Monday, March 31, 2008

Report: US Embassy moving elsewhere. Sunni group claims GreenZone attacks

The Qatari paper AlArab had this on its front page this morning:
A military source lifted the veil on information that the American ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has decided to change the location of the American Embassy [which is now] in the Green Zone in Baghdad, because it has been suject to a series of rocket attacks in recent days, that have led to the killing and injuring of a number of American employees.

General Faisal AlAsafi, commander of a Green Zone entrance-protection unit, told AlArab that American Ambassador Ryan Crocker gave the order Saturday night to move the location of the Baghdad Embassy, temporarily, from the Green Zone to an alternate location, which he didn't specify. He said a crew composed of dozens of officials and diplomats moved the contents of the embassy to another location toward the west[ern part of] Baghdad, fearing additional rocket attacks on the Green Zone, insisting that the move is a temporary one, with the aim of the success of the joint forces in stopping the rocket attacks on the Green Zone, and pointing out that the British and Australian embassies might take the same decision in the coming hours.

And Asafi said many parliamentarians and ministers have emptied their premises in the Green Zone following a series of attacks that were accurate and precise in targeting the offices of foreign embassies and the government of Iraq, and the homes of many of ministers and parliamentarians.
The AlArab reporter notes that American officials have barred his paper and others from bringing any video equipment into the Green Zone since the attacks started, and have barred the taking of any pictures of the damage.

The AlArab reporter still assumes that all the attacks have been by the Mehdi Army. But Roads to Iraq points out that there has now been a published claim of responsibility by the Sunni resistance faction Jaish al-Muslimin, part of the Jihad and Change Front, for all of the attacks on the Green Zone since Saturday March 29 and including those of this morning (Monday March 31).

[Update: A commenter points out the Jaish al-Muslimin claim is actually for a specific number of rocket-attacks--three on Saturday the 29th, another three on Sunday, and six yesterday Monday March 31--not "all" the attacks during those days. I don't know of any daily totals of total rocket and mortar attacks on the GreenZone during the last week or so, but the suggestion is that there are some attacks in these recent three days that they didn't claim. (The commenter refers to "reports all over Baghdad" that the Mahdi Army is still mortaring the Green Zone)].

Iran the broker ? (with an update) (and a correction)

Kuwaiti paper AlQabas, which has been close to the negotiations-story, says there were three Iraqi members of parliament at the sessions with Moqtada on the weekend, namely Hadi AlAmari who is also secretary general of the Badr Organization (Supreme Council military wing); Ali AlAdeeb, a member of the wing of the Dawa party that is still headed by Maliki; and a third person, Qasem AlSahlani, described as a member of the political bureau of the "Dawa Party-Iraq Organization", which is a wing of the Dawa party that has split from Maliki, and is headed by former Prime Minister Jaafari.* (See the note for a correction of the italicized part)

The McClatchy story that has taken America by storm this morning mentions only the first two, leaving out AlSahlani. And it says the whole purpose of their trip was "to win the support of the commander of Iran's Qods Brigades", to persuade Moqtada to "order his followers to stop military operations." And McClatchy quotes a member of the Iraqi List, Osama Nejafi, to the effect that the "Iran was part of the problem and an effective part of the negotiations." The AlQabas story doesn't mention Iranian involvement at all.

So there are two points here: The McClatchy "Iran the broker" story doesn't include AlSahlani of the anti-Maliki Dawa wing, and it quotes the Iraqi List person, AlNejafi, only as acknowledging Iran as "a part" of the problem, and a part of the solution, not as the broker. Those two people have something in common, because they both belong to groups that were signatory to the so-called "12-party understanding" back in January, which included the Sadrists, some Sunni parties, and the secular Iraqi List, remarkable as the first attempt at a national-party cross-sect political formation. As an institution I don't think anything has been heard from them, but the political effort at broad-based nationalism does continue to show up in the news (Arabic, not English) from time to time. (See for instance Jaafari talks to the opposition; and Sunni-Shia conference... And recent remarks in AlHayat show Maliki was concerned about the war on Sadr morphing into a nationalist happening.

So what? The point is that if you re-read the text of Sadr's cease-fire statement yesterday, you will notice that it is not couched in the form of an agreement between the party of the first part and the party of the second part. It is a statement of what should and/or will happen, by way of complying with the Shariah requirement to not take human life without justification. All Iraqis are part of this project. It is just that one group and one leader in particular has taken the lead in laying this down and starting to implement it, and it is not Maliki. But the idea behind it is the opposite of sectarian or sect-based calculations. This was not a coup or anything like that, but it was a manifestation of nationalist thinking of a kind that further weakens the Green Zone government, because it suggested that leadership belongs to someone other than Maliki. Something like a moral takeover, perhaps you could say. And it is in this context that I think the involvement of people from the "12-party understanding" is meaningful.

I wouldn't make an issue of this if it was just a question of a kremlinologist's photo-analysis--why is AlSahlani in this version and not the Iranian; and why the Iranian and not AlSahlani in this version. Because in any event there's no doubt that the commander of the Qods Brigades is powerful with the Badr Brigades, and they had to be brought into the agreement, no doubt about that. The problem is the oversimplification: namely that Iran intervened to stop the fighting. Because it seems to me to be just another way of using spin to cover over the main story, which is the Iraqis' efforts to (re)unite their country over the heads of the likes of Maliki.

(Update: Ladybird from (see the comments) tells us AlSahlani is what they call "the fine and slender thread" that joins the three biggest Shiite factions, having a relationship with each camp, so no doubt his presence at the talks was particularly significant (and his absense from the McClatchy story also). I'd like to speculate further, but maybe time will tell)

* [It seems that conflating of Jaafari and the Dawa--Iraq Organization wings isn't right: The Dawa Party--Iraq Organization has indeed challenged the Maliki administration, for instance by signing on to the so-called 12-party agreement (See AlHayat January 14 2008). And there is a Jaafari wing that has also challenged the Maliki administration, for instance when Jaafari talked to some resistance people in Cairo, but I think I jumped to conclusions in thinking these two Dawa-based challenges to Maliki are one and the same. It seems they're not the same (see an Aswat alIraq piece from Sept 16 2007, which talks about them as two different things)].

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Text of the Sadr cease-fire statement

Here is the text of the statement by Moqtada AlSadr that launched the current (Sunday March 30) cease-fire negotiations:
Based upon our responsibilities in law [shariah] and for the sparing of Iraqi blood and for the protection of the reputation of the Iraqi people, and for their unity both in terms of people and in terms of land, and in preparation for its independence and liberation from the armies of oppression; and in order to put out the fires of fitna which the occupier and his followers wish to keep burning between Iraqi brothers, we call upon the beloved Iraqi people to measure up to their responsibility and their consciousness of law in sparing blood and preserving peace in Iraq, and its stability and its independence.

The following is resolved:

(1) Ending armed manifestations in the governate of Basra and all the other governates

(2) Ending of attacks and arbitrary illegal arrests

(3) Demand on the government to apply the law on general amnesty, and release all prisoners who had not had charges confirmed against them, and particularly prisoners belonging to the Sadrist trend

(4) We announce that we will renounce those who carry weapons and target the government and service agencies and institutions, or [political] party offices

(5) Cooperation with government agencies to bring about security and to charge those who commit crimes, according to legal [qanuniya] process

(6) We affirm that the Sadrist movement does not possess heavy weapons

(7) Efforts for the return to their residential areas of those who were forced out on account of security incidents

(8) We demand respect for human rights by the government in all of its security actions

(9) Working for the realization of development and services projects in all governates

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Meanwhile, south of the border

The Kuwaiti government has set up regular military patrols along its border with Iraq, following reports of Sadrist/Maliki-government fighting in an area very close to the border (Zubayr, near Safwan, if you know where that is. Their instructions are to make sure that no one, of any description or under any circumstances, is to be permitted across the border, and to implement this with absolute strictness. And that includes any potential would-be refugees, should the South-Iraq situation deteriorate further. The Kuwaiti paper AlWasat says the Kuwaiti government has notified the Iraqi and American authorities of this.

After reporting on the border patrols, the AlWasat journalist goes on to write about other things he is hearing, presumably from the Kuwaiti side. He writes:
In the same context, after the Americans themselves disclosed their participation on the side of the Iraqi government in the confrontations in Basra and other Southern Iraq cities, AlWasat learned that the British forces based in Basra have undertaken to offer a security umbrella over Iraqi airspace at along the border. This is in order to be able to offer [air] support to the Iraqi government forces in the event of their attacking Mahdi Army locations or groups, which are getting closer to points on the Iraq-Kuwait border.

On another point, informed sources told AlWasat that Iranian intelligence is playing a big role in supplying groups of the Mahdi Army and others with weapons and supplies, with the aim of wearing down the British and American forces that are based in the region.

Also, informed sources told AlWasat that the recent clashes between Mahdi Army groups and the Iraqi government security forces in the regions of Basra, Nasiriya and Diwaniya have had the effect of causing disruptions in the movement of American military convoys moving between Kuwait and Iraq, in support of the missions of force-replacements, and the securing of supply and logistical services.
The journalist doesn't say anything further on any of those topics (British involvement at the border, or disruptions of US Kuwait-to-Baghdad convoys, or alleged Iranian supply-operations), his point being merely to outline what sources are telling him about reasons for the recently-increased tensions, as seen from the Kuwaiti side.

