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Bob Dreyfuss | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

Attack Iran?

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."

Ugly in Iraq

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.

"Operation Nude Dawn" in Iraq

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 Chalabi Factor in Iraq

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.

Odierno: Chalabi, Lami Tied to Iran

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.

Heckuva Job, Bidey

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."

Said Mutlaq:

 "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.

Iranian Nukes? Not So Fast

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."

The Mind-Boggling Stupidity of Michael Rubin

The 2000's produced a panoply of villains, cretins and bunglers on Iraq and the broader Middle East. Truly, however, none of them can hold a candle to the pudgy-faced boy wonder of the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Rubin.

On March 1, six days ahead of Iraq's March 7 parliamentary election, Rubin will be a featured speaker at an AEI conference entitled: "Iraq's Elections: Progress or Peril?"

For an organization that was obsessed with Iraq for years, especially in the period before and after the 2003 U.S. invasion, when it held an endless series of "black coffee briefings" on Iraq that often featured people like Ahmed Chalabi and his confreres, the AEI has been remarkably silent on Iraq lately. Perhaps that's because AEI, and Rubin, had consensual intercourse with Chalabi for years, and now Chalabi has emerged in full blossom as a pro-Iranian villain purging Tehran's opponents in Iraq.

Yet Chalabi's ties to Tehran don't faze Rubin. In a February 1 article in his favorite outlet, National Review Online, Rubin wrote a piece so mind-bogglingly stupid that it surpasses even his past efforts at winning a place in the Guinness Moron Book of Records. While the whole world, including countless good-hearted Iraqis, expressed outrage over the McCarthyite purge of more than 500 Iraqi candidates by Rubin's comrade, Chalabi, because of trumped-up charges about ties to the deposed Arab Baath Socialist Party, Rubin cavalierly dismissed the purge. He wrote:

"After the Iraqi parliament banned 500 candidates from contesting the March 7 national elections, Vice President Joseph Biden rushed to Baghdad to urge Iraqi political leaders to reconsider. While the ban has fueled U.S. cynicism about Iraqi democracy, such cynicism is unwarranted, especially now. 

"The Iraqi parliament's decision did not wipe out Sunni candidates. Even the majority Shia lists are multi-sectarian. Iraqis say the controversy is really about rule-of-law and sovereignty issues. Across the ethnic and sectarian spectrum -- and even in senior Iraqi military circles -- Iraqis consider it likely that there will be a Baathist coup attempt following U.S. withdrawal, even if they disagree about its chances of success. Indeed, it is no coincidence the current defense minister is among those banned by parliament."

You'll note that three times in those two paragraphs Rubin says that the candidate ban was imposed by the "Iraqi parliament." In fact, the ban was the nefarious work of an unaccountable body called the Justice and Accountability Commission. And the JAC is controlled by Ahmed Chalabi and one of his cronies in the Iraqi National Congress, Ali al-Lami. Rather than talk about the purge, Rubin gives credence to the nonsensical and paranoid concerns, often expressed by Iran's closest allies in Iraq, about a "Baathist coup attempt."

As Matt Yglesias, Brian Katulis, and others can attest, Rubin is notoriously thin-skinned about criticism of his bungling and ill-conceived opinions. He's prone to denouncing his critics as liars, distorters, and prevaricators, usually seizing on some mini half-truth to accuse his detractors of besmirching his reputation. So, for that reason, in this screed I am going to cite Rubin's own words exclusively to show how dumb he is. Why, exactly, the AEI allows him to pontificate from his perch there – even as AEI has let go or purged other bunglers, such as Michael Ledeen and Reuel Gerecht -- is beyond me. But they do. And he manages to appear from time to time on television as a pudgy-faced "expert" on Iraq and the Middle East.

