Friday, July 30, 2010

Escalating Turkish-Kurdish Hostilities Threaten U.S. Policy in Iraq

James M. Dorsey | 30 Jul 2010

World Politics Review

Escalating fighting between Turkish forces and Kurdish guerrillas in southeastern Turkey and predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq coupled with a high-powered Iraqi Kurdish campaign to achieve greater autonomy are complicating U.S. efforts to ensure that Iraq remains united once American troops leave the country. The increased hostilities couldn't come at a worse time for the Obama administration, which is preparing for next year's withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

The U.S. had hoped that closer Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish cooperation and Ankara's conciliatory moves toward Turkey's estimated 15 million Kurds -- who account for approximately 20 percent of Turkey's population -- would end a decades-old Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. Instead, Turkish warplanes are targeting PKK bases in northern Iraq with increased regularity, and the Turkish military is re-establishing checkpoints in predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey. The U.S., which has designated the PKK a terrorist organization, is assisting Turkey by providing intelligence to its military and granting Turkish fighter jets greater access to northern Iraqi air space.

The hostilities threaten to jeopardize Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan's efforts to persuade the outlawed PKK to lay down its arms and end fighting that has cost some 45,000 lives, by granting Turkish Kurds greater political and cultural freedom. Despite the fighting and increasingly tough language towards the PKK, Erdogan continues to pay lip service to the notion that the conflict with the Kurds cannot be resolved with military means alone. Yet, with a controversial constitutional referendum scheduled for September, elections due next year and nationalist calls for a harder line towards the PKK, Erdogan will be hard-pressed to respond positively to recent PKK overtures for a ceasefire and a negotiated solution.

U.S. officials fear that the increased Kurdish violence could threaten an economic boom on both sides of the Turkish-Iraqi border and complicate the administration's efforts to ensure that Iraq remains united following the U.S. withdrawal. Washington is currently pressuring the Iraqi Kurds to moderate their demands for greater autonomy, for expansion of their territory to include the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and for independence from Baghdad in negotiating contracts with foreign oil firms.

The Iraqi Kurds are pushing back by investing heavily in a lobbying and public relations campaign in Washington. Iraqi Kurdistan now ranks among the top 10 foreign clients of several high-profile Washington-based lobbying and public relations firms. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, last week warned that Kurdish-Arab tension over Kirkuk and the powers of the Kurdish Regional Government constitutes the single largest threat to Iraqi stability. He said that despite U.S. efforts to ensure stability, the differences were unlikely to be resolved before U.S. troops leave the country.

Iraqi Kurdish resolve to further insulate their autonomous region from volatility elsewhere in Iraq has been strengthened by the Obama administration's refusal to coax Iraqi political leaders to finally form a government months after inconclusive parliamentary elections were held. U.S. officials say Vice President Joe Biden, during his July 4 visit to Baghdad, emphasized the need to form a government quickly, but refrained from discussing how it should be formed or who should be part of it. U.S. officials have reiterated that position since.

Iraqi Kurdish leaders say the U.S. reluctance to intervene more forcefully is allowing Iran to fill the vacuum. Iran is trying to persuade pro-Iranian cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to drop his opposition to a government led by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's State of Law coalition. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshayr Zebari, whose Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is part of the outgoing Iraqi coalition government, appealed to the Obama administration during a visit to Washington this month to help Iraqi politicians form a government. Speaking to reporters he warned that the longer Iraq "goes without a government, you will have more and more vacuum. That's why . . . time is of paramount importance."

Meanwhile, though Turkish military operations in northern Iraq are limited to remote mountainous areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, they put the regional government in an increasingly delicate position. Turkey has been pressuring the regional government to do more than simply tacitly agreeing to the anti-PKK strikes. The renewed fighting has dampened Iraqi Kurds' hopes that with greater political and cultural freedom for Turkish Kurds, the conflict on the other side of the border would be resolved.

