Here be Dragons…

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of email from aspiring foreign correspondents who want to cut their teeth in Baghdad…. But at this time, I think it’s an unwise course of action and I’d like to take a little space to outline why…. I started this blog in August 2002 after a dash into Iraqi Kurdistan the previous summer.

BAGHDAD — Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of email from aspiring foreign correspondents who want to cut their teeth in Baghdad. I understand the sentiment, I really do. But at this time, I think it’s an unwise course of action and I’d like to take a little space to outline why.
First off, about my situation for the newcomers here: I started this blog in August 2002 after a dash into Iraqi Kurdistan the previous summer. I had a hunch that war was coming and I wanted to get some time in, at least where I wouldn’t be hanged if caught in Iraq illegally. It was a thrilling time, running around Erbil and Suleimaniya, always worried if those shifty guys in the lobby of the Suleimaniya Palace were Iraqi _mukhabarat_ or Kurdish _pesh merga_ or both, warily eyeing each other over cheap coffee tables and fake flowers. I journeyed to Halabja and found myself enormously moved by the plight of the victims of the 1988 chemical attacks there. I met senior members of the Barzani and Talabani clans, all major players on the Iraqi political scene now, and by my questions annoyed the hell out of the current president’s wife, Hiro Talabani. (No hard feelings, ma’am!)
Next, I did the whole blog-raising thing, changing the paradigm for DIY reporting in a war zone in the process. Who knew? Back-to-Iraq became a phenomenon and donations eventually topped more than $11,000 that all went to cover the war in April 2003. It was thrilling and dangerous — and surprisingly easy reporting. I really just wandered around, following explosions and writing about my day. In the process, I captured a bit of the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan in its struggle against Saddam’s regime. I was there when “Kirkuk”: was taken back by the Kurds. I was in Tikrit when the last holdouts melted into the landscape, leaving the field to the Marines and “Arab fighters”: more interested in defending their homes from Kurdish looters than shooting wandering journalists. (Some of the greatest hospitality I’ve been shown in Iraq was at the hands of the Tikritis as they stood around two dead _pesh merga_ and offered me protection against the Marines, knowing full well I was an American journalist. All they cared about was that I wasn’t Kurdish.)
Ah, those were the days. Even “Baghdad”: immediately after its fall felt open and watchful instead of boarded up and scared as it does today. The Marines and the 3rd ID walked the streets without helmets or body armor. They stood in queues waiting to buy food, amusing Iraqis to no end, for whom queues are a bit of an alien social arrangement. They’re more partial to crowds.
When I returned for the third time in May 2004, however, things were different. I had raised money again, this time as seed money for a more traditional freelancing career. I figured the donations and my savings would see me through a couple of months. However, TIME Magazine snapped me up immediately and I’ve been working with them ever since. So much for the two months I thought it would take to find a steady gig. And it’s a good thing, too, as by May 2004, the situation had become very bad, with an insurgency we all thought would not get worse but most assuredly did (and still is.) But even in those days, I remember just hiring a couple of guys to drive and translate and run around the city at all hours of the day and night. One of my best memories was a drunken evening at Dragon Bay, the Chinese restaurant outside the Green Zone that had a karaoke machine. My colleagues and I warbled away until 1 a.m. or so and then made my poor driver — who didn’t much like Chinese food — take us home. Along the way, we saw John Simpson, of the BBC, doing a standup report in the darkness of the city. Drunken with cheap red wine and the thrill of the forbidden, one of my friends yelled out “John Simpson sucks!” Sorry, John. Professionalism did not rule the night. Hope the standup went OK.
Such stunts are unimaginable now. I don’t know any Western colleagues who go outside our compound at night. Our social life has been reduced to dinner parties and pool parties. But the work is what’s even worse. Every day we venture out with eyes peeled for kidnappers (who like soft targets such as journalists), IEDs, American patrols and trigger-happy Iraqi troops. The ambient threat has risen far past Condition Red. the Committee to Protect Journalist has listed Iraq, for the second year in a row, as “the most dangerous place in the world to work as a journalist”: “Sixty-sevennine journalists have been killed”: here since March 2003, according to Reporters without Borders. That’s more than the _20 years_ of the Vietnam War (1955-1975). Some have been killed by American negligence and error. Others were “murdered by terrorist thugs”: Five of my friends have been kidnapped, but thankfully all were released. One kidnapped journalist, Italy’s Enzo Baldoni, was killed. I didn’t know him.
My point is that this is no longer a freelancer’s war. I’m lucky. I have the entire security apparatus of TIME Magazine to back me up. I am protected by guards, have access to cars, the entire secure compound, you name it. I have an editor who would miss me if I didn’t show up. (All of the kidnapped journalists have been freelancers who didn’t check in regularly and people often didn’t know there were missing at first.)
All of these protections cost money, something most freelancers are short of. It is simply no longer advisable to hire a driver and translator and go running around the city like I did last summer. I’ve been getting a number of emails from young journalists asking to do just this, and I tell them not to come and do this unless they have the backing of a major media organization’s security infrastructure. Steve Vincent ended up dead because he cowboyed around Basra — and that’s one of the safe cities, we’re told.
One option, however, is to embed with the U.S., British or other Coalition forces. You will be safe, relatively, and you’ll get to see parts of the country other than Baghdad — which is thick with journalists anyway. It’s an interesting experience, and I’ve found, in my experiences, the accusations of censorship — with one exception — to be grossly exaggerated. If you get a cool commander, he probably won’t give you any grief.
(Of course, there are some common-sense and reasonable restrictions: don’t give away troop positions, don’t show the faces of dead soldiers before their family has been notified or 48 hours, whichever comes first. Things like that.)
Oh, and forget about embedding with the Iraqi forces. The Ministries of Interior and Defense don’t allow this and they don’t operate independently of Coalition troops anyway. Also, they’re often so poorly trained and possibly infiltrated you would be in even more danger from the Iraqi troops than from random, street-level violence in Baghdad — which is why the Coalition and Iraqi ministries don’t allow embedding solely with Iraqis. A journalist killed or betrayed by the troops he’s supposed to be embedded with is very bad PR.
This is all very frustrating I’m sure. I can still remember the hustle that got me out here, and it pains me to discourage new people, but “I’ve already seen one friend die”: because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I’m in constant fear that it will happen again. All the freelancers I know, including me, now have long-term relationships that provide us the infrastructure to “work.” And many organizations seem to be cutting back on their coverage and, thus, their hiring.
There are plenty of places that need energetic, young journalists. Darfur, southern Thailand, Indonesia, even Syria (if you can swing the security apparatus.) For those without experience in extremely dangerous work conditions, this is no place for on-the-job training.

