Sunday, 23 December 2007

JAMESTOWN ON AL-QAEDA IN IRAQ

Al-Qaeda Adapts its Methods in Iraq as
Part of a Global Strategy


By Abdul Hameed Bakier
Jamestown Foundation

For the last few months, reports from Iraq have been
indicating a tangible decline in insurgency and terrorist
operations. For the first time since 2003, the Iraqi people
are enjoying a sense of security in the streets of Iraq,
although skeptics claim it is the calm that precedes the
storm. The stabilizing security situation comes amid claims
that al-Qaeda has been defeated or at least has been
seriously crippled in Iraq (alerhab.net, November 24). Has
al-Qaeda actually been defeated and subjugated by the
coalition forces in the Iraqi arena? Taking al-Qaeda’s past
and current behavior into account while monitoring Iraq’s
jihadi websites, one is presented with strong indications
that al-Qaeda is adapting to the new realities on the
ground while avoiding direct confrontation with the
coalition forces. The global strategy of al-Qaeda since
9/11—as posted in al-Qaeda’s internet forums—sheds further
light on the terror plans it has designed to lure and
engage Americans in various fronts in the region
(alboraq.info, March 10).

Al-Qaeda: Defeat versus Retreat

The discourse concerning al-Qaeda’s possible defeat in Iraq
comes as a result of the relative drop in violent
operations in the so-called “Sunni triangle.” The decrease
in al-Qaeda activity is attributed to many different
factors, the most important of which is the mistake it made
by targeting other Sunni jihadi groups such as the Islamic
Army of Iraq, Iraqi Hamas and al-Rashideen Army. In August
2007, Iraqi Hamas was accused of helping Coalition forces
in Diyala province against al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda did not
understand the Iraqi mentality and tried to lead the
community by establishing the Islamic State of Iraq,
instead of coexisting with the different Iraqi groups. The
targeting of Shiites and their shrines aggravated the
Sunnis Iraqis as much as it did the Shiites because it
upset the precarious balance between the Sunnis and
Shiites. These blunders were exploited by the Iraqi
government and Coalition forces, leading to the
establishment of the successful Sunni Majalis al-Sahwa, or
“Awakening Councils” (Emirate Centre for Strategic Studies
and Research, December 9).

The Majalis al-Sahwa are paramilitary groups comprised of
Sunni tribes formed to fight al-Qaeda. Contextually, Sunni
wrath directed at the Coalition veered towards al-Qaeda,
depriving it of much needed Sunni support. In the same way,
the spokesman of the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI), Ibrahim
al-Shamari, says: “The decline in jihadi operations against
the occupier is due to the fact that they are engaged by
al-Qaeda in the worst struggle that could exist among
fellow Muslims. The attacks of al-Qaeda, in some cases,
took a form of full-scale war extending from north of Babel
to Latifia area and from north and west Baghdad to Samarra.
In this big area of its operations against IAI, al-Qaeda
didn’t target a single American, Shiite militia or the
Shiite police” (hanein.info, December 15).

Conversely, the impression that al-Qaeda has been defeated
in Iraq is challenged by the continued violent attacks
occurring daily in Iraq. Al-Qaeda operatives are adapting
to the new situation in the Sunni triangle imposed by the
Majalis al-Sahwa by moving to northern Iraq, especially to
the city of Mosul where they found a new ally. The Maghawir
al-Tai Mujahideen in Mosul began a year ago as a small
group operating in the industrial area in Mosul. They have
since grown larger and decided to join al-Qaeda in the
Islamic State of Iraq, consequently providing a safe heaven
for al-Qaeda to launch its new tactics. Jihadi forum
chatters from Iraq claim that over 2,000 jihadis from Mosul
have already joined al-Qaeda (hanein.info, December 15). It
seems that a new application of the tactics of guerrilla
warfare in other provinces is succeeding. These tactics
include indirect confrontation, or “open grave tactics,”
that include road bombs, hit-and-run operations and car
bombs, together with al-Qaeda attempts to take advantage of
the differences between Sunni tribes on the issue of
cooperation with Coalition forces. Al-Qaeda is also leaving
behind sleeping operatives in the cities they flee,
awaiting the right circumstances to reactivate. Evidence of
this may be found in the recent bomb attacks in Diyala
province that killed over 20 civilians and injured many
others (almalafpress.net, December 10).

The jihadi websites responded indirectly to the reports on
al-Qaeda’s defeat in Iraq by posting reports and video of
al-Qaeda attacks on Coalition forces, especially in areas
where the Iraqi government says al-Qaeda has fled. In
addition some websites re-posted al-Qaeda’s future global
strategy (www.alboraq.info, March 10, 2006). Moreover,
al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri commented on
the new developments in Iraq in general and al-Qaeda defeat
in particular in a December 2007 interview published by
Sahad, the media production house of al-Qaeda. According to
Al-Zawahiri: “The jihadi situation is good in general, but
setbacks are inevitable in jihad. The latest reports from
Iraq indicate an increase in mujahideen strength and
deterioration of the American situation regardless of their
desperate efforts to delude by false propaganda. British
withdrawal proves they are lying. Claiming victory over ISI
through the collaboration of the Sunni tribes is mere cover
for their big failure.”

In summary, al-Zawahiri called upon the mujahideen to
continue hit-and-run attacks, eradicate the hypocrites and
traitors that infiltrated the mujahideen ranks, expose the
traitors, call upon Muslims to stop supporting the pro-U.S.
armed groups, concentrate on jihadi media and propaganda
mainly through the internet and build upon what has already
been achieved by establishing the ISI. Al-Zawahiri also
called for the mujahideen to unite around monotheism and
reconcile with the rest of the jihadi groups, especially
with Ansar al-Sunna, headed by Sheikh Abu Abdallah
al-Shafi'i. On the political side, al-Zawahiri said, “After
the victory of the Islamic State of Iraq, it will endeavor
to establish the Islamic caliphate from ocean to ocean”
(sahab.net, December 16).

Al-Qaeda’s Global Strategy

The conflict in Iraq forms only part of a larger al-Qaeda
plan. Before 2001, al-Qaeda devised a new strategy to fight
the crusaders and Zionists what they call the “far enemy.”
To achieve victory over the enemy, al-Qaeda deemed it
necessary to engage the enemy on many fronts in the region
away from its bases. 9/11 was the spark that would bring
U.S. forces to al-Qaeda’s battlefield. According to jihadi
forums, al-Qaeda’s global confrontation strategy comprises
seven phases:

- The Awakening (2000-2003): This phase ended with the U.S.
invasion of Iraq. The Salafi ideologues believe that the
Islamic Umma (nation) has been dormant in the 19th and 20th
centuries because all the strategies implemented by the
Muslims for resurrection have failed. Therefore, al-Qaeda
planned to strike a blow to the enemy to induce an
uncalculated reaction. 9/11 was the bait that provoked the
crusaders and lured them to attack the Muslim nation. - Eye
Opening (2003-2006): By occupying Baghdad in April 2003,
the Muslim nation awoke to the bitter realities of
occupation. Al-Qaeda’s objective in this phase was to keep
the U.S. forces engaged in a fight against al-Qaeda until
2006. Regardless of the results, the ability to maintain
constant clashes with the enemy was considered a victory in
itself. - Resurrection (2007-2010): In this phase, al-Qaeda
will be capable of mobilizing jihadis productively,
exploiting unrest in different hot areas to keep the U.S.
forces occupied in a war of attrition that will weaken its
resolve and pave the way to directly attack Jews in
Palestine and elsewhere. - Recuperate and Attain Power
(2010-2013): This phase will concentrate on overthrowing
the infidel Muslim regimes by direct confrontation. The
United States will be exhausted and unable to support all
the infidel regimes in the region, hence, al-Qaeda will
become more powerful and eligible to replace these regimes.
- Declaration of an Islamic state (2013-2016): At this
point, the Western grip on the region will loosen, paving
the way for the establishment of an Islamic state that will
regain control of the Muslim nation, rebuild it and utilize
the nation’s wealth in creating an international deterrent
to foreign intervention as well as expediting the demise of
corrupt and tyrant regimes. - Massive Confrontation: 2016
will witness the onset of an all-out war between the forces
of good and evil with, of course, final victory for the
Islamic state. - Achieving Multiple Victories: Any victory
achieved by al-Qaeda opens the door for more recruits to
work with al-Qaeda in many different domains. Those who
cannot join directly will establish their own centers based
on similar radical Islamist theory and ideology. Al-Qaeda
believes there is a direct proportion between multiple
victories and repelling U.S. and Jewish aggressions [1].

