Talisman Gate

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Patronizing the Enemy

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

August 30, 2005 Tuesday


LENGTH: 1180 words

HEADLINE: Patronizing the Enemy

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


America gambled away irreplaceable political capital in the last two weeks by betting on a series of lame horses. In a bid to counter growing antipathy toward the Iraq project back in America, the Bush administration really stumbled this time.

And yet it was simply a question of giving the whole matter some more time. America should have been more patient with its investment in Iraq before cashing in. Instead, driven by irresponsible rhetoric and partisan account-settling in an increasingly shrill Washington, the administration leapt into a hasty and ill-advised venture, thus exposing a weakness to the anti-democratic forces at play in Iraq - the Islamists and the Baathists. America hedged all its bets on its sworn enemies in a Faustian bargain to get the constitution written, signed, and delivered.

A bogged-down constitutional process would have been the badge of shame for Baghdad's politicians, who were elected to this purpose, not Washington's. Instead, the Islamists and the Baathists toyed with brinkmanship in order to nibble away at American objections to their agendas.

I am voting no on referendum day. I refuse a constitutional text that contradicts itself in its opening clause, stating that no law can be promulgated contravening the fundamental judgments of Islam and ditto should it contravene the principles of democracy.

That just ain't gonna work. Serious and angst-ridden Muslim thinkers have been trying to reconcile Islamic jurisprudence and democratic values for the last 150 years, and they have failed. What makes anyone think that a politicized constitutional court would be able to find sober and enlightened breakthroughs in reforming Islam for the 21st century?

The first clause of the Iraqi constitution strikes a wedge into the basic unit of Iraqi society: the family. Say a man and a woman seek to divorce. The man wants the whole matter adjudicated through the eighth century Maleki Sunni interpretation of Islamic Shariah, while the lady feels she'll do better under the secular 1959 Civil Law that is on the books. The constitution says that both this man and woman have equal rights, but clearly the constitutional court will have to apply a verdict that makes one less equal than the other. With religious demagogues weighing in while their adjunct militias rove the streets, most judges on the panel would opt for self-preservation. Thus, I'm guessing the lady is going to lose.

Last week, President Bush made a phone call to Shia leader Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim - head of the largest parliamentary block - beseeching him to save the day and find consensus. Mr. Hakim did not deliver but the phone call increased his standing: He demonstrated that he is the "go to" guy for the high and mighty Americans. By the way, Hakim is the leader of the not-so-subtle Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose militias are busily working to turn the nine southern provinces he seeks to confederate into a mini-Islamist state. The phone call brought him nearer to being the guy in charge of his own Shariah fiefdom. After all, the Americans with 150,000 troops don't seem to mind. Iran's mullahs, the longtime patrons of Mr. Hakim, must have been howling with laughter at the irony that day.

And last Thursday, at a meeting attended by top American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, British officials, and leading Iraqi government figures, a member of the Sunni negotiating team said something incredibly audacious: Those who kill Americans deserve to be regaled in the constitutional preamble. That Sunni, Mahmoud al-Mashadani, felt that too much was being made of the Saddam-era mass graves that he dismissed as "five farmers in the marshes who were plowed under," and that the true heroes are the insurgents fighting the occupation. The Americans and the British said nothing, and the only person who challenged him was the president of the Kurdish regional government, Masoud Barzani, who himself had lost a half dozen siblings to Saddam's gallows while another 8,000 male members of his tribe had gone "missing." Mr. Barzani told him that it was the Americans who liberated the Iraqi people from the likes of Mr. Mashadani.

How did Mr. Mashadani come to speak on behalf of Iraq's Sunnis? He certainly was not elected to such a post. He was picked by the self-same Americans whose killers he was gleefully cheering on.

The most visible and audible Sunni on the constitutional talks is a certain man by the name of Saleh al-Mutlak, a favorite of the Western press corps. He too was not elected to any post and had spent most of his adult life in the service of Saddam's regime, including managing the agricultural estates of Saddam's wife and his murderous son, Uday.

