Monday, May 19, 2008

Iraq Hunts Al-Qaeda in Its Last Urban Stronghold

Although we haven’t written anything about the operation in Mosul which started a week ago, I’ve been closely following its developments. The reason why I waited is that we had often heard about a new operation, which would then turn out to be just a rumor. Anyway, the operation this time has actually started, and the arrival of Maliki and his defense and interior ministers in the city leaves no room for doubt about the seriousness of the government in seeing to the plan’s success.

The interesting thing about the operation is that it’s been suspiciously quiet, to the extent that one wonders if there’s actually any operation going on. In fact, Mosul has seen the calmest eight days of the last five years.
The operation won broad approval and support even before it started, which -especially among Sunni blocs- is another positive product of the Basra operations. As we can see, the usual sectarian rhetoric about biased targeting of Sunni regions without Shia ones has been absent this time. In addition to the parliamentary approval, the operation won public support represented by the tribes’ willingness to take part in the operation. The chief of the awakening councils in the province, Fawaz Jerba, said that there were ten thousand men ready to take part in the operation.

However, the government preferred not to get them involved right now and is moving forward to form seven battalions of police from the residents of the province. These battalions are likely to have an important role in maintaining security and order after the operation ends. Two of these units will be assigned to Tal Afar: one will guard the bridges in the city, another will operate fixed checkpoints on the main highways leading to the city. The rest will be added to the existing security forces in Mosul. All are to be led by former army officers.

Initial results of the operation included the capture of 1,100 suspects and wanted individuals, according to the spokesman of the defense ministry, Mohammed Askari. Most of those are officers in the former army and members of the military bureau of the Ba’ath Party, along with a bunch of al-Qaeda emirs; yet to be named, three of them are described as being among the most dangerous in Mosul.

What’s special about the name of the operation - “the Mother of Two Springs” - is that it’s the adorable second name of the city which it gained from the relatively nice climate it enjoys. It’s a smart replacement for “Lion’s Roar,” which some found to be needlessly scary, especially since we need a real lion more than we need the roar!

What’s unique about this city is its prestigious military history. The Iraqi army had long relied on Maslawis to build its officer corps, which is a source of pride for the city. In the beginning there were rumors in the Sunni community that stemmed from the fear that the operation might turn into an organized act of cleansing against those officers or a twisted implementation of the de-Ba’athification law. However, the defense and interior ministries strongly rejected that allegation and announced that 80 of those detained were released after they were not found guilty of crimes. The Ministry asserted that arrests were based on accurate intelligence. Actually, some in the government are boasting that this is the first operation in which most arrests have been made according to legitimate warrants.

In my opinion, the suspicions of both sides are understandable due to many years of distrust between Mosul and the government. On the one hand, the targeting of former officers and Ba’ath Party members is based on the fact that they made up the bulk of al-Qaeda hosts and supporters in many places in Iraq. On the other hand, there are former officers who don’t have blood on their hands but are terrified by the countless stories of Shia militias –particularly the Badr Brigades– undertaking acts of revenge against officers who fought against Iran in the 1980s.

As in Basra, the government gave an ultimatum for militants to hand in their weapons and offered amnesty to those not involved in crimes involving murder in order to make the operation as bloodless as possible. And indeed reports indicate that scores of militants have already handed in their weapons - an encouraging sign in a turbulent city that hardly ever trusted the government.

Among the results of the operation was the discovery of many weapons caches, which included several thousands of pounds of explosives and hundreds of rockets and artillery/mortar rounds. The amount may sound small given what’s expected to be found in a city that is the last urban stronghold of al-Qaeda, but it’s still an encouraging start since the operation began only a week ago.

Another important thing that distinguishes this operation from previous ones is the active participation of the infant Iraqi air force through transportation and daily reconnaissance sorties. Iraqi officers say that this is the first time they are able to rely on the Iraqi air force for valuable live imagery of the spread-out city.

