Iraq 10 years on

Loved this article about Iraq by Peter Harling, The new normal in Baghdad:

While Iraqis wait for a genuine normalisation that is too long in coming, they cobble together an everyday existence, and manage surprisingly well to navigate their way through a convoluted political system, a shattered society, a dislocated city and an economy complicated by numerous forms of predation. For example, most homes use three different sources of electricity: the government network for up to a few hours a day, then the local private generator, and their own small back-up motor to cope with the many breakdowns. It is an absurd system that works perfectly well. Corruption at checkpoints — some of which have no other purpose — has become part of life. New expressions are entering everyday language to label and handle these incongruous phenomena. For instance, the untranslatable term hawasim, stemming from Saddam’s propaganda of 2003, in which the war was to be “decisive” and “definite”: it has since been used to refer to the wide variety of unlawful behaviour made possible by disorder. Humour is not in short supply either. But all this creativity does not detract from the resilience of the old landmarks to which Iraqis seem more attached than ever — the good bakeries and classic cafés remain unchanged, and masguf-style grilled fish has become more than a tradition, almost an obsession. 
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Influx of Iraqi Shiites to Syria Widens War’s Scope

Influx of Iraqi Shiites to Syria Widens War’s Scope

Yasir Ghazi and Tim Arango, in the NYT, write that Iraqis are continuing their sectarian fight in Syria:

BAGHDAD — Militant Sunnis from Iraq have been going to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad for months. Now Iraqi Shiites are joining the battle in increasing numbers, but on the government’s side, transplanting Iraq’s explosive sectarian conflict to a civil war that is increasingly fueled by religious rivalry.

Some Iraqi Shiites are traveling to Tehran first, where the Iranian government, Syria’s chief regional ally, is flying them to Damascus, Syria’s capital. Others take tour buses from the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Iraq, on the pretext of making a pilgrimage to an important Shiite shrine in Damascus that for months has been protected by armed Iraqis. While the buses do carry pilgrims, Iraqi Shiite leaders say, they are also ferrying weapons, supplies and fighters to aid the Syrian government.

“Dozens of Iraqis are joining us, and our brigade is growing day by day,” Ahmad al-Hassani, a 25-year-old Iraqi fighter, said by telephone from Damascus. He said that he arrived there two months ago, taking a flight from Tehran.

The Iraqi Shiites are joining forces with Shiite fighters from Lebanon and Iran, driving Syria ever closer to becoming a regional sectarian battlefield.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Mission accomplished for big oil in Iraq?

Mission accomplished for big oil?

Greg Muttit in Le Monde Diplomatique:

Here, as a start, is a little scorecard of what’s gone on in Iraq since Big Oil arrived two and a half years ago: corruption’s skyrocketed; two Western oil companies are being investigated for either giving or receiving bribes; the Iraqi government is paying oil companies a per-barrel fee according to wildly unrealistic production targets they’ve set, whether or not they deliver that number of barrels; contractors are heavily over-charging for drilling wells, which the companies don’t mind since the Iraqi government picks up the tab.

Meanwhile, to protect the oil giants from dissent and protest, trade union offices have been raided, computers seized and equipment smashed, leaders arrested and prosecuted. And that’s just in the oil-rich southern part of the country.

In Kurdistan in the north, the regional government awards contracts on land outside its jurisdiction, contracts which permit the government to transfer its stake in the oil projects — up to 25% — to private companies of its choice. Fuel is smuggled across the border to the tune of hundreds of tankers a day.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Universities in Iraq

I was traveling last week so I didn't get around to posting this when it came out, but I recently wrote an article about Iraqi universities and the challenges they face for The Chronicle of Higher Education. The article is behind the subscription wall, but here's the beginning:

Eight years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and a few months after the withdrawal of the military forces from the country, Iraq's universities, devastated by years of dictatorship, sanctions, and war, are still struggling to recover. The security situation has improved since the deadly, dark days of 2006 and 2007, when the country teetered on the brink of sectarian war, hundreds of professors were assassinated, and thousands more fled the country.

Today some of those refugee scholars have returned. The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has a bigger budget and new, ambitious plans. Iraqi universities are looking to the outside world, hoping that international partnerships will help them reform their curricula and retrain their staffs. The government is investing more in public scholarship programs to send thousands of graduate students to study abroad and make up the country's new teaching cadres.

