NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: July 8

Iraqi favors short security pact with U.S.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki publicly confirmed Monday that his government was leaning toward concluding a short-term security pact with the United States instead of a broader agreement that would last for years.

The legal authority for American troops in Iraq is now provided by a United Nations mandate that expires at the end of the year. Iraq and the United States have been negotiating details of a broad new agreement that would formalize the security relationship, but with elections nearing in both countries and opposition likely from the Iraqi Parliament, Iraqi leaders seemed to be opting for a narrower and short-term pact.

Mr. Maliki’s office said in a statement that the “current trend is toward reaching a memorandum of understanding” that would extend the presence of American troops for a period of time. While the statement used the words “scheduled withdrawal” about American troops, it did not seem to mean that a precise timetable for troops to depart was being negotiated.

Ali al-Adeeb, a prominent leader in Mr. Maliki’s political party, said in a telephone interview that while there were many options for withdrawal and several end points under discussion, “We think that what is suitable for withdrawal is when our soldiers are ready and well armed to take the responsibility.”

The Iraqi oil ministry’s new fave five

On June 19th, the New York Times broke the story in an article headlined “Deals with Iraq Are Set to Bring Oil Giants Back: Rare No-Bid Contracts, A Foothold for Western Companies Seeking Future Rewards.” Finally, after a long five years-plus, there was proof that the occupation of Iraq really did have something or other to do with oil. Quoting unnamed Iraqi Oil Ministry bureaucrats, oil company officials, and an anonymous American diplomat, Andrew Kramer of the Times wrote: “Exxon Mobil, Shell, Total and BP… along with Chevron and a number of smaller oil companies, are in talks with Iraq’s Oil Ministry for no-bid contracts to service Iraq’s largest fields.”

The news caused a minor stir, as other newspapers picked up and advanced the story and the mainstream media, only a few years late, began to seriously consider the significance of oil to the occupation of Iraq.

As always happens when, for whatever reason, you come late to a major story and find yourself playing catch-up on the run, there are a few corrections and blind spots in the current coverage that might be worth addressing before another five years pass. In the spirit of collegiality, I offer the following leads for the mainstream media to consider as they change gears from no-comment to hot-pursuit when it comes to the story of Iraq’s most sought after commodity. I’m talking, of course, about that “sea of oil” on which, as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz pointed out way back in May 2003, the month after Baghdad fell, Iraq “floats.”

Disaster capitalism: state of extortion

Once oil passed $140 a barrel, even the most rabidly right-wing media hosts had to prove their populist cred by devoting a portion of every show to bashing Big Oil. Some have gone so far as to invite me on for a friendly chat about an insidious new phenomenon: “disaster capitalism.” It usually goes well–until it doesn’t.

For instance, “independent conservative” radio host Jerry Doyle and I were having a perfectly amiable conversation about sleazy insurance companies and inept politicians when this happened: “I think I have a quick way to bring the prices down,” Doyle announced. “We’ve invested $650 billion to liberate a nation of 25 million people. Shouldn’t we just demand that they give us oil? There should be tankers after tankers backed up like a traffic jam getting into the Lincoln Tunnel, the Stinkin’ Lincoln, at rush hour with thank-you notes from the Iraqi government…. Why don’t we just take the oil? We’ve invested it liberating a country. I can have the problem solved of gas prices coming down in ten days, not ten years.”

There were a couple of problems with Doyle’s plan, of course. The first was that he was describing the biggest stickup in world history. The second, that he was too late: “We” are already heisting Iraq’s oil, or at least are on the cusp of doing so.

GCC urged to reconsider dollar policy

The Government of Abu Dhabi has called for a “rethink” of monetary policy across the GCC, including the US dollar peg, amid rising inflation, record oil prices and fading prospects for a single currency by 2010.

A report released yesterday by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Planning and Economy (DPE), an arm of the emirate that is not part of the Federal Government, urged other Gulf countries to take a “unified stand” and consider de-pegging from the US dollar and adjusting exchange rates to increase the value of their currencies.

“Pegging was adopted when oil prices were low and the greenback still at the height of its strength,” the report said. “Today, the dollar is falling relentlessly and oil prices are skyrocketing. This new reality calls for a rethink of monetary policies.”

Iran won’t go away, the Saudis realize

Saudi Arabia has been a strategic ally of the United States for more than 60 years. Despite occasional differences, Riyadh was a firm – and generous – partner in the implementation of American policy during the Cold War and in conflicts from Afghanistan to Nicaragua. President George W. Bush and King Abdullah reaffirmed the two countries’ ties during Bush’s two visits to the kingdom this year.

However, the Saudis are putting a good deal of distance between themselves and Washington on one of the most important issues of American Middle East policy: Iran. Riyadh does not endorse American efforts to isolate Iran and to put additional pressure on the regime in Tehran. It also firmly opposes any move by the US or Israel to use military force in an effort to shut down the Iranian nuclear program.

The reasons for this Saudi reluctance are not a mystery. There are reportedly some officers in the Saudi armed forces who favor a confrontation with Iran, but most Saudis foresee short-term dangers and long-term strategic damage in any such approach.

In the simplest terms, the Saudis recognize that Iran is a major regional power, a potentially aggressive neighbor that is not going away. Iran is much more capable of making trouble for Saudi Arabia than the other way around, and therefore the kingdom’s security over time requires accommodation with Iran, however difficult it may be to manage the relationship. Americans and other foreigners may come and go, but Iran and its nearly 80 million people – almost four times the population of Saudi Arabia – will remain, a few kilometers across the Gulf.

Pakistan’s deal with the devil

Beheadings, martial law, kidnappings: The Taliban is making its presence felt at the gates of Peshawar. The Pakistani army is trying to fight back, but is doing so only half-heartedly against a committed enemy.

The situation changed overnight in Peshawar. The villas in the posh suburb of Hayatabad, hidden behind acacias, palms and oleander bushes, are now directly on the front line. The Pakistani security forces have declared war on the Muslim fundamentalists who are said to have taken up positions in the immediate vicinity.

Eight armored vehicles belonging to the Pakistani Frontier Corps stand ready to move out in the courtyard of Peshawar’s Beaconhouse School. Riflemen are positioned behind sandbagged emplacements at strategically important intersections. Pakistani anti-terror units and paramilitary forces in black uniforms are on patrol in the area, their submachine guns at the ready.

But where is the enemy? Outside the city, in the direction of the Khyber Pass, the sound of exploding heavy artillery rounds can be heard every few seconds.

‘A regional war that is spreading to Pakistan’

SPIEGEL: Mr. Rashid, currently, there are more American soldiers dying on the battlefield in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Can the Taliban win?

Ahmed Rashid: We are witnessing a major offensive in both countries by the Afghan and the Pakistan Taliban. Previously one of these two groups of Taliban was fighting while the other would rest. This summer they are both on the offensive. This is a strategic decision by the Taliban who see a lame duck American president and also know that it will take until next spring before a new US administration can become effective. They also see a weak and divided Pakistani government and a weak and ineffectual Afghan government.

SPIEGEL: What is their strategic aim in Afghanistan?

Rashid: The Afghan Taliban want to create a strategic debacle, either by taking a town or city and announcing an alternative government or by trying to force one or two of the less committed BATO states to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Pakistani Taliban are determined to conquer or grab as much territory as possible in the next few months in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) in order to extend their influence in the Pakistani population, but also to offer more protection for al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban leaders in this region.

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