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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.

Shahwani’s interview—Finally!

A while back, I mentioned that I would post the full al-Sharq interview with General Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, Iraq’s intelligence chief, from Jan. 4. I got snowed under by election deadlines, but here it is finally.

A while back, I mentioned that I would post the full al-Sharq interview with General Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, Iraq’s intelligence chief, from Jan. 4. I got snowed under by election deadlines—sorry about that—but here it is finally. More information on what the official line is on the insurgency. Shahwani’s generally been a good source, and I’m inclined to believe a lot of what he says—mainly because it matches a lot of what I’ve gotten from other folks.

What is your opinion about the number of the armed fighters in Iraq?

Officially call them terrorists because they are doing terrorism against the people and they are outlaws. Their number is between 20,000, 30,000, in the whole of Iraq, distributed in the Sunni area. The people who live in this area emotionally support them, and they are about 200,000 without offering them money or logistic support. For example, they don’t give any information about their activities if they have this information.

That means those 200,000 do not fight with the fighters?

It’s impossible that the fighters’ numbers reach 200,000. These are those who live in those areas where the fighters are active—for example the right side of Mosul is completely out of control—and in this area, the terrorist are very active without any information about them from the local people, and very often they offer them shelter (hospitality).

Are those fighters from one group or many different groups?

They are from the remnants of the Ba’ath Party, from Islamic extremists and others.

The Iraqis and Americans have claimed the Jordanian extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is behind this terrorism, but recently they’ve started pointing to the Ba’ath party and its leaders. Is there any changes or some new facts?

There are no changes, but the Ba’ath Party has been organized for a long time. What happened is they reorganized themselves and they are getting money and support from their leaders in Syria. Their operations are well-developed because or their large number, their experience and their financing ability.

