Lebanon hurtles toward crisis

A story I filed for the _Singapore Strait Times_:

BEIRUT — Lebanon found itself hurtling further toward political crisis today, brought on by a head-on collision between pro- and anti-Syrian blocs over what appeared to be disputes concerning power-sharing in the government and the approval of an international tribunal to try suspects in the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
The tensions boiled over when five Shi’ite and one Christian cabinet ministers resigned from Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s government yesterday and today after a new round of national reconciliation talks broke down last week. The Shi’ites, represented mainly by the militant group Hezbollah, are demanding a “national unity” government with one-third of the seats in Siniora’s cabinet for themselves and their pro-Syrian political allies, a distribution of power that would give them veto power over any decisions the government makes.
And one of the decisions concerns the approval of an international tribunal to try suspects in the murder of Hariri, who was killed along with 22 other people on Feb. 14, 2005, in a massive car bomb in central Beirut. Siniora’s cabinet approved the tribunal Monday after a three-hour meeting downtown, despite the absence of the six pro-Syrian ministers.
“Our aim is to achieve justice and only justice,” Siniora said after the meeting. The draft document now goes to the Security Council for endorsement.
But whether Lebanon’s prime minister can achieve anything with Hezbollah and its allies arrayed against him is questionable. Were Hezbollah and its allies to gain the veto power they want, the could scuttle the international tribunal.
“We have been waiting for the court to take shape and to reach this day,” said Tourism Minister and Siniora ally Joe Sarkis. “If the intentions of all were pure, everyone should have participated in uncovering the truth about who killed Rafik Hariri. … We should have all been united over this and they could have resigned tomorrow.”
Under Lebanon’s complicated rules of governance, if one-third of the cabinet resigns, the government collapses and a new must be formed. The remaining 18 ministers seem loyal to Siniora, however, and seem unlikely to resign.
That hasn’t stopped some opposition figures from from questioning Siniora’s legitimacy. President Emile Lahoud, a Maronite Christian and Syrian ally, said Sunday that Siniora’s government was no longer legitimate because the Lebanese constitution requires that “all sects should be justly represented in the Cabinet.” He further claimed that with the Shi’ite walkout, all decisions of the cabinet were “null and void.”
Siniora says his government has all the legitimacy it needs but without Hezbollah’s backing in Parliament, he will find it difficult to get any legislation passed, especially the international tribunal. After its endorsement by the Security Council, it is handed back to the cabinet for final approval, signed by the president and passed by parliament.
The Shi’ite militia has threatened massive street protests unless the cabinet is reshuffled more to its liking, a political switch-up that the group says reflects its real support among the Lebanese in the wake of this summer’s 34-day between Hezbollah and Israel, brought on by the group’s capture of two Israeli soldiers on July 12. It was a war that ended in what could best be called a stalemate, but which Hezbollah supporters hailed as a “divine victory.” Hezbollah’s enemies in the government, however, saw the war as a reckless adventure into which the group dragged Lebanon against its will.
The Shi’ite group was emboldened however, and with what the United States says is backing from Iran and Syria, has made a political putsch against the current, pro-Western Siniora government. There are many in Lebanon who feel that the international tribunal will implicate senior members of the Syrian regime, which relies on Hezbollah to guard its interests in Lebanon and to serve as a vanguard against Israel.
However, the frightful Israeli military response likely left Hezbollah more damaged than it’s willing to let on, and its enemies smelled blood in the water. This wasn’t something Hezbollah could allow.
“Hezbollah is more concerned, more weakened,” said Reinoud Leenders, a former analyst for the International Crisis Group in Beirut. The walkout, the threats and the demands, he said, are intended to tie up the political process in Beirut and buy them time to rearm. “This ‘unity government’ is clearly designed to paralyze any decision-making process.”
Not so, counters Nawar Sahili, a Hezbollah member of parliament but not a cabinet member. By walking out, he says, they are following in the tradition of democracy in which opposition parties don’t take part in government.
“I don’t think this is very dangerous,” he said, but added that elections aren’t scheduled until 2009 and that’s too long to wait for the pro-Syrian bloc. “Why should we wait when we don’t have any power in the government?” he asked.
He played down the possibilities of street protests, which have been effective weapons for Hezbollah in the past. “Maybe it will come later,” he said.
But with these latest developments, Lebanon has found itself back in an unwelcome role: as a battlefield for regional and global powers to play out their conflicts. With Iran and Syria backing Hezbollah and its allies, and the U.S. and the West backing the Siniora government, Lebanon’s political crisis is a another battle in the new cold war shaping up between Iran and the United States for dominance in Southwest Asia and its oil.

