March 28, 2005

Iraq - Italy Troop Withdrawal Update


On March 17, I wrote:

"Italy announced this week that it would begin the phased withdrawal of its contingent of 3,000 troops from Iraq as early as September of this year. This comes in the wake of increased Italian public opinion against Italian involvement in the war following the accidental killing by American forces of an Italian intelligence officer during the release of an Italian journalist held hostage. "

This week, Italy's prime minister, Sylvio Berlusconi, announced that Italy's reduction of forces in Iraq in September 2005 would be only 100 troops, subject to approval from allied forces (read: the United States) and with no timetable set for further withdrawals.

It would seem that the prime minister's earlier statements were taken a bit out of context, or he was simply playing to his domestic audience. The bottom line is that Italian troops will remain part of the coalition for the foreseeable future, and reductions will be consulted with the other coalition members.

So - a dose of reality, hardly the breaking down of the coalition as reported in much of the mainstream media.

March 17, 2005

Italy and Iraq – Bad Precedent/Bad Policy

Italy announced this week that it would begin the phased withdrawal of its contingent of 3,000 troops from Iraq as early as September of this year. This comes in the wake of increased Italian public opinion against Italian involvement in the war following the accidental killing by American forces of an Italian intelligence officer during the release of an Italian journalist held hostage.

A few comments on the shooting of the Italian hostage and SISMI officer.

Italy's SISMI - (Servizio perle Informazioni e la Sicurezza Militaire, Intelligence and Military Security Service) - is its primary foreign intelligence agency. They mean well and usually are cooperative with us, but do not have a sterling reputation in the clandestine operations business. There is a small civilian agency (SISDE), but are dwarfed by SISMI. The relationship is quite similar to that of Israel's Directorate of Military Intelligence (the senior service) and the Mossad.

What happened in Baghdad was an unfortunate - and totally preventable - accident. Having done these sorts of things before, you always want to secure your egress route. As we saw in Baghdad, securing your target/subject/asset is meaningless if he/she is then killed in the egress.

The normal (if there is a normal in this business) protocol is to secure the asset and move him/her to the nearest secure area, in this case an Iraqi army or multinational forces installation. Once there, then further secure movement can be coordinated.

The Italians did virtually everything wrong. They did not coordinate (or even notify) the operations of the SISMI officer in going to meet the insurgents, nor did they coordinate the egress route. Even so, he could have taken her to the Green Zone. Approaching a US Army checkpoint and not stopping was reckless. What were the GI's supposed to do? They had no way of knowing who was in the vehicle coming at them at anywhere between 75 to 100 feet per second. The blame rests with the Italian intelligence officer.

Francona calls the Italians "reckless." (See a clip of Rick on this issue)

I have heard that the ransom paid for Sgrena was in the $10 million range, less than that paid for the two young ladies (the two Simona's) kidnapped and released last year. It was bad precedent then, and bad policy now. Part of the agreement for Sgrena's release may have been the announcement that Italy will withdraw its troops.

Once you start dealing with terrorists, where does it end?

March 16, 2005

East and West, Oil and Water

Jordan River Valley

America's - and the West's - vital interest in the Middle East is often cited as access to oil - a fair statement. American dependence on foreign oil has grown since the first wake-up call, that being the oil embargo of 1973-1974 in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. Today, the United States imports an estimated 65 percent of its oil. Although only 15 percent of that oil comes from the Middle East, oil is a fungible commodity - what matters is how much oil is available on the market at any given time. The Middle East is the world's major repository for oil.

That said, the Middle East itself is more concerned with another tap - the water tap. One only has to look at a map to realize that the world's oil supply is under some of the most inhospitable and arid terrain on the planet. To the residents of this area, water is the vital fluid. Oil generates income, but water is necessary to sustain life.

Access to water resources in the Middle East is a political and foreign policy issue for countries in the region, just as access to oil is a political and foreign policy issue in the west. A look at four specific water systems or areas might be useful.

