Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

14 Jihadists Killed in Clash Near Tikrit

Fourteen jihadists were killed in a fire-fight with Iraqi police today on the main highway near Tikrit, as reported by Aswat al-Iraq (Arabic text).

I really liked this story. Why did I like it?

-The 14 jihadists, who the police believe were Arab nationals, were hiding in a truck carrying livestock—sheep, that is. They were believed to be escaping from the rural areas to the west of Mosul, where a military operation being conducted by the Iraqi Army has been ongoing for the last twenty days.

-The jihadist cargo was apparently discovered during a routine checkpoint screening; when caught, they opened fire and the Iraqi police responded in kind, killing most of them. One jihadist blew himself up and injured two policemen.

-The incident took place near ‘Awja, Saddam’s birthplace, 15 Km south of Tikrit.

And here’s a hunch: this group probably includes some important Al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders. If they’re not that important, then why go to all these lengths to get them out of Mosul?

All this adds up to powerful imagery: jihadists on the run, hiding among sheep (…wolves among the lambs). The vigilant ‘shepherds’ uncover the ruse and slay the jihadists. Only two policemen are wounded. All this happens near a place that most Iraqis had learned to talk about in hushes tones under the Ba’athist nightmare.

Who wants to take bets that not a single major news organization in the United States will report on it?


Another Iraqi news agency, Al-Iraq Al-Aan, has a different take on today's events in ‘Awja: 12 rather than 14 jihadists were killed, all of whom were wearing suicide vests and they were travelling in a water truck, rather than a livestock truck.

Aswat Al-Iraq has been around a lot longer than the relatively new Al-Iraq Al-Aan (…Kuwaiti funded? It’s based in the Czech Republic, and there’s a picture of an ex-Al-Hurra reporter on Newsmatique’s official website who now lives in Prague) and on that point alone Aswat Al-Iraq has more credibility.

Isn’t this a great opportunity for some western reporters to get to the bottom of this and give us the real story? Wouldn’t they feel good about doing some real reporting for a change?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Yet More In-Depth Reporting from the New York Times

In a story today titled ‘A Sunni Bloc Pulls Back on Rejoining Iraqi Cabinet’ that appeared under Richard Oppel’s byline from Baghdad, the NYTimes tells us that Sunni leader Adnan Dulaimi, even though he’s pleased with prime minister’s broader political steps, has signaled that the Sunni Tawafiq ‘Consensus’ bloc may extend its yearlong boycott of the Maliki cabinet.

What the NYTimes reporter failed to report on was that yesterday the Iraqi parliament decided to apply amnesty laws to several ‘lawmakers’ who’ve been accused of misdemeanors and crimes instead of revoking their parliamentary immunity, but that amnesty was not applicable to Dulaimi, the single source in Oppel’s report, because his crime was “terrorism.”

So Dulaimi’s sudden coyness may have something to do with bargaining for deferred imprisonment; I just think that this detail would have been pertinent to the paper’s storyline, that is, if the NYTimes were in the business of reporting what’s really going on.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cat’s Out of the Bag: Onwards to Maysan

Well I guess enough people are openly discussing this now in Baghdad that it’s okay for me to write about it. Mind you, all the following is classified under the category of gossip:

The Iraqi Army and the Marines are preparing for a major campaign against Mahdi Army and Iranian targets in Maysan Province (‘Amara). Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may even put the entire elected leadership of ‘Amara—many of whom are Sadrists—out of a job, by flexing his authority under emergency powers. There is even talk of air strikes against military targets—weapons depots, transportation vehicles and individuals—on the Iranian side of the fence; these are targets that are arming and otherwise supporting the Special Groups throughout Iraq.

Iran’s logistics trail goes from Maysan through southern Babil/Hillah Province (al-Hamza) and from there into central Iraq, i.e. Baghdad. There’s another route also going from Maysan into Qurnah and then onto Basra. The southern route has been effectively crippled. And the last stretch of the northern route that used to take weapons from south-western Baghdad all around to Sadr City has also been shut down.

Mind you, the information is murky and sometimes contradictory. For example, it seems that Iran has denied entry to several top ranking Special Groups and Mahdi Army commanders that only a few months ago Iran was playing host to. As a consequence, there’s been a glut of high-level and mid-level Sadrists bidding their time in Amara.

Now, Maysan is a weird place: even after draining the marshes in the early 1990s, Saddam could not claim full control of the province. And ever since the late 1980s, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has maintained forward bases deep inside Iraqi territory, such as ones around the town of Al-Mijerr al-Kabir. Iraqi opposition groups were active in these areas right up to the fall of the regime. Furthermore, Iran had a large recruiting pool among Marsh Arab refugees who lived in camps almost right across the border.

The talked-about airstrikes would take out forward Iranian border stations that have recently been moved into Iraqi territory, especially around oil fields. Then there are weapons depots of rockets, advanced RPGs and assorted weaponry right near the border (…on the Iranian side, though) that are on the target list, as well as buildings and Iranian individuals involved in facilitating logistics for the SGs, also on the Iranian side.

Although this has gone largely unreported, but US airstrikes were busily taking out Iranian trucks smuggling arms through Maysan within the first three weeks after Operation Cavalry Charge. I’m not sure, but some Iranian citizens may have been killed as a result. The new target list is a stepped-up extension of this bombing trend. It would also break the taboo over launching bombing runs against nuclear and terrorist facilities deeper into Iranian territory.

Of course, this is all still in “preparation” phase. It is unclear whether the Iraqis and Americans will go through with all or any of it. And given that it’s all out in the open, it could be US PSY-OPS to scare the Iranians away from backing the SGs.

But arrest warrants for Maysan officials are being prepared, and intelligence is being gathered about other Sadrist leaders who have gone into hiding there.

I expect the battle for Maysan to be difficult: this would be Iran’s last stand in Iraq. The fighting would also be occurring on topographical and human terrain that the Iranians have been studying and cultivating for decades. It could start incrementally, and the ante could be raised as the operation faces increased resistance, eventually leading to bombing runs inside Iran.

But then again, Sadrist morale is very low—even with all the squeaking and squawking we’ve been hearing from the press—and the Iranians seem unwilling to confront an outgoing American president itching for a parting shot.

It should be noted that the vast majority of Sadrist support in Baghdad and Basra comes from families that trace their roots to Maysan Province. Furthermore, Maysan is home to the largest concentration of Iraqi tribes with unknown Arab ancestry—most likely remnants of pre-Islamic ethnic groups and whatever was left in the wake of rebellions by black slaves and gypsies in ‘Abbasid times.

In other news, I have a couple of big projects that I need to finish (…I think regulars at TG will like them when they’re finally done) so blogging will be light until further notice.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Red Herring Fatwas

So what happens if the western media can’t spin or sensationalize events in Iraq when not much is happening? Why, they make it up!

The Associated Press put out a wire report yesterday hinting that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is about to declare jihad against the Americans. Whhhhhaaaaaat???

Check out the story’s two lead paragraphs:
Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric has been quietly issuing religious edicts declaring that armed resistance against U.S.-led foreign troops is permissible — a potentially significant shift by a key supporter of the Washington-backed government in Baghdad.

The edicts, or fatwas, by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani suggest he seeks to sharpen his long-held opposition to American troops and counter the populist appeal of his main rivals, firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.
The AP report then speculates on what Sistani’s reaction to a violent Martian invasion may look like. Okay, so they didn’t, but they might as well have.

I guess this is what happened: Muqtada al-Sadr declares that he will “demobilize” the Mahdi Army if instructed to do so by the top Shia religious leaders of Qum and Najaf, at the top of whom sits Sistani. He does this as a face-saving ruse, one that is enthusiastically eaten up by the western reporters rooting for him. The top leaders, who don’t like to be dragged into the muck of al-Sadr’s childish antics and hoodlumism, responded very quietly through their traditional backchannels, that since al-Sadr didn’t seek their opinion when he established the Mahdi Army then they are under no compunction to state an opinion on its dissolution.

Not content with this answer, al-Sadr and probably Iran’s PSY-OPS teams tried a different track: they began to ask Sistani questions along the lines of “Do you support motherhood?”

If America’s founding fathers had been asked instead, or even if one peruses the United Nations charter, then the generic question of whether or not it is proper for a nation to resist foreign occupation would have be answered in the affirmative.

