Moves to recapture Mosul from Daesh; high Iran poll turnout; Malaysian PM Najib Razak’s millions. By Hamish McDonald.

US Republicans consider trumping Donald Trump

Donald Trump with supporters at a rally in Fort Worth, Texas.
Donald Trump with supporters at a rally in Fort Worth, Texas.

Panic and fatalism alternately gripped the Republicans as Donald Trump bored his way to a sweep of party primary victories this week on “Super Tuesday”, despite a succession of campaign gaffes that would have derailed anyone else.

Who else could get away with an endorsement by the former “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan, which he repeatedly refused to disavow in direct questioning on TV? Or tweeting a quote from Mussolini (“It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”)? How many serious Republican presidential candidates get former Central Intelligence Agency chief Michael Hayden saying their ideas are so unlawful that if translated into orders they should be disobeyed by the military? 

Trump won in seven states across the south and New England, and at this rate is on track to secure a majority of delegates for the presidential nomination convention in July. Rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio both say they will hang in. But the Trump revolt against the orthodox Republican brand remains strong among poor white Americans, and he’s gained mainstream endorsement from New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who dropped out of the race earlier.

Now the question facing Republican politicos is whether, should Trump clinch the nomination, they disconnect their campaigns for the house of representatives and senate seats also up for election in November. Already some are looking at a radical option for the presidency. Republican senator Ben Sasse said he would be looking for “some third candidate – a conservative option, a constitutionalist”.

Former three-term New York mayor and financial media tycoon Michael Bloomberg is a widely respected centrist among Republicans, and with $US41 billion in assets he has the money to blow on an independent campaign for president. In February he told The Financial Times he was “looking at all the options” and found “the level of discourse and discussion distressingly banal and an outrage and an insult to the voters”. He would have to make a move soon, to get his candidacy registered.

Hillary Clinton crushed Bernie Sanders in seven states, too, riding on strong female, black and Latino votes, virtually confirming her as the Democrat candidate. But he won four, including home state Vermont, and only narrowly lost Massachusetts. He vows to pursue his “revolution” to the end of the nomination, keeping up leftward pressure on Clinton. So far, it’s been widely assumed that with Trump as their candidate the Republicans face certain defeat, as per the ultra-conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964. The awful possibility of this being wrong now confronts America and its friends.

1 . Moves on Mosul 

The Syrian ceasefire did take hold last Saturday. Despite numerous violations which the Assad government and rebel groups blamed on each other, a level of peace settled on previously embattled cities, allowing citizens to walk around and the United Nations to schedule aid convoys to six more towns during the week. Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy, is now trying to get peace talks restarted in Geneva next Wednesday.

Russia stopped its air strikes, but only for 24 hours. International monitors were trying to verify Russian claims they were directing strikes at Daesh and the al-Nusra Front, two jihadist forces not included in the ceasefire or peace talks. Another outside force may be pulling back: Israel’s Channel 2 reported Iran pulling out all of its 2500 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fighters, leaving 750 advisers. US Secretary of State John Kerry also said Iran had withdrawn “a significant number of troops”.

Across the border in Iraq, government forces are gearing up for an offensive to retake the city of Mosul, held by Daesh for almost two years. Iraqi generals are bringing up several brigades for the attack, and Turkish forces are reported to have shelled Daesh positions near the city. Kurdish fighters have seized a town in Syria straddling the road between Mosul and al-Raqqa, the current “capital” of Daesh’s shrinking caliphate. The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has so far not accepted US Defence Secretary Ash Carter’s offer of Apache attack helicopters and US special forces to help out.

It will be more difficult than the recent recapture of Ramadi, warns analyst Denise Natali in the War on the Rocks website. Mosul is known as the “city of a million officers”, having provided a large number of Saddam Hussein’s former brass. Its politics are “Sunni Arab, Iraqi nationalist, anti-Iranian, and divided between secularist and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups” − which makes them not so inclined to Abadi’s Shia-dominated and Iran-backed government. It still has 700,000 civilians inside the city, reducing the options for air support.

Mosul faces another risk. The large dam upstream across the Tigris River “faces a serious and unprecedented risk of catastrophic failure with little warning”, according to the US embassy in Baghdad. It’s built on a bed of soluble rock, creating dangerous fissures beneath the dam. The government recaptured the dam in 2014, but regular grouting work has been neglected. Should it collapse, a wall of water anywhere between 14 and 24 metres high would sweep through Mosul in hours, and a four-metre surge would hit Baghdad within a day. Hundreds of thousands would perish and about one million would be made homeless. An Italian company received a $US2 billion contract in December to shore up the dam. Rome is sending 450 soldiers to guard the engineers.

2 . Iran poll turnout 

Iran’s voters turned out in unusually large numbers on February 26, and made the most of a candidate list that supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his Guardian Council of hardline theocrats had whittled down by half to exclude many moderates. 

The results, still subject to many runoff elections, are widely seen as an endorsement of President Hassan Rouhani and his nuclear deal last year with six big powers that got economic sanctions lifted. At least that was the case in the capital Tehran, where moderates swept the city’s 30 seats in the 290-seat parliament. Hardliners, backed by provincial voters, still have a majority. 

Moderates also won 15 of Tehran’s 16 seats in the 88-member Assembly of Experts, increasing their voice in the body that appoints the supreme leader. The succession could be some way off. Khamenei is a still feisty 76-years-old, despite a prostate operation two years ago.

3 . Razak’s millions

Clouds of financial scandal around Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak deepen, with The Wall Street Journal reporting this week that he’d received more than $US1 billion into his personal bank accounts during 2011-13 rather than the $US681 million previously disclosed. It said much of the money flowed indirectly from the state investment fund chaired by Najib, known as 1MDB. 

Najib’s attorney-general, Mohamed Apandi Ali, has previously explained the $US681 million as a gift from Saudi royalty, all but $US60 million of which had been returned, though the Saudis have said they are mystified by this and Najib has not explained the purpose of the money retained. The US newspaper says its sources are two people familiar with the operations of Najib’s accounts and a person familiar with one of the investigations being carried out by foreign governments. Swiss, Singaporean, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi and US agencies are known to be inquiring. 

Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s prime minister until 2003, quit the ruling United Malays National Organisation party this week, saying it was “supporting corruption” under Najib’s leadership. The 90-year-old Mahathir is undeterred by the widespread perception that institutional corruption deepened during his own 22-year rule.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2016 as "Republicans consider trumping Trump".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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