Archives for November 2007

EDITORIAL: Diplomacy on the ascent

A “different dynamic” in American diplomacy

If war follows the failure of diplomacy, it’s natural that the failure of war should lead to the resurrection of diplomacy. George Bush might not clearly grasp this, but there are strong indications that it is obvious to many of his closest advisers. The latest evidence comes from Lebanon.

genmichelsuleiman.jpgFor the last week, Lebanon has been without a president but now, after a standoff that has lasted months, the political factions (always simplistically described in the Western media as being pro-Western or pro-Syrian) appear to have agreed on a compromise. Washington didn’t make it happen but it could have stood in the way. Instead, the administration is now willing to accept that Lebanon’s next president, Syria’s preferred candidate, will be General Michel Suleiman.

Some commentators predicted this outcome months ago. Back on August 15, a blogger calling himself, “Outlaw Josey Wales,” wrote, “The powers-that-be have decided General Michel Suleiman/Sleiman will be the next president of Lebanon.” Today, the Wall Street Journal (via Syria Comment) reports:

In recent days [pro-Western] March 14 politicians, with Washington’s consent, agreed to a compromise candidate for the presidency. Gen. Michel Suleiman, commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, worked closely with Damascus during its military occupation of Lebanon and is already receiving support from some of Syria’s Lebanese political allies.

March 14 leaders say the general’s selection, while not their first choice, could help stabilize Lebanon, because of his leadership of a Lebanese military increasingly viewed as a unifying force in their country.

“Michel Suleiman is well-known to the Hezbollah and the Syrians,” said Walid Jumblatt, a key leader of March 14. “If the Syrians don’t want Suleiman, it means they don’t want stability in Lebanon.”

The concession on the Lebanese president comes amid a broader push by the U.S. and its allies to re-engage Damascus in other ways. American and Israeli strategists view this initiative as aimed at breaking Syria’s alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which have all increased their influence across the Middle East in recent years. It is also aimed at gaining greater support from Syria in cutting off militants infiltrating into Iraq.

The administration wants to characterize the Lebanese presidential choice as a concession by its allies:

A high-ranking US official was quoted by the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) as saying that Washington has no objections to agreements among the Lebanese on the election of army commander General Michel Suleiman for president. “The US did not strike any deal with Syria regarding Lebanon at the Annapolis conference,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity told KUNA. “We understand the concerns of the Lebanese on this issue,” he added. “The US is separating Lebanon from the other pending problems in the region.” The US official said that Lebanon is not up for negotiation, especially not with Syria. “We only refer to Lebanese-Syrian relations when we are calling on Damascus to stop meddling in Lebanon’s internal affairs,” he said.

Mark those words carefully: If the US did not strike any deal with Syria regarding Lebanon at the Annapolis conference it was because the deal had been struck in advance. This is what the New York Times reports:

Syria, the most important outside influence over Lebanese politics, had hesitated until the last minute over whether to attend the conference.

Immediately after the talks, Syrian allies in Lebanon endorsed the first major political breakthrough. Analysts say the talks could thaw strained relations between Syria and the United States.

“The Syrians did not want to go to Annapolis, and without them the conference would have been a failure and would have weakened the Arabs,” said Talal Atrissi, a political analyst and sociologist at Lebanese University. “The Syrians traded their participation, which did not cost them anything, with a deal on the Lebanese presidency.”

Another breakthrough then came after the conference when on Thursday, Christian leader Michel Aoun, a retired general and a former army chief who was seeking the presidency himself and is backed by Syria, indicated that he is “open” to Suleiman becoming president. Lebanese commentator, Michael Young, that day had written, “Aoun will swallow poison before saying yes to Suleiman.” I guess the poison was less bitter than Young imagined.

So why should observers in the United States be surprised by the latest turn of events in the generally mystifying process of Lebanese politics? Here’s why. This is what the astute Syrian political analyst and journalist Sami Moubayed has to say:

…if the Syrians are able to get their way, they would opt for Michel Suleiman, the current army commander. Washington DC is not too enthusiastic about him because he is politically independent; too independent for Washington’s taste. He is committed to combating Israel, supporting Hizbullah, and friendship with Syria. His one slogan has been “Israel is the enemy”, something that greatly pleases Damascus but is frowned upon by 14 March. If elected, he would certainly work for a greater role for Hizbullah in the government, and might even turn a blind eye to their activities in south Lebanon, as did Elias Hrawi in the early 1990s, and Lahoud in 1998-2006. Also to the displeasure of 14 March was a recent remark by the army commander, “Fatah Al-Islam is linked to Al-Qaeda not Syria.”

Washington has plenty of reasons not to like Suleiman. The fact that they have now given their consent to his becoming Lebanon’s next president makes it quite transparent: the realpolitik faction inside the administration is not simply ready to do business with Syria — business is already underway.

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NEWS, OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Islamophobia goes unchallenged

Foes use Obama’s Muslim ties to fuel rumors about him

In his speeches and often on the Internet, the part of Sen. Barack Obama’s biography that gets the most attention is not his race but his connections to the Muslim world.

Since declaring his candidacy for president in February, Obama, a member of a congregation of the United Church of Christ in Chicago, has had to address assertions that he is a Muslim or that he had received training in Islam in Indonesia, where he lived from ages 6 to 10. While his father was an atheist and his mother did not practice religion, Obama’s stepfather did occasionally attend services at a mosque there.

Despite his denials, rumors and e-mails circulating on the Internet continue to allege that Obama (D-Ill.) is a Muslim, a “Muslim plant” in a conspiracy against America, and that, if elected president, he would take the oath of office using a Koran, rather than a Bible, as did Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the only Muslim in Congress, when he was sworn in earlier this year. [complete article]

WaPo reporter responds to all the criticism of front-page Obama Muslim piece

Okay, the Washington Post reporter who wrote today’s front page article on the rumors that Obama is a Muslim has now responded to all the criticism of the piece he’s been getting from readers and elsewhere today.

