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Daily Column
Syria Looks to Iraq for an Economic Boost
By DANIEL W. SMITH 06/01/2009 03:00 AM ET
After a strong Sunday in the Times and the Post, these two normal leaders in Iraq coverage give way to the Wall Street Journal, who is at the helm today on corruption, the economy and monthly casualties.

From Baghdad
The Wall Street Journal’s Gina Chon reports that the questioning, resignation and Saturday’s arrest of Trade Minister Abdul Falah al-Sudani is having some political backlash, even if it is behind the scenes. Though politicians are vocally behind the very-popular endeavor of fighting corruption, “political rivalries are making it hard to move other such investigations forward in parliament.”

The promised upcoming proceedings against additional cabinet members is proving less than desirable to some.
One example of the political fighting surrounds the case of Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani, an official now facing accusations of mismanagement and graft. Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad said the accusations are tied to politics, not facts. Lawmaker Jabber Khalifa al-Jabber said his Oil and Gas Committee had 140 lawmakers' signatures to request Mr. Shahristani to come to parliament for questioning. But this past week, more than a dozen parliamentarians, most from the United Iraqi Alliance bloc that includes Mr. Maliki's party, asked to withdraw their names. Mr. Shahristani is an independent member of the Alliance.
Political interference is claimed by some, and denied by others.

From Damascus
Also in the Wall Street Journal, Julien Barnes-Dacey reports that Syria, “suffering from dwindling oil revenue and a sluggish, state-dominated market, is banking on an economic boost from an unlikely source: Iraq.” Though relations haven’t been so good in the past, it doesn’t really seems as though these two neighbors are that unlikely a pairing of trade partners. Oil and gas pipelines are among the plans with large dollar amounts attached to them.
Syrian Minister of Economy and Trade Amer Hosni Lutfi said during a recent trip to Iraq that he hopes to more than triple bilateral trade, now estimated at $800 million, far behind Syria's biggest trade partners, China and Turkey, at $2 billion each.

Syrian officials also have said that a railway line from the coastal city of Tartous to Umm Qasr port in southern Iraq is opening this month. The railway promises a faster and cheaper route to the Mediterranean for regional goods typically shipped through the Suez Canal.
And to finish off today’s Journal coverage, the “Review and Outlook” page goes beyond being simply positive about progress, and ends up sounding a little like spin. May’s numbers of civilian casualties are indeed low, but the characterization of a US withdrawal from all Iraqi cities being on-track unless the “robust” Iraqi government just happens to request their presence in Mosul really speaks against what US military and civilian spokesmen in Iraq themselves have been saying for quite some time.

New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.
Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Baghdad/KRG Oil Deal, Terrorist Traffic Via Syria Again Inching Up
By DANIEL W. SMITH 05/11/2009 02:00 AM ET
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s surprise visit to Baghdad grabs the headlines, but brings no great developments. News of a re-invigorated insurgent route from Syria to Iraq and the first details on an oil deal between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government are the major stories. Only the New York Times and the Washington Post have original Iraq material today.

From Baghdad
Pelosi’s visit made it in the headline of two of the three Iraq stories. The most-reported sound bite was "We will have intense political involvement as we go forward," as it sort-of addresses future US involvement in Iraq. She didn’t talk troop levels, but the adjective “intense” makes it clear (from a vocally anti-Iraq war Democrat) that Baghdad’s US embassy isn’t being abandoned any time soon. Pelosi met with parliament speaker Ayad al-Samarraie and talked intelligence-sharing with Prime Minister al-Maliki.

The Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid and Nada Bakri have an article dedicated to the visit, and has the basics. Fears among Iraqis that US disengagement is adversely affecting security are spoken of, as are the basics minutes of Pelosi’s discussions with the Iraqi leaders.
The talks focused on challenges in that relationship: the U.S. role in helping broker boundary disputes between Iraq's Arab and Kurdish regions, cooperation in intelligence to fight a lingering insurgency as the U.S. military presence diminishes, and efforts to combat sometimes spectacular corruption that has undermined faith in the Iraqi government.
Campbell Robertson of the New York Times has an article that splits itself between Pelosi and a deal between Baghdad and Erbil on oil contracts in Iraqi Kurdistan. For years, the issue of whether or not contracts signed by the KRG are legal has been a huge sticking point, and the political rhetoric has been repetitive, to say the least. Robertson covers the announcement of, if not the details to, a pact that would allow the Kurds to start exporting oil from two oilfields under its control.
Iraq’s central government had long insisted that it alone had control over Iraqi oil, and had refused to recognize any oil contract signed by the Kurdistan Regional Government. It remained unclear on Sunday why Baghdad had softened its position or how the Kurds might benefit.
Both articles include mention of the ongoing corruption scandal in the Trade Ministry. After being on the lam for a week, the brother of Minister Felah al-Sudani was arrested.