*Personal observations:*
The feeling here is one of nervous tension among the Sunnis and the anti-Syrian Christians (mainly Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces) and confidence among the Shi’ites and their allies, including the Christian Michel Aoun. (He really wants to be president and sees an alliance with Hezbollah as the way to get there.)
Ultimately, however, this is a proxy battle in the current tussle between the U.S.-Western alliance, which includes Europe, Israel and the United States, and an Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah-Hamas axis. This is an idea I’ve been promoting for most of 2006. The idea was sparked by the May _contretemps_ between Hezbollah and Israel following the assassination of two Islamic Jihad members in Saida and a couple of Katyushas got tossed at Israel in retaliation. The Jewish state responded harshly, with air raids across the south, causing Hezbollah to counter-strike.
I said at the time, “Iran’s activities in Lebanon are part of its larger plans for the region. By working through and with local Shiite communities, which are found in Bahrain, Iraq, eastern Saudi Arabia and stretching through Syria to Lebanon and Israel’s northern frontier, Tehran is well on its way to creating a ‘Shiite Crescent’ — a regional axis that allows it to hold most of the cards in any confrontation with the United States or Israel. And nowhere else, with the possible exception of Iraq, is Iran so well positioned as in Lebanon.”
The May confrontation settled down after a day. But obviously tensions remained — until they finally boiled over July 12, when the Shi’ite militant group captured two Israeli soldiers and sparked a 34-day war that killed more than 1,200 people and left up to 4,000 wounded. Lebanon was devastated by the Israeli air force, but Hezbollah emerged politically stronger.
Since then, they’ve been flexing their muscles and trying to force their way into position in the cabinet that would give them the veto over any decisions — a recipe for governmental gridlock that would maintain their freedom to do what they please in the south without interference from the U.S.-backed Siniora government.

Iran supplying Zarqawi?