Jihadis typically corroborate this scenario by citing
verses from the Quran for every phase of the plan and
believe that God will facilitate the victory of the Muslim
nation.

Conclusion

Although the success of the United States and its partners
in exterminating notable numbers of al-Qaeda leaders has
significantly reduced its ability to perpetrate terror
operations, it has not ended the al-Qaeda phenomenon.
Rather, it has led to the creation of unpredictable,
incoherent and scattered groups adhering to the
Salafi-jihadi ideology. These decentralized formations will
attempt to attack soft targets and wait patiently for any
slackening of security on the hard targets. A complete
defeat of al-Qaeda is unlikely to come about in the near
future. Iraq—like other countries in the region—will suffer
from al-Qaeda terrorism long after the withdrawal of the
coalition forces.

Notes

1. Sources for the seven phases of al-Qaeda’s global
confrontation strategy are drawn from alboraq.org;
al-ekhlaas.net/forum; alhesbah.com/v; alridaws.org/vb.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

HAMAS'S STAND

Hamas at 20

17/12/2007
By Khalid Amayreh in Ramallah

I am writing this piece as 300,000-500,000 people
(according to Reuters) are converging at the Katiba Square
in Central Gaza to mark the 20th anniversary of Hamas’s
foundation.

Undoubtedly, the huge turn-out ( nearly one-third of the
Gaza Strip’s total population) is an unmistakable proof
that Hamas is still very popular among Palestinians despite
the rabid American-led efforts to scuttle the movement,
possibly in order to facilitate the appearance of a
quisling-like Palestinian leadership that would succumb to
Israeli hegemony and colonialist aspirations.

The massive attendance is also an eloquent refutation of a
plethora of tendentious Fatah-financed or Fatah-inspired
opinion survey which have suggested that Hamas’s popular
standing has seriously plummeted especially since the
mind-June events in Gaza .

These opinion polls are actually reminiscent of the
numerous opinion polls preceding the 2006-legislative
elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which had
predicted a massive victory by the Fatah organization over
Hamas.

At 20, Hamas seems a young, viable, and aspiring movement,
with hundreds of thousands of mostly young Palestinians
indoctrinated in the moderate political ideology of the
Muslim Brotherhood.

This moderation, needless to say, will ensures Hamas’s
continuity, growth and prosperity.

Hamas is not and will not be an al-Qaida-like organization,
it will not wage Jihad on the whole world and will not
classify the world into two camps- those who are with us,
and those who are against us, as the al-Qaida organization.

Moreover, Hamas will not judge people’s religions and
ideologies, and will continue to seek friendship on the
basis of mutual respect and mutual interests. Indeed,
despite erratic and stupid utterances by some ignoramuses
who are members of Hamas, Hamas doesn’t actually consider
Jews as enemies. In fact, Jews who support justice and true
peace and who stand against oppression and occupation are
Hamas’ partners for a better future for both Jews and
Muslims in this tormented land.

More to the point, Hamas will continue to make a clear
distinction between hostile states and citizens of these
states and will never seek to target the urban centers of
countries whose governments are hostile to the Palestinian
cause, such as the United States and the United Kingdom.

And Hamas will continue to confine its legitimate struggle
and resistance against the Israeli occupation to the
Palestinian-Israeli theatre. This has always been Hamas’s
policy, and it will continue to be.

At 20, Hamas has been through it all, from creation to
destruction. The movement endured every conceivable act of
savagery and criminality on the hands of the Nazi-like
Israeli regime.

The leaders of the movement, and in many cases their
families as well, were deported, imprisoned, assassinated
and massacred. Today, as many as 4000 Hamas leaders and
activists languish in Israeli concentration camps, many of
them without charge or trial. Even Hamas’s
democratically-elected MPs and cabinet ministers have been
summarily abducted from their homes and offices for no
reason other than “the Hamas mantra,” a mantra whose
invocations justify every Israeli savagery, brutality and
atrocity.

Indeed, the vindictiveness with which Israel treats these
innocent people has a few parallels in the history of
mankind. The recent bloody repression by crack Israeli army
units of the Kitziot prison inmates in the heart of the
Negev desert is a clarion testimony, if one were needed, to
the blatant barbarianism of the occupation.

Twenty years are not a long period in the history of
nations and their struggle for freedom and independence.
However, looking back at what Hamas has achieved, one can
safely claim that Hamas has been a valuable asset for the
enduring Palestinian struggle.

To begin with, from the very inception, Hamas offered an
authentic alternative to the corrupt of the PLO which par
excellance encapsulated and continues to encapsulate the
meaning of corruption, despotism, dictatorship, nepotism,
favoritism and even treason.

It is true, Hamas has not succeeded in liberating Palestine
from the colonialist Israeli occupation.

However, Hamas has succeeded in reinstituting and
prominently featuring the right of return for millions of
Palestinian refugees as the most paramount cause that can
be neither compromised nor ignored nor circumvented.

The same can be said about other Palestinian national
constants and red lines which the often happy-go-lucky
Fatah negotiators viewed as “unsacred” and even
“expendable.”

Actually, thanks to the political culture that Hamas helped
foster and consolidate among Palestinians, there is no
dignified Palestinian politician, even from Fatah, who
would publicly express a readiness to give in on such red-
lines like East Jerusalem, the refugees and the totality of
any prospective Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian
territories.

It is actually because of its consistent refusal to succumb
to Israeli hegemony and bullying that Israel and her
guardian ally, the United States, and their poodles, and
puppets and allies have been boycotting and blockading
Hamas in the hope that another Palestinian entity, e.g.
Fatah, would do Israel’s and the West’s bidding by finally
surrendering to Israeli colonialism, probably through a
“peace settlement” that has all the marks of a capitulation
.

Non the less, Hamas not only has assets, has liabilities as
well. Following the death of Hamas founder and spiritual
leader Sheikh Ahmed Yasin, who was brutally assassinated by
Israel in 2004, a new generation of Hamas leaders didn’t
really understand the timeless golden adage that “it is not
enough to be right, one has to be wise, as well.”

Yasin and his lieutenants understood and translated this
golden maxim into tangible political wisdom that helped
Hamas overcome or at least circumvent the treacherous
minefields of the Oslo years.

It is perfectly true that most of the blame for the
mid-June events in Gaza falls on Fatah, not on Hamas. After
all, it was clear to all and sundry that Fatah leaders,
especially in the Gaza Strip, accepted willingly to play
the role of quislings on behalf of the US and Israel, thus
forcing Hamas to take a preemptive action to prevent the
occurrence of a longer and bloodier civil war that would
have claimed the lives of tens of thousands of
Palestinians.

We all remember how Israel reacted to the Sabra and
Shatilla massacres in 1982, when then Prime Minister
Menachem Begin remarked that “we have nothing to do with
what happened …It is Arabs killing Arabs.”

Had Keith Dayton and Muhammed Dahlan and their cohorts
succeeded in their conspiracy, God forbid, we would have
had Ehud Olmert make the same argument, saying “we have
nothing to do with what happened in Gaza ; it is
Palestinians killing Palestinians.!” Non the less Hamas is
not completely blameless.

In these difficult days, when our people in Gaza are facing
a brutal and merciless blockade at the hands of the
children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the
holocaust, and when most nations prefer to play blind, deaf
and dumb and look the other way, we need to utilize every
shred of wisdom at our disposal.

Yes, we must do the right thing, but it is also true that
we must choose the right time for doing the right thing.
Doing the right thing at the wrong time causes disaster and
unnecessary bloodshed. It also undermines our ability to
withstand the brutality of our enemy.

Hamas is undoubtedly right in refusing to recognize Israel
’s right to exist. Israel, a country whose very existence
was made possible only thanks to the destruction and near
obliteration of another people, the Palestinian people, has
no moral legitimacy and has no moral right to exist.

