Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Asia Cup Replaces Koran in Resolving Tribal Disputes

I love this story from the Kuwait News Agency that was published two days ago (Arabic):

The deputy head of the Iraqi Soccer Federation Najih Hmoud said today that the Asia Cup for 2007 that the Iraqi team had won contributed to resolving a tribal dispute over agricultural land that ran 27-year and claimed tens of lives. Hmoud clarified that one of the officials from the province of Najaf had called together the chiefs and notables of the Fatla and Ghazalat tribes to settle the dispute over two days but to no avail.

Adding, “but a delegation of mediators arrived on the [third day] to the Ghazalat tribe carrying with it the Asia Cup in order to resolve matters anew, and [succeeded] in getting both sides to compromise for the sake of the Asia Cup.”

I don’t know how authentic the story is, but it’s heartwarming anyway. Tribes usually settle disputes by taking an oath on the Koran, but in this instance the Asia Cup has been transformed by Iraq’s soccer fetish into a new, sanctified national totem!

I had written a column for this month’s Prospect Magazine that began with these paragraphs:

“I will take the cup to Thawra City, I mean Sadr City, I will take it to Kadhimiya, to Adhamiya, to Dora; I will take it to Basra, to the north, to Mosul. Even if they kill me, I am a willing sacrifice for [my people].” Said the 24 year-old Younis Mahmoud, captain of Iraq’s national football team, to Iraq’s official television station Al-Iraqiya, during a snap interview in Dubai, following Iraq’s victory in the Asian Cup in late July. Mahmoud is a Sunni Arab who was born in the oil-rich town of Dibis, northeast of Kirkuk. He grew up among other Sunnis Arabs, Shia and Sunni Turkomans, Kurds and Christian Assyrians—a diversity reflected in the team he led to Iraq’s first major football victory.

After Iraq defeated South Korea in a semi-final penalty shootout—unleashing massive jubilation among Iraqis both inside and outside the country and raising cautious hopes of bringing the cup back to Baghdad—Iraqi singers began to record songs for the final, and the ditty that became the team’s anthem began with the words, “Have you ever seen a player on the fields play while pressing his hand to his wound?”

I still can’t get enough of this song:

Interesting: Abul Qa’aqa’a assassinated in Aleppo

A controversial Syrian cleric who went by the pseudonym “Abul Qa’aqa’a” within jihadist circles was assassinated today after Friday prayers in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. The assailant, who shot Abu Qa’aqa’a multiple times in the chest, was captured by bystanders, according to the wire report.

Abul Qa’aqa’a, whose real name is Mahmoud Qolaghassi, was denounced in jihadist circles as an informer for Syrian intelligence who was used by the regime to infiltrate jihadist circles. His task was to send young Syrian and Arab fighters to Iraq in order to fight the Americans.

A fatwa was issued as early as January 2004 by an obscure Iraqi jihadist group that had exposed Qolaghassi as a spy for the Syrian regime, and sanctioned his assassination.

In recent years, Qolaghassi had resurfaced as the regime-appointed principal of the shariah secondary school of Aleppo.

Jihadist websites had circulated footage of Qolaghassi singing and swaying last year as proof that he wasn’t all that religious or serious about jihad.

Today’s event is yet another indicator that jihadists are becoming more active in Syria, especially in Aleppo and in the rural belt around it. Five months ago, a jihadist cell held out for several hours while battling Syrian security forces in a farm to the south of the town of Zahra.

Organized crime—including large scale robberies and murders—has also been on the rise in Aleppo in recent months, according to sources there.

A U.S. military intelligence source had told me recently that they are witnessing the flight of many Al-Qaeda/ISI fighters from Iraq across the Syria border.

Syria could be a fertile ground for the jihadists, as I pointed out in this column.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The NYTimes and political mathematics

This is what the New York Times had to say about the stability of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government today (Alissa J. Rubin, ‘Maliki Gains Time, but Faces a Daunting Task,’ September 25, 2007):

Seventeen ministries now are without a minister and those ministers who are left are in many cases doing double duty, making it difficult to improve the performance of the agencies and allow them to deliver desperately needed services like electricity and water.
This may look like me splitting hairs, but I think it’s important to set the record straight: the NYT may have gotten the number 17 by adding up 6+6+5 (6 Sadrist ministers, 6 Consensus ministers, and 5 ‘Allawi’ ministers), but the reality is that 11 ministries are now “without a minister” since 4 of Allawi’s ministers are still at their jobs (…the only one who seems to have followed Allawi’s orders is his relation, Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi over at Telecommunications, who keeps telling people in private that he’ll be back on the job soon), and another minister from the Consensus bloc, Ali Baban, who’s in charge of the Ministry of Planning, has returned to his job and was consequently expelled by the Islamic Party for not toeing the party line. Ironically, the head of the Islamic Party, Tariq Hashemi, has not resigned from his post as Vice-President.

What’s also interesting is that all these parties—the Sadrists, Consensus and Allawi—have not pulled out any of their guys who serve as Deputy Ministers, let alone withdrawing their loyalists and appointees who occupy positions further down the bureaucratic chain.

The point of the NYT's ‘News Analysis’ piece can be summed in these paragraphs:

Some are making lists of members of Parliament who would support a “no-confidence” motion to see if it is possible to obtain the 138 votes necessary to remove him. Under Iraqi law, the prime minister and his government can be removed by a vote of no confidence that is supported by a simple majority in the 275-member Parliament.

