China Plans to Break Petrodollar Stranglehold

By Pepe Escobar

Beijing to set up oil-futures trading in the yuan which will be fully convertible into gold on the Shanghai and Hong Kong exchanges

By Pepe Escobar

December 26, 2017 “Information Clearing House” –  Petrodollars have dominated the global energy markets for more than 40 years. But now, China is looking to change that by replacing the word dollars for yuan.

Nations, of course, have tried this before since the system was set up by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in tandem with the House of Saud back in 1974

Vast populations across the Middle East and Northern Africa quickly felt the consequences when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein decided to sell oil in euros. Then there was Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi’s pan-African gold dinar blueprint, which failed to create a splash in an oil barrel.

Fast forward 25 years and China is making a move to break the United States petrodollar stranglehold. The plan is to set up oil-futures trading in the yuan, which will be fully convertible into gold on the Shanghai and Hong Kong foreign exchange markets.

The Shanghai Futures Exchange and its subsidiary, the Shanghai International Energy Exchange (INE), have already run four simulations for crude futures.

It was expected to be rolled out by the end of this year, but that looks unlikely to happen. But when it does get off the ground in 2018, the fundamentals will be clear – this triple oil-yuan-gold route will bypass the mighty green back.

The era of the petroyuan will be at hand.

Still, there are questions on how Beijing will technically set up a rival futures market in crude oil to Brent and WTI, and how China’s capital controls will influence it.

Bejing has been quite discreet on this. The petroyuan was not even mentioned in the National Development and Reform Commission documents following the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party last October.

What is certain is that the BRICS, the acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, did support the petroyuan move at their summit in Xiamen earlier this year. Diplomats confirmed that to Asia Times.

Venezuela is also on board. It is crucial to remember that Russia is number two and Venezuela is number seven among the world’s Top 10 oil producers. Beijing already has close economic ties with Moscow, while it is distinctly possible that other producers will join the club.

“This contract has the potential to greatly help China’s push for yuan internationalization,” Yao Wei, chief China economist at Societe Generale in Paris, said when he hit the nail firmly on the head.

An extensive report by DBS in Singapore also hits most of the right notes, linking the internationalization of the yuan with the expansion of the grandiose Belt and Road Initiative.

Next year, six major BRI projects will be on the table.

Mega infrastructure developments will include the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway, the China-Laos railway and the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway. The other key projects will be the Hungary-Serbia railway, the Melaka Gateway project in Malaysia and the upgrading of Gwadar port in Pakistan.

HSBC has estimated that the expansive Belt and Road program will generate no less than an additional, game-changing US$2.5 trillion worth of new trade a year.

It is important to remember that the “belt” in BRI is a series of corridors connecting Eastern China with oil-gas rich regions in Central Asia and the Middle East. The high-speed rail networks, or new “Silk Roads”, will simply traverse regions filled with, what else, un-mined gold.

But a key to the future of the petroyuan will revolve around the House of Saud, and what it will do. Should the Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, also known as MBS, follow Russia’s lead? If it did, this would be one of the paradigm shifts of the century.

Yet there are signs of what could happen. Yuan-denominated gold contracts will be traded not only in Shanghai and Hong Kong but also in Dubai. Saudi Arabia is also considering issuing so-called Panda bonds, with close ally, the United Arab Emirates, taking the lead in the Middle East for Chinese interbank bonds.

Of course, the prelude to D-Day will be when the House of Saud officially announces it accepts the yuan for at least part of its exports to China. But what is clear is that Saudi Arabia simply cannot afford to alienate Beijing as one of its top customers.

In the end, it will be China which will dictate future terms. That may include extra pressure for Beijing’s participation in Aramco’s IPO. In parallel, Washington would see Riyadh embracing the petroyuan as the ultimate red line.

An independent European report pointed to what might be Beijing’s trump card – “an authorization to issue treasury bills in yuan by Saudi Arabia” as well as the creation of a Saudi investment fund and a 5% share of Aramco.

Nations hit hard by US sanctions, such as Russia, Iran and Venezuela, will be among the first to embrace the petroyuan. Smaller producers, such as Angola and Nigeria, are already selling oil and gas to the world’s second largest economy in Chinese currency.

As for nations involved in the new “Silk Roads” program that are not oil exporters such as Pakistan, the least they can do is replace the dollar in bilateral trade. This is what Pakistan’s Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal is currently mulling over.

Of course, there will be a “push back” from the US. The dollar is still the global currency, even though it might have lost some of luster in the past decade.

But the BRICS, as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, or SCO, which includes prospective members Iran and Turkey, are increasingly settling bilateral and multilateral trade by bypassing the green back.

In the end, it will not be over until the fat (golden) lady sings.  When the beginning of the end of the petrodollar system becomes a fact, watch out for a US counterpunch.

Pepe Escobar is an independent geopolitical analyst. https://www.facebook.com/pepe.escobar.77377?

 

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How Turkey, Iran, Russia and India are playing the New Silk Roads

November 22, 2017

by Pepe Escobar of the Asia Times (cross-posted by special agreement with the author)

Syria war, Sochi peaceA pacified Syria is key to the economic integration of Eurasia through energy and transportation connections

Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani will hold a summit this Wednesday in Sochi to discuss Syria. Russia, Turkey and Iran are the three power players at the Astana negotiations – where multiple cease-fires, as hard to implement as they are, at least evolve, slowly but surely, towards the ultimate target – a political settlement.

A stable Syria is crucial to all parties involved in Eurasia integration. As Asia Times reported, China has made it clear that a pacified Syria will eventually become a hub of the New Silk Roads, known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – building on the previous business bonanza of legions of small traders commuting between Yiwu and the Levant.