That is what Sistani did, saying it so verbally to the individual questioner without publishing it as a written fatwa, which would have made it more binding for the general public. He also didn’t mention the Americans. The AP story itself tells us all this:
It is also unknown whether al-Sistani intended the fatwas to inspire violence or simply as theological opinions on foreign occupiers.

…Al-Sistani's new edicts — which did not specifically mention Americans but refer to foreign occupiers — were in response to the question of whether it's permitted to "wage armed resistance," according to the two Shiites who received them.
But the next step in this PSY-OPS is to find the news outlet that would be more than willing to exaggerate the significance of all of this; a new outlet such as the AP that would have the gall to cite Juan Cole as “a U.S. expert on Shiites in the Middle East” without telling the unsuspecting public that Cole is a very controversial opponent of progress in Iraq, and that even within the left-leaning community of Iraq-watchers he’s considered a discredited kook.

The report reaches the pinnacle of duplicity when it casually adds that:
In perhaps another sign of al-Sistani's hardened position, he has opposed disarming the Mahdi Army as demanded by al-Maliki, according to Shiite officials close to the cleric.
To my eyes, this is Sadrist and Iranian disinformation.

So let me pull rank here and tell you all that I’ve met Sistani. In fact, I sat in on an hours-long conversation between Sistani, his eldest son who runs his father’s daily affairs, Adil Abdul-Mahdi (Iraq’s current Vice-President) and Ahmad Chalabi. This happened in the early spring of 2004. It was an illuminating discussion that delved into law-making, the role of Islam, history, international relations and of course, gossip.

I wasn’t supposed to be in there, but I was. I walked in behind Abdul-Mahdi and Chalabi, both of whom went through the motions of trying to kiss Sistani’s hand, and he yanking it away. I was raised with specific instructions against kissing anyone’s hands, except romantically. So I just shook the Grand Ayatollah’s slender fingers, but in a knee-jerk reaction he pulled it away. That made for an uncomfortable moment of awkwardness as he searchingly looked into my face as to why I behaved differently.

Immediately as we were seated—cross-legged on cushions—Sistani points to me and asks his two other guests, “Who’s this?”

I was later told by the bodyguards that stayed outside the house that a minor commotion had whirled up as a result of hushed questions raised by Sistani’s staff: “who was that young dude that walked in with the politicos?”

When we got up to leave, Abdul-Mahdi and Chalabi again went through the theatrics of customary hand-kissing. When it was my turn, I was face-to-face with the marji’ with my hand out-stretched for a shake, but he wouldn’t take it and instead hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks and said something to me in private that I will cherish and keep to myself.

Dilettantes and the professional tea-readers who pass themselves off as Iraq ‘experts’ have a habit of misreading and exaggerating gestures such as Sistani’s alleged fatwas.

If we’ve learned anything from the recent events in Basra, Sadr City and Mosul—by the way, these are Iraq’s three largest population reservoirs—it should be that the reporters and commentators who are tasked to describe Iraq to American and western audiences are at worst dishonest and duplicious, at best some string puller’s chorus of useful idiots.

It is in this vein that this AP story is released; to distract from other things that could be reported in Iraq, such as how things are dramatically improving and how this war has been decisively won.

Here are two other developments to mull over: al-Sadr is not a rival, not even by a long-shot, to Sistani as the AP supposes. And Sistani is no longer that relevant to politics in Iraq. So many things have changed since 2005, and many observers are still way behind the curve.

Here’s column I wrote about Sistani back in December 2004: Tea, Sympathy and Sistani.

UPDATE: A source close to Sistani denied today (Arabic link) that the Grand Ayotallah's about to announce jihad, saying that Sistani believes that occupation (...in a general sense) must be resisted by peaceful, not military, means under a given set of circumstances.

Don't expect AP to release a retraction, though. Plus, don't expect the punditeers who feverishly linked to the AP fairytale to update their posts either.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Lying Low in Mosul

Here’s the western media’s brand-new dodge when trying to explain why the Iraqi Army is winning across the country: the insurgents, whether Sunni or Shia, are lying low.

Never mind that hundreds of insurgents are being killed and captured. No, according to the likes of TIME’s Mark Kukis (...who claims to be reporting from Iraq but could be up to something else in NYC), it’s “all a ploy, and any day now the real Iraq, which we refuse to report on, will unravel to fit to our imagined Iraq.”

But it seems that journalists too are adopting these alleged insurgent tactics: the Iraqi Army’s operation in Mosul is basically being ignored. In a sense, reporters are also lying low for fear that their false narratives would unravel.

They can’t even get its name right; they’re still calling it ‘Operation Lion’s Roar’. That’s so last week, for now we’re in the midst of ‘Operation Umm al-Rabi’ayn’. Considering that this operation is led and orchestrated by Iraqis, I think it’s high time that we keep the Arabic name for it. ‘Umm al-Rabi’ayn’ is one of the sobriquets by which Mosul is known meaning ‘Mother of the Two Springs’ since the city experiences a second spring-like season in the fall.

Maliki has been in Mosul supervising the operation together with his war cabinet just as he did in Basra, and by all accounts things are going very well. I was told by a source there that a new breed of jihadist was captured in the operation: a female ‘emira’ [commander] who heads a terrorist unit comprised of her sons!

CNN Airs More Bigotry

The New York Times reported today that CNN has apologized twice—the second time in writing—to China over comments made by its commentator Jack Cafferty on April 9 in which he said, in describing the Chinese, that they were “basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years”. Cafferty—whose schtick is to play the role of a jaded, left-wing curmudgeon—later clarified his comments as a description of the Chinese leadership and not its people.

But don’t expect Cafferty and his employers at CNN to apologize for the following words, which were uttered yesterday on Wolf Blitzer’s 'Situation Room':

This garbage about Iraq is the same bill of goods that we have been sold by the Bush administration since we invaded that country. We will be greeted as liberators. We will set up a functioning democracy. All good will come to the Middle East. They will pay for the war with their oil.

It's garbage. It hasn't happened. It ain't going to happen. The tribal animosities that fuel the violence in that part of the world date back centuries. They are not going to adopt a Western- style democracy next year or in 2013 or 100 years from now. So, it's just more political crap.
Dismissing Arabs as a nation culturally and historically incapable of adopting democracy is just plain racist. But it is a bigotry that is not only tolerated in leftist circles but rather openly and proudly displayed because it stands in opposition to George Bush’s vision for the Middle East. So much for the honesty and solidarity of liberalism.

Cafferty is no expert on the Middle East; in fact, he strikes me as a gimmicky charlatan playing to a tawdry tastelessness out there in the TV-watching public. But that’s not why he’ll get away with peddling this ignorance: on this issue, he’s amplifying a message that most watchers and commentators on the Middle East advocate. For some, the motivation comes about because they’re not astute enough to understand the subtle contours of an ancient culture and thus lash out with a sense of ersatz civilizational superiority, while for others they’re simply saying what their benefactors among the rich autocrats in the region want them to say.

Nevertheless, it’s heartening to know that Iraq is proving them all wrong. Whether someone like Cafferty will ever have the moral courage to admit it, even to himself, is suspect.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Fascinating: The Jihadists Admit Defeat in Iraq

A prolific jihadist sympathizer has posted an ‘explosive’ study on one of the main jihadist websites in which he laments the dire situation that the mujaheddin find themselves in Iraq by citing the steep drop in the number of insurgent operations conducted by the various jihadist groups, most notably Al-Qaeda’s 94 percent decline in operational ability over the last 12 months when only a year and half ago Al-Qaeda accounted for 60 percent of all jihadist activity!

The author, writing under the pseudonym ‘Dir’a limen wehhed’ [‘A Shield for the Monotheist’], posted his ‘Brief Study on the Consequences of the Division [Among] the [Jihadist] Groups on the Cause of Jihad in Iraq’ on May 12 and it is being displayed by the administration of the Al-Ekhlaas website—one of Al-Qaeda’s chief media outlets—among its more prominent recent posts. He's considered one of Al-Ekhlaas's "esteemed" writers.

The author tallies up and compares the numbers of operations claimed by each insurgent group under four categories: a year and half ago (November 2006), a year ago (May 2007), six months ago (November 2007) and now (May 2008). He demonstrated that while Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq could claim 334 operations in Nov. 06 and 292 in May 07, their violent output dropped to 25 in Nov. 07 and 16 so far in May 08. Keep in mind that these assessments are based on Al-Qaeda's own numbers.

