Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Al-Qaeda in Lebanon

Hazim Al-Amin does some fine reporting on Al-Qaeda’s operations (specifically the Zarqawi franchise) in Lebanon through two pieces published in Al-Hayat Newspaper on January 26 and 27. Although I believe, as Amin himself suggests towards the very end, that he has only managed to scratch the surface, I was fascinated by the new information he brings to light on “Abu Muhammad Al-Lubnani,” who became one of Zarqawi’s chief aides in Iraq and was subsequently killed in late summer 2005.

What caught my interest was that Al-Lubnani, whose real name is Mustafa Ramadhan, is actually an ethnic Kurd from Beirut, with a past as a drunkard and hoodlum. He had married a lady from the conservative Sunni enclave of Mejdel ‘Anjar in Lebanon’s far north in the late 1980s, and immigrated to Denmark. Lubnani returned three years ago in the garb of a zealous Salafist, and advocated for jihad, according to Amin’s reporting. He managed to win over some recruits in Mejdel Anjar, and went off to Iraq with his 16 year-old son, Muhammad, who was killed shortly before his father expired.

People familiar with my writings on the Hariri assassination would know that I’ve had a hard time accepting the scenario of Syrian culpability as laid out in the Mehlis report. My own hypothesis—something completely outside the mainstream it should be noted to people unfamiliar with the details—had been leaning towards suspecting a hand for Al-Qaeda in the murder of the ex-Lebanese PM. Furthermore, at one point I developed a gut instinct that involved Walid Junbulatt in the affair (see intro to blog). This latter suspicion led me to the trail of a group of Lebanese Kurds who did plenty of the dirty work for Junbulatt during the civil war years, and who later joined the jihadists in Afghanistan. I have been unable to find out more about them.

This new information on Abu Mohammad Al-Lubnani’s background, namely that he is a Kurd, offers a tantalizing probable link between ex-PSP thugs and Al-Qaeda in Lebanon. Whoever killed Hariri, and orchestrated the subsequent campaign of terror, must have had insider information on the comings and goings of the various targets. Syria and its acolytes in Lebanon would certainly be privy to such information, but Al-Qaeda wouldn’t. Unless Al-Qaeda was plugged into the Lebanese political elite somehow, either by getting the information indirectly via the Syrians (unlikely, since the whole raison d’etre of Al-Qaeda in Lebanon is to bring down the Syrian regime) or directly from a network of acquaintances who handle security for this political elite.

Those PSP Kurds turned jihadists could be the key to this secret information channel, not to mention terrorist know-how and access to explosives. Interested parries should also look into a possible role, if any, for Syrian terrorist Abul Ghadieh Al-Souri, another Zarqawi aide killed in June 2005. I'd wager that the multi-talented Al-Souri was the mastermind behind establishing Al-Qaeda's recruiting/funding/operations network in Lebanon and Syria.

The recent arrest of an Al-Qaeda ring in Trablous, the northern Lebanese city that figures prominently in the planning phase of the Hariri murder, was also reported with a juicy tidbit: several members (most of whom were not Lebanese) were affiliated with Khalid Taha, a Palestinian jihadist who is cited in the Mehlis report as the person who had escorted suspected suicide bomber Ahmad Abu Ades to Syria two weeks before the Hariri assassination.

There is more here for Mehlis’ successor to investigate.

NB: yet another Mehlis witness had recanted his testimony in the past month, and was placed under arrest for ‘misleading’ the international investigation. Ibrahim Jarjoureh, a Syrian, followed Hosam Hosam’s footsteps and blabbed to New TV, but apparently could not make it over the border in time before his arrest warrant was delivered. Very little has been reported in the US press on this matter, something to ponder as Washington fetes Saad Hariri, and loads up his wagon with empty promises. The Lebanese file is being dealt with very superficially by the Bush administration, which seems oblivious to charged sectarian atmosphere there. But who in this town will take responsibility for the chaos and mess that would follow an Al-Qaeda-Hezbollah flare-up? Sounds outlandish? Well, keep watching.

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Fadhila Drumbeat, and a Security Meltdown in Baghdad

Fadhila: There isn’t much more to report on the Block of 100 except to say that it is not panning out as planned. Although there are rumblings such as Fadhila’s misgivings concerning their share of the compensatory seats (they are getting 1 out of the 19 that the UIA is entitled to in the parliamentary distribution), and Nadhim Al-Jabiri is still adamantly insisting that he is a candidate for prime minister, no signs of a serious rift can yet be discerned.

However, there are more hints that an agreement had been struck between Fadhila and Allawi. One such indication is the fact that the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat ran an Op-Ed by Adnan Hussein—an indefatigable cheerleader for the Allawi camp—singing the praises of Jabiri. Other allies of Allawi’s are telling whoever would listen that they “can do business with a man like Jabiri.” SCIRI and Da’awa have started a whisper campaign denouncing Jabiri as a Ba’athist and his patron, Shaikh Yaqoubi as a spy for Saddam’s secret police.

I personally think that Jabiri is playing a high stakes game, albeit one that is much larger than his stature. It may sound good in game theory, something he is familiar with as a political science academic, but it doesn’t take stock of some very important vectors that cannot be qualified that easily for a neat fit in an ambitious political maneuver. I think Jabiri indeed thinks that he can become Prime Minister through waving his defection in the UIA’s face. “If you don’t let me become top dog,” he may be saying to SCIRI’s Abdel-Aziz Al-Hakim & Co, “then I’ll go over to the other side and crown your arch nemesis, Ayad Allawi, as king.”

Here is what we know: the three-way deal struck between Jabiri, Allawi and American ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, occurred last Friday evening during a soiree hosted at Safia Al-Suheil’s home in the Green Zone. Many Iraqi politicos and foreign diplomats were in attendance as well as visitors from the US, but the three gentlemen retired to a closed room for a private meeting, and the subsequent chatter had it that Jabiri had agreed to defect from the UIA and support Allawi’s bid for premiership.

