Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Just a thought…(Updated)

When was the last time a head of state in the Middle East faced trial and execution?

The closest events that come to mind were Mossadagh in Iran and Menderes in Turkey. But they weren’t heads of state and were not put on trial for human rights offenses. I can’t think of any similar example in the Arab world. Please let me know if you do.

The last time an Arab ruler met a violent end was Sadat in 1981, right?

Other unsavory characters of the 20th century? Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Pinochet, Milosovic—none of them saw justice rendered. Mussolini was strung up by a mob.

Was Saddam’s trial and execution unprecedented in the Middle East, or even in the world?


I just remembered that right after WWI, the 'CUP' troika of Enver, Cemal and Tala'at Pashas were put on trial in Istanbul by the Ottoman authorities (under Allied occupation) for crimes that partly had to do with the Armenian 'genocide.' They were all convicted in absentia; Enver, later a Basmachist, died facing down a Bolshevik cavalry charge in modern-day Uzbekistan, while both (...I think) Tala'at and Cemal were hunted down and killed by Armenian assassination squads in Europe. Those legal proceedings in Istanbul were the first 'war crimes tribunals' of its kind in the blood-soaked 20th century.

Here are some other names from the 20th century: Ceausescu, Kabila, Franco.

UPDATE 2 (December 31st, 2006):

There is this crude Iraqi proverb:

يدور بالخرة حب رككي

Which translates to: "to go searching in sh*t for watermelon seeds"...

This proverb runs through my head every time I hear one of these 'negative' statements concerning Saddam's hanging:

-He was hanged by Shi'a thugs chanting Mahdi Army slogans.

-The trial was a farce--a kangaroo court. Victor's justice.

-It pissed off Sunni Muslims worldwide because it coincided with the Id al-Adhha, and it is illegal to execute people on religious holidays.

-Boo hoo hoo, big deal, many people are dying now.

Most of these 'begrudgers' never watched the proceedings of the Dujail trial. I remember watching the trial closely and saying to myself, "Tyrants across the Middle East must be having the runs."

Let me make this simple for all those people spewing whatever variants of the above: there is something wrong with your inner core decency if you are not moved by the sight of a horrible tyrant meeting a just end.

You can wade through the pungent slime of your muddled priorities looking for watermelons seeds; looking for flimsy justifications to begrudge the victims of this horrible tyrant their moment of solace--the moment of justice realized.

And you all sound fake: your indignation is belabored. Because it is inhumane not to be moved by this.

The story of Saddam's hanging is not about how Palestinians in Gaza wept over his demise, or the tears shed by Saddam's kinsmen at his grave.

The story is about the victims.

They feel happy, relieved. They feel closure. The restless spirits of the many dead can subside now.

Your talking-points may matter among like-minded parochial selves. History will have another take on this event: the magnitude will be judged solemnly, without cognitive dissonance.

What will matter then, when History passes judgement, is what decent people the world over feel in their gut now: Saddam's hanging is a good thing for mankind.

Friday, December 29, 2006

I feeeeeeeel good…I knew that I would…

RIP James Brown, and good riddance Saddam…

We are counting down the hours…and to anyone who knows about my pledge to quit smoking (…and smoke for one day of the year only, December 31st), let me tell you that I am going to light up a celebratory cigarette once I hear the news, and I refuse to be talked out of it.

On December 14, 2003, a Kalashnikov blew up in my face; I don’t know that much about firearms but wanted to celebrate Saddam's capture that day the Iraqi way: celebratory gunfire. By some minor miracle, nothing happened to me. I remember all those who came by my office to congratulate ourselves on that happy day; some of them since killed by insurgents.

My memories of them are with me always.

To all those who worked for this day and didn’t get a chance to witness it,

To all those who hoped for this day and didn’t get a chance to share it,

To all the victims of this horrible tyrant and his terrible thugs—may they face judgment too,

To all the good people of the world who understand the evil that was the Saddam regime and wish the Iraqi people well today,

You are all in my thoughts as I await the news of Saddam’s hanging.

كل إعدام وإنتم بخير

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Musings I’d like to research: Do the Saudis really fear Iran?

Or better still, musings that I’d like other people to answer…

When neo-Hanbalites in Nejd have nightmares about the Shi'a bogeyman, do you they see before them a menacing Safavid or a bloodthirsty Carmathian?

Here is a breakdown for non-experts:

-Hanbalites: followers of Islamic jurist Ahmad bin Hanbal, who came into prominence during the first half of the 9th century in Baghdad. He set the methodological basis for the interpretation of Islamic scripture (Koran and sunnah) known as the Hanbali school. There are four such schools in Sunni Islam: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali. Hanbalism is a stricter interpretation of Islam that frowns upon external influences like philosophy or mysticism, which had came into Islam from other pagan or monotheistic religions or traditions. Hanbalism found a 14th century champion and reviver in the person of Ibn Taymiya, a Syrian cleric, who counseled the purification of Islam from all external embellishments and held these ‘foreign’ trappings as the reason for the weakness of Islam leading up to his time (the advent Crusades, reign of the Mamluks, Mongol invasion…etc.).

-Nejd: A geographical area at the center of the Arabian Peninsula, now in east-central Saudi Arabia. Never of great strategic importance apart from being on the pilgrim and trade route from Iraq to the Hijaz (where Mecca is located). The excess tribal population there would usually decant into the Levant or Mesopotamia or the areas in between. Right after Muhammad’s death, the tribes in Nejd and nearby Yamameh (…just where is Yamameh exactly?) reverted to paganism and were harshly dealt with by Muhammad’s successors. Nejdi merchants (especially horse-breeders from Qaseem), as well as the Nejd-based tribal amalgam that came to be known as the Ageilat, traveled far and wide in the Middle East and points further east and created settlements like Zubair in southern Iraq. So Nejd knew something of the wider world but opted to become a bastion of parochial Hanbalism—even though this school of thought was a minority in most Islamic domains. From Nejd emerged a certain Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahab, who ostensibly picked up where Ibn Taymiyya (and the latter’s disciple Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya) left off and gave the world Wahhabism in the 18th century. It is best to think of Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahab as a neo-Hanbalist. [Note: Osama bin Laden is a neo-Wahhabist, Zarqawi is not, but that is a topic for a later time]

-The Safavids: an Islamic empire that emerged in Iran in the 16th century and that had its roots in extreme Shi'a-inspired mysticism. It gradually mellowed out and adopted more mainstream Shi'a tenets, and forcibly made Shi’ism the dominant creed in Iran and the areas under its sway. The Safavids were constantly at war with the Sunni Ottomans and sought to disseminate Shi'a propaganda among ethnic Turkmens and Kurds in Anatolia to undermine the Ottomans. The Ottomans responded by releasing a barrage of anti-Shi'a measures, most notably canonical excommunication. To the Safavids, Shi’ism increasingly became a tool for empire and an ideological foil to be deployed against the Ottomans.

-The Carmathians: known in Arabic as the qaramitah, were essentially nihilistic anarchists awaiting a messianic Shi'a revelation during the 10th century. They became wildly popular around Damascus, southern Iraq and in the environs of Aleppo, and were based in ‘Bahrain’ (the name survives today in the tiny Persian Gulf island but back in the day it was used to describe the entire length of the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, now the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia where all the oil is). The Carmathians abrogated Islamic tenets, going so far as to attack Mecca, steal the holy Black Stone (they kept it for two decades then they returned it broken into three pieces) and massacred pilgrims on the hajj, according to the anti-Carmathian accounts that have survived. They were led by a short-lived dynasty of men from Janabeh, a town on the Iranian side of the Persian Gulf. It is yet to be conclusively established whether the Janabi tribe in central Iraq (consists of Sunnis and Shi'as, but mostly Sunnis) are descendants of these Carmathians. Most of the areas that were under Carmathian control in the 10th century contain pluralities of Shi'a populations, and in some, like the island of Bahrain, the Shi'as constitute an overwhelming majority. Just how the Carmathian utopian anarchists of the past turned into the docile Shi'a oasis peasants of these areas today is a big historical question.

So what form of ‘Bad Shi'a’—that is, an existential threat—would have lodged into Nejdi popular consciousness around the end of the 17th century (when Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahab was born)?

The closest prototype of ‘Bad Shi'as,’ in geographical terms, were the Carmathians, who seized nearby ‘Bahrain.’ But was that such bad news for the Nejdis at the time and later on? It can be argued that most of the bedouin Arab tribes that stayed in Nejd never really converted to Islam until after the advent of Wahhabism; they had found that their pre-Islamic pagan mannerisms were enough to cover their nomadic lives. So would the Carmathians, who sought to undermine centralized Islam, have been such a calamity on the Nejdi bedouins? I don’t think so.

The other Shi'as the Nejdis would have interacted with since the Carmathians disappeared into the mists of time, especially those settled Shi'a communities that survived in eastern Arabia along the coast or in southern Iraq, would have been docile and meek after living under extended periods of Sunni—mostly Ottoman imperialism or ‘Sunni’, that is non-Shi'a, bedouin tribal—hegemony. These Shi'a communities could not have been classed as scary ‘Bad Shi'as.’

Even the Hanbalism that had been infused with Ibn Taymiya’s fervor does not deal with the ‘Bad Shi’ism’ of the imperialist variety. Ibn Taymiya’s gripe with heterodoxy in all its forms, and especially Shi’ism, was that it weakened the fiber of the faith and allowed pagan beliefs to survive in the Middle East. Ibn Taymiya directed most of his wrath against the Nusayris (today’s Alawites in Syria and Turkey’s Hatay Province who, in my opinion, are remnants of fertility cults that had prospered along the Mediterranean coast of the Levant) and the Druze (seemingly influenced by north Syrian remnants of neo-platonism and sun-worship). Ibn Taymiya saw Shi'as as collaborators with foreign invaders (Crusaders and Mongols were his examples), whose very presence serves to undermine the authority of orthodoxy. But Ibn Taymiya never would have envisioned a Shi'a empire gobbling up the Middle East like the Safavid one intended to do.