“There is serious movement around a vote,” said Ezzet al-Shabandar, a senior member of the secular Iraqiya Party, which is led by a former interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi and opposes Mr. Maliki. But, Mr. Shabandar added, some of Mr. Maliki’s opponents are from religious parties and they would like the tacit assent of the religious leaders in Najaf, including the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to remove Mr. Maliki. It is still unclear whether Ayatollah Sistani will take sides.
But if the NYT can’t accurately report on whether 11 or 17 ministries are vacant, then they sure won’t have the capacity to tally-up 138 ‘no confidence’ votes; it’s interesting that the reporter didn’t press Mr. Shahbandar on whether or not Allawi can deliver all 25 votes from his bloc alone towards the “movement” to yank out Maliki. At least four MPs on Allawi’s list have recently expressed their desire to secede from his bloc and form their own coalition with other ‘dissident’ MPs (Safia al-Suheil, Mahdi al-Hafiz, Hachim al-Hassani and Wa’il Abdel-Latif).

The political situation in Baghdad is far more dynamic and fluid, and with many more moving parts, than the picture that is being relayed by this newspaper report: new alliances are being made, and new loyalties are being formed; someone in an established position of authority, such as Maliki, has plenty of space to maneuver and make promises here and here to win over the fence-sitters. It's coalition politics, and the operative word here is patronage.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

What is al-Baghdadi up to these days?

It’s finally time for Talisman Gate to catch-up with what Abu Omar al-Baghdadi has been saying lately, since no one else seems to be taking him seriously.

The U.S. military has said that they have a confession from at least one ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ figure—identified as a senior leader in the ISI’s hierarchy—alleging that al-Baghdadi is a fictitious character invented by Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia to lend more of an indigenous Iraqi ‘identity’ to its leadership.

Although I’d agree that non-Iraqi Arabs are better represented in the ISI’s leadership than in its ranks, I tend to disagree with the assertion that al-Baghdadi doesn’t exist.

In the last two month period, Al-Baghdad has put out two new speeches: his fifth speech (43 minutes long) was entitled ‘Should you desist then that is better for you’ and was released on July 9, and his sixth speech was posted to jihadist website on September 15 under the title ‘They plot, but Allah also plots’ and lasts for 27 minutes. I am unaware of any other speeches during this time period.

A little over two months ago, al-Baghdadi threatened war against Iran, and last week he declared war on Sweden. But what’s interesting about his latest speech is that there was no mention of his prior threat against Iran: he had given the Iranians a two month grace period to pull their support for Iraq’s Shiites or else he would go after them and after Shiite business interests across the Middle East. But even though the two months were up, and Iran obviously had not cleared out of Iraq, al-Baghdadi doesn’t bring up his previous tirade. In this context, threatening a new war against Sweden and its own business interests (including Ikea!) seems oddly forgetful of his earlier warning to the Iranians.

Not only that but al-Baghdadi doesn’t even address the American accusation that he’s a fictitious character, which was made on July 18, nine days after he released his fifth speech. So it would stand to reason that al-Baghdadi would address this issue, even if in passing, in his next speech, right? But he doesn’t, and all that we have on the record is a single sentence from the ISI—part of a longer, unrelated statement released on July 23—denouncing the U.S. military’s “lies."

We can tell that al-Baghdadi recorded his sixth speech after August 22 since he references President George Bush’s appearance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention on that date.

What’s also interesting is that the end part of his sixth speech—at least in the recording that I downloaded from alhesbah.org—is cut right after he says “your brother” and right before the point where he usually ends with “Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.” Maybe he had begun to record under his real name and thus it had to be excised in the final edit, or maybe it was just a technical glitch.

So what if there was an intermediary speech in between speeches 5 and 6 that was never released, and in which he had revealed his real identity or at least addressed the accusations made against him, and where he would have followed-up on his threat to Iran? Had such a speech existed, it would be interesting to find out why the ISI never put it out: did they have second thoughts about revealing al-Baghdadi’s true identity? Or maybe it went missing somewhere along the production and distribution process; for example, a courier may have met an unfortunate accident somewhere along the route. This is all speculative, but I can’t think of another reason why these two issues—the Iran threat and the fictitious identity allegation—were not brought up by al-Baghdadi in his last speech.

(Note: Here’s a link to al-Baghdadi’s fourth speech on Talisman Gate, and in it you’ll find links to his other speeches.)

A quick comparison between the two speeches

Irrespective of my missing ‘mystery speech’ theory, al-Baghdadi’s latest was one long lament at how low the jihadist insurgency had fallen.

Previously, his fifth speech on July 9 signaled the ISI’s intention to move some of its operations from the Arab Sunni provinces into Kurdish and Turkmen areas, and included an attempt to sow dissent between Arab Shiites and the “Persianized” Shiite political parties beholden to Iran. But the bulk of that speech was geared towards attacking and threatening Iran, and casting a wider net for Shiite targets, including Shiite merchants in the Persian Gulf. There was a small mention of the war against the militants in Lebanon’s Nahr al-Bared too. The portion of the speech castigating the Sunnis who had thrown in their lot with the central government and the Americans was short in length, and mild in its tone, as if it didn’t really matter all that much to the overall conditions of the jihad in Iraq.

