Friday, February 27, 2009

Post-election sectarian logic causing fear of renewed violence

Zaid Al-Zubaidi writes in AlAkhbar about anxiety on the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities over the security implications of the latest political development: namely Maliki's apparent move to ally with the Sadr trend in substitution for his prior alliance with the Supreme Council. Many have concluded that this means the return on the Mahdi Army, and already the result in some Sunni areas (writes Zubaidi) appears to be that non-takfiiri resistance groups have made alliances with AlQaeda affiliates to join ranks against the threat of sectarian attacks.
The mere possibility of a return at the present time of the officially frozen Mahdi Army, means the return of the specter of AlQaeda, because Sunni Arab areas feel the need for protection against the resurgent danger. And that has in fact led, in the face of the return to the streets of the men in black (death squads) and the opening of their operations in the heart of Baghdad, the night before last, with an attack on the "Ahlan wa Sahlan" hall, the kidnapping of a number of people there, and transporting them to an unknown location--in government vehicles.
Al-Zubaidi reviews the arguments about responsibility, and recent announcements by the Interior Ministry about rogue police units (including recent arrests in connection with sectarian killings in 2006), but he adds:
Those announcements [about arrests of small groups of rogue officers] have practically no meaning at all compared with the announcement by the Interior Ministry a few days ago [Monday Feb 16] about the firing of 62,000 of its employees for connections with corruption, abuse of power, and associations with militias. That kind of a number illustrates the extent of the government's involvement in all of the violent sectarian operations in [Iraq] during the time of the occupation.
For Al-Zubaidi, the basic point is about how the sectarian system works once it is set up and running. He writes:
Observers think that Maliki, who won the elections on the basis of renouncing sectarianism and the militias, has gotten in the habit of [merely] alternating his alliances with sects that have militia organizations, because he was originally allied with the Sadr trend, then he attacked them in cooperation with the Supreme Council, and now he is back in cooperation with the Sadr trend againsts that same Supreme Council.

For this reason, it is hard to be skeptical of the truth of information circulating on the streets, particularly in "Sunni districts", concerning agreements made with AlQaeda by a number of non-takfiiri resistance groups and by leaders of Awakening Councils, based on the need to join forces against a returning Mahdi Army. Agreements the gist of which is to permit members of AlQaeda to operate in their respective areas and not to report them or fight with them, in exchange for their not targeting local forces or the members of the Awakenings, and [in exchange for AQ agreeing] not to undertake operations against the Shia outside the framework of the militias, and to avoid friction with the foreign forces in the cities.

A Plan for Arab Iraq?

Abdul Amir Al-Rikabi, an ex-pat Iraqi who has belonged to the anti-occupation Iraqi National Alliance aka Iraqi Patriotic Alliance, writes in AlQuds alArabi: The eagerness on the part of the Saudi authorities to convene a mini-summit in Riyadh probably has a lot to do with Iraq, and particularly with the changes in prospects resulting from the recent local elections, and the proposed US troop-withdrawals. He says the prospects now include the possibility of "going beyond, and in fact ending, the American occupation project and in particular the forms of sectarianism and muhasasa, and artificial federal units." And he says added urgency appears to have come as a result of the recent steps by Maliki to encourage re-integration of former-regime officers. He writes
There are indications of the possibility of another motive for the Saudi urgency: It is well-known that the Maliki government is currently exerting special efforts aimed at the return of officers residing outside of Iraq, and regularizing their status, and has formed for this purpose working groups, holding meetings in Syria, Yemen and other countries attended by a lot of officers, and has allocated a lot of money for it, and there are indications that the efforts along these lines are serious. And there is no ruling out other political developments that could strengthen this trend.
Al-Ribaki says this is a concern to the authorities in Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf states. He puts it this way:
Saudi Arabia and some of the states of the Gulf have been trying for some time now, to crystalize a project they describe as aimed at filling the gap and preempting any [undesirable] developments as a result of the expected American withdrawal, and they have been relying in their planning, essentially on groups of officers residing outside the country, and in particular on those of high rank.

According to information leaked from some of the preparatory meetings, the proposed plan would begin with the announcement by a group of these officers of some kind of a government in exile, beginning with the proposal of an "Arab Iraqi" who would be tantamount to a candidate for President of the Republic.

It is said that European countries have been informed of this direction, and they have not opposed it. And it is assumed that the Americans were informed first, after an explanation of the motives, including the fact that the American withdrawal would lead essentially to complete Iranian control of Mesopotamia, with all that that implies by way of expansion of Iranian influence throughout the Arab world and the Middle East...And in such a case, European leaders will not hesitate to accept a scenario that makes them complete partners with America in the Middle East, as they already are in Afghanistan....
Al-Rikabi goes on to speculate that the more serious objections to this plan will likely come from countries of the region, like Syria, more than from the West.

He warns against converting this into naive dreams of marching into Ramadi or Falluja or Mosul. Rather what is involved is a long-term plan to allow and foster the recovery of Arab Iraq, and he emphasizes the importance of ideas about Iraqi culture and history as the real backbone of any such scheme. He reminds readers what happened to the Americans who expected to be greeted with rose-petals. This is a lesson that applies to everyone, he says, who presumes to intervene in Iraqi affairs under whatever pretext.

The essay is titled: "A project for Arab Iraq after the occupation ?"

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


There are a couple of odd coincidences in the recent report about Carole O'Leary's meeting with former-regime officers in Amman. The first is the invitation said to have been offered to the ex-officers to "offer their views and proposals for restoration of security and stability in Iraq", with the promise that these ideas would be reported to the Obama administration. The coincidence is that it isn't the first time that Americans are reported to have offered to serve as conduits between people outside the Iraqi political process and--not the Maliki administration, but--Washington.

Back in December, it was reported that two delegations representing the recently-elected Obama met with a variety of Iraqis, including academics and military people, and suggested to them that they should start thinking about alternatives to the current Iraqi political setup. The Obama representatives criticized the sectarian underpinning of the current political system based on religious and ethnic muhasasa. And they stressed Obama's good faith: he had been against the war, he has promised troop-withdrawal, and he will keep that promise.
And based upon that, these Obama representatives said, the incoming Obama administration] wants persons who have not been involved in the political process, and who have also not been involved in the resistance, or in political organizations or blocs--to present new political proposals that will serve Iraqis and will not cause damage to the Obama administration or cause it embarrassment in front of the American people or world public opinion. And the delegates stressed during talks with people who met with them, that Obama's advisers and assistants understand that the current political process in Iraq since April 2003 is completely mistaken and cannot be repaired or patched up, and they are convinced that the ideal solution would be to end it completely, but they are concerned about the effects of a coup against it, and they are wondering what would be the best alternative if it were to be ended.
Their interlocutors were asked to mull this over, for a while, because in the meantime, in the early months of the Obama administration, it will likely be preoccupied with the economic crisis, and hence likely to focus on Iraq only later in the year. This is the gist of report by Haroun Mohammed in AlQuds alArabi on Dec 28, citing the reports of various of his friends and acquaintances who were at these meetings. (See also his report on a previous set of meetings along the same lines, in the same paper on November 6, in which the Obama emissaries offered particular criticism of the incompetence of the existing Iraqi armed forces).

So that is the first coincidence: The former officers O'Leary is reported to have met with are a sub-set of the group of interlocutors Haroun Mohammed talks about (persons not in the political process and also not in the resistance), but surely one of the most potent of those groups, and the one most likely to strike fear into the hearts of the Maliki administration and its supporters. But the message in essence is the same: Tell Washington--not Baghdad--what you think should be done to establish stability.

The second coincidence has to do with O'Leary herself. Although her bio stresses human-rights activism, she is also a strong supporter of the Biden Plan (as "correctly understood") with respect to the eventual structure of Iraq. You can see this most clearly in the text of her April 2008 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at the invitation of its chairman Senator Biden, where she criticizes the "media and the pundits" (ouch!)who she says have distorted the Biden plan, in order to make it appear that it would inevitably be tantamount to partition. In her "core stipulations" at the start of her presentation, she includes the assumption that by the year 2012, there will be at least one other multi-province federal region, besides Iraqi Kurdistan. She puts it like this:
Under the Amended Federal Regions Law, at least one new federal region will have been created in Iraq, bringing the total number of regional governments to at least two (the Kurdistan Regional Government, plus a "Kufa" Regional Government that combines Najaf, Karbala and Qadisiyya, with Babil and Wassit soon to hold referendums on whether to join the new region.
We have drifted off into the twilight zone here, and she doesn't seem to have explained how this hypothetical Kufa Region is supposed to have come into being in the first place. What she does say is this:
We are not yet at the point where we can talk about an Arab vision of federalism for Iraq. Rather, an education campaign is needed to debunk the idea that "federalism for Iraq" is a conspiracy by the US aimed at dividing Iraq and stealing its oil.
So there you have the second coincidence: The civil-rights activist, who canvasses the policy views of former-regime officers, is also a militant supporter of the Biden plan for more multi-province federal regions.

