Independent Iraqi politics, 2006

April 18th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Reading [Blair Unbound](, Anthony Seldon’s political biography of Blair since 2001, I’ve been struck by how forcefully it confirms the view much of the outside world had of Number 10 in that time. Namely, that everything was driven by personalities rather than policies, with Blair rarely hearing — let alone listening to — the outside world.
[Naturally]( I’ve been paying particularly close attention to the treatment of the Iraq war. This was the first political event I was deeply involved in, and re-viewing it as history provides a chance to see what I interpreted correctly and falsely at the time. Generally, the lesson is I was most likely to be right when I was at my most cynical.
A good example of this is the casual way in which Blair and Bush controlled Iraqi politicians — including elected politicians, whose democratic selection was one of the last remaining justifications for their war.
So, when Nouri al-Maliki’s selection as Iraqi Prime Minster in early 2006, replacing Ibrahim Jaafari,
[most reports]( treated it as a decision made by Iraqis. Relatively few journalists discussed it as a selection determined by the Americans. [I did](, correctly cynical for once, mainly because I had been paying attention to [Helena Cobban](
>The US and British governments…have been using the power of their countries’ military position inside Iraq to try to subvert the results of the December election by pursuing a determined campaign against the nomination of Ibrahim Jaafari as Prime Minister.
Now it is safely in the past, Seldon is free to show that the cynics had it right:
>[Blair] became convinced that al-Jaafari should, in the interests of Iraq’s future, step down. But how? Al-Jaafari did not want to relinquish office, and so the full weight of the Bush administration would be required to shift his view….Blair told Bush that he had asked Straw to go to Baghdad to ‘bang heads together’ and suggested that Rice join him….Straw and Rice were unable to dislodge al-Jaafari during their visit, but, in making clear that they spoke with the full authority of their bosses, they made their point. Sawers and the NSC’s Megan O’Sullivan remained behind to maintain the pressure. Blair kept in close contact with them, and on 20 April, al-Jaafari eventually stepped down.

November 18th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink


The Islamic Republic [of Iran] has repeatedly blamed the violence in Iraq on the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003.

Um…and this is a controversial position how, exactly. Is anybody suggesting militias would be killing thousands if Saddam were still in power
OK, OK, I admit secret police disappearances, torture, etc. count as violence. Still, a strange way of phrasing things…

International Compact for Iraq

May 3rd, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

In Sharm el-Sheikh, Ban Ki-moon and a gaggle of presidents finally [launched]( the International Compact for Iraq today, supposedy gathering billions of dollars in aid for Iraq. [1]
They’re probably eviscerating their webmaster right about…

[1] They claim $30bn, but most of that is debt relief (i.e. it is only worth a fraction of the face value)

December 12th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

I hope [this]( article is the result of “Iraqi officials” messing with the New York Times:
>After discussions with the Bush administration, several of Iraq’s major political parties are in talks to form a coalition whose aim is to break the powerful influence of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr within the government, senior Iraqi officials say.
The US wanting to form a new coalition – I can live with that. The idealist in me says that Iraqi politics should happen without international meddling, but I realise that isn’t going to happen. Openly making it a specifically anti-Sadr coalition, though? That’s just going to needlessly piss off Sadr and his followers. Worse, openly making it an _American-backed_ anti-Sadr coalition. No way that’ll energise the Shiite militias, is there?

moderate hat-eating

December 8th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

Hmm…I may have been a little hasty with that last post – the Israel reference in the ISG report has actually gone down quite well in many places.
Here’s Jordanian daily [al Ghad](
>The report showed a deep understanding of the Middle East when it drew the link between regional conflicts. It was clear in its reference to the impact of the failure to solve the Palestinian issue on the situation in Iraq
[NB: I don’t read Arabic: these iraq posts are beng put together with Google translate, [Mark Lynch’s bookmarks](, [this Iraqi blog](, and whatever other snippets I can find]

Don’t mention the intifada

December 8th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

The Baker report’s brief mention of Israel didn’t get so much attention in the West, but it got much more in the Arab world.
Talking about linking Israel into a solution in Iraq might have sounded like a good, open-minded approach from an American perspective. But it is never going to look good in Arab eyes, because any American position on Israel and Palestine will always be an thousand miles away from anything popular with Arabs. So Al-quds al-arabi complains ([English](

The report focused on the need to find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It criticized the American administration, which has neglected this issue in the last few years. However, it did not provide acceptable solutions taking Arab and Palestinian interests into account. It did not touch on Israeli terrorist practices and the silence of the American administration.

