How Iraqis learned to fear and hate Americans in Ramadi eleven years ago

The Economist reported on December 29, 2004: There is only one traffic law in Ramadi these days: when Americans approach, Iraqis scatter. Horns blaring, brakes screaming, the midday traffic skids to the side of the road as a line of Humvee jeeps ferrying American marines rolls the wrong way up the main street. Every vehicle, that is, except one beat-up old taxi. Its elderly driver, flapping his outstretched hand, seems, amazingly, to be trying to turn the convoy back. Gun turrets swivel and lock on to him, as a hefty marine sergeant leaps into the road, levels an assault rifle at his turbanned head, and screams: “Back this bitch up, motherfucker!”

The old man should have read the bilingual notices that American soldiers tack to their rear bumpers in Iraq: “Keep 50m or deadly force will be applied”. In Ramadi, the capital of central Anbar province, where 17 suicide-bombs struck American forces during the month-long Muslim fast of Ramadan in the autumn, the marines are jumpy. Sometimes, they say, they fire on vehicles encroaching within 30 metres, sometimes they fire at 20 metres: “If anyone gets too close to us we fucking waste them,” says a bullish lieutenant. “It’s kind of a shame, because it means we’ve killed a lot of innocent people.”

And not all of them were in cars. Since discovering that roadside bombs, known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), can be triggered by mobile telephones, marines say they shoot at any Iraqi they see handling a phone near a bomb-blast. Bystanders to an insurgent ambush are also liable to be killed. Sometimes, the marines say they hide near the body of a dead insurgent and kill whoever comes to collect it. According to the marine lieutenant: “It gets to a point where you can’t wait to see guys with guns, so you start shooting everybody…It gets to a point where you don’t mind the bad stuff you do.”

Since September 1st, when the battalion’s 800 men were deployed to Ramadi, they have killed 400-500 people, according to one of their senior officers. A more precise estimate is impossible, because the marines rarely see their attackers. When fired upon, they retaliate by blitzing whichever buildings they think the fire is coming from: charred shells now line Ramadi’s main streets. “Sometimes it works in the insurgents’ favour,” admits Rick Sims, a chief warrant officer. “Because by the time we’ve shot up the neighbourhood, then the guys have torn up a few houses, they’re four blocks away, and we just end up pissing off the locals.” [Continue reading…]

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ISIS and the war in Iraq

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Those who brand others as heretics are not generally amenable to the proposition that the heretic deserves a fair hearing. Which is to say: the very idea of a heresy is that it represents a form of belief that must be dealt with by suppression rather than analysis.

Kyle Orton, a young Middle East analyst from England, has just been granted the opportunity to propagate an unthinkable heresy on the op-ed pages of the New York Times: he asserts that ISIS did not come into existence as a result of the war in Iraq but instead that its emergence can be traced to a process of Islamization in Iraq that began in the 1980s.

A kneejerk response comes from Glenn Greenwald:


As someone who so often likes to deploy a lazy guilt-by-association line of attack, Greenwald dismisses the article by branding it as having come from a neocon think tank — that being the Henry Jackson Society — along with an implicit rebuke directed at the New York Times.

Sal Rotman makes an appropriate response:


Indeed, but for Greenwald to make such a critique, he’d probably have to know much more about Iraq’s recent history than he does — so he opts for the easy route of denunciation by branding. Call someone a neocon and it goes without saying — supposedly — than anything they say can be dismissed.

The question as to whether Orton is a neocon (even if one accepts the label being applied to his employer), seems somewhat trivial — unless one is convinced that a neocon is someone whose every utterance is false. Which is to say: unless one views a neocon as a kind of heretic.

The only serious question is whether Orton’s historical analysis is sound — a judgement that many of us are not in a position to make. What many of us can do, however, is assess the coherence of the argument, its plausibility and the extent to which it rings true.

Interestingly, although Greenwald thinks Orton is exonerating the war in Iraq, he apparently missed the fact that Orton views the trend of Islamization in the 1990s as having occured while “Iraqis fell back on their faith for solace under the harsh international sanctions.”

One might argue, therefore, that ISIS was just as much a product of the 1991 Gulf War as it was the 2003 Iraq War — but not wholly a product of either.