Of course, to get to an "Arab vision of federalism for Iraq, there will have to be "an education campaign."

I don't know if this is the same thing Biden himself was getting at when he told the American-owned Radio Sawa last month, remarks summarized by an Iraqi writer like this:
Without preamble the American government's radio station AlSawa reported this: "American vice president Joe Biden said America plans a much more aggressive program vis-a-vis the Iraqi government to push it to political reconciliation", and referring in the same report to strong criticism by Biden of the Iraqi leaders because they "have not yet solved their political differences". And he added: "We are convinced that we [Washington] must have a much greater involvement in Iraqi affairs, not only in the commitment to reduce the size of our forces in an organized way, but also in showing much more aggressiveness in pressing the Iraqi leadership to resolve their political issue, which could lead to lack of stability in Iraq following the withdrawal of the American forces."
The establishment of conduits between Washington and "those outside the political process" and particularly the senior former-regime officers, with the coup/no-coup overtones, certainly answers to Biden's idea of Washington's "much greater involvement in Iraqi affairs". That could account for one of the above-mentioned coincidences. But with respect to O'Leary's "education campaign" respecting an "Arab vision of federalism for Iraq" I think we have to admit we are still, shall we say, uneducated.

(I feel duty-bound to note in passing that in the 1960s the American University had direct experience acting as a front for the CIA and the Pentagon. Or so the Wikipedia tells us:
In the early 1960s, the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency operated a think tank under the guise of Operation Camelot at American University. The government abandoned the think tank after the operation came to public attention.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Some say the American/Iraqi secret-informant network is to be disbanded (UPDATED)

Qatari paper AlArab quotes sources who say the Maliki administration is preparing to disband the network of secret informants that was set up by the Americans right after the invasion, and that has been responsible for the assassination and unjust imprisonment of thousands of Iraqis, based on material and sectarian motives of the informants, described as the dregs of society. But at least one Iraqi politician wonders whether management of these people has in fact been turned over to the Iraqi government, or whether it is still run by the Americans. (See the italicized section below)

The main named source for the assurances about imminent disbanding of this network is Baha Al-Safara, an adviser to the Iraqi human rights committee (I think this refers to the Parliamentary committee on human rights*), but the journalist also says "a number of parliamentarians have told AlArab that they have received assurances from Prime Minister Al-Maliki that he will put an end to that controversial organization".

The journalist notes that a spokesman for the Baghdad law-enforcement program said last week that dozens of false informants had been referred to the courts for trial, "where there was sufficient evidence that their information was not true, that it had deceived the security agencies and resulted in the infringement of the rights of citizens," adding that "the law requires that these informants be referred to the courts."

The article by journalist Othman Al-Mukhtar concludes like this:
A large number of Iraqis and those involved in civil rights in Iraq and politicians have welcomed this recent turn of the government toward ending this phenomenon [of secret informers] and a member of the Iraqi communist party, Ali Al-Aali (?) told AlArab that it is incumbent on Iraq to get rid of the filth of the occupation, including the hated system of secret informants. And he wondered whether the occupation had turned over this dirty band to the government, after having recruited them and trained them to serve its interests, and whether the government now pays them the wages that were set for them by the occupation, or whether it is the United States that continues to pay them even now. (My italics)

In past years, the Iraqi resistance and the AlQaeda organization announced the killing of a number of people they described as scouts for the occupation and condemned them as apostates from Islam on the basis of documents showing their cooperation with the American army.

It is estimated that the number of secret informants ranges from 100 to 300 in each city, depending on the nature of the city and the extent of relations with the American army and the Iraqi government. They have been supplied with modern communications equipment and vehicles to facilitate communications with them. It is expected that the coming weeks will be decisive for them, with many supporting the Maliki government to ending its dealings with them and an accounting of the abuses, according to Iraqi parliamentary sources who emphasized to AlArab that they had assurances from Prime Minister Al-Maliki that he would put an end to thise controversial setup.


* I am behind the times. Actually, this probably refers to the newly-created Iraq Human Rights Commission. By sheer coincincidence, the creation of this commission has been fostered by the same Carole A. O'Leary as mentioned in the prior post, in her capacity as project director for the American University Global Peace Center's Iraq Human Rights Commission Project. (See the link in the update to the prior post). It is, as they say, a small world, so readers will not be surprised to know who funded that:
Professor Carole A. O’Leary leads the team of AU human rights experts working with Iraqi stakeholders to establish an independent Iraqi Human Rights Commission, under a grant from the US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Washington said canvassing senior Saddam-era oficers (UPDATED)

Saudi newspaper AlWatan said on Friday that an American "legal delegation" met recently in Amman with Saddam-era army officers currently residing in Jordan, Syria and the Emirates, following the announcement by the Iraqi government of the opening of offices in a number of countries to facilitate the return of former-army personnel to Iraq and service and/or retirement.

So the question is: If there is this initiative by the Iraqi government, then why are these officers meeting, not with the Iraqi authorities, but with an American delegation?

The AlWatan account offers a couple of hints. First it says:
The sources said the American delegation which is nearing the end of its meetings that began ten days ago, is going to prepare a report to present to the American administration that will include the names of Iraqi officers of high rank, and their views and suggestions in the matter of restoring security and stability to Iraq.
And secondly, there is a remark that seems to explain the above phrase "of high rank". The journalist writes:
The sources explained that the Iraqi government's limitation of officers it will restore to service to [officers] of the rank of muqaddam [lieutenant colonel?] and lower is something that is going to impede the project of national reconciliation, because that means those [that had] rank of higher than muqaddam will be prevented from entering Iraq.
There is what you could call a shady character to this story, which could reflect either the story-telling, or it could reflect the nature of what is actually going on. For instance, the American delegation is described as a "company of the civic organization 'Together'", and it is said to be headed by a "professor Carla OLeary of the Washington University of political science". *

But if the gist of the story has any merit, then I would say it probably supports the boogieman theory, namely that the Obama administration is making friends with what still-excluded Baathists it can--and that more or less openly, given that the "sources" here have gone to the trouble of pointing out to the reporter that Washington is asking these senior Baathist officers for their views on how to stabilize Iraq--in order to have them ready--either in reality or in the imagination--in the event it needs to threaten Maliki with a coup for any reason.

(h/t LB of RoadstoIraq for spotting this article)


* UPDATE: The person in question--a reader points out--appears to be Carole A. O'Leary, of the American University's Centre for Global Peace, where she is Project Director involved in a number of Iraq-related projects, including the Iraq Human Rights Commission Project. More information here. (Among other things, she acted as an adviser to the commission drafting the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, on topics including federalism). None of the information on the AU-CGP site appears to dovetail with the idea of meeting senior Saddam-era army officers, gathering their views on Iraqi security, and reporting the results to Washington.

Exhibit B

Manan Ahmed, a historian and blogger who understands among other things Urdu and something of the history of the Swat valley and that part of the world, has a post about the difference between recent events there as reflected in English-only, and the considerably different picture you get via the writing of an Urdu-speaking and -writing journalist who lives there.

Here is the link to his post on the group-blog he participates in; and here is the link to his own blog.

His first point is that reporting in the NYT and elsewhere seems to be leading in a dangerous direction, and (my words) part of what feeds that is ignorance of the locale, ignorance of the language, ignorance of the history and culture, ignorance of everything an intelligent person would want to know about.

Manan Ahmed also has a gift for a more nuanced use of the English language than I do, so all I can do is recommend reading that post carefully, and particularly his translation in full of an open letter written by a journalist for the local Urdu-language paper to Fazlullah, head of the local Taliban. It is number #6 in his post, don't miss it.

Without going over all of the points Manan Ahmed makes, because you can read them for yourself, I would like for my purposes to stress one point that probably he thought too obvious to mention: It is not only the English of the NYT and NPR that gives you a one-sided picture of events. Even if you read the English of Pakistani writers in the big cities (for instance the amusing piece that he quotes from Dawn), and then the Urdu of a person born and bred in the region in question, you will see switching from US English to Pakistani English doesn't really take you to the heart of the matter at all. Someone has to do the hard work of actual interpretation.

