Talisman Gate

Saturday, June 17, 2006

A Miracle in Hibhib

June 16, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

A Miracle in Hibhib

June 16, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/34604

When I once drove through Hibhib, the only thing my traveling companion could note about this little town was its fame for a local sort of moonshine distilled by the townsfolk according to an old and secret recipe. He added that the reason Hibhib's arak - a 50-proof-plus aniseed-flavored alcoholic spirit - is so tasty is the nighttime preparation process during which the fermentation vessels would be dipped into the cool waters of a nearby stream, or so he was told. Well, as of a couple of days ago, Hibhib can claim another conversation starter: Somewhere near here, a famous terrorist called Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi expired. We can all toast a shot of arak to that.

Yes, I am calling it a miracle. Iraq was going through a sustained slide into the abyss of despair, and most people were resigned to seeing their country and the lives they had known torn to shreds by terror and hate. Only something on the magnitude of killing or capturing Zarqawi - the symbolic fount of much that had gone wrong since the end of the Saddam regime - could have convinced Iraqis that there is still hope.

It happened in a remarkably auspicious manner, preserving Zarqawi's face for a post-mortem mug shot. There was no mistaking that the purple-lipped corpse was indeed the same man who only recently came out with his own boastful Rambo-like video. Details about his last moments enthrall many Iraqis, who circulate rumors about what those moments may have been like. The recently released autopsy details tell us he lived for nearly an hour after the bomb hit. Could it be that he lived long enough to see himself surrounded and manhandled by American "Crusaders" and Iraqi "apostates"? There is something heart-warming in that macabre thought.

Sure, the insurgency and blood-letting will go on for much longer, but no one should underestimate the redemptive power of hope among well-meaning Iraqis. Zarqawi's death, and its particular manner, brings back bushels of confidence to their shaken cores. It is as if an entire nation had downed some of Hibhib's arak to steady its nerves for the long trudge ahead.

Strategically, there is some more good news for Iraq. The jihadists will get increasingly frustrated with the Iraqi battlefield, and will seek out greener pastures. For any talented leader craving the limelight as the No. 1 Terrorist, the jihad in Iraq will always be associated with Zarqawi's name, and none other will eclipse this dark legacy. Such a wannabe will need to find somewhere else in the Middle East to make a name for himself. This is good news for Iraq, but bad news for others as the jihadist battlefield migrates westwards - towards the heartland of the Levant.

Zarqawi's particular legacy was taking the jihadist agenda to further extremes and greater ambitions. Listening to what turned out to be his last four-hour anti-Shia sermon, released on the Internet a week before his demise but supposedly recorded two months previously, one gets an inside look at how Zarqawi's head worked.

To start with, he was not very sophisticated. Although his pitch and oratory were formidable, his diatribe followed a recognizable rhythm, as if he were repeating the same mantra over and over by rote. His voice changed only twice: when talking about Noureddin Zenki, an Islamic commander who fought the crusaders (Zarqawi was raised in Jordan on a street bearing Zenki's name) and when defending the Prophet Muhammad's wife Ayesha - "our mother" as he puts it - from Shia slanders regarding her chastity. Zarqawi also took prurient interest in, and discussed at length, accusations that Khomeini was a pedophile and that Shia jurists sanction some unorthodox sexual positions.

The next-largest part of the sermon was devoted to a long list of perceived Shia "betrayals" to the Muslim nation. Zarqawi or, more likely, his speechwriter seized upon a large body of polemical literature produced by Saudi Arabia's Wahhabis over the last two decades in reaction to Khomeini's revolution, which has been complemented in recent years by jihadist authors writing along the same lines after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Zarqawi borrowed at length from these books but was unique in transforming hate speech into a course of action. He argued that there can be no "total victory" over the Jews and Christians unless there is a "total annihilation" of the Shias, who are the secret agents of the enemies of Islam. He even claimed that his fellow terrorists in Hizbullah are only making a show of hating Israel, while their true role is to defend its northern border. He ended it by declaring war on Muqatda Al-Sadr and his "bastards."