Orton writes:

It’s true that disbanding the Iraqi Army after 2003 put professional soldiers at the service of the Sunni insurgency. It’s also true that Al Qaeda in Iraq — the small, foreign-led nucleus of what became the Islamic State — used poorly run American prisons like Camp Bucca to recruit former regime elements. But the significant fact is that those who assumed leadership roles in the Islamic State’s military council had been radicalized earlier, under Mr. Hussein’s regime.

There was never any “Baathist coup” of former regime elements inside the Islamic State, as some analysts assume, because these men had long since abandoned Baathism. They joined Al Qaeda in Iraq early after the invasion as an act of ideological conviction, and when Al Qaeda in Iraq’s leadership was nearly destroyed in 2008-10, these officers were the last men standing precisely because of their superior counterintelligence and security skills.

It was these Salafized former military intelligence officers — led by Samir al-Khlifawi, also known as Haji Bakr, who had joined the group in 2003 and rose to be the so-called caliph’s deputy, until he was killed in 2014 — who planned the Islamic State’s dramatic expansion into Syria. There, they set up a Saddam Hussein-style authoritarian regime that was the launchpad for the jihadists’ invasion of Iraq in 2014.

From a cursory look at his earlier blog posts, it appears Orton’s analysis is based in part on the research findings of Samuel Helfont, whose PhD dissertation on religion and politics in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was itself based on newly-released records from the Iraqi state and Baath Party. That sounds like a stronger foundation for a thesis than would be provided, for instance, by an individual like “curveball.” It’s certainly worth more careful consideration than for it to simply be dismissed with a tweet.

For those still concerned about which political litmus tests Orton might pass or fail, I would point out that the route he followed in order to recently get hired by the Henry Jackson Society did not seem to be distinctly ideological.

On the “about” page on his blog, Orton writes:

After a misbegotten degree in zoology (biology), I completed a social science Masters in Humanitarian Studies at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine that comprised elements of geopolitics, history, and practical skills in running a humanitarian program, the logical end-point of which would be work with a non-governmental organisation.

I have travelled quite widely, especially in Eastern Europe having been to all of the old Soviet satellite States except Romania, and in the Balkans — Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. I have also been to Turkey and Israel, took part in a voluntary course (teaching) in Kenya, and worked in Lebanon for my Masters on the healthcare system for the Syrian refugees.

Having long been interested in the Arab world, and especially in ways that it might be reformed, I was very interested when the rebellions came to that region at the end of 2010, and followed the course of this “Arab Spring” from its inception. The carnage in Syria and its obvious importance for that whole region have made the subject my primary focus.

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Hassan Aboud: Profile of a Syrian ISIS commander

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C.J. Chivers writes: Mr. Aboud, in his mid-30s, is an exile from Sarmin, where he had lived most of his adult life. Past associates refer to him as either an ISIS wali or emir, titles conveying authority or military power that the Islamic State bestows on governors and its middle rank.

They note that he did not simply drift to ISIS; he has had a relationship with the original underground Sunni insurgents in Iraq’s Anbar Province, part of the crucible where ISIS formed, reaching back more than a decade.

Mr. Aboud and one of his brothers fought American forces there in 2004 and 2005, several townspeople said. Some suggested that the pair returned to Syria as a sleeper cell tied to Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and after his death in 2006 eventually became ISIS.

In the nearly year and a half since Mr. Aboud publicly joined the Islamic State, taking with him most of his fighters and many powerful weapons, he has been credited with, or blamed for, a sprawling mix of battlefield action and crime. Those who know him contend he led the capture of Palmyra, the town and ancient heritage site that ISIS defiled.

For all of Mr. Aboud’s activity, however, his story suggests limits to advancement within the group, which analysts say to a large degree remains led by Iraqis, including many connected to the dismantled Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein.

Hassan al-Dugheim, a rebel cleric who said he had observed Mr. Aboud since 2011, said his tactical skill and ruthlessness were beyond question. He bluntly added, however, that he considered Mr. Aboud stupid, and that the Islamic State had found in him a man who could be flattered, bought, then used.

“Syrians are for fighting,” he said, and those who had joined ISIS recently faced a glass ceiling inside. “They are like animals to be ridden, like a horse or a mule.” [Continue reading…]

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ISIS was coming even without the invasion of Iraq

Kyle Orton writes: Yesterday, Reuters had an article by Isabel Coles and Ned Parker entitled, “How Saddam’s men help Islamic State rule.” The article had a number of interesting points, but in its presentation of the movement of former (Saddam) regime elements (FREs) into the leadership structure of the Islamic State (IS) as a phenomenon of the last few years, it was a step backward: the press had seemed to be recognizing that the Salafization of the FREs within IS dates back to the Islamization of Saddam Hussein’s regime in its last fifteen years, notably in the 1990s after the onset of the Faith Campaign.

