Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

CONFIRMED: It WAS al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajir

The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) posted a statement a little over half an hour ago on Al-Faloja and other jihadist forums corroborating the news that the leader of the ISI, and the jihadist candidate for Islam's new Caliph, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (Hamid al-Zawi) as well as the 'Prime Minister' of the ISI, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (Abdul-Mun'im al-Badawi), were both killed a few days ago.

The statement can be found here (Arabic text). It was signed by 'Abul-Walid' Abdel Wahab al-Mashhadani, the Minister of Shari'ah Commissions for the ISI, who was appointed to this position in the last reshuffle of the ISI's 'cabinet' in September 2009. He claims that a new leadership had already been named in al-Baghdadi's lifetime to take over in the eventuality of his death.

This is a huge victory. It has been underplayed in the Western press and by DC-analysts as just another decapitation strike, but it is much more than that: taking out al-Baghdadi put an end to the boldest ideological undertaking of the new generation of Al-Qaeda-supporting jihadists; their attempt to resurrect the Islamic Caliphate in all its imperial glory.

The fact that they chose al-Zawi, a retired policeman, who moonlighted as a oil heater repairman, as the new caliph, based on his dubious claims of genealogy, is really fascinating. I wish I had access to that trove of info the Iraqi forces found at the strike site!

Monday, April 19, 2010

And so ends the saga of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi...

Had the Iraqi authorities announced that only Hamid al-Zawi was killed, there would have been wiggle room to believe that he wasn’t Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

And had the authorities announced that only Abu Ayyub al-Masri was killed, there would have been wiggle room to believe that he wasn’t Abu Hamza al-Muhajir.

But since both were killed together, at the same location, confirms beyond a doubt, at least to me, a longtime skeptic, that both are indeed al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajir respectively.

This is a marvelous achievement. It will be very difficult for the Islamic State of Iraq to tell its underlings that al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajir are still alive, even if it manages to reproduce the voices associated with their past broadcasts. It would be too easy to denounce the speakers as imposters. The circumstances of their death together, plus their earlier identification, makes this story extremely hard to refute. Commentators on the Al-Faloja jihadist discussion boards are in disbelief. There's really no way for the jihadists to do damage control here, especially at a time when all they wanted to demonstrate by their recent waves of bombings was their own survivability.

The fact of the matter is that al-Zawi was one of the names that had been suggested as the real identity of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Just remember that the claim was first made in July 2007 (with all the relevant details) on a random posting on a discussion board, and that it was only in May 2008 that the name and picture linking al-Zawi to al-Baghdadi was made by the police chief of Haditha. It’s all here at this link from this blog back in 2008.

I had always thought it was Abu Zaid al-Mashhadani, but I am ready to concede that I was mistaken.

I was also always hesitant to identify al-Masri as al-Muhajir (who sometimes would reveal his real name as Abdul-Mun’im al-Badawi; the last time he did so was in September 2009 was he was promoted from Minister of War of the ISI to the position of First Vizier (Prime Minister), in addition to keeping his Minister of War portfolio) (see link here, with loads of background).

Over the years, it became clearer to me that al-Muhajir was speaking with a trace of a North African accent, probably even Egyptian. Al-Masri has also been identified by Egyptian terrorism experts in the past as Abdul-Mun’im Izzedin Ali Ismail (born 1969).

Now I am willing to fully concede that al-Masri is indeed al-Muhajir.

It is odd that while it seemed that both their real identities were in the public domain since at least 2007, neither took the step of addressing their supporters in a video message, showing their faces. It is one thing to follow an amorphous ‘leader’ hiding behind a pseudonym, and quite another to pledge allegiance to a man who’s biography and pedigree is known. They did not take advantage of what a media stunt such as that would have afforded them.

It should also be noted that al-Baghdadi was the jihadist candidate for caliph, and all the pertinent details of that effort can be viewed at this link. Killing him is a big, big deal in terms of leaving behind an ideological vacuum for the Zarqawist wing of jihad.

