Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Impressions from Basra

When it comes to electoral politics, Basra is indicative of what’s happening on the provincial level: voters are choosing local candidates that they are comfortable with. In Baghdad, the big names dominate politics, and thus the local voter’s attention would be drawn to names such as Maliki, Ja’afari, Allawi,…etc. But in Basra and elsewhere, these big names don’t feature on the campaign materials seen on the streets, so the voter is compelled to look into the backgrounds of the individual candidates rather than any broader political leanings.

For example, candidate no. 1 on the Iraqi National Alliance slate is Uday Awwad Kadhim, a 33-year-old Sadrist who has almost no standing on a national level. But he’s known in Basra City as a competent and hardworking electrical engineer throughout the time he served as an overseer of the province’s electrical grid. The subtext, of course, is that he would give more electricity to ‘those from ‘Amara’, a reference to the migrants from ‘Amara (Maysan) province who populate the slums of Khamsa Meel, Gzeizeh, Hayyaniyah and other such neighborhoods that form the bulwark of Sadrist support in Basra. He was arrested in the aftermath of Maliki’s clampdown on the Mahdi Army in March 2008.

Whereas candidate no. 1 on Maliki’s slate is Safa’ Eddin al-Safi, the current Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs and the acting Minister of Trade. He’s an ‘old Basran’, which means he’s not from ‘Amara, or Nassiriya or any other province. But he’s characterized as the guy who misspent the 100 million dollars that Maliki had assigned to Basra after Operation Charge of the Knights. He doesn’t seem popular, but even though he’s disliked, I’d still wager that Maliki’s slate is still stronger the INA’s in the province. However, the choice of al-Safi as no. 1 must have cost Maliki some votes.

Maliki had been in Basra for a quick visit, and his whole spiel was laying the cornerstone for the new port in Fao, which is supposed to be built by an Italian company on a tract of land that is 1.5 million m2 on the side of Khor Abdullah, thus giving Iraq a deep water port. Such a port would change the economic dynamics of the Middle East, rivaling Dubai’s. The cornerstone reads, “The same hand that signed Saddam’s execution warrant will be the hand that rebuilds Iraq,” alluding to Maliki’s role in hanging the dictator.

The INA’s candidate no. 2 is secular MP (formerly with Allawi) Wa’il Abdel-Latif. His proposal for a separate federal entity in Basra failed primarily because the top clerics in Najaf opposed it, under the pretext that this would weaken and divide the Shias. He’s not too popular either. However, no. 7 is Amer al-Fayyez, the chief of the Banu ‘Amer, which is the main body of the Sheikhi sect, a marginal offshoot from mainstream Shi’ism, who has his own constituency in the province (…Al-Fayez received 24,000 votes in the provincial council elections). The Sheikhis, immigrants for the most part from Eastern Arabia some 200 years ago, have taken to voting as a bloc for one of their candidates, and it was smart politics on the INA’s part to bring them along onto their slate.

Bolani is relying on tribal names, yet one of his prime candidates, Sheikh Muzahim al-Kana’an of the Banu Tamim (…the Tamimis consider themselves ‘Old Basra’), was de-Ba’athified. Muzahim’s nephew replaced him on the slate (as candidate no. 2). Bolani spent four days in Basra, and a day in Zubair. He stayed at the new Mannawi Basha Hotel, where the lobby was crammed full of tribal headdresses. There was plenty of gripe on the street over his convoy of 68 vehicles. What’s interesting is that voters resent how public officials use public resources, like government cars and security, to advance their campaigns, with many voices demanding that Bolani reimburse the state for what he’s using.

Although the Fadhila Party is running as part of the INA, I didn’t see any indication from any of the INA’s candidates that they are using their Fadhila association as a positive. It seems that the Fadhila folks, only recently the top power in Basra, are ashamed of this association, since it was tainted with accusations of corruption and general thuggery. I got a kick out of watching the former governor, Muhammad Mussabih al-Wa’ili, skulking around in the Mannawi Basha lobby, trying to seem important. It is incredible that he’s not behind bars already; it just means he’s too smart for local law enforcement. The legacy of corruption that Fadhila has left behind in the local government won’t be easy to contain.

It’s difficult to tell whether Allawi has a significant standing in Basra, even though some of his candidates do. For example, one of his candidates is from the Albu Darraj (…from ‘Amara) some of whom are wealthy businessmen at the moment, and also vote as a tribal bloc. The Basran elite may vote for Allawi by way of voting anti-Islamist, but they are few in number. Allawi would get a portion of the Sunni vote in the province too.

