Friday, June 24, 2005

Iran's elections

Today, Iran's voters go to the polls faced with an unenviable choice for President. On the one hand, the patrician Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a highly cautious reformer. On the other, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a fascistic religious authoritarian. This is the run off after a first round of polling in which the more ambitious reformers were trounced.

Many socio-economic factors lie behind the rise of Ahmadinejad, who draws much of his support from the poor. But its worth considering what responsibility the west, in particular our closest ally the US, might have for this unhappy turn of events.

Iran's nascent democracy was overthrown in the 1950s by a US-backed coup and replaced with a dictatorship just as brutal as the current one. Amnesty International reported in 1976 that under the Shah Iran had the "highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture" which was "beyond belief". In Iran "the entire population was subjected to a constant, all-pervasive terror".

In the present day Iran is surrounded by countries with US bases on their soil. Its been attacked, to brutal and devastating effect, by a US-backed Iraq in recent history, where banned weapons were used by the aggressor. Its regional rival, Israel, a nation kept on life-support by the US, boasts a nuclear arsenal which it claims as its exclusive right, along with the right to steal and hold on to its neighbours' territory by acts of violence.

So Iran as a nation has some very good reasons to feel embattled and threatened from all sides. And of course, feelings of national persecution create the perfect conditions for terrifying figures like to Ahmadinejad to emerge. In other words, continued US aggression is helping to deter reform in Iran, exactly contrary to what Washington pretends is its policy aim: spreading democracy.

Of course, genuine democracy in Iran, or anywhere else in that region, is the last thing the US wants. That would produce independent minded governments wishing to spend oil revenues on economic development to build modern societies for themselves. The US sees the role of MidEast oil rather differently; as providing a source of enrichment for US corporations and complient local elites, and to help maintain a strategic stranglehold on the world ecnomomy.

If the election results benefit the hardliners this could help Washington's neo-cons create the opening they have been desperately trying to manufacture in order to take military action against Iran, and install another vicious client government there. We can only hope that the Iranian voters don't take the bait, and that a way can be found to break the cycle of repression and disenfranchisement in that blighted country.
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Meanwhile, here's some light music

Apologies for the pause since my last few articles. Other demands on my time have distracted me, I'm afraid. I'll return with something more subtantial shortly, but in the meantime here's an extract from a debate I've been involved in on the Guardian's newsblog recently.

The original topic was the so-called "flypaper theory". "Invading and occupying Iraq might turn the country into a magnet for anti-US terrorists, the argument went, but it was better to slug it out in a distant and foreign land instead of closer to home." However, during the string of comments that followed, one pro-war contributer sought to discredit the now famous Lancet study that indicated a death toll of 100,000 in Iraq. The little joust I had with him was quite instructive in terms of the extent to which some are prepared to lie and distort in order to maintain a comprehensively discredited political position.

Debates on the Guardian's newsblog can be pretty middlebrow (which is a shame as there's no reason why it shouldn't be like the far superior Nation blog, to which I also contribute from time to time). But using these forums does get the arguments out to a broader audience, so I think its worth making the odd intervention. Plus, a bit of sparring is always good for one's fitness.

Here's the relevant extracts from the debate. Again, apologies for the hiatus. Something more substatial to follow shortly.

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"...100 000+ people who lost family members, innocent mothers, brothers, sisters, children, parents, grandparents..."
Still quoting that bogus Lancet study, eh Sickening - the one that has been completely and thoroughly debunked.
The study only covered 1/3 of Iraq (not the 2/3 of the country in the north and south which are quiet and peaceful).
According to the UN (and you believe the UN, don't you?), only 24,000 civilians have been killed:
"THE invasion of Iraq and its aftermath caused the deaths of 24,000 Iraqis, including many children, according to the most detailed survey yet of postwar life in the country."
Your lies are truly sickening, Sickening.
Posted by Dicky on June 23, 2005 09:19 PM.

*

To return briefly to the 100,000 death toll - an accurate and thoughtful analysis of the Lancet survey, its methodology and the failed attempts to debunk it can be found here.
http://www.zmag.org/content/print_article.cfm?itemID=6565 This is one of the essential documents of the last couple of years re.Iraq and is well worth a read.

