Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I have nice things to say about someone, for a change...

That someone is Ambassador Christopher Hill in Baghdad. He's been the target of a smear campaign as of late. Read it at Hudson New York.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Iraqi Madoff

First there was Bernie Madoff, then there was the 'Lebanese Madoff', and now there's an 'Iraqi Madoff.'

Real name: Abdel-Zahra al-Shalooshi (from Nassiriyah). Damages: $25 million. Victims: allegedly 1,200 Iraqi families in Michigan. Scam: take your money and invest it in Iraq. Political affiliations: Nouri al-Maliki's office, Sherwan al-Wa'ili. Political Recriminations: Maliki's people allege this is a media plot by Adel Abdel-Mahdi to make the PM look bad.

I first heard about this in Baghdad a couple of months ago from a Michigan-based Iraqi. Now the story is out in the open on Iraqi websites. There's to be a demonstration in front of the Iraqi Consulate in Detroit by the victims on October 2.

I don't know when the local American press in Detroit has written about this, but it does seem like a juicy story. 25 million may seem paltry by Madoff standards, but it is a very big deal for a mostly southern Shia Iraqi pool of investors (some Chaldeans got hoodwinked too) who came to the US as refugees in the early 1990s. Lots of talk of home foreclosures and the such.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Islamic State of Iraq Undergoes Government ‘Reshuffle’

This is the new line-up from the self-styled ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ (ISI):

-Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (‘Abdul Mun’im al-Badawi), First Vizier (Prime Minister) and Minister of War

-Sheikh Abdul-Wahab al-Mashhadani, Minister of Shari'ah Commissions

-Sheikh Muhammad al-Dulaimi, Minister of Public Affairs

-Sheikh Hassan al-Juburi, Minister for Prisoners’ and Martyrs’ Affairs

-Sheikh Abdel-Razzak al-Shimmeri, Minister for Security (PhD)

-Sheikh Dr. Abdullah al-Qaissi, Minister for Health

-Sheikh Ahmad al-Ta’i, Minister for Information (PhD)

-Sheikh Eng. Usamah al-Lheibi, Minister for Oil

-Sheikh Yunis al-Hamdani, Minister of Finance (PhD)

So that means that ‘Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Falahi’ is no longer the prime minister of the Islamic State of Iraq, and he’s been replaced by al-Muhajir. The point being that while al-Falahi was presumed to be an Iraqi, al-Muhajir isn’t. It is interesting that al-Muhajir’s name is given in brackets as “Abdel-Mun’im al-Badawi”—first revealed by al-Muhajir in 2006, but not many took the name seriously at the time. It is probable that al-Badawi is his real name; now I’d like to know whether the man U.S. intelligence authorities thought was al-Muhajir, who went by the pseudonym ‘Abu Ayyub al-Masri’, is one and the same as al-Badawi. The other indication that al-Badawi is his real name is that all the other names in the cabinet are seemingly given as their real names, rather than pseudonyms. When a ‘cabinet’ was first announced by the ISI in April 2007, shortly after its formation, all the names for ministers (including al-Muhajir’s) were given as pseudonyms, except for one, Mustafa al-‘Araji, of Agriculture.

Having a spokesman announce the names on behalf of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi follows precedent; that’s what they did the first time around. It’s a 10 minute video, with the face of the spokesman blurred out. It begins with an old audio snippet from Osama Bin Laden extolling jihadists to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi, followed by old footage from Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi giving shout-outs to the ISI.

The spokesman is shown seated behind a desk with a little ISI flag before him, and a gun (...a Tariq, an Iraqi-made Beretta, from what I can tell). He makes a concise case for the ISI’s legitimacy, in Islamist doctrinal terms. “The enemy admitted that we are back to our former form, our attacks hit [the enemy’s] heart and shook their throne, and [the enemy said] that a state is behind [the attacks], and [the enemy] was truthful, a state was behind it, the Islamic State of Iraq,” alluding to the ‘Black Wednesday’ attacks in Baghdad that Maliki claimed the Syrian regime was behind, and which the ISI took credit for. It is possible that the presenter’s pronunciation betrayed non-Iraqi roots, especially when reading out the names of the so-called ‘ministers’.

