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DAWN - Opinion; April 5, 2006

April 05, 2006

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The continuing Iraq turmoil

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh


US SECRETARY of State Condoleezza Rice and UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw have just left Iraq after a surprise visit the purpose of which was to urge the Iraqis to expedite the task of government formation. While not publicly acknowledged, it was generally known that they were also there to reinforce the message already conveyed through Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad that they wanted the candidate sponsored by the Shia groups — the incumbent prime minister, Al Jaafari — to step down and allow another nominee of the group to be nominated in his place.

There are indications that the Anglo-American pressure has borne fruit. Of the seven parties in the Shia group only three are now said to be favouring Jaafari’s candidature for prime minister while four have now declared that it is time for him to step down.

Publicly, both Ms Rice and Mr. Straw argued that while it was for the Iraqis to choose their leaders they were urging the Iraqis to form a government quickly since this would help bring the current spate of sectarian attacks under control and ensure that steps would be taken to disarm the militias that are being held responsible for many of the retaliatory attacks against the Sunnis and the ferocity of the insurgency. The statistics are grim. According to official American tallies, the death toll for American servicemen fell to 30 in March — the lowest in many months — but this is likely to spike in April since on the day of the Rice-Straw visit nine Americans were killed and another two had died a day earlier. Iraqi security personnel, however, were dying at the rate of 75 a day according to official figures generally regarded as conservative.

As regards civilian casualties there are few takers for the figure of 30,000 that President Bush threw out and which is now used often by American spokesmen. The more likely figure is the 100,000 plus that has been estimated by NGOs and the daily death toll probably exceeds 100. The latest reports suggest that in Baghdad alone there are at least 33 deaths every day. Yet another grim statistic relates to the proliferation of small arms and the growing demand from civilians for such arms. According to one report the price of an AK-47, the most ubiquitous weapon in Iraq has climbed from $112 to $290 since the bombing of the shrine in Samara and the price of bullets from 24 cents to 33 cents. Iraq has become an armed camp with each individual looking to himself for security.

The Americans were unhappy from the outset with Jaafari’s nomination since his one vote majority within the 130-strong Shia bloc had come about with the support of the Moqtada Sadr faction and because he had proved to be ineffective as interim prime minister. They were, however, prepared to deal with him. The fatal blow was the withdrawal of Kurdish support.

The Kurds have been unhappy with Jaafari since he paid a state visit to Turkey in February and assured the nervous Turks that he was not about to hand over control of Kirkuk to the Kurds. The Kurds believe that this is one of the things that has been promised to them in the negotiations leading up to the adoption of the Constitution. Presumably, Jaafari and the Turks both believe that the Kurds will secede from Iraq once they have control of the oil resources of Kirkuk and the Turks have made it clear that they will invade Iraqi Kurdistan if the Kurds do so.

It would be an extremely ominous development if Kurdish support for a new prime minister chosen by the Shia were to be made conditional on the new prime minister’s agreeing to carry forward the ethnic cleansing of Kirkuk and to hand over the city formally to Kurdish control. There is every chance thereafter that with the oil wealth of Kirkuk in hand the Kurds will secede and try and carry forward their dream of a greater Kurdistan that would include large chunks of Turkish, Iranian and Syrian territory.

It is perhaps a coincidence but nevertheless an indication of things to come that the outlawed Kurdish party the PKK has become active again in Turkey. The funeral procession for 14 Kurds, possibly belonging to the PKK, set off riots in eastern Turkey and attacks on police stations, banks and other government offices. At last count 12 people had died in south east Turkey in the troubles that, according to the Turkish government, were started by the PKK. In Istanbul, the Kurds have warned tourists, a major source of revenue for the city, that the city was not safe for them.