A number of you have written in to us to say that you had emailed the reporter, Perry Bacon, Jr., and that you had received responses from him. So I went to Bacon, and he sent over a shortened version of the statement he’s been sending back to readers:

I thought the facts that 1. these falsehoods persist and 2. Obama make mentions of his time living in a Muslim country on the campaign trail as part of his foreign policy were both worth remarking. I think the story makes clear, including in the candidate’s own words, he is a Christian.

Anyway, that’s Bacon’s response. Enter it into the record forthwith.

Update: In a chat with readers today, WaPo reporter Lois Romano addressed the controversy over the story. She observed that Obama has denied being a Muslim, adding that “airing some of this and giving him a chance to deny its accuracy could be viewed as setting the record straight.”

Right, but the problem here is that WaPo, and not just Obama, should have “denied the accuracy” of the Obama-is-a-Muslim nonsense. The Obama Muslim smear is based on lies, not “rumors.” Bacon in his statement above calls the Obama Muslim smears “falsehoods.” But they aren’t identified as such in the piece. That’s what everyone is yelling about. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — Let’s suppose that the word flying around the rightwing blogosphere was that Obama was Jewish. Would anyone be referring to that as a smear? Obama and others would point out that he’s a Christian, not a Jew, but we would not be hearing about the Obama “Jewish smears.”

In the outrage being expressed about the Obama “Muslim smear”, where is the outrage at the fact that in pluralistic, democratic America the label Muslim can be used as a smear? Apparently it goes without saying that Islamophobia is a socially acceptable current in presidential politics.

If the editor’s of the Washington Post want to salvage their newspaper’s reputation, how about reporting on the parallels between American images of Communists during the McCarthy era and the bipartisan vilification of Islam and Muslims that exists as an unchallenged bigotry in much of America today?

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FEATURE: The proliferation game

How the world helped Pakistan build its bomb

Globalization, what a concept. You can get a burger prepared your way practically anywhere in the world. The Nike Swoosh appears at elite athletic venues across the United States and on the skinny frames of t-shirted children playing in the streets of Calcutta. For those interested in buying an American automobile — a word of warning — it is not so unusual to find more “American content” in a Japanese car than one built by Detroit’s Big Three.

So don’t kid yourself about the Pakistani bomb. From burgers to bombs, globalization has had an impact. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal — as many as 120 weapons — is no more Pakistani than your television set is Japanese. Or is that American? It was a concept developed in one country and, for the most part, built in another. Its creation was an example of globalization before the term was even coined.

So where to begin? Some argue that Pakistan started down the nuclear road under President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 Atoms for Peace program, billed as a humanitarian gesture aimed at sharing the peaceful potential of atomic energy with the world. But Atoms for Peace was a misnomer — a plan to divert growing domestic and international concern over radioactive fallout from America’s nuclear tests. It would prove to be a White House public relations campaign to dwarf all others.

In fact, Atoms for Peace educated thousands of scientists from around the world in nuclear science and then dispatched them home, where many later pursued secret weapons programs. [complete article]

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NEWS, ANALYSIS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: U.S. Special Forces inside Iran?

U.S. wages covert war on Iraq-Iran border

While the PKK has been in the international spotlight in recent weeks, with Turkey mounting cross-border raids and threatening to launch an invasion of Iraq, not so much attention has been given to the Iranian offshoot, the PJAK. The group has been waging an insurgency against Tehran since 2004, which recently has escalated. A guerrilla leader told the New York Times last month that PJAK fighters had killed at least 150 Iranian soldiers and officials in Iran since August.

Iran accuses Washington of backing the group, and while the US denies this, local and foreign intelligence sources say the accusation is most likely true. According to a former US Special Forces (SF) commando currently based in Iraq who spoke on condition of anonymity, Special Forces troops are currently operating inside Iran, working with insurgent forces like the PJAK. “That’s what the SF does,” he said. “They train and build up indigenous anti-government forces.”

“The primary function of the Special Forces is to stand up guerrilla forces or counter-guerrilla forces,” said another former SF soldier, retired Major Mark Smith. While he was not specifically aware of SF teams training the PJAK, he said it would not be surprising if they were. And “they would be training in an obscure border area or in a location denied to anyone not directly involved”, he said.

He added that SF teams in Iran would be conducting strategic reconnaissance of possible nuclear and biological weapons sites, army headquarters, and significant individuals. “If they’re not doing these things in Iran, then they are remiss in their duties at the upper echelons of their command,” he said. [complete article]

Petraeus sought to prevent release of Iranians

Recent statements by the U.S. military that Iran had pledged to stop supplying weapons to Shi’ite militias in Iraq and that this alleged flow of arms may have stopped in August were part of a behind-the-scenes struggle over whether the George W. Bush administration should make a gesture to Iran by releasing five Iranian prisoners held since January.

When U.S. military experts found evidence that recently discovered weapons caches probably dated back to early 2007, it strengthened the hand of those in the administration arguing for the release and weakened the position of Vice President Dick Cheney and Gen. David Petraeus, who sought to scuttle any release by insisting that there was no evidence that Iran had changed its alleged policy of destabilizing Iraq. [complete article]

Annapolis and Iran

Is there room in these last months of a lame duck presidency to craft a modest opening to Iran, while maintaining a stout anti-Iranian coalition? Well, if we are to heed the cries of alarm emanating from the neo-conservatives as they watch their grandiose plans to add a third front to the War on Terror crumple into the dustbin of history, perhaps there really is something going on here.

Nevertheless, since this is a policy that dare not speak its name, even if these titillating signals are true, no turning point will be announced in blaring trumpets, and the message about Iran will be cloaked in vitriol and bile to prevent creating undue alarm among American conservatives and among the Arabs who are only now signing on to a long-term strategy to counter the “Iranian threat” but who also deeply fear the possibility of a sudden deal between the United States and Iran. (They can’t forget the shah and Iran-contra.)

The two individuals most likely to view these developments with quiet satisfaction are James Baker and Lee Hamilton, whose original policy prescriptions in the Iraq Study Group all seem to be coming true as George W. Bush approaches the precipice of his presidency. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — The fundamental problem in trying to decipher the intention behind the administration’s mixed messages on Iran is that this presumes that the administration has an intention. Just as likely, these mixed messages are the expression of multiple intentions as conflicting factions inside the administration jostle for the upper hand, each acutely aware that a president who does not know his own mind, can be swayed.

