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August 31, 2006

Diwaniya: ISF Gives Mahdi Army Bloody Nose

On Monday, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) engaged in their first gunbattle with the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr without assistance on the ground from American troops. It took place in Diwaniya, which is located in Al-Qadisiya Province in south-central Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been struggling to contain violence by the Shi’a militia which has made otherwise moderating Sunni insurgent groups hesitant about laying down their weapons. Over the past several weeks there have been a number of joint U.S.-Iraqi operations against Shi’a “death squads” which have been terrorizing Baghdad’s Sunni population. After the fight, local authorities reached a ceasefire agreement with the local Sadrist office, called Martyr Sadr, but Defense Minister Abd al-Qader al-‘Abaydi abrogated the terms of the ceasefire, which were a compromise with Sadr, and insisted on enforcing government control of the city. He also ordered an investigation into the beheading of some Iraqi soldiers.

This most recent clash appears to have ignited after Iraqi forces arrested a member of the Mahdi Army following a roadside bomb that killed two Iraqi soldiers. The gunbattle began overnight and lasted for hours. At one point, having run out of ammunition, 13 Iraqi soldiers were taken captive and then beheaded in public. ISF reinforcements arrived too late to help the original squad, but they were able to take control of most parts of the city. Fatalities included 20 ISF soldiers and 50 Sadrist militants. (Reuters, New York Times, Washington Post)

Initial reports were conflicting as to which side won the gunbattle. Al-Hayat quoted a provincial official as saying that with the arrival of reinforcements by the end of the day the ISF had control of all areas of the city except two neighborhoods (Al-Nahda and Al-Wahda). The Washington Post, by contrast, reported that the Mahdi Army had won, and that they were in control of the city, although it appears that their report relied on anecdoctal accounts. The New York Times, on the other hand, described the fighting but did not indicate that one side or the other had won.

The Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn, by contrast, gave a detailed account of the ceasefire agreement which made clear that the ISF had the upper hand, but which also suggested compromise with the Sadrists. The agreement stipulated that the Mahdi Army would give up control of the city to Iraqi police but that the Iraqi army would not be allowed to enter the city for three days. The article, which was published online Monday night, indicates that Martyr Sadr had demanded that the captured militia member be freed, but this was rejected and instead the local government agreed that he would be brought before a court within 24 hours.

Yet on Wednesday Abaydi nullified any ceasefire and insisted on unconditional control of the city by legitimate Iraqi forces. The defense minister was quoted by an article published by Al-Rafidayn on Wednesday as saying

the agreement is void because it is not possible to reach an agreement with an illegal organization, especially for the Iraqi army… enforcement of the law will be quick… the government is giving a peaceable solution sufficient time, but if we do not see an end to the bearing of arms by militants and an enforcement of the law in an effective manner, well then the Iraqi army will enforce the law by force.

The article notes that the original ceasefire had been ordered by Sadr himself. An article in Al-Hayat published late Wednesday contained much of the same information, but it further added that the provincial governor and other local officials had persuaded the defense minister to abrogate the ceasefire and impose conditions as the defense ministry saw fit.

It is worth noting that Defense Minister Abaydi is Sunni and the provincial governor, Khalil Jalil, is a Shi’a member of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution In Iraq. SCIRI is the lead party in the ruling United Iraqi Alliance, and so formally SCIRI and the Sadr faction are allies, but in fact they are longtime rivals. While SCIRI has largely followed the line set forth by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in favor of national reconciliation, the Sadrists have refused to accept the prime minister’s amnesty plan and have attempted to radicalize Iraq’s Shi’a population and maintain a state of war against Sunni Iraqis. The Sadrists’ relationship with the government in which they formally take part is illuminated by a statement from Martyr Sadr quoted in al-Hayat which is quoted as saying that the ISF was acting “as if it was an occupying army.” The same article quotes a leading Sadrist, Abu Mu’taz, as saying that they ordered their men to stand down “for fear of giving the enemy a pretext for striking at the movement and its leadership.” Sadr wants to live.

There is also to be an investigation into the gruesome executions which accompanied the fight. The demand for an investigation was made by the heads of local tribes and agreed to by the Iraqi defense ministry. Al-Rafidayn noted specifically that those tribes to which the beheaded soldiers belonged wanted to be involved in the investigation. This showdown did not make Sadr any friends.

Reuters reports on comments from Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih that Prime Minister Maliki is planning to reshuffle the government soon, reassigning cabinet posts based upon factions’ support for the government’s policies on reconciliation. The report suggests that Sadrist ministers might be removed, and notes that one, the transport minister, has already resigned. Comments of this nature have been reported in the Iraqi press repeatedly over the past few weeks, and the fact that it is so often mentioned without execution suggests that Maliki is using these leaks as a means of pressuring Sadr.

The Non-Deadline: Redrawing Lines In The Sand

While much was made over Iran’s self-imposed August 22 deadline to respond to the nuclear incentives deal offered by the United Nations Security Council’s ‘Permanent Five’ members and Germany, the real deadline imposed by the UNSC has been today, August 31, 2006. But, as has been noted over the period since Iran’s August 22 ‘multifaceted response’, that ‘deadline’ has been steadily losing its meaning. In fact, it could be plausibly suggested that, apparently sans consequences, it is no longer even a deadline at all.

Iran’s confident defiance is clear, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeated the adopted Iranian mantra of nuclear rights saying, “The Iranian nation will not succumb to bullying, invasion and the violation of its rights.” The source of Iran’s confidence is the clear lack of Western resolve that is adroitly exploited by a clever Iranian regime.

China, Russia and France are expressing reluctance to impose sanctions on Iran regardless of any deadline agreed to within the Security Council. Seemingly erasing the meaning of a deadline, China’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Wang Guangya, said yesterday of Iran’s 11th hour response offered last week, “It has some ‘positive elements’ which we must study carefully.”

Traditional Western allies outside the ‘Permanent Five’ are also displaying a withering resolve as even Italy is showing signs of floundering on the issue. Said Italy’s Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema, “If Iran is looking to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, it is not only legitimate, but can also clear the way for cooperation.”

But the difference between a civilian nuclear program and a military nuclear program are not in design or equipment differences, but merely what the output is used for. That Iran’s military is already in firm control of the Iranian nuclear program is a clear indicator of purpose. Italy’s foreign minister and others must therefore put their trust in an Iranian regime that is the world’s premiere state sponsor of terrorism. Though rarely spoken verbatim, the current conflict with Iran revolves not around materials or technology, but in fact trust.

Iran’s exploitation of differences among a conflict averse West, including today’s conveniently timed release of a Canadian-Iranian dissident from an Iran prison, continues to serve to diminish the effective meaning of today’s ‘deadline’ set by the Security Council.

While the United States has hoped for the deadline to be just that - a deadline - it remains clear that it was never to be recognized as such by other members of the Security Council. Russia is only now (again) ‘getting ready for’ talks on Iran, with a date for such talks not even yet determined on this, Iran’s so-called ‘deadline.’ Said a Russian source, “Preparatory work for the meeting of political directors of the sextet’s foreign ministries is underway. The meeting will be held, but its time and place are yet to be specified.”

So, while some headlines today - such as that from the Asia Times which reads “Time’s up for Iran on UN’s nuclear clock” - will suggest that today is the day that the Iranian nuclear program crosses a meaningful international threshold, clearly it will not.

Simply stated, there effectively is no deadline for Iranian compliance, as each time Iran crosses the line drawn in the sand without the desired answer in hand, the West merely redraws the line farther from the present, unprepared to match the Iranian regime’s will.

August 29, 2006

Baghdad Offensive Gains Ground

Over the course of the past week the Iraqi government’s “Operation Together Forward” - a neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweep-and-hold operation - has moved on following a promising start in the neighborhood of Ameriya to include Ghazalia, Kadhimiya, Mansour and Nura (see our recent report, Second Battle of Baghdad Underway, for background). Although some terrorist attacks have still gotten through, indications now are that while July was Baghdad’s worst month, August has seen lower daily rates of both attacks and casualties. Estimated attacks per day have declined from 52 to 31 (MNF-I).

Last week started reasonably well with the commemoration of the Shi’a religious festival of Musa, celebrating the life and martyrdom of Musa bin Jafar al-Kadhim, the seventh imam. While a sniper attack managed to kill at least 20 of the pilgrims, given that there were hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and the scale of recent violence, the attack was not nearly as deadly as it perhaps might have otherwise been. More deadly was this past weekend, when a series of attacks killed at least 60.

A number of important operations have been conducted in Baghdad and other areas in the center of the country. As recounted by Major General William Caldwell at an August 22 press conference:

In Ramadi, coalition forces captured a Saudi al Qaeda member who was actively conducting terrorist activities. During the early morning raid, one terrorist was captured and 14 others detained. The raid uncovered a suicide vest, multiple small arms and armament, along with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. Two more wanted terrorists were detained in another Ramadi operation. One was associated with harboring and transporting senior foreign al Qaeda leaders into Iraq…

In the Baghdad area, recent raids led to the capturing of a suspected IED cell leader, who was also suspected of a shooting death of one Iraqi interpreter and one coalition force soldier, as well as two others, wanted al Qaeda terrorists, believed to have had direct association with several recent vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices here in the city of Baghdad. Operations in Arabjabu (ph) led to the capture of two wanted terrorists associated with a senior al Qaeda and Iraq leader and part of the cell specializing in bomb making and vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. Again, all associated with attacks here in the city of Baghdad.

Near Tikrit, two terrorists and three suspects were captured, one who reportedly controlled the 40 other terrorists in the area. Credible intelligence also indicated that his terrorist cell is involved in the movement of foreign fighters into Gogee (ph) area. Reliable intelligence also indicates that the other terrorists captured in Tikrit is directly linked to the February 22nd bombing of the al-Askariya Mosque in Samarra…

Convicted insurgents and terrorists then enter the Iraqi Correctional Services to serve their sentences. To date, the Central Criminal Court of Iraq has held 1,365 trials of insurgents suspected of anti-Iraq and anti-coalition activities threatening the security of this country. These proceedings have resulted in 1,171 individual convictions with sentences ranging up to death…

MNF-I provides further information on Baghdad operations in the Doura area. This is of some special significance because in recent months Iraqi security officials have identified Doura as being an area of open and intense sectarian conflict. The most important operations in the Baghdad area this weekend seemed to be an expansion of the offensive to the Adhamiya area in northeast Baghdad on Sunday.

On August 22, the Karbala News Agency reported on “steps decided upon by American forces” to reinforce security in Baghdad and “direct overwhelming military strikes against the Mahdi Army of the Sadr faction.” The KNA has an anti-American bent and joint U.S.-Iraqi plans to strengthen security were framed in this article as an American plan achieve control over Baghdad, but it is positive to see that the perception of reinforcement is there. That some Iraqis take such reports as credible should be borne in mind by those who are surprised by resentment of coalition efforts to bring security to Iraq.

Yesterday Iraqi forces engaged in a fierce series of gunbattles with the Mahdi Army in Diwaniya, the capital of the province of Al-Qudasiya. The fight began when Iraqi forces arrested a major militia leader, attempting to enforce the government’s policy that Shi’a militias should disband and be replaced by legitimate security forces. Western and Arab news reports were in conflict as to the result, although the Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn reported that there was a ceasefire in which the militia formally recognized government control of the city. An initial military report also gave limited information. ThreatsWatch will provide a fuller analysis of this important engagement once more information is available.

August 28, 2006

Hizballah in Damage Control Mode in Lebanon

While much is made of Hassan Nasrallah’s newfound popularity on the ‘Arab Street,’ particularly in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a different, far less heroic perception among the Lebanese is held by many – including Lebanese Shi’a leaders in the war-torn south – as Israel and Lebanon alike await the arrival of European forces under UN Resolution 1701 mandate.

