Thursday, June 21, 2007

Missing Links

If, like me, you don't read or speak Arabic, then this blog, which provides quotes from, and commentary on, the Arabic press is very useful. I added it to my links recently but made no comment.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Out now!

The paperback edition of Setting the Desert on Fire is published by Bloomsbury today. You can buy it here and read customer reviews of the hardback here.

The book featured among the Daily Telegraph's Pick of the Paperbacks on Saturday and has also recently been added to the reading list for Cambridge University's undergraduate history course: TE Lawrence and Gertrude Bell: Britain and the Arabs 1914-1922. See the full reading list here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Advice from the past

A handy guide from 1942

See this from Andrew Sullivan. The pdf is the thing to read. I disagree on his money quote; I would go for:

"You aren't going to Iraq to change the Iraqis. Just the opposite. We are fighting this war to preserve the principle of 'live and let live.'"

or maybe:

"Iraq has great military importance for its oil fields, with their pipelines to the Mediterranean Sea."

or perhaps, from the conversion table:

"100 Dinars........................................$402.00"

Today 100 Iraqi dinars is worth less than 8 US cents

And finally, the fact that this copy, in a university library in Dallas, Texas, was last borrowed in 1956.

The pamphlet is full of nuggets. Do read it.

The Sunni-Shia split

The Shia Al Askari mosque in Samarra has been bombed again. It looks like another attempt to deepen the black chasm between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country even further.

What is the origin of this divide? The answer lies thirteen hundred years ago.

The Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 AD quickly precipitated a factional dispute over who should follow him as Caliph – a title meaning “the successor”. The murder of the third Caliph, Uthman, opened a schism between the Muslims of Iraq and Syria. When the fourth Caliph, Ali, refused to denounce his predecessor’s killing, a Syrian named Muawiyyah took matters into his own hands and seized the title from Ali; by doing so Muawiyyah became the fifth Caliph; Ali was subsequently murdered.

Ali’s hard-line followers were shocked by their leader’s murder and the speed with which his son Hasan hurried to reach agreement with Muawiyyah. They turned to Ali’s second son, Husein, to front their cause, calling themselves the Shia – short for Shia’t Ali, or the followers of Ali. At Kerbela, southwest of Baghdad, in 681 they were surrounded and massacred by an army loyal to Muawiyyah’s son Yazid, who had by now inherited his father’s mantle.

Thirteen centuries on, processions of Shia flagellants still gorily commemorate the anniversary of Husein’s death. After Mecca and Medina the Iraqi cities of Najaf, where Ali is buried, and Kerbela, where his son Husein met his fate, are the holiest Shia sites in the world. The Shia remain outnumbered by the Sunnis by more than two to one today. The split has its origins in what is now Iraq.

The absence of Alan Johnston

The kidnap of BBC reporter Alan Johnston three months ago, has had an appreciable effect on the BBC's coverage of the developing chaos in the Gaza Strip, which has been building for several days. The BBC started reporting the crisis in detail last night, at least twenty-four hours after most of the events they were describing had happened. There has been a wave of appalling tit-for-tat killings. A commentator on the BBC's excellent World Tonight radio news last night (what a contrast in the amount of information you get compared to the simultaneous television news, where it's always "Back to you Huw") did not believe that this was the beginning of a civil war, but it looks like Fateh will withdraw from the "Unity" government and I fear revenge will take on a momentum of its own, despite the fact that most residents of the Gaza Strip deplore what is going on.

The fighting is fierce enough to prevent the journalists who are still there venturing out into the Gaza Strip but it is hard to believe that, had Mr Johnston not been abducted, the British public would have known rather sooner of the violence that is now drowning the Palestinian state.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Witness in Baghdad

The doughty Saad Eskander's diary for May can be read here. Electricity and water shortages in the Iraqi capital have been making life very difficult as the temperature soars and even Eskander's mood seems to darken by the month. If you haven't got time to read the whole, this excerpt gives a flavour of what life is like:

"one or my library workers approached me, asking if I would grant her one month paid leave, before she submitted a memorandum. After I asked her about the reason, she told me that she suffered from some heart problem. She needs to go abroad to have an operation on her heart, as most Iraqi heart surgeons left the country for fear of kidnapping and killing. So, we have not only political, security, electricity, water and economic crises, but also acute medical crisis. We have not enough good medicine, hospitals and experienced doctors. Only the well-off people can go abroad to receive good medical treatment. The poor has always been paying much heavier price then the others, since the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran War in 1980. The night was as hot as the day. The sky was soon clouded. This what made the situation far worse. The temperature exceeded 42 centigrade. We did have national electricity for two days. We could not take frequent showers, as we have been suffering from water shortages for some time now. I was not able to use my generator for more than four hours, as I had little fuel to cool my very hot flat. The prices of fuel have gone up sharply in the black market, as our 'beloved hero' , the Minister of Oil, failed to put an end to the ongoing fuel crisis. Like all Baghdadis, we escaped to the roof, trying to have some fresh air; but there was not any. High temperature and humidity prevented my son and my wife from sleeping. They slept finally at 4.00, after the weather got a bit cooler."

