Wednesday, June 27, 2007

There's more than numbers for those who want to understand

It's almost July now, and General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker will present their report about the situation in Iraq, military and political, at some point in September.
I don't know what parameters the two men are going to list statistics for in their report but I expect it to show the results of fighting al-Qaeda and other armed groups in numbers, the progress in building the ISF in numbers, also in numbers and of course the report would include the progress, if any, that our political leaders will have made by the time.

I think what matters more than the way of presentation would be how the data in the report is going to be read and afterwards interpreted into attitudes and actions.
One thing I hope the decision-makers and the media do when they read the report is to not isolate the war in Iraq from the war on terror and al-Qaeda as a whole, and at the same time put in mind the difference between war and nation-building. The latter takes much more time than winning a military conflict but requires different tools.

The results so far have been astounding, and please allow me to say that I'm proud of the change in attitude many of my fellow Iraqis are showing. Even if numbers don't suggest so because the change is happening but it will take time-perhaps beyond September-before this change will show in numbers.
A nation is not a corporation and when we deal with a nation we are dealing with a society; a mass of people with ever changing hearts and minds and that's why numbers alone can't be enough to assess the situation—thoughtful insight and looking at the bigger image are also required.

For over a year the media and many officials were spooking us with the exaggerated ghost of civil war. I wonder what they have to say now! I think their silence is more telling than anything they would've said.

Iraqis are awakening, one very telling example can be seen in the ongoing operation in Diyala; members of the 1920 revolution brigades, once bitter enemies of the US military and Iraqi government are now assisting US and Iraqi military in fighting al-Qaeda even though the majority of the Iraqi soldiers and officers are Shia.
If the change in exclusively Sunni Anbar is good then the change in Diyala is good beyond words.

Another great example that I have personally been in touch with is taking place in a place outside Baghdad. Maybe you remember the story I told you about the area where members of our tribe live. For months unfortunate bloodletting was going on between the tribes, militias and al-Qaeda terrorists in which most of the victims were no more than innocent farmers.

Last week I learned from relatives that two groups of tribes have separately formed two "battalions" of several hundred young tribesmen each; not to fight the other sect or the US or Iraqi forces but to fight al-Qaeda. Even better this step has been taken in cooperation with the authorities in the region and the arrangement will ultimately lead to turning many of those tribal fighters into legitimate law enforcement personnel.

Despite such examples of many promising changes, we have to remain realistic and not overlook the rest of challenges. Uniting against al-Qaeda and even defeating it is not enough to solve all of Iraq's problems and the greater challenge of nation-building still lies ahead.
However, I expect and hope the world to show some gratitude to the Iraqis and Americans who fought, suffered, bled and died ridding the world of thousands of al-Qaeda terrorists, each one of whom could have been capable of murdering as many innocent people as their fellow terrorists did in New York, London or the many cities across the world that paid a high price simply because they don't approve of the ways of those extremists.

The internal struggle for power in Iraq will not end by pacifying al-Qaeda or the militias. It will continue in different forms until we have the correct legislations and institutions that can prevent bloodshed by facilitating peaceful sharing of power and treasure in a way that every individual or group get what they deserve, no more and no less. It goes without saying that these legislations and institutions will need an impartial, competent force to be able to function efficiently.

The impact of successful military operations, aside from people's direct safety, will not be visible immediately when it comes to the aspects of daily life in areas like economy, social life, education, etc. and here comes the role of true political reforms at all levels, from holding local elections to choose new and representative district and city councils to amending the general elections law to allow voters to choose their representatives directly instead of the current slate system. It might be also a good idea to adjust the federalism law to allow turning each province into an individual region within the federal state to avoid the sensitivities that could arise from forming regions on sectarian and/or ethnic basis.

Right there is where we will still need help from the world; not with more soldiers and tanks but with good will, compassion and thoughtful advice and guidance.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sadr bites the hand that feeds him

In our last post we briefly mentioned a statement in which Sadr’s office accused Iran of hosting and assisting al-Qaeda, today I’ll talk about that statement in more detail.

The claim itself is not strange. What’s strange is whom it came from. Sadr was the last voice we’d expect to say such a thing. Accusing Iran of interfering in Iraq’s affairs is one thing, but accusing it of hosting and assisting al-Qeada is a whole new ballgame. It opens the door for speculation and analysis, especially since Sadr only weeks ago returned from a long stay in Iran in which he was a guest of the top leaders of the Islamic Republic. So why make this statement now?

