October 30, 2004

Usamah Bin Ladin - Alive and Well

A new Usamah Bin Ladin tape hit the media on October 29. The speaker on the tape is without doubt Bin Ladin, although he appears in normal clothing (as opposed to military garb) and without weapons. He appears to be in good health - whatever ailments may have plagued him, such as the weak left side noted in a tape of almost three years ago, no longer are evident. His voice was clear and calm.

In his remarks, Bin Ladin attempted to rationalize the September 11, 2001 attacks as retaliation for the US-supported Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. This is an attempt to include the larger Arab world, the Arab-Israeli issue, as well as the Muslim world as part of the Al-Qa'idah struggle against the United States. Further, he stated that the conditions in the United States that resulted in the 9/11 attacks of had not changed. Unless these conditions change, he vows to continue to mount 9/11-type operations.

He complains about both Presidents Bush, saying they both supported corrupt regimes in the region, learning from these kings and generals how to oppress their populations, even to the point of creating legislation to do so, specifically citing the Patriot Act. He further belittled President Bush's reaction to the attacks on the World Trade Center, stating that the commander in chief of US forces preferred to listen to children read stories about animals while 50,000 Americans in the towers were at risk.

In the end, he claims that neither Kerry, Bush nor Al-Qa'idah can protect American security; only the American people can do that. As long as the current policies continue, America will be subject to more 9/11-type attacks.

He's still there....

October 28, 2004

Al-Qa'qa' Explosives - Some Perspectives

Over the past few days, there has been almost non-stop reporting on the "missing" 377 tons of RDX and HMX from the Al-Qa'qa' facility south of Baghdad. It has been the topic of attacks and counterattacks for the two presidential candidates. Some perspective on the facts might be in order.

First of all, what are RDX and HMX?

RDX (Rapid Detonation Explosive) and HMX (High Melting Explosive) are military "high-speed" high explosive materials. The term "high-speed" refers to the extremely short time between ignition and full combustion of the material - the shorter the time, the more powerful the blast.

RDX has been around since the late 19th century. It was used in World War II, and today is probably the most common component of blast weapons. I have some personal experience with RDX - a improvised explosive device (IED) composed of about 175 pounds of RDX was detonated 90 meters from a house I was using in northern Iraq. Thanks to the fact that I happened to be in the only sandbagged room in the house, I am writing this.

More on RDX:

  • also called hexogen
  • white crystalline solid
  • powerful high-speed military high explosive
  • forms the base for a number of common military explosives, including plastic
  • very stable in storage/transport
  • only detonates with a detonator, unaffected by small arms fire
  • used with TNT in Iraqi-produced landmines (good for IEDs)
  • used by the Iraqis in artillery shell, mine and Scud warhead production
HMX, also known as octogen, is a further development of RDX. The molecular weight is heavier, making it even more high-speed than RDX - it is the most powerful non-nuclear explosive material yet developed. Because of its power, it has applications in nuclear weapons design. HMX can be used to initiate a nuclear blast. It is also used in the manufacture of solid rocket fuel. For these reasons, the 214 tons of HMX were of greater interest to the IAEA.

As best I can piece the limited information together, here is what happened:

January 2003: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gathers 377 tons of Iraqi RDX and HMX at the Al-Qa'qa' facility. At that time, 32 tons of known stocks of HMX were still unaccounted for; Iraq claimed the HMX had been used for industrial purposes. The HMX was placed under seal; the RDX was not.

March 2003: Prior to their departure, IAEA inspectors noted that there was RDX present at Al-Qa'qa', but that they did not note the presence of the HMX. It is unclear if or why they did not search for the HMX.

April 4, 2003: A battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division moved in to the area to secure a bridge over the Euphrates River. The Al-Qa'qa' facility was defended by Fida'in Saddam, Special Republican Guard and Iraqi Army units. After engaging the defenders, the battalion secured the bridge and made a quick search of the area for immediate chemical weapons threats.

April 6, 2003: The battalion departed the area, rejoining the main body of the 3rd Division for the push to Baghdad.

April 10, 2004: A brigade of the 101st Airborne Division overnighted in the area on their way to Baghdad. Again, the unit made a quick search of the area for immediate chemical weapons threats, did note the presence of conventional munitions, as they had encountered all the way north from Kuwait. The brigade departed the next morning.

