Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lebanon: Jamil al-Sayyid Released From Prison

Former Gen. Jamil al-Sayyid was released from prison today. He had been held, along with three other officers, since 2005 for an alleged role in the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. I met him shortly before he was arrested, and my gut instinct told me that he wasn't involved.

This is what I wrote at the time.

Note: al-Sayyid should be thought of as a possible future challenger to Hezbollah. Secular Shi'as may be able to coalesce around him; other candidates, especially those admitting Saudi funding, are simply not credible. It's a long term project that some people should start thinking about. If al-Sayyid aspires to national standing, then he'll also begin to sound anti-Syrian, which is always a plus.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

...And he was supposed to be one of the 'reconcilable' ones

The following footage (via sotaliraq.com) showing a man, allegedly identified as Adel al-Mashhadani (...looks very much like him) giving what appears to be a recent speech in Al-Fadhl. Mashhadani was the 'Sons of Iraq' leader who was arrested late last month by Iraqi forces. He had been on the U.S. payroll, who had hoped that he would be one of the former insurgents they could reconcile with, and then force the Iraqi state to put him on payroll.

I couldn't figure how to embed without the video automatically playing when the page is loaded, so kindly follow this link.

The crowd begins by shouting "Cheers to the resilient Ba'ath". Mashhadani then gives a pep talk saying that Iraq belongs to the youth of Iraq and "at their head is the Martyred Leader Saddam Hussein."

Then there's a funny, carnival-ish bit with a trumpet, concluding with the crowd shouting "With our souls, with our blood, we will [relinquish them to you] Oh Saddam." Mashhadani finishes up with a line of poetry: "We the youth will climb the scaffold [to be hanged], and for the sake of the Ba'ath and Saddam we will never waver."

You can find my recent commentary about Mashhadani here and here.

The Face of Al-Baghdadi?

Mug shot of 'Abu Omar al-Baghdadi '

The Iraqi government released this picture today of the man it arrested last week and who the government still insists is Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. The Prime Minister's officer also released a statement today confirming that the arrested man is al-Baghdadi.

Oddly enough, neither the government spokesmen or Maliki's office offered a real name for the suspect. Earlier accounts had suggested that the arrested man's name is Ahmed al-Majma'i, but that could have been the name on a fake ID that he was carrying on him when arrested, if that is indeed the case.

I haven't spotted anything yet on jihadist websites either identifying or dismissing the man in the photo as al-Baghdadi.

Monday, April 27, 2009

‘National Reconciliation’: By the Numbers

This is what the New York Times failed to report on in its front-page story yesterday.

According to Order No. 34 (issued symbolically on April 7, the founding anniversary of the Ba’ath Party), the following numbers give an idea of how far the Iraqi government went in order to rehabilitate members of the former regime:

Number of officers returned to the armed services: 1,259

Number of officers accepted into the armed services: 316

Number of soldiers returned to the armed services: 3,517

Number of soldiers accepted into the armed services: 1,640

Number of officers who requested retirement, are ineligible for return, didn’t pass the medical exam, or do not wish to return to active duty, and who will be awarded pensions: 9,935

Number of soldiers who requested retirement, are ineligible for return, didn’t pass the medical exam, or do not wish to return to active duty, and who will be awarded pensions: 63,557

Total number of beneficiaries: 80,224

The beneficiaries will be getting generous salaries and pensions unimaginable under the former regime.

These spread sheets with the names and addresses of the officers and soldiers who stand to benefit from Order 34 can be downloaded (Arabic Excel files) from the unofficial site of the ‘National Reconciliation Committee.’

The vast majority of the names, as indicated by last names and geographical areas, are Arab Sunnis.

To give a sense of how big a leap of ‘good faith’ this is for the Iraqi government, the former commander of the Special Republican Guard and close relative of Saddam Hussein, Lt. Gen. Kamal Mustafa, is being awarded a pension. He was one of the 55 Most Wanted regime members. In addition to being a close male relative of the tyrant, Mustafa’s younger brother, Jamal, was Saddam’s son-in-law. Mustafa’s first cousin, Gen. Khalid al-Abdullah, was head of the internal security of the Iraqi intelligence service, the mukhaberat, and was appointed head of the mukhaberat during the war when the previous head escaped. Even though there is footage from the quelling of the 1991 Uprising in Nassiriya that shows Kamal Mustafa beating and killing civilian detainees, all three were probably dealt with leniently because they had cooperated with the Iraqi opposition (specifically with the Iraqi National Congress) in the years leading to the war. Jamal Mustafa and Khalid al-Abdullah were persuaded by the INC to return from Syria and hand themselves over to U.S. forces.

If anything, these lists serve to show that the Iraqi government has been doing its part in reabsorbing former officers of the regime.