In respect of Dicky's criticisms, I'll simply point out that the Lancet survey included Sulaymaniya governorate in the Kurdish north and excluded the al Anbar governorate, which includes both Falluja and Ramadi and has been the centre the guerrilla war. Also, (quoting from the above article) "Najaf, scene of fierce fighting and massive US bombing in April and August 2004 was also not sampled. Further, while the Baghdad slum known as Sadr City, a stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr -- and site of furious fighting and US bombing for months -- was included in the sample, the area sampled there "by random chance was in an unscathed neighborhood with no reported deaths from the months of recent clashes""

In other words, the sample excluded all the areas where post invasion warfare and unrest was concentrated. So the Lancet estimate was in all probability a conservative one.
Contrast this with Dicky's assertion that "The study only covered 1/3 of Iraq (not the 2/3 of the country in the north and south which are quiet and peaceful)."

I realise this is off the original subject, but it seems to me that (apparently) deliberate attempts to distort investigations into the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people are just beyond the pale and should not be allowed to stand. To return to the topic: one can hardly expect to slaughter thousands of innocents, as the US has done in Iraq, and not suffer some pretty hideous consequences (which is to explain, not to justify such consequences; as we must if we're to prevent them). You don't need to be the CIA to point out that launching wars of aggression on the Arab world is a perfect way to play into the hands of bin Laden and that, in doing so, Bush's White House has been al-Qaeda's greatest recruiting officer since 9/11.

Now Iraq is a basket case, the US is all but defeated by the resistance, and the threat of islamist terrorism is greater than ever. Can there be any more defeated, disgraced and utterly humiliated political position in recent history than support for the invasion of Iraq?
Posted by diarist on June 23, 2005 11:00 PM.

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diarist, you're wrong on so many counts, including the spelling of your nom de plum, which surely should be "direst"...
Get the Lancet and its discredited methodology out of here. The Lancet has lost all credibility, as have Amnesty International and the U.N.
I guarantee you this: America will NOT lose the War on Terror. If we have to eradicate the entire Muslim world to ensure our safety, then count on us doing it. And who's going to stop us? The Chinese don't like Muslims anymore than we do. Hell, they may even help us.
Posted by Bushwick Bill on June 23, 2005 11:24 PM.

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diarist, the zNet article you cite proves nothing.
It is a perfect example of agenda journalism.
The author, Stephen Soldz, is a hard-core leftist. He's not interested in the truth.
He wants to promote a left-wing, socialist, anti-American agenda. He admits that on his web site.
Posted by Dicky on June 24, 2005 12:12 AM.

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"To return to the topic: one can hardly expect to slaughter thousands of innocents, as the US has done in Iraq..."
Diarist, it is the dead-ender Baathist and wahabbist terrorists who are killing Iraqis, not the U.S. we try to AVOID killing Iraqi civilians.
The terrorists want to kill as many as possible.
You shouldn't distort the facts like you do.
Posted by Dicky on June 24, 2005 12:18 AM.

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The Lancet survey only sampled 12 of the 18 provinces of Iraq.
Of the five provinces in northern Iraq only Ninawa and Sulaymaniya were surveyed.
Iraq's three most southern-most (and very calm) provinces were omitted from the study.Fallujah was way over-sampled.
The Lancet study was released in the run-up to the November 2004 presidential election.
The design of the study was faulty.

The study was politically motivated.
Posted by Dicky on June 24, 2005 12:27 AM.

*

further to an earlier comment I made about US defeat in Iraq, this from Juan Cole's indispensable blog
"a 2nd Lt and West Point grad who has just come back from Iraq....says flat out that the war is lost, that "we" only control territory when the troops are there in massive numbers and that "they" take over as soon as the troops leave, that the army is over-extended and morale is terrible -- drug use is escalating -- that there still isn't enough armor, that the Iraqi army and police are worse than useless, and that senior officers are convinced that it is Vietnam redux"
The latest in a string of such reports to come out over the past fortnight.

