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Archive: September 2008
Daily Column
Ex-Oil Minister Attacks Recent Energy Contracts with Foreign Firms
By AMER MOHSEN 09/28/2008 8:16 PM ET
According to al-Jazeera, at least 29 Iraqis were killed and 90 wounded in a series of explosions that struck Baghdad on Sunday. Three attacks involved car bombs, the authorities said, in addition to several IED attacks.

These attacks are, some observers say, part of a pattern of increasing violence that started in mid-summer. US authorities, on the other hand, are sticking to their narrative of “the success of the surge and the ending of violence in Iraq” and are dismissing the spike in violence as “a mixture of criminality and al-Qa'ida attempts to sabotage normalization,” according to al-Jazeera, quoting US Army statements.

Maintaining an appearance of stability in Iraq, at least for the two coming months, is an obvious necessity for the current US administration, which may explain the over-insistence in US and Iraqi official statements on denying that the current violence reflects ongoing sectarian violence and civil strife. Al-Jazeera quoted US Army spokesmen who pointed out that the current Hijri month of Ramadan is the one to witness the least violence in three years in Iraq. The Chief of the Baghdad Security Plan, Brig. Qasim 'Ata, was cited as blaming the bloody explosions on gunmen “who want to show that there is no security in Baghdad.”

It needs to be pointed out, however, that these appeasing statements contradict the tone of Brigadier 'Ata a mere week ago, when he warned - in dramatic terms - of coming assassinations and attacks, and called on Iraqi citizens to take additional security precautions in their daily activities.

In other news, a letter by the ex-Oil Minister (and current Oil expert) Issam al-Chalabi commenting on the latest foreign oil contracts has been circulating on the Arabic internet. Al-Chalabi headed the Iraqi Oil Ministry in the late 1980s and presided over the massive projects to revitalize the oil industry after the Iran-Iraq war (his efforts were stunted by the 1990 Kuwait invasion, and the destruction of much of the Iraqi infrastructure during Desert Storm.)

Chalabi harshly attacked the recent contracts with foreign companies handed out by the Oil Ministry (including a field development contract with a Chinese firm, and a deal with Anglo-Dutch Shell to collect and manage Iraq’s natural gas production.) Chalabi also said that a new round of contracts is expected to be handed out soon – for some of Iraq’s largest fields – which will transfer control over most of Iraq’s oil wealth to “foreign hands.”

Chalabi insisted that his opposition does not stem from knee-jerk oil nationalism, he acknowledged the need for foreign expertise, but said that the current contracts are politically motivated and not in Iraq’s best interest. He took the example of the Shell contract: Iraqi oil officials had lauded the deal with the foreign company as a necessity to put a stop to the wasteful flaring of Iraqi gas – the assumption being that Iraq lacks the expertise to organize such a project on its own (in the absence of a pipeline network and processing plants, all “associated gas” that flows out of the wells along with oil can only be re-injected into the fields or flared.)

Chalabi countered that Iraq was capable, as early as the 1970s, of designing and building a “massive” gas network, which included liquefaction plants, gas-powered plants and the delivery of energy to Iraqi industries. Such a network was already built and put in operation in 1990, during Chalabi’s tenure.

But the more serious critiques included Chalabi’s assertion that the contract with Shell was signed without an open bidding process, but through direct bilateral negotiations; and that the company will receive, in exchange for its services, “investment rights for 49% of the associated gas produced in the southern fields.”

Other curious irregularities mentioned by Chalabi included the claim that the Council of Ministers approved the Ahdab Field contract without “fully knowing its contents,” and that the contract is yet to be presented to the Parliament. Chalabi, protesting against foreign ownership of national resources, reminded readers that the collection and exploitation of Iraq’s non-associated gas – the project currently undertaken by Shell - was never envisaged when foreign companies, whom he termed “monopolistic,” exploited Iraq’s oil. He wryly noted that, with the current direction of events, the same Western companies that worked in Iraq during the colonial era might return to the very sectors that they operated back then!

Daily Column
Passing of Elections' Law Energizes the Political Scene
By AMER MOHSEN 09/26/2008 7:17 PM ET
Al-Hayat editorialized that “the promulgation of the (provincial) elections law launched a new phase of (political) competition” between Iraqi factions. Once the law was passed earlier this week, and elections set (in the “Arab” provinces) at a date no later than the end of January 2009, major Iraqi parties realized that they were all facing a crucial test of popularity, which will likely result in the extinction of several “major” political movements.

Many observers doubt the results and legitimacy of the 2005 Parliamentary elections on several grounds: they were held under conditions of direct occupation and social turmoil, pro-US factions (which had better access to the occupation authorities) were at an advantage, many of the candidates and parties were foreign to the Iraqi public and large sections of the Iraqi society boycotted the elections on principle.

The coming provincial elections, however, will be held under different conditions: five years of political squabbles have engendered a new political culture in Iraq. Much of the population is politicized and political affiliations are no longer reduced to sectarian fears – the major political contests are expected to take place within the Shi'a and Sunni camps, as opposed to frenetic Shi'a-Sunni competition over representation, which was the hallmark of the 2005 legislatives.

Al-Hayat reported that al-Hakeem’s SIIC is already rushing to announce new electoral alliances. The SIIC is among the most-represented parties in the Parliament, and is currently the major pillar of the pro-government I'tilaf bloc. Officials in the party told al-Hayat that “the coming days” will witness negotiations with various parties to join the SIIC lists in the provinces. SIIC leader 'Abd al-Kareem al-Naqeeb claimed that “much time was wasted” with negotiations over the Elections’ Law, which prevented his party from preparing properly for the coming contest.

A pro-Ja'fari politician, Falih al-Fayyad, contradicted al-Naqeeb - asserting that alliances and negotiations pertaining to the elections have been in the works “for months,” since all parties “had prior knowledge of the elections’ date, even before the formal issuance of the law.”

Az-Zaman, on the other hand, focused on the perceived lacunas in the law, especially in what pertains to religious and ethnic minorities. One of the major features of the current law is that it does not include a “minorities’ quota,” as in past electoral contests. Previous election laws guaranteed a certain number of seats to smaller Iraqi minorities (Chaldean and Assyrian Christians, Yazeedis, Zaraostrians etc...,) a measure that was removed from the current law.

Az-Zaman said that Iraq’s minority communities reacted with “popular anger” to the new law. Areas heavily inhabited by those minorities, especially in Nineveh and Sinjar, saw their political representation vanish among the Kurdish-Arab power-sharing deals, the paper said.

As often, Az-Zaman accused Iran of being somehow responsible for the controversial policies, alluding that “the Iranian model” in governance “is being widely cloned” by Iraqi institutions.

Lastly, al-Hayat reported that three additional members of the Iraqi De-Ba'thification committee were arrested by US troops in recent days. The Committee’s director, 'Ali al-Lami, was arrested last month by US troops and was accused of using his position to provide death squads with targets.

The Committee issued a statement today denouncing the arrests and claiming that US forces did not have the legal right to arrest the employees and intervene in the functioning of Iraqi institutions. The statement did not refer to the charges made against its director and employees.

Daily Column
Ex-IAF Comrades Now Entagled in Conflict, Officials Predict Assassinations
By AMER MOHSEN 09/24/2008 4:38 PM ET
According to the Arab media, the Iraqi Parliament has succeeded in passing a Provincial Elections’ Law, with a stipulation that the elections should be held in most Iraqi provinces by the end of January 2009. Frustratingly, media outlets had scarce information on the law or the debates that preceded the vote (journalists are apparently not allowed to attend the sessions) and relied on insider accounts that were not always consistent.