Maliki and the US fear the emergence of another round of national-resistance

Remarks reported this morning by Maliki, a US State Dept official, and the Iraqi Defense Minister indicate they wish they could put this genie back in the bottle, and the reason appears to be a general anxiety to the effect this could turn into a national resistance movement.

AlHayat reports this morning (Saturday March 29) the following:
Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki--who extended his deadline for the militias to surrender their arms in exchange for monetary rewards to April 8--was intent on stressing that he did not invite the coalition forces in Iraq to participate in the Basra operations, and persons close to Maliki justified this by explaining the government's desire not to turn this fighting into a confrontation between the resistance and the occupation forces. In addition to confirming the Iraqi forces' ability in the field.
In other words, and it seems quite logical, Maliki is becoming concerned that what was supposed to be a mopping-up operation in Basra shows signs of turning into a nationwide uprising against the occupation forces (to which he owes his safety and that of his government).

A peculiar remark by a State Department official indicates the same anxiety (also quoted in this same Al-Hayat article):
The director of the Iraq office in the American State Department Richard Schmierer told AlHayat, in this same context, that "the Sadr current has a bright political future, once [there has been] success in the operation in Basra, which is something that targets extremists and criminals who have found refuge in the movement of Moqtada al-Sadr, and legal cover, without his agreement".
The remarks of Iraqi defense minister Abdul Qadr Jassem are in the same vein. According to Azzaman
He said at a press conference in Basra that the armed people in Basra took the Iraqi security forces by surprise. "The Iraqi government imagined that this would be a normal operation. It was surprised by the level of resistance, and was obliged to change its policy and tactics."
These remarks by Maliki, US State Dept, and Iraqi Defense Dept indicate a common concern: Maliki: "Please god, don't let the Iraqi people conclude that I am fighting Iraqis with the help of the US forces". State Dept: "Please god, let this end as a law-enforcement operation in Basra and not as a battle to the death with the Sadrists nation-wide, leading to attacks on the Green Zone and so forth". Iraqi Defense Dept: "Please god, we did not envisage what is happening; we had no idea this might turn into anything other than a mopping-up operation."

The Azzaman summary of military operations throughout the Center and the South contains clear indications that the Sadrists are thinking militarily in national terms: For instance:

(1) The journalist describes yesterday's shelling of the Green Zone this way, after talking about US bombing in Basra and Sadr City: "The armed groups replied to the air strikes in Basra and Sadr City by shelling the Green Zone again, and also by shelling Karada [district of Baghdad] where most of the current Iraqi government officials live."

(2) The journalist describes the Sadrists as having opened up new fronts in South-Central cities in order to ease military pressure against them in Karbala; and

(3) The journalist says the Sadrists have used positions in the South to attack reinforcement convoys coming from Baghdad, to ease pressure on Basra.

In other words, the government, which tried to disguise its attack on the Sadrists as a mere local law-enforcement effort in Basra, is finding that their intended victims are responding to the real threat, not the pretext, and have been able to do so effectively, using region-wide strategies in the South, and counterattacking against the government in Baghdad, so that the US State Department, now obliged to tell its Green Zone people to wear helmets outdoors and to sleep in fortified locations, is now stressing what a lovely group the Sadrists are, and what a bright future lies ahead for them, if we can just clean up this unfortunate situation in Basra.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The political context of the military fiasco comes into focus

The Kuwaiti paper AlWasat quotes remarks by Iraqi political-party leaders, reflecting a split in which the Iraqi Accord Front (Dulaimi), the Iraqi List (led by Allawi), and the Islamic Party (vice president Tareq al-Hashemi) are critical of Maliki for resorting to violence to solve these problems, and the only political bloc quoted in support is the Supreme Council. The paper summarizes:
The military operation launched by the Iraqi security forces in Basra has brought about a split qmong the parliamentary blocs between support on the one hand, and rejection of the policy, on the basis that it could bring the country to "a crisis of security, and abort" the political process.
Meanwhile, (another h/t to Ladybird of RoadstoIraq) a reporter for the Lebanese paper AlAkhbar explains the self-deception, and the political background, that led Maliki to imagine himself a military commander, even though he doesn't have any actually-fighting troops.

His explanation centers on the structuring of the Interior Ministry forces at the time of the "sectarian wars" post February 2006.
Persons close to the decision-making centers said the man [Maliki] thought he was a military leader the same way his predecessor Jaafari believed [he was a military leader] at the time of Tal Afar over two years ago. He wore a military helmet and had pictures taken; he was channeling Saddam Hussein.

And if Maliki really believed he was a military leader, first of all he forgot the political ABCs in directly attacking the Sadrist current that permitted him and the Supreme Council his parliamentary majority in the first place, and because those close to him--as was the case with those close to Saddam--suggested to him that he was capable of anything, just because he was running this government on the edge of the parliamentary abyss.

[Then after underlining the bad reputation of the Sadrists and the Mahdi Army at the time of the sectarian wars, the writer continues:] This was because in structuring the security ministries, and the Interior Ministry in particular, there was an understanding that most of the officers would be from the Badr Organization militias and the Dawa militias, and that for the execution tasks they would rely on enlisted people [or "salaried people", some such expression], and these were mostly from the Sadrist trend, and this is what made the Mahdi Army, in the eyes of Iraqis, the instrument of execution in the sectarian wars.

[And observers note that in the fighting in recent days, now that the government has attacked the Sadrists] the officers, who cannot fight without soldiers, have come to fear their soldiers, and this has led them to abandon their positions and their weapons, particularly in Basra City and in the other areas of Basra [governate].

Biggest attack yet in America's air war against the Sadrists (updated)

AlHayat says an attack by US planes in Hilla probably killed around 60 people, described as armed, quoting Iraqi security people who said that is what the Americans told them. The attack was called in by Iraqi forces, following Sadrist attacks on Supreme Council, Badr, and Dawa offices in that city, but the attacks were apparently in other areas, and a Sadrist official said the victims were retreating. The Iraqis said they couldn't confirm the numbers because Mahdi Army people had evacuated dead and wounded. (Note: This occurred Wednesday. Here is the initial sketchy report in VOI. And here is what the multi-national forces press office had to say about what happened Wednesday in Hilla, referring to only five people killed in a US airstrike).
The city of Hilla witnessed an unprecedented escalation of violence, with continuation for the second day of armed clashes between Mahdi Army people and the Iraqi security forces...and American planes intervened to support the Iraqi forces. There are conflicting reports on the number of victims in the air attack launched by the American planes against armed people in the Thaura district in eastern Hilla, but an Iraqi security source...said "the multinational forces told Iraqi police that the attack killed 60 armed people", but he said Iraqi police couldn't verify the actual result because the Mahdi Army evacuates its dead and wounded...
Moreover, it is clear from his information that this American air attack was directly related to the Iraqi political situation. The journalist puts it this way:
[The Iraqi security source] added that this fighting began after the fall of the Kafal (sp?) district in northern Hilla at the hands of armed people, and their overrunning offices of the Supreme Council and the Badr Organization, and of the Dawa Party, in that district, and their destruction, following by blowing up of a police vehicle, leacing to two killed and 12 wounded... The source said the fighting continued for five hours, which led the Iraqi forces to call for air support from the multinational forces, which bombed the districts of Nadr Atthalath and Thaura and Muhayzam, which are centers for Sadr followers in Hilla.
The journalist then quotes the director of the Sadr office in Hilla who said:
"The killling of more than 60 people and wounding of dozens more was the result of an attack on a group of Sadr followers seeking refuge in Al-Thaura", indicating that "this air attack targeted defenceless people during their withdrawal, who were not confronting the security forces, or fighting with them".
This should at least put to rest any idea that this is not an American war against the Sadrists, and will become more and more of an American war as the Iraqi forces fail. The WaPo account of US armored vehicles being involved in fighting in Sadr City tells us the same thing.

Today (Friday) there are reports of US air strikes in Basra, and one in Sadr City. On the "multi-national forces" website, there is a report that appears to be at least partly about the above-reported Hilla incident, referring to only five people being killed in a US air attack, not 60, and appears to have been written by a war-crimes lawyer, because it contains phrases like "maneuvering back to [US and Iraqi ground forces] and due to the hostile intent of the act, were engaged from the air..."]

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Nationalism and the War on Sadr

(I promise to do my part and start scanning Kuwaiti papers for myself instead of glomming on what others find, but right now I would like to pick up on one other piece that cites and summarizes, in order to amplify an important point).

A writer in the Kuwaiti paper Awan had an op-ed today (Thursday March 27) that raised the whole attack-on-Sadr question in a somewhat different light from what we're used to reading (including here).