Maliki’s most incredible assertion at his press conference today was that al-Zawi/Baghdadi had been detained at some point by the Americans, who later released him. This is the same situation with Muharib al-Juburi, the ISI’s former spokesman (killed in July 2007) who had also been detained by the Americans and then released. That means at a certain juncture, U.S. troops were picking up the right culprits, but had to release them for lack of evidence. These episodes with Zawi and Juburi make the case that evidence or lack thereof does not always trump suspicion, especially when it comes to terrorism cases.

Remember, al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajir are directly responsible (…often openly boastful) for tens of thousands of murdered Iraqis, tens of thousands of injured Iraqis, tens of thousands of displaced Iraqis, and hundreds of US and Coalition casualties.

Those in the Western and Arab media who have lamented the loss of life in Iraq, and often blame the Americans for it, should be joyous today that these two mass-murderers have been held to account for their reign of savagery. But I doubt that will happen.

Several have already tried to spin this story as another round of BS from the Iraqi government. While it is true that Iraqi and US authorities have made many egregious mistakes in the past by claiming to have killed and arrested either al-Muhajir or al-Baghdadi, this time they are correct. And I say this as someone who has long argued that they had their identities mixed up, and I have consistently criticized both the Americans and the Iraqi government for failing to clearly identify the leadership of the ISI.

The last case of mistaken identity involved Ahmad al-Majma’i as al-Baghdadi. I refuted those claims here, here, here and here (this last link has a lists of al-Baghdadi’s speeches and a summary about him).

For the longest time, US authorities believed that al-Baghdadi was a fictitious person, a claim I also refuted over the years (here and here; in the last link I identify where I believe Baghdadi was hiding in 2007, in al-Niba’i, which is very close to the Tharthar area were al-Zawi and al-Masri were killed according to Maliki).

So there you have it, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, the two most significant leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq after Zarqawi, are no more. This is a massive blow to the jihadists, and a sign that U.S.-Iraqi intelligence and operational cooperation has reached a very mature stage.

Congratulations to all those who made it happen, and congratulations to the hundreds of thousands of victims of terrorism in Iraq; they have been avenged.

When Zarqawi was killed in June 2006, that day marked a turning point towards the waning influence of the jihadists. Today’s ‘miracle’ (...killing both, and dispelling doubts does make it a miracle) will spell the eventual extermination of their few remaining cells. It may take years, but today is certainly an important landmark on that road.

Here a link to the pictures of the corpses as released by Maliki's office, caution: gruesome.

UPDATE: Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel (Arabic) had me on to comment on the story for their Daily Harvest program. They ran a piece before I spoke seemingly casting doubts on the government's version, and they even went as far as suggesting that the jihadists were not responsible for targeting civilians. When it was my turn to speak I said that I am fully convinced that the two men who were killed were Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, and that for millions of Iraqis today was a day of retribution and reckoning.

I would like to add one thing: the honorable thing for the Iraqi government to do is to name a main thoroughfare in Baghdad after the American soldier who died in this operation. There have been bad and tense days between Americans and Iraqis, mostly stemming from outside meddling as well as unnecessary misunderstandings, but destroying the jihadist leadership yesterday should be remembered as a day of triumph and gratitude in the long term relationship between the U.S. and Iraq. Many thousands of U.S. citizens died in this worthy fight, but nothing is more poignant and clear as to who the bad guys were, and who the good guys are, than killing off al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajir in a combined U.S.-Iraqi operation. One would hope that Iraqi politicians have the guts to lead, and to tell the Iraqi public that we have a moral debt towards the Americans, rather than cowtow to the noisy anti-America mob. Today would be a good day to show Iraq's gratitude towards America. Maliki mentioned the US role in his press conference, but did not express any thanks.

Friday, April 09, 2010

April 9: Liberation Day

Yup, it's as simple as that.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Sadrist Referendum Results

The Sadrists announced today the results of their referendum on who should be Iraq's next prime minister.

