Wednesday, December 05, 2007

How to eat an elephant

Most people would say it’s impossible. No one could eat an elephant. Others would argue that one actually could eat an elephant—with patience, one bite at a time.
The government cracked down on the Association of Muslim Scholars, an organization of Sunni clerics sympathetic to al-Qaeda and believed to have even been involved in leading, funding and hosting insurgent groups that have been responsible for countless attacks against Iraqis and Americans alike.

Unlike previous operations, this one is different in that the troops were sent following a request submitted to the government by the department of Sunni endowment, an entity in charge of overseeing Sunni mosques and other religious activities. The chief of the Sunni endowment, Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Ghafour Samarraie, is a moderate Sunni cleric who has renounced the insurgency and explicitly accused the association of assisting al-Qaeda by justifying their murderous attacks against Iraqis.

For four years now we’ve been waiting for this to happen. This al-Qaeda apologist, so-called association of Muslim scholars had to be dealt with and honestly it was frustrating to see them operate freely when the damage they caused was widely known, in nature if not in extent.

This incident, I believe, is not to be seen as abstract and it’s no coincidence that the raid on their office came amid efforts to prosecute corrupt officials from Sadr’s movement and the Fadheela Party. The list includes the former deputy minister of health, a Sadr follower who’s been accused of running sectarian death squads and the chief of the integrity committee in the parliament; a member of the Fadheela Party which is believed to be involved in massive oil smuggling operations in the south. He is now about to lose parliamentary immunity over corruption charges.

The interesting thing indeed is that the officials who are leading this campaign and rose to challenge the Sadrists and the association are from their respective sects and regions.

In Karbala, as a most recent example, the police chief finally declared the Mahdi Army an outlaw group. He accused them of murdering over 700 Iraqi civilians, 70 police officers, kidnapping over 130 civilians as well as conducting some 50 attacks with roadside bombs over the last three years in Karbala province alone.

In my opinion, what we’re seeing right now is an exploitation of the achievements of the surge strategy in the direction to establish rule of law-step by step.

I think, and it would be a practical approach if that was the case, that the campaign will involve multiple steps and will deal with targets one at a time according to a certain pattern; that is from the most aggressive, least reconcilable and less politically powerful to the less aggressive, more reconcilable and more politically powerful.

Yes, I consider Sadr now to fit in the less powerful politically category because a) PM Maliki became less dependent on him after withdrew his followers from the cabinet and from the UIA as well and b) his political weight comes from his ability to create chaos and fear; this ability is not as great as it used to be.

Of course such a pattern would require different means and tactics to deal with each target. For example with al-Qaeda it is simply a great military and intelligence effort to exterminate them. With Sunni insurgents it was a combination of coercion and persuasion. Those who agree to cooperate are welcome in the new Iraq-those contributed to the effort against al-Qaeda — while those who don’t suffer the consequences.

Now it’s Sadr’s and Dhari’s (the head of the association of Muslim scholars) turn. The two have been more or less defanged in many parts of the country as Dhari can’t find reliable bargaining power in al-Qaeda anymore and as Sadr is being squeezed with pressure from his former allies in the UIA and determined Iraqi military commanders in the south.

In my assessment of the situation, I think this phase of the campaign will focus on these two threats while momentarily purposely overlooking the smaller ones (small in the ability to create chaos, greater in political weight though). This can make a lot of sense. What stopped the US military from taking decisive action against Dhari or Sadr and his followers were the concerns that doing so might cause more harm than good. Now it seems that those two have lost the capacity to cause enough chaos. In other words they no longer can deter a decisive action by the US troops and Iraqi government. This is truer since the decisive action is coming in the form of legal processes and charges pushed by Iraqi officials supported by evidence, meaning the defendants are denied the use of the occupation /sectarian partiality cliché.

When this phase is completed, and it might take a while, the judicial and security institutions of the state will have gained confidence, popular support and will be galvanized by the experience. That would prepare the atmosphere for the launch of the next phase—cleaning the “house of moderates”. Those moderates (represented by parties such as the SIIC, Islamic Party, Kurdish parties, etc) have enjoyed a fairly long “grace period” since they have been indispensable in establishing the political process after the fall of the former regime. But when state institutions become stronger, terror and other threats and manipulation by extremists would be neutralized to a great extent; those parties will become more vulnerable to scrutiny and to the rule of law.

Our moderate politicians-I prefer to call them “less radical” politicians — might not like this in the future but I doubt they would be able to stop the moving wheel of evolution. The beautiful nature of democracy and power-sharing is that concessions will always be made in order to preserve both; the system for the state and the best possible position for the groups within.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Troops and locals stop twenty car bombs from reaching the streets of Baghdad.

Yesterday a joint US-Iraqi force with help from local anti-al-Qaeda awakening fighters in the Adhamiyah district in northeastern Baghdad found and disarmed more than 20 vehicles rigged as VBIEDs in a parking lot.

This is a great find by any standards but the timing makes it all the more significant.
The significance comes not only from the quantity of bombs, cars and other resources that al-Qaeda has been denied the ability to use. It comes from the amount of frustration they have to deal with right now that all these preparations and resources are lost.

What makes me think that this will indeed frustrate them is that al-Qaeda chose to mass this great number of VBIEDs instead of deploying them to the streets one, or a few, at a time fresh from the factory. Two possibilities arise here; they either couldn't find the means and safe routes to deploy the bombs and so they had to wait for more favorable circumstances, which is good news since it means their ability to conduct missions has really been reduced to a great extent.
Or it could mean that they were planning for something big, and I'm more inclined to think that this was the case.

Apparently their cells in Adhamiyah (in my estimation the strongest remaining in the eastern side of Baghdad proper) were planning a spectacular comeback during which a wave of car bombings would have sought to undermine the improvement in security.
A week of several car bombings a day would have been seen as a huge setback following several weeks of great decline in violence.
Fortunately this has been prevented and whatever their plan was, it's vapor now and they will have to start all over again… That's if they don't get caught, killed or kicked out of the neighborhood, which seems to be happening quite often these days!

Four Years!

On a day like this four years ago this blog was created...Time indeed goes by so fast, damn!
Anyway, just wanted to congratulate myself and my big brother (allow me to pat myself on the back!) and to say thanks to all the good people who have been with us in this long journey from the beginning...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Baath Holds The White Flag

The formation of a so called political council for Iraqi resistance was met by different reactions from the public and the politicians who are now divided into proponents and opponents. Whereas the Accord Front called for mediation between the council and the government some parties in the UIA see that the council cannot be negotiated with and declared it a continuation of the former regime.

What is important in my opinion regarding this development and aside from whether to negotiate with it or not, is the very announcement of forming this new political entity.
It consists of remnants of the former regime and it had led the violent campaign against the change and now its leaders announce the transformation into a political entity seeking negotiations with the government. This represents an admission of the failure of the insurgency. The statement made was dignified with a triumphant tone but this is not the Baath we know. We never saw the Baath triumphant and seeking negotiations at the same time. The former regime never recognized the idea of negotiations and peaceful settlements and this is exactly what led the country to numerous conflicts with the neighbors or with inside adversaries.

Saddam accepted dialogue and negotiations only after he had met defeat. Power always came first in the ideology of the Baath and the cruelty with which Saddam oppressed his domestic adversaries reminds us that searching for negotiations means that the regime, or those who represent its way of thinking, are incapable of sustaining meaningful resistance.

The call for negotiations reflects the failure of the Baath's military option. This failure can be attributed to a number of reasons, the most significant of which is the determination of the Iraqi people and American administration to continue the march in spite of the pain involved in doing so. It became evident with time for the "resistance" that for the average Iraqis, going back to totalitarian rule is not an option and that an American pullout is not visible in the horizon.

Add to that the growing split between the two main current wings of the Baath; the more Islamist one led by Izzat Dori and the secular nationalist one led by Mahmoud Younis al-Ahmed and the deep conflict of interests between al-Qaeda and several Sunni militant groups. More important are the blows the joint troops dealt al-Qaeda and other extremists. For a long time the figures seemed inconclusive but now it seems obvious that the cumulative effect of their losses has made them hold the white flag.

Some of the other factors we can add are Saddam's execution and the legal proceedings taken against the leaders of the insurgency abroad. These have been choking them, especially those who remained active. Like we said before, the rope around Saddam's neck left scars on many other necks.

On the other hand, the rise of rational political and popular tribal Sunni leaderships, who are seen as heroes in the Iraqi west, caused the old "stars" to fade out. In fact the new leaderships seem to be more capable of leading the populace in the provinces where the insurgency was dominant even more efficiently than the Baath was.

The incremental building of a nation and the simultaneous prelude for the contraction of an insurgency were not easy to see through the smoke of battle, but now things have changed and the results will be clear.

Of course the challenges are still great, yet the defeat of al-Qaeda and the fall of the insurgency tell us clear and loud that determination can and will defeat the rest of the enemies.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Why Southern Iraq Won't "Awaken" Like Anbar

There is growing popular dissatisfaction with the poor performance of local administrations across Iraq’s southern provinces and the growing pressures practiced by clerics who are trying to Islamize the society.

To make matters worse are the atrocities committed by some militias and the bitter fighting among ruling parties in which ordinary citizens pay the highest price.
I think clerics and politicians in Prime Minister Maliki’s United Iraq Alliance realize this dissatisfaction may lead to an awakening movement similar to the one that has taken place in Anbar province in the western part of Iraq.