So where did this whole business of a 'Shi'a Crescent' come from?

Why are the Saudi royals, the Nejdi inheritors of Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahhab, so freaked out by Shi'a Iran under Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guard?

What model of ‘Bad Shi'a’ are they basing their fear on: the Shi'a anarchists or the Shi'a imperialists?

Wahhabi hate-speech against Shi'as has always focused on Iran’s (to them an extension of the pre-Islamic Persian—more accurately Sassanian—Empire) territorial ambitions in the ‘Persian Gulf’—a term that is a big taboo in the Arab world that prefers to call the body of water the ‘Arab Gulf.’ The Iranians indeed have territorial ambitions and tend to see the Gulf as a Shi'a lake; if you add up the population that inhabit the littoral, one will find that more Shi'as than Sunnis live there. The rivalry is made more feverish when one factors the grand prize of who gets to control 70 percents of the world’s oil reserves.

Khomeinist Iran tried to grab at these domains in its early years, but was quickly disabused of any hopes for success. Even majority Shi'a Iraq did not come their way; they had to wait until 2003 when the Americans overturned the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein to resurrect their ambitions there. Iranian influence in the new Iraq and in Lebanon through Shi'a Hezbollah is fueling this latter-day anti-Safavid fetish among Sunnis across the Middle East.

But let’s get back to the beginning of the 18th century and into the mind of Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahhab and the minds of his followers: how did the Shi'a bogeyman get painted as a Safavid imperialist?

I think the key lies in the Kadizadeli movement of the Ottoman Empire.

I just recently became aware of this after doing some reading on the Ottomans: the Kadizadeli movement began during the reign of Sultan Suleiman Qanuni (1520-1566) when a religious cleric called Muhammad bin Pir ‘Ali bin Iskander al-Birgevi was born in the Anatolian town of Balikesir in 1522. He was a Hanafi scholar who began teaching proto-Wahhabi ideas in the town of Birgevi, where he died in 1573. His book against grave-worship and shrine visitation is even available on Salafi-friendly websites. Another native of Balikesir and a disciple of Birgevi’s teachings named Kadizade Mehmed came to have plenty of influence over Sultan Murad IV (1623-1640). Note that Birgevi formulated his ideas at the highpoint of Islamic imperialist power, so it was not a reaction against a sense of defeat. Furthermore, he did it as a Hanafi and a native of prosperous Anatolia, not as zealot Hanbali in the arid landscape of Nejd. It should be noted though that Birgevi relies heavily on the output of Ibn Taymiya’s student, Ibn al-Qayyim, in the writings of his that I’ve seen.

Anti-Shi’ism in the Ottoman Empire was a central tenet of statecraft ever since Sultan Selim the Grim (Suleiman’s father, 1512-1520) waged war against the nascent Safavids and stamped out the Shi'a-leaning Kizilbash ‘heresy’ in Anatolia.

The Kadizadeli movement was marked by hostility to Sufism, the Kizilbash, non-Muslim minorities and the ritual veneration of saints and tombs—all to become hallmarks of Wahhabism later. The Kadizadehs came in and out of prominence over the next few decades in Istanbul, and the last of their ‘stars’ was Vani Efendi under Sultan Mehmet IV (1648-1687).

So the Kadizadehs were probably still around when Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahhab left Nejd and traveled to Hijaz, Syria and maybe Iraq (…there is plenty of contention about his early life outside of Nejd, some scholars even believe he made it all the way to Qum in Iran). And thus the Kadizadehs may have influenced him at one point or another.

But the Ottoman version of the ‘Bad Shi'a’—both anarchist (the Kizilbash as Safavid agents) and imperialist (the Safavid Empire)—must surely have molded Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahhab’s concept of a ‘Bad Shi'a.’ Thus, this concept was an import into Nejdi consciousness and did not stem from it.

But how much traction could it really find in Nejd at a time when the Safavid Empire itself went defunct after being overrun by Sunni Afghans and Afsharids in the early part of the 18th century?

Shi'a Persian ‘imperialism’ was briefly revived under the Zand dynasty of ethnic Lurs, who occupied Basra for three years in 1775, and hence came closer in geographical terms to Nejd than the Safavids ever did. But that can’t be enough to explain, on its own merit, the ‘Bad Shi'a’ model later adopted by the Saudis.

So here is my theory: the Saudis, like the early neo-Hanbalis in Nejd, never really feared Shi'a Iranian imperial dominion. Their gut anti-Shi’ism was useful to fire-up the newly converted tribes to seek booty by raiding places like Karbala (1802) and the Eastern Region (finally taken over by the modern-day Saudis in 1913). But most of the strategic battles that the Wahhabis and their Saudi allies have fought in the centuries preceding our modern times were against other Nedjis, Ottomans, Egyptians, Hijazis, the Ikhwan and rival contenders for leadership—all Sunnis.

The ‘Shi'a imperialist bogeyman’ was an afterthought that was probably inherited from the Ottoman-tinted Kadezadehs. Arab nationalism in the twentieth century then added an anti-Persian tinge to it.

But in their heart of hearts, the Saudi royals are not afraid of Iran. They know that Iran will reach its elastic limit as it seeks to lead the Muslim world: their Shi’ism can always be used to discredit them.

So again, what is this business about a Shi'a Crescent?

What is the real deal about the Prince Turki vs. Prince Bandar fight about how to deal with Iran?

I think it is all a ‘Grand Distraction.’ See my upcoming column for more.

And in the meantime, I really hope that someone (…other than my exhausted self) would log the research hours to prove or disprove the assertions, rationalizations and analogies made above.


Well, I thought my column would run tomorrow, but I've been bumped to next week. In the meantime, you can get a preview of what's going through my mind on this topic by reading another column from June 2005, The Saudi Mega-Plot.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

'IraqSlogger': Purposely Missing the Point?

IraqSlogger was launched this week, after being in beta mode for a couple of weeks prior to that. Today, they put out a story with the title: 'Garden of Eden Recovered; Precious Marshes Saved Thanks to Japanese Govt.'

Contrary to what is expected from journalists, the 'where, who, how, when and why' of the story were glossed over. A non-informed reader would look at IraqSlogger’s story and conclude:

-Saddam’s regime collapsed on its own; there was no American-led liberation (or ‘invasion’ as the 'Sloggers' like to say) of the country. See here: “By the time the former Iraqi regime collapsed in 2003…”

-The Marshes dried up for some obscure and unknown reason. There is no mention that the Saddam regime launched a massive campaign to dry the marshes in the 1990s because these areas were harboring anti-Ba’ath rebels for two decades. He burnt hundreds of villages, killed thousands and drove out tens of thousands of the Marsh Arabs to Iran. He then dug three major water-ways, costing tens of millions of dollars (during the sanctions years, mind you) to drain the water out of the marshland. There were some protected areas that included pre-historic botanical varieties that have been lost for ever. Migrating patterns for millions of birds were disrupted, and the water pressure that helped to keep oil deposits close to the surface in Iraq’s southern wells was lost, resulting in hundreds of billions of dollars in wasted natural resources. However, this is all that IraqSlogger would say: “Extensive ecological damage to this area, with the accompanying displacement of much of the indigenous population, was identified as one of the country's major environmental and humanitarian disasters.”

Notice, no mention of Saddam’s role in destroying the marshes.

-God bless the Japanese—they’re the tops! There is no mention that toppling Saddam, by American force, allowed the Japanese government to fund UN-supervised NGOs to re-flood the marshes and slowly coax them back to life. See here: “Today, the situation is drastically improved, thanks to a UNEP marshlands recovery program funded by the Japanese government.”

Why is IraqSlogger reluctant to mention Saddam’s role in destroying the Marshes?

I think IraqSlogger is a business venture that wants to make money out of Iraqi misery: they were set up to peddle the ‘Iraq-is-Hell’ storyline. It is not an altruistic reporting effort since they pay their contributors very well, from what I hear. So someone is putting up the money, and probably hoping that down the road, some financial dividends will come through advertising.

To start with, Eason Jordan—the guy who runs the IraqSlogger outfit—owes everyone a full disclosure: where is the money coming from? If we trace the money back to its source, we may get an idea of the agenda behind IraqSlogger and its slanted reporting. Mr. Jordan, who may a nice man for all we know, has somewhat of an embarrassing track record when it comes to covering the Iraq story: he was pushed out of CNN under a cloud after admitting that he tailored his reporting from Baghdad to placate Saddam’s thugs.

For the time being and pending Mr. Eason’s revelations, we can only randomly assume (...if we go by this story's journalistic standards) that IraqSlogger is a front for Japanese intelligence—the spooky kind.

[See full text of the IraqSlogger story in the comments sections.]

Wonderful Story: Planting Hope in Baghdad One Flower at a Time

Hannah Allam, one of the best reporting talents to cover Iraq in recent years, filed this wonderful story for McClatchy Newspapers (formerly Knight-Ridder) today. It is a story about the 'murderous insurgents' who pour kerosene to kill off Baghdad's flowers, and the Iraqi 'botanical insurgents' who go out and surreptitiously re-plant more flowers. It is the story of an Iraqi civil servant, Ja'afar al-Ali, doing his job and not giving up on Iraq. Clearly, to him at least, Iraq is not lost and still worth fighting for. Lovely:

BAGHDAD — The flowers appear overnight, and in the unlikeliest of places: carnations near a checkpoint, roses behind razor wire, and gardenias in a square known for suicide bombings.

