Biden says U.S. will appeal Blackwater case dismissal

Biden says U.S. will appeal Blackwater case dismissal

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. promised Iraqi leaders on Saturday that the United States would appeal the dismissal of manslaughter charges against five Blackwater Worldwide security contractors involved in a deadly shooting here that has inflamed anti-American tensions.

Mr. Biden, tasked by the Obama administration to oversee policy in Iraq, made the statement after a day of meetings with Iraqi leaders that dealt, in part, with a political crisis that has erupted over the March 7 parliamentary elections. American officials view the vote, a barometer of the durability of Iraq’s political system, as a crucial date in American plans to withdraw tens of thousands of combat troops from Iraq by the end of August.

The vice president expressed his “personal regret” for the Blackwater shooting in 2007, in which contractors guarding American diplomats opened fire in a crowded Baghdad traffic circle, killing 17 people, including women and children.

“A dismissal is not an acquittal,” he said after meeting President Jalal Talabani. [continued…]

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Iraq sentences Sunni leader to death

Iraq sentences Sunni leader to death

A leader of a Sunni Awakening Council was sentenced to death for kidnapping and murder on Thursday, setting off charges that the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government was trying to weaken the Sunni movement, which is credited with much of the reduction of sectarian violence here since 2006.

The Sunni leader, Adil al-Mashhadani, who led the Awakening militia in the impoverished Fadhil neighborhood of Baghdad, was arrested in March on charges of terrorism. His arrest set off 24 hours of fighting between Awakening members and American and Iraqi security forces, after which the government dissolved the Fadhil council.

A spokesman for the Justice Ministry, Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar, provided no further details about the crime.

The Awakening Councils, also known as the Sons of Iraq, are local groups, including former insurgents and Baathists, who turned against the insurgency and received pay, first from the Americans and now from the Iraqis. Under their agreement with the government, they have tacit amnesty for past acts of sectarian violence but not for crimes like murder. [continued…]

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After six years, ‘we’re worthless’

After six years, ‘we’re worthless’

Weeks after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, as parts of the capital were still smoldering, American soldiers and diplomats turned to men like Hassan Shama and Omar Rahman Rahmani in their quest to plant the seeds of representative democracy.

In Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, they held impromptu neighborhood caucuses to appoint district and neighborhood advisory councils. The local government bodies were given no official charter, lawmaking power or public budget. In the years that followed, as the capital became a bloody battleground and the country descended into near-anarchy, council members were among the U.S. military’s staunchest allies. They provided information about extremists, offered insight into Iraqi society and gave American-imposed security measures a veneer of Iraqi legitimacy.

As U.S. troops have sharply disengaged from Baghdad in recent months, local representatives say they are feeling powerless and abandoned. The Iraqi government has taken no steps to hold elections for the councils, and the Baghdad provincial council is culling them of members it deems unqualified or unfit for service.

The looming demise of the local councils — at least as the Americans established them — is an ominous sign of the brand of democracy that is likely to reign in Iraq as the Americans depart, council members say. They worry that constituents will no longer have grass-roots representation and that power will become far more centralized in the hands of a few. [continued…]

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U.S. anxious over Shiite-Sunni relations in Ira

U.S. anxious over Shiite-Sunni relations in Iraq

Military officials are anxiously watching the brittle partnership between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq as U.S. analysts warn that renewed waves of violence have put the country at a crucial crossroads.

Sunni militants are widely thought responsible for bombings in Baghdad last week that left 95 dead. But a key question being debated in Washington is whether the larger Sunni community has begun implicitly supporting the attacks.

For the moment, military officers and American analysts do not believe that a new sectarian war has broken out. But the U.S. withdrawal from Iraqi cities June 30 has unnerved Sunnis who saw the American presence as protection against Shiite oppression, and experts hope Prime Minister Nouri Maliki finds a way to quickly calm Sunni fears. [continued…]

Iraq military broadcasts confession on bombing

Iraq’s military showed on Sunday what it called the confession of a mastermind of last week’s deadly attacks on two government ministries, and it announced the arrests of police and army officers the man said had been bribed to allow a huge truck bomb through checkpoints into Baghdad.

In brief, edited excerpts of videotaped remarks, the man, identified as Wisam Ali Khazim Ibrahim, calmly explained how he had organized one of the two bombings, which killed almost 100 people on Wednesday and wounded hundreds more. He said he did so on the orders of a man in Syria who wanted the attacks “to shake the administration.”

He described himself as a former police officer in Diyala Province and a member of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, which is banned in Iraq and which officials in Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government routinely blame for much of the violence in the country. [continued…]

Iraqi Shi’ite groups form new alliance without PM

Allies of Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Monday they have formed a new alliance to fight January’s general election, but the increasingly influential Iraqi leader has not joined the bloc.

The new alliance will be headed by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), one of Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite groups, and will also include followers of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and other smaller groups and influential individuals.