In a Lebanese television interview, Hassan Nasrallah said that he regretted giving the order to attack the IDF and capture two soldiers on July 12. His contrition is clearly more a reaction to increasingly vocal Lebanese displeasure with Hizballah’s determination to attack Israel than it is a reaction to the Israeli response to his invitation to war. Nasrallah said, “We did not think, even one percent, that the capture would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11… that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.”

As Israeli officials point to this as an indication that their operations have deterred Hizballah, this may be an over-stated reality. While to a large degree the effects of Israeli deterrence may be true, the perception of deterrence comes from the shedding of the victorious Hizballah tone. This moderation has not come about by IDF actions as much as it has developed before the glare of Lebanese criticism, the most biting coming from the Shi’a themselves.

The Shi’a Mufti of Tyre Sayyed Ali al-Amin criticized Hizballah for bringing war upon Lebanon while calling for the Lebanese government to take responsibility for the entirety of Lebanon’s territory and peoples. He said to that end, “The Lebanese experience has proved the failure of communities and parties defending and protecting themselves alone; thus, there is no substitute for one state to which everyone, without exception, belongs.” But while he condemned both the Israeli attacks that followed Hizballah’s actions and the Lebanese government for ceding the largely Shi’a south to Hizballah, his criticism of Hizballah was both direct and sharp.

“I don’t think Hizballah asked the Shi’ite community about the war. Perhaps the great emigration from the south is the best proof that the people of the south were against the war. The Shi’ite community authorized no one to declare war in its name or to drag it into a war that was far from its wishes and from the wishes of the other ethnic communities in Lebanon. What happened in the south does not represent the will of the Shi’ite community, and is not its responsibility, but was caused by the vacuum that the Lebanese state left for years in this region… What happened is the natural result of a state relinquishing its duty to defend a region and its citizens.”

As European troops are set to arrive in Lebanon to bolster the UNIFIL presence there, Israel hopes that their activities there will be far more effective than the past UNIFIL performance. Criticism of UN troops in South Lebanon reach beyond the historic ineptitude since the UNIFIL inception. Anger is emerging at specific instances where the UN-flagged troops appear to have taken sides during their position-neutral mission, including most recently UNIFIL publicly detailing IDF troop movements in southern Lebanon via Press releases on the United Nations website.

To that end, the IDF uncovered a Hizballah bunker that is described as being “a mere stone’s throw” from an existing UNIFIL post. It is troubling to Israel that the bunker had “shooting positions of poured concrete” complete with phone lines, showers, toilets, air ducts, and emergency exits as well as Katyusha rockets. A 40-meter wide bunker stretching 2 kilometers complete with poured concrete and amenities cannot possibly have been constructed within such close proximity unnoticed by UNIFIL troops, historically mandated with a primary mission of observation and monitoring.

While Nasrallah’s Hizballah is attempting damage control in the eyes of the Lebanese public, many Lebanese are increasingly vocal in their anger at Nasrallah’s arrogant assumption of Lebanese foreign policy decision-making authority. At the same time, criticism from the other side of Lebanon’s tense border makes it clear that the newly mandated UNIFIL expansion must carry with it a fundamental change in operational procedures and practices – including delivering on its requirement to disarm Hizballah – if the ceasefire between Israel and Hizballah is to have any hope of lasting. It is clearly in the interests of both the Israeli public and the Lebanese people.

New British Commander Updates on Iraqi South

Last week Lieutenant General Robert Fry, Britian’s highest level officer in Iraq and Deputy Commander of Multinational Force-Iraq, gave his second Pentagon press briefing since taking command in May. Most notable were his comments on the security situation in Basra (see our August 11 report on this issue) and Iranian arms smuggling. Also of significance last week was the withdrawal of British troops from a base near Amara in the Maysan Province, on Iraq’s southeast border with Iran. This appears to have been related to a need to redeploy British troops to deal with Iranian activity, although the withdrawal did not take place without incident. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki also declared that transfer of security control in the Dhiqar Province in Iraq’s south-central region would be postponed, and both military readiness and political conditions were cited.

On August 22 Fry gave a press briefing in Arlington, Virginia in which he discussed a range of issues related to security in southern Iraq (full text of Fry’s comments). General Fry focused on Al-Muthanna, Basra and Iran, saying that Iraqi forces were maintaining security in Al-Muthanna without difficulty but that Basra was more problematic. Excerpted here are some of Fry’s comments especially germane to key security issues:

…As far as Basra itself is concerned, I think we’ve had an intervention of central government into local government. And I’m sure you’re aware that Prime Minister Maliki intervened in terms of the local security architecture, to make sure that a committee answerable directly to him would be put in place and make sure that he could have the most intimate control over what was going on in Basra…

I think I made a particular reference to Muthanna rather than Basra. Basra is an entirely separate province, and indeed the situation is different there. I think we’ve got a complex situation in Basra quite different from the situation in Baghdad and quite different from the one that we see, for example, in Anbar province.

The situation in Basra is about the competition for wealth and power, but within one concessional community, in this case, the Shi’a community, and I think we have what are essentially a political contest in particular between various factions. Now, to some extent, those factions have infiltrated not so much the Iraqi army, but some elements of the Iraqi police service. We recognize that, and we’re going to great lengths to make sure that those people who have been successful at infiltrating themselves are turfed out. And we’ve done a series of detention operations recently in order to bring about exactly that.

Now, again, I mentioned earlier on the fact that Prime Minister Maliki has intervened personally in Basra, and it was precisely to ensure that this happened, that he made that intervention. So I think that we do face problems, but we recognize precisely what those problems are, and we’re taking remedial measures to make sure that they’re properly addressed.

I think we’ve got some pretty clear evidence of the way in which the Iranians are involved in sectarian violence, and certainly we know that some of the arms coming into this country and being used in attacks against the security forces are provided by Iran. Certainly we believe that there is money and maybe even some training being involved for those involved in the use of violence inside Iraq. And on top of that, of course, you have a sustained Iranian rhetoric, both within the region as a whole but also making its views on the situation inside Iraq known very, very clearly…

A significant event this past week was the withdrawal of British forces from a base near Amara, the capital of the Maysan Province. The base, a former Baathist regime military installation, was called Camp Abu Naji, and at least some of the troops were to redeploy along the Iraq-Iran border in the area in order to stop arms smuggling from Iran to Shi’a militias. Unfortunately, the withdrawal did not go smoothly. The Karbala News Agency reported that on August 23, the day before the planned withdrawal, there was an exchange of fire in the Old Hussein neighborhood in Amara. The KNA tends to have a strong anti-Western bias, and gave no indication of an underlying cause other than to say that one individual was killed and locals reacted violently. The British military has not released a press report on the incident.

Then, following the British redeployment away from the Amara area, the abandoned base was ransacked by looters (Washington Post). The incident does not reflect well on local security, although concern for the security of the base after withdrawal does not seem to have been great. British officials responded to questions by saying that the base was now the Iraqis’ responsibility, and the Post notes that local Iraqi forces called the governor to get permission to return fire on armed looters, and apparently did not get it until the looting was almost done. The Post article also noted that there had been mortor shelling from militia elements loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, so the fight in Amara may have been related.

Regarding the situation in the south-central province of Dhiqar, which is directly west of Maysan, the Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn published an article on Wednesday regarding the decision by Prime Minister Maliki to postpone transfer of security responsibility from Italian to Iraqi forces for a time. The article quotes several local figures about the reasons for the decision. Given the recent electoral victory of the left in Italy, the Italian government has decreed that its troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year. Italian forces were criticized for not being interested in the preparedness of Iraqi forces, and Maliki himself gave the lack of military preparation as the prime reason for the postponement.

Yet local officials pointed to political conflicts, and two individuals in particular were blamed. One was the Shi’a cleric Muhammad al-Hassani al-Sarkhi, whose militia elements have been interfering with local security and walking around with their weapons in defiance of the legitimate security forces. Al-Rafidayn makes mention of the recent conflict between Sarkhi’s militia and security forces in Karbala, on which we reported last week. The other figure blamed was Shirwan Al-Wa’ili, a member of the federal parliament from Dhiqar who was the first to declare that Iraqi forces would be taking over, and who was criticized for wanting to take control of the province in any federal autonomy plan, which has been advocated by Shi’a leaders.

August 27, 2006

FNC Journalists Centanni and Wiig Released in Gaza

[Updated below.]

FOX News journalists Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig were released in Gaza, two weeks after their abduction by a group calling iself the Holy Jihad Brigades. As part of their conditional release, Centanni and Wiig were required to make a statement on video tape that they denounced the US and Israel and accepted Islam as their faith, sure to be used for propaganda purposes.

Disturbingly, Haaretz reports that “senior Palestinian security officials said Sunday the name [Holy Jihad Brigades] was a front for local militants, and that Palestinian authorities had known the identity of the kidnappers from the start.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh went one step further, suggesting that not only were the kidnappers local Palestinians, but that al-Qaeda has zero presence in Gaza or the West Bank. Said Haniyeh, “The kidnappers have no link to al-Qaeda or any other organization or faction. al-Qaeda as an organization does not exist in the Gaza Strip.”

While the terrorists who abducted Wiig and Centanni may well have been local Palestinians, the position that there is zero al-Qaeda presence in Gaza or the West Bank runs counter to both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian intelligence statements earlier in the year.

With al-Qaeda’s clear attempts to branch into Lebanon, which has seen mixed success, it is logical that the more chaotic West Bank and Gaza territories are even more enticing locales for al-Qaeda expansion attempts, regardless of Haniyeh’s denial.

A Christian Science Monitor report details the ordeal at the hands of the self-procalimed Holy Jihad Brigades as told by Centanni and Wiig at a press conference following their release. In Centanni’s words, the ordeal began as they traveled the narrow streets of Gaza City two weeks ago. “We were driving down a narrow side street in Gaza City. There was a car stopped in front of us, and before we realized what it was, four of them [gunmen] came over to our car, and stuffed us in the back seat of a tiny Toyota and flipped a black hood over our heads. We were crunched down toward the floor and they sped away.”

After two weeks of captivity and the kidnappers’ demands of all Muslim prisoners release from American prisons having gone ignored, the captors settled for a taped ‘conversion to Islam’ at gunpoint.

Said Olaf Wiig of their abduction, “My biggest concern, really, is that as a result of happened to us, foreign journalists would be discouraged from coming here to tell the story and that would be a great tragedy to the people of Palestine and of Gaza in particular.”

To that end, most foreign news agencies have already pulled their foreign staff members from Gaza.

UPDATE: New Zealand media reports that ‘al-Qaeda Rejects’ Kidnapped Centanni & Wiig in Gaza.

Iran’s Heavy Water Production Plant Opens

In what can be seen as a further negative response to demands that Iran cease uranium enrichment activities, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took part in a Saturday ceremony officially opening Iran’s first heavy water production plant in Khondab, near the Arak heavy water reactor currently under construction and reportedly due to be operational in less than three years.

One source from within Iran noted that the facility had actually been operational for over a month, indicating that Ahmadinejad’s ceremony was specifically timed to take place during Exploitation Week for international consumption.

Said Ahmadinejad, “We tell the Western countries not to cause trouble for themselves because Iranian people are determined to make progress and acquire technology.” He added that Iran is “not a threat to anybody, even the Zionist regime,” a statement that can only be taken seriously by those who refuse to acknowledge Iran’s material support for Hizballah, founded and guided by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps over twenty years ago.