The Communists seem to be better organized in Basra than in Baghdad, probably owing to their history with the families of dock workers in the 50s and 60s. Their campaign is far more visible, with young guys handing out leaflets at traffic choke points, than in the capital.

One of the weirdest things I saw was a ‘flex’ for Mithal al-Alusi in the severely depressed and run-down neighborhood of Old Basra. It’s in an alleyway where there aren’t any campaign materials, all on its own, in a place where one wouldn’t expect to see something like it. The fact that it’s there, flanked as it where by nearby Shia houses of worship, and hasn’t been defaced or torn down is an indication that al-Alusi has some support there. However, al-Alusi isn’t fielding any well-known candidates in the province, and his no. 1 candidate on his slate, Ali al-Musawi, identifies himself solely on campaign posters as “The political consultant of Mithal al-Alusi”—not very significant as a selling point on a political resume.

And then, of course, there are votes for looks: the chief beneficiary seems to be Faten Abdel-Rahman, no. 4 on the little-known ‘Advocates for Justice’ bloc. She’s pretty and I heard a number of guys saying that they would vote for her just to be able to see a nice face on TV for the next four years.

In the mixed Shia-Sunni Fao Peninsula, voters are mindful of local candidates such as Walid al-Sharifi (no. 21 on Maliki’s slate), or Zainab Sadiq Ja’afar (no. 43 on the INA’s slate). At least here, votes would cross sectarian lines, with Sunnis preferring a local boy (or girl) versus a candidate who isn’t from Fao.

Basra is decrepit beyond description; as I travelled around, the one thing that went through my mind is that local government should be ashamed of itself for leaving things as they are over the last seven years. The Saddam era hit Basra especially hard, yet even so, one would have expected more to be done since Saddam’s overthrow. The Brits take some responsibility for the mismanagement, and nothing says that clearer than the state of disrepair and dirtiness of the British Cemetery, where they buried their WWI dead. If the Brits couldn’t get that done (…compare it to the extremely well-kept one in Alexandria), then how would they be expected to have fixed Basra’s other mammoth problems. Incidentally, the prevalent conspiracy theory is that the Brits purposely mismanaged and damaged Basra on behalf of their Gulf allies, so that Basra would not emerge as an economic rival to the ports of Kuwait, Dubai and elsewhere.

A new law assigned one dollar from every barrel of oil for the province. That adds up to about a billion dollars for Basra in 2010. But it still isn’t clear who gets to spend it. The local provincial council is split between Maliki’s people, who want a stronger role for the central government, and those who want Basra to go its own way in running its affairs. One dollar per barrel sets the precedent for 30 dollars a barrel one day. Basra should have the right to demand a much larger share of the wealth that emanates from its soil. But the Saddam years smashed the province’s self-confidence, and a marked impression that I got was how cowed the local government was vis-à-vis Baghdad, even though the law could be interpreted to give them far greater powers, powers that they are too wary to exercise.

However, one person for watch out for is Sheikh Ahmed al-Sulaiti, the deputy head of the provincial council, who may eventually lead the drive to demand more autonomy for Basra. He’s combative, and even a tad bit extremist (…he’s a fan of Hezbollah, and even resembles a thinner version of Hassan Nasrallah). But he’s garnering a reputation as a no-nonsense anti-corruption crusader, who wants much of Basra’s money to stay within his province.

I’d like to make a point about Iraq-Iran relations in Basra, since at one point there were outlandish accusations made in the Arab press, repeated by Western commentators, that Farsi replaced Arabic as the lingua franca in the city. Basra is equidistant from Isfahan as it is from Baghdad. Basrans consider Arabic-speaking Ahvaz (Khuzistan Province) as part of their territorial continuity, and what has happened is that trade, smuggling and family relations (…some tribes straddle both sides of the border), have been re-activated, to the consternation of Iraqi and Iranian authorities that would rather tax and monitor such movement. There was an Iranian trade expo in Basra while I was there. It was a small event, showcasing cars, trucks, rock salt, foodstuff and bricks, but it was curious thing to watch two cultures colliding. The language of interaction was English, and on their off-time, Iraqis and Iranians didn’t mix. Basra has definitely not been in sucked into Iran’s sphere of influence; if anything, Basra has created its own sphere of influence and sucked into it the neighboring Arabic-speaking parts of Iran.