The regional government, in an effort to navigate a way out of the impasse, has revived plans, in cooperation with Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), to organize a conference with participation of Kurds from Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria and various European countries to discuss the future of the PKK and pressure it to lay down its arms. The organizers believe that having already moderated its goals, the PKK may be amenable to a Kurdish initiative to effectively mediate with Turkey. The rebels have dropped their demand for an independent Kurdish state in favor of greater political and cultural rights in Turkey and an amnesty for PKK fighters. The conference has the backing of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a former Kurdish guerrilla leader.

But Turkey is wary that the conference, which is likely to propose a series of steps to be taken by both Turkey and the PKK, would mean internationalization of a conflict Ankara has long insisted is a domestic problem. Instead it has urged the Iraqi Kurdish and Iraqi governments as well as the U.S. to take military action against the PKK. Speaking on Turkish television, Turkey's top commander Gen. Ilker Basbug warned that "the presence of PKK bases in northern Iraq will certainly affect Turkey and Iraq's relationship and will negatively influence relations between the U.S. and Turkey." Privately, the Turks have gone so far as to warn Iraqi Kurdish leaders that continued escalation of hostilities inside Turkey may force them to invade Iraqi Kurdistan -- a move that could dash U.S. intentions to leave behind a stable Iraq capable of defending itself.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Soccer vs. Islam: Football and Militant Islam Compete For Hearts and Minds

By James M. Dorsey

Nowhere does football enthusiasm involve a greater act of courage and defiance than in the war-ravaged, football-mad Arab nation of Somalia. With large chunks of the country controlled by al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab jihadists, football is often a question of life or death. Players and enthusiasts risk execution, arrest and torture -- and not just in Somalia. More than 70 people in neighboring Uganda were killed earlier this month when al-Shabab suicide bombers hit popular spots where fans were watching the World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands.

The bombings, the first major attacks by al-Shabab beyond Somalia’s borders, sought to persuade Uganda to withdraw its 3,000 troops from the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia and reconsider its plans to send reinforcements. But by targeting football, they also highlighted militant Islam’s love-hate relationship with the game -- a useful bonding and recruitment tool capable of competing with militant Islamists for hearts and minds.

Backed by radical Saudi clerics, some jihadists denounce football as a satanic game designed to take the faithful away from devotion to Islam. Somali jihadists see football as competition for recruits in the world’s foremost failed state where unemployment is rampant and youth have little to look forward to. Youngsters are rustled from the pitch and forced to join the ranks of the jihadis. Jihadists have repeatedly warned the Somali football federation to halt organization of tournaments. In the country’s only football stadium in the partly jihadi-controlled capital Mogadishu, Somalia’s national team clears the pitch of bullets and bodies before training sessions. Threats forced private broadcaster Shabelle to move its operations to Mogadishu’s African Union-protected airport from where it broadcast the World Cup opening ceremony.

In the Middle East and North Africa, a part of the world pockmarked by repressive regimes, football competes with political Islam as a venue to release frustration against authoritarian leaders. As a result, some Islamists seek to co-opt the game while others aim to suppress it. In a controversial religious ruling in 2005, militant Saudi clerics condemned football as an infidel invention and redrafted its International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) rules to differentiate the game from what they described as ‘the heretics.’ The ruling did things like ban the words “foul,” “goal,” “penalty,” and clothes like shorts and T-shirts, and ordered players to spit on anyone who scored a goal. “All fun is bootless except the playing of a man with his wife, his son and his horse,” said Sheikh Abu Ishaaq al Huweni-Huweni. “Thus, if someone sits in front of the television to watch football…he will be committing bootless fun…We have to be a serious nation, not a playing nation,” he said citing the hadith, the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, but ignoring the prophet’s endorsement of physical exercise.