Away from intractable war and peace issues, it’s even more enlightening to observe how Turkey, Iran and Russia are playing their overlapping versions of Eurasia economic integration and/or BRI-related business.

Much has to do with the energy/transportation connectivity between railway networks – and, further on the down the road, high-speed rail – and what I have described, since the early 2000s, as Pipelineistan.

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The Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, a deal brokered in person in Baku by the late Dr Zbigniew “Grand Chessboard” Brzezinski, was a major energy/geopolitical coup by the Clinton administration, laying out an umbilical steel cord between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

Now comes the Baku-Tblisi-Kars (BTK) railway – inaugurated with great fanfare by Erdogan alongside Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, but also crucially Kazakh Prime Minister Bakhytzhan Sagintayev and Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov. After all, this is about the integration of the Caucasus with Central Asia.

Erdogan actually went further: BTK is “an important chain in the New Silk Road, which aims to connect Asia, Africa, and Europe.” The new transportation corridor is configured as an important Eurasian hub linking not only the Caucasus with Central Asia but also, in the Big Picture, the EU with Western China.

BTK is just the beginning, considering the long-term strategy of Chinese-built high-speed rail from Xinjiang across Central Asia all the way to Iran, Turkey, and of course, the dream destination: the EU. Erdogan can clearly see how Turkey is strategically positioned to profit from it.

map1

Of course, BTK is not a panacea. Other connectivity points between Iran and Turkey will spring up, and other key BRI interconnectors will pick up speed in the next few years, such as the Eurasian Land Bridge across the revamped Trans-Siberian and an icy version of the Maritime Silk Road: the Northern Sea Route across the Arctic.

What’s particularly interesting in the BTK case is the Pipelineistan interconnection with the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline (TANAP), bringing natural gas from the massive Azeri gas field Shah Deniz-2 to Turkey and eventually the EU.

Turkish analyst Cemil Ertem stresses, “just like TANAP, the BTK Railway not only connects three countries, but also is one of the main trade and transport routes in Asia and Europe, and particularly Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan ports. It connects Central Asia to Turkey with the Marmaray project in Istanbul and via the Caspian region. Along with the Southern Gas Corridor, which constitutes TANAP’s backbone, it will also connect ports on the South China Sea to Europe via Turkey.”

It’s no wonder BTK has been met with ecstatic reception across Turkey – or, should we say, what used to be known as Asia Minor. It does spell out, graphically, Ankara’s pivoting to the East (as in increasing trade with China) as well as a new step in the extremely complex strategic interdependence between Ankara and Moscow; the Central Asian “stans”, after all, fall into Russia’s historical sphere of influence.

Add to it the (pending) Russian sale of the S-400 missile defense system to Ankara, and the Russian and Chinese interest in having Turkey as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

From IPI to IP and then II

Now compare the BTK coup with one of Pipelineistan’s trademark cliff-hanging soap operas; the IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India), previously dubbed “the peace pipeline”.

IPI originally was supposed to link southeastern Iran with northern India across Balochistan, via the Pakistani port of Gwadar (now a key hub of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, CPEC). The Bush and Obama administrations did everything to prevent IPI from ever being built, betting instead on the rival TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) – which would actually traverse a war zone east of Herat, Afghanistan.

TAPI might eventually be built – even with the Taliban being denied their cut (that was exactly the contention 20 years ago with the first Clinton administration: transit rights). Lately, Russia stepped up its game, with Gazprom seducing India into becoming a partner in TAPI’s construction.

But then came the recent announcement by Russian Energy Minister Aleksandr Novak: Moscow and Tehran will sign a memorandum of understanding to build a 1,200km gas pipeline from Iran to India; call it II. And Gazprom, in parallel, will invest in unexplored Iranian gas fields along the route.

Apart from the fact of a major win for Gazprom – expanding its reach towards South Asia – the clincher is the project won’t be the original IPI (actually IP), where Iran already built the stretch up to the border and offered help for Islamabad to build its own stretch; a move that would be plagued by US sanctions. The Gazprom project will be an underwater pipeline from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean.

From New Delhi’s point of view, this is the ultimate win-win. TAPI remains a nightmarish proposition, and India needs all the gas it can get, fast. Assuming the new Trump administration “Indo-Pacific” rhetoric holds, New Delhi is confident it won’t be slapped with sanctions because it’s doing business with both Iran and Russia.

And then there was another key development coming out of Putin’s recent visit to Tehran: the idea – straight out of BRI – of building a rail link between St. Petersburg (on the Baltic) and Chabahar port close to the Persian Gulf. Chabahar happens to be the key hub of India’s answer to BRI: a maritime trade link to Afghanistan and Central Asia bypassing Pakistan, and connected to the North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), of which Iran, India and Russia are key members alongside Caucasus and Central Asian nations.

You don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows across Eurasia; integration, all the way.

Hariri Does Paris

By Pepe Escobar

November 19, 2017 “Information Clearing House” – It’s not that Saad Hariri was itching for a shopping spree at Avenue Montaigne.

French MSM is spicing up the steak tartare to oblivion trying to spin a foreign policy “victory”. Nonsense.

The true story starts in Abu Dhabi when Sun King Macron was having dinner with all-powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) during the inauguration of the Louvre in the Sands (doesn’t it sound like a casino?)

What happened is that MBZ grabbed his mobile and secured a meeting between Macron and MBS for the day after. Easy; after all MBZ is MBS’s mentor – and de facto chief strategist.

