Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Op-Eds, Friedman and Obaid

Two fellow Brandeis alums have interesting, but completely over-panicked, Op-Eds out today:

Thomas Friedman writes (New York Times, ‘Ten Months of Ten Years,’ November 29, 2006) that “[Iraq] is so broken it can’t even have a proper civil war…Iraq has entered a stage beyond civil war—it’s gone from breaking apart to breaking down.”

This is a fresh take on the “Is it or isn’t it a civil war yet?” debate. But ultimately is a convenient way of not admitting that one had been hasty in labeling the mayhem a “civil war” in the first place. Friedman does not seem to have the intellectual honesty to admit a mistake on this one so he resorts to a rhetorical exaggeration. This is the “if you can’t solve a problem, expand it” school of fig-leafing a flawed assessment. Plus, it is much more self-gratifying to argue, as he condescendingly does later in the column, that Iraq just wasn’t primed to be “progress-prone.” Never mind that all sorts of dark forces came out of the woodwork—sometimes egged-on by Friedman’s First-Class-ticket-paying Persian Gulf hosts (…I know it’s a low blow)—to hobble Iraq’s progress.

Then there’s Nawaf Obaid’s piece in the Washington Post (‘Stepping Into Iraq; Saudi Arabia Will Protect Sunnis if the U.S. Leaves,’ November 29, 2006) that argues that the Saudi royals would be compelled to take on the role as defender of Iraq’s Sunnis in facing down Iran’s Shi'a menace. Obaid is the “anti-Adel Jubeir,” and he speaks for Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington and ex-intelligence chief and one-time patron of Osama Bin Laden.

The Op-Ed makes sure to point out that “The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect official Saudi policy,” which in the inverted jargon of the region means that this is indeed Saudi policy. The context is that the Saudis feel that the U.S. is allowing Iran to win in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and will soon accommodate Iran’s expansionism and projection of strength throughout the region. The Saudis have decided to do take on the role of propping up the ‘fighting’ Iraqi Sunnis “with weapons and financial support” along with Jordan, after the lesser financial powers like Qatar and the Emirates decided to acquiesce to a larger Iranian and Shi'a role. Of course, this little Saudi memo came in the wake of VP Cheney’s “huddle” with King Abdullah.

In the autumn of 2003, a Belgian-made semi-automatic rifle bearing the insignia of the Saudi National Guard was purchased in Fallouja for $350. Saudi weapons coming into Iraq is not a new phenomenon, and neither is the money flow. Official Saudi culpability is this long-standing supply chain is a debatable issue.

The Saudis have recently pledged to built a multi-billion dollar barrier all along the Saudi-Iraqi borders to prevent smuggling and terrorist infiltration. This project is support to take 5 years to complete. In light of Obaid's piece, it seems that the Saudis simply want to keep the fire they are kindling in Iraq contained beyond their borders.

But the precedent of extending Saudi patronage as the “defender of the Sunnis” outwards to Iraq (and to Lebanon and consequently to Syria) can be mirrored by Iran’s “defense of the Shi'a” in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Sunni Iraq is resource-poor, while the Shi'a portion of Saudi Arabia is where all the oil is. Iran has plenty of incentive and past experience (go back to the early 1980s) in trying to do win this lucrative prize. They also have a more sophisticated intelligence and logistical network. But for the most part, the Iranians have been dormant. Now, the Saudis have declared that the race for dominion of the region is on. Iran can cite Obaid’s Op-Ed as the opening salvo.

And this whole line cannot be good for America, because the Saudis are basically encouraging the Iraqi Sunnis to keep fighting by promising them aid and support for their pipe-dream of taking back Iraq and fighting Iran. But these same Sunnis are killing Americans too in the meantime, and prolonging their fight means more American casualties.

Forget all the above and focus on this rumor—and be mindful I am calling it a rumor and nothing else: Soviet-era Russian light-arms shipments (most notably anti-armor projectiles) are arriving at Saudi ports and not ending up in the Saudi arsenal. They were supposed to be sold to Syria but the Russians backed out of the deal. Why did that happen and where are these arms going after making it to Saudi shores?