The Euphrates River

The Euphrates River, or the Furat in Arabic and Turkish, flows from its origins in Turkey through Syria and into Iraq. At the city of Al-Qurnah, it joins the Tigris River to form the Shatt Al-'Arab, which flows to the Persian Gulf and forms Iraq's southern border with Iran. The entire length of the Euphrates waterway is just under 3000 kilometers, and impact the politics of the three nations who share the river. Most of the water, about 88 percent, originates in Turkey, and the remainder from two rivers that enter the Euphrates in Syria. There is virtually no water added to the river in Iraq.

Turkey's Southeast Anatolia Project

Turkey's Southeast Anatolia Project, known by the Turkish acronym GAP, is causing concern in Syria and Iraq about the future of their access to the waters of the Euphrates. GAP, a concept as early as the 1930's, was begun in 1997. The project includes more than 20 dams and 17 electric power plants, which will eventually supply over half of Turkey's electricity requirements. However, filling the reservoirs behind these dams will reduce the flow of water downstream to Syria and Iraq. For example, the Ataturk Dam, which is the fourth largest dam in the world, will create a reservoir of over 11 trillion gallons. The Turks began filling the reservoir is 1990, stopping the flow of the Euphrates for a month. Although the Turks released water from other dams to compensate for the reduced flow, both Syrian and Iraq have complained.

Turkey blamed Syria for not properly managing the flow to Iraq, but GAP was the major concern to the two Arab countries. Engineers from Syria and Iraq claim that the Ataturk Dam will reduce flow from the Euphrates by 40 percent to Syria and by 90 percent to Iraq. These levels are somewhat lower than the flows guaranteed by the Turks to Syria in a 1987 agreement (about 400 cubic meters per second versus the 500 cubic meters as specified in the agreement). Syria-

Turkey Dispute

Syria considers the Euphrates River to be its principal source of water. Many observers consider the disputes over the level of flow of the Euphrates to be the primary cause of conflict between Damascus and Ankara. In the early to mid-1990's, the water flows from Turkey to Syria were decreased enough to stop operation of seven of the ten turbines at the hydroelectric plant at Tabaqah, causing severe power outages throughout the country, including the capital city of Damascus. At its worst in the summer of 1993, portions of Syria outside Damascus had power for only three to four hours per day.

Ankara charges that Syria had supported the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, or at least provided the terrorist organization with a safe haven for cross border operations. The Turks believed that the Syrians used support of the PKK as leverage in its water negotiations. Syria, of course, denies the charge, but there appeared to be a pattern of cross-border PKK activity coincident with decreases in the flow of water from Turkey to Syria.

Syria-Iraq Dispute

In 1974, Syria began its own series of water projects on the Euphrates with the inauguration of the Al-Thawrah (Revolution) Dam at Tabaqah. When the Syrians began to fill the reservoir that has become Lake Asad, the flow of the river to Iraq was reduced by to as little as 25 percent of the normal rate. Iraq moved troops to the border with Syria and threatened to bomb the dam. Syria responded with the deployment of large numbers of aircraft to counter any Iraqi air action.

Diplomatic activity by the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia defused the situation peaceably. Since then, Iraq has seen the levels of water reaching its borders decrease. Not only has the quantity decreased, but also so has the quality of the water. Turkish and Syrian water projects take water from the top and middle flows of the river, where the water has less salinity and turbidity. The water reaching Iraq is less suitable for agriculture. Yields have decreased as salinity has increased.

The future?

In October of 1998, the Syrians and the Iraqis decided to coordinate their actions on the Euphrates (and of less importance to the Syrians, the Tigris) water issue with the Turks, putting aside other political differences. At the meeting, the two countries decided to boycott companies involved in the GAP. They coincidentally condemned the military agreement between the Turkish and Israeli armed forces. Turkey will continue its GAP development; it is too large of an investment.

Technically, the Turks are still ensuring that the flow of the Euphrates meets the minimum levels per its agreements with Syria and Iraq, but these levels are insufficient to meet rising Syrian and Iraqi future needs. Although the PKK has been severely crippled with the arrest of its leader Abdullah Ocalan, Syria will still finds ways to pressure the Turks. Iraq will continue to suffer with little recourse.

