Wednesday, August 27, 2008

US is turning Anbar over to Iraq forces. Prematurely?

It's being widely reported now that the US is turning security responsibility in Anbar province over to Iraq government forces, evidently because the level of violence has dropped.

Here's the rub, though - or at least it seems to me.

The drop in violence is largely the result of the efforts of the Sunni Awakening forces, who teamed with the Americans against their erstwhile al-Qaeda in Iraq allies, both for the money and because AQI's indiscriminate killing and jihadist orientation had worn thin with the local tribespeople. But these same Sunni Awakening forces are now being targeted for disarming and disbanding (and worse) by Iraqi government forces, who are predominantly Shia, as is, of course, the dominant group (led by Prime Minister al-Maliki) in the Baghdad government.

So, what happens now? Are Shia government forces going to come in and keep the peace in what is a predominantly Sunni area? Are they going to continue to go after the Sunni Awakening militias in Anbar? Have the Baghdad government's troops indeed become so proficient that they can feel confident in taking charge of a Sunni province? Am I missing something?

Or, is the US perhaps in a rush to move Marines out of Iraq (Anbar, specifically) and get them into Afghanistan, where the situation seems to be worsening by the day? And consider also the political benefit to the Republican party if Bush can claim that Anbar is pacified, the insurgency is done . . . indeed, can claim that "victory" is now right around the corner . . . just as their convention comes together in Minneapolis and McCain prepares his acceptance speech.

But is Anbar truly pacified, or is it a bomb waiting to go off? I suppose the next few weeks will be telling quite a story there.

Pakistan on the Knife's Edge

This report from the Washington Post is truly not good. The Pakistani government is already unstable, with a fight for the presidency now in progress, the US pounding on the government to do more against the Taliban, and the Taliban controlling much of the NW frontier area. It's a safe bet that many of the refugees who are arriving in droves in Peshawar (and cities beyond, including Karachi, according to the report) are not exactly hostile to the Taliban, distrust their own government, and are angry at the US for (in their eyes) bringing death and destruction to their own doorsteps and forcing them into exile from their homes and villages. They surely are wondering what they'll be able to return to if and when the fighting stops.

One has to wonder if Pakistan's democracy will survive. And remember, Pakistan is a nuclear power.
Pakistani Push in Tribal Areas Triggers a Flood of Refugees

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 27, 2008; A08

NOWSHERA, Pakistan -- Lal Bahadur walked down from the mountains about two weeks ago. With his back to Afghanistan and his wife and five children alongside, he descended steep inclines through the northern edge of Pakistan's tribal areas as artillery fire boomed around them. It was nearly a full day before the family found a place to rest. By the time they reached the district of Nawagai, the price of a ride to safety in the nearby city of Peshawar had already increased 10-fold.

When they arrived in Peshawar from the volatile tribal area of Bajaur, Bahadur found that apartment rents in the city had almost tripled, putting them well beyond his reach. So the family came here to this refugee camp about 45 miles east of Peshawar, where nearly 1,000 residents of Bajaur have recently sought shelter in the wake of a massive military offensive against Taliban insurgents.

An estimated 200,000 people from the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan have been displaced since the Pakistani army launched the Bajaur operation early this month in response to growing U.S. pressure to take action against the Taliban in the region, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Local officials say the flood of refugees into northwestern and central Pakistan has overwhelmed cities such as Peshawar. And as the army began to push into the tribal area of Kurram last week, government officials in cities as far away as Karachi were bracing for more waves of people.

The political and economic fallout from Pakistan's push against the Taliban and al-Qaeda has widened into a major humanitarian crisis, analysts and local officials here say. Yet a week after the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf, the government has announced no specific plans to address the refugee problem in the border regions, which now appears to be spilling over into the rest of the country.

Last week, the crisis grew so acute that Pascal Cuttat, head of the Red Cross in Pakistan, called urgently for shelter, medical treatment and food for Bajaur refugees. The aid agency estimates that the military operations in Bajaur and neighboring tribal areas have driven about 14,000 people westward across the border into the troubled Afghan province of Konar, where last month nine U.S. soldiers were killed in a well-coordinated Taliban-led attack.

In Peshawar, a city of more than 3 million, the waves of new arrivals have brought with them numerous problems. Last week, migrants held several protests in the city over the Bajaur offensive and the lack of government assistance. Peshawar's 5,000 police officers have struggled to contain the violence stemming from the protests and from clashes between refugees and local residents. And the influx of people has driven up prices for basic goods across the city, officials said.

"All around Peshawar, on every side, the situation is volatile because of the people coming from Bajaur, Bara, Dera Adam Khel and the people from Swat and Waziristan," said Ghulam Ali, the mayor. "All of this is impacting the infrastructure in Peshawar. The schools, the health system -- everything is overloaded."

