Raed Jarrar

Saudi Arabia and Israel's Growing Alliance, a Match Made in Hell

For decades, Saudi Arabia has been a stalwart advocate of Palestinian statehood rights and a voracious critic of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Saudi Arabia’s commitment to Palestine has defined the geopolitical contours of the Middle East for decades. But now that the Iran nuclear deal has been struck and as the war in Syria ravages on, those political lines are being redrawn, bringing together unexpected bedfellows: Saudi Arabia and Israel.   

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We Must Force Obama to Stick to His Deadline to Withdraw From Iraq

Last week, rumors that the U.S. might delay the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq led to much confusion and concern. These rumors are thankfully not true, and both the U.S. and Iraqi leaderships are going ahead with the agreed upon plan.

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Obama Has Some Major Iraq Tests Coming His Way

Last week, an Iraqi governmental commission banned more than a dozen political parties and leading political figures from the upcoming March elections. Among those banned was one of Iraq's most significant players, Dr. Saleh al-Mutlaq, a secular nationalist leader and a head of one of the most important parliamentary blocs.

When Paul Bremer ruled Iraq, he created the infamous "de-baathefication" commission with the help of Ahmad Al-Chalabi. A couple of years ago, that commission was disbanded, and it was supposed to be replaced by another new body called the "Accountability and Justice Commission." But the Iraqi government never submitted nominations to the parliament for confirmation to form the new commission. So what ended up happening is that the old de-baathiefication commission just changed its title and claimed it can continue its work under the new name. But the parliament rejected this argument and never recognized the same old appointees to be confirmed for the new committee. So when the unrecognized "Accountability and Justice Commission" announced that Al-Mutlaq was banned from the upcoming elections because of his support to Baathist ideologies, there was an Iraqi outrage not only because of the lack of legitimacy of the commission, but also because Dr. Al-Mutlaq has been a prominent member of the Iraqi political system since 2003. He's not only a head of one of the most important parliamentary blocs, but he also sits on the Iraqi Political Council for National Security.

For the last few week, Dr. Al-Mutlaq and others in coalition have been under continues attacks by the current Iraqi ruling parties, so this latest attempt to ban Dr. Al-Mutlaq is seen as another political maneuver to take down that nationalist coalition.

If the Iraqi Supreme Court confirms the commission's recommendations and bans Dr. Al-Mutlaq, his partners in the coalition have already announced they will boycott the upcoming elections. This means that Dr. Allawi, Dr. Al-Hashemi, Mr. AL-Nujaifi, Dr. Al-Ani and others in the coalition will not run in the upcoming elections, leaving the current ruling parties to compete against each other without any real participation from opposition parties and leaders. This will be a disaster that might destroy what little legitimacy the Iraqi political system has left, and it will definitely decrease the Iraqi public's participation in the upcoming elections.

The March elections have a lot of threats: Elections might be further delayed by the ruling parties fearing to lose; Elections might be stolen by the ruling parties with the lack of international observers; and elections might be seen as illegitimate if opposition parties were excluded and politically persecuted.

Five Things You Need to Know to Understand the Latest Violence in Iraq

Heavy fighting has spread across Shia-dominated enclaves in Iraq over the past two days. The U.S.-backed regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered 50,000 Iraqi troops to "crack down" -- with coalition air support -- on Shiite militias in the oil-rich and strategically important city of Basra, U.S. forces have surrounded Baghdad's Sadr City and fighting has been reported in the southern cities of Kut, Diwaniya, Karbala and Hilla. Basra's main bridge and an oil pipeline connecting it to Amara were destroyed Wednesday. Six cities are under curfew, and acts of civil disobedience have shut down dozens of neighborhoods across the country. Civilian casualties have reportedly overwhelmed poorly equipped medical centers in Baghdad and Basra.

There are indications that the unilateral ceasefire declared last year by the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is collapsing. "The cease-fire is over; we have been told to fight the Americans," one militiaman loyal to al-Sadr told the Christian Science Monitor's Sam Dagher by telephone from Sadr City. Dagher added that the "same man, when interviewed in January, had stated that he was abiding by the cease-fire and that he was keeping busy running his cellular phone store."