The Golan Heights

The Golan Heights (Ramat Hagolanim in Hebrew; Al-Murtafa’at Al-Jawlan in Arabic) are the key to the Syria-Israel track of the Middle East Peace Process. Syria's primary, and non-negotiable, demand has always been the return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since June 10, 1967. On December 14, 1981, Israel formally annexed the Golan Heights, complicating matters, since Israeli law does not allow annexed territory to be returned to its previous owners.

The Israeli rhetoric

"We have always insisted on the self-evident claim that the Land of Israel must include the sources of the Jordan all the way to Mt. Hermon . . . "
-- David Ben-Gurion, 1920

The Golan Heights hold tremendous emotional appeal for the Israelis. Prior to 1967, Syrian artillery units bombarded settlements in northern Israel from positions in the Golan. The heights enjoy a commanding view over the Sea of Galilee and the entire northern plains of the Jewish state. Many Israelis claim that the heights should remain in Israeli hands to prevent a reoccurrence of the shelling. However, technology developed since 1967, especially the advent of ballistic missiles, render the heights much less important militarily. If it wished, Syria can place high explosives, or chemical munitions, almost anywhere in Israel from locations north of Damascus.

In 1996, following the election of the Netanyahu government and the collapse of the Syria-Israel talks, the Israeli public relations machine revived the “cold start” theory, that Syrian forces could launch an attack to seize the Golan without warning. Given the dismal state of Syria’s armed forces and the state-of-the-art Israeli intelligence and surveillance stations on the Golan ridge and the 9,000 feet high peak of Mt Hermon (Jabal Al-Shaykh) – both of which can observe as far north as Damascus – a “cold start” is unrealistic.

The reality

The Golan Heights is home to many rivers and streams that are the major source of water for the Sea of Galilee, as well being a major source of water for the Yarmuk River on the Syria-Jordan border, and the Ruqad River in Syria. These constitute the headwaters of the Jordan River. The Sea of Galilee basin supplies as much as 40 percent of Israel's water requirements. There are two underground water sources – the Sea of Galilee is the country’s only surface catchment area – but all three together barely meet Israel’s needs. The situation will worsen as the population increases, and as neighboring Jordan expands its exploitation of the Jordan River that forms the border between the two countries. Israel has fully exploited the Jordan on its side of the river.

If Israel were to return the Golan Heights to Syria, virtually all of the headwaters of the Jordan would fall under Syrian control – they are in Syria proper or in Syrian-controlled Lebanon. In the early 1960’s, Syrian engineers attempted to divert the some of the waters that feed the Sea of Galilee into the Yarmuk basin. Israel regarded this as a threat to its security, claiming that Syria had plenty of water and that these actions were aimed at causing water shortages in Israel.

Israeli hardliners believe that only Israeli sovereignty, or at the very minimum, Israeli control of the Golan Heights will guarantee Israel’s water supply.

Southern Lebanon

Even before the establishment of the state of Israel, the leaders of the Zionist movement realized that water was the key to economic survival. In negotiations with the British during and after World War One, the Zionists asked that boundaries for the promised Jewish homeland to go as far north as the Litani River (in what is now Lebanon) and east to include all the source rivers of the Jordan River, the major ones being the Hasbani (in what is now Lebanon) and Baniyas (in what is now Syria). They even proposed that the new state include all the tributaries of the Yarmuk River on the present Syrian-Jordan border.

The Problem

By 1979, Israeli engineers determined that all available water resources within the country's 1948 borders had been fully exploited. In fact, Jordanian irrigation specialists complained that they could not support any future development of the Ghawr Valley of the Jordan because Israeli projects had siphoned off almost all of the water. By the early 1980s, Israel was getting half of its water from Arab sources located in territories seized in the Six Day War of 1967. Calls by the international community for Israel to return to its pre-war borders as required by United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 would cause economic turmoil in the country.

