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Archive for the ‘iraq’ Category

As noted here time and again, Iran has nothing to lose by waiting out the end of George Bush’s term.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said May 29 that Iran thinks U.S. voters want to change the foreign policies of President George W. Bush, and he said that the present U.S. presidential campaigns make that clear, The Associated Press reported. Mottaki, who would not endorse a candidate, said that foreign policy would play an important part in the election of the next U.S. president.

Iran could not have had a better March-May. A rumored Israeli Gaza offensive, against Iran’s proxy Hamas, failed to materialize. Hezbollah, staked by Iran, was forced to go all-in in Lebanon, won, and has returned to a defensive crouch.

Mottaki’s announcement is a signal to Ahmadinejad’s domestic foes that Iraq is worth waiting for for a little while longer. He happens to be right.

US econo-political analysis is divided into two camps. The “mainstream” camp sees US growth figures as credible, and takes at face value the idea that the US, by sheer economic vitality, has avoided a recession. This school views US inflation as temporary. It views 10/90 “right track/wrong track” numbers as merely a dubious poll, a product of stampeding pessimism, spawned by the media’s sensationalizing of US malaise. This group has faith in government and banking institutions, and little faith in consumers’ ability to assess or predict their own behavior. Curiously, this group is also disproportionately Republican and “free-market.” It does not see much potential for an economic- or inflation-driven political upheaval in November 2008.

The “cynics,” e.g., Bill Gross, Mish Shedlock, and John Williams, trust consumers’ perceptions over the government’s. Cynics argue that consumers are telling the truth when they say how pessimistic they are, and trace the dissonance between official and consumer perceptions to vagaries of BLS unemployment and inflation accounting–a story flogged to death here, and much more persuasively on other sites.

The cynics see much higher potential for political upheaval in November 2008.

Apparently, so does Iran.

Bush Administration policy vis-a-vis Iran/Iraq usually means dialing up tensions over Iranian nukes and weapons supplies into Iraq, bringing up aircraft carriers, launching large operations against Iran’s Mehdi Army Iraqi proxy, slapping sanctions on Iranian banks, using its own militias to incinerate strategic people inside Iran, etc.

After Hezbollah routed the US alliance in Lebanon (followed by an abrupt end to the US/Iraqi crackdown on Sadr in Baghdad) one would assume that the Bush Administration policy of “we’d like to talk, but we’re happy to pull the trigger too” attitude has lost credibility. Iran is quietly leveraging its gains by edging the US out of Iraq:

May 29, 2008 1419 GMT
Senior Iraqi official Sa’ad Javad Qandil told Alalam television May 29 that a draft of an agreement to extend U.S. troops in Iraq beyond 2008 was problematic, especially any condition that would allow the U.S. to establish a military base there.

Predictably, Qandil is a member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Teheran’s “mainstream” Iraq proxy (the Mehdi Army is, most of the time, its militant proxy). Hezbollah’s unanswered victory in Lebanon has ramifications across the entire region, not so much in the eyes of Americans as in the eyes of Arabs who were reminded, once again, that the personal bonds between Ahmadinejad and militia leaders can result in very quick and decisive action when Teheran’s interest are threatened.

Anyway, Iran hasn’t been deterred by US tough talk in the past, and there’s less reason than ever to think that louder tough talk will change Iran’s behavior at all. Lebanon has changed the game.

I would repeat my “sh*t or get off the pot” mantra about the US and Iran, but the US has backed down one too many times. I’m beginning to believe we should throw the Saudis the keys as soon as possible, to hedge against a probably adverse US election outcome while it’s still possible.

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via

Sunday night, May 11, the Israeli army was poised to strike Hizballah. The Shiite militia was winding up its takeover of West Beirut and battling pro-government forces in the North. When he opened the regular cabinet meeting Sunday, May 11, prime minister Ehud Olmert had already received the go-ahead from Washington for a military strike to halt the Hizballah advance. The message said that President George W. Bush would not call off his visit to Israel to attend its 60th anniversary celebrations and would arrive as planned Wednesday, May 14 – even if the Israeli army was still fighting in Lebanon and Hizballah struck back against Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion airport.

American intelligence estimated that Hizballah was capable of retaliating against northern Israel at the rate of 600 missiles a day.

Olmert, defense minister Ehud Barak and foreign minister Tzipi Lvini, the only ministers in the picture, decided not to intervene in Lebanon’s civil conflict. Iran’s surrogate army consequently waltzed unchecked to its second victory in two years over the United States and Israel.

DEBKAfile’s US and military sources disclose the arguments Washington marshaled to persuade Israel to go ahead: Hizballah, after its electronic trackers had learned from the Israel army’s communication and telephone networks that not a single troop or tank was on the move, took the calculated risk of transferring more than 5,000 armed men from the South to secure the capture of West Beirut.

