Perilous times

Editor's note: While many pundits paint Middle Eastern conflicts in broad strokes, University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole, on his blog Informed Comment, is more of a pointillist, offering analysis steeped in detail. This piece, which examines how the fighting in Lebanon could affect the U.S. position in Iraq, is a prime example of the importance he places on nuances that others often overlook.


The U.S. punditocracy and ruling elite is fixated on Hizbullah as a "terrorist group" even though the organization hasn't engaged in international terror against American civilians in many years. What they forget about Hizbullah is that it is also a Shiite religious party, and that that is how it is perceived for the most part by Iraqi Shiites. Some 45 percent of Lebanese are probably Shiites.

The other thing to remember is that the United States is now a Shiite power in part, insofar as it semi-rules a Shiite-majority country, Iraq.

The Associated Press last week carried the story that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani [the most senior Shia cleric in Iraq] has demanded an immediate cease-fire in Israel's war on Lebanon, in the wake of the Qana massacre:

"Islamic nations will not forgive the entities that hinder a cease-fire," al-Sistani said in a clear reference to the United States.

"It is not possible to stand helpless in front of this Israeli aggression on Lebanon,'' he added. "If an immediate cease-fire in this Israeli aggression is not imposed, dire consequences will befall the region.''

Sistani had earlier condemned Israeli air raids on Lebanon but had confined himself to ordering the Iraqi Shiite religious establishment to provide aid to victims of the war in Lebanon.

Sistani's statements of early Monday morning (which are not yet reflected at his Web site in Arabic) go substantially beyond his earlier statement.

Several questions arise: 1) Why is Sistani speaking like this? 2) What can he do about it all? and 3) What are the possible consequences if he turns anti-American in practice, not just in rhetoric, as in the past?

Sistani is taking such a hard line on this issue not only because he feels strongly about it (his fatwa against the Jenin operation of 2002 was vehement) but also because he is in danger of being outflanked by Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr's Mahdi Army is said to be "boiling" over the Israeli war on Hizbullah, since, after all, the Sadrists are also fundamentalist Shiites and they identify with the Lebanese Hizbullah. There have already been big demonstrations in Baghdad against the Israeli attacks, to which Sadrists flocked but probably also other Shiites.

Sistani cannot allow Muqtada to monopolize this issue, or the young cleric's legitimacy will grow among the angry Shiite masses at the expense of Sistani's.

Sistani is not linked to Hizbullah, which is strongly Khomeinist in orientation. Sistani largely rejects Khomeinism [government ruled by Islamic clerics]. He told an Iraqi acquaintance of mine, "Even if I must be wiped out, I will not allow Iraq to repeat the Iranian experience." When Sistani had his heart problems in summer 2004, he flew to London via Beirut. He stopped in Beirut for several hours, and Nabih Berri came out to the airport to consult with him. Berri is the speaker of the Lebanese parliament and the leader of the Amal Party. Amal is the party of the secularizing, moderate Lebanese Shiites. It was more militant in the 1980s but it mellowed.

So Sistani's political ties in Lebanon go to Amal much more than to Hizbullah. Sistani has many followers or "emulators" (muqallidun) among the Lebanese Shiites, though the hardcore Hizbullahis tend to follow Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei of Iran instead. Some Lebanese Shiites follow the Lebanese grand ayatollah, Husain Fadlullah.

Note that Amal is allied with Hizbullah in parliament, and some Amal fighters have been killed in clashes with Israelis in the deep south. Amal abandoned its paramilitary during the 1990s, but seems to have kept some units active down near the Israeli border.

So Berri would have been in a position to implore Sistani to intervene. Sistani is hoping for something like a moderate Amal party to coalesce in Iraq and would want to help Berri any way he could.

Sistani has issued a warning to the United States. He wants Bush to intervene to arrange a cease-fire, i.e. the cessation of Israeli air raids on Lebanon in general.

