Phillip Smyth writes: Armed men posing with severed heads, massacres of mosque-goers during Friday prayers, massive reliance on transnational jihadists — these are crimes that are usually associated with the Islamic State (IS). However, they’re also the actions of some of Iraq’s growing Shiite militia organizations, which are playing an increasingly prominent role in fighting the Sunni jihadists. These groups, many of which have deep ideological and organizational links to Iran, are sweeping away what is left of any notion of the Baghdad government’s authority — and represent a massive challenge to President Barack Obama’s stated goal of working with an inclusive Iraqi government to push back IS.
Over 50 Shiite militias are now recruiting and fighting in Iraq. These groups are actively recruiting — drawing potential soldiers away from the Iraqi army and police and bringing fighters into highly ideological, anti-American, and rabidly sectarian organizations. Many of these trainees are not simply being used to push back Sunni jihadists, but in many cases form a rear guard used to control districts that are supposedly under Baghdad’s control.
Shiite militias have embedded themselves within the structures of the Iraqi government, which has become far too reliant on their power to contemplate cracking down on them. Together, they have committed horrifying human rights abuses: In early June, Shiite militias, along with Iraqi security forces, reportedly executed around 255 prisoners, including children. An Amnesty International report from June detailed how Shiite militias regularly carried out extrajudicial summary executions, and reported that dozens of Sunni prisoners were killed in government buildings. [Continue reading...]
IranWire reports: It’s been a tense, worrying time for Iran’s “Happy” group, the seven young men and women arrested in May for posting their version of Pharrell Williams’ music video on YouTube. Over the last few days, they’ve been pacing up and down the hallways of the Tehran courthouse where their trial was due to take place , making sure all their legal papers were in order.
Today their lawyer, Farshid Rofugaran, told IranWire that six of his clients had been sentenced to six months in prison and 91 lashes. One of them was given a sentence of one year in prison and 91 lashes. “Fortunately,” said Rofugaran, “the sentences were suspended.” But he was quick to point out that, until he received official notification, he could not be 100 percent sure of his clients’ situation.
“A suspended sentence becomes null and void after a certain period of time,” Rofugaran said. For the Happy Group, that period will be three years. “When it’s a suspended sentence, the verdict is not carried out, but if during this period a similar offense is committed, then the accused is subject to legal punishment and the suspended sentence will then be carried out as well.” [Continue reading...]
I expect that among the anti-imperialist left, this story will pass without comment or perhaps without even being noticed — don’t expect it to be covered by Press TV.
Iran’s credentials as a resolute critic of American hegemony along with its vocal opposition to Zionism, means that for some in the West, the Islamic republic’s failings can mostly be forgiven.
There is in such an attitude a perverse contradiction.
On the one hand the West is viewed as fundamentally undemocratic, operating a system of rule in which the masses are pacified with distractions and trivial freedoms while their lives are controlled by corporate and political interests that are indifferent to the common good. But at the same time, political oppression in a state like Iran is largely ignored — as though, depending on the circumstances, oppression can be justified in the name of a noble cause.
What to my mind is inexcusable is that anyone, anywhere, should find it excusable that someone could be threatened with imprisonment and lashing because they were “guilty” of dancing and failing to follow a dress code.
If this kind of harmless self-expression is not viewed as a human right, it calls into question the very notion of human rights.
The New York Times reports: Militia justice is simple, the fighters explained.
“We break into an area and kill the ones who are threatening people,” said one 18-year-old fighter with Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shiite militia that operates as a vigilante force around Baghdad.
Another 18-year-old fighter agreed. “We receive orders and carry out attacks immediately,” he said, insisting that their militia commanders had been given authority by Iraqi security officials. That free hand has helped make Asaib Ahl al-Haq the largest and most formidable of the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that now dominate Baghdad.
Once a leading killer of American troops, the militia is spearheading the fight against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL. That means Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the United States military are now fighting on the same side, though each insists they will not work together.
But the power and autonomy of Asaib Ahl al-Haq and other Shiite militias also pose a central challenge to the creation of a more just and less sectarian Iraqi government. President Obama has said that the new American military offensive depends on such an inclusive Iraqi government, to undercut the appeal of the Sunni extremists and avoid American entanglement in a sectarian war.
Even while many Iraqi Shiites view the militias as their protectors, many in the Sunni minority say they fear the groups as agents of Iran, empowered by the Baghdad government to kill with impunity.
