Repeating the allegations doesn’t make them true

Chuck Sudetic, whom I know and respect, in his Washington Post op/ed Saturday repeats Dick Marty’s allegations about high-level criminal activity in Kosovo in 1999-2000, this time without the important reservation that no forensic investigation has been conducted and no claims of guilt or innocence can be made.  This is pretty rich, coming from the co-author of Carla Del Ponte’s memoir.  Carla was the Hague Tribunal prosecutor who failed herself to mount a serious investigation of these allegations but nevertheless saw fit to include them, briefly, in the memoir.

Marty’s report, Chuck says, does not attack Kosovo’s legitimacy, but as is now well known Marty himself took a strong stand against Kosovo independence, on legal grounds that have now been vitiated in their entirety by the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice.  Are we to believe, as Chuck claims, that the Marty report “draws upon Albanian eyewitnesses and insiders as well as Western intelligence and police agencies, and not upon the Albanians’ foe, the government of Serbia”?  There are clear signs in the Marty report of information coming from Serbia, whether directly or through those Western intelligence and police agencies.

I repeat what I have said previously:  I do not know the truth or falsity of the allegations, precisely because no serious forensic investigation has been conducted.  That is what is needed, complete with the latest scientific techniques as well as witness protection, which Chuck rightly calls for.

He is also correct in one other important respect:  these allegations, even if true, are no grounds for calling into question Kosovo’s legitimacy as an independent state.  Does anyone think Croatia less legitimate as a state because its former prime minister now stands accused of corruption?  Or that Serbia should not be independent because it was led for many years by a president accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity?  Those who have tried to open up this line of attack are doing their own cause a serious disservice, and making it difficult for both Pristina and Tirana to do what they should, namely cooperate fully with a serious investigation.

Chuck exaggerates American responsibility in this matter, referring repeatedly to the United States and its diplomats as if only what they say goes.  But Washington and Brussels together can and should exert the pressure needed to get a serious investigation under way, with full cooperation from Pristina, Tirana and Belgrade.

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Better inside the tent

The return this week of firebrand political/religious/militia leader Moqtada al Sadr to Baghdad is a major event for Iraqi politics.  Matt Duss offers a fine summary of Sadr’s significance at the Wonk Room.   To make a long story short, Sadr left Iraq more than three years ago for religious studies in Qom (and likely also Tehran) in order to gain at least a minimal claim as heir to his father’s and father-in-law’s religious prestige, as well as the title of ayatollah.  During his time away, Iraq’s frighteningly violent Shia/Sunni violence ended, in part because Prime Minister Maliki ordered Iraqi security forces into action against Sadr’s militia, the Mehdi Army, in both Basra and Baghdad.

But enmity is not forever.  Sadr’s political movement won 40 seats in the Iraqi parliament last March, threw its political support behind a second mandate for Maliki at a critical moment in the fall, and now occupies eight ministerial posts in the recently confirmed second Maliki government.  Sadr has played his political cards well.

He is a notoriously erratic person, but so far his return seems clearly targeted on maintaining and increasing his political weight, rather than returning to any kind of violent insurgency. He and his people are talking up Iraqi nationalism and the Iraqi state, talking down the occupation and the Americans (and insisting they leave Iraq by the agreed deadline of December 31) and warning that they will be watching the government’s performance in delivering services to the poor, who in the Shia parts of Iraq are enthusiasts for Sadr. The fondest hope of those of us who watch Iraq is that disputes will be settled nonviolently in the parliament and provincial councils as well as the courts, not to mention our hope that the people of Iraq will get better services.  If Sadr remains on his current path, the news is definitively good.

But what, you may ask, of the charges against Sadr for the murder of his archrival Abdul Majid al Khoei in 2003?  No one should forget it, that is for sure, and the Khoei family won’t allow us to. This is one of those difficult cases where justice and peace diverge:  accountability would require an arrest and trial; peace requires restraint.  Until sufficient evidence can be brought before an Iraqi court, and a trial conducted in an atmosphere conducive to finding the truth and acting on it, I am afraid accountability will have to wait.  Surely Maliki has had to guarantee that Sadr would not be arrested on his return to Baghdad, and the fact that the Americans can no longer arrest anyone without Iraqi government cooperation gives that guarantee credibility.  And it is still possible that Maliki will find it necessary to give the Sadrists one of the security portfolios in his new government–several key positions remain in caretaker status.

It is important before condemning Maliki’s political pragmatism to realize that Sadr is not just an individual.  Scion of a leading religious family, he leads a substantial political movement with deep roots in Iraqi Shia-dom (not to mention those 40 seats in parliament).  I’d be the last to excuse murder because of that, but the Iraqi state and justice system will have to be far stronger than it is today before it reckons with Sadr’s alleged accountability in the murder of Khoei, not to mention the many less well known Iraqis who died at the hands of the Mehdi Army.  If ever Sadr presents a real threat to Maliki, I have no doubt what the pragmatic prime minister is capable of.  But for the moment, even from an American perspective it is better to have Moqtada inside the tent peeing out.