Further, in 1981, the Knesset formally annexed the occupied Syrian Golan Heights into Israel proper, securing the headwaters of the Jordan River for Israel. The large-scale immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel in the late 1980s increased Israel’s water requirements. By 1990, Israeli experts estimated an annual water deficit of up to 500 million cubic meters. By 2000, that deficit reached had quadrupled to over two billion cubic meters per year.

Water Sources

In addition to the exploitation of the Jordan River and securing of its headwaters on the Golan Heights, southern Lebanon has been a source of water. The Hasbani flows from Syria to Lebanon, and then into Israel where it joins with the Baniyas to form the Jordan. This part of the Jordan River provides 40 percent of Israel's water supply. For years there have been claims by Arab groups of Israeli attempts to divert the Litani River. The Litani begins in Lebanon and empties into the Mediterranean on the Lebanese coast, making the river’s course entirely in Lebanon. For this reason, the Lebanese identify their nationalism with the Litani and any Israeli efforts to divert its waters, true or not, enrage them. Israel did undertake feasibility studies about diverting the Litani’s waters into Israel. The study was made in 1954. After Israel invaded Lebanon in the summer of 1982 in the Peace for Galilee operation, it made no attempts to exploit the Litani. With the withdrawal from most of southern Lebanon in 2000, the threat of diversion has subsided if not disappeared.

The Hasbani

The Hasbani is another story. The Hasbani flows from its origins in Syria through Lebanon and into Israel. Since the Israeli withdrawal, control of the Lebanese portion has reverted to Lebanese authorities. Recent Israeli military intelligence reports claim that Lebanon has begun a project that will pump waters of the Hasbani River. Pumping water from the Hasbani would lessen the flow of water across the border into Israel. Israel consumes over 120 million cubic meters per year from the Hasbani.

In early March 2001, Israeli Minister of National Infrastructures Avigdor Lieberman threatened military action if Lebanon proceeded with a plan to pump water from the Hasbani River. This was accompanied by a request from the director of the primary Israeli water company, Ori Saghi, to the Ariel Sharon administration to prevent Lebanon from pumping waters from the Hasbani. Saghi, a former military intelligence officer, claimed that access to the headwaters of the Jordan River was a strategic Israeli interest and also intimated military action. This was followed by remarks by Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer that although the Israel Defense Forces had withdrawn from Lebanon, it retained the capability and conduct operations there if ordered. These statements by three senior Israeli officials underscore the importance Tel Aviv places on the waters of the Hasbani.

The Nile River

The Nahr An-Nil, Arabic for the Nile River, is the longest river system in the world, stretching for over 5,000 miles from its major source at Lake Victoria in east central Africa. The White Nile flows generally north through Uganda and into Sudan where it meets the Blue Nile at Khartoum. From Khartoum, the river continues northwards into Egypt and on to the Mediterranean Sea.

Since time immemorial, the Nile has been the lifeblood of Egypt. In the spring, the waters of the river flooded, bringing black soil from the south and depositing it on the banks and creating the fertile Nile delta. Without the waters of the Nile to irrigate the dry deserts, Egypt would cease to exist. Despite the construction of the Aswan Dam in the late 1950’s and early 1960s, the Nile remains the single most important facet of Egyptian geopolitics. Although there had been dams constructed near Aswan as early as the late 19th Century, the first effective effort to control the flow of the Nile was the Aswan High Dam. The project itself underscores the politics involved in the river. To finance the massive project, Egyptian President Gamal ‘Abd Al-Nasir (Gamal Abdul Nasser) nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. Construction on the dam began in 1960 with Russian (Soviet) technical and financial assistance. The lake created by the dam flooded numerous ancient archeological sites and modern villages, many of which were relocated at great expense. In conjunction with the building of the dam, Egypt and Sudan entered into the Agreement for the Full Utilization of the Nile Waters, signed in Cairo on November 8, 1959. This agreement replaced a limited agreement signed in 1929 between the two countries. The new agreement established the minimum flow of the Nile, and provided monetary payments to the Sudan for damages to be caused by the construction of the High Dam.

