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The Middle East Perspective - A Year Of Great Changes Is Coming.

*** Bush Is To Visit Israel And Ramallah In January To Give A Further Boost To His Peace Process, Now That The PNA Has Got $7.4 Bn In Dev. & Budget Aid Over 3 Years

*** Hamas Says The Dec. 17 Paris Conference Of International Donors Was A Declaration Of War Against The Islamist Group Which Is Holed Up In The Gaza Strip Under 'Iran/Syria Protection' - A Trap - While Fatah, In Control Over The West Bank, May Not Be Able To Move South After An Israeli Invasion, Unless It Does What The Jewish State Might Dictate

*** The Dec. 3 NIE Contains Two Road-Maps, One For A Deal And The Other For War With Iran

NICOSIA - The year 2007 began with US President George W. Bush deciding to boost American forces in Iraq by 30,000 to over 165,000 to help stabilise a country the Americans invaded in March 2003. In the autumn of 2003, according to a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) issued on Dec. 3, 2007 by 16 US intelligence agencies, the Shi'ite theocracy of Tehran stopped its nuclear weapons programme as American forces then were surrounding Iran - with the US Army in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, its Navy based in Bahrain and its Air Force based in Qatar. The US Central Command, (CentCom), in charge of the Greater Middle East including Afghanistan and Pakistan, also has its local HQ in Qatar.

By end-2007, however, the situation in the Middle East had changed, with Iran leading an axis of anti-US/anti-Israel forces in the region and the US heading an alliance of "moderate" states - mostly Sunni Muslim - in search of a safer environment. Personal security had remained the make-or-break issue for any politician in Israel and the US, while the Iran-led axis had presented itself as a direct threat to this and several other issues. Tehran's nuclear and regional ambitions had made Iran the most dangerous state in the world for the US.

The Iran-led axis embraces the 'Alawite/Ba'thist regime of Syria, the Tehran-sponsored Hizbullah (an offshoot of the Shi'ite theocracy in Lebanon), rival Shi'ite militias in Iraq, and Sunni extremist groups - such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad - heading the rejectionist camp among the Palestinians, and the Neo-Salafi Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda in Iraq. But in Iraq al-Qaeda now is on the run.

By mid-2007, the Iran-led axis had gained four spheres of influence: (1) having enabled Hamas to take control of the Gaza Strip after fierce fighting with its secular rival Fatah, part of the US-alliance; (2) having split Lebanon into two camps - the "March 8 [2005] opposition" led by Hizbullah, which has never regarded Lebanon as a definitive homeland for its Shi'ite community, and the US-backed "March 14 Coalition" which rules the country under Sunni PM Fou'ad Siniora - and the year ended with axis forces blocking the election of a new president who must be a Maronite Christian; (3) having boosted its Shi'ite base in Iraq through unruly militias which until mid-2007 worsened a Sunni-Shi'ite war, one of main causes of Bush's early 2007 "surge" decision; and (4) having enabled the Taliban to sustain a Neo-Salafi insurgency against US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.

By end-2007, the theocracy of Iran had advanced in uranium enrichment despite UNSC sanctions (see news25-Iran-USDec17-07). But, at the same time, a direct US-Iran dialogue towards an accord over security in Iraq - seen as a first step towards a larger deal to cover Tehran's nuclear programme and regional ambitions - has made Israel suspicious that such a pact could endanger its existence. Israel, a key component of the US-led alliance, could potentially become the main spoiler of whatever the the axis intend to do in the four danger zones mentioned above. This could occur in 2008, a year of presidential electioneering in the US in which the powerful Jewish lobby will be more active, or in 2009. Whatever Israel does in 2008/09 will affect energy prices (see omt26-EnergyRev&PerspDec24-31-07).