Whereas last week al-Baghdadi was far gloomier about the prospects of jihad, which according to him “is undergoing a fierce attack and a cruel war by the hands of treachery and betrayal.” The entire speech, except for the part where he lashes out against the Swedes and the Yezidis, is focused on the Iraqi Sunnis who are “betraying” the mujaheddin.

Here are some translated excerpts from the two speeches, with some commentary and summaries in between:

Fifth Speech: ‘Should you desist then that is better for you’ (July 9, 2007)

Jihadist banner announcing al-Baghdadi's Fifth Speech

This speech starts off with these questions: “What have the Kurds harvested over the last four years? And what have the Shiites harvested?” before moving on to “What is our position regarding Iran?”

Al-Baghdadi’s thoughts on the Kurds
…It was an unjust person who said that “The Kurds are a nation without a history of their own,” for if we turn over the pages of history we would find that [the Kurdish nation] have had honorable stances and glorious heroes and many luminaries in the sciences and [other fields], for they were laurel wreaths upon the head of Islamic civilization…

Saladin, the conqueror of Jerusalem and the destroyer of the [Crusaders] and the remover of the fundamentalist rafidhi [Ed.: rafidhi and rafidha are derogatory terms meaning Shiites, but in this case, the context is the Fatimid Empire] ‘Ubeidi state, is still spoken of and loved together with his family the Ayyubids; after Damascus had fallen under the Fatimids who imposed the rites of the rafidha, and Egypt had remained a rafidhi state for more than two hundred years, all this was not overturned until [the advent] of the state of Nureddin [Zenki] and Saladin the Ayyubid…

…But today, the politicians [of the Kurds] are ones who are fortifying the rule of the rafidha in [Iraq]! It is a mutually beneficial friendship, for the deep hatred of the rafidha against Saladin…is known and their hostility to the Kurds is very old, springing from sayings, falsely attributed to Ja’afar al-Sadik [Ed: the sixth Imam of the Shiites], alleging that the Kurds are descended from genies! And that it is unlawful to marry them or to eat the food [they prepare]!

…The heads of the infidels, Talabani and Barzani…have institutionalized heretical communism and its bitter [fruit] secularism, until it became accepted behavior not to pray…

…The two parties [Ed: Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party] spread corruption and sleaziness; it became normal for women to dress up and emerge in public without headdresses, together the spread of brothels and liquor shops, and Jewish enclaves within Kurdish cities…

…Poverty and inflation are on the rise, as well as unemployment, while the wealth of the two parties increases…
Al-Baghdadi frowns upon Kurdish nationalism, which he decries in the same breath as Arab or Turkish or Persian nationalism, but laments how the Kurds have been dismembered as a nation by “phony borders” in order to punish “the sons of Saladin, the destroyer of the Crusaders and the majusi [Ed.: Persian pagans] rafidhis in Egypt and the Levant,” and the best way to unite them would be under the banner of Islam and within the Islamic state.

...I call upon all the areas of Kurdistan to enter into the lands of the State of Islam in Mesopotamia, especially since the Kurdistan Brigades have returned to the mountains…And our operations in Arbil and Makhmur, as well as our blessed operations in Suleimaniya and its mountains show a big and dramatic turning point, for the lions of the mountains have returned to tear at the insides of the secular parties that—at the [instruction of the] American—have set out to rabidly attack Islam and its people…

…I also take this opportunity to salute the Sunni Turkmens of Iraq, the heroes of Islam, and we tell them Allah bless you, for you have reminded us of your ancestors who defeated the [Byzantines]…
Al-Baghdadi addresses Iraq’s Arab Shiites

…Our stance in your regard is well known, and today we address you out of pity hoping that you would repent and wake up from your deep hibernation…

…By standing with the infidel occupiers, the Arab sons of true Arabian tribes have become a tool in the hands of the Persians and their followers…and this will remain a stain on your forehead for history to witness, and this is your nature as attested by the history books: to support the enemies of Allah against the Sunnis
Al-Baghdadi claims that the lot of the Shiites has not improved over the last four years, and that instead of progress the cities of the south have become infested with AIDS, drug use and organized crime. Anarchy is the rule as the Shiite parties fight among themselves, and all the benefits are going to the ‘Persians’, who are engineering demographic changes in the areas where Persians are displacing Shiite Arabs.

…The plague has surfaced in some southern cities as a return of the [poor] water treatment systems that flood your cities…And a report has been published saying that hashish is being planted instead of rice in Diwaniya…

…The huge increase in wealth of the Ayatollahs of Najaf and Karbala and the ruling members of the Badr Corps and the Da’awa Party, who until recently did not have enough to eat, in conjunction with the intentional weakening of the Arab tribes to the point of humiliation, is all part of a known Persian plot…

...The door of clemency is still open to you, and don’t think that we will annihilate you completely when we rule over you, for random killing without legal precepts is contrary to the religion of Allah, and we will deal with you according to the shari’ah [Ed.: Islamic law]…

Al-Baghdadi threatens war against Iran

…Don’t presume, oh grandsons of Ibn al-‘Alqemi the traitor, that we have forgotten your historical crimes in many fields, and we know that the first seed of the rafidha was planted by the Jewish hand of Ibn Saba’ the Jew…
Al-Baghdadi states that Iran was a majority Sunni country, but when “Shah Ismail the Safavid came to power in 907 AH he forced the Sunnis to become Shiites under pain of death.” The Iranians have also destroyed Sunni mosques and there isn’t a single mosque for Sunnis in Tehran even though there are plenty of synagogues and churches, according to al-Baghdadi. He accuses the regime in Iran of denying college placements to Sunni students, and assassinating Sunni leaders, professionals and clergymen, as well as burying nuclear waste in Sunni areas.