The authors do note that when IS swept across Iraq in June 2014 and “absorbed thousands of [Ba’athist] followers,” these “new recruits joined Saddam-era officers who already held key posts in Islamic State” (italics added). But the Reuters piece then adds:

Most former Baathist officers have little in common with Islamic State. Saddam promoted Arab nationalism and secularism for most of his rule. But many of the ex-Baathists working with Islamic State are driven by self preservation and a shared hatred of the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad. Others are true believers who became radicalised in the early years after Saddam’s ouster, converted on the battlefield or in U.S. military and Iraqi prisons.

The notion of a cleavage in IS between true believers and “Ba’athists” doesn’t stack up in the article’s own presentation. The notorious Camp Bucca where IS deliberately infiltrated men to gather recruits, some of whom were FREs, was important. But the very formulation begs the question. Why were insurgent leaders using Islam, not Ba’athism, as their rallying cry? Why was there “no secular Sunni resistance at all,” as Joel Rayburn, a former intelligence officer who worked with General David Petraeus from 2007 to 2010 and wrote one of the best histories of post-2003 Iraq, once put it? Because Ba’athism had been dead as an ideology for at least a decade — and it was Saddam who killed it. [Continue reading…]

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Why ISIS isn’t going anywhere

Michael Weiss, in text prepared for his testimony in front of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs on December 2, wrote: Policymakers here and abroad often speak as if ISIS only debuted as a significant insurgency and international terror threat in June 2014, when its soldiers stormed into Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul, almost uncontested. The president surely forgot himself when, in conversation with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, he referred to the group that had dispatched mentally disabled girls in Tal Afar as suicide bombers and blew up the Golden Mosque in Samarra as the “JV team.” But as you well know, this is a jihadist franchise, which with we have grown intimately acquainted for over a decade. It has long memory and is playing an even longer game.

Has it altered its strategy? No, not really, although it has placed greater tactical emphasis on its foreign operations since its capacity for receiving emigrating jihadists from New Jersey to Peshawar has shrunk, thanks to better policing and the relative closure of the Syrian-Turkish border.

Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, officially ISIS’s spokesman but in reality the man in charge of its dominion in Syria, defined the “state’s” foreign policy rather plainly in September: “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State,” he said, “then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be.”

But Adnani was only reiterating what has always been ISIS’s global ambition—to export its holy war well beyond its immediate precincts or purview. The domestic pillar of ISIS’s project is what it calls “remaining and expanding”—the pushing of the borders of the caliphate in the Levant and Mesopotamia and the swelling of the ranks of its fighters and supporters there. We may pretend that ISIS is no state, but its ideologues and bureaucrats and petty officials behave as if they fully believe their own propaganda.

The foreign pillar is the opportunistic spreading of chaos, harm and wanton destruction in the West, relying upon agents who come from the West and who may or may not be returning veterans from a regional battlefield but rather everymen, Muslim or non-Muslim, who have been radicalized remotely. These jihadists are encouraged to strike at the kufar, the unbelievers, on the latter’s home turf or wherever they may be found, using methods both clever and crude: “an explosive device, a bullet, a knife, a car, a rock, or even a boot or a fist,” as al-Adnani elsewhere specified.

The two pillars have been in existence since the era of ISIS’s founder and godfather, the Jordanian jailbird Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Lest we forget, Zarqawi personally beheaded the American contractor Nicholas Berg in Iraq in 2004; two years before that, he had a direct hand in the assassination of 60 year-old American citizen and USAID worker Laurence Foley in Amman. [Continue reading…]

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Roots of ISIS go deeper than the 2003 invasion of Iraq

Since most of the victims of ISIS have been Muslims and since much of the group’s conduct and philosophy are widely viewed as a perversion of Islam, one of the commonly cited pieces of evidence supporting the view that ISIS is not genuinely religious, is the fact that it is run by Iraqi former Baathists. On that basis, the organization’s religious trappings could be seen as merely a cloak for a political project.

