Friday, February 29, 2008

Op-ed columnist: No to pinko pro-Iranians

Haroun Muhammad, in his regular op-ed in Al-Quds al-Arabi, says the Ahmedinejad visit to Baghdad really puts the cap on a strategy of collaboration between America and Iran with respect to controlling Iraq. He cites the fact that the Americans continue, in their day-to-day activities, to regard the Iran-oriented Shiite parties as their natural allies; he reviews statements of Wayne White and others to the effect the Americans deliberately opened the Iran-Iraq border following the 2003 invasion; and he talks about covert Iranian activities since then targeting in particular those who fought in the Iran-Iraq war; and so on.

The specific problem with the visit is that this could be seen as a declaration of victory by Iran, in which Ahmedinejad in effect says to the Iraqi people: What we were unable to accomplish on our own (vis a vis Iraq), Bush has given us for free. Moreover, we move freely in the region as we see fit; America, itself, has used us to frighten our neighbours and sell them weapons for billions of dollars, and we have used America to expand our influence and our reach.

His point is that honorable Iraqis see the coming Ahmedinejad visit as completely unacceptable, and instead gain from it insight into the nature of this Iran-America collaboration.

To those who say he has revolutionary Iran all wrong, Haroun Mohammed says this:
We hope no one from among the know-it-all theoreticians, servants unfortunately of the nationalists and the leftists, comes to us and says: Don't mix up Iran of the revolution, friend of the Arabs, with imperialist America enemy of the Arabs. Because the answer is very simple: Of course such a mix-up would be a mistake. Our fellow-feelings with Iran would defend it in any confrontation between Iran and the United States, should such a thing occur. But [we are talking about] Iran in the Iraqi situation [where Iran is] a saboteur and conniving with the occupation, and the only country that expressed satisfaction with the occupation, sending its people and its agents on the backs of the tanks or following them...
It would be interesting to know more about the know-it-all theoreticians he is talking about, but for the moment I highlight this passage merely to point up a somewhat familiar set of cross-currents: Theoretical sympathy with a revolutionary and anti-imperialist regime, along with concrete opposition to its interference in our affairs.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Local news

Al-Hayat notes that some of the Sunni areas on the Sadr City to Karbala route have set up rest and welcome areas for the Shiite pilgrims, taking advantage of improved security conditions compared to last year, and hoping to contribute to a restoration of traditional relationships.

The journalist says the Shiites have altered their route this year to include passage through some of the Sunni areas where there have been continual problems in recent years, and he adds:
But some of these areas surprised everyone, and set up, on the model of the Shiite areas, "tent and pavillion" areas offering water and drinks to the visitors, for instance in the Sunni Askan neighborhood in the Dora district, which was until a few months ago under the control of AlQaeda.

Salem al-Ani, one of those who organized this Sunni assistance center for the visitors, said: "The relative improvement in the security situation has given us the opportunity to offer our brothers help on their journey, and to make them feel that our area does not represent any danger to anyone".

The organizers of the "Sunni welcome center" said they hope to contribute to an easing of sectarian tensions between different residential areas in southern Baghdad, and a restoration of social relationships to those of the earlier times, and "a removal of the obstacles that have blocked roads and made neighborhoods in the capital very difficult".

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The post-Awakening world according to Abu Roman

Jordanian journalist Mohammed abu Roman, writing in Al-Hayat, outlines what he says could be called a "post-Awakening" configuration of the Sunni armed groups, and of Arab Sunni society generally. The main semi-new point: He asserts unequivocally that a substantial number of local commanders in the Islamic Army of Iraq formed local Awakening groups in cooperation with the Americans, on the argument that the biggest immediate threat is the expanding Iranian influence or "occupation" in the country, and that it is undesirable to fight on two fronts at the same time. (In addition of course to the $300 a month per head). Abu Roman doesn't offer any enlightenment on what they mean by "fighting an occupation" by a neighboring Islamic country that doesn't have an occupying military presence.

Rather, what he focuses on are plans by the Awakening/IAI groups for the formation of a political entity that would aim to protect the interests of the Arab Sunni community in an environment where inimical Iranian influence is strong. In this, he says, they have been opposed by the Islamic Party of Iraq, which is anxious to protect its semi-monopoly on political representation of the Arab Sunnis.

To the extent that the Awakening/IAI groups have been mostly successful in their immediate aims of driving out the ISI/AlQaeda groups from Sunni areas, the movement is now at a crossroads, abu Roman says. They could either collapse as a coherent grouping, or they could put together a political project. And in the latter sense, he says there are projects in the works.

On the other hand, he acknowledges that there are also indications of local movements in the opposite direction, back to fighting the American occupation. He writes
But the recent period has seen the emergence of sharp differences within the IAI, that in some cases have led to formation of cells for military operations against the American forces, thus breaking the truce [which he says the IAI has formed with the Americans]. This has embarrassed Abu Azeem and his group, and it coincides with the emergence of sharp differences between some of the Awakenings and the Islamic Party, and [between some of the Awakenings and] the American forces.
But abu Roman's focus is on organized efforts in the other direction. He says there have been talks including the Awakenings and some of the armed groups (not only the IAI) the direction of abandoning resistance to the American occupation and focusing instead on the interests of Iraqi Sunnis in the face of what abu Azzam calls the expanding Iranian influence. And this trend has taken steps in the direction of forming an appropriate political entity, [in the sense that] there have been discussions within armed factions in that connection (Islamic Army, Jaish al-Fataheen, Ansar al-Sunna sharaiya group, Jaish al-Mujahideen...)
The parentheses and the dots are abu Roman's.

