News of America's misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
Iraqis go to the polls this Sunday, March 7, and it's not looking good.
A rumble of violence is spreading across Iraq, and while it's nothing like the generalized warfare that plagued the country three years ago, it's a worrying sign that a wrong turn after the elections could lead to an explosion -- especially if the vote is rigged, or if the politically disenfranchised outsiders, such as the many Sunnis, secularists, and nationalists, feel that the deck was stacked against them.
The best outcome after March 7 would, in effect, amount to a restoration of sorts, not of the Saddam Hussein-era hardliners, but of a coalition of Iraqis who are prepared to resist Iran and its myriad Iraqi agents, sympathizers, and allies while, at the same time, holding the United States to its deadline for withdrawing US forces by the end of 2011. There is at least a chance that the recent polarization of the electorate, sparked by the purge of candidates by an Iranian-backed commission headed by Ahmed Chalabi, the former darling of the noecons, might backfire. While there are signs that the polarization, designed to terrify Iraqi Shia over the spurious fear of a Saddamist comeback, might stampede many on-the-fence Shia to vote for sectarian Shiite candidates, it's also possible that the heavyhanded purge will bring a huge turnout of Sunni and secular candidates to the polls, simply to vote against the Shiite coalition and against Prime Minister Maliki. (Maliki, who's made half-hearted efforts over the past year to cloak himself in nationalist garb, strongly endorsed the purge. And, like the Shiite bloc, the INA, Maliki is waving the bloody shirt of Baathism to rally Shiite voters to his party, too.) A big turnout by Sunnis, secularists, and nationalists might upend Shiite dominance of Iraq by creating the basis for an anti-Iran coalition that could join with the Kurds and some renegade Shiite members of the INA after the election.
Putting together a governing coalition is likely to take four to six months after March 7, in a Wild West-like setting. (It's during this shaky period that US forces are supposed to drop from 96,000 to 50,000.)
Three huge bombs racked Diyala province, a mixed ethnic and sectarian province northeast of Baghdad along the border with Iran, on Wednesday, killing scores of people, and the province was placed under curfew. In Ramadi, the center of Sunni-dominated Anbar province in the west, tensions are high, and the deputy governor is warning that his constituents are restive. "If they feel their rights have been robbed, it might lead to sectarian violence," he warns. (The Anbar governor just returned from the United States, where he was fitted with an artificial limb after a recent bomb attack.) In crucial Nineweh province, a northern province that includes Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, Arab-Kurd tension is escalating along the so-called trigger line that separates the Kurds' expansionist border from Arab Iraq, and Masoud Barzani, the separatist Kurdish leader, has threatened to have his pesh merga paramilitary militia forces arrest the legitimately elected governor simply because he tried to visit a town in his own province that the Kurds consider part of "Kurdistan." Meanwhile, there have been a series of assassination attempts against candidates for parliament, especially aimed at members of the secular bloc led by former Prime Minister Allawi, banned secular leader Saleh al-Mutlaq, and the party of the Nineweh governor. I've spoken to candidates for office who have to travel in heavily armed convoys, who can't have public rallies, and who fear for their lives at every moment.
Chalabi, the portly liar and wheeler dealer who led the purge of anti-Iran candidates, makes no bones about campaigning as a sectarian Shia. This week, he told the Los Angeles Times that he is proud of his anti-Baathist McCarthyism, and he boasted about his despicable rabble-rousing: "On the issue of the Baath, I don't think anyone can match me." The paper described his blatant appeal to sectarianism in a speech to voters
"'I call for your support, for preventing the return of the Baathists,' he says, before adding a final, ominous-sounding pledge to his Shiite audience, one that leaves little doubt as to the tone of his campaign.
"'We support your sect and we will protect it,' he says, before being hustled back into his vehicle by his bodyguards for the journey home through the slum, now shrouded in darkness."
Allawi, the standard bearer for the secular nationalists, and his allies have been campaigning hard, and not just in Iraq. Both Allawi, a secular Shia, and Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni who used to be part of the Sunni religious bloc, have been traveling in neighboring Arab countries where millions of Iraqi voters have fled in the seven years since the US invasion. In Jordan and Syria alone, up to two million displaced Iraqis are eligible to vote, and many of them hail from the critical electoral cauldron of Baghdad province, which was ethnically cleansed by Iranian-backed Shiite death squads between 2004 and 2007. The votes of the two million Iraqi refugees, plus another two million internally displaced persons, might be critical in Sunday's vote -- if they're counted, and fairly.
In an interview with the Telegraph, Allawi warned that the thuggish Maliki is becoming a mini-Saddam himself, adding these strong words:
"We accept there will be a margin of irregularities in this situation. We are not going to accept a large portion of irregularities. That means a failure of democracy in Iraq. We will get out of the political process. If this happens, it will point Iraq towards a very violent and stormy future.
"If the political process is against the will of the people and filled with irregularities, I will stay away and I will call on others to boycott the process. If I am elected, I will resign from parliament."
With Iraq threatening to unravel if this Sunday's election doesn't go well, and with the war in Afghanistan heating up rapidly (U.S. forces are planning a massive assault on Kandahar to begin in late spring), you'd think that the United States would avoid a confrontation over Iran. You'd be wrong.