This presented a rare moment to take Hizballah by surprise, Washington maintained. The plan outlined in Washington was for the Israeli Air force to bombard Hizballah’s positions in the South, the West and southern Beirut. This would give the pro-government Christian, Sunni and Druze forces the opening for a counter-attack. Israeli tanks would simultaneously drive into the South and head towards Beirut in two columns.

1. The western column would take the Tyre-Sidon-Damour-Beirut coastal highway.

2. The eastern column would press north through Nabatiya, Jezzine, Ain Zchalta and Alei.

Sunday night, Olmert called Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora and his allies, the Sunni majority leader Saad Hariri, head of the mainline Druze party Walid Jumblatt and Christian Phalanges chief Samir Geagea and informed them there would be no Israeli strike against Hizballah. Jerusalem would not come to their aid.

According to American sources, the pro-Western front in Beirut collapsed then and there, leaving Hizballah a free path to victory. The recriminations from Washington sharpened day by day and peaked with President Bush’s arrival in Israel.

Our sources report that, behind the protestations of undying American friendship and camaraderie shown in public by the US president, prime minister and Shimon Peres, Bush and his senior aides bitterly reprimanded Israel for its passivity in taking up the military challenge and crushing an avowed enemy in Lebanon.

While the president was busy with ceremonies and speeches, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley took Israeli officials to task. Hadley in particular bluntly blamed Israel for the downfall of the pro-Western government bloc in Beirut and its surrender to the pro-Iranian, Pro-Syrian Hizballah. If Israeli forces had struck Hizballah gunmen wile on the move, he said, Hassan Nasrallah would not have seized Beirut and brought the pro-government militias to their knees.

One US official said straight out to Olmert and Barak: For two years, you didn’t raise a finger when Hizballah took delivery of quantities of weapons, including missiles, from Iran and Syria. You did not interfere with Hizballah’s military buildup in southern Lebanon then or its capture of Beirut now.

IDF generals who were present at these conversations reported they have never seen American officials so angry or outspoken. Israel’s original blunder, they said, was its intelligence misreading of Hizballah’s first belligerent moves on May 4. At that point, Israel’s government military heads decided not to interfere, after judging those moves to be unthreatening.

The Americans similarly criticizes Israel for letting Hamas get away with its daily rocket and missile attacks on Israel civilians year after year. A blow to Hizballah would have deterred Hamas from exercising blackmail tactics for a ceasefire. In Sharm el-Sheikh Sunday, May 18, President Bush called on Middle East countries to confront Hamas and isolate terror-sponsors Iran and Syria.

Familiar fecklessness, indeed. We now know what the “miscalculation” was — the pro-Western Lebanese banked on Israel to back them up. But no: Olmert has an election to win. If Lebanese Sunni and Druze, and American soldiers in Iraq, need to die because because Jewish boys are just too precious… well, that’s the problem of the goyim, not the Jews, right? This will not be forgotten.

At least Rice doesn’t have her head as deep in the sand as I thought.

Either Israel knifed us–big time–or the Israeli government’s corrosive dereliction, entitlement mentality , and serial incompetence have infected the core of their intelligence apparatus.

Oh, yeah–it also shows whom Bush was really referring to in his “appeasement” speech last week. Definitely not Obama, probably not Carter, absolutely Olmert.

I guess the Israeli media is too stupid and/or sycophantic to point out that “inconvenient truth.” A democracy at face value only, indeed.

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Iran has puzzled the global oil market by having 20 large tankers filled with crude oil. Why is Iran holding on to so much oil, given what a suppliers’ market oil is right now?

Iranian oil is not just oil. It’s very “heavy”/ “dirty” oil. Iran could coagulate strategic parts of the Persian Gulf with massive dirty oil dumps, which would not only cripple mobility of American CBGs, but would also contaminate the Sunni sheikhdoms’ water desalinization facilities.

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[edited and tempered a bit–EC]

I’ve wanted to talk about something that’s been simmering for a long time in my mind, namely the obvious institutional dysfunction of the West in the face of Muslim, particularly Shia, tribal fortitude.

There are two kinds of societies: unstructured, tribal societies, and structured, institutional societies. The Bush Administration’s Iraq odyssey has allowed vibrant contrast between tribal and institutional societies.

Charisma is the currency of a tribal society; money is the currency of institutional society.

In a tribe, any person’s leadership ability is contingent upon how well he husbands the lives and resources of his tribe in the face of external threats, up to and including throwing himself on the rails to save his family/ unit/ clan/ tribe. A leader’s credibility is based upon 1) his ability to forecast and surmount future threats, and 2) his perceived willingness to die for the tribe’s sake to surmount such a threat — the fact that, as he gambles with his tribe’s lives, he sees his own life no differently from lesser members of the tribe. So, tribal societies generally produce very astute gamblers as leaders.