Bahadur, 40, said he had little choice but to leave Bajaur. Pakistani troops have been pounding the area with bombs dropped from helicopter gunships and fighter jets since Aug. 10. He and dozens of refugees at the camp said they received no warning of the operation. "We had no idea it was going to happen. The government didn't tell us anything, and we didn't see them anywhere," Bahadur said.

Pakistani army officials have said that dozens of Islamist insurgents have been killed in the Bajaur operation. Little, however, has officially been said about the civilian toll. Local news reports suggest more than 200 people have been killed.

Meanwhile, the refugees at the camp in Nowshera wait and wonder about the fate of those they left behind, subsisting on two meals a day of beans and bread. Their own survival is not assured: An outbreak of cholera and typhoid fever has already killed two young girls here.

Subhan Ullah, the camp director, acknowledged that conditions are far from optimal and that the army's push into other tribal areas near Bajaur would probably increase the challenge for the government. Ullah said he is looking for a larger piece of land to accommodate the anticipated surge in numbers.

"We are doing what we can to support the people here," he said.

The government has set up several camps for tribal area refugees across the country. But as in the camp in Nowshera, abysmal conditions and outbreaks of disease have driven many to seek shelter elsewhere. In Rawalpindi, the garrison city near Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, hundreds of refugees set up camp in several parks this month. Last week, Rawalpindi police moved to disperse the camps.

Bahadur and several others at Nowshera said they are also considering leaving soon. It will almost certainly be months before he sees his home again, Bahadur acknowledged, but he said it is all he knows.

"We want to go back as soon as possible," he said. "We want to go home."

Monday, August 25, 2008

Is Maliki playing hardball?

The report now is that the Maliki government is insisting that ALL US troops be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, whatever the conditions on the ground. This raises many questions, of course:
1. Is Maliki making these demands for public consumption as Iraq's elections approach? He needs to come across as a strong nationalist who rejects any foreign occupation. He also knows that Bush is going from lame duck to dead duck.
2. What about those huge US bases in Iraq? They obviously have been built to last, at considerable expense to the US taxpayer. Is the US truly going to give them up? Does Maliki have that strong a hand to play?

Iraq demands deadline for pullout of all US troops

The Associated Press
Monday, August 25, 2008; 11:02 AM

BAGHDAD -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Monday no security agreement with the United States could be reached unless it included a "specific deadline" for the withdrawal of all American troops from Iraq.

Last week, U.S. and Iraqi officials said the two sides had agreed tentatively to a schedule which included a broad pullout of combat forces by the end of 2011 with a residual U.S. force remaining behind to continue training and advising the Iraqi security forces.

But al-Maliki's remarks Monday suggested that the Iraqi government is still not satisfied with that arrangement. An aide to the prime minister said Monday that Iraq remained adamant that the last American soldier must leave Iraq by the end of 2011 _ regardless of conditions at the time.

The official, like others who spoke about the specifics of the debate, spoke on condition of anonymity because the text had not been approved by either government.

President Bush has long resisted a timetable for pulling out troops from Iraq, even under heavy pressure from a nation distressed by American deaths and discouraged by the length of the war that began in 2003.

"There can be no treaty or agreement except on the basis of Iraq's full sovereignty," al-Maliki told a gathering of tribal sheiks. He said such an agreement must be based on the principle that "no foreign soldier remains in Iraq after a specific deadline, not an open time frame."

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said negotiations with the Iraqis continued, but reiterated the U.S. stance depended on conditions in Iraq.

"We're optimistic that Iraq and the U.S. can reach a mutual agreement on flexible goals for U.S. troops to continue to return on success _ based on conditions on the ground _ and allow Iraqi forces to provide security for a sovereign Iraq," he said in Crawford, Texas.

The Bush administration now speaks about "time horizons," but even that now appears unacceptable to al-Maliki's government.

"We find this to be too vague," a close al-Maliki aide told The Associated Press on Monday. "We don't want the phrase 'time horizons.' We are not comfortable with that phrase," said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing negotiations.

Another top al-Maliki aide, also speaking on condition of anonymity for the same reason, said the Iraqi government has "stopped talking about the withdrawal of combat troops. We just talk about withdrawals," including trainers and logistics troops.

In his Monday address, al-Maliki also suggested that the question of granting immunity to U.S. military personnel or contractors continued to be a sticking point in the negotiations.

In one key part of the draft agreement, private U.S. contractors would be subject to Iraqi law but the Americans are holding firm that U.S. troops would remain subject exclusively to U.S. legal jurisdiction.

Al-Maliki said Monday that his country could not grant "open immunity" to Iraqis or foreigners because that would be tantamount to a violating the "sanctity of Iraqi blood." He did not elaborate.

The agreement had been scheduled to be concluded by the end of last month.

No new date has been set, but the two al-Maliki aides said a final draft was now available to the political leaderships in Baghdad and Washington. One of the two said a breakthrough was not expected before next month.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

From Israel, a Call for Patience

The headline of the Washington Post report masks the real news here:
1. expect no progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process;
2. there will be no major agreement between the two sides before Bush leaves office.