World powers meet today in Geneva to discuss the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which last month issued a new report charging that Iran's military plans for nuclear research "seem to have continued beyond 2004" and accused Iran of "current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile." It was, to be sure, a rather alarmist report, and the IAEA didn't provide any concrete information or details about Iran's alleged activity. Still, the U.S. is pushing hard for a new round of sanctions at the UN Security Council, and the IAEA meeting today is likely to accelerate that effort by leading directly to a new UNSC debate on Iran.
Secretary of State Clinton has declared that a new resolution at the UNSC will be introduced "in the next 30 to 60 days," giving Washington time to put pressure on Russia to support it and to persuade China to abstain, at least. There are five countries who belong to the current membership of the UNSC who aren't likely to vote yes on Iran sanctions: China, Brazil, Turkey, Lebanon, and Bosnia. Since the U.S needs nine "yes" votes for sanctions, those five aren't enough, although China (and Russia) might still veto sanctions that they consider too harsh. Leaving no stone unturned, Clinton will visit Brazil soon in part to make sure Brazil is on board.
Russia, increasingly unhappy with Tehran, is hinting openly that it will support some form of sanctions. Still, it's unlikely that Russia will support tough measures, and it's virtually certain that China would block anything stronger than a slap on the wrist. (Recently, however, China has signalled displeasure with Tehran's defiance, too, refusing to protest the recent IAEA report and going along with a toughly worded measure by a financial action task force that regulates trade with Iran.) As a possible sign of their displeasure, the Russians have apparently once again delayed the delivery of S-300 surface-to-air missile systems that they're supposed to deliver, by contract, to Iran. The Russian announcement of yet another delay came one day after a visit to Moscow by Israel's prime minister, the Iran-obsessed Bibi Netanyahu.
According to Josh Rogin at The Cable, over at Foreign Policy, the U.S. intelligence community is about to issue a revised National Intelligence Estimate that is expected to "walk back" the conclusion of the 2007 NIE, which said that Iran had halted its work on a bomb while continuing to enrich uranium. But the report says:
"The new estimate might not directly contradict [the 2007] judgment, but could say that while the intelligence community has not determined that Iran has made the strategic decision to build a nuclear weapon, it is seen to be working on the components of a device."
But it isn't at all clear what the United States thinks it can achieve. Can sanctions stop Iran from moving forward if it wants a bomb? Not likely. Most analysts don't believe that sanctions will work. Any sanctions that the UNSC might approve, even with Russian support and China's aquiescence, will be very mild. The Obama administration says that it will go ahead with unilateral or multilateral sanctions (with Europe) that presumably will be a lot tougher than the UN--approved ones. But they'll likely stop short of an embargo on Iran's import of refined petroleum products, such as gasoline. Still, there's a lot that tougher U.S.-EU sanctions might do, in terms of further boxing Iran in on investment and technology it needs across a wide range of industries: oil and gas production and refining, civil aviation, computers and IT, auto manufacturing, etc. All of that can hurt Iran's economy, but will it change Iran's policies? Anything's possible, but it's far more likely that Iran can work toward building a bomb, if that's what it wants to do.
Imagine Madeleine Albright coming at you with an M-16, and you'll get the right image for the Center for a New American Security, a thinktank made up of right-wing and centrist Democrats who never met a surge they didn't love.
Thus it's no surprise that Tom Ricks, a former reporter and author who's taken up residence at CNAS, has fired the opening gambit in what is likely to be a direct challenge to President Obama by the military, by conservatives and neoconservatives, by surge-lovers and empire builders, and others, to keep US forces in Iraq.
Ricks penned an op-ed in the New York Times entitled "Extending Our Stay in Iraq," as if the 98,000 troops there were business travelers asking the front desk for a late checkout. "Our stay"? He means, the US occupation of Iraq.
And Ricks pulls no punches. Obama should forget about his pledge to reduce US forces to 50,000 by August and to zero by the end of 2011. Instead, Ricks says, the troubling internal contradictions in Iraq -- including Iran's influence -- means that the United States should "keep 30,000 to 50,000 United States service members in Iraq for many years to come."
In recent weeks the US military has been hinting that it's thinking the same thing. A Post article yesterday entitled "U.S. plans for possible delay in Iraq withdrawal" said:
"The U.S. military has prepared contingency plans to delay the planned withdrawal of all combat forces in Iraq, citing the prospects for political instability and increased violence as Iraqis hold national elections next month."
Ray Odierno, the US commander in Iraq, has dropped hints about sticking around, too. And Robert Gates, the Republican secretary of defense who just won't seem to go away, told a press briefing on Tuesday: "We would have to see a pretty considerable deterioration of the situation in Iraq and we don't see that, certainly, at this time." At this time.
True enough, as I've been writing for weeks now (and for years, in fact, before that) Iran has vast and growing influence in Iraq, and it's ever more likely that the Iraqi elections on March 7 will be rigged in favor of Iran's friends among the religious Shia, including Prime Minister Maliki. But the last thing that the United States needs to is stay in Iraq and turn that country into a battlefield with Iran for control of the Persian Gulf. Obama's best course is to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible, even faster than the current timetable, if that can be done, and work hard on a diplomatic deal with Iran that would cover the nuclear file, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
But when the surge-loving conservatives and the counterinsurgency cultists starting pressuring Obama on Afghanistan last summer, he caved. Even though Obama, so far, has said again and again that the Iraq withdrawal plan that he announced a year ago is written in stone, I don't have any confidence that he'll stick to it if, after the elections, the Iraqis try to settle post-electoral differences with guns and car bombs.