Omar over at Iraq the Model translates an article from az-Zamman that claims Iranian Revolutionary Guards are supplying Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with advanced weaponry, with Lebanese Hizbollah as the intermediary.
Here’s what you should know about this: Zarqawi _hates_ the Shi’a community, with the fiery passion of the Sun’s core. When I was with TIME, we monitored al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) pronouncements through the Web, market DVDs and audio tapes. If the stack of Zarqawi fulminations against the Americans and Jews were a foot high, for example, his tirades and sermons against the Shi’a were 10 times that. He hates ‘em, which is pretty much in tune with hard-core Wahhabi doctrine.
On the other hand, he never said a word against Iran. Instead, it’s the Ba’athists who see the Persians as the bogeyman to the east. Thanks to an 8-year war with Iran, the Ba’athists are fighting an insurgency against the Iraqi government, which they consider an Iranian plot. Zarqawi’s aims are much bigger than that, and focus more on the American presence.
Now, one of my old sources — who I hear has since been picked up by the Iraqi Interior ministry, the poor guy — told me once that Iran _was_ supplying Sunni insurgents in Iraq in a bid to keep the Americans bogged down to the tune of $100 million to $200 million a year. The Iranians were acting through what the CIA would call “cut-out” groups and the Sunni insurgents often didn’t know who their ultimate bankrollers were. My source was neither insurgent, nor American, nor tied to the Shi’ite parties. He moved between all the parties because of his apparent neutrality and his information was always top-notch. He told me about the shaped charges of IEDs months before they started becoming mainstream knowledge.
Back to Zarqawi. Thanks to Zarqawi’s virulent anti-Shi’ism, it is highly unlikely that he would deal with Lebanese Hizbollah, or that Hizbollah would want to deal with him anyway, unless they’re complete lapdogs to Tehran. I don’t believe they are, despite such accusations from right-wingers in Washington and Tel Aviv Israel.
So what are we are to make of all this?
# Probably, the story is fundamentally true, in that Iran is sending advanced weaponry, including Strela-7 missiles and lots of Kalashnikovs, to Sunni insurgents. Some of these weapons will inevitably find their way to Zarqawi’s boys. Iran is also lending support to the Shi’ite militias such as the Badr Organization and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. A certain amount of chaos next door benefits Tehran.
# Thanks to a network of middlemen, it is unlikely the Sunnis fighters know the ultimate source of the weapons, and if they do, they possibly don’t care. The Ba’athists, mainly, are fighting alongside Zarqawi now because their enemies are more or less the same, but Ba’athist commanders know that should they dislodge the Shi’ites from power — a highly unlikely event, in my opinion — Zarqawi will turn his guns on them. They (mostly) cooperate with AQI anyway, because he’s got the money.
# Iran is willing to fund guys to blow up Shi’ites if their larger aims — keeping America off-balance and bogged down, and cementing their hold on Iraq’s government — are met.
No. 3 is a controversial claim, I know, and some people (*cough, cough* Juan Cole) refuse to entertain the idea that Iran would sacrifice Iraqi Shi’ites for their plans.
That kind of thinking works well in logical, algebraic formulations of the issue, but it doesn’t work well with the hard, geopolitical facts on the ground in Iran and Iraq. Iran was _quite_ willing to send 15-year-old Shi’ites to their deaths on the front-line with Iraq in that 1980-88 war because they’d be martyrs, which has a long tradition in Shi’ism. Plus, they’re dealing with Iraqi _Arab_ Shi’ites. A lot of Iraqi Shi’ites died so that Iran wouldn’t break out of the Fao during the Iran-Iraq War, and it’s unlikely Tehran has forgotten that. Iraqi Shi’ites may share a faith, but they don’t always see eye to eye.
So, the mullahs in Tehran could regard the Shi’ite losses in Iraq as a) regrettable but acceptable losses and b) a convenient reason to expand their influence next door, in much the same way that Turkey regards violence against Turkomans as a reason to keep their fingers in Kurdish affairs. (“We must protect our Shi’ite brothers!”)
Hard-nosed power politics makes for strange bedfellows indeed.

Neither a Good War, nor a Badr Peace

_NOTE: Here is “the story”:http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1175055,00.html I filed for TIME.com over the weekend and which has been occupying much of my time here in Iraq these last few weeks. It will be my final Iraq story for a while, as I’m leaving in a matter of days. After two months, it’s time to take a break._