Iran remains undeterred by nations utilizing a UN vehicle to influence their nuclear operations. If the Arak heavy water reactor comes online when expected, Iran will be producing plutonium for nuclear weapons unhindered in less time than has expired since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The advantage that a heavy water reactor provides – utilizing the heavy water produced by the Khondab site - is the ability to use raw uranium ore rather than enriched uranium as fuel, completely circumventing the enrichment process Iran is now perfecting. One of the valuable byproducts of the spent fuel is plutonium. By weight, it takes little more than 15% of the weight of a uranium bomb to produce the same nuclear explosive results using plutonium. This makes a plutonium weapon far easier to deliver via missile, which Iran is also developing at a sprinter’s pace with North Korean assistance.

Before Ahmadinejad’s ceremonial opening of the heavy water production plant, Ayatollah Hojatoleslam Khatami, a member of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, during Friday prayers in Tehran “called on Russia and China, the two veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council, not to fall [into the] trap of the US.” While they have been largely recognized as ‘on board’ in calling for Iran’s cessation of uranium enrichment, whether Russia and/or China will actually vote for meaningful sanctions to be put on Iran is in doubt.

Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami warned in a Tokyo speech that the West is “pouring gasoline over a fire,” and reiterated that Iran simply wants to acquire nuclear technology to generate electricity for its citizens. With much controversy, Khatami has been issued a visa to visit and speak in the United States in September at the Washington National Cathedral.

With the ongoing and unhindered Iranian nuclear program advancing along apace and Iran’s repeated claims of only seeking peaceful nuclear power, it must be recognized that there is little physical distinction between a civilian and a military nuclear program. As the research director at the Arms Control Association, Wade Boese, put it, “If you have a civilian nuclear program with enrichment and reprocessing facilities, you can have a military program. The civilian versus military is kind of what comes out at the end — bombs or energy.”

It is not a technical matter. It comes down to a matter of human emotion: Trust.

Do those in the West trust that the world’s premiere state sponsor of terrorism seeks nuclear power, whether through light water reactors, heavy water reactors or both?

August 22, 2006

Court Rules Against Warrantless Wiretaps

A federal district court judge has ruled (full text of decision) that a National Security Agency (NSA) wiretapping program which monitors communications between terrorist suspects outside the United States and individuals inside the U.S. is both unconstitutional and in violation of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The suit was filed by a variety of organizations and individuals, including the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued that the program violated their First Amendment right to free speech. They further contended that it violated FISA, which requires that a warrant be obtained if persons involved in the communications are “U.S. persons.” They made a similar argument regarding a NSA data-mining program. The government argued that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the application of the “state secrets privilege,” which requires dismissal of a case if continuance of it would require divulgence of state secrets, and further argued that the individuals in question did not have standing, meaning that they had suffered no individual compensable injury.

The Washington Post described the decision:

A federal judge in Detroit ruled yesterday that the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program is unconstitutional, delivering the first decision that the Bush administration’s effort to monitor communications without court oversight runs afoul of the Bill of Rights and federal law.

U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor ordered a halt to the wiretap program, secretly authorized by President Bush in 2001, but both sides in the lawsuit agreed to delay that action until a Sept. 7 hearing. Legal scholars said Taylor’s decision is likely to receive heavy scrutiny from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit when the Justice Department appeals, and some criticized her ruling as poorly reasoned…

SCOTUS Blog has a more detailed discussion of the decision. According to this and other published reports, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ claims as to the data-mining program, but concluded that the state secrets privilege did not apply to the wiretapping program because the government had admitted to its existence and discussed it in sufficient detail for the court to rule on its constitutionality and legality. The court found that the free speech of the plaintiffs had been harmed because individuals living in the Middle East sometimes refused to speak to them over the phone for fear of being wiretapped.

If this decision is upheld, the practical implication would be that wiretaps would have to be delayed several hours for a warrant to be obtained. Fuller analysis of this decision and its implications for national security to follow.

August 21, 2006

Iraqi Forces Clash with Shi'a Militia in Karbala

Gunbattles broke out this past week in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala between Iraqi Security Forces and the followers of the Shi’a cleric Mahmud al-Hassani (also called al-Sharkhi), who is described in Western news reports as being hostile to the United States (AP, AP). This account is according to the Associated Press:

…The fighting, which began early Tuesday, spread to at least four other parts of Karbala by afternoon in violation of a curfew. Gunmen in civilian clothes could be seen firing AK-47 rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at army patrols and running away. Soldiers fired indiscriminately at groups of gunmen roaming the streets.

The violence started after Iraqi soldiers raided the office of cleric Mahmoud al-Hassani before dawn, apparently because his supporters had taken over a field behind the building for security reasons, said Ahmed al-Ghazali, an aide to the cleric. He claimed the soldiers opened fire but the cleric’s supporters did not respond. Army officials could not be immediately reached to confirm the claim…

It sounds like AP may have gotten a one-sided version of events here; where there is a legal security force and an illegal militia, the security forces will need to have robust rules of engagement to fire at men in civilian clothes carrying weapons in the streets if they are going to survive. The Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada reports that the initial conflict was caused when Hassani made a statement on Iraqi TV urging his militia to gather in Karbala, and government forces decided to cut them off from the city so that security control might remain in the hands of official forces.

Al-Rafidayn reported on the issue, and it included a statement from supporters of Hassani but notes that he agreed to respect the authority of the government. It further reported that Hawza al-Sadiq, Hassani’s office, was placed under guard, and the entire city was placed under curfew until Friday. It is clear from the article that the local civilian provincial administration was involved in calling in the security forces, as they are described as pressuring Hassani to obey the law. The truce agreement itself is between them and Hassani, not Hassani and the security forces.

A separate article in Al-Rafidayn reported that when the dust had settled, five had been killed, including two from the security services, 17 injured and 281 militiamen taken prisoner. This same article quotes a variety of businessmen by name as complaining about the increase in the price of food due to restrictions on vehicles entering the city during the week, and as a result people couldn’t afford food. One seller of vegetables, Ali Hussein, said that “We understand what the security services are doing because of events which have happened here in the city but prices have increased and this is the law of the market…” It is notable that Karbala citizens are willing to be quoted by name both supporting the government against a local cleric and complaining about the conditions brought about by government actions.

Iraqi Shi’ism has a loose authority structure that allows for individual clerics to sponsor political parties and/or militias loyal to themselves while still giving token deference to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, recognized as Iraq’s senior religious figure. The cleric involved here, Hassani, is not an ayatollah, but nevertheless he has armed men working outside legitimate security services working for him. Karbala is considered to be the holiest city in Shi’a Islam, being the site of the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who had risen up against the then-ruling Umayyad dynasty (661-750 AD), viewing it as unislamic.

This is how things need to work for order to be maintained in Iraq and the legitimacy of the state to be preserved - no American troops were involved as Iraqi Security Forces troops and local police responded to a request by local civilian authorities to maintain order against a militia. While initial reports indicated that the security forces were having difficulties keeping militiamen off the streets, they forced Hassani to agree to a statement favorable to the government, and appear to have prevented a large-scale incident.

Iran Defense: New Doctrine, Old Doctrine

As part of the ongoing ‘Blow of Zolfaghar’ operations along Iran’s border regions, Iran test fired 10 Saegheh surface-to-surface missiles in the southeast desert of Iran between Tehran and the Afghanistan border. The Saegheh missiles have a stated range of between about 50 and 150 miles and are not believed to be nuclear-capable.

Blow of Zolfaghar OpsThe maneuvers have been described by Iran as having the purpose of implementing and practicing a “new defensive doctrine.” However, upon closer inspection, very little appears to be ‘new’ and, in fact, looks to be an indigenous implementation of the strategy, tactics and weaponry employed by Hizballah in the latest hot conflict with Israel.

The implementation of the doctrine developed for Hizballah and shepherded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Lebanon was made abundantly clear when Iranian Army commander Maj. Gen. Ataollah Salehi said of the maneuvers, “The enemy has gone insane because of the capabilities of Lebanon’s Hizballah. And given the insane enemy’s history, we should always be prepared.” Clearly, however, it is Iran’s Hizballah, not Lebanon’s.

Ironically, Iranian Army spokesman General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani said last week, “We have to be prepared against any threat and we should be a role model for other countries.” But Hizballah has been the role model, albeit through Iranian doctrine, training, funding and weapons supplies.

Most lethal for the IDF in Lebanon was Hizballah’s supply of AT-14 Kornet anti-tank missiles capable of defeating the Merkavas’ Active Armor through a double-explosive timed warhead. But also effective against IDF ground forces were elaborate tunnel systems used for hiding and moving men and weapons, body armor, night vision goggles and night vision cameras placed at observation posts, top-notch encrypted communications gear, and computer-equipped command bunkers among iranantitankmissilehizballah.pngother assorted tools of the trade normally associated with a state army, including the immense stores of various Iranian/Syrian rockets and missiles – including the C-802 anti-ship missile and UAV’s.

The overall employment of these assets – along with intensely motivated terrorist foot soldiers and blended IRGC ‘human resources’ – took the form of swarming ambushes on IDF units on ground that Hizballah was intimately familiar with and had prepared – with Iran - well in advance and over the course of six years since the Israeli pullout of 2000.

The difference between the indigenous Iranian implementation of the Hizballah experiment is that the Saegheh surface-to-surface missiles tested this weekend would be employed against advancing troops invading Iranian territory rather than rained down on civilian population centers. But, Iran has more than enough in its arsenal to take that task on simultaneously as well.

The extent to which Iran intends to take on any new defensive posture now may be indicated by the words of Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi, who condemned Israel in more ways than one when he said, “It has now been proved more than ever that the existence of the Zionist regime in this region is the root cause of tensions and crises in the Middle-East.” He went on, adding, “The events that took place in Lebanon mark the count down for the Zionist regime’s collapse.”

The significance of his reference to the very “existence” of Israel – as opposed to Israel’s actions or perceived belligerence - should not be dismissed. Iran’s ‘Blow of Zolfaghar’ operation conveniently puts the lion’s share of forces on her east and west borders in a ready-made defense.

It is not beyond plausibility that Iran may be preparing not a ‘new defensive doctrine,’ but rather a perimeter defense at the ready for the next round of fighting between Iran’s Hizballah foreign legion and Israel in conjunction with their expected defiance of UN Security Council demands that they cease their uranium enrichment program.

Exploitation Week: The August 22 Iranian Kickoff

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi made the Iranian position clear as he reiterated that Iran wants to negotiate everything…except enrichment. Said Asefi, “Everything has to come out of negotiations. Suspension is not on our agenda.”

He went on, doing nothing to clear the muddied waters that have served Iran so well on the international stage thus far. Adding that “the proposal has had several dimensions, our answer will be multi-dimensional too,” Iran may hope to exhaust the muddy waters strategy even in refusing both the West’s incentives package and the UN Security Council demands that Iran halt all enrichment activities by August 30. Whether Iran finds enough receptive audience members remaining to further the game is an unanswered question, yet Iran appears confident in their gamble that they will find useful interference once again.

The “multi-dimensional response” from Iran in the next 48 hours can be expected to be consistent with their past position that they are always willing to negotiate, but that enrichment is an ‘inalienable right’ and thus non-negotiable. There is little else the West cares to negotiate, considering the incentives package included more reactors and outside fuel supplies along with lopsided trade packages and the lifting of sanctions already in place.

Aside from an unobstructed nuclear weapons program, Iran continues to profit directly from the conflict they have a hand in stirring, as oil prices are once again on the rise. With 80% of Iran’s revenues generated from oil and natural gas export, fiery rhetoric translates into windfalls.

Little of that windfall, however, finds its way to the Iranian public, as it is largely used to fund the enormous expense of the Iranian nuclear weapons program and external forays, such as the ‘Hearts and Minds’ public relations effort currently being underwritten by the Iranian government in Lebanon in order to solidify public support for Hizballah going forward. As much as $12,000 per person is being handed out to Lebanese civilians for no more than producing identification and signing a receipt. That Iran ensured Hizballah once again delivered aid before the Lebanese government is a major reason for Hizballah’s popularity in Lebanon, with their Iranian-suppled handouts far more popular than the fanatical religious ideology that drives Hizballah’s incessant war with Israel.

