs a "professional" intelligence agency, suggesting the current system is sectarian and anti-Mahdist.

On another topic Azzaman reports on its website in English that the Iraqi "government" has decided to end the food-ration program in June of this year, over the objections of the Finance Ministry which says this is a bad idea. The reporter says the government decision was taken pursuant to an agreement with the World Bank. Experts are quoted with unsurprising comments to the effect this is going to hurt the unemployed, in a country where the official unemployment rate is 40%.

I haven't seen this reported in any of the papers in Arabic, or anywhere else in any language, for that matter. If it's true it is a major story, reflecting ongoing pressure from the global powers that be for the application of IMF economic orthodoxy right up to the gates of hell, if you will pardon the expression. Has anyone seen anything about this? Anywhere?

Market forces ?

This appeared in the lower-right corner of the front page of the Bahrein newspaper Akhbar al-Khaleej on Tuesday January 29, under the heading:

Iraqi deputy to Akhbar al-Khaleej: American Companies offered five million dollar bribe to all deputies in exchange for passage of the Oil Law --Baghdad. Special to Akhbar al-Khaleej

An Iraqi member of parliament said secret talks have been opened by parties representing American oil companies, that include an American offer to give deputies who vote in favor of the Oil and Gas Law money amounting to five million dollars.

The Iraqi deputy, who preferred his name not be mentioned, said the amount of money that could be paid for passage of the Oil and Gas Law [thus] doesn't exceed $150 million, if the $5 million figure is specified for each deputy, and this will be an insignificant amount compared to the concessions these American companies will obtain. He was referring to the fact that the Oil Law needs 138 votes to pass, and this is what the American parties are trying to obtain by several different methods, including the buying of votes, and blandishments, and threats.

The deputy said he thinks the Americans will adhieve their aim with some deputies who will promise to vote for the bill in exchange for the mentioned amount of money, but he said others will not be selling their votes for any price, or under any type of pressure.

The Iraqi deputy said these talks, which are being kept in the highest degree of secrecy, are centered on the leaders of parliamentary blocs, and on persons with influence in Parliament, so as to obtain the biggest number of votes possible. He said the Americans already had the votes of the Kurdish lists assured, but what they are trying for is to get sufficient votes to pass the bill and enact it at the earliest possible time.

Recall that there are still parliamentary blocs that are firmly against voting for the Oil and Gas Law, and that there are others that say this should be put to a popular referendum, since it is something that concerns the fate of Iraq's oil wealth, and the sustenance of the Iraqi people.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A researcher's remarks on Yamani and other Mahdist movements; Supreme Council allegations

Aswat al Iraq publishes a feature on Mahdist movements, including remarks by a researcher of Islamic affairs, Qadir al-Jabbar (not otherwise identified). There is an Arabic and an English version of this, but the English version leaves out several interesting passages, so here is the entirety of Jabbar's remarks.

Jabbar says the identity of Ahmed al-Hasan isn't well-understood, adding:
"There is a book and an audio-tape attributed to him, both of which show a naivete in his propositions that suggest that he could be a former, unsuccessful, student in one of the religious institutions of learning". The researcher continued: "The fact Yamani took the six--pointed star [star of David] as his symbol without worrying about any adverse reaction that this symbol could cause, given that it is the symbol of the Hebrew state, together with the material possibilities possessed by his movement along with all of the other Mahdist movements, induces the necessity of believing that these are "artificial" movements, to convey a group of concepts and destroy any chance of stability in southern Iraq".

Jabbar said what this group has in common with the other Mahdist groups is that they are built around small structural organizations, both on the leadership side and on the side of the followers, adding that the key people are mostly people that are obscure, socially, politically and in the religious sphere, close to the religious milieu but without having obtained degrees or any recognized level of learning. They are generally Shiite; they appear suddenly and they disappear suddenly; they use violence as their means of effecting change; they refuse to recognize any authorities, either political or religions, except those within the Mahdist movement; and their thought generally involves the rejection the current state of affairs root and branch.

The researcher Qadir Jabbar offered some examples of [other] such groups: "For instance we have the movement of Fadhil abdul Hussein al-Marsumi. His idea is that he is the Mohamed of our times. [He says] there is a new Mohamed in each age, and he urges people to give up studies of all kinds, including reading and the reliance on reading, to permit themselves to obtain knowledge by revelation. Marsumi's criticism is directed essentially against the Shiite [sect or religion] describing it as based on false beliefs, in spite of the fact that he himself, personally, bases himself on it. This is a point in common with the salafi Wahhabi sect, which some think he supports in his preaching." [If I may interject: I think the point here is that in common with the salafi Wahhabis, this man opposes the entire hierarchy of the mother-sect, but he himself--they themselves--adhere to the original principle. This would be true of a lot of fundamentalist movements, and it isn't clear what motivates this particular comparison with salafi Wahhabism].

Jabbar continued: There is another dangerous movement whose activities have been growing in recent months in Baghdad and other cities of the center of Iraq, namely the movement of Habiballah al-Mukhtar. Its leader preaches what he calls "the revolution of divine love", and its position can be summarized this way: After the failure of all of the sects and all of the religions, we have undertaken this correcting revolution which leads to God directly. And that implies the attempt to blow up all of the sects and religions, and this is something that relates this movement, in a distant way, to the Masonic movement. [Again, the rejection of intermediaries is something common to a lot of fundamentalist movements, and it isn't clear what motivates the researcher in this particular case to refer to blowing up the religions or what his point is about the masonic movement].
And Jabbar concluded by saying there is no question of these Mahdists being stamped out in the foreseeable future; rather, they can be expected to grow in numbers and activities.

The above is the whole of the remarks by the researcher Qadir Jabbar in the Arabic-language item published by Aswat al-Iraq. In their English-language version, the paragraph about Marsumi is left out, and also the remark in the last paragraph about supposed similarity with the Masonic movement. Those deletions could be on account of the obscurity of what he is talking about. But the English-language version also left out the researcher's remarks about the possibility of these movements being "artificial" and fostered with a destabilizing purpose. Maybe they thought it was too speculative for English-language readers, or maybe it was just an oversight.

The piece also includes remarks by a researcher at something called Institute of Arab Gulf Studies, who didn't want to be named even though his institute is named. Here too the English language version leaves out part of the Arabic version, but in this case I think they were unquestionably right to do so.

For what it is worth, the Supreme Council news-site has published a story that purports not only to identify Ahmed al-Hasan al-Yamani, but to trace his career through religious studies in Najaf pre-2003 when he was allegedly sponsored by Saddam's mukhabarat, then following the fall of that regime he was sponsored by a number of Gulf-state intelligence agencies led by that of the UAE. And this includes details of the alleged revolutionary plot which included a complex series of planned operations in Basra, Nasiriya and Karbala, all thwarted by alert police action. He is a Dajjal, or anti-Mahdi (to coin a word based on "anti-Christ"), and the story is based on the idea that there have been and will continue to be a number of these repeatedly, noting that the similar plot that was broken up last year was of a different group and a different Dajjal.

Government spokesmen have referred in news reports in vague terms to the Yamani group responding to a "foreign agenda", but these above-mentioned specific allegations haven't been taken up by any other news media (other than Burathanews), and the experts cited in the above Voices of Iraq story don't mention it either, possibly because their isn't any actual evidence for it. It could be that the Supreme Council needed a story to reassure their own people that this was taken care of, for this year at least, even a story that might not bear a lot of scrutiny.

While we're on the subject, it should also be noted that website of the Adherents of the Mahdi (Yamani's group),, is dead, not surprisingly considering so many of its members are also dead. Their position was that the group has been systematically harassed by the agents of the Supreme Council and the GreenZone government (see a summary in English of one of their statements at There are a couple of very similar statements that were copied here before the Mahdyoon site went down. In this version, the Adherents of the Mahdi complain that members who were detained and tortured by the government were then "turned over to the criminal forces of the occupation, to be tortured according to the modern, Western methods!!" (Second statement at the last-mentioned location, first paragraph).

Friday, January 25, 2008

Jaafari talks to the resistance

Ibrahim Jaafari, the former Prime Minister, is in Cairo as part of a tour of Arab capitals. Jaafari is a member of the Dawa Party, but the wing of the party he heads (Dawa Party--Iraq Organization) has split from the wing headed by current PM Maliki and has signed an agreement with the Sadrists, some Sunni parties, and others (the famous "12-party understanding") espousing a "nationalist" program particularly insofar as it opposes Kurdistan-only oil contracts, and in effect declares Clause 140 of the Constitution a dead letter, meaning there can be no further dickering over the status of Kirkuk. Other "nationalist" principles are expressed too, although a little more vaguely.

In an interview with Radio Sawa on Friday, Jaafari said the following (according to the radio's website):
As to the parties with whom he had discussions in Cairo on ways for implementing national reconciliation, Jaafari said he met with Iraqi factions that bear arms and that have a nationalist program, in order to hear their points of view and discuss ways of bringing them into the political process in the interests of the nation, although he does not agree with them, in his words.