In order to make a comparison, and try to predict what’s likely to happen in the south, one needs to first understand exactly what happened in Anbar.
The core of the struggle there is an old conflict of interests between clerics and tribal sheiks. The two groups competed for leadership of the society for centuries. Even though the sheik might show loyalty to the cleric he still hides enmity for him; they’re each other’s nemesis.

This conflict of interests was evident in what happened during the revolution of 1920, less than a century before the division between those who supported the clergy’s revolt and those who kept their allegiance to the tribe and preserving its interests.

The difference between clerics and sheiks is huge; the first do not believe in negotiation and speak in terms of “halal” and “haram” claiming to be representative of heaven’s justice. Obviously you can’t negotiate deals with God so as far as the clerics are concerned, society must follow them, without asking questions.

By contrast, the tribal sheik was raised and taught to know how to lead productive negotiations. Tribal leaders have long played the role of judges to settle disputes among individuals within the tribe or between different tribes and when they do so they try to make sure that decisions are reached through consultation with the two sides of the dispute and would acceptable to both as well. In other words a sheik has to be a good negotiator, willing to hear both sides of the story and convince them to make concession in order to contain the problem and restore order—it’s an important part of his job.

Now let’s take a look at the difference between the Iraqi west and south.
First: In the west, the situation was much worse than the south. The suffering of the populace under al-Qaeda was intolerable and this was a factor that made anti-al-Qaeda sentiment grow fast and speeded the emergence of the awakening movement.
Secondly: the Sunni clergy represented by the association of Muslim scholars in a fairly recent organization cannot be compared to the long-established Shia clergy in the south. Therefore there was no strong ideological and spiritual connection between the clergy and populace in the west and the struggle between the two organizations (tribe and mosque) intensified.

In the case of the west, the Islamic Party, which was the only political body representing the Sunnis, was opposed to the association. In turn, the clergy turn did not offer the Islamic party blessings during the elections but instead declared it a renegade infidel body. By contrast the Shia clergy offered invaluable support to Shia parties and made their climb to power much easier.
Third, the Islamic state that al-Qaeda sought to establish followed the Salafi doctrine which still represents a minority faction among Iraq’s Sunni community which largely follows the Hanafi doctrine.
These three points summarize why the west and south have some very distinct differences.

From this, I think that the emergence of a tribal awakening against the dominance of religion in the south would run a serious risk of being smeared as a treacherous revolt against the sect-as a community-itself at a time when the Shia are for the first time enjoying the rise of their sect’s role in Iraq’s politics. The pan-nationalist Arab Salafi hostility toward them could make their “awakening” a double-edged sword - it would weaken their unity in the frame of the sect at a time when they still don’t feel completely secure in a pluralistic country.
What happens then?

Both Shia clerics and politicians feel the growing unrest and they know that awakening is coming. Maybe more slowly, because of the factors I mentioned, but surely. This is why they want to stay ahead of the rising tide.
We are therefore likely see a race take place within the UIA towards taking over the coming awakening - even though the UIA itself is the target. In other words, some parties in the UIA will try to maneuver quickly to tame and lead the awakening instead of standing in its way.
Last week or so the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) praised the efforts to establish awakening councils from among the tribes of the south “to fight outlaw Shia groups” but on the condition that the government, not the Americans, oversees the process.

Politicians and clerics are trying to avoid a scenario similar to that in the west and also to avoid repetition of what happened in the past when some tribes sided with the British administration and hampered the change called for by the clergy.
What the people in the UIA, particularly the SIIC, are thinking is the following ‘if there’s going to be an awakening that can be diverted from attacking us and exploited to serve our interests at the expense of our rivals then so be it!’
Here I think the SIIC is planning to shape the awakening to be exclusively an effort against Sadr movement which rejects the SIIC’s federal project and its control of local administrations to the extent that bloody skirmishes between the two are not uncommon.

This could be the case if the SIIC succeeds to put the awakening under the supervision of the Iraqi government, not American troops, and consequently under the leadership of Badr brigade.
If this happens the process would end up involving more infighting for partisan gains than awakening against the project to build an Islamic state.
The winner then would be the SIIC and to a lesser extent the Dawa, their grip over the region would become stronger, the position of the clergy preserved and popular dissatisfaction dissipated.
There's one more day of voting left guys, go ahead and show those bloggers some love!

The 2007 Weblog Awards

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Tale of al-Qaeda Two Tribes and a Militia, Contd.

For some time I've been hearing some debate, that in many cases involved warnings, about the possible negative consequences of US troops and Iraqi government allying with Sunni tribes in fighting al-Qaeda. Honestly I wasn't inclined to comment on this since I thought it was a no-brainer—those tribal fighters are fighting al-Qaeda like no one else did and the change in Anbar testifies for their effectiveness.

But then someone sent me this video and asked for feedback; so here it is…
Now believe it or not this video talks about the very same part of Iraq where an earlier story we reported was taking place [earlier follow up here] Small world, isn't it? the significance of that story and the sequence of development does not arise from the magnitude of the local course of events but from the fact that these have close resemblance to many other situations in spots with mixed populations cursed by the presence and activity of both al-Qaeda and Shia militias.

Now if we compare the two accounts; namely the part in the video where the Shia citizen says " it's the Falahat.." and my distant relative's frustration with the attitude of some Shia neighbors we can see that distrust does indeed exist; people who belong to the two different sects within the "ordinary" populace are inclined to blame the extreme wing of the other sect but sometimes they would also blame the other sect in general.

What I found misleading in the video is that it focused on one side of the case and ignored the other, especially when it comes to refugees. Because as far as I know, from the people I know who live there, there was forced displacement and an intimidation campaign that affected all the population and did not spare a certain sect or tribe. Most important, the displacement happened before the Sunni tribes joined the US troops in fighting al-Qaeda, not after it. In other words, while it's true the new alliance hasn't yet helped reverse the tragedy, it must be remembered that the continuation of the tragedy is not caused by it.

I can tell that the producers through their work were trying to warn from the consequences of recruiting and assisting supposedly former insurgents and the risk to have a fertile ground for civil war that is entailed in doing so. My only objection is that the vision reflected in the production of the video has a flawed order of priorities in addition to the confused understanding of the history of sectarian displacement in that region.

let’s look at the situation realistically; this is a battle in which there are certain priorities and these must be addressed first before moving to address a potential danger and a tragedy it had nothing to do with . And I insist on saying potential because we can now see that forced displacement and the resistance for its reversal comes almost entirely from the two extremes, not from the groups closer to the middle of the spectrum of either side.

Here's for example what an American officer in Anbar said some ten days ago:
"Colonel Richard Simcock, commander of the Regimental Combat Team 6 of the US Marine Corps pointed out the improvement in security in Anbar province…and pointed out that somewhere between 30-40% of Shia families have returned to their homes in Anbar after they had been displaced..."
Or there's the most visible example that all Baghdadis are aware of which is Karradah; despite the vicious attacks that targeted this district and the attempts to spark sectarian displacement there is still no evidence of significant forced displacement of Sunni families by the Shia majority around them.

In Iraq right now, as have been for a while, the greatest two threats are al-Qaeda and the Shia militias that do fight Iran's proxy war. While the shadows of all-out civil war, thanks to the surge which stopped the terrorist gangs from pushing the country into one, has been forced back to the bottom of the list.
Civil war in Iraq is no longer an immediate and imminent threat (I'm not going to criticize those who were saying in 2006 that it was already underway since facts have already done that) yet I have to admit that establishing this new balance of power involves the potential risk of having future disputes and maybe violent contestation for power among the now-considered moderate/friendly powers once the primary threats are gone.

What I'm trying to say is that we probably need to accept that we can only deal with things one at a time since it would be much more costly and complicated, if not impractical, to deal with all of them at the same time.
After all, the advantages that can be gained from defeating al-Qaeda in terms of time and favorable environment will offer a greater margin of freedom in dealing with future possible power-sharing problems and the prospects for success would become even exponentially greater if the Shia tribes start their own awakening too and break the other wing of extremism.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

It's been two weeks since we last updated this blog so it's time I come up with some excuses for that…
Well, honestly I have come to realize that trying to keep a serious blog frequently updated while attending an intense program at graduate school is a very difficult task.
However this does not at all mean I intend to stop blogging…

With time being the main constraint we are considering other means of publishing that can at the same time be less time consuming for me and perhaps more interesting to you than reading plain text. Several ideas and options in this regard are being weighed right now and I will let you know when and if those new means are finalized and ready to use, so bear with us please.
This also does not mean that usual blogging will stop; it will continue but probably at a lower frequency.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Al-Qaeda's War of Villages

Apparently this is the latest chapter in al-Qaeda's war manual in their war against the Iraqi people and the coalition; raiding remote peaceful villages, burning down homes and slaughtering both man and beast.

This campaign I will call a campaign of self-destruction. For probably a year al-Qaeda was trying to build their so called Islamic State in Iraq and several times they declared parts of Baghdad or other provinces as the capital of that state.
But now that they have been losing one base after another their objective changed from adding more towns and villages to the "state" to destroying the very same towns and villages! Obviously it's all about making headlines regardless of the means to do that!

This change in plans began to take face with the battle between al-Qaeda and the joint forces on September 6-7 in Hor Rijab and then the massacre that followed in the same spot a week later and finally the attacks on other villages north, south and east of Baghdad in the last week or so.