Both al-‘Arabiya and al-Jazeera said that the law was passed by a large majority (191 MPs out of 275 according to al-Jazeera,) which indicates that a consensus between most major blocs was reached; but both outlets also mentioned an interesting fact about the law: four Iraqi provinces – all in Kurdistan, in addition to Kirkuk’s province, Ta’meem – are excluded from the effects of the law, especially in what regards the deadline for holding local elections.

Observers expected the final draft to include special provisions for Kirkuk (and, likely, a postponement of the elections in the troubled city,) but the exclusion of the Kurdish provinces indicates a political and institutional rift that has been growing between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq.

Al-Mada also reported on the passing of the law, but avoided mentioning the Kurdistan exception, contenting to quote Iraqi MPs who expressed relief over the final outcome.

Al-Quds al-'Arabi, on the other hand, focused in its headlines on the exclusion of Kurdistan’s three provinces (where elections are expected to be held at a later date,) while al-Jazeera hinted that President Talabani may still use the “Presidential veto” against the draft – which he already did with an earlier rendition of the law. The Qatar-based news channel added that “the United States wants to organize the elections at the earliest date possible,” since they will be an opportunity for the US to reconnect with Sunni Arabs who boycotted the 2005 elections and remained outside the political system.

On the same topic, Az-Zaman described a verbal altercation that took place during the session between two leaders who once represented the same bloc: the Sunni IAF. Quoting an Iraqi news agency, the paper said that Mahmud al-Mashhadani, the Parliament Speaker, went towards Zafir al-'Ani – who did not vote in favor of the law – and told him: “so, you’ve become a new 'Aflaqi? You don’t vote for the law?” ('Aflaqi: in reference to Michel 'Aflaq, the historic founder of the Ba'th Party.) Al-'Ani allegedly muttered in response: “better than Ahmadinejad;” in a hint to alleged links between Mashhadani and Tehran. The paper pointed that al-'Ani was among several IAF figures that left the group in recent months and intend to form a new coalition before the elections.

In other news, Az-Zaman reported that rumors regarding "mysterious assassinations" in Iraq were confirmed by official statements warning citizens in Baghdad “of a wave of special groups that infiltrated (the country) from Iran with the aim of executing planned and random executions.” The tone and description may seem awkward, coming from officials who are supposed to reassure and warn the public responsibly, rather than issue such broad (and clearly political) warnings – especially on the eve of the 'Eid holiday.

In any event, the comments came during a US-Iraqi press conference where the leader of the “Baghdad Security Plan,” Brig. 'Atta asked Iraqis to remain alert and “search their cars” for explosives- noting a spike in assassinations in recent weeks.

‘Atta’s US counterpart in the conference, a US Army spokesman, added that the proliferation of assassinations was attributable to the “infiltration of Special Groups” from Iran in recent days. The paper insinuated that the alleged pro-Iranian groups were responsible for the assassination of the Iraqi journalists in Mosul and several attacks that targeted media and political figures in recent days.

Daily Column
July 22nd Arab MPs Coalesce into a New Political Force, Paper Says
By AMER MOHSEN 09/23/2008 10:08 PM ET
Az-Zaman’s editors chose a politically-charged photo for today’s front page: A smiling Jalal Talabani exchanging pleasantries with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, at the opening of the UN General Assembly in New York. Az-Zaman’s readership tends to be Sunni, urban and often distrustful of Iranian influence and the links between Iraqi leaders and the Tehran regime.

Al-Mada, on the other hand, reported extensively on Talabani’s New York visit, but with a completely different emphasis. Pro-Talabani al-Mada told readers in the headline that “Talabani has met with a group of World leaders.” The article itself, however, only spoke of Talabani’s scheduled meeting with Sarah Palin, and his meeting on Monday with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon.

The Multinational Force is currently authorized to operate in Iraq under a UN Chapter VII Resolution, which is renewed yearly. The assumption was that a US-Iraq Security Treaty would be signed in the current year allowing the Iraqi government to dispose of the UN legal umbrella and request the non-extension of the mandate. Iraq would become formally “independent” with its government (in theory) operating with no foreign supervision. Al-Mada hinted – quoting “political sources” – that Talabani may request the ending of the UN mandate in the near future, but the paper also cited the Foreign Minister as saying that the US-Iraq SOFA negotiations remain stalled.

The Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hushyar Zibari, said that the US offered “immense concessions” to reach an agreement with Iraq, but that negotiations are yet to reach a happy conclusion. Zibari claimed that “certain obstacles” remain in the way of a final deal, without specifying.

On the legislative front, al-Hayat reported that the Parliament has failed – yet again – to pass a Provincial Elections’ law due to acute differences between the Arab and Kurdish blocs. This time, however, the Pan-Arab paper did not feign optimism or claim that a consensus was in the works; instead, al-Hayat affirmed that differences in the Parliament run deep, and spoke of a new force in the Parliament: “the July 22nd bloc.”

It was in July 22nd that Arab MPs from varying blocs (pro and anti- government – but mostly from the opposition) voted in favor of an Elections’ Law that went against the wishes of the President and the two main Kurdish parties. The realization that the government parties no longer controlled the Parliamentary majority shook the Iraqi political scene, causing a legislative hiatus since July 22nd. The President has vetoed the law, an act that the July 22nd MPs dubbed as “unconstitutional,” and Kurdish MPs are now charging that their Arab colleagues are intentionally preventing the passing of an alternative draft of the law in order to extract further concessions from the Kurds.

Al-Hayat spoke of a nascent “July 22nd bloc,” whose influence may extend to further issues such as the SOFA treaty (which will have to be approved by the Parliament) and the Oil and Gas Law. The price of the executive losing Parliamentary majority, however, is legislative paralysis. The self-described “July 22nd Forces” may have the power to block any laws presented by the Prime Minister, but they will not be able to enact their own policies with the executive vetoing their proposals.

Also in al-Hayat, the paper reported that a pro-US "Awakening" militia leader was killed by mistake by US troops in the Salah al-Deen province. According to US Army sources, the leader of the Siniya Awakening was killed when the American forces raided an area close to his residence. Ironically, the raid was ordered in response to an IED attack that had targeted the local Awakening force earlier that day, injuring a fighter.

Daily Column
US, Iraqi Government Still Incapable of Producing Skillful Propaganda
By AMER MOHSEN 09/22/2008 11:26 PM ET
Iraq news was relatively scarce today, but a worrisome trend was recorded by several papers: a steady increase in political assassinations and attacks with “unexpected” targets. For example, al-Hayat said that a bomb exploded in front of the headquarters of al-Bayyna newspaper, in central Baghdad. The interesting bit is that al-Bayyna is the unofficial mouthpiece of Hizbollah- Iraq, a radical Shi'a group that is often mentioned among the “Special Groups” that the US accuses of conducting armed attacks against Coalition forces.

The attack against al-Bayan comes a mere week after the killing of four journalists in Mosul that worked for an anti-government station, and a day after an attack targeting the Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate. From Basra, al-Hayat reported on a marked rise in “organized assassinations” in the city, which were crowned with the killing of a major Mahdi Army leader in southern Iraq last week. The victim, 'Uday al-Zamil, led the Mahdi Army militia in the city of Samawa, and – according to security sources – the assassination took place less than a week after al-Zamil’s “return” from Iran, where he was residing for the last months.

Illegal armed militias such as the Mahdi Army or Hizbollah-Iraq are usually mentioned in relation to assassinations as “potential culprits,” which makes it surprising to hear of so many attacks where the armed Sadrists are, in fact, the victims. As is well-known, the Mahdi Army is locked in intense conflicts: with the government Shi'a parties, the Wahhabi extremists, the Coalition Forces- not to mention inner rivalries. Some Mahdi Army practices have also garnered personal enmities: a Basra police official attributed many of the recent assassinations to “tribal, personal and financial reasons.” Is there, however, an organized campaign targeting the organization? Some Sadrist officials have already hinted at the possibility, blaming the government for not providing security to its citizens.

