August 20, 2004

It's not "a" mosque – it's "the" mosque

Imam 'Ali Mosque
Imam 'Ali Mosque, An-Najaf, Iraq

The Imam ‘Ali mosque in An-Najaf, Iraq, is the holiest site in Shi’a Islam. It is named for the man whose tomb it houses – ‘Ali bin Abu Talib.

Why is ‘Ali significant?

‘Ali gained prominence following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, who left no male heirs, throwing the adherents to the new faith into disarray. Who would follow Muhammad as the leader of the faithful? The Arabic word for “one who follows or succeeds,” - khalifah (Caliph) - was adopted as the title.

Many believed that the successor to Muhammad should be a family member, someone in the bloodline of the Prophet. The people who favored the selection of ‘Ali as the caliph were called the Shi’at ‘Ali, the “partisans of ‘Ali,” and hence the name Shi’a.

The other school of thought, held by many prominent Muslims of the day, was that the caliph should be drawn from one of the senior and learned members of the faith, the ummah or “community.” These were the Sunnis, the traditionalists. The Sunni position prevailed and the first three caliphs were not of Muhammad’s bloodline.

The Shi’a declared ‘Ali as their first imam, in what would become known as the Twelver* school of Shi’a Islam. It was not until the deaths of the first three Sunni caliphs that ‘Ali was named to be the fourth caliph in 656. However, hopes for reconciliation between the Sunni and Shi’a were short-lived.

A power struggle for the caliphate ensued between ‘Ali, who had set up his office in Kufah (near An-Najaf, Iraq) and the Damascus-based ‘Umayyad dynasty. Although there was some fighting between supporters of the two factions, ‘Ali was assassinated in Kufah in 661. The shrine in An-Najaf was constructed to house his tomb.

The Shi’a named ‘Ali’s son Hasan to be next caliph (or the second imam), however, Hasan chose to abdicate his position in favor of the ‘Umayyads, the very people responsible for his father’s murder.

Hasan’s brother Husayn assumed the Shi’a imamate, becoming the third imam. This action sparked a civil war that created the major divide in Islamic history. In 680, Husayn was killed in battle against superior ‘Umayyad forces in Karbala’, Iraq on the tenth day of the month of Muharram. This day is commemorated by all Shi’a as ‘Ashura (literally, “the tenth”) as a day of mourning and perfidy on the part of the Sunnis. Husayn’s body is buried in the shrine at Karbala’, also a holy site for the Shi’a.

It’s not "a mosque" – it’s "the mosque."

* These Shi’a believe that there were 12 imams. The Twelfth Imam is also known as the "hidden imam" who did not die, but entered a period of occultation. The imam, also called the mahdi, will return at the end of time.

August 18, 2004

Sudan/Darfur: Clearing Up Some Misconceptions

The situation in the Darfur region of Sudan has attracted worldwide attention. Due to misreporting or under-reporting, most people have been left with the impression that the crisis in the Darfur is a case of Arab Muslims versus black Christians and animists. While there is a north-south civil war, it is primarily between Arab Muslims backed by the Khartoum government (under Lieutenant General 'Umar Hasan Ahmad Al-Bashir, who came to power in a coup in 1989) versus black Christians and animists, that civil war is a separate issue from the crisis in Darfur.

Darfur, literally two Arabic words, dar and fur meaning "home/house of the Fur," comprises three provinces in western Sudan - Shamal (North) Darfur, Gharb (West) Darfur, and Janub (South) Darfur. The inhabitants of the area are predominantly Muslims who are of black African ethnicity rather than Arab. The major groups are the Fur, the Zaghawah and the Masalit. There are also some Arab tribes in the area, the Bani Halbah and Al-Mahiriyah, with internal conflicts as well.

The primary Arab tribal group in the Darfur is the Baqqarah, derived from the Arabic word for cattle. The Baqqarah are nomadic herdsmen constantly seeking new pastured for their cattle. This search has placed them at odds with the agrarian Fur, Zaghawah and Masalit. The economic struggle between the two escalated into armed conflict, resulting in the creation of the Janjawid militia on the Arab/Baqqarah side, and two groups on the non-Arab side, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M). The fact that the two groups have taken up arms to back up there demands for equal treatment from the Arab government in Khartoum has allowed the Bashir government to label them as rebels and use the Sudanese army and air force to support Janjawid attacks. The Janjawid have primarily focused their attacks on the civilian populations of the Fur, Zaghawah and Masalit rather than on the armed groups.

