Sunday, July 29, 2007

Perspective: On This Day In Iraq -- July 29th edition

July 29, 2004: An Iraqi National Guard platoon leader runs through clouds of red concealment smoke as his soldiers follow during a graduation ceremony for new recruits.

July 29, 2002:

US accuses Iraq of stoking Mideast conflict

Saddam Hussein is stoking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to divert Arab and world attention from his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, according to a senior Pentagon official.

Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defence for policy and a leading hawk with the Bush administration, said in an interview with the Financial Times that removing Mr Hussein from power would offer the chance of a diplomatic breakthrough in the Middle East...

"Iraq is purposefully and systematically aggravating Palestinian-Israeli relations," he said, citing Iraqi payments to families of Palestinian suicide bombers.

"[Mr Hussein] may think that the more he can encourage terrorist bombings against the Israelis, the more the world is diverted from the issue of his tyranny, his weapons of mass destruction programmes, his terrorist activities, and on to another agenda."

Far from accepting the notion that US strikes against Iraq would undermine its regional allies, Mr Feith says a new regime in Baghdad represents new hope for peace.

Read the rest at the Financial Times

July 29, 2003:

Young cleric finds focus for anger of Baghdad's poor

In Sadr City, a poor Shia neighbourhood of Baghdad, formerly known as Saddam city, unemployment runs high and security is scarce, but young men have found an outlet for their frustration.

Thousands of them have rallied around Muqtada Sadr, a junior, controversial but increasingly popular cleric and responded to his call 10 days ago to form a Shia-based army, the "Mehdi army". (Mehdi is the awaited, promised one in Islam).

Sadr, who is thought to be 30 years old, is the son of the revered Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr who was murdered in 1999 by Saddam Hussein's regime. The young Sadr now enjoys a wide following from Shia Muslims who are faithful to the memory of his father.

"I am a volunteer and I want to fight against the Americans because they are not providing us with anything, there's no security here, women cannot go out on the street," said Sarmad, a 24-year-old unemployed man from Sadr city. "I will do whatever Sadr orders," he added. When pressed about whether he was ready to fight the Americans, Sarmad replied: "I am willing to fight, but not now, not until Saddam is caught."

No official number has been given but clerics and Iraqis interviewed assessed that the number of volunteers for the Mehdi army was equal to the number of followers of Sadr: around 2m Shia from all over Iraq.

Men wishing to volunteer can sign up at offices near mosques aligned with Sadr. Representatives at these offices in Sadr city gave reporters suspicious looks, refusing to answer any questions. But young men loitering on the street corners did not hesitate to speak about their new aim in life.

"I am a volunteer, I will do whatever Sadr tells us to do," said Kathem Rissan, 29 and unemployed. "I'm not sure what the aim of the army is or when we will fight, but I will follow Sadr's orders," he added.

Asked whether he thought Sadr's project could threaten the unity of the Shia community and that of Iraq, Kathem replied with some anger: "Muqtada Sadr knows what he's doing, he is a wise man and we listen to him."

But there were many in Sadr city who said they disapproved of the Mehdi army.

"I am a Shiite but I am an independent, I don't follow any cleric," said a bookshop owner in the slum who gave his name only as Ali.

"I don't approve of this idea of an army for one section of the Shiites. Anyway, an army is an arm of a government, since there is no government, this army is a militia, and a militia spells trouble."

Ali el Imami, a neighbourhood sheikh, deplored the blind following of Sadr by so many young men he described as hot-headed.

"Young Shiites are looking for an identity and Sadr's call for a jihad has moved them," said Sheikh Imami, who is a follower of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, leader since 1999 of the Hawza, the highest Shia religious authority.

"They are not over the loss of Ayatollah Sadr, they have been oppressed by Saddam and now they have found Muqtada Sadr. They are ready to die for him," he added.

For the moment however, the Shia militia seems to be more of a symbolic gesture by a young cleric attempting to make a name for himself and reflects the power struggle inside the Hawza.

"We don't believe there is a real plan to actually form this army and send it to fight," said Sayyed Hashem Awadi, a follower of Sistani.

According to him, more time should be given to the US to prove its intentions in Iraq.

He also said that through dialogue, the Hawza and Iraqis in general were still able to make the Americans listen to people's concerns and take them into account.

"But let there be 2m people volunteering for this army, perhaps the Americans will feel under even more pressure to deal with problems here seriously and quickly."