Jaafari stressed the importance of hanging on to the recent improvements in security and using that to promote the national reconciliation project, so that this doesn't turn out to be the calm before the storm.

Jaafari said his project is not that of a substitute for that of the government, and he does not intend the creation of an oppositional movement to the government of Nuri al-Maliki. The front he intends to create will not differ in anything that concerns the good of the country, as he put it.
Jaafari concluded by saying that "the political support I have obtained in Cairo" is something that will be to the benefit of the Maliki government.

This is the first I have ever heard of a Shiite party leader having discussions with any of the armed Sunni resistance groups, and I think the news is noteworthy for that reason. Which in turn suggests something else (something pointed out to me already a couple of times in the comments, and only now starting to sink in), and that is that there probably is some degree actual nationalist and "democratic" influence going on in the GreenZone, for instance why else would the US have been stymied so far in getting its Oil and Gas Law enacted; and how else can you explain Sunni parties signing on with the Sadrists and the Jaafari wing of the Dawa to any memo of agreement, no matter how vague.

Naturally this has to be disentangled from those activities that reflect the American effort to produce a broader-based GreenZone government mainly for the purpose of legitimizing the new bi-lateral security agreement, so in the coming period of time it may be a little more difficult than usual to sort this out.

(Thanks to the omniscient roadstoiraq for calling attention to the Radio Sawa item).

A gripping story, and another story yet to be told

The gist of Mark Perry's spellbinding two-part article in the AsiaTimes online (as far as Iraq itself is concerned) is this: Starting in 2003, US military officers on the ground started meeting with, and trying to work out cooperative arrangements with, Iraqis who needed help in fighting off the Wahhabi fundamentalists aka AlQaeda who were flooding the country after the fall of Saddam.

The efforts of these officers were opposed by the White House. Finally in 2005 one such cooperative effort went ahead anyway, involving cooperation between a Marine unit and Sunni leaders fighting AlQaeda in Falluja. That example of cooperation, with the support of "a tight circle of Pentagon civilian advisers around Rumsfeld", was eventually made the model for the Awakening Council strategy in Anbar province. A later attempt to expand this to areas south of Baghdad ran into trouble when a bomb blast at a meeting at the Mansour Hotel in the GreenZone killed many of that scheme's tribal supporters. But the strategy went ahead, including in Babil province, where the provincial government is Shiite, and including also an agreement with the multi-area Janabi tribe.

So the general approach is continuing, but at same time, this brings with it the realization that (1) If it is a sound strategy, even for the short term, then there was no reason not to have implemented it five years ago; and (2) If the best available strategy now seems to be to ally with Iraqi nationalists fighting AlQaeda, and this could have been implemented five years ago, but for the White House ideologues, this raises the next level of questions, or as Mark Perry puts it, continuing his summary of the thinking of the military officers involved:
All of which raises the question of whether the United States should have invaded Iraq in the first place, an issue that is becoming more pertinent to military officers who view the American adventure in Iraq as a political and military failure.
In a nutshell, from the military-operations point of view, the learning curve has been this: (1) The White House opposed any and all deals with Iraqi leaders even if it meant joining hands with Iraqis to fight AlQaeda; (2) now that White House opposition to that strategy has been reversed, and the strategy is showing dramatic short-term results, the question they are raising is this: Why not have done that initially, and in fact, if the key was to ally with Iraqis in fighting AlQaeda, why did we invade in order to fight these people in the first place?

I have left out, in this account of Mark Perry's story, a lot of the detail and the color, and I have also left out all of the extremely interesting intra-military debates, and for that there is no alternative but to read the articles from beginning to end, and carefully, a couple of times, to let the enormity of what has been done to the American military really sink in. It is a colossal story in itself.

But back to the question of recent Iraqi history. I have some comments on the story of how American strategy has played out in Iraq, as a result of a year and a half of reading accounts of this from the Arab-press side. In a nutshell:

Perry tells of obstruction from the White House (Bremer, Rice, and others) to deals of any kind with the Sunni tribes in the period from 2003 to 2005 or -06. Then deals of that type started being okayed. This is presented as essentially a case of obstruction by ignorant ideologues, eventually overcome in a process that could be called a victory for practical common-sense, or some such expression. Perry's story includes no particular motivation for the change to the Awakening strategy. It was merely that the merits of the idea gradually came to be unarguable.

The prevailing Iraqi view of this is quite different. American strategy starting in 2003 was to use Shiite groups to harass the remnants of the Baath regime and their sympathizers (aka the Iraqi national resistance, but which was and is in fact much broader than that), and anyone shooting at US troops was either in that class or AlQaeda. Hence the logic of the "no deals" prohibition. Then at some time in 2005 or 2006, partly in the face of growing disaffection on the part of the Saudis and others, and partly from concern about Maliki's ties to Tehran, there had to be a tilt to the Sunnis, hence the decision to enlist Sunni groups, in order to, among other things, act as a counterweight to the sectarian Shiite power. In other words, so far this has been a two-act occupation, first helping Shiites harass Sunnis, then in a second stage helping Sunnis deter Shiites. There are many provisos and nuances, but essentially this is the Iraqi story: This was from the beginning a sectarian strategy, with a shift sometime in 2005 or -06 from anti-Sunni/pro-Shiite to anti-Shiite/pro-Sunni, in terms of the overall weight of American military influence. The weight of the American alliances shifted, but this had nothing to do with "learning about Iraq", and everything to do with keeping the divide-and-conquer ball rolling.

The fact that there was a learning-curve-type struggle to okay this particular form of a tilt to the Sunnis doesn't mean that the tilt to the Sunnis "just happened". There is an ongoing US policy, which is a sectarian policy, and in the carrying out of that policy, this Awakening Council strategy was obviously seen as the way forward. There are two stories here: The story of the officers' struggles to get common-sense policies okayed; and the story of the sectarian US policy. They are two different stories. Mark Perry has given us a lot of the first story from the point of view of the common-sense of the officers on the ground. But the second story, from the point of view of the common sense of Iraqis, hasn't sunk in at all as far as the anglosphere is concerned.

And the reason why the two stories don't easily fit together is this: In the American mind, there was never any concept of Iraq, or of fighting in Iraq, other than the sectarian one. "Iraq" was always "Sunna versus Shiia". So any strategy, or any concepts at all respecting the country, had to start from one side or the other. Why this has been the case is another story, but it is a fact. And consequently, the idea of allying with "Iraqis"--even if it meant in a common fight against the Wahhabi fundamentalists--wasn't on. It would have meant allying with "Sunnis", at a time when we were trying to help the underdog "Shia" get out from under their yoke. It was one against the other; there was no concept of an "Iraqi".

And as Mark Perry points out, once people in the military realized that they could profitably ally with Sunni tribes in defending against AlQaeda, this immediately started to bring down the whole ideological house of cards: (1) Some Iraqis care about their country as a whole, and (2) why exactly did we take these same people to be our enemy in the first place. Not that good for morale, Perry notes.

I am sure that the story Mark Perry tells is exactly what happened, from the vantage-point of the US military officers on the ground in Iraq and those responsible for them. And as I said, the effects of this on the US military are a story that bears a couple of careful readings, a period of reflection, and then another reading. Because perhaps on the third reading you will begin to ask yourself why this story has taken so long to be told.

But from the point of view of Iraq, it isn't the whole story, and I don't think it is necessarily even the most important part of the story from their point of view.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Is there such a thing as "global opinion"? (Correct answer to quiz now posted)

Someone wrote that the blockade of the Gaza Strip has not only unified the Arab street for the first time since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, putting fear in the hearts of the Arab regimes that are complicit in this, it has also uncovered something about global opinion.
Israel was forced to back away from a [total] blockade, because the world does not believe that there is any state, whether civilized or barbaric, that would cut off electricity and fuel from a people that is already starving, and cause a humanitarian and health and environmental catastrophe in the way that we have seen...

And the same person wrote:
Ehud Olmert and his ruling group, when they behave in this barbaric fashion, wrong not only the Palestinians, but they wrong also the Jews who were victims of the Nazis, because all of the international law that forbids collective punishment as a war crime and that has become the common heritage of mankind--this [body of law] was the result of the sacrifices of those Jews, and the determination to prevent any recurrence of such events, to them or to any other people.

