Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

New Column: Human Torpedo

Hi everyone, I would like you all to meet Mahmoud.

Op-Ed in Al-Hayat Newspaper

I have an Op-Ed out in today's Al-Hayat Newspaper (Arabic) that is part of the paper's 3 episode study on Washington's policy options for Iraq:


التقسيم بديلاً من الهزيمة

نبراس الكاظـمي
الحـياة - 31/05/06


في مطلع الشهر المنصرم طالع السناتور الأميركي جوزيف بايدن جمهوراً في مدينة فيلادلفيا بخطة جريئة للخروج من المأزق العراقي تدعو الى تفعيل الآليات الدستورية العراقية المتفق عليها سياسياً من أجل إعطاء الفرقاء في العراق «فسحة للتنفس» من طريق تقسيم العراق على أسس مذهبية وعرقية، ولو موقتاً.

السناتور بايدن شخصية سياسية طموحة وقيادية ضمن الحزب الديموقراطي، فهو المشرّع الرئيس لحزبه في السياسة الخارجية حيث يتبوأ الموقع الثاني في رئاسة لجنة العلاقات الخارجية في مجلس الشيوخ، وكذلك يطمح الى أن يكون مرشح حزبه لرئاسة الجمهورية في إنتخابات 2008. ولكن غايته الآنية من هذا الطرح الجديد في ما يخص العراق هو اقتراب الانتخابات الجزئية لمجلسي النواب والشيوخ بعد خمسة اشهر من الآن والتي سيُستدَل منها على ملامح المواجهة المقبلة على الرئاسة في غضون سنتين. ولسان حاله يقول: «لدي خطة وطرح جديد ان في حين أن إدارة بوش تتخبط في متاهات العراق».

وكان اختيار بايدن لهذا الجمهور بالذات للإيذان بمنحاه الجديد ذا دلالة خاصة. إذ كانت المناسبة هي الإحتفال بعيد الميلاد التسعيني لـ «شيخ» المنظرين البروفسور برنارد لويس الذي وصفه نائب الرئيس ديك تشيني في كلمة اعقبت خطاب بايدن بـ «رجلنا الحكيم». علماً ان لويس يعتبر الأب الروحي لسياسات المحافظين الجدد في ما يخص الشرق الأوسط وتنسب اليه النظرية التي تبناها الرئيس جورج بوش في ولايته الثانية والقائلة بأن الحرية والديموقراطية توازيا الإستقرار وبأن تحالف أميركا مع الأنظمة القمعية في طريقه الى الإضمحلال وأن مستقبل المنطقة سيحدده شبابها الأحرار.

لم تكن أفكار لويس سبباً لحرب تحرير العراق ولكن بوش استحضرها قبل الحرب بأثر رجعي لتبرير الغاية الإستراتيجية الأميركية من إسقاط نظام صدام حسين ومن تحريض شعوب المنطقة على المجاهرة بحقوقها.

والغريب في المسألة أن وضع أميركا العسكري في العراق لا يمكن أن يوصف بأي شكل من الإشكال بالهزيمة أو الإنكسار كما يحلو لأبي مصعب الزرقاوي تصويره، وفي أسوأ الاحوال يمكن القول إن «الجهاديين» يمثلون إزعاجاً عسكرياً بالنسبة الى الآلة الحربية الأميركية، ولكن هذا الإزعاج يواكبه هبوط في المعنويات في الداخل الأميركي حيث تتناقل الصحف يومياً عناوين سلبية حول عدم تمكن الدولة العراقية الناشئة من التقدم الى الأمام إضافة إلى الحصيلة المتنامية للقتلى والجرحى والخراب ما ولد حالاً من الامتعاض الشعبي قد تتبلور إلى سخط ورغبة في تغيير المسار السياسي.

بوش اليوم يطالبه حزبه في الدرجة الاولى بالابتعاد عن الجرأة وطرح المشاريع الإستراتيجية الكبرى وكذلك بالتركيز على إدارة هذه الأزمة والعودة إلى مناخ سياسي لا تأخذ فيه التحديات الخارجية الحيز الأهم من انشغالات الإدارة.