Important points in his telling of the history include these: After the Feb 2006 bombing of the golden dome temple in Samarra, in the dark and ugly period of organized sectarian killings, the other Shiite factions encouraged Sadr to take the lead, providing him with "political cover" and with practical items like police cars for travelling around Baghdad during the curfews, and so on. Sadr emerged stronger organizationally, and expected that his organization would be given greater importance politically too. This led to the series of political moves, eventually pulling his organization out of the so-called United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which was supposed to represent the united Shiite front. And in this they were followed by the Fadhila party.

The writer continues:
So the game that Sadr began within the UIA led to a serious disintegration of the UIA itself, the ally of Iran, and this was intensified by the exit [from the UIA] of the Fadhila party, the political hegemon in Basra. None of the subsequent discussions aimed at reconstructing the Shiite house was successful. On the contrary, Sadr became stronger and stronger, and formed individual agreements with "enemy" blocs including the Iraqi Accord Front (Sunni) and the Dialogue Front led by Saleh al-Mutlak. And most seriously of all, the discussions that joined the Sadrists with their old enemy Iyad Allawi. Now, is Iran going to stand idly by, watching part, at least, of the Sadrist movement escape from control? And then on the failure of mediations in Iraq [RoadstoIraq says this refers to the failure of the fourth round of US-Tehran negotiations on Iraq], forgive me if I say the stage was set for "armed mediation" aiming by fire and blood to convince everyone to restrain their spirits and work toward the reconstruction of the alliance with Iran, and form a more stable relationship between the Najaf "Sadr-Hakim" house, and the Shiite parties.

So the current struggle from the point of view of [explaining] Maliki's enthusiasm, is an Iranian war on Iraqi territory, or perhaps a Najaf war on Basra territory...
What I would like to point out is that whether you think it was Washington that pulled the trigger on this, or whether you think it was Tehran, from both points of view a key irritant was the fact that Sadr was forming agreements with Sunni entities. Washington has always favored the crypto-separatist Kurdish parties in the north, and the "federalist" Dawa-SupremeCouncil pair in the south, and the clear implication has always been is that Washington doesn't like the Iraqi-nationalist leanings of Sadr and those he has been dealing with on the Sunni side (including or course the demand for American withdrawal). What this Kuwaiti writer says is that those cross-sect moves by Sadr were a major irritant to Tehran too.

This doesn't really help us figure out which side pulled the trigger, or whether it was a jointly-agreed thing to do, but it does help underline the importance of the cross-sect nationalist character of Sadrist thinking, as something displeasing to both Tehran and to Washington--which is the most important depending on where you sit.

Government forces in Basra not fighting: Kuwaiti paper

The Kuwaiti newspaper AlQabas reports from Basra:
The problem facing the government in its battle for control of Basra, which it has said will be "decisive", is that a large number of people in the army and the police are not carrying out orders to fight. Instead they are planning to return home, given their lack of desire to get into this fight.

Several notables in the governate have told AlQabas that the government forces, having entered into what amounts to street-fighting for Basra neighborhoods, will lose this fight unless these local forces are reinforced by large additional forces from elsewhere, because their opponents in the Mahdi Army and other organizations have appropriate weapons in sufficient quantity, and have experience in urban fighting. The lack of fighting spirit on the government side is owing to a lot of causes, among them the existence of tribal links between the army and police on the one side, and the armed militias on the other.

Also, the provincial council and the governor have come to an almost unified position of opposition to this [central government] operation, because they feel that the Prime Minister infringed on their jurisdiction as an elected local council. [In particular] they think the Prime Minister's meeting with the heads of the army and the police in the governate, without involving them, was a derogation of their status and an infringement on their legal authority.

(Another h/t to for pointing this out)

Politics of the Sadr versus Maliki-Hakim confrontation

AlHayat lays out the political hypothesis for the Sadr versus Maliki/Hakim confrontation:

A member of the political council of the Sadrist trend, Isma Musawi, said "There are a lot of reasons behind this recent crisis between the Sadrist trend on the one hand, and the Supreme Council and the government on the other. But the most important reason behind the escalation in stances opposed to the Sadrist trend, is the fact that it announced its effective participation in the provincial elections, something that is not to the liking of many who think of representation of these councils is something registered to their party or to their trend, and that nobody has the right to challenge their projects."
A couple of notes: (1) When he says "effective" participation in the elections, he is probably referring to the fact that Sadr has indicated members of the trend will participate, but the Sadrist trend itself will not become a political party. In that sense "effective" probably means "de facto" as opposed to "in the name of the trend as a political party". (2) Musawi's remarks don't specifically refer to federalism or to any of its possible forms. He is saying that the anxiety of the government and the Supreme Council is owing to the fact Sadrists will be challenging them in provincial elections period. Federalism could be one bone of contention, but his point has to do with provincial-council representation generally.

The AlHayat journalist then quotes a rebuttal from a Supreme Council spokesman:
Ammar Taama, a parliamentary deputy and member of the Supreme Council, rejected what he called "the hypothesis that attributes the current fighting to the struggle between Sadr and Hakim respecting provincial-council elections". He told AlHayat that "the participation of the Sadrists in provincial elections will not produce any effect to speak of. Consequently it is not correct to think that competition in this area is one of the factors in this fight.
It is an interesting argument. He doesn't say the Supreme Council has such respect for democratic procedures that the assumption of a violent prelude to influence an election campaign makes no sense. He doesn't say that at all. What he says is merely that if Sadrists run, they will lose, so such an approach would not be necessary.

However, the journalist also explains that the shape of federalism is one of the points at issue:
It will be remembered that the Sadrist trend opposes the project for a region of the Center and the South as proposed by the Supreme Council. And it is thought that the shape that the local governments take [in the coming provincial elections] will be of fundamental importance in whether this project sees the light of day or is stopped.
In other words, what is at issue between the Sadrists on one side and the Supreme Council and the government on the other (according to this exposition) is the question of Sadrist political power in the provincial councils. And one important aspect of that is the question of federalism. I think this is important to keep in mind, because it has been pointed out that there appear to be differences on federalism-strategy between Maliki and the Supreme Council, and some might conclude that this makes it doubtful whether they are really ganging up on the Sadrists. It doesn't follow. They are ganging up on the Sadrists because the Sadrists are a rival political power with a nation-wide, national-unity, anti-occupation program, and this is a threat to both of them.

The rest of this story is about attempts to convince Maliki to adopt some kind of a negotiating position for ending the crisis, and his refusal to end the military campaign until all of the "outlaws" everywhere have been put down. As Reidar Visser mentioned in his essay yesterday (linked above), it is somewhat suspicious that with each group in Basra having its own militia, the only group coming under attack seems to be the Sadrists.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Rumors of atrocities by Maliki's people from Karbala

Please recall that there was a recent report by INA news agency about groups (the report actually said "afwaj": battalions, or possibly the meaning is just "detachments") of "special forces" fighters, sent from Karbala to Basra, and that report referred to "martial law" and "the execution of anyone who fell under the hand of these special forces". That report said they were commanded by Dawa party people and in-laws of Maliki, although in a later VOI report, Karbala authorities insisted they are in the Army chain of command. This morning Azzaman reports:
Reports have said that mass executions have occurred in several regions of southern Iraq and Basra in particular, carried out by the battalions that Maliki had invited from Karbala, and these are battalions of guards that are stationed there [in Karbala] and the Sadrist current has accused them of human rights violations in Karbala.

[A local parliamentary deputy from the Fadhila party by the name of] Muhamadawi called for humanitarian agencies and the UN and the Red Crescent to aid children and women and old people that are trapped in areas of Basra on account of the fighting. He said there is a need for all kinds of humanitarian goods that have run out in three consecutive days of fighting...
In keeping with the fragmentary nature of most of the current reporting on Basra, we don't find out any more about the reports of mass executions, or of the humanitarian situation in Basra. Instead, the reporter talks about the party-politics of the situation (a topic for another post), and then he quotes the Fadhila deputy Muhamadawi on the situation in Sadr City, after first noting that the US authorities have admitted helping the government blockade Sadr City:
Muhamadawi said the situation in Baghdad is extremely serious and could blow up at any moment. He said the Mahdi Army controls Sadr City, and the government forces, even with the aid of the Americans, are powerless to take it over.

[By contrast], a statement by the United Iraqi Alliance, which is now just the Supreme Council and Dawa, after the withdrawal by the Sadrists and Fadhila, said: "We bless this effort by the government to attempt to extend security and to put an end to the armed gangs in Basra and to the mayhem in all the provinces of Iraq without exception".

First mortar-fire casualty in the Green Zone

Five intermittent mortar rounds, four to six shells each, hit the Green Zone today (Wednesday March 26) lasting from morning until a little after noon, creating explosions and columns of black smoke that could be seen from far away, following similar shelling yesterday. VOI quotes the US spokesman to the effect three employees of the US embassy were wounded, without other details. The VOI English-language account gives that much information. Its Arabic-language version adds something else too:
One of the witnesses said one of the shells landed on Building 17 in the April 28 complex, which is located in front of the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, killing one civilian and wounding four others.
[Note: This casualty outside the Foreign Ministry in the Green Zone was also reported by Xinhuanet, which said nine others were injured].