Actually first I'd like to recommend reading a good post by Jules Crittenden about the flawed timing of this Little Tet.
Anyway, our interest today is more about the field situation and strategy than about timing since the latter seems to be not so friendly to al-Qaeda. Well, actually timing is very important here too but at a rather different level.

In my opinion al-Qaeda found itself forced to start this villages war. It wasn’t a choice as much as a last resort because villages are among the few fighting spaces that al-Qaeda can still utilize as large cities become increasingly difficult for them to operate in.
They know that without engaging the enemy-that's us by the way-their existence and influence would end and I'm almost positive that they feel bitter about having to fight this way.

In order to fight a "good" guerilla war one has to stay in fluid state, have no permanent bases or barracks, no distinguishable uniform and above all one should be able to always have civilians around so as to deter the enemy-that's again us-from attacking out of concern about collateral damages and casualties among innocent civilians.
No one questions the fact that no army in the middle east, and I doubt there are any elsewhere, that can engage and defeat the US military power in open terrain, in other words in a case of two traditional armies fighting on traditional battlefield.

The last factor is exactly what al-Qaeda is sacrificing by waging this war on villages;

But how can we make advantage of this situation? The greatest challenge I guess would be to have an alarm and information system through which the nearest available troops could be notified when an attack begins so they could interfere and repel the attack. This might be logistically difficult to establish in a short time since villages are usually far from the cities. In fact I worked in some such villages and I know that most of them are outside the administrative divisions or "civil planning" of provinces therefore they lack their own government offices and departments which means the nearest hospital, fire department, even phone and above all police station could be many miles away.

But even then if the troops fail to arrive in time to intercept the attack, which would be truly sad, the long distance that al-Qaeda fighters would have to travel to go back to their base would require them to lose precious time since they have to rely only on ground transport on mostly exposed terrain while the troops very often have the advantage of the much faster air transport.

In the worst case scenario what's left of a village if the attack is not intercepted would be only al-Qaeda fighters and the remains of what used to be a village. Now isn't that the perfect target for the countless aggressive fire units of the US military?
Now please let's put emotions aside for a while because this is war we're talking about and if sacrifices cannot be avoided we should make sure the enemy pays the heaviest price possible.

If reaction is quick enough-and timing here is of crucial importance-the hunt would be great and the results would be spectacular.
Again, of course it would be much more pleasant if the attacks can be prevented or repelled but since I doubt there's such an alarm system we could at least make benefit of the gap in time that immediately follows the action of the attackers taking advantage of faster transportation means and the old principle in combat that says the enemy can be best attacked immediately after he makes his move.

For the duration of the war on al-Qaeda in Iraq so far, the most frustrating fact for soldiers and military commanders has been that they were asked to identify terrorists who move like ghosts, separate them from civilians and kill or capture them and that's a truly difficult mission. That's partly because a soldier would have to be careful when and where each bullet he fires would hit. But when the ghosts are identified, isolated and far from any friendly objects/personnel a pilot could drop even as gruesome a weapon as a napalm bomb and rest assured that even if it misses the enemy which is quite unlikely, it couldn't hurt a friend.

That's why I think the troops should seize each and every such opportunity (which are technically moments during which the crippling rule of engagement become much more flexible) and strike as hard as they can once they are sure the battlefield falls in the category we just described.

Monday, September 17, 2007

An Iraqi Alliance Breaks Apart

On Saturday, exactly six months after the Fadheela Party announced its defection from the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the Sadr bloc made a similar decision and withdrew from the alliance as well.

Abdul Kareem Inizi, the chief of Dawa Party-The Iraqi Organization (this is the other half of the Dawa, has 10 seats in the parliament) was the first to comment on the news:

“The first spark that marked the beginning of the UIA collapse was the announcement of the coalition of four, which is considered a bad move because [it implies that] the SIIC and the supporters of Prime Minister Maliki within the Dawa Party consider themselves to be the main powers [in the UIA] and this is arrogant and despotic thinking….after the withdrawal of the Sadrists nothing that counts remains in the UIA.”

Inizi said that his party too is thinking about following the steps of the Sadrists:

“The Dawa Party-The Iraq Organization is currently engaged in negotiations with the Sadr movement and Fadheela Party over the formation of a new bloc and in light of these negotiations we will announce our withdrawal from the UIA.”

Developments are moving so fast that the Sadrists and Fadheela have already announced that they have joined forces in a new political alliance, according to MP Hassan Shemmari from the Fadheela who made the announcement at a joint press conference with the Sadrists in Najaf yesterday. [Arabic Link]

The other opposition groups were also quick to seize the opportunity and flirt with the Sadr bloc, though a day later than Fadheela did:

“The Accord Front and Iraqi List welcomed the decision by the Sadr bloc to withdraw from the UIA, and pointed out that they will soon negotiate the formation of a new parliamentary front with the Sadr movement.”

This feverish movement to attract the Sadr bloc seems strange given the long history of rivalries between the Sadrists on one hand and the Iraqi list and Accord Front on the other - and it looks even stranger in the case of Fadheela with whom the Sadrists have been technically at a state of war in Basrah for a long time now.
But then it’s not strange at all since they all share the common goal of weakening Maliki’s ruling coalition and ultimately succeeding it.
So as expected, announcing the coalition of four is doing more harm than good to its members, especially Maliki so far.

Just before the two Kurdish and two Shia parties announced their coalition, the ruling coalition held a total of about 170 seats in the parliament; only a dozen votes short of the majority enough to pass legislation.
Now that the Sadrists have left it has been reduced to only 140 with a high possibility to go further down to 127 if the group of Inizi decides to go forward with their threat to leave the UIA.

Until now our math has been based on the assumption that the independent MP’s in the UIA (20 plus seats) preserve the status quo, but those too had flirted with the idea of abandoning the UIA and were just shy of declaring the step: now if the defection of the Sadrists encourages them to do so, the loss would go up to about 55 seats, leaving Maliki with little more than a 100 votes to work with on his side.
On the other hand, the Sadrists are unlikely to be successful in future political adventures in other coalitions be it with the Fadheela, Iraqi list or the Accord Front.

Largely because all four more or less believe their visions are representative of those of the Iraqi people. And so to them, entering any alliance won’t be about promoting the mutual interests of the members of an alliance but about using other members’ votes to impose the vision of their party - not exactly a recipe for a cohesive coalition.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Iraq Invades Washington

The American capital is going to witness intensified Iraqi presence and political activity in the coming few weeks.
First there are Sunni leaders who have been invited by members of Congress. The Sunni leaders are likely to make this visit coincide with former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi expected visit to Washington since the Sunni alliance with the Shia Allawi became more evident recently, especially after the latter confirmed that he had meetings with former leaders in the Baath Party to persuade them to join the political process.

A Sunni delegation at the level being reported wouldn’t go without a countermeasure from the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who represents the Shia-Kurdish coalition of four. In order to avoid any threat for this ruling coalition, the government announced that Maliki is going to head a big delegation to Washington later this month as well. I am certain that it will include important leaders that have good relations and contacts in Washington, such as Mowafak Rubaie and Hoshyar Zebari.

The Sunni-Allawi visit seems to be an effort to give more momentum to the emerging Sunni-American friendliness following the progress that has been made on the ground in several Sunni-dominated regions, and the dramatic change in attitude among the Sunni who turned from fighting the American presence to fighting al-Qaeda.
Add to this mix the dialogue between Allawi and former Baathist leaders, which actually diluted the enmity that some Sunni groups had towards America and made them think deeply about the end result should they keep up the fight against America and the Iraqi government. This proximity was crowned by Bush’s visit to Anbar and the praise he gave to its people.

Returning the visit aims to take advantage of what we just mentioned: it would serve the case of the opposition represented by the Sunni and Allawi, and to convince the American administration that it should cut the support for Maliki whom they’re going to undermine by describing him as a sectarian leader who puts Iran’s interests above anything else.

Tracking the statements coming from Sunni leaders we find a huge difference in the tone between the past and nowadays.

Until recently, most of the Sunni leaders used to say that the only solution for the situation in Iraq lied in the immediate —whether complete or gradual— withdrawal of “occupying” forces. Today, we see a firebrand leader like Salih Mutlaq say that he returned to the parliament because “we’re getting hints from America about an imminent change in the government.”
Yes, that Mutlaq: the politician famous for his firebrand statements is now ending his bloc’s boycott of the parliament because of “hints” from America!

On the other hand, the coalition of four realizes the threat posed by the initiatives of the opposition and so it will try hard to remind Washington of the old Shia-Kurdish-American alliance. Yet this attempt will probably have limited chances for success given the failure to bring about national reconciliation among rival parties, the disappointing performance of the government and the obvious tendency to side with Iran.

The last factor is very clear — not a single time al-Maliki did find the courage to criticize Iran; not even when Ahmedinejad made his extremely dangerous statement and offered to “fill the vacuum in Iraq”.
A few days ago one of the members of parliament asked al-Maliki what he thought about Ahmedinajad’s description of the opposition to the coalition of four in Iraq as “corruptors”. Maliki’s response was “and are they all good people?”
This kind of answers reflects the deeply rooted fear inside al-Maliki and his awareness about Iran’s reach. It obviously makes him afraid of responding to what the leaders in Iran say; even when he knows he’d be right in what he’s say.