April 18, 2004: A news crew embedded with the 101st accompanies some soldiers into a bunker . The soldiers broke an IAEA seal, indicating that on that date, at least some of the HMX was there.

May 8, 11 and 27, 2003: The 75th Exploitation Task Force (the unit charges with locating WMD) inspected the Al-Qa'qa' facility. No materials (HMX) under IAEA seal were found, and the facility appeared to be vandalized.

Where is the RDX and HMX?

There is no definitive answer, despite claims and counter-claims. After the battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division moved into the area on April 4, 2003, all roads in the area were under the control (or surveillance) of coalition forces. The undetected, unauthorized movement of 377 tons of material, requiring approximately 40 heavy transport vehicles, on roads literally choked with Army and Marine vehicles, would be virtually impossible.

Although theft by Iraqi insurgents has been listed as a possibility, RDX and HMX are raw materials used to construct weapons. Insurgents would first likely take existing weapons, such as mortar rounds, artillery shells, RPG's, mines - all of which were plentiful all over the country, including at Al-Qa'qa'.

Recently released DOD satellite imagery shows some truck activity at the facility prior to the coalition invasion of the country. Footage obtained by a news crew embedded with the 101st Airborne Division shows at least one IAEA seal on a bunker door when elements of the division passed through the facility in April. However, the IAEA admits that there were other entrances to the bunkers that would allow the material to be removed without breaking the seals. Also, any decent intelligence service, including Iraq's Mukhabarat (Intelligence Service) and Directorate of Military Intelligence, can replicate IAEA seals.

In perspective, the 377 tons of high explosives represent less than 1/10th of one percent of the 400,000 tons of munitions coalition forces have destroyed or have gathered to be destroyed. The real issue is not 377 tons of explosives - it's the thousands of insurgents.

October 24, 2004

Secret Agreements - The Legacy of the Middle East, Part Three

The Balfour Declaration

The British entered into a series of three secret – and conflicting – agreements concerning the eventual disposition of the Ottoman Empire during the fighting of World War I, assuming that they would be victorious over the Turks. The first of these agreements was between Great Britain and Sharif Husayn bin ‘Ali of Mecca, leader of the Hashimites, then the rulers of the Hijaz. The second, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, was made between Great Britain and France (and for a short time Russia). The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 committed Great Britain to share administration of the soon-to-be former Ottoman territories with the French.

By 1917, the British began to rethink their obligation to jointly administer the region with the French. As a method of gaining French acquiescence, the British sought French approval of the nascent Zionist movement, hoping that French support for a Jewish homeland would replace its designs to share power in the area with the British. The French responded in June 1917 to the British overtures by stating its support for the “renaissance of the Jewish nationality in that land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many years ago.”

After securing French support for the Zionist cause, the British sought further support from other countries with sizeable Jewish and Zionist populations, particularly the United States and Russia. This support was detailed in what is now known as the Balfour Declaration.

The Balfour Declaration

There was an exchange of drafts for the British declaration between the Anglo-Jewish community, under the leadership of Lord Rothschild, and the British government, represented by Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour. The differences between the first Zionist draft and the final declaration are subtle but significant.

First Zionist proposal:

1. His Majesty's Government accepts the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people.

2. His Majesty's Government will use its best endeavors to secure the achievement of this object and will discuss the necessary methods and means with the Zionist Organization.

The final text, in a letter from Secretary Balfour to Lord Rothschild:

November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

"His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,
Arthur James Balfour

The Reaction

To this day, Arabs cite the Balfour Declaration with contempt. At the time, the British press widely publicized the declaration and American President Woodrow Wilson’s statements in support of it. However, news of the declaration was censored in those newly liberated parts of Palestine under the control of British forces led by General Sir Edmund Allenby.

Following the end of the war, the British were now faced with living up to their agreements with the Hashimite Arabs, the Saudi Arabs, the French, and the Jewish groups. Needless to say, they could not honor all of them. The resulting partitions of the former Ottoman territories into Palestine (what is now Israel and the areas under the Palestinian Authority), Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and parts of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon created the political instability that remains today.

