Blackwater manager threatened to murder State Department investigator in Iraq

The New York Times reports: Just weeks before Blackwater guards fatally shot 17 civilians at Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007, the State Department began investigating the security contractor’s operations in Iraq. But the inquiry was abandoned after Blackwater’s top manager there issued a threat: “that he could kill” the government’s chief investigator and “no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,” according to department reports.

American Embassy officials in Baghdad sided with Blackwater rather than the State Department investigators as a dispute over the probe escalated in August 2007, the previously undisclosed documents show. The officials told the investigators that they had disrupted the embassy’s relationship with the security contractor and ordered them to leave the country, according to the reports.

After returning to Washington, the chief investigator wrote a scathing report to State Department officials documenting misconduct by Blackwater employees and warning that lax oversight of the company, which had a contract worth more than $1 billion to protect American diplomats, had created “an environment full of liability and negligence.” [Continue reading...]

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Maliki and ISIS are both enemies of democracy

Michael Weiss writes: The American military official best acquainted with the social fabric of northern and central Iraq says that the disintegration of the country was entirely preventable. Col. Rick Welch spent just under seven years in Iraq and served as Gen. David Petraeus’s chief liaison to the Sunni tribes of Fallujah and Ramadi and to various Shia tribal militia groups, including Muqtada al-Sadr’s now-reconstituted Mahdi Army.

Welch was integral to the so-called “Anbar Awakening,” which turned a lot of former insurgents – or insurgency sympathizers – into US allies against Al-Qaeda. Since retiring from the army, he has resumed his law practice in Ohio but has kept up with these hard-won friends, who have painted a dire picture of what life is like under the Nouri al-Maliki government. If the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the former Ba’athists of the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order have managed to plow through Anbar Province with such ease, Welch argues, it is because the Sunnis of Iraq felt they had no recourse but to align with such elements.

“Maliki, in my opinion, is just as much an enemy to democracy in Iraq as ISIS is,” Welch told me last week in a wide-ranging interview. “He pushed them so far that they had to rise up. They tried to get reforms, but they couldn’t get them. There were dragnet arrests; Sunni women were thrown in prison to get to the men. Tribal honor was on the line and revenge thinking was on the line. Maliki made this crisis.” And it was abetted, the colonel says, by US obliviousness of or indifference to what was a noticeable degeneration in Baghdad even before the American troop withdrawal in 2011. [Continue reading...]

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Obama’s disastrous Iraq policy

Peter Beinart writes: Obama inherited an Iraq where better security had created an opportunity for better government. The Bush administration’s troop “surge” did not solve the country’s underlying divisions. But by retaking Sunni areas from insurgents, it gave Iraq’s politicians the chance to forge a government inclusive enough to keep the country together.

The problem was that Maliki wasn’t interested in such a government. Rather than integrate the Sunni Awakening fighters who had helped subdue al-Qaeda into Iraq’s army, Maliki arrested them. In the run-up to his 2010 reelection bid, Maliki’s Electoral Commission disqualified more than 500, mostly Sunni, candidates on charges that they had ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

For the Obama administration, however, tangling with Maliki meant investing time and energy in Iraq, a country it desperately wanted to pivot away from. A few months before the 2010 elections, according to Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, “American diplomats in Iraq sent a rare dissenting cable to Washington, complaining that the U.S., with its combination of support and indifference, was encouraging Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies.”

When Iraqis went to the polls in March 2010, they gave a narrow plurality to the Iraqiya List, an alliance of parties that enjoyed significant Sunni support but was led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. Under pressure from Maliki, however, an Iraqi judge allowed the prime minister’s Dawa Party—which had finished a close second—to form a government instead. According to Emma Sky, chief political adviser to General Raymond Odierno, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, American officials knew this violated Iraq’s constitution. But they never publicly challenged Maliki’s power grab, which was backed by Iran, perhaps because they believed his claim that Iraq’s Shiites would never accept a Sunni-aligned government. “The message” that America’s acquiescence “sent to Iraq’s people and politicians alike,” wrote the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack, “was that the United States under the new Obama administration was no longer going to enforce the rules of the democratic road…. [This] undermined the reform of Iraqi politics and resurrected the specter of the failed state and the civil war.” According to Filkins, one American diplomat in Iraq resigned in disgust. [Continue reading...]