On the other hand, Iraqi universities remain highly centralized, politicized, and in need of systemic reform. The country is ruled by parties representing Iraq's Shiite majority, which was discriminated against under Saddam Hussein. But today, Sunnis and secular Shiites worry that academic standards and freedoms are still threatened by sectarianism and religious and political ideology—just in reverse. They complain of discrimination and say that university appointments are being made on the basis of religious affiliation and political connections rather than academic qualifications.

"Before, the Baath Party was controlling all universities, and you had to be a high party official to be university president or dean," says Nadje Al-Ali, a professor of gender studies at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, who has worked on several efforts to connect Iraqi academics with their counterparts in the region. "Now each political party controls a university—the only pluralism is the plurality of dictatorial parties that are using the same methods to exert control."

The four major universities in Baghdad, for example, are each headed by a president that represents a particular political party or faction. I don't know Iraq well, but if the universities are anything to go on, the new, "democratic" country touted by US officials is a deeply dysfunctional one where sectarianism and the threat of violence shadows everything in a very oppressive way. I found it telling that not a single Iraqi academic who is currently inside the country would speak to me on the record. 

"Curveball" confesses to lying about WMDs

Man whose WMD lies led to 100,000 deaths confesses all - The Independent

A man whose lies helped to make the case for invading Iraq – starting a nine-year war costing more than 100,000 lives and hundreds of billions of pounds – will come clean in his first British television interview tomorrow.

But Mr Janabi, speaking in a two-part series, Modern Spies, starting tomorrow on BBC2, says none of it was true. When it is put to him "we went to war in Iraq on a lie. And that lie was your lie", he simply replies: "Yes."

 

"Curveball", the Iraqi defector who fabricated claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, smiles as he confirms how he made the whole thing up. It was a confidence trick that changed the course of history, with Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi's lies used to justify the Iraq war.

He tries to defend his actions: "My main purpose was to topple the tyrant in Iraq because the longer this dictator remains in power, the more the Iraqi people will suffer from this regime's oppression."

The chemical engineer claimed to have overseen the building of a mobile biological laboratory when he sought political asylum in Germany in 1999. His lies were presented as "facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence" by Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, when making the case for war at the UN Security Council in February 2003.

Of course the real crime is not an Iraqi trying to manipulate foreign powers — it's the US and UK officials who decided to believe him because they wanted the war anyway. And none of these have yet been prosecuted.

 

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Iraq's oil

Occasional contributor Paul Mutter has a piece up at FPIF looking at the situation of oil major in Iraq, where the US still trails behind China in presence and can't get the kind of legislation for oil. Does that prove that the US was not after oil in Iraq, among other grand geostrategic objectives? No, it just shows there's hardly a silver lining for Americans after all the blood and treasure that was sunk into that adventure.

Dahr Jamail's report on energy majors in Iraq reminds us of one of the other, other, other reasons for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the one nearest and dearest to neoconservatives' political action committees: oil.

Ostensibly, "oil" was part of the discussion on Saddam Hussein because of U.S. sanctions, the threat that Saddam would use oil money to bankroll terrorist organizations, and the idea that new oil revenues would help jumpstart the post-Saddam Iraqi economy.

Those were the reasons paraded around in public. Then there were the ones being discussed -- well before Condi and Dick made the Sunday morning talk show rounds -- in the arcane, interconnected world of multinational corporations, federal departments and think tanks:

Like it or not, Iraqi reserves represent a major asset that can quickly add capacity to world oil markets and inject a more competitive tenor to oil trade. However, such a policy will be quite costly as this trade-off will encourage Saddam Hussein to boast of his "victory" against the United States, fuel his ambitions, and potentially strengthen his regime.

The U.S. invasion rather nicely took care of that dilemma, and, of course, the U.S. government and U.S. oil majors moved to secure pieces of the pie before other countries could come in. Alongside other Western governments and oil majors, Washington is pushing for an Iraq Oil Law that would allow privatization and Production Sharing Agreements (PSAs), which, Jamail reports, are only used in 12% of the world's oil market. Why only 12%? Because more nationalistic individuals don't like signing off on them: in Russia, for instance, Vladimir Putin made rescinding PSAs Boris Yeltsin's government had signed with U.S. and UK firms a top priority. The law has stalled in the Iraqi Parliament. 