Some of the critics of the operation noted that announcing the operation before its launch gave al-Qaeda a chance to leave the city for other places, including neighboring countries, thus enabling them to dodge the strike which might waste the chance to crush them in their last remaining stronghold. I personally disagree with this argument. What matters, after all, is to clean the city of al-Qaeda, preferably without fighting. This illustrates a very important trend that we first saw in the Baghdad operations last year; that al-Qaeda now knows that it cannot afford to confront the security forces anymore. Now, instead of digging in and fighting “glorious battles” in Fallujah or elsewhere, al-Qaeda is more inclined to run away than fight. This is a true sign of al-Qaeda’s weakening and of their ultimate defeat.

Last but not least, I was surprised to see the leading opposition newspaper Azzaman, which had always been skeptical of everything the government does, praise the operation. To see a headline on Azzaman that says “Al-Qaeda Is Limping, Its Leaders Flee Mosul” means a lot to anyone familiar with Iraqi affairs.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Iraq Quietly Confronts Iran With Evidence of Weapons Trafficking

The Iraqi minister of defense pushed the debate with the Iranians over their provision of weapons to Shia militias one more step on Monday. Minister Abdul Qadir Obeidi indirectly confronted the Iranians, without naming them, with new findings that prove their involvement in the arming of Shia militias.
On Monday, state-owned al-Sabah published a statement by the minister in which he spoke of the capture of a certain type of rocket that was never found in militia-held caches until now:

Defense minister Abdul Qadir Mohammed Obeidi revealed that army troops found a 200-mm ground-to-ground rocket manufactured in 2007 during a search operation by the troops north of Basra. Obeidi told al-Sabah in an exclusive interview that, under international laws and norms, this kind of rocket can be traded only with the approval of parliaments and is used only at times of extreme necessity during wars … and wondered how this rocket entered the country. Obeidi added that this rocket can be launched only from a special platform and by specialized crews.
From what I read in Iraq’s two biggest newspapers, it seems that the government is trying to step up the rhetoric against Iranian interference in Iraq and to induce uproar among the Iraqi public. Azzaman had the following information about the found rocket, provided by “intelligence officials“:

The rocket was manufactured in 2007 in Iran and is called Falaq-1. Falaq-1 is a strategic missile of immense destruction power and was used by Hezbollah against Israel in the July 2006 war. …The sources mentioned that launching this type of rockets requires a crew of several people with advanced technological expertise…The sources, that preferred to remain unnamed, said that if this rocket was launched at a target, it could obliterate an entire city and kill all of its inhabitants even if those numbered by the tens of thousands…the same sources added that increasing the range of the rocket is not a complex process and can be done inside Iraq and clarified that the discovery of this strategic rocket in Basra poses a threat to security in Iraq and the Middle East. The sources expressed fear that large numbers of this rocket might have entered Iraq with crews to launch them. If that happens then we'd be on the brink of a domestic and regional security crisis"

The exclusivity of the first statement and the anonymity of the "intelligence sources" that provided the second indicate that the message is selective in choosing the target audience; that is primarily the Iranian government and, as an inevitable byproduct, the Iraqi public. Iraqi government officials seem to have exaggerated the material significance of the finding on purpose. They also realize that western journalists and readers very unlikely to buy these exaggerated statement-that's irrelevant anyway since this is a conversation meant to be between only Baghdad and Tehran.

The minister of defense is of course no idiot when it comes to weapons and their uses and specifications and he knows that bigger rockets have occasionally been found or destroyed. He served in the former and new army and his old colleagues including the ITM father testify to his professionalism and knowledge. It's timing and attitude in Baghdad that decided the sudden intensification of the tone, not the caliber of rockets.
I think the government in Baghdad is trying to say the following to the Iranian counterpart:
1-the provision of small arms is one thing but the provision of heavy weapons that can cause panic and relatively much more destruction is another.
2-if we can accept that machineguns, RPGs and mortars can be smuggled into Iraq without the Iranian government's knowledge; we can't accept the same claim when it comes to weapons of this magnitude.
3-we know and you know that you're providing these weapons and we can't remain silent anymore. At the same time neither of us is going anywhere anytime soon, so we must learn to coexist. You don't wan us to be your enemies and we can't afford to make you ours at the moment, so knock it off and let's not show the world the dirty laundry.