Non the less, Israel does exist and has moral and
international legitimacy, and Hamas and the rest of the
Palestinian people should be able to relate to this
existence in pragmatic terms, but without giving it any
moral legitimacy, because then we would all embrace the
Zionist narrative and become de facto Zionists.

Hence, it is advisable that Hamas should reformulate the
Hudna concept, at least in order to show the world that the
movement is not nihilistic, e.g. like al-Qaida.

Similarly, Hamas and other Palestinian organizations should
be able and willing to stop the firing of al-Qassam
projectiles onto Israeli territory if and when Israel shows
a genuine willingness to lift the criminal blockade and
terminate its aggression against the people of Gaza .

Yes, resistance to a sinister and wicked military
occupation is a legitimate and secret right that no one can
deny.

However, how to exercise this right in a way that would
limit one’s losses is always a matter of discretion and
reasoning.

In short, Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups
should start thinking with their brains, not with their
hearts.

Friday, 14 December 2007

INTERVIEW WITH LEADER OF ASSOC OF MUSLIM SCHOLARS OF IRAQ


Sheikh Harith al-Dhari: 'US is the main irritant in Iraq'
Aljazeera.net

December 13, 2007

Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, head of the Association of Muslim Scholars,
is arguably one of the most influential Iraqi Sunni leaders today.

His unequivocal opposition to the US-led occupation and criticism of
the Nouri al-Maliki government attracted threats against his life and
forced him into exile.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, al-Dhari says the slight improvement
in the security situation in Iraq "is due to a decision by the Iraqi
government to reign in its death squads".

He concedes that the "resistance has temporarily" retreated in the
face of US-funded al-Sahwa (Awakening Council) militias "but that the
resistance is regrouping and will bounce back".

Al-Dhari, who hails from a family reputed for its role in the
nationalist resistance against British occupation in the 1920s, says
the US presence has allowed other powers to meddle in the country's
affairs. He belives an US withdrawal will solve many of his country's
present woes.

AJ: How do you view the recent US and Iraqi reports about the
improved security situation?

Al-Dhari: Yes, we can say the security situation has slightly
improved. The reason for that lies in the fact that George Bush needs
to present some sort of success to his people, and it is the same
with the current Iraqi government. Both have realised that the tense
situation in Iraq would do them no good. Hence, the Iraqi government
ordered its death squads to halt their attacks on people. That's all.

What is your evidence that the government operated those "death
squads"?

We will reveal the evidence at the right time. However, the fact that
those squads are the armed wings of ruling parties like the Islamic
Supreme Council is evidence that the government backed them. The fact
that they targeted neighbourhoods and specific people who oppose
Nouri al-Maliki, should tell us something.

There are hundreds of witnesses who spoke to media about squads
active during curfew hours and using police cars and equipment. How
many people claimed their relatives were taken by men dressed in
police uniforms and nobody saw them later on? We believe those are
clear evidence of government support to the death squads which
terrorised our people.

How do you explain the security situation improving in areas like
al-Anbar province and the lull in Iraqi resistance operations?

Al-Qaeda fighters have committed grave mistakes in Iraq; mistakes
that were enough to create a backlash against them and initiate what
has become known as al-Sahwa, where the US military and the Iraqi
government offer three-month contracts to fund the greed of some
tribal leaders, who in their turn arm and fund needy tribesmen to
fight al-Qaeda.

The al-Sahwa phenomenon has been presented to the people as "tribal
forces fighting al-Qaeda". But as they are US-funded, the tribesmen
have been instructed to fight the Iraqi resistance as well. That is
why resistance attacks against US forces have eased a bit.

Some al-Sahwa leaders like Ahmad Abu Risha and Hamid al-Hayes have
bluntly said that they are against anyone carrying a gun, although
al-Sahwa fighters themselves comprise the private militias.

I think the resistance has chosen to back off and not engage al-Sahwa
militias to avoid internicine fighting. They are regrouping now and
for sure will bounce back.

How serious is Iranian influence in Iraq?

The US occupation is responsible for letting others meddle in Iraq’s
issues. There are many parties who stick their noses in our business
one of whom is Israel, which works undercover in Iraq.

The other party is Iran. Iran’s influence is cancerous. It meddles in
every aspect of life in Iraq. Its influence on Iraq’s ruling parties
is not a secret. The Al-Daawa party of al-Maliki, the Islamic Supreme
Council of Iraq [headed by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim], and Iraqi Kurdish
parties are ruling parties and all of them were either funded by or
established in Iran.

These parties are the pillars of a government formed under the
occupation, so if the occupation goes all its allies will go with it.

Iran nowadays has the upper hand in determining who rules Iraq.
Economically, Iranian goods have been flooding Iraqi markets. We have
documented evidence that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are working
actively in Iraq through their Jaish al-Quds (The Army of Jerusalem)
militia. Senior officers of the militia are based in the offices of
pro-Iranian political parties.

Other regional parties are also involved in meddling in Iraq’s issues
but to a much less extent. But the US-led occupation remains the main
irritant.

As a US withdrawal appears unlikely in the near future, is there any
alternative to save Iraq from bloodshed and chaos?

Based on what I said, we strongly believe that Iraq’s ordeal will not
end unless the occupation ends.

American leaders disappoint us. We hoped they would behave in a more
responsible way after the failure of the political process they
started in Iraq. We expected them to review the process to let all
Iraqis participate and stop the bloodshed.

But sadly what happened was the opposite. We saw Bush and al-Maliki
signing a non-binding agreement where the appointed Iraqi ruler
signed over control of his country to Bush and in return the US
president committed to provide the necessary support that the current
Iraqi government needs.

This means Bush and those he supports do not have the intention to
rectify things. Hence we must get rid of the occupation which is the
cause of Iraq’s misery and pain. It acts as a cover and fuel for
outsiders to meddle.

Despite their presence in the parliament and government, Iraq’s Sunni
Muslims have always complained they have been denied full
participation in the political process. Why is that?

Our main concern lies in the fact that the elections were built on
fallacies when they lied and deceived the world that the Shia
population comprises the majority in Iraq. The number of Sunni Arabs
is not less than the number of Shia Arab in Iraq, but the US and its
allies in Iraq plotted against them for obvious reasons to deny them
their actual size.

Three years ago, while the US was occupying Iraq, the ministry of
planning under Mahdi al-Hafid issued a statistic stating Sunni Arabs
constitute 42 per cent of Iraq's population and the Shia 40 per cent.

The occupiers have publically forged information to bring their
collaborators to power. They said to us "you are only 20 per cent of
the population and your representation should match that figure".

How are we to accept that? We have been eliminated from the political
process on purpose.

It is no secret we did not support some Sunni parties joining the
political process, but to be fair to them, the al-Tawafuq, the
biggest Sunni Arab bloc in the parliament, had made a valid point
when it withdrew from the government and suspended its participation
in the political process unless its demands are met.

We have seen the demands, all of them were fair, but al-Maliki did
not meet any of them. One of them was not even Sunni-specific - the
demand for the release of all Iraqi prisoners held without charges.
Al-Maliki just does not want to give Sunni parties any credit.

You have been touring the Arab world and met many heads of state. Are
they satisfied with the situation in Iraq?

I have sensed dissatisfaction among Arab leaders with the situation
in Iraq, but none of them have showed a willingness to act.

Friday, 7 December 2007

BOTTOM-UP PEACE BUILDING IN THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES

Alastair Crooke interviewed by Aisling Byrne, Conflicts Forum, Beirut, November, 2007

alastair7.gifAlastair Crooke, former special Mid-East adviser to European Union’s Foreign Policy Chief, Javier Solana, and adviser to the International Quartet, is the Co-director of Conflicts Forum. An edited version of this interview was published by BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, Al-Majdal, Issue No. 35, Autumn 2007 (special issue on Accountability and the Peace Making Process).

