Muqtada al-Sadr, Iranian Mole?

In Shia Islam, it is considered essential for the adherent to choose a mullah to follow. The mullah serves as both an interpreter and spiritual guide. No less an authority than Ayatollah Mohammad Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi has stated that the average Iranian is incapable of religious adherence without such guidance.

As with  Catholicism and orthodox Judaism, this has resulted in elaborate Biblical canons.  In some religions, active manipulation of the symbol systems has ceased, relying on dialogues from long ago. Some religions, notably Judaism, are open to it, but Talmudic writing has dropped off. In Sunni Islam, it is forbidden. In Shi’ism, symbol systems are still actively manipulated with great energy. Religious beliefs are still in the process of synthesis, or what Shiites might prefer to be called interpretation, accomplished by complex symbolic manipulations of a kind distinct from the Western secular tradition. There seems to be a keen aesthetic, both of the writings and the credentials of the writers. Regardless of our sympathy or lack of toward the results, Shiite pursuit of religious scholarship is a highly intellectual affair.

Muqtada al-Sadr is the son of Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, who, quoting Wikipedia, “ at ten, was delivering lectures on Islamic history, and at eleven, he studied logic.”  He was a direct descendant of Muhammad, entitling him to wear the black turban, a blood distinction among ayatollahs. In other words, Muqtada’s pop had a genius I.Q. This is  useful in a field where, merely to be admitted to study, one must know the Koran by heart. The Wiki article states that he is of both Iraqi and Iranian ancestry. This is more important than having Italian roots  in the U.S. It is extremely important.

It appears that, while he has fire in the belly, Muqtada al-Sadr did not inherit his father’s remarkable gifts. This is not to say he’s unintelligent; merely that he is not a mental giant. Starting the Mahdi Army gave him his first opportunity for religious authorship, which came as a statement about the disposition of booty. Fighters were permitted to take whatever they wanted, provided they tithed a fifth of it.

Perhaps he was inspired by the abject poverty of his followers, but it did not last long. As Islam respects property rights, religious authorities, to whom he was obligated by religious and class ties, probably forced a change.

The sparse history of the Mahdi Army is dotted with hostile actions varying from small to large, but with little or no political articulation. Consider the alternative: grandiloquent speeches and development of an independent political philosophy. The absence of it, against a background of almost constant small-arms actions with some escalations, indicates an al-Sadr with little to say,  one who lacks an inner voice. He could have grabbed the mic any time he wanted. According to The Middle East Quarterly, “…the large number of Shi’ites who follow him do so not because of his status as a marja’ or religious authority, but because for them, he is the symbol and the personification of Sadr’s legitimacy. Shi’ite Islam is hierarchical. ”

This goes along with his background as an undistinguished religious scholar, who, between 2007 and 2011, studied in Iran, it is thought, to burnish his religious credentials so as to become an ayatollah. He still isn’t one. The bar is high. Mere executive talent isn’t enough.

In February 2014, in an incredibly flamboyant and surprising gesture, al Sadr resigned from public life in a handwritten note. As with previous communications, it contains no political articulation. Perhaps it’s hard for him to do. But the handwritten note, which astonished so many of his followers, is not organic of himself or his organization. It suggests  the strategy of a more intellectual, cunning thinker, someone to whom the flowing script of Arabic would have more meaning.

Political speech writers are de rigueur in the U.S. Political platforms are influenced by political strategists. There are even some political dynasties. But Muqtada al-Sadr is considered by his followers to be a descendant of Muhammad, and he is bound to a theocratic class, largely based in Iran, that has no comparison with anything in the West.

Touchingly, al-Sadr has stated that he is opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq. This ingenuous stance is very much appreciated here. But he remains very much a facet of Iran’s power projection. Read the section of The Middle East Quarterly article titled “A Hidden Hand?”

Next: how Iran’s political ecosystem facilitates deception.