While the Iranian government enjoys the windfall at least partially driven by their own rhetoric – an redistributes that windfall away from its own population – they will also enjoy more than a full week between their anticipated August 22 response to the West’s nuclear package and the actual August 31 deadline for enrichment cessation.

Iran’s response on August 22 can be expected to be a Muddy Waters approach, including a refusal to cease enrichment couched within calls for negotiation and diplomatic talks. Little if any change in position from any point selected at random over the past three years should be expected. In the week that will follow, Iran will be gauging the American and European response, looking to exploit cracks and weaknesses ahead of the August 31 UNSC deadline.

The Security Council handed Iran this exploitation buffer by naming their firm deadline only after Ahmadinejad announced his own August 22 intentions. For those suspicious of nefarious action by Iran on August 22, perhaps the date on the calendar to circle for vigilance is August 31 instead. Iran is likely to enjoy their gift-wrapped ‘Exploitation Week’ far too much to pass up.

August 19, 2006

Second Battle of Baghdad Underway

The month of July may have been the deadliest since the fall of the Baathist regime, with Baghdad alone having about 2,000 killed, mostly civilians. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s security plan for the capital, Operation Together Forward, began in late June, but has mostly consisted of scattered raids on Sunni terror cells and Shi’a death squads, while an expected neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweep-and-hold operation of the entire city has been kept on hold until this week. Over the past few weeks U.S. troops have been realigning from outlaying areas, handing over security control to Iraqi forces and moving toward Baghdad. Referred to as “Phase II,” this more systematic urban offensive seems to have begun this week.

Regarding the achievements of Phase I, MNF-I has reported that “During Phase I, which began July 9, Iraqi Security Forces and MND-B Soldiers have killed or captured 411 murderers associated with death squads. Together the combined forces conducted more than 32,382 combat patrols, seized more than 43 weapons and ammunition caches.” A large number of coalition raids have taken place successfully recently in Baghdad and elsewhere, including raid in the Arab Jabour area of Baghdad in which 60 terrorists suspects were captured. The targets of the operation were believed to be associated with a senior al-Qaeda leader specializing in bomb making and IED attacks. These efforts, however, have obviously been inadequate.

Al-Hayat has more details on Phase II, reporting that an additional 5,500 American and 6,000 Iraqi troops are to reinforce the capital. This is part of a realignment in which the 4th Iraqi Army Division is taking over security for Kirkuk (Al-Ta’meem Province), Salah al-Din Province (Samarra is the capital) and Sulaymaniya Province; all in the Sunni north. This adds to the provinces of al-Muthana (Samawa), al-Dhiqar (Nasiriya) and Maysan, all in the south, so that six provinces are now under Iraqi security. The article quotes the head of Baghdad security, Mahdi Sabih, as specifically mentioning that the areas of Dawra, al-Khadra’ and al-‘Aamariya as areas of focus.

And it was in al-‘Aamariya that coalition forces began Phase II this week. As reported by MNF-I:

…The Iraqi and Coalition forces searched about 6,000 houses and buildings in the Ameriya neighborhood, said Jaleel. The local citizens requested the market area be secured first. “We re-opened shops that had been closed and a neighborhood gas station,” he said. The 2nd Brigade Combat Team commander, Col. Robert Scurlock Jr., re-iterated Jaleel’s point, noting that people are returning to the streets. “More than 50 percent of the shops have re-opened,” Jaleel said.

Jaleel and Scurlock see the market as a way to repair the neighborhood that was torn apart by violence. “We want to get the stores open and get people back to a normal life,” said Scurlock. He credited his fellow troops for helping to restore peace in Ameriya. “It’s the dedication of Iraqi soldiers and their professionalism and sharing information with Coalition forces,” said Scurlock. According to Scurlock, eight arrests were made and 128 weapons seized. “We’re making progress,” he said…

Once U.S. and Iraqi forces have swept an area, it will be up to Iraqi national police to maintain order. According to MNF-I, Iraqi Interior Ministry forces, considered the national police, have reached 92 percent of the intended strength of 188,000, and are 90 percent trained and 83 percent equipped. Of those areas of Baghdad outside the control of the government, some are controlled by Sunni jihadists, some by Shi’a militia cells, and some are subject to total chaos. It will now be up to U.S. and Iraqi troops to lock down these neighborhoods one by one, and Iraqi police will then have to hold them. Their mettle will be verified soon.

The death toll in Baghdad during July was simply ghastly, and Phase II of the offensive could not be put off any longer if the government was to retain credibility. The violence has of course grabbed the headlines in the Western press; the Iraqi media has contained articles with headlines about people waking up in the morning and finding bodies in the streets or floating in the river. Suicide attacks have continued to succeed in August; a suicide bomber killed nine in Samarra on August 7, four different bombers killed a total of 19 in Baghdad on the 8th, a bombing in Najaf on the 10th targeting a Shi’a shrine killed 35, multiple bombs killed more than 40 on the 13th in Baghdad, and on the 16th multiple bombs killed another 21 in Baghdad, among other attacks.

Aside from the apparently increased efficacy of the Iraqi military, the main positive in July came from the strong reception to the prime minister’s amnesty and reconciliation initiative, which we have discussed in a number of previous reports. This draining of the domestic Iraqi insurgency may explain the apparent ease with which Iraqi troops have now taken over several provinces, although time will tell whether the government can maintain its hold on these areas, especially those in the Sunni center and west. Those who are seeking to destroy Iraqi public’s consensus in favor of reconciliation - largely foreign jihadists, mainly al-Qaeda, and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army - have stepped into what would have been a void in violence and actually increased it by focusing on civilians rather than U.S. or Iraqi troops. So while some of the pieces have been coming together for the Iraqi government, time is not on the government’s side, and the Second Battle of Baghdad can wait no more.

August 18, 2006

Synchronicity?

Iran has announced that it is going to begin major military maneuvers on Saturday, August 19, just two days ahead of its expected response to the West’s nuclear proposal designed to entice them away from nuclear enrichment and, thus, nuclear weapons.

Iranian General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani announced that the exercise, “Blow of Zolfaghar,” will be extensive and “take place in West and East Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Baluchestan va Sistan, and Khorasan provinces.” This covers the Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey borders completely, as well as the Iraqi border from Turkey south past Kirkuk towards Baghdad.

The UK’s Times notes that border patrols throughout have been increased since last week and observes that Iran’s “bristly gestures will only add to regional tension.”

Whatever does – or does not – happen with regards to Iran on August 22nd, the following eight days after their expected response leading up to the August 30 deadline set by the United Nations Security Council will almost certainly be filled with diplomatic wrangling. Ahmadinejad will work hard to convince the world that Iran is indeed finally prepared to somehow negotiate what is repeatedly called their ‘inalienable right.’

But after August 30 passes, the United States expects UN sanctions against Iran to be put in place with little delay. This position presumes cooperation from both Russia and China, each of whom have been clear in the past that they oppose any sanctions against their valued trading partner, though they have used nuanced language of late softening this position.

How they react when push comes to shove at the Security Council will be telling. It very well may not be as hoped for by an America percieved to be weaker in the international community as the days, conflicts and events go by without pause.

The timing of what is termed ‘defensive exercises’ announcement by Iran is curious, especially in light of word that a North Korean nuclear test could be imminent. American satellite images have detected “suspicious vehicle movement” near the P’unggye-yok underground test facility in North Korea. Reportedly observed by US intelligence were long cables being run into the underground facility, a process used to connect sensors near an underground blast to monitoring equipment above ground and a safe distance away.

This activity was also observed last year, but no nuclear test was undertaken.

One speculation – taking the events and forcing them into the same context – would interpret the Iranian exercises as an actual perimeter defense deployment ahead of events known by Iran and expected to be perceived as provocative. That event could potentially be an Iranian rejection of the nuclear proposal simultaneous with a nuclear demonstration by their chief technology proliferation partner, North Korea.

While this is an example of speculation, at least considering such possibilities becomes increasingly important as Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic fellow-believers gain more and more power within Iran. (Note the sudden absence of student protests that were so prevalent until recently.) Ahmadinejad’s faithful membership within the Hojjatieh Society guides his thinking and his choices for leadership positions within Iran, as the Hojjatieh seek to “pave the way for the return of the Mahdi.”

Westerners would find Hojjatieh beliefs and practices so disturbing as to be hardly believable. Yet these are indeed the beliefs and practices of the increasingly more powerful Iranian president and his mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, often referred to as “The Crocodile,” for his beneath-the-surface exercise of political power, and as “The Sorcerer,” for his cultic religious practices, the likes of which most Americans would dismiss as insane and, therefor, impossible to be true among a nation’s powerful elite.

Yet, through Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Yazdi, unthinkable belief structure is increasingly guiding the direction of Iranian policy, strategy and actions.

The world can scarcely afford to underestimate the mindset of the Iranian president as he accrues more and more power within Iran, including solid allegiance from the Bassij and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which in many ways should be increasingly considered in parallel to Hitler’s SS.

August 16, 2006

Iran Defiantly Shares Hizballah Victory

While the world appears dismissive of Israeli evidence of Hizballah’s advanced Russian anti-tank missiles obtained from Iran and Syria, for the Iranians, the victory celebration shared with fellow-enabler Syria and Hizballah continues unabated.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a fiery speech in Iran, in which he proclaimed that, through Hizballah’s victory, delivered more at the hands of a lack of will on the part of Israel and the West than by Hizballah’s proclaimed might, “God’s promises have come true.” Ahmadinejad’s again speech included more defiant intransigence toward the UN Security Council’s demand that Iran cease its enrichment program, saying, “If they think they can use a resolution as a stick against us, they should know that Iranian people do not bend to language of force.”

In an answer to those wondering what Iran’s response to the West’s proposal and UN demands may be, Ahmadinejad telegraphed, “We will give our response on the announced date [Rajab 27 - August 21 & 22], and our reply will be based on defending the absolute rights of the Iranian people.” The Iranian crowd followed that by chanting “Nuclear energy is our undeniable right.” There should be little question as to the substance of the coming Iranian response, leaving to question only the nature of the response.

While Ahmadinejad was praising the Iranian foreign legion, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, who sits on the regime’s Assembly of Experts, warned Israel to beware Iran’s missile capabilities declaring “They must fear the day (Iran’s) 2,000-kilometre range missiles land in the heart of Tel Aviv.” This was preceded by praise for Hizballah and their Iranian Katyushas for turning “Israel into a country of ghosts.”

Following the weekend IDF takeover of Ghandouriyeh, a south Lebanese town just east of the coastal Hizballah stronghold of Tyre, Israel found evidence of Russian-made advanced anti-tank missiles supplied through Syria. Outside a mosque, the IDF discovered a van loaded with the empty casings of 6-foot long AT-5 Spandrel anti-tank missiles of Russian design. Serial numbers identified the design of the missile that once filled the tubes. Iran began duplicating the wire-guided anti-tank weapon in 2000.

But even more troubling was another nearby find by the IDF, where eight Syrian-supplied Russian Kornet anti-tank missiles were found unexpended near a Hizballah post. The Kornet is a laser-guided anti-tank missile with a 3-mile range, and the warhead is of a double-blast design in order to defeat modern armor technologies. Written on the casings of each of the Kornets was “Customer: Ministry of Defence of Syria. Supplier: KBP, Tula, Russia.”

Hizballah’s state-supplied anti-tank capabilities was the primary cause for the IDF’s cautious ground operational pace as well as the cause of death for most of its losses incurred while engaging Hizballah terrorists.