The reemergence of Ahmed Chalabi, the Iranian-backed wheeler-dealer and charlatan who, once again, is angling to be prime minister of Iraq – yes, really! – allows us to remind ourselves about Rubin's idiocy. Last month, Chalabi, who spends a great deal of time sojourning in Tehran, and who worked tirelessly on Iran's behalf since last spring to assemble the Shiite-religious bloc, misnamed the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), for the March 7 elections, fired a de-Baathification bazooka at hundreds of Iraqi political candidates who distinguished themselves by speaking out against Iran's burgeoning influence in Iraq. One of Chalabi's stooges, Ali al-Lami – who, it turns out, had actually been arrested and detained by U.S. forces in Iraq on terrorism charges – orchestrated the McCarthyite banning of candidates for their supposed Baathist sympathies. Many of those banned had no relation to the outlawed Baath party whatsoever, while others were former Baathists who'd quit (or been expelled) decades ago, low-level party functionaries who had no responsibility for crimes committed during the Saddam era, and so on. Or else they were merely secular politicians, Arab and Iraqi nationalists, and others who have no use for Iran's increasingly heavy-handed involvement in Iraqi affairs.

Iyad Allawi, a secular Iraqi Shia who is leading a cross-sectarian electoral coalition in the March 7 vote, denounced the Chalabi-Lami ban in the strongest terms. "The justice and accountability commission is actually a secret police. We don't know who these members are or how they have been appointed. We know the main culprits." Allawi, a former prime minister, accused the JAC of "fabricating records" to smear its opponents, and he said: "The country will go into severe turmoil, I'm sure. It will cause a backlash. … This will put Iraq back in the box of sectarianism and the route to civil war."

Rubin could care less. It's hard to explain why Rubin would ignore the machinations of a blatantly pro-Iranian coalition, orchestrated by Chalabi, unless it's because Rubin remains enthralled by Chalabi, even years after Chalabi's treachery and dalliance with Iran's hard-line leaders was exposed.

It's useful to remind ourselves about Rubin's past love affair with Chalabi. To be sure, Rubin was not the only neoconservative whose heart fluttered when Chalabi walked into the room. Many, including ringleader Richard Perle, supported Chalabi since the 1980s, and even earlier Chalabi was a protégé of Albert Wohlstetter, the eminence grise of the neoconservative defense and national security movement for whom the AEI's 12th floor conference room in grandly named the "Wohlstetter Conference Center." Wohlstetter, who met Chalabi in the early 1970s at the University of Chicago's math department, introduced Chalabi to Perle in the mid-1980s – and the rest, as they say, is history. Even when concrete evidence emerged about Chalabi's perfidy – that is, after Chalabi was caught leaking ultra top secret information to the Iranian ambassador about U.S. eavesdropping on Iran's representatives in Baghdad – Perle and others doggedly defended Chalabi as a poor, misunderstood Arab neocon, in the mold of their favorite Arab, Fouad Ajami.

Even at the beginning, even before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Chalabi made no secret of his ties to Iran. Indeed, in the hallway outside AEI's very Wohlstetter Conference Center, during the run up to the war in late 2002 and early 2003, Chalabi himself talked to me openly about his links to Iran. At one point, I asked one of his senior aides, in the same hallway, with whom Chalabi consorted when he visits Tehran. Was he talking to President Khatami, the reformist? To the army? Who, exactly? "Oh, no," said Chalabi's minion. "We talk to the hardliners." By "the hardliners," he meant Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). All of that was known to the neocons at the time – who, of course, were the bitterest opponents of Iran then (and now) – but who seemed to ignore the Iranian ties of Chalabi and his friends, including the group that was then called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), controlled by the mafia-like Hakim family of clerics. SCIRI, now ISCI, was created at the behest of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1982, and it was formed as a unit of the IRGC. Its militia, the Badr Corps, was known as the Ninth Badr Corps of the IRGC, and it fought on Iran's side during the grinding Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

It's easy to find near-orgasmic adulation of Chalabi by Rubin during the early years of the war in Iraq. From 2002 to 2004, Rubin was an apparatchik in the Department of Defense's Office of the Secretary of Defense, where he palled around with the likes of Douglas Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy, and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, who were fellow travelers in Rubin's Perle-generated neocon world, and who, like Rubin, were fervent admirers of Chalabi. In 2003-2004 – that is, during the early part of the war – Rubin was stationed in Baghdad for DOD, as part of the Coalition Provisional Authority, whose imperious chieftain, L. Paul Bremer, was responsible for creating the De-Baathification Commission, whose management was handed to Chalabi. It is precisely that commission, in a new form – the so-called Justice and Accountability Commission – which proclaimed the ban on Baathist sympathizers in the January 2010 decision. During this time, Rubin interacted often with Chalabi, although to this date Rubin has not provided a personal account or memoir of that period, nor described in any sordid detail his official or unofficial relationship to the Iraqi charlatan.

