Sunday, December 31, 2006

Saddam Hussein and Pervez al-Musharraf

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Two articles of interest in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The first concerns Muslim anger about the timing of Saddam Hussein's execution -- on one of Islam's most important holy days:

The Muslim religious holiday Eid al-Adha (the Feast of Sacrifice) is meant to commemorate Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son on God's orders.

But the holiday could come to symbolise something else as well: the execution of the ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi Government's push to hang Saddam on Saturday morning, when the Muslim world was celebrating the Eid, drew criticism from Islamic leaders in the Middle East and America.

"Leaders of Islamic countries should show respect for this blessed occasion … not demean it," said a statement read out on Iraqi television, attributed to the political analyst of the official news agency, SPA.

For Sunnis, the choice of Saturday as the execution day was an additional sign of disrespect, and fueled Sunnis' conviction that the execution had more to do with politics than with justice:

... Shiites celebrate [Eid on] Sunday. Sunnis celebrate it Saturday –- and Iraqi law forbids executing the condemned on a major holiday. Hanging Saddam on Saturday was perceived by Sunni Arabs as the act of a Shiite government that had accepted the Shiite ritual calendar.

Not just the date of execution, but the speed of the trial -- the way all but one of Saddam's genocidal crimes were ignored in his conviction -- leaves a very bad taste in many Iraqis' mouths [bolds are mine]:

Sympathisers with the former president painted him as the victim of a vengeful Iraqi trial sponsored by the United States. Some in Kuwait and Iran complained that Saddam had not been brought to account for the wars against them.

For those Arabs who celebrated America's embrace of the rule of law, the quick execution, before the conclusion of Saddam's other trials for crimes against humanity, left a bitter taste of stolen justice.

"It is evident that they were not after justice," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut.

"It was a political decision, because as soon as they got a sentence on him they executed him. What mattered was his death rather than finding justice."

The second SMH piece is about Pakistan, which is becoming -- totally predictably -- the next Bush-enabled "front" in the "global war on terror":

IT HAS more than twice as many people as Iran, six times more than Iraq, many primed for Islamic extremism by a legacy of poverty and illiteracy left by decades of misrule by corrupt secular leaders, civilian and military.

It already has nuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles made with North Korean help. It shelters jihadists battling Western forces across its border, and fanatical cells training Muslim youth in Western countries to put bombs on buses and metros.

If Iraq has turned into a nightmare for the US President, George Bush, think about Islamists gaining power in Pakistan, population 166 million, and their hands on its nuclear arsenal.

Across the border in Afghanistan, 31,000 US, Canadian, European and Australian troops are fighting a resurgent Taliban in the country's south.

The British-led forces can outbattle the Islamist fighters, but the constant fighting and presence of foreign troops is steadily undermining local support for the government of President Hamid Karzai. Frustratingly for the British and Afghan commanders, the Taliban are able to operate out of neighbouring Pakistan with little hindrance.

The Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is said to live in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan province, hold his "shura" or council meetings openly in the city, and train his fighters at two camps on the city's outskirts.

Before an attack by 1500 Taliban fighters in early September, the Taliban streamed across the border into Afghanistan cheered on by Pakistani border guards.

Pakistan's President and army chief, Pervez Musharraf, has been confronted several times this year, by Karzai, the British and the Americans, who have supplied addresses and phone numbers for Omar and his cohorts in Quetta.

Musharraf throws up unconvincing bluster. He claims that Pakistan has done all it can to prevent cross-border military activity, with its army losing 750 killed in campaigns since September 11, 2001, along its frontier with Afghanistan.

Yet Musharraf and his government are deeply ambivalent in their commitment to supporting the Western campaign, in return for which about $US4 billion ($5 billion) in US aid has flowed their way over the past five years.

With the leaders of the country's two main secular parties, former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, in exile and opposing military rule, Musharraf relies on Islamists for domestic political support.

Principal among these is the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, which explicitly supports the Taliban and reinforces it with recruits from its madrassas (Koranic schools), and which the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency helped join ruling coalitions in both Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province.

As its founding patron, the ISI is said to be highly protective of the Taliban, keeping it in reserve in case Pakistan needs to regain control of its northern neighbourhood and transport corridors as "strategic depth" against India.

Pakistan's security agencies have been more active against elements of the al-Qaeda hiding out in its cities, notably by capturing the group's No.3 figure, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, in March 2003 and handing him over to the Americans.

But according to a new report by the International Crisis Group, the Brussels-based think tank headed by the former Australian foreign minister, Gareth Evans, the campaigns against al-Qaeda and Taliban militants operating into Afghanistan have failed.

Pakistani authorities have flip-flopped between excessive force, stirring up more resistance in the fiercely independent border tribes, and appeasement.

Accepting "empty pledges" from tribal maliks (headmen) to end attacks on Pakistani troops and curb foreign terrorists, Islamabad has effectively given the Taliban a free hand in this border region.

Musharraf is trying to shore up an administrative system left by the British based on government political "agents" supervising the traditional maliks, while the Taliban's parallel authority is spreading to "settled" areas of the North-West Frontier.

The "Talibanisation" of Pakistan itself is now a looming worry for the West.

Soon after he seized power in 1999 - ahead of being sacked by Sharif - The Economist magazine called Musharraf a "useless dictator".

Seven years later, he hangs onto power without having achieved much in the way of reform, largely because the US regards him as key to keeping the Islamists out of power.

That is turning out to be another big misconception in Washington.

And Washington has no one to blame but its own blindly ideological thinking.

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