Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Iraq snapshot

Tuesday, March 30, 2010. Chaos and violence continue, Chris Hill self-embarrasses yet again, Nouri continues attempts to knock out the results of the election, and more.
"What if you have an election and nobody wins?" asked Warren Olney on today's To The Point (PRI). He explored that in multiple segments and we'll note the section where he spoke with Ned Parker.
Warren Olney: The party of former prime minister Ayad Allawi won 2 more seats in this month's Parliamentary elections than the party of current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. al-Maliki has called the outcome a fraud and demanded a recount. Today Allawi claimed that Iran is trying to prevent him from forming a government. Ned Parker's in Baghdad for the Los Angeles Times and, Ned, it's good to have you back on our program. Tell us what Allawi means and how he's trying to prove the point that Iran is trying to prevent him from forming a government?
Ned Parker: Well, uhm, thanks for having me back. That's a good question. What Awad Allawi is referring to is the influence Iran has on many of the players in Iraqi politics and, in the last week, there's been a shuffle -- a shuttle of Iraqi politicians to Iran. Some to meet with Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr whose followers have about 40 seats in the Parliament. And then others who were going to Iran to celebrate the Iranian New Year, Nowruz. So it's a very tight race to form a new government -- next government.  Malliki, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's list has 89 seats, Ayad Allawi has 91. And they're competing essentially for the same -- same blocs. And whoever these blocs choose -- which is a rival Shi'ite list to Minister Nouri Maliki's -- and a Kurdish bloc with 43 seats but with an additional Kurdish parties really another -- potentially 60 seats of Kurdish parliamentarians.  Whoever can win those seats or a large number of them will get to form the next government.  And Iran, I think it's fair to say, feels more comfortable with a government controlled by Shi'ite religious parties or led by them even if there are other candidates in the list. So Allwawi is the antithesis of what they want and he knows that and it's an issue that also plays well on the Iraqi street because Iran is seen as meddling by most Iraqis and it's something that routed people to Allawi.
Warren Olney: Okay, a little background here. Allawi, you say, is the antithesis of what the Iranians would like to see. He is a Shi'ite but he is a secular Shi'ite.  Is that the main thing that concerns them?
Ned Parker: Well . . . it's -- people have commented and I think it's quite valid in many ways Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi who is a former prime minister who was prime minister in the interum period after the US occupation ended in June 2004 through the election that Iraq had in January of '05.  That's when Allawi servied. And he represents a secular stream in the Iraqi politics but it's also one that's comfortable with the former members of the Ba'ath Party of former members or leadership of the Ba'ath Party of Saddam Hussein. And Allawi has also cultivated Arab countries -- Saudi Arabia, Jordan -- and those countries have never really been comfortable with the post-2003 government which had been led by Shi'ite religious parties that often had -- were based in Iran during Saddam Hussein's years. So all of that creates a picture of Allawi as a Trojan horse for those who were in the elite of Saddam Hussein's regime. And that makes some Shi'ites, Iraqis, nervous.  Not all. Many find Allawi's vision of sort of a secular, Iraq, nationalistic Iraq that's very Arab as appealing but it also makes people nervous and I think it makes Iran nervous.  And Allawi, also it's been said, has been trying to reach out to Iran to assure them that if he does become prime minister, they would be comfortable with him, that he would not be a threat.
Warren Olney: Okay, we are reminded once again of the enomorous complexity of the political situation in Iraq. We also have another well known voice, that of Mr. Chalabi, well known in this country as the man who helped persuade the Bush administration to go into Iraq in the first place, then became persona nongrata at the Pentagon.  In fact, they even searched his house at one point for evidence that he was dealing with Iran. Now he's in charge of the Electoral Commission and I take it that al-Maliki on him to disqualify even more of Allawi's people than he already has.