ولكن هذا الأمر لا يبدو ممكناً. فالعراق اليوم أصبح حقل تجارب لسياسات أميركية تهدف إلى تحقيق الاستقرار في منطقة الشرق الأوسط وأيضاً لسياسات «جهادية» تسعى الى العصف بكل ما هو قائم، وكل طرح قديم أو جديد فيما يخص العراق سيكون بمثابة سابقة ايجابية أو خطيرة من الممكن تعميمها على شتى انحاء المنطقة. فإذا نجحت الديموقراطية حسب منظور لويس سيكون ذلك دافعاً لتحقيق الأمر ذاته في دول «مارقة» اخرى مثل ايران أو سورية أو بالتقسيط المريح في بؤر اشكالية اخرى كالخليج أو مصر. وإذا انتصر «الجهاديون» في العراق ولو بتحقيق التعادل السلبي أمام اعتى قوة عسكرية في العالم فهذه سابقة أخطر بكثير مما حدث في افغانستان في أواخر الثمانينات وستعزز من ثقة المتشددين من جدوى تفعيل مشروع الخلافة والتوجه إلى «قبلة الجهاد المؤجل» ألا وهي القدس لمقارعة اسرائيل وخلق حال من الفوضى والبلبلة في الدول التي تحيطها.

وفي هذا السياق فإن تبني السناتور بايدن لمشروع تقسيم العراق كحل لمعضلاته يشكل سابقة مهمة هي الأخرى في التفكير الإستراتيجي الديموقراطي حيال الشرق الأوسط ككل. فهذا الأمر سيكون بمثابة اعتراف ضمني بأن المشروع الأمني الذي وضعته الدول العظمى في فترة ما بعد الحرب العالمية الأولى حين انتجت دولاً وشعوباً جديدة على انقاض الدولة العثمانية، كالعراق وغيرها، فشل وآن الآوان لأخذ نظرة شمولية جديدة حيال تعدد الهويات العرقية والدينية والثقافية في الشرق الأوسط وايجاد سبل لإعطائها «متسعاً للتنفس» بعيداً من التأزم والإصطدام وذلك من طريق ترسيم حدود جديدة. وقد يستنتج أي رئيس ديموقراطي قادم مثل سابقيه بأن الوضع القائم غير سليم وبأن دولة مثل العراق لا يمكن العودة بها إلى الوراء، وبالتالي فإن استحداث ثلاثة كيانات منفصلة للشيعة والسنة والكرد أمر لا بد منه بعد فشل المشروع الديموقراطي هو الآخر والذي كان يسعى لصهر المكونات هذه في بوتقة الهوية الوطنية العراقية.

وهذا طرح شبيه بما جربه الفرنسيون في أوائل انتدابهم على سورية باستحداث دولتين طائفيتين للعلويين والدروز ودولتين ثقافيتين لحلب ودمشق. ومن هذا الباب فإن حلولاً مماثلة قد تطرح، وسابقة الوطن البديل لليهود قد تطبق في ايجاد حل نهائي للتداخل المتوتر بين المسلمين والأقباط في مصر، وها هي دولة كردستان قد تظهر إلى الملأ اخيراً، وحتى بعض المدن الإيرانية كأصفهان قد تستقل بهويتها الثقافية الخاصة، وهلم جرا.

يقول المثل العراقي، «أريته الموت ليرضى بالحمى» فإذا كان العراق هو حقل التجارب فإن ما يضمر به شخص مؤثر كالسناتور بايدن قد يقلب المنطقة رأساً على عقب ليجعل من خطة برنارد لويس رحمة لمن اتعظ. وحمى الديموقراطية في العراق ستكون أهون بكثير على من يخشاها من انتهاء الدولة الـعراقية بحــدودها القائمة.

باحث عراقي زائر في مؤسسة هدسون في واشنطن.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Muqtada and the Sulukiyya Sect

There is news from Iraq saying that Muqtada Al-Sadr has recently issued a fatwa barring his followers from becoming members of an underground esoteric movement called the Sulukiyya or Al-Salikeen—literally, the Path Takers.