Sometimes, U.S. armored vehicles hop a median and mow down the myrtle, leaving Baghdad parks workers to fume and reach for their trowels. When insurgents poured kerosene over freshly planted seedlings, landscapers swore a revenge of ficus trees and olive groves.

It's all part of a stealthy campaign to turn the entire capital into a green zone.

Jaafar Hamid al Ali, the Baghdad parks supervisor, leads the offensive. He's got a multi-million-dollar budget, along with 1,500 intrepid employees and a host of formidable enemies. There's the fussy climate, salty soil, and nonstop violence that killed 30 of his workers in 2006. Every fallen gardener, Ali said, is a martyr in the struggle to beautify Baghdad.

"My principle is, for every drop of Iraqi blood, we must plant something green," he said. "One gives disappointment, the other gives hope."

[See the comments section for the full text of Allam's piece.]

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Would-Be Caliph’s Inaugural Address to the Islamic ‘Ummah

As usual, this extremely important message from the jihadists was covered rather superficially by the media. It deserves plenty of consideration if we are to understand how they think and what they want—and how to eventually defeat them.

The ‘al-Furqan Institute for Media Production’ in the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ released a 18 minute audio recording yesterday on several jihadist websites under the title ‘Truth Has Arrived and Falsehood is Perished.’ In this speech, we hear the voice of Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s designated proto-Caliph, Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, for the first time. He is introduced at the beginning as the amir al-mu’minin [‘Prince of the Faithful’] and his full pseudonym is further enunciated with relish: “Abu ‘Umar al-Husseini al-Qurayshi al-Baghdadi.” The significance of this particular title is best described as such:

The title amir al-mu’minin is said to have been introduced by the Caliph ‘Umar. It soon became the standard and most common title of the caliphs, and the one which for the longest period remained an exclusive caliphal prerogative, long after most other titles had been adopted by all kinds of lesser rulers.

p. 50-51, Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, [1988] 1991

Furthermore, Islamic tradition holds that the Caliph must be a descendant from the tribe of Quraysh, which is the pedigree being claimed by al-Baghdadi. [Note: the Hanafi school of Islam fudges the Qurayshite requirement; this prevarication was useful for the Turkish Oguz descendants of the house of Osman, the Ottomans, who took care to brandish their caliphal title as their empire began to wane from the 18th century onwards. The last Ottoman ‘caliph’, Abdulmecid II, was the 101st Sunni Muslim to claim this title since the death of the Prophet Muhammad. No one has carried this title since March 4, 1924 when Turkey's Mustafa Kemal abrubtly put an end to this institution. Al-Qaeda’s stated goal of re-establishing the caliphate as an Islamic Empire runs into the difficulty of choosing a new caliph, which is a process that essentially has no peaceful precedent in the history of Islam (see my column, Calling All Caliphs, for more). However, it seems that the jihadists are coalescing around the person of al-Baghdadi, to whom Al-Qaeda’s leader, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, recently pledged allegiance to.]

The audio recording begins with three verses (80-83) from the Koranic sura of al-Isra’:

[80] Say: "O my Lord! let my entry be by the Gate of Truth and Honour, and likewise my exit by the Gate of Truth and Honour; and grant me from Thy Presence an authority to aid (me)."
[81] And say: "Truth has (now) arrived, and Falsehood perished: for Falsehood is (by its nature) bound to perish."
[82] We send down (stage by stage) in the Quran that which is a healing and a mercy to those who believe: to the unjust it causes nothing but loss after loss.

[Translation is from quran.al-islam.com, an official Saudi website]

There seems to be some subtle significance to this Koranic selection: the various interpretations of these verses more or less say the same thing; the Prophet Muhammad’s mission entered upon a new phase when he embarked on the journey from Mecca to Medina, and it was here that Allah promised to render upon him the glories of the Persian and Roman empires. Muhammad then returned victorious to Mecca, which was a harbinger of more victories to come. The last verse makes the case that the Koran was reveled in stages, and so will victory arrive in stages.

The other significant point behind choosing this verse was that it descended upon Muhammad two or three months after the second pledge of allegiance (by the Aws and Khazraj tribes of Medina) at Al-‘Aqaba. The Islamic State of Iraq arose out of the pledge of allegiance known to the jihadists as the Mutayyebin Alliance—it’s been over two months since that happened in mid-October. From the very beginning, the jihadists have been trying to correlate their actions to those of Muhammad in his early days at Medina as he went about building a regulated Muslim community. Their choice of Koranic verses may serve to amplify these correlations.

Then, this hadith (a saying attributed to Muhammad) is cited:

وكما في حديث تميم الداري ـ رضي الله عنه ـ قال: قال رسول الله -صلى الله عليه وسلم-: «ليبلغن هذا الأمر ما بلغ الليل والنهار، ولا يترك بيت مدر ولا وبر إلا أدخله الله هذا الدين بعز عزيز أو بذل ذليل، عزاً يعز الله به دين الإسلام، وذلاً يذل به الكفر»(7)

[It can be found in Ahmad bin Hanbal’s musnad, volume IV]

This hadith implies that Islam’s victory is inevitable.

Al-Baghdadi’s actual speech is preceded by excerpted highlights of his words set against jihadist chanting in the background.

This is al-Baghdadi’s inaugural address; it is his calling card to the Islamic world and to the West. It is of utmost importance. In it, he deals with domestic and international issues. He begins by explaining the reasons why the jihadists chose to declare an Islamic State in Iraq (interestingly, al-Baghdadi twice skips over the word ‘Iraq’ and uses the Arabic derivative of ‘Mesopotamia’ in its stead—he mentions ‘Iraq’ only when calling upon Saddam’s ex-officers to join him), and the timeline behind their decision. He then names the significant jihadist groups other than Al-Qaeda that have chosen to join him, gives a ‘shout out’ to certain towns that have distinguished themselves in the jihad, and claims most of Iraq’s Sunni tribes among his supporters.

Al-Baghdadi also gives us an idea how his mini-state is organized (through consultative councils) and toots his own horn as the reluctant ruler who has had greatness thrust upon him—to become ‘Prince of the Faithful.’ Osama bin Laden is seemingly dismissed with the lesser title of sheikh of the mujaheddin—somewhat of a consolation prize that indicates that the jihadists in Iraq no longer turn to him for temporal leadership.

The most interesting window unto al-Baghdadi’s way of thinking is the offer of safe conduct he gives to American troops, provided they leave their sophisticated weaponry behind and scurry out in a month’s time. Here, he seems to be totally delusional: al-Baghdadi really seems to believe that the Americans are so demoralized that they would even give up their M-1 Abrams tanks as war booty for Al-Qaeda. It seems that al-Baghdadi has been reading one too many defeatist editorials in American papers.

Here is my translation of most of al-Baghdadi’s speech, with commentary interspersed here and there:

“My beloved ‘ummah, your men are determined to establish for Islam its state, where they will adjudicate according to its law, and follow its authority, and gather its soldiers, and they have shed their blood for that after sacrificing their wealth, they are divorced from every desire, and they have suffered much in yearning for death that will bring either victory or martyrdom."

“Gather its soldiers”…? So Iraq is the frontline in the war on terror after all?

“So thus came the blessed step of establishing the firm foundation for the State of Islam in the Land of the Two Rivers [Mesopotamia], in the footsteps of [the Prophet Muhammad]. And here is the structure rising higher for all to see; those who mean it well and those who resent it, which drove that enemy of Allah, Bush, to say after its emergence that the [jihadists] seek to establish an Islamic state from China to Spain, and thus he was truthful [in this instance] despite being a liar."

So there you have it: al-Baghdadi is corroborating Bush’s claims; the jihadists want an empire that stretches from China to Spain.

“It bore fruit when more than thirteen jihadist groups met under one banner, and that was after their fragrant declaration in the Mutayyebin Alliance…” This was followed by “a pledge of allegiance made by tens of units and thousands of fighters from the Army of the Mujaheddin and the Islamic Army of Iraq and the 1920 Revolt [Brigades] and the Ansar al-Sunna and others. And that happened in Fallouja, al-Garmeh, ‘Amiriyah, Ramadi, al-Gharbiyeh, al-Tarmiyyeh, al-Sinniyyeh, Tikrit, Sammara’, Baqouba, al-‘Udheim then in Mosul, Kirkuk, Talafar, and beloved Baghdad."

For more on how parts of the Islamic Army in Iraq flocked to al-Baghdadi's side, see here.

“The surest fruit and the greatest harvest came about when nearly 70 percent of the sheikhs of the Sunni tribes in the Land of the Two Rivers hurried to enter into the Mutayyebin Alliance and to bless the oath taken to the State of Islam and the Muslims and for that I thank and admire my brothers the sheikhs of the Duleim, the Jebour, the ‘Ubaid, Zoba’, Qais, Azzah, Ta’yy, the Janabis, the Hayyalis, the Mushahdeh, the Dayniyyeh, the Bani Zeid, the Mujamma’, the Bani Shammar, ‘Anizeh, the Sumeida’, the Nu’aim, Khazraj, the Bani Lheib, the Bu Hayyat, the Bani Hamdan, the al-Sa’adoun, the al-Ghanim, Sa’ideh, the Ma’adheed, the Karabileh, the al-Salman, and the Kubaisat…"
Almost anyone from a sheikhly house can claim to be a sheikh of a tribe. If fact, there is an old proverb that goes: "Even the dog of a sheikh is a sheikh." That would mean in a large confederation like the Dulaim there would be hundreds of men that can claim to be sheikhs. The tribal structure has been gradually fraying since the monarchy was overthrown (and even then, it was so weak as to be unable to protect its regal patrons) and endured a period of bastardization under Saddam when lesser sheikhs, who were more loyal to the Ba’ath Party, were elevated with funds, prestige and access over the heads of the traditional tribal leadership. Still, some of the tribes named by al-Baghdadi have members who have reached positions of power in the new Iraq that would have been undreamed of under Saddam and the monopoly of his Tikriti clique: VP Tariq al-Hashemi and Speaker of the Parliament Mahmoud Mashhadani are both members of the Mushahdeh tribe, Deputy PM Salam al-Zoba’i is from the Zoba’ tribe, Iraqi ambassador to Washington Samir al-Sumaida’i is from the Sumaida’a clan, liberated Iraq’s first president was Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawer of the Shammar tribe, Iraqi Defense Minister Abdel-Qadir al-‘Ubeidi is of the ‘Ubeid tribe, several Janabis were prominent is Allawi’s cabinet, and so on and so forth.

