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 TeasersPatrick Cockburn Blogview

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The Trump administration is guilty of many acts of deliberate cruelty, such as taking away the children of immigrant parents at the US border. But just as the world was watching the lead up to the Trump-Kim Jong-un meeting in Singapore last Monday, the US may have done something even worse by quietly announcing a decision that threatens to kill millions by starvation or disease.

The potential death sentence came in a short press statement by the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, effectively giving a green light for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to launch an offensive in Yemen aimed at capturing Hodeidah on the Red Sea. The port city is the point of entry for 70 per cent of food and medical supplies for the eight million Yemenis whom the UN says are on the brink of starvation out of the 22 million in need of humanitarian aid.

The eagerness of US officials to avoid accusations of complicity in the Hodeidah attack is a sign that they suspect the outcome may be calamitous. Pompeo was deliberately low-key in his three sentence statement about Hodeidah: “I have spoken with Emirati leaders and made clear our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports.”

Absent from this message for the first time was any call for Saudi Arabia and the UAE not to attack Hodeidah, a city with a population of 600,000 who are already hearing explosions in the distance. The US and UAE have been working hard on a smokescreen of misinformation about who is responsible for what is happening and why they are launching the offensive now.

The 25,000 Yemeni fighters advancing on Hodeidah are not an independent force but are paid for and under the control of the UAE. “We take our orders from the Emiratis, of course,” a Yemeni field commander in the front line told Iona Craig of The Intercept earlier this month as he called in airstrikes. This air support is provided by the Saudis and the UAE with the US providing essential services such as mid-air refuelling and target intelligence. The US is denying that it has a direct role in the assault on Hodeidh, but it would not be happening without its assent.

The UAE has made it clear privately to US officials that it would not attack Hodeidah without the permission and support of the Trump administration. The White House has decided to escalate the Saudi and UAE-led campaign against the Houthis, whom it denounces as Iranian proxies, though without providing much evidence of this. A justification by the UAE for attacking Hodeidah is that it is used by the Houthis to import Iranian-made missiles and other weapons. “Should we leave the Houthis smuggling missiles?” asked a UAE ambassador. But a UN panel of experts concluded earlier in the year that no weapons were coming through the port from Iran because ships are randomly inspected and must be authorised by the UN.

A crude attempt by the UAE to pretend that it is not acting in concert with the US is to announce publicly that its request to the US for satellite imagery, reconnaissance and mine-sweeping had been turned down. Given that countries do not normally put such rejections up in lights, this is clearly another attempt to play down the US role.

Why is the US doing this? Trump is closer to Saudi Arabia and UAE than any another US president and they have put a vast effort into cultivating him. The White House sees Yemen as one front in a broader campaign to put pressure on Iran. But the most important motive for escalation by Saudi Arabia, UAE and their foreign backers such as the US, Britain and France is that their war has not been going well for them.

When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began the Saudi air war against the Houthis in March 2015 it was over-confidently named “Operation Decisive Storm”. It turned out to be anything but decisive and is still going on three years later. The Houthis, a Shia minority sect, control the capital Sanaa along with almost all of highly populated north Yemen and remain capable of firing the occasional missile into Saudi Arabia.

The US is encouraging the UAE and its allies to take Hodeidah to break the deadlock, by tightening encirclement of the Houthis. But this is a long way from taking Sanaa and forcing the Houthis to surrender.

What the Hodeidah operation may do is turn a humanitarian disaster, which the UN is already calling the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, into complete catastrophe. Three quarters of the 27 million Yemenis already require aid to survive and this may be cut off in the next few days as the fighting moves into Hodeidah and closes the port.

The Saudis and the UAE are trying to defuse international concerns, particularly in the US Congress, about an impending famine by saying that they are ready and waiting to send in supplies once they have taken Hodeidah. That sounds good, but last year Saudi Arabia even banned chlorine tablets being sent to Yemen though it was suffering from a cholera epidemic in which, according to the World Health Organisation, 500,000 people have been infected and 2,000 children have died. The epidemic started because the Saudi-led coalition had bombed the main electric power station and not enough fuel was getting through to keep the sewage and water purification plants working.

Even if Hodeidah falls, the Saudi and Emirati-backed Yemeni forces will be unable to fight their way into the rugged highlands of Yemen where the terrain favours the defender.

Pretensions of humanitarian concern from Yemen by the US, Britain and France reek of hypocrisy, shedding copious tears for the victims of war while supplying the arms and advisers with which that war is being waged. The largely ineffective Houthi missiles fired at Riyadh are furiously denounced, but scarcely a squeak is heard about the relentless bombing of Sanaa and every other population centre in the country. The US and Britain opposed a demand by Sweden at the UN Security Council on Thursday that Saudi Arabia and UAE declare an immediate ceasefire. Some cynics suspect that the Saudi-UAE offensive is timed to sink peace efforts by the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths whereby the Houthis would withdraw from Hodeidah and the UN would take over the port city.

Calling for a political settlement, as Britain has done, sounds better than calling for more war, but the outcome will be much the same so long as Saudi Arabia and UAE try to gain through diplomacy what they have failed to win on the battlefield over the last three years. If the Houthis do not withdraw, then the Saudi-led coalition is likely to rely on bombing to batter their way in. The city will end up looking like Raqqa, West Mosul or East Aleppo where ground troops act as a mopping up force after airstrikes have obliterated everything in front of them. It is only when the US, Britain and France begin to exact a political price from Saudi Arabia and UAE for continuing their disastrous foreign venture in Yemen that the end of the war will be in sight.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia, Yemen 
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​Turkish-backed jihadi militiamen, who seized the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria earlier this year, have put up posters carrying instructions about obedience to sharia law beside the outline of a woman wearing a full niqab – a black garment shrouding the body and face.

The posters sparked angry street protests by Kurds, who are mostly Muslim but have a secular tradition and have remained in Afrin since the invasion by the Turkish army and Syrian militiamen, often members of jihadi groups, of which Isis and al-Qaeda are more extreme examples.

