Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Young ducks and runs
Like all proprietors I demand rent, and Chuck (in the previous posting) is merely paying his way. However, I build on the housing metaphor to say that having lived in the Middle East for most of my life, I’m more skeptical than he about the plumbing. When Pan-Arabism turns to sand, I’ll be there, with Chuck, applauding, as I will when my fellow Arabs understand that the collapse of a tyranny in Iraq somehow liberated them--if only they knew how to take advantage of it.

Chuck’s feel for the jugular has already found a flaw in my argument. If Edward Said is what the Arab world comes to, isn’t that, after all, better than an ocean of Osama bin Ladens or, God forbid, Hosni Mubaraks? The anti-American whining might become unbearable after a while, but then the new liberal Arab could team up with Daniel Barenboim and soothe us with a sonata, as we swirl brandy in an Upper West Side apartment. Tom Wolfe could write about it.

For all the despair I feel when reading Said, it comes solely from the fact that he’s failed to fulfill a duty he routinely claims the intellectual must fulfill: he offers no practical way out of the stasis of Arab autocracy. Chuck mentions 'Adly Sadeq’s paeans to Saddam. But at least he is honest in his servility. Probably the most damaging thing I’ve seen in recent weeks are those hypocrites who preface their comments on the Iraq war with a “Yes, we know Saddam is a thug, but…”, before launching into what is, objectively, a defense of Saddam through a sustained attack against the U.S.

Chuck knows me too well to read into this a defense of the pious George W. Bush. However, I believe that the key to the emergence of Arab liberalism -- since that is our mantra -- is a resolution of the Arab hang-up on the United States. I think this will take much self-analysis on the Arab side (if you can forgive an Upper West Side expression I abhor), but also -- and this is thrown at you Chuck -- actions on the American side that can sustain Arab liberalism.

That means many things: Making representative government work in Iraq without turning the country into what Arabs will decry as a U.S. protectorate; resolving the Palestinian problem fairly, since it remains the single most redoubtable obstacle to Arab acceptance of American impartiality; and accepting what both of us, as downtrodden libertarians, see missing in the current discourse on American triumphalism: recognition that an open global society, like a free market, can only flourish when all the actors are somehow accepted as being equal in their rights, if not necessarily in their potential.

Freund opens fire

As promised Chuck Freund and I have begun a back and forth on the prospects for Arab liberalism. Chuck's opening salvo is below:

Proprietor Young has graciously (or perhaps insidiously) invited me to exchange ideas about the potential revival of Arab liberalism in the wake of the Iraq war. As I argued on Reason Online Arab liberals have an opportunity to challenge the failed, inadequate, and self-defeating Pan-Arabist worldview with a competing liberal narrative, and are already doing so. Since I first wrote, citing a few examples, many other long-stifled liberals have joined their chorus. I'll be drawing on their work as this exchange develops.

Michael is doubtful that this phenomenon will come to anything. "The Arab world," he wrote on April 19 (below) "tends to respond to its defeats not by opening up but by closing down and falling back on the old ways--no matter how discredited they may be." He cited two examples: a predictably stupid essay about the war by Edward Said, and the remaking of Lebanon's leadership by Syria into what Michael calls "a government of apparatchiks in Beirut."

First, Said actually is a secular liberal of the Arab diaspora, and for all I know triumphant Arab liberalism will result in countless Saids. That may be a definitive argument against the phenomenon, but also, paradoxically, for it. However, I take the larger point about falling back on discredited habits.

Arab liberalism's future is not, I hope, dependent on epiphany. Said's petty, insult-laden essay (linked below) seemed to have been written before the war ended, though he will probably write it again many times in the future. Worse examples of reflexive, habitual blindness are available in the Arab press, including a notable tribute by the Palestinian 'Adly Sadeq to the "great leader" Saddam Hussein: "[T]he man made mistakes, which are an inevitable part of the experience of great leaders who rule complex societies in dangerous geographical regions during difficult times."

It's true that people who were always wrong will continue to be wrong. But the point, I think, is that people who used to be right -- but were silent, stifled, or ignored -- may now claim and be granted a legitimate role in the future Arab debate.

Michael and I agreed to keep our exchanges short, and I'm already out of room. I'll take up Michael's Syrian example, and notable events in Iraq itself, next at bat.

I have written a commentary in today's Daily Star asking whether the Arab world isn't making a big mistake in assuming that the war in Iraq was essentially designed to favor Israel. I argue that this cliche has led many Arabs to miss seeing how much the U.S. presence in Iraq might be turned to the advantage of the Palestinians.

Campaign ended
On a matter completely unrelated to the subject of this weblog, I must report having at last finished Stephen Ambrose's one-volume abridged biography of Eisenhower--apparently a book he did not purloin from better writers. That's a pity, because while Ambrose is not quite third rate, he does turn reading about Ike into something as ponderous as Operation Overlord.

The analysis is skin deep and the saccharin heavy. I quote the first sentence of the Forward and the last paragraph of the book to prove to you how easy it is to make millions off hooey:

"Dwight David Eisenhower was a great and good man."


"People liked Ike because Ike liked life. People admired Ike, and worked for him, because he did great and good things for mankind. He was the general who truly hated war, but he hated the Nazis more. He was the President who made peace and kept the peace and thus provided the conditions that made it possible for the American people to exercise their right to pursue happiness."

No wonder Ambrose engaged in literary theft. Wouldn't you if your editors were prepared to let that junk through?

Monday, April 28, 2003

Liberating Lebanon
Ever so surreptitiously, the removal of Syrian forces from Lebanon is becoming a new rallying call in Washington for some conservatives and liberals alike. After Tom Friedman wrote an article on liberating Lebanon in his New York Times column a couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal's Claudia Rosett did the same in the Weekly Standard, following up on an earlier piece she did for the WSJ's Opinion Journal.

Last weekend, Tom Lantos, the California Democrat Representative, traveled to Syria. Here are some of excerpts on the visit from an ABC News story:

"I told (Assad) that Syria's position in the U.S. dropped dramatically as we saw the transfer of military equipment from and through Syria to Iraq, and a large number of Syrian fighters joining a doomed and dying regime in Iraq," Lantos said.

"This was a very bad and historic mistake, and the time is long overdue to correct the course of Syria's policy," he added.


"We find that there should not be headquarters of [Palestinian] terrorist organizations in Damascus," he said. "These should be closed. ... Secondly, the ongoing support and supply of Hezbollah military activities through the airport in Damascus must end."


During his meeting with Assad, which Lantos described as "extremely candid and extremely cordial," the congressman also urged the Syrian leader to withdraw his country's soldiers from Lebanon.

Lantos said he would support sanctions against Syria if Damascus did not cut its ties to the Palestinian groups and cease supporting Hizbullah. This probably means pushing forward on votes in the House and Senate on the Syria Accountability Act, which, under certain conditions, imposes sanctions on Syria. For the highlights of the Act see here, and for its current status look here. Given the fact that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is on the record as calling the Syrian presence in Lebanon an "occupation", the wind seems to be slightly shifting away from the benign neglect of the past on matters Lebanese.

On the other hand, the U.S. still relies heavily on Syria to control Lebanon and Hizbullah, so one shouldn't expect very much. Old habits do die hard.

Saturday, April 26, 2003

Freund vs. Young
In the coming days (weeks?) my friend Chuck Freund and I will be exchanging thoughts on the prospects for liberalism in the Middle East and what it might take to establish open societies in the Arab world.

You can follow the above link to know more about Chuck, but I can briefly report he's a senior editor at Reason magazine (where I'm a contributing editor), he's written extensively on politics and culture for Reason, Slate, the Washington Post, the New Republic and countless other publications, and he has developed an unhealthy interest in the Middle East (and, of late, Arab pop music videos).

We might have trouble disagreeing, but Chuck has never had any trouble being interesting.

Fadlallah on primetime
On Thursday evening, the senior Lebanese Shiite cleric Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, was interviewed on the local Lebanese LBCI channel by Marcel Ghanem. Fadlallah, who was born and educated in Najaf in Iraq, is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a "Hizbullah leader", or some such description. As noted in an earlier posting a few days ago, the description is wrong.

Fadlallah was asked whether he would return to Najaf, and he responded he would not while the American occupation continued. That was predictable enough, particularly as we can recall that the U.S. tried to have him killed in the mid-1980s when it parked a car-bomb (according to Bob Woodward, with Saudi assistance) near his home in Beirut's southern suburbs.

However, Fadlallah said several other things that were interesting inasmuch as they reflected an implicit desire on his part to play a role in Shiite clerical politics in postwar Iraq. When he was asked by Ghanem whether Najaf would again be a point of reference for Shiites, he responded that while, indeed, Najaf and its religious schools and Imams had a venerable history as a point of religious reference, these could also exist elsewhere, including Lebanon (and he gave the example of the Lebanese cleric Muhsin al-Amin). He did add, however, that Najaf had returned to "its natural position" as a source of reference. In this way Fadlallah seemed to grant himself a double legitimacy, both as a Lebanese and a Najafi religious scholar of reference (marja' in Arabic)

Fadlallah also played down the differences among Najafi Shiite clerics, and made the rather odd claim that the death of Abdel Majid al-Kho'i might have been an accident. He also played down threats against certain Najafi clerics, including Ali Sistani, reportedly from the followers of Muqtadah al-Sadr. And to sound even more reassuring, he underlined there would probably be no discord between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites, arguing that Shiites only wanted to be equal citizens in a unified Iraqi state, not dominators.

