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Archive for the ‘geopolitics’ Category

Looks like . . .

Debkafile was right, this time.

A week ago:

Iran’s position as the greatest threat to Iraq was highlighted by Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in their testimony to Congress last week – to the point that al Qaeda scarcely rated a mention.

President George W. Bush commented on April 11 that if Iran continues to help militias in Iraq “then we’ll deal with them.” But he also reaffirmed his disinclination for war and preference for diplomatic solutions. “You can’t solve these problems unilaterally. You’re going to need a multilateral forum,” he said.

This testimony and the president’s remarks did not set to rest the Washington cliffhanger over whether the president will opt for military action against Iran after all, before he leaves the White House, or stick to quiet diplomacy and relegate the Iran nuclear headache to his successor.

Bush’s immediate reaction confirmed the latter view: Without prior notice, he sent Petraeus and Crocker to Riyadh. Last week, there was talk of a limited US military action against the Iranian command centers directing, training and army Iraq’s militias. Now, the commander-in-chief was instructing the top Americans in Iraq to persuade the Saudis to blaze the way for Arab rulers to throw their support behind the Maliki government in Baghdad. The object of this exercise was to offset rather than challenge Iranian influence in Baghdad.

A diplomatic, multilateral course appeared to have been set in motion for dealing with Iranian troublemaking in Iraq – if not its nuclear defiance. …

Today, from the BBC:

… Ms Rice, in the Middle East for conferences with Gulf states, has been calling on Iraq’s neighbours to show more diplomatic support for the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

During her journey to Baghdad, Ms Rice praised Mr Maliki’s security efforts.

“The neighbours could do more to live up to their obligations because I do believe the Iraqis are beginning to live up to theirs,” she told reporters travelling with her.

She said she saw a “coalescing of a centre in Iraqi politics” and Sunnis, Shias and Kurds had been working together better than ever before. …

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I grow more sympathetic to “Arabist” alternatives to the current Middle East equilibrium with every passing day. Israel conspicuously wastes time and money instead of doing what it obviously needs to do to defend itself. If Israel is too weak to stand up for itself, it is not worth anybody’s time.

… Netanyahu accused the Olmert government of failing the people of Israel by tolerating the relentless attacks out of Gaza, and said the IDF knew exactly how to counter the violence but was being prevented from doing so by “a failure of the political leadership.”

The Post reported Thursday that according to assessments in Jerusalem, a major IDF incursion into the Gaza Strip to significantly weaken Hamas – similar but more difficult than Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank in 2002 – would not take place until about a month or a month-and-a-half after US President George W. Bush’s planned visit here in mid-May.

By then, the last of the world’s leaders to have come here to celebrate the state’s 60th anniversary would have left. The timing would also place the incursion in the middle of summer, considered an optimal time for this type of operation.

If we didn’t already have such a copious track record of passivity from Olmert, I would have assumed this was disinformation.

It would be so horrific if world leaders decided to boycott Israel’s 60th birthday, simply because Israel decided to defend herself.

Meanwhile, global commodities markets teeter on edge. Israelis are too weak to defend themselves; it’s well known that over 1/3 of the IDF is first- or second-generation Russo-Israeli, not native Israeli. Clearly the preponderance of native Israelis doesn’t see national self-defense as particularly urgent.

The positive justifications, not to mention the opportunity costs, of American Mideast involvement are approaching their own Minsky Moment.

Olmert is not simply consigning “valuable” Israeli lives to the guillotine of global opinion. He is becoming an impediment to orderly commerce far beyond Israel’s borders and a profound drain on American resources.

The fact of the matter is that any institutional actor with a nuclear weapon does not abuse it. Iran is not going to nuke anyone. The world doesn’t look quite so threatening and insecure once you have an atomic bomb.

Israel is holding up a regional accommodation because it would then be doomed to slow extermination by incremental violence. However, it’s not so perturbed that it will actually do any heavy lifting to quash Hezbollah by itself. They are either dragging out American involvement in Iraq or lying to themselves; it’s one or the other.

Only the most feeble or complacent of peoples would tolerate such a derelict for a leader, as Israelis have of Ehud Olmert.

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I am rather confused at the moment about the current geopolitical situation, as well as the financial situation. Oil strengthened massively today, and the Mideast seems to have become very quiet (in terms of new information.) However, I have been convinced that a regional conflict, at least involving Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Israel (combined with a lot more bloodshed in Iraq) would happen, since last August.

I’m not sure what Israel is doing, particularly in Gaza. It’s like the whole region has waited to go to war since the Israeli Sept. 6 airstrike, but something is holding it back.

The Syrians are secure, for now. Asef Shawkat is under house arrest. Hezbollah doesn’t need to launch a counterattack against Israel, because the Saudis were the ones who killed him. It’s Israel’s move, and it seems like everyone’s attitude is, “Make your move, or else what the hell was this whole fuss about?” (That’s my attitude, anyway.)

The dollar gained about 1 percent today, even as oil also strengthened 1 percent in dollar terms. The recent abnormal strengthening in oil had some slightly more conspiratorial explanations. As one very smart fixed-income guy mused:

The double-up-oil and double-down-oil ETFs had built-in knockout options (as they would have to, so the fund shares do not trade below $0).

The shares knocked out with a third consecutive close above $111.

Interestingly, the DCR shares were trading at about a 73% premium to NAV.

So an arbitrageur could short the very expensive shares, thereby getting LONG a near-the-money knock. And then push the crude market through the knock, perhaps through options, or underlying, or some combination thereof.

So basically (goes the theory) somebody was arbitraging a difference between the *real* price of oil, and the price of oil as implied by a levered oil ETF.

However, that does not really explain today’s actions.

Gold also got hammered. I think gold is very sensitive not only to the dollar (which rallied heavily), but also to the slope of the Treasury yield curve, which flattened significantly today. (Interest rates on long-term Treasury notes are most heavily affected by inflation expectations, and they fell significantly relative to short-term rates, which are not much affected by inflation expectations.)

The interesting thing is that gold also generally marches in lockstep with the price of oil. So it’s very strange to see a divergence in daily oil and gold price movements, of this magnitude.

What is going on in the Middle East? Any clues?