Iraq Clues & Political Ecosystems

No successor to Maliki named; fencing the problem offers guidelines for analysis of the problem were described. But since this might seem like something you could throw on a spreadsheet, “It’s a People Game” explained why it is not so.

If we  pretend we have a formal system, a subtopic called “clue analysis” has to be part of it. This will be about gleaning everything you can from what you read and hear. Expect to see many revisions of this.

Since clues often seem like sparkling gems amid the mud of official announcements and newscaster drivel, it is important to keep them in perspective. This is where the conspiracy theorist goes awry; he gives clues an independent life, with too much weight, driving and sustaining a complete theory. Classic examples of these are the JFK “single bullet”, and the World Trade Towers falling straight down. The conspiracy proponents understand physics better than they do people. They are preferentially attracted to things they  understand, because they aren’t trained thinkers.

If you are a trained thinker, you will be attracted to things you don’t understand, without being captured by them. So let’s proceed to what caught my eye, and how it fit with a view of regional political ecosystems that has also  been under construction.

Clues related to these subjects will be discussed throughout the day:

  • Muqtada al-Sadr
  • Iraqi parliament walkout
  • Iranian Political Ecosystem

Both Iraqi and American sources now claim Baghdad is penetrated with sleeper cells.  In retrospect, Tariq al-Hashimi may have been one of them.  Yet the vibe we have been receiving is that al-Maliki is too stiffly partisan to be president of Iraq; hence, someone else must be found willing to work with people who would like to see him dead.

This is an interesting case: propaganda that has no author. It seems  the result of collective wishful thinking, a vibe that went viral.  Even unintentionally, news has a bias.

It’s a People Game

The methods described in connection with the Iraq problem seem like a prescription that you could give to the most logical thinker in your organization. Maybe you could just closet him with SPSS, an expert system, or an A.I. language like PROLOG, watch the mushrooms grow, and, after a while, come up with a solution that gets you the corner office you’ve been lusting after.

This is really the Holy Grail of prediction, to mechanize judgement. But the most successful attempts at this have been in the area of crowd sourcing, not systematizing what an individual should do.

Ali Abdullah Saleh was president of Yemen. In early 2011, he came under international pressure to vacate the position. The intelligence community became curious when this would happen, so a question was posted to “Forecasting World Events.” Saleh had repeatedly promised to leave, and feinted with statements and trips, always returning to his office. So the FWE question was carefully worded as to the conditions defined as equivalent to vacating the presidency. Dead was one of them; permanently incapacitated another. Another condition (subject to my memory) was signing an abdication in another country.

By complete coincidence, five years prior to this, I was testing camera lenses in my basement. I needed a target with some fine detail. I grabbed a copy of the NY Times, and saw a full page spread halftone of Saleh sitting in a palace chair in an immaculately tailored western suit. Inwardly, I smirked, and said to myself, “This is a guy who cares about his skin.” The picture was taped to a door, and remains there to this day. Every time I was in the basement, I stared at Saleh, and marveled at his suave Western demeanor.

But those  who specialized in studying Saleh knew him as a person of minimal education, who ran one of the largest militia in Yemen. To them, perhaps, Saleh’s immaculate suit was the shallow disguise of a Yemeni tribesman. I weighed the suit more heavily, as a kind of aspiration. Upon reflection, I may have integrated it with his statements about terrorism, and his early desire to ally with the U.S. in combating it. That, too, could be taken with a grain of salt, as a means of protecting tribal dominance, rather than  concern with the world at large.

In June 2011, Saleh was injured in a bomb attack on his palace. Although his injuries were initially described as minor, it emerged that he had shrapnel near the heart. In that time frame, Saleh reiterated that he would step down. But was it different from his other promises and feints?

It clicked for me. FWE had a forum, where I exclaimed, “He has seen his own mortality!”  I dialed my FWE pie chart to near 100% that, by the near-term date choice, he would be out and gone for good. Unfortunately for my FWE accuracy score, he eluded the terms of the question. He went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He said he would go to the U.S., but he returned to Yemen. While he formally handed office to his vice-president, rumors of his power, running the country with his militia, continued to swirl. The actual situation was unapparent.