Abu Roman continues:
Sources within that trend say they are intent on issuing a founding political declaration, along with fatwas in support of the legality and conceptual rightness of this trend, as well as of the Sunni Awakening project. However, there is confirmation that the Awakenings will be distributed among a variety of political entities, and this is generating a variety of different Sunni political projects.
And he tells the recent story of a plan by Abu Risha to turn the Anbar awakening into something called the "National Movement for Development and Reform", plagued with disputes that ended up with the famous threat by Hamid Hayes against the Islamic Party. Abu Roman's point is that although this ended up as a brawl that attracted wide attention, the point, he thinks, is that there is such a "trend" in the direction of trying to fashion a political entity or entities out of these groups.

(With respect to the cooperation between IAI and the Awakenings, abu Roman notes: Sources close to the IAI stress the negative role of the Islamic Party of Iraq in blocking these projects, in the interests of protecting its own position as representative of Sunni society. But he says it is important to remember in this respect that the Islamic Party represents the "Muslim Brotherhood" trend among the Sunni groups (including being relatively amenable to politics generally, while the Islamic Army, he says, is Salafi (including being traditionally less amenable and more focused on following revealed shariah law).

Abu Roman concludes by outlining what he says is the new configuration of Sunni armed groups. At the end of the spectrum he calls the "right" (that would be the "religious right" in American parlance), there is still the ISI/AlQaeda grouping. (He says Baghdadi was in fact a fiction, there having been three figurehead leaders in the recent period (one killed, one in American custody and one still at large), while actual leadership continues to be exercised by Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, and the latest news on their strategy still has to do with attacking the Awakenings). Their aim, as is well known, isn't nationalist, but transnational. At the other end of the spectrum there are still the Brigades of the 1920 Revolution and the other groups close to the Association of Muslim Scholars. These continue to adhere to the nationalist program of fighting the American occupation and trying to hasten their withdrawal.

(Here abu Roman's remarks are interesting: He says people in these groups admit they have been weakened recently, partly by the popularity of the Awakenings, but also because the withdrawal of the Mahdi Army from active operations resulted in a diminished sense of anxiety and immediacy on the part of Sunni supporters generally, and this has meant less support in money and personnel).

In abu Roman's configuration, the IAI is "between" the ultra-Salafi ISI/AlQaeda group and the nationalist 1920 Brigades/AMSI grouping. In any event, he says the run-up to the October local elections (if in fact they are to be held by then) will be an initial test whether the political initiatives he is talking about have any substance or not.

A skeptical reading of this: It is normal and to be expected that Awakening leaders would be looking for political recognition. But the involvement in this project of breakaway factions of the armed resistance groups, on the basis that fighting Iran is more important--and more immediately beneficial to Sunni society generally--than fighting the American occupation, seems to be based so far only on his report to the effect that "there are talks..."

Saturday, February 23, 2008

IAI praises Shiite actions in the South

Al-Hayat printed on Friday an interview it said was the first ever by the "Emir" of the Islamic Army in Iraq, whom it didn't identify. The person's remarks dealt with a wide range of matters, including denunciation of the Awakenings and AlQaeda, and rejection of the Americans' negotiating overtures as "not serious", dismissal of the Baath as having lost strategic weight, and so on. But there are three points that are new (compared with earlier IAI statements), and they indicate attempts to make progress in the direction of bringing resistance groups together.

With respect to the AlQaeda in Iraq, aka the Islamic State of Iraq, he describes the latter expression as "a grand name for an imaginary entity", and points out that they call themselves AlQaeda, and in any event they have made themselves unwelcome in Iraq.
What happened is that AlQaeda [in Iraq] by its wrong policies, cut itself off not only from the other armed groups, but also from Iraqi society.
The interviewer then asks him about the declaration of a Political Council for the Iraqi Resistance, to which he replies:
The announcement of the Political council for the Iraqi resistance was a natural result of five years of jihad. Political work is not in contradiction with military operations, in fact military work is part of political work, as Clausewitz said: Politics is war but by gentler methods, and war is politics by violent means. The point is to impose your will.

The legitimate definition of politics is: That which is most effective in bringing the people closest to what is good and farthest from what is corrupt. ...And this is not any different from what is said in [the Prophet's] revealed law. So for that reason we don't see that discussing "politics" is a deviation, not at all.

Of course it should be clear that the Political Council doesn't mean entering into the actual political process. We don't recognize the political process that has been contrived by the occupation, which controls it.
He appears to be answering an objection from strict Islamists to the effect that any involvement in "politics" is against Islam. He says no: The principle of "politics" is essentially the same as that of Islam, no matter how strictly you interpret the latter, because in essence the point is to bring the people as close as possible to the good and as far as possible from the corrupt. The point is the same whether you take it from the broad definition, or from the tenets of revealed law, so there is not necessarily a conflict.

(Recall that in one of his letters to the factions, Harith al-Dhari raised this issue as an important point in achieving unity in the resistance, where some are for the caliphate, some are for pure Sharia, some are for modern institutions with Islam as a check on legislation. What appears from this interview with the IAI chief is that the caliphate group have put themselves beyond the pale, and that as for the remaining positions there could or should be a general definition, of the type he outlines, that will satisfy everyone).