Iranians say sanctions hurt them, not government

Banks HSBC, Credit Suisse and UBS cut business ties with Iran last year followed by Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank and BNP Paribas in 2007.

“Almost every month we get notes from European banks about ceasing their cooperation with Iran,” said an employee of an Iranian bank, who asked not to be identified.

A doctor, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “We cannot open Letters of Credit in banks. Importing necessary material for medicines to treat patients who suffer cancer is becoming more difficult every day.”

Personal stories are common of how the financial sanctions are affecting those mostly well-off people who have foreign bank accounts or earn income from abroad.

Some say they will leave Iran if the United Nations imposes tougher sanctions; others are forced to use unofficial channels to get their cash.

Maryam Sharifa is one of many Iranians whose dollar account with a Western bank was closed in the past few months. Like many Iranians who lived abroad, she had kept her account open since returning to Iran.

“I had this account for 13 years in France. Do I look like a terrorist? Should I be punished just for being an Iranian?” said the 39-year-old mother of two. “I had to bring all that money with me here and buy a small apartment in Tehran.” [complete article]

Iran’s secret weapon: The Pope

The diplomatic chess game around Iran’s nuclear program includes an unlikely bishop. According to several well-placed Rome sources, Iranian officials are quietly laying the groundwork necessary to turn to Pope Benedict XVI and top Vatican diplomats for mediation if the showdown with the United States should escalate toward a military intervention. The 80-year-old Pope has thus far steered clear of any strong public comments about either Iran’s failure to fully comply with U.N. nuclear weapons inspectors or the drumbeat of war coming from some corners in Washington. But Iran, which has had diplomatic relations with the Holy See for 53 years, may be trying to line up Benedict as an ace in the hole for staving off a potential attack in the coming months. “The Vatican seems to be part of their strategy,” a senior Western diplomat in Rome said of the Iranian leadership. “They’ll have an idea of when the 11th hour is coming. And they know an intervention of the Vatican is the most open and amenable route to Western public opinion. It could buy them time.” [complete article]

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NEWS: Mahdi militia changes its colors

The Mahdi militia: quiet but not gone

American commanders acknowledge that men affiliated with the militia are still working within Iraqi police and army units. But in areas like the one patrolled by 1-8 Cavalry — which borders the militia stronghold of Sadr City — anyone of any consequence is affiliated, at least to some extent, with the militia or Sadr’s political organization. Determining where a soldier or policeman’s loyalties lie is a complicated task. “Is there influence? Yeah, there are still individuals in Jaish al-Mahdi who are in the security forces,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Jeffrey Sauer, who commands 1-8 Cavalry. But, says Sauer, being affiliated with JAM usually has no practical meaning unless a member of the the security forces acts in a way complicit with militia violence or criminal activity.

The militia continues to intimidate civilians, a situation made worse by residents’ lack of faith in their own police and army. The danger is that once the U.S. military begins reducing its presence over the next several months Baghdad’s civilians will once again find themselves at the mercy of the militia. [complete article]

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NEWS: Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah issues fatwa defending Muslim women

Lebanon’s top Shiite cleric says Muslim woman may hit back if beaten by husband

A Muslim woman is allowed to fight back in self-defense if hit by her husband, Lebanon’s top Shiite cleric declared Tuesday in a ruling rare for the male-dominated Islamic society.

Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah issued the fatwa, or religious edict, on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

A statement by his office said Fadlallah stressed that although Islam gives men supremacy over women in running household affairs, it “does not approve of a man using any sort of violence against a woman, even in the form of insults and harsh words.”

“These (acts) are sins whose doers will be brought to account by God and are punished by Islamic law,” Fadlallah said and denounced all kinds of physical violence used against wives as “a sign of weakness” by the husband.

Fadlallah, 72, is the top religious authority for Lebanon’s 1.2 million Shiites, but has followers throughout the Mideast. He is considered a militant by the West for past links to the Hezbollah, but has adopted progressive, nonviolent stances on some issues, surprising some among his conservative followers. [complete article]

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The Annapolis Peace Train

The Annapolis Peace Train – destination unknown

annapoliscompass.jpg
For an event which right up to the last minute was scrambling in search of content (Glenn Kessler provides a useful decoding of the declaration), no effort was spared in putting together a solid stage presentation. The image behind Rice says it all: a compass.

Annapolis was all about pointing in a direction. And as if to underline the fact that there isn’t even a consensus on what that direction should be, the big compass had embedded within it lots of smaller compasses suggesting multiple bearings. All aboard, the peace train is on its way — somewhere.

More than a few commentators were ready to mainline this stuff. David Ignatius notes that “very words ‘peace process’ have a narcotic effect,” — here we have a precious opportunity to dull the pain. “In a Middle East that is already far too volatile, this tranquilizing aspect of the Annapolis process is useful — and shouldn’t be squandered.”

Touchy-feely Jonathan Freedland gets off on what he describes as a “remarkable passage” from Ehud Olmert. This is what Olmert said:

For dozens of years, many Palestinians have been living in camps, disconnected from the environment in which they grew, wallowing in poverty, neglect, alienation, bitterness and a deep, unrelenting sense of deprivation. I know that this pain and deprivation is one of the deepest foundations which fomented the ethos of hatred towards us.

But if Olmert really feels the Palestinians’ pain, how come he’s just about to cut off the electricity to Gaza? An Israeli leader who acknowledges Palestinian suffering and its roots even while he persists in inflicting more suffering is not expressing the empathy that Freedland wants to hear. This is honey-sweetened sadism.

Meanwhile, the mono-metaphor presidency stays perfectly on track. Oblivious to the ambiguity in using the imagery of warfare to describe a peace process, Bush insists that “the battle is underway for the future of the Middle East” and that “we must not cede victory to the extremists.” For observers happy to go along with this worn-out framing of this as a conflict between “moderates” and “extremists,” Hamas and Iran are characterized as the spoilers. It’s as though, absent the extremists, the conflict would have been resolved decades ago. Really?