The Sadrists claim that 1,428,000 voters participated across Iraq, which is over double the number of votes their candidates tallied in the national elections. Needless to say, these 'elections' were conducted without oversight and did not adhere to any accepted standards for polling, and hence the numbers are very suspect.

The value of the referendum, however, is that it exposes the politics of the Sadrist movement.

The results were:

Ibrahim al-Ja'afari (former PM from the Da'awa Party): 24 percent

Ja'afar al-Sadr (son of the chief ideologue of the Da'awa Party who was executed by Saddam in April 1979): 23 percent

Qusay al-Suheil (top member of the Sadrist 'politburo'): 17 percent

Nouri al-Maliki (PM incumbent): 10 percent

Ayad Allawi (former PM): 9 percent

Baha' al-'Araji (Sadrist MP from Nassiriya and highest independent Sadrist voter earner in the national election): 5 percent

Ahmad Chalabi (courter of the Sadrist vote): 3 percent

Adil Abdul-Mahdi (current Vice President from ISCI): 2 percent

Rafi' al-'Isawi (Sunni from Anbar, ran on Allawi list, current Vice President): 2 percent

Other: 5 percent

What the Sadrists wanted from this 'referendum' was to shoot down Maliki's prospects for a second term by claiming that their 'base' had rejected him. The Sadrists form the majority bloc within the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) which Maliki's State of Law bloc needs to ally with in order to form a cabinet. They also demonstrated that almost the same number of 'voters' had chosen Allawi (9 percent) to Maliki's 10 percent, so the Sadrists are as free to negotiate with Allawi as they would with Maliki. This is a bargaining tool meant to show that they could easily break with the INA and crown Allawi as the next premier.

The Sadrists already know that they can't have one of their own (Qusay al-Suheil or Baha' al-Araji) as PM since they are an overall minority (10 percent) among the Shia vote. Al-Suheil, a 45 year-old agricultural hydraulic engineer (PhD) from Basra, got 17 percent of the vote, but he only managed to scrape together 8,415 votes in the general election (in Baghdad, where he ran). Plus, al-Suheil is unknown to the wider Iraqi public while al-'Araji, a prominent Sadrist MP and head of the Legal Committee of parliament with dual Irish and Iraqi citizenship who recently blurted out some caustic sectarian remarks, has a multitude of corruption cases against him waiting to break, according to sources in the Integrity Commission.

And they also know that even though Ja'afari is popular among Sadrists, he cannot become PM again as most Iraqis, irrespective of whether this is fair or not, attribute the 'sectarian' outbreak to Ja'afari's tenure as PM in 2005.

Ja'afar al-Sadr is an unknown quantity for the Iraqi political elite. Almost all he has to go on is genealogy: he's the only son of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, one of modern Shi'ism most important thinkers. Not only that, but the Sadr family had historically played an important role in Shi'a and Iraqi history over the last two hundred years, which would make Ja'afar the equivalent of Shi'a royalty; he was 10 years-old when his father was executed. He is Muqtada's second cousin, as well as his brother-in-law (Muqtada is married to his sister). During the opposition days, the only time we heard about Ja'afar was in 1999 or 2000 when he managed to escape to Iran. The story at the time was that the Hakims and the Iranians suspected that he was a Saddam spy, and the man who smuggled him out of Iraq (all I remember was that he was from the town of Shatra) was interrogated and tortured by either the Badr Corp or by Iranian security. Since then, Ja'afar studied by correspondence with the Islamic University of London, and had a brief stint as a student with Sheikh Kadhim al-Haeri, a top Iraqi-born cleric in Iran who is close to the Revolutionary Guard. At one point, Ja'afar made his way to Beirut, where another line of the Sadr family resides. His participation in the election last month as no. 5 on Maliki's slate for Baghdad was his first foray into politics. He was the second top vote earner with 28,779 votes, after Maliki.

Ja'afar had been marketing himself as a secular candidate. It should be noted that the first time his name was mentioned as a PM candidate was by Ibrahim al-Sumaida'i, a political analyst and gadfly, during an Al-Arabiya talk show before (I think) the election.

