The Panjwayi Massacre: Crisis in Afghanistan Rising

The chilling massacre of 16 Afghan civilians reportedly killed by a lone U.S. Army sergeant in the Panjwayi district early on Sunday morning has the Obama administration reeling. They should be. Every imperial war and occupation has an “atrocity crisis,”which galvanizes opposition to the occupying forces in-theater, and opposition in the homeland to end the conflict. It remains to be seen if the Panjwayi Massacre will be that crisis moment; but one thing is clear, President Obama is moving with serious dispatch to contain the collateral damage on both fronts.

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The Iran-Israel Nuclear Conundrum: Obama’s Next Move

This week President Obama silenced the drums of war sounded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and Republican leaders to attack Iran; but not for long.

Against the backdrop of the American Israeli Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention, Netanyahu railed that Iran was on the brink of enriching uranium to weapons grade level and threatened to launch unilateral air strikes against Tehran. GOP presidential hopefuls endorsed the call for “Holy War,” and decried Obama’s policy toward Iran as “appeasement.” As expected, Obama told AIPAC conventioneers that he has “Israel’s back,” and implored all to give “sanctions” and “diplomacy” a chance.” We’ve seen this movie before, right? Wrong.      Continue reading

President Obama’s “Islamists Opening” in the Middle East


July 24, 2010

                                              TARIQ RAMADAN – AUTHOR AND ISLAMIST LEADER

Since taking the Oval Office President Obama has slowly moved to open a new path of engagement with the Arab world’s “Islamist” movement. The grand strategy behind Obama’s “Islamic Opening” has been twofold; erecting a Sunni Muslim firewall to contain Iran’s Shiite inspired expansion in the Middle East while building up an alternative political force to wring political concessions out of authoritarian Sunni dictators or to displace them if threatened with a collapse of state power. Obama’s gamble to renovate Washington’s stagnant Middle East project envisions a gradual shift from American overreliance on diplomacy with authoritarian Arab sheiks and kings to a broader field of engagement with the mainstream of Arab society. In the New Middle East pragmatic Muslims seeking to reconcile Islamic values and Sharia law with participation in electoral politics, democratic institution building and increased integration with non-Muslim communities now occupy the center of the Arab mainstream.

Increasingly rising Islamists forces have rejected terrorism and salafist doctrine but supported violence by Palestinians against Israel and Sunni resistance against Shiia militias and U.S. forces in Iraq. To be sure, “Islamists” views on many issues like the role women and the relationship between religion and the state are anathema to traditional norms of western democracy. Islamists may not be liberals but they do hew toward democracy and broader forms of social inclusiveness. Moreover, secular Arabs that championed failed Baathist, Socialist and Arab nationalist projects in the past are a small sector of the region’s body politic and simply cannot garner the mass support required to challenge the salafists. Thus, Obama’s “Islamic Opening” is not the product of appeasement or liberal American foreign policy run amok, but a sober assessment of the changing political dynamic engulfing the Middle East. It seeks engagement with prominent “Islamist” academicians, activists and organizations, especially the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).  Whether President Obama remains committed to transform the “opening” to a real breakthrough is now in question.      

The Obama administration first signaled its new opening in January 2009 when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported lifting the ban imposed by the Bush administration on Tariq Ramadan, the internationally renowned Islamist professor at Oxford University. In June 2009 the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling prohibiting Ramadan’s entry into the United States because he donated money to a charity that supported HAMAS. The grandson of Hassan al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and son of Said Ramadan a legendary Muslim Brotherhood figure, Tariq Ramadan’s “Islamic” pedigree is widely recognized across the Middle East. A reformer and President of the European Muslim Network, Ramadan has authored several books that among other things implore Muslims in Western Europe and America “to become responsible citizens,” immersed in the social fabric of their countries and fully aware of their “rights and responsibilities.” He has challenged Salafist interpretations of the Koran restricting women’s inheritance rights and called for a moratorium on “hudud” penalties including the stoning of women charged with adultery. Ramadan’s controversial call to reform Islam by realigning the foundational sources of Sharia law and jurisprudence and expanding the field of contributing Islamic scholars and experts to reevaluate the impact of scientific, economic and cultural changes on Islam’s capacity to renew its diverse international community are seminal works. Through the Obama administration’s efforts Ramadan was finally allowed to tour the United States in the spring of 2010.  

