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Saddam Hussein

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Iraq’s New Hope

Fifteen years after George W. Bush invaded Iraq to destroy Saddam Hussein’s imaginary ‘weapons of mass destruction’, what have the Iraqis got to show for it? There was a great deal of death and destruction (around half a million Iraqis have died violently since 2003), but they do now have a democratically elected government. Sort of.

Iraqis voted in their fourth free election last April – or rather, fewer than half of them bothered to vote at all, so pessimistic were they about the notion that voting can change anything. And after the election, the politicians seemed to be living down to their expectations.

Almost six months later, the many political parties were still bickering over which of them would be in the government, which would give them access to the huge amounts of money that are available to government ministers in one of the world’s most corrupt countries. It looked like business as usual, despite bloody riots in the south (where most of the oil is) over chronic shortages of water, electricity, and jobs.

But on Tuesday the Iraqi parliament elected a prominent Kurdish politician, Barham Saleh, to the largely ceremonial office of president. The president then has fifteen days to nominate the new prime minister (who really runs the government), but Barham Saleh did it within hours. The new prime minister will be Adel Abdul Mahdi – which may be a signal of big changes coming.

Abdul Mahdi is not himself a revolutionary figure. He is a former finance and oil minister who, like Barham Saleh, has been a familiar fixture in Iraqi politics ever since the invasion. (A stock Iraqi joke claims that the country has the most environmental government in the world, since it constantly recycles its old politicians.)

But Abdul Mahdi is the figurehead of a coalition in which a revolutionary outsider, Muqtada al-Sadr, will be the dominant influence. Sadr’s party astonished everybody by winning the largest number of seats in the May election, drawing its support mainly from working-class Shias in Baghdad and the south, but his non-sectarian stance also drew votes from the marginalised Sunni minority of Iraqi Arabs.

Sadr’s sympathy for the Sunni Arabs’ plight is unusual among Iraqi Shia politicians, and all the more remarkable because he is a Shia cleric whose father and uncle were both grand ayatollahs murdered by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime. If any man can bridge the gulf that has opened up between Sunni and Shia Arabs in Iraq, he is that man.

His party has been among the least corrupt on the Iraqi political scene, and he is a nationalist who is equally opposed to American and Iranian meddling in Iraqi politics. He has disbanded his own party’s militia and urges others to do the same, and he promised to appoint non-political technocrats instead of usual party stalwarts if his party won power.

That promise will be hard to keep, since the extreme fragmentation of Iraqi politics means all governments must be broad coalitions. The coalition Sadr leads (although he will not personally seek office) includes the Iraqi Communist party, which more or less shares his goals, and the group led by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, which emphatically does not.

Maliki, in power from 2006 to 2014, proved himself to be viciously anti-Sunni, largely subservient to Iranian interests – and, of course, monumentally corrupt. It will be very difficult to hold this coalition together, let alone to carry out Sadr’s programme of sectarian reconciliation and government by technocrats.

Corruption in Iraq is a system, not a series of individual crimes, and the beneficiaries of the system will fight tooth and nail to preserve it. The parties use it not only to finance their own activities and reward their own members, but to build a large support base through bribery, mostly in the form of jobs.

There are 37 million people in Iraq. In most other countries, a population of that size would require around 600,000-700,000 employees to provide all the normal functions of a central government.

The Iraqi government employs 4.5 million people to do the same jobs very badly or not at all. Many of them rarely even show up at work, but they and their families all vote for the right party at election-time. And since they are on the take themselves, they don’t protest when the senior politicians in their party steal millions (or in some cases billions) from public funds.

This pattern is almost standard in countries whose income, like Iraq’s, comes largely from exporting a single natural resource (oil, in this case), but Iraq is exceptional in the brazen incompetence of the political class and the utter neglect of those outside the magic circle.