It has been named the Iraqi National Alliance (INA). [continued…]

After Sadr–Badr compromise in Tehran, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) is declared

The idea of a “revived” Shiite alliance with a more “national” orientation was first introduced publicly by Muqtada al-Sadr in Qum, Iran, in mid-February 2009, when he requested a full makeover of the UIA which in the future should be referred to as the “United National Iraqi Alliance”. Sadr was responding to the results of the January local elections, in which the Daawa party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was rewarded by voters for a rhetoric in which the sectarian agenda was pushed in the background and the focus on national and centralist values was strengthened. After Sadr’s initiative, other forces in the old UIA, including the pro-Maliki independent Abbas al-Bayati as well as Ahmad al-Chalabi, soon offered their support, but it was not until May that the project got going in earnest. By that time, ISCI – which had been punished particularly hard by voters in the January polls – had taken over the initiative, and within weeks several dozen key UIA members paid their visits to ISCI’s ailing leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim at a convalescent home in Tehran where details of the new alliance were discussed. Reportedly, Muqtada al-Sadr also made the journey from Qum to reconcile with Hakim, a long-time opponent, apparently seeing the symbolic change of name as a “Sadrist demand” that could justify their return to the UIA. [continued…]

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Iraq bombs are a warning to Maliki

Iraq bombs are a warning to Maliki

No one has taken responsibility for the horrendous bombs that shattered the foreign and finance ministries in Baghdad and took more than a hundred lives yesterday but the finger must point to Sunni Arab radicals. The foreign ministry is run by Hoshyar Zebari, a prominent Kurdish politician, while the finance ministry is in the hands of the Shia hardliner Bayan Jabr, who represents the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and infuriated Sunnis during his previous post as interior minister. He was moved from that post after death squads operating directly or indirectly under cover of the ministry were revealed four years ago to have held and tortured hundreds of Sunnis. That brutality helped to start the sectarian revenge killings that so disfigured Iraq in 2006 and 2007.

The bombings may therefore have been meant in part as a Sunni Arab warning to the Kurds. Tensions and armed clashes between Kurds and Arabs are the biggest danger currently facing Iraq. Until now they have centred on the disputed city of Kirkuk as well as the land surrounding Mosul in the northwest, which Kurds also claim. Bombings in Kirkuk and Mosul have been frequent in recent months. Yesterday’s blast in Baghdad could be a way of showing Kurds that their positions in Baghdad are also vulnerable and that Sunni Arabs can hit them in the capital.

But they are also a warning to Shia hardliners, and by extension the whole of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated Iraqi government, that its policies are still not giving Sunnis a fair share of power. The disbandment of the Sunni Arab militias known as the Awakening movement, which successfully confronted al-Qaida in Iraq in 2007 has angered many Sunnis who felt they deserved more in gratitude and reward. It took courage for Iraqi Sunnis to challenge al-Qaida, and this should have been recognised by Shia leaders. Instead, the government has been slow to honour promises to take former Awakening members into the national army and police. [continued…]

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Iraq attacks raise fears of renewed ethnic tensions

Iraq attacks raise fears of renewed ethnic tensions

A string of bombings in northern Iraq and Baghdad that has killed at least 112 people in the last several days, including 60 on Monday, has raised fears that insurgent groups are embarking on a sustained attempt to kindle ethnic and sectarian warfare.

The toll since Friday represents the worst surge of violence since U.S. troops handed over security in urban areas to Iraqi security forces on June 30.

The attacks serve as a reminder that although the U.S. military says it is on track to complete the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq by next August, the potential for fresh conflict between Arabs and Kurds in the north, and Sunnis and Shiites elsewhere, remains very real. [continued…]

Sectarian bombings pulverize a village in Iraq

The entire village was gone. Local television broadcast scenes of homes reduced to heaps of rubble mixed with bed frames, mattresses, furniture and bloodstained pillows. A villager cried into the camera, “Look, Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. Interior Minister, where is the security that you speak about?”

The latest wave of sectarian bombings struck northern Iraq and Baghdad on Monday, killing at least 50 people, wounding hundreds more and leveling the village, near Mosul.

Nearly 100 people in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul have been killed in attacks since Friday, raising grave concerns about the Iraqi government’s ability to maintain security. [continued…]

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High turnout in Iraqi Kurds’ elections

High turnout in Iraqi Kurds’ elections

Voters in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan region cast their ballots on Saturday in local presidential and parliamentary elections as a hunger for political reform clashed with a desire to maintain stability.

Turnout was high — 78.5 percent according to the Electoral Commission — and voting was extended by an hour to accommodate the crowds.

Preliminary results were not expected until Sunday, but by Saturday night an opposition party was already charging fraud and the governing coalition was claiming a regionwide lead.

There was little doubt here that the governing coalition would maintain its ironclad grip on this region of 4.5 million people. Many Kurds credit the regional government for the relative security and prosperity the region enjoys compared with the rest of Iraq. [continued…]

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Deadly clash underscores rift over interpretation of U.S.-Iraq deal

Deadly clash underscores rift over interpretation of U.S.-Iraq deal

When insurgents attacked an American convoy with AK-47 rounds and a couple of grenades on a dusty highway in a Baghdad suburb this week, U.S. soldiers returned fire, chased the suspects through narrow alleyways and raided houses.

