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Entries in Al-Hayat (3)


Iraq Follow-Up: 64 Dead in Bombings --- What is the Significance? (Cole)

Juan Cole writes:

On Wednesday, the Sunni Arab guerrilla insurgency of Iraq demonstrated it is alive and able to plan and carry out a nation-wide set of terrorist operations. The covert organization set off bombs in 13 cities, killing some 64 and wounding an estimated 274, and targeting mainly police stations and checkpoints. Indeed, the bloody events could be termed a one-day war on the Iraqi police.

In Baghdad, 7 police were killed and 26 wounded in the al-Qahirah district. In Kut, a car bomb struck the central police station, killing 15 and wounding 90. Among those killed was Gen. Walid Sami, the director of the police station, according to al-Hayat. Attacks in Karbala, Muqdadiya, Ramadi, Basra and other cities took smaller tolls but underlined that it is dangerous to be a policeman supporting the new, American-installed order in Iraq. In Mosul an army base was attacked, and in Baghdad a bomb was set off at the entrance to the Kadhemiya district that houses the Shiite shrine of the Seventh Imam, among the holiest sites for Shiites.

Iraq Breaking: Bombings Kill Dozens, Wound More than 200 Across Country

The ability of the Sunni Arab insurgents to strike in Kut and Basra is remarkable, given that both are in the Shiite zone. That they have recovered somewhat from their defeat in al-Anbar is made clear by the attacks in Ramadi and Fallujah.

But remember that although these bombings took a lot of lives and maimed a lot of people, they could have been carried out by a relatively small group of people, perhaps as few as 100. In addition, it is not clear what practical gain they could have realized from these attacks. Is anyone really not going to join the police because of a few bombings? Are the police really going to respond by giving the insurgents greater leeway to operate? Would the public really be intimidated? Can the bombings change the government or provoke a coup or revolution? No, no, no and no. Rather, the guerrillas are just making themselves even more hated and are provoking the army and police to improve their counter-terrorism capabilities.

The violence and lack of security, to be sure, is making Iraqis depressed, as Arwa Damon of CNN bravely describes it. But, again, it is hard to see a political gain for the guerrillas in creating such a dark mood in the public.

As for those who argue that the bombing campaign is a reason to halt or reverse the American military withdrawal, I don’t understand their argument. What practical thing could US troops do to stop random bombings in Kut and Muqdadiya? When they were in charge of Iraq, they were unable to stop bombing waves, so how would they do so now? They can support the Iraqi military in counter-terrorism, but they can do that whether the US is in Iraq in strength or not.

The Iraqi military has two major security challenges. One is to patrol the cities and keep them from being in the hands of militias and gangs. In that task, the new Iraqi military seems to perform just all right. They can patrol independently, and will stand and fight if they come under fire from a militia. But the other major task is counter-insurgency, and in that struggle the new Iraqi military is still not very good. They don’t do checkpoint well, and they have a superstitious belief in divining rods that are supposed to discover explosive in the trunk (they don’t). In any case, both these security tasks are best undertaken by Iraqis.

As I argued at CNN on Monday,, the very presence of the US troops in such large numbers may retard Iraqi political parties’ progress toward reconciliation. The Shiites and Kurds are made arrogant by their knowledge that the US will back them, and so haven’t tried very hard for reconciliation with the Sunni Arabs– the only thing that would end the insurgency.

The bombings are getting on the nerves of the Iraqi public in part because of the political uncertainty of the moment. The March 7 parliamentary elections produced a hung parliament (just as all the recent elections in the countries with a Westminster parliamentary system have produced hung parliaments). So far no party has put together a ruling coalition, leaving the state in the hands of a weak caretaker hold-over government.

It would be fairly easy to form a government if the Shiite religious parties formed a super-coalition, as they have in the past. But this time they are divided between the State of Law coalition of incumbent prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and the more fundamentalist parties grouped in the National Iraqi Alliance. The latter include the Sadr Bloc led by clergyman Muqtada al-Sadr, who is studying in the Iranian seminary city of Qom. Sadr does not like al-Maliki because the prime minister sent troops against his Mahdi Army militia in 2008. If Sadr would accept al-Maliki as PM for a second term, the government could be formed tomorrow.

Al-Sharq al-Awsat reports that Muqtada in Iran is coming under strong pressure both from the government of Mahmud Ahmadinejad and from his clerical teachers, themarja`iyyah or spiritual and legal Exemplars to accept al-Maliki for the sake of Shiite power in Iraq. Muqtada has been flirting instead with an alliance with ex-Baathist Iyad Allawi, the darling of the Americans, who is perceived as anti-Iran. Iran really does not want a prime minister Allawi next door in Iraq, and so is trying to strong-arm Muqtada.

Muqtada is not, however, easy to strong-arm, and is now reportedly considering relocating to Beirut as a way of escaping Iranian pressure and also of retaining his independence from the Iraqi political scene. (He may also be thinking he could fill the vacuum created by the death of Lebanese grand ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah.) The rumors were denied by Muqtada’s spokesmen in Baghdad, who said it was much more likely that he would return to Iraq.

It would be so ironic if the American hopes for an Allawi government were made to come true by Muqtada al-Sadr.