However, the sob story being peddled by persons such as General Raad al-Hamdani (see NYTimes story yesterday) and the American-led Force Strategic Engagement Cell, as well as the CIA, is that the Iraqi government is uncooperative. That’s plain bunk. But the underlying issue here is that officers such as Hamdani are not interested in being rehabilitated as individuals, rather they want to be rehabilitated as Ba’athists, which is a no-go area under the constitution. The Ba’ath Party cannot, by law and by any moral standard, be rehabilitated in Iraqi politics or society.

The political demands of the Ba’ath Party are simply unacceptable to the Iraqi public, the vast majority of which were directly victimized by the former regime.

Raad al-Hamdani in uniform

The Ba’athists want to pretend as if there is no shame in their past association with the Saddam regime, and they have been consistently encouraged to do so by several American interest groups. They seek to maintain their previous organizational network, with an eye towards an eventual overthrow of the democratic order. There is no U.S. policy to rehabilitate Ba’athism, so why are these State Department and CIA bureaucrats following their own cavalier policies, without being held to account, neither by the White House (under Bush and Obama), the Congress, or the media?

As a further sign of accommodation, the Maliki government has frozen the administrative duties of the De-Ba’athification Commission staff pending their reassignment or retirement as government employees, and word is out that the ‘National Reconciliation’ executive branch will be headed by Zuheir Chalabi, a former INC member from Mosul (no relation to Ahmad Chalabi).

The context of Order 34 should be critically relevant when placing Ba’athist talking points, justifying their intransigence vis-à-vis the government, on the front page of a newspaper.

But the caliber of journalism being what it is; be thankful that I’m around to give perspective.

FURTHER READING: Just a follow-up: When the Iraqi government published the 'National Reconciliation' Law in the official gazette, as mandated by Iraqi law, they purposely left out the article that would have barred thousands of serving officers from government jobs. It was sneaky, not to mention illegal, trick in contravention of what the parliament passed, and it was orchestrated and encouraged by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, according to a couple of sources. That is why several thousand officers in the security services who otherwise should be out on their asses are still at their jobs 15 months after the law was enacted. Again, why are U.S. officials subverting Iraqi democracy? By what mandate?

When the law was passed (January 2008) I had a few decidedly 'undiplomatic' thoughts on the matter, which I jotted down in a post. What I wrote at the time still reflects how I feel about De-Ba'athification, an issue that is admittedly both emotional and ideological for me.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Maliki on al-Baghdadi

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki insisted in an interview today that the man arrested last Thursday in Baghdad, identified as "Ahmad al-Majma'i" (full name: Ahmad 'Abid Ahmad Khamees al-Majma'i, as reported here first), is indeed Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

He claims that the arrested man was positively identified by another captured jihadist who had directly pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi.

Maliki is touting the two-month operation as a wholly Iraqi one, but this carries the political risk of baseless grandstanding if its turns out that the arrested man in not al-Baghdadi. Maliki's political opponents have already claimed that the PM is trying to inflate the al-Baghdadi capture to demonstrate that he still has a firm handle on the security situation following the most recent spate of bombings.

Personally, I'm still skeptical of the claim. I would wait to see what 'official' response comes from the Islamic State of Iraq's media outfits, which have remained silent so far. But silence is not an indication in and of itself, since in recent months the ISI's statements have considerably lagged behind the actual events.

The Folly of Attempted Rehabilitation

Sam Dagher has an interesting story on the front page of the New York Times today regarding the rehabilitation of the Ba’athists. There are several problems with this account, but I’ll give Mr. Dagher the benefit of the doubt as to why an otherwise well-informed reporter fell into such misinformed snags. Regardless of what the intentions of those who leaked the story to him were, the write-up suffers from a failure to contextualize the subject, and provide the proper legal framework over the issue.

With some hyperbole, Dagher claims that the failure to rehabilitate the Ba’athists “could become one of the biggest obstacles to stability in Iraq.” As Nir Rosen’s recent piece suggests, that may be a case of much ado about nothing.

Dagher frames the story around Lt. Gen. Raad al-Hamdani, but fails to identify his past affiliation, which was with the Republican Guard, the elite corps tasked with defending the regime, primarily against internal enemies. Perhaps this translated transcript of an interview with Hamdani conducted by Rusiya A-Yaum (Russia Today) last April sheds light on Hamdani’s intransigence when it comes to his own unrepentant past in the service of the regime. Note how he reverentially refers to Qusay Saddam Hussein, adding “may God bless his soul.”

Hamdani was one of the candidates for the post of Minister of Defense put forward by the Sunni bloc in 2006.

Raad al-Hamdani

Ostensibly, the Maliki government opened talks with Hamdani so as to broker the rehabilitation of former Iraqi Army officers, as part of the Justice and Reconciliation Law (passed in January 2008). Dagher is patently mistaken when he claims that the law has “not been put into effect”; earlier this month, the Iraqi government signed off on Order 34 that pertains to the law, reabsorbing thousands of officers and soldiers into the Iraqi armed services, and placing many other thousands, quite a number of them high-ranking officers, on the retirement payroll—which was their demand in the first place. All in all, there are probably 15,000 beneficiaries of this order, the vast majority of them Sunnis who served under Saddam. The NYTimes piece makes no mention of this relevant milestone.