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This is interesting:

Iraq: Peshmerga Forces Are Regular Army — Al-Maliki
April 12, 2008 2210 GMT
Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki on April 12 said the peshmerga forces guarding Iraq’s Kurdistan region are considered a regular army, and it is Kurdistan’s right to keep its forces, Kurdistan’s PUKmedia reported. Al-Maliki made the comments after meeting with Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in Baghdad. In coming days, the two are set to discuss oil and natural gas issues, the Kurdistan region’s Guard Forces, and distribution of natural resources.

I’m sure the Kurds see themselves as playing along with a facade — Kurds refer to Iraq as a foreign country and do not allow Iraqi flags to fly at most of their government buildings — but this is still important.

Al-Maliki’s warming to the Kurds concurs with

  1. Nouri al-Maliki’s ongoing crackdown against the Sadrists (which has functioned as a highly efficient initiation ritual for government military forces; militias which refuse to fight Sadr are not allowed to join the government army)
  2. The assassination of al-Sadr’s top aide and brother-in-law, Riyadh al-Nouri;
  3. The bombing of the Shohada mosque in Shiraz, Iran, today, which killed at least 8 Iranians and wounded at least 50;
  4. The stress tremor inflicted upon Damascus by Saudi Arabia’s assassination of Imad Mughniyah; and
  5. the renewed public relations effort by Israel and the United States to blame Iran for all of our Mideastern troubles (and justify a conventional escalation).

Supposedly, Adm. William Fallon, a major dove within a much more hawkish military establishment, leaked quite a bit of information about planned American operations against Iran last fall, when Iran war warnings and worries last crescendoed. Then the luridly false National Intelligence Estimate torpedoed the public case for war.

Now, there is no Admiral Fallon. He abruptly resigned from Centcom exactly one month ago, over the “public appearance of policy differences with the administration, and with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq.” From the very unusual way in which his resignation was handled, it seemed at the time that he either resigned abruptly or was terminated by the President. SecDef Gates, for example, gave the news; Fallon didn’t give any speech himself.

The hawks are much closer to war this time around, and their horizon of opportunity much narrower. At least they seem to be winning the war with Iran at this middle stage in the game.

Update: More Kurdish reinforcements for the United States?:

Northern-Iraq-based Kurdish rebel group Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (Pejak) threatened April 13 to carry out bombings in Iran unless the Iranian government reverses its anti-Kurdish policies, Agence France-Presse reported, citing a Pejak spokesman. The spokesman said the group is capable of striking “significant places inside Iran, especially in the northwest reaching Tehran.” He added that the group has “no relations with the Americans.”

Iran has been beating up on its minorities, including Kurds, for decades. What coincidental timing.

Lots of good predictions so far for our Mideast roadmap, except that Olmert has apparently once again gotten cold feet in terms of doing anything beyond empty symbolism in Gaza.

Again, I can’t over-emphasize how stunningly myopic it is, on the part of the Israeli public, that Olmert remains in power.

Another update: Apropos of the Shohada bombing, an ‘anti-Wahhabi’ cleric was also killed in nearby Ahvaz on 26 June 2007, when US-Iran war tensions were on the rise. Possibly also related was the assassination of pro-Damascus Sunni cleric Abu al-Qaqaa on 29 September 2007. All killings were blamed on the United States but were probably carried out by the Saudis…

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Today marks the first mass explosion in an Iranian metropolitan area in over a year:

At least eight people have been killed and more than 50 wounded in an explosion in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz, Iranian media reports say.

The blast occurred in a mosque in the city either during or after evening prayers, the reports said.

Iran’s Fars news agency was quoted as saying that the explosion was caused by a bomb. It said at least three of the wounded were seriously hurt.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast

Fars said the death toll was expected to climb.

Where have we seen this before?

(AP) Police and insurgents clashed after a bombing in southeastern Iran late Friday near the site where an explosion killed 11 members of the elite Revolutionary Guards this week, Iranian news agencies reported. “Minutes ago, the sound of a bomb explosion was heard in one of Zahedan’s streets,” the state-run news agency IRNA said, without giving more details. The semiofficial Fars news agency said clashes broke out between Iranian police and armed insurgents after the explosion.

Fars quoted the governor of Zahedan, Hasan Ali Nouri, as saying the blast was a “sound bomb explosion”_ a device that creates a loud boom but that usually does not cause casualties.

Nouri said there was gunfire heard but that it was late at night and that police had cordoned off the area.

On Wednesday, a car bomb blew up a bus carrying Revolutionary Guards, killing 11, in Zahedan, capital of Sistan-Baluchestan province, which sits on the border with Pakistan.

A Sunni Muslim militant group called Jundallah, or God’s Brigade, which has been blamed for past attacks on Iranian troops, has claimed responsibility for the Wednesday bombing.

Iran has accused the United States of backing militants to destabilize the country. Tensions between Tehran and Washington are growing over allegations of Iranian involvement in attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, and over Iran’s nuclear activities.

Fars said the Friday explosion was at a school in Zahedan.

“The insurgents began shooting at people after the explosion. Clashes are continuing between police and the armed insurgents. Police have cordoned off the area,” the Fars agency said.

IRNA quoted an unnamed “responsible official” late Friday as saying that one of those arrested on charges of involvement in Wednesday’s bombing, identified as Nasrollah Shanbe Zehi, has confessed that the attacks were part of alleged U.S. plans to provoke ethnic and religious violence in Iran.

The confessions by Zehi helped police detain an unspecified number of Jundallah members and confiscate weapons and documents from the group in a raid Thursday in Zahedan, IRNA also said.

A majority of Iran’s population are Shiite Muslims but minority Sunnis live in southeastern Iran.

Friday’s blast came just hours after the funeral of the 11 Revolutionary Guardsmen in the capital.

Iran’s state-run television showed footage of Zahedan residents marching in the streets with the coffins of the killed Guardsmen. The crowd chanted, “death to hypocrites,” in a reference to the insurgents.

The blasts are a sharp flare-up of violence, but the remote southeast corner of Iran, near Pakistan and Afghanistan, has long been plagued by lawlessness. The area is a key crossing point for opium from Afghanistan and often sees clashes between police and drug gangs.