The posters were taken down after a few days by Turkish military police, but are only the latest sign of pressure on Kurdish women by the jihadis to accept second-class status and to wear the hijab (headscarf) or the niqab.

Gulistan, 46, a teacher from Afrin, told The Independent that the aim of what she described as “the wearing-the-hijab campaign” is to force women to stay in their homes and not to take part in public life as Kurdish women have traditionally been able to do.

“Just because I wear jeans, I always hear words such as ‘whore, disbeliever, dogs of Assad and the Shia’ from strangers in the street,” she says.

“A group of women held protest vigils to demand the removal of the posters,” she adds, explaining that the wearing of the niqab is a social rather than a religious custom and not one that is part of Kurdish tradition.

The demand that Kurdish women, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, wear the hijab or niqab comes from Arab militiamen and from settlers with similar fundamentalist Islamic beliefs who have been forced out of eastern Ghouta by a Syrian government offensive.

Reported to number 35,000, they have taken over Kurdish-owned houses and land abandoned by some 150,000 Kurds who fled the Turkish invasion that began on 20 January and ended with the capture of Afrin city on 18 March.

The United Nations says an estimated 143,000 Kurds remain in the enclave.

Bave Misto, 65, a farmer from the town of Bulbul, north of Afrin city, confirms that Kurds are under pressure to abandon secular practices.

His family is one of less than 100 Kurdish families who remain in Bulbul, compared to 600 before the invasion.

He says only older people are being allowed to return to their homes and that Arab militiamen, who say they belong to the Free Syrian Army, are barring young men and women from doing so.

Mr Misto says the militiamen are calling on the Kurdish inhabitants of Bulbul to attend mosque, and Arab families displaced from Damascus and Idlib are praying there to five times a day and are “asking our women to put on the hijab”.

He was told by one of his new neighbours, Abu Mohammad from eastern Ghouta, to get his wife to wear the hijab, saying: “It is better for this life and the afterlife.”

Many Kurds in Afrin suspect that the enforcement of fundamentalist Islamic social norms on secular Kurds is intended to encourage the ethnic cleansing of Kurds from Afrin.

During the invasion, several Arab militia units filmed themselves chanting sectarian anti-Kurdish slogans commonly used by Isis and al-Qaeda.

Kurds in Afrin face extreme difficulties in making a living.

Mr Misto owns a small field on the outskirts of Bulbul, in which there are olive and cherry trees, but when he tried to enter it he was told by Arab militiamen that it was full of mines planted by the PKK (the Turkish Kurd organisation, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), though he was sceptical of this because the militiamen were grazing cattle there.

Mr Misto was able to recover his house from an Arab family who had taken it over with the help of local police, headed by a Turk.

This may be an indication of divisions between different parts of the Free Syrian Army, which is an umbrella organisation, about how to treat the Kurds and whether or not to confiscate their property.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reports that Ahrar al-Sham, a jihadi movement closely allied to Turkey, has evicted at gunpoint seven families of displaced people from eastern Ghouta, who had been living in houses in Afrin, because they insisted on paying rent to the Kurdish owners.

The displaced people from Ghouta, who were brought in convoys to Afrin, said that they themselves had been dispossessed of their homes by the Syrian government, but did not think it right to take the homes of others.

SOHR says that Ahrar al-Sham has threatened to imprison the evacuees from e astern Ghouta if they return to the houses they had rented, on the charge of “dealing with Kurdish forces”.

Although there is sporadic guerrilla warfare waged by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Afrin, it is unlikely that the demographic changes that followed the Turkish invasion will be reversed.

Gulistan says that life for Kurds who have stayed in the enclave is chronically insecure because they are at the mercy of groups such as Ahrar al-Sham.

She says that her uncle owns a grocery store but this is heavily taxed by the militias, who often take goods without paying for them.

When he appealed to the police, the militiamen then mistreated him even more.

She says one of her neighbours was kidnapped three weeks ago and his wife and brother received a demand for $50,000 in ransom for his release.

SOHR confirms that there is widespread looting and fighting between militia factions, and that one Kurdish official has been tortured to death.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Islam, Kurds, Syria 
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My late friend Christopher Hitchens once told me that his American friends often expressed surprise at the number of articles and books he was able to produce. He said that there was a simple reason for his high productivity, which was: “I never watch television.”

He was definitely telling the truth about this, since the only television in his apartment in Washington was in the spare bedroom where I was staying and it did not work.

Christopher was right to believe that time spent watching television was time largely wasted, or could be spent more usefully in some other activity. Television supplies less information, and at a slower speed, than newspapers, books or radio.

The internet is more efficient, speedy and weakens state and elite monopolies over news and knowledge. Misused it may be to spread misinformation and propaganda, but the internet remains the most democratic instrument of communication to emerge since the invention of printing.

The strength of the internet is that it supplies infinite quantities of information. But this is also its weakness, because this great torrent of data makes it difficult to distinguish facts that are significant from those that are trivial or meaningless. Emails, for instance, make it easy to communicate information in any quantity, but are less good at promoting discussion and explanation.

The sending and receiving of emails can become as big a waste of time as television ever was. I often have prolonged and inconclusive email exchanges over a period of days or weeks on a matter that could have been dealt with in 10 minutes by a short conversation on the phone.

Once I came near to cancelling a weekend book tour to Barcelona because I could not face another email from the efficient and energetic organisers of the event. When I printed their messages out, they covered 25 pages. Fortunately, everything was put right in the end by a short talk on the phone, which should have taken place weeks earlier.

Soon afterwards, I gave a lecture at a university in the UK which was reasonably well attended, but I pointed out politely to the people in charge that there might have been more people present if they had advertised the topic on which I was speaking.

“But you never sent it to us,” they replied defensively. I knew I had done so, and later found my email giving the title of my lecture, which my hosts had understandably missed, about half way through our lengthy exchange of messages.

The obvious reason for this plague of emails – along every other sort of internet communication – is that they are too easy to send. At a deeper level, their frequency and length may be fuelled by a natural human tendency to be over-impressed by the amount of information supplied and believe instinctively that, if there is a lot of it and it is in great detail, then it is more likely to be true. In practice, the opposite is usually the case.