Zarqawi spoke in terms of a grand-scale final solution to the Shia problem, and he counseled doing exactly what earlier Muslim rulers had done when faced by Shia sedition: Put them all to the sword or, alternatively, hurl every man, woman and child into burning trenches. He simplified and broadened jihad, telling the would-be fanatic, "If you can't find any Christians or Jews to kill, vent your wrath against the next available Shia guy." It is rather ironic that while Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself a Shia politician in charge of a predominately Shia country, continues to deny the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews, Zarqawi argued for a similar mass murder against the Shias for being agents of the Jews.

So what does Zarqawi's legacy entail? The Middle East will look very messy should such Shia-Sunni strife spread. The turmoil would roil Syria (where an offshoot minority Shia sect lords over and represses a Sunni majority), Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and much of the Persian Gulf, as well as places further off in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Furthermore, decades of Arab nationalist rhetoric against Israel and Wahhabi propaganda against Shias will seamlessly complement each other as the enemy is melded into one. The Sunnis of the Middle East are already primed for such a conflict and there is no need for extensive brainwashing since most of that is already in place.

Iraq will survive the storm as more and more Sunnis realize that there are just too many Shias for them to kill and that they themselves may be decimated by a backlash. But sizable Shia minorities elsewhere will be bullied, compelling Shias everywhere to learn one important lesson from Hibhib: It fell to the Americans to kill off Zarqawi - the worst enemy of the Shias. Thus, they need to realize that America, and not Iran, is their best ally for survival against the encroaching jihadist storm, and America needs to wise up to the fact that rampant anti-Shi'ism has become a central tenet of jihadist ideology, and should plan and act accordingly.

And maybe after all the craziness washes over the Middle East in the next decade or so, Shias, Sunnis, and Americans can sit down together and wash down past hurts with some prized Hibhib arak - especially the sentimentally coveted 2006 vintage.

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

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Limbo by Veto

June 6, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Limbo by Veto

June 6, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/33959

This is the new modus operandi of government in Iraq: four power centers, each with widely disparate goals, are tasked with running a country. Each nexus has the power to veto whatever proposal conflicts with its vision, and each is in turn composed of sub-committees whereby individual members also wield veto authority, which may be exercised for reasons that vary from ideological hairsplitting to pettiness and spite.

To make sense of this model, let us solve a problem: picking the next interior minister. We can start with the seven member council of the Shia parliamentary block, the United Iraqi Alliance, since it has already been resolved that this ministry will fall to them. A certain name is proposed by the Sadrist faction that is automatically rejected by their rivals, the Hakim family. The reverse is also true. Thus, there are two factions within the UIA with veto authority. Eventually, they pool a bunch of names, and the least controversial one is agreed upon - pending further investigation, or better put, finding out who that candidate eventually answers to.

The last name they had agreed on made it all the way towards an imminent vote in parliament on Sunday, but was pulled back at the last moment by the UIA bloc itself over objections that the candidate may have been a prominent Ba'athist under Saddam. More specifically, the Hakims felt that this candidate was too close to their other rivals, the Daawa Party.

But before making it to parliament, there were other hoops to jump through: the first being the possibility of an American objection. The American Embassy in Baghdad, under the stewardship of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, keeps insisting that they are not interfering in what is called the "Iraqi political process". That claim is patently false, for Khalilzad was very "hands-on" in picking Maliki's cabinet and seemingly vetoed several choices. Now, in picking ministers for the security portfolios, the Americans actually provided Maliki with a list of candidates, all of which immediately became suspect to the Islamists as those who would do America's bidding rather than their own.

What's more, the buck does not stop at Khalilzad, for he has to contend with other lists of favorite clients who answer to Meghan O'Sullivan, the White House's top adviser on Iraq, as well as to a resurgent Foggy Bottom. On the American side, the Embassy, the White House and the State Department can veto each other's picks for the top jobs.