Read the rest at the Financial Times

July 29, 2004:

Why the US granted 'protected' status to Iranian terrorists

The US State Department officially considers a group of 3,800 Marxist Iranian rebels - who once killed several Americans and was supported by Saddam Hussein - "terrorists."

But the same group, under American guard in an Iraqi camp, was just accorded a new status by the Pentagon: "protected persons" under the Geneva Convention.

This strange twist, analysts say, underscores the divisions in Washington over US strategy in the Middle East and the war against terrorism. It's also a function of the swiftly deteriorating US-Iran dynamic, and a victory for US hawks who favor using the Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization (MKO) or "People's Holy Warriors," as a tool against Iran's clerical regime.

"How is it that [the MKO] get the Geneva Convention, and the people in Guantánamo Bay don't get it? It's a huge contradiction," says Ali Ansari, a British expert on Iran. "This will be interpreted in Iran as another link in the chain of the US determination to move onto Iran next" in the US war on terror.

For months, Tehran has quietly signaled that it would turn over high-ranking Al Qaeda members in exchange for MKO members now in Iraq. The MKO's new status likely puts an end to any such deal.

The shift also comes as momentum builds in Washington to take some action against the Islamic republic. Wednesday, it was reported that Tehran has broken United Nations inventory seals and may resume work on constructing centrifuges - the machines used for enriching uranium.

Senior European diplomats - who brokered a private deal with Iran last October that included halting suspected nuclear weapons programs, in exchange for Western nuclear power expertise - are expected to secretly meet Iranian counterparts Thursday in London or Paris to see what can be salvaged of their agreement.

"US-Iran relations are drifting into very dangerous waters at the moment," says Mr. Ansari.

Indeed, the Pentagon decision comes amid a string of critical reports about Iran that are causing some US lawmakers to wonder whether the Bush administration's action against Iraq should have been aimed instead at Iran.

But some analysts see the change as related to the US presidential election. "This whole dynamic is tied up with [US] domestic politics...and not about the MKO itself, which is not really a major threat to Iran anymore," says Mohamed Hadi Semati, a political scientist from Tehran University now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"The neocons were losing ground, and this new Iran bashing is seen by them as an opportunity to drum up the theme of terror and the possibility of a collision with Iran - therefore, you need a very decisive leader in the White House," says Mr. Semati. "At the same time, Iran is giving a lot of ammunition to [Bush administration hawks on Iran]."

The Mujahideen is a cultish Marxist group that was ordered to leave Iraq last December by the US-appointed Iraqi leadership, which decried the "black history of this terrorist organization." The expulsion was never carried out.

A website of the National Council of Resistance of Iran - the MKO's political wing - on Sunday quoted its exiled leader Maryam Rajavi as saying the US decision was a "triumph for the Iranian Resistance and the Iranian people."

The MKO, which would like to topple the Islamic regime in Tehran, says they would establish a more democratic, secular government.

The MKO is not known to have conducted any anti-US attacks, according to the US State Department, since assassinating several Americans in the 1970s.

While hosted by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, MKO militants stood shoulder to shoulder with their hosts during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s - a choice that permanently damaged their standing among most Iranians.

In Iraq itself, the MKO played important roles in the violent suppression of Kurdish and Shiite uprisings in 1991 and 1999 - actions that still grate with Iraq's new leadership.

US forces bombed MKO camps during the Iraq invasion, then made a cease-fire deal. Last August, the US forced the MKO to close its offices in Washington.

The State Department says it does not plan take the MKO off its terrorism list. But a July 21 memo from Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the US deputy commander in Iraq, told the MKO the decision "sends a strong signal and is a powerful first step on the road to your final individual disposition," according to a copy quoted by The New York Times.

Militants in the camp signed a statement renouncing violence and terrorism. In the memo, General Miller said he was "writing to congratulate each individual living in Camp Ashraf" of their status.

Tehran, which has demanded either the prosecution of MKO members or their handover to Iran, responded angrily.

"We already knew that America was not serious in fighting terrorism," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said on Tuesday, adding that the US had now created a new category of "good terrorists." "The American resort to the Geneva Conventions to support the terrorist hypocrites [MKO] is naïve and unacceptable."

The changing status of the MKO is little surprise to some experts.

"The [terrorism] designation process is often hijacked for political purposes, and may shift with the wind," says Magnus Ranstorp, head of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland.