In the 1990s, I used to interview Iraqis who claimed to have escaped from Iraq and to have secret information about the inner workings of Saddam Hussein’s regime and his weapons of mass destruction.

My heart used to sink as they produced more and more uncheckable detail, which they assumed would add to their credibility, but made me ever more convinced that they were making the whole thing up.

Politicians and security forces have been traditionally prone to believe that accumulating mountains of data will enable them to influence or monitor whole populations. Their critics buy into the idea that the internet has vastly increased the amount of information about people that can be garnered from their online activities.

Part of Cambridge Analytica’s pitch to its clients was to claim that, once its computers had harvested information about millions of voters, it could identify and target those most likely to support a particular party or politician.

In practice, this data-driven approach never worked and campaigns that relied on it, like Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2016, have usually ended in failure.

Security agencies are likewise vulnerable to a similar myth – in which they themselves may not believe – that trying to identify all potential “terrorists” will make the country safer.

The Prevent programme, which aims to detect potential Islamic jihadis before they act, has proved useless or counter-effective for many reasons, but a main one is that by trying to turn everybody into an informer the authorities produce a deluge of dubious information.

This clogs up the system and leaves those who were truly dangerous, like the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi, to slip through a net that has been spread too wide and has too many holes.

People have always had an exaggerated respect for facts and, thanks to the internet, these are now easily accessible in far greater quantities than ever before. There is a tedious debate about “fake facts”, but this is not really the problem. The fact is, people do not really know what a fact is.

My father Claud Cockburn, a journalist formerly on The Times, once did some damage to his reputation by explaining that facts were not “like pieces of gold ore in the Yukon”, waiting for the prospector to dig them out and give them to the world.

Unlike gold nuggets waiting to be excavated, there are an infinite number of facts in the universe, but these only gain significance and have a meaning because somebody – a journalist, a policeman – decides that they matter, so every fact in the media is the result of the point of view of the person who chose to report them and related them to other facts.

This theory, which became known as the “heresy of the facts”, earned my father some abuse from people who thought he was admitting, as they had long suspected, that journalists make things up.

But many years after he had written about it, I requested his file from MI5, and a year later 26 bulky folders were deposited in the National Archives at Kew. They very much bore out his belief that what mattered most was not the collection of facts, so much as the choice made about which of these were significant and true.

MI5 had been much interested in my father’s activities in the 1930s, when he ran a newsletter similar to Private Eye. The security men had many sources of information, several of them well-informed and accurate (such as his former boss, the bureau chief of The Times in Berlin), but others were conspiracy theorists and crackpots.

One man was convinced that my father was the head of a Comintern sabotage ring in Western Europe, its counterpart in the US being The Time magazine office in New York.

Claud told one woman he had met at dinner (as a joke) that revolution was imminent, and would begin with a mutiny by the Brigade of Guards. She immediately wrote to MI5 in extreme alarm, warning them about the plot.

Looking through the MI5 reports, it becomes clear that their usefulness, like that of the great quantities of information transmitted by the internet, depended entirely on the quality of the person (in this case an MI5 officer) who reviewed them.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: American Media, Internet 
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One of Libya’s many private armies is advancing into the long besieged coastal city of Derna, between Benghazi and the Egyptian border, as violence reaches unprecedented levels, according to the UN.

Heavy ground fighting and widespread destruction of houses by airstrikes and shelling is exacerbating severe shortages of water, food, medicine and electricity.

The assault on Derna, which has a population of 125,000, by the forces of renegade General Khalifa Haftar, known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), is the latest episode in the internecine warfare which has torn Libya apart since the NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

A spokesman for the LNA said on Tuesday that their forces had captured 75 per cent of Derna city.

Gen Haftar is one of the most powerful of the many players in Libya, controlling most of the east of the country after capturing Benghazi last year. With two different governments based respectively in Tripoli and Tobruk, each with shaky authority, it is unlikely that any single actor in Libya can win a decisive victory.

Residents of Derna say that LNA fighters are arresting local people in their houses and at checkpoints. Photographs show military vehicles advancing through empty streets past burned out buildings.

In a speech broadcast on the LNA’s social media pages, Gen Haftar says that “the hour of victory is approaching, as is the announcement that the city of Derna is free of terrorism”.

The UN Support Mission in Libya, UNSMIL, has urged restraint on all sides, and called for parties to ensure “unimpeded humanitarian access and facilitate the safe exit of civilians wishing to leave the city”.

Though Derna has been loosely besieged since July 2017, the fighting abruptly escalated on 16 May when the LNA began its attack on the Derna Protection Forces, an alliance of Islamists and anti-Haftar fighters. Egypt, which backs Gen Haftar, has also launched aerial attacks on the city.

The intensification of the fighting has overshadowed a meeting in Paris last week of Libyan leaders, organised by President Emmanuel Macron, which sought to restore peace and arrange presidential and parliamentary elections for December.

But there are strong doubts that meaningful elections could be held in Libya because power is so fragmented and is primarily held by local leaders whose influence is based on a single city or tribe or a mixture of the two.

Derna is only one of the places in Libya where rival factions have been fighting each other over the last month.

Figures for civilian casualties in May, compiled by UNSMIL in Libya, show 101 dead and wounded in all parts of the country during the month, not counting combatants.

The casualties include 12 men and a woman killed in Tripoli on 2 May when Isis launched an attack with guns and explosives on the Higher National Election Committee.

In the oasis city of Sabha, 400 miles south of the capital, fighting between the Awlad Suleiman and Tebu tribal forces killed at least 10 civilians who fell victim to sniper fire or mortars fired into densely populated areas of the city.

In Benghazi, captured by the LNA after prolonged fighting which lasted from 2014 to 2017 and left a large part of the city in ruins, there is continuing violence. On 24 May a bomb in a vehicle killed 11 civilians, including a baby girl, in an attack for which nobody claimed responsibility but has the hallmarks of an Isis or al-Qaeda type operation.

