Category Archives: Iraq-2006-q4

How to hang a man: Nuremberg and Baghdad

Darn! I hate it when I need to lay my hands on a particular book but can’t find it… Today, it was the account Rebecca West gave in A Train of Powder of the hanging of the ten men sentenced to death at Nuremberg.
Goering, who also received a death sentence, “cheated” the hangman by swallowing a cyanide pill the night before.
West’s book has a detailed description of the process of the ten hangings that did happen. She prefaces that with an account of how, over earlier decades, the British had “perfected” the technique. The drop through the trapdoor should be long enough for the neck to snap once the end of the rope is reached. Also, the rope shouldn’t be too elastic/springy, or the jolt on the neck might not be sharp enough to break it. (Sorry for these grisly details. Read no further if you find this hard to take.)
However, at Nuremberg, the American GI’s who constructed the gallows did not have enough of the relevant expertise– being more used to electric chairs and the like, where they came from… So as West reported it, the hanged men at Nuremberg took some 20 minutes to die, dangling at the end of their ropes and suffering a slow and presumably painful asphyxiation.
She left unresolved, as I recall it, the question of whether the people who designed that faulty process had done so intentionally, or not.
I wanted to put some excerpts from her account into this post, just to show (through the contrast) that, by all accounts, the hangmen in Baghdad at least did a more “professional”– and therefore, if one can say this, “humane”– job than those in Nuremberg.
I did look at most of the YouTube posting of a video of Saddam’s hanging that was apparently shot by one of the observers there, through a cellphone or some other similarly small device. As video, it was highly imperfect as people kept getting in the way, the camera was swinging around, etc. But the audio on it was remarkably sharp.
I think Marc Santora’s account of the hanging in today’s NYT is largely based on having his Iraqi colleagues– two are named at the bottom– give him a translation of the voices that can be heard on the video. On the video you certainly can hear one or more men shouting “Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada!”
Saddam’s comportment as he reached his last minutes seemed considerably more dignified than that of some of the invited observers.
Santora wrote:

    He said a last prayer. Then, with his eyes wide open, no stutter or choke in his throat, he said his final words cursing the Americans and the Persians.
    At 6:10 a.m., the trapdoor swung open. He seemed to fall a good distance, but he died swiftly. After just a minute, his body was still. His eyes still were open but he was dead. Despite the scarf, the rope cut a gash into his neck.
    His body stayed hanging for another nine minutes as those in attendance broke out in prayer, praising the Prophet, at the death of a dictator.

On the YouTube video, you can briefly see the hanged body before they cut it down.
After it was taken down it was wrapped in a shroud and driven to his birth-town, Ouja (Auja), where it was buried around 24 hours later. AP’s Steven Hurst wrote today,

    Hundreds of Iraqis flocked to the village where Saddam Hussein was born on Sunday to see the deposed leader buried in a religious compound 24 hours after his execution…
    At Saddam’s funeral, dozens of relatives and others, some of them crying and moaning, attended the interment shortly before dawn in Ouja. A few knelt before his flag-draped grave. A large framed photograph of Saddam was propped up on a chair nearby.
    “I condemn the way he was executed and I consider it a crime,” said 45-year-old Salam Hassan al-Nasseri, one of Saddam’s clansmen who attended the interment in the village just outside Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad. Some 2,000 Iraqis traveled to the village as well.
    Mohammed Natiq, a 24-year-old college student, said “the path of Arab nationalism must inevitably be paved with blood.”
    “God has decided that Saddam Hussein should have such an end, but his march and the course which he followed will not end,” Natiq said…
    The head of Saddam’s Albu-Nassir’s clan said the body showed no signs of mistreatment.
    “We received the body of Saddam Hussein without any complications. There was cooperation by the prime minister and his office’s director,” the clan chief, Sheik al-Nidaa, told state-run Al-Iraqiya television. “We opened the coffin of Saddam. He was cleaned and wrapped according to Islamic teachings. We didn’t see any unnatural signs on his body.”

Hurst also wrote,

    In Baghdad’s Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City on Saturday, victims of his three decades of autocratic rule took to the streets to celebrate, dancing, beating drums and hanging Saddam in effigy. Celebratory gunfire erupted across other Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad and other predominantly Shiite regions of the country.

The NYT this morning had a huge, front-page picture of “an Iraqi family in Basra” watching a video feed of Saddam being led to the gallows on their large television. Front and center is a very cute-looking girl-child of three or four years old who is smiling and laughing as she appears to point to the picture.
This “eye for an eye” business will surely go on for generations to come unless some Iraqis, somewhere, intervene in a very serious way to stop it.
Looking at that picture made me remember my visit to Rwanda in 2002. There, too, a large proportion of the population was still nursing extremely bitter memories of many decades of strife, victimization, and counter-victimization… But the most notable thing I saw when I was there was the work of several religious communities– primarily Protestant Evangelicals of various denominations (including, yes, evangelical Quakers), but also Muslims– that were intentionally and with great success building up large congregations of people who were survivors of the 1994 genocide who were worshiping and working alongside people whose family members were accused of participation in the genocide… Hutus and Tutsis worshiping and working together there, and thereby starting to find a way out of the cycles of violence that had plagued the country since the 1950s.
Can Iraqis find some analogous way to transcend and escape from the cycles of violence into which the past quarter century of developments– including but not limited to my own government’s brutal; and divisive interventions– have plunged their country? I hope and pray so.
Maybe the fact that Saddam Hussein is now, definitively, “yesterday’s news” can help that to happen?
… Meanwhile, I see from Hurst’s AP story that the US death toll in Iraq is just about to top 3,000.