Karen DeYoung writes of evidence that a network which smuggles foreign fighters into Iraq via Syria has again become active, just as the Obama administration is exploring a new diplomatic dialogue with Syria. In a departure from declarations of administrations past, US officials (from whom the information comes) point to unnamed elements within Syrian intelligence, but “have been careful not to directly accuse Damascus of supporting the traffic”.

From the title, it sounds like a story about insurgents, but ends up really being a fairly captivating policy piece. The carrots and sticks America is simultaneously using with Iraq’s neighbor are prominent, and the release of the information about the insurgent transit route comes across as being part of the US's policy strategy.
On Wednesday, acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey D. Feltman and National Security Council official Daniel Shapiro arrived in Syria for their second visit since Barack Obama's inauguration as president. Two days later, however, Obama renewed U.S. sanctions against Syria, accusing Damascus of supporting terrorism in the Middle East and undermining Iraqi stability.

"I think it sends the message that we have some very serious concerns," Robert Wood, a State Department spokesman, said of the sanctions renewal. Feltman, he added, was "in Damascus to talk about . . . how we can get Syria to change its behavior and see if it's willing to really engage seriously in a dialogue, be a positive role in the Middle East. Up until now, Syria hasn't played that positive role."
Gen. Odierno said Syria, "has the opportunity" to stop it, and called on the Syrian government to "demonstrate a commitment to eliminating the use of its soil as a staging area."

Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Tuesday Night News
04/22/2009 05:50 AM ET
By Daniel W. Smith and Yousif al-Timimi

On Tuesday, Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otari arrived in Iraq for a two-day visit, and it got the attention that visiting high-ranking officials from other countries always do. There was an added edge, however, given the past chilly relations between the two neighbors, and security issues in Iraq’s border regions close to Syria, long a flashpoint of insurgent activity. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari was seen, saying, “We will request help from Syria in capturing former Iraqi (Baath) officers.” Positive discussion of economic issues were touted as well.

In a statement, the Health Ministry denied recent reports that its minister accused Iran of spreading drugs in Iraq, while others were seen accusing Iran of working on drying Iraq’s southern marshes.

In Ninewa, the argument continues in the press between Governor Atheel al-Najafi and Kurdish leaders in the province, over the Kurdish boycott of the new provincial council over Sunni Arabs getting all the top positions in Ninewa. Said al-Najafi, “We will never give up our positions that we have obtained, and we will punish those who will remain absent for four sessions, according to the law of city councils.” Al-Hurra Iraq also reported Kurdish representatives in Ninewa threatened to “join Kurdistan,” if their demands weren't granted. Also, it was reported the mayor of the Sinjar region (which has a higher Kurdish population than many other parts of the province) warned of dividing Ninewa into two provinces.

In other Arab/Kurdish tension-related news, Dawa MP Abdul Hadi Al-Hassani, said" Kurdstan's oil law is one of the main problems which prevents the passage of an Iraqi hydrocarbon law. A Kurdish journalists’ union called on security forces to stop violations against press workers.

Turkman Iraqis in Kirkuk held a meeting to demanded the government conduct a military operation in the city, catching the ear of Arabs, Kurds, and everyone else.

Other stories, on various channels.
The Ministry of Finance was reported to start funding the ministries, based on the approved 2009 budget.

Al-Sharqiya showed prisoners in Muqtadiya “going faint” in a hunger strike, protesting their detention without formal charges. Al-Rafadain said that Diyala’s police chief, Abdul Hussien al-Shimari, was accused of “discrimination and random arrests”.

Four of the gunmen whose organized heist of gold shops in Baghdad on Sunday left seven killed were reported to have been captured. Members of Iraq’s Sabian minority, often goldsmiths and among the victims, demanded protection.

109 “wanted” men were arrested in Basra, and security spokesman Gen. Qassim Atta announced that "Two men who fired rockets at the green zone couple days ago were capured."