Tuesday’s clash killed two Iraqi adults and a 14-year-old and wounded four people, including two children.

When the shooting subsided, another confrontation began. A senior Iraqi army commander who arrived at the scene concluded that the Americans had fired indiscriminately at civilians and ordered his men to take the U.S. soldiers into custody. The U.S. military said the soldiers had acted in self-defense and had sought to avoid civilian casualties; U.S. commanders at the scene persuaded the Iraqis to back down.

The incident, apparently the first time a senior Iraqi commander has sought to detain U.S. soldiers, signals a potential escalation of tensions between U.S. and Iraqi forces trying to find a new equilibrium as Iraq assumes more responsibility for its security. [continued…]

Iraq presses U.S. on pact with Sunnis in Turkey

Iraq’s government said Thursday that it was demanding explanations from the United States and Turkey about a protocol signed this year between an American official and a representative of a group of Iraqi Sunni insurgents in Istanbul as a precursor to negotiations between the two sides.

The Iraqi government said in a statement that the protocol amounts to “an interference in Iraq’s internal political affairs” and that it was expecting “clear explanations” from American and Turkish officials at the embassies in Baghdad.

Contacts between the American government and Iraqi insurgent groups are nothing new, and the most recent ones have occurred with the coordination of an Iraqi government reconciliation unit attached to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s office. The goal is to get insurgents to renounce violence and embrace the political process.

But the release of the document of the protocol appears to be an attempt to embarrass the United States and show how deeply involved it remains in Iraq’s affairs. It also underscores just how hostile Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-led government remains to any serious engagement with Sunni insurgents, especially those suspected of having links to Saddam Hussein’s former ruling Baath Party. [continued…]

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NEWS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Iran’s plausible denials

Doubting the evidence against Iran

American circles in Baghdad and Washington are probably not pleased with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s plan for a special panel to investigate allegations of Iranian interference in Iraq. Many U.S. officials are already convinced of the worst and, for years, U.S. officials have now aired accusations against Iran, insisting that Tehran is stoking Iraq’s violence by keeping up a flow of money, weapons and trained fighters into the country. The Iraqi government, however, remains unconvinced — with good reason.

“We want to find really good evidence and not evidence made on speculations,” Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the Iraqi government, told reporters in Baghdad on Sunday. Last week an Iraqi government delegation went to Tehran to discuss the allegations of Iranian involvement in the Iraqi militias, the government said. Details of the evidence presented in Tehran remains hazy, but at the same time American officials in Baghdad and Washington have never offered a convincing case publicly to support their allegations. [complete article]

Iraqi government caught in the middle as US directs new accusations at Iran

In line with the American accusations, the Iraqi government has confirmed that it has “concrete evidence” that Iranian weapons are flowing into Iraq. Even so, Iraqi officials have been at pains to draw a distinction between saying that these weapons were produced in Iran without necessarily concluding that they were supplied by Iran.

In an interview with The Washington Post, the Iraqi government spokesman Ali al Dabbagh said: “The truth came out; there is evidence of Iranian weapons in Iraq. Now we need to document who sent them.”

The Christian Science Monitor noted that the Iraqi delegation’s visit to Tehran “coincided with the release of the annual US terrorism report, which declared Iran, as in years past, to be the ‘most significant’ state sponsor of terrorism.” The report added: “It also quietly raised the official number of US and Iraqi soldiers allegedly ‘killed’ by Iranian actions in Iraq from ‘hundreds’ to ‘thousands’ – a surprise to analysts sceptical even of the lower figure.” [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — If the Iranians are guilty as charged, there does seem to be something thoroughly American in their approach — the training and arming of a proxy force and studious application of the principle of “plausible deniability.” It has more than the aroma of Reagan-era support for the Contras. Shouldn’t Elliot Abrams, John Negroponte, Oliver North et al feel flattered?

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NEWS, ANALYSIS, INTERVIEW & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Foreign interference

Hezbollah trains Iraqis in Iran, Pentagon’s New York Times spokesman says

Militants from the Lebanese group Hezbollah have been training Iraqi militia fighters at a camp near Tehran, according to American interrogation reports that the United States has supplied to the Iraqi government.

An American official said the account of Hezbollah’s role was provided by four Shiite militia members who were captured in Iraq late last year and questioned separately.

The United States has long charged that the Iranians were training Iraqi militia fighters in Iran, which Iran has consistently denied, and there have been previous reports about Hezbollah operatives in Iraq.

But the Americans say the reports of Hezbollah’s role at the Iranian camp offer important details about Iranian assistance to the militias, including efforts Iran appears to be making to train the fighters in unobtrusive ways. [complete article]

Iraq: Al-Sadr refuses to meet Baghdad delegation In Iran

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki dispatched a delegation of leading Shi’ite figures to Iran last week in order to present Tehran with mounting evidence of Iran’s support for rogue militias in Iraq. But Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia continues to battle Iraqi and U.S. forces in Baghdad and other areas and who has been in Iran for months, refused to meet with the delegation.

