Israel agrees to truce with Hamas

Israel has agreed to an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire with Hamas for the Gaza area starting Thursday, officials here said Wednesday.

“Israel has accepted the Egyptian proposal,” said David Baker, a spokesman for the Israeli government. “We hope this will lead to a cessation of the constant rocket fire on Israeli towns and cities.”

Israel is expected as part of the deal to ease the economic blockade of Gaza, which is controlled by the Islamic group Hamas. Israeli government officials emphasized that sanctions would be lifted in accordance with the security situation on the ground.

The cease-fire deal / Hamas in charge

The main points of a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas grant the Islamic organization a political and diplomatic achievement that will also give it a lever in its reconciliation talks with Fatah, which are slated to begin at the end of this week. According to the Egyptian-mediated proposal, Israel will no longer be able to monitor the Rafah crossing, on the Gaza-Egypt border, once it reopens, and a deal to free kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit will be discussed separately from the truce, as Hamas wanted.

Israel will receive quiet in the south, along with an Egyptian pledge to monitor the border closely, but Hamas will be the main party in control of the Rafah crossing. Palestinian Authority officials and European observers will be present, but both will have limited authority. Moreover, the truce gives Hamas, rather than PA President Mahmoud Abbas, the power to force a cease-fire in the West Bank: If quiet is maintained in the south, Israel will have to extend the truce to the West Bank in another six months.

In theory, the reopening of Rafah depends on progress in the Shalit deal. But Egyptian officials insisted yesterday that Rafah’s opening is independent of the Shalit swap, and neither is conditional upon the other, since freeing Shalit involves an additional element: Israel’s agreement to release a large number of Palestinian prisoners. Thus here, too, Israel will not be able to point to any achievement.

Iraq deal with US to end immunity for foreign contractors

The US has accepted that foreign contractors in Iraq will no longer have immunity from Iraqi law under a new security agreement now under negotiation, says the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari.

Mr Zebari, speaking to The Independent in Washington, said that if there was a further incident like the one in which 17 Iraqis were killed by workers from the Blackwater security company in Baghdad last September, the Iraqis would arrest and punish the contractors held responsible.

The American concession would have a serious effect in Iraq, where there are an estimated 160,000 foreign contractors, many of them heavily armed security personnel. The contractors, who outnumber the 145,000-strong US Army in the country, have become a vital if much-resented part of the military machine in Iraq.

Iraqi official: security pact altered

U.S. and Iraqi officials negotiating long-term security agreements have reworded a proposed White House commitment to defend Iraq against foreign aggression in an effort to avoid submitting the deal for congressional approval, Iraq’s foreign minister said yesterday.

The alternative under discussion will pledge U.S. forces to “help Iraqi security forces to defend themselves,” rather than a U.S. promise to defend Iraq, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said. Although “it’s the other way around,” he said, “the meaning is the same, almost.”

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), one of the most outspoken critics of the proposed agreement, called the change “a distinction without a difference.” Senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers have questioned whether the accord will constitute a defense treaty requiring congressional ratification and have accused the Bush administration of withholding information on the talks.

Iraq’s provincial elections: another D-day approaching

Monday 30 June 2008 could be one of those fateful dates in Iraqi politics that will remain mostly unnoticed by the outside world.

30 June is the new deadline set by Iraq’s electoral commission for forming coalitions for this autumn’s provincial elections. The deadline for registering political parties expired on 31 May; with some 500 entities having registered the main question today is whether any of these parties are capable of amalgamating into larger alliances that could mount a challenge to the established elites represented by the core components of the Maliki government. In the previous local elections in January 2005, it was mainly those elites – the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the two biggest Kurdish parties – that excelled in the art of coalition building prior to the elections.

Easing of laws that led to detainee abuse hatched in secret

The framework under which detainees were imprisoned for years without charges at Guantanamo and in many cases abused in Afghanistan wasn’t the product of American military policy or the fault of a few rogue soldiers.

It was largely the work of five White House, Pentagon and Justice Department lawyers who, following the orders of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, reinterpreted or tossed out the U.S. and international laws that govern the treatment of prisoners in wartime, according to former U.S. defense and Bush administration officials.

The Supreme Court now has struck down many of their legal interpretations. It ruled last Thursday that preventing detainees from challenging their detention in federal courts was unconstitutional.

U.S. hasn’t apologized to or compensated ex-detainees

To date, the U.S. government hasn’t given any former detainee financial compensation or apologized for wrongfully imprisoning him, shipping him around the world and holding him without legal recourse.

The 38 former Guantanamo detainees who’ve been found to be no longer enemy combatants by tribunal hearings — the closest the military has come to admitting that it detained some innocent men — were flown out of Cuba with nothing but the clothes on their backs and assorted items such as copies of the Quran and shampoo bottles that the U.S. military issued to them.