Hopefully he can be persuaded to continue along these lines. And that this will start to serve as an example to others.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Exhibit A

Further to the idea raised in the prior post about bringing together texts that try and melt the language barrier using the force of the original as the blowtorch, here is an example from reader Parvati who posted her English rendition of a report by Beijing-based reporter Federico Rampini in La Reppublica, quoting senior Chinese financial officials giving their point of view on the problematic relationship with America. My point is highlighting it here is that obviously these people are talking to Rampini in their own language, and bluntly, and since both Rampini and Parvati know what they are doing, the original thinking by the Chinese officials comes across in a very direct way. Here are the last four paragraphs of the article (I italicized the climactic piece):
The palpable tension on the upper floors of China's leadership structure is proportionate to the wealth that Beijing has entrusted to its great overseas debtor. Fang Shangpu, the head of China's foreign exchange bureau, makes this very clear: "America must protect the interests of foreign investors. Its currency is China's number one foreign investment". With 2,000 billion dollars in official foreign currency reserves, Beijing's central bank is the richest on the planet. But that war-chest is subject to de facto sterilization. Its destination is obligatory: US Treasury Bonds, yet again, as always. In 2008 China bought a further 700 billion of them. Every US treasuries auction would fail if the Chinese central bankers did not turn up to play the role of kind-hearted creditor. And this situation continues despite the exchange-rate losses they have already suffered : since China's renminbi abandoned its fixed parity to the dollar (in July 2005) it has risen by 21%, thereby decreasing the value of China's dollar investments to an equal extent.

Meanwhile, the social costs of the US locomotive's crash are extremely severe. In the third quarter of 2008, as a result of the fall in exports, China's growth rate was brutally halved: 6.8% in GDP growth as compared to 13% in 2007. Following the mass layoffs in the textile, toys and electronics industries, the unemployed workers forced back into the rural economy now officially number around 27 million. Over a million and a half young college graduates too are unemployed: an even more politically explosive army of discontents. Now that Beijing needs to mobilize all available resource to relaunch its domestic growth, it is frustrating to remember those 2,000 billion dollars "frozen" to finance America.

The straw that has broken the camel's back is the revival of protectionism in Washington. First Treasury secretary Tim Geithner accused Beijing of "manipulating" its currency. Then came the Buy American clause in the 787 billion dollar public expenditure package launched by Congress, with Chinese steel as its number-one target. Xi Jinping, China's vice president and designated heir to the supreme leadership position, is furious. He too briefly abandons the language of diplomacy: "Even in this crisis", says Xi, "certain westerners seem to have nothing better to do than pick on us. I would like to remind them of some of our merits. Firstly, China does not export revolutions or hostile ideologies. Secondly, we do not export poverty or hunger. Thirdly, we do not export armed conflicts".

The seething resentment in these words does not yet mark the end of Chimerica. With Mrs Clinton the regime's leaders will rehearse the continuation of a constructive dialogue, convinced as they are that aggravating the global recession would benefit no-one. But in the light of mainstreet America's increasing hostility towards them, the leadership of the People's Republic is studying a "Plan B". Its most audacious moves include using the country's massive currency reserves for new purposes: to finance buy-ups of deposits of raw materials in other countries, ranging from Australia to Africa to Latin America. A reconversion that would have heavy consequences: a blow to the stability of the dollar, a worrying shortfall in treasury funding for Washington. However, the decision to step over this fatal threshhold has not yet been reached: "We hate you but we can't do without you" is still the key sentiment in the present phase. But even Confucian patience has its limits.
These comments of Xi Jinping and others are the kind of thing you won't see in the Washington Post.

What I would like to see is a site that would focus on this idea of vivid rendition of points of view and moods that you won't otherwise see--whether because the original language is obscure (for instance, anything in Pashto giving the locals' views on things), or because it is politically unpalatable (a lot of interesting stuff by the Iraqi armed resistance in recent years that I struggled with didn't get linked anywhere that is widely-read); or for other reasons (current-affairs stuff in Hebrew for instance). Or as you will see if you compare with above Rampini piece with a typical WaPo piece on the same general topic, just because.

This might turn out to be simple or complicated, but for starters I just want to try and get across what the basic idea is. (For instance, although many times the topic will have to do with geopolitical ideas and so on, the idea wouldn't be to put together a theory of any kind, but merely to offer snapshots of others' views, and in so doing to raise up a little bit the reputation of liberal and language-based culture as something more than just a branch of national-security studies...)

Parvati suggests linking to material that may already be posted on blogs of people with expertise in those languages. So if I'm not posting here for a while, it's because I'm busy looking...

A proposal

I was going to recommend the Google translator for people wanting at least some kind of a leg-up for Hebrew-language media, but when I tried it out on the lead story in Maariv this morning, I got a text that concluded this way:
Cshnhno victory occurred in the disputes Ohtahdno. Ntahd Next Onslb us Onbtih the future of country our children.
And a little earlier there was a reference re the Netanyahu talks to "rectangular striped bass."

Google translator fans will perhaps remember the early days with Arabic when the top American officials were referred to as Colin Urine (Baul, urine); Cheyne-cock (diik, a rooster); and General I-decorate (Zinni, from zayn, to decorate). That was both entertaining and encouraging. But this "onslb us onbtih" business I do not find useful at all. And I wonder how much Hebrew you'd need to learn to figure out the rectangular striped bass reference. I cannot recommend it.


I have a serious suggestion for people who recognize the importance of making some attempt to understand material in the actual languages of the people. (Particular if your government is going to be making war on them, and you are facing a propaganda and "public-diplomacy" blitz in your own language, but not only in those cases, obviously).

What I suggest is a co-op blog with postings by people able to read one of various languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi, Pashto (40 million Pashto speakers in the current US war-zone). The posts would be short, with extracts from local texts and limited commentary (both re language-points where necessary, and content). Contributors could help one another with tough points in any of the languages (or with English). Emphasis would of course be on points of view that don't make it into the standard English-language discourse.

Something tells me I am not the person to organize something like that, but I think the need for it is pretty obvious, and I would be willing to do my part. The whole thing including frequency of posting, would be voluntary.

What do people think?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Post-election sectarianism: No exit?

Fadhil Al-Rubaie, continuing a series of articles in the Qatari paper AlArab on the new Iraqi sectarianism, takes up the role of the recent local elections, and the likely method for alliance-forming. He says political alliances are normally based either on commonly-held principles, or common long-term objectives, or else common short-term objectives (and as an example of the latter he mentions the Mao/Chiang alliance to drive out the Japanese in the 1930s). But he says in the new Iraq there has been developed a different political culture entirely. He says:
In the new Iraq, whose shape is being formed with the results of the local elections, starting now, political alliances are not based on that type of solving of issues taking into account programs, principles and objectives. Rather, [they are based on] the degree and the nature and the intensity of enmity [or differences] between the parties, and the capacity and the possibility of adjusting them in the interests of a "political allocation" [his quotation marks]. Consequently, questions like "imperialism" and "the American attack on Iraq", for example, have become issues without meaning in the political culture, and they are as far removed as possible from the discussion. And there is a different and completely opposite basis on which all issues of cooperation and rapprochement, among them for instance the definition of a fair allocation to each of the "factions".

To put it another way, the power of the new political map has consecrated itself as a power speaking in the name of "factions" and not in the name of political programs; and in the name of the advantage and the benefit of persons and of parties, and not in the name of the common good. And for this reason alliances are going to be much more the object of attention, than the actual election results, which as we are seeing today, don't touch in any way on the spirit or essence of highly-disputed federalism project.
I think the seat-allocation results as reported by Reidar Visser today, with his comments on possible alliance-formation, could profitably be read in the light of what Al-Rubaie is getting at. The point being that Maliki has the opposite alternatives of allying either with the Supreme Council, or with the July 22 group (or what is left of it). Visser writes:
The new councils will meet within 15 days to elect their new officials, and new coalitions will have to be formed in this period. Precisely because of the relatively homogenous political map now after the seat allocation, the ongoing negotiations among party elites in Baghdad could have enormous significance. By way of example, a deal between Maliki and the Sadrists would give the Daawa coalition control of Maysan, Dhi Qar, Wasit and Baghdad. (In theory, Maliki could achieve the same, plus Qadisiyya and Najaf by turning to Hakim and ISCI, but would then have to reverse several months of intense disagreement.) Adding Ibrahim al-Jaafari to his coalition alongside the Sadrists would give Maliki control of Qadisiyya and Najaf as well. This leaves a group of highly fragmented Middle Euphrates governorates where ISCI was once strong: Babel and Muthanna, plus the interesting case of Karbala, where the two “local phenomena”, Yusuf al-Habubi and the Hope of Mesopotamia list, seem to be looking to Daawa and ISCI respectively as potential coalition partners. But whereas the Hope of Mesopotamia list is a significant bloc with 9 seats, Habubi has only one seat and Maliki would need the Sadrists in addition to gain a majority here.
In other words, as a result of one and the same election, Maliki now has the alternative of either (1) reconstituting his alliance with the Supreme Council; or (2) pressing on with the "July 22" alliance with the Sadr trend and others. Visser wonders:
One of the biggest questions now is whether there will be moves towards ideological or opportunistic alliances. Maliki has a golden opportunity to realign himself with opposition parties that share much of his ideology when it comes to centralism and state structure, such as the Sadrists, Fadila and Wifaq and other secularists. But there are also other tendencies at work. Recently, the secular Iyad Allawi has apparently been in dialogue with ISCI, and the heavily-decimated Fadila party has hinted at the possible reconstitution of the (Shiite-led) United Iraqi Alliance. These are both examples of moves that would negate the declared aim of these parties to move away from a political system of ethno-sectarian quota-sharing (is Allawi hoping for a quota for “secularists”?!) and would reverse the positive trends towards greater emphasis on issues and ideology in the latest local elections.
So you can look at this from the standpoint of a "relatively homogenous political map" versus "declared aims ... to move away from quota-sharing". Or you can look at it as Al-Rubaie does: In the new (occupied) Iraq, political problems are solved by slicing the pie--it is the new political culture. And as for those with "declared aims" contrary to that principle, they too are part of the system (something Visser seems to possibly intimate himself when he asks "is Allawi hoping for a quota for 'secularists'?!')