So are the Sadrists really supporting Ja'afar for the PM slot? Why would Muqtada create a rival to himself from within the Sadr family? If Ja'afar gets the job, then he would slowly yet ultimately eclipse Muqtada as the representative of the Sadr family, and he would only increase in stature among wider Iraqi constituencies at Muqtada's expense. So why would the Sadrists throw their lot behind him? Is this a message from the Sadrist midlevel leadership to Muqtada, along the lines of 'You are replaceable'?

The emergence of Rafi' al-'Isawi, at least in Shi'a eyes, as the least provocative Sunni partner within Allawi's list is a significant point. Tariq al-Hashemi, Usama al-Nujaifi, and Salah al-Mutlag are all rejected as too extreme. But 'Isawi, a former leader of the Islamic Army that was cultivated by the Americans who propelled him upwards to the position of Vice-President (...after Salam al-Zoba'i resigned), is seen as a moderate, and he could very well displace Allawi as the face of the Iraqiyya bloc, or at least lead a breakaway faction that forms a cabinet with whoever is chosen by dominant Shia and Kurdish slates as prime minister.

The simple act of placing his name on the ballot (...and getting as many votes as Adil Abdul-Mahdi, whom the Sadrists hate as the acolyte of the Hakims, and who is popularly rejected due to the Ziwiyya bank incident) is a poignant message in and of itself.

Furthermore, I thought Bayan Jabr's name was on the ballot, but his name was not announced among the results. Jabr, the Finance Minister and Hakim ally, received almost 69,000 votes in the general election in Baghdad, which was a surprise to most.

So it is clear what the Sadrists don't want: no more Maliki. But it isn't clear who the Sadrists think should replace Maliki. Overall, this gambit serves to constrict the Sadrists in the ongoing political negotiations, rather than help shape them. It could very well be that the Sadrists, in their instransigence and vetoing certain candidates, may play themselves out of the game.

UPDATE: I feel I need to further clarify my opinion about this referendum as Western reports begin reporting on them and taking them seriously: these are cooked up numbers. There was no vote. There was a show for the cameras that people were voting, but whatever results those ballots added-up to were most likely ignored. The results were readied beforehand. This media stunt was a naked and brazen attempt by the Sadrist politburo to shape Iraq’s ongoing political negotiations for the formation of a government. How else can one explain how a Sunni write-in candidate like Rafi’ al-‘Isawi was picked by 2 percent, that is 30,000 voters of the alleged tally? How did a secondary Sunni figurehead factor so prominently among the Sadrist constituency in the preceding weeks to the point that thousands of them remembered his name and jotted it down on the ballot? Could it be that it’s because he’s about to embark on an official trip to Iran as a representative of the Iraqiyya slate?

How did Qusay al-Suhail, another write-in candidate, jump from 8,500 votes to 250,000 votes (17 percent) in the span of a month since the national elections?

Please do not take these numbers seriously. The Sadrists are having fun with mathematics, and trying to shape the debate. They think they are disqualifying candidates, while inserting new names into the mix. Iraq had a real election last month. Those numbers are real and are an accurate reflection of what the Iraqi voter wants. The Sadrists numbers reflect what a handful of members on the Sadrist politburo want, or even maybe, and this is just a maybe, what some Iranian power centers want. It is an exercise in political make-belief. Remember, the Sadrists are but one component among many that can go into the formation of a government.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Another wave of terror, and the significance of what happens next...

Baghdad experienced another wave of attacks today. These are more of the same: "thematic" terrorism, that is the newest mark, and boast, of the Al-Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Today's attack was all about blowing up residential buildings. The randomness, as well as the target choice, are meant to create a sense of enduring unease: ISI terrorist cells, which could be as few as 5-7 in the capital, still have the wherewithal to pull off such acts, so what will they hit next?

They've already hit ministries and government institutions (the August 19, October 25, and December 8, 2009 attacks), hotels (January 25, 2010), embassies (April 5, 2010), as well as today's attacks. The ISI has consistently claimed responsibility for these attacks. The attacks are part of the ISI's 'Raid of the Prisoner-of-War' offensive, which so far have had six waves.