In other news, the Lebanese al-Akhbar daily indicated that the US SOFA negotiating team is due to return to Baghdad in the coming days to resume negotiations over the Security Agreement. According to the paper, the thorny issue of “legal immunity” for US soldiers had placed the talks on hold for the last week.

The paper also said that the Iraqi Parliament has failed – yet again – to pass the provincial elections’ law. Tuesday’s session could not even be held, al-Akhbar said, due to lack of quorum.

Lastly, Az-Zaman (Iraq edition) exhibited – on its front page – a glaring example of why US propaganda (or “efforts to win hearts and minds”) in the Middle East is so ineffective. As was previously reported in this column, Iraqi and Arab papers often carry political ads supportive of the Iraqi government or Coalition troops. In most cases, the ads do not mention their sponsors, but their frequency and the prime advertisement space that they occupy indicate that they are financed and directed by a resourceful organization.

The front page of Az-Zaman today carried a large ad with a message lionizing the Iraqi Army. The Army logo was displayed with the background of the Iraqi flag (“Saddam”’s flag, not the current official one!) fronted by an Iraqi Army HUMVEE (also adorned with the old flag) and – in the center – what appears to be the professional “oath” of Iraqi soldiers. The problem, however, is that the “oath” was clearly written in English (or another foreign language,) and badly translated into a weak, faulty Arabic. A term like “my superiors” was translated into – literally – “those who are above me;” several stylistic mistakes were also present in the three-liner. After five years of nation-building, the Iraqi state is still incapable of producing its own propaganda!

Daily Column
"Special Groups" Allegedly "Returning" from Iran,High-Level Officer Assassinated
By AMER MOHSEN 09/21/2008 6:11 PM ET
Az-Zaman today focused – in both its editions – on the statement by an Iraqi provincial Police Chief to the effect that “special groups” trained in Iran “have begun trickling back” into Iraq, and are already executing attacks against Coalition forces and other targets.

The paper spoke to Brig. Sabah al-Fatlawi who leads the Police force in Dhi Qar province (bordering Iran.) Al-Fatlawi claimed that Iraqi militiamen that have been trained in Iran over the last months are returning to Iraq in groups of ten through the city of 'Amara. Quoting “intelligence reports,” al-Fatlawi said that 20 explosive-laden motorbikes have already been smuggled into his province’s cities, and are likely to be used in attacks against Iraqi political leaders.

The Police Chief did not provide material evidence to support his claims, but said that his department has already taken measures to arrest suspicious vehicles and motorbikes. He also attributed a recent explosion in the city of Nasiriya to the “death squads,” alluding that a bomb-laden car driven by insurgents accidently exploded. It is near-impossible to assess the credibility of Az-Zaman’s front-page report, but the story maps out to claims repeatedly made in the paper regarding an alleged “program” in Iran to train ex-Mahdi Army fighters and re-organize them into a more disciplined militia.

Also in Az-Zaman, the paper relayed recent statements by ex-Prime Minister Ayad 'Allawi – who has been seeking an opportunity to return to the political center-stage. 'Allawi said that, in his recent visit to Washington, he advised the “Americans” to “consider an alternative to the Security Agreement;” alluding that the SOFA will not be signed. 'Allawi also called for a reconsideration of the government structure, stating that he might withdraw from the “Political Council for National Security,” dubbing it “a failure.” The Political Council was founded to group Iraq’s main leader to debate and decide on important national issues.

In al-Hayat, the paper said that a Parliamentary session on Monday may finally pass the Provincial Elections’ Law, which has been stalled in the Parliament for months due to Arab-Kurdish disagreements (the elections were originally scheduled to be held this September.) After failing repeatedly to agree on a common draft, the paper said that Iraqi MPs tasked two different committees with the writing of a “final” draft that will be presented to the Parliament today (Monday.)

Lastly, al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera reported that “a high-ranking Iraqi security official” was killed in an attack today. The victim was Gen. 'Adil 'Abbas (who, according to al-Jazeera, works in the criminal investigation unit in Baghdad.) 'Abbas’ car was reportedly ambushed by gunmen as he was leaving his home in al-'Adl district.

Daily Column
Gulf Widens between Arab and Kurdish Blocs, Ethnic Tensions in Mosul
By AMER MOHSEN 09/19/2008 7:52 PM ET
Yesterday, US airplanes bombed a target in the town of Dur, in whose environs Saddam was found and captured in 2003, killing seven to eight individuals. Like countless similar incidents over the last five years, two completely different narratives emerged to describe the raid, the chain of events and the identity of the victims.

According to US Army spokesmen, the target was an al-Qa'ida group barricaded in a home. US helicopters were sent to level the house, resulting – according to the US sources – in the death of “four suspects” and three women and an injured child “who is presently being treated in a US base,” al-Jazeera said. The US Army spokesman claimed that the house was encircled and that – for over an hour – the suspects were asked to surrender and leave the home before the air raid was ordered. He expressed regret over the death of civilians and saw it as further evidence of al-Qa'ida “endangering the lives of innocents.”

A completely different version, however, emerges from the “Iraqi side”: locals, eye-witnesses and the Iraqi Police. Neighbors interviewed by al-Jazeera said that the raid resulted in eight victims, all from the same family, and that the house was never searched or raided beforehand. According to ‘Abd al-Kareem Ibraheem, a relative of the victims, “US forces imposed a security ring around the home of Hasan 'Ali Hasan at two in the morning, then helicopters proceeded to bomb the house.” Ibraheem, a neighbor who lives 50 meters from the targeted house, said that policemen and paramedics extracted the bodies of the family, adding that the son (28 years) was a policeman.

In other news, al-Hayat reported that the Iraqi Parliament has failed – once more – to pass the Provincial Elections’ law, which casts further doubts on the elections’ being held on time. Today’s was the fifth attempt, al-Hayat said, and Kurdish and Arab blocs remain unable to find a compromise.

A political analysis in the same paper warned that the Kirkuk impasse (and by transition, the Elections’ Law) is threatening to break up the Kurdish-Shi'a alliance and increase racial tensions in Iraqi politics.

New fault lines are appearing in the Parliament, al-Hayat said, with Sunni and Shi'a Arab parties coming together against an entrenched Kurdish bloc, which threatens to transform the “sectarian divide” into an “ethnic divide,” the paper opined. Spokesmen of the Kurdistan Coalition told the paper that, despite the differences with the Shi'a I'tilaf over Kirkuk, “Kurdish-Shi'a relations remain strong.” An informal alliance between the two mainstream Kurdish parties and the Shi'a I'tilaf garnered a clear majority in the Parliament and effectively ruled the country for the last three years.

The thorniest issues separating Arab and Kurdish parties, al-Hayat said, are federalism and the “contested regions.” Kurdish politicians insist that the “Blue Line” (set by the US in 1991, delimiting the borders of autonomous Kurdistan) does not represent the final borders of Iraqi Kurdistan, and that several regions (such as Kirkuk) should be affiliated with the federal Kurdish entity. Determining the legal status of these contested regions could take decades, but in many cases, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have already taken possession of these parts, and have been administering them largely as part of Kurdistan.

In its recent push to assert its authority, the central government has requested that Peshmerga forces withdraw behind the Blue Line – per the Iraqi constitution – and hand over these regions to the government forces. The request quickly became a hot issue for both the Kurdish and Arab public opinions, with ethnic tensions rising accordingly.