Some say that the many accusations in and outside of Iraq that Sadr is Iran’s man forced his hand in an effort to distance himself from suspicion. But Sadr’s words do not support this theory because, as previously mentioned, he could have just said that Iran is maliciously interfering in Iraq. When the accusation went beyond that to link al-Qaeda with Iran it became a serious claim that put Iran, his ally, in a very embarrassing position. Are we seeing signs of a breakup? If so, is this breakup coming from an emerging conscience or patriotic feelings on Sadr’s part?

In my opinion, patriotic feelings have no role in answering this question. At the same time, there’s more at work here than Sadr’s attempt to distract from his alliance with Iran. A cleric such as Sadr believes in a revolutionary ideology with strictly defined tenets of absolute right and absolute wrong. Patriotic goals represent only a step towards imposing this absolute vision on everyone.

Islamists do not believe in a homeland, they believe in a ‘Dar al-Islam’ (House of Islam) that will eventually encompass the whole world.
If we look at the articles written by Mr. Marwani (the consultant at the Cultural Supervision Committee of the Martyr Sadr office), and these are frequently published on the web, we see that his signature is followed by the words “From Baghdad, the occupied capital of the world.” In a way this means that the world, not Iraq alone, is the goal in their ideology and literature, and the “Mowatti’o al-Mahdai” (those who pave the way for the Imam Mahdi) led by Moqtada, will lead the Imam’s army to every point in the world spreading justice.

Then what made Moqtada go in the direction he did?

It was the result of factors that accumulated over time, and matured during his visit to Tehran. Sadr finally realized that his role was only second or third to that of the SIIC of Hakim, or the Dawa Party. A situation that a young revolutionary leader who won all his fame and clout in just a few short years couldn’t tolerate. In those years his name, and his army, rocketed upward in the media headlines and proved a powerful presence on the ground. Realizing that he’s being treated as a #2 made the ambitious, poorly educated youngster lose his balance. And he had little balance to give, compared to the older big-names who have extensive experience in the political world.
The publicity he got and the power he thinks he has put him in a position of accepting nothing less than being #1. This probably explains his attempts to reach out to some Sunni politicians as a more inclusive alternative, he thinks, to what the Dawa or SIIC offer.

The battles for control in the southern provinces and the manner in which smuggling money is being distributed showed Sadr how secondary his role is. Now he knows that his invitation to the political process and acceptance into the UIA was no more than a political lollipop to calm him down, or he’s finally seeing that his movement’s popularity was exploited to win ballots for other UIA members.
Here appear the signs of a rift that will be difficult for Shia leaders to work around, because winning over a man like Sadr with compromises doesn’t seem possible at this stage. His frustration and ambitions will not leave much room for negotiation.

Sadr believes he’s the strongman now, the one who deserves to rule Iraq. At least according to what one hears his followers say in Baghdad. Even though his pretensions to power clearly exaggerate reality, the Sadrists continue to say that they can take over Baghdad in ten hours if ordered to.

Sadr’s overestimation of his own power and popularity is likely to make the situation more complicated. As for Iran, well, Iran doesn’t care much about particular names and faces as long as they’re a part of the chaos.
And this rift will surely add to the chaos Iran desires, even though the accusation of assisting al-Qaeda suggests that the chaos could touch Iran as well. Playing with fire can sometimes get you burned.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

War of The Shrines

Attacking the Askari shrine for the second time emphasizes how those who ordered the attacks have been betting their money on this tactic to spark civil war in Iraq. Civil war would kill any hope for the rise of a stable democracy and is also the best option to stop the change project in the region by associating it with the ugly image of civil war.
Such war would not only destroy Iraqis' hopes in stability and prosperity, it would also bury every aspiration in the region for pluralism and reform—the Iraqi example could be used then as call for accepting dictatorship or going back to the Salafi origins as an easy alternative for a change that leads to civil war.

Despite there have been some attempts to seize the chance and build on the emotions in the aftermath of the attack it seems that the effect is much less pronounced than what we experienced after the first attack last year and results are not going to be as spectacular as the perpetrators were hoping. Still this point, attacking shrines, would remain an issue that can spark violence and widen the gap among the people.

What made write about this today is an intersting article I saw that was written by an Iraqi author in which he outlined an unlikely yet truly scary scenario. You can read it here if you know Arabic but if you don't his point can be summarized by the following; he's saying that as long as there are attempts to ignite civil war through attacking shrines then we really should expect a large-scale incident that would make the entire Shia world shake and end any chance for peace in Iraq, that is attacking the Shrine of Imam Hussein.