The attacks on civilians have resulted in a massive refugee problem, with almost one million seeking assistance in neighboring countries and creating a humanitarian crisis.
For more information, see the Human Rights Watch report on Darfur at

August 15, 2004

An-Najaf: Another Lost Opportunity in the Making?

An Najaf, Iraq

The current fighting between the forces loyal to Iraqi Shi'a presumptive cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr and the United States (which includes some nominal Iraqi participation) offers real opportunity to right much of the wrong-headed policy of the past. If current thinking of how to handle the situation in An-Najaf - and the Shi'a areas of Iraq that have seen sympathetic uprisings (Al-Kut, Al-'Amarah, Al-Basrah, Diwaniyah, An-Nasiriyah and Baghdad/Al-Sadr City) - anyway resembles the "solution" a few months ago in Al-Fallujah, the overall situation in Iraq will continue on its downward spiral to civil war.

Muqtada Al-Sadr, first, has very tenuous credentials as a cleric. The clerical levels in Shi'a Islam are hojjat-al-islam, then ayatollah, and then grand ayatollah (there are only five grand ayatollahs; Al-Saystani [Al-Sistani] is one of them). Also, there is the term Al-Sayyid, which Muqtada claims, with some legitimacy. The term refers to a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and entitles them to wear the black turban. That said, he has a following. That following is comprises his Mahdi Army, which I liken to a gang of thugs, but also to genuine religious followers that revere the family name.

The campaign to either destroy or discredit Al-Sadr goes back months. The initial confrontation occurred in Sadr City (renamed for his father; it was formerly Saddam City) when US forces attempted to serve an arrest warrant on Al-Sadr. That led to a stand-off in Baghdad, then later in Kufah, and then to An-Najaf. As in Al-Fallujah, the US engaged in a confrontation-negotiation-confrontation-stalemate sequence. It appears we are entering that same thing again in An-Najaf.

It won't work. Despite the uprisings in other cities, Al-Sadr has to be dealt with; actually, he has to be eliminated as both a political and military force. Anything else hands yet another perceived victory to the insurgents.

August 9, 2004

Pakistan and Musharraf: America's Ironic Allies

General Pervez Musharraf must lead a charmed life. He has survived at least five attempts on his life in the last two years. The last attempts were quite sophisticated; I believe they are not the work of some mere gang from Karachi. More likely, they are from Al-Qa'idah itself, the Taliban, or some heretofore undiscovered rogue element inside the Interservices Intelligence Directorate (ISID), the Pakistani intelligence service. Note that the ISID is not a civilian organization, but military. The ISID created the Taliban, were the funnel for all US aid to the Afghan Mujahidin, and had a pretty close relationship with Al-Qa'idah in the 1980s and 1990s.

The level of training required to mount the last attempt on Musharraf was far above that of self-learners; it smacked of state-level training. As I recall, there were multiple explosive devices timed to detonate sequentially across a bridge span. The only people with that ability are people trained by the ISID or the ISID itself. Note also that the CIA trained only Afghan mujahidin. The Arabs who came to fight in Afghanistan, what we called the "Afghan Arabs," were either trained by the ISID or by the cadre of CIA-trained mujahidin.

Why would anyone in (or formerly in) the ISID be involved in a assassination plot against Musharraf? Remember, up until September 11, Pakistan was not particularly friendly to the United States. Our facilities there had been attacked and American diplomats had been killed. Ever since the imposition of sanctions under the Pressler Amendment (required a nation to be certified as nuclear weapons free to buy US equipment) on Pakistan because of their nuclear weapons program and failure to deliver their paid-for F-16s in 1988-1989, relations had been strained. The F-16 issue really angered the Pakistanis, because for all the concern over the Pakistani ballistic missile program, the F-16 was the initial delivery system for nuclear weapons, and remains part of the strategic nuclear force along with the missile systems.

