When the US went to war with Iraq a few years ago, it cited the possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) by Saddam Hussein’s regime as a reason for the war. Since the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, there has been no proof of WMD in the country. Luckily, the US (as well as Britain, Italy and Australia) had plans for democracy in Iraq, which culminated in the so-called Purple Revolution of the January 2005 elections. Surprisingly, those elections did not result in much violence and outlooks were positive.

But 2006 saw the violence in Iraq grow to huge proportions, some saying the country was in a state of civil war. US troops have had trouble subduing the violence and more troops may be on the way, with the Bush Administration circulating the idea of a surge option. An exit from Iraq was an option a few months ago, but it now seems farfetched.

Yet the US could use its troops elsewhere. In a major failure of US foreign policy, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in early October. While the US was busy figuring out what to do in Iraq, North Korea (DPRK) quietly brought its nuclear program to a new level. While rhetoric against the DPRK continued, it never seemed that the US was pro-active about negotiating with the alienated regime. After all, the US’ financial sanctions were working and were putting North Korea into a position of no exit. So the Korean leadership went ahead and made the US listen by detonating its nuclear weapon.

More conspicuous perhaps is the case of Iran. The Iranians have been progressing with their civilian nuclear program and are openly enriching uranium, which could very well mean that they too are developing a nuclear weapon. If the US wanted to use its military as a deterrent with Iran, it cannot, because now its troops are very much stuck in Iraq.

Furthermore, Iran is increasingly becoming an active regional player that may be needed for stability in Iraq. Iran has already met with Iraqi President Talabani and has plans on co-operating with Syria to stabilize Iraq. But it also wants US forces out of the region. So any negotiations — direct or indirect — that the US has with Iran will be connected with the future of Iraq, and the US’ role in it. Not the scenario that President Bush was hoping for.

And to end the year, Iraq has executed its former president Saddam Hussein. While the conviction of Hussein is the work of an Iraqi court (and the sentencing carried out by Iraqis), it is hard to divorce the trial from US interests or US meddling. After all, why did Hussein’s dialogue with justice have to start with the Dujail trial and his crimes against humanity not include the Iran-Iraq war (where chemical weapons, likely provided by the US via Germany, were employed)? Why was Hussein in US custody until his hanging? Doesn’t that make him a Prisoner of War, as his lawyers argued on Friday? And why was Saddam Hussein treated to a dubious trial, which a leading US human rights organization has called flawed? That, of course, was the verdict of Human Rights Watch. The US President, however, seems content with the hanging citing a fair trial and as well as Iraqi rule of law.

Would the Iraqi leadership really hang its dictator during Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the the Sacrifice, when the Arabs are supposed to pardon? That would be the biggest mistake for any new government, and its hard to conceive that the sentence was carried out without US encouragement if not enticement.

The hanging itself will not change how things go in Iraq. Hussein was no longer in control. If anything, the execution may make things more difficult, as Hussein still has supporters in Iraq and the insult of hanging him on the first day of Eid al-Adha may add fire to the discontent.

And US foreign policy seems stuck on Iraq, with the US incapable of facing up to North Korea and Iran. After all, it looks like the six-party talks with North Korea will require more than what US negotiator Christopher Hill is ready to offer, and will probably require the help of China. And there seems to be no clear policy for dealing with Iran, though the US was successful in passing a UN Security Council resolution condemning Iran’s nuclear enrichment.

As expected, Saddam Hussein has been hanged in Iraq. The execution was slated to happen before the New Year and the former president’s late attempts to appeal the verdict were unsuccessful, with a US judge rejecting his appeal saying that Hussein was not in US custody.

Hussein’s legal team had argued that he was a Prisoner of War and thus should have remained in US custody. That would annul the Iraqi court’s decision.

The defense makes sense with Hussein having been captured as part of the US’ war on Hussein’s regime. Considering the flawed trial which convicted Hussein to the death, the hanging is quite contentious. Furthermore, it is something that can spur violence with parts of Iraq still behind the former president.

The execution comes on the eve of the Eid al-Adha holiday (which coincides with the Hajj), and this may be intentional, with officials possibly hoping that Hajj pilgrimage will subdue potential violence.

