Did Hezbollah Kill Hariri?

The German magazine Der Spiegel dropped one heck of a political bomb on Lebanon a few days ago when it reported that “United Nations investigators are now fingering Hezbollah”:http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,626412,00.html, rather than Syria, for the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination with a car bomb in downtown Beirut on Valentine’s Day in 2005.

The story is based on information from anonymous sources “close to the tribunal” and documents of unknown authenticity. We don’t know yet if the lead is accurate. Intriguingly, though, the UN’s spokesperson for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon “neither confirms nor denies Der Spiegel’s report”:http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=94770. If a potentially explosive accusation like this one were false, I’d expect the UN to deny it emphatically.

Someone in Lebanon’s anti-Hezbollah “March 14” coalition may be hoping to use disinformation in Der Spiegel as a political weapon. These things happen. I’ve been lied to in Lebanon by people I trusted. It’s also possible that someone inside the UN thinks the people of Lebanon have a right to know what Hezbollah has done “before they go to the polls next month”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/65851 and place assassins in the saddle in Beirut.

One of my own well-connected sources in Lebanon had this to say over email: “A rumor that the tribunal is going to end up issuing its indictments against Hezbollah, not Syria, has been floating around Beirut for the past month or so, and among highly credible sources. The impression I’ve gotten is that it would be largely a political move, a way to nail Hezbollah — and by association Iran — while largely letting Syria off the hook in the interests of promoting this fantasy-world ‘rapprochement’ with Damascus. Everyone I’ve heard discussing this still believes Syria did it. It’s a no brainer [sic] even if Hezbollah did play a role in carrying out the assassination.”

It is strange that, according to the Der Spiegel report, the evidence no longer points toward Syrian President Bashar Assad. That doesn’t quite pass the smell test. It’s possible, I suppose, that the UN may want to whitewash or downplay Assad’s involvement for diplomatic reasons, to promote “rapprochement” with Damascus, as some Lebanese seem to think. What is far less likely — and, in my opinion, almost impossible — is a UN plot to indict Hezbollah on false pretenses. Either Der Spiegel’s sources are taking the magazine for a ride, or the evidence against Hezbollah is authentic.

Hariri’s son and Future Movement party leader Saad Hariri is being extraordinarily careful. “We will not comment on any press leaks that do not directly come from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon,” he said. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Hezbollah’s fiercest critic since Syria’s ousting in 2005, is cautious too. “We cannot allow what the Der Spiegel magazine released on Saturday to become another Ain el-Remmaneh incident,” he said, referring to “the Lebanese civil war’s trigger”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebanese_Civil_War#Sectarian_violence_and_civilian_massacres in 1975.

Leaders of the “March 14” bloc could hardly ask for a more effective political weapon against Hezbollah during the run-up to the election next month, but they also couldn’t ask for one that’s more dangerous. Jumblatt is right to invoke the incident that ignited the worst war in his country’s history. Accusing Hezbollah of assassinating Hariri — and, by implication, of assassinating a number of journalists and members of parliament in the meantime — could easily do to Lebanon what Al Qaeda’s Samarra mosque bombing in 2006 did to Iraq.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/did-hezbollah-kill-hariri–15155.

Did Hezbollah Assassinate Rafik Hariri?

According to Germany’s Der Spiegel, United Nations investigators now believe “Hezbollah assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri”:http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,626412,00.html on Valentine’s Day in 2005. Der Spiegel might be wrong, and, if not, UN investigators themselves might be wrong. I’m no fan of Hezbollah, but I need more evidence before I’m willing to say “Hezbollah did it.”

Even so, this could be an enormous bombshell in Lebanon where voters go to the polls in a few weeks.

UPDATE: The Der Spiegel story isn’t sourced, so it could be bogus. But “NOW Lebanon reports”:http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=94770 that the UN spokesperson for the tribunal has “no comment.” I’d expect the spokesperson to deny the story if it were false. At this point, I’m willing to assume the UN really does think Hezbollah did it.

Davos in the Desert

Dispatches from conferences in the Middle East don’t tend to make interesting reading, but Jay Nordlinger managed to write five this week. He attended the World Economic Forum on the Middle East next to Jordan’s Dead Sea, and what he saw and heard is far more interesting than I would have expected.

Here is a taste.

It can be a wondrous thing to hear Arab elites talk behind closed doors. They can be bracingly, sometimes thrillingly, candid. They recognize the problems of Arab society; they are eager to confront and surmount them.

At a lunch, I hear things like, “We Arabs are at the bottom of everything — at the bottom of every index: literacy, capitalism, the rights of women. Everything. In our countries, we have cults of personality, dictatorships, dynasties . . . Where is democracy? Where is rotation in office?

“In the past, extremist Islam was unusual; now it is usual. In the Soviet Union, South Africa, South Korea, there was restructuring. But not in our region. We have no Gorbachev, we have no de Klerk, we have no Kim Dae-jung. The vast majority of our people are chromosomally reasonable and moderate. And the human spirit must be unleashed here.”

How touching it is, too, to hear a Syrian woman plead for human rights. Many of her countrymen — many of her best ones — are in cells.

I wish the whole world could hear what I have heard at this lunch.

But you also hear the old voices — the Old Guard, as I call them. And, as always, they are depressing. They cannot speak without fingering Israel and the United States. In their eyes, everything bad stems from Israel and the United States. And no progress can be made until Israel ceases to occupy the West Bank. (They’re now out of Gaza, of course. Fat lot of good that did.)

Arab countries can’t drop crippling socialism until Israel leaves the West Bank. Nepotism must continue until Israel leaves the West Bank. Women cannot drive until Israel leaves — and “honor killings” must go on. Corruption must prevail in Arab countries as long as Israel occupies the West Bank.

Etc., etc. This attitude is not only insane — it is harmful to the point of destructiveness.

As a rule, I encounter two types of Arab elite: those who recognize Arab problems, and are willing to tackle them; and those who fixate on Israel and America. Members of the former group are so refreshing, you want to hug them; members of the latter group are not just lamentable, but despicable. They are the excuse-makers. And they hold the entire region back.


There are major Arab excuse-makers here by the Dead Sea — and the leading one, I would say, is Amr Moussa, the longtime secretary-general of the Arab League. He is the epitome, the purest representative, of the Old Guard. But you know who most of the excuse-makers are? Americans and Europeans. Middle Easterners themselves are far more likely to be candid and clear-eyed.


In these journals past — from the Middle East and from Davos — I have remarked on the anti-Americanism of the Americans. It is always strutting about. An Arab says that his country must liberate itself from illiteracy and ignorance, in order to make progress politically. An American woman says, chortling to her companion, “We need to do that in America.”

Keep laughin’, lady.

Read all five parts “here”:http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=MDYwNjEzNTgwNGYxYTEwODNjYmFhOTk4YTM1OWIxODI=, “here”:http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=MzZhMDhjMTNkOWE4Y2Y3OTE2ODNmNDIwM2E2MTliYTM=, “here”:http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=MTUyMWU4NGNkNmRkNzI1NWIwMzA1NmViOTYxNDI0N2Q=, “here”:http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=YTFlMjNhMmY1MTk4ZjZkODM4MTZhMjgwODE2YTNlNmQ=, and “here”:http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=ODUwYTg2OTk2NDgyMDhjZWRiNjUwODJiYjczODA1MmE=.

The HuffPo’s Lonely Planet Foreign Policy

“Roger Cohen”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/tobin/55752 seems to have invented a genre. At the very least he has imitators. Olivia Sterns just published “a piece at the Huffington Post”:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/olivia-sterns/syrias-softer-side-the-ob_b_205163.html decrying Syria’s “misrepresentation” in the media and arguing that President Barack Obama “embrace” Damascus’s tyrant Bashar Assad as a peace partner because the locals were nice to her when she visited Syria on vacation.