Many ISID and military officers resent Musharraf's friendliness to the West. Many of these officers are devout Muslims. Fundamentalist Islam is strong here. Pakistan is home to some of the most virulent madrasa's in the world, preaching hatred and intolerance. Graduates can be found in the Pakistan Army and its ISID. I met the then-head of the ISID in 1989. Not someone I would want interrogating me, but to the point, he did not appreciate Western secularism at all. Remember, despite cooperation with the United States in the war against Al-Qa'idah, Pakistan is officially the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

I am not sure what the catalyst for change was, but after September 11, Pervez Musharraf decided to overtly support the United States in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). There was some contact prior to that, but of a much lower level and very low-profile. One analyst told me that Musharraf is supporting us against Al-Qa'idah and the Taliban because they tried to kill him. I think it is the other way around - the sophisticated assassination attempts were mounted post OEF. I am only speculating here, but I would bet you even money, maybe even give you some odds, that Pervez has made some arrangement for resettlement in the United States or Great Britain should he be deposed. For my part, I have no problem with it.

Pakistan has gone after Al-Qa'idah (and the remnants of the Taliban) with a vengeance.* While initially, Musharraf only allowed the United States use of its airspace and some low-key basing, eventually the Pakistanis mounted some serious military operations in the Waziristan tribal area along the Afghan border. In deference to the analysts I mentioned earlier, this in fact did come after some assassinations attempts on Musharraf. In retaliation, Al-Qa'idah operatives in June 2004, tried to kill a Pakistan Army corps commander responsible for the Waziristan operation. The investigation into the attack has led to the biggest intelligence gains against Al-Qa'idah to date. One arrest lead to another, including a nephew of September 11 mastermind Khalid Shaykh Muhammad. That led to the arrest of who I consider the biggest catch - computer expert Muhammad Na'im Nur Khan. Khan himself was a find, after all, he functioned as the "communications center" for senior Al-Qa'idah leadership. More important than the man, however, were the computers and data discs detailing Al-Qa'idah planning. As a result of this treasure trove of intelligence, operatives were arrested in Great Britain and Dubai, and terror threat alerts were issued in the United States.

This is surprising when one considers the makeup of Pakistan. Like countries in other areas, what is now Pakistan was created by the British out of the Punjab, Kashmir and Baluchistan (we will forego the West Pakistan and East Pakistan/Bangladesh split). English is the unifying language; it and Urdu (Urdu is spoken by less than 10 percent of the population) are the official languages. As an aside - since the casing notes found on Khan's computer were in non-native English, I believe the reconnaissance was likely done by Pakistanis.

Ironically, Pakistan may be the best ally we have in the fight against Al-Qa'idah. That future of that alliance is likely directly dependent on the survival of Pervez Musharraf.

* The only divergence from this policy of going after the terrorists is Pakistani support for Azad Kashmir, guerrilla operations (some call it terrorism) by the Taliban and Al-Qa'idah against India in the region of the Siachen Glacier. I still haven't figured out how this still happens.

August 3, 2004

National Intelligence Director - Addendum

I am concerned that in the "rush to reorganize," the new DNI will focus too much on the Beltway's highest priorities and forget about the myriad other consumers. That perceived lack of focus is what has prompted the Defense Department, the armed services and other executive departments to keep their own intelligence agencies or staffs. It will very tempting to satisfy only national requirements - after all, the person will be a Presidential appointee with Senate advice and consent, just as the DCI is now. However, the new DNI cannot neglect to provide intelligence support to such mundane things as Air Force systems development - what the threats coming down the road are, etc. Those diverse requirements are the reasons we have such a decentralized community now - DOD was (is?) not about to rely on an independent agency to satisfy its requirements. It will certainly be a challenge. I will be curious to see how NSA fares in all this.

I am not sure I would revamp the entire community all at once. I would separate the DCI from the director, CIA and see how that goes. Make CIA act like an equal agency, not the dominant organization. As far as budget authority, that is all overblown. The monies are fenced almost to the line item when they come out of the Congressional committees, so I don't see much change happening there - nor should there be.

What the President proposed today is unsatisfactory. The DNI, or NID, will have no direct control over anything. He/she will "coordinate" on budgets, and funnel the President's requests for information to the proper agency for action. As far as I can tell, CIA will still have all the operational approval and authority, and will still control the NIE process. I suspect that Rumsfeld is behind this - no one wants to give up their own intelligence empire.

The irony: Rumsfeld would be better off if the DNI had real authority. His DOD intelligence agencies would be equal to or greater than the boys and girls in McLean.

The existent dominant position and power of the CIA is the problem, not a real DNI.