It would also be an ominous development if the ouster of Jaafari led Moqtada Sadr to break away from the Shia bloc and to look for allies elsewhere while asserting in the process the street power that comes from his large following among the impoverished Shias living in the slums of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in the south of the country. It would be difficult for even Ayatollah Sistani to hold the Shia coalition together if Sadr chose to break away, and intra-Shia warfare would probably be added to the current sectarian strife in Iraq. Basra, a Sadr stronghold would become even more difficult to control for the British and chaos would worsen in Sadr city, the Shia dominated suburb of Baghdad.

If these developments take place it would hardly be possible to bring the largely Sunni insurgency under control. The Sunni insurgency has been triggered not by the desire to enjoy the same measure of power that the Sunnis had under Saddam but to get an equitable share of power and, even more importantly, an equitable share of the oil wealth of the country. In the discussions with the Shia leadership, the Americans have been requesting, if not demanding, a substantial share of power for the Sunnis. This has not gone down well with the Shia leadership.

If the Americans are having difficulty in persuading the Shias to give the Sunnis a fair share of power in the new government it is unlikely that they will succeed in changing the Shia position on the constitutional provision that allows the Shias to set up an autonomous region in the south and to keep for this region the revenues generated by any new oil finds there. For the Sunnis, the majority of whom live in the centre of the country where there are no fossil fuel deposits, this could mean an economic ruin for them.

It is perhaps understandable that in these circumstances a beleaguered President Bush apparently approved the idea that American senators visiting Iraq should let Iraqi politicians know that further delays in the formation of a government would lead to expediting the withdrawal of American troops. So far the official Bush line has been that the Americans would “stand down” only when the Iraqi security forces were ready to take over. This may be no more than a “threat” but it may also be an oblique indication of a change in policy that Bush has been forced to accept as the only way out of the quagmire. Iraq’s neighbours live in fear of the consequences if Iraq falls apart as appears increasingly likely particularly if the Americans withdraw.

If there is little cheer in Iraq for the Bush administration there is little else that is going well in other parts of the region.

On the Iranian nuclear programme, the administration may consider it a significant victory that they have been able to get from the UN Security Council, after weeks of wrangling, a non-binding presidential statement that gives Iran 30 days to comply with the demand for the immediate cessation of uranium enrichment activities and a return to negotiations with the EU. But the American media has been virtually unanimous in terming it a setback and as evidence that the international community has become so wary of American intentions that is not prepared to accept any formulation which the Americans could use as a pretext for military action against Iran.

The Iranians have rejected the demands contained in the statement and in subsequent meetings of the P-5 and Germany have not yielded any agreement on what the next steps should be. The IAEA director-general has called for a cooling of the rhetoric and for a return to negotiations as the only way to resolve the problem, providing backing to the position adopted by the Chinese and the Russians and adding to the growing pressure on the administration to take a direct part in negotiations with Iran. This the Bush administration is loath to do.

So far nothing seems to have happened with regard to the proposed talks between Iranian and American envoys in Baghdad on the Iraq situation. In the meanwhile, the Iranians have turned down the American offer of assistance for the victims of the earthquake that struck Iran. On another front, the Iranians have used the scheduled military exercises in the Gulf to demonstrate a new missile and a new torpedo that they claim would be effective against any ship or submarine in the region.

In Palestine, the request of Hamas for additional assistance from the Arab states has been turned down at the Arab summit where they renewed the pledge to provide about $55 million a month. Since 2003, the Arabs have contributed only $761 million or only 30 per cent of what they have pledged. The World Bank has calculated that if aid levels fall as expected the unemployment rate would go up to 47 per cent by 2008 and the number of people living under the poverty level would rise to about 74 per cent of the population.

The 140,000 people on the authority’s payroll support over a half million people and it is likely that this month Hamas will be unable to pay them. As international aid dwindles the worsening economic situation will bring further hardship and further chaos for which the Muslim world will hold America responsible.