What could he do if he were ignored? Sistani could call massive anti-U.S. and anti-Israel demonstrations. Given Iraq's profound political instability, this development could be extremely dangerous. U.S. troops in Baghdad and elsewhere are planning offensives against Shiite paramilitary groups, so tensions are likely to rise in the Shiite areas anyway. But big demonstrations could easily boil over into actual attacks on U.S. and British troops. Both depend heavily on fuel that is transported through the Shiite south. Were the Shiites actively to turn on the United States for its wholehearted support of continued Israeli air raids, the U.S. military could be cut off from fuel and supplies. The British only have around 8,000 troops in Iraq, and they would be in profound danger if Iraq's Shiites became militantly anti-occupation.

Since the Israeli treatment of Arabs is an issue on which Sunnis and Shiites agree, there is also a possibility that Sistani could finally get some respect from the Sunni community if he led such a campaign. That development would be more dangerous to the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq than any other I can think of.

The United States is already not winning against a Sunni Arab insurgency, backed by around 5 million Iraqis. If 16 million Shiites turned on the United States because of its wholehearted support for Israel's actions in Lebanon, the U.S. military mission in Iraq could quickly become completely and urgently untenable. In this case, the British troops in particular would be lucky to escape the country with their lives.

Sistani does not issue threats lightly, and he has repeatedly shown a willingness to back them up with action. Bush and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad will ignore him to their peril.


Other views

If anyone wonders why the UN has rendered itself worse than irrelevant in the Arab-Israeli conflict, all he or she need do is read UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's July 20 statement. Annan goes to great pains to suggest equal fault and moral equivalence between the rockets of Hezbollah and Hamas that specifically target innocent civilians and the self-defense efforts by Israel, which tries desperately, though not always successfully, to avoid causing civilian casualties. In his statement, Annan never condemns, or even mentions, terrorism, which is a root cause and precipitator of the conflict. ... Annan knows better than to suggest a moral equivalence. He is fully aware of the tactic employed by terrorists of launching their rockets from, and hiding behind, civilian shields, so as to make democracies have to kill some civilians to get at the terrorists.

... If a space alien from a distant planet were to land at the UN, he would come away with the impression that Israel is not only the sole offender in the Middle East, but the worst offender in the entire world. He would single out Israel for condemnation and exclude it from membership on many UN bodies, on which Syria, Lebanon and Iran serve in positions of honor.

—Alan M. Dershowitz,,Harvard Law School professor, defense attorney and author,


It is inarguable that Israel has a right to defend itself against attacks on its citizens, but it is inhumane and counterproductive to punish civilian populations in the illogical hope that somehow they will blame Hamas and Hezbollah for provoking the devastating response. The result instead has been that broad Arab and worldwide support has been rallied for these groups, while condemnation of both Israel and the United States has intensified.

—Jimmy Carter,former U.S. president,The Washington Post op-ed


Before he launched his democracy project, Bush was warned that free elections would advance the fortunes of Islamic militants. At his insistence, the elections were held. Results:

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won 60 percent of the seats it contested. Hezbollah swept south Lebanon. Hamas recorded a stunning victory on the West Bank and Gaza. These were the freest and fairest elections ever held in those nations. But Bush refused to engage the winners.

The painful truth is that, in the Middle East, democracy will produce, as it does in the West, two dominant parties. One will be a state party, and the other is going to be a party rooted in the Islamic faith.

Time to recognize reality — and stop isolating America.

—Pat Buchanan,syndicated conservative newspaper columnist, former Nixon speechwriter


This could produce a thousand new bin Ladens. The level of anger and frustration in the Arab world is extremely dangerous. It could easily turn toward the United States, which is blindly supporting Israel.

—Diaa Rashwan,a leading expert on militants at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, quoted in Newsday


The Israeli government's brutal retaliation against Palestinian civilians constitutes a form of collective punishment specifically prohibited by several international treaties and regulations. As Marjorie Cohn, president-elect of the National Lawyers Guild and U.S. representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists, has indicated, collective punishment violates Article 50 of the Hague Regulations and is also prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Is there a way out of this present escalation of violence that threatens to engulf the whole Middle East? There is, but it requires a balanced outside intervention that is presently lacking, particularly by the U.S., which has maintained its unwavering support for the actions carried out by the Israeli government.