Men like Mr. Mutlak and Mr. Mashadani were negotiating on behalf of the Baathists, not the Sunnis. On Saturday night, the official Iraqi TV network aired a spirited debate whereby the secular politician Mithal al-Alusi, who happens to be a Sunni, made this point and trounced yet a third member of the negotiating team, Kamal Hamdoun, who had openly stated his pride in his Baathist past.

Some may argue that bringing on the Baathists is a political solution to the murderous insurgency. But how come these Baathists did not show good faith by declaring a cease fire and halting terrorist activities while negotiations were ongoing?

The Baathists, like the Islamists, have demonstrated to the Iraqi people that they are the only game in town by virtue of being taken seriously by the Americans. The Baathists were thus rehabilitated after having lost the war that put an end to their 30 years of tyranny, while the Islamists shed the stigma of a close association with Iran's tyrants. Iraq's democrats were marginalized and relegated to the sideline benches of the debate. The Iraqi constitution, far from being a blueprint for democracy, has been rendered by American haste into a turf war between totalitarian agendas.

Both the Baathists and the Islamists have sure-footed their foothold on the stage of Iraqi politics. Now they can bide their time as they watch an exhausted America scramble to announce the completion of the Iraq project according to a timetable being set by a distraught Cindy Sheehan. And as the American soldiers who have braved this difficult task are withdrawn, the counter-revolution against democracy will begin.

Democracy is hard as it is, but the challenge is even greater with strong anti-democratic internal and external forces being marshaled to thwart it. Many regional dictatorships and radical groups have a stake in killing liberty, and they have been pulling all the brakes to bring about this outcome. The constitutional process was hijacked by such darkness, while America's and freedom's friends, like Mr. Alusi, were left out of the battle.

Maybe a secular rejection of this flawed constitution by popular referendum would set the clock back and bring us back to square one. A new General Assembly would be voted in and a new debate on Iraq's future would begin; hopefully this time with less American patronage of the Islamists and Baathists.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Rotten Fish

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

August 16, 2005 Tuesday


LENGTH: 1158 words

HEADLINE: Rotten Fish

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Hands down, the best reporting coming out of Iraq is being done by the 26-year-old Baghdad bureau chief of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, Hannah Allam. Last week, she filed a lengthy follow-up to a story she broke a month ago, the upshot of which was that a sum in excess of $500 million went missing in the space of eight months somewhere within Iraq's Ministry of Defense. That amount accounts for about half of the ministry's budget.

So let's do a bit of math: In the span of about 240 days, some $4 million was spent each day. Half that money went to line the pockets of a web of about 15 Iraqi embezzlers in league with probably another 15 non-Iraqi middlemen. The other half went to equip, clothe, feed, and pay the salaries of 100,000 members of Iraq's newly minted armed forces. Could low Iraqi troop morale be explained by these men going unpaid for several months while armed with guns that keep jamming?

A report conducted by Iraq's Supreme Board of Audit on all of this was delivered to Prime Minister Jafari's office on May 16. But don't expect him to do anything about this just yet; the man is still getting around - after being in office for four months - to hiring the deputy ministers of his cabinet. These deputies will serve only for another four months come election time, but hey, what's the hurry, right?

Meanwhile, the former acquisitions manager for the defense ministry, Ziad Tariq Cattan, has left town. He carries dual Iraqi and Polish citizenship and has a legal-residency permit in Germany. In July, days after he told Ms. Allam that he would be back in Baghdad to answer allegations and clear his name, Mr. Cattan took a flight from Damascus bound for Germany. His two brothers picked him up from the airport and slaughtered sheep in celebration; he had just eluded an Iraqi arrest warrant issued a couple of weeks earlier.