This system was tolerated during the fifteen years of war because people’s first priority was survival. Now that the fighting has died down, people are starting to protest, and Muqtada al-Sadr has become the repository of their hopes. He will have a hard time living up to them.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 14. (“Sadr’s…man”; and “This pattern…circle”)

Another Gulf War – The First Shots?

The men who carried out Saturday’s attack on the parade in Ahvaz, in Iran’s southwestern province of Khuzestan, were well trained: four of them killed 25 people and wounded 70 others before they were shot dead. The question is whether they were trained by ‘Islamic State’, or by the backers of the low-profile Ahvaz National Resistance, which also claimed credit for the attack.

‘Islamic State’ is an independent ultra-extremist Sunni Muslim movement that kills Shias (most Iranians are Shia) on principle, so there are no big political implications if it was IS that planned the attack.

If it was the Ahvaz National Resistance, however, then these were the opening shots in the Fourth Gulf War, because the ANR is backed by Saudi Arabia and its smaller Arab allies like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrein.

Iran is convinced that it was the latter. “It is absolutely clear to us who committed this crime… and whom they are linked to,” said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “The small [Arab] puppet countries in the region are backed by America, and the US is provoking them and giving them the necessary capabilities.”

There is reason to suspect that this is true. The Arab countries of the Gulf are smaller and weaker than Iran, and have talked themselves into the paranoid conviction that Iran intends to destroy them, perhaps even to replace Sunni with Shia Islam. They talk of war with Iran as inevitable, and dream of drawing America into such a war to even up the odds.

President Donald Trump is also paranoid about Iran, and openly talks about overthrowing the Iranian regime. Indeed his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, boasted on Saturday that US sanctions are really hurting Iran: “I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them. It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen.”

So this could be a marriage made in heaven (or somewhere else in the supernatural world, perhaps). But first there has to be a spark, some Iranian action that gives both Trump and the Arab Gulf states a pretext for attacking Iran – for they both think in terms of attacking Iran first, not of defending against a (highly improbable) Iranian attack.

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, said last year that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran.” If they get their war, both leaders expect that most of the heavy lifting will be done by the US Air Force, but something bad has to happen on the ground first. Iran has to do something stupid.

How do you get it to do something stupid? Well, you could try supporting separatist movements in the various ethnic minority areas that ring the country: Arabs in the southwest, Kurds in the northwest, Turkmen in the northeast and Baloch in the southeast. With luck, the Iranian regime will over-react and massacre enough of the separatists (and innocent bystanders) to provide the pretext for an Arab-US attack.

After Saturday’s attack in Ahvaz, Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent United Arab Emirates scholar who tends to say what other people don’t dare, tweeted that the attack wasn’t really a terrorist incident at all. He pointed out that “moving the battle to the Iranian side is a declared option”, and predicted that the number of such attacks “will increase during the next phase.”

If that’s the Saudi/American strategy, then sooner or later they will manage to goad the Iranian regime into committing some atrocity in return, and then we’re away to the races.

It would the fourth Gulf war in less than forty years. The first was the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, in which the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein attacked the new revolutionary regime in Iran with the warm support of the United States. Up to a million people were killed, most of them Iranian, but the only direct US support was to give Saddam’s forces intelligence and targeting information for their attacks.

The second was the 1990-91 war between Iraq and most of its Arab neighbours, plus large numbers of American and other Western troops, after Saddam invaded Kuwait.

The third was in 2003, when George W. Bush invaded Iraq in the mistaken belief that Saddam had links with the al-Qaeda terrorists who made the 9/11 attacks and/or was working on weapons of mass destruction.

And the fourth, coming soon to a theatre quite a long distance from you, will be the US/Gulf Arab attack on Iran.

Of course, the attack in Ahvaz on Saturday could just have been another meaningless spasm of hatred by Islamic State, and not a Saudi/American initiative at all. But if not now, then soon.
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To shorten to 650 words, omit paragraphs 12-15. (“It would…Iran”)

Syria: Two Unconvincing Explanations

The FBI raid on the office, home and hotel room of President Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, may persuade the president that a larger, longer-lasting distraction is needed, but it’s still likely that his response to the alleged poison gas attack by the Syrian government in Douma on Saturday will be short, sharp and soon forgotten.