Peace now is as elusive as ever in the Middle East. And it will continue to be so as long as innocent civilians, on both sides, are made to be pawns in a larger political game.

—Dr. César Chelal,international public-health consultant who writes extensively on public health and human-rights issues, The Seattle Times


What is most extraordinary in this story is that the Israelis, although the best informed in their region, should have made the same error in Lebanon as the Americans in Iraq: underestimating the terrorist tactics of their adversaries and planning to replace a bad government with men to their liking, thanks to handy opponents.

Especially, like the Americans at the time of the war in Iraq, they didn't bother with the Lebanese because they thought that they, out of fear of Hezbollah and respect for strength, would want only to unite with a victorious Israel.

Some Israelis fear today, rightly, that Hezbollah will appear to emerge victorious from no matter what international arrangement. You would have to be blind, in fact, not to recognize that a certain Hezbollah victory is already gained and that the threat today is the tipping over of the entire moderate Arab world: The Sunni rallying to the Shiite Hezbollah fight heralds the promotion of its Iranian sponsor to the status of a great regional power.

—Jean Daniel,co-founder and director of the Nouvel Observateur, a Paris-based newsweekly that covers political, business and economic issues


It's an amazing figure: Almost 15,000 shells were fired by the Israeli armed forces in the last six weeks. Not on Lebanon, but in the Gaza strip. The number of Palestinians killed in that period is close to 300. No wonder Palestinian leaders are screaming for a halt to the "aggression" and feeling forgotten by the world as the war in Lebanon keeps moving from one "worst attack thus far" to yet another even worse assault.

But the Palestinians will have one thing to celebrate as the Lebanon war nears its final act of violence. On the diplomatic front, they might be the winners of this war, or, at least, the main beneficiary. And this achievement, more than many others, reflects Israel's failure to win the propaganda battle with its enemies.

—Shmuel Rosnerchief U.S. correspondent for the Israeli paper Haaretz, Slate


Hizbullah is proving to be something altogether new, an Arab guerrilla army with sophisticated weaponry and remarkable discipline. Its soldiers have the jihadist rhetoric of fighting to the death, but wear body armor and use satcoms to coordinate their attacks. Their tactics may be from Che, but their arms are from Iran, and not just AK-47s and RPGs. They've reportedly destroyed three of Israel's advanced Merkava tanks with wire-guided missiles and powerful mines, crippled an Israeli warship with a surface-to-sea missile, sent up drones on reconnaissance missions, implanted listening devices along the border and set up their ambushes using night-vision goggles.

Newsweek has learned from a source briefed in recent weeks by Israel's top leaders and military brass that Hizbullah even managed to eavesdrop successfully on Israel's military communications as its Lebanese incursion began.

—Kevin Peraino, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Christopher Dickey, staff writers in Newsweek


The invasion itself is a serious breach of international law, and major war crimes are being committed as it proceeds. There is no legal justification.

The "moral justification" is supposed to be that capturing soldiers in a cross-border raid, and killing others, is an outrageous crime. We know, for certain, that Israel, the United States and other Western governments, as well as the mainstream of articulate Western opinion, do not believe a word of that. Sufficient evidence is their tolerance for many years of U.S.-backed Israeli crimes in Lebanon, including four invasions before this one, occupation in violation of Security Council orders for 22 years, and regular killings and abductions.

To mention just one question that every journal should be answering: When did [Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah assume a leadership role? Answer: When the Rabin government escalated its crimes in Lebanon, murdering Sheikh Abbas Mussawi and his wife and child with missiles fired from a U.S. helicopter. Nasrallah was chosen as his successor. Only one of innumerable cases. There is, after all, a good reason why last February, 70 percent of Lebanese called for the capture of Israeli soldiers for prisoner exchange.

—Noam ChomskyMIT linguistics professors and leftist intellectual, interview with Global Interfaith Peace

Send comments to [email protected]. Juan Cole’s blog, Informed Comment, can be found at
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