Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Suleimaniya Rejects Barham Salih

The Western media narrative so far, when commenting on the dramatic win earned by the Goran slate in the Kurdish elections, attributes what happened to a vote against corruption. That is only a fraction of the story.

In mid-June, senior KDP officials were telling me that Noshirwan Mustafa, who is heading the Goran list, may secure, on a good day, four to six seats in the 111 member regional parliament. By mid-July, a source close to the Barzani family revealed that their secret and internal polling showed that Mustafa may walk away with 20 to 23 seats. As it stands, Goran may have won 25 to 30 seats as the results come in.

So what happened?

I believe that the city of Suleimaniya, long wary of Arbil’s and by extension the Barzanis’ rising influence, had two native sons from whom to choose from: Mustafa and Barham Salih, currently the Deputy Prime Minister in Baghdad (…who resigned, or didn’t resign, it’s still not clear). Salih was President Jalal Talabani’s designated successor, but he was thus chosen for a number of reasons; submissive, obedient, and lackluster on his own. It was on these criteria that he was rejected by Suleimaniya, for he wasn’t seen as somebody with the vigor it may take to hold Arbil at bay.

Mustafa is not a very convincing candidate. He’s a drab ideologue, with lousy political skills, who comes off as haughty, incomprehensible and aloof on TV and in meetings. He is certainly no match for the colorful and charismatic Talabani, who head the PUK. But Mustafa wasn’t running against Talabani, he was running against Salih, whose face adorned all the Kurdistani posters in Suleimaniya, in silly poses like doing an ‘Uncle Sam Wants You’.

Mustafa is a 'fighter' while Salih isn't.

Five years ago, when political chatter was rife about the need to find a successor for the visibly aging and ailing Talabani, the name of Salih would be accompanied by expletives in Suleimaniya. When I was there ahead of the elections, the same people who were saying mean things about Salih years back had now acquiesced to his status as heir apparent, but without conviction. Salih was all that Talabani had left after outmaneuvering his rivals within the PUK ‘pride’—emasculated, meek and would protect the corrupt financial empire that Talabani’s immediate family had erected. So he was heir by attrition, and by default.

Western reporters adore Salih. He provides access and urbane, proper English conversation. He collects art, and dishes out gossip about the elites of Baghdad and Washington DC. He even Twitters. Needless to say, these topics don’t carry far among the ‘Blue Label’-infused soirees of the PUK old guard, grizzled and jaded 50-somethings who had seen fighting in the mountains since their teenage years.

It is my opinion that the only matter holding the Kurdish political front together is Talabani’s life expectancy. One should not rule out defections from within the Kurdistani slate to Mustafa’s favor if Talabani is out of the picture. The smaller Islamist and leftist parties that also won a number of seats owe their staying power to subsidies—cash, offices, contracts—from the PUK and the KDP. But if Mustafa accrues a significant number of defectors, they may also opt to join him. In this scenario, the Kurdistani slate may be reduced to a parliamentary minority, and things will get interesting.

Talabani’s demise may also influence the future of the Kurds in Kirkuk, who may opt to stay out of the competition between Arbil and Suleimaniya for domination by going their own way for a negotiated status for their city separate from the KRG. Right now, they look upon Talabani—originally from Koy Sanjak but the Talabani clan is an integral part of the Kurd-Turkuman matrix of Kirkuk—as one of their own. But in a choice between Barzani and Mustafa, they may have little sympathy for either.

Salih was supposed to become the new Prime Minister of the Kurdish region. President Barzani may have looked upon this outcome as a neat way to sideline his nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, the current PM. Nechirvan is the chief rival to Massoud's son and designated heir, Masroor, and Nechirvan wouldn't be able to go to Baghdad to fill the space that Salih is supposed to be vacating, mostly because Nechirvan would be out of his element there seeing that he doesn't even speak Arabic. Political exile for Nechirvan would be political death, something he won't be able to recover from. But Nechirvan may not ride off into the sunset just yet, and he will argue that the deal to appoint Salih in his place is null and void given the election result. This may complicate life for the senior Barzani and his designs for succession.

Furthermore, what is happening in Iraqi Kurdistan must be understood as an extension of the changes across the political landscape of the rest of Iraq. Old lions wither away, and new contenders emerge, fundamentally changing long-established loyalties that carried over from the days of opposition to Saddam. A new political elite is emerging, and with it arrives a new brand of political consciousness. The issues have changed, so naturally will the symbols change too.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Cultural Oddities: The Day of the Prophet Zechariah

Today marks the Day of Zechariah, a Holy Day that is very close to the hearts of the inhabitants of Baghdad, especially the women. I don't think that this is done anywhere else in the Middle East, and certainly not with the same mass participation that marks it as a distinctly Baghdadi (...errr, sometimes pan-Iraqi) celebration.

The whole idea revolves around fertility, for Zechariah's wife was able to conceive even though she was very old (...or something like that). The child that was born grew up to become John the Baptist, a saint venerated throughout the Middle East.