The trick would be to stack the demands made by coalition partners such as Allawi-Consensus-Mutlag so high, that the UIA would have no alternative but to refuse them. Under such a circumstance, the Americans would hop in and label the UIA as inflexible, obstinate and uncompromising. The UIA would thus loose the moral mandate, as opposed to its numerical one, in forming an all inclusive ‘National Unity’ cabinet. Fadhila, now that they can point to a series of slights perpetrated by the UIA ‘grown-ups’ against them, would then defect and join the Allawi bandwagon. Together with the Kurds on board, Allawi would enjoy the parliamentary majority for forming a government.

Now all this would make sense if the Americans had any backbone. The three areas where Bush had designated as the launching pads for his vision of a democratic Middle East—post-Saddam Iraq, post-Asad Lebanon and the post-Arafat Palestinian territories—have been ceded to acolytes of Iran. The UIA, Hezbollah and Hamas today control the destiny of these three hotspots, and are in turn beholden to Iran in the strategic zero-sum equation that balances power in the region. At this point, the United States can do very little about places like Gaza or the Beka’a, but it does have 150,000 soldiers in Iraq.

David Ignatius argued last week that one of America’s strongest levers is the threat of withdrawal from Iraq, leaving all parties to their respective fates in a bloody civil war. Guess who wouldn’t mind this scenario: Iran. And guess what would happen in a few years time, when Al-Qaeda grows out and starts hitting pipelines in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf; the world’s economy would then be at the mercy of Iran’s nuclear-armed mullahs, now in control of Iran and Iraq’s oil fields, as well as the Persian Gulf access routes.

Not a very rosy picture, is it?

The US should act on its gut instinct: the UIA should not be allowed to run Iraq, at least not without plenty of friction. Allowing them that easy victory sets a precedent and translates down the road to a demarcation of the Middle East between Iran and Al-Qaeda.

To do this, they can’t allow themselves to be pawns in a game being played out by a two-bit hustler like Nadim Al-Jabiri. The Fadhila Party has recently put up a website, which is welcome news to someone like me who know next to nothing about their political inclinations and how they differ from Muqtada Al-Sadr and his cohorts. Well, I’m still trying to figure it out, but at least I now know that their emblem carries these two catchphrases: “We seek the acceptance of God” and “No obedience to a creature [who stands] in defiance of the Maker.”

This party’s association with Ayatollah Muhammad bin Musa Al-Yaqoubi is not a subtle matter, which is a first for Najaf and the Shia divines. I was also surprised to find that Yaqoubi is only 45 year-old, and that his father, a lesser Shia functionary, had moved his family to Baghdad when Yaqoubi was only 8. His father worked closely with Seyyid Mahdi Al-Hakim, the elder brother of Abdel-Aziz, who was assassinated by Saddam’s intelligence service in Khartoum, Sudan in the late 1980s. There is a hint that Yaqoubi’s family has some background in esotericism, a more-or-less taboo affiliation in Najaf for over two centuries. More can be found on Yaqoubi’s website.

See kids, this is what will happen if you smoke: premature aging...this guy is only 45

Phillip Morris should take note that Yaqoubi has issued a pamphlet that discourages smoking. Papa Sadr (Muqtada’s father) had won over many disciples in his day by allowing smoking during the Ramadhan fast. And before US embassy officials get too cozy with Jabiri, they should probably pick up a book by Yaqoubi called “Us and the West” where he apparently describes the “American model of life” as the precursor to the advent of the Shia Messiah, Ahmadinejad’s beloved: the Mahdi. According to Yaqoubi, “this failed [American] model cannot provide happiness to mankind who will eventually find their way back to Islam.”

Yaqoubi graduated as a civil engineer from Baghdad University in 1982. He was an army deserter whose attempt to escape to Iran was stymied, forcing him to hide in his parents’ house for many years where he devoured books on Islamic theology. This is a sure recipe for developing issues and neuroses later in life.

Fadhila doesn't have much of a following in Baghdad, where the only prime real estate they control is the unfinished mammoth Rahman mosque in Mansour (construction was started but never finished by Saddam). Other HQs like the Iman Foundation in Sha'ab were ceded to the Sadrists long ago. However, Fadhila does enjoy some standing in the south and especially in Basra, where they carried a plurality of the seats in the Provincial Council in the January elections and pciked a Fadhlist as governor.

All in all though, Fadhila doesn’t seem like a dependable ally. Let’s leave it at that.

Security Meltdown: there has been a spike in non-terrorist related violent crime lately throughout Baghdad, and this is not being reported by the media. A similar situation occurred in the interim between last January’s elections and the formation of the Jaafari government, but this time around the intensity is fiercer and wider. Kidnappings for ransom, armed robbery, and even shakedowns at ad hoc checkpoints have increased in the Jihad, Adel, Khadra’, Doura, Jami’a, Amiriya, and Baya’ neighborhoods—all of them areas where the insurgency is rampant. Homes and businesses are being casually looted while owners are held at gunpoint.

The security policy of Iraq’s Interior Ministry seems to be one of storming these neighborhoods, cutting them off, conducting searches and then withdrawing without leaving behind a recognizable measure of the state’s authority; police patrols, checkpoints, etc. I’ve had two sources tell me that they had recently tried dialing the ‘130’ emergency numbers to find that no one was picking up the phone.

In other words, a third of Baghdad’s sprawling mass is almost totally lawless.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

'Block of 100' Reactivates Allawi’s Bid for Premiership

Here is a scenario: an important block of the United Iraqi Alliance—say one with 20 out of the UIA’s 128 parliamentary seats—defects and joins a motley coalition composed of Ayad Allawi’s group, the Consensus Front, and Saleh Al-Mutlaq’s gaggle for a total of 100 seats. The goal of this new coalition (who for our purposes shall call the ‘Block of 100’) would be to set up a new government with Ayad Allawi as Prime Minister. The Bush administration would greatly welcome this outcome.

According to some chatter that came my way, such a deal was secretly struck by Ayad Allawi and Nadim Al-Jabiri of the Fadhila Party under American auspices yesterday. Once this ‘Block of 100’ is formed, then Allawi can proceed to negotiate with the Kurds, who with their 53 seats would afford him a parliamentary majority and enable him to form a government.