"Your enemy's enemy is your friend," says Mr. Ranstorp. "And certainly since the Iraq conflict, the MKO has gravitated toward a more serious category, because of political expediency."

That expediency appears to be part of a growing cascade of anti-Iran sentiment in the US that some say could eventually lead to military action. Among the signals: The Sept. 11 Commission report found that perhaps half of the 9/11 hijackers passed through Iran without having their passports stamped, though they may have crossed without official knowledge.

Some US and Iraqi officials - facing continued bloodshed and chaos in Iraq - accuse Iran of intervening to undermine the US occupation and the new "sovereign" Iraqi leadership.

Questions remain about the true intentions of Iran's nuclear power effort, which the US accuses of being a front for a weapons program. Several senior Al Qaeda members remain - in custody, according to Iranian officials - in Iran.

And Europeans - once supportive of constructive engagement with Iran - have been taken aback by Iranian waffling on nuclear inspections, the rejection of thousands of candidates from elections last February, and the spectacle of British sailors arrested last month.

In Washington earlier this month, Republican senators introduced the "Iran Freedom and Support Act of 2004," a $10 million measure to support pro-democracy groups and broadcasting. Tehran responded that "those who draft such plans lag behind the times, they live in their daydreams."

In a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, several Iran experts have called for a limited re-engagement with Iran. They say that lack of any official contact with Iran for 25 years has harmed US interests.

But British historian Ansari says, "At the moment, I would lay more blame on the Iranians, because they are in a position of strength...and should now seize the initiative and make bold and constructive suggestions." He adds, "they're not doing anything.... they are miscalculating."

Meanwhile, the MKO may have its own model to follow, and use its "protected" status as a springboard. "They are trying desperately to set themselves up as Iran's equivalent of the Iraqi National Congress," says Ansari, referring to the Iraqi opposition group led by former Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi. "The Iranians will be aware that the Americans are trying to keep them as a potential INC."

Read the rest at the Christian Science Monitor

July 29, 2005:

In Iraq, a grim job in the service of Allah

Iraq's violence has meant a brisk business for Jamal al-Sudani. Sheikh Sudani quietly goes about the task of gathering the unclaimed bodies of those killed by bombs and bullets in Baghdad. For him it's an act of compassion, giving the fallen a proper Muslim burial.

It's dangerous work. Terrorists want to kill him because he cares for the victims of their suicide attacks. Others see his actions as an affront to their religious beliefs, since the remains of the bombers will end up being buried next to their victims.

But he's also earned praise for doing a job that few others will do - and in a small way bridging the country's sectarian divide by caring equally for the remains of Shiites and Sunnis. For Sudani, the job is simply an extension of his faith.

"I bury people; I don't say, 'That's a terrorist, that's a normal person.' I don't go to the hospitals to look for them specifically. But this is religion, this is what we do," he explains. "He's a human being after all, and if we don't bury him, who will?"

Sudani started his work 15 years ago, when the head of the Baghdad sanitation department confided that Saddam Hussein's henchmen were not properly burying the tortured bodies coming out of Iraq's jails. Sudani and nine friends took it upon themselves to wash and bury them correctly. They still fund the purchase of white shrouds and hire trucks to ferry some 35 unclaimed bodies a week to Najaf's Wadi as-Salaam cemetery, two hours drive south of the capital. The vast graveyard is within sight of the golden dome of the Imam Ali Mosque, where the cousin of the prophet Muhammad is buried, making it the favored burial site for Shiites from around the world.

Reaching Najaf is no simple task, however. The road south leads through one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq, the so-called "triangle of death," a hotbed of insurgency where hard-line Sunni gangs have been known to attack Shiite funeral corteges. The sheikh has had some narrow escapes driving down with his trucks full of coffins, he says, but for security reasons refuses to elaborate.

He had hoped the US-led invasion would allow him to wind down his mission and concentrate on the home for elderly people he also sponsors.

"But the fact is the number has multiplied tenfold," he says.

Sudani's dedication has won him respect at the Yarmouk hospital morgue in central Baghdad, where staff are grateful to him for solving a pressing problem.

Supervisor Najib Selman, with 17 unclaimed corpses in his rusting refrigerator, has nothing but admiration for the humble sheikh.

"He kisses our hands and begs us for the bodies," he says. "Some of the corpses are awful, I can't even bear to touch them."