“Often described as a hotbed of anti-Americanism,” she writes, “that eschews ties to the West under Iranian tutelage, in reality that reputation couldn’t be further from the truth.” Her evidence that Syria isn’t really a hotbed of anti-Americanism? Assad schedules date nights with his stylish wife, locals in the souks are friendly to tourists, and the police keep visitors safe. All these things are true, but so what? Syria is still Iran’s staunchest ally, a hotbed of anti-Americanism, and a state-sponsor of terrorism and “resistance.”

Sterns lives in London and no doubt knows better than I do that European anti-Americanism is often in your face, rude, and obnoxious. The political is sometimes personal in the West, but that’s rarely the case in the Middle East. Arab hospitality even toward visitors from enemy countries is legendary and the stuff of guidebook clichés, yet Sterns writes as though she is startled to discover that Arabs have manners, that Syria isn’t a Mordor teeming with flesh-eating Orcs.

There’s nothing wrong with writing about personal warmth in Arabic countries. I often color my own dispatches from Lebanon and Iraq with Arab hospitality, but I’m careful to avoid making sweeping assumptions based on little else.

On my last trip to Iraq I visited the Adhamiyah sector of Baghdad. The people living there were just as friendly as the stridently pro-American Kurds in the northern provinces whose only insurgency was waged against Saddam Hussein, but their political views were radically different. U.S. Army soldiers introduced me to a trusted Iraqi informant who told me around 60 percent of his neighbors supported Al Qaeda not long ago. My Iraqi translator, who knows public opinion better than I ever will, said the neighborhood was a Baath Party stronghold when the old regime was in power and that a majority of the people there remain anti-American. Few Iraqis I casually met betrayed even a hint of hostility, and most would have been too polite to reveal it had I asked what they thought of me and my country.

If Sterns wants to write about what Syria’s people actually think about America and the peace process, she should ask them and quote them. They might politely conceal their anti-Americanism, but they aren’t at all likely to hide their support for Hezbollah or their hatred for Israel.

“Listen to what Lee Smith heard”:http://www.theweeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/012/478aqyud.asp during the 2006 war when he escaped Lebanon to Damascus, where posters of Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah were ubiquitous even in Christian areas. “If you think that the U.S. or anyone can offer the Syrian government a deal to abandon its support for Nasrallah and Khaled Meshal,” said a 25-year-old TV producer, “you are crazy, because all Syrians support the resistance.”

“The Arabs are traitors,” “another Syrian told him”:http://www.theweeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/012/493ptzfp.asp. “All the rest deal with Israel or they signed peace treaties with Israel. The only men in the Middle East worth anything are our President Bashar, Hassan Nasrallah, and Ahmadinejad. The Arab leaders combined aren’t worth the shoes of these three brothers.”

Smith had a hard time finding anyone in Syria who opposed Hezbollah’s jihad against Israel. “It is clear,” “he concluded”:http://www.theweeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/012/478aqyud.asp, “that the regime and the people are in perfect sync.” His in-depth reporting is strikingly different from that of Sterns and provides real evidence that Syria is part of the problem and not the solution.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/the-huffpo-s-lonely-planet-foreign-policy-15153.

Brace for a Hezbollah Victory

Brace yourself for a possible Hezbollah victory in Lebanon. On June 7, 2009, Lebanese voters will go to the polls, and even some in Beirut’s current “March 14″ government think the Hezbollah-led “March 8″ coalition might squeak out a win.

Lebanon, though, isn’t Gaza. A “March 8″ upset at the ballot box, if it happens, won’t come about the same way Hamas won the last Palestinian elections. Palestinians had only two viable parties to choose from, Fatah and Hamas. One Palestinian I know said Fatah’s corrupt men were so hated that even then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert might have won if he stood for election against them.

Politics are much more complicated in Lebanon. The country is so ideologically fractious it makes Iraq look cohesive. Lebanon has almost as many political parties as people, yet most end up in one absurdly diverse coalition or the other. Not everyone in the anti-Syrian “March 14″ camp is a liberal democrat, and not everyone on the “March 8″ side is a jihadist.

“March 14″ includes both right-wing Christians and the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance. They agree on Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah being menaces, but little else. Liberal Christians, libertarian Sunnis, disgruntled Shias, and most of the Druze are there, too.

Hezbollah leads the “March 8″ bloc, but is just one part of it. The Party of God is joined by the secular Shia Amal party because the two make a formidable duo in promoting Shia interests within Lebanon’s sectarian political system.

Michel Aoun’s predominantly Christian Free Patriotic Movement viscerally fears and loathes Saudi Arabia. And the Aounists, for now anyway, would rather forge a cynical tactical alliance with Syria, Iran, and the radical Shias than get in bed with Wahhabis and the rest of the Arab world.

The Aounists are just using Hezbollah because they think it’s expedient and convenient. “The situation in the South is finished,” “one of them told me”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2006/12/hezbollahs-christian-allies.php, referring to the violent conflict between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. “If it happens again, [Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah will lose his case.” “We’ll extend our hand and ask them to join us,” “said another”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2006/12/hezbollahs-christian-allies.php. “But we can’t wait forever. If they refuse to disarm, we’ll crack the sh*t out of them.”

Hezbollah supporters themselves are all over the place ideologically. Many thrill to jihad and the destruction of Israel as the leadership does. Others believe Hezbollah’s military strength is Lebanon’s only defense against an impending Israeli invasion. They want deterrence, not war, and simply fail to understand that a disarmed Hezbollah is their best bet for peace and quiet. They are bombarded daily with hysterical propaganda on Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV and in Hezbollah’s schools against the supposedly warmongering “Zionist Entity.” Others simply reward Hezbollah with votes out of gratitude for their network of hospitals, schools, and other humanitarian fronts.

On my last trip to Lebanon, several “March 14″ supporters made a convincing case that daily life in Lebanon wouldn’t change much if “March 8″ won in June. Hezbollah has the freedom to do whatever it wants even now, because Lebanon’s government has always been weak and a hair’s breadth away from irrelevance no matter who runs it. Hezbollah itself is only expected to win ten parliamentary seats out of a total of 128. That’s less than eight percent.

Geopolitically though, everything will change. Lebanon’s current “March 14″ government is an ally of the West and of Arab governments other than Syria’s. Prime Minister Fouad Seniora has repeatedly — and I think honestly — stated he wants a renewed armistice agreement with Israel. A “March 8″ government would reverse all those diplomatic efforts and push Lebanon back into, or at the very least toward, the Syria-Iran axis. War prospects with Israel would increase, and any eventual war would almost certainly turn out more destructive than the last one if the people of Lebanon willingly elect a coalition led by a jihadist party vowing war and destruction.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/65851.

The Future of Iraq, Part I

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During my last trip to Baghdad I tried to figure out if the worst in Iraq is over or if the dramatic reduction in violence is just a long lull. Half the Iraqis and half the Americans I spoke to were optimistic. The other half think Iraq is probably doomed. I have no idea who’s right, and neither does anyone else. This is the first in a four-part series where I’ll present both cases and let you decide what to think for yourself. We’ll start with the good news.


Captain Todd Allison slipped off his helmet and tucked it under his arm as he and I walked on a dusty residential street in a Shia quarter of Baghdad.

“This is the safest place in the city,” he said. He no longer needed his helmet or body armor, and neither did I. “This street is protected by JAM.”

JAM is short for Jaysh al Mahdi, Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Mahdi Army militia. Not much of that militia remains since the Iraqi Army purged Basra and Sadr City of Shia insurgents last spring, but Sadr and his men still have clout in some areas. “JAM” is also a somewhat imprecise term used to describe any of the various armed Shia extremist groups in Iraq funded and trained by the Iranian Quds Force.