Macron’s people had been trying FOR WEEKS to get a meeting with MBS. Zayed did it with one single phone call.

Afterwards, MBS threw a breadcrumb to the begging Macron; OK, you can meet Hariri and even take him away. But under certain conditions; French Minister Le Drian had to publicly scold Iran – which he did; and on top of it Le Drian cancelled his trip to Tehran next week to prepare the terrain for Macron’s own visit.

Talk about “French power”.

Additionally, Hariri WAS indeed kidnapped and under house arrest in Riyadh – as many of us reported.

He even begged for asylum in Amman, Jordan. Denied – because the Jordanians are essentially Saudi vassals.

The New York Times BURIED the info at the end of this piece:

“Mr. Hariri reached out to Jordan with a request to go to Amman as a safe haven, a Western official said. The request was denied, the official said, because the Saudis had pressured Jordan not to accept him. A spokeswoman at the Embassy of Jordan in Washington denied that such a request had been made.”

Who the hell wants exile in the land of King Playstation? Hariri at least is drinking good Margaux.

And the MBS Lebanon power play is an absolute, resounding fiasco.

Pepe Escobar is an independent geopolitical analyst.https://www.facebook.com/pepe.escobar.77377?

Live from Baghdad: the secret of Iraq’s renaissance

November 14, 2017

by Pepe Escobar of the Asia Times (cross-posted by special agreement with the author)

BAGHDAD – On a sandstorm-swept morning in Baghdad earlier last week, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the legendary deputy leader of Hashd al-Shaabi, a.k.a. People Mobilization Units (PMUs) and the actual mastermind of numerous ground battles against ISIS/Daesh, met a small number of independent foreign journalists and analysts.

This was a game-changing moment in more ways than one. It was the first detailed interview granted by Mohandes since the fatwa issued by Grand Ayatollah Sistani – the immensely respected marja (source of emulation) and top clerical authority in Iraq – in June 2014, when Daesh stormed across the border from Syria. The fatwa, loosely translated, reads, “It is upon every Iraqi capable of carrying guns to volunteer with the Iraqi Armed Forces to defend the sanctities of the nation.”

Mohandes took time out of the battlefield especially for the meeting, and then left straight for al-Qaim. He was sure “al-Qaim will be taken in a matter of days” – a reference to the crucial Daesh-held Iraqi border town connecting to Daesh stronghold Abu Kamal in Syria.

That’s exactly what happened only four days later; Iraqi forces immediately started a mop up operation and prepared to meet advancing Syrian forces at the border – yet more evidence that the recomposition of the territorial integrity of both Iraq and Syria is a (fast) work in progress.

The meeting with Mohandes was held in a compound inside the massively fortified Green Zone – an American-concocted bubble kept totally insulated from ultra-volatile red zone Baghdad with multiple checkpoints and sniffer dogs manned by US contractors.

Adding to the drama, the US State Department describes Mohandes as a “terrorist”. That amounts in practice to criminalizing the Iraqi government in Baghdad – which duly released an official statement furiously refuting the characterization.

The PMUs are an official body with tens of thousands of volunteers linked to the office of the Commander in Chief of the Iraqi Armed Forces. The Iraqi Parliament fully legalized the PMUs in November 2016 via resolution 91 (item number 4, for instance, states that “the PMU and its affiliates are subject to military regulations that are enforced from all angles.”)

Its 25 combat brigades – comprising Shi’ites, Sunnis, Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Shabak and Kurds – have been absolutely crucial in the fight against Daesh in Samarra, Amerli, Jalawla, Balad, Salahuddin, Fallujah (35 different battles), Shirqat and Mosul (especially over the western axis from Qayarah base to the Iraq-Syrian border, cutting off supply chains and sealing Mosul from an attempted Daesh escape to Syria).

Retaking Kirkuk “in a matter of hours”

Mohandes describes the PMUs as “an official military force” which plays a “complementary role” to the Iraqi Army. The initial plan was for the PMUs to become a national guard – which in fact they are now; “We have recon drones and engineering units that the Army does not have. We don’t mind if we are called gendarmes.” He’s proud the PMUs are fighting an “unconventional war”, holding the high ground “militarily and morally” with “victories achieved in record time”. And “contrary to Syria”, with no direct Russian support.

Mohandes is clear that Iran was the only nation supporting Iraq’s fight against Daesh. Iraq reciprocated by helping Syria, “facilitating over flights by Iranian planes.” With no Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Washington and Baghdad, “the Americans withdrew companies that maintain Abrams tanks.” In 2014

“we didn’t even have AK-47s. Iran gave them to us. The US embassy had 12 Apache helicopters ready to transport diplomats if Baghdad fell to Daesh”.

One year later, “Baghdad would have been occupied” were not for the PMUs; “It’s like you’re in a hospital and you need blood. The Americans would show up with the transfusion when it was too late.” He is adamant “the US did not provide a single bullet” in the overall fight against Daesh. And yet, Mohandes clarifies that the “US may stay in Iraq should the Iraqi government decide it. My personal opinion is well known.”

Mohandes considers the [Western] “media war waged against Hashd al-Shaabi” as “normal from the beginning”; “Countries that supported terrorism would not perceive that a popular force would emerge, and did not recognize the new political system in Iraq.” On that note, he added ruefully, “you can smell petrol”.

Mohandes was personally wounded in Halabja and also in Anfal – Saddam Hussein’s anti-Kurdish operations. He was “pleased to see Kurdistan saved after 1991”; stresses “we had martyrs who fell in Kurdistan defending them”; and considers himself a friend of the Kurds, keeping good relations with their leaders. Iranian advisors, alongside the Iraqi Army and the PMUs, also “prevented Daesh from conquering Erbil.”

