Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Quick Reaction

I don't know how the U.S. papers are going to report this tomorrow morning, but what is clear is that as far as the Iraqi government (...after the late-night meeting here that brought together all the branches of the state) is concerned, the law must take its course. And as far as VP Biden is concerned, all he wanted to do in Baghdad was to express support for the Iraqi government during what the Iraqis are saying was a routine trip that was scheduled three weeks ago (i.e. before the crises).

So, all the needless nail-biting has come to this: the Appeals Committee will decide who get to run and who doesn't from the list of 511 'de-Baathified' candidates. Which is exactly what the legal mechanism was meant to do in the first place.

I think the U.S. government did the right thing here by dialing down their involvement from Biden's initial outbursts to a position that, to me, seems reasonable: to allow the Iraqis to sort this out through the legal mechanisms in place.

My hunch is that the INA scored a big win with this gambit at Maliki's expense, and I'd be very surprised if Saleh al-Mutlag is indeed barred from running.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

To De-Baath or Not To De-Baath

Watching the plotline of the forthcoming Iraqi elections unfold is like watching a soap opera: feigned drama, unforeseen twists, and all of it must-see, gripping entertainment. Personally, I am quite enjoying it.

In the latest episode, the Accountability and Justice Commission (…the reincarnation of the Higher National Commission for De-Baathification) did its job by naming 511 candidates for parliament as being ineligible to run according to Iraqi law. Standard operating procedure if one follows the Iraqi Constitution and the such.

But the shrillness and misinterpretation of U.S.-based analysts and commentators of what happened—nothing unusual—compelled me to make a few things clear. So here’s my brief interpretation of the plot twist before I get back to watching the show:

-The would-be candidates are being barred from running according to a new law that was passed by the sitting parliament. They are not being judged according to the old De-Baath law that was passed in January 2004 by the Iraqi Governing Council. The new law stipulated the formation of a new ‘Accountability and Justice’ Commission (AJC) to take over the duties of implementing the new law. Since parliament and the executive branch never got around to appointing a new chairman for the new commission, who in turn was supposed to suggest a new bureaucratic structure for the AJC, the old De-Baath structure, with Ahmad Chalabi as its chairman, is still in charge of running day-to-day operations for the implementation of the new law. Barring illegal candidacies is part of those day-to-day operations. Myself, I had qualms about messing around with the old De-Baath law that, being a hawk on these issues, I found to be already excessively lenient. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the new law could be interpreted by the legal authorities to bar more Ba’athists and former security and military personnel than its precursor, so that turned me into a supporter.

-The ‘Anti-Baath’ campaign is an election gimmick. I am very sensitive to anything to do with Ba’athists, but even I am convinced that Ba’athists no longer represent a strategic threat to the ‘New Iraq’, not even minimally. All I want the law to do now is to shame the Ba’athists for their past. I am disinterested in barring Ba’athists because I may harbor a fear a return to dictatorship, or watch them undermine the New Iraq. They are too weak and broken for that to ever happen again. The state, the New Iraq, is too hearty and strong to be undermined. In this respect, I can be amused rather than goaded by the Anti-Ba’ath campaign. I see it for what it is: a vote earner. The Iraqi National Alliance (…the latest incarnation of the UIA parliamentary bloc, once led by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, and now by his son, Ammar) has one single election gambit: get the Iraqi voter to think that by not voting for us, he or she would be voting for the return of the Ba’ath, a boogie that is much hated by the majority of Shi’a voters, who are the natural constituency for the INA. They can’t run on integrity, since they were and are still part of a government accused of widespread corruption in the public mind, and they can’t run on efficiency, since they haven’t been able to deliver basic services. So they can only run against a boogie man: the Ba’ath.

-The main competitor of the INA is PM Maliki’s State of Law slate. The INA wants to create the impression that Maliki is soft on Ba’athists. This started with the rumors that Maliki had even contemplated aligning himself with the poster-boy of neo-Ba’athism, Saleh al-Mutlag, (true) and appointing many Ba’athists in the security services he controls (also true). Maliki has been playing catch-up for several months aiming, at least rhetorically, to come out on the hawkish right of the INA when it comes to De-Baathification. However, the damage, as the issue looms larger as an election point, keeps bringing Maliki down with Shi’a voters, 40 percent of whom gave him their votes in critical provinces such as Baghdad and Basra in last year’s provincial elections.

