Iraq’s Forgotten Majority

Original story found here.

WASHINGTON — Last month, President Bush invoked the prospect of a democratic Iraq in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, while Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress that he foresaw “a government of Iraqis governing Iraqis in a democratic fashion.” Yet the administration remains closest to Sunni Arabs, a minority group of Iraqis that has never shared power. This does not bode well for a stable post-Hussein Iraq.

Sunni Arabs, including Saddam Hussein and most Iraqis in the American-backed opposition, account for no more than 16 percent of the Iraqi population; they dominate central Iraq as far south as Baghdad. Ethnic Kurds, who are also Sunni Muslims, make up about 20 percent of Iraq’s population and are concentrated in the mountainous north. But nearly two-thirds of Iraqis are Shi’ite Muslims, and they populate the slums of Baghdad as well as the south of Iraq. Unlike Kurds and others in the northern no-flight zone, who have received a proportionate share of Iraqi revenues under the United Nations-administered oil-for-food program, Iraqis in the vast southern zone have suffered greatly from a decade of sanctions. Saddam Hussein, of course, is entirely willing to let them suffer.

Shi’ite Muslims would be the largest voting bloc in any democratic Iraq. This is why the Bush administration must find a way to integrate them into its Iraq planning, something it has so far failed to do. It is also a principal reason why Saddam Hussein has suppressed Shi’ism. In recent years Saddam Hussein has hand-picked one Shi’ite cleric after another to lead the Shiite community, only to see each one defy him ? and be murdered quickly thereafter. In a shooting spree beginning in 1998, one top Iraqi Shiite cleric after another was gunned down. Iraq’s last grand ayatollah, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, was murdered with his two sons on a road near Najaf. Another powerful cleric, Hussain Bahr al-Uloom, died under mysterious circumstances last year.

It is Shi’ites who have most consistently fought Saddam Hussein since 1991, when Shi’ite clerics called for an uprising. “The Shia uprising in the south was far more dangerous than the Kurdish insurgency in the north,” one eyewitness later reported to the State Department. Although the small and disastrous northern uprising in 1996 had no exact counterpart in the south, a Shi’ite group attacked Mr. Hussein’s eldest son, Uday, that year and crippled him. In 1998 Shi’ite rebels attacked Mr. Hussein’s second in command, Izzat Ibrahim.

American officials have long been reluctant to work with Iraqi Shi’ites out of fear that they might be too close to Iran, where the Shi’ite faith predominates. But Iraqi and Iranian Shi’ites are not as close as it might seem. The Iraqis are Arabs and the Iranians are Persian. They also, with some exceptions, follow very distinct and sometimes hostile forms of Shi’ism: Akhbari in Iraq, Usuli in Iran. [AUTHOR’S NOTE: The scholar Juan Cole commented in reaction to this NYT’s op-ed that the Usuli school is predominant in both contemporary Iran and Iraq, although there are still some practioners of the Akhbari school in Iraq.] Akhbari Shi’ism has never promoted political rule, while the Usuli school produced the politically active caste of priests that is a distinctive feature of Iranian Shi’ism.

Iraqi Shi’ites demonstrated their independence from Iranian Shi’ites in 1980 after Iraq invaded Iran. A Central Intelligence Agency report noted in 1991 that Iraq’s Shi’ites “rejected Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini’s concept of velayat-e faqui (political rule by a supreme religious leader) and remained loyal to Baghdad during the eight-year war with Iran.”

Despite a lack of political connection, Iraq’s most important Shi’ite clerics survive in exile in Iran today. Only in August did Bush administration officials meet with the brother of Shiite leader Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, head of the influential Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is based in Tehran. This is only a small step toward forming a representative anti-Hussein coalition.

For the most part, the Bush administration continues to work with Sunni groups. Among the Iraqi opposition, the State Department is closer to the Iraqi National Accord, while the Defense Department is closer to the Iraqi National Congress. Both groups are dominated by Sunni Arabs (although the president of the congress, Ahmad Chalabi, has a Shi’ite mother). The Iraqi National Congress is far more active in Washington and another congress leader, al-Sharif Ali Bin al-Hussein, in August announced his proposal to restore the Iraqi monarchy, which was installed by Britain in 1921 and lasted just 37 years. The Sunni Arab-led kingdom was never popular with either the Shi’ite majority or the Kurds.

The Bush administration can gain political credibility for its actions on Iraq only by engaging all groups there. Iraqi Shi’ites in exile in London and Tehran are seeking reassurances that, after Saddam Hussein, they would for the first time enjoy their fair share of power. Meanwhile, leaders of the Kurdish minority recently told American journalists that a unified, representative Iraq is what they want. Any viable outcome must also address the concerns of Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Turkey and Iran.

One possibility for a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq is a decentralized state with considerable regional autonomy, including the division of oil revenues to ensure adequate budgets for provincial development. This could be the only way to keep the nation together. But getting there would require talking directly to leaders of all three population groups. No plan will work that does not take into account the nearly two-thirds of Iraqis who are Shi’ites.

Frank Smyth has written frequently on Iraq.

My Spy Story

Original article can be found here.

WASHINGTON – After several days in a prison near Baghdad in 1991, I was told “they” wanted to see me. Blindfolded, I was led into a room where, judging from the voices, there were at least half a dozen men. For days, I had heard and sometimes watched as guards beat and tortured Iraqi prisoners.