What the report said was about as innocuous as a US government statement on Israel could get:
>The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability. There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts: Lebanon, Syria, and President Bush’s June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. This commitment must include direct talks with, by, and between Israel, Lebanon, Palestinians (those who accept Israel’s right to exist), and Syria.
The problem is that the Iraq Study Group has its tactics all wrong: Iraqis and Americans will never agree over Israel, and talking about it only causes trouble. The best solution is to take the same approach as with Iran’s nuclear program: keep the issues separate, try to negotiate on each problem separately. If the US follows the ISG recommendations and talks about Israel and Iraq in the same breath, they’re hobbling themselves, making it politically much more difficult for any Iraqi groups to negotiate.
Also, note that [Dar al hayat]( ([English]( has a much more neutral comment that the report “calls for action on the Arab-Israeli conflict andt he establishment of the Palestinian state”.
Some less negative Arab press reactions to the report [here]( and [here]( And bear in mind that Israel is slightly less all-consuming within Iraq than it is for the pan-Arab media – although it is still an immensely emotive topic.

Blind governors

December 7th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

One of the breathtaking nuggets in the Iraq Study Group report is the following:

“All of our efforts in Iraq, military and civilian, are handicapped by Americans’ lack of language and cultural understanding. Our embassy of 1,000 has 33 Arabic speakers, just six of whom are at the level of fluency.”

How did that happen? One explanation is bureaucratic closed-mindedness:

The pathetic language skills at the embassy are as I understand it largely a side-effect of the security clearance process. Anyone who has spent time in an Arabic speaking country outside the framework of military or diplomatic service is generically excluded, leaving only those trained stateside at DLI and similar institutions, whose pedagogical techniques are basically back in the 60s.

This isn’t unique to the Baghdad embassy; the FBI, coincidentally, also has only 33 Arabists of its own – and again, one reason cited is that “it is easier to get a security clearance if you don’t have any interaction with foreigners”.

I can only hope that competent linguists are hired to work on a contract basis – because the idea of America’s Iraq policy being run almost entirely by people who can’t communicate with Iraqis is frightening.

[another IAG crosspost]

Health in Iraq

December 7th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

I realise I shouldn’t obsess over numbers, but whenever I stop reading Iraq news for a few weeks, it’s the numbers that bring home the scale of things, and how much worse they’re getting.

The annual budget for Iraq’s health ministry is $1.1 billion, according to this article, compared to just $22 million in 2002 – not to mention the sanctions back then. Yet infant mortality has risen over that time (130 deaths per thousand now, compared to 125 then). Meanwhile 7,000 doctors have left the country, at least 455 medical staff (including hospital guards) have been killed, and entire lorries of medical equipment are vanishing.

I’m not sure where all those figures are coming from (is that $22 million figure plausible?), but before the war I’d hoped this was an area that would improve just through Americans throwing money at it. Obviously I was wrong.

Also, up to 1.6 million internally displaced Iraqis (425,000 of them fleeing home since February), and about as many again living outside Iraq – so say UNHCR.

[cross-posted from IAG]


December 1st, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

UN agencies might not be known for their elegant prose, but when things are this bad the plain facts are more compelling than journalists’ waffle:

Iraq is haemorrhaging. The humanitarian crisis which the international community had feared in 2003 is now unfolding. The massive displacement has emerged quietly and without fanfare but the numbers affected are in excess of what many agencies had predicted in 2003.
Since the February 2006 Samarra bombings UNHCR, as Cluster Coordinator for displaced groups inside Iraq, estimates some 425,000 Iraqis to have been recently displaced. In addition, some two to three thousand Iraqis are leaving per day via neighbouring countries as the extent of the tragedy becomes obvious. UNHCR estimates that there are at least 1.6 million Iraqis internally displaced with at least another 1.6 – 1.8 million(4) in neighbouring states.

[[UNHCR](, via Reliefweb]

Civil war? What Civil war?

October 18th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

From [Anthony Cordesman’s latest paper](,com_csis_pubs/task,view/id,3537/), via [Abu Aardvark](, a chart of violence in Iraq:

Spot the Askariyya mosque bombing.

October 14th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

Interesting take on the Lancet figures from Marginal Revolution:

A very high deaths total, taken alone, suggests (but does not prove) that the Iraqis were ready to start killing each other in great numbers the minute Saddam went away. The stronger that propensity, the less contingent it was upon the U.S. invasion, and the more likely it would have happened anyway, sooner or later. In that scenario the war greatly accelerated deaths. But short of giving Iraq an eternal dictator, that genie was already in the bottle.
If the deaths are low at first but rising over time, it is more likely that a peaceful transition might have been possible, either through better postwar planning or by leaving Saddam in power and letting Iraqi events take some other course. That could make Bush policies look worse, not better. Tim Lambert, in one post, hints that the rate of change of deaths is an important variable but he does not develop this idea.