Quiz: In what forum do you think this was published?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"One enemy--one sacrifice"

The Jihad and Reform Front--Islamic Army Iraq; Army of the Mujahideen; Ansar al-Sunna--along with Islamic Resistance Movement (Jaami), and Hamas Iraq, have issued a statement announcing an "Iraqi Resistance Campaign in support of Gaza". Here are the opening sentences:
The Zionist-Crusader enemies continue [attacks] against the Ummah from the East to the West using the same weapons and the same methods and the same barbaric terrorism, with arbitrary arrests and terror bombings, which include the innocent and the unarmed, women and children and men, destroying houses over their residents, blockading cities and cutting off the necessities of life, in mad campaigns that are devoid of human meaning and that make a mockery of the expressions they proclaim about justice and the protection of human rights. Because at the same time that they bomb Gaza, they are also bombing Arab Jabour and other places again and again, in the ugliest form of tyranny and aggression, and they blockade other cities on made-up pretexts.
The blockades, the statement says, reflect the "policy of slow death by starvation and the cutting off of the necessities of life".

The statement doesn't suggest in what ways the Iraqi resistance is going to be able specifically to "assist Gaza"; merely that the Iraqi mujahideen have not forgotten their brothers in Gaza, and that they will now "escalate [their] military operations against the partners of the Zionists, and against the American enemies of mankind."

It's safe to say these are the first-fruits of the new "tactical" approaches that appear to have been authorized in connection with Bush visit--more bombing in Iraq, and starvation in Gaza--presumably designed to soften up the resistance in both places, but it's hard to see them as anything other than "mad campaigns, devoid of human meaning..." as the above-mentioned statement says, and in the light of history they will bring only shame and no doubt eventual catastrophe to the perpetrators. Certainly in the short term they will not help Condi lure resistance groups to the Cairo conference on Iraqi reconciliation.

The statement is posted on jihadi websites, and there is a summary here.

"They (the government) responded to ideas with force"

Asharq al-Awsat, in a report this morning on ceremonies of mourning for the victims of the violence in Basra and Nasiriya, highlights this:
The armed groups said they are followers of Ahmad al-Hasan and not of the Army of Heaven as has been reported in some media. ...And a spokesman for the group of Ahman al-Hasan, called al-Yemani, whose armed people fought with security officers in the two provinces, said day before yesterday in a tape broadcast on the Iraqi satellite station Al-Sharqiya although admitting that it cut parts of it: "There is no connection between it [the Ahmad Hasan al-Yemani group] and the Army of Heaven, although the government is trying to link it to them. The responsibility for all of the bloodshed lies with ... because they countered ideas with force. The Ahmad al-Hasan group has been in existence for eight years, but starting two years ago the government has had a campaign to arrest all of its members, keeping them in custody for several months [at a time].

And he said: The Ahmed al-Hasan group is a group with conceptual beliefs, and it is not terrorist, and it is not military, and it does not carry arms. It aims to join mankind by morality and not by intermediaries or by authorities (marjaiyat), because what emanates from them is [nothing but] fighting between sects.
The italics are mine. I don't suppose I can get an "Amen"...

Monday, January 21, 2008

Sadrists call for a non-sectarian intelligence agency; Government says: Hey, this investigation is going really well

Azzaman reports:

A spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry said security forces had taken apart the organization of Ahmed bin al-Hasan al-Yamani in the provinces of Basra and Nasiriya, having killed 70 of its members and arrested another 300. He said 12 policemen died in the fighting. He said the government seized documents showing that they planned a number of armed operations against participants in the Ashura commemorations. Basra is now calm and residents praised the actions of the police, he said.

The Azzaman reporter goes on to note that a spokesman for the Sadrist movement said Iraq is in need of a new agency for intelligence and information-gathering that can operate on a "sound and professional basis". In specific reference to the events of Basra and Nasiriya on the weekend, he said: "We stress the need for the Iraqi government to undertake the creation of an intelligence and information-gathering agency on a sound and professional basis". Citing the news agency Aswat al-Iraq (whose report in English is here), the reporter says the Sadrist spokesman talked particularly about the need for reliable intelligence about "plans aimed at splitting the ranks of the Iraqi people", via an agency that would "not follow any particular political line", adding that in this the government should "move away from the culture of muhasasa (sectarian allocations)". He said Iraq stands in need of an agency whose task would be to gather information on movements of armed groups, and to foil any plans aimed at disturbing law and order in the country.

The government newspaper Al-Sabah, not surprisingly, stresses what a great job the government authorities are doing, but without saying anything of substance. The number of arrested members of this group is continually growing, and a number of high-ranking people have been sent from Baghdad, all of them agreeing that the operation is going quite well. Just how well? For instance, one of these officials, Khalaf by name, accused a religious group in another country in the region of being behind this [al-Yamani] group, but he refused to name the country. He added that it wasn't the government of that country that is behind this group and financing it, but rather religious groups within that country, which he is not at liberty to disclose the name of, because of the investigation. And he said the government has found important documents and conclusive proofs (he doesn't say of what) that are part of the literature and program of this group.* Another official said the name Ahmad bin al-Hasan is a fictitious name, and they are still looking for someone they believe to be the leader. So far all of the people they have in custody deny ever having met personally with al-Yemani. Finally, in Maysan the authorities have set up a comment center to coordinate monitoring the main roads to Nasirriya and Basra, to round up more fugitives.

The reporter for Al-Hayat, for his part, says the Sadrist movement, and the Mahdi Army in particular, has emerged from the Basra fighting as the biggest winner, having fought much better than the local police, probably largely owing to their experience in having fought the British recently, compared to the inexperience of the police in any large-scale confrontations of this type. The Al-Hayat reporter calls the Mahdist group the Army of Heaven, and he has this to say about them compared to the Sadrists' Mahdi Army.
Observers note that there are major doctrinal differences between the Sadrists and the Army of Heaven, despite the similarity of names between the "Mahdi Army" of the Sadrists and the "Mahdawiyun" as the Army of Heaven are called who are followers of Ahmed bin al-Hasan al-Yemani. Because the latter have no connection with the Najaf hierarchy, and they do not follow any of the [Najaf] authorities, in fact they consider them corrupt and fraudulent. Al-Yemani claims to have his teaching authority directly from the Imam al-Mahdi, the last of the Shiite imams, and he demands allegiance to himself. And those who don't pledge allegiance are "hulk" (death or destruction) according to graffiti on walls in cities of the South, particularly Basra.
The Al-Hayat journalist says the Army of Heaven people used to sell their literature and proselytize and so on in public places, and in fact within sight and hearing of the local security agencies near the old Provincial Building in Basra, and so the fact that these recent events took the authorities by surprise calls into question their competence, and this, by contrast, points up the leading law-and-order role taken in this by the Sadrists and the Mahdi Army in particular.

Putting these reports together, it appears the Mahdi Army played the lead role in the law-and-order part of these events, in Basra at least, but as far as the investigation is concerned, it is in effect saying that the existing agencies are sectarian, and a new, non-sectarian agency needs to be created to deal with situations of this kind, both in terms of intelligence, and in terms of interventions of the kind that would have saved a lot of trouble in Basra.

What these initial reports don't provide is any real enlightenment on the seriousness of any underlying plot. We are told about graffiti-writing, and literature-sales and so on, but the plot is still something that isn't demonstrated. Which is perhaps one of the points the Sadrists have in mind in calling for a non-partisan intelligence agency.

* According to the account in another government-oriented Iraqi paper, Al-Mada, the government referred to the group in question as the "Yemani group or Adherents (ansar) of the Mahdi", suggesting this is the same as the group whose own statement stressed their political position against the Najaf hierarchy, and denied any connection with the so-called Army of Heaven. Visser noted the same thing happened last year, when a politically-oriented group under government attack denied any connection with the Army of Heaven.

The two Bush-visit "announcements": No more pretense of civil-combatant distinction in Gaza, and more, not less, bombing of Iraq

Bush visited the Mideast region from January 9 to the 16th, and a very productive trip it was: On January 10, US forces dumped 40,000 pounds of bombs on an area south of Baghdad in a 10-minute attack that was described as one of the biggest single air attacks since 2003 (in an area to which residents had been invited back only four weeks before that). Colin Kahl, a "political scientist" who had "just returned from a trip to the air operations center", told a WaPo reporter that psychological effect is very important. "Part of this is announcing our presence to the adversary," he said, referring to the Arab Jabour bombing. Suggesting that after almost five years of military occupation, the US forces have something new to "announce" to those who would expel them.

It wasn't the only "announcement" made in connection with Bush's trip. On Thursday January 18, right after he left, Ehud Barak announced the complete closure of all entry points into the Gaza Strip, naturally including fuel shipments, and this led, as expected, to the shut-down on January 20 of the only electric-generating station in the Gaza Strip, which as it happens serves Gaza City, and this in turn, via effects on water-pumping and -purification, refrigeration, and power to hospitals, brought the area to the brink of what the UN politely calls a humanitarian catastrophe, but which in the Arab world is seen as a declaration of war by Israel on the entire population of the Gaza Strip.

Here is what Ehud Barak said Israel was announcing:

On Sunday, Barak told the cabinet that the army was "weakening the daily life in Gaza."

"We are targeting the terror elements and we are trying to show the international community that we are exhausting all possible options before Israel decides on a broad (military) operation," a senior government official quoted him as saying.