Security forces banned motorcycles from driving in Baghdad’s Hurria neighborhood.

Comments on the Iraqi TV roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Damascus Pressured to Curb Iraqi Opposition Operating on itsTerritories
By AMER MOHSEN 04/21/2009 7:55 PM ET
Al-Bayyna al-Jadeeda
Al-Bayyna al-Jadeeda
The major news item of the day is the arrival of Syrian Prime Minister, Naji al-'Atari, to Baghdad and the talks he held with Iraqi leaders. The long-awaited visit is the first for a Syrian Prime Minister to Iraq in over three decades, and optimistic observers expressed hopes that it will herald a new era of Syrian-Iraqi cooperation. According to Az-Zaman, al-'Atari’s delegation included a good portion of the Syrian cabinet (the heads of the following Ministries came to Baghdad: Interior, Treasury, Oil, Irrigation, Economy, Health, Transportation, Industry, Electricity and Housing,) an indication of the wide swath of issues that will be discussed with the Iraqi counterparts.

According to the media coverage, however, the main item on the Iraqis’ agenda is security, not oil pipelines and commercial agreements. Az-Zaman claimed that Maliki requested from al-'Atri “the closing of certain security dossiers in a swift manner.” Quoting “political sources” that were present in the meetings, the daily said that “the security dimension dominated the ... economic one” throughout the talks.

Most significantly, the paper says that al-Maliki is requesting that Damascus ‘deals’ with the thousands of Iraqi ex-officers, Ba'this and political activists who have taken refuge in the country and who continue to oppose the Baghdad regime. Al-Jazeera confirms by citing the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hushyar Zibari, who affirmed that Iraq will demand that Syria “prosecutes ex-Army commanders” who, according to Zibari, “conspire against the Iraqi government from exile in Damascus.”

In the same breath, Zibari mentioned the possibility of re-building an oil pipeline that exported Iraqi oil through Syrian ports. A clear indication that the Iraqi government is aiming for a quid pro quo, where economic cooperation is exchanged for political concessions from Damascus.

On a parallel front, Az-Zaman reports that al-'Atri’s visit was timed with the opening of the first commercial line between Damascus and the new Najaf airport. The airport, which was opened last July, was built on the site of a disused military heliport, and aims at tapping the large market of religious tourism that could potentially draw millions of annual visitors to Iraq’s holy cities.

On a different front al-Bayyna al-Jadeeda reported, sarcastically, on the statements of a southern governor who threatened to sue any media outlet that doubts the authenticity of his academic credentials. Fake degrees are reportedly a major problem in Iraq, especially with officials and civil servants appointed after the 2003 invasion. Allegedly, the governor of Wasit Lateef al-Tarfa swore in a fit of rage during a press conference that he will prosecute any outlet that makes such claims about his university degree. Al-Tarfa was recently re-elected for a second mandate as governor, after forming a coalition with al-Hakeem’s list.

Meanwhile, al-Mada reports that a delegation of 10 high-level executives of major high-tech companies (including Google, Twitter and Youtube) have arrived in Baghdad amid government efforts to “increase the use of communication technologies in Iraq.” The Iraqi Minister of Planning said that deals could be struck with these firms for the purpose of importing technologies, and that the government will also encourage them to launch projects in Iraq.

Lastly, several papers focused on the arrest of several members of a criminal gang that robbed jewelry stores in Baghdad last Sunday, killing seven people in the process. Al-Mada shed the light on the fact that the crime may have had a sectarian dimension, with three of the dead merchants belonging to the Mandaean community – an extremely small religious group that faced intense persecution after the 2003 invasion, leading the majority of its members leaving the country.

Az-Zaman recounted the story of how the gang was arrested: reportedly, a witness who saw the robbery knew the identity of some perpetrators and gave it to the police. Tragically, the witness was himself murdered a few hours later when the robbers identified him and decided to eliminate him. His testimony, however, was sufficient to arrest four of the robbers, and – according to police sources – they are currently being interrogated to reveal their partners.

Daily Column
Iraqi Opposition in Cairo Snubs Maliki Initiative, Syria Creates "Iraq Bureau"?
By AMER MOHSEN 04/15/2009 6:22 PM ET
A new suicide bombing, this time in Kirkuk, took the lives of at least ten Iraqi policemen, al-Jazeera reports. The suicide bomber reportedly targeted a police patrol that is charged with protecting oil installations in the region, and according to the news channel, local security sources indicate that the death tally is likely to increase.