The message is quite clear and simple. Baghdad sent a delegation last week to ask Iran to stop the flow of weapons and support to Shia militias. When the delegation returned empty handed the government immediately announced through spokesman Ali Dabbagh that it will work to collect and display evidence of this support-A day later the conversation escalates with the above statements. The question is; is Iran going to respond reasonably or is it going to keep denying its involvement in the crime? And if it does, I wonder what the next escalation in the conversation is going to look like.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Do Iraqis Want an Arab Nuclear Bomb?

The change that took place in Iraq was not only a political one but also, and more importantly, a change in awareness; something that isn't easy to detect.
This is what I see clear in the nature of Iraqi dialogue among the public, and I'm always pleased by the degree of awareness and open-mindedness that emerged in the years that followed the change. I believe it is an important indication about the future.

Recently I've been reading through one of the BBC forums whose topic is basically "do Arabs have the right to possess nuclear weapons?". I didn't hesitate to read all the contributions, which numbered over 600 from various Arab countries. I wasn't surprised by the nature of Iraqi contributions to the discussion. I had always called these "singing outside the Arab flock".
This "singing" is almost always faced by attacks from the rest of Arabs who often generously use the word "traitors" when addressing their Iraqi counterparts just because they have different views about one issue or another.

What made me tackle this issue was not only the difference between the Iraqi and mainstream Arab views but the characteristic understanding exhibited through these Iraqi contributions of the nature of the challenge posed Arab possession of nuclear weapons to the region and especially to Arabs and Muslims themselves.
42 out of 47 Iraqi commentators voiced absolute rejection to the idea of nuclear weapons in Arab hands. More important is the consensus among those commentators that stable democracy is prerequisite to the acquisition of immense tools of power such as WMDs. Not only that, in fact some of the commentators even emphasized that only Israel has the right the possess nuclear weapons in the region because of the hostility and fanaticism of the regimes it's surrounded by.

There's no doubt how dangerous it is to allow dictatorships and WMDs to exist in the same place, and it seems that the change in Iraq has strengthened this conviction among the people. I am not surprised that Iraqis, whose country's been the field of war are more vocal and serious about rejecting proliferation and violence that peoples in countries where change hasn't happened yet. in my opinion this is the answer to present to those who claim that war has led to more extremism. In fact war did lead to more extremism, but only among those opposed to the change and who see in it a threat to their extreme ways which they try to impose on the others.
Now I leave you with some Iraqi comments. I will avoid translating comments from other Arabs since I'm sure you already know what those sound like…

"Besides the fact that nuclear programs place a heavy burden on the weak economies of Arab countries, harming the poor day in and day out…I indeed do not feel safe when I know that an Arab regime possesses such weapons because these weapons would be commanded by the desires and impulses of rulers who have been proven incompetent in anything except for repressing and impoverishing their peoples.
Mo'ammar Qaddafi has been sitting on the chest of his people for 40 years, so can you imagine figure what it's going to be like when he acquires nuclear bombs? Not to mention our horrible experience with Saddam Hussein who used WMDs against his own people."
Lateef Baghdadi. Baghdad/Iraq

"I wish from all my heart that Arabs get to build nuclear weapons because they will use them against one another and against their peoples-what Saddam did is the best example. Consequently this would lead to the extinction of Arabs and by that Arabs would be giving a free service to the civilized western world by ridding the world of themselves and their terror. The world will become safer."
Ammar Rahmatallah. Baghdad

