Iran reporting trip

Oh, President Bush, you rascal. You do so like to repeat yourself. Now that Iran is, unsurprisingly, number one — with a bullet! — on the “Countries We Don’t Like” list, the question in the White House is, what to do about it?

Why, bomb the snot out of them, of course. I don’t think I need to go into why this is a horrible, no-good, very bad idea, but apparently, “Bush views Tehran as a serious menace that must be dealt with before his presidency ends, aides said, and the White House, in its new National Security Strategy, last month labeled Iran the most serious challenge to the United States posed by any country.) (Page 20)

Sy Hersh also weighs in with a terrifying article full of extra details. Highlights: nukes are desired option, there’s a widespread belief in the Administration that Ahmadinejad is bonkers and that Hezbollah will not sit idly by should Iran be attacked. Hezbollah spokesman Hossein Nabulsi told me late last year that the group is a religious party and it belongs to Supreme Leader Khameini in Tehran. “‘Interests’ does not begin to describe the depths of the links between us,” he said.

Now, the U.S. makes all sorts of plans. I’m sure there plans to nuke Canada or France mouldering away somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon. That doesn’t mean they’ll ever be dusted off and implemented. So the real question is not “Are we making plans to nuke Iran?” but “How likely is it that we will implement plans to nuke Iran?” A friend of mine who follows this stuff closely told me that he doesn’t think Bush has the political capital or time to pull off an attack. As he says, the worst-case/most-likely scenario is that this is a real Bush plan that will never see the light of day after Cheney has little fantasies in the VP bathroom over it. Neo-con porn, in other words. The best-case/least-likely scenario is that this is a feint to convince the Israelis we mean business so they will keep their planes on the ground. Or, alternately, Hersh could be dead-wrong about the whole thing. Maybe he’s just doing that thing he does of dangling sexy rumors with enough meat on them to make them interesting and then seeing what bubbles up to the surface after he’s turned up the heat. It’s a good reportorial strategy to shake things up.

Or it might all be disinformation from the U.S. to get the Iranians to the table. Of course, there’s no reason the buzz can’t be all of these things and, frankly, that’s pretty likely.

At any rate, things are about to get a lot more interesting in the region. I well remember the July 2002 1A story in the NYT outlining the Bush plans to invade Iraq. (4th ID from Turkey! Oops.) As many others have noted, the whole Iranian scenario of WMD, regime change, etc., is stunningly similar to the run-up to the Iraq war.

So if Bush can repeat himself, why not me? I’m in Beirut now for a while, as TIME Magazine and I have decided to start seeing other people. But we’re still friends, and my parting with TIME was most amicable. I’ve not worked with a better organization and I’m happy to still be associated with them, if only on a part-time basis. But I’m now more aggressively freelance. While the URL of this site will probably remain, the focus of the reporting is going to broaden to include all of southwest Asia: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and beyond. So I’m going to open my donations jar back up and start accepting donations again to fund a reporting trip to Iran. (See the button in the sidebar?)

So, if anyone wants to suggest a re-branding campaign, I’m all ears. But for now, I’m going to concentrate on new reporting in Lebanon, and work on getting my ass to Tehran in the coming months. If anyone has advice on visas, fixers, people to contact, groups to connect with, please send them along to chris (at) back (hyphen) to (hyphen) iraq (dot) com. Thank you.

Iran’s role in Iraq

All those hints of Iranian involvement can finally be explained.

Finally! I’ve dropped numerous hints over the last few months of Iranian involvement in Iraq, but I never went into detail. Now, thankfully, this is the story that has informed my Iranian comments. I didn’t want to spill too much of the beans because it’s not cool to scoop your own magazine on a blog, but this is an important story. I wish I could say I contributed to it, but Mick is a hell of a reporter and this is his baby.

Six Weeks to Go!

BAGHDAD—With six weeks to go until the Aug. 15 deadline for turning in their Constitution homework, Shi’ites and Sunnis have finally agreed that there will be some Sunnis on the Constitutional Committee beavering away on the draft of the country’s charter. This is a significant step, and don’t let naysayers tell you otherwise. Most significant, perhaps, is the willingness of a hardline Shi’ite cleric, Humam al-Hammoudi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to tamp down anti-Ba’athist sentiment among the Shi’ites and Kurds on the committee and, in essence, let bygones be bygones.

BAGHDAD—With six weeks to go (more or less) until the Aug. 15 deadline for turning in their Constitution homework, Shi’ites and Sunnis have finally agreed that there will be some Sunnis on the Constitutional Committee beavering away on the draft of the country’s charter.

