Wednesday, January 31, 2007


The quiet conflict with Iran

CNN reports that two United States agencies are investigating links to Iran in the abduction and execution of five American soldiers. One of those soldiers was Captain Brian Freeman, trained in armor. He was pulled from IRR to serve in a civil affairs unit. The Washington Post reported yesterday that he pleaded with Senators Kerry and Dodd to fight the war with better trained troops.

A Defense audit has found that troops in the CENTCOM theatre still lack crucial equipment, such as up-armored HMMWVs and ECMs -- the two most useful countermeasures to IED attack, Stars and Stripes.

Former CIA operative Robert Baer suggested yesterday, at TIME's online magazine, that Iran may have been responsible for those five deaths to counter the jailing of five IRGC operatives earlier in January. Baer writes, "Mindful of the spreading chaos in Iraq, President Bush has promised not to take the war into Iran. But it won't matter to the IRGC. There is nothing the IRGC likes better than to fight a proxy war in another country."

Brookings, including another CIA hand, Kenneth Pollack, published a dire paper that stated hundreds of thousands may lose their lives in Iraq and throughout the Middle East if the security plan in Baghdad does not work. The Independent added to their report on this paper:
Everywhere looms the shadow of Iran. In a "war game" testing US options, the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution found that, as the descent into civil war gathered pace, confrontation between the US and Iran intensified, and Washington's leverage on Tehran diminished. Civil war in Iraq would turn Iran into "the unambiguous adversary" of the US.

Indeed, everything indicates that that is already happening. The study appeared on the same day as the Iranian ambassador in Iraq told The New York Times that Tehran intended to expand its influence in Iraq. US commanders now claim that thousands of Iranian advisers are arming and training Shia militias.
The Los Angeles Times reports today that the Air Force may be more aggressive in the Iran/Iraq corridor to deter militants from gaining access to Iranian weaponry:
Such missions also could position the Air Force to strike suspected bomb suppliers inside Iraq to deter Iranian agents that U.S. officials say are assisting Iraqi militias, outside military experts said.


The tough stance has been backed by military moves. Bush this month ordered a second aircraft carrier group, led by the John C. Stennis, to the Persian Gulf, a measure described as a warning to Iran.

The stepped-up presence and visibility of U.S. warplanes is seen as likely to reinforce that message.

"Air power plays major roles, and one of those is as a deterrent, whether it be in border control, air sovereignty or something more kinetic," said the senior Pentagon official, using a term that refers to offensive military action.
Before the Iraq invasion, the United States began to more aggressively operate in the Iraq no-fly zones.

Admiral Fallon, soon to head CENTCOM, said he favors something likened to "battleship diplomacy" against Iran, the Washington Post. Admiral Fallon, interestingly enough, does not have a great deal of detailed knowledge about the plans concerning Iraq's stability, the Washington Times.

Rhetorical question: so what does he bring to CENTCOM?

Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker reported in April of 2006 that the Bush administration had conducted clandestine operations in Iran and also had developed plans for a major air attack on that country's nuclear facilities.

Baer's hypothesis that the Iranians may have sought revenge for the capture of five IRGC operatives should also be enhanced with Hersh's reporting.

Iraq's militias

The Boston Globe reports that more than two dozen militias are now tracked by the United States. Many of these groups are unwieldy splinter organizations:
Paul Pillar , who served as the CIA's chief intelligence analyst for the Middle East before leaving in 2005 for a teaching position, said the number of groups continues to expand almost daily.

"It is very difficult to get a handle on all of the contours of the current situation in Iraq," he said. "This is a civil war on top of an insurgency on top of other conflicts. There is no one simple split between side A and side B. There are numerous subgroups and splinter groups that make it difficult to say any one leader is in charge of those who come under one label."

The weekend battle against the heavily armed Soldiers of Heaven killed at least 200 people, according to the Iraqi Defense Ministry. The intensity of the battle, and the sophistication of the group's weapons, surprised US and Iraqi forces.


"The whole idea of a monolithic, unified Shi'ite community is profoundly wrong, and any calculation that uses that assumption will get into trouble," said Reidar Visser, a historian of southern Iraq who edits the Iraq-focused website, . "There is a belief that by inviting one or two select leaders to Washington, you may gain the confidence of the entire Shi'ite community, but that is not realistic."
Saad Fakhrildeen and Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times have a rare account of the messianic cult that came to a brutal end on Sunday. The level of detail is amazing:
They had plenty of food. Each fighter had his own supply of chocolate and biscuits. They were prepared: A 6-foot dirt berm and an equally deep trench surrounded the 50-acre compound.