I joined Captain Allison and captains Todd Looney and Clint Rusch for dinner at Iraqi Army General Nasser’s house to discuss politics and security. General Nasser greeted us at the door and welcomed us warmly in Arabic. After introducing us to Iraqi Army intelligence officer Major Kareem, he invited us to sit and drink black tea with sugar.

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(From left) Interpreter Eddie, Captain Todd Looney, General Nasser, Captain Todd Allison, Jaysh al Mahdi member Hajji Jasim, Captain Clint Rusch

“We’ve also got a JAM guy joining us tonight,” Captain Allison said.

Hajji Jasim, our JAM companion, was from the Organization of the Martyr Sadr, the supposed “political wing” of the Mahdi Army. The distinction between the Mahdi Army’s “political” and “military” wings is a diplomatic invention. The U.S. military came up with it partly as an excuse to meet with members of an enemy militia, and partly to signal to Sadr that he can dissolve his militia without having to retire from politics.

The British government is trying this approach with Hezbollah in Lebanon, but Hezbollah refuses to play along and makes it abundantly clear that no distinct “political wing” exists. “All political, social and jihad work is tied to the decisions of this leadership,” said Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem. “The same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions in the struggle against Israel.”

The Mahdi Army, though, is a bit cannier than Hezbollah and is willing to go along with the ruse because it’s expedient. “We’re all part of the same hypocrisy,” Captain Allison said. “Hajji Jasim is using us, and we’re using him.”

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Captain Todd Allison

General Nasser sat in a high-backed chair in front of the window and wrapped himself in a heavy robe as thick as a blanket. “We wear this type of outfit in winter,” he said, “to keep us warm.” It was still cold then in Iraq. At least Iraqis felt cold. I did not need a jacket, let alone a thick blanket.

Saddam Hussein threw General Nasser in prison during the 1991 Gulf War. Now that Saddam’s regime is out of the way and Nasser’s own Shia community dominates Iraq’s politics, he’s angling to be picked as the Minister of Defense.

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General Nasser

I asked him what most Iraqis really thought about the new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed by the United States and Iraq. The American military is welcome to stay in Iraq for a few more years, but is obligated to evacuate most Iraqi cities by the middle of 2009.

“Most people here are in favor of SOFA,” he said, “but JAM and Iran try to prevent people from knowing what it is really about. Iraqi journalists explain it well, though. We in the security department try to make sure everyone knows about it. The only people who don’t accept it are uneducated.”

“That describes most people in Sadr City,” Captain Heil said.

Major Kareem joined the conversation. He’s an intelligence officer in charge of the Iraqi Army’s 44th Brigade.

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Major Kareem

“They’ve been brainwashed for five years by JAM,” he said. “But people have been turning against them. Even regular people in those areas are beginning to cooperate. Even many JAM members themselves understand reality and are starting to talk to us. The end is now very obvious.”

“Our concern,” Captain Heil said to Major Kareem, “is that those who are left really just want to keep on fighting. They’re the ones aligned with Iran. Are they going to keep fighting?”

“Now we’re at the core of the problem,” Major Kareem said.

“If we weren’t here,” Captain Heil said, “they couldn’t attack us. This is part of the problem. Even when JAM has been defeated, there are groups that just want to attack coalition forces. They all want to claim that they drove us out of Iraq.”

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Major Kareem (left), Captain Heil (right)

If American forces withdrew from Iraq under fire from Shia militias, two contradictory things would happen at the same time. The militias’ excuse to exist would be yanked out from under them, but their credibility would be bolstered thanks to their perceived victory.

“resistance” only makes sense if there is someone around to resist. This is Hezbollah’s dilemma in Lebanon. And it explains why Hezbollah became obsessed with the alleged Israeli occupation of Lebanon’s Shebaa Farms only after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000.

Hardly anyone in Lebanon had ever heard of the microscopic and uninhabited Shebaa Farms region before 2000. Israel claims the area belongs to Syria and will be given back if and when Damascus signs a peace treaty. Hezbollah claims the land is Lebanese. The Syrian government refuses to say one way or the other whose land it is. If Damascus says the land is Lebanese, Israel could give it back to Lebanon and undermine the justification for Hezbollah’s existence. If the Syrians say the Shebaa Farms belongs to them, Hezbollah’s raison d’’tre would likewise be knocked out from under them. The supposed Israeli occupation of Lebanon would end either way, and Hezbollah would have nothing left to resist. Syria, therefore, will never resolve this problem as long as Hezbollah is useful as a proxy in Lebanon.

Iraqi “resistance” groups likewise have mutually exclusive goals. They must resist the Americans, but they’ll be useless the instant they win.

“I’ve been an intelligence officer for seventeen years,” Major Kareem said, “and I’ve been working with Americans for five years. The JAM Special Groups are linked in a straight line to Iranian intelligence and Khameini’s office. They want to achieve Iranian interests in Iraq. As security forces working with the Americans, our job is to find and eliminate them.”

Ryan Crocker, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon from 1990 to 1993, and to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, compared Iran’s sponsorship of Shia militias in Iraq to its Hezbollah program in Lebanon. “Iran is pursuing,” he said in testimony to the U.S. Congress in the spring of 2008, “a Lebanonization strategy, using the same techniques they used in Lebanon to co-opt elements of the local Shia community and use them as basically instruments of Iranian force.”

“Three weeks ago,” General Kareem said, “an American brigade ambushed three Special Groups members. An op was discovered. These three members paid 20,000 dollars to a guy to go onto an American base and kidnap American soldiers. Where did they get the 20,000 dollars? I don’t have that kind of money. Hardly anyone in Iraq has that kind of money. That means they have strong financial support. We have to find these groups and detain them.”

Hajji Jasim, General Nasser’s guest from the office of the Mahdi Army’s “political wing,” sat next to Major Kareem on the couch. “Understand something,” he said to Captain Heil. “In the media, JAM only pretends to oppose the Status of Forces Agreement. Privately, we like it. It helps Sadr more than anything else. Those committing violence are going against Sadr’s orders. You wanted the occupation to last 20 more years. Now, under SOFA, it’s down to three years. That’s great for us.”

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Jaysh al Mahdi official Hajji Jasim (left), Major Kareem (right)

When I met Tom Ricks a few weeks ago, he relayed to me “an interesting anecdote”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2009/04/the-dissidents.php from his new book about the surge called The Gamble. “Sadr’s people entered into secret negotiations with the United States in, I think, 2007, about whether or not to have negotiations,” he said. “They said before we begin any talks, we have to have a date certain when you will withdraw from Iraq. The American policy said we can’t do that. So the Sadrists said well, then we can’t have talks. Then the Americans said, well, just out of curiosity, what was the [withdrawal] date you had in mind? The Sadrists said 2013. Which put them on the right-wing of the U.S. Congress.”

If the Sadrists, two years ago, wanted the United States out of Iraq after six years, of course they’re privately happy now that the United States has agreed to be out in three.

“Iran supports violent groups,” Hajji Jasim, the JAM guy, said. “But they are small and scared. They aren’t scared of you or the Iraqi Army. They’re afraid of the Iraqi people. I was in Sadr City today. People were happy. The situation is very calm there. We want safety, for your people and ours.”

“Hopefully you and your people can start doing more and we can do less,” Captain Heil said.

“After you withdraw,” Jasim said, “we will double our efforts.” When he said “we,” he meant Iraqis, not necessarily JAM. “We will prove to you that the Iraqi soldiers can do this.”

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Jaysh al Mahdi official Hajji Jasim (left), Captain Clint Rusch (right)

Not even in an alternate universe would a Hezbollah official say anything like that to an Israeli officer. There is absolutely no chance that Hezbollah will cooperate with the Lebanese Army to stamp out anti-Israeli terrorist cells in South Lebanon.

