Talisman Gate

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Schoolyard Bully

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

February 24, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 1518 words

HEADLINE: Schoolyard Bully

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Those devious Syrian rascals got away with murder, literally and yet again. Some German security company is about to go insolvent. Should you own any stock in this particular enterprise then my advice to you is to sell, sell, and sell. Their little niche of the security market was armoring the SUVs and luxury cars favored by world leaders, drug lords, and neurotic pop stars around the world's trouble spots. The former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, was mega-rich and could afford this German product. His charred corpse was pulled from the wreckage of his expensive motorcade two weeks ago. Whoever planted the bomb that killed him, along with 17 others, calibrated the assassination against the best security money could buy.

I'll tell you who did it: It was Hezbollah acting on Syrian orders. Yes, yes, I know: There is no evidence of a smoking gun. But that, in itself, is a smoking gun.

I woke up that morning and heard the news and I thought, "Could the Syrians be that stupid?" Then after some caffeine found its way into my system, I asked, "Could the Syrians be that smart?" But the nicotine infusion brought about the most pertinent question yet, "Could the Syrians be that desperate and lucky?"

Usually, the "need-to-know" list of persons involved in this kind of operation would not exceed 10 individuals. The Syrian leadership, being tyrannical and thus paranoid, would not trust its own heavily infiltrated security services. So they outsourced to the only terrorist network they knew could pull off the job successfully and secretively: Hezbollah. Few Lebanese members of Hezbollah would have known about this project; after all, it is an outfit managed by a shadowy and exuberantly fanatical branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad, spent much covert operational capital and effort trying to figure out what these guys were up to, and Hezbollah still managed to perform the seemingly impossible task of blowing up an Israeli Merkava tank - the sturdiest in the world - in Gaza some years ago.

Politically, Hezbollah is beholden to both Syria and Iran. The "Party of God" exists because of a tacit agreement, running into its third decade, between the Shia Iranian mullahs and the nonmainstream Alawite minority that rules Syria. The armed bands of Hezbollah are proxies in a war against Israel and, alternatively, they are bargaining chips for their masters in the event of an eventual peace with the Jewish state. They remain the only armed militia in a battered country that was trying to move beyond a bloody past where foreign meddling fostered communal militias that tore the country apart during a 15-year civil war. Hezbollah, a relic of this past, is still useful for those with sinister strategic interests in the biblical land of the cedar trees, Lebanon.

The Alawite rulers of Syria have two nonnegotiable strategic interests for the next four years. The first one is internal, and it is shared by regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran: to stay in power and weather the democratic gale gathering force under President Bush's vision for the new Middle East. The second pertains to their involvement in Lebanon since 1976: to maintain political and security influence in that dynamic country and use it as an economic lung for Syria through which the fresh air of cash is breathed into its own stag nant Soviet-style economy.

Alawite rule is threatened by two things: an American-led all-out war to drive them from power, and a gradual undermining of their authority. The Alawites learned the necessary lessons from Saddam's obstinate folly and are not about to give the Americans a clear-cut justification to invade. Judging by the international fallout over the Iraq war and the fiery blaze of an Iraqi insurgency they are helping to fan, the Syrians have deduced that American tanks are not heading their way. So their sole remaining task is not to give their people the feeling that the tyrants on top have gone soft, and at the same time not embarking on massive human rights violations that President Bush can point to as a casus belli.

Their strategy now is to nip all challenges in the bud. Hariri was killed as part of this plan.

The challenge posed by Hariri's newfound opposition to Syria's military presence and influence in Lebanon was a serious one for Damascus. Here was a Sunni Arab, with pan-Middle Eastern connections, standing up to them as the leader of one of the few Lebanese communities that had rarely given them grief. He had crossed over to Lebanon's destiny too early: Hariri was modeling himself as a national Lebanese leader rather than a factional chieftain. This was uncharted territory for how the Syrians understood the world around them, and they saw it as a manifestation of the democratic changes occurring all over the Middle East whereby fictional states, created by imperialist Western bureaucrats in the last century, turn into vibrant and confident nation states.