Saddam’s execution and the tragedy of Iraq

A couple of weeks ago the U.S. Institute of Peace organized this panel discussion, at which I got to present the main points in my latest book, which is about “transitional justice” issues in three African countries. (It was an excellent discussion. You can download an audio feed of it there.)
Most of the argument I made was a plea that the international community leave room for amnesties and other approaches to social healing as part of negotiations that successfully bring an end to atrocity-laden conflicts.
Toward the end of the session, Neil Kritz, a longtime USIP staffer who’s a lawyer and a big groundbreaker in the transitional justice field, threw me a friendly challenge, “Well, what about Saddam? He is so evidently a monster. What would you do about him?”
I didn’t really have time to answer Neil properly. Saddam is a “hard case” for an anti-death penalty person like me to think about. (Okay, I am also, in general, a fairly strongly critic of the entire theory of “punishment” as it has been conceived in western thought, and practised in western societies. I am much more in favor of restorative approaches to social healing as a way to increase justice, rather than retributive theories of enacting a formalized, highly legalistic form of “justice” against– as happens disproportionately– members of social groups that anyway start off as socially and politically marginalized.)
So what about Saddam?
I disagree with Neil, first, that the man is a “monster”. He is responsible for having carried out many monstrous acts, certainly. But that is significantly different. His having committed those acts doesn’t remove him from the class of human beings and put him in some sub-human category, like “monsters”, that can be dealt with in unhuman ways.
In northern Uganda, Joseph Kony has also– by all accounts– committed many acts of, if possible, even greater “monstrosity” than Saddam’s acts. Kony and his followers are credibly accused of having engaged not “just” in broad-scale murder, mutilation, and enslavement but also in sexual enslavement of thousands of girls, the impressment of thousands of child soldiers, and even cannibalism.
And yet, the vast majority of the Acholi people who have been the main targets of these acts have continued to urge that great efforts be made to reintegrate Kony into Acholi society.
Now, I know that the Acholi people have a very different culture from the Iraqi people; and I understand that in Iraq there are broad swathes of — in particular– Shiites and Kurds who have expressed great eagerness for Saddam to be executed. But I mentioned Kony and the attitudes of the Acholi towards him to show that there– and in many other places around the world, indeed– there is no automatic assumption, such as most westerners seem to hold to, that the victims/survivors of acts of monstrosity “always” want to see strong retribution/punishment enacted against their former persecutors, and that to “honor” these victims we who are outsiders to the issue should always support those calls for retribution.
Actually, I feel rather strongly that to do that merely infantilizes the victims.
There are many other cultures around the world, indeed– and also, I am sure, some smaller groups within Iraq’s Kurdish and Shiite communities– where survivors of acts of atrocity are not completely pandered to in this way, but are urged to play their own responsible part in helping build a future society of inter-group cooperation and tolerance, and the strengthening of the rule of law.
“An eye for an eye, and the whole world goes blind.” That’s what Mahatma Gandhi said– and quite rightly so.
Regarding Saddam as such, I feel myself as a US citizen to be both an “outsider” regarding consideration of his case, and also– by virtue of my citizenship in a nation that has played such a huge role in bringing him to his present death sentence– indirectly a party to it.
I protest, loathe, and seek in every way to dissociate myself from the role my government has played in orchestrating this deeply flawed “trial” for Saddam Hussein.
As I wrote here, earlier today, there was at least one other, better path the US authorities in Iraq could have taken with respect to Saddam, once he had been captured alive. Instead of which, his case turned into into a highly divisive public spectacle within an Iraq that cried out for social healing, rather than for the further exacerbation of grave inter-group tensions.
I can understand– I think– why people from a number of social groups inside Iraq, and from Iran and Kuwait, may welcome the news of his execution, which will probably come very soon now. He did take some terribly aggressive decisions which rained death, destruction, and the lengthy privations of war down on millions of Iranians and Iraqis (and on the few thousands of courageous Kuwaitis who did not flee their princedom when his forces first invaded it in 1990.)
The worst acts Saddam committed were to gratuitously launch those two invasions of his neighbors– Iran in 1980, and Kuwait a decade later. For those wars not only led directly to death and destruction on the front-lines; beyond that, each of them also created a broader climate of fear and intense mistrust within which the Iraqi “security” forces committed horrendous atrocities against the country’s own people… Against Kurds and some Shiites in the 1980s. And then in 1991, horrendously, once again against large numbers of people from both those groups.
But honestly, without Iraq being in a climate of war at those times, I am sure that Saddam and the toadies from his mukhabarat would not have felt such a strong impetus to commit those atrocities. The root monstrosity was the monstrosity of starting those wars.
And then, there is President Bush, and his decision to gratuitously launch a war against Iraq in 2003; and all the later monstrosities that have occurred within an Iraq traumatized by that conflict and the lengthy and often grossly oppressive occupation that followed. Do we call Bush a “monster” because of the responsibility he must bear for a large proportion of this suffering? I don’t. Even though several things that have happened on his watch– in Abu Ghraib, in Guantanamo, and elsewhere round the world– have truly been acts of great monstrosity, for which he has never even started to make amends.
Saddam Hussein was a useful ally for the United States back in the 1980s. Let’s not forget that. And that alliance was sustained even though D. Rumsfeld and the other relevant people in the Reagan administration already knew full well that he was a man of great brutality.
I am sorry he is going to be killed. I am sorry whenever any of God’s children are intentionally killed by other humans. Any such killing– whether it’s carried out under the cover of a “judicial” process or not– makes the world a coarser and more brutal place.
In addition, it perpetuates the myth that if we can just kill enough of our enemies, then all our problems will be solved. No. Killing people whose acts we hate will never solve our problems. Finding ways to prevent them from carrying out such acts is the only thing that will; and there are many, many ways of achieving that. Very lengthy prison sentences is one way. Persuading these people to stop stop committing such acts and joining with us in building a better social order is even better…
Tonight I think I’m going to say a prayer for broad inter-group social healing among Iraqis. The last thing they need is yet more exacerbation of their inter-group tensions, such as this vindictive decision to execute Saddam Hussein threatens to bring. Let’s hope that enough Iraqis are cognizant enough of the risks of further social breakdown that they can find ways to avoid it.

Riverbend looks at 2006, Saddam’s imminent execution

After a disturbingly long absence from the blogosphere, here she is again. Still with the wisdom of someone of far beyond her years.
Including this:

    2006 has been, decidedly, the worst year yet. No- really. The magnitude of this war and occupation is only now hitting the country full force. It’s like having a big piece of hard, dry earth you are determined to break apart. You drive in the first stake in the form of an infrastructure damaged with missiles and the newest in arms technology, the first cracks begin to form. Several smaller stakes come in the form of politicians like Chalabi, Al Hakim, Talbani, Pachachi, Allawi and Maliki. The cracks slowly begin to multiply and stretch across the once solid piece of earth, reaching out towards its edges like so many skeletal hands. And you apply pressure. You surround it from all sides and push and pull. Slowly, but surely, it begins coming apart- a chip here, a chunk there.
    That is Iraq right now. The Americans have done a fine job of working to break it apart. This last year has nearly everyone convinced that that was the plan right from the start. There were too many blunders for them to actually have been, simply, blunders. The ‘mistakes’ were too catastrophic….