On the same day in Bani Walid, south of Tripoli, some 200 Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis escaped from people smugglers who were holding them prisoner. About a dozen of them were shot dead by the smugglers who then tried to recapture them.

In the face of such widespread anarchy in Libya, the chances of Mr Macron’s diplomatic initiative succeeding look slim. There are also doubts among Libyans about French policy being entirely even-handed, in the light of press reports that France has secretly provided Gen Haftar with a reconnaissance aircraft for use in his bid to capture Derna.

Mr Macron’s attempt to mediate between the different parties in Libya may fail to bring an end to the violence, but earlier this year he admitted that the European and the US military intervention to overthrow Gaddafi in 2011 was the cause of the disasters that have since overwhelmed the country.

Those leading the NATO intervention on the side of anti-Gaddafi rebels were France and Britain, closely supported by the US. David Cameron continues to defend his actions in 2011.

“Europe, the United States and a few others indisputably have a responsibility when it comes to the current situation,” Mr Macron said, in an apologetic speech in Tunisia in February.

He said that foreign states could not act as substitute for the sovereignty of a people in the belief that deposing a tyrant would solve all problems. He said that “since then we’ve collectively plunged Libya into anomie (chronic instability), without being able to resolve the situation”.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Libya 
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Air and artillery strikes by the US and its allies inflicted devastating loss of life on civilians in the Isis-held city of Raqqa, according to an Amnesty International report. It contradicts claims by the US, along with Britain and France, that they precisely targeted Isis fighters and positions during the four month siege that destroyed large swathes of the city.

“On the ground in Raqqa we witnessed a level of destruction comparable to anything we have seen in decades of covering the impact of wars,” says Donatella Rovera, a senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty. She says that the coalition’s claim that it had conducted a precision bombing campaign that caused few civilian casualties does not stand up to scrutiny. She quotes a senior US military officer as saying that “more artillery shells were launched into Raqqa than anywhere since the end of the Vietnam war”.

The air and artillery strikes by the US and its allies killed many civilians – the number is unknown because so many bodies are buried under the ruins – during the four-month-long siege, beginning on 6 June and ending on 17 October last year according to the report. Citing the testimony of survivors, it contradicts assertions by the US-led coalition that it took care to avoid targeting buildings where civilians might be present. Witnesses say that again and again their houses were destroyed although there were no Isis fighters in them or nearby.

“Those who stayed died and those who tried to run away died. We couldn’t afford to pay the smugglers: we were trapped,” says Munira Hashish. Her family lost 18 members, of whom nine were killed in a coalition airstrike, seven as they tried to escape down a road mined by Isis, and two were hit by a mortar round, probably fired by an Syrian Democratic Forces unit. She says that she and her children only escaped “by walking over the blood of those who were blown up as they tried to flee ahead of us”.

Many families were hit more than once by airstrikes and artillery as they fled from place to place in Raqqa, vainly trying to avoid being close to the front lines but these were often changing. The Badran family lost 39 members, mostly women and children, as well as 10 neighbours, killed in four different coalition airstrikes. “We thought the forces who came to evict Daesh (Isis) would know their business and would target Daesh and the leave the civilians alone,” said Rasha Badran, one of the survivors. “We were naive.”

Many cities have been destroyed in the wars in Iraq and Syria since 2011, but the destruction is worse in Raqqa than anywhere else. Streets are simply lane-ways cut through heaps of rubble and broken masonry. The few people on the streets are dazed and broken, and this has not changed much in the months since the city was captured from Isis by local ground forces backed up by the devastating firepower of the US-led coalition.

The claim by the coalition that its airstrikes and artillery fire were precisely targeted against Isis fighters and their positions is shown up as a myth as soon as one drives into the city. I visited it earlier in the year and have never seen such destruction. There are districts of Mosul, Damascus and Aleppo that are as bad, but here the whole city has gone.

I went to look at the al-Naeem Roundabout where the spikes on top of metal railings are bent outwards because Isis used them to display the severed heads of people whom it deemed to be its opponents. On every side, as far as the eye can see, there are ruined buildings, some reduced to a mound of rubble while others have been turned into concrete skeletons that look as if they might collapse at any moment.

Given the level of violence in Iraq and Syria, it is difficult to prove that one place is worse than another, but this has now been established with a wealth of evidence in this Amnesty report entitled War of Annihilation: Devastating Toll on Civilians, Raqqa – Syria.

The report, based on 112 interviews and visits to 42 strike locations, was sharply criticised by a coalition spokesman even before it was published. US Army Colonel Sean Ryan was quoted by news agencies as inviting Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK, to “personally witness the rigorous efforts and intelligence gathering the coalition uses before any strike to effectively destroy IS while minimising harm to civilian populations”. Although the report cites the detailed evidence of many surviving witnesses whose family members were killed in airstrikes, Col Ryan says that allegations of indiscriminate and disproportionate bombardment were “more or less hypothetical”.

The reality in Raqqa, despite claims of the precise accuracy of modern weapons and great concern for civilian life, is that the ruins look exactly like pictures of the aftermath of the carpet bombing of cities like Hamburg and Dresden in the Second World War.

US forces fired 100 per cent of the artillery rounds used against Raqqa and over 90 per cent of the airstrikes, but British and French aircraft were also involved. The Ministry of Defence says the UK carried out 275 airstrikes and killed no civilians at all. Despite pledges that civilian loss of life would be thoroughly investigated, Amnesty says there is no sign of this happening.

A consequence of the assertion by the coalition that they seldom harmed civilians, there has been little humanitarian support for people returning to Raqqa. Aid agencies say that one problem is finding a safe place where there no unexploded munitions or mines where they can distribute provisions. The report says that many residents ask: “Why those, who spent so much on a costly military campaign which destroyed the city, are not providing the relief so desperately needed.”

An MoD spokesman said: “Keeping Britain safe from the threat of terrorism is the objective of this campaign and throughout we have been open and transparent, detailing each of our nearly 1,700 strikes, facilitating operational briefings and confirming when a civilian casualty had taken place.