Institutional societies produce exactly opposite leaders. People rise through institutions by public competence and private ‘politicking’ (what a tribal society would call ‘treachery’). Winning the leadership lottery of an institution is defined by strategically timed risk avoidance, whereas tribal leaders are defined by strategic risk-taking.

Institutions can attain heights of complexity and ‘sophistication,’ be it in the form of weaponry, markets, technology, art, or social ritual, which tribes can only, rarely, hope to rent. For that conceit, institutions pay a steep price. They are extremely slow to adapt to anything. Institutions can scale up intellect, but unlike tribes they cannot scale up trust. Institutions are hamstrung by internal political jockeying to a much greater extent than are tribes.

Because testosterone and charisma are pretty closely correlated, “demographic change” is never a tribal problem. Children are necessary to perpetuate and augment the tribe, and are totally encouraged. People who have difficulty producing children are accepted, but not treated as well. People obviously incapable of producing children, i.e. homosexuals, are ostracized, unless they show exceptional fighting ability/ stand up for themselves. Institutions, which put a premium on an individual’s “paying dues” of time at the expense of everything else, disproportionately produce leaders with few or no children. Institution-driven government policy overwhelmingly discounts from future investment (of which children are a big part) to the present.

Tribal leaders see much more meaning in death — or, in the case of black US tribes, very long-term imprisonment — than do institutional leaders. They know that even if their lives’ works ‘end’ in death, their sacrifice will reflect well upon their “peoples” ie their children.

Because tribal leaders are judged by their ability to defeat external challenges and encroachments on a continuous basis, and are not protected by legal or institutional formalisms, they react immediately and overwhelmingly to, for example, attempts to steal the property of the tribe.

So, institutional societies produce too many “leaders” eager to take credit for vanquishing small risks over small time horizons, and very large risks over extremely long time horizons (i.e., blame/credit cannot be fully allocated until after the leader in question is dead).

You can see where I’m going with this. The Muslim world is defined by its tribes, and the West is defined by its institutions. It would be over-dramatic to call Iraq a clash of civilizations, but it still is, sort of. Who has been winning? Iran certainly hasn’t been losing. The US seems to be holding firm, except that public support for the war has completely collapsed, and the state of the US government’s balance sheet is much worse than any agency seems to realize.

The US government really reminds me a lot of Citigroup: every agency further amortizing the future, on the assumption that, if its bets don’t pay off, every other agency will take cuts for that agency’s mistakes. In musical chairs, somebody has to lose.

I have been raised by, and have benefited from, a structural society. I would like to believe in it. However, Western institutions’ schizophrenic, ill-informed dysfunction has offered a pathetic contrast to the Iranian model. Every all-in challenge by Hezbollah has been met with pathetic procrastination by Israel, the United States, and proxy tribes seduced by Western institutional promises. Olmert’s Israel, which talks about negotiations as it’s hit by Palestinian Katyushas every day, is a particularly dramatic exposition of this, although the rest of the West suffers the same myopic affliction to lesser degrees.

Tribal elements of the West, i.e., Israeli settlers, lower echelons of the US Army Mormons, US “white trash,” and others who for all their faults are proud enough to put their flesh on the line for their homelands, nonetheless can’t help but feel that the institutions which purport to represent them only waste any lives they offer, on the altar of the Kadima/State Department cult of peace.

The “uncultured” “barbarian” tribes have been bleeding the West dry for the last five years. Western firepower is overwhelming, and could have imposed prohibitive costs on Iranian militia-style maneuvering years ago. Why hasn’t it? As if any negotiation can erase the fact that the Western empire has no clothes, and will not defend itself despite getting its teeth spattered onto Beirut’s pavement. [*]

I think Western governments’ increasingly aggressive discounting of the future is a direct byproduct of the institutionalization of Western society. Today, for example, big agribusiness is stealing $300 billion in plain sight. How is this sustainable — let alone acceptable? Is there a point at which it becomes moral to kill these people? S&P has already stated that a Fannie/Freddie bailout alone would cost $400 billion to $1.1 trillion, and would jeopardize the US’s AAA bond rating. There just isn’t the money for these expenses anymore.

Governments discount youth’s earnings in many ways. Government mandated barriers to entry are overwhelmingly protectionism for existing workers at the expense of future workers, and force youth/future workers to seek poorer alternatives. America’s gigantic intergenerational liabilities are another such tax on youth. I posit that growth of government has directly depressed Western birthrates. US native birthrates are collapsing in line with continental Europe’s, as is its growth of government. [**] There is a yawning gap between deep pessimism of Western youth, especially in the United States, and relative optimism of the 55+ crowd. The two groups are facing very different arrays of future liabilities and future payments, that’s for sure.

