Until I read this article below I hadn’t realised there was a problem with transparency and the US over war in the Middle East. A problem with the US? This is surprising since all of the Middle East countries are accused of being less than transparent. This is what Bryant Harris in Al Monitor newslwtter had to say.

Congress rebels against Middle East war secrecy

 Article Summary

Fed up with increased restrictions on information and less on-the-ground access, some Democrats are seeking more transparency regarding the Donald Trump administration’s military operations throughout the region.

REUTERS/Hadi Mizban/Pool

US Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., (L) meets with Iraq's Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abbawi (C) during his visit to Baghdad, Iraq, July 26, 2009.

As the top Democrat on the House panel overseeing the Defense Department, Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts has traveled to Iraq almost two dozen times under three different presidents.

But now, that ability to monitor US military actions and foreign aid, Lynch insists, is being compromised by what he contends is a plummeting level of transparency under President Donald Trump, even as the administration promises to confront Iran throughout the Middle East. With the Pentagon restricting congressional travel to the region and classifying more information on its operations, Lynch and several of his Democratic colleagues have begun pushing back.

“I would say since the Trump administration came in, we have seen a gradual increase in limitations on [congressional delegations], especially Iraq and Afghanistan and understandably Syria,” Lynch told Al-Monitor in an interview this week. “The work we’ve been doing under [Barack] Obama and under George W. Bush, we’ve had far greater access.”

The Pentagon this month restricted access for senior Defense Department officials to Iraq and Kuwait, a key entry point into Iraq, until mid-June and then again from late August through September, Al-Monitor has learned. At the same time, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford sent a letter to Congress asking members and staffers to limit travel to Iraq and Kuwait during those times.

The measure coincides with the recent elections, the Ramadan season and the March transfer of control over the headquarters in Baghdad for the anti-Islamic State (IS) ground operations, according to the Pentagon.

“During this time, commanders would not be able to adequately host senior-level visitors and while supporting these competing requirements,” aspokeswoman told Al-Monitor. “DoD supports members of Congress in their need to understand DoD missions, provide oversight and visit deployed US forces, however, we do put limited travel restrictions in place when conditions on the ground require military commanders to focus their resources on essential mission requirements.”

Additionally, a House aide told Al-Monitor that the Pentagon imposes travel restrictions throughout the region “every summer during the fighting season or when units are in rotation.” The Army announced Tuesday that the 18th Airborne Corps, stationed at Fort Bragg, would be deployed to Iraq in the fall, relieving the 3rd Corps.

Those explanations haven’t placated Lynch, who has offered an amendment to the annual defense bill that calls on the Pentagon to “authorize and facilitate meaningful access and assistance” for congressional delegations that have made a “reasonable request” to access “missions and operations” in Iraq, Kuwait, Syria and Afghanistan. The House is voting on the bill this week.

“All things considered, I think I’ve been fairly supportive of our operations in both those countries,” said Lynch, who voted in favor of the Iraq war authorization in 2002. “I expressed my displeasure and disappointment with the fact it seems to be at the whim of the Department of Defense as to whether Congress gets to do its constitutional duty to provide oversight.”

While the Pentagon has offered to make exceptions for some lawmakers, Lynch maintains that access to certain areas remains problematic. Most recently, he has been trying to access Mosul for a firsthand look at reconstruction efforts in the devastated city following its liberation from IS last year. He noted that even the Bush administration eventually allowed him to access Sadr City during the height of Muqtada al-Sadr’s insurgency to examine a multimillion-dollar US water treatment project — even if it took him five trips to finally gain access.

“There’s no good justification,” he insisted.

Separately, some Democrats are balking at what they view as the Trump administration’s penchant for classifying materials.

Last week, for instance, the president handed Congress a classified report outlining the administration’s strategy in Yemen, even though lawmakers had requested an unclassified version with a classified annex as needed. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a harsh critic of the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, has responded with an amendment to this year’s defense bill requiring an unclassified assessment of the civil war’s impact on the growth of Islamic State and al-Qaeda branches in the country.