Al-Maliki’s job will be very difficult this time, and it won’t be easy for him to convince his hosts. That’s why I think he will rely on his two right hand men, Rubaie and Zebari, who are still well-received in the American administration, to plead for more support and a second chance for his limping cabinet.
In my opinion the most exciting part of this is that the Sunni, Shia and Kurds all have come to realize and accept that America is the main player in Iraq.

On the one hand the Sunnis now understand that listening to those who pushed them to resist the political process made them lose so much. On the other hand al-Maliki, who just a few weeks ago responded to criticism from President Bush by saying that “Iraq could find friends elsewhere,” now clearly sees that those friends are not serious enough about their support when he is in the crosshairs. So now al-Maliki thinks, with advice from the Kurds, that the visit of the opposition poses serious threats to his position and that seeking help from Syria and/or Iran one more time wouldn’t be the right countermeasure.

I believe this will be a good opportunity for Washington as well. As long as everyone in Baghdad fears that the US would support one party and not the other, and as long as they know the consequences of this and that the solution is in rushing to Washington before the others, then Washington can apply more pressure on all three parties to put some serious effort into building true political reconciliation and rise above sectarian and ethnic considerations.
Washington can also say “Hey! We’re not here just to listen to you whining and complaining from each other. It’s time you listen to us and act as serious partners.”
So I believe this would be a good opportunity for the administration to convince the Sunni, Shia and Kurds that it’s time to accept one another and that there’s no other choice but to learn to coexist and work together. And, most importantly, to tell them that America doesn’t want to meet Sunni, Shia or Kurdish leaders defined as such; that it’s more interested in speaking to leaders who identify themselves as Iraqis first and foremost.

If those leaders continue to put their sectarian and nationalistic feelings first then they are bound to failure sooner or later: they will be rejected not only by Washington but most importantly by Iraqis themselves.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Abu Dsheer, a massacre and a moment of unity

A story of the savagery of al-Qaeda and the compassion of Iraqis took place two days ago in one of the southern suburbs of Baghdad.
The story began when the people of Hor Rijab, a village inhabited by mostly Sunni farmers, made up their mind that enough is enough and formed a "battalion" of local fighters to confront al-Qaeda hardly two weeks ago.
Al-Qaeda was definitely not happy with this rebellion and on Tuesday morning attacked the village, Radio Sawa has the details: [Arabic]

Locals fleeing the area said the attack started at 10 in the morning and the shooting didn't stop until after 5 in the evening. Al-Qaeda militants who are mostly Afghans and non-Iraqi Arabs killed dozens of the locals; some were beheaded and their heads were put on top of their chests; among them were women and children.

One woman who was fleeing the fighting added:

The people of Hor Rijab turned against al-Qaeda but since there was no support for them al-Qaeda returned back, broke into the homes and slaughtered men, women and children. And the Americans did nothing…

So, the terrorists of al-Qaeda attacked the Sunni families in this poor village and no one was there for the rescue; not the government and not the MNF. The rescue came from was thought to be a very unlikely source; the Shia families in the neighboring district of Abu Dsheer:

Al-Qaeda started to kill people and burn down homes. They killed women and children. The people of Abu Dsheer received us they way noble people do, and they started to offer us water and food…they told us we are family…

The tragedy of this village offers us a lesson that we must learn. First, al-Qaeda wanted through this barbaric massacre that belongs to the dark ages of history to prove that anyone regardless of sect who dares turn against them would become the target of the most horrific ways of revenge. Second, the noble behavior of the neighboring Shia town proves once again that violence in Iraq isn't civil war and that the reconciliation we should be looking for is one among politicians, not among ordinary Iraqis.

Third, it is really disappointing that neither the government nor the MNF was quick enough to intervene and stop the massacre. This means the government and MNF are likely to lose the trust of those families and this is a precious asset that we can't afford to lose at this critical stage of the war.

The government and MNF must pay the utmost attention to such movements of awakening in Baghdad and elsewhere and make sure that they get all the support they need.

Today al-Qaeda also assassinated the leader of the Anbar Awakening; a hero who will not be easily forgotten. This crime will not pass without punishment and I believe this will even strengthen the resolve and morale of the tribes of Anbar. Al-Qaeda have always miscalculated its role and chances in this province and I think killing Abu Risha is going to cost them a lot.

But as we lose Abu Risha, more patriots arise to stand up to al-Qaeda; this time in Mosul and the movement is lead by another tribal leader; sheik Fawaz al-Jarbah of the giant Shemmar tribe: [Arabic]
When terrorism became a serious threat we all felt that we had a duty to stand up to this threat, and so was the agreement with our brothers in the tribes of Mosul. There was a meeting that hasn't been made public yet and there we decided to create the awakening and salvation council of Mosul to confront terrorism in cooperation with the government forces and MNF.

The active forces of this movement will consist of 3,000 volunteers and with the size of Mosul and its suburbs we can expect those men to be distributed in a large number of small units. So I hope the government and MNF be serious this time about the support they pledge. Otherwise those men would be facing the risk of being outnumbered and overridden by the focused terrorists of al-Qaeda and that could mean more massacres of innocent people. We must not allow this to happen again.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Islam, The Solution..!? (Part II) The Bin Laden Video

It looks like Bin Laden didn't read my last post about Islam being the solution so I will repeat the question to him.
First of all what form of Islam are you inviting America to endorse? If it's Sunni Islam then do you reccomend the Hanafi, Shafi'i or Salafi doctrine? And if it's Shi Islam, which hierarchy would you recommend? The Iranianone of Khamenai, the Iraqi with its four great Ayatollahs, or the Lebanese represented by Hussein Fadhlallah? Or maybe sheik Bin Laden is going to graciously leave America to choose its new faith freely!?

Second, Bin Laden didn't specify how this endorsement of Islam would be enforced; should it be by an executive order from the Bush administration, a legislation from the Democratic Congress, or would it be up to the American people to answer Bin Laden's call, voluntarily?

The sheik had better leave people to choose their faith as they please but of course this isn't part of the ideology of dark intolerance that sees an enemy in anyone who doesn't endorse his exact same path.

This extremist path declared democracy an enemy and here although Bin Laden was referring to the Iraqi experiment he certainly doesn't limit this animosity to this case alone. I don't think he likes other democracies and that's why arguing that it was America that provoked al-Qaeda to interfere in Iraq, or that al-Qaeda didn't exist in Iraq under Saddam, is a stupid thing to say.
The man clearly says that he despices democracy as well as those who believe in it whether in Iraq or elsewhere. Now if he has the right to invite others to Islam then it should be equally our right to invite others to democracy. Except only if we admit that democracy is a sinful path and that Bin Laden is right, then America and the world should retreat from Iraq, abandon the mission to support the fledgling democracy over there and sit back and wait for other democracies to have their turn on Bin Laden's death menu.

America didn't bring al-Qaeda to Iraq, it's democracy in Iraq that made the extremists panic—their greatest fear is that if the once capital of the Islamic empire fell in the lap of democracy, what would "protect" other parts of the "land of Islam" from "falling" too!?

The conflict is not about Bin Laden and America; it's an ideological conflict in which there are people and regimes across the world that support one side or another, meaning that the conflict was inevitable even if America hadn't taken part. Otherwise the region would have been living in peace and prosperity now!

In fact, and I think many people agree with me, the American-led intervention was defensive rather than offensive when Bin Laden's ideology jumped to strike the towers in New York. At that point it became evident that such an ideology, in the presence of regimes that support it, could threaten any spot on the map with no exception from Bali to Madrid—and although the victims of this ideology have been mostly from the middle east, this could well change in the future if the extremist manage to take over the region.

We shouldn’t think that such crazy messages could come only from a Salafi extremist like Bin Laden; because it actually reminds me of a similar call from Khomeini to the leaders in Moscow to convert to Islam shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The late Ayatollah also said that Islam was the solution, so the point we should realize here is that this way of thinking is not an aspect of one particular sect as much as its part of the totalitarian ideology of Islamists that is deeply rooted in the minds of those, from one sect or another, who want to revive the Caliph rule.

Like we said in the previous post, regimes that follow this ideology, be it the Sunni Taliban or the Shia Mullahs, have failed to offer a civilized model of life so they chose instead to beautify and sell the idea of death under the old slogan of "Our dead are in heaven and your dead are in hell".

It's even more interesting in a way that this call for converting to Islam is a big fantasy since Bin Laden and the like know very well than America or other countries in the west would never impose a certain faith on their people. This message marks a deep trouble in the way extremists think; they live in illusions with complete disregard for facts, which is a very dangerous phenomenon when it's at this magnitude. And it leaves no room to doubt that they would do anything to drag the region, and the world, to an uncalculated confrontation.

It is evident from the naivety of the message that logic is completely missing in their ideology which means that dialogue with those people would be equally nonsense.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Islam, The Solution...!?

Yesterday Maliki went to visit Sistani to discuss the latest security and political developments with him.
It's the kind of a move that reflects the government's persistence to let clerics make the political decisions for the country. As if they haven't done enough harm so far!

Instead of reaching out to his partners in the political process from other groups he goes in the exact opposite direction and I really don't know what he thought such visit could do to improve his position, especially at a time when he's in desperate need to mend the rift in his cabinet.

When I think of this meeting I see that it can't do anything good for Iraq. It probably can serve one particular segment of the people but most likely it's an attempt to fix the damage caused by the Shia-Shia conflict following the recent incidents in Karbala which further isolated the "coalition of four" from the rest of Shia parties.