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The rope of silk

Awni Qalamji (for other writings of his summarized here, try the search box on the upper left) offers a glimpse of the kind of debates that Obama-optimism caused among resistance factions in Iraq, and his conclusion is that many were completely taken in by the wave of optimism, misreading both Obama's intentions and their own capabilities, and hurting the reputation of the resistance among ordinary Iraqis, who remember well the earlier and more principled statements by the factions about no negotiations without commitment to complete and unconditional withdrawal.

He starts from the idea that Maliki's conversion from a sectarian boss to a national leader, from federalism to centralism and the "anti-sectarianism" that was central to his election campaign--all of this was in response to Obama's policy of promoting a strong central government under American guidance, and the abandonment of any specific "Biden-plan" separation schemes. Elements of this included the idea of re-integration of former regime officers into the armed forces, and so on. He writes:
In this context [the Obama plans for an American-guided centralized state] Maliki was transformed by the power of the occupation from a sectarian to a secular leader, and from a supporter of partition to an advocate for the unity of Iraq...and he is now a preacher for national reconciliation and including those who rejected the government of the occupation and inviting them to participate in the political process.
This is as much an illusion as is the confidence in Obama himself and his "rationality".
[Those who have swallowed this] have entered into this through the doors of the imagination and the imaginary, and some interperted Obama's "withdrawal" as if he was now having recourse to reason and grasping the fact that his forces lack the ability to last for any long period of time against the attacks of the resistance, as opposed to his predecessor the frivolous Bush who refused to recognize this...
And so the idea was that the reasonable Obama recognized that withdrawal was a way for America to save face and protect its reputation globally. So that:
[The argument was] that the occupation ought not to let this opportunity slip through its fingers, and should make an agreement with Obama to end the occupation through dialogue and negotiations. And that those who did not understand this were either ignorant, or inexperienced, or deficient, and finally the only thing left to accuse them of was treason and a connection with foreign powers.
The fact of the matter was and is that Obama put more conditions on withdrawal than even Bush did, so the "withdrawal" offer was itself illusory. And what is worse:
...and I say this with bitterness and with sadness, the Iraqi resistance has not yet reached the position where it could push the occupation forces to the brink of defeat, and it requires perhaps years before it reaches that stage. That is owing to the lack of unity among the factions, and not to their weakness. To be as clear as possible: The balance of power is still in favor of the occupation forces, in spite of the victories that have been won by the resistance againsts the occupation, and their exhaustion of the occupation, and their disruption of the American project for the Middle East as a whole, and their delaying of the project for the global American empire at whose gates history was supposed to stop.
So the various expressions by resistance factions of willingness to negotiate with the Obama administration were a result of misreading not only Obama's intentions, but of their own power and the balance of power as well.

Qalamji says his purpose in being frank is not to suggest that the occupation has become fixed and irresistable, but rather to issue a general alert to the resistance factions: Bush slaughtered us with the sword; Obama's strategy is to strangle us with a rope of silk--the so-called "soft power", and he cites a book by Joseph Nye called "Soft Power..." Because if Obama has his way, then the struggle will no longer be between the resistance and the occupation, but between the resistance "and the occupation government with its army", and the direct role of the American forces will be limited.

He concludes:
This is where the unity of the factions is important in standing up to the Obama plan. If this measure [proposed withdrawal] had come about two or three years ago, it would have been possible to fill the void in each city from which the occupation withdrew, and announce a national government there, that could have been extended to all the other cities. And although the possibility of unity is still there, these factions continue to be beating around the bush, and while they talk of unity in statements and communiques, in reality they are going in the opposite direction. For instance, the three fronts--Jihad and Liberation, Jihad and Change, and Jihad and Reform--which are the main body of the resistance, and which promised the Iraqi people they would unite at the earliest possible time, have again started, for some time now to strengthen each its own position, and to vie with one another to show off their power in order to convince people that they are the only front capable of liberating Iraq, and that the others should join under its banner. ... This is what accounts for the noticeable drop in operations by the Iraqi resistance, and this has led people to look for other alternatives in arranging their affairs.
And any such decline in popular support is damaging to the resistance, which can only thrive in an environment of popular support.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Same story, over and over; why not try something different?

1. Perhaps more of the same?

There is of course an alternative to the potential confrontation between the SupremeCouncil/Kurdish coalition on one side and Maliki with his new anti-sectarian allies on the other (the confrontation hypothesis outlined here). The alternative would be decision by Maliki, Hakim and others to in effect reconstitute the Shiite coalition ("United Iraqi Alliance") with new nationalist rhetoric of course, letting all the participating Shiite groups have the advantage of Maliki's coattails in the coming national elections, but at the same time leading to a rehashing of all of the familiar unresolved sectarian/ethnic issues (oil, Kurdish territorial claims, Sunni alienation, and so on and so forth).

This hypothesis of a reconstituted Shiite coalition is raised in an AlJazeera piece called "The debate about reviving the UIA". A member of Hakim's Supreme Council said this is an exaggeration, but he says: "What has happened, is that we had decided before the provincial-council elections to run on an independent list, but after seeing the results we are returning to our coalitions". And there is Sistani. AlJazeera puts it this way: "A source who declined to be identified said the Shiite authority Ali Al-Sistani has told Maliki that it is necessary to preserve the Alliance, and to unite their forces within the provincial councils. And he said Maliki has some new ideas about how to manage and broaden the Alliance, and draw up a program for the future."

A journalist writing in the Kuwaiti paper AlQabas (h/t LB of RoadstoIraq) says Iran also has its thumb on the scale in this matter. He says that on the same day of Sistani's meeting with Allawi:
it was learned that Dr Ali Akbar Wilayati, former Iranian foreign minister and special adviser to the Supreme Guide, was in Najaf for an unofficial meeting at the holy place, at the invitation of the Islamic Council [the Supreme Council]. And during this meeting with the "elite of Qom", Wilayati explained the desire of his country for the preservation of the Shiite "Alliance" bloc, along with the need to develop and expand it to include Sunni and other components.
As for the schemes to bring down the Maliki government in parliament, AlQabas says, Maliki and his allies haven't shown any anxiety about that, being confident that the popularity shown in the recent local elections will being him back stronger than before, no matter what the parliamentary procedure, even assuming any of the adversarial coalitions actually comes into being.


2. Oxen on the water-wheel

I can't tell you much more about Sabah Ali Shahir than that he is an Iraqi writer and intellectual, and obviously from what follows not a politician, not currently anyway. He has an essay in Middle East Online (another h/t to LB of RoadstoIraq, and also for explaining about the oxen, which I on my own could have never deciphered) headed as follows: "Will we soon be seeing a tomb for the political process? The political process is oxen on the water wheel: they start from a point and they return to that same point, without accomplishing what Iraq needs to be accomplished".

It is an interesting addition to what you could call the radical critique of American-imposed sectarianism. The "political process" works like this: As problems arise, they are put to one side and there they accumulate, each one a time-bomb that could go off at any time. And the reason they are put aside is the sectarian structure of the constitution and the laws, which under the guise of protecting particular groups, block the formation of national solutions. He begins like this:
Observers of Iraqi political developments note an acceleration in the collapse of what is called the "political process", not in the heating up of the fighting that some fear could eventually lead to unlimited bloodshed, but rather in the piling up of problematic arrangements that resist solution, each of these generating others, and that continuously. These arrangements are of easy solution by a method that is different from that which has been programmed and imposed--and what programmed and imposed this was the American prescription, and it is the ideal prescription for the fragmentation and destruction of Iraq. So that Iraqi politicians--those who came with the occupation and those who joined up later--have been compelled to go around and circumvent any approach except that which leads--despite the best of intentions--to one result and one only, and that is the destruction of the country and its breakup.
The part I italicized shows he is addressing the July 22 people among others, urging them to recognize the futility of trying to reform a system that is pre-programmed for breakup. I wish I had the time and the energy to do justice to the rest of this essay. In any event, he concludes with a call on those who are not with the sectarian parties to abandon the political process altogether, a strategy that would deprive them of cover and make clear their status as agents of the occupation.