And this:

    I can’t help but ask myself why this was all done? What was the point of breaking Iraq so that it was beyond repair? Iran seems to be the only gainer. Their presence in Iraq is so well-established, publicly criticizing a cleric or ayatollah verges on suicide. Has the situation gone so beyond America that it is now irretrievable? Or was this a part of the plan all along? My head aches just posing the questions.
    What has me most puzzled right now is: why add fuel to the fire? Sunnis and moderate Shia are being chased out of the larger cities in the south and the capital. Baghdad is being torn apart with Shia leaving Sunni areas and Sunnis leaving Shia areas- some under threat and some in fear of attacks. People are being openly shot at check points or in drive by killings… Many colleges have stopped classes. Thousands of Iraqis no longer send their children to school- it’s just not safe.
    Why make things worse by insisting on Saddam’s execution now? Who gains if they hang Saddam? Iran, naturally, but who else? There is a real fear that this execution will be the final blow that will shatter Iraq. Some Sunni and Shia tribes have threatened to arm their members against the Americans if Saddam is executed. Iraqis in general are watching closely to see what happens next, and quietly preparing for the worst.
    This is because now, Saddam no longer represents himself or his regime. Through the constant insistence of American war propaganda, Saddam is now representative of all Sunni Arabs (never mind most of his government were Shia). The Americans, through their speeches and news articles and Iraqi Puppets, have made it very clear that they consider him to personify Sunni Arab resistance to the occupation. Basically, with this execution, what the Americans are saying is “Look- Sunni Arabs- this is your man, we all know this. We’re hanging him- he symbolizes you.” And make no mistake about it, this trial and verdict and execution are 100% American. Some of the actors were Iraqi enough, but the production, direction and montage was pure Hollywood (though low-budget, if you ask me).

And this:

    My only conclusion is that the Americans want to withdraw from Iraq, but would like to leave behind a full-fledged civil war because it wouldn’t look good if they withdraw and things actually begin to improve, would it?
    Here we come to the end of 2006 and I am sad. Not simply sad for the state of the country, but for the state of our humanity, as Iraqis. We’ve all lost some of the compassion and civility that I felt made us special four years ago. I take myself as an example. Nearly four years ago, I cringed every time I heard about the death of an American soldier. They were occupiers, but they were humans also and the knowledge that they were being killed in my country gave me sleepless nights. Never mind they crossed oceans to attack the country, I actually felt for them.
    Had I not chronicled those feelings of agitation in this very blog, I wouldn’t believe them now. Today, they simply represent numbers. 3000 Americans dead over nearly four years? Really? That’s the number of dead Iraqis in less than a month. The Americans had families? Too bad. So do we. So do the corpses in the streets and the ones waiting for identification in the morgue.
    Is the American soldier that died today in Anbar more important than a cousin I have who was shot last month on the night of his engagement to a woman he’s wanted to marry for the last six years? I don’t think so.

    Just because Americans die in smaller numbers, it doesn’t make them more significant, does it?

No, dear Riverbend, it doesn’t. And though I feel great empathy for the families of all US service members who have been killed in this grotesque and terrible war, it still remains the case that all those soldiers and Marines volunteered to put their lives on the line, when they joined the military services.
From that perspective, the death of each civilian is of a morally graver order than the death of a vounteer soldier.

Bush brings forth a mouse

The Prez, having beaten away the hands that Baker, Hamilton, and and Co. extended to him from their lifeboat, then determined that he would find his own way to swim to safety through the increasingly perilous seas of his Iraq policy.
He “conferred”. He “deliberated”. He tried– without much success– to look “presidential” and “in control” in several tightly controlled public appearances. He wrestled “mightily” with the issues…
And he brought forth–
This pathetic, mewling little mouse of a suggestion:

    As he puts the finishing touches on his revised Iraq plan, President Bush is considering new economic initiatives to go along with a possible increase in troops to help stabilize the country, according to officials familiar with the administration’s review.
    Among the steps being considered are short-term jobs and loan programs aimed at winning back the waning local support for the U.S. presence in Iraq…

That, from the WaPo’s Robin Wright and Michael Abramowitz, in Crawford with the Prez. (Where also, Cindy Sheehan just got arrested for sitting down on a public road.)
There are still, apparently, some murmurings of criticism– or at least, concern– from the top military people about the efficacy of sending in the “surge” (or let’s more realistically say, “cosmetic surge-ette”) of additional troops that the Prez still for some reason seems wedded to.
Wright and Abramowitz write:

    One idea gaining currency in the administration is to send between 15,000 and 30,000 additional troops to Iraq, at least on a temporary basis, to help improve security, but there are questions among senior military leaders about how effective this move would be.
    The Pentagon has pressed for political and economic plans to complement such a possible surge in troops.

And the president has responded! Namely, he’s coming close to endorsing some totally ridiculous– and by no means new– political and economic “initiatives”.

    The political component of the emerging Bush package would set up benchmarks for long-overdue steps, such as amending the constitution to help address the objections of Iraq’s Sunni minority and dismantling 23 predominantly Shiite militias…
    Some U.S. officials think an economic package may be the most promising element of a revised strategy… The economic package now on the table focuses on three elements, and is separate from the long-term jobs-creation program being promoted by the U.S. military… One element, traditionally linked to a counterinsurgency strategy, is to follow up any military sweep with a short-term work program that would immediately hire people in the neighborhood to clear up trash or do other small civil-affairs jobs.
    This project would begin within hours rather than days of a military operation and would help signal a return to normalcy. It might also help wean young unemployed Iraqi men from the militias or prevent them from joining any of the armed factions that are fueling Iraq’s escalating sectarian strife.
    The second part would be a micro-loan program…
    The third part of the package, which has been developed in part by the Treasury Department, would review dormant state-owned industries to try and determine which ones are economically viable and worth reopening….