The celebration itself involves a day of fasting on the 1st day of the lunar month of Sha'aban, and it even means fasting from talking, which is a welcome relief since only the women do it.

A tray is placed in the home with a number of lit candles corresponding to the number of family members. There are also bowls of sweets and nuts and a particular kind of plant and flower.

Anyway, just wanted to highlight this cultural marker that all Baghdadis, from every sect and religion, celebrate, and to wish you all a Happy Zechariah Day.

This is a picture of a Zechariah tray that I found at an Iraqi website:

Friday, July 24, 2009

Iraq Policy: Who's in Charge?

I have a new post out today on Hudson-NY about PM Maliki's visit to Washington, and the confusion over who really controls the Iraqi file within the Obama administration.

I also put in something that I don't believe anyone has reported on:

It is in this vein that Washington’s decision to quietly shut down a key intelligence operation to keep tabs on the Iranians in November 2008 seems so misplaced and astonishing. The intelligence operation partnered up twenty five Iraqi intelligence agents with a like number of CIA agents. It began in late 2003, and its size remained the same. They were headquartered in a building separate from the Iraqi Intelligence Service HQ, and operated independently of any Iraqi oversight. Their chief mission was to track and, where possible, to offset Iran’s intelligence and operational footprint inside Iraq, and to follow leads back across the border into Tehran, Damascus and Beirut. As can be expected with such operations, some of its work is questionable; it partook in Iraqi politics, even exercising violence through a separate paramilitary arm, at times in an illegal and unethical manner. However, its work was crucial in keeping the Iranians—specifically the Iranian Revolutionary Guard which took the lead after mid-2004—on their toes.
Read the whole thing here...

I was hosted on Alhurra TV on July 22 (episode # 1395) to discuss these issues, and it can be watched (in Arabic) here. The big story, of course, is that US intelligence had signed a protocol for negotiating with an insurgent umbrella group this spring in Istanbul, and the Iraqi government is up in arms over this revelation, first made on July 15 by the General Secretary of the 'Political Council of the Iraqi Resistance' Ali al-Juburi during an interview with Aljazeera. I'll have more to say about this over the next few days.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Bits and Pieces

-I’ve written two pieces for Hudson-NY. The latest (today) is about what the politicians are talking about in Baghdad:
The Iraqi political class is preoccupied these days with the word ‘alliances’. Parliamentary elections are seven months away, yet everyone is scrambling to form exploratory committees to cobble together a viable slate, sometimes leading to a gathering of the strangest bedfellows. This activity is occurring against the backdrop of an unresolved mechanism for how the next national ballot is going to be held: closed slates, open slates, provincial slates, or a single national slate.

A new election law is supposed to be tabled on the parliament’s floor but it remains to be seen whether coalitions will coalesce before that happens, thus shaping the final outcome of the bill, or whether the law will take shape, and in light of its content coalitions, will come together in a way that best take advantage of it.
Continue reading

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the departure of U.S. troops from the remaining Iraqi cities and towns.

-Abu Omar al-Baghdadi issued his eighteenth speech a little over a week ago. I’ll get around to it at some point.

-I had an interesting time in Kirkuk, and I thought that I’d write about it. But I think a better study of the situation there would encompass the towns and villages around the city that are an essential part of the story. Since I didn’t get the chance to do any serious traveling in the area, I’ll save the post for another time.

-I was interviewed for Aljazeera International from Suleimaniya. Here’s the Youtube of it:

What Remains: The Shrine of Gurgur Baba of Baghdad

I had been snooping around the alleyways of Old Baghdad, trying to figure what the scope of a multi-billion renovation and gentrification of the area would look like. Of course, the billions required are still far from being allocated, but one can dream, right?

The challenge is to first identify what remains, and what is worth preserving. I was running by a map prepared by Captain James Felix Jones in the mid-1850s of Old Baghdad, the contours of which—alleyways, where the walls used to lie, some of the more important landmarks—can still be matched with the images from Google Earth.

Much of my quest was heartbreaking, for very little remains or can be rehabilitated. I zeroed in on several tasks, one of which was to locate the Bektashi tekkyas (plural of tekkya, a Sufi-leaning house of worship), which I first took note of after corresponding with a Turkish graduate student at Harvard conducting research on the heritage of Bektashism in Iraq.

There were two or three tekkyas on the Karkh (Western) side of Old Baghdad. According to anecdotal evidence, one used to be located near the former site of the statue of Adnan Kheirallah (now removed) in the Shawwaka neighborhood. A historian told a friend of mine that it had been recently blown up by Al-Qaeda who used to control the area, but asking around about the former site of the tekkya or a landmark that had been blown up by the jihadists only drew blank stares. There is a tekkya, which according to the people there only came into use four years ago, and has since been abandoned. There’s a family living there now, and I could be mistaken, since I didn’t take a picture of it and since I had seen quite a lot of stuff that day (…and it was hot and dusty), but the newly made sign above the doorway may have said that it was a Rifa’iyya tekkya. This does not rule out that it was indeed the Bektashi tekkya I was looking for (…even though it was a couple of alleyways off from the directions I had been given), for many Bektashi tekkyas were awarded and re-awarded to other Sufi orders throughout history.