I report this only to underline that all that sounded like part of a campaign platform by someone who realizes he might have an electorate and a balancing role in the religious politics of postwar Iraq.

Majority reports
Readers might be interested in this commentary of mine written for Saturday's Daily Star, the theme of which is how the Bush administration's policies in Iraq, which appear to be focused on creating pro-American form majority Shiite rule, might affect other countries in the Middle East where "where minorities lord it over majorities or majorities abuse minorities."

As one alternative to consider I propose the Lebanese model, which, for all its shortcomings, has imposed a consensual power-sharing arrangement between the different communities (one which, surprisingly, survived Lebanon's civil war), in the context of a fairly open and democratic society--albeit one, again, that is often imperfect.

In many ways that's a central question of this website: what types of systems can Arab countries adopt that offer their people political, economic and cultural freedom and economic prosperity, free of overbearing states that stifle innovation.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

One man's terrorist...
According to this article in Middle East Online (I'm not sure who operates the site), the U.S. has reached a ceasefire agreement with the Iraq-based anti-Iranian People's Mujahedeen, allowing them to keep their weapons to fight the Iranian government. This is reminiscent of what the Syrians and the Lebanese government did after 1990, when they disarmed all Lebanese militias with the exception of Hizbullah, allowing them to keep their weapons to fight Israeli forces in south Lebanon.

Ironically, the U.S. had labeled the People's Mujahedeen a "terrorist organization." If the report is true it suggests the Bush administration is keeping an extra chip in hand to irk the Iranians, after accusing them yesterday of having infiltrated agents into Iraq to mobilize Shiites against the U.S.

Stealth weapons
As a follow-up to the previous posting, this paragraph from Judith Miller's April 23 article in the New York Times merits a playing card all its own:

Based on what the Iraqi scientist had said about weapons being destroyed or stocks being hidden, military experts said they now believed they might not find large caches of illicit chemicals or biological agents, at least not in Iraq. They said this would increase their reliance on documents and testimony from individual Iraqis to help them piece together the scope, organization, and goals of the programs that the United States has said Saddam Hussein created and concealed from the world.

This shift in priorities allegedly followed the revelations of one scientist (just one--that's what Miller says) who informed American military investigators "that Iraq destroyed chemical weapons and biological-warfare equipment before the war", which had "shifted the [American] focus from finding such weapons to locating key people who worked on the programs."

Ever get a sense that you're being taken for a ride?

Deconstructing Judith
Jack Shafer, writing in Slate, has again sunk his canines into Judith Miller. At the weekend, Miller had written a supposed scoop, arguing that an Iraqi scientist had made several blockbuster revelations to a special American military team looking for weapons of mass destruction.

As Shafer described it:

[The scientist] claims that Iraq destroyed unconventional weapons and equipment before the war and sent other "unconventional weapons and technology to Syria." He also maintains that in the years before the war, Iraq had shifted its R & D to making illegal weapons that can't be detected easily.

In that article, however, Miller (who was embedded with the military team) described the unusual restrictions under which she was allowed to file her story--restrictions that boiled down to one thing: Miller had no independent confirmation for her allegations other than what the military team told her the scientist revealed to them. She was not allowed to interview the scientist, though she apparently was allowed to look at him from a distance!

Jack's first story on the Miller revelations is here, but the second story (linked above) is much gorier. One highlight:

We can assume today's dispatch wasn't reviewed by military censors because Miller is silent on that score. But we can also safely assume Miller has been told a lot more than she's writing and is actively self-censoring. What isn't she telling us? That some Iraqi Dr. Evil found a way to convert George Foreman grills into WMD machines that transmogrify Bisquick and toluene into sarin, and the ubiquity of this technology makes the Iraqi WMD program invisible to military investigators?

So now the U.S. might not find Iraqi WMDs after all, or else they might be in Syria. That explains a lot...

Readers will forgive the languorous pace of BC this past week, but successive deadlines, a day off for Easter, and the end of the war in Iraq have ganged up on me to slow my pace. I promise to return to full cruising speed after Greek Orthodox Easter this weekend and (non-American) Labor day on May 1, though I will dutifully post material in the interim.

For the moment, however, you might want to look at this piece I wrote for the Daily Star on the calamity of anti-Americanism in the Middle East. The passages on Edward Said might be familiar because of an earlier posting here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Fadlallah and Hizbullah
For an interesting insight into the intricacies of Iraqi Shiite politics, Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, has prepared this useful primer for Middle East Report Online.

However, one of Cole's passages is partly inaccurate. He writes: "[M]any in the Iraq al-Da'wa are loyal to Lebanese Hizballah leader Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. Fadlallah was born and educated in Najaf, going to Lebanon only in 1965. Hizballah has threatened violence against US troops in Iraq."

Fadlallah is not a "Hizballah leader", though he did once serve as a "spiritual guide" to the group in the 1980s, when Hizbullah was still a motley collection of gangs, before an Iranian-imposed reorganization later in the decade. Not only does Fadlallah have no place in the party hierarchy, he has had deep differences with the party in recent years, both for political and doctrinal reasons. Fadlallah, like many Najafi clerics, is opposed to the Wilayat al-Fakih, or "Guardianship of the Jurisconsult", concept which Khomeini advanced to combine clerical and political power in the same ruler. Hizbullah is not, and has hitched its wagon to Khomeini's successor, Ali Khamenei.

Fadlallah and Hizbullah are also potential competitors if they decide to appeal to the large new Shiite "electorate" in Iraq, though their approaches are very different. Fadlallah is an erudite cleric, having been the representative in Lebanon of the late Grand Ayatollah al-Kho'i, and his authority is based on his learning. As a Najafi, he also has an advantage over Hizbullah, which does not seem to have established any real network in Iraq. Hizbullah, in contrast, has little strictly religious legitimacy, being seen much more as a successful political organization.

There is also a generation gap: Fadlallah is getting on in years and his health has been uncertain, according to reports. Hizbullah's leaders, in contrast, are young and on the upswing. To put Fadlallah and Hizbullah in the same basket is a mistake, even if they might have parallel interests when it comes to challenging American power in Iraq.

Monday, April 21, 2003

Some figures
Like a cheap telethon MC, I can now report to readers (at least those who haven't accessed the site meter) that after a month of operation, BC is just a few days away from the 10,000 visits mark. I suspect quite a few of those were me trying to see if the market was bullish or bearish. But a few others were readers actually displaying interest in an otherwise amateurish effort, so now is the time to thank one and all, particularly those who took the trouble to link the site.
Readers might be interested in my latest contribution to Slate's International Papers column, in which I dutifully persue (mostly) the Middle East press in search of meaning. This offering is, so to speak, a tale of three governments: Lebanon's new government, Iraq's future government, and the Palestinians' delayed government.

Gotta run
According to an article in the Palestinian Al-Quds daily, citing American officials, the U.S. has provided the Syrian authorities with clear evidence that Iraqi officials have escaped to Syria. The paper also noted the Bush administration had given the Syrians a list of 9 names of ex-officials it wanted Syria to return to Iraq.

Among those on the list were Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, ex-vice-president of the Revolutionary Command Council; Abed Hammoud al-Takriti, Saddam's former private secretary and among the most powerful people in Iraq; Hani Talfah, the head of the Special Security Organization; Seifeddine Saleh, the former head of the presidential guard; Taher Jalloul, the former head of the Iraqi intelligence service (Mukhabaraat); Barzan Suleiman al-Takriti, formerly in chagre of internal security in Saddam's personal bodyguard; and Farouq Jamazi, the former external intelligence chief.

According to the American sources, the Syrians rejected the U.S. demands. However, yesterday Saddam's remaining son-in-law, Jamal Mustafa Abdallah Sultan al-Tikriti, returned to Iraq from Syria. It is conceivable that this was a sign that Syria wants to solve the problem of the Iraqi exiles quietly: i.e. publicly stand up to the U.S., but privately begin sending people back. Or, it could be something more subtle: Syria's way of setting a limit on the level of officials it will protect, so that members of Saddam's family are off limits, but other former Iraqi officials are not.

As a footnote, Hammoud's alleged presence in Damascus raises questions. First of all, Hammoud was always where Saddam was and appeared in the footage of Saddam's two last public appearances in Baghdad--one allegedly as late as April 9. If Hammoud is in Syria, it could mean the Saddam footage was fake, since Hammoud presumably did not skip out of Baghdad on April 9, with Saddam still alive and U.S. forces surrounding the city, and run off to Syria. Or it could mean the U.S. list is simply mistaken. It could also mean other things that we have far too little information to speculate about.

Saturday, April 19, 2003

Here is a commentary I published in today's Daily Star on the new Lebanese government. Further proof, as I argued in the previous posting, that the Arab world generally reacts to potentially positive change by battening the hatches. We now have a government of apparatchiks in Beirut.

Opportunities gained or lost?
My friend Chuck Freund has written this commentary for Reason, where he argues that the defeat of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq might also signal a defeat for Pan-Arabism and victory for liberal forces in the Middle East.