I met Mr. Cattan once a few years back when he was managing a pizza parlor in a suburb of Bonn. I'm no culinary expert, but lunch was awful, which may have had something to do with his business going belly-up. This failed restaurateur, who also moonlighted as a human trafficker of Iraqi refugees, was hired by Paul Bremer's outfit, the Coalition Provisional Authority, in January 2004.

Mr. Cattan found his way up the ranks and nested in the defense ministry, where he was in a position to pilfer money. He picked a man from Fallujah called Nair Mohamed Ahmed Al-Ali, who also goes by the name of Nair Al-Jumaili, to be his financial sidekick. Mr. Al-Ali had recently found his way to Wahhabism and made it no secret in social conversations that he sympathized with the insurgents. Mr. Al-Ali is also under investigation, and his whereabouts are unknown.

Allam further reported that the ranks of the 1,200 American diplomats, spooks, and technical advisers in the U.S. Embassy went "hopping mad" when the audit report first came out. Yes, $500 million vanishing into thin air may be shocking to those who are uninitiated in Iraq's massive web of graft, but what excuse do those American civilians have in feinting disbelief and anger?

Weren't they paying any attention to earlier problems, many of which were front-page news? Remember when Cattan's former boss and ex-defense minister Hazem Al-Shaalan allegedly tried to carry off $300 million in cash from Baghdad Airport back in January? Al-Shaalan was voted into the National Assembly as a candidate on a list heavily backed by those very same American civilians. But nowadays he seems to be spending most of his time in a sumptuous villa he purchased in Amman's posh neighborhood of Deir Ghbar, as well as hanging out in the lobby of that city's Grand Hyatt Hotel. Shaalan's chief aide, Mishal Al-Sarraf, who is also allegedly involved in that scandalous heist, is himself enjoying an early retirement in Beirut, where he seems to be living the good life. There is an ongoing investigation, but Prime Minister Jafari - bless his heart - is too busy giving memorial speeches about renowned Iraqi poets and can't spare the time to peruse the findings.

And there was also that time in January 2004 when Ayad Allawi's brother-in-law and then Minister of the Interior Nori Al-Badran was implicated in the transfer via airplane to Beirut of Iraqi currency worth $12 million.

There was a progressive pattern to fishy transactions: starting with a measly $12 million and exploding into $500 million. Thus, I find it very hard to believe that those American civilians did not know what was up, given this long track record and their own ubiquitous presence in the country. Back in May, Ms. Allam also reported how the entire archive of Iraq's new intelligence service, paid for and operated by the CIA, also went missing to keep it away from the prying eyes of Iraq's newly elected government. If the American Embassy staff can flaunt Iraq's sovereignty so leisurely, then surely their own eyes and ears would have picked up on what's been going on. Their fall-back defense is "It's Iraq's money, not our taxpayers," as if that justifies their failings.

Moreover, in an interview with a leading Iraqi paper last week, the current minister in charge of Iraq's meager electrical output has claimed that he cannot account for billions of dollars spent under his predecessor. The exminister, Ayham Al-Samamei, has re-invented himself as a mediator between the terrorists and the American government. He has been furiously putting out press releases since being out of a job, including one about a recent photo-op with Stephen Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser.

The saddest part is that blatant corruption is still going on in the Iraqi government, and at all levels, for the fish rots from the head, as they say. But given that $500 million going "poof" is the new benchmark for shock and embarrassment, then loose change of hundreds of thousands of dollars being pinched here and there is not going to make front-page news.

Plenty of former and current Iraqi and American officials have a lot of explaining to do. Some of these Iraqis also need to go to jail. But between a good-for-nothing Jafari and an "it wasn't us" embassy staff, not much is likely to get done.

