Abedin: The Illusion of a ‘limited war’ against Iran

Mahan Abedin writes in a guest editorial for Informed Comment:

The Illusion of a ‘limited war’ against Iran

The frank admission by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America’s highest ranking officer, that the U.S. has plans to attack Iran to prevent that country from acquiring nuclear weapons, is being treated with the utmost seriousness in political, intelligence and military circles in Tehran.

This is the first time that a high-ranking U.S. official has spoken about the existence of military plans to prevent the Islamic Republic from crossing the nuclear threshold. There is considerable evidence that Mullen’s frank statement, coupled with the Obama Administration’s increasingly hostile and dismissive attitude towards Iran, and reinforced by the fourth round of United Nations sanctions imposed in June (followed by even harsher unilateral sanctions imposed by both the European Union and the United States), has radically altered the Tehran regime’s strategic calculations on the possibility of a military confrontation with the United States.

Hitherto the conventional wisdom amongst strategic policy makers in the Islamic Republic was that the U.S. would adhere to the ‘no war no peace’ policy, irrespective of the bellicose rhetoric of American leaders and officials. The policy of ‘no war no peace’ has characterized Iranian-American relations since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in February 1979.

The basic premise of this policy is that at different stages Iran and America edge towards war or peace – depending on the prevailing strategic scenario in the region – but never quite actually achieve either. The result is that most of the time the two states are somewhere in the middle conducting a Cold War, in which leaders and officials from both sides trade insults and engage in ideological and political grandstanding, but stop well short of the point where further escalation of tensions might trigger a hot war.

For the past thirty-one years this policy has benefited most of the key stakeholders, including hardline political factions in both countries, the regional Arab states, Turkey, Pakistan and Israel. All have benefited from this Iranian-American Cold War, insofar as the paucity of diplomatic and political relations between Iran and America has continuously opened up a wide range of strategic, political and economic benefits. By the same token, these stake holders would have much to lose if Iran and America actually engaged in real fighting. While this argument has manifold shortcomings, nonetheless it does capture a large part of the reality of Iranian-American relations since 1979. In any case it is what key Iranian strategic policy makers have believed all along. Until now that is.

Despite the fact that a few days before Mullen’s statement, the supreme commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC—Sepah-e-Pasdaran in Persian), Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Jafari, dismissed U.S. threats, claiming that America “would not dare to attack Iran”, other IRGC leaders have in recent months continuously warned of the immediate and long-term fallout of any military confrontation. The head of the IRGC’s political-ideological unit recently warned of “dire” threats to regional security in the event of an American military attack. Meanwhile Ahmad Vahidi, Iran’s defence minister and a former commander of the IRGC’s elite Qods Force (responsible for special foreign operations), has pledged a “robust” response to any American military aggression against Iran.

It has been clear for months that the mood of IRGC commanders has been changing and Mullen’s statement appears to lend credence to the strategic calculations of the Revolutionary Guard commanders. This development is of the utmost significance, since in the event of an Iranian-American military confrontation, the IRGC is expected to be at the forefront of containing the American assault and retaliating with military measures of its own.

In fact, in the event of a military confrontation Iranian leaders are likely to relieve the regular Iranian military from fighting, so as to keep them out of harm’s way and maintain the integrity and fighting strength of the regular armed forces. There is another reason for this decision and that has to do with the depleted capabilities of the national military; in the past thirty years the national armed forces have insidiously lost power and prestige to the IRGC. It is worth noting that Iran is the only country in the world that operates two completely independent military commands; one centred on the regular armed forces, and the other on the IRGC, which operates its own ground forces, navy and air force, as well as a myriad of intelligence and security services. Moreover, the IRGC controls all of Iran’s strategic military assets, including mid-range ballistic missile capability.

It has become fashionable to paint the IRGC as an economic conglomerate more interested in making money than fighting for the values of the Islamic Revolution. Much of the reporting on IRGC economic activity is inaccurate and disingenuous and is indicative of the faux-naif style of analysis often employed by Western journalists and analysts.

The truth is that whilst the IRGC has a sizeable economic wing centred on the Khatam ol-Anbia complex (Qarargah-e Khatam ol-Anbia), its economic and financial activities are kept strictly separate from its fighting units. In any case, the IRGC is foremost an ideological army that is totally and unequivocally committed to the survival of the Islamic Revolution, and the political-religious system that emerged from that revolution. Even former reformist president (and now opposition leader) Mohammad Khatami referred to the IRGC as the “most ideological armed force in the world.”

American political and military leaders would be mistaken if they believed they could get away with a “limited” military strike on Iran, designed to destroy that country’s nuclear infrastructure. Any military strike on Iran by the United States will be interpreted by Iran’s rulers, and their IRGC enforcers, as a direct assault on the integrity and the very existence of the Islamic Republic. From a strategic point of view, IRGC commanders will interpret any American strike as the beginning of an existential conflict, and will respond appropriately.

A top priority for the IRGC high command is to respond so harshly and decisively so as to deter the Americans from a second set of strikes at a future point. The idea here is to avoid what happened to Iraq in the period 1991-2003, when the former Baathist regime was so weakened by sanctions and repeated small-scale military attacks that it quickly collapsed in the face of American and British invading armies.

The range of predictable responses available to the IRGC high command include dramatic hit ad run attacks against military and commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf, the use of mid-range ballistic missiles against American bases in the region and Israel and a direct assault on American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. All these options are likely to be used within 48 hours of the start of hostilities.

What is less predictable is the response of the IRGC Qods Force, which is likely to be at the forefront of the Pasdaran’s counter-attack. One possible response by the Qods force is spectacular terrorist-style attacks against American intelligence bases and assets throughout the region. The IRGC Qods Force is believed to have identified every key component of the American intelligence apparatus in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are likely to put this information to good use, especially since the Qods Force suspects that the CIA had a hand in last October’s Jundullah-organised suicide bombing targeting IRGC commanders in Iran’s volatile Sistan va Baluchistan province.

The IRGC navy will also play a key asymmetrical role in the conflict by organising maritime suicide bombings on an industrial scale. By manning its fleet of speedboats with suicide bombers and ramming them into American warships and even neutral commercial shipping, the Pasdaran will hope to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which nearly 40 percent of world crude oil supplies pass.