Can you describe your role in your former position as EU Middle East Envoy:

My role was to co-ordinate a bottom-up process to compliment a diplomatic top-down process - typically an effort by the diplomatic community or politicians to come up with an agreement; often quite simply are back of envelope-types of agreement. But unless this agreement has some connection with reality and is practical in terms of real power relationships and security, and has a certain acquiescence of support at the grassroots level, then the agreement will fail at this plane: it just can’t be implemented, or it just won’t be implemented because there isn’t the support or the conviction that this is a practical start. Issues then bounce between the political and implementation plane, and back to the political plane, and there is no effective outcome from it.

One of the lessons that came out of Northern Ireland was that it was important to work both at the political level, but also at the practical and the street level in order to make the two move in the same direction. Both had to be prepared in parallel. It wasn’t possible to come in at the top table and sit down with half a dozen people in Ramallah, agree on the back of an envelope a five-point plan and fly away the next day and think the job was done - because that was usually the stage when things became unpicked.

An important factor is not simply to have preparation and contacts at the grassroots level, but it is also important to attend to the psychology and the moment, and particularly to convince people that there really was a plan and a constructive process. Conflict produces a sense of resignation amongst people; it builds its own momentum, and pursues its own dynamic. Many people involved in conflict - whether in Afghanistan, Ireland or Palestine - have an interest in the continuance of conflict. The conflicts itself becomes the end, and any stopping of it almost becomes a breach of trust or a breach of principle for those directly involved. War can become an end or a principle for some people. So it is very important to try and build up a sense that there is a different process afoot, that a real change in direction is in prospect.

Can you explain what you have called your ‘town hall’ meetings - who participated in these meetings and what did they achieve?

The town hall meetings we organised served three purposes: one part was to explain what was being proposed. All sorts of people came to the meetings: political and city representatives, representatives from trade unions; essentially people who were considered to have influence in the community at a city or refugee camp level. Given the few number of people we had working on the project, the meetings were generally held in cities, so there was a limit to the number of people we could invite. But explaining the process was very important. It was extraordinary how many people had completely the wrong idea of what was being proposed at the national level, and who had misunderstood the basis and background to the proposal. They thought that the Mitchell Committee had all sorts of provisions in it which simply just didn’t exist. It was very difficult to find out where these ideas came from, but the extent of misconception that surrounds a political process is vital because it has the potential to undermine the initiative.

The second point of the meetings was to show people that the process was not hidden, that it was transparent; that it was not something that was being hidden from them and hatched in 5 star hotels, but that it was something about which they could have their say. In a sense it was like holding a sort of shura - people would come and make their points. And the third point was that they provided an opportunity for people to vent their frustrations and anger at the international community and the West and to get this off their chest. But also there is a general tendency that when people are not consulted, they oppose something. But once they are consulted they may grudgingly express reservations, but generally they would not sabotage it. So it was very important in bringing along this degree of wider public support.

The importance of these meetings was to explain to people the process. And the second most important element in this peace-building process was something that was very trying and very time-consuming which was the process of giving impetus and making sure that there was action taken. This meant, for example, meeting with Arafat and discussing with him things that needed to be done, and to come every day with a list of ideas for taking the process forward. For example, this might include sending someone who enjoyed genuine public confidence to the city of Rafah, someone who had confidence and credibility in the city, and who could deal with problems in a way that had respect from the community, not someone posted in from another part of Gaza or worse still, from the West Bank. This daily step-by-step approach with the visible signs of daily new measures was vital.

Every day I met with President Arafat to update him on what was done, and then I took Arafat’s responses back to the community and people – commanders, political leaders - who had been at the meetings. Sometimes they would say: ‘well, we’ve never heard of this, we don’t know anything about it’. I’d reply: ‘these are the people who were in the meeting with Arafat, please telephone them and check with them that this is a correct version, and I will be going back to meet with Arafat tonight to discuss it again’. This process of push-starting daily developments gave the process substance and momentum. Every night I would go back to meet with Arafat and say that general so-and-so couldn’t do something for the following reasons, and then he’d call them and speak to them and push them in a certain direction. It was very time-consuming, but it was a fundamental component in the process - there was no alternative. It couldn’t be done by telephone; it couldn’t be done in big meetings; it had to be one-to-one, explaining and bringing people along.

The third element was of presence - people wanted and needed to see visible signs of something happening. We had a very small group of about 4 Europeans, and it was very important that they should be seen at key places - Jenin, Nablus, Beit Jala - and be visible as observers to demonstrate visibly and publicly that there was a real outside element to the process. So this was an important element – going out and physically being seen and for people to know that there were outsiders, Europeans, who’d come to hear, and then be willing to listen while people complained about a check point or another issue. Usually there was little we could do to resolve the issues, but it was important to be there and to listen to the problem actual problems and realities faced on the ground.

Did you have a channel to the Israeli side to take up issues? Were there positive outcomes from this, for example, problems with checkpoints?

Yes, we had an indirect channel. Sometimes the Israeli authorities wouldn’t speak directly to us, but sometimes they did. Checkpoints were particularly difficult because it took, I think, 17 different agencies in Israel to lift a checkpoint. People imagine it is in the gift of the security people, but it isn’t. There are realms of different interests in the checkpoints: settlers committees, the interests of customs and revenue people, the interests of the Civil Administration, and several sorts of military, intelligence and internal security interests. So it was never easy to get checkpoints lifted. But there were also other issues we managed to solve - like at that time, opening the market in Bethlehem. Persuading the Israelis to open the market as part of the ceasefire process changed the situation dramatically. Suddenly commercial life resumed. In Gaza, for example, with the support of the former German Foreign Minister, Josca Fischer, he would query “what do you need?”. And I would say: “it would help if you could get cooking gas or diesel supplies into Gaza”. He would try for days, but there were always problems - ‘technical reasons’ - why it didn’t happen.

Essentially, de-escalation of violence requires an accelerating dynamic towards improvement in people’s lives. We needed immediate improvements for people to see and to feel in their daily lives. I proposed to the EU that what they needed was a quick, feel-good factor that would absolutely and directly impact. This was often misunderstood: it was not about economic development or long-term planning, it was simply, how you could put cash in someone’s pocket within days. We proposed this to the EU, but they were incapable of doing this unfortunately. We proposed that they pay an additional unemployment payment to all unemployed families in the West Bank. It was very little - unemployed people at that time got 2 payments per family per year of $500, that’s all - and we suggested they pay a third one. If the EU could have done this to start generating the momentum to demonstrate improvement. This would have had very beneficial results, I believe. Visible feel-good factors are very important - opening a market, getting rid of checkpoints - were all key ones. Opening a checkpoint, paradoxically, seemed to be the most difficult for Israelis to do.

It was these things that, I feel, the EU neglected. They would say: ‘well, this isn’t economic development, we need to have a plan or a long-term structure’. But this is the point: the first 2 weeks of an attempt to de-escalate conflict are the critical ones. You have a small horizon of good will; you may not have a very long one, and what was apparent in the period 2001-2002 was that the period of goodwill when you could bring about a change was getting shorter and shorter. Skepticism was reducing the period in which people were prepared to wait and see. So the sooner you could develop a sense of momentum, that there was a feel-good factor of some sort that ordinary people could feel, was vital. It wasn’t about long-term economic development and should have been understood to be quite separate from it.

Was this the first time that you are aware of that the EU had been involved in this type of bottom-up peace-building at the grassroots community level? How did it come about?

Yes, it was. There wasn’t really a plan for this initiative, I just stared doing it. I recruited some people from European embassies to help with the project, so we did it informally on a personal basis, and this evolved into the EU Observer group. The Israelis were initially opposed to this, they objected but never came to try and throw people out, and reluctantly they had to acquiesce it. It was a fine judgment; if we had expanded it too fast, probably Israel would have taken formal action against it, but we kept it fairly small. This was the first time that we had a visible presence; we had support from some countries, but not others.

What were the lessons learnt from this initiative from your perspective, as well as for the EU at a policy-level?

I worked on this initiative from 2000 until the end of 2003 on a daily basis. Before 2000 which was a period when Palestinians and Israelis had no communication between each other, my role had been to try and get the Israelis to talk to an EU person about security. They had steadfastly refused to do this. Their position when I arrived was that the EU was there to sign cheques but not to involve in itself in policy, but eventually the isolation broke down and discussion began with the Israelis without which the next stages would not have been possible.