A political track is also in play: Sadr has called on his followers to take to the streets to demand Maliki's resignation, and nationalist lawmakers in the Iraqi Parliament, led by al-Sadr's block, are trying to push a no-confidence vote challenging the prime minister's regime.

The conflict is one that the U.S. media appears incapable of describing in a coherent way. The prevailing narrative is that Basra has been ruled by mafialike militias -- which is true -- and that Iraqi government forces are now cracking down on the lawlessness in preparation for regional elections, which is not. As independent analyst Reider Visser noted:

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Iraqi Lawmakers Pass Resolution That May Force End to Occupation

While most observers are focused on the U.S. Congress as it continues to issue new rubber stamps to legitimize Bush's permanent designs on Iraq, nationalists in the Iraqi parliament -- now representing a majority of the body -- continue to make progress toward bringing an end to their country's occupation.

The parliament today passed a binding resolution that will guarantee lawmakers an opportunity to block the extension of the U.N. mandate under which coalition troops now remain in Iraq when it comes up for renewal in December. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose cabinet is dominated by Iraqi separatists, may veto the measure.

The law requires the parliament's approval of any future extensions of the mandate, which have previously been made by Iraq's prime minister. It is an enormous development; lawmakers reached in Baghdad today said that they do in fact plan on blocking the extension of the coalition's mandate when it comes up for renewal six months from now.

Reached today by phone in Baghdad, Nassar al Rubaie, the head of the Al-Sadr bloc in Iraq's Council of Representatives, said, "This new binding resolution will prevent the government from renewing the U.N. mandate without the parliament's permission. They'll need to come back to us by the end of the year, and we will definitely refuse to extend the U.N. mandate without conditions." Rubaie added: "There will be no such a thing as a blank check for renewing the U.N. mandate anymore, any renewal will be attached to a timetable for a complete withdrawal."

Without the cover of the U.N. mandate, the continued presence of coalition troops in Iraq would become, in law as in fact, an armed occupation, at which point it would no longer be politically tenable to support it. While polls show that most Iraqis consider U.S. forces to be occupiers rather than liberators or peacekeepers -- 92 percent of respondents said as much in a 2004 survey by the Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies -- the U.N. mandate confers an aura of legitimacy on the continuing presence of foreign troops on Iraq's streets, even four years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The resolution was initiated when a majority of Iraqi lawmakers signed a nonbinding legislative petition two weeks ago that called on the Iraqi government to demand a withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country.

While the issue of the Multinational Force's (MNF) mandate has been virtually ignored by the American media, it has been a point of fierce contention in Baghdad. Last fall, just after the midterm elections in the United States, a coalition of Iraqi nationalists in the parliament tried to attach conditions to the mandate's extension.

Iraqi lawmaker Jabir Habib (a Shia closely aligned with the al-Sadrist Movement) said in an interview last fall that the Iraqi Assembly had been poised to vote on the issue. "We spent the last months discussing the conditions we wanted to add to the mandate," he said, "and the majority of the parliament decided on three major conditions. These conditions included pulling the coalition forces out of the cities and transferring responsibility for security to the Iraqi government, giving Iraqis the right to recruit, train, equip and command the Iraqi security forces, and requiring that the U.N. mandate expire and be reviewed every six months instead of every 12 months."

Lawmakers said that while they likely had enough support to require a timetable for withdrawal as a condition of the mandate's renewal last year, they were sidelined by al-Maliki when the prime minister sent a letter to the U.N. Security Council requesting an extension without consulting members of parliament. The move outraged lawmakers.

In a phone interview just after the extension, Hassan al-Shammari, a Shia parliamentarian representing the al-Fadila party, said: "We had a closed session two days ago, and we were supposed to vote on the mandate in 10 days. I can not believe the mandate was just approved without our knowledge or input." Saleh al-Mutlaq, a secular Sunni lawmaker, was also shocked when we spoke with him last fall. "This is totally unexpected," he said. "It is another example of the prime minister dismissing the views of the parliament and monopolizing all power."