…Your rafidhi allies in Bamyan [the Hazara Shiites of Afghanistan] and in the north did not fire a single bullet against the Russian occupiers or the communist regime, but rather they would impose tariffs on the convoys of the mujaheddin and kill those they are able kill from them, then the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guard participated in the ugly massacres perpetrated against Sunnis in Kabul after the fall of the communists, where they would cut off the breasts of Sunni women, and would ask a Sunni how old he is and then beat nails into his body equivalent to his age with the last nail going into his head, and then burn his body, and this is exactly when those who use drills [Ed: the Mahdi Army] do to the Sunnis in Iraq…

…And your crimes in [Iraq] are long and related and go back to the time of that hateful Safavid [Shah Ismail] and span the years to the time of Nejad [Ed. Ahmadinejad], the puppet of the devils of Qum, for it wasn’t enough, oh majus of this era, to directly participate in the occupation of Iraq, as you have stated on more than one occasion, but you directed your hateful dogs towards [Iraq] and waded into our blood and danced upon our bodies, and not even a suckling baby was spared, or an old man, or an honorable woman, until Allah enabled the men of the State of Islam to avenge your malice, and to do that doubly…And let it be known that the only form of politics we know are the politics of jihad and warfare, and we like nothing more than to behead the infidels and drink [their] blood, and we know nothing of mercy but to purify the land of polytheism…

…Therefore, we give the Persians in general, and the rulers of Iran in particular, two months to withdraw all forms of aid to the rafidhis of Iraq, and to cease all direct and indirect meddling in the affairs of the State of Islam, or you shall witness a cruel war that will wipe you out, one that we have prepared for over the last four years, and it only awaits our orders for it to be launched. And by Allah, we will not exempt any spot on earth that harbors majusi Persians, whether in Iran or anywhere else in the region, and we advise and warn every Sunni merchant in Iran or the Arab countries and especially the Gulf countries not to enter into any new partnerships with any rafidhi merchants, and to withdraw from any older partnerships within the span of these two months. We are giving an opportunity for any country that has majusi rafidhis in it to issue a statement decrying the crimes of the Safavid rafidhi government, and to distance themselves from it, and thus they will be safe from our upcoming attacks after the two month period is done…

…We declare the cessation of all mercantile dealings between [Iraq] and the majus of Iran, including banking arrangements…After which, all such business dealings will be subject to the attacks of the mujaheddin, and with all their strength. We call upon Sunnis and the youth of the jihadist Salafist movement everywhere to prepare for this war…And I call upon the Sunnis of Iran in particular to prepare for this war…

Al-Baghdadi then discusses the fitna or conspiracy to set jihadist group and some tribes against the ISI, but essentially stresses that this can be contained.

Al-Baghdadi’s comment on Lebanon

…Bush, you rabidly and hastily ventured in your war against Islam and Muslims everywhere, and your last feverish attempt was to fuel the Crusader war in Lebanon against our people in the persecuted Palestinian refugee camps, consequently the skies were filled with planes carrying supplies and ammunition and missiles and dumb bombs and cluster bombs, and the Christian Lebanese Minister of Defense launched a horrible war and with the backing of [his] sect, and we all heard what Gemayel said, and he burnt mosques and destroyed homes and insulted the ummah of Islam in its entirety…
Al-Baghdadi concludes by saluting, at length, all the various areas of Iraq where the mujaheddin operate.

Sixth Speech: ‘They Plot, but Allah Also Plots’ (September 15, 2007)

Jihadist banner on occasion of the "Raid of the Martyr of the ummah Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi" that was declared by al-Baghdadi in his Sixth Speech to coincide with beginning of Ramadhan

Al-Baghdadi on the current state of the insurgency
…The project of jihad in [Iraq] is undergoing a fierce attack and a cruel war by the hands of treachery and betrayal, these hands that all throughout their history have acquiesced to the culture of defeat and servitude, for whenever the ummah [community of Muslims] is about to be revived from its tumble somewhere, they are quick to stop it…

…The Muslim Brotherhood in [Iraq], and at their head the Islamic Party, are today perpetrating the worse campaign to undermine the tenets of [our] religion in Iraq, and especially its [highest calling] that is jihad, while we find the Kurds striving to build their country, while the hateful rafidhis are fortifying their control across the country—especially in the areas of the south and the center—the Muslim Brotherhood, through their leadership of the Consensus bloc, are working very hard for the benefit of the [American] occupation, disregarding all the blood that has been spilt, all the honor that has been desecrated, and all the money that has been spent, desperately beseeching the occupiers to stay while the pillars of the rafidhi state in Iraq are strengthened and its security and military institutions are built-up…