Who forced 450,000 Israelis to live outside Israel’s internationally recognized borders, largely on seized private Palestinian land? Those who refuse to acknowledge the unambiguous direction of the trendline (shown below), do so because they are unwilling to hear anyone utter its real name: colonization.

The Annapolis skeptics scoff at the connivance of the latest re-branding of the peace process, not because they hate peace but because they can see that the political substance of this enterprise is not aimed at a just and lasting resolution of the conflict. It aims at the perpetuation of a process intended to go on for as long as it takes to destroy the will of those who resist.
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Are we to believe that an Israel that is willing to wall off its Palestinian problem, successfully placing it out of sight and out of mind for most Israelis, will, at some point in the future when no longer faced with any violent opposition, turn around and make magnanimous “concessions”? Or is it much more reasonable to assume that the peace that Israel seeks is merely acquiescence to the status quo?

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OPINION: Peace through strangulation

Fire and water in Gaza

On Sept. 19, the Israeli government declared the Gaza Strip “hostile territory” and authorized steps to punish its civilian population. It decided that every Qassam rocket fired into Israel would carry a price tag: cutting the supply of electricity and fuel that Israel sells to Gaza. This assumes that disrupting civilian life in Gaza will have positive political results for Israel.

Gaza’s 1.5 million residents have been living with collective punishment for some time. We have endured years of border closures, aerial attacks and military operations — measures Israel has always explained as militarily necessary. But now, Israeli politicians claim it is legitimate to deprive all of Gaza’s civilians of basic needs.

Israel controls Gaza’s borders and the movement of all people and goods. Since Hamas came to power in June, Israel has tightened its siege. It has banned raw materials for manufacturing and construction; only basic foodstuffs are permitted into Gaza, and exports have been halted. Gaza’s economy is suffocating: Since June, 85 percent of its factories and 95 percent of its construction projects have been paralyzed. More than 70,000 people have lost their jobs. A million and a half people are locked in a pressure cooker in one of the world’s most densely populated areas. Stripped of the ability to travel, receive goods or engage in productive work, Gaza’s residents have become dependent on Western and Islamic aid organizations.

Disrupting the supply of electricity and fuel will first and foremost affect medical devices, refrigerators, operating-room lighting and other essential systems.

Cutting fuel and electricity threatens to create a water and sewage crisis in the Gaza Strip and surrounding areas. Power is needed to run treatment plants, pump water to homes and pump sewage away from populated areas. Since Israel began restricting fuel supplies on Oct. 28, I have had difficulty purchasing the full amount of fuel needed to power Gaza’s water system. Early this month, I stopped operating seven wells that provided drinking water to 35,000 people. Last week, I stopped operating three other wells and two sewage pumping stations, serving 50,000 people. Already, more than 15 percent of Gaza’s residents do not receive an adequate supply of water to their homes. [complete article]

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OPINION: The algebra of occupation

The algebra of occupation

In 1805, the French army out maneuvered, outsmarted, and outfought the combined armies of Russia and Austria at Austerlitz. Three years later it would flounder against a rag-tag collection of Spanish guerrillas.

In 1967, it took six days for the Israeli army to smash Egypt, Jordan, and Syria and seize the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. In 2006, a Shiite militia fought the mightiest army in the Middle East to a bloody standstill in Lebanon.

In 1991, it took four days of ground combat for the United States to crush Saddam Hussein’s army in the Gulf War. U.S. losses were 148 dead and 647 wounded. After more than five years of war in Iraq, U.S. losses are approaching 4,000, with over 50,000 wounded; 2007 is already the deadliest year of the war for the United States.

In each case, a great army won a decisive victory only to see that victory canceled out by what T.E. Lawrence once called the “algebra of occupation.” Writing about the British occupation of Iraq following the Ottoman Empire’s collapse in World War I, Lawrence put his finger on the formula that has doomed virtually every military force that has tried to quell a restive population. [complete article]

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NEWS, ANALYSIS & OPINION: Annapolis in context

In Annapolis, conflict by other means

Both Abbas and Hamas are betting, in opposite directions, on the Annapolis meeting and the process it may spawn. Abbas hopes to show that bilateral negotiations can achieve what resistance cannot, both in terms of diplomatic process and improvements in daily life. Hamas is wagering that precisely the opposite will occur, and that, once chastened, Fatah will have no choice but to revive its partnership with the Islamists, on the latter’s terms. Yet even should the international custodians of this process provide Abbas with sufficient goods to dissuade Fatah from resuming dialogue with Hamas, the Islamist movement assumes that the fruits of the process will ultimately redound to its benefit, as did those of the Oslo process when Hamas in 2006 won control of the legislature. And should the process further threaten Hamas’ position, it need not stand idly by. Abbas is in no position to conclude a historic compromise without the safety net of a national consensus including Hamas — much less implement one in the teeth of active and perhaps armed Islamist opposition.

Compelling Hamas to fight for its very survival rather than what it perceives as its rightful role in the Palestinian political system is only compounding these challenges. The Gaza Strip is under unprecedented pressure. Border crossings remain closed to most exports and all but the most vital imports, precipitating an economic freefall from which an eventual recovery will be prolonged and difficult. The economy is being hollowed out, as the private sector — the most productive — is progressively destroyed. Given the continued rocket fire on southern Israel, the Olmert government has declared Gaza a “hostile entity,” setting the stage for further measures including embargoes on electricity and fuel. These sanctions may be a prelude to an eventual Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip akin to that in the West Bank in 2002, though many consider this scenario unlikely — except in the event of significant Israeli causalities — because it will create as many Israeli dilemmas as it resolves. Once Israel conquers the coastal strip, it will either need to remain and occupy or withdraw and, inevitably, face further attacks. That Hamas will be unseated from within seems even less likely; despite growing popular disenchantment and sporadic clashes, the Islamists have the wherewithal to remain in power and a proven determination to use it. [complete article]

See also, Hamas: Abbas has no right to give up one inch of Palestine (Haaretz) and 4 main issues that divide Israel, Palestinians (McClatchy).

