Monday, July 02, 2007

Perspective: On This Day In Iraq -- July 2nd edition

July 2, 2005: A soldier takes in the grim aftermath of a suicide bombing at an Interior Ministry police recruitment center in the Mansour district of western Baghdad which killed 20.

July 2, 2002:

US beefs up air base in Qatar

AL-UDEID AIR BASE, QATAR (AP) – The government of Qatar is spending millions of dollars to expand Al Udeid, a remote base in the central Persian Gulf.

If President Bush were to order airstrikes on Iraq, this base, about 20 miles from the capital, Doha, would be a critical hub for US warplanes and their aerial pipeline of bombs and supplies.

In the past months, the US military quietly has moved munitions, equipment and communications gear to the base from Saudi Arabia, the control center for American air operations in the Gulf for more than a decade.

About 3,300 American troops are in Qatar, mostly at Al Udeid, where the signs of an American military buildup are unmistakable:

• A tent city has sprouted, with warehouses and miles of security barriers, attesting to the US military's focus on protecting troops against terrorist attack.

• Freshly paved runways and aircraft parking ramps stretch deep into the desert.

• Newly built hangars for fighter aircraft are hardened to withstand aerial attack. Within view from the main 15,000-foot runway are hardened bunkers, presumably for munitions and supply storage.

"It is likely the most capable base in the Gulf region," says William Arkin, a private military analyst.

Soon after Sept. 11, Qatar granted permission for the US to send warplanes to Al Udeid. They flew attack missions over Afghanistan.

Al Udeid also is host to Air Force Red Horse squadrons, rapid-response teams of civil engineers that can repair and build structures such as runways and roads in remote areas.

US officials will not discuss specifics, saying the Qatari government strictly limits what can be said about the American presence. There has been speculation that Al Udeid is being built up as an alternative to, or replacement for, the Combined Air Operations Center at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have made clear they do not favor a US invasion of Iraq.

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of US forces in the Middle East, said this year he had no plans to move the air control center. But he added, "That does not mean that I don't have plans to replicate it."

Read the rest at the Christian Science Monitor

July 2, 2003:

Shia leaders feel heat of the people's anger

With daily violence against coalition soldiers in the Sunni Muslim region in central Iraq, the country's majority Shia population, concentrated in the south, appears increasingly divided over whether to support or oppose US-led efforts to run Iraq.

Iraq's top-ranking Shia clergy, collectively referred to as the Hawza, report they are under growing pressure from extremist Shia religious groups and rural Shia tribesmen to take a stronger line against the coalition - and even to declare a jihad (holy war) against the foreign occupiers.

The Hawza, which keeps a strong spiritual hold on Iraq's Shia, has maintained an uneasy working relationship with coalition forces since the end of the war. But it appears increasingly "paralysed", in the words of Dr Wameedh al Nathmi, a political scientist at the University of Baghdad, and has been fighting to retain its authority in the face of direct challenges from radical clerics.

"The people are every day accusing the Hawza of being aloof from reality. We are under a lot of pressure," says Sheikh Ali al-Ruba'i, a representative of Ayatollah Mohammed Ishaq Fayad, one of three clerics who lead the Hawza.

He says Iraq's Shia population is feeling increasingly hostile about how the coalition is managing Iraq, complaining not only of intrusive weapons searches and brutality by coalition soldiers, but also that basic services such as electricity and water have not returned to pre-war levels two months after the end of the fighting.

"The coalition troops are taking dogs into houses, invading people's homes in their search for weapons. When they arrest someone, they put a bag on his head, handcuff him, and leave him lying in the sun for two hours. Is this the way they treat people in the US and in Europe?

"Of course this will create problems. The Shia are pressing the Ulama [clergy] to be tougher with the coalition, even to declare a jihad," he says.

Last week, the issue of weapons searches triggered the first anti-coalition violence in Shia areas since the end of the war, when six British soldiers were killed in the village of Majar following a disagreement with local tribes.

Mr Ruba'i says the Hawza opposed the killings, and that this was a purely tribal rather than religious affair.

But there are indications that the Hawza is feeling the heat of popular opposition to coalition forces.