…They went even further in their disregard of the sacrifices of the honorable Sunnis, for they lifted the flag of war against the jihad and the mujaheddin, after receiving promises from the deceitful occupiers that matters will be handed over to them after the defeat of the mujaheddin who they call terrorists, so they were delighted and they welcomed the creation of the Anbar Rebels Council and they supported it with all their strength, even that college professor and the old man of the Consensus front, the Dulaimi [Ed. Adnan Dulaimi], went and attended a meeting of those traitors, whose head was a man famous for every vice and sin, I mean that criminal Rishawi, and not only that, but [Dulaimi] praised him and praised his project, while Dulaimi has never praised a single suicide bomber who blew himself up at an American base or gave up his life to avenge the religion of Allah and the ruptured dignities in the prisons of the tyrants, foremost among them the prison of Abu Ghraib…

…The [Muslim Brotherhood] established the Diyala Support Council, and they were proud of that, to strike at the mujaheddin and expose them wherever they may be, and the brigades that follow the Muslim Brotherhood participated in this war, at their helm Hamas-Iraq and JAME [Ed.: Islamic Front of Iraqi Resistance-Salahaldin Al-Ayoubi Brigades], they exposed all the secrets of the mujaheddin and the locations of their weapons caches, and in the end they stood side by side with the occupiers in fighting us, while wearing civilian dress, but the occupier gave them an arm band to distinguish them from the mujaheddin

Zigham [Ed. Salam Zigham al-Zoba’i, Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister] recruited a large number of the 1920 Revolt Brigades in the area of Abu Ghraib and Zoba’ to fight the various strands of the mujaheddin alongside the American and the rafidhi pagan [National] Guard, raping the honor [of women] and stealing money…

…And one more than one occasion, the leaders of the Muslim Scholars Association warned about this crime, and the deceit of the Americans, and asked the traitors to return to the ranks of the resistance, but to no avail…

Al-Baghdadi sounds conciliatory towards the MSA here; he's absolving them of what those “renegades” are doing. However, The Islamic State of Iraq issued a statement yesterday under the title “The Truth about the 1920 Revolt Brigades” that elaborated Al-Baghdadi’s points and identified the head of Hamas-Iraq as Muhammad Ayyash al-Kubeisi. Furthermore, the statement was more pointed in its criticism of the Muslim Scholars Association and implied that even the splinter wing of the 1920 Revolt Brigades that answers to “one of the personalities” in the MSA had also secretly cooperated with the Americans in Abu Ghraib, Ridhwaniya and southern Baghdad.

Al-Baghdadi continues by asserting that the Muslim Brotherhood did the same thing in Afghanistan; going so far to call the destruction of the “idols” [Ed.: the Buddha statues of Bamyan] a crime.

…And here they are trying again, this time in the home of the caliphate, in Baghdad, to play the same game and in the same way, dreaming of the moment when the mujaheddin are set upon by the [American] occupier and [America’s] agents, hoping that the devil would bring about the downfall of the State of Islam

Al-Baghdadi lists ten accusations against the “renegades” including spreading false lies about the mujaheddin, participating in the Iraqi political process, cajoling Arab governments—like that of Saudi Arabia—to re-open diplomatic representations in Iraq, and recruiting Sunnis into the ranks of the Iraqi Army and police. Al-Baghdadi cites the example of the “perverted” police chief of Fallouja, who he alleges is one of the leaders of the 1920 Revolt Brigades, and accuses him of using all sorts of torture methods against the Salafists he arrests.

Al-Baghdadi advances the notion that these “renegade” Sunnis have rationalized their alliance with the Americans as a necessary measure to combat the menace of the Shiite Mahdi Army.

Al-Baghdadi then takes credit for all the attacks on Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority, branding them “devil-worshippers” guilty of preventing their own from converting to Islam, and promises more attacks on them.

Al-Baghdadi declares war on Sweden

Al-Baghdadi is really miffed about a Swedish cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a dog.

…Every sniveling scoundrel is daring to insult us, from the worshippers of the cross [Christians] to the worshippers of the devil [Yezidis], even the worshippers of the cow [Hindus], and our honor and our blood have become the cheapest thing in this world, and when we strive to arise from our slumber to retrieve our glory and the dignity of our ancestors, these [renegades] stabs us in the back…

…No, oh worshippers of money, no oh worshippers of the cross, we are a nation that Allah [had chosen] to glorify with Islam, and you will know oh worshippers of the cross how it will feel to kneel down in humiliation, and officially apologize for your crime against our Prophet…And we know how we can force you to retract and apologize, for if you don’t then await the attacks on the economies of your giant corporations such as Ericsson, Scania, Volvo, Ikea and Electrolux
Al-Baghdadi announces a $100,000 bounty for whoever kills Lars Vilks, the Swedish cartoonist, and $50,000 extra if Vilks’ neck is slit like a lamb’s. Al-Baghdadi sets aside another $50,000 for the head of the editor of Nerikes Allehanda, the paper that ran the cartoon.