Yet after a “unilateral referendum, Iraq had to assert the authority of the state”. Retaking Kirkuk – largely a PMU operation – was “a matter of hours”; the PMUs “avoided fighting and stayed only in the outskirts of Kirkuk”. Mohandes previously discussed operational details with the Peshmerga, and there was full coordination with both Iran and Turkey; “It’s a misconception that Kurdish leaders could rely on Turkey.”

Fallujah, finally secured

The PMUs absolutely insist on their protection of ethnic minorities, referring to thousands of Sabak, Yazidi and Turkmen – among at least 120,000 families – forced by Daesh rule into becoming IDPs. After liberation battles were won, the PMUs provided these families with food, clothing, toys, generators and fuel. I confirmed that many of these donations came from families of PMU fighters all across the country. PMU priorities include combat engineering teams bringing families back to their areas after clearing mines and explosives, and then reopening hospitals and schools. For instance, 67,000 families were resettled into their homes in Salahuddin and 35,000 families in Diyala.

Mohandes stresses that, “in the fight against Daesh in Salahuddin and Hawija, the brigade commanders were Sunnis”. The PMUs feature a Christian Babylon brigade, a Yazidi brigade, and a Turkmen brigade; “When Yazidis were under siege in Sinjar we freed at least 300,000 people.”

Overall, the PMUs include over 20,000 Sunni fighters. Compare it with the fact that 50 per cent of Daesh’s suicide bombers in Iraq have been Saudi nationals. I confirmed with Sheikh Muhammad al-Nouri, leader of the Sunni scholars in Fallujah, “this is an ideological battle against Wahhabi ideology. We need to get away from the Wahhabi school and redirect our knowledge to other Sunni schools.” He explained how that worked on the ground in Haditha (“we were able to control mosques”) and motivated people in Fallujah, 30 minutes away; “Fallujah is an Iraqi city. We believe in coexistence.”

After 14 years in which Fallujah was not secure, and with the Haditha experience fast expanding, Sheikh Muhammad is convinced “Iraq will declare a different war on terror.”

The inclusive approach was also confirmed by Yezen Meshaan al-Jebouri, the head of the Salahuddin PMU brigade. This is crucial because he’s a member of the very prominent Sunni Jebouri family, which was historically inimical to Saddam Hussein; his father is the current governor of Tikrit. Al-Jebouri decries “the state corruption in Sunni regions”, an “impression of injustice” and the fact that for Daesh, “Sunnis who did not follow them should also be killed.” He’s worried about “the Saudi accumulation of developed weapons. Who guarantees these won’t be used against the region?” And he refuses the notion that “we are looked upon by the West as part of the Iranian project.”

Military victory meets political victory

Far from the stereotyped “terrorist”, Mohandes is disarmingly smart, witty and candid. And a full-blooded Iraqi patriot; “Iraq now reinstates its position because of the blood of its sons. We needed to have a military force capable of fighting an internal threat. We are accomplishing a religious national and humanitarian duty.” Soldiers apart, thousands of extra PMU volunteers do not receive salaries. Members of Parliament and even Ministers were active in the battlefield. Mohandes is proud that “we have a chain of command just like the army”; that the PMUs harbor “thousands of people with college degrees”; that they run “dozens of field hospitals, intensive care units” and have “the strongest intel body in Iraq.”

In Baghdad, I personally confirmed the narrative accusing the PMUs of being Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s private army is nonsense. If that was the case, Grand Ayatollah Sistani should take the blame, as he conceptually is the father of the PMUs. Hadi al-Amiri, the secretary-general of the powerful Badr organization, also extremely active in the fight against Daesh, stressed to me the PMUs are “part of the security system, integrated with the Ministry of Defense”. But now “we need universities and emphasis on education.”

Pakistani Prof. Hassan Abbas, from the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington, went even further, as we extensively discussed not only Iraq and Syria but also Afghanistan and Pakistan; “Iraq is now in a unique position heading towards a democratic, pluralistic society”, proving that “the best answer to sectarianism is religious harmony.” This “inclusiveness against Takfirism” must now connect in the streets “with the rule of law and a fair justice system”. Abbas points out that the base for Iraq to build up is law enforcement via scientific investigation; “Policing is the first line of defense”.

Baghdad has been able, almost simultaneously, to pull off two major game-changers; a military victory in Mosul and a political victory in Kirkuk. If Iraq stabilizes, erasing the Daesh death cult, so will Syria. As al-Jebouri notes, “now every community must have a cut of the cake.” At least 7 million jobs and pensions are paid by Baghdad. People want the return of regularly paid salaries. That starts with decent security all over the country. Mohandes was the engineer – his actual profession – of key battles against Daesh. There’s a wide consensus in Baghdad that without him Daesh would be firmly installed in the Green Zone.

Hashd al-Shaabi is already an Iraqi pop phenomenon, reflected in this huge hit by superstar Ali al-Delfi. From pop to politics is another matter entirely. Mohandes is adamant the PMUs won’t get involved in politics, “and directly won’t contest elections. If someone does, and many individuals are now very popular, they have to leave Hashd.”

From hybrid warfare to national renewal

After days talking to Hashd al-Shaabi personnel and observing how they operate a complex hybrid warfare battlefield coupled with an active recruitment process and heavy presence in social media, it’s clear the PMUs are now firmly established as a backbone underpinning Iraqi state security, an array of stabilization programs – including much needed medical services – and most of all, introducing a measure of efficiency Iraq was totally unfamiliar for almost three decades.