Does anybody in Bubble-boy’s personal “Green Zone” in Crawford dare tell him how insultingly penny-ante and stupid all these proposals are? Does anyone there dare tell him how truly terrible the living situation now is in Iraq?
All these economic proposals may, just possibly, have made some sense if they’d been implemented, say, back in May and June of 2003. (Instead of which, that was the time when Bremer came in and dismantled the army and the state industries, throwing millions of Iraqi breadwinners into the streets.) Back then, I remember several earnest discussions in which Americans debated whether “economic” or “politics” or “security” issues should take precedence in Iraq. But the Bush people paid serious attention to none of these spheres.
Then– as now– it is politics that needs to be looked at, as the highest priority. And in particular, the politics of national reconciliation within Iraq, allied to the politics of finding a way to negotiate a speedy and total US withdrawal.
Based on those essential elements, the Iraqis themselves can doubtless, sooner or later, figure out a way to deal with issues of public security, and with reviving a national economy wrecked by 12 years of US-UK-patrolled sanctions and nearly four years of US-UK direct misrule. The Bushites’ proposal that– after every military operation they launch against Iraqi neighborhoods– they wade in “within hours” with their dollar bills and pay Iraqi young men to sweep up the carnage from the streets… and that that will help “win” their hearts and minds??? … All that is insulting nonsense.
Almost unbelievable.
Oh wait. It’s the Bush presidential team we’re talking about here. Not unbelievable, at all.

Saddam death sentence further muddying “rule of law” in Iraq

Saddam Hussein may be executed by hanging any day now. AP’s Lauren Frayer reported a short time ago that the US military guards holding him allowed his half-brothers to visit him in his cell, and he gave them his will and his personal belongings, indicating the hanging may be very near. But she also quoted “Iraqi” officials as saying Saddam is still in US custody and had not yet been handed over to the “Iraqi” authorities for hanging.
(Reuters has reported out of Dubai that he’d already been handed over to the Iraqi authorities. But that report was indirect and poorly sourced.)
The special court established to try Saddam and other leaders of the former regime on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes was nominally “Iraqi”, though at every point in its operation from its founding in 2004 until today its “Iraqi” personnel have had the close advice and generally loose supervision of US advisers from the “Regime Crimes Liaison Office.”
Additionally, the “Iraqi” courtroom has been within an area, reportedly in the Green Zone, that is completely controlled by the US military. And though the “trials” themselves have been held in this “Iraqi” courtroom, in between the sessions Saddam has still been held in the custody of the US Army, like the prisoner-of-war that, under international law, he in fact is.
When he is executed, his US guards will have to hand him over to the “Iraqi” security forces who will supervise his homicide through hanging.
Yesterday, his lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi raised a strong objection to this handover. According to AP’s Christopher Torchia, Dulaimi,

    implored world leaders [today] to prevent the United States from handing over the ousted leader to Iraqi authorities for execution, saying he should enjoy protection from his enemies as a “prisoner of war.”

Dulaimi’s objection was explicitly very political, based as it was on a judgment that the “Iraqi” special court is made up Saddam’s “enemies”. Yes, that is probably a correct judgment. However, even on strictly technical, procedural grounds there is strong case to be made against this handover. Article 84 of the Third Geneva Convention states:

    In no circumstances whatever shall a prisoner of war be tried by a court of any kind which does not offer the essential guarantees of independence and impartiality as generally recognized, and, in particular, the procedure of which does not afford the accused the rights and means of defence provided for in Article 105.

Art. 105 states that in the event of a judicial proceeding being brought against a POW, he is entitled to “defence by a qualified advocate or counsel of his own choice, [and] to the calling of witnesses”, and further defines the rights of this counsel to conduct an effective defense.
The now very current issue over the the (national) identity of the organization holding Saddam’s person raises important questions over the broader jurisdictional issues involved. One can make a very strong argument that the establishment of that completely new body, the “Iraqi High Tribunal”, like all the many other far-reaching administrative changes that the US occupiers have made during their lengthy stay in Iraq, was quite illegal under international law, which prohibits occupying powers from enacting such changes.
But right now, the fact that Saddam remains in the physical custody of the US forces places those forces in front of a particular dilemma. Will the US now hand him over to the Iraqis to be executed as a result of a trial process that, a large number even of Americans who earlier eagerly supported the whole trial process now agree, has been very deeply flawed?
It clearly looks as though the answer is “Yes.”
For examples of criticisms by US-based organizations and individuals of the Iraqi court’s proceedings and its death sentence, see the statements issued most recently by Human Rights Watch and the International Center for Transitional Justice.
See, too, the comments contributed to this on-line forum by respected law profs Mark Drumbl and Bill Schabas.
This, from HRW’s Rickard Dicker:

    “Imposing the death penalty, indefensible in any case, is especially wrong after such unfair proceedings,” said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. “That a judicial decision was first announced by Iraq’s national security advisor underlines the political interference that marred Saddam Hussein’s trial.”

This, from the ICTJ:

    The Appeals Chamber of the Iraqi High Tribunal has mistakenly chosen speed over justice, said the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). Instead of addressing the serious flaws of the Dujail trial, the Chamber yesterday appeared to have bowed to political pressure and issued its final judgment with worrying speed.