Nadim Al-Jabiri, playing with fire

Nadim Al-Jabiri, 47, had been a professor at Baghdad University’s political science department for over 20 years, and his field of expertise can be summed up as “The World Zionist Conspiracy.” By some accounts, he was a high ranking Ba’athist, although I’ve never seen any documentation. The Fadhila Party was formed as the political vehicle for Ayatollah Sheikh Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi’s standing among a Sadrist faction that did not want to follow Muqtada Al-Sadr—son of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad M. Sadiq Al-Sadr—but remained enamored of his father’s legacy that Yaqoubi represented.

Jabiri, a very ambitious and untalented man, found it politically expedient to join Fadhila and quickly rise up the ranks, especially after becoming his party’s representative to the Shia Political Council. In the January 2005 elections, Fadhila was part of the UIA, but it had voiced disaffection and wanted to pull out of this coalition prior to last December’s poll, and was barred from doing so by some legal constraints of the electoral law.

Jabiri’s defection could have be sanctioned directly by Ayatollah Yaqoubi, who is feeling a money crunch as Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s powerful son, Muhammad Ridha, effectively tries to monopolize most of the revenue that comes into Najaf. Within the UIA, the Fadhila Party would be dealt with as a junior partner, but with the ‘Block of 100’ it would turn itself into a kingmaker—naming a steep price for its cooperation.

In this new deal struck yesterday evening in Baghdad, it is supposed that Jabiri would drop his own bid for the prime minister’s post and settle for becoming deputy president of the republic, as well as getting a variety of important (and financially lucrative) cabinet portfolios for his party.

Should Fadhila defect, the UIA would be left with 110 seats at most and with no coalition partners per American pressure, and hence no chance to form a government on its own. This American arm twisting seems to be in response to recent Iranian belligerence; sending a message about who is still top dog in Iraq. Iran has been the long-time patron of many groups and personalities that are assembled in the UIA block.

Jabiri gave his assent to this deal in the presence of the highest officials representing Washington in Baghdad. But it is yet to be seen if he can deliver those 20 seats. I’d imagine that the UIA has the wherewithal to harshly bully the other members of Fadhila and dissuade them from following Jabiri into Allawi’s arms.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Shamelessly Taking Credit for Election Result Scoop

There won’t be too many opportunities to gloat over scoops and the such on this blog, so I’ll make the best out of this one: readers of Talisman Gate would have had a fair idea of Iraq’s election results over a month ago (posted a day after the poll), and these accurate final results six days ago. So next time I mouth-off about the sky falling on our heads—think twice before dismissing me. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t dismiss me, just think twice before you do it. [BTW: what is the financial reward that comes with a Pulitzer, again?]

The Electoral Commission announced these results today for the distribution of parliamentary seats:

UIA: 128
Kurds: 53
Islamist Kurds: 5
Consensus: 44
Misha’an Jabouri: 3
Saleh Al-Mutlag: 11
Ayad Allawi: 25
Risaliyoun: 2
Turkumen: 1
Christians: 1
Yezidis: 1
Mithal Alusi: 1

Talisman Gate on January 14, 2006:

UIA: 128
Kurds: 53
Islamist Kurds: 4 (this is the one I got wrong…)
Consensus: 44
Misha’an Jabouri: 3
Saleh Al-Mutlag: 11
Ayad Allawi: 25
Risaliyoun: 2
Turkumen: 1
Christians: 1
Yezidis: 1
Mithal Alusi: 1

Talisman Gate on December 16, 2005:

UIA: 130 (likely to increase slightly, includes satellite Sadrist lists)
Consensus: 45 (likely to increase slightly)
Kurdish: 55
Allawi: 20 (likely to decrease slightly)
Mutlag: 15 (likely to decrease slightly)

PS: the sky is going to fall on our heads. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

In New Book, Bremer Mistakenly Exposes Relationship with Former Protégé, Wanted Fugitive


Let me entertain a wild guess here, but I’m betting that Jerry Bremer, former 'viceroy' of Baghdad, had sent his new book to the publishers before mid-summer of last year, since he neglected to edit out two embarrassing associations with Ziad Cattan, the former head of the procurement department at Iraq’s Ministry of Defense and now a fugitive at the center of a scandal involving 1.2 billion dollars in ‘missing’ funds.

The story was broken last July by Hannah Allam, the former Baghdad bureau chief for Knight-Ridder. In a follow-up story sent out on the wires on August 12, she quotes Dan Senor, still speaking on behalf of his former boss, saying that at “at least to [Bremer’s] knowledge, he’d never met [Ziad Cattan].” Here is an excerpt:

"Before me, there was another prime minister. His name was Bremer," Ayad Allawi, who served as interim premier when the corruption investigation began sometime last year, told Knight Ridder. "He ran this country, he had this ministry and a lot of the corruption started then. ... There was no auditing. Airplanes were flying in and the money was handed out in suitcases."

Former Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan has told U.S. and Iraqi officials that Bremer personally requested that Ziad Cattan -- the alleged ringleader of the corruption and the ministry's former procurement chief -- stay in his job after sovereignty was transferred last summer.

Bremer said this week, through his former CPA spokesman Dan Senor, that he didn't know Cattan. "At least to his knowledge, he'd never met him," Senor said.

Cattan, a dual Polish-Iraqi national, was fired in May and a warrant was issued for his arrest in connection with "the abuse of an employer's funds." He fled Baghdad and hasn't returned to answer the charges.

And again in Patrick Coburn’s dispatch on September 19, 2005 for the Independent, Bremer denies ever hearing of Cattan:

Mr Shalaan says that Paul Bremer, then US viceroy in Iraq, signed off the appointment of Ziyad Cattan as the defence ministry's procurement chief. Mr Cattan, of joint Polish-Iraqi nationality, spent 27 years in Europe, returning to Iraq two days before the war in 2003. He was hired by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority and became a district councillor before moving to the defence ministry.

For eight months the ministry spent money without restraint. Contracts worth more than $ 5m should have been reviewed by a cabinet committee, but Mr Shalaan asked for and received from the cabinet an exemption for the defence ministry. Missions abroad to acquire arms were generally led by Mr Cattan. Contracts for large sums were short scribbles on a single piece of paper. Auditors have had difficulty working out with whom Iraq has a contract in Pakistan.

Authorities in Baghdad have issued an arrest warrant for Mr Cattan. Neither he nor Mr Shalaan, both believed to be in Jordan, could be reached for further comment. Mr Bremer says he has never heard of Mr Cattan.