My aim with the Palestinians was to build trust; for them, the hardest thing was that there was an Israeli policy not to engage with the EU and breaking that was harder than talking to the Palestinian factions. I had built up trust with political leaders on the Palestinian side from my work during the previous 3 years, although at that stage, this had not been with the political leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad although it was with their rank and file, but not their political leadership. It was mostly with the Tanzeem and Fateh political leaders. We, the EU, first engaged with the leadership of Hamas in 2000 as it had been difficult for the EU to accept this. It was generally viewed that Israel would be so angered by it that it would damage relations. The EU special envoy was worried that if there was contact with Hamas that he would loose his ability to work and talk to Israelis. Basically, European efforts of venturing into the political process was resisted quite strongly at the outset by Israel.

What did the EU learn from this 3-year engagement at the grassroots level?

I think they understood clearly that there needed to be a practical element to peace-building and that this had to be on the ground and needed to be part of an overall process. Secondly, they understood clearly that this was the way into the political process; that you couldn’t simply just come in at the top level and expect there to be a place and a role for the EU; they had to be able to work up and develop a role, and that meant having some credibility on underlying issues, which actually meant people on the ground who knew what was going on. I think they came away with the idea that this was an essential approach, but they also found it quite difficult to deal with in the EU because the natural instinct of the EU was to go to their own member states and to do things not in a genuinely European way, but to revert back to their national structures for doing things.

The overall lesson at the policy level is that any political process needs continual attention at various levels - this needs attention both from the ground, but also at a higher level and it needs political clout to be on call to put pressure to resolve key issues. The problem was that the EU was very intermittent in its attention in both aspects. There would be a high level visit by someone like a minister who would deal with some issues, but then he would go away and you would hear nothing for a month. I suggested that the EU set up a contact group of 2 or 3 European ministers who would be willing and ready to intervene at short notice, by telephone, to sort problems out, so that key issues that came up on the ground could be dealt with quickly. These issues cannot be dealt with sporadically, they need daily attention to solve things and move the process forward.

What is your experience from working in other areas of conflict on peace-building in a context of asymmetrical power where there is such a lack of trust?

Clearly in most of these processes there is a lack of trust but I don’t think this is an obstacle to a process - I think that is what you should expect at the outset. A process should be designed for that purpose with that expectation. Therefore a great deal of preparation for a political process must be preparing people psychologically which means first of all, treating people with respect, courtesy and not getting impatient. This may sound very obvious but it is one of the most important lessons which is often ignored. Often mediators start getting irritated because people take time or don’t want to shift positions and they start trying to instruct them on what is in their interests; this is a mistake. Establishing a good relationship and understating the prospects - not overstating them - being very clear about what you are trying to achieve, what is not going to be achievable, what is hopeless, giving a very frank explanation of the situation and avoiding what are called ‘constructive ambiguities’ in diplomatic terms is fundamental. Trying to paint an optimistic picture in the hope that you can get some movement and that the momentum will carry people through when they discover that the picture was inaccurate does not help build trust. When you start the process, inevitably it has to go stage by stage to build trust. That is how it has got to be done. You can’t ask someone to do something which requires a large element of trust at the front end of a process.

After you left, did the EU continue with this initiative?

I don’t know the answer as to why it wasn’t continued after I was removed from my position. Many people asked me and complained why there wasn’t a successor. With the breakdown of the trust and then putting Hamas on the proscribed list, this had created too many uncertainties for people to agree how to go ahead. Presumably, in addition, there was the opposition of the Israelis to the initiative.

Do you have any idea of what both the Israelis and Palestinians felt about this initiative?

Israel had divided views on it - some in Israel were opposed because they were opposed to the internationalization of the conflict and wanted it to be dealt with only by America; they refused to allow Europeans to be involved. Then there were those that did not believe that there was any process and who believed that the war on terror should be taken advantage of in order to undermine the Palestinian national project - calling them and framing the conflict as one between Israel and international terrorism. But there were many Israelis in the security services who actually welcomed this as a way to prevent crises flaring and also occasionally to save lives. Many believed that some of the things we had done had saved lives and they said so publicly and in the press. My relationship with PM Sharon was not antagonistic; I had no personal relationship with him. I met him a few times, but I know that everything major that I did was reported to him. He was probably a little skeptical but at that stage he was still thinking of going for a 2 state political solution - he was torn between that and going for the unilateral approach. So he was ready to listen, but when he then opted for the unilateral approach, I don’t think he wanted mediators or people in the middle doing the job I was doing. I think this was one of the reasons for my removal.

On the Palestinian side, they felt it was a very positive approach, but they argued that the EU did not back it up sufficiently. They thought we were too thin on the ground and had too little resources for this project. Arafat wanted it expanded. There had always been a sense that it was important to the Palestinians to have eyes on the ground that could report back to the international community the reality of Palestinian life. However imperfect, they found it important that there were people who were actually seeing the results of Israeli actions on the ground in their areas and to be able to report back to the EU. I think Palestinians believed that if it could be expanded, that it could be effective in changing the situation by making it less easy for Israel to take certain actions as there were people on the ground who could see what was happening, and who could intervene on an on-going basis.

Which country or institution has the credibility to play this role now in the Palestinian-Israeli context?

I think it could be done by someone like the Swiss or Norwegians. I think they would have the resources if they wanted to do it. The Swiss have quite a few resources in the ICRC which plays an important role already. Norway is already engaged in a process like this in Sri Lanka. It could possibly be done by an EU country such as Sweden or Ireland, although I think neither France nor Germany, nor of course the US or Britain, would have the credibility for this. And as Alvaro de Soto and John Dugard have recently pointed out, it is also not clear that the UN nor the Quartet would have any credibility for an initiative like this at present. In fact, both de Soto and Dugard have called for the UN to withdraw from the Quartet because of the damage its participation is causing to its credibility and authority.

What changes would be needed in understanding peace-building or conflict transformation at a policy level in the EU or certain European countries for them to develop a policy and approach like this, rather than the current top-down approach?

You are right, the EU currently has only a top-down approach. The two areas where I think they misunderstand the situation is that they look at these issues as simply technical issues: that the president just needs to order things to happen and they will just happen. This is very much the American view, but the Europeans too share this perspective; that it is just for the police chief to be instructed and he goes and does it. It was never like this because quite often the police chief lived next door to a leader from Hamas or Islamic Jihad, or one of his brothers or children belonged to these movements. They could not understand the dynamics and complexity of the conflict and the divisions within Palestinian society, as opposed to the Western structures where orders can be given and will be implemented. The Europeans continue to look at these as technical issues. This is a legacy of their experience of the Western nation state. Secondly, as before, they don’t sufficiently understand the psychology of conflict - people believed it was self-evidently in the Palestinians interest to stop the firing: “why can’t they just understand that it is in their self-interest to stop the firing?” The reality is that conflict gives rise to complex emotions, to anger and a desire for revenge.

The other thing is the need to give focus and time to a process. It is seldom a short-term commitment.

Has EU policy gone backwards since 2000-2003 to where they now essentially give tacit support to US policy?

I think that EU policy has retreated out of fright at what happened over Iraq - the schism with the US - and the resulting internal divisions within the EU which the attack on Iraq provoked. They see this as something that imperiled the EU project by contributing to the failure to be able to get an EU constitution passed. The personal animosity generated by Iraq between key EU leaders subsequently poisoned their ability to work together on other areas of policy. This animus spilled over into the constitutional debate contributing to its failure.

In the Oslo process Norway took a top-down approach. Is your sense that one could convince one country to develop an approach like this, and develop the necessary capacity for this?

I don’t think it is very hard to convince people that this is the right approach - most people know and understand this; it is just doing it that seems to be so difficult for Europe. At this time within the EU there seems to be little chance of this.

Partly this is because there is internal competition from national states and structures that don’t like others getting involved, and it would be harder now to take forward an approach like this.