Jundallah, which is believed by some to have links to al-Qaida, has waged a low-level insurgency in the area and is led by Abdulmalak Rigi, a member of Iran’s ethnic Baluchi minority, a community that is Sunni Muslim and also can be found in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rigi has said his group is fighting for the rights of impoverished Sunnis under Iran’s Shiite government.

Fars said that Rigi appeared on a station run by an opposition group known as the People’s Mujahedeen, which is based in Iraq, minutes before Friday’s explosion. The People’s Mujahedeen has long sought to overthrow the Iranian government by force.

Iranian officials have often raised concerns that Washington could incite members of Iran’s many ethnic and religious minorities against the Shiite-led government in Tehran.

Iran has faced several ethnic and religious insurgencies that have carried out occasionally deadly attacks in recent years _ though none have amounted to a serious threat to the government.

In December, Jundallah claimed responsibility for kidnapping seven Iranian soldiers in the Zahedan region, threatening to kll them unless group members were freed from Iranian prisons. The seven were released a month later, apparently after negotiations through tribal mediators.

In March 2006, gunmen dressed as security forces killed 21 people on a highway outside Zahedan in an attack authorities blamed on “rebels,” though Jundallah was never specifically named.

=====================

US funds terror groups to sow chaos in Iran

By William Lowther in Washington DC and Colin Freeman, Sunday Telegraph

Last Updated: 12:30am GMT 25/02/2007

America is secretly funding militant ethnic separatist groups in Iran in an attempt to pile pressure on the Islamic regime to give up its nuclear programme.

In a move that reflects Washington’s growing concern with the failure of diplomatic initiatives, CIA officials are understood to be helping opposition militias among the numerous ethnic minority groups clustered in Iran’s border regions.

The operations are controversial because they involve dealing with movements that resort to terrorist methods in pursuit of their grievances against the Iranian regime.

In the past year there has been a wave of unrest in ethnic minority border areas of Iran, with bombing and assassination campaigns against soldiers and government officials.

Such incidents have been carried out by the Kurds in the west, the Azeris in the north-west, the Ahwazi Arabs in the south-west, and the Baluchis in the south-east. Non-Persians make up nearly 40 per cent of Iran’s 69 million population, with around 16 million Azeris, seven million Kurds, five million Ahwazis and one million Baluchis. Most Baluchis live over the border in Pakistan. …

What else was going on in Iraq/Iran in February of 2007?

Iran rejects claims of equipping Iraqi Shiite extremists

Updated 2/12/2007 10:54 AM ET

BAGHDAD — Iranian officials today rejected claims they were arming Shiite extremists in Iraq with armor-piercing roadside bombs, a day after the U.S. military said those bombs have killed 170 American and coalition troops in Iraq.

LATEST: Dozens killed in Baghdad blasts on anniversary of Shiite mosque attack

U.S. military officials, who declined requests to be identified, said Sunday that shipments of weapons and ammunition to Iraq’s Shiite militias were being directed at the highest levels of the Iranian government.

Iran on Monday rejected the accusations. “Such accusations cannot be relied upon or be presented as evidence. The United States has a long history in fabricating evidence. Such charges are unacceptable,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told reporters.

In a briefing, U.S. officials showed reporters part of a device they described as a sophisticated roadside bomb, along with mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades they said were made in Iran. Later, one of the officials, an intelligence analyst, said it would be impossible to find a “smoking gun” conclusively proving Iranian government involvement.

FROM THE U.S. MILITARY: Pictures, descriptions of Iranian support to insurgents (PDF)

Sunday’s briefing by the three military officials was the most detailed attempt to show that Iran supports militants in Iraq. It followed similar remarks Friday by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Gates said serial numbers and markings found on explosives provide “pretty good” evidence that Iran is supplying either weapons or expertise to extremists in Iraq.

U.S. and coalition forces have not captured any Iranian agents in possession of the armor-piercing roadside bombs. The U.S. officials at the briefing said Iraqis are usually used to transport the explosives from Iran.

The Mahdi Army militia is among the Shiite extremist groups that have obtained the powerful bombs. The Mahdi Army is aligned with anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose political organization is part of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. …

February 2007 also marked the beginning of a secular shift upwards in oil prices, from a 2004-06 average of about $58/barrel, to a peak of $86 per barrel (using December 2007 dollars) by November of 2007, when the publication of the National Intelligence Estimate blunted what the oil market perceived was an inexorable march to US-Iranian war.

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Israel, PNA: Olmert Vows To Strike Hamas After Israelis Killed Near Gaza Strip
April 10, 2008 1934 GMT
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would strike Hamas after two Israeli civilians at an oil terminal that pumps fuel into the Gaza Strip were killed, Reuters reported April 10. “I promise you that the response to Hamas will be one such that it will not be able to continue to operate as it does today,” Olmert said.

Review: Israel must show that it can defeat the Arab brand of “incremental violence” against the Jewish state, exemplified by Hezbollah’s mastery of both conventional and asymmetric warfare. Israeli lives are too precious for Israel to play that game for long; so they must raise the price.

To do that, they must cripple Hezbollah, which defeated Israel in 2006.

Israel would vastly prefer to rematch with Hezbollah in a way that does not destroy Israel’s standing among neutral, international third parties. Therefore, it must provoke Hezbollah into making the first major, discrete offensive move.

Israel’s quasi-war against Iranian Hezbollah aligns with the interests of the United States, which is fighting a parallel incremental war against Iran (with Shiite Iraqi cities as the battlefield), and with the Saudis, who are defending their regional throne by minimizing Iran’s ascent in any and every way possible.

Thus, Saudi Arabia has backed, to the hilt, Sunni and Christian factions in Lebanon, against Iran and Syria; and the Saudis apparently also sponsored the assassination of Imad Mughniyah, Iran’s main broker within Hezbollah and arguably the single most capable asymmetrical-warfare operative in the world.

Meanwhile, the United States is throttling Iran’s proxies in Iraq (recently branded as “criminal gangs,” but in fact the Mehdi Army).