This from Bill Schabas:

    Where defence lawyers live in fear of their lives – a concern proven to be reasonable, given the tragic outcome for three of their colleagues – it cannot be said that the defendant has had a full and fair defence, and that the right to counsel of one’s choice could be exercised…
    International human rights law is crystal clear on one point. You cannot execute a person unless he or she has received a fair trial that respects the highest international standards. A reasonably fair trial is not good enough…

You can find my still-growing “Delicious” list of links to good resources on the Saddam trial here.
My basic bottom line: Has this whole trial proceeding, on balance, contributed to the building of a more stable and rule-of-law-observing society inside Iraq?
Answer: No.
What else might the US have done with Saddam once they’d captured him? Held him themselves, and explicitly as a high-ranking prisoner-of-war… And then, at the end of hostilities in Iraq the US itself could have tried him for the atrocities he committed. (Certainly, for the crime of genocide, under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction attached to it, any competent court anywhere could have tried him.)
Such a trial would still have had the potential of being divisive inside Iraq. But (1) It would not have been conducted at a time when major issues of governance remain unresolved and highly contested within Iraq, and (2) The proceedings and the resulting decision would have been an explicitly, and justifiably, US responsibility, and would not have dragged Iraq’s own internal political process into further depths of polarization, as having the present, nominally “Iraqi” special court handle the proceedings has done.
I have thought several times that it might have been better all round if Saddam had lost his life during the process of his capture. (Though being a Quaker I could not easily voice these thoughts.)
But the US search squads looking for him were apparently under strong instructions to try to take him alive if at all possible, so that widely publicized trials that would help, ex-post-facto, to “justify” the whole decision to topple him by force could be held… And Saddam himself was also acting under a similar desire not to do anything to provoke his own killing during his capture. So he got his “day in court”, which by and large he used quite effectively, from his own point of view. And now, it appears he is about to be killed, anyway.
I imagine the Bushites will hail Saddam’s execution as further vindication of their invasion. The whole, very disquieting “legacy” left by the trial process– both inside Iraq and in terms of the development of further respect for the “rule of law” wordwide– is another matter, completely.
But then, the Bushites’ decision to invade Iraq was itself a flagrant violation of the whole concept of “rule of law” in the international arena. Hard to see how anything much constructive from the rule-of-law viewpoint could have been expected to flow from that…

Sistani foils the occupiers’ plot (again)

So now, it appears that not only has Ayatollah Sistani blocked the Bushists’ plan to cut off and isolate Moqtada al-Sadr– but also, the main Shiite party the Bushists were hoping would help them in their plan, SCIRI, has started distancing itself rapidly from it, too…
AP’s Qassim Abdul-Zahra is quoting Shiite parliamentarians visiting Najaf as saying that an aide to Ayatollah Sistani today said that Sistani “does not support” a US-instigated plan to construct a new governing coalition that would exclude and isolate Sadr.
Abdul-Zahra wrote,

    “There are obstacles in the face of forming this coalition, because al-Sistani does not support it. So we will work to strengthen the (Shiite) alliance,” said Hassan al-Sunnaid, of the Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
    Ali al-Adib, also a Dawa Party member, said al-Sistani “does not support such blocs because they will break Shiite unity.”
    An official close to al-Sistani, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the cleric “will not bless nor support any new bloc or front. He only supports the unity of the Shiites.”

This AP reporter does seem a little unduly under the sway of the US spinmeisters in Baghdad, since he describes the US plan as being one “to persuade Iraq’s political leaders to set aside sectarian interests and work together for the sake of national unity.”
However, as Reidar Visser has pointed out in a comment at this JWN post,

    It should be pointed out that there IS already in place a [governing] coalition across sectarian lines and the only new proposal is to make it more narrow, by chopping off Sadrists and possibly some Sunni elements. Sistani has given his support for the existing government. Why would he want to support the proposed, more narrow alternative?

Anyway, this would be far from the first time that Sistani has foiled the political machinations of the US occupying forces in Iraq. (It is also at least the second time he has saved Moqtada Sadr from a potentially lethal US scheme.)
Qassim Abdul-Zahra reports that after visiting Sistani the delegation went to talk to Sadr, who was also (I believe) in Najaf. He wrote that Sadr had agreed to allow the members of his bloc to end the walkout from the parliament that they started to protest PM Maliki’s recent meeting with President Bush, in Amman.
However, Abdul-Zahra also quoted Khaled al-Attiya, an independent who is parliament’s deputy speaker, as implying that Sadr hasn’t given his final answser on that yet: “He will give his final decision to rejoin the government and parliament after Eid al-Adha.” That will apparently be on around January. 4.
Meanwhile, AFP’s Hassan Abdel-Zahra (related? who knows?) reported more forthrightly that,

    Talks to woo supporters of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr back into Iraq’s ruling coalition broke up without agreement after he insisted on a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops.
    Nevertheless, participants in the talks expressed confidence that his 32 lawmakers and six ministers would soon return rejoin the government…
    “They agreed to all our demands, except scheduling a withdrawal for the occupier. This demand will be discussed during the next meeting,” Abu Firas al-Mutairi, a political official from Sadr’s movement, told reporters.

This reporter also, intriguingly, wrote this:

    The Pentagon has explicitly blamed Sadr and his militia for much of the sectarian violence engulfing Iraq.
    Sunni politicians have threatened to pull out of Maliki’s coalition if the Shiite prime minister fails to halt attacks on Sunni civilians by Shiite militants and publicly denounce Sadr’s alleged involvement in the violence.
    But the main Shiite plank in the proposed “moderate coalition”, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), rejects this approach, calling for Sadr to be brought back on board.

Okay, first of all, note this reporter’s unexamined use of Pentagon “spin” in framing this portion of the story… Firstly, by not including any critique of the Pentagon’s attempt to blame only the Sadrists for the anti-Sunni sectarian violence– a claim that certainly is not supported by the available evidence. Secondly, by implying in the second para there that all the Sunni pols have threatened to pull out unless Maliki publicly denounces Sadr– not true. And thirdly, when he calls the US-proposed coalition the “moderate coalition”. (Okay, so he put that in tell-tale scare quotes, thereby perhaps distancing himself a little from endorsement of the Bushist-originated monicker.)
But mainly, regarding that small portion of the AFP story, which is tucked into it only at the very end, note that even Bush’s hoped-for buddies from SCIRI are now reported as dissociating themselves from the isolate-Moqtada campaign.
So what is the Bushists’ Plan B, again?

