Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The ‘Intifada’ That Wasn’t

I won that wager. I had written that “the Iraqi Army’s military operation in Basra will be a spectacular win against disorder and Iranian influence”. And I was right.

Of course, most western media outlets are declaring Muqtada al-Sadr and Iran as the victors of Operation Cavalry Charge. Nothing could be furthest from the truth.

The United Alliance List delegation comprising Ali al-Adib of the Da’awa Party, Hadi al-Ameri of the Badr Organization and (I think…) Qasim al-Sahlani representing a group that had splintered from the Da’awa Party, evidently made al-Sadr an offer he couldn’t refuse when they sat down for a friendly chat in Tehran two days ago: the Iraqi state was willing to go all the way in smashing the Sadrist movement—arresting all the leaders and shutting down all the offices—if he didn’t play along with Operation Cavalry Charge and hand over those operatives whose names appear on the wanted lists.

See Maliki went to Basra with a long-ish list of names comprising all those involved in oil smuggling, drug dealing and the various other crimes that have wracked Basra. It just so happens that many of them claim to be Mahdi Army commanders.

This is what I wrote a couple of days ago:

The Mahdi Army in Basra is only an army in the sense that ‘soldiers’ and ‘cappos’ are rankings in the Cosa Nostra. These organized crime cartels serve many purposes, chief among which is getting rich quick. There’s ample opportunity for mischief in Basra and plenty to pilfer and smuggle: oil, arms, drugs, and whatever happens to fall off a truck leaving the port, after the truck itself had been “re-routed”. So there’s plenty of money and very little law enforcement—kind of like that Scorsese movie, Gangs of New York. Maliki made the calculation that he can take on these cartels and withstand the wrath of the other affiliated Mafiosi ‘familias’ that got unleashed in other parts of Iraq. The criminal syndicate knows that once Operation Cavalry Charge squashes their sweet set-up in Basra, then other pockets of criminality are going to be next, so that’s why they are going to the mattresses.

Well, so far several dozen of these Most Wanted folks have been killed, while tens of others are wounded or in hiding. At least 50 of them are under arrest. The outbreak of violence in places other than Basra was an occasion for the Iraqi Army and police to act on arrest warrants that have been outstanding since 2004, for example, several such dangerous outlaws were taken into custody in Karbala and Hillah.

The only complaints that I heard today came from people who were disappointed that Maliki did not go for the kill: he did not snuff out the Sadrist movement from Iraqi politics. These were people who felt that the time was right to go all way to the point of stripping Sadrist parliamentarians of their immunity and throwing them behind bars for being members of an outlawed party. What is incredibly interesting about this extremist sentiment is that such voices actually now think that Maliki and the Iraqi state have the wherewithal to do such as thing as outlaw the Sadrist movement and smash it. We’re not talking about some weird millenarian movement (…okay, we kinda are), this is the SADRIST MOVEMENT, admittedly much diminished but still, these are the bloody Sadrists, who even Saddam tiptoed around during his time!

Maliki was a political nobody before he ‘accidentally’ became Prime Minister almost two years ago, but today he is perceived as a statesman commanding a strong and motivated army that can impose law and order on once-powerful forces that have run amuck. If that’s not a benchmark of success, then what is?

The western media operating in Iraq regurgitated the Mahdi Army’s bravado as fact thereby serving as useful propaganda tools for the criminal cartels. I’d single out the New York Times, the Associated Press, McClatchy and CNN as the worst transgressors. Many journalists were positively orgasmic in anticipation of another ‘intifada’ or uprising to crease Bush’s message of hope and regeneration. But as the dust began to clear and the real scope of the battle was revealed, these journalists were reduced to alarmism of the “What if Martians decide to invade Basra too?” variety. Understandably, some of these journalists wanted the Iraq scene to heat up so that the public back in America would pay attention to Iraq and consequently to the careers of those reporting on Iraq for their once-glamorous war zone beat that was sure to land one a book deal a couple of years back had gone dull and dreary.

What then did these journalists do when they didn’t get their ‘intifada’? They couldn’t further imperil their careers by admitting that they were wrong—hell no!—so they’ve decided to brand Maliki and the Iraqi Army as the losers.

Really, there’s nothing one can do about this level of shamelessness. These journalists will make the rent this month, but all this spin will inevitably do much damage to their souls.

The weirdest talking point out of this whole episode was that Iran somehow ended up the victor. Tell that to Ahmadinejad who offered a long list of economic projects that the Iranians were interested in doing when he visited Iraq last month, but was politely rejected by Maliki’s team. The UIA delegation that visited al-Sadr went public in denouncing any media talk of Iranian intervention in calming down the situation and described such talk as “enemy propaganda”. I hope the Iraqi parliament would hold an emergency session to immediately revoke the visas of all these foreign journalists who are engaged in “enemy propaganda”, a justifiable measure especially since Iraq is in a state of war, if the foreign media is to be believed! While they’re at it, they should also pass a law that says that cocaine possession by foreign journalists is a crime punishable with unanesthetized nose-realignment plastic surgery.

Operation Cavalry Charge was a reality warp for all those who’ve internalized the rhetoric that Iraq is a failed state. Instead of being dismissed as a ‘Green Zone politician’, Maliki took his war cabinet to Basra and went all Untouchables on the Al Capones of Iraq’s oil-rich south; plenty of journalists and ‘experts’ simply could not grasp these dramatic changes to the political topography of Iraq.

Maliki won, pure and simple. The western media invented the narrative that Maliki was at war with the Sadrist movement, even though no such declaration was ever made. No one was interested in turning the Sadrists into martyrs when their stocks are sinking faster than Bear Stearns' anyway. Why turn the Sadrists into desperadoes with nothing to loose? Maliki’s approach is piece-meal: he’s taken out the intimidation factor that kept much of the Sadrist sway in place and he’s done that by showing them that they are no armed match for a better-disciplined, better-supplied Iraqi Army with plenty of stamina. The Sadrists are left with some political gains that they’ve accrued from joining the political process, such as government posts and lucrative contracts that they’d be loathe to part with and that’s their collateral for good behavior from now on.

