IRAQ: Approaching Tuesday’s Selection of a New Prime Minister

Iraq is still officially without a government since parliamentary elections last April and now Ali-Sistani, the most influential Shia cleric, is  insisting that the top three governmental positions, headed up by the prime minister, should be decided by Tuesday.  That is when the new parliament comes into session.  Though Nouri al-Malaki’s party received the most votes in the recent election, Sistani has made it clear he sees al-Malaki as a key part of the problem, not the solution, which will make it difficult for al-Malaki to stay in power.

English: Ali al-Sistani

English: Ali al-Sistani (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The big question then is:  Who will replace him?  And whoever he is, the bigger question is whether he can garner enough real support from Kurd and Sunni elements to develop a government with some unity, enough to launch a full campaign against ISIS.

The Kurds continue to solidify their status as an independent government, so they do not seem eager to join in, while it is difficult to assess the amount of possible Sunni backing for a unity government, what with their territory largely overrun by ISIS Sunni extremists.

What is happening in Tikrit right now, north of Baghdad, is illustrative.  ISIS militants had taken over the city, but now government sources as well as some local ones, report that the army is pushing ISIS out.   That is hard to completely confirm, like so much else that is happening there.  But there are reports that Sunni tribes, which gave at least tacit report to the take over of the city by ISIS now are siding with government troops because of the brutality shown by the revolutionaries.

A problem in understanding is that there are various Sunni tribes acting independently in various Sunni areas, so who knows what kind of support they might give to a central government led by someone other than al-Malaki?  I can’t imagine it to be great, though.

Tangentially, a curious element is that the U. S. now has loaded drones circling around Baghdad whose stated mission is to protect American personnel.  How will they be used is one of many curiosities waiting to unfold.  Another is the occasional bombing of ISIS targets by Syrian jets with al-Malaki’s approval.   Besides sending arms to Baghdad, I’m unclear what support Iran is giving the government, but I imagine it is quite a bit.

So, here we have a situation in which national buddies Syria and Iran, our antagonists in most ways, support the same goal we have and that is the destruction of ISIS.   Meanwhile allies Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE have to varying extents supported ISIS in Syria and now…………..well, another curious situation waiting to unfold.   Secretary Kerry’s recent meeting with representatives of those countries reflects their roles as “players” in this tricky Iraqi game.

For Iraq not to break into warring segments, the need for a government with somewhat broad support is key, so I suggest you read this article from the BBC detailing the issue .  A map  of developing events there is worth looking at even if you only glance at the article.

Also, to understand the remarkable success of ISIS in Iraq it helps to know they are led by an impressively capable leader named Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi.  David Ignatius has profiled the man in the Washington Post’s:  A terrorist with gang-leader charisma.  Reading it I envisioned Bagdadi as having the same hold on his supporters as Mohammed himself.

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UNITING IRAQ: Mission Impossible?

With the stunning success of ISIS revolutionaries spread throughout Sunni territory Iraq has reached a stage of upheaval that threatens destruction of the country as a nation state. The situation is too intricate to summarize well in a post, but I will give it a shot nonetheless.  Please allow me leeway as far as generalizations go.   As they say in business, it is the view from 30,000 feet, so it doesn’t capture many details. (More details are given in the examination of the situation found in this Vox.com link:  A guide to the bitter political fights driving the Iraq crisis)

English: The distribution of the predominant I...

English: The distribution of the predominant Islamic sectarian afficilations followed in majority-Muslim countries and regions. Green=Sunni, Orange=Shi’ite, Purple=Ibadi CLICK TO ENLARGE (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As usual, President Obama’s critics are blaming him for not doing enough fast enough to deal with the surprising success of ISIS, and they blame him for not making a deal with al-Maliki to keep a U.S. contingent of troops there in 2011.

The latter point merits a book to sort out, but the former point was quashed by General David Petraeus last Wednesday, when he agreed publicly with Obama that U. S. military support should be contingent on a change of government.  Ironically, John McCain, one of Obama’s constant critics, had recommended Obama trash his security advisers and seek advice from Petraeus.