Ned Parker: That's right. Well Chalabi is the chairman of the de-Ba'athification Commission or it's called the Accountability and Justice Commission now which is charged with purging high ranking members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party from public life, from senior positions in the government, high positions within the security forces, what have you. So what happened is Chalabi was also a candidate, he was elected to this Parliament and with the rival slate of Mr. Maliki's. So it's a very complicated game that's going on right now. And with it, the head -- the director-general of the Accountablity and Justice Commission which is supposed to purge former members of the Ba'ath Party from government or from running for office, they've banned many candidates before the election, replacements were found but there was, among the replacements, shortly before the actual election this commission, which Chalabi chairs, said there were  52 people who should not be able to run. The electoral board said to wait until after the election, so yesterday the director Chalabi's assistant on the Accountability and Justice said these people who were elected would not be allowed to participate. And this now goes to a court which will rule.  And this suits Chalabi's interests, it also suits Mallaki's interests because they both see Allawi as a threat to their own power.  I think Chalabi himself, even if he would deny it, still has ambitions to be prime minister.  I think he probably believes if Malliki is thwarted in his bid for a second term as prime minister that the candidate will likely come from  Chalabi's list which is the other main Shi'ite alliance that ran in the elections. And there there are so many candidates but all of them have baggage So I think potentiall even Ahmed Chalabi is thinking if he is the last man standing maybe he could really end up being the prime minister. He's the darkhorse candidate.
We'll stop there with the excerpt.  (Ned Parker begins another sentence but the phone call is lost in the middle of it.) For more audio (and to underscore some reporting is going on even if you can't find it on your usual programs), we'll note this from yesterday's The World (PRI):
Ben Gilbert: No single party mustered the 163 Parliamentary seats necessary to form a government in Iraq's elections and that came as no surprise. But few predicted that Ayad Allawi would do so well. The former prime minister's Iraqiya list garnered 91 seats that's 2 more than sitting prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law bloc won.  Maliki plans to challenge the results and he says he expects Iraq's electoral commission to take his complaints seriously.
Nouri al-Maliki: The future of the political democratic process and the future of the country depend on this.
Ben Gilbert: Prime Minister Maliki has hinted that, as the commander of the armed forces, he has a responsibility to maintain order in case the election was stolen. Meanwhile Maliki and Allawi are wooing lawmakers from other blocs to try to bolster their numbers.  Allawi is even courting his main rival.
Ayad Allawi: Our Iraqiya list is open to all parties beginning with the State of Law bloc of the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and with all the other political blocs.
Ben Gilbert: Allawi has a reputation for being open to all sides.  He's a non-practicing Shi'ite Muslim but, in this election, his supporters were mostly Sunni Muslims.  Sunnis mostly boycotted the elections in 2005 and then went on to make up the bulk of the insurgency. Now both current Prime Minister Maliki and former Prime Minister Allawi  will have to appeal to all of Iraq's ethnic and religous groups in order to gain majority in the Parliament and form a government.
Saad Hussein (Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies): We are in a critical moment  Don't you know in Iraq there is potential civil war in Iraq every time. This happened in 2006 and maybe it will return back in such a way even now after the election.
Ben Gilbert: Still Hussein considers the large turnout for Allawi a vote for secularism and he says that's a sign of progress from the previous elections
Saad Hussein: Before 2005, liberals and others they didn't get anything. All the sectarian and ethnic groups they were very powerful in 2005. Now they are weaker than before. People they want change, they want something else, and they see it in the secular candidates.
Ben Gilbert: It will be weeks if not months before the negotiations result in concrete alliances. All this comes as the US hopes to draw-down  its troops from the current level of 95,000  to 50,000 by this fall. For The World, I'm Ben Gilbert.