Remember these nuggets of wisdom from last week? Has it been that long since I first made the wager??

Muqtada al-Sadr knows fully well that should a third all-out confrontation erupt between forces associated with him on the one hand and U.S. and Iraqi government troops on the other, then it can only end with his death, arrest or the much more unlikely [ooops, now I caught it, this was supposed to read 'likely'] prospect of escape to Iran from which he won’t return to Iraq for a very, very long time—Muqtada really doesn’t like being in Tehran from what I’ve heard...

...This is the weakest that the Sadrist movement has ever been: they are divided, their leader is absent, some answer to Iran, and affluence has made them slothful and soft. Sadrist leaders today are bejeweled with agate rings, Rolexes and precious worry beads, and sport Turkish-tailored suits. They ride around in the latest-model armored SUVs and have taken their second (…and third, and fourth, and…) wives—in some cases the ultimate Iraqi Shia male status symbol, a Lebanese Shia trophy wife. They have access, through the ministries and governmental departments that they landed in the coalition cabinet, to lucrative contracts with unlimited avenues for corruption of all kinds. These were the same angry, dejected men that one would meet in 2003 wearing polyester dishdashas with sweat-stained towels around their necks. Nowadays, they have plenty more to loose should the all-powerful, all-munificent state turn against them.

The 30 member Sadrist bloc in parliament that rode into power as part of the Shia ‘Alliance’ list is loud, boisterous and periodically stages walk-outs. But they never resign, because to do so would mean that they’d forgo their USD 12,000 a month salaries plus all the other perks such as immunity from arrest that come with being an MP.
Now the Sadrist will have to sway voters their way with words and entreaties, rather than threats and drills. Most of the crime cartels are also on notice that the days of the ‘Wild, Wild South’ are over and there’s a new sheriff in town.

Some problems will persist, but their severity had been significantly staunched. Maliki has promised to keep arresting the names on his list, and he has demonstrated that he’s a man who means what he says. The NYTimes does not have much of circulation in Iraq and almost nobody watches CNN, so maybe that’s why the regular folks I’ve been speaking to are so admiring of Maliki. The political elite in Baghdad is freaked out by Maliki’s newfound stature and they must all go back to the drawing boards to recalculate this new dynamic in the political equation.

It is unfortunate that what little news the American public gets to see and read about Iraq gets so distorted by the neurotic contortions of a handful of maladjusted, misinformed journalists. This active disinformation will further confuse those uppity congressmen who’ve made running Iraq from afar their business, and may even sway elections one way or another. But the regular readers of this blog will know that such mistaken perceptions and the actions they may entail no longer worry me, since I see very little that America could do to alter realities in Iraq proper, realities that I find encouraging. Sure, Americans could make things even better had they had the chance to see why Iraq is so worthwhile, but for that to happen integrity would have to be reintroduced into the profession of journalism—don’t hold your breaths. For now, I’d settle for how things are developing on their own accord.

And eventually, Maliki may nab Muqtada over some infraction as banal as tax-evasion. Maliki is not supposed to be a performing monkey for the western media. His job entails doing the very kind of things he’d gone and got accomplished in Basra. Today, Basra is calm and Iraq’s national army is in charge, not the Mahdi’s. Well done, Mr. Maliki.

Mini-Update: I just woke somebody up in Baghdad who usually ends up knowing this sort of thing and he completely dismissed the press report that Iran's 'Sardar Hajji' Qasim Suleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guard's Qarargah Quds (Force), was somehow involved in brokering a 'ceasefire' between Maliki and al-Sadr as a "naive fabrication". The original press report quoted anonymous parliamentary sources.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

As the haze clears...

James Glanz has a dream. A dream that he qualifies as a nightmare only in the third paragraph of the Op-Ed he wrote for the New York Times today. This dream involves a Middle Eastern army invading the United States and Glanz ends up working as a ‘collaborator’ for the invaders.

Glanz is the Baghdad bureau chief of the NYTimes and his byline has appeared above all the shoddy reporting in this paper regarding the fighting in Basra. He tries to establish his bona fides early on in the Op-Ed by mentioning that he’s been traveling to Iraq in the last four years—which could mean that he’s spent a couple of hours there out of every year for all we know. This is supposed to leave the reader with the impression that Glanz—an astrophysicist by training according to his Wikipedia entry—knows Iraq well and is thus qualified to frame the news story with sufficient background.

But then Glanz casually drops a cultural aside that is painfully ignorant of Iraq; he devotes half a paragraph to marvel at the fact that one Iraqi politician he’s familiar with drinks Johnny Walker Red Label. The only shocker in this anecdote is that this politician is not living it up with Blue Label, which is what I’ve seen poured out in prodigious quantities in Baghdad, in many a political den.

Marveling that an Iraqi male is a bit of a boozer is like discovering that rednecks go gaga over NASCAR. Iraqis are the Irish, or the Russians, of the Middle East; they’re the stereotypical alcoholics of the region. Alcohol consumption is not a vice imported by Westernized Iraqi politicians returning from exile. Only a novice would make such a silly and mistaken cultural observation.

But let’s gloss over Glanz’s ignorance and get back to his fantasies of seeing America humiliated because that little narcissistic parapraxis of an opening lead goes to the heart of Glanz’s reporting on what’s going on Basra (…which he does hundreds of miles away in Baghdad to start with): I think he may be rooting for the Mahdi Army on one subconscious level.

Too bad the Mahdi Army is losing very badly. There were a rash of violent outbreaks here and there in Hillah Province and in al-Hamza in the last few days, but today the situation there is one where the Iraqi Army and police—the Scorpion Brigade in particular—are hunting down the Sadrists with a vengeance with the active help of the local population, according to a well-placed and influential source from Hillah.