The bodies began to show up early last week. On Monday, 34 corpses were found. In the darkness of Tuesday morning, 15 more men, between the ages of 22 and 40 were found in the back of a pickup truck in the al-Khadra district of western Baghdad. They had been hanged. By daybreak, 40 more bodies were found around the city, most bearing signs of torture before the men were killed execution-style. The most gruesome discovery was an 18-by-24-foot mass grave in the Shi’ite slum of Kamaliyah in east Baghdad containing the bodies of 29 men, clad only in their underwear with their hands bound and their mouths covered with tape. Local residents only found it because the ground was oozing blood. In all, 87 bodies were found over two days in Baghdad.
The grisly discovery was horrible enough, the latest and perhaps most chilling sign that Iraq is descending further into butchery — and quite possibly civil war. But almost as disturbing is the growing evidence that the massacres and others like it are being tolerated and even abetted by Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated police forces, overseen by Iraq’s Interior Minister, Bayan Jabr. On his watch, sectarian militias have swelled the ranks of the police units and, Sunnis charge, used their positions to carry out revenge killings against Sunnis. While allowing an Iranian-trained militia to take over the ministry, critics say, Jabr has authorized the targeted assassination of Sunni men and stymied investigations into Interior-run death squads. Despite numerous attempts to contact them, neither Jabr nor Interior Ministry spokesmen responded to requests for comment on this article.
Jabr’s and his forces’ growing reputation for brutality comes at a particularly inopportune moment for the Bush Administration, which would like to hand over security responsibilities to those same police units as quickly as possible. That has raised the distinct and disturbing possibility that the U.S. is in fact training and arming one side in a conflict seeming to grow worse by the day. “Militias are the infrastructure of civil war,” U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told TIME recently. Khalilzad has been publicly critical of Jabr and warned that the new security ministries under the next, permanent Iraqi government should be run by competent people who have no ties to militias and who are “non-sectarian.” Further U.S. support for training the police and army, he said, depends on it.
But ever since Jabr was appointed Interior Minister after the January 2005 election brought a religious Sh’ite coalition to power, Sunnis allege, he began remaking the paramilitary National Police into Shi’ite shock troops. A member of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Jabr fled to Iran in the 1970s to avoid Saddam’s crackdown. Jerry Burke, a former civilian senior police advisor to the Interior Ministry, said Jabr’s experience with Saddam’s government has left him bitter and distrustful of anyone he suspects has ties to the previous regime. That would most certainly include the former members of Saddam Hussein’s Special Forces and Republican Guards which initially made up the bulk of the National Police when Jabr took charge.
To help facilitate his transformation of the police forces, Jabr made sure to enlist the help of SCIRI’s armed wing, the Badr Organization. Members of the militia have been a growing presence in the National Police, which now consists of nine brigades, with about 17,500 members divided between the Special Police Commandos, the Public Order brigades and a mechanized brigade, which will soon be transferred to the Ministry of Defense. “Leadership in the commando positions has been turned over to Badr,” said Matt Sherman, a former CPA advisor to the Interior Ministry. “And new recruits are mostly Badr.”
Indeed, outside the ministry headquarters, banners proclaiming solidarity with Imam Hussein, one of Shi’ites’ holiest figures, snap in the spring breeze alongside — and sometimes instead of — Iraqi flags. Most of the guards’ beards are invariably cut in the close-cropped Iranian style, making them stand out in Baghdad, where beards are less common.
Like so many things in Iraq right now, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. As far back as December 2003, David Gompert, the former National Security Advisor for the Coalition Provisional Authority, realized the dangers sectarian militias posed to Iraq’s stability. And in the waning days of the Coalition Provisional Authority, American viceroy L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer issued Order 91, which was intended to demobilize or integrate nine militias totaling about 100,000 men into the Iraqi security forces. But the Kurdish pesh merga and the armed wing of SCIRI, the Badr Organization, still exist today because the order was never completely or competently carried out.
For that, Gompert puts the blame squarely on the Iraqi government, then under Iyad Allawi, as well as the American embassy. With the U.S. military engaged in several major operations in 2004 and the government transitioning from the CPA to a more traditional diplomatic presence with the arrival of U.S. ambassador John Negroponte at the end of June, Gompert says, neither Allawi nor the U.S made the reintegration program a priority. Job training programs run by Allawi’s Labor Ministry were cancelled over personal feuds and pension programs and other aspects of the program of DDR — “demilitarization, demobilization and reintegration” — were bounced around from one command to another.
Making matters worse has been the fact that the police — unlike the Iraqi Army, which is still under U.S. command and supervision — were practically ignored almost from the beginning of the occupation, says Burke. And what supervision the National Police did get came from U.S. military intelligence officers, not civilian police advisors.
This grave oversight, which stemmed from the military’s unfamiliarity with civilian police methods and its unwillingness to learn, has led to numerous abuses and little accountability. The U.S. State Department, “in a report released two weeks ago”:http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2005/61689.htm, documented numerous incidents in 2005, dating back to early May when Jabr was first appointed Interior Minister, where Sunni men were killed execution-style by Interior Ministry police or Shi’ite militias. In each case, Jabr ordered an investigation, and in each case the investigation had yet to report any findings.
Thanks in part to the Interior Minister’s “nonfeasance,” said Burke, the former Interior Ministry adviser, Jabr was at least indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of military-age Sunni men whose bodies have turned up at the sewage plant in southeast Baghdad since late December. Men in police uniforms and vehicles routinely travel through the city in daylight hours with bodies in the back of trucks for disposal at the sewage plant, he said. Prisoners often disappear, Burke said, because they’re picked up at night and no one has an accurate account of who is arrested and where they are taken. “The Special Police Commandos,” he said, using their old name, “are most definitely out of control.”
So black is the reputation of the National Police, that after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, many Sunnis said the perpetrators were Interior Ministry troops who were looking for a pretext to start a civil war. Their fears were further fueled in the bloody two days after the attack, when Iraq became a sectarian slaughterhouse. Instead of protecting citizens from each other, National Police units stood by as Shi’ite rioters — and rival militiamen from Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army — stormed Sunni mosques and swarmed over Sunni neighborhoods, according to numerous reports, including some confirmed by U.S. Gen. George Casey, commander of American forces in Iraq.
The American efforts to try and help stem the deadly sectarianism will likely do little good — and in some respects may well exacerbate the problem. Instead of increasing the number of civilian advisors to Iraq’s local police forces, a spokeswoman for the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I) said more U.S. military police and military personnel will be assigned to train them. The Special Police Transition Teams (SPTTs) are the model that will be followed. “The SPTTs have been very successful in their efforts,” the spokeswoman said. No change is planned for the oversight program on the National Police.
Gompert notes, “I remember saying, ‘If there is going to be a civil war, it’s going to be fought between Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militias.” And as long as Jabr is running the Interior Ministry and its police forces, there is little doubt which of the two in such a conflict will have the law — and American training — on its side.