Hamdani, encouraged by the Force Strategic Engagement Cell, had expanded his portfolio (and demands) to incorporate the rehabilitation of the Ba’ath Party, in its entirety. The article only clarifies what Hamdani’s demands are towards the end of the piece, without fleshing them out. This is where his fool’s errand was stymied with political and legal realities.

Dagher fails to report on the past failures of the Force Strategic Engagement Cell, which he describes as “a secretive unit” of American and British officials. Talisman Gate had done so, with what I believe to be ground-breaking accuracy, back in November 2007. So, it took no extraordinary powers of deduction to conclude that the ‘Cell’ would entangle Hamdani in yet another of its follies.

It should be noted that the two gentlemen representing Izzet al-Douri who met with Hamdani two months ago, according to the NYTimes article, were the same ones making the rounds among Iraqi politicians (…they were a trio back then) as early as October, trying to establish communication channels between Douri and influential actors on the political scene. It struck several observers as odd and dangerous that these gentlemen had independent access into the Green Zone, even though they were there to arrange for face-to-face meetings with al-Douri in an area near al-Khalis in Diyala Province. In other words, Hamdani’s channel is not unique, and the same certainly goes for whatever channel he has with the Mohammad Younis al-Ahmed faction (sometimes based in Hasaka, Syria) for which any Tom, Dick and Harry seems able to speak for.

The article implies that the anti-Ba’athist backlash was driven by an Iranian agenda, whereas anyone who had been paying attention would have understood that it was voter-driver. Maliki was doing damage control after his initial forays into reconciling with the Ba’athists were faced with widespread rejection among his constituency. Dagher fails to explain that the ‘bygone-are-bygones’ approach when it comes to the Ba’ath is deeply resented among the vast majority of Iraqis. Maliki backed-off because it would cost him votes, and this is, after all, an election year.

Political context should matter, and the article is hobbled by adopting an extremist Ba’athist narrative that has it that all anti-rehabilitation efforts are orchestrated by Iran (…sometimes I feel Dagher needs to overcompensate for his ‘suspect’ Shia Lebanese roots). The Iraqi voter matters, no matter what the NYTimes editorial line says.

Finally, the piece ends with a quote from a Ba’athist commander in hiding who claims that whatever constitutional impediments there may be to rehabilitation can be overcome with a simple re-write:
“…if the government were to become serious about reconciliation, it would seek to amend the Constitution and let the party resume its role in public life, like the Communist Party after the fall of the Soviet Union.

“The Constitution is not a holy book — it can be amended,” he said.
It isn’t as simple as that, folks. Article 7 of the constitution banning the ‘Saddamist Ba’ath’ falls under Section One, which, according to article 122 cannot be amended until 2018 (at the earliest, only after ‘two parliamentary election cycles’), and only then after surmounting the obstacles of a two thirds majority of parliament, followed by a national referendum, followed by a presidential approval.

In other words, it ain’t gonna happen.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Political Magic of the Number '153'

This week's piece for Hudson-NY carries the title: Maliki in Trouble.

Opening paragraphs:

Ayad al-Samarrai was elected speaker of the Iraqi parliament on Sunday after garnering 153 votes. There are 275 members in the Iraqi parliament, and 138 votes were all Samarrai would have needed to pass the threshold. The ‘yea’ votes in Samarrai’s favor spell trouble for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, since the same number could be arrayed to yield a vote of ‘no confidence’ in his cabinet.

The ‘153’ bloc is an anti-Maliki coalition, rather than a pro-Samarrai faction. Those who backed Samarrai did so with the tacit understanding that his election would be the opening act in the drama to unseat the prime minister. Some sources even claim that there is a written document bearing the signatures of the anti-Maliki conspirators, and that the plan involves mustering political momentum by mid-summer to pass the ‘no confidence’ resolution—the votes are already there, but the political atmosphere in Baghdad needs to be prepared for a showdown with Maliki, who remains popular for now.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Nir Rosen: End of the Sunni Insurgency

I've had my issues with Nir Rosen's past reporting, but his piece slated for tommorow's issue of The National (UAE) requires careful mulling over by those who've followed Iraq closely over the past few years. For long-time readers of Talisman Gate, this article may come to be viewed as a vindication for what I've been arguing since autumn 2006.

Excerpts from 'The Big Sleep':
What has not followed the drop in violence is a political settlement: for the past year analysts have worried that the failure to disarm or integrate the Sunni Awakening groups into the state risked sowing the seeds of a new insurgency. But the tepid response to the arrest of Mashhadani and other Awakening men suggests that a political reconciliation may not have been necessary. The burgeoning Iraqi state, embodied by Maliki himself, can simply continue to expand its power and crush any rivals. One US Army Iraq expert, who worked closely with General David Petraeus to plan and implement the surge, told me in 2008 that the civil war would end when the Shiites realised they had won and the Sunnis realised they had lost. Based on the conversations I had during a trip through Iraq last month, both sides seem to accept that this is the case...