3. "A good opportunity"

Ali Shahir also says the US economic crisis makes this a particularly good time to make this move. He writes:
Make the political process limited to those who came with the occupation. Isolate them. Don't give them cover for their shame. Don't be an Iraqi bridge for those to cross into Iraq who have already come via the American bridge. Expose the political process in all of its weakness and its ridiculous emptiness and its nakedness, and the meaninglessness of its lists. Don't give them the support that comes from your participation, or the moral justification of your accompanying them.

In this way, you will be participants in their inevitable downfall, accompanying the current American and regional and world developments. It is a rare opportunity... the fall of the Zionized American administration and its exit from the stage covered with the shame of defeat and political and moral failure...

The economic crisis is bigger by far than what has been talked about so far, and this will have dramatic results in every part of the world, among them the collapse of the story about American financial power, and consequently its industrial and military power....
And so on.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Baath spokesman sounding bullish on the resistance, bearish on America

Saleh Al-Mukhtar, a former ambassador and senior person in the Saddam regime, and more recently a spokesman and essayist for the Baathist resistance, gave a talk in Amman at a closed session of alumni or graduates of Iraqi universities and institutes, and a reporter for the Jordanian paper AlArab alYaum prepared a summary, which included among a lot of other points, the following:
[Al-Mukhtar said]: The financial collapse, and the warnings that the attack on Iraq would lead to the collapse of America itself--this was among the good ideas of the resistance, which took aim in this way at their Achilles heel. He stressed that the resistance's focus on financial attrition came from the fact that the dollar is lord and master in American, and [financial attrition] was the only way to make America exit from Iraq.

And he then moved on to another form of attrition that the resistance has relied on, namely human attrition, stressing that America does not respect its soldiers, but sent them into the line of fire in Iraq on the pretext of fighting dictatorship and fostering democracy at the request of the Iraqi people, but they soon discovered the trick, and the fact that their presence in Iraq was in the service of colonialism and the protection of the security of Israel, in addition to the fact that there are a million American soldiers suffering from psychological and mental illnesses, and the sufferers do not return to Iraq because the mental impediments are even greater than the physical ones. And there is the fact that American households have come to feel the pressure of the attack on Iraq, once every household started to experience loss of life, or injury, or suicide after returning, in addition to the burden of $30,000 which is the share of each individual in the debt resulting from the attack on Iraq. This has become a crisis, and he stressed that this is the most important factor in their losing the war.

And based on the foregoing, the Iraqi researcher [he means Al-Mukhtar] said the continuation of the war will lead to the collapse of American capitalism, and he pointed to the phenomenon of separation of the rich states which have publicly called for preserving their wealth and indicated unwillingness to support the poor states. This is something that again impinges on the unity of America and its loyalty.
On the subject of negotiations or otherwise with America, Al-Mukhtar said:
The Americans were in communication recently via a third party requesting sessions with the resistance to formulate an agreement for withdrawal without conditions, but the resistance rejected the idea, stressing that the resistance has now reached a state where they are able to compel America to accept [the resistance's] conditions prior to any discussions. An [Al-Mukhtar] assured [his listeners] that the resistance is satisfied with its political and military position and has been concentrating on preventing America from negotiating with any marginal parties, and announced its readiness to take down any such agreement with them.

Recycled rubbish on Iraq

Here are some gems from this morning's piece by Tom Ricks in the WaPo, followed by some translations into plain English and an Executive Summary of what he is really saying.

He says if the US forces withdraw:

(1) "The Iraqi tendency toward violent solutions will increase"

(2) "Many of those closest to the situation in Iraq expect a full-blown civil war to break out there in the coming years"

(3) "Others were concerned that Iraq was drifting toward a military takeover"

(4) "A venal political elite divorced from the population lives inside the Green Zone, while the Iraqi military outside the Zone's walls grows both more capable and closer to the people..."

(5) "The American embrace of former insurgents has created many new local power centers in Iraq, but many of the faces of those who run them remain obscure. 'We've made a lot of deals with shady guys'..."

(6) "But many U.S. soldiers who have served in Iraq believe that the biggest threat to American aspirations won't be the Iranians but the Iraqis themselves. The Iraqi military is getting better, but it is still a deeply flawed institution, even with tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers keeping an eye on it. ...'Saddam taught them [how to suppress urban populations] and we've just reinforced that lesson for four years,' he said. 'They're ready to kill people--a lot of people--in order to get stability in Iraq.'


(1) The Iraqi tendency toward violent solutions--a supposed national characteristic of all Iraqis

(2) Many of those closest to the situation in Iraq--US military people, almost all persons of completely impartial judgment, the opposite of (1). White man good, natives bad.

(3) Military takeover--by former regime officers, naturally feared by the Shiite militias who in the early days after the US invasion were devoted to hunting them down in cooperation with the US forces. These are the people the US has now been pressing Maliki to re-incorporate into the Iraqi military.

(4) A venal political elite--this is where Ricks agrees with the armed resistance. The difference is that he tells us the threat to this venal elite comes not from armed resistance, but from an increasingly competent Iraqi military.

(5) But wait! The Iraqi military "is still a deeply flawed institution", with Saddamist origins that will re-emerge when you least expect it. This is in fact the nightmare of the SupremeCouncil and others in that venal political elite.

(6) Deals with former insurgents, aka "shady guys". He is talking about the armed resistance.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: We should worry about a resurgent armed resistance to the puppet government. This is dressed up in the familiar "all-out civil war" trappings in order to make the coming re-enactment of the occupation look like a humanitarian endeavor. The only solution is military occupation as far as the eye can see. That is Ricks' "Iraq".

As it happens, in a far-away world which is also called "Iraq" people are coming to grips with this very same issue, from a non-American perspective, and what they are talking about is how to end the corrupt and American-imposed system of sectarian slicing of the pie (Ricks' "venal political elite"), obviously without the help of the Americans, who imposed that system in the first place.

An quick-and-dirty explanation of that approach might well begin much as Ricks begins, only backwards, stressing "the American tendency to violent solutions"; as understood by "persons closest to the situation in Iraq" (namely Iraqis); too many "deals with shady guys" (like the senior US military people now (finally!) being investsigated for large-scale financial crimes, or the politicians like Hakim and Hashemi with their American connections).

And the only solution? As long as the US occupation continues, and Iraqi collaborators continue to work with it, to that extent the armed resistance will have to continue. There doesn't seem any other solution.

It is the same quick-and-dirty argument. The other side represents congenital violence, and the the fight must go on.

From the Iraqi side, there is logic and common sense to the argument--this was a violent invasion and a violent occupation--and an end-point: US withdrawal, to be accompanied by clean-up of a puppet-government system, and all of the other detritus of foreign invasion.

The idea of turning this argument on its head and talking about throwing out the occupation in terms of "civil war"--this is illogical, arrogant, and beyond all reason, and not only that but it is open-ended. The Americans will have to stay and fight in Iraq, until when--until all the Iraqis leave?

It is the feel-good, illusory argument that results from taking the battlefield perspective of military people--their lives spent in struggle against enemies, violent people, shady guys at best--and saying: "My world is the whole world. This violence is what Iraq is--there is no other Iraq". And the correct answer is: "No, that is what your America is, for you there is no other America". I think the unfolding post-Obama tragedy is just that: Ricks could be right. Maybe there is no other America.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

What's next in the Green Zone

Recent news in English about Iraqi politics has been unusually fragmentary. Some of the pieces:
  • There are increasingly convincing reports of a rapprochement between Maliki and the Sadr trend.
  • There was the report last week of an unusual meeting in Najaf between Ayatollah Sistani and Iyad Allawi.
  • And the battle to the death continues between two opposing alliances in Parliament over the naming of a successor to Mashhadani as President (speaker) of Parliament.
What appears to be happening is that two sides are lining up for a potential confrontation in Parliament over a possible motion of no-confidence in Maliki and the naming of a new Prime Minister. In this confrontation, if it happens, Sadr, Maliki and others will be on one side, and the two big Kurdish parties, along with the Supreme council and the Islamic Party of Iraq and others on the other side.

This explains the unusual importance of who is Speaker of Parliament; it explains the increasing closeness of Sadr and Maliki; and as for the Allawi-Sistani meeting, the prevailing opinion is that this represents Allawi switching sides--abandoning the so-called July 22 movement and preparing to be part of an alliance with the Supreme Council and others in a post-Maliki government, for which he needs Sistani's tacit blessing.

The conventional explanation--when and if this becomes news in English--is going to be that the challengers--two Kurdish parties, Supreme Council and Islamic Party--are so worried about Maliki's popularity as reflected in the recent elections, that they feel they need to remove him before the national elections scheduled for the end of this year.

But that leaves out the most important part of the story. The reason for Maliki's popularity--in addition to his exploitation of the perks of "government", legitimate and illegitimate--was the appeal of his speeches about the need to reform the current political system at its roots. When Maliki said he opposed the system of "muhasasa" (literally "allocations", meaning sectarian slicing of the governmental pie), and more fundamentally the whole system of sectarian labeling, he was speaking against the system that has been in place since Bremer inaugurated it, and which has benefited (leaving Maliki himself out of the picture for the moment) primarily the two big Kurdish parties, the Supreme Council, and the Islamic Party of Iraq. He was campaigning, in other words, against the American-imposed system and intimating there was a possibility of real change.