Az-Zaman spoke to a Kurdish MP who asserted that Peshmerga forces are present in the city of Mosul, and that their presence is “legal and necessary.” The MP, Sami al-Azroushi, added that parts of Mosul’s province should be affiliated with Kurdistan, but not Mosul city itself. Al-Azroushi was responding to Usama al-Najeefi, an Arab Mosul MP, who has been calling for evacuating the Peshmerga from the city, warning that the presence of the Kurdish milita could lead to dangerous ethnic clashes.

Mosul is indeed a sensitive city, neighboring Kurdistan but “fanatically Arab” – according to some historians – it was traditionally known for sympathizing with Arab nationalist tendencies (which led to violent ethnic-political clashes in 1959-60.) A significant proportion of the city’s population is Kurdish, nonetheless – and with the 2003 invasion, Kurdish militia units quickly moved in to secure Kurdish neighborhoods. They remain there today despite the Iraqi constitution expressly prohibiting any presence of the Peshmerga outside the Kurdistan Region.

Daily Column
Is Maliki Postponing the Signing of SOFA? Sunni Leader Placed on Terrorism List
By AMER MOHSEN 09/17/2008 8:25 PM ET
Kull al-'Iraq
Kull al-'Iraq
Contrary to earlier statements by Iraqi officials who confidently asserted that the Provincial Elections’ law will be smoothly passed today, Iraqi and Arab media is reporting that the parliament could not agree on a draft, and that “acute arguments” took place in the session between Kurdish MPs on one hand, and Arab and Turokman representatives on the other.

Kurdish parties had agreed to a four-point UN-brokered proposal to stabilize the situation in Kirkuk. Arab MPs requested some alterations to the text – Parliamentary sources told al-Jazeera, which met the rejection of Kurdish representatives, who saw the Arab request as constituting “essential modifications” to the original UN proposal. According to a Fadhila MP, the main points that were advanced by the Arab blocs centered on the fixing of a specific date for the “sharing of power” between Kirkuk’s factions, in addition to a mechanism allowing for “collective decision-making” on the part of the committees charged with executing the proposal.

Az-Zaman, meanwhile, hinted that the Kurdish parties were to blame for the delay. The paper – whose audience tends to be passionately pro-Arab on Kirkuk – presented the Parliamentary controversy as “Kurdish protests” blocking the “consensus” of the majority in the Parliament (which happens to be Arab.) The Speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani was quoted as saying that the Kurdistan Alliance consented to the new draft at the end, while Usama al-Najeefi proclaimed that “all the blocs in the Parliament accepted the modifications except for the Kurdistan Alliance.” Al-Najeefi accused the Kurdish Parties of “refusing any legal commitments or timetables” regarding the application of Kirkuk’s UN-brokered Accord.

On its front-page, Az-Zaman focused on the SOFA agreement (remember SOFA? It was supposed to be signed weeks ago) with a headline quoting Maliki: “Dangerous obstacles prevent the signing of the Security Agreement with the Washington.” Maliki told the national TV station that major differences still split the Iraqi and US sides regarding the Security Agreement: “we have stopped at important questions, we consider them to be essential and they consider them to be essential.”

These statements should be read against the background of multiple reports claiming that Maliki has decided to postpone the signing of any permanent Security Agreement with the US until the current Administration leaves office. In the US, many analysts are concerned with the effect of Maliki’s reluctance on the upcoming Presidential Elections and speculate that the delay in the treaty will adversely affect the Republican candidate. Some even go as far as blaming the delay on a secret Obama-Maliki deal.

But it should not be forgotten that Maliki also has his own agenda and interests, that he will face major risks for signing the agreement (any agreement with the US;) and that, most importantly, it might be simply irrational – from Maliki’s perspective – to sign SOFA right now: he is aware that the coming administration might sharply change course on Iraq (rendering any current promises nil,) and that he could negotiate a better deal with the new President if he simply waited a few more months. In addition, Maliki is clearly betting that the White House will not attempt to replace him at the current moment, and risk major instabilities in Iraq during the height of the Presidential campaigns. Lastly, Iraqi papers reported on the US Treasury designation of several individuals and entities as “fueling violence in Iraq.” Kull al-‘Iraq focused on the inclusion of Sunni leader Harith al-Dhari, who was accused of being directly linked to several attacks against Coalition Forces and Iraqi government forces. According to Az-Zaman, however, Dhari’s organization found the US decision to freeze his funds “humorous,” adding that Dhari has “no money in foreign or Arab banks,” adding “if they found anything, they are permitted to take it.”

In addition to Dhari, Mish'an Juburi and his Damascus-based TV channel were placed on the same list. It should be pointed that Juburi was one of the early allies of the US in Iraq, and he repeatedly claimed after the invasion that he had a major role in handing Mosul over to the US forces peacefully. Two other Iraqis and an Iranian accused of assuming leading roles in the insurgency were also included in the list.

Daily Column
Damascus Appoints first Baghdad Ambassador since 1980, Kirkuk Impasse Resolved?
By AMER MOHSEN 09/16/2008 5:43 PM ET
Several important headlines from Iraq today: the most important item was Syria’s appointment of an Ambassador in Iraq, the first since 1980. Relations between Syrian and Iraqi Ba'thists have been strained since the 1960’s, but the feud took a new life with Saddam Husain and Hafiz al-Asad. Since 1979, each regime worked – more or less openly – to topple the other, with Damascus hosting (and training and arming) large numbers of Saddam’s opponents (Jalal Talabani carried a Syrian passport at one point, and Maliki took refuge in Syria for years) and Saddam reciprocating and offering refuge and support for Asad’s enemies.

The Iran-Iraq war took the conflict to a higher level, with Syria supporting (and according to some sources, aiding) Khomeini’s Iran – Saddam’s archenemy. At several points in the 1980s, analysts believed that a war between Syria and Iraq was imminent, with several instances of border clashes and rhetorical venom between the two regimes. For many years, Syrian passports were issued by the state with a special instruction in the document “banning” the passport holder from visiting Iraq.

Today, al-Jazeera said that Damascus is recommencing its diplomatic ties with Baghdad, which comes at the heels of major “openings” on the part of Arab regimes towards Iraq’s government – the channel added. The Ambassador – Nawaf al-Faris – is an ex-officer and high-ranking Ba'thi official, he hails from the Deir al-Zur province in Eastern Syria, which was historically known for having strong ties with Iraq.

In other news, Az-Zaman claimed that the Provincial Elections’ debacle will be resolved by tomorrow, after an agreement was reached over a new Elections’ Law draft, with Arab and Kurdish parties agreeing to postpone the thorny Kirkuk elections for the time being and hold elections in the rest of Iraq according to a unified format.

The paper quoted “parliamentary sources” who said that the four-point agreement regulating Kirkuk’s status will be presented to the Parliament Tuesday and, following Parliamentary approval, the Elections’ Law shall be passed “today” (Wednesday.)

Meanwhile, al-Hayat provided an account of the Parliamentary session where Iraqi MPs voted to strip Mithal Allusi of his immunity following a visit he made to Israel (most mainstream Iraqi papers remained muted on the entire affair.) According to the paper, “a physical altercation” took place between Allusi and 'Abd al-Kareem al-'Anzi, a representative of the Da'wa Party – the Iraqi Branch (not to be confused with Maliki’s Da'wa.)

Unofficial Iraqi websites carried more details of the session’s events, with reports of al-'Anzi punching Allusi in the face after a verbal exchange, causing Allusi to fall and “lose consciousness” according to reports collected by the Iraqi al-Badeel website (anti-government, anti-US.)