Interestingly, Marc Lynch -- a far more sensible analyst on Iraq than Ricks -- has come out in favor of keeping to the timetable. Like Ricks, Lynch also has a perch at CNAS. (Memo to Marc: Get out of there, quick!) In his Foreign Policy blog, Lynch writes:
"There's been a mini-boom of late in commentary urging Obama to delay his timeline for drawing down U.S. forces, or at least to "do more" -- the Kagans are shocked, shocked to discover that Iranians are influential in Iraq, Jackson Diehl just wants Obama to care more about Iraq (without any hint of what policies might follow). They should be ignored. The administration is handling Iraq calmly, maturely, and patiently, has demonstrated in word and deed its commitment to its drawdown policy, and has tried hard to thread a devilish needle of trying to shape events without triggering an extremely potent Iraqi backlash."
So at CNAS, the record is: Sane, Lynch. Insane, Ricks. Stay tuned.
More huffing and puffing about war with Iran, this time from Anne Applebaum of the hawkish Washington Post, but first some words of caution from Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
At a news conference with Secretary of Defense Gates yesterday, Mullen once again reiterated his long-standing caution about a military attack on Iran, even as he laced it with concern about Iran's nuclear program and Iran's "hegemonic" goals in the area of the Persian Gulf. Said Mullen:
"I maintain my conviction that Iran remains on a path to achieve nuclear weaponization, and that even this very pursuit further destabilizes the region.
"But like us, it isn't just a nuclear-capable Iranian military our friends worry about -- it's an Iran with hegemonic ambitions and a desire to dominate its neighbors. This outcome drives many of the national security decisions our partners there are making, and I believe we must be mindful of that as we look to the future, post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan.
"Let me be clear: We owe the secretary and the president a range of options for this threat. We owe the American people our readiness. But as I've said many times, I worry a lot about the unintended consequences of any sort of military action. For now, the diplomatic and the economic levers of international power are and ought to be the levers first pulled. Indeed, I would hope they are always and consistently pulled. No strike, however effective, will be, in and of itself, decisive."
Applebaum, not exactly an Iran expert, used her ink in the Post today to warn that President Obama had better start preparing for an Israeli strike on Iran. In fact, that was the title of her op-ed: "Prepare for war with Iran." In it, she suggests that "at some point" Israel's restraint vis-avis Iran could evaporate, partly because President Ahmadinejad "makes(s) the Israelis paranoid." An Israeli strike, she says, "would be followed by retaliation, some of which would be directed at us, our troops in Iraq, our ships at sea." And she adds:
"I do hope that this administration is ready, militarily and psychologically, not for a war of choice but for an unwanted war of necessity."
That, of course, is exactly what Obama should not be doing. Instead, as I suspect they've done already -- indeed, even during the Bush administration, Admiral Mullen did this -- is make it clear to the Israelis that under no, repeat no, circumstances will an Israeli strike on Iran be tolerated by the United States. Bombing a would-be reactor in Syria, as Israel did three years ago, is one thing, but attacking Iran, a powerful regional actor and oil exporter with lots of muscle in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf, is another. The United States simply has to let Israel know that attacking Iran would be considered an act of unprovoked aggression by Washington, resulting in a suspension of military assistance and a vote to condemn Israel at the UN.
Iran, meanwhile, isn't helping things along by blustering about its intent to build another ten nuclear enrichment sites, including two inside mountain redoubts. Analysts argue back and forth about whether or not Iran is determined to become a military nuclear power. On this, I'm an agnostic, but it does appear foolhardy to assume the best about Iran's goals, especially given the ascent of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Tehran. It's another thing, of course, to panic, for two reasons: first, Iran does not appear to be that close to acquiring the bomb, and its research is running into important snags, at least some of which may involve covert technological sabotage by the US, Israel and the Europeans; and second, because even if Iran does manage to acquire a small number of bombs, it can be contained and deterred.
As Fareed Zakaria wrote the other day:
"Can we live with a nuclear Iran? Well, we're living with a nuclear North Korea (boxed in and contained by its neighbors). And we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union and Communist China.
"The most significant recent development in Iran has been the displacement of the clerical elite by the Revolutionary Guards, a military organization that is now the center of power. Clinton confirmed this when she warned of an emerging 'military dictatorship' there. I'm not sure which is worse for the Iranian people: rule by nasty mullahs or by thuggish soldiers. But we know this: Military regimes are calculating. They act in ways that keep themselves in power. That instinct for self-preservation is what will make a containment strategy work."
Other thinkers, including relatively hawkish ones, are already thinking ahead about a strategy to contain a nuclear Iran. James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh, no doves, have a piece in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs entitled: "After Iran Gets the Bomb." Summarizing their argument in the Post, Lindsay and Takeyh say that a containment policy, backed up by a credible threat of US military action, could contain Iran even after it gets a bomb. In my view, they seem to regard the use of force against a nuclear Iran with less than the dread that such a scenario implies, but in any case their argument bolsters the case for rejecting military action against Iran, now. They say:
"It would take considerable American political skill and will to contain [Iran's] regional pretensions. Washington would need to be explicit about its red lines: no initiation of conventional warfare against other countries; no use or transfer of nuclear weapons, material or technologies; no stepped-up support for terrorist or subversive activities. Washington would need to be just as explicit about the consequences of crossing those lines: potential U.S. military retaliation by any and all means necessary."