The Iraqi delegation reportedly met with Qasim Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps’ Qods Force, on May 1, and was expected to meet again with him on May 2. The force is suspected of being the main supplier of Iranian-made weapons to Iraq. It has also been linked to the training of Iraqi militiamen. The delegation was also slated to meet with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

On May 2, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini downplayed the delegation’s visit, saying, “Iranian officials will hold talks with this delegation in line with helping settle differences and ongoing clashes in Iraq.” [complete article]

Interview with Mohsen Hakim

Mohsen Hakim is the Tehran representative of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, and a son of the SIIC leader, Abdelaziz Hakim.

LAT: So why is there postponement of the next round of talks between Iran and the U.S.?
HAKIM: There are technical problems.

LAT: What do you mean by “technical”?
HAKIM: I mean, anything that happens in the negotiations has an impact on Lebanon, Palestine and Afghanistan. Look, Iraqi security issue is not separated from other issues in the Middle East. On the whole, security in the region is not divisible. If there is no security in Iraq, there is no security anywhere in the region. We look at the security of Iraq as a organic security package for the whole region.

LAT: In fact, you want Iran and U.S. negotiations in Iraq to be all-encompassing negotiations?
HAKIM: Look, we as Iraqis care most now about our own problems. But we look at the security of Iraq as a common case between Iran and the U.S. I tell you with 100% certainty that if the security of Iraq is settled, the region will be affected positively. Iraq is not an isolated issue. Remember that. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — “Unobtrusive ways” — now Michael Gordon could have chose an equally suitable phrase: plausible deniability.

The fact that the US military keeps pushing the story that Hezbollah is training Shia militia fighters in Iran raises a question that, as far as I know, still remains unanswered: Did the US have a role in the assassination of top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh on February 12 in Damascus? At the time it was assumed that Mossad was behind the killing, but last month M K Bhadrakumar wrote in >Asia Times:

Fars [the Iranian news agency, which is close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps] named Saudi Prince Banda al-Sultan, formerly Saudi ambassador in Washington, as responsible and that the Saudis were retaliating for the 1996 car bomb attack at the Abdul Aziz airbase in Khobar near Dahran in Saudi Arabia, which was allegedly planned and executed by Mughniyeh. The Fars report would have brought a welcome relief to Israeli intelligence, since the prevailing impression in the region was that Syria would accuse Israel of involvement in Mughniyeh’s assassination, which in turn would be the signal for Hezbollah to retaliate and for Israel to hit at Lebanon and possibly even Syria.

The fact that Iran would push a story blaming the Saudis may imply that they were willing to disown Mughniyeh and also that he wasn’t the strategic asset that the US imagined him to be.

If there is a consistent failing in American analysis it seems to be in, 1. over emphasizing the significance of individuals — we have a fascination with the acquisition of personal power and thus find it difficult to discern networks and social trends whose existence doesn’t depend on kingpins, and 2. in the homogenization of diversity — we see entities instead of seeing complexity. Any time anyone says “the Iranians”, one has to wonder, who are they talking about?

It’s not hard to understand why the US government has always found foreign relations easier when it can work with dictators. If you can cut deals with The Man, you don’t have to worry about the people.

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EDITORIAL: Who’s really special?

Who’s really special?

Is George Bush, ever so slowly, inching towards détente with Iran?

If so, it’s probably something he won’t brag about. But what on earth could hint at such a possibility?

Consider these few things:

First, an interesting piece of speculation recounted by Sami Moubayed a few days ago in Asia Times:

One theory says that Imad Mughniya, the Hezbollah commander who was assassinated in Damascus in February, had been charged by Iran to restructure the Mahdi Army. He had been one of the architects of Hezbollah in 1982 and was asked to do the same to professionalize the Sadrists. While all of this was being done, Muqtada was asked to return to his religious studies so he could rise to the rank of ayatollah and therefore gain a much stronger role in Shi’ite domestics. He would then be authorized to issue religious decrees and answer religious questions related to politics – just like Hakim.

Then suddenly something went wrong, and last week Maliki (who is now equally close to the Iranians) went to war against the Sadrists. Some claim that an under-the-table deal was hammered out in Baghdad in March between the Americans, Maliki and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

The Iranian leader would let the Americans have their way – and crush the Sadrists – in exchange for softening pressure on the Iranian regime. In return, Ahmadinejad would help them bring better security to Iraq through a variety of methods stemming from Iranian cooperation.

This would please the Americans, Maliki and the Iranians, who in exchange for Muqtada’s head would enter a new relationship with the Americans. This might explain why the only people who have been lobbying heavily with Maliki – to stop the war on Muqtada – have been those opposed to Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs, mainly Sunni tribes, ex-prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari (who refused sanctuary in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war) and the Sunni speaker of parliament, Mahmud Mashadani.

On Sunday, in an interview with CNN, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki when questioned about Iran’s role in violence in Iraq said, “we understand this comes because of the background of the deep differences between Iran and the US and we are encouraging them to go back to the negotiating table with Iraqi mediation. We reject Iran using Iraq to attack the US and at the same time we reject the idea of the US using Iraq to attack Iran. We want to have peaceful positive relations with all sides.”