Today's resolution means that Maliki will not be able to make that claim this time around. Reached by phone today in Amman, Jordan, following the vote, al-Mutlaq said: "The parliament is more powerful now -- we can block the renewal of the U.N. mandate and demand to attach a timetable to it."

Iraq's government faces a crisis of legitimacy, in large part due to its refusal to demand the withdrawal of U.S. forces long favored by as many as four out of five Iraqis. According to a poll last year by the Project on International Policy Attitudes, 80 percent of Iraqis believe the U.S. plans to maintain permanent military bases in the country and three out of four believe that if their government were to demand a timetable for withdrawal, Washington would ignore it (according to the poll's authors, that finding was a major driver of the significant support among all groups of Iraqis for attacking coalition troops).

It is possible, even probable, that the Maliki regime will veto the resolution passed today. The White House's separatist allies in Baghdad have consistently found ways to bypass the assembly. Al Mutlaq said today that the nationalist bloc probably doesn't have the the two-thirds majority required to override a veto.

He warned, however, that the more the al-Maliki regime does to sideline the Iraqi parliament, the more Iraqis will be compelled to turn to violent resistance to the occupation. He said: "It will lead to many groups withdrawing from the political process and could only make things even worse."

The resolution passed today is only one part of the nationalists' effort to bring about a U.S. withdrawal. Nassar al Rubaie said of the measure's passage: "All of this is just our backup plan, but our other and more specific resolution setting a timetable will come soon." He promised that nationalists in parliament would force debate on a "clean" and binding resolution requiring occupation forces to withdrawal from the country in the immediate future. "We'll start the deliberations next week," he said. "We have enough signatures for that one already."

Majority of Iraqi Lawmakers Now Reject Occupation

On Tuesday, without note in the U.S. media, more than half of the members of Iraq's parliament rejected the continuing occupation of their country. 144 lawmakers signed onto a legislative petition calling on the United States to set a timetable for withdrawal, according to Nassar Al-Rubaie, a spokesman for the Al Sadr movement, the nationalist Shia group that sponsored the petition.

It's a hugely significant development. Lawmakers demanding an end to the occupation now have the upper hand in the Iraqi legislature for the first time; previous attempts at a similar resolution fell just short of the 138 votes needed to pass (there are 275 members of the Iraqi parliament, but many have fled the country's civil conflict, and at times it's been difficult to arrive at a quorum).

Reached by phone in Baghdad on Tuesday, Al-Rubaie said that he would present the petition, which is nonbinding, to the speaker of the Iraqi parliament and demand that a binding measure be put to a vote. Under Iraqi law, the speaker must present a resolution that's called for by a majority of lawmakers, but there are significant loopholes and what will happen next is unclear.

What is clear is that while the U.S. Congress dickers over timelines and benchmarks, Baghdad faces a major political showdown of its own. The major schism in Iraqi politics is not between Sunni and Shia or supporters of the Iraqi government and "anti-government forces," nor is it a clash of "moderates" against "radicals"; the defining battle for Iraq at the political level today is between nationalists trying to hold the Iraqi state together and separatists backed, so far, by the United States and Britain.

The continuing occupation of Iraq and the allocation of Iraq's resources -- especially its massive oil and natural gas deposits -- are the defining issues that now separate an increasingly restless bloc of nationalists in the Iraqi parliament from the administration of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose government is dominated by Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish separatists.

By "separatists," we mean groups who oppose a unified Iraq with a strong central government; key figures like Maliki of the Dawa party, Shia leader Abdul Aziz Al-Hakeem of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq ("SCIRI"), Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi of the Sunni Islamic Party, President Jalal Talabani -- a Kurd -- and Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Autonomous Region, favor partitioning Iraq into three autonomous regions with strong local governments and a weak central administration in Baghdad. (The partition plan is also favored by several congressional Democrats, notably Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.)