The combination of these asymmetrical forms of warfare with more conventional style missile and even ground force attacks on American bases in the region will likely result in thousands of American military casualties in the space of a few weeks. The IRGC has both the will and wherewithal to inflict a level of casualties on American armed forces not seen since the Second World War.

Even if the United States manages to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and much of the country’s military assets, the IRGC can still claim victory by claiming to have given the Americans a bloody nose and producing an outcome not dissimilar from the Israeli-Hezbollah military engagement in the summer of 2006.

The political effect of this will likely be even more explosive than the actual fighting. Not only will it awaken the sleeping giant of Iranian nationalism, thus aligning the broad mass of the people with the regime, it will also shore up Iran’s image in the region and prove once and for all that the Islamic Republic is prepared to fight to the death to uphold its principles. Suddenly Iran’s allies in the region – particularly non-state actors like Hezbollah and Hamas – would stand ten feet tall.

Ironically U.S. military aggression will likely accelerate the actualisation of the very scenario that American political and military leaders insist they are determined to prevent, i.e. a nuclear armed Iran. Even if we accept the contentious proposition that Iran’s nuclear programme has a military dimension, the immediate reaction of Iran’s rulers to military aggression would be to start a crash programme to produce a nuclear weapon, as a means of deterring future aggression.

Contrary to what Mike Mullen and other American military commanders appear to believe, a military attack on Iran really is the very worst option. Its consequences for Iran, the region and the United States are dangerously unpredictable, to the extent that any decision to attack would be nothing less than stunningly reckless and quite possibly the worst strategic mistake in American military history. Responsible actors in the international system should exert the maximum effort to avoid an Iranian-American War.

Mahan Abedin is a Middle East analyst.

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Rudolph: Can You Pass the Terrorism Quiz?

Jeffrey Rudolph writes in a guest editorial for Informed Comment

Can You Pass the Terrorism Quiz?

Misconceptions about terrorism, regularly promoted by the mainstream media, have  facilitated harmful US government actions—two wars, domestic legislation that curtailed civil liberties, excessive national security spending. That basic, factual information about terrorism is so rarely reported thus serves to reinforce the power of those who benefit from a fearful population.

It should be banal to read in the mainstream media that the US not only engages in terrorism but often aggravates it; that if the current crop of terrorists in, say, the Middle East were killed, new terrorists would simply arise if the underlying political and social conditions remained unchanged; and, that if a particular country is perceived as actively supporting dysfunctional political and social conditions in a part of the world, it will become the target of anger and, possibly, violence. Yet, instead of such obvious conclusions about terrorism, we are daily exposed to much bias and distortion.

Several years ago my local newspaper, the (very mainstream) Montreal Gazette, published a piece I had written with only one change: Jewish “terrorists” was edited as Jewish “fighters”—needless to say, “Arab terrorists” remained unchanged. To counter such inadequate journalism, I have prepared the following quiz.


The Terrorism Quiz:

1. Who made the following statement? “To watch the courageous Afghan freedom fighters battle modern arsenals with simple hand-held weapons is an inspiration to those who love freedom.”

-Ronald Reagan: President of the United States, 1981-1989.


-Photo of President Reagan meeting with the Mujahideen:

- “In August 1998…President [Clinton] ordered missile strikes…to kill [freedom-loving] Osama bin Laden and his men in the camps in Afghanistan.” And, later, after 9/11, the US …

-The Afghan freedom fighters “had been encouraged and funded by America to join in the anticommunist Afghan campaign. … The problem was that the genie of jihad would not go back in the bottle.” (Fawaz A. Gerges; Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy; Harcourt; New York: 2006; p. 114)


2. Which official report stated the following? “the Iraq War has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists…and is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives.”

-The US government’s National Intelligence Estimate on “Trends in Global Terrorism: implications for the United States.” (http://motherjones.com/politics/2007/03/iraq-101-iraq-effect-war-iraq-and-its-impact-war-terrorism-pg-1)

-According to a study by terrorism experts, Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, “the Iraq War has generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks, amounting to literally hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and thousands of civilian lives lost…” (http://www.stwr.org/united-states-of-america/the-iraq-effect-war-has-increased-terrorism-sevenfold-worldwide.html)

-To counter the threat of terrorism, the US should not invade other countries but coordinate its intelligence and police action with other states.


3. Approximately how many North Vietnamese civilians were killed by the US’s three-and-a-half years Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign?

-According to U.S. estimates, 182,000 North Vietnamese civilians were killed. http://www.pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam/timeline/index2.html

-“Late in Gillo Pontecorvo’s…film, The Battle of Algiers,…a scene occurs in which Ben H’midi, the captured political leader of the FLN, is asked by a French journalist how he could justify murdering innocent French civilians. In a reference to the French use of napalm and carpet-bombing in the countryside, H’midi replies: ‘Let us have your bombers and you can have our women’s baskets.’ In other words, atrocities are atrocities. And if the oppressed appear to use more ‘primitive’ means, it is because they are forced onto unequal ground.” (Jonathan Barker; The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Terrorism; Between the Lines; Toronto: 2008; p. 80)


4. True or False: Studies have repeatedly found that the bulk of terrorists are normal.

-True. Many people may believe “that since what terrorists do is not ‘normal’…there must be something about the terrorist too that is ‘abnormal’”. Yet, according to interviews, very few terrorists were pathological or otherwise insane. “In fact, given the difficulties involved in planning and pulling off the kind of spectacular terrorist operations that al-Qa’ida favors, it often requires people who are intelligent…at least for the leaders of any operation.” (Kenneth M. Pollack; A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East; Random House; New York: 2008; pp. 173 and 175)

-“[E]xperts seem to agree…that suicide bombers are normal individuals; they are not ‘crazy’ or born with a psychopathology that predisposes them to violent activism.” (Mohammed M. Hafez; Suicide Bombers In Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom; United States Institute of Peace Press; Washington D.C.: 2007; p. 8 )

-“The fact that most terrorists are not psychotic, sociopathic, or otherwise psychologically damaged suggests the importance of environmental factors in their decision to join a terrorist organization.” (Kenneth M. Pollack; A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East; Random House; New York: 2008; p. 175)


5. How many suicide bombings had Iraq experienced before the 2003 US invasion?

-None. “[I]raq…never experienced suicide terrorism before 2003 [yet after the invasion Iraq]… has produced the largest arsenal of ‘martyrs’ ever seen…” (Mohammed M. Hafez; Suicide Bombers In Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom; United States Institute of Peace Press; Washington D.C.: 2007; p. 5)

-Iraq’s experience provides additional evidence of the possible relationship between occupation by a democratic country and suicide bombings. Other examples are Lebanon, Kashmir and Sri Lanka. (http://www.amconmag.com/article/2005/jul/18/00017/)


6. In 1958, according to the United States National Security Council, what was the main reason the Arab people hated the US?