US in Iraq; Israel in Lebanon

A hawkish and militarily ill-informed political leadership with a losing “plan”… A military leadership, recognizing some realities of imminent defeat on the battlefield, but split over whether to escalate or pull out… The dawning of a stark realization that one actually needed more ground troops back at the beginning; but now, one doesn’t have a strong enough ground force to be able to make any concerete difference… The rising of a “last-gasp” demand from within a highly ideologized portion of the ruling elite that one “do something militarility”… But the recognition from the serious military commanders that there’s nothing one can actually do on the ground, any more, that will make any real difference…
Where did we last hear all these stories?
Israel, in late July and early August.
And now we hear them again: Washington, late December.
Get out of Iraq while you can still minimize your losses, guys.
That, surely, is the best “lesson” you can get from Israel today. (Not that that’s the lesson the Israeli leadership– eager as ever to have America fight its wars for it– is currently offering.)
But even in Israel, even after they’d figured out they needed to end the summer’s imbroglio in Lebanon as fast as they could, in order to avert the massive catastrophe that loomed for their forces there, it still cost them relatively large numbers (for them) of uselessly spent losses among the ground troops before they could extricate themselves from a foolhardy and ill-prepared aggression against and into another country.
How many more US soldiers’ lives will be lost before the US pulls out of Iraq?
That’s the question we Americans should all be asking our leaders.

Thanks, Badger!

Our striped-face friend Badger writes that he’s taking a few days off. That’s a huge pity, because in the few weeks it’s been in existence his ‘Missing Links’ blog of (mainly) English translations of extremely strategically chosen items from the Arabic media has added a whole new dimension to our ability to understand what’s going on in Iraq.
And right now, Americans and all other members of the English-speaking world are sorely in need of greater understanding. Even for those of us who can read some Arabic, it is really, really hard to keep up with everything that’s out there. Besides, there really is a lot happening in Washington DC that needs writing about, too, these days…
Hence, the strong value of having someone of good judgment choose what Iraq-related Arabic sources to delve into and translate. I guess nosing around and digging deep are badger-y things to do.
So after writing this JWN post this morning, I made a long-overdue visit back to Badger’s blog and found a wealth of great posts that he’s put up there in recent days… And most especially, the posts dealing with the meeting held in Istanbul on Dec. 13the and 14th by a group of leaders of Sunni political currents from Iraq and from elsewhere in the region, and the political ‘fallout” from that meeting.
On Dec. 14th, Badger told us that the “government” of Iraq was protesting the holding of the meeting.
On the 15th, he told us about a statement Moqtada al-Sadr had issued, expressing his support for the gathering. Badger translated part of Sadr’s statement thus:

    my whole concern is for the success of meetings like this, [of people] aiming to extricate themselves from the clutches of the occupation and the Baathists…I am ready to attend conferences in support of the Sunnis, those in support of the Shiites, or those in support of Iraq as a whole or indeed of any Islamic country”.

On the 16th, Badger gave us lengthy translations from the Az-Zaman and al-Hayat accounts of the conference.
On the 19th, he gave us a translation of a summary, posted on Aljazeeratalk.net, of a televised discussion held among participants after the wrap-up of the conference in Istanbul. Including this portion of the Aljazeeratalk text:

    there was unanimous agreement on the concluding recommendations… but there was also one major point of disagreement: Is the Iraqi conflict sectarian or is it political?
    Dulaimi is quoted as a proponent of the former view, as follows: He said (according to this summary): “[There is a] Shiite Safavid Persian Majousi threat originating in Iran and aiming to consume all of Iraq, and after that neighboring countries including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, by way of reviving the dream of a new Persian empire.”
    Harith al-Dari disagreed and said this is “a political struggle plain and simple”. He said (according to this summary): “There are both Shiites and Sunnis on the one side under a single banner, and on the other side, arrayed against them, is the Occupation along with its Iraqi agents, aiming at the realization of its colonialist aims. [And this is the case] whether or not those [agents] connive with the Iraqi government and its institutions, or with the death-squads and the militias that are supported from outside”.

(I just note that the accusation about “Safavid Persian Majousi threat” is straight out of the Arab-nationalist– and also, anti-Iranian– script that Saddam used to use. Far as I can figure, “Majousi” has something to do with the “Magi”… and Hans Wehr seems to agree.)
In that post, too, Badger made this comment of his own:

    It is worth considering the nature of this debate, alongside the comparable “debate” in America, on whether the Iraqi situation is “civil war, yes or no”. The trick here is that if you can pin the “civil war” label on Iraq (meaning essentially “sectarian conflict”), then in Dhari’s terms, this would be seen as no longer a political struggle at all, but a religious war. America would supposedly become a non-combattant, supposedly turning into a humanitarian assistant and peacekeeper. And America’s continued involvement would thus be justified. So while there are huge stakes for the Iraqis in correctly understanding what is going on, there are also stakes for Americans. Which is why I repeat: I am spooked by the fact that there is not a word about this conference, or the issues it raises, in any of the American media, or in any of the big, supposedly enlightening blogs either.
    This AlJazeera item concludes with some remarks on the mechanics of the Istanbul conference. It is worth highlighting this: The meeting was held in Istanbul, Turkey, because Turkey is a country that enjoys the benefits of democracy, and allows for the free expression of a wide range of opinions. Food for thought.

Yesterday, Badger wrote a little about a storm of criticism that met some of Dulaimi’s statements from some figures in the Iraqi “parliament”.
(He also, inter alia, makes reference to something that’s a very salient fact regarding the depth of Iraq’s political crisis today: Namely, that this “parliament” has been quite unable to muster anything like a quorum for some time now. And I think that even predates the Sadrists’ walkout…)
Further down in this post, Badger notes that, “Americans got their first report about the Istanbul conference this morning, via Juan Cole.” Well, make that “most” Americans, Badger, since there were a few of us who had read about it earlier.
He then goes on to criticise Juan’s portrayal of the conference and the subsequent political flap around it, in quite strong terms. He wrote that Cole,

    (1) called statements of Dulaimi “incendiary”, but failed to mention the more enlightened comments that Harith al-Dhari made in rebuttal; (2) quotes a Shiite website that reported allegations about an arrest-warrant against Dulaimi, without telling readers that this was false; (3) failed to pay any attention to the more balanced Al-Jazeera summary of the Istanbul proceedings (mentioned here in a prior post). Cole presents a one-sided account, followed up with something equally incendiary (and false to boot). It is a case study in how to go about taking a contentious event, and instead of explaining the dynamics in an even-handed way, using it instead in a partisan way to fan the flames higher.