Across Baghdad, the situation turned against the Mahdi Army prior to Muqtada al-Sadr’s muddled calls not to disarm on the one hand and to clear the streets on the other. Sadrists were breaking down in terms of logistics and coordination even before government troops had the wherewithal to rally and respond to the security challenges posed by these outlaws.

I’m not the only one to pick up on the clearer picture emerging out of Iraq: most of these charlatans posing as pundits and experts are not total imbeciles, just intellectual fakes, so they have enough sense to realize that the “meltdown” they were praying has not materialized despite the best propaganda efforts of ‘Agent’ Glanz and the Associated Press. Now these talking heads are feverishly administering the necessary spin to fig-leaf why they seemingly got it so utterly wrong. They are either going with “Muqtada saved the day” or “The Americans and the British, i.e. the grown-ups, stepped in and changed Maliki’s diaper after he’d made a boo-boo”.

“In no way must anyone form an impression that Operation Cavalry Charge is a victory for the Iraqi state”, these imposters opine, “As with everything else, this outcome has to be spun as a victory for America’s enemies. Take your pick: the Hakim dynasty, Iran, or Sadr himself. The operative terms to associate with this whole episode are ‘stalled’, ‘bogged-down’, and everyone’s favorite ‘floundering’.”

Moreover, it turns out that the NYTimes correspondent in Basra, Qais Mizher, was a captain in Saddam’s armed forces. Hmmm, forgive me if I hold this point against his overall objectivity.

But all is not lost: the News Analysis piece by Sabrina Tavernise and Solomon Moore in today’s NYTimes is sophisticated and nuanced and it’s the best that's appeared in print so far(…from what I’ve seen) about the events in Basra. It certainly doesn’t make up for all of Glanz’s distortions but it’s a good start in the right direction, even though the authors give too much credence to the thoughts of a snotty Green Zone-based “Western official”.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Second-Hand Propaganda

After five days of reporting on this major news story—important enough to be on the front-page two days in a row—the New York Times has yet to send a reporter down to Basra. Instead, they are relying on unidentified Iraqi stringers to keep them abreast of what’s going on there. I understand the need to keep the identities of Iraqi stringers secret given the many dangers reporters operate under, but without knowing who these stringers are, we won’t be able to determine where their allegiances lie. That’s why it is imperative that the NYTimes sends one of its own to cover the story directly from Basra. In not doing so, one can question whether the NYTimes is even interested in accurately reporting the recent events in Basra.

For example, the NYTimes confidently reports that “Shiite militias in Basra openly controlled wide swaths of the city on Saturday and staged increasingly bold raids on Iraqi government forces sent in five days ago to wrest control from the gunmen”. The story appeared under the byline of James Glanz and Michael Kamber, from Baghdad.

There is so much unadulterated bias in this story. Beginning from quoting a Fadhila Party leader badmouthing Maliki without noting that his party controls the governorship of Basra and that Maliki has been critical of this governor and has accused Fadhila—a group that splintered early on from the Sadrist movement—of harboring militias of its own.

A quote from Iraq’s Defense Minister is taken out of context and a propaganda stunt staged by the Mahdi Army, where a dozen masked men in Iraqi military fatigues are seen surrendering in Sadr City, is given as indication that Maliki is losing public opinion.

Nothing could be further from reality, but hey, the NYTimes is not in the business of reporting on reality.

The Defense Minister is simply mimicking Maliki's political facetiousness to the effect, “How could we have known that going after the criminal cartels would incur the wrath of Sadrists?” Hint, hint, wink, wink. “We didn’t expect the Sadrists to get so agitated. How could we have known that they are somehow connected to all the criminality in Basra? We were so naïve about the ways of this big, bad world, but we’re still going to smash them anyway.”

Let’s round-up today’s events: far fewer rockets were lobbed into the Green Zone today because U.S. airstrikes have really frightened those launching them from Sadr City and elsewhere. Shu’la, near Kadhimiyah, was quiet all day today, so was Sha’ab City. Washash is an important enclave for the Sadrists in western Baghdad and it experienced 5 days of continued skirmishes with the Iraqi Army and police yet the Mahdi Army’s 18 member leadership committee abandoned Washash in the early afternoon Baghdad time and opted to hide in other parts of the city. The 400-500 active militants in Washash are either back in their homes or have left along with the leadership.

All the places that erupted five days ago across southern Iraq were much calmer. There’s a report that Shatra is under Sadrist control and it seems to be totally bogus, according to a source who spoke with acquaintances there today. Qurna, Ghammas, and Nassiriya have all witnessed the collapse of whatever resistance the Mahdi Army could muster in facing government troops.

The NYTimes reports that most of Basra—and by “most” they mean 50 to 70 percent of the city as claimed in today’s NYTimes print edition—is allegedly under Mahdi Army control. This is a complete fabrication. As of last night, the Iraqi Army began a systematic cleansing of downtown Basra and its southern suburbs, meeting minimal resistance. The criminal cartels struck at police stations in the northern portion of the city that the Army has decided not to contest for the time being as they roll up the gangsters in the more economically sensitive areas of the city. Maliki has given slots to the major tribal chiefs to recruit soldiers and policemen, for example, the sheikhs of the Bani Tamim tribe were given 950 jobs in the Interior Ministry. These are 950 families that will begin to draw a salary from the Iraqi state—no wonder the cartels are turning to dust when faced with the resources that Maliki has at his discretion. The NYTimes is reporting that the Mahdi Army is preventing volunteers from going to the recruitment centers, but that’s not how the recruitment is being processed; the tribal chiefs are still drawing names and they have yet to hand over these lists to the Maliki cabinet.

Politically, the Sadrists seem frightened and panicked. Muqtada al-Sadr allegedly appeared from Tehran on Aljazeera calling on his supporters to resist disarming the Mahdi Army while there’s a foreign presence on Iraq’s soil (…I was told about the interview by one source but didn’t see it myself). But it can’t be comforting, or politically savvy, to make such demands for sacrifice when the leader is safely hiding in Iran, of all places. Yesterday, a Sadrist parliamentarian, Falah Shanshal, lobbed a water bottle against Da’awa MP and Maliki ally Ali al-Adib, missing him and hitting another parliamentarian instead. Today, U.S. forces detained the bodyguards of another Sadrist MP, Bilqis Koly, on charges of phoning in Green Zone coordinates to those firing rockets into the U.S. Embassy.