Monday, June 11, 2007

Beyond the world of Big Brother and Paris Hilton

News that the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, had a close shave when he was rocketed earlier today has finally galvanised me into writing a post I have been planning for ages: a summary of what's been going on in Afghanistan, highlighting the best of the recent press coverage.

The attack on Karzai reflects the country's growing lawlessness, which was highlighted in a report last week in the Independent. It noted a sharp increase in attacks on UN aid trucks and said that the UN's own security assessment showed a severe deterioration in the south of the country. According to the UN, most of the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul and Uruzgan is regarded as "an extreme risk/hostile environment", when last year, the estimate of these areas was that they were "high risk/volatile".

Despite the worsening violence, at this time of year the southern provinces attract men looking for work in harvesting the annual opium poppy crop. This article explains the dilemma itinerant workers face, while this piece reports collusion between the farmers, Taliban and the local police to share the wealth created by the crop.

In the meantime there is a new genre of article on Afghanistan, familiar to anyone following news coverage in Iraq: the article pointing to Iranian involvement. The BBC currently offers two examples. One report says that Iran is exerting increasing influence in the country ; another reports that a "sophisticated bomb" has been found on the streets of Kabul: interestingly, it does not say when. According to the article, this device's similarity to weapons used in Iraq suggests that there is a technology transfer going on between the two war-torn countries and, the author continues, citing unnamed sources, is evidence of Iranian interference in the country's insurgency. Bombmaking experts - one of whom I met a few weeks ago - say that "shaped charge" bombs are nothing new. They certainly are not proof of Iranian involvement.

An interesting article by a former Indian diplomat in the Asia Times suggested a political decision which may help explain the deterioration in the situation in Afghanistan. MK Bhadrakumar charts the decline to the decision at the end of last year by the Afghan Parliament to grant an amnesty to any Afghan involved in any war crime during the past twenty five years. "At a single stroke", he believes, "the December 31 amnesty move deprived the US of the one weapon that it wielded for blackmailing the 'warlords' into submission - powerful leaders of the Northern Alliance groups, the mujhideen field commanders, and petty local thugs alike. The prospect of a war-crime tribunal was held like a Damocles' sword over any recalcitrant Afghan political personality". The Afghans' decision reflects their own belief that the United States government no longer has the willingness to stay the course in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and once they go, dialogue with the Taliban will be necessary.

The parliamentary decision undermines the apparent progress the British are making in the south of Afghanistan. The British have been trying to provide enough stability to enable the renovation of the hydro-electric powerplant at the Kajaki dam in the north of Helmand province, a project designed to win over local support by restoring electricity, but to do so successfully they have to pacify the area between the dam and the regional capital Lashkar Gah, along the Helmand valley, which forms the main artery of communications and the major opium poppy growing district. Since the Taliban feed off the revenue that the poppy crop generates, the towns along the river, including Gereskh and Sangin have been fiercely fought over.

There has been some evidence that the British are making headway. First came the killing of the one-legged Taliban leader, Mullah Dadullah, a brilliant operation that took advantage of a botched hostage swap in which the Taliban were induced to exchange an Italian journalist they had kidnapped for a number of their captured colleagues. One of these prisoners was Dadullah's brother, who was followed on his release by British special forces to Dadullah himself. The swap, which was heavily criticised, itself sheds light on the new dynamic in Afghanistan identified by Bhadrakumar. Then came came a new British offensive to take control of Sangin, one of the major opium markets in the region. This operation was extensively reported in the Daily Telegraph. The article contains a sentiment echoed in another Times piece today, that the soldiers in Afghanistan feel that their efforts are barely being recognised, beyond sporadic reports of the rising British death toll. "There is a lot of hard graft and sacrifice. It means a lot to the blokes for their exploits to be recognised in a world fixated by Big Brother and Paris Hilton", says a British officer quoted in the Telegraph.

The method and the result of the British offensive are reported by Reuters. Whether the peace will hold remains to be seen.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Hay fever

Railway carriage, near Toweira station, Hijaz Railway
So the weather forecast isn't great but I am eagerly looking forward to my weekend trip to Hay-on-Wye, where I am speaking at the Festival at nine o'clock on Sunday morning, hail, rain or shine.

There will be slides - both pictures familiar if you've seen or read my book - and photographs like the one above that I took in the Hijaz mountains on the railway while doing my research in the Middle East. And there will be time for questions and ideas too.