There is nothing the Awakening groups can do. As guerrillas and insurgents they were only effective when they operated covertly, underground, blending in among a Sunni population that has now mostly been dispersed. Now the former resistance fighters-turned-paid guards are publicly known, and their names, addresses and biometric data are in the hands of American and Iraqi forces. They cannot return to an underground that has been cleared, and they still face the wrath of radical Sunnis who view them as traitors. They have failed to unite and as their stories demonstrate, they are on the run.

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi Allegedly Captured

According to sources in the government, the man captured today is called "Ahmad 'Abid Ahmad Khamees al-Majma'i" (احمد عبد احمد خميس المجمعي). The Iraqi security services are saying that this man is "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi".

The first problem with this is that this man would not be able to claim a lineage from Quraysh, let alone descent from Hussein bin Ali, as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi does, which is a very big part of his appeal as "Prince of the Faithful" to the jihadists.

The Majama'a are a large tribal group in Diyala and in some pockets north of Baghdad. But they are certainly not part of Quraysh. However, many Majama'is joined the insurgency, and many were officers under the Saddam regime. Several Majama'a clans can be traced to Kurdish, Turkoman and Tatar ethnic ancestry.

Earlier, two names had been posed as possible identities for al-Baghdadi: Hamid al-Zawi and (my analyses) Khalid al-Mashhadani.

The picture released by Al-Arabiya TV is one associated with al-Zawi, and was not sanctioned by the Iraqi security services.

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi is important since he's supposed to be Islam's new caliph. However, his pivotal role in the world of jihad has been ignored by reporters and analysts alike.

UPDATE: it should be noted that there is a denial of the arrest posted on the Al-Faloja jihadist forum that other forum members are taking seriously. It is attributed to "Muharib al-Ansari" whose claims to be reporting from inside Iraq.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Quick thoughts on anti-Shi'ism and the future of jihadism in Saudi Arabia

I’ve been waiting for those who know more about jihadism in Saudi Arabia to discuss this, but since I can’t spot much of a discussion going on, I’ll take a hesitant dip.

The ‘General Deputy’ (alnaib al-‘am) for ‘Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’, Abu Sufyan al-Azdi, released a 16 minute audiotape a couple of days ago.

Two things struck me about what he said:

-He addressed Mullah Omar as ‘Prince of the Faithful’, he did not address his salutations to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

-He cited two local issues that incensed him: recent Shi’a uppityness, and women’s rights. The House of Saud is being depicted as powerless or unwilling to put Shi’as and women in their place.

Al-Azdi provides the first jihadist response to the events of February 20 in the Baqee’a cemetery of Medina, when Shi’a kids tried to ‘steal’ the soil from the grave of Umm al-Baneen (one of Ali’s wives, the mother of Abbas who died alongside his half-brother Hussein in Karbala) in order to be blessed by the soil, the 'odiousness' of which the Wahhabis built their whole ideology upon. Among other things that happened on that day (or series of days…someone please correct my timeline), this led to a crackdown by the Saudi ‘Religious Police’ on Shi’a pilgrims in Medina (which al-Azdi lauds), and it then set off confrontations in the Shi’a strongholds of the Eastern Province.

The Wahhabi establishment is indignant at what seems to be a sudden spike of Shi’a assertiveness, coming as it does with a backdrop of officially sanctioned anti-Shi’a agitation as relates to Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.

The jihadists will seize upon this sentiment to attack Shi’as, for them to attack women will not go down as well with popular opinion.

Without going into all the analysis, I’d like to posit two possible scenarios:

-There will be two ‘Al-Qaeda’ affiliates operating in Saudi Arabia over the next couple of years: one following Al-Qaeda-HQ (Mullah Omar, Bin Laden and Zawahiri), and another following the strain of jihadism unleashed by Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi. They will have two varying (but not exclusive) operating styles: al-Azdi’s guys operating along classic Taliban-like guerrilla lines from rugged terrain where there is sympathy for the fighters, such as the mountains of ‘Asir. Al-Azdi is from ‘Asir (name: Sa’id Ali Jabir al-Ikhtheim al-Shehri, from the Mdaneh village near Al-Namass), and I believe he was picked for a top role specifically to give the people of ‘Asir a feeling that one of their own is in command. They will use anti-Shi’a agitation to their advantage, but it will be expressed by assassinating Shi’a luminaries; old-style jihadists are still queazy about slaughtering Shi'a laypersons.