Al-Baghdadi Offers Amnesty

Al-Baghdadi addresses those who have been “led astray” by the “renegades” and tells them that they can redeem themselves by coming back to the ranks of the mujaheddin. He says:

…Don’t sell your afterlife for a bunch of coins that will be of no use should you fall into the hands of the mujaheddin before you declare repentance, by Allah your fortifications and your armored vehicles will not protect you, neither will your numbers or the reputation of your tribes, because Allah is making us victorious over you, and you will know that this is so for certain when we cut off your head and extinguish your memory…

Al-Baghdadi foresees the end of the West’s decadent civilization
…Today, we are embarking on a new era, and a point of transformation for the region and the entire world, we are witnessing the end of that lie called Western civilization, and the rise of the Islamic giant, and this is exactly what Bush warned of in his latest speech in front of the veterans [Ed.: August 22, 2007] saying: “the region is developing in a way that threatens the downfall of civilization” and by that he means the civilization of unbelief, the civilization of usury and prostitution, the civilization of oppression and humiliation. And he had this to say about the soldiers of the Islamic State of [Iraq]: “they seek to restore the caliphate from Spain to Indonesia” after [the Americans] made clear that [the soldiers of the Islamic State] are only Sunni danger threatening America and its civilization, and this is the truth as testified to by the enemies, doesn’t this conflict with what the “renegades” have branded us?
In conclusion, al-Baghdadi declared a new offensive within the larger Dignity Plan that is still in effect. He called the offensive “The Raid of the Martyr of the ummah, Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi” and specified that it should span the month of Ramadhan and the 'Eid holiday.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Of Tribes and Men

UPDATE (September 24, 2007): Here's a link to the column that I'm refering to below; it ran today.

Note: I had sent in a column on this topic to the New York Sun, but they keep bumping me off the page, so I’ll summarize the points of the column and add all the stuff that hadn’t fit into my space allocation.

Main point: tribes don’t matter all that much. Generals and experts like to be praised.

Here’s how I started my column:

Last week’s murder of Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha was tragic, but not catastrophic. His death does not change the vastly improved situation in Anbar Province, since his role in its pacification was exaggerated from the beginning. Anbar stabilized for a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with Abu Risha or America’s counterinsurgency efforts there—something that the U.S. military command has yet to figure out. Abu Risha found himself in the limelight at the right time and place, and the Americans fighting the terrorists in Anbar seized upon him as the poster-boy of a new strategy—empowering Iraq’s defunct tribal structure—that they had hoped would make belated sense of the positive transition and would allow them to claim credit, and medals, for it.

But why begrudge General David Petraeus and his counterinsurgency advisers the accolades for this turnaround at this time? Does it really matter, whether tribes were the primary factor in defeating Al-Qaeda or not, given that the story coming out of Iraq is more and more hopeful? Yes it does: the implication is that if you don’t know why and how you’ve won, then you won’t be able to replicate victory. The tribes, like the U.S. troop surge, were catalysts that speeded up the demise of the insurgency, but they did not trigger the process; the insurgency’s failure predated the surge and any tribal strategies.

I believe the insurgency failed because it had bad ideas and unrealistic expectations. When the price paid by the local population for these ideas and expectations—fighting the Shiites and re-establishing Sunni hegemony—became too steep, Sunnis turned against the insurgents and tried to find shelter, yet again, under the central government. This latter trend is the one that should be reinforced: Sunnis should be encouraged to throw in their lot with the New Iraq, rather than falling back into the tribal identities of Iraq’s past.

“Tribes are now part of Iraqi folklore; they don’t matter anymore. We found out the hard way,” said Abu Seif, a man who once sold me on his own importance as a tribal leader from Anbar. This was said to me recently at an office in Amman, where Abu Seif now manages his business affairs.

A long time ago and in a career far, far away, I had turned myself into a tribal expert, focusing specifically on the tribes of Anbar, and the ones that surround Baghdad. Consequently, I had to often deal with tribal leaders, or sheikhs.

The Dulaim Camel Corps

Over four years ago, my first day in liberated Iraq was spent in the countryside of Ramadi, Anbar’s capital city, which had just fallen under American control a little less than 24 hours earlier. Abu Seif and his brothers and cousins waited for me on the main desert highway, and my traveling companions and I followed them over dirt tracks somewhere east of Ramadi to where their tribal diwaniyyah, or hall, was located.

Abu Seif was preparing for a role in politics since he was one of the few significant tribal leaders inside Iraq who had been in contact with anti-Saddam forces. Later that day, Abu Seif escorted me into Baghdad in his fancy Mercedes, but en route we witnessed a spectacle of mass yet systematic looting of the state-owned warehouse at Abu Ghraib. People were piling up anything from steel frames to porcelain toilets onto their cars and trucks, and many of them were from Anbar. “Why don’t you stop them?” I asked. “They won’t listen to us,” Abu Seif answered, thus giving me my first hint at how far a tribal leader’s writ really extends.

David Ignatius made a good point about tribes in his column yesterday (Washington Post, ‘Shaky Allies in Anbar,’ September 20, 2007): the U.S. should work with tribal leaders but shouldn’t exaggerate their importance. However, I think that he left out some large chunks of the narrative of how the Americans had dealt with tribes:

Like other journalists who follow Iraq, I began talking with Sunni tribal leaders in 2003. Most of the meetings were in Amman, Jordan, arranged with help from former Jordanian government officials who had perfected the art of paying the sheiks. One contact was a member of the Kharbit clan, which had long maintained friendly (albeit secret) relations with the Jordanians and the Americans. The Kharbits were eager for an alliance, even after a U.S. bombing raid killed one of their leaders, Malik Kharbit, in April 2003. But U.S. officials were disdainful.
But while U.S. officials were disdainful of some sheikhs (the ones Ignatius was talking to), they were actively counting on others: Ignatius should remember that America’s first approach to handling Anbar was through working with the tribes, and the key characters in that effort were the CIA, Ayad Allawi, and Sheikh Majid al-Abdel-Razzak al-Ali al-Suleiman, who’s sister was married to Malik al-Kharbit, the sheikh Ignatius mentioned—she was also killed in that raid. I remember going over to Sheikh Majid’s apartment in Amman to give my condolences, and thinking, “The CIA and Allawi have got to be kidding…” after I got my first look at him.