And they conclude:
"If Tehran remains determined to go nuclear and preventive attacks prove too risky or unworkable to carry out, the United States will need to formulate a strategy to contain Iran."
It's getting ugly in Iraq again, less than two weeks from the scheduled March 7 election. And the U.S. military is hinting that if conditions deteriorate, the United States might delay its planned drawdown of forces.
How ugly is it? Mass killings, beheadings, dumped bodies, rockets hitting the Green Zone. Here's the rundown from the New York Times' summary of events:
"A series of bombings, beheadings and shootings rippled through Iraq on Monday, leaving at least 23 people dead -- including 9 children -- and intensifying concern about a spike in violence with less than two weeks until national elections.
"Authorities detected no discernible pattern to the violence, with rockets exploding in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, car bombings aimed at government buildings, assassinations of security officers and government officials and the killings of two families in their homes in Baghdad.
"The slayings of the families was reminiscent of the attacks common during the height of the bloodletting between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq a few years ago.
"In the largely Shiite town of Madaen, south of Baghdad, a gang of gunmen stormed a home of a family and killed all eight people there, including six children.
"'The criminals have beheaded some of the victims,' according to a brief statement from Baghdad Operations Command.
"In another Shiite district in Baghdad, a mother and her three children were gunned down in the middle of the night, according to government officials.
"Meanwhile, police found two bodies riddled with bullets dumped in the street of the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya, according to Iraqi officials.
"The rocket attacks on the Green Zone wounded six people, according to Iraqi officials, but neither American nor Iraqi officials would provide details about where precisely they struck. An official at the American Embassy said there were no reports of Westerners injured.
"Two mortar rounds landed near a complex that had been used as Saddam Hussein's central security directorate in eastern Baghdad, near an American base, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.
"In northern Baghdad, gunmen carried out a drive-by shooting of a convoy of officials working for the Ministry of Defense and killed two people. Separately, a police officer and a civilian were injured when gunmen open fired on their parked vehicles.
"West of Baghdad, in the city of Ramadi, a suicide car bomber targeting a police garrison killed three people and injured seven.
"Several Iraqi police and army checkpoints in the city of Mosul were attacked by gunmen, killing four officers, according to Iraqi officials."
Meanwhile, General Odierno, the US commander in Iraq, suggests that the withdrawal timetable proposed by President Obama might slip:
"The top U.S. commander in Iraq said Monday that the planned withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces by the end of August could be delayed if conditions worsen in the coming months as Iraqis choose a new government.
"Army Gen. Ray Odierno said his staff had drawn up contingency plans for a delayed withdrawal that he has shared with Pentagon leaders and other U.S. officials during a visit to Washington over the past week. He said he was prepared to make the changes 'if we run into problems.'"
The election is still underway, but the main Sunni party, the National Dialogue Front, has pulled out of the vote after its leader, Saleh al-Mutlaq, was banned from running for reelection by Ahmed Chalabi and the Iranian-backed clique that controls the vetting process. The NDF statement read, in part:
"The National Dialogue Front cannot continue in a political process run by a foreign agenda."
The NDF's partner, the broad-based Iraqiya coalition led by Iyad Allawi, the secular Shia who was prime minister in the first post-invasion government, is continuing to campaign. According to most reports from Iraq, secular voters and Sunnis are determined to vote for candidates who are closest to their views and who oppose Iran's interference. And so far, the violence hasn't led to anything resembling the all-out sectarian conflict that plagued Iraq three years ago.
The Department of Defense has given the war in Iraq a new name.
In the past, you'll remember, they've had problems with names. The original title for the war was Operation Iraqi Liberation, whose unfortunate acronym, OIL, was an either an embarrassment or an exercise in truth-telling.
Now, the Pentagon is calling the next phase of the war, the drawdown, "Operation New Dawn." If you say it fast, it sounds a lot like "Nude Dawn." Which is closer to what it is. It's set in stone, and long overdue, that the United States gets out of Iraq. I strongly support the pullout, and I believe, if anything, it ought to be accelerated.
But nude it is, because as we leave Iraq, we're leaving it exposed to Iran. As one Iraqi, a current member of the Iraqi parliament who's running in the March 7 election, said to me:
"The Iraqis are like a small bird who was born in a small cage. and whose father and grandfather lived in that cage. And the United States came into Iraq and broke that cage, and the small bird cannot fly. And it can easily be eaten by Iran."
His poignant imagery exaggerates Iraq's vulnerability. It's time for Iraq to stand on its own two feet and block Iran. We'll see, on March 7, if the secular parties, the nationalists, the current and former Baathists, the Shia middle class, Sunni tribal leaders, cross-sectarian parties, and all the rest can win enough votes to take the lead, make a deal with the Kurds, and bring in a few Shia religious types who are willing to join what would be an anti-Iran coalition.
The passel of neoconservatives who pushed for war in Iraq in 2003 believed fervently that the war would change the face of the Middle East.
How right they were! The Middle East is changed forever, only not in the way the neocons had hoped. Rather than usher in an era of greater US influence in the region, the destruction of the government in Iraq in 2003 has allowed Iran to expand its political, economic, and military influence westward into the vacuum left by the elimination of Saddam Hussein. Belatedly -- slowly, slowly -- a few neocons here and there are starting to recognize that the vaunted democracy in Iraq is in grave danger of looking like the not-so-democratic "Islamic democracy" next door in Iran.