According to al-Hayat, Allusi charged that many of “Iran’s agents in leadership positions” have visited Israel in secret. But the altercation with al-'Anzi reportedly happened when Allusi “began harshly attacking religious figures,” which prompted al-'Anzi to attack his colleague.

In an interview with al-Hayat, Allusi claimed that Iran stands behind his prosecution, pointing that his first visit to Israel in 2005 elicited little opposition, adding that he “achieved good results” in the 2005 elections. In fact, Allusi’s party received only one seat in those elections (in Najaf,) but, as al-Hayat pointed out, he did better than his previous leader, Ahmad Chalabi – whose list could not obtain a single seat (Chalabi had expelled Allusi from his party following his 2005 visit.)

In Az-Zaman (London edition,) sources in the North Oil Company affirmed that the recent halt of oil exports from Kirkuk was due to a bomb that destroyed the pipeline last Wednesday. With Kirkuk out of commission and southern oil exports sharply declining (due to a storm, officials said,) Iraq’s oil exports have been slashed to less than a half of the usual 2 million barrels per day.

Lastly, al-Jazeera said that Kuwait’s Parliament is unlikely to approve the extinguishing of Iraq’s foreign debt to Kuwait. Kuwaiti MPs interviewed by the news channel affirmed that “memories” of the 1990 Kuwait invasion still mark the stance of Kuwaitis towards Iraq, others added that Iraq should be able to afford paying the 15-16 Billion Dollars, most of which originating from the large Kuwaiti loans offered to Saddam during his war with Iran.

Daily Column
Killing of Four Journalists Elicits Wide Condemnation, Cholera Spreads North
By AMER MOHSEN 09/14/2008 6:36 PM ET
The assassination of four journalists in Mosul occupied the headlines of Az-Zaman. The victims worked for al-Sharqiya satellite channel (based in Dubai, and an affiliate of the same company that owns Az-Zaman) and were in the process of shooting a television show when they were kidnapped and killed by unknown gunmen.

The motives behind the assassination are not clear, and it remains to be seen whether Al-Sharqiya was specifically targeted because of its politics and its owners’ affiliations. Az-Zaman said that wide condemnations followed the attack, including the President and Prime Minister al-Maliki – who announced that an investigation will be launched to determine the culprits.

Az-Zaman (in both editions) made sure not to launch specific accusations or even allude to specific conflicts that pit the media company against members of the government and factions of the insurgency. In the Iraqi edition, the paper said that “obscurantist forces” committed the attack – a term that usually refers to extremist religious groups. In the London edition javascript:insertAtCursor(document.main.body,'','');of Az-Zaman, however, the paper described al-Sharqiya as “(a channel) that is marked by independence and (an effort to) expose the defaults within government institutions ... and reveal the (instances of) corruption and (government) laxness with the militias of religious parties and sectarian power-sharing deals.”

Also in , the paper announced that the Cholera disease that has struck several Iraqi provinces in recent weeks has “gone out of control.” The paper described hospitals “overflowing” with Cholera patients in the hardest-hit provinces of Babil and Karbala. Parliamentary sources were also quoted to the effect that deaths from the disease have exceeded 1000. Even worse, reports indicate that the disease has been spreading into new areas to the North, including Diyala and Najaf.

Meanwhile, intensive political maneuvers are occurring to assign blame for this flagrant failure of the public health system. The government’s opponents are accusing the authorities of “misguiding public opinion” by hiding (or dismissing) early reports of Cholera outbreaks and of lying about casualty figures.

The spokesman of the Health Ministry, meanwhile, accused local councils of causing the outbreak by not using water purification equipments that were allegedly distributed to them by the central government.

In other news, reported that – following his recent visit to Israel – MP Mithal Allusi will be stripped of his immunity and banned from leaving the country by the Iraqi Parliament. A “Parliamentary source” told the news channel that the House of Representatives will instruct the Judiciary to prosecute Allusi.

Israel remains an enemy state according to Iraqi law, which (like most Arab countries) considers dealings with the Hebrew State to be a criminal offense. However, Allusi is claiming that the flurry of attacks that faced him result from his criticism to Iran and not the mere visit.

In Israel, Allusi called for a regional alliance – led by the US – against Iran, which he identified as the source of all the region’s “disasters.” In pro-Saudi, anti-Iranian Elaph, an interview with Allusi was published where the MP charged: “they punish me because I attacked Iran.”

Allusi remarked that after his first visit to Israel, three years ago, the major political blocs muttered little protest “and they all welcomed me and did not protest the incident.” The fact that his recent visit included a harsh attack against Iran is, according to Allusi, the source of the current outrage. Allusi also claimed that he did not call for war against Iran and did not speak in Israel as a representative of the Iraqi state.

Daily Column
Iraqi MP Calls - From Israel - for a Regional Alliance Against Iran
By AMER MOHSEN 09/12/2008 6:50 PM ET
According to al-Jazeera, a major explosion in the town of Dujail (North of Baghdad) led to the death of 31 Iraqis, in one of the most violent attacks in months. According to the news channel, a bomb-laden car exploded in front of the Police headquarters – which also borders a busy market. Iraqi officials said that the victims were both policemen and civilians.

In other news, Mithal al-Allusi, an Iraqi MP and politician who assumed top positions in the De-Ba'thification committee, is currently visiting Israel according to al-Hayat – for the second time. Al-Allusi created a flurry of protests after his first visit and suffered the wrath of armed groups: two of his sons were assassinated, and he escaped several attempts himself. When the 2005 elections took place, Allusi’s list received a single seat in the Parliament, which he currently occupies.

This time, Iraqi officials are joining the band of critics in showing outrage over Allusi’s links with Israel; especially that – according to an Iraqi law that remains unchanged – Israel is considered an enemy state and any dealings with it are criminalized. Usama al-Najeefi (an MP in 'Allawi’s party) called Allusi’s visit “a transgression of all limits and red lines and a provocation towards the feelings of Iraqis and Arabs.”

Sadrist MP, Naseer al-'Isawi, was harsher, dubbing Allusi’s actions “a treason to the Iraqi people that he represents.” An I'tilaf MP, one the other hand, called for “quick parliamentary action to question Allusi and make him accountable for visiting Tel Aviv and attempting to denigrate (Iraq’s) relations with an important neighboring country.”

The reference here is, of course, to Iran. One of the main statements made by Allusi during his Israel visit (according to the Jerusalem Post) was his call for a regional alliance (made up of the US, Iraq, Israel, Jordan and Kuwait) against Iran whom he called “the epicenter of catastrophes in the region.” After returning to Iraq, Allusi called for an extreme version of Iraqi nationalism (in many ways similar to the Ba'th’s notion of Arabism – but limited to Iraq,) arguing for Iraq’s need to develop with equal independence from its Arab and Persian neighbors.

Allusi’s designation of Iran as the main reason for Iraq’s troubles (he said in a lecture that Iran perpetually interferes in Iraqi affairs and has exploited the US wars to develop its nuclear program) marks a new turn in his career. His presence in Israel (whose government has a clear interest to agitate against Iran) may also explain the extreme rhetoric – after all, his proposed “coalition” is mere fantasy.

But his agitation against Iran may also explain the amount of flak that he has been receiving from Iraqi politicians – especially from Shi'a parties that are interested in keeping good relations with Tehran (i.e. all Shi'a parties.)

Meanwhile, Az-Zaman focused on Iraqi protests – especially from Sunni parties – against a recent visit by the UN Secretary General Envoy Staffan di Mistura to Tehran, where he allegedly discussed the thorny matter of Kirkuk and “contested territories” with Ayatollah Khamena'i.