Read the rest here.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Why is any US money being spent in Iraq anymore?

Tomgram: Engelhardt, Lessons from Lost Wars in 2012 | TomDispatch:

After all, having seemingly moved much of the U.S. to Iraq, leaving was no small thing.  When the U.S. military began stripping the 505 bases it had built there at the cost of unknown multibillions of taxpayer dollars, it sloughed off $580 million worth of no-longer-wanted equipment on the Iraqis.  And yet it still managed to ship to Kuwait, other Persian Gulf garrisons, Afghanistan, and even small towns in the U.S. more than two million items ranging from Kevlar armored vests to port-a-potties.  We’re talking about the equivalent of 20,000 truckloads of materiel.

Not surprisingly, given the society it comes from, the U.S. military fights a consumer-intensive style of war and so, in purely commercial terms, the leaving of Iraq was a withdrawal for the ages.  Nor should we overlook the trophies the military took home with it, including a vast Pentagon database of thumbprints and retinal scans from approximately 10% of the Iraqi population.  (A similar program is still underway in Afghanistan.) 

When it came to “success,” Washington had a good deal more than that going for it.  After all, it plans to maintain a Baghdad embassy so gigantic it puts the Saigon embassy of 1973 to shame.  With a contingent of 16,000 to 18,000 people, including a force of perhaps 5,000 armed mercenaries (provided by private security contractors like Triple Canopy with its $1.5 billion State Department contract), the “mission” leaves any normal definition of “embassy” or “diplomacy” in the dust.

In 2012 alone, it is slated to spend $3.8 billion, a billion of that on a much criticized police-training program, only 12% of whose funds actually go to the Iraqi police.  To be left behind in the “postwar era,” in other words, will be something new under the sun.

Surely Iran can pay the police they might very well end up controlling, no?

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Making a mess of Iraq

Hugh Pope, author of "Dining with al-Qaeda", reviews Peter van Buren's "We Meant Well", the memoir of a State Dept. provincial governor in Iraq, on his blog. I had the pleasure of having dinner at Hugh's beautiful Istanbul home last week (fantastic fish!) and he was raving about this book:

Informed by his State Department employers that he could either serve in a Middle East war zone or watch his career wilt, Peter Van Buren chose active service helping to rebuild Iraq. His year embedded in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the notorious Sunni triangle resulted in We Meant Well: how I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, a delightful, 269-page book that I devoured in 24 hours flat. By turns tough, tender and eye-wateringly funny, it rises far above its principal ingredients of garbage, boredom, heat, camaraderie, hypocrisy and the constant spectacle of wanton waste.

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Iraqis (and Americans) protesting occupation, sectarian govt.

Click for larger versionHere's the Facebook page for the movement and here's the full comic pamphlet (PDF). 

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

An odd cable from Iraq

I liked this passage in a US Embassy Baghdad cable about a meeting with Emad Klanter, an Iraqi Shia close to Sistani:

Son of a respected Najafi Ayatollah, nephew to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, related by marriage to Muqtada al-Sadr, and bearing a faint resemblance to the actor Robert De Niro, Klanter is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad but was not wearing the traditional Shia Sayyid's garb of black turban and cloak during our meeting at the IZ villa of Saad Jabr, a Saddam-era exile opposition financier and son of Iraq's first Shia Prime Minister.

The guy goes on to trash all Iraqi politicians for referring to the Americans as "occupiers," calls Sadrists "backwards" and tries to peddle influence over Sistani. I'm sure he won't like this cable coming out. Another passage is also interesting:

When we informed him that USG patience is wearing thin with the pace of Iraqi political process, Klanter appeared incredulous that the U.S. would even consider scaling-down in Iraq "because you destroyed a regime and now you bear the responsibility to build up a replacement. If you leave there is a 100 percent certainty of civil war, which might happen anyway even if you don't leave." Swinging his arms into an abbreviated "Gator Chomp" type of gesture, he said that if the U.S, leaves "Iran will swallow us whole."

Incidentally, one of the things I'm enjoying about these cables is that the people who write them often write quite well and can be pretty funny. Kudos to American diplomats!

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

How US foreign policy works, part CLXIII

It's from 2008, but if you haven't read it before, I highly recommend former UNSCOM weapon inspector Scott Ritter's account of his dinner with Ahmad Chalabi and a bunch of neocon operatives back in 1998. It's illuminating about Chalabi, about Washington, and about how the neocon network's view of Iraq long predates the Bush administration.

