Saturday, June 10, 2006

Light in the Iraqi Tunnel, World Cup Sex Trade, Persian Gulf Politics

News and Analysis

In Iraq, it looks like a decisive shift is in progress now, and not only because of the death of Zarqawi or the completion of the cabinet. Hints of this shift are also being reflected in both Iraqi, Arab, and World media coverage of recent days. It has been barely perceptible at first, but I believe that it is gathering momentum. It hints at a move within Iraq farther away from the terrorists who have plagued the Western and Central regions in the past three years. Even some of the Arab media that have in the past been sympathetic to these groups seem to be edging away now, some of them seemingly dejected at the turn of events. One can read it in the slightly changed nuances of their reporting on the conflict. Is this the beginning of an irreversible shift? It is quite likely that the terror/insurgency campaign has crested and has nowhere to go but downhill. It looks like they could not manage to get their own Tet offensive underway.

Jordan is trying hard to get some credit for the success of the operation in Baghdad that killed al-Zarqawi. This seems to be part of a recent media blitz under way now by Jordan to stress its role in the war on terrorism. Unknown and unnamed Jordanian sources have been quick to try and get some credit for the demise of al-Zarqawi, by contacting major U.S. media outlets with claims that Jordanian intelligence operations were somehow crucial in the operation that finished off the terrorist chief. This is done probably partly to impress the U.S Congress- money, money, money- at this important time and partly to show that the government has now avenged the bombings in Amman. Maybe, but success has many fathers while failure is a bastard.

The World Cup final games have started in Germany. A report in the today's New York Times claims that: ‘It is estimated that more than 40,000 women and children will be imported to Germany during the month-long competition to provide commercial sex in the "mega-brothels," "quickie shacks," and other legalized venues and vast underground networks that exist in Germany’.

In Kuwait, according to a clever and perhaps politically-motivated report in al-Watan (owned by members of the ruling family), a statement by Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani forbidding the buying and selling of votes during elections is being widely discussed during this country's campaign for the elections at the end of June. Given the sectarian undercurrents, the local effects of this report should be mixed at best. According to the local media, voters are being offered ever more expensive presents, more cash, and even travel tickets to vote for certain candidates. Some estimates have put the price of a vote at thousands of US dollars, depending on how close the outcome looks in each district. Opposition groups and media have claimed that pro-government agents have withdrawn tens of millions of funds from the Central Bank in order to finance certain candidates and to buy votes. In recent years, opposition groups have cited rampant corruption in foreign investments, oil contracts, and exorbitant commissions extracted by local potentates for huge, and perhaps unnecessary, military purchases.

Persian Gulf stock markets had mixed results in the past week (ended Thursday). It still looks like the markets are moving within a range that is now wider than two weeks ago. There have been complaints by investors and market analysts about the difficulty of replacing the boards and the managing directors of listed companies.

The Gulf region is notorious for the longevity of its company leadership, as well as for the longevity of high public officials. Which in a perverse way makes some sense: after all, kings, emirs and potentates have no term limits either. It is common for an undersecretary to remain thirty years in office, while the normal tenure in the west, especially the United States, is probably less than four years. Some ministers in the Gulf remain in the job for their whole adult life, especially those that are restricted to members of the ruling families such as Foreign Affairs, Interior (Security), and Defense. There are ministers who have held their jobs for about forty years- I wonder how big a watch they get at retirement. These are no longer considered ministries, they are almost personal feudal fiefdoms.

Now Somalia seems poised to repeat the old Afghan experience. A new fundamentalist group have taken over the capital from the war Emirs, and are imposing strict Islamic rule. In Mogadishu, an Islamic Taliban-style fundamentalist groups that have taken over call themselves Mahakim al-Shari'a, the ‘Shari’a Courts’ regime. They have closed cinema theaters and banned World Cup soccer games. What? And not be able to see the Somali team trounce the Brazilians in the final? The good news: they only control the capital, so far.


Thursday, June 08, 2006

Cool al-Zarqawi, Bin Laden in the Northwest Frontier, Iraqi Cabinet Stabilized

News Analysis

Al-Zarqawi at room temperature. ( Disclaimer: I plagiarized this cute term from a famous and controversial radio show host). They say he was killed during a meeting, which might mean that several other leaders of al-Qaida were also killed with him. After all, a leader usually meets with his top assistants and allies. Some Arab media also claim that one of his three wives was at the same house and was killed with him (I guess he was not too busy, or perhaps his jihad did not consume that much energy).

According to aljazeera TV, a spokesman for an organization called ‘The Arab Committee for Human Rights’ has complained that Americans showing pictures of Zarqawi in death is against the Third Geneva Convention on human rights. He claimed the Jordanian Zarqawi was a prisoner of war. I thought he looked like a dead outlaw, although he did not look as pretty as, say, Pretty Boy Floyd, or even Dillinger for that matter. I am not sure what the 3rd convention is. I certainly don’t know what the hell this Arab Committee for Human Rights is either. Never heard of them before, usually it is a human rights Society or Association. A Committee means a body composed of a few people, probably self-appointed. Besides I didn’t know we had enough human rights in the Arab World to require a gaggle of committeemen.

Most Iraqi street reaction, and Iraqi comments on the Internet, has been joyful in reaction to the death of this desperado. Egyptian comments have also reflected relief. Iraq has a full cabinet now. A Sunni got the Defense Ministry, and Shi’as got the Interior and National Security.

Arab reports have been talking of a shift in Afghanistan, where gruesome and indiscriminate Salafi-style killings are being slowly introduced by Taliban supporters. Violence in Afghanistan, especially in the area near the Pakistani border has increased. Meanwhile, friction has increased between Pakistani and Afghan governments over various issues, including where Bin Laden is holed up. For a while, Pakistani lobbyists in the United States had pushed the improbable idea that he was in Iran. Now the Afghans have burst that balloon for good by confirming that Bin Laden is in Pakistan- and this is certainly a more credible assertion. The idea of Osama leaving his base of supporters and handing his security, and his network, to those he considers the heretic Mullahs in Iran was always highly suspect.

Looks like things have calmed down for now on the US-Iran front. That should last only for a few weeks. Perhaps until after the final game of the World Cup in Germany. It would be interesting, and highly dramatic, perhaps even comic, if the United States and Iran reach the final game, the World Super Bowl, with G W Bush and AhmadiNejad facing each other in attendance, super cheerleaders for Das Gunfight at Das Okay Korral, nicht war? But, dommage, it is not likely that either team will get to the finals. Maybe the second round would be the best hope for the face-off.


Thursday, June 01, 2006

Iran's Nuclear Game: Why The Mullahs Will Not Bite

News Analysis

They say it is a triumph for Condoleeza Rice's diplomacy, to get all permanent members of the Security Council in Vienna behind a unified position toward Iran. It is.
The Ayatollahs, and Mr. Ahmadinejad, however, are not likely to be impressed with the offer, not publicly. Not enough to accept the broad terms, which are not all known, although the most important of them are known.
North Korea was encouraged in the 1990's by the bait of foreign aid, and by the delusions of one sitting US president and one former (Democratic) US president. North Korea needed the carrot, so it pretended to accept the terms. Then it cheated. What is shocking is not that it cheated: what is shocking is that some people were shocked later to find out that it had cheated.

How is Iran different?

Iran, although mismanaged by the theocracy, and beset by the corruption that plagues all major oil producers, is not in the same desperate economic situation. It is relatively rich, especially in oil that is now priced at $ 68-75 a barrel, and may well go up much higher before the end of this year. It is even richer in natural gas, which may have reached its lowest price and is poised to go up.
We must also remember the noisy clamor in Europe for lifting the economic sanctions against Saddam, who was a serial invader who had used WMD against the Iranians, the Kurds, and the Shi'as. And the Strait of Hormuz is one of the most vulnerable waterways and it is straddled by Iran.

Then there is the question of the audience for whom these people perform. Kim Jung Il performed for the Korean Peninsula. Iran's leaders perform for several audiences: The Iranian people, all Middle Eastern people, all Moslems, and the World at large- not necessarily always in that order. That makes it almost impossible for them to back down now. Having tried to show a hardline defiance toward the United States, to out-revolutionary others revolutionaries, they cannot turn tail now.

Besides, the Mullahs have two aces up their sleeves:

The major powers agree with the US at this stage of the Iran situation, but will they agree on follow-up steps? The Iranians have guessed that some of them will not.

They also perceive the United States as militarily bogged down in Iraq, and to a lesser degree Afghanistan. That it does not have the will, and perhaps the resources, for another military confrontation. I believe this is an extremely risky bet for them, for American resolve has been doubted and challenged in the past, and most of the challengers have beeen unpleasantly surprised- from the potentates of Barbay Coast to Baghdad. Still, when the time comes, if it comes, it might be very hard to make the case that the 'national interests' of the United States are directly threatened.

The road to Tehran is not nearly as open as the road to Baghdad, it is a vast rough landscape. Besides, if 150,00 troops were not enough to pacify Western Iraq, how much will be needed to pacify a country three times as large as Iraq? Clearly, both governments are bluffing to some degree in this game, but now I am not sure which one is bluffing more.

Most Middle East observers (those from the Middle East) seem to believe that an Iranian bomb is inevitable, even if the degree of advance in developing one may have been exaggerated for now. Which is unfortunate, for that country, and the Middle East, does not need nuclear weapons.


Iraqi Blood and Money, Kuwait University Wears The Burqa’a, Saudi Softening

Middle East Notes

In Iraq, the Prime Minister plans to submit candidates for the last positions in the cabinet next Sunday. Sunday? I guess he has never seen that old Melina Mercuri film.
Some violence has erupted in Basrah in the south, but it is among the militias…no suicide homicides against civilians there. The government declared a state of emergency in the city for a month. The PM and President plan a visit, presumably in order to try mediation .
Press reports claim that an early item on the new Iraqi parliament’s agenda is raising the salaries and benefits of its members. Now why does that sound so familiar here where I am sitting right now in the U.S. of A. I wonder what they would ask for if they hear about the $400+ million that the clubby board of Exxon-Mobil gave its departing CEO recently.

German media report that three German women have been arrested while planning terrorist activities in Iraq and Pakistan. Apparently the women are married to Islamic fundamentalists. The report claims that security agents were able to track the women from Internet chat rooms that they frequented. The reports claim that two of the women were planning on taking their children along.

Jordan has not announced uncovering any new plots, intercepting any new arms shipments, or any new arrests for a few days now. However, the king was in Washington, again. Didn’t I see him only two weeks ago with the President? Well, this reminds me of the late Arafat and Bill Clinton, and how they got together almost every month at the White House to solve the world’s pressing problems. And, incidentally, perhaps talk about money. Something is going on.

In Kuwait, the Dean of the Shari’a College (Islamic Theology) at Kuwait University has issued a Fatwa (a religious edict) that a husband has the right to impose the candidate of his choice on his wife and that she would have to vote for that candidate- otherwise he can divorce her. That means the husband gets to choose who or what his wife votes for. It is true that the said Dean was appointed in his position by the government, as are the religious shaikhs appointed by the same government- they are both state bureaucrats. But since when do academic types who are not even ordained or appointed religious men issue fatwas?
It is truly a country of batteikh (watermelon for most of you foreign types), sort of like a moral wild wild west.

A high Saudi royal and religious adviser has said it is proper for a qualified learned woman to give opinion and fatwas. He said that in ancient Islamic history, there were women who gave fatwas and even taught men about the faith. This is a first.
Wait, there is more, and better, news: he also said it is not necessarily bad that there are Internet sites that get men and women together for marriage.

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