It's important to note that Rubin remained faithful to Chalabi even after the April, 2004, incident in which Chalabi was accused of passing secret U.S. intelligence to Iran. The inside story of that scandal has not been reported in depth by the mainstream media, but according to U.S. intelligence sources, here's what happened: Chalabi, once in Baghdad, began having regular meetings with the Iranian ambassador to Iraq. During those meetings, Chalabi blabbed to the Iranian ambassador about U.S. policy in Iraq and other matters, and the ambassador duly wrote detailed cables to his bosses in Tehran about information gleaned from Chalabi. However, what Chalabi didn't know is that the National Security Agency had broken the Iranian diplomatic code, and it was reading the texts of cables from Baghdad to Tehran from the ambassador – including the ones that involved Chalabi. Lo and behold, back at the Pentagon, Chalabi's friends such as Feith and Wolfowitz read those transcripts, and they horrified to see their friend Chalabi in deep exchanges with the Iranians. Someone – whether it was Feith or Wolfowitz, or even Rubin himself, we'll never know – warned Chalabi to stop blabbing to the Iranians. But Chalabi, ever irrepressible, told the Iranians that the U.S. had broken their code! That, too, found its way back to Washington, and Chalabi was exposed.

In May 2004, just weeks after the incident with Chalabi and Iranian ambassador, U.S. and Iraqi forces conducted a highly publicized raid on Chalabi's Baghdad compound. Rubin was shocked, and he bitterly denounced those who disparaged Chalabi. "By sending forces to break into Chalabi's house and then by holding a Governing Council member [i.e., Chalabi] at gunpoint, Bremer sought to humiliate Chalabi," said Rubin. Sounding like some outraged Islamist, Rubin accused the U.S and Iraqi troops that conducted the raid of stealing "a Chalabi family Koran," and he added:

"The inside-the-beltway rumor mongering made clear both the irrational contempt and ignorance that many professional pundits feel for any proponent of Arab democracy. Those academics, pundits, and commentators who have never met Chalabi reserve for him the greatest vitriol."

 In fact, of course, many of the people who have the "greatest vitriol" toward Chalabi are people who know him very, very well, including CIA officers who were exasperated and outraged by Chalabi's history of duplicity. I've talked myself to many, many people who know Chalabi intimately, and they find him beneath contempt. Not one of them criticizes Chalabi because, as Rubin asserts pompously, they hate "any proponent of Arab democracy." They just don't like (or trust) Chalabi.

In July 2004, Rubin conducted a sycophantic "interview" with Chalabi for the Middle East Forum, an outlet run by the Daniel Pipes, a hereditary neoconservative (son of Richard Pipes, a 1970s-era Team B activist) and a gleeful provocateur who sees himself as the scourge of everything Islamist. In the interview, which deserves to be read in its entirety to glean the full majesty of Rubin's worshipful approach, Rubin allows Chalabi to gloss over and deny U.S. charges that he revealed top secret U.S. intelligence to Iran about the broken code ("Which code?" Chalabi asked Rubin. "Do they have only one code? … George Tenet instigated a witch-hunt in Washington to cover his own failures, and innocent people are being picked on."). More importantly, and more relevant to Chalabi "de-Baathification" broadside against hundreds of Iraqi politicians in 2010, Rubin eggs Chalabi on over de-Baathification, and specifically slams Iyad Allawi, in this priceless exchange:

Rubin: "The de-Baathification procedure instituted by Bremer and the Governing Council applied only to the top four levels of the Baath Party, affecting perhaps 70,000 out of two million party members. The new prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has said he will scale back the scope of de-Baathification, bringing back a number of party members who did not have blood on their hands. Could Baath party members achieve such high ranks in the Baath party without direct complicity in the system? Was de-Baathification responsible for the insurgency or insecurity? Will Allawi's plan bring calm?"