There was a knock at the door, and Chalabi's butler answered. In walked Rademaker's wife, Danielle Pletka, accompanied by none other than James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA. They found seats around the table, and it became clear that this was where we would be eating. The discussion moved from the flawed military planning evident in Gen. Downing's paper and onto the issue of Chalabi's political future. Jim Woolsey was an unabashed supporter of Chalabi, something I found strange since Chalabi and the CIA were at odds over many aspects of the INC's past operations. "This [criticism] is all bunk," Woolsey said. "Chalabi is an Iraqi patriot and visionary who intimidates many lesser thinkers in Langley [CIA headquarters]. My friend Ahmed is a risk taker who understands the reality of Iraq, unlike the desk-bound analysts and risk-averse operators at the CIA. Chalabi scares these people, so they have created false accusations in order to denigrate him and ultimately destroy him." Danielle Pletka chimed in. "We cannot allow this to happen. Ahmed Chalabi has many friends in Congress, and it is our goal to make sure Ahmed Chalabi gets the support he needs to not only survive as a viable opposition figure to Saddam Hussein but more importantly to prevail in Iraq."

These people should really pay for what they did.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Twisted logic

Rather funny self-contradiction by the editor of the Saudi rag Sharq al-Awsat, who wants the Americans to force Malaki out in Iraq because he's undemocratic:

For all the American talk about the democratization of Iraq, and the necessity of the Iraqi people managing their own national issues, this is nothing more than beautiful talk that is a good excuse for the ugly reality, for what is the difference between Saddam and al-Maliki? 

But later, in the same editorial:

Post-Saddam Iraq was not in need of superficial democracy, but rather it was – and continues to be – in need of a strong ruler, from the army, in the ilk of a benevolent autocrat or an Iraqi Ataturk.

 

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Remembering the sanctions on Iraq

I've made my opposition to sanctions — on Iran or anywhere else, and yes that includes Israel (divestment and boycotts is not the same thing) — clear in previous posts. By all means impose travel bans on senior officials, exclude countries from international sports (had much effect for rugby fans in South), boycott academics and public figures who are supportive of repressive regimes, and other inventive solutions. But don't carry out policies that cut off entire populations from the global economy, leave them isolated from the world, deny them educational opportunities and even possibly slowly starves them and denies them the tools of modern life.

This is a lesson I learned in the 1990s, when still at university and researching Iraq under the sanctions. The sanctions were one of the great war crimes of the 1990s, killing at least half a million Iraqi children and creating the situation that would contribute, a decade later, to the mess that was/is Iraq. It was the deliberate de-modernization of a country, and one of the great shames of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton's policies.

Andrew Cockburn has a great piece in the LRB reviewing a new book on the sanctions and their impact:

The first intimation that the blockade would continue even though Iraq had been evicted from Kuwait came in an offhand remark by Bush at a press briefing on 16 April 1991. There would be no normal relations with Iraq, he said, until ‘Saddam Hussein is out of there’: ‘We will continue the economic sanctions.’ Officially, the US was on record as pledging that sanctions would be lifted once Kuwait had been compensated for the damage wrought during six months of occupation and once it was confirmed that Iraq no longer possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ or the capacity to make them. A special UN inspection organisation, Unscom, was created, headed by the Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus, a veteran of arms control negotiations. But in case anyone had missed the point of Bush’s statement, his deputy national security adviser, Robert Gates (now Obama’s secretary of defence), spelled it out a few weeks later: ‘Saddam is discredited and cannot be redeemed. His leadership will never be accepted by the world community. Therefore,’ Gates continued, ‘Iraqis will pay the price while he remains in power. All possible sanctions will be maintained until he is gone.’

Despite this explicit confirmation that the official justification for sanctions was irrelevant, Saddam’s supposed refusal to turn over his deadly arsenal would be brandished by the sanctioneers whenever the price being paid by Iraqis attracted attention from the outside world. And although Bush and Gates claimed that Saddam, not his weapons, was the real object of the sanctions, I was assured at the time by officials at CIA headquarters in Langley that an overthrow of the dictator by a population rendered desperate by sanctions was ‘the least likely alternative’. The impoverishment of Iraq – not to mention the exclusion of its oil from the global market to the benefit of oil prices – was not a means to an end: it was the end.