There is another point where it appears some progress has been made, and that is in relation to the Shiites. Earlier statements attributed to IAI spokespeople have not had anything good to say about Shiites, referring to them mainly in connection with the "Safavid" Iran and consequently as hypothetical or real enemies. In this interview, the remarks with reference to Shiites are noticeably different. Asked about the possibility of agreement with people of "different sects", he said:
We support any social agreements that work to the benefit of religion and of the state by throwing out the occupiers and lifting oppression from the people. We invite the Arab Shiites to reject the occupation in all its shapes and forms, and not to comply with the Safavid ambitions.

And we welcome the positive reaction of the Arab Shiite tribes in their intifada against the Safavids who oppressed their views and their freedoms. What you are seeing in the South by way of activities of the [Shiite] tribes are steps in the right direction.
This is a lot different from the blanket denunciations in earlier statements.

The three points fit together: (1) Abandonment of the takfiiri crowd, means there isn't any basis for ruling out Shiites on the basis of religious definitions. (2) Finding a general non-religious definition of "politics" in principle opens the door to political discussions with groups on a range from secular to strict Islamic. And (3) there is recognition that Shiite groups can be patriotic Iraqis too.

On other issues, there is less change. He accused the Baathists of continuing to try and appropriate the fruits of others' efforts, to compensate for their own loss of strategic weight, so there is no sign of rapprochement there. And he said the Americans "aren't serious" about negotiating with the resistance. If they are talking with any group they think is the IAI, they are mistaken about the identity of their interlocutor.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Arbaeen against the occupation

The Arbaeen starts next week, and tens of thousands of pilgrims are on their way to the Karbala for the occasion. Fadhil Rashad writes in Al-Hayat:
Karbala and the surrounding cities are experiencing a major sandstorm, which however isn't keeping the visitors from continuing their journeys on foot to the city...from cities in some cases hundreds of kilometers away, in pilgrimages that in some cases can take ten days or a month or more, such as those from Basra, and they hold many-colored flags, and some of them hold up portraits of their religious leaders, the most prominent being the Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr. The followers of Sadr generally wear a white gown, symbolizing their willingness to "face up to wearing the shroud". And on their way they chant phrases praising their leaders, and attacking the occupation forces and those that cooperate with them. And these processions and rest-camps stretch all with way from Basra to Karbala, and from Baghdad to Karbala also.
Meanwhile in Karbala, security officials have been regularly reporting arrests of persons they say belong to the "Adherents of the Mahdi", one of the groups focused on the coming appearance of the 12th Iman, and who the authorities say are planning violence violence during the Arbaeen, just as they say they did in Basra and Nasiriya a couple of months ago. One of the main tenets of the Mahdists is the corruption of the Shiite religious establishment in Najaf, headed by the Ayatollah Sistani, because of their support for a corrupt, occupation-friendly government.

In other words, the Sadrists dressed in their white winding-sheets chanting against the "occupation forces and those who cooperate with them", share a fundamental political orientation with the Mahdists: Opposition to the Shiite establishment that is working with the occupation. In these circumstances, it is easy to see how persecution of the Mahdists could turn into a broader persecution of any person or groups that are too vociferous in their dissent.

This is worth bearing in mind when you read that escalating tensions between the Sadrists and the Supreme Council in the south are somehow related to the fact that a local-elections date was mentioned in the recently-passed law on provincial-government powers. First of all, before there can be elections there has to be a new law setting out election-procedures, and timing and possibilities for that are as vague as can be; and secondly, this whole idea of boiling down what is happening in Iraq to those factors that are most familiar to Western readers ("heightened conflict with the approach of elections!") represents not just leaving out those factors that are particular and peculiar to Iraq, but of distorting our view by ignoring the anti-occupation/anti-corruption feelings that are driving dissident groups of all kinds and persuasions. This distorted view is what makes it possible for people to think the continued presence of occupation troops can be a pacifying factor! (This is a politer way of saying what I was also getting at in the prior post).

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The River of Disappearing Truths

It is an amazing feature of the blogosphere that no one in the upper echelons ever corrects him- or herself, and the farther removed he is from his or her subject-matter, the more true that is. Imagine Matt or any of that ilk correcting themselves on the subject of Iraq. Of course, this is partly the effect of what somebody once explained as the essence of "bullshit", namely that it differs from lying or falsehood in that its truth or falsity was never in question, only whether it sounds good or not. No sense "correcting" it if it wasn't supposed to be either true or false in the first place.

But that analysis doesn't go far enough, because within the global sphere of bullshit there are crucial differences, for instance between the hard and the soft. On Iraq, Matt and that ilk represent the soft type, Juan the hard type. The soft type is stuff that you knew right away didn't really matter anyway, because for instance Matt's common-sensical comments, even when he talks about Iraq, isn't as he would say really about Iraq at all, but only about the common sense that you could apply to anything. The fact he could be wrong about Iraq doesn't matter because he's not really talking about that in the first place. Philosopher that he is, he will be the first to admit that.