I didn’t know what to make of this guy Hajji Jasim. Whose side was he even on? The lines were not clear. One thing, at least, was clear, however: the similarities between the Mahdi Army and Hezbollah were fewer than ever.

Jasim then had to excuse himself. He couldn’t stay long at General Nasser’s house because he had an appointment with some of his JAM friends.

I wanted to ask General Nasser more about the new Status of Forces Agreement. Everything the American military will and won’t do in Iraq will be determined, at least in part, by that agreement.

“Iraqi people were hurt a lot by militias and JAM,” he said. “And JAM and the militias are the ones who say we don’t want Americans here. The agreement says Americans will withdraw in phases and then leave the country. All these militias have lost because SOFA proves Iraq is a secure environment now, and the militias lose money and power in a secure environment. I asked people who protested SOFA if they read it, and they said no. All parliament members agree with it. Those who have read and don’t like it want to profit from catastrophe in Iraq. I asked people in JAM why they don’t want to sign SOFA, and they said because they want war profits and to violently kick out Americans on their terms like in Vietnam.”

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Tigris River, Baghdad

He seemed to contradict what Hajji Jasim had just said a minute ago. The Mahdi Army, according to Jasim, was secretly happy with the Status of Forces agreement. It ensures American troops will leave Iraq at least eventually. I don’t think, however, that either Nasser or Jasim is necessarily lying or even wrong. This is the insurgent’s dilemma, the same one Hezbollah faces in Lebanon. Both want to defeat their enemies, but they cannot exist without enemies.

“If Americans leave,” General Nasser said, “JAM’s sole reason for existence and resistance is gone.”

“That’s true,” I said. “But it’s tricky. Hezbollah lost a lot of support in Lebanon after the Israelis left in 2000. But Hezbollah is still strong, still popular among the Shias at least, and still threatens Beirut at gunpoint.”

General Nasser wasn’t sure what to say about that.

Captain Todd Looney had an answer, however. “Remember,” he said, “that Israel borders Lebanon. We’ll be an ocean away. JAM can’t lob rockets at America like Hezbollah can lob rockets at Israel.”

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Captain Todd Looney

“If you pull out of here and leave us,” General Nasser said, “we know the remedy for Iraqi people. We will use force.”

Iraq has never been successfully governed by anyone but a strongman. You might even say Iraq has never been successfully governed at all. Who today sincerely believes the use of force by Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party regime was an effective “remedy” for the Iraqi people, as General Nasser put it? Still, despite my unease with what he was saying, I don’t think he necessarily meant a totalitarian system is the solution to what ails Iraq.

“Twelve JAM members were brought to court recently,” he said. “They asked to be put under American justice because you are softer and jail people under better conditions. Iraqis are not like Americans. You are educated, we aren’t. Without force, Iraqis cannot be civilized. Americans don’t use real force. You talk to people nicely and worry about human rights.”

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An Iraqi manning a checkpoint, Sadr City

This is how many Iraqi optimists talk, I am sorry to say. Most Iraqis who think the worst there is over, that the surge was more or less the end of the war, don’t believe Iraq is going to look like post-communist nations in Eastern Europe. Baghdad is not the next Prague. Iraq may be less brutal from here on out than it has been, but that doesn’t mean it will be a model democracy.

“Do you think,” I said, “the Iranian government can dial up the violence here whenever it wants to?” Iran might very well wish to ramp up attacks against American soldiers in Iraq if Israel strikes Iranian nuclear facilities later this year or next. But Iran can’t retaliate significantly in Iraq if the Shia militias are a spent force.

“The Iranians,” he said, “have already used all the violent force in Iraq that they were able to use. Iraq was caught in the middle between Iran and America. This war has been a proxy war fought inside Iraq. Iraqi Shias could only get support from Iran, but Sunnis have all the Arab countries to help them. If Sunni countries stop supporting Sunnis militias, Shias will stop seeking support from Iran. You know what Al Qaeda did to the markets here. We were forced to seek support from Iran.”

Maybe General Nasser is right, and maybe he isn’t. I heard a different answer earlier from an American military officer who asked not to be quoted by name. “Iran has been restrained,” he said. “Tehran doesn’t want to trigger an open war with the United States. They can turn up the violence if they want to, but if they do, we might be forced to do something about it. So they don’t want to.”

“If the U.S. solves three problems,” the general said, “American-Arab relations will be very good. First, resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Second, promote democracy in the Arab world. Third, destroy the Wahhabis. If you solve these problems, all will be well.”

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An Iraqi man rests on a broken couch, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“What kind of solution do you want to see for the Arab-Israeli conflict?” I said.

“1967 borders,” General Nasser said. He did not want to dwell on that, though, and I was surprised he even mentioned it. The Arab-Israeli conflict is peripheral, if not entirely irrelevant, to Iraq’s problems.

“We need to have a good relationship with the U.S.A.” he said. “The militias have bad slogans. If we finish them off, we will be okay. We need a strong relationship because the U.S.A. is powerful, educated, and prosperous. We are not against Israel or the U.S.A. Americans are my friends. A bad guy can get 40,000 dollars for killing me because they say I’m an American agent.” Then he laughed. “A JAM guy, though, the number two JAM guy after Moqtada al Sadr, recently told me don’t worry, I will protect you.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Iraqis who talk the pro-American talk are sincere or if they’re just blowing smoke. General Nasser, I think, was sincere. His body language and tone of voice said so, as did the naked calculation of his own interests.

“I had Iraqis here at my house recently,” he said. “I told them Americans are better than you because they keep their word and they are disciplined. American people are not profiteers. Their wisdom led them to this. I want Iraqis to learn about American honor.”


My Spanish colleague Ramon Lobo from the newspaper El Pa“s in Madrid joined me for a meeting with Colonel John Hort in Northern Baghdad. Ramon had been in Baghdad before as an unembedded reporter when the city was much more dangerous than it is now. This was his first trip with the United States military.

He was encouraged by how much safer Baghdad is today. Aside from the ridiculous and overly bureaucratic transportation hassles and delays that everyone who uses military transport has to put up with, he seemed to enjoy spending quality time with American soldiers. “I want to go on as many missions as possible with the Americans,” he told me. “I want to go wherever they go, I want to sleep where they sleep, and I want to eat when they eat.”

He and I spent hours discussing Iraq, the invasion, the original botched occupation, the insurgency, and the surge. Not once did I hear him trafficking in some of the hysterical nonsense I’m accustomed to reading in European media from axe-grinding correspondents who have never set foot in the country. Ramon knew Iraq too well to wallow in any of that.

We jointly interviewed the colonel in his office.

“This is my second deployment,” Colonel Hort said. “My first one was in 2005 and 2006. When I was getting ready to leave in 2006, I didn’t see a way ahead. But since the surge — I came in on the tail end of that — we’ve seen significant changes for the better, almost phenomenal. I saw ten to twelve attacks a day in my area alone. In my area now, down in Adhamiyah and Sadr City, we’re down to less than one per day.”

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Baghdad night life

“There are reasons for this,” he continued. “First, there is the surge and helping the Iraqi Security Forces develop. Second, there are the Sons of Iraq and their ability to secure their neighborhoods and see the enemy.”

Sons of Iraq is a program created by the American military that provides basic training for Iraqi civilians who wish to police their own neighborhoods. They have been described as a “militia,” but that’s only partly accurate at best. They started out doing checkpoint and community watch work, but they’re being promoted now into the Iraqi police and army, and they’re deputized and paid by the government of Iraq.

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Iraqi Police officer, Sadr City

“They are able to see the enemy through the internal networks they’ve established,” Colonel Hort said. “That went a long way throughout this last year while the Iraqi Army continued to get its feet on the ground. The Sadr City fight, more than anything else, created a greater degree of confidence that we didn’t see a year ago. And that confidence is also attributed to their successful operations in Basra and Sadr City.”