The paper said that several Iraqi parties have considered Di Mistura’s visit – and his discussion of domestic matters with the Iranian leadership – as a sign of “impartiality” and evidence of “Iranian interference” in Iraqi affairs.

According to both editions of Az-Zaman, Iraqi Parliamentarians have presented a memo to the UN General Secretary to replace Di Mustira.

Lastly, al-Jazeera said that Ayatollah Sistani, a major figure of the traditional Shi'a clergy in Iraq, has called for a quick passing of the Provincial Elections’ law. It is not clear what prompted Sistani (who often claimed a certain distance from daily politics) to make such a statement, which is obviously meant to push Shi'a MPs to vote for a new rendition of the law that is being currently floated. But the Ayatollah has been increasingly used (especially by pro-government parties) to boost their religious and “Iraqist” credentials. In the last months, Sistani has noticeably increased his meetings with politicians – both Iraqis and foreigners.

Daily Column
Assassination of Culture Official Prompts Wide Debate
By AMER MOHSEN 09/10/2008 9:27 PM ET
A few weeks ago, an assassination in Baghdad took the life of a high-level official in the Ministry of Culture: Iraqi academic Kamil Shayya'. Little interest was given to Shayya’s assassination in the Western media, but his life and death have become the center of a heated debate between Arab intellectuals, involving difficult questions on war, occupation, “collaboration,” “resistance;” questions that are likely to be central for Iraqis and Arabs for years to come, regardless of the eventual fate of the US enterprise in the country.

The first flare in Shayya'’s controversy began when Pierre Abi Sa'b, the cultural editor of al-Akhbar newspaper, penned an obituary for his fallen friend, describing him as “our martyr, all of us. The martyr of contemporary Arab utopia (in reference to Shayya'’s academic interests.)” Abi Sa'b did not hide the fact that he disagreed with Shayya' when he decided, in 2003, to return to Iraq and be part of the new US-sponsored regime.

Several writers, including some of Abi Sa'b’s colleagues, responded angrily to the editor’s characterization of Shayya’s political choices, with some responses calling for the firing of Abi Sa'b (who is usually known, along with his leftist paper, for opposing US policies in the Middle East.) The response prompted Abi Sa'b to write yet another article on Shayya', in which he re-affirmed his original position, insisting anew that Shayya' is “our martyr.”

Today, several articles were published on the controversy. In al-Quds al-‘Arabi, Tha’ir al-Duri wrote a long piece criticizing Abi Sa'b’s stance on Shayya', characterizing it as political “schizophrenia”: with Abi Sa'b “supporting resistance in Lebanon,” according to al-Duri, and “negotiations (with the occupier) in Iraq.”

A Syrian journalist, Basil Dyoub, also wrote attacking Abi Sa'b and his honoring of Shayya'; indicating that Abi Sa'b’s celebration of Shayya’s intellectual prowess may have been exaggerated: “we sought his (intellectual) production ... only to find two articles and not a single book.” Dyoub also pointed out that Shayya’s performance in the Ministry of Culture was less than “utopian,” citing excessive censorship in the country coupled with the mushrooming of politically-funded journalism.

The most important reaction to Shayya’s case, however, came from Sa'di Yusif, one of Iraq’s most celebrated living poets. Yusif, who resides in London, was extremely open in his opposition to the US-led invasion in 2003 and his support for resistance against foreign troops in Iraq. Yusif did not shy away from publishing many acerbic articles condemning some of his “previous” friends in the Iraqi “opposition” and his comrades in the Communist Party (Shayya' was also a Communist activist) who joined the US-sponsored regime.

“Kamil Shayya' was killed by an antique two-barreled gun,” Yusif wrote, “two barrels, each with a different timing ... the first barrel fired in 2003, when the man was unjustly lumped with traitors and collaborators and thieves in Bremer’s first cabinet. It would have been better to spare him that fate ... the second barrel finished what was started in 2003.”

Daily Column
Cholera Spreads in Iraq: Iran and Kuwait Close Borders
By AMER MOHSEN 09/09/2008 8:55 PM ET
According to al-‘Arabiya news channel, its director in Baghdad, Jawad al-Hattab, survived an assassination attempt after a bomb was discovered in his car. Reportedly, Hattab’s driver discovered the bomb and called the police, potentially saving himself and the journalist. The police was slow in responding, the news channel said, which caused the explosion of the bomb – in the empty car – before the experts made it to the scene.

The news channel (Saudi-funded) pointed out that several of its journalists have been assassinated or harmed in violence in Iraq since 2003. Two of its journalists were killed by US soldiers in 2004, while a correspondent (Atwar Bahjat) was killed – along with two of her colleagues – in Samarra in 2006 by extremist armed groups. In addition, a car bombing that targeted al-‘Arabiya’s offices in 2006 left seven dead and dozens of wounded.

In a separate incident reported by Az-Zaman, the head of the Prime Minister’s protection unit was injured in an assassination attempt while his vehicle was traversing Baghdad. According to the paper, an IED damaged Brigadier Mu'in’s car wounding him, but a source told Az-Zaman that “Mu'in’s injuries are not serious.”

A renewed wave of assassinations has overtaken Iraq in recent weeks, with numerous officials and politicians targeted. Az-Zaman framed the news of the assassination attempts in an interesting way, focusing on the claim that “sticky IEDs” were used in yesterday’s assassination attempts. In the lingo of Iraqi papers (and US Army statements,) the presence of “sticky IEDs,” especially useful for assassinations, usually implies an Iranian involvement.

In other news, al-Hayat reported – a week late – on the evidence linking a high-level government official to sectarian and political murders during the last years. The official in question is ‘Ali al-Lami, who was the director of the De-Ba'thification committee and had wide access to the personal information of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and ex-Ba'thists.

Al-Lami was arrested a few weeks ago upon entering Iraq, and according to al-Hayat, American sources are confirming that al-Lami used his position to leak information on “targets” to armed groups that were liquidating Iraqi Ba'thists.

According to al-Hayat, “a high-level US official in Baghdad” told the paper that documents were found with al-Lami proving his connection to assassinations that targeted “officials in the (Ba'th) party, journalists, politicians and some of the employees of the previous regime.”

Also on the topic of assassinations, Ahmad Chalabi, whose convoy was attacked last week, said that the vehicle that attempted to assassinate him was a government car! A spokesman of Chalabi’s party claimed that “the vehicle belongs to an official institution and was loaded with two 130-mm HE rounds.”

Lastly, news of a catastrophic spread of Cholera is yet another evidence of the degradation of human conditions in Iraq in recent years. The disease, which rarely appeared in the Middle East since the middle of the last century, was often viewed as an “African” or a “Third World” disease and was associated with very low levels of development: Cholera spreads due to inappropriate sanitary conditions especially in public spaces and it usually disappears with the establishment of a modern health system and planned urban environments.

The re-appearance of Cholera on a wide scale in Iraq’s central and southern regions began as rumors during the last weeks. In recent days, however, international organizations have been warning of - potentially - thousands of cases and a quick spread of the dangerous disease.

Today, Az-Zaman announced, Iran and Kuwait have decided to close their borders and limit travel to Iraq in order to protect their own societies. The paper said that Iran has banned its nationals from traveling to Iraq for the time being, and is asking Iraqis for medical documents proving that they’re Cholera-free before allowing them to cross the borders. Kuwait, on the other hand, took no risks and has completely closed the borders (except for Coalition Forces and contractors, of course.)

Furthermore, the paper quoted Iraqi sources in the provinces that were most affected as saying that the government has been hiding the real number of casualties, which may have stacked up to "hundreds" by now!