The fatwa was condemned by more mainstream Saudi clerics, who recognize that Saudis are football-mad and passionate about their national team, which historically has fared well in FIFA competitions. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia’s religious police, afraid that believers would forget their daily prayers during the World Cup, rolled out mobile mosques on trucks and prayer mats in front of popular cafes where men gathered to watch matches. More sensitive is the issue of women’s sports, including football. With Saudi Arabia threatened with suspension by the International Olympic Committee if it does not this year create frameworks for women’s sports, debate is raging among the country’s powerful clergy and in the media. Physical education classes are banned in state-run Saudi girls schools and female athletes are not allowed to participate in the Olympics. Women's games and marathons are often canceled if the clergy gets wind of them. Clerics argue that women’s sports are corrupting and satanic and would spread decadence. Nonetheless, women have quietly been establishing their own football and other sports teams with the backing of members of the ruling Al Saud family and under the wings of hospitals or ‘health club.’

Football, despite the condemnation by militant Islam’s most radical fringe, has served Islamists well. Foreigners who fought in Afghanistan organized football matches after the Soviet withdrawal to maintain contact. The perpetrators of the 2004 Madrid subway bombings played football together and a number of Hamas’ suicide bombers trace their roots to the same football club in Hebron. “A reliable predictor of whether or not someone joins the Jihad is being a member of an action-oriented group of friends,” Scholar Scott Atran told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in March. “It's surprising how many soccer buddies join together.”

Osama Bin Laden is said to enjoy playing center forward. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh played defense for one of the Gaza’s local clubs. Haniyeh recently employed football in efforts to heal the rift between Hamas and their secular rivals in Fatah. When Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, it also took over the administration of all Gaza clubs, prompting a rupture with the West Bank-based, Fatah-dominated Palestinian Football Association (PFA) that halted association football in the strip. In a tentative step earlier this year toward Palestinian reconciliation, Hamas and Fatah agreed to jointly administer the Gaza football federation. This allowed for competitive matches in Gaza for the first time in three years. For Gazans, football matches constitute a rare opportunity in a politically restrictive society to release pent-up emotions.

Nowhere is soccer more of a political football than in relations between the Egyptian government and the Islamist opposition. Football passions exploded late last year with violent clashes between Egyptian and Algerian fans on three continents and -- for the first time since the 1969 football war between Honduras and El Salvador -- brought the world to the brink of a soccer-inspired conflict. Egypt recalled its ambassador to Algeria while Algeria slapped Egyptian-owned Orascom telecom’s Algerian operation with a tax bill for more than half a billion dollars, prompting Libyan leader Col. Moammer Gadaffi to intervene to prevent the dispute from escalating. The Egyptian government was quick to fan the flames and ride the tide of emotion in a rare opportunity to bolster its image at the expense of the Islamists. “The violence expressed years of depression of a population that constantly witnesses social, financial and political failure,” said Ahmed al-Aqabawi, a professor at Azhar University. “Soccer is their only ray of light.”

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Proposal for one-state solution gains favor among Israelis and Palestinians

Deutsche Welle | 28.07.2010

By James M. Dorsey

The idea of a single state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem is gaining renewed currency with a twist: this time around the proposition is supported not only by Palestinians but also by Israeli right-wingers.

Analysts say debate in Israel as well as among Palestinians about a new approach to Middle East peace involving a one-state solution reflects a sense on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide that US-sponsored efforts to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel are likely to fail.

Even though support for a one-state solution is by no stretch of the imagination universally accepted among the Israeli right, it also signals a realization that Israel is increasingly paying a heavy diplomatic and political price for the stalemate in the negotiations and needs to produce fresh ideas.

Growing support for a one-state solution is likely to figure in deliberations on Thursday at an Arab foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo.

The participants are also due to decide whether Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas should agree to US and Israeli demands for direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks or maintain his position that such talks can only be revived once Israel agrees to an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and in Gaza that includes East Jerusalem and a halt to further settlement activity.

Abbas has said he would support a one-state solution if indirect Israeli-Palestinians talks under the auspices of US special envoy George Mitchell fail to bring about an independent state. The US and Israeli demands are supported by the European Union. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos met Abbas in Amman on Tuesday to persuade him to move from the proximity talks to direct negotiations.
Pressure for direct talks

Palestinian officials say the US has exerted considerable pressure on Abbas to accept renewed direct negotiations, warning that his refusal could prompt President Barack Obama to disengage from the peace process. The officials said Mitchell had cautioned that this would mean that the US would have less leverage in persuading Israel to halt its settlement activity.