What the Kurdish/SupremeCouncil/Hashemi alliance is concerned about isn't merely the prospect of additional gains by Maliki in the national elections. They are also concerned that his campaign rhetoric, which struck such a deep chord among the Iraqi people, could now start to be turned into reality in specific ways before then: for instance, by way of constitutional changes that could disadvantage the big-federal-region prospects; or for instance by denying the Islamic Party nominee his "legitimate" right to be appointed Parliamentary speaker because that is part of that party's "muhasasa". What Maliki represents to them, following his electoral victory, is a threat not only to their privileged position as beneficiaries of the governmental cake-cutting, but also the threat of a campaign to reform that whole system. That is what the fight is about.

This is what accounts for the drama behind the Allawi move into the Kurdish/SupremeCouncil camp; and for the increasing signs on the other side of a Sadr/Maliki rapprochement; not to mention the death-struggle over the Parliamentary speakership.

In today's update in AlQuds alArabi, sources say the Kurd/SupremeCouncil side is likely to propose--if they succeed in ousting Maliki--that the new Prime Minister be Adel AbdulMahdi of the Supreme Council, and that Allawi would likely be rewarded for his role in this by appointment as a vice-president of the Republic (replacing Mahdi, presumably). The report warns that some think the scheme will still fail, in spite of Allawi's support, but the reasoning isn't spelled out in detail. Moreover, the whole scheme is fraught with danger, the paper's sources warned, because of the possibility the confrontation "could go off the rails" of peaceful constitutional and legal procedures.

Among the other implications: Whether the Obama/Biden administration will in fact continue its support for the crypto-separatist Kurdish/SupremeCouncil alliance, or whether on the other hand they might see the advantages of shifting to support for a national, non-sectarian alternative.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

More on sectarianism

In keeping with the unusual degree of attention being given to the Iraqi local elections--including claims by the supporters of the occupation that this represents a vindication of sorts--writer and editor Mohammed Aref writes in the UAE paper AlIttihad about sectarianism, and whether or not the strong showing by Maliki's "Nation of Laws" coalition reflected a genuine move by the Iraqi political class away from sectarianism.

The essay is a very sophisticated one, but Aref's simple answer is "no it didn't".

He cites with approval Reidar Visser's essay in the spring 08 edition of the Journal of Arab Studies called "The Western imposition of sectarianism on Iraqi politics," for a thorough grounding in the various ways in which the US and others have promoted sectarianism as part of a divide-and-rule strategy, and secondly the ways in which the Western media have trumpeted the sectarian narrative, partly for its drama and its simplicity. (I must have missed something, because I wasn't aware of this essay when it was published, and I still don't know if it is available in any way other than subscribing to the journal--see

Aref notes "sectarianism" can have two meanings: One referring just to the cultural entities themselves, and the other referring to the evils of clannishness, to illustrate which he quotes from a hadith: Someone asked the Prophet about love of one's tribe, and the Prophet replied: "Look, asabiya (groupism or clannishness) considers the defects of its own group to be superior to the good points of others."

In the first sense, Aref talks a little about the origins of Shiism and in general about geographical and other factors, then he comes to the point:
These geopolitical factors are in fact the foundation of the great cultures that Iraqis have prided themselves on throughout history. The occupation--and the non-national regime that the occupation generated--threaten the countries spiritual, religious and patriotic wealth, just as much as it threatens the country's natural wealth. And it is going to be up to the new generation of Iraqi nationalists to protect that wealth. Because nationalism isn't emotion and anthems and flags. Rather, it is the basis for the existence of the country and its unity, and the fundamental bond between the nation and its citizens. The experience of Iraq shows that the loss of nationalism carries with it an enormous price, and that is why it has been considered sacrosanct by the people of Iraq and their governors throughout history.
On the election itself and the Dawa coalition's success with its slogan of non-sectarianism, Aref writes:
Do the election results show that the Dawa party has abandoned its sectarian identity. Or is this rather a case of a policy of "taqiya" [the practice of denying your religion when external dangers demand it] resorted to by this Shiite party? And did its competitor the Supreme Islamic Council led by Hakim lose its "supreme" status after getting only 10% of the votes? Did the election results indicate the banishment of sectarianism? Or was it rather a national requirement within the framework of sectarianism in order to restore security and provide basic services, strengthening the central government and rejecting federalism?
It seems quite possible that Aref doesn't have any particular insight into what is being cooked up in the Green Zone by way of Maliki/American strategy for the coming period. His point is that beyond the slogans, sectarianism in the bad sense is still the basic building-block of occupation strategy, and for Maliki to adopt the slogans that he did seems to Aref a kind of "taqiya".

He concludes by citing a book by Iraqi political scientist Adul Radha Al-Taan, called "History of the concept of politics in old Iraq", having as its theme the idea of successive waves of immigration into Iraq by groups with a variety of cultural traditions and orientations, and the complementary idea of political unity capable of embracing the whole range of groups. Citing the book is another way of driving home his point that while there is inevitable "sectarianism" if that merely means a variety of cultural groups, that is not at all the same as the negative and mutually antagonistic "sectarianism" that has been exploited and continues to be exploited by the occupation.

The same point about the persistence of bad sectarianism in spite of the recent local-election rhetoric has been made a number of times by the Iraqi writer Fadhil Al-Rubaie (outlined here; and another link here). LB of RoadstoIraq has been keeping track of Al-Rubaie's writings on this, but so far this important topic hasn't been able to get past the gates of Big Punditry. (See the Visser piece referenced above for a pretty good explanation why).

(Still, h/t to Marc Lynch for noting the existence of this AlIttihad piece; maybe he could be persuaded to tell people what's in it). Given that my own readership is limited to the three of you (a joke !)

A small victory against sectarianism

The Minister of the Interior in Lebanon issued a circular that said Lebanese people will not be required to state their religious (or "sectarian") affiliation in their statements of civil status, and will be allowed to change or delete any such statements already made and registered. The Minister said this is in accordance with the freedom of religion provision in the Lebanese Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and a number of other international agreements to which Lebanon is a party. The Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar calls this a historic step, and the fruition of 20 years of activism by a number of civic groups opposed to sectarianism, and the writer adds:
...this establishes the foundations of the civil state which is the dream of many Lebanese, and [it establishes] a test of the degree of seriousness of Lebanese in proceeding along these lines.
The Iraqi paper Azzaman reports the move at the top of its front page as well, calling attention to the same point about freedom of religion as a basis for not including sect or religion in the statement of civil status. (The journalist doesn't tell us what Iraqi laws and practice are in this regard).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Whats that sound ? (Updated, for what it is worth)

Some see the Israeli election results as an important step that will eventually lead the American sponsor to turn away from its regional client and thus in effect pull the rug out from under Zionism. The code-word for this is "the end, or the approaching end, of the two-state solution", the assumption being that the modern world would not tolerate the "ethnic cleansing", or in the alternative the "apartheit" that are the only other alternatives that would permit the Zionist state to survive as we know it. Those who see the results in this way foresee actual political change in the United States.

For instance, British socialist Richard Seymour, aka Lenin, writes:
According to Juan Cole, this is the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution. He maintains that there are now only three options: ethnic cleansing/genocide, apartheid, or one state. I don't know that Cole has ever taken such a position before and my feeling is that it signifies part of the ongoing change within the liberal-left in the United States. Glen Greenwald also thinks the election results make a two-state solution much less viable. Even the centrist Stephen Walt who - contrary to some of the things said about him - has always been relatively sympathetic to Israel's 'right to exist' as a Zionist state, has concluded that the two-state solution is dying in plain sight. If Walt, who is a respected and well-placed figure among US foreign policy elites, represents a significant strand of opinion among the political class, then another kind of change may be taking place as well.
Taking what you could call a somewhat more visionary tack, former CIA analyst wrote this, introduced as follows by Philip Weiss, under the title:

Will educated Israelis stop believing in Israel?

Ray Close, a former CIA analyst, wrote the following letter to a foreign-policy list maintained by a Princeton scholar yesterday. Close gave me permission to publish [emphases mine]:

For a large number of sophisticated Israelis, particularly those who feel the deepest affinity with America --- either by family relationships, education, political or business associations of one kind or another --- I think there is another latent existential threat. It is the deep anxiety, based on gradually evolving rational analysis, that Israel will eventually (not immediately, but within a generation) become much less important to the United States than it is (or appears to be) today; that the American people and the US Government will jointly come to a realization that Israel is not, after all, biologically attached to America by a permanent umbilical cord; that we are not subscribers to an identical set of cultural and ethical and religious mores; that the US is not critically dependent on Israel's support in opposing some monster vaguely defined as Islamofascism; that Israel will not serve eternally as America's mentor and counselor in our joint efforts to preserve the American value system in a region dominated by an evil and alien culture; that Israel is not an American aircraft carrier that protects US strategic interests in the whole region; that Israel is not the final line of defence against the threat of nuclear attack by dangerously unstable governments bent on destruction of Homeland America.