“…The shari'ah is beginning to be implemented in most of the areas of that blessed state and by demand of our people themselves. We have appointed jurists to arbitrate disputes and settle feuds…We have also appointed workers to gather zakat and alms in most of the areas of the Islamic state…”
Al-Baghdadi then cites the Pentagon’s leaked report of just how much al-Qaeda controls Anbar Province to answer allegations from skeptics that the jihadists are not really in control and to prove, using the Marine Corps' own words, that they are indeed popular. He then adds that “al-Qaeda is but one of the components of the Islamic state” and that this state’s alleged writ “extends further to Nineveh and Salahuddin for example and especially to Diyala. As for Baghdad, everyone knows that the [jihadists] were the ones who repelled and cut off the hands of the devious majus and for a long time since…"

The majus is this context are the Shi'a; majus is the term the early Muslims use to describe the ‘pagan’ Zoroastrian Persians they encountered.

“This is not the proper venue to discuss the factors that prevent us from assuming total control of matters [in these areas] but by the strength and will of Allah He will make them go away soon…”
This is an interesting admission by al-Baghdadi that the jihadist effort is stalled.

“…Allah knows how many times I repeatedly refused to take [upon myself] this matter, that is, the Emirate of the Muslims. I never dreamed to be any more than a soldier among the laypeople; fighting those who turned against Allah until only Allah is worshiped. And I was never an emir of any of those groupings but the people reached a consensus upon [me] and refused to let [me] go and thought there was benefit from [me]…I am resolved to take decisions only after consulting my brothers, and for that reason, we formed an expanded Consultative Council [majlis shura muwwesa’a] that comprises three individuals from each group that has joined the State of Islam regardless of the number of its soldiers and the volume of their operations, as well as a representative from each of the major tribes, together with men of learning and experience. Then [we formed] a narrower Consultative Council [majlis shura mudhayeq] that comprises of five individuals to decide on important matters that require speedy consideration…

“…Initially we call upon officers of the former Iraqi Army and that is from the rank of lieutenant to major to join the army of the Islamic State on condition that the applicant must know, at a minimum, three sections of the Holy Koran by rote and must pass an ideological examination by a clerical commission, that exists in every region, to make sure that he is not beholden to the idolatry of the Ba’ath and its tyrant [Sadda]. And we will, Allah willing, provide him with transportation, housing and the appropriate salary that guarantees an honorable life for him as is provided to the mujaheddin who fight under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq…”
It seems that the jihadists have a de-Ba’athification policy of their own.

“…Oh ‘ummah of Islam, oh my beloved ‘ummah! The giant [America] is beginning to wobble and is looking to flee and is seeking to negotiate with any groups either directly or through agents and thus he sent [a message] to us through [the Saudi royal family], the tyrants of the [Arabian] Peninsula, saying that he had sat down with all the other groups except us.”
Shouldn’t American journalists in Iraq be looking into this mind-blowing allegation: that someone on the American side was trying to negotiate via the Saudis with Al-Qaeda and its ilk?

“We say: We are not ones who negotiate with those who are steeped in the blood of our children, and made our mothers cry, and desecrated our land, but today we will declare unto you our orders so accept them obediently and submissively before you end up regretting it.”
The jihadists are refusing to deal with the Americans directly because the latter allegedly have ‘innocent’ blood on their hands, but the Americans are pushing Maliki to offer the jihadists a full amnesty, even though we know for certain that they’ve been murdering innocents. Who seems to have lost their moral compass here? Al-Baghdadi is dictating orders to a superpower--a dangerous precedent. The last time the Muslims (back then it was the Ottomans) dictated peace terms to a subservient and defeated Western power too place over 300 years ago.

“We order you to withdraw your forces immediately. But the withdrawal must be via troop transport trucks and passenger planes whereby each soldier is allowed to carry his own weapon only. They may not withdraw any of the heavy military equipment and the military bases must be handed over to the mujaheddin of the Islamic State and the duration of the withdrawal may not exceed a month. On our part, we will allow you to withdraw without anyone attacking you with an explosive device or the such. We shall await your response for two weeks time starting with the date of this declaration.

“And regarding those who are secretly negotiating with you, you should ask them to stop military operations for a single month even if it were in a single province to prove that they are sincere in their claim of representing the majority of the mujaheddin and the resistance, and wait for the results. Then you will find out, you idiots, that you are negotiating with cowardly liars just like yourselves.”
This seems like a fair challenge: why haven’t the insurgents that the Americans have been talking to delivered a ceasefire yet? And if they can’t deliver one, then what’s the use of negotiating with them in the first place?

“We say to Bush: do not waste this historical opportunity that offers you a safe exit as you wasted the opportunity of a ceasefire that was offered to you by the sheikh of the mujaheddin Osama bin Laden may Allah preserve him. I warn you against allowing your well-known foolishness to guide you to perpetrate more massacres among the innocents and the poor women and children, and don’t you dare to further inflame the volcano

“…We declare these [ten days] that are upon us the days of the Raid of Ferocity Against the Soldiers of the Cross and the Heretics, to end with the last day of the blessed ‘Eid al-Adhha…”
Al-Baghdadi is declaring a new offensive against US troops and the Iraqi government.

“…Friday, the 2nd of Dhil Hijja, 1427 AH…” [December 22, 2006]

Friday, December 22, 2006

More on Lebanon...

I have a new column out today, titled Standoff in Beirut. Here's the opening paragraph:

What happens when you couple a Mexican standoff with a game of Russian roulette? You get Lebanese politics over the last several weeks: The revolvers are out, the politicians keep pulling at the trigger, and luckily, so far, no bullets have been chambered.

I think one should take a look at my column from last April, Deadlock in Beirut, for some more context. Back then, I concluded:

As the politicians quibble, the badly woven fabric of the Lebanese state comes under further strain. If one side pulls hard enough to force a breakthrough in the political deadlock, then the fabric will tear. This eventuality will drive one side or another to arms and violence, further expanding the margins of chaos. It is exactly in these margins that Al Qaeda seeks to operate. The talks being held in Beirut will lead to nowhere, which is a far better destination than an Islamic sultanate ruled by Zarqawi.

More minutiae:

So it turns out that I had got it mostly right a couple of days ago: the fight among the Opposition and March 14 is over how the organizational charter of the international tribunal will synthesize Brammertz’s circumstantial evidence into legal action; will it implicate the higher-ups by extrapolating bureaucratic and political responsibility to cover the doings of the lower-downs?

The choice is between a charter with teeth that goes after the chain of command, or one that is watered down to deal with the individual perpetrators directly responsible for the assassinations.

The Opposition wants a three-tiered system to ensure trimming down the charter of the tribunal; they want the text to jump through three flaming hoops—an experts committee, an expanded cabinet and the President’s office. The Opposition wants the Siniora cabinet (‘March 14’) to withdraw the charter already prepared by Ralph Rayashi and Shukri Sadir and voted on by the cabinet (the vote taken after the five Shi'a ministers answering to Hezbollah and Amal had left along with the sixth Greek Orthodox minister who answers to the pro-Opposition President), which has been sent to the UN where its is being stalled by the Russians until the Lebanese sort out their differences. Then they want a new charter authored by a council of six experts (2 from the Opposition, 2 from March 14, and 2 ‘independents’ who cannot be either Rayashi or Sadir). This new charter then gets voted on by an expanded cabinet where the Opposition gets veto power (after expanding the number of ministries they hold to one third of the cabinet plus one). Then they want the amended charter to go to the President’s office who may or may not return it for further amendments should he chooses (this is actually the constitutional way of doing it). After these three steps, the charter can be submitted to an ‘extraordinary’ session of parliament to be convened by the Speaker—another Opposition figure.

The March 14 hard-line bargaining position: The current charter will be withdrawn. The six member council will involve Rayashi and Sadir as the two independent members. Then, the new charter will be voted on by the current cabinet after the return of the 6 ministers (the constitutionality of the cabinet is held in question if it fails to represent one of Lebanon’s main sectarian components, in this case the Shi'a). An expanded cabinet is formed only after the current cabinet votes on the charter. Then, the dialogue sessions should be resumed to discuss picking a new president and a new electoral law.

A political settlement would mean an overall gain for the Opposition. March 14 knows this, and they are clutching to an American and Saudi cover to maintain their hold-out. Bush congratulated Siniora on his tenacity yesterday. And today, it was revealed that the US is putting together a package, along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, of $500 million in military aid to prop-up Siniora’s government so that, down the road, it can confront and disarm Hezbollah. But how does one make sure that this does not end-up arming Sunnis against Shi'as? The leadership of both communities may opt to raise the stakes and threaten a sectarian duel should a political compromise get rejected by either of the two parties.