The Pentagon does not want to see 2008 reprise 2006, when Iran did its best to game the US election, and to some extent succeeded. (It did not help that an American late-October strike on a madrassa in Chingai, Pakistan, killed 52 students, but apparently failed to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, the target of the strike — although it apparently killed some high-ranking al Qaeda operatives, and drove the organizational leadership very deep underground).

The Pentagon figures that Ahmadinejad — whose US Embassy hostage derring-do cost Carter a second term — will ratchet up violence in Iraq, deliver the presidency to Barack Obama, and drive a savage bargain afterwards. The Pentagon would prefer to move first.

The Israelis would hate to see a US-Iranian accommodation. Furthermore, they agree with the Pentagon’s sentiment, and are doing their part in pressuring Ahmadinejad’s Iranian proxies — Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar and Maher al Assad in Damascus. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are eagerly assisting Israel’s efforts against Hezbollah, as evidenced by the Mughniyah hit.

Which brings us to the latest Israeli move. We had figured that Iran’s best play was to ride out the next several months of allied pressure, before changes in the timeline of elections would shift the initiative back to Teheran. Combined with evident dissonance between Teheran and her militias, and the previously probable (now obvious) fact that Israel was not the proximate killer of Mughniyah, and Hezbollah’s need to retaliate against Israel vanishes.

Therefore, Israel must damage Hezbollah’s image in some other way — hence our conclusion a week and a half ago that Israel would smash Hamas:

… Israel’s low-risk/ moderate-reward play is to smash Hamas in Gaza. There is no messy Lebanese quagmire, Iran would lose a lot of face, Olmert would get a PR boost, and perhaps Hezbollah would be provoked into doing something really stupid, in which case Olmert’s PR/ economic cost of smashing Hezbollah would be significantly lower. It’s a win-win for him.

Now the question becomes: what will Ahmadinejad do?

Stratfor has, predictably, woven Bush’s latest, bellicose speech into its “inevitable US/Iran accommodation” paradigm of Iraq. But to reach an accommodation you need trust commensurate with the scope of your objective. There is no such level of trust between Ahmadinejad and the United States.

Now the onus is on Hezbollah to respond to Saudi Arabia, not Israel, for Mughniyah’s death.

Assuming that Hezbollah can’t, with reasonable probability of success, strike at one of the senior members of the Saudi royal family, the likely target of any Hezbollah reprisal shifts to those Saudi assets closest to Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority (15% of the country) — which, coincidentally, are clustered around Saudi Arabia’s oil fields near Kuwait, including the Ghawar field.

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A bit of bragging is in order …

April 9, 2008 2000 GMT
Israel is preparing to invade the Gaza Strip, Israeli sources told Stratfor April 9. No details were given on the exact time frame for the invasion.
Of course, it might not happen and my crowing could prove premature. But as usual you know where you read it first …

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April 8, 2008 1356 GMT
Israel jammed Lebanon’s telephone network after a nationwide defense drill that Israel launched April 6, Naharnet reported April 8, citing a report in the daily As Safir. As Safir quoted security sources as saying that the jamming operation targeted both land lines and cell phone lines and began the afternoon of April 7. The As Safir report gave no further details.
=======================
Stratfor has confirmed that at least some fixed phone lines in Lebanon are working April 8. Israel jammed Lebanon’s telephone network starting the afternoon of April 7, according to an April 8 report in Naharnet citing the daily As Safir. The jamming was said to have targeted both cell phones and regular phone lines.
And Hamas does what little it can to poke Israel on its southern border:
April 8, 2008 1620 GMT
People in Gaza will storm into Egypt and into Israel if an embargo of the territory is not lifted, The Jerusalem Post reported April 8, quoting Khalil al-Haya, a leading official with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group and political party. Palestinians in Gaza can no longer bear being confined to the strip of land and subjected to shortages of food, power and substandard health care, he said. In January, Palestinians breached the southern border and poured into Egypt; they will do it again, and might breach other borders, Al-Haya said, a clear reference to Gaza’s borders with Israel.

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via neo-conduit WorldNetDaily:

FROM WND’S JERUSALEM BUREAU
Syria: U.S. can
buy our loyalty

For Saudis’ place as chief ally, trade partner,
willing to discuss peace with Israel, Iran ties


Posted: April 06, 2008
11:08 pm Eastern

By Aaron Klein
© 2008 WorldNetDaily

JERUSALEM – If the U.S. helps facilitate billions of dollars in business for Syria and builds up Damascus as the primary American ally in the Arab world in place of Saudi Arabia, the Syrians would be willing to discuss scaling back alliances with Iran and making peace with Israel, according to a senior Syrian official speaking to WND.

The official said Syria recently conveyed this message to numerous visiting foreign dignitaries, including U.S. congressmen and Turkish mediators.

He said Syria also demanded as a key condition for considering altering its alliances that the U.S. cease opposing Syrian influence in Lebanon.

“Syria is the key to the Arab world. We have influence with Hezbollah and Lebanon and hold many cards in the Palestinian and Iraqi arenas. The U.S. needs to rethink the value of the investment it places in Saudi Arabia,” said the official, who spoke by phone from Damascus on condition his name be withheld.

The official said Syria is asking the U.S. firstly to end its opposition to a trade and association agreement between Damascus and the European Union drafted in 2004 that is said to be worth about $7 billion per year for the Syrian economy. The agreement was not signed or implemented largely due to American pressure, said the Syrian official.

(Story continues below)

Syria is also asking the U.S. not to object to Syrian “influence” in Lebanon, which was occupied for nearly 30 years by Syrian forces until protests prompted by the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister for which Syria was widely blamed. Pro-democracy Lebanese leaders accuse Syria of meddling it Lebanon’s affairs by directing the Hezbollah terrorist group, which holds key parliamentary seats, to interfere in the election of a new Lebanese president.

The main Syrian request is that America uphold Damascus as its main “partner” in the Arab world instead of Saudi Arabia, said the Syrian official.

He said in exchange Damascus would discuss severing “many ties” with Iran, but he would not specify which ties and whether Syria is willing to cut off all coordination with the Iranians.

“We are ready to significantly and deeply reduce relations with our Iranian brothers if conditions are met,” the official said. …

This is an interesting offer.

If this has any meaning, it is not meant to be taken at face value. Suggesting that Syria supersede Saudi Arabia in the hierarchy of American allies is silly for every reason imaginable.

Assuming the signal is not completely meaningless (the rule of international politics is that no national signal is meaningless) :

Syria and Hezbollah are both divided into pro- and anti-Iran camps. e.g., Syrian Asif Shawkat (head of intelligence in Syria and brother in law of Bashar Assad — his wife Bushra al Assad has allegedly fled the country) and Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s emasculated CEO, who was sidelined by Iran after he started the 2006 war with Israel without Iran’s go-ahead, and elevated his own value at Iran’s substantial expense. The two aforementioned actors are anti-Iranian.

Pro-Iranians incldue Bashar Assad, his brother Maher Assad, as well as the late Imad Mughniyeh, whom the Mossad carbombed.

Bashar Assad’s crowd is very tightly intertwined with Teheran, so the offer would have zero credibility coming from one of them, even after generously “reading between the lines.”

So the Syrians are basically offering to stop being Iran’s proxy, and to sell out “Iranian Hezbollah” without severing all commercial links to Iran, in return for a reasonable few tens of billions — including Syria’s maintaining its Lebanese fief, which Shawkat/ Nasrallah is very heavily invested in, too.

Assuming the offer was meant to be credible at all, it had to have come from a Shawkat representative, and the only circumstance in which it would have credibility would be after a coup in Damascus, in which Shawkat’s faction had seized power from the al Assad faction. They are basically offering to cut off Hezbollah insofar as it acts as an Iranian proxy, sever some but hardly all links with Iran, and ease into the US Mideastern alliance.

Syria is definitely under the most stress of any of the Mideast players, and it is probably the only regime, besides Siniora’s in Lebanon, which is existentially threatened in the near term.

In terms of how that might possibly be relevant to a trader … well … the likelihood of a pro-US/ coup in Damascus could be gauged as higher … as could the likelihood of a war involving Lebanon, Israel and Syria. So: a fatter-tailed distribution of geopolitical outcomes, and of oil prices, in the near term.

Even George “every state utterance is part of Bush’s or Ahmadinejad’s master plan” Friedman now seems to be conceding that, despite all the suppositions of “high-level meetings” between Ahmadinejad and the Americans (of which there is no evidence whatsoever), Israel and Syria are hurtling towards war in Lebanon.

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Via the Beeb:

Iraq’s prime minister has threatened to exclude the supporters of radical cleric Moqtada Sadr from politics.

Nouri Maliki told CNN that the cleric’s movement would not be allowed to take part in elections unless it disbanded its militia, the Mehdi Army.

The prime minister and major Iraqi parties had already called for militias to be dissolved as the government waged a security campaign against the groups.

But it was the first time that Mr Maliki had singled out the Mehdi Army.

“A decision was taken… that they no longer have a right to participate in the political process or take part in the upcoming elections unless they end the Mehdi Army,” Mr Maliki said.

“Solving the problem comes in no other way than dissolving the Mehdi Army,” he said.

The provincial elections are scheduled for later this year.

Growing confrontation

Mr Maliki took power with the help of Moqtada Sadr, but broke with the cleric last year.

The BBC’s Adam Brookes in Baghdad says the confrontation between the two men is growing.

Two weeks ago the prime minister sent thousands of troops into the city of Basra to try to force the Mehdi Army into submission.

The militia withdrew from the streets, but the operation was inconclusive.

Mr Maliki said the government would continue the crackdown.

“We have opened the door for confrontation, a real confrontation with these gangs, and we will not stop until we are in full control of these areas,” he said.

Mr Maliki’s comments came after heavy fighting between US and Iraqi forces and the Mehdi Army at the weekend.

At least 22 people were killed and more than 50 others injured in clashes in the capital’s eastern district of Sadr City, a stronghold of the militia.

Five US soldiers were killed, including three who died during rocket and mortar attacks in Baghdad.

Two of those died in attacks on the heavily-fortified Green Zone.

Moqtada Sadr has called for a mass demonstration on Wednesday against the US military presence.

Al-Maliki’s offer is hardly in good faith: unilateral disarmament is not an option for the Mehdi Army.

The screws are being turned on Ahmadinejad.

I disagree with Stratfor’s assessment that the last year of Bush’s presidency gives Bush more leverage than he has had at any time since 2003/05. I think Stratfor has miscalculated on this for the same reason that they miscalculated the NIE’s implications last November. The US government is by no means a cohesive organism. The less time Bush has in office, the weaker/more improbable will be the consequences of disobeying his orders.

The optimal time to strike at Iran and her various regional proxies (Hezbollah, Hamas, the Mehdi Army) is “now, or very soon.”

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Yesterday I confessed my surprise at the Basra operation’s having ended so quickly. It wasn’t congruent with my picture of the Mideast — that the operation is politically driven by American and Iraqi Shiite interests viz. Iran. Iran’s dominant ISCI faction, along with al-Maliki’s much weaker Dawa faction, have their own incentives to cooperate: namely entrenching their standing ahead of Iraq’s October elections by muscling out their weaker political competitors (the Mehdi Army and Fadhila).

It seemed doubly incongruent in light of the UK’s decision to postpone its Basra withdrawal. If a remotely lasting accommodation had indeed been reached, why wouldn’t the UK withdrawal have resumed? If there is anything Gordon Brown needs, it’s good PR.

At any rate, it appears that the Basra operation is continuing.

April 1, 2008 1545 GMT
Iraqi forces entered the ports of Om al-Kasr and Khor al-Zobair in Basra late March 31 in order to secure the area against criminal activity, media reported April 1. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said the government would continue its crackdown against militias and criminal gangs.

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Iran’s state of play is as follows.