At a press conference on Wednesday evening a US General explained the concept behind what has been going on in the last few days, and VOI leads its account of his remarks this way:
The official spokesman for the American forces said Wednesday that the military operations that have been going on in the provinces of Baghdad and Basra are not a war being waged by the Iraqi government against the Sadrist movement's Mahdi Army, nor is it a war between America and Iran. Rather, this is a completely Iraqi initiative, with the Prime Minister making the decisions, to put an end to the outlaws who are hiding behind the cover of religion and politics.
If we recall that yesterday Petraeus said Iran was behind the shelling of the Green Zone, we can see that today's is a much more nuanced message.

Maliki sends his regrets

To the intense disappointment of the other Arab leaders, it was announced today that Prime Minister Al-Maliki will be unable to attend the Damascus Arab summit starting the end of this week, because he is busy conducting a military campaign on behalf of his US sponsors against his co-religionists in the Baghdad area. The announcement was made by Ali Dabbagh, government spokesperson, who however described the military campaign a little differently: He said Maliki can't come "because he is busy conducting a security operation in the governate of Basra."

This is particularly disappointing because it was expected that there would be some discussion at the Damascus meeting of Iraqi national reconciliation in connection with the Arab League.

Maliki doesn't seem to be making headway in the South

Iraqi News Agency, available at quotes health sources in Basra who said from the start of fighting on Tuesday to 9:00am Wednesday local time, there were 40 killed and 200 wounded, including civilians, and armed people on both sides. The reporter said fighting eased overnight as Iraqi forces withdrew to neighborhoods in the western part of Basra, and announced that they are about to start what they call a major law-enforcement operation in Basra. The reporter adds that the Iraqi troop movement was
amid an intense circling of fighter aircraft overhead, and firing [by the fighter planes] on certain targets.
The government forces apparently failed in their first attempt to take over one Mahdi Army stronghold. The INA journalist writes:
In the district Hayy alHussein, considered a Mahdi Army stronghold, fighting continued all night from Tuesday to Wednesday, and eyewitnesses said a large force of the Iraqi Army undertook a broad campaign to try and enter the area but they had difficulty penetrating the defenses of the entrenched Mahdi Army forces.
The same INA agency said in a report last night that Special Forces units "under the command of the Dawa Party and in-laws of Maliki" were sent from Karbala to Basra yesterday*, quoting high-level sources in Karbala, who added that they have
initiated a state of martial law [in Basra] and the execution of anyone who falls under the hand of the aforementioned Special Forces, which are commanded by [military title] Shawkat, and [military title] Ali Hamid Hashem. The sources said there have been a lot of deaths in the Special Forces, and that hundreds have deserted from the government forces of the 14th Division, led by Muhammed Jawad Huwaidi, in addition to the death of [military title] Abu al-Khaseeb at the hands of the Mahdi Army and the Fadhila Party.
INA isn't the only outfit that reports things going not so well for the government forces. The online version of the Kuwaiti paper AlWasat reports:
Forces of the Mahdi Army militia surrounded a unit if the Iraqi army in the city of Basra, and 250 Iraqi soldiers announced their surrender to the Mahdi Army.
(The same site reports the Mahdi Army captured 17 American soldiers and seven Hummers, refusing to negotiate for them with the government, but I haven't seen any confirmation or followup). (H/t to for those two links).

Voices of Iraq says Maliki's office somewhere in the Basra area issued a statement at the end of the day that said he has been in communication with local officials, tribal leaders, and so on, urging them to help. The statement said some criminals have started to surrender their arms in the Khamsa Mil and other neighborhoods of Basra. But it didn't say anything about the success or otherwise of government forces' attempts to take control of the city.


* A later report in VOI confirms a large military contingent was sent from Karbala and arrived in Basra on Wednesday, but says they weren't so special, but rather were under general Iraqi Army command, and didn't have any problems on the way.

Your tax dollars at work (With an update on "participation", "fostering" and "safety")

Here is part of the Azzaman account of events yesterday (Tuesday March 25) in Sadr City, including eyewitness accounts of American planes firing on residential areas*; and of American forces being used to try and protect the local office of the Badr organization (the military wing of Hakim's Supreme Council, main supporter of the Maliki government). The journalist also highlights the point that the Maliki government announced it will be using an anti-terror law to deal with the general strike campaign.

Tension prevailed yesterday in Baghdad when hundreds of Sadrist members demonstrated for an end to the targeting of members of the Sadrist movement, simultaneously with a general strike in those neighborhoods. The Sadrist bloc said it is undertaking a withdrawal of confidence in the Maliki government, in response to the the government's announcement that it would apply the Law against Terror [dating from 2005] to deal with those implementing civil disobedience.

And there was an outbreak of violence at Hamza Square in Sadr City between followers of the Sadrist movement and [those of] the Supreme Council, according to eyewitnesses who also said American planes fired on [or bombed] locations in the city. Witnesses said the whole of Sadr City was shut down by the general strike with commercial locations having shut their doors, and the streets empty of people. Eyewitnesses said American planes fired on [or bombed] the residential concentration in Al-Habibiya. Azzaman was unable to obtain any comment from the multinational forces with respect to this.

Also, the American forces put up a security cordon around the offices of the Badr organization in Hamza Square. An eyewitness said he saw a child with a gunshot wound to the stomach. A source in the Sadr office denied there were any armed clashes between members of the Mahdi Army and government security forces in Baghdad or the suburbs. Sources told Azzaman that joint forces conducted arrest operations targeting members of the Mahdi Army...

*VOI got confirmation from a US Army spokesperson who confirmed that US helicopters "participated in targeting areas" in connection with these operations, and that US forces "fostered" the blockade checkpoints. He isn't reported to have said anything about US forces protecting the Supreme Council offices. Luckily, however, everything is all right now: "Despite some terrorist activities in the city on Tuesday, citizens are safe," he explained.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

US Army blockading Sadr City; most of the South and Center of Iraq is under curfew

Voices of Iraq posted an item at the end of the day Tuesday that included this:
Eyewitnesses in various parts of Sadr City told VOI that the American forces encircled Sadr City as of this afternoon, closing off all entrances, and took over the place of the Iraqi forces at the entrances to Sadr City. They said there was the intermittent sound of gunfire and the sound of explosions in various areas of Sadr City, which is under partial cutoff of electric power to some areas, as residents hurried to markets for food-supplies, fearing a deterioration of the situation.
VOI reported one eyewitness said the US forces let in four firefighting vehicles and three ambulances.

And Voices of Iraq reported that by the end of the day Tuesday the authorities had declared nighttime curfews in six provinces in the South and Center of Iraq, including not only Basra but also Wassit and Babel, and now Diwaniya, Nassiriya, and Karbala as well. There isn't any explanation of reasons for these curfews.

The rest of the answer to last week's puzzle

Azzaman, on the occasion of the recent Cheney visit, reported on the outlines of a deal between Cheney and Kurdish Region president Barzani, involving US security and other guarantees for Iraqi Kurdistan, in exchange for Barzani's cooperation in seeing to the passage of the Oil and Gas Law.

It was also noted that a day or so after Cheney departed, Adel AbdulMahdi abruptly announced he was withdrawing his veto of the Provincial Powers law, a veto that had been seen as essentially part of an effort to obstruct the process toward new provincial elections.

These are two of the famous Bush "benchmarks": Oil and Gas Law, and progress toward provincial elections. In the case of Barzani and the Oil law, the quid pro quo was obvious. But what was the quid pro quo for the Supreme Council? One possible--I would say obvious--answer now suggests itself: In exchange for the Supreme Council dropping its obstruction of the Provincial Powers law, the US would tolerate, and provide air-support for, a campaign against the Sadrists in the Basra region.

There isn't a lot to report on the initial operations in Basra beyond what is available from the BBC and AFP, but there is an enlightening comment from the AlHayat journalist this morning. He writes:
It appears that the central government has postponed dealing with the deteriorated security situation in Mosul, until after dealing with the armed Shiite militias in Basra, where military convoys now stretch from Qurnah (75 km north of Basra), to the city center...
A sudden change of priorities, to be sure, and one that has come about right on the heels of the Cheney visit.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Sadrist-organized Sunni-Shia conference in Baghdad demands US withdrawal

This is about a meeting that took place in the NW Baghdad district of Kadhamiya. Voices of Iraq says the meeting, organized by the Sadr organization, included 300 tribal leaders, Shia and Sunni, from throughout Iraq, but the meeting also dealt with local issues including a promised re-opening of the "Bridge of the Imams" that links this mainly Shiite neighborhood on the west bank of the Euphrates with its twin district Adhamiya, mainly Sunni, on the east bank. (There is a nice satellite map on the website of the Meeting Resistance film, which was mostly filmed in Adhamiya.) Among the main points in the final statement of the meeting: A demand for scheduled withdrawal of the occupation forces from Iraq; and a statement to the effect the foreign forces are responsible for the internal divisions that have plagued Iraq since the invasion.