And personal note to NPR friends, you're not doing your job.  NPR friends would prefer I not note PRI which competes with them for servicing local public radio stations with programming.  And until this year, I ignored PRI programs.  Even when asked to note them here.  But NPR's not providing an Iraq focus -- if I wanted to be really pointed I'd note -- ticking off all of today's programs -- how laughable that two suicide bombers in Moscow get so much NPR attention when Iraq has how many suicide bombers a year and has to fight to get even ten minutes a day from NPR? -- so we'll note PRI.  And let me go further on that.  If you're local NPR doesn't carry To The Point, for example, or The World, remember you can always call them and request that they do.  They might have to drop some programs -- maybe they can retire Terry Gross' insipid sex talk, insults to the disabled (calling them the r-word on air and then insisting it's a joke should have got her ass fired this month), fart jokes, picking the nose talk and all the rest -- but they can carry these programs and will if they get enough requests to do so.  Your local public radio station is supposed to serve you the listener. And let's quote that sick old hag with the r-word, ". . . so this ended up being a very controversial scene because of the use of the word r**arded. So I just want to warn our listeners, for anybody who finds that word, like, really, you know, insulting, that this is a comedy.  This is a parody."  Oh, that's a warning?  "For anyone who finds the word, like, really, you know, insulting."  The one you just tossed out, Terry?  NPR has no functioning ombudsperson.  They have a body that takes up space, but they have no functioning ombudsperson.  Terry Gross little antics have demonstrated that for months now.
They say this train don't give out rides, it don't worry me,
And all the world is taking sides, it don't worry me.
Cause in my empire, life is sweet, just ask any bum you meet.
Life may be a one way street, but it don't worry me.
It don't worry me, it don't worry me.
You may say I ain't free, but it don't worry me.
-- "It Don't Worry Me," words and music by Keith Carradine
Who knew Chris Hill would make like Barbara Harris in Robert Altman's Nashville and run around singing "It Don't Worry Me"?  Hill is the US Ambassador to Iraq and, apparently, a huge Altman fan.  Yesterday on NPR's All Things Considered, Noah Adams spoke (link has text and audio) with Hill:

ADAMS: Now, the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, he's just not happy at all. He wants a manual recount. He's putting a lot of pressure on the election officials. He said, no way will we accept the results, he said that flatly. And he likes to remind people that he is, indeed, the commander-in-chief. If you're an Iraqi citizen, aren't you figuring he's going to take this election any way he can?

Ambassador HILL: Well, I think, you know, anyone who's lost an election by 0.045 percent probably is feeling a little grouchy that day. And so I think Mr. Maliki was probably not very happy to see those results. On the other hand, he has made clear that what's necessary is that everybody needs to follow the law, including himself. But, you know, he's going to challenge some of the results, I think as any candidate would. And the key thing here is not that he doesnt have a right to challenge results in specific areas, but he needs to do it lawfully according to the procedures.

Nouri's just a grouchy bear, insists Chris Hill, as if Little Nouri was awakened from naptime too quickly and just as soon as he finishes his juice box and sugar cookies, he'll play nice. Strangely, Iraq's neighbors do not see it the same way.  Lebanon's Daily Star editorializes, "Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is moving onto very thin ice with his rejection of his country's elections -- and the entire country could well take a plunge with him. It is one thing if Maliki simply expressed his opposition to the leader who won the elections, Iraqiya head Iyad Allawi; however, Maliki is denouncing and challenging the whole elections as fraudulent." So that's one of Iraq's neighbors and Caryle Murphy (UAE's the National Newspaper) notes that another neighbor, Saudi Arabia, contains many people who are excited by the prospects of Allawi being the winner and "If Mr al Maliki stays in power, Mr Eshki added, Iraq will continue to suffer from terrorism because 'the Baathists … don't like him'. But with Mr Allawi at Iraq's helm, 'the terrorists will not find any group that will welcome them'." And Duraid Al Baik (Gulf News) reports on Iraqi attitudes towards Allawi's slate's apparent victory (they won the count released last Friday), fear as they see his supporters targeted, fear "that Al Maliki and his supporters will not hand over authority peacefully."