“Egyptian interests…”

First and foremost among Egypt’s vital national interests is the unimpeded flow of the Nile River. The phrase “Egyptian interests” has become synonymous with the flow of the river. Egypt has stated that it will protect the flow of the Nile even if that requires military action outside its borders. It has demonstrated that on numerous occasions. As early as the 1970s, Egyptian Air Force bombers and reconnaissance aircraft routinely patrolled Sudanese skies.

In 1983, Libyan leader Mu’amar Al-Qadhafi sponsored a coup attempt in the Sudan. Egypt responded with the deployment of fighter aircraft to Egyptian airfields capable of striking targets in Libya, and deploying additional fighters to Sudan. Cairo also requested assistance from the United States, which deployed U.S. Air Force surveillance planes to support Egyptian operations.

In 1984, when Libyan bombers struck targets in Omdurman, Sudan, Egypt once again moved aircraft to defend Sudan against Qadhafi’ attempts to destabilize the government. Although the Libyan bombings were in response to Sudanese support for Chadian guerrillas operating against Libyan expeditionary forces in Chad, Egypt assessed any threat to Sudan as a threat to the Nile.

Relations between Egypt and Sudan have not always been good. Changes in Sudan took place n the late 1980s, and anti-Egyptian governments came to power. In 1995, Cairo blamed Sudan for an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Husni Mubarak, further souring relations between the two nations. Despite the strained relations, Egypt and Sudan still cooperate on Nile flows based on the 1959 agreement.

In 1998, faced with construction of new dams in Ethiopia, Cairo issued subtle statements that Egypt had no objections to continued development of the Nile’s headwaters as long as they did not “impact on Egyptian interests.” Ethiopia got the message, and in 2000, Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia signed an agreement that guarantees the uninterrupted flow of the Blue Nile.

Without the waters of the Nile River, Egypt would cease to exist – quickly. From an aircraft flying over Egypt, it is easy to see the stark contrast between the green narrow strip of land that borders the Nile and barren desert a mere few hundred meters away. Any threat to the flow of the Nile is a direct threat to Egypt’s national survival. The countries of the Nile’s headwaters are in no condition to take on the Egyptian military. The primary nation, Sudan, realizes that to disrupt the Nile River would trigger swift and decisive Egyptian military action.

Bottom line

In the west, it’s oil. In the Middle East, it’s water.

March 15, 2005

Iraq: Forming a Coalition Government

In the January 30, 2005 elections in Iraq, the United Iraqi Alliance (a primarily Shi'a grouping) won 140 of the 275 seats in the newly-created National Assembly. Although a majority, it still is not enough to form a government on its own. Its most likely coalition partner is the Kurdish Alliance with its 75 seats. The resulting 215 seats provides the two-thirds majority required to elect a president and two vice presidents - they will in turn nominate the prime minister.

As of yesterday (March 14), the Shi'a and Kurds had almost reached an agreement to form a coalition government. The conditions for Kurdish participation include the appointment of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Secretary General Jalal Talabani as president, and control of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk (which the Kurds consider their traditional capital). The agreement also includes a "right of return" clause for as many as 100,000 Kurds displaced from Kirkuk during the Ba'th party years.

Jalal Talabani and the author

Despite misgivings from the Kurds over the Shi'a preferred choice for the post of prime minister - Dawa' Islamic party leader Ibrahim Ja'afari - they most likely will go along. The control over Kirkuk is that important to them. However, Kurdish control of Kirkuk is a hot-button issue for Turkey. Turkey regards itself as the protector of the Iraqi Turkomen, a Turkic people living mostly in Kirkuk.

The main issue between the Kurds and Turkomen is the right of return. The Kurds have identified which specific properties they believe belong to Kurds. Some of the Arab and Turkomen residents have been forcibly removed already, with compensation not yet provided.