Like Ramadan, Yusef al Qaradawi is an Islamist academician and critical opinion leader across the Middle East. Still banned from visiting the United States, Qaradawi host a Qatar-based television talk show called “Sharia and Life” on Al Jezeera with an estimated audience of 40 million viewers. The author of eighty publications, a trustee at the Oxford University Center for Islamic Studies, Qaradawi is a passionate advocate of democratic participation and is regarded as one the top Islamic scholars in the world.  Having denounced al Queda’s violent extremism as a “mad declaration of war upon the world” Qaradawi is the proponent of “wasatiyya” or “centrism,” a doctrine that seeks a middle path between secularism and Islamic fundamentalism. His IslamOnline website is also one of the most popular forums in the Middle East. Although the Obama administration has kept Qaradawi at arm’s length he represents the rising phenomenon of influential “new media” personalities in the Islamists movement who are changing the face of the Arab Middle East—a phenomenon President Obama will have to embrace to a induce a gradual political re-alignment in the region.  

            President Obama’s most significant effort to change the trajectory of engagement between the United States and the Islamists occurred in June 2009 when he delivered his much anticipated speech (A New Beginning) in Egypt to the Muslim world. As the cultural and political center of the Arab world and birthplace of the most influential transnational Sunni Muslim organization in the Middle East—the Muslim Brotherhood– Egypt was the logical choice for Obama to put his larger agenda into play. Obama administration officials successfully insisted that elected parliamentary members of the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt’s largest officially banned opposition party) receive invitations to attend his address. Obama’s demand to seat Muslim Brotherhood members was calculated to achieve three objectives. First, to signal his administration’s desire to open a channel of communication with the organization. Second, to show support for moderate Muslim Brotherhood members across the Middle East who favor participating in national elections.  And third to increase the pressure on President Mubarak to expand political access for Muslim Brotherhood members and  opposition forces like former IAEA leader Mohammed al Baradei who is considering a presidential run in 2011. One week after President Obama’s speech the Muslim Brotherhood released a statement agreeing “with the general principles of human rights, justice and the need for dialogue based on respect and mutual trust” articulated by President Obama. The statement also said President Obama’s “deft use of language to win Muslims’ hearts does nothing to give Muslims their rights, whether in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, where blood is shed day and night by the design of successive U.S. administrations.” Considering most Islamists and the “Arab street” generally oppose U.S. foreign policy the Muslim Brotherhood statement expressing agreement on the principles of human rights, justice and the need for dialogue suggested the MB left the door open to a new dialogue. Since the Cairo address, there are few signs that the Obama administration is attempting to expand the opening to the Muslim Brotherhood to ongoing discussions.   

            If President Obama is to build on his incremental strategy of Islamist engagement he cannot avoid entering into substantive backchannel and public dialogue with HAMAS, also an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains the enduring source of widespread anti-American sentiment on the Arab street and Obama’s most significant impediment to close the gap between the United States and Islamist forces. Before taking office Obama’s transition team leaked stories to the press that U.S. intelligence services would open a “secret channel” to HAMAS. But beyond earmarking token amounts of humanitarian aid to Gaza President Obama has pursued a counterproductive One and One-Half State Strategy that backs negotiations between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel to the exclusion of HAMAS. While the West Bank received large infusions of aid and assistance the U.S. joined Israel to politically isolate Gaza and reduce it to a state of economic desolation. Obama’s approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been flawed from its inception. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s refusal to halt settlement construction embarrassed Obama and left Abbas in an untenable position to negotiate. Following Israel’s June attack on the Turkish flotilla that was condemned internationally Obama again squandered an opportunity to recast U.S.-HAMAS relations. He simply  doled out more humanitarian aid and stated the obvious: that Israel’s “siege was not sustainable.” In many ways it is Obama’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is not sustainable. Notwithstanding Obama’s feckless response to Israel’s attack on the Free Gaza Movement flotilla, the incident widened the growing breach between Washington and Turkey’s Islamist government led by Tayyip Erdogan-historically America’s most reliable partner in the Middle East.      