Iran: The uninvited guest a peace summit

According to a Tehran University political science professor, the reason Tehran is highly skeptical about the results of the Annapolis conference is that “all the principal participants are weak. You have a lame-duck president in the White House who completely forgot the Palestinian issue for seven years, a weak Israeli prime minister [Ehud Olmert] and an even weaker Palestinian leader [President Mahmoud Abbas], who does not lead more than a minority of Palestinians. How is a durable breakthrough possible under these conditions when the principal participants are not powerful enough to make the necessary concessions? Can Olmert stop the illegal settlements or order their removal from the Palestinian lands? The answer is no.”

Such sentiments can be found aplenty in Iran, prompting President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to echo the sentiment of Hamas leaders, who are highly critical of those Arab leaders participating at Annapolis, by stating: “Attending the conference shows a lack of political intelligence. The name of those who give concessions to the Zionist occupiers by attending will not be remembered for goodness.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, on the other hand, has stated, “The end result of all these conferences leads to a further erosion of Palestinian rights.” Mottaki has been touring the Gulf Cooperation Council states and has been delighted that Sultan Qabus of Oman in particular has praised the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s nuclear program as “successful” and has supported Iran’s nuclear rights. [complete article]

Did Livni mean what she said?

One morning recently, I went to a grocery store in the north Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, where I bought a few items, which I paid for with a Jordanian coin. When I glanced at the change I received, in Israeli currency, I saw I had been shortchanged by three shekels. I looked at the grocer, who, without my saying a word, seemed to understand, as he shouted angrily: We still remember you as tramps. Now you all drive around in Mercedes, but you still squabble with us over a few pennies.

That was the opinion of a simple Palestinian about his Palestinian brothers who live inside Israel – if you will, the “Israeli Arabs” or “the Arabs of ’48.” Of course this was just one man’s opinion, but there is little doubt that it is representative of a widespread feeling among our Palestinian brethren, who expresses an objective reality.

I recalled the episode when I heard Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni declare last week that the Palestinian state would provide a national solution for all the Palestinians, including those who live inside Israel. The minister in effect was offering her understanding of the real significance of Israel’s insistence on conditioning its participation in the Annapolis conference on Palestinian recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. The connection Livni made between the Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel – by saying that both of them could find their solution in a future Palestinian state – did not leave much to the imagination, for this time the remarks were made by the foreign minister and in the name of the Israeli government, and herein lies the danger.

Since the state’s establishment, its leaders have refused to internalize the fact that an Arab Palestinian minority remained here. Their decision to stay and live on their lands constituted a painful reminder to the leaders of the Zionist movement about the way in which reality failed to conform to Israel Zangwill’s well-known slogan that saw this as “a land without a people for a people without a land.” [complete article]

An arrest on the border

Ghazi-Walid Falah was not worried when Israeli security agents stopped his car on a narrow mountain road near the Lebanese border, just before sundown on July 8, 2006.

When they discover who I am, he assured himself, they will immediately release me.

Mr. Falah is a prominent political geographer who studies borders. He is a tenured professor at the University of Akron. And he is a dual citizen of Israel and Canada. He thought he had nothing to fear.

But his self-assurance — and his freedom — were short-lived.

That night agents of the Israel Security Agency, also known as the Shin Bet, or Shabak, arrested Mr. Falah and took him to a police station in Nahariya. There they told him they had found something in his camera: a photograph of a “sensitive” military antenna near the coast.

Then they used the word meragel: Spy.

In the middle of the night, a three-car convoy carried Mr. Falah, bound hand and foot, to his brother’s home, near Nazareth, so the Shin Bet could search his luggage there. In that blur of a visit, Mr. Falah spoke just a few words to his brother. “Contact my lawyer,” he said. “I’m clean.”

That was the last Mr. Falah’s family, friends, or colleagues would hear from him for the next 18 days. A gag order from an Israeli court forbade Mr. Falah to speak with his lawyer, his lawyer to speak with the press, and the Israeli press to cover his arrest.

Four days into Mr. Falah’s detention, war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, further burying his disappearance in the public consciousness. When he was released, on July 30, with the war still raging, he had been imprisoned and interrogated for 23 days. No charges were ever filed against him.

In the history of the region’s conflicts, the story of one detained geography professor is a minor episode at best.

But at a time when scholars of the Middle East agonize over visa denials and public tenure battles, Mr. Falah’s experience gives even starker definition to the risks involved in studying the region. [complete article]

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NEWS & ANALYSIS: Sharif returns to Pakistan

The autumn of the patriarch

The Bhutto-Musharraf relationship has deteriorated sharply since her return to Karachi last month. Yet despite everything, the pre-crisis mutual understanding brokered by the US is still salvageable. “Musharraf and Bhutto detest each other. They both think of themselves as saviours. Neither is good at sharing power,” a senior official said.

“But this marriage was not made in heaven. It was made in Washington. Benazir does whatever the Americans tell her.” Both leaders were pro-American and relatively secular and liberal in outlook, unlike the conservative Sharif with his strong ties to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s religious parties. And again unlike Bhutto, Sharif is adamant he will not work with Musharraf, who he has never forgiven for deposing him in the 1999 coup.

The most likely, immediate outcome was a coalition government led by Bhutto as prime minister, the official said, even though the chances of her working successfully with him as civilian president were poor in the longer term. “Benazir will make a bid for greater power as PM. The dynamic will be with her. So there’s going to be a big struggle.”

In prospect now is a return to Pakistan’s so-called “troika politics” of the 1990s, when president, prime minister and military fought for the political upper hand, usually in alliances of two-against-one. This ongoing institutionalised power struggle, guaranteeing instability and strife, was also cast as a battle between the “three A’s” – “America, the army, and Allah,” not necessarily in that order. [complete article]

Second time lucky

“The lion is back.” Thus read a banner held aloft at Lahore airport on Sunday November 25th to welcome home Nawaz Sharif, a rotund former Pakistani prime minister, returned from exile in Saudi Arabia and Britain. Outside the airport, Mr Sharif clambered atop a Saudi-given bullet-proof vehicle and roared his response: “We have to save the country. We have to unite and get rid of dictatorship.”