Statements to VOI by participants indicated that there had been considerable groundwork for this meeting, including reciprocal visits between Shiite and Sunni tribal leaders. Moreover, it looks as if the organizers of this consider this more than just an isolated or local reconciliation event, because VOI leads its story like this:
The first Iraqi tribal conference wound up its proceedings on Sunday, in Kadhamiya, Baghdad, with the issuance of a final statement that demanded a schedule for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq, and commitment to the return of those removed from their homes, and compensation for their damages.
The journalist doesn't mention future plans that would explain the expression "the first Iraqi tribal conference".

Among the other points mentioned in the declaration:
The participants committed to the rejection of terror in all its forms, and to the combating of the AlQaeda organization throughout Iraq, in addition to serious work toward the return of those displaced...
(VOI hasn't yet posted an English language version of this item, but presumably in due course it will).

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sadrist news

A Sadrist official at a press conference read a statement by the Karkh (west Baghdad) Sadrist organization, accusing the American forces among other things of having executed four unarmed civilians after having arrested them late last week in the Shurta neighborhood, and giving the government and the American forces 24 hours to release others arrested during those operations, and to apologize for their excesses. If there isn't a satisfactory reply, the statement said, the Sadrist movement will have a number of alternative responses, "the least of which would be sit-ins and civil disobedience."

Meanwhile, the Green Zone came under two rounds of attacks by "mortar fire and Katyusha rockets", at 6 am and 10am respectively, attacks that Green Zone officials intimated were by Sadrists, but without elaborating. A spokesman for the ambassador said no one was killed and injuries were light, but Azzaman quoted police to the effect at least two people outside the government and diplomatic compound were killed in the attacks.

[The NYT says there was another attack around 8:30 in the evening: "Barrages of mortar fire continued through the day at four- to five-hour intervals, including a series of intense blasts just before 8:30 p.m. In that assault, one round landed just outside the Green Zone wall on the west bank of the Tigris, igniting a large brush fire. For hours afterward, the city was oddly silent, the helicopters that are a constant presence here nowhere in sight." And the NYT says a total of 13 Iraqis were killed by mortar fire that fell outside the Green Zone. Both the NYT and the local-paper reports rely on what could be seen and heard from outside the GreenZone: Columns of black smoke; blasts that shook the whole city; sirens and loudspeaker warnings; and so on. There doesn't seem to have been anyone reporting on this from inside the Green Zone].

And with respect to Basra, AlHayat says the British have gone back on their plan to reduce their troop level in southern Iraq. The AlHayat journalist writes:
As the level of tension rises between the Iraqi government and the American forces on the one side, and the Mahdi Army on the other, the British Defence Minister went back on a previous plan to reduce their forces in Basra from 4100 to 2500, given the preparations that the Iraqi army is making for a broad operation against Shiite militias in that city.
It is worth stressing that the incidents in Shurta (referred to in an earlier post here) are between Sadrists on the one side, and the GreenZone and American forces on the other, and there has been no suggestion that they are Sunni/Shiia sectarian. This needs to be remembered, because there is a danger that once the truce breaks down, the situation could deteriorate, at which point the government/US forces role in this could well be forgotten, and this will become another "Shia versus Sunni" story. (One of the Arabic papers warns about this, but I can't find the link...)


Bear with me, while I try and make some sense of this. Just because it happens to be bothering me. You can skip it if you like, without missing any particular Iraq news.

With yields on short-term US Treasury bills approaching zero, Paul Krugman (and the less-comprehensible Brad DeLong) have started talking about a dead-end for orthodox monetary policy.

(The Federal Reserve buys and sells Treasury bills to and from commercial banks as its way of manipulating the rates banks charge each other for unsecured loans, mostly overnight. This is supposed to in turn influence the economy via the banks' setting of their lending rates and lending volumes. Since the "main tool" can't be brought any lower than zero, the effectiveness of that "tool" as a way of lowering the interest-rate structure and stimulating the economy, is at a dead-end. That's their argument).

And what happens then, they ask in mock-perplexity, failing to point out something very important, which they themselves know: Namely that there was something of a dress-rehearsal for this in Japan starting in 1998 when Japanese short-term rates dropped to close to zero. (At about the same time, in Japan, the consumer price index also turned negative, but the policy-interest-rate "conundrum" was the same). Moreover, at that time there was considerable pressure from the US (and Krugman himself weighed in in support of that pressure) for the Bank of Japan to adopt "unorthodox" monetary policies, partly, the Japanese financial press thought, by way of using Japan as a guinea pig for what might some day happen in the US.

This pressure was ultimately successful, and Bank of Japan policies between 1998 and 2006 included a range of "unorthodox" approaches, including: Acquisition from financial institutions of a gradually-expanding range of assets that ultimately included: Commercial Paper; long-term Japanese Government Bonds; and even, for a brief period of time, stocks. The policy-target was explicitly shifted from targeting short-term interest rates, to targeting the size of cash reserves held by the commercial banks at the Central Bank (so-called "quantitative easing"). Since the bank-reserves at the Central Bank are non-interest-bearing, obviously the Bank of Japan needed to make it attractive for banks to swap interest-bearing assets for more reserves than they legally were required to hold, and this it did via a range of obscure tactics, including making sure the banks made spread-profits on buying stuff and reselling it to the Central Bank. The arcane aspects of this were mainly kept out of sight (partly because a lot of it made banking look a lot like shooting fish in a barrel), and the focus was instead on the headline figure, namely the level of reserves held by the commercial banks at the Central Bank. But even after the process had been going on for some time, a debate continued: This was keeping the banks afloat, but exactly what the heck was this supposed to accomplish in terms of stimulating the real economy?

The first answer was that this was supposed to make the banks more confident about lending to real-world customers, thereby helping lift the economy out of stagnation. But it soon became clear this wasn't happening. Banks were non-lenders for a variety of reasons, the main one being that they weren't really risk-assessment people at all, having only ever lent on the security of real estate, so once real estate values started to sag, they stopped lending period). In the absence of a bank-lending recovery, the policy-justification shifted to the Central Bank's "management of expectations", in the sense of negating people's expectation that a tightening would be just around the corner should the economy show the first signs of recovery. (Because these reserves would take a long time to draw down smoothly, and until they were drawn down, there couldn't be any interest-rate tightening).

But this was mostly talk. The real nub of quantitative easing was that it allowed the Central Bank to artificially prop up their decrepit colleagues in the commercial banking system, under the pretext of coaxing public opinion out of its deflationary mind-set. Deflation-fighting became the fig-leaf for a system-wide bank-bailout, where, as it was pointed out at the time including in the financial press, a much simpler solution would have been the more "structural" approach of sending one or two bank CEOs to the slammer. (Krugman, for one, argued that the problem was not "structural," but rather, amenable to this kind of unorthodox monetary policy).

So when Krugman now starts writing about the dead-end of traditional monetary-policy effectiveness in the US, one would naturally expect that the discussion will soon turn to the question of "unorthodox" monetary-policy measures. Of course the difference here is that (1) the CPI in the US isn't yet negative; and (2) the Central Bank has already started buying strange assets from financial institutions, so in Japanese terms they have decided not to bother waiting for the deflation-fighting excuse, and just go ahead and support the system anyway, without the deflation-fighting fig-leaf.

So what's the problem? Why not just follow through with the Japanese example (which itself followed in basic outline the recommendations of Krugman and others anyway)?

The problem right now is that for big and complicated policy shifts like this, you need a big and un-complicated propaganda pitch to support it. Without that, it would be like trying to invade Iraq without the "WMD" argument, or like continuing the occupation without the "War on Terror" of the "risk of civil war" arguments. You need those kinds of arguments to sell people on major policy moves.

That's the problem here. They've got the program without any special propaganda to go with it. What to do?

In the Japanese case, the pitch was that "deflation is unprecedented, so there is a need for drastic policy-responses even if they are unprecedented and untested". What will be the PR pitch for this in the US, in the current case?

So far, in the current US case, it appears the pitch is going to be merely to ratchet up the sense of public anxiety: These financial losses are really, really, really unprecedented, so there is a need for a policy response that is really, really, really unprecedented. That way people will just say: Thank goodness they are doing something about this; look how worse-than-1929 horrible it would be if they did nothing.

You will see the opening rhetorical fanfare for this in the New York Times piece today bearing the hysterical title "What Created this Monster?" There is a reference to "complex instruments that lurk in the financial shadows"; "a potential epidemic"; "Wall Street's version of nitroglycerin"; and so on. You get the idea. And yet for all this lurking epidemic in the shadows, there isn't any attempt to explain any of it, almost as if touching it might cause something to detonate. And yes, in another NYT story today there is a reference to 9/11 and the idea that extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures.

We are back with the "known unknowns" and the "unknown unknowns" (Rumsfeld), where the past incompetence of the authorities serves to bolster an atmosphere of panic that can be used to dis-enable public scrutiny and the taking of responsibility, and let these same authorities adopt even more drastic and unexamined policies. In contrast to the sophistication of the Japanese case, where deflation-fighting served as a pretext for the systematic bailout of the banking system, in the current US case, all they have for advertising and promotion is fear, and plenty of it.