They were well organized. Living in at least 30 concrete-block buildings, all the fighters had identification badges. The group published its own books and a newspaper. The members apparently were enamored with their leader, a charismatic man in his 30s named Dhyaa Abdul-Zahra, whose likeness adorned the newspaper.

And they were well armed and ready for battle. High-powered machine guns, antiaircraft rockets, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and late-model pickup trucks with mounted guns were scattered around the eight farms that make up the compound, about 10 miles north of Najaf.


"Without the bombings of the Americans we would have remained for two weeks unable to penetrate," said an Iraqi soldier, who led a Times correspondent and other Iraqi journalists through the compound.


Arabic readers described the articles in the group's eight-page newspaper, the Statement, as little more than religiously inflected gibberish, with made-up words and references to "manifestations and sightings" of Imam Mahdi, the last in a line of Shiite Muslim saints.

A book found at the complex, called "Heaven's Judge," also bearing the picture of Abdul-Zahra, dismisses the teaching of Shiite Muslims as well as Sunnis. "The Shiites are misled," says the book, which rebuffs central tenets of Shiite theology.

"The house of the prophet Muhammad has adopted a path using signs to point to heavenly facts, a method for considering the order of secrets," it adds, in statements that perplexed both Shiites and Sunnis who read it.
The comments from the Iraqi soldier indicate that the amount of Iraqi success may have been overemphasized by Washington.

The level of organization for this cult-militia is staggering.

Sectarian violence on Ashura

The Los Angeles Times recounts the scores killed yesterday. There were at least two bombings in Shiite districts of Baghdad today.

The Washington Times reports on the efforts to calm sectarian tensions in the region:
Terrified that sectarian Muslim bloodshed could soon engulf the region, U.S. allies and adversaries in the Middle East have stepped up joint efforts to head off a religious civil war.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran have held intensive talks in recent days on ways to tamp down sectarian violence in Iraq and Lebanon. Over the weekend, Saudi King Abdullah issued an unusual public call for calm.
The Christian Science Monitor recounts sectarian clashes in Yemen:
After weekend clashes in Yemen that left at least seven dead, including six government soldiers, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh warned Shiite rebels to surrender or face a military campaign by the government.
Earlier in the week, Scott Peterson, also of the Christian Science Monitor, reported from Lebanon:
The political standoff between the government and opposition, simmering for two months, has taken an increasingly violent and sectarian turn in the past week, exposing long-dormant divisions between Lebanon's Sunnis and Shiites, and rival Christian factions.

At stake in the spiraling conflict is who will define the identity of Lebanon, a colonial-era construct that includes 18 confessions, and in recent decades has served as the proxy battlefield for broader regional struggles by Israel, Syria, Palestinians, and today, the US and Iran.
If the United States, the sole super power on the planet, does not engage in this anti-sectarian effort with Iran and Sunni leaders, the potential for disaster is very high.

More forces in Afghanistan

The London Times reports that Britain may add a battalion of troops to their commitment of 5,000 in Helmand province. The vital region will also have 1,000 American troops from the 10th Mountain Division available as a mobile reserve force.

Tony Blair's time at Number 10 seems numbered, the Independent on the latest arrest in cash-for-honours.

Earlier in the week, the Los Angeles Times reported on the Canadian sacrifices in Afghanistan. Their force accounted for 20 percent of the casualties in the country last year. At home, the war has an approval rating at 35 percent.

The Jamestown Foundation recently summarized Iranian involvement in Afghanistan. One general said, "in only the first quarter of this year [2006], more than 10 Iranian officials have been arrested in Herat who were allegedly involved in illegal activities."

18 months of exceptional rule

The Washington Post writes that the National Assembly will grant Hugo Chavez "tremendous powers that will allow him to dictate new laws for 18 months to transform the economy, redraw the structure of government and establish a new funding apparatus for Venezuela's huge oil wealth." El Pais reports that the extraodrinary location of the vote was outside the assembly building. The setting is no doubt meant to convey a message.


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