After a decade of support from Iran and a new flood of recruits amid the Islamic State crisis, the Shiite militias are also now arguably more powerful than the Iraqi security forces, many here say, limiting the ability of any new government to rein them in.
“The militias have even bigger role now that they are said to be fighting ISIS” said Alla Maki, a Sunni lawmaker. “Who will control them? We have no real Iraqi Army.”[Continue reading...]
Bloomberg reports: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said a U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State is “pointless,” as members of the alliance met today to coordinate efforts against the militant group.
“Actions that were carried out in Iraq and broke the back of Islamic State were not the deed of Americans but those of the army and people of Iraq,” Khamenei said today in comments on his official website. He said the coalition is “pointless, superficial and has an agenda.”
While U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State targets helped Kurdish and government forces recapture some of the territory lost to the al-Qaeda breakaway group, Iranian-backed militias have also aided the fight against the Sunni extremists. [Continue reading...]
AFP reports: British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on Monday urged Iran to cooperate with an international coalition to fight jihadists in Iraq even if Tehran did not join the group.
Hammond made the call in Paris after a major conference on Iraq as Iran refused to join an anti-jihadist coalition.
“It was always unlikely that Iran would become a fully-fledged member of the coalition but I think we should continue to hope that Iran will align itself broadly with the direction that the coalition is going,” Hammond told reporters.
He also said he hoped Iran would be “cooperative with the plans that the coalition is putting in place, if not actively a part of the coalition.” [Continue reading...]
The Washington Post reports: The urgent fight to keep Islamic State forces from taking over more of Iraq has led the Obama administration to tolerate, and in some cases even approve, things it once would have loudly protested.
When Iraqi Shiite militias, backed by Iran and long branded illegal by the administration, retook the town of Amerli from the Sunni Muslim militants last week, U.S. officials breathed a sigh of relief.
Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force and usually described as an archenemy of the United States, reportedly was present during the battle and was seen days later in an Internet-posted photo shaking hands with a militia fighter.
Farther north, Kurdish fighters have occupied the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a prize the Kurds have long claimed but which lies outside the borders — recognized by both Baghdad and Washington — of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan region. Far from insisting the fighters withdraw, the administration is glad that someone is defending the city from the Islamic State.
Such legal and policy niceties have become a luxury in the battle to push back the militants whom President Obama on Friday called “a savage organization” that “poses a significant threat” to the United States and its allies.
It is not, as one administration official said with significant understatement, an ideal situation, and there is widespread recognition that facts are being created on the ground that are likely to cause problems in the future. [Continue reading...]
— Abdulla Hawez (@abdullahawez) September 3, 2014
Al-Monitor reports: A UN diplomatic source in Beirut told Al-Monitor that an Iranian-Saudi agreement on the formation of the next Iraqi government was almost done. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, revealed that the visit by the Iranian Assistant Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdul Lahian to Saudi Arabia on Aug. 26 was the move that crowned the agreement.
The source said that some felt a few weeks ago that removing Nouri al-Maliki from the Iraqi Prime Ministry and designating Haider al-Abadi on Aug.11 was the final sign of a Tehran-Riyadh agreement on Baghdad. But this impression was not true.
According to the diplomatic source, the move followed mutual attempts by the two parties to raise their negotiating ceilings. For its part, Iran tried to harden its stance for known reasons; it gave the impression that removing Maliki happened more because of internal Iraqi Shiite calculations linked to the position of Shiite cleric Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, rather than a Shiite concession to the Sunnis or an Iranian concession to Saudi Arabia in Iraq. These calculations include compensating Maliki’s removal by strengthening his and his team’s position in governing and in the next government, as well as getting paid by the Sunni-Saudi team as a compensation. [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: With American bombs raining down from the sky, Shiite militia fighters aligned with Iran battled Sunni extremists over the weekend, punching through their defenses to break the weekslong siege of Amerli, a cluster of farming villages whose Shiite residents faced possible slaughter.
The fight in northern Iraq appeared to be the first time American warplanes and militias backed by Iran had worked with a common purpose on a battlefield against militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, even though the Obama administration said there was no direct coordination with the militias.
Should such military actions continue, they could signal a dramatic shift for the United States and Iran, which have long vied for control in Iraq. They could also align the interests of the Americans with their longtime sworn enemies in the Shiite militias, whose fighters killed many United States soldiers during the long occupation of Iraq.