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A woolen, not a velvet, divorce

Tomorrow is the first voting day of the South Sudan independence referendum, which ends on January 15.  Registration seems to have gone reasonably well, people are returning in substantial numbers to the South to vote, and Sudanese President Bashir has visited Juba, the South’s capital, and said the right things about accepting the results.  It is universally anticipated that the vote will go heavily for independence, which will occur six months hence in accordance with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

But this will be no “velvet” divorce between consenting and cooperating capitals.  There are still many issues to be resolved:  demarcation of the north/south border, holding of the Abyei region referendum, division of oil and oil revenue as well as debts  and water rights, citizenship rights for northerners in the South and southerners in the North, traditional grazing rights for nomadic pastoralists…the list goes on.  There are also problems that are likely to arise within the South, rife with local disputes, and within the North, some of whose politicians will see separation of the Christian and traditionalist South as allowing the mostly Muslim North to take a distinctly more Islamist direction.

So this is likely to be a bit rougher than Czechoslovakia, but nowhere near as rough as Serbia/Kosovo, where more than two years after independence Belgrade is unwilling to recognize the breakaway state.  Belgrade and Pristina haven’t even begun to deal with the many practical issues they need to resolve–at least Khartoum and Juba have begun discussions under the aegis of former South African President Mbeki.  A woolen divorce, at best, not a velvet one.

Of course a lot more could still go wrong.  The most likely problems seem to be South/South violence, violence against southerners in the North or northerners in the South, conflict over Abyei and other border areas, or failure to agree on oil, which has to flow from the South through the North in order to get to market.  The South by any standard is a weak state with little real control over its territory or capacity to delivery even rudimentary services to its population.  The North is significantly stronger, but its writ does not run much outside the Nile riverine population, it faces an active insurgency in Darfur, and its president has been indicted by the International Criminal Court.

Let’s give credit, however, to those who have at least avoided a crisis in the past few months.  The U.S. Government laid out a clear menu of carrots for the North and has also restrained its southern allies, who have patiently sat out abuse and air attacks in Abyei so as not to upset the referendum process.  The Chinese appear to have used their long-standing influence with the North and their new-found clout with the South to convince both that getting the oil investments they need requires maintaining stability.  The UN has redeployed its forces in the South towards the new country’s northern border, and the U.S.–working closely with other countries and international organizations–is amping up its assistance throughout the South.

Credit, if stability holds for the next week and beyond, above all should go to the leaderships in Khartoum and Juba, but not because they are good guys.  While neither has been willing or able in the last six years to “make unity attractive,” both seem to understand that peace will serve their purposes better than renewed war.  The South will gain the independence President Salva Kiir has always wanted, with ample dollops of foreign aid to ease the transition.  The North will lose a part of the country it hasn’t really controlled for decades and gain a good deal more leeway to pursue its Islamic vocation.  Bashir may well also imagine that behaving well will gain him some measure of immunity from the ICC indictment, as well as some relief from U.S. and other sanctions.

One note for those who believe the U.S. can only influence world events with military intervention, a category that includes many who favor it as well as many who oppose it.  Look ma:  no troops.  It is too early to declare success, but if success is to be declared it will have been achieved without the instrument that too many people think is the only effective one.  Diplomacy is messy–who wants to see Bashir continue in power and gain credit simply for avoiding creation of a crisis?  It is also risky–things could easily come apart before independence.  But if a crisis has been postponed for six, or twelve, or eighteen months, that is a big plus, one we should all applaud and try to sustain.

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Heading for Baghdad: the political

Why am I going to Baghdad next week?  I participate in a “national dialogue” activity focused mainly on Iraqi members of parliament.  This has been meeting, initially outside Iraq and now inside, for four or five years, though my own participation dates from about three years ago.

The change in political atmosphere during those years has been dramatic.  Then, many people in the room rejected the Iraqi constitution approved in a referendum in October 2005.  “Resistance” was not only respectable but even glorious.  Today, everyone in the room accepts the constitution, even if some want it amended.  Resistance has left the lexicon.  Everyone is for reconciliation, except with those who have committed serious crimes against Iraqis (and everyone believes their antagonists may have done so). The tone is often strident, but in the end the proposals, when they can be made to emerge, are pragmatic.

