The curious case of the four armed Americans in Baghdad

Iraqi authorities arrested four armed Americans in civilian clothes in Baghdad who claimed they were there to protect Shiites heading toward Karbala. The two men and two women were reportedly carrying automatic weapons and driving a silver BMW with unregistered diplomatic plates. The Iraqis said that they found this all suspicious, since there had been no prior coordination and the law forbids such American activities without notifying the responsible authorities. The U.S. Embassy reportedly stepped in within 15 minutes of the arrest, and the four were released without charge. It isn't obvious exactly what was going on, but we can all probably guess.

Baghdad governor Salah Abd al-Razzaq told reporters that even if the group were U.S. intelligence operatives, their activities had nothing to do with Iraqi security and were a clear violation of Iraqi sovereignty. He demanded an explanation from the U.S. Embassy and a promise that it not be repeated. A diplomatic crisis seems to have been averted, but the curious episode should be a cautionary tale. Whatever really happened, this could have easily escalated into a major diplomatic showdown and a legal nightmare for the Embassy.

Expect a lot of more of these kinds of incidents in the coming days. While there hasn't been much coverage of the incident in English, it's being heavily covered in the Arab and Iraqi media. Arresting and exposing American operatives in Iraq is going to be politically popular and the local media will eat it up. A lot of ambitious political forces might find it useful to be seen on TV arresting an armed American. Armed Americans traveling around Iraq, whether security contractors or intelligence operatives, are going to be an endless source of potential crisis. And people wonder why the Pentagon staunchly opposed maintaining any U.S. military presence in Iraq without a SOFA which guaranteed immunity from prosecution for American soldiers?

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The Middle East Channel

Iran agreed to nuclear talks and an IAEA mission

Iran agrees to nuclear talks and an IAEA mission

Iran has agreed to a U.N. inspector mission and to hold talks in Turkey with the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany on its nuclear program. The decisions come after the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist and a U.N. announcement that Iran has reached 20 percent enrichment, suggesting progress toward nuclear weapon development (though President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad maintains Iran's nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes). The U.N. delegation visit is scheduled for January 28 through the first week of February and will be headed by Herman Nackaerts, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief inspector. Additionally, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said Iran is ready for "serious" talks which he said could "yield results" if they are "not a game." Meanwhile, the United States is continuing to apply pressure on Asian countries to cut Iranian oil imports. On Thursday, the U.S. applied sanctions on the state-run Chinese Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp, which is the largest supplier of refined petroleum products to Iran, and on Singapore's energy trader Kuo Oil Pte Ltd and FAL Oil Company Ltd. Russia, who has supported four rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions, warned the United States on increasing sanctions and escalating tensions saying it would undermine international efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue.


  • One Shiite protester was killed and three injured in clashes with security forces in oil-rich eastern Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is currently on visit to meet with Saudi leaders.
  • Syrian activists have called for mass pro-Free Syria Army rallies across the country as the Arab League head said he feared current events could lead to civil war.
  • Sectarian conflicts surged in multiple regions in Yemen just as anti-government demonstrators continue to protest against an immunity deal for outgoing President Saleh.
  • Israeli and Palestinian officials will meet two more times in Jordan before the January 26 deadline but each side continues to blame the other for neglecting to present new proposals.

Daily Snapshot

Mourners carry the coffin of Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, during his funeral in Tehran on January 13, 2012, one day after he was killed when two men on a motorbike slapped a magnetic bomb on his car while it was stuck in Tehran traffic. Iran said its top scientist was killed by Israel and the United States as part of a covert campaign against its nuclear programme (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images). 

Arguments & Analysis

'Steps to defuse a crisis' (David Ignatius, The Washington Post)

"The time for communication may be running out. Economic sanctions are creating a worsening crisis for Iran, one that is a potential threat to the regime's survival. And more potent sanctions are on the way. Meanwhile, Israel, the U.S. and other allied nations are conducting covert actions against the Iranian nuclear program. Iran called the assassination this week of one of its nuclear scientists another in a series of "malicious terrorist attacks." At some point, the Iranians may conclude that the broad pressure campaign, overt and covert, means that a state of undeclared war exists -- and respond in kind."

'Lebanon: calm before the storm' (Fillippo Dionigi, Open Democracy)

"Hezbollah's situation is indeed a difficult one. Regional developments and the indictment of four of its members by the STL (another momentous event for Lebanon this year) represent major challenges. The Syrian crisis has put the Shiite movement in an uncomfortable position. Whereas it supported the uprising in Egypt, Tunis, Libya and Bahrain; Hezbollah has taken a defensive stance towards its Syrian ally. The movement is torn apart between its political identity promoting resistance and liberation and its strategic constraints as Syrian ally and member of the "Axis of Resistance". How Hezbollah will come out of the 2011 events is difficult to say. Its support to the Syrian regime has exacted a significant cost in political capital and it is hard to imagine how it can recover popularity, in a region galvanized by the fall of three dictators with more, seemingly, to come." 

'Tunisia: ideology vs. practicality' (The Economist)

"One determinedly articulate block of public opinion, echoed by some of the press, is reluctant to accept Nahda's electoral victory. It is also spooked by the increasing visibility of radical Salafist Islamists. Lecturers were dismayed when the humanities faculty of Tunis's Manouba University was closed down by Salafist protesters wanting women students to be allowed to wear the niqab, the full face-veil, in class. Riot police were dispatched onto the campus to end the sit-in without violence, signalling that the government will not be held to ransom by such groups."

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