Sulukiyya began in earnest in the mid 1990s in Najaf, and very little is known about it except that it caught on among the younger generation of Shia seminarians. Its beliefs are somewhat similar to the Russian Orthodox splinter sect called the Khlysty, especially when it comes to reaching divinity through sexual stimulation. One famous alleged member of the Khlysty was the monk Rasputin. According to a knowledgeable source, young Saliks (as individuals are called) would “share” their wives and even imbibe alcohol. Much of this seems to have started in the sprawling cemetery of Najaf’s Wadi Al-Salam. Furthermore, there is a hierarchy to enlightenment, very much like the Sufi orders.

Sulukiyya is very different from the other “underground” form of Shia mysticism called ‘irfan, of which Khomeini was allegedly a disciple.

However, this same source was adamant in claiming that Muqtada’s father, Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq Al-Sadr, was a minor Salik himself, and so was Muqtada. Apparently, Muqtada was led unto the path by his former aide, Qais Al-Khaza’ali.


Toga! Toga! Toga!

Another top Salik in the Sadrist movement is Aws Al-Khafaji, Muqtada’s representative in Nassiriya. It was reported that Muqtada issued the ban on the Sulukiyya after an inquiry was made by a delegation from Nassiriya as to its legality within Shi’ism.

Is Muqtada finally putting his orgy days behind him?

Friday, May 26, 2006

Friedman on Alousi

In his column today, Thomas Friedman says that as long as there are people like Mithal Al-Alousi (I spell it Alusi) in Iraq then he won’t give up on the country. I often gauge the seriousness of those who support liberal democracy in Iraq and the wider Middle East by the case of Mr. Alusi.

These are the hoops that Alusi has already jumped through: he is from the Sunni Arab Alusi family of Anbar Province that gave Iraq and the Middle East some of its most prominent Sunni religious jurists of the last three centuries. He was a former Ba’athist in his youth who became Director General of the De-Ba’athification Commission upon returning to Iraq, and came to symbolize one of the country’s most ardent anti-Ba’athists. In December 2002, he organized the take-over of the Iraqi Embassy in Berlin in the name of “the Iraqi opposition” and claimed it as the first “liberated” territory of Iraq. For that, the Germans put in jail for over a year, and then under house arrest; he later broke the terms of his limited release by leaving for Iraq.

In September 2004, Alusi decided to take a stand on how Iraq should relate to the Middle East, and he did it by publicly visiting Israel. He believes that Iraq’s future lies in an alliance with other secular and democratic countries in the region such as Israel and Turkey. He was fired from his government job, thrown out of the Iraqi National Congress (that he joined in November 2003), and was left to the wolves. A few months later, his two sons, Ayman and Jamal, were killed in an ambush meant for him. At this moment of incredible sorrow, Alusi musters the strength to tell the Iraqi people, as well as the murderers who killed his sons, that he will continue the fight and will not be deterred.


Mithal Al-Alousi

Alusi then started a non-sectarian, secular party that advocates liberal democracy, and called it the Liberal Party of the Iraqi Nation. In the December elections of 2005, he ran on his own independent platform and managed to win a parliamentary seat against incredible odds and plenty of intimidation.

Alusi had a paltry campaign war chest, relying rather on getting face-time on Iraqi and Arab satellite stations. His charisma and strength of character would be projected to millions of homes around the Middle East, along with his provocative and taboo-breaking ideas.

Alusi did all this on his own with practically no support, either financial or political from interested parties that would supposedly see him for what he is: the new voice and face of fearless secularism and a champion of the democratic process. The Americans and Israelis would not understand what he is all about: they only understand those who hate them or those who will work under them. They cannot comprehend the status of an equal who addresses them as strategic allies.