In other words, bringing the place to the brink of mass starvation is the last, non-military, stop before launch of a "broad military operation"--"broad" because it will be as neglectful of the combatant-civilian distinction as is the starvation program. Interestingly, the Israeli elite explains this to itself in the following way: The requirement in international law to distinguish between combatants and civilians only applies to military activities. But the blockade and starvation aren't military operations, so the rule doesn't apply. (This is explained in an article by Yossi Wolfson called Economic Warfare in Gaza in which he explains the Israeli government position in a court challenge). As for activities in wartime, the Israeli authorities have come up with this additional theory:
The state turns international law on its head. Various provisions regulate civilian supplies in wartime, with the aim of keeping the situation from reaching the threshold of a humanitarian crisis. Israel cites these provisions but interprets them as allowing it to harm civilians as long as it stops short of that threshold, defined by it.
This is the mirror image of the waterboarding argument only on a vast scale: Okay as long as the purpose of the operation, in the mind of the perpetrator, isn't death.

In any event, the closings and resulting power-cuts are clearly an Israeli "announcement", presumably connected to the Bush visit, with ominous implications for the future.

And the Iraqi strategy? What was the "announcement" there, that Colin Kahl was talking about? Recall that the huge Jan 10 Arab Jabour bombing raid came the day after six American soldiers were killed while searching a booby-trapped house north of Baghdad, supposedly to clear the Arab Jabour area of that kind of risk, making it safe for the occupation forces to search. That was the "announcement": If we take losses, you, people of Iraq, will take bombing attacks of a size you haven't seen before.

In fact, we don't have to speculate, because Kahl's colleague Andrew Krepinevich spelled out the situation in the NYT just yesterday. The context was a Michael Gordon piece complaining about the fact politicians are for withdrawal, while military success is going to depend on the perception that the forces will stay as long as it takes. In this context Krepinevich said: "Unless you are suppressing insurgents the way the Romans did--creating a desert and calling it peace--it typically can take the better part of a decade or more [to successfully fight a counterinsurgency]." In other words, the alternatives are: A decade or more of occupation, or if not, then "creating a desert and calling it peace".

So there were two major announcements made in connection with the Bush visit: (1) Israel has dropped any pretense of combatant-civilian distinction, so if the blockade and threatened starvation doesn't do the trick, expect a "broad military operation". And (2) in Iraq, if there are to be troop-withdrawals, bombings will escalate, and you can interpret that in the words of the good-cop Colin Kahl about the clinical precision of these, or you can listen to the words of the bad-cop Krepinevich about creating a desert. But in either case, the point is that the US has announced that it is dropping its aversion to a policy of more and more bombing attacks, as a corollary to troop-withdrawal, take it whichever way you will.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The political dimension of the Ashura fighting (Updated with an interesting confirmation of sorts)

Troubles during Ashura between government security forces and various dissident Shiite movements, many of them with a messianic/political message, were not at all unexpected this year. According to a roundup by Al-Hayat a week ago (Saturday January 12)*, there are dozens of Shiite movements that have "appeared" since the invasion of 2003 (leaving open the question whether this means newly-created or just coming into the open), the most talked-about so far being the so-called Army of Heaven led by Ahmed bin Hasan (called "al-Yemeni" in keeping with traditional teachings to the effect a precursor of the coming of the 12th Imam will have that name), which was by some accounts the principal target of last year's slaughter by the government and US forces of some 200 individuals including women and children on the outskirts of Najaf.

Some of these many groups mix political-party activities with their religion, the Al-Hayat reporter says, and he notes in particular the group led by Mahmoud al Hasani al-Sarkhi, which came to prominence during a demonstration at the Iranian consulate in Karbala last year. This is a group known for being critical of the traditional Shiite authorities like Sistani.
They call themselves "Sarkhiyun" or "Mahdawiyun". In recent times there have been verbal battles between the followers of Sarkhi and other Shiite groups, and also there have been [violent] skirmishes between then from time to time, particularly around Najaf, Karbala, Nasiriya, and Amara and in the vicinity of Diwaniya, [the latter place being] the main stronghold of the Sarkhiyun, particularly after religious authorities in Iraq and Iran accused Sarkhi of not having advanced to the level of a major authority, which angered his followers.
(There's more on Sarkhi as a perceived threat to the Shiite hierarchy in this report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting from August 2007).

The journalist goes on to name a number of other cases of dissident groups, including the following:

A group led by Ayatollah Fadil al-Malaki, whose positions the reporter describes as close to those of Al-Sadr and Sarhki. Al-Malaki has degrees in religious law from Najaf in 1968, and in secular law from the University of Baghdad in 1976.

"Likewise active on the Shiite scene is the Islamic Vanguard Party, which was a secret organization under the Saddam regime, and which formerly exercised military activities in the marshlands of the South".

"And there is the movement of Jawad al-Khalasi, a grandson of Mahdi al-Khalasi who was well-known in the resistance to the British occupation, for which he was subjected to torture and exile after the formation of the Iraqi kingdom (in 1921). Al-Khalasi [the present one] supports the resistance to the occupation and opposes the current political situation".

Then there is the Ayatollah Hussein Ismael al-Sadr, headquartered in Kadhamiya, espousing a line known as "political realism" which calls for solution of problems via discussion.

And there is a mostly elite group known as the "Shiraziyun," named after their leader Sadiq al-Shirazi, which tries to avoid confrontations with other trends, and espouses political economic and intellectual openness.

The journalist adds that of course the most important of the Shiite trends, besides that of the Supreme Council, are the Sadrist, the Fadhila (a breakaway from the Sadrists) and the Dawa, which has split into several parts, the main ones being the "Islamic Dawa Party" led by the current Prime Minister al-Malaki, and the "Dawa Party--Iraq Organization" which is led by a member of parliament by the name of Abdulaziz al-Anazi.

In spite of the great number of "dissident" (from the point of view of Sistani and the Supreme Council) groups, the newspaper headed this story as follows:
The Authority of al-Sistani still enjoys the majority, in spite of the appearance of dozens of new movements...Anxiety over emergence of Shiite movements on the occasion of Ashura preaching beliefs similar to those of the "Army of Heaven"
Clearly the issue, as Al-Hayat explains it, is the challenge to the authority of Sistani. The Sadrists with their demand for a US troop-withdrawal are naturally one part of that. But so are groups like those of Sarkhi, which the writer notes had already been "skirmishing" with "other Shiite groups" around various cities in the South in the recent period of time. What is interesting to notice in the wake of the Ashura violence, is that the news reports, all sourced to Iraqi- and local-government sources, refer only to Mahdist groups, and are silent about the political dimension.

Something very similar happened last year, when misinformation from the Najaf authorities helped conceal the political dimension of what happened (not to mention local suspicions that in fact it was the authorities, not the group in question, that triggered that bloody confrontation).

More generally, I think this shows it could be a mistake to differentiate too absolutely between political movements like Sadr's on the one hand, and religious or messianic movements on the other, as though none of the Sadrist leadership and rank and file has any expectation of the coming of a new age; or as if the partisans with their yellow flags that appear in the Ashura celebrations aren't interested in toppling the Supreme Council regime as a specific end in itself.

For a general summary of the current state of Shiite politics, see also this report by Reidar Visser.

And see also Visser's follow-up piece, called "The southern Mahdists speak for themselves", where he summarizes a statement by the "Adherents of the Mahdi" in which they stress their reformist political views more than any precise expectation of a once-and-for-all historical event. They say they have been targeted recently at their premises throughout the three southernmost provinces (contrary to the government-sourced reports blaming the Mahdists for starting the trouble). Visser writes:

In an interesting statement, the Adherents of the Mahdi, the group targeted in recent security operations in the southern Iraqi cities of Nasiriyya and Basra, have explained the conflict from their own point of view.

Just as they did during the Muharram confrontation in Najaf in early 2007, the Adherents of the Mahdi disclaim any connection with the Soldiers of Heaven and violent plots against the ulama. They describe their own group as a “reformist” movement of the kind that can be found in many world religions (the parallel to Jehovah’s Witnesses is highlighted), and, interestingly, in this statement do not focus so much on their apocalyptic ideas but rather stress an anti-ulama theme that shares certain features with neo-Akhbarism in its focus on the Koran and the life of the Prophet. They encourage the Iraqi people to go back to the original sources of Islam, rather than asking the ulama for help. In their view, it is not a religious duty to perform taqlid (emulation) of a high-ranking cleric (as per the orthodox Usuli Shiite view), nor is religious tax (khums) payable to anyone but the Twelfth Imam.

The Adherents of the Mahdi then go on to decry the recent violent operations against the group...
Right now I don't know where this particular group fits, if anywhere, in the above enumeration by the Al-Hayat reporter, but what the statement does underline is the fact that groups with historical-progress expectations can be, and often are, groups with progressive or at least anti-clerical political views. So the government-sourced reports have to be read with particular skepticism. They are their natural political enemies.