  1. Ahmadinejad wants Barack Obama, not John McCain, as the next US president.
  2. Ahmadinejad is facing severe inflation at home, brought about by an oil windfall combined with US financial sanctions. This constitutes a political threat to his survival.
  3. The Ahmadinejad faction of the Iranian military-industrial apparatus has the most to lose in Iran’s upcoming second parliamentary round, and both presidential rounds of elections, scheduled for May 7, June 17 and June 24, 2008, respectively.
  4. Ahmadinejad appears to be losing control of its Iraqi proxies under heavy US and Iraqi pressure. Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party seems to be the main Iranian faction gone renegade, but segments of the Mehdi Army appear to be disobeying Iran as well.
  5. Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party, and the normally reliably pro-Iranian ISCI, are using the security operation to strengthen their own political hands at the expense of the Sadrites, Fadhila, and other smaller groups in Basra (Iraq’s richest province), ahead of Iraq’s October 1 elections.
  6. Therefore, Dawa and ISCI — who call the shots from Baghdad — have the motive as well as the means for destabilizing Iraq, 2 months before Ahmadinejad faces Iranian voters.

So what does Ahmadinejad do? He has one of his main allies, Ahmad Jannati, call for “dialogue” and “reconciliation”: “Oh [al-Sadr], if you have something to say, come sit with the government. The government is popular and so are you.” A day later Sadr had received Teheran’s orders, so he called upon his militias to stand down.

Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr has ordered his fighters off the streets of Basra and other cities in an effort to end clashes with security forces.

He said in a statement that his movement wanted the Iraqi people to stop the bloodshed and maintain the nation’s independence and stability.

The government, which had set a deadline to hand over weapons in return for cash, called the move “positive”.

The fighting has claimed more than 240 lives across the country since Tuesday.

In Baghdad, the city’s military command has extended a round-the-clock curfew for an indefinite period. The curfew had been due to end on Sunday morning. …

Al-Maliki, however, prefers to continue consolidating power, and the Americans want to turn the screws on Ahmadinejad with as much local help as possible, because they believe Ahmadinejad will do likewise after he wins Iran’s presidential election. Since Sadr’s call falls short of what the Iraqi government is calling for, my guess is that the crackdown will continue, despite the Sadrites’ attempted voluntary cease-fire.

Iraqi troops will continue their operation in the southern city of Basra even though Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on his followers to stop fighting, Reuters reported March 30, citing comments from Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. Al-Dabbagh said the six-day-old operation is targeting criminals, not al-Sadr’s followers.

Iran seems to have elected to spend the next three months in a defensive crouch. Judging from everything out of Iraq and Syria, they have a lot of militia reorganizing to do on multiple fronts. Asif Shawkat, Syria’s head of intelligence, is suspected to be complicit in the Mughniyeh assassination, which means that Syria is effectively immobilized until Shawkat is eliminated.

If Ahmadinejad survives June 24, he will have a lot of new leverage, the Iraqi militias will snap out of their defensive crouch, and Iran will hold the initiative in Iraqi bloodletting while McCain prays that the violence doesn’t cripple his election prospects.

Until then, it appears that the initiative will be with the United States and its Iraqi allies.

The three months between now and June 24 would also be the ideal time for Israel to hurl a body-blow operation at Hamas, in Gaza. It would further diminish Ahmadinejad’s credibility, but would probably not provoke a response from Hezbollah.

I’m not sure anyone knows the extent to which Ahmadinejad might be able to rig the outcome of Iran’s elections. My impression is that so many Iranian elites hate Ahmadinejad, that Ahmadinejad’s “freedom to fudge” is fairly limited.

In terms of market outcomes this would imply a moderate tempo of oil-related bombings, and geopolitical jolts to the price of oil, over the next three months, followed by a dramatic upswing if Ahmadinejad goes all-in to secure a better bargaining position, by getting Barack Obama, not John McCain, elected to the presidency (through a cycle of Teheran-driven unrest in July through October).

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Rumors, rumors …

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Right on cue …. via the Financial Times:

US aids Iraq security forces with air strikes

By By Steve Negus, Iraq correspondent, and Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington

Published: March 28 2008 18:20 | Last updated: March 28 2008 18:20

President George W. Bush on Friday called the Iraqi government offensive in Basra a “defining moment” as violence continued to spread across the country and US troops were forced to send reinforcements to help Iraqi security forces.

“I would say this is a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq,” Mr Bush said. “This happens to be one of the provinces where the Iraqis are in the lead…and this is a good test for them.”

Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, has stressed that the operation is primarily targeting ”lawless gangs” in the southern port city of Basra, but fighting has spread to other cities, with members of the Madhi Army, a group of Shia militants loyal to the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, staging solidarity attacks.

Militias on Friday appeared to have seized control of the centre of the southern provincial capital of Nasiriya, while heavy fighting has also been reported in the towns of Kut, Amara, Diwaniya, and Hilla and in the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City. Militants in Baghdad have also kept up a heavy barrage of rockets and mortars at the heavily fortified Green Zone.

Iraqi security forces admitted on Friday that they were having difficulties subduing radical Shia militants. The death toll in the four days of fighting since Mr Maliki launched operation “Sawlat al-Fursan”, or Charge of the Knights, is unclear, but appears to have risen at least above 200.

While Mr Bush said the Iraqis were taking the lead in the operation, coalition forces were required to provide reinforcements on Friday, including air strikes at militants in Basra and Baghdad.

”We supposed that this operation would be a normal operation, but we were surprised by this resistance and have been obliged to change our plans and our tactics,” Abd al-Qader Jassim, the Iraqi defence minister, was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Stephen Biddle, an Iraq expert and former adviser to General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, said the situation in Basra was “very serious”. He said the US was not clear whether Mr Maliki was targeting rogue elements of the Madhi army or taking on the mainstream faction of the umbrella group loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric.

Mr Biddle said another possibility was that Mr Maliki was taking the opportunity to crack down on political opponents ahead of provincial elections later this year. That would be the most dangerous scenario, he added, since it could jeopardise the ceasefires by the Madhi army loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric, and also by Sunni “local concerned citizens”.

Mr Maliki’s office on Friday said Basra residents had until April 8 to hand over heavy arms in return for cash bounties. The deadline is separate from an earlier ultimatum announced on Wednesday which gave gunmen 72 hours to surrender their weapons.

Iraq experts expressed concern that Mr Maliki had not co-ordinated the operation closely with the coalition, which some said could jeopardise its success. Mr Bush said he was unaware what trigged the timing of the offensive.