Nothing “civil” about it…

BAGHDAD — Regular readers know I think we’ve been in a low- to medium-grade civil war for some time, with the Feb. 22 Askariya bombing a huge step toward open conflict. Well, read this by Nir Rosen, who used to write for TIME before he went on to bigger and better things. Nir’s a smart guy. Here’s an early, key point he makes:

…Sunnis were killing Shia civilians, and Shia, often under official cover, were retaliating. I asked Haidar if the rumors I’d heard were true — that the Ministry of Interior had been infiltrated and dominated by the Badr Organization Militia, the military forces of the radical Shia Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, or SCIRI. Yes, he said, and added that Ministry of Interior members affiliated with Badr were assassinating Sunnis throughout Iraq. Sunni officers were being removed and replaced by unknown Shias.

This jives with my own reporting on this, which will be published tomorrow on TIME.com.

Dodging a Bullet?

BAGHDAD — We may have dodged the bullet.
Readers of this blog in recent days know that I’ve been very alarmed about the violence going around me. I don’t live in the Green Zone, so I’m not insulated from it as much as they are, and I don’t give much heed to diplomatic happy talk. But so far today, it seems quiet around Iraq and politicians seem — for the moment, at least — to have convinced their followers to stand down. The Sunnis have made noises about coming back to the negotiating table and that’s a good sign. There also was no evidence of any conflict between various parts of the security forces, which was a chief concern of mine, considering how deeply embedded the various militias are to the police, Army, etc.
But still… The curfew is due to lift tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. Baghdad and its surrounding towns are still piano-wire tense. The potential for mayhem remains high. That said, I hope we won’t see a resumption of violence tomorrow, despite the carnage of the past four days.
It is as yet impossible to tally up the death and destruction, but many (mostly Sunni) shrines and mosques have been either occupied and rededicated, damaged or destroyed. At least 200 people have been killed across the country and it’s probably higher. I simply don’t believe the Iraqi “government’s” assertions that only a few mosques were damaged and the loss of life much less than reported in the “exaggerating” media. The track record for truth-telling by Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s “government” is too tarnished to take their soothing words too seriously.
But, as I said, perhaps we dodged a bullet on this. I said in an earlier post that we would be very, very lucky to avoid a civil war. Well, we may have gotten so lucky.
This time.