All in all, I’m beginning to think that on the provincial level, more voters will choose individual candidates rather than slates. In Baghdad, it would be the inverse of that, since the slates are identified by the big names running. Some Western commentators have deemed the Iraqi elections to be marred and besmirched already, but they would have said so anyway had it been cloudy on Election Day. I was personally surprised at how engaged Iraqis in Basra were in the political debate. Whether they intend to vote or not, individual Basrans—barbers, fishermen, government workers, businessmen—have taken a political position in the wider debate. It’s a sign of maturity, and it’s way beyond what is available elsewhere in the region. No one considers himself or herself a second-class citizen. Actually, their sense of entitlement is astronomical and unrealistic; it’s not where it is supposed to be (…responsibilities versus rights), but it is a start. The key words are awareness and debate, and both are available in huge supply.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Election dynamics still look murky. I for one don’t think that anyone can call it at this stage. But there have been some discernable trends in the last ten days, but it is anyone’s guess whether these would stay in place all the way to March 7th.

What everyone seems to agree on is that the election campaign looks civilized and tidy, what with all the restrictions and stipulations put in place by the Electoral Commission on what is accepted and what is prohibited by way of advertisements in the streets. The other thing I was personally excited about is that one can enter one's family food ration number and the number of the ration distributor online at the Commission's website to find the ballot center where one can vote. Seeing my name with my electoral number on the computer screen, with directions to where I'm supposed to vote, made me feel a little more reassured that the process is reasonably organized, and thus it may be harder to fudge the results by those inclined to do so.

The De-Ba’athification stunt proved hugely popular for the Iraqi National Alliance (Hakim, Ja’afari, Sadrists, Chalabi), and at least for now, it seems to have galvanized Shias around this slate to Maliki’s detriment. Bolani’s slate, although very well funded and starring some household names (…or at least those made prominent in the last few years, especially on the Sunni side: Abu Risha, Mashhadani, Ahmad Abdel-Ghaffour al-Samara’i), isn’t having much traction. What seems to have stuck to Bolani is the assertion that the hand-held bomb detectors at checkpoints don’t really work; the Ministry of Interior is being held responsible. The problem with this accusation is that Iraqis remember it every time they are snarled in traffic due to checkpoints, which is most of the day.

Sistani told Shias today to go out and vote, and this is in the INA's favor, since many people who may have opted to skip the vote out of despair of achieving any tangible results in their lives, are now compelled by religious injunction to go to the ballot box. And it's no stretch to believe that those who listen to Sistani's orders may be default voters for the INA.

Sunnis have galvanized behind Allawi, but Allawi’s Shia standing is hemorrhaging because he’s associated with Mutlag, Tariq al-Hashemi and Dhafir al-Ani.

I predict that all this may change in a week’s time. Shias may begin to feel that the Ba’athist threat (…as characterized by the INA) has been neutralized with the exclusion of Mutlag & Co, and thus it may quickly cease to become an election issue. Apart from Hashemi, who isn’t popular among Sunnis to begin with, Allawi has been left without any significant Sunni partners, excepting Rafi’ al-Isawi, the current Vice Prime Minister, and this may lead Sunnis to drift away from Allawi’s slate and throw their support behind more formidable Sunni leaders.

Otherwise, plenty of issues may emerge in the next couple of weeks, notably corruption. I find it incredible that while Mutlag was ousted, the former convicted Electricity Minister Ayham al-Samara’i is being allowed to run in Salahuddin Province. He was a beneficiary of a general amnesty for criminals, but the law clearly states that a candidate for parliament may not be a former convict. What’s also surprising is that Tariq Khalaf al-Abdullah al-Halbousi is allowed to run in Anbar Province on Bolani’s list. Al-Halbousi is a businessman who was the first cousin of Muhammad Khudheir al-Halbousi, a top mukhaberat director once in charge of assassinations. Tariq al-Khalaf was seen by the Iraqi opposition as a key component of the mukhaberat’s front companies outside of Iraq’s borders, as well as a business partner of Uday Saddam Hussein.

Very soon, it may become open season to release all sorts of incriminating documents that the Public Integrity Commission has filed away against current and former ministers and parliamentarians, which were not acted upon due to issues of immunity and political expediency.