It remains difficult for Sistani to deal with that too because he doesn't only not represent all Iraqis; he doesn't represent all the Shia either. This man had isolated himself in a small room in the back alleys of Najaf and he communicates with the world only through his agents and representatives so he can't be expected to offer much help to anyone. And it's wrong to think that the man can solve any problem with a single fatwa—we had seen many examples where fatwas and statements by dozens of clerics of both sects that called for calm and rejecting violence got ignored and couldn't change a thing in the situation on the ground.

The problem with Maliki who's the leader of the Islamic Dawa Party is that he's just like all other Islamists who insist that Islam is the solution and that clerics are the ones who can deliver that solution.

But reality proved that political Islam is in fact the problem, not the solution. And this is true not only in Iraq but in many other countries in the region that are full of political Islamist movements. They build their rhetoric on what they like to call the golden age of Islam and promise that a new golden age could come if people returned to the roots of Islam…but what happened when Islamists ruled? Definitely not a golden age of any sort.

The first problem with their theory is that they can't say which version of Islam represents the solution. With all the sectarian differences we can see, saying that Islam is the solution is an empty slogan that requires a lot of clarification.
But the truth is, every rival party believes that their faith is the only true faith and when this dispute infected the political scene in the most violent way Islam became the most prominent problem. And that's how we ended up in the middle of a Sunni-Shia conflict as well as Sunni-Sunni and Shia-Shia conflicts.

The recent incidents in Karbala are striking evidence on how mixing politics with religion made brothers slaughter one another in a bloody war for power. Even the holy shrines were not spared in the fighting.
It's ironic that when a Muslim kills another Muslim or destroys the sites revered by his own people no one speaks of it here as a major problem but if a non-Muslim does that the uproar would be legendary!

In spite of all that Islamists still insist on their slogan and after all what happened Ahmedinejad wants Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia to "fill the vacuum" when America leaves Iraq…I can only imagine the way in which the vacuum would be filled and levels of violence that would accompany that!

The people remain the most important item in the equation as they are the ones who have the actual power to decide the long-term strategic choices with their votes.
In Iraq the experience with the rule of Islamists has certainly reduced the numbers of people who support the idea of Islamic rule and a there's a growing number of people who now began to question the idea about Islam being the solution.

So, there will be a great long battle between the two ideas; between Islamic rule and the separation between religion and the state--the current problem is that the people are divided into two, almost equal, groups in this respect. This means none of the two can prevail at this stage but at the same time the performance of the government made mostly of Islamists will no doubt lead to a steady decrease in its popularity.

Islamists have failed to offer a chance for a better life whether when they were in the opposition or when they got to rule the country. I think that's why they try to sell the idea of death instead of life; they failed to offer a better life so they picked up the slogan of death and "martyrdom" to promise a better life, but in an imaginary heaven; not in real life.

This strategy, in some time that cannot be specified right now, will mark the beginning of actual death but it will the death of political Islamist movements and maybe Iraq, the country where people have the right to make a choice, will become a grave for political Islam.
It will take more than one round of elections to declare them dead but I see that time is not on the Islamists' side.

The war is going to be long because it's a war of ideas—the conflict is not going to be a localized one and will have different forms because I believe the whole world is concerned and will take part in one way or another.

Identifying and supporting the true moderates would be a fair weapon to use in this war and I think American and the rest of the free world will keep trying to support positive reforms towards a better life to defeat the ideology of death.


Today I have an announcement to make...

Just two days ago I arrived in New York City and for the coming two years I will be studying international affairs at Columbia University, hopefully by the end of that I will get the master's degree I want!

So far I'm still in the process of settling in and figuring out what I need to do in order to actually start my studies.
However posting on this blog will continue and a new post will be coming tomorrow if not tonight.

And by the way, in case some of Ali's old readers are wondering where he is and like to contact him, he's going to college at Stony Brooks in Long Island.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Crossing Anbar

We've been getting some reports about the improvement in security in Anbar in the last few months but little was said about the highway that runs across the province.
The several hundred kilometer western section of the international highway is technically Iraq's second "port" in a way as it connects Iraq with Syria and Jordan and was for years the only window to the world when all airports and the southern ports in Basra were closed to traffic in the 1990s.

For most of the time between 2004 and 2007 taking this road was considered suicidal behavior as the chance someone would be robbed or killed was too high.
But with the tribal awakening in Anbar that cleared large parts of the province from al-Qaeda the highway is expected to be safer, but how much safer?

My family returned yesterday from a vacation in Syria and they have used this road twice in six weeks. I had tried hard to convince them not to do that and take a flight instead but now after hearing their story I'm convinced that my fear was not justified; the road is safe…

This is good not only for Iraq's economy and traveling but also for the American troops who can use this road as an alternative supply route in case the British troops withdraw and leave the strategic southern highway between Kuwait and Baghdad unguarded.

Back to the story; there are two travel plans for passenger SUV's and buses from Damascus to Baghdad; one includes leaving Damascus between 10 pm and midnight, reaching the Syrian border control before dawn, entering the Iraqi border control at 8 am and arriving in Baghdad around sunset. A total of approximately 20 hours with 6 to 7 hours lost in waiting and passport control.

The second plan includes leaving Damascus at noon and here convoys carrying the passengers continue to move all the way until a short distance northwest of Ramadi. At this point the time would be between midnight and 2 am and since that's within curfew hours in Baghdad, the drivers park their vehicles and everyone gets to sleep 3 or 4 hours and wait for the sun to rise and then the journey would continue.

Now the first plan sounds predictable, safe and well planned given the distance and necessary stops. But look at the second one carefully and try to picture the scene; dozens of passenger SUV's (GMC trucks mostly) and buses parking in he middle of nowhere in a zone that was until recently the heart of al-Qaeda's Islamic state! Obviously the drivers and families feel safe enough that they know they won't be robbed and slaughtered by cold-blooded terrorists. Even more interesting, this parking and resting zone was not designated nor protected by the Iraqi or American forces but simply an arrangement the drivers managed on their own perhaps with cooperation from the local tribes.

I still laugh every time I think of this incredible change and I honestly wouldn't have believed it if the story teller wasn't my father.

This sign of positive progress brings to my mind a sad irony. Back in 2004 when taking the Anbar highway was out of question for me, the Sunni dentist, I made the trip back and fourth between Baghdad and Basra countless times without any fear.
Now, I'm ready to try the trip through the west, but going south through the militia infested land is something I'd never dare do at this stage.

Aside from security my father told me one more thing that shook the common idea about the numbers of Iraqi refugees fleeing to Syria. Apparently the direction of movement is influenced by the season to a certain degree.

When my family's turn to pass through the passports control on the Iraqi side came, the vehicles that were still behind them on the Syrian side outnumbered the ones coming from the Iraqi side.
And that's not the only indication to the seasonal aspect of Iraqis' migration.
Six weeks ago when my family hired a driver to take them to Damascus the fare was $110 for each passenger since finding a car to take you out of Baghdad was difficult while the return trip from Damascus would cost only $25 per passenger because drivers were ready to accept any amount of money rather than to return to Baghdad empty handed.

Guess what, the opposite is now true!
It's supply and demand 101, this change in cost reflects a change in demand on the two ends of the route suggesting that a good percentage of Iraqis who flooded Syria in the beginning of the summer season were just trying to escape the summer heat and enjoy a simple vacation, like my family did.
It doesn't mean a refugees issue doesn't exist, but it does mean that Iraqis could sometimes be just normal tourists...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

This was said about the Palestinians, I believe, though it seems to apply just as well to our political class but with a difference. There are some opportunities our leaders never seem to miss: the ones that make things worse.

In the last few weeks, the major political parties in Iraq have kept taking turns at damaging the political process and ultimately their own government. First, the ministers of both the Accord Front and Allawi’s bloc withdrew from the cabinet almost simultaneously, just as the unjustified summer recess was starting.

Last week, the Kurds and Shias added their share of the damage by announcing their new coalition of four parties. The move is wrong in both timing and principle; on the one hand, the date for Gen. Petraeus’ progress report in September is getting near. On the other, it’s a step in the exact opposite direction to what is needed in terms of the surge — the life rope America has thrown to save the country and allow the government in Baghdad to win the confidence of its people.

In fact I don’t know what those people were thinking when they formed this coalition; instead of trying to mend the rift and glue back the fractured unity government they come and officially reduce the government to a Shia-Kurdish alliance and further sideline reluctant Sunnis and seculars.

And saying -as they did- that the door is still open for other blocs to join the new coalition is totally worthless in this case: by then, the Islamic Party of Vice President Hashimi (which the Kurds and Shia said they would welcome) felt shunned because they didn’t wait for them and rushed to announce their “front of the moderates”. And that without even inviting the arguably only true moderate secular group represented by the Iraqi list.

It’s even stranger to see someone like Talabani, who’s considered to be a sharp and thoughtful politician, wondering “why no one welcomed the new coalition.” What makes him and the other leaders of the four involved parties think that anyone would applaud this step? Are they really that naïve to think they did something good for Iraq, or even for their own parties?
Apparently they thought renewing the vows of their old alliance would strengthen their grip on the executive and legislative authorities and allow them to impose their narrow partisan visions regarding Kirkuk and the southern provinces. But I believe they are shooting themselves in the foot. They made the ruling coalition less representative than ever, and made another change more likely and more appealing than it already was.

Every time we think they are beginning to wise up one of them comes and does something stupid. While regular Iraqis want nothing but a decent life, the fat rich suits care only about competing for more power. And even in this they disappoint. All of them.