One would have thought that the leaders of that country would know better than to gamble in such a way and to dare each other by raising macabre wagers; Beirut is still heavily pockmarked and bruised from the civil war days. Yet Lebanon, for all its cosmopolitanism, is still very much a clannish and parochial society and its leaders are essentially “a loya jirga in Brioni suits,” as one commentator once put it, referring to the traditional Afghan tribal council and a swanky Italian label. Hence, one cannot count on these leaders’ better angels to dissuade them from reaching for unrealistic victories with all violent means possible.

I don’t see how March 14 can hold-out much longer given the Russian position, the Opposition’s discipline, the diplomatic muddle of the Saudis (consider what is happening with Prince Turki), and the hollowness, not to mention tardiness (it will take forever to deliver military aid), of American support.

The only way out, without giving the Opposition a favorable political settlement, was to have delayed the decision over the charter of the tribunal until after Brammertz makes his indictments in six months time. But it’s too late for that now that the Opposition has pushed matters into the streets and into a showdown.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

What’s Going On in Lebanon?

I’m jotting some rough notes down to help myself sketch out the Lebanese ‘situation.’ Hopefully, this will induce some debate and bring about a fuller understanding. I am having difficulty making a call on Lebanon.

To begin with, there’s a stand-off between two groups:

-The ‘Opposition’: Composed of a near-monolith Shi'a community, led by Hezbollah; Half the Maronites, led by Michal Aoun with a notable presence for the northern Franjieh clan; a sampling of Sunnis, led by rivals of the Hariri family; some Druze that follow the Arslan princely house; some Greek Orthodox bunched under the Syrian National Party. They control the office of the President—the most important Maronite power leaver—and the Speaker of the parliament, traditionally the highest Shi'a position. Politically, they are unified by an unwillingness to break with Syria, with some of them completely aligned with the Syrians. Hezbollah adds another regional element to this mix by bringing Iran’s long-term patronage of its organization into the picture too.

Local Goals Behind the Stand-off: At a minimum: they want control over cabinet decisions should they lose the Presidency next year (to be decided by parliament either by an ‘early vote’ in February, or a ‘full term’ vote in September). At a maximum: new elections under a new electoral law that would give them the parliament, the Presidency and the cabinet (…the PM would be a Hariri man, but not hostile to the ‘Opposition’). International Goals: At a minimum: to minimize the scope of an International Tribunal into the murder of Rafiq Hariri and keep the Syrian leadership out of a possible indictment. At a maximum: to scrap the tribunal altogether, or to have if focus on culprits that have nothing to do with Syria, such as Al-Qaeda-like jihadists.

-The ‘March 14’ Group: Composed of what is becoming a near-monolith Sunni community that is united by fear of a Shi'a hegemony and anger over the loss of a capable leader like Rafiq Hariri; the other half of the Maronites, led by Samir Gaegae, the Gemayel family, and the leading clergy of the Maronite church; the vast majority of the Druze under Walid Junbulatt; Most of the Greek Orthodox that usually ally with Beiruti Sunnis; Lebanon’s few liberal, secular democrats. This alliance is built upon shaky foundations: many of the leading personalities fought each other in the civil war, and seem to agree on little beyond an anti-Syrian agenda and a desire to break away from Syria’s decades-old chokehold. Many at one time or another would have counted themselves allies of Syria. They control the premiership of the Lebanese cabinet; the highest Sunni position within the state. The US role in Lebanon is micromanaged by the US embassy there under Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman who fully supports this group. The French and the Saudis—traditional players in Lebanon—are also in full support.

Local Goals from the stand-off: At a minimum: to keep the cabinet from falling even after the loss of Shi'a representation in it, which paints the government as unconstitutional (should the Speaker of Parliament wish to paint it so), and to delay elections. At a maximum: to control the Presidency.

International goals: At a minimum: To convene an International Tribunal that may end up indicting the Syrian leadership for killing Hariri and destabilizing Lebanon. At a maximum: to leverage external and internal factors in overthrowing the Syrian regime.

Why is there a stand-off? Because no one seems to know for certain what is going on in Serge Brammertz’s mind. Brammertz is the UN appointed investigator into the Hariri murder (and the 14 related acts of violence) and he has kept his cards to himself: it is unclear whether he will indict the Syrian leadership or not in his final report. Brammertz has been handing in ‘progress reports’ that are non-committal and politically sterile. He seems to have concluded (in his last report submitted a week ago) that a suicide bomber willfully killed Hariri. The speculation now revolves on who controlled the suicide bomber; the Opposition would like Brammertz to conclude that the plotters were a jihadist organization with no ties to the Syrians or whose ties to the Syrian regime can’t be established, the March 14 coalition would like Brammertz to conclude that the order to kill Hariri came from the very top of the Syrian leadership.

Even if Brammertz cannot establish any tangible evidence linking the Syrians to the Hariri murder, both the Opposition and the March 14 coalitions believe that Brammertz will focus on circumstantial evidence that may show that the Syrians meant Hariri harm. Once such circumstantial evidence is established, Brammertz would have to assign Syrian culpability as a matter stemming from a rogue group within the regime, or acting on the orders of the top guys. [One commentator I spoke to likened it to Libya’s involvement in the Lockerbie terrorist act]. The admissibility of such uncertainty into the proceedings of the court, and what punishment may ensue and at how far up the chain of command, are the parameters that will define the 'legal procedures' of the court. Both the Opposition and the March 14 coalition would like to have full control over deciding upon these procedures.

This stand-off can have three outcomes:

-A political settlement: The ‘Opposition’ gets to control the cabinet through veto power (triggered when over 1/3 of the 30 cabinet members voting ‘nay’) and the ‘March 14’ crowd gets to go ahead with plan to set up a joint International Tribunal under UN auspices—the ‘legal procedures’ get decided upon by a joint committee of legal experts from both the Opposition and the March 14 coalitions. The head of the Arab League, ‘Amr Mousa, has been saying recently that a tentative deal was struck. But there are complications: Lebanese PM Fouad Siniora (M-14) traveled to Moscow to meet Putin ahead of the latter’s scheduled tête-à-tête with Syrian President Bashar Asad on December 19. Siniora wanted to gauge how serious the Russians were about blocking, through the UN, any international mandate that would give the tribunal teeth (…the ‘legal procedures’ again) in going after the Syrians. Siniora, along with his Saudi allies, hope that the Russians can be bought off. If the Russians remove this obstacle, then M-14 can use the tribunal as a credible threat to the survival of the Syrian regime and thus fortify their bargaining position. This allows them to forego the need of conceding to any of the Opposition’s demands. However, this is less likely given that the Russians can see the Bush administration taking a firmer stance against Syria (see Bush’s and Rice’s most recent statements about "talking" to the Syrians): the Russians want to get back into the game in the Middle East, and right now, the only moving parts they can influence in the picture are those that function contrary to the wishes of the Bush administration. I predict that the Russians will opt to stand behind the survival of the Syrian regime.

-Violence: If the ‘Opposition’ doesn’t get any of its minimal demands met then they are going to continue with the stand-off, and will probably get egged-on by the Syrians to threaten opting for extra-constitutional measures such as forming their own cabinet and inviting the Lebanese to follow its orders. This is a very dangerous split and all parties seem reluctant to travel down that road. Yet the M-14 leaders have calculated that if the other side blinks then their adversaries have more to lose. Hezbollah cannot and will not use its military machine to take down the regime; the M-14 crowd seems comforted by that. Cynically, they know that Hezbollah is terrified by outright success through the military means at its disposal; the Shi'as cannot ‘anoint’ a leader for the Sunni community without being exposed to a fierce sectarian backlash.

None of the main players wants violence or a trudge back to civil war dynamics. However, should a jihadist organization conclude, as Al-Qaeda has done in Iraq, that a Sunni-Shi'a clash and the ensuing chaos is in its best interest, then igniting this volatile situation is not such a tall order. All it would take is the assassination of a carefully selected high-profile Shi'a target and/or a series of anti-Shi'a bombings. Up to a point, Hezbollah and Seyyid Fadhlallah can check any desires for a reprisal against Sunnis, but neither holds Sistani’s stature as in Iraq, and the meltdown can come about faster in Lebanon that in Iraq. The outcomes beyond that are unknown but one can bet that they won’t be pretty.

-Reform: The sectarian system itself must be reformed, or it must be scrapped altogether. The sectarian system is not codified in law rather it is exercised by political consensus—once among feudal lords and over time (and wars) by newer sectarian actors. But birthrates and immigration are changing Lebanon’s demographics and ‘sectarian instability’ is mirrored in by the shake-up of the demographic balance. There are more Muslims than Christians in Lebanon and this trend is set to increase drastically since most young Lebanese are Muslim and most of the elderly in Lebanon are Christian. But the sectarian system (last modified by the Ta’if Accords, for what should have been a temporary and transitional period) tries to divide power evenly among Muslims and Christians. The reality of numbers on the ground and a flawed electoral law (put in by the Syrians in the year 2000 and gave the M-14 their parliamentary majority) began to mean that it was the numerous Muslims who were increasingly deciding on who would end-up representing the Christians. The Maronites seek to remedy this by a new electoral law that breaks down the electoral district into smaller units and gives voting privileges to expatriates (this was the main point of the December 6, 2006 declaration by the Maronite Synod). The leading advocate for such a reform is Michel Aoun.

At the heart of this debate over reform is a numbers game: How many Muslims? How many Christians? How many Shi'as? How many Sunnis? How many support the ‘Opposition’? How many support ‘March 14’?

In most rational societies, this would be determined either by a census (Lebanon hasn’t had one since 1932) or a non-denominational election. In lieu of rational means, the Lebanese have resorted to demonstrations and counter-demonstration over the last year and a half. More recently, numbers (i.e. mobilization) have become less important than the perception of a particular community’s staying power and discipline: who can outlast the other by picketing or by remaining holed up in the Grand Serrail. It is an allegory for militarism.