My sense is that nothing is set in stone. But if one takes a snapshot now, one would detect the exponential rise of the INA’s and Allawi’s fortunes, while those of Maliki and Bolani are in freefall. Odierno’s statements against Chalabi and Ali al-Lami today, accusing of them of collusion with Iran, are unfortunate. What they expose is America’s impotence to do anything about it, and that only fortifies the impression here that the Americans have played themselves out of the game. Even Sunnis, happy to see the Americans siding with them, are feeling increasingly helpless as they see someone like Odierno making caustic statements, only to have those he is accusing respond with equally caustic statements without any retaliation, which is impossible at this stage. This escalation helps Chalabi but weakens the U.S. role overall. It makes no sense to me that the Americans were so easily lured into this rhetorical trap during an election campaign. Chalabi was on Al-Hurra saying that he is eternally grateful for Odierno, who is forgiven for everything he does or says, since he was the U.S. general in charge of catching Saddam.

Although there is general anxiety, no one believes that sectarian tensions would get out of hand. Experienced hands don’t see a return to violence on any significant scale, not withstanding what a few frazzled and perennially mistaken Western journalists are writing these days. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi has promised to kill voters so that they do not fall into the sinful mistake of voting, which is a no-no with Allah, according to al-Baghdadi. But the Islamic State of Iraq is always trying to find excuses to kill people, so there’s really nothing new there.

I was surprised at how quickly people shrugged off Mutlag’s exclusion from the race, both by Shias (happy) and Sunnis (not too happy). That news cycle was swiftly superseded by Baha’ al-‘Araji’s quip against Abu Bakr al-Siddik, the first Sunni caliph, and Sunni calls to have the Sadrist MP excluded too. If anything, it shows that Mutlag failed to cement his credentials as the ‘leader’ of the Sunnis, and that this role is still vacant.

More will follow.

NB: Ambassador Chris Hill is on TV speaking live, and he seems to be backing away from Odierno's statements, highlighting all the positive elements of this election. He too is shrugging off the De-Ba'athification issue.

Update on Amb. Hill: says De-Ba'athification issue behind us, but agrees with what Odierno said about Chalabi. It seems Odierno is accusing Chalabi of colluding with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. I don't get it, if al-Muhandis is such a nefarious figure then why didn't the Americans arrest him when he was frolicking around Baghdad two weeks ago. He's an MP and is currently a candidate for the INA, no. 17 in Baghdad Province. His arrest warrant is still in effect, and his immunity can be revoked by obtaining the signature of the speaker of the parliament only, since parliament is out of its legislative session (see Article 63/2/c of the Iraqi Constitution). So why isn't he behind bars? Again, this only exposes American weakness. For more on al-Muhandis, see this post from 2006.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

For those who need to be reminded: Who were the Ba'athists?

I find it very funny that some U.S. analysts don't get why De-Ba'athification is such an emotional issue in Iraq. The video above was shown a couple of weeks ago during one of the ongoing trials against the leadership of the Ba'ath Party. I had never seen it before. I can tell you that it was one of the most poignant moments that I have had during the whole time I've done this; 'this' meaning since the start of my work against Saddam. I couldn't find the way it was originally aired, without the music in the background, so this version will have to do. While the video was being shown in the court as evidence (...one of the men seen cheering at the end is a defendent) the sobs of the mother of one of the victims, called to the court as a witness, can be heard. Then, out of nowhere, the judge lost it: he berated one of the defendents for averting his eyes, as if he could not stand the hideousness of the images. He asked, "Are you pretending that you didn't see what was happening then? That you didn't hear what was happening?"

To me, the judge's outburst should go down as an important moment in human consciousness, for the whole world to learn from, not just Iraqis. Let tyrants everwhere be on notice, you too may be shamed someday.

The images, gestures and clothing of the Fedayeen Saddam (...about 50 of the barred candidates for this election were members of Fedayeen Saddam) evoke what we later saw Zarqawi and Al-Qaeda doing, as they too cut off heads and held them up as trophies.

Just remember that a government, with a seat at the United Nations, was doing this to its citizens. That was the Ba'ath. Those were the Ba'athists. That is why people are still pissed.

Update: Confusion in Baghdad

The Electoral Commission published today the names of the officially sanctioned candidates sans those barred by the Accountability and Justice Commission (AJC). This led to rumors that the Appeals Committee of the AJC has finalized its process of looking into the appeals from the barred candidates. What I understood is that those barred candidates cannot campaign at the present until such a time as they are allowed to run by the Appeals Committee. Thus, today’s list isn’t final, and the decision making process has been delayed. It should be noted that the list numbers of the barred candidates (those who haven’t been officially replaced by their coalitions) is still in effect, therefore the published lists today are not serialized but rather skip a few numbers where appropriate.

