Iraq’s elections

Here’s a few notes on some recent stories that have come out about Iraq’s elections following the recent confusion about whether they might take place in January as planned, later, not at all, or only in the half of the country that is not under the control of insurgents.

  • Time reveals, probably for the first time but in a disappointingly short article, that it took a House democrat to scuttle a CIA plan to covertly provide funds to pro-US candidates in Iraq:

    U.S. officials tell TIME that the Bush team ran into trouble with another plan involving those elections — a secret “finding” written several months ago proposing a covert CIA operation to aid candidates favored by Washington. A source says the idea was to help such candidates — whose opponents might be receiving covert backing from other countries, like Iran — but not necessarily to go so far as to rig the elections. But lawmakers from both parties raised questions about the idea when it was sent to Capitol Hill. In particular, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi “came unglued” when she learned about what a source described as a plan for “the CIA to put an operation in place to affect the outcome of the elections.” Pelosi had strong words with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in a phone call about the issue.

    Juan Cole has a good analysis of the situation, and I personally can’t wait to see coverage of this in the Arab press. This kind of stuff confirms everything people in this part of the world believe already, and I only hope that armchair political scientists (or even the real ones) will stop pretending that this administration cares about democracy. The fact is, the same people who stridently called for war in the name of reforming the region now only want to go so far. The neo-cons aren’t as ideologically committed to democracy as everyone things, which is kind of obvious if you believe the whole Leo Strauss legacy and their belief in enlightened elitism.

    I like the straight-forward by Condoleeza Rice’s spokesman though:

    “I cannot in any way comment on classified matters, the existence or nonexistence of findings.”

    All this being said, you can’t deny that the money Iran is pumping into groups like SCIRI and into the elections is a problem. It might be something one could address through diplomacy, if that kind of thing was practiced anymore. Mind you it’s not unusual in democracies for foreign countries to have influence over elections, it it?

  • The cunning plan to counter this is to have an overt election financing scheme, which will be open to all parties:

    The Bush administration is exploring several steps aimed at containing Tehran’s growing influence in Iraq, according to U.S. officials, who say a split between the Pentagon and the State Department has paralyzed the administration’s ability to craft a long-term policy on Iran for three years.

    As one measure, the United States has earmarked $40 million to help Iraq’s political parties mobilize — and, subtly, to counter Iran’s support for its allies in an emerging race to influence the outcome, U.S. officials said.

    With the election in Iraq four months away, the administration has grown increasingly alarmed about the resources Tehran is pouring into Iraq’s already well-organized Shiite religious parties, which give them an edge over struggling moderate and nonsectarian parties, the officials said.

    Over the past year, Iran has provided tens of millions of dollars and other material support to a range of Iraqi parties, including the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Islamic Dawa Party and rebel cleric Moqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army, U.S. officials say. The U.S. funds will in theory be available to all Iraqi parties, although the U.S. goal is to bolster the prospects of secular groups — on the premise that Iranian-backed parties are unlikely to turn to America for training or money, U.S. officials said.

  • Of course no one’s taken money from both the US and Iran before.

  • Hold on a minute. There is a friend of Iran who’s taken quite a lot of money from his friends in Washington. And he’s back in the game: Ahmed Chalabi has been acquitted from the evidence against him, who were found by an Iraqi judge to be without merit:

    The judge, Zuhair al-Maliky, said in a telephone interview that he decided about a week and a half ago that “the evidence was not enough to bring the case to trial.” If more evidence emerges, he said, the case will be reopened.

    The move appears to be a minor victory by Mr. Chalabi over the interim government led by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a longtime rival of Mr. Chalabi’s. The government announced the counterfeiting charge against Mr. Chalabi in August, while he was on vacation at a summer home in Iran. At the time, it appeared to many that the charge was a move by Mr. Allawi to dissuade him from re-entering the country.

    But Mr. Chalabi did return to Iraq and proceeded to denounce the government, meeting with reporters to proclaim his innocence and vow to return to political life. He aligned himself with Shiite religious leaders here, recasting himself as a champion of Shiite rights.

    It was the latest twist in Mr. Chalabi’s fortunes since he returned to Iraq in the spring of 2003 after decades in exile. Once favored by the Bush administration to be Iraq’s first leader after Saddam Hussein’s fall, he has spent the last few months fighting for his political future.

    Well he probably has his financing sorted out by now, as well as the advantage of not being seen as a US puppet like Allawi. Ahmed Chalabi may be one of the early twenty-first century’s great political survivor, you have to hand it to him.