-“In a staff discussion…president Dwight Eisenhower described ‘the campaign of hatred against us (in the Arab world), not by the governments but by the people’. His National Security Council outlined the basic argument: the US supports corrupt and oppressive governments and is ‘opposing political or economic progress’ because of its interest in controlling the oil resources of the region. Post-September 11 [2001] surveys in the Arab world reveal that the same reasons hold today, compounded with resentment over specific policies [such as the US’s]…crucial support for Israel’s harsh military occupation…” (http://www.chomsky.info/articles/20020907.htm)

-It seems that the main reason for Muslim Middle Easterners hatred is the perception “that we [the US] support the autocratic regimes that they (rightly) hold responsible for their misery. … Thus the anger and despair they feel because of the actions (and inaction) of their own governments get transferred to the United States in the belief that we are the ultimate power behind the local autocrats.” (Kenneth M. Pollack; A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East; Random House; New York: 2008; p. 199)


7. Who stated the following to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2005? “Our [the US’s] policies in the Middle East fuel Islamic resentment.”

-Lowell E. Jacoby: U.S. Vice Admiral, then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. (Fawaz A. Gerges; Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy; Harcourt; New York: 2006; p. 267)


8. Who said the following? “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples [in the Middle East].”


9. True or False: Revenge is an important cause of terrorism.

-True. For example, “The University of Toronto sociologist Robert Brym carefully studied all 138 suicide bombings between September 2000 and mid-July 2005. He concluded that in the vast majority of cases the suicide bombers themselves—whatever their ideological predispositions, or the groups that claimed responsibility—had lost a friend or close relative to Israeli fire. They acted, he wrote, ‘out of revenge.’” (Bernard Avishai; The Hebrew Republic; Harcourt; New York: 2008; p. 255.)

-“A new study by America’s National Bureau for Economic Research looking at the circumstances around 4,000 civilian deaths in Afghanistan found a high correlation between NATO killing of even two civilians in an area and a spike of attacks on NATO and US troops. … A heavy footprint and more NATO operations likely will create the monster Washington fears, a growing insurgency, rather than ‘blunting the momentum’ of the ‘Taliban’…” (http://www.juancole.com/2010/07/civilian-casualties-rethinking-afghanistan-pt-4.html)


10. What was the main objective of al-Qaeda for the 9/11 attacks?

-“[B]in Laden, Zawahiri, and company [in the late 1990s] were pursuing bigger ambitions [than other jihadists]—waking the Muslim community from its slumber. … In a secret 1998 letter to another militant—recovered in 2001 from captured Al Qaeda computers in Kabul—Zawahiri points out that Al Qaeda had escalated the fight against ‘the biggest of the criminals, the Americans’ to drag them for an open battle with the nation’s masses[…]” Bin Laden and Zawahiri “expected a Muslim response similar to that following the Russian invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Their goal was to generate a major world crisis, provoking the United States…; American attacks on Muslim countries world reinvigorate and unify a splintered, war-torn jihadist movement and restore its credibility in the eyes of [Muslims]… When the United States invaded Afghanistan, however, Al Qaeda found itself on its own. … No religious authority lent his name and legitimacy to repelling the American troops. … Most jihadists were opposed to what bin Laden had done, some even within his own wing of the movement.” “[S]heikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo, the oldest religious institution in the Islamic world, swiftly dismissed bin Laden’s jihad credentials as ‘fraudulent’ and warned young Muslims against…Al Qaeda’s call to fight in Afghanistan.” “In contrast to the war in Afghanistan, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq triggered a torrent of angry responses by Islamists, ulemas, secular Muslims, and religious Muslims alike. … Institutions and clerics urged Muslims to join in jihad with their Iraqi brethren and repel the American invaders. (Fawaz A. Gerges; Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy; Harcourt; New York: 2006; p. 181, 203-4, 209-10, 240-1)

-Group (i.e., non-state) terrorism is done for various reasons including to sabotage a peace process; to exact revenge; to attract attention and resources to an issue; and, to try and induce an entity to overreact in order to augment support for the group.


11. True or False: Over 20% of the respondents of a 2005 Gallup poll of ten predominantly Muslim countries felt the 9/11 attacks were fully justified.

-False. Only 7% felt the 9/11 attacks were fully justified; moreover this 7% was no more or less religious than the other 93%. (Kenneth M. Pollack; A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East; Random House; New York: 2008; p. 209)

-Even “The Hizbollah leadership distanced itself from September 11 and went public in its criticism of Al Qaeda.” (Fawaz A. Gerges; Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy; Harcourt; New York: 2006; p. 189)


12. True or False: Of the seventy-nine worst al-Qa’ida and other Salafi terrorists, more had attended madrasas than regular universities.

-False. 54% attended regular universities and 11% attended madrasas. Indeed, of those who had attended secular institutions, 48% had gone to Western schools. (Kenneth M. Pollack; A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East; Random House; New York: 2008; p. 210.)


13. True or False: The majority of terrorists come from the lower-classes.

-False. “[N]umerous academic and government studies find that terrorists tend to be drawn from well-educated, middle-class or high-income families. Among those who have…studied the issue, there is not much question that poverty has little to do with terrorism. … Most terrorists are not so desperately poor that they have nothing to live for. Instead they are people who care so deeply…about a cause that they are willing to die for it.” (Alan B. Krueger; What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism; Princeton University Press; New Jersey: 2007; pp. 3-4.)

-Throughout history “The leaders of revolutionary movements and their offshoot terrorist groups are almost invariably scions of the middle class, with exceptions from the upper class being at least as prevalent as those from the lower classes.” (Kenneth M. Pollack; A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East; Random House; New York: 2008; p. 178.)