The critical preparation requirement for this kind of dialogue is making sure that people from all parts of the political spectrum are in the room and feel comfortable with the process, even if they don’t like some of the participants.  It does no good to conduct a dialogue among the like-minded, though that is sometimes necessary in preparation for a broader effort.  You make peace with your enemies, not with your friends.  Fortunately, my treasured colleague, Arabic-speaking Antonella Caruso of the Italian NGO Ipalmo, does most of the legwork.  And she does it really well, recruiting the participants, getting agreement on the dates, lining up the meeting facilities and interpreters, defining the agenda.

There is no need for large numbers–if there are twenty people in the room that is more than enough.  But they should be representative of at least what the Italians call the “constitutional arc,” the spectrum of political parties that accepts the rules of the political game.  This definitely means getting not only Iraqqiya (Ayad Allawi’s mostly Sunni political coalition) and State of Law (Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s party) into the room, but also the Sadrists, the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI), the Sahwa (Awakening) and other political forces into the room.

Of course you never know who will participate until the actual event.  People will tell you the night before that they are definitely coming, then not show.  Sometimes there are good reasons:  if a family member is killed in a suicide bombing, they really do have to go the funeral.  Sometimes the reasons are political–it is difficult for foreigners to figure out which two people won’t be seen in the same room together, and in any event we may not want to accommodate that kind of personal feuding.  And sometimes it is just luck of the draw–if there is an important political conclave or vote that happens to coincide with our dialogue meeting, we are going to lose some participants.

We’ve been fortunate for the most part in getting broad participation and serious commitment to the actual discussions, which focus on what national reconciliation should mean in the current Iraqi environment.  Obviously this means discussion of what to do, or not do, about former Ba’athists and how to deal with insurgents, but it also means discussion of the need for a professional civil service, ways to limit ethnic and sectarian quotas while ensuring equal and fair treatment, teaching of history in the schools, restrictions on foreign financing of political parties, documentation of past crimes, laws on incitement–in other words, these are very far-reaching discussions that challenge the Iraqis to define what kind of country they really want to live in.

Our main task this time around will be to try to get the participants–who will shift somewhat from the last meeting in the fall, because seven of the previous participants have become ministers–to prioritize and begin to operationalize their deliberations.  This will not be easy, but our sense is that this is what the participants want and need.  Helping them get there is what we are there for.  This is peacebuilding, one conversation at a time.

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Heading for Baghdad: the psychological

I’m a coward, and Baghdad can be frightening.  I had a colleague on my second trip who thought the spiral landing of the small plane we were riding in was as good as a roller coaster.  She laughed all the way to the tarmac.  I thought it was as bad as a roller coaster.  No laughter or thrills for me.

That said, there is no point in being paralyzed by fear, because most minutes of the day in most places there is nothing to be frightened of.  No detonations, no gunfire, no rocket whines, no “big voice” telling you to take cover.  Life can be amazingly normal, even if everyone around you is carrying weapons.  You may as well enjoy it, especially in the cool of the winter.

I do.  It is a privilege to sit down to talk with people who are trying to rebuild their lives and their country after decades of repression and more than seven years of warfare.  Many of them are truly courageous.  Some have suffered terrible losses, either at Saddam Hussein’s hands or at our own.  What most people are looking for is deceptively simple:  normal lives.  They want security, shelter and food for their families, a decent job for themselves, education and health care for their kids.

But that is not what they talk about.  They talk about violence, unfairness, the lousy politicians, whether things were better under Saddam, who got hurt last night, what the latest rumor is, why the American Embassy won’t give them asylum in the U.S.  Among the politicians, there is the blame game:  things are bad because the Americans don’t understand Iraq, because Maliki is a sectarian, because the constitution is no good, because the Iranians control everything, because someone is helping Al Qaeda, because Tehran and Washington want it that way….

Listening to this for hours on end can be head spinning, but it is important not only to listen but to hear.  Their logic is not our logic, their obvious is not our obvious, their conclusions are not our conclusions.  Just because someone blames the Americans for everything bad that has happened since 2003 (and before 2003) doesn’t necessarily mean they want the Americans to leave right away.  Better they fix things on their way out.  America in this logic owes Iraq, not the other way around.  The conspiracy between Washington and Tehran–a constant of Iraqi discourse–seems obvious to them:  Maliki gets support from them both, as did the once-dominant Shia political party.  What more proof do you need?

So there is a real need to wipe one’s memory banks clean and listen carefully so as to hear what they are saying in the terms they are saying it in, even when it is offensive to Americans.  I’ve had Iraqis tell me that killing Americans is a good thing, and look at me as if they might take their own advice on the spot.  But before they got up from the table, they might be appealing for American assistance, hoping that we would rescue them from a desperate situation.

Few in Iraq admit to having emotional or mental problems–they often claim there is no PTSD, no paranoia, no schizophrenia, no mental illness of any sort.  Then when you hear the life stories, it is simply not believable.  Loss of relatives, loss of property, displacement from their homes, fear of telling even your own family that you work with the Americans, communities uprooted and physically obliterated.