Setting political theater aside, the single biggest source of the present situation has been Prime Minister al-Maliki’s failure to incorporate Sunni’s (and Kurds) into his government which is what has led to ISIS troops knocking on Baghdad’s door.   ISIS has been called a splinter group of Al Queda, which now disowns them.  Both are Sunni, but in their radicalism, are not fully embraced by Sunnis, just seen as preferable (at least for now) to al-Maliki’s Shia non-inclusive government.  On the other hand, some Sunni tribes are fighting along with ISIS.  The picture is not clear cut.

But the bottom line is that ISIS has been so surprisingly successful because they have made their way from Syria to Baghdad through Sunni territory.   Now Shia volunteers have poured into Bagdad to enlist, and it seems likely the Shia dominated government will put up a better fight as time goes by.   However, many of those enlistees are joining Shia Militia’s, which are not exactly under the control of the Iraqi army, leaving room for them to act on their own accord and provide their own form of viciousness to the fight.

All is in flux as  Secretary of State John Kerry is in Baghdad conversing with al-Maliki and Sunni and Kurd moderates to see if a more united front can be developed, but al-Maliki’s attitude has been let’s deal with ISIS first and then work on widening the government later.

That position is not going to fly with Sunni’s in particular, while the Kurds have essentially developed their own state, which includes oil reserves, and they seem content to stay out of this dog fight if just left alone.   Having recently taken control of Kirkuk they can send their oil to Turkey from there,  avoiding dependence on Baghdad to channel the oil. Though the Kurds, like the Sunnis, have also been dependent on Baghdad for funds, the Kurds have a unity and a way forward to be self-sustaining over time.

What might this portend?  Well, al-Maliki’s willingness to step down is the key issue when it comes to developing a more united front, and he hasn’t shown any inclination to do so, though a statement by the Shia leading Iraqi cleric, Ali Sistani, that a change of government is needed, may prove the deciding push out the door.   But stay or go, there is no guarantee that another central government which would also be Shia dominated could induce many Kurds and moderate Sunni’s to  support it.

Given the dubious prospect of a united government being formed, there is talk by many of the possibility of dividing Iraq into three areas related to their ethnic origins, a suggestion Joe Biden made years ago and was largely dismissed. Of course, this would have its own set of problems, perhaps the biggest one being that the Sunni territory is not economically viable, having little oil and largely subsidized now by money from Baghdad.  The only thing that really might help the Sunnis is to defeat the Shia, and though unlikely, that would leave them with a radical ISIS government, which many Sunni would not like.

Unless moderate Sunnis in now occupied ISIS territory can somehow be persuaded to abandon ISIS, as the tribes in Anbar province did with Al Queda during “the Surge” years ago (and that was with much American help), we seem to be looking at a Shia/Sunni civil war in the making, which ISIS can only win by keeping their fellow Sunnis’ in line and forcing the Shia to give up. The  Shia’s chances look better as they have  more resources, more people and  aid from Iran and some aid from us, since we, too, have reason to want ISIS to be crushed.

But here is another fly in the ointment.  We want to avoid being Shia identified and thus alienate Sunni nations, in particular our allies Saudi Arabia,  Jordan and the UAE.   Illustrative of the twisted nature of this situation is the backing Saudi Arabia has been giving  ISIS in Syria – as fellow Sunnis – while now ISIS is threatening Saudi Arabia  (details in this article link).

So the fantasy is:   We want to destroy ISIS without making war on the Sunnis as a whole, like picking out the few rotten grapes in a bunch without touching any others.  And while we don’t mind some help from Iran in beating ISIS we don’t want Iran becoming “too helpful” to the al-Malaki  government, which it continues to back,  as it already has more influence than we do at this point.  And more Iranian involvement would risk wider Sunni reaction, i. e. from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE, as this is only the latest chapter of a sectarian struggle that goes back centuries.

Developing our foreign policy for Iraq seems much like tip toeing through a mine field, with plenty of potential for things to blow up.  It may not prove Mission Impossible, but how it will play out seems impossible to predict.