"Abbas is caught between a rock and a hard place. Engaging in direct talks with Israel without significant Israeli gestures could amount to political suicide," one official said.

Analysts say the US pressure poses a problem not only for Abbas but also for Arab leaders. Moderate Arab leaders, they say, may instinctively feel that the revival of the notion of a one-state solution - first floated in the 1980s by moderate Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh, who argued that Palestinians by accepting Israeli citizenship would ultimately have a demographic majority in the Israeli state because of their higher birth rate - would in the long run produce a more favorable result for the Palestinians.

That instinct, however, is likely to be offset by worries about the impact a breakdown in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process may have on US-Arab relations at a time that concern, particularly in the Gulf, is mounting about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

As a result, Arab leaders are signaling that they are likely to bargain at the Cairo foreign ministers' conference for time as a way out of the immediate dilemma.
Talks on more talks

"While welcoming any opportunity for real negotiations, we should remain skeptical of short-term expectations presented as potential breakthroughs, but that end up being little more than delaying or diversionary tactics, cruel mirages in the desert. The emphasis on the need to shift to direct talks, and to transcend the proximity talks now taking place, represents the triumph of procedure over substance," says prominent Jordanian-Palestinian commentator Rami Khouri.

Privately, Arab and Palestinian officials concede that little is likely to change in extended indirect talks, but they express hope that the Obama administration, not wanting to admit failure, may as yet pressure Israel to at least halt the settlements.

Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee member Hannah Amireh said Arab leaders would back a proposal put forward by Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to ask that the proximity talks be extended until early September.

"There is a consensus that the Palestinian Authority should not enter into direct talks until Israel commits to a halt in settlement construction and provocations in Jerusalem and abides by international law," Amireh said.

One state or no state?

Proponents of a two-state solution warn that without tangible progress in the peace talks, the window of opportunity for creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel will close, leaving the one-state solution as the only option remaining on the table - an option they caution bears in it the seeds for future conflict with Palestinians, demanding once they achieve a demographic minority that the state be secular rather than Jewish in character.

"The (Israeli) right is not talking about a neutral ‘state of all its citizens' with no identity, nor about ‘Israstine' with a flag showing a crescent and a Shield of David," says Noam Sheizaf, a journalist for the liberal Israeli daily Ha'aretz, who has written extensively about the debate in Israel.
"As envisaged by the right wing, one state still means a sovereign Jewish state, but in a more complex reality, and inspired by the vision of a democratic Jewish state without an occupation and without apartheid, without fences and separations," he added.

In recent statements and articles former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens and Knesseth speaker Reuven Rivlin have advocated making Israel and Palestine one state by legally incorporating the West Bank into Israel.

"We are already a bi-national state and also a multicultural and multi-sector state. The minorities (Arabs) here make up 20 percent of the population - that's a fact and you can't argue with facts," Arens said in a recent article he penned for Ha'aretz.
"Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria would not be the end of the state of Israel, nor would it mean the end of democratic governance in Israel. It would, however, pose a serious challenge to Israeli society. But that is equally true for the other options being suggested for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he added.

Palestinians agree. A recent Palestinian poll revealed that more than half of the Palestinians endorse the Arens proposal, even though it involved only the West Bank, leaving the Gaza Strip's 1.5 million Palestinians to fend for themselves.
Emily Amrousi, a former spokesperson for the settlers, has taken the idea one step further by participating in meetings between settlers and Palestinians to discuss a one-state solution "in which the children of settlers and the children of Palestinians will be bused to school together."

Amrousi and other settler leaders admit that their endorsement of the one-state solution does not constitute a change of heart but another way of securing continued control of the West Bank.

"If every path seems to reach an impasse, usually the right path is one that was never even considered, the one that is universally acknowledged to be unacceptable, taboo," said Uri Elitzur, another former settler leader.