Maybe that’s the difference. You hear about all the rent seekers all the time, but you don’t hear as much about the ones that are rising. I don’t know. There is an awful lot of rent-seeking going on, but nobody outside the financial industry seems to have a clue about it, or what it will mean for future generations. This has really, really Never Happened Before, except in Japan, and the results were very bad–especially for birth rates.

Maybe you could say that institutions are a necessary evil for especially big societies. In any case, they are no match for the Mideast’s tribal collectives, epitomized by the extremely high-trust tribal institution Hezbollah. The West’s leaders are no match for Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah at all. Sure, there are those who might be if they had the backing of even a cohesive minority of their society, such as Petraeus, but they don’t, because there is no critical mass willing to risk as Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah are. So we continue fighting this stupid, never-ending war, losing money, face, and men all at the same time.

There’s something about the West that makes it unwilling to win wars, and I don’t know what it is.

Or, maybe I should just rename my blog “a neoconservative, mugged by doomsterism.”

[*] again, the notion of action being important now is premised upon a Republican loss in the 2008 presidential election, something approaching a foregone conclusion, which hasn’t seeped into the conventional wisdom yet.

[**] One should take into account the relatively enormous US local governments, nonprofit sector, and government contractors when arriving at a size of US government. The latter two in particular have exploded over the past eight years.

The sum total will likely surpass 40 percent of GDP this year, and will explode in an Obama Administration as opaque liabilities from the financial bailout make themselves more apparent later.

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When you leave US policy in the hands of the surrender monkeys at State, the result is that a few even more narcissistic clones of Strobe Talbott puff up their images as The Great Peacemakers, The Great Negotiators, the lone doves standing between us and Armageddon … while our few credible allies, be they in the Mideast, Afghanistan, Colombia, or Georgia, are surrounded and pounded.

In the latter two cases, there’s a very good case to be made that the US has no business there, and there would be obvious rationales that American ‘surrender’ would be preferable to any escalation. But in Iraq, we aren’t leaving. Iran’s involvement in anti-American insurgencies in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan are obvious to any disinterested observer. Given that the Foreign Policy Establishment has committed US credibility there; given that we won’t leave; and given a massive stock of un-utilized conventional military assets, why the F are we not bombing Iran? And if we are schizophrenic about doing that, why the F are we in the Mideast to begin with?

Walid Jumblatt, admittedly a chameleon historically, but currently an extremely pro-American tribal leader in the Mideast, is now officially “under the gun,” as poker players would say.

May 12, 2008 1904 GMT
A Stratfor source reported May 12 that militant group Hezbollah is planning to assassinate Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.
After Iranian victory over Israel in Lebanon and Bush’s midterm defeat in 2006, the US pulled a huge check-raise with the surge. Iran called. With the recent operation in Sadr City, which has throttled much of the life out of the Mehdi Army, the US raised again. The ongoing Iranian coup in Lebanon, combined with Ahmadinejad’s telegraphed denunciation of al-Maliki today, indicate that Iran is going all-in.

Iranian hard-line newspapers, Jomhuri-e-Eslami and Hezbollah, said May 12 that Iraqis should oppose a strategic framework pact with the United States. The newspapers accused Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of caving in to U.S. demands over the agreement. Jomhuri-e-Eslami reported that the agreement would allow the United States to set up 14 military bases across Iraq, authorize a long-term U.S. military deployment, give U.S. nationals immunity in the country, and allow the U.S. military to use Iraq to launch military attacks in the Middle East. The newspaper Hezbollah reportedly said that the U.S. presence in Iraq was “captivity” and that the military would turn Iraq into a “permanent base in the Middle East.”

How Stratfor has managed to combine such bad calls with such effective screens of open-source information and official is an interesting question. We noted on many different occasions Stratfor’s systematic bias — despite overwhelming contrary evidence — towards the State Department’s worldview. Granted, geopolitical forecasting is a tough business, and you have to play the, shall we say, “constructive ambiguity” game more aggressively to protect your brand. However, the consistency of error on their part has assumed formidable dimensions.

I also agree with Mike’s suspicion that Stratfor deliberately misrepresented the implications of the NIE on behalf of the State crowd. (Stratfor ludicrously insisted that the NIE represented a “dramatic leap forward” in US-Iranian negotiations.) Regrettably, George Friedman (Stratfor CEO) has taken down his blog, where there were quite a few good morsels of informed contrary commentary, which apparently detracted from Stratfor’s brand too much as they were vindicated.

Here, we took a different view, and predicted throughout March that Iran-instigated violence would escalate due to obvious distrust between the US and Iraq — not dial down, as a result of some imagined “back-channel negotiations” which were a sucker play if anything.

On March 30, we predicted that the US-led alliance would have the initiative in steadily escalating violence with Iran. With Hezbollah’s latest forced raise, the Pentagon et al. have used that time wisely, and forced Ahmadinejad to raise — or fold.