-The Zarqawist strain, which pioneered the use of sectarianism as a quick burning fuel to power the engine of jihad, will go for mass killings of Shi’as: bombings, random beheadings, …etc. The Zarqawists will follow their successful model (in Iraq) for urban insurgency, using anti-Shi’a violence to open up margins of chaos in which they can outmaneuver the Saudi security forces. Their loyalty will be to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and the Iraqi jihad, which puts them at a ‘populist’ disadvantage because al-Azdi’s outfit has many more Saudi luminaries (such as Bin Laden) in its hierarchy, earning more popular sympathy. But that will be a regional issue: I see the Zarqawists making more inroads with the proto-jihadists of Nejd, and the small towns there, while the al-Azdi types will be more comfortable in ‘Asir and near the border areas with Yemen. Which means that the Zarqawists will have easier access to Shi’a targets, whereas the al-Azdi’s may turn their energies against the Ismailis of Najran and the border areas, who won’t resonate as much with a public that wants to see reprisal attacks on Shi’as (…the Ismailis aren’t that compelling of an enemy, since the Shi’as can always be tied to Iranian hegemony across the Gulf).

Final note: I really hope that intelligence agencies are making use of wikimapia.org because it is full of useful info that only locals would know, for example, if one sniffs around the entries (made by whoever wishes to do so) in the villages around al-Shehri's home, one can spot lots of military titles preceding the personal names. Such info raises interesting questions: why is a cluster of villages that evidently benefits from the largesse and patronage of the Saudi state producing jihadists?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

How is this possible? (see last Update, April 23, 2009)

Remember Samir Ambrose Vincent (aka Sam Vincent), the Saddam agent turned FBI fink?

Well, since tattling to the feds, and consequently being sentenced to probation and a $300,000 fine last April in return for his cooperation, Vincent has been trying to get back into the Iraqi oil business.

To that end, he’s established Virginia Global Energy Consultants (VAGEC), with offices in the DC area, Amman, Istanbul and Baghdad.

Vincent fessed up to performing many services for the Iraqi intelligence service, the mukhaberat, to which he was vouched for by Nizar Hamdoon, a school friend and one of the original members of Jihaz Haneen, the embryo of the Ba’ath’s murder machine. One job that Vincent allegedly did was to ‘mule’ around hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to bribe United Nations officials as part of what came to be known as the ‘Oil-for-Food’ scandal.

Samir Vincent with Saddam Hussein

Vincent, 69, an Iraqi-American Chaldean Christian, was handsomely rewarded for his services:
Vincent received about $310,000 under the oil-for-food program and five oil contracts from which his company, Phoenix International LLC, made $1.9 million in profit, O'Callaghan said.
Notice how the ‘fine’ he had to pay was even less than the cash he personally received from the Saddam regime.

But that’s not the most offensive part of this whole thing. What’s really offensive are who his partners are: Steve Solarz (former Democratic congressman from New York, advisor to VAGEC), Nick Veliotes (former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Jordan, Vice President of VAGEC), Frank Carlucci (former Secretary of Defense under Reagan, Director of Vagec), and Jeffrey Smith (GC of the CIA under Clinton, General Counsel for VAGEC).

Excuse me?

These guys couldn’t find anyone less radioactive than Vincent to partner up with?

I don’t have a problem with these folks doing business in Iraq; Iraq needs all the business facilitation it can get. But to partner up with someone like Vincent, with all the crap that’s in his background? That just doesn’t even make sound business sense.

[Note: the head of VAGEC’s Istanbul office is ‘Fadhel Othman’; Fadhel Ali Othman was formerly the Director General of Engineering Affairs at the Iraqi Southern Oil Bureau during the Saddam years. He currently represents Portuguese and Turkish oil companies seeking to do business in Iraq. The head of VAGEC’s Baghdad office is ‘Dr. Talal Kenaan’; Talal Ashour Kenaan was formerly Director General of Oil Fields at the Iraqi Ministry of Oil. He then served as the head of the Oil Committee in Saddam’s parliament. Later, he was appointed as advisor with the rank of ambassador at Saddam’s Presidential Office. Kenaan received his PhD from France, and held the rank of division (shu’ba) member in the Ba’ath Party. He currently resides in Amman, Jordan.]

What’s most striking about this group is Stephen Solarz, who’s been known for his honorable support of the Iraqi opposition against Saddam for decades. Solarz could have found many open doors in Baghdad by simply leveraging his past. But working with Vincent is not honorable at all.

Veliotes, I can see: I remember that he was busy bad-mouthing the Iraqi opposition at the behest (and pay) of the Qataris. I can see someone like him involved in all sorts of mercenary business exploits. But why would Solarz do this to his own name?

A couple of liberal reporters went ballistic when a past association was found between Vincent and William Timmons right before the presidential elections last year, after they had mischaracterized Timmons as McCain’s ‘transition director’—a title denied by the McCain campaign. At the time, I was incensed too: Vincent is bad news, and that bad odor would have clung to all those who have worked with him by proxy. But it turns out that ex-agents of the Saddam regime are only as odious as it pertains to settling scores in U.S. politics. For them to be associated with a totalitarian dictatorship is besides the point to reporters, and to Washington insiders.