The second tekkya’s history is more grounded in documented fact. It used to be located near the Shrine of Khidhir Ilyas on the water’s edge of the Tigris. It is not clear whether the tekkye itself was located on the water, or whether it was merely nearby. The immediate area around the shrine is now an empty lot, but a short distance away from the water is another Rifa’i tekkya. I was told that there are seven tombstones within this tekkye, but I couldn’t get inside since the family that lives there was out for the day. Had it been a Bektashi tekkye at one stage then one could determine that from the inscriptions and motifs on the tombstones.

The third tekkya was on the water’s edge where the Beiruti café now stands. No trace of the old structure remains. In the past it was located outside the city gates, on the road to Kadhimain.

The most important tekkya in Baghdad though, was on the Rusafa (eastern) side of the city. It was part of a complex around the shrine of Gurgur Baba (sometimes rendered ‘Baba Gurgur’…of the ‘eternal flame’ fame near Kirkuk). Satellite imagery wasn’t reassuring, since much of that area had been built-up or modern roads were cut across it. The other point was that historians of Old Baghdad seemed totally unaware of the existence of this shrine/tekkya. But I set out anyway, since I saw a dome that could have been what I was looking for.

This was the area behind the Ahmadi Mosque, bordered on the north by the street that takes you to the Haidarkhana Mosque, and on the east by the Maidan and the Ministry of Defense. To the south lies the Qishla, the old Ottoman barracks. The whole area is marked in Jones’ map as the ‘Gurgur Baba neighborhood’.

I found the dome, but it turned out to be a Shiite shrine; the burial place of one of the representatives of the Mahdi. I was momentarily crestfallen, but then some busybody across the street, probably suspecting that I was showing too much interest in the shrine at a time when such places get blown up, came up to me and asked what I was looking for. I said I was looking for ‘Gurgur Baba’ and he matter-of-factly told me that it was the next alleyway down. I didn’t know what to make of it, since I’ve received so many directions those days that gave me some hope but turned out to be false leads.

I went into that alleyway and again asked for ‘Gurgur Baba’. This was a closed alleyway, as in it was roofed, and consisted of several upholstery workshops. Another guy told that it the shrine was just down the alleyway, but I could barely hear him with the generator and several saws operating at full throttle. I overshot the place and came to a small empty lot. I thought, oh well, yet another empty space in the landscape of what went missing over the centuries. But then, a workshop owner that I had passed motioned to me and I walked back to him. He asked me what I was up to and after hearing me out said, “Oh, Gurgur Baba is right through here.”

We walked into his shop, full of furniture being stuffed with sponges, and furniture that will be cannibalized for parts, and at the very end was a half-opened metal door, with debris mounded behind it. The guy said, “That’s Gurgur Baba,” motioning for me to climb over the debris of sponges, metal springs, bricks and wood beams. Surely enough, a wooden casket with it top broken in by a fallen roof could be made out. A small epitaph engraved in stone marked the spot where Gurgur Baba was buried.

I was ecstatic. Something remains! Or at least enough of it that can be rebuilt! A small part of the heritage of Baghdad was there, waiting to be resurrected. The winds flooded into my sails, and I was propelled forward, full of hope for more finds.

The tekkya was built in 1670. It mainly served the Janissaries who were housed in the Ottoman fort nearby, many of whom were adepts of the Bektashi order. The tekkya was also frequented by one of the most important Ottoman personages to rule over Baghdad, the modernizing Vali and statesman Midhet Pasha. At some point, it fell into disuse, and the Awqaf department that oversees religious sites, divided up the tekkya into workshops and rented them out. Within recent memory, the roof over Gurgur Baba fell in. The last group of Turkish pilgrims to visit the shrine are said to have come by in the 1970s.

I don’t know much about who Gurgur Baba was supposed to be, but I’ll keep researching, and I’ll fill you in. I’m hoping that this post would encourage other Baghdadis to seek out their heritage and to figure out ways of preserving it. The point is that every single religious and ethnic group in Iraq has a symbolic foothold in the capital, Baghdad. I could go through a long list, but our immediate topic, Gurgur Baba, could be significant for the Shabaks near Mosul, and the townspeople of Taza near Kirkuk, where a Bektashi tekkya is still operational.

Here are some pictures from the site:

click to enlarge

Did I mention that I'm trying to put together a 'Rebuilding the Gurgur Baba Shrine' fundraiser? A roof can be put up for a couple of grand, but doesn't Gurgur Baba deserve a turqoise-tiled dome? That comes with a 40,000 USD price tag...ahemmm...