*The big student protests in Iran continued for a sixth night on Sunday. This, despite the attack on the students Saturday by armed thugs controlled by the hardline clerics, which injured 50 and killed one. Many protesters have also been arrested by the regime. But, some of the hardline Hezbollah or Party of God goons are being threatened with being put on trial, as well, which is unprecedented. President Bush expressed his hope that the protests were the beginning of Iranians speaking freely. This US support is a very mixed blessing for the students, who have been branded “foreign mercenaries” by Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei. The students insist that they are an authentic Iranian political expression. It remains to be seen whether they can escape being seen as a fifth column for the US. Some of them have gone so far as to chant, “Death to Khamenei!” This is a first. Khamenei used to express hurt in the late 1990s that he was criticized by the students. His heart must really be broken. The hardliners have brought this unrest on themselves by doing everything they could to thwart to popular will and undo the last two national elections, by crude methods of repression. By all accounts, ordinary Iranians are fed up. But, it is highly desirable that the US stand back and let the Iranians take care of all this themselves.
*The reason there weren’t any postings over the weekend is that I was in DC to attend The Iraq Forum of the “Education for Peace in Iraq Center” [EPIC]. It was an extremely informative event. I always learn from hearing Phebe Marr and Judith Yaphe on Iraq, and I had the opportunity for the first time to hear Nathaniel Hurd (a UN consultant) and Glen Rangwala (a lecturer in politics at Cambridge U., he broke the story of the plagiarism by the UK Ministry of Defense of a grad student thesis in its white paper against Saddam). The opportunity to hear Iraqi community activists such as Tanya Gilly, Nijyar Shimdin, Muhammad Sabir, Sam Kubba and others was also invaluable.
*A crowd of 10,000 angry Shiites led by Sheikh Khazraj Saadi in Basra demanded self-government and pelted British military vehicles with stones on Sunday, according to the Daily Telegraph. The British had appointed a tribal leader mayor at first, then removed him in favor of a council of appointed technocrats. The British authorities have promised to reply to the demands by Tuesday. Saadi says he will wait until then, but if he and his followers are not satisfied, they will launch further protests. Unfortunately, the report does not identify to which Shiite tendency Saadi and his followers belong. Are they members of the Sadr Movement? The Australian Broadcast Network Online reported that among the crowds’ chants was “Down, down with Jews” and “Leave our land.” The British and Americans are associated in popular Arab politics with knee-jerk support for Zionist expansionism in the region.
Az-Zaman, the liberal Iraqi newspaper, also reported this story, but its correspondent described the demonstration as “peaceful” and neglected to mention the rock-throwing. It specified that the crowd “of thousands” gathered in front of the British military HQ, a former palace of Saddam Hussein. The az-Zaman article attempts to emphasize that commerce has returned to normal in the center of the city, with the restoration of much of the electricity service, and that order was “relatively good.” It also points to infrastructural improvements made by the British at the port of Umm Qasr and at other harbor facilities (Basra itself is an inland port on the Shatt al-Arab). It seems to me that az-Zaman attempted to play down the grievances of the demonstrators, which had to do with self-government, not with services. Their placards demanded a consultative council for the city, which implies that they want a popularly elected one, not a set of British appointees.
The Americans and the British have drawn the conclusion from Bosnia that early elections are a bad idea, since disreputable characters get entrenched (they are the ones with the clout and paramilitaries or other coercive instruments, which is what allows them to get elected). Once they are entrenched they are almost impossible to remove. This is a fair point. But this procedure is running up against very strong anti-colonial feelings not present in Bosnia. Iraqis had their politics dictated to them by foreign capitals much of the 20th century, and they are understandably touchy about now having Western military men appoint their city leaders.
The last big protest in Basra, on June 9, was organized by the Democratic Workers’ Union and criticized the plan by US companies involved in reconstruction to bring in Asia guest workers instead of hiring local Iraqis. Iraqi unemployment is estimated at 30% to 50%.
*Here is my recent op-ed on the WMD fiasco:
June 13, 2003
Why was Bush chasing phantoms in Baghdad?
Saddam Hussein, it turns out, had no nuclear weapons program, and perhaps not much of a remaining biological or chemical one. Even Al-Qaeda refused to cooperate with him.
The Bush administration has been on the defensive during the past week over its case for war on Iraq. Its defenders are quick to point to the mass graves and other evidence of the genocidal nature of the Baath regime as justification for the war.
That misses the point. If the Bush administration rushed the American people and some US allies into war on the basis of faulty intelligence or one-sided analysis, then democracy was subverted. If the White House diverted enormous resources from the “war on terror” to a war on Iraq, it made Americans and Middle Easterners less secure in the end.
Would the bombings in Bali, Mombasa, Riyadh and Casablanca have succeeded had the US been focusing on Al-Qaeda instead of on phantoms in Baghdad? Would Afghanistan have real security if billions had been spent to stabilize and reconstruct that country instead of attacking an Iraq that had been contained?
The case for this war was based on a set of forged documents. Letters purporting to show officials from Niger acknowledging purchases in the late 1990s by Iraq of yellow-cake uranium for bomb-making were child-like and clumsy forgeries, and the officials allegedly involved have not been in office for a decade. The US also maintained that aluminum tubing was bought by Iraq for making centrifuges to enrich the uranium. In reality, the tubing was unsuitable for such a use.
George W. Bush held a news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Sept. 7, 2002, in which the US president said: “When the inspectors first went into Iraq … a report came out of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) that they (Iraqis) were six months away from developing a weapon.”
The agency immediately responded that it had never, ever, issued such a report or made such a statement, and insisted that by 1998 “we had concluded that we had neutralized their nuclear weapons program.”
On Sept. 23, 2002, the Blair government issued a report alleging that “Iraq has chemical and biological weapons that can be deployed in minutes and it is working hard to acquire nuclear warheads.”
It also asserted that the Iraqi regime had tried to buy “significant quantities” of uranium from Africa. (This reference is almost certainly to the forged Niger documents).
A review of statements made by US senators and congressmen who voted Bush authorization for war shows that they consistently pointed to the alleged Iraqi nuclear program as decisive in their decisions.
Likewise, on Sept. 26, 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared: “We have what we consider to be credible evidence that Al-Qaeda leaders have sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire weapons of mass destruction capabilities.”
Yet interrogations of high-level Al-Qaeda operatives such as Abu Zubaida (captured in March, 2002), revealed that Osama bin Laden refused to allow cooperation between the radical Sunni group and the secular Baath regime. Rumsfeld was clearly discounting that reliable information in favor of shadowy speculation that supported his desire for war.
Most distressingly of all, the credibility of the US government has been badly damaged. When will the UN Security Council and US allies again be able to take seriously Bush administration warnings of an imminent security threat? Yet it is precisely such credibility that is key to combating terrorism.
The Bush administration must explain how the intelligence was so badly politicized, and it must take steps to restore confidence.