Saturday, May 22, 2004

Trivial Pursuit

Two events -- the attack on a 'wedding party' near the Syrian border and the events swirling around the raid on Ahmed Chalabi's residence -- will provide an interesting backdrop to President Bush's scheduled speech on Monday at the Army War College. The speech is expected to deal with the shape of the transitional government in Iraq, slated to take power on June 30. This report from the Boston Globe hints at the kind of high level horse trading already taking place.

WASHINGTON -- In a sign that a plan for the new Iraqi interim government is beginning to take shape, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told the Italian parliament yesterday that a candidate has been offered a top position in the new Iraqi interim government, but has yet to accept it. ...

With the deadline for a transition to a new Iraqi interim government six weeks away, US officials and Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy responsible for brokering the new government, have been under pressure to come up with a list of interim leaders who are acceptable to a majority of Iraqis.

''We have a lot of work to do now in the next 42 days, roughly," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told a meeting yesterday of representatives from countries that have contributed to the US-led effort in Iraq. ''We have been in constant consultations with Lakhdar Brahimi all through his current stay in Iraq. We think he is getting closer to the designation of individuals who will be in the interim Iraqi government."

Powell also said that the ''slate of officers" Brahimi will designate will be brought to the UN Security Council and to Secretary-General Kofi Annan so that they could ''examine the quality of these individuals."

The 'wedding party' attack has been described by the US as a strike against foreign militants on the Syrian border. This is a code word for the long-running fight between US forces and the Syrians centered around Qusabayah. The policy background to the armed confrontation was given in an Executive Order imposing sanctions on Syria. The text reads in part:

"I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, hereby determine that the actions of the Government of Syria in supporting terrorism, continuing its occupation of Lebanon, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining United States and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States and hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat."

The other event casting a shadow over Monday's address is the raid on Ahmed Chalabi's house. He has now been openly accused of being an Iranian spy, a matter explosive enough, given that America has also been fighting an undeclared war against Iranian agents operating in the Shi'ite south. But Chalabi's arrest has also been linked to the Oil for Food scandal, which is centered around Kofi Annan, the very man Lakhdar Brahimi represents, and who is "examining the quality of individuals" being put forward to lead the Iraqi interim government.

Ahmad Chalabi is in possession of "miles" of documents with the potential to expose politicians, corporations and the United Nations as having connived in a system of kickbacks and false pricing worth billions of pounds. That may have been enough to provoke yesterday's American raid. So explosive are the contents of the files that their publication would cause serious problems for US allies and friendly states around the globe.

Late last year and several months before Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority became involved, Mr Chalabi had amassed enough information concerning corruption in the oil-for-food scandal to realise that he was sitting on explosive material. It was information that would lead to the publication in a Baghdad newspaper in January of a list of 270 businessmen, politicians and corporations, of whom many were alleged to have received money in the form of kickbacks from Saddam's regime. The list published in the newspaper al-Mada included British, Russian and French politicians, among them Benon Savan, who ran the UN's oil-for-food programme.

Some of the contents of the speech President Bush will deliver on Monday are probably already known to insiders. The Las Vegas Sun reported that the President briefed key legislators on Capitol Hill Thursday on the roadmap forward in Iraq. The State Department has been laying the same groundwork with allies overseas.

To exchange ideas about the way forward in Iraq, some three dozen diplomats from coalition nations met at the State Department, where Secretary of State Colin Powell told them, "We have a lot of work to do in the next 42 days." He referred to the June 30 deadline for U.S.-led occupation authorities to hand political power to an as-yet unchosen Iraqi government.

The three metaphorical elephants that will be sitting in the room when President Bush begins his speech on Monday are the unacknowledged belligerence of Syria, Iran and the role the syndicate of corruption centered around the Oil for Food Program plays in shaping postwar Iraq. None of these three forces, which have been vying for influence in post-Saddam Iraq, have been given prominent coverage by the media, which has focused on Abu Ghraib. Yet neither the heavy April fighting, nor the continuing maneuvers against Moqtada al-Sadr nor the brouhaha over Chalabi and most of all the process of selecting the interim government can be understood without them. The shape of the next fifty years in the Middle East will be determined by these hulking, but largely invisible issues while viewers are regaled with the sight of Ba'athists crowned with women's underpants. It will be interesting to see whether President Bush mentions Syria, Iran or the power politics being played through Lakhdar Brahimi at all in his coming speech at the War College, and if he does, how long it will take before the media switch to a replay of the gallery at the 9/11 commission heckling Rudy Giuliani.