[For the record, Coburn does not credit Allam in any way for breaking and fully reporting on the story. All he had to add was a sensationalist quote from Iraq’s minister of finance to the effect that this could have been the biggest heist in history. Isn’t there a technical term for ripping-off other people’s work? Hint: it starts with a ‘p’ and rhymes with ‘plagiarism.’]

But Bremer's denials are a little confusing, because in his book, My Year in Iraq; The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope, Simon & Schuster (January 2006), Chapter 7, p. 178, ambassador L. Paul Bremer III (with Malcolm McConnell) writes the following:

“Seated beside me was the new chairman of the District Council, Dr. Ziyad Cattan, a Ph.D. economist who had spent twenty years in Germany and returned after Liberation. Having traded a comfortable life in Europe “to serve my country” for a minimal salary and the drudgery of rebuilding 9 Nisan, he embodied the dedication so many Iraqis felt for their nation.”

And then there is llustration no. 24 showing Bremer with Cattan and captioned “With the chairman of Nisan 9 Council and a young singer October 2, 2003, minutes before an aborted assassination attempt on Bremer.” on p. 190.

So in fact, Bremer can even recall the day of his meeting with Cattan, since he associates that day with an aborted assassination attempt.

And just in case, Ziad Cattan has put up a website in Arabic, Polish and English in an attempt to clear his name of any wrong-doing, which features several pictures of him with Jerry Bremer. [The music in the background is Iraq’s de facto national anthem.]

Back in August, I wrote a column called Rotten Fish that featured Mr. (or Dr.) Ziad Cattan:

I met Mr. Cattan once a few years back when he was managing a pizza parlor in a suburb of Bonn. I'm no culinary expert, but lunch was awful, which may have had something to do with his business going belly-up. This failed restaurateur, who also moonlighted as a human trafficker of Iraqi refugees, was hired by Paul Bremer's outfit, the Coalition Provisional Authority, in January 2004.
It is interesting that Bremer would qualify Cattan’s salary at the time of his work as district councilor as “minimal” since Cattan was employed then by the IRDC. I wrote about this group back in December [scroll down] and revealed that their salaries started at 12,000 USD per month. Makes you wonder how much Bremer was being paid if he found 12 grand to be “minimal”? Now imagine how much more he would have been paid if he had actually done a moderately good job!

The book is full of self-promoting BS, and in numerous instances, it reeks of outright malice and distortion. Bremer’s denial to the press of prior knowledge of Ziad Cattan is just one example among many of a natural inclination towards duplicity, and slinking away from taking any responsibility for the mess he left in his wake. We used to shovel this BS out of the way on a daily basis during the CPA era, just to clear a navigable path towards a measure of sovereignty.

Indeed, Bremer's motto was completely on the mark: "Success has a thousand fathers" while failure is an orphan (...or a bastard). Bremer needs to fork out some child support and someone needs to expose him for what he is: a deadbeat dad. Ziad Cattan sure could use a little tenderness...

PS: This is my favorite picture of Bremer in his CPA days. Notice the man pointing up at the banner that reads, “Bani Hassan Trips In Iraq wellcom with coming of Mr Pole Braimer and we wish to have a good time of task in Iraq, chif [?] trps Al-Mohemed Abasi”. This tribal sheikh was another protégé of Bremer’s who also had a much-checkered past (not to mention atrocious spelling!). He disappeared into obscurity after his patron left in June 2004.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

New Column: Fighting Over Spoils

My column today is about the state of the insurgency in Iraq, and the overly optimistic reports we keep hearing concerning infighting among the bad guys. Yes, they are clashing, but I don't think it really puts much of a dent in the actions of the baddest of the bad: Al-Qaeda and JAS. Check it out over here.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

'Terrorist TV Studio'

Reuters put out some stills of the 'Terrorist TV Studio' I was describing in this January 2 post here on Talisman Gate. Today's related Reuters story (Michael Georgy's byline) on the Jaish Ansar Al-Sunna studio can be found here. Take a look, and then me if this looks 'make-shift' to you as described by Georgy.

Al-Qaeda Tries to Show Soft Side in New Videos

Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia has released two new videos that I’ve found interesting. It should be noted that as of late, Zarqawi’s aforementioned organization as well as multiple other terrorist groups have been issuing new batches of footage on almost a daily basis. Any adolescent in the Middle East with ready access to their propaganda material would be left with the impression that the increase in video uploads means that the insurgency is going well in Iraq. Since these well-produced videos aim to increase fundraising and recruiting vectors, then a spike in their numbers would indicate a fiercer competition among the insurgent groups in addition to an increase in activity and scope.

The Sudanese Diplomats: They were abducted on December 24, and released on Sunday, January 1st, according to press reports. In this video, Al-Qaeda tries to show that the diplomats had recanted their wayward ways and that they had ‘enjoyed’ their stay as guests of Al-Qaeda’s terrorists, who were threatening to behead the five diplomats if their government did not withdraw its representation in Baghdad.

The 9 minute video starts off with a Quranic verse, and then a list of five names and their job titles appears:

1-Abdel-Mun’im Muhammad Al-Houri, 2nd Secretary
2-Aadhem Muhammad Suleiman, Administrative Attaché
3-Rawi Ali Ahmad, Assistant Administrative Attaché
4-Salah Muhammad Ali Ahmad, Maintenance worker
5-Abdel-Adhim Ahmad Abdullah, Guard at ambassador’s residence

Each is shown in turn, giving their names and home addresses in Sudan or Iraq. They say that they regret that their service had been “in the favor of the occupation.” They are neatly dressed, and only the guard is shown in Sudanese traditional garb. Then Al-Qaeda’s ultimatum is shown as an internet posting, giving the government of Sudan 48 hours to respond. A voice that sounds like Zarqawi’s, even though he is not identified as such, reads a message to the people of Sudan, re-assuring them that this action is not directed against them but rather against their government that has sided with a Shia regime that is “massacring your Sunni brothers.” The man also threatens all diplomatic missions in Iraq with a similar fate.