Anonymous lester said...

how would you or anyone know what the saudis are or aren't receiving? do you know people who work at their loading dock? are you implying Russia is arming the insurgency?

1:49 PM, November 29, 2006

Anonymous Interested said...

Lester, why don't you go spam somewhere else, if you don't like Nibras' opinions, then don't read them.

Anyways, Nibras I have a question to pose to in light of the recent Obaid op-ed.

I have read recent press reports suggesting the US may be trying to form a 'Sunni bulkwark' against the Shia in the region due to fears of Iran.

Also, I have read reports indicating that circles within the Bush administration are contemplating 'Unleashing the Shites.' (From the LA Times op-ed you posted earlier)

Given these recent developments, and your implication that Cheney may have been behind encouraging thisop-ed by Obaid, what do you think US strategy is leaning towards?

Do you think there could be another abandonment of the Shia (as there was in '91) due to percieved Iranian influence among the Iraqi Shia community? I look forward to your response.

5:30 PM, November 29, 2006

Blogger Nibras Kazimi نبراس الكاظمي said...

Hello interested,

I think that as usual there are many competing schools of thought within every agency of the administration. The end result will be many conflicting policies being enacted at the same time. We have seen this over and over during the Bush administration.

But really, at the end of the day, the United States cannot pick sides in a Sunni/Shia fight because no winner will emerge; 1,400 years of history tells us that much. Such a fight is coming and the best the US can do is to be particular with its friendship: American benevolence in return for good behavior and safeguarding American interests. I think the Shias will eventually break out of Iran's grip and offer such "good behavior" to the Americans whereas most of the Sunni powers will not be able (rather than not be willing) to do so.

The question you posed will be THE QUESTION in the Middle East for the next 15 years. That's just my opinion.



PS: don't pick on "lester." Let him express himself. I kinda like having him around.

7:52 PM, November 29, 2006

Anonymous lester said...

I'm not sure 91 was explicitly an abandonment of the shia because of fear of Iranain influence, though that may well be the case. I think washington was under the impression that the people of Iraq all wanted saddam out except maybe the inner circle of baathists. unfortunately what they failed to see was the widespread sunni support of saddam, to the extent that they activley fought against the shias and kurds. that's why the uprising didn't come off and why it's called the "shia uprising". because the other iraqis didn't rise with them.

9:51 AM, November 30, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi nibras cspan just ran your talk again today. i think is the fifth time it has run! im glad more people get to hear what you said. congratulations.

6:38 PM, November 30, 2006

Blogger Nibras Kazimi نبراس الكاظمي said...

Saudis reportedly funding Iraqi Sunnis By SALAH NASRAWI, Associated Press Writer
1 hour, 21 minutes ago

Private Saudi citizens are giving millions of dollars to Sunni insurgents in Iraq and much of the money is used to buy weapons, including shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, according to key Iraqi officials and others familiar with the flow of cash.

Saudi government officials deny that any money from their country is being sent to Iraqis fighting the government and the U.S.-led coalition.

But the U.S. Iraq Study Group report said Saudis are a source of funding for Sunni Arab insurgents. Several truck drivers interviewed by The Associated Press described carrying boxes of cash from Saudi Arabia into Iraq, money they said was headed for insurgents.

Two high-ranking Iraqi officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, told the AP most of the Saudi money comes from private donations, called zaqat, collected for Islamic causes and charities.

Some Saudis appear to know the money is headed to Iraq's insurgents, but others merely give it to clerics who channel it to anti-coalition forces, the officials said.

In one recent case, an Iraqi official said $25 million in Saudi money went to a top Iraqi Sunni cleric and was used to buy weapons, including Strela, a Russian shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile. The missiles were purchased from someone in Romania, apparently through the black market, he said.

Overall, the Iraqi officials said, money has been pouring into Iraq from oil-rich Saudi Arabia, a Sunni bastion, since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq toppled the Sunni-controlled regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Saudi officials vehemently deny their country is a major source of financial support for the insurgents.

"There isn't any organized terror finance, and we will not permit any such unorganized acts," said Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry. About a year ago the Saudi government set up a unit to track any "suspicious financial operations," he said.