On Monday, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the supreme leader of the Hawza, issued a fatwa, or edict, calling a planned constitutional convention to be held by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad later this summer "completely unacceptable". The members of the convention should be elected rather than appointed by the CPA, the ayatollah decreed.

It was the first time he has directly challenged the political process implemented by the CPA, which opposes elections in the current chaotic environment.

Resistance to the US-led political process among the Shia is being spearheaded by Muqtada al-Sadr, son of a high-ranking cleric killed by the previous Iraqi regime in 1999.

His followers accuse the Hawza of lack of leadership, and are far more vocal than the Hawza, which is used to leading quietly and not taking a direct role in political discussions.

But seemingly under pressure from these groups, Mr Sistani has been more publicly critical of US-led reconstruction efforts in Iraq in recent weeks.

Neighbouring Iran's Shia religious government is also unclear who to back. The Tehran-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq stands with Mr Sistani, though it has called for peaceful demonstrations against coalition forces in Iraq.

In the midst of the conflict between Shia religious groups, a third, moderating force has emerged: urban Shia intellectuals who have suddenly found themselves able to seek top positions in the Iraqi government.

Faculty elections in two Baghdad universities recently chose Shias as presidents - a position reserved for Sunni members of the ruling Ba'ath party under the previous regime.

Shia have also been propelled into top positions in ministries by the CPA's policy of rooting out senior Ba'ath party members from government.

Taher al-Bakaa, recently elected president of Baghdad's Mustansiriya university, says that the success of Shias like himself has positively influenced the Shia religious leadership. "It encourages people to think that the new system will redress some of the imbalances of the past, and they should wait and see if it works," he says.

"But let's not kid ourselves. Just because 10 Shia get new jobs is not going to sway public opinion in any meaningful way," he adds. "To get the Shia on their side, the coalition need to make real improvements in their lives ...If things stay as they are now, I am very fearful that the clergy will side against the Americans in the near future, even call for fighting against them."

Read the rest at the Financial Times

July 2, 2004:

Iraqi Cleric Says Occupation Has Not Ended

BAGHDAD -- Rebellious Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr warned Friday that the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq had not ended with the recent handover of limited political powers to an interim government and called on his followers to continue resisting the large presence of foreign troops in the country.

"I want to draw your attention to the fact there was no transferring of authority," Jabir Khafaji, a top Sadr lieutenant, read from a letter during Friday prayers at a mosque in the southern city of Kufa where Sadr commonly preaches. "What has changed is the name only."

Khafaji also demanded that the new Iraqi government defer to the Shiite religious leadership based in the neighboring holy city of Najaf. He asserted that the Mahdi Army, Sadr's black-clad militia recently decimated in two months of battle with U.S. forces, is "the army of Iraq."

"I ask the Iraqis to keep rejecting the occupation and call for independence," Khafaji said.

Sadr's comments, echoed by another of his top aides here in Baghdad, appeared to be a step away from the conciliatory calls for unity he made last week after coordinated insurgent attacks killed more than 100 Iraqis. His words could present an early test for Iraq's unelected government now seeking to shore up its legitimacy following Monday's handover of limited political authority after 15 months of occupation.

Since intensive fighting between U.S. forces and Sadr's militia in several southern cities ended in a cease-fire last month, Sadr has announced plans to form a political party and participate in national elections scheduled for January. More recently, Sadr condemned the foreign influence within Iraq's diffuse insurgency, noting that most of the victims of urban bombings have been ordinary Iraqis.

A move now by Sadr would strain Iraq's embryonic security forces and likely require intervention by some of the 138,000 U.S. soldiers who remain in the country as the chief guarantors of the interim government's stability. U.S. forces are trying to maintain a lower profile in the wake of the handover, but Sadr and simmering trouble spots are testing their ability to do so.

"They are supposed to be reducing their troops," Sheik Aws Khafaji, a Sadr representative from southern Iraq, said during a sermon before 2,000 worshippers in Baghdad's Sadr City, a Shiite neighborhood named for Moqtada Sadr's slain father, a revered ayatollah. "We do not want to break the oars of the interim authority." Later, he called on Ayad Allawi, the Iraqi interim prime minister, to use "faithful, nationalist Iraqi oars and don't use oars that have written on them 'Made in the USA.' "

Read the rest at the Washington Post

July 2, 2005:

Why Iranians voted for a radical

THE unexpected thumping victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the radical mayor of Tehran, over a relatively moderate Hashmi Rafsanjani, in the run-off to the Iranian presidential election, has stunned most political pundits across the world.