In a sense, capacity-building needs to be done with the mediators; they are the ones who need it rather than Palestinians or Israelis. One of the first lessons that all contexts show is how poor mediation efforts have been by the West as a whole; the claim to be objective and of seeking a political position which will work has been hollow. They tend to go for political positions that skew the intended outcome towards western interests and that will pursue a course of least resistance has been the norm - rather than taking a tough line in terms of a solution, particularly when there is one dominant party to a conflict.

Given talk of a long-term hudna (cessation of violence), do you think this offers a context within which this kind of bottom-up peace-building could be initiated? Linked to this, what are Islamist movements’ perspectives on peace-building that would support this kind of a process?

Yes, a hudna offers a good opportunity. The de-escalation of violence provides the opportunity to build steps that can be reciprocated between the parties. It is the only way to begin to build trust. Trust is not going to come from signing of a paper so a de-escalation offers the opportunity to reach a ceasefire.

Secondly, Islamist movements differ from secular movements in that it is very important for them that there should be psychological parity in the process between the parties. There has to be a sense in which a just solution is the focus, rather than a pragmatic or compromise solution. They tend do look more closely at how to create the right psychological framework in which a real value-modifying approach to negotiations can be found. I think Islamists tend to be much more self-reliant, and not look to outside forces to balance the equation for them. They prefer having a third party group or mediator to engage with them and work on these first stages with them; they believe these stages are better done by a mediator. It is only when they get to the stage where they see a real see a real political process underway that they would be interested then in sitting down with the other side.

Islam has a long tradition of conflict resolution that is different from the Western one. They all start with the idea of mediation; mediation is something which is held in much greater value in Islam than Christianity: when there is a problem or a conflict, it is the duty of other Muslims to try and push the parties to negotiation and talking and some form of reconciliation of differences. So there is, if you like, a structure within Islam that supports this approach. The idea of a practical step-by step practical approach to resolution fits closely with the early history of the first Muslim communities and the type of arrangements that were made for ceasefires in conflicts that the Prophet was involved with. So there is both precedent and also if you like an approach which fits with this. I think also there is also a strong sense that these steps help integrity and Islamists pay much greater importance to integrity of intentions and the integrity of participants in their approach to a process than secular or Westerners do –who are often under pressure to side-step difficult issues in the interest of achieving a political ‘success’.

How does the Islamist approach challenge Western models on conflict resolution which build in certain assumptions on paradigms of violence that are basically Eurocentric?

Because of the asymmetry of power, Muslims have a view that continuing resistance and continuing armed action is not detrimental to a political process; that a political process can continue with this happening. Their view of this type of the process is very different from Western models which tend to see violence as an obstacle to political process, rather than to understand it as a necessary component to arriving at a solution. In an Islamist view, resistance sometimes is necessary to create circumstances in which a political process can begin. This relates to the point about capacity-building with western negotiators, and how to think more widely about the psychological elements of this and to find ways to understand the psychology of people who are involved in an armed conflict that have different perspectives and needs from the political mediators. In practical terms, it means the emphasis should be on circumscribing violence rather than demanding its apriori cessation.

How can communities and grassroots actors can be mobilized in support of ideas for pre-negotiation - what you’ve called mental preparation and post-conflict consequences of negotiation?

First, I think you have to introduce ideas in the community because one way of influencing people with weapons is to influence the community that supports them. So this is one of the reasons why you need to work at a grassroots level. The second thing is to do it in such a way that it is part of a natural process. For example, when we were working with Hamas leaders, we would ask: what do you think of this speech? The aim was to start the debate to get people to think about political options. One of my rules of thumb during my work in the OPT was never to try to diminish or undermine the concept of resistance. What you have to do is to try and change some of the meaning of these words, and to say, of course there is armed resistance, of course there is no question that everyone has the right to resist occupation, but there are other ways of continuing resistance, other types of resistance. You have to look at the right tool for the right circumstances. So it is a process of preparing people slowly and gradually for those ideas. And this cannot be done quickly. I think that the post-conflict period is a major weakness by Western countries. The moment they have got an agreement, everyone’s interest is gone; you see politicians walk away with a piece of paper feeling that things are solved. And this is often when things fall apart. They assume that the post-conflict problems are ‘technical issues’ that do not deserve their attention.

How could one develop a better understanding of the management of the interface between a non-Western Islamist and Western approach? You’ve said that for Islamists the continuation of armed resistance is a necessary part of peace-building and conflict transformation until such a point where it is felt that it is no longer needed, yet this goes completely against Western perspectives.

The only thing you can do is to try talking with, and preparing, negotiators. When we have a hostage case, in terms of negotiating with the hostage takers, there is a pool of people who have been trained in hostage negotiating, and the training is generally quite good. It involves such things as how to listen to people, how to show that you are listening, how to put difficult issues to people in such a way which is non-confrontational. Often people who are negotiating or who are trying to get involved in a political process fail to show evidence of these traits. So an element of formal training and looking at similar situations would be the way to do it.

How do you bring into negotiation processes psychological requirements for conflict transformation where conflicts have gone on for a long time - for example occupation, where a ‘culture of occupation’ has built up and where the occupation is so integrated in Israeli society and institutions?

I don’t think there is an easy answer to this, but one of the prime answers is to try and find other tasks for the military people. On the Palestinian side, for example, even if they cannot be armed, they can act as a sort of citizens committees to get them involved in directly organizing and managing the population in their communities. This will give them a sense of value so they feel they are still needed even if their military skills are no longer needed and seem to them being devalued by their own communities.

The institutionalization of occupation mindset for Israel constitutes a major problem. One Israeli army commander told me that it took him 2 years as commander to effect a change in the ethos of toleration of unnecessary Palestinian casualties caused by his troops. It took a sustained effort to squeeze out the monthly total of unnecessary Palestinian deaths – and this at a time when relations were not exacerbated. He knew that these deaths were not happening for any purpose, but were just part of the fact of an army being on the ground and getting into local conflicts. To try and squeeze that element out of his soldiers took him 2 years. It is very difficult to change an army’s ethos, an ethos that has developed over a period where people are seen as enemies and this becomes deeply engrained. You can’t change this in the short term; it takes 5 to 10 years to really have much impact on this, so the only thing you can do is to ensure that people give clear, very strict orders from the very top in a conventional army.

So on the Israeli side you are saying it will require major political decisions?

In terms of the military side, of course it has to be. They have to do their own internal consensus-building. They have different processes for this, but they do not easily come to agreement. Part of my role was also to talk to Israelis - journalists and others - to explain what we were doing, that we weren’t involved with the Palestinians in some conspiracy against Israel, that we were there to try and bring about the de-escalation of violence that would allow a political process to start.

How would you try to sell an approach like this to Israelis knowing the kind of reactions you would be likely to get?

I think the only way you can sell it to Israelis is to advocate a step-by-step approach. The point in this sort of process is that the parties will not be irrevocably committed to something until they choose to be. The problem has been that Israel has traditionally set preconditions that are intended to commit the Palestinians, whilst leaving Israel unencumbered. Third party mediators generally have acquiesced to Israeli demands. I remember Senator Mitchell telling me that you can’t have a political process until the sides at least can see that the other side has a case. If they don’t see that the other side has a case, then there isn’t a political process available. So maybe you have step even further back and you have to start by convincing people that the other side has valid aspirations – even if these aspirations are contested.

Were there lessons from your involvement in the Mitchell Committee that you incorporated or implemented as part of this initiative? You talked before about the importance of narrative, so you’re saying this would have to be the first step of conceptualizing an initiative like this?

Narrative – by which I mean a parties perception of its own history, its vulnerabilities and its view of the future - was preeminently important in this process. The ability to listen and to hear this narrative is crucial. I think the Mitchell Committee was successful in part, but principally, because of Senator Mitchell’s extraordinary abilities to listen to what people were saying, and to be interested to hear what each person had to say. He had an enormous ability to listen effectively. Other lessons were the need to focus on key core issues and not get bogged down with too many subsidiary issues. The key issues for Senator Mitchell, on one side, were the settlements, and, on the other, the security issue - the trade off had to be a cessation of settlement building in return for security from the Palestinians. That was the key to the process - at least at the beginning the first phase we insisted on a real stopping of settlement expansion. There has to be a core to the process that you then build around. The second element is to keep it simple. We were not allowed to write more than 20 pages for the final report, so it cut down a lot of the things that you would have otherwise included.

