Friday, July 17, 2009

Iraq's and Afghanistan's Woes Continue, while Iran is dealt a China card to play

So far, the Shii pilgrimage in Baghdad seems to be coming off without huge problems (although I did see a report of at least one bomb targeting pilgrims) - and that's a relief - and the NYT reports that, in fact, the Shii pilgrims were welcomed along the route through a Sunni neighborhood by Sunni locals with cups of cold water. But trouble brews elsewhere. The NYT reports that in the south of Iraq, 3 US soldiers were killed in their base outside Basra (where things have been relatively peaceful) when "insurgents" fired mortar rounds into it; also, a Sunni Awakening leader and his daughter and niece were killed (and 11 others hurt) by a bombing in Falluja (again, Anbar).

And in the north, the strains between the Maliki government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government are highlighted in a WaPo piece by the always superb Tony Shadid. The report is subtitled, "Military Conflict a Possibility, One Says" - and Shadid notes uo front that "Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region and the Iraqi government are closer to war than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the Kurdish prime minister said Thursday." This is not sensationalizing. The Kurdish and Arab troops have indeed come close to opening fire on one another on several occasions in the last couple of years:

In an incident June 28 that underscored the trouble, Kurdish residents and militiamen loyal to the Kurdish regional government faced off with an Arab-led Iraqi army unit approaching Makhmur, a predominantly Kurdish town between the troubled northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. Kurds believed the unit was trying to enter the town, and for 24 hours, Kurdish leaders, Iraqi officials in Baghdad and the U.S. military negotiated until the Arab-led Iraqi unit was diverted, the Kurdish prime minister said.

The Kurdish militiamen, who are nominally under the authority of the Iraqi army but give their loyalty to the Kurdish regional government, retained control.. . .

U.S. military officials confirmed the incident but offered differing accounts. Asked if the incident was essentially the Kurdish Iraqi army facing down the Arab Iraqi army, Maj. James Rawlinson, a military spokesman in Kirkuk, replied, "Basically.". . . .

The conflict between the government and the Kurdish region is so explosive because it intersects with the most critical disputes that still endanger the country's stability. They include debate over a hydrocarbon law to share revenue and manage Iraq's enormous oil reserves, some of which are located in areas claimed by the Kurdish government; talks to delineate the border between the Kurdish and Arab regions; and efforts to resolve the fate of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city shared by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens.

Complicating the landscape is the bad blood between two of the key players -- Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, and Maliki, whose stature has grown dramatically amid the restoration of a semblance of calm and his Dawa party's success in provincial elections in January. Although two delegations from Maliki's party have visited Irbil, the Kurdish capital, since the spring, the two men have not spoken in a year, Barzani said.. . .

Both have blamed the other side for provocations, often with justification. Kurdish officials see in Maliki's actions a recurrence of what they believe is arrogance from Baghdad stretching back generations. Maliki's allies accuse Kurdish leaders of overreaching in their territorial ambitions and stubbornness in talks.

"If things remain the way they are between the two parties, without solutions and without abiding by the constitution, then unfortunately everything is possible," said Ezzedine Dawla, a Sunni Arab lawmaker from Mosul, Iraq's most restive city.

Last month's standoff was at least the third that involved the Kurdish militia, known as the pesh merga, reaching into land that had been administered by Baghdad until the U.S.-led invasion. With U.S. approval after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, Kurdish leaders dispatched pesh merga past the frontier. In predominantly Kurdish regions, they sent administrative staff and their personnel, as well. Since last year, Maliki has pushed back, sending the Iraqi army to confront pesh merga in the border town of Khanaqin, which has a Kurdish majority, and deploying thousands more troops in Kirkuk. Fearing tension, the U.S. military has bolstered its presence in Kirkuk.

The Kurdish prime minister said the two sides narrowly avoided bloodshed in Makhmur.

He said the Iraqi army headed toward Makhmur, set in a wind-swept region of rolling wheat fields, with the intention of staying in the town. The troops were stopped by about 2,000 pesh merga in a standoff that lasted through the night. A flurry of phone calls continued into the next morning. The Kurdish prime minister said he stayed awake until 4 a.m. as the talks unfolded. "What does that tell you about the seriousness of the situation?" he asked.

American officials offered two accounts of what happened. Rawlinson, the spokesman in Kirkuk, said a battalion from Iraq's 7th Division was headed to station itself in Makhmur. At the nearby town of Debaga, it was stopped by soldiers of the 2nd Division, which is composed of pesh merga units. The U.S. military was alerted at 2:30 a.m., he said. "It was the middle of the night, and people got tense," Rawlinson said.

Maj. Derrick Cheng, a spokesman in Tikrit, said Iraq's 7th Division was headed to Nineveh province for an upcoming operation. "The movement fed fears and rumors," he said, and at least 30 vehicles and 100 people blocked the road. Calls were made, and the Iraqi army troops stopped on the road, then took another route, "bypassing Makhmur completely to avoid any potential conflict that might have resulted," he said. Rawlinson later said he would defer to Cheng's version.