October 23, 2004

Secret Agreements - The Legacy of the Middle East, Part Two

The Sykes-Picot Agreement

The British entered into a series of three secret – and conflicting – agreements concerning the eventual disposition of the Ottoman Empire during the fighting of World War I, assuming that they would be victorious over the Turks. The first of these agreements was between Great Britain and Sharif Husayn bin ‘Ali of Mecca, leader of the Hashimites -- then the rulers of the Hijaz. The second was made between Great Britain and France (and for a short time Russia).

The Sykes-Picot Agreement

Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and Georges Picot of France negotiated this second agreement. They met several times in late 1915 and early 1916; both parties and Russia (then under the Czar) signed the resulting document on May 9, 1916. The agreement led to the division of Ottoman territories outside Turkey proper, including the areas that are now Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Kuwait, and portions of Saudi Arabia. The area was divided into “sphere of influence” between Britain and France, with Russia gaining guaranteed access to the Mediterranean Sea from its ports on the Black Sea via the Turkish Straits.

There can be little doubt that Sykes knew that he was negotiating points in contradiction of existing British foreign policy. At this time, Sykes was serving as the Under-Secretary of the War Cabinet, a position that certainly would have allowed him access to the Husayn-McMahon Correspondence of 1915. The provisions were in direct conflict with pledges already given by the British to Sharif Husayn.

The major provisions of Sykes-Picot Agreement were:

  • Russia should acquire the Armenian provinces of Erzurum, Trebizond (Trabzon), Van, and Bitlis, with some Kurdish territory to the southeast;
  • France should acquire Lebanon and the Syrian littoral, Adana, Cilicia, and the hinterland adjacent to Russia's share, that hinterland including Aintab, Urfa, Mardin, Diyarbakir, and Mosul;
  • Great Britain should acquire southern Mesopotamia, including Baghdad, and also the Mediterranean ports of Haifa and Akka (Acre);
  • Between the French and the British acquisitions there should be a confederation of Arab states or a single independent Arab state, divided into French and British spheres of influence;
  • Alexandretta (Iskenderun) should be a free port; and
  • Palestine, because of the holy places, should be under an international regime.
Following the successful overthrow of the Czar in 1917, the Russians withdrew from the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The Arabs, including Sharif Husayn and his sons ‘Abdullah and Faysal – the two leader who preceded British troops into Damascus and Aleppo – learned of the Sykes-Picot Agreement after the Russians publicized it to embarrass the Western governments, were justifiably angered.

Although the provisions were somewhat modified by the San Remo Conference of 1920-1922, the Arabs never fully received what they were promised. Many observers attribute much of the political instability in the Middle East today to the series of conflicting promises made by the British and resultant compromises.

October 22, 2004

Secret Agreements - The Legacy of the Middle East, Part One

The Husayn - McMahon Correspondence

While World War I raged in Europe, British forces fought the Turks in the Middle East. At this time, the Ottoman Empire extended all the way south to encompass the Hijaz – including the Muslim holy cities of Mecca (Al-Makkah Al-Mukaramah) and Medina (Al-Madinah Al-Munawirah) – and what what is now Israel (including Jerusalem), Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Saudi Arabia.

The British entered into a series of three secret – and conflicting – agreements concerning the eventual disposition of the Ottoman Empire, assuming that they would be victorious over the Turks. The first of these agreements was between Great Britain and Sharif Husayn bin ‘Ali of Mecca, leader of the Hashemites, then the rulers of the Hijaz. The second was made between Great Britain and France (and for a short time Russia), and the third was between Great Britain and a group of influential Jewish nationalists.

British forces, with commonwealth troops from Australia and New Zealand, were making only marginal progress against the Ottomans. The bulk of British military power was concentrated on the Germans in Europe. They sought help from the local Arab population who had suffered under harsh Turkish rule for over four hundred years. In return for this help, the British promised the Arabs their independence once the Turks had been defeated and the war ended.

The Husayn – McMahon Correspondence

A series of ten letters between British High Commissioner in Egypt Sir Henry McMahon and Sharif Husayn seem to spell out an agreement between the two parties. Two of these letters are regarded as significant. Key portions are excerpted here.