In a discussion on the BBC World Service, however, Hassan Hassan and Jason Burke underline that the Baathists in ISIS are indeed religiously driven.

Hassan Hassan: It’s well known that the top echelon of ISIS is dominated by former Baathists who served during the Saddam Hussein regime in one way or another and that also applies to some elements within Jabhat al-Nusra in fact.

For ISIS, the Saddamist elements within ISIS also should be viewed as religious zealots. They are not any more secular Saddamist —

Owen Bennett Jones: I’ve wondered about that. You think they’ve genuinely come around to this jihadi point of view…

Hassan Hassan: There’s no doubt that’s the case. The process of transformation that these people went through is quite clear.

Jason Burke: I was in Iraq in the 90s on a number of occasions and the vision from outside was of the secular Baathist state of Saddam Hussein. Whereas he had already by the mid-90s worked out that the broad shifts in the rest of the Arab world were towards a much more religious posture — culturally, politically, otherwise — and he was tacking very much that way.

I don’t think for a moment that he himself was in any way pious, but he launched a “faith campaign” as he called it. He talked about building the biggest mosque in the world. There was some huge construction under way in Baghdad that I used to go and look at. He talked about writing the Quran in his own blood. There was lots of religious programming on the TV.

So, at the same time of course you had the UN sanctions that were on Iraq. And I remember going to schools and hearing school children singing songs — the normal stuff about fighting the Zionists and so forth, but also against the U.S. and the West and so on. So the process of radicalization, if you like, or Islamization, was well advanced even before 2003 and an invasion that effectively ousted the Sunnis from their position of dominance.

And just a very telling anecdote: When I was in Baghdad after the war I spent a day with an insurgent fighter who was very much in that kind of Sunni nationalist mode and he clearly professed himself to be a devout Muslim, but he still didn’t like what he called the terrorists.

So, there were still all sorts of different currents at that stage, but I think it is certainly the case, as Hassan was saying, that a lot of the senior Baathists and a lot of the society more generally Shia and Sunni, was very much more advanced down the path towards a religious resurgence than people would think.

Amid the ongoing debate about how to tackle ISIS, many observers prefer to sidestep that question by pointing out that ISIS would not have come into existence had it not been for the disastrous choice the U.S. made by invading Iraq in 2003.

Much as this observation is valid, it also has the effect of reinforcing the dogma which portrays the ills of the world as all ultimately being products of America’s excessive military power and the misuse of that power.

Devout believers of this political dogma, especially those who are themselves Americans and who can easily point to the destructive impact of decades of U.S. meddling in global affairs, on this basis commonly conclude that little else really needs to be understood about the world than that America is the problem.

From this perspective, the best the U.S. can do is to get out of the way. If America is the problem, then non-interference is the panacea. Moreover, a common assumption is that even if chaos continues to prevail, U.S. involvement will only make the situation worse and thus we can and should disengage from the affairs of the Middle East.

I have little doubt that those Americans who subscribe to this view see it as a foreign-policy equivalent of the Hippocratic oath, thinking that the only way the U.S. can do no harm in the world is by attending to its domestic concerns and assuming a much more modest role on the global stage.

This sentiment, however, licenses ignorance and the ready acceptance of simplistic analysis — such as much of that now being applied to ISIS. It also facilitates the propagation of conspiracy theories.

But anyone who wants to seriously think about ISIS — to understand how it emerged and how it is evolving — needs to set aside this perspective that insistently overstates American power.

If we only see ISIS as a product of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, we’re not going to see how its emergence needs to be placed in a wider historical perspective: as a product of the failure of Arab secular nationalism and authoritarian rule.

The uprisings of 2011 during the Arab Spring posed a threat to every single government across the region. What has in large part saved most of them from the threat of democracy is the subsequent growth of a threat from terrorism.

ISIS as a reactionary political force has played a major role in shifting the regional debate from a contest between dictatorship and democracy, to a bloody struggle between stability and chaos.

Those who are threatened by ISIS’s expansion nevertheless also benefit from its existence. Stability becomes imperative only when instability is seen as the sole alternative.

This is how Bashar al-Assad, in spite of destroying much of Syria and driving half the population out of their homes, is succeeding in keeping tyranny alive.

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Is the Iraqi army a lost cause?

