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Tue Dec 31, 2013, 06:44 AM Dec 2013

(Juan Cole) Top Ten Middle East Stories 2013: How the Region has Changed


Iraqis don’t have age-old hatreds. Most of the trouble comes from the sectarian way the US ran the place.

Top Ten Middle East Stories 2013: How the Region has Changed
By Juan Cole | Dec. 31, 2013

10. Tunisia suffered the assassination of two leftist politicians, provoking demonstrations bigger than the ones that brought down the government of dictator Zine El Abidin Ben Ali in 2011. The second of these assassinations, this summer, provoked students, youth activists and the major national labor union to mount concerted demonstrations demanding that the elected government of the center-right Muslim Renaissance Party (al-Nahda) step down. Protracted negotiations among adherents of the religious Right, leftists and secularists finally led only a couple of weeks ago to the installation of technocrat Mehdi Jomaa as caretaker prime minister. He and his neutral cabinet will oversee a referendum on a new constitution, which is just about drafted, and then new elections for a four-year parliament. Just yesterday, the Ansar al-Sharia leader suspected of complicity in the assassinations was apprehended in Libya. Of all the Arab countries, Tunisians have conducted their politics with the greatest maturity and sense of compromise (although it does not look that way to Tunisians caught up in the passions of the moment). The Tunisian economy also looked up this year for the first time since the revolution, with a 2.3% growth rate, which is expected to double next year.

9. Yemen: Yemen has seen a further deterioration of security. There has been hard fighting between radical Zaidi Shiites (Huthis) and hard line Sunni fundamentalists (Salafis). Some areas of the country have seen terrorism by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and AQAP tried to assassinate the president. The Yemeni government behind the scenes continues to allow the US to carry out drone strikes on suspected al-Qaeda operatives. In mid-December one such attack seems to have gone wrong and hit a wedding convoy. There has also been a growth of demonstrations and violence by southern secessionists and federalists who want more autonomy for south Yemen (which was an independent country 1967-1991). The government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour doesn’t seem to have been terribly relevant to most of what has been going on in the country. New elections are scheduled for February but seasoned observers doubt they will take place then. Aside from intractable political divisions and some ominous extremism, Yemen faces problems in having enough water and food. A third of children are food insecure and thousands go to bed hungry.

8. Iraq: The country’s low intensity conflict heated up in 2013, leaving at least 8,000 dead in bombings and shootings. It was the worst death toll since 2008. Iraq’s security declined in part because the Syrian Civil War led to a resurgence of Sunni extremism. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria even established itself in both countries. This is not a civil war but a low-intensity guerrilla war. At the same time, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seemed determined to interpret the peaceful demonstrations against his Shiite government by Sunnis in Ramadi and Falluja as a form of terrorism. In the past few days he had a Sunni parliamentarian arrested in a violent way that left the man’s brother and possibly his sister dead. In reaction, on Monday 44 Sunni members of parliament resigned. Also on Monday, al-Maliki’s troops forcibly cleared out a protest sit-in of Sunnis in Falluja that he maintained had become infested with “al-Qaeda” and blocked traffic to Jordan. Al-Maliki’s unwillingness to run the Iraqi government in an inclusive way and to reach out to the Sunnis is responsible for some of the country’s deep division. On the other hand, Iraq now produces 10,000 MW of electricity (though demand runs to 14,000 MW), and is making arrangements to import another 500 MW from Iran, along with Iranian natural gas. Iraq is now the biggest importer of Iranian goods, taking 70% of them. The economic integration of Iraq into the regional Iranian market helps explain PM al-Maliki’s increasingly warm relations with Tehran and his support for the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, another issue on which Iraqi Sunnis differ with him. Iraqis don’t have age-old hatreds. Most of the trouble comes from the sectarian way the US ran the place.

7. Afghanistan: President Hamid Karzai was prevailed upon by Washington to call a Loya Jirga or congress of elders, who agreed to the proposal that some thousands of US troops would remain in that country after December 2012. The US military needs a Status of Forces Agreement with Afghanistan indemnifying American troops from prosecution in Afghan courts for actions undertaken in battle. The UN authorization for US troops in Afghanistan is lapsing, so a bilateral treaty is necessary. Despite having gained the assent of his hand-picked elders, Karzai quixotically announced that he would not sign a SOFA and would leave that to his successor (who will be elected beginning in April). The US was upset, saying that if they are going to get all 50,000 US troops out of the country by the end of 2014 they need a year lead time. But Karzai has refused to budge. Washington is fearful that if all foreign troops do leave at the end of next year, the Taliban will have Kabul for lunch soon thereafter.
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