Not all the news is bad: The Washington Post reported that Sunni tribesmen in the restive town of Ramadi have mobilized to protect the minority Shias living in their midst after roving jihadist henchmen had ordered them to leave town. Some have explained this as a move by the Ba'athists to hit the brakes after fearing that they can no longer contain Zarqawi's influence, but most people I spoke to described it as a spontaneous expression of intercommunal goodwill. This is a moment as important for Iraq as the day Saddam's statue fell and the day millions went out to vote. It is also a wholly Iraqi moment, and the Americans cannot take credit for it. Maybe America's next shining moment is the extradition of Mr. Cattan from Germany to answer for charges of corruption.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

State of Wobbliness

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

August 9, 2005 Tuesday


LENGTH: 1158 words

HEADLINE: State of Wobbliness

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com.


Ladies and gentlemen, Project New Iraq is about to fail. Too bad, since an Iraqi success story would avert many future disasters in the West.

And yes, it was a noble goal to overthrow Saddam and liberate the Iraqi people, and no, it did not make the bad guys hate you even more, since that is not emotionally possible: Their hatred is so great that they intend, over the next decade of turmoil, to burn the oil under their feet just to spite you - the oil that would feed and clothe their children.

On Sunday, demonstrators in the southern town of Samawa clashed with Iraqi police forces, leading to at least one fatality. Only a year and a half ago, they welcomed Allied forces deployed there with "Welcome Mr. Japan" signs written in mangled English. Those demonstrators were not out to support Muqtada al-Sadr. They were not out to denounce the concept of federalism. They were not clamoring for more sovereignty. They demanded water, a couple of more hours of electricity, and no more iron shavings in their rationed flour.

Two days earlier, a similar demonstration of several thousand souls with similar demands in Karbala demanded that their native son, Prime Minister Ja'afari, resign his post. Farther south, Basra's natives are seething with resentment as their easygoing town turns further and further into an Islamic city-state where heavily accented Iranian intelligence officers get to decide whether out-of-town visitors can check into hotels.

Maybe it is unrealistic to ask for much across all of Iraq given the ferocious intensity of the murderous insurgency, but at least for the line south of the towns of Musayyeb on the Euphrates and Suweira on the Tigris, where things have been relatively calm, one would have expected to see some changes for the better two and a half years after liberation. Sure, no one is piling poor Shias into mass graves any more, but how would one explain the anger in Samawa?

Here is a prediction that pains me: Expect riots in Baghdad. The anger and resentment in the capital is immense. Once people fall into the habit of thinking that tomorrow will be even worse than today, then that defines failure in a grand experiment like Iraq.

The reasons for all this are very complex, but it is immoral at this point to engage in sterile academic arguments as to who is to blame. Right now, a dehydrated nation demands water, electricity, gasoline, and all the other basic things.

The fundamental paradox now is that the Americans are not leading the process in Iraq while at the same time not allowing the elected government to lead. There are two crucial elements to this conundrum: security and corruption.

The people in the streets are angry because there is no accountability for the miserable failure of governmental performance on both security and corruption. A week ago in the Friday sermon, one of Ayotallah Sistani's most influential spokesmen posed this pertinent question: Where does the Iraqi Intelligence Service get its budget from, and who does its chief, General Mohammed Shahwani, answer to? The answer to both questions is the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia, but no one in the Iraqi government is supposed to know or challenge the legality of this open secret.

America's security policy in Iraq, which came into shape while Ayad Allawi was prime minister, is still in place. Its main theme was to woo the Ba'athists back into power. The result was that the insurgents somehow came up with better planned attacks by acting on leaked sensitive information. This policy, one of whose hallmarks is Shahwani's outfit, has clearly failed. But did anyone learn anything?

The current elected government ran on a platform of de-Ba'athification Plus but is being stymied at every turn. Here is a bizarre Mexican standoff: The rules for the Special Criminal Court that is supposed to put Saddam on trial specifically state that no Ba'athist, of whatever rank, is allowed to hold a job in the tribunal. The de-Ba'athification Commission proceeded to fire the Ba'athists, but a rearguard action by the American embassy, as well as editorial melodrama in the New York Times, halted the process. It's the law, stupid! Those who gave testimony against Saddam and went into a witness protection program got phone calls from the insurgents telling them that their act is up.