We are then shown a scene of one of the hostages, this time blindfolded, trying to sing a Sudanese ditty, while what sounds like the terrorists breaking out into girly giggles in the background. The caption at the bottom reads “Happiness at their release.” The image shifts to one of all five Sudanese diplomats huddled around in a little room with two terrorists wearing head scarves and with faces shielded. They seem to have just been told of their imminent release. One of the Sudanese (probably the maintenance worker) begins to shout out the good graces of Al-Qaeda, saying that “what we saw was the treatment of angels” and that this behavior was indeed “the mark of the mujahid.” He begins to shout “Allahu Akbar” and stands up while all the others start weeping and a hug fest breaks out with the two terrorists. The same man—now positively hysterical—starts declaring that both his sons, as well as his daughters, will be raised from this point forth to be mujahids. He is clearly distraught and still scared to bits.

They seem to be in a rural hut: the roof is made of reeds.

The same voice that sounds like Zarqawi’s comes back to say that the Sudanese pulled out their mission from the Green Zone, and that this action comes at the heels of what happened to the Egyptian, Algerian, Bahraini and Pakistani diplomatic missions. He ends by saying, “…and the Turkish ambassador had just been hit as these words are being spoken.” The Turkish diplomat was fired on by snipers on a Baghdad highway on January 2nd.

The Garma Strike: The second video from Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (4 minutes in length) falls under the typical genre of attacks on Iraqi government forces, or “apostates” in the jihadist jargon. The setting is Garma, an agricultural area north of Fallouja on the Saklawiyya Canal that is mostly inhabited by members of the Lheibat tribe. The footage starts with the camera going around a room to show the weaponry that is to be used in the attack: about eight RPG-7 launchers, two sniper rifles, a Russian-made BKC, as well as an assortment of small arms.

Then we see a wide-shot of the target: a house that seems to be an HQ for some Iraqi security unit. If it had been the National Guard or the Iraqi Police, then Al-Qaeda would have identified them as such, but they kept calling this the “headquarters of the apostates”—probably under the aegis of Iraq’s Intelligence Service or the Ministry of Interior’s Intelligence Department. In any case, there were three visible pick-up trucks with Iraqi Police markings in the HQ’s garage.

What I found interesting is that the video makes a big deal of the terrorists evacuating civilians from adjacent houses. We glimpse a man and a woman scurrying out of their house, while seven terrorists hang around a van parked just outside of this particular house. It seems to me that all this would have been within the line of sight of the observation tower—heavily sand-bagged—atop the HQ, but maybe nobody was manning it. All hell breaks loose, and several rockets hit the tower, while the HQ takes fire from this group of seven terrorists as well as from other angles. This attack looks like it is occurring in the early afternoon.

The footage is accompanied with Al-Qaeda battle songs. The video ends with the camera-man, sitting in a second vehicle, filming the van up ahead on the open road in a sparsely inhabited area, with its backdoor open. The terrorists are shooting celebratory gunfire into the air.

The accompanying text, signed by Zarqawi’s ‘publicist’ Abu Maysara Al-‘Iraqi, says that over 20 apostates were killed inside the HQ.

Whether being gracious hosts to kidnapped diplomats, or evacuating civilians just before an imminent attack, Al-Qaeda is trying to show a different side to its ethos from its days of decapitating victims. It doesn’t need to make these points, but it is going out of its way to present what they would consider a more ‘humane’ side. One wonders why? Why now, and what happened on the ground to bring this about?

Sadrists in Kadhimiya, and Supposedly Final Elections Results

Sadrist Antics Gaining Ground: Hazim Al-‘Araji, Muqtada Al-Sadr’s representative in the northern Baghdad suburb of Kadhimiya, gave an interesting Friday sermon yesterday. ‘Araji’s tone was characteristically militant, but interestingly, he was fanning the flames against the ‘terrorists,’ which is now a sobriquet for Sunnis. His beef with the Americans has been transformed from denouncing them as ‘occupiers’ to placing them in league with the ‘terrorists’ against the Shias. Yet again, the demagogues of the Sadr movement are seizing on a popular issues ahead of everyone else: they are selling themselves to the Shia middle and mercantile class as the sect’s ‘shock-troops’ against the Sunnis should a civil war break out, and they are succeeding in garnering sympathy (and funds) from demographics that used to shun them just a year ago.

The Sadrists never did well in Kadhimiya, even though they were represented by the scion of a ‘good Kadhmawi family,’ ‘Araji, and another, Raed Al-Saadi, who hails from one of the important clans that have called this town turned suburb as home in the last 200 years. A handsome and mild-mannered man, ‘Araji left Iraq in the late 1990s (even before Papa Sadr was killed) and found political asylum in Canada. He returned to Iraq after liberation, but was arrested by American troops twice. But Kadhimiya, a town where the shrine of two Shia Imams is just a tourist-trap to bring traffic to its bountiful bazaars, was naturally inclined against agitators. Save for some Communists and Islamists, Kadhimiya emerged out of the Ba’athist nightmare relatively unscathed; its families and clans just were not much for making trouble for the powerful.

So when this town begins to embrace the Sadrists, and these newly-welcomed trouble makers start making rousing speeches against the Sunnis, that is an important indicator as to how the Shia middle and mercantile class sees itself: imperiled. Kadhimiya is surrounded by two important bastions of the insurgency: the villages of the Mashahidda clan in Taji to the north, and the frothy soup of Sunni tribes that inhabit Abu Ghraib to the east. Across the river, its mirror image is the Sunni enclave of Adhamiya, another ‘shrine city.’ There are Palestinians in Hurriya to the south-east, and other mixed neighborhoods to the south. Thus, it sits uncomfortably as a Shia oasis amidst Sunnis. In the past, it used to mean Sunni business partners and Sunni relatives for the people of Kadhimiya, nowadays it means asking for trouble.

Results: These are the results that are supposed to come out tomorrow:

UIA: 128
Kurds: 53
Islamist Kurds: 4
Consensus: 44
Misha’an Jabouri: 3
Saleh Al-Mutlag: 11
Ayad Allawi: 25
Risaliyoun: 2
Turkumen: 1
Christians: 1
Yezidis: 1
Mithal Alusi: 1

These add up to 274 seats. Leaving one undetermined or maybe my source got something wrong. It means that the MARAMists (Consensus, Allawi, Mutlag, Jabouri) did not get a 1/3 + 1 of the parliamentary seats that would have enabled them to block the formation of a government or any changes to the constitution.

