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July 31, 2006

Iraq Security Forces Maintain Operations Against al-Qaeda, 'Death Squads'

This past week saw continued operations against al-Qaeda in Iraq, some led by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and others by U.S. forces. Perhaps the most important was announced Sunday July 23, the capture of an alleged foreign terrorist leader:

Coalition forces announce the capture of ‘Umar Hasan Al Rashid Al Dusuri, aka , Ja’far ‘Abdallah Jasim ‘Abdallah, an alleged al-Qaida in Iraq foreign terrorist originally from Saudi Arabia.

Ja’far ‘Abdallah admitted to being a member of al-Qaida, and claims he illegally entered Iraq through Syria in July 2005. He provided extensive information of the foreign militia network targeting innocent Iraqi civilians, with the goal of encouraging sectarian violence through Iraq. He admitted to working with multiple terrorist cells throughout Tikrit and the Salah Al Din province…

On Tuesday, Coalition forces killed an important local leader of al-Qaeda in Bayji, which is located in north central Iraq (Salah al-Din Province). He was believed to be a member of the local Mujahidin Shura Council, and three other suspects were captured. At about the same time, another member of al-Qaeda was killed, one wounded and one captured north of Balad. The Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn reports what may be the same capture, but further notes that eight terrorists were captured in a separate operation north of Ramadi.

Significant operations also took place in and around Baghdad. On Friday, a tip from Iraqi citizens led to an operation in which Iraqi soldiers and Iraqi police closed in on a mosque and detained 25 individuals believed to have been involved in last week’s Mahmudiya massacre. The Iraqi newspaper Kul Iraq reports that Iraq’s first mechanized unit executed a raid north of Baghdad on a cell specializing in the manufacture of explosive charges with the aid of helicopter support, and a separate raid on al-Qaeda in Kirkuk. Al-Rafidayn reports that Iraqi security forces have expanded control of Haifa Street, a major thoroughfare that experiences regular exchange of gunfire between the ISF and militants (this [PDF] map of Baghdad shows Haifa Street near the center curving with the flow of the Tigris River).

Last Wednesday ThreatsWatch discussed the escalating conflict between the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on the one hand and U.S. and Iraqi forces on the other, this in spite of the fact that Sadr’s faction is still formally part of the government. The latter part of the week appeared to see continued U.S.-Iraqi raids against the Mahdi Army, or “death squads,” which is used as a code phrase for Shi’a militia who attack civilians in order to distinguish them from al-Qaeda and other Sunni groups. MNF-I reports that U.S. and Iraqi forces detained five suspects and seized a weapons cache while “conducting a counter-death squad operation in southern Baghdad.” A second MNF-I report indicates that five members of a death squad were captured in Mahmudiya, a Shi’a area in which support for Sadr is strong (it notes the capture of four other terrorists for whom there were arrest warrants).

The most significant engagement in a Sadr stronghold took place in Musayyib in Baghdad prior to our last report in which a search for death squads led to a day-long battle in which coalition forces killed 33 terrorists:

…We received reports of small skirmishes between IPs and terrorists erupting at a police station, including the seizing of IP vehicles and weapons in the main downtown circle, which includes the Husseniya, said Donahoe. Soldiers from Company D, 1-67 AR, were in the area to investigate reports of death squads making a presence in the area and surprised the terrorists when they arrived on the scene so quickly. “When we entered the downtown area, we soon came under fire from the area around the Husseniya, including a rocket-propelled attack from inside the structure,” said Capt. Irvin Oliver, commander, Co. D, 1-67 AR.

The Soldiers dug in while other elements of 1-67 AR and their Iraqi counterparts rushed to assist and defeat the terrorists. The combined force cordoned off the city from all directions, keeping the fight to a scaled area and making sure innocent civilians were not harmed…

Baghdad also saw continued attacks on civilians during the week, the worst of which killed 27 through a car bomb and mortars.

Al-Hayat reports on continued changes in security realignment as Iraqi forces take greater control in the provinces while U.S. troops move to reinforce Baghdad. The article reports that Nasiriya in the Dhiqar Province is the be the second section of Iraq to have complete Iraqi security control beginning August 15. It also notes that Iraqi troops took responsibility for the western half of the city of Mosul, in north Iraq, from U.S. troops. Previously Iraqi troops had controlled only half the city.

Separately, Al-Sabaah repors that Iraqi President Jalal Talibani met with the Iraqi Accord Front leader Adnan Dulaimi, a prominent Sunni, to discuss means of effectuating the prime minister’s reconciliation plan.

Qana, Katyushas and Carnage

Following the IAF bombing of a building in Qana, Lebanon, which killed 56 including 37 children, Israel has agreed to a 48-hour cessation of air strikes in Southern Lebanon. In that time, Israel will be investigating the bombing and encouraging Lebanese civilians once again to leave the area of Lebanon south of the Litani River, coordinating with the UN in order to achieve this.

Israel steadfastly maintains that rockets were being fired from Qana, which is not being disputed. Said IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, “We were operating in a place from where Katyushas are being fired and we distributed notices to residents. Unfortunately, people who assembled in the area, whom we were unaware of, were harmed.” Israeli Prime Minister Olmert said that since the conflict began, “hundreds of rockets have been fired from the Qana area.” More specifically, Israeli Air Force Chief of Staff Brigadier General Amir Eshel said that 150 Katyushas have been fired from Qana in the past 20 days.

Curiously, a Jerusalem Post report quotes various Israeli military officials, including General Eshel, stating that the building had been hit at midnight Saturday night, but only collapsed just before 7 a.m. A ‘high-ranking officer’ said, “We warned the residents that we would be attacking there. We work under the assumption that the villages are empty and that whoever is there is affiliated with Hizballah.”

Eshel’s claim that the building collapsed seven hours later was disputed by people at the scene, however. According to those claims, the building collapsed after a second strike on the building shortly after the first at 1 a.m. local time. Various media crews did not arrive on scene, however, until after dawn. It was also reported that bodies were not evacuated from the building until after television media crews had arrived on scene.

Lebanese Prime Minister Siniora canceled talks with Secretary of State Rice, who was in Jerusalem and due to meet with Lebanese officials just four hours after the incident. Said Siniora, “There is no place this sad morning for any discussion other than an immediate and unconditional cease-fire, as well as an international investigation into the Israeli massacres in Lebanon now.”

The Security Council quickly released a statement on the Qana attack, expressing “extreme shock and distress at the shelling by the Israeli Defense Forces of a residential building in Qana.”

Images of the victims being extracted from the rubble has stirred anger throughout the world, leaving Israel to defend its actions with a press conference showing video of Katyusha rocket launches in Qana. Inexplicably, Israel allowed a 12-hour delay between the initial coverage and their own press conference.

July 30, 2006

IDF Leaves Bint Jbail as UN Plan Materializes

On Saturday afternoon, the IDF pulled out of Bint Jbail and returned to the Israeli side of the border just as more ground incursions are being geared up. Hizballah capitalized on the Israeli pull back as Hassan Nasrallah declared that Hizballah had dealt the IDF a severe blow saying “This elite force was fleeing and scurrying like mice from the battleground.” An IDF general dismissed the claim, saying that ground plans have always been to keep from getting bogged down in any one place. Leaving Bint Jbail, regardless of any plan, naturally gives Hizballah a media tool for open use for such claims.

But while the IAF struck multiple targets on a day once again full of sorties, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was back in Tel Aviv once more looking to draw Israel, Lebanon, and Hizballah closer to a UN resolution penned by France that intends to bring about a cease fire. As reported in Haaretz, the French proposed resolution includes:

  • The release of abducted Israeli soldiers and “settlement of issue” of Lebanese prisoners in Israel.
  • Disarmament of all militia in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, and the deployment of the Lebanese army along the Israeli-Lebanese border and throughout the country.
  • A buffer zone in southern Lebanon between the Israeli border and the Litani River, free of any armed personnel and weapons, except those of the Beirut government’s security forces and UN-mandated international forces.
  • Annan, in coordination with regional and international parties, is to help secure agreement in principle from Lebanon and Israel for a political framework on the above cease-fire conditions.
  • The UN Interim Force in Lebanon, after fighting has stopped, is to monitor implementation of an agreement and help humanitarian access and the return of the homeless.
  • Delineation of international borders in Lebanon, especially the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms area, now part of Syria but claimed by Lebanon. Hizballah, before the current fighting, has used the Shebaa Farms to justify armed resistance against Israel.
  • The Security Council, after confirmation that Lebanon and Israeli have agreed in principle on a political framework for a sustainable cease-fire, should authorize deployment of an international force to support the Lebanese armed forces.

Many see this as yet another written decree with a paper demand to have Hizballah disarmed without the will to bring disarmament about. Hizballah will most assuredly not disarm under the weight of a UN resolution any sooner than they did for UN Resolution 1559 which called for the same.

Naim Kassem, Hizballah’s own deputy chief, said of any plan to disarm the terrorist group, “America and Israel have no right to get a result from their defeat. There is no victory for America and Israel for them to make political gains.”

Disarming Hizballah will only happen with armed forces willing and prepared to fight in the Bekaa Valley. Not even the Israeli army has ventured into that area, nor does the French proposal suggest anything north of the Litani River, barely on the southern edge of the Bekaa Valley.

Beyond the elements of the French proposal, such as the “settlement of the issue” of Lebanese prisoners in Israel (read: prisoner swap), much of Europe has been virulently harsh towards Israel after the killing of eight soldiers and abduction of two still held. Former British Foreign Minister Jack Straw has been publicly fighting Tony Blair for his support of Israel in its fight with Hizballah, making public speeches in open criticism, calling for a harsher line on Israel. Said Straw in a speech, “Disproportionate action only escalates an already dangerous situation. One of many serious concerns I have is that the continuation of such tactics by the Israelis could further destabilize the already fragile Lebanese nation.”

But, like much of Europe, Straw’s view fails to properly acknowledge that Hizballah attacks Israel from positions purposely and strategically embedded within its own civilian populations for the purpose of generating such admonishment of its Israeli enemy. Mr. Straw is not alone and his position not unique.

This position has been the impetus behind intense European pressure on Israel’s Knesset members to bring a halt to IDF operations and accept the French-penned UN ceasefire agreement. The weight behind Europe’s pressure is heavy, as the EU accounts for one-third of all Israeli export trade. With reports that Israel has about 7 to 10 days to wrap up operations coinciding with the report of a new ground offensive and an up-tick in operational tempo, the next week’s events will tell how effective the European pressure has been.

July 28, 2006

Hizballah Launches Fajr-5 Rockets Deeper Into Israel

Making good on the earlier promise to strike beyond Haifa, Hizballah launched their deepest attack yet, striking Afula with a barrage of Fajr-5 rockets. The Fajr-5 is an Iranian-made and -supplied truck-mounted 333mm multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS) with a range of approximately 50 miles and a 200-pound warhead. Prior to launching, the truck is parked and four hydraulic jacks are lowered to level the system for both accuracy and stability during firing.

How deeply Hizballah can fire them into Israel will depend on how far into southern Lebanon Hizballah dares to drive the system. They are believed to have been driven northward to avoid IAF attacks. In May 2006 it was reported that Hizballah had received a more advanced version of the Iranian Fajr-5, one capable of striking from a range of 125 miles or more.

US intelligence now seems to believe reports that Hassan Nasrallah is indeed hiding in the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. The Israelis have believed this for days, though he was reportedly spotted in plain clothes in Damascus. The question now becomes, if Israel believes he is still in the Iranian embassy, do they destroy it to kill Nasrallah? This would be a clear escalation, but Israel may choose to simply engage in open warfare rather than the cat & mouse game that allows Iran to engage Israel through Hizballah, seemingly untouchable.

The IDF is dealing Hizballah stinging blows amid fierce fighting, often at close quarters, displayed by Hizballah. This can be evidenced by an earlier broadcast message from Nasrallah (MEMRI TV: Clip #1203) indicating that land is not important, but rather simply the number of Israeli casualties, as Maroun ar-Ras and Bint Jbail fell. That Iran is calling for a ceasefire indicates an unwillingness to confront the Israeli military, even while Hizballah publicly refuses any international buzz concerning a negotiated settlement.

Israeli air strikes in and around the coastal southern Lebanese city of Tyre continue without pause amid much media scrutiny. However, as the rockets and missiles continue to rain down on Israeli cities and civilians, that the IAF destroyed a Hizballah missile command center within the neighborhoods of Tyre yesterday should be seen as a clear indicator as to why the attacks on the embedded Hizballah terrorists in Tyre have not slowed down.

So while support for Hizballah is reportedly growing in southern Lebanon, it should be noted that support for Hizballah in southern Lebanon has always been high. The deep embedding of Hizballah weapons systems, command and control systems and terrorists among the civilians did not happen by chance or brute force.

To not engage them and destroy these systems is to cede safe haven and free-to-launch zones to Hizballah terrorists leaving Israeli civilians subject to undefended attack. This, for the Israeli Defense Forces, is unacceptable. Operations are likely to continue in and around Tyre until attacks from there into Israeli cities cease.

Turkish Troops Enter Iraq and Fire Rockets

According to the Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn, about 200 Turkish soldiers along with some village guards crossed over Iraq’s northern border sometime before 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday and fired several rockets, apparently targeting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish terrorist organization which has taken refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. The incursion took place in the Kani Masi region in the Kurdish province of Dahuk, which is Iraq’s northernmost province. There were no casualties reported, but local residents complained that some of the rockets hit near their homes, and that the explosions had set off forest fires. Al-Rafidayn, which cited the Voices of Iraq News Service, reported that the missiles hit five areas within Dahuk - Kali Sinat, Zawita, Kali Bisagha, Kuluk and al-Ansh.

Turks claim that the PKK has killed 36,000 Turks and that now Iraq’s Kurdish administration is doing nothing to restrain PKK activity against Turkey. A recent clash in which 15 Turkish soldiers were killed appears to have been the catalyst for the recent rise in tensions between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdish authorities. For more context, see Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’ recent report in Counterterrorism Blog. ThreatsWatch reported briefly on this issue Monday.

Gartenstein-Ross more recently reported on an agreement between the U.S. and Turkey that the Turkish military would not enter Iraq without consultation and coordination with the United States. This agreement, if effectuated, would help ensure that Turkish troops did not accidentally end up engaging in fire with non-PKK Kurdish troops or with American troops. Al-Rafidayn did not indicate whether this operation was coordinated with the U.S. or not, but a quote from a Kurdish military officer suggested that Kurdish military authorities were not forewarned (major English-language news outlets have yet to report on this incident). Given that the rockets were fired into apparently empty forests, this incursion may have simply been intended as a warning to Iraqi Kurdish authorities rather than an attack on specific PKK units.

July 26, 2006

Beyond Haifa: Hizballah Vows 'New Stage'

The battlefield picture is beginning to make its way from the confines of south Lebanon and it bears the signature of Syria’s Bahsar Assad along with lengthy Farsi inscriptions. Today’s Hizballah, frequently engaging IDF forces in hand to hand combat on the ground, is “organized more like an army” than a terrorist group, bearing little resemblance to the Palestinians’ Hamas, Islamic Jihad or al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade terrorist organizations. The New York Times quoted Major General Yaakov Amidror of Israeli military intelligence as saying, “Never before in history has a terrorist organization had such state of the art military equipment.”

Specifically noted was the quality and depth of Hizballah bunkers in southern Lebanon. In a John Batchelor radio interview from the field, Aaron Klein reported that one bunker taken by the IDF contained highly sophisticated surveillance and eavesdropping equipment made in Iran. If this is the case, it leaves only to the imagination what other man-portable equipment the individual Hizballah terrorist may be supplied and armed with by their state sponsors Iran and Syria.

Other weapons provided by Iran and Syria are more clearly visible to the public as rockets continue to rain down upon Israeli cities. In Hizballah’s Arsenal, Dan Darling described the various assortment of rockets and missiles that have been made available to the Lebanese terrorist group, including the much longer-range Zelzal missiles supplied by Iran.

The Zelzal is likely to be the weapon of choice for Hizballah as Hassan Nasrallah declared that the war had entered a new stage and vowed to send rockets beyond Haifa, currently Hizballah’s deepest reach into Israel. “I declare that we will enter the ‘beyond Haifa’ stage. In the new stage, our attacks will not remain limited to Haifa.”

The Zelzal has yet to be fired, though the Israeli Air Force has been actively seeking them in southern Lebanon in aerial hunting missions not unlike those of the ‘SCUD hunt’ that took place above the desert floor of Iraq during the Gulf War. Believed to have an improved range of at least 125 miles, the system – which carries a 600lb warhead – would be capable of hitting Tel Aviv from the southern Lebanon Hizballah den of Tyre.

Sadr Faction Threatens to Turn on Maliki Government

While Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met first with Prime Minister Tony Blair in Britain on Monday and then with President Bush in Washington D.C. on Tuesday to much fanfare, a less heralded but possibly more significant showing was made in Baghdad as followers of the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr made their gravest threats yet against the Iraqi government. Occupying the grounds around the prime minister’s office with a sit-in, Sadr’s followers demanded that Maliki cancel his trip to Washington in protest against attacks on Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which has been blamed for the most gruesome attacks on Sunni civilians. U.S. and Iraqi troops have increased operations against members of the Mahdi Army and the Sadrists are responding by threatening to wage war on U.S. troops and, apparently for the first time, against the Iraqi government itself.