The latest expansion of American military operations reflects how seriously Iraq has deteriorated since the withdrawal of American forces in 2011. But any decision to support the Shiite militias, who have proven more adept than the American-trained Iraqi Army, would come with its own set of challenges. [Continue reading...]
The Wall Street Journal reports: In the brutal calculation of Middle East politics, the baseline for friendship has always been simple: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
By that standard, the Islamic State extremist group is creating friendships aplenty. An odd set of bedfellows or potential bedfellows, transcending geographical, ideological and alliance bounds, is emerging from the ranks of those threatened by what many see as the most dangerous militant movement in a generation.
Shiite Muslim Iran and Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, for instance, have been bitter foes since at least 1979, when the Iranian revolutionary government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini hoped to inspire similar revolutions in the Sunni world. But both countries now fear Islamic State’s armed radical Islamist movement, which seeks to usurp their own claimed leadership of the Muslim world.
That led Iran and Saudi Arabia to independently back the same candidate to lead Iraq, in a push for a new government that might unite Sunnis and Shiites to battle Islamic State. This week, Iranian and Saudi diplomats held a rare meeting to consult.
Turkey has long distrusted and worked against ethnic Kurds, especially a violent splinter group known as the PKK that operates out of the mountainous environs of northern Iraq. But the Turks looked the other way when Syrian Kurdish militias affiliated with the PKK played a starring role in the rescue from Islamic State fighters of thousands of Yazidis stranded on a mountainside.
Russia and the U.S. are at loggerheads in Ukraine and elsewhere, including the Middle East. But they agree that the sort of violent Islam practiced by Islamic State, which now controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria, endangers the global order in which both countries compete for influence.
Islamic State even has had a falling out with al Qaeda, the group that spawned it. Al Qaeda’s official Syrian branch, known as the Nusra Front, is outflanked and mocked by Islamic State. So Nusra has joined the fight against Islamic State, clashing violently on the battlefields of Syria.
These countries and movements may be at odds over nearly everything else, but nothing focuses the mind like a mortal threat, say some analysts and former top security officials. Given not only Islamic State’s savagery but its potential to overthrow regimes and spill over borders, they all seem to agree on only one thing: It needs to be stopped.
Lacking a coalition of the willing, the Obama administration should muster up a sort of alliance of the unwilling, these analysts argue. Whether that is possible, and whether the U.S. has the guile and clout to unite such disparate forces—either formally, or more likely in a combination of overt, covert and arm’s-length arrangements—is an open question.
“It has to be patched together, somewhat ad hoc, with maybe some sort of informal and even clandestine agreements on who does what,” says Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. national-security adviser.
In a region where states such as Iraq and Syria are literally fragmenting, Mr. Brzezinski urges an approach focused on the handful of what he categorizes as truly “viable” states — Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia — to confront Islamic State, which also is known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: Iraq’s Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi said on Sunday during talks with Iran’s foreign minister that international efforts would be necessary to destroy Islamic State Sunni militants who have seized swathes of his country and of Syria.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, a Shi’ite Muslim regional power likely to wield influence over the formation of Abadi’s new cabinet, reaffirmed Tehran’s support for Iraq’s territorial unity and its fight against militants.
“Abadi pointed to the presence of many dangers posed in the region as a result of the existence of the terrorist gang Islamic State which requires regional and international efforts to exterminate this terrorist organization,” his office said in a statement after the talks with Zarif. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: Iran denied a report that it is ready to help counter Islamic State insurgents in return for progress in negotiations with world powers over its nuclear program.
France, one of the six nations in nuclear talks with Tehran, said on Wednesday it wanted Arab states, Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to coordinate a comprehensive response against Islamic State, whose militant forces control large parts of Syria and Iraq.
The Sunni Islamist insurgency threatening to tear apart Iraq has alarmed both Shi’ite Muslim Iran and the United States, which have had no diplomatic relations since soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran.
On Thursday a story from the official Iranian News Agency (IRNA) cited by several news organizations including Reuters reported Foreign Minister Javad Zarif as saying that if Iran agreed to “do something in Iraq, the other side in the negotiations will need to do something in return”.
“All the sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear activities should be lifted in return for its help in Iraq,” it quoted him as saying.
But later on Thursday IRNA reported foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham as dismissing “reports by some news agencies about Iran and U.S. cooperation in Iraq”.
“These reports are a misinterpretation of the foreign ministerˈs remarks and are ‘totally baseless’,” IRNA reported her as saying.