Here is his opening paragraph:

The fall of Baghdad this month was accompanied by another event that was less visible but that has potentially far greater consequences: the collapse of Pan-Arabism as an essential and controlling aspect of Arab political thought. Because the triumph of Pan-Arabism half a century ago led to the eclipse of liberal thought in the Arab world, Pan-Arabism's collapse may well make room for liberalism's gradual return in the region's discourse. That could in turn allow the region to break its historic cycle of political failure and economic stagnation. If that occurs, it would be a clear--if perhaps paradoxical--case of liberal interests advanced and served by military means; the true victors of the overthrow of Iraqi Ba'thism would be the long-powerless Arab liberals.

That would be great news. The only problem is that the Arab world tends to respond to its defeats not by opening up but by closing down and falling back on the old ways--no matter how discredited they may be. Witness this genuinely pathetic commentary by Edward Said in the English-language portion of the Al-Hayat website, which utterly fails to see the advantages the Arabs might derive from Saddam's fall.

Witness, too, the fact that what begins as a fairly serious commentary soon becomes petty as Said turns his piece into yet another attack on Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis (or maybe it's just the same one he keeps recycling). Said, like Candide, invariably prefers to cultivate his little garden of recrimination.

Sahhaf is a doll
By this time most people will have learned that a Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf doll has been built by Herobuilders, a Connecticut doll-making company. Not to put too intellectual a veneer on things, but we should applaud the ecumenism of the market, ever willing to convert a former enemy into profits.

What a splendid way to punish the boys of Baghdad: make loads of money off of them, and avoid paying them licensing fees.

Ball and chain
Sporting aficionados might wish to consult this Guardian article on Uday Saddam Hussein's treatment of Iraqi football players, and reflect on the true meaning of hooliganism.

A passage:

Any player knows the pain of missing a penalty, but for a member of the national team, it carried the certainty of ritual humiliation, imprisonment, and torture. Only three Iraqis dared to take penalties, and Zair was one of them.

"Many of the footballers refused to even touch the ball, but then we realised that if no one accepted we would all be punished," the midfielder said.

He missed. Two days after the team returned to Baghdad, Zair was summoned to the headquarters of the country's Olympic committee, the lair of Uday Hussein, eldest son of Saddam and the leading personality in Iraqi sport.

He was blindfolded, and taken away to a prison camp for three weeks. He shrugged: "End of story."

Friday, April 18, 2003

Decapitate, legally
My friend Chibli Mallat, who has turned pursuing foreign heads of state for their war crimes into a high art, has just published the first of a two-part commentary in the Daily Star (Beirut).

He opens:

One of the many missing pieces in American strategy in Iraq is how to deal with the leaders of Iraq if and when they are caught. While “decapitation” is an integral part of the effort toward regime change, the policy is legally questionable in the absence of any indictment of those being targeted.
The new Lebanese government has been announced, peppered with a wholesome dose of pro-Syrian apparatchiks. Tomorrow I will link BC up with a commentary I wrote for the Daily Star on the new outfit. You can hardly wait, I know, the cabinet is that interesting...

However, I wonder when the Syrians will opt for a different approach than the one adopted yesterday. When, for example, might they chose to use Lebanon as a hook to liberalize their own system, instead of using their system to close ours down?

We bomb, we profit
The U.S. Agency of International Development has issued the first major reconstruction contract in Iraq to the Bechtel Group. A New York Times story reports: "The award will initially pay Bechtel, a closely held San Francisco company that posted $11.6 billion in revenue last year, $34.6 million and could go up to $680 million over 18 months."

Only a handful of large and well-connected U.S. companies (which will doubtless be happy to donate to Bush's election campaign) were invited to bid. Who will pay for Iraqi reconstruction? American taxpayers will pay initial contract costs, but Iraqi oil revenue is supposed to eventually pay for much of the reconstruction.

One of the more controversial aspects of the deal is that the U.S. doesn't want the U.N. to have any say in postwar Iraq, nor has it even given lucrative contracts to its ally Britain, inducing Tony Blair to recommend a larger role for the international organization. One unidentified American official caught the unilateral mood with this phrase:

"We are in control on the ground and creating facts on the ground, Iraq will not be put under a U.N. flag. The U.N. is not going to be a partner. And right now, people don't have the stomach to make a theological fight over this."

Facts on the ground? Theological fights? He sounded like he was talking about the West Bank.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Tom Friedman wants to set Lebanon free. And here we were having such a great time. Spoil sport!

Republic of fear
Two important articles, one in the Washington Post (thanks to Chibli Mallat for the reference) another in the French daily Le Monde, on the entrails of the Baathist security state--both based on interviews and on party and intelligence documents found in the aftermath of the collapse of Saddam's regime. The Post has a long article on the Mother of All Battles branch of the Baath Party in Basra, Le Monde on the journalist's tour of the former General Security (Amn al-Aam) building in the Roussoufiyya district of Baghdad. Edifying.

Kiss our ass
James Schlesinger has written a commentary of towering stupidity in today's WSJ Opinion Journal. It's entitled "Political Shock and Awe: We've won a war--and taught the Middle East a lesson". What's the argument? It boils down to "We are the strongest, don't fuck with us, the Arabs tried, they lost, all the catastrophes they promised before the war didn't happen, and the press and Europeans were idiots for thinking they might."

Here are two paragraphs:

Many have argued that greater self-criticism or better understanding of the roots of terrorism would magically dispel the hostility displayed in much of the Arab world. This was reflected in widespread demonstrations as we responded to 9/11 in Afghanistan; pervasive sympathy for, as well as some direct support of, bin Laden; celebration of 9/11 itself; constant anti-American whining in the Arab press; and a steady flow of critiques from Arab governments (albeit sometimes primarily for domestic consumption.)

There is a notable diminution of the earlier braggadocio. The many-heralded "catastrophes" did not take place. There was no "explosion" in the Middle East, no widespread unrest immediately upsetting governments, no endless urban warfare, no heavy casualties, no use of chemical and biological weapons (which Saddam supposedly did not have). What we have seen instead is a stunned realization of an awesome display of military power.

So, what's wrong with that? Nothing, except that if that's the level of strategic debate that Schlesinger and his friends at the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board are engaging in, then we might as well, all of us, invest in a bunker in Tasmania. Where does this line of reasoning take us? Not very far. Schlesinger glorifies military power, applauds Arab fear, and doesn't even bother to see whether all that force can be used, with other policy instruments, to transform Middle Eastern societies into more open affairs.

Stand aside Rush Limbaugh....

Virus warning
Just received the following from the Lebanese Council of Women (who for some reason have me on their mailing list). You might want to filter the doctor's heated tone and the obvious editorializing (for example the genocide comment), but the allegation, if true, merits attention. I post the letter as is, without knowing who Dr Mahdi speaks for:

The Central Infectious Diseases Laboratory in the heart of Baghdad has been broken into, looted and smashed. Incubators containing many dangerous viruses, including hepatitis, polio, AIDS and many other have been stolen and other containers and incubators have been smashed and strewn all over the area.

There is no public broadcasting service to warn the looters and others of the dangers, and no authorities to take action. Some of the Lab workers have been pleading with ICRC officials and with American military medics to rise up to their responsibilities, but they appear to have been stonewalled.

They believe that this will cause major outbreaks of disease.

Please act urgently. Contact the ICRC, aid agencies, media, politicians. This war is turning into genocide while politicians and the military congratulate each other.

The Lab workers themselves stress that the diseases will not spare the occupation troops themselves.

Dr Kamil Mahdi
University of Exeter

Nine lives
Barzan al-Takriti, Saddam's half-brother, has been found alive in Baghdad, following a report last week that he had been killed on his farm south of the Iraqi capital. Reportedly his family in Geneva put out the rumor that he had been killed so he could make a clean getaway. Speaking of which, this Washington Post article insinuates, though it doesn't confirm, that Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, or "Chemical Ali", may have escaped from Basra after all, despite reports of his death.

The relevant passage reads:

At one of Majeed's guesthouses, Mohammed Yahya, an unemployed 32-year-old, was scavenging recently for whatever the looters left behind. Yahya, who lives near the guesthouse on the banks of the Shatt al Arab waterway, said he saw a convoy of six or seven four-wheel-drive vehicles leave the compound early on April 6, heading for a northbound military road that cuts between palm trees close to the Iranian border.

Yahya, who said he often watched the comings and goings from the guesthouse, said the cars belonged to "some very important people." He added: "We don't know who occupied the cars. But it might have been Ali

You've got to hand it to these Takritis. They sure know how to survive.

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Make daddy proud
Here is a potentially serious timebomb in Syrian-American relations, and something to watch out for:

A suspected high-ranking operative of the Iraqi intelligence service [Farouq Hijazi] who is believed to have played a key role in a 1993 plot to assassinate then-US president George Bush was spotted in Syria Tuesday, after arriving from Tunisia, US officials said.

As promised yesterday, here is a link to an article I wrote today in Lebanon's Daily Star on some of the various conspiracy theories explaining why Baghdad fell so easily.

The never interesting Howard Kurtz has an otherwise useful item in his Media Notes column on Bill Clinton's criticism of George W. Bush's Iraq war.