But the Iraq Study Group said "funding for the Sunni insurgency comes from private individuals within Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states."

Saudi officials say they cracked down on zakat abuses, under pressure from the United States, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

The Iraqi officials, however, said some funding goes to Iraq's Sunni Arab political leadership, who then disburse it. Other money, they said, is funneled directly to insurgents. The distribution network includes Iraqi truck and bus drivers.

Several drivers interviewed by the AP in Middle East capitals said Saudis have been using religious events, like the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and a smaller pilgrimage, as cover for illicit money transfers. Some money, they said, is carried into Iraq on buses with returning pilgrims.

"They sent boxes full of dollars and asked me to deliver them to certain addresses in Iraq," said one driver, who gave his name only as Hussein, out of fear of reprisal. "I know it is being sent to the resistance, and if I don't take it with me, they will kill me."

He was told what was in the boxes, he said, to ensure he hid the money from authorities at the border.

The two Iraqi officials would not name specific Iraqi Sunnis who have received money from Saudi Arabia. But Iraq issued an arrest warrant for Harith al-Dhari, a Sunni opponent of the Iraqi government, shortly after he visited Saudi Arabia in October. He was accused of sectarian incitement.

Saudi Arabia is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. The Iraq Study Group report noted that its government has assisted the U.S. military with intelligence on Iraq.

But Saudi citizens have close tribal ties with Sunni Arabs in Iraq, and sympathize with their brethren in what they see as a fight for political control — and survival — with Iraq's Shiites.

The Saudi government is determined to curb the growing influence of its chief rival in the region, Iran. Tehran is closely linked to Shiite parties that dominate the Iraqi government.

Saudi officials say the kingdom has worked with all sides to reconcile Iraq's warring factions. They have, they point out, held talks in Saudi Arabia with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia is accused of killing Sunnis.

These officials say zakat donations are now channeled through supervised bank accounts. Cash donation boxes, once prevalent in supermarkets and shopping malls, have been eliminated.

Still, Iraq's foreign minister expressed concern about the influence of neighboring Sunni states at a recent Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo.

"We hope that Saudi Arabia will keep the same distance from each and all Iraqi parties," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari later told the AP.

Last month, the New York Times reported that a classified U.S. government report said Iraq's Sunni Arab insurgency had become self-sufficient financially, raising millions from oil smuggling, kidnapping and Islamic charities. The report did not say whether any money came from Saudi Arabia.

Allegations the insurgents have purchased shoulder-fired Strela missiles raise concerns that they are obtaining increasingly sophisticated weapons.

On Nov. 27, a U.S. Air Force F-16 jet crashed while flying in support of American soldiers fighting Anbar province, a Sunni insurgent hotbed. The U.S. military said it had no information about the cause of the crash. Gen. William Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman, said he would be surprised if the jet was shot down because F-16's have not encountered weapons capable of taking them down in Iraq.

But last week, a spokesman for Saddam's ousted Baath party claimed that fighters armed with a Strela missile had shot down the jet.

"We have stockpiles of Strelas and we are going to surprise them (the Americans)," Khudair al-Murshidi, the spokesman told the AP in Damascus, Syria. He would not say how the Strelas were obtained.

Saddam's army had Strelas; it is not known how many survived the 2003 war. The Strela is a shoulder-fired, low-altitude system with a passive infrared guidance system.

The issue of Saudi funding for the insurgency could gain new prominence as the Bush administration reviews its Iraq policy, especially if it seeks to engage Iran and Syria in peace efforts.

Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, wrote in a recent leaked memo that Washington should "step up efforts to get Saudi Arabia to take a leadership role in supporting Iraq, by using its influence to move Sunni populations out of violence into politics."

Last week, a Saudi who headed a security consulting group close to the Saudi government, Nawaf Obaid, wrote in the Washington Post that Saudi Arabia would use money, oil and support for Sunnis to thwart Iranian efforts to dominate Iraq if American troops pulled out. The Saudi government denied the report and fired Obaid.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.

Copyright © 2006 Yahoo! Inc. All rights reserved.

4:38 PM, December 07, 2006

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