It's a process that's long been obvious to more objective observers of the Iraq war and its aftermath. And another thing that's obvious: Ahmed Chalabi, the darling of the neocons, the bosom buddy of Richard Perle, the favored Arab of the likes of Danielle Pletka and Michael Rubin, the comrade of Fouad Ajami, is Iran's best friend, ally and agent. It was, of course, Chalabi and his partner, Ali al-Lami, who together control Iraq's occupation-era "de-Baathification commission," who ran the Iranian-instigated purge of more than 500 candidates in the March 7 election. Earlier this week, I asked General Odierno about Chalabi and Lami, and he said point blank that the US has "direct intelligence" that Chalabi and Lami "clearly are influenced by Iran," and that they meet regularly with an nian official who "sits at the right-hand side of the Quds Force commandant, Qassem Soleimani."
Yesterday, speaking at the US Institute of Peace, Ambassador Christopher Hill was asked whether he agrees with Odierno's assessment. "I am in 100 percent agreement with General Odierno," said Hill.
Yet even as a neocon here or there denounced Lami and his Iranian backers for the purging of hundreds of Iraqi nationalists on trumped-up charges of Baathism, they can't quite bring themselves to denounce Chalabi, their former darling, as well, and when they do, they don't even bother to engage in self-criticism about their former love affair with Chalabi.
Take for instance, the op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Kim and Fred Kagan. When Odierno spoke, Kim Kagan was sitting right next to him, and to her credit she questioned Odierno hard on Iran's role in Iraq. But in the op-ed, co-written with her husband, Fred Kagan -- who is based at the American Enterprise Institute, which was Chalabi's home-away-from-home before the war and in its early phases -- the Kagans gloss over Chalabi's role. The note, in passing, that the rotund Iraqi wheeler-dealer is "a leading member of the Iranian-backed Shiite list," but they say no more on that subject. They go on to note with alarm Iran's growing influence in Iraq:
"Tehran seems to know what answers it wants regarding Iraq's future. Iranian officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Chairman of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, worked doggedly in 2009 to rebuild the coalition of the three major Iraqi Shiite parties that had run in 2005 as a bloc."
But after providing a fairly accurate run-down of Iran's machinations in Iraq, the Kagans want to blame not themselves, for the bungled, misguided war itself, but -- get this! -- President Obama!
"Against this continuous Iranian campaign of engagement, intimidation and political machinations, the Obama administration has offered little more than moral support."
What they propose, apparently, is that the United States prepare to slow down, or reverse, its pledged withdrawal from Iran. Perhaps the Kagans haven't noticed that the sovereign Iraq is in control of what the US does now. Perhaps they haven't noticed that the United States can't easily switch gears and keep its forces in Iraq beyond the deadlines of August 2010, for the reduction to 50,000 troops, and the end of 2011, for the complete withdrawal. Perhaps they'd like to undo what's been done, but the fact remains that Iran's influence in Iraq is semi-permanent. If anyone is going to force Iran to back down in Iraq, it will be the Iraqis themselves, not only at the ballot box but, it appears, in what may require a new outburst of violence, too.
A more thoughtful analysis comes from Clifford May at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who -- in a piece for National Review -- cites yours truly for raising the right alarm over the Iranian-backed purge of candidates by Chalabi and Lami. He writes:
"Robert Dreyfuss is a journalist of the left with whom I seldom agree; he writes for The Nation, a publication of the far left that usually makes my eyes roll. But in his Nationblog, Dreyfuss correctly notes that as the campaign gets underway for Iraq's March 7 elections, close to 500 candidates have been banned for alleged ties to the Baath Party by the Justice and Accountability Council, 'an unelected panel headed by an Iran-linked terrorist, Ali al-Lami.'
"Among those barred are 'the No. 2 and No. 3 candidates in the main opposition bloc, the Iraqi Nationalist Movement, which is led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi [a secular Shia]. Already, two members of Allawi's party have been assassinated while campaigning. . . . Allawi, who many observers say had a credible chance of winning enough votes to lead a governing coalition after the election, has suspended his campaign. . . . Many Sunni leaders are talking about a boycott.'"
May quotes me accurately -- but, nowhere in his piece does he mention the name "Chalabi." Like many of his fellow neocons, May doesn't seem to want to open the Pandora's box of the Chalabi question. But it's fundamental to the problem. More than anyone else, it was Chalabi who convinced the neocons that he and his Shiite religious friends would install an American-friendly democracy in Iraq, and they suggested that the US invasion of Iraq would create momentum that would topple the domino next door, in Iran. Unfortunately, Chalabi and his allies, including the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Islamic Dawa Party -- that would be the party of Prime Minister Maliki, who supports the purge -- were Iran's friends and allies, and in some cases, outright agents. Oops!
Here's the reality of Iraq in 2010: The damage is done. Seven years after the US invasion, Iran has the upper hand by virtue of its alliance with a network of Shiite religious politicians, from Chalabi and Lami to the Hakims to Muqtada al-Sadr to Maliki himself. Iran is multiply connected to the Kurds, as well. It has vast economic influence in Iraq. It's beyond absurd to suggest, as the Kagans do, that Obama is to blame for that. When he took office, he inherited a disaster in Iraq. The plan to drawdown US forces was pretty much already written in stone by the US-Iraq accord negotiated in 2008 by President Bush -- and Obama simply ratified it. (In fact, Obama slowed down his own Iraqi plan, in which during the campaign he called for a pullout of US forces much quicker than what he settled on.)