Here is Mistah Kurtz being jocular:

"Bill Clinton is back on the warpath.

"You have to wonder about his timing."


Bashar forms a government
As everyone by now knows, the Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, resigned yesterday in order to form a new government. If you watched CNN, you might have heard the station mention that this had nothing to do with U.S. pressures on Syria. In fact it had everything to do with it.

According to various sources what will emerge is a "political" or "war cabinet" as the daily Al-Nahar called it. That means it will include a large number of political-communal heavyweights, including several presidential and prime ministerial contenders. Such a government serves several purposes:

First, it allows the Syrians to put several of their more influential allies back in the government and also broaden its base, at a time when there are fears in Damascus that the U.S. might try to sever the Syrian-Lebanese relationship. A broad government looks more legitimate, though it is also true that many of the people whose names are being bandied about are directly dependent on Syria for their influence--not on Hariri or the president, Emile Lahoud.

Second, the Syrians have created a government that will neutralize Lahoud and Hariri, whose disputes have shaped Lebanese politics since at least 2000. Both men aren't especially satisfied with the new makeup, seeing that they will have less influence (and loyal ministers) than they had. As one friend remarked, the possible inclusion of several Maronite presidential hopefuls might signal that Lahoud will not have his mandate extended or renewed in 2004, as he had hoped.

Third, this is a government broad enough to allow Syria several options, including putting a lid on Hizbullah if that becomes imperative, but also covering for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, full or partial, if the Syrians see that as necessary to protect themselves to their east. In light of this one should watch to see what the Syrians will do in the coming weeks, as the U.S. will probably raise the heat on Syria to control Hizbullah and expel militant Palestinian groups based in Damascus.

The upside of the government is that Lebanon is better off with a structure that reflects the various political tendencies in the country, particularly if there is a confrontation with Hizbullah or change in the Syrian order in Lebanon. Under those circumstances, better a government Syria can trust, if only to prevent a backlash bred of mistrust that can harm Lebanon. The downside is that the government is one of stalemate, where everyone will neutralize everyone else. It will very likely last until presidential elections in summer 2004, which means that no economic reform will take place for at least another year, particularly privatization.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Syria gets breathing room
The Guardian is reporting that George W. Bush has spiked plans to go to war against Syria "and has blocked preliminary planning for such a campaign in the Pentagon..." This squares with information I heard that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice also opposes a Syria campaign.

Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera, in its morning press review, cited an Al-Siyassa newspaper (not sure if they meant the Kuwaiti daily) to the effect that the Syrians were preparing plans for a full military withdrawal from Lebanon. I find the story doubtful as it is, even if I can imagine that the Syrians would be inclined to repatriate several thousand troops to defend against an American attack. However, Lebanon is about the only card the Syrians have left, and they won't abandon it so readily.

Baghdad plots
This morning Al-Jazeera quoted a Le Monde article which supposedly claimed that the fall of Baghdad was a result of a deal between the U.S. and the Republican Guard, and it repeated a story similar to what Beirut's Al-Mustaqbal published Monday (discussed in yesterday's posting), namely that Gen. Maher Sufyan (who was called Gen. Sufyan Jghayb by Al-Mustaqbal--perhaps Maher Sufyan Jgheib) had "reached an agreement with American forces in which he ordered his forces to surrender in exchange for his transfer via an American Apache helicopter to an undisclosed safe haven."

I checked out Le Monde's website and was unable to find such a piece, however. I have no explanation for this.

Another theory circulating has been advanced by the commercial intelligence company Stratfor, or Strategic Forecasts. Stratfor cited German intelligence sources as speculating that senior Iraqi officers and intelligence chiefs essentially handed over much of Iraq norht of Nasiriyya to the U.S., including Baghdad. They suggest that Saddam and his son Qusay were killed in the initial American “decapitation attack” that opened the war--thanks to inside information provided by some military officials on their whereabouts. Two officials, Taha Yassin Ramadan and Tareq Aziz, then allegedly led resistance efforts, but were later killed by the military chiefs who were paid off by the U.S. and allowed to flee.

These stories are fascinating, all the more so as there might be some truth in them. Then again, there might not. If readers are interested I have a column on the subject in tomorrow's Daily Star.

Sahhaf strung up?
Al-Bawaba is citing the Iranian Mardomsalari newspaper citing Iraqi refugees to the effect that former Iraqi information minister Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf hanged himself. Another Arabic-language Iranian paper said the same thing.

Al-Bawaba noted:

According to these reports, al-Sahaf hanged himself a few hours before Baghdad fell to US forces on April 9th. The refugees gave no source to confirm their claim.

That seems as unlikely a story as the one which said that American forces were committing suicide by the hundreds at the gates of Baghdad.

PS--The Guardian has picked up the story, which offers a bonus: another report from an Iranian newspaper that the fall of Baghdad was the result of a U.S.-Iraqi-Russian tripartitie deal.

Monday, April 14, 2003

Dead again
Al-Bawaba is reporting that Nizar Khazraji was "was assassinated Monday on his way to attend a U.S.-called meeting of opposition groups in the southern city of Nassiriya." The story doesn't cite a source and, for the moment, seems to merit as much skepticism as previous reports of his demise.

The website also has this story on the alleged departure for Syria of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, of the Revolutionary Command Council, who had been ordered by Saddam to defend northern Iraq against U.S. forces. Reportedly, Izzat Ibrahim, who cleared out last week from the town of Kirkuk, took with him $30 million.

Crocodile Hussein
Saddam's hideaway found, including a "mirrored bedroom, lamps shaped like women, airbrushed paintings of a topless blonde woman and a mustached hero battling a crocodile" as well as "beanbag chairs, a garden of plastic plants, a sunken kitchen and a room for a servant, all 1960s-style."

See it and weep, here on CNN's website.
Israel has begun to set conditions on Syrian behavior in the future, as it seeks to profit from growing hostility in Washington against the regime in Damascus. This from today's Ha'aretz:

Syria must lift the threat of Hezbollah attacks against Israel and expel the leaders of [Palestinian] terrorist organizations from Damascus, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was quoted as saying Monday, amid fast-rising tensions between Syria and the United States.

Meanwhile, Israeli foreign minister picked his spot to make an equally threatening statement. From Turkey, he said:

"Syria is letting terrorist organizations operate in the country ... Unfortunately they are not doing anything to prevent it. More than that, they are encouraging terrorist organizations to act within Syria all the time."

Israel to the south, (a halfhearted) Turkey to the north, and America to the east...One can only hope the Syrians don't respond to their west.

Stabbed in the back
Revealing story on the front page of today's daily Al-Mustaqbal, owned by Rafik Hariri: a report from the ever gullible Najwa Qassem in Baghdad who spoke to an Iraqi major, Amer Fouad Ahmad. Most intriguing was his allegation that the fall of Baghdad was essentially the result of a deal cut between the U.S. and Saddam, a view inceasingly popular in the Arab world. Reportedly, before the Americans entered Baghdad a senior Saddam aide, Lt-Gen Sufyan Jghayb, flew around the city in an Apache helicopter to instruct Republican Guard units to step down.

The story is full of holes: for one thing, the officer mentions an extremely high number of deaths around Baghdad airport (13 survivors from a unit of 320), so that not all units seemed to be in on the "deal." But does that make sense? Presumably the Americans would have cut a deal to save their soldiers' lives, meaning all Iraqi units would have had to have been neutralized. Secondly, Ahmad has no direct evidence of Jghayb's shuttle. Third, his indirect evidence for a "deal" is that Iraqi units were told to evaluate the battle against the U.S. wherever they were, without recourse to central command, so that what ensued was chaos. But that decision could just as easily have been a result of poor leadership by the regime.

The tenor of the argument is that Saddam's regime and the Republican Guard cut a prior deal with the U.S., and the victims were the Iraqi Army and people. That seems a convenient way to absolve the Army of its responsibility for not fighting, and recourse to conspiracy theories is often how military men respond to setbacks. Having said that, to date we really have no clear account why the Iraqis so readily abandoned Baghdad. And things won't necessarily be helped by the American military's efforts to shape interpretation of the war to conform with its own interests.

In this context you might want to read John Broder's and Eric Schmitt's a long New York Times report yesterday which seemed to offer a solidly conventional (and entirely uncritical) version of the war, based almost exclusively on conversations with U.S. military personnel. Or you can try to catch what Tommy Franks told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Sunday.

Sunday, April 13, 2003

Betting on Saddam
If you're ever in Monte Carlo betting on the numbers, make sure you don't have a Syrian or a Frenchman whispering advice to you, because if their wagering against the U.S. in Iraq was any indicator, you'll be lucky to go home wearing a fig leaf. There's something eerily similar in Syrian and French diplomacy towards the Iraq war: Both countries decided to lead the procession of protest against the U.S, other protestors were happy to let them lead, and all in favor of an Iraqi regime that was obviously on the way out.

The thought came to mind as U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that several top Iraqi officials had escaped to Syria, though Saddam's half-brother, Watban, was caught before he could make the jump. Another half-brother, Barzan al-Takriti, was killed a few days ago in an American bombing. It was an altogether bad week for half-brothers.