Nor should we be surprised. During Bush's 2 terms, the US completely lost any remaining claim it might have had to being a "fair broker" between the two sides . . . and the policies he espoused have allowed the Israel lobby to become so deeply entrenched in the US political system that that damage is probably permanent.
From Israel, a Call for Patience
Rushing Peace Process Invites Violence, Foreign Minister Says

By Linda Gradstein
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 22, 2008; A13

JERUSALEM, Aug. 21 -- Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni warned Thursday against outside efforts to pressure Israel and the Palestinians to come up with a peace agreement this year, saying violence could erupt if they fail to meet international expectations.

The statement, coming on the eve of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Israel, effectively dooms the already slim chances that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will be reached before President Bush leaves office in January.

Livni, Israel's chief peace negotiator and a top contender to be the next prime minister, said a timeline for a deal "is important, but what is more important is the nature and the content of the understanding that we can reach with the Palestinians."

"I believe we need to learn from past experience," she told foreign reporters in Jerusalem. "Any attempt to try and bridge gaps that maybe it's premature to bridge because of the international pressure . . . can lead to clashes, this can lead to misunderstandings and to violence."

The prospects for an agreement dimmed last month when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, dogged by ongoing corruption investigations, announced that he will not seek reelection as head of his Kadima party in leadership voting next month. The move will effectively end his tenure as premier. Israel is unlikely to make any major decisions on concessions to the Palestinians until a new government is formed.

"There's absolutely no chance of reaching an agreement on anything by the end of the year," said Hirsh Goodman, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. "Usually I'm not prophetic, but there's no government on either side that can make any decisions on behalf of anyone."

For months, Livni has been meeting weekly with Palestinian chief negotiator Ahmed Qureia. She said they have been working toward an agreement on outstanding issues, including the final borders of a future Palestinian state, security arrangements, the status of Jerusalem and the right claimed by Palestinian refugees to return to homes inside Israel.

On the last issue, she said refugees must make their homes in a future Palestinian state.

"Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people, and the Palestinian state is to be the homeland for the Palestinians," she said. "What the Palestinians call the right of return is not an option. Without this understanding there is no agreement."

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat issued a mild response to Livni's statement. "We're negotiating with Ms. Livni to reach a just and agreed solution on all issues," he said in a telephone interview. "I urge Ms. Livni to confine the negotiations to the negotiating room."

Livni said a peace deal could not be implemented while the armed Islamist movement Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, home to 1.4 million Palestinians. Palestinians view Gaza and the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority holds sway, as the largest territorial components of their future state.

"Hamas represents an extreme ideology and is being supported by Iran," she said. "We need to continue to de-legitimize Hamas and to keep the pressure on Hamas."

Although there has been a truce between Israel and Hamas for the past two months, Livni said Hamas continues to stockpile weapons and build "a small army."

Friday, August 22, 2008

More on the US-Iraq agreement

Time magazine offers a report that suggests that the Iraqis are playing some hardball on the immunity issue.

A 2011 Withdrawal of US Forces from Iraq?

If you read this report from the Washington Post carefully, you can see that a lot of issues are still out there, unresolved, as well as loopholes for the US to maintain some de facto combat forces well beyond 2011. The US still wants immunity for US troops in Iraq, as well as for Defense Dept employees (=contractors, perhaps including our mercenary warriors from Blackwater?). Also, as the report notes, tens of thousands of US troops will remain in "support" roles, including military trainers - therefore, seems to me, very much still in harm's way. Finally, withdrawal of US forces formally defined as "combat" forces is described as contingent upon "conditions." Speaking of which . . .

the NYT also reports today on an issue that I blogged about yesterday: that the Sunni-dominated government in Iraq is not only refusing to bring the Sunni Awakening ("Sons of Iraq") militia into the Iraqi army and security forces, but is actually rounding up and detaining their leaders. The prospect of renewed sectarian violence looms dangerously, with Sunni forces now better organized and equipped. Once again, the short-sightedness of US policy is coming home to roost, just as many had been warning over the last several months. The US basically bribed these (mostly) Sunni men - many of them former insurgents and even affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq - to switch sides; basically, to stop shooting at US forces. But in time, assuming that conditions began to stabilize (which they have to a degree), something would have to be done to keep these Sunni forces on-side with the Iraqi government. They want into the army; the government is offering jobs as plumbers and construction workers; the Sunni militia men see such work as humiliating and degrading to themselves and their tribes. But after decades of being oppressed and persecuted by the Sunni minority (since Ottoman times, but most memorably under Saddam Hussein), the newly ascendant Shiites who now control (with the Kurds) the central government in Baghdad are going to do all they can to keep the Sunnis miles away from any real power. And Iran will be equally loath to see Sunni empowerment.

So, let's not be doing any handsprings about US troop withdrawal just yet.