How many Ba’athists are involved in the armed operations now?

I can’t tell the exact number but we expect the Ba’athists before numbered two million and if we expect 20% of them are involved now that mean the number is very huge and all of them are well-organized and armed and some start working with them after they found themselves jobless. Most of them are from the former Iraqi army.

Who leads these organizations now?

As we know the Ba’ath Party divided into many parts, and now there are three wings, the most powerful wing, which belongs to the former regime, got a large quantity of money.

Who are those leaders?

There is Izzat al Douri, Mohammed Unis al Ahmed, who is moving between Syria and Iraq and Sabawi al Hassan and other Ba’ath leaders who live in Syria.

Do you think that there is foreigner or Arab support?

They don’t need financial support. The Ba’ath Party, as you know, was the richest party in the world, and was gaining 5% from the oil benefits since 1970 for the party budget.

Has the Iraqi government asked the Syrian government to hand them over?

There have been such attempts, but there are no results so far.

But hasn’t the Syrian government denied their existence in their territories?

No. We are sure that they are in Syria and they are moving easily between Syria and Iraq border,

Are there any other Ba’ath leaders?

There is a group that split itself from the former regime under the leadership of the Taih Abdul Karim and Naim Hadad and both working inside Iraq.

Did the American military operations in Fallujah lead to a decrease in terrorist operations?

It became less only in Fallujah.

And in the rest of Iraq?

In gangs war which acted by the terrorism groups we can’t get the results as we get in the organized army war, or the traditional war. The goal from Fallujah operation was to destroy the terrorism gangs or to capture their members but the results in Fallujah we could not capture the terrorists or kill their leaders, we did not see or hear about capturing or killing any big leader of terrorism, all the leaders of the terrorism have left Fallujah before the operations started already.

And they went working in other sites or hiding outside Fallujah in each fight there is a goal and the goal of Fallujah operation was to destroy the terrorist and their leadership but the goal was not done actually in spite of the full controlling of Fallujah.

What are the sources of the armed group?

The Ba’ath Party, extremist Islamist organization like Ansar al-Sunna, Tawhid w’al-Jihad, Ansar al-Islam, the 1920 Revolution and other from these names and its reached about 12 groups.

All these groups you mentioned are Sunnis. Are there any Shi’ite groups?

The group of Moqtada al-Sadr was fighting just like the others before, but now there is no Shi’ite group carrying weapons against the government.

The statement of the Iraqi officials pointed to Iran and Syria consider them the two sources of supporting these operations, is there any changes in this subject?

I am personally did not notice any changes in their attitudes and the problems still coming from those two countries because the borders are open and the support is still coming in.

What are the effects of the armed operations on the elections process?

For sure there is a negative effects on the elections. Some of the Iraqi people will not be able to reach voting centers, and this will affect the election process.

What is the need for the intelligence system in a democratic regime?

There is no country in the whole world that has no intelligence system to protect the country and the people and monitoring the gangs like drug gangs and all other cases to stop them including all the cases that is related to the security of the country. Usually we observe and collect information to be delivered to the security forces so security forces can do its duties to protect the country.

Do you think that the armed operation will increase or decrease?

It depends on the election. We have to wait for the result and then we will see. As a security system we expect this kind of operations will decrease within one year.

What are the most unsecured areas in Iraq now?

Mistakenly, they call it the Sunni triangle, but there are other unsecured areas like Diyala, which has 50% of its population Shi’ite and also the north of Babylon, which is extended to reach Sowera and Salman Pak. All these areas are very difficult to reach, for example the area between Hadhar and Mosul its out of control and those armed group in the streets searching the people and also the area which extend from Sharqat down to Baiji and Samara. All these areas are unsecured in addition to Ramadi, Fallujah and its surrounding areas, while inside Baghdad there is Haifa street and Adhamiya and Dora and Ghazaliya and Airport road and all these areas are unsecured and dangerous and may God give those terrorists their punishment.

One Year Later…

A year ago today, war erupted as the United States launched dozens of Tomahawk cruse missiles and aimed 2,000-pound bombs at Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and other “leadership targets” in Baghdad. A year later, things could be better.