Last year, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki ordered the Iraqi Army into Basra and Sadr City to purge those areas of Shia militias. Maliki himself is a Shia, and many analysts and observers didn’t expect him to send the army after insurgents from his own community.

“The Iraqi Security Forces are growing,” Colonel Hort said. “They’ve been able to develop source networks. They’re much more effective now at targeting the Special Groups than they were. They now have a much more objective view of the insurgency.”

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Gunner Palace, Iraqi Army base, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“Can you say precisely who you’re talking about when you say Special Groups?” I said. Some of these terms get bandied about a little too casually in Iraq, so it’s not always clear who or what is being discussed.

“They are groups,” he said, “that have broken away from Moqtada al Sadr’s Jaysh al Mahdi organizational structure and have no real component that might facilitate a political resolution. That’s one part of the definition.”

“They all started out as part of the Mahdi Army then?” I said.

“Some of them did,” he said. “Some are just plain criminal elements. Most of their leaders were, at one time or another, working as a JAM brigade commander. But when ceasefires are announced, or when some kind of political reconciliation is announced, these individuals never recognize it. As a result, they began to organize with their own institutional structure. They’re almost like mafia type groups. When I tell my wife back in the States about the Special Groups, I tell her to think in terms of the mafia.”

“What can you tell me about Hezbollah?” I said. I didn’t mean Hezbollah in Lebanon, a group I know all too well. I meant Hezbollah in Iraq, a murky organization that hardly anyone ever talks about. “Are they connected in any way to Hezbollah in Lebanon, or do they just happen to have the same name?”

I actually know that Hezbollah in Iraq is connected in some ways to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Colonel Hort didn’t want to talk about that, however. No American officer I met wanted to tell me much about Hezbollah unless I agreed not to quote them by name. The few who were willing to discuss it anonymously said Hezbollah in Iraq members do receive training in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran from Lebanese Hezbollah members. I also know that the Iraqi branch of Hezbollah doesn’t engage in any kind of political activity whatsoever. They don’t even have a make-believe “political wing.” They don’t build hospitals or schools, and they do not collect donations for charity. They don’t do anything except kill people. Hezbollah in Iraq is far more vicious than Moqtada al Sadr and his men.

Colonel Hort would tell me this much, however: “Hezbollah was very very secretive in the beginning. We couldn’t see them well at all. They were extremely savvy [about operational security]. They were almost like a family in and of themselves. They’ve been focused on attacks against coalition forces rather than Iraqis or anyone else. They’ve gotten some specialized training, some weaponry like the RPG-29 — which is one of the best Eastern bloc RPGs out there — and they use them to hit M1 tanks. They’ve got the IRAM — the Improvised Rocket Assisted Mortar — that they’ve used to attack some of our Joint Security Stations. Those are their two specialties right there. They’ve also specialized in some of the more sophisticated EFPs. Hezbollah, though, is not very big. They aren’t like some of the other Special Groups out there. We’ve had a significant impact on them. They are really disrupted right now.”

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Iraqi Army post, Sadr City

Ramon wanted to know about Al Qaeda. “Have they been pushed to Diyala?” he said, referring to one of Iraq’s most violent and unstable provinces northeast of Baghdad.

“Not exactly pushed,” Colonel Hort said. “Al Qaeda has been disrupted to the point where they have to rely on a much broader area now to get help. They have to go to Ramadi, maybe, or the guys in Ramadi have to come out to Baghdad. It’s a much flatter organization, which makes it more difficult for their supply system and every other component that would make them a successful insurgency. They’ve found themselves stretched really thin. We’re dealing with low grade Al Qaeda right now as opposed to two years ago when they carried out spectacular attacks. We were seeing 20 to 30 civilian casualties a day in Baghdad. We do get that occasional attack that causes casualties in excess of five or ten now, but it’s not anything like what I saw two years ago or even a year ago. They’re definitely on the run.”

“Do you think the improvements in the last year and a half are permanent,” Ramon said, “or might Iraq become destabilized very quickly when the Americans leave?” I asked this of almost everyone I met last time in Iraq. It is the big question right now, and the truth is, nobody knows. (Colonel Hort here belongs in the optimist camp, though I’ll quote pessimists at length in later installments in this series.)

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Old Adhamiyah district, Baghdad

“It’s what we call fragile security right now,” Colonel Hort said. “We’re watching it closely with our Iraqi military counterparts. My focus, to answer your question, is ensuring that the 11th Iraqi Army Division, which is my counterpart, understands the intelligence requirements in order to target the insurgent groups. They’re continuing to develop their human source networks that allow them to see the enemy better. It’s something they didn’t really have last year. The Sons of Iraq are now part of the Iraqi Security Forces. They’re reporting to the battalion brigade division chain of command, whereas they used to report to me.”

“They can see the enemy,” Ramon said. “We can’t see the enemy because they don’t have a flag or a uniform. But I don’t know if it’s going to be safe here or not in the future.”

“I guess there are two components to the reconciliation between Americans and Iraqis,” Colonel Hort said. “One is what we’ve seen in the Sunni community with the Awakening movement. They’ve also reconciled with themselves and with the government to an extent. I can’t speak about whether or not we’re there yet, but I do know there’s some reconciliation between us and the population.”

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Market, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

I have no doubt the colonel is right about that.

Iraqi public opinion is hard to read. Most Arabs are exceptionally polite and hospitable people, and they’ll almost always conceal any hostility as a matter of course. That’s true everywhere in the Arab world as long as the people aren’t violently hostile.

Much of Iraq used to be violently hostile. Even kids in Sadr City used to throw rocks at American soldiers. Some Baghdad neighborhoods were so dangerous that Americans who left the relative security of their base had a 100 percent chance of being attacked. Overt hostility is rare now, and violent attacks are even rarer. Something important has changed. Reconciliation between Americans and Iraqis is real.

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Young girl, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“In 2005,” the colonel said, “when I was here we weren’t highly thought of across the country. More the opposite. We were the occupier. We heard that word quite a bit. But our training, our understanding of the environment, our respect for the people here, and our focus on engagement with the local population, there was this reconciliation. I want my company commanders to let people know that even though we wear this uniform, we’ve got all this equipment on and carry a weapon, that underneath all that we’re a lot like the Iraqis. We’re not that different. This reconciliation isn’t just between the Sunnis and the government, but between us and the people of Iraq.”

“Perhaps,” Ramon said, “the violence went down between the Sunnis and the Shias because they killed everybody they wanted to kill. Now they have ethnically pure areas. The mixed areas are the exceptions, so they don’t have as many people to kill.”

“But the violence is down in the mixed areas, too,” I said, although I don’t think Ramon was entirely wrong. Sectarian “cleansing” was never completed in Baghdad, but most areas in the city are overwhelmingly dominated by Sunnis or Shias. Whether or not this is a direct cause of the downturn in violence, there really are fewer opportunities for neighbors to fight than there used to be.

“The makeup of many of my areas is mixed,” Colonel Hort said. “In some places it’s 60-40, although as you get closer to the river, it’s more Sunni. And the Sunni-Shia mixture areas have been very quiet. There’s a lot of reconciliation going on. The tribal councils have been a big help. The sheikhs are coming together. I mean, there’s still tension out there. I’m not going to lie to you. But it’s mostly not violent tension.”

There is, of course, still violent tension between Iraq’s terrorist groups and militias and everyone else.

“What we’re trying to do,” he said, “is disrupt this Al Qaeda network that has been staging low grade attacks every once in a while. They’ve been going down into Shia neighborhoods and trying to incite a response against Sunnis who are in the next neighborhood. We see that and we go down there to make sure everybody understands who did it, that it wasn’t their neighbors — it was terrorists.”