 

 

 

VOX NEWS: A Promising Source for Digestible News

English: Blogger Ezra Klein

English: Blogger Ezra Klein (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With Iraq busting out all over compliments of the revolutionary group ISIS, as mentioned in my last post, and a lot of history and details to digest in order to make sense of it all, this is a good time to point out a web site called Vox. com,  on line since early April but just noticed by me last week.  The announcement:

“Vox Media, the online publisher that runs SB Nation sports blogs, launched its general news site Vox.com (in early April), providing a forum for renowned blogger Ezra Klein’s experiment in broadening explanatory journalism.

Klein, who led The Washington Post‘s public policy blog, Wonkblog, left to join Vox Media in January after he failed to secure funding from the newspaper’s editors for a new site.

After several weeks of preparation and recruiting journalists, Klein and Vox Media released … more details on their plans for Vox.com, promising readers news stories packaged with contextual information and graphics. The site’s mission is to make news more digestible by roasting it ‘to perfection with a drizzle of olive oil and hint of sea salt,’ Klein said.”

In my small way, I try to do the same, but Vox has the money and brain power to take it big time.  Actually, it has been my secret fantasy to develop my blog into something like the Vox offering, because I think a site which tries to capture the gist of the news, more impartially than not, is needed in this time of staggering amounts of information about complex issues infested with so many untruths aimed to sway readers to one political agenda or another.

I’m hoping Ezra Klein and company do a good job with this, so I can fantasize doing something else.

While certainly liberal leaning, Klein seems to me to want to capture the essence of events and arguments rather than push a political agenda.   I look forward to studying the site’s offerings over time.

As for Iraq, Vox offers a useful primer on the situation titled:

11 facts that explain the escalating crisis in Iraq

Below are a list of the 11 points expanded upon in the piece which also features several maps to help clarify the nature of the situation.  Click here to link.

1. ISIS used to be called al-Qaeda in Iraq

2. ISIS wants to carve out an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria

3. ISIS thrives on tension between Iraq’s two largest religious groups

4. The Iraqi government has made this tension worse by persecuting Sunnis and through other missteps

5. ISIS raises money like a government

6. Iraq has another major ethno-religious group, the Kurds, who could matter in this fight

7. The Syria conflict has made ISIS much stronger

8. Mosul, the big city ISIS recently conquered, is really important — and ISIS has spread out from there

9. Iran is already involved, and this conflict could get much bigger

10. The Iraqi Army is much larger than ISIS, but also a total mess

11. Iraq may secretly want American drone strikes, and Obama may be considering them

The article ends with:  “So, to recap. Iraq has essentially just began another civil war, and it’s totally unclear how long it’s going to last or how it’s going to end. And no one’s sure what to do about it.”

While all of that summary seems true enough, it is important to realize that the amazing success of ISIS  has been in Sunni dominated areas and they have too few troops (usually estimated at less than 10,000) to really take over large areas that put up a good fight.   While they can make incursions into Bagdad, I cannot imagine them taking over the city, as it has too many people, a majority of which are Shia who do seem willing to fight.   And more aid from Iran and us seems likely.

Stay tuned…..

 

 

Welcome to the The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

Otherwise known as ISIS.   If you haven’t noticed before this is a group that has become a major player in the Syrian conflagration, a sort of offshoot of Al Queda, while at odds with them, because, if you can believe this, they are supposedly even more vicious and religiously extreme.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi...

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after a joint press event on Camp Victory, Iraq, April 7, 2009. Obama spoke to hundreds of U.S. troops during his surprise visit to Iraq to thank them for their service. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Their organizational name seemed delusional until they sent Iraqi government troops packing from Mosul a couple of days ago, this despite there being about 30,000 troops and only about 1000 Isis revolutionaries.   Yes, really, 30-to-1 and the government troops had the big equipment.  The ground was littered with Iraqi uniforms, abandoned like the city.

So much for years and billions invested in training.  No matter how well you train troops to fight better, it won’t work if they are not inclined to fight at all.   At least without being bolstered by American soldiers when facing dye hard foes like ISIS.