Daily Column
US Responds to Iraqi SOFA Demands within 48 Hours
By AMER MOHSEN 09/07/2008 5:06 PM ET
Kull al-'Iraq
Kull al-'Iraq
Government-owned As-Sabah came out yesterday with a bold headline: “US troops to begin withdrawing from Baghdad’s streets next February.” The claim is part of a months’ long campaign in pro-government papers professing a quick signature of the US-Iraq Security Agreement (usually “within days”) and the many benefits that will accrue from the Agreement.

Due to its past record, few people take government deadlines and schedules seriously, especially when mouthed by the government’s own media. Further doubts arise when the basis for the optimistic headline turns out to be “a confirmation” by a SIIC official that the US side “will reply to the Iraqi draft within 48 hours.”

The SIIC official, Hameed Ma'alla, claimed that the upcoming Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) will involve a US withdrawal from all Iraqi cities, towns and villages into dedicated bases by 2009 and a full US military withdrawal in 2011. The “Iraqi draft” that Ma'ala mentioned is in fact a group of remarks on the original SOFA draft (drafted by Washington;) the US side had asked for two weeks to prepare a response to the Iraqi demands, and, according to Ma'ala, 48 hours remain.

In effect, the US is likely to propose a new formulation of the draft that takes into consideration some of Iraq’s demands. Whatever happens next is contingent on countless factors: some Iraqi leaders will be eager to pass the US draft (regardless of its contents,) while others are likely to be more reticent and demand further US concessions. The Parliament is a whole other issue: a positive vote on SOFA by the legislature is not guaranteed unless some form of consensus is established among Iraq’s major factions. In addition to all that, anti-US factions (and the opposition parties) are likely to condemn the government for passing SOFA in any case, and are likely to use Maliki’s approval of SOFA as a political weapon against the ruling parties.

Also on the SOFA, Iraqi vice-President ‘Adil ‘Abd al-Mahdi (who is among the main Iraqi backers of SOFA) gave a long interview to al-'Arabiya in which he said that, in case SOFA was not promulgated, the government will face two choices by the end of the year: either ask for an extension of the UN mandate (as in previous years) or demand the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq.

In other news, a revelation by an American author that the US may have spied on Maliki is causing some ripples in the media. Originally, Maliki’s government was up in arms, with government officials affirming that relations with the US “will be strained” if such claims pan out to be true. The White House, according to al-Jazeera, issued an expected denial, but with a somehow sarcastic twist. According to the channel, the White House spokeswoman basically said that the US does not need to spy on Maliki, who, according to her description, is quite “open” and “honest” with US officials and meets with the US Ambassador “almost daily.”

Lastly, Kull al-‘Iraq reported that the Kurdistan Coalition has shown some readiness to postpone the upcoming provincial elections in Kirkuk and carry them out in the rest of Iraq. The proposal was presented by the Sunni IAF Front and is a last-ditch effort to form a political consensus over a provincial elections’ law. The tense situation in Kirkuk has threatened to indefinitely postpone the entire elections, and with Arab MPs voting an elections’ law that sets exceptional measures for Kirkuk (largely favoring the Arab and Turkomen minorities,) Kurdish-Arab disagreements widened. According to a Kurdish MP, his Coalition may be ready to postpone elections in the embattled city “as long as no special (elections’) law is tailored for Kirkuk.”

Daily Column
The Future of Iraq's Oil Industry: China and Russia May have The Lion's Share!
By AMER MOHSEN 09/05/2008 5:33 PM ET
Most of the mainstream Western media reported – but gave little heed – to the recent agreements between the Iraqi Government and International oil companies to exploit Iraq’s vast oil resources. It was casually reported that “service contracts” were to be granted to a group of Western oil companies to refurbish and increase production in several Iraqi oilfields. Shortly thereafter, it was confirmed that oil contracts going back to the Saddam era (mostly with Chinese and Russian companies) to exploit several other oilfields will be revived - and revised - and will shortly enter into effect.

The importance of this news cannot be underestimated; these contracts – if fulfilled – will largely determine the future of Iraq’s oil industry, and by extension, its economic development. On the other hand, the shape and structure of these contracts reveal the “strategic” political deals that took place in the backrooms: the current contracts represent a major departure from the original US vision for Iraq’s oil future, and may be a reflection of the new balance of power in the “New Iraq.”

Az-Zaman reported on the official granting of “exploitation rights” to the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to produce oil from the Ahdab field (near the Iranian borders,) al-Ahdab, as described by the newspaper is “one of five strategic oilfields in Iraq” whose exploitation was contracted to Russian and Chinese companies by the previous regime during the late 1990s.

Az-Zaman, reaching for the political angle, framed the story with the following title: “Chinese deal with Iranian mediation excludes US companies from investment in Iraq’s oil.” The title is somehow misleading – since US companies have already guaranteed large contracts in Iraq, but it does contain a grain of truth.

Why would the United States (or its “ally”, the Iraqi government) be interested in reviving oil contracts with nations that neither supported the US-led invasion in 2003, nor are considered allies of the US? Didn’t US officials clearly proclaim in the early months of the invasion that countries opposing the enterprise will have little access to Iraq contracts? What happened to the grand plans to privatize Iraq’s oil industry and use Western companies and expertise to quickly boost production in the framework of production-sharing contracts (PSCs)?

Furthermore, the contracts handed out by Saddam to CNPC and Russian companies represent most of Iraq’s oil potential. Iraq’s proven oil reserves can be roughly divided into A- reserves in already-producing oilfields and B- reserves in oilfields that have been discovered in the 20th century, but remained (for various reasons) unexploited.

The largest proportion of Iraq’s oil reserves belongs to the second category. Most of Iraq’s oil production in the last half-century came from a handful of oil deposits that were discovered in the 1920s-1950s and that have been continuously producing ever since. These fields, such as Kirkuk and Rumaila, are considered to be “maturing,” that is, their reserves are running out and any attempt to boost production (and compensate for the natural decline) will be progressively more expensive in the coming years. Some of these oilfields, such as Kirkuk, have had their oil reservoirs irreversibly damaged because of bad production practices in the past.

Virtually all of the “service contracts” granted to Western oil companies are in those aging oilfields, while Russian and Chinese companies will be tasked with exploiting fresh reserves. Both categories of contracts are substantial, and possibly very lucrative, but it would seem ironic that, after America’s costly enterprise in the Middle East, the Chinese and the Russians will stand to control most of Iraq’s future oil production – hence Az-Zaman’s acerbic title.

What is more significant for Iraq is that all of the contracts are reasonably favorable to the country and its National Oil Company (or at least far better than the original visions floated after 2003, which spoke of Production-Sharing Contracts with unreasonably high margins for foreign companies.) In fact, the original Saddam contract with China was seen as “too favorable” and had to be revised down to a “service contract” (Saddam had originally offered generous production-sharing.)

According to Az-Zaman, the Chinese operator will receive compensation for its investment costs in addition to an agreed-upon profit margin – the paper said that the Chinese company will receive around $6 for every barrel it extracts. The oilfield is expected to produce around 110,000 Barrels per day for a contractual period of 10 years.

Where does Iran come into the equation? The reason that prevented the signing of quick, massive, oil contracts with Western and US companies after the Iraq invasion was the tremendous opposition fielded against such contracts in Iraq. The oil workers Unions and Iraqi oil experts mobilized quickly and were very vocal in expressing their opposition to such plans; the raging public mood convinced the government that “political” oil deals will be very costly, and – maybe most importantly – pro-Iranian militias in the South made it clear to the oil industry that no oil will be profitably exported from Iraq under conditions unfavorable to a host of local and regional “actors.”