The author also shows that similar steep drops were exhibited by other jihadist groups, and he neatly puts it all together in these two charts:

I don’t have the time to translate these charts right now, or translate the analysis he provides, but I wanted to share this with you immediately because it is a stunning and unprecedented admission of defeat!

Back in March 2007, I predicted as much in a column titled Jihadist Meltdown, and I wrote the following:

• The Al Qaeda-led Islamic State of Iraq orchestrates 60% of the actions, including most of the spectacular mass murders of civilians and military engagements with the American military. Most of the rank and file is Iraqi as is al-Baghdadi himself, but foreign nationals are better represented in the leadership.

• Other jihadist groups such as Ansar al-Sunna, the Islamic Army of Iraq, the Mujaheddin Army, and the 1920 Revolt Brigades, most of which are Iraqi organizations with longstanding Salafist roots, conduct 30% of the operations.

• Various Iraqi Baathist factions orchestrate 10%.
I go on to describe why I thought that this defeat was inevitable:

This sense that they were running out of time compelled Al Qaeda to take a bold initiative of declaring the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq four months back, appointing the hitherto unknown Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as its head. This was no propaganda stunt for Al Qaeda. This was the real thing: the nucleus state for the caliphate, with al-Baghdadi as the candidate caliph.

But this was a fatal strategic mistake for Al Qaeda, a mistake that threatens to pull down all the other jihadist insurgent groups along with it. Al Qaeda tried to leap over reality, but it was a leap into the abyss of uncertainty. Trying to pick a caliph is fraught with historical and judicial complications since there is no historical precedent — not even from the time of the Prophet Muhammad — that would serve for an uncontroversial transfer of power. It is one of the most delicate ideological matters among jihadists, a matter so sensitive that most of them have decided to leave it aside for the time being lest it result in splintering off dissenters.

But Zarqawi's successors, who inherited the leadership after his death last June and who are, for the most part, rash young ideologues who consider themselves the avant-garde of contemporary radical Islamism, felt that the doddering old guard of Al Qaeda — aged and increasingly inconsequential has-beens such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri — would never summon the nerve to force the issue of the caliphate and get it going. So they rushed into action, and it has exploded in their faces, since no other groups seem enthused to join them in this risky venture. This mistake has huge implications for the Iraqi insurgency since Al Qaeda accounts for most of it, and its strategic and ideological failure can quickly be turned into a battlefield rout.
Furthermore, I want to point out something even more critical: this defeat is not only a tactical one for the jihadists; this defeat is strategic in essence since it snuffs out their dream of resurrecting the caliphate, the raison d’être of modern jihad.

In case there are naysayers out there who’d question the Islamic State of Iraq’s relevance to the caliphate, then I’d like to direct them to a 101 page edict published by the ISI under the title ‘Informing the People About the Birth of the State of Islam’ that they put out during January 2007. The ISI legitimates itself by the same premises that the classical theorists of the caliphate (Juweini, Mawardi...etc.) set down for picking a caliph in medieval times. Then a month later, the 'Global Islamic Media Front' republished a 1987 Master’s thesis that further expands on these points and adds the one about the necessity of a Qurayshi ancestry for the would-be caliph—as is claimed by the head of ISI, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, for himself. Numerous works have also been added to bolster the argument that al-Baghdadi’s ‘election’ followed the precepts mandated for a caliph: clearly the title of ‘Prince of the Faithful’ that was bestowed on him had a whole different, more profound implication than the identical one awarded to Mullah Omar, an ethnic Pashtun and non-Qurayshi, during the Taliban days.

Thus, not only is America defeating Al-Qaeda militarily in Iraq but it is also squashing the grand jihadist vision for a caliphate that the Islamic State of Iraq stood for. This point is critical: in this ideological war, victory can only come about when the ideology of the opponent is negated and proven unworkable. The fight in Iraq is doing just that.

I’m not saying that the jihadists won’t keep trying to find a workable formula for the caliphate elsewhere, but for now they have been dealt a severe demoralizing blow.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it all ye calling for a hasty withdrawal.

Is Maliki an Iranian "Puppet" or an American "Puppet"?

Whereas many western Iraq-watchers keep pushing the line that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is beholden to Iran and to Iran's acolytes within the UIA coalition, the Iranians seem to think the opposite: Maliki and the Iraqis now in charge are too beholden to the Americans, according to this interesting Associated Press report.

I can't vouch for the report, but the gist of it holds true to what I've been arguing for a while: Iran's influence in Iraq has been eclipsed through Maliki's recent actions.

Maliki is coming into his own; he's no one's puppet. Maliki is even exploring the possibility of launching his own political coalition that would be independent of the UIA, according to several sources.

Quick note on Basra: Certain facts have been revealed to me that indicate that the Fadhila Party, which controls the governor's office in Basra, has been enabled and oriented all along by the British down there. For example, it seems that while the Iraqi government had issued an arrest warrant for Isma'il al-Wa'ili, the governor's brother, on charges ranging from oil smuggling to extortion, Britain found it appropriate to invite him over to London and set him up in a fancy hotel for 10 days last month. Al-Wa'ili was taken around to meet with all sorts of high-ranking British officials. And contrary to what was reported earlier about an Emirati handover of al-Wa'ili to Iraqi authorities, the fugitive been hiding out in Kuwait all along.

Another interesting and related rumor has it that a British official has been lobbying on behalf of Sheikh Sabah al-Sa'idi, the head of the Public Integrity Committee in parliament and a member of the Fadhila Party, to get his own arrest warrant annulled. Al-Sa'idi is being charged with oil smuggling too.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

How “Arab” Are the Sunnis of Beirut?

There’s a book by an Iraqi author from Basra, who fancifully renders his name as ‘Dr. Yusuf bin Ahmad bin Ali al-Husseini al-Hashimi’. I pulled it off the shelf to check something when the fighting began in Beirut, and I got myself re-acquainted with it. It was first published in 1971 under the title, Beirut wa ‘aa’ilatiha al-sab’a wa ‘useriha al-hadhira ['Beirut and its Seven Families and its Current Families'], and reprinted in Amman, in 2003. The author identifies himself as a historian (PhD 1958) and the head of the ‘Archive and Research Division in Al-Majd University’ of Baghdad—an institution I’ve never heard of. He also cites several other publications that he’d authored about Abbasid history. Al-Hashimi states that his father was a high-standing diplomat stationed in Damascus and Beirut while serving the Iraqi monarchy and that as a consequence he had been raised in Beirut and attended its schools. For this present work, he cites several generic resources on Beirut as well as the Ottoman Archive and the Yildiz Palace Archive in Istanbul.

If his work is credible, then it would seem that the vast majority of the hundreds of Sunni Beiruti families that he lists are either Berber (most of them 14th century arrivals from the Maghreb and Andalusia), Turk, Kurd, Balkan or ‘Mameluke’ in origin—not ethnically Arab. Another interesting feature is that many families migrated from Egypt, Syria, Tyre (Saida) and Trablus in the last 120 years; some of those listed even arrived in the 1960s and 1970s.

It is easy to forget how ‘new’ Beirut really is: in 1820, it had a population of 6,000, but by the end of the 19th century it had expanded to 120,000. Throughout Muslim history, the ancient town of Beirut never amounted to much, even when local dynasties ruled Lebanon for a while. Beirut had to wait for an economic break to draw in the migrants, and that only came about in the 19th century due to a whole bunch of banal market factors. Yet Beirut became something of a symbol for Arab ethnic vitality, just as nascent Arab Nationalism was asserting itself in the wake of the Ottoman collapse to become the ideology of Beirut’s Sunnis and most of its Orthodox Christians.

Watching Arabic-language news and reading the region’s papers, one is struck with the meme that Hezbollah’s rampage through the Sunni-dominated neighborhoods of Beirut amounted to a taint of its ‘Arabness’ by a foreign—in this case ‘Iranian’—transgressor. In other words, Beirut’s purity had been besmirched. The operative verb is استباح, translated to mean so many things: to allow what is not allowed, to invade and expand, etc.

The Shias, mostly from the south, had arrived to the metropolis in large numbers relatively late, in the 1970s. They were ‘newcomers’ crowding out more established migrants.

