Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bad News for US "interests" in Iraq - and the Middle East

Actually, it's been a bad few months across the region, as far as the US is concerned:
  • In Iran, the UN + US sanctions have had some effect, but the Iranian government seems to be making do; and as the price of oil rises, Iran is raking in more money with which to offset those effects.  Today, it's reported that the latest talks between the "six world powers"  Iran in Istanbul have broken down.  No surprise there: the "world powers" had set a precondition that Iran stop enriching uranium - something that Iran knows that, according to international law, it has every right to do.  Iran demanded that sanctions be ended; no chance that that would happen.  Iran also knows that a military attack against its nuclear facilities is probably off the table.
  • The government in Lebanon, which had been led by a pro-West Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri, has been brought down by Hezbollah, because Hariri has refused to turn his back on the indictments just issued (but not yet unsealed) by the UN's Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was constituted to investigate the assassination of Hariri's father, Rafik Hariri, a former PM and industrialist, several years ago.  Although the Bush administration tried initially to pin the blame on Syria, it's now believed that Hezbollah agents were responsible.  So, Lebanon now has a powerless government, with a disempowered prime minister.  And matters have become even dicier with the news that the leader of Lebanon's Druze community, Walid Jumblatt, supports Hezbollah.  As the NYT notes, this could well mean thatHezbollah has the support it needs in Lebanon's parliament to nominate the next prime minister and formally end the rule of a Western-backed government here."  This could potentially tip off a new civil war in Lebanon.  The horrific war of 1975-1991 pitted Muslims vs. Christians, with Israel intervening on behalf of the Christians (and, frankly, on behalf of Israel); but this one, if it indeed develops, would pit Hezbollah-led Shia (now Lebanon's single largest religious community) vs. Sunni Muslims (who used to rival Christians for domination there), with strong possibilities of such a war pulling in Israel and Iran.  (And in a potentially even more complicating twist - one recent poll indicates that Lebanon's Christians are siding increasingly with Hezbollah in the matter of the STL tribunal.) So much for a stable Middle East, which is what the US needs most of all if it is to ensure access to the region's oil.
  • The dictatorship of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, a reliable US ally and friendly force for "stability" (even if he did imprison political opponents) has fallen to a popular pro-democracy revolt. (I highly recommend Time mag's Tony Karon's analysis of the implications.)  Waiting in the wings is the group that Ben Ali repressed most harshly, and that is the last bunch that the US (and its so-called "moderate" Arab allies: Mubarak in Egypt, Abdullah in Jordan) wants to see emerge: Tunisia's Islamists.
  • The recent assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province in Pakistan, by an Islamist member of his security detail (evidently because Taseer was opposed to Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law) has been followed by a huge outpouring of support for his assassin. This surely reflects the strength of Islamist hard-liners in Pakistan - and concomitantly, opposition to US influence in the affairs of a nuclear-armed putative ally without whose help the US can expect no "success" next door in Afghanistan.

And then, there's that country that has fallen off our radar screens, because, after all, we've already won there, right?  Iraq is now on the way to a stable democracy, friendly to the US - just like Mr. Bush wanted . . . right?  Well, think again:
  • In the last few weeks, suicide and car bombings (three of them on consecutive days this week) have killed more than 120 people (many of them police recruits) and wounded hundreds - in Baquba (western Iraq), Mosul (in the north; a police chief was killed), Tikrit (Saddam's hometown, north of Baghdad), and  Karbala (one of the famed shrine cities of the Shiite south).  Any reports of these in the US MSM are always qualified, of course, with the don't-worry-about-it note that violence overall is down from two years ago.  (Gosh, that's swell.  Thanks, General Petraeus!)
  • As these bombings take their toll, the newly re-installed prime minister Nuri al-Maliki presides over a new government that grossly stretches the definition of cobbled-together - and the cobbling isn't even complete; he has  yet to appoint his Cabinet's national security, defense and interior police ministers, because, he says,  he wants more time to select leaders who are apolitical; so,  he controls all security forces until those Cabinet posts are filled.  He controls all security forces.  Saddam must be chuckling somewhere.
  • A major force in Maliki's new government is Muqtada al-Sadr, the populist Shii mullah who recently returned to Iraq in triumph, a political star who promptly gave a speech in which he declared that Iraqis must resist the US presence, that all American soldiers must leave Iraq by the agreed date of 31 December 2011 (a demand that Maliki himself has reaffirmed), and that he will support the new Maliki government as long as it defends and serves the Iraqi people.  Muqtada is Maliki's only serious rival for political popularity on the "Arab street" in Iraq, and with a doubt the single political/military leader in Iraq most hated by the US political/military establishment. Why? Between 2004 and 2009, his Mahdi Army was responsible for the killing and wounding of hundreds of US soldiers;  and  although he styles himself an Iraqi nationalist, he (and his famed ayatollah father before him) has strong ties to the Islamist regime in Iran (where, it's been reported today, he seems to have returned).

A last irony here: This week's bombing that killed more than 50 Shii pilgrims in Karbala may have been orchestrated by a leader of  the Sunni Awakening, the Sunni Arab locals who turned on Sunni al-Qaeda jihadists and teamed with US troops during the Petraeus "surge" that brought the US "victory" in Iraq.  As the AP reports,
If the Awakening Council leader is found guilty of the charges, it would affirm widespread government doubts about integrating the Sunni fighters into the nation's security forces — despite their alliance with the U.S. against al-Qaida. It could also signal that the militia's frustration about being sidelined by Iraq's Shiite-dominated government may have finally reached a boiling point.
For Iraq's - and Iraqis' - sake, let's hope that's not the case.  But if so, it raises the specter of renewed sectarian fighting, perhaps with Muqtada calling to arms his militia (now renamed the Promised Day brigades) to defend southern Shia if Maliki's security forces are unable to stem the violence.

Any such development would also finally put paid to any remaining claim that the US invasion somehow "fixed" Iraq, and that the expenditures in lives and treasure that Boy George's Iraqi Adventure cost the US - and the Iraqi people - were somehow worth it.

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