By most conservative estimates, Iran spends something in the range of 30 million dollars a month to support its political acolytes in Iraq. The Sunni political parties are bankrolled by wealthy patrons in the Gulf, which is probably the case for Zarqawi and his ilk. The Allawi camp markets itself as the advocate of the good-ole’ authoritarian streak of Middle Eastern politics as a solution for Iraq’s ills; and at least some part of their election media campaign was financed directly by the Abu Dhabi’s ruling family.

But someone like Mithal Alusi is left to fend for himself. And even after standing his ground all this time, there is still no one willing to invest in his continuing success. Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?

Here is the relevant excerpt from the Friedman column:


The New York Times

May 26, 2006 Friday
Late Edition - Final


HEADLINE: Standing By Stand-Up Iraqis

BYLINE: By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

I am often asked why I don't just give up on Iraq and pronounce it a lost cause. It would certainly make my job (and marriage) easier.

What holds me back are scenes like the one related in last Sunday's Times story from Baghdad about the Iraqi Parliament's vote to approve the country's new cabinet. Our story noted that during the Iraqi parliamentary session, the Sunni party leader Saleh Mutlaq, a former Baathist, stood up and started denouncing the decision by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to have Parliament vote on the new cabinet even though he hadn't yet filled the key security posts.

At that point, another Sunni politician, Mithal al-Alousi, told Mr. Mutlaq to sit down. ''Iraqi blood is being spilled every day,'' Mr. Alousi said. It was time to move forward. When Mr. Mutlaq pressed on with his denunciations, Mr. Alousi ''pulled him down into his chair,'' The Times reported. That was a gutsy move -- live on Iraqi TV. Many Sunni insurgents may not like what Mr. Alousi did, but he did it anyway.

As long as I see Iraqis ready to take a stand like that, I think we have to stand with them. When we don't see Iraqis taking the risk to build a progressive Iraq, then it is indeed time to pack and go. That moment may come soon. It's hard to tell. I won't hesitate to say so -- but not yet.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

New Paper: The Islamist Threat to Jordan

I have a new paper out about the jihadists and their probable designs on Jordan. You can view it here at the Jerusalem Center for Public Policy.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A war cabinet with no leaders...

Anyone casting doubts on Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s efforts to run Iraq will be labeled as “embittered”, “unfair” or “hasty”; for the man rightly deserves a grace period. But I am increasingly troubled by what I hear and see.

Maliki drafted his first cabinet through a process of choosing ministers on the basis of—as one observer put it—“the lowest, lowest, lowest, and then lowest common denominator.”

He was aided in this effort by American ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

As a result, Iraq can boast a colorless and characterless government to guide it through these difficult times. Not very inspirational, is it?

Maliki is still tasked with picking a Defense Minister and someone else for the absolutely crucial position of Interior Minister. He will likely settle on another “politically brokered caretaker”—a term borrowed from a lead editorial on the subject in today’s New York Times.

Maliki will steer away from controversy to pick an unknown quantity (obscure names like Nassir Al-‘Ameri have been floated…) or else a “fluffy” character (such as Tawfiq Al-Yassiri, whose nickname is “Toohi”) for the job of reining in all the rogue militias, Mafiosi, vigilantes, and petty crooks who serve under the Interior Minister.

The job will require political stamina, as well as advanced managerial skills. The only persons who boast such qualities would be too “problematic” to appease the Sunnis, the Shia Islamists, the Kurds and the Americans, since each side has a conflicting agenda when it comes to providing security for the average Iraqi. In the end, they will agree on a person who can’t and won’t get much done. This spells disaster.

By way of example, Ahmad Chalabi was vetoed within the seven member UIA council by SCIRI’s Abdel-Aziz Al-Hakim, and he was rejected by both the Sunni Vice-President Tariq Al-Hashemi and the Kurdish Regional Government President Masood Barzani. Former PM Ja’afari has been recently suggesting to his visitors that Khalilzad is also against Chalabi’s nomination.

Maliki’s ministers and the staff running his office are already exhibiting tell-tale signs of ineptitude and illicit designs. Some may think it is too early to make such judgment calls, but then again, Iraq is the Land of the Bizarre, these days.