It’s a sort of state-building mechanism springing out of a resistance ethic. As if the ominous Daesh threat, which may have led to as many as 3.1 million IDPs, shook up the collective Iraqi subconscious, awakened the Iraqi Shi’ite proletariat/disenfranchised masses, and accelerated cultural decolonization. And this complex development couldn’t be further from religious bigotry.

Amid Wilsonian eulogies and references to the Marshall Plan, Foreign Minister Ebrahim al-Jaafari is also a staunch defender of the PMUs, stressing it as “an experiment to be studied”, a “new phenomenon with a humane basis operating on a legal framework”, and “able to break the siege of solitude Iraq has suffered for years.”

Referring to the Daesh offensive, Jaafari insisted “Iraq did not commit a crime” in the first place, but hopefully there’s “a new generation of youth capable of reinforcing the experiment”. The emphasis now, following reconciliation, is on “an era of national participation”. He’s adamant that “families of Daesh members should not pay for their mistakes.” Daesh informers will be duly put on trial.

I asked the Foreign Minister if Baghdad did not fear being caught in a lethal crossfire between Washington and Tehran. His response was carefully measured. He said he had enough experience of dealing with “radical” neocons in D.C. And at the same time he was fully aware of the role of the PMUs as well as Iran in Iraq’s reassertion of sovereignty. His warm smile highlighted the conviction that out of the ashes of a cultish black death, the Iraqi renaissance was fully in effect.

Tikrit and Najaf: the agony and the ecstasy

November 10, 2017

by Pepe EscobarTikrit and Najaf: the agony and the ecstasy

TIKRIT and NAJAF, Iraq – Nothing, absolutely nothing prepares you to revive, on the spot, the memory of what will go down in history as ISIS/Daesh’s most horrid killing field in Iraq or Syria since the death cult stormed across the border in the summer of 2014; the Speicher massacre of June 12, 2014 – when almost 2,000 Iraqi army recruits were assassinated in and nearby a former Saddam Hussein palace on the banks of the Tigris near Tikrit.

As Dylan would sing it, “ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet”. In 2003, a few days after Shock and Awe and the fall of Baghdad, I took the road to Tikrit for Asia Times to survey Uday Hussein’s bombed palace as well as his father’s birthplace, only to return 14 years later to one of those palaces turned into a house of horror.

The Speicher killing field was gruesomely staged – and filmed – by Daesh only a few days after the fall of Mosul. Daesh’s Salafi-jihadi goons were feted as “liberators” by many a Sunni tribe around Trikrit just as 10,000 Iraqi Army recruits from different provinces, mostly Shi’ites, were being trained at an Air Force academy nearby.

With Daesh fast advancing and the Iraqi Army at the time dissolving by the minute, the youngsters were ordered to switch into civilian clothes, leave their weapons behind, and go home. As they were literally walking back to their home provinces they ended up falling in a lethal Daesh trap. Bearing echoes of the Nazi era, the youngsters were divided into Sunnis and Shi’ites – with the Shi’ites bundled in trucks described as their “transportation” home. Instead they were taken to what would become a killing field framed by decaying Saddamist architecture.

The horror, the horror

It’s late evening on a windless Monday – and I’m standing at the eerily silent exact spot of one of the killing field’s sites, captured by a Daesh propaganda video in part of this harrowing footage. Hayder Atamiri, the official representative of the Tikrit massacre committee, almost in tears, swears, “all the tribes in the area took part in this”. He’s convinced the massacre took place in “an icon of Saddam” and it was “revenge for Saddam’s death”.

Daesh leaders presided over a gruesome ritual from a balcony as three jihadis summarily killed the recruits with a bullet in the back of the head. Today, discreet shrines with pictures of the dead surround the balcony. So far 1907 victims have been catalogued – many from Iraq’s Shi’ite-majority and/or poorer provinces (for instance, 382 from Babylon, 254 from Diwaniya, 132 from Karbala, 119 from Diyala, 99 from Najaf.)

Atamiri says locals at the time found roughly 90 bodies “and the rest drifted away” along the Tigris. Nearby, Daesh goons “dug trenches, used bulldozers and covered the bodies with rocks.” No less than 14 mass graves have been found, 13 of them “already excavated.” Two more mass graves were identified “but there’s no proper storage for the remains yet.”

Other figures by the Iraqi Ministry of Health list 1,935 dead – with 994 bodies found, 527 fully identified, 467 under examination and still 941 missing. A systematic search for human remains only started in March 2015 – eight months after the massacre – when Tikrit was finally recaptured by Baghdad’s forces.

Compared with Ramadi or Mosul, Tikrit suffered very little damage as it was reconquered largely by Hashd al-Shaabi, a.k.a. the People Mobilization Units (PMUs), called into action by Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s 2014 fatwa. Atamiri is adamant “Hashd was the only force liberating Tikrit.” And crucially these fighters were not Shi’ites; they were Sunnis.

Yezen Meshaan al-Jebouri, the son of the governor of Tikrit, Raed al-Jebouri, head of the Salahuddin PMU brigade – and a member of the very prominent Sunni Jebouri family, which was historically inimical to Saddam Hussein, had previously confirmed to me in Baghdad; “Local tribal leaders encouraged the work of Hashd. They understood we believe in Iraq’s political system.” Almost a third of the PMU force – a total of around 20,000 fighters – is Sunni. As al-Jebouri stressed, “Tikrit returned to its people. And Tikrit University was protected.”