By contrast, hard bullshit is when you say the Sadrists "spearheaded" the recent de-Debaathification Law, and that they were against the amnesty law. There isn't any evidence for that, rather what drives the assertions is that they fit a particular world-view. But unlike Matt's "common sense", this kind of statement does make a claim about being true--sort of. You claim it is true, but you're not willing to defend it or adduce evidence for it, because it refers to a reality that belongs to another world--"over there"--where your interlocutors don't have access, and need instead to rely on something like "Informed Comment". You're making a claim about the truth of it, but it is a special kind of truth--a "disappearing" truth that you don't have to defend or adduce evidence for, and that for two reasons: (1) Access to that world is supposedly limited to the specifically "credentialed" guy who made the claim in the first place; and (2) the author of it is so busy that today's truths overwrite yesterday's truths, so what's lacking in verifiability of individual claims is made up for via the whirligig of linked claims that never ends. It is a river of truths, and as we know you cannot step into the same river twice.

The disappearing truth, and the river of these disappearing truths, are a form of what most people call propaganda, particularly when the perpetrator has some kind of a vague connection with established authority. The flow leaves a sediment, and the sediment has a particular odor. "Harith al-Dhari is wanted for criminal instigation of violence"; "Sadrists are motivated by narrow sectarianism"--and before you know it, like Liza Doolittle, you've got it! Iraq is the scene of a religious war; those who oppose the occupation are nothing but perpetrators of criminal violence for narrow sectarian aims. Thank god for the occupation!

Where there's micro-bullshit, there is also a macro background. Whether on the right or at the "progressive center," what drives most of this "informed comment" is one form or another of a single fundamental attitude, namely: Hope for the restoration of "normality", whether this is the right-wing "normality" of brute military power retaking its rightful place in the world, or whether it is the Democrats' "normality" of a restored bureaucratic competence and sophistication in Washington, like in the good old days, able to "manage" the Iraq crisis and oversee some version of the sophisticated K-Street democracy they would all like to see established there. Both sides are for the restoration of some kind of American-defined "normality", based on what has been normal, or would-be normal, in the post-war American experience.

The point is that these "visions", if you can call it that, have nothing to do with Iraq or Iraqis, and everything to do with restoration of "normality" in America. The particular features of Iraq and Iraqis are nothing but obstacles.

And that's why, in addition to the truths of Informed Comment being unverifiable disappearing truths, they are also, seen from this macro perspective, thought of as fundamentally irrelevant. Whether Sadrists were for or against the Amnesty Law doesn't really have a bearing on anything, if your gaze is fixed merely on the question of whether an Iraqi parliamentary system can "function". Laws were passed! The parliamentary system worked! Rampant corruption and sellouts? Cross-sect alliances? Who cares? What do you think K-Street is all about? The particularity of Iraq and Iraqis aren't part of this at all. Iraqi interest-groups in the GreenZone are like AIPAC and the tobacco industry in Washington--players, yes, but look at the overarching triumph of the system itself! Our system!

But really, in the broadest sense, so what? What's all this about the particularity of Iraq and Iraqis? What difference does it make? The obvious short answer is that this principle of the fungibility of truth and falsehood (because it doesn't really matter, given where your gaze is really fixed)--this principle is what got America into the current crisis in the first place. Iraqis weren't supposed to fight back against the shock and awe of overwhelming power, but they did. This turned out to be important. One can assume similar errors will bring about similar catastrophes in the future.

There is also a long answer, the first step of which is what I've been trying to get at in a minuscule way the last 18 months or so with the missing links, and that answer has to do with the desirability of listening to people different from yourself and trying to see what it is they have to say. I never thought it would be necessary to explain why you should do that, but now when the social "scientists" go about "coding" utterances and counting them and manipulating aggregates of them mathematically and the whole dipsy-doodle, I guess it is. Unfortunately, I'm not up to it. Having peeked into the abyss, I think I'll take a few steps back.

Luckily there is an easier way to make this same point, although having to do not with Iraq but with Iran. In 1978, when the revolt against the Shah was just getting under way, the French philosopher Michael Foucault visited Iran and filed stories that year and the next with Corriere della Sera and other European papers, in which he tried to explain some of the particularities of Iran and why the coming revolution was a unique event. You can find these if you search for them. The fact that he regarded the revolution as a positive event, and the fact that the new regime turned out to be authoritarian, has made Foucault-people tend to sideline these pieces as "untypical", and his enemies have ridiculed them. But look at what he was saying, for instance in this passage quoted in the Guardian's Comment is Free series the other day by Iranian expatriate and activist Hossein Derakhshan:
"Islam," Foucault wrote [in 1979] "which is not simply a religion, but an entire way of life, an adherence to a history and a civilisation, has a good chance to become a gigantic powder keg, at the level of hundreds of millions of men."

Such praising words about the Iranian uprising [Derakhshan writes] are probably the very reason few have even heard of Foucault's dispatches from Tehran for the Italian newspaper, Corriere Dela Sera, in 1978-79.

Twenty-nine winters later, the Islamic Republic of Iran is more independent, stable, confident and technologically advanced than ever, while it has remained the most serious and continuous challenge to US hegemony in the world. But what can explain the survival of the outcome of such revolt? What will the future look like for Iran, with its young population who mostly have no first-hand experience of that revolt?

The rise of the first non-clerical president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, can point to some answers.

For 16 years, Iranian government was in the hands of the Euro-American educated bureaucrats who were gradually departing from the specific subjectivity (rejection of the universals, in Foucault's term) which brought about the Iranian uprising of the 1979. The spectre of modernity slowly started to dominate everything, from the economy to the politics, and the two consecutive administrations picked up a similar project of modernisation which the shah had previously failed to continue, and with it, the gloomy consequences started to [weigh] in too: corruption, incompetence, and socio-economic inequality.