“I haven’t spoken to the prime minister since he’s made his decision, but I suspect that he would say, ”Look, the citizens down there just got sick and tired of this kind of behaviour,” said Mr Bush.

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Iraq: Medhi Army Starts ‘Civil Disobedience’

March 24, 2008 1642 GMT
Members of Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr‘s Mehdi Army on March 24 moved into Baghdad’s southern al-Ilaam, Shurta, Bayaa and Amil districts and western Washas district, ordering shop owners to close, Reuters reported, citing witnesses. Militia members used burning tires to close down roads in one neighborhood. Witnesses said the Mehdi Army had declared the beginning of a civil disobedience campaign, and an al-Sadr official said the militia is protesting “U.S. raids and the arrests of innocent people.” The campaign does not mean the Mehdi Army cease-fire is over, said al-Sadr‘s parliamentary bloc leader Nassar al-Rubaie, adding that only al-Sadr can end the truce. Sheikh Mahmoud al-Sabihawi of Sadr‘s Amil district office said the campaign will continue until the arrests stop.

March 24, 2008 1657 GMT
U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus said March 24 he thinks Iran backed the insurgents who carried out March 23 mortar and rocket attacks on Baghdad’s Green Zone, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported. Petraeus said the rockets used were made in and provided by Iran. Those who fired them were trained and funded by Iran’s Quds Force, he added.
March 25, 2008 0732 GMT

Heavy fighting broke out March 25 in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where Iraqi troops have clashed with members of the Mehdi Army militia, Reuters reported, citing a witness. The Iraqi military has launched operations in Basra to “cleanse” the city of armed groups, a military official said.

March 25, 2008 1003 GMT
Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr‘s headquarters in An Najaf placed Mehdi Army field commanders on high alert March 25 after Iraqi security forces launched an operation in Basra to contain the ongoing violence between rival militias, The Associated Press reported. The commanders were ordered “to strike the occupiers” and their Iraqi allies, an anonymous militia officer said. The security forces reportedly encountered stiff resistance from Mehdi Army gunmen.
March 25, 2008 1210 GMT
Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened a countrywide “civil revolt” if U.S. and Iraqi security forces keep targeting his followers, Reuters reported March 25. In a statement, al-Sadr called on Iraqis to stage sit-ins throughout the country as a first step. If demands are not met then, al-Sadr said the second step would be to “declare civil revolt in Baghdad and all other provinces.” Al-Sadr threatened a third step but said it was too soon to announce what it might be.
March 25, 2008 1257 GMT
Members of Muqtada al-Sadr‘s Mehdi Army took control of five districts in the southern Iraqi town of Kut on March 25, Reuters reported. Police sources told Reuters that the militia took over the Jihad, Shuhada, Zahara, Sharqiya and Hawi districts. An eyewitness told Reuters he could hear explosions and shooting and U.S. warplanes were circling overhead. Police Capt. Majid al-Imara said he has asked U.S. forces to help the local authorities with aircraft and vehicles, adding that eight to 10 policemen had been wounded in clashes in Aziziya, a town north of Kut. Police in Samawa, the capital of the southern province of Muthanna, imposed a curfew after Mehdi Army members appeared there. Curfews have also been imposed in Hilla and Kut.
March 25, 2008 1353 GMT

A blast was heard and smoke was seen March 25 in Baghdad’s “Green Zone” government and diplomatic compound, Reuters reported. The explosion was suspected to have been caused by rocket or mortar fire.
================

March 25, 2008 1517 GMT
People in southern Lebanon’s major population centers of Nabatieh and Tyr are stockpiling canned food, beans, cereals, cooking oil, rice, dried milk and prescription drugs in anticipation of an impending war with Israel, a Stratfor source reported March 25, citing reports from shop owners and pharmacists. The source also said a building contractor reported that construction in Southern Lebanon has come to an unprecedented halt.
Iraq is deteriorating rapidly.
This has enormous implications for the US presidential race — and therefore the rate of capital gains taxation in the next four years — as well as the price of oil, and to a lesser extent the value of the dollar.
I expect Lebanon to be ground zero of 2008’s long hot summer, but lots of collateral damage will be felt in Iraq.
Remember, Ahmadinejad has Carter’s scalp already. He knows how the US electoral game is played.

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… oil strengthened massively today.

Stratfor sez at least one Israeli warship has been spotted inside Lebanese territorial waters, making a Mideast war, and very endangered oil pipelines/tankers, that much more imminent.

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Hmm?

March 15, 2008 1631 GMT
Russian security forces foiled a sniper’s March 2 attempt to assassinate President Vladimir Putin, Reuters reported March 15, citing Moscow tabloid Tvoi Den. An unnamed source told Tvoi Den a sniper was arrested before Putin entered the Kremlin gates to attend a concert next to the Red Square. The Kremlin declined to comment on the report, and a security source quoted by Itar-Tass denied the report.

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Adm. Fallon was seen as the strongest anti-anti-Iran presence among military officials in command of the Middle Eastern theater of operations … as the Mideast continues to heat up …

Update: Stratfor has a smidgen of text. I heard about it walking past a CNN screen. I wish I could read the text — it sounds very spiteful/ baleful from what I’ve heard so far.

War in Lebanon with US involvement at the first hint of Israeli/Lebanese difficulty seems very close, now.

March 11, 2008 1939 GMT

U.S. Central Command chief Adm. William Fallon has resigned his position, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said March 11 at a press conference. Fallon cited a “significant difference” with the views of the Bush administration in his resignation request, but Gates said there were “misperceptions” about such differences.

Update 2: Bloomberg:

Fallon Stepping Down as U.S. Middle East Commander, Gates Says
By Ken Fireman and Janine Zacharia

March 11 (Bloomberg) — Admiral William Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, is stepping down effective March 31, because of perceived differences on policy with the Bush administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said today.

Fallon assumed the post a year ago as the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, with responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He informed Gates of his decision today.

“Admiral Fallon reached this difficult decision entirely on his own,” Gates told a news conference at the Pentagon. Gates said it was a “misperception” that Fallon differed from the administration.