Ironically, while Obama has repeatedly distanced himself from HAMAS, senior intelligence officers at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) have made the case for a diplomatic course correction. In a Red Team Report issued on May 7, 2010, titled “Managing Hizbollah and HAMAS” the report questioned the administration’s policy of “isolating and marginalizing the two movements.” Instead the report recommended a mix of strategies that would integrate both movements into their respective political mainstreams.  The report states that while HAMAS embraces a “staunch anti-Israeli rejectionist policy,” the group is “pragmatic and opportunistic.”  In particular, the Red Team report stated that reconciliation between HAMAS and Fatah combined with an explicit renunciation of violence by HAMAS would gain “widespread international support and deprive the Israelis of any legitimate justification to continue settlement building and delay statehood negotiations.” The CENTCOM report that has been read by General Petraeus also broke with current U.S. policy by stating that lifting the Israeli siege of Gaza represents the best opportunity to pave the way toward unification of al Fatah and HAMAS.  

            As the Obama administration approaches the half way point of his four-year term, the window to push forward his “Islamic Opening” is closing. The headwinds of democracy and change blowing across the Middle East are largely animated by Iran’s and its Shiite Islamic impulses. As chaotic as Iran’s managed democratic elections are there is nothing remotely comparable occurring in the pro-U.S. Sunni-led dictatorships in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirate Gulf States. Iraq’s continuing democratic experiment punctuated by sectarian violence with Kurd and Sunni forces is largely a Shiite-led enterprise backed by Tehran. In Lebanon, despite the Shiite-based Hezbollah forces narrow defeat by the Cedar coalition in the 2009 parliamentary elections, Hassan Nasrallah maintains effective control over the country. Iran’s growing “crossover” appeal and penetration of HAMAS’s Sunni Islamists movement in the Palestinian territories are a wake-up call that America’s Middle East foreign policy must be reassessed and placed on more sustainable ground. 

Having wisely initiated the “Islamist Opening” the Obama administration appears to be paralyzed by ambivalence and fear of an Israeli and Republican Party backlash to its enterprise.” In the meantime al Queda and salafists forces are mounting a political counterattack against Islamists forces. Salafists have reportedly taken back control from Muslim Brotherhood’s moderates in Egypt and Jordan. Similarly, Salafists forces in Qatar have siezed editorial control over Yusef Qaradawi’s IslamOnline website and their political attacks on Islamist academician Tariq Ramadan continue unabated. In short, there are real consequences attendant to America’s reluctance to bestow agency on and support Islamists forces. For better or worse, the Islamists are the emerging Muslim mainstream. If President Obama is elected to a second term, perhaps the slow pace of his incremental “Islamic Opening” strategy may bare fruit. But that is a big if. The sooner the Obama Administration and American foreign policy makers come to grips with the new realities and the need to embrace Islamists forces the sooner they can counteract the growing influence of al Queda inspired salafists and the growing specter of Iranian expansion in the Middle East.

The Death of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution

Brooks Foreign Policy Review

by Webster Brooks

Victor Yanukovich’s inauguration in March as the new President of Ukraine marked the death of the “Orange Revolution.” To the Obama administration’s consternation, Ukraine has gone red. Yanukovich’s pivot eastward toward rapprochement with Moscow is a major victory for a resurgent Russia that has longed for Kiev’s return to its political orbit. For Yanukovich, whose fraudulent presidential victory was overturned five years ago by pro-western Orange forces, his triumph was bitter sweet. He inherits a nation with the most dysfunctional government in Central Europe; a nation divided between pro-western Ukrainian nationalists and its pro-eastern Russian speaking population, and a nation whose 15 percent drop in GDP in 2009 is illustrative of its spiraling economic problems. Ukraine is also the central battleground between the United States and Moscow over NATO’s eastward expansion to Russia’s borders and control over strategic energy transit routes to Europe. While Yanukovich said Ukraine will be a “bridge between the east and west” and a “non-aligned” European country, Ukraine cannot survive in the near-term as a neutral state. Ukraine will either be Euro-Atlantic or pro-Russian. Yanukovich’s statement during last week’s visit with President Medvedev in Moscow left little doubt about Ukraine’s future direction. “The new government in Ukraine” he said “will change relations with Russia, so that they will never again be like they were for the last five years.” 

Ukraine’s drift to the West the past five years posed a grave threat to Russia’s national security interests and the strategic balance of power in Eurasia. Former “Orange” President Victor Yushchenko transferred weapons and tanks to Georgia in its 2008 war against Russia. Yushchenko incessantly pushed Ukraine’s entry into NATO despite majority opposition from the Ukrainian people and the nation’s lack of preparedness. He repeatedly threatened to break Ukraine’s treaty with Moscow by expelling Russia’s navy from Ukraine’s Sevastapol base and refused to negotiate with Russia over Ukraine’s gross mismanagement and theft of energy transfers to Europe. Now that the strident anti-Russian era of Victor Yushchenko has ended, Ukraine’s turn back to Moscow is a certainty for two reasons. First, Ukraine was hurt economically and politically by its excessive anti-Russian policies. Second, Russia has more strategic and political leverage in Ukraine than the U.S. and the European Union.