-Chalabi is no. 3 on the INA’s list for Baghdad. That makes him one of its principal movers and shakers, as he had been in the past before falling out with Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim. By using the De-Baath commission to nullify the candidacy of 511 politicians, especially from Maliki’s and Bolani’s lists, he scored a big victory towards placing the Anti-Baath issue at the forefront of electoral politics. I’m also sure that he knew that the American administration would rise to the bait: Joe Biden’s attempts to micromanage this crises only serves to make the issue bigger, and the bigger it is, the better for the INA running on this controversy as their sole ‘gotcha’ against Maliki. It is interesting that Basra’s Muzahim al-Kana’an, who in the last election got an exemption from De-Baathication because he was running on Chalabi’s 2005 slate, has been included in the latest AJC list. Al-Kana’an is running with Bolani this time (…note that Bolani also ran on Chalabi’s list back then).

-Biden’s plan to delay implementing the law until after elections is patently ridiculous. Stripping MPs-after-the-fact of their status should the AJC’s evidence pan out is procedurally done by a simple majority vote in parliament, which is just a bigger crises waiting to happen. American involvement is being trumpeted in DC as a means to ensure that the withdrawal schedule proceeds on time. But no clause in the SOFA agreement mentions the word ‘elections’. It is a made-up excuse to meddle in internal Iraqi affairs and compromises, the one thing that US analysts and commentators seeking to disentangle America from Iraq have consistently said should be done by Iraqis themselves. One Iraqi side leveraging American power against another Iraqi side is a recipe for continued political imbalance. DeBaath was smart enough to include more Shi’as than Sunnis on the list of barred candidates. Speaking of ‘sectarian agendas’ may make sense in clueless DC, but doesn’t compute in Baghdad; the INA can easily claim, with Sunnis such as the pretender to the Iraqi throne Sharif Ali Bin Al-Hussein and liberal democrat Nassir al-Chadirchi featured prominently on its slate, that it has no sectarian agenda. Remember, their target audience is Shi’a, so by claiming to be above sectarianism, which is what Iraqis in general would like to believe about their favored slates in the elections, while highlighting American meddling as a leg-up for the Sunnis, the INA can sell itself, subtly, as the guarantor of Shi’a rights. Banking on residual sectarianism was the raison d’etre of reconstituting the INA, even though other Shi’a leaders are betting on ‘patriotic’ Iraqi agendas. Therein lies the competition.

-Which brings us back to Saleh al-Mutlag. He’s the principal beneficiary of this drama given, of course, if he’s eventually allowed to run. The debarment was exhibited in the media as a move principally directed against him for his stated (and taped) Ba’athist sympathies. According to the new AJC law, his statements are illegal. But he could appeal by saying that he uttered at a moment of anger. While it is true that at one point the Ba’athist leadership supported his candidacy as a temporary front for their participation in Iraqi politics, they were agreed that they will put the word out that he is not to be supported in the upcoming elections. That was what was being said in the summer, and most Sunnis were remarking that Mutlag will fall flat on his face in the parliamentary elections. See what Mutlag did was rather than be a front, he decided to become the front man. He overreached, and decided that he will cast himself in the role of the leader of Iraq’s Sunnis, something that the Ba’athist leadership couldn’t believe that he’d have the gall to do given that he was a nobody during the Saddam years. The INA doesn’t care about the Ba’athist constituency, since they could never compete for it. So if Mutlag takes it this time around, it doesn’t detract from their game plan against Maliki. Better still, it would be against the expressed wishes of the Ba’athist command. If Mutlag runs, then the Ba’athist vote would go to him despite the designs of the Ba’athist leadership since his failure at the polls would be perceived as the failure of the Ba’ath. They must grudgingly support him because he is now, especially after the AJC’s move, seen as the face of the neo-Ba’athist vote. Mutlag is no dummy, he won’t allow the Ba’athist leadership to gain a footing at his expense: this victory will be all his, and he may just be able to become what he has always worked for, the anointed leader of the Sunnis in the next parliament.