  • Kevin Drum reminds us that there recently was an election in Iraq for four vice-chairmen of the Iraqi National Accord and that the candidates who were elected were, in order, a Shia fundamentalist, a communist, a member of interim prime minister Allawi’s group, and a sunni fundamentalist. He asks if this is a taste of things to come. It’s been little-reported and there are some good links to follow up, so read it.
  • Even King Abdullah is getting lukewarm about elections (mind you, he’s always felt that way about elections at home):

    “It seems impossible to me to organize indisputable elections in the chaos we see today,” the king told French daily Le Figaro before meeting President Jacques Chirac in Paris.

    “If the elections take place in the current disorder, the best-organized faction will be that of the extremists and the result will reflect that advantage.”

  • Trust the Tehran Times to be interested in the conference on the election planned in Egypt in mid-November. If things were going to happen as planned — i.e. the elections held in January — would there be a need for a conference? Why isn’t the election-monitoring being planned right now with the OSCE or some other organization with election-monitoring experience? There might not be anything intrinsically wrong with postponing the election, but it would be nice that the planning is taking place with the help of organizations with a proven reputation at running elections.
  • From my hotel room I just watched Thomas Melia, a Georgetown professor and “expert on democracy and governance” argue on BBC World that “commentators should be careful” and refer to the upcoming elections in Iraq as only “partially democratic.” He’s just returned from Baghdad where he conducted a survey on the issue, so I hope that what this means is explained further when it’s published.
  • I think I’ve said it before, but you really couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

    Language barrier

    The Guardian’s Middle East editor, Brian Whitaker, continues his look at Arab publishing and literature in Language barrier.

    I would only add that the state of affairs that Whitaker describes is not true for French publishers, which do quite often publish Arabic novels, either in translation or those written in French by Arab authors from North Africa or Lebanon. In fact, some very successful publishing houses like Actes Sud have specialized in publishing non-European literature. I can’t really think of anything equivalent in the English-speaking world.

    We linked the previous one here.


    Hamas: Arab State May Have Helped in Syria Killing:

    “We were not convinced initially, this would be treason for an Arab security apparatus to be involved in this,” Hamas Lebanon head Osama Hamdan said of a report in the Al-Hayat daily.

    The Arabic daily said an Arab country had given the Israeli spy agency Mossad information about the movements and habits of Hamas leaders abroad.

    “Now, because of what happened yesterday or through other information, there are indications that this may be case,” he said.”

    I would bet on Jordan, or perhaps even the Syrians themselves. Who else would have that kind of information? And why would they share it with Israel — what would they get in return? Hell, you can’t even dismiss the possibility that it could be Egypt considering the difficulty it is having in negotiating with Hamas these days, and the fact that it will sooner or later have to confront it in Gaza if the pullout takes place. If we’re lucky, we’ll known in ten years. If we’re not, we’ll either never know at all or find out soon enough after someone gets assassinated.

    Update: It looks like they think it’s Jordan. And some people do think they will hit back:

    Hamas may retaliate by striking outside Israel, ex-ambassador says:

    Retaliation against Israelis outside their country could follow last weekend’s assassination in Damascus of a Hamas official, a respected Canadian analyst on the Middle East said yesterday.

    “There will be a tendency to explore overseas operations,” said Michael Bell, former Canadian ambassador to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Egypt”

    Italians go free

    Al hamdulillah.

    Al-Jazeera Says 2 Italian Hostages Freed (AP):

    AP – The Arab television network Al-Jazeera announced that two Italian aid workers kidnapped earlier this month were released Tuesday in Iraq. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi confirmed the women had been freed, Italian news reports said.

    “The two girls are well and will be able to embrace their loved ones tonight,” Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was quoted as saying by the AGI news agency.

    Berlusconi’s comments were reported just after the Arab television network Al-Jazeera announced that the Italians, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, had been freed. A Muslim leader from Italy met with a local Muslim association earlier Tuesday in Baghdad to press for their release, though it was not immediately known if there was a connection.

    They picked the wrong one

    A little break from coverage of the Arab world, but worth noting:

    Minister: N. Korea Has Nuclear Deterrent:

    UNITED NATIONS – North Korea says it has turned the plutonium from 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods into nuclear weapons to serve as a deterrent against increasing U.S. nuclear threats and to prevent a nuclear war in northeast Asia.

    Warning that the danger of war on the Korean peninsula “is snowballing,” Vice Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon provided details Monday of the nuclear deterrent that he said North Korea has developed for self-defense.

    He told the U.N. General Assembly’s annual ministerial meeting that Pyongyang had “no other option but to possess a nuclear deterrent” because of U.S. policies that he claimed were designed to “eliminate” North Korea and make it “a target of preemptive nuclear strikes.”