In Israel, Kadima, which won a plurality of 29 seats in the 120-member Knesset, will form the government probably in coalition with the Labour Party and other left or centre parties. Both Kadima and Labour apparently agree on the policy of ignoring the roadmap on the pretext that there is no Palestinian partner to negotiate with and will unilaterally draw up Israel’s final borders which would envisage leaving only 40 per cent or less of the West Bank with the Palestinians and possibly divide the West Bank into two making a mockery of the concept of a viable contiguous Palestinian state.

Kadima leader Ehud Olmert believes he will have the support of his good friend President Bush in securing the assent of the international community for this vivisection of Palestine. This will do little to improve the image of the Americans in the Muslim world.

As regards “Arab unity”, it was indicative that of the 22 heads of state that were to attend the summit only 12 turned up and both Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia stayed away. The Saudis also said that they would not be able to host the next summit. In these circumstances it is unlikely that anything worthwhile can be expected from the countries of the region to cope with the troubles in Iraq and Palestine or to take a united stand on the Iranian quarrel with the West.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Will WSF make an impact?

By Zubeida Mustafa


FOR Karachi, the World Social Forum was a big event. This is a city that has in recent years earned a bad name for itself for its lawlessness, crime and violence, where foreigners fear to tread because of dreaded bomb blasts. When it played host for five days to 20,000 people — 2,500 foreign delegates — (organisers’ claims) without any untoward incident, this could be termed as a major achievement.

The WSF has certainly restored for the time being the good image of the city. The delegates who came from outside found it a friendly and hospitable place, the water, sanitation and boarding/lodging problems notwithstanding. Karachi’s cosmopolitan and open-minded ambience makes it a great place to be in.

But this aspect aside, did the WSF achieve its goals? The answer to this question depends on what its goals are perceived to be. When the first WSF was held in Porto Alegre (Brazil) in 2001 it adopted as its logo the slogan “Another world is possible”. The organisation of the WSF, its goals and its working have found many critics. But the underlying idea of striving for an alternative to the neoliberal policies of the market-driven capitalism of the post-Cold War world has never been disputed. The extreme left has attacked it for not going far enough. The extreme right has tried to coopt it to dilute its goals.

Since the WSF has not claimed to be working to devise coherent strategies or formulating a specific programme of action, there can be no formal yardstick to measure its success or failure. Given its abhorrence of hierarchical structures and its penchant for networking on a horizontal plane, the WSF tends to be informal in its approach. Its goal is to provide an open space for the underprivileged of the world to come and raise their voices. In that respect the WSF succeeded in its mission. A common complaint was that it was somewhat chaotic. By its very nature, a process of this kind cannot be regimented and squeeze people into tight, rigidly-organised programmes.

But in the chaos traditionally there in the WSF, a semblance of order normally emerges to enable the moot to play its due role of allowing social movements to interact with one another and create awareness among the people and mobilise them. Regrettably, this proved to be the weakest spot of WSF 2006 (Karachi). The organizations which attended — those working for landless peasants, bonded labour, fisherfolks’ rights, the Baloch, the Sindhis’ and the Kashmiris’ rights — were delighted with this opportunity to meet and strengthen their movements. But their message didn’t spread far and wide as it could have. This is a pity because so much human energy was available, waiting to be harnessed. There were so many issues waiting to be raised to create public opinion in favour of a struggle.

Was it that enough time and effort were not put into the planning and organisational aspects? Were the numerous NGOs working for a common cause not associated from the start when the WSF was being planned? Many of them claim that they were not even consulted and so they decided to keep out of it.

As a result, not all the 500-plus sessions that were announced could be held. The organisers claim that 75 per cent were held but the disappointed prospective audience from Karachi dispute that claim. There were many people who went to attend a seminar and found that it had been cancelled. Bad management. The grounds of the Sports Complex were always brimming with life. The stalls — food and handicraft exhibits for sale — were never short of customers. The protesters and demonstrators made their noisy presence felt in a big way with their slogan chanting, banners and flag waving. The cultural celebrations which add life and colour to such gatherings became a central attraction.