Chalabi: "De-Baathification is enshrined in the Transitional Administrative Law [TAL]. This cannot be changed without the consent of the president and both vice-presidents. De-Baathification was actually responsible for saving the lives of individual Baathists. It must be understood that one of the primary purposes of de-Baathification is to have a systematic and legal process to deal with Baathists and to prevent people from taking the law into their own hands. A great danger of ending de-Baathification is that acts of violence and retribution will take place. Bringing predatory Baathists into government certainly will not bring stability. They are only interested in establishing their control again. Bringing back Baathists will inflame the great majority of the Iraqi people."

Ignoring Chalabi's by-then intimate ties to Tehran, Rubin has this naïve and embarrassingly simplistic exchange with Chalabi:

Rubin: "Have you met with Iranian intelligence officials? If so, why?"

Chalabi: "I have met with intelligence officials from many countries including all of Iraq's neighbors."

 That's it. No follow up.

Over the coming months, Rubin continued to defend Chalabi against charges of corruption, counterfeiting, and general malfeasance. As Chalabi worked alongside the massively pro-Iranian "United Iraqi Alliance," the coalition of Shiite religious leaders, clerics, and parties like SCIRI and Dawa, Rubin seemed blind to the heavy-handed interference of Iran and its allies in Iraq, especially SCIRI and Chalabi. Inexplicably, Rubin blithely ignored and excused the ultra sectarian character of the UIA, which was made up almost exclusively of Shiite religious parties, and which was endorsed by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, turban-wearing chief of the Najaf Marjaiya, as the crucial parliamentary elections of January 2005 and December 2005 drew near. Consider the following passage, from a piece entitled "Listen to the Iraqis," written for National Review Online in January 2005, in which he complained that Ambassador Negroponte was stiff-arming Chalabi:

"Political snubs also continue. John Negroponte, the United States ambassador to Iraq, has refused to meet with Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi may not have survived the interagency battles in Washington, but he has excelled in the Iraqi political arena and has emerged as a leading figure on Sistani's list of Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish candidates. Professional American diplomats and intelligence analysts may approve the snub, but Iraqis say it strikes them as petulant and unprofessional."

 Of course, needless to say, "Sistani's list" included damn few Kurds and Sunnis, and not many secular Shia, either! It was an all-out sectarian election campaign, widely boycotted by Sunnis. And as for Chalabi, who Rubin touted as a "leading figure on Sistani's list," well, when it came time for elections, Chalabi turned out to have a popularity among the Iraqis of something close to zero. In January 2005, Chalabi ran as part of the UIA Shiite sectarian confederation, so his unpopularity was disguised by the vote for the alliance as a whole. But in December 2005, Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress ran as an independent party and won less than 0.5 percent of the vote. His INC failed to win a single seat in the Council of Representatives, Iraq's parliament.

In a piece for National Review on December 5, 2005, Rubin praised Chalabi as a fiercely independent Iraqi patriot. The title of the piece was: "Iraq's Comeback Kid: Chalabi Keeps His Eye on the Prize." In it, Rubin scorned the CIA for disparaging Chalabi over the years, and he praised Chalabi for insisting on all-out de-Baathification of Iraq, without mentioning the fact that Iran, too, was hell-bent on de-Baathifying Iraq. "Iraqis," said an awe-struck Rubin, "have seen Chalabi hold fast to Iraqi nationalism." And Rubin concluded:

"His [Chalabi's] relevance has remained constant. Unlike those of other Iraqi figures embraced by various bureaucracies in Washington, Chalabi's fortunes have not depended on U.S. patronage. His survival--and, indeed, his recent ascent against the obstacles thrown in his path by Washington--underlines the failures of diplomats and intelligence analysts to put aside departmental agendas to provide the White House with an objective and accurate analysis of the sources of legitimacy inside Iraq."

 Of course, as already mentioned, Chalabi's "legitimacy" and allegedly nationalist credentials convinced very few Iraqis to actually vote for him. Apparently, Iraqis know a charlatan when they see one, but Rubin failed to acknowledge Chalabi's utter inability to get votes.

In his interview with Chalabi for Middle East Forum, there is this hilarious exchange:

Rubin: "How come we don't see crowds of people shouting your name?"

Chalabi: "In Nasiriya, I addressed the first political rally to be held in post-Saddam Iraq. Ten thousand people came to hear us. The enthusiasm was tremendous, and the people called out for democracy and the rule of law. It was very moving to see Iraqi citizens yearning for democracy after so many years of brutality."