Months later, it became clear that the former vp/now president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, had actually acceded to power, which he holds to this day. The administrators of FWE might now concede I lost on a technicality. But does it advance the science of prediction? Unfortunately, no, because it satisfies neither:

1. The law of large numbers, as with crowd sourcing, or an individual like myself making hundreds of such predictions.

2. A subset of predictors with identifiable characteristics, i.e.,  Myers-Briggs personality profile, or other aspects of a predictor’s background.

A   personal characteristic that might be useful, in aggregate, to satisfy “2” might be the ability to identify a liar, i.e., a disingenuous affect. There are people who are extremely good at this. I may be one of them, but I never trust myself, because it doesn’t seem quite fair.

How to handle hecklers

If you become a predictor, and make a prediction that is justified by fair use of the tricks of the trade, you are bound to encounter a heckler who wil assail the fallibility of each of your datums.

Your datums are things you read, things people said, personality assessments, things that have happened,  things that appear to be happening,  trends, and fact-fences. Taken individually, each of these datums is of low quality. This is to be expected of open sources, save the occasional assassination where the body is clearly on display.

So how do you answer your heckler? The answer lies in the realm of both pure and applied mathematics:

1. The Central Limit Theorem.

2. Techniques of data fusion.

Unless you have a particular interest, there is no need to delve deeper. A confident look, and a “read it and then we’ll talk” should suffice. You’ll probably never hear from the guy.

Tip for predictors: avoid conspiracy theories; movie rental

If you happened to read the last post as soon as I put it up, you might have seen some rapid-fire edits. Besides proof reading, there was, initially, the suggestion that Maliki’s actions might be motivated by something other than stupidity. Then I realized that the wording was suggestive of conspiracy, i.e.,

“Maliki is secretly paid off by the Iranians”, “Maliki siphons Iraqi oil money”, or even, “Maliki wants the dissolution of Iraq.”

These are examples of conspiratorial embellishments, and run contrary to the most useful tool of all analytic thought, Occam’s Razor:

*The most simple explanation is most likely to be true.*

Everything that is happening in Iraq can be explained without resort to hidden conspiracy. On the other hand, there is obvious (not hidden) conspiracy, by the Iranians, and, known by the nature of the politics, of Iraqi politicians. Only the details are unknown, and relatively unimportant in dissecting the problem.

Hamid Karzai has admitted to getting “bags of money” from both Iran and the CIA. In our part of the world, that would point to conspiracy. But there, bags of money are a way of making government function. Perhaps traffic jams in Baghdad are caused by bag men making the rounds. But if everyone is conspiring, it takes the attractiveness out of overarching conspiracy theories.

A delicious paranoic movie, as seen by a conspiracy theorist, is Pascali’s Island. Since it stars Ben Kingsley, you know it’s good. No spoilers here.

No successor to Maliki named; fencing the problem

Fencing the problem is an important part of the predictor’s toolkit. Sometimes the fence is made of facts; other times, pseudo facts, things that have higher probabilities than the swirling cloud of amorphous possibilities.

Since the Sunnis and Kurds have abandoned parliament, one part of the fence is that they are out of the picture. The other part comes as the answer to the question, “Who is left who cares?”, to which the glaring answer is, Shiite factions, who remain a shifting cloud of alliances that is hard to see into with open sources.

But the swirling cloud has  a useful fence.  Iran has three  distinct presences: the IRG, which supports the “legitimate government” of Iraq,  the Qom religious establishment, and the Mahdi Army. Each is tasked with accessing a different part of the Shiite spectrum.

The roots of the Mahdi Army are the poor underclass of Baghdad, providing an easily manipulable paramilitary tool. The Mahdi army was formerly sponsored by the Qom religious establishment, but appears to have been spun off in February, when “firebrand cleric” Muqtadā al-Ṣadr disowned it in a handwritten note. No amount of cynicism can be excessive here; al-Sadr may have been touchingly concerned about the elderly Sistani’s health, and whether his own contamination by worldly affairs would allow him to ascend the clerical hierarchy.  But with levers of power having shifted in a more muscular direction, al-Sadr is back.