Assafir Newspaper ran some numbers on October 28, 2006 that were derived from a Congressional Research Service paper authored by Alfred Prados, a CRS staffer, who in turn relied on 1999 numbers cited by Levantine history scholar Colbert Held. The issue was the breakdown of the sectarian identity of those living in Lebanon (3.4 million) as opposed to all those who hold Lebanese nationality (4.8 million). Assafir cited the numbers as if it were an official US estimate, and in the parochial world-view from Beirut, it was convenient for some (the Opposition) to take these numbers as Gospel while for others (March 14) it was a nightmare:

Shi'as 34%
Sunnis 20%
Maronites 19%
Druze 8%
Greek Orthodox 6%

March 14 rallied by releasing a study in their flagship newspaper Annahar on November 19, 2006 prepared by Yusuf Dweihi for the 4.8 million who hold Lebanese nationality:

Sunnis 29.6%
Shi'as 29.5%
Maronites 22.4%
Druze (approx.) 5%

Muslims (total): 64.3%
Christians (total): 35.3%

Therein lies the rub: Which numbers are more valid? Does the ‘Opposition’ hold the ‘real’ majority or does March 14? The Opposition’s claim to hold the majority would be greatly bolstered if the Shi'as are indeed 34% of the resident Lebanese population, and Aoun would have correctly chosen to ally the Maronites with the ascendant Islamic sect. However, if this number is much lower (26%) then the M-14 can claim the majority.

M-14 does not want to hold early elections to settle this once and for all. They would be needlessly gambling away their current parliamentary majority. They certainly don’t want to settle it under a new electoral system that would throw up more unknowns in their face.

But this M-14 position will erode its Maronite base over time: the political survival of Maronite authority in the long term is tied to formulating a new electoral law.

Now in a fantasy world, a liberal democrat such as myself would push for a total secular and non-denominational overhaul of the Lebanese system. This is an excerpt from what I wrote back in June 2005 (Democracy for Lebanon):

In Lebanon, the individual is beholden to the luggage of sectarian identity and history. Individual ambitions have no room for expression beyond the stringent and narrow categories of what god one prays to, and who's your grandfather. Even the grand equalizer of striking it big in the realm of finance translates into communal leadership rather than national leadership. This system was set in place by traditional power elites that milked the country - and its entrepreneurial spirit - for all it had. However, as long as you don't question the setup, you are free to do as you please.

The French colonial administration that drew up Lebanon as an enlargement of the Maronite enclave, and gave the Maronites the reins of power, created a very curious mistake. Those borders also included Sunnis, Shias, Greek and Catholic Orthodox Christians, Druze, and a smattering of other minorities. Lebanon became the incubator of a Middle Eastern contradiction: how to reconcile several thousand years of history and a multitude of identities that constitute the larger picture of the Middle East with modern, homogenizing ideologies. Not one single Middle Eastern country (all drawn up in one way or another by 20th-century colonial powers) can claim to have a homogenous ethnic or religious make-up. In such a country, and in such a region, can all the intricacies of history be dismissed in the face of a dominant, uniform Arab Islamic identity?

Lebanon paid a price tag of 150,000 dead in its 15-year civil war to come up with an answer: No. The tension leading up to the civil war, and still pervading the political atmosphere to this day, was how to reconcile on-the-ground diversity in the face of the pan-Arab nationalism sweeping the Middle East in the 20th century. In the wake of nationalism's decline, a new all encompassing ideology has emerged in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, increasingly led by Al Qaeda-type Salafi-Wahhabists and a sympathetic and well-funded religious establishment in Saudi Arabia. But would such an ideology succeed where nationalism failed, and where would that leave a country with the heterodox makeup of Lebanon?

The journey toward democracy involves moving away from disparate sectarian identities into a unifying Lebanese one. The language for that is oddly encapsulated in the Ta'if Accords of 1989 that brought an end to the civil war. It calls for the annulment of sectarian politics and power-sharing and provides the first step: a new electoral law that allows the Lebanese to vote on nonsectarian lines for the parliament. The signatories of the Ta'if Accords were the ossified icons of the old way of doing business, the traditional leaders, and they conveniently kept this clause on ice. Now is the time to bring it forth and use it to cajole the Lebanese into taking their first steps toward both freedom and democracy.

President Bush could help by appointing a special presidential envoy for democracy in Lebanon. He should pick someone of Lebanese descent (there are an estimated 1.5 million Americans who fill this category) and untainted by the past "status quo" policy of dealing with the Middle East. General John Abizaid of Centcom would be the ideal candidate, or otherwise the yardstick. The task of this envoy would be to sit down with the new parliament and get them to pass laws that facilitate the emergence of a new Lebanese identity. For example, there are about 150,000 households in Lebanon of mixed marriages between sects. In order to get a marriage license, a mixed-marriage couple needs to go to Cyprus or Europe. They are prevented from doing so in their own country. Legalizing same-citizenship marriages should not be such a hurdle and would find a supportive constituency.

A new electoral law needs to be cobbled together that takes into mind the sensitivities of the traditionalists but charts the path forward. The Ta'if Accords suggest the formation of a House of Lords where all the sectarian chieftains can hold court and put on airs but not disrupt or corrupt the functions of government. New electoral districting can be drawn to map out enclaves of sectarian uniformity, thereby ensuring that those who get elected actually represent their sectarian communities, which is not the case under the current law. In order to get the ultra-insecure Maronites on board, the Lebanese Diaspora still holding on to Lebanese citizenship - overwhelmingly Christian - should be allowed to vote, and that costly logistical process could be underwritten by American financial aid. The Shias who are increasingly transforming themselves from a dispossessed and marginal sect into the comforts of the bourgeoisie, and who are closely watching the Shia-American alliance in Iraq, must be encouraged to give up their support for Hezbollah by allaying their fears of armed Palestinians, usually seen as the shock troops of the Sunnis. Saad Hariri, now leading the Sunnis, should be tasked with getting the U.N.-mandated disarmament of the Palestinian militias done as a prelude to disarming the Lebanese Hezbollah.

As much as I would hope that this suggestion is taken up, I am resigned to believing that Lebanon is stuck in its current sectarian set-up. There is no force—not even American intervention—that can get the leaders of the various communities to budge.

But as this stand-off enters its seventh week, one has to wonder how viable this particular Lebanese system is going to be over the next two decades as Lebanese demographics keep changing.

For the time being, we are all stuck watching this slow-mo train wreck (see my pessimistic September 2006 column, Lebanon’s Fuse) until Brammertz releases his final indictment in 6 months’ time.

What is Iran’s role in all of this?

Does Iran really want a “Tehran on the Mediterranean” as some commentators have put it? I don’t think so: although Iran gave birth to Hezbollah and continues to suckle it, I believe Syria is Hezbollah’s surrogate mother or nanny, if you will. Lebanon is not as strategically interesting to Iran as Syria is. Sure, it is useful to annoy the Israelis from time to time, but Syria is a serious penetration of the Sunni Arab order in the Middle East, one that is very useful for Iran. Plus, there is lingering Iranian gratitude towards the Alawite Syrian regime for standing by it against Sunni Arab consensus during the Iran-Iraq war. The fact that the Alawites are in power in Damascus is a fluke of history. It was once put to me as being equivalent in likelihood to the ‘Red Indians’ taking back America. The Iranians don’t want to lose that, and if the Syrian regime is in trouble (cornered by the Americans, Israelis and the Saudis) then Iran would gladly lend Hezbollah over to becoming an instrument of Syria’s policy in Lebanon.

Furthermore, Iran is rapidly realizing that the shelf-life of its anti-Israel actions and rhetoric in garnering Arab Sunni favor is short lived indeed. Times have changed, and Tehran needs to quickly disabuse itself of the notion that leadership of the Muslim world can come about through belligerence against Israel—certainly not for the Shi'as in the age of Zarqawi’s talking points and Wahhabi propaganda. Nasrallah finds himself facing a hostile Sunni Arab street in Lebanon. Isma’il Haniyyah, Hamas’ PM, didn’t want to get caught photographed while praying with Shi'as in Tehran, right after delivering the Friday sermon and receiving bushels of cash.

Iran is not calling the shots when it comes to Hezbollah, Syria is. (for more, see my column, Quietly Smiling).

Who Killed Pierre Gemayel?

Was Gemayel’s murder (Nov. 21) tied to all the others (Hamadeh, Hariri, Kassir, Hawi, Chidyac, Tueni)? If it was so, then why did the killers decide on a new modus operandi that is fraught with risk (they fired 49 bullets at him and a guard from 4 separate weapons in broad daylight and in a crowded Christian commercial neighborhood)? Such an operation (they didn’t even mask their faces) affords investigators many leads, certainly more than the other cases. Whoever did it was in a hurry for results. The Opposition could have benefited by bringing down the cabinet through attrition (when over one third of its voted-on members had resigned or died), and the M-14 could have benefited by mobilizing the masses over yet another martyr ahead of the Opposition’s demonstrations. What if the killers are discovered and they are not found to be linked to the Syrians, say such as a jihadist organization? Does that mean that all the previous murders, assuming that they’re all connected, are also not the Syrians’ doing?

There is an alleged rush among US, Israeli, Jordanian, Egyptian and Saudi intelligence services these days is to show that Syrian intelligence acts through jihadists in Iraq and Lebanon, even without the manipulated jihadists knowing it. There are two schools of thought on that: one says the Syrians are not that operationally capable and that the jihadists are not that gullible (…and after Zarqawi they don’t deal with state sponsors), and another says that if the Syrians are indeed that capable then it is unlikely that they would have left a trail that leads back to them.