This particular shrine is more important spiritually and emotionally than the shrine of Hussein's father Imam Ali. It represents the history of Kerbala and the legendary revolution of Hussein and his companions which is the most revered event in the history of Shia Islam. Any act against this place could lead to incontrollable chaos in Iraq. The author says such an attack is not unlikely because actual undercover control in Kerbala is in Iranian hands and perhaps the highly organized attack on the joint provincial coordination center on January 20 gives an idea about the depth of Iran's influence in the city and the force that protects the shrine is very likely to be infiltrated as well.

And then Kerbala would make a more logical target than Najaf because of its proximity with the al-Qaeda triangle and al-Qaeda did in fact carry out several operations in the vicinity of Kerbala which means it would be easy for Iran and its surrogates to deny involvement in operation and blame it on Sunni extremists. Actually regardless of who pulls the trigger such an operation could only happen with Iranian orders and consent.

What increases the fear that this scenario could be actually in the works is a senior Sadr's aide recent statement in which he alluded to close cooperation between al-Qaeda and Iran.
I hope the author is wrong but at the same time I see a need to double the effort to prevent further attacks on major Shia and Sunni shrines and make that part of the overall security plan. Assigning trust-worthy vetted forces can spare us the headache of thinking about the possible tragic effects of another bombing and from the worse possibility of dealing with them.

Update: Kerbala governor feels the danger too, from Radio Saw:

Kerbala governor Aqeel Khazali pointed out the intent of security authorities to enforce additional security measures in the light of intelligence reports speaking of possible attacks on shrines in Kerbala. Khazali cautioned that any attack on these shrines would ignite sectarian war at not only the local level but at the regional and Islamic world levels.
The governor rejected demands by the locals to relax the security restriction imposed in the city adding that the danger of having shrines targeted is based on verified intelligence reports.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Creative chaos; Iran's way

One Arab journalist had this to say in a recent article "The Arab media is bewildered now as it's been shocked by multiple incidents and fires that are all important and deserve the front page or the main headline in broadcast; from the bombing in Samarra to the fire in Gaza to the assassination of a Lebanese member of parliament all are news worth covering but where shall we start from!?"

To me I didn't have to jump from one flash spot to another to determine which bit of news is more important or worth becoming a priority in commenting on. The region is connected and no part of it is isolated from the other parts that I think a commentator should look at the Middle Eastern map as a whole instead of one point at a time.

Perhaps what first comes to mind upon looking at the broader image would be the common factor among all these escalations from Afghanistan through Iraq, Gaza, and Lebanon to the war with the Hoothi followers in Yemen and it would be clear beyond confusion that Iran is behind all of these crises.
Iran itself isn't shy of admitting support to the troublemakers in these countries and even the Shia groups who are accused of being loyal to Iran have started to say that Iran supports al-Qaeda.

I think that when the president of the united states counted Iran among the members of the axis of evil the description was not unjustifiably incriminating, it just came before the evidence that support this claim became available.
In Iran there's an ideology that alienates everyone different, and that with power in the hands of extremist and the presence of wild ambitions based on a mythical vision, this combination can only lead us to the simple conclusion that Iran has a project that is in conflict with the new orientation of the region and most importantly this project aims far beyond the borders of Iran.

Mr. Ahmadinejad told the foreign minister of France a year or so ago something like "The path to God has to go through chaos" and I'm positive that Mr. Ahmadinejad wasn't speaking of the "creative chaos" that some western leaders talk about. I believe he was speaking of the kind of chaos based on the religious myth which says the rise of the savior Imam could be accelerated by wars and destruction that engulf the region.

It looks like those who have the power in Tehran don't want to miss a chance to cause more of such chaos. Let's just imagine a nuclear Iran led by someone who believes in chaos, what kind of chaos would we face then??

We're ok, and we're back

Hello my friends, we're back...

Sorry for the relatively long hiatus, I hate being away from blogging more than you think but I had to do some traveling to take care of some stuff and it took more than I had planned for; I was hoping to return home on Thursday but the curfew forced a change in plans. Anyway, I don't want to bother you with this right now.

What was really annoying for me is that I had to make this trip while the middle east is on fire at multiple fronts from Gaza to Lebanon to the main front in this country and the recent spectacular developments from the bombing in Samarra to the clashes in Nasiriyah and Amarah to the great battle of Diyala that as just started and most recently the barbaric bloody terrorist attack in Baghdad this afternoon.

Starting tonight Mohammed and I will be trying to catch up with, and cover, as many relevant topics as possible.