Mr Sharif’s homecoming does seem to be a blow to General Pervez Musharraf, the dictator in question. The event attracted a crowd of several thousand supporters of his Pakistan Muslim League (N) party—far fewer than the 200,000 who welcomed home another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, last month. Yet unlike Miss Bhutto, Mr Sharif returns as a sworn enemy of the general. And unlike Miss Bhutto’s supporters, who had been carefully corralled by her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Mr Sharif’s fans turned up in defiance of martial law, including a ban on political gatherings, imposed by General Musharraf on November 3rd.

In another ominous comparison for General Musharraf, who toppled Mr Sharif in a previous coup in 1999, this was his rival’s second homecoming this year. In September Mr Sharif spent only four hours in Pakistan before he was deported to Saudi Arabia. That he has now been permitted to return home was at the insistence of the Saudis, allies of both men. [complete article]

See also, Throngs welcome Pakistan’s ex-leader (WP).

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NEWS, ANALYSIS & OPINION: Permanent bases; Kurdish-Shia coalition; language of war

US, Iraq deal sees long-term US presence

President Bush on Monday signed a deal setting the foundation for a potential long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq, with details to be negotiated over matters that have defined the war debate at home — how many U.S. forces will stay in the country, and for how long.

The agreement between Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki confirms that the United States and Iraq will hash out an “enduring” relationship in military, economic and political terms. Details of that relationship will be negotiated in 2008, with a completion goal of July, when the U.S. intends to finish withdrawing the five combat brigades sent in 2007 as part of the troop buildup that has helped curb sectarian violence. [complete article]

See also, War Czar: Permanent Iraq bases won’t require Senate ratification (TPM).

Iraqi Shiite leader defends Iran

Iraq’s most influential Shiite politician said Sunday that the U.S had not backed up claims that Iran is fueling violence here, underscoring a wide gap on the issue between Washington and the Shiite-led Baghdad government.

A draft bill to ease curbs on ex-Saddam Hussein loyalists in government services also drew sharp criticism from Shiite lawmakers, opening old wounds at a time when the United States is pressing the Iraqis for compromise for the sake of national unity. [complete article]

Even more good news for Maliki

The tug-of-war between Ba’athists and leaders of post-2003 Iraq has dominated political life in Baghdad. What’s new is the apparent willingness of Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist bloc, to coordinate with Kurdish politicians. Muqtada also sent a very strong message to Kurdish politicians through one of his top loyalists, member of Parliament Bahaa al-Araji. Speaking to the Iraqi newspaper Ilaf, Araji defended article 140 of the constitution, pertaining to Kirkuk. That is certainly a new line for the Sadrists. The article, which has caused a storm in Iraqi political circles, calls for a census and referendum in the oil-rich city to see whether it can be incorporated into Iraqi Kurdistan.

In 1986, as part of his Arabization process, Saddam called for the relocation of Arab families to Kirkuk, the center of Iraq’s petroleum industry, to outnumber the Kurds living there. He also uprooted thousands of Kurds from Kirkuk. Since the downfall of Saddam’s regime, the Kurds have been demanding Kirkuk, something that both Sunnis and mainstream Shi’ites curtly refuse.

Recently, however, after Maliki’s main allies in the Sadrist bloc and Iraqi Accordance Front walked out on him, he was left with no other option but to cuddle up to the Kurds and support them on Kirkuk. He backed article 140, calling it “mandatory” and called on 12,000 Arab families brought to Kirkuk by Saddam to return to their Arab districts. When that is complete, and the census and referendum are held, then Kirkuk would become 100% Kurdish.

Saddam’s deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz once told Kurdish politicians, “You [the Kurds] have one right: to weep as you pass through Kirkuk [since it will never become a Kurdish city].” But if Maliki and Muqtada support article 140, then Kirkuk very much might become “Kurdish”.

Muqtada’s about-turn was expressed by Araji, who said: “The article is constitutional and it should be handled accordingly.” When asked if this means giving Kirkuk to the Kurds, Araji did not say, “No, Kirkuk is an Arab city and will remain an Arab city.” He surprised observers by saying: “The Iraqis are the ones who decide on this.” Clearly, Araji could not have made such a bold statement without getting prior approval from Muqtada.

In the past, Muqtada has vehemently opposed any division of Iraq, claiming that even the Kurdish north (which is now Iraqi Kurdistan) should be re-incorporated into the Iraqi republic. Federalism was out of the question for Muqtada, even if it meant granting another oil-rich district in southern Iraq to the Shi’ites. Kirkuk was – until this weekend apparently – a red line for Muqtada. [complete article]

Iraq has only militants, no civilians

“Sometimes I think it should be a rule of war that you have to see somebody up close and get to know him before you can shoot him.” — Colonel Potter, M*A*S*H

Name them. Maim them. Kill them.

From the beginning of the American occupation in Iraq, air strikes and attacks by the U.S. military have only killed “militants,” “criminals,” “suspected insurgents,” “IED [Improvised Explosive Device] emplacers,” “anti-American fighters,” “terrorists,” “military age males,” “armed men,” “extremists,” or “al-Qaeda.”

The pattern for reporting on such attacks has remained the same from the early years of the occupation to today. Take a helicopter attack on October 23rd of this year near the village of Djila, north of Samarra. The U.S. military claimed it had killed 11 among “a group of men planting a roadside bomb.” Only later did a military spokesperson acknowledge that at least six of the dead were civilians. Local residents claimed that those killed were farmers, that there were children among them, and that the number of dead was greater than 11.

Here is part of the statement released by U.S. military spokeswoman in northern Iraq, Major Peggy Kageleiry:

“A suspected insurgent and improvised explosive device cell member was identified among the killed in an engagement between Coalition Forces and suspected IED emplacers just north of Samarra…. During the engagement, insurgents used a nearby house as a safe haven to re-engage coalition aircraft. A known member of an IED cell was among the 11 killed during the multiple engagements. We send condolences to the families of those victims and we regret any loss of life.”