Pull all the stops and find the killers. This may be the long-awaited break in the Lebanese impasse; a stalemate that’s been going on since Hariri’s murder approximately 700 days ago.

With Shi'a-Sunni and intra-Maronite tensions coming to a boil, can Lebanon afford to wait around for Brammertz to make his call? I don’t know. For the time being, all of us who wish Lebanon well are at the mercy of a fundamentalist suicide bomber who could ignite something ugly out of this loaded stand-off. All the guns are out, all the triggers are cocked, one false move and it’s bloodshed.

"Montana al-Sadri"? "Nora al-Malice"? Reuters on brink of firing copy editors...

Reuters just put out a wire report with the title "Iraq on brink of becoming failed state: report" that is based on a study by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. But one has to be a little skeptical of the report's accuracy if they mispell names such as "Montana al-Sadri" (...for Muqtada al-Sadr), "Medic Army militia" (...for Mahdi Army militia) and "Nora al-Malice" (...for Nouri al-Maliki) that have often been in the news recently...

In a report on Monday, the Pentagon said the Medic Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Montana al-Sadri had replaced al Qaeda as the "most dangerous accelerant of potentially self- sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq."

While the statement came as little surprise to many Iraqis, especially minority Sunnis, it was the bluntest statement yet by the Pentagon on the militia. U.S. commanders in Iraq have previously been reluctant to blame the Medic Army by name.

The U.S. and Iraqi military have also avoided large-scale strikes on his Sadri City stronghold, although they have staged raids to seize suspected Medic Army death squad leaders.

Shiite Prime Minister Nora al-Malice, who owes his position to Sad's support, has vowed to dismantle the militias but has done little so far to rein them in. The Pentagon report said the Medic Army exerted "significant influence" over the government.

[Full text of the Reuters report is posted in the comments section]

Monday, December 18, 2006

Nic Robertson Needs to Work Harder

These were the opening and closing paragraphs of Nic Robertson’s report for CNN from Baghdad today:

CNN's Nic Robertson reports. (BEGIN VIDEO TAPE) NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):

Turn on the TV in Iraq and this is what you can see -- insurgent videos showing in minute detail mortar attacks, rockets and roadside bombs, even sniper fire aimed at U.S. soldiers. The station that shows them, Zawra, was banned by the Iraqi government last month, but within days it was back on air. Zawra has become part of Iraq's inescapable tapestry of decline. Violence is the wallpaper of life here.

ROBERTSON: And when you turn on the TV, the impotence of its leaders to stop the bleeding is magnified. As they bicker and plot, the insurgents parade their latest exploits on the TV channel no one seems able to close down.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Baghdad. (END VIDEO TAPE)

If Zawra TV has indeed become “part of Iraq’s inescapable tapestry of decline” as Roberston put it, then the station merits some more investigating, wouldn’t ya think?

Here are some leads for CNN and Mr. Robertston:

-Zawra TV is owned by Misha’an Jebouri, a man who recently had his parliamentary immunity lifted in order to face charges of corruption and aiding the insurgency. At one point, David Ignatius thought that Jebouri was a credible Sunni leader. Possible CNN follow-up story: Was the Iraqi government right in going after Jebouri? Who in the CPA gave Jebouri his business contracts? Who was taking Jebouri around and touting him to the likes of Ignatius as a ‘Sunni leader’?

-Zawra TV is being beamed out of Arbil, according to one source I’ve spoken to. Arbil, in the Kurdish north, is Masoud Barzani’s domain. President Barzani has been a long-time patron of Jebouri’s. If little ol' me can figure that out, why can't CNN do the same with all its armored SUVs and its investigative reporter extraordinaire, Mr. Michael Ware? Possible CNN follow-up story: Why is Mr. Barzani subsidizing a satellite station that champions killing American soldiers? Is Barzani involved in any of Jebouri’s corrupt business ventures?

-Mr. Jebouri, now in Damascus, is also very ‘friendly’ to the Syrians. He’s been publishing his weekly newspaper, Al-‘Itijah al-Akher, for over a decade there, and one can still find it on Damascene newsstands. Possible CNN follow-up story: Why are the Syrians hosting someone who is propagating for the insurgents?

Oh my, I can pitch so many story ideas for CNN but I have a feeling that Robertson’s easy-breezy mention of Zawra TV as evidence of Iraq’s decline is all that the producers back in Atlanta ever really wanted. Too bad, there are so many great and juicy stories for journalists out there is Baghdad, yet there is a weird reluctance among the journalist caste to delve deeper into what seems to be an issue of great importance for the American public.

Washington Times Story on 'Saudi Report'

Sharon Behn of the Washington Times comes out today with an interesting story about how much the Saudis are worried about Iran's influence in Iraq. The story cites a report by Nawaf Obaid on the issue, but says "The report, submitted to the Saudi government in March, has not been publicly distributed."

That is not correct: a version of Obaid's report was carried "exclusively" by the Lebanese daily, Annahar, on December 4, 2006. The Annahar story identified Obeid as the author of a report called 'A Shi'a Crescent and a Shi'a Revival: Myths and Facts' but gave no specific publication date. Obeid concludes that the Shi'a resurgence, although worrying, cannot overturn the Sunni Arab order and hence the threat is overblown. The Annahar version had a full page spread of statistics on the numbers of Shi'as worldwide, and interestingly, gave the ratio of 3:2 (2,221,571 Shi'as vs. 1,332,943 Sunnis) for the Shi'a/Sunni sectarian numbers specific to Lebanon, and sourcing these numbers to the Lebanese government.

Friday, December 15, 2006

More on the Alsammarae saga...(Updated December 18, 2006)

James Glanz profiles Aiham Alsammarae today (New York Times, 'Bitter Detour for Expatriate Back in Iraq,' December 15, 2006), the ex-Iraqi Minister of Electricity who just got acquitted by an Iraqi appeals court on one of the charges he’d been convicted of—for lack of evidence, mind you—but continues to face another 12 other charges brought to bear against him by Iraq’s Public Integrity Commission: the government’s anti-corruption arm.

It is a high-profile case involving an American citizen, Mr. Alsammarae, and there is plenty of spin involved. Some want to use this case to cast doubts on the enthused ‘zealotry’ of the Public Integrity Commission in tracking down and indicting corrupt officials, which in any society should be considered a good thing. I guess most reporters don’t have a problem with the ‘zealotry’ of the Patrick Fitzgeralds of the world, even when such zealots get their facts wrong.

But Glanz fails to mention an important episode when Alsammarae apparently hired western mercenaries to spring him out of jail on October 11, 2006: Armed foreigners entered an Iraqi courtroom, waived their weapons and badges at the Iraqi police and whisked Alsammarae away to a life on the run. He was later handed back to Iraqi authorities by the US Embassy. I would have thought that it is an incident that is very relevant to the story; establishing the lengths to which Alsammarae went to in order to escape the charges; he's a 'flight risk' and thus must remain in custody.

But Glanz does not want to write a story about the Iraqi justice system doing its work, on the contrary, the NYT reporter wants to draw attention to “vagaries of an Iraqi court system that in many ways is still the opaque and frightening apparatus it was before the invasion”—a walloping assertion that is not sourced to anyone or backed-up with facts within the rest of the article, yet it is allowed to stand as is by the paper’s editors. It’s a cheap shot by a biased reporter, that’s all.

Alsammarae, though, is being treated like a Mafiosi don (...he's a Chicago man after all; once Al Capone's territory) while in ‘prison’:

Possibly in deference to his former rank, his “cell” was a converted office with a computer, a refrigerator, a potted plant, a thin mattress and other amenities — far better than what is provided to other prisoners in the jail.

Does he get a regular supply of Doritos, like the ones Saddam enjoys? Clearly prison conditions have improved since “before the invasion,” for disagreeable high-ranking officials at least.

But at least the Public Integrity Commission continues its spectacular work despite all the self-serving acrimony and the cheap shots:

Ali Shbot, a spokesman for the commission, which is run by Rathi al-Rathi, said that those charges were ludicrous and that the commission was investigating politicians of all stripes. He said that of roughly 90 cabinet-level officials in previous Iraqi governments since the invasion, 18 have received either arrest warrants or subpoenas.

All but a few of those officials remain at large, having fled the country or gone into hiding. Mr. Shbot said there were also active corruption cases against about 80 former officials — deputy ministers, directors general or senior ministry advisers — at least some of whom are still in Iraq. In the same jail in Baghdad’s protected Green Zone, a former deputy finance minister, Kareem Hmeed Faraj, is serving a three-year sentence.

[The full NYT article is posted in the comments section.]

UPDATE (December 18, 2006): Alsammarae Escapes, Again

I would peg James Glanz as an unwitting accomplice in this jail break: his story about Alsammarae a couple of days ago failed to mention the convict's propensity for 'lamming it,' which only served to reassure prison authorities (...avid readers of the NYT; isn't everyone?) that Alsammarae was not a 'flight risk.'

Isn't it about time to revoke the operating license of the security company that Alsammarae keeps hiring to spring him out of jail?

Now watch how this story will probably get covered: When Alsammarae was in prison, he was depicted as a Sunni Arab victim of an arbitrary Shi'a kangaroo court; the story was never about how the Iraqi anti-corruption folks are doing their job and doing it well, even when going after daunting and well-connected targets. And now that Alsammarae is back on the run, the knee-jerk storyline will be how much Baghdad has turned into a chaotic and free-for-all version of the Wild West; the story about why foreign security companies (many of them with contracts to guard foreign press bureaus) are still acting above Iraqi law--something that they are doing legally by Bremer's still-standing CPA orders--will not interest the editors back in stateside.