A week ago, the media arm of the ISI, the Al-Furqan, released a 35 minute video (can be viewed directly here), which shows the first wave of attacks, against the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Aug. 19, 2009. Lending credence to these claims is new footage from three seperate angles of the attacks on the Finance Ministry, which were clearly shot by ISI operatives. It is harder to do so in the area of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since there are many government departments in that busy area and anyone trying to film anything would have been noticed by security personel as well as bystanders.

About 100 Iraqis died in that first round. The combined total deaths of all six attacks could be around 400, as well as hundreds, if not thousands, of injured. Since then, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been back to work, and its building is undergoing a face-lift to fix the damages. The apartment blocks around the ministry have all been fixed (...my neighborhood), and repainted. The school across from the ministry is being refurbished. Life goes on, despite the mayhem and fear the terrorists unleashed that day. I don't know whether this is a testimony to the resilience of Iraqis, or of humanity as a whole, but the world should take note. It is easy to be paralyzed with fear. That is what the ISI is going for. But somehow, life goes on. Iraq goes on. Iraqis don't lose heart, they don't seem to fall apart. I wish more news outlets would report on that weird, and life-affirming, phenomenon. The terrorists, as their video shows, get a high from the media exposure given to their attacks. But what if the media begins reporting on the other reality, that Iraqis seemingly get back on their feet after every violent news cycle? Wouldn't that demoralize the terrorists?

Thursday, April 01, 2010

About Those Sadrist Numbers

Sixty-eight candidates from the Iraqi National Alliance made it to parliament, 38 of whom are Sadrist (alternatively called Tayyar Al-Ahrar) candidates. (Two ‘compensation’ seats were also awarded to the INA, but I don’t know who got them.)

That means that Sadrists got 55.8 percent of the seat allocation of the INA. However, an examination of the numbers reveals that the total tally received by Sadrist candidates was only 32.4 percent of the INA total.

By now it is clear to most how the Sadrists did it: they spread out their votes among multiple candidates, propelling them to the top of the INA slate as the number ordering got reshuffled according to the highest vote earners. Then, the candidates highest on the reshuffled list got topped off from the total slate tally until they reached the threshold number of votes in each province, calculated as the total number of voters divided by the number of seats in parliament assigned to each province.

The way the Sadrists did that was to mobilize their ground operation for individual candidates based on locality. For example, they would ask their voters in certain sectors of Sadr City to vote for one candidate, while voters in other sectors would vote for some other Sadrist candidate.

Here’s a summary of how they performed in 11 of Iraq’s 18 provinces (I only considered the provinces were Sadrist candidates were competitive):

Wasit: Sadrist candidates (3) received a total of 44,746 votes out of an INA total of 129,188 (34.6 percent). 3 of the INA’s 4 MPs are Sadrists (11 MPs represent this province in parliament). Sadrists received 11.8 percent of the overall vote in Wasit.

Diwaniyya (Qadisiyya): Sadrist candidates (3) received a total of 32,755 votes out of an INA total of 133,821 (24.5 percent). 2 of the INA’s 5 MPs are Sadrists (11 MPs represent this province in parliament). Sadrists received 8.7 percent of the overall vote in Diwaniya.

Nassiriyya (Dhi Qar): Sadrist candidates (4) received a total of 78,994 votes out of an INA total of 244,818 (32.3 percent). 4 of the INA’s 9 MPs are Sadrists (18 MPs represent this province in parliament). Sadrists received 13.8 percent of the overall vote in Nassiriyya.

Maysan (Amara): Sadrist candidates (3) received a total of 51,511 votes out of an INA total of 135,319 (38 percent). 3 of the INA’s 6 MPs are Sadrists (10 MPs represent this province in parliament). Sadrists received 18.8 percent of the overall vote in Maysan.

Diyala: Sadrist candidates (2) received a total of 19,046 votes out of an INA total of 85,821 (22.2 percent). 2 of the INA’s 3 MPs are Sadrists (13 MPs represent this province in parliament). Sadrists received 3.8 percent of the overall vote in Diyala.

