Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The Man From Mukhabarat

I will continue to maintain that Seymour Hersh is simply the best investigative journalist that this country has to offer for as long as he publishes articles of the high caliber that has become his trademark, especially in recent months. In his most recent work, appearing in the June 28, 2004 edition of The New Yorker, Hersh once again mines his rich lode of sources for information that is seemingly impossible to get from any other media outlet.

In this absolute must-read piece, Hersh sets out three different narratives: First, how the Bush administration has lost the political struggle in Iraq by allowing Iran to exert its influence over the Shiite majority. Second, how Israel has cultivated a powerful alliance with the Kurdish Iraqis, and how they are using this alliance to achieve strategic goals in the region that could potentially lead to widespread conflict and regional warfare. Third, how the Bush administration's choice for interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, was previously an agent for the Baath Party's intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat, while Saddam and the Baathists struggled for power in the 1970's, in particular how Allawi helped Saddam rise to power and was involved in assassinating Baath Party dissenters in Europe.

Hersh provides a rich account of how in July 2003, two months after the now infamous "Mission Accomplished" incident, the Bush administration was receiving dire warnings from Israeli intelligence about the potential for a robust and determined insurgency in the months ahead, given the influece that Iran was having over the Shiite majority in Iraq.

"Israeli intelligence assets in Iraq were reporting that the insurgents had the support of Iranian intelligence operatives and other foreign fighters, who were crossing the unprotected border between Iran and Iraq at will. The Israelis urged the United States to seal the nine-hundred-mile-long border, at whatever cost."

In what is yet more evidence of the poor planning and misperceptions in the run-up to the war, U.S. forces lacked the adequate troop strength to effectively seal off the lengthy border between Iran and Iraq. Rumsfeld's insistence on smaller, more technologically advanced fighting forces left the military with fewer options and a lessened capacity to address this overall strategic concern. The results are nothing short of a disaster.

As Hersh reports, "A former Administration official who had supported the war completed a discouraging tour of Iraq late last fall. He visited Tel Aviv afterward and found that the Israelis he met with were equally discouraged. As they saw it, their warnings and advice had been ignored, and the American war against the insurgency was continuing to founder. 'I spent hours talking to the senior members of the Israeli political and intelligence community,' the former official recalled. 'Their concern was 'You're not going to get it right in Iraq, and shouldn't we be planning for the worst-case scenario and how to deal with it?'

Ehud Barak, the former Israeli Prime Minister, who supported the Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq, took it upon himself at this point to privately warn Vice-President Dick Cheney that America had lost in Iraq; according to an American close to Barak, he said that Israel 'had learned that there's no way to win an occupation.' The only issue, Barak told Cheney, 'was choosing the size of your humiliation.' Cheney did not respond to Barak's assessment."

In essence, Iran has established so strong a foothold in Iraq's Shiite community, through proxies like Moqtada Al-Sadr and others, that the consensus among the international intelligence community is that there is no chance for the U.S. to win the struggle for political victory. The result is that we have made Iran, a country who the 9/11 Commission found to have actively worked with al-Qaeda on the Khobar Tower bombings that killed 19 Americans, is on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon, and has an extreme Islamist leadership, much stronger in the region by neutralizing its hostile neighbor to the west, and replaced it with what will eventually resemble a puppet of Tehran. This is a huge blow to the "war on terror."

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, and fearing the increased regional influence and imminent nuclear capabilities of Iran, Sharon's government in Israel has made a bold, risky and potentially catastrophic gambit: greatly "expanding on the long standing relationship with Iraq's Kurds and establishing a significant presence on the ground in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan."

Citing numerous CIA and German intelligence sources, Hersh reveals how Israel is committing substantial sums of money, as well as elite commando training and oversight to the swelling ranks of the Kurdish militias known as the Pesh Merga. In this way, Israel is promoting a counterweight to the Iranian influenced Shiite majority in the south, which could deter Shiite control over the whole of Iraq. In addition, Israeli intelligence and military personnel are gaining a base in an area that permits them unprecedented access to conduct surveillance on the activities of regional enemies like Syria and Iran. In fact, Israeli forces are even using Kurdistan to launch "covert operations inside Kurdish areas of Iran and Syria" in order to monitor the progress Iran is making in pursuit of nuclear weaponry and to foment unrest among Syria's sizable 2 million strong Kurdish population (Syria's overall population is 17 million).

Predictably, these actions to empower the Kurds have "raised tensions between Israel and Turkey. It has provoked bitter statements from Turkish politicians and, in a major regional shift, a new alliance among Iran, Syria, and Turkey, all of which have significant Kurdish minorities." This is considered a "new alliance" because Turkey has very strong economic and diplomatic ties to Israel, and a historically hostile relationships with Syria and Iran. Israel's actions are causing a subtle paradigm shift in the region that could greatly upset the balance of power.

Turkey has reiterated its stance that any declaration of independence by Iraqi Kurds would provoke an invasion by Turkey, and now Syria and Iran have become more deeply embroiled in the fate of Kurdistan, due to its emerging alliance with Israel. The ingredients are there for regional conflict of massive proportions. The once sanguine prediction that democracy, with its spark emanating from Iraq, would spread across the greater Middle East like wildfire is apparently up in flames. It now appears more likely that destabilization of the region, like an earthquake whose epicenter is Baghdad, will scorch the region like napalm.

In the third stanza, Hersh uncovers the fact that there is also controversey surrounding the Bush administration's choice for interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, whose selection was "a disappointment to [Lakhdar] Brahimi," the U.N. special envoy tasked with the responsibility of choosing the make-up of the interim government that will take over after the June 30 handover.

"'Allawi helped Saddam get to power,' an American intelligence officer told [Hersh]. 'He was a very effective operator and a true believer.' Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former C.I.A. case officer who served in the Middle East, added, 'Two facts stand out about Allawi. One, he likes to think of himself as a man of ideas; and, two, his strongest virtue is that he's a thug.

Early this year, one of Allawi's former medical-school classmates, Dr. Haifa al-Azawi, published an essay in an Arabic newspaper in London raising questions about his character and his medical bona fides. She depicted Allawi as a 'big husky man . . . who carried a gun on his belt and frequently brandished it, terrorizing the medical students.' Allawi's medical degree, she wrote, 'was conferred upon him by the Baath party.' Allawi moved to London in 1971, ostensibly to continue his medical education; there he was in charge of the European operations of the Baath Party organization and the local activities of the Mukhabarat, its intelligence agency, until 1975.

'If you're asking me if Allawi has blood on his hands from his days in London, the answer is yes, he does,' Vincent Cannistraro, a [retired C.I.A. counterterrorism chief], said. 'He was a paid Mukhabarat agent for the Iraqis, and he was involved in dirty stuff.' A cabinet-level Middle East diplomat, who was rankled by the U.S. indifference to Allawi's personal history, told me early this month that Allawi was involved with a Mukhabarat 'hit team' that sought out and killed Baath Party dissenters throughout Europe. (Allawi's office did not respond to a request for comment.) At some point, for reasons that are not clear, Allawi fell from favor, and the Baathists organized a series of attempts on his life. The third attempt, by an axe-wielding assassin who broke into his home near London in 1978, resulted in a year-long hospital stay."

Is Allawi the best the Bush administration could come up? Is this the steady and restrained hand that will guide Iraq through its most precarious and delicate of transitions. Not if history is any indicator. Then again, why let history get in the way of a good plan.

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