And to all the friends who were worried about our safety and sent emails to check on us, thank you so much.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Baghdad Summer Politics

The hysterical verbal threats and accusations among Iraq’s politicians and leaders have moved up several notches since the coup panic was first felt in Baghdad. Now the hysteria has reached the top of the government pyramid.

Iraqis often say that when the summer heat goes up people lose their minds. Frankly I’ve seen this happen to some people I know and sometimes the damage is temporary, sometimes not. We’re already having days as hot as 45 degrees Celsius [113 degrees Fahrenheit] and our politicians are evidently not immune to the heat driven insanity.
The escalation began with a highly offensive joint statement by president Talabani and Masoud Barazani president of Kurdistan. Here’s part of it as it was published on al-Mashriq newspaper on June 6 [emphasis added]:

With regret and puzzlement the political bureaus of the KDP and PUK were informed about the statement dated April 29, 2007 that announces the formation of a political front that includes, in addition to the Islamic Party and Wifaq* movement, long-time traitors of the Kurdish people, the orphans of Saddam the butcher and chauvinist elements who are enemies of the rights and aspirations of the Iraqi people in its two major ethnicities, Arabic and Kurdish…
The meeting that was set up by the intelligence services of foreign countries led to the formation of a political front that is against the democratic march of the Iraqi people and working to destroy their constitutional achievements…Is it the quality of patriots to ignore their main, long-time allies and provoke them by cooperating with the representatives of racist traitors and suspicious chauvinists?… As the political bureaus of the KDP and PUK condemn this separatist act that is harmful to national unity and Iraq’s march towards democracy, we call upon the good among the brothers in the Islamic Party, Iraqi list and the Kurdistan Islamic Union to return to the lines of the broad coalition and withdraw from this suspicious political front.

(*Wifaq is the Iraqi National Accord movement (INA), the original party of Allawi.)

I can see why they are angry and terrified; a couple months ago Turkey hosted at least one meeting of some of the groups attacked in this statement. And at this moment Turkey’s soldiers and tanks are standing at the gates of Kurdistan. While hunting the PKK elements is Turkey’s declared objective, protecting Kirkuk from Kurdish domination is not an impossible mission upgrade to Turkey’s ambitions in the region.

The paper also provided some reactions to this statement from the other camp:

Usama al-Nijeifi, former minister of industry and member of Allawi’s bloc (the Iraqi list) said “This is provocative rhetoric and reflects a desire to monopolize power” and defended his bloc’s political movement by saying “The idea of forming a new political body came after we felt that the political process is stumbling and that we must (do something to) fix this…The reform project that this political body seeks will be according to the democratic ways and the constitution does not prohibit this type of discussions”

Saleem Abdullah al-Jubouri, member of the Islamic Party, part of the Accord Front said “The Islamic Party is dismayed by the Barazani-Talabani statement that should not come from heads of states… It’s the right of any political party to whatever it deems appropriate within the constitutional ways”

Salih al-Mutlaq, chief of the national Dialogue Front (11 seats) “harshly criticized Talabani’s and Barazani’s statement” according to the paper, and said, “we’re moving towards forming a bloc of moderate elements and the discussions involve the Accord Front, the party of former PM Iyad Allawi and a number of smaller parties”

Perhaps the only frank voice here is that of Mahdi al-Hafiz, the former minister of planning who stepped out of Allawi’s bloc last week over a disagreement between him and other members of the bloc concerning the policy of the bloc.
Hafiz spoke honestly about his vision. He has recently been calling for early elections based on a new election law that replaces slates with direct election of individual representatives and after that forming a new government on basis of parliamentary majority without sectarian or ethnic quotas.

But just when you think the insanity has reached a peak, it gets better!

For the second day in a row Maliki has been waving his “Iron Fist” vowing to use this fist to strike implied enemies of the country. On Wednesday he was apparently referring to some parties in Basra, probably the Fadheela, for allegedly planning to sabotage the ports and oil facilities in the southern city. Al-Sabah provided this report about statement:
The government vowed to strike with an iron fist on anyone who undermines public security in Iraq and executes evil plots that harm the highest interests of the country…A statement by the office of the Prime Minister said:
The government is warning all outlaws off harming the institutions of the state. The government will itself obliged to expose the local entities who stand behind the attempt to damage the ports and oil facilities and will expose their suspicious links to some countries in the region.