By Jon Moran, University of Leicester

Building an army in a short space of time is a very difficult task. To be sure, there are some impressive examples. Cromwell’s republican New Model Army was put together while the English Civil War was already underway; Washington’s army of US Independence quickly wore down and beat the British in the 18th century; Napoleon’s revolutionary army was born from the French Revolution and swept all Europe before it; the Red Army of the Soviet Union was forged from the chaos of its defeat in World War I.

But the list of failures is just as spectacular. The South Vietnamese Army boasted billions of dollars, up-to-date equipment and state-of-the-art training, but couldn’t control even South Vietnam itself. It ultimately surprised observers only by holding on as long as it did after the Americans left.

The Soviet Union similarly built up the communist army in Afghanistan but always distrusted it as a fighting force; it ultimately suffered mass desertions.

And the latest ignominious addition to the list seems to be the Iraqi Army. Despite being nourished, trained and supplied by the US, it seems to be perpetually in trouble, whether failing to fend off terrorist groups or all but collapsing in the face of a stunning advance by Islamic State (IS).

[Read more…]

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The riddle of ISIS leader, Haji Bakr

Kyle Orton writes: Al-Khlifawi [better-known by his pseudonym Haji Bakr and as the architect of ISIS’s expansion in Syria] was one of several military-intelligence officers who joined JTJ/AQI [Jamaat at-Tawhid wal-Jihad/al-Qaeda in Iraq] in the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s downfall. The changes to the Saddam regime in its last fifteen years, notably the Islamic Faith Campaign, which created a religious movement I have taken to calling “Ba’athi-Salafism” under Saddam’s leadership, had transformed a hard-secular regime into an Islamist State, and transformed Iraqi society, leaving a much more Salafized and sectarian population. The Iraqi security forces were deeply affected by the Islamization of Saddam’s regime. Ba’athism was a spent force; religion had filled the void. There is every indication that al-Khlifawi was among those who had taken to a variant of Salafism long before the Saddam regime’s deposition.

The years between 2004 and 2012 are murky for al-Khlifawi, but two things are known for certain. One is al-Khlifawi lived; the other is that he was expanding his power within AQI/ISI.

Al-Khlifawi’s longevity can partly be ascribed to the fact that military professionals like him moved into the insurgency “not necessarily as its foot soldiers but more as its planners and logistical experts,” as Ali Allawi explains in The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace, meaning these men were away from the frontlines where casualties among the insurgents were inevitably highest.

Two American actions then accidentally helped al-Khlifawi to live and to rise through ISI’s ranks.

First, al-Khlifawi was arrested in 2006 and held between Camp Bucca — now notorious as “little more than social-networking furloughs for jihadists“ — and Abu Ghraib until 2008, according to [Der Spiegel reporter, Christoph] Reuter, which would have kept him out of harm’s way during ISI’s darkest days. (There is a claim in ISIS’s eulogy that al-Khlifawi was imprisoned twice, on one occasion for four years. No further details are available at present.)

Second, the Coalition took apart ISI’s leadership structure, including essentially decapitating it by capturing or killing eighty percent of its top forty-two leaders between April and June 2010. The survivors of this cull were largely FREs [former (Saddam) regime elements]. [Continue reading…]

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Russian war propaganda in Syria much like America’s in Iraq

Aron Lund writes: When the United States was occupying Iraq, senior Bush administration officials like Washington Don kept blaming “terrorists” of the “Baathist dead-ender” or “al-Qaeda” variety for everything new setback. To be sure, Baathists and al-Qaeda loyalists were a prominent part of the mix, and they would later become dominant. But in the early days, Iraq’s insurgency seems to have been considerably more diverse than what we now see in Syria. In 2003-2004, it consisted of innumerable little local groups that spanned the full range of ideologies from secular nationalism to jihadism; they would even on occasion bridge the Sunni-Shia divide. And yet, U.S. President George W. Bush could get away with telling his people that the Iraqi resistance was all “al-Qaeda types, Ansar al-Islam types, terrorist groups” and conclude that it was better to “fight them there than here.”

A decade later in Syria, the roles are reversed. Russian politicians will contemptuously label any Syrian who has taken up arms to stop the depredations of Bashar al-Assad’s army a “jihadi terrorist” and in lieu of a political strategy, they smirk and puff their chests and say “bring ‘em on.” Their American counterparts sound like the anti-Iraq War tankie left in 2003-2004, eyes darting nervously around the room as they try to explain that there are good salafi insurgents and bad salafi insurgents. Give it a year more, and they’ll be complaining about Russia’s “cowboy attitude.”