"My name is Haider Mousawi from Arabic Basra. I absolutely refuse that Arabs acquire nuclear weapons, at least for the time being, for several reasons. First, it's dangerous for them before others, as Arab rulers are not wise and might use them against one another or against themselves (just like the former rulers of my country did to their people and the region's peoples). Second, nuclear weapons could not save super powers like the USSR from collapse. Third, they are very expensive, so it's better to [spend money] fighting poverty and unemployment. Fourth, those weapons are going to be a burden on their producers in the future and fifth, a peaceful program makes more sense."
Haider Mousawi. Basra

"Arabs' or Iranians' possession of nuclear weapons is like putting a live grenade in the hand of a six year old. That's what I consider it a huge crime against themselves and their countrymen first, and against the world second. I had worked at the Iraqi Atomic Energy Agency for several years. And although I completely believe that the Iraqi nuclear program was over by 1991 and although I refuse America's justifications for invading Iraq, I still thank God day and night that that program had been destroyed. That's because otherwise Iraq's situation would have been worse than it is right now.
No to any Arab nuclear program."
Dr. Imad Abdulwahab. Canada

"The world shall not permit Arab countries ruled by dictatorships to possess nuclear weapons or any other type of WMDs because these countries are often ruled by the impulses of one man such as the dictator Bashar Asad. This technically means that the weapons would belong to an individual, not a state and this individual might decide to sue them in a moment of anger or recklessness leading to disasters. We witnessed what Saddam did with his chemical weapons and how he decided to murder Iraqis with these weapons without a reasonable justification for their use. That's why no tyrannical regime should be allowed to possess these weapons."
Ahmed. Baghdad

"Even thinking about this subject should be forbidden to Arabs, Iranians and Muslims because of the factor of religious and sectarian extremism. The world would be living in the dark ages had these dangerous weapons fell into their hands."
Saad al-Iraqi. Baghdad

"Arabs do not have the right to possess nuclear weapons. The Arab mentality cannot handle uranium; they're good for no more than rifles. Had Saddam had nuclear weapons, he would have bombed all Arabs; Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, even Saudi Arabia and the Ka'aba."
Fadhil Bayati. Mosul

"No, no Arab country has the right to possess nuclear weapons. The reasons are as clear as the sun at noontime…All Arab leaders are not qualified for leadership; first they're stupid and second they're criminals. Imagine what someone who commits crimes against his own people do if he had nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons should be in the hands of only civilized democratic regimes, not backward criminal regimes.
If Arab rulers get to acquire these weapons then, well, so much for planet earth!!!"
Abbas Husseini. Thi-Qar/Iraq

"Imagine that Arabs were in Israel's position and had these weapons, would they stand idle? Certainly they would bomb Gaza and destroy it altogether. Imagine that Hezbollah had these weapons, would it sit back and watch or use them? You have a big example in Saddam."
Tariq Sajid. Baghdad

"I think that only mature democracies have the right to have nuclear weapons…"
Ali al-Ali. An Iraqi in Jordan

"Only democracies like Israel or India can have these weapons while Arab countries would threaten world peace and the future of life on the planet. Even if Arabs don’t get to have strategic missiles to strike the west, they'd detonate [the weapons] in their homes and against their peoples in any case of revolt.
When Arabs acquired conventional explosives they strapped them to their cars and their own bodies and enhanced them with nails and ball bearings to attack civilian crowds at weddings and hospitals. This is what happened and keep happening in Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Egypt and all other places infested with terrorism."
Mohammed al-Iraqi. Baghdad/Iraq

"By no means can Syria, the member of the axis of evil and their followers be compared with Israel. If Israel wanted to strike Muslims with WMDs it would have done it long time ago. While if an organization like Hezbollah acquired these dangerous weapons-God forbid-they would murder the innocent and the guilty alike and then regret would be useless…peace be with those who want good for others the way they want it for themselves."
Ahmed. Kufa