Did it help having an individual like Senator Mitchell, someone with genuine credibility, from outside?

Elements of a process like this do need to progress behind the scenes. A mediator with credibility can give a strong element of integrity and essentially symbolizes the process. There will be a huge sense among people that something to their disadvantage is being cooked up behind their backs, so the sense of how they regard the person that is in overall charge overseeing the process is vital. If this person has a sense of quiet confidence and an ability to listen to people; if they radiate the right sort of body language and the right signals, this can make a lot of difference. I think it made a huge difference in Northern Ireland. Lord Alderdice told me that George Mitchell’s ability simply to listen and to go on listening and to being patient with people was key to the whole process there.

Given current political conditions in the OPT, where the situation is so polarized and with the West supporting one side against the other, could such a process be developed now?

I think the situation [in the OPT] is totally different now. I don’t think it could be done by people being drafted in to take this role because I’m not sure that they would survive unless they went in armored cars with protection, and you can’t do this sort of job in those circumstances. You can’t be transparent, you don’t have the ability for people to see you doing your tasks in an open way if you are surrounded by body guards and armored cars. There would have to be a tremendous amount of trust in the individual leading this. I think there is only one person who could do this at the moment in Palestine and Israel and that is George Mitchell. Palestinians would give him the opportunity to do this. The idea of people just coming in now and having the ability or the time to make those connections or those links is just not there. We have cut ourselves off from that.

Aisling Byrne is Projects Co-ordinator with Conflicts Forum and is based in Beirut.

IRANIAN PRES POPULAR AMONGST POOR & PIOUS

Ahmadinejad: rock star in rural Iran

While he is maligned by the West, the firebrand president
is adored by Iran's poor and pious.

By Scott Peterson
The Christian Science Monitor

Birjand and Bideskan, Iran

Shoes off, and packed so tightly in a mosque that they sweat in the
chilly night, several thousand men in eastern Iran await their hero.
The air is electric.

When he arrives, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is greeted like a rock
star: with a collective inhale the crowd jumps up to catch a glimpse
of the firebrand populist. "Sit down! Sit down!" a cleric implores,
as laudatory whistling intensifies. "The friend of the Imam [Mahdi]
has come!"

While Mr. Ahmadinejad is under attack across Iran's political
spectrum for his economic policies and unyielding nuclear rhetoric,
even his detractors say these frequent visits to Iran's provinces are
shrewd politics that give him a serious shot at reelection in 2009.

The president now also gloats - over Iranian rivals who say he
brought the country close to war, as much as over American hawks
championing attacks - about a new US National Intelligence Estimate
that said this week Iran halted a nuclear weapons program in 2003.

The report is "a victory for the Iranian nation in the nuclear issue
against all international powers," Ahmadinejad told rallying
supporters Wednesday in the western city of Ilam. He warned: "If you
want to start up a new game, the Iranian people will resist and will
not step back one inch."

Reaching out to the pious and poor

A rare journey by a Western reporter, concurrent with one of
Ahmadinejad's visits last month to South Khorasan Province where he
handed out toys, cash, and executive support for big-ticket
development projects, shows how the president is building his
political base outside the capital, Tehran.

An unannounced visit to an experimental irrigation project, among
many being touted by the president's aides, also found that a large
infusion of cash, received the day before this reporter's visit, will
enable operations to expand 20-fold, creating more than 1,100 new
jobs with credit going to Ahmadinejad.

As the president began a second round of 30 provincial visits in the
city of Birjand, his entourage of aides and ministers spread out to
villages to check on development projects, cut red tape, and receive
130,000 personal letters full of requests for money and jobs, as well
as complaints - adding them to the 9 million letters the president
has already accumulated over 2-1/2 years in office.

Iranians have as many problems as ever, from corruption to soaring
prices and unemployment. But during this trip, the president spent
millions in this province alone - from new petrochemical factories to
shantytown improvement. He promised that next fiscal year, 40 percent
of Iran's budget would go to rural areas.

All of this adds to a perception here of Ahmadinejad as a pious
populist, a man searching for solutions, and not part of the problem.
Some even link him to the Shiite Muslim savior, the Mahdi, whom they
expect will one day return to bring universal justice.

"Ahmadinejad is the best president that we have ever had.. He is an
angel, the envoy of the Imam of the Age [Mahdi]," says one
sandwich-shop owner in Sarayan, a few hours north of Birjand.

"But still, our town has lots of problems," laments the owner, who
was refused a loan from city hall to expand his eatery into a
guesthouse. "You have to have a friend to have your request approved.
Problems, problems...."

Such faith in Ahmadinejad contrasts sharply with the view in Tehran,
where criticism of the president is daily fare. The moderate
Mardom-Salari newspaper calls provincial trips a "backward step"
drawn from the first days of ancient Greek democracy. Better to
improve the overall economy, the paper chided, so fewer Iranians feel
compelled to write personal requests.

But the carefully crafted image plays well among the president's core
constituents: legions of pious Iranians who still say they believe
his promise to bring them a share of Iran's vast oil wealth; and
ideological warriors of the basiji (volunteer ideological forces)
militia and Revolutionary Guards forces who have profited most from
government contracts.

"There are only two ways Ahmadinejad can be defeated," says a
political scientist in Tehran, who asked not to be named. "Another
[reformist] mass vote or Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Sayyed Ali]
Khamenei fully withdraws his support for Ahmadinejad - and I don't
see either one happening."

The president, says this analyst, "is getting smarter on how he
spends money, targets his campaigns, and at negative campaigning." In
recent weeks, Ahmadinejad has lambasted critics of his nuclear policy
as "traitors."

"People are beginning to realize he is really messing up the
economy," says the analyst. "But the only people [who see it] are the
urban middle and educated classes. Those people do not have the votes
or the will to challenge him."

'In the heart of the people'

On the hustings in Birjand, national TV shows Ahmadinejad being
driven in a modest car early one morning to a poor sector. Standing
in the street, people reach out to shake the president's hand and
share their problems. He responds by placing his arms on their
shoulders.

Another scene shows him in a poor family's house, sitting with a
mother as she grieves for two sons martyred in the Iran-Iraq War of
the 1980s. The president's body language is pitch-perfect. He sits
with head down, hands clasped respectfully in his lap as the woman
tells the former Revolutionary Guards officer: "I'm sure you remember
the Imposed War...."

More footage shows the minister cutting ribbons on finished projects
and breaking ground on new ones. Similar scenes are repeated every
provincial visit.

"The amount of projects and development in the past two years is
equal to the entire history of the province," says Abolfazl
Noferesti, the press chief for the South Khorasan governor, who was
appointed by the president. Long neglected by Tehran, this province
spreads across the sprawling deserts and barren outcroppings of
eastern Iran and was the first to be visited by the president in
2005.

The projects launched then are now 20 to 90 percent complete and the
governor's office makes sure people know whom to applaud - especially
with parliamentary elections due next March.

"People get very happy and thankful to the president and to God, when
they see these projects being implemented," says Mr. Noferesti. "One
of the reasons that Mr. Ahmadinejad is in the heart of the people is
because whatever [he] promises, he follows it up until it is
implemented. We speculate [that] in the next elections the approval
and development related to these trips will be reflected."

Looking to Iran's 2009 elections

Aides deny that a reelection campaign is under way. But the men and
women who crammed into the mosque for prayers - where most could only
feel the brief electric presence of Ahmadinejad since he did not
speak - were handed leaflets extolling the "Secrets of the Successful
Ninth Cabinet." One black-shrouded woman, eager to see the president,
sneaked through a door from the women's section to the men's, before
being dragged back by other women.

The campaign handout credited Ahmadinejad with "removing the
depredation from the face of this desert province," and used
carefully cherry-picked national statistics that ranged from an
explosion of cellphone usage to a boost in foreign investment. It
listed diplomatic "greatness" and national pride engendered by
nuclear defiance.

There was also a photo of Mr. Khamenei and a message saying the
supreme leader "thanks God" for a "pious president" and a working
cabinet "the nation wants, the men whose sleeves are up and belted
for service to the people."