So, it’s still not over.

Update on Saleh al-Mutlag: I had argued that there is no legal statute barring Mutlag from running on the grounds that he propagates for the Ba’ath Party. However, I was alerted to Article 4/1 of the AJC Law that stipulates that the law applies to the relevant constitutional articles dealing with the Ba’ath Party, including Article 7/1 of the Iraqi Constitution. Seems like a stretch, but that is how the Appeals Committee is empowered to possibly punish Mutlag for mouthing off.

Furthermore, Mutlag is being associated with terrorist acts according to recent detainee confessions. Specifically he is being tied to Abu Jalal al-Fallouji (real name Hameed al-Jumeili), identified by the AJC as head of the Salahuddin Brigades, and Muhammad Hussein Ali al-Talabani. Talabani planned the attack on former Vice President Salam al-Zoba’i. Mutlag is accused, according to these confessors, of bankrolling these two individuals. However, what I know is that the Salahuddin Brigades (operationally part of the Islamic Army of Iraq) are effectively managed by former mukhaberat section chief Mahmoud Aziz al-Falahi (Abu Ali), who I have discussed here at Talisman Gate in the past.

Personally, I don’t like what Mutlag stands for, but I don’t buy these terrorist charges.

Friday, February 05, 2010

It’s Not Over

As many of you may have heard, the Appeals Committee of the Accountability and Justice Commission (AJC) has deferred looking into the cases of the barred candidates until after the election. This decision has no legal standing, even though it is being celebrated by some DC analysts and, of course, the would-be beneficiaries of the decision. In the interest of not having you all scratching your heads as this decision gets overturned by the Higher Federal Court and the parliament (gathering for an emergency session on Sunday) in the next few days, let me explain the legality of what is happening:

-Article 49/3 of the Constitution says that the requirements for candidacy to the parliament shall be legislated by a law, and that law was the Elections Law of November 2005 (amended in late 2009). Article 6/2 of the old and amended Election Law states that a candidate for parliament cannot run if he or she is barred according to the legal frameworks of De-Ba’athification.

-The AJC law does not cover, in any of the language, the procedures for vetting candidates for parliament. Article 6 is tailored to address the Ba’athist and security backgrounds of state employees, and nowhere does it address candidates for public office.

-The Appeals Committee is part of the AJC law, and it can only adjudicate on the cases of state employees barred according to Article 6. It gives 30 days for the employee to file a case against dismissal procedures or the such, and must respond in 60 days. This is where the decision to postpone barring the candidates until after elections comes from, but it has no legal standing: the Appeals Committee cannot look into the cases of candidates for parliament since that is not in the wording of the law, even though it may be in the spirit of the law.

-The Constitution trumps all other legal considerations, and it is very clear that it was meant to deny Ba’athists a return to public life. Since the AJC law does not give barred candidates any legal recourse, their only option is Article 165/6 of the Constitution that calls for forming a parliamentary committee to oversee and regulate the decisions of the De-Ba’athification Commission (and hence the AJC that replaced it on paper). This committee de-facto exists, and it is the De-Ba’athification Committee of the parliament that is headed by the hard line Sadrist, Falah Shanshal. By law, this is the only avenue available for appeals or to redress the decisions of the AJC as relates to candidates for parliament. The decisions of the committee can only be formalized by a simple majority vote in parliament.

-Saleh al-Mutlag is clearly in violation of Article 7/1 of the Constitution for glorifying, propagating and generally being an apologist for the Ba’ath Party (defined by the AJC law as the one that took power in 1968, but in the Constitution as the one that ruled during the “Saddamist” era beginning in 1979 to 2003). However, Article 7/1 stipulates that this ban should be legislated by a distinct law, and such a law was never written, discussed and/or passed by parliament. So technically, Mutlag has not violated a law, even though he has violated the spirit of the Constitution. Article 8 of the AJC law addresses those who propagate for the Ba’ath but punishes only those (state employees) who were beneficiaries of the AJC law, and this again does not include al-Mutlag. So, he’s in the clear. But the only body, by law, that can judge that he hasn’t violated any laws is the parliamentary committee that I mentioned above, not the Appeals Committee.

I’m in Baghdad, which is nice and empty since millions seem to have strolled down to Karbala for the 40th Day Commemoration of Ashura. No traffic jams, no undue waits at checkpoints. Will try to write more about what I’m hearing.