From a Syrian perspective, it's unclear what advantages Bashar Asad will derive from the thugs showing up at his doorstep. Before we underestimate Syrian ingenuity, however, it is conceivable the renegades will be sold back to a new postwar Iraqi government for concessions, including economic concessions. The Syrian regime has never sympathized with its Iraqi counterparts. However, given the militant tone in Damascus these days, kicking the Iraqis back to Baghdad may be a red line Asad won't want to cross, though I wonder why.

Syria has denied it is receiving Iraqi runaways. However, in a statement, Syria's deputy ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, said it was the responsibility of U.S. troops to monitor Iraq's western border with Syria. That seems to be a nice way of saying: "If you can catch them, fine, but if you can't, we'll let them enter Syria." One thing to watch out for, however, is the seniority of officials Syria will allow in. Saddam and his sons are almost surely no-no's. The lowly Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, on the other hand, would be welcomed (perhaps to boost confidence in the Syrian economy). The only problem with that logic is that Watban was pretty high up.

Kidding aside, does Syria really want an Iraqi Baathist exile community in Damascus. Would you?

In praise of irrelevance

(Readers will forgive that the following entry covers three separate post boxes. Being a technical idiot, I had no idea how to fit such a long text into a single box. So just read till the words "fundamentally evil" appear--always a fine way to end).

Have just received a copy of Adam Shatz's article on Fouad Ajami for the April 28 issue of The Nation, titled "The Native Informant." A deeply envious article that ultimately boils down to one thing: Ajami serves a political order Shatz cannot stomach.

What does Shatz think of Ajami?

"What Ajami abhors in 'politicized men and women' is conviction itself. A leftist in the 1970s, a Shiite nationalist in the 1980s, an apologist for the Saudis in the 1990s, a critic-turned-lover of Israel, a skeptic-turned-enthusiast of American empire, he has observed no consistent principle in his career other than deference to power."

The accusation, which given the peculiar context Shatz is describing preaches the virtues of immobility, is smug, coming from someone who no doubt situates himself among the "politicized men and women" of conviction. It is also exotic in light of the fact that Shatz spends page after page criticizing Ajami precisely for his convictions. The path from Shiite leftist in the 1970s to Shiite nationalist in the 1980s (by the way, what is a Shiite nationalist?) was far more natural than Shatz suggests in that passage. Ironically, the explanation for that transformation is well documented in the rest of his piece.
While I deeply disagree with Ajami on Israel and the Palestinians, he has shown a strange consistency on this matter since turning against the PLO two decades ago. The fact is he sees himself as an American and, therefore, not bound by the slogans imposed on Arab intellectuals. Saudi Arabia? Has Shatz forgotten that until September 11, being a Saudi apologist was a cottage industry in Washington? Or that the rampant anti-Saudi attitude in Washington was one adopted by Ajami's neo-con peers who are now in positions of power? Did Ajami, who is supposedly so bent on deferring to power, go along? Shatz admits the answer is no, criticizing Ajami, now, for remaining consistent on the Saudis. There is an explanation: the Saudis have paid him off. What is that French saying: "When you want to drown your dog, accuse him of having rabies."

We also learn that Ajami "has produced little scholarly work of value," (a phrase unwittingly explaining why Ajami is so relevant) whose book The Arab Predicament "did not offer a bold or original argument; like Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers, it provided an interpretive survey--respectful even when critical--of other people's ideas." In a roundabout (and deniable) way that sounds suspiciously similar to what Christopher Hitchens wrote of Berlin, namely that "he never broke any original ground in the field of ideas. He was a skilled ventriloquist for other thinkers."

We also learn about Ajami: "His once-luminous writing, increasingly a blend of Naipaulean cliches about Muslim pathologies and Churchillian rhetoric about the burdens of empire, is saturated with hostility toward Sunni Arabs in general (save for pro-Western Gulf Arabs, toward whom he is notably indulgent), and to Palestinians in particular."
I can reveal that Shatz used very different language when he contacted me for information on Ajami while preparing the piece, writing: "I have enormous respect for Ajami's work, particularly for The Arab Predicament and The Hidden Imam [sic]. He is, of course, a splendidly elegant stylist." I can also say that I told Shatz he had contacted the wrong person for what he said would be "a critical profile of Fouad Ajami."

Shatz does reproduce a genuinely interesting comment by Hisham Melhem, Washington correspondent of Al-Safir: "Edward [Said] and Fouad are both crazy about Conrad, but they see in him very different things. Edward sees the critic of empire, especially in Heart of Darkness. Fouad, on the other hand, admires the Polish exile in Western Europe who made a conscious break with the old country." Yet Shatz never takes that judgment to its logical conclusion.

What does one get out of this mishmash? Perhaps a realization that people on the left treasure stalemate over change, and powerlessness over all else. Yet what irks Ajami's enemies most is his estrangement from his cultural roots combined with his simultaneous fascination for the Arab world. Somehow, in giving up on his critics’ version of the Middle East, Ajami was supposed to roll over and play dead. The fact that he didn't, and actually has a say in Washington, has meant "[l]ike the empire he serves, Ajami is more influential, and more isolated, than he has ever been."

Alas, I fear it is Shatz and his comrades who are the isolated ones, which is not necessarily for the better in a Washington that today leans in only one direction. But Ajami is not the culprit. The left is, for so foolishly considering that having influence in "the empire" is something fundamentally evil.

Saturday, April 12, 2003

The London Daily Telegraph has published this obituary of Ayatollah Abdel Majid a-Kho'i. Though unsigned, it is reportedly the work of Adel Darwish.
I had failed to read this article from the Washington Post yesterday when I wondered about American prisoners of war caught in Iraq.

Dr. Germ and Mrs. Anthrax
According to the Washington Times, Iraqi weapons scientists have fled to Syria, including Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, known as "Mrs. Anthrax" and Rihab Taha, known as "Dr. Germ." According to Andrew and Patrick Cocburn in their book Out of the Ashes, in 1993 the former arms inspector Rolf Ekeus brought Taha together with her future husband, Amer Rashid, in New York:

Love bloomed on the East River, Rashid left his wife, and he and Dr. Taha were married shortly afterward. "I was the matchmaker for this dreadful pair." says Ekeus ruefully."

Ammash is one of 55 Iraqis on a list the U.S. publicized yesterday of individuals wanted for possible war crimes. So is Rashid, who was Iraq's oil minister. Taha is merely wanted for questioning. If the information is true, there are hard days ahead for Syria, which must surely have wondered up to what level of Iraqi officials it could welcome.

On another note, the same Times story suggests some Iraqi weapons scientists were seeking refuge in France, though the administration official cited asked to remain anonymous, suggesting that might not be confirmed.

This from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

U.S. troops regarded the looting [in Baghdad] as a release from years of pent-up anger and frustration.

From their Humvees, tanks and armored personnel carriers, the soldiers watched the events of the day -- lootings and homecoming weekend-style bonfires -- with smiles on their faces.

At least one exception to the leniency by U.S. soldiers was the Oil Ministry. American troops in desert camouflage, their M-16s pointed to the street, peered from the overhang above the ministry's entrance.

Qusay alive?
My friend Khaled Oweis filed this report for Reuters, suggesting Saddam's son, Qusay, was seen alive by residents on Monday after the bombing of a restaurant in the Mansur district of Baghdad.

Here is my latest from the Lebanon section of the Daily Star. It argues that Syria must do several things if it wants to come of out the coming months unscathed by the U.S.:

(1) Avoid destabilizing Lebanon by turning it into a relay station for messages directed at Washington; (2) once the Iraq war ends, begin discussing with the Lebanese a new relationship that both sides find acceptable (by which I mainly mean the Syrian government and a majority of the Lebanese people) and that puts an end to Syria's unhealthy militarily-backed domination over the Lebanon; and (3) open up Syrian society politically and economically, as Syrian president Bashar Asad sort of promised two years ago.

Any chance of this happening? I'm afraid regimes that side with Saddam on the eve of his demise are not always the best judges of what is in their interests.

Cover fire from Sahhaf
We now are in a better position to know what Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf's act was. No, not to show that the Iraqi regime had a sense of humor (we knew that anyway), but to cover for the fact that Saddam and virtually everybody else in his entourage had decided probably long before to clear out of Baghdad. Sahhaf was indeed, as the former head of military intelligence, Wafiq al-Samarra'i, told Orbit's Imad al-Din Adeeb (thanks to Joe Bahout for this tidbit), the last remnant of the Iraq regime in the Iraqi captal.

Sahhaf may have behaved like a clown, but he did the job. As if anyone could survive that system by just being funny.

Friday, April 11, 2003

Where are the PoWs?
One of the stories lost in the general chaos that has become Iraq is: What happened to the U.S. prisoners of war who were caught by the Iraqis in Nasiriyya, and the helicopter pilots who were later captured? There were unconfirmed reports that some of the Nasiriyya PoWs were executed, but nothing since. Could they be bargaining chips Saddam hopes to use?
Some links. The New York Times is reporting that heavy fighting is going on around the Iraqi town of Qaim, on the Syrian border, "where American Green Berets and British commandos have been attacking units of Iraq's Special Republican Guard and Special Security Services, according to senior military and defense officials." There is some suspicion the site contains banned weapons, given that the Iraqis are fighting almost as hard as Saddam's statue did in Al-Firdaws square.