The "rally" that Chalabi was referring to was in the very days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when American forces brought Iraqi exiles back to the country that many of them had not even visited for decades. Needless to say, in the months and years that passed, the only attraction that Chalabi drew as he traveled around Iraq were the bullets of would-be assassins, and if Iraqis were "shouting his name," as Rubin asked, it was as part of the phrase: "Down with Chalabi!"

Over the subsequent years, as Iran's influence in Iraq grew mightily, Rubin did take note. But in his analyses, Iran's role in Iraq was limited to covert action, through Hezbollah-like militia organizations, and through its closest ally, SCIRI, according to Rubin – and never, ever, through Chalabi or, for that matter, other Iraqi actors such as Muqtada al-Sadr and Nouri al-Maliki. In fact, Iran's influence in Iraq is comprehensive and multifaceted, involving overt and covert support for its friends, along with political, economic, and religious efforts to build ties with Iraq's Shiite establishment and with the Kurds in Iraq's north. None of this seems evident to Rubin. In February 2006, as Iraq's bloodiest phase of civil war kicked off, Rubin wrote an unintentionally funny piece in the Wall Street Journal about Iran's influence in Iraq. "Tehran," he wrote, "has a formula for success in Iraq." However, according to Rubin, that "formula" centered on Tehran's supposed plan to build a version of Hezbollah in Iraq, by using the paramilitary Badr Brigade, SCIRI's Iran-trained militia. And not once did he mention Chalabi's comfortable ties to Iran. (Only weeks before Rubin's op-ed, Chalabi had traveled to Iran for a friendly tête-à-tête with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's newly elected president.)

One aspect of Iran's support for SCIRI that was unmentioned by Rubin is the fact that special elements of SCIRI's Badr Brigade were used by Iran to carry out a lethal program of assassinations from 2003 through 2007. Perhaps that's because both SCIRI and Rubin are avid partisans of de-Baathification. Thousands of Iraqis, both Sunni and Shia, were murdered systematically by SCIRI during those years. American intelligence specialists on Iraq have told me, for instance, that scores if not hundreds of Iraqi air force pilots were murdered, one by one, in their homes, by SCIRI assassins, using lists they'd compiled from seized Iraqi government records. Countless former Baathists were killed in the same manner, gunned down in the streets of Baghdad, Basra, and other capitals. But perhaps that is the sort of "de-Baathification" that warms the heart of Rubin, Chalabi, et. al. Certainly, Chalabi is back in a firm alliance with SCIRI, Badr, and the rest.

In recent years, Rubin and written less and less about Iraq, and more about Iran, where he has emerged a leading voice in opposition to President Obama's diplomatic opening to Tehran. His understanding of Iran is weak, however. Like many neoconservatives, in the period before the June 12 election in Iran Rubin bitterly criticized and dismissed Iran's reformist opposition movement, the Green Movement, led by Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and former President Khatami. On March 25, 2009, Rubin wrote a piece called "Khatami Is Just Ahmadinejad With a Silver Tongue," in which he wrote:

"It is easy to be fooled by appearances and see Khatami as a moderate when juxtaposed with firebrand President Ahmadinejad. Alas, the differences are only of style, not substance."

Rubin has put forward a wide range of hawkish alternatives to negotiations with Iran, all centered around the premise that negotiations won't work. In a lengthy report in 2008 for a little-known group called the Bipartisan Policy Center, for a task force led by former Senators Dan Coats and Chuck Robb, Rubin laid out an escalating series of measures aimed at preventing Iran from going forward with its nuclear program.

In the report, predicting that the talks will fail, Rubin proposed "prepositioning military assets" in anticipation of that failure, coupled with a "show of force" in the region. Then, almost immediately, he suggested a blockade on Iranian gasoline imports and oil exports, which would paralyze Iran's economy, followed by what Rubin called, euphemistically, "kinetic action."

That "kinetic action," a U.S. attack on Iran, would be massive, urged Rubin. Besides hitting dozens of sites alleged to be part of Iran's nuclear research program, the attacks would also target Iranian air defense and missile sites, communications systems, Revolutionary Guard facilities, key parts of Iran's military-industrial complex, munitions storage facilities, air fields, aircraft facilities, and Iran's entire naval complex. Eventually, he says, the United States would have to attack Iran's ground forces, electric power plants and electrical grids, bridges, and "manufacturing plants, including steel, autos, buses, etc." If that isn't all-out war, I don't know what is.