There is hardly a doubt that the outcome of the contest between a seasoned and globally known Rafsanjani and a political novice like Ahmadinejad — a virtual stranger and non-entity to the outside world — has upset the calculations and prognoses of most crystal ball-gazers and tea leaf readers who expected Rafsanjani to easily offset the challenge of his radical opponent.

Disappointment, if not dismay, is most rife over this numbing denouement of the Iranian presidential election in the US, the country that may be so distant to Iran in more senses than one and yet has had a most understandable and profound interest in it.

However, one wonders if there is sufficient and measurable realization among the neocons ruling the roost in Washington of how much, and how deeply, their policies and pronouncements have impacted the result that now has visibly caught them by surprise?

It is beyond contention, for one, that the American invasion and continued occupation of neighbouring Iraq has fuelled the resurgence of Islamic radicalism in Iran. The Iranians, rightly, came to the conclusion that their country’s non-religious and reformist stripes were insufficient to shield it against an American imperialist thrust. Saddam Hussain’s Baathist rule in Iraq had nothing to do whatsoever with religion, and yet the country was invaded by the Americans for the sake of their interests.

Besides, the Americans couldn’t hope to get a more moderate man than President Mohammad Khatami but they never extended him an olive branch nor helped him in any way in his long tussle against the radicals. On the contrary, eight years of Khatami rule saw a steady intensification of American pressure.

Washington inexorably and relentlessly pursued a hostile set of policies against Iran and never missed an opportunity to turn the screws ever tighter on the Khatami regime, both in political and economic terms. It was subjected to wrenching economic sanctions and boycotts. Bush catered abundantly to the neocon cabal’s open hostility to Tehran by placing it in the ‘axis of evil.’ In the end, Khatami had no dividends of his moderation to pass on to the Iranian people. His bold and novel suggestion for a dialogue of the civilized was shunned by the US with vehemence, forcing him and his moderates and reformers on the defensive, with their back to the wall against the radicals.

In fact, unabated American hostility to Iran turned away legions of Khatami supporters and neophytes and pushed them into the arms of the radicals who could argue with conviction that moderation wasn’t the answer to Iranian needs, was only a return to the pristine revolution of 1979.

The incessant barrage of American pressure on Iran on the nuclear issue has perhaps been the single most potent factor turning the tide in favour of the radicals.

The Bush administration has categorically refused to allow any benefit of doubt to Tehran over its alleged ambition to become a nuclear power, despite IAEA consistently saying it has not had any evidence to support the American contention. But the Bush administration has been so vehement and single-minded on this issue that it has, quite undiplomatically, been lobbying against the re-election of IAEA’s Mohammad El Baradi because he has resisted the temptation to kowtow to Washington’s whims.

The Bush neocons have not even been averse to lock horns with the Europeans — Britain, France and Germany — who have been following a more conciliatory path on this sensitive issue than Washington could ever entertain on its part.

With Washington refusing any accommodation to Iran on the nuclear issue — the neocons decrying the European soft approach as appeasement at par with Chamberlain’s modus vivendi with Hitler — the radicals in Iran had only to remind the Iranian people that Washington’s double-standard never mentioned Israel’s universally known nuclear arsenal as a threat to peace.

The American hostility to the election campaign and exercise in Iran was, to say the least, totally unwarranted. Bush himself led the charge, even before the first electoral ballot was cast in Iran, by ridiculing the exercise as lacking “ the basic requirements of democracy.”

But how did more than two-thirds of the Iranian voters turning up for the first round of presidential balloting lack basic requirements of democracy? That figure was higher than any reached in an American presidential election in living memory.

President Bush further poured venom on the Iranian democratic undertaking by saying that the “oppressive record” of the Iranian rulers rendered the election illegitimate.

But the clerics in Iran aren’t even a shade as oppressive as Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan who has hunted down his opponents with ruthless barbarity by simply branding them as Islamic militants. Karimov is a valuable ally of Bush in his war on terror. There are several others in Iran’s neighbourhood who lack both legitimacy and popular approbation but whose credentials have never been suspect in the eyes of Washington. And the Iranian rulers haven’t thrown the opposition candidates into prison as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has been in the habit of doing with impunity. Washington has never debunked any re-election of Mubarak, in a contest where he had no one to oppose him, as illegitimate.