Iraq's separatists also oppose setting a timetable for ending the U.S. occupation, preferring the addition of more American troops to secure their regime. They favor privatizing Iraq's oil and gas and decentralizing petroleum operations and revenue distribution.

But public opinion is squarely with Iraq's nationalists. According to a poll by the University of Maryland's Project on International Public Policy Attitudes, majorities of all three of Iraq's major ethno-sectarian groups support a unified Iraq with a strong central government. For at least two years, poll after poll has shown that large majorities of Iraqis of all ethnicities and sects want the United States to set a timeline for withdrawal, even though (in the case of Baghdad residents), they expect the security situation to deteriorate in the short term as a result.

That's nationalism, and it remains the central if unreported motivation for many Iraqis, both within the nascent government and on the streets.

While sectarian fighting at the neighborhood and community level has made life unlivable for millions of Iraqis, Iraqi nationalism -- portrayed as a fiction by supporters of the invasion -- supercedes sectarian loyalties at the political level. A group of secular, Sunni and Shia nationalists have long voted together on key issues, but so far have failed to join forces under a single banner.

That may be changing. Reached by phone last week, nationalist leader Saleh Al-Mutlaq, of the National Dialogue Front, said, "We're doing our best to form this united front and announce it within the next few weeks." The faction would have sufficient votes to block any measure proposed by the Maliki government. Asked about the Americans' reaction to the growing power of the nationalists, Mutlaq said, "We're trying our best to reach out to the U.S. side, but to no avail."

That appears to be a trend. Iraqi nationalists have attempted again and again to forge relationships with members of Congress, the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House but have found little interest in dialogue and no support. Instead, key nationalists like al-Sadr have been branded as "extremists," "thugs" and "criminals."

That's a tragic missed opportunity; the nationalists are likely Iraq's best hope for real and lasting reconciliation among the country's warring factions. They are the only significant political force focused on rebuilding a sovereign, united and independent Iraq without sectarian and ethnic tensions or foreign meddling -- from either the West or Iran. Hassan Al-Shammari, the head of Al-Fadhila bloc in the Iraqi parliament, said this week, "We have a peace plan, and we're trying to work with other nationalist Iraqis to end the U.S. and Iranian interventions, but we're under daily attacks and there's huge pressure to destroy our peace mission."

A sovereign and unified Iraq, free of sectarian violence, is what George Bush and Tony Blair claim they want most. The most likely reason that the United States and Britain have rebuffed those Iraqi nationalists who share those goals is that the nationalists oppose permanent basing rights and the privatization of Iraq's oil sector. The administration, along with their allies in Big Oil, has pressed the Iraqi government to adopt an oil law that would give foreign multinationals a much higher rate of return than they enjoy in other major oil producing countries and would lock in their control over what George Bush called Iraq's "patrimony" for decades.

Al-Shammari said this week: "We're afraid the U.S. will make us pass this new oil law through intimidation and threatening. We don't want it to pass, and we know it'll make things worse, but we're afraid to rise up and block it, because we don't want to be bombed and arrested the next day." In the Basrah province, where his Al-Fadhila party dominates the local government, Al-Shammari's fellow nationalists have been attacked repeatedly by separatists for weeks, while British troops in the area remained in their barracks.

The nationalists in parliament will now press their demands for withdrawal. At the same time, the emerging nationalist bloc is holding hearings in which officials from the defense and interior ministries have been grilled about just what impediments to building a functional security force remain and when the Iraqi police and military will be able to take over from foreign troops. Both ministries are believed to be heavily infiltrated by both nationalist (al-Sadr's Mahdi Army) and separatist militias (the pro-Iranian Badr Brigade).

The coming weeks and months will be crucial to Iraq's future. The United States, in pushing for more aggressive moves against Iraqi nationalists and the passage of a final oil law, is playing a dangerous game. Iraqi nationalists reached in Baghdad this week say they are beginning to lose hope of achieving anything through the political process because both the Iraqi government and the occupation authorities are systematically bypassing the Iraqi parliament where they're in the majority. If they end up quitting the political process entirely, that will leave little choice but to oppose the occupation by violent means.

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