In his piece, Cliff May asks, in the headline, "Who's Losing Iraq?" In fact, it should have been: "Who Lost Iraq?"
If the neocons want to blame someone for the loss of Iraq, they ought to look in the mirror.
Of course, it isn't over. The Iraqis may surprise us all by voting on March 7 to kick out Maliki, the Shiite religious parties, and their friends, and elect a coalition of nationalists, ex-Baathists, secular Sunni and secular Shia, advocates of a strong central government, and other fierce Iraqi partisans who want Iran out. By the same token, many centrist Iraqis may realize -- even after the election -- that Iraq's economic future lies with the West, with its Arab neighbors, with Turkey, and with investment and technology from a wide range of US, European, Russian, and Chinese oil companies who can help Iraq boost its oil output from just over 2 million barrels a day to 10-12 million barrels by the end of the decade. But revolutionary Iran, embroiled its own domestic turmoil and stuck in a bitter dispute with the world over its nuclear program, sees Iraq as an important bargaining chip. It isn't going to give that up easily.
UPDATE Megan Ortagus, the spokesperson for the Institute for the Study of War, sent the following note after this post was written:
"Kimberly Kagan and Frederick Kagan were both professors of history at West Point in 2003, and consequently not involved with the Bush Administration interactions with exiled Iraqi leaders and the restoration of civilian government in Iraq. Kim and Fred Kagan have never supported Ahmad Chalabi nor advocated for him to play any role in Iraqi politics.
"Kim and Fred Kagan entirely agree with the comments General Ray Odierno and Ambassador Chris Hill have made this week about the role that Chalabi is playing and has been playing for some time--a role that is heavily influenced by Iran and specifically the Qods Force, and that has done significant damage to the cause of cross-sectarian political development in Iraq. In no way do they deny or minimize Chalabi's malign influence in Iraq."
In their op-ed, I wish they'd been that specific. Since 2003, the neoconservatives have generally aligned themselves with the Iran-influenced Shiites in Iraq, that is, the religious Shiites, and the folks at AEI -- including Rubin and Pletka, along with Michael Ledeen and Reuel Gerecht, who've since left AEI -- were generally enthusiastic since 2003 about radical de-Baathification. They relished Chalabi's role in continual purges of Iraqi nationalists and nonsectarian politicians for the past 7 years, and they were widely known to have supported the so-called "80 percent solution" for Iraq, so called because it was designed to include Shia and Kurds (80 percent of Iraq) and exclude Iraqi Sunnis. It's all on the record. So I wonder if the Kagans will extend their unhappiness about Chalabi to include the people who supported him.
Yesterday, during his appearance at the Institute for the Study of War, I had a chance to ask General Ray Odierno, the US commander in Iraq, about the role of Iran in the recent purge of nearly 500 Iraqi candidates on trumped-up charges that they are Baathists. Odierno avoided diplomatic niceties and blamed Iran, Ahmed Chalabi, and Ali al-Lami by name.
Lami is the executive director of the de-Baathification commission in Iraq, now reemerged as the Accountability and Justice Commission, overseen by Chalabi. On January 14, the AJC ruled that hundreds of Iraqi candidates would be barred from running for office, including some very prominent secular politicians opposed to Iran. I asked General Odierno to clarify Lami's ties to Iran, and why he'd been arrested by US forces in 2008.
From the transcript:
DREYFUSS "I'm Bob Dreyfuss with The Nation magazine. [I want to ask about] Ali al-Lami, who was arrested by the U.S. a year and a half ago. And I was wondering if you could kind of clear up who this guy is and what his connections to Iran are and why he was arrested and why he was freed."
ODIERNO "Al-Lami is a Sadr'ist by trade. He was arrested after an operation in Sadr City where both Iraqi security forces, U.S. civilians, and U.S. soldiers were leaving a meeting that they had with the local government in Sadr City, and their vehicles were attacked with IEDs as they left the meeting.
"There were some accusations. We had some intelligence that said that al-Lami was the one who directed these attacks on these individuals. He was released in August of '09 as part of the drawdown of our detention facilities because we did not have the actual prosecutorial evidence in order to bring him in front of a court of law in Iraq. All we had was intelligence that linked him to this attack. So, as we had some others, we had to release him. He has been involved in very nefarious activities in Iraq for some time. It is disappointing that somebody like him was in fact put in charge or has been able to run this commission inside of Iraq, in my opinion.
"He is -- him and Chalabi clearly are influenced by Iran. We have direct intelligence that tells us that. They've had several meetings in Iran, meeting with a man named Mohandas, which is an ex-council representative member -- still is a council representative member -- who was on the terrorist watch list for a bombing in Kuwait in the 1980s. They are tied to him. He sits at the right-hand side of the Quds Force commandant, Qassem Soleimani. And we believe they're absolutely involved in influencing the outcome of the election. And it's concerning that they've been able to do that over time.
"Chalabi, who -- you know, has been involved in Iraqi politics in many different ways over the last seven years, mostly bad."