U.S., Iraqi Negotiators Agree on 2011 Withdrawal

Rice's Baghdad Visit Ends With Accord on Departure Date; Legal Immunity Is Still a Sticking Point

By Karen DeYoung and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 22, 2008; A01

BAGHDAD, Aug. 21 -- U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have agreed to the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from the country by the end of 2011, and Iraqi officials said they are "very close" to resolving the remaining issues blocking a final accord that governs the future American military presence here.

Iraqi and U.S. officials said several difficult issues remain, including whether U.S. troops will be subject to Iraqi law if accused of committing crimes. But the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were unauthorized to discuss the agreement publicly, said key elements of a timetable for troop withdrawal once resisted by President Bush had been reached.

"We have a text," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said after a day-long visit Thursday by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Rice and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spent nearly three hours here discussing key undecided issues. The accord must be completed and approved by both governments before a United Nations mandate expires at the end of the year.

The question of immunity for U.S. troops and Defense Department personnel from Iraqi legal jurisdiction -- demanded by Washington and rejected by Baghdad -- remained unresolved. Troop immunity, one U.S. official said, "is the red line for us." Officials said they were still discussing language that would make the distinction between on- and off-duty activities, with provisions allowing for some measure of Iraqi legal jurisdiction over soldiers accused of committing crimes while off-duty.

But negotiators made progress on a specific timetable outlining the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq, something Maliki is under considerable domestic political pressure to secure. In the past, Rice and other U.S. officials have spoken of an "aspirational time horizon" that would make withdrawals contingent on the continuation of improved security conditions and the capabilities of Iraqi security forces.

Officials on both sides have said they hope to split the difference, setting next year as the goal for Iraqi forces to take the lead in security operations in all 18 provinces, including Baghdad.

U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have now also agreed to a conditions-based withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by the end of 2011, a date further in the future than the Iraqis initially wanted. The deal would leave tens of thousands of U.S. troops inside Iraq in supporting roles, such as military trainers, for an unspecified time. According to the U.S. military, there are 144,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, most of whom are playing a combat role.

Negotiators agreed several weeks ago to reduce the presence of all U.S. forces in Iraqi cities, among the most dangerous places soldiers operate, by the end of next year. That process would entail consolidating U.S. troops now deployed in small neighborhood posts into larger bases outside city centers, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials involved in the talks.

"They have both agreed to 2011," Mohammed al-Haj Hamoud, Iraq's chief negotiator, said in a telephone interview. "If the Iraqi government at that time decides it is necessary to keep the American forces longer, they can do so."

The fragile nature of security gains over the past year was evident in the secrecy surrounding Rice's one-day visit here, which was not announced until her arrival from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. U.S. negotiators hoped that her participation in direct talks with Maliki and visits with the Shiite and Sunni vice presidents would help conclude the immunity and timeline discussions.

"What my presence can do is to identify any final obstacles," Rice said Thursday as she began the Baghdad leg of a trip that has included a NATO meeting in Brussels on the crisis in Georgia and a stop in Warsaw to sign an agreement to station parts of a missile-defense system in Poland.

"It's a chance for me to sit with the prime minister and really get a sense of if there is anything else we need to do from Washington to get to closure" on the Iraq security accord. At a joint news conference before her departure, Rice and Zebari said that significant progress had been made. "We are working together as partners to make sure we cover the concerns of both," she said.

The United States, Zebari said, had shown "a great deal of understanding" and flexibility in response to Iraqi concerns. The issues were "sensitive," he said, and "that's why it takes a long time."

"We think this is a very good agreement," Rice said, adding that "the United States has gone very far" in accommodating Iraqi issues. She then noted that some obstacles remain, saying it would be an "excellent agreement when we finally have agreement."

Shortly after negotiations began in March, Iraq rejected an initial U.S. draft, which Maliki later publicly branded a "dead end." The draft called for immunity for both troops and U.S. civilian contractors, as well as unilateral U.S. control over its military operations and detention of Iraqi citizens. It did not include a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal.

With talks at a stalemate and time growing short, the two sides scaled back hopes of reaching a full status-of-forces agreement of the type that outlines the rights and responsibilities of U.S. forces in more than 80 countries around the world. In early June, after President Bush instructed U.S. negotiators to be more flexible on Iraq's key concerns, compromises were reached on military operations and detainees, and the United States abandoned its immunity demand for contractors.

Last month, Maliki said that the end of 2010 would be a reasonable goal for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops.

Facing challenges from within his own majority Shiite group, as well as from minority Sunnis and Kurds, Maliki pledged that there would be no "secret deals" with the United States. He said the agreement would be put to a vote in Iraq's fractious parliament.

"Time is of the essence," Zebari said at the news conference. "We are redoubling our efforts" to conclude the deal in time for it to be signed by Maliki and Bush before the U.N. mandate expires on Dec. 31, he said.