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Two men on a stoop, old Adhamiyah district, Baghdad

“With SOFA,” Ramon said, “it’s going to be more difficult.”

“The insurgency now is more criminal than anything else,” Colonel Hort said. “The Al Qaeda threat isn’t down to that point yet, but Shia insurgents are becoming more and more criminal than anything else. We’re working closely now with Iraqi judges, as well as Iraqi Security Forces, to ensure that when we identify a guy we’re getting a warrant and arresting the guy that way. It’s a significant change for us that we now need a warrant to make an arrest like we do in the States.”

Some American officers I met are worried that more terrorists and insurgents will remain at large now that warrants are needed for their arrest, but others are convinced this is wonderful news. It is, at least for the time being, just barely possible to wage a counterinsurgency using law enforcement methods instead of war-fighting methods. There is such a thing as an acceptable level of violence, and Iraq is nearer to that point than it has been in years. Baghdad is no longer the war zone it was.

Some also say a transition to warrant-based arrests now instead of later gives American officers time to train their local counterparts how the rule of law works instead of letting the Iraqis sink or swim on their own later.

“How do US military officers feel about SOFA?” I said. “Are you dreading this, or is it more or less what you hoped for?”

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“I’ll speak for myself here,” Colonel Hort said. “SOFA represents the optimism we’ve felt in this country. I am concerned about the warrant-based targeting. We have to make sure we’re part of the Iraqi judicial system. That’s going to require some training. We are going to have to adjust some bases in the city and move them out to the perimeter. But I’m more optimistic than I am nervous or pessimistic. We see the Iraqi military in much better shape than they were a year ago.”

“Do you worry about a timeline for withdrawal?” I said. “There has been some concern in the last couple of years about what might happen if there is a timeline. Is that still a concern, or has there been enough progress in Iraq that we don’t need to worry about that anymore?”

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Clothing store, Baghdad

“If, say, we take a step backwards,” he said, “my assessment is that the Iraqi government may say we’re pulling out too soon. So I’m not really worried about it. I trust that the senior leadership out there, in coordination with our government, will make the right decision. We’ve gone too far now to do anything abrupt, and I have a lot of confidence that our senior leaders are going to do the right thing.”

“When I came here after the invasion,” Ramon said, “there were shops selling videos of Saddam’s troops kicking the Shias in 1991 in Najaf and Karbala. Two years later I saw another video in the market that showed a man getting his head cut off by Zarqawi. Within sixteen months we had these two videos. These same people used to say they would die for Saddam. They had to say it. But now? The mood of the population has changed. They feel freer expressing themselves. Before they were afraid of the Mahdi Army. I have this sense — I don’t know if it’s true — that in the last year and a half we’ve been on the right road. The Bush Administration has done a big favor for the Obama Administration. Obama arrived with everything fixed. If the situation is okay, you can go. And if it’s not okay, the Iraqis may ask you to stay a little bit more.”

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A billboard in Baghdad

“We’ve worn out Al Qaeda,” Colonel Hort said, “and we’ve taken the Special Groups guys and put them on the run. Half of these guys are out of the country right now. They’re fugitives. Those who have come back are fugitives inside the country. We’ve denied their freedom of movement, and we’ve gotten inside the enemy’s decision cycle.”

“In the last year and a half, when things have gone better,” Ramon said, “has Iranian influence gone down?

“I think so,” Colonel Hort said. “I think it has been more difficult for external countries to have the same kind of influence they had before. It goes back to the Iraqi Army. They know their country better than we’ll ever know it. They know their people better than we’ll ever know them. They’ve been able to pick up individuals who had influence. They just picked up a guy at the Baghdad airport who was an Iranian agent coming in.”

“Do you think Iran has a dial, so to speak,” I said, “which they can use to turn up the violence here whenever they feel like it? Or have they already dialed it up as much as possible and are no longer able to turn it up any more?”

“The Shia Special Groups got hit really hard in Sadr City,” Colonel Hort said. “They lost 800 soldiers to the Iraqi Army. They lost a lot of their weaponry during the summer when the Iraqi Army was in Sadr City for the first time in three years. They are significantly suppressed in their ability to project power right now.”

“Israel might hit Iran some time in the near future,” I said. “Washington won’t do it, especially not the new administration. But even the last administration wasn’t interested. So the Israelis may do it. And the million dollar question for us is: will Iran retaliate inside Iraq? Can they? Can they turn the violence dial up higher, or is it already turned up as high as it will go?”

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Iraqi civilians, Baghdad

“That question,” Colonel Hort said, “is a little bit above my pay grade.”

“Maybe nobody knows,” I said.

“One thing, though,” he said, “is that before we didn’t have the area known as Gold in Sadr City. Prior to March, 2008, this area was very difficult for us to operate in. And now we’ve got great security. The Iraqi Army, which was never inside Sadr City before last March, has four battalions in there. This area was like the capital of the Special Groups and the JAM militia. And now that their safe haven is gone, there really aren’t many places for them to go. They still hide out in there, but they’re fugitives moving from safe house to safe house. There really isn’t any place where they can go to organize large scale attacks. It will be difficult in the future for those organizations. They’re collapsing on top of themselves.”

To be continued


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Lebanon Before the Collapse

Sometimes I have a bad feeling about the future of Iraq, despite the fact that Iraq is in better shape now than it was. But sometimes I don’t. On even numbered days I can convince myself that Iraq will be sort of okay.

I have a bad feeling about Lebanon on even and odd numbered days. I don’t know anyone who has been there recently who thinks the future is bright, that more war isn’t coming, that enormous geopolitcal tectonic plates aren’t gearing up to rip the place into pieces again.

David Samuels was there recently for The New Republic, and “he perfectly captured the pre-collapse mood”:http://www.tnr.com/story_print.html?id=59fe8f65-fc23-40b0-b3d8-6b334b46aee2.

Everywhere I go in Beirut, I find the same strange oscillation between the assumption of relative normalcy and the belief that in a week, or a month, or a year at the most, the country will collapse…

Violence here takes place in the shadows, with occasional public eruptions like Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, or the events of May 2008, when the central government moved on Hezbollah’s private communications network, backed by Sunni villagers armed with light weapons who had been imported from the north. The result of this amateurish gambit was that Nasrallah sent his cadres into the streets, disarmed the Sunnis, and seized Beirut from the central government, which then granted him a slice of formal state power at Doha.

In between such delicate moments, you can get a pretty accurate sense of how Lebanon works by sitting in a restaurant in the Albergo Hotel, a decidedly luxurious place where I had lunch with a former intelligence professional and watched a dozen Lebanese cabinet ministers savor excellent Italian dishes. The tailored suits, the loosened ties, the broad hands, the arrangement of tall flowers in the center of the room–the scene had the sunlit inner presence, the radiant sensual completeness, of the world of physical objects as painted by Bonnard or Vuillard. Watching the ministers as they conducted their business, it was easy to see how the philosophical embrace of the physical world makes good sense here. Nasrallah and his patrons in Iran guarantee the stability of the country while, day to day, mouthing all kinds of insane stuff designed to paralyze the faculty of reason. Someday soon, the key will turn in the lock, the door will open, and they will blow Lebanon to smithereens. Meanwhile, there are precious moments of physical existence to be savored, such as a diamond necklace for one’s wife, a pair of earrings for one’s mistress, a sizeable deposit in a numbered bank account, and shrimp fettucini at the Albergo.

Sorry About That

I spent the last eight days in an all-consuming workshop class about the book publishing industry — publishers, editors, agents, proposals, contracts, and a hundred other things — that I needed to get a better handle on before I can take my career to the next level. I thought I’d have time to do my regular job while immersed in this stuff, but that was impossible.