The US-led alliance in the Middle East covers elements whose importance to Washington is summarised in the following order: Israel; the Kurds of northern Iraq; a weak Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad; a relatively weaker Pashtun-led government in Kabul; a Pakistan led by a military-turned-civilian president - Pervez Musharraf, whose Nov. 3 coup has changed things in a big way, though he lifted a state of emergency on Dec. 15 to prepare for general elections in January; an Islamist government in Turkey having become somewhat equivalent to the Christian Democrats of Europe - having won big in the July 22 polls and now playing a major role in northern Iraq with a US green light (see ood6-IraqTurkeyDec31-07); the Saudi-led GCC (with the exception of Qatar which still keeps ties to Iran and Syria and their allies); Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon's March 14 Coalition and the Beirut government; Fatah and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA); and other Arab states committed to the war on terror.

On the global scale, Russia is re-asserting itself as a big power, while France under new President Nicolas Sarkozy has replaced the UK as a "special mission" ally of the US. Is a new global Cold War imminent? The US alliance and Iran's axis are at war - a cold one.

Iraq remains the top preoccupation for Bush. On Dec. 18, the UNSC extended the mandate of the US-led multinational forces (MNF) in Iraq for another year to end-2008. This was made by the Shi'ite-led government of PM Nuri al-Maliki, but without a formal endorsement from the country's parliament - as required by the constitution - and this could present a potential problem among squabbling politicians in Baghdad. On Dec. 20 Bush said he was not happy with Maliki's continuing inability to bring about reconciliation among Iraq's sectarian, ethnic and ideological groups. Later Bush was said to be disturbed by Maliki's attempts to undermine US-sponsored awakening councils among Shi'ite tribes - attempts inspired by Iran which sees in such ACs a subtle effort to revive centuries-old Arab-Persian suspicions. Shi'ite tribes allied to the Sadrist movement now openly say that these actually are a revival of Arab-Safawid rivalries. Yet Iran is helping the US by keeping a low profile in Iraq, thanks to quiet dialogue between their diplomats (see rim6-Shi'iteSplitDec24-07).

A new Pentagon report out on Dec. 18 says violence across Iraq is down considerably. The report, which assessed a three-month period to end-November, is optimistic about the security situation in Iraq, perhaps one of the more upbeat of the Pentagon's quarterly assessments in more than a year.

Roadside bomb attacks have dropped 68% since June. It says the fall was less pronounced during the holy month of Ramadan but that attacks during that period were below that of 2006 and closer to the number in 2005. The number of high-profile attacks which kill dozens has dropped 62% since March.

Attacks continue to be the highest in Baghdad, which experienced about 27 attacks/day. But violence there has fallen 53% since the last period assessed. Sectarian deaths and "incidents" also fell, even though the US government's assessment of sectarianism has been criticised before for painting too rosy a picture. Deaths fell from 1,000 in July to about 200 in November.

The report says: "In many parts of Iraq, the reopening of schools, clinics, markets, and improvements in essential services all suggest improvements resulting from hard-fought security gains". But military commanders, analysts and other US officials agree no amount of security will create long-term stability if the Iraqi central government does not take advantage of it. The central government has been unable to spend its own money, divvy up Iraq's petroleum resources, or make other political progress. Yet few can argue with the turn-around in Iraq's security. It has generally improved dramatically even in places once written off altogether.

US Army Lt Gen David Petraeus, who took command of the MNF last winter, tweaked the ground strategy, using additional counter-insurgency tactics like mixing US forces with the Iraqi population and conducting more joint operations with the Iraqi troops. Iraqi forces, which now number about 440,000 military and police, are taking more responsibility for the fight, holding their ground and, with logistical and tactical support from US troops, doing more of their security missions. The US government is paying local Iraqis to safeguard their areas. Armed with their own weapons, some are paid $10 a day to man security checkpoints and follow up on leads if outsiders attempt to disrupt the area. US officials hope many of these individuals will be hired by the central government as police or soldiers. Some successful trends began long before the surge. In Anbar province west of Baghdad, al-Qaeda overplayed its hand, terrorising the region and ended up alienating local Sunnis, who then sided with US forces. They have largely driven al-Qaeda out of the most populated areas.

