Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Bad Signs

Two things. First, Shaikh Yusuf Qaradawi. A ‘moderate conservative’ linked to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Qaradawi has previously made positive statements about the need for Sunni-Shia unity, particularly in Iraq. At the Doha Inter-Islamic Dialogue Conference a couple of days ago he condemned the cleansing of Sunnis from mixed or Shia areas. “No one can tolerate such unspeakable hatred,” he said. “Sunnis are suffering more in Iraq. I had repeatedly called upon the Shia scholars and leaders in Iraq and Iran to intervene to stop this bloodshed.” He continued, “Iran has influence in Iraq. It can stop this violence and put out the fire that could destroy everything.” Then he went on to complain about Shia attempts to convert Sunnis living in Sunni majority nations.

Qaradawi was right to raise the issue of Shia death squads. He was wrong to keep silent about Salafi/ Baathist/ extremist Sunni terrorism. The Shia of Iraq put up with more than two years of massacres before they began to respond.

When the Shii shrine of the last Imam in Samara was bombed, Qaradawi commented, “We cannot imagine that the Iraqi Sunnis did this. No-one benefits from such acts other than the American occupation and the lurking Zionst enemy.” Perhaps he has a point. But it looks a lot like when Sunnis commit crimes Qaradawi blames America, and when Shia commit crimes, he blames the Shia, and Iran. His paranoia about Shia conversion squads is also suspect. 90% of Muslims are Sunni. It doesn’t seem that is going to change. Why shouldn’t Shia, or anyone else, express their beliefs in public? If some Sunni are ‘converted’ it will be because they are convinced by Shia ideas. What’s the problem? The Prophet said al-ikhtilaf rahma, or difference of opinion is a mercy. If the aim is to defuse sectarian tension, surely what is needed is Sunni scholars who will publicly condemn extremist Sunni intolerance, and Shia scholars who will publicly condemn extremist Shia intolerance.

Second, Lebanon. Yesterday opposition strike action and street protests degenerated into fighting and rioting in which three people were killed and tens injured.

The conflict is political. The opposition (which includes almost all the Shia, half of the Christians, and a few Sunni) wants a more representative government. It is demanding enough cabinet places to give it veto power over government decisions. This seems fair to me. Better still would be a reformed electoral system, so that the vote of every Lebanese is worth the same. Currently the vote of a Christian is worth more than the vote of a Sunni, and that of a Shii is worth least of all.

The conflict also centres on economics and class issues. This is why the General Labour Confederation backed the opposition’s call for a strike yesterday. The government has been dramatically raising prices of basic goods and selling national assets to international corporations. Government figures like Marwan Hamade are making huge profits from the deals.

It is doubtful that the Cedar Revolution was supported by the majority in Lebanon, and its PR was certainly run by American companies, but it represented a widespread demand for an end to Syrian military presence and political interference. This is no longer the issue. Michel Aoun was perhaps Syria’s fiercest Lebanese opponent, but he is now in opposition to the so-called ‘anti-Syrian’ government. After the government’s half-hearted support for the resistance during the 2006 Israeli onslaught, all the Shia ministers resigned from the cabinet. The Shia are Lebanon’s largest community. Sinyura’s government is not representative, but it refuses to budge because its Saudi, Israeli and American backers are telling it to stand firm.

I have made it clear where my sympathies lie. You can disagree, for political or economic reasons. As I’ve said, the conflict is political and economic. But it is increasingly being understood in sectarian terms. What do working class Sunnis have in common with millionaire businessmen like Hariri and Sinyura? Absolutely nothing, except the mirage of sectarian identity. This mirage is so strong in certain Sunni heads that it has made them obey their banker leaders and stand with the killers and fascists of Geagea’s Lebanese Forces against those who defended Lebanon from Israeli attack last summer. I understand why opposition protesters held pictures of Nasrallah and Aoun yesterday – these are Lebanese figures. But why were Sunnis waving pictures of Saddam Hussain in the street? Only because Saddam was Sunni. A Sunni who murdered Shia.

I have a Lebanese friend who says he’s given up talking politics with other Lebanese. Tony says that after the civil war ended people began to talk about ideas, about left and right policies, about globalisation and imperialism, about economics, about democracy and rights. For a few years it felt to him that sect would never again be a basis for political discussion. But in the last months that has changed. An idea is judged by the sect of the person expressing it. It feels, says Tony, like the war years.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


It seems this broken region, and this broken world, are in for a further escalation of conflict in 2007.

The report of the US Congress-mandated Iraq Study Group recommended that US forces end direct participation in combat operations in Iraq and concentrate on training Iraqi troops instead. It also called for American dialogue with both Iran and Syria for the sake of stabilising Iraq. Although the report failed to recognise the gravity of the problems in Iraq (that there are no ‘Iraqi’ troops, for instance, only militiamen) or to propose serious political solutions, and although its authors still envisaged a long-term American controlling presence in the country, it nevertheless represented an acknowledgment that America is failing in Iraq, and an attempt to limit the damage.