For the United States and Moscow, the seminal issue since the Soviet Union’s collapse has been whether Ukraine would vacate Russia’s sphere of influence. With 45 million people, the most advanced industrial base in the former Soviet Union and a Russian Diaspora upwards of 20 million people Ukraine was Russia’s crown jewel republic. From Henry Kissinger to Zbigniew Brzezinski, American grand strategists have asserted that if Ukraine joined the EU and eventually NATO, Russia would have no choice but to integrate into a Common European home stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok. But the EU and NATO never shared America’s enthusiasm to grant Ukrainian ascension. Five years of Orange rule validated their fears. Ukraine’s weak government, tottering economy and volatile relationship with Russia is viewed by the EU as a cesspool of problems that will dilute its strength, sew division among member states and possibly push NATO to the brink of an armed confrontation with Russia—the same type of confrontation NATO narrowly averted during the 2008 Georgian crisis. The EU’s central powers, Germany, Italy and France made clear they would not risk their substantial trade relations with Russia to undertake Ukrainian EU ascension. Thus the EU’s attempts to keep Ukraine at arm’s length was underscored at Yanukovich’s March 2 meeting with European Commission President Barroso who said “Regarding accession, instead of discussing possible dates for negotiations, it is much better to focus on reforms needed to [bring] Ukraine closer to Europe and de facto integration in our economic system.” The horizon’s of Barroso’s “de facto” integration would be limited to establishing free trade and visa-free travel; not exactly an expansive agenda. Furthermore, Europe will continue to view Ukraine as a “toxic nation” until Yanukovich’s new government adopts a budget with spending controls and austerity measures to justify the IMF lifting its suspension of the final $5 billion payment of its $16.4 billion dollar loan.   

As for NATO, when asked in Moscow about membership for Ukraine, Yanukovich simply said, “Ukraine will build its relations with NATO in accordance to the national interests of Ukraine”—a polite way of saying thanks, but no thanks. Ukraine’s relations with NATO will continue to be limited to participation in minor training exercises and small numbers of Ukrainian troops serving in NATO deployments. With Ukrainian enlargement in NATO off the table Russian Prime Minister Putin moved quickly to secure Ukraine’s commitment to extend Russian naval rights at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol beyond 2017. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet surged troops into Georgia in 2008 conflict and is critical to Russia projecting power in the Caucuses and Southern European countries of Romania, Bulgaria, Armenia, Turkey, and Georgia. After meeting with Putin in Moscow on March 4, Yanukovich said “I think that very soon we will receive a resolution (to talks on the naval basing treaty) that will suit both Ukraine and Russia,” Furthermore, the combination of Yanukovich’s victory, Georgian President Saakashveli’s growing unpopularity and Russia’s consolidation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as breakaway republics, has frozen all prospects of Georgia’s ascendency to NATO. Once backtracking to keep Georgia and Ukraine from introducing NATO to its borders, Russia is extending its “near abroad westward.”        

Across Europe concerns are growing that Ukraine must reform the chaotic management of its gas and oil pipeline network that was shut down twice by Russia in 2008, leaving several European nations without gas in the winter. The EU wants more private ownership and investment to upgrade Ukrainian pipeline operations and transparency to stop Ukraine’s arbitrary price hikes and outright theft of gas transfers bound for Europe. With 20% of the EU’s gas consumption and 80% of Russian gas exports to the EU transiting through Ukraine, Europe’s energy security is extremely vulnerable. For all these reasons, Moscow is in a strong position to leverage rapprochement with Ukraine to enhance its geo-strategic and national security position. In March President Yanukovich’s foreign affairs spokesman, Leonid Kozhara told BBC news that Ukraine is open to selling off part of its network of pipeline and storage facilities to foreign companies, including the Russian energy titan Gazprom. Having negotiated  an agreement to lower Ukraine’s gas payments in 2009, Russia is superbly positioned to purchase components of Ukraine’s energy network—something the U.S. and the EU adamantly oppose as they strive to lesson Ukraine’s dependence on Moscow. Ukraine has also failed to fulfill promises made to open the Odessa-Brody oil pipeline and the White Stream gas line project to transit energy from the Caspian Sea basin to Europe. With the pro-Russian Yanukovich now in power, it is extremely doubtful that both projects that would by-pass Russia will get off the ground. In the meantime to protect itself against the Ukrainian governments history of incompetence in managing its energy transit system, Russia has launched its new Nord Stream gas line. The new pipeline that will be completed in 2011 will run under the Baltic Sea through Finland, Sweden and Denmark’s waters to Germany.   