August 2, 2004

Iraq: "Arabization" Fallout

Today, Human Rights Watch criticized the US-led coalition for not resolving the problems of the Saddam-era "Arabization" program (ta'rib / T"RIB).

There are numerous comments one could make about this, so I'll take the cheap shot first - there is no US-led coalition anymore....

I agree wholeheartedly that the Arabization project was ethnic cleansing. It was targeted against the Kurds, as well as the Assyrians and Turkomans. Saddam, true B'athi that he was, had no use for ethnic divisions in Iraq. He truly believed that Iraq should be Iraqi - not Arab and Kurd, not Muslim and Christian, not Sunni and Shi'a, not Assyrian and Arab, etc. In an attempt to rid the country of its largest (and most troublesome) ethnic group, Saddam began the Arabization program with them. In the 1970s, entire Kurdish villages in the north were exchanged with entire Arab (mostly Shi'a - coincidence?) villages in the south. So, you take Arabs used to living in the arid southern deserts or marshes and forcibly move them to the Colorado-like climate of the north. Conversely, you take Kurds from their traditional mountain villages and move them to the south.

Many Kurds (as well as Assyrians and Turkomans) were forced to move from the cities of Mosul (Al-Mawsil) and Kirkuk, while Arabs were moved into their homes. After the fall of Saddam, the Arabs were not anxious to return to the volatile south. On the other hand, the Kurds could not return fast enough. You know the problem - Kurdish family shows up and wants its family home back. Arab family, through no fault of its own, is living there, has lived there for maybe 30 years, and does not want to leave. There is no real legal system in place, and most of these Arab and Kurdish families fall into that gray zone between a Saddam-ruled Iraq and now.

This is a tricky problem for the new government. As early as 1995-1996 while running around northern Iraq, I saw many abandoned villages and asked why no one lived in these serviceable buildings. The answer was usually a derisive snort and the guttural spitting, "ta'rib." No Kurd would live there. I replied that these were usable buildings, decent facilities, but it fell on deaf ears. Hatred often supercedes reason.

Human Rights Watch (and I usually have no problems with them - they liked my book; see, has blamed the now-defunct coalition for not addressing this problem.

They wrote:

"If these property disputes are not addressed as a matter of urgency, rising tensions between returning Kurds and Arab settlers could soon explode into open violence," said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division.

Okay, we all know where I stand when it comes to the Kurds, but I do not want to over-romanticize them. Many of the villages in the Kurdish area could use some cleaning, some paint, some hygiene, etc. That said, while they may have their problems among themselves - the PUK and KDP divide, for example - they are cohesive when dealing with the Arabs (except for that 1996 KDP-Iraqi lash-up against the PUK). If the Arabs trying to move back into Mosul and Kirkuk want to get violent, I will give you fair odds on who comes out on top. I have rarely seen quiet courage like that of the Kurds; no complaints, just commitment to their cause, which over the years has usually been a losing one. No bragging, no excuses, no apologies - they have a fatalistic dignity that you cannot help respect. On more than one occasion, I have had a Kurd peshmerga move in front of me to try to shield me from hostile fire. I am not alone - all of us who served with the Kurds feel this way about them. (Getting on soapbox now: They are the third largest ethnic group in the Middle East; they are the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland. I doubt they will ever have a homeland; geopolitical realities are against them. Falling off soapbox now.)

The Assyrians - Christians composed of both Syriacs, Chaldeans and Nestorians - have their own hurdles to face. They have come under attack, including this week's coordinated five bombings in Baghdad and Mosul, by the Az-Zarqawi faction of Al-Qa'idah. When I was in northern Iraq, we would often visit the nearby Assyrian (Christian) village of Shaqlawah - they had a church and decent wine. The elders there were always concerned that a post-Saddam Iraqi government would be anti-Christian. Having spent time in the mixed societies of Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, I tended to dismiss their concerns - I may have been a bit naive. I am surprised at the level of Islamic sentiment that is manifesting itself in Iraq. During all of my time in Saddam-controlled Iraq and the Kurdish area, I never felt any Islamic sentiment. Bars and nightclubs were in full swing - the Iraqis have a reputation for being hard-drinking party-goers. Perhaps this is a backlash; time will tell.

The resettlement issue is a real problem, created by years of Saddam Husayn's attempts to eliminate Kurdish influence and attempts at autonomy. It is a problem that needs addressed - I just am not sure we are the best adjudicators here.