Arab Nationalism as a political force may be dead, but its myths are still very much alive. One huge surviving myth is that the Ottoman legacy of the Middle East—which in the 19th century involved massive transformations and massive movements of people—can be disregarded since, according to the Arab propagandists, the Ottomans occupied Arab lands that remained static for hundreds of years. It is this myth that allows Sunni Beirutis—a cocktail of Near Eastern ethnicities—to decry their desecrated Arab ‘purity’ with a straight face, rather than understanding that their past was anything but static. A similar fallacy survives among the Maronites who claim the Qadisha Valley and Kisrawan as their ‘homeland’ when the evidence points to roots elsewhere.

And it is this willful ignorance about their past that will continue to haunt the Lebanese, forever looking down upon their neighbors as unwelcome squatters, forgetting that they too had come from somewhere.

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about what Beirut means to the rest of the Middle East. I thought about my own family and all our links to Lebanon: both my father and my sister studied in Lebanon; two of my siblings were born in Beirut; all my siblings went to boarding school in Lebanon, and it was there that my mom was shot twice by a sniper during the first rumblings of the civil war—I came to the world about a year later. Our savings were placed in Lebanese banks. We all had valid Lebanese residencies and were going to move there in the late 1980s but my father changed his mind. Extended relatives from my father's side are intermarried with Lebanese Shia. My first cousin (she’s my paternal aunt’s daughter, her father was a Sunni Arab Duleimi) is married to a Maronite. That’s in addition to all the family friends who live or vacation in Lebanon that one catches up with while over there.

And on my trips around Lebanon, I was always surprised that I’ve ended seeing more of their enchanting country than the overwhelming number of Lebanese. As a foreigner I’m welcome everywhere, mainly because I’m looked upon as someone who isn’t going to stay. But in contrast, a Lebanese following the same itinerary may be looked upon with suspicion when wandering into the lairs of other sects and religions.

I guess there really isn’t much of a point to this post: I’m just relaying some thoughts and sentiments that have been stirred up by recent events in Lebanon. I’ve been anticipating something like this for a while and it was with this urgency that I set out to cover every geographical nook and cranny of the country, knowing that I won’t be able to travel freely after the violence breaks out. But there are certain places I saw, and certain people I met, that I would want to re-visit, not for research purposes, but for how good they made me feel. Now that it's happened, watching this beautiful country maim itself is just plain painful, and it makes me a little angry; it’s really is one of the most interesting and engaging places of the Middle East. And I feel that it’s all going to get worse.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Sunnis and Alawites Clash in Northern Lebanon

Long-standing feuds among Sunnis and Alawites in Trablus, Lebanon’s second largest city, have erupted into severe clashes involving light arms and rockets all throughout yesterday and today. These clashes are following familiar patterns from the time of the Lebanese Civil Wars in the north (early 1980s-1989). The Alawites, who form around 8 percent of the population of the Trablus District, are mostly concentrated in a northern suburb called Ba’al Mohsin, and they are surrounded by Sunni neighborhoods to the west (Tebbaneh) and to the south (Ba’ear بقار and ‘Ebbeh قبة). I think the Baddawi Palestinian refugee camp lies to the northeast of Ba’al Mohsin. Ba'al Mohsin is also called Jebel Mohsin.

click to enlarge picture

Early on, I had taken an interest in the Alawites of Trablus and those further north in Akkar Province. My interest stemmed from research I had been conducting on the Alawites in Syria, as well as a question which I had posed for myself: “Would monitoring Sunni-Alawi relations in Lebanon’s north be a suitable gauge for the likelihood of Sunni-Shia sectarian strife across Lebanon?” My reasoning was based on the notion that if jihadism would take root anywhere in Lebanon, then it would be in Akkar and Trablous, and a key and easy target for the jihadists would be the Alawite minority since Sunni-Alawite strife would have wide reverberations in nearby Syria, a majority Sunni country ruled by an Alawite minority.

There was one particular incident that caught my attention: Alawites and Sunnis in the village of Darin (Akkar) had clashed over which sect get to lay claim to the shrine of Sheikh ‘Isa al-Tanoukhi (unknown saint, not referenced in Muhammad Ahmad Ali’s ‘alaam al-‘alawiyeen encyclopedia, 5 vol., 2002). The shrine was allegedly burnt on March 24, 2007 and a fist-fight over the shrine broke out on April 9, 2007, which warranted the intervention of the Lebanese Army.

So naturally, I wanted to make my way over there, and I did that on July 19, 2007 (see my diary notes below). I don’t think I’ll get around to writing anything substantial about what I’ve learned so far, so the next best option is to share some quick thoughts with anyone out there who’s interested in this stuff. So, it is with that goal that I’m jotting down the following:

First, some numbers: 23,000 Alawite voters participated in the 2005 elections, and their distribution is as follows:

-60 percent in Trablus (Alawites constitute 3 percent of the whole province of Al-Shamal/Trablus, around 14,000 ‘eligible’ voters over the age of 21)

-38 percent in Akkar (Alawites constitute 4.7 percent of Akkar Province, around 9,000 ‘eligible’ voters over the age of 21)

-2 percent in the rest of Lebanon

-Sunnis constitute 77 percent of registered voters (422 eligible) in the village of Darin while Alawites account for 23 percent (129 eligible), yet no Alawites reside in Darin today. This is a pattern across many villages in Akkar where Alawites are in the minority of registered voters; they seem to have migrated to villages and towns where Alawites already constituted a majority such as Mas’oudiyah.

I don’t feel like getting into the history of the civil war in Trablus or the historical roots that underlie the animosity between Sunnis and Alawites.

But I do want to casually mention some pointers:

-When looking at Alawite history, one has to resign oneself to the realization that we’ll always be left with more questions than answers, partly due to the secrecy and syncretism of the Alawites themselves who don’t have clear-cut and non-contradictory answers as to their story in the Levant.

-There are two books that one would have hoped would answer some questions about the Alawite presence in Trablus and Akkar, but don’t. Hashim ‘Uthman’s tarikh al-shi’a fi sahil bilad al-sham al-shimali [The History of the Shias on the Northern Coast of the Levant] (1994) and Ahmad Ali Hassan and Hamid Hassan’s book al-muslimoon al-‘alawiyoon fi lubnan [Muslim Alawites in Lebanon] (1989) both make the case that the sporadic pseudo-Alawite principalities that ruled Trablus and other parts of the Lebanese coast at certain points in time could have left behind an Alawite presence. This thesis is compelling but not conclusive. Certainly, many Alawite sheikhs/scholars had last names that indicated origins from all over Lebanon, including Tyre and Sidon. But the Alawite presence in Trablus today is seemingly due to a recent migration (see Isam Khalifa, lubnan fi arshif Istanbul [Lebanon in the Istanbul Archive], 1996); Tebbaneh was a Christian enclave before being dominated by impoverished Sunni migrants (same with 'Ebbeh), and Ba’al Mohsin does not seem to be a built-up area in the 19th century. There is an Alawite saint called “al-Baddawi” and his shrine could have given its name to the Baddawi refugee camp. Moreover, some writers have argued that the Dhinniyeh Mountains to the east of Trablus are named so because of a historic presence of batini [esoteric] Shias in the past, who fit the bill for Alawites. Alawite lore considers Akkar (and even the Galil!) as one of the original lands to embrace the Alawite faith. This lore also states that the ‘Sunni’ Kurds who were defeated by the Alawites in the Nusayri Mountains proper (that is, the ones in present-day Syria) settled in Akkar, displacing the Alawites there. Lastly, there is a Sunni fatwa in early Ottoman times by Sheikh Nooh al-Dimeshqi in 1516, which could have been focused on the Alawites or other batinis of Trablus/Akkar, and which was used in justifying widescale massacres or deportations.