The notion of some flypaper "strategy" always struck me as a pretty feeble attempt to explain away the US failure in Iraq. Was being defeated by the insurgents part of the plan as well?

p.s. Dicky - you claim the Lancet study that estimated a post-invasion death toll of 100,000 was skewed because it over-sampled Fallujah. As you're well aware, being an expert, the Lancet study not only excluded Fallujah entirely, it also excluded the entire al-Anbar province including Ramadi and all the other main centres of the insurgency war. The problem with consistently lying, Dicky, is that you'll get caught out. And the problem with lying about dead civilians is that its a sure sign of moral bankruptcy. Again, for anyone interested in the true cost of the war, this is highly recommended reading
Posted by diarist on June 24, 2005 10:31 AM.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Watergate: a trivial misdemeanour

The identity of “Deep Throat”, the insider source who blew the whistle on the Watergate affair, was revealed earlier this week. The informant had been Mark Felt, a former FBI official who leaked details of the break-in and attempted bugging of the Democratic Party HQ organised by Richard Nixon’s White House. The scandal ultimately led to the President resigning in disgrace. This week’s revelation has revived old arguments over Watergate in the US, with some praising Felt as a hero and others branding him a traitor. It also provides us with a fresh opportunity to take a step back and look again at the nature and meaning of this most famous of political scandals.

Watergate was, by any objective standards, a fairly trivial misdemeanour when compared to the real crimes of Nixon and his administration. Beyond the obvious example of the ongoing carnage in Vietnam, the charge sheet will also include the indiscriminate carpet bombing of Cambodia which killed tens of thousands of civilians, crippled the country and went some way to preparing the ground for the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Further down the list we find the backing for a military coup in Chile that overthrew the democratically elected government and installed a savage dictatorship that murdered thousands of its opponents. The list goes on and the death toll is of biblical proportions. If we're being objective, Nixon was a mass murderer first, a war criminal second, and anything else a very distant third.

Its unlikely that there would have been any kind of political scandal at all if those targeted by the Watergate criminals had not been respectable establishment figures like Thomas Watson of IBM James Reston of the New York Times, and the staff of the US Democratic Party. The US state had always used dirty tricks against internal enemies, be they native Americans, civil rights leaders or other dissidents and undesirables. If Nixon had concentrated on the state's traditional enemies as others had done, his reputation would in all probability have remained intact.

Nixon's shaming for the Watergate scandal, far from being a triumph for the free media and democratic accountability, was rather like the conviction of Mafia Godfather Al Capone for tax evasion. He was guilty, but that was hardly the point. In fact, if we're to take all of Nixon's real crimes into account, the contrast between these and the Watergate scandal stands as a potent symbol of how western democracies routinely allow criminals in high office to go entirely unmolested.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Iraq's future: the present course and the alternatives

There are some who feel like that if they attack us that we may decide to leave prematurely. They don't understand what they're talking about, if that's the case. My answer is, bring them on. We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation.
George W. Bush - 2 July 2003

George W. Bush, you have asked us to 'bring it on.' And so help me, [we will ] like you never expected. Do you have another challenge?
Iraqi resistance propaganda video - 2004

Just after the fall of Baghdad two years ago President Bush, in an ostentatious propaganda set-piece reminiscent of a Roman triumph, landed a jet on the runway of the USS Abraham Lincoln and disembarked in front of a banner reading "Mission Accomplished". Iraq, we were told, was gazing upwards at the bright new dawn of freedom. Now in 2005, mired in a brutal counter-insurgency war, it finds itself instead staring deep into the abyss. What are the prospects for its future?

Recently, on his indispensable Middle East blog "Informed Comment", Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, took a "step back from the daily train wreck news" to assess the chances of a solution being reached. The picture he painted was a bleak one.

In summary, Cole's view is that "Given the basic facts, of capable, trained and numerous guerrillas, public support for them from Sunnis, access to funding and munitions, increasing civil turmoil, and a relatively small and culturally poorly equipped US military force opposing them, led by a poorly informed and strategically clueless commander-in-chief who has made himself internationally unpopular, there is no near-term solution [to Iraq's problems]."

"The US military cannot defeat the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement any time soon. The guerrillas have widespread popular support in the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq. Guerrilla movements can succeed if more than 40 percent of the local population supports them. [The insurgents] probably have 80 percent support in their region. The guerrillas are mainly Iraqi Sunnis with an intelligence or military background, who know where secret weapons depots are and who know how to use military strategy and tactics to good effect. They are [also] well-funded. The Americans have lost effective control everywhere in the Sunni Arab areas."