So, what’s the solution?

Changing Maliki and his cabinet without holding new elections can cut the time needed to bring a change, but with the downside that the new Prime Minister will still have to pick his cabinet members from the same pool of candidates. Unless he’s an extraordinarily tough man his choices would be restricted with sectarian and ethnic quotas. While these quotas may prevent a “tyranny of the majority,” they also lead to one deadlock after another.
But even early elections might not bring a breakthrough. There’s no assurance that new elections will result in significant change in the political map, mostly because a) existing major parties aren’t likely to tolerate fair competition, and b) the current election system elects slates instead of direct election of individual candidates.

To be honest the situation is a dilemma—we can’t tolerate more incompetence and frustration, and at the same we are not sure what early elections are going to bring. But it’s a risk we Iraqis need to take if we want to end this awkward scene.

Monday, August 20, 2007

It's been over a week since we last wrote anything and there's no excuse for this.

All I can say is that I promise to be posting again soon.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Talking to Iraq's Neighbors

I think it's a good time to make a preliminary assessment of the results of reaching out and talking to Iraq's neighbors in reducing violence in the country.

So, was it a bad suggestion to talk to them?
Not completely bad, and not completely good either, pretty much like any suggestion when the situation in question is as complex as Iraq's.

The results with Iran have been so poor so far, in fact the Iranian involvement in violence has increased as statistics tell us—the American commanders here said that attacks on coalition forces by Shia militias linked to Iran represented 75 percent of total attacks in July.
Although it's still unclear whether this rise was a result of more attacks by militias or of fewer attacks by other insurgents the overall outcome is that for some reason dialogue either failed to encourage a change in Iran's policy toward Iraq or even worse giving opposite results.

On the other hand we have Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Although Arabia was recently criticized by ambassador Khallilzad for not doing enough there are reasons to think that the three countries have to some extent contributed to the change in attitude among Sunni Arab tribes in Anbar; an effect that is slowly spreading to other regions around Baghdad, i.e. the Baghdad belts.

It is true that seeds for the awakening movement in Anbar were planted prior to the Iraq Study Group recommendations-perhaps some of you remember sheik Jad'aan and his fighters from last year-but it would be rather naïve to think that the movement gained all the sudden momentum we saw from a local initiative by some good sheiks.

In my opinion the Arab countries I mentioned have redirected much of the support they had been giving al-Qaeda and its allied tribes to the awakening sheiks and their fighters. And why wouldn't Arab countries do this!?

First Arab countries fear that Iran would control much of Iraq and they have come to realize that the only way to prevent this from happening is by allowing Iraq to become a stable state with which they can build good relations. Second their relations with America are already much better than Iran's which is seen as a common threat to them and to Iraq's stability. Add this to recent pledges with military aid in the billions and-I assume-guarantees that democracy in Iraq is not going to be a threat to their interests and we have a good package of incentives and disincentives.
This must have convinced them that they will lose if they keep putting their money on the insurgency as a way to stop the Iranian expansion.
This doesn't mean Saudi Arabia is doing all they can. After all it's the ideology they teach in their schools and mosques that keeps breeding terrorism and until they do something about that Saudi Arabia will always be responsible for creating new generations of terrorists who could strike in Iraq and elsewhere.

Then there's Syria which I'm going to leave aside right now since apparently there has been no change in its attitude in either direction. And we still haven't heard enough about meetings between American and Syrian officials, that's if there were any. Speaking of that I think the public in Iraq and America deserve to know more about what happened during previous meetings with Iran and Arab countries—I don't know about the media in America but I know our media here is not telling us any reliable information in this respect.

The question is what can be done in order to make talking to Iran at least as fruitful as talking to the Arab countries?

I don’t have an answer for this one and it looks to me that making progress on both fronts through diplomatic means is very difficult. This is because on one hand we have a group of Arab regimes whose core concern is the preservation of their regimes and whenever possible to slow down political and social reforms in their countries for as long as possible or at least make reforms a less dramatic process. These are things that America can, more or less, reassure them about since the idea of spreading democracy in the region is an America project in the first place.

But on the other hand there is a revolutionary regime whose ambitions go beyond preserving the regime to dominating the Middle East to which the road passes through Baghdad and Basra.
Today Rafsanjani complained that America was not sending "good signals" and I wonder what sort of good signals could satisfy the Mullahs; removing sanctions, allowing them to act as they please in Iraq, or maybe letting them continue their nuclear project?

My conclusion is that a diplomatic solution with Iran in the foreseeable future is very unlikely, unless the Iranians change their regime from within.
Therefore the only way I see to neutralizing Iran's interference would be to keep building the Iraqi state until it's strong enough to deal with this interference and meanwhile military operations should continue to eliminate Iran's surrogates and secure the border. This will ultimately weaken the power of their political wing as well.

Maybe this doesn’t look like a very good plan but it's better than a direct military confrontation with Iran and let's not forget that the change in power-balance on the ground could change the outcome of future negotiations, on the long run.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Untimely Recess

The withdrawal of the Accord Front from Maliki's cabinet and the persistence of the parliament on taking a month long recess is a major embarrassment for Baghdad and Washington alike and for anyone who was looking forward to seeing some political progress in Iraq before the September milestone.

When it comes to the recess, two main factions can be identified as the cause of the deadlock:

First there is the Accord Front. This bloc apparently trying through the withdrawal from the cabinet and preventing the passage of legislations by insisting on taking the recess to show that the government and particularly Maliki have failed.
Their moving in this direction suggests that they are betting that by proving their point they will have a chance to oust Maliki and form a new government by joining forces with other opposition groups namely Allawi's bloc, the Dialogue Front since these two blocs supported the Accord's decision and Allawi's is even planning to follow the Accord's steps out of the cabinet. The Fadheela Party and some independent UIA members could be potential partners as well.

Second we have the pro-withdrawal anti-American factions in the parliament; mainly represented the Sadr bloc in addition to some radical elements from the UIA and a few from the two Sunni blocs who are not getting along well with the moderate wing in the bloc. These simply want to halt the legislative process at this point hoping that this would put more pressure on Washington to withdraw from Iraq.

I don't have the vote record of the session in which the recess was approved but from the number (150 votes in favor of the recess) I think Allawi's bloc, or at least its members who were present that day have voted similarly perhaps for the same reason the Accord did.
I suppose Petraeus will not have a difficulty in showing progress military-wise but the question is, could that be enough to make up for the damage done by these political setbacks?

There's no question that achieving a dramatic military victory in 30 days is very unlikely when we're fighting terrorists and militias. On the other hand reversing the political damage dealt by the two developments in 30 days seems to need something close to a miracle.

These developments show that a majority in our parliament care only about themselves and their blocs' interests much more than they do about the country's in such difficult time and their attitude tells that the blocs don't want to work together and don’t want to reconcile their differences.
Like we always said, we don't need reconciliation among the people, we need reconciliation among the components of the political class and if they don't want to do this then I think the best solution to ensure a fresh political start would be to change the political class through early elections once the security situation allows for. And to do this Iraq will need the "surge" to continue for several months beyond September.

One thing makes me worried these days and I'm afraid that someone is planning a different bad solution. The rift between the minister of defense and the senior commanders including chief of staff of the army which led to a group resignation is an ominous sign that indicates a deep dispute between the two leaderships and this dispute seems to be over a political issue given their history in the military institution.
It would be too early to speculate that someone is planning a coup-or preparing to crush one-at this point but the mere thought of it remains a little bit scary.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Mesopotamia: The Champions of Asia

I wouldn't be exaggerating if I said hat today has been as exciting as one of those election days in Baghdad. Our national soccer team is playing for the Asian cup for the first time in its history. By comparison this is as if the American team is playing for the cup of Copa America against the team of Brazil or Argentina! But of course here in Iraq we care way more about soccer than Americans do. No offense meant of course!

The government had already announced shorter work hours in all government offices, including the parliament, for today so that people can go home early enough to watch the match.

2:00 pm…

I went out in the early afternoon to bring some food and gasoline for the generator as I had only a few liters left in the generator's tank and I didn't want to take chances.
I found that small crowds have gathered around gas vendors, obviously the demand is higher today and no one seems willing to miss part of the match because of a stupid gallon of gas. As a result gas price rocketed to more than 4 dollars a gallon; that's a 30 % increase from just two days ago.

Curfew was imposed at 4 in the afternoon and will last until tomorrow morning but in fact the streets were going to be empty even without a curfew.

Everyone seemed in a hurry buying what they need to before they all go home to sit in front of the TV sets.
I returned home, filled all three generators with gasoline just in case one of them fails us, which is something that happens quite often. I also put several cans of beer in the fridge and brought some Pringles chips. The ultimate snack when watching soccer, or pretty much everything!

The good surprise came at 4:30 when the state electricity came after two days of
absence; I assume it's a small "gift" from the government and the electricity department.

4:35, the match begins!

The first half (45 minutes plus 3 minutes of added time) showed clear Iraqi supremacy but it also showed the level of tension between the two teams. There was a lot of rough playing and as a result 5 yellow cards were shared by Iraqi and Saudi players. Actually it's well known that Arab teams become more aggressive when playing against another Arab team reflecting the kind of "brotherhood" among Arabs!

So, the first half ended without scoring any goals and the result remains 0-0.


I used the half time break to write these few notes and now I must put the laptop aside and go back to pop another can of beer and watch the second half.