I come home from just a visit a bit traumatized, wondering whether there is anything a mere mortal can do to make the situation any better.  The reality is that you can’t do a lot, but getting people to talk to each other, helping them to figure out what has caused such a profound disturbance to their lives and giving them an opportunity to figure out what to do to fix it is not nothing.  I always return relieved for my own safety and determined to try to do a bit more to help out.

Tomorrow:  the political

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Heading for Baghdad: the practical

I am getting ready for a trip to Baghdad next week and thought I might offer some insight into what that means.

There are the practical arrangements.  Booking the flights is deceptively straightforward:  the travel agent gets you to Amman, Beirut, Istanbul or Kuwait overnight.  From Kuwait I go on a Gryphon charter into the military side of the Baghdad airport (Sather) the same evening, provided the weather cooperates.  Sandstorms, not rainstorms, are the main cause of delay.  But you can only do that if you have a “CAC” (common access card) provided by the Defense Department to government employees and contractors.  Otherwise it is Royal Jordanian from Amman (or something similar from Beirut or Istanbul) the next morning into the civilian side of the airport.

Now the unusual part starts.  The airport is only a few miles from the so-called Green Zone in the center of Baghdad, but Westerners are generally still traversing those miles with body armor and a personal security detail (PSD, as in guards or shooters).  That costs somewhere between $850 and $2000.  We used to do it in low-profile, armored cars (they looked like jalopies but were properly “up” armored, that is retrofitted).  But the Iraqi authorities now require all PSDs to display a plaque on the front of the car, which scuttles the low-profile idea.  I long for the day I’ll feel comfortable arriving on the civilian side and hailing a cab to downtown Baghdad.  I hope it is not far off.

Once inside the checkpoints that more or less define the Green Zone, things are usually more relaxed.  Most of the non-embassy people move around without PSDs, but cautiously and alertly.  What difference would it make?  Not much:  when something happens, it usually happens very fast.  My one close call in more or less a dozen trips into Iraq was a rocket that fell within a hundred yards.  It was over before I knew it had happened (in fact, you hear the blast before the whistle of the rocket moving through the air, since it is moving faster than the speed of sound).

The Green Zone is many things, but not green.  Mostly it is gray T-walls and fine beige dust, which hide just about everything these days from plain sight.  I’ve got a pretty good sense of direction, but I get lost all the time because it all looks so much the same.  In any event, I’m never alone–not smart to move around alone–so it doesn’t usually matter.

Behind the T-walls, there are sometimes very nice compounds, especially in the so-called “Lakes” or “Little Venice” district, where many of the Iraqi bigwig politicians live.  US Institute of Peace had its first office there, in a former Republican Guard officer’s residence–check it out:

There is now some new construction–last time I was there (in June) the prime minister’s office had largely finished what people were saying was a guest house (more like a guest high rise).  The American Embassy is of course new, but it looks more like a prison from the outside, and like an almost comically sterile American town inside.

But whatever I say today could now be wrong, since one of the lessons of my trips to Baghdad is that everything changes:  where the T-walls are, who lives where, the procedures at the checkpoints, which ID will get you through quickly.  For each and every appointment, I’ve got to make sure I know precisely where to go (which isn’t easy in a place with no street names or numbers) and what to say at each of the checkpoints.  And there are many checkpoints at which a common language is hard to find:  the twenty something Georgians who used to guard the UN compound not only didn’t speak Russian but also didn’t know they were guarding the UN.  Go figure.

Checkpoints are in fact one of the real danger zones, though of course they are there for protection.  But not protection for YOU.  The guards are often inexperienced or nervous, sometimes mean and rarely well trained or informed.  It wasn’t much better when the Americans were doing it, though the procedures were a bit more rigorous and standardized.  They still are at the entrances to U.S. military facilities–which are guarded mainly by Ugandans working for security companies, not soldiers.  The name of the game at checkpoints is to get through them quickly (suicide bombers sometimes strike checkpoints) without appearing to be rushing and without being brusque or impolite, which is a sure way to get slowed down.

Where to stay?  I’ll be staying with one of the security companies, a number of which provide food, accommodations and internet access since there is no hotel in the Green Zone and last time I looked no real restaurants either, though there are a few places where you can get a quick bite to eat.  The US military and diplomats have their own DFACs (dining facilities), where you eat only if you have a CAC  card, or know someone who does.  You’ve got to watch your intake at those–the nutritionists are trying to keep young guys who burn 5000 calories a day in good form.  A couple of DFAC meals can put on more than a few pounds.  I generally try to skip one meal a day, but if the Iraqis want to feed you you’d best be ready to eat.

Tomorrow:  psychological preparations.

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