Hezbollah overruns west Beirut as Lebanon on brink

Hezbollah gunmen seized control of west Beirut on Friday after a third day of battles with pro-government foes in the Lebanese capital pushed the nation dangerously close to all-out civil war.

Hizballah prevailing in Beirut siege

Just why the government chose this particular moment to move against Hizballah’s telecoms remains unclear. Hizballah, which fought Israel to a stand-still in the summer war of 2006, is much stronger on the ground than the government and is certain to win any confrontation. Still, Hizballah would have much to lose in an open civil war. Not only would the chaos distract the group from the far more dangerous struggle with Israel, but it could also help radical al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni jihadi groups infiltrate Lebanon. Tellingly, Hizballah regulars have so far stayed out of the fighting, leaving the wet work to street gangs and a few regular fighters belonging to the Amal movement, an allied Shia opposition party.

But the government officials who moved against the Hizballah network are known to coordinate their actions with the United States, and the Bush administration may be digging in its heels into Lebanon while its days in office are on the wane. The Bush administration is keen both to preserve Lebanon’s independence from Syria, which ended its occupation of Lebanon in 2005 under American pressure, and to push for the disarmament of Hizballah, which the U.S. regards as a terrorist organization and a major threat to Israel. “Hizbollah needs to make a choice: Be a terrorist organization or be a political party, but quit trying to be both,” said a White House spokesman yesterday.

A secret Afghanistan mission prepares for war with Iran

Those predicting war with Iran or some Bush-Cheney October surprise attack on Tehran are constantly looking for signs of military preparations: a B-52 bomber that mistakenly takes off from North Dakota with nuclear-armed cruise missiles; a second or third aircraft carrier entering the Persian Gulf; a B-1 crashing in Qatar.

Since the most likely path to war with Iran is not Marines storming the beach but a strike on nuclear facilities and “regime” targets, signs such as these can often just be mirages. The true strike is not necessarily going to come with any warning, and the U.S. military has developed an entire system called “global strike” to implement such a preemptive strike.

A secret mission conducted last August over Afghanistan caught my eye because it tells us everything we need to know about the ability of the U.S. military to conduct a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack in Iran. It also tells us how useless such a strike might be.

Israel is 60, Zionism is dead, what now?

Israel at 60 is an intractable historical fact. It has one of the world’s strongest armies, without peer in the Middle East, and its 200 or so nuclear warheads give it the last word in any military showdown with any of its neighbors. Don’t believe the hype about an Iranian threat – Israel certainly fears Iran attaining strategic nuclear capability, but not because it expects Iran to launch a suicidal nuclear exchange. That’s the sort of scare-story that gets trotted out for public consumption in Israel and the U.S. Behind closed doors, Israeli leaders admit that even a nuclear-armed Iran does not threaten Israel’s existence. (Israel’s security doctrine, however, is based on maintaining an overwhelming strategic advantage over all challengers, so the notion of parity along the lines of Cold War “Mutually Assured Destruction” with Iran is a major challenge, because without a nuclear monopoly, Israel loses a trump card in the regional power battle.)

Palestinian militants may be able to make life in certain parts of Israel exceedingly unpleasant at times, but they are unable to reverse the Nakbah of 1948 through military means. (Hamas knows this as well as Fatah does, which is why it is ready to talk about a long-term hudna and coexistence – although it won’t roll over and accept Israel’s terms as relayed by Washington in the way that the current Fatah leadership might.)

Portrait of an oil-addicted former superpower

Nineteen years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall effectively eliminated the Soviet Union as the world’s other superpower. Yes, the USSR as a political entity stumbled on for another two years, but it was clearly an ex-superpower from the moment it lost control over its satellites in Eastern Europe.

Less than a month ago, the United States similarly lost its claim to superpower status when a barrel crude oil roared past $110 on the international market, gasoline prices crossed the $3.50 threshold at American pumps, and diesel fuel topped $4.00. As was true of the USSR following the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the USA will no doubt continue to stumble on like the superpower it once was; but as the nation’s economy continues to be eviscerated to pay for its daily oil fix, it, too, will be seen by increasing numbers of savvy observers as an ex-superpower-in-the-making.

That the fall of the Berlin Wall spelled the erasure of the Soviet Union’s superpower status was obvious to international observers at the time. After all, the USSR visibly ceased to exercise dominion over an empire (and an associated military-industrial complex) encompassing nearly half of Europe and much of Central Asia. The relationship between rising oil prices and the obliteration of America’s superpower status is, however, hardly as self-evident. So let’s consider the connection.

U.S. officials urged to avoid linking Islam, jihad with terrorism

U.S. officials are being advised in internal government documents to avoid referring publicly to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups as Islamic or Muslim, and not to use terms like jihad or mujahedin, which “unintentionally legitimize” terrorism.

“There’s a growing consensus (in the administration) that we need to move away from that language,” said a former senior administration official who was involved until recently in policy debates on the issue.

Instead, in two documents circulated last month by the National Counter-Terrorism Center, the multiagency center charged with strategic coordination of the U.S. war on terrorism, officials are urged to use terms like violent extremists, totalitarian and death cult to characterize al-Qaida and other terror groups.

U.S. deploys more than 43,000 unfit for combat

More than 43,000 U.S. troops listed as medically unfit for combat in the weeks before their scheduled deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan since 2003 were sent anyway, Pentagon records show.

This reliance on troops found medically “non-deployable” is another sign of stress placed on a military that has sent 1.6 million servicemembers to the war zones, soldier advocacy groups say.

“It is a consequence of the consistent churning of our troops,” said Bobby Muller, president of Veterans For America. “They are repeatedly exposed to high-intensity combat with insufficient time at home to rest and heal before redeploying.”

Killing by the numbers

Three snipers with exemplary military records from the 1st Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division’s 501st Regiment were charged in Khudair’s killing. They were tried by the military judicial system in Iraq beginning in 2007. But the most important question raised by his death remains unanswered. Why would these elite American soldiers kill an unarmed prisoner in cold blood? The answer: pressure from their commanding officers to pump up a statistic straight out of America’s last long war against an intractable insurgency.

A review of thousands of pages of documents from the legal proceedings obtained by Salon shows that in the months prior to Khudair’s death, the young snipers, already frustrated by guerrilla tactics, were pressed to their physical limits and pushed by officers to stretch the bounds of the laws of war in order to increase the enemy body count. When the United States wallowed in Vietnam’s counterinsurgency quagmire decades ago, the same pressure placed on soldiers resulted in some of the worst atrocities of that war. A paratrooper who remembered the insidious influence of body counts in Vietnam warned Salon in 2005 that the practice could also ensnare good soldiers in Iraq. “The problem is that in Iraq, we are in a guerrilla war,” said Dennis Stout. “How do you keep score? How do you prove you are winning?”

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