“It’s particularly deplorable that none of the 38 NLECs have been compensated, since the U.S. has officially recognized that they weren’t ‘enemy combatants,’ even under the broad U.S. definition,” said Joanne Mariner, the terrorism and counterterrorism program director at Human Rights Watch.

Deck stacked against detainees in legal proceedings

Guantanamo detainees appearing before the military tribunals that would decide their fate had little chance of receiving evenhanded hearings, an eight-month McClatchy investigation found. At least 40 former Guantanamo detainees of the 66 interviewed had tribunal hearings, but none was able to submit testimony from witnesses outside the detention facility.

Former detainees singled this out as the most serious flaw in the operation of the combat status review tribunals, but it was only one of many.

In its landmark ruling last Thursday, which granted detainees access to federal courts, the U.S. Supreme Court said that there was “considerable risk of error” in the tribunal’s findings of fact and that detainees might be held for “a generation or more” on the basis of error.

CIA played larger role in advising Pentagon

A senior CIA lawyer advised Pentagon officials about the use of harsh interrogation techniques on detainees at Guantanamo Bay in a meeting in late 2002, defending waterboarding and other methods as permissible despite U.S. and international laws banning torture, according to documents released yesterday by congressional investigators.

Torture “is basically subject to perception,” CIA counterterrorism lawyer Jonathan Fredman told a group of military and intelligence officials gathered at the U.S.-run detention camp in Cuba on Oct. 2, 2002, according to minutes of the meeting. “If the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong.”

The document, one of two dozen released by a Senate panel investigating how Pentagon officials developed the controversial interrogation program introduced at Guantanamo Bay in late 2002, suggests a larger CIA role in advising Defense Department interrogators than was previously known. By the time of the meeting, the CIA already had used waterboarding, which simulates drowning, on at least one terrorism suspect and was holding high-level al-Qaeda detainees in secret prisons overseas — actions that Bush administration lawyers had approved.

Seeking answers on detainee abuse

Despite years of investigation into alleged abuse and death of prisoners in U.S. custody since 9/11, the only Americans held accountable have been the low-ranking “bad apples” convicted for the worst atrocities at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. No official blame has been assigned to higher-ups for abuses at Guantanamo or in Afghanistan, much less for crimes allegedly committed by U.S. personnel in various secret CIA prisons around the world. The Senate Armed Services Committee sought to correct that on Tuesday by holding the nation’s first public hearing into who at the top should be held accountable for the abuse of detainees held by the U.S.

Candidates clash on terrorism

The campaigns of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama on Tuesday engaged in a heated exchange over the rights of terrorism suspects, with each side accusing the other of embracing a policy that would put the country at risk of more attacks in the future.

In a Tuesday morning conference call with reporters, McCain advisers criticized Obama as “naive” and “delusional” in his approach to the handling of terrorism suspects after he expressed support for last week’s Supreme Court decision granting detainees the right to seek habeas corpus hearings. Obama fired back, saying the Republicans who had led failed efforts to capture Osama bin Laden lacked the standing to criticize him on the issue.

The exchange marked the general election’s first real engagement over the campaign against terrorism and demonstrated that both sides are confident that they have a winning message on the issue.

Old ties exist between Iran and Lebanon’s Shiites

Contrary to common perceptions, Iranian involvement in Lebanon did not begin with the Islamic Revolution in 1979. First contact between Iranian Shiites and Lebanese Shiites was established at the beginning of the 16th century when some of the senior Lebanese Shiite ulama, or clergy, were invited to Iran by the newly established and powerful Safavid dynasty.

The Safavid rulers converted Iranians to Shiism and made it the official religion in Iran. They invited Shiite scholars from Oman, Yemen and Lebanon to help them construct the theoretical framework for a Shiite state in a country where Shiism had hitherto been only a minority sect. Jabal Ameli and Sadr were two senior Shiite scholars who went to Iran from Lebanon and stayed at the Safavid court for many years.

During the ensuing centuries, hundreds of Lebanese Shiite scholars and seminary students traveled to Iran to study Shiite jurisprudence. They mainly resided in the holy city of Qom, which gradually became the center for Shiite study in Iran. Many married into Iranian families. The Iranian rulers didn’t interfere with the presence of Lebanese seminary students or scholars in Qom since they never got involved in domestic Iranian politics. Indeed, it was not only in Iran that the Lebanese Shiite scholars shunned politics; the same pattern was evident in Lebanon as well. In short, the Lebanese Shiite leaders were tolerated and were financially supported both by the Iranian ulama and by the Iranian regime, all the way through the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

For blacks in France, Obama’s rise is reason to rejoice, and to hope

When Youssoupha, a black rapper here, was asked the other day what was on his mