Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I liked my flag best, and a thing or two about De-Baathification

I'm happy about the flag change and the new de-Baathification amendments, but reading the papers this morning still managed to get my blood to boil. And it got me thinking about the past and what events led up to these stories.

Back in the old days, when we in the Iraqi opposition were sorting out through what should get done in the first couple of weeks after the liberation of Baghdad, I came up with a design for a new Iraqi flag.

I was riding in a car somewhere in Washington DC, when I frantically began demanding a piece of paper and a pen; I had to commit the image in my head to the official record. For those of you with a knack for conspiracy theories, that little piece of paper came with American Enterprise Institute letterhead.

I didn’t want a flag with the color red in it; Iraq has had enough of a fascination with blood. And I wanted a flag that gave a nod to Iraq’s geography and some of its national colors.

So this is what it looked like:

The sky blue represents the snow of the Kurdish mountains to the north, hence that’s the color on top. The green band represents the fertile land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which are depicted by the two stars. The green band is diagonal because that’s what the course of the two rivers along Iraq’s map looks like. The beige represents Iraq’s deserts, which lie to the south and west for the most part and thus it’s the bottom color.

The two seven pointed stars add up to the 14 provinces that once constituted Iraq under the monarchy, which was a far better administrative system than the current 19. The number 7 and its multiples are also considered ‘blessed’ numbers in Iraqi folklore. The Kurds would be happy with the yellow and green colors (…the KDP banner is yellow, PUK is green). The Turkumans would love the sky-blue. The Shias would positively swoon over the green too, being the holy color of the Alid cause.

To my chagrin, the flag was expediently used for the Free Iraqi Forces, and then appropriated as a party flag by the Iraqi National Congress. The flag above could have been used as a national flag had anyone told me about the Governing Council meeting that temporarily decided on Rifaat Chadirchi’s flag; mine was never put forward for consideration. The Chadirchi flag was shot down by Sunni and Sadrist indignation over its supposed resemblance to the Israeli flag; it was a flimsy excuse to reject the flag (…I found it ugly, and a little too Ottoman-ish, given the Chadirchi’s Ottoman roots) but the Sunnis in particular didn’t want to part with a Baathist symbol.

There was a Baathist street campaign at the time that distributed stickers and flags all over Baghdad. One could immediately tell one’s political loyalties and even have a fair idea of one’s sect just by seeing a ‘Saddam flag’ on their car. The Baathists are not novices; they had security departments employing thousands of people whose job was to do grassroots PR for the regime such as starting rumors and watching cultural patters; this was top notch Stasi and KGB training. After the war, the Baathists had an old fellow pose as a madman on one of Baghdad’s busiest intersections wearing a leather jacket with pro-Saddam and pro-Baathist slogans scribbled on it as a reminder to passing motorists of their party’s menacing past and their ability to subvert the present. No, the Baathists were no novices.

And it’s funny how the western media is so ignorant about the history of the flag that had just been changed. The three stars do not refer to the tenets of Baathism, rather they represent a proposed union between Egypt, Syria and Iraq. It’s an Arab Nationalist flag that was adopted by Abdul-Salam Arif to replace Iraq’s first republican flag that had been introduced by Abdul-Karim Qasim, who had done away with the flag of the Iraqi monarchy.

The western media is also neglecting to mention that choosing a new flag and national anthem is mandated in Iraq’s new constitution, which was approved by a national referendum.

I am happy about the temporary change to the flag: it opens up the possibility of future, more dramatic changes. I don’t like the Allahu Akbar (‘God is Great’) slogan on it and what its colors represent, but parliament ruled that the change would be temporary and would last a year. And where are the Baathists today? Apart from getting a few fuming quotes out of Sunni parliamentarians published in today’s New York Times story about the flag change, I believe this time around the newest version of the flag will stick and in a year's time we may have a completely new flag.


There’s just something so rotten about how journalists cover the Middle East region and how experts explain it; coverage and expertise are tainted by how regimes want the story told, and in Iraq’s case habits die hard: reporters and experts are adamant about seeing the story through the eyes of the ex-regime. There are no more government minders or Ministry of Information apparatchiks hovering about; there are no more threats of visa bans; local fixers no longer have to spy on correspondents; Iraqi academics no longer hide what they really think, and the absence of all these dark reminders of the past has confused the hell out of reporters like the Washington Post’s Amit Paley and Joshua Partlow as they wrote-up the de-Baathification story today from the vantage point of ex-regime types.

And it took a Sadrist—a bloody Sadrist—to be the lone voice of moral clarity:

“Why is the United States not asking about the victims of the Baath Party?” said Shansal, a member of the Shiite party led by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. “I don’t understand why you are so interested in the executioners and forget about the victims of Saddam and his bloody regime.”

But Shansal gets as much print space as an anonymous Western diplomat who disparages the work of the De-Baathification Commission and denounces it as anti-Sunni. Of course, anything associated with Chalabi must be false and sinister, according to DC journos.

That’s so idiotic. The de-Baathification story gets plenty of airtime but no reporters or ‘Iraq experts’ have taken the time to really understand it. The dominant theme is that it was a heavy club wielded against Sunnis. There were five co-equal executive posts in the Commission, and the most critical one was the Information Department. Chalabi’s pick for that was Abdul-Aziz al-Wandawi, a Sunni. Chalabi’s other pick for the Education and Culture Department was another Sunni, Mithal Alusi. Wandawi was a Communist in his youth, and Alusi a Baathist. Those two departments were as diverse as possible, with many Christians and Mandeans on the payroll. The other three departments were controlled by SCIRI, the Da’awa Party and the Sadrists, the latter represented by Ali Faisal al-Lami. Nouri al-Maliki, now Iraq’s Prime Minister, was one of Chalabi’s deputies on the Commission’s board. Another board member, Younadim Kenna, head of a Christian Assyrian party, designed the Commission’s administrative structure.

And reporters and experts pretend that the only text that governed the Commission’s actions was Bremer’s edict. Not so: there is a detained law passed by the Governing Council that created the Commission and mandated its actions.

De-Sunnification? Well, the Saddam regime and the ones before it built the state’s structure on the premise that Sunnis are more trustworthy, giving them a disproportionate share of the executive. Should all of that have been kept in place?

The first province to send in appeals for re-instatement of fourth-tier Baathists, the ones who collected and collated the surveillance reports in schools, factories and neighborhoods from lower ranking Baathists, was Sunni Mosul. Thousands of dossiers arrived and I personally approved 90 percent of them on the spot without even looking at them simply by checking out their professions: teachers. Re-instatement for such jobs where being a Baathist was not as damaging to others than say, a professional torturer in the mukhaberat, was almost automatic in the early days when the Commission wasn’t fully staffed and overwhelmed by appeals.

These are just some examples of what is being overlooked when considering this story.

However, the Americans, in their frenetic drive to appease the Sunnis who’ve been fighting the new Iraq, had proposed a law where even members of Saddam’s Fedayeen get pensions. Wait, why don’t I get a pension for the years I spent working against Saddam?

What about the man whose brothers disappeared or his wife was raped because he stood up to Saddam? Does he get a pension, does he get compensation? Does he even get to watch the thugs who ruined his life get punished?

No. Because some cowardly idiots at the US Embassy in Baghdad have decreed that even Chemical Ali and his colleagues should be given a free pass in contravention of Iraqi law, if it means keeping the Sunnis happy.

But something even stupider has occurred: the Americans allowed the Baathists to hijack Sunni representation by making the unraveling of de-Baathification a key marker on the path of sectarian reconciliation. Suddenly Sunnis, many of whom with little stake in the Baath’s legacy, were manipulated to see the Baathist cause as their own. Where are the Baathists in the insurgency? What real strength do they bring to it? But their demands are met first because they know how to mold perceptions. I said it before and I’ll say it again, the Baathists are not novices.

The damage is done: Sunnis ended-up identifying with the ex-regime far more in the post-liberation era than during the three decades of its rule. That's a fact now, but it is just one of many facts about Iraq, like how many non-Sunni Arabs live in Iraq?

Just how many Sunnis are being kept happy? And how many others are going to get mad as hell? According to Saudi National Security Assessment Project, an organization that would theoretically be sympathetic, the Sunnis only constitute 12-15 percent of the Iraqi population. I’ve seen a very smart confidential study that puts their number at 13 percent and I’ve heard credible people put their numbers at 9 percent.

Here’s a political reality: I and many others will always vote for a party that promises to punish more, not fewer, Baathists. For every Baathist to be de-Baathified there will be four angry, vengeful victims who will never forget. That’s one of the most basic political ratios in Iraq, and the future political map will be shaped by it.

I’m glad that the dozen or so versions of parliamentary committee rewrites of the original law that some feckless State Department idiot had first circulated has ended-up being worse for Baathists. I’ve seen the ex-regimes archives. I have spent much time delving into them. I literally waded through the paperwork of pain. I know what they’ve done. I am haunted by the prison pictures of their victims. This was a totalitarian nightmare. I can understand why Jews are still hunting down Nazis sixty years after the Holocaust. It would be a perfect pleasure for me to spend the next few decades finding out who wrote which report that led to what arrest, and who wielded the electric cables, and who pulled the trigger.

And if I can’t put them behind bars, at least I want to put them to shame. I want them to bow their heads when their grandkids ask them about the Saddam years.

Some diplomats, journos and experts want to muddle the moral clarity of that moment and equate the victims with the poor sadist who lost his pension. “Boo-hoo-hoo, I spent my life killing and maiming for Saddam and all I got was this lousy, blood-stained T-shirt”, cries the disposed Baathist in Amman, and a tear rolls down a WaPo reporter’s cheek.

This won’t sound very academic or professional, but what I really want to say to all such diplomats, journos and experts is:

Fuck you.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Dude, Where's My Baiji?

The New York Times has this headline today: 'Suicide Bomber Kills 17 At Feast Near Baghdad'. The attack occurred in the village of Hajaj, near the oil refinery town of Baiji, according to the report. By any measure, Baiji couldn't possibly be referred to as a place "near Baghdad" (...there's a stretch of 100 miles between the two cities). Going by scale, it's as if one reports an event from New York City and identifies the locale as a place "near Washington DC".

The NYT wants its readers to believe that Baghdad is still aflame, and will go to ridiculous lengths to leave that impression, including moving towns around the map.

I guess, by that measure, we should be thankful that the Times didn't emblazon its front-page with 'Bhutto Assassinated at a Rally Near Baghdad'.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Images from Today's Fighting in Basra

Al-Hurra TV has incredible footage from the fighting today in Basra that pitted Iraqi security forces against a weird 'new-age' Shia cult. I found some of the scenes very disturbing.

First, the Iraqi security forces involved in this operation were very poorly trained; distribution of fighters, muzzle discipline and chain of command were all lacking. There were several fighters in civilian uniform and others wearing military-issue uniforms with civilian coats. Soldiers were shouting the names of the Shia Imams to give themselves courage; it looked like a mess and sounded like amateur hour.

Then five minutes into the video, we see a badly wounded cult member who seems as if he is dying. He is taunting the soldiers by encouraging them to kill him and calling them "cowards" and "debased". But the excitable reaction from the soldiers exposed them as undisciplined and thuggish: instead of providing medical aid, they left him to bleed and cursed him out by saying that the cult members were "Jews" and "infidels". One placed him boot on the dying man's mouth to keep him from talking and another spat on him. Others broke out into a chant, the longer version of which is associated with the Sadrist movement.

I was watching this and reminding myself of the footage showing Kamal Mustafa, Saddam's cousin and the head of the Republican Guard, kick the life out of civilians in the 1991 Uprising near Nassiriya.

Any US or Iraqi military officer watching this footage should be ashamed. Soldiers panic under fire and the worst in many people comes out. The Iraqi Army carried the day against a small, misguided and violent cult, but the damage that this footage has done to Army's reputation, which had been gradually improving, will be hard to undo quickly.

This behavior captured by Al-Hurra TV should turn into a scandal, and some politicians should be making a big case out of it.

UPDATE (January 20, 2008):

An Al-Hurra TV anchor puts the commander of the Basra police on the spot over the beating of the dying man. Nice work!

One thoughtful Talisman Gate reader suggests that blame for the poor training and discipline of the troops and police in Basra exhibited in the footage above should be assigned to the British, who have made a thorough mess of Iraq's most promising economic hub while managing Basra Province on behalf of the coalition for the last five years. Another observer has remarked that the British military in Basra resembles a "third world army when compared with America's warriors"; maybe that's why their legacy has proven so brittle and uninspiring. The British allowed Sadrist pipsqueaks to push them around while standing on the globe's largest oil lakes. Oh, that imperial sun has most definitly set.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Zenberaniyah Enclave

The U.S. military is allegedly bombing the Zenberaniyah farming enclave south of Baghdad according to an AP wire report. The AP story calls the place Zambaraniyah (substituting the "n" for a "m") although I'm pretty sure it is pronounced with a "n" and that this is indeed the same place that I've been following for several months now.

My interest in Zenberaniyah stems from a character called Sa'ad Hashim Daoud al-'Ubeidi, who goes by the alias "Abu Seif"; he's a former adjuct to Saba'awi Al-Tikriti (Saddam's half-brother, and former head of the General Security Directorate); Abu Seif's reached the rank of Colonel in the GSD.

His current location is Damascus where he is seeking treatment for his son, Seif, who was critically wounded in a military confrontation several months ago. His nephew (brother's son) also died in the same confrontation. Abu Seif is also undergoing kidney treatment in Syria.

Abu Seif belongs to the Albu-'Awwad sub-clan of the 'Ubeid tribe, who are concentrated in Zenberaniyah.

I can't figure out if he's Al-Qaeda, Islamic Army or if he's working for Mohammad Younis al-Ahmed. He could be working for all three. Whatever his loyalties, he is extremely dangerous and effective. His fighters are allegedly responsible for several dozen US deaths and have taken the lives of hundreds of Iraqis.

Monday, January 07, 2008

More Iraqi Political Gossip


Fresh charges were leveled today against Adnan al-Duleimi, the head of parliamentary Consensus bloc (Sunni) and his daughter and fellow parliamentarian Asma al-Duleimi by the latter's head of security, Hassanein Ghazi Karim al-Samaraie. Al-Samaraie was arrested two days ago in connection to the car bombs found at Duleimi's compound that had earlier implicated Makki al-Duleimi, Adnan's son and Asma's brother, who has been under custody for several weeks now.

According to his testimony today, al-Samaraie claimed that he had been Asma's lover and that both she and her father had prior knowledge about a string of car bombings in the Hai al-'Amil neighborhood that al-Samaraie had organized and confessed to.

As if things couldn't get any weirder for this family, a source is telling me that Asma's husband died today in the Adhamiya suicide bombing that targeted and killed Col. Riyadh al-Samaraie, the head of the 'Adhamiya Rebels Command that was formed about a month ago to fight al-Qaeda. However I can't verify this last bit about the husband.


An Iraqi court issued an arrest warrant for former PM Ayad Allawi today over charges linking him to antiquities smuggling. From what I can gather, this operation occurred while Allawi was still prime minister and the five pieces in question ended up in the United States, where the FBI tracked them down. A person who is very close to Allawi was arrested in this case, and this suspect has given testimony that the transaction had occurred with Allawi's knowledge and approval.

Another high ranking Iraqi politician who is currently in government is also implicated, and he had to go in and testify to the court today.

Allegedly, the US Embassy has asked PM Maliki to intervene to calm the situation down and to revoke the arrest warrant on Allawi and any legal action that may be taken against the Duleimi family.

Oh, three quarters of the cell phones in use in Iraq could be out of network coverage within a week. 450 out of the 2000 towers for the Atheer-MTC and IraqNa networks are out of commission due to security issues (...the security company was fired), and the number is likely to increase over the next few days. The background to this mess is a huge dispute between Iraqi and Kuwaiti investors in the Atheer-MTC company that had gobbled up IraqNa last week; the Kuwaitis control 62 percent of MTC-Atheer. Some Iraqi lawmakers are up in arms over this development, citing that Iraq's strategic telecommunications sector is now beholden to the whims of the State of Kuwait. Expect fireworks.