"There are too few US troops to fight the guerrillas.....70,000 US fighting troops [and] only 10,000 US troops for all of Anbar province, a center of the guerrilla movement. There are [an estimated] 40,000 active guerrillas and another 80,000 close supporters of them. The US military has been consistently underestimating their numbers and abilities. [Furthermore,] there is no prospect of increasing the number of US troops in Iraq."

The insurgents also have the advantage of local knowledge, speaking the language and generally being sympathetic figures for the regional populations. In contrast, "US troops in Iraq are mostly clueless about what is going on around them, and do not have the knowledge base or skills to conduct effective counter-insurgency". More importantly, the US tactic of suppressing opposition with massive force has served to alienate the population further. For example, "Fallujah was initially quiet, until the US military fired on a local demonstration against the stationing of US troops at a school". After repeated US counter-insurgency assaults the city is now a wasteland. (Its worth mentioning that when British commanders attempted to persuade the US of the principle of minimal force, which they believe they had applied successfully in Northern Ireland, the Americans "just laughed"). And Cole does not take an optimistic view of the new Iraqi military being able to take over the failing counter-insurgency effort anytime soon, not least since it is "heavily infiltrated with sympathizers of the guerrillas".

Furthermore, "The quality of leadership in Washington is extremely bad. George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and outgoing Department of Defense officials Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, have turned in an astonishingly poor performance in Iraq". Iraq has certainly been a masterclass in how to screw up an occupation. Even Nazis didn’t face problems such as these as a colonial power in Europe. Nor did the US in Japan or the Allies in Germany make such an awful mess of running someone else's country.

Cole's view is that "The guerrilla tactic of fomenting civil war among Iraq's ethnic communities, which met resistance for the first two years, is now bearing fruit". He also mentions other factors contributing to sectarian strife. "The political process in Iraq has been a huge disaster for the country. The Americans emphasized ethnicity in their appointments and set a precedent for ethnic politics that has deepened over time. Deep debaathification [summary sacking of the former administrative and governing class] has led to thousands of Sunnis being fired from their jobs for simply having belonged to the Baath Party, regardless of whether they had ever done anything wrong. They so far have no reason to hope for a fair shake in the new Iraq".

The ideal solution in Cole's opinion would be that "the United States would relinquish Iraq to a United Nations military command, and the world would pony up the troops needed to establish order in the country". However, "George W. Bush is a stubborn man and Iraq is his project, and he is not going to give up on it. And, by now the rest of the world knows what would await its troops in Iraq, and political leaders are not so stupid as to send their troops into a meat grinder".

I don't agree with Cole on this point. Firstly, whether the US gives up control of Iraq depends to a large extent on the US population. They face many obstacles, but theirs is still a largely free and democratic country. The immorality of colonising Iraq is plain, as is the fact of its failure. The task for the US electorate is therefore clear. The British, as America's principal ally, also have a role to play in this respect.

Secondly, we should ask ourselves if it is true that the international community, by replacing US forces in Iraq, would be sending troops into a "meat grinder". The answer depends on one's impression of the resistance; something that is hard to formulate with any level of certainty given the shortage of information. Cole appears to view the insurgency as largely Ba'athist, but augmented by "foreign jihadi fighters, [numbering] probably only a few hundred.. but disproportionately willing to undertake very dangerous attacks, and to volunteer as suicide bombers." However, there is another school of thought, which views the resistance as comprising a broader mixture of disaffected Iraqis, many if not most of whom are unconnected with Al Qaeda or the old regime, which may be lesser elements in a broad and fragmented religious/nationalist uprising.

Last week Asia Times Online reported that “Recent meetings of the so-called Higher Committee for National Forces (a grouping of Iraqi resistance bodies) and the 16th Arab National Congress held in Algiers played a pivotal role in building consensus among various Iraqi communist, Islamic, Ba'athist and nationalist groups on several issues, such as the right of Iraqis to defend themselves against foreign aggression and imperialism, and the right of Iraq to demand a political process untainted by occupation and which reflects the uninhibited will of the Iraqi people for a pluralistic and democratic Iraq. The groups also condemned the continued occupation of Iraq and the establishment of any permanent US bases in the country, the privatization of the Iraqi economy and foreign corporations' unrestricted access to Iraq's resources.