But those present were not mobilised to attend the sessions which were in any case poorly organised. The programme was made available late and then too it was constantly being changed. The failure to observe schedules drove away many people. Unsurprisingly, the mobilisation that was expected to take place as was needed for an event of this proportion was absent.

Pakistani NGOs have never been famous for mobilising the masses for any cause. The process of creating awareness and bringing people together for social change has not been easy in this country. The basic tool used by activists, namely interpersonal meetings, has had limited application in a society where community participation and social capital have not been its strength. The agencies which facilitate these contacts, such as trade bodies, students unions, human rights groups, have been destroyed over the years by oppressive governments that feared their power. Another tool used by social activists, namely, lobbying to influence policymakers has been more widely used. But in the absence of mobilisation and the backing of a large number of people, the lobbyists have at times not had the political clout that is needed to persuade those in office to change policies.

Pakistan lacks the most important factors that facilitate the dissemination of social messages at the grassroots level, namely, literacy and education, increased mobility of groups, freedom of expression, a measure of economic independence and a close link between social activism and the political process.

The Pakistan Social Forum, which organised the Karachi event, was formed in March 2003 when 50 civil society organisations, labour federations and trade unionists, rights-based people’s movements, teachers, journalists associations, political and social activists had a two-day consultation in Lahore. Their idea was to disseminate in Pakistan the ideals of the WSF — a forum of progressive, social democrats, socialists and other anti-imperialist, pro-peace and democratic forces from all over the world.

This consultation rightly perceived the WSF as a long-term process of engaging forces of anti-war and anti-neo-liberalism under one banner. “Realizing the need to diffuse the process in Pakistan the group committed itself to a continued struggle and efforts to take it further to all corners of the country. The group also pledged to continue its struggle to unite all progressive, rights-based and democratic forces in Pakistan against the common threats to the world and marginalised groups,” the press statement released on the occasion had said.

The experience of the WSF session in Karachi highlights the organisational challenges the PSF faces. The most vital issue that will determine the future course of social change in Pakistan is the capacity of organisations working for change to mobilise at the grassroots level. Owing to the factors listed above and the lack of political will in the mainstream parties it is becoming increasingly difficult for NGOs and political parties to bring people together for a common cause. Small wonder then that it is not possible to draw a decent crowd for a protest demonstration against the American war on Iraq — something for which it would be impossible to find even one supporter in this country.

The only groups which can pull massive crowds are the religious parties that now excel in the art of organisation, mobilisation and charging a crowd with their fiery rhetoric. They also have the advantage of having a captive audience since they follow up their public ideological stance with tangible service on the ground — whether one agrees with their political and social character or not.

It is not that there is no pool of human resources to mobilise in Pakistan. The WSF meeting in Karachi and the response to the earthquake in the north in October 2005 amply prove that the people would participate in a public process if they are provided direction and leadership. On both occasions young people from all walks of life and of all classes turned up, be it the WSF venue or the earthquake relief centres to participate in the activity announced.

While at the WSF many of them returned disappointed because no one enlisted their focused participation in the activity at the Sports Complex; in the case of earthquake relief operations their services were not optimised as they should have been. The need to mobilise and channelise the energy of the youth is the need of the hour.

Save me from my voters

By Hafizur Rahman


ONE is getting bored with the present crop of federal and provincial ministers. The reports of a reshuffle have so far failed to provide any excitement, and there is no option but to wait for the next general elections.

I say this not because of my love for democracy (for which I would gladly lay down my life) but for other reasons. Ministers in elected governments with their fads and foibles have always provided me, and others of my ilk, interesting material for column-writing.

Although I am not obliged to explain, I feel I must tell my readers why the thought of a return to true democracy does not excite me despite my claim to offer my life for it. You see, I am fairly advanced in years, and have been watching political developments since August 1947. I have been emotionally affected by many events — the frequent imposition of martial law, the political circumstances leading to the wars with India, the creation of Bangladesh, and the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto among others — but I have observed that democratic governments hardly make any difference to people. So I have grown indifferent and cold. Hence, my rather bizarre reason for wanting elected ministers to enliven the scene.