Bush’s shrinking window of opportunity, combined with the predictability and necessity of escalation, mean that overt airstrikes on Iran are a matter of when, not if. It seems that Lebanese resistance to Hezbollah has totally disintegrated, again with the exception of Jumblatt’s besieged Druze; that probably was not expected. In any case he has committed his entire tribe against Hezbollah and he must be reinforced.

Debkafile, a good source for the IDF perspective, notes that Syria has completely withdrawn all peace feelers in light of Hezbollah’s triumph in Lebanon. As we’ve noted on this blog time and time again, Israel’s peace negotiations with Syria were ludicrous to begin with. The Assad family could never have been decoupled from Hezbollah and Teheran, and even if the Assad family were so interested, it would be safer for them to go to war with Israel, and allow Israel to smash Hezbollah, than for them to do anything about Hezbollah themselves.

Anyway, I said only yesterday that Hezbollah wanted to shatter Jumblatt under its Yemeni Druze, Talal Arslan smokescreen to neutralize Jumblatt’s much larger Kaysi Druze, the only credible anti-Hezbollah force still standing. Jumblatt’s Druze have been given the unacceptable choice of disarming or being besieged. They seem to be opting for the latter, which they should, because Walid Jumblatt will have a bullet in his brain 24 hours after “disarming.”

Iran has been badly strained by the last couple of months, and is upping the ante a couple of months two early. Once again, the Israelis are too preoccupied with their own dramas to be of any use. But we knew that ever since Olmert hung on post-August 2006. I presume America’s hawks have been waiting for this opportunity, and hope they leverage it for every overt airstrike it’s worth.

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Lebanon

Oil hopped past $126 today, which is all the more remarkable considering that if you measure oil in terms of the weaker USD from 3-5 weeks ago, oil would be over $130/barrel.

Israel appears to have given Syria the warning that if so much as a single truck crosses Syria into Lebanon, Israel and Syria will be at war.

Meanwhile, in keeping with the US strategy of throttling Iranian proxies all over the Middle East, the US is planning to choke Sadr City, the headquarters of the Mehdi Army, presumably with the help of local Sunni troops.

Unfortunately, it appears that the pro-Saudi/pro-US elements in Lebanon have been completely ‘faced’ by Hezbollah.

The “Saudi axis” of Christian and Sunni Lebanese apparently counted far too much upon the loyalty of Lebanese Gen. Michel Suleiman, commander of the Lebanese army, who, far from stopping any Hezbollah advance in Lebanon, essentially ratified it. Hezbollah has made a show of handing conquered neighborhoods over to the Lebanese army, which has essentially ratified Hezbollah’s conquests, rather than neutralized them.

Saad Hariri’s media outlets have been shut down by Hezbollah, and kept off the air by the army. Walid Jumblatt and Saad Hariri are essentially Hezbollah hostages, besieged in their homes.

Hariri, Jumblatt and Siniora were apparently given the green light to move against Hezbollah and Amal after Syria received word to Stay Out, Or Else from Israel. So they moved against Hezbollah’s crucial, expensive and clandestine telecommunications network as a threat to the state, and were given a pretext in the form of spy cameras which monitored all aircraft arriving and landing from Beirut’s main airport.

The Saudi axis had spent weeks conferring with their foreign patrons and they had to have known what other dominoes would fall after this initial move. How did they screw up so badly?

Once again, when the rubber hit the road, Mideastern Sunnis (and Christians in this case) were completely outfoxed, outmaneuvered and outfought by the Shiites. Once again the stereotype that “Arabs can’t fight for sh*t” has been woefully ratified.

Escalation is now required to keep Lebanon falling under de facto Iranian control–unless this was planned as a first stage by the Mideastern Sunnis, Israelis, Egyptians and Americans, much akin to the Israelis’ logic to let the other side make the first major move in 1973, to muster international support. Saudis and Kuwaitis are leaving the country, which doesn’t bode well for any resolution. The pro-Western militias are not standing down. A few hours ago I didn’t think the Hezbollah steamroll could possibly have been accounted for by the pro-Western Lebanese but I have to rescind that assessment.

I have observed in post after post that Syria will never divorce from Hezbollah or Shiite Lebanon, regardless of whatever pieces of paper it gives to the sad-sack Olmert/Barak/Livni government in Israel. In this case, they somehow kept control of Suleiman after the West thought that he was leaning to us.

Again, it’s stupefying to me how, given that Hezbollah’s basic plan was public information as of last November, they managed to roll the pro-Western Lebanese so easily.

If Siniora resigns, as he appears poised to do, the wafer-thin Christian/Sunni/Druze majority could elect a new PM without the participation of Hezbollah, triggering a true civil war, but at least buying some time for the pro-Western militias to regroup. The pro-Western militias are apparently “on the move” in organized fashion, which buttresses the “round two” hypothesis.