More big numbers in Iraq

October 11th, 2006 § 2 comments § permalink

Update: The report is now available online
How credible is the study about to appear in the Lancet, estimating 655,000 excess deaths in Iraq as a result of the war?
All this is based on the media coverage I’ve seen ([Wall Street Journal](, WaPo, NYT). I haven’t seen the report, so I can’t say it is trustworthy. All we can say for now is that it is consistent with other figures, and using an appropriate methodology.
First, the plausibility. Yes, 600,000 is a very big number. It is about 2.5% of the population of Iraq. But remember that this isn’t anywhere close to saying that 600,000 people were directly killed by American soldiers. It is just that the overall death rate has increased massively – that might include inadequate healthcare or nutrition, more traffic accidents, whatever. It certainly includes the violent crime, which we know there is a huge amount of. Granted, it is at the high end of the scale, and I’ll want to look at the methodology in detail before I say that I believe it.
This is not inconsistent with other accounts. In particular, it isn’t disproved by the fact that [Iraq Body Count](, give a much lower death toll, between 43,850 and 48,693 deaths.
It’s because they are counting different things. Iraq Body Count simply totals up the civilians reported in the media as having been killed. [By their own admission]( this is will always be an undercount:

We have always recognised and made explicit that our media-derived database cannot be a complete record of civilians killed in violence, and have called forproperly supported counts since the beginning of our own project. What IBC continues to provide is an irrefutable baseline of certain and undeniable
deaths based on the solidity of our sources and the conservativeness of our methodology.

The figures are higher than the death counts based on bodies in morgues. These generally relate only to violent deaths (narrower than this study), and count about 100 a day. [Juan Cole]( doesn’t find this discrepancy too large to deal with:

First of all, Iraqi Muslims don’t believe in embalming or open casket funerals days later. They believe that the body should be buried by sunset the day of death, in a plain wooden box. So there is no reason to expect them to take the body to the morgue. Although there are benefits to registering with the government for a death certificate, there are also disadvantages. Many families who have had someone killed believe that the government or the Americans were involved, and will have wanted to avoid drawing further attention to themselves by filling out state forms and giving their address.
Personally, I believe very large numbers of Iraqi families quietly bury their dead without telling the government of all people anything about it. Another large number of those killed is dumped in the Tigris river by their killers. A fisherman on the Tigris looking for lunch recently caught the corpse of a woman. The only remarkable thing about it is that he let it be known to the newspapers. I’m sure the Tigris fishermen throw back unwanted corpses every day.

I’m not entirely convinced by Juan Cole’s line of argument here, simply because people generally were able to produce death certificates:

When people reported deaths, researchers asked them about the cause and obtained death certificates in 92 percent of cases
(Baltimore Sun)

And at the Washington Monthly blog, [Kevin Drum]( adds:

This time around, the figures from their new study buttress the previous one, and also match up with other data, which suggests their methodology is on target.

How reliable is their methodology? Not perfect, but better than anything else available. As far as I can see, the methodology is the same as what they used back in 2004 – see a collection of defences of it [here]( Probably the biggest criticism of the 2004 report was the small sample size. But now, as [Rubicon]( says:

For statistical purposes, the sample size is very large, much larger (for example) than typical national voter polls in the US, which sample about 1,000 to 1,200 individual respondents. If we presume 4 persons per Iraqi household, the sample size is over 7,000 persons—in a country one-twelfth the population of the US. The data-gathering and estimation techniques are quite reliable; according to one of the lead researchers, Gilbert Burnham of Johns Hopkins, “This is a standard methodology that the U.S. government and others have encouraged groups to use in developing countries.”

One likely methodological problem is ‘recall bias’ – that is, the possibility people will have forgotten deaths that happened in the past. This would decrease the figures for pre-war mortality compared to post-war mortality, and so give an inflated count of excess deaths. The issue was raised with the 2004 study, and the longer timescale of the latest report makes it an even bigger issue.
Note: I am updating and amending this entry as I find out more about the study. I haven’t yet made up my mind on how much I believe it – and in any case, I still haven’t seen the report.
Blogs defending the study: [Amptoons](, [mahablog](, [Barista](, [Deltoid]( (not much yet, but likely will have more in time)
Blogs arguing against it (only the ones I think have halfway-decent arguments): [Jay Reding]( No doubt there are more decent arguments against this, but I’ve not been bumping into them much.

October 8th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

Eep! The US is beginning a ‘major operation’ in Kirkuk. Not the kind of place you want Americans blindly wading in.