This is like the post-9/11 War on Terror in another way too. Because if you dig down another layer in the propaganda, you will see that there must be some kind of underlying popular support for the bizarre assertions about Saddam=AlQaeda, Palestinians=terrorists, and so on, in the sense that this reflects a blanket lack of confidence in the people of that region, which you could probably call anti-Arab racism. The current financial crisis is calling up an equally ugly feature of our system, and it is the mirror opposite: The reason Americans will presumably let the same people who trashed the financial system work on fixing it, is that there is supposedly a blanket sense of confidence in them. The idea that the financial system works on finely differentiated levels of confidence or lack of confidence only goes so far. At some level, the elite sticks together in a very undifferentiated way, and hopes that in the Japanese way everyone will stick with them.

So here's the problem. In order to gain public acquiescence for a Japanese-type sustained bank-bailout, the powers that be are going to have to talk up the whole deflation/catastrophe theme. Japan was already in a deflationary condition when the policy-shift occurred, so harping on that issue wasn't damaging in itself. But US isn't currently in a deflationary condition, so by talking this up, they are helping bring it about. But that's what the "logic" of the situation calls for: fear and lots of it. Otherwise people might not agree to the kind of knee-jerk bailouts the elite is looking for. And there is the recent experience of fear-promotion to support extraordinary measures after 9/11. In other words, this is coming to be seen as the way you do things in public policy. The 9/11 policy fallout was damaging in a lot of ways, some of which were indirect and which some people didn't understand until it was too late. Adopting this same basic approach to the financial crisis could end up being much more directly destructive, and not just for other people this time.

During much of the period referred to above, I published a daily summary/commentary based on the Japanese financial press for the Wall Street crowd, so these things have been on my mind.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

In a nutshell

In the context of another report (this one in the Kuwaiti paper Awaan), to the effect Basra police and military authorities are planning "a broad cleansing operation", the head of the Security Committee of the Basra provincial council, Hakim al-Miyahi, made an interesting point when a reporter asked him why the security situation in Basra is so bad. He said, look: for all the time that the British were in charge of security in Basra, before their withdrawal from the center of town last September:
They were busy providing protection for their own troops, and for their outposts in the province, from armed attacks, and they arrested a lot of citizens on charges of attacking the British troops, without paying any attention at all to the strategic security of the city itself.
In other words, crime and chaos flourished while the British looked after the security of their troops. If you think about it, you will see that this is also the story of the American occupation of the rest of Iraq, culminating in the Awakenings strategy: Pay off anyone who promises not to attack your troops and your allies, leaving the society as a whole to fester in the absence of the governing structure that you have toppled.

Meanwhile, on the street...

Ahmad Masaoudi, a Sadrist deputy, accused Prime Minister Maliki and the branch of the Dawa party that he heads, of supervising a policy of military liquidation of the Sadrist trend in Babil province, in central Iraq.
AP says his remarks covered the whole central and southern region, and referred specifically to the pre-election environment and the question of nationalism:
A Sadrist member of parliament alleged that the crackdown in Kut and elsewhere in the south was part of a move by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party and the supreme council to prevent al-Sadr's followers from winning control of key southern provinces in provincial elections expected this fall. "They have no supporters in the central and southern provinces, but we do," Ahmed al-Massoudi told the AP. "If the crackdown against the Sadrists continues, we will begin consultations with other parliamentary blocs to bring down the government and replace it with a genuinely national one."
The violence spread to neigborhoods in the southwest part of Baghdad, and a Sadrist leader had the same complaint:

Sadrist leader Falah Shaneyshal said what is going on in the Southwest part of Baghdad is another attempt to draw the Sadrist trend into open war. He told AlHayat that the American and the Iraqi forces opened fire on worshippers in Shurta, adding he holds the government responsible for "these attacks, which were carried out by the occupation". He said "this was deliberate and there was coordination between the government and the American forces to draw the Sadrists into an armed confrontation". He said the members of the Mahdi Army respect the recent freeze order by Moqtada al-Sadr, and he urged the government and the Americans to respect it too.
In another article, AlHayat notes that a Sunni group has a similar complaint about government-sponsored provocations. The Association of Muslim Scholars of Iraq, supporters of the Sunni resistance, issued a statement denouncing what it said was a takeover by an armed group of a Sunni mosque in the Madaen district south of Baghdad, supported by something it called the "government guard". The statement said: "While the so-called Reconciliation Conference was going on in Baghdad, a roving sectarian group...supported by the Government Guard took over the Ayaf Mosque..."

(Madaen district, which includes modern-day Salman Pak, ancient Ctesiphon, and is something of a hot-spot in terms of national cultural identity, is where a couple of days ago the local Awakening issued its own denunciation of the government, threatening to halt their activities if the government forces didn't stop interfering with them. The Awakening statement said they had brought peace to the region, in contrast to the earlier control by government forces, which had left nothing but rancor and ill-feeling).

It is important to note the line-up here: The parties complaining about provocations or worse are: the Sadrists, AMSI, and a Sunni Awakening group. The parties being complained about are variously described as "Maliki and the wing of the Dawa party that he controls", "the government and the American forces", and "a sectarian group supported by the Government Guard". In other words, this new wave of violence appears to be a reflection in reality (so to speak) of the political line-up: Nationalist-oriented groups including the Sadrists, some Awakenings, and Sunni nationalists, versus the Maliki government and the occupation.

People and institutions who find this uncomfortable will prefer a smorgasbord of other explanations: "Rogue elements" in the Sadrist movement; Awakenings demanding their pay; and yes, Sunni-Shiite violence. All of it having some element of truth, but as basic explanations, all having that peculiar magic effect of making the occupation and its propping-up of this sectarian government, disappear as a factor.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Solution to yesterday's puzzle, and a new one

An essay by one Jason Gluck for the oddly-named US Institute for Peace provides the answer to yesterday's puzzle: What did the US official mean when he said the Provincial Powers law could "clear a logjam of other laws, including a vital oil law..." and what did this have to do with Cheney's persuasive powers over Adel AbdulMahdi and Masoud Barzani. In fact, it almost seems possible the US official might have been Gluck himself.

In his essay, Gluck reviews some of the ways in which the three-law package passed last month (Budget, Amnesty, and Provincial Powers) represented horse-trading or compromise between different groups, representing in this way a first step in the direction of potential further GreenZone deal-making. The Supreme Council's veto of the Provincial Powers law put that supposed process in jeopardy, and hence the withdrawal of the veto represented a recovery of that, hence the title of his essay: "From Gridlock to Compromise..." In other words, the puzzling remark merely referred back to passage of the February three-law package, (and the Cheney magic is seen as merely resurrecting that).

In Mr Gluck's mind, this three-law package idea something that opens up the possibility of a brave new world of deal-making. He writes:
Recent failure to agree on other critical political issues, including amendments to the Constitution, the hydrocarbon and revenue sharing legislation, and resolution of the disputed territories through implementation of Article 140, might also be traced to treating each as single issues, standing alone. One can easily identify interconnected and underlying interests that might be positioned for a larger compromise over some, if not all, of these issues. For example, it is at least possible that handing over disputed territory (including Kirkuk) to Iraqi Kurdistan will be more palatable to Iraqi Arabs if accompanied by simultaneous agreement for national management over natural resources. Similarly, most Iraqi Arabs (Sunni and Shia) support greater centralization of powers vis-à-vis the regions—offering at least the possibility of a compromise involving constitutional amendments on the division of powers in exchange for implementation of Article 140. One can only hope that these sorts of deals will be contemplated, as they offer the potential for resolving currently deadlocked issues and moving forward national reconciliation and accord.
On the face of it, this is bizarre, if I may be permitted to say so. The idea that Sunni Arab groups would be so grateful for "national" (as opposed to regional or provincial) management of natural resources that they wouldn't mind giving Kirkuk to the Kurdistan Region; or that the "centralists" would be so grateful for meaningful central government powers that they would agree to resurrect Article 140 of the Constitution so as to reopen the struggle for Kirkuk and other "disputed areas"--these ideas seem at first sight fanciful.

But in fact, this line of argument is so speculative, especially in the context of an essay that is otherwise considerably fact-based, that it seems to me this brings us to our next puzzle: Could this be a reflection of a new US policy?

Gluck acknowledges--but only in within parentheses and deep within his essay--that the US has been providing strong support for the Kurd/SupremeCouncil pair. And he also acknowledges that the Supreme Council is now more and more on the ropes politically, not only in the Green Zone, but also in terms of popularity in the Center and the South. Gluck doesn't say so, but Cheney's arm-twisting to get the veto lifted suggests they might be on the ropes with their American sponsors too (not that there is any suggestion the recent embarrassment of the Ahmedinead visit has anything to do with this). If the Supreme Council is being downgraded, then it seems logical to think the US administration could have a new paradigm in mind, reflected in Gluck's back-of-the-envelope sketch: Compromise between the "centralists" (Sunni parties, Sadrists and others) and the Kurds, with Kirkuk going to the Kurds in exchange for the Kurds dropping their pretensions to sole oil jurisdiction in their region.

In other words, the idea would be to give the Iraqi nationalists their nation back (at least in terms of central government powers), in exchange for passage of an Oil and Gas Law and other concessions, including, although Gluck never mentions it, acquiescence in a long-term US-Iraq security agreement.