The article noted that another possible reason for the heavy fighting is that the Iraqi troops are shielding officials trying to flee to Syria. However, it did add: "Today, defense officials said there was no evidence that those believed to have fled [to Syria] included any senior Iraqi leaders."

Meanwhile, the Washington Post yesterday ran a profile of Jay Garner, the man who will head the civil administration in Iraq, and who still refuses to talk to anybody. The article is useful inasmuch as it tries to tell us more than the fact that he is a "Zionist", as many papers in the region have called him. While I agree that his reputation as a supporter of Israel will not help him in Iraq, and could indeed impede his effectiveness, I do think that his efforts during Operation Provide Comfort in Kurdistan merit much closer review in order to judge his capabilities.

Somehow I've been pegged as a "Garner expert", whether by Business Week or (egad!) Austrian radio, though I've always insisted I know very little about him. That comes from sleepily writing an introductory piece on Garner (and one of his possible future deputies) for Beirut's Daily Star, which Reason magazine charitably reprinted.

The Post story even has a link to a new anti-Garner website.

Bush man's burden
All credit to William Saletan for commenting on Bush's condescending speech to the Iraqis, which few in Iraq could actually see.

Saletan wrote:

If you're black, Hispanic, or a member of some other group often stereotyped as incompetent, you may be familiar with this kind of condescension. It's the way polite white people express their surprise that you aren't stupid. They marvel at how "bright" and "articulate" you are. Instead of treating you the way they'd treat an equally competent white person—say, by ignoring you—they fuss over your every accomplishment.

Then, he added, ironically

No wonder Bush gave the Iraqis a pep talk. They're underprivileged, at-risk, and challenged. They lack self-esteem. They need to be told that they're capable, despite what others may say. Even Tony Blair is patting them on the back. "You are an inventive, creative people," he told them in a televised message accompanying Bush's remarks. I wonder what the Arabic phrase is for "hand me the remote."

I can answer that: A'teeni al-remote, l'an sakkitun, ya rab!

Chop chop
As predicted yesterday, the supposed deah of Nizar Khazraji in Najaf, alongside Abdel Majid al-Kho'i, appears to be (1) pure fabrication or (2) misinformation by Arab News, a branch of the Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. No reports on al-Kho'is's death have even mentioned Khazraji.

However, Arab News did publish an article today praising its correspondent Essam al-Ghalib for the following:

Yesterday, he broke as a world exclusive on the news that Shiite scholar Abdul Majid Al-Khoei had been killed in Najaf's Ali Mosque, after taking eye witness accounts from Iraqis who had just witnessed the scene.

In contrast to American briefings, which put the incident down to "Shiite sectarianism," Essam told the truth: That Al-Khoei had been butchered — literally cut to pieces with knives and swords -- by Iraqis who accused him of being "an American stooge."

Yes, but he or someone else on Arab News also broke as a World Exclusive (though the world paid no attention) that Khazraji too had been bumped off, so we'll wait a few days before applauding Essam, whose photo appears here, apparently after he was "was ambushed in his jeep by bandits, shot at from close range, and then robbed of almost all his belongings."

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Khazraji RIP?
Thanks to Kendall Harmon for pointing me to this Arab News story:

WORLD EXCLUSIVE: from Arab News War Correspondent in Najaf, Iraq; filed 2 pm GMT; April 10: Former Iraqi general Nizar Al-Khazaraji and Islamic scholar Majid Al-Khoi'i have both been executed by Iraqi residents of Najaf, according to five independent Iraqi witnesses to the incident who spoke to Arab News, the only foreign publication with a correspondent in the city today. The two potential Iraqi leaders of the city, who were supported by the US, 'were afterwards chopped into pieces with swords and knives inside the Ali Mosque this morning by Iraqis who accused them of being American stooges," one of the witnesses said. Another said that a US Special Force Soldier, who had been acting as their body guard, was also killed in the incident.

Arab News is a branch of the Al-Sharq al-Awsat operation, and it is maybe significant that Maan Fayyad, a journalist at the paper, was a witness to the al-Kho'i assassination (he was also injured in the attack). For that story click here.

Arab News also has an earlier story claiming that there were three factions vying for influence in Najaf: one controlled by Kho'i, a second by Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and a third by Khazraji.

Two things are worth noting: only Arab News has mentioned Khazraji in the melee; and it is not clear what Khazraji, a Sunni, would have been doing in the shrine of the Imam Ali at a gathering of Shiite mullahs--one of whom was a former Saddam man, whose presence allegedly triggered the violence. The story sounds bizarre to me.

Abdel Majid al-Kho'i, son of the late Grand Ayatollah al-Kho'i has reportedly been assassinated in Najaf CNN is reporting. Though he was not considered nearly as influential as his father, he headed the wealthy Kho'i Foundation. This must probably be seen as part of the postwar struggle for power for predominance in the Shiite community. More on this later.

Press notes
Jack Shafer has an interesting article in Slate on the bombing of the Palestine hotel Wednesday. His point, and he makes what I think is a good case, is that the journalists were not deliberately targeted. Indeed, an LBCI correspondent in Baghdad, Sultan Suleiman, tried to trip up a U.S. officer yesterday outside the hotel by asking him whether he knew that what the building was. The officer, who was clearly not trying to be cunning, replied that he did not what any of the buildings around were. If there was a mistake, I think, it was in not telling soldiers where the journalists were located.

Wednesday, I watched the Abu Dhabi channel footage of the tank firing right at the camera. The station's crew deserved credit for catching what were genuinely stunning shots. The correspondent will be able to dine out on that one for awhile. However, shortly before the tanks fired at the building, he said he was clearing out (they left the camera behind), suggesting he knew the danger--something that became obvious when the tank commander started looking straight at the camera.

On another note, Al-Jazeera's Maher Abdullah was interviewed by CNN last night. He had no problems admitting that the Iraqi celebrations were genuine, and his comments on the situation were otherwise quite judicious. He did, however, make it a point to state that he was not a defender of U.S. policy in the region. He need not be, but it was funny that he should have felt a need to say that (to preface another comment).

Self promo time. Yesterday, I wrote an article for Slate on the Khazraji affair. Coincidentally, the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story on the disappearance.

It was about time, wouldn't you agree?

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

So Saddam's statue finally fell, showing far more spirit than his regime did. Meanwhile, Syria satellite was showing a documentary with nice photographs of John the Baptist's tomb in the Umayyad mosque.

They definitely missed the irony of that.

For a bit more on how the Arab world has embraced passivity by interpreting the Iraq war as a giant conspiracy, you might want to see my column today in the Daily Star.
Masks off
Sterling performances by most Arab media to the footage of Iraqis finally rid of Saddam. Syrian satellite is still ignoring the story, so is Hizbullah's Al-Manar station (though the scenes of celebrating Shiites was right down its alley). Al-Jazeera is showing some street scenes, but is mixing this with shots of men removing the body of its correspondent who was killed yesterday in a U.S. attack. Orbit's excellent Egyptian journalist Imad al-Din Adeeb sat aghast as he interviewed two former generals who showed that the fog of battle had terminally enveloped them--both, St. Thomas-like, insisted they were "only seeing one side of the story."

The masks are off. This may have been a revolutionary war for many Arab stations, but it was a typically Arab type of revolution, one blending an aspiration for technical prowess with dismal ideological rigidity and backwardness.

A word of warning on the freedom demonstrations, though: one of the first things the Shiite throngs did was to pray and hold up a portrait of who I believe was the martyred Hussein. The clock is already ticking on the U.S. presence. Those Iraqis want freedom, but what they want most is to rule over themselves--not have the U.S. and Jay Garner do it for them. And the religious edge to the whole thing is already alarmingly palpable.

I don't think the Bush administration knows what Pandora's Box it has opened in trying to figure out how that complex religious and tribal structure in Iraq can be managed to everyone's satisfaction. Here's a scenario: What if Saddam is indeed in Tikrit and uses Sunni fears of the Shiites to feed a new religious-tribal conflict?

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Thanks to Tim Cavanaugh, I was able to pick this up off the New York Times website. It's a clarification letter from Martin Peretz, the owner of the New Republic, on the late Michael Kelly, who recently died in Iraq and whom Peretz fired a few years ago as TNR editor:

To the Editor:

Re: "Michael Kelly, 46, Editor and Columnist, Dies in Iraq" (obituary, April 5):

I do not mean at all to mar the coverage of the tragic death of Michael Kelly in Iraq by quibbling. But I did not fire Mr. Kelly as editor of The New Republic in 1997 because of how he configured "the magazine's coverage of Vice President Al Gore."

Mr. Kelly wrote incandescent prose. As an editor, however, Mr. Kelly's single-minded focus on President Bill Clinton's improprieties distorted his perspective on the policies of the Clinton-Gore administration and brought him into conflict not only with me but also with much of the intellectual history of the magazine.

Mr. Kelly's true career began in 1991 in the sands of Iraq. He knew the nobility of purpose that brought American troops and himself back to the region 12 years later.

Editor in Chief, The New Republic
Washington, April 5, 2003

So if we are to understand Marty right, the intellectual history of TNR is such that it precludes focusing on the improprieties of a president.