The ironic twist of political fortune that brought Victor Yanukovich and his Regions Party to power has given Russia a second chance to re-integrate Ukraine into its sphere of influence. But Moscow will have to do more than simply invite Ukraine to join the Eurasian Economic Community (ERASEC) with Kazakhstan and Belarus which share common foreign trade tariffs. Russia will need to mobilize its substantial “soft power” assets and investment capital to help modernize some of Ukraine’s underdeveloped industries that are transitioning from state ownership to the private sector. Winning by a narrow three percentage point margin over Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenco, President Yanukovich must deliver stability to a chaotic government that has bought shame and a stagnant standard of living to its people. Having secured a “no confidence” vote last week in Ukraine’s parliament to dismiss his adversary Prime Minister Temoschenko, Yanukovich must now cobble together a governing coalition that tames the country’s corrupt oligarchs, reforms the judiciary and adopt business friendly government policies to grow the economy. Yanukovich must also refrain from policies that alienate the country’s western Ukrainian nationalists. His statement last week that Ukrainian will remain the official national was a step in the right direction. President Yanokovich can survive and Ukraine can emerge from its crisis ridden state, despite its tilt to Russia. After all a reasonable argument can be made that Ukraine’s experiment with the West almost drove the country to a state of collapse. However, Yanukovich can only be successful if he leads and governs Ukraine as a centrist. In short, Yanukovich must blend Ukraine’s “Orange” and “Red” color revolutions into a more unified national polity–Yanukovich must lead Ukraine in a new “Yellow Revolution.”

Al Maliki’s Defeat in 2010 Parliamentary Elections Will Be a Setback for President Obama in Iraq


Al Maliki’s Defeat in 2010 Parliamentary Elections Will Be a Setback for President Obama in Iraq



By Webster Brooks      

Washington, D.C. — The Iraqi legislature’s November 8 approval of a new election law and agreement to hold parliamentary elections before January 31, 2010 are bringing all the major problems in Baghdad to a head. Although President Obama praised Iraq’s parliament saying its action will keep U.S. troop withdrawals on track for completion by August 2011, the outcome of the election is fraught with danger for his administration. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s re-election bid is in deep trouble. Renewed sectarian violence hangs over Iraq as two deadly al Queda bombings on October 25 of government ministry buildings in Baghdad has unsettled the country. Pro-Iranian Shiia forces have re-organized their election campaigns and are gaining momentum. Tension between Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Turkmen forces over the status of oil-rich Kirkuk are also intensifying as the Parliament’s new election law backed Kurdish demands that voter eligibility in Kirkuk (Tamim Province) will be based on the 2009 voting list. With the stakes and the political temperature rising, U.S. armed forces in Iraq are prepared to redeploy to Kirkuk as Iraq braces for outbreaks of violence in the run up to the election.