Visiting Iraq in that first summer of postwar sanctions I found a population stunned by the disaster that was reducing them to a Third World standard of living. Baghdad auction houses were filled with the heirlooms and furniture of the middle classes, hawked in a desperate effort to stay ahead of inflation. In the upper-middle-class enclave of Mansour, I watched as a frantic crowd of housewives rushed to collect food supplies distributed by the American charity Catholic Relief Services. Doctors, most of them trained in Britain, displayed their empty dispensaries. Everywhere, people asked when sanctions would be lifted, assuming that it could only be a matter of months at the most (a belief initially shared by Saddam). The notion that they would still be in force a decade later was unimaginable.

Do read the whole thing.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Dispatch: Checking points

Green Zone checkpoint. Photo by Iraq.ir.

One of my first days back in Baghdad, I tagged along with a 
photographer to go cover the handover of a small base from the 
Americans to the Iraqis up in northeast Baghdad.

I’d been in the neighborhood years ago on an embed and I was curious 
how it might have changed, and of course it was a chance to get out of 
the bureau and cruise a bit more around Baghdad.

We never made it.

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Babel

A new dispatch from Iraq by our correspondent Abu Ray.
According to the ancient texts, the Tower of Babel was a seven level step pyramid 91.5 meters high with a temple to the god Marduk on the top. Now it is a square shaped grassy knoll bordered by a water-filled trench.
The mound is surrounded by lumpy, overgrown hills, date palm trees and some distant cows grazing in the fields hosting the ruins of Babylon, a city founded 4,000 years ago. We were cautioned against walking too far away from the site as there are still some trip flares planted in the undergrowth left over from the old military base.
It is hard to say which was more exciting, visiting the ruins of Babylon, something I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid… or just driving there.
A friend of mine has been working down in Babylon as part of an effort to assess some of the problems at the site and come up with a plan to save the ruins, which are threatened by, well, all the usual things that are threatening in Iraq, as well as a rising water table.
It was a measure of just how much Iraq had changed when the bureau chief barely batted an eye when I asked if I could make the hour and a half drive south.
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Dispatch from Iraq: Do It Again

In 2005 and 2006, we ran a series of dispatches from our friend Abu Ray, who was reporting from Iraq. Abu Ray is now back in Iraq and has sent a new dispatch:

The day after I arrived, I found myself heading back to the airport, that familiar ride through west Baghdad, past the checkpoints, with the bubbles in the stomach wondering whether the flight would be canceled or some other unforeseen disaster would prevent escape.
 
This time was for work though, and I wouldn’t be flying anywhere, just on hand to watch a young Iraqi boy return home after a year in the U.S. It was a good thing I’d just arrived and didn’t yet have that trapped, desperate sensation I always remembered after leaving here for six weeks at a time.
 
It would have been a too much of a tease to come all the way to the airport, with all its accompanying emotions, and then not leave. This time around, though, I was okay with it – freshly arrive and still trying to figure out how much the place has changed.
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Iraq's elections: anything goes

 The Economist has a round-up of Iraq's election results and this nice chart. The bottom line:

The parties may still have to wait several more weeks while voting disputes are resolved and seats in parliament allocated. A complex formula will boost representation for women and minorities (including Christians) and award extra seats to the largest parties. Only then will the winner be revealed. The group with the most seats will not necessarily have won most votes.

The slowness of the count contrasted with the frenetic pace of negotiations in Baghdad’s hotel lobbies and party headquarters. No alliance came even close to an outright win. Messrs Maliki and Allawi both face an uphill struggle to find a winning coalition. Their most obvious partners are the Kurds, who are part of the present government and will seek to stay on to defend their regional privileges. With two suitors wooing them, they will demand extra concessions.

But the Kurds are no longer the sole kingmakers. Assuming they act as one block, including a newish reform party called Goran (meaning Change) as well as the two older ones, their 50-odd seats would still not be enough to give either Mr Maliki or Mr Allawi the 163 seats they need to command a majority in parliament.