Whether or not the world will choose to acknowledge this clear evidence of state-sponsorship of terrorism remains to be seen. Critics will likely argue that it will not, lest such disturbing information disrupt the recently won peace in the region through the UN-inspired ceasefire.

As the Israeli evidence was being made public, Syria’s Bahsar Assad was delivering a speech of his own, praising Hizballah and echoing Iran’s Ahmadinejad by declaring that any American vision of the Middle East “has now become an illusion” on the heels of Hizballah’s victory. Assad continued, “We tell them (Israelis) that after tasting humiliation in the latest battles, your weapons are not going to protect you - not your planes, or missiles, or even your nuclear bombs. The future generations in the Arab world will find a way to defeat Israel.”

The German foreign minister canceled his planned Syria trip mid-flight, describing Assad’s words as “going in completely the wrong direction.” Whether or not supplying Hizballah with lethal laser-guided Russian Kornet anti-tank missiles is interpreted as also “going in completely the wrong direction” remains to be seen.

Two US-Iraqi Raids Against the Sadriya

U.S. and Iraqi government forces have repeatedly clashed with the Shi’a militia loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, referred to as the Mahdi Army. Tensions have been high, as we have reported on several occasions (see especially our July 26 report, Sadr Faction Threatens to Turn on Maliki Government). There were two more important clashes this past week, the first on Monday August 7, targeting a Mahdi death squad. Reactions to the raid revealed strains within the government, as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki claimed not to have been aware of the raid, and criticized it, while the Iraqi Defense Ministry confirmed approval. The second clash, this past Sunday, targeted militiamen in the Iraqi Health Ministry, which is headed by a Sadrist cabinet member, Ali al-Shamri.

Western and military sources (MNF-I, Reuters) indicate that the initial raid, which took place in Sadr City, Baghdad, involved a two-hour fight in which two Iraqis were killed and 18 wounded (from Sadr City), while one American soldier was injured. The raid targeted a Shi’a squad which was involved vigilante attacks and torturing of the Sunni.

The reaction within the Iraqi government shows the strain from the ongoing conflict with the Shi’a militia, aggravated by the fact that the Sadr faction has 30 members in parliament and holds seats in the cabinet. As reported by the Karbala News Agency, Prime Minister Maliki claimed that the operation was not authorized, yet the Iraqi defense ministry confirmed emphatically that it was authorized. A spokesman was quoted as saying that the operation took place “with the knowledge of the Iraqi government… and with the knowledge of the defense ministry, executed by forces under the authority of the ministry… with participation and support from American forces.”

Leading members of the Sadriya in parliament, as quoted in Al-Hayat, argued that U.S. forces were attempting to draw them into open conflict, something which is looking more and more inevitable as Sunni complaints of Mahdi attacks on civilians continue. Yet Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, while “mediating” between U.S. forces and the Sadrists, openly recognized that they were engaging in illegal activities. As reported separately by a KNA report and by the Al-Hayat article linked above, Talabani stood by U.S. General George Casey at a press conference and said he would ask U.S. forces to release Sadrist prisoners “incrementally” and that he also wanted the Sadrists to “avoid interfering in security matters and respect the law.” The KNA article also quoted Talabani as saying that “it is not in the interests of the government or the Sadr faction or the Americans” to engage in confrontation.

Part of the problem may be timing; with Israel and Hizballah fighting in Lebanon and criticism of Israel running high in Iraq, Maliki must have felt pressured to criticize the anti-Sadr raid. There have been several anti-Sadr raids over the past several weeks that have drawn no comment from the prime minister, although there was one in which the Shi’a interior minister claimed that an attack was unauthorized, even though the Sunni defense minister said that it was (no U.S. attacks on the Mahdi Army have taken place recently without approval from the defense ministry). The Sadrists themselves stated – and this was reported all over the Iraqi media – that the U.S. was attacking them because they were protesting over Lebanon.

Despite the split in the government caused by last week’s raid, on Sunday U.S. and Iraqi forces launched another anti-Sadr raid, but this time against Sadrists in the health ministry. According to Al-Hayat, American and Iraqi troops raided the health ministry for the third time Sunday, and arrested seven personal guards of the Sadrist minister, which suggests that they were members of the Mahdi Army. The U.S. military has not yet issued a report on the raid, but there is no indication that this raid has aroused the controversy of the previous one.

August 15, 2006

Israel Creates Vacuum for Hizballah

With a full day of ceasefire in effect, Israel has begun its troop pullout from southern Lebanon, including a complete vacation of the Marjayoun corridor, taken just two days ago in an effort, now reduced to meaningless, to seal off Hizballah’s Bekaa Valley supply line into southern Lebanon.

In the ‘final ground push,’ launched only after the UN ceasefire deal had been agreed to in principle, Israel sacrificed 33 IDF soldiers. Today, any gains against Hizballah won at the cost of their sacrifice appear washed away as the Israeli withdrawal now underway creates an increasing vacuum in their wake.

The world watches long lines of Lebanese vehicles streaming back southward and celebrates the peace this signifies. But as those vehicles stream to fill the void in the south, who is to say how many of the civilians returning to their homes are Hizballah terrorists – with no uniform for identity- retaking their positions?

To that end, who is to say that Hizballah is not only celebrating a victory, but also the reconstitution of their Southern Human Shield Defense ranks?

To the south in Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faces intense criticism form all sides in the handling of the campaign against Hizballah. Seeking success that he may attach to the campaign, Olmert noted the yet-untold effects of the Israeli operations against Hizballah. Said Olmert, “(Israeli) soldiers have, to an extent not yet publicly disclosed, battered this murderous organization, its military and organizational infrastructure, its long-term capabilities, its huge arsenal, which it built over many years, and also the self-confidence of its members and leaders.”

But as Israelis indeed welcome their selfless soldiers back home and are relieved to be able to venture out of their bomb shelters in some confidence and safety, their eyes also see the Lebanese stream southward in their soldiers’ wake, too wise to believe that Hizballah is not among them, retaking their positions and celebrating their new-found legitimacy, anointed by the United Nations and approved by their chief political leader.

As many Israelis feel betrayed, they recognize that it was not out of disloyalty, but rather ineptitude to an arguable degree. There appears a very steep price to be paid by leaders within Israel, and it will likely be exacted sooner rather than later.

For as the world remains intent on celebrating what it insists is peace, Israelis can see the vacuum forming to the north before any international force is even agreed to by participants. And Israelis can here sabers continuing to be rattled, with renewed confidence, by none other than Iran.

Olmert’s fate may well be sealed neither by any specific action of his own nor criticism from other Israeli politicians, but rather by the renewed confidence in words spoken by those who seek to destroy her. For, from Iran, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami claimed victory and declared with the confidence of a victor that Israel “must fear the day (Iran’s) 2,000-kilometre range missiles land in the heart of Tel Aviv.”

While the world is determined to celebrate ‘peace,’ Israelis are wise enough to recognize that the war has simply returned to its less visible state.

August 13, 2006

Iraq Begins Crackdown on Kurdistan Workers' Party

The Iraqi government has closed the Baghdad offices of the Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, an anti-Turkish terrorist organization, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has promised his Turkish counterpart that no PKK activities will be tolerated in Iraq. Not only do Iraq and Turkey both have significant Kurdish minorities, but the two countries also have an important bilateral petroleum trade relationship. Yet despite this action in Baghdad the problem remains in Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, where the PKK has its main Iraqi presence, and reports from yesterday indicated continuing missile fire across the border from not only Turkey but Iran as well. Turkish military activities in Iraqi Kurdistan have been ongoing periodically, as we noted in a recent report, and more recently by the Counterterrorism Blog, the latter being a greater escalation.

This is from the Turkish newspaper Zaman (English):

…Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliqi [sic] called his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and informed that they had taken the decision to enforce the closure of the organization’s offices in Bagdat (Baghdad) and ban all its activities. “We will not allow the PKK to shelter anywhere in Iraq,” al-Maliki said in the half-an-hour phone conversation from the Iraqi capital… [and] emphasized that they will keep working in cooperation with Turkey and the United States…

Immediately after releasing a statement concerning the talks between the two prime ministers, Iraqi Prime Ministry announced its decision to enforce the closure of the organization’s offices in Baghdad and the banning of all PKK activities. Iraqi authorities had formerly given some verbal guarantees that they would close down the PKK Baghdad offices. The first concrete statement on this issue was however made yesterday…

The Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn (Arabic) also carried a story on the issue, and added that Maliki also addressed to Erdogan the transport of oil derivatives from Turkey to Iraq. Iraq exports oil to Turkey, and this appears to be a reference to the Iraqi dependence on Turkish refining capacity.

The Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada (Arabic; second article from the top) also contained a reference to the issue in an article on Iraqi Kurdistan, noting that both Turkey and Iran were launching missiles across the border Saturday morning, targeting anti-Turkish and anti-Iranian Kurdish rebels. While Turkey was clearly targeting the PKK, the article does not make clear the target of the Iranian attacks. It is possible that this incident is related to Iran’s ongoing conflict with the Party for Freedom and Life in Kurdistan (PJAK). Although the PJAK appears to have ties to the PKK, it claims to be a separate organization seeking peaceful change in Iran. The article, published earlier Sunday, indicated that the firing was still going on at the time of publication.

August 12, 2006

Operation Waffle Iron: Ceasefires and Rolling Tanks

On a day that appeared a microcosm of Israeli inconsistency displayed since the beginning of the current campaign against Hizballah in Lebanon, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert waffled his way to accepting UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for an end to Hizballah attacks and Israeli offensive operations.

Following weeks of troops massing at the border and limited ground operations a few kilometers into – and back out of – southern Lebanon, a decisive ground incursion seemed to have finally been launched as Olmert rejected the UNSC draft resolution as too weak and approved (once again) the expansion of the ground offensive to clear Hizballah and its rockets from southern Lebanon. Reports of massive numbers of tanks rolling on the ground began to saturate news coverage.

Before long, news began to surface that Olmert had indeed decided to accept the UNSC resolution and present it to his cabinet for expected passage Sunday morning. But even still, Israel remains wary that any force, Lebanese, international or otherwise, will possess the will to disarm Hizballah.

Marjayoun Corridor 2006To this end, a major ground offensive appears to indeed be underway in southern Lebanon as reports emerge of approximately 30,000 IDF troops on the ground in southern Lebanon Saturday. While Israel has agreed to the text of the UNSC resolution, it remains clear that Israel will not create a vacuum in southern Lebanon for Hizballah to flow freely into with fresh men and a re-supply of arms while the ‘international community’ debates the constitution of any such international force.

Yesterday, in what appears the first stage of the offensive, the IDF converged on the city of Marjayoun and the surrounding areas. Marjayoun is situated between the eastern elbow of the Litani River and the border of Israel. With bridges across the Litani River destroyed, this land gap at its elbow serves as the remaining ground conduit between the southern Lebanon ‘Katyusha Brigades’ and launch sites and Hizballah’s Bekaa Valley strongholds from which they would be re-supplied. The taking of the Marjayoun corridor is key to slamming shut the door and sealing off the southern Lebanon AO.

From the south, the IDF has crossed into Lebanon in force, reportedly tripling their presence in what looks to be the long-awaited push northward to the Litani River. But many question whether this is too little too late for any effectiveness, considering the unanimously (15-0) ratified UN resolution that has been initially agreed to by Israel and Lebanon.

For Hizballah’s part, addressed in the resolution as if it were a state and Israel’s equal, Hassan Nasrallah has set conditions for their participation in any ceasefire. Key is the demand that Israel vacate southern Lebanon before they will cease any fighting. This clearly is not going to occur, as Israel refuses – agreement or no agreement – to allow them free reign to reconstitute and re-arm in southern Lebanon along Israel’s northern border.