In the complex Iraqi tribal chessboard, the local consensus is that certain Wahhabi-tinged jihadis were part of the Speicher massacre, but that did not translate into a collective Sunni endeavor. Daesh killed Sunnis as well, and Sunnis helped at least a few Shi’ites to flee.

Atamiri is adamant, “only Hashd stood with us. Now they are maintaining peace and won’t allow any extra-judicial revenge”. He frames the whole battle ahead as the need to “eradicate extremist ideology” and notes that some Daesh jihadis, when captured, “tried to show remorse, but that is very difficult for us to believe. And some of them are now living in European countries.”

Families of the murdered youngsters silently exhibit photos of their sons and ask “international bodies to do something”. They all agree; the response from the “international community” has been shameful. Still, the Tikrit massacre committee vows to keep the memory of Speicher alive. Mothers of victims have been to Geneva to ask for help as well as mental health support for quite a few families, and plan to visit again in June 2018.

This has been one of Iraq’s most devastating nightmares of the past three decades. After such sorrow, what forgiveness?

Shrine honoring victims of a Daesh killing field by the Tigris, near Tikrit, Iraq. Photo Pepe Escobar

Keep walking towards redemption

It’s possible. From agony to ecstasy. There could not be a more radical contrast between darkness and light than taking the road to Najaf – the Iraqi Vatican, and fourth holiest city in Islam – and Karbala, alongside millions of black-clad pilgrims during the annual celebration of Arba’een, the “40th Day” of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.

Countless tents, tea shops and impromptu restaurants, festively decorated, line up the road to Najaf and Karbala. Suddenly we’re thrown into the vortex of the largest gathering of humans in history, way outdoing the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca; nearly 20 million people as opposed to about 1.5 million. Here is the record of my own pilgrimage in 2003 – a few days after the fall of Baghdad.

To be inside the Imam Ali shrine – in all its glimmering, refracted glory – is a religious experience in itself, the apotheosis of Shi’ite rituals of redemptive suffering (readers interested to know about Arba’een may consult scholar Seyyed Hosein Mohammad Jafri’s book The Origins and Early Development of Shi’a Islam.)

The Imam Ali shrine, in all its splendor, is managed, at the highest instance, by the marja’iya – the religious sources of emulation, mostly personified by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, whose office is in a narrow alley nearby; and in practice, by a foundation. According to its secretariat “more than 20 million people are registered in the shrine”.

Najaf welcomed refugees of the fight against Daesh by the tens of thousands; Sunnis from Anbar province, Christians, Shi’ite Turkmen from Tal Afar; “Now many are back to their communities”. The PMUs are incredibly popular – their white flags fluttering everywhere alongside black Imam Hussein and multicolored Imam Ali banners.

The shrine is proud to at least assist in helping victims from the Speicher massacre; “The government may be shorthanded”.

I was in Najaf last week, at the start of the pilgrimage. But the apex of Arba’een is today, November 10. And that happens in the most extraordinary of historical circumstances; the final defeat of Daesh.

Inside the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, Iraq, a few days before Arba’een. Photo Pepe Escobar

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) announced on Wednesday it had captured Albu Kamal, the last town held by Daesh in Syria – after Iraqi forces captured its sister town across the border, al-Qaim. In Baghdad, before leaving to Najaf, I was assured by a top PMU commander that al-Qaim would be retaken “in a matter of days”: four, in the end, to be exact.

None of this is getting traction in Western media. The final victory on the ground against Daesh, in Syria, was accomplished by the Syrian army with help from Russian strategy and air power, and in Iraq by the Iraqi army and the PMUs. Syrian and Iraqi forces are symbolically reunited at the border.

Meanwhile, at this very moment, millions of souls – Iraqis, Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis, northern Africans, Central Asians, Persian Gulf nationals – are being soothed via the massive, cathartic walk from Najaf to Karbala. A pilgrim captured the spell – spiritual redemption merging with political statement – as he told me, with the flicker of a smile, the walk is also “a protest against terrorism”.

Korea, Afghanistan and the Never Ending War trap

Via the Saker

by Pepe Escobar for the Asia Times

Korea, Afghanistan and the Never Ending War trap

While the US-backed ‘Hunger Games’ in South Korea plow on, a ‘new strategy’ for Afghanistan is really all about business. But China is already there

There are more parallels between an unfinished 1950s war in Northeast Asia and an ongoing 16-year-old war in the crossroads between Central and South Asia than meet the eye. Let’s start with North Korea.

Once again the US/South Korea Hunger Games plow on. It didn’t have to be this way.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov explained how:“Russia together with China developed a plan which proposes ‘double freezing’: Kim Jong-un should freeze nuclear tests and stop launching any types of ballistic missiles, while US and South Korea should freeze large-scale drills which are used as a pretext for the North’s tests.”

Call it sound diplomacy. There’s no conclusive evidence the Russia-China strategic partnership floated this plan directly to the administration of US President Donald Trump. Even if they did, the proposal was shot down. The proverbial “military experts” lobbied hard against it, insisting on a lopsided advantage to Pyongyang. Worse, National Security Adviser H R McMaster consistently lobbies for preventative war – as if this isany sort of serious conflict “resolution”.

Meanwhile, that “plan for an enveloping fire” around Guam remains on Kim Jong-un’s table. It is essential to remember the plan was North Korea’s response to Trump’s “fire and fury” volley. Kim has stated that for diplomacy to work again, “it is necessary for the US to make a proper option first”. As in canceling the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian war games – featuring up to 30,000 US soldiers and more than 50,000 South Korean troops.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in dutifully repeats the Pentagon mantra that these Hunger Games, lasting until August 31, are “defensive”. Computer simulations gaming a – very unlikely – unilateral Pyongyang attack may qualify as defense. But Kim and the Korean Central News Agency interpret the war games in essencefor what they are: rehearsal for a “decapitation”, a pre-emptive attack yielding regime change.