I will share some examples when the time is right. But here is some humor: the new Minister of Transportation, a Sadrist, was denied entry to the Rashid Hotel in the Green Zone yesterday because the Iraqi guards outside thought he looked too scruffy to be a government employee, according to an eye witness.

The battering being endured by Iraq’s middle class is beyond unbearable. At last, the foreign media has caught up with the ever-increasing stories of “disappearances” and the mass exodus of anyone who can afford it to anywhere outside of Iraq.

One friend put it thus: “Staying a step ahead of Saddam’s goons for a decade while using forged papers gave me some immunity to fear. But today I am afraid. I do not know who will kill me when I walk in the street. Badr kills, Mahdi Army kills, Zarqawi kills, the Police kill, the Army kill, and the criminals kill. I am very afraid.”

Meanwhile, President George Bush keeps seeing “milestones” and “turning points” in Iraq—probably because he is being led around in circles. He is not alone in his delusion; it begins right up at the gates of the Green Zone. I am amazed at the constant “happy happy talk” coming from American officials. Here is a reality check: Central Baghdad’s Dawoodi neighborhood is now part of an Islamist “regime” that issues fatwas banning salads, fatwas that frightened people are following to the letter. See, apparently cucumbers are males while tomatoes are females, and mixing them up leads to the Devil. Dawoodi is the doorstep to Mansour, and Mansour is the doorstep to Harithiya, which in turn is the doorstep to the Green Zone.

Furthermore, it is being suggested by some that the “insurgents” have found their way into the GZ by getting hired as guards for the various Sunni politicians who are now members of parliament. It is even said that a few dozen of these guards are actually wanted by the authorities.

So go figure.

And throughout all of this, some sincere—and others not so sincere—acquaintances amble up to me and ask “Was it worth it?” or “Do you regret working to bring this about?”

“Yes” and “No.” That is a “yes” to the first question, and a definite “no” to the second. No fiddling here. Read Richard Cohen’s Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post today for more:

For many who supported going to war in Iraq, the nature of the regime was important, even paramount. It is disappointing that this no longer gets mentioned. I suppose the handwriting was on the wall when Michael Moore failed to mention Hussein's crimes at all in his movie "Fahrenheit 9/11." Years from now, someone coming across the film could conclude that the United States picked on the Middle Eastern version of Switzerland. Now, all the weight is on one side of the moral scale.

But what would have happened if the war had actually ended back when George Bush stood under that "Mission Accomplished" banner? The U.S. combat death toll then was 139. (It's now approaching 2,500.) Would it have been worth 139 American lives to put an end to a regime that had murdered many thousands of its own people and had been responsible for two major wars? After all, aren't some of the people who want Washington to do something in Darfur the same people who so rigorously opposed the Iraq war on moral grounds? What if we could pacify Darfur -- immense, arid and without population centers -- at the cost of 139 American lives? What is the morality of that? Two hundred thousand have already died there. Should we intervene?


Pardon me for raising the question without answering it. I do so only to discomfort, if I can, some of the people who are so certain of their moral righteousness when it comes to the Iraq war. I want to know why the crimes of Saddam Hussein never figure into their thinking and why it was morally wrong -- not merely unwise -- to topple him. Raising this question in no way excuses the Bush administration's incompetence, fibbing and exaggerations, and the way it has abused American democracy. All that remains -- but so does the lingering question about morality.
This is why the trial of Saddam Hussein is such a calamity. The only redeeming element of this wretched war is its moral component -- the desire of some people to do good by ridding the world of a thug and his regime -- and that story, once so simple, has been obfuscated by delays and antics. We have somehow turned a criminal into a clown. It's a metaphor, it's a commentary, but mostly, like everything else about this war, it's just a damn shame.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

A riddle for those who are still interested...

There is a prominent Iraqi politician who has risen to even more prominence as a member of the newly unfurled Maliki cabinet, and who had served in the near past as a straight up asset of the Central Intelligence Agency. His present involvement with the CIA is unknown, but he played a very prominent role in advising current US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as to how to go about thwarting Ja’afari’s bid for the PM slot and staffing the Maliki government.