So here's my advice: watch Iraqi politics, if you're interested, as one would watch a soap opera. The harbingers of doom would like to peddle the idea that Iraq is forever at the precipe; one small nudge and it will go teetering over the edge. That's BS. The state is too stable, the anti-state forces are too depleted to do anything about it. Bombings are a nuisance, not a strategic threat anymore. The New Iraq has weathered the passing storm, and survived. What's left is the Grand Bargain that forges an Iraq in which its constituent parts can find a way to live, and prosper, together. The drama of Iraqi politics at this stage is more about mindless fun, than about a return to violence. Watch it, and understand it, as such. It is quite a feat that after less than a decade of the monumental change, we can talk about the re-introduction of political competition, in all its roller-coaster thrills, back to Baghdad. Nothing spells out success as much as this most salient fact.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Wow: Khorasani was the suicide bomber...

My mind is blown by this emerging story: Jordanian intelligence recruits a prominent jihadist writer to go to Afghanistan in order to track down Al-Qaeda's leadership, only for him to strap a bomb to his body, taking out his Jordanian handler (...a member of the royal family to boot) and several other CIA officers.

The jihadist writer is someone that many jihad-watchers have followed over the years: Abu Dujanah al-Khorasani. The Jordanian intelligence officer, Ali bin Zeid, was a few years older than me at school; I remember him as a nice guy.

For espionage buffs, this story is plain incredible. This is the sort of revealing drama that should compel certain reporters and columnists to become slightly less willing to believe the Agency's PR, about itself and about the Jordanians. I'm looking at you, Ignatius.

If all the facts here are true, then this is huge. Huge. This story's immediate effect is to give the jihadists a massive morale boost. They will mythologize this story into a recruiting tool that encourages more and more young men who sympathize with the jihadists to surmount their instinctual fear of the nebulous intelligence services of the Middle East, and to challenge the autocracies that supposedly keep a lid on jihadism. Khorasani has left a lot of hero-worship material, much of it very smart at manipulating emotions. Now, he himself is the hero in the eyes of jihadist wanna-bes. Many will seek to emulate him, or even outdo him.

Events like these allow us to appreciate how dangerous, and talented, the enemy is. Dropping one's guard, or becoming disdainful of the amount of fight left in the jihadists, can lead to many future instances where we are left standing, with our mouths agape, at the audacity and horror the jihadists are capable of.

Re-inventing Talisman Gate; Iran and Iraq’s Election

I don’t get it. After six years of being in the news, why is Hazim al-Araji’s name still mangled in transliteration? Why does it become “Hazim al-Araaiy” on the front-page of the Washington Post today, especially when his Canadian residency spells it correctly in English?

What’s more, why is he misidentified as “a Shiite lawmaker who heads the conservative Sadrist bloc in parliament,” when he isn’t even a member of parliament. It’s easy to spot where the reporter, Ernesto Londono, who’s been covering Iraq for several years, went wrong: he conflated Hazim al-Araji with Baha’ al-Araji. Honest mistake, except for Londono’s track record, which has established him in my eyes as one of the worst of the lot of mediocre journos pushing anti-war agendas in their reporting on Iraq.

Londono, after all, is the kind of reporter that manages to find sorrow in a cemetery. No small feat. And then has the sublimely confident sense to write about it.

Part of this blog’s mission over the years was to ‘call-out’ Western reporters covering Iraq for dishonest bias or misguided comprehension of emerging trends.

As some of you old-timers have noticed, the fire’s out here at Talisman Gate. The passion is gone, mostly because whatever gets written by such reporters and analysts makes absolutely no difference to Iraq’s trajectory: Iraq is heading to safety, and the stories of that land are those of the boring, very local variety.