IRNA did not elaborate. On Friday, the story on IRNA’s website still showed remarks attributed to Zarif but the word Iraq had been omitted. A similar report by the semi-official Mehr news agency about Zarif’s comments continued to cite him mentioning Iraq.
Iran has offered to cooperate with the United States on stabilizing Iraq, which like Iran has a majority Shi’ite population, but Washington has responded cautiously.
Western officials have repeatedly said they do not want to mix the nuclear dossier with events elsewhere in the region.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said she understood that Zarif’s comments did not refer to Iraq and instead referred to Arak, the site of a facility that is one of the topics under discussion in nuclear negotiations between Tehran and six world powers. [Continue reading...]
AFP reports: Iran is ready to join international action against jihadists in Iraq provided the West lifts crippling sanctions, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Thursday.
His comments followed a call by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Wednesday for all countries in the region, including Iran, to join the fight against Islamic State (IS) fighters who have seized swathes of Iraq as well as neighbouring Syria.
“If we agree to do something in Iraq, the other side of the negotiations should do something in return,” the official IRNA news agency quoted Zarif as saying.
“All the sanctions that are related to Iran’s nuclear programme should be lifted,” he said.
It is the first time that Iran has explicitly linked its readiness to work with the West in Iraq with a lifting of the crippling EU and US sanctions imposed over its nuclear programme. [Continue reading...]
Ali Hashem writes: According to Al-Monitor’s sources in Tehran and Baghdad, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after learning of Sistani’s position [that Nouri al-Maliki shouldn’t continue as a prime minister], asked his aides to facilitate the change, calling on them to play a role in convincing Maliki to withdraw. “There were several alternatives for Maliki, one was him being appointed vice president. He refused. He was obstinate on the prime minister position and gave all those who tried [to talk] with him reasons for him not to accept. His main challenge was that he’s the leader of the bloc that won the election, and the constitution gives him the right to form the new government.”
As the negotiations continued, one of the historical leaders of the Dawa Party traveled to Tehran, possessing what he believed was a solution for the dilemma. The leader carried the name Haider al-Abadi with him, along with a brief on the man and his stances. Until that moment, Abadi was an outsider in a race that included several tough names, such as Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Ibrahim Jaafari, Ahmad Chalabi, Qusay al-Suhail and Tarek Najem.
Abadi, an ex-Londoner, was known to the Iranians, though he was never seen as a prime minister candidate. “Iranian officials told the Dawa representative that they would support a name that wouldn’t intimidate the Sunnis and the Kurds,” said the source in Baghdad. “They believe that the priority today is to open closed channels with other parties. Moreover, they are quite sure the main problem is the lack of trust between the sects and ethnicities present in Iraq.” [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: A senior Iranian official with close links to the country’s president and supreme leader has offered his congratulations to Iraq’s prime minister-designate, suggesting Tehran has abandoned former ally Nouri al-Maliki amid the current Sunni militant insurgency.
Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s powerful Supreme National Security Council, was quoted by the official IRNA news agency congratulating the Iraqi people and their leaders for choosing Haider al-Abadi as their new prime minister.
Abadi, a veteran of Iraq’s post-Saddam Hussein governments, was appointed on Monday after the country’s president effectively deposed Maliki in an effort to break the political deadlock that has paralysed the government while jihadists sweep through the north of the country.
Shamkhani, a close ally of President Hassan Rouhani and a representative of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the council, said Iran supported “the legal process for choosing the new Iraqi prime minister”.
Eli Clifton reports: On the same evening last November that world powers announced an interim deal with Iran, halting its nuclear progress in exchange for a modest easing of sanctions, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) put out a statement complaining that the agreement was a “disappointment” and “provides disproportionate sanctions relief to Iran.” The group’s executive director, former U.S. diplomat Mark Wallace, suggested that no sanctions relief was appropriate as part of an interim deal: “By rolling back sanctions now, the international community is significantly lessening the pressure on Iran’s economy.”
That same group, at the end of July, turned up in a bit of intrigue: the New York Times revealed that the Justice Department had stepped in to a defamation suit against UANI to prevent the disclosure of documents revealing the group’s donors, among other information. UANI serves as a key pressure group for the enforcement of sanctions, frequently issuing reports and press releases about companies doing illicit business with Iran.
The Times reported that lawyers representing Greek shipping magnate Victor Restis, the plaintiff in the suit, accused UANI of receiving foreign funding and shaking down companies for donations. UANI had earlier accused Restis and his company of being “front men for the illicit activities of the Iranian regime.”