It will be interesting to see what Rubin and his AEI colleagues have to say at the March 1 conference. As for myself, I won't be there. In its never-ending quest to enhance democracy and free speech, AEI banned me long ago from its gatherings. Perhaps an enterprising reporter who is still in AEI's good graces will ask Rubin about his unrequited love affair for Iran's favorite Iraqi, Ahmed Chalabi.

Bad to Worse in Iraq

The election in Iraq is less than a month away -- that is, if indeed it is held as scheduled on March 7 -- and things are going from bad to worse.

Last month, an unelected commission held over from the early days of the US occupation of Iraq, the Justice and Accountability Commission, issued a shocking ruling banning more than 500 candidates from taking part in the election, including a number of members of the current parliament running for reelection. That commission, successor to the old De-Baathification Commission, is controlled by Ahmed Chalabi and one of his cronies, Ali al-Lami. Chalabi, the darling of Bush-era neoconservatives, who pushed Chalabi as Iraq's leader after 2003, has long had close ties to Tehran, and in this case the ban struck at those Iraqi politicians most opposed to Iran's growing influence in Iraq.

Last week, an Iraqi appeals court seemed to overturn the ban. Its action followed a visit to Baghdad by Vice President Joe Biden, who has assumed the Iraqi portfolio for the Obama administration, and Biden pressed the Iraqis to reinstate the candidates. After the appeals court ruling, US officials congratulated themselves. "We were heartened by the decision earlier this week to reverse the deletion of the 500 names from the list for the upcoming election," said Hillary Clinton.

But not so fast. Following the court's decision, the government of Iraq -- led by a coalition of Shiite-sectarian politicians closely tied to Iran -- demanded that the appeals court decision be overruled. Ali al-Dabbagh, one of Prime Minister Maliki's closest aides, called the lifting of the ban "illegal and not constitutional." Another of Maliki's aides called for the expulsion of US Ambassador Christopher Hill, who reportedly lobbied behind the scenes to get the ban lifted. And Maliki himself blasted Hill: "We will not allow American Ambassador Christopher Hill to go beyond his diplomatic mission." Maliki began working with leaders of his coalition, members of parliament, and the top court to ensure that the Chalabi-imposed ban remains.

The US intervention in Iraqi politics reveals that, despite the presence of more than 100,000 US troops, America's influence in Iraq is fading fast -- and Iran's is growing. There isn't much that the United States can do about that. As soon as George W. Bush made the fateful decision to sweep away the Iraqi government and install pro-Iranian exiles in Baghdad, the die was cast. President Obama has no choice but to pack up and leave.

But those on the receiving end of the Iranian-inspired mischief feel betrayed and abandoned. Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose key coalition partner, Saleh al-Mutlaq, was banned, blasted the Chalabi commission: "The justice and accountability commission is actually a secret police. We don't know who these members are or how they have been appointed. We know the main culprits." He accused the JAC of "fabricating records." Many of the secular politicians, Sunnis, anti-Iranian Shiites, and others who oppose the Maliki government want the US to intervene on their behalf, including through covert support to their parties, but that does not seem to be in the cards -- nor would it be a good idea.

Still, the JAC action is McCarthyite in the extreme, tarring any and all opponents of the current ruling elite with being Baath party members. Secular politicians, nationalists, former Baathists with low-level positions, dissident Baathists who left the party in the 1970s (such as Allawi and Mutlaq), and many others are painted as blood-stained criminals and "Saddamists." The fact that Maliki has descended to such bitter and petty name calling signals that the prime minister has abandoned any pretense of trying to rise about sectarianism to become a national leader. For the election, at least, Maliki has thrown his lot in with the pro-Iranian clique.

Of course, there is still an election. Whether or not Iraqi voters, including the 60 percent of Iraqis who are Shiites, will but Maliki's waving of the bloody flag of Baathism isn't clear. Also, it's possible that the ban on the hundreds of candidates will be lifted, but time is running out. Ballots have to printed. Campaigning, scheduled to start on Feb. 7, has been postponed until the end of this week, if then. And the damage is done. Maliki, Chalabi, and their friends in Tehran have poisoned the atmosphere for the March 7 vote. The only question left is whether or not the dose is fatal.

