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.