-Terrorists are disproportionately from the middle-class because members of this class suffer most from betrayed expectations. “The unfulfilled expectations of the middle class derived from the [Middle East] region’s economic problems, coupled with (and in part caused by) crippling political practices, is almost certainly a powerful element driving many members of the Arab and Iranian middle classes to opposition and, at the extreme, membership in terrorist organizations.” “[E]conomic factors like poverty or unemployment typically produce revolutionary and/or terrorist responses only when they are coupled with oppressive political forces that deny the individual any hope of bettering his (or her) situation but also serve as a tangible focus of anger.” (Kenneth M. Pollack; A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East; Random House; New York: 2008; pp.180 and 186)


14. Which groups committed the following terrorist acts in Palestine to further nationalist goals?

i) July 22, 1946: Terrorists blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem killing or injuring more than 200 persons.

ii) December 19, 1947: Terrorists attacked a village near Safad, blowing up two houses, in the ruins of which were found the bodies of 10 persons, including 5 children.
iii) December 30,1947: Terrorists  attacked the village of Balad al Sheikh, killing more than 60 persons.

iv) March 3, 1948: Terrorists drove an army truck up to a building in Haifa and detonated 400 pounds of explosives that killed 14 persons and injured 23.

-i) The Irgun: Zionist paramilitary group led by future prime minister Menachem Begin. It was classified as a terrorist organization by Israel itself when it became a state in 1948. (http://guardian.150m.com/palestine/jewish-terrorism.htm)

-ii) The Haganah: Jewish paramilitary organization which became the core of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Members of the Haganah included future prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon.

-iii) The Palmach: Elite fighting force of the Haganah. (The Palmach’s last operation as an independent unit was against the Irgun. Perhaps right-wing Jews should not be so smug when they hear of fighting between Fatah and Hamas.)

-iv) The Stern Gang: Radical Zionist paramilitary group that split from the Irgun in 1940. Future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was among its leaders.

-“[T]errorism arises when there are few effective alternative means for an extremist group to pursue its aims. If a movement is strong enough to mount a full-fledged civil war, it will wage a full-fledged civil war. I think terrorism tends to arise in situations in which the odds are against the group that is perpetrating the terrorist acts. The tension between Israel and the Palestinians is an example. Israel dominates militarily. A full-fledged war was never a possibility. Historically there were some cases in which terrorism did achieve the goals of an organization, or at least brought the organization closer to achieving its goals. You could probably say that about the formation of the state of Israel.” (Alan B. Krueger; What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism; Princeton University Press; New Jersey: 2007; p. 154)


15. If a terrorist act can be linked to a country or group should that preclude diplomacy with that country or group?

-No. Otherwise North Vietnam and the US—two perpetrators of terror—could not have negotiated in the 1960s/70s, ditto for Egypt and Israel, The US and the USSR, Britain and the IRA, South Africa and the ANC, etc.

-Only actions are unambiguously terrorist or non-terrorist. People and organizations make more or less use of terrorism often in conjunction with other kinds of political action. Terrorism, much of it state terrorism, has been integral to warfare between government and guerillas, just as it has been part of state-on-state warfare.


16. True or False: The internationally respected Goldstone Report accused Israel of terrorizing Gaza’s civilians during the December 2008 Gaza invasion.

-True. Although Israel justified the Gaza invasion as self-defense against Hamas rockets, the Goldstone Report concluded that the attack was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.” (Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (25 September 2009).)


17. True or False: The religion of Islam is an important cause of terrorism.

-False. Most Arab terrorists “espouse religious zealotry (although many do not actually practice it), but it is their anger and desperation, derived from their circumstances, that drives them to religion and so to the militant groups, not the other way around. Indeed, the slums…of the Arab world are almost uniformly hotbeds of Islamism and provide a seemingly endless supply of new recruits (mostly foot soldiers, but a few leaders) for the Salafi terrorists.” (Kenneth M. Pollack; A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East; Random House; New York: 2008; p. 183)

-“Given that notions of jihad and martyrdom are contested concepts subject to competing interpretations…[i]s the charisma of fanatical leaders sufficient to convince young people to make the ultimate sacrifice, or must there be additional factors such as societal conflicts or cultural facilitators that push individuals to give up their lives?…[T]he causal link between religious inspiration and suicide attacks is not a direct one. One must situate these appeals in broader societal conflicts that allow radical ideologies to resonate with the wider public.” (Mohammed M. Hafez; Manufacturing Human Bombs: The Making of Palestinian Suicide Bombers; United States Institute of Peace Press; Washington D.C.: 2006; p. 10)

-Rather than Islam in particular, it seems that religion in general is what aggravates volatile situations. For example, “Christian fundamentalism is partially to blame for fueling Muslim militancy. Lebanon’s Christians killed and pillaged in the name of the cross…Religious coexistence gave way to estrangement [in the 1970s]…Waving holy banners, neighbor railed against neighbor. People seized upon their communal identity in a desperate effort at self-preservation. The state of war pushed people into their sectarian bunkers and turned an open, tolerant society into a jungle. … Christian fundamentalism, which was xenophobic and supremacist, fed into parallel tendencies in the Muslim camp. More than a hundred thousand people perished in the Lebanese Civil War. A million people—a third of the country’s population—were displaced.” (Fawaz A. Gerges; Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy; Harcourt; New York: 2006; p. 82-83)


18. Which Middle Eastern country suffered an 18 October 2009 Baluchi terrorist attack that killed dozens and that was condemned by the US?

-Iran. “‘We condemn this act of terrorism and mourn the loss of innocent lives,’ said Ian C. Kelly, a State Department spokesman.” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/20/world/middleeast/20iran.html

-Iran also suffers terrorist attacks from Salafis.

-It should be noted that there is not a single known instance of an Iranian suicide-bomber since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. (Robert Baer; The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower; Crown Publishers; New York: 2008) For more details on Iran see “Can You Pass the Iran Quiz”.


19. What are the Annual Risks for an American to die from: Heart disease? Criminal homicide? Lightning strike? Terrorism?

-Heart disease: 1 in 300 people in America typically die of heart disease in a given year; Criminal homicide: 1 in 18,000; Lightning strike: 1 in 3,000,000; Terrorism: 1 in 5,293,000. (Alan B. Krueger; What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism; Princeton University Press; New Jersey: 2007; p. 139)

-Perhaps if Americans better understood the risk they face from terrorism they would fear it less and thus be less susceptible to manipulation.