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Kurdish control of Kirkuk

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Tony Blair should be fired as Middle East envoy, say former ambassadors

The Guardian reports: A group of former British ambassadors have joined a campaign calling for Tony Blair to be removed from his role as Middle East envoy after his recent attempt to “absolve himself” of responsibility for the crisis in Iraq.

The letter, organised by the makers of George Galloway’s film The Killing of Tony Blair, says the 2003 invasion of Iraq was to blame for the rise of “fundamentalist terrorism in a land where none existed previously”.

The signatories, led by Blair’s former ambassador to Iran Sir Richard Dalton, describe the former prime minister’s achievements as Middle East envoy as “negligible”.

Other former diplomats to sign the letter are Oliver Miles, who was ambassador to Libya when diplomatic relations were severed in 1984 after the killing of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, and Christopher Long, ambassador to Egypt between 1992-95. [Continue reading...]

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How did Iraqi sectarianism emerge?

Fanar Haddad: Sectarian identity for most of the 20th century was not particularly relevant in political terms. Obviously, this is something that ebbs and flows, but there were other frames of reference that were politically dominant. Come 2003, plenty changes.

Zack Beauchamp: How did things change in 2003?

FH: You can chart a course to 2003 from the mobilization of Shia parties in the mid-20th century, the Iranian Revolution [of 1979], the Iran-Iraq war [of the 1980s], the rebellion of 1991, 13 years of sanctions. These are all part of a cumulative process.

Come 2003, the main opposition forces against Saddam Hussein were ethno-sectarian parties. That’s a really important point. Yes, we can blame — and we should blame — occupation forces and the promises that they pursued, particularly enshrining identity politics as the key marker of Iraqi politics. But that was something that these ethno-sectarian parties, the ones who were the main opposition force, advocated before 2003. This, to them, was the answer.

From a Sunni Arab perspective, the Shia parties and personalities that came to power weren’t just politicians who happened to be Shia. They were politicians whose political outlook was firmly rooted in a Shia-centric, sect-centric view of things. I would say there were a number of prejudices, Sunni suspicions of the new regime. These were unfortunately validated by the nature of the new political elite, and their subsequent decisions and policies.

Post-2003 Iraq, I’d say identity politics have been the norm rather than an anomaly because they’re part of the system by design. The first institution that was set up in 2003 under the auspices of the occupation was the Iraq Governing Council — which was explicitly based on sectarian apportionment. You know, 13 Shias, six Sunnis, or whatever it was, based on what were perceived as the correct demographics.

Not to muddy the water further, but we don’t actually have anywhere near an accurate census for these things. They’re just sort of received wisdom — that Sunnis are increasingly rejecting. The idea that they’re a minority, that they’re only 20 percent: this is something that Sunni voices since 2003 have been rejecting. Whether that’s rational or not is not the point. The point is that they basically look at the demographic claims as Sunnis being marginalized and accorded second-class status on the basis of a lie. They do not accept that they are a minority, and this is a system that’s based on ethno-sectarian demographics.

ZB: How do these sectarian divides affect people’s view of the Iraqi state — not just the Maliki government, but the entire set of political institutions themselves?

FH: I’d say this point is crucial to pre- and post-2003 Iraq: the idea of the legitimacy of the state. It’s also sort of crucial to what’s going on now.

When 2003 came along, a lot of Shias and certainly a lot of Kurds welcomed it. They saw it as their deliverance as Shias and Kurds as much as it was the deliverance of Iraq. On the Sunni side, there was no such sentiment because there barely existed a sense of Sunni identity before 2003. It simply didn’t exist in Iraq.

Now, what you see is the reverse. The Iraqi government is not popular with anyone, the popularity of the government is rock bottom, I’d say, but Shias are more likely to accord the state, the post-2003 order some level of legitimacy. Whereas there is a body of opinion of among Sunnis who just do not ascribe any legitimacy to it whatsoever. [Continue reading...]

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The role the Baathists in Iraq’s Sunni insurgency

The New York Times reports: Meeting with the American ambassador some years ago in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki detailed what he believed was the latest threat of a coup orchestrated by former officers of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

“Don’t waste your time on this coup by the Baathists,” the ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, chided him, dismissing his conspiracy theories as fantasy.