Across Iraq, the bravado of the Sadrists is being exposed as hollow, yet western journalists eagerly lap it up still because they are itching to claim that Iraq is aflame when they don’t know any better. Taken this sentence in a straight news story in the NYTimes today, “As the blood pooled on village streets and ran into city gutters, news arrived of older, though no less wrenching deaths.” Why resort to lyricism? Why link events in Iraq in this same news story to the U.S. presidential elections when there’s nothing specific in terms of what the candidates have said about Basra’s event for the NYTimes to report?

The other storyline, and the one coming of Washington and the U.S. military in Baghdad, is that Maliki is in over his head and that “we”—that is the Americans—must step in to save him. Never mind that official Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is clueless about what’s going on down there; such admitted ignorance does not alter the sentiment that Maliki is this little kid who somehow got himself into a lot of trouble and it’s up to Petraeus to bail him out. This storyline has been consistently fed into The Washington Post over the last few days, with an emphasis that in no way is Operation Cavalry Charge an independent Iraqi operation. What does the WaPo cite as evidence? A couple of airstrikes and a team of U.S. military observers who are performing absolutely no combat duties in Basra, that’s all but it is enough to make the assertion that had it not been for Americans then Maliki would have sunk even deeper. The Brits are quick to assert too that they are in the game too by holding the hands of the Iraqis. This is called infantilism and it would make sense had the Iraqis thought that American and the British help is more of a burden than a relief.

Petraeus is also preparing a push of military and logistical aid onto Maliki that the latter has not asked for. Expect more tensions to arise, and more DC officials resorting to trash-talking Maliki’s intransigence, which a couple of weeks ago meant he wasn’t quick enough on the ball but today it means that he is doing too much on his own.

To sum up, the trend has been diminishing resistance when faced with Iraqi military units who have performed exceedingly well. More and more areas that witnessed flare-ups are calming down as Mahdi Army loyalists run out of supplies and escape into hiding. Maliki is growing more defiant and confident and this sentiment in running down the chain of command. All political attempts to broker a ceasefire by involving Ayotallah Sistani’s office have been rebuffed by Maliki and by Sistani himself from the looks of it. In two weeks, the dust will settle and this episode will be remembered as a major victory for Maliki and the Iraqi state. But no journalists will be fired, no self-described ‘experts’ will be publicly ridiculed; no one will be held accountable for all these distortions. But the distorters will know, deep down inside, that they are frauds and this realization will slowly eat away at them. And that’s the silver lining.

Friday, March 28, 2008

More Media Distortions

Hmmm, check this out: yesterday’s New York Times headline on its lead Iraq story was ‘Iraqi Army’s Assault on Basra Stalls Against Shiite Militia in Daylong Battle’, while today’s front-page headline in the same paper is ‘Assault by Iraq on Shiite Forces Stalls in Basra’.

How can something that hasn’t started stall already, and why would this paper essentially use the same headline two days in a row?

We’re still within the 72 hour deadline that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki set for Basra’s militants, which means that the real attack (…why does the NYTimes insist on the harsher term “assault”?) hasn’t begun yet. But the NYTimes can write whatever it like in whatever manner it pleases—that’s just one of the many joys of being shamelessly propagandist.

The other funny media distortion of the day is that U.S. Forces are being “drawn into a fight” with Sadr because the U.S. Air Force allegedly ran two bombing raids on targets in Basra. My sources tell me that U.S. air support was called in by Iraqi forces in Kut and Hillah, but not yet in Basra, and that the prime air support in the Basra operation—in terms of surveillance and firepower—has been provided by Iraq’s own nascent air force of about 30 helicopter gunships under General Kemal al-Barzanji. One Iraqi helicopter was reported shot down in Basra late Friday night.

It seems that much of the logistics for Operation Cavalry Charge were delivered through an airlift by the Iraqi Air Force because the military planners assumed that the outlaws would mine transportation routes in and out of Basra with IEDs. According to one source briefed on the campaign’s logistics, the Iraqi Army in Basra (…I think we’re talking about 3 Divisions that are in this fight) is amply supplied and overstocked with food, ammunition and spare parts, indicating that the planners are foreseeing a long campaign.

But if the NYTimes is so iffy about U.S. planes hitting militants in Iraq, then the wise men of that paper should immediately pen an editorial calling on the Bush administration to sell F-16s to Iraq—in the very least they should give them Apaches instead of those crappy, refurbished Ukrainian-made Hinds that they have to fly now.

The other example of how the U.S. military is being “drawn into” a fight with the Mahdi Army are the very limited patrols that were conducted in Sadr City to try to figure out who’s launching those GRAD missiles into the Green Zone. But hey, if going after the bad guys who’re clearly trying to kill and frighten Americans is a red line—a line drawn by the media who’ve interjected themselves as the go-to strategists of any military engagement—then surely the residents of the Green Zone (…and those living nearby, since these missiles are notoriously inaccurate) must accept their fate and be all stoic about it.

But they’re clearly not: nowadays the Green Zone is populated with many greenhorns who have no way of comparing these rocket attacks to what it was like before security got a lot better in Baghdad—it was way worse last summer, for instance—and these naïfs are breaking down into a whimpering hysterics, according to Iraqis watching these freshly-arrived Americans scurry about in abject fear. All it took was a few frights to turn them shell-shocked, and this is a prime force driving the negativity of how Iraq’s recent developments are seen back in Washington.