So the Iraqi National Alliance, an umbrella group for Shia religious parties that campaigned strongly against both men, may hold the final balance. Within that alliance, Mr Sadr has a role. But another part of the National Alliance, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), could also play a part, even though it did badly in the election, getting only a dozen seats. As part of Mr Maliki’s current government, ISCI will also be keen to stay on board, enjoying the perks and patronage of office. But it strongly opposes Mr Allawi’s anti-Iranian stance and in the past has quarrelled with Mr Maliki too. In any case, ISCI alone is too small to swing the balance.

Having not really followed Iraq's politics since the invasion, I'm feeling it's time to take an interest again now that they are at least partly running things themselves, with all the glorious complications of that country's politics. And they've already made a comeback to the Arab regional scene by doing the classic Arab state thing at the Arab League summit: they are boycotting (a good Jazeera wrap-up btw) because Qadhafi held a meeting with Baathists. And to think they were originally meant to host...

Iran sanctions: lessons learned from Iraq

Photo by Iranian Flickr user Leila

As someone who spent part of the late 1990s working on Iraq, I am adamantly against pervasive, population-centric economic sanctions (as opposed to sanctions directed at elites). Perhaps to a greater extent than the invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration, the UN sanctions regime pushed by the Clinton administration's "dual containment" policy were criminally destructive, paving the way for the past decade's civil war and the complete breakdown of Iraqi society. Charles Tripp, in his history of Iraq, wrote of the sanctions:

Food and medecines were theoretically exempt from the embargo. However, the import of fertilizers, agricultural machinery, pesticides and chemicals that might have a dual use, as well as parts for restoring Iraq's ruined electricity and water purification systems, was forbidden. Within a relatively short time, the effects of these enforced shortages were being felt by the Iraqi population, as malnutrition and disease took their toll, causing infant mortality rates to rise to levels not seen in Iraq for over forty years. This had little impact on the regime's priorities.

A more devastating assessment is made by Geoff Dwyer in his The Scourging of Iraq : Sanctions, Law and Natural Justice, which equates the sanctions with war crimes targeting civilian population. The type of sanctions carried out against Iraq were wrong, just as the current siege of Gaza is wrong, and similar sanctions against Iran would also be wrong.

Photo from Flickr user Iraqwar

So it's somehow alarming to see move for generalized sanctions from the US Congress and energy companies already cutting their links with Iran:

Energy executives said Vitol, Glencore and Trafigura, which have hitherto sold Iran half of its petrol imports of 130,000 barrels a day, stopped supplying Tehran because of mounting political risk. “The political and public relations problems more than outweigh the business rewards,” said one executive.
The sale of petrol to Iran by non-US companies is legal as fuel imports have yet to be included in sanctions against the country. The companies declined to comment.
Vitol’s decision is particularly important as the company is by far the world’s largest oil trader. One executive familiar with Iran’s trade said “Vitol consciously decided not to participate in Iran’s tenders” at the start of the year. Trafigura, the Switzerland-based oil and metals trader, stopped selling to Iran about three months ago, an industry executive said. “They have concluded that there’s too much political and financial risk,” the executive said. Glencore stopped supply in late 2009, breaking a relationship with Iran of more than three decades.

The FT further analyzes where the Iran debate stands, and it's scary to see this line of thinking:

Supporters, including US lawmakers, argue that cutting off supplies would bring the country’s economy to its knees. To cope, they say, Tehran would need to reduce subsidies to slash consumption, an unpopular measure that would also stoke inflation.

The imposition of petrol rationing in the summer of 2007 led to public anger, with protesters setting a dozen fuel stations on fire. Some opposition supporters hope the increase in energy prices or further economic pressure from sanctions may encourage poorer people finally to join the anti-regime Green Movement.

“If the regime faced damaging economic pressure from a significant reduction in gasoline supplies ... it might decide that a nuclear bomb, instead of being the guarantor of the regime’s survival, could be the catalyst of its demise,” says Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which supports sanctions.

I'm not convinced that sanctions would really stop Iran's nuclear program (some argue that they might accelerate it), but even worse is the idea that they would push people to join the Green Movement. We know from the Iraq experience that sanctions hurt more than helped any resistance to the Saddam regime, and gave it extra tools to pacify the population. 

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Walt & Mearsheimer vindicated

I can't help but share in Stephen Walt's self-satisfaction over Tony Blair's testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry, in which he recognized that Israeli officials were consulted about the decision to invade Iraq and were a major part of the run-up to the war:

In his testimony to the Iraq war commission in the U.K., former Prime Minister Tony Blair offered the following account of his discussions with Bush in Crawford, Texas in April 2002. Blair reveals that concerns about Israel were part of the equation and that Israel officials were involved in those discussions. 