Another alum of the Oil-for-Food scandal, Shakir al-Khafaji of Michigan, is also busy setting up security deals in Iraq, hiring a whole bunch of ex-FBI agents in his new company, Veritas Global.

It’s as if nothing’s happened. Saddam’s paid agents are being rehabilitated, and allowed to do business in Iraq. And no one seems to think that it’s that big of a scandal.

But it is.

UPDATE: And the plot thickens...

Guess who Jeffrey H. Smith (GC of VAGEC) also works for? Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, of CPA fame. Coincidence? From the Arnold & Porter LLP website:

Represents Ambassador L. Paul Bremer with respect to his service as Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, including testimony at Congressional hearings
Other fun fact, Smith also represented Martha Stewart. Allowing one's imagination to go wild, could she too be in on insider oil deals in Iraq? At this point, nothing surprises me about DC's incestuosness.

UPDATE 2: More onion peels, more names...

It seems that Vincent's VAGEC has been primarily fixing deals for UI Energy Corporation, a South Korean firm that does the bulk of its business in Iraqi-Kurdistan.

Virginia Global Energy Consultants, U.S.A, which has influence and experiences in the petroleum and natural gas exploration and development in Iraq, and Challenger Mineral Inc., which is a 100% subsidiary company of Global Santa Fe listed on the NYSE (New York Stock Exchange), are our global affiliated companies who are our partner to promote our energy development in the Middle East and North America.
That would explain why Steve Solarz is on UI Energy's Board of Advisors (...he's probably the link to Turkish companies) as well as Peter Galbraith, who's chummy with the Kurdish leadership. Ken Adelman, who regretted his support for the Iraq War and began championing then candidate Barack Obama, is also on there.

This even involves former CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid:

Congressman Stephen J. Solarz, the former Secretary of Defense U.S.A Mr. Frank C. Carlucci, the former ambassador to Egypt Mr. Nicholas A. Veliotes, and U.S. commander for the Middle East General John P. Abizaid, exercise their network and political influence to promote UI energy on the development of oil fields in Iraq where United States of America governs.
But for me, the icing on the cake is the role of Anthony 'Tony' Lake. He's in on this too. Back in the day, when he was at the CIA, he was one of the staunchest enemies of the idea of democracy in Iraq. He also served as Obama's top foreign policy advisor during the campaign (...and is identified as so on UI Energy's website). Now he's one of many trying to make money off of Iraq, even if it involves middlemen such as Samir Vincent.

UPDATE (April 23, 2009): As one would have expected from people who have something to hide, all the pertinent details about VAGEC's offices and management has been scrubbed clean from their website. Luckily, I captured images of what the web pages looked like before the cover-up.

Saddam's 'Secularism'

I liked the front-page piece in the New York Times today about the return of vice to Baghdad. The 'money quotes' were:

A young woman who said she was 28 but looked 18 sat smoking, and downing soft drinks while her “date” drank Scotch. A university student, she would give her name only as Baida, but she was frank about her nighttime profession. Had something happened to force her into this? “No,” she said. “I go out with men so I can get money.” To support her family? She seemed stunned by the question. “No, for myself.”
“If I had my way, I’d destroy all the mosques and spread the whores around a little more,” the detective said. “At least they’re not sectarian.”
But the piece suffered from the usual myopia one associates with the NYTimes, for example: "The Baathists who ruled here from the 1960s until the American invasion in 2003 were secular, and more than a little sinful." The monarchy (1921-1958) was secular, and the Qasim years (1958-1963) laid the foundation for legalistic 'secularism'. Baghdad was sinful way before Iraq was born. What's more, reporters seem to forget Saddam's 'Faith Campaign' to enforce stricter Islamic morals during the 1990s, when bars, liquor stores, and brothels were shut down. They also seem to forget that 'Uday held tens of public beheadings of women accused of 'prostitution' (...many opponents of the regime and their families had their reputations besmirched as part of this campaign).

And who wrote 'Allahu Akbar' on the Iraqi flag? It was Saddam.

So enough with the "Iraq was secular under Saddam" meme already.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Arabs and Kurds, and Emma Sky

My Hudson-NY piece this week is about the Arab-Kurdish tensions that seem to be coming to a boil. I argue that long-standing tensions are being whipped up at the current time because it serves several political agendas:
Kirkuk is saddled with very difficult issues involving many interested parties. The critical urgency for tackling these issues—energy, demographics, a history of ethnic cleansing—is now being impeded by political expediency: the Arab-Kurdish disputes are being played up, because ganging up on the Kurds would bring the Sunnis and the Shias together, or so think the likes of Maliki, Mutlag and Sky.
The “Sky” I’m referring to is Emma Sky. I’ve been watching her rise for some time, and couldn’t tell whether this was a remarkably deft penetration of the American decision-making process courtesy of the ‘cousins’ across the pond, or that it was just an accident of history when mediocre characters, thrust into the eye of history, begin making irresponsible and ill-conceived choices. I’m still wavering between the two.