“We do everything we can to minimise the risk to civilian life through our rigorous targeting processes and the professionalism of the RAF crews but, given the ruthless and inhuman behaviour of Daesh, and the congested, complex urban environment in which we operate, we must accept that the risk of inadvertent civilian casualties is ever present.”

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, ISIS, Syria 
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The faked assassination of Arkady Babchenko is a bizarre affair which has intriguing features similar to the murder of another journalist in Ukraine 18 years ago. The difference is that this previous killing was all too real, but in both cases the Ukrainian government and its security services showed the same weird capacity to discredit themselves by engaging in ill-conceived plots always likely to do them more harm than good.

The first of these scandals, which rapidly developed into a political crisis, began in November 2000 when a headless body was found by villagers in a wood on the outskirts of Kiev. The authorities were slow in identifying the corpse, but it seemed likely to be that of Georgiy Gongadze, the editor of an online paper called Ukraina Pravda that specialised in investigating official corruption.

Gongadze had disappeared on 16 September after dining with a friend and was last seen alive buying cat food in a shop on his way home. From the beginning, his friends suspected that his disappearance had been arranged by the security services of Leonid Kuchma, the Ukrainian president who was known to resent any criticism of his corrupt and authoritarian rule.

Even after the discovery of the decapitated body, it appeared unlikely that responsibility for the murder could ever be pinned on anybody in power. But this changed when Alexander Moroz, the well-regarded leader of the socialist opposition party in the Ukrainian parliament, revealed that he had been given a tape recording of Kuchma, his chief of staff and the interior minister in which they are heard denouncing Gongadze and discuss ways of silencing him, such as having him kidnapped by Chechen gangsters.

It looked likely that the leaders had concluded that the simplest way of dealing with Gongadze was to kill him. What they did not know was that their conversations were being recorded on a tape recorder installed by an officer called Mykola Melnichenko who belonged to the Ukrainian SBU security service – the successor to the KGB. He was singularly well placed to bug because he was in charge of making sure that the presidential offices were not being monitored by listening devices. He placed a tape recorder under the presidential sofa and changed the tapes every day.

The senior officials tried to discredit the evidence that they had ordered Gongadze’s abduction and murder by a special squad of security men. They claimed that the voices were not theirs or the tape recordings were fabricated, though they had been authenticated by experts. The police investigation went on at a snail’s pace, keen not to identify the body or allow anybody else to do so.

By this time international interest was aroused and foreign journalists like myself were arriving in Kiev. I met a friend of Gongadze called Alyona Prytula, who worked with him on his magazine and told me that he had shrapnel wounds which he had received when reporting fighting in Georgia. She had seen the body and said that “the corpse had shrapnel in it in the same places he did.” It was already becoming clear that the decision to kill Gongadze had come from the top, but all of those involved spent years trying to shift the blame onto each other.

What fascinated me at the time was the way in which Kuchma and his chief lieutenants had become obsessed with Gongadze, though his magazine had limited influence and posed no real threat to them. They could well have left him alone. Yet the tape recordings show that these men who were running the second largest country in Europe with a population of 50 million had repeatedly discussed how to eliminate this brave, but not very important, critic.

The self-destructive idiocy of the conspiracy has much in common with the faked murder of Babchenko earlier this week. It should have been obvious to Kuchma and his underlings that Gongadze dead could be a lot more dangerous to them than Gongadze alive. It should likewise have been blindingly clear to the densest Ukrainian security chief that fabricating the assassination of Babchenko and lying about it to everybody would permanently discredit whatever the Ukrainian government says in future. The claim that the scheme had a precedent in a fictional investigation by Sherlock Holmes was scarcely likely to improve their credibility.

To be fair, the Ukrainian SBU is not the only security service that has a fondness for crackpot schemes which will do them little good if they work, but will have disastrous consequences if anything goes wrong. Remember how the French foreign intelligence service attached limpet mines to the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour in New Zealand in 1985. This lunatic scheme, approved at the highest levels, sank the ship and killed one of those on board, all in order to prevent the minor irritant of Greenpeace protesting against a French nuclear test in the Pacific.

Intelligence services everywhere seem to attract crackpots with poor judgement who are dangerously detached from reality and revel in cunning plots. Because they can claim that secrecy is essential for their operations, they are not held to account and their failures are well hidden. In Britain in particular the skills and professionalism of MI5 and MI6 are lauded in awed tones by government ministers. But the outcome of British military intervention since 2003 shows the intelligence agencies have repeatedly failed to assess the risks correctly. In the Iraq war, trust was placed in the most patent conmen who claimed intimate knowledge of Saddam Hussein’s regime and its non-existent WMD programme.

Politicians and intelligence agencies are easily pilloried for their failures in recent wars and crises, but the media generally gives itself a free pass. Governments lied or were misinformed about Saddam being a threat to the world, but why did journalists allow themselves to be so easily spoon-fed with official propaganda? This self-serving naiveté skewed reporting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria and was very visible once again in the reporting of the Babchenko affair. There was a knee-jerk belief that Vladimir Putin must be responsible for any killing of a critic of Russia, even when all the evidence for this is being provided by a government hostile to Russia.

I have always found that Ukraine and Russia operate in much the same way, both drawing on their traditions of authoritarianism, violence, corruption and criminality.

There is something absurd about journalists and news organisations complaining that they had been misled by the Ukrainian SBU. Why should it have suddenly developed such an interest in the safety of journalists, except as useful counters in the renewed Cold War between Russia and the West? Pity the Ukrainian journalists who enjoy no such protection. According to the Ukrainian National Union of Journalists, there were 90 assaults on journalists last year and nobody was punished in a single case.

Those hoodwinked by Ukrainian security services about the non-death of Babchenko have only themselves to blame for relying on such a partisan source. As the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists points out: “Given the SBU is an intelligence agency, which engages in deception, obfuscation, and propaganda, determining the truth will be very difficult.”

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Russia, Ukraine 
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The culpability of the British government and its intelligence agencies in enabling suicide bomber Salman Abedi to blow himself up at a pop concert in Manchester is being masked one year later by the mood of grief and mourning over the death and injury of so many people.