Still can’t find the text of Fallon’s resignation statement. Why isn’t Fallon delivering this himself? (Because Gates wants to frame it in a way that differs from what Fallon, or Fallon’s resignation letter, would have said.)

The board is set …

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Syria looks poised for a palace bloodletting. Stratfor tells us that Asif Shawkat, brother-in-law of Bashar al Assad and chief of Syria’s national security apparatus, probably had a hand in the Mughniyah assassination.

… the death of Hezbollah’s most seasoned operative might not have been a surprise to certain elements of the Syrian regime. These suspicions appear to be shared by Syria’s allies Hezbollah and Iran.

As Stratfor has discussed previously, even if the Israeli Mossad orchestrated the operation to take out Mughniyah, it likely had an inside source — perhaps in Syria’s security apparatus — that facilitated the operation. …
… The extent of Syrian intelligence’s involvement in the Mughniyah assassination could even reach up to the highest echelons of the al Assad family, with Syrian Director-General of Intelligence Asef Shawkat at the center of the conspiracy. …

… In addition to being a prime suspect in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Shawkat could have had something to do with the Mughniyah assassination, several signs indicate. Shawkat apparently felt threatened by Mughniyah’s influence within the Syrian security apparatus and came to blows with his long-time foe Maher al Assad, the president’s brother and head of the Republican Guard, over the issue. …

… there appears to be a case building against Shawkat behind the palace walls in Damascus. Stratfor has already learned of rumors of an impending military reshuffle that could very well remove Shawkat and wash the regime’s hands of the al-Hariri assassination. But Shawkat is unlikely to go quietly into the night …

Meanwhile, yesterday was the bloodiest day for US forces in Iraq in recent memory; eight soldiers were killed by bombs. Today another bomb went off, which killed sixteen civilians.

A roadside bomb has killed at least 16 people travelling on a bus in southern Iraq, reports say.

At least 22 people were also wounded in the attack.

The civilian passenger bus was travelling on the Basra-Nasiriya road some 80km (50 miles) south of Nasiriya, police said.

The attack came a day after eight US soldiers and an interpreter were killed in two separate incidents, the US military said.

One attack took place in Diyala province, killing three soldiers and an interpreter, while five other soldiers were killed in a suicide attack in Baghdad.

As we have noted several times, the “surge” will once again be a liability for the Republican Party in terms of the elections, and Barack Obama’s vote against the war at the time — regardless of how calculated it was — will appear more prescient than ever.

A leader of one of Lebanon’s anti-Hezbollah factions will ask the United States for a more explicit commitment of support, in what appears to be the run-up to another major civil conflict in Lebanon.

March 11, 2008 0929 GMT
The leader of the Lebanese Forces Party, Samir Geagea, says he plans to ask U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for stronger U.S. support for Lebanon during their March 11 meeting in Washington, Press TV reported. Geagea said he and Rice will discuss issues including Shabaa Farms, Lebanese prisoners in Syria and Israel, the Lebanon-Syria border and international resolutions.

Moqtada al-Sadr has been effectively eased out of practical control of the Mehdi Army, a telling sign that Iran is pulling out all the stops to make sure its militias are in trustworthy hands, and able to operate autonomously and in Teheran’s interests at the same time. Kuwaiti Shiites have been mobilized for (peaceful) protests. But as the Kuwaiti ruling family knows, should things get out of control in the Levant and Baghdad, today’s peaceful protesters in Kuwait could be tomorrow’s suicide bombers.

Oil kissed $109 today. I believe geopolitical risk has been the determining factor in oil’s latest rally.

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Iraq: Al-Sadr To Step Back From Daily Operations

Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr has decided to step back from day-to-day operations of his movement to focus on religious studies, but he will remain in charge of the movement, Agence France-Presse reported March 10, citing al-Sadr’s aides. The news comes after al-Sadr on March 7 said some of his movement’s leaders split off after he renewed a halt in the activities of his Mehdi Army. The decision does not mean that al-Sadr will withdraw from the political scene, an al-Sadr spokesman in An Najaf said. He will keep in constant, direct contact with his movement from a distance, the spokesman added.

It sounds like Teheran called up al-Sadr and informed him that he had been terminated.

Al-Sadr has been in hiding, and there have been raging rumors of his having been poisoned, nearly killed, etc. Iran needs to solidify control of its militias across the Middle East in the event of a showdown in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, five American soldiers were killed on patrol in Baghdad today.

Five US soldiers have been killed by a suicide bomb attack while on patrol in Baghdad, the US army has said.

Three other troops and an Iraqi interpreter were also injured in the blast, an army statement said.

The attack is one of the most deadly strikes on US forces in Baghdad since last summer’s US troop surge.

It came hours after a Sunni tribal leader, Thaer Ghadban al-Karkhi, was killed in a suicide bomb attack at his house near Baquba, north of Baghdad.

Most vulnerable

Iraqi army spokesman Maj Gen Qasim Ata told AFP news agency: “A terrorist wearing an explosive vest blew himself against a dismounted US patrol.

The US military told the BBC that the attack took place in the Mansour district of the capital.

“We remain resolute in our resolve to protect the people of Iraq and kill or capture those who would bring them harm,” Col Allen Batschelet, chief of staff of US forces in Baghdad, told Reuters news agency.

The strike takes the number of US troops killed since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 close to 4,000, says the BBC’s Hugh Sykes in Baghdad.

As the invasion’s five-year anniversary approaches, many Baghdad neighbourhoods have witnessed security improvements, with the number of attacks on American soldiers significantly down from last year.

The bomber had targeted the US military at their most vulnerable, as military patrols around the Iraqi capital are often conducted in armoured vehicles, our correspondent says.

But the US cannot function unless they get out of their armoured vehicles and engage with the people, he adds.

In the earlier attack, a woman detonated an explosives vest as Mr al-Kharki answered his door, killing him, his daughter and two guards.

He was a member of the mainly Sunni Arab Awakening councils, allied with the US military against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Sunni militias have been credited with helping to bring down the level of violence in Iraq in recent months.

If Lebanon combusts, the “surge” will — over the next six months — appear to be a catastrophic failure. Meanwhile, the American economy is commencing a deep recession amid soaring inflation.

In other news, oil is at $107/bbl …

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