And just who is being held accountable for the corruption under Allawi's government? Hundreds of millions of dollars went missing, and it was all widely reported. But did anyone go to jail? What lesson are current state bureaucrats supposed to infer from that failure to act? At least now, the government has put in place some regulations that make it a little harder to carry tens of millions of dollars in cash out of Baghdad Airport. But given the lack of accountability, some ministers and their cronies are just getting more creative in circumventing these regulations. Some of the schemes that I'm hearing about are indeed ingenious, and funnily enough those embezzlers are proud enough to openly gloat about their deftness. Great! They have to work harder to steal. Now that's progress.

Against the backdrop of governmental paralysis in doing something-anything-about security and corruption, Iraq is having its most important historical moment: the crafting of a constitution that defines the identity and future of the country. But this historical contract is being forged in the Green Zone; an artificial bubble of comfort that bears no resemblance to the rest of Iraq. The rest of Iraq wants the government to provide basic services now and can spare little attention to the rhetoric that will shape their future.

Ja'afari is sitting in this Green Zone much too content with his title while twiddling his thumbs and mouthing ornate gibberish. Anyone who has followed his career over the decades would never refer to him as a dynamic personality and can-do guy. To cover for his shortcomings, his aides are whispering to their party cadres that the Americans are deliberately sabotaging and paralyzing the government in order to bring back Allawi in the next round of elections.

The legal mechanism for delaying the constitutional debate and getting on with fixing or at least appearing to fix the problems of security and corruption is there for the taking. Everyone involved should make full use of the six-month extension: Ja'afari must be sacked, Ba'athists must be purged, and thieves must go to jail.

At least then the Iraqi people can see some movement in the right direction. Instead, the Americans, by hurrying along the process, have the haunted look of those trying to cut and run. The bad guys are ecstatic and see it as Somalia all over again. But the fact remains the same: Iraq must succeed, because if it doesn't, those bad guys will. Success can be only measured by how Iraqis wake up in the morning and look forward to better times; finding water in their taps to wash their faces would be a good start.

Friday, August 05, 2005

More Angry Young Men

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

August 5, 2005 Friday


LENGTH: 1165 words

HEADLINE: More Angry Young Men



Here's something that went missing in the press coverage of Saudi Arabia's power transfer: More than half of Saudi Arabia's population was born in the 23-year reign of King Fahd, who died Monday. In fact, 45% of the population is under 15 years old.

So as pundits wrangle about the advanced ages of those princes waiting in the line of succession (the crown prince is 81) and how all that bodes for an unstable decade to come, very few are cognizant of the demographic deluge that is just around the corner.

In other news, the municipal council in Spain's seacoast resort town of Marbella has declared three days of mourning for Fahd and given him the honorific title of "Son of Marbella." Townspeople stood for a few minutes of silence to pay their respects. Others laid wreaths at the Al-Nada Palace, where Fahd used to vacation. It's the least they could do, as the Saudi royal entourage used to spend millions of dollars every year in this Iberian tourist spot.

The real danger is that most of the young population of Saudi Arabia expects to be able to party in Marbella like their royals, and it just isn't going to happen. This younger generation is destined to enter a political and economic system with preconceived and unrealistic notions of what it takes to be successful. These notions are culled from the now-ubiquitous status symbols of pop culture. The system is not set up to absorb and realize the ambitions of these millions of Saudis, for it has been erected to satisfy the avarice and luxuriant lifestyle of the very privileged few.

Since the beginning of this millennium, technology has become affordable. Visitors to the Middle East marvel at the proliferation of satellite dishes in neighborhoods that are no more than shantytowns. Young viewers of satellite TV are watching countless hours of some 15 channels that broadcast one music clip after another. They are being sold on a lifestyle of fast cars, beautiful women, nice clothes, and fabulous and exotic surroundings, like Marbella. They are being told that these are the new status symbols of success, and the enchanted youngsters are looking forward to a glitzy, glamorous future.