There will be 15 Sunnis on the committee, picked mainly by tribal sheikhs and other respected men, and another 10 Sunni “advisors” to the committee, accounting for almost 36 percent of the 70-person committee. (There are several subcommittees working away on specific sections of the draft, but I don’t have any data on those bodies.)

This is a significant step, and don’t let naysayers tell you otherwise. Most significant, perhaps, is the willingness of a hardline Shi’ite cleric, Humam al-Hammoudi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to tamp down anti-Ba’athist sentiment among the Shi’ites and Kurds on the committee and, in essence, let bygones be bygones. At least as far as the makeup of the committee goes.

“If we were talking about ministries, names might be more important,” he said, as quoted by the New York Times. “But since it’s a committee, having the views is more important than the names.”

I’ve talked with others, close to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari and other Shi’ite movers and shakers, and they’re of the same mind. Some of these men are optimistic—such as the advisor to the prime minister I spoke with—while others are not. One influential Shi’a leader, who never fled Iraq during the Saddam years doesn’t think the constitution will be done on time. The other Shi’a leader, who did, is concerned that the deadline will be met, but the outcome will be less than desirable—at least for secular Iraqis.

(I’m not mentioning names because that was the deal I made with them. I hope you’ll trust me enough that these men are players, they know what they’re talking about and that they’re close to the action.)

There are a number of obstacles to making the Aug. 15 deadline, however. They are:

  1. The role of Islam in legislation;
  2. The status of Kirkuk;
  3. How much autonomy will be given to the provinces.

These were all predicted long ago, and nothing new has developed the change the issues confronting Iraq. The religious Shi’ites in charge of the government—Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and others—are close to Iran and want a more Islamist government, maybe not as severe as Tehran’s wilayat al-faqih, but certainly more Islamic than Iraqis are used to. They want Islam to be the source of legislation instead of a source of legislation.

The Kurds are, somewhat predictably, throwing a spanner in the works by insisting that status of Kirkuk be settled before the constitution is drafted, while the Shi’ites want to put off the idea until after the constitution is approved. The trouble is, the Kurds won’t approve the constitution in the scheduled Oct. 15 referendum if Kirkuk is left up in the air. They don’t really trust Iraq’s Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs to deal with them fairly on this emotional issue, so they’re holding out the threat of not approving the constitution as a cudgel to get their way now. Which is what they always do, and it leads to some serious brinkmanship. I suspect the Americans will step in at some point and assure the Kurds they have their back if they’ll just yield on this issue.

And as for autonomy, oh boy. This is a hot issue, and there’s a new wrinkle. Secular Shi’ites in the south, led by a Baqr Yassin, have started a push toward making the southern three provinces of Basra, Amara and Nasariyah into an autonomous zone called “Sumer,” similar to the arrangement the Kurds have now. He’s calling for local control of resources—including the vast oil reserves there—and some kind of control of military units in the region. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Jaafari crowd are opposed to such an idea, saying such a development would pose a threat to the unity of Iraq.

There are three other reason for their opposition: Turkey, Syria and especially Iran. A federal Iraq, with strong provincial governments based on ethnic or sectarian lines is seen as a threat in those three countries who all have restive Kurdish populations that have been hankering for autonomous regions of their own in line with Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran, especially, would face a difficult situation—well, difficult for the mullahs—because it’s incredibly diverse. Persians make up 51 percent, Azeri 24 percent, Gilaki and Mazandarani 8 percent, Kurds 7 percent, Arabs 3 percent, Lur, Baluch and Turkmen 2 percent each and “other” make 1 percent. If “Sumer” became a reality alongside an autonomous Kurdistan—each with their own sources of petro-wealth—the Arab population of Khuzestan just across the Persian/Arabian Gulf would likely try to join them or form their own ethnic enclave. You’re looking at a scenario of a Balkanized Middle East.

The question you have to ask is why are secular Shi’ites pushing for Sumer? And why is Baqr Yassin, a former Ba’athist opposed to Saddam Hussein and allied with the Syrian branch of the party, the man to lead the movement? Because the secular Shi’ites in the south are scared to death of Iran and its suffocating brand of Islam. Already Basra, which I’m told used to be quite a party town, is populated by black-sheathed women and no liquor stores, cinemas or anything else secular Iraqis enjoy. Militias such as the Badr Organization—formerly commanded by al-Hakim, now head of SCIRI—which fought alongside the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) control the cops. Freelance vice and morality squads roam the streets. And this is all at the urging of Iran, which has deeply infiltrated its neighbor. The old Ba’athist Yassin is fighting the Iran-Iraq war all over again—as are many of the Ba’athist insurgents who strike at Jaafari’s Shi’ite government because, they say, “It’s Iranian.” And it’s why Adnan al-Dulaimi, the custodian of Iraq’s waqf and who claims to speak for several insurgent groups, calls for Sunni participation in Iraqi politics so they can combat shu’ubiyyah, a racist term favored by Ba’athists that basically calls Iraqi Shi’ites “Persians”—although “dirty Persians” might be more accurate in its interpretation. This has enraged my Shi’ite sources.