The elite's vision of economic and political "reform" was transforming Iran into a country very similar to what it had been under the shah, but with an Islamic posture. At the same time, Europe and the US were not only happily watching as Iran was practically undoing its revolt, but even assisting and accelerating the process.

Then came the shock. Ahmadinejad, an outsider to the Iranian establishment who was never taken seriously by journalists or most politicians, won the election. Compared to his main rivals, he had lower religious credentials, less support from the elite, less money for campaigning, and gave zero promises to normalise relations with the US. Instead, he travelled much more around the country and met face-to-face with the forgotten majority of Iranians, talked more about economic equality, and promised more of a serious war on corruption....

Like many Iranians who have lived in the west for the past seven or eight years, the rise of Ahmadinejad (and also travelling to other parts of the Middle East) has incited a radical change in the way I see myself, relate to Iran, and view the world. I have finally realised what it was that the entire Iranian nation revolted for, and how valuable this subjectivity is to empower the world of the marginalised, the poor and the oppressed.
In short, here is a reading of Ahmadinejad that is the mirror opposite of what we have been told. It doesn't "fit", does it? Is it possible there is an Iraq story going on that in some comparable way also "doesn't fit"?

Of course, as Condi once said, "Iran is not Iraq", but isn't it possible that in different ways--the Iraq way and the Iran way--we have been led astray by the Informed Comment river-of-truths way of informing ourselves, and that you have these stories, in their different ways, hopelessly garbled? Ah, you say, Iran is not Iraq, which is very true. But is that perhaps pretty much all you know for sure?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Grandeur and skepticism

Parliamentary president Mashadani confirmed that the Provincial Powers act passed on Thursday included a provision for holding provincial elections on October 1 of this year, and he added that he thinks the actual Provincial Elections law (necessary in order to establish procedures for the elections) should be "ready in three months time". This is reported by the government paper Al-Sabah, as part of a series of congratulatory and self-congratulatory remarks by "three presidents" (Maliki, Talabani and Mashadani)--actually four because the president of the United States is also quoted as having phoned Mashadani to congratulate him for getting this done. On the question of the provincial elections, the paper added that the UN representative in Iraq, de Mistura, who also spoke at the press conference, said he was surprised at the speed of the decision, and said the UN is going to have to get to work setting up the provincial offices that will be involved in monitoring the elections.

Maliki's office issued a grandiose announcement of the non-sectarian principles that will govern the coming cabinet-shakeup, but Azzaman leads today with a series of comments from all over the political spectrum expressing skepticism about that possibility, on the general theme that sectarianism is already too deeply embedded in the GreenZone system, and that participating parties are not likely to give up anything that they have gained.

Probably more interesting was Al-Sabah's choice of spokesman to deliver what amounts to a refurbished ideological program, and it wasn't Maliki. Following the passage of the three laws, it featured across the top of its front page (Thursday Feb 14) remarks by Adel abdul Mahdi (a member of Hakim's Supreme Council, but also an economist and part of the IMF-World Bank milieu), in which he said the sectarianism the country has suffered from up to now was unavoidable because there weren't any alternatives following the fall of Saddam, but the country is now entering a new era, that will be characterized by private initiative and investment, including foreign investment. I will spare readers the details, but that was the gist of his remarks.

I don't know it means politically if the GreenZone establishment is putting up a free-market ideologue, with all the charisma of a Washington bureaucrat, as its potential leader in the face of crises involving sewage, water, electricity, and food (in the budget news, I haven't seen any additional information on the cutbacks in the food-ration program imposed on the government by the IMF. See the end of this post and the comments for the latest as far as I know on that issue). I just mention the possibility.

Identifying the GreenZone teams

My computer is again functioning, unfortunately just in time for the Festival of Interpretations, following the unique passage of three laws in the GreenZone, including the 2008 budget.

Azzaman, in its domestic Iraqi edition, headlines: "Ceserean birth of three laws from the womb of disagreements and no-confidence", which just about sums it up.

To be more specific, since no one outside the GreenZone seems to have texts of the laws, and even if they did, a lot would still depend on the legislative history, which is also a little on the sketchy side, we are unfortunately left in the situation Heidegger so well described as Geworfenheit, or "in-der-Welt-sein", if you will.

So let's get started. The 17% of budgetary revenues to the Kurdish region is something everyone has noticed because it wasn't negotiated down, so the question is who supported this part of the package and who didn't. Azzaman, in the afore-mentioned Iraqi edition, quotes a Dawa politician to who said that apart from the Kurdish parties, the Kurdish position on this was supported by the Supreme Council (Hakim's group) and the Islamic Party of Iraq (Tareq al-Hashemi's group, aka Tareq al-Hashemi acting alone). These are the two Iraqi party-leaders who had the honor of sitting (on separate occasions) by the fireplace with Bush last fall at around time of the Amman meeting with Maliki, and who are currently among the last holdouts propping up Maliki's government (Hashemi still vp; Supreme Council providing the other vp Adel abul Mahdi and support in parliament.