The translator asked what my “real job” was. “I’m a reporter” for The Village Voice and CBS News Radio, I said. He translated my response in Arabic. I heard the reply from a man whose voice sounded older and less sympathetic. “You’re lying,” the translator echoed in English. “Tell us about your relationship with the C.I.A.” I had none.
The interrogation lasted two hours. I was not abused. The Iraqis found me guilty of entering their country without a visa: I had admitted sneaking in from Syria after the Persian Gulf war with Kurdish guerrillas who wanted to overthrow President Saddam Hussein. As for the charge of being a C.I.A. agent, I remained “under suspicion,” I was told. A week later, Iraq let me leave.

Last week, a blue-ribbon panel, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, proposed repealing a 19-year policy that prevents C.I.A. agents from posing as representatives of the working press.

Part of the panel’s rationale is that the C.I.A.’s use of American embassies as a cover won’t wash any longer. Skeptical foreign officials, are asking why an embassy that issues relatively few visas has so many consular officials, why the political section has doubled in size or whether that new department is really doing economic research.

The panel director, Richard N. Haass, a former member of the National Security Council, asks whether precluding the use of journalism as a cover “is a luxury the United States can still afford.” (Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, disagrees with the proposal.)

The C.I.A. supposedly terminated the practice in 1977, but last month the agency admitted that the practice has continued–on extraordinarily rare occasions, it says.

If the Iraqis had been aware of this during the war, any of the 47or so journalists picked up and held by authorities might not have come back. (One didn’t: Gad Gross, a freelance photographer, was executed minutes after soldiers captured him.)

If agents began regularly passing themselves off as reporters again, governments around the globe could easily accuse almost any American reporter of being a C.I.A. plant. The burden of proof would fall on the journalist to demonstrate that he or she is not a spy.

The council’s proposal, if adopted, would make it easy for any hostile official who fears inquiries by the foreign press to accuse reporters of being spies. The most probing reporters may well be denied entry or expelled.
The council’s panel concluded that if spooks could get press credentials, the C.I.A. would be more effective. But many academics and policy makers seem to agree that the information available in the media is often as good as, if not better than, that found in classified C.I.A. documents. Aren’t many offices in the Pentagon and elsewhere always tuned to CNN?

Allowing C.I.A. agents to pose as journalists not only needlessly puts reporters at risk but also undermines their ability to report foreign news properly or at all, limiting the information available to policy makers and the public. Instead of rehabilitating this passé cold war practice, the C.I.A. should be ordered to end it for real.

French Guns, Rwandan Blood

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HAWTHORNE, N.J. — The horrendous violence that has seized the tiny African republic of Rwanda is not as random as it looks. For the members of the Akazu, the ruling clan around the late President Juvenal Habyarimana, the only way to retain a 21-year monopoly on power was to kill their enemies as fast as they could. And until yesterday, when anti-Government rebels overran the capital of Kigali, that brutal clique was getting help from an unlikely quarter: France.

Rwanda was a Belgian protectorate until it gained independence in 1962, and until recently it got most of its military aid from Belgium. But Belgian law prohibits any lethal aid to a country at war. In 1975, two years “after he seized power by deposing the President who had appointed him, Mr. Habyarimana signed a military cooperation agreement with France. When the rebel guerrillas of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (harbored and largely armed by neighboring Uganda) invaded in 1990 and again last year, it was France that rushed in combat troops, mortars and artillery to help the Government.

Why France? Rwanda is “nobody’s idea of a choice colonial prize,” as The Economist tartly put it. It has few resources, little industry and a lot of AIDS. Like its neighbor Burundi, it has been torn by decades of ethnic strife between the Hutu and the Tutsi. But French is an official language — even though one in six adults are fluent in it – and that counts for a great deal. France has invested heavily in Francophone Africa and provides military and financial aid to a network of its own former colonies. Mr. Habyarimana was a friend of President Francois Mitterrand.

France’s commitment to the Habyarimana regime was underscored by its recent subsidy of Rwanda’s purchase of $6 million in arms from Egypt. A contract signed in Kigali in 1992 includes a full arsenal of mortars, long-range artillery, plastic explosives and automatic rifles. Payment was guaranteed by the nationalized French bank Credit Lyonnais.

Nor has France had much to say about Rwanda’s atrocious record on human rights. Mr. Habyarimana — who died with the President of Burundi in a suspicious plane crash last week — was a classic despot, ruthless and corrupt. He installed relatives and cronies in key ministries, the army and a paramilitary militia. (This group is known as the Akazu.)

When the rebels, who are largely Tutsi, invaded in 1990, the Akazu incited a policy of ethnic cleansing. Carrying placards of Mr. Habyarimana above their heads, local officials and militiamen organized mobs of agitated Hutu. They killed thousands of Tutsi, while Tutsi killed hundreds of Hutu. Victims were hacked to death with machetes.

Last August, Rwanda and the rebels agreed to end their three-year war, and six months later the President agreed to a transitional government, dividing ministerial posts three ways among the Akazu, Hutu opposition parties led by Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, and Tutsi representatives. Among these groups, the Akazu was the most reluctant to share power.

Hours after the President was killed last Wednesday, his Presidential Guard went on a rampage. They killed Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana, along with Belgian peacekeepers who had tried to save her; most other opposition party members; priests and nuns, journalists and human rights monitors. Militiamen and soldiers under irregular command randomly attacked Tutsi or anyone suspected of being one.

Now the Government forces are in retreat, killing and burning as they flee. If the rebels take control, they have said that they will share power with other parties; the world will have to wait to see.

For now, the horror in Rwanda should serve as a grisly lesson in the dangers of imperial reach. Of 21 French-speaking African regimes, most are dictatorships with scant respect for human rights. In January, when France devalued the currency used by 14 of these nations, it sent a welcome signal that it would cut back its subsidy of their economies. But its military policy lags behind its economic one; in propping up the Rwandan regime for so long, it bears part of the blame for the current bloodbath.