Without a formal, bilateral agreement, there is no international legal basis for U.S. forces to remain here.

The first Iraqi political test will come Friday, Zebari said in a conversation with reporters after the news conference, when Maliki's executive council will examine the parts of the text that negotiators have agreed to, as well as proposals to deal with immunity and other issues. "Tomorrow is a very important day," Zebari said.

The next step is consideration by a larger council of representatives from the leading political blocs. Then the document will be submitted to parliament, which is in summer recess until Sept. 9.

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when all business slows amid fasting, also falls in September.

U.S. negotiators have told Iraqi officials that a change in U.S. policy in Iraq could come when a new president takes office in January. The Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), has said he will continue current policy. His Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), has said he will begin an immediate withdrawal of U.S. combat forces, to be completed within 16 months.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Huge Challenges facing the Next President

Leila Fadel has an excellent piece today on the Maliki government's refusal to integrate the Sunni "Sons of Iraq" militias into the government's Shiite-dominated security forces. This issue has been lying out there for months, frequently reported and commented on, but nobody really paying much mind because (haven't you heard) the Surge has worked and the war is effectively won. (Given another report today, I'm not sure General Petraeus agrees that the war is won. And he seems to take no notice that the "Sons of Iraq" may be about to go off the reservation.)

In fact, let's face it: Iraq remains a cauldron where tensions simmer, ready to be brought to boil very quickly. The vital issue of politically reconciling Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Arabs has seen no real progress for months. Unless progress is forthcoming, and soon, Iraq's politics are going to remain fragmented, become even more tense, and the writ of the current government of Nuri al-Maliki government will be limited to Baghdad and parts of Iraq's largely Shiite south - and even there, the Shiite-fundamentalist Sadrists and their allies are going to have a major say. The northern Kurdish region of Iraq is, for all real intents and purposes, independent of the Baghdad government's control, but also able to imperil that same government because of the still unsettled issue of whether the ethnically divided tinderbox city of Kirkuk is to be included in the Kurdish zone. Meanwhile,

  • Israel and Hamas are in a very tentative cease-fire that may literally go up in smoke at any time;
  • Iran may be on the verge of becoming a nuclear power, with consequences that may be potentially de-stabilizing for the entire Middle East (and beyond);
  • the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan is swirling the bowl;
  • Turkey seems to be steadily losing its bid to gain acceptance within the EU and the broader European community, struggling to remain a strictly secularist democracy even as much of its middle class embraces Islamic values ever more closely;
  • Russia, having steamrolled Georgia (and US policy in the process), is reasserting its prerogatives in eastern Europe, where the Ukraine and Poland now sense themselves very much in harm's way;
  • western Europe's access to Russia's all-important natural gas hangs in the balance;
  • the US economy limps along, significantly at the mercy of oil prices that can be radically affected by any or all of the above.

Both presidential candidates must be able to address themselves to all of these issues as they press on with their campaigns. One of them is going to need to face all of these issues from day one in the White House, and he will have to do so with one hand tied behind his back because his predecessor overstretched the US military, overplayed the US's diplomatic hand, and underestimated the consequences that his recklessly unilateralist agenda would have on the US's prestige across the planet.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Cold War scenarios?

There's something both pathetic and scary in this report. The Russian Tupolev bombers are indeed relics, and pose no real threat; and the patrols have been going on for awhile; but Condi seems to be scrambling to find any issue on which the US can talk tough to the Russians. So, are we now to expect some kind of Top Gun moment?

On the other hand, the US is going to send in teams to re-equip the Georgian military? That surely will help ring up some new profits at General Dynamics and other weapons makers, but how far down this road is it truly wise to go?

Rice warns Moscow about its bomber runs off Alaska

Jonathan S. Landay | McClatchy Newspapers

last updated: August 18, 2008 07:53:59 PM

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Monday ruled out accelerating Georgia's admission to NATO in response to the Russian invasion. But she warned Moscow that it is playing "a very dangerous game" by resuming Cold War-era strategic bomber patrols close to the Alaskan coast.

"Russia is a state that is unfortunately using the one tool that it has always used whenever it wishes to deliver a message and that's its military power," Rice told reporters en route to an emergency meeting of NATO foreign ministers set for Tuesday. "That's not the way to deal in the 21st century."

With Europe divided between former Soviet bloc nations, which seek tough measures, and major powers such as Germany, which is hesitant to jeopardize significant business and energy ties with Russia, it was unclear whether NATO would produce a robust response to Russia's invasion of Georgia.

Russian forces Monday continued to move around Georgia with impunity, and senior U.S. defense officials said they were troubled by intelligence showing the Russians had deployed SS-21 ballistic missiles into South Ossetia with a range to strike Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

Rice said Russia has raised questions about its place in the international community through the invasion and other actions, including the resumption last year for the first time since the 1991 collapse of the former Soviet Union of air patrols near the Alaskan coast by Tu-95 strategic bombers, code-named Bears by NATO.