-Almost all the villages in Akkar that have Alawite majorities or minorities also contain varying proportions of Sunnis and/or Greek Orthodox Christians. This could either mean that Alawites have been converting to Sunnism (NOTE: this is a general trend in the Levant: heterodox minorities either emigrate to where their coreligionists are more numerous or assimilate into Muslim orthodoxy. An example would have been the ‘Ismailis of Akkar who used to inhabit the villages of Kusha, ‘Eteh, Nora Al-Tahta, Ain Tenta, and Delin; today there are no practicing ‘Ismailis in Lebanon according to several people I spoke to in Akkar) or it could be that Alawites have moved into Sunni or Christian villages or vice versa. It is also reasonable to believe that Alawites may have converted back and forth from Christianity as was related to me anecdotally by Alawites in Syria. The only village that is wholly Alawite in Akkar is Barbara, which I visited (see notes below, 210 eligible voters). But even the name indicates a Christian origin. I haven’t found any mixed Alawite-Maronite villages in Akkar.

-There are at least two villages with a mixture of Shias and Alawites (Qarha and Deghlah) and another two with wholly Shia populations (Rayhaniya and Habshit/Qab’ait (?)), which may indicate that some Alawites, whose historic presence in Akkar is far more ancient, had converted to mainstream Shiism in recent centuries or even decades. There is evidence that such a trend is also taking place in Syria itself; I met two hawza educated sheikhs in the village of Jobet Burghal, who were trying to administer Quran lessons there with very little success. Here’s another thing: I have no way of proving this, since there isn’t enough of a historical record to determine the validity of my theory either way, but I believe that the “Jebeli Shias” of Kisrawan, who the Mamlukes almost annihilated in the early 14th century would have turned into what we know today as Alawites had their historical progression in the mountains gone undisturbed. Today they are survived by the remaining mainstream Shias in the highlands above Jbail (along the ancient route to the temple of Adonis; some aspects of Alawite antinomiamism and veneration of Khidhr, though not unique to them, could be rooted in whatever survived from Levantine fertility cults) and of course on the western Beqa’a Valley, from which they spread east and multiplied.

-Whoever drew Lebanon’s map must have consciously tried to incorporate the northern Maronite enclave of ‘Ebeyyat within Lebanese territory. But this also had the odd feature of drawing the border in such a way as to put a buffer of minorities—Alawites, Shias, Greek Orthodox, ‘Ismailis and Maronites—between the Sunnis of Akkar, who form the bulk of the inland population to the south of the province, and the Sunni ‘corridor’ that runs through the lowlands from the Mediterranean coast to the city of Homs on the Syrian side. The Ottomans had consciously settled Sunni or loyalist tribes along this line (they even settled Cretan Greeks there in the early 20th century) to keep that economic route safe from marauding Alawites from the Syrian side of the mountains as well as mountaineers from the Valley of the Nasara (Christians). The trade route used to go up from Tripoli to Homs and from then on to Aleppo and elsewhere. The only break in the ‘minorities buffer’ are the Sunnis of Wadi Khalid, who were only awarded Lebanese citizenship in 1994, but there’s no contiguous territory between them and the other Sunnis of Akkar.

-In trying to identify Alawite villages, I used two resources: the detailed survey in Edward Robinson and Eli Smith’s Biblican Researches in Palestine, vol.3 (1841), as well as the Parliamentary Elections 2005 software. I was also equipped with a very good map, which was very useful all over Akkar except in the areas above Akkar al-Atiqa where I got lost, twice.

-I’ve taken two day-trips to Akkar in which I feel I had covered a lot of ground: one was on March 20, 2006 and the second was on July 19, 2007. My rough notes from the more recent trip can be read below; they are not of the literary value of Isaac Babel’s 1920 Diary, but I think that it may be of interest to those trying to understand the Sunni-Alawite clashes in northern Lebanon. I’ve kept all the original wording of my notes and I’ve put in some minor clarifications within brackets.

But to answer the question I had posed to myself above: the Alawites are too few to be a threat to Sunnis in either Akkar or Trablus. However in venting Sunni anger at Hezbollah, Alawites can be beaten up in lieu of finding other Shias to beat up. I think the remaining Alawites of Akkar will either go to Syria or crowd into Jebel Mohsin should the bloodletting begin around them. Their shrines, or at least the ones that the Sunnis haven’t laid claim to, will probably be destroyed.

Here are the notes:

Thursday, July 19, 2007: Beirut

Started driving towards Trablous, just outside Minyah, [graffiti] next to the water mellon stand:

ابو بكر عمر عثمان علي دم السني عم يغلي غلي

[Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, the blood of the Sunnis is boiling]

Signed by سرايا المجاهدين, تل الحياة [Mujaheddin Platoons of Tal Hayat]. Pro-Harirism with Islamist tinge. Drive by Nahr al-Barid, the place is tiny. Says a lot about the prowess of the Lebanese Army [The battles there were still ongoing, smoke was billowing out of the camp; the fighting lasted for three months]. Then drove through حيصا and مسعودية [Hayssa and Mas’oudiyah], Alawite towns, pro-Syrian, and pro-Asad graffiti. No hijab. [Terrain] plains, looks like Diyala.

The Basil al-Asad high school. Then onwards to Darin, the shrine of شيخ عيسى التنوخي [Sheikh ‘Isa al-Tanoukhi], spoke to the brother of the mukhtar [headman] (who is M. al-A. al-M.), K. al-A., their grandfather’s house was well-built, of black basalt stone. Told us the stories, from his grandfather’s time (the father of A.) who saw a dream in the years before WWI, the طاعون الاصفر [Yellow Plague], was sweeping villages all around, in a dream, a merchant riding a mule with three camels in tow loaded with yellow melons, a knight emerged from the thicket of the shrine, and barred entry to the merchant by killing him. The area of the shrine 134 m2, as well as the hilltop shrine of شيخ محمد بالغزيلة [Sheikh Muhammad in Ghizeileh] and the nearby shrine of شيخ السلطان [Sheikh al-Sultan], all registered as Sunni awkaf [religious endowments]. Joined by his son, M. G., “During Syrian times, Alawites وضع يد [forcefully seized the shrine], and took another 3000 m2, picnics and drinking [reference to Alawite custom of picnicking and consuming alcohol in the vicinity of their shrines]. The fight started when Alawite youth, 60 of them, barred the kids of Darin from getting near the shrine.” Now it is closed, earlier, [spoke to the] shepherd [at the shrine] who said that all he knows are his sheep, had directed us to the mukhtar’s house. [M. G.]: “The Alawites are transgressors, always. Too few of them, half a Sunni village equals all of them.” They support طلال المرعبي [Talal al-Mira’abi, the Mira’abi family have been the feudal leaders of Akkar in +150 years]. Nothing positive about Syrian presence. Akkarites voted Hariri in sympathy after the assassination.

The fight occurred around the time of Easter. Said our goodbyes and then drove to the shrine of al-Sultan. Shepherd there, picture of Ali and Hassan and Hussein. Asked him if he were Alawite, denied it. Old graves. Referred to the al-A.s as the “Begs”. Elongated grave.

Then drove up to Hetla, mixed Alawite, Greek Orthodox, more Greeks; the ضابط في الأمن [officer in the security services], in his undershirt, asking for our papers and threatening to arrest us. Then gave us directions to Kweikhat. From there went to Kusha, shrine of “Sheikh Omar” in قتة [‘Etteh]. Two minor forts that later belonged to the feudal lords.

Picked up M. al-H., “unibrow”, trimmed beard, studying law, 22, in Trablous University, learned English from rap songs. No more Isma’ilis, they immigrated to Salamiyyah [enclave of Isma’ili settlement east of Hamah begun in 19th century]. Doesn’t know about his own roots, the Iskender family, second or third largest in Kusha, converted from Isma’ilism to Sunnism.

[Earlier interview with Ahmad] Fatfat: “Around Trablous, Alawites, Orthodox in al-Koura, Maronites in Zgharta, all within 5Km radius, [jihadist] fundamentalism is impossible.”

Al-H. would fight against مشروع [the project of] the Shia Crescent. Volunteer for the security services. Asked us for our info. The Alawites are being provocative; [he had] studied in the Basil al-Asad high school. Not religious. The Salafists [composed] half the town, in قنبر [‘Enber, next town to the east]. [Salafist trend] stopped after a new sheikh came [who was a] Hanafi.