At the center of the electoral firestorm is Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki. In August al-Maliki announced his Dawa Party’s break with the major Shiia groups (Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Sadrist forces led by Muqtada al Sadr) to form a secular “State of the Law List” with his “Sunni allies.” After directing the Iraqi Army’s offensive to smash the Sadrists in Basrah in 2008, al-Maliki distanced himself from the ruling Shiia coalition in Iraq’s January 2009 provincial elections. Al-Maliki’s list won a plurality of 31% of the vote carrying most of the Shiia majority provinces by campaigning on a platform of nationalism, political secularism, restoring law and order, building a strong central government and supporting a Status of Forces Agreement to expel U.S. troops by 2011. After his strong 2009 campaign al-Maliki negotiated with Shiia groups for months, demanding 50% of the parliamentary seats for the DAWA Party to join the new Shiia-led “United Iraqi Alliance List.” Fearful that al-Maliki is attempting to consolidate power for himself and DAWA, the Shiia groups balked at his demand but left the door open for al-Maliki’s possible return. On November 4, Iranian Parliamentary leader Ali Larijani arrived in Baghdad for talks with Iraq’s Shiia parties, urging them to settle their differences and bring al-Maliki into the fold to maximize Shiia control over Iraq’s government in the upcoming elections. But rapprochement between al-Maliki and the new United Iraqi Alliance is not likely. Over the past year al-Maliki’s missteps have alienated key forces and developments have conspired to further undermine his power base.
In August, former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari led a press conference announcing the creation of a new Shiia majority electoral list; the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). After losing the 2009 provincial elections, the Sadrists, the Fadhila Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) patched up their differences and formed the UIA. Shiia forces hold 128 of the 275 seats in parliament, but in the 2009 provincial elections the ISCI won only 12% of the vote, the Sadrist 9% and former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaffari won 5%. Forced to adjust its platform, the dominant ISCI dropped its call to create a Shiia controlled autonomous region (Shiiastan) in southern Iraq to appease Muqtada al Sadr’s forces in Baghdad and central Iraq who opposed Shiia regional autonomy. To appeal to more mainstream voters and secularists, the Sadrist and ISCI jettisoned their rhetoric to establish Iraq as a theocratic (read Shiia) Islamic state, choosing instead to run as a secular list. To broaden their base, the UIA invited Sunni groups, independents and influential Shiia secularist politicians like Ahmed al Chalabi and former DAWA Prime Minister al-Jaafari to join their list. When powerful Shiia cleric Ayatollah Sistani endorsed an open ballot process allowing Iraqis to vote for individuals, parties or lists, instead of just coalitions, UIA backers supported the measure in parliament although it will narrow their advantage at the ballot box.
While the UIA is expanding its base, al-Maliki’s “State of Law List” efforts to widen its influence beyond its DAWA base have met with little success. Prominent Sunni and secularist leaders publicly courted by al-Maliki are refusing to support his bloc. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Sunni leader Saleh Mutlak and Vice-President Tarik al Hashemi formed the anti-Iranian “Iraqi National Movement List,” advocating re-integration of former Baathist leaders. Sheikh Ahmad Abu Risha, a force in Anbar and Interior Minister Jawad Bolani of the Constitution Party decided to create their own “Unity Alliance.” Similarly, al-Maliki’s efforts to recruit Ninewa Province’s ruling al-Hadbaa Party and Sunni tribal leaders from Anbar, Tamim and Salahaddin met with failure.
The Sunni lack of support for al-Maliki is not surprising. Al-Maliki promised to pay salaries for former Sunni Awakening forces and integrate them into Iraq’s national army, but half of the Awakening soldiers were never paid. Recently, al-Maliki announced the armed forces payroll would be cut as government salaries and expenditures were absorbing 74% of the nation’s $58 billion budget, thus the Iraqi National Army will likely remain a predominantly Shiia military. Moreover, reconciliation efforts to reintegrate Baathist forces into the wellsprings of Iraq’s government still has not occurred and no agreement has been reached on distribution of oil revenues. Despite his break with the Sadrists and the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council, the Sunni still view al-Maliki as an agent of Iranian ambition. Sunni dissatisfaction with al-Maliki was underscored by the twin al Queda bombings in October of government complexes in the middle of Baghdad. The blasts that killed hundreds seriously undermined al-Maliki’s claim that he has restored security to Iraq. As the attacks were directed against major government buildings it appears the bombings were a direct warning to al-Maliki that the Sunni can visit chaos on Iraq if their demands are not addressed.
With the passage of the new 2010 election law allowing the 2009 voter list to be used in Kirkuk’s elections the Kurds are poised to gain control of oil-rich Tamim Province and exercise virtual independence from Iraq. Sunni Arab and Turkmen groups argued for using the 2004 voting list to eliminate voter eligibility for thousands of Kurds that returned to Kirkuk after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. How the new election law would be applied to Kirkuk was the most contentious issue delaying the passage of the new bill and it remains the most volatile flashpoint that could lead to mass sectarian violence between the Kurds, the Sunni and Turkmen. The Kurds are now positioned to increase its 53 seat voting bloc in Iraq’s Parliament and strike a deal with the Shiia UAI List to incorporate oil rich Kirkuk into Kurdistan’s autonomous region. The two major Kurdish groups (PUK and KDP) will not enter into an alliance with Nouri al-Maliki, who opposed Kurdish enlargement and dispatched Iraqi Army forces to attack the Kurdish peshmerga in 2008. Instead, the Kurds will support UIA control of parliament and have a major voice in naming a new Prime Minister to replace al-Maliki if the “State of Law List falters.”
While Prime Minister al-Maliki’s chances of being re-elected are growing dimmer, shifting alliances and unforeseen events could tip the scales back in his direction the next sixty days. Iraq is a very unpredictable place. Prime Minister al-Maliki’s emphasis on secularism, law and order and building a unitary Iraq rather than ceding more autonomy to the Kurds and Shiia has been viewed with great favor by the Obama administration. And while his outreach to the Sunni may fall short of winning allies for the election, it has altered the political dynamic in Iraq. For the moment, the revamped Shiia led United Iraq Alliance has the momentum to win a working Parliamentary majority and name a new Prime Minister.  Among al-Maliki’s potential successors are Adel Abdul Mehdi, the Vice-President and a senior leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq’s first elected prime minister. A pro-Iran leaning UIA victory will mean Tehran will strengthen its position in Iraq as the United States prepares to accelerate troop withdrawals at the end of March. The referendum on the Status of Forces Agreement scheduled for approval during the 2010 parliamentary has been withdrawn and will proceed on schedule for all U.S. forces to be withdrawn by August 31, 2011. If American forces can avoid being drawn into the maelstrom of Iraqi politics and sectarian violence President Obama may have the good fortune to exit U.S. troops without significant losses and augment his forces in Afghanistan. While an orderly U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will be viewed by many in the United States as a victory, in the larger strategic sense Iran’s ability to gain the upper hand in Iraq and solidify its control over the Persian Gulf would mark a major strategic setback for the U.S. Iraq’s 2010 elections and the fate of Prime Minister al-Maliki will significantly impact the future of American power in Gulf region as democratic elections continue to cast a large footprint across the Middle East.              