Prime Minister Barzani saw the incident as more provocation than misunderstanding. He insisted that Iraqi army commanders were still imbued with a "military-style mentality of being the Big Brother to impose their will." He warned that the Iraqi army was biding its time until it became stronger, perhaps with tanks from the United States.

"Then what do you expect from us?" he asked. "We just sit down and wait to see it?" Asked whether the pesh merga had tanks, too, he replied, "Oh, yes. Yes, we do."

Shadid scores again with a major story focused on the Shii hierarchy in Najaf, and how its prestige has risen vis-a-vis that of the Ayatollah/Leader Khamenei in Iran (and the prestige of Iran's pre-eminent seminary city. Qom) in the wake of the latter's missteps after the recent elections fiasco. Most at issue here is the appropriate political role of Shii clergy in a modern state. Khamenei's Iran espouses the model implemented by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979-1980, in which the clergy actually have the ultimate political say-so. In Najaf - where the most esteemed cleric is the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - the prefered model leans toward less instrusive guidance. In the eyes of many experts, Sistani is still the most powerful political personage in Iraq because of his influence as a spiritual - ergo, political - guide for so many in Iraq's dominant Shii population (and many Iranians Shii look to him as well), but he has no official office in the Iraqi state. Shadid puts it wonderfully:

As one cleric put it, the difference between the two visions in Iraq and Iran is akin to different roles at a construction site. Under the wilayat al-faqih in Iran, the cleric might serve as the foreman, responsible for each aspect of the design and execution. In the quietist model in Iraq, Sistani would be considered the owner, but perhaps an absentee one.
As of now, Najaf is on the accendant - both in terms of its religious prestige, and in a more palpable sense. A lot of money is being poured into the city as a pilgrimage center (it's the location of the tomb-mosque shrine of Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law and the first Imam), with a new airport, hotels, etc.

Iran, on the other hand, is facing direr prospects, what with the US toughening its line and Israel sending part of it navy through the Suez Canal and acting as though it's ready to attack. But the Iranians have a new card to play in this confrontation: a deal with China whereby the Chinese will help build a gasoline refinery in southern Iran that will go far toward mitigating any US/UN sanctions or Israeli blockade to starve Iran of gasoline, which it cannot make enough of on its own. And the Time report notes further:

The Chinese deal would literally keep Iran's factories, homes and cars — in effect, a nation of 66 million people — running.

Iran's ties with China, which have steadily grown over the past decade, have accelerated rapidly in the past 18 months. In December 2007, the Chinese oil giant Sinopec Group signed a $70 billion deal to begin drilling in Iran's Yadavaran field, which has estimated reserves of about 17 billion bbl. In January of this year, China's biggest energy producer, CNPC, agreed to develop a medium-size oil field called North Azadegan — a deal worth about $2 billion. And last month, while demonstrators were fighting pitched battles with paramilitaries on Tehran's streets, Iranian oil officials flew to Beijing to negotiate a $5 billion deal with CNPC for the newest phase of Iran's huge South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf. Pummeled by the drop in world oil prices from $147 per bbl. last July to about $64 per bbl. this week, "Iranians are feeling more and more of an acute need for capital," Downs says.

And China is awash in cash. Furthermore, having invested tens of billions of dollars in Iran's energy sector, China — a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council — looks almost certain to veto any new tough sanctions against the country. In contrast, in the U.S. and Europe, there are growing anxieties over Iran's nuclear program as well as outrage over last month's violence.

And while the Chinese are spinning deals with Tehran, the US and other Western oil majors are sitting on their hands.

Finally, I highly recommend the latest by Tony Karon, "Obama, Foxman and Israel’s Purpose" - where he lambastes both Israel and American Jewish leaders like Abe Foxman for their cynical manipulation of the Holocaust, as well as the Old Testament. As Karon notes at the end of his piece,
having told the world and the majority of Jews who live in it that Israel was the answer to the Holocaust and the inheritor of the mantle of the survivors (a contestable claim, to be sure, but you only have to look at the fact that Germany paid most of its “reparations” not to the survivors themselves, but to Israel), Foxman et al are going to have a hard time pivoting to the narrative of Biblical redemption. For starters, most of the world’s Jews don’t buy such bubbemeis. And you’re going to have a hard time getting American Jews and most Western countries to accept the idea that the Palestinians’ epic suffering has been inflicted simply in the name of a distortion of Biblical fantasy. Essentially, the problem they face is that an ideological construct of their own making is no longer serving its purpose of ensuring a blank check for Israel’s endless dispossession of the Palestinians. The bad news, of course, is that justifying that dispossession on the basis of a Biblical narrative is going to get even fewer takers in America, of any persuasion.

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