In Kirkuk, a volatile mixed city in the north, Iraqi and U.S.-led forces launched a major security operation, dubbed “the key to peace,” to root out members of al-Qaeda and other Sunni Arab insurgent groups. Authorities imposed a 6 p.m. curfew and announced the detention of 155 suspected insurgents. (Washington Post)

I hope they know what they’re doing; in particular I’d be worrying about the background of the Iraqi troops, the demographics of who they’re arresting, and generally how much they’re shaking things up 🙁

Revolution-proof fence

October 6th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

Two scary things about the Saudi plan to building a 550-mile fence to shut out Iraq:

  1. It’ll take 5-6 years for them to complete. They reckon things will be bad for a long time
  2. The cost is some £13bn. I know this is a country rolling in money, but still: that’s an awful lot to pay just to keep Iraq’s rebels from getting out.

Now, maybe I’m overreacting. Building protection along a border is normal, and normally expensive. It’s only the Telegraph spin linking this so directly to Iraq. But still, it does suggest that the Saudis are working on an assumption that Iraq is going to end up in civil war within the next few years.

Did the postmen give up?

October 6th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

Looking through Brookings Iraq Index for something else entirely, I came across this baffling table. The amount of post sent each year in Iraq:

Year Tons of mail
2001 148 tons sent (231 received)
2003 37 tons sent
2004 43 tons sent
2005 54 tons sent

Huh? Use of the postal system is a third of what it was under Saddam? Why on earth would that be the case?
Granted, dodgy statistics are the most likely culprit – the figures are sourced to an article in the New York Times, and its quite likely that the Baath figure is dodgy for some reason or other. Odder still: somehow the Times writer interprets the figures as “evidence of recovery“.
Still, it’d be nice to think there’s some mystery in those numbers, waiting to be uncovered.

Lara Logan, journalist with a brain

October 6th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

Parties, and not the government, rule Iraq now

One line that tells you more than most articles, out of an excellent piece of journalism by Lara Logan. It’s also a perfect example of how compelling human interest journalism can be, when it’s done on the basis of a lot of facts, not just telling the story of the first native you meet.
Lara has framed what seem like two of the most important issues in Iraq. The first is the role of parties, mentioned above. The other is this picture of befuddled GIs surrounded by two conflicts they don’t understand:

…American soldiers are bearing the burden of a failed strategy and being forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs, suddenly caught in the midst of two distinct wars: a counter-insurgency and a rapidly escalating sectarian conflict.
And their partners in the counter-insurgency war are participating in the sectarian conflict they’re being asked to stop.

I’d not heard of Lara Logan before, but from here on in I’m reading everything she writes.

A well-regulated militia?

October 4th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

[crossposted to IAG]
A while back the New York Times and the [BBC]( cheerfully reported that 25 Sunni tribes in Anbar had decided to support the Iraqi government in attacking insurgents.
Am I too cynical in thinking that the crucial sentence is this one:

In addition to the government’s blessing, Mr. Rishawi said, the tribes also wanted weapons and equipment to confront the Qaeda-backed insurgents.

Asking for weapons from the government isn’t a sign of loyalty – it’s about getting yourself the equipment to defend yourself against anybody – government, American, jihadi, whatever – who attacks you.
Every Iraqi grouping with an ounce of sense wants to keep itself heavily armed at the moment – and if the kit comes with a vague government permission to use it, so much the better.This isn’t any different from the militias that were incorporated into the various security forces, or the employment of tribes to guard oil pipelines.
Or am I being too cynical?

Al Qaeda: “prolonging the war is in our interest”

October 4th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

This post deserves propagation. Abu Aardvark points out the key sentence in the letter to Zarqawi from al-Qaeda’s central command: “prolonging the war is in our interest“. As he explains, this makes perfect sense: the jihadis are unpopular in Iraq, and they would have no chance at all were the country not under foreign occupation. But while we are in the country, they can use their fight against us to build international support. Yes, that’s been obvious for a long time, but it’s something else to have it confirmed from the horse’s mouth. Full letter [](here), others captured in the same batch [here](

strains of social discord

July 3rd, 2006 § 2 comments § permalink

A good fortnight after everybody else, I’ve finally read through the khalilzad telegram, which makes me realise what a chaotic Mad Max world it is out there in Iraq. Not that I’ve ever seen Mad Max, but the stereotypes fit.

July 3rd, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

Sunni parliamentary boycott in Iraq, to protest a Sunni politician being kidnapped. I don’t much care for boycotts as a tactic, and tend to underestimate their power when used right. This doesn’t seem to be using them right – the kidnappers will no doubt be overjoyed to have indirectly harmed both the Iraqi parliament and Sunni interests in the country. Juan Cole adds:

The announcement is a huge blow to the Maliki government, which had prided itself on presiding over a government of national unity that included the Sunni Arabs. The Iraqi Accord Front has 44 deputies in the 275-member parliament.

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