This man’s past CIA connection can be proven as such: on January 3, 2003, this man violated US federal law by bringing in approximately $70,000.00 (USD) in cash into Washington’s Dulles Airport. He failed to mention this in his customs declaration, but the money was found during a routine customs screening. When told that he would be taken into custody, this man broke down in tears and claimed that this money belonged to the CIA. He provided the phone number of his “handler” who promptly arrived at the airport to sort out the matter with the chief US Customs agent on duty and the FBI’s representative at Dulles at the time. After five hours of questioning in the presence of both US Customs and the FBI, it transpired that this Iraqi politician had lied to his CIA handler about the amount of money he had disbursed during an Iraqi opposition conference in London a few days earlier.

The initial amount handed over to him for disbursement was allegedly $100,000.00 (USD). He allegedly told his handler that he had had dolled out over $90,000 at the conference, and thus would not be “red flagging” himself with the remaining sum if searched by customs. He was mistaken.

Journalists tend to find this politician charming and gregarious and he is often quoted as an authoritative and objective figure on Iraqi affairs. His connections to US intelligence have never been published before. Furthermore, this mishap at Dulles a little over three years ago revealed a penchant for some light thievery. Anecdotal evidence gathered from Iraqi businessmen who have had direct contact with this politician in the various executive roles he has performed confirms that he is not averse to some kickbacks coming his way in return for contracts awarded.

Now, this should be relatively easy for an enterprising journalist: the offending sum was a violation of federal law, and it could not be so easily expunged from the record. Furthermore, tracking down the customs and FBI agents involved shouldn’t be that hard.

Any takers?

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Zarqawi Outtakes

Take a look at my latest column, Niche vs. Mainstream. In it, I deal with the latest propaganda material from Bin Laden, Zawahiri and Zarqawi. But I wrote it up last week before the US military released its captured outtakes of the Zarqawi video, where he is seen fumbling with an American-made heavy machinegun.

I thought the way the US military dealt with this treasure trove was a terrible waste of a great opportunity; plenty of mischief could have been sown among the jihadis.

The target audience saw in these bloopers what they wanted to see: the Sunnis said, “Aha! So Zarqawi is a paid actor hired by the Americans after all. He is a fake character drawn up to sully the name of the true resistance to the American occupation.”

The Shias said: “See! The Americans know where Zarqawi is, but they let him run loose to kill more Shias and foment civil war. They captured these files less than two weeks after they were filmed, so they must be able to catch him at will. But they don’t, because they want to weaken the Shias.”

In a conspiracy-minded Middle East, coming out with the facts results in a lose-lose outcome. So give them a conspiracy they can wrap their minds around!

This is how I would have handled it: I would have created a fictional splinter group among the Shura Council of the Mujaheddin, of which Zarqawi is a member. I would have called it the Shura Council of the Iraqi Mujaheddin; a nationalist and religious bunch of hardcore Iraqi jihadists who resent foreigners like the Jordanian-born Zarqawi taking all the credit. Using the same logo, and with a paid actor, they would themselves show the clips to add legitimacy to their claim, and they themselves would mock Zarqawi. Then this same video could be fed to the jihadist websites that propagate this material in the first place. And voila, in the very least, Zarqawi and the Shura Council would have to waste some of their time answering this forgery, and they would have to explain just how these original outtakes leaked to whoever forged the “denunciation”.

But it doesn’t end there. This same Shura Council of the Iraqi Mujaheddin can start putting out a whole series of videos of them targeting US forces. It can all be staged, with Abrams tanks blowing up, and even fighter planes being shot down. They would start badmouthing Zarqawi’s tactics of targeting Iraqi civilians, and we can even see them capturing and interrogating Al-Qaeda’s foreign fighters. This fake group could be turned into the superstars of jihad in Iraq, and at the same time, harsh critics of Al-Qaeda and Zarqawi.

If the US government is too squeamish to produce fake news and counter-propaganda, then they can get the Iraqi government to pay for it, and take full responsibility.

Lights, cameras, ACTION!

I always did want to go to film school…