“The administration has not been forthcoming about our role in Yemen,” Khanna told Al-Monitor. “An explanation is owed to the American public and I want to see a transparent report.”

Lynch also pointed to the Defense Department’s recent classification of previously unclassified data in the Afghanistan war, including territory assessments, casualties, rates of attrition, recruitment and training.

“There’s a lid being put on access to firsthand information, and then the information they choose to give us and the inspector general is also limited in terms of circulation,” he said.

Hoping to curb this trend, Lynch has also offered an amendment requiring the Pentagon to rescind its decision to redact troop levels for Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in its quarterly public reports.

The Palestinian-Israeli crisis is becoming increasingly worse. Any hope of a peace accord is looking highly unlikely. Listening to the news you would think that the Palestinians are entirely to blame.

Khaled Elgindy from the Brookings Institute explains.

 Political amnesia in Washington: From the Nakba to the occupation

Within less than a generation, both the political significance of the Nakba and the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were all but forgotten in Washington, writes Khaled Elgindy. This piece originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

This week’s protests at the Gaza border were the largest—and deadliest — since Palestinians began what organizers have dubbed the “Great March of Return” some six weeks ago. The protests culminated on May 15, the 70th anniversary of the Nakba (“catastrophe”), during which most of Palestine’s Arab population was expelled from the British-mandated territory in the course of Israel’s creation. Approximately 70 percent of Gaza’s 2 million Palestinians are registered refugees from lands in what is now Israel.

Israel has long denied responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem and continues to maintain that the refugees will never be allowed to return, and American policymakers now generally accepted the Israeli view. But this was not always the case. Unlike today, in the years immediately after 1948 neither the events of the Nakba nor the U.N.-mandated right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes was considered controversial in US politics. Within less than a generation, however, both the political significance of the Nakba and the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were all but forgotten in Washington.

Seventy years later, a similar process of denial is now happening—albeit at a slower pace—in relation to Israel’s half-century occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The steady erasure of the Israeli occupation from Washington’s political discourse not only makes it impossible for the United States to resolve the conflict but places Israelis and Palestinians on a seemingly irreversible path to one state.

Although the term nakba never entered Washington’s political lexicon, U.S. policymakers understood the nature and scope of the calamity that befell Palestinians during Israel’s creation. At the time, U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers closely monitored and reported on developments in what was then British Mandate Palestine as events unfolded. Most senior U.S. policymakers therefore, including the president and secretary of state, had no illusions about the nature of the Palestinian exodus.

In the wake of the Deir Yassin massacre, in which more than 100 Palestinian civilians were killed by members of two Zionist militias—the Irgun and the Stern Gang—the trickle of refugees became a full-blown exodus. Thereafter, the U.S. State Department kept regular tabs on the numbers and conditions of Palestinians fleeing the area. When the first U.S. representative to Israel, James G. McDonald, repeated Israeli claims that Palestinians fled as a result of the invasion of Arab armies, it was Secretary of State George Marshall who set him straight. Marshall reminded the representative that the “Arab refugee problem … began before outbreak of Arab-Israeli hostilities. A significant portion of Arab refugees fled from their homes owing to Jewish occupation of Haifa on April 21-22 and to Jewish armed attack against Jaffa April 25.” Marshall’s message went on to warn that the “leaders of Israel would make a grave miscalculation if they thought callous treatment of this tragic issue could pass unnoticed by world opinion.”

There is a myth that Dubai, in the UAE, has a lot of money. This is not true since it is the emirate of Abu Dhabi that has the money, especially with its oil income. Certainly, the outlook for the oil price in 2018 is looking good forecast to sit at an average of about US $57 a barrel. A 5.7 per cent increase over 2017. Indeed, the price of Brent crude touched US $80 a barrel for the first time in about four years in early May.

So it is no surprise that the UAE has put its hands up for reconstructing Mosul’s Grand al-Nuri Mosque, famous for its eight-century-old leaning minaret, known as al-Hadba minaret (or hunchback) that was blown up by Islamic State militants last year. It will cost $50.4 million, at least.

