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Archives for Sectarianism

Iraq’s Murky Battle for Basra


DUBAI — Has Moqtada al-Sadr blinked? Or has Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? Teasing out what’s going on behind yesterday’s cease-fire is like reading tea leaves in a hurricane. The pieces move very quickly.

But it looks like this yet another negotiated settlement that al-Sadr excels at. The questions now are why did this happen, why did it stop and what does it mean for Iraq’s future?

Some background: On Sunday, the so-called “firebrand” cleric — who is currently in Iran — ordered his Mahdi Army fighters off the streets in Basra and Baghdad and called on Maliki to stop raids against his followers. He also called for the release of his men from Iraqi prisons and an amnesty.

Maliki welcomed this offer, in no small part because the Mahdi Army was poised to trounce government forces in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and heart of the country’s economy. (Ninety percent or so of Iraq’s revenues derive from the oil pumped through pipelines running through Basra.)

To get the stand-down, two of Maliki’s men, Ali al-Adeeb, a member of Maliki’s Da’wa Party, and Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization in Iraq, traveled to Qom to broker the cease-fire with al-Sadr — along with the help of the head of Iran’s Qods Force. So much for countering Iranian influence in Iraq.

With this truce offer, al-Sadr has short-circuited President George W. Bush’s fantasized-about final showdown with an old nemesis. But it’s not like it wasn’t predictable. Al-Sadr is very, very good at getting into scraps with the powers-that-be and then talking out an inconclusive end to the fighting that leaves nothing resolved. He did it in 2004 — twice! — and in 2006. Each time, the Americans and their Iraqi allies proclaim victory only to have to beat up on the Mahdi Army again some time later. And each time al-Sadr comes out looking better to his supporters and wavering Shi’ites who are looking for alternatives to the ISCI.

This time, he appears strong and statesmanlike. Maliki, by way of contrast, looks weak. After a week of chest-pounding about no negotiations and ultimatums, Maliki has to go to al-Sadr begging for peace. And what does he get back? Demands from al-Sadr for amnesty and a release of prisoners. Plus, no promises to disarm. As Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly wrote, “This sounds like it’s an offer to Maliki to declare victory and then leave town. Or else.”

The situation in Iraq right now is fluid and chaotic but the violence of the past week clarified one thing: Iraq’s security may be getting better, but it’s a tissue-thin veneer of protection against calamity. As this week’s demonstrated, one word from al-Sadr and Iraq can go up in flames.

American military commanders have known this for a while, although they rarely voice it in public. Perhaps even Bush knows it (although this is doubtful given his statements in the past few days.) He’s called this a “defining moment” for Iraq and claims the fighting between the Mahdi Army and the government forces — allied with the Mahdi Army’s rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) — as a sign of strength for Maliki’s toddling government.


Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 4:00 AM | Permalink

Worries For Iraq


I was at an impromptu dinner party here in Abu Dhabi last night and one of the guests, the mother of a former Spanish diplomat asked me what I thought would happen in Iraq. The other guests around the table grimaced; Iraq is a well-worn and tiresome topic here in the Gulf emirate and many have made up their minds already as what is going to happen.

But despite White House statements that every year is a make-or-break year for that poor country, I really do believe 2008 will be a crucial one for Iraq.

Iraq and the United States face huge challenges this year. But the gains made under the current surge strategy aren’t the only measure of what’s going on in Iraq; it remains a series of delicately balanced accords. If one worsens it can be managed, but more than that and the U.S. would again be overwhelmed. Everything has to go just right for Bush to hand a stable and relatively peaceful Iraq off to his successor.

With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the issues that will confront George W. Bush in his last year in office — and what lies in store for the next president

The Surge: The surge is coming to an end this summer, like it or not. Five combat brigades — about 30,000 troops — will leave Iraq by the end of July because their deployments are up and there aren’t any more reserves ready to go. There’s just no getting around it. The big question is then: Will there be an increase in general violence once the U.S. presence is back down to around 140,000 troops, about the same number who were in-country during the worst of the 2004-2006 violence?

Some say it’s not the numbers of troops, but the mission, and the U.S. has been far more aggressive getting troops into neighborhoods and protecting Iraqi civilians. That’s led to more intelligence tips and a routing of al Qaeda in Iraq to the northern part of the country.

But the competency of the Iraqi security forces, while improving, is still in doubt. With fewer U.S. troops on the ground, the Iraqis will have to pick up the slack. The White House says it intends to continue withdrawing troops after a brief pause to assess the situation. Which means there are likely to be even fewer troops if things go pear-shaped in the fall.