Now, though, with Iraq facing its gravest crisis in years, as Sunni insurgents have swept through northern and central Iraq, Mr. Maliki’s claims about Baathist plots have been at least partly vindicated. While fighters for the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, once an offshoot of Al Qaeda, have taken on the most prominent role in the new insurgency, they have done so in alliance with a deeply rooted network of former loyalists to Saddam Hussein.

The involvement of the Baathists helps explain why just a few thousand Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighters, many of them fresh off the battlefields of Syria, have been able to capture so much territory so quickly. It sheds light on the complexity of the forces aligned against Baghdad in the conflict — not just the foreign-influenced group known as ISIS, but many homegrown groups, too. And with the Baathists’ deep social and cultural ties to many areas now under insurgent control, it stands as a warning of how hard it might be for the government to regain territory and restore order.

Many of the former regime loyalists, including intelligence officers and Republican Guard soldiers — commonly referred to as the “deep state” in the Arab world — belong to a group called the Men of the Army of the Naqshbandia Order, often referred to as J.R.T.N., the initials of its Arabic name. The group announced its establishment in 2007, not long after the execution of Mr. Hussein, and its putative leader, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, was one of Mr. Hussein’s most trusted deputies and the highest-ranking figure of the old regime who avoided capture by the Americans.

Referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s fighters, Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has researched the Naqshbandia group, said, “They couldn’t have seized a fraction of what they did without coordinated alliances with other Sunni groups.” [Continue reading...]

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Maliki or ISIS? Neither looks good to Sunni Awakening veterans

Christian Science Monitor reports: The last time the Al Qaeda franchise raised its head in Iraq, its brutal tactics convinced many fellow Sunnis to take them on.

Back then, fresh-faced Abu Omar was a local leader of the US-backed “Sons of Iraq,” trying to put a lid on Sunni militancy.

But today, as Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) advance across the country, he sits at home in a dark blue polo shirt playing with his children, unable to stop a storm that he says is threatening to engulf Iraq again.

ISIS is one problem. The group has posted videos it claims show it massacring Shiite Iraqi Army troops, while promising “justice” and basic services on its turf.

But the stunning ISIS advance is riding what some top Sunni politicians – echoed by local players like Abu Omar – say is a much wider “revolution” against the unabashedly Shiite-first policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. And this raises the specter of a return to sectarian bloodshed in Iraq.

“If no solution is found very soon, no one will be able to stop ISIS; they are getting very strong with tanks and equipment and manpower,” says Abu Omar, who asked that only this nickname be used.

He reckons that 60 to 70 percent of Iraq’s Sunnis “welcome that revolution” and have been “brainwashed” about the true violent nature of a group they support. “I am expecting worse than 2006-2007, if there is not a quick solution,” he says, adding that ISIS and other Sunni extremist cells are already in Baghdad.

“Rivers of blood will be in the street. The killing we will not be in the air [as rumors], but live,” he warns. [Continue reading...]

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Tom Engelhardt: The guns of folly

Who won Iraq?
By Tom Engelhardt

As Iraq was unraveling last week and the possible outlines of the first jihadist state in modern history were coming into view, I remembered this nugget from the summer of 2002.  At the time, journalist Ron Suskind had a meeting with “a senior advisor” to President George W. Bush (later identified as Karl Rove).  Here’s how he described part of their conversation:

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off.  ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued.  ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”

As events unfold increasingly chaotically across the region that officials of the Bush years liked to call the Greater Middle East, consider the eerie accuracy of that statement.  The president, his vice president Dick Cheney, his defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, among others, were indeed “history’s actors.”  They did create “new realities” and, just as Rove suggested, the rest of us are now left to “study” what they did. 

And oh, what they did!  Their geopolitical dreams couldn’t have been grander or more global.  (Let’s avoid the word “megalomaniacal.”)  They expected to pacify the Greater Middle East, garrison Iraq for generations, make Syria and Iran bow down before American power, “drain” the global “swamp” of terrorists, and create a global Pax Americana based on a military so dominant that no other country or bloc of countries would ever challenge it.