"We've had Russian strategic aviation challenging in ways they haven't, even along our borders with the United States, which I might note is a very dangerous game and perhaps one that I suggest the Russians want to reconsider. This is not one that is cost-free," Rice said.

She did not elaborate on a U.S. reaction to the flights, which have been widely seen as an attempt by Russia, flush with windfall oil profits, to reassert itself as a global power despite serious problems with its military.

Since the flights resumed in August 2007, U.S. and Canadian fighters have intercepted the Russian bombers and escorted them away from the U.S. coast.

U.S. officials have previously attached little real significance to the flights by the turboprop-powered Cold War relics, and defense officials said Monday recent flights did not provoke concerns within the Pentagon.

Russian bombers also have made forays into neutral airspace near Norway and over U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific.

Rice said, however, that the Alaska patrols and the invasion of Georgia contradicted Russia's stated desire for political and economic integration into the international community.

She charged that Russia's offensive deep into Georgia was aimed at "undermining" the pro-U.S. government of President Mikhail Saakashvili and crippling the impoverished nation by damaging and destroying vital economic infrastructure.

"That is an objective that will be denied because Georgian democracy stands and it will stand with the help of its allies around the world," Rice said. "Georgian infrastructure will be rebuilt. Georgia's economy will be reinforced."

Rice said that NATO foreign ministers would consider measures to reinforce U.S. and European support for Georgia's territorial integrity. For its part, the United States is also sending teams to assess the re-equipping of Georgia's U.S.-trained military, which was battered by superior Russian forces, and to evaluate reconstruction needs, she said.

But she said the United States would not push to accelerate approval by the 26 foreign ministers of plans for the admission to NATO of Georgia and the former Soviet republic of Ukraine.

Instead, the ministers were expected to reaffirm that the plans will be considered as scheduled at a regular foreign ministers meeting in December.

"We are . . . going to send a message that we are not going to allow Russia to draw a new line at those states that are not yet integrated into the trans-Atlantic structures like Georgia and Ukraine," said Rice.

France and Germany blocked approval in April of the criteria they must meet to qualify for membership, citing Georgia's unresolved territorial disputes and vehement Russian opposition.

Rice said the ministers also would reaffirm NATO's support for former Soviet bloc nations like Poland and the Baltic states. Though now alliance members, those nations have been deeply unsettled by what they saw as a tepid Western response to a major step by Moscow to reassert its influence over its former empire.

Rice is to visit Warsaw on Wednesday to formally sign an agreement that will allow the United States to locate anti-missile interceptors in Poland in exchange for bolstering the country's air defenses, a move that has enraged Russia.

Finally, she said, the foreign ministers will reassess overall relations with Russia, which has been seeking membership in international financial institutions and closer ties with the European Union.

"Frankly, Russia can't have it both ways. It can't act in a way that it did in the Cold War when it was the Soviet Union and expect to be treated as a responsible partner," Rice said.

Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Start of a New Era?

Across the political spectrum, people are weighing in on the significance of Russia's invasion of Georgian territory, and the extent to which Bush overplayed his diplomatic hand and, in effect, hung Georgia out to dry. Mr. Putin was playing hardball while Mr. Bush was probably flirting with a hard-on as he frolicked with the beach volleyball team at the Beijing Olympics:

"After an early wake-up call, the president headed straight to the Laoshan Olympic mountain-biking course, passing Tiananmen Square along the way. His wife, Laura, went on a tour of the Forbidden City. . . .

"In a green T-shirt and black shorts, the president biked more than an hour on the course on a warm, muggy, hazy day, accompanied by Secret Service agents and aides. He dabbed at his face with a towel as he left, then called the course 'really, really difficult.' . . .

"After slipping into dry clothes, the president headed for the beach volleyball at Chaoyang Park, getting sandy with defending gold medalist Misty May-Treanor on the practice courts during a half-hour stop.

"Bush posed for pictures with the U.S. players and staff. May-Treanor and her partner Kerri Walsh took a break in practice so Bush could try out a few bumps himself.

"The president needs some work on his passing, mis-hitting a pair off his knuckles. When May-Treanor passed the ball back to him, he acted like he was going to dive after it but decided to stay on his feet.

"Then May-Treanor turned her back to the president, offering her bikinied rear for one of the traditional slaps that volleyball players frequently give each other.

"'Mr. President, want to?' she asked, repeating an offer she made when Bush gave a pep talk to the U.S. athletes before Friday's opening ceremonies.


"Bush smilingly gave a flick with the back of his hand to the small of her back instead."