Once this new structure for the exploitation of Iraq’s oil was negotiated, probably many months ago – with limited Western involvement, large contracts for China and Russia and a larger participation on behalf of the Iraqi national oil companies - “sabotage” and attacks against Iraq’s oil installations suddenly died down!

Daily Column
US Troops Slow Down Handover Schedule, "Legal Immunity" Halting US-Iraq Talks
By AMER MOHSEN 09/03/2008 5:34 PM ET
Iraq news is relatively scarce today, but al-Hayat and Az-Zaman carried interesting reports on the security situation in the country and the protracted negotiations over the SOFA Agreement.

Following the highly-publicized handover ceremony in Anbar - where Iraqi forces took control of most security responsibilities in the province from US units – al-Hayat today affirmed that similar handovers in six Iraqi provinces have been postponed by Washington.

The paper indicated that, including al-Anbar, Iraqi forces are currently in charge of 12 Iraqi provinces out of 18. The remaining provinces tend to be multi-ethnic or multi-sectarian, the paper added, noting that the provinces under government responsibility tend to be dominated by a single sect or ethnic group (eight provinces in the Shi'a South in addition to the three Kurdish provinces.)

The reasons behind the postponement are clear enough: the expansion of government forces into provinces dominated by different local groups are upsetting delicate balances and adding to the political tensions on the national level. A recent government campaign in Diyala, for example, ended in a near-confrontation between government and Peshmerga forces (formally speaking, both forces are part of the same military institution and follow the same higher command) and acute tensions between Kurdish and Shi'a Arab leaders. Similarly, the Anbar handover had to be postponed for several weeks following tensions between state security agencies and the Awakening militias, which played a major role in securing the province.

Az-Zaman, on the other hand, focused on the uncertain fate of the US-Iraqi SOFA Agreement, a treaty designed to legalize (and possibly determine the future of) the presence of US troops in the country. After weeks of Iraqi official statements claiming that the Agreement was on the verge of finalization, Az-Zaman quoted Iraqi officials admitting that the negotiations were “halted,” and that was mainly due to the controversial matter of legal immunity.

According to 'Ali al-Adeeb, a Shi'a MP representing the pro-government I'tilaf, negotiations ended with a US draft that “contained several articles that were rejected by the Iraqi negotiators.” According to al-Adeeb, the Iraqi side presented its objections to the US and is currently awaiting the American response.

Reportedly, the US diplomats requested 10 days to study the Iraqi objections and respond with an offer, a version of events that differs significantly from official government statements. Just yesterday, Iraqi government spokesman 'Ali al-Dabbagh claimed that his leadership is awaiting the US response to a new, Iraqi-formulated draft, not to mere "objections" to the US treaty project.

The paper said that an especially thorny matter was that of “legal immunity” requested by the US government for US troops in Iraq. The Maliki government has adamantly rejected the very concept of “immunity” from law for individuals residing on Iraqi territory. ‘Ali al-Adeeb said that the absence of a compromise on the matter prompted US Sec. Rice to exclude the topic entirely from the military dimension of the treaty, leaving major questions on the regulation of US presence in the country.

Other MPs were quoted as excluding the possibility of a parliament vote on the treaty within ten days, as Maliki’s office had hinted earlier.

Also in Az-Zaman, the London edition of the paper spoke of the same topic, quoting pretty much the same sources, but it included a far spicier version of events. According to the London edition, a scission is starting to appear in Iraqi ranks, with Vice-President ‘Adil ‘Abd al-Mahdi calling on the Parliament to ease the passing of the treaty once it is presented to the legislative, and, on the other hand, pro-government MPs expression disinterest in voting in favor of a controversial treaty.

SIIC-affiliated ‘Ali al-Adeeb was reportedly among the MPs who expressed reservations about the treaty, signaling that a parliamentary vote on the Agreement could be Maliki’s sole remaining card in the negotiation process. Al-Adeeb “threatened” that “the government would be forced to present the agreement to the Council of Ministers and the Council of Representatives if the American side failed to amend the (article relating to) legal immunity.” In other terms, requesting a Parliamentary vote on the Agreement, which could very well not produce the desired promulgation, has become a potential weapon for the Iraqi government in its attempt to improve its negotiating position.

Daily Column
Did Members of the De-Bathification Committee Plot Political Assassinations?
By AMER MOHSEN 09/02/2008 5:52 PM ET
Kull al-'Iraq
Kull al-'Iraq
As drafts of the US-Iraq Security Treaty are already being leaked in the Arab media, Iraqi papers’ headlines indicated that negotiations between the US and Iraqi sides regarding the Security Arrangement have reached their final moments. Kull al-‘Iraq quoted Maliki adviser ‘Ali al-Dabbagh as saying that the negotiations have been completed as far as the Iraqi government was concerned, and that all the relevant matters have been agreed upon. The Iraqi official added that his government is currently waiting for the US response to a “finalized draft” of the treaty that was recently submitted by Iraq.

Al-Dabbagh characterized his government’s proposal as “a draft that cannot be rejected,” hinting that “important political decisions” are what is left for the agreed-upon treaty to be promulgated. However, when asked about specific details relating to the treaty, al-Dabbagh’s answers revealed persistent differences between the US and Iraqi positions. For example, on the controversial matters of “legal immunity” for US forces and US withdrawal timetables, al-Dabbagh hinted – according to al-Hayat - that the “final draft” reflects the past positions of the Iraqi government, “(demands) that were presented to the US side multiple times,” he said. The problem is that the White House has flatly (and repeatedly) rejected the Iraqi demands for a scheduled (full) withdrawal and limited legal immunity for US troops in Iraq.

Also in Kull al-‘Iraq, Maliki was quoted as saying that legal and legislative measures are being taken in anticipation of the treaty, a hint that a treaty draft is expected to be presented to the Parliament shortly. The paper said that the parliament is being prepared to pass a law that would allow for a vote on the Security Agreement within ten days.

Here, a terminological note is in order: the US Press largely refers to the “Security Treaty” as “SOFA” (Status of Forces Agreement,) an appellation that reflects the White House perception of the agreement and its legal scope (designed to allow its passing without a US Congressional vote.) However, “SOFA” is promoted under a completely different light in the Iraqi political context. On the one hand, the “agreement” is largely seen as a full-fledged treaty that requires parliamentary approval, not a mere executive order or diplomatic agreement. Secondly, Iraqi government officials have repeatedly referred to “SOFA” as a “Strategic Treaty” that will bind Iraq and the US in a beneficial long-term partnership (something along the lines of the “Brotherhood and Friendship Treaties” that the USSR used to mete out to its close allies.) Lastly, while SOFA is unlikely to cause much stir in the US political realm, the “Security Treaty” and its implications will largely determine Iraqi political life in the years to come.

This double language in which the Security Agreement is described - depending on whether the audience is American or Iraqi - makes the upcoming SOFA into one of the most nebulous and controversial diplomatic treaties in recent memory.

In other news, Az-Zaman focused on the recent arrest of a major SIIC official who assumed a key position in the de-Ba'thification committee. The committee was charged with “purging” ex-regime loyalists from the state administration and the political field. However, rumors quickly spread that state officials were leaking “assassination lists” to several anti-Ba'thi factions and that hundreds of Iraqis who assumed significant positions in pre-2003 Iraq were killed because of such practices – in the face of mounting assassinations, many members of the old elite were frightened into leaving the country.

Az-Zaman claimed that ‘Ali al-Lami, the official who was arrested last week, has proven connections to such assassinations, and that “documents were found in his possession” showing that he leaked information on 450 ex-Ba'this “to facilitate their assassination by ‘special groups.’” The individuals whom al-Lami may have helped liquidate included “parliamentarians, journalists and employees of the previous regime.”


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