20. Has Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad ever deliberately attacked American targets?

-No. However, the PLO, currently the US’s favored Palestinian group, did deliberately attack US targets in the past. The “last attacks that can be tied to elements of the PLO coalition are the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking by the Palestine Liberation Front and the 1986 hijacking of an American airliner by the Abu Nidal Organization.” (Kenneth M. Pollack; A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East; Random House; New York: 2008; p. 170.)

-Unlike the revolutionary al-Qaida, Hamas is looking to achieve concrete results for occupied and oppressed Palestinians.

-“Central to the IRA’s decision to decommission its weapons was Sinn Fein’s inclusion in the political process. … As Hamas enters and achieves representation within the political process, can this induce it to curtail its campaign of suicide terrorism, as the IRA’s inclusion led to a curtailment of its campaign of terror? [Yet, Israel, the US and other states immediately imposed sanctions on Hamas following its 2006 election victory.]” (Mohammed M. Hafez; Manufacturing Human Bombs: The Making of Palestinian Suicide Bombers; United States Institute of Peace Press; Washington D.C.: 2006; p. xii)

-For more information on Hamas see, “Can You Pass The Hamas Quiz?”


21. True or False: A majority of the people in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates support al-Qa’ida’s goal of creating an Islamic state.

-False. “[T]he vast majority of Arabs and Muslims ardently desire the kind of political pluralism (even democracy…) that bin Ladin and his ilk have declared antithetical to Islam—at least their version of Islam.” (Kenneth M. Pollack; A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East; Random House; New York: 2008; p. 209)


22. True or False: In 1997 a declassified CIA training manual detailed torture methods used against suspected subversives in Central America during the 1980s.

-True. The CIA manual refuted claims by the agency that no such methods were taught by it. The CIA also declassified a Vietnam-era training manual which also taught torture. (Jonathan Barker; The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Terrorism; Between the Lines; Toronto: 2008; p. 85)


Jeffrey Rudolph, a college professor, was the Quebec representative of the East Timor Alert Network, and presented a paper on its behalf at the United Nations. He prepared the widely-distributed “Can You Pass the Israel-Palestine Quiz,” “Can You Pass the Iran Quiz,” and “Can You Pass the Hamas Quiz.” (Comments or questions concerning the quizzes should be emailed to: Israel-Palestine-Quiz@live.com.)

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12 Million Affected by Pakistan Floods

The horrific flood in Pakistan, the worst in its history, has now destroyed more homes (650,000) than the 2005 earthquake. And, some 12 million Pakistanis, nearly 10 percent of the country’s population, have been at least somewhat affected by the floods. About 1600 persons have been killed.

The floods, having hit first the Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa Province and the Swat Valley (earlier menaced by the Pakistani Taliban), and then southern Punjab, the floods are now heading toward Sindh, a major agricultural region.

The flooding is also shutting down power plants in a country that only generates 80% of the electricity it needs.

The ruling Pakistan People’s Party is being widely criticized for its failure to respond to the massive needs of the people, generated by this catastrophe. And President Asaf Ali Zardari’s visit to the UK, where he met with British Prime Minister David Cameron, has provoked a firestorm of criticism from Pakistanis who think he should have stayed home and helped manage the crisis.

Anything that could pull down the government, as an inept response to the flood could, has security implications in the fight against the Taliban. (The Pakistani Taliban have actually taken advantage of the chaos to launch some attacks).

Aljazeera English has video on the Punjab situation:

And here is AJE’s report on the Swat Valley:

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Pentagon Quest for Wikileaks Mirrors Plot of Eisler Thriller

The Pentagon is pressuring wikileaks not only not to release more classified documents about the Afghanistan war but to take down the files already posted.. A reader at reddit.com said that the statement showed that the Pentagon does not understand how the Internet works.

The CSM quotes a former FBI official who concedes that probably the Department of Defense cannot do anything about the leaks. But she means legally. Julian Assange posted a large encrypted file called ‘insurance’, presumably to avoid rendition, a non-legal solution.

It struck me that many of these plot elements strongly resemble those of Barry Eisler’s riveting new thriller, Inside Out.. The quest for sensitive classified information, the Internet insurance file, the pressure, the spinning of the leaker… It is eerie.

As you head off to the beach, do yourself a favor and take Eisler’s novel with. As a former CIA analyst, he knows how it is done.

My fans will be interested to know that a namesake of mine makes a cameo appearance.

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Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Dispute over Civilian Casualties Roils US-Afghan Relations

Between 4 and 12 civilians were killed by US troops in a nighttime raid in Nangarhar province on Wednesday, NATO admitted today. Nangarhar has repeatedly been the scene of public protests against the foreign troop presence. In fact, the wikileaks Pentagon documents show that local protests against US and NATO troops have been widespread, routine, and largely unreported in the Western press. In Nangarhar, protesters have sometimes blocked main roads, demanding that the Yankees go home.

NATO is still denying a massacre of civilians in Sangin, Helmand Province, last month. But on Friday the presidential palace in Afghanistan issued a report finding that 39 civilians were killed in the fighting. Civilian casualties are the main cause of dissatisfaction on the part of most Afghans with the NATO & US troops in their country, and the Sangin finding signals an unwillingness of President Hamid Karzai to play the issue down down or sweep it under the rug.

Brave New Foundation has video interviews with the survivors at Sangin:

That the Pentagon and NATO cover up Afghan civilian deaths on a routine basis is clear from the Wikileaks documents on the Afghanistan war, and it is hard not to see the Pentagon’s stonewalling on Sangin as part of this long-term and widespread pattern.

The usually unflappable Tom Engelhardt is exercised that White House and Pentagon officials denigrated Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as having blood on his hands when the very documents they are trying to cover up or from which they wish to avert attention are chock full of reports of innocent civilians killed, with GIs sometimes covering up the killings via euphemisms or incomplete reporting. Engelhardt is also right that the US press reaction to the leaked documents was to mostly ignore the issue of Afghan civilian deaths, unlike the Guardian in the UK.

What you want to bet that at some point the Pentagon comes forward, and admits that there were after all some Afghan civilians killed at Sangin, but that they will do it after the controversy has died down, and they will minimize the numbers (that 4-12 thing is a pretty good trick, since they hope people will focus on the ’4′ and will also disregard Afghan claims of many more killed.)

For more reporting on the Forgotten War, see Ann Jones at Tomdispatch, who has lived and breathed it on the ground.