Again, the important take-away from this is that the ISI wants to make one point and one point only, and it is a point directed at what remains of its rank and file: “We are still here.”

The portfolio for Minister of Unicorns and Dragon Control remains vacant.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Chief Syrian Propagandist Welcomes anti-Bush Shoe-Thrower

I guess that it should have been expected, that Marc Santora would author a hagiography rather than a news story about Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the "shoe-throwing journalist," in the New York Times today. But I only wish that "journalists" of Santora's "caliber" and shoe-size, would better fact-check items like "There was even an offer from a wealthy Saudi to buy one of the shoes for $10 million." At the time, some Arabic-language journalists tracked down the Saudi offerer, and found that rather than being wealthy, the guy couldn't even make the rent on his home.

Here's another thing that Santora missed as he set about turning al-Zaidi into an icon: the Syrian Minister of Information welcomed al-Zaidi at Damascus Airport on Tuesday night (which means that Santora could have still gotten this tidbit into his story by deadline had he bothered to actually report it). Now why exactly is a Syrian minister, the one in charge of regime propaganda no less, waiting at the airport to receive al-Zaidi? Doesn't it seem like a protocol infraction?

Would al-Zaidi dare to throw a shoe at Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, whose regime enabled jihadists and Ba'athists to wage the bloody insurgency against the New Iraq?

The other guy in the pictures is 'Awn al-Khashloog, the Iraqi businessman who owns the Baghdadia TV station where al-Zaidi worked. Why haven't any of these western journalists, who are clearly enamored of al-Zaidi, ever taken the time to figure out how al-Khashloog made his money? Here a hint: he worked with the Saddam regime.

It seems that al-Khashloog has been generous with the Kitabat website on which the pictures of al-Zaidi in Damascus were posted; the proprietor of the site is openly groveling for the "businessman"'s attention. As we can see, this whole thing reeks of the high standards expected in today's journalism, both U.S. and Iraqi.

[Note: a reader pointed out that pictures seem to have been taken at two different locations. So maybe the Syrian minister received al-Zaidi someplace other than the airport. Gee, wish that some reporter would have clarified all this confusion for us.]

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Coalitions

Just thought I’d fill you in on what I’m hearing from Baghdad. The following is not necessarily set in stone, and some of it is hearsay, but there’s hearsay and then there’s hearsay, and it doesn’t hurt to share this sort of gossip.

-Maliki will not join the new UIA. He’s taken to calling the UIA the “al-khatt al-irani” (‘The Iranian Line [Faction]’) in recent weeks. UIA is putting out that they have a sex scandal on Maliki.

-Maliki and Saleh al-Mutlag had their final exploratory meeting over forming a coalition on Monday, and decided that such an alliance, with Ayad Allawi on board, would be politically unfeasible and hurt them with their constituents.

-Right now it is Maliki plus Ahmad Abu Risha plus Abid Mutlag al-Juburi plus Mahmoud al-Mashhadani’s group. The latter also consists of Nadim al-Jaberi (formerly of the Fadhila Party). Also in the Maliki mix: Nawaf al-Jarba and Qaiser Witwit. Mithal al-Alusi is also supposed to be in there too, but hasn’t been confirmed to me. Maliki had a meeting with Ali al-Hatem, and chewed him out over supposed mismanagement of funds. Ahmed Ghaffour al-Samara’i, Tareq al-Hashemi and Abdullah Hmeidi might join too.

-Saleh al-Mutlag plus Ayad Allawi. This can be called the neo-Ba’athist list. Jawad al-Bolani was supposed to join but he is having second thoughts and might join the UIA; the Sadrists supposedly demanded that Bolani becomes the next PM at the most recent UIA meeting.

-Many liberals are coalescing around Dhia al-Shakarchi.