Not that their respective supporters seem to notice, or care. But if you’re not a die-hard partisan of either Vladimir Putin or of the late and unlamented presidency of George W. Bush, you will by now have noticed that the Kremlin’s “anti-terrorist” discourse is essentially indistinguishable from the bullshit shoveled into the media by the American White House ten years ago, and equally self-serving, misleading, and destructive. [Continue reading…]

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Chalabi ran the little con on Iraq, but Bush ran the bigger one

Christopher Dickey writes: Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi mathematician, banker, schmoozer, spy and source of dubious intelligence provided to journalists and politicians alike, died today of an apparent heart attack in Baghdad at the age of 71. And at least one breaking news headline called him “the man who drove the U.S. to war in Iraq.”

That’s a common, and perhaps convenient, perception. But for my part, as someone who first met Chalabi 30 years ago, and stayed in close touch with him up to and through the first years of the disastrous American occupation of his homeland, I think the blame is misplaced.

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and crew were hellbent on war with Saddam Hussein, and if they hadn’t had Chalabi supplying grist to their mill, they’d have found someone else. Their attachment to fantasies was infinitely greater than their attachment to facts, and, believing in American omnipotence, they wanted to make their dream of an utterly overhauled Middle East a reality. Chalabi played to their delusions and prejudices, but he didn’t create them.

Do you remember the ideas floating around Washington in those days? With a minimum of force, the United States would invade Iraq; the people would rise up; Saddam would fall; Iraq would recognize Israel (and Iraq’s Jews would return to Baghdad); Iran would be intimidated. The Middle East would be set on a path to democracy. Oh, and a grateful Iraq probably would give American companies great deals on Mesopotamian oil and gas.

Anyone who knew the region well, and there were many in the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department who knew it very well, realized that these were pipe dreams. But the top officials in the Bush administration systematically excluded those voices. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s Suleimani viewed Chalabi as ‘too liberal’

Following the death of Ahmed Chalabi, one of the leading proponents of the war in Iraq, The Guardian reports: In the past five years Chalabi’s relationship with Iran’s leaders and the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), the most powerful institution in Iran, came to define him almost as much as the invasion. Chalabi was one of a handful of senior Iraqis regarded as confidantes of the IRGC’s foreign relations arm, the Quds Force, and in particular its leader, Qassem Suleimani.

He actively promoted causes that were central to Iran’s interests, including making contacts with the opposition in Bahrain, which was almost exclusively Shia and at odds with the ruling Sunni establishment. In the early years of the Syrian war Chalabi was a regular visitor to Damascus, where he met often with the overlord of Bashar al-Assad’s security apparatus, Mohammed Nassif. In Beirut, where Chalabi maintained a house, he was regularly received by the Shia resistance bloc Hezbollah.

Chalabi’s influence within Shia circles was evident when he stepped in to rescue the Guardian’s then Iraq correspondent, Rory Carroll, in late 2005, several days after Carroll had been kidnapped by Shia militiamen in Sadr City. Chalabi received Carroll at his farm in west Baghdad after contacting the hostage takers directly.

In mid-2014, with the Sunni jihadi group Isis on the doorstep of Baghdad, Chalabi made one final play for political power, lobbying vigorously to replace Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister after Maliki’s authority had been crippled. His allies, including Suleimani, regarded him as a liability; perhaps one of the greater ironies of Chalabi’s life, the Iranian general had marked him down for being, in his words, “too liberal”. [Continue reading…]

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Blair offers hollow apology for war in Iraq

The Guardian reports: Tony Blair has moved to prepare the ground for the publication of the Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq war by offering a qualified apology for the use of misleading intelligence and the failure to prepare for the aftermath of the invasion.

In an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, the former British prime minister declined to apologise for the war itself and defended armed intervention in 2003, pointing to the current civil war in Syria to highlight the dangers of inaction.

Blair, who will be aware of what Chilcot is planning to say about him in the long-awaited report into the Iraq war, moved to pre-empt its criticisms in an interview with CNN. He told Zakaria: “I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong.

“I also apologise for some of the mistakes in planning and, certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime.” [Continue reading…]

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UN funding shortfalls and cuts in refugee aid fuel exodus to Europe

The New York Times reports: One of the prime reasons for the wave of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers washing into Europe is the deterioration of the conditions that Syrians face in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, a worsening largely caused by sharp falls in international funding from United Nations countries, officials and analysts say.