On paper, Sheikh Majid was the paramount chief of the Dulaim Confederacy. The Dulaim are the principal tribal group of Anbar Province, so much so that it used to be called the Dulaim Canton when Iraq was first created. Theoretically, the Dulaim can all trace their roots to three ancestors: Khamis, Juma’a and Sebit (…literally, Thursday, Friday and Saturday). When one judges genealogical tables against population numbers, this claim of ancestry is shown to be patently bogus: these three ancestors could not have produced today’s +1.5 million Dulaimis in so few generations. What probably happened is a situation common to the rest of Iraq and much of the Middle East: smaller tribes got gobbled up by larger tribes, while sedentary peasants and town folk were absorbed by dominant tribal powers during times of insecurity. Consequently, genealogists would dispute Sheikh Majid’s Dulaimi descent, and would peg him a scion of the Abu Risha princely family of the Tayy tribe—just like Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha.

Why does all this detail matter? Because Sheikh Majid derives his stature from his grandfather, Sheikh Ali al-Suleiman. But there’s a catch there: Sheikh Ali was always challenged by other branches of the Dulaim who denounced him as a non-Dulaimi, but he only secured his position with British gold and guns. Sheikh Ali was established as the paramount chief of the Dulaim by Iraq’s British occupiers after World War One.

So even 80 years ago or so, when tribes mattered much more since there was no central state or authority, the system had been corrupted and restructured by foreign meddling and money.

CIA analysts cannot be faulted for taking Sheikh Majid seriously for he is what he claims to be: the grandson of the paramount sheikh of the Dulaim. But anyone meeting him in person should have done a double take: this guy is a clown.

Well anyway, the CIA’s stabilization efforts in Anbar failed very quickly, and Anbar witnessed the birth of the insurgency.

Now onto Dave Kilcullen's piece, Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt, in the Small Wars Journal published last August. Kilcullen who until recently served as General David Petraeus’ senior counterinsurgency adviser says:

Iraqi tribes are not somehow separate, out in the desert, or remote: rather, they are powerful interest groups that permeate Iraqi society. More than 85% of Iraqis claim some form of tribal affiliation; tribal identity is a parallel, informal but powerful sphere of influence in the community. Iraqi tribal leaders represent a competing power center, and the tribes themselves are a parallel hierarchy that overlaps with formal government structures and political allegiances.
I disagree. Although Kilcullen tempers his argument with many considered nuances and caveats, he gives tribes too much authority over the individual, and apparently uses outlandish claims from tribal leaders themselves keen on promoting their own importance. It is one thing to be proud of one’s tribe—I take pride in being a Nakha’i—but it’s a whole different matter to take orders from one’s nominal tribal sheikh. These social structures have been fraying under the myriad forces of sedentarization, urbanization, nation states, sectarianism, land reform and dictatorship to the point where tribal sheikhs are now rendered a quaint, “savage” aristocracy that the men in power—now wearing Western suits—would tolerate and do small favors for.

Tribal leaders held on to some lingering prestige accorded to them by their ancestry; their dress and mannerism harked back to romanticized notions of Arabian chivalry. The tribes turned into job placement agencies; the sheikhs would petition the powerful over low-grade government jobs for the desperate young men who still came to them for help.

That’s how the sheikhs held on to their social relevance, by becoming a 'civil society' lever between a small segment of the population and the all powerful, all benevolent welfare state, much like the neighborhood mukhtar does. They are useless for mass mobilization, and could never rival a civil society institution such as the religious hawza in Najaf; something that was clarified by the failure of tribal chiefs, and the politicians who relied on them, at the polls.

Only two tribes in Iraq can be considered “freshly” Bedouin and hence can claim more tribal cohesion among its members and its sheikhs: the ‘Anazah and the Shammar Jarba. They are the last to migrate to Iraq in large numbers and the last to settle down. The latter tribe could boast that one of their own, the urbane Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawer, was selected as Iraq’s first post-Saddam president. But I’d reckon than most Shammaris in Nineveh Province voted for lists other than that which al-Yawer was running on.

I say a lot more about this stuff in my column, so I’ll leave the rest until it gets published, but I want to make some points about Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha. I write:
Abu Risha’s story was the stuff of powerful narrative: a pro-American tribal sheikh who had courageously confronted Al-Qaeda’s menace and eventually evicted them from his province, but was then killed by a treacherous bomb planted by the terrorists—Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq took credit for it. In war, icons are invented and Abu Risha was such an icon: he looked ‘authentic’ and trim in his flowing Arabian robes, said the right things, and was always available for media comment. But he was creature for an American audience rather than an Iraqi one, and his American minders fell into the trap of believing their own propaganda.