I’m back now, and much better informed and equipped than I was a week ago. And I’m just about finished with my next dispatch from Iraq. Don’t go away.

Afghanistan’s Only Pig Quarantined

I was going to write something serious about the H1N1 influenza virus spreading around the world, but now that it seems to be fizzling out (at least for now), I thought I’d post something “light and funny instead”:http://www.reuters.com/article/lifestyleMolt/idUSTRE5444XQ20090505.

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s only known pig has been locked in a room, away from visitors to Kabul zoo where it normally grazes beside deer and goats, because people are worried it could infect them with the virus popularly known as swine flu.

The pig is a curiosity in Muslim Afghanistan, where pork and pig products are illegal because they are considered irreligious, and has been in quarantine since Sunday after visitors expressed alarm it could spread the new flu strain.

“For now the pig is under quarantine, we built it a room because of swine influenza,” Aziz Gul Saqib, director of Kabul Zoo, told Reuters. “We’ve done this because people are worried about getting the flu.”

Worldwide, more than 1,000 people have been infected with the virus, according to the World Health Organization, which also says 26 people have so far died from the strain. All but one of the deaths were in Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak.

There are no pig farms in Afghanistan and no direct civilian flights between Kabul and Mexico.

“We understand that, but most people don’t have enough knowledge. When they see the pig in the cage they get worried and think that they could get ill,” Saqib said.

The pig was a gift to the zoo from China, which itself quarantined some 70 Mexicans, 26 Canadians and four Americans in the past week…

One of Those Weeks

My next dispatch from Iraq is 90 percent finished. Unfortunately, this has turned into one of those weeks where I can’t get any work done. I’m not having a bad week. I’m just extraordinarily busy on a brief out-of-town project that has nothing to do with this Web site. So I’m stalled at the moment. But I have a few things I want to post here that won’t take too much time to throw together, so hang in there…

The Taliban and Pashtun Nationalism

Pakistan is looking more dangerous and precarious by the week. The only Muslim country in the world with an arsenal of nuclear weapons is now threatened by a ferocious and rapidly expanding Taliban insurgency. The most retrograde Islamist army on earth has conquered territory just a few hours’ drive from the capital. Though this discouraging outcome wasn’t inevitable, it was at least likely. As Robert Kaplan pointed out in “an insightful essay”:http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4862&print=1 in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, “the Taliban constitute merely the latest incarnation of Pashtun nationalism.” And ethnic Pashtuns live on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. “Indeed,” Kaplan adds, “much of the fighting in Afghanistan today occurs in Pashtunistan: southern and eastern Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan.”

Take a look at two maps. The first shows “the geographic breakdown of Pakistan’s patchwork of ethnicities”:http://ramesh-007.sulekha.com/mstore/Ramesh-007/albums/default/Pakistan_ethnic_1973.jpg. You’ll notice that ethnic Pashtuns live in the notoriously backward and violent northwestern frontier provinces. Their region extends deep into Afghanistan and covers the southeastern part of that country. These two regions — which are actually a single region with a somewhat arbitrary national border between them — are where most Taliban activity has been concentrated since the United States destroyed their regime in Afghanistan. A second map shows the breakdown of “areas in Pakistan currently under Taliban control”:http://www.longwarjournal.org/maps/Pakistan/NWFP24APR09.php. You’ll see, when you compare the maps carefully, that almost all areas that are either Taliban-controlled or Taliban-influenced, are Pashtun.

The Taliban are more than an expression of Pashtun nationalism, of course. They represent a reactionary movement that idealizes the simplicity and extreme conservatism of 7th century Islam. By burnishing this ideology, the Taliban is able, absurdly, to attract support beyond its Pashtun base.

The ethnic component, though, is a formidable one. It all but guaranteed a certain degree of success by the Taliban in all of “Pashtunistan,” in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan. Yet all the while, the ethnic map imposes constraints, if not limits, on how far the Taliban can expand.

They were able to seize power in most of Afghanistan before 2001, although the “Northern Alliance” — made up primarily of ethnic Tajiks — managed to hold out until Americans arrived and smashed the regime in Kabul. Since then, the Taliban have had a harder time operating outside “Pashtunistan.” “The north of Afghanistan,” “Kaplan writes”:http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4862&print=1, “beyond the Hindu Kush, has seen less fighting and is in the midst of reconstruction and the forging of closer links to the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, inhabited by the same ethnic groups that populate northern Afghanistan.”

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/64212.

More Dispatches Coming

I spent the last ten days writing a long essay about Beirut and Baghdad for “City Journal”:http://www.city-journal.org/index.html and consequently didn’t have much time to work on my next dispatch from Iraq. The bad news is you will have to wait until the summer issue is published before you can read it. The good news is you can read it for free. The magazine will pay me, so I won’t even ask for donations when it’s published.

My schedule is freed up again, so I’ll have my next piece from Baghdad published here as soon as it’s ready. It will be the first of a four-part series about where Iraq is heading next. I still have no idea if Iraq will be “okay” or if it won’t be. The opinions and analysis I heard from both Americans and Iraqis were mixed, and each camp made a persuasive case. I’ll give you the good news first, but be aware that bad news is coming right on its heels. Stay tuned.

Eurasia’s Shatter Zones

Robert Kaplan has “a fascinating piece in the current issue of Foreign Affairs”:http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4862&print=1 about geography and its impact on culture, politics, and history. Most of us instinctively understand geography’s connection to these three phenomena, at least on a basic level. Citizens who live in a temperate climate near the sea, in port cities open to the world, tend to be broadly liberal. Those who live in a harsh climate, deep within a continent, and cut off from outsiders, tend to be provincial and reactionary.

This simple observation won’t be news to many people, but Kaplan takes it many steps further and notes that some parts of the world — especially in Eurasia — are more prone than others to conflict in part thanks to the fate of geography. Kaplan calls these regions “shatter zones,” and I spend almost all my time abroad in one of these shatter zones or another.

Many Lebanese have described their predicament to me in exactly these terms. If only their country were an island, they say, with no land border with Syria or Israel. And while I can’t vouch for Kaplan accurately describing each of the shatter zones in his piece, I can say he describes those I know well with precision.

The whole thing is worth reading, but here is an excerpt to give you a taste.

The Fertile Crescent, wedged between the Mediterranean Sea and the Iranian plateau, constitutes another shatter zone. The countries of this region—Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq—are vague geographic expressions that had little meaning before the 20th century. When the official lines on the map are removed, we find a crude finger-painting of Sunni and Shiite clusters that contradict national borders. Inside these borders, the governing authorities of Lebanon and Iraq barely exist. The one in Syria is tyrannical and fundamentally unstable; the one in Jordan is rational but under quiet siege. (Jordan’s main reason for being at all is to act as a buffer for other Arab regimes that fear having a land border with Israel.) Indeed, the Levant is characterized by tired authoritarian regimes and ineffective democracies.

Of all the geographically illogical states in the Fertile Crescent, none is more so than Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, by far the worst in the Arab world, was itself geographically determined: Every Iraqi dictator going back to the first military coup in 1958 had to be more repressive than the previous one just to hold together a country with no natural borders that seethes with ethnic and sectarian consciousness. The mountains that separate Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq, and the division of the Mesopotamian plain between Sunnis in the center and Shiites in the south, may prove more pivotal to Iraq’s stability than the yearning after the ideal of democracy. If democracy doesn’t in fairly short order establish sturdy institutional roots, Iraq’s geography will likely lead it back to tyranny or anarchy again.