Similarly, it is possible to identify the outlines of another coalition, by identifying the parties that walked out on Tuesday, forcing the adjournment to yesterday. Azzaman says:
Mashadani postponed the Tuesday evening session to yesterday, following the exit of members of the Sadrist trend, and of the Fadhila party, and the Accord Front (the main Sunni coalition) and the Dialogue Front (Saleh al-Matlak's party), [these members having withdrawn] in protest against the priority of the readings and of the voting.
So while the group supporting the Kurdish demand appears to have been the pro-occupation coalition of Supreme Council, Hashemi, and the Kurds themselves, the group holding up the parade was of a composition very much resembling the recently-announced Group of 12, (Sadrist current, along with some Sunni parties and others) whose initial statement of position
included opposition to Kurdistan-only oil contracts, opposition to continued dickering with Section 140 of the Constitution respecting the status of Kirkuk, and other, albeit more vaguely-expressed, nationalist positions. There isn't a perfect match-up of parties, but I don't think anyone can read through the various fragmentary accounts of what happened in the last couple of days in the GreenZone, without recognizing that broadly speaking there were two opposing sides, the Kurd-Hakim-Hashemi pro-occupation and perhaps semi-separatist side, and an opposing, semi-nationalist side that included the Sadrists, and a selection of Sunni parties. Naturally this would have to be refined once we know what the results actually were.

Identifying the sides isn't the same as being able to figure out what the final score was, but as any sports-fan can tell you, it is an important starting-point.

There is of course an alternative interpretation of what was going on, and it is a very familiar one too. Alissa Rubin spelled it out in her initial summary on the NYT web-site (mercifully replaced later with something a little more sensible), when she initially wrote that the Sunnis wanted the amnesty bill because most prisoners are Sunni, and the Shiites wanted the Provincial Powers bill because they mistrust the central power, so they compromised on that basis, one for you Shiites and and one for us Sunnis. (Which who knows, maybe some editor pointed out to her that "the Shiites" are divided on the question of centralism). Even though the Sunni versus Shiite interpretation doesn't make any sense, it is still the default or shall we say the knee-jerk way of looking at it.

All right, you say, then the next question is going to be whether der Dingda messed this up as usual, and if so how. Thank you for asking, and yes he did, as follows:

The Azzaman international edition, led its account of this as follows:
The Iraqi parliament yesterday approved the budget via a political agreement that cut through the constitutional roadblock that had been blocking approval of three separate laws for some time. And parliamentarians expressed their opposition to the deal for the three laws, which was far from the letter and spirit of the constitution. And Saleh al-Mutlak, head of the Dialogue Front, and members of the Sadrist trend expressed their opposition to the General Amnesty Law, which ignores [meaning "because it ignores"] prisoners who don't have six months [in custody] without investigation.
Meaning, fairly obviously, that the Sadrists and the Mutlak's group thought the amnesty law didn't go far enough because for instance it apparently requires people to have been in custody for six months without being charged with anything, before they are eligible for this.

By contrast, der Dingda writes referring to the text just quoted:
Al-Zaman quotes MP Salih Mutlak (a secular, ex-Baathist Sunni who is in the opposition) and MPs of the Sadr Movement as expressing fierce opposition to amnesty for prisoners, one of the three measures adopted.

It's difficult to imagine why on anybody's understanding the Sunni Mutlak would be in "fierce opposition to amnesty for prisoners" most of whom are Sunnis, but obviously we have a motive in the case of the Sadrists, who, we recall, are supposed to have "spearheaded" the mischievious De-Debaathification law. It's one story, namely that of the continuing blind sectarian Shiite versus Sunni war. The problem for those invested in it is that this story increasingly has to be based on misreadings and unsubstantiated knee-jerk explanations.

Of course, we don't know the text of these laws, so we don't know the actual score, but we can deduce something about the teams, namely that the old standby Sunni-versus-Shia story is getting a whole lot less plausible as the interpretive key to understanding GreenZone maneuvering.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Down but not out

My computer has had to be hospitalized for a couple of days. We are all very hopeful. There will be a bulletin in a couple of days max. Thank you for your kind patience.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

GreenZone political summary

Mashraq Abbas writes in Al-Hayat: Politicians have the political dog tied up all right, the only problem being that they have the leash fastened to its tail instead of to its neck. In the six months since the exit of parties from Maliki's cabinet started, there has been a parade of politicians to Najaf for talks with the Ayatollah Sistani (Maliki, Jaafari, Barzani, Abdulmahdi, Hashemi, and yesterday Talabani), all of them convinced they obtained Sistani's support for some particular approach to remodeling the government, and all of them ultimately disappointed. Sistani fears having his authority exploited again for partisan ends as he feels happened in the case of the elections. [And it could be added that the populist attacks of the Mahdists against the "corruption" of Najaf is based in large part on just that point, namely that Najaf prostituted its spiritual authority to help form and prop up a corrupt government].

Abbas quickly runs through the various current theories of government-remodeling, the two main classes being (1) replacement of current vacancies only; and (2) resignation of the government and re-formation of a government with only 20 instead of the current 36 ministries. In both cases the rhetoric is about ending the "allocations" system, but in both cases the stumbling blocks are exactly what they were before: allocation disputes. If the Accord Front returned, would they still only get two ministries, defence and planning, and would Maliki be permitted to continue his end-run around the ministerial set-up via his "office of the chiefs of staff of the armed forces"? The Kurds insist on the replacement of the Oil Minister because the present one opposes Kurdistan-only oil contracts. Etcetera.

What the proliferation of Sistani-visits shows is the failure of the politicians to come up with any actual solutions on their own. And understandably, Sistani is saying "no thank you" to offers to let him sponsor something. That is the gist of it.

Abbas concludes: As they vacillate between the "repair" and the "replacement" options, the main political groups have to face the fact of deterioration in the security situation in the country, and also the decline, now admitted, in efforts at national reconciliation.