A year ago today, we saw the opening salvos of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

War erupted Wednesday night as the United States launched dozens of Tomahawk cruse missiles and aimed 2,000-pound bombs at Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and other “leadership targets” in Baghdad.
The strike was aimed as “decapitating” Saddam’s regime and specifically targeted him, his two sons and other senior leaders of the Baath party and Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council, according to a senior Bush official.
President Bush, addressing the nation from the Oval Office about 45 minutes after the first attacks said, “On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein’s ability to wage war.”

— Knight-Ridder Newspapers

(You can read Bush’s Oval Office address from last year here. What we know now…) Moments before the camera began broadcasting to the nation, Knight-Ridder reports that Bush pumped his fist and said, “Feels good.”
“B2I was busy.”:
A year later, however, things don’t feel so good.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq, his administration predicted, would come at little financial cost and would materially improve the lives of Iraqis. Americans would be greeted as liberators, Bush officials predicted, and the toppling of Saddam Hussein would spread peace and democracy throughout the Middle East.
Things have not worked out that way, for the most part. There is evidence that the economic lives of Iraqis are improving, thanks to an infusion of U.S. and foreign capital. But the administration badly underestimated the financial cost of the occupation and seriously overstated the ease of pacifying Iraq and the warmth of the reception Iraqis would give the U.S. invaders. And while peace and democracy may yet spread through the region, some early signs are that the U.S. action has had the opposite effect.

On the major plus side, Saddam Hussein and his piggish sons are captured and dead, respectively. The people of Iraq have a future, but of what kind remains to be seen.
But the rationales for going to war have been proven — every one — to be transparently wrong and/or fraudulent. There were no terror ties. There were no WMDs, nor the ability to produce them. There was no threat to the region because Saddam was effectively caged. Meanwhile, the real problem, Pakistan, has been shown to be promiscuous with its nuclear technology. Its chief nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan, was pardoned with nary a peep from the Bush Administration. In fact, Pakistan had its ally status upgraded, opening the door to new weapons sales! Hey, guys: The Pakistani ISI is _not_ your friend. They like Osama.
And speaking of Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda’s No. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri seems to have slipped the net the Pakistanis were attempting to draw around him for the last two days.

The frenzied speculation was triggered by the sighting of a foreigner being whisked away at high speed in a bullet-proof vehicle Tuesday when paramilitary units were searching for tribesmen wanted for sheltering Al Qaeda fugitives.
The vehicle burst out of a tribal compound, two others emerged to protect it, and scores of fighters appeared from several directions, hurling grenades and firing at the Pakistani troops.
The entire unit of 50 troops was “virtually wiped out,” the official said. Fifteen were killed, 22 were injured and another 13 are still missing.

Back in Washington, Bush addressed the nation today and, in typical form, 1) made no distinction between the war against al Qaeda and Iraq; 2) refused to acknowledge that the job in Afghanistan is incomplete and that the Taliban control a third of the country, again; 3) implied that Spain, South Korea and others who are reconsidering their participation in the Iraqi adventure are appeasing bin Laden and 4) while admitting that his policies have split traditional alliances and alienated friends, papered over the depths to which the U.S. has fallen in the eyes of many.
“There have been disagreements in this matter, among old and valued friends,” he said. “Those differences belong to the past. All of us can now agree that the fall of the Iraqi dictator has removed a source of violence, aggression, and instability in the Middle East.”
Can we? Actually, the biggest source of instability is the Israeli-Palestinian problem, which some in the White House said the Iraq war would solve. It’s worse than ever with Bush having done little to push it forward. His “roadmap” is in tatters because of Bush’s unwillingness to stand up to Ariel Sharon and his settlement plans.
“Who would prefer that Saddam’s torture chambers still be open?” Bush asked. “Who would wish that more mass graves were still being filled? Who would begrudge the Iraqi people their long-awaited liberation?”
Well, no one is. What’s being begrudged is the way Bush screwed up the march to war in the United Nations, the lack of post-war planning and the sheer arrogance the White House has shown to anyone who disagrees with them. When John Kerry said more/foreign leaders supported his candidacy, it was a gaffe not because it isn’t true, but because it is.
So good on ya, Mr. President, that Saddam is gone. And I sincerely mean that. I was in Iraq in July 2002 and saw the front between the Kurds and the Iraqi troops. I talked with survivors of the Halabja massacre. I met with “families who had fled Kirkuk”: when Saddam “Arabized” them out of their homes. I was there during the war, and saw “how happy”: many Iraqis — Kurds and Arabs alike — were that Saddam was gone.
But things are not going well now, and that’s mostly your fault, Mr. President. I didn’t oppose the war in Iraq because I’m a pacifist — I wholeheartedly supported Afghanistan. And I didn’t oppose it because I’m a supporter of tyrants. I opposed it because it was poorly planned from the get-go, cynically sold to the American people, alienating to American allies and a distraction from the real enemy — al Qaeda and its constellation of terror groups. You have yet to convince me that toppling Saddam was worth the deaths of 676 coalition troops and thousands of Iraqi conscripts and civilians despite the immediate benefits of the war. A year later, I’m not alone in still wrestling with this conundrum, and your simple black and white, “no neutral ground” statements don’t make the issue any clearer.
“Feels good”? It didn’t then, and it doesn’t now.