The president and prime minister (full text of press conference here) laid out their plan for taking Baghdad back from the spiral of violence through a plan which involves taking over and securing one sector at a time, restoring government services, empowering local police and then moving on to another sector of the city. The plan will involve an increase in American troops to Baghdad by pulling troops from the Sunni-dominated Anbar province and reserve troops from Kuwait, while adding an equal number of Iraqi troops (Washington Post, New York Times). ThreatsWatch will provide further coverage of this crucial operation as details unfold.

Meanwhile, Sadr’s followers in parliament pressed his case and made the gravest threats so far against the government. As reported in Al-Hayat, parliamentary leader Falah Shinaishal led a sit-in protest in front of Maliki’s office in Baghdad, demanding that he cancel his trip in protest over attacks on the Mahdi Army as well as U.S. support for Israeli military action in Lebanon. Sahib al-Amari, noted as a leader of the Sadrist faction, warned of direct conflict between “units of the Mahdi Army on the one hand and American and Iraqi forces on the other hand if the arrests and raids against the Mahdi Army by these forces do not halt.” Amari specifically pointed to “the occupying forces, with the support of the 37th Battalion in the Iraqi Army burned down a house in Sadr City and arrested an entire family.” Amari further stated that U.S. troops had attacked “the office of the martyr Sadr [likely a reference to Muqtada’s father] in Mahmudiya killing 10 guards and letting loose 49 prisoners who had been captured by the Sadr faction police.” The article quotes Amari as ending by “warning of a flood of fighting in the streets of Iraq between the Mahdi Army and the American troops along with the government troops who support them.”

While ThreatsWatch reported on Saturday that Sadr’s followers had walked out of parliament indefinitely, these comments represent a new escalation in the conflict, as Sadr has never threatened to turn against the government this way. He has always claimed to be following the senior religious authorities of Shia Iraq, yet the Grand Ayatollah Ali-Sistani and other authorities have continued to demand the disarming of the militias and it has become increasingly clear to all that he is ignoring them. Maliki’s government has been following Sistani’s counsel. And while Sadrists’ statements usually emphasize that they are fighting the United States, these comments mention more explicitly than usual the participation of Iraqi troops.

ThreatsWatch reported on Sunday that a ceasefire had been declared by a leading Sunni insurgent leader conditional upon Shia militias refraining from attacking Sunnis. The Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn reported on Tuesday that Baghdad was catching its breath as the ceasefire seemed to be holding Monday and Tuesday. The above noted article in Al-Hayat reported, however, that Sadr representative Riyadh al-Nuri said that “this matter (ceasefire) will not last if American troops continue their assaults.” Referring to Sunni attacks on Shia civilians, Nuri stated that “the terrorists engage in massacre and terrorize the Shia within earshot and under the sight of American and government troops.” Nuri specifically mentioned the killing of 14 of Sadr’s followers by American troops in a separate attack in Musib.

It may or may not be notable that the U.S. military press office in Iraq is not playing up the campaign against Sadr, and for operations against the Mahdi Army over the past two days merely mentions the capture of “six targeted insurgents, all of whom are believed to be involved in ‘death squad’ activities.” References to “death squads” usually refer to certain members of the Mahdi Army.

This escalation of tension between Sadr and the Iraqi government, as well as the additional threats against U.S. forces, is not necessarily a negative sign. It appears in fact to be a reaction against a much-needed U.S.-Iraqi campaign against the Mahdi Army which is the single greatest force driving Sunni Iraqis away from the government. At a time when Sunni insurgents have been indicating a willingness to cease fighting the government on terms, it is highly unlikely that they will actually follow through with a full cessation of hostilities as long as they are subject to attacks by Shia militias, especially that of the Sadr faction, which still has ministers in the government.

July 25, 2006

Battle for Bint Jbail as World Convulses

As Israel maintained pressure on Hizballah and the Iranian- and Syrian-made rockets continued to barrage Israeli cities, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Tel Aviv, where Olmert vowed to press on against Hizballah. The Israeli Prime Minister said, “Israel is determined to continue on in the fight against Hizballah. We will not hesitate to take severe measures against those who are aiming thousands of rockets and missiles against innocent civilians for the one purpose of killing them.” Rice affirmed support for Israel’s actions in self-defense, as well over two thousand Hizballah rockets have been launched at Israeli civilians since the beginning of the conflict.

Civilian casualties are the epicenter of harsh criticism of Israel in its counter-offensive against the world’s most heavily armed and professionally trained terrorist organization. The Times quoted the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, Jan Egeland, as saying to that end, “My position is very clear - the hostilities must stop immediately. Civilian populations are not targets. That is against the law, humanitarian law.”

But what followed in the rest of his statement fell curiously silent not only to The Times, but was largely unreported by many other media outlets as well. Seemingly un-noteworthy was Egeland’s follow up as he blasted the Hizballah strategy of embedding among civilians. He had added, “Consistently, from the Hezbollah heartland, my message was that Hezbollah must stop this cowardly blending … among women and children. I heard they were proud because they lost very few fighters and that it was the civilians bearing the brunt of this. I don’t think anyone should be proud of having many more women and children dead than armed men.”

While Hizballah rockets continue to rain down on Israeli cities with imprecision, with at least 5 wounded in the latest attack on Haifa, little is made in Western media circles of Hizballah’s strategy of embedding deep within the Lebanese Shi’ite population, effectively using them as human shields.

While the fighting around Maroun ar-Ras is winding down with the IDF in firm control, the battle for what Israel calls a “terror capital,” Bint Jbail, takes its place. Two Israeli soldiers were confirmed killed in Tuesday action. To the northwest of Bint Jbail, Israel has resumed strikes on Hizballah-dominated southern Beirut.

In Britain, there is debate about a potential self-imposed arms embargo on Israel, as some seem to seek to capture a moral high ground by disengaging in the War on Terror. But regardless, during Secretary of State Rice’s visit, Ehud Olmert pledged to continue military campaign against Hizballah, believing that the only “enduring cease-fire” possible would be one that finds Hizballah significantly degraded and pushed well north of the Israeli border.

July 24, 2006

IDF Pushes Deeper Into Hizballah Ground

While the fighting continues in Maroun ar-Ras, taken by the IDF over the weekend, Israeli ground operations have gradually branched out as expected. In a dawn operation Monday, Israeli troops are laying siege to Bint Jbail, a Hizballah stronghold of significant size that lies approximately 5 miles northwest of the Israeli border in the extreme southeastern area of Hizballah-controlled Lebanon.

Early television reports describe the fighting taking place around Maroun ar-Ras as intense, with IDF officers stating that the resistance is much greater than expected but that Hizballah fighters are dying “in droves.” While last week’s IDF claim that Hizballah capabilities had been diminished by 40-50% was clearly an exaggeration, Hizballah is likely taking heavy losses in their efforts to retake Maroun ar-Ras. The well-equipped IDF troops are the force with the advantage of a defensive position.

Hizballah clearly understands the psychological importance of Maroun ar-Ras and that its retaking would not be insignificant. But Hizballah is equipped and trained to a level far more than expected and are disciplined and organized. The counter-attack IDF forces in Maroun ar-Ras are seeing bears no resemblance to insurgent fighting in Iraq or operations mounted by Hamas, PRC and PIJ in Gaza. The Iranians have created a disciplined quasi-extension of the IRGC in Hizballah, and the extent and effectiveness of this extends far beyond simply the weapons systems in Hizballah’s Arsenal, such as the Silkworm anti-ship missiles and rocket capabilities. One capability that continues to remain curiously silent is Hizballah’s shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile assets, though it does claim to have taken down a helicopter earlier. The Israelis claim it was a mechanical malfunction.

But developments outside the theater of operations in Lebanon are of more significance. While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats continue to amplify, they pale in comparison to reports that Hizballah sleeper cells around the world have been activated and put on alert. Shin Bet, Israel’s counter-intelligence and internal security agency, has put Israel’s embassies and consulates under heightened alert status, as Israeli and Jewish institutions are expected to be the targets of any international terror reach by Hizballah.

For his part, Ahmadinejad declared that Israel has “pushed the button of its own destruction” with its operations against Hizballah. He went on to say that Israel and the United States have set up their bases of operations in the Middle East, including Israel itself. Ahmadinejad went on to say, “But today, the occupier regime (Israel) - whose philosophy is based on threats, massacre and invasion - has reached its finishing line.”

Iranian partner in terror Syria is making gestures that it wants ‘talks with the US’ and, in order to barter their way into such talks, Syria says it is ready ‘to come clean’ on al-Qaeda cells operating out of Lebanon. Syria has reportedly said, “We know where they are and we can tell you.”

It has offered to be a mediator between its Israeli and western enemies and its terror partner Iran regarding the crisis in Lebanon. While this ‘offer’ is expected to be soundly rejected as disingenuous, it is another clear indicator that Iran is running the Hizballah side of operations.

That offer coincided with a Syrian warning that it would send troops if Israel ran a full-scale invasion of Lebanon. “If Israel makes a land entry into Lebanon, they can get to within 20 kilometers (12 miles) of Damascus. What will we do? Stand by with our arms folded? Absolutely not. Without any doubt Syria will intervene in the conflict.”

Iraqi Government Criticizes Israel Over Lebanon

The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has issued a statement criticizing Israel’s military operations in Lebanon and calling on the international community to provide humanitarian assistance. The statement did not mention Hizbullah, Iran, Syria or the United States. (The link is in Arabic; no English translation has been provided.)

As reported in the New York Times, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki also denounced Israel’s response to Hizballah’s attack, again without apparently mentioning the U.S., Syria or Iran. The prime minister himself did not raise the issue, but lashed out at Israel in response to a reporter’s question. The Times piece contrasts Maliki’s response to that of Sunni Arab leaders, many of whom have criticized Hizballah, and frames the issue as a failure of U.S. policy in establishing democracy in Iraq. Yet there was never any expectation that a democratic Iraq would agree with the U.S. on every issue, or become an ally of Israel. Maliki’s harsher response likely reflects the fact that, unlike other Arab leaders, he was democratically elected. While most Arab states have critized both Israel and Hizballah over recent events in Lebanon, Arab public opinion has been running about 90% in favor of blaming Israel entirely. Maliki’s comments were relatively moderate compared to the kind of attacks to which the U.S. and Israel have been subjected. (Note that while the Times states that Sistani has “remained silent” on this issue, this is not correct; Sistani’s statement linked above was published on his Arabic-only website four days before the Times article.)

The Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada is reporting that the Kurdish Democratic Party and National Kurdish Union plan to continue their plans to unify what for several years has been a divided administrative system in the Kurdish-dominated areas of northern Iraq.

In a separate article, Al-Mada (“Newspaper Sources: Turkey Plans to Confront the Headquarters of the Workers’ Party in Iraqi Kurdistan”) writes on continued concerns that Turkey is escalating its war with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist Kurdish group concentrated in southeast Turkey. The PKK has perpetrated numerous terrorist attacks on Turkish civilians over the years. The article quotes sources which suggest that Turkey is considering sending as many as 50,000 troops into Iraq, and has already fired missles across the border. The United States has warned Turkey against sending troops into Iraqi territory (Forbes).

July 23, 2006

'Undeclared Ceasefire' in Baghdad Interrupted

Sunni insurgent groups and Shia militias have reportedly established an “undeclared ceasefire” based upon a commitment by a major domestic insurgent leader conditioned upon a cessation of attacks on Sunnis by Shia militias. The ceasefire - which appears based more upon calls for peace by Shia clergy than the actions of Shia militia - was blackened by two separate bombings, one in Baghdad and one in Kirkuk. This may not have been a break in the ceasefire if, as with an attack earlier this week in Kufa, it appears to have been perpetrated by an al-Qaeda affiliated group not part of the ceasefire. Meanwhile, U.S.-Iraqi troops continued targeting the Shia militia of Moqtada al-Sadr and U.S. forces are shifting more troops to Baghdad security. Operation Guagamela wrapped up a Kirkuk-area terror stronghold without a casualty.

According to Al-Hayat, Muhammad al-Jaburi, head of the Iraqi National Unity Council, which represents seven Iraqi insurgent factions, said Sunday that they were willing to declare a ceasefire in their fight with Sadr’s Mahdi Army if they observed that the Shia militia refrained from attacks on Sunnis. Jaburi emphasized that his “ceasefire” offer was in response to the strong statements issued by Shia religious authorities against attacks on Sunnis this past week. The article notes that Jaburi has negotiated with American forces in the past.

Following the bloody attack on Shia civilians in the Mahmudiya district Monday, a second attack targeting Shia civilians struck Kufa, which is in the south-center part of the country. Reuters reports that the Mujahideen Shura Council, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, has taken credit for the attack. On Saturday ThreatsWatch reported that Iraq’s Shia mosque endowments had decided to unite their work with that of Sunni foundations for five days as a sign of solidarity with them over the abduction of 20 Sunni mosque foundation employees. The New York Times has the full story.

Reuters also reports on a major confrontation between U.S.-Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army over Saturday night:

…There were also heavy clashes in the district overnight between the Mehdi Army of radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and U.S.-led forces, residents and police said. The U.S. military said in a statement that Iraqi troops raided a site in mainly Shi’ite eastern Baghdad targeting two people believed to be involved in “death squads” — a term usually applied to Shi’ite militia activity. It said eight people were detained after a battle involving machineguns and grenades and that two Iraqi hostages were freed. Two other people were arrested in a similar raid in northwestern Baghdad, the military said…

MNFI has further information on these operations.

On Thursday ThreatsWatch reported on the initiation of Operation Guagamela. The operation responded to reports of increased al-Qaeda in Iraq activity in Hawija, near Kirkuk in north-central Iraq. The ten-day operation involved door-to-door searches and without firing a shot 3,000 Iraqi troops detained 154 terror suspects and seized large amounts of weapons. Also following up on a recent ThreatsWatch report on operations in Ramadi, Iraqi soldiers from the 7th Iraqi Army Division searched the Ma’ath Bin Jabal Mosque after taking small-arms fire from insurgents and found a weapons cache (Camp Ramadi press release).

Other operational news (AFIS, MNFI, July 18, MNFI, July 20):

Iraqi forces captured a ‘Most Wanted’ insurgent leader, a local tribal leader involved in insurgent activities throughout Qadisiya in south-central Iraq.

Iraqi troops captured six individuals involved in kidnapping rings in two separate raids, one near Abu Ghraib and one in the Baghdad area.

U.S. and Iraqi soldiers found a large stash of enemy weaponry and money on July 18 in Baghdad.

Coalition forces killed one terrorist and captured five others during a raid in Samarra on July 20. Intelligence had indicated local links to al-Qaeda, and one of those captured reportedly has admitted to ordering hundreds of attacks against Iraqi citizens.

The overall trend in Baghdad over the past week was an increase in violence, and an American military spokesman said that insurgents were “streaming into the capital,” seeing its decisive importance for the future of Iraq (Washington Post). U.S. military commanders, in coordination with Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al-Qader Jassem al-Ubaydi, plan to increase both U.S. and Iraqi troop strength in the Baghdad area, an increase that is reportedly expected to require a reduction in troops levels elsewhere in the country (New York Times).

July 22, 2006

IDF Takes Northern Ground Amid Gaza Ceasefire Talk

As Israeli operations along the Lebanese border continue to increasingly reach across into Hizballah territory amid broader airstrikes, there are initial reports of a ceasefire proposal from Gaza terrorist leaders. While the world has shifted focus towards Israel’s northern front, Operation Summer Rains has continued in Gaza without shifting gears.

It is being reported by the Associated Press that the Gaza agreement is the result of meetings among the terrorist leaders of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad at the behest of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas’ PA Prime Minster Ismail Haniyeh. While not mentioned in the article, if the meeting and agreement indeed occurred, then members of the Popular Resistance Committees must have been present or the agreement – as reported – is effectively without value.

The agreement was described in broadcast reports as a ‘unilateral’ ceasefire agreement effective midnight Gaza time on the part of the terrorists, but the fact that it was couched with the condition of “if the Israelis also ceased operations” belies any unilateral nature. It may have been written unilaterally, but the conditions – as currently reported – clearly are not and the use of the ‘unilateral’ description is misleading.

The fact that both Abbas’ and Haniyeh’s power and influence in their own territory is effectively at a minimum should be also considered, as throughout Operation Summer Rains the terrorist groups have largely ignored the two elected leaders and taken their operational direction straight from Meshaal’s Damascus headquarters. Still, this could either be a sign of an increase in the local power of Abbas and Haniyeh. But whatever agreement was made between the terrorists and local Gaza leadership was not reached without direction from Damascus, potentially seeking a period of reorganization and regrouping on the southern front to possibly re-launch during a longer-than-expected confrontation with Hizballah in the north.

Regardless, the hand of Damascus – and all state actors that implies – cannot be removed from the agreement’s equation. Surely Israel is thinking the same and has refused to comment on the development.

On the northern front, broadcast reports indicate that the IDF has increased the tempo of ground operations across the border into Hizballah territory. Those reports detail that IDF troops have taken a key hill, Marun al-Ras, and two IDF Armor Rollsvillages close to the border. This is likely a continuation of an operations overnight as the IDF sent armor across the border to take a UN observation post that has been caught in the crossfire between Hizballah and the IDF recently. The UNIFIL post’s Ghanan troops were reported to be in a bomb shelter during the earlier exchanges.

Taking the forward hill of Marun al-Ras will effectively extend the northern reach of IDF artillery already stretched to its range limits. From within Israel, the artillery units have been pushing Hizballah and their rocket launch points farther away from Israeli cities. The taking of the two nearby villages was a necessary security measure to prevent Hizballah terrorists from mounting attacks from there on the new hilltop firing position. It would not be unreasonable to expect the IDF units along the Blue Line to branch out to other positions in a creep northward.