It was quite a dream and none of it, not one smidgen, came true.  Just as Rove suggested they would — just as in the summer of 2002, he already knew they would — they acted to create a world in their image, a world they imagined controlling like no imperial power in history.  Using that unchallengeable military, they launched an invasion that blew a hole through the oil heartlands of the Middle East.  They took a major capital, Baghdad, while “decapitating” (as the phrase then went) the regime that was running Iraq and had, in a particularly brutal fashion, kept the lid on internecine tensions.

They lacked nothing when it came to confidence.  Among the first moves of L. Paul Bremer III, the proconsul they appointed to run their occupation, was an order demobilizing Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s 350,000-man army and the rest of his military as well.  Their plan: to replace it with a lightly armed border protection force — initially of 12,000 troops and in the end perhaps 40,000 — armed and trained by Washington.  Given their vision of the world, it made total sense.  Why would Iraq need more than that with the U.S. military hanging around for, well, ever, on a series of permanent bases the Pentagon’s contractors were building?  What dangers could there be in the neighborhood with that kind of force on hand?  Soon enough, it became clear that what they had really done was turn the Iraqi officer corps and most of the country’s troops out onto unemployment lines, creating the basis for a militarily skilled Sunni insurgency.  A brilliant start!

Note that these days the news is filled with commentary on the lack of a functional Iraqi air force.  That’s why, in recent months, Prime Minister Maliki has been calling on the Obama administration to send American air power back into the breach.  Saddam Hussein did have an air force.  Once it had been one of the biggest in the Middle East.  The Bush administration, however, came to the conclusion that the new Iraqi military would have no need for fighter planes, helicopters, or much of anything else, not when the U.S. Air Force would be in the neighborhood on bases like Balad in Central Iraq.  Who needed two air forces?

[Read more...]

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My Iraqi city is falling, but America’s occupation unraveled all hope for unity

Najim Abed al-Jabouri writes: My city was supposed to be the model for a better tomorrow in Iraq. Integrated security forces from all ethnic groups, restored cohesion among the many segments of Iraqi society – this was the hope amid the surge, back when I was the mayor in Tal Afar.

But that was nearly a decade ago, and now my city is a battleground again, as government security forces attempt to withstand the march of Sunni militants, as the incubator for an Islamic state has turned into sectarian chaos. The dream of a unified Iraq has not just been deferred but destroyed.

Isis was a sleeping giant, and to see what went so wrong, you have to follow the destructive path set out by the United States as an occupying power in my country, almost from the moment those first air strikes began.

Back in 2003, most Shia Muslims and a good number of Kurds welcomed the Americans. The Sunni population, meanwhile, was not of one mind: many of them were outright opposed to US control, while others were holding out for things to change for the better. Give the occupiers six months, argued Sunni scholars, to see what happens. Iraq had suffered so many calamities – so many wars and siege after siege – that a population suffering in poverty and destitution, no matter one’s ethnic background, seemed willing to hope together.

Then the American occupational authority, led by Paul Bremer, dissolved state institutions (including the Iraqi army), uprooted the Ba’ath party (by way of harsh de-Baathification laws) and, even worse, failed to give adequate Sunni representation in the “transitional” government (five Sunni Muslims sat on the original Governing Council, to 13 Shia representatives, five Kurds and one Turkoman). This was the beginning of the end of that better tomorrow for Sunni people in Iraq. [Continue reading...]

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The rapid advance of ISIS across Iraq

At Blogs of War, John Little describes: the massive upsurge in ISIS’s strength and capabilities. The group now:

I could go on. Bad news is flooding in around the clock. This is a tremendously worrying destabilization that will create an environment in which only really terrible things happen. Jessica Lewis and Ahmed Ali of ISW have given some thought to where all of this is heading and paint a pretty dire picture:

Iraq’s security forces will not be able to retake all of the ground they have lost. They may not even be able to hold what they still have. The best-case scenario is a stalemate in which Iraqis manage to contain the ISIS state and army for now. The more likely case is the creation of another Syrian-style conflict pitting ISIS with increasing international support against desperate and increasingly brutal Iraqi Shi’a militias and ISF elements. The two civil wars, which have now completely merged, will continue to expand, destabilizing an already unstable Middle East and inviting further intervention by the Sunni Arab states and Iran. In the very worst case, the fall of Mosul could be a step down the path to outright regional war.