Many Iraqis said they will be celebrating their team regardless of the result, so tonight there will be joy no matter what.


No, the joy is not for "no matter what"….Our team has just won the Asian cup for the first time in our soccer history. The win came through a magnificent goal by the head of our heroic forward Younis Mahmoud at the 71st minute of the match..
Our team ruled the game by all standards; in defense, midfield and attack our players proven that they are the best…they are now the masters of Asian soccer!

Today is definitely the happiest day for Iraqis in years. Tears of joy mixed with prayers for hope on the faces of millions of Iraqis…Words truly fail me and I can't describe the feeling so please pardon me if the post doesn't sound coherent; I hear the cheering and music outside although the bullets of celebration keep falling on the ground and roofs here and there. But no one seems to worry about that, the moment is so great that fear has no place in the hearts of the millions of fans, neither from bullets nor from crazy suicide bombers who tried to kill our joy last week.

Our players, tonight our heroes, learned that only with team work they had a chance to win.
May our politicians learn from the players and from the fans who are painting a glorious image of unity and national pride, and let the terrorists know that nothing can kill the spirit of the sons of the immortal Tigris and Euphrates.

The fear is gone, the curfew is ignored, tonight Iraq knows only joy...

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Flight to Nowhere

Catching any flight from Baghdad International Airport is an extraordinary experience in and of itself, but when the destination of your flight is Amman, Jordan, it reaches a whole different level.
I made this particular trip several times in the last three years, but my last journey was by far the worst.

I was used to the mild discrimination the Jordanians have been practicing against Iraqis at the airport in Amman in recent years. Passengers on a flight coming from any airport in Iraq do not exit from an ordinary gate like other passengers. Instead we are taken by bus from the plane parked hundreds of meters from the terminal under the watch of guards armed with automatic guns. Then we pass through extra security X-ray, metal detection, and a body search - before they get to the passports counters, even though all of us had passed through the strictest airport security system on earth before getting on board.

But that’s OK and we got used to it.

But recently our Jordanian brothers came up with a truly outrageous practice of discrimination against Iraqis. All disembarking Iraqi passengers now are taken to special passport counters in a hall separated from the rest of airport facilities regardless of the origin of their flights or the airlines they came aboard. Attached to this hall is what Iraqis call “the prison”.

In case you haven’t heard, Iraqi refugees stopped going to Jordan long time ago now because they know they would be turned away.
So the Iraqis I’m talking about are not refugees. Every one of them had a good reason for visiting Jordan; businessmen, official delegations, people who have family members who are residents in Jordan (residency in Jordan requires keeping $100,000 permanently in a bank in Jordan) and others who simply come to that airport in transit — to fly to another destination that is not among the limited destinations of the Iraqi airlines.

There are also people like myself who had to go there to apply for, or receive, a visa to the US, since ironically, the US embassy in Baghdad processes only two types of visas!

Last year, I received an admission offer from a prestigious American university to a master’s degree program in international affairs. It was a project I invested much time, hope and resources in for over a year. The story is long and I won’t bore you with the details.
Long story short, the American embassy in Amman recently notified me that my visa was ready to be stamped. I bought a ticket and got on a plane on my way to Amman confident that the documents I had would grant me access to Jordan for the week I needed…I was wrong.

I was ushered into the separate hall along with other Iraqi passengers, while foreigners on our plane were taken somewhere else. I was surprised by this new arrangement. “This isn’t looking good,” I thought, but I followed the procedure, handed my passport to the officer and sat down to wait as told.
Three hours later, I had been interrogated three times, shown every paper I had a couple times and got yelled at twice.

Finally I was taken to the other hall - “the prison”. At that point, I didn’t know what it was, and thought it was just another waiting stop. But the Iraqi guys who arrived before me briefed me on the situation. “Put your hand luggage over there in that room and quickly find yourself a blanket before they are all taken. You’re staying here for a long time brother!” one of the Iraqis said.
I was shocked by what I saw inside; a small passage with two rooms on the side and a third at the end; many Iraqis were chatting or lying on the floor with their bags littering the rooms. There were also some noisy children running around and sometimes crying. One room was designated as “women’s” room, another was for the men, the third was pretty much for children.

An hour passed before I could absorb what happened to me; locked up in a crowded room and just been denied the rare opportunity I had been working on for a year, for no other crime than being Iraqi.
There were about forty or fifty of us there at any point and the number went up and down as new arriving flights brought in more unfortunate Iraqis, or departing flights took some of us back home.

It wasn’t the typical scene of impoverished and suffering refugees, but in it’s own way it was painful to watch educated and professional people, doctors, businessmen and even diplomats with their red passports being treated this way; sleeping on the floor and asking for permission from a guard to go to the restroom.
No documents, letters, recommendations or pleads worked, even a phone call from the Iraqi ambassador couldn’t save the dignity of an Iraqi diplomat from being relinquished to “the prison”.
The most painful scene was of families of four being torn apart; half of the family would be allowed to enter Jordan while the other half would be rejected and ordered to go back. Many preferred to go home together over being separated like this.
One scene like this nearly turned to a tragedy when an old lady suddenly collapsed on the floor from a case of heart attack from all the stress she suffered that day. If not for the good Iraqi doctor among us, she would have died waiting for the medics to arrive.

The night was the longest ever. All of our stories were not enough to kill the time. and sleeping was not an option with all the noise and insufficient number of blankets. Many of the guys ran out of cigarettes early in the evening but luckily I had a full carton in my relatively large laptop bag! One elderly man somehow managed to get some hot water, a large kettle and some plastic cups. So we made tea and gathered at 4 am for a long tea and smokes party, waiting for the sun to rise and for the plane to come and take us home…

On the next day in the early afternoon, I boarded the plane that was returning to Baghdad with about a dozen other Iraqis. The kind stewardess was apparently familiar with cases like ours and noticed how tired we were so she immediately welcomed us with bottles of cold water and some kind words to comfort us, “There’s a few of you this time, yesterday we returned 75 passengers!” she added.
The guy sitting to my left said “There will be a day when they [Jordanians] will beg us to let them enter Iraq”.
No, the guy sitting to my right objected. “They were mean to us and they hurt us, but if we do the same we’ll have sunk to their level. Let’s instead hope that one day our country will become a better place.”

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Home Alone

I know I haven't been a loyal blogger to the readers recently and I apologize for that but I said before this is partly because of the summer season in Baghdad and all that comes with it.

The other reason is that my family is taking a long vacation outside the country, mostly to run away from the hottest part of the season; Aab al-lahaab (August of flames). Some in our parliament want to take a month-long vacation too but I'm inclined to think it's responsibility, not the flames of August they are trying to run away from…we'll see.
This leaves me basically with lots of cooking, shopping and cleaning to do since my brother Ali isn't that good at any of this kind of work.

While I'm going to particularly miss my two little nephews their absence also means I can enjoy weeks of quiet, you know, I love the idea that if I choose to not make a sound then there will be silence! I am glad I can enjoy this privilege for some time and I hope the silence will help me focus more on writing.

On the other hand being in charge of everything at home makes me pay attention to some details that I don't notice otherwise. The funnies and oddest so far was the phone bill I received a few days ago. It's the first bill we receive in more than three years which should be the case since our land line, along with a few dozen others in the neighborhood were cut when a cable was damaged in fall 2004. The funny thing is that the bill demands fees for the first six months of 2005 when we technically didn't have a land line!
I haven't decided whether or not I'm going to pay this bill but what could they do if I don't!?
The other thing I noticed, which was quite a surprise is that this little "daughter" as we say of one of our date palms is already carrying what soon is going to be sweet yellow fruit. Isn't that cute?

The main even that's been keeping me excited an entertained is the participation of our national soccer team in the Asian Cup. The results are excellent so far including this afternoon's match in which the team won 2-0 over Vietnam. This means for a change lots of the gunfire we hear in Baghdad are celebratory these days. Two hours after the match ended I still hear some gunfire but I can't tell whether or not it's still of the celebratory type.

These lines were not meant to be a serious post but I will end it with a quick update on some of the important parameters for assessing living conditions in Baghdad; the part where I live to be accurate.
Gasoline shortage is much less severe these days. It takes typically less than an hour to fill the car at the station and black-market price is down to only 3/2 the official price (60 cents/liter instead of 1.2 dollars last month). This can change in either direction at any minute though.
In electricity the supply has technically doubled. Don't get excited because by "doubled" I mean in increased from 2 hours/day to 4 hours/day. It's still better than nothing especially that we were expecting supply to decrease as the heat rises.

Like I said above I'm doing at least one shopping errand every day and this means I get to move around between groceries, butcher shops and bakeries more than I usually do and here too I noticed a new trend. The number of small businesses and shops did not decrease in and around our neighborhood as I used to think. In fact they just relocated from the main streets to the inner streets and alleys making it safer for both shoppers and store owners alike to do what they have to.

If I could do a short tour with a camera you would see that many of the stores the once busy commercial main street are now closed but at the same time many stores are budding from homes or simply appear in no time as new stalls are erected. It's one example of how the people have adjusted to the changing situation in some parts of the city.

One last thing, I will be on the air with a couple radio interviews next week. I will provide the when and where once they are decided.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Summer logistics, and more on summer politics

The weather in Baghdad is painfully hot. And the constant struggle with daily life logistics is depleting by energy reserves.
I tried so many times to hold a pen or touch the keyboard but I couldn't finish even one coherent paragraph although there's no lack of ideas or events…it's frustrating but, I'm trying to force myself to accept it because there are still two more months to go before the annual visit of hell to Baghdad ends.