Take it away, Tony:

As I recall that discussion, it was less to do with specifics about what we were going to do on Iraq or, indeed, the Middle East, because the Israel issue was a big, big issue at the time. I think, in fact, I remember, actually, there may have been conversations that we had even with Israelis, the two of us, whilst we were there. So that was a major part of all this."

Notice that Blair is not saying that Israel dreamed up the idea of attacking Iraq or that Bush was bent on war solely to benefit Israel or even to appease the Israel lobby here at home.  But Blair is acknowledging that concerns about Israel were part of the equation, and that the Israeli government was being actively consulted in the planning for the war.

Blair's comments fit neatly with the argument we make about the lobby and Iraq. Specifically, Professor Mearsheimer and I made it clear in our article and especially in our book that the idea of invading Iraq originated in the United States with the neoconservatives, and not with the Israeli government. But as the neoconservative pundit Max Boot once put it, steadfast support for Israel is "a key tenet of neoconservatism." Prominent neo-conservatives occupied important positions in the Bush administration, and in the aftermath of 9/11, they played a major role in persuading Bush and Cheney to back a war against Iraq, which they had been advocating since the late 1990s. We also pointed out that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other Israeli officials were initially skeptical of this scheme, because they wanted the U.S. to focus on Iran, not Iraq. However, they became enthusiastic supporters of the idea of invading Iraq once the Bush administration made it clear to them that Iraq was just the first step in a broader campaign of "regional transformation" that would eventually include Iran. 

Israelis themselves were divided about the war, from what I remember of the Israeli press in the 2002-2003 period, although Ariel Sharon wasn't. This is only natural since the last time Iraq had been invaded, Scud missiles rained on Tel Aviv. Even though the scare about the Scuds proved to be disproportionate to the reality of the damage they inflicted, people were scared of the possible consequences. 

The neoconservatives, though, had no such qualms. I've been ranting for a while that, as far as I can see, not only support for a territorially maximalist and aggressive Israel is a key tenet of neoconservatism, it may be its central tenet. I see little consistent in the ideology otherwise, apart perhaps for an spirited embrace of American imperialism — but even then, outside the Middle East, there is no consistency: the neocons were not so gung-ho about Russia, North Korea, China, or Latin America after all. 

Walt ventures to suggest that Israeli political leaders, left and right, unequivocally began to support the war as a reaction to the American neocons' push in Washington and all quickly lined up to active the formal lobby (AIPAC, etc.) to push for war. Do read his lengthly explanation of how that worked. So in other words, the most controversial argument in Walt and Mearsheimer's book — that the lobby played a significant, and perhaps decisive, role in driving US policy on Iraq — is pretty much unassailably correct

Iraq's pre-electoral violence

Anthony Shadid — whom I hope will improve the NYT's Middle East coverage — reports on those terrible Baghdad bombings:

The attack came at a precarious time. The capital’s political class is mired in a dispute over the disqualification of hundreds of candidates for promoting the Baath Party of former President Saddam Hussein. Despite calls for compromise and warnings by the United States and United Nations officials that barring the candidates threatens the credibility of the vote, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has taken a hard line.

The prime minister faces a competitive campaign against a rival Shiite Muslim alliance, which has proved eager to question his anti-Baathist credentials as well as his claims of restoring a semblance of security.

American officials have warned that violence will almost assuredly escalate before the vote, and survivors of the attack offered as many suspects as motives — including Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a homegrown terrorist group, acting with Baathists, as well as Mr. Maliki’s rivals. Mr. Maliki has blamed Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the Baathists for the previous attacks, though American military officials have consistently maintained that Al Qaeda acted alone.

“The parties have already started fighting over the seats of power,” said Heidar Abbas, 42, a pharmacist. “Who’s responsible? It’s the parties themselves.”

I rarely post on Iraq, because I think it's well-covered elsewhere and I haven't been there, but as the story on Iraq increasingly becomes about the Iraqis rather than the US presence or foreign fighters, I think that may change. Certainly the decision of the Iraqi government to ban former Baathists seems ill-advised and contrary to most experience of successful national reconciliation.

Comment

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.