Defusing Yemen’s Ticking Time Bomb & the Iran-Saudi Proxy War

Yemen's Embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh

Yemen's Embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh


Defusing Yemen’s Ticking Time Bomb & the Iran-Saudi Proxy War

Brooks Foreign Policy Review
September 7, 2009
by Webster Brooks


Yemen is a ticking time bomb with a dangerously short fuse. President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government is under siege; battling an al Houthi insurgency, attacks by Sunn extremists rebranded as “al Queda of the Peninsula” (AQP) and fending off a growing secessionist struggle led by the Southern Movement.” Absent urgent American intervention, Yemen is on a course leading to the collapse of President Saleh’s government or the partitioning of Yemen into autonomous zones run by non-state actors. Concerns in the United States and Saudi Arabia are mounting as Iran has entered the fray backing the al Houthi Shiia (Zaida sect) insurgency. Like Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, Yemen is emerging as a battlefield in a proxy war between Iran and the Saudi/American axis. Tehran is threatening to secure a beachhead in the strategic Southwest Arabian Peninsula, where Yemen’s oil, proximity to Saudi oilfields and control over critical Red Sea shipping lanes are up for grabs.

As the poorest Gulf oil state Yemen is the regional nerve center for trafficking arms, narcotics and harvested body parts, transiting jihadists and sponsoring Somali pirating operations. With President Saleh’s 30 year rule faltering, Saudi Arabia has intervened to contain the threat Yemen’s instability poses to its national security and to short circuit Iran’s growing influence.  Saudi Arabia is actively supporting President Saleh’s war to eliminate the Zaida Shiite sect (called al Houthi’s) in the mountains of northwestern Yemen along the Saudi border. The al Houthi are fighting to restore Shiite rule over Northern Yemen they lost to the Sunni in 1962. Shiite Muslims make up 40 percent of Yemen’s population. Saudi Arabia’s Sunni royalists are mortified at the prospects of the al Houthi Shiia revolt spreading across its border with Yemen to inflame the passions of its own repressed Shiia minority concentrated around its Eastern oilfields. Reports are also surfacing that Egypt is providing arms and ammunition to President Saleh’s government with American approval.

While admitting they are “consulting” with Saleh’s regime, Saudi leaders have disavowed claims by the al Houthi that Saudi planes have bombed rebel positions in Sa’adah province where the heaviest fighting is occurring. President Saleh has promised to crush the al Houthi resistance, or force them to accept a six-point peace plan that includes surrendering their weapons and control over key highways on the Saudi border. Pressing the offensive against the al Houthi with his most elite units, tanks and artillery divisions, Saleh has been forced to recruit local tribes to fight the insurgency.  Hundreds have been injured or killed and thousands displaced as the both sides battle with resolve.