Then drove up towards the beautiful valley, Maronite and Greek Orthodox villages towards Barbara. There, shrine of الشيخ محمد عجمان [Sheikh Muhammad ‘Ajman]. Met the caretaker, H. al-W., used to be in the [Lebanese] Army, kind of effeminate, wife uncovered, psychotic brother, six children, [concerning Darin incident]: “problems between مراهقين [teenagers]”. [Concerning potential for Sunni-Alawite clashes]: “we trust that the army will protect us.” Pontificated on American policy, “We like America, I served with Charlie and others in the Marines.” Also, “if things too bad for Alawites [here] then Syria will intervene, won’t care about Security Council.” [I] showed off my shrine erudition. He visited 50-60-100 “domes” [meaning shrines]. Told us about Sheikh Yusuf, Abu طاقة, in بربعو [village of Reb’ou in Syria]. The entrance narrows on the person telling the lie. Also, “We are protected by our saints اولياء, should anything happen [sectarian clashes].” Also, “the Christians think that the shrine belong to St. Barbara.” [At the shrine] picture of Khidhir, St. George. The Isma’ilis of عين تنتا [nearby village of ‘Ain Tenta] have turned Sunni. [Also added that the Turkumans of ‘Ain Tenta and other areas are friendly to Alawites.] The Alawites of عين الزيت [‘Ain Al-Zeit, nearby village] are مواخسة [Makhusis, splinter Alawite sect], “Let them tell you about their beliefs” [Alawites of Barbara are Kalazis, I assume]. Every saint I mentioned, he would say عليه السلام.

Said our goodbyes, then drove around mountain, into the valley of قبيات [‘Ebeyyat, Maronite town], under the Jebel Akroum. Stopped to have lunch aound 5:30, chicken sandwiches.

Then took the road to Akkar Al-Attiqa. Some women without hijabs, beautiful area, “would be a waste on Salafists”. Kurds. Took the hard road up to Fneidik. Around Jebel Qamou’a (?) [Got lost here, also got lost somewhere around here on my first visit to Akkar], عين الشوح. Shuh forests, [cedar-like trees], ارز فنيدق, lots of flatlands for agriculture, [wild] grain growing well. But no settlements? Then through pine [forests] to Fneidik, very little Salafi dress, no visible fundamentalism, then Mishmish, then قبعيت [Qib’eet], is this where they held Terry Waite? Is it Shiite? [Signs of] Israeli strikes on either side of it. To cut it off?

The mountains [across the Nahr Al-Barid river valley] relatively under-populated, and thickly grown with forests, running up to Qurnet al-Sawda. Then got a bird’s eye-view of Nahr Al-Barid [camp], then drove through Bibnin. A funeral, for a soldier? Then just beyond Nahr Al-Barid, the silencer دشلمون, falls, found a “gaggle of orphans” لحيمجي [child mechanics] to fix it. The fight among the kids. All of them have brothers or cousins fighting with the Army. Inside, “Saudis, Syrians, مشكل Arabs, Palestinians” but no Lebanese. Either 7 [jihadists] left or 300. Car got fixed, then drove through Trablous, ساحة الله. Then drove [back to Beirut] at night.

New Column: Iran's Shifting Strategy

I have another New York Sun column out today: Iran's Shifting Strategy.

Fouad Ajami, the Director of the Middle East Studies Program at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, sent a very nice note to the NYSun's editor about it, which was forwarded to me:


Nibras Kazimi’s column, “Iran’s Shifting Strategy” (New York Sun, May 12), is one of the most insightful readings of the Middle Eastern landscape to appear anywhere in a very long time. Its analysis is as subtle and shrewd as the ways of the region. The linkage he makes between Iraq’s success and Lebanon’s troubles is nothing short of brilliant. The Sun, and Nibras Kazimi, are to be commended for cutting through so much of what has been said about these matters of late. An essay that should be required reading by all those who want to understand, let alone comment on, the contest between order and mayhem in Arab and Islamic lands.

Fouad Ajami

Happy Happy Joy Joy!

Forty-nine days after the launch of Operation Cavalry Charge on March 25, the New York Times finally gets around to sending a couple of reporters down to Basra--to Iraq's second largest city--to give its readers a first hand account on the situation there. What the reporters saw was overwhelmingly positive, and even though the British commanders in Basra try to take undue credit on the sly, the article is for the most part accurate.

It should be noted that the NYTimes had covered Basra extensively for the last seven weeks, and the events there often made it to the front-page of that publication; the tone had been uniformly negative and sensationalist. Yet, the reporters writing-up the events never bothered to make it to Basra but were rather sitting hundreds of miles away in Baghdad, and it was only now that the paper's editors chose to send a couple of journalists to gauge Basra's reality.

This was yet another shameful chapter in how the Iraq story was reported and what is even more shameful is that no one will be held accountable for all the distortion and misrepresentation it has left in its wake.


Who's running the New York Times this week? Because they've got a great Op-Ed by Edward Luttwak about Obama's apostacy in Muslim eyes. I had raised the same points back in December.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Interesting: Abu Suleiman al-'Uteibi Killed in Afghanistan

Abu Suleiman al-'Uteibi (identified in the Saudi press as Muhammad al-Thubaiti, a young Saudi cleric) was killed in Afghanistan's Paktia Province during a skirmish with coalition forces there, according to a press release from Al-Qaida in Afghanistan today. The statement clarifies that al-'Uteibi had arrived in Afghanistan six months ago after leaving Iraq. Al-'Uteibi seems to have been a favorite of Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi's, having arrived in Iraq from Saudi Arabia shortly before the latter's death in June 2006. Al-'Uteibi makes his first public appearance in a video released on April 11, 2007 and is identified with the lofty title of "Chief Religious Judge of the Islamic State of Iraq", even though he was only 28 years old at the time.

But shortly afterwards, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi declared the names of his cabinet (on April 19, 2007), and he didn't pick al-'Uteibi as his Minister of Religious Courts:

3-Professor Sheikh Abu ‘Uthman al-Tamimi, Minister of Religious Courts (Apparently the first choice that was read out by the “spokesman” was changed at the last minute, because a voice-over is done in someone else's voice with al-Tamimi’s name substituted for the first choice; the Bani Tamim are one of Iraq’s major tribes, and they are mostly Shi’a with important Sunni subsections. There are also Tamimis in Saudi Arabia—Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism in the 18th century belonged to this tribe—so this fellow could be a non-Iraqi too. The first choice could have been Sheikh Abu Suleiman al-Uteibi, a Saudi, who was recently identified as the chief religious judge of the ISI; I have no idea why they would have changed it.)
Al-Baghdadi officially sacked al-'Uteibi in statement released for that purpose on August 25, 2007, and appointed an Iraqi sheikh, Abu Ishaq al-Juburi, in his place. It seems that shortly after being fired, al-'Uteibi left Iraq for Afghanistan.

It would be interesting to discover the background to the al-Baghdadi-al-'Uteibi rift, and what al-'Uteibi had to say about it to the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, and whether there's a deeper rift between the outlooks of the jihadists in Iraq and those in Afghanistan.


picture of Abu Suleiman al-Otaibi as he appeared in a propaganda video

I guess I've been asleep, but can somebody tell me when did "tandheem qa'idet aljihad fi afghanistan تنظيم قاعدة الجهاد في افغانستان" come into being? When did OBL's and Zawahiri's Al-Qaeda become "Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan"? Is this a new franchise? Is it a split within Al-Qaeda? Does this mean that it is an admission that OBL/Zawahiri are no longer in Afghanistan, thus it was necessary to find a new leadership/organization/hierarchy there? I'm not certain, but it seems that the first time we had heard from this organization was when Zarqawi was killed; is this Zarqawi's outfit in Afghanistan?

Friday, May 09, 2008

New Column: What Happened in Basra?

So I finally got around to writing a new column. My editors are indeed saints for the patience they've shown after an absense of six months. I guess my only excuse is that I've been stuck doing new strategic math, such as the import of Russia's aggressive engagement all over the Middle East, including finding channels to the jihadists. I've also been spending a lot of time learning about and traveling around Turkey and the Ottoman imperial legacy.

I should also update my profile since I am now a 'contributing editor' rather than a columnist for the New York Sun, and I'm done writing for the Prospect. The Prospect gave me a column for a year, and it was a great opportunity to get exposure to a European audience through a prestigious magazine, but I believed that as Iraq stabilized the Iraq story would become too boring to warrant a monthly column. I look forward to writing longer pieces for them in the future. I will also post my Prospect columns on Talisman Gate when I get around to it.

My new column is: What Happened in Basra?