The other reason why so many have gone so negative is that nobody really knows what’s going on. To start with, the Americans don’t know Basra all that well having had subcontracted handling things down there to the feckless Brits. It isn’t surprising that the British media, influenced as they are by how British diplomats, officers and spooks gauge things, are writing-up Basra’s news with such overblown gloom: those same British officials have their careers on the line since it was their pathetic shortcomings that led to the miserable condition that Basra is in, and it’s in their interest to present the situation as intractable. If Maliki succeeds, then there should be follow-up investigation as to why the British failed in so lucrative an economic prize as Basra and Amara—the two provinces they were tasked with—so those folks who’ve got their reputations on the line want to make darn sure that no one walks away with the impression that Basra is salvageable.

For now, the Brits are hunkered down in Basra Airport, far away from the action, where they’ve been taking attacks—both of the explosive variety in addition to random pilfering and looting—by whatever bunch of bored Basrawi teenagers decide to pick on them on any given day. No wonder they are dismissed by both officials and townspeople in Basra as “wimps” and “sissies”.

So one can safely assume that the British are as clueless as the Americans when it comes to Basra. Moreover, it seems that there was very little joint Iraqi-American coordination going into Operation Cavalry Charge (…translating ‘fursan’ as ‘knights’ as some had done is a bit weird for me since the Arabs throughout their history never really have a knighthood in the European sense) and the Americans certainly did not realize that Maliki will be running the show himself.

“Nibras, get off your high horse, who says that you know any better?”

I don’t, but I happen to be very knowledgeable about the Sadrist movement, having started to study it in 1999, and I can tell you that media accounts of its current strength are hugely exaggerated. Maliki knows this too and that’s why he’s chosen this battle to fight since it is one that he can win.

The Mahdi Army in Basra is only an army in the sense that ‘soldiers’ and ‘cappos’ are rankings in the Cosa Nostra. These organized crime cartels serve many purposes, chief among which is getting rich quick. There’s ample opportunity for mischief in Basra and plenty to pilfer and smuggle: oil, arms, drugs, and whatever happens to fall off a truck leaving the port, after the truck itself had been “re-routed”. So there’s plenty of money and very little law enforcement—kind of like that Scorsese movie, Gangs of New York. Maliki made the calculation that he can take on these cartels and withstand the wrath of the other affiliated Mafiosi ‘familias’ that got unleashed in other parts of Iraq. The criminal syndicate knows that once Operation Cavalry Charge squashes their sweet set-up in Basra, then other pockets of criminality are going to be next, so that’s why they are going to the mattresses.

Yes, it’s that simple.

For example, Kadhimiyah is a city of 500,000, while the militants/gangsters there number no more than 400 according to estimates that I trust. The people of Kadhimiyah are not famed for their bravery, so these 400 kids have run amok today to the point where the local ‘notable’ of the town, Seyyid Hussein al-Sadr (…related to Muqtada al-Sadr but estranged politically) has had to flee his home along with his security detail that number in the hundreds. There are a couple of able officers who have held their own in Kadhimiyah and they now they intend to partner up with the tribal Tamimis, who predominate in villages around Kadhimiyah, to launch a push to smash these gangsters. They are doing this because the sons of a prominent sheikh of the Bani Tamim have thrown in their lot with the Sadrists, and the Iraqi Army officers wants the tribe's involvement so as not to set off a blood feud; this is a sensible local PR strategy. The Sadrists have had one of their most public spokesmen, Hazem al-Araji (…a resident of Canada, by the way), based in Kadhimiyah, but they’ve never managed to expand their base there beyond 3000 people. I remember a demonstration there in the early summer of 2004, at the height of al-Sadr’s popularity that drew no more than 1,500 many of whom had accents from ‘eastern’ Baghdad.

The Iraqi state will make mincemeat of these gangs because that’s what states do when they direct their ample resources and patronage against such blatant manifestations of criminality. Maliki now has the wherewithal to do this; he has money and he has a reliable army. Not known as a man of action, Maliki saw a good opportunity and ran with it. His popularity has swelled immensely in the last few days and he’s becoming increasingly popular even among the most hostile demographic: Sunnis.

Maliki is the hero; Maliki is thus politically viable.

That’s why someone like ex-prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari is scrambling, along with Chalabi and others vying for the PM slot, to broker negotiations between Maliki and the Sadrists; if Maliki wins, and I’ve already wagered that he will, then their hopes for unseating him before, and maybe after, the next parliamentary elections are dashed. Jaafari will also lose the chairmanship of the Da’awa Party for ever.

But then there are tea leaves and those charlatans back in America who read them, for a fee: “Iran gave the go-ahead to Maliki to take out the Sadrists since they don’t need them anymore”, “Maliki is irrelevant, this only benefits the Hakims”, “it ain’t over until the fat Fadhila lady sings”, etc.

Exposing myself to mediocrity of this lowly grade really jars against my soul. It's best to ignore it.

One last source for distortion to ponder is the April-Petraeus-Capitol Hill factor. Almost everyone I spoke to today was very angered by Maliki’s extension of his ultimatum to April 8 (…Ali al-Hatem’s Anbar tribal front took credit for convincing Maliki to extend the ultimatum). Maliki is pretending to have all the time in the world, while the Bush administration is all flustered over Petraeus’ upcoming day before Congress. Petraeus does not want to be burdened with negative headlines (…hey, the NYTimes reheats those from day to day) and he certainly doesn’t like the fact that Maliki is running the show down in Basra without his input. Thus Maliki’s actions imperil Petraeus’ political standing while the latter can’t do a thing to curb the former. Yeah, it’s called sovereignty.

I heard an interesting theory as to why Maliki seems so unhurried: he knows that his ‘restraint’ will make the Americans squirm but that’s exactly his idea of payback for a humiliating security check that he personally experienced a little over three weeks ago that drove him to cancel a teleconference with President Bush in anger. Not much of a theory, but it informs Maliki’s state of mind. He’s known to be a proud man and a vindictive one too.

In any case, the 72 hr ultimatum and the April 8 deadline could be two different things in Maliki's head and in the Iraqi Army's plans, since it seems there are preparations to cleanse several key Basra neighborhoods starting tomorrow. The actual wording for the April 8 deadline is that a financial reward will be offered to those handing in medium and heavy armaments to the Iraqi military.