Maliki’s offer of mediation could be dismissed as political posturing, but it’s not hard to imagine that a prime minister who is not popular would be attracted by the idea of making himself indispensable. The role of mediation has never been dependent on strength, though if Iraq was to serve as a mediator between Iran and the US this would clearly benefit Iraq and especially the leader who had placed himself in such a pivotal position.

On Monday, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told reporters, “We have received a new request from US officials through a formal note for holding talks on Iraq and we are looking into the issue.”

Then on Tuesday, after the main food market in Sadr City had burnt down and residents of the Shia district were fleeing American Hellfire missiles, Iran again issued another statement. Naturally it condemned US forces for indiscriminate bombardment of residential areas in Sadr City and Basra – but it didn’t stop there. It condemned attacks on the Green Zone and it praised “rightful measures taken by the Iraqi government to counter illegal armed groups.”

Could those illegal armed groups be the very same entities that have curiously been dubbed “special groups”?

What Maliki, Sadr and anyone else who might want a special relationship with Iran seems to discover sooner or later is that “special” does not mean “indispensable.” Iran, just like the United States, thinks first and foremost in terms of its national interest.

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GUEST CONTRIBUTOR – John Robertson: Mr Bush and his “legacy”

Mr Bush and his “legacy”
By John Robertson, War in Context, April 6, 2008

According to Britain’s Daily Telegraph our war-hero “Decider” president has decided that he will pull no more troops out of Iraq. According to the report, which cites Pentagon sources, he feels that showing such “resolve” will cement his legacy – which, he obviously assumes, is going to be an honorable one that will burn his glorious presidency indelibly into the pages of our national memory. A major contributor to his decision, moreover, seems to have been a report from another of our war-hero stalwarts, Fred Kagan, American Enterprise Institute all-star and an “intellectual” godfather of the “Surge.” Kagan is also a frequent contributor to William Kristol’s Weekly Standard (required reading for the – one would have hoped by now – discredited neocon faithful), where right up to the recent Basra humiliation he was serving up self-congratulatory pieces about the success of the Surge and declaring Iraq’s civil war to be “over.” Sorry, Fred, but most of the real experts (people like Juan Cole, Nir Rosen, and Patrick Cockburn – that is, people who know the country intimately, have lived there, and can read its newspapers) who’ve been reading the tea leaves suggest that, in the inimitable words of an American showman whose name I can’t recall, we “ain’t see nuthin yet.”

Please forgive me if I sound callous or flip by putting it that way, but by now it ought to be clear that the unfortunate people of Iraq have a long road to travel – and probably many years of suffering ahead – before they will be able to enjoy an existence graced by any consistency of peace, prosperity, and security. Surge notwithstanding, the Sunni Arabs of Anbar and elsewhere are no closer to being included in the governing of the Iraqi state than they were during the proconsulship of L. Paul Bremer, who marginalized them from the outset of the American occupation. The much-touted Sunni sahwa (“Sunni Awakening”) – to which the Bush-Petraeus “Surge” owed so much of its putative success – now seems, at best, to be hitting its collective snooze alarm while the US tries to keep these new militias, which are completely outside the control of the central government, paid off. Despite its ongoing entreaties, the Bush administration has been unable to convince the Shia-dominated Maliki government to incorporate them into the Iraqi army. Nor is that government making any appreciable effort to find them jobs to divert their attention and secure them some livelihood, and paychecks. It is likely only a matter of time before they bug out altogether and turn their newly obtained arms, equipment, and training on the people against whom so many of them were originally most intent on fighting in the first place: the US occupation forces and their Shia Badr Force allies.

Meanwhile, the sun seems to be setting on the hope-filled halcyon days of the Kurds’ autonomy in Iraq’s northeast, in which they were able to bask only because (after years of being sheltered and nurtured under a US-enforced no-fly zone) they supported the US invasion right down the line, while the US could point to them as Iraq’s model of stability and potential. But now the US has shown itself all too willing to sell them out when a stronger, more potentially useful ally, Turkey, put its marker down in this new “great game.” Notwithstanding the protests of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Turkish forces only recently completed major incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan to go after the PKK; only days ago, for the umpteenth time, Turkish warplanes flew bombing sorties into the region; and the Turkish republic’s leaders have reserved the right to violate the sovereignty of the KRG (and, by the standards of anybody’s interpretation of international law, the sovereignty of the state of Iraq) when and if they deem it necessary (which, given the current turmoil in the Turkish government, also translates to “politically expedient”). And as if the threat from Turkey weren’t enough, the future stability of Kurdistan faces what is perhaps an even direr threat: the possibility of civil war among Kurds, Arabs, and Turks over the ultimate control of the city and region of Kirkuk.