(The points made here are worth bearing in mind, because we will be reading many things about Sistani--that he is "cutting down on his work-load", that he agrees with this one or that--and about the cabinet shuffle in the GreenZone--that the Accord Front is "returning" or not returning, that Maliki will be retained or replaced by Abdulmahdi, and so on--but the point is that in the absence of fundamental agreement this dog is still just tied up by its tail).

Friday, February 08, 2008

"Major Arab-media crackdown planned"

Arab interior ministers meeting last week in Tunis agreed on what they called an adjustment to their common strategy respecting terrorism, with the aim of criminalizing possession of information or tapes of terrorist groups, or any propagation or incitement [to terror] on the part of any person or media organization. In a similar vein, an Egyptian newspaper yesterday reported that the Egyptian information minister had agreed with his Saudi counterpart to press for revisions to the laws regulating operation of satellite TV stations, at a meeting of Arab information ministers in Cairo next week. The proposed revisions, according to a report in Al-Masry al-Youm, would require the state that is issuer of the station's operating licence to warn the station, and then to issue final closure orders, in the event of the station going beyond the terms of [said] warnings in political discussion programs. (According to the summary by Abdulbari Atwan in his Al-Quds al-Arabi opinion piece today).

And finally, also in the same vein, Atwan notes that pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United States have already resulted in Al-Jazeera completely stopping its coverage of Saudi Arabia and developments there, particularly in the area of activism for democracy, and freedoms, and constitutional monarchy.

Taken together, Atwan says these developments and proposals represent the imminent end of the "honeymoon of the semi-independent Arab media". For instance, under this new regime, the Maliki government will be able to request having any Arab satellite station closed down if it doesn't, for instance, start describing national resistance to the American occupation as "terrorism" and curtail coverage of the national-resistance point of view. Similarly, the Saudi and Egyptian governments would be able to shut down any channels that broadcast any of the statements of Bin Laden or Zawahiri, for example. More broadly, the thrust of this is to return Arab media to "the age of ignorance", where news means praise for the regime, celebration of its exploits, and gratitude for the various benevolent regime projects and solicitude for the well-being of the people. (Atwan says a major recent impetus in this direction was the elation in some Arab circles over the busting of the Gaza-Egypt wall. Egyptian regime-anxiety over this is reflected in a recent round of newspaper-essays criticing those events from an Egypt-sovereignty point of view).

(Of course there are many differences, but American media policy seems to be in some ways the model for where Arab media policy is headed. The proposed criminalization which could extend to news-reporting of AlQaeda statements and other jihadi points of view seems to echo something that has already happened in America; and certainly the conflation of national-resistance with "terrorism" is something that the American media has already well and truly accomplished, and in a much more thoroughgoing way than the Arab world is yet capable of, because in American media there isn't even such a thing as bona fide national-resistance to the Israeli occupation, not to mention the American occupation of Iraq. And of course the "age of ignorance" reference can hardly fail to remind us more generally of the fog of bland stupidity put out by our own regime-friendly media).

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Mahdism: Heaven on earth for cops

Following up on the story of the revival of law-enforcement interest in Mahdist groups referred to in the prior post, it appears Sunni political and security people are also getting in on the act, spinning the Mahdist revival as a new form of threat from Iran (in contrast to the story reported on the Supreme Council's to the effect this is a Baathist/Gulf-States phenomenon). Which means the Mahdists are now being spun as sinister agents of Iran by Sunni security-and-political people, and as sinister agents of Sunni powers by the Shiite government.

Malaf Press, which is Sunni-oriented to a fault, if that is a permissible expression, says in a story posted this morning
High-level political and security sources said investigations in connection with the organization of the promised al-Yamani (the Adherents of the Mahdi) and the Army of Heaven, showed the involvement and entanglement of Iran in the support of these Shiite extremist deviant groups. And they added in conversation with Malaf Press that the followers and members of the Yamani group have been deputies or agents of the Iranian regime and its intelligence apparatus for a long time, and that some of them received training from the Iranian Quds Brigade.
The sources said the Iranian regime continues to provide arms and explosives to Shiite agents for use in operations against the Iraqi security forces, adding this is part of their continuing efforts to see Iraq partitioned, by continuing a level of chaos and escalating violence by way of this military and financial support. They said the fighting this year in Nasiriya and Karbala, and the fighting last year in Zarka, testified to the fact these groups have been given modern weaponry and high-level training, in addition to huge financial and other support.

The sources went so far as to offer an explanation why Iran has resorted to using these Mahdist groups, as follows:
This is happening [the sources said] at a time when Iran is getting a feeling of separation from [groups like] the Mahdi Army, the Sadrist movement, Hizbullah, and the Shiite religious parties which were all previously described as "followers" of Iran--and [a feeling that these groups are] embarking on a new path prioritizing Iraqi interests over those of prior, old, alliances.

Govt continuing its harrassment of Mahdists. Some point the finger at politics, economic conditions, and indiscriminate-force policing

Al-Hayat had some news yesterday on the Mahdist movement.