A gem of a light essay was written by Sajjad Haider Yaldram way back in the ‘30s. Called (in translation) “Save me from my friends,” It acquired the status of a classic in Urdu literature and became almost a byword in everyday conversation. The news story from an African country that an elected minister had been beaten up by a group of people from his village for not solving their personal problems made me think that some Urdu writer of humour could do an essay on a Pakistani minister exclaiming, “Save me from my voters!”

Looking at the armed guard standing on duty at the gate of a minister’s residence I often think: “Where is the idiot who will go into the house and subject the minister to assault and what can the guard do in such a case?” I am sure that if such a thing does happen and one succeeds in entering into the minister’s house, he would himself realize his stupidity. For what can one gain by manhandling a minister? Unless of course the minister agrees with his bright PRO that an arranged attack of this kind can be good for his publicity.

During the decade of democracy (1988-1999) there was not a single instance of a member of the long-suffering public trying to cause bodily harm to a minister, whether federal or provincial. Admittedly in 1990 a Balochistan minister was shot at and killed, but that was a different issue altogether and not within the purview of my topic. Shooting to kill has become a compulsive hobby in Pakistan and is the result of sheer trigger happiness. But when a common man walks into a minister’s house with the intention of beating him up, it becomes a serious national problem, for even one incident of this kind would give ideas to other enterprising persons and make entire cabinets run for cover.

Actually there have been a few cases of ministers being manhandled, but thankfully they were confined to the sacred precincts of the national Assembly or the provincial legislatures. The members of these bodies are simply overloaded with privileges and can do what they like. In these august institutions the ministers are not more privileged than the members, and any member aggrieved by a word or deed of a minister is welcome to catch him by the throat. But of course with the permission of the Speaker. After all you can’t have fisticuffs in the House, with the Speaker pretending that he wasn’t looking.

That brings me to the necessity of issuing suitable instructions to the public. The one thing under the Westminster system of government in Britain is that a citizen with a grouse goes to his MP and asks him to take up the matter with the cabinet minister concerned. Since we have adopted that system in toto, any Pakistani voter wishing to twist the neck of a minister must ask his MNA or MPA to do the needful in the Hose instead of taking the law in his own hands. Instructions displayed at the gates of ministerial residences should clearly lay down that assaults on minister must be made through proper channel.

The above detailed exposition of the matter should make it clear to the meanest intelligence that the armed policeman outside a minister’s house is there only to protect him from “friends, Romans — sorry, Pakistanis — and countrymen.” Otherwise, he has nothing to fear by way of physical violence against his person. It is another matter that ministers never go out anywhere without the so-called gunman, although that is no protection against an attack. The man adds a certain dignity to their personality if they are short of that commodity, and to collect for the wastepaper basket applications from complainants and job-seekers. Normally this is the function of the PA or the private secretary, but since they are almost always at the disposal of their begums, the poor gunman has to officiate.

Some time ago I read in the newspapers about the Inspector-General of Police’s strict orders to his men that they must never fail to salute a flag car, even if it makes the Johnny sitting in it believe that the salute was for him. I had intended this piece to be based on that subtle point, but look where I have got to. But never mind, the flag will always be there, God willing, and I can write about it any day. But I thought I must get into practice for the days following the next general elections when I shall be devoting more and more of this column to ministers and their doings which somehow never lead to their undoing.

This is one thing that is wrong with this piece. The other is that most of it deals with physical assaults on ministers which never take place and are only wishful thinking on my part. The third is that there is till more than a year to the elections before the new ministers can be found sitting in their chairs. But to justify its writing let me say that if, in the coming days, it helps to prevent even one attack on a minister by any of his voters I shall be happy that I have performed a national duty. Elected ministers are an entertaining breed and must be protected.