Timothy Williams (New York Times) reports that Iraq's Justice and Accountability Commission -- a paralegal committee whose mandate expired many years ago and whose membership was not appointed by Parliament -- has decided to disqualify six winners in the Parliamentary elections and this "could prove critical to the election's outcome because the political alliance headed by Ayad Allawi, the country's former interim prime minister, won only two seats more than Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's coalition in the March 7 contest." McClatchy's Hannah Allam (Christian Science Monitor) notes that if the "federal court upholds" the barring, not only would Allawi's slate lead their lead but it also "could threaten hopes that the elections would pave the way to a new unity government". As the Washington Post's editorial board observes, "On Monday, the pernicious Iranian-backed Accountability and Justice Commission piped up again, seeking to purge six winners it considers tainted by past association with Saddam Hussein; not coincidentally, the purging could be useful to politicians who run the commission." Martin Chulov (Guardian) adds, "The vanquished Maliki continues to show signs that he will not fade away, describing as "impossible" Allawi's attempts to build a coalition. Maliki made the comment in a television interview, in which he also said "the game is still very much on", in relation to who will be Iraq's new leader." Ned Parker and Caesar Ahmed (Los Angeles Times) report on the tensions arising from the para-legal body's latest move:

A senior Iraqiya member reacted furiously Monday, seeing the announcement as an effort to undermine the slate's quest to assemble a coalition of 163 seats to form the next government. He warned of dire consequences if the judiciary rules in Lami's favor and takes away Iraqiya seats.
"No doubt, if they try to isolate Iraqiya then definitely the aim of doing that is to push the country toward civil war. . . . Maybe this is the intention of Iran. They want their people to control Iraq for another four years," said Iraqiya member Falah Naquib. "Maybe half the country or more will not accept what they are trying to do."

Leila Fadel (Washington Post) quotes Falah al-Naqib as well and he tells her that if the banning is approved by the court and if it robs Allawi's slate of their lead, "It would be civil war, absolutely no doubt. I think the United States and other allies should find a solution for this problem. Otherwise, we're seriously going for a civil war, and this time, it's a big mess."  NPR's Deborah Amos' Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East has just arrived in stores.  Writing at Global Post,she explains:

Stung by his loss, Maliki rejected the official tally and invoked his status as commander-in-chief as he warned of violence. Maliki's top aide, Ali al-Adeed, was more explicit when he said Iraq's Shiites would not accept the legitimacy of Allawi's victory. Maliki's warnings prompted an unusual on-the-record observation from a senior U.S. embassy official, Gary Grappo, who acknowledged that Maliki's coalition would "take advantage of all means at their disposal to try to eke out a victory."           
While Grappo went on to express confidence that Maliki and his allies would work within the judicial system, the system has been far from neutral, both before and after the election. Power in Iraq centers around personalities rather than institutions. As long as Maliki remains in office, he can manipulate government resources to press his advantage.              
On the day before the election results were announced, the Supreme Court interpreted an ambiguous constitutional clause in a way that gives Maliki an edge. While the constitution stipulates the largest bloc in parliament gets the first chance to form a government, it is unclear whether the largest bloc is determined by the vote or groups that merge after the election. The judges ruled that the later is permissible, which means if Maliki can convince smaller blocs to join him in the next few days, he can deny Allawi the first shot at forming a government. 
But Chris Hill is not troubled. Proving that the simplest mind sleeps easiest. As the US State Dept today, Chris Hill spoke via video link (and click here for State Dept video and transcript).  Hey, remember when Chris Hill told All Things Considered yesterday:
I will say that as in any close election, it's not easy to lose a close election. If you look at the differential, it was some 0.045 percent. That's not fun to lose an election like that. So I don't think people should be too surprised that there are some comments that reflect the anguish of losing.
You're nodding.  No.  That's from today's press briefing.  Sounds just the same, I know.  That's because he can almost manage to memorize scripted soundbytes.  Almost.