I think this deep dread, never articulated, contains a closely related anxiety: that increasing numbers of upper-class American-oriented Israelis, despairing finally of ever enjoying a peaceful and secure lifestyle for themselves and their descendants in a homogeneous Jewish society, will abandon their fading Zionist dreams and emigrate to the United States, where they don't have to worry about those goddamn A-rabs, and where the age-old bugaboo of anti-Semitism is no longer a factor in any American Jew's life. If I were an Israeli, THAT would be my nightmare ---- the realization that Israel, instead of thriving as a virtual Western Power or fifty-first state of the USA, is fated inexorably to evolve into a small, beleaguered ethnic enclave at the eastern end of the Mediterranean --- surrounded by hostile neighbors, prevented from continued expansion, no longer inspired by a vibrant ideology or sustained and reinvigorated by constant infusions of new immigrants, divided by contentious and incompatible political minority factions, threatened by an exploding and politically awakening Israeli Arab population insistent on their civil rights, and challenged by a major segment of Jewish society whom they regard as selfish, arrogant religious fanatics --- with whom they share no cultural affinity and very few social values.

I think one could argue that this somber vision of the future might develop more rapidly than I have pictured above. What if the present recession results in a major reduction of charitable donations from American Jews? What if the average American taxpayer asks himself why he should continue to vote for billions of dollars of aid to a small foreign country that has no plausible claim to automatic charity? What if American and Israeli concepts of how to deal with local and international security threats continue to diverge, to the point where public criticism of Israel actions such as the recent Gaza invasion becomes generally accepted in the U.S? What if Israel, in a desperate effort to dramatize its relevance to the United States, and to restore its image as a champion of America's strategic interests, were to take some foolish action (such as attacking Iran) that plunged the United States into another unnecessary war, and were seen to have radically exacerbated the world financial crisis? In those not-farfetched circumstances, I can see Israel suddenly being recognized as a strategic liability to the United States rather than an asset --- an evaluation that many Americans, especially military, academic and diplomatic experts in Middle East affairs, would already subscribe to even today.

I can think of many other such developments that in the period immediately ahead could accelerate the erosion of that "special relationship" with America on which Israel's military, political, economic and spiritual prosperity and survival heavily depend. Existential threat? You betcha, as they say in Alaska.
Ray Close
It would be an exaggeration to call this kind of thing prophetic, but certainly it is suggestive of a time when political movements in the West were capable of picturing a future state of affairs different in some fundamental way from that of the present, as something to be worked for.

(Having said that, it is important to note that alongside these signs of life, there is plenty of evidence that what you could call the dead left is still predominant in the United States. Look at this analysis of the Israeli electoral system by the poster-boy of the center-left Center for American Progress:
Unfortunately, underlying Israeli public opinion has shifted sharply to the right over the past ten years. Likud used to be the main rightwing party. Then, under the government of Ariel Sharon in fragmented into a more pragmatic Kadima faction and a hardline-nationalist faction led by Bibi Netanyahu. Now, Israeli opinion has shifted so far to the right that Kadima, which was founded as a center-right party just a few years ago is now left of the public opinion’s center. And the far-right Yisrael Beitanu party is bigger than center-left Labor and dramatically bigger than left-wing Meretz. Meanwhile, Labor has itself shifted right. A politics dominated, on both sides, by nationalists—ranging from pragmatic nationalists to not-so-pragmatic nationalists to frothing-at-the-mouth-racist nationalists—is not so promising for the cause of peace....
And weep).*

My own way of looking at this: At a time when so-called "soft partition" still seems to be a possible result of American policy in Iraq, the archetypal case of "hard partition"--Zionism--is in the process of showing the world why it is an unacceptable policy in an interconnected world. Worship as you like, but continue to live together. Those who continue to try and impose partitioned systems are doing so with ulterior divide-and-conquer motives of their own. And the rigged political support for such partitioned systems is getting harder and harder to maintain--even perhaps in the American political world.


* For what it is worth, the aforementioned center-left pundit has favored us with a similarly objective analysis of the American side of the equation, his lesson being that the US congress has up to now acted as unconditional supporter of this type of Israeli military oppression, when properly explained, and will probably continue to do so. I still think the "dead left" is a pretty good description of that trend.

Peering through the fog

The idea that the United States is in the process of "withdrawing" from a newly-democratic Iraq depends in large part on the idea that the United States is exerting no pressure on the Maliki administration to bring about any particular domestic political outcome in Iraq, other than the pressure for "reconciliation" that is supposed to result from the realization that the US intends a bona fide, complete withdrawal.

The no-pressure/Iraq-is-a-democracy picture depends on suppressing a lot of local Iraqi news, starting with the reports about Obama emissaries meeting with people outside the political process before and after the US election (Haroun Mohammed pieces in AlQuds alArabi, referred to in earlier posts here), hinting at a willingness to scrap and re-start the "political process"; and including reports about American involvement in a Maliki/Sadr deal; and finally the much more blatant Biden statements about a "more aggressive" US attitude to coming to grips with Iraq's political issues. None of that is on the information-radar in America.

To say that the Obama administration is taking a hands-on approach to internal Iraqi politics is not the same as saying we know what in particular the Obama administration is aiming for as a final result, or how it is going about it. Or for that matter whether the Obama administration has in mind any particular result beyond merely keeping the puppet weak and off-balance. The point is that although the purpose, if any, isn't clear, the fact of American involvement in internal Iraqi politics couldn't be any more obvious, now that Biden has issued his very clear warning.

In fact, an Iraqi writer by the name of Yasin Al-Badrani writes in Middle East Online, writes as follows about the clearly aggressive and hands-on implications of the recent Biden statement:
Without preamble the American government's radio station AlSawa reported this: "American vice president Joe Biden said America plans a much more aggressive program vis-a-vis the Iraqi government to push it to political reconciliation", and referring in the same report to strong criticism by Biden of the Iraqi leaders because they "have not yet solved their political differences". And he added: "We are convinced that we [Washington] must have a much greater involvement in Iraqi affairs, not only in the commitment to reduce the size of our forces in an organized way, but also in showing much more aggressiveness in pressing the Iraqi leadership to resolve their political issue, which could lead to lack of stability in Iraq following the withdrawal of the American forces."
If the Biden warning was a call for more ex-officers from the prior regime to join the political system, there was a response of sorts, and the early indications are that it was completely ineffective. But more broadly, different Iraqi commentators have different ideas about what the Biden administration has in mind.

* The above-quoted Yasin Al-Badrani finds it significant that Al-Sawa followed up the Biden report with a report that said former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi appears to be the leading candidate to succeed Maliki, as a reminder from Washington to Maliki that his position in office is not permanent.

* As noted in an earlier post, another Iraqi writer thinks the whole American strategy is still being played out in the context of a Biden-type "soft partition" framework.

* Historian Reidar Visser suggests the American administration seems still interested in arranging some kind of a grand settlement involving the two big Kurdish parties in the North and the Supreme Council in the South. He writes (in one of his "Notebook" items, dated February 8): "It is high time the US policy-makers abandon any plans to make further concessions to this group of opportunists (such as a "big compromise on Kirkuk") in some kind of "final settlement" in Iraq."

* A Baath party spokesman, commenting in an AlJazeera interview on the meaninglessness of the recent invitation to return to military service, said the American exit has to come first, and he added this:
[The Baath spokesperson, Khadir Al-Marshadi] said: The Baath party and the resistance will not accept half-solutions or partial solutions with the occupation, "for instance one cannot accept a cease-fire or a cessation of fighting here or there in Iraqi territory, for the sake of giving a better chance to the current political process."
Allawi in the wings; soft-partition; big compromise on Kirkuk; proposed cease-fires here and there--these are all fragments of a picture of American involvement consistent with the Biden warning, that I think it is fair to say Iraqi observers aren't able to understand or show in its entirety or with any greater clarity.

Naturally, the "progressive" policy-groupies in Washington can't contribute anything to this, because to acknowledge this kind of continuing American involvement--in any way, no matter what the shape or purpose of it--would be contrary to the theme of American withdrawal from a democratic Iraq.

Until there is renewed violence, at which point the theme will change, and become: Humanitarian intervention to prevent civil war.