In the air campaign, sorties continued throughout the south of Lebanon and in southern parts of Beirut, which are Hizballah-dominated. With the intended target Hizballah’s al-Manar TV, IAF destroyed communications towers in Lebanon that also effectively brought down services for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. and Future TV.

It is unclear whether there will be a large single surge of IDF forces into Hizballah territory. But what looks to be taking shape is coordinated smaller and more cautious incursions to clear and hold territory. An IDF spokesman may have been signaling this as the world may expect to see an all out blitz when he said, “It will probably widen, but we are still looking at limited operations. We’re not talking about massive forces going inside at this point.” Perhaps just not all at once.

'Victim' Sadrists and Fadhila Leave Parliament

The most important political event in Iraq this week was the dramatic albeit ambiguous withdrawal of the Sadrists and the Fadhila Party from the parliamentary session, and the implications this move has for the ongoing realignment in Iraqi politics. The leadership of the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) is dominated by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party and SCIRI, which is headed by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. The faction of Moqtada al-Sadr has been the one Shia faction which has maintained a consistent anti-American platform, and is the most aligned with Tehran and Damascus in regional politics (SCIRI has roots in Iran but is politically focused on the rights of Shia in Iraq). The Fadhila follows the direction of the Ayatollah Muhammad Yaqubi of Najaf, and has also often taken a militant line, for example by opposing the ratification of Iraq’s constitution, even though it was supported by Iraq’s highest religious authority, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The Sadr faction and the Fadhila are smaller than Dawa and SCIRI, but they are large enough that their permanent departure might otherwise undermine the government except that Sadr’s unpopularity among the Sunnis is such that his departure from the coalition would likely strengthen their support for Maliki. Overall, SCIRI and Dawa are coming closer together under the guidance of Sistani while the Sadrists and Fadhila increasingly take an alternative position, while Maliki’s government receives more support from the Sunnis.

As reported in the international Arab newspaper Al-Hayat on Tuesday (“Sadrist and Fadhila Parliamentarians Withdraw from Parliament Session”), Sadrist and Fadhila representatives claimed that they were withdrawing indefinitely due to the government’s failure to prevent violence against the Shia. Sadr representative Buha’ al-Arji specifically blamed the United States, saying that “foreign occupying troops and their illegitimate children among the Saddamists and members of al-Qaeda are trying to pull the country into a civil war.” He said that the government wasn’t weak, but only that the U.S. was preventing it from keeping order. He also complained against the prime minister, saying that complaints “have not received a proper hearing from the Maliki government.” A representative of the Fadhila is simply quoted as complaining of “the weak execution” of security duties.

One Sunni legislator, Jafir Aani, also withdrew individually, but another Sunni legislator spoke out favorably for Maliki’s reconciliation plan as the best means of fighting terrorism. More prominently, Hamid Majid Musa, head of the Sunni Iraqi Party, stated that talk about “a circle of violence being between Sunnis and Shia is not quite correct.” This appears to be a recognition of the fact that it is militants among both populations that are attacking civilians, not mainstream Sunnis and Shia. Notably, National Security Advisor Salam al-Jubei said that it was important to “fix the mistakes of the previous government,” stop “foreign attempts to divide the country, and continue to make contacts with Iraqi insurgents willing to reconcile with the government.” This was an implicit criticism of former prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari.

Al-Hayat also reported on Thursday regarding discussions within the National Security Policy Council on efforts to face down the Shia militias and integrate them into the regular Iraqi security forces. ThreatsWatch will address the broader security issues separately, but in looking at the political implications of Sadr’s departure it is noteworthy that while the Shia emphasized the threat from the Sunni terrorists and the Sunnis emphasized the threat from the Shia militias, the Iraqi army supreme commander Babkir Jaybari stated that the sectarian violence - meaning the militias - was harder to face down than the mostly foreign terrorists “because they are not enemies to us and herein lies the problem.” The writer noted that Jaybari didn’t specify which groups it was to which he was referring, but the implication regarding the Mahdi Army and others was clear - the greatest enemy is among us, not from outside.

The true reason for this political convulsion seems to differ from the official reason given by the Sadrists in light of recent attempts by the government to crack down on Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which has been accused of many atrocities against Sunni civilians. As reported here at ThreatsWatch, U.S. and Iraqi troops have recently begun confronting the Mahdi Army, something which has caused Sadr’s representatives to accuse elements within the government of conspiring with America to marginalize Sadr. Given the Shia religious authorities intensified focus on ending the militias and Maliki’s continued insistence on the same, it is reasonable to assume that Sadr decided to widen the rift after Maliki held firm in private on commitments he has made in public to disarm Sadr’s militia. While it does not appear that this break means that Sadr is withdrawing from the political process altogether, he is clearly separating himself further from both the political and religious leaders of the Shia majority.

Separately, Al-Rafidayn reports that Shia and Sunni waqfs have decided to work together. A waqf is an endowment to support a mosque complex, usually as not only a place of prayer but also of study and charitable giving. The report indicated that the Shia authorities committed to spending five days working joined with the Sunni mosques as a sign of solidarity with them and in protest against the abduction of Sunni waqf employees recently.

July 21, 2006

Ground Push Imminent as Hizballah Rockets Fly

As at least 19 civilians are wounded in Haifa in yet another Hizballah barrage on the Israeli port city, Israel is stepping up its warning to civilians in south Lebanon to leave the southern areas immediately. After over a week of hammering Hizballah positions since the northern front opened, it appears the IDF rolling into Hizballah territory is the next logical option.

Israel has pushed the bulk of the rocket launch points to the edges of their artillery range, as limited incursion operations utilizing IDF Special Forces close to the Lebanese-Israeli border sought equipment, positions and terrorists to either destroy in place or spot for artillery fire and/or airstrikes. Yet, the barrages into Israeli cities – targeting their civilians – continue. Though fewer from on the border, many rocket launches still occur – over 1,000 since the onset.

Israeli artillery is up on the border and increasingly using rocket aided projectiles and other technology to reach their range limits, an indication that the artillery will have to move forward soon to continue to engage the targets they are after. This, coinciding with yet another 5,000 IDF reservists mobilized after three battalions earlier in the week intended to shift active troops from West Bank to the northern border, indicates a likely imminent ground push.

That the three reserve battalions were not sent north in preference of the active duty battalions in the West Bank is important. It indicates Israel’s acknowledgement of priority, with the West Bank far down the list. But, most significantly, it is in recognition that the fight with Hizballah will be bloody, ugly and face-to-face – a fight unseasoned reservists are not as mentally prepared for. IDF officers are reporting that Hizballah tunnels - often leading under homes in villages – are being encountered by Special Forces troops crossing into Hizballah territory. It is territory very familiar to its Hizballah inhabitants but quite new to IDF forces. The advantage in guerilla warfare always goes to force that owns the terrain, and because of this, the upcoming battles will be up close and personal. IDF commanders know that they will need the best they have and do not expect light casualties. battle must be fought or victory and endless civilian rocket attacks are ceded to the terrorists.

As IDF troops stream north and mass along the Lebanese border, Nasrallah emerges alive and promises more rockets and “more surprises.” It should be considered that many believed that Iraq’s WMD and other weapons weredeposited in Hizballah’s Bekaa Valley, including the head of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, James Clapper Jr.

Moving Forward Together in Ramadi, But Slowly

While Baghdad’s residents reel under an almost daily onslaught of tit-for-tat revenge attacks by Sunni and Shia militants and Shia religious authorities appeal for calm, the remainder of the infamous “Sunni triangle” - minus Baghdad - is gradually quieting down. The region is still very much a war zone, but relations between the Sunni population and American troops have markedly improved, most Sunni public figures have irrevocably committed to the political process, and Sunni insurgent factions are widely seeking terms under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s amnesty initiative. This seems epitomized by Ramadi, the Sunni insurgent stranglehold which is the capital of the Anbar Province in western Iraq.

Ramadi, a mid-sized Sunni-dominated city about 60 miles west of Baghdad, is still plenty dangerous. American and Iraqi troops are now in the middle of an operation that is inching through the city, block by block, restoring government services and encouraging the maintenance of the local economy. Coalition forces are replicating a strategy honed in last year’s operations in Tel Afar, in which American and Iraqi soldiers worked together to build relationships with locals and weed out insurgents incrementally. This is not to underestimate the problem, but Ramadi has gone from an intractable hotbed of violence to a manageable danger, if handled carefully.

What has made the difference? Part of it is the presence and leadership of Iraqi troops. Writing in the Weekly Standard, three Iraq infantry veterans - David Bellavia, Owen West & Wade Zirkle - write about the progress of the Iraqi soldiers. Whereas in 2004 Iraqi troops often refused to fight or performed badly, now they largely take the lead. Aided by Military Transition Teams (MiTTs), American embeds within Iraqi squads, Iraqi troops are taking casualties but retaking parts of the city at the same time.

A second factor was the recognition among most Sunnis that they made a huge mistake in boycotting Iraq’s first election in January 2005, and this has led to a large number of Sunni factions seeking terms of reconciliation with the government pursuant to Maliki’s amnesty initiative. Having seen the empowerment of the Shia through the political process and the determination of U.S. and Iraqi troops in defending the government, domestic Iraqi insurgents are losing the will to fight.

A third major difference has been a change in attitude among Sunnis, brought about in part mostly positive experiences with Americans, and very negative experiences with Shia Iraqi militias. As described in the New York Times, many ardent opponents of the United States, while still wanting American troops to leave, don’t want them to leave right now. While the Shia militias have been active to a limited degree in the Sunni triangle outside of Baghdad, in several Baghdad neighborhoods they have had free rein. This is why the headlines screaming mass violence have largely come from Baghdad and its mixed-sectarian environs in recent months, not Ramadi and other Sunni-dominated areas. Many Iraqi Sunnis have also been alienated by the gruesome violence of al-Qaeda in Iraq and other takfiri groups.

Yet while the sectarian violence of the Shia militiamen has driven many Sunnis into a partnership of convenience with the U.S., the militia killings themselves, concentrated in the Baghdad area, threaten to tear the fabric of Iraqi society apart. This makes the fight for Baghdad all the more imperative, for once the capital is settled, and the center is held, the unity of Iraq will be largely secured.

July 20, 2006

Iraqi Shia Clerics Make Strongest Stand Yet Against Shia Militias

Monday morning a group of armed Sunni militants wearing masks and armed with machine guns attacked a marketplace in the Shia city of Mahmudiya south of Baghdad, reportedly killing 40 and wounding 90 others. According to the Washington Post, the attack was framed by insurgents claiming responsibility as a revenge attack on the Shia for the killings of Sunnis by Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

The precise cause of the security failure was not clear; the Post quotes some survivors as claiming that Iraqi soldiers had allowed the attackers through a checkpoint, while also reporting conflicting testimony as to whether Iraqi police or regular army forces had engaged them. MNFI reports that Iraqi troops from the 2nd Battalion, 4th Brigade, 6th Army Division had responded to the explosions and engaged the Sunni militants in an exchange of gunfire. No clear explanation has emerged as to what exactly went wrong.

This followed a mass abduction of about 50 people which targeted Iraq’s national Olympic committee on Saturday. Those abducted include the head of the committee, about 30 athletes and some bodyguards. Reuters reports that the kidnappers were wearing blue camouflaged uniforms and driving official-looking vehicles. On Sunday, the head of Iraq’s North Oil Company was kidnapped, and in a separate attack on a hospital four guards were killed and 13 wounded prisoners were freed (Reuters).

Also on Sunday, the convoy of the Saad al-Din Arkaj, leader of the Iraqi Turkoman Front, was subject to an attempted assassination strike in Kirkuk, the center of the ethnic minority Turkoman population in Iraq. This was the second attempt on Arkaj’s life, and while four of his guards were reported injured, Arkaj himself appeared unfazed. Arkaj defiantly told Al-Rafidayn that this was simply another attempt to “drive our people, native to this land, to leave,” and that it would only “increase our determination” to build the new Iraq. The article notes that there was also a bomb attack at an internet cafe in Kirkuk which seemed to be targeting the Turkoman, killing the owner and wounding others.

Since then, Operation Gaugamela has been launched in Kirkuk by US and Iraqi troops. The cities of Hawija and Riyadh were encircled on a mission “searching for suspected al-Qaeda terrorists.”

Al-Rafidayn reports on a meeting Sunday between First Deputy Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the other Shia religious authorities in Najaf. He was accompanied in his visit to each cleric by Amar al-Hakim, the General Secretary of the Martyrs Foundation for the Promotion of Islam.

Mahdi emerged from the meetings and in a press conference with reporters said that the revered Sistani was personally most burdened by the sectarian violence and was exerting all his efforts to restrain revenge attacks and improve security. Mahdi also spoke regarding a meeting of the Iraqi National Security Council the previous day in which there was unanimous agreement on what needed to be done, including cracking down on the Shia militias, but that the only remaining concern was to ensure that actions taken were through proper constitutional channels. Mahdi was emphatic about the consensus both inside and outside the government on “the unacceptability of armed irregular factions. We are together on the issue of abolishing the militias.” And asked specifically regarding allegations of government officials being involved with attacks on civilians, Mahdi answered that such a person should be punished even more severely than a common citizen should.

These statements may be interpreted as the strongest indication yet of the determination of the senior Shia religious authorities to crack down on the Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Although the deputy prime minister’s own party, SCIRI, has a militia, the Badr Corps, Badr has not been implicated in the commission of atrocities for a significant period of time. All recent killings of Sunni civilians have been attributed to Sadr’s militia. Most allegations against Badr last year involved the use of death squads to engage in vigilante violence against Sunni insurgents rather than the targeting of Sunni civilians. References to officials implicated in terrorism could, of course, also apply to allegations recently made against Sunni leaders’ links to al-Qaeda.

Al-Rafidayn also reported on a meeting between Sistani and a delegation of Baghdad residents, discussing their suffering, in which he compared the patient believer to a living proverb for other believers.

A more troubling reaction to recent violence came from the Sunni side in Baghdad, as 40 Sunni families reportedly abandoned their homes in the Al-Jihad neighborhood and Shaikh Ahmad Taha al-Samra’i, pastor of the Abu Hanifa Mosque, called for the formation of a Sunni “‘Athmi Army” to protect the ‘Athmi neighborhood, and dozens of officers and soldiers in the former Iraqi army gathered at the mosque (Al-Hayat). Similar calls were heard in other Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad. Samra’i defended his call in remarks to Al-Hayat, saying that these were merely “self-defense groups for the neighborhoods in which their members themselves live,” and that they were “not outside of the law.”

Al-Hayat also reported that on Sunday the parliament voted to extend the state of emergency for 30 days in all areas of the country except the Kurdish provinces.

Security Council Stalemate as Iran Forges Ahead

Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Wednesday that Russia is in no rush to gain any resolution from the Security Council regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Churkin said, “We are not in a rush at all. We do not want to ambush Iran in any way. We’re very much in a negotiating political mode. We do not want to dictate things to Iran.”

This struck a decidedly different tone than the United States’ UN Ambassador, John Bolton, who said he expected to reach a resolution from the Security Council by the end of the week. While acknowledging that meetings earlier in the week “kind of fizzled because the Russians and the Chinese really weren’t prepared to discuss the substance,” he said that he was still hopeful that a resolution could be reached by the end of this week, adding that “we don’t see that there should be major objections to that.”

Ambassador Bolton may be more optimistic than most, considering that the Security Council never moves faster than the slowest veto-wielding permanent member. Neither China nor Russia appears willing to move much at all. While both have made statements that Iran should cease all enrichment activities, neither supports sanctions against the Iranian regime.

While Ambassador Bolton assured that any resolution would “require Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing activities,” considering Russian and Chinese refusal to attach that language to any enforcement measures, it would require a major concession on ether side to reach an agreement by the end of this week.

On the Sino-Russian reluctance, Bolton described the impasse by saying, “What we have not reached agreement on is the precise formulation of the words that will do that (enforce compliance).” Russia and China are both interested in curtailing American influence and China seeks to protect their energy trade with Tehran. Because of these interests, many believe that any UN Security Council resolution will come either too weak and watered down or too late to make a difference.

From Tehran, Iranian state-run media reports that the Iranian Majlis is ready to consider withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This could be considered somewhat disingenuous, coming from a country that has gained much of its nuclear technology through illegal proliferation and has all but promised to proliferate their developed nuclear technology to other Muslim nations.

For his part, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad fanned the flames of conflict in addressing the ‘Basiji scientists group’ at an eastern Iran university. Referring to the conflict between Israel and Hizballah, Ahmadinejad bellowed, “The Zionists themselves have realized that they have launched a risky move and are aware that the flame of the fury of the regional states will set them ablaze.”

But even former Iranian president Rafsanjani acknowledged that the ‘fury of the regional states’ was sorely lacking. He condemned regional Islamic regimes for their silence and lack of support. Asked Rafsanjani, “How is it possible that a Muslim country is attacked and destroyed while others look on in comfort? Today the Zionists are attacking Lebanon with all kinds of modern weapons. How can the Islamic world, which is committed to Quranic precepts, remain indifferent and simply witness?”

But Ahmadinejad went on, possibly telegraphing a coming nuclear announcement, saying, “The day on which the regional people will rejoice will definitely come soon and the world is standing on the threshold of great development and the Muslims are expected to overcome their aggressive enemies.”