CNN's Elise Labott asked what happens if Nouri loses out to Allawi (as the count indicates his party should) and yet refuses to "secede power"?
Chris Hill: Well, again, these are -- this is kind of speculation. What if? What if he doesn't? What if he does? What if he -- will he resign from the position if he's unable to put together a coalition? All I can say is he has been very, very clear with us in private, very clear in public, that he will follow the law. I want to make very clear this is something that when you look around the landscape of this part of the world, you don't see too many examples of this actually happening. Yet I think the Iraqi people went to the polls in great numbers and I think the Iraqi people expect all of their politicians, whether it's the seated prime minister or whether it's the challengers, to follow the letter of the law. And I think that is a widespread expectation and I would expect everyone to do that. I mean, if we have problems in the future, we'll deal with problems in the future. But right now, I think what people are saying is the right thing, which his to observe the law and observe the procedures.
Are you on the floor rolling yet?  If not, it's probably because you're thinking of the actions of the Justice and Accountability Commission (and for those who keep e-mailing about that commission, that is it's English translation -- for some reason some press outlets want to go alphabetical, it's Justice and Accountability).  Reuters' Susan Cornwell immediately raised that issue.
Chris Hill:  Well, let me just say that certainly political commentators here in Iraq sort of look at a challenge like that and wonder to what extent it reflects a political challenge. Certainly, I think the UN has made very clear that this is no time to be challenging people who have won seats. But I think the UN has also made very clear that the proper place for any such challenges is to the courts. If they want to sue the IHEC, they can do that and let the courts take this up.  I think going forward, certainly for the next election, certainly for the next period of Iraq's history, they're going to have to deal with this whole issue about accountability and justice. They're going to have to deal with the issue of what to do with people who have ties to the Baathist regime in the past, how they're going to deal with this, whether a South African model or some other model. But certainly, what we want to see in the future is something that is transparent and something that does not appear to many people to have politics written all over it.
Oops, the manic half of his manic-depression appears to be fading.  Like a Joyce Carol Oates character, he's going lethargic leading all to wonder, "What is he saying? What does he mean?" (Nod to JCO's "Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?")
 Chris Hill appears to be saying that without UN approval no candidates will be banned.  And that if an Iraqi official doesn't like that, he can take the UN to court.  That's what he appears to be saying. 
But I've been on the phone with two friends at the UN and they say that's news to them.  Not only is that news to them, Hill establishes that as 'reality' one minute and then appears to forget what he just said.
Seconds later McClatchy's Warren P. Strobel asks him about violence and how Allawi supporters are stating/worrying that violence could/would return if "the results of the accountability commission come back to where he's below Mr. Maliki."  Do you understand what Strobel just said?  It's fairly clear.  But maybe it was lost on Hill?  Strobel asked about Allawi being knocked out of the lead -- his party leads by two seats, remember -- if the accountability commission -- not a UN body nor a court of law in Iraq -- should ban or pull some of the ones elected on Allawi's slate.  That was the question.
Here's Hill in full -- or, here's the fool in full:
Well, look, this is a country that has had a recent history with violence. I mean, we all know about the violence in Iraq. It's something we've all been very aware of for some time. So it is quite understandable that people look at this question, that people speculate about it, that the issue of violence gets raised in the news.  I would say, however, that I would be careful, though, to suggest that a coalition that has won less than a third of the seats and clearly needs to reach out and get still another 80 percent of what the coalition is -- that is, Mr. Allawi's coalition has 91 seats. He needs at least another 70-plus seats if he's going to make a -- if he's going to be able to form a government. Well, I think his ability to do that will depend on his ability to work with coalitions, to decide who wants what ministry, to really sit down and negotiate.  So I think this is really a political question and my sense is people understand that this is a political question. I think what is necessary at the end of the day, though, is to see that all elements of this society, whether it's Kurdish, whether it's Sunni, whether it's Shia or secular, that all of these people, all of these communities, really, have a potential to participate in the political life of this country.  I think everyone is aware of this issue in this country. I mean, I don't hear of anyone saying, "Well, let's form a government and drop one significant group out of it." You don't hear any of that. So we'll have to see. We obviously monitor these things very carefully. We're very aware of the levels of violence. But so far, it is very much on a political track, which is where we want to keep it.