In other news, a recent trend of rapprochement between the Iraqi government and neighboring Arab countries may slow, or even reverse, due to regional tensions and their reflection on Iraq's relationship with Arab states.

Az-Zaman focused in its front page on Egyptian statements to the effect that the Egyptian Embassy in Baghdad will not be re-opened as soon as previously expected. A “high level Egyptian diplomatic source” told the paper that the appointment of a new Ambassador “necessitates a political decision, and perhaps strictly from the President.” The source added that, given running tensions between Egypt and Iran, “it is doubtful that the Egyptian Ambassador will return in the current heated atmosphere.”

These statements come as Iraqi opposition leaders residing in Egypt rejected the government’s call for “reconciliation” and their assimilation within the "political process.” A high-level Iraqi delegate was sent to Egypt recently, the paper reported, to negotiate with “moderate” opposition leaderships taking refuge in the country (including Arab nationalists, liberals and independents.) Some factions, the paper reports, set out conditions before acknowledging the current Iraqi government (including the suspension of the current constitution,) while others refused to sit with the government’s envoy, insisting that they will hold no talks with the current government, which they consider to be illegitimate.

“A source in the Iraqi resistance” residing in Cairo, told the daily that the government is trying to build bridges with unrepresentative individuals and minor political movements for the mere purpose of garnering “media victories” and giving the impression that its reconciliation efforts are bearing fruit.

One Iraqi activist in Cairo who did meet with Baghdad’s envoy, Ahmad al-Habbubi, said that Akram al-Hakeem came to his house – in the presence of several opposition members – and expressed his wish that the exiled opposition return to Iraq. “Iraq is your country and we are a patriotic government” he allegedly said, to which al-Habbubi claims to have answered “yes, Iraq is our country, but the government is not patriotic, for it is based upon sectarian power-sharing.” According to al-Habbubi, al-Hakeem listened to his remarks and conditions without giving a response.

On the other hand, 'Abd al-Kareem al-'Aluji, who belong to the more radical Arab Nationalists’ group, said that he refuses to meet with any representatives of the Iraqi government until the end of the US occupation, opining that the government’s efforts to build bridges with the exiled opposition will fail “because (the government) has no credibility.”

Tensions between the Iraqi government and (Sunni) Arab neighbors are best exemplified in the coverage of al-Bayyna al-Jadeeda, which is close to the Shi'a I’tilaf and has adopted a vigorous anti-Saudi line since problems between al-Maliki and King Abdullah surfaced weeks ago during an Arab summit.

On its front page today, the daily published an intriguing piece: “Syria demands from Iraqi Ba'thist leaderships residing on its territory to refrain from dealing with Israel and Saudi Arabia.”

Based on unnamed “knowledgeable political sources in Damascus,” the paper made the claim that Iraqi Ba'thists in Syria recently met with Israeli officials in Doha and “offered many concessions in return for being brought back to power.” Syrian authorities are allegedly banning Iraqis hosted in Syria from contacting Saudi Arabia “given that its attitude has recently taken a clear sectarian direction.”

The claim is dubious on several levels, and it is well-known that Arab and neighboring countries (as well as the US) have based their policy towards Iraq on sectarian and ethnic considerations since the 2003 invasion. But the paper has been promoting the idea that an emerging Syrian-Iraqi “axis” is crystallizing to stem the influence of Saudi Arabia and its allies in the region.

While relations between the Syrian regime and “the new Iraq” were slow to take-off and have been punctuated by crises, an intensification of Syrian initiatives towards the Iraqi government has taken place recently; including a long-awaited visit by the Syrian Prime Minister and the formation of multiple Syrian-Iraqi committees to coordinate political and economic projects. A level of cooperation that has not been achieved with any other Arab neighbor. It is also well known that the Iraqi Premier, Nuri al-Maliki, has spent a good deal of his exile in Damascus and had extensive dealings with Syrian authorities while in the opposition.

The paper added that the Syrian government has allocated the funds for a political office dedicated to Iraqi affairs, which will be headed by veteran Syrian diplomat Faruq al-Shar', “for the purpose of crystallizing a new relationship (with Iraq) to combat the sectarian ideas emanating from the Gulf countries.”

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