Muthana (Samawa): Sadrist candidates (2) received a total of 15,490 votes out of an INA total of 71,699 (21.6 percent). 1 of the INA’s 3 MPs is a Sadrist (7 MPs represent this province in parliament). Sadrists received 6.7 percent of the overall vote in Muthana.

Karbala: Sadrist candidates (2) received a total of 27,688 votes out of an INA total of 81,794 (33.9 percent). 2 of the INA’s 3 MPs are Sadrists (10 MPs represent this province in parliament). Sadrists received 8.3 percent of the overall vote in Karbala.

Najaf: Sadrist candidates (3) received a total of 49,736 votes out of an INA total of 152,698 (32.6 percent). 3 of the INA’s 5 MPs are Sadrists (12 MPs represent this province in parliament). Sadrists received 12 percent of the overall vote in Najaf.

Basra: Sadrist candidates (3) received a total of 65,039 votes out of an INA total of 237,010 (27.4 percent). 3 of the INA’s 7 MPs are Sadrists (24 MPs represent this province in parliament). Sadrists received 8 percent of the overall vote in Basra.

Baghdad: Sadrist candidates (16) received a total of 221,533 votes out of an INA total of 561,659 (39.4 percent). 12 of the INA’s 17 MPs are Sadrists (68 MPs represent this province in parliament). Sadrists received 8.7 percent of the overall vote in Baghdad.

Babil (Hilla): Sadrist candidates (4) received a total of 46,633 votes out of an INA total of 180,193 (26 percent). 3 of the INA’s 5 MPs are Sadrists (16 MPs represent this province in parliament). Sadrists received 8 percent of the overall vote in Babil.

The total number of votes received by the 45 candidates that the Sadrists fielded in the provinces above was 653,171 out of an INA total of 2,014,020 (32.4 percent). The total number of votes cast in these provinces was 7,015,008. So the Sadrist percentage of the overall vote in the Shia ‘heartland’ plus Baghdad and Diyala is 9.3 percent.

Those 653,171 votes Sadrists got from all the 11 provinces should be compared to the 622,961 votes Nouri al-Maliki got for himself in Baghdad province; so almost the same number of voters ticked off Maliki’s name in a single province as the number of Sadrist voters from all over. The proportionality doesn't seem quite fair: the Sadrists get 12 seats in Baghdad with 221,533 votes, while Maliki's Baghdad slate has 903,360 votes (four times as many) but only gets 26 seats in the province. That’s something to mull over.

Theoretically, the predominately Shi’a, pseudo-slummy districts of Sadr City, Shu’la, Hurriya, Washash, Baya’, Seydiyya, Ur, Sha’ab, and Husseiniya, where Sadrists claim their ‘stronghold’, should account for over 50 percent of Baghdad’s population. But the Sadrists only pulled off 8.7 percent of the vote in Baghdad.

Same goes for Basra (8 percent). And even Maysan (19 percent), which the Sadrists liked to portray as ‘their’ province.

It seems that some Western journalists (…and some strategists in Tehran) would like to think of the Sadrists as a Hezbollah-like organization, tailor made for Iraq; they seem to view the Sadrists as a dynamic, revolutionary movement that is supported by millions of poor, destitute Shi’as, or so the narrative goes. One even detects the same type of romanticizing of Hezbollah among some analysts and media people writing in English being applied to the Mahdi Army. ‘Armed freedom fighters against America, now savvy politicians’ and that all that noise. It is true that the Sadrists pulled off a neat political trick by turning minority numbers of votes within the INA into a majority seating. But their real appeal among Shi’a Iraqis has also been revealed: the Sadrists are a small minority of the Shi’a population (10 percent isn’t much, so who speaks for the other 90 percent of Shi’as?), and they can’t even claim to represent the Shi’a slums anymore.

I hope more journalists and analysts will pay attention to these numbers before they speak of a Sadrist ‘groundswell’.