This is what Adnan Abu Zeed from Al Monitor said about it.

 When the Al-Nouri Mosque and the adjacent al-Hadba minaret in Mosul were bombed by the Islamic State (IS) on June 21, 2017, many thought that the landmark mosque and its “hunchback” minaret most famous for its leaning structure were gone for good. 

But today, there is some hope of restoring both structures. The reconstruction of the mosque and the minaret will start in June, said Nofal Sultan al-Akoub, the governor of Iraq’s northern province of Ninevah, on May 6. 

The announcement follows a protocol signed April 23 between Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, where the latter would commit $50.4 million over five years for the reconstruction of the mosque that dates from the 12th century. UNESCO is also a signatory to the reconstruction agreement. 

The mosque is an important symbol for Mosul, and it was used in 2014 as the venue where Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and militants proclaimed a caliphate. Three years later, IS fighters blew it to pieces weeks before their defeat.

The minaret, which was one of the few remaining parts of the original construction, is less known to the international world. It had a design often attributed to Iranian architectural influence, with a white plastered top. It had a significant lean since the 14th century, and its likeness can be found on 10,000-dinar bills.

The main questions on the renovation are whether the amount allocated, which is one of the largest sums committed for a restoration project in Iraq, will be enough and whether the reconstruction will be successful.

Mohammed Nouri al-Abed Rabbo, a parliament member from Ninevah, told Al-Monitor that the next phase would be to take bids for the reconstruction after the government agencies finalized the contract and the blueprints for the work required.

Abed Rabbo added that the reconstruction process “needs more funding than what has been allocated by the UAE.” Pointing out that the monument was essentially razed to the ground, he said that great architectural skills would be required for the reconstruction, and UNESCO — the cultural arm of the UN — would need to be involved. 

“There have been efforts since the liberation of Mosul to clean the mosque of explosive devices, remove rubble, document the destruction and collect the damaged authentic relics. The area was cordoned off to prevent the loss of the remaining relics from the minaret and the mosque,” Abed Rabbo added. 

Mosul Mayor Zuhair Muhssein al-Araji told Al-Monitor via phone that the reconstruction plan was developed following discussions and meetings with UNESCO. These meetings have taken up costs and conducted feasibility studies. He said he expected the construction to take at least four years. 

“The implementation process is likely to take a long time, as it is a large area. Given its great historical importance, the work needs to be meticulous. We need to study the available historical data so it can be restored to its original architecture,” Araji added. 

According to professor of modern history at Mosul University Ibrahim al-Allaf, Nur al-Din al-Zanki — who ruled Mosul — "ordered the building of the mosque [and its minaret] in A.D. 1172." 

Allaf said the mosque had been damaged many times in its history. “The Iraqi Department of Antiquities dismantled and rebuilt the mosque in 1942 as part of a renovation campaign,” Allaf told Al-Monitor. “Al-Hadba minaret is the only remaining feature of the original building of the mosque. Due to its historical value, the minaret has been printed on Iraqi banknotes.”

Leafing through the documents he held on the minaret, Allaf said of its structure: “The minaret was 55 meters high [although there are different accounts of its height], while the mosque area is about 6,000 square meters. The minaret’s base is large, and it features Islamic decorations on its four facades. The building of the entire mosque cost at the time 60,000 dinars of gold.”

Louise Haxthausen, the UNESCO director for Iraq, said at the press conference April 23 that the “reconstruction of the minaret is an ambitious project that carries major symbolism for the liberation of Mosul.” 

The head of Iraq's Parliamentary Committee on Media and Culture, Maysoon al-Damluji, who is from Mosul, told Al-Monitor that the National Authority for Antiquities and Heritage will be involved in the restoration, and that she hoped archaeologists and architects from Mosul would be involved. 

“The reconstruction project will not only address the physical and structural aspects of the building, but also highlight the cultural and artistic heritage such as the decorations, ornaments, inscriptions and writings,” Damluji said. She urged the authorities to be careful "not to damage the remaining relics during the removal of rubble and the works on the site.” 