It is heartrending to hear injured children and the relatives of the dead say they do not hate anybody as a result of their terrible experiences and, if they feel anger at all, it is only directed towards the bomber himself. Victims repeatedly say that they did not want the slaughter at the Manchester Arena to be used to create divisions in their city.

The downside of this praiseworthy attitude is that it unintentionally lets off the hook those British authorities whose flawed policies and mistaken actions really did pave the way towards this atrocity. Appeals against divisiveness and emphasis on the courage of survivors have muted attacks on the government, enabling it to accuse those who criticise it of mitigating the sole guilt of Abedi.

This attitude is highly convenient for former prime minister David Cameron who decided in 2011 on military intervention against Muammar Gaddafi. His purported aim was humanitarian concern for the people of Benghazi, but – as a devastatingly critical report by the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs said last year – this swiftly turned into “an opportunistic policy of regime change”.

The military intervention succeeded and by the end of the year Gaddafi was dead. Real power in Libya passed to Islamist militias, including those with which the Abedi family were already associated. Pictures show Salman’s brothers posing with guns in their hands. Libya was plunged into an endless civil war and Benghazi, whose people Cameron and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy were so keen to save, is today a sea of ruins. Inevitably, Isis took advantage of the anarchy in Libya to spread its murderous influence.

This is the Libyan reality which was created by Cameron and Sarkozy, with sceptical support from Barack Obama, the then US president, who famously referred to the Libyan debacle as a “shit show”.

Libya became a place where the Abedi family, returning from their long exile in Manchester, were able put their militant Islamist beliefs into practice. They absorbed the toxic variant of Islam espoused by the al-Qaeda clones, taking advantage of their military experience honed in the Iraq war, such as how to construct a bomb studded with pieces of metal designed to tear holes in human flesh. The bomb materials were easily available in countries like Britain.

Salman Abedi was responsible for what he did, but he could not have killed 22 people and maimed another 139 others, half of them children, if the British government had not acted as it did in Libya in 2011. And its responsibility goes well beyond its disastrous policy of joining the Libyan civil war, overthrowing Gaddafi and replacing him with warring tribes and militias.

Manchester had since the 1990s become a centre for a small but dangerous group of exiled Libyans belonging to anti-Gaddafi groups, such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, originally formed by Libyans fighting the communists in Afghanistan. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, strict measures were taken by MI5 and the police against Libyans thought likely to sympathise with al-Qaeda in Iraq and, later, Isis. They were subject to counter-terrorism control orders monitoring and restricting their movements and often had their passports confiscated.

But no sooner had Britain joined the war against Gaddafi than these suspected terrorists became useful allies. Their control-orders were lifted, their passports returned and they were told that the British government had no problem with them going to Libya to fight against Gaddafi. In place of past restrictions, they were allowed to pass to and fro at British airports. Some militants are reported as saying that when they had problems with counter-terrorism police when flying to Libya, the MI5 officers with whom they were in touch were willing to vouch for them and ease their way to the battlefront in Libya, where MI6 was cooperating with Qatar and UAE as financiers of the armed opposition.

This opportunistic alliance between the British security services and Libyan Salafi-jihadis may explain why Salman Abedi, though by now high up on the list of potential terrorists, was able to fly back to Manchester from Libya unimpeded a few days before he blew himself up.

There should be far more public and media outrage about the British government’s role in the destruction of Libya, especially its tolerance of dangerous Islamists living in Britain to pursue its foreign policy ends. The damaging facts about what happened are now well established thanks to parliamentary scrutiny and journalistic investigation.

The official justification for British military intervention in Libya is that it was to prevent the massacre of civilians in Benghazi by Gaddafi’s advancing forces. The reason for expecting this would happen was a sanguinary speech by Gaddafi which might mean that he intended to kill them all. David Cameron, along with Liam Fox as defence minister at the time and William Hague as foreign secretary, have wisely stuck with this explanation and, as a defence of their actions, they are probably right to do so. But a report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee says that the belief that Gaddafi would “massacre the civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence”. It points out that he had retaken other towns from the rebels and not attacked the civilian population.

The British followed the French lead in military intervention and Sarkozy similarly justified his policy as being in defence of the people of Benghazi. We are a little better informed about the real French motives thanks to a report, revealed through the Freedom of Information Act, made in early 2011 by Sidney Blumenthal, an unofficial advisor to Hillary Clinton, the then US secretary of state, after a meeting he had had with French intelligence officials about Sarkozy’s motives for intervention.

The officials told Blumenthal that Sarkozy’s plans were driven by five main causes, the first being “a desire to gain a greater share of Libya oil production” and the next being to increase French influence in North Africa. His other aims were to improve his own political standing in France, enable the French military to reassert their position in the world, and prevent Gaddafi supplanting France as the dominant power in Francophone Africa.

The intelligence officials make no mention of any concern on the part of Sarkozy for the safety of the Libyan people. Conceivably Cameron, Hague and Fox had much purer and more altruistic motives than their French counterparts. But it is more likely that the aim was always regime change in the national interest of those foreign powers who brought it about.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Islamism, Libya, Terrorism 
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The Palestinian issue is back on the international agenda more than at any time over the last 15 years. If the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was intended to demonstrate that the Palestinians were powerless and there was nothing they could do about it, then it has failed.

The embassy move, signalling that the US has abandoned even its previous modest restraint on Israeli actions, had exactly the opposite effect to the one intended. The protesting Palestinians and not the celebrating Israelis and Americans became the central feature of the event. Television split screens showed what looked like a Trump campaign rally in Jerusalem side by side with Israeli soldiers shooting dead 62 Palestinians and wounding a further 1,360 in Gaza.

Israeli claims that they were defending the fence that surrounds Gaza from an attack by Hamas activists armed with stones and kites were contradicted both by the television pictures and the lack of any Israeli casualties.

But such international outrage will dissipate, as it has in the past in Gaza when Israeli forces killed Palestinians in large numbers. The most important question now is how far the “Great March of Return” of Palestinian refugees from 1948, which has just ended, was a one-off event or the beginning of a campaign of Palestinian civil disobedience. If it is the latter, then we are at the start of what an Israeli paper described as “the first act of the Trump Intifada”.