* Al-Hayat scrubs their links after a day or two, but I took the precaution of saving this, and I copied the text of the article in a comment. Naturally you have to enlarge the characters to make it readable.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Baathist explains what's at stake in the Cairo process

Saleh al-Mukhtar, a diplomatic official under Saddam, and currently, to all appearances, a spokesman for the loyalist wing of the Iraqi Baath, posted an essay on on Jan 14, [corrected date] in which he argued that no one in the armed resistance should attend the Cairo Conference, the gist of his argument being to put this in the context of recent American moves to thwart or dodge pressure for withdrawal. The argument goes like this:

First, he says it is important to recall that at this time last year, pressure for withdrawal was building, with allies starting to withdraw their troops, Congress and the media pressing for withdrawal, and pressure building even from within the Republican Party. At that time, several things were done, including the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq, then the attempt to split the Baath party, and finally and most seriously, the decision by the ISI to declare takfiir on all Iraqis but themselves, "as a way of tearing apart the Iraqi people and the armed resistance." (Readers will recall that on Mukhtar's reading, Al-Baghdadi and the ISI are directly or indirectly cats-paws of the occupation. See the earlier post here called "A Baathist looks at the big picture"). And Mukhtar sees the Awakening movement as another part of this overall strategy. He continues:
These [countermeasures] were a lifeline for [Bush] and his administration, and he was able to exploit them with his usual swagger by saying: "See what progress we are making. AlQaeda is defeated and we control Anbar as a first step in controlling all the other rebel regions"!

This Cairo Conference is within this context of strengthening Bush's position in rejection of withdrawal, and in support of the hawks within the American decision-making organization, and it will constitute another achievement by way of enrolling more "rebels" in the Bush-club in Iraq, [who will] announce in Cairo their "repentance", and they will put on the turban of Sistani, or the turban of Tareq al-Hashemi and they will curse [in words only] the occupation, and they will use the most extreme verbal expressions in describing it!

What Bush wants is to be able to say this: "Look! After having created the Awakening councils which have weakened AlQaeda, now we have these people coming to us who used to oppose the occupation with arms and with political attitudes, who now join in the ranks of those creating democracy in Iraq, and they are abandoning weapons and terror. So why are you still pressing for withdrawal? We are making process. Let us not abandon it. Stop opposing us when we are half way on the road to victory!
Mukhtar says those inclined to want to attend Cairo argue either that it will be useful to understand the American position, or useful to explain to them our position. Mukhtar says that makes no sense. After close to five years of military occupation, what is it about the American position you need to have explained to you? And what is it about our position that you need to explain to them? Our position is withdrawal first, and the Americans have ignored that demand. Any negotiating should be in the service of the armed struggle, not vice versa. So the positive reasons for attending don't make sense. And if you attend, your presence will be used by Bush is part of the anti-withdrawal process explained above.

Finally, like Awni Qalamji, Mukhtar appears resigned to the idea that some resistance people or factions will attend Cairo, and wants to make sure they realize this is a red line and a defining issue. Mukhtar writes in conclusion:
The coming stage will see a sorting-out between two policies in the area of armed struggle and in the area of political activity supporting it: The first is the continuation of the revolution and the escalation and expansion of its operations so as to compel the occupation to submit to the conditions of the resistance, being primarily [the commitment to] complete and unconditional withdrawal. The second is the policy of haggling with the occupier, and giving up the aim of complete liberation, and instead acceptance of deals that infringe the sovereignty and independence of Iraq, using as an excuse the failure to achieve the fighting unity that could compel the occupation to submit to our conditions.
The purpose of Mukhtar's piece, like that of Qalamji, is to warn potential attendees of the meaning and implications of their attendance, and the implication is that they are concerned that this American strategy of splitting the resistance could in fact have some success.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Another likely story

Robert Dreyfuss, writing in The Nation (online version at least), says the Jan 13 announcement of a "12-party" memorandum of understanding was "groundbreaking" and a "big step forward," that "could change the face of Iraqi politics in 2008," and then quite amazingly he goes on to say emphatically that this agreement has "emerged independently of the United States", without citing any authority for the latter point.

Let's have a look at the background.

His aims are, first, to tell a story of cumulative efforts by some of the GreenZone parties to develop a common front against the essentially separatist parties in the north (the two big Kurdish parties) and in the South (Supreme Council and Maliki's wing of the Dawa), and secondly, to celebrate this as an assertion of autonomy and freedom from American influence. The first part is true, although Dreyfuss' account includes exaggerations. The manifesto did say Clause 140 of the constitution is now a dead letter, meaning that the Kurds should give up trying to annex Kirkuk, and it also rejected the validity of oil contracts signed by the Kurdish regional government without reference to the central government. That it "blocked the privatization of Iraq's oil industry" is a bit of an exaggeration by Dreyfuss (it talked about natural resources belonging to all the people); and as far as Basra is concerned, it should be noted that the Fadhila party, a major power there, whose supposed participation in this Dreyfuss calls particular attention to, said today (Thursday) that it has not in fact joined this new alliance, and any reports to the contrary are devoid of truth.

Dreyfuss goes on to summarize reports of meetings of some of these parties: one in England (apparently referring to this bizarre report about a meeting involving a fugitive Iraqi businessman in Leeds), then one in Beirut, and now a proposal for another meeting in Paris, as examples of gathering momentum for this, completely free of American influence. That's where the story leaves the realm of exaggeration and actually breaks down. Because the reason for these meetings is to prepare for a conference in Cairo, and that conference is being arranged, by all accounts, by the Arab League on behalf of the American administration. Cairo will be follow-up to the meetings a couple of months ago at a Dead Sea resort in Jordan, which were organized by former US State Dept big name Richard Murphy, which included representation by not only GreenZone parties, but outsiders to the political process, meaning resistance groups, including Baathists or representatives of them. In other words, the Dead Sea/Cairo suite of meetings is an American-sponsored process try and integrate some of the armed resistance factions into a restructured GreenZone political process. The fact that no one in Washington or anywhere else in the English-speaking world bothered to follow up on the Dead Sea meetings with even so much as a "no-comment" from Murphy suggests very strongly that Condi and the State Department have deliberately gone into a period of occultation so as to not show American fingerprints on this, and the above-mentioned Dreyfuss piece is arguably proof that this has borne fruit.

In this connection it is worth noticing that the resistance-supporter Awni Qalamji, in his op-ed yesterday, made an important concession, namely that some of the resistance factions have in fact been (in his view) co-opted by this process. This is what the lawyers call an admission against interest, so I think it is credible. Not only is the process leading up to Cairo largely an American attempt to co-opt some of the armed resistance, but also it seems to have been partly successful.

Moreover, those who follow this co-opting process have been reporting on US/Arab League efforts to get other Arab countries to cooperate in pressuring expatriate Iraqi opposition/resistance figures living in their capitals to come forward and participate in this process. (Yemen was an example where that process didn't seem to be working well).

So there are at least two processes involved: Hints of renewed participation in the GreenZone process by a Sadrist/Allawi/Sunni group, working together; and US attempts to co-opt as much as possible of the armed resistance as part of the same restructuring. Which then raises the question how these two processes fit together. Here Qalamji has an explanation. He says one of the proposed "motivations" that the Americans are putting before the groups they are courting is this: Your participation, they are being told, is essential to prevent the triumph of the separatist Kurd/Supreme Council regime, with its Iranian implications for the South. It has been on this basis, Qalamji says, that the Gulf states have been convinced to help pressure resistance people to come forward and join in the political process. Resistance people should participate in the GreenZone in order to contribute to "balance" in the government, thus helping form a political bulwark against Iranian hegemony in South Iraq. Of course, to say the two processes are linked doesn't answer all the questions about how they are linked. But it does suggest that Dreyfuss spin on this not only is unsupported, but also highly implausible.

The fact is, no one knows the dynamics that led up to the "12-party" manifesto; and I don't know what dynamics led Dreyfuss to make the astonishing claim that the Americans didn't have anything to do with it. But for Dreyfuss to say that this was in fact without American involvement (without citing any justification) suggests to me that: (1) This was probably something an American government source told him (otherwise how could he be so sure); and (2) This is part of the effort to keep the American role in the Cairo process out of sight. So that whatever happens next in the GreenZone will appear to have been free of American influence.

Of course, the fact that the Sadrist current appears to be on the same team with any Sunni parties is a positive sign for the long-term future of Iraq, but the importance of that too can be exaggerated, because Sadr/Sunni was never the main problem. The main problem is the Sadrist/Baath antipathy, which isn't the same thing at all.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Resistance supporter on the forces at work in the Cairo process

Awni Qalamji writes in his regular op-ed in Al-Quds al-Arabi in criticism of those groups that have been in the ambit of the armed resistance, who it seems are now prepared to attend the Cairo Conference, even though the US hasn't responded to the main resistance demand for a commitment to complete and unconditional withdrawal:
At this point we need to move from generalities [about resistance strategy] to complete specificity and clarity, because these forces that are interested in accomodation with the invaders and their agents have constituted a heavy burden on the armed resistance in its fight against the occupier, for many reasons.