And speaking of civil war, it’s pretty safe to say that the violence of late March in Basra and Baghdad was only a taste of what might be in store for Iraq’s largely Shia south and center, where the scions of the powerful and prestigious al-Hakim and al-Sadr clerical lineages (along with smaller groups like the Fadhila party in Basra) are vying for political control (and in Basra, control of Iraq’s vital oil exports) as provincial elections, scheduled for October, approach. Their respective leaders – Abdulaziz al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr – control well-armed and inspired militias (respectively, the Badr Forces and the Jaish al-Mahdi, or “Mahdi Army”) that fought each other viciously in the holy city of Karbala only a few months ago, and in Basra and Baghdad only recently. Thanks largely to the intervention of Iran (which was spearheaded by a “terrorist” Revolutionary Guard general), Muqtada agreed to a truce, not to be mistaken for a peace treaty. Simply put, the two militias hate each other. Add then to this very combustible mix that Muqtada is the leader of a huge popular political movement that claims the support of hundreds of thousands of the poor Shia of teeming slums like Sadr City in Baghdad, and of hundreds of thousands more in Iraq’s second largest city, Basra. He has called upon his followers – and other Iraqis who want the US occupation out of Iraq – to come together next week for a million-man march. That march was originally set for the holy city of Najaf, a stronghold of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Shia political movement led by Abdulaziz al-Hakim. Now, however, Muqtada has decided to stage the march in Baghdad.

Keeping a lid on the tensions that will be bubbling in Baghdad next week will be the job of the Maliki “government.” This is, of course, the same Maliki government that was recently humbled by its failure in Basra and that appears ever more dysfunctional, hunkered down in the “Green Zone” (beyond which it exercises little real control) and confronted with a divided, often absentee parliament. The army Maliki commands has proved itself largely unreliable and ineffective, often including members of the Badr militia whose loyalties to the state are suspect or forced to rely on Kurdish peshmerga who are loath to be involved in inter-Arab conflicts. But it’s this army with which Maliki is entrusted with keeping a damper on the situation as Muqtada’s march approaches. Can we really believe they’re up to it?

No. Which is why US troops, air power, and special forces will be on the scene aplenty next week – and why, Mr. Bush has now decided, and why Gen. Petraeus will insist next week, they will need to be there for the foreseeable future. And it’s also why Mr. Bush will feel it justifiable and necessary to hand off the Iraq tinderbox to his successor. Given the current mood of US citizenry (of whom, a new poll indicates, more than 80 percent believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction), that successor will likely not be a member of Mr. Bush’s political party. But with a level of military effort no longer sustainable (as almost all of the top brass have insisted), and with the national economy swirling the bowl, that successor will most certainly have to begin to disengage the US from Iraq – and be left to hold the bag for the hubris, incompetence, and catastrophe of his predecessor.

Because, as US forces pull out, Iraq will most certainly fall apart even more, its misery and violence ratcheting up by several notches. With much more justification than Mr. Bush did last week, many across the world will proclaim it a “defining moment.” Some will proclaim that the American behemoth has been vanquished once and for all. Others, perhaps more reflectively, and dishearteningly, may surmise that whatever fires America might have lit for insisting on goodness and justice on the planet lie in cinders, if not altogether doused.

But Mr. Bush’s glorious page in our national memory will be completely up in smoke, wisps on the wind of history.

John Robertson is a professor of Middle East history at Central Michigan University and has his own blog, Chippshots.

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NEWS: Change or war

‘If there is no change in three months, there will be war again’

A crucial Iraqi ally of the United States in its recent successes in the country is threatening to withdraw his support and allow al-Qa’ida to return if his fighters are not incorporated into the Iraqi army and police.

“If there is no change in three months there will be war again,” said Abu Marouf, the commander of 13,000 fighters who formerly fought the Americans. He and his men switched sides last year to battle al-Qa’ida and defeated it in its main stronghold in and around Fallujah.

“If the Americans think they can use us to crush al-Qa’ida and then push us to one side, they are mistaken,” Abu Marouf told The Independent in an interview in a scantily furnished villa beside an abandoned cemetery near the village of Khandari outside Fallujah. He said that all he and his tribal following had to do was stand aside and al-Qa’ida’s fighters would automatically come back. If they did so he might have to ally himself to a resurgent al-Qa’ida in order to “protect myself and my men”. [complete article]

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NEWS ROUNDUP: January 27

Bush order expands network monitoring
President Bush signed a directive this month that expands the intelligence community’s role in monitoring Internet traffic to protect against a rising number of attacks on federal agencies’ computer systems.

Bush urged to renounce torture, restore ‘moral authority’
Delivering what they called a “prebuttal” to President Bush’s final State of the Union speech, congressional Democratic leaders called on Bush to chart a new direction for the U.S. economy and restore America’s “moral authority” abroad, notably by publicly renouncing torture and closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

Israel to restore supply of industrial-use fuel to Gaza Strip
The state told the High Court of Justice on Sunday that Israel would restore the supply of industrial-use diesel to the Gaza Strip to target levels set prior to the blockade imposed on Gaza earlier this month.

American aid worker seized in Afghanistan
Gunmen kidnapped an American aid worker and her driver in southern Afghanistan’s largest city early Saturday, seizing the woman from a residential neighborhood as she was on her way to work.

