*Belgium has begun the trial of 23 suspects it alleges have links to al-Qaeda. They belong to an obscure group that may have been involved in the bombings in Casablanca a few days ago. They include a former Tunisian football (soccer) star who admits knowing and admiring Bin Laden. Nizar ben Abdelaziz Trabelsi is accused with others of plotting an attack on the Kleine Brogel Air force base, which some allege contains US nuclear weapons. I don’t know what exactly they were planning to do there, but “al-Qaeda” and “nuclear weapons” in the same sentence makes me nervous. Note that a similar trial in Holland last year ended without the state being able to secure a verdict, because the evidence was deemed circumstantial. I hope this prosecutor team has more on the ball.
*A US armored vehicle in the Sunni town of Falluja came under fire from a rocked propelled grenade late on Weds. That prompted US troops to fire back. Local residents, who are extremely hostile to the US, accused the troops of firing indiscriminately toward the center of town. Also, as the US troops tell it, a Nissan slammed into a Bradley fighting vehicle, causing the troops to fire into the Nissan and kill two Iraqis. The Falluja residents maintain that the two young men in the Nissan were just innocent victims of indiscriminate US gunfire. One knowledgeable scholar recently said in my hearing that we are lucky Falluja is Sunni and not Shiite–if this sort of thing happened in Najaf or Karbala, it would have big repercussions. From what I have seen in the press, Falluja residents may be Sunni Islamists. The danger is that the sort of radical anti-American attitudes (no one denies the rpg attack on the US started the whole thing) might spread to the Sunnis of Baghdad if the US doesn’t soon provide security and services there.
*Hamid Karzai has been trying to reign in the provincial warlords who actually rule most of Afghanistan. He has gotten them to pledge, at least, to forward tax monies to the center rather than hoarding them for themselves. And, he has demoted powerful warlord Rashid Dostum from his military position in Mazar-i Sharif, making him a civilian consultant. The problem with such pledges and changes in title is that power in Afghanistan is personalistic and fluid. Basically, on this one I am from Missouri, not Qandahar. Show me. Karzai still lacks much of a military force or financial leverage, and these sorts of announcements strike me as more cosmetic than anything else.
Emergence of a Shiite Bloc? (My comment on Gulf2000 replying to
*I do not think “Twelver Shiism” is the proper unit of analysis in the
current situation. [DW] is of course correct that the religion has
common themes and sentiments (including martyrdom and a keen sense of
righteous indignation on behalf of the victim), though their relative
weight changes over time, as Nikki Keddie points out. Twelver Shiite
religious institutions do create transnational linkages, and the
emancipation of the Iraqi Shiites may reinvigorate these. But the
prospect of political alliances seems to me rather on a party to party and
state to state basis. It is in this regard that the early twenty-first
century differs so significantly from previous moments of transnational
Shiite networking. Modern party and state institutions controlled by
religious Shiites are now a possible vehicle for alliances. It is not
just a matter of Sistani and of Khamenei, or Muqtada al-Sadr versus
Muhammad Husain Fadlullah.
Thus, in his recent trip to Beirut, President Khatami appears to me to
have been far more supportive of Hizbullah and of a continued rejectionist
stance toward Israel than in the past (I am not really speaking of his
privately held views, but of how much he was willing to get out in front
on these issues). Hizbullah is a Lebanese political party, which
represents only some of the Lebanese Shiites (Amal, which controls the
office of speaker of the House in the Lebanese parliament, is arguably
more important). Khatami is probably closer ideologically to AMAL leader
Nabih Berri than he is to Shaikh Nasrallah of Hizbullah. My
interpretation would be that US pressure on Hizbullah and on Iran after
the Gulf War has caused even a reformist like Khatami to want to draw the
Shiite wagons around for mutual defense from the hyperpower. It strikes
me that the hardliners in Iran are nevertheless likely to remain the prime
sponsors of Hizbullah.
The Iranians are said to have made a similar play for a patron-client
relationship with the Afghan Shiite party, Hizb-i Vahdat, but were turned
down by Hizb leader Karim Khalili, on the grounds that he felt a duty to
be an Afghan first. Whether the Iranians can get the Vahdat to reconsider
(and it is always possible that they will break with the Tajiks with whom
they are currently allied) is up in the air. But I would say that, at
least on a state-to-party basis, that element in the [alleged] . . . Shiite bloc is
Likewise, Shiites in Pakistan and India are mostly oriented to local
zakirs or clerical chanters at mourning ceremonies. They have a complex
view of religious leadership, and while many among the literate may
emulate Sistani, not all approve of his political quietism, admiring
Khamenei on that score.
I agree . . . that Shiite leaders in Iraq may benefit from
being able, as a collectivity, to appeal both to the very poor and to the
more respectable. But ultimately (two years down the road) their
authority in Iraq will depend on the effective deployment of political
parties that can contest elections and make compromises and get things
done within an Iraqi framework. There may be points at which Iraqi party
alliances with political actors in Iran prove advantageous, but I suspect
it will be on an ad hoc basis rather than as a matter of belonging to a
The more radical religious leaders in Iraq hope to establish first a
tyranny of the Shiite majority in Iraq, and then to capture that majority
with a theocratic leadership. This plan seems to me unrealistic, but it
could cause a lot of trouble. My guess with regard to Iran is that
Khamenei would support it and the reformists won’t.
Note that reformists in Iran are already openly reminding the hardliners
of what happened to the Taliban and Saddam, and are calling for freedom of
the press and speech. I doubt they have any sympathy for Muqtada al-Sadr.
So, I would suggest that new transnational networks are likely to emerge,
but that these are likely to be multiple and to contest loyalties among
one another, and so would avoid the term ‘bloc.’