    So it’s not like the only member of the Axis of Evil not to have WMDs was attacked while the other two rushed to finalize their production lines or anything. North Korea has them now and is willing to say so publicly. Iran perhaps already has them or is about to make them, is barely concealing its ambitions and doesn’t really want to collaborate with the IAEA. And there isn’t much anyone can do about any of this at the point.

    You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

    A report from Baghdad

    Following is an email from a WSJ reporter in Baghdad that was forwarded me through a long chain of people. Worth reading in its entirety.

    Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest. Forget about the reasons that lured me to this job: a chance to see the world, explore the exotic, meet new people in far away lands, discover their ways and tell stories that could make a difference.

    Little by little, day-by-day, being based in Iraq has defied all those reasons. I am house bound. I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people’s homes and never walk in the streets. I can’t go grocery shopping any more, can’t eat in restaurants, can’t strike a conversation with strangers, can’t look for stories, can’t drive in any thing but a full armored car, can’t go to scenes of breaking news stories, can’t be stuck in traffic, can’t speak English outside, can’t take a road trip, can’t say I’m an American, can’t linger at checkpoints, can’t be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can’t and can’t….

    Continue reading A report from Baghdad

    Where in Pakistan is OBL?

    Peter Bergen, the only Western journalist to have met Osama Bin Laden, wrote an important article on the hunt for the Al Qaeda leader in The Atlantic (via The Agonist), where he wonders if OBL (and presumably top aides like Ayman Al Zawahri) might not be hiding near Kashmir rather than the northern Pakistan-Afghanistan order as has been presumed:

    “A further possibility, which to date has received scant attention, is that bin Laden is somewhere in the mountains of Pakistani Kashmir–an area that is off limits to outsiders and home to numerous Kashmiri militant groups, some of which are deeply intertwined with al-Qaeda. Harakat ul-Mujahideen (HUM), for instance, shared training camps in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda in the late 1990s. An offshoot of HUM, Jaish-e-Muhammad, orchestrated the kidnapping-murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, an operation run in conjunction with al-Qaeda. U.S. officials believe that Jaish-e-Muhammad received funding from bin Laden. The multiple relationships between those groups and al-Qaeda–what one U.S. official in the region described to me as “overlapping networks of nasty people”–make the groups obvious potential allies in the effort to hide bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. According to Pakistani terrorism analysts, several of the most militant Pakistani groups have recently gathered under an umbrella organization called Brigade 313, named for the number of men who stood with the Prophet Muhammad at the key battle of Badr, in the seventh century. Also, the Kashmiri militant groups are genuinely popular in Pakistan. Until January of 2002, when it was officially banned, Lashkar-e-Taiba maintained 2,200 offices around the country and attracted hundreds of thousands of followers to its annual gatherings. Technically Lashkar no longer exists, but it continues to operate, under a different name and with a lower profile, and its leader, Hafiz Saeed, continues to address rallies in Pakistan.

    Further complicating the picture, the Pakistani government has long had a close relationship with the Kashmiri groups because they share the goal of expelling Indian forces from the Kashmir region. Bin Laden understands that Kashmir is Pakistan’s “blind spot,” a senior U.S. military-intelligence official told me. Musharraf’s government has cracked down on Kashmiri militants since 9/11, but the intensity of the crackdown has ebbed and flowed. For instance, Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of the Jaish terror group, is not under house arrest and, according to a U.S. official, has “good relations with [Pakistan’s] spooks.” An official in Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry concurs: “The leadership and brains of al-Qaeda are not in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The question is, Who is in Kashmir?”

    He also asks, what happens if OBL is killed? Would it really make things worse? I don’t share his pessimism, but the parallel with Sayyid Qutb is troubling.

    Sayyid Qutb, generally regarded as the Lenin of the jihadist movement, was a relatively obscure writer before the Egyptian government executed him, in 1966. After his death his writings, which called for offensive holy wars against the enemies of Islam, became enormously influential. The same thing would happen after bin Laden’s death, but to an infinitely greater degree.

    Packer on Bush and Iraq

    George Packer holds no punches in a recent New Yorker article, which is well worth a read for a clear look at what should be the central issue of the election and why Kerry seems to be losing it.