Civil War a Real Possibility

This is not good. Insurgents shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) staged a daylight raid on a security compound and Iraqi police station today, killing 20 and freeing upwards of 70 prisoners. This was the second attack on the station in two days, with Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command and Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., 82nd Airborne Division commander, escaping injury in the previous attack. Are these the opening salvoes of an Iraqi civil war?

This is not good. Insurgents shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) staged a daylight raid on a security compound and Iraqi police station today, killing at least 20 and freeing upwards of 70 prisoners. This was the second attack on the station in two days, with Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command and Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., 82nd Airborne Division commander, escaping injury in the previous attack.
The Iraqi police were apparently no match against today’s attackers.

The brazen, bloody battle on the heels of the Abizaid attack raised questions about the preparedness of some Iraqi police and defense units to take on security duties as the U.S. administration wants. After the Thursday attack, Abizaid said of the Iraqi civil defense unit in Fallujah: ”Obviously they are not fully trained. They’re not ready.”

One Iraqi policeman not injured in the attack said he may leave the force if things don’t get better. “We joined the police to provide security, but no one wants security, they (insurgents and criminals) want to chaos to continue.”
Police Lt. Col. Jalal Sabri complained that the Iraqi security forces still don’t have adequate weapons or training. “We don’t have any kind of heavy weapons, no effective weapons,” just automatic rifles, he said. Today’s attackers wore masks, carried hand grenades and used heavy machine guns, mortars and RPGs, according to NPR and the Associated Press.
In general, it’s been a bad week in Iraq. Six U.S. troops have died since Feb. 9, and eight were wounded in attacks, roadside bomb explosions and accidents. The USAID, the American aid agency, said in a confidential report that violence in general is on the upswing and that the country faces a real danger of “Balkanization.”
“High-intensity attacks involving mortars, hand-grenades and small-arms more than doubled from 316 in December to 642 in January; non-life threatening attacks including drive-by shootings and rock-throwing rose from 182 in December to 522 in January. The report also recorded a total of 11 attacks on coalition aircraft.”
The report said some of the civilian violence was ethnic, and noted that that several corpses, probably of ex-Ba’athists, were found in the south “with hands bound and bullet wounds to the head.”
On the one hand, the attack against Abizaid could be seen as a failure. They didn’t kill him. But as Stratfor points out, the chance of success in such an attack was low anyway. Abizaid is well-protected by highly armed, well trained troops. But Stratfor also points out that the attack itself was a gutsy move. The attackers got off three RPGs and the Americans got lucky. And today’s prison break, in broad daylight, should be seen for what it is: a major success for the insurgents.
This is a real problem. Since September 2003, the Americans have stepped up the offensive against the insurgency by sending intelligence teams into the “Sunni Triangle” armed with cash to buy information. They captured Saddam Hussein in December. The guerillas were thought to have been scattered into smaller groups that weren’t able to coordinate.
From the USAID report, it seems the guerillas have intensified their efforts and reestablished their communication and coordination networks. In short, it now appears that the U.S. is at best holding steady against the insurgents and could very well be losing ground again 11 months after the start of the war. In a guerilla war, if you’re not gaining ground, you’re losing.
Adding to the volatility, the United Nations said elections were unlikely before the planned June 30 transfer of sovereignty.