I think that’s a fair criticism, though I don’t know if Juan was doing that with bad (inflammatory) intentions or simply through lack of attention to the details of what he was writing about. I suspect the latter. I do know that Juan has been paying far less sustained attention to the Arabic source media than he used to in the early months of the war.
Which is one of the reasons I am particularly glad we have Badger addressing himself to the task there.
In addition to writing about the Istanbul conference and the developments that flowed from it, Badger also gave us this timely offering on Monday (Dec. 18th). It gives translations from items in both al-Hayat and Aswat al-Iraq that reported that Moqtada Sadr had sent a delegation to Basra to thank a group of political leaders connected with the Islamic Party, with the Muslim Scholars Association, and with something called the League of Islamic Unity– all of them Sunni-based organizations– in which these leaders issued a fatwa banning the killing of other Muslims, and the killing of Shiites, in particular.
The statement was issued shortly after the series of incidents Dec. 12th in which three car-bombers killed some 70 day-laborers in a busy square in a Shiite part of Baghdad.
Badger told us the Aswat al-Iraq account reported that,

    The (above-mentioned) spokesman for the Sunni group added that there was a meeting between the Sadr representatives and the Sunni group, at which “a spirit of understanding and cooperation prevailed”. He said they agreed on the need to support Iraqi unity, and to denounce terrorist operations and “anything that detracts from the unity and the fabric of Iraqi society”.

Again, a development of which we heard zero in a US MSM that is still– and quite in line with the spin from the Bushites and other American hawks– far, far too intent on painting everything in Iraq in starkly sectarian and belligerent colors.
So anyway, thank you Badger. Have a happy Christmas break. But please get back to your badger-y pursuits as fast as you can.

Iraq: Divide and rule– or national unity?

The Bush administration and its hangers-on in the US MSM have concocted a narrative of what the US is doing in Iraq– and throughout the whole Middle East, except Israel– as being to support the “moderates” against the “extremists”. (How amazingly unoriginal of them.) In Iraq, Moqtada Sadr has been firmly pinned with the Bushists’ “extremist” label, while another Shiite cleric, Abdul-Aziz Hakim, has been given the dubious benefit of winning the “American Idol” award.
In order to support this narrative, the spinmeisters have leaked and propagated (and quite possibly also exaggerated) much scaremongering “news” about the Sadrists’ various operations. The intentionally Satanic image of Sadr published on the cover of Newsweek a couple of weeks ago was the single most egregious product of this spin, but it really has become very pervasive over the past month or so… At the same time, these spinmeisters have been notably silent about the many respects in which the actions of Hakim and his followers have been as abusive of human rights as those of the Sadrists, if not more so. And they’ve also been strangely quiet about the lengthy and close relationship between Hakim and the mullahs’ regime in Teheran, while they have tried to smear Sadr as little more than “a puppet of Tehran” while remaining largely quiet on what seem to be some seriously Iraqi-nationalist aspects of his thought and his behavior…
Truth, the first casualty of war. ‘Twas ever thus, I guess.
Many of these same aspects of US spin were noticeable back during the lengthy government-formation process in Baghdad at the beginning of 2006. Heck, even Juan Cole jumped on the bandwagon of describing Hakim as “the strongest leader” in the Shiite coalition, despite some clear evidence that that was not the case…
Well, here we are, a year later, and the Bushists are now quite openly pushing for a Hakimist putsch against the Sadrists. One intriguing account of how this is playing out on the ground comes in today’s WaPo article by Sudarsan Raghavan. Raghavan seems to have traveled much more outside the Green Zone (and outside the heavily fortified coccoon of the house the NYT used to maintain in non-GZ Baghdad) than venerable “white” NYT reporters like John Burns, etc. And he conveys a noticeably more skeptical attitude toward the broad narrative of the Bushist spinmeisters than Burns ever did.
He says of Sadr and Hakim,

    they both lead militias that are widely alleged to run death squads.
    But in the view of the Bush administration, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is a moderate and Moqtada al-Sadr is an extremist…

Good for him, making that clear near the top of his piece.
Raghavan does some reporting from Karrada, which he describes as “a mostly Shiite Baghdad neighborhood [of Baghdad]”, containing both middle-class and working-class sections. He conveys the clear impression that Hakim’s influence there and, that of the much revered and generally quietist Shiite marja’, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have both waned considerably in recent months, while that of the Sadrists has grown.
He also reports this:

    In many circles, Iraqis question whether Hakim and other so-called moderates can curb the growing power of Sadr.
    “I have serious doubts about Mr. Hakim’s influence among the Shiites, and I have serious doubts of Hashemi becoming the leader of Sunnis,” [Baghdad political analyst Wamid] Nadhmi said.
    It’s a sentiment shared in Karrada. “Al-Hakim is not loved by the people,” said Abdul Amir Ali, a burly Shiite shopkeeper. “People love the Islamic Dawa Party and Maliki because they don’t have militias.”
    In the sidewalk restaurant where Sadr’s poster hangs, its owner, Ali Hussein, points at clusters of young men nearby. They are all Mahdi Army, he said. And so is he.
    Hakim, he said, made a fatal mistake by meeting Bush. In today’s Iraq, credibility and power are measured by opposition to the United States.
    “At this time, whoever has his hands with the Americans or Jews is not an Iraqi,” said Hussein, as he chopped up cubes of lamb. “So how could Hakim put his hands with the Americans? There will be tensions because Sayyed Moqtada Sadr is a revolutionary man, like his father. Even if Hakim tries to come back to Sadr, Sadr will never receive his hand.”
    If the rift between Hakim and Sadr deepens, moderate Shiites fear, all Iraqis may suffer. “It should not leave any shadow on a fragile situation on Iraq,” said [Ali] Dabbagh, the government spokesman. “Iraq cannot absorb such a shock.”