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It seems like the latest (American-triggered?) Olmert scandal will be fatal to Olmert. Which is fortunate, because the US has some serious Iran escalations to do, if it hopes to retain a meaningful stake in Iraq’s future.

Faster, please.

After another day of rampant rumors concerning the latest criminal investigation into Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, members of the prime minister’s own party openly criticized Kadima’s top man on Tuesday and called for his resignation – in order to save the future of the party.Party members said they were waiting for a dominant figure to stand up and take the reins, and named Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz as possible successors, noting that even if they did not serve as prime minister, they could help redirect the party and refocus its energies on critical subjects.

So far, however, Kadima’s top leadership has refrained from making any statements on Olmert’s investigation, and no Kadima ministers have made any moves toward taking the lead inside the party.

Only Absorption Minister Ya’acov Edri has addressed the investigation at all. Speaking Monday during a fiery Knesset discussion in which the opposition challenged Olmert’s diplomatic policy, Edri expressed his confidence in Olmert’s abilities as prime minister and his certainty that Olmert could continue his participation in negotiations even while the investigation was under way.

But within the Kadima rank and file, Olmert’s standing seemed much less certain. Kadima MK Ze’ev Elkin blasted the prime minister for focusing on his “secretive” diplomatic negotiations rather than on the gagged investigation.

“Peace isn’t something you smuggle in under cover of darkness and isn’t carried out through spin doctors. Rather, real peace is carried out in broad daylight and not hidden under gag orders,” Elkin said in an interview with Army Radio. “Kadima must come to its senses and pick a new leader.”

Elkin accused Olmert of bringing the party – and the country – to a dead end, a charge echoed by fellow party member MK Marina Solodkin.

Solodkin added that Olmert, together with Vice Premier Haim Ramon and a handful of others, had hijacked Kadima, originally a “center-right-liberal party” and made it into a “center-left party.” While she emphasized that she did not want to make judgments regarding the current investigation, Solodkin said Olmert had caused significant damage to the government by bringing in people with poor political – and ethical – reputations.

“I don’t want to judge the personal element involved, but the political element is serious enough. To appoint people like Avraham Hirschson and Shula Zaken was a political error,” she explained. “And he hasn’t apologized for these things. There has been no regret, no apology. All the people with whom he has chosen to surround himself, the spins cast around about the final Winograd Report, and the negotiations with Syria are all too much for the people who are really concerned about our existence.”

But Solodkin said it was perhaps this latest investigation that would tip the balance against a politician who had managed to maintain a heavy Teflon coating during earlier scandals.

“This is one investigation too many – public norms in a functional country don’t allow a prime minister whose finance minister is a thief and criminal of the worst proportions, and whose personal assistant is suspected of the worst types of corruption. Either we are a banana republic and we must write that in big letters, or we must expect a change.”

I can’t find any recent public opinion polls on Tzipi Livni. Can someone please tell me that she is not popular anymore? How does a Likud/Yisrael Beteinu centric coalition stack up against Labor, Likud and Meretz?

We need to get Olmert out of the way. There’s a lot of “work” to be done in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, and not much time left to do it.

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The Times of London is known to be the sieve of choice for neoconservative news leaks. Given all the concentration of firepower in the Persian Gulf recently, as well as the crackdowns on al-Sadr, and the fact that Bush wants to scare Iran off to some extent before he leaves office, some kind of surgical airstrike on Iran would make sense.

From
May 4, 2008

United States is drawing up plans to strike on Iranian insurgency camp

President George W Bush is known to be determined that he should not hand over what he sees as “the Iran problem” to his successor. A limited attack on a training camp may give an impression of tough action, while at the same time being something that both Gates and the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, could accept.

The US military is drawing up plans for a “surgical strike” against an insurgent training camp inside Iran if Republican Guards continue with attempts to destabilise Iraq, western intelligence sources said last week. One source said the Americans were growing increasingly angry at the involvement of the Guards’ special-operations Quds force inside Iraq, training Shi’ite militias and smuggling weapons into the country.

Despite a belligerent stance by Vice-President Dick Cheney, the administration has put plans for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities on the back burner since Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as defence secretary in 2006, the sources said.

However, US commanders are increasingly concerned by Iranian interference in Iraq and are determined that recent successes by joint Iraqi and US forces in the southern port city of Basra should not be reversed by the Quds Force.

“If the situation in Basra goes back to what it was like before, America is likely to blame Iran and carry out a surgical strike on a militant training camp across the border in Khuzestan,” said one source, referring to a frontier province.

They acknowledged Iran was unlikely to cease involvement in Iraq and that, however limited a US attack might be, the fighting could escalate.