Interestingly, Abu Risha’s tribe is numerically insignificant by Dulaim standards, and only number in the hundreds. Their claim to fame was a descent from an ancestor who once ruled the deserts between Iraq and Syria. When one of their own, Saadoun Dulaimi, became Iraq’s minister of defense during the Ja’afari cabinet, they were little swayed to throw in their lot with the Iraqi state against Al-Qaeda because the latter seemed to be winning; in fact, some Rishawis volunteered for suicide missions in neighboring Jordan.
Sheikh Sattar fit the Western image of the valiant Bedouin scoundrel as depicted by Antony Quinn, who played Sheikh Odeh Abu Tayeh of the Huwaitat tribe in the movie Lawrence of Arabia.

Here’s some detail that confuses the narrative: Sheikh Sattar began his confrontation with Al-Qaeda by recruiting Shiites; many of his earlier crew and his current bodyguard detail are Abu Risha clansmen from the southern province of Samawa who had separated from the Anbar branch of the tribe over a century ago and turned Shiite. According to one source, Sattar’s second wife is from these Shiite Rishawis of Samawa. [His first wife is his cousin, daughter of Sheikh Muhammad al-‘Ifteikhan; and contrary to what’s been reported by the Associated Press, his eldest son is not called “Saddam” but rather the accurate pronunciation is “Sattam”—a tribal name. Sattar was at least 41 when he died.]

There had been many sheikhs in Anbar who wanted to be part of the new Iraq from the very beginning, men like Abu Seif or the CIA’s guy, Sheikh Majid. Later, others confronted Al-Qaeda head-on: credible leaders like Sheikh Nasr Abdel-Karim al-Mikhlif (of the Albu-Fahed tribe in Anbar, held a PhD in Agriculture, one of the few tribal sheikhs in Iraq who could claim a level of authority over his tribe) and opportunists such as Sheikh Usama al-Jeryan (of the Karabilah tribe in Qaim), only to be killed off by Al-Qaeda. Ignatius sings the praises of Talal al-Gaoud, a polished and gentlemanly businessman and fluent English speaker who made much of his money with Qusay, Saddam’s second son, but Ignatius doesn’t mention another Gaoud, Sheikh Fassal, who was more senior than Talal in the Albu-Nimr tribal hierarchy and who was appointed Governor of Anbar (Sheikh Fassal was killed by an Al-Qaeda bomb last June). None of these men achieved Abu Risha’s fame, simply for the fact that he had better timing, and an American audience willing to be charmed.

Here’s something to ponder: Almost all of the tribal leadership of Anbar, and of several other predominately Sunni provinces, showed up to the 3-day wake held in honor of Sheikh Fassal in Amman, Jordan, where most of these tribal leaders now live. As Ignatius pointed out, the Jordanians are especially friendly to the sheikhs, who they hope would give them an “in” into Iraqi politics—I know from my Jordanian sources that they’ve been thoroughly disappointed in this regard. [Tribes are also far more important in the Jordanian political context than in Iraq]. But something happened at the wake that was quite spectacular: Iraq’s Kurdish Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, arrived to give his condolences, and was given the seat of honor, and all were enthralled by his presence. How much had the situation changed: just five years ago Zebari, as an adversary of Saddam’s, would have been shunned, and probably insulted in such a setting. But now, he represents authority, and the tribes want a little of his attention and benevolence.

As one Iraq observer put it to me, “tribes are a barometer of power; they swarm around whoever has the upper hand.” The danger now is that the Americans are trying to resuscitate a clannish social system that had withered away in Iraq, and turning it into a power in of itself.

Going back to Kilcullen’s paper: Maybe what’s important here are tribal tactics in warfare, rather than the institution of a the tribe itself: the insurgency had imposed its terror (and control) on Iraqi society by being very up-close and personal: they knew the name, address and genealogies of those who stood against them among their own kind, and would strike out at them from the shadows, in a way similar to how Saddam's totalitarian regime worked, which isn't surprising since many insurgents worked in Saddam's security organs. The U.S. military had been trained to target regimental colors rather than individuals—it’s a depersonalized method of war, seemingly in place to make the act of murder more palatable to Western sensibilities. But an insurgent’s willingness to kill was made easier by knowing who he was going to kill; punishing the alleged individual “guilt” of the victim. What succeeded against Al-Qaeda’s methods was the tactic of turning cousins on cousins: all of a sudden America had allies on the ground who fought in the same way Al-Qaeda was fighting—they made it personal.

Something to ponder.

There’s a lot more to say about tribes, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

Updated correction: my mistake, I meant Sheikh Majid, not his brother Sheikh Hatem! Changes have been made throughout the text. Sheikh Hatem has been dead for a while.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Al-Baghdadi to Deliver New Speech

...So say the banners on the jihadist websites. Stay tuned. This would be his sixth speech; last one was released two months ago when he gave Iran a two month ultimatem to pull out of Iraq or else he will declare war.

Al-Qaeda Takes Credit for Abu Risha Assassination

Al-Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq just put a press release on Al-Hesbah taking credit for the assassination of Sheikh Abdel-Sattar Albu Risha yesterday. The statement alleges that this operation had taken a whole month to prepare.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

New Column: America's Future Ally

I've finally come around to writing a new column, and this one is a summary of what I've been thinking about this summer: nothing looks certain around the Middle East, and dangerous trends can be spotted. Iraq is the only place where these dangerous trends are in reverse. Iraq will make it.