The mention of “a pluralistic Iraq” is certainly at odds with Cole's view of “[a] guerrilla tactic of fomenting civil war”. Its worth noting that, contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of insurgent attacks are not on civilians but on military targets (contrasting sharply with the activity of US forces, who continue to terrorise the population with indiscriminate attacks, e.g. colossal aerial bombardment of civilian areas). It appears that sectarian insurgent attacks that target civilians are in fact the work of an extremist minority within the broader resistance. If this is true, would it not be possible to isolate and then neutralise such groups if wider, popular grievances were addressed? (And conversely, is it not likely that a failure to resolve the conflict and its causes will strengthen and encourage extremist elements and methods within the insurgency, and indeed within the counter-insurgency as well? The recent wave of car bombings and reported US resort to local death squads may well be evidence of this.)

Cole says at "In the long run, say 15 years, the Iraqi Sunnis will probably do as the Lebanese Maronites did, and finally admit that they just cannot remain in control of the country and will have to compromise". But it there is much evidence to suggest that the resistance is for the most part not owned by former regime loyalists or religious fanatics driven by a desire to (re)gain control of Iraq, but is rooted in popular anger at the occupation amongst ordinary Iraqis, of which there is no shortage.

If this is indeed an accurate picture, then a demonstrably independent UN force could, with an enormous effort to persuade Iraqis of its goodwill, deflate the insurgency simply by replacing the US troops. If the conflict in Iraq is not for the most part a civil war, a nihilistic Al Qaeda killing spree or a power-grab by Ba'athists, but instead a conflict between US troops and an array of resisting forces rooted in the population, then the removal of one side from the battlefield would surely go some significant way to ending the bloodshed. If, as Cole argues, the resistance relies on a deep reservoir of popular support, and that support is fed by animosity to the US forces, does it not follow that the removal of the US would help to drain that reservoir?

A Muslim peacekeeping force under the command of the UN (something which has already been proposed) comprising Sunni and Shia troops and answering to the General Assembly, not the Security Council, could maximise the beneficial effect a US withdrawal would have for internal security. Such a force would be far more acceptable to the population, leaving any remaining belligerent forces isolated and easier to deal with. Its clear that many Iraqis are attacking Americans, not because Muslim Arabs are pathologically violent, but because they are enraged at being occupied by the country that backed Saddam, killed half a million of their children with sanctions and is now in the process of wrecking their homeland. After a US withdrawal, Iraq would still have a serious security problem, but one that would have been downgraded from a full scale guerrilla war to a terrorist threat from an isolated minority. UN troops would therefore not be entering a “meat grinder”.

Iraqis could then spend some of their efforts looking to the future. After fresh elections, this time held under UN observation, a new government could move to create the prosperity within which a stable democratic society can thrive. To do this it would need the profits of oil sales to improve infrastructure and living standards. National debt would therefore have to be cancelled and US imposed privatisation schemes abandoned. In addition, natural justice demands that substantial reparations be paid by the nations that backed Saddam and that devastated the country with sanctions and bombing. Bringing these elements together would mean that Iraq could face the future with a degree of confidence.

Is this scenario realistic? Will powerful elites and nation states allow such a solution to be taken forward? In light of the catastrophe that is the US occupation its not hard to foresee in the short term the withdrawal of what elite support remains for the adventure. A solution similar to that described above may come to be seen as the only realistic one for arresting Iraq's descent into hell, something the global economy can ill afford. But western populations should not sit around hoping that elites will do the right thing, or that whatever suits elite interests might one day happily coincide with what is the right thing to do. To effect these solutions the measures taken to bring down Apartheid, free India, win the vote, end segregation, secure labour rights and score countless other victories should be repeated on an enormous scale, forcing governments to act. The US is already all but defeated in Iraq. With assistance from western populations that defeat could be turned into a victory for the Iraqi people, and for the world as a whole. If that victory is to be won, then it is for civil society across the globe to take the action required in order to achieve it.