Meanwhile, Reidar Visser has also weighed in with some of his own observations on the chances of the Bushites’ latest anti-Sadr campaign. These comments come in the last half of this posting on his website, the first of which provides a fairly full digest and review of what looks to be an intriguing book, by former British insider Mark Etherington, of the mistakes made during the US forces’ 2004 campaign against Moqtada al-Sadr.
Regarding Washington’s current attempt to build an anti-Sadrist coalition in Iraq, Visser writes,

    Even on the surface, such a new coalition would have obvious problems. Although the parliamentary arithmetic might support it, it would be a huge gamble to isolate one of the few blocs inside the Iraqi parliament that can claim to have a degree of support on the Iraqi streets (rumours suggest that the other Sadrist grouping, the Fadila, would also remain outside government). Also, it could cause a dramatic reduction of grassroots Shiite support for the government without any appreciable strengthening of its Sunni level of support (reportedly, only the Iraqi Islamic Party would be involved); in this case a perpetuation of the Sunni insurgency along with increased Sadrist violence might be expected – and this on top of problems already underway in Basra with the Fadila. And above all, this would be just another deal among the cadres of the Green Zone – many of them returnees from exile – without any substantial links to the millions of “ordinary Iraqis” who care less about ideological bickering and the finer points of federalism than about security and services. To a non-US observer it really is difficult to grasp the logic of the policy now being proposed.

Anyway, the whole of Visser’s essay there deserves close attention.
Finally, I see from this recent AP report that delegates from all the major Shiite parties in Iraq have today been gathering in Najaf, with the aim of meeting both Sistani and Sadr there. The AP writer, Qassim Abdul-Zahra, says these delegates went, “to seek [Sistani’s] blessing for a new coalition that would promote national reconciliation.” They were also, “expected to meet with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr about joining the political process and reining in his fighters.”
Abdul-Zahra also wrote this:

    In Thursday’s meeting, the group wants to assure al-Sistani that the new coalition would not break apart the Shiite bloc, said officials from several Shiite parties. Potential members of the coalition said they have been negotiating for two weeks, and now want the blessing of al-Sistani, whose word many Shiites consider binding.
    The [‘national reconciliation movement in question’] is backed by the U.S. government, said Sami al-Askari, a member of the Dawa party and an adviser to [PM] al-Maliki.
    “I met the American ambassador in Baghdad and he named this front the ‘front of the moderates,’ and they (the Americans) support it,” al-Askari said

It’s not clear to me why a Maliki aide would consider that having the backing of the Americans for any given plan would be considered a plus…. But politics is a strange business, eh?
In this separate and apparently earlier AP report, Abdul-Zahra had written,

    Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is considering a one-month unilateral cease-fire and may push his followers to rejoin the political process, three weeks after they walked out of parliament and the Cabinet to protest the prime minister‘s meeting with President Bush , officials close to the anti-American militia leader said Wednesday.
    Al-Sadr‘s call for a halt to fighting could come after Thursday, when a delegation representing the seven Shiite groups that form the largest bloc in Iraq ‘s parliament is to travel to the holy city of Najaf to meet separately with al-Sadr and the country‘s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani…
    [An] official close to al-Sadr did not speak about the planned truce directly, but said when asked about it that “the security situation will improve in the coming month.”
    Even if al-Sadr commands his militia, the Madhi Army, to halt sectarian attacks for a month, questions remain as to whether violence would decrease. The militia is believed to be increasingly fragmented, with some factions no longer reporting to him, and a call for a truce could further divide it.
    In exchange for a halt in fighting, al-Sadr‘s followers want officials from al-Hakim‘s Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq to make a promise in front of al-Sistani that they will not sideline al-Sadr‘s movement, said a member of al-Sadr‘s group.
    The Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni coalition was not a done deal, though. Several Shiites complained about conditions set by the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, which they said could jeopardize an agreement.
    “The demands of the Iraqi Islamic Party are not logical and it is hard to implement them,” said Humam Hamoudi, a SCIRI lawmaker. For example, the Sunni party wants all checkpoints leading to and from Baghdad to have an equal number of Shiite and Sunni guards, he said.

So there we are. Lots going on. Let’s hope that Iraq’s political and community leaders of all complexions can find a way to reweave national unity amongst themselves and generate a national leadership of sufficient legitimacy and trustworthiness that it can immediately start negotiations for a full, speedy, and orderly withdrawal of the US-led occupoation force from their country. That would be farmore constructive narrative than the “divide and rule” one the Bushists are trying to pursue.

CSM column on why the US needs to talk with Iran, Syria

Thursday I have this column in the CSM. (Also here.)
Basically I’m arguing that it’s not a matter of noblesse oblige or doing anyone any favors. It’s a matter of pure cool necessity for the US to be able to talk to– especially– Iran, but also Syria and all of Iraq’s other neighbors, as it pulls the US troops out of Iraq.
The nub of the argument there:

    A glance at a map will show why any “responsible” drawdown of US troops from Iraq requires Iran’s cooperation. Iran has the longest border with Iraq and dominates Iraq’s heavily populated east. In a crisis, it could easily close the sea lanes through which most US military supplies reach Iraq. It has longstanding relations with a broad range of Iraqi political groups.
    It’s important to recognize – as the ISG also clearly did – that the US has no viable option either for any sustained increase in the US troop strength in Iraq or even for maintaining the current US deployment for very much longer. Both the sentiments of US voters and the constraining overall size of the US military prevent that.
    There has to be a drawdown. The only question is this: Will it start sooner and be relatively orderly, or will it be delayed and run an increasing risk of being chaotic? And yes, the scenarios now foreseeable do include – if the delay is too long – a humiliating emergency withdrawal reminiscent of the US evacuation from Saigon in 1975 and Allied forces’ flight from Dunkirk in 1940.
    Either way – whether the administration is able to fashion a policy that allows for a relatively speedy and orderly drawdown, or the drawdown is delayed and more like Dunkirk – it will need to engage in significant coordination with Iran if it is to avoid a debacle…

Further to that argument, I would add here that anyone who is now arguing against close US coordination on these metters with Iran and Syria, on whatever flimsy grounds, should be held responsible for all the additional deaths– of US soldiers as well as of Iraqis– that will occur for as long as the US withdrawal is thereby delayed.
(On a generally similar note, I see the WaPo’s Richard Cohen– who for long was a strong supporter of the war but a few months ago “reluctantly” came out as a critic– is today arguing that: “As with Vietnam, the ending is inevitable. We will get out, and the only question that remains is whether we get out with 3,000 dead or 4,000 or 5,000. At some point the American people will not countenance, and Congress will not support, a war that cannot be won. Just how many lives will be wasted in what we all know is a wasted effort is about the only question still left on the table. Realism dictates as few as possible.”)