Sky has maneuvered herself into becoming General Ray Odierno’s brain.

Emma Sky

Sky has been recently quoted as saying:
“It is a fascinating society,” she said of Iraq. “They have got things here that we have totally lost in the West: the appreciation of each other, whether it is the family, the clan or the tribe; values that aren't capitalist.”
How foolish is that? What toxic mix of cluelessness and self-righteousness is necessary to allow someone to string together these words? Is Emma Sky arguing for a pre-capitalistic society for Iraq? Where’s the sense of irony here?

But I’ll hand it to her, she has been quite clever in rallying the ranks of her fellow travelers among the western media (think Tom Ricks), as well as the left-leaning think-tankers. She’s managed to manipulate them into adhering to a disciplined message about Iraq, one that is heavily colored by her politics.

But what really galls me is that she has the audacity to compare herself to Gertrude Bell. Apart from both of them being British, middle-aged and in a capacity to direct events in Iraq, there is really no way that Sky can measure up to Bell. I have a complex relationship to the latter: on the one hand I see how her personal biases negatively influenced her instincts, but on the other I’m awed by the intellectual heft and bravery she kept demonstrating. One of my favorite books is the Desert and the Sown, an account of Bell’s travel’s in what we’d now call the interior of the Levant around the turn of the century; a journey she undertook on her own. To me this book, one that is always handy for the leafing, is a testimony to how uniquely brilliant this lady was, a set of personal triumphs that one should think twice of before claiming them for themselves.

And guess what? Emma Sky has her eye on greener pastures: the Rose Garden. That’s right, she wants to start working for the Obama administration.
After a year or so away from the front line, Ms Sky will consider her next move. “I would love to go and work for the President in the White House,” she said, admitting that her favourite TV series was The West Wing.
God help us all.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Marc Lynch and the Arabic language

Just a quick note on Marc Lynch's Arabic skills, which he touts...

He mistranslated the title of this column as "... and now we see the departure of the Awakenings from Iraq" (check out his links column on his new blog). He mistook the word "ghedir" (which means 'betrayal') for "mughadara" (which is 'departure').

This is part of a pattern that's been going on for some time. Lynch claims fluency in Arabic, and plays it up as a big draw to his 'expertise'. It is a trick that works on the gullible, and there are plenty of them in DC.

I've had things to say about Dr. Lynch before, check here and here. The key words are "intentional intellectual mendacity".

A guy who pretends to have fluency in Arabic and who had never been to Iraq was busily advising the Obama transition team on what to do in Iraq, and across the region. So much for clarity...

Watch him transform himself into an Af-Pak 'expert', and an Urdu linguist, in a couple of months...(Doesn't Google have translation software now?)

Baghdad Rumor Mill: al-Wa’ili, a ‘Man of Action’

According to the gossip-mongers of Baghdad’s political class, the CIA’s contingency plan—in case things get messy—is a man, and this man’s name is Sherwan al-Wa’ili. Which is weird, since most had assumed that he was Iran’s guy.

Now, let’s be clear that no one is talking about a coup…yet.

The idea is that should there be some reason why Maliki gets physically or politically incapacitated—a constitutional crisis, a military confrontation in which the Iraqi Army is forced to retreat at the hands of the peshmerga, an Iranian-orchestrated assassination attempt, a too aggressive move against the ‘Sons of Iraq’—then there’s no need to worry for Mr. al-Wa’ili can easily and effortlessly take over.

Shirwan al Waeli

Al-Wa’ili currently serves at the PM’s pleasure as the State Minister for National Security, which is different from the British/Saudi security shop, Muwaffeq al-Rubay’i’s Office of the National Security Advisor, or the CIA’s own Iraqi Intelligence Service, run by Gen. Mohammad al-Shahwani.

Al-Wa’ili is a member of the Da’awa Party-Iraq faction (…the point-person of that organization being Abdel-Karim al-‘Anizi) that is seen as an offshoot of the Iranian itila’at, or intelligence service.

But that hasn’t always been the case: up until the fall of the Saddam regime, al-Wa’ili was an officer of the Iraqi Army, and a trusted one at that, even though he had a brother in Detroit who was a member of the Da’awa Party and had participated in the 1991 Uprising.

Here’s some background on the guy:

Sherwan Kamil Sebti al-Wa’ili’s family came to Nassiriya from obscure origins. His first name, Sherwan, is Kurdish, but he’s not. I’m sure he has a colorful anecdote as to why his parents chose this name for an Arab (or at least a non-Kurdish) kid but what is certain is that one doesn’t have a grandfather called ‘Sebti’ and claim to be of Kurdish origin.