“It’s not a question of delaying (the handover). It’s finding a new timetable,” Ahmad Fawzi told BBC radio. “Elections will take place when the country is ready and that will be after the handover of power.”
Fawzi, a spokesperson for UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, was speaking a day after Brahimi held talks with top Iraqi Shi’a cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has spearheaded calls for elections before the June 30 handover.

Brahimi and Sistani are in a delicate dance, with everyone looking at the Americans to see if they have a handle on the situation. If attacks are increasing both in number, intensity and boldness then it’s pretty obvious that the plans for the sovereignty transfer is in serious jeopardy.
Looming over all the violence and uncertainty is the spectre of civil war, which was made all the more real by the horrific twin car bombings earlier this week which killed more than 100 Iraqis. And, as noted, the frustrations and tensions are spreading. In Kurdish Suleimaniya, thousands demonstrated for an independent Kurdistan that includes the three autonomous provinces and the disputed Kirkuk province.
In an NPR story this morning (sorry, no link yet), one expert warned of a civil war that was “a combination of Lebanon and the Congo,” which should send a chill down anyone’s back. A massive civil war in the Middle East would mean Turkey, Iran, Syria and possibly Jordan and Saudi Arabia would be forced to intervene. The region is home to 64 percent of the world’s proven crude oil reserves. A massive disruption of that supply would send the world economy into crisis that could spark other regional conflicts as countries scramble for reliable crude supplies.
It would be better to delay the transfer and prepare for the earliest possible elections that are transparent and fair than rush a transition that could lead to a spiral of violence that could lead to a catastrophe.

Bloggers: Whitewash in the works

There’s a fair amount of skepticism among well-known bloggers about the Presidential Commission to investigate the intelligence failures in the lead-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. I don’t have a lot to add myself, but I’d like to point out some good posts.

There’s a fair amount of skepticism among well-known bloggers about the Presidential Commission to investigate the intelligence failures in the lead-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. I don’t have a lot to add myself, but I’d like to point out some good posts.
First of all, there’s the executive order itself establishing the commission. Its mission, in an excerpt from the order:

Sec. 2. Mission. (a) The Commission is established for the purpose of advising the President in the discharge of his constitutional authority under Article II of the Constitution to conduct foreign relations, protect national security, and command the Armed Forces of the United States, in order to ensure the most effective counter-proliferation capabilities of the United States and response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the ongoing threat of terrorist activity. The Commission shall assess whether the Intelligence Community is sufficiently authorized, organized, equipped, trained, and resourced to identify and warn in a timely manner of, and to support United States Government efforts to respond to, the development and transfer of knowledge, expertise, technologies, materials, and resources associated with the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, related means of delivery, and other related threats of the 21st Century and their employment by foreign powers (including terrorists, terrorist organizations, and private networks, or other entities or individuals). In doing so, the Commission shall examine the capabilities and challenges of the Intelligence Community to collect, process, analyze, produce, and disseminate information concerning the capabilities, intentions, and activities of such foreign powers relating to the design, development, manufacture, acquisition, possession, proliferation, transfer, testing, potential or threatened use, or use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, related means of delivery, and other related threats of the 21st Century.
(b) With respect to that portion of its examination under paragraph 2(a) of this order that relates to Iraq, the Commission shall specifically examine the Intelligence Community’s intelligence prior to the initiation of Operation Iraqi Freedom and compare it with the findings of the Iraq Survey Group and other relevant agencies or organizations concerning the capabilities, intentions, and activities of Iraq relating to the design, development, manufacture, acquisition, possession, proliferation, transfer, testing, potential or threatened use, or use of Weapons of Mass Destruction and related means of delivery.

Well! Looks like the questions *I* want to see answered won’t be. The primary question is not “What went wrong with our intelligence analysis?” but instead should be, “Was this intelligence misused?”
As Billmon says, the fix is in. Josh Marshall says so, too. Hesiod over at Counterspin Central points out that Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, a member of the commission, seems to have already made up his mind. And Atrios points out the Democractic response to the appointment of former federal appellate judge Laurence Silberman, as co-chairman of the commission.
Lots of good reading.