No wonder the KCNA insists on a possible “catastrophe”. And Beijing, crucially, concurs. The Global Times reasonably argued that “if South Korea really wants no war on the Korean Peninsula, it should try to stop this military exercise”.

Can’t pack up our troubles

It would be a relief to defuse the drama by evoking that great World War I marching song; “Pack up your troubles in yourold kit bag/ And smile, smile, smile.”

But this is extremely serious. A China-North Korea mutual defense treaty has beenin effect since 1961. Under this framework, Beijing’s response to Trump’s “fire and fury” was a thing of beauty. If Pyongyang attacks, China is neutral. But if the US launches a McMaster-style pre-emptive attack, China intervenes – militarily – on behalf of Pyongyang.

As a clincher, Beijing even made it clear that its preference is for the current status quo to remain. Checkmate.

Hunger Games apart, the rhetorical war in the Korean Peninsula did decrease a substantial notch after China made its position clear. According to a Beltway intel source, that shows “the US and Chinese militaries, as the US and the Russians in Syria, are coordinating to avoid a war”.

Evidence may have been provided by a very important meeting last week between the chairmen of the US and Chinese Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford and General Fang Fenghui. They signed a dealthat the Pentagon spun as able to “reduce the risk of miscalculation” in Northeast Asia.

Among the prodigious fireworks inherent to his departure as White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon nailed it:“There’s no military solution, forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”

And extra evidence in the “they got us” department is that B-1B heavy bomber “decapitation” practice runs – out of Andersen Air Force Base in Guam – have been quietly “suspended”. This crucial, largely unreported fact in the air supersedes rhetoric from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Pentagon head James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who previous to Bannon’s exit were stressing “strong military consequences if North Korea chooses wrongly”.

Once again, it’s all about BRI

Now let’s move to Afghanistan. “Mad Dog” Mattis once famously said it was fun to shoot Taliban fighters. “Known unknowns” Don Rumsfeld was more realistic; he moved out of Afghanistan (toward Iraq) because there were not enough good targets to bomb.

Anyone who spent time working/reporting on the Afghan Hindu Kush and the southwestern deserts knows why the proverbial “there’s no military solution” applies. There are myriad reasons, starting with the profound, radicalized Afghan ethnic divide (roughly, 40% are mostly rural, tribal Pashtun, many recruited by the Taliban; almost 30% are Tajik, a great deal of them urban, literate and in government; more than20% are Hazara Shiites; and 10% are Uzbek).

The bulk of Washington’s “aid” to Kabul throughout these past 16 years has been on the bombing, not the economy, front. Government corruption is cataclysmic. Warlords rule. The Taliban thrive because they offer local protection. Much to Pashtun ire, most of the army is Tajik. Tajik politicians are mostly close to India while most Pashtun favor Pakistan (after all, they have cousins on the other side of the Durand line; enter the dream of a future, reunited Pashtunistan).

On the GWOT (Global War on Terror) front, al-Qaeda would not even exist if the late Dr Zbig “Grand Chessboard” Brzezinski had not come up with the idea of a sprawling, well-weaponized private army of demented jihadis-cum-tribal Afghans fighting the communist government in Kabul during the 1980s. Add to this the myth that the Pentagon needs to be on the ground in Afghanistan to prevent jihadis from attacking America. Al-Qaeda is extinct in Afghanistan. And Daesh does not need territory to concoct/project its DIY jihad.

When the myth of the US in Afghanistan as a categorical imperative is exposed, that may unveil what this is all about: business.

And we’re not even talking about who really profits from large-scale opium/heroin trade.

Two months ago the Afghan ambassador to Washington, Hamdullah Mohib, was breathlessly spinning how “President Trump is keenly interested in Afghanistan’s economic potential”, as in “our estimated $1 trillion in copper, iron ore, rare-earth elements, aluminum, gold, silver, zinc, mercury and lithium”. This led to the proverbial unnamed “US officials” telling Reuters last month that what Trump wants is for the US to demand some of that mineral wealth in exchange for “assisting” Kabul.

A US Geological Survey study a decade ago did identify potential Afghan mineral wealth –gold, silver, platinum, iron ore, uranium, zinc, tantalum, bauxite, coal, natural gas and copper – worth as much as US$1 trillion, with much spin dedicated to Afghanistan as “the Saudi Arabia of lithium”.

And the competition – once again, China – is already there, facing myriad infrastructure and red-tape problems, but concentrated onincorporating Afghanistan, long-term, into the New Silk Roads, aka Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), along with its security cooperation arm, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

It’s no secret the Russia-China strategic partnership wants an Afghan solution hatched by Afghans and supervised by the SCO (of which Afghanistan is an observer and future full member). So from the point of view of neocon/neoliberalcon elements of the War Party in Washington, Afghanistan only makes sense as a forward base to harass/stall/thwart BRI.

What Russia and China want for Afghanistan – yet another node in the process of Eurasia integration – is not much different from what Russia, China and South Korea want for North Korea: increased connectivity as in a future Trans-Korean Railwaylinked to the Trans-Siberian.

As for Washington and the proverbially bombastic, failed futurists across the Beltway, do they even know what is the end game of “investing” in two never-ending wars with no visible benefits?

Imperial Folly Brings Russia and Germany Together

Source

By Pepe Escobar

August 01, 2017 “Information Clearing House” – The Empire of Whiners simply can’t get enough when it comes to huff, puff and pout as the Empire of Sanctions.