But for all the recent focus on Iraq, geography and history tell us that Syria might be at the real heart of future turbulence in the Arab world. Aleppo in northern Syria is a bazaar city with greater historical links to Mosul, Baghdad, and Anatolia than to Damascus. Whenever Damascus’s fortunes declined with the rise of Baghdad to the east, Aleppo recovered its greatness. Wandering through the souks of Aleppo, it is striking how distant and irrelevant Damascus seems: The bazaars are dominated by Kurds, Turks, Circassians, Arab Christians, Armenians, and others, unlike the Damascus souk, which is more a world of Sunni Arabs. As in Pakistan and the former Yugoslavia, each sect and religion in Syria has a specific location. Between Aleppo and Damascus is the increasingly Islamist Sunni heartland. Between Damascus and the Jordanian border are the Druse, and in the mountain stronghold contiguous with Lebanon are the Alawites—both remnants of a wave of Shiism from Persia and Mesopotamia that swept over Syria a thousand years ago.

Elections in Syria in 1947, 1949, and 1954 exacerbated these divisions by polarizing the vote along sectarian lines. The late Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970 after 21 changes of government in 24 years. For three decades, he was the Leonid Brezhnev of the Arab world, staving off the future by failing to build a civil society at home. His son Bashar will have to open the political system eventually, if only to keep pace with a dynamically changing society armed with satellite dishes and the Internet. But no one knows how stable a post-authoritarian Syria would be. Policymakers must fear the worst. Yet a post-Assad Syria may well do better than post-Saddam Iraq, precisely because its tyranny has been much less severe. Indeed, traveling from Saddam’s Iraq to Assad’s Syria was like coming up for air.

In addition to its inability to solve the problem of political legitimacy, the Arab world is unable to secure its own environment. The plateau peoples of Turkey will dominate the Arabs in the 21st century because the Turks have water and the Arabs don’t. Indeed, to develop its own desperately poor southeast and thereby suppress Kurdish separatism, Turkey will need to divert increasingly large amounts of the Euphrates River from Syria and Iraq. As the Middle East becomes a realm of parched urban areas, water will grow in value relative to oil. The countries with it will retain the ability—and thus the power—to blackmail those without it. Water will be like nuclear energy, thereby making desalinization and dual-use power facilities primary targets of missile strikes in future wars. Not just in the West Bank, but everywhere there is less room to maneuver.

A final shatter zone is the Persian core, stretching from the Caspian Sea to Iran’s north to the Persian Gulf to its south. Virtually all of the greater Middle East’s oil and natural gas lies in this region. Just as shipping lanes radiate from the Persian Gulf, pipelines are increasingly radiating from the Caspian region to the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, China, and the Indian Ocean. The only country that straddles both energy-producing areas is Iran, as Geoffrey Kemp and Robert E. Harkavy note in Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East. The Persian Gulf possesses 55 percent of the world’s crude-oil reserves, and Iran dominates the whole gulf, from the Shatt al-Arab on the Iraqi border to the Strait of Hormuz in the southeast—a coastline of 1,317 nautical miles, thanks to its many bays, inlets, coves, and islands that offer plenty of excellent places for hiding tanker-ramming speedboats.

It is not an accident that Iran was the ancient world’s first superpower. There was a certain geographic logic to it. Iran is the greater Middle East’s universal joint, tightly fused to all of the outer cores. Its border roughly traces and conforms to the natural contours of the landscape—plateaus to the west, mountains and seas to the north and south, and desert expanse in the east toward Afghanistan. For this reason, Iran has a far more venerable record as a nation-state and urbane civilization than most places in the Arab world and all the places in the Fertile Crescent. Unlike the geographically illogical countries of that adjacent region, there is nothing artificial about Iran. Not surprisingly, Iran is now being wooed by both India and China, whose navies will come to dominate the Eurasian sea lanes in the 21st century.

Of all the shatter zones in the greater Middle East, the Iranian core is unique: The instability Iran will cause will not come from its implosion, but from a strong, internally coherent Iranian nation that explodes outward from a natural geographic platform to shatter the region around it.

“Read the whole thing”:http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4862&print=1.

Moment of Truth in Iraq

Last week I plugged Michael Yon’s excellent book Moment of Truth in Iraq.

Moment of Truth in Iraq Cover.jpg

If you haven’t read it yet, buy it today. And if you’re one of the small number of people who might be interested in acquiring 30,000 copies all at once, “Yon is auctioning off the whole lot of them”:http://www.michaelyon-online.com/tracking-torture-pulp.htm.

The UN’s Epic Fail in Geneva

The biggest loser at the United Nations Durban Review Conference on “racism” this week in Geneva was the United Nations itself. The United States unfairly got a lot of bad press and bad marks for walking out of the first UN “World Conference Against Racism” in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, even though that conference was little more than an anti-Semitic and anti-American hate festival. The media did a much better job this time around, though, as did the genuine anti-racist activists who showed up to protest. Those vilified by “Durban I” turned out to be the heroes of “Durban II.”

Most of the press coverage this week was appropriately critical. And few have done as outstanding a job covering the affair as Zvika Krieger in “the New Republic”:http://www.tnr.com/. Every one of his dispatches from Geneva deserves a wide audience.

First he reminds us just how viciously bigoted the 2001 Durban conference was. “Jewish activists were harassed, abused, physically intimidated, taunted, and followed throughout the week,” “he wrote”:http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_plank/archive/2009/04/17/durban-ii-dispatch-should-i-be-scared.aspx. “Anyone who tried to object to the Israel hate-fest was booed off the stage with shouts of ‘Jew, Jew, Jew.’ The conference hall was overflowing with copies of ‘The Protocols of The Elders of Zion’ and pamphlets featuring pictures of Jews with long hooked noses and evil smiles, their serpent fangs soaked in blood and their military uniforms decorated with swastikas.”

Those singled out for the two-minute hate were vastly outnumbered by the hysterical bigots who set the tone in South Africa. This time, though, in Geneva, the bullies were on the defensive. “Unlike the scenes at Durban I,” he reported, “of Jewish students being swallowed by hordes of Israel haters, outnumbered 50-to-1, here in Geneva, I’ve witnessed dozens of debates between handfuls of pro-Israel activists evenly matched with their foes.”

Americans weren’t happy about the anti-American obscenities at “Durban I,” but at least “American” isn’t a race. Jews had even more reasons to be appalled at what happened. When the organizers of an “anti-racist” conference spend most of their energy denouncing and menacing Jews and Israelis, something has gone terribly wrong. Anti-Durban activists had years to prepare for this week’s sequel in Geneva, though, and it showed.

“It is hard to exaggerate how palpable the Jewish presence is here,” “Krieger wrote”:http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=7a4006d3-2943-49c3-b3bc-9d9c5e94d72d. “The Jewish community of Geneva staged a massive Holocaust memorial (featuring Elie Wiesel) last night on the steps of the UN headquarters right outside the conference, and Jewish groups like the Simon Wiesenthal Center are organizing panels on anti-Semitism inside the conference building under auspices of the UN. Roaming the halls of the UN building, I’ve heard way more Hebrew than Arabic. When the Jewish community’s security force prevented the Jewish students from leaving the ‘Jewish Welcome Center’ because of a minor pro-Palestinian rally outside, the students balked at the ridiculousness of any security threat against them here — a stark contrast to the physical violence encountered by Jewish students in 2001.”

The first Durban conference was an anti-Semitic zoo. “Take a look at the photo”:http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_plank/archive/2009/04/17/durban-ii-dispatch-should-i-be-scared.aspx of a poster, reading that it would have been a “good thing” if Adolf Hitler had won World War II because there would be “no Israel.” Switzerland may be geopolitically neutral in many ways, but Geneva was in no mood this week to tolerate that kind of garbage at a conference it hosted. “Krieger says”:http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=7a4006d3-2943-49c3-b3bc-9d9c5e94d72d a zero-tolerance policy against anti-Semitic propaganda appeared to be in place, and the small number of anti-Semitic demonstrators he did see were kicked out by security guards.”

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/63462


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