As long as everyone in Washington buys into this very limited theme-based story-telling, it will continue to be very difficult to piece together what is actually happening. At most, people will perhaps complain about awkward transitions in the narrative, suggestive of amateurish story-telling, but no more than that.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The idea of a secular resistance

Iraqi academic Kamal Al-Majeed, writing in AlQuds alArabi, sets out the argument for re-assessing and re-planning the Iraqi resistance, taking into account the pitfalls that he hopes have become apparent. His main point is that there are common, negative, features of "sectarianism" (Sunni/Shia for instance); "chauvinism" of the type that is promulgated by the two big Kurdish parties; including "Arabism", which is a counter-productive ideology that drives a wedge between Arabs and Kurds rather than uniting them; and finally, for reference, there is the extreme case in the family of sectarian mentalities, "Zionism".

With respect to current Iraqi affairs, he says the resistance should take advantage of the growing Kurdish awareness of the corruption of party-leaders Talabani and Barzani to develop a program of cooperation on a popular level, rather than continuing to answer artificial Kurdish chauvinism with an Arab chauvinism of their own.

What has the preaching of Arabism accomplished, he asks, for instance in the case of Palestine? All it has done is to help plunge the Arab world into the disunity of sectarian and chauvinistic infighting, leaving the Palestinians at the mercy of the Zionists. What he saying is that the problems of disunity and the inability to overcome official corruption and collaboration are not merely particular problems coming in an endless stream. Rather they are the result of a failure to reflect on the lessons of history--lessons that should tell us that resistance isn't or shouldn't be limited or defined in any religious or tribal or racial way, but rather is something common to all groups in the region.

And he says in any event the resistance should recognize once and for all the futility of trying to fight a war on two fronts, against the Americans on the one side, and against the so-called "safavid" or "farsi enemy" on the other. The aim that should be kept in mind, he says, is the idea--tragically unrealized at the time of the overthrow of the Shah--of an anti-colonial and anti-Zionist resistance movement throughout the region, stretching from Afghanistan, through Iran, Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon and Palestine.

This is another way of saying that the thinking and the mentality behind the resistance, to be effective, needs to be "secular".


This comes at a time when Americans are being treated to a new Iraq-narrative of their own. (See this NYT review of Tom Ricks' new book for an authoritative rendition of the new story). The old story was one of unrelieved incompetence and irresponsibility on the part of the occupation authorities (Bush and his people); the new story adds in an episode of "extraordinary achievement" and "competence and professionalism" (General Odierno and his people). It is a story of American redemption. And while the old story included the idea of inevitable and long-lasting civil war (your Shiites versus your Sunnis, not to mention your Kurds), the new story tells us that the heroic military leadership of the Odierno group have brought about a period of remission, with overtones of liberal democracy.

Which however, we are warned, will not last. From the NYT review of Ricks' book:
This book went to press before the recent elections in Iraq, which took place peacefully and which appear to have strengthened the country’s more secular and centrist parties, and Mr. Ricks warns that the United States goal of achieving “sustainable security” there (a far cry from former President George W. Bush's goal of a stable, democratic, pro-West Iraq) may still prove elusive — or at the very least require a long-term American presence. Although Mr. Ricks writes that he is saddened by the war’s “obvious costs to Iraqis and Americans” and by “the incompetence and profligacy with which the Bush administration conducted much of it,” he adds that he has come to the conclusion that “we can’t leave.” As Mr. Ricks sees it, the regional and global repercussions of failure in Iraq would be far more dire than those incurred by the United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam — ranging, in this case, from a full-blown civil war to “a spreading war in the Middle East,” from a stronger Iran presiding over a Finlandized Iraq to the rise of a brutal new Iraq led by “younger, tougher versions” of Saddam Hussein...
The expression that I italicized tells how the coming phase of the "Iraq war" will be told in the NYT and elsewhere: More sectarianism, more dangerous even than before.

Probably nobody knows the strength and make-up of the remaining and potential elements of the armed resistance. Just as in Act I, so in the coming Act II, the Western narrative will be that there isn't any bona fide nationalist resistance, it is all sectarianism.

Kamal Majeed says: Let's come to grips with that issue, once and for all.

Sunday, February 08, 2009


The quotation marks in the following excerpt were put there by the AlHayat journalist, not by me. The piece is in this morning's paper (Sunday, Feb 8), and it represents roll-out of the politically-correct version of the "renewed reconciliation" story (see prior post). He writes:
The government of Iraq is intent on utilizing the "change" [the journalist's quotation marks] brought about by the results of the local elections in Sunni areas, in order to renew the initiatives for reconciliation with armed groups, and convince former officers, now living in neighboring countries, to return to the army or to take compensation for the termination of their service. And there are stepped-up communications between political powers respecting alliances, in spite of the complaints by some parties about the results of the elections. The Electoral Commission stressed that all of the complaints that it has seen so far do not rise to the level of violations that could effect the final outcome.
The vice-chairman of the parliamentary committee on security and defense said the results of the local elections have speeded up this type of talks with armed groups, and this means that "political stability should lead to security-stability in Northern and Western areas", now that there has been voting. And a Dawa party official said the results of such talks are already positive, and "many of these groups have agreed to lay down their arms and join the political process". The journalist adds:
In political circles, people are busying themselves with the initial results and preparing to form alliances, and the Electoral Commission stresses that, in all areas, when entities receive the highest percentage of votes, that doesn't mean that they will have hegemony there, adding that final results will be announced in two weeks.
This is the first mass-circulation paper to report on the "renewed reconciliation" theme in connection with the elections, and it is worth noting a couple of the propaganda points:

(1) The role of US pressure via Biden has been dropped from the story; and

(2) The Electoral Commission has assured everyone that no matter what the complaints about election-fixing, they don't threaten the official results, so people can go ahead and do their "formation of alliances" procedures without worrying about the results being overturned.

I confidently predict that now that the story has been licked into shape in this way, this "renewed reconciliation" theme will now become a staple conversation piece in polite Washington circles.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

More outreach

The news from the region is sporadic (h/t to LB of RoadstoIraq for a lot of it), and the silence from Washington is absolute, but it appears Maliki is responding at least superficially to pressure from the US (in the person of Joe Biden) to do more to try and placate a greater number of officers in the Saddam-era armed forces by offering them either positions in existing armed forces, or pensions.

Some of the news seems to be coming from the American side, for instance there is this fairly vague item today from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. And there is this item on the Saudi-oriented Elaph news-site which says a decision has been made to open recruiting or reception offices in five countries to take applications from former officers. One peculiar feature of this is that although the offices haven't been opened yet, already there has been established a cut-off date of March 4 for accepting applications. Other open questions include: Exactly how to the requirements and procedures differ, if at all, from what has already been announced. And there is a promotional flavor to the piece, which talks about "thousands" or potential participants in this, and a budgetary allocation of $65 million for "national reconciliation" without an explanation how that money is supposed to be spent.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Al-Baghdadiya TV reported last week that Maliki had been in contact with Harith al-Dhari, general secretary of the Association of Muslim Scholars of Iraq (AMSI), an organization that supports the resistance, in what was assumed to be part of the reconciliation process. This was angrily denied in a short statement from the Prime Minister's office on February 2, which said there had been no contact "with the accused person Harith al-Dhari, as reported by Al-Baghdadiya satellite TV, a report that demonstrates its [the TV station's] failure and bankruptcy. The government of national unity cannot under any circumstances talk with someone who has the blood of innocent Iraqis on their hands."

To which AMSI issued a statement in response a couple of days later, naming three Maliki emissaries who it says in fact met with Dhari to invite him to join in the political process, an invitation that it says was refused each time. The statement said these three were only some of the attempts, not all of them. And today, Akhbar alKhaleej prints extracts from an interview with Dhari in Amman, in which he elaborates on the approaches the Maliki government has made to him.

His main point is that AMSI "has no intention of joining the political process, in spite of the fact that the government has knocked on its door on a number of occasions". Referring to one such attempt, the journalists quotes Dhari: "We rejected the proposal and we asked [the emissary] to remind Maliki of the decisions that were made respecting national reconciliation at two conferences in Cairo [in 2005 and 2006 respectively]", and then explains that Dhari was "referring to the fact that the government wanted to make AMSI the substitute for the Iraqi Accord Front when the IAF withdrew from the government".

(I don't know what to make of the latter statement about an offer for AMSI to take the place of the IAF, and I don't know if it has been mentioned at any time elsewhere).

Dhari took the opportunity to deny another rumor, namely that AMSI had been involved in mediating a split in the Baath party. The journalist says: "He denied that the organization had been a mediator with respect to differences in the Baath party, but he did say that the organization advised Baathists to put the interests of their country ahead of their particular interests".

And the piece concludes with this: "Dhari stressed that all of the Islamic forces that have entered into the political process have violated law (sharia), and that the Iraqi resistance continues and is increasing its strength with the passage of time, in spite of what is rumored about its weakening and its decline!"

All of which seems to indicate that Maliki is taking steps to respond to US pressure by at least appearing to placate as many Saddam-era ex-officers as possible, and even perhaps trying to turn Dhari himself; but that as far as the resistance forces (some of them following Dhari) are concerned, nothing has changed: The political process under the occupation is wrong, and the resistance will continue.