As Israel continues to target re-supply routes from the Bekaa Valley to Syria, cuts the Marjayoun corridor remaining into the south and sends tanks rolling toward the Litani River, Israel looks to apparently cover as much ground as possible before the cabinet approves the cease-fire measure and commits them to cease offensive operations.

But for Olmert to have left his military commanders merely 48 hours to do so in the face of fierce resistance illustrates why he is in deep political trouble among Israelis, with calls for the centrist Kadima leader’s removal coming from both the political left and right within Israel. Perhaps the Israeli people indeed have a stronger will to engage and defeat Hizballah, even at high cost, than those tasked with such decisions.

August 11, 2006

Maliki Declares Federal Control in Basra

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has appointed a three-man council to takeover security matters in Basra, Iraq’s southern port city. Basra is Iraq’s largest Shi’a majority city, and it has been rife with Shi’a militia squads loyal to either the Fadhila Party or the Sadriya movement of Muqtada al-Sadr. While Basra lacks the high-profile suicide attacks which grab headlines in Baghdad and surrounding areas, the militias and simple criminality have hampered the city during the three years in which British troops have overseen external security while attempting to train local police to maintain law and order.

Basra has furthermore been a sore spot for the central government in Baghdad because of conflicts over control of the local oil infrastructure. During the interim government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Fadhila controlled the oil ministry and were widely accused of using it to enrich themselves. When Maliki came into office he sacked the Fadhila minister and appointed an independent, Hussein al-Shahristani, who has been given credit for cracking down on corruption. Fadhila was elected as part of the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), but retaliated by refusing to participate in the government, and is now in opposition. Although Fadhila is the smallest of the four Shi’a parties which make up the UIA, its power base in Basra gives it strength there (Reuters provides more background on this local power struggle).

Now, as reported in the Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn, the prime minister has appointed a three-man council made up of Ali Hamadi (former border guard chief) as chair, Abd al-Khadr Mahdi (current legate of the Interior Ministry), and General Ali Ibrahim (from the Defense Ministry). The article notes that they were chosen in part because of their independence from local Islamic parties, presumably meaning Fadhila and the Sadriya. The article states that they carried a letter from the prime minister giving them authority over “all the security organizations” in the Basra Province, including the ability to appoint chiefs of each entity. Effective Tuesday August 7, their authority was to last one month subject to renewal by the prime minister.

Not surprisingly, the decision has not been popular among local officials, and as reported in Al-Hayat, some local officials called on Maliki to rescind the order. While opposition may have been stirred, at least directly, by the loss of authority, this report by Al-Hayat indicates that they are framing their objections in terms of objections to the federalism plan promoted strongly by SCIRI leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who also heads the UIA. Hakim’s plan, which was included in principle in the Iraqi constitution and has been endorsed by the Grand Ayatallah Ali al-Sistani, provides for the creation of a regional authority in the Shi’a south similar to that now existing in Kurdistan, along with another in Baghdad and a fourth in the central areas of the country dominated by Sunnis. While many Sunnis have opposed this, these Shi’a critics claimed that the plan would subsume Basra into the larger Shi’a province, which would naturally be dominated by SCIRI and Maliki’s Dawa Party.

Interestingly, Al-Hayat also quoted Sahib al-‘Amaari, a leader among the Sadrists, as saying that those who favored federalization sought to control the south and “spoil the good things we have here and our link with Iran.” Sadr has come to be viewed as the Shi’a leader most closely aligned with Iran, which also has been providing support to his Mahdi Army. While some have feared that Hakim favored a federal system in order to partition Iraq, and Sunnis have complained that he sought to ensure control over southern Iraq’s oil reserves, this suggests that Hakim may be using it as a power play to outmaneuver his Shi’a rivals.

August 10, 2006

UK Foils 'Operation Bojinka II' Multiple Airliner Plot

British authorities are disclosing that they have foiled a major plot to smuggle explosives into US-bound flights from Heathrow Airport in London and possibly other UK airports and detonate them in-flight. The most recent reports indicate that 21 individuals have been taken into custody from London, Birmingham and in Thames Valley. Many flights into and out of Britain have been cancelled or put on hold or and severe restrictions have been imposed on items that passengers are able to take on flights. It appears that the plot involved a plan to smuggle liquid-explosives onto as many as 10 aircraft and blow them up over the Atlantic Ocean.

Comments from police indicate that the plot involved some sort of liquid chemical. Some luggage restrictions instituted by the British Department of Transportation and reported by the Times (UK) suggest the same; contact lens holders may be taken on board flights, but not bottles of solution, prescription medicines and medical items not in liquid form unless verified as authentic, and other restrictions have been put in place. The article has a full list.

A recent timeline indicates that the arrests began overnight in Britain, with the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre raising the UK threat state to its highest level around 2 a.m., or 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. According to the BBC, as many as 10 aircraft were targeted. Although reports suggest that at least some the plotters were under surveillance for several months, the anti-terror operation was set in action when, as phrased to the BBC, “something happened” and “interesting items” were found that required immediate action. Passengers and their luggage are being closely scrutinized due to the possibility that there might be some sort of “sub-plot, back-up plot around this that the police aren’t aware of” according to an official statement. Authorities suggest that the plot was fairly imminent, not intended for the next day but possibly within the next week or so. The Guardian has a full text of the most recent statement by Scotland Yard.

The BBC report also indicates that the main plotters were “British-born” and that a “good number of community leaders” have been contacted in order to make them aware that a major anti-terror operation was underway. Although at this time authorities have not indicated if the plot was tied to a specific group, memories are still fresh of last July’s underground train bombings which killed 52. London has long been viewed as an incubator for terrorism as Britain’s policy of tolerance for radical Islamic organizations has given the capital city the moniker of “Londonistan” among European anti-terrorism analysts. Time will certainly bear out the details of the origins of this plot.

The BBC’s Britain page can be expected to have updates throughout the day, and currently has live video briefings.

This appears to be a plot that would resemble a “Bojinka II” operation. The original Operation Bojinka - planned by al-Qaeda before September 11, 2001 - sought to blow up multiple US-bound airliners as they flew rom Asia to America over the Pacific Ocean. To learn more about the original Operation Bojinka, read this December 2001 Washington Post article by Matthew Brzezinski titled Bust and Boom.

August 9, 2006

Shifting Gears: Israel Prepares for Push

In its race against the ticking clock of UN patience, Israel is looking to expand the ground war in southern Lebanon in an increasingly urgent fight to destroy Hizballah’s military capabilities before an externally instituted cease-fire is implemented. CBS reports that “key ministers [are] arguing that the military must deal more blows to Hezbollah and score quick battlefield victories before a Mideast cease-fire is imposed.”

This coming change in operational pace may have much to do with why Dan Halutz has sent his deputy chief of staff, Major General Moshe Kaplinsky, to the Lebanese front to oversee operations. The move created some conflict with Major General Udi Adam, commander of the IDF’s Northern Command, and some of his subordinates. But the IDF is likely looking to transition from slow, cautious probing missions toward an all-out blitz.

Hizballah has been banking on such a move as its defenses have been long established to defeat it with ambushes from tunnels and fortified positions with new and effective anti-tank weapons, among other equipment. Thus far, Israel has been cautious on the ground while choking off Hizballah re-supply in the south in an effort to minimize this tactic’s effectiveness.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz chided Russia for its arms shipments to the Middle East, much of which have found their way into Hizballah’s deadly hands. Said Peretz bluntly, “We are fighting against the Iranian commando, which is armed with sophisticated, modern weaponry. This includes Russian-made anti-tank missiles, which in the past it was promised would not fall into the hands of Hizballah. This weapon is used today against IDF soldiers in Lebanon.”

Each day Israel waits increases the re-supply ‘starvation’ effect. But the UN clock ticks on as the world looks to impose a ceasefire, seemingly at any long-term cost. So the IDF must increase the pace soon to beat that clock, including far more risk to their troops. Overwhelming ground force remains the only way to effectively eliminate Hizballah - and their rockets - from southern Lebanon. The level of troop risk and the amount of time allowed for choking Hizballah re-supply are inversely related, but Israel has little choice as time evaporates.

Many at the UN seem more set on pushing the hands of the UN clock forward with each passing day, as evidenced by the UN’s Human Rights Council’s decision to consider a session to condemn Israel for international human rights violations, largely centered on the Qana incident even though it has been largely debunked as initially presented.

That no such session has been considered regarding Hizballah terrorist rocket attacks upon Israeli cities and obvious civilian targeting exposes the bias of the UN council. For Israel, the bar is perfection while eyes remain averted from terrorism by Hizballah.

Yet, while the world’s principal diplomatic forum, the United Nations, allows itself to largely dismiss Hizballah transgressions in pursuit of cornering the Israelis, Israel appears increasingly determined to forge ahead and fight an enemy no one else seems willing to fight, a terrorist enemy that openly seeks its destruction.

Operations in Ramadi & Baghdad Whittle Strongholds

U.S. and Iraqi forces continue their block-by-block liberation of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s western Anbar Province, and the center of gravity for the Sunni insurgency. It is the one Iraqi city of respectable size which has been largely held by insurgents since 2003, although that may be slowly coming to an end. We wrote about the fighting in a recent report, and an article in the Washington Post provides a further update:

…U.S. and Iraqi forces are advancing one step at a time into key locations in Ramadi’s walled neighborhoods, setting up small outposts of about 100 troops each. The goal is to slowly choke off the insurgents’ ability to move freely, making them easier to capture or kill. Meanwhile, Iraqi soldiers, backed by U.S. troops, are to take the lead in patrolling around the outposts, creating small zones of safety for residents that will gradually spread.

Ramadi has lost as much as a quarter of its population of 400,000 since the insurgency began. The city has no effective government and few police officers. Insurgents assassinate officials with impunity, and recently issued a death threat against anyone entering the heavily shelled Government Center downtown. Last month, after the provincial highways director defied the threat, he was captured and beheaded, his body dumped in the street, according to a U.S. military officer.

Joblessness in Ramadi is at least 40 percent and there is no local industry, with utilities and other vital infrastructure regularly blown up by insurgents, U.S. officers say. Residents survive on irregular food rations and wait hours for fuel that often doesn’t arrive. The chaos and stagnation create steady recruits for the insurgency — estimated to have 1,500 hard-core members and hundreds more part-time fighters — even as U.S. and Iraqi forces have killed at least 200 insurgents since June alone…

Still, the new U.S. and Iraqi presence in Mulaab, the most troubled part of eastern Ramadi, is beginning to have an effect. A mosque next door to the outpost that served as an insurgent base has been reopened for daily worship. A water tower nearby is under constant watch and so no longer offers a platform for an enemy sniper who had used it to kill U.S. soldiers.

The outpost also blocks a main route that insurgents had used to bring explosives into the city. They would stash them at a train station in the south and pay teenage boys to ferry them north at night. Until recently, U.S. troops shot the youths — fighting what MacFarland suggests was a losing war of attrition. “We were killing these guys — kids. We could do that forever,” he said. “Were we creating more insurgents that way?”

With new bases in place, those weapons caches have been eliminated.

Key to retaking the neighborhoods are Iraqi army troops, who take the lead in patrols and raids. One moonlit night last month, a platoon of Iraqi soldiers moved quietly through Mulaab on a mission to capture the leader of an insurgent sniper team…

The full article has other important details, but the basic picture is one of slow and painful but steady progress. By the time the city is retaken in entirety, much of it will have been destroyed, and will need to be rebuilt. But nowhere has the insurgency been stronger.

Furthermore, on August 2 Iraqi and American troops searched the Al-Anbar University campus in a sweep operation in response to insurgent activity. The operation was timed to coincide with a period when school was not in session (Camp Fallujah Public Affairs Office).