Israel, the US and Egypt have an interest in containing the aftermath of the killings on 14 May. Minor concessions easing the blockade of Gaza, which is similar to a medieval siege, were reportedly offered to Hamas by Israel, if the Islamic group would call off the protest. Egypt has announced that it will open its crossing with Gaza for Ramadan, which has just begun.

Other gains for the Palestinians, aside from temporarily putting their fate back on the political and media map, include focusing attention on the miserable conditions of the 1.9 million people living in Gaza, who are “caged in a toxic slum” according to the UN Human Rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein.

But greater visibility of their miseries does not mean that much will be done to improve matters. The balance of forces is too skewed away from the Palestinians and towards the Israelis for the latter not to feel that they can act with impunity.

The Israeli government may not like the bad publicity it has been getting, but it can cope with it so long as it does not go on too long. Daniel Levy, a former Israeli diplomat, peace negotiator and president of the US/Middle East Project, says that if Palestinian protests are not “sustained over time, which means ongoing casualties, and broadened geographically beyond Gaza to include the West Bank, Jerusalem and Israel, then the Israeli government can ride this out”. He adds that even then, if the demonstrators are to have an effect, they would have to remain unarmed and non-violent.

In the past civil disobedience has produced some benefits for the Palestinians: the First Intifada in 1987 led to the Oslo Accords and the much more violent Second Intifada in 2000 led to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza three years later.

But it is doubtful if Palestinian leaders are capable of pursuing such a course themselves or allowing civil activists to do so. The leadership is divided between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, long locked in rancorous rivalry. The PA, in particular, is a moribund political organisation, frightened that protesters might turn against it or provoke Israeli retaliation.

Palestinian leadership has always resembled that of the Arab dictators and has always been incapable of mobilising their people. Israel may have done everything to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state, but, even without Israeli repression, this was hobbled by corrupt and incompetent elites, monopolising power and suppressing dissent.

Israel is apparently at the height of its power with carte blanche from the White House to do what it wants. The US blamed Hamas for the Palestinian casualties in Gaza without a word of criticism for Israel. Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE give priority to allying themselves to the US against Iran and are dismissive of the Palestinians’ plight.

But such total endorsement of Israel by the US may not be in the long-term interests of Israel. The embrace of Israel by Trump, the Republicans and Christian Evangelicals alienates Democrats, though this may not count for much. Perhaps more important, American Jews were shocked to see pastors whom they identified as antisemitic bigots playing a leading role in the opening of the US embassy.

Lack of any US restraint is attractive to Israel’s right-wing government, but it will not necessarily do Israelis a lot of good. Israeli governments tend to be overconfident and are prone to overplaying their hand. Their invasion of Lebanon in 1982 turned into an unsuccessful 18-year-long war. A US government purporting to act as mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, though wholly in Israel’s corner, was arguably more useful to Israel than the US when it makes no such pretence. Arab states may today say positive things about Israel, but their previous opposition was largely rhetorical.

For Israel, there are two dangers stemming from Trump: Israel has always wanted to be close to US leaders, but it has never dealt with one as arbitrary, ill-advised and self-willed as this president. Netanyahu has traditionally been cautious when it comes to fighting real wars, though he is always happy to threaten to do so unless he gets what he wants. With Trump in the White House, he may feel that Israel will never be so well placed again and this is the moment to establish facts on the map.

A more serious weakness in Israel’s strategic position in the Middle East is likely to be worsened by uncritical support from Washington. There are 6.5 million Israeli Jews and a similar number of Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. All the Palestinians living in Gaza, West Bank, East Jerusalem and Israel are under some form of Israeli control.

It is a situation that guarantees permanent crisis. Israel has the choice of expelling the Palestinians, subjugating them permanently or trying to find some means of coexisting with them. Mass expulsion is not feasible at this time and a deal on coexistence is unlikely, which leaves permanent repression as the only option.

It may be that the protests in Gaza that led to so many people being killed will not turn into a more widespread, non-violent civil disobedience.

But neither can Israel turn its superiority of force – and even its close alliance with Trump – into a permanent victory, because, whatever it does, the Palestinians will still be there.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Israel, Israel/Palestine 
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Muqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist populist Shia cleric, has once again defied predictions as the coalition he leads outperformed rival parties in the parliamentary election on 12 May. His supporters successfully campaigned for social and political reform and against a corrupt and dysfunctional political establishment.

It was the latest surprise in the career of a man who barely survived the murder of his father, the revered Shia religious leader Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, and his two brothers, on the orders of Saddam Hussein in 1999.

Four years later, after the US invasion of Iraq, he was in danger of being killed once again, this time by American forces who twice besieged him in the holy city of Najaf in 2004.

Mr Sadr will be very much the king-maker – though he will have no official position – in the formation of a new Iraqi government.

His coalition, which includes the Iraqi Communist Party, independents and secularists as well as his religious followers, appealed strongly to Iraqis who feel that, with the war won against Isis, they need to rebuild their country.

The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hoped to win the election – though no party was ever likely to win an absolute majority – by appealing to voters as the leader who recaptured Mosul from Isis last year.

He followed this up with a largely bloodless reoccupation of Kirkuk, held by the Kurds since 2003, and the restoration of a large measure of government authority in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The political movement formed out of the largely Shia paramilitaries, the Hashd al-Shaabi, which came second in the polls, had, like Mr Abadi, hoped to win more votes through their role in the war against Isis.

But the drop in violence to a level not seen since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein means that Iraqis are focusing on the theft by the political elite of hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenues that should have been used to improve the supply of water, electricity, waste disposal as well medical care and education.

Mr Sadr has been frequently underestimated as a political leader since he first emerged from house arrest in Najaf at the time of the US invasion.

He was described by the western media as a ‘maverick’ or ‘firebrand cleric’, but his views were always more sophisticated and flexible than he was given credit for.