Bush and his people are ignoring the report. Who are Bush’s people? On the one hand, there are traditional right-wing Republicans who are unable to countenance defeat, the kind of people who don’t understand that America was militarily defeated in Vietnam. If it hadn’t been for hippies and weak politicians at home, they think, we’d have smashed the Cong. We won’t be defeated again! And there are neo-con nihilists, believers in ‘creative chaos,’ ideologues often more loyal to Israel’s perceived interests than to America’s. Many commentators have claimed the neo-cons are in decline: I fear not. They have been repositioning, certainly – blaming Bush and Rumsfield for the conduct of the war in Iraq (but not the war itself), making themselves more attractive to the right-wing of the Democratic party. It is very important to remember that as far as large sections of the American ruling class are concerned the Iraq war has not been a failure.

When people examine the war from a human perspective, when they consider the 650, 000 Iraqi dead, the millions of internal and external refugees, the tens of millions suffering poverty, trauma and the effects of Depleted Uranium, when they consider too the 3, 000 American dead, it seems obvious that the war has been a disaster. When we examine the war according to its supposed aims, we see that it has failed on every one. To capture Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction? There were no weapons of mass destruction. To establish democracy? Instead of democracy there is gang rule, civil war and sectarian hatred. To enshrine human rights? The United Nations says that torture is more prevalent in Iraq now than under Saddam, and the Americans themselves have done their bit for torture in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. To promote secularism at the expense of Islamism? One of the most secular Arab countries is now ruled by competing groups of fundamentalist clerics. To stop terrorism? The presence of violent Salafi groups in Iraq has risen from zero before the invasion to plague proportions now.

But look at the real reasons for the invasion and the picture becomes rosier. Corporations like (Cheney’s) Halliburton have made huge profits reconstructing Iraq despite the fact that nothing has been reconstructed. For these (overwhelmingly American) business interests, Iraq has been a risk-free investment. The American taxpayer foots the bill, whatever the result. The government (staffed by the same people who staff the corporations and the media) signed the contracts. Moreover, it looks like an oil law committing Iraq to long-term agreements with foreign corporations is about to be pushed through the parliament. It should be noted that many parliamentarians do not live in Iraq. The United States has seen drafts of the oil law, but the Iraqi public, and many Iraqi parliamentarians, haven’t. Another positive result: Iraq may be a danger to itself, but it doesn’t look like it’s ever going to be a danger again to the puppet monarchies of the Gulf, or to Israel. Plus this benefit: the Arab and Muslim masses, who only six years ago seemed increasingly united in opposition to Israel and American imperialism, increasingly aware and politically active, are now consumed with sectarian and petty-nationalist rivalries.

Yes, Americans are dying, but usually only blacks, Latinos, and poor whites. Plenty of mercenaries from South America, South Africa and Eastern Europe are being killed too, but they aren’t officially members of the American armed forces, so their deaths are not reported. The American tax payer is losing – but that’s the tax payer, and not the ruling class.

The novelist Thomas Pynchon offered two approaches for understanding the contemporary world: either as chaos, which he called entropy, or by paranoia, the assumption that everything is organised by hidden conspiracy. Most Westerners, being trusting folk, prefer the chaos explanation. That is, the Washington and London ‘experts’ really did expect to find nuclear missiles in Saddam’s bathroom; they really did think the Iraqi Muslim masses would welcome GIs with flowers; they thought Depleted Uranium was good for you; they believed radical Islamists would want only to disco dance in Tel Aviv once they’d tasted American candy. Me, I don’t think so. In the case of Iraq, I tend to paranoia. Bush may be a chimpanzee who hadn’t heard the word ‘shia’ until last Tuesday, but he is surrounded by professionals, men with PhDs, by intelligence men. These people guessed what would happen. It wasn’t difficult to foresee. I foresaw it, and I’m not paid to study the region. They understand Arab and Muslim weaknesses, Arab and Muslim backwardness, better than the Arabs and Muslims do themselves. It’s very depressing to watch the Muslims, particularly the Arabs, fall into the traps which have been laid for them.

The one failure of the war, from the point of view of the ruling classes, is that Iran has been inadvertantly strengthened by the fall of the Baathist regime. So 2007 is the year to destroy Iran.

Attempts are well underway to neutralise Iran’s allies. In Palestine, Abu Mazen’s Fatah goons are being armed by Israel, Jordan and Egypt to take on the elected Hamas government. In Lebanon, Sinyora’s government is being funded (and some say armed) by Saudi Arabia and America to strengthen it against the legitimate demands (for a representative government) of Hizbullah and its allies. It looks as if the American ‘surge’ in Iraq will be directed against as-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi.

Meanwhile, patriot missiles are being sent to Gulf states which host large American military bases, and extra warships are being deployed in the Gulf. These weapons have nothing to do with Iraq, and everything to do with Iran. The recent arrest of the Iranian diplomats in Iraqi Kurdistan seems designed to provoke Iran into actions which can be used to justify war. We should expect further provocation.