If there is any hope at all, and I am not sure that there is, it might be in that ISIS has overextended itself and the terrible performance by Iraqi forces has made them appear far more formidable than they actually are. [Continue reading...]

Bloomberg reports: As his army flees from an al-Qaeda splinter group, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is rallying Shiite militias to defend his government, raising the specter of civil war in OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer.

In a televised news conference yesterday Maliki urged citizens to take up arms after the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant group seized control of the northern city of Mosul, stealing weapons and helicopters from police and army bases as Iraqi government forces fled. He vowed to build an army of volunteers to “pull the thorns out by ourselves.”

By countering Sunni militants with elements of his own Shiite support, Maliki risks reigniting the sectarian conflict that flared after the 2003 U.S. invasion that led to the ouster of Saddam Hussein. At its worst, in 2006 and 2007, thousands of civilians were losing their lives every month.

“The unleashing of the Shia militias was a driver of the civil war,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior Middle East and North African analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, in a telephone interview. “The question is, will Maliki try to maintain order over these militias or will the level of conflict spiral into something deeper?” [Continue reading...]

Fred Kaplan writes: The collapse of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, has little to do with the withdrawal of American troops and everything to do with the political failure of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

As the U.S. pullout began under the terms of a treaty signed in 2008 by then-President George W. Bush, Maliki, the leader of a Shiite political party, promised to run a more inclusive government — to bring more Sunnis into the ministries, to bring more Sunnis from the Sons of Iraq militia into the national army, to settle property disputes in Kirkuk, to negotiate a formula on sharing oil revenue with Sunni districts, and much more.

Maliki has since backpedaled on all of these commitments and has pursued policies designed to strengthen Shiites and marginalize Sunnis. That has led to the resurgence of sectarian violence in the past few years. The Sunnis, finding themselves excluded from the political process, have taken up arms as the route to power. In the process, they have formed alliances with Sunni jihadist groups — such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which has seized not just Mosul but much of northern Iraq — on the principle that the enemy of their enemy is their friend. [Continue reading...]

Much as many Americans inside and outside government may now be inclined to view the advance of ISIS as Iraq’s problem, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the jihadist group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was held in American custody until his release in 2009.

abu_duaThe FBI “most wanted” mugshot shows a tough, swarthy figure, his hair in a jailbird crew-cut. The $10 million price on his head, meanwhile, suggests that whoever released him from US custody four years ago may now be regretting it.

Taken during his years as a detainee at the US-run Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, this is the only known photograph of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. But while he may lack the photogenic qualities of his hero, Osama bin Laden, he is fast becoming the new poster-boy for the global jihadist movement.

For anyone who has any doubts about the brutality of ISIS, then if you can stomach it, watch some of “The Clanging of the Swords.” This recently released movie could be described as Tarantino-style jihad — repulsive to most people, but presumably appealing to young men who want to kill in the name of Islam.

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Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, falls to ISIS

Karl Vick reports: The fall of Iraq’s second largest city to Islamist extremists Tuesday sends an alarming message about the deterioration of a country where the United States spent eight years, 4,500 lives and $1.7 trillion. Mosul, a city of 1.8 million located in the far north of the country, long cultivated a reputation as a military town. But Iraqi soldiers threw down their guns and stripped off their uniforms as the insurgents approached on Tuesday, according to officials stunned by the collapse of its defenses.

“When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it an easy prey for the terrorists,” Osama Nuajaifi, the speaker of Iraq’s parliament who hails from Mosul, said during a news conference in Baghdad. “Everything is fallen. It’s a crisis. Having these terrorist groups control a city in the heart of Iraq threatens not only Iraq but the entire region.”

The fall of Mosul after only four days of fighting speaks volumes about both the state of Iraqi forces and the depth of the sectarian division at the bleeding heart of the nation’s ongoing crisis: The population of Mosul is mostly Sunni, and the central government led by prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is widely criticized as favoring the country’s Shiite majority. Al-Maliki is likely to remain in office after the April 30 elections left him with the largest share of votes and negotiating chiefly with other Shiite parties to form a new governing coalition.

The insurgents—who raised black flags over parts of the city Tuesday—are Sunni extremists known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a group al-Qaeda disowned as too extreme. [Continue reading...]