In all wars, control of press reporting on the war effort is one key to success and public support. Since the fighting in Afghanistan is so hard to cover up close for independent reporters, they are mostly forced to do a Soviet-style embed, where they risk losing their objectivity and are sometimes turned into active-duty soldiers themselves. Being embedded thus becomes highly desirable, and can be doled out to reporters as a privilege for cheerleading the war. Thus, reporters such as Michael Hastings, who wrote the McChrystal story for Rolling Stone that got the general fired, has been turned down for a spot as an embed.

That will teach him to tell the unvarnished truth about that war.

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Posted in Afghanistan | 8 Comments

Mosque Building and Gay Marriage vs. Mob Rule by the Right

decision of a US district court to strike down Proposition 8,
the California referendum item that made gay marriage illegal after it had earlier been legalized by the state assembly, was a blow for individual rights over a tyranny of the majority. In its form, it resembles the decision of the New York authorities to allow a Muslim community center to be built near Ground Zero, which Sarah Palin and other prominent Republican Party bigots have decried as “insensitive.”

Both in the instance of gay marriage and of mosque-building, the American Right mounts opposition on grounds of majority ideas and feelings triumphing over individual rights. No one denies that Muslims have a first amendment right to build a mosque, and it is hard to see why straight people should have a right to get married (which brings substantial social and economic perquisites) but gay people should not.

The right wing argues that Muslims and gays should give up their rights in deference to the moral sensibilities and emotional sensitivities of the majority. This is called a ‘tyranny of the majority’ and it is an evil of which Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the other Founding Generation of Americans were well aware.

One principle Jefferson put forward for taming this tendency of the majority to whittle down the rights of the minority was of non-harm. His argument for freedom of religion, for instance, was that “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82

Thus, we could argue on Jeffersonian grounds that gay marriage or mosque-building does no material harm to other individuals, and therefore should not be prohibited by the government or by factions in control of the apparatus of government. In fact the judge in the Prop 8 case pointed out that no religious group had been required to recognize gay marriage, so Prop 8 could not be held to redress a wrong to such groups.

The Founding Generation thought that the default was individual freedom. You should be able to do as you please if it does not produce a property or contractual tort toward others.

The current iteration of the American right wing does not accept this Jeffersonian principle. Sarah Palin pleaded with ‘moderate’ Muslims not to build a Muslim community center near ground zero because it would hurt her constituents’ feelings. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, a strident component of the Israel lobbies, likewise opposes the building of a Muslim community center in New York on the grounds that it would hurt the feelings of families of September 11 attack victims (even though those attacks were by a small mad cult, not by Muslims). He said that the issue was not rights but doing what is right. But he means by ‘what is right’ that the minority should relinquish its legal rights in order to avoid an affront to the sensibilities of the majority. That way lies, e.g. refusal to oppose Jim Crow. You wonder if Foxman thinks that there should be no synagogues near the US naval academy in Annapolis, Maryland, to avoid offending those who feel strongly about the Israeli attack in 1967 on the USS Liberty. Likewise, those who oppose gay marriage do so on the grounds that they think it is immoral, and that it devalues straight marriage. I.e. it hurts their feelings.

Legislating a reduction in the rights of some so as to avoid offending the majority is a tyranny of the majority. It is an evil temptation within any democratic system. Madison thought that representative government could temper the passions of direct democracy and so perhaps avoid the worst excesses of majoritarian oppression. The California referendum system that allowed a popular vote (bought in part with Mormon funding) to over-rule the government of California is precisely the sort of outcome Madison feared. But his other hope was that a separation of powers might work against a tyranny of the majority. For the moment, an independent judiciary has indeed weighed in. But the supreme court itself has increasingly become a tool of the majoritarian establishment, and it is not clear that it is capable at this juncture of playing the role envisaged for it by Madison.

But this is what is at stake in both gay marriage and Muslim mosque building from the point of view of those who believe in the American tradition of civil liberties for individuals, in the default position that the government has no business regulating unharmful individual activity. It is nothing less than the assertion of inalienable rights over the whims and emotions of a very large mob.

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Posted in Islamophobia | 22 Comments

Would an Assassination of Iran’s Ahmadinejad Have Really Mattered?

Although the Iranian government denies it, it seems likely that someone attempted to assassinate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, while he was being driven to Hamadan to give a speech on Iran’s nuclear energy research program.

Ahmadinejad recently faced strikes by the artisans, merchants, money-changers and shopkeepers of the bazaar or traditional marketplace. In some ways, this protest against tax increases was more challenging to the regime than the Green Movement protests of summer-fall, 2009. The bazaar classes have often led movements to topple governments in modern Iran, and they were the ones who bankrolled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1978-79 revolution against the then shah or king. They had not joined in last summer’s political protests.

Had Ahmadinejad been assassinated, would it have mattered. In some ways yes, in others, no.

Theocratic Leader Ali Khamenei is the real center of power. He is commander in chief of the army forces and head of intelligence. He appoints 500 key high officials. Ahmadinejad could not even appoint a minor vice president without Khamenei’s approval.

So a different president would not necessarily mean a change in policy.

Moreover, Khamenei has tinkered with the Iranian electoral procedures so as to strenghthen the hard liners. In 2004 he forbade some 3500 candidates to run for parliament because they were considered too liberal.

So likely Khamenei would arranged for Ahmadinejad to be succeeded by some other marginal personality.

But an assassination would have been consequential in other ways if it had been successful. Ahmadinejad is colorful in a bad way, and some of the bad impression he has made of Iran is personal and would not be replicated by a successor. His ignorant and offensive way of speaking about Israel or about the Iranian nuclear research program would not necessarily be replicated by even a hard line successor.

Such an assassination would throw Iranian politics into turmoil for a while. The Green Movement might be able to take advantage of it. It would much delay any Israeli or US attack on Iran, since likely the anti-Iran forces would have to take a wait and see attitude until a new president consolidated his position

I don’t wish anyone ill. But I wanted to insist that this incident could not be dismissed as irrelevant.

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Posted in Iran | 14 Comments

Israeli and Lebanese Armies Trade Fire; at least 4 Dead

There is one sad thing and there are several surprising things about the border clash on Tuesday between Israel and Lebanon.