As befits something written for a US government agency, this essay of Gluck's maintains the facade that decision-making in the Green Zone is entirely in the hands of Iraqis, with no American influence to speak of. (It was published within a couple of days of Cheney's Baghdad visit, but as we know, he is nothing but a facilitator). So it is important, as usual, to reflect on how little we know about US government activities, not only in the Green Zone, but in other areas as well, for instance in the murky process of "reconciliation" talks with the resistance, and whether there are any offers or non-offers being made in that process.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Today's puzzle

Reuters quotes cryptic US officials in Baghdad who "see the provincial powers law as one way to help clear a logjam of other laws, including a vital oil law..." In other words, US officials said the withdrawal by Adel AbdulMahdi of his objection to the provincial powers law could be part of a pattern of quid-pro-quo horse-trading between factions that could also involve the oil and gas law. The Reuters piece doesn't explain exactly how the US officials see that deal working.

Azzaman is a little less cryptic, but not what you could call clear either. The headline over their top story today says: "An allocations deal hovers over the confirmation of the provincial powers law..." By which they mean that "an atmosphere of horse-trading surrounds this move..." Their story leads off like this:
The leader of the Kurdish Alliance Mahmoud Othman told Azzaman that Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Region, accepted an invitation from Dick Cheney to visit Washington in the near future in order to complete discussions with the Americans respecting the guarantees that the Kurds are demanding before they will support the Oil and Gas Law in parliament.
Barzani told Cheney the main demand is for
... a guarantee of no attacks from neighrboring countries, by which he meant Turkey and Iran, and for the US to not remain silent as happened last month with respect to Turkish invasion of the northern part of the Kurdish region; along with implementation of Clause 140 [of the Iraqi constitution] respecting Kirkuk."
So far so good. The Kurdish bloc wants American security and other guarantees before it will commit to support the American-promoted Oil and Gas Law. This would be a Barzani-Bush trade. The question is how this relates to the Supreme Council agreement to let the Provincial Powers law pass, right after meeting with Cheney. Because what the Reuters quote and the Azzaman headline intimate is a connection between the Barzani-Bush trade on the one hand, and the Cheney-SupremeCouncil trade on the other. How would that work?

Okay, says the Azzaman journalist, what was behind the withdrawal by the Presidency Council of its objection(s) to the Provincial Powers Law? First of all he quotes the Kurdish representative Othman who told Azzaman: "Vice President Adel AbdulMahdi has asserted that one of the aims of the Cheney visit was to prevail upon [missing grammatical object] for the Provincial Powers law. And he said AbdulMahdi withdrew his objection, which aided in causing it to pass." So what was behind the move was Cheney. But we already knew that. The question is why Mahdi and the Supreme Council went along with this.

Later on in the Azzaman article, after a discussion of the Bush speech and other matters, the journalists return to this question of what the deal(s) are.
The surprising withdrawal by the Presidential Council of its the objection to the Provincial Powers the first [move] of its kind, and it opens the door to pressures to withdraw objections to other laws passed by Parliament, without offering any explanation for such withdrawal. The withdrawal by the Presidency [Council] of its objection to the Provincial Powers law came one day after the completion by Cheney of his surprise visit to Iraq, during which he asked the Presidency Council and the president of the Regional Government of Kurdistan Masoud Barzani to work for the implementation of reconciliation via the passage of important laws.
And the journalist adds that the question of jurisdiction over Kurdish-region oil contracts has been the major stumbling block to passage of the Oil and Gas law.

My solution to the puzzle: The US official's "clearing the logjam" remark, and the Azzaman "atmosphere of allocation-dealing" comment are explainable as a planned pair of trades: Cheney-Barzani to get the Oil law passed, and Cheney-SupremeCouncil to get the Provincial Powers law passed. And what exactly would the underlying Barzani-SupremeCouncil agreement be? Possibly nothing but a common interest in pleasing Cheney, going under the name of "reconciliation".

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Friends and enemies of the people

The national reconciliation conference started in Baghdad yesterday, in the absence of the Sunni Accord Front [IAF, the biggest Sunni bloc in parliament]; and of the Iraqi List [Allawi's group, secularist]; and of the Sadrist current; and of the Dialogue Front led by Saleh al-Mutlak; and of the Baathists. They all said the conference is just for appearances. Prime Minister Maliki, for his part, said [attendance at the conference] was "a dividing line between friends of the people, and its [the people's] enemies".
Cheney, for his part, met with Maliki, Talabani, AlMahdi, AlHashemi, Hakim, and then in Irbil with Barzani, in other words with the Supreme Council and with the Kurdish bloc, plus Maliki and Hashemi--all of them, to use Maliki's expression, "friends of the people". So neither in Cheney's visit, nor in the conference, was there any sign of reconciliation between the two sides, instead there was a hardening.

Moreover, far from reaching out, it was clear that one of Cheney's main objectives was to shore up the US-friendly stance of the "friends of the people", particularly targeting Barzani. After meeting with him, Cheney said the US is counting on Barzani to help in the process of negotiating a long-term US-Iraq security agreement, and also to help in speeding passage of important legislation, the one case he mentioned specifically being the Oil and Gas Law (up to now stymied in part by Kurdish insistence on sole jurisdiction over contracts in the Kurdish region).

It has been noticed by a number of journalists that pressuring Barzani re his GreenZone policies seems to be related in some way to US-Turkish relations, and it seems safe to assume that this would involve presenting Barzani with the alternative of further loss of face (re Turkish military attacks; the Kurdish Kirkuk ambitions; and other issues), or minimizing such loss of face in exchange for helping with the Oil and Gas Law and with the long-term security agreement.

It is important to understand that the Cheney visit and the whole conference-charade not only have nothing to do with reconciliation, but are in fact deliberatively divisive, in more than one way (and not just as reflected in the aove-quoted Maliki remarks). Cheney wants Barzani to bear his fair share of the pro-US burden in the GreenZone, but this will be at the expense of intra-Kurdish and intra-Iraqi accomodation. As the Al-Hayat reporter puts it: "Iraqi politicians from a number of different blocs expressed their disgust over the pressure exercised [by Cheney] to speed up passage of stalled laws. Mahmoud Othman, the Kurdish leader said that kind of pressure only adds to the difficulty of passage, rather than facilitating it".

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Iraq on the Damascus-summit agenda

There was a surprising announcement of a "reconciliation conference" to take place in Baghdad tomorrow (Tuesday March 18), but taking various reports together it seems clear this won't break any new ground. On the other hand, there will likely be Iraq-political discussions at the Damascus Arab summit the end of this month, maybe even an "Arab initiative for Iraq".

The government newspaper AlSabah leads this morning (Monday March 17) with this: Prime Minister Maliki, when he attends the Beirut summit of Arab heads of state the end of this month, is going to deliver a message as follows: "Iraq has succeeded in defeating terror, and now we are expecting strong support from the Arab capitals." And he will invite Arab heads of state to come visit Baghdad to see for themselves the relative improvement in security that has been achieved. Maliki is also expected to make proposal(s) for Arab-state investment in Iraq, in addition to urging them to open embassies in Baghdad, and so on.

Only after headlining Maliki's plans for the Damascus summit, does the AlSabah journalist get around to noting that preparations have been completed for the holding of the "second national reconciliation conference for political entities" in Baghdad on Tuesday. (The first was held in Dec 06: See the section "National Reconciliation" in my 06 year-end summary).

AlHayat offers more detail respecting the Tuesday get-together, the main point being that political-party attendance won't be much different from what it was last December: Supreme Council and the Kurdish parties will be enthusiastic participants, but a spokesman for the secular Iraqi List said political conditions aren't right for this, and his group won't be attending. In a similar vein Adnan Dulaimi, head of the main Sunni bloc in parliament said this won't be much different from similar earlier conferences, which were all superficial. Still, he said, his group will present a paper calling for speedy implementation of the amnesty law, action on constitutional amendments, and other issues. There wasn't any comment from the Dawa or Sadrist parties.

AlHayat, in its concluding remarks on this, reviews the fact that there has been a whole series of secret meetings, at the Black Sea in Jordan, two in Beirut, one each in Rome and Morocco, including Baath people and people connected with the armed resistance groups, all of them focused on three issues: (1) expanding the political process; (2) presence of foreign military forces in Iraq; and (3) certain amendments to the constitution. The journalist says these were all thought of as preparatory for an "expanded conference to be held in Baghdad".

So based on AlSabah and Al-Hayat, it is a little unclear where the boundary is between Maliki's PR operations (the Tuesday meeting will be on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the toppling of Saddam) and the actual serious talks, if there are any.

Azzaman provides some enlightenment. It quotes an Arab League official, Ahmed bin Hilla, deputy general secretary, and the person assigned to work on the Iraq issue, who says the discussion process is in fact ongoing--for instance he has recently been talking to Harith Al-Dhari and also with ex-Baath military officers in Amman--and there is no particular timetable. The Arab League official said he will be holding discussions with other expatriates in Damascus and in Sanaa. This is all in preparation for an eventual hoped-for conference that would hopefully bring everyone together--those involved in the GreenZone already, and those outside--and the journalist helpfully explains: The Tuesday meeting is not that hoped-for conference (although Hilla said the Arab League is grateful for an invitation to it and will be happy to attend).