America cannot sustain a ground invasion of Iran. From what I read it (or Israel) is more likely to launch intense air attacks on Iranian military and infrastructural targets. The campaign will be followed by efforts to incite rebellion among ethnic minorities in Iran – Balush, Arabs, Azeris and Kurds. The aim is to keep the Iranians so busy they won’t be able to project power beyond their borders. If the plan works (and I don’t think it will – Iran is more cohesive and less traumatised than Iraq), we can expect to see the kind of ‘busyness’ in Iran that we are seeing in Iraq.

Of course, I exaggerate when I say the War on Terror has been an unqualified victory for the empire. America’s imperialistic hubris is losing it influence and respect throughout the world. America’s essentially third world nature is becoming more and more apparent – hysterically nationalist, religiously fundamentalist, educationally backward, a country with vast divergences between classes and ethnic groups, with a propagandist media, whose government is controlled by vested interests. Empires are sustained by consensus as much as by coercion, and there is no longer anything resembling consensus that America is a serious candidate for global governance. The probable attack on Iran will be America’s Suez moment. America will win militarily, but lose, massively, politically. It’s all bad for America (remember America is not the same as the American ruling class), and worse for the Middle East.

Erm .. Happy New Year!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Executing Saddam

On his excellent ‘In the Axis’ blog ( Brian Anthony complains about the Sunni Arab world and international organisations protesting the execution of Saddam Hussain. Quite rightly, Brian objects to the tendency of many Sunnis to turn a blind eye to Saddam’s crimes. He also suggests that Sunnis may actively support repression of Shia in Iraq.

Saddam was certainly a murderous tyrant. He was helped to power by the CIA first in order to destroy the powerful Iraqi Communist Party, and then funded and armed by the US, Europe and the Gulf regimes to attack revolutionary Iran. He poisoned Iranian cities and Kurdish villages (Iraqi Kurdish militias were in alliance with Iran at the time) with gas. After falling into the American trap and invading Kuwait, he dealt with the 1991 intifada in the south and north of Iraq by annihilating whole clans and villages. This is when the sectarian horror really began to take a grip on Iraq. Tanks painted with the slogan ‘No Shia after Today’ moved into southern cities, and provided ample filling for mass graves. The aunt of one of my friends was driven insane when her sons were tortured to death by Saddam’s mukhabarat: just one story from very many. Saddam didn’t only build the worst secret police state in the Middle East, he actually organised rape squads, and special rape rooms, to destroy Iraqi women and Iraqi family honour. His victims number in the hundreds of thousands, and millions if you include the wars he started.

I still think it is legitimate to oppose his execution for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, I oppose the death penalty. Sure, if anyone deserves it, Saddam does, but I still oppose the death penalty for a range of political and moral (and Islamic) reasons, and in every circumstance. My opposition to capital punishment requires a posting by itself, but in brief: I don’t believe the state should ever be given the ‘right’ to kill; I don’t believe that impartial justice has ever been practised by any state; I don’t believe the death penalty has a deterrent effect; although capital punishment was practised by the first Muslims (who didn’t have prisons, and who were seeking to stop tribal feuding), the detail of Sharia law suggests that it is better not to kill a criminal if an acceptable alternative punishment can be found.

Secondly, the execution was carried out in a nasty sectarian manner. Inasmuch as I support any ‘side’ in Iraq I support the Shia, and I know they have very good reason to want revenge. But for the sake of Iraq, if we had to have taunting of Saddam in his last moments, we should have had a speech read out about his crimes to Shias and Sunnis, Arabs and Kurds. Although Shias suffered disproportionately under the Baathist regime, Sunnis were also persecuted, and the regime included Shia ministers and generals. Chanting ‘Moqtada’ at the execution, while a civil war is raging, does not help bring peace to Iraq, and Iraqi peace is more important than Saddam the individual.

Thirdly, carrying out the execution at the time of Eid prayers seems like a calculated insult to the sentiments of Muslims. Eid is supposed to be a time of peace and reconciliation, and it falls in the months when bloodshed is prohibited. Of course, Saddam did worse things against Islam, and Muslims have spilled plenty of blood in the holy months, but that’s no justification. I resented spending the Eid days fielding questions from my children about the famous man who was choked to death, just as any Christian would feel uncomfortable talking about the electric chair on Christmas morning.

Fourthly, and most importantly, Saddam should have been kept alive to face charges for his major crimes (not just the local and relatively small scale crime of Dujail) in a properly transparent trial. The US, Europe and Gulf regimes didn’t want this because it would have exposed their complicity in his repression of Communists and Shia and his gas attacks on Iranian cities and Kurdish villages. But the Iraqi government should have insisted on a real trial, which would have shown Sunni Arabs (whether they wanted to listen or not) the extent to which Saddam was a brutal puppet rather than a nationalist leader.

If it is simple revenge that was sought (and, yes, I think the majority of Iraqis burned for revenge against Saddam), I would have preferred to this partially-transparent, American-run trial, of which bits were televised but the sound was cut whenever anyone said anything controversial, and during which defense lawyers were assassinated, that Saddam had been released into the streets of Basra or Kirkuk. We’d have got the blood, without the farce.

Compare the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa to this ugly charade of justice. Compare the cultural and economic success of new South Africa (albeit marred by crime) to the sectarian, criminal, bloody chaos of occupied Iraq.