Maliki sending troops to Mosul
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Friday that Iraqi reinforcements have begun moving toward the northern city of Mosul for a “decisive” battle with the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

FBI agent: Hussein didn’t expect invasion
Before the Iraq war, Saddam Hussein misjudged the U.S. military strategy and thought the United States would launch only several days of airstrikes and not a full-scale ground invasion, according to a television interview with the FBI agent who interrogated the former Iraqi leader for seven months.

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NEWS: Bush administration still ambivalent about Iraqi sovereignty

U.S. asking Iraq for wide rights on war

With its international mandate in Iraq set to expire in 11 months, the Bush administration will insist that the government in Baghdad give the United States broad authority to conduct combat operations and guarantee civilian contractors specific legal protections from Iraqi law, according to administration and military officials.

This emerging American negotiating position faces a potential buzz saw of opposition from Iraq, with its fragmented Parliament, weak central government and deep sensitivities about being seen as a dependent state, according to these officials.

At the same time, the administration faces opposition from Democrats at home, who warn that the agreements that the White House seeks would bind the next president by locking in Mr. Bush’s policies and a long-term military presence. [complete article]

Iraq seeks sharp reduction in U.S. military role

… a senior member of the Iraqi negotiating team, which has been almost completely appointed, said they would seek to have U.S. troops — who for five years have conducted aggressive combat missions across the country against al-Qaida and other radical Muslim militias — largely confined to their bases.

U.S. troops would have only limited freedom of movement off base under Iraq’s position, leaving only when requested to provide intelligence, air support, equipment and other logistical support, the Iraqi negotiator said.

Plan would let Iraq fight its own battles
U.S. officials have long maintained that the Iraqi army is “all teeth and no tail,” meaning it is entirely focused on combat but is unable to operate independently because of equipment and intelligence shortfalls. The agreement, as envisioned by Iraq, would shift military operations inside the country to emphasize Iraq’s combat strength with sophisticated background support from U.S. units. [complete article]

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NEWS: Getting out of Iraq; the Awakening under threat

Attacks imperil U.S.-backed militias in Iraq

American-backed Sunni militias who have fought Sunni extremists to a standstill in some of Iraq’s bloodiest battlegrounds are being hit with a wave of assassinations and bomb attacks, threatening a fragile linchpin of the military’s strategy to pacify the nation.

At least 100 predominantly Sunni militiamen, known as Awakening Council members or Concerned Local Citizens, have been killed in the past month, mostly around Baghdad and the provincial capital of Baquba, urban areas with mixed Sunni and Shiite populations, according to Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani. At least six of the victims were senior Awakening leaders, Iraqi officials said.

Violence is also shaking up the Awakening movement, many of whose members are former insurgents, in its birthplace in the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province. On Sunday, a teenage suicide bomber exploded at a gathering of Awakening leaders, killing Hadi Hussein al-Issawi, a midlevel sheik, and three other tribesmen.

Born nearly two years ago in Iraq’s western deserts, the Awakening movement has grown to an 80,000-member nationwide force, four-fifths of whose members are Sunnis. American military officials credit that force, along with the surge in United States troops, the Mahdi Army’s self-imposed cease-fire and an increase in Iraqi security forces, for a precipitous drop in civilian and military fatalities since July.

But the recent onslaught is jeopardizing that relative security and raising the prospect that the groups’ members might disperse, with many rejoining the insurgency, American officials said. [complete article]

A lesson in how to create Iraqi orphans. And then how to make life worse for them

It’s not difficult to create orphans in Iraq. If you’re an insurgent, you can blow yourself up in a crowded market. If you’re an American air force pilot, you can bomb the wrong house in the wrong village. Or if you’re a Western mercenary, you can fire 40 bullets into the widowed mother of 14-year-old Alice Awanis and her sisters Karoon and Nora, the first just 20, the second a year older. But when the three girls landed at Amman airport from Baghdad last week they believed that they were free of the horrors of Baghdad and might travel to Northern Ireland to escape the terrible memory of their mother’s violent death.

Alas, the milk of human kindness does not necessarily extend to orphans from Iraq – the country we invaded for supposedly humanitarian reasons, not to mention weapons of mass destruction. For as their British uncle waited for them at Queen Alia airport, Jordanian security men – refusing him even a five-minute conversation with the girls – hustled the sisters back on to the plane for Iraq. [complete article]

Democrats attack Iraq security proposal

The leading Democratic presidential candidates and their allies on Capitol Hill have launched fierce attacks in recent days on a White House plan to forge a new, long-term security agreement with the Iraqi government, complaining that the administration is trying to lock in a lasting U.S. military presence in Iraq before the next president takes office.

Among the top critics is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). She has used the past two Democratic presidential debates to blast President Bush for his effort, as she put it Monday in South Carolina, “to try to bind the United States government and his successor to his failed policy.”

Her concerns have been echoed by Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and other Democratic lawmakers who are focusing their fire on the administration’s plans for a long-term commitment to Iraq, after gaining little traction for their efforts to force a faster withdrawal of U.S. combat troops there. [complete article]

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NEWS, ANALYSIS & FEATURE: Orchestrated deception on the path to war

False pretenses

President George W. Bush and seven of his administration’s top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, made at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Nearly five years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an exhaustive examination of the record shows that the statements were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses.