The sad thing is that the firefight broke out over the removal of a tree. The Israeli army says it was their tree, which they wanted to remove to get a better view of Lebanon. The Lebanese army says it was their tree and that the Israeli troops crossed the border to chop down the woody miscreant. The Israelis say that they warned the Lebanese army of what they were doing by megaphone. The Lebanese say that the Israelis repeatedly violate Lebanese sovereignty, indeed have done so thousands of times since the 2006 war.

Couldn’t they, like, have called in the UNIFIL United Nations peacekeepers to cut down the trees? That is what UNIFIL is there for. Some trees were worth the lives of Lebanese troops and a journalist and that of an Israeli officer?

One surprising thing is that the Lebanese army showed such spunk in the face of the perceived Israeli affront. They know very well that they are vastly outgunned, and of course the Israeli military hit them with fire from helicopter gunships and artillery pieces. What made them so bold, that they shot and killed an Israeli officer over the tree removal?

Another surprise is that the secretary general of the Hizbullah party and militia, Hasan Nasrullah, called on his people to show restraint. Even so, he threatened to intervene if there was another Israeli provocation.

Yet another surprise is that the Lebanese army contacted the Israeli army behind the scenes in an attempt to forestall any spiraling out of control of the situation. (But the Telegraph article is incorrect when it says that the Israeli army did not target any Lebanese military and government targets in 2006; it did, a few).

My own guess is that this border incident will remain a border incident, in part because President Obama doesn’t want another Israel-Lebanon war (unlike his predecessors, who never met a war they didn’t like).

Aljazeera English has video:

Aljazeera English also reviews Israeli-Lebanese border violence in recent decades:

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Posted in Uncategorized | 46 Comments

Jiyad: The Da`wa Party Dilemma and Gridlock in Iraq

Sajad Jiyad writes in a guest editorial for Informed Comment:

The dilemma for Hizb al-Da’wa: A commentary on the issue of leadership in Iraq

A friend recently said to me that the Iraqi mentality is to only respect the leader and to be outside the spotlight is to be outside full stop.

This, according to my friend, means that having a credible opposition is never a feasible scenario. Any self-respecting politician in Iraq will do their utmost to avoid being shifted from the spotlight, and going into opposition, especially from the position of leadership, is unthinkable.

I countered by saying that actually there may be no need for an opposition now in Iraq and that having a majority or consensus government is the best thing for Iraq given the circumstances.

However, this discussion raised an important point, namely that of being the ‘leader’ or to say it frankly, to hold the office of Prime Minister. What is it that makes this issue at the centre of the negotiations for forming the next government? Aside from the obvious issues of power, patronage and protecting party interests, Iraq may indeed have a problem of ‘al-sanamiyyah’ (literally idolatry) or the cult of personality. Whoever is in power, is very much inclined to do their utmost to stay there, because of the general attitude of the people which promotes the ‘yes-men’ culture around the PM and also because to move away from the prime ministerial position is to be ignored and much less revered.

Recent political developments in Iraq make more sense if we take into account this cult of personalities rather than only looking at the maneuvering of parties. The Shiite religious parties are saying they will only go into coalition with the ruling Da’wa Party and its State of Law coalition if it dispenses with incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But that diction assumes that the party is independent of al-Maliki, who is its head, though he is surrounded by a small, powerful and secretive ruling committee, as well. Moreover, it assumes that in today’s Iraq a party and its leader could flourish when out of power, whereas in fact the levers of the state are crucial for acquiring resources and patronage, especially in a party that has a limited and fickle constituency. Since al-Maliki’s appointment as PM, the party has entrenched itself in the state apparatus and institutions, empowering itself politically and financially, far greater than its legal and constitutional mandate allows it to. Undoubtedly, a change in PM means a change in staff, ministers and the strength of the ruling party, in this case, al-Da’wa al-Islamiyyah or Islamic Mission Party.

For al-Da’wa, this is a situation which threatens to seriously weaken it, bringing it to a similar fate that the Shiite, clerically-led Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq faced, coming down several rungs in the ladder and having far lesser influence and weight than it used to. This is because the al-Da’wa party does not have significant membership or cadres on the ground. Someone might say that this applies to most of the other parties as well, but the issue with al-Da’wa is that it does not identify particularly with any one constituent or community. The Kurdish parties have their party constituencies in the northern provinces tied to the Barzani and Talabani families, ISCI plays to the Shi’ite communities of the South and many of the clergy (who influence many thousands), the Sadrists derive their strength from the impoverished followers of the late Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, and the Iraqiya list draws its votes from the Sunni community of Iraq (former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi’s own faction picked up much less votes than the Sunni parties in his coalition). The Da’wa do not identify clearly with a religious, ethnic or other constituent community.

The election results show that 22.3% of the total votes for the State of Law coalition were collected by al-Maliki, and only those in Baghdad could vote directly for him. That is to say nearly a quarter of the votes that the governing group gained were won by the PM. It would be fair to say that his position as PM was a major vote-getter, reinforcing the earlier point about the benefits of incumbency. To say this more clearly, a major reason the election results were good for al-Da’wa is because the head of the party is the Prime Minister.

This brings us to the dilemma they currently face. On Sunday 1st August, the Sadrists announced that they will cut off negotiations with the State of Law Coalition (of which the Da’wa is the central party) because of their insistence on nominating al-Maliki as PM. Though they announced it as a decision by the political committee, it was actually an order from Muqtada al-Sadr. Ahmed al-Chalabi reflected the general thinking of the Shiite fundamentalist Iraqi National Alliance (which groups ISCI, the Sadrists and others) in backing this move, yet dangling the carrot for al-Da’wa by saying the National Alliance is still alive. That is, it is alive if al-Da’wa will jettison al-Maliki.

What the Sadrists have done is to force SOL, in truth al-Da’wa, to choose between two scenarios. One is to nominate a new figure for PM (Haidar al-Ebadi would be the most acceptable) and keep hold of the position of PM and all the benefits that this brings at the cost of upsetting al-Maliki and possibly fracturing the party again and also showing their limitations, as well as confirming the Sadrists (in reality Muqtada al-Sadr) as kingmakers, which reaffirms the precedent of 2006 and may come back to haunt them in the future. The Da’wa has already split several times, most recently when former prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari formed his own branch of the party and was excommunicated by al-Maliki.