The Electoral Commission is supposed to announce these results tomorrow, even though we keep hearing conflicting messages about the timing. If this distribution is indeed what is going to be declared, then expect howls of indignation from the MARAMists, and howls of derision and "we told you so" from the jihadists: the Sunnis don't have veto authority over the political process, and this likely to anger quite a few.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention my favorite part about 'Araji's sermon: he was trying to spin the reasons as to why Muqtada ‘Man of the People’ Al-Sadr had been hobnobbing with the hated Saudi royalty while performing the Hajj. According to the Saudi Press Agency, Sadr had met Interior Minister Prince Nayif ‘I Hate Shias’ Bin Abdel-Aziz, and was received on January 10th by the official holder of the ‘Protector of the Wahhabis’ title himself: King Abdullah Bin Abdel-Aziz, in the company of the new head of Saudi Intelligence, Prince Miqrin Bin Abdel-Aziz.

"Muqtada my boy, but you know how hard it is to get building permits from the municipality...

‘Araji had this to say: Seyyid Muqtada was doing the proper Shia thing and was asking permission to rebuild the shrines of the Ahlul-Bayt in Medina’s Baqi’ Cemetery. Five (or is it six…?) of the Shia Imams are buried there, as well as Fatima, daughter of the Prophet and matriarch of the holy line, of which Muqtada himself is descended. Shias really deck out their shrines in style: gold, silver, expensive tiles, chandeliers—you name it. The Wahhabis on the other hand, tend to see all this as idolatry and saint worship, and they mark graves with only a nondescript stone. Those shrines in Baqi’ were demolished twice: once in 1803 and then again in 1924, or whenever the Wahhabis took control of Medina, which has been the case since the latter date. I don’t think the Saudi royals will comply. So is this a task for Sadr’s Mahdi Army? Taking back Medina, and reconstructing the shrines? He asked them nicely, but they had to do it the hard way.

A liberal democrat’s fantasy: the craziest Shias going all ape-shit against the craziest Sunnis, and somehow they all disappear in the melee. Ahhhh.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

New Column: Slightly Pregnant

My new column is called Slightly Pregnant, where I question the premise that says that organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood are an 'acceptable' alternative to Middle Eastern dictatorships if they get to the top through elections.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Al-Qaeda Denies Responsibility for Karbala Bombing

I think this is very interesting: in a communique issued and signed by Abu Maysara Al-'Iraqi yesterday, Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia denied any involvement in last Thursday's attack on Shia pilgrims at the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala.

AP Photo Wire: Friends and relatives offer prayers for suicide bomb victims from Thursday's blast outside the holy Shiite Imam Hussein shrine, Friday, Jan. 6, 2006, in Karbala

Zarqawi has been advocating mass murder of all Shias, all the time. He has never shied away from such massacres, but why did he feel it was necessary to wash his hands of this attack, which went unclaimed by anyone?

I think part of the answer is to allay Sunni fears of an impending Shia backlash. Maybe some Sunni leaders feel that the campaign of provocation has reached its zenith and would rather not have the situation explode in their face with massive Shia reprisals. It certainly is ripe for it.

In a previous post, I asked myself, if what Iraq is experiencing cannot be technically called a civil war, then what is it? Well, I've come up with this description: Iraq is going through a civil war in slow motion.

Zarqawi's Latest: AMZ's hour-long 'chat' that denounced the Iraqi Islamic Party as 'fence-sitters' has been aptly described by press reports, but what they didn't covered is that it seems that his speech writer is getting better and better. As usual, AMZ gets high marks for delivery, but this time around he quotes TE Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Anthony Cordesman! I must say that the wording, although still at times ornate and starchy, is actually very powerful and the imagery compelling. But of course, it is not free of exaggerations: AMZ attaches the caveat "what we think" is that Coalition forces ('the Crusaders' in his jargon) have sustained casualties in the range of 40,000 and not 13,000. He claims that since April 2003, his organization has sent 800 suicide bombers against Coalition-specific targets, not to mention, in his words, all the IEDs and ambushes that Al-Qaeda had been responsible for.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Any Day Now

A couple of days ago, I caught myself lamenting the fact that our family home in Baghdad lies within a heavily Sunni area and would probably be lost for good, along with all our stuff, should a civil war break out. Even though I come from a mixed Shia-Sunni background (the Sunni component being Kurdish), and have many Sunni Arab relatives and friends, I don’t think that those credentials would be enough to sway the sentiments of whichever warlord would eventually take possession of Hai Al-Atiba’—a neighborhood of academics and professionals hugging Airport Road. In the former regime’s waning years, our area was enveloped by housing developments for Saddam’s military and security officers and their families.

I’ve always associated returning to Iraq with living in that house; built by my folks in the late 1970s but never becoming a home in any real sense since my family never felt it was safe to come back and make a life in Iraq under Saddam. When I first got to Baghdad in April 2003, I realized that I had never lived in this city as an adult and consequently didn’t know my way around—in a car. A satellite map was a handy tool, but I ended driving on the wrong side of a highway. But it was Baghdad right after liberation, and as limp filaments of black smoke crowded the skyline, anarchy was the order of the day. I eventually found our home, shattered and broken from all the fighting that had gone on around the airport.

Some relatives of my mother’s—rural Kurds displaced from their ancestral village after it had been leveled by the regime in the late 1980s—had been living there as custodians while we were away. They left during the height of the fighting and had only recently returned, sweeping up shards of glass as I walked in.

After a while and some renovation, I moved back into the house, and it finally began to feel like home. A weird sort of home though; the kind where one has to make the calculation that the mortar explosions that seemed to be coming closer were still far enough to warrant staying in bed, dispelling the fear of being torn to bits by flying glass. My ‘view’ was an open field that gave an excellent vantage point of Airport Road—a point that went unmissed by both the Americans and the insurgents. The authorities had built a little observation shack for the Iraqi Police in that field, but one night in April 2004, I returned to find it ablaze. One could tell that the situation had changed drastically when neither the Americans nor the Iraqi government felt that they could rebuild that shack and keep it manned by soldiers. Our area was now an insurgent stronghold.