Far from being grateful that someone is taking care of their dead, the insurgents want him dead, he says. "Most of the terrorists think I'm working against them: they kill people, and I bury them mercifully. That's why they consider me an enemy." He fears he is sometimes followed.

In addition, many of the suicide bombers are fundamentalist Sunnis, who consider Shiites to be apostates, worse than the infidel Americans. Burying Sunnis in the Shiites' holiest resting place is unlikely to please either side.

The authorities in Najaf have no objection to the burial of any Muslims in Najaf, be they Sunni suicide bombers or their Shiite victims. But some Shiite clerics are angered by the sheikh's work.

"These people should not be washed and buried because this will dignify their deaths. They do not deserve this. Such people deserve to be left in the desert to be eaten by dogs," complains one cleric, who asked not to be identified.

The sheikh is not deterred by the criticism, saying he is working simply for the grace of God. Still, he sees little sign that his macabre task will soon be over.

"I'm not hopeful about the situation. People are not on good terms with their religion," he says. "But if we all accept that we're just human beings, no matter what religion, then maybe it will be better."

Read the rest at the Christian Science Monitor

July 29, 2006:

The Bush world of huge self-delusion

Once again the Bush Administration is floating on a wave of euphoria. Israel's offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon has liberated the utopian strain of neoconservatism that had been traduced by Iraq's sectarian civil war. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has propelled herself forward as chief cheerleader.

"What we're seeing here," Rice said, "are the birth pangs of a new Middle East." At every news conference she repeats the phrase "a new Middle East" as though its incantation is magical.

Her jaunt to the region was intended to lend the appearance of diplomacy in order to forestall it. As explained to me by several senior State Department officials, Rice is entranced by a new "domino theory": Israel's attacks will demolish Hezbollah; the Lebanese will blame Hezbollah and destroy its influence; and the backlash will extend to Hamas, which will collapse.

From the Bush Administration's point of view, this is a proxy war with Iran (and Syria) that will inexplicably help turn around Iraq. "We will prevail," Rice says.

The Administration has traditionally engaged in promiscuous threat conflation - al-Qaeda with Saddam Hussein, North Korea and Iran in "the axis of evil", and now, implicitly, the Shiite Hezbollah with the Sunni Iraqi insurgency. By asserting "we" before "will prevail", Rice is engaging in US national interest conflation.

According to the Rice doctrine, the US has deserted its historical role as ultimate guarantor of Israel's security by acting as honest broker among all parties. Rather than emphasising the importance of Lebanese sovereignty - presumably a matter of concern to an Administration that had made it exhibit A in the spread of democracy in "a new Middle East" - Rice has played it down or ignored it in favour of uncritical endorsement of Israel's offensive.

Rice's trip was calculated to interpose the influence of the US to prevent a ceasefire and to give Israel at least another week of unimpeded military action.

To the Bush Administration, the conflagration has appeared as deus ex machina to rescue it from the Iraqi quagmire. That this is patently absurd does not dawn on those who remain in thrall to the same pattern of thought that imagined the invasion of Iraq would be greeted with flowers in the streets of Baghdad. Denial is the basis of repetition.

This week has seen the publication of Fiasco, by Thomas Ricks, the military correspondent of The Washington Post, devastating in its factual deconstruction. The Iraqi invasion, he writes, was "based on perhaps the worst war plan in American history". The policymaking at the Pentagon was a "black hole", and resistance by the staff of the joint chiefs to disinformation linking Iraq to September 11 was dismissed. After the absence of a plan for postwar Iraq, blunder upon blunder fostered the insurgency.

In one of its most unintentionally ironic curiosities, the Bush White House has created an Office of Lessons Learned. But the thinking that made possible the catastrophe in Iraq is not a subject of this office.

The delusional mindset went underground only to surface through the crack of the current crisis. There are no lessons learned about the blowback from Iraq; about Iraq's condemnation of Israel and its sympathy for Hezbollah; or about the US unwillingness to deal with the Palestinian Authority that made inevitable the rise of Hamas; or the counterproductive repudiation of direct contact with Syria and Iran.

Indeed, Rice is ushering in "a new Middle East", one in which the US is distrusted and even hated by traditional Arab allies, and its ability to restrain Israel while negotiating on behalf of its security is relinquished and diminished.

Read the rest at the Age