Where Things Stand Tonight

BAGHDAD — It’s Saturday night in Baghdad, and it’s been a busy day. The funeral of a well-known journalist was attacked west of Baghdad and one person was killed and four people injured. On the way back to town, the funeral procession hit an IED, which destroyed a car or two. An unknown number of people were injured, but no one (else) was killed, thank goodness.
In Karbala, a car bomb exploded at a police checkpoint on the outskirts of the Shi’ite holy city, killing several policemen and an unknown number of civilians. Weirdly, a man was apprehended nearby who allegedly detonated the bomb via remote control. Reports are that he said the real target was the shrine to Imam Hussayn in Karbala, which holier than the Askariya shrine destroyed in Samarra.
One of my staff members reports that there is fighting on his street tonight, and several neighbors have already been killed. He lives in a primarily Sunni neighborhood in west Baghdad.
The curfew was extended today to 6 p.m., but it is to be lifted tomorrow at 6 a.m. We’ll see what happens. Right now, there’s a feeling that the tension has eased somewhat, but that may be false security. Shi’ite militiamen, probably Mahdi Army, and Sunni gunmen fought pitched battles in the streets of southern Baghdad yesterday and today, while the Iraqi police and Army — praised by the Americans and the Iraqi “government” for their professionalism and efficacy — stood by and watched. During the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the Lebanese Army sat out much of the conflict there, allowing militias free reign. The same is happening here in Baghdad today.
It’s clear the authorities, at least the ones who appear on television with titles such as “Defense Minister” and “U.S. Ambassador,” have no clue what to do. Their strategy seems mainly to consist of betting that Moqtada al-Sadr and the hardline Sunni group, the Muslim Clerics Association, “really will make nice”:http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,18278442%255E1702,00.html. Four sheikhs associated with al-Sadr and MCA spokesman Abdel Salam al-Qubasi publicly pledged a “pact of honor” and promised to end attacks. That’s nice. While these men were on television playing political footsie, we had reports that their followers were still trying to kill each other. There’s a real history here of saying one thing and doing another. We’ll have to see.
More balderdash from the Americans, of course. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad gave another press conference tonight in which he said the Iraqi “government” was holding lots of meetings, and that was good. Also, the Iraqi “government” has decided to ban people “who should not have arms” from patrolling the streets. “I think the government decision to ban that was a good thing,” he said.
Well, sure. But in my experience, men with guns in their fists and rage in their hearts don’t wait around for their weapons license to come through when there’s killing to be done. And who is going to enforce this ban? The police? Badr Brigade members control the police of most of the southern cities. An entire Public Order Battalion in Baghdad is composed of Mahdi Army. In Anbar, most of the Army units are Shi’ites and Kurds. What happens when Mahdi militiamen run into a squad of their brothers in the police? Do you think they’ll turn in their guns? Or what happens in Anbar, where many of the police forces in the cities are now local (Sunni Arab) guys? Do you think they’ll confiscate the AK-47s of their _mujahideen_ brothers off to fight the Shi’ite members of the 1st Division down the road?
I don’t.
We have reached a point where the facade of the “political process” has been shredded. The real power lies — and has always lain — in the hands of the sheikhs, the clerics — especially Moqtada — and the gunmen. The politicians in Baghdad can continue their silly little exercise in government building and the Americans and the foreign diplomatic corps can tell their audiences in their home countries how much progress Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is making at building bridges with Saleh Mutlak. But we on the ground know the truth. We’re on the edge of a hot knife, and it’s getting hotter. There may be a pause now, but only for now. And we might have pulled back from the abyss just in time. This might end soon after all and my doom-saying will be proven wrong.
But I don’t think so. If there’s another bombing of a Shi’ite shrine, or some other massacre of Sunnis, then all bets are off. Sistani has already instructed his followers to take matters into their own hands if the government can’t keep them safe. For Iraqis, their fate appears to lie with the scruffy young men standing at the ends of their streets, not with the politicians in the Green Zone.

Head in the Desert Sand

Unbelievable:

In Washington, the State Department insisted that US policy in Iraq was succeeding and denied that political negotiations had collapsed, only that they had paused. “Come on, let’s not blow this out of proportion,” said spokesman Adam Ereli. He denied reports of widespread violence, speaking of “some incidents”.

Look, I’m really sorry reality is intruding on your little fantasy but a lot of people are probably going to die in the coming days and weeks because of the idea that if you just repeat something enough times, it will come true.
Enough already. Shut your mouths; you people in Washington have caused enough damage already.