I also asked Odierno whether Lami is tied to the League of the Righteous, a Shiite terrorist group that is widely seen as an arm of Iran's Qods Force, the branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps that is responsible for the IRGC's external operations, including Iraq:
ODIERNO: "Yeah. I'm not going to -- it's not clear, so I won't comment on that."
As I've noted recently in this blog, the AJC's anti-Baathist purge, which has struck hundreds of Iraqis with only tenuous connections to the former regime, has threatened to unravel the entire Iraqi political fabric and restart sectarian violence. The Iranians aren't shy about taking credit for it, either, linking the United States to the Baath as part of some (nonexistent) anti-Iran plot. Last week, for instance, in his speech on the anniversary of Iran's 1979 revolution, President Ahmadinejad said:
"Why do you [United States] want to impose your will and Baathists on Iraq and regional nations?"
Tariq al-Hashemi, the vice president of Iraq and a leading Sunni politician who has joined with the campaign of Iyad Allawi, wrote a protest to the Iranian ambassador in Iraq about the speech by Ahmadinejad and Iran's blatant interference in Iraqi affairs.
As Iraq's election decends from manipulation to thuggery to outright brutality, assassinations, and bombings, it's hard to know what reaction to have to Vice President Biden's comment that Iraq is a great triumph for the Obama administration.
My own reaction: sadness and outrage.
Appearing on the CNN program hosted by the always insipid Larry King, Biden said:
"I am very optimistic about -- about Iraq. I mean, this could be one of the great achievements of this administration. You're going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You're going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government.
"I spent -- I've been there 17 times now. I go about every two months -- three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It's impressed me. I've been impressed how they have been deciding to use the political process rather than guns to settle their differences."
You can read the complete transcript of Biden's comments here.
That is not to say that blustery Vice President Cheney's comments are correct. Cheney's comments, not surprisingly, are even more outrageous. The ex-veep wants the credit for the sterling democracy that Iraq is today, failing to mention that Iraq is descending into an abyss of stolen and rigged elections, renewed violence, and possibly much worse. That doesn't faze Cheney:
"If they're going to take credit for it, fair enough, for what they've done while they're there. But it ought to go with a healthy dose of 'thank you, George Bush' up front and a recognition that some of their early recommendations, with respect to prosecuting that war, were just dead wrong. If they had had their way, if we'd followed the policies they'd pursued from the outset or advocated from the outset, Saddam Hussein would still be in power in Baghdad today."
Well. Perhaps Cheney is right that Saddam might still be in power. But many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would be alive, along with 4,000 dead Americans. Iraq would have a functioning government and an expanding economy, and Iran would not have infiltrated nearly all of Iraq's political, economic, and military institutions. And the United States would be at least one trillion dollars richer. The price of oil might be significantly lower, too.
As for Iraq, well, the March 7 elections look like they are going to follow in the pattern of Iran's and Afghanistan's, i.e., rigged. The debate over the banning of 500-plus candidates by an unelected panel headed by an Iran-linked terrorist, Ali al-Lami, is apparently over, and nearly all of the candidates have been barred from running. Among those barred are Saleh al-Mutlaq and Dhafir al-Ani, the No. 2 and No. 3 candidates in the main opposition bloc, the Iraqi Nationalist Movement, which is led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
Already, two members of Allawi's party have been assassinated while campaigning. Five bombs struck five offices of the main, Sunni-led opposition parties in Baghdad on Saturday, including Mutlaq's. Allawi, who many observers say had a credible chance of winning enough votes to lead a governing coalition after the election, has suspended his campaign, and he is mooting the idea of an election boycott. Already, many Sunni leaders are talking about a boycott.
Reports Al Jazeera:
"A secular Iraqi political coalition has suspended its election campaign over a ban on some of its candidates, as blasts hit political offices across Baghdad.
"The blasts late on Saturday, as well as the ongoing dispute over banned election candidates, have heightened tensions during the run up to Iraq's parliamentary vote, scheduled for March 7. ...
"Hours later a blast struck the political offices of Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni politician and co-founder of the Iraqiya list, who is among those barred from the election.
"Another bomb was thrown into the garden of a building used by Sunni scholars, including poll candidates, in Mansour in west Baghdad, wounding two guards.
"A third blast damaged the headquarters of the United Iraq list in east Baghdad."
"It has become clear to Iraqis that this political campaign is fake. The international community should not recognize any government that emerges from it."
Dhafir al-Ani said:
"I still don't know why I was banned. What is the charge against me?"
Yet another banned candidate, Nabil Khalil Saied, said:
"I believe that after this decision [to ban candidates] there will be no hope for any kind of reconciliation."
The banned candidates are almost entirely secular and nationalist Iraqis, who oppose Iran's heavy-handed influence over Iraqi politics, across a wide range of parties. They were banned because of spurious allegations that they were members of the banned Baath party, supporters of the Baath, propagandists for Baathist ideas, or belonged to the Iraqi military or intelligence services under the former regime. Needless to say, millions of Iraqis fall into one or more of those categories. It's a political purge, backed by violence and assassinations, aimed at preventing the opposition from getting any traction on March 7.