More journalists killed or injured
The Reuters bureau chief in Beirut, Samia Nakhoul, was injured in Baghdad when a U.S. tank fired on the Palestine hotel where much of the foreign press is located. A Ukrainian cameraman was, alas, killed and another Reuters correspondent was injured. Al-Jazeera also lost a correspondent today.

War may be hell, but I can't help but wonder why a campaign so geared to capturing hearts and minds cannot give tank crews a clearer sense of where the press, at least, is. By the way, CENTCOM's claim that a sniper fired at the tank from the roof of the hotel was patently false: seconds before the shell hit, a Jazeera correspondent was filing a live report right under the building, and there clearly were no outgoing shots at the time.
What's his name, again
According to the AP (through this BBC link) Osama bin Laden has released a new recording, this one promising more suicide attacks.

Reportedly OBL said: "The United States has attacked Iraq and soon...will also attack Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan."

Are you sure that wasn't James Woolsey on the tape?

Monday, April 07, 2003

Just a thought: does discovering the body of "Chemical Ali" (if it was indeed he) count as a discovery of a chemical weapon?

At this point of the game, any little bit will help to prove that Saddam actually had such weapons. Still, thanks to Nick Gillespie for this link to a Reuters story which suggests a discovery might bring relief from the chemical drought.

Woolsey over your eyes
I'm wondering, why is it that all the right-wingers are using the word "fascist" to describe this thuggish regime or that? This thought comes to mind reading David Corn's profile of James Woolsey in the Nation. Corn writes, of a Woolsey speech at UCLA:

He cited three enemies: the religious leaders of Iran, the 'fascists' of Syria and Iraq, and Islamic extremists like Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

Why fascists? I see no problem in using the word, but that's hardly an accurate term to describe what is in Syria really a rather weak and fretful semi-authoritarian hereditary republic. I rarely agree with the Nation (and I'm really not too fond of Corn's piece), but I've always found Woolsey to be an opportunist--as his incorrect use of an otherwise emotionally useful term proves--as well as a liar, particularly in his vain efforts to prove that a link existed between Saddam and Al-Qaida. He never offered a shred of evidence, which led me to wonder what this man was doing recycling intelligence at the CIA.

Then I learned that his passage there was regarded as catastrophic.

Bye cuz
Is "Chemical Ali" History? British forces are saying they discovered the body of Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam's cousin and arguably the most ruthless person in the Iraqi regime. I still recall watching captured Iraqi videotape of him directing operations in the south in 1991 when Iraqi forces crushed the Shiite uprising. The film showed prisoners being dragged off to be shot, while one weeping prisoner was caught on film praying. This so irritated one Iraqi officer that he cocked his gun, but strangely he did not shoot the man on the spot.

Disappointment reigns: Al-Majid deserved a far worse death.

One of Paul Wolfowitz's admirers is Christopher Hitchens. That's one thing we learn in a Washington Post portrait of "probably the best-known deputy secretary of defense in recent memory" (to quote a White House aide), published today.

Another Wolfie watcher, Hisham Melhem of Beirut's Al-Safir, a paper which has absolutely no sympathy for the administration's war in Iraq, is quoted as saying:

It takes my breath away when I think about the scale of the transformation that [Wolfowitz and others] are trying to achieve in the Middle East. It is so radical, so optimistic, so audacious. It is a new American imperium. . . . They are going to create an earthquake in Iraq that will reverberate throughout the region.

Hisham probably meant it negatively, but somehow that didn't quite come through. It does remind me, though, of what the Syrian intellectual, Sadeq al-Azm, told me, namely that a democratic Iraq could have an impact on the Middle East similar to that of Perestroika on the USSR.

Sunday, April 06, 2003

Khazraji found?
The Australian Broadcasting Corp. is saying on its website that Denmark's Politiken daily has reported that Gen. Nizar Khazraji is in Kuwait, after being spirited out of Denmark thanks to CIA help.

Here are the first three paragraphs of the ABC News story:

Former Iraqi General Nizar al-Khazraji, touted as a possible successor to President Saddam Hussein, is now in Kuwait after escaping from Denmark last month with the help of the CIA, the Danish daily Politiken reported on Sunday.

Citing a report by the former head of the CIA's counter-terrorism department, a copy of which was obtained by the paper, Politiken said the US security services see Khazraji as their preferred successor for Saddam in a post-war Iraq, a view that is not shared by the Pentagon.

The ex-CIA official, who completed the confidential report on March 28, said the US intelligence services secretly extracted Khazraji and that he was currently helping US forces in the war against Baghdad, according to Politiken.

What comes after? Saddam is still around, but already the question is on the minds of observers, amid news that retired American Gen. Jay Garner is planning to move from Kuwait to Iraq soon and install his civil administration. The Washington Post has a detailed article on the politics involved in control over postwar Iraq--in the U.S. between the Pentagon and the State Department and between Congress and the Administration, but also, internationally, between the U.S. and everybody else on whether the U.N. should be given a postwar role--something the Bush administration is very ambiguous about.

Jane Perlez in the New York Times has another postwar politics piece, where she revealingly writes of Garner's team:

European and American leaders may still be arguing over whether the United Nations plays a role in postwar Iraq, and, if it does, how large that part should be. But those disputes are considered largely irrelevant by the team here, whose members argue that they are better off unfettered by the United Nations.

So the cliché may be right after all: it would be a relatively easy war (we keep our fingers crossed), but the U.S. might well screw up the postwar, since the Iraqis, whatever American spokesmen say, will very probably not regard a U.S. civil administration (under tight Pentagon control) as the first step towards democracy.

For more on this story, you can also refer to this article in London's The Observer. The Pentagon's open hostility to the U.N. is described:

The decision to proceed with an embryonic government comes in response to memoranda written by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week, urging that the US begin to entrench its authority in areas under its control before the war is over.

Pentagon officials told The Observer that the administration is determined to impose the Rumsfeld plan and sees no use for a UN role, describing the international body as 'irrelevant'.

Beirut reeling
A serious occurrence in Beirut yesterday. A half-stick of dynamite was placed in the bathroom of a McDonald's franchise in the Dora district in Beirut's eastern suburbs, injuring four. The police also discovered a car-bomb with 55kg of explosives in the parking lot. Reportedly, the bomb failed to explode. It was indeed strange to see two types of explosives planned: Why put a half-stick of dynamite in a place when you plan to blow it up with a devastating car-bomb?

This leads me to speculate that the car-bomb was really a political message directed at the U.S., through a well-known American brand name (albeit owned entirely by Lebanese). The car-bomb was not meant to blow, but the seriousness of the threat was emphasized by the dynamite. Who did it? One can only speculate, but I believe this was related to rising tensions in the Syrian-American relationship and Syria's fears that the U.S. plans to turn against it in the future.

This was the third bombing in three weeks (a bomb in Sidon against the apartment of a Dutch lady, another against the (closed) British Council building, and now this). The authorities have continued to play these events down (yesterday the state-owned Tele-Liban did not even lead with the item on its 7:30pm newscast), but the silence is becoming increasingly absurd.

PS--Since the above post I've spoken to someone who told me the car-bomb was indeed set to blow, but that a techncial glitch prevented it. I also spoke to someone well informed who, citing a Lebanese security source, confirmed my theory that it was not supposed to blow. Take your pick.

Saturday, April 05, 2003

Arnett's new job
Peter Arnett
has a new job: he's now Al-Arabiya's correspondent in Baghdad. Maybe I just have a soft spot for Arnett, but to see him speak in English and be simultaneously dubbed over in Arabic was, well, a trifle disturbing, since his own voice used to be fairly well regarded in its own right.
Martin Kramer has an interesting posting on the continued debate over whether Ayatollah Sistani issued a fatwa calling on the inhabitants of Najaf to not interfere with U.S. forces.

He notes: "His office in Iran announced to news outlets that it could not confirm American claims of a fatwa, which Al-Jazeera promptly turned into a denial. It doesn't matter now: Ayatollah Sistani achieved precisely the effect he desired, which was to spare Najaf a vicious battle.)"

He also offers a number of additional insights on Sistani and on his politics towards the other Ulama in the region.

Khazraji update update
Here is a Reuters report on the Danish government's request that the U.S. provide information on the circumstances of Gen. Nizar Khazraji's disappearance. The report noted:

In a letter to U.S. Ambassador Stuart Bernstein, Justice Minister Lene Espersen cited several Danish newspaper articles suggesting that the Central Intelligence Agency may have been involved.

"Against this background...I kindly ask you to provide me with any information from relevant American authorities on the circumstances under which Khazraji disappeared and his whereabouts since March 17, 2003," she wrote.

The letter also noted:

"It has also been proposed, however, that he escaped with the assistance of authorities of foreign countries or that he was even abducted by such authorities," Espersen wrote.

"In this connection, the Central Intelligence Agency has been mentioned in several articles," she said.

One should bear in mind the request was not an accusation--indeed it was formulated as an effort to avoid false accusations:

"Needless to say, such clarifications may also be important in order to avoid unnecessary -- and potentially harmful -- public myths and thus to preserve the excellent relations between Denmark and close friends and allies such as the United States."

Friday, April 04, 2003

From the "Democracy, Whiskey, Sexy" files:

Saddam Hussein and his chauffeur were rolling down the highway when suddenly they hit a pig crossing the road. They killed it instantly.