Regarding the unique corporate identity of 'original' Basrans, one should consider the case of the Bani Tamim tribe: Basra was founded as both a military base, and a social one for Islam in a land infested with Jews, Christians and Manichean peasants, all of various Semitic extractions, as well as the human flotsam of whatever ancient empire has raped and raided through Mesopotamia. It is debatable whether founding a garrison town was a conscious effort towards preserving ethnic homogeneity, but what is clear is that Basra pivoted Arab troops towards future campaign to sweep up Persia. One of the tribes that were settled in the new metropolis were the Bani Tamim, today they constitute the second largest tribe in Basra Province, after those initial settlers played host to subsequent migrations of their kinsmen out of arid Arabia into greener pastures.

Those first Tamimis eventually absorbed countless natives and bestowed their tribal affiliation, and protection, upon them. They even absorbed a large number of Persian mercenaries, brought in and paid for as cavalrymen in the service of the new, martial faith bent on imperial expansion. Some Tamimis moved on as the borderlands shifted north and east, forgotten in some geographical recess in Central Asia or the Caucases, forgetting who they are as they themselves were absorbed into native affiliations.

Throughout most of these 1400 years, the Tamimis of Basra remained Sunni—or whatever counted as the ruling state’s orthodoxy—as did most of the town proper and the hinterland around them. But they must have been swayed by the various heresies and rebellions that were sparked in their midst, or erupted all around them, led by gypsies, slaves and mystics. And within the mishmash of Portuguese and Philippino ancestry, and Hindu worship, and pagan deities refashioned as Muslim saints, and the chaos left as central authority receded, the pure-bred Arabs of the Bani Tamim and the other tribes that settled south of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers confluence, were infected with dissent, and turned Shiite in larger numbers in the last two centuries or so.

'Basrawi' identity was centuries in the making.

It is therefore interesting that the Tamimis were the first to respond to Maliki's call to arms. These 'original' Basrans rallied to the government's side against the newly arrived 'squatters' who form the bulk of Sadrist support in Basra and elsewhere; new in the sense that they've only been around for less than a century.

One of my column's un-PC points is that whereas civic pride and sense of self among native Basrans was solid, these transplants from Amara into the slums of Basra and Sadr City suffered from a muddled identity. Therefore, when the Iranians relied on the Sadrists they were placing their bets on ghetto thugs rather than ideologues in the cut of Hezbollah; being a Sadrist was more akin to joining the Crips or the Bloods rather than marching in the civil rights movement. That’s why the presence of so unconvincing a leader as Mr. al-Sadr at the helm didn’t really matter: he himself was irrelevant since this wasn’t a revolution, but his last name gave the progeny of those ‘shroogis’ their gang colors.

On Abu Hamza al-Muhajir: I'm still waiting for word from Mosul, but I just want to re-iterate: Abu Hamza al-Muhajir is not necessarily one and the same as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, since this association is basely solely on the conjecture of US intelligence agencies. It may be correct, but there's still a large margin for surprises. This is what I wrote back in February 2007:

BTW: I ready to acknowlegde this now: al-Muhajir, although speaking in classical Arabic, pronounces some words with a muted Egyptian accent. I have been reluctant to belief that he's actually Abu Ayyub al-Masri, as claimed by US intelligence, and that for a variety of reasons; I'm warming up to the idea at this point, or at least the idea that he's originally from Egypt.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

How the Outcome in Sadr City Led to Today’s Clashes in Beirut

The Siniora cabinet and the March 14 political coalition that props it up have been doing and saying many provocative things from Hezbollah’s vantage point over the last two years from, yet Hezbollah chose to be provoked yesterday and today; why is that?

Ostensibly, Hezbollah is responding to the Lebanese government’s decision to sack the security chief of Beirut’s international airport, and to dismantle Hezbollah’s secure landline-based communications network that had been expanded recently.

What could have spurred-on this over-reaction on Hezbollah’s part, which has been manifested so far with flexing its muscles in the Sunni area of Beirut, seemingly showing-up the government as weak and vulnerable?

I believe Iran needed to show the United States and its Arab allies that it can humiliate them by overrunning the government they back in Beirut and that they’d be unable to do anything about it, and I believe that Iran needed to make this point now because the Mahdi Army in Iraq has collapsed.

Iran has been backing certain factions of the Mahdi Army with training and arms as an investment in a force for chaos, which can be held in reserve and unleashed against the Americans in Iraq in the event that George Bush may order a bombing run against Iran’s illicit nuclear program this summer—something he’s be egged-on to do by U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.

Iran’s earlier acolytes such as the Hakim family had comfortably nestled into the very fabric of the Iraqi state, and could not be counted on to be Iran’s agents of disorder—especially since they now enjoyed financial independence from Iran by their exposure to Iraq’s own ample resources. Iran needed a different, more desperate beast to do its bidding, thus the ‘Special Groups’, as they Iranian-managed offshoots of the al-Sadr’s rag-tag Mahdi Army are called, were conveniently cobbled together from the gangsters and hoodlums of Iraq’s dislocated Shia masses.

But ever since Prime Minister Maliki launched Operation Cavalry Charge on March 25 in Basra, the Iraqi government, with some U.S. air cover and logistical support, has been engaged in a war of attrition with the Mahdi Army; witling away the once-sharp and threatening capability of Iran’s investment in terror. Whereas these ‘Special Groups’ could launch 30 to 40 projectiles into the Green Zone a few weeks ago, today they can only manage one or two rockets. The Iraqi Army and the US military have pushed on into all the redoubts of the Sadrists, notably Sadr City where some 1200 fatalities (a significant number of them non-combatants) have occurred.

Maliki has also ordered the Iraqi Red Crescent to prepare an initial contingency plan to absorb 100,000 refugees from Sadr City, indicating that he is not backing down. Moreover, there’s word from parliament that the government has asked for the removal of legal immunity from several parliamentarians, some of whom are Sadrists, over charges of inciting violence against government troops. Particularly vulnerable is Sadrist MP Baha’ al-‘Araji.

Clearly, Maliki feels that he’s come out on top in his scuffle with the Sadrists, and recent confrontations in Basra, Kut, Hillah, Shatrah, Karbala, Shula City (Baghdad), Nassiriya and Suq al-Shuyukh have shown that the Sadrists are no match for the Iraqi Army and police who continue to arrest Sadrist leaders and evict the movement from its offices.

The Sadrists and the Iranians have been reduced to bravado and PSY-OPS: one account has it that the Sadrists have a plan to take over the Green Zone within seven hours, and that they can take over Basra within 24 hours. Another is that General Suleimani of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard actually controls events in Iraq.

But in effect, Iran has lost the deterrence value of its investment in the Sadrists.

That’s why Iran needed to flex its might in downtown Beirut, to embarrass the Saudis and others who can do very little to bail-out Siniora’s government. The ruse seems to have worked: Saad al-Hariri basically rescinded the government’s orders against the airport security chief and the communications network today.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi Revealed?

Alleged picture of Hamed al-Zawi, "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi", as supplied by the Haditha police chief to Al-Arabiya

This is a response I posted to a comment earlier today about whether Abu Omar al-Baghdadi's true identity has been revealed:
Hi Ali/Iraq,

This is an interesting revelation from the police chief of Haditha, who spoke about AOB to Al-Arabiya.

Hamid Dawood Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi! He's supposed to have been an officer in the Amn al-'Aameh [General Security Directorate] under Saddam!

This account has credibility in so far as the Zawis of Haditha and Anah claim descent from Al-Hussein [much disputed by genealogists], and AOB in his last speech singled out the Jughaifis in his last speech and seemed to be knowledgeable about the tribes in that area above Haditha. He even mentioned the Zawiyeen even though they are a very small clan.

In fact, I remember reading a year ago, around the time when Muharib al-Juburi was killed, that someone on a jihadist chatroom made the assertion that al-Zawi was AOB.

So it could be Hamid al-Zawi afterall. However, I would have thought that Al-Qaeda would have been very sensitive about placing a former Saddam officer at the helm of their organization, and would have looked for someone completely unconnected to the ex-regime. Furthermore, this could be a very local problem between the police chief of Haditha who is accusing a top terrorist commander from his town to be the top dog of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

One more thing, if he was from Anbar, then why call himself al-Baghdadi? Such a title would come back to haunt him if he goes public with his identity in the future, exposing him to mockery.