As usual, the version offered by locals was vastly different. Abdul al-Rahman Iyadeh, a relative of some of the victims, revealed that the “group of men” attacked were actually three farmers who had left their homes at 4:30 A.M. to irrigate their fields. Two were killed in the initial helicopter attack and the survivor ran back to his home where other residents gathered. The second air strike, he claimed, destroyed the house killing 14 people. Another witness told reporters that four separate houses were hit by the helicopter. A local Iraqi policeman, Captain Abdullah al-Isawi, put the death toll at 16 — seven men, six women, and three children, with another 14 wounded. [complete article]

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FEATURE: Hired guns

While the volunteer Army struggles, the business of war booms

“There are many questions as to how a myriad of heavily armed private armies can serve the purpose of the US military and foreign policy,” writes Robert Young Pelton, in Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror.

Pelton has traveled with both military and private contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq throughout the conflict. He describes the new terrain shaped by outsourcing and reports that it bears little resemblance to the noble enterprise sold to the military years ago. Five years into operations, it is a darkly obscured landscape of violence, profiteering, and negligence. He senses that this parallel army is undermining the entire mission, leading to “blowback of extraordinary proportions.”

“It strikes at the core of the entire American principle, the idea of the citizen soldier,” he tells TAC. “We’ve been fighting this war longer than World War II, and the military is absolutely dependent on the private sector.” [complete article]

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ANALYSIS & OPINION: A theatrical peace process

Demands of a thief

The public discourse in Israel has momentarily awoken from its slumber. “To give or not to give,” that is the Shakespearean question – “to make concessions” or “not to make concessions.” It is good that initial signs of life in the Israeli public have emerged. It was worth going to Annapolis if only for this reason – but this discourse is baseless and distorted. Israel is not being asked “to give” anything to the Palestinians; it is only being asked to return – to return their stolen land and restore their trampled self-respect, along with their fundamental human rights and humanity. This is the primary core issue, the only one worthy of the title, and no one talks about it anymore.

No one is talking about morality anymore. Justice is also an archaic concept, a taboo that has deliberately been erased from all negotiations. Two and a half million people – farmers, merchants, lawyers, drivers, daydreaming teenage girls, love-smitten men, old people, women, children and combatants using violent means for a just cause – have all been living under a brutal boot for 40 years. Meanwhile, in our cafes and living rooms the conversation is over giving or not giving.

Lawyers, philosophers, writers, lecturers, intellectuals and rabbis, who are looked upon for basic knowledge about moral precepts, participate in this distorted discourse. What will they tell their children – after the occupation finally becomes a nightmare of the past – about the period in which they wielded influence? What will they say about their role in this? Israeli students stand at checkpoints as part of their army reserve duty, brutally deciding the fate of people, and then some rush off to lectures on ethics at university, forgetting what they did the previous day and what is being done in their names every single day. Intellectuals publish petitions, “to make concessions” or “not to make concessions,” diverting attention from the core issue. There are stormy debates about corruption – whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is corrupt and how the Supreme Court is being undermined. But there is no discussion of the ultimate question: Isn’t the occupation the greatest and most terrible corruption to have taken root here, overshadowing everything else? [complete article]

The Grinch who stole Annapolis

When the Western powers suggested, at Yalta, that the Pope be brought into discussions over the shape of post-war Europe, Stalin famously retorted, “how many divisions does he command?” The same is essentially true for Abbas. The Israelis and Americans are going into talks now with a Palestinian leadership unable to deliver. And they know it. This is talking for the sake of talking, and showing that talks could potentially lead somewhere under very different circumstances.

All of those regimes, including Abbas’s, who have thrown in their lot with the floundering Pax Americana in the Middle East have no alternative but to show up at Annapolis, and hope — against hope — that the Bush Administration is ready to do more than it has ever done to press the Israelis into withdrawing from the territories conquered in 1967. What they’ll get, though, at best, is a process that promises to reach that point at some unspecified date in the future. Still, where else are Abbas and the Arab regimes going to spend next Tuesday? [complete article]

See also, Syria is to attend talks in Annapolis (WP), Skeptical Arab leaders agree to attend Mideast peace conference (McClatchy), and Hamas warns of violence after talks (The Observer).

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NEWS: Iran is willing to deal

Iran hints it could halt nuclear enrichment for a quid pro quo

Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency said Friday that his country could suspend uranium enrichment if the United States and Western Europe agreed to acknowledge that its nuclear program was peaceful.

But Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh said there was a “serious confidence gap” between his country and the United States and Western Europe and that he saw little point in trying to “build confidence” with an American administration that had none in his country.

“We don’t trust the United States,” he told McClatchy Newspapers after the IAEA Board of Governors finished its latest round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program. “We could suspend nuclear enrichment. We did it before for two and half years. But it wasn’t enough then, and wouldn’t be enough now. We will not suspend enrichment again because there is no end to what the United States will demand.”

Diplomats said Soltanieh’s remarks reflected what he’d been saying in private. “Iran is willing to deal,” one said. “But they’ve made it clear there would have to be a quid pro quo, and they don’t believe that’s possible.” The diplomats said they couldn’t be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the issue. [complete article]

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NEWS, OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Iraq – the shifting narrative

Bomb at a market shatters lull for Baghdad

Last Friday, the Ghazil animal market was a crowded bazaar in a city willing itself into recovery. Cautious but hopeful parents led fun-starved children by the hand to show them parakeets, tropical fish and twittering chicks painted in bright, improbable hues.

As Baghdad’s relative lull in violence had extended from weeks into months, Sunnis and Shiites alike made the calculation — one shared by this reporter — that the Ghazil market was safe enough to risk walking around on a sunny Friday.

It was. But one week later, the market in the shadow of the Mosque of the Caliphs was a scene of carnage, a cruel reminder that the decline in violence in this city is relative and may not last. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — While American officials have been keen to attribute the recent drop in violence in Baghdad to the success of the surge, there seems to be evidence that this drop can also be attributed to another significant event: an isolated but effective disruption in the supply chain of suicide bombers.