At the time of liberation on April 9, 2003, al-Wa’ili was an army engineer, who worked closely with Ali Hassan al-Majid, ‘Ali Chemical’, Saddam’s murderous cousin and military enforcer. This relationship had spun off wild tales about al-Wa’ili's alleged Ba’athist past, but what I’ve managed to determine is that it was nothing more than the relationship of a junior officer with his commander. Other tales talk about a fortune that al-Majid had entrusted with al-Wa’ili right before the downfall of the regime, a fortune which the latter allegedly used to purchase immunity and later political standing among Iraq’s new caste of rulers. But according to my investigation, that story is simply not true.

Al-Wa’ili rose to the top through accident, and for being efficient, trusted and well-liked. When the Americans first came to Nassiriya, they found their way to the home of Sheikh Ali aal-Minshid, the chieftain of the Ghizzi tribe. I don’t know who set this meeting up and whether there had been earlier contact between the Americans and aal-Minshid, but what happened was that there was a top ranking Ba’athist in that house, who had sought the tribal protection of his relative, the sheikh. This fellow lived in Adhamiya in Baghdad, and had assumed that there would be a bloodbath right after the fall of the regime, so he went to Nassiriya until things blew over. Suddenly, he found himself in a situation where the Americans were asking for recommendations as to who can manage the municipal affairs of Nassiriya, and this guy immediately thought of his friend, al-Wa’ili.

And so it happened that al-Wa’ili became something of a deputy governor for the Province of Dhi Qar. From then on, he found his way to parliament and later to a ministerial post, as a candidate of Da’awa-Iraq. There’s also a story of how he became a protégé of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an MP now in hiding in Iran after it transpired that he’d been a wanted terrorist for decades. Then there’s the lesser known story of how al-Wa’ili undermined al-Muhandis, earning brownie points with the Americans and the Gulfis as a result.

Things get even weirder when one keeps hearing, again from the rumor mill, that al-Wa’ili is a business partner of sorts with Shakir al-Khafaji, the former longtime Iraqi-American apologist for the Saddam regime (…who could have been double-dealing with the Americans too, who knows!), and who has still managed to make a bundle doing deals with post-Saddam Iraq, under the cover of a security company called Veritas Global. Other names suggesting a pattern of ‘partnerships’ with al-Wa’ili include frontmen for the Jordanian intelligence service.

In recent weeks, Washington has been overrun with Iraqi officers from every military and security branch conceivable. The gossipers claim that these officers are being told to follow al-Wa’ili’s lead. When eyebrows got arched given al-Wa’ili’s Iran connections, the officers were allegedly reassured that al-Wa’ili is in the good books of the Americans. When al-Shahwani’s own people, who’ve always felt that al-Wa’ili was running a competing, Iranian-backed intelligence service, raised all sorts of red flags, they were told, again allegedly, that al-Shahwani is on the outs (…by August), and that they must address their fealty to a ‘Man of Action’, Mr. al-Wa’ili.

The other name frequently named as al-Wa’ili’s ‘partner’ in this new relationship with the Americans is Maliki’s security advisor, Gen. Farouq al-‘Araji.

As some of the readers of this blog know, Talisman Gate is not above discussing gossip, since political gossip has value in and of itself. The general outlines may not be true, yet it is interesting that this seems to be what people are whispering around the Green Zone.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

What one arrest teaches us...

I have a new piece out on Hudson NY, about the Adel al-Mashhadani arrest in Fadhel, the 'reckoning' that the false prophets keep predicting, and the myths of the surge.

The concluding paragraphs are:

What is scary is that the lessons of the ‘surge’ are to be implemented in one form of another in Afghanistan, without fully understanding the implications, and delusions, of what happened in Iraq. This is no mere exercise in ‘I told you so’: the surge arrived in Iraq as the insurgency was petering out, but the surge is going to Afghanistan as the Taliban are on an uptick. The consequences of this misreading could be very, very grave.

The case of Adel al-Mashhadani teaches us that there cannot be security without ‘nation building’, a concept that has become something of a dirty word in the Obama administration. The two go hand in hand. One cannot turn to the thugs and co-opt them, letting bygones be bygones, because in the vast majority of cases, people seldom change their spots. In the New Iraq, men like Mashhadani should be dangling by their necks, not swaggering around with an American ID card hanging from their collars. One cannot expect the thief, the rapist, or the murderer to police the innocent. That is always a recipe for tyranny, for that is how tyrants rule. Let us hope that America’s new doctrinarians are not inclined to equate tyranny with stability, in a hasty repudiation of a doctrine that sees stability as an extension of democracy.

The usual argument against barring the Ba’athists from power runs akin to that made for rehiring the Nazis in postwar Germany: they made the trains run on time. But the analogy to putting Mashhadani back on payroll is to have brought back the Gestapo to maintain order in Bonn. Not only is it immoral, it’s dangerously absurd. We should be thankful that the Iraqi government is soberly correcting a foolish legacy that the departing Americans have forced upon them.