That shortfall in funding, in contrast with the greater resources provided by Europe, is prompting some to make the hazardous journey who might otherwise remain where they are. The United Nations Syria Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan, which groups a number of humanitarian agencies and covers development aid for the countries bordering Syria, had by the end of August received just 37 percent of the $4.5 billion appeal for needed funds this year.

António Guterres, the high commissioner for refugees, recently said that his agency’s budget this year would be 10 percent smaller than in 2014, and that it could not keep up with the drastic increase in need from the long Syrian conflict, which includes shelter, water, sanitation, food, medical assistance and education. The United Nations refugee agency’s funding for Syria this year is only at 43 percent of budgeted requirements. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Najim Rahim says that when he looks around his neighborhood in the northern city of Kunduz now, “I feel lonely.”

His friend Ahmad Ulomi, who worked in the photo shop down the street, gave up his photography studies and left with five family members, striking out across the Iranian desert on the way to Europe. The shop’s owner, Khalid Ghaznawi, who was Mr. Ulomi’s teacher, decided to follow him with his family of eight, and he put his business up for sale. Mr. Rahim’s friend Atiqullah, who ran the local grocery shop, closed it and also left for Iran with his wife. Another neighbor, Feroz Ahmad, dropped out of college and last week called from Turkey to say he was on his way to Europe.

All of that happened in the past two weeks as people in Kunduz are rushing to seize what many see as a last chance to make it to Europe, just as others are doing throughout Afghanistan. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Thousands of migrants poured into Austria on Saturday after being bounced around countries overwhelmed by their arrival and insistent that they keep moving.

Hungary — which had taken the most draconian and visible measures to turn back the exodus, notably the construction of a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia — partly caved Friday evening. It grudgingly allowed at least 11,000 migrants to enter from Croatia, and then sent them by bus and train to processing centers along its border with Austria.

The Austrian authorities said that about 10,000 people entered the country on Saturday, from Slovenia and Hungary. [Continue reading…]

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The world’s failure in Syria

The Guardian reports: The full horror of the human tragedy unfolding on the shores of Europe was brought home on Wednesday as images of the lifeless body of a young boy – one of at least 12 Syrians who drowned attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos – encapsulated the extraordinary risks refugees are taking to reach the west. [Continue reading…]


To speak of the world’s failure in Syria, presupposes some sort of global responsibility, yet many war-weary Americans might wonder: what makes Syria our responsibility?

The answer is simple: the war in Iraq.

Had the U.S. and its allies not invaded Iraq in 2003, it’s hard to envisage that the region with Syria at its epicenter would now be ripping itself apart.

That’s not to suggest that absent the Iraq war, there would now be something that could reasonably be called Middle East peace.

Yet it’s fair to assume that however the region’s systemic injustices might have metastasized over the last decade, the result would most likely not have been the worst refugee crisis since World War Two.

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How Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri became the leader of ISIS

William McCants writes: Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri was born in 1971 in Samarra, an ancient Iraqi city on the eastern edge of the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad. The son of a pious man who taught Quranic recitation in a local mosque, Ibrahim himself was withdrawn, taciturn, and, when he spoke, barely audible. Neighbors who knew him as a teenager remember him as shy and retiring. Even when people crashed into him during friendly soccer matches, his favorite sport, he remained stoic. But photos of him from those years capture another quality: a glowering intensity in the dark eyes beneath his thick, furrowed brow.

Early on, Ibrahim’s nickname was “The Believer.” When he wasn’t in school, he spent much of his time at the local mosque, immersed in his religious studies; and when he came home at the end of the day, according to one of his brothers, Shamsi, he was quick to admonish anyone who strayed from the strictures of Islamic law.

Now Ibrahim al-Badri is known to the world as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ruler of the Islamic State or ISIS, and he has the power not just to admonish but to punish and even execute anyone within his territories whose faith is not absolute. His followers call him “Commander of the Believers,” a title reserved for caliphs, the supreme spiritual and temporal rulers of the vast Muslim empire of the Middle Ages. Though his own realm is much smaller, he rules millions of subjects. Some are fanatically loyal to him; many others cower in fear of the bloody consequences for defying his brutal version of Islam. [Continue reading…]

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