    The New Yorker: The Talk of the Town:

    “He forced a congressional vote on the war just before the 2002 midterm elections. He trumpeted selective and misleading intelligence. He displayed intense devotion to classifying government documents, except when there was political advantage in declassifying them. He fired or sidelined government officials and military officers who told the American public what the Administration didn’t want it to hear. He released forecasts of the war’s cost that quickly became obsolete, and then he ignored the need for massive expenditures until a crucial half year in Iraq had been lost. His communications office in Baghdad issued frequently incredible accounts of the progress of the war and the reconstruction. He staffed the occupation with large numbers of political loyalists who turned out to be incompetent. According to Marine officers and American officials in Iraq, he ordered and then called off critical military operations in Falluja against the wishes of his commanders, with no apparent strategic plan. He made sure that blame for the abuses at Abu Ghraib settled almost entirely on the shoulders of low-ranking troops. And then, in the middle of the election campaign, he changed the subject.”

    . . .

    The New Yorker: The Talk of the Town: “In refusing to look at Iraq honestly, President Bush has made defeat there more likely. This failing is only the most important repetition of a recurring theme in the war against radical Islam: the distance between Bush’s soaring, often inspiring language and the insufficiency of his actions. When he speaks, as he did at the Republican Convention, about the power of freedom to change the world, he is sounding deep notes in the American political psyche. His opponent comes nowhere close to making such music. But if Iraq looks nothing like the President’s vision—if Iraq is visibly deteriorating, and no one in authority will admit it—the speeches can produce only illusion or cynicism. In what may be an extended case of overcompensation, so much of the President’s conduct in the war has become an assertion of personal will. Bush’s wartime hero, Winston Churchill, offered his countrymen nothing but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. Bush offers optimistic forecasts, permanent tax cuts, and his own stirring resolve.”

    Western Sahara: the secret negotiations

    The French-language Moroccan magazine Tel Quel — a great read on a country little covered elsewhere on the web — has a cover story on the history of underground negotiations between the Moroccan political class and the Sahraoui independence movement since the 1970s. Timely reading in context of South Africa’s recent controversial decision to recognize the Sahraoui Republic as a state, something that most Western states continue to refuse to do. It really seems that there is a missed opportunity to solve the problem once and for all, notably because official negotiations have come to a dead end (witness James Baker’s resignation as the UN’s negotiator in the matter and the postponement of a referendum), the players directly involved (Morocco, Algeria, the Polisario) seem reluctant to revive them and other governments that could influence them (the US, France, Spain) are distracted by the war on terror and other matters.

    Maroc/Polisario: Les négociations secrètes

    Hersh and the Egyptian abductees

    The Guardian is running excerpts from Seymour Hersh’s new book, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. The one linked to below is particularly interesting for those of us who have been following this from Egypt, explaining how US intelligence kidnapped two Egyptian Islamists (at least one of whom was a member of Islamic Jihad, Ayman Al Zawahri’s organization before he joined Al Qaeda) from Sweden and handed them over to the Egyptian security services, who used their favorite information-gathering methods — electrodes attached to genitals — to make them more cooperative.

    Rumsfeld’s dirty war on terror:

    On December 18 2001, American operatives participated in what amounted to the kidnapping of two Egyptians, Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zery, who had sought asylum in Sweden. The Egyptians, believed by American intelligence to be linked to Islamic militant groups, were abruptly seized in the late afternoon and flown out of Sweden a few hours later on a US government-leased Gulfstream private jet to Cairo, where they underwent extensive and brutal interrogation. “Both were dirty,” a former senior intelligence official, who has extensive knowledge of special-access programmes, told me, “but it was pretty blatant.”

    The seizure of Agiza and Zery attracted little attention outside of Sweden, despite repeated complaints by human-rights groups, until May 2004 when a Swedish television news magazine revealed that the Swedish government had cooperated after being assured that the exiles would not be tortured or otherwise harmed once they were sent to Egypt. Instead, according to a television report, entitled The Broken Promise, Agiza and Zery, in handcuffs and shackles, were driven to the airport by Swedish and, according to one witness, American agents and turned over at plane-side to a group of Americans wearing plain clothes whose faces were concealed. Once in Egypt, Agiza and Zery have reported through Swedish diplomats, family members and attorneys, that they were subjected to repeated torture by electrical shocks distributed by electrodes that were attached to the most sensitive parts of their bodies. Egyptian authorities eventually concluded, according to the documentary, that Zery had few ties to ongoing terrorism, and he was released from jail in October 2003, although he is still under surveillance. Agiza was acknowledged by his attorneys to have been a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group outlawed in Egypt, and also was once close to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is outranked in al-Qaida only by Osama bin Laden. In April 2004, he was sentenced to 25 years in an Egyptian prison.

    There are a number of other alleged Egyptian Islamists that are thought to have been kidnapped from whatever country they were in and flown to Cairo for torture and interrogation, including one who was apprehended in Syria and is thought to have died while in custody. We’re not likely to find much more about them, though, at least not if we don’t have the kind of contacts Hersh has in the US intelligence community.