Israel-Palestine Analysis: Why Did Ramallah Agree to Direct Talks? (Yenidunya)

On Friday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas will each meet with President Barack Obama on 1 September, with formal direct negotiations starting the following day. The Quartet (United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia) echoed Washington's invitation and said a deal could be reached within a year.

Netanyahu's office issued a statement, highlighting the significance of Israel's security institutions, "We are coming to the talks with a genuine desire to reach a peace agreement between the two peoples that will protect Israel's national security interests, foremost of which is security." Defense Minister Ehud Barak said both parties will be required to make "courageous decisions to reach an agreement."

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Netanyahu has got what he wanted with direct talks without preconditions, so his welcome is understandable. On the other hand, Ramallah had been showing resistance. But why the change in position? And why now?

As a non-state organisation, the Palestine Authority's capabilities and room for manoeuvre are relatively limited. It is neither sovereign nor territorially defined and its decision-making process is more fluid, given the lack of legitimate authority both in the eyes of Palestinians and Israelis. So Ramallah's resistance, in the face of Washington's sustained efforts, was curbed.

Ramallah also faced an imminent deadline, with the Israeli moratorium on settlement expansion in West Bank ending on 26 September. Any hope of an extension rested on an apparent breakthrough, otherwise the intense conservative discourse in Israel--- "Palestinians not missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity" --- would prevail. So the Palestine Authority now seeks to consolidate the demand for a moratorium, as well as an extension of the freeze to East Jerusalem, as part of the negotations. a rule of negotiations, a sine qua non necessity legitimized  in the eyes of international community.

In the end, despite the months required for the effort, Washington was able to use this leverage to get Mahmoud Abbas and his team to the table, given the limited assurances that the non-state could hope to extract. We have no idea whether President Obama threatened sanctions against the PA and/or showed a carrot, such as a pledge that he would bring forth his own map, based on pre-1967 borders, if Netanyahu did not produce one before the winter. However, what we know is that Washington successfully made Ramallah sit down. (On Saturday, the London-based al-Hayat newspaper claimed that the Obama Administration gave assurance to Abbas.)

The decision to go to Washington is strategically the least damaging option for Ramallah. Following the conditional approval of the Arab League for the talks and the international pressure, Ramallah will not be tarred --- at least in the short term --- as the party who always misses opportunities. The Palestinian Authority will try to play the card of getting assurances over Israeli settlements for the continuation of direct talks after 26 September. Less than 24 hours of the approval, the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said:
It can be done in less than a year. The most important thing now is to see to it that the Israeli government refrains from settlement activities, incursions, fait accompli policies.

Given no clear timeframe, specific terms of reference, and a monitoring mechanism, Ramallah is already insisting on taking the Quartet inside the negotiation room.  The PA will try to further the Quartet's March statement, saying that talks should lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties within 24 months, with an end to the occupation that began in 1967 and an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbours. The statement also called for a freeze to settlements in the West Bank and an end to the annexation of East Jerusalem.

On Friday, the Quartet expressed support for the pursuit of a just, lasting and comprehensive regional peace as envisaged in the Madrid terms of reference, Security Council resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative. So far, Israelis have not responded to this statement and it is not known if and when the Obama Administration will include the Quartet in direct talks.

At the end of the day, however, given the limits of Ramallah's bargaining power, the catalyst for any advance in the talks will be the decisiveness of the Netanyahu Administration: how serious is it about reaching a deal regardless of public pressure over "non-negotiable security needs"?

Israel-Palestine Analysis: Washington's New Push for an Agreement  

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has said that he is ready for direct negotiations with Israel if specific conditions --- a total halt to settlement building in the West Bank and an acceptance of an independent Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders --- are met. As a sign of "cooperation", his political advisor Nimar Hamad stated that the PA is not opposed to the deployment of a NATO force, including Israeli soldiers, along the borders of a Palestinian state under a peace agreement.

Meanwhile, Washington has sent special envoy George Mitchell back to the region. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Mitchell had separate talks with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mitchell brought a proposal based on a March statement of the Quartet (US, Britain, United Nations, Russia) and a “defined timeline” and agenda for talks.

The Quartet statement asserted that negotiations should lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties within 24 months, ending the occupation that began in 1967 and resulting in an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbours. The Quartet urged Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth, and to dismantle West Bank outposts erected since March 2001, and it underlined that the international community does not recognize Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem.

In his meeting with Israel's Netanyahu, Mitchell said that Abbas was ready to enter direct talks immediately if Israel accepted this offer. (Haaretz reports that Washington had rejected two earlier proposals put forth by Abbas.)

Netanyahu's answer? A firm "No". An anonymous Israeli official said:
The Palestinians have been raising different preconditions. As time goes on they have talked about a settlement freeze, then about Jerusalem as a precondition, about continuing where [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert left off, about accepting the ‘67 borders and now they are talking about the Quartet statement. If they want to look for excuses, they can find them. Let us move to direct talks.

On Friday, Netanyahu's office also released a statement denying a report from London-based newspaper Al-Hayat, that said that Israel would evacuate 90% of the territory and 50,000 settlers in the West Bank. The Prime Minister's officials said the claim is a lie.

After Mitchell's failure, Washington increased its pressure. US State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said on Wednesday that the Quartet was likely to issue a statement of support for the talks in the coming day.