That’s how it worked last April, when Trump ‘punished’ Bashar al-Assad’s regime for another alleged poison gas attack in rebel-held Idlib province by dropping 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on the Syrian airbase at Shayrat from which the attack supposedly originated. Lots of explosions, not many hurt, no lasting political consequences.

Trump is talking tougher this time. Asked on Sunday if military action was possible, he said: “Nothing is off the table…If it’s Russia, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out.” And what if Russian President Vladimir Putin bears some responsibility for the attack? “He may, yeah, he may. And if he does, it’s going to be very tough, very tough. Everybody’s going to pay a price. He will, everybody will.”

It may just be the usual Trump bluster, but the Russians are so concerned that their UN envoy, Vasily Nebenzia, warned on Tuesday that the use of “armed force under mendacious pretext against Syria, where, at the request of the legitimate government of a country, Russian troops have been deployed, could lead to grave repercussions…I would once again beseech you to refrain from the plans that you’re currently developing.”

Now, it’s hard to believe that the Russians would not know if the Syrians were using poison gas: after all, they are using the same air bases. American advisers certainly knew what was going on when they were giving Saddam Hussein targeting data for poison gas attacks against Iranian troops in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

“The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas,” said retired US air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes. “They didn’t have to. We already knew.” The Russians would know, too – but then why would they go along with it?

The great puzzle about poison gas use in Syria is that it has no plausible military purpose. The targets are never fighters. The victims in the various videos are always civilians, and using poison gas obviously has a big political price. Why would the Syrian regime pay it, especially when it has already won the military battle?

It just doesn’t make sense for the regime to be deliberately killing civilians with poison gas. Maybe it doesn’t have to make sense: you will often hear explanations that essentially say that Assad and his partners-in-crime are simply evil. They do it because it’s wicked, and because they can. But even then you have to explain why the Russians would let them do it.

Moscow says that the Douma gas attack didn’t actually happen. “Our military specialists have visited this place, along with representatives of the Syrian Red Crescent… and they did not find any trace of chlorine or any other chemical substance used against civilians,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday.

Instead, Lavrov suggested, it was a ‘false flag’ operation in which the besieged rebels deliberately staged a gas attack and blamed it on the Assad regime, or at least used video footage from somewhere else and pretended it had been shot in Douma.

Can you really believe that Syrian rebels would kill their own innocent civilians in such a horrible way? Well, if they are losing the war, and the only way to turn the tide is Western military intervention against Assad, and the only way to mobilise Western opinion to support that intervention is to get him blamed for using poison gas, then maybe they would.

Getting the poison gas would be no problem: the rebels overran about half of Syria in the early stages of the war, and gained control of a number of chemical weapons facilities belonging to the Syrian army. They are almost all Islamist radicals by now, and would be comfortable with the argument that the end justifies the means.

I don’t know which of these explanations for the gas attacks is true. Is it the brutal, incredibly stupid Syrian regime that unfailingly undermines every one of its successes by making a pointless gas attack on civilians just as it wins a major battle fought with conventional weapons?

Or is it ruthless Islamist rebels making false-flag chemical attacks because that is the only thing that might trigger a Western military intervention big enough to save them from ultimate defeat? Very stupid monsters or very clever monsters, or maybe both. Who knows?

What I do know is that I feel as isolated, writing this, as I did back in early 2003 when I was one of the few Western journalists questioning all the nonsense and outright lies about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear and chemical weapons that provided a justification for the invasion of Iraq.

And I know that the evidence is not strong enough either way to justify a major Western military attack on the Assad regime now.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 12. (“Now…it”; and “Getting…means”)

Trump and Kim

I think I know why President Donald Trump suddenly agreed to hold talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after a year of mutual threats and verbal abuse.