Whether it's Sunni, whether it's Shia -- forget Barbara Harris' character, now he's sounding like Miles Monroe in Sleeper when Miles believes he's in a Miss America contest.  If Chris Hill told the truth (I know, I'm laughing too) the first time, then his reply to Strobel would have been consistent, he would have again replied that the UN would be the final say and that if someone was unhappy with the UN's decision they could go through the Iraqi courts.  But he didn't say that.  Chris Hill . . . At some point the chuckles fade and he just becomes an international embarrassment.
And if you doubt that, grasp that the idiot who didn't understand Kirkuk in his confirmation hearing, referred to it today in the press conference as "the so-called disputed internal boundary"?  So-called?  Baghdad claims it, the KRG claims it.  It's disputed, moron, there's nothing in doubt about the fact that it's disputed.  The only doubt is over whether the issue will be resolved (it was supposed to have been resolved three years ago).  If it weren't for the fact that I sat through the idiot's confirmation hearing, I'd think he was trying to take sides with his choice of words but Hill -- and look at the rest of his answer -- clearly didn't and doesn't understand Kirkuk even after being the US Ambassador to Iraq for nearly a year now.
Reuters notes 1 corpse was discovered in Tal Afar and 2 men were shot dead in front of their Mosul home.
Yesterday's snapshot covered the Commission on Wartime Conracting in Iraq and Afghanistan in DC. Kat covered it last night in "Commission on Wartime Contracting," Ava covered it at Trina's site with "Fraud and waste" and Wally covered it at Rebecca's site with "The arrogance and waste of KBR."
And we'll close with this from Cindy Sheehan's "Peace Outlaws" (World Can't Wait):

The day after I got out of jail, I decided to go to the Hill to attend a robotic warfare hearing and I quickly made a small sign that said: "Drones Kill Kids," and I was holding it quietly in my lap as I listened to the testimony. Holding small signs is generally tolerated, if you don't wave it, or hold it up and block anybody's view. Having no intention of interrupting the hearing since I was interested in the topic, I was surprised when a staffer of the Chairman, John Tierney, approached me and told me to put the sign away, or I would be kicked out, along with my colleague, Josh Smith who was sitting next to me and also holding a sign.      
I patiently explained to her that holding a sign was my right and I was being quiet and respectful. Sure enough, during the break, the Capital Hill police came to eject us from the hearing.                      
The next day, we found out that Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates were testifying on the 33 billion dollar supplemental war-funding bill. The hearing was changed from a Senate office building to the Capitol building and put into a small, small room. We decided that we would try to at least get close to the closed hearing to express our freedom of speech, so we headed to the Capitol and got in line at the visitor center.                            
About eight of us were in line for about three minutes when a phalanx of Capitol Hill police (including motorcycle and bike cops) approached us and asked what our "intentions" were. I said that if they didn't ask everyone in line that same question, their presence and interrogation bordered on "harassment." A female cop averred that she didn't think it was "harassment"-- isn't that nice, a harasser doesn't think she's harassing?                                
After standing in line to get in, then standing in line to get a ticket for the Capitol Hill tour, and then watching a movie about our wonderful Congress and the wonderful things it does and has done, (even bragging about the brutal Indian Removal Act of 1830) we got into the Capitol and were followed by the same phalanx of cops. At one point, I peeled off and went up a staircase and a member of our group heard a cop say: "oh, oh, we lost Cindy." Needless to say, we were all promptly rounded up and escorted out of the building.