The tenacity of the al Houthi insurgency has taken the Yemeni government by surprise. President Saleh has accused Iran of arming the northern rebels, and claims his government has uncovered caches of Iranian made short-range missiles and machine guns. Like the Saudi’s, Iran has denied the claims, which means the likelihood that both countries are arming proxy forces is true. In the spring Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani visited Yemen and affirmed Iran’s support for a unified Yemen. Yemen has entered into discussions with Tehran over Iranian investments in its energy platform, roads, dams and housing industry. Yemen reciprocated by announcing its support for Iran’s development of a civil nuclear program, much to the chagrin of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s capacity to leverage Yemen’s huge Shiite community, the al Houthi insurgency and President Saleh’s weak position is substantial and can be projected over time. Indeed, Iran’s genius in cultivating ties with Hezbollah and Hamas are the result of decades of support. In addition to Iran’s support for the al Houthi insurgency, Tehran could also begin supporting the socialist-led Southern Movement coalition. Notwithstanding its Shiia roots, Iran could also funnel backdoor support to the resurgent elements of “Al Queda of the Peninsula,” (AQP) if the Sunni extremist target President Saleh’s regime or more importantly use Yemen as a base to continue their battle against neighboring Saudi Arabia’s royal family.    

Al Queda resurfaced in Yemen last year after its forces were routed by the House of Saud in the 2004-2007 jihadist war. Given Saudi concerns about AQP reigniting its insurgency inside the kingdom from neighboring Yemen, the Obama Administration’s plans to transfer 110 Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo Bay when the base closes has surfaced as a complicated issue. The Yemeni government wants to accept the detainees, insisting they will prosecute those who have committed acts of terrorism and rehabilitate the rest. However, after the mysterious prison break of 2006 when 23 al Queda members escaped from Yemen’s jails, the U.S. is reluctant to hand over the detainees to President Saleh. The Obama administration prefers to return the detainees to Saudi Arabia, who they believe has a better record of rehabilitating extremists. The Saudi’s don’t share the U.S.’s enthusiasm on the detainee issue. Ironically, last week in Jeddah, royal family member and Saudi counter terrorist head Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef narrowly escaped death after a Yemeni jihadist turning himself in for rehabilitation set off a suicide bomb in his presence.    

With Yemen on the brink of a renewed civil war between Saleh’s regime and the secessionist “Southern Movement” in South Yemen, the Obama administration has stepped up its call for a negotiated settlement.  After two years of peaceful protests led by civil service workers and soldiers whose pensions were never paid, the situation is escalating to violence.  In the last few months three opposition leaders have been murdered by northern security forces and seven newspapers have been shut down. The movement has been joined by socialist forces and sympathizers of the former South Yemen government who are fed up with the Saleh government’s rampant corruption and mismanagement of the economy. Ali Salem al-Bidh, the former Marxist leader who negotiated the first reunification agreement between North and South Yemen in 1990, has been named the new leader of the Southern Movement. Because the Southern Movement has no faith in negotiating with Saleh, they have called for the United Nations to lead reconciliation talks or allow the Gulf Cooperation Council to form a new caretaker government in lieu of new negotiations.

Once again, the United States finds itself caught in a diplomatic tangle. The Obama administration wants negotiations to unify Yemen. The Southern Movement and the al Houthi Shiia have no intention of entering direct negotiations with a corrupt regime that has criminalized the machinery of national governance and used authoritarian measures to suppress their just struggles.

In the final analysis, the al Houthi Shiia sect and the Southern Movement insurgencies can be resolved through negotiations and diplomacy, but not as long as President Saleh remains in office. The U.S. must insist on his replacement, a new negotiations process and the willingness to make compromises with the insurgents to preserve Yemen’s unity. If not, Yemen’s descent in chaos will continue, marked by sectarian violence, balkanization, and foreign proxy wars. It is time for the Obama administration to defuse the powder keg in Yemen before it explodes.  ***

North Korea’s Kim is Back With a Bang–Northeast Asia’s Escalating Nuclear Crisis

Webster Brooks SIRIUS/XM Interview on North Korean Nuclear Crisiswebpic  (Click to hear interview)

 On June 3, 2009, Editor Webster Brooks discussed North Korea’s underground nuclear test and its policy implications for America and Northeast Asia.  Brooks was interviewd by Charles Ellison, Senior Fellow at the Center for New Politics and Policy on the weekly SIRIUS/XM satellite radio talk show “The New School”