They will quickly be disappointed: The Middle East, with all its natural riches, is not the land of opportunity where the illusion of hard work and some luck will get you to the top. It is a land of nepotism and many other forms of cronyism. There are no rights for the pursuit of happiness; anything beyond the guarantee of misery is heralded as a gift from the benevolent leader. Thus, while the technology that disseminates pop culture is affordable, the lifestyle itself is not.

Recently, three teenage Jordanian guitarists were strumming their instruments in the outdoor seating section at one of Amman's Burger Kings. The throng of teenage girls they were seeking to impress were more preoccupied with the highlights of the Live 8 Concert they had watched on satellite TV a couple of days before. I climbed into a beaten-up taxi from that street corner, and the driver immediately pointed at the stylishly dressed teens and said, "Look at these idle heathens!" I sarcastically asked him what he thought of the recent world-wide concert before proceeding to explain that it was a pop-culture effort at addressing poverty in Africa. He asked, "Poverty in Africa? Come with me to my neighborhood and I'll show you families that will go hungry tonight because they can't afford dinner."

In another setting, the ultra-rich patrons of Istanbul's ultra-posh club, Reina, party around reserved tables that cost hundreds of dollars for a night. I asked a friend, "Are these the budding entrepreneurs of a booming Turkish economy?" "Nah, they're just spending their parents' money," he responded. Most of these youths are the legacy of a corrupt business and government class that is endemic of all the Middle East. Most don't take notice of a well lit Ottoman mosque on the other side, across the Bosphorus, the narrow body of water that divides Asia from Europe. They also don't notice other Turkish youths who represent the majority of the population throbbing out of the rural hinterland - hurriedly busing tables - who are entering this kind of nepotistic hierarchy and whose ambitions in joining the fun and hip-ness of Reina are going to be thwarted in the land of very little opportunity, driving them into the fold of Islamic fundamentalists.

Alienation from a corrupt and unfair system is not something new, and Marx was busily describing it and offering remedies of "proletariat revolution." But whereas he saw religion as an "opiate" that reconciled the masses to a system that abused them in 19th century Europe, religion to the alienated youths of the Middle East is a blood-pumping amphetamine. The form of radical Islam they find incubating in Saudi Arabia's Wahhabism, but constantly mutating into a more virulent strand, is being touted to young Arabs and Muslims as their redemption from a sense of failure: It shall resurrect the glories of ancient times - times when even Spain was part of the Islamic Empire.

Most of the suicide bombers flocking to jihad in Iraq have good educations. They have come to realize that hard work isn't going to cut it: In the Middle East, getting ahead is about who you know and not what you know. In Jordanian neighborhoods that don't have Western fast-food outlets, Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a cult hero because he seems powerful, while the Americans and the Iraqi government seem powerless. The appeal of radical Islam to the youth of the Middle East is that it is seen to empower the helpless individual. Their rebellion against dead-end lives is manifested by joining something akin to the terrorist cult of the movie "Fight Club." Since the concept of a participatory citizenship in shaping the course of society and state is absent throughout the region, more and more frustrated young men will turn into Zarqawis.

So instead of vacationing in Marbella, martyrdom through suicide bombing is marketed as the quickest path to frolicking in the company of 72 "heavenly" virgins.

Unless young Saudis - or Middle Easterners in general - are given another outlet to gain a sense of success and accomplishment, the recruiting pool for the jihadists will just expand, as will the ensuing turmoil in the region and beyond. This will not happen through pinning hopes on octogenarian hereditary leaders in charge of an antiquated form of rule and limited patronage. President Bush is on to something with his rhetoric of democracy: He is giving the youth some hope that there is a better way to get empowered other than the path of murderous mayhem. But can you imagine what would happen if America's allies, the house of Saud, don't deliver some measure of reform? The royals can always flee to Marbella, but even that place may become a target - after all, the fundamentalists still have fantasies of bringing Spain - or Andalusia as they still refer to it - back into the Islamic fold.