Anything short of a complete breakdown at the talks would virtually guarantee Trump next year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Moreover, it would seem bigger and shinier than the one they gave to Barack Obama, because Obama hadn’t actually earned it. He got it just for being a nice guy.

Oh, no, wait a minute. If they gave it to Trump they’d also have to give it to Kim Jong-un, and that would be even sillier. Yet there probably won’t be a complete breakdown at the talks, which are due by May, because both men are strongly motivated to make them look successful.

Kim’s minimum goal is to establish North Korea as a legitimate sovereign state that is accepted by other sovereign states (including the United States) as an equal. Just having a one-on-one discussion with Trump about the security problems of the Korean peninsula gives him that. He will do his best to keep the meeting civil, and under no circumstances will he break off the talks first.

Trump’s main goal is to look good – to get a ‘win’ – and Kim’s advisers will have told him to let Trump win something. It doesn’t much matter what, so long as Trump can wave it in the air and claim victory when he gets home. But it will definitely not be an enforceable agreement to dismantle North Korea’s new nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles.

Look at it from Kim Jong-un’s standpoint. Saddam Hussein gave up his nuclear weapons programme (involuntarily) after the first Gulf War in 1990-91, and twelve years later the United States invaded Iraq, overthrew Saddam, and hanged him. Well, the new Iraqi regime provided the rope and the gallows, but the US invasion would never have happened if Saddam had really had nuclear weapons.

Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi gave up his quest for nuclear weapons too. It never really amounted to much, but it worried Western powers enough to make them leave him alone most of the time. Then Gaddafi handed over all his pathetic scraps of nuclear weapons-related technologies – and NATO airpower subsequently backed the tribal rebels who finished him off with a bayonet up his backside.

So if the US sees you as a problem and you value your life, don’t stop until you get your nukes, and never give them up. The North Koreans understand this lesson very well.

No promise Trump could make would persuade the North Koreans to surrender their nukes. As far as Kim is concerned, nuclear deterrence against the United States has now been achieved, and he’d be mad to give it up again.

It’s a pretty flimsy form of deterrence – his rockets aren’t very accurate and his nuclear weapons don’t always explode in a fully satisfactory way – but even a 10 percent chance that North Korea could kill half a million Americans in a ‘revenge from the grave’ attack should be enough to deter the US from using nukes on North Korea.

A nuclear war between the US and North Korea would probably kill ten times as many North Koreans including practically every member of the regime – Pyongyang would be a glowing, radioactive pit – so Kim’s regime would never initiate such a conflict. But he needs the assurance that the United States will never resort to nuclear weapons either, and only North Korean nuclear weapons can provide the necessary deterrence.

You may deplore this kind of thinking, but it is entirely rational and it is at the heart of North Korea’s strategy. Kim’s willingness to talk about the “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” is therefore just that: a willingness to talk, but not to act. And there’s plenty to talk about.

Does ‘denuclearisation’ mean no American nuclear weapons can be located in South Korea? Given the range of those weapons, how would that make North Korea any safer? Does it mean dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons? Certainly not. It’s just what Kim had to say to get the talks started.

His ultimate goal is to ‘normalise’ North Korean nukes, as Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons were eventually accepted as normal. This can only happen if the United States acknowledges a state of mutual nuclear deterrence between the two countries, which Trump is not yet ready to do. But even by talking to Kim about it, he begins to give the concept substance.

Kim can promise Trump a “moratorium on nuclear and missile tests” because he doesn’t really need more tests. His nuclear weapons and rockets are far fewer and much less sophisticated than their American counterparts, but mutual deterrence can work effectively even when one side has a hundred or a thousand times more nuclear weapons than the other.

So Trump gets an early ‘win’, and Kim gets to nudge the United States a little closer to an understanding that its future relationship with North Korea will be one of mutual deterrence. Or maybe locking two narcissists in a room is bound to end in tears, but it’s well worth a try.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 8. (“Look…well”)