Iran has set August 22nd as the date it will formally respond to the P5+1 proposal which seeks to exchange Iran’s nuclear enrichment program for Western nuclear reactors and lifted sanctions put in place by the United States over terrorism activities. August 22nd corresponds this year with the Hijra date of Lailat al-Israa, when the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven in the Miraj. It also corresponds with a planned Shi’a pilgrimage to the well of the 12th Imam at the Jamkaram Mosque, just outside the holy city of Qom.

With the seeming disinterest coming from the Russians and the Chinese, reaching an agreement on a Security Council resolution against Iran complete with firm enforcement measures seems unlikely to be produced even by that date.

July 19, 2006

Target: Nasrallah

As the sun receded beneath the Mediterranean horizon in the southern Beirut district of Bourj al-Barajneh, the blinding flashes from 23 tons of Israeli aviation ordnance swiftly took its place. The target was a bunker being used by Hizballah leadership including, Israeli intelligence believes, Hizballah’s very public leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.

Fully nine hours after the strike, Nasrallah has yet to be heard from. Silence from a man who immediately phoned Hizballah’s al-Manar TV to confirm his survival after Israel launched a strike that destroyed his home and headquarters five days prior. Never one to shy from cameras or microphones, perhaps this vanity contributed to his apparent demise.

This time, Hizballah has only issued a statement through al-Manar. “The strike hit a building that was under construction for a mosque. It seems that the enemy wants to cover up its military and security failures with lies and claims of imaginary achievements.” But Nasrallah’s personal silence is not imaginary and grows louder with every passing hour.

And as has been witnessed with regularity throughout the war with Iraq, when battling Islamists, mosques are often used for far more than prayer under a perceived blanket of immunity from attack. That once-accurate immunity has been discarded by those under fire.

While Britain’s The Herald reports that Nasrallah is ‘trapped’ in his bunker, they rely solely on an IDF quote from an IDF intelligence officer who said, “Nasrallah took to his bunker as soon as we started bombing. He hasn’t seen the light of day since.” But the quote appears to be referencing the bombing campaign in general and not this particular strike.

After 23 tons of munitions, if Nasrallah was in the bunker, he will not be leaving it under his own power. Were Nasrallah not in the bunker, Hizballah’s al-Manar would not have read a written Hizballah statement. Nasrallah’s voice would have been heard phoning in once again, boasting of Israeli incompetence and the power of Hizballah.

The Hizballah statement claimed that no members of Hizballah leadership were killed in the attack. But judging by the silence, Imad Mugniyah may be searching for a new Lebanon figurehead to receive his directives, likely from his Tehran office.

July 18, 2006

Global Reaction to Lebanon Crisis Shaped by Iran

Following Hizballah’s assault in northern Israel last week and the Israeli military’s counter-offensive into Lebanon has brought about an apparently paradoxical global alignment. While Syria has spoken out in favor of Hizballah and blamed Israel unconditionally, most Arab states have criticized Hizballah as well as Israel, the most important among them has been the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As noted by ThreatsWatch on Monday, the Saudi government has issued a statement which, while critical of Israel, makes clear that Hizballah’s actions do not have the support of Riyadh.

According to the Associated Press, sources at an emergency session of Arab foreign ministers put Saudi Arabia at the forefront of those wanting Hizballah to back down:

…The Saudi foreign minister appeared to be leading a camp of ministers criticizing the guerrilla group’s actions, calling them “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible acts. These acts will pull the whole region back to years ago, and we cannot simply accept them,” Saudi al-Faisal told his counterparts…

The article goes on to claim that, while several Arab states lined up with Faisal, several others stood by Hizbullah. However, it should be noted that Arab governments on record have either joined Saudi Arabia’s condemnation of Hizballah or fallen curiously silent on the group’s recent actions, save for Hizballah’s logistical partner and supporter Syria, Lebanon’s Syrian-appointed preseident Emil Lahoud and his Foreign Minister, Fawzi Salloukh.

It might come to one as a surprise, then, to see that Russia has focused its criticism on Israel. As reported in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required):

…The divide came to a head during a tussle over a Russian attempt to have the summit formally condemn Israel’s assault on Lebanon. After the U.S. blocked the move, Russia stymied a U.S. effort to include language specifically linking Syria and Iran to the violence. Ultimately, the G-8 statement on the Middle East expressed the leaders’ “determination to pursue efforts to restore peace,” but didn’t address differences between the U.S. and Russian approaches….

…None of the European countries backed Israel as strongly as the U.S., and several mixed condemnations of Hezbollah with expressions of concern about the scope of the Israeli offensive. Still, the public statements of most G-8 leaders seemed closer to Mr. Bush’s than Mr. Putin’s. French President Jacques Chirac, in an appearance with Mr. Bush, emphasized the need for “to-the-letter implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559,” which calls for Hezbollah to be disarmed. Mr. Blair echoed American language accusing Iran and Syria of contributing to the violence through military and financial support of Hezbollah.

Mr. Putin’s denunciation of the Israeli offensive could open him up to charges of hypocrisy in his views in the war on terror, given Russia’s crackdown on Chechnya, where Russian forces battling Islamic separatists have killed thousands of civilians. Mr. Putin’s public statements make clear that he sees Hamas’s and Hizballah’s battles with Israel as predominantly political in nature, while he sees the Chechens’ attacks on Russia as religiously inspired terrorism…

The apparent paradox of Muslim Saudi Arabia criticizing Hizballah and Christian Russia blaming Israel may be logically explained by the relationship of each to Iran, Hizbullah’s primary sponsor. Saudi Arabia is a natural regional foe of Iran. During the 1980s, once the new Shia Islamist government in Tehran had solidified power, one of its major goals was the promotion of Shia Islamist revolutions throughout the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia has a significant Shia minority, and they tend to populate the areas of the country in which much of the kingdom’s oil reserves are located. It was largely over the threat of Shia revolution that Riyadh supported Saddam Hussein’s eight-year war against Iran. Anything that increases Iran’s power in the region is contrary to Saudi interests, and the kingdom has been warning Iran to back down in its nuclear confrontation with the West. While Riyadh blames the West for the problem in part because it acquiesced in Israel’s nuclearization, the Saudis know that Israel is not even a potential threat to them, while Iran is a very real one.

To Russia, on the other hand, Iran is an ally. Russia’s support for Iran’s nuclear program accelerated in 2001 as Russia moved ahead with the Bushehr nuclear facility, and then the two countries signed an agreement for the building of five new reactors. Russia has also provided assistance to Iran’s ballistic missile programs. (See Ilan Berman’s Tehran Rising, pp. 68-69.) Russia has also welcomed Hamas leaders to Moscow recently, and opposed Western efforts to isolate Hamas and pressure to for it to recognize Israel’s right to exist. (See Moscow’s New Twist by Ehud Yaari for more background on Russia’s new Middle East foreign policy.)

Russia’s policy toward Iran and radical Islamist organizations might be attributed to a financial incentive, or perhaps in a calculation that this will insulate Russia from any backlash over its aggressive response to Chechnyan separatists. Either way, Russia’s criticism of Israel in its showdown with Hizballah is consistent with its strategy in recent years.

July 17, 2006

Iranian Missiles Destroyed Amid Talks of Cease-Fire

Earlier Monday, Saudi Arabia released a cabinet statement that - stopping short of expressly naming Hizballah, Hamas, Syria and Iran – blamed the current crisis on “some elements and groups” who have “got loose” within Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories as well as “those behind them.” While a welcome signal from Saudi Arabia, the statement appears sufficiently vague to allow for maneuver rather than absolute clarity.

The statement read, in part, “Some elements and groups have got loose and slipped into taking decisions on their own that Israel has exploited to wage a ferocious war against Lebanon and to imprison the entire Palestinian people.” Also included was a passage that read, “Saudi Arabia stands together with the legitimate and reasonable-minded national forces in Lebanon and occupied Palestine to combat these dangers to the Arab and Muslim nation.”

It is relatively clear that the “reasonable-minded national forces in Lebanon” is intended to refer to the Lebanese Army. But precisely who Saudi Arabia considers “reasonable-minded national forces” within “occupied Palestine” remains murky.

Further exacerbating the involvement of Iran and the proxy nature of Hizballah in the war in south Lebanon, an Israeli airstrike destroyed a long-range Iranian missile system in Lebanon, possibly as it was being transported to a firing point and seen in the open. One of the missiles was seen hurtling through the air, landing near its launcher.

Yet France, Britain and Kofi Annan combined today to call in unison for a multi-national UN force to intervene, with French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, calling for an immediate cease-fire.

Surely mindful of the dismal track record of UN-led multi-national forces inserted into crises, Israel dismissed the notion out of hand. The UN forces would surely be ineffective at halting Hizballah attacks, yet any Israeli response would be hamstrung by the presence of an international buffer in the form of UN-led foreign troops.

Israel reasserted that the Lebanese Army should be the armed force placed along the border, with both responsibility for disarming Hizballah under the UN’s own Resolution 1559 and sovereign interest. This specifically was one of Israeli Prime Minister Olmert’s three demands for a cease-fire earlier in the day.

Haifa Missile Attacks Net Deeper Israeli Strikes

Hizballah fired an Iranian-made Fajr-3 missile which struck a Haifa rail yard, killing eight, and later reached even deeper into Israel by striking as far as Afula, which is 50km from the Lebanese border. Pressing their battle with Hizballah, Israel reached farther as well in response, stretching to targets near the northern Lebanese coastal city of Tripoli as well as Baalbek in the north central Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon.

Since that Israeli response, Haifa and other Israeli cities are under rocket attack again, including a three story building in Haifa that has collapsed after a direct hit. Emergency responders are on the scene and people are reportedly being pulled from the rubble. The extent of casualties is unknown as of yet.

The Bloomberg article cited earlier references Lebanese police as stating that, since the conflict began, 110 Lebanese civilians have been killed, along with 3 Lebanese Army soldiers and yet only 2 Hizballah ‘fighters.’ Considering that the Hizballah intentionally embeds itself within the civilian population, along with the effectiveness of Israeli intelligence and precision weapons, these numbers are at least dubious.

For the observer to understand the Israeli operation beyond the regularly acknowledged civilian casualty reports, Tripoli and Baalbek must be afforded their proper context beyond their status as population centers.

Map - Tripoli-BaalbekTripoli, lying on the Sunni-dominated northern coast of Lebanon, has been referred to as a budding new foothold for al-Qaeda terrorists. Early this year, The Washington Institute’s Emily Hunt addressed al-Qaeda’s rise in Lebanon, including the admission by two captured GSPC terrorists that they had
received explosives training at a camp near Tripoli in northern Lebanon
. Also from The Washington Institute, David Schenker makes reference of Sunni fundamentalism on the rise in northern Lebanon, specifically noting Tripoli, “where it appears that al-Qaeda is taking root.”

As for Baalbek, that is the headquarters of Hizballah in the middle of the Bekaa Valley, the long-time Wal-Mart of terrorist training. It is also an important point from which the Hizballah terrorists fighting in the south of Lebanon would be re-supplied. Under the deadly eyes of Israeli air power, it is a long drive from Baalbek in the north to the terrorists in the south.

But the Israeli response to the deadly Haifa missile attack appears to be far more powerful than additional airstrikes on Tripoli camps and Baalbek weapons caches. Israel is again warning civilians of southern Lebanon to get out because heavy Israeli operations were imminent. Shaul Mofaz, the former Israeli army chief of staff, pointed the finger east of Baalbek saying, “The ammunition that Hizbollah used this morning is Syrian ammunition.”

Indeed, the tanks on the southern Lebanese border with Israel have yet to roll. And, as Israel has said that it may consent to an international force in southern Lebanon, this would clearly be only after Israel’s operations are completed, not now as an intervention force. The Jerusalem Post quoted a ‘senior source close to the Prime Minister’s office’ as saying, “We are not even close to that point.”

Kurdish Troops May Help Secure Baghdad

Following the killing of 110 Iraqis in the first three days of last week, there emerged from both Sunni and Shia leaders in Baghdad a proposal which would have been inconceivable not long ago - deploying Kurdish troops in Baghdad to maintain order and keep the peace between Sunni and Shia Arab factions. As reported in the international Arab newspaper Al-Hayat (“Killing of 110 Iraqis in 3 Days… Shia and Sunni Leaders Not Opposed to the Introduction of Kurdish Troops in Baghdad to Separate the Arabs!”), the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party said that Kurds were already fulfilling two security roles in Iraq; keeping order in three provinces - Sulaymaniya, Duhuk and Irbil - and contributing to the Iraqi national army. He said, however, that the Kurdish Provincial Authority had expressed its willingness to send further troops into Baghdad specifically to keep peace between Arab Sunnis and Shia.

Adnan al-Dulaimi, leader of the Sunni Accord Front, Iraq’s most important Sunni party, told Al-Hayat that “sending Kurdish troops into Baghdad is something that requires close study within the Front,” saying that there were “some elements within the Front which supported the proposal and there are some who support it in light of the lack of trust in the commando brigades and the security forces which operate under the Interior Ministry.” Jalal al-Din al-Sughayer, a spokesman for the ruling Shia United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), said that “the alliance does not oppose using Kurdish troops” as long as they “work within the law and under the authority of the government, in the name of government forces,” adding that “this issue needs close study at the political and security level in order to avoid making a rushed decision.” Referring to the suggestion by some that non-Iraqi Arab or other Muslim troops might be introduced, Baghdad Security Chief Mahdi Sabih was quoted as saying that the use of Kurdish troops was “preferable to the use of Arab or Muslim troops as proposed” by some officials.

In other political news, on Thursday Al-Hayat reported that while 200 former army officers and five armed groups had indicated a desire for reconciliation, legislators both inside and outside the ruling UIA criticized the government for moving too slowly on the security issue, with Sunnis emphasizing the failure to disarm the Shia militias (“Confirmed Contact by 200 Officers and Five Militant Factions Seek Inclusion in the Initiative”). Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was quoted as calling for patience, saying that it would be done but that the government could not simply disarm the militias “with the swipe of a pen.”

Separately, SCIRI declared its support for Moqtada al-Sadr’s initiative of rebuilding the holy places of Samarra and setting up special security forces to protect them (“SCIRI For Rebuilding… And Intensifying its Efforts to Promote Federalism in the South”). The same article also discussed how SCIRI, the most important Shia faction, is pushing forward with the promotion of a federated structure for the country. Sunnis warn that this will lead to the breakup of Iraq, but Shia supporters say that it is necessary to fight terrorism.

U.S.-Iraqi forces performed a number of operations over the last week (see Iraqi Police Free Kidnap Victim; Large Bomb-Making Cache Found, Coalition Helicopter Crashes in Iraq; Terrorists Killed, Captured, and Terrorists Killed, Captured; Helo Crash Response Draws Praise). The most significant seem to be targeted operations against two individuals, one an “Umar Brigade” recruiter near Baghdad, and another a foreign fighter facilitator in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib neighborhood, as well as Iraqi raids in Baghdad as part of Operation Together Forward, which is the prime minister’s security plan for Baghdad. The Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn reported the capture of Ali Najim Abdullah early in the week, who has been named as the head of a group calling itself the “Islamic Army in Iraq.” He was on the Iraqi government’s list of the “41 Most Wanted.”

There have been further operations over the weekend, especially in Ramadi. ThreatsWatch will update these events as details become clearer.

July 15, 2006

Hizballah Fired Iranian Cruise Missiles at Ships

The picture is becoming clearer and more disturbing, though not unexpected, surrounding the Hizballah ship attacks yesterday. Israeli intelligence is now indicating that Iranian cruise missiles struck both an Israeli warship and an Egyptian merchant ship in the Mediterranean off the Lebanese coast yesterday. Widespread initial reports indicated that Hizballah had fired Iranian-supplied UAV’s to disable the Israeli warship Spear (See: Hizballah Declares ‘Open War’ After HQ Strike), killing at least one Israeli sailor with three still missing.

In the 1990’s, following the Gulf War, China had sold its C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles to Iran. (See pages 58,59 of 1998 Bates Gill report.) Gill notes that the C-802 was China’s top of the line cruise missile at the time. Since that time, Iran teamed with North Korea to update and advance their Chinese C-802 import and dubbed it the Ra’ad.

That Hizballah has used this weapon is a clear and undeniable indication that Iran is assisting them on the ground at present, to say nothing of the massive transfer of weapons and training that has been ongoing since Hizballah’s creation by the Iranian Republican Guard Corps in the very early 1980s.

Meanwhile, Israeli air assault on Hizballah positions in southern Lebanon continues apace, regrettably including a deadly strike on a minibus reportedly carrying Lebanese civilians attempting to leave the area. Twenty civilians are believed to have been killed in the missile strike.

The Hizballah rocket launches into Israel also continue unabated as well, with over sixty fired into Israeli towns so far today. Most notably, the city of Tiberius – fully 35km from the Lebanese border - was struck for the first time. The increased range and capabilities long touted by Hizballah are being proven.

This serves to only harden the Israeli determination to crush Hizballah in-place. To-date, the war has been nearly exclusively waged by Israeli airpower and Hizballah’s Iranian supplied rockets and missiles.

From the G8 Summit in Moscow, President Bush called for Syria to pressure Hizballah to “lay down its arms” just one day after the Syrian ruling Ba’ath Party finally announced its full support for Hizballah.

Syria, who sat long silent as the Israeli-Hizballah fighting began to crescendo, is very likely being dragged reluctantly into confrontation by Iran. Syria’s silent reluctance was certainly not for any love of Israel. As for yesterday’s belated Ba’ath statement of Hizballah support, Assad’s Syria likely made the determination out of a greater fear of Iranians in their midst than that of Israelis at their door.