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‘Environmental poisoning’ of Iraq caused by burn pits

n13-iconThe New York Times reports: An advocacy group representing American military veterans and Iraqi civilians arrived here on Wednesday armed with a message for the United States government: Washington must do something for the thousands of people suffering from what the group called the “environmental poisoning” of Iraq during the war.

The group, Right to Heal, says that veterans and civilians continue to feel the effects of the burn pits — banned by Congress four years ago — that were used to dispose of military waste, and that new health problems arise every day for Iraqis.

“Things are worse off today by a thousandfold,” Representative Jim McDermott, Democrat of Washington, said during a hearing in the House on Wednesday morning that featured witnesses from Right to Heal.

Several hours later, Right to Heal called its own “people’s hearing” at a Quaker meeting house in Washington. One witness there, John Tirman, executive director and principal research scientist at the M.I.T. Center for International Studies, said that in playing down the health effects of the war, American officials had violated “the trust we place in government, that is, that they would be accountable to us even in the most severe times of war.”

Last October, Verge published an investigative report on the toxic effect of burn pits, “Ring of Fire.”

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Once an Arab model, Baghdad now world’s worst city

a13-iconAFP reports: As recently as the 1970s, Baghdad was lauded as a model city in the Arab world. But now, after decades of seemingly endless conflict, it is the world’s worst city.

That is, at least, according to the latest survey by the Mercer consulting group, which when assessing quality of life across 239 cities, measuring factors including political stability, crime and pollution, placed Baghdad last.

The Iraqi capital was lumped with Bangui in the conflict-hit Central African Republic and the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, the latest confirmation of the 1,250-year-old city’s fall from grace as a global intellectual, economic and political centre.

Residents of Baghdad contend with near-daily attacks, a lack of electricity and clean water, poor sewerage and drainage systems, rampant corruption, regular gridlock, high unemployment and a myriad other problems.

“We live in a military barracks,” complained Hamid al-Daraji, a paper salesman, referring to the ubiquitous checkpoints, concrete blast walls and security forces peppered throughout the city.

“The rich and the poor share the same suffering,” the 48-year-old continued. “The rich might be subjected at any moment to an explosion, a kidnapping, or a killing, just like the poor.

“Our lives are ones where we face death at any moment.”

It was not always so for the Iraqi capital. [Continue reading...]

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The fall of Falluja reveals the tragic futility of America’s strategy in the Middle East

Graham E. Fuller writes: When is a war “worth it?” It’s a timeless question that still begs a decisive response.

The debacle of Iraq has now drifted off the scope Americans’ attention — US troops are no longer dying there and new challenges beckon Washington elsewhere. Been there, done that. The American part of the war may be over, and we have grown weary hearing about it, but the Iraqi part of the war still continues. And with the recent and symbolic fall, again, of Falluja to al-Qa’ida and other jihadis we are forcefully reminded of the price that we paid in the American cleansing of Falluja ten years ago — for naught. Falluja, massively damaged, seems back to square one.

What about the Iraqis — was the war worth it for them? The figures are pretty well known by now — upwards of half a million Iraqis died, either in the violence of war or subsequent civil strife. That’s roughly equivalent to 5 million US citizens dying in a war. Add at least one million Iraqis displaced from their homes and villages, many now in exile — equivalent to ten million Americans displaced. Saddam was one of the most brutal dictators the world has seen in modern times, but one wonders–Iraqis must wonder — whether anything Saddam could have done could ever have remotely approached such human and structural devastation as the war. And the psychological damage — constant fear, death, mayhem, ongoing massive insecurity, anarchy and civil conflict –is not yet over.

Still, if you talk to some Iraqi Shi’a, the shift of power from the hands of a Sunni minority under a brutal dictator into the hands of the Shi’ite majority was a long term political godsend for them; they are today “better off” — at least politically, than before the war. But that’s a political abstraction.

Was it “worth it” to individual Shi’ite families who suffered loss of husbands, brothers, wives and children, homes and livelihoods? Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when asked about the deaths of half a million Iraqi children deprived of medicine under the US sanctions on Saddam, said it was “a hard choice… but it was worth it.” That is the comforting Olympian strategic view, uncomplicated by ground realities for real human beings.

What strategic gains can we tote up for the US alongside Iraqi losses? For the US, virtually nothing gained; indeed, it’s been a serious net loss in geopolitical terms. Few Iraqis are grateful. An Iraq that has always displayed strong Arab nationalist tendencies will not likely now change its colors or learn to love Israel.