On at least 532 separate occasions (in speeches, briefings, interviews, testimony, and the like), Bush and these three key officials, along with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and White House press secretaries Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan, stated unequivocally that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (or was trying to produce or obtain them), links to Al Qaeda, or both. This concerted effort was the underpinning of the Bush administration’s case for war. [complete article]

See also, British government ordered to disclose draft Iraq dossier (The Guardian).

Troops felled by a ‘trust gap’

For many among the senior leadership at the Pentagon… the apparent successful spread of the “Awakening of the Tribes Movement” has been tempered by the realization that the initiative put in place in Fallujah and Ramadi and Babil could have been – and should have been – put into practice five years ago.

Pentagon officials are quick to blame former Iraq czar L Paul Bremer of the US Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for the failure. “We’re reconstituting the Iraqi military, that’s all this is” a Pentagon official notes. “A lot of these guys in Babil that we’re paying lost their salaries when Bremer disbanded the Republican Guard and broke up the Ba’ath Party. It was a stupid move. So this is a make-good.”

Another Pentagon official remembers the opening to Gaood in 2004: “This should have been done then,” he says, “and I don’t understand why it wasn’t. Think of the blood, the enormous loss of life, the lost prestige, the failures.” Pentagon officers are also quick to point out that, while Petraeus has taken credit for the shift in strategy in Iraq, the “Awakening of the Tribes Movement” actually began long before he recommended an increase in American troops levels in the country. [complete article]

Iraq’s new law on ex-Baathists could bring another purge

Maj. Gen. Hussein al-Awadi, a former official in Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, became the commander of the Iraqi National Police despite a 2003 law barring the party from government.

But now, under new legislation promoted as way to return former Baathists to public life, the 56-year-old and thousands like him could be forced out of jobs they have been allowed to hold, according to Iraqi lawmakers and the government agency that oversees ex-Baathists.

“This new law is very confusing,” Awadi said. “I don’t really know what it means for me.”

He is not alone. More than a dozen Iraqi lawmakers, U.S. officials and former Baathists here and in exile expressed concern in interviews that the law could set off a new purge of ex-Baathists, the opposite of U.S. hopes for the legislation.

Approved by parliament this month under pressure from U.S. officials, the law was heralded by President Bush and Iraqi leaders as a way to soothe the deep anger of many ex-Baathists — primarily Sunnis but also many Shiites such as Awadi — toward the Shiite-led government.

Yet U.S. officials and even legislators who voted for the measure, which still requires approval by Iraq’s presidency council, acknowledge that its impact is hard to assess from its text and will depend on how it is implemented. Some say the law’s primary aim is not to return ex-Baathists to work, but to recognize and compensate those harmed by the party. Of the law’s eight stated justifications, none mentions reinstating ex-Baathists to their jobs. [complete article]

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NEWS & OPINION: Iraq’s illusive political solution

Federalism, not partition

Overall, Shiites see their future based on two fundamental “rights”: Power must be exercised by the political majority through control of governmental institutions, and institutional sectarian discrimination must be eliminated. Kurds see their future bound to their “rights” of linguistic, cultural, financial and resource control within Kurdistan. Sunni Arabs are driven by resistance to their loss of power, as well as fear of revenge for past wrongs and the potential for reverse discrimination.

The current political framework is based on a pluralistic democratic vision that, while admirable, is entirely unsuited to resolving this three-way divide. It ignores underlying issues and expects that a consensus will emerge simply by enacting a liberal constitutional legal order.

Pluralistic democracy will not take root unless the national political compact recognizes and accommodates the fears and aspirations of Iraq’s communities. Resolution can be achieved only through a system that incorporates regional federalism, with clear, mutually acceptable distributions of power between the regions and the central government. Such a system is in the interest of all Iraqis and is necessary if Iraq is to avoid partition or further civil strife. [complete article]

Iraq faces ‘slide back to conflict’ without rapid reconstruction

Iraq’s government must rapidly raise its game to cement the country’s fragile new peace, the United States ambassador in Baghdad has declared.

Iraq was “immeasurably better” than a year ago, Ryan Crocker told The Times, but Nouri al-Maliki’s administration had to provide jobs and services to undercut the militias and prevent a slide back to conflict. “Failure to consolidate security gains with progress in other areas would be highly dangerous.”

In a wide-ranging interview Mr Crocker also urged Britain to maintain a force near Basra, saying it still had an important role advising Iraqi commanders, supporting reconstruction efforts, and guarding American supply routes. [complete article]

Iraq may need military help for years, officials say

Senior U.S. military officials projected yesterday that the Iraqi army and police will grow to an estimated 580,000 members by the end of the year but that shortages of key personnel, equipment, weaponry and logistical capabilities mean that Iraq’s security forces will probably require U.S. military support for as long as a decade.

“The truth is that they simply cannot fix, supply, arm or fuel themselves completely enough at this point,” said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, head of the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq.

The Iraqi government has been increasing its forces “much more aggressively” in response to the high violence levels witnessed in 2006 and early 2007, Dubik said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. [complete article]

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