But Israeli armor gathers along the border like a clenched fist, coiled and waiting. That fist consists largely of IDF reserve units, likely awaiting the completion of mission training and equipment-readiness maintenance & supply. At a time of Israeli choosing, the fist will be mailed directly into Hizballah’s home with far more fire-power, precision and sustained ferocity than all the barrages of Katyusha rockets lobbed into Israeli cities.

This now-hot war taking place in southern Lebanon is not merely a war between Israel and the Lebanese Hizballah, but quite unmistakably a war between Israel and Iran – and all that Iran can drag with it.

July 14, 2006

Hizballah Declares 'Open War' After HQ Strike

With intelligence that Hizballah’s leader was inside, Israel launched an airstrike on Nassam Nasrallah’s headquarters and home. An audio tape was aired by Hizballah’s al-Manar television station declaring that Hizballah was now going to engage in “open war.” That it was not a video recorded statement leaves open the possibility that he may have been injured but not wish it to be known.

Hizballah HQ StrikeOn the tape, Nasrallah praised a Hizballah attack on an Israeli warship, an attack reportedly executed by loading an Iranian-supplied unmanned drone with explosives. Nasrallah said that this was “only the beginning.” Israelis fear a similar attack on its nuclear power plant.

Throughout the day, Hizballah fired over 50 rockets into Israeli towns. Thursday’s 100+ Katyusha rocket barrage into twenty Israeli cities has hardened Israel’s resolve to address the threat forthwith and decisively.

The Israelis also clearly hold Hizballah’s terror masters and arms suppliers responsible, undaunted in the face of bellicose threats from Iran that were no less present long before any Israeli action. Unlike Iran, Syria - Hizballah’s co-state sponsor - has offered few words in bellicosity, as they do not enjoy the same two-nation geographic buffer from the fearsome and determined Israeli war machine suddenly stirred into action at Iran’s direction.

At a special meeting at the UN Security Council requested by Lebanon, the Lebanese special envoy’s language was harsh, accusing Israel of trying to bring Lebanon to its knees. Israeli UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman asserted that many in the Lebanese government secretly back Israel’s actions to smash Hizballah. He was direct with Lebanon’s Nouhad Mahmoud for the emergency Security Council session, saying “You know deep in your heart that if you could, you would be sitting here right next to me right now because you know that we are doing the right thing and that if we succeed, Lebanon would be the beneficiary.”

While refusing to call on Israel to cease operations, President Bush did say that he would urge Israel to ‘limit harm’ in their attacks on Hizballah. This is no small task against an un-uniformed opposing force that, as a strategic design, places itself among its civilian population, and the principal reason there have been over 70 Lebanese civilians killed in the Israeli operations.

But, with an un-uniformed enemy such as Hizballah and their Iranian IRGC mentors – a sort of Blue Jean Brigades – who is to distinguish between innocent civilians and Hizballah in plain clothes among the dead? Observers should consider that here have been no figures released on Hizballah deaths at the hands of a highly precise Israeli military.

Israel Displays Clarity and Resolve In Conflict

Israel is clearly not intimidated by Iran, as their statements backed by direct actions against Hizballah and their Iranian masters in southern Lebanon demonstrate without ambiguity. Yet, exuding confidence in the face of Israel’s bold determination, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declared that it was time for the world to “wrap up Zionism before it is too late.” This is how Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reports his message in the Iranian city of Maragheh on Wednesday, the day before Hizballah launched over 100 rockets into 20 Israeli cities, including the port city of Haifa. Shortly after, again through the bellicose Ahmadinejad, Iran warned Israel not to attack Syria. Reportedly in a telephone conversation with Syrian president Bashar Assad, the Iranian president declared, “If the Zionist regime commits another stupid move and attacks Syria, this will be considered like attacking the whole Islamic world and this regime will receive a very fierce response.”

It is unlikely that IDF tanks will kick up Syrian dust as a unilateral initiative. However when the Israeli armor rolls into southern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to dismantle the vast Hizballah stronghold, airstrikes against Syrian positions – primarily aircraft and air defense missile batteries within range – would be an absolute necessity for the Israeli Air Force to take ownership of the skies in order to execute the multitude of strikes against Hizballah camps and forces. Syrian and Iranian action to this seemingly inevitable necessity will surely dictate the scope and breadth of the conflict to come.

Earlier today, a clear message was sent to Hizballah leader Hassan Nassrallah that he is a clear target for Israeli liquidation. Israel’s interior minister, Roni Bar-On, said on Israeli radio, “Nasrallah decided his own fate. We will settle our accounts with him when the time comes.”

Qatar and those who supported their proposed UN statement condemning Israel offered some clarity while the United States’ veto of the measure appeared to do the same. Yet, President Bush followed the clear signal of support for Israel’s self-defense by muddying the waters with a promise to Lebanon to pressure Israel to stop their attacks. Further mixed signals were offered by the nations that abstained from the UN vote on Qatar’s initiative, including the UK.

The only instance of ambiguity among the principal actors (Israel, Hizballah, Syria and Iran) came in the form of the Hizballah denial of responsibility for the rocket attacks on Haifa. But clarity was quickly restored when Israel rejected the statement out of hand, maintaining a stance of no longer distinguishing between the various groups and their state sponsors. They are all allied with the same strategy, tactics and mission. They share arms, funds, intelligence and manpower.

Seemingly ending their participation in a cycle of diplomatic gamesmanship through statements and reactions and fruitless negotiations like those in Gaza over the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, the Israelis have laid their cards face up on the table. Israel has resolved to say simply, “Enough.”

So while the rest of the world offers a mixed bag of signals for either side, among the actors directly involved, the open warfare offers a normally elusive clarity.

[NOTE: Since initial publishing, the subtitle of this post has been altered to more correctly read “Lebanon Says US to ‘Pressure Israel’” vice the original “President Bush Muddies Once-Clear Waters of Support.” As pointed out in a comment on this post, the word of any promise comes from Lebanese Prime Minister Siniora in his quote. Since the Fox News article was first read and linked, at least the headline has changed from the original “Bush Promises to Pressure Israel to Stop Attacks”. How much of the text has changed since original publication of this post is unclear. Nonetheless, there may have been accomodating discussion between the two, but rejecting the calls for cease-fire does not rise to ‘muddying the waters’.]

Aggressing the Aggressors: Israeli Self-Defense

Israel continues to strike targets in Lebanon from the air, including both the runways and the fuel storage tanks at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport as well as key bridges and the highway connecting Beirut to Damascus. Making good on their threat to do so if Beirut was struck, Hizballah hit the Israeli port city of Haifa with Katyusha rockets.

Many had disputed whether Hizballah could strike Haifa, even though the terrorist group had openly claimed to be in possession of the Iranian rockets with enough range for the strike. Curiously, immediately after the two Katyusha Attacksrockets struck, denied responsibility for the Haifa strike. Israel rejected the denial just as quickly as it was issued and is clearly interested in neither semantics nor negotiation, as 20 Israeli towns were targeted by the barrage, killing one civilian and injuring dozens more.

Israel is in the process of hitting both Hizballah and infrastructure seeking the return of their abducted soldiers. The condemnation of Israeli actions largely center on the striking of civilian infrastructure, such as the Beirut airport to bridges and roads. But those roundly condemning the strikes either ignore or fail to recognize the nature and purpose of the strikes, which is to eliminate rapid egress routes for those holding the IDF soldiers captive.

Israel has feared that Hizballah and their Iranian ‘advisors’ on the ground had planned to spirit the captured soldiers to Iran via Damascus. This is why one of the first targets struck was the airport and why a Beirut-Damascus highway bridge was destroyed. Both are civilian infrastructure, but civilians are clearly not the objective, though Hizballah’s Iranian-guided attacks have put them in danger.

Expect the next round of targets to include Hizballah offices in southern Lebanon. Following the destruction of the bridge on the Beirut-Damascus highway, leaflets were dropped warning civilians to stay clear of the offices.

As Hizballah has continued with barrages of rocket attacks on Israeli cities since the initial incident, the mission looks to transform swiftly into the breaking of Hizballah without fear of Iran or Syria. Called up after the initial Hizballah attack and brought to Israel’s northern border, it should be noted that the IDF reserves and their equipment remain in place and have yet to move in. They are likely in mission training and equipment checks in preparation. If there was any restraint being considered by Israel, the far-reaching attack on Haifa clearly quashed the thoughts.

In the coming days, Israeli armor is sure to roll into Hizballah-held territory in southern Lebanon in what must either be a crushing blow or no operation at all. There is little between the two that can be good for Israel. If Israel pauses now, they can negotiate a prisoner exchange and stem the ongoing condemnation. If it presses on, it can potentially crush Hizballah. However, if Israel rolls only to later negotiate and agree to a prisoner exchange, it will have exposed itself to both terrorists once again freed as well as widespread condemnation for civilian losses.

As part of the existing condemnation, across the Atlantic, the United States vetoed a UN Security Council condemnation of Israel initiated by Qatar. No other nation vetoed the move, yet Denmark, Peru, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom abstained.

Israel gives every appearance of being unconcerned about world condemnation and intent on dealing Hizballah a devastating blow. Israel intends to defend itself by aggressing the aggressors in southern Lebanon, be they Hizballah, Iranian or Syrian.

July 13, 2006

Prosecution of Jordanian Parliamentarians Who Praised Zarqawi Proceeds

As reported on ThreatsWatch on June 5, the Jordanian government arrested four Islamists members of parliament after they went to the family house of Ahmad al-Khalaya - a.k.a. Abu Musab Zarqawi - to pay their respects after his death at the hands of U.S. forces in Baghdad. This was followed by a declaration by several independent Jordanian political figures not officially affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islamic Action Front but including the IAF’s leader which called for replacement of the Jordanian government with another government which would support the “resistance” in Palestine and Iraq - in other words, make war on Israel and the United States.

Al-Hayat is now reporting that a state prosecutor’s office has decided to refer three of the four to the State Security Court for prosecution, and set the fourth free. The article notes that the four were arrested following legal complaints by the families of victims of attacks in Amman perpetrated by Zarqawi last year. The reason given for the ruling was that the three proposed for prosecution - Muhammad Abu Farris, Ali Abu Sakr and Jawfar Hourani - had not only visited the home but gave speeches praising Zarqawi, making individual statements supporting Zarqawi, while the fourth - Ibrahim Mashukhi - merely visited. The sentences for which they are eligible include prison terms of six months to three years and a 500 dinar fine (just over $700 at current exchange rates).

The article also reports that, according to some parliamentary sources, the parliament may be meeting to vote on whether or not to lift parliamentary immunity of the defendants or restore it, bringing prosecution to a halt.

The Powerless Palestinian Authority

The IDF operations in Gaza continue apace as the new northern front opened by the Hizballah cross-border attacks continues to deepen further into Lebanon. In the heart of Gaza, the Gaza City offices of the PA Foreign Ministry were bombed in an Israeli Air Force strike, leaving the third and fourth floors completely destroyed. In the face of the turmoil, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas threatened to resign his presidency and dissolve the Palestinian Authority in a telephone call to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Early in the Israeli incursion, the PA Interior Ministry building was repeatedly struck, sending a message to the Hamas terror operatives in Gaza conveying Israel’s seriousness. Addressing Gaza terrorists today, Israel launched an airstrike on Mohammed Deif, the leader of Hamas’ terrorist core, Izz al-Din Qassam. He was not killed, but remains paralyzed after over four hours of surgery. It was the fourth time Deif survived an Israeli airstrike.

This time, the strikes on the Hamas-run Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry building was a message to those outside Gaza supporting and directing them and their activities.

Hamas has been clearly taking direction from the group’s Damascus headquarters, where it operates under the direct influence of Iran as well as their host, Syria. The same can be said of Hizballah, also hosting its headquarters in Assad’s Damascus. The United States understands this unambiguously, as a direct statement was made from the White House today holding both Syria and Iran responsible for the recent Hizballah attacks.

Because of this Damascus direction, the Gaza-based PA Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, has been rendered powerless and the Hamas terrorists attacking Israel and the IDF have ignored his calls – if those calls are to be taken as sincere - for the release of abducted IDF soldier, Gilad Shalit. The relentless IDF operations and subsequent assassination of Hamas operatives and the pursuit and arrests of Hamas elected officials have driven the Hamas government largely underground, rendering them invisible for much of the time and without influence when they appear.

But this effect of powerlessness has not only immobilized Hamas, it transcends the Palestinian Territories and grips Fatah and their principle elected official, President Mahmoud Abbas, as well. While the Gaza-based Hamas faction of the PA government has little to no control over the pace and scope of the terrorist attacks due to Damascus direction, Abbas now has no one to push for negotiations with. Pushing for negotiations with Israel was the cause for his latest rise in influence and popularity in the face of the Hamas-run government. But with the Hamas leadership largely underground, he now presides over an even more broken and ineffectual government.

Though Abbas threatened resignation and dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, the United States will surely seek a way to convince him to remain and weather the storm. For, as Hamas has proven, Abbas is the most acceptable negotiating partner in the Palestinian Territories’ stable of leaders. Were Abbas to resign, it is unlikely that a more relatively reasonable figure will emerge in his place of leadership.

July 12, 2006

US Holds Iran, Syria to Account for Hizballah

Following the Hizballah attack in Israel that resulted in several IDF soldiers dead and two kidnapped, the United States blamed Syria and Iran and the President Bush called for the immediate release of the soldiers without conditions of a prisoner swap. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist minced few words stating “We must hold the governments of Syria and Iran accountable for their continued support to Hezbollah.”

Setting the stage for unwavering support for Israeli military actions in response, Senator Frist continued, “So long as these governments are failing to live up to their responsibilities, no one should question the right of the government of Israel to act in self-defense against terrorists operating from Lebanon.” Present in Israeli responses and missing from the American responses was condemnation of Lebanon’s government and holding them accountable for the actions of Hizballah.

Following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, UN Security Council Resolution 1559 not only called for the complete military withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, but it also called for “the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias,” most significant among them the Iranian-founded Hizballah in southern Lebanon. It is no mistake that the government of Lebanon was not named the sole executor of this order, as Hizballah is armed, financed and trained by Syria and Iran, with a headquarters in Damascus at the behest of their Iranian masters.

But while the US has avoided holding the Lebanese government responsible, Israel has approved a wave of Lebanon air strikes that reportedly will target not only Hizballah but civilian infrastructure. It should be noted that the entire southern region of Lebanon is considered Hizballah territory and functions nearly as an autonomous region under the Islamist control of the Hizballah Islamic terrorist group.

Meanwhile, France condemned the Israeli attacks in response to the Hizballah kidnappings while calling for the release of the two IDF soldiers.

Hizballah has followed the model set into action by Hamas in Gaza: Cross into Israel, launch an attack on a vulnerable IDF position or vehicles, kill those you can and take the injured prisoner in order to demand a lopsided prisoner exchange. With widespread condemnation for the IDF’s Gaza offensive both loud and regular, Hizballah and their Iranian masters surely seek to harness the same favor from a response they knew would be both certain and harsh.

With Hizballah’s acknowledged cooperation with the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, the model is almost certainly less ‘followed’ than shared.

Israel followed their own model as well after yet another troop abduction: The Israeli Air Force took out key bridges that could be used as egress routes for prisoner transport, making mobility more difficult in the area, followed by an incursion of troops and armor in search of their missing troops.

As France has telegraphed, the prevailing world reaction will almost certainly contain more condemnation of Israel, which remains confronted by enemies who purposefully station themselves amongst their civilian populations.

Northern Lights: Hizballah Attack Opens Israeli Front

Hizballah captured two IDF soldiers and killed up to seven in an attack under a heavy Katyusha rocket and mortar barrage into Israel that targeted both IDF units and Israeli civilian communities near Zarit in the Israeli-Lebanese border. The IDF immediately launched counter-attacks and began a systematic search for the captured soldiers.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the attacks an “act of war” and did not distinguish between the Hizballah terrorists and the government of Lebanon. Calling an emergency cabinet meeting as the IDF called up a reserve infantry battalion to deploy along the northern border, Olmert held the Lebanese government responsible for allowing Hizballah to roam freely and heavily armed in its territory. A senior IDF officer was quoted by Haaretz as saying “if the abducted soldiers are not returned we’ll turn Lebanon’s clock back 20 years.”

With Operation Summer Rains ongoing in the Gaza Strip and counterterrorism raids increased in the West Bank, a new hot front has opened in the Israeli conflict.

Former Knesset speaker and current Minister of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin of the Likud party said that “We must come to grips with the fact that we are at war and act accordingly.”

Israel is indeed at war. The war to the south in Gaza and the war to the north on the Lebanese border should not be distinguished as distinct and separate conflicts, as there is a cohesion of common cause among the terrorists in both directions: The destruction of Israel. Osama Hamdan, a Hamas spokesman in Lebanon made this abundantly clear in his statement of solidarity with Hizballah. “We have proven to this enemy (Israel) that the one option is the release of Palestinian, Lebanese and Arab captives. All captives, without exception. Now Israel has to decide on its choices.”

Hizballah released a statement on the abductions of the two IDF soldiers that indicates that, not unlike the motive of Hamas in the Gaza abduction of Gilad Shalit, the plan is for a prisoner swap. “Fulfilling its pledge to liberate the (Arab) prisoners and detainees, the Islamic Resistance … captured two Israeli soldiers at the border with occupied Palestine.”

The common strategies and tactics are no mistake. Hizballah has been coordinating attacks with Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Islamic Jihad as well as Hamas in the Palestinian territories. The Hamas and Hizballah headquarters are practically across the street from one another, sharing common safe haven in Damascus, Syria and a common hated enemy in Israel.