Whatever your view of Boy George's Olympic antics, the fact of the matter is that he's been had by the man into whose soul he professed to have peered - and felt assured by what he saw there - only a few short years ago. Both Robert Kagan and Richard Holbrooke identify the Russian invasion - coupled with the lack of any effective US response - as a watershed moment, very much on a par with Hitler's boldness at Munich in 1938. Hitler, of course, went on to launch a war of conquest that eventually engulfed almost all of Europe. I don't believe that Putin has quite the same thing in mind, although it's plain that he's intent on ensuring that the Caucasus and, as much as possible, the other post-Soviet republics remain secure in Russia's orbit. Nonetheless, the US's post-Iraq impotence has now been laid bare even more (and one would have hoped - especially if any remaining wisps of US prestige are to be saved - that that was impossible to make any barer). The US really has nothing with which to trump Putin's move. Short of resorting to JDAMs or tactical nuclear weapons, the US military's capabilities are maxxed out - and in any event, launching military action against Putin would likely drive the price of oil through the roof, with corresponding ruination of an already crippled US economy. What most easily comes to mind to describe succinctly Putin's move against the US is an old basketball taunt: "In your face!"

Friday, August 8, 2008

In Iraq, Regional Politics Heats Up

The Washington Post's top two reporters in Iraq today provide an excellent analysis of the current political alignments and tensions in Iraq. Violence, though still much too prevalent as suicide bombings continue, is down compared to two years ago. But does that mean (as McCain and others in the GOP insist) that the Surge "worked"? No - at least, not if one compares the results with the originally stated intentions. The expressed hope was that if US troops could strong-arm a reduction in violence, the various political and sectarian factions would take advantage of the breathing space to work out their differences within Iraq's new "democracy" - and that the central government in Baghdad would emerge as the legitimate power in Iraq. That's not happening. Instead, Iraq's southern (mostly Shiite Arab), western and northwestern (mostly Sunni Arab), and northern (mostly Kurdish) regions are each seething with tensions as local actors reassert themselves, and as issues as old as Iraq itself (tribes v. central government, Kurds v. Arabs, Sunni v. Shiite, Iraqi nationalists v. foreign occupier and its perceived proxies = the British and the Hashemites 1920-1958, now the US and the Maliki government) continue to fester.

Remember that the US's original hope in 2003 was to oust Saddam, install "our own" Saddam-lite (elections were not on the original agenda), cow Iran into submission and perhaps even regime-change, and open the spigots on Iraq's oil, to the greater glory and profit of the US oil majors - and to the benefit of the US automakers. If things had worked out as Bush-Cheney had first imagined, Detroit would still be rolling those SUVs off the assembly lines, and gasoline would be under $2.00 a gallon.
In Iraq, Regional Politics Heats Up
Jockeying Grows Among Groups, and Within Them, as Violence Gradually Gives Way to Power Sharing

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Ernesto LondoƱo
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 8, 2008; A08

BAGHDAD -- A growing number of Iraqi groups are choosing to pursue their agendas through politics instead of bloodshed, a trend that has helped bring down levels of violence. But as Iraqis leave behind the sectarian cataclysms of recent years, ethnic and regional political disputes in several parts of Iraq are becoming more pronounced.

In the south, ruling Shiite parties are vying for electoral power against loyalists of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Shiite tribal leaders. In the west, Sunni tribes are challenging the political control of established Sunni religious parties. And in the north, ethnic Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens are in a struggle for control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

"What we have now is people who know how to use weapons and who now want to play politics," said Mithal al-Alusi, an independent Sunni legislator. Even so, some leaders seem unable to decide whether to trust their fortunes to the ballot box.

The fight over Kirkuk is proving to be particularly intense. The dispute over power sharing in the ethnically mixed city triggered an attack by a suicide bomber and ethnic clashes that killed 25 people there last month. This week, Iraqi lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on legislation for provincial elections, placing in doubt the timing of the vote and slowing political reconciliation.

"There is no doubt the violence will increase in Kirkuk if its case does not get solved," said Khalaf al-Elayan, a Sunni lawmaker who heads the Iraqi National Dialogue Council, part of the largest Sunni political bloc.

Iraqi lawmakers and U.S. officials say several factors are behind the shaky transition to more robust politics. Militant groups are tired of fighting U.S. forces and are joining the political process as a way to survive. With the Bush administration in its last months, Iraq's political parties, sensing the possible end of the U.S. presence in Iraq, want to consolidate their political standing. Others view political ascendancy as a way to exert pressure on U.S. troops to leave Iraq.

The central government's power is weakening as Iraq's tribes, sects and ethnic groups consolidate power in their own regions. They want to deepen their grip in the upcoming elections, which are expected to make provincial leaders more influential.

The elections are especially vital to Iraq's disenfranchised Sunnis, who boycotted the last provincial elections in 2005. Political groups are coming forward to compete with traditional parties for the community's leadership.

Last month, in the city of Fallujah in Anbar province, once the nexus of the Sunni insurgency, the newest political player emerged. Leaders of al-Nassir Salah al-Din Army, a Sunni militant group, declared they would renounce violence and form a political party called the National Front of Iraq's Liberals to compete in elections. "We found out that armed action will not get the United States out of Iraq," said Majid Ali Enad, the group's leader. "After five years of directing painful blows to them, they did not budge from a single meter in the country."