Saddam tells his driver: "Go to da farm over dere and hexplain to da honer of da pig what appened. "One hour later, Saddam sees his driver coming back from the farm, his clothes all wrinkled, a bottle of wine in one hand and a cigar in the other.

"What appen to you?" He asks. "Well, da farmer gave me bottle of wine, his wife, a cigar, then dere 19 year old daughter made wild passionate love to me."

"My God! What did you tell dem?" asked President Hussein. The driver answered: "Good evening, I am Saddam Hussein's chauffeur and I have just killed da pig."

Self-promo time: here's a piece I did for Slate on the Non-Jazeera's, the satellite TV stations in the Middle East that no one seems to write about.
The journalist Michael Kelly has been killed in Iraq, another accidental victim in a war of accidental victims (at least on the coalition side). The New Republic, which fired Kelly because Martin Peretz couldn't stomach his distaste for the hypocrticial Al Gore, prepared this appreciation.
They love their Saddam
Lebanon's LBCI satellite station has broadcast footage of Saddam being cheered by the throngs today in the streets of Baghdad. Was it him? I never saw Saddam giving high-fives before, like this character did, but the Great Man's powerful and ever-present personal secretary, Abed Hammoud, was with him--perhaps undermining my theory that Saddam is in Tikrit, surrounded by tribesmen, ready to fight like Abdel Qader al-Jazairi...

Then again it might have been Hammoud's double.
Here's the latest entry in Kanan Makiya's war diaries in the New Republic. He writes from the front line in Nashville, and has his enemy in the cross-hairs: the State Department.

Syrian maneuvers
A report in Kuwait's daily Al-Rai al-Aam on Wednesday, citing American sources, says U.S. Special Forces blew up part of the Syrian-Iraqi pipeline (between Kirkuk and Banyas), which the two countries had used to illegally transport Iraqi oil to Syria outside the oil-for-food program. The way the system worked was that Iraq would sell the oil at below-market rates to Syria, which would then use it for domestic consumption, releasing its own oil for export (obviously at market rates): this earned Syria a hefty subsidy factor estimated at some $1bn per year.

The report also said that part of the rail link between Iraq and Syria was destroyed--the line had linked Syria to Iran as well, bringing thousands of Iranian pilgrims to Shiite shrines in Damascus.

The U.S. sources told the paper that this signaled the beginning of a political campaign against Syria, after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week accused Syria of supplying Iraq with military equipment (a charge repeated yesterday). There are some questions as to whether Syria acted as a transit point for Russian weapons, something I haven't been able to establish. The Kuwaiti story also noted that U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, William Burns, visited Damascus a few days ago and presented officials there with "firm evidence" of Rumsfeld's charge.

Everything, however, is in the symbolism: the cutoffs were a warning that a postwar Iraq will not look kindly on Syria if it continues to support Saddam--a sanction with an obvious economic cost.

Al-Rai al-Aam also had another very interesting news item yesterday suggesting that the Sharif Ali, the Hashemite pretender to the Iraqi throne and leader of the Constitutional Monarchy movement, secretly visited Damascus for 24 hours last February "in response to a formal invitation. He met officials at the highest level", which means he saw Syrian president Bashar Asad. His visit was supposedly (a) to prepare for the Sharif's transit (and short residence) through Syria before his return to Iraq, (b) to see about Syrian help in setting up meetings with Iraqi tribal chiefs, (c) to see about Syria's facilitating the operations of the Constitutional Monarchists in Syria, and (d) helping them enter Iraq, by way of Mosul.

Many interesting items here: first, it shows that Asad is maneuvering for a place in postwar Iraq, something already obvious late last year when he met with the two Iraqi Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani; it also means that, despite the rhetoric, the Syrians are pragmatically dealing with Saddam's possible successors; it means also that whatever the talk of a fundamental rift between the U.S. and Syria, both countries can actually agree on aspects of postwar policy, since the U.S. is not at all hostile to the Sharif, quite the contrary.

And it means that a republican Baathist regime has no basic problem with assisting in the return of an Arab monarchy. That's not only a useful statement on the value of ideology in the Middle East, but perhaps recognition by Asad that he, too, is a republican monarch.

What Sistani said
There is confusion over reports that Ayatollah Sistani had issued a fatwa permitting Shiites to allow coalition forces to continue their operations. However, that appears to have since been denied, which leads in Beirut’s Al-Safir, but that also seems to be corroborated by the appearance on Iraq satellite of whom I believe was Sistani declaring his opposition to the invasion.

This requires more context, however, and I hope to provide some anon.

Go figure
I'm trying to square this statement (here):

"Now that we have penetrated Baghdad's outer ring, the likelihood [of a chemical or biological attack] is negligible," said Captain Adam Mastrianni, the intelligence officer of the 101st Airborne Division's Aviation Brigade.

With this statement, by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday (which you can find here):

And [Rumsfeld] said he believed the Iraqis may not have used chemical weapons thus far because ‘"maybe they are holding out because they think there may be a deal."

Thursday, April 03, 2003

Syria and the U.S.
Interesting material on the Syrian-U.S. front, but I will have to post that all tomorrow and Saturday, including links, as I have no time now. But for a peek ahead, you might want to check Instapundit and Glenn Reynolds' link to a World Tribune report from Kuwait's Al-Rai al-Aam (which I have right here) noting that U.S. special forces destroyed part of the Kirkuk-Banyas pipeline, which Syria was using to illegally import oil from Iraq outside the oil-for-food program--earning Syria some $1bn.

This from the Washington Post:

Brooks said a senior Shiite Muslim theologian with the rank of grand ayatollah, highest in the Shiite hierarchy, who had been held under house arrest by the Iraqis, had ordered local people in Najaf not to interfere with the U.S.-led invasion troops.

"A prominent cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who had been placed under house arrest by the regime for a considerable period of time, issued a fatwa," or religious decree, Brooks said.

It is interesting that Sistani had issued an earlier fatwa--no doubt under government duress--declaring a jihad against any invaders. It was this earlier fatwa that Syrian foreign ministry official Butheina Shaaban had cited to me as proof that Iraq's Shiites would not support an outside military attack.

We'll have to see, now, won't we?

Out of Baghdad
Two of Al-Jazeera's correspondents have been expelled from Baghdad, which has led the station to suspend all live broadcasts from Iraq. The question is why? I propose three entirely spurious theories:

(1) The Iraqis are going to defend themselves in Baghdad in ways they would prefer not to show;
(2) If the regime loses power, it doesn't want this shown on TV so that its base of support elsewhere collapses (which might suggest a Tikrit option--the royal family fleeing Baghdad to its tribal homeland); and
(3) They thought Peter Arnett was more their type and want to revive his career by giving him exclusivity.

Apologies to readers for the slow download time in some areas. If anybody has ideas on how to speed things up, please send an email to this temporary address: Like Donald Rumsfeld I'm fighting this blog war on the cheap, which means some aspects of the site are less than ideal.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Khazraji watch update
According to the Al-Arabiya satellite station, the Danish government has asked the U.S. for information on Gen. Nizar Khazraji. This is the first serious indication that the Danes suspect Washington of having possibly been involved in his disappearance from house arrest in Denmark two weeks ago.

Ambushing Ajami
Sunday evening the Lebanese LBCI satellite channel interviewed American-Lebanese academic Fouad Ajami on its The Event show, with Shada Omar. What started as a talk-show quickly turned into an ambush. On the show, too, was former Iraqi minister Abdel Razzaq Hashemi. Predictably, Hashemi spent the program personally attacking Ajami, who supports the Iraq campaign and is indeed one of its ideologues.

More surprising was Omar's performance. Several times she cut Ajami off, and twice she departed from Iraq to suggest he was pro-Israeli. LBCI also allowed a viewer, one Bushra Khalil, to call in and report that former US president George Bush had allegedly said of Ajami: "No one hates the Arabs like him."

Ajami's reaction was interesting. Though he defended the Anglo-American attack as an opportunity to establish a new liberal order in the Middle East, it was only when he resorted to Shiite symbolism that I believed he scored points with the largely pro-Iraqi audience. He berated Hashemi, asking him about Saddam’s innumerable victims, prominent among them that of the Shiite cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and his venerated sister Bint al-Huda, whom the Iraqi leader ordered savagely executed in 1980. A friend of mine recently informed me that Lebanese Hizbullah officials to this day speak of those murders with a quiver in their voice.

I was Fouad's student, and he was kind enough to invite me recently to give lectures at my alma mater, Johns Hokins SAIS. However, I had never heard him speak in Arabic and found very intriguing, and understandable in the context, his resort to the highly emotional Baqir al-Sadr and Bint al-Huda passion play, an essential moment in recent Shiite history in Iraq. It was ironical that only minutes before Ajami had described himself as "not an Arab, but an American of Arab origin, who left Lebanon as a young man and who took the U.S. nationality because I believe in American values."

I accept the latter statement at face value, but was genuinely fascinated by his ability to invoke a powerful Arab image. Fascinated, and happy to see his detractors hunt for an impossible response to such an elemental example of Saddam's brutality--but also to a challenge spoken in a language they could understand, since his earlier comments on a liberal order fell largely on deaf ears.

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