Among those presidential foot soldiers is Mehdi Kalhor, a senior
media adviser pressed into agriculture duty. In South Khorasan, he
visited several farms, including an experimental irrigation project
that makes clay tubes to seep moisture to crops - cutting to zero the
typical 75 percent water loss from evaporation.

Ahmadinejad "went through this process of evaluating problems from
village level," says Mr. Kalhor. "He can't go everywhere so he sends
us to check [on needs], and we report back to him."

The president himself had visited the site two years ago, but no
money had come. "It wasn't going anywhere. It was stopped at the
gates of bureaucracy," says Kalhor of the project near Bideskan, 100
miles northwest of the provincial capital. "I came back to Birjand
and spoke to the president. In 2-1/2 hours it was resolved; before,
it would take 20 years."

Such intervention makes good politics, and Kalhor admits: "What's
happening in our country is not hidden from ourselves - we know who
gets the vote and who doesn't."

But how real are these claims of the president's men? During an
unscripted visit to Bideskan to find out, the director was effusive.
"It was so fast - yesterday I was called by the governor's office to
collect the money," says Mohsen Hedjazi.

The pilot project now churns out 15,000 dried clay tubes daily and it
plans to increase staff from 70 to 1,200 within four months. Did the
president make his dreams come true? Mr. Hedjazi does not hesitate:
"Yes."

Thursday, 6 December 2007

GIBBONS, A BEAR, BRITAIN & SUDAN

A tragic-comedy in the ‘war on terror’

By Sukant Chandan

English primary school teacher Gillian Gibbons has been involved in what appears to be one of the most absurd political and diplomatic rifts in the ‘war on terror’. Apparently the 54 year old mother of two while working in a school in Khartoum named a teddy bear ‘Mohammed’ after one of her pupils who had suggested the name and the class voted in agreement. At least this is what is known in the public sphere. She was subsequently arrested, tried and found guilty of insulting the Prophet Mohammed and Islam, given a fifteen day prison sentence and was released on the Monday morning of the 3rd of December after much diplomatic effort on part of the British who sent a delegation consisting of Labour’s Lord Ahmed and Lady Warsi, the Conservative Party spokesperson on community cohesion. After President Bashir of Sudan held a meeting with the two, he granted a pardon to Gibbons. He also commented to the Ahmed and Warsi that whatever people thought of the Sudanese legal system, Gibbons had been charged, tried and convicted in a court of law, luxuries denied to many Muslims in the West who have no such rights and are languishing in various jails, Guantanamo being the most notorious.

The tone of the Brown government throughout this case has been relatively restrained. The British Government possibly calculated that Sudanese public opinion, while divided in their attitudes over Gibbons inadvertent mistake, would have rallied around Khartoum if it was seen that the former colonialists of Sudan were too aggressive in this diplomatic rift. Positive attitudes towards the British are not exactly on the rise in Sudan after several years of interference in the affairs of the country over the latest ‘white mans burden’ – the Darfur issue. The Gibbons debacle was brought to a swift end with Lord Ahmed putting a positive end note on the whole episode by saying that he hopes the last few weeks will not damage the relations between the two countries but “in fact it should be a way to strengthen the ties”. And another Government Minister calling British policy towards Sudan ‘a new track of constructive engagement’. It seems that the Brown government is still keen to put distance between itself and the Blair era on the international stage that was typified by neo-colonial arrogance. The Gibbons affair is largely seen as part of a far wider diplomatic wrangle, which is unsurprising given the manner in which President Bashir has been pushed around and is often portrayed as a brutal Islamist pariah in the West.

The Gibbons incident was the last thing that East-West, Muslim-West relations needed in this time and age. Gibbons, who as far as we know is a dedicated and likeable teacher was someone that the British media paraded as a victim of ‘Muslims gone mad’ over such an innocent and puerile thing as the naming of a class teddy-bear. While the government held back from an aggressive approach to Gibbons’ arrest and imprisonment, the British mainstream media incessantly churned out story after story out of context whipping up anti-Muslim feeling. Expecting the Gibbons incident not to have been a field day for sections of the media who make money out of depicting Muslims as irrational and violent was highly unlikely to say the least. Even the liberal comedian Clive Anderson, and well-known political satirist Ian Hislop on the BBC’s current affairs satire show Have I Got News For You, vented their barely disguised disgust of Muslims in Sudan by depicting them as irrational nutters who are hell-bent on overreacting over any insignificant issue, while the whole studio audience laughed in agreement.

The BBC did briefly put things into perspective when on December the 2nd Sunday morning a BBC News 24 reporter stated that the Sudanese government does not want to be seen as caving into demands of “the former colonial masters”, which was changed later in the day to the same reporter stating that the Sudanese government does not want to be seen to be “caving into Britain”. For many across the world the concepts of colonialism and Britain may well be synonymous with each other, but for many Western viewers who are not so sensitive to such things, they are often in denial or ignorant as to the inseparable relationship between the two. A recent example of this was when only a little more than two weeks ago the BBC received complaints by viewers of an episode of the Clash of Worlds documentary series that sought to present parallels between the politics of the ‘war on terror’ today, with that of the nineteenth century. This particular episode featured the Sudanese and Islamist resistance led by Muhammad Ahmed Al Mahdi who successfully fought the British colonialists who were personified in the program in General Gordon. The complaints made by English people were that General Gordon and the British generally were portrayed in a too negative manner.

The only time in the media the Sudanese were allowed to speak for themselves and give an explanation was when the Sudanese ambassador to London Omer Mohamed Ahmed Siddig gave a brief interview to Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow. Siddig was asked by Snow as to the reasons for the reactions to the incident by the Sudanese authorities and the more militant reactions of a hundred or so Sudanese people. Siddig explained that this has to be put into context of the changed atmosphere since 911 with Islamophobic comments by some in the Western press in insulting the Prophet, and that this ‘poisoned the air’ and resulted in sensitivity amongst Muslims. Cultural differences regarding religion also plays a role in this crisis as Sudan, like many other Muslims countries Sudan is a place where religion is never mocked let alone that a toy or pet could be given a religious name which could be seen as idolatry.

The Western-government promoted ‘Save Darfur’ campaign could also be another reason why some Sudanese public opinion is so sensitive to the classroom incident. The people of the Darfur region of Sudan undoubtedly have a grave situation on their hands, but when the most hawkish sections of Western governments are piling on the pressure to intervene in Sudan over this issue, it is no surprise that many people question the real motives of the West on this issue. The Sudanese people do not have to look far in their region, or far-back into their history to have good reason to suspect ulterior motives of the West, or to question why they are so interested in Darfur when there are other more serious crises on the African continent such as the five million people who have died in the fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the last ten years.

The Gibbons case has been a perfect opportunity for those in the media who are looking for a cheap story in the now tired routine of depicting crazed brown and black people, preferably brown and black Muslims, baying for the blood of a white person. At the same time this whole episode could have passed without a fuss if those at the school in Khartoum would have discussed and resolved the issue between them. Gibbons herself since her release has not said a bad word against Islam, Sudan or its people, perhaps to the surprise of some considering what she has been through. In fact, she has had nothing but praise for the way she was treated by the Sudanese authorities, has talked of her love for the people of Sudan, their country and of course the children she was teaching, all of which she says she will miss dearly. In the battle of ideas must those who are opposing Islamophobia and Western policies against Muslims always be in a position where they are on the defensive explaining such things that the Western media finds so easy to generate prejudices against Muslims such as in the case of Gibbons. Some recompense can be found from the fact that Gibbons has been gracious in response to her unfortunate experience apologising for any unintentional offence caused by her actions and has said on Islam: “I have great respect for the Islamic religion and would not knowingly offend anyone and I am sorry if I caused any distress.” This whole incident is another example of how Western policies and attitudes towards Islam and Muslims are tragically turning relatively mundane misunderstandings into an international political spectacle, and where prejudices against Muslims are easily and unnecessarily inflamed.


Sukant Chandan is a London-based freelance journalist, researcher and political analyst. He runs two websites: http://ouraim.blogspot.com/ and http://sonsofmalcolm.blogspot.com/ and can be contacted at sukant.chandan@gmail.com