Sunni Awakening: The Surge was successful because of the so-called Sunni Awakening, which started in fall 2006, before the U.S. increased its presence. Sunni tribes in Anbar – the large Western part of the country – realized they would lose any civil war against the Shi’ites and signed on with the U.S.. In return, they got money and weapons if they turned on the foreign jihadists in their midst. It was a good plan and it’s a big reason for the drop in violence. But it’s starting to fray at the edges.

Sunnis in Anbar and Diyala, to the east, are growing frustrated with the Americans and the Iraqi government and have upped their demands. Diyala Awakening militias have basically gone on strike because the Americans aren’t pressuring Baghdad enough to hire all of the Sunnis back into the Iraqi Army and police forces.

“Now, there is no cooperation with the Americans,” said Haider Mustafa al-Kaisy, an militia commander in Baqoubah, the seat of Diyala’s government. “We have stopped fighting al-Qaeda.”


Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 10:15 AM | Permalink

Lebanese Whines


Lebanon is known for its wines. The Bekaa Valley produces some truly excellent vintages. But what’s the favorite wine of the Gemayel political dynasty? “Michel Aoun won the election with Armenian votes, waaaaah!” (Say it out loud, it’s funnier.)

The reason for such angst is the pro-Syrian opposition forces won a special election in the mostly Christian district of Metn on Sunday, dealing a blow to the pro-American government of Fuad Siniora and its political coalition in parliament. The opposition, which includes the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah, ran Camille Khoury, a political unknown loyal to the renegade Maronite Christian Gen. Michel Aoun, of whom I wrote last week. Khoury beat former president Amin Gemayel, head of the powerful Gemayel political dynasty with power reaching back generations.

Aoun’s man won by only about 400 votes in a mixed district. Voters included a lot of Christians, a few Sunnis and Shi’ites and a fair number of Armenians. Busloads of Syrians who had been naturalized as Lebanese citizens during the Syrian occupation were driven in from Damascus to vote for Aoun’s candidate as well.

Aoun predictably heralded it as a major win for his anti-U.S. alliance and used the victory to claim a boost in his political standing. Only he is able to unite Lebanon by crossing the sectarian border fences that have mentally cantonized this place, he said. Only he can smash the feudal system of leaders that run Lebanon from their various strongholds.

Puh-leeze. The general won with fewer votes than George Bush did in 2000, so a little humility would be in order here. The Maronite Christians voted overwhelmingly for Gemayel. In part it was out of sympathy for a grieving father (He was running to fill the seat left by the murder of his son, Pierre, who was killed in November last year.) Others voted for him because they were loyal to the Gemayel clan. And yet others voted for him — and I suspect this is by far the largest segment — because they’re disgusted by Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah.

Of course, the United States has gotten in on the action. On Aug. 1, President George W. Bush signed an executive order freezing the assets of any person or group in the United States trying to undermine the stability of Lebanon. “Political and economic instability in that country and the region … constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat,” the order said. It’s aimed squarely at Syria, Hezbollah and their allies in Lebanon — and that includes Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement. I have no idea if this order scared any of Aoun’s people from voting for him — he commands a bit of a personality cult — but there’s little doubt that was the intention.

It may have been unnecessary though. Aoun’s support among the Christians has been dropping since January, undercutting his claim that he is the rightful leader of the Christians — not Gemayel or Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. The March 14 camp, which is pro-Western and currently holds the government, has spun up the fact that he lost Christian support and has lashed out at the Armenians (who have been Christians since A.D. 301) in ugly statements verging on racism. Gemayel went so far as to accuse them of vote-rigging and warned that Tashnag, the Armenian party, would regret their support of Aoun. By his statements, he also implied that the Christian votes are the only ones that really count, so while Khoury won the seat, the pro-government partisans say, it’s a hollow victory for Aoun because they won the Christian vote.

The key to understanding Aoun is understanding his ambition. The general wants to be president above all else. If he had won the election decisively, he might have improved his political standing. As it is, he lost votes among the Maronites – for whom the presidency is constitutionally reserved in Lebanon – and just squeaked out a win. With the government’s slim majority in parliament reduced even further now and Aoun’s claim to Christian leadership in tatters, I’d say it’s a bit of draw.

So after a bitter campaign with threats of violence and apocalypse, nothing has changed on the ground in Lebanon. The country is still split, the presidency is still up for grabs and both sides in this power struggle for control of this little patch of land still have their fingers on their respective triggers. We’ll go through this all over again in September when the president is selected by a deeply divided parliament.

If Lebanon is ever going to get over its distrust and hatred held by the 18 different religious communities recognized here, the country needs a unifying figure. Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately), neither Gemayel, with his Christians-first emphasis, nor Aoun, with his objectively pro-Syrian agenda is that man.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 4:00 AM | Permalink

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