The National Front and other onetime insurgent groups will join a bitter struggle for power between established Sunni politicians of the Iraqi Islamic Party and upstart leaders of the Sahwa, or "Awakening" council, a U.S.-backed tribal alliance whose popularity has grown following its success in combating the group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"Entering the elections is to change the current reality in our area, the domination of the Sunni spectrum by the Iraqi Islamic party," said Effan al-Issawi, the top Awakening commander in Fallujah. "They are unworthy of leading the Sunnis."

Political observers viewed the recent decision by the Iraqi Islamic Party and other Sunni groups to rejoin the cabinet of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as an attempt to preserve influence. The party and the other Sunni groups make up the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc.

"They have lost the trust of the people and their base in those areas," said Alusi, the independent Sunni legislator. "They are very nervous."

In recent weeks, the province has seen attacks on Iraqi Islamic Party offices and officials, as well as those targeting Awakening leaders, providing a glimpse of what could unfold as elections near.

In Shiite areas, nationalism is the new mantra as leaders of Iraq's majority community compete to promote themselves as representatives of all Iraqis. Shiite politicians are looking beyond the provincial elections; national elections are scheduled for December 2009.

Last August, Sadr, the Shiite cleric and populist leader, ordered his Mahdi Army to observe a unilateral cease-fire, and this year he ordered most of the militia to renounce violence and instead provide social services.

The cease-fire is widely viewed as a key reason for the drop in violence, but tensions have risen among Shiite groups. Iraqi government forces, whose senior commanders are loyal to Sadr's Shiite rivals, have launched numerous crackdowns against the Mahdi Army, prompting accusations from Sadrists that Maliki and other Shiite parties in the government were trying to weaken them before elections.

Some observers say the Sadrist movement and other militant groups turned to politics as a survival mechanism. "People who were using violence have been hit pretty hard," said Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman.

But others believe that Sadr's refusal to fight is part of a calculated strategy to regain popularity and reemerge with even greater power. In the last election, many of his followers boycotted the vote. "In past years, these parties used sectarian strategies," said Nadim Jabiri, head of the ultra-religious Fadhila Party. "Now, it's about nationalist agendas."

The Sadrists' main rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, an influential political party in Maliki's coalition, is spending millions to build mosques and schools and care for orphans. The Sadrists are maintaining public graveyards and providing aid to displaced families.

In the southern city of Basra, tensions among rival Shiite factions are "going to possibly entail Shiite-on-Shiite violence as we get into electoral politics," a senior U.S. Embassy official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters in a briefing last month.

For months now, Kurdish groups have competed in the political realm to further their interests. Their opposition to Iraq's central government controlling Iraq's oil revenues has helped block the passage of a national hydrocarbons law, viewed as vital to reconciliation.

Last month, Kurdish lawmakers boycotted a vote that called for allocating equal numbers of provincial council seats among Kirkuk's three main ethnic communities -- Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen. The legislation setting rules for the provincial elections was approved by parliament and then vetoed by President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd.

The Kurds want the city to become part of the mostly autonomous Kurdish region, but their rivals fear they will be disenfranchised under Kurdish rule and want Kirkuk to remain under central government control.

In Kirkuk, Arab leaders say the passage of the vote was proof that they have gained power by joining the political process. "Now we have started to feel that our voices have started to be heard again," said Borhan Mizher Al-Assi, an influential tribal leader and an Arab representative on the council of Tamim province, where Kirkuk is situated.

Awakening leaders say they are mobilizing politically to ensure that the city's Arab population is adequately represented. But Hussein Ali Salih al-Jubori, a top Awakening leader, said they worried that Kurdish security forces "could take the side of their political parties."

Some Kurds are predicting further instability if the electoral legislation is not altered to suit Kurdish demands. "If this law is not canceled, and a mechanism is not put in place to merge Kirkuk into Kurdistan, then we will isolate Kirkuk from the rest of Iraq," said Mohammed Kamil, an influential Kurdish politician in the city. "We will stop our full cooperation with the government in Baghdad, which is a popular demand."

As the number of political groups grows, some are concerned that politically inexperienced tribal leaders and former insurgents could soon wield power over provincial budgets and security forces. "We don't have a good system," said Othman, the Kurdish lawmaker. "A lot of the people are not very qualified."

He added: "If better security is not accompanied with reconciliation and a reduction of unemployment and the citizen doesn't see a change in his life," Iraqis may ultimately give up on politics and return to violence to accomplish their goals.

Special correspondents Zaid Sabah, Qais Mizher, Saad al-Izzi, Dalya Hassan and Aziz Alwan in Baghdad, and other Washington Post staff in Fallujah, Kirkuk, Najaf, Tikrit and Baqubah, contributed to this report.


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