And the Iranians have every right to ask Bush, or anybody else for that matter in Washington, why was the last popularly elected government of Dr Mossadaq subverted by the CIA in 1953, and replaced with the despotic rule of the Shah of Iran?

It was strange that Bush welcomed the Iraqi Prime Minister, Ibrahim Jafari, in the White House on Friday, June 24, and paid him glowing tributes as a defender of democracy in an Iraq which is still under American occupation and whose sovereignty is but a figleaf to cover the US military presence on the American beachhead in the Gulf. But the same day, when the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran stunned all and sundry in Washington, both Bush and Condoleezza Rice denounced the Iranian election as a farce and lacking legitimacy.

Cynics could well point out that while Ahmadinejad has been elected by Iranians of all stripes and persuasions, Jafari of Iraq was elected only by the majority Shia segment of the Iraqi people and shunned by the minority Sunnis. Who, then, has a better claim on legitimacy and popular support: Jafari or Ahmadinejad?

Bush and his neocons are also disinclined from accepting another reality that Jafari and others in the Iraqi Alliance are there by virtue of having been blessed and anointed by Syed Ali Sistani, Iraq’s supreme religious leader. There is no difference in religious thought and philosophy of religious control of politics between Sistani and the ayatollahs calling the shots in Iran. If the Iranian ayatollahs are obscurantist in Washington’s esteem then Sistani must also be seen as one.

Lest Bush and his neocon acolytes forget, Ibrahim Al Jafari, now being embraced with so much vigour and fanfare by them, was as much a protege of Iran as any other Iraqi exile from Saddam’s brutal rule when he fled to Tehran and sought refuge there in 1981. Small wonder, therefore, that one of the first foreign dignitaries invited to Baghdad by Jafari was the Iranian Foreign Minister Kharazi. The Iraqi Shia Alliance, whose choice Jafari is, had no compunction in declaring on that occasion that Iran had been wronged by Saddam when he invaded it in 1980.

Understandably, the Bush administration is now more nervous than before about the prospect of a closer affinity between Tehran and Baghdad. Even if the election of a radical like Ahmadinejad doesn’t, ostensibly, provide a fillip to a closer identity of views between the two clergy-led governments, the mere incidence of an unabated insurgency, led by Sunni radicals, in Iraq may nudge the two neighbours in that direction. It is also a fact that despite provocative propaganda in the earlier phase of US occupation of Iraq, Washington has never been able to pin the charge of infiltration of insurgents in Iraq from its border with Iran.

Perhaps the only people drawing satisfaction from the outcome of the Iranian presidential election are the radical neocons in Washington — and also possibly Tel Aviv — who have for sometime entertained designs of an Iraq-like regime change in Iran by resorting to the use of force. They might think that the total eclipse of moderates in Iran and the chokehold over it by the radicals gives them the right to pursue their agenda against Iran with alacrity.

But that may well remain a pipe dream. Iran’s decisive lurch toward right doesn’t mean that the Iranian radicals, and their mentor mullahs, would want to seek confrontation with Washington. And much as the US and Israeli neocons may wish to settle scores with Iran now that it has announced, affirmatively, against moderation, suffice it to say that Iran is not an Iraq emaciated by wrenching sanctions of 12 years.

Read the rest at the Dawn

July 2, 2006:

Al-Qaeda, Still in Business

Over the past four years, key members of the Bush administration have claimed that al-Qaeda is "on the run" (Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice), "disrupted" (George Tenet) or "decimated" (President Bush). At the same time, however, significant terrorist attacks around the world have dramatically increased since Sept. 11, 2001, most of them conducted by militant Islamists. How does one reconcile this apparent contradiction?

A new narrative that purports to answer that question has emerged: Yes, al-Qaeda as an organization is severely impaired, but it has been replaced by a broader ideological movement made up of self-starting, homegrown terrorists who have few formal links to al-Qaeda but are motivated by a doctrine that can be called "Binladenism." Recent examples would include the militants in Madrid who bombed commuter trains in March 2004 and killed 191 people, or the seven terrorist wannabes recently arrested in Miami in connection with an alleged plot to blow up federal buildings. They had embraced al-Qaeda's doctrine of destruction, yet had no ties to the terrorist group.