These months have been the worst in electricity supplies ever. We're getting an average of one hour per day of electricity from the grid. The last time we had such hour was three days ago! And I assume some of you are familiar now with what it takes to maintain those small generators we use at home.
And it just gets worse; my internet connection has been down for 10 days now and the backup connection is having some mysterious problem with all google-based services including of course blogspot and gmail which are indispensable to me.

I'll borrow a few lines from an Iraqi journalist I forgot his name to put it shortly. This is what he said describing life in Baghdad summer "people in normal places wake up in the morning feeling they had enough rest to start a new day. Here we wake up feeling as tired as people do when they return home from work"

But I digress….

Let's move to some serious topics but first of all I want to suggest a moment of silence to honor the souls of the innocent victims of Yesterday's terrorist attack in Emirli and other attacks elsewhere in Iraq…thank you.

On the political front there are some interesting developments. You probably heard about the message Maliki sent yesterday to the Sadr movement demanding they clarify their position from the violent elements among their followers. It wasn't as tough a message as we were hoping but it's still an interesting step that broke the fear barrier that Maliki put between himself and Sadr.

In fact it seems that this statement is part of government plan to weaken Sadr's position through public frank statements.
On Saturday there was a demonstration in Nasiriyah against militias. The governor called for the demonstrations and the tribes answered the call and took to the streets demanding rule of law and limiting the use of arms to the forces of the government only.
Not long before that there was a similar and larger demonstration in Babil demanding the same thing. The attitude in Babil is remarkably good in this respect. Sadr's militiamen and aides are often targeted by local police. In my opinion the local government in this province is one of the most realistic ones we have. They were the only local government that refused plans for security handover and explained straightforward that the local ISF was not ready yet to handle security in the province. Unlike others who rushed like fools to assume security responsibility while they know they don't have enough tools to do so. That's if not they did that on purpose, I can't tell.

Before I forget I think it's also worth mentioning that Al-Sabah-for the first time in over a year-mentioned the Mahdi army by the name in its report on clashes in Diwaniyah, Samawa and Basra in the south.

These are all signs of change in attitude but they can't be considered a true change unless magnitude and frequency increase significantly in the little time Iraq has to show that tangible progress is being made.

In earlier posts we talked about the attempt by the four main Kurdish and Shia parties to establish some sort of "moderate front".
These days another initiative to improve power sharing is emerging, apparently an idea endorsed by Talabani since he's been speaking enthusiastically about it more than he did about the moderate front idea.

The idea is basically about forming a coalition of individual leaders at the level of presidency and premiership. Talabani called it the "3+1" formula to distinguish it from the "2+2" formula for parliamentary rearrangement.
The concept is simply to give the two vice presidents, president and PM more or less equal voice power when dealing with critical decisions. The constitutional foundations for such arrangement are ambiguous but maybe that's not a big problem at this point, after all the constitution itself is going to be subject for several amendments.

The "3+1" idea is somewhat attractive; these four men are arguably among the most moderate (relatively) leaders in their respective parties and so if they can actually make this deal for sharing executive authority then perhaps they will be able to make a difference.
In my opinion it could be easier to make Abdul Mahdi and Hashimi for example agree on something that if we had Hakim and Duleimi. And at this point there could be a good chance for that the former couple to become more influential in their parties than the latter as Hakim fell sick and Duleimi is about to be ousted from leading the Accord Front.

And yes, I heard about the CBS report and I doubt its accuracy for more than one reason. But I didn't follow any news today so I'm not aware whether there have been updates; anyway the 15th of July is only a week from now.

That's all for now…

Monday, July 02, 2007

More Baghdad Summer Politics

News about the creation of a so-called ‘moderate powers front’ is making the headlines in Baghdad’s papers again. This time headed by the ruling parties, not the opposition, al-Sabah reported last Wednesday:
The two Kurdish parties (PUK and KDP), the Dawa Party, and the SIIC agreed yesterday (Tuesday) to form a national political front that will be officially announced next week.

And as usual the Dawa and SIIC can’t move forward on anything without the blessing of Ayatollah Sistani, so the SIIC sent Abdul Mahdi to Najaf to brief Sistani on the plan:
Vice president Aadil Abdul Mahdi briefed Ayatollah Sistani about the national front that was reached among the four major parties as well as the efforts to broaden the participation [in this front].

Abdul Mahdi said during a press conference after meeting his eminence in Najaf that, “We support the elected government,” [to answer questions about replacing Maliki before they are asked] and added, “We have informed Sayyid Sistani of the new coalition that would soon be announced, and we reassured [him] during the meeting that there was no intent to undermine the current government.”

I think that the new-old Kurdish-Shia coalition needs to have something more than God’s blessings via Sistani. Seeking the approval of senior clerics, and similar shows of support, have become obsolete, boring, and likely as ineffective as they have been in the past.

The formation of this coalition seems to be a precursor to Maliki’s plan to radically reshuffle his cabinet. Perhaps by dropping all of the “extra weight” and replacing the current cabinet with a slimmer one of just 20 posts:
Haider Ibadi, a member of parliament close to PM Maliki said the latter is seeking a radical cabinet reshuffle, Ibadi added that there’s been a suggestion to reduce the number of ministries down to 20, and [to move] away from political quotas.

The position of the Accord Front, particularly the Islamic Party, continues to oscillate between the two options. Al-Sabah wrote on Wednesday:
Members of parliament from the Islamic Party Alla Makki said the party was currently considering the option of participating in the national front announced by major political parties.

On the other hand, the Iraqi List continues to move forward with its own plans to form the political mass we mentioned in earlier posts. Al-Mashriq wrote on Wednesday:
Sattar Bayir, member of parliament from Allawi’s party said, ‘The negotiations have gone decently so far to form the suggested Iraqi front. The movement is to form an Iraqi front from all national parties, organizations, associations and figures.’ And he added that there are ongoing negotiations with various parties including the Accord Front, the Dialogue Front and the Fadheela Party…

In a later, relevant development, Talabani announced a power-sharing agreement between the presidency (Talabani, Abdul Mahdi, and Hashimi) and the premiership (Maliki, Saleh, and Zawbai). Al-Sabah reported on Thursday:

Talabani added: There has also been an agreement between the presidency and the premiership to establish group-leadership according to the constitution which states the fact that the executive authority consists of these two leaderships, and by doing that the complaint of sidelining the representatives of Sunni Arabs in decision-making can be dealt with.

It looks like the two political poles—the ruling coalition and Allawi’s group—are competing for the votes of the Fadheela and the Islamic Party, but in slightly different ways. While Allawi needs the votes so badly that he’d even invite the Sadrists (as he himself said yesterday in an interview on al-Arabiyah); the ruling coalition is more interested in winning the Islamic Party to its side to gain a Sunni element in its lines. An overt attempt to give an ethno-sectarian coalition the national cover it needs.

In fact I’d even say that the Kurdish-Shia coalition since its inception has been ignoring logic and geography. Both of them have direct borders with the Sunni populated region, and almost no direct contact between their communities. The Kurds for instance allied themselves with the Shia, while it’s the Sunni who are in direct contact with them, standing between them and Kirkuk. Normally solving the problem would require dialogue and understanding with the influential party on the ground. Not with the party sitting hundreds of miles away.

The other side of this deliberate ignorance of logic is represented by the dream to build an ethnic Kurdish state in a region where neighboring countries have problems with significant Kurdish communities. Thinking about creating an ethnic state in the age of globalization reminds me of the Arab dream to create a racist mono-state in the last century. And the same is true of the Shia when they think of creating a state after the Iranian model when that very model is getting more isolated from the rest of the world with every move it makes. Here too there’s a geographic factor when they, the Shia, ignore the presence of hard-line Sunni states in the neighborhood.

So back to a short note on Allawi who made a rare public appearance yesterday. As usual his answers were elusive most of the time, but after some persistence from the host he finally voiced his frank opposition to Maliki, and said the latter was Prime Minister of the UIA, not of Iraq.
In general, the prospects of the two ventures are in critical equilibrium; Allawi’s has the appeal of non-sectarian secularism while its major weakness is the lack of a significant Kurdish component, which will no doubt reduce its chances to become the widely-representative ruling coalition unless it succeeds in snatching one of the major Kurdish parties and adding it to its ranks.

On the other hand the Shia-Kurdish core of the other camp has the weakness of still not having a Sunni component. The advantage it might enjoy from controlling key posts in the government which allow it access to resources and publicity, is counterbalanced by the heavy burden of a record of poor performance in running the state.
Finally, and although I don’t want to take sides in this, I have to note that the Kurdish-Shia attempt only seeks to secure a lasting parliamentary majority in order to pass legislation that fulfills their narrow ambitions. After all, the alliance between secular Sunni Kurds and conservative Shia Arabs highlights only the opportunist nature of the two sides.

Allawi’s ambitions on the other hand are more clear to some extent. He’s secular, but he’s also known to have some of the common qualities of authoritarian leaders.
However, time has shown that he too would play the game only if he is sure he can win. And the fear of the Kurds and Shia parties indicates that Allawi is taking the game seriously this time.

When this level of activity takes place while the cabinet has 13 void seats and the parliament has about 80 void seats we can expect that a big change is in the offing. Which front will lead this change is still up in the air.