It kept getting worse: returning late most nights, I never knew who would mow me down while opening the garage door in the near-total darkness, especially when the electricity was cut, which was most of the time. I’d fidget with the lock, trying to get that little key into that tiny slot, while my shaking hands gripped a pistol. Our street corner became a regular launching pad for mortars and RPG-7s. One some mornings, I’d be having coffee and listlessly listening to music, and then a wild bang goes off outside and the street is lost in a swirl of dust. For a millisecond, it would be unclear whether we were on the receiving end or not, and one’s first instinct was to run to the storage room (it had the smallest window) and hide. Otherwise, the next course of action would be to take out the Kalashnikov and strut around outside with other armed neighbors trying to gather information as to what happened and sort of reclaiming our street. But these incidents usually happened in under a minute: a car would stop, and militants would yank out their wares from the trunk and lob a mortar somewhere into the distance and then buzz off.

Some time had passed, and less and less neighbors would come out. After placing obstacles in the road to close off a hasty retreat for the bad guys who were inviting American retaliation against our homes, threats poured in that had these same neighbors dismantling our new arrangements. One day, while driving back, my mom called and told me to hold off until the fighting outside had subsided. So I decided to go pick up some groceries along the way. Turning our street corner, I found American soldiers milling around a car—the same make and color as mine—that had been ‘mistakenly’ riddled with bullets about 15 minutes earlier. Two young men, from the looks of it, were dead inside. I was glad that my mom had not seen this sight, and lost her senses. The balance of fear was now in favor of the insurgents who had turned our quaint neighborhood into a battle-zone, and our home was becoming unlivable.

I decided to take shelter in a second exile, waiting it out like most Iraqis who could afford it.

I feel disjointed when I travel Iraq nowadays, since I don’t stay at our home. I went to visit, and even did that quickly so as not to alert whoever was watching on behalf of the bad guys, and before giving them a chance to do something about it. After two robberies, and several American ‘searches’, as well as insurgent snipers using our roof for a perch, the house was a total mess. The windows had all been blown-in and sand claimed every surface. My desk, my books, my files, and the little niche and shelter that was supposed to be my permanent anchor, were fiercely damaged, aesthetically and sentimentally.

And they—relics of my life back in Iraq—keep calling these days, telling me Baghdad is burning, as if I can do anything about it. The price for a Kalashnikov bullet is 1000 Iraqi Dinars, up from 400 last month. People are preparing, but for just what, nobody knows. What is an Iraqi civil war, especially in an urban reservoir like Baghdad that holds a quarter of the country’s population, supposed to look like? Beirut could be divided into East and West, but where does one draw the line in Baghdad? Along the Tigris…But what Adhamiya and Kadhimiya?

I have a Shia last name, but some of my first cousins have Sunni Arab last names; am I supposed to kill them? Are Sunnis supposed to be expelled from mixed areas and be compensated with ‘Shia homes,’ like our own, in their own sectarian cantons?

And yet, we keep hearing from the Americans and the Iraqi political elite, that if a civil war has not broken out so far then it is unlikely to happen, which is a license for all parties involved to keep acting and speaking irresponsibly and provocatively. The saga of the Spanish Civil War shows that the ever-menacing embers were set aflame by the sharp words exchanged in the democratically-elected Cortes, or parliament.

I can’t shake the feeling that Iraq went from a state of civil strife to one of civil war without anyone, least of which the Iraqis themselves, realizing it. Sunni political debutantes keep rhetorically pushing the envelope, while their adjuncts in the insurgency keep pouring oil on the fire. The Shia leadership, ensconced within multiple layers of security details, seem to have missed that the street-level refrain that used to say “give us the signal to fight” has shifted to “go f*ck yourselves, we’ll do this on our own.”

I hear of happy-go-lucky Baghdadi kids—groups of six or seven—organizing themselves into mini-militias. One such group that I know of, killed a militant Sunni preacher in Hai Al-Jami’a last week. Only last year, these guys obsessed about the latest hairstyles and the fanciest cell phone models. Recently, they’ve resolved to kill before getting killed.

What is going on? If this isn’t civil war, then what is the proper technical term for it? I fear that no one can control it at this point—not Sistani, not Badr.

And after the bloodletting subsides, how do you bring a ‘nation’ back together?

Any day now, and my home in Hai al-Atiba’ could be situated in a country other than what we knew as Iraq.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Milestones in Jihadist Propaganda

Remember the days when a bunch of ragtag hoodlums in ski-masks and training suits would hover over a hapless victim to read their jihadist manifesto? Remember those same thugs brandishing Kalashnikovs and RPG-7s under crackling fluorescent lighting, with a tattered banner advertising their group’s name and slogan as a backdrop?

Well, times have changed if the latest video installment from the “Media Division of the Jaish Ansar Al-Sunna” is any measure to go by. In this 30 minute video, we see two individuals, Abu Munther Al-Ansari, and Abu Ahmad Al-Baghdadi, comfortably sitting in a studio modeled along a talk-show format. Yes, they are SITTING IN A STUDIO! And I’m not talking about two stools and a desk; this is a modern studio with ample lighting, three camera angles and nice woodwork. They’ve even got the name of their organization, Jaish Ansar Al-Sunna (‘JAS,’ the no. 2 organization on the terrorist charts after Al-Qaeda in Iraq), engraved up at the front.

[Sorry, I was unable to get any stills from the RealAudio file.]

Abu Munther sits sporting a black blazer and a white turtleneck, even though the ski-mask is still a mandatory part of the wardrobe, and he’s performing the role of the host of this setting. Today’s guest is Abu Ahmed from the Military Council of JAS, who is underdressed for the occasion because “I didn’t know that this was going to happen,” as he apologetically explains towards the end.

This professional production is supposed to “counter the agencies of the Crusaders’ propaganda.” Abu Munther promises to conduct field visits to areas—‘liberated areas’ in his jargon—where the insurgents hold sway and “there are no Americans or Iraqi National Guards.” He keeps jabbing a pen in the air to emphasize key points. And he delivers the goods: the screen cuts away to insurgents—no more that 20 or 25—riding in sedans, and taking over a section of Baghdad’s southern Dora neighborhood amid a hail of bullets.