The second scenario is for al-Da’wa to insist on al-Maliki’s candidacy and seeing the other parties propose a new PM (probably not the secular-leaning ex-Baathist Allawi) and force the Da’wa to accept some ministries but see themselves lose the privileges of the PM position. This means that their political influence will diminish and the future ability to pick up large numbers of votes decrease. Ever since ISCI lost the poll for PM in 2006, their power has been eroding. Once al-Maliki goes from being the PM to an MP, he will no longer attract the same spotlight, bringing us back to the discussion at the beginning of this article.

If the Iraqi people can move away from the yes-men culture and the idolization of political strongmen, its democracy will be much more robust and also allow politicians to save face, maybe even to lead to idea of sitting in the opposition benches being credible. As it stands, the ability for parties to engage in corruption and to abuse the state institutions and the fear of the no-spotlight effect breeds a jungle-like environment in which only the most ruthless wins and survives. The cut-throat state of Iraqi politics, while still more democratic and sophisticated than everyone else in the region, only leads to the worsening condition of the country and the discontent of its people.

Sajad Jiyad is a researcher on Iraqi politics, based in London

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Posted in Iraq, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

US Military Mission in Iraq ends not with a Bang but a Whimper

President Obama reaffirmed on Monday that the US would have all combat troops out of Iraq by the end of August. He said that the final 50,000 would all be out of Iraq within 18 months, in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiated by the Iraq parliament with the Bush administration in the latter’s last months.

T.S. Eliot wrote in “Hollow Men,” that “This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper.” And so too does the US combat mission in Iraq, initiated by George W. Bush and Richard Bruce Cheney in March, 2003 to promises that US troops would be garlanded and greeted as liberators by exultant Iraqis. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told Congress that the US troop strength would be down to about a division, some 25,000 men, by fall of 2003. Even in September of 2010, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, over 3000 dead US troops, over 30,000 seriously wounded ones and over a trillion dollars later, there are still going to be twice that number.

The US did not ‘win’ the Iraq War. It simply outlasted it. It was strong enough to remain, during the Sunni guerrilla war and the Sunni-Shiite Civil War, until the Iraqis exhausted themselves with fighting. But the massive violence provoked by the US occupation so weakened the Bush administration that it was forced to accept a withdrawal timetable dictated by the Iraqi parliament, in part at the insistence of deputies loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr and others connected to Iran.

But the US combat mission in Iraq will likely draw to a close without there being an Iraqi government in place.

Although it is true that Obama is just faithfully following the SOFA (the timetable of which was dictated by the Iraqi parliament, not the Bush administration), it should be remembered that US adherence to the timetable could not be taken for granted. A President McCain would almost certainly have subverted the schedule and tried to keep more troops, and more active combat troops, in Iraq than the Iraqi legislators wanted. And, the outcome would have been a ratcheting up of tensions with Iran, Shiite militias, and Sunni nationalists.

Iraq is no paradise, and the Iraqi government thinks more civilians are being killed each month by guerrilla violence than the US military will admit. In fact, the Iraqi government thinks over 500 civilians and soldiers were killed in July, which would make it the most deadly month in the country since 2008. But the US military insists that only a little over 200 such persons were killed (deaths of insurgents are typically not counted in these statistics).

The Pentagon may be underestimating the number of deaths from political violence, but its spokesman is correct that the fatality rate from political violence is very substantially reduced from what it had been during the Civil War of 2006-07 between Sunnis and Shiites. The Shiites won that war and ethnically cleansed large numbers of Sunnis from the capital and its environs, which is a major reason for the fall in violence.

The main thing to remember is that the US military, all the time it was in Iraq, was never really in control at a neighborhood level and that tens of thousands of US troops could not prevent the Civil War from killing so many Iraqis. So there is no reason to think that keeping a large US combat force in Iraq could eliminate political violence. In fact, since the guerrillas used to lay roadside bombs for US convoys, and often missed and killed civilians, the end of active US patrols in the cities actually contributed to a fall in violence.

Moreover, US combat troops cannot help anyone form a government and are irrelevant to Iraq’s stalled political process. So Obama is right to stick to the timetable. I was watching the Iraqi satellite channel al-Sharqiya, which reported Obama’s speech with great enthusiasm.

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that negotiations with the State of Law coalition of caretaker prime minister Nuri al-Maliki have been broken off by the Shiite religious parties, the National Iraqi Alliance (including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq of Ammar al-Hakim and the Sadr Bloc of Muqtada al-Sadr). The religious parties want al-Maliki to step down and for the State of Law coalition (in which the Da’wa or Islamic Mission Party of al-Maliki is the major component) to choose a different candidate for prime minister.

Al-Maliki angrily criticized his opponents on Monday, saying that they are angling for a weak prime minister who will be hostage to a few political factions, leaving the country open to being weakened by sectarian faction-fighting.

There is no end in sight of the political stalemate, which points to severe problems with Iraq’s largely US-authored constitution. The March 7 elections produced a ‘hung parliament’ in which no one party has enough seats to form a majority, and it has proved impossible for the four major coalitions to come together around a national unity government because they cannot agree on who should be its prime minister. The Shiite religious parties make the most natural partners for al-Maliki, also from a Shiite religious party, the Da’wa. But he sent the army against the Mahdi Army of al-Sadr in 2008 in order to restore order in Basra and East Baghdad, and the Sadrists want al-Maliki to step down in favor of another candidate.

Iyad Allawi of the secular Iraqiya list, which received 80% of the Sunni Arab vote, wants to be prime minister because his list got 91 seats, the single best showing. But 91 seats in a parliament of 325 does not mean much, and in reality whoever can put together a coalition with 163 seats will form the government.

Competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia is also complicating matters. Iran backs a big Shiite coalition, while Saudi Arabia is firmly in Allawi’s corner because of his Sunni Arab constituency. ( Riyadh is said to want a bigger role in Iraq to offset Iranian influence, a goal that can be realized only if Allawi and the Iraqiya come to power. The US is also backing Allawi, because of his anti-Iran credentials.

And so, with a whimper rather than a bang, the US will surrender any primary combat role in Iraq to a caretaker government and a green, inefficient army, leaving a major Persian Gulf power in shambles and at risk of ongoing violence and instability. It isn’t ideal. But attempting to stay in Iraq militarily would only cause more instability.

Now if only the Afghan parliament would negotiate a similar SOFA for that country, and the other war could be wound down as well.

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Posted in Iraq | 37 Comments