Hilla said he will, however, be reporting to his boss before the Damascus summit, and "the General Secretary will be presenting a report to the Damascus summit, ahead of the formulation of an Arab initiative for Iraq, to be announced by the Arab heads of state at Damascus the end of this month". He doesn't say anything about directions an "Arab initiative for Iraq" might take.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Red Crescent warns of US teaming up with Peshmerga in the coming Mosul campaign

Azzaman said in its Thursday-Friday March 13-14 edition:
The Iraqi Red Crescent organization warned of a possible large-scale emigration (or exodus) of people from Ninawa and its main city Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq (population 8.3 million), once the security operations start, that have been planned for several weeks now by combined forces. The Disaster Management Division of the organization said in a statement that was obtained yesterday by Azzaman it thinks it very likely that this would cause a large exodus of families from those districts that see armed confrontations aimed at clearing the city of armed people.

Residents [the journalist continues, as if by way of explanation] blame the government which permitted Peshmerga militias to be active in regional matters, and they are trying to have this policy changed.

And the Red Crescent statement referred to the tension the city has been under since the Zanjili explosions that destroyed a hundred houses and wounded several hundred people.
The rest of the Azzaman piece outlines previous Red Crescent estimates of total numbers of Iraqi displaced persons, and talks about recent attacks on policemen and so on, and doesn't say anything more about the feared new Mosul evacuation. I was going to write something about it, but not only was there no elaboration in the Azzaman story, there also wasn't a corrresponding statement on the Red Crescent website, in Arabic or in English either.

Then on Saturday, Azzaman posted something included in its English-language stories, that provided a fuller explanation. It went like this:

By Salem Areef

Azzaman, March 15, 2008

The Iraqi Red Crescent Society is warning of a massive exodus if U.S. and Iraqi troops go ahead with plans to attack Mosul, the country’s second largest city with nearly 3.8 million people.

The northern city which is the capital of the Province of Nineveh has turned into a major stronghold for forces resisting U.S. occupation and elements of the al-Qadeda organization.

Tensions are high and violence has gripped the city in the past few months with at least one hundred houses destroyed and hundreds of people killed or injured.

Certain quarters are so violent that neither U.S. troops nor Iraqi forces are capable of entering.

But the society said it feared a joint attack in which units of Kurdish militias are to take part will lead to one of the largest waves of internally displace people the country has seen since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Hard pressed ethnic and religious minorities in the city have been leaving either to the Kurdish north or neighboring Syria.

Mosul is a predominantly Sunni Arab city and residents are apparently unhappy with the role U.S. occupation troops have given to Kurdish militia fighters.

The Arabs see Kurdish involvement in areas which have traditionally not been part of Iraqi Kurdistan with suspicious eyes.

Kurdish militias are now present in most villages and towns which are administratively part of Mosul as the center of Nineveh Province.

Some of these areas hold huge oil reserves like Ain Zala.

There are already about three million Iraqi refugees in neighboring states and more than two million others are displaced as a result of ongoing U.S. military operations and sectarian strife.

This provides a better explanation what the fear is: US forces have granted a security role in the area to Peshmerga militias. The population, majority Arab, is not only unhappy with that, but there is also the fear that once the promised security operations start, Peshmerga will be involved alongside the US forces, and this will add further to the risk of mass exodus of Arab families.

(Oddly enough, there is still no corresponding statement on the Red Crescent site. Rather, what they have done is simply to link to the Azzaman English-language, from the English side of their site, with no mention of it on their Arabic-language side).

(Please recall that the December 24 Memorandum of Understanding between Tareq al-Hashemi's Islamic Party of Iraq and the two main Kurdish parties was rumored to include an addendum (never published) that in effect purported to grant the Kurdish parties and by implication the Peshmerga, some kind of jurisdiction over parts of Mosul and/or the wider Ninawa governate. This was discussed in my Dec 28 post called Sunni groups smell a sellout by Hashemi in the North.)

I mention these issues now, so that if and when this further refugee crisis comes to be, as a result of US forces teaming up with Peshmerga in an Arab area, no one will be able to say, as has been so often said in the past: "The US authorities knew nothing about it; it was nothing more than another blunder". Maybe that's why they put this in English.

Friday, March 14, 2008

When narratives collide

Condi Rice made remarks at a Congressional hearing to the effect the Bush administration is interested in reconstruction and nation-building, and lest you dismiss this as mere words, take a look at the multi-national force website and you will see a headline and a photo of soldiers and local people planning the development of agri-business in Karbala. The visual clue is the long conference-table, which conveys that they really do mean "business". The two sides, American and Iraqi, are clearly working together in a peaceful and constructive way.

Another proof of the economic-development renaissance is in the NYT vignette earlier this week about a conference in Basra on port-development. Unfortunately there was no actual photo, but there was very powerful iconography nonetheless. The journalist was able to tour part of the port, where he saw piles of shipping-containers, but he learned they are all empty and the reason is that the union controlling the port makes its people work too slowly. Also, he tells us, there is a "general air of seediness" to the port. The union is "thought to be controlled by the Fadhila Party", to which the Basra governor belongs, if you catch his drift. He is reporting on a "conference" on port-development, that included, in addition to the NYT reporter and a US embassy official showing him around, Iraqi officials from the GreenZone, "businessmen" (none named), and a representative of the Japanese government, which has supposedly "promised" (in that completely unconditional way for which the Japanese are famous) a large sum of money to port-rehabilitation.

It is Development Economics 101 in pictures. International flow of funds, friendly discussions around the long conference-tale, versus reactionary labor-immobility, symbolized by the seedy appearance of the port. How to go at this?

Actually, the decision was taken to go at this from the military angle, with an allocation of an additional 3000 troops under the command of the GreenZone, supported by foreign troops. They would not actually attack the port, but would "provide security", for the development project. Interestingly, what the NYT reporter forgot to mention, was the fact that the British defence minister Dez Brown happened to be in Basra at the time, "inspecting his troops" as the Arab reporters put it, and he also gave a speech at this "conference", thus "showing the flag", you might say [see, for instance the report in AlQabas for Wedesday March 13, here]. The issue for him is that his government has promised a drawdown of over 1000 troops (out of 4500 troops soldiers currently hanging out in the area) in the very near future. This coincided with the "surprise" visit of Fallon to Baghdad, where his issue with Petraeus has been the speed and seriousness of the US troop-drawdown.

So it looks a little as if we have a clash of narratives, with the fledgling "nation-building" story competing with another story: "deteriorating security" and questioning of troop-drawdowns.

But at the same time, how very wrong it would be to think that any of this has to do with opposition to the American occupation. On the contrary. The problem in Basra is the same as the problem all over the world: Entrenched union leadership. In Kut, where "unknown armed groups" have been fighting local security forces (and there too there was a report recently about the need for reinforcements from Baghdad), AlHayat reports today that Sadrists hit a US base near Kut yesterday with eleven Katyusha rockets (according to an Iraqi police source)*, to which the American forces responded with mortar fire. This is not because anyone opposes the continuing American occupation. It was probably a case of mistaken identity.

The exact spin on what is happening in Kut seems to be still in a state of flux, but judging from the guidance provided by Juan and others, it seems pretty certain that the theme here is going to be insubordination and the breakdown of Sadrist discipline: Again, nothing to do, really, with the occupation. Recalcitrant unions. Insubordination. You can find these problems anywhere in the world.

One thing is certain. The additional troops from the GreenZone will be met in Basra with sweets and rose-petals. That's because, according to the NYT, they are going to be led by General Mohan Fahad al-Fraji, a very popular figure locally. For instance, IRIN News reported earlier this week:
Frustrated by the security situation, thousands of Basra residents took to the streets on 8 March, demanding the resignation of provincial police and army chiefs for not improving security.

Their banners read: "We ask the government to chase down and punish those who committed assassinations in Basra," and "No, no to Jalil and Mohan," referring to police chief Maj-Gen Abdul-Jalil Khalaf and army commander Lt-Gen Mohan al-Fireji.

Obviously a case of a few bad apples. You will find that anywhere.

This is according to Al-Hayat, which says, as part of its description of Sadrist activities in Kut, "An Iraqi police source who didn't want to be identified said eleven Katusha rockets landed on an American base near Kut Wednesday evening, and he added that two siblings were killed and four other people were wounded when the American soldiers responded to the rocket attacks with mortar fire." Interestingly, Voices of Iraq later reported, citing another anonymous source, that it was eleven rockets in Kut that caused civilian casualties, without saying where the rockets came from or mentioning any American action at all in that connection. And Juan says the attack on the American base was mortar fire (and not Katyusha rockets at all). But if there seemed to be any doubt about the firing of Katyusha rockets at American bases, a report later in the day (Friday March 14) by VOI was pretty unambiguous. It said five Katyusha rockets landed on a US base in Dora district, southern Baghdad. The reporter added: "No information could be reached on possible casualties, due to the security siege imposed by the Americans around their bases."