The tragedy of Lebanon was that it was ill-conceived by the French as the anti-melting pot. France's clients, the Christian Maronites, were refashioned as the overlords of a densely populated strip of land full of densely entwined contradictions. Lebanon was a small fishbowl full of barracuda, baby sharks, and feisty samurai fish. The inflammatory spices of contradictory 20th century ideologies were also added to the mix. It turned out to be quite a mess, and so goes the unhappy story of Lebanon. The frenzied melee became an international spectator sport, and several decades and hundreds of civil war casualties later, we are still at square one.

The Syrian leadership can control the Lebanese through these chaotic contradictions. The Druze and the Maronites may incessantly clamor for independence, but that would not faze the Alawites if the other two principal communal groups, the Sunnis and the Shias, are collaborative, or in the very least quiescent about Syrian hegemony.

The Maronites and Druze leaders, longtime adversaries, derive their stature from the clannish and warlike social network of their mountain redoubts. But these two communities do not make a pan-Lebanese majority. They would need the Muslims of the land, and the non-Maronite Christians, to tip the national balance. The Sunnis, port-city merchants and artisans, produced a bookish and mercantile leadership that is not by nature zealously inclined or revolutionary. The Shia leadership, with bitter memories of destitution and alienation, has been hijacked by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The Syrians are calculating that even if free elections are held next May as scheduled, they will still see a Sunni-Shia majority in Parliament that is not confrontational or decidedly against Syrian puppeteering.

The Syrians seem to have gotten away with it once again. They killed Hariri, but in such a way that no one will ever link them to it directly. They stalled the process by which the Lebanese would bond across communal divides in calling for Syria Out. They caught the Bush administration off guard and denied it the golden opportunity of regime change through a gradual undermining of Alawite authority via the Sunni Lebanese. The Sunnis of Damascus are on notice that it may be okay for marginal minority leaders to speak out, but when it comes to a Sunni challenging the Alawi superstructure, well, bombs have a way of going off. The student-led demonstrations in downtown Beirut, modeled a la the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, will fizzle out in time; to the Syrians it is just a bit of steam being let loose and, pretty soon, business will return to usual.

At this point, a Syrian troop withdrawal would be a moot point; the intimidating specter of army checkpoints would be substituted with roving assassination squads. Hariri - alive and kicking - was the catalyst of a newfound Lebanese identity, but in his death no more than a lamented national martyr with no one of his stature and daring to carry his mantle. Syria thus remains in control.

So the Syrians must be congratulating themselves on a job well done. Their strategic interests at home and in Lebanon have been preserved, and they played the bully game of Middle Eastern power politics with finesse and flair. The American headmaster is way out of his league on this one; so what of some detention time? Sanctions here and withdrawing ambassadors there? What is important for the Syrians is preserving the aura of bullyhood.

Yes, it was a masterful prank of the old-school way of doing things in a rough neighborhood: desperate, yet smart and pulled off with no obvious foul-ups.

But, as is the contradictory nature of changing times, their stunt was incredibly stupid, too. A new street-smart vigilante has moved in. He does not like bullies, and had been bullied before. He looks around the schoolyard and sees all the other terrified students. But this one is pumping up at the gym, and has a vision of uniting the multitudes of the meek against the handful of bullies. His name: Democratic Iraq. Keep an eye on him, for he and his kind shall inherit the Middle East.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Results Are In

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

February 17, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 1298 words

HEADLINE: The Results Are In

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


The good news: we are not getting an Islamic theocracy in Iraq. The bad news, well, there is none. The results of the Iraqi elections were announced Sunday, and I did what every self-respecting obsessive election-watcher does: get out the calculator. Many hours later, and with the full list of the 275 members of the newly elected National Assembly or parliament before me, I have the following breakdown to report:

Gender politics: The Transitional Administrative Law, which was drawn up by the former Iraqi Governing Council to regulate a period of interim sovereignty that lasted from July of last year, when the coalition occupation was declared over, to last January's election, stipulated that no less than 25% of the seats in the new parliament should be reserved for women. The slates that competed in these elections had to be formulated in such a way to give women that minimum quota, and as a result there will be 85 of them (or a whopping 31%) in this new legislative body. I don't think this has happened anywhere in the world, and I dare the experts or the Women's Lib movement to prove otherwise. More women than men voted in these globally landmark elections and there are more women represented in Iraq's new parliament than any elected body on Mother Earth. Oprah, Hillary, would you care to say something?