First, their political program is the opposite of the program of the Iraqi resistance....[Instead of insisting on the prior commitment to complete and unconditional withdrawal] these forces have entered into a process that is the complete opposite of the resistance program, and is instead based on conciliation and truce and inviting the occupation to negotiations under the pretext of an expulsion that would be face-saving and a withdrawal with honor....
And here Qalamji offers a glimpse of what he thinks the process has been like. He writes:
And in spite of the lack of response to these invitations [made to the Americans by the forces he is criticizing] still they persist in their program, and they continue putting out initiatives and proposals for free, instead of withdrawing from that and returning to the ranks of the Iraqi resistance.
Qalamji says the attempt to sell this approach as "political resistance," and as a support for the armed resistance, is fraudulent and disruptive of the unity of the resistance. In this regard he writes:
...this has generated confusion in Iraqi and Arab circles, in the sense that it has become difficult to confront these forces and expose their attitudes and explain the causes that underly them and their aims, namely that they are not following this path out of conviction or out of mistaken reasoning that could be corrected by discussion or by making them see the danger of their mistaken policy, but rather that they are following this approach in order to realize a particular agenda of theirs.
That, Qalamji says, is the first reason why these self-styled "political resistance" groups have been a burden on the armed resistance.

The second reason has to do with regional politics in the Gulf. Qalamji writes:
The second reason is that these forces have given up their political autonomy for the benefit of Arab countries, and particularly the emirates of the Gulf. These forces are prepared to facilitate the particular agendas [of these Arab states] in the following sense: [These forces']participation in the [Iraqi] poitical process presents the opportunity for creation of a balance in the political equation [in Iraq]for the advantage of a small clique, using the argument that this balance prevents an alliance between the Kurds and those parties that are working essentially in the interests of Iran...which is something that implies division of Iraq with a Shiite state in the south allowing Iran to realize its ambitions...And this explains the support provided by these Gulf states, in varying degrees, to the aforementioned forces, and their complete coordination with them, including the necessary material and political and PR assistance, financing of their activities and conferences, and so on.
So Qalamji's second criticism of those groups participating in Cairo is that they don't represent the Iraqi people because what they do represent is a "faction", namely that faction in the GreenZone that wants to drive a political-process wedge between the Kurds in the north and the Shiite separatists in the south. It is worth noting: While some might think of fighting the Kurd-SCIRI alliance as "nationalist", Qalamji is saying no: This is part and parcel of the kind of sectarian back-and-forth that goes on under a regime that is dominated by the occupation forces. The nationalist position is to expel the occupier first, then deal with internal politics.

And Qalamji's third argument against these forces is an elaboration of that point, namely that by participating in this type of discussion with the occupier still occupying the country, all they are doing is arguing about the specific sectarian allocations with a view to altering them, instead of attacking the cause of this whole sectarian approach, which is the occupation itself.

Still, Qalamji says the experience of Cairo is going to be a positive one in the long run, because it will make those accomodating forces in effect declare themselves, putting an end to the above-described ambiguity, thus simplying the struggle.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Al-Quds: CFR Report says Saudis supporting the Awakenings and want Maliki replaced with Allawi (UPDATED)

[UPDATE: This Al-Quds al-Arabi piece is apparently a summary not of an actual report, but of an interview with Gause by a CFR person which CFR has posted here. And the remarks by Gause are in some cases a little more circumspect than the Al-Quds summary indicates. For instance, Gause says "I'm pretty confident the Saudis have supported this (the Awakening Councils) with their influence and their money"); and with respect to their desire to see Allawi installed as PM, Gause at the same time expresses skepticism whether this is politically possible].

Al-Quds al-Arabi summarizes on its front page what it says is a report prepared by Gregory Gause, a political science professor at the University of Vermont, for the Council on Foreign Relations, whose main points are the following:

First, Gause says the Saudi regime "would like to see" Maliki replaced as Iraqi Prime Minister by someone less sectarian and less close to Iran, someone like former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. And second, although he doesn't have conclusive evidence partly because of the chronic secrecy of the Saudi regime, Gause "is certain" that the Saudi authorities are supporting the Awakening Councils in Iraq, and in any event this phenomenon is one that they are very much focused on. The journalist writes: "The American researcher sees the Saudis as having supported the Awakening Councils with all of their political and financial resources, and [the Saudis as] thinking of the Awakening Councils as part of their natural influence within Iraq". The Al-Quds headline-writer puts it this way: "Report: Saudi would like to replace Maliki with Allawi, and it is secretly financing the Awakenings."

The journalist elaborates as follows:
Gause says although the Saudis recognize that the Shiites are majority of the population of Iraq, and recognize that [the Shiites] will continue their role as a political formation in the Iraqi governing regime, still, the Saudis are making known their anxiety that this [current] situation could lead to a major marginalization of the Sunnis in Iraq, in addition to turning the Shiite ruling class into a group of agents in the hand of Tehran, and most of all Nuri al-Maliki, the report says.

Ironically, says Gause, Maliki's biggest ally at the moment is George Bush, and while the formation of alliances as [potential] substitutes for the current Iraqi regime with the support of Allawi [NOTE: not exactly what he said; see below] are in accord with US administration policy, still, Bush has not approved the abandonment of Maliki. Gause adds that there is a personal element to this, in the sense that Bush feels comfortable dealing with Maliki on a human level.

Gause says the Saudis feel the best way to end the war is to choose Iyad Allawi as new Prime Minister, and they contemplate that an administration of his would include a lot of Sunnis.

(The published remarks by Gause on the Bush-Maliki relationship are a little different from what is implied in the Al-Quds summary. Here is that exchange:
Q: Clearly patience for political change is running out. Politically, that’s really the only hot issue now in the United States—why the surge hasn’t produced political results.

A: Right, but Maliki’s most important ally right now is George Bush. This is consistent with his administration’s policy from earlier efforts to put together an alternative parliamentary coalition in Iraq. The president and the administration don’t think it’s a good idea [to oust Maliki].

Q: They’re afraid it would be too unsettling?

A: Yeah, I mean the president seems to be very much a guy who deals with personalities. And it seems he’s gotten comfortable with Maliki.)

Current events

Twenty-two Iraqi political representatives wound up meetings in Beirut on Monday with the preparation of a document that will be presented to the Arab League with the idea it should be included in the final statement of the Cairo Conference (date still not set for that). What is interesting is that the 22 represented essentially the same parties that signed the recently-reported "12-party" memorandum of understanding which has the Kurdish parties so worked up--they are the Sadrists, Fadhila, Dawa (or at least that part of the Dawa that has split from Maliki), Iraqi List (Allawi's group), and a selection of Sunni parties and independents--plus, (according to this account in Al-Quds al-Arabi) some Baath representatives. [I fixed previous sloppy grammar in that sentence]

The Al-Quds reporter refers to this as "a meeting between Iraqis who support and who oppose the government... to try and bring together the points of view of those who are participating in the political process and those who oppose it". This Beirut meeting, he says, is further to the meetings that took place at a Dead Sea resort in Jordan a couple of months ago.

As for the Cairo Conference, the reporter says although there is still no date set for it, there have been specific preparations during the last two weeks, including meetings by Faleh al-Fayad, the the head of the Iraqi Office for Reconciliation and Dialogue with leaders of other Arab countries. The only specific result of these meetings the journalist mentions is that the Arab League has made it a condition for hosting this meeting that it confirm the concept of the Iraqi nation, and that there be a renunciation of sectarianism.

Meanwhile, Al-Hayat, which doesn't mention the Beirut meeting, reports in detail on statements (1) by Kurdish representatives condemning the recent "12-party memorandum" as an attack on the legitimate rights of the Kurdish region (on the issue of whether Clause 140 on changing administrative boundaries is or isn't well and truly now a dead letter; and on the issue of oil contracts not signed by the central government); and (2) by the odd-couple of Hakim and Hashimi promising there will be important progress in the "political process" in the coming days and weeks, hinting at things like the return of Sunni ministers to the cabinet and so on.

There was one point where the Baghdad argle-bargle did possibly overlap with the gist of the Beirut meeting: Hashimi, in his discussion of the bright future for "political change", said this: "It will be better if this change comes from within the political process, than from without." Whether this was a suggestion of the possibility of an actual coup, or merely an acknowledgment that those "outside" the process (including Baathists) are making themselves heard, isn't clear.

What is clear is

(1) That there are two currents: The separatists (Kurdish in the north and Supreme Council in the south); and the (at least broadly speaking) nationalists, including the signatories of the 12-party memo and the attendees at the Beirut meeting.