The origin of Mr Sadr’s influence was his family’s role as religious leaders and the martyrdom of many of them, beginning with the execution of Mohammed Baqr al-Sadr in 1980.

His father led a movement that appealed to the Shia poor of Baghdad and southern Iraq, combining religious revivalism with social and political radicalism. From the start, Sadrism had a strong element of Iraqi nationalism in opposition to all foreign interference in Iraq, be it American, British or Iranian.

In an interview with The Independent in Najaf in 2013 – the first he had given face-to-face to a Western journalist for 10 years – Mr Sadr spoke graphically of the ill-effects of Iraq inviting in different foreign powers to try to solve its problems.

He compared this to “somebody who found a mouse in his house, then he kept a cat, then he wanted to get the cat out of the house so he kept a dog, then to get the dog out of his house he bought an elephant, so he bought a mouse.”

Mr Sadr created the Shia paramilitary Mehdi Army to resist the Americans. He was later to stand this down during the Sunni-Shia sectarian mass killings of 2006-7, saying that it had been infiltrated by people not under his control.

He was denounced by the US as a pro-Iranian proxy, but he has made clear over the years that he opposes Iranian interference as well as that of other countries.

The Sadrist success in the election this month will be unwelcome in both Washington and Tehran.

The US had done everything it could to back Mr Abadi as a victorious war leader and a sort of Iraqi Winston Churchill – forgetting, perhaps, that Churchill lost the British general election in 1945.

Mr Sadr’s influence over an incoming government in Baghdad puts in doubt the future of the 10,000 American troops and military contractors in Iraq, though a Sadrist spokesman said after the election that US training and the weapons procurement from the US could continue.

Iran, for its part, has close links with the Hashd al-Shaabi and the group led by the former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and will be wary of Mr Sadr’s Iraqi nationalism.

Mr Maliki stays in power until the formation of a new government, which he may lead in an alliance with the Sadrists.

Mr Sadr is perceptive about political developments in Iraq. When I interviewed him five years ago he warned against Sunni-Shia sectarianism and foreign interference. He said that ‘the Iraqi people will disintegrate, its government will disintegrate and it will be easy for foreign powers to control the country.” This prediction was to be fulfilled six months later when Isis took Mosul and the Iraqi army broke up.

Mr Sadr said that sectarianism was spreading at street level and “if it spreads among the people, it will be difficult to fight”.

Iraqi politics is still largely based on sectarian or ethnic identity – Shia, Sunni and Kurd – but the religious parties that were in the ascendant after 2003 have discredited themselves. The majority Shia community is also more confident, after its military victories last year, that it is firmly in control and is not going to be dispossessed from power.

Mr Sadr said that the problem was that the Iraqi psychology had been shaped by a “constant cycle of violence: Saddam, occupation, war after war, first Gulf war, the second Gulf war, then the occupation war.”

The election this month, in which so many voters gave priority to social rather than security issues, may show that, as violence ebbs, Iraqi are becoming less traumatised.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iran, Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr 
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Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi is ahead in Iraq’s parliamentary election, according to unofficial results, in a poll that has added significance because of the escalating confrontation between the US and Iran.

The surprise of the election so far is the strong showing of the Shia populist nationalist cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who has an electoral alliance with the communists, and is said to be in second place, according to election officials speaking off the record. Full results are expected on Monday.

The voting on 12 May took place under tight security, but without Isis attacks causing mass casualties, a further sign that security in the country is better than at any time since 2003.

Turnout was low, at 45 per cent, the reduced number voting probably explained by a general disillusionment with political parties as corrupt, ineffective and, for the most part, with little to offer during an uninspiring election campaign.

Mr Abadi, who came to office after the Isis seizure of Mosul in 2014, is credited with the recapture of the city after a nine-month siege last year.

This success was closely followed by the Iraqi armed forces moving back into Kirkuk, which had been under the effective control of the Kurds since 2003.

But Mr Abadi leads only one of four or five parties and factions vying for power and none of which will achieve a majority in the new parliament.

Going by past experience, a government will be formed only after prolonged bargaining over senior positions. Although Mr Abadi will be credited by many for his successes against Isis and the Kurds, the improved security has made Iraqis even more conscious of the lack of reconstruction 15 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The provision of water, electricity, housing and transport infrastructure remains very poor, despite the waste or theft of tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues.

The growing importance of social and economic issues helps explain the reported good showing of the followers of Mr Sadr, who come primarily from the Shia poor of Baghdad and southern Iraq.

His alliance with the secular communists, once a powerful political force in Iraq, emphasised his social radicalism as opposed to Shia sectarian allegiance at a time when many Iraqis feel that their religious parties have discredited themselves.

The Sadrists have a core of zealous followers and are well organised and professional in electioneering, suggesting that they may have benefited from a low turnout.

Mr Sadr led the Shia resistance to the US occupation in 2004 in which he was twice besieged in Najaf. He is aided by the high prestige of his family, his father Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr and two of his brothers being assassinated on orders from Saddam Hussein in 1999.

He has, at different times, expressed hostility towards both US and Iranian interference in Iraqi politics, blaming them for fuelling violence and political divisions within the country.

The US and Iran will inevitably play a role in the formation of a new Iraqi government, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia playing a subsidiary role.

Since the First Gulf War of 1991, the US and Iran have been rivals for influence in Iraq, but they have also had some strong interests in common such as opposition to Saddam Hussein and, after his fall, opposition to al-Qaeda and Isis.

Mr Abadi and his predecessor as prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, were only appointed after it was clear they were acceptable to both Washington and Tehran. President Donald Trump’s fierce attacks on Iran and his imposition of sanctions following his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal will make such covert cooperation more difficult.

Iraqi leaders try maintain good relations with Iran and the US and this complicates the formation of a coalition government acceptable to both.

The US will want to limit the influence of Mr Maliki and Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the paramilitary political grouping, as too close to Iran.

Iran, for its part, will seek to retain and expand its influence. The Kurds are much weakened by their political fragmentation, shortage of money and loss of Kirkuk, but they will still play an important role in forming a new government.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iran, Iraq 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.


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