The categories for the biased press are neat and simple: Iraq is a mess, the Sunnis are being victimized, the Shi'a-dominated government is settling scores; impeach Bush.

Here's a question: mercenaries cost a lot of money, and staging jailbreaks will probably set you back several million dollars. How can Alsammarae afford that on his public servant's salary?

Nice touch with the Chinese passport...

Former Electricity Minister Ayham al-Samaraie broke out of a Baghdad detention facility Sunday with the help of a group of private security experts, said Faris Kareem, deputy head of Iraq's Public Integrity Commission, an anti-corruption panel. It was al-Samaraie's second escape since he was convicted in October.

Kareem said the security agents were "foreign," but he had no further details.

Lou Fintor, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said U.S. officials were aware of reports of al-Samaraie's escape and had been in touch with him in prison to provide basic consular services.

A Sunni Arab political figure, al-Samaraie was a member of the transitional government set up after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

The former minister, who was convicted of corruption and sentenced to two years in prison, is believed to have had contacts with Sunni Arab insurgents and has tried to persuade them to put down their weapons and join the political process.

After al-Samaraie's first escape, a few days after his conviction, Iraqi officials caught him at the Baghdad airport with a Chinese passport, Kareem said.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What was Chalabi doing in Damascus?

The New York Sun's Eli Lake reports on Ahmad Chalabi's mysterious visit to Syria, where he met, among others, the Syrian Foreign Minister. Whose envoy was he acting as? Not Maliki's; the PM has his own channels to the Syrians, and certainly not Talabani's. There is an implication that Khalilzad was behind this and, by extension, the White House would have to be involved?

Plus, there is this interesting tidbit:

To that end, the State Department has already informed the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministry of a scenario whereby Mr. Maliki would stay in power, but Mr. Sadr would be marginalized.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Ansar al-Sunna Shifts Its Jihadist Rhetoric

The Ansar al-Sunna organization—one of the insurgent groups that US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad had held secret talks with in Amman—has caught up with the talking-points of other jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic Army in Iraq by shifting its jihadist rhetoric from being predominately anti-American towards focusing on the Shi'a threat, as evidenced in a new propaganda video released on the internet this week.

Previously, Ansar al-Sunna had tried to market itself as an anti-occupation and anti-government rebel group that took long strides not to harm civilians. I am not aware of an instance where that they had adopted anti-Shi'a rhetoric prior to this video.

The 29 minute video, produced by the ‘Information Bureau’ of the Ansar al-Sunna Group (ASG), is titled the ‘Blessed Raid of Buhruz.’ However the raid, conducted on an Iraqi National Guard station, did not actually occur in the sleepy rural town of Buhruz in Diyala Province, but rather took place in the nearby village of Imam Mansour, as the insurgents clarify later.

The timing of this video was probably meant to answer the Iraqi government’s assertion of delivering a powerful blow to the ASG after capturing many of their top leaders, including the ‘Emir of Baqouba’ who was identified as Ali Hussein ‘Ali ‘Abdullah al-Zendi.

Ideological highlights: The video begins and is interspersed with jihadist chanting. There is then an opening segment containing basic geographical and sociological trivia about Diyala Province, such as “the city of Baqouba…is called the city of oranges,” “…the surface area is 120,813 Km2, “…Most of the population is Sunni with some presence of Shi'a villages,” “…its people are known for their good manners” …etc., that appear as bullet-points. This video is clearly intended for a non-Iraqi audience.

A masked ASG leader, identified by a pseudonym as ‘Abu Shahad al-‘Azzawi—the Emir of Diyala’ (the ‘Azza tribe is one of the most prominent—although not largest—of Diyala’s tribes; there is some dispute among genealogists as to whether the Diyala ‘Azzawis are indeed descended from the Arab ‘Azza stock), explains that the motivation for attacking this particular Iraqi National Guard (ING) unit, manned by ‘heretics’ as he put it, was their alleged provocation of writing the names of the first three caliphs—Abu Bakir, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman—on the soles of their shoes. Shi'as revile the first three caliphs and see them as usurpers who denied the patron saint of Shi’ism, ‘Ali, his right to be the temporal heir to the Prophet Muhammad (Sunnis also revere ‘Ali, the fourth caliph, but put him on an equal footing with the first three caliphs). The soles of shoes (or feet) are considered dirty in Arab society and it is taboo to expose them in the direction of others.

Al-‘Azzawi also says that the ING blocked the villagers from the riverfront and denied them water for drinking and irrigation.

Another masked ASG leader, identified as ‘Abul-‘Abbas al-Qaisi—Military Commander of Baqouba’ (the Qaisis are similar in numbers and obscure origins to the ‘Azzawis; many of them in Diyala are of Circassian origin), further explains that the ING soldiers harassed the village women as they collected water from the river (contradicting al-‘Azzawi’s account about being denied water) and would yell out inappropriate catcalls. Hence, the jihadists had to respond to both these affronts on the Sunni caliphs and the womenfolk’s honor.

The video ends with images of triumphant insurgents riding several sedans and a mini-truck while shouting insurgent slogans as they slowly make their way along a country road and pass some houses. The caption reads: “The grandchildren of Abu Bakir, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman and ‘Ali happily wander the streets of Diyala to [celebrate] Allah’s victory.”

Also towards the end, another ASG leader, identified as ‘Abu Anes—the Sharia Overseer of the Unit’ (appearing with a blurred-out face and wearing a headdress in what appears to be the Salafist fashion), quotes the 13th-century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya and says “…the Crusaders always enter the land of Islam through the aid of the rafidha [Ed. derogatory term for Shi'as].” Abu Anes then says “[the Shi'as] were the ones who pointed out to the Christian Americans and the [Israeli] Mossad the places of the mujaheddin, the homes of the mujaheddin, the warehouses of the mujaheddin, and the training camps of the mujaheddin, so fighting [the Shi'as] is more obligatory than fighting the Jews and Christians.”

Abu Shehed al-‘Azzawi makes his final appearance to say “I say to…the heretics and the Forces of Betrayal [Ed.: the jihadist term for the Badr Brigade], and the Mahdi Army…come back to the religion of Muhammad…” and if not “then we kill you all if you persist in your heresy and waywardness and idolatry…”

The video also introduces ‘Abu Ayeh al-Kurdi—Commander of the Raiding Platoon’ who speaks in Kurdish (Sorani dialect from what I can tell) with translated Arabic subtitles. I think it is interesting that the ASG is making a point of highlighting Kurdish involvement. Kurds, both Sunni and Shi'a, form a sizable minority in Diyala Province.

Military highlights: As the ASG jihadists explain, 30 fighters took part in this military operation. The engagement lasted a total of 3 hours and was conducted at night. The fighters were evenly divided into two groups: a raiding party and a diversionary party. The diversionary party used mortars and heavy machine guns (mostly BKCs but there was at least one truck-mounted machine gun heavier than a BKC) to engage what they described as ‘towers.’ The ING unit in Imam Mansour was housed in the village school. It seems to have been a temporary location since the perimeter walls did not even have barbed wire on them and were easily scalable.

The fighters were first shown preparing their arms and then holding two sets of prayers—dusk prayers outside in the fields and the dinner prayers indoors in a mud hut. Al-Kurdi was the commander of the raiding party, and ‘Abu Hussein al-Dayini’ (the Daineh clan is prominent in Diyala Province) commanded the diversionary party. Al-Dayini explains that the ING defenders initially thought that this was a long-distance attack with mortars and machine guns. They did not expect al-Kurdi’s party to come up from the back and scale the school wall into the central courtyard, where we later see the bunk-beds of the Iraqi soldiers. At least one of the insurgents was shown speaking with a non-Iraqi accent ahead of the attack as the insurgents got into Mitsubishi pick-up trucks and then trudged the rest of the distance over fields and ditches towards the ING base.

The insurgents explain that the Iraqi soldiers had expended most of their ammunition while fending off the diversionary party and were thus forced to withdraw, leaving many dead and much booty, according to the insurgents.

During the raid, most of the shouting was in Kurdish. At least one insurgent was shown slumped dead across the wall, and then his lifeless body seems to fall off and lie on the opposite side. However, the insurgents conceded only one fatality: the cameraman. Text comes up to explain that just as the cameraman—who had been following another insurgent shouting (in a heavy Kurdish accent) “is this Maliki’s government?” while pointing to several burning vehicles in the courtyard—was about to enter the building, a wounded and dying soldier fired a single bullet and killed him. Thus, all the dead bodies of the ING soldiers and the booty were not captured on film. But this excuse is contradicted by al-Kurdi who later says that the cameraman was killed as the raiding party was exiting the location. Plus, there was footage of the insurgents retreating and carrying the body of the cameraman, which meant that the cameras kept rolling.

There is also footage of the cameraman’s corpse being buried during the next day.

The insurgents say that they had to retreat because a “large relieving force of 40 trucks” of the Iraqi Army was approaching the ING base. This force was held back for a while when the diversionary team opened fire on them allowing the raiding team to escape. The insurgents were carrying walkie-talkies.

Afterwards when the various commanders are interviewed about the skirmish, it is alleged by al-Azzawi that the villagers saw 50 bodies of ING soldiers being removed from the site.

The fighting skills and distribution of the raiding team seemed very clumsy and erratic. However, it is lamentable that the ING had not even secured their perimeter with something as rudimentary as barbed wire. The relieving force came in several hours into the fight, and there was clearly no air cover, which would have finished off the insurgents or at least destroyed their vehicles.

But the insurgents are also revealing some weaknesses by trying to pass the attack as one on Buhruz when it was only a small village, and on a poorly defended ING satellite base at that. They also make claims about casualties among the ING but fail to show any footage and go to lengths to explain why.