(2) That the central government has been whittled down to reliance almost entirely on the separatists (along with Hashemi), and now its supporters Hashemi and Hakim are promising that it will be re-broadened in the coming days and weeks.

(3) That the US is also anxious to create a broader base in the GreenZone, in order to legitimate a new bilateral agreement once the current UN mandate runs out; and in doing so the US is interested in splitting off what they can of the armed resistance and incorporating them into the "political process". This is the Cairo process.

Without knowing about the Cairo process we would be left in ignorance of the overall meaning of the current events. Which, as I have often said, is exactly what narratives like those of Juan Cole are all about.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Awakenings: A Baathist conspiracy?

Malaf Press Agency says Baathists have been joining the Awakening Councils in large numbers, since their rapid expansion has provided a "golden opportunity for the Baathists or a sector of them to return to power and obtain positions that could be political or military, only under a different form". Malaf Press doesn't mention the fact, but this idea of a return of the Baath "under a different form" was raised prominently in the debate about the new "Accountability and Justice" law that was passed Saturday, with a coalition of Allawi's group and some of the Sunni parties complaining that there was a too-vague clause barring "the return of the Baath party to power or public life whether in ideology or politically or actively, or under whatever name". [I have no idea whether anything like that that was in fact included in the version that passed; the point here is that this Malaf Press piece seems to be part of this "chameleon Baath" theme. In other words, if you think of news as either raw or cooked, this is cooked.]

The journalist says the participation of Baath people in the Awakenings is with the cooperation of the Americans and it is part of an overall agreement about not attacking American troops. He says that's the Americans' point of view. It is the Ahmed Yunis al-Ahmed wing of the party that is keen on this, he adds, and
The Yunis Ahmed wing of the Baath is intent on [using this participation to] have an important domestic role [in the future] and in having a military power under its control at a time when it can rely on this or use it.

By contrast, the journalist goes on,
the Izzat al-Douri wing of the party rejects participation in any of these Awakening Councils, on the basis that to do so would merely be to strengthen the roots of the occupation. But some in the Izzat al-Douri wing see this as a mistake, and think it would be better to join these councils, because this would give them a golden opportunity to achieve something on the ground and also a card to play politically or militarily in case of need.
The journalist saves his best for last. He says in conclusion that "a number of the groups under the supervision of Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, director of Mukhabarat in the old regime have become part of these Awakening Councils, and particularly those in Anbar and Baghdad".

I could be wrong, but given the current heated-up political maneuvering, this focus on "Baath" and its "return" in connection with the Awakenings could well be mostly a sectarian talking point against anyone with any Baath background and/or against any idea of GreenZone accomodation with the Awakenings.

A&J: The definitive account

Turning to the government newspaper Al-Sabah this morning for the definitive account of what the new non-De-Baathification regime ("Accountability and Justice") will look like and how the votes went down, we find the relevant article headed like this:
Change in the color of the letters spelling Allah Akhbar to yellow in the Iraqi flag, and change in the shape of the stars
Referring to a bill on altering the Iraqi flag that passed first reading on Saturday. The stars are Baathist symbols of peace, justice and tolerance. The text of the article leads off with accounts of speeches to Saturday's parliamentary session by a representative of the EU promising the door will be open to good relations with Iraq. This was followed by a request by a representative of the Fadhila party for the Europeans to meet separately with the major parties both within and outside of the political process.

Then there was voting on measures on the agenda, but before voting on the A&J bill, a member by the name of Samarae said: The aim of this law is fairness to a large sector of the population who are unable to achieve stability under the penalty system in the De-Baathification law, and it has been achieved based on a political agreement that supports national reconciliation. But there isn't any description of the actual effects of the law, and in case you were thinking of referring to the text as it was originally sent to parliament (here), you should note that Samarae refers also to alterations made that same by the "special committee". And in any event, there isn't any attempt to say what the new law actually does, and more interesting, for a law said to be based on political agreement for national reconciliation, there isn't any identification of who voted for it. The Al-Sabah reporter merely notes that it was voted by "majority of those present, who amounted to 140 deputies", so those present barely constituted a quorum (50.1% of the 275 deputies), without indicating party breakdown, or even spelling out whether the vote was unanimous by those present, or merely a majority of those present. Instead he moves on to the flag-remodeling issue.

Another analytical approach was tried by the large team at the New York Times, but at the end of the day they couldn't figure out the meaning of the new law either.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Arab Jabour aftermath

An initial report from Al-Hayat says many innocent residents of Arab Jabour who didn't leave following a warning were killed in the bombing, and other innocent residents' homes and lands were destroyed, but on the other hand a local Awakening person said only terrorist hideouts were targeted. The reporter summarizes the state of the question as "murky".

Al-Hayat talked to surviving residents of Arab Jabour, and reports:
Murkiness prevailed respecting the actual results of the American aerial bombing of the agricultural village of Arab Jabour south of Baghdad, with families that escaped affirming that "the attack destroyed homes and farms of people of the area", and according to witnesses the attack led to the death of many residents who didn't leave their homes in response to requests by the Americans, because the time allowed was insufficient.
The journalist then reviews the numbers respecting "targets", the 40,000 ponds of bombs, how long it took (no more than ten minutes), and so on, adding:
Many residents who escaped were unable to return to their homes, but some who did return affirmed the destruction of their homes and agricultural lands, while the American forces and the Iraqi government have released no report on the killed and wounded or on material damage.

Ayad al-Ubeidi, 35, a resident of Arab Jabour, said the American forces did not allow the families in the target area sufficient time to leave, and that led to the killing of many of them. He said the Americans distributed leaflets some hours before the attack, asking residents to leave their homes. However, Saif Salman, a member of the Arab Jabour Awakening, said the Americans asked the area residents to move to a secure area 10 days before the attack, but not all of them were able to do that.

Col. Raed Hasan al-Zubaie, president of the Doura Awakening [adoining this area to the north] said the secure houses were not subject to the American attack, and he added that the military operations throughout Arab Jabour targeted nests of terrorists and AlQaeda groups only. And he said the operations were planned beforehand with the cooperation of officers of the Awakenings in this region.
The journalist reviews the American military spokesperson's boast that this was the biggest single bombing attack since 2003, and the explanation of another to the effect this was necessary because the US military had so long neglected the area. There isn't any mention of the Dec 11 call for families to return to the area, or the Dec 27 celebration of the opening of the security center.

For its part, the Association of Muslim Scholars of Iraq called for international organizations to investigate this attack, which it said has killed "tens of innocent residents including women, children and old people, and wounded a similar number of others", holding the American authorities and the Iraqi government criminally responsible.


It snowed in Baghdad yesterday, for the first time in memory, and the Al-Hayat reporter noticed something remarkable. It didn't just snow in Sunni areas, and it didn't just snow in Shiite areas. And it didn't just snow on the Green Zone, or on all sectors except the Green Zone. It snowed everywhere. "General Snow", people said, brought the city together. In case you thought five years of occupation and sectarianism had erased the idea of unity from people's minds.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The US forces invited families back to Arab Jabour only four weeks ago

Roads to Iraq calls attention to this:

Radio Sawa broadcast on December 11 the good news from the American forces that the regions of Arab Jabour and Al-Buaitha had been definitively cleared of the last vestiges of AlQaeda. Here's what their website reported that day
Joseph Inge, fourth brigade, third American infantry division, said his forces with the aid of the Awakening forces had been able to clear out the last strongholds of AlQaeda in the regions of Arab Jabour and Al-Buaitha south of Baghdad. He told Radio Sawa: "We have secured the area by freeing it from the threat of AlQaeda, with the assistance of local citizens". And Captain Inge called on the families that had fled to return to their homes in those areas, promising every type of support and assistance to those families.
On Thursday 40 "targets"--described by the miitary as "reported AlQaeda safe-havens"--were hit by a total of 40,000 pounds of bombs dropped on Arab Jabour in a 10-minute raid by the American Air Force assisted by another brigade, the second, of the same third American infantry division that had invited families back into the area only three weeks ago. The military had no information on how many people it killed.

It is the same old question that keeps coming back in so many forms: Was this incompetence, a mistaken declaration of the all-clear, followed by a slight course-correction? To believe that, you'd have to believe that there were in fact 40 AlQaeda locations where three weeks before the Americans had said there were none, in an area that they now controlled. Controlled with the assistance of their new-found local allies, that is. Or was this bombing motivated by something else, perhaps connected with the politics of the Awakenings, because certainly the scope of this bombing suggests the concept of making this area into a shock-and-awe example of something: US military spokesman later told AP that this was "one of the largest air-strikes since the onset of the war"; and the AP reporter says it "recalled the Pentagon's 'shock and awe' raids in the 2003 invasion".