Feisal al-Istrabadi, a lawyer who helped draft the transitional laws that governed Iraq after the US invasion in 2003 and who served as the new government's ambassador to the United Nations, told me that there is absolutely no legal basis for the Iraqi court's decision to reverse itself and to reinstate the candidates ban. (What happened was that the ban was imposed by the Justice and Accountability Commission, controlled by Lami and Ahmed Chalabi, upheld by the Iraqi High Election Commission, then struck down by an appeals court. Then, Maliki met with the head of Iraq's supposedly independent judiciary, Midhat al-Mahmoud, along with key government officials and with members of parliament, and put pressure on the top judge, who in turn convinced the appeals court -- for political reasons -- to reverse itself!)
Istrabadi told me:
"Maliki has manipulated the judiciary into giving him what he wants. The judges got it right the first time. You can't ban candidates without evidence. You can't ban people over just allegations. ... The current regime in Iraq has coopted the regular judiciary in a way that even the previous regime did not succeed in doing for thirty-five years."
Istrabadi said that Maliki met with the chief justice, Midhat al-Mahmoud, before the appeals court reevaluated its prior ruling, before it reversed itself, and he suggested that Maliki -- for reasons purely political -- convinced, pressured, or cajoled the chief justice to make sure that the lower court changed its mind.
Chalabi, once a close American ally and confidante of neoconservatives such as Richard Perle, Daniella Pletka, and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, blasted the United States for interfering in Iraq's election by calling for the banned candidates to be allowed to run. Said Chalabi:
"The appeal committee was submitted publicly to the pressure of foreign groups, like Vice President Biden who said when he was in Iraq (in January) that he hoped Iraqi justice will dissolve the committee of integrity and accountability. Or when the American ambassador in Baghdad expressed his wish that the Iraqi justice system will solve an inconvenient matter, the issue of the 500 candidates."
It's true that Biden and Ambassador Christopher Hill tried to work, behind the scenes, to get the ban reversed. That they failed to do so is proof that US influence in Baghdad is close to zero, despite the dwindling presence of 120,000 US troops, and that Iran's influence is gaining strength. The original ban on the 511 candidates was the result of action by Chalabi and Lami, both of whom have extremely close ties to Iran. So, too, does the Iraqi Shiite religious-political establishment.
So much for Biden's fatuous comment that Iraq is "one of the great achievements of this administration." The only question that remains is, Will the next Iraqi government be an illegitimate, strongman regime headed by a Shiite sectarian quasi-dictator with close ties to Tehran, or will Iraq be plunged once again into a cycle of violence and civil war? Or both.
Heckuva job, Bidey.
Time, once again, to review the bidding (and the state of hysteria) over Iran's nuclear program.
Let's start with the piece in the New York Times on February 9 by William Broad, a science reporter, who analyzed the import of Iran's high-profile announcement last week that it would start to refine its own low-enriched uranium (LEU) from the current 4 percent to 20 percent, for use in fuel rods for the Tehran medical reactor. Iran's announcement, widely seen as defiant, was their riposte to demands that Iran make good on its October 1, 2009, deal with the United States and other world powers in the P5 + 1 group to ship its LEU abroad. That plan would have had the uranium enriched and turned into fuel rods in Russia and France, then shipped back to Iran for use in the medical reactor.
Broad raises alarms about the Iranian decision to go from 4 to 20 percent, calling it an "act of brinkmanship in a standoff with the West" and suggesting that, paradoxically, enriching uranium to 20 percent gets Iran "almost to the finish line" in producing material for a bomb. Even though highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a weapon would have to be something like 95 percent U-235, not 20 percent, Broad quotes technical experts who argue that getting to the 20 percent level takes 90 percent of the energy needed, making it a short step to bomb-grade material. He concludes by quoting David Albright of ISIS:
"David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private organization in Washington that tracks nuclear proliferation, said the diminishing effort needed to enrich at higher levels meant Iran would need fewer working centrifuges.
"Mr. Albright said Iran would need only 500 to 1,000 centrifuges working for six months to enrich uranium from a level of 20 percent to that needed for a bomb, a tiny fraction of the number required to enrich to lower concentrations.
"The number of centrifuges is small enough that international inspectors and intelligence agencies would have an "extremely hard" time trying to detect the spinning machines if Iran hid them in a clandestine site, Mr. Albright said."
But how does that square with a blockbuster report in the Washington Post on February 11 suggesting that Iran's nuclear enrichment program is faltering, plagued by mistakes, and saddled with decrepit, 1970s-era technology?
The Post piece, by Joby Warrick and Glenn Kessler, a draft ISIS report and other experts reporting that the number of Iran's 8,700 centrifuges actually spinning has dropped precipitously from only 5,000 last May to 3,900 in November. The article also cites Albright, thus:
"At least through the end of 2009, the Natanz plant appears to have performed so poorly that sabotage cannot be ruled out as an explanation, according to a draft study by David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS)."
Sabotage, of course, presumably means that long-rumored effort by the United States and its allies to undermine Iran's program covertly, by sending it defective materials and software infested with bugs and glitches. "It is well known that the United States and European intelligence agencies seek to place defective or bugged equipment into Iran's smuggling networks," says the ISIS report. In any case, Iran's program is breaking down and its uranium output is dropping -- meaning, it appears, that President Ahmadinejad's intention to enrich uranium from 4 to 20 percent may be a lot harder than it looks.
The Obama administration, even as it pushed for targeted sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), seems to want to avoid raising too many alarm bells. The Post today quotes Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, saying that Iran's boasts are "based on politics, not on physics," adding: "We do not believe they have the capability to enrich to the degree to which they now say they are enriching."