The new democracy in Iraq shall have founding fathers, and founding mothers. This, coupled with the emancipation of women from the non-pedicured clutches of the Taliban, should compel the bra-burning crowd to send gushy Valentine's cards to President Bush. Somehow, I think that Maureen Dowd, the self-appointed maiden of punditry, is not going to understand the magnitude of what just happened. But I'm sure women in Saudi Arabia do.

Communal politics: The Arab Sunnis got 24 seats (9%), the Kurds got 74 seats (27%), the Christians got eight seats (3%), the Turkomen got five seats (2%) and the Yezidis, an obscure religion sometimes labeled as ancient "Devil-Worshippers," got two seats (1%).

Everyone who wanted the elections to be delayed, and the list included the New York Times editorial page and plenty of Arab dictators, was worried sick about Sunni Arab alienation from the elections that, according to their reasoning, would leave them with no option other than waging civil war. These folks should be feeling as small and foolish as the Sunni Arab leadership, because their reasoning was upside down. The current insurgency is an undeclared civil war waged by the Arab Sunnis of Iraq who hope to reclaim the absolute power they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein, and the only reason there was no massive outbreak of communal strife is due to the fact that the Sunnis could not find a partner for their macabre and tangled tango. Saddam's victims, predominately the Shias and the Kurds, waited for the ballot boxes as their response to Sunni provocation. Now, the real leaders of the Arab Sunnis who were fanning the flames of the insurgency (not the ones roused from retirement by Foggy Bottom like Pachachi, who couldn't even manage to get a seat) are sheepishly asking to be allowed to play with all the others on the playground of parliamentary politics.

For the first time in the Middle East, the use of politically motivated violence as a means of getting recognized and earning a seat at the table, as employed by Yasser Arafat and other Arab dictators, has failed miserably and conclusively. Elections were the wake-up call for Iraq's Sunnis, not the beginning of the end.

The Kurds, who for the past 80 years of Iraq's existence fought valiantly to exit the "Iraqi arrangement" and opt for independence, are coming around to the idea that maybe, for the time being, a federal Iraq is an option they can live with. Thousands of Kurdish nationalists uttered "Long Live Kurdistan" as their last words before a horrible death at the hands of an Iraqi state that forcibly tried to keep the country unified. Last Sunday, millions of Kurds went to the polls to vote as Iraqis as part of a compromise with the ghosts of national destiny. For much of Iraq's history, there was a de facto civil war that ended up murdering hundreds of thousands of Kurds. These election results had the effect of binding a segment of the population, as numerous as the Arab Sunnis, to the idea of a unified Iraq, and ending the longest running civil war in the Middle East. How come no one at the New York Times editorial board is celebrating this outcome?

Ideological politics: The United Alliance List, peddled as the "Islamic Revolution Lite" list, walked away with an astounding 140 seats, the largest single block. The fad these days is for journalists and anti-Bush pundits to raise their brows in feigned horror and yell, "We have created an Islamic Frankenstein!"

Rest at ease: As usual it is a case of mistaken identity. Although the first name on the UAI list is a mullah, the majority of those who got elected from this particular slate are secular leaning academics and technocrats. At least one likes to drink alcohol more than is good for him. By my count, there are fewer than 30 party affiliates, and the bulk are unknown independents. Those reporters in Baghdad should be forgiven for all that alarmist drivel, for they had not met any of those new leaders of Iraq at political rallies or press conferences and thus don't know where they stand on issues. The new faces of Iraq's democracy were busy giving literary lectures, treating patients, or tending gardens. They are the building blocks of Iraq's nascent civil society, and Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who lovingly put together the UAI list, wanted their views heard amidst the raucous clamoring of political agendas as the constitution is being written, which is the primary role of this elected parliament.

And here's a political prediction to boot: The current law on the books called the Civil Affairs Law of 1959, which covers personal matters such as marriage, inheritance, and divorce, will not be repealed. This law, the most liberal in all of the Islamic world, is the litmus test of the Islamist agenda. The fundamentalists on the UAI list would like to substitute Islamic jurisprudence, or Sharia, as the final arbiter of personal matters. They tried to do just that during their tenure on the Governing Council and failed due to American intervention; they will fail again in the new parliament because they don't have the votes.