I can’t speak to the truth of such charges. I believe that Iran is deeply, deeply involved in a great deal of mischief from the head of the Gulf all the way up to Baghdad. But men who have to know what is going on because they can get killed if they don’t are worried about the future, and what kind of country Iraq will become.

In end, it may not matter who’s on the committee to write the constitution if the three main groups can’t see past their self-interests—or their patrons’.

Sistani is ill

Sistani is ill, the south is in flames — again — and Baghdad is on edge. It’s been a bad week in Iraq.

While the Shi’a south seems to be on the verge of conflagration, Baghdad and elsewhere is rife with rumors that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is dying of a heart problem. He has been flown to Beirut and will continue on to London for treatment. From his office in Los Angeles:

Due to many calls, inquiring about the health of our grand scholar, Ayatollah Seyyid Seestani [sic], please be informed that he is sick with a heart problem and is under the supervision of several medical specialists. We hope that they send us a report about his well being as soon as possible.
As we thank all of those who are asking about his health, we urge all the Mo’mens to raise their hands in supplication to the Almighty Allah swt to bestow upon him health and shade him with total protection as soon as possible.
It should also be known that the Ummah of Islam, particularly the Shi’a, are in dire need for his presence in this sensitive era, the time that requires brave stands and honorable decrees.
Peace and blessings be upon you all.

Predictably, a representative for Sistani in Baghdad, Sheikh Jalaladin al-Sagheer, claimed to know nothing about anything, but would get back to me.
Despite al-Sagheer’s studied cluelessness, Sistani’s flight out of the country indicates his health condition is indeed very serious, because he hasn’t left his home in Najaf in years. His reclusiveness is, in part, a source of his authority, lending him an oracular air.
This news of his health problems first broke yesterday, but the continued fighting in Najaf, where the ayatollah lives, has made getting medical attention to him difficult. He’s in critical condition, my Shi’a friends say, possibly on his death bed. Dijla Radio, a local station here, is reporting that he’s suffered a severe heart attack. But so far, no one in Baghdad really seems to know the full situation. All anyone is sure of is that if Sistani dies, the fighting in the south could get a lot worse as Moqtada al-Sadr and other leaders in the Shi’a community jockey for power.
Juan Cole, who knows a lot more about this than I do, says this:

It is not clear that the other three grand ayatollahs have Sistani’s high opinion of parliamentary democracy rooted in popular sovereignty. He would probably be succeeded by Muhammad Said al-Hakim, an Iraqi and distant cousin of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI certainly does not have a long-term commitment to democracy, though Muhammad Said al-Hakim has never identified with that party himself. The other two possible successors are Bashir Najafi, a Pakistani, and Muhammad Fayad, an Afghan. Bashir Najafi is more vehemently anti-American than Sistani. Another contender is Sayyid Kadhim al-Haeri, sometimes called the “fifth grand ayatollah”, who is still in exile in Qom. He is a follower of Iran’s Khomeini and a radical reactionary on social issues. He had been Muqtada al-Sadr’s mentor but has broken with him.

While Moqtada’s Mahdi Army can be fairly well relied upon to attack Coalition forces, al-Hakim’s Badr Brigade (the military arm of SCIRI) might be persuaded to help settle the inter-Shi’a rivalries by taking on Moqtada’s boys. The Badr Brigade is the largest militia in Iraq after the Kurdish pesh merga, numbering around 10,000 men.
Meanwhile, I’m hearing reports from my fixers of fighting in Basra, Amarra, Najaf, Karbala, Nasariyah, Sadr City and the al-Shu’lah and al-Sha’ab ‘hoods in Baghdad.
A., my old friend, tells me four British troops have been killed in Basra and that Amarra is completely controlled by the Mahdi Army. He went to Karbala yesterday to visit friends of his and saw three mosques filled with “thousands” of weapons, including Katyusha rockets, Strella SAMs and more Kalashnikovs than he could count. Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has apparently used the two-month cease fire to regroup, train and purchase more weapons from Iran, and it’s likely that a lot more mosques than those three in Karbala have been turned into arms depots.
Things in Iraq have taken a radically bad turn, in my opinion, and the postponement of the national conference seems a bit of a storm in a teacup in comparison. The Americans and the Iraqi Interim government have bigger problems — e.g., another two-front insurgency — than whether a veneer of legitimacy will be slathered on by the seating of an Interim National Council.