Across the Bay

Monday, August 09, 2004

The Dukes of Hazard

Michael Young commented on the recent political soap opera involving Ahmad Chalabi in Iraq.

A judge issued a warrant for the arrest of Chalabi and his nephew Salim, who heads the tribunal trying Saddam Hussein.

Young places the episode in the context of an Allawi-Chalabi struggle for power:

"In pushing for the elimination of the Baath’s leading centers of power – the army, the security services and the party apparatus – Chalabi was also trying to isolate former Baathists like the current prime minister, Iyad Allawi, who can still call upon the party’s unofficial networks. Allawi has, needless to say, won the first round."

I caught Chalabi's phone interview with Rita Cosby, and he brushed Bremer (thus possibly the American involvement) aside focusing rather on the judge and his "Baathist sympathies" such as his attack on the Saddam tribunal etc. So Chalabi is framing this in Baathist vs. Anti-Baathist terms, which lends some credence to Young's analysis.

Despite humiliating Chalabi, victory may come at a price for Allawi, if he goes overboard:

"I’m not yet ready to read into this a defeat for Chalabi’s American neocon allies, if only because Allawi may soon begin alarming people as he takes on more power. Being tough may work in Washington now, but at some stage people will wonder whether Allawi really represents the new Arab liberalism the Bush administration claimed to be spreading when it invaded Iraq."

This is not to say that Allawi is a new Saddam, as Young reminds us:

"Does this mean Allawi can be a new Saddam? At this stage that seems absurd – he does not control the powerful Kurdish militias, and has no real influence over the Shiite militias, even pro-government ones like the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). But he is building an army, and dissolution of the militias is a top priority of the interim government."

But this brings us to the resumption of action against Sadr, which Young reads as a plain attempt by Allawi to solidify power:

"Finally, the ongoing U.S. attack in Najaf is, plainly, an Allawi gamble to firmly establish his power. Four of the leading Shiite clerics in Najaf are out of the city – Ayatollah Sistani, most prominently, in London as a guest of the Khoei Foundation, whose late head, Abdel Majid al-Khoei, was allegedly killed by Muqtada al-Sadr – in what the regional media is calling a strange coincidence. The implication is that the four clerics left town to allow the U.S. and Iraqi forces to crush Muqtada’s Mahdi Army."

But what about Iran? Will it stand idly by as Allawi pressures all its allies? Young explains:

"If Allawi can pull this off successfully, he would have eliminated two adversaries from among his Shiite brethren in one swoop. This will set off alarm bells especially at the SCIRI and at Al-Daawa, who have ties with Iran. Indeed, with the Mahdi Army eliminated, all other armed groups will be under great pressure to disarm. Ties with Iran will, I suspect, figure prominently in this move. And what American neocon could possibly disagree?"

I remind you that Iran is the only neighboring country that's yet to invite Allawi for a visit (the rationale is that they deal only with an elected government). And, as Young notes, Iraqi officials have been incessantly jabbing at Iran, and that doesn't only include the Defense Minister that Young quotes, but also President al-Yawer as well as Hoshyar Zebari. Also, for good measure, even the Iraqi chargé d'affaires in Tehran has been making statements about arresting Iranians charged with espionage in Iraq. Indeed, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior had announced on Saturday that it had arrested four Iranian intelligence operatives suspected of espionage and sabotage.

At the same time over in Iran, Rafsanjani threatened the US that the "angry faithful" will not tolerate its actions in Najaf and will lauch a campaign of suicide bombings. I wonder if this is the usual machismo, or that Young is right, and the Iranians see this last move by Allawi as a direct assault on their foothold in Iraq.

Meanwhile, over in Cole Country, Juan Cole couldn't resist taking a swipe at Chalabi whom he loathes:

"The Chalabis are corrupt con men whose lies helped embroil the US in the Iraq quagmire, and the charges are not implausible. But Ahmad Chalabi is also a powerful rival to his distant cousin, Iyad Allawi. Allawi favors rehabilitating the ex-Baathists. Chalabi favors purging them. Allawi deeply distrusts Iran. Chalabi has a strong Iranian connection. Allawi wants to crack down on the militias of the religious Shiite parties. Chalabi has increasingly allied himself with the religious Shiite leadership, despite being a secularist himself."

The odd thing is that Cole started the post by contesting the validity of the charges against Ahmad Chalabi:

"He was charged with counterfeiting old Iraqi dinars (why not counterfeit new dinars if you were going to counterfeit?) and money-laundering."

The paradox continues as Cole goes on to describe Chalabi's cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic political skills:

"Although Chalabi himself was never popular on the Iraqi street, he has proven himself as a skilfull political broker and might well have found a way to get into parliament and become influential in the forthcoming elections. He manages to have good relations with the Kurds, Sistani, Muqtada al-Sadr, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim all at once. On the other hand, the Sunni Arabs blame him for his attempts to exclude ex-Baathists from civil and political society."

This is so funny to read when you keep in mind the venom Cole was unleashing against Chalabi earlier on this year. Now Chalabi is the voice of reason with the clerics in the south (perhaps that's why Cole is soft on him all of a sudden as Allawi has become the bad guy "in alliance with the Americans".) But who takes Cole seriously anyway?

So in the end, what's Cole's insight? That the "timing is suspicious". Deep...