The inertia of coherent groups with shared interests provides some degree of predictability. One has to be careful with individuals. Even those who appear to be rigid can make sudden reversals. Others are perpetual ciphers. The general drive of self-interest always plays a part. But since the prize is not a pot of gold, which can be a solitary enjoyment, but power over others, self-interest is not easily defined either.

The sophistication of the Iranian approach, of appealing to multiple blocs with differently authored approaches, is impressive. The Iranians have been out thinking U.S. policy makers for years. Maliki, who is “not a cleric”, has a hand-tailored Iranian interface designed just for him, the IRG.

Let’s paint a picture, and see how it holds together:

1. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s highest ranking cleric, wants a new government. Since the main problem with the present government is with other factions, this suggests he wants a “big Iraq.” His self interest could be that, while he is a big religious authority in a small country, his influence would be diluted by the large religious establishment of Iran. It would be a simplistic error to assume he is not motivated by good will. But the external result is the same.

2. The rumors that Maliki’s election was the result of Iranian pressure have been persistent. If he is a puppet, there are all degrees of puppetry, ranging from a long term money maker like Charley McCarthy to the the merely idolatrous Castro. Maliki’s policies toward the Sunnis and Kurds, which seem almost purposely designed to make Iraq fall apart, may have been inspired by Iranian influence, or the desire to disengage/marginalize/subjugate the Sunnis. As the saying goes, even paranoids have real enemies.

3. The Mahdi Army, which is clearly an Iranian proxy, has been reactivated, in the sense that the Qom religious establishment has decided to give it a push. While none of the Shiite factions, or any factions in Iraq, adhere to what we call fair play, the Mahdi Army is something like the Paris Mob of the French Revolution.

An interesting analogy with Ukraine presents. Vladimir Putin, an intelligent man, is aware that absorption of a country with hostile elements imports instability. The Iranians, also intelligent, are aware that absorption of the whole of Iraq presents the same problem. It appears they want to peel off the bottom. Given the sophistication of their strategies, they seem likely to succeed. It will have a little wrapping on it to avoid the stigma of annexation.

 

 

 

Sunni vs. Shiite; Who are the “Good Guys” ? Movie rental.

In December 2012, the bodyguards of Vice-President of Iraq Tariq al-Hashimi were arrested and beaten. Whatever they said in these comfortable circumstances was used to accuse him of running an assassination squad. He was tried in absentia, sentenced to death, and now resides, safe from extradition, in Turkey.

With confessions obtained by torture and al-Maliki’s sectarian attitude, it should be easy to discount this as a gross perversion of justice.  So it is. So what did al-Hashimi’s political bedfellows have to say about it? Quoting the Seattle Times, “Two of Iraq’s top political leaders voiced muted criticism…”  Muted? Why “muted” ?

In February 2012, the New York Times reported, “In a report offering details of their investigation into the politically divisive case, the nine judges, drawn from all of Iraq’s main ethnic and religious factions, appeared to offer support to terrorism charges leveled by the Iraqi authorities in December against Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi.”

If you’re wondering where I’m going with this, it’s a Zen Predictor’s Exercise. You have a natural desire to identify the “good guy.” This exercise will help you get away from that.

Suppose aL-Maliki knew, somehow, that aL-Hashimi was a plotter. It doesn’t make sense to the Western mind to televise confessions obtained by torture. Torture was used in the recent past in  a desperate attempt to save American lives from the predations of Al Qaeda, but it never occurred to us to decorate judicial proceedings with the results. We forget that torture was an instrument of justice as late as the 1850’s in Switzerland, of all places. We forget that the Miranda ruling was, in part, a guard against “forced confession”, which encompassed torture, i.e., the rubber hose, the telephone book, and much worse.  We have collective amnesia on the subject.