In the process the government troops left so much equipment behind (that we bought for them of course), that the revolutionaries are now even more formidable, supported even further by some 400 million bucks apparently liberated from a bank (or banks) in the process.

Now what?   Well, of course, for John McCain the first step is to blame President Obama’s team for, first, pulling out all troops from Iraq a few years ago, and recently for not recognizing sooner the dangers posed by ISIS in western Iraq.   As for the first point, while the Obama administration might have done a better job in negotiating an ongoing American presence of 10,000 troops or so, the majority sentiment in Iraq was for we “liberators” to leave and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was not eager for us to stay, especially as the Obama team kept pushing him for a more inclusive government, meaning more Sunnis in particular, something he had no intention of doing as later events have shown.    The reverse has been more the case.

If you want more on al-Malaki’s role, go to this Washington Post editorial by Fareed Zakaria.

And given the way the Iraqi troops folded in Mosul, it is hard to say what a continued American presence might have shored up.  The al-Maliki government seems not one to inspire risking one’s life.   If you want to delve into the negotiations involved in the American troop pull out, go to this New York Times article of September 2012.

McCain’s other point about recognizing the growing danger posed by ISIS, well, yes they were making waves in western Iraq, but I doubt if anyone could have imagined the ease in which the government troops were routed given their overwhelming superiority in numbers.

That is what is so stunning about all of this.   And added to that mind boggling event is the fact that now the Iranians and us have a common interest in shoring up the al-Maliki government, as they have close ties with Iraq as fellow Shia dominated nations and don’t want the Sunni dominated ISIS to thrive any more than we do.

Talk about strange bedfellows.  To say the least, this should get interesting and perhaps more and more unsettling.

Obama’s Foreign Policy: Perspective on a Work in Progress

The president’s speech at West Point outlining his foreign policy last Wednesday was  lambasted by Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post as “pure Obama — cynical, strewn with straw men and vague to the point of meaninglessness.”  Rubin calls her Post column Right Turn, and is one of many on the right who love to criticize Obama, but who seldom offer useful ideas themselves, other than to be more decisive and act tougher.

2010-2011 Middle East and North Africa protest...

2010-2011 Middle East and North Africa protests-new (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obama’s foreign policy is hard to pin down because there are crises flaring up all over and dealing with each context requires a somewhat different approach, complicated by the numerous considerations intertwined in our globalized world.

Two great interlocking trends – social media and globalization – have vastly complicated the international landscape over the past 20 years.    Those trends along with the “war on terror,” and  the so-called Arab spring (which now seems more like Pandora’s box) make for huge difficulties when it comes to shaping a coherent foreign policy.   Relatively simple solutions seemed possible when individual incidents did not have such wide, instant ramifications.

Not that the solutions necessarily worked, Vietnam being an outstanding example of a bad idea put into practice.  But there were fewer variables to consider in making them.  Even a decade ago who would have thought that an economic melt down in little Greece could  threaten the entire world economy?   Or that social media could play a major role in creating revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East?

Certainly there are aspects of the Obama foreign policy that are open to criticism (the immediate example being the decision to exchange five Taliban combatants (or terrorists) for an American soldier held hostage in Afghanistan after he appeared to have deserted), but the criticism must reflect a sense of current complexity to be taken seriously.   I believe Fareed Zakaria has this sense as evidenced in his columns in Time and the Washington Post and his Sunday morning show on CNN:  Fareed Zakaria GPS….  the best news show on TV in my opinion.

Zakaria titled a column in last Thursday‘s Post, Obama’s Leadership is Right for Today.  Not exactly right, of course, but whose leadership ever is?   For example, I think Obama’s handling of the Syrian situation was mistaken and has helped prompt the present horror show, a topic I will get to some day in a post.   But when Obama’s foreign policy is constantly hammered by critics on the right for its weakness and ineptitude, keep in mind that presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower had similar things said about them.

Zakaria points that out in his editorial which I recommend as a way to put our globalized bee hive in perspective.

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