Although American defence chiefs are firmly opposed to any attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, they believe a raid on one of the camps training Shi’ite militiamen would deliver a powerful message to Tehran.

British officials believe the US military tends to overestimate the effect of the Iranian involvement in Iraq.

But they say there is little doubt that the Revolutionary Guard exercises significant influence over splinter groups of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, who were the main targets of recent operations in Basra.

The CBS television network reported last week that plans were being drawn up for an attack on Iran, citing an officer who blamed the “increasingly hostile role” Iran was playing in Iraq.

The American news reports were unclear about the precise target of such an action and referred to Iran’s nuclear facilities as the likely objective.

According to the intelligence sources there will not be an attack on Iran’s nuclear capacity. “The Pentagon is not keen on that at all. If an attack happens it will be on a training camp to send a clear message to Iran not to interfere.”

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I generally agree with Stratfor’s take on the issue.

… it would appear that the United States briefed deliberately against Israeli wishes. Certainly, the Israelis didn’t participate in the process. One answer could be that the United States is unhappy about Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s moves on Syria and wants to derail them.

… there are two plausible answers to today’s show. One is to increase pressure on North Korea. The second is to derail any Israeli-Syrian peace process. The problem is that it’s hard to see why North Korea is going to be moved by the official declaration of what Washington has been saying from the beginning. The second is hard to believe because it would assume that U.S.-Israeli relations had deteriorated to the point that the U.S. had to use this as a lever. That’s tough to believe.

The senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Peter Hoekstra, said afterward the briefing, “This administration has no credibility on North Korea. A lot of us are beginning to become concerned that the administration is moving away from getting a solid policy solution to ‘let’s make a deal.’”

So that seems to undermine the prep for strike theory. That leaves tension between the United States and Israel as the last standing theory. Not a good theory, but the last standing one.

The CIA is once again trotting out its “high confidence” and “low confidence” howlers. For example:

Nevertheless, top US intelligence officials who briefed reporters said they had only low confidence for the conclusion that the nuclear facility was meant for weapons development, partly because it had no reprocessing facility, which would be needed to enrich nuclear material for use in a bomb. The officials said they had high confidence, however, in the judgment that North Korea had aided Syria with its nuclear program.

That sounds like a pretty blatant way of saying, “We’re trying to turn the screws on North Korea here, not Syria.”

The White House spun it differently:

The strike on Sept. 6, 2007, ripped open the structure and revealed even more evidence to spy satellites: reinforced concrete walls that echoed the design of the Yongbyon reactor. After the attack, Syria erected a new building over the site.

“This cover-up only served to reinforce our confidence that this reactor was not intended for peaceful activities,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said. “The Syrian regime must come clean before the world regarding its illicit nuclear activities.”

The White House also used its statement as an opportunity to denounce the nuclear activities of Iran, which it says is a threat to the stability of the Middle East. Perino said the world must take further action, beginning with full implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

It almost seems as if the CIA is putting pressure on North Korea to come cleaner in negotiations, while the White House is using the event to retrench their hawkish position against Syria and Iran.

I would also guess that most, if not all of the American administration is pissed off at Olmert, who threw away a lot of US-Israeli leverage to buttress his shambolic political position:

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s reported gestures to Syria have harmed Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the battle between the two men over votes from the center-left in the next general election, a senior Labor official said Thursday.

Syria was the only issue that had allowed Barak to differentiate himself from Olmert, who had positioned himself to the Left of Barak on the Palestinian issue but had refrained from pursuing the Syrian track until recently, and even told the haredi newspaper Mishpacha, “As long as I am prime minister, the Golan will stay in our hands.”

Barak had been seen as the government’s main proponent of talks with Damascus until this week’s reports.

“Olmert knows he cannot get votes from the center-right of the political map, so he is trying to prove to people between Meretz and Labor that he is the hope for reaching peace with both the Palestinians and Syria,” the senior Labor official said. “There is no doubt that this move helped Olmert and hurt Barak politically.”

In March, Barak and his loyalists discussed running on the Syrian issue in the next election to highlight the differences between him and Olmert.

“Focusing on Syria shows people who think that Olmert leads the peace camp that Barak is willing to take a risk for peace that Olmert is not,” a Barak supporter said following those deliberations last month. “It also reminds people that the man who took a risk for peace with [Palestinian Authority head Yasser] Arafat was Barak, not Olmert.”

In the same deliberations, Barak and his loyalists said that the other possible issue that could differentiate Olmert from Barak would be if Barak would come out in support of releasing Fatah terrorist Marwan Barghouti from prison.

Barak’s close ally, National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, has championed Barghouti’s release, but Barak has refrained from speaking on the issue because of the sensitivity of his job as defense minister and because he did not want to be seen as undermining the diplomatic process with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

It is possible that the likelihood of Barak eventually endorsing Barghouti’s release increased when Olmert took away Barak’s advantage on the Syrian issue. …

This is exactly the kind of duplicitous narcissism that has so damaged Israeli credibility over the past two years.