I know Jalal Talabani personally as well as the two most influential Kurds in the interim government - Barham Salih (interim deputy prime minister for national security) and Hoshyar Zebari (interim foreign minister). Barham is a senior PUK official who previously was the organization's representative in Washington. Hoshyar is a Kurdistan Democratic Party (rival to the PUK) official who represented the party in London. Jalal is the founder of the PUK and regarded as the grand statesman of the Kurds.

Based on their backgrounds, all three are smart and politically astute. I am hopeful they will come up with something that will be palatable to all. They realize that you cannot totally ignore the realities of current property distribution in Kirkuk, but I believe that they will opt for a condemnation/compensation scheme.

As for the Sunnis, both the Shi'a (United Iraqi Alliance) and the Kurds (Kurdish Alliance) realize that they must include the Sunnis in the formation of the new government. Sunni commitment to the new government is key to defeating the insurgency.

March 14, 2005

Interesting Capture in Iraq

Iraqi forces arrested two members of a prominent Tikrit family on March 8 - 'Abdullah Mahir 'Abd Al-Rashid and his cousin Marwan Tahir 'Abd Al-Rashid. The two are accused of planning and financing insurgency operations in Iraq. Marwan was a former bodyguard for Saddam Husayn and is suspected of leading insurgent operations.

Who are the 'Abd Al-Rashids?

The 'Abd Al-Rashid cousins are members of the An-Nasiri clan, members of the larger tribe associated with that of Saddam Husayn. The generation before 'Abdullah and Marwan were famous in their own right. The three brothers - Hatim, Tahir and Mahir - were all involved in senior Iraqi government positions. Hatim was in charge of light industry in the country prior to it being subsumed into the military industries organization of Saddam's son-in-law
Husayn Kamil.

Tahir and Mahir were generals in the Iraqi army. Mahir achieved particular distinction and was extremely popular among the troops. As commander of Iraq's III Corps in 1984, he was responsible for Iraq's first attempt at the use of the never agent Tabun (GA) against Iranian forces in the Majnun Islands battle. Later, in 1988, as commander of the VII Corps, he presided over Iraq's devastating use of Sarin (GB) nerve gas against Iranian forces in the Blessed Ramadan operation that liberated the Al-Faw peninsula from Iranian occupation.

General Mahir 'Abd Al-Rashid attempted to cement his relationship to Saddam Husayn by arranging the marriage of his daughter to Saddam's second son Qusay. Qusay was killed by American forces in July 2003. In 1989, fearing the rise of Mahir's popularity, Saddam forces him into retirement.

'Ali Al-Sistani - Iraqi Citizen?

Ayatollah Al-Sistani

Grand Ayatollah Al-Haj Al-Sayid 'Ali Al-Husayni Al-Sistani

A group of Iraqi Shi'a have encouraged the new Iraqi government to bestow Iraqi citizenship on Ayatollah 'Ali Al-Sistani, arguably one of the most (if not THE) most powerful men in the country. Al-Sistani is an Iranian national, although he has been resident in the holy city of An-Najaf for over five decades.

Al-Sistani Ayatollah Al-Sistani, 73 is a grand ayatollah, the highest theological degree in the Shi'a sect. He has made three pilgrimages to Mecca (hence the title "Haj"), and is a descendant of the Prophet, as indicated by the title "Al-Sayid" and the wearing of the black turban.

Ayatollah Al-Sistani is the leading cleric of the An-Najaf school ("hawza") of the late Grand Ayatollah Al-Sayid 'Abd Al-Qasim Al-Khu'i and successor to late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq Al-Sadr, who was killed by the regime in 1999. Although born in Mashhad, Iran, he has lived, studied and taught in An-Najaf since 1952.

Educated in Qom, Iran as well as An-Najaf, Ayatollah Al-Sistani is highly regarded for his work on the role of religion in Muslim states. He does not favor the establishment of an Islamic republic in Iraq.

Aytollah Al-Sistani was key to successful Iraqi elections by exercising his moral authority over Iraq's 15 million Shi'a. Although he himself will not have an official position, his approval for the choice of interim president and prime minister is critical.

Visit the ayatollah's website at