Meanwhile, Ahmed Kassem al-Juma, a retired professor from the University of Mosul and a UNESCO Islamic monuments and archaeology expert based in Mosul, told Al-Monitor, “No matter how meticulous and careful the work to restore the relics is, the restored building will not bear the same value of the original that was blown up by IS.”

“The minaret and the mosque were characterized by fine technical details such as the marble pillars of the praying room, the cubic crowns, the strip engraved with words from the Quranic verses, as well as the mosque’s mihrab ornamented with arabesque decorations carved on marble,” Juma added.

He said, “The summer prayer mihrab (the outdoor niche in the wall where the imam stands to conduct prayers) is made of marble. It is currently at the National Museum in Baghdad.”

Juma accompanied the UNESCO delegation that toured the site before the launch of the project. “I keep all the documents, blueprints and drawings of the mosque with all its parts, the architectural details, measurements and maps of the original locations,” he said.

“I worked for a full year in a field survey of the minaret and the mosque before IS entered Mosul in 2014. I documented the details of the mosque and the ceramic construction units with more than 500 sketches and technical drawings,” Juma said, adding, "The mosque has great moral, social and religious significance, as it has been in the past … the place to hold meetings and gatherings for religious and official public events.” 

There is so much happening in the Middle East I wish I was there. So much material and so many insights. One of the big issues is the ditching of the Iran nuclear deal by the US. What now?. Can it be salvaged by Europe? For some thinking on the future and what might happens, here are some thoughts by staff at Al-Monitor.

Since President Donald Trump fulfilled his campaign promise of breaking the nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has been working to determine whether the deal can still be salvaged.

After visiting China, Zarif, who was Iran’s lead negotiator during the marathon nuclear talks, traveled to Moscow. He called the Russian opposition on the US exit from the nuclear deal “hopeful.” He said he would later travel to Brussels and continue discussions with European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on “guaranteeing Iran’s interests within" the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Zarif tweeted, “Good and substantive meetings with counterparts in Beijing and Moscow; heading to meet with EU High Representative and E3 foreign ministers in Brussels. Will soon determine how P4+1 can guarantee Iran’s benefits under the JCPOA, and preserve this unique achievement of diplomacy.” Zarif’s reference to the US absence in this round of talks was addressed by calling it the P4+1 rather than the P5+1. E3 in this case stands for France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Zarif also discussed current events, tying the US decision to move its capital to Jerusalem to a long trend where the United States ignores international consensus and agreements. “Unfortunately, opposition to international agreements and world agreements for the American regime has become normal,” he said in Moscow.

While Zarif works with world powers to keep the nuclear deal alive, the Rouhani administration has been fighting back against critics who have attacked him for trusting the United States. The administration put out a statement outlining the benefits of the deal, such as breaking the united front against Iran that took place under President Barack Obama, the removal of international sanctions and recognition of Iran’s nuclear program.

In response to comments that the Rouhani administration should apologize to the people, the statement read that “the people who should apologize for their previous incorrect” positions are those who are not ready to tell us what the damage from sanctions were and what steps they took to prevent those damages. The statement continued that the nuclear deal critics have not addressed what they would want in its place. The statement noted the intellectual inconsistencies of the critics saying they are both upset about the nuclear deal when it was signed and are now upset about America’s exit from the deal.

The Rouhani’s administration’s hopes of keeping the nuclear deal alive now rest solely with Europe, which has large investments in Iran subject to US sanctions that will likely be imposed by the US Treasury once the “wind-down” period ends. Iranian conservatives are not necessarily convinced that Europe can play the role of savior.

Jahan News, a hard-line publication, listed 20 reasons why negotiations with Europe will not be successful. Some of the reasons were economic, noting that Europe’s trade with the United States is much larger than Europe’s trade with Iran. Other reasons were political, saying that Europe also has the same goals as the United States in wanting to limit Iran’s regional presence and missile capabilities. The article also said that given the fact that the success of the nuclear talks rested on mostly bilateral talks between Iran and the United States, that Europe was simply a role player then and cannot become the main player now.