But it remains unclear what potential revelations the Justice Department is concerned about.
Among the pieces of heretofore undisclosed information the Justice Department’s shield might prevent from coming to light is the connection between UANI and one of the biggest investors in precious metals, Thomas S. Kaplan. Kaplan has emerged as one of the business world’s most outspoken proponents of investing in gold and other precious metals, investments he says will retain or appreciate in value during periods of political and economic unrest. [Continue reading...]
Trita Parsi writes: Nothing in the Middle East seems normal right now. Israel locks the United States out of cease-fire talks with Egypt over Gaza. U.S.-Saudi relations look increasingly like a marriage that both sides regret getting into in the first place. Egypt’s state media publicly cheers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he bombs Gaza. Saudi Arabia pretends to be unaware of the ongoing fighting between Israel and Hamas. Protests against Israel’s bombing campaign are larger in Europe than in the Arab Middle East.
The surprises don’t stop there. Iran’s relative silence on the Gaza war has been deafening: Spanish actors Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem have been more forceful in their criticism of Israel’s Gaza attacks than many Iranian officials.
Iran is usually known for jumping on every possible opportunity to blast Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. The Iranian game plan in the past few decades has been to boost its bid for regional leadership by portraying the Arab states as impotent “servants of American interests” in the Middle East, while portraying Tehran as the true champion of the Palestinian cause — and therefore the leader of the Islamic world.
Fighting between Hamas and Israel in Gaza is usually a political cash cow for Iran’s leaders. But by their own standards, Iranian leaders have remained curiously quiet on the ongoing, month-long fight. Why? Shifting dynamics across the Middle East and a new president in Tehran have changed Iran’s political calculus on Palestine.
Iran has a widespread reputation as Hamas’s main patron, providing the group with rockets and weapons over the past decade. But the relationship between the Palestinian Islamists and the government in Tehran has never been friction free. The Hamas leadership has long complained that Tehran talked a good game, but in practice did little to help the Palestinian Islamist group. Ideologically, there has always been a gulf between the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Sunni group and the Shiite thinkers of Qom. But full-on tensions between these disparate Islamists only broke out with the Syrian Civil War, when Hamas sided early on with the Syrian opposition and Tehran backed President Bashar al-Assad. Tehran viewed Hamas Leader Khaled Meshaal’s break with the Syrian dictator in 2012 as a betrayal after years of providing the group with both financial support and a base in Damascus.
Earlier this year, Hamas and Tehran officially reconciled. “Relations between Iran and Hamas have returned to be as they were before and we have no problem with Hamas,” the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, told a Lebanese television channel. But mistrust remained amid the conciliatory rhetoric, as Iranian officials have told me. Leaders of the Islamic Republic do not have a reputation of forgetting quickly or forgiving genuinely. [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: The Obama administration has gone to court to protect the files of an influential anti-Iran advocacy group, saying they likely contain information the government does not want disclosed.
The highly unusual move by the Justice Department raises questions about the connections between the American government and the group, United Against Nuclear Iran, a hard-line voice seeking to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The group has a roster of prominent former government officials and a reputation for uncovering information about companies that sometimes do business with Iran, in violation of international sanctions.
The Justice Department has temporarily blocked the group from having to reveal its donor list and other internal documents in a defamation lawsuit filed by a Greek shipping magnate the group accused of doing business with Iran. Government lawyers said they had a “good faith basis to believe that certain information” would jeopardize law enforcement investigations, reveal investigative techniques or identify confidential sources if released. [Continue reading...]
The Wall Street Journal reports: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is losing political support for his bid for a third term from core backers, including the country’s Shiite religious establishment and ally Iran, say Iraqi officials.
The shift, officials said, is prompting members of the premier’s own alliance to reconsider their support and dimming the prospect of his stay in power.
In recent days, high-level delegations of Iranian military officials and diplomats held a flurry of meetings in Baghdad and the Shiite religious capital Najaf, where they were told that Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, has lost the confidence of all but his most loyal inner circle, Iraqi officials with knowledge of the meetings said.
One Iraqi official briefed on the meetings said Iranian representatives signaled during their visit that Tehran has “really started to lean away from Maliki as a candidate.”
Also critically, Mr. Maliki’s bid to stay in office has, say prominent Shiite politicians, run into opposition from Iraq’s top Shiite spiritual authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has become central to the grinding talks between political blocs to form a government. [Continue reading...]