With an Orwellian 99% majority that would delight the Kim dynasty in North Korea, the “representative democracy” Capitol Hill has bulldozed its latest House/Senate sanctions package, aimed mostly at Russia, but also targeting Iran and North Korea.

The White House’s announcement — late Friday afternoon in the middle of summer — that President Trump has approved and will sign the bill was literally buried in the news cycle amidst the proverbial 24/7 Russia-gate related hysteria.

Trump will be required to justify to Congress, in writing, any initiative to ease sanctions on Russia. And Congress is entitled to launch an automatic review of any such initiative.

Translation; the death knell of any possibilityfor the White House to reset relations with Russia. Congress in fact is just ratifying the ongoing Russia demonization campaign orchestrated by the neocon and neoliberalcon deep state/War Party establishment.

Economic war has been declared against Russia for at least three years now. The difference is this latest package also declares economic war against Europe, especially Germany.

That centers on the energy front, by demonizing the implementation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and forcing the EU to buy US natural gas.

Make no mistake; the EU leadership will counterpunch. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission (EC), put it mildly when he said, “America first cannot mean that Europe’s interests come last.”

On the Russia front, what the Empire of Sanctions faces does not even qualify as a hollow victory. Kommersant has reported that Moscow, among other actions, will retaliate by banning all American IT companies and all US agricultural products from the Russian market, as well as exporting titanium to Boeing (30% of which comes from Russia).

On the Russia-China strategic partnership front, trying to restrict Russia-EU energy deals will only allow more currency swaps between the ruble and the yuan; a key plank of the post-US dollar multipolar world.

And then there’s the possible, major game-changer; the German front.

The Fools on the Hill

Even without considering the stellar historical record of Washington not only meddling but bombing and regime-changing vast swathes of the planet — from Iraq and Libya to the current threats against Iran, Venezuela and North Korea — the Russia-gate hysteria about meddling in the 2016 US presidential election is a non-story, by now thoroughly debunked.

The heart of the matter is, once again, energy wars.

According to a Middle East-based US energy source not hostage to the Beltway consensus, “the message in these sanctions is the EU has no future unless it buys US natural gas to cut out Russia. To deny Russia the natural gas market of the EU was the goal behind the just lost war in Syria to put the Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Syria-Turkey-EU pipeline in and the opening to Iran for an Iran-Iraq-Syria-Turkey-EU pipeline. None of these plans worked.”

The source adds as evidence the 2014 oil price war against Russia, orchestrated by “the dumping of Gulf States’ surplus oil or reserve capacity on the world market. Since this has failed to bring Russia to its knees, the destruction of the Russian natural gas market in the EU has become a national priority for the United States.”

As it stands, 30% of all EU oil and natural gas imports come from Russia. In parallel, the Russia-China energy partnership is being progressively enhanced. Russia is already geared to increase oil and gas exports to China and Asia as a whole.

The leadership in Berlin is now convinced that Washington is jeopardizing Germany’s energy diversification/energy security via the  sanctions war. Russian natural gas and oil is secured by overland routes and is not dependent on the oceans, which, as the energy source stresses, “are no longer under United States control. If Russia in response to United States belligerency drops an Iron Curtain over Europe, and redirects all its natural gas and oil exports to China and Asia, Europe will be utterly dependent on largely insecure sources of natural gas and oil such as the Middle East and Africa.”

And that bring us to the “nuclear” possibility in the horizon; a Germany-Russia alignment in a Reinsurance Treaty, as first established by Bismarck. CIA-related US Think Tankland is now actively discussing the possibility.

Another US business/political source, also a practitioner of thinking outside the (Beltway) box, stresses, “this is what it’s all about. That is the true goal of Russia, and the United States has fallen into the trap. The United States has had enough of Germany and what it considers dumping of German products on the United States through rigged currency. They are now threatening Germany with sanctions, and there is nothing Germany can do with the EU on their back facing vetoes from Poland, who is giving them trouble once again. The fools in Congress are really going after Germany, and throwing Germany in the arms of Russia.”

The US as the New Carthage

A possible Germany-Russia alliance, as I’ve written before, rounds up the China/Russia/Germany entente capable of reorganizing the entire Eurasian land mass.

The Russia-China strategic partnership is extremely attractive to German business, as it smoothes access via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to the business/political source, “the US is at war with China and Russia (but not Trump, our President) and Germany is having second thoughts about being nuclear cannon fodder for the US. I have discussed this in Germany, and they are thinking of renewing the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. No one trusts this US Congress; it is considered a lunatic asylum. Merkel may be asked to leave for the leadership of the UN, and then the treaty would be signed. It will shake the world and end any thought of the United States being a global power, which it isn’t anymore.”

The source adds, half in zest,

“we think that Brzezinski died under the pressure of the realization that this was coming and that all his hatred of Russia and his life work to destroy them was becoming utterly undone.”

So, in a sense, it’s

“welcome to the 1930s all over again and the rise of nationalism in Europe. This time Germany will not make the mistakes of 1914 and 1941 but will stand against their traditional Anglo-Saxon enemies. The United States has truly become today’s Carthage and the disorder in Congress reflects the same stupidity of Carthage facing Rome. Legislators undermined their genius Hannibal as they are undermining the greatest president of the United States since Andrew Jackson. As Sophocles wrote in ‘Antigone’, ‘God first makes mad those he wishes to destroy.’ This Congress is mad.”

This article was first published by Sputnik –

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Information Clearing House.

See also

German minister urges ‘countermeasures’ against US for Russia sanctions 

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