However, according to five veteran U.S. counterterrorism officials I've spoken with recently, al-Qaeda the organization remains a real threat. One longtime government terrorism analyst points to the four suicide attacks in London last July 7 that killed 52 people as evidence of the organization's resilience. "At a minimum, this was an al-Qaeda-supported operation," the analyst told me. And al-Qaeda's leaders don't seem to be feeling the heat of the "war on terror." On Thursday, Osama bin Laden released his third audiotape in three months, while his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has appeared on an unprecedented number of videotapes since the second week of June -- averaging one a week.

So while the rapid spread of al-Qaeda's ideology in the past two years -- partly fueled by the Iraq war -- should be of considerable concern, it would be quite wrong to conclude that al-Qaeda the organization is down for the count. Indeed, if the bombings in London are any indication, it may be staging a comeback...

[T]he more you delve into the London bombings, the more they look like a classic al-Qaeda plot. The British government's official account of the attacks -- issued by the Home Office two months ago -- provides a revealing picture. It explains that the presumed ringleader, Mohammed Sidique Khan, visited Pakistan in 2003 and 2004, spending several months there. On one of those trips, he aimed "to cross the border and fight in Afghanistan," the report stated...

The report goes on to note that Khan "had some contact with al Qaida figures" in Pakistan, and is "believed to have had some relevant training in a remote part of Pakistan, close to the Afghan border" during his two-week visit in 2003. The British government did not specify what sort of training he received, but given that the London bombs were made of highly efficient explosives that can't be readily made from recipes on the Internet, it is probable that the training was in the manufacturing of bombs. According to the report, Khan was also in "suspicious" contact with individuals in Pakistan in the four months immediately before the London attacks. Taken together, Khan's travels and contacts in Pakistan strongly suggest an al-Qaeda role in the operation.

Khan also appeared on a videotape that aired on al-Jazeera two months after the suicide attacks -- an important fact to which the British report did not give sufficient weight. "I'm going to talk to you in a language that you understand," Khan said on the tape, speaking in the broad brogue of his native Yorkshire. "Our words are dead until we give them life with our blood." He goes on to describe bin Laden and Zawahiri as "today's heroes." Appearing on the same videotape, Zawahiri trumpeted al-Qaeda's responsibility for the London bombings. As a veteran U.S. counterterrorism official told me, "Zawahiri does not take credit for things that he hasn't done."

On the videotape, Zawahiri referenced a prior al-Qaeda threat to explain the targeting of London, saying "Didn't . . . Sheik Osama bin Laden offer you a truce?" -- a reference to the al-Qaeda leader's April 2004 proposal of a peace agreement with those European countries willing to pull out of Iraq. Britain is the most prominent member of that coalition. Bin Laden offered a three-month grace period before the truce expired in July 2004. A year later, the four bombers blew themselves up in London.

But the key piece of evidence overlooked in the British government report is that both Khan and Zawahiri's statements were made on a videotape bearing the distinctive logo of al-Sahab ("the clouds"), which is al-Qaeda's television production arm. Al-Sahab's first tape, a two-hour al-Qaeda infomercial, debuted on the Internet in the summer of 2001, signaling that a major anti-American attack was in the works. Since then, al-Sahab has continued to release key statements from al-Qaeda leaders. Khan's appearance on the videotape strongly suggests that he met up with members of al-Qaeda's media team based on the Afghan-Pakistan border, probably in the tribal area of Waziristan. There is much we still don't know about Khan's activities in Pakistan, but additional information is likely to point toward further contact with members of al-Qaeda in Pakistan...

Almost five years after the attacks on Washington and New York, al-Qaeda not only remains in business in its traditional stronghold on the Afghan-Pakistan border, but continues to project its ideology and terrorism abroad. So now we face a world of ideologically driven homegrown terrorists -- free radicals unattached to any formal organization -- in addition to formal networks such as al-Qaeda that have managed to survive despite the tremendous pressure brought to bear against them since 9/11. And even more grim, they now feed off and strengthen one another.

Read the rest at the Washington Post