Iran is now recognized as the real winner of the Iraq war. The Iraqi internal struggle has spread across into Syria, presenting the US with choices nearly all of which are highly unpalatable. Saudi Arabia has now felt the need to unleash a vicious sectarian conflict that destabilizes the Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula, Lebanon, Syria, even Pakistan. [Continue reading...]

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The Sunni-Shiite divide in the Greater Levant

Giandomenico Picco writes: The entire region from Pakistan to Lebanon — what I refer to as the Greater Levant — has been affected by profound, seismic changes during the course of the last three decades. These began in the late 1970s, in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran triangle.

Pakistan received the political support of Saudi Arabia, both in its tense standoff with nuclear India and in its increasingly intense relationship with the Soviet Union, which had invaded neighboring Afghanistan in December 1979. The Khomeini revolution (February 1979) in Shiite Iran convinced the Sunni “world” of an epochal change in the making. This little-noticed affair was at the very root of a more open confrontation along sectarian lines. In the mess of the first Afghan War of the 1980s, which I witnessed up close and personal, the underlying Sunni and Shiite conflict was barely noticed by the rest of the world, though it was better perceived in the war between Iran and Iraq in the same decade.

In the 1990s, however, events in Afghanistan revealed the true face of the underlying confrontation between Sunni and Shiite throughout the region. By the mid 1990s, the Taliban, with Pakistani support, began to make their run for total victory in Kabul. Soon the Sunni Afghan tribes (i.e., the Pasthun) and the Shiite Afghan tribes (i.e. the Tajiks and Hazaras), were engaged in open sectarian civil war. The Shiite tribes were supported by Russia and Iran, while the Taliban received support from Pakistan, somewhat from Saudi Arabia and, for a while, from the West, though in a very undecided way.

The tragic events of September 11, which had been masterminded by Sunni men who had trained in Afghanistan, resulted in a new understanding between Iran and the United States. The interests of both countries had coalesced. The 2001 Bonn Agreements between Washington and Tehran revealed that both nations had a common enemy in the Sunni extremists. At the same time, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun Sunni, became president of Afghanistan and the opposing Tajiiks came back to Kabul and entered into a coalition of sorts with Karzai. While this did not end the sectarian conflict, which continued during and after the U.S. military intervention, post-2001 Afghanistan is an example of a country rife with sectarian conflict, yet one in which compromise of a sort can be sought and even found.

But then came Iraq. Iran welcomed the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, seeing it as payback for 1534, an important, sad date in the Shiite narrative. In that year, Suleiman the First (the Ottoman Sultan) conquered Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and “the land of the two rivers” came under the control of the Sunni minority. Iran felt that the West had inadvertently given them a chance to reclaim Baghdad for the Shiites. Again, the ancient Sunni-Shiite conflict structured events but was little noticed by the West.

Despite vigorous efforts, there has been little progress on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Indeed, there has been no progress at all since Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by one of his own fellow citizens in mid 1995. The longest running conflict in the modern Middle East now seems to have little effect on the day-to-day events of the region. Indeed I would submit that the conflict is no longer pivotal in the region.

There are several reasons for this shift in the prominence and perception of the issue: for one thing, the Cold War came to an end and power struggles in the region were no longer proxy conflicts between the superpowers. Globalization, moreover, has weakened national and nationalistic boundaries and created unprecedented economic interdependence. Technology has made the individual more powerful than he or she has ever been before and the very concept of the nation-state is changing. The simple, two-dimensional worldview of decades past has yielded to recognition of a multiplicity of variables in the Greater Levant. Still, the principal, underlying and organizational dynamic of the entire region is no longer the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but the Sunni-Shiite conflict and its cold and hot wars in every country from the Hindu Kush to the Litani River.

The lead actors in this ongoing drama remain Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. If a new architecture for the entire region is going to be found, then these two countries must take on the responsibility. Yet the chess game between Riyadh and Tehran continues: in Iraq, the Shiites have won a victory of sorts in the West’s defeat of Saddam. Yet Saddam’s Sunni backers in the region do not accept this as the last word. This remains the core line of demarcation for both sides. [Continue reading...]

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