For example, the state of political flux in Iraq is beautifully bizarre and complex. It really is a work of art, made more aesthetically pleasing by the realization that as issues settle and sediment, they lay the foundation for long-term stability and civil peace. But I don’t understand why an American audience would need to read about how new politics is taking shape in the Iraqi countryside. What American audiences need to know is that last month, not a single U.S. soldier died in combat. Unfortunately, U.S. papers don’t seem to cover that.

The last hurrah of the activist reporters in Iraq has nothing to do with Iraq: they needed to hammer on the negativism—some even writing about how U.S. soldiers are ‘littering’ in Iraq—so as to influence the Afghanistan ‘surge’ debate. They needed to argue that Iraq was an unmitigated disaster despite America’s best efforts, ergo there’s no need to even attempt to fix things in Afghanistan.

I doubt that after the March elections there would be compelling reasons for any U.S. media outlet to maintain a bureau in Baghdad. And good riddance.

So let’s re-invent Talisman Gate as something else: not as a pulpit that argues that Iraq will make it, but a sounding board for ideas about how Iraq will transform its neighborhood.

And let’s get things started by asking, how will the protests in Iran be influenced by a successful and fair election in Iraq?

I must admit that it took a recent photograph of an Iranian demonstrator kicking a policeman to get me excited about the prospects of change in Tehran. I was resigned to the idea that Iran, much like Egypt, is a rotting carcass with no signs of life. I now believe I was wrong.

Keeping things simple, Iraqi elections occur on March 7, and we’d probably have the results in by the 17th. The Persian New Year is March 21st, and it is no stretch to predict that the Iranian opposition will attempt to hold rallies on that date.

The image of a democratic and predominately Shiite Iraq holding fair elections will be a stark contrast to Iran’s recent experience with ballots. I’d imagine that if I were a person with a stake in the Iranian ruling establishment, I’d be very worried about having Iranians draw the wrong conclusions from that image. The idea that the sages of Shiism in Najaf such as Sistani & Co., who are supposed to tend to business while the Hidden Imam is away (…the very premise of the ruling order in Tehran), giving the Iraqi election their stamp of approval is an existential threat to the legitimacy of the Ahmadinejad/Revolutionary Guard order.

This would not be the first time that power in Iran was undermined by actors and ideas operating in Iraq; lots of that was happening in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Set aside all the differing variables, and the very real hatred between Iranians and Iraqis, but it would be an easy leap for the Iranian opposition to draw inspiration for the stances of the aesthetics of Najaf vis-à-vis tyrannical power. Iranians might hold their noses up at the idea of being inspired by ‘locust-eating’ Iraqis, but Sistani’s thumbs up on behalf of the Mahdi for how things are unfolding in Iraq will be a powerful revelation.

So if I am threatened by such an event on the calendar, what would I do?

Well, I’ve heard that preparations are underway to protest election fraud. Whispers about tent cities blockading the entrances to the Green Zone, and busloads of bored teenagers decanted from Sadr City into them. Somebody is coming up with a non-violent action plan for the day after the election results are announced. They assume that they will do badly, and are determined to make an inelegant exit.

I’m not saying that the Iranians are behind this; any dominant political force, seeing its fortunes waning, must make the claim that a drumming at the ballots had more to do with fraud than voters turning against them. On the face it, such protests jump-start a period of noisy opposition by those ejected from power. But it is also clear to see how the Iranian authorities may benefit from such theatrics in Iraq: they can point to events there and say to their people, “The Iraqi elections are also tainted, and Iraqis are also protesting in the street.” This scenario is certainly better for them than Iraqi elections going smoothly, reaping benefits to the Shiites after centuries of injustice, under the auspices of the Great Satan nonetheless.

So mark your calendars folks: Iraqi elections may become a rallying cry for demonstrators in Tehran, and the rulers of Iran may point to, or provoke, protests in Baghdad to taint any positive images of purple fingers and content voters streaming out from polls in Karbala and Basra.

I must add that re-inventing Talisman Gate does not necessarily mean that the pace of posting will pick-up. So don't get your hopes up. However, I would like to thank the loyal readers who have been harassing me these past months to begin writing again; your passion about these topics compels me to respond and deliver.

I promise to convey some sense of election fever in Iraq over the next couple of months. Stay tuned.