We shall have to wait and see if the Islamic State of Iraq is going to respond in a public statement to this assertion.

I'll still kind of convinced that it could be Khalid Khalil Ibrahim al-Mashhadani, Abu Zaid, but we've not seen anything to verify that. This claim that Hamid al-Zawi is AOB constitutes the most serious challenge to my AOB as al-Mashhadani theory.

Either way, I never bought the idea that he was a fictional character.

Let's wait and see.



10:47 AM, May 07, 2008

UPDATE: Here is a link to the chat forum post that revealed Abu Omar al-Baghdadi's real identity as that of "Hamid Daoud al-Zawi" back in July 2007 (Arabic text). As one can see, the news was out there way before today's revelation by the Haditha police chief to Al-Arabiya TV.

The July 2007 post adds some interesting biographical information: Hamid al-Zawi was born in 1958, and he is known as "Abu Mahmoud". He's a retired police officer from the Haditha Police Department, who worked after retirement as a oil heater repairman in the Anbar town of Haqlaniyah. His current address is cited as Ghazaliya, Baghdad.

There's still no official word from either Al-Hesbah or Al-Ekhlas (websites associated with Al-Qaeda) on whether this information is true or not.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

McClatchy News Agency Purposely Distorts Quotes, Publishes Unattributed Gossip

McClatchy Newspapers put out a news wire on April 29 under the byline of Hannah Allam (McClatchy’s Middle East bureau chief in Cairo, who traveled to Iraq for this story), with Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel—two reporters known for their sources within U.S. intelligence, specifically the CIA—reporting from the United States. Landay and Strobel are also known as two activist reporters with a strong bias against the Iraq war.

The report tried, with plenty of hyperbole, to paint General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, as the most influential man in Iraq.

This served as a follow-up story to another of McClatchy’s reports published on March 30 under Leila Fadel’s byline in Baghdad (she’s their bureau chief there) which claimed that an Iraqi parliamentary delegation had met with Suleimani in Tehran and beseeched him to stop the fighting in Basra with the Sadrists, something that he was allegedly able to pull off within hours. Fadel had cited “parliamentary sources” for that story, yet one of my own sources dismissed this account at the time as a “naïve fabrication”.

Yet the big news in Allam’s piece was an allegation that on the weekend of March 28-29, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani held a meeting with Suleimani at the Mariwan crossing on the Iraq-Iran border and pleaded for an end to the fighting.

To bolster this allegation, Allam cites three Iraqi officials and a single Iraqi politician all of whom remained anonymous in her piece. What’s more is that the political or professional affiliations of these four anonymous sources were not clarified in any such manner to convincingly argue that they would indeed be privy to highly secretive information of this nature. The report adds a disclaimer that McClatchy tried to reach Talabani for a comment, but he was unavailable. Yet Allam could have alternatively posed this question to Talabani’s office or his spokesman but she didn’t; maybe it was because she purposely avoided dealing with an on-the-record denial from Talabani’s people, which would have rendered the anonymous allegations journalistically questionable.

It should be noted that neither Allam (who is of Egyptian and American parentage) or Fadel (who’s of Lebanese and American parentage) can claim to be proficient Arabic speakers, and must always rely on translators when conducting interviews. I should also add that I know them both personally.

This point about language proficiency becomes a salient one when it turns out that the only person who ostensibly confirms a meeting with Suleimani in Allam's piece has been woefully misquoted: Ammar al-Hakim is the only person who is quoted by name and affiliation saying that the parliamentary delegation had indeed met with Suleimani, thus seemingly confirming Fadel’s earlier account.

This is how it is written-up in McClatchy’s version:
"A delegation went to speak to the officials in Iran in the name of the alliance, to ask them to encourage these groups to stay within the boundaries of the law," said Ammar al-Hakim, the son and senior aide of the leader of Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. "They met with a number of officials, and Mr. Suleimani was one of them."
However, it seems that in fact al-Hakim didn’t confirm anything of this nature because in the Arabic transcript of his interview with McClatchy, which was posted on the website of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq-Presidency Office (…his daddy’s outfit) on April 20, he was non-committal about any meetings with Suleimani:
The meetings did not occur on the border; the delegation went to the capital Tehran and met with a number of officials, one of whom could have been Mr. Qasim Suleimani.
Thus Hakim is not confirming or denying such a meeting; he’s merely speculating because he simply doesn’t know. Hakim must have been speaking in Arabic since he doesn't know English.

He said these words in response to a direct question about Suleimani from the McClatchy reporter (likely to be Allam) who asked “Why would delegations go to Iran and meet General Suleimani, and also meetings occurred with him on the border?”

Al-Hakim is also misquoted later in the article, when the order of his sentences is reversed:
"This man is like other men," al-Hakim said of Suleimani. "He may have significant intelligence capabilities, he may have his good points and his bad points. But it's not logical that we exaggerate these points to the extent of giving a surreal picture.

"We have all enjoyed watching the American films in which the 'hero' is capable of doing the impossible, and anyone can die in the film except him, but no sooner does the film end than we return to the reality that only God is omnipotent," al-Hakim said.
But in the ISC’s transcript, the second sentence precedes the first sentence, thus changing the meaning of al-Hakim’s words, which served to point out that all this hullabaloo concerning Suleimani’s influence was overblown, much like a Hollywood action-hero movie.

The transcript add that the interview with the McClatchy reporter occurred on April 18.

Moving on, the McClatchy story resorts to other rhetorical tricks, which I find awfully cheap. Check this one out:
One member of the delegation that met with Suleimani, Ali al-Adeeb, a top Dawa Party leader, said that the Iranian officials swore that they weren't arming al-Sadr's forces.

"We reminded them that the security of Iraq would affect the security of Iran," Adeeb said in an interview at his Baghdad headquarters. "And that any support they give to the Sadrist movement would send a message to the United States to stay in Iraq because it's still too unstable."
McClatchy matter-of-factly asserts that Ali al-Adib met with Suleimani, but their reporters couldn’t get al-Adib to say and verify that on the record, so they quoted his out of context, just to make it seem as if he did! Al-Adib led the delegation to Tehran, but has never been quoted as saying that he’d met with Suleimani while he was over there. I'm pretty sure the reporter posed that question to him, and he must have denied it. But why didn't the reporter print the denial?

Another similar trick is to quote another parliamentarian who accompanied al-Adib, and that would be Hadi al-Ameri by posing a hypothetical concerning Talabani’s alleged meeting with Suleimani on the border:
"As long as the dialogue is about Iraq, meetings will be held on the soil of Iraq as well as the other places," said Hadi al-Ameri, an Iraqi legislator who commands the Badr Organization. "Maybe the president going to the border can be questioned as far as protocol, but protocol is not our main concern. Our main concern is putting out the fires."
Notice al-Ameri is not denying or confirming a Talabani-Suleimani meeting, he is seemingly answering a hypothetical question about whether it is appropriate, from a protocol point of view, for an Iraqi president to be meeting an Iranian general at a border crossing!

The other fishy aspect about this story is that it quotes Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi as saying that Suleimani brokered the premiership of Nouri al-Maliki in April 2006. However, there’s a glaring omission that Abdul-Mahdi himself was angling to become Prime Minister during that time, and that his current statements could be colored by a lingering bitterness over losing the job to al-Maliki. Not only that but he’s still campaigning for the post; denouncing Maliki as Suleimani’s man would help Abdul Mahdi’s chances. Furthermore, anyone who followed the mechanics of how Maliki was picked over all the other candidates through a political maneuver by Sistani’s son would realize that Suleimani’s role in that whole farce was negligible at best.

So there you have it, McClatchy tried to make these rumors of Suleimani’s omnipotence stick through distorting quotes and propagating innuendo. Al-Hakim’s words were published in transcript form on his organization’s website nine days before McClatchy went to print, and thus this particular distortion could have been averted. Yet the reporters chose not to correct their translations—why is that?

McClatchy tried to turn Suleimani into the Loch Ness monster; reporting murky anecdotes and relying on anonymous sources for his sightings. They tried to peddle the storyline that Iran controls Iraq. I wonder how McClatchy will further distort the news when reporting about the parliamentary delegation that just went to Iran a couple of days ago to confront the leadership there with evidence of Iran's support for terrorism and criminality…Yep, I wonder…