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Cairo Process: Yemen and the Baath are not playing the game

The lead story in Al-Quds al-Arabi this morning (Wednesday January 9) is that Yemen has refused (according to Yemeni sources) a GreenZone request to "turn over" to the Iraqi government members of the Iraqi Baath party living in Yemen, and likewise refused a request to make persons in Yemen connected with the former Baath party "stop their activities". Instead, Yemen is described as having demanded the speedy turnover to Yemen of Yemenis held in Iraqi prisons on terror and other charges. (The newspaper also quotes a Yemeni website to the effect that president Ali Abdullah al-Salah told an Iraqi Interior Minister person earlier this week that in fact Yemen does not host any of the leaders on the lists of the Iraqi security authorities, but rather only members of a clan that participated in the administration of the prior regime, so in effect he has no one to turn over). Al-Quds al-Arabi cites remarks by an Iraqi parliamentarian to the Iraqi government newspaper Al-Sabah, confirming there has been such an Iraqi delegation to Yemen, aimed a an exchange of wanted persons and an improvement in diplomatic relations.

To understand why this is a big story, please recall earlier reports about the Cairo-conference process, in particular the detailed account by Haroun Mohammed late last month (here, and in the immediately following post). He said US State Department people were convinced the process would make no sense without participation by the Baath and other resistance groups, adding that US strategy was to lean on Arab states in the region to lean on their Iraqi expatriate residents to come forward and play the game, using "pressure" if necessary. The news from Yemen this morning indicates, in effect, that this strategy did not turn out well as far as Yemen is concerned, ending up in a request for an exchange of "wanted persons", which itself was rejected.

A statement by the Iraqi Baath party published on (dated January 7, 2008) sheds additional light on this. The statement, in the name of their pseudonomous spokesman Abu Mohammed, says there have been questions raised recently about the attitude of the Baath and other resistance groups with respect to US preparations, being carried out through their "diplomatic channels" for a "Cairo Conference" now expected to take place in March. The Baath party will have nothing to do with this, the spokesman says, repeating many of the points made by Haroun Mohammed in the article linked to above--particularly to stress that the Americans are in a bind, because they need a more-representative GreenZone regime to give their planned bilateral US-Iraq security agreement any credibility or legitimacy at all. What is new in this Baath party statement is just the point that the "Cairo Conference" preparations are in fact still going on (although the target date now seems to be March, for what that is worth), and the Baath, for its part (at least the Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, or loyalist wing) will not be attending and rejects the whole process as another occupation attempt to split the resistance. This could be what triggered the GreenZone decision to get tough and try and have Yemen round some of them up and turn them over.

Hungern wie im Krieg

A German news-site ( assembles the available links on the food-cutbacks issue, and explains this better than I did, in a post called "Going hungry like in Wartime: A new catastrophe coming in Iraq?" And they have one link that I missed in the earlier posts, one from the UN news agency IRIN dated December 4, quoting remarks by the Iraqi Trade minister on the exact details of the cutbacks and the budgetary shortfall. (Five items will be distributed instead of ten; there is a vague remark by the Trade minister about introducing means-testing). A health official in Baghdad is quoted:
Mohammed Falah Ibrahim, a food security expert at the Baghdad health directorate, said cutting items from the food rations’ system would lead to hunger in many parts of Iraq.

“These things should be studied very carefully, especially the cutting of children’s milk, because this will leave many poor families in danger and especially IDPs [internally displaced persons]," Ibrahim said.

“There should be a complementary plan in place to ensure that financial aid reaches those poor families who will be affected by this, otherwise many Iraqis could die of hunger," Ibrahim said.

Budget mysteries of the IMF

It was noted in the comments a few posts back that the Iraqi government signed a new agreement with the IMF on December 20, and that the IMF announcement included some of their usual language about government-commitments to austerity in current government spending. Including this, from the IMF director's homily:
The [Iraqi] authorities' program for 2008 aims to allocate resources towards investment, including in the oil sector, and to improve the provision of public services, while containing current government spending, notably on the wage and pension bill. The program—which envisages an increase in economic growth, a further reduction in inflation, and an increase in net international reserves—will also encompass priority structural reforms, including actions to strengthen administrative capacity and governance.
An announcement earlier in December about cutbacks in the number of items and the volume of each item to be included in the 2008 food-rations program seemed to dovetail with this. But it appears no one (except the commenter here) noticed the role of the IMF in this.

However, people's very understandable unhappiness with the food-cutbacks themselves was noticed by an Iraqi parliamentary official, and he makes some ambiguous remarks to the government newspaper Al-Sabah this morning about this. He said parliamentarians have been meeting with ministerial officials about 2008 budget, and they agreed on two points. The first on government salaries (to be discussed in a moment), and
The second point on which they agreed was on leaving the number of ration-card items unchanged, and on working to see that the rations reach citizens at the scheduled times, and he [the parliamentary official] disclosed that there will be a clause in the budget stating that the Finance Ministry will undertake guarantees of the expenditures necessary for the provision of the ration-card items in 2008.
The problem is that this isn't a question of "efforts" and "guarantees", but rather one of budgetary allocations. The earlier report on the cutbacks said the Trade Ministry had asked for $7 billion for the program, and had obtained only $3 billion, hence the cutbacks. Today's weasel-words by the parliamentary official in the government newspaper don't deal with that, and the puzzle of how much is allocated to the food program in 2008 remains, along with the question of IMF pressure on that budget. (Moreover, "leaving the number of items unchanged" is itself ambiguous, because it doesn't spell out whether this means "unchanged" at five items, or "unchanged" at the original ten or eleven).

The second piece of the budget puzzle has to do with government salary scale. As you will note from the above remarks by the IMF director, the Iraqi government agreed to cut current spending on government salaries. But what the parliamentary official says in Al-Sabah this morning doesn't seem to fit. He says in the meetings between parliamentarians and government officials, there was agreement on a new pay-scale, and on allocation of an additional $3 billion in the 2008 budget to cover the increased cost of this. At least that's what I think he said. Here is the quote. See if you agree:
[At these parliamentary/ministerial meetings] there was a prominent group of observations that will be included in the 2008 budget, namely the new pay-scale [for government employees] approved by the Council of Ministers, and there will be inclusion of $3 billion in the 2008 budget for the application of that.
The journalist adds by way of background: The Council of Ministers announced last week the new government-employees pay-scale, which will take into account years of service, educational degrees, marital status, location and so on.

These seem like fairly simple questions: How much money is actually in the 2008 budget for the food program; how does this compare to 2007; and what was the effect of IMF pressure on this? And given the IMF remark about the commitment to cutting spending on salaries and pensions, how can we understand the $3 billion in the 2008 budget for the "application" of the new government pay-scale?

Would it be too much to expect that somewhere in the Washington media establishment somebody might be able to dig up the actual text of last month's IMF-Iraq agreement, or of the 2008 budget? Or is this sacred ground.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

More on the troubles of the Awakenings

From Al-Hayat, on the recent attacks on the Awakening Councils:
Observers in Baghdad say the spontaneous way in which these Awakening organizations were formed, and the big results they obtained in a short space of time has confronted them with political difficulties beyond their capacity [to deal with], and that is what they are now suddenly in the midst of.

Political parties and persons have accused them of being infiltrated sometimes by AlQaeda, and sometimes by Baathists, while the government, for its part, continues to warn that they could be turned into militias outside the law, bringing the issue of sectarian conflict back to square one.

The Americans credit them with a decline in violence, particularly sectarian, and with reining in the influence of AlQaeda in their traditional strongholds in the Sunni cities, but very quickly military and political experts warned that the diminution in violence could be temporary and not permanent, if this isn't accompanied by decisive political developments.
The journalist says the basic dynamics are still the same: AlQaeda retains its ability to adapt, and the Awakenings continue to stress that others aren't doing the job. The journalist puts it this way: Omar al-Baghdadi in effect acknowledged the inroads that these organization have made in the latter part of 2007 when he announced last month the special campaign for attacking them, but "those close to the armed groups say, in the light of these recent attacks, that AlQaeda still has the ability to adjust and change its strategy".
Leaders of the Awakening Councils say they represent the first line of defence against AlQaeda the face of the lack of provision [by others] of military or financial or morale requirements for facing this kind of a challenge.
By way of illustrating the political and sectarian crossfire their quick success risks putting them in, the journalist quotes the leaders of three other Awakening councils, one of them a former Baathist officer, who accused the Maliki government of "having a hand in the elimination" of some of the Awakening people. Another accused the Mahdi Army of being involved in this "on the basis of religious fatwas" (not elaborated on). And a third blamed the Iranian Quds Brigades.

(Harith al-Dhari, for his part, in an Al-Hayat interview, puts the picture this way: When there was money in Al-Qaeda, people in need of money joined AlQaeda; now that there is money in the Awakenings, people in need of money join them. While the Iraq-weakening aims of the forces behind all of this are not in question for Al-Dhari, this latest take seems to leave the specific political upshot of the Awakenings indeterminate).