Operations continued elsewhere, especially in Baghdad as part of Operation Coming Together, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s plan for retaking areas of the capital which had fallen into chaos. In two separate raids on July 29, coalition forces captured prominent al-Qaeda members, one a top leader in the Dhuluiyah area, and the other a logistical coordinator and financier in the Mosul area in the north. Coalition forces captured five terrorists in separate raids on July 31, one who reportedly had links to several high level al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders. On August 2, Iraqi forces captured eight suspected terrorists in the Doura neighborhood, which is considered to be the worst in Baghdad by Iraqi security officials. Iraqi soldiers captured a high-value “most wanted” terrorist in Adhamiyah in east Baghdad, and in a separate operation later captured four terrorists in a house with a large weapons cache in the same neighborhood.

There were also some significant terrorist attacks which succeeded last week, and one significant one which was foiled. The worst day was Tuesday, August 1, in which 61 were killed in multiple attacks. The most gruesome attack, however, took place the next day in which two bombs hidden in gym bags targeted children, killing 12. Three civilians were killed in a mortar attack Ubaydi near the border with Syria (Camp Ripper Press Office). Local police and Iraqi soldiers foiled a complex terrorist attack in Mosul on Friday; the attack involved a suicide bomber using a car bomb and some small arms fire. Mosul is one of the cities over which Iraqi security forces have recently taken security responsibility.

In other matters, the Iraqi newspaper Al-Sabaah reports on what was called the largest reconciliation meeting between the Shi’a-led government and Sunni insurgents so far, and tribal and other civil society leaders representing the neighborhoods of Mustanasiriya, Salikh, Cairo, Sumer, Medicine City, Popular City, Bawab al-Sham, Husseiniya and al-Rashidiya signed a document committing to national reconciliation. The same article notes that the Defense Ministry succeeded in bringing in representatives of the Fadl neighborhood, something which encouraged them to attempt mediation between the Sunni ‘Athmiya and the Shi’a Sadr City, a process which is ongoing.

August 7, 2006

UN Resolution Rejected as Battle Rages

In yet another deadly day of Hizballah rocket barrages, including 3 civilians killed and 160 injured in Haifa, Sunday has proven to be a day that has prompted Israel to rethink its initial support of the proposed US & French-led UN ceasefire resolution. In Kfar Giladi, 12 reservists were killed by a single Katyusha rocket as it struck where they slept near a cemetery wall. The twelve “had been issued their uniforms the day before they died.”

The Jerusalem Post quoted a ‘senior official’ as saying after the attacks, “This may change everything.”

But even still, Israel has yet to mount the expected major ground assault to push toward the Litani River and clear Hizballah and their Katyushas and a buffer zone the only way it can be done: With many boots on the ground.

On the diplomatic front, the Security Council vote on the UN resolution in draft form has been delayed as changes are considered after objections from both sides on the issue. Arab states, through Qatar’s membership in the Security Council, voiced objection to the resolution’s failure to demand an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces. Israel objected as well, concerned that the resolution calls for a ceasefire potentially months before a stated ‘international force’ of unknown composition and disputed mission is put into effect. Such a move would create a vacuum in southern Lebanon and allow Hizballah to maintain its overwhelming presence near Israel’s northern border.

Lebanon rejected the UN ceasefire plan, with Lebanese Prime Minister Siniora asking France and the US for changes to the language that would ensure an immediate withdrawal by Israel. A Hizballah elected minister was more animated, proclaiming that “resistance will continue to fight so long as a single Israeli soldier remains on Lebanese soil,” which presumably for Hizballah would still include Shebaa Farms.

Israel, meanwhile, is now seeking a re-write of the draft that it had initially supported.

While the heated international wrangling continues, so do Israel’s strikes on Hizballah. In the southern Beirut suburbs, Hizballah targets are being hit once more by Israel’s Air Force, and nearer the Israel border, fighting continues in Bint Jbail as the IDF reported one Israeli soldier was killed in a battled hat left 14 Hizballah terrorists dead on the battlefield. Lebanon’s Prime Minister Siniora called today’s Israeli airstrike in the southern village of Houla a “massacre” and said that 40 were killed.

As that story develops, it should be kept in mind that so long as Hizballah continues to embed itself within the Lebanese civilian population, those Lebanese civilians will remain at high risk. For Israel to not target Hizballah terrorists and rocket launchers where they exist is to reward the tactic and cede victory to Hizballah, sentencing Israel’s own civilians to an undefended slaughter. To Israel and the West, this should be unacceptable.

Abizaid: Militias 'Curse of the Region'

Speaking of the security problems facing Iraq and other countries in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), has called private militias “the curse of the region.” Regarding the militia problem in Iraq,

… Abizaid said the sectarian violence in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, is as bad as he has ever witnessed. If that violence is not halted, he warned, “It is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war.” But he also said that a violent period could be followed by the stability that Iraq needs.

Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Shi’ia and Sunni have to decide they love their children more than they hate each other, so that the level of violence can be tempered. He said the Iraqis who aspire to a better way of life must “seize the moment,” and he predicted that they would do so once they lose patience with the current security situation.

Both military officers said they do not expect Iraq to gravitate toward civil war because Iraqi government institutions are intact and the necessary diplomatic, political and military steps are being applied to bring the situation under control. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld , who also testified with Pace and Abizaid, said the U.S. role is to support the Iraqi government and, so far, it is holding together, as is the Iraqi Army.

Abizaid did express concern that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have trained rogue Shi’ia groups in Iraq. He also indicated that the Iranian government is paying some members of the private Mahdi army in Iraq. The general said it is vital to persuade groups who have pledged allegiance to militias to pledge their loyalty to the state, instead.

The Iraqi government will do what is necessary to bring the sectarian violence under control and end the death squads, Abizaid said. When pressed on this issue, he said U.S. military forces will work with the Iraqi security forces to eliminate known death squads.

While some Iraqis are fighting because they do not want to embrace a new government and some want to promote anarchy, Abizaid said, most of the Iraqis want a free, independent nation that is not dominated by Shi’ia extremist groups or by Iranian influences…

If a “civil war” is constituted by two factions within a society waging war against each other, then in order for a civil war to exist in Iraq, mainstream Sunnis and mainstream Shi’a would have to be fighting each other. This is not the case for the Shi’a, as the bulk of attacks on Sunni civilians by the Shi’a have been from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which is based on the radical Islamist Sadriya movement, named after Muqtada’s father and supported by Iran. This is less true among the Sunnis, among whom those with innocent blood on their hands are closer to the mainstream, although native Iraqi Sunni insurgent factions are responding positively to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s amnesty and reconciliation initiative.

Baghdad witnessed two separate waves of Shi’a protesters this week. The first, on Wednesday, engaged in an anti-terrorism protest in commemoration of the third anniversary of the murder of Muhammad Bakir al-Hakim, the former head of SCIRI, Iraq’s largest political party, and the brother of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who is currently the head of SCIRI and the ruling United Iraqi Alliance. Hakim repeated his call for the formation of local defense committees, emphasizing that they would be non-sectarian. He also repeated his call for the formation of a federal structure, including a provincial government for the Sunni-dominated areas in the center of the country. He identified foreign terrorists such as al-Qaeda and “Saddamists” as the primary enemies of Iraq. They also protested against Israel, and Hakim called for a cease-fire in Lebanon. (Reuters, Al-Sabaah, Al-Rafidayn).

Friday witnessed a second large Shi’a demonstration, this one promoted by al-Sadr and focused on support of Hizballah and criticism of Israel and the United States. The protest was without violent incident, although a van full of Sadrists exchanged fire with U.S. troops while on the way to the protest, and two Sadrists were killed. (Washington Post, Al-Hayat)

ThreatsWatch has reported several incidents over the past few weeks of U.S.-Iraqi operations against Sadr’s Mahdi Army in addition to ongoing operations against Sunni militants. MNF-I reports of four separate operations in the middle of the week against ‘death squads.’ While al-Qaeda targets are named as such, the phrase ‘death squad’ usually is used for Shia militia cells who engage Sunnis in vigilante or revenge attacks, although references to a death squad sometimes refers to native Sunni Iraqi groups. Of greater significance, if enforced, is the total ban on carrying weapons in the streets and public places issued by the Interior Ministry, as reported by the Iraqi newspaper Al-Sabaah.

Over the past two weeks there have been reports that Prime Minister Maliki would undertake a cabinet shuffle due to dissatisfaction among political factions with their portfolios. As reported Sunday in Al-Hayat, both the Sadr faction and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord are unhappy with the portfolio distribution. The article quotes a representative of the ruling UIA, which operates under the patronage of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, as saying that Sistani will not directly intervene in the selection of ministers, but that he insists that the selection strengthen the unity of the country and its security forces. The article does not say whether Maliki seemed inclined to grant the wishes of any specific faction.

Iranian Banter: Suicidal ‘Oil Weapon’ Threat Renewed

In its final month of ‘intransigence without cost’ regarding its clandestine nuclear weapons program, Iran on Sunday renewed its threat to use its ‘oil weapon’ if the UN Security Council makes good on its threat of sanctions if the Tehran regime does not cease enrichment operations be August 31. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said at a Tehran press conference, “We do not want to use the oil weapon. Do not force us to do something that will make people shiver in the cold. We do not want that.”

Telegraphing Iran’s expected (and previously hinted) rejection of the West’s incentives package, Larijani made clear once more that Iran’s nuclear program is not for sale. “We will expand nuclear technology at whatever stage it may be necessary and all of Iran’s nuclear technology including the [centrifuge] cascades will be expanded,” he said.

As the ‘oil weapon’ issue is raised once more, it is important to consider that such a strategy is more banter than substance, playing to Western fears over oil prices. The Christian Science Monitor’s David R. Francis correctly noted in March 2006 that an Iranian oil export cutoff would be suicidal. Iran relies on oil exports for 90% of its revenues and is already an economy in deficit spending with a burgeoning population.

Unless Iran has a willing suitor for private trade during such a period (though unlikely, consider China for sake of example), the impending economic implosion of Iran and its ruling theocracy could be counted down in terms of weeks. Thus, the threat should be either dismissed or even welcomed.

But while none of this is new in either style or substance, the Times Online article brought to the surface a “UN report prepared last month which alleged that an illegal shipment of uranium was intercepted in Tanzania last October en route from Congo to an Iranian port.” Larijani denied the claims, but a ‘senior Tanzanian customs officer’ provided detail that the uranium was hidden within a shipment of coltan (used in the manufacture of capacitors for electronics equipment) that was bound for Kazakhstan through the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.

The UN report is said to express that there is “no doubt” that the uranium shipment came from the Democratic Republic of Congo. There also should be no doubt that it was bound for Kazakhstan. Even still, Larijani said, “This is part of a psychological war which the Americans resort to once in a while to feed the public mind.”

August 5, 2006

Sadr's Ties with Sunni Militants Go Sour

Iraqi politics continues its realignment as the Sunni Muslim Scholars Association (MSA) turns from viewing the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Sadriya movement as their natural allies among Iraqi Shia to renewed dialogue with the more moderate SCIRI, which is head of the ruling United Iraqi Alliance. One of the more interesting developments of 2005 was a kind of de facto alliance between the intensely anti-American MSA and the Sadriya. Yet over the past year, the MSA has gradually distanced itself further and further from foreign jihadists such as al-Qaeda and have at the same time come to blame Sadr’s Mahdi Army for both vigilante violence against Sunni militants and atrocities against Sunni civilians.

As reported in the international Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, MSA member ‘Asam al-Rawi blamed the failure of talks between the MSA and Shia leaders on the fact that militias had come to control some areas of Baghdad, an implicit reference to Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and al-Qaeda others. He then explicitly stated that this was the cause of the “spoiling of the close ties which had existed between the association and the Sadr faction.” Rawi was further quoted as saying that militia factions sought to destroy the reconciliation initiative of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, “calling on the necessity of the Sadr faction to recognize the initiative.” Al-Hayat went on to quote him saying that Maliki’s initiative had not yet succeeded, explicitly blaming the Shia militia.

The same article reports that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has succeeded in arranging a meeting between Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of SCIRI and Iraq’s most important non-office-holding Shia political figure, and Harith al-Dari, the general secretary of the MSA. SCIRI and the MSA have traded accusations over the past two years, with SCIRI recently claiming that the MSA had not broken its links with al-Qaeda (such links clearly existed from 2003 through part of 2005) while the MSA has accused SCIRI’s militia, the Badr Corps, of operating death squads out of the interior ministry. That Badr has not been implicated in recent atrocities, combined with the MSA’s disenchantment with Sadr, appears to be leading to this thawing of relations.

On a related point, the Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn reports that the National Reconciliation Committee, led by Akram al-Hakim, agreed upon four conferences to be held by the end of the year -

1) a conference of parties which have not yet joined the political process,
2) a conference of Shia and Sunni religious scholars which would take place in Jordan or Saudi Arabia,
3) a conference for civil society organizations, and
4) a conference for Iraq’s tribes.

Akram was quoted as saying that of the Sunni insurgent factions with which he was now discussing terms, one was an armed faction of major significance.

At the same time, President Talabani was quoted by Al-Hayat as saying that “Iraqi security forces will receive control of complete security responsibility” by the end of the current year, a very ambitious goal. The article quotes Prime Minister Maliki of asserting the same goal, but phrased such that Iraqi forces would receive primary responsibility over the entire country in stages with coalition forces having a secondary role, rather than Iraqis having complete security responsibility. Speaking of foreign troops, Maliki was quoted as saying that “their role is to help Iraqi forces… which will take over security responsibility in all the provinces without exception at the end of the current year by degrees.”

Despite the inability of the government to stop Sunni and Shia militants from sectarian killing, the present political realignment is giving Iraqi politics a new consensus which it has lacked up until now. The success or failure of this emerging “new center” will depend on the outcome of talks between Hakim, Dari and the factions they represent as well as the determination of Maliki’s government to fight the Mahdi Army. With Iraqi Sunni factions showing continued signs of willingness to come to terms, a united government would then be able to face down the remaining threat - the foreign jihadists, especially al-Qaeda in Iraq.

August 4, 2006

Katyusha Rain: Civilians Bloodied as Nasrallah Threatens

As Hizballah rains rockets onto Israeli cities at an unprecedented clip, Israel’s Defense Minister Amir Peretz has ordered the IDF to push deeper into southern Lebanon in order to clear southern Lebanon of rocket and missile threats the only way it can be thoroughly done: With boots on the ground.

A Hizballah strategy of timed attacks made Thursday the bloodiest day yet for Israeli civilians (8 killed), with an additional 3 deaths thus far today. In some cities, the rocket barrages came in waves designed for maximum civilian casualties and an increased psychological effect of terror. After an initial Katyusha attack, another aimed barrage would follow some minutes later, timed to kill and maim civilians on the street tending to victims of the first wave. This is, in part, Hizballah’s stated strategy of attrition.

Hassan Nasrallah threatened to rain missies down upon Tel Aviv if Israel bombed central Beirut. Shortly afterwards, the IAF proceeded to strike bridges in the Christian areas north of Beirut, a mission most certainly unaffected by Nasrallah’s threats. Nasrallah said, “If you bomb our capital Beirut, we will bomb the capital of your usurping entity …We will bomb Tel Aviv.”

Nasrallah, in the same videotaped message, made an appeal for negotiations, likely sensing world opinion in his favor when he said, “Any time you decide to stop your campaign against our cities, villages, civilians, and infrastructure, we will not fire rockets on any Israeli settlement or city…The only choice before you is to stop your aggression and turn to negotiations to end this folly.”

This could be viewed as potentially confirmation that Hizballah seeks a ceasefire in order to survive as intact as possible. But without doubt, one of the aims is to continue to paint Israel as the aggressors. And, while the record numbers of Hizballah rocket attacks in the past 48 hours is seen as a sign of Hizballah’s still formidable capabilities, it does not mean that the Israeli strikes on Hizballah to-date have been of little effect.

Only once the southern area of Lebanon is largely cleared of Katyushas by and Israeli push northward to the Litani River, and the onslaught of the smaller Katyushas is neutralized, will the full effect of Israel’s relentless bombardment of Hizballah’s deep infrastructure be revealed. For now, Hizballah’s capabilities are still judged by the visible display of smaller and elusive Katyusha rockets and their stores.

In the push northward into Lebanon, Israel’s aim is to create an expanded buffer zone of 5 miles into Lebanon, up from 1.5 miles recently stated, as the IDF seeks to rid the area of rocket threats in preparation for an International Force.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice changed direction and voiced support for an immediate ceasefire, an option that would leave Hizballah largely intact and place security responsibilities on a fresh international force unfamiliar with terrain, targets and Hizballah tactics, to say nothing of such a force’s willingness to root out Hizballah and its weapons. Israel is not willing to cede that responsibility to an as-yet determined international force that very well may lack the will to engage Hizballah and neutralize the rocket threat. Historical precedence likely guides Israeli thinking on this point.

August 2, 2006

Deep Strike: IDF Air Assault Commando Raid on Baalbek

In the past 48 hours, messages from Israel have been delivered to both Damascus and Tehran through the public release of intelligence claims. On Tuesday, however, the message had Hizballah addresses, namely being intended for Hassan Nasrallah and Imad Mugniyeh. While the messages to Iran and Syria were clearly for them to stay home, the message to Hizballah was “We can go where we want and strike where we want.”

For on Tuesday, there was no other way to interpret the IDF air assault on Baalbek, referred to as the ‘capital’ of Hizballah, situated near the Syrian border in the northern reaches of the Bekaa Valley. From the outset, it appeared to be an operation that was planned around specific actionable intelligence as a hospital in northern Baalbek appeared to be the primary target, with IDF Special Forces commandos checking the ID’s of all in the hospital according to early reports. The primary target appears to have been Mohammed Yazbek, who heads Hizballah’s Shura Council (or ‘consultation council’).

While Yazbek was not there, who Israel believed was being treated in the target hospital, three lower level Hizballah operatives were reportedly among the captured in the operation: Hussein Nasrallah, Hussein al-Burji and Ahmed al-Ghotah. Early reports were dominated by information from Hizballah - as the IDF remained very tight-lipped during the ongoing operation – and included claims from fierce fighting and Israeli troops trapped inside the hospital to many helicopters but no troops on the ground. Hizballah also claimed that the hospital had been evacuated days before the raid.

The picture that is coming into focus after the operation appears to show that the hospital was at least not entirely evacuated and that whatever fierce fighting occurred resulted in no IDF casualties, according to the Israeli military. The significance of the operation is clear, both in tactical terms and the psychological impact on Hizballah. The IDF inserted force where they wanted, operated as they wanted and performed a successful massive air assault deep in the heart of Hizballistan.

For Hizballah, increasingly cut off from Syrian and Iranian re-supply and largely left to stores on hand, they must now actively consider defenses beyond their southern front. That none of the IDF helicopters at low altitude over the heart of Hizballistan were shot down should not go unnoticed.

While Hizballah was surprised in the north, the northern operation was followed today with Israel sending 10,000 troops across the border on Hizballah’s southern front on a day in which the terrorist organization has launched over 160 rockets into Israeli cities so far in the day. At least one of them reached near Jenin in the West Bank, the deepest strike thus far by Hizballah. The rocket activity into Israel from Tyre in the west to various points on the eastern stretch of the border has been higher today than at any point in the conflict thus far.

For Hizballah, there is no rest as operations begin to accelerate in Hizballah-controlled southern Lebanon in what looks to be the beginning stages of the broad IDF clearing operations in their push northward to the Litani River.

While the talk is of inserting a multi-national force - headed by France under a UN flag - Israel’s Defense Minister Amir Peretz makes a clear distinction between a ‘Peacekeeper Force’ and a ‘Peacemaker Force.’ Israel’s forces are ensuring that the multinational forces will serve as more than an expanded UNIFIL, doubting that any UN-flagged troops will actually engage Hizballah militarily. Said Peretz, “We are preparing the conditions for the multinational force, so whenever it is deployed, it would be able to enforce the new situation.”

As Peretz no doubt understands, there must first be a peace to keep.

August 1, 2006

Iraq SCIRI Leader Calls for Local 'Self-Defense'

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of SCIRI, Iraq’s largest political party and the leader of the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), put forward a four-step plan to secure Iraq at the same time that President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki were putting forward the new U.S.-Iraqi plan for Baghdad security. As reported in the Washington Post, Hakim’s four action points were as follows:

(1) Continue to press the prime minister’s reconciliation plan, which gives amnesty to both Sunni and Shia militants who lay down their arms, and which has been greeted positively by more than 20 Sunni insurgent factions;
(2) “strengthen the government and its agenda for fighting terrorism”;
(3) rebuild the holy shrine in Samarra which was destroyed Feb. 22 by an al-Qaeda bombing; and
(4) help neighborhoods develop their own local defense committees.

It is the last suggestion that concerns many, given the many well-substantiated allegations that Shia militias have been engaging in vigilante violence against Sunni insurgents and at times have attacked Sunni civilians. SCIRI’s own militia, the Badr Army, has not been blamed for nearly as much violence recently as the Mahdi Army of Moqtada Sadr. Sadr’s faction is also formally within the UIA, although Sadr and Hakim are political adversaries. Yet Badr was widely blamed for ‘death squad’ killings in the previous government when a member of SCIRI was in charge of the interior ministry.

The second point about strengthening “the government and its agenda” may be a reference to Hakim’s oft-repeated argument that Iraqi security forces should have more responsibility, and that American forces are holding Iraqi forces back too much. Hakim has consistently supported the U.S. presence in Iraq as necessary for security, but has often criticized what he has called “interference” in Iraqi operations. Last Friday, the New York Times reported that Hakim repeated the refrain that Iraqi troops should have a greater role at the same time that the president and prime minister were talking of shifting U.S. troops to Baghdad. But this criticism by Hakim is not new, and was reported by ThreatsWatch in a translation of comments from an Arab newspaper on July 7.

Yet concomitant with Hakim’s remarks, the Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn is reporting that Iraqi troops in Baghdad are handing security back over to American troops, having received security responsibility previously. While noting that this is true of multiple areas of the city, the article focuses on the specific example of the west Baghdad area of ‘Amariya which had been a prosperous area prior to the rise in violence. It quotes a resident as saying that when Iraqi forces took over, there were at first lots of patrols and things were more secure, but after several days the patrols dropped off and the violence returned.

ThreatsWatch has reported in a previous report that President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki have agreed to realign U.S. troops away from the provinces to focus more on the capital. Our previous report that Iraqi troops were taking over more security in the southern city of Nasiriya and the northern city of Mosul, as well as this report, are consistent with this plan.

The positions of Maliki and Hakim on these issues are not necessarily in absolute contradiction; the New York Times report on Maliki’s visit with President Bush noted several demands that the prime minister would likely make, and one key one was “more autonomy for Iraqi forces.” Maliki may want more U.S. forces in Baghdad and more independent Iraqi operations, and the troop realignment does increase Iraqi control in the provinces.

Yet Sunnis, who from the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom were opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq, have come to view the U.S. presence as a necessary control on Iraq’s Shia-dominated regular security forces and police, both of which, the latter especially, have been accused by Sunnis of abuses.

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