Sistani survives assassination attempt … maybe

Sistani survives an assassination attempt… Or he was never attacked in the first place. Confusing accounts as to what happened gloss over the fact that any attempts, serious or otherwise, against Sistani have the potential to enflame Iraq.

Reports from earlier today said Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shi’ites, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. Initial reports were that gunmen opened fire on his entourage as he was traveling from his office to his home in Najaf. But this may be a lot less bad than early reports sound. I was forwarded an e-mail from Sistani’s representatives that read in both English and Arabic:

In the name of the Merciful

News Update
Regarding the assassination plan of his Grand Eminence, Sayyid Seestani

We have received many calls regarding the welfare of his Grand Eminence Ayatullah Sayyid Ali Seestani, (may he live long). Many different stories have been broadcast about the incident that occurred in the past few hours.
An unusually armed person, approaching his Eminence’s home, was stopped by a few concerned individuals. The suspect is now being held by officials and is being interrogated as to the certainty of the assassination plan.
We would like to thank all believers for their devotedness and their close attention, and more importantly we have assurance from his Grand Eminence home in Najaf that he is well and not injured.

Los Angeles Office

Whether this was a serious assassination plot or just a lone gunman “unusually armed” who screwed up is frightening. (Aside: What does “unusually armed” mean? Suicide belt? I don’t know, but I’d like to.) Following on the heels of the bombing in Arbil on Sunday, which killed some of the Kurdish leadership, any attacks on Sistani have to be treated seriously. With one successful attack and possibly one unsuccessful attack on the leadership of the two groups opposed to Saddam’s regime, the insurgency is hoping to stir up nuclear meltdown-scale trouble in the months before the sovereignty transfer on June 30.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
The possible groups who would want Sistani dead include Ba’athists and Sunnis, foreign fighters or a rival Shi’ite faction. Sistani is, frankly, target number one if disrupting the transfer of power to Iraqis is the goal.
Why? Because he’s a unifying force for Iraqi Shi’ites, who make up 60 percent of the country’s 25 million citizens. Following his lead, most of the various Shi’ite groups in Iraq speak with one voice, making Iraq’s Sunni community very nervous about their role in the new Iraq. Especially if the United States and Sistani can make a deal regarding elections and the transfer of power.
Foreign fighters and jihadists would also like to remove Sistani. As I mentioned earlier, Al Qaeda and groups affiliated with it, such as Ansar al-Islam, are hoping to bog down the United States in Iraq. If Sistani were killed, that would throw any deals the U.S. might be close to making with the Shi’ite leadership, leading to confusion, delay and possibly escalating violence as Shi’ites begin revenge killings against Sunnis, followed by inevitable Sunni retaliation.
The third possibility, that a rival in the Shi’ite community might have been behind the attempt — assuming there was an attempt — should also be considered. With Sistani dead, there would be a power vacuum that leaders like Moqtada al-Sadr, the young firebrand preacher who has set up shop in Sadr City in Baghdad and who has called for resistance to the occupation, would like to fill. A similar situation arose after the assassination of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, the former head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
There are a number of possible successors, including Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Said al-Hakim, the new head of SCIRI. But no one has the authority or commands the respect of Shi’ites like Sistani does, so it’s more likely that the Shi’ite community would collapse into various factions, each vying for leadership. The United States would lose a partner in the transition. Sunnis and jihadists would be emboldened.
At any rate, my suspicion — and it’s just a hunch — is that this was the work of Ba’athists. But they screwed up. To cover for the screw up, Ba’athist agents began whispering that the attempt was a lot more successful than it really was, in the hopes of stirring Shi’ite anger. (Apparently, reporters just heard about all this after the fact, so they might be getting spun by one side or both. An Associated Press reporter said that there was no unusual security activity or heightened alert in Najaf during a midday visit.)
While full-on sectarian violence is highly unlikely to result from an unsuccessful plot, a few revenge killings and other tit-for-tat exchanges between Shi’ites and Sunnis could escalate as the weather gets hotter and the electricity for air conditioning remains unreliable. Iraq is on a knife’s edge. Any push — or an accumulation of small nudges — could knock it into chaos.