(1) The spiritual leader of the Fadhila Party (breakaway/sibling of the Sadrist movement), Mohamed Jacoubi blamed politicians for the recent Mahdist activities (referring apparently to this year's happenings with the Adherents of the Mahdi and also last year's with the Army of Heaven). He said politicians have been covering their failures by invoking the name of the Najaf Shiite religious hierarchy, and this backfired by giving the groups a broad opportunity to stir their membership up against the Najaf authorities. (Anticlericalism and direct access to divine knowledge being one of the main tenets of these groups, so the politicians did the worst thing possible when they pointed the finger at these religious-intermediaries as also connected with the (corrupt) government).

(2) A police/army campaign of arrests has started in the town of Khalas in Diyala province, east of Baghdad, against members of yet another Mahdist group, this one calling itself Adherents of the Imam Rabbani. (The leader's name is Fadhil al-Marsumi. He is one of those mentioned in a recent rundown by a researcher summarized by Voices of Iraq a couple of weeks ago). Twenty-eight of its members have been arrested so far. As the researcher noted in that article, one of their special tenets of this "new" group is that "there is a new Mohammed for each age", and for the current age the Mohammed is Marsumi himself. The Al-Hayat reporter says "authorities" compared the Army of Heaven, the Adherents of the Mahdi, and this latest group, but all he tells us is that they said they all have similar beliefs.

(3) The Al-Hayat reporter says the religious establishment is studying the emergence of these groups in an attempt to explain them. The government, for its part, blames "countries in the region and their intelligence agencies" for supporting these groups (recall that the Supreme Council website purported to tell the whole story of the Adherents of the Mahdi, naming Baathist intelligence in the pre-2003 period, and naming in particular the UAE as leading the Gulf-states support for the group in the more recent period; same link as for the above VOI piece). More independent researchers, on the other hand, tend to stress social, political and economic factors as providing the conditions for the rise of groups like these, and one of them pointed out that "the use of plenary power to try and curb these groups perhaps only helps expand the range of their activities."

(4) All of which reminded the reporter to ask the Diwaniya governor about the recent Human Rights report (by an Iraqi parliamentary committee) that called attention in detail to human rights abuses in prisons in his governate and elsewhere in the South. (Recall that the Adherents of the Mahdi website, before it went dead, published statements accusing the government not only of arbitrary arrests, but also of torture). The governor, the reporter tells us, "expressed his lack of agreement with the report". Period.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Throw another log on the fire...

It is a familiar story, but maybe it's worth noting that the gist of the recent commentary on the De-Debaathification law is wrong, being nothing more than an updating of the Iraq=sectarian-meltdown story. Cole's original claim (Jan 13) that the new law was "spearheaded by Sadrists" to make life worse for the ex-Baathists is something he made up out of whole cloth, but it has taken hold. The sequel is that Hashemi tried to veto the law, but he failed and it is being implemented anyway, and this is seen as a humiliation for him, and for the Sunnis, and another step in the sect-based meltdown. The subtext, as usual, is that all of the Iraqi parties are narrow sectarians.

Among the inconvenient truths are that the Sadrist news-site reflected rank-and-file Sadrist opposition to the new law, not approval or "spearheading" of it; and that today's Al-Quds al-Arabi prints on its front page a news-item favorable to the law headed "Thousands of Iraqis recover their jobs with the new law on inclusion of the Baath". If you take all of actual reports together, the unavoidable conclusion is that this was an attempted compromise, with hard-liners and accomodationists on both sides, so that as you would expect there was a variety of opinions about it among Sadrists, and a variety of opinions about it among ex-Baathists, and no doubt in other groups as well. The head of the parliamentary commission dealing with this happens to be a Sadrist, so Cole used that to claim "Sadrists are spearheading this"; and while some of the Sunni politicians thought the new law would on balance be good for ex-members of the Baath party, others disagreed, and this put pressure on vp Hashemi, a Sunni and leader of the Islamic Party of Iraq, to be seen to be fighting to the end for a better deal, which is what he did. (Reflecting intra-Baath disagreements, there have been news reports* suggesting a relationship between this new-law problem and the struggle between the Izzat al-Douri and the Yunis al-Ahmed wings of the Baath party). There is no suggestion anywhere in any local report, of the idea that this reflects a Sadrist move against the Sunnis. That is pure Cole, and the Colestory became dominant because it fits a much more powerful preconception: that of the Iraq=sectarian-meltdown story-line.

The struggle is in fact not a sectarian but a political one, and in the current case it is hard to disentangle two threads: (1) On the one hand, the American-inspired attempts to obtain a broader-based GreenZone government in order to legitimize the coming bilateral agreement and (2) on the other hand, apparent attempts by some "nationalist" GreenZone players (those who are blocking the Oil Law, for instance) to thwart the Americans at their own game. The Colestory makes it all so much easier to follow, the only subtext being: All of the Iraqi parties are despicable, the Sadrists for pressing home their advantage, and as for the ex-Baathists, any Cole reader knows that they are all in one way or another part of that sinister group the "Sunni Arab guerillas".

*See for instance this piece in, which concludes:
The new law has caused considerable reaction [among expatriate ex-Baathists] once many of them started having to consider the method of its application, and whether in fact they would be allowed to return to their government jobs, and what would be the position Baath party leadership, currently represented by of Izzat al-Douri toward the middle-level people who could be permitted to return to their general jobs, or toward those who will be included in the purging according to the new principles in the Justice and Accountability Law, which is not yet in effect, following the opposition expressed by vice president Hashemi to some of the provisions...
the point here being merely that there have been internal pressures on Hashemi, relating to political strategy, contrary to the idea that he is a stick-figure representative of "the Sunnis" battling against the Sadrist orcs.