That brings us up to five sides - two Iraqi factions and three American ones - that can stall the process, and to that we need to add the Sunni bloc (two heavyweights with veto bragging rights) and the Kurds (another two) for a grand total of nine. Oh, wait, I forgot those power-grubbing apparatchiks in Grand Ayatollah Sistani's office; they also have veto authority. Oops, and nothing can get through if the Iranian Revolutionary Guard leadership does not "okay" matters. And now that the Syrians have one of their own smack in the middle of things - that man being Maliki himself - then one cannot rule out whatever misgivings they have on the topic. You get the idea.

Back to choosing an interior minister. The Sunnis, who are tasked with coming up with names for the defense portfolio, want to shift law and order from interior to defense. At issue is the all important category of police commandos, whom they want to transform into National Guard units under their own bureaucracy. The Sunnis do not want an interior minister who can actually do the job of reining in all the rogue elements of Islamist militias, Mafiosi and crooks operating under his aegis. They want someone who will fail so that they can act as his foil. They believe that the country can afford to burn a little longer if it means that their strategic goal of hoarding powers disproportionate to their numbers is met.

And in case anyone suggests otherwise, one can cite the very recent statements of Iraq's newly-minted Vice President Tareq Al-Hashimi (another wonder of Iraq's "unity government") who called upon the "honorable resistance" to keep killing Americans until the Sunni politicians such as himself can negotiate a final settlement.

So how is one to make sense of all these conflicting agendas, and their ability to veto each other? This process, called "consensus," was employed in managing the various factions of the Iraqi opposition to the Saddam regime, and bringing them under one tent. It continued after liberation, through the occupation, and after two important elections. Theoretically, it hinges on the idea that Iraq is in such a delicate situation, that no side can be shunned from the table. But this system only works if there is a capable deal-maker: somebody who works out the formula by which each side compromises a little for the process to move forward through a "lose some, win some" strategy. What Iraq has today are accommodators such as Khalilzad and Maliki; those who think they can turn everyone into winners, and it simply isn't working.

There is also a sense among the Iraqi political class that most of the portfolios filled so far reflect ineptitude. Procedural matters as simple as issuing identification badges for new ministers to enter the Green Zone, where cabinet meetings are held, have been stymied. Maliki is instinctively running his own office like the Leninist organizational credo of the Daawa Party to whom he belongs: secrecy and keeping it in the family. American officials dealing with him are already issuing alarms and preparing to distance themselves from an approaching managerial train wreck.

And yet, Baghdad burns. Soon, the flames will lap up at the security gates of the Green Zone. It is no longer a case where the biased media fails to report the "good news" out of Iraq: on the contrary, they are not catching up with the horrible battering being taken by Iraq's middle class as foreign reporters, as well as their Iraqi stringers, are confined to ever narrowing beats. As a measure of how bad things are, there are fatwas in effect in large swaths of western Baghdad banning salads because - according to the jihadists - cucumbers are male and tomatoes are female, and never shall the two meet without adult supervision. This is not science fiction, it is happening in real time, and don't be surprised when a terrorized population actually pays heed. Moreover, the once stable south of Iraq is verging on a collapse as Shia factions and gangs battle it out, with Iranian connivance.

Yes, it is that bad, and no amount of "happy talk" will change it. But this war ceased to be a "feel good" endeavor a long time ago; it should be fought because losing is not an option. Can the world afford the precedent of a superpower being humbled by someone like Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi, and does anyone really think that Zarqawi and his ilk will end it right then and there as America retreats in defeat? No, Iraq must be made to work.

Meanwhile, President Bush keeps seeing "milestones" and "turning points" in Iraq - probably because he is being led around in circles. Coming up is the realization that the current political set-up where entrenched foes cancel each other out is no substitute for serious leadership that can get things done, and fast. Let us only hope that the badly-frayed Iraqi state can outlast Maliki's cabinet, and Khalilzad's myriad "accommodations."

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