Death Toll Climbs After Mumbai Train Bombings

The latest reports indicate that at least 174 civilians have been killed in the Mumbai, India commuter rail attacks in which at least seven bombs were detonated on passenger cars and in stations during rush hour. The human carnage was immense.

Suspected along with Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba has denied it was their handiwork. However, Indian authorities arrested a man known linked to LeT with 2kg of RDX explosives and over $100,000 in cash in his possession. The arrested Aijaz Hussain was reported by police to have in the past received money from Pakistani sources and passed it on to Islamic terrorists in Jammu & Kashmir.

Within that context, anonymous Indian intelligence sources said that the Mumbai bombings “seemed very much on the cards with information pouring in about stockpiling of arms and explosives by religious extremists.” Those sources told the Times of India that Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) are both believed to be behind the deadly attack on Indian commuters.

According to Jugal Purohit of Mumbai’s Mid Day daily newspaper, early investigations indicate that the seven blasts were not set off by suicide bombers, but that they were timer-detonated bombs placed on the luggage racks within the trains. At least seven blasts occurred within minutes of each other.

While condemnation for the attacks poured in from around the world, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh vowed to fight terrorism with “all possible measures” as India was placed on high alert and security increased throughout the country.

July 11, 2006

Maliki Speaks Before Kurdish Regional Assembly

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki arrived at the Kurdish Regional Assembly and spoke about the future of the country (full Arabic text here; English text not currently available). Considering the tumultuous recent history of the Kurds under the Arab Hussein regime, the most dramatic aspect of the speech was that the Arab Prime Minister of Iraq was making such a speech to the Kurdish parliament. The content of the speech itself provided no controversy or drama. The prime minister repeatedly emphasized the “unity” of Iraq and the principles of democratic rule and the rule of law. In his words Iraq is “a state based upon constitutionalism, law and responsibility.”

Maliki went on to mention three priorities for the Iraqi government:

* the rebuilding of the country and the improvement of standards of living,
* his recently announced national reconciliation plan whereby Sunni insurgents and Shi’a militias are granted amnesty, and
* the building of the nation’s security services.

Al-Hayat reports on a call by the prominent Sunni cleric Mahmud al-Sumaydai to the Shia clerics, most prominently the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the radical young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, to the holy city of Mecca to discuss ways to reduce sectarian violence. While a grand gesture, it is highly unlikely that Iraqi religious authorities will be meeting in Mecca. Sistani rarely travels, and as ThreatsWatch noted on Monday, the difference between Sistani and Sadr is as great as that between Shia and Sunni; Sistani has unconditionally endorsed Maliki’s national reconciliation plan, while Sadr has condition acceptance on, among other demands, the demand that he be able to keep his militia, which is behind much of the sectarian strife.

It is also questionable as to whether or not they would truly be invited; Sumaydai is based in Baghdad, but the Wahhabi religious authorites who govern Mecca might frown upon a meeting of Shia religious leaders whom they consider to be heretics and not genuine Muslims.

Some security-related news: Sunni revenge struck Sadr City in Baghdad as two bombs were detonated in apparent response to the massacre of a number of Sunni residents on Sunday by Sadr’s Mahdi Army. The MNFI reports on the capture of a “high-level insurgent leader” in Baghdad on Friday. The Pentagon reports that Iraqi troops in Kirkuk are taking over their own logistical support.

If Iraqi forces are able to increasingly handle their own logistics, this will affect necessary U.S. troop levels, since up to the present U.S. troops have been performing supply and logistics work for the Iraqi military in addition to the U.S. military.

July 10, 2006

Night Moves: Israel & Hamas Inching Towards Deal?

The Israeli withdrawal from northern Gaza was both sudden and unexpected over the weekend, taking many quite by surprise. Israel had already withdrawn many troops from the southern areas of Gaza and poised them just across the southeastern border of the Gaza Strip, sending them instead on individual operations only to return back to the base camps on the Israeli side. But, after the stated Israeli purpose of the northern Gaza incursion was to establish a buffer and push back the launch points of the Qassam rockets beyond reach of Ashkelon, the sudden withdrawal was perplexing.

Perhaps beginning to explain the move, it coincided with a Hamas’ Gaza-based Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s call for a mutual cease-fire with Israel shortly after the withdrawal of troops and armor. The Gaza-based Haniyeh made this call amid a Palestinian public opinion where 77% of Palestinians support Shalit’s abduction while only 23% oppose it, according to a recent al-Jazeera poll.

Several other things are significant to note about Haniyeh’s cease-fire proposal. First, himself in the battle zone, the elected Hamas leadership – many of them already apprehended by the IDF – wants an end to the Israeli operations and a return to the relative normalcy that is life in the Gaza Strip. Secondly, the timing of the cease-fire proposal is curious, which initially may have suggested that the two sides had back-channel communication and that the Israeli withdrawal along with Haniyeh’s call for a cease-fire were previously agreed-to arrangements. Israel, presumably, would be able to reduce the international condemnations while Hamas and the Palestinians would be able to catch their collective breaths.

But the most significant aspect of Haniyeh’s call for a cease-fire is clearly geographic. He is in Gaza while the real leadership of Hamas and the source of direction that the armed terrorists follow emanates from the Hamas politburo headquarters in Damascus, Syria. Haniyeh and the whole of Hamas’ elected leadership have been bypassed and disregarded, fully out of the Hamas operational loop. Why else would even Fatah’s Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas send Taysir Khaled and Abdullah Hurani to Damascus to hold talks with Khaled Meshaal if Meshaal were not calling the operational shots and hold control over the fate of the abducted Gilad Shalit?

Publicly, the withdrawing Israelis quickly rejected Haniyeh’s call for a cease-fire, indicating that they, too, had sidelined him as powerless and without effective authority. But a report from London’s Arabic language al-Hayat newspaper said that indeed a deal had been struck between Israel and Hamas, but the Syrian-based terrorist group’s headquarters, not the ineffectual Haniyeh. Israel is likely waiting for word from Meshaal, not Haniyeh.

However, a fresh report from Haaretz indicates that Meshaal has indeed agreed to an arrangement that would include “an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and an end to targeted killings, in return for a long-term cease-fire on the part of the Palestinians that would include an end to the Qassam rockets.”

While Meshaal complains that “there is no one on the Israeli side willing to hear their proposals,” simply observing the timing of events and statements from both sides, most importantly the unexpected Israeli withdrawal from the northern part of Gaza, indicates that there is clearly communication, be it direct or indirect, front door or back-channel.

Presuming that this is likely the framework of any agreement between the two sides, the rhetorical question is clearly, “How long will it last?”

The IDF has exchanged prisoners in the past and would also likely honor a call for the end of terrorist assassinations if agreed to. Hamas would surely release Shalit and likely also attempt to enforce a no-Qassam-strike policy. But for how long could this be enforced? How long would it take for another group – or even Hamas – to justify lobbing more Qassams into Sderot or Ashkelon, effectively shredding the agreement as the IDF returns to targeting attackers?

They are indeed rhetorical questions, especially in light of the fact that there is no Israeli acceptance as yet of Meshaal’s nod.

Sadr Plans Million Militant March in Response to US-Iraqi Operation

On Friday, ThreatsWatch reported on a U.S.-Iraqi joint operation against the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr in Sadr City, Baghdad. At the time it appeared that the goal of the operation was to capture a member of the Mahdi Army who was alleged to be the leader of a death squad. Now it seems that it had a broader goal - the rescue of the Sunni legislator Tayseer al-Mashadani, whose abduction at the end of last week caused the largest Sunni party in parliament to withdraw from the government.

This allegation was reported in Al-Hayat on Sunday (“Moqtada al-Sadr is Gathering a Million People to Samarra the Coming Week”), which also reported that Sadr is planning to have a million of his followers march to Samarra and rebuild shrines to two Shia martyrs which had been damaged earlier in the year. According to the same article, the Fadhila Party, another Shia party which has worked uncomfortably with the leadership of the ruling United Iraq Alliance, harshly criticized the United States for undertaking the operation. Furthermore, there appeared to be a rift between the defense and interior ministries. While Al-Hayat reported that sources in the Defense Ministry affirmed that the anti-Sadr operation was approved by the government, the same was denied by sources in the Interior Ministry, which alleged that the U.S. co-opted Iraqi forces for the operation, and that it had not been authorized. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has not spoken out on the issue. This apparent conflict may be explained by the fact that while the interior minister is a Shia (Jawad al-Bolani), the defense minister is Sunni (Abd al-Qader Muhammad al-Mifarji).

Sadr’s militiamen responded in smaller numbers but in a much deadlier manner on Sunday, rampaging through a Sunni neighborhood, murdering dozens of individuals after identifying them as Sunni. This follows reports in the Arab media of an exchange of retaliatory attacks on Sunni and Shia mosques in Baghdad at the beginning of the weekend. The head of the Sunni Waqf Office, Shaikh Ahmad abd al-Ghafur, said that “Baghdad will burn” if the Shia militias are not reigned in.

Fortunately for the government, each week brings new indications that the domestic Iraqi insurgency is running out of steam. As reported in Al-Hayat and Kul Iraq, between 15 to 20 insurgent groups have indicated a willingness to negotiate terms. Secretary of State for National Dialogue Akram al-Hakim was quoted as saying that they suspected that some of those contacting the government may be from the same groups, so the total number was an estimate. He also said that the seven insurgent factions who had forcefully rejected the plan may represent a smaller number as it was not confirmed that the seven contacts were from different organizations. The Al-Hayat article noted that Hakim also opened the door to reconsideration of the government’s debaathification law.

The ideological battle between the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Sadr has heated up, and is focused now on the terms of the reconciliation plan. Sadr’s announced claim that a “million” of his followers would march on the holy city of Samarra, noted above, seems to be part of this struggle. A recent article in Al-Hayat highlighted this, reporting on the differing responses to Maliki’s amnesty plan by Sistani and Sadr. According to the article, Shaikh Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala’i, a spokesman for the Grand Ayatollah, endorsed the reconciliation plan unconditionally, while Sadr said that the plan had “flaws” and that it could only be acceptable if the withdrawal of American troops was included, any reconciliation with Baathists was rejected, and the demand that militias be disbanded be removed. All three of these conditions alone might be enough to drive an inseparable wedge between Sadr and the government, but this is especially true of the latter - rejecting disarmament of the militias - after so many killings by Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

Notably, SCIRI, the lead faction within the government’s ruling coalition, is now alleging that the Association of Muslim Scholars, a relatively moderate and very influential Sunni theologians association, had ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq. As reported in Al-Hayat on Saturday, SCIRI spokesmen were alleging that evidence found after the death of Abu Musab Zarqawi demonstrated that the Sunni theologians had maintained close ties with Zarqawi. This may be significant because while the Sunni scholars have consistently opposed the United States, they have at least condemned the intentional killing of Shia Iraqis by Zarqawi.

July 9, 2006

Lead IAEA Iran Inspector Fired at Iranian Request

In April 2006, Mohamed ElBaradei made a much-anticipated trip to Tehran to meet with Iranian officials amid a deadlock between the West and the Iranian regime over the nuclear crisis surrounding their suspected nuclear weapons program. The IAEA Director’s mission, in his words, was to “come to Tehran to discuss with Iranian officials to resolve the remaining issues in the way of verifying Iranian nuclear program.” His statements while in Iran were both public and conciliatory, including the proclamation that “We have done our inspection works. No diversion has been found and Iran has the right to enjoy nuclear energy.”

He left with little progress…for the West. At the time, we wrote, “ElBaradei went to Iran and nothing happened. Or did it?”

What none of us knew at the time was that something quite tangible indeed had happened, according to (former) head IAEA Iran inspector Chris Charlier.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, demanded that ElBaradei fire Chris Charlier and remove him from the inspection team entirely. (Also see Regime Change Iran, Anti-Mullah, Security Watchtower and Worldwide Standard.)

According to Charlier and at least one other IAEA inspector in the Die Welt report, firing Charlier is precisely what ElBaradei immediately did in what can only be called a stunning acquiescence. There was, apparently, far more to ElBaradei’s conciliatory tone in April – in both rhetoric and substance - than met the public eye.

Until now.

It is no secret that Charlier has been unpopular with the Iranians. His disposition has long been at odds with ElBaradei’s own. Said Chris Charlier, “I am not a politician, I am a technician and as such the only thing which interests me is whether Iran’s nuclear program is a civil or military one. The inspections have to reach an unambiguous conclusion”

In one of several Charlier interviews included within a 2005 PBS documentary on IAEA inspections in Iran just before Ahmadinejad’s election, the head IAEA inspector openly referred to Iran’s deceptions and video taping of all of their work and conversations as “all part of the game” Iran plays with the IAEA inspectors. (Read the transcript here.) It was within that documentary that Chris Charlier also mentioned that tests of the Kalaye Electric site had returned random swab sample results of highly enriched uranium. “When we did the analysis we find out that there was the spectrum and distribution of the particle and it was, yes quite surprising to have this concentration of particles around thirty-six and fifty-four percent.” The level of Uranium (U235) enrichment required for nuclear power is generally between 3% and 5%. It occurs naturally at a concentration of approximately 0.71%. Weapons Grade Uranium is considered to be at a 90% purity level.

As Charlier now states, “I believe they are hiding what they are doing with their nuclear activities. It is probable they are doing things of which we have no knowledge.” He concludes candidly, “Tehran is obviously making a bomb.”

This appears a conclusion for which Mohamed ElBaradei has no room in his nuclear watchdog agency. As one of Charlier’s fellow inspectors puts it, “For that he is now paying the price. El-Baradei has sacrificed Charlier and set him to counting paper clips in Vienna till he eventually retires.”

However, according to ‘unnamed UN officials,’ Charlier “remains the head of the [IAEA Iran inspection] team.” But not only is the anonymity curious, so too is the current-tense context of the Associated Press’ characterization of the UN officials’ statements that “Iran has asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to remove the head of the inspection team probing Tehran’s nuclear program.” The UN officials are clearly reacting to the story broken by Die Welt which stated that he had indeed been fired, not simply requested.

The same UN officials acknowledged and confirmed to the Associated Press that Chris Charlier had not been back to Iran since April “because of Iranian displeasure with his work,” confirming also that it was, by timing, the April visit to Tehran that initiated the move. All that remains at issue is whether Charlier still has access to the IAEA’s Iranian nuclear dossier. In the Die Welt story, it is reported that he has none and is, in essence, “counting paper clips in Vienna till he eventually retires.”

Whether or not Charlier has access to the IAEA’s Iranian nuclear dossier, ElBaradei and Tehran have clearly blocked the lead inspector’s access Iran’s nuclear facilities. This is again taking what should be the center of discussion - Iran’s nuclear development program - off the table and replacing it with another example of the UN and its agencies failing to adequately fulfill its charge.

July 8, 2006

US-Iraqi Forces Confront Mahdi Army in Baghdad

American and Iraqi troops engaged in a brief battle with the Mahdi Army on Friday, capturing a militant who appears to have been the leader of a Shia death squad, killing about 10 and wounding about 30 others. No deaths were reported from the American or regular Iraqi army side. The firefight took place in Sadr City, the stronghold of radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. While the Iraqi government has given no official comment on the operation at this time, it is clear that it was authorized by Prime Minister Nuri Maliki, and Sadr is moving to have Maliki summoned before parliament as a result.

U.S. Army Maj. General Bill Caldwell described the original target of the operation this way (DefenseLink):

…”He led multiple insurgent cells in Baghdad,” the general said. “His main focus is to conduct attacks against Iraqi and coalition forces. These attacks have included using improvised explosive devices and vehicle(-borne) improvised explosive devices.

His group has kidnapped, tortured and murdered Iraqi citizens, and he personally killed two Iraqi soldiers “in an attempt to improve his organization’s status with his higher leadership,” Caldwell said. Iraqi intelligence linked the man to a punishment committee that carries out vigilante judgment on perceived enemies.

“We know that this individual was also involved in the transfer of weapons from Syria into Iraq to, reportedly, facilitate … his efforts to splinter away from his current organization,” the general said…

The reaction from Sadr’s faction was strong. According to the Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn (Arabic), a spokesman for Sadr called for not only the prime minister but the interior and defense ministers to be called before parliament and interrogated over the incident. While American officials emphasized the role of Iraqi troops in the operation, a separate article from the same newspaper emphasized the role of American forces while noting that Iraqi forces were involved. It quoted a member of the ruling UIA loyal to Sadr as saying that “the American administration and elements within the Iraqi government” wanted to eliminate Sadr’s role in the political process.

The taming of the Shia militias has emerged as a key challenge to Maliki’s political credibility. While the Shia have been subject to repeated terrorist attacks over the past two years, Shia militias have more actively taken matters into their own hands, forming death squads, engaging in vigilante violence and often killing unknown numbers of innocent Sunni Iraqis. Maliki has repeatedly pledged to disband the militias, yet the Badr Army and the Mahdi Army are the military wings of two major factions within the United Iraqi Alliance that Maliki represents (SCIRI and the Sadrists, respectively). The fact that the militias he has sought to disband are linked to factions within his own coalition makes this a test of political credibility as well as military resolve.

Israeli Minister Suggests Prisoner Swap with Hamas

Israel’s Public Security Minister, Avi Dichter, suggested that Israel ‘might free Palestinians’ in return for Galid Shalit, a comment which has intensified debate on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the captured soldier and on Operation Summer Rains. But it has been stated that simply returning Gilad Shalit unharmed will not end the operation in Gaza, as the persistent and incessant Qassam rocket attacks on Israeli towns has also been made a centerpiece grievance by Israel.