Petraeus was hoping to do Mosul next, that is before Basra, so that he can tell Congress that he’s defeated Al-Qaeda, but to do that he would need the Iraqi Army divisions now engaged in Basra. It seems that Maliki didn’t want another headline of the “Shia Army Beats Up on Sunnis” variety to mar his legacy, so he went south with a subtle PR objective to demonstrate that he’s his own man and that he is not sectarian.

Generally, most of what I’m hearing from my sources seems to indicate that both the western and Arab press are grossly exaggerating the scope of whatever security breakdown they’ve been fantasizing about throughout Iraq.

For example, the radically Sunni television stations Al-Sharqiya and al-Baghdadiya reported, according to a Sadrist spokesman using a pseudonym that an entire unit of the National Police had surrendered to the Mahdi Army in the Husseiniya-Rashdiya-Boobelsham area (northeastern Baghdad). I happen to have a very reliable and very knowledgeable source living smack in the middle of that area who tells me this report, which he had seen on TV, was absolutely bogus and not a single bullet had been fired in these shantytown-like areas up until Friday night Baghdad time when I spoke to him last.

So there you have it: the media is saying one thing, and my sources are giving me a very different portrait of events. I choose to believe my sources. You folks can do whatever you like.

Oh my, there’s really much more but this is all that I type up for now.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Bush’s Surging Confidence on Iraq, Nonsense in New York Times Reporting

Wow! President George Bush has not sounded this confident about Iraq in years; everything about him, from his tone of voice to body language exudes the knowing certainty that now he has evidence to back up his claims of success and progress in Iraq and that piece of evidence is Operation Cavalry Charge unfolding in Basra.

Bush, speaking today at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, called Maliki’s move against the organized crime cartels of Basra “bold” and saluted it as a purely Iraqi initiative.

Operation Cavalry Charge is indeed a stunning moment since it smashes through the false narratives invented by the anti-war crowd: contrary to all the words printed and said by America’s Iraq-watching ‘elite’, the Iraqis are in charge, the Iraqis are ready and able, and the Iraqis are willing to take difficult political stands to safeguard their security and sovereignty.

Bush also rattled off plenty of other metrics by which to judge success, and the naysayers can no longer dismiss the mounting evidence with a heckling snort. No, this time they actually have to come up with convincing retorts so that the public would still believe the bogus argument that Iraq is irredeemable.

But they’ll have to do a lot better than what James Glanz tried to pull off today in the New York Times. The ‘take-away’ image from his write-up of Basra’s events is that the operation was so poorly planned that the Iraqi Army’s vehicles could not fit into the alleyways of Hayyaniya—Basra’s equivalent to Baghdad’s Sadr City in ‘sluminess’ and pro-Sadrist political orientation. This claim is poorly sourced—citing a likely phone conversation with a singular newspaper editor in Basra, with no qualification of source’s or his newspaper’s political leaning or revenue stream—and is simply stupefying to anyone familiar with the concept of distances and measurements, metric or otherwise.

I demand that the NYTimes immediately dispatch Glanz (who’s reporting from Baghdad not Basra) with a tape-measure to Hayyaniya and have him come back with accurate lengths and distances of its side-streets. His job should be facilitated by the fact that Hayyaniya actually follows a grid pattern much like Manhattan. Here’s a Google Earth picture of Hayyaniya in case the NYT loses its way:

The NYTimes and the Associated Press (God their work stinks!) will report the Basra story in whatever biased manner that they see fit irrespective of fact. We’re dealing with neurotic journalists—“I’m unloved and **insert self-esteem issue here**, and it’s all Bush’s fault”—who are shamelessly promoting their narrow political agendas and who’re just winging the reporting by relying on unreliable sources. They’ll get away with it because the newsrooms they answer to are also populated with more of the same neuroses; they will never admit that their hasty forecasts about Iraq were wrong.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Muqtada Cries Uncle, Saddam Money Influenced Leftist Congressmen

It seems that Muqtada al-Sadr has thrown in the towel: according to this declaration allegedly signed by him, al-Sadr is ordering his followers to put down their arms and to refrain from targeting government troops. The source is Buratha News, which is affiliated with Sheikh Jalaleddin al-Saghir who is a leading parliamentarian and a member of the Supreme Islamic Council an organization that rivals, and is often in conflict with, Mr. al-Sadr. But otherwise, I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of this document; we’ll know more tomorrow.

Muthana al-Hanooti turns out to be an asset of Saddam’s intelligence service: Well, Hanooti (an Iraqi-American of Palestinian descent) had me fooled—he had convinced me at the time (we spoke over the phone a couple of times in 2001) that he wasn’t a bad guy. But he also managed to fool three Democratic congressmen who were vocal critics of America’s policy regarding Iraq. But if Saddam’s money found ways to influence the U.S. Congress and convinced certain leftist-leaning representatives to stand against the war then isn’t it reasonable to wonder who else was influenced by this sophisticated and well-funded charm campaign mounted by the Iraqi Intelligence Service? What if it wasn’t Barack Obama’s “sound judgment” that led him to oppose the war? What if he had been influenced by talking points authored in the mukhaberat’s Harthiya HQ that ended up as leftist rhetoric in Chicago?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Operation Cavalry Charge (Updated)

Yes, I've been a bad, bad blogger and even this post was hastily written. Forgive me already and read on:

Here’s a prediction: the Iraqi Army’s military operation in Basra will be a spectacular win against disorder and Iranian influence.

Today, the Iraqi Army launched its first major military operation to fully control Basra, the second largest city in Iraq, without any—ANY—Coalition assistance. One source tells me that during the preparation phase of this campaign the Americans offered to position some U.S. Special Forces and air-cover near the Basra battle theater to act as back-up if needed but their Iraqi counterparts planning this operation politely turned down the offer.

This is Operation ‘Cavalry Charge’, which is the best translation I could come up with for صولة الفرسان.