The report says: "Despite these gains, [al-Qaeda] retains the capability to conduct spectacular and highly lethal terrorist attacks in parts of central and northern Iraq". It says the group has turned to a "murder and intimidation campaign" directed at its former Sunni allies with the aim of countering Iraqis who turned against it.

Congress on Dec. 19 passed a spending bill, including $70 bn for US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, ending a months-long standoff with the White House. This is less than half of what is required for Iraq and Afghanistan, and was partial victory for Bush as Democrats abandoned efforts to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and accepted a federal spending limit set by the White House.

Iran, Iraq, the US-led peace process between Israel and the PNA and GCC security form the agenda for Bush's Jan. 8-16 tour of the Middle East. The tour will cover Israel, the West Bank town of Ramallah, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt - all of which, except Kuwait, took part in the Middle East peace conference to which Bush played host on Nov. 27 in Annapolis, Maryland. In Jerusalem, Bush will meet with President Shimon Peres and PM Ehud Olmert. In Ramallah, he will meet with PNA President Mahmoud Abbas and PM Salam Fayyad. Bush will not be the first US president to visit Ramallah; President Bill Clinton was there in 1998 as part of his peace-making efforts. Egypt is the only country on the itinerary Bush has visited before.

Asked whether Bush will engage in detailed negotiating, White House press secretary Dana Perino on Dec. 18 said: "we can let you know as we get closer - whether there will be detailed discussions about concessions [between Israel and the PNA]". She said Bush wanted the leaders to keep their eye on finding a way to achieve a long-term, sustainable peace. She said the trip will be an opportunity to reaffirm US commitment to work with them to combat terrorism and extremism. Perino said she did not think a Bush stop in Iraq will be added, though the White House does not announce such trips in advance anyway for security reasons. Secretary Rice did visit Iraq on Dec. 18 (see rim6-IraqShi'iteSplitDec24-07).

A study out on Dec. 20 by researchers at the US Army's West Point academy says most al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq are Saudi (41%) and Libyan (19%), followed by Syrians and Yemenis (each 8%), Algerians (7%) and Moroccans (6%). Most are aged 24-25 - one aged 15. They entered Iraq largely through Syria.

The study is based on 606 personnel records collected by al-Qaeda in Iraq and captured by coalition troops in October. It includes data on fighters who entered Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007. On a per capita basis, Libyans accounted for the greatest share of foreign fighters entering Iraq. Previous studies found Libyans accounted for a far smaller percentage of foreign fighters in Iraq. It concludes the US military either under-estimated the Libyan contribution of fighters or that the pattern has shifted since a Libyan militant group strengthened ties with al-Qaeda.

The surge in Libyans moving to Iraq may be linked to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group's co-operative relationship with al-Qaeda, which culminated in the LIFG officially joining al-Qaeda on Nov. 3, 2007. The study says: "The incitement of a new generation of jihadis to join the [Neo-Salafi] fight in Iraq, or plan operations elsewhere, is one of the most worrisome aspects of the ongoing fight in Iraq". It says the US should not confuse gains against al-Qaeda's Iraqi franchises as fundamental blows against the network outside Iraq, adding: "So long as al-Qaeda is able to attract hundreds of young men to join its ranks, it will remain a serious threat to global security". Of the 157 fighters who listed an occupation, 43% said they were students. "Universities have become a critical recruiting field for al-Qaeda. About half of the Saudis listed their work in Iraq as "suicide bomber" with the rest as "fighter". Some 85% of the Libyans and 92% of Moroccans listed themselves as suicide bombers. The Combating Terrorism Centre which made the study is part of the West Point academy. The authors said the study reflected their views, not those of the academy, the Pentagon or the US government.
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Dec 24, 2007
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