However, immediately following the report of Dichter’s vision of a “goodwill gesture,” Hamas has rejected the Israeli’s hint of a deal. Elected Hamas parliamentarian Mushir al-Masri told Reuters in an interview, “Our people have no faith in goodwill gestures. There is no talk at the moment about the missing soldier. We are talking about 30 Palestinian martyrs and 100 wounded in an Israeli military aggression against our people.”

As the two respective governmental subordinates seemingly spar with words, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Hamas’ PA Prime Minister Haniyeh appear to be quietly observing from the side.

Prior to the new Hamas rejection of the potential prisoner swap suggestion, Hamas had amended their original demands of the release of nearly 1,500 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. The release of women has been portrayed by Hamas and others with a humanitarian angle, though the imprisoned include many female suicide bombers that have been apprehended by Israel.

Yet, from one Hamas source cited by the Financial Times, not only was the release of all female prisoners on the table, but also now “some 20 men serving long sentences.” If they are serving long sentences they are either convicted terrorist leaders or operators. Precisely who these “some 20 men” are remains unclear. But what should be quite clear is why Hamas would want currently imprisoned terrorist leaders and operators. Just as the informal cease-fire was utilized by Hamas train and re-arm, this deal would not be for peace or settlement. Rather, it would clearly be for the purposes of recovery and enhancement of Hamas’ terrorist operations.

Also preceding Friday’s talk of Israel’s potential openness to an exchange of prisoners, Hamas’ own PA Interior Minister, Saeed Seyam ordered the Palestinian Authority security forces under his charge to take up arms against the Israeli forces in the Palestinian Territories in what has been called an open declaration of war by Hamas on Israel. Seyam declared to the members of the security forces it is their “religious and moral duty to stand up to this aggression and cowardly Zionist invasion.”

But the orders are likely not intended as an offensive, but rather to fend off Israeli forces closing in from both the north and the south. With the Hamas members of the Palestinian Authority effectively underground now in central Gaza, the Hamas interior minister is likely issuing the orders to engage the IDF for the protection of himself and his fellow Hamas ministers in hiding.

Technically, as interior minister, Seyam is in charge of the whole of the PA’s security forces with the exception of Abbas’ presidential security forces. But the majority of the PA security forces are Fatah, still in place since the PLO rule of Yassir Arafat, and they remain loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. They would likely heed such a call to arms only with the tacit approval of Abbas.

This is the same Saeed Sayem who, upon his appointment as interior minister, vowed to protect Palestinian terrorists. He said bluntly, “The day will never come when any Palestinian would be arrested because of his political affiliation or because of resisting the occupation. Saeed Seyam did not come to the government to revive any security cooperation or to protect the occupation and their settlers. I came to protect our people and their fighters, to protect their trees, their properties and their capabilities.”

Seemingly upping the ante for both Israel and the world, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad referred to an “explosion in the Islamic world” while speaking at a Tehran protest over the Israeli operations in Gaza. “They should not let things reach a point where an explosion occurs in the Islamic world. If an explosion occurs, then it will not be limited to geographical boundaries. It will also burn all those who created [Israel] over the past 60 years.”

While the rhetoric flies back and forth, harsher from one side and seemingly more conciliatory from the other, the situation is clearly getting tenser. Yet still, Israel has begun pulling troops from southern Gaza. They will remain nearby for frequent raids back into the area as needed but will not occupy the area. This may serve to lessen tensions some in the south. But to the north, where some IDF forces are reported as far as 12km into the Gaza Strip, expect the IDF to remain in force for at least a couple of kilometers to serve as a buffer to push back the Qassam launch points beyond reach of Ashkelon.

July 7, 2006

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim: The Interview

Reporting on a wide-ranging question and answer session with Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of SCIRI, the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi (“With Regard to the Reconciliation Plan Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim Supports Amnesty for Those Who Killed Americans: No Retreat on Federalism… The Sunnis Should Form Their Own Region”) quotes from the Shia leader on his views on issues including the scope of the new amnesty initiative, the controversial federal system included in Iraq’s constitution, and the Shia militias. (The article cites the interviewer as having been with Agence France-Presse, but AFP has not yet published the interview on the web, if at all).

Hakim ImageSCIRI (Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq) is the party which holds the leadership of the United Iraqi Alliance, the ruling party in Iraq’s current government, making Hakim clearly the most important Iraqi political figure who does not hold official office. He is the last of nine brothers; seven died under Saddam Hussein’s rule, and the eighth was murdered in a car bombing in late 2003.

These were his comments:

On the American role:

Last year Hakim’s primary criticism of American forces was that they weren’t aggressive enough in going after Sunni insurgents, while here he “criticized the intervention of foreign forces in the security situation, seeing that they followed policies which made the situation worse or made mistakes…” From the context, I take this to mean the manner of intervention rather than intervention per se, although to the extent that U.S. forces may have restrained Hakim’s hawkish approach, this may be reflected in these comments. He specifically says that ‘foreign forces’ (he never refers to ‘American forces’) should give Iraqis “more opportunities” to deal with security. In this interview he also criticized the U.S. for using tanks and other heavy machinery in cities.

On American withdrawal:

Hakim responded to a question regarding insurgent demands that U.S. forces withdraw by saying that he was in favor of the withdrawal of foreign forces and Iraqi self-dependence, “but this subject must be decided within the government.” In other words, the insurgents don’t get a say.

On amnesty:

Hakim said that the amnesty must be inclusive of those who have killed Americans, but responding to a question as to whom among the insurgents could dialogue with the government, said “I don’t know. I am not aware of any of the armed groups which have not perpetrated crimes against the Iraqi people, and so if there is a ‘resistance’ as some call it, let it make itself known.”

On federalism:

Hakim firmly rejected backing down on the demand for regional governments, something which some have argued would lead to the break-up of Iraq, and simply said that “it is upon the Sunnis to form their own regional government.” He argued that this would further the fight against terrorism in the country.

On the Shia militias:

Hakim said that there were 140,000 security personnel spread across 33 groups in the various ministries charged with protecting the various establishments, and that these along with the Shia militias should be folded into the Ministry of Defense. He also argued that if former Baathists could be brought back into the military, then Shia militiamen who had resisted Saddam’s regime ought to be eligible as well.

Of the four factions within the UIA (the others are Dawa, Fadhila and the Sadriya), SCIRI most closely follows the leadership of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and his vision of consensual rule through the ballot box. Despite his ties to Iran - SCIRI took refuge there under Saddam - Hakim is not reflexively anti-American, but he has at times been harshly critical of American actions, beginning with Paul Bremer’s attempt back in 2003 to postpone elections. In 2004 he specifically asked President Bush to extend the stay of U.S. troops in Iraq, and, as noted above, in 2005 he pushed a more aggressive approach to fighting the insurgents.

Foreign Plot to Bomb Holland Tunnel Thwarted - Updated

[TW Note: This post has been updated. Please see clarification at end of post.]

On the first anniversary of London’s 7/7 bombings which killed 52, the New York Daily News is reporting that a months-long investigation has uncovered an overseas plot to bomb New York City’s Holland Tunnel in an attempt to destroy it and flood lower Manhattan’s financial district – the former home of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.

One man, Amir Andalousli, has been arrested by Lebanese authorities at the request of the United States. The Daily News also reports that US agents were allowed to take part in the investigation and that agents were ‘scrambling’ to arrest several others believed to be involved, reported as being in various parts of the world.

In an aspect of the plot that is dedicated one line in the initial report but which will likely be given much more attention in the coming days, Jordanian followers of the former al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had pledged “financial and tactical support” to the plotters. The pledge had apparently come before he was killed y US forces in Iraq.

While attacking the United States economy has long been an aim of al-Qaeda, these particular individuals seeking to flood the New York financial district appear at first glance to have been more ambitious than brilliant, as the financial district (and indeed the Manhattan exit to the Holland Tunnel) lies above the Hudson River water table, and water will not run uphill to flood the streets of the district. They may have been motivated by the reports after the 9/11 attacks of securing the barrier wall that kept water from the basement parking of the World trade Center towers, which is indeed under the water table and built on landfill, and mistakenly assumed that the district itself could be flooded by a breech in a tunnel.

One New York City radio personality this morning was chuckling at the plot’s implausibility, wondering in a dismissive tone just how serious this threat could be, considering that water does not run uphill. This is a serious mistake in approach.

While there is certainly no need for hysteria and regardless of the plotters’ level of understanding of Manhattan and/or physics, it should be clearly understood that ambition is far more deadly than brilliance.

It should also be recognized that al-Qaeda in Iraq supporters offered tactical and financial support to plotters who were planning another attack on American soil.

This developing story is another success resulting from Internet monitoring and intelligence gathering, as the plot is reported to have been uncovered by observing conversations in Internet communications among the involved.

UPDATE - 2:15 PM

In today’s press conference this story was clarified. The plot was aimed at the PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corporation) rail system between NY and NJ.

July 6, 2006

IDF Rolls Over Northern Gaza Rocket Launch Points

In a reaction to the recent Qassam rocket attacks that have reached into Ashkelon, the farthest the Palestinian rockets have reached yet, Israel ordered the IDF to begin clear and hold operations into the northern swath of the Gaza Strip. This is an attempt to deny the in-range areas as convenient rocket launch points by pushing them back beyond the current range of Ashkelon as well as adding protection for Sderot, the primary target of Palestinian rockets, as it was easily within range. The new extended range Qassams expanded the target list to more comfortably include Ashkelon.

While it is reported that the IDF clear and hold operations seek initially between 1 and 2 kilometers of buffer zone, heavy fighting was reported in Beit Lahiyah, about 4 kilometers into the north-central portion of Gaza, on the northern edge of the Jabaliyah refugee camp and about 5 kilometers north of Gaza City. One civilian was reported killed among several Hamas and Islamic Jihad casualties at Beit Lahiyah in what is being described as running gunbattles.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said that the IDF roll into northern Gaza was a “necessary step that could not have been avoided,” citing not only two consecutive days of Qassam rocket attacks reaching Ashkelon, but also the persistent rocket attacks from northern Gaza since the unilateral Israeli pullout and handover of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority.

Further exemplifying Hamas’ involvement in the range of Qassam attacks, Ghazi Hamed told the Jerusalem Post that the Hamas-run PA was willing to stop the Qassam attacks because Hamas was “interested in keeping the region calm.” This naturally belies the fact that Hamas has been operating at the tip of the spear leading the escalation, including not only prolonged rocket attacks, but also recent kidnappings through Hamas-dominated groups such as the Popular Resistance Committees and the Islamic Army, among others.

Elsewhere, in East Jerusalem, Israeli police arrested five more senior Hamas officials, as the Israeli offensive on Hamas continues to consist of more than just the Operation Summer Rains Gaza incursion. The Hamas parliament members already in custody rejected the authority of the IDF court in which they were being charged with terrorism related offenses.

Also, the Karni crossing on Gaza’s eastern border, which had been reopened to allow for food, medical and fuel shipments into Gaza, closed again following a terror alert. It was later reopened, as was the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

Regardless of what happens with the situation surrounding Gilad Shalit, the incursion into northern Gaza to set up a buffer zone against rocket attacks will likely be treated as a wholly separate security situation going forward. The rocket attacks existed before his abduction and will almost certainly persist after the Shalit crisis’ resolution, be it through a negotiated trade-off or his execution.

July 5, 2006

Jordan-Muslim Brotherhood Conflict Heats Up After Zarqawi Homage

The Jordanian government is moving to clamp down on the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Jordanian political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). The IAF, like the Palestinian Hamas, was inspired by and in part founded by activists from the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Yet while Hamas has maintained active military operations and has been banned in Jordan for several years, and while the Muslim Brotherhood itself has disavowed violence within Egypt but nevertheless remains banned there, the MB and the IAF are both legal in Jordan and the IAF is represented in parliament.

Following the recent killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi in Iraq, four Islamist members of the parliament went to his family home and openly paid their respects to the brutal terrorist. The government arrested them, and this was followed by a harsh declaration issued by several prominent Islamists calling for the replacement of the government. This appears to have been the immediate catalyst to what is looking like the most serious crackdown on Islamist activity in Jordan for some time.

As reported in Al-Hayat (“Amman - Strident Declaration Inflames Confrontation with the Government and a Decision to Dissolve ‘The Islamic Centers Association’ Expected”) on Tuesday, the ill-received mourning for Zarqawi was followed by a declaration published by the “National Jordanian Conference” headed by the general secretary of the IAF, Zaki Saad Bani Rashid. In terms described by Al-Hayat as “inflammatory,” the declaration called for a new government which would break off cooperation with Israel and the United States, recognize Hamas, and provide assistance to the “resistance” in Palestine and Iraq. The Jordanian government responded by talking about the imminent creation of a “temporary administration” which would take over the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic centers, a suggestion interpreted to mean that they would be abolished. The threat clearly had an effect, as the article quotes Bani Rashid as saying that the declaration did not represent either the IAF or the MB, while admitting that its language was excessive.

Broadcast on al-Jazeera’s discussion program In-Depth (Ma Wara al-Khabr) early today, the discussion reinforced the impression that the Jordanian government was moving to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic centers. The discussion included an Islamist, a government spokesman and the editor of Al-Arab al-Yawm, a Jordanian newspaper. The suggestion that the MB and the IAF were separate organizations was mocked by the editor, who noted that they shared resources and activists. The government spokesman affirmed the government’s support for the Palestinian and Iraqi peoples and emphasized that recent actions by Islamists threatened the “national consensus,” a way of saying that the Islamists had gone beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse in the country.

It should be remembered that the leadership of the IAF played an important role in persuading King Abdullah to release Zarqawi and other al-Qaeda members from prison in 1999 as part of an amnesty, a decision the king has greatly regretted. Hatred for Zarqawi was inflamed by last November’s triple suicide bombings which killed dozens of Jordanians. Relations between the kingdom and Hamas hit a low point recently when the government discovered the Hamas was smuggling weapons in from Syria and studying sensitive government sites. All of this is backdrop to these recent actions.

The Jordanian government, led since the 1950s by the late King Hussein and since February 1999 by King Abdullah II, has long walked a thin line in dealing with Islamists, alternatively cultivating and restraining them. The Islamic Action Front rose to prominence politically in the 1990s following Hussein’s decision to allow elections and a more politically open environment, although the parliament’s powers have always been limited. While having one of the Arab world’s most liberal governments, sympathy for al-Qaeda has been stronger than in most Muslim countries. Most Jordanians have opposed the kingdom’s peace treaty with Israel, as well as the intelligence and logistical assistance provided to U.S. forces both before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Sowell is an Arabic linguist, attorney and the author of The Arab World: An Illustrated History. You can read more about his book at his website, Arab World Analysis.

Kidnapped Minister Freed, Baghdad Security Plan Flaws Eyed

Gunmen freed Iraqi Deputy Electricity Minister Raad al-Harith within hours of his abduction, but the fact that he and 19 bodyguards were kidnapped in the first place underlines the security problem in Baghdad. Yet even before Harith’s abduction, the capital city’s security plan, put into action just two weeks ago, was under revision by Iraqi and American officials.

As reported in Al-Hayat (“Admitting Flaws ‘Brought About More Casualties’… Security Officials Review Baghdad Security Plan”), Mahdi Sabih, commander of Iraqi security in Baghdad, stated that armed groups “set down centers of operations in some areas and neighborhoods of Baghdad and they were successful in isolating them from government control,” pointing to “large gaps in the security plan.” Sabih went on to say that the security plan “was based around the reconciliation plan and did not include raid and search operations, something which granted to the terrorist elements the ability to move around.” Sabih was further quoted as saying that “the security plan succeed in improving the situation in certain limited areas in Baghdad like Biya’, al-Sayidiya and others,” but “failed to take control in other areas like Yarmuk, Ghazala, Amairiya and Dawra.” He added: “…especially Dawra.”

Aside from expanding areas of tighter security, Al-Rafidayn (“The Government Undertakes a Complete Review of Baghdad’s Security Plan to Steer Clear of Errors”), quoted Interior Minister Jawad Bulani as saying that the government intended to review and annul the firearms licenses which had been granted to “citizens, political parties and civil society groups,” saying that this would take place at the end of August. The article quotes him as saying that Saturday’s bombing, the worst under the new government, was perpetrated by Tawhid and Jihad, an al-Qaeda-affiliated organization.
Sowell is an Arabic linguist, attorney and the author of The Arab World: An Illustrated History. You can read more about his book at his website, Arab World Analysis.

July 4, 2006

North Korean Long-Range Missile Fails In Flight

North Korea has initially fired two short-range missiles that landed 600km off the coast of mainland Japan, according to Japan’s NHK. Then, the North Korean Taepodong-2 long-range missile failed in flight. Some reports include the possibility of as many as five missiles fired. From the Japanese Broadcasting Company’s (NHK) “Breaking News” scroll early after the detection:

Japanese government officials say they have received information that North Korea launched a missile on Wednesday morning. Japanese Defense Agency officials have confirmed that a 2nd missile was launched. The officials say the 1st missile was fired at 03:32 Japan time [2:32PM EDT] on Wednesday and it landed in the Sea of Japan after about 6 minutes. The Japanese government is trying to confirm what type of missiles were fired. Japanese government officials in charge of crisis management are convening at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence to gather information.

Neither of the first two launches were the Taepodong-2 missile that has been sitting on the launch pad. Associated Press sourced a Pentagon official noting that “they were Scud missiles and not the longer-range variety that has been the focus of international concern.”