The next operation, as Abu Ahmad explains, occurred on the Baghdad-Basra road near Yusufiyah and involved a nighttime ambush of a military convoy. The insurgents first laid IEDs and then opened-up with heavy machine guns after detonation. The exchange of gunfire goes on for some time, while a jihadist battle-song (sung with a Saudi accent) is played as background. We are told that a vehicle was destroyed and many had died inside, but we are not informed as to who they were. Abu Ahmad’s point is: “we choose the time and place of our operations irrespective of the curfew.” At another instant, he claims that all these explosive devices are locally-made with very simple raw materials.

A key point of this video, released two days ago on various jihadist websites, is to drive home the message that JAS does not target civilians.

Then we are shown a montage of JAS’s ‘Greatest Hits,’ which run the gamut from blowing up Humvees in Ramadi to firing-off C5K missiles in Samarra. We are shown about twenty such operations, including one in which an observation tower within a US base is blown-up in broad daylight. Abu Ahmad explains that JAS has spies operating inside US military installations. These spies are equipped with GPS navigation devices and their job is to deliver the coordinates of sensitive points within these far-flung bases to those rigging up missiles or setting-up mortar attacks. We even glimpse a scene of a man sitting down with a calculator and a notepad making preparations for just such an attack.

When asked about the military effectiveness of these tactics, Abu Ahmad claims that the psychological effect of rockets and projectiles landing inside American bases at night has caused a state of hysteria leading to many suicides and AWOLs among Coalition soldiers. As to the effectiveness of IEDs, Abu Ahmad claims that the Americans are now so confused by the regular topography of an urban landscape that even a dead dog in the street would grind a convoy to a halt. But, he re-iterates, JAS tries to stay away from civilians and minimize casualties.

At one point, the wreckage of a downed helicopter is shown in the vicinity of Kirkuk, and in an act of false modesty, Abu Ahmad says that JAS cannot take responsibility for shooting it down, but that rather God had blinded the pilot and caused him to drive his chopper into a hill.

The half-hour interview, interspersed with footage and commentary, ends with a customary handshake and a plug for future programming. End credits include “Pray for us” and “Copyright is reserved for any Muslim, 2005.”

Yesterday, JAS issued a statement claiming responsibility for several recent car bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere. The statement purports that 16 car bombs, 10 IEDs and several missile and mortar barrages were conducted by JAS throughout Iraq on January 1st in what they called “The Day of Renunciation.” It seems that JAS is flexing its muscles and telling the newly elected Sunni leadership that whatever agreement there existed for damping down the insurgency during the elections cycle is now null and void.

[The Jaish Ansar Al-Sunna had put out videos last year that involved two people I knew well and liked. I watched Sheikh Ali Al-Maliki have his head severed, and images of 'Nizar' Menhel Al-Kinani were aired on Aljazeera. Nizar's burnt corpse was later found in the Mahmoudiya area. I can't describe how it feels to watch these things happen to people you know. The terrorizing effect hits deep into the soul, and one wonders if those victims had given away your name and other personal data, and that consequently JAS has you on a list for capture/decapitation somewhere. To see them sitting around in a studio and evidently making progress, feels like a personal defeat.]

In another video of what seems to be the Week of Jihadist Sweepstakes, Al-Qaeda in Iraq was determined not to be outdone by JAS and their slick studio. So what did they come up with? They own version of COPS, which itself is a response to a popular version of that show being shown on the official Iraqi TV network, Al-Iraqiyya, and called “Terrorism in the Grip of Justice.”

But this time around, Zarqawi’s Omar Brigade (set-up to kill and capture members of SCIRI’s Badr Brigade) showcases a bunch of captured Badrists and has them utter their confessions on tape. This 11 minute video, also released two days ago and signed by Abu Maysara Al-‘Iraqi, ‘interviews’ about seven men, all of whom seem to have been recruited by ‘Abu Zemen’—a Badr Brigade officer who signed-up 1.5 years ago and whose real name is Abdullah Mahmoud Jasim Al-Mifreji (born 1954). They all confess to all sorts of crimes from “raping Sunni virgins” to spying on the insurgents and giving away the locations of safe-houses and arms caches.

We are introduced to Falah Hassan Jassim Hamad Al-Karbouli, who describes himself as “a Sunni who switched to being a Shia” and who fesses-up to raping 20 women in the Ministry of Interior HQ. He, like the others, was recruited for Badr membership from within the Iraqi National Guard by ‘Lieutenant’ Abu Zemen. Another recruit, ‘Uday Hassan Abdullah Al-Mehiawi, who was a facilities guard at the Yusufiyah power plant, allegedly wanted out of the Badr Brigade after receiving two payments of 100,000 Iraqi Dinars (roughly 70 USD), but Abu Zemen threatened to kill him.

Abu Zemen, whose confession is shown towards the very end after we hear voice-overs from Zarqawi condemning Shias in general, lists the goals of the Badr Brigade as follows: to distribute drugs, to kill Sunnis and rape their women, and to kill Sunni university professors, doctors, and ex-officers.

The video ends with Abu Zemen being shot in the back of the head, as well as having his house blown-up.

Today, Abu Maysara Al-‘Iraqi put out another Al-Qaeda press release claiming that they had killed a top Badr officer named Salih, who is supposed to be a cousin of Abdel-Aziz Al-Hakim’s.

Jihadist propaganda is a means for the various insurgent groups to highlight their exploits and generate more recruits and funds from among the ranks of like-minded sympathizers around the Middle East. Filming inside a studio and mimicking popular TV formats is a big step forward in their operations.

But is this news-breaking development important to the multitudes of commentators in the west? No, they are too busy being indignant at the Lincoln Group for paying for some good press, and they want to know just who may or may not have been on its payroll. What these commentators, together with the folks over at Karen Hughes’ outfit, fail to realize is that this is not a battle for ‘winning over’ the hearts and minds of young Arabs; rather it is a battle to manipulate their hearts and minds in a dash to the finish before the fundamentalists get there.

If the folks running Washington were thinking straight, then it would be time to bring back the Office of Strategic Information, and good old-fashioned brass-knuckles propaganda.