I wonder why he hadn’t exposed those criminals yet if their intentions were very well known to the government? Ideally a policeman who turns a blind eye to criminals is considered corrupt, so what does this make of a head of state if the threat he’s talking about was true?
Thursday’s “Iron Fist” show was even more bizarre. Here’s part of Al-Sabah’s lead story:
The Prime Minister sent a firm message to those who are paving the way for interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, he told the commanders of the armed forces “Strike on them with an iron fist for they have moved from the stage of conspiring to the stage of undermining security and siding with terrorism…The days of coups are gone with the former regime and there’s no going back to the days of ignorance, sidelining and despotism. There’s no place for conspiracies and we shall accept only what the democratic process yields”

My conclusion:
Since a coup using military force is technically impossible at this stage, the accusations and threats by Maliki, Barazani and Talabani do indeed reflect a desire to remain in power no matter what. This means they are prepared to use military force to suppress the attempts by some politicians to bring about a change in the government.
The other camp, with a few exceptions, doesn’t represent a good replacement option. It’s largely a combination of Islamists and pan-nationalists. However we can’t ignore that the leadership of this group will largely devolve to the secular elements. The secular leaders (Allawi’s group) will provide the support from the region and perhaps from the west. Hence, the relatively weak Sunni Islamists and defeated pan-nationalists will have to accept the secular leadership. After all, I don’t think Allawi would repeat Chalabi’s mistake when he relinquished power to the Shia Islamists.
Back to the guys in the current government: the Kurds are careful about protecting their alliance with the Shia alliance not out of patriotic feelings. It’s about the tactical cooperation through which the Kurds want to put article 140—which will decide the future of Kirkuk—into action. This is because the Shai alliance doesn’t care much about Sunni Kirkuk. After all there’s much more easy oil to be had in the south.

As for Maliki, time is critical for him. His declared plans for reform were not as effective as desired. He kept the situation — whether on purpose or not — within the framework of the old Kurd-Shia alliance. I can’t blame him. He’s been under extreme pressure, especially from within his bloc.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Has Sadr returned stronger?

Given the combination of SIIC leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s [wiki] absence from the Shia political scene, the training Sadr received in Iran, and the timing Tehran chose for his return, Moqtada al-Sadr has obviously returned strong. Strong enough to summon seven Iraqi governors to meet him and listen to his instructions about how they should run their respective provinces in central and southern Iraq at the same time his militiamen were fighting the police forces of at least one of those provinces.

In the speech Sadr made at that meeting he called for the peaceful coexistence and cooperation of the police and army on one side, and the Mahdi Army on the other.
Setting aside the fact that endorsing an armed outlaw militia is a brazen violation of the constitution and criminal law (militias that existed prior to OIF are something of a different case, though they too remain constitutionally unacceptable), the meeting sets a dangerous precedent. Sadr is presenting himself as a head of state, leading senior state officials to his meeting like sheep, and challenging the power of the legitimate leaders of the country.

Maliki reacted quickly and gathered the governors around his table in an attempt to minimize Sadr’s influence, and ordered the governors to cleanse their security forces of any elements whose loyalties lie outside of the Iraqi government. It remains unclear which man made a bigger impact. And it remains painfully disappointing that no one in the government did anything to condemn Sadr’s move, or publicly denounce his undermining of the structure of the state.

It’s become clear now that Iraq will not become a successful state when such violations of the law can happen in the open and remain unchecked. Confronting Sadr’s militia with limited operations is not enough—it’s time to deal with him seriously.
The declared objective of the new strategies emanating from Washington and Baghdad is to enforce the rule of law and bring outlaws to justice. Our government persists in saying that no one, including members of that government, is above the law. But this promise has not been translated into action thus far. It makes sense if the reason for the delay in taking serious action to put an end to Sadr’s flouting of the law was a lack of troops, but I’d also expect it to mean that this action should coming soon.

Four years of hesitation have only served to make Sadr stronger and the situation worse, but we have nothing to fear. They can’t make more trouble than they already have. While Al-Qaeda poses a serious security challenge in some provinces, Sadr threatens the future of the whole country. He can paralyze or disrupt the proper functioning of whole ministries and provinces.
The nature of the Mahdi Army means that without political guidance and a figurehead to rally around they would be reduced to making trouble in the streets like any other gang. But they wouldn’t be able to control the institutions of state.

In light of the talk among our British friends of leaving Iraq in 12 months, the south will be in great danger, and a tough decision must be made before that time comes. By the time Sadr can manipulate the civil authority, or Iraqi officers, the number of soldiers we can train and equip won’t make a difference.

Sadr is not simply an outlaw; he represents Iran’s project in Iraq just like Hamas and Nasrallah represent it in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. These are the three arms of Iran in the Middle East that have worked consistently to ruin every emerging democratic project. And these arms must be cut off sooner rather than later.