The firings were likely a test of sorts, surely the failed Taepongdo-2 was a new missile test. The long-range Taepongdo-2, with the potential of hitting Alaska, failed shortly after firing. But the North Korean regime was more precisely dipping their toes into the waters of international brinkmanship once more.

North Korea is not testing the missile as much as they are testing US and Japanese resolve, fishing for reaction. While North Korea has threatened the US with nuclear war, the United States has essentially dismissed the North Korean threats. This does not serve the extortion-minded communist regime’s strategy well.

As James Na noted in The Seattle Times, North Korea’s entire missile crisis gambit could backfire on them by eroding whatever appeasement exists in both South Korea and Japan. They are likely overplaying a familiar hand of international extortion. For this reason, the United States reaction to today’s Scud missile launches will likely be somewhat muted, keeping in line with the course taken thus far, allowing South Korean and Japanese reaction do the heavy lifting. The next 48 hours will tell just how much North Korea has overplayed its hand, if at all.

For a good summation of the North Korean missile threat, see the UPI’s Analysis: North Korea’s missile threat, by Editor in Chief, Michael Marshall.

‘Operation Summer Rains’ and Shalit Part of ‘Long War’

In a Reuters headline titled Israel warns of ‘long war’ over captured soldier, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s quote on the situation is misrepresented by the headline and is sure to be picked up by other news outlets that rely on Reuters’ wire services for news reportage.

Prime Minister Olmert said, “This is a long war. It requires lots of patience, sometimes endless restraint. We have to know when to clench our teeth and to deal a decisive blow.”

While he was speaking of potential coming events in Operation Summer Rains in Gaza and, potentially, the West Bank as well, his reference to a ‘long war’ was an attempt to put the current situation into greater context. The current crisis, while crucial at the moment, will in time be viewed as simply another chapter in the conflict…the ‘long war.’ The significance of this chapter is yet to be determined.

The Rueters headline displays a bit of sensationalism or misunderstanding or both by stating that the crisis over captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit could develop into a ‘long war.’ That simply is incorrect and unfortunate. The ‘long war’ has existed since 1948 and is acknowledged in Hamas’ founding charter calling for the destruction of Israel. This ‘long war’ is accentuated today by Hamas’ refusal to explicitly recognize Israel’s right to exist, putting it at odds with many of its own fellow Palestinians and fueling the violent internal feud with Abbas’ Fatah.

Meanwhile, the Operation Summer Rains chapter in the ‘long war’ continues to lengthen as Israeli activity in northern Gaza increases. Exchanges of gunfire were reported and the IDF killed one and injured two Palestinians as they were attempting to plant explosives near the northern border.

Abu al-Muthana of the Islamic Army, one of the three groups responsible for abducting and holding Shalit, said that no information about him will be released. Said al-Muthana, “Whether he will be killed or not killed, we will not disclose any information. Discussion is closed.” However, he added, “We do not kill captives. Our Islam requires that we treat captives well and fairly.” This was not the observance of those who had kidnapped and executed 18 year old Israeli civilian Eliahu Asheri just days ago. His abductors were one and the same with Abu al-Muthana, the Islamic Army’s partner in the Shalit abduction endeavor, the Popular Resistance Committee. Al-Muthana’s claims that “our Islam requires that we treat captives well and fairly” should therefore be dismissed as taqiyyah.

This is not to say that the trio of the Islamic Army, the Popular Resistance Committees and their guiding Hamas will execute Shalit. The repercussions would surely be an iron Israeli fist that they are ill-prepared to endure or defeat, public bellicosity not withstanding. As it stands, Olmert is making it clear that not only the terrorists, but also their sponsors (presumably including Syria and Iran) would be held accountable for any harm done to Shalit. Olmert said he had given the IDF orders “to strike terrorists and those who sent them and those who sponsor them. None of them will be immune.” The current restraint would likely be shelved were Shalit to be executed. Hamas and their handlers know this clearly.

Israel remains publicly steadfast in refusing to negotiate with Hamas (et al) for a prisoner swap. The Israeli demeanor is perhaps best summed up by Vice Premier Shimon Peres, who said, “I suggest that the Palestinians negotiate with themselves. Should we reward them for kidnapping? for killing two soldiers? for firing Katyushas on Sderot? It’s up to the Palestinians that they get their own state. The terrorist[s] sabotage the Palestinian people’s future with the help of the great (Syrian President Bashar) Assad who’s first rate at doing nonsense.”

G-8 Deadline Rebuffed as Iran's Enrichment Continues

Iran has been given a July 12 deadline to cease their enrichment activities according to unnamed diplomats. Ahmadinejad has previously said that Iran will not respond to the current proposal until mid-August, which calls for the cessation of Iranian enrichment activities in exchange for Western nuclear reactors, fuel and lifts on US sanctions. After the July 12 deadline passes, presumably the door would open for UN Security Council action, potentially including sanctions. But Russia and China, permanent members of the UNSC with veto power, remain adamantly opposed to any sanctions.

Chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani called enrichment cessation “unreasonable.” Further telegraphing Iran’s position, suspension was forthrightly declared to be ‘not on Iran’s agenda’, according to Ali Hosseinitash, who is in charge of strategic affairs in Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. Said Hosseinitash, “Suspension is definitely not on Iran’s agenda. Iran does not see the issue of suspension as the core idea in solving the case.” Once again the point of disconnect between Iran and the West, suspension of enrichment activities is clearly the ‘core idea in solving the case’ as far as the West is concerned.

Iran’s refusal to respond is clearly being viewed as a response, as with each day the proposal goes unaddressed, Iran’s enrichment continues unabated. Iran’s public ‘indecision’ is itself clearly a decision and being treated as such.

The extent to which the new Strategic Council for Foreign Relations is working back channels during this process may be an interesting detail to learn, as the new council looks to undermine Ahmadinejad and his brash approach to foreign affairs. Many, however, prefer Ahmadinejad’s clarity and straight-forward nature over the nuanced diplomatic maneuvering by ‘seasoned diplomats’ of the principal state sponsor of terrorism.

Increasingly of late, the Iranian nuclear crisis is being placed within its proper context of a subset of Iran’s role as the chief facilitator, organizer, armorer and financier of terrorism worldwide. As the United States renews allegations of the Iranian participation in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing and word of Iranians captured fighting coalition forces in Iraq is made public (which is not a new phenomenon), what is of more concern than even the nuclear weapons themselves is the nature of the regime which would possess them. As Michael Ledeen said succinctly in his latest column, “It’s the terrorism, stupid.”

July 3, 2006

Hamas Deadline Declared and Lapsed for Shalit

Hamas issued a communique giving a 6AM 4July06 deadline for Israel to agree to their demands of releasing over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. Israel promptly rejected the ultimatum. “We will not give in to any blackmailing or to any ultimatum put forth by any terror organisation, and in this specific case, by Hamas,” said Dan Halutz, the Israeli Army’s chief of staff.

The Hamas demand did not specify what would occur after 6AM local time, but there is speculation that Cpl. Gilad Shalit will be executed. Hamas member Abu Ubaida suggested that Israeli civilian targets will be increasingly sought out if the IDF does not pull out of Gaza. “If its operations continue, we will hit the occupation targets we were previously reluctant to strike,” he said, referring to Israeli civilians. But Hamas has never had a track record of being reluctant to attack Israeli civilians.

But Hamas’ government spokesman Ghazi Hamad insisted that Israel solve the crisis diplomatically. Said Hamad, “Since the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier we have called for the need to protect his life and solve the problem through calm diplomatic channels…we think there remains a chance to reach an acceptable formula.”

The crisis, as Hamad and his leaders know, did not begin through calm diplomatic channels. It began with a Hamas tunnel raid that included two IDF soldiers killed, several wounded and the injured Cpl. Gilad Shalit dragged through a blasted hole in the security barrier separating southern Gaza from Israel. Israel steadfastly rejects as an ‘acceptable formula’ any exchange of prisoners for Shalit, especially nearly 1,500, concluding that it will only guarantee further kidnappings seeking productive exchanges.

The conflict is getting much attention from outside the immediate region. Recently released from prison after his conviction in the 2002 Bali bombings, Abu Bakar Bashir, the leader of Southeast Asia’s premiere al-Qaeda affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, called for Indonesia to send terrorists to fight Israel. Said Bashir, “Israel is the enemy of Allah. So the Indonesian government should send holy warriors there.”

The UN chastised Israel for attacks on civilian buildings, namely the power station and Hamas’ PA prime minister’s offices as well as the ministry of the interior. But the lines between civilian and military are at best blurred when the elected civilian post is headed up by members of a terrorist organization, such as Hamas.

In a statement, the European Union called for Israel to release all Hamas officials they have arrested as part of Operation Summer Rains, “including eight Cabinet ministers and 26 politicians” so far. The EU statement also called for the end of terrorist activities, including the firing of rockets into Israeli villages.

As the Hamas-imposed deadline passes, an increase in terrorist attacks can be expected to follow in short order, perhaps with more kidnappings. Hopefully, this reaction will not be accompanied by an execution video of Gilad Shalit.

Saturday's Market Bombing Kills Dozens, Brings Reprisals

A truck bombing on Saturday with gruesome consequences killed at least 66 people in a Shia neighborhood market on Saturday. A purported message from Bin Laden after the attack threatened Shia Iraqis with retaliation if they worked with the Iraqi government in fighting terrorists in Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul, all hotbeds of the insurgency. The bombing, the most lethal since the installation of the new government, appears to have brought reprisals from Shia militias. First, the kidnapping of a Sunni legislator in Baghdad has resulted in a boycott of parliament by the Sunni Accord Front, the largest Sunni bloc the government. Second, IraqtheModel reports on mortar fire into the Sunni Aadhamiya neighborhood. While it has not been confirmed that these actions were undertaken by Moqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army, this is suspected.

In what may have been a prelude to a final solution to the Shia militia problem, on Thursday U.S. and Iraqi forces battled Shia militiamen in a village northeast of Baghdad. Significantly, those captured by coalition forces included Iranian operatives. If Prime Minister Nuri Maliki and the Shia religious authorities who support him are unable to deal with the Shia militia problem through non-military means, we may see more of this.

Last Wednesday, Iraq’s national security advisor released further information on a seven-man cell that perpetrated the attack on the Askariya Mosque in Samarra back in February. The al-Qaeda in Iraq cell included two Iraqis, four Saudis and a Tunisian.

Over the weekend, Iraqi authorities released a new list of the “41 Most Wanted,” which is separate from the old American-compiled list of 55. Interestingly, the No. 1 on the list, Izza Ibrahim al-Douri, a high-ranking Baathist officer in the former regime, isn’t in Iraq. According to the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada, he is in a hospital in Sana, Yemen. Although he is reported to have suffered from Leukemia, he receives regular visits by Baath officials who have taken refuge in Yemen.

Prime Minister Maliki’s amnesty plan has already borne some fruit, as three Sunni insurgent groups declare an end to operations in response, reports the Iraqi newspaper Kul Iraq.

There have been some questions as to who could apply for the amnesty, since it seemed to excluded those who had killed either Iraqis or Americans. A report from MNFI describes the conviction of 11 insurgents for illegal weapons and illegal border crossing violations. Most were found in possession of weapons to be used in the insurgency or were non-Iraqis illegally entering the country to engage in terrorist activity, while others were caught in the act of attempting to kill Iraqi or American forces but who failed to do so. The report indicates that to present the Central Criminal Court of Iraq (CCCI) has tried 1,263 insurgents and found 1,087 individuals guilty.

Counter-insurgency operations: On June 27, Iraqi security forces arrested Abdullah Al-Juburi, a terrorist facilitator who provided support to mortar and IED attacks, south of Baghdad near Salman Pak. Separately, U.S. and Iraqi forces tracked down and killed a known insurgent leader in Tel Afar. Iraqi security forces also conducted Operation Sandstorm in Seegar in the Ninevah Province, conducting house-to-house searches before meeting with the tribal chief to discuss local concerns. On Thursday, U.S. forces came to the aid of Iraqi police pursuing terrorist suspects into a Sunni village north of Baghdad.

The U.S. is investigating the alleged rape and murder of an Iraqi woman and three members of her family in Mahmudiya, which is near Baghdad. An initial investigation concluded that there was sufficient evidence to justify a criminal investigation be opened (Reuters, AFIS).
Sowell is an Arabic linguist, attorney and the author of The Arab World: An Illustrated History. You can read more about his book at his website, Arab World Analysis.

July 2, 2006

IDF Targets Hamas, Elected or Unelected

As Israel struck the empty Gaza City offices of the PA’s Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, the IDF has reopened the Karni crossing to allow for food, medical and fuel supplies to enter Gaza. Israel, now the sole source of electrical power for the Gaza Strip, has also increased the power transfers into the area after having taken out Gaza’s sole electrical power plant.

gazapmofficesm070106.jpgWhile Israel has openly warned that Haniyeh is a legitimate target after holding him – along with Khaled Meshaal in Damascus - responsible for the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shilat, the strike on his offices was clearly not an attempt on his life. It was, rather, a message indicating the sincerity of their words. The IDF follows movements in the Gaza zone very carefully and surely knew that the offices were clear, just as Haniyeh knew to stay away from them himself.

Also on Saturday, IDF soldiers on the ground engaged Hamas directly in what was described as “the first sustained encounter between the two sides since the incursion was launched on Tuesday night.” The significance of this is difficult to overstate, as the Israeli incursion that is loudly criticized as a humanitarian crisis and collective punishment has been, for nearly one full week, relatively bloodless.

The negotiations between Egypt and Hamas appear to be at an unproductive stand-still, as the Hamas captors, likely via Damascus direction, insist on the Israeli release of one thousand Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Cpl. Shalit, who is reported to be in stable condition and alive with multiple shrapnel wounds. What progress has been made appears to be in the form of non-specifics, such as asking the Israelis to merely promise to release an unstated number of prisoners by an unstated time in exchange for Shalit’s immediate release. Hamas appears disinclined to moderate to such terms and Israel, counter to past actions of exchanging prisoners for Israeli captives, has so far wisely publicly refused any such terms on the grounds that it will only encourage more kidnappings for prisoner exchanges

The debate rages on regarding the wisdom behind the Israeli threats to Haniyeh and the Israeli incursion itself which, by all accounts, appears intentionally stalled on the ground. The somewhat common theme of the debate often centers around the concept of Operation Summer Rains as collective punishment for the Palestinian people as much as it is to gain the release of Cpl. Shalit. There is much validity to this aspect.

However, it must be viewed in context with the fact that the Palestinian people collectively – whether at the time as a vote of support for Hamas’ tactics and leadership or as a punishment to the corrupt ruling Fatah – put the Hamas terrorist organization into political power. Hamas’ ascension into governance does not expunge their terrorist actions - past or present, elected or unelected.

Hamdan v. Rumsfeld: Court Invalidates Military Tribunals

The Supreme Court’s decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (full text of opinion here), handed down on Thursday, invalidates the military tribunal system established by President Bush to try enemy combatants, terrorists who do not fall within the legal categories of the Geneva Convention. Salim Ahmad Hamdan, a Yemeni national, was captured by Afghan forces in 2002 and transferred to U.S. custody. A driver for Osama bin Laden, Hamdan was charged by the United States through the military tribunal system with aiding a terrorist organization and engaging in a criminal conspiracy to commit terrorist acts.

Hamdan argued that (1) he could not be tried by the military tribunals because they violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Convention’s guarantee that a defendant see the evidence against him, and also that Congress had not exempted his case from judicial review by the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, that (2) the military tribunals violated the Geneva Convention’s specific requirement that the defendant be allowed to be present at all stages of the trial, and that (3) conspiracy was not a violation of the law of war.

The 5-3 decision, in which Chief Justice John Roberts abstained, having been part of the three-judge panel which decided the case under review, means that the United States must either continue to hold enemy combatants without trial or else Congress must establish an alternative system. This holding was based on argument (1) alone, as their was no majority on the court as to the other issues. The Detainee Treatment Act was not invalidated, but was held not to apply because Congress did not explicitly exclude cases such as Hamdan’s which were pending. Holding that military tribunals must conform to the same rules as the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the court found that the tribunals were invalid for failure to allow the defendant to confront all witnesses and other evidence against him.

Legal scholar John Yoo, writing in USA Today, reflects the views of the dissenting justices:

By putting on hold military commissions to try terrorists for war crimes, five Supreme Court justices have made the legal system part of the problem, rather than part of the solution to the challenges of the war on terrorism. They tossed aside centuries of American history, judicial decisions of long standing, and a December 2005 law ordering them not to interfere with the military trials.

As commander in chief, President Bush has the authority to decide on wartime tactics and strategies. Presidents Washington, Jackson, Lincoln and FDR settled on military commissions, sometimes with congressional approval and sometimes without, as the best tool to punish and deter enemy war crimes. Bush used them to solve a difficult tension: how to try terrorists fairly without blowing intelligence sources and methods…

The full implications of this decision are not clear, and may not be clear for some time. None of the terrorists now held in detention will be set free, including Hamdan. This does deprive the government of a means of dealing with enemy combatants other than by detaining them indefinitely without trial. The fact that the decision in part rests on an interpretation that Congress did not intend to remove pending cases from review, but impliedly could have, means that Congress may be able to correct the problem created by this decision. While the court held that the Geneva Convention was applicable to enemy combatant cases, this obstacle also may be obviated by congressional action. Fuller analysis of this issue to come.
Sowell is an Arabic linguist, attorney and the author of The Arab World: An Illustrated History. You can read more about his book at his website, Arab World Analysis.

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