Its chief objective is to flush out the organized crime cartels that control the port of Basra and the oil pipelines of the province. One major criminal force in the Basrawi scene are groups that affiliate themselves with the Sadrist movement and its Mahdi Army. Many of these criminal rings are also associated with certain factions of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that operate in Basra both for intelligence/sabotage purposes as well as enriching themselves. By knocking out these egregious manifestations of lawlessness, Operation Cavalry Charge will have the accrued benefit of mashing up the more subtle patterns of Iran’s malignant influence in Iraqi Shiism’s foremost economic prize, the oil fields and port of Basra.

But is this how this story is being reported by the US and Arab media? Of course not!

The dominant false narrative du jour goes something like this: the Sadrists are angry over a number of things (arrests, political wrangling with the Hakim family and the Da’awa Party, etc.) so they decided to back away from Sadr’s seven-month ‘ceasefire’ (a term invented by the western media as a deliberately wrongful translation of تجميد وإعادة هيكلة جيش المهدي: “freezing and restructuring the Mahdi Army”) by staging ‘civil disobedience’ (…such as shutting down primary schools and shops by threatening teachers, students and the middle class) but things quickly deteriorated into the perpetual cycles violence that these journalists and pundits are mentally wedded to and have staked their thin expertise on predicting as Iraq’s inevitable fate.

If little old me had known about Operation Cavalry Charge a month ago then it stands to reason that the Sadrists and the Iranians had heard about it too. In fact, it was supposed to start a week ago, but got delayed allegedly because Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim got cold feet. However, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki forced the issue and flew down to Basra a couple of days ago (media reports said he got in yesterday; I was told something else) to personally oversee his boldest move yet: demonstrating that he’s got the gumption to use Iraqi security resources to battle Shia militias and crime cartels and take back Iraq’s vital economic nerve-center, all without appealing for American help and in a direct challenge to Iranian objectives.

If he wins—and I predict that he will—then he’s holding on to the prime minister’s seat from here until the 2010 elections. That will be the new political reality (…there are other factors favoring his continued candidacy for the job) that all the other political actors in Baghdad must acknowledge and acquiesce to. In effect, Operation Cavalry Charge will also speed up the formation of a new, more agile coalition cabinet and override the current state of political paralysis because any fantasies of removing Maliki would be laid to rest.

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani (…an ex-Sadrist fellow-traveler) and Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi will also stay in place after staking their careers on this operation; they too are with Maliki in Basra.

Why now? Maliki has sent 50,000 Iraqi soldiers to deal with about a dozen criminal cartels. Militarily, this will be an easy fight. Those counseling caution and delay stressed that smashing Sadrist-related criminal cartels would spark a large-scale Sadrist reaction across Iraq at a time when the Bush administration wants to keep Iraq quiet especially with the ‘4000’ milestone that was being approached and got passed a couple of days ago. Another argument against action counseled that the Iranians are angling for a fire-fight to sully any talk of progress that Gen. Petraeus may give in a couple of weeks when he appears before Congress, and that the Democrats and their allies in the US media would take these images out of Basra and elsewhere and package the news as a “security meltdown” (…which they would and have done so, irrespective of reality).

Maliki decided that he doesn’t give a damn about US presidential elections and that the only timeline that concern him are Iraq’s own upcoming elections. Maliki also concluded, from intensive intelligence reporting, that the Sadrists are weak and that Iran doesn’t really have much punch to its supposed influence in Iraq. That’s why he decided to go for it.

Muqtada al-Sadr knows fully well that should a third all-out confrontation erupt between forces associated with him on the one hand and U.S. and Iraqi government troops on the other, then it can only end with his death, arrest or the much more unlikely prospect of escape to Iran from which he won’t return to Iraq for a very, very long time—Muqtada really doesn’t like being in Tehran from what I’ve heard.

One well-placed source claims that al-Sadr is lashing out at his inner circle and crying out “You’re going to get me killed! You’re going to get me killed!” I cannot gauge the veracity of this account, but this source had in the past accurately corroborated accounts from al-Sadr’s inner sanctum given to me by a fully trustworthy source (now deceased).

This is the weakest that the Sadrist movement has ever been: they are divided, their leader is absent, some answer to Iran, and affluence has made them slothful and soft. Sadrist leaders today are bejeweled with agate rings, Rolexes and precious worry beads, and sport Turkish-tailored suits. They ride around in the latest-model armored SUVs and have taken their second (…and third, and fourth, and…) wives—in some cases the ultimate Iraqi Shia male status symbol, a Lebanese Shia trophy wife. They have access, through the ministries and governmental departments that they landed in the coalition cabinet, to lucrative contracts with unlimited avenues for corruption of all kinds. These were the same angry, dejected men that one would meet in 2003 wearing polyester dishdashas with sweat-stained towels around their necks. Nowadays, they have plenty more to loose should the all-powerful, all-munificent state turn against them.

The 30 member Sadrist bloc in parliament that rode into power as part of the Shia ‘Alliance’ list is loud, boisterous and periodically stages walk-outs. But they never resign, because to do so would mean that they’d forgo their USD 12,000 a month salaries plus all the other perks such as immunity from arrest that come with being an MP.

Politically, too, the Shia middle class no longer sees a need to tolerate Sadrist hoodlums as the shock troops of the Shia sect in case a civil war breaks out with the Sunnis because that threat has long receded and is essentially forgotten, by both sides.

These are the changed circumstances of the Sadrists; they no longer have the appetite for a bruising fight as they did in the spring and autumn of 2004. It has become much more difficult as the Iraqi state is now associated with Shia power (…and wealth transfer) and the vast majority of Shias, who’ve grown wiser about these things, don’t want to see this historic achievement imperiled in any way.

If that’s the case, then why the scenes of shooting today? Why the mortar attacks on the Green Zone? Well, the ones shooting back in Basra and elsewhere fall into two groups: organized crime cartels and the Iranian-managed Special Groups.