Dirty politics: Yes, there was massive vote fraud, some of which was probably managed by the Baghdad station of the Central Intelligence Agency, but that also counts as good news. Massive vote rigging was held in check by massive voter turnout. Yet again, the spooks did not see this one coming: Iraqis voted in very large numbers, and the fraudsters were caught off-guard when they realized that their made-to-order ballots were not enough to tip the balance in favor of their well-financed candidates. Two lists that had covertly pocketed tens of millions of American taxpayer money among themselves over the years did not even manage to get a single seat. Prime Minister Allawi, who poured tens of millions of dollars into an all-out ad campaign that marketed his "can-do" prowess, did fairly well, but still not enough to keep him politically relevant.

So there you have it: a real election with real results. None of that "the Great Leader won a landslide with 99.9% of the votes" business. Politics, in all its many high and low gradations, has been reintroduced into Iraq, and these elected representatives of the people are about to chart a new course for their nation. Iraqis are now fully in charge of their country's destiny, for better or worse. And should they stumble or fail, the Iraqi people will vote them out, and my calculator will be dusted off yet again.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Eight vs. 8 Million

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

February 2, 2005 Wednesday


LENGTH: 1440 words

HEADLINE: Eight vs. 8 Million

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Eight suicide bombers targeted polling stations in Iraq on Sunday, yet 8 million Iraqis chose to vote anyway. Wow. There is just no other way to put it. And to all those who are saying that we should not over-hype what happened and keep euphoria in check, well, shut up. Iraqis in Iraq are hyped-up and euphoric; they are drunk on their own joy and the courage they found within themselves to defy terror and choose life.

A friend of mine, who happens to be a Sunni Arab, had told me a week ago that he won't be voting out of conviction. On Election Day, he had this to say, "I voted. Today was not about Sunnis and Shias, it was about those who want a better life versus those who think that life is cheap."

It was an astounding feat of valor and determination on the part of Iraqis who allowed their legs to carry them in the face of death and mutilation towards a fate of their own choosing. I personally was confounded: What happened? How did it all change from an atmosphere of fear to a celebration of bravery?

The story coming out of Baghdad, where likely voters faced the worst likely scenarios, was how a small band of young men and women embarked early in the morning to vote for the first time in their lives. The Arab press, notably Al-Jazeera, was brimming with glee as they reported the early violence in a game-announcer's pitch. Even Jane Arraf of CNN was snickering at the emptiness and confusion of the early hours in Baquba. It seemed like the specter of early exit-poll figures giving John Kerry the lead in the last American election, accompanied with the euphoria of the anti-Bushites around the world. But those young Iraqi men and women went a step further; they returned with stained fingers and encouraged their families, neighbors, and friends to stand tall, walk into the sunshine, and head out to vote. Cell phones were inundated with text messages of "Did you vote yet?"

Steadily, the giddiness of defiance and the adrenaline rush of liberty spread like a contagion in Baghdad. Caution was thrown to the gusts of explosions. And they came out in numbers I would have never imagined. My own neighborhood of Hayy Al-Jihad, which hugs the airport highway and is one of the bastions of Baghdad-based terrorists, came out. The citizens of Abu Ghraib, another hot spot, walked 22 miles to Al-Hurriya sector in order to get a chance to be heard. And boy, were they heard. Al Jazeera took on the airs of a funerary procession and even jarred CNN anchors were moved by the "quiet smiles" of a brave nation.

It was a quiet revolution, and will go down in history as one of the most poignant manifestations of liberty ever. A right index finger stained with indigo became a symbol of a deafening yell for freedom. On January 30, 2005, the Iraqi nation scored a victory for the human spirit, and uplifted all mankind in the process. They are standing proud and self-assured. Surely, even the cynics can now see the light.

A nation was reborn that day. National consciousness is forged in the furnace of a shared and anxious experience. Iraqis, facing the beheaders and the rearguard of tyranny, were united in a national showdown with the forces of mayhem and hopelessness and voted for a shared, democratic destiny. The poor and huddled Iraqi "masses," the same types of hopeful people who came to America as immigrants seeking a better life, had a deep and intrinsic understanding of what an election is all about, and what responsibilities and sacrifices are inherent in a piece of paper that is called one's citizenship.