Living in Moscow

December 28, 2006

Russia has been in the news quite a bit lately. A common trend is to draw the parallel between Russia of today and the Soviet Union. For example is this weekend’s article in the Washington Post on the 15-year anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

On today’s Off the hour I spoke with Alexander Popov, who is a producer working in Moscow about his experience of politics while living in Russia’s capital and what he thought of the parallel. Listen below:

[odeo=http://odeo.com/audio/4629683/view]

Doug Stych on Iraq, Iran

December 28, 2006

On today’s Off the hour, I got the chance to speak with Doug Stych of Doug’s Darkworld about his thoughts on the war in Iraq and the idea that the US may be planning war with Iran. Listen below:

[odeo=http://odeo.com/audio/4629593/view]

It was reported yesterday that the US had offered to remove North Korea from its list of states sponsoring terrorism, if the DPRK agreed to dismantle its nuclear program. With the talks failing to lead to any result, it’s clear that North Korea declined. The regime is not interested in soft power assets, but wants concrete ones like its financial operations resumed. This is why the regime insisted on the removal of financial sanctions.

Secretary General of the UN designate Ban Ki-moon commented the six-party talks of last week by saying that “the issue requires time and patience.” The South Korean politician vowed to work on resolving the crisis once he starts his new job in the UN.

Ban Ki-moon has a good point: the issue is more complicated than a week of talks can resume. After all, North Korea has won a big battle by testing its nuclear weapon. The US, on the other hand, has found an effective tool in financial sanctions. Ironically, it is because of these sanctions that the DPRK had no other avenue than to test its weapon; with the test, the talks have resumed with the US and other states willing to be in dialogue with North Korea.

Finding a way to reconciliate the two positions will be difficult, considering that both the US and North Korea have certain strategic advantages in the negotiations. It will probably be up to one of the other states in the talks to take the first big step in the negotiations by offering a significant incentive, something North Korea and the US are not prepared to do.

Independent Iraq

December 25, 2006

A British raid of a police station in Basra is bringing forth questions of the degree of Iraqi independence. The Guardian reports that British forces stormed Jamiat prison, to free 127 prisoners, many of whom British forces feared would be killed or were falsely imprisoned.

The BBC reports that the head of city council of Basra has called this operation illegal, saying that the council had not been informed of the raid.

It’s noteworthy that Basra is one of the areas the British hoped to leave for Iraqi forces to secure, as a first test of how prepared Iraqi forces are to handle security on their own. Foreign Secretary Beckett has said that British forces could be out of Basra province by spring.

This raid and the Iraqi response seems to be a vote of no confidence on the part of the British, on how well Iraqis can secure their own freedom. It’s yet another confirmation that Iraq is not an independent democracy. After all, Iraqi President Talabani invited to Iranian envoys, who have been detained by US forces.

It’s clear that Iran is not a favored player by occupying forces, however if Iraq can create stability through its contacts with Iran, this should be allowed. Also, the US clearly favors Iraqi PM Maliki over President Talabani, but again, if Talabani can bring peace, this should be allowed. But Iraq is not a free country.

The UN Security Council has passed a resolution condemning Iran for its nuclear enrichment. Key was the support of China and Russia, who have been reluctant on approving earlier drafts of resolutions against Iran.

Iran has responded by questioning why the UN has not condemned Israel for its nuclear arms. This criticism was made possible by a recent slip by Israeli PM Olmert.

The resolution has been long in the making and has been specifically tailored to make sure it would be adopted. Specifically, Bushehr, the Russian nuclear power plant built for Iran, is not mentioned. The resolution’s sanctions also allow countries to unfreeze assets of the companies dealing with Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missiles program, because freezing them is left to countries’ discretion.

It’s not clear what the US’ intentions with Iran are, but after some time out of the spotlight, Iran is back in the forefront of US foreign policy. The US this week made it its intention to pass a resolution. At the same time, reports circulated earlier this week, suggesting the US may send another carrier to the Gulf region as a sign for Iran.

It’s clear that the Iranian resolution will not stop Iran’s nuclear program, but it is a criticism of Iran which is approved by members of the Security Council, apart from the US. This is something that could be used in the future to justify US foreign policy.