A New York Times report last Thursday on a raid on an insurgent camp at Sinjar, close to the Syrian border, focused on intelligence findings that reveals where foreign fighters entering Iraq are coming from. The political significance of this data is obvious: At a time when Iran is frequently blamed for fomenting violence in Iraq, the U.S. military is making it clear that the most significant foreign element has actually been coming from Saudi Arabia. What this report and surrounding coverage has not focused on are the practical consequences that seem to have followed from this raid: a substantial drop in the number of suicide bombings. Friday’s bombing in the Ghazil animal market while apparently intended to look like the re-emergence of the trend of suicide attacks aimed at causing mass civilian casualties is noteworthy because it wasn’t a suicide bombing.

There’s no place like … Iraq?

Dawood is happy to be back in Baghdad. Not that he had much choice. Late last year the cautious, soft-spoken Shiite fled to Syria and on to Lebanon, leaving his wife and their three children in relatives’ care while he looked for a safer home. He had begun getting death threats after helping create an Internet hookup for the U.S. Army base at Taji. Dawood (he won’t risk the use of his full name) is a 33-year-old IT engineer, but he couldn’t find work outside Iraq. His Lebanese visa ran out, and Canada refused his asylum application. So a few weeks ago, practically broke, he returned to Baghdad. His old district is torn by an ongoing Shia-Sunni turf war, but Dawood says he feels safe in the family’s new, mainly Shia area. His youngest child, now 3, called him “Uncle” at first, and he’s still looking for work, but it’s good just to be with his family. “I’ll tell you something about missing Baghdad,” he says. “When I’m in Baghdad, I don’t want to hear any Iraqi music. But when I’m somewhere else, all I want to hear is Iraqi music.”

Thousands of Iraqis are finally returning, lured by news of lessening bloodshed in Baghdad and increasingly unwelcome in the neighboring lands where they tried to escape the war. Although they’re scarcely a fraction of the roughly 2.2 million who have fled into exile since 2003, they represent a big shift: for the first time since the war began, more Iraqis seem to be re-entering the country than leaving. At the desert outpost of Al Waleed, the main crossing on the Syrian frontier, border police reported 43,799 Iraqis coming home in October—more than five times the number heading out, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Other statistics remain patchy at best, but the signs point toward home. “I can tell you this,” says Abdul Samid Rahman Sultan, Iraq’s minister of Displacement and Migration (the job title alone tells how bad the problem has been). “Flights from Syria are always full. Flights out are not.” [complete article]

Railroading a journalist in Iraq

At long last, prize-winning Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein may get his day in court. The trouble is, justice won’t be blind in this case — his lawyer will be.

Bilal has been imprisoned by the U.S. military in Iraq since he was picked up April 12, 2006, in Ramadi, a violent town in a turbulent province where few Western journalists dared go. The military claimed then that he had suspicious links to insurgents. This week, Editor&Publisher magazine reported the military has amended that to say he is, in fact, a “terrorist” who had “infiltrated the AP.”

We believe Bilal’s crime was taking photographs the U.S. government did not want its citizens to see. That he was part of a team of AP photographers who had just won a Pulitzer Prize for work in Iraq may have made Bilal even more of a marked man.

In the 19 months since he was picked up, Bilal has not been charged with any crime, although the military has sent out a flurry of ever-changing claims. Every claim we’ve checked out has proved to be false, overblown or microscopic in significance. Now, suddenly, the military plans to seek a criminal case against Bilal in the Iraqi court system in just days. But the military won’t tell us what the charges are, what evidence it will be submitting or even when the hearing will be held. [complete article]

Iraq nullifies Kurdish oil deals

Iraq’s oil ministry has declared all crude contracts signed by the Kurdish regional authorities with foreign companies null and void, a government official said on Saturday.

“The ministry has nullified all contracts signed by the Kurdistan Regional Government,” the official told AFP, asking not to be named. “They will not be recognised.”

The government in Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdish region has signed 15 exploration and exportation contracts with 20 international companies since it passed its own oil law in August, infuriating the Baghdad government. [complete article]

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NEWS: Sharif returns; suicide bombers target ISI

Bitterest rival of Musharraf returns home

Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani opposition leader and former prime minister, arrived home from exile to a tumultuous welcome at Lahore airport on Sunday evening. Hundreds of supporters whistled and cheered, hoisting him and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif on their shoulders through ranks of wary riot police.

“I have come to save this country,” he said standing on top of a radio cab desk in the arrivals hall. “I have come to fulfill the responsibility that is given me,” he told the crowd. But few could hear him, so loud was the chanting and cheering from supporters. “Long live! Long live! Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif!” they shouted.

The bitterest rival of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Mr. Sharif, 57, was returning eight years after his government was overthrown by the general, and he was thrown in prison and later sent into exile. [complete article]

Blasts kill 35 near Pakistani capital

A pair of suicide bombers, in apparently synchronized attacks, killed at least 35 people today in early-morning blasts near major military installations, Pakistani officials said.

The powerful blasts in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, next to Islamabad, the capital, targeted a bus carrying employees of Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, and a checkpoint outside army headquarters.

The attacks came a day after the Supreme Court, now made up of handpicked loyalists of President Pervez Musharraf, declared that his 3-week-old emergency decree is legal. The latest violence could give him a reason to extend the decree, which amounts to de facto martial law. [complete article]

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NEWS & OPINION: Rising fear in Lebanon

Darkness falls on the Middle East

It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to be in a country that sits on plate glass. It is impossible to be certain if the glass will break. When a constitution breaks – as it is beginning to break in Lebanon – you never know when the glass will give way.

People are moving out of their homes, just as they have moved out of their homes in Baghdad. I may not be frightened, because I’m a foreigner. But the Lebanese are frightened. I was not in Lebanon in 1975 when the civil war began, but I was in Lebanon in 1976 when it was under way. I see many young Lebanese who want to invest their lives in this country, who are frightened, and they are right to frightened. What can we do? [complete article]

Hezbollah raises specter of long Lebanon power void

Lebanese opposition group Hezbollah said on Sunday that failure to reach agreement on a new president in the week ahead could leave the divided country without a head of state for a long time.

Deputy Hezbollah leader Sheikh Naim Kassem also said the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora had no right to assume the powers of the presidency, which has been vacant since Friday when Emile Lahoud’s term ended. [complete article]

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