It should be a no-brainer as to why crime cartels don’t favor a stronger security environment but because the Iraq debate is dominated by intellectual frauds and posers (…I’m looking at you, Marc) then maybe I should explain this one as a situation similar to that of how Colombian and Mexican cocaine cartels fight central authority either directly or by funding ‘revolutionary’ movements such as FARC.

The Special Groups are a different story. I’ve written about them in my columns and on this blog and don’t have the energy to get into all that again, but I’ll just say this: the Special Groups have been a disastrous investment for the Iranians. The Revolutionary Guard have poured plenty of money and training into this endeavor yet it remains very easy for US and Iraqi intelligence to infiltrate the SGs and round them up. Not only that, but some SGs seem to have been flipped and have collected information on Iranian intelligence activities beyond Iraqi territory.

Oh heavens, but this is so pathetic: the US media is falling all over itself in trying to describe today’s clashes in the worst possible light, which is just the usual thing they do whenever they can, but it has been harder to squeeze in the Iraq story in recent months because the American public has tuned out.

So, this is what the news consumer gets: something’s going on with the Sadrists, and everyone is keeping their fingers crossed that this is it; this is the moment when Iraq re-descends into chaos and it can again be called a “quagmire”, and terms like “Iraq is lost” and “no one can stop this civil war” are brought back into vogue. I can see a certain Brisbane native snorting ‘happy power’ up his crooked nose in early celebration.

I hope that keeping those fingers crossed will give them arthritis.

Remember the time when Maliki was bad-mouthed for being soft on the Sadrists and the dominant false narrative of the time had it that he owed his political power to them? I wonder what all the experts who parroted this claim would have to say about Operation Cavalry Charge and Maliki’s role in it?

That’s the problem with most ‘professional’ Iraq-watchers: they still can’t grasp that dramatic changes have taken place over the course of the last two years since the Samara shrine bombing and hence they can’t understand that the Iraqi government can actually gather around a bunch of divisions and give them the order to clean-up Basra, without America’s involvement.

They’ll get carried away with exaggerations of the Baghdad-Bob variety such as the rumor that the Sadrists had taken 17 American soldiers prison along with 400 Iraqi officers.

This is what happens to featherweights whenever a gust of hot air rushes by.

Hey, I’ve never shied away from a gamble: any battle could turn on a dime, but I think that these clashes were never a battle to start with so I’d don’t think I’m speaking too early when I predict victory for Operation Cavalry Charge. Maliki is going to win this one; good for him and good for Iraq.

UPDATE, Wednesday, March 26, 2008:

Operation Cavalry Charge in Basra is going much better than anticipated; solid leadership coupled with a much-diminished enemy is harvesting very quick results.

Here are the key points on Day 2 of the operation:

-The word from Hayyania, one of Basra’s most populated and poorest neighborhoods, is that the situation is calm and under control. The Iraqi Army has taken up positions in the main thoroughfare while the criminal gangs and the Sadrists seem to be sitting this one out—they’re not engaging the government troops and are instead keeping a low profile.

-Both the Army commander of Operation Cavalry Charge, Lt. Gen. Mohan Hafidh al-Freiji, and the police commander, Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf al-Muhammadawi, are very able commanders and brave men, with al-Muhammadawi, an ex-tank officer in the Iraqi Army, tending towards brutality. He’s also helped by the fact that he can draw upon important tribal relations in the all-important Albu-Muhammed tribe of nearby ‘Amara Province.

-The Iraqi Army is operating with the utmost restraint which reflects their good training and new ethos; this in not the Saddam-era Army whose first instinct is to level rebellious neighborhoods to dust. Maliki has given the criminal cartels 72 hours to “come out with their hands over their heads”—this is not a ‘battle’, it’s rather a law-enforcement stand-off.

-The Iraqi Army holds the British Forces cowering behind barbed wire in Basra Airport in the lowest regard; the Iraqis hold the British responsible for dropping the ball in Basra and in Amara, allowing the crime cartels to expand and take root. Iraqi officers regularly dismiss the British military as “sissies” and “cowards”. The Americans have never had a military presence in Basra since the war began in 2003.

-Many parts of Baghdad where one would assume the Sadrists could potentially be troublesome such as Husseiniya, Bunook, ‘Shia’ Ghazaliyya, and Washash experienced no acts of violence. The places where there was limited violence and tension were Sadr City, Baya’a, and very sporadically in al-Shu’la. In fact, most of the people who I’ve spoken to throughout the day, many of whom were out and about travelling across wide swaths of Baghdad, seemed surprised that the situation was that calm. Traffic was sparse and dozens of mortars rained down indiscriminately—one near the Salhiyya Apartments, most directed at the Green Zone—but otherwise the overall situation was stable with the Iraqi Army and Police in control.

-The Sadrists can only keep the shops and schools closed through intimidation, including spraying some shop owners with gunfire in the Bab al-Shargi neighborhood. But it is also interesting that one form of intimidation taken by Sadrist activists has been to take photographs of shops that have remained open despite the call for a strike. This sort of behavior indicates that although the Sadrists may not be able to anything about this defiance now, they’ll remember these scabs and settle these accounts later. This shows weakness.

-The radically Sunni al-Sharqiyya TV (owned by Saad al-Bazzaz, who in recent years has financed his media conglomerate with monies from the dethroned ex-ruler of Qatar, the Barzanis and the U.S. Department of State) is curiously propagating and amplifying Sadrist (…maybe Iranian) psyops. What’s even funnier is that al-Sharqiyya’s bogus reporting is looping back into western reporting on the situation in southern Iraq. It seems that news of the situation in the provinces of Diwaniyya, Kut and Hillah have been widely exaggerated by al-Sharqiyya and consequently by certain western media outlets that are pretending to be covering the story when what they’re really doing is taking questionable reporting by an openly hostile TV station and passing it on to the western news consumer as original and objective reporting.

-Ahmad Chalabi is trying to reconcile the Sadrists with Maliki. No word on whether Maliki is receptive to this overture.