-The Islamic Party folks, even after the change of leadership, are being treated like lepers. No one wants to play with them.

-The Kurds have signaled that they are not interested in interethnic coalitions, although Noshirvan Mustafa has stated that his slate will compete in the national election.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Acknowledging Good Reporting

I feel compelled to issue a fatwa: Whereas in the past, the only New York Times reporter writing about Iraq that was worthy of praise, in my erudite opinion, was Sabrina Tavernise, I must say that the recent (...that is, past few months) bylines by Sam Dagher, Rod Nordland, and Campbell Robertson, have indicated a far more sober and reasoned reading of what is going on there. They sometimes write stuff that I take issue with, but on the whole it is very, very good. Certainly far better than what the paper gave us in the past.

Marc Santora, also of the NYTimes, does not measure up, and don't get me started on Ernesto Londono of the Washington Post, and pretty much the rest of the WaPo's coverage which lends itself to sensationalism and cynicism. The Los Angeles Times has never really registered with me as a must-read on Iraq, probably for good reason.

Even though I disagree fundamentally with his blatant activism, I would also take Nir Rosen's reporting (as opposed to his opinionating) very seriously. It is good to know that Hannah Allam (McClatchy) is back on the Iraq beat: depite a few misses, she's a stellar and highly credible reporter, which is why an error on her part gets magnified in my view. I can also trust that Eli Lake, over at the Washington Times, will always report the heck out of an Iraq story, and do it very well.

I don't watch much TV, so I don't know how the Iraq story is being reported there. I'd imagine it is shallow and superficial, given the target audience and air-time constraints.

Kenneth Pollack's most recent piece in the National Interest is thoughtful and compelling, even though I disagree with some of its key insights and recommendations. I always had good things to say about Colin Kahl, but unfortunately he has joined government (DoD), and his views will be far more guarded. Micheal O'Hanlon at Brookings is another person I disagree with often, but I'd think long and hard before refuting his well-contructed arguments.

Furthermore, I have a sense that as the Iraq debate becomes less of a shouting match, important nodes in the US government, even in such hopelessly partisan institutions such as the State Department and the CIA, are beginning to look at Iraq with calm and wise reflection. I've noticed a significant change in my daily interactions, and I am far more hopeful that this will result in a nuanced, far-reaching policy that understands what the New Iraq means to the rest of the region.

Among Iraq-focused Western bloggers, I haven't seen much improvement, or humility. Although Michael Collins Dunn at the Middle East Institute blog never fails to alert us to excellent arguments. Another emerging authority is Joel Wing (Musings on Iraq) who does a masterful job of compiling a narrative about Iraq that makes sense.

Most established Op-Ed writers don't seem to get it. The notable exception, of course, is Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal, who's skill, insight and wit make me fume with envy. Moreover, one should always pay close attention to the writings of Salameh Nematt at The Daily Beast; no one has a better feel for emerging trends in the region than he does.

Needless to say, the beautiful words of Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis should be learnt by rote. What they offer is scripture, and I see myself a lowly disciple. There are also a crop of young academics writing about Iraq who I have very high hopes for. They shall revolutionize the field, and bring back honesty and modesty to scholarship. Andrew Exum (Abu Muqawama) comes to mind, as does Thomas Heggehammer, Truls Tonnessen and the rest of the Norwegian Mafia. Thankfully, there are many other to keep an eye on.

I'm issuing this fatwa because I don't see this blog surviving beyond the upcoming January elections. And so begins the process of me recommending other commentators for the loyal readers who'll continue to have a need for an Iraq kick. That doesn't mean that I will stop writing, rather I will be writing in Arabic for an Iraqi audience on another website.

It's a mixed bag, but at least the tone has changed in an important publication such as the NYTimes, and it can be relied upon to get a balanced story on Iraq in the future.

Fingers crossed.

Note: sometimes one takes for granted some of the people one admires, and in that vein, I like to include Bill Rogio (Long War Journal), Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Lee Smith in this fatwa.