Sharif Husayn to Sir Henry McMahon, July 14, 1915:

The Arab nation is asking the Government of Great Britain to acknowledge the independence of the Arab countries, bounded on the north by Mersina and Adana up to the 37th degree of latitude, to the border of Persia; on the east by the borders of Persia up to the Gulf of Basra; on the south by the Indian Ocean, with the exception of the position of Aden to remain as it is; on the west by the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea up to Mersina. Both parties will offer mutual assistance to face any foreign Power which may attack either party.

From Sir Henry McMahon to Sharif Husayn, October 24, 1915:

The Government of Great Britain statement:

The two districts of Mersina and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab, and should be excluded from the limits demanded. With the above modification, and without prejudice of our existing treaties with Arab chiefs, we accept those limits.

As for those regions lying within those frontiers wherein Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interest of her ally, France, I am empowered in the name of the Government of Great Britain to give the following assurances and make the following reply to your letter: Subject to the above modifications, Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca.

Great Britain will guarantee the Holy Places against all external aggression and will recognise their inviolability. When the situation admits, Great Britain will give to the Arabs her advice and will assist them to establish what may appear to be the most suitable forms of government in those various territories.

On the other hand, it is understood that the Arabs have decided to seek the advice and guidance of Great Britain only, and that such European advisers and officials as may be required for the formation of a sound form of administration will be British.

With regard to the vilayets of Bagdad and Basra, the Arabs will recognize that the established position and interests of Great Britain necessitate special administrative arrangements in order to secure these territories from foreign aggression, to promote the welfare of the local populations and to safeguard our mutual economic interests.

The Husayn – McMahon Correspondence laid the groundwork for one of the most famous special military operations of all time and the creation of a legend – Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence, an accomplished archeologist and Arabist with years of experience in the region, was serving as an army officer on staff in Cairo. He was dispatched to work with and lead the Arab revolutionary armies under Husayn’s sons ‘Abdullah and Faysal. It was these Arab armies that preceded British forces into Damascus and Aleppo.

The Reality

The British also entered into other secret agreements, both of which conflicted with the terms agreed to in the Husayn-McMahon correspondence. Later, Britain would try to extricate herself from the commitments made to Sharif Husayn, claiming that these letters merely represented on-going negotiations and not a final agreement.

In the end, the Saudis under ‘Abd Al-’Aziz, who was also supported by the British, forced the Sharif from Mecca. The Sharif’s sons were put on thrones in kingdoms created by the British almost as consolation prizes. ‘Abdullah became King of Transjordan (now Jordan) and Faysal became King of Iraq. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan survives to this day; the Kingdom of Iraq was overthrown in 1958.

October 1, 2004

Offensive in Samarra' - A Better Plan?

On October 1, American forces (elements of the 1st Infantry Division) and at least three battalions of Iraqi forces (army and national guard) began operations in Samarra' today, and it appears that operations in Ramadi and Fallujah may be starting as well.

Samarra' is in the Sunni triangle and a center of insurgent activity, but is a holy city for Shi'a Islam. The Golden Mosque is also known as the Imam 'Ali al-Hadi and Imam Hasan Al-'Askari mosque. They are the 10th and 11th imams of Shi'a Islam and two of the "14 Infallibles."

Samarra' is also the birthplace of the twelfth imam, Imam Muhammad Al-Mahdi (and son of Hasan Al-'Askari). His shrine, not his tomb, is adjacent to the Golden Mosque. It is not his tomb, because in Twelver Shi'a, so named for the 12th imam, it is believed that he is still alive but in hiding and will return prior to the day of judgement to establish justice on earth. Twelver Shi'a are dominant in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon - it is the main sect of Shi'a Islam.

Samarra' is also the site of a historic Sunni mosque with the famed spiral minaret - the "Malwiya" - (165 feet high), dating from the 9th century.

When the troops went into the city, this time they appeared to have done it smartly. Iraqi troops immediately seized and secured the Golden Mosque, averting any claims that the "infidels" were desecrating a holy site.

The Iraqis and US have to clear out the five major insurgent strongholds: Fallujah, Samarra', Ramadi, Sadr City and Haifa Street (Baghdad). They have to do this not only before the elections scheduled for January, but in time for the Iraqis to open voter registration sites. These are sure to be targets for the insurgents.