It appears that Olmert got absolutely nothing concrete for giving away the Golan Heights. He cost the United States leverage in its own negotiations with Iran over Iraq, while Iran reconstitutes the Mehdi Army as a super-Hezbollah in southern Iraq.

Saudi Arabia, not Israel, has been at the forefront of the American axis in the Middle East, assassinating anti-American clergymen in Syria and southwestern Iran, funneling money to the Iraqi Sunni militias, and so on. Sure, it’s in their own interests even more than it’s in ours, but the point is that the Saudi royal family can be relied upon to act in their rational long-term interest. That makes them effective and reliable. Israel clearly is not capable of that.

Olmert has taken out still more equity on America’s mortgage in the Middle East to pander to the Jews who apparently hate themselves the most (the Israeli left). My guess is that the CIA and the Bush Administration are in general agreement, that the Israelis’ recent behavior merits punishment, and the heretofore State Department -dominated approach towards North Korea needs less carrot and more stick. The difference in their tones reflects which parts of this hearing the two factions are more eager to exploit: the CIA is not as hawkish as Bush is regarding Syria and Iran (hence the CIA’s muted reaction to the report’s implications for Syria, especially compared to Perino’s), but more so regarding North Korea.

Both want to make Olmert look like the POS he is.

Meanwhile, Ehud Barak, whom Israelis allowed to throw away territory in a land for peace deal eight short years ago, is now mulling the release of Marwan Barghouti, a major Palestinian terrorist.

Pathetic.

The Obama administration will not give a rat’s ass about Israel. At the rate Olmert is going, I just might vote for Obama.

Update: Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought the timing of Ben-Ami Kadish’s arrest was related to Israel’s recent foreign-policy freelancing (although again there are multiple interpretations as to exactly what behavior Washington is trying to punish; there’s also an argument that the arrest was designed to influence the trial of two AIPAC lobbyists held on spying charges).

Kadish was apparently one of many Mossad “sayanim” (Jews living in Gentile lands who lead ordinary lives, except when their services are called upon by the Mossad. (e.g., if a Mossad agent needed to pose as an electronics vendor, he would call upon the services of a sayan who sold electronics to temporarily put his inventory at the Mossad’s disposal.)) Kadish’s “indiscretions” were known by US authorities for at least three years. There was a reason he was arrested now.

This also demonstrates the magnitude of (justified) hostility to Israel in some security circles, tarred and feathered as “anti-Semitism” by the usual suspects. The Israelis horribly abused American trust during the 1980’s, and in all likelihood still do so — exacerbated, perhaps, by the domestic weakness of the Bush Administration.

This is yet another balloon payment Israel will pay after November 2008, especially in light of such dismal returns on American security investment in Israel in the past three years, Olmert’s current mercenary positioning, and the fact that Israel will never come clean about its espionage against the United States.

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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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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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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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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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This is HUGE news if true …

Shi’ite cleric and leader Muqtada Al-Sadr was secretly transferred a few days ago from Iraq to Iran for hospitalization as he was comatose.

It was reported that his illness resulted from food poisoning.

Al-Sadr is being treated by Iranian specialists, as well as by Russian doctors brought in to help the Iranian medical staff treat him.

Source: Al-Siyassa, Kuwait, March 3, 2008

Posted at: 2008-03-03

March 6, 2008 1225 GMT
Iraqi-brokered talks between the United States and Iran were postponed March 6, The Associated Press reported, citing comments from an Iraqi government official. The official said the Iranian delegation, which arrived in Baghdad on March 5 after Iran said the talks with the United States would take place March 6, will return to Iran after visiting Shiite shrines in Baghdad and Karbala.

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Hezbollah has told supporters and militants in Beirut and southern Lebanon to take time off from work and put themselves at the disposal of Hezbollah’s military command, a Stratfor source in Lebanon reported March 5.

Update:

The date of future talks between the United States and Iran over Iraq’s security has not been set, Reuters reported March 5, citing U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said, without giving an exact date, that the talks will take place “this week.”

Lebanese faction Hezbollah is ready for a war with Israel but will not start one, The Associated Press reported, citing comments by Hezbollah deputy leader Naim Kassem published March 5 in a Beirut daily close to the faction. Hezbollah cannot confirm that a war will occur because it doesn’t want to start it, but Israel knows it will pay a high price in any future conflict, Kassem said. He added that Hezbollah is prepared to deal with an Israeli, U.S. or international war.

COMMODITY FUTURES

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Oil 104.30 4.78 4.80
Gold 988.70 22.40 2.32
Natural Gas 9.78 0.43 4.57

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