Talking to the Taliban, Again

Is there any chance that the logjam on negotiating an end to the war in Afghanistan is loosening up? You might think so, from the spate of reports that various parties—including the United Nations and the government of Afghanistan—are serious about reconciliation talks with Taliban officials. So far, however, the United States seems to be taking a hands-off attitude.

Let's review the bidding.

In six weeks or so, President Karzai of Afghanistan—yes, that supposedly discredited figure who stayed in power by rigging last summer's election—will convene a grand tribal council, or loya jirga, to seek a broad pact of reconciliation that, he says, is meant to include Afghan leaders of the Taliban. To the horror and consternation of US officials, who say that they support "reintegration" of the Taliban's fighters into Afghan society but oppose "reconciliation" with the Taliban as an organization, Karzai is offering to deal with the Taliban all the way to the top, including Mullah Omar, the one-eyed thug and would-be caliph who holds the loyalty of many if not most Taliban insurgents.

Yesterday, M. Masoom Stanekzai, the Afghan official in charge of reconcilation efforts, pooh-poohed reports that the Taliban was denying that talks are underway. He said:

 "There are some contacts, and contacts will continue on the local, national and broader political level, but it is too eaerly to speak about the outcome of those contacts."

A possible signal of more breakthroughs to come occurred when the UN, with US support, removed five former Taliban officials, including former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil, from the blacklist that placed them under sanctions. While the exact connection of these officials to the Taliban, including Mullah Omar, today is unclear, there is hope that the UN action is a step toward loosening sanctions on hundreds of other members of the Taliban, paving the way to more productive talks.

In early January, Kai Eide, the outgoing UN representative in Afghanistan—who has been all along a consistent advocate for talking to the Taliban—met with several representatives of the Taliban, although, as the New York Times reported:

Most of the important details of the meeting were unknown: exactly when and where the meeting took place; what, if anything, was agreed upon; and who represented the Taliban.

And the Times added:

American leaders have begun to search for a road that could eventually lead to a political settlement with the Taliban's leaders.

Is that true? For any talks with the Taliban to succeed, the United States will not only have to swallow the idea that top- and middle-level Taliban chiefs will be welcomed back in Afghan politics and given a share of power, but Washington will also have to put on the table a plan for withdrawing US forces from the conflict to sweeten the deal. Perhaps, President Obama's pledge to start pulling US forces out of Afghanistan by July 2011 could serve as the opening gambit to get talks with the Taliban going.

According to Arnaud de Borchgrave, the ultraconservative commentator and columnist, Obama is sending General James Jones, the national security adviser, to Pakistan to find out what kind of role Pakistan could play in ending the war. More importantly, he says that during his recent tour of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Gates came to the reluctant conclusion that ending the war means rebalancing the Afghan government in a way that takes both Indian and Pakistani interests into account, which happens to be exactly right. Says de Borchgrave:

 All the talk is how to end the Afghan war, not how to win it.... For U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates, just back from India and Pakistan, a power-sharing compromise in Kabul is the only way to cut short a war that no longer has the support of the American people.

The attitude of Pakistan is, and will be, crucial. Yesterday, General Kiyani, the Pakistani chief of staff—whose command and its intelligence service, the ISI, have long supported the Taliban—suggested that Pakistan might be willing to train Afghan security forces in order to help stabilize the country. Reading the intentions of the Pakistani army and ISI are difficult, since they are notorious liars, but it just might be that Kiyani is making a serious offer here. If Pakistan does engage in training Afghan forces, it might create a dynamic in which Pakistan needs to rely less on the Taliban for influence in Afghanistan, and thus Pakistan might be willing to coax the Taliban, or parts of it, to the bargaining table.

Kiyani, speaking to reporters, said:

"We want to have strategic depth in Afghanistan, but that does not imply controlling it. If we have a peaceful, stable and friendly Afghanistan, automatically we will have our strategic depth because our western border will be secure, and we will not be looking at two fronts."

His offer to train Afghan forces is "being considered by US and Afghan officials," according to the Times, which added that "Kiyani's offer appeared to be in part driven by a desire to limit the influence in Afghanistan of India." Well, duh.

 

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