That was a very long, but necessary detour in a post about who’s good/who’s bad in Iraq. Does it make Maliki the “good guy”? The New Yorker has an interesting sketch. Quoting, “Having spent much of his life hunted by assassins, Maliki gives the impression of a man who learned long ago to ruthlessly suppress his feelings. ”

It does not appear that one can qualify an Iraqi politician by Western standards of behavior, since staying alive is such a preoccupation. The U.S. no longer participates in the Iraqi political process, but hypothetically, should we choose based upon who the man is a proxy for? The only certain fact is that Maliki is a Shiite. The uncertainty is such that both Al Jazeera and Middle East Monitor decline to identify his successor.

The most interesting example of “who is this guy working for” is Ahmed Chalabi, blamed by some for getting us into Iraq in the first place. The  history of this man’s alliances, shifts, positions, and alleged betrayals makes fascinating reading. And he’s still alive.

To the Western mind, this is all very peculiar. With our judicial mindset, we want to pick the “good guy”, but it seems as if the actors of the Iraqi political scene  balance only two desires, temporary coexistence, and doing each other in. This should all be familiar to us from the movie, “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Rent it.

 

 

 

 

 

Russian fighter jets arrive in Iraq; it’s deja vu all over again

Some sources, such as the NY Times, The Independent, are behind pay-walls, which may be accessible by a free monthly article allotment. Reuters has a silent video.  Do your own Google search.

The U.S. refused to deliver fighter jets for a good reason: When used as tactical bombers without sophisticated targeting, they are indiscriminate devices, leveling neighborhoods. Where Sunnis have fled, real estate is going to take a real hit. The desirability of precision targetting is why there has not, as yet, been U.S. air support.

Let’s paint the picture:

1. Of the 10,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq, some will die from bombs, others from lucky bullets, and others will disperse to both urban and rural locations.

2. Those Sunnis who return will find nothing remains of their homesteads.

3. The fighter jets, with the amazing lack of accuracy characteristic of dumb munitions, will strike both Sunni tribesmen, ISIS fighers, and people who claimed to be innocent Sunni tribesmen, who either are or are not.

4. The Saudis have urged the Sunnis to participate in Iraq’s government. There is as yet no indication that their cooperation will be offered or accepted for other than immediate objectives, such as killing their personal enemies.

5. A U.S. general, whose name I can’t remember, hoped that the absence of immediate U.S. military intervention would help the Iraqis understand the need for an inclusive government. With Russian  jets, this is no longer necessary. Iraq’s Shiites are going to do it the Syrian way. After all, it worked in Syria, where the Alawites are a minority, so why shouldn’t it work in Iraq, where the Shiites are a majority?

As Yogi Berra would say, “It’s deja vu all over again.”

 

Putin’s paramilitary problem

I was going to write a lengthy essay on this, but I risk being scooped by events, so here’s the short form. Paramilitaries are like unguided missiles, stoked to a fevered pitch by  emotional appeals to patriotism. There is no “off switch.” Putin has to let their springs run down a bit, and even then, they are a huge problem.

So Kerry’s demand that Putin disarm the revolutionaries “within hours” is obvious theater. Kerry knows how it works.

Those who live to return to Russia have left the blood of their comrades in Ukraine. Just as with the Bay of Pigs Invasion,   there are going to be some very angry people. They will accuse Putin for betrayal. Recall that some theories of the JFK assassination implicate Cuban counter-revolutionaries. Without any suggestion by me that such theories are valid, because I have no idea, this should give you an idea of how serious a problem it is.

It is somewhat encouraging that four OSCE monitors have just been released. This suggests that the paramilitaries are, in fact, coming off their surge, and becoming semi-manageable.

But the returning paramilitary is a ticking time bomb, with ample capacity for conspiracy directed at revenge. Putin is an expert at staying alive. If necessary, he will liquidate particularly dangerous individuals.

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