Some critics are sneering and decrying how others are waxing poetical about the whole event. But some of the quotations coming out of Iraqi voters are simply and incidentally poetic. Listen to this broken-English quote from an ex-pat Iraqi voter as published in the New York Times: "I wanted to keep the paper in my hand for long time. First thing I imagined how much the paper cost us as a country and a people. It cost us a million people's deaths. Now we get the victory, just now when we elect our representatives. I want to touch the victory. I didn't want to leave it."

Some weirdo, identified by the Washington Post as "Nivras Kazim" - voting at a Maryland suburb polling station - shouted "something in Arabic so loud that all activity in the room briefly halted. Kazim later translated: 'Damn Saddam, damn Zarqawi, damn the Baathists!' "

And I can tell you that "Nivras" felt victorious! I can also tell that "Nivras" didn't vote along sectarian lines or for other nonpolitical affiliations. He didn't even vote for his own mother, who was running on one of the many slates. Furthermore, he made the mistake of telling his mother that, and hence earned many long years of guilt-inducing castigations at the family dinner table.

"Nivras" also believes that turnout was around 80% of eligible voters since the estimated number of voters is based on the food-ration system. He avows that the numbers of food-ration cards are phony baloney. The system was rife with forgery in the 1990s and there are as many as 1.5 million fake names on these cards. During the sanctions era, many families understandably bribed the officials in charge of food dispensation in order to get more monthly provisions to sell on the black-market and purchase other foods not provided by the state. Only a proper nationwide population census and correlation with the food-ration numbers can either vindicate him or make him eat his words.

The same can be said about the numbers of Iraqi ex-pats in America and Europe. For some obscure reason, the numbers were amplified to ridiculous proportions and set sky-high expectations. According to these numbers, 280,000 Iraqis in America are eligible to vote, and by some extrapolation, the total numbers would hover around half a million. That is simply untrue. The American-based Iraqis who voted account for more than 50% of those eligible to cast their ballots in only five centers dispersed over a large country. The same is true at the European centers and in Australia. That is simply impressive. The proportional numbers were much smaller in dictatorial environments like Jordan, Syria, and Iran, where the enthusiasm for voting was sapped by politically sterile circumstances.

The numbers of those running in the elections were as monumental as those who voted. There were7,500 candidates running on more than 100 slates. Twenty-six of these slates carried one form of the word "democracy" or another in their titles. A close evaluation of the candidates would disclose that at least 1,000 Sunni Arabs were in the running. There were several competing lists for specific and small minorities like the Christians or Yezidis. Every shade of political opinion, from defunct Arab Nationalism to defunct Communism, threw in its lot. Heck, there were even two competing monarchist slates. A minimum of 25% of the seats in the new assembly are reserved for women, but because of how the slates were drawn up, they may actually get an even larger share. This dizzying array of choice reflects an informed and viable political elite that has taken its first steps from the vacuum of totalitarianism to the lush landscape of a vibrant and boisterous democracy.

And God bless the hearts of President Bush and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the two individuals who should be credited most with this momentous election. Bush is the man! He saw the revolution coming and knew that it shall be televised. His stubborn message of democracy has trounced the tyrants and the terrorists, and the whole Arab and Islamic world saw the power of freedom unleashed through satellite TV coverage. Mr. Sistani is just a player! Now that he is done with shepherding a better future for the Iraqis, he has set his sights on his native country of Iran. Mr. Sistani employed the tradition of clerical double-speak, called hischa in the alleyways of Najaf, and apologized and agonized over not participating in the vote since he himself does not carry Iraqi nationality, and thus sent a powerful message to tens of millions of fellow Iranians who revere him. Mr. Sistani will be to democratic change in neighboring Iran what the Polish pope was to the Polish Solidarity movement.

But the best comment I have heard from this whole miraculous day came from the subculture of idle Iraqi males who sit around all day in cafes and imbibe hashish. They came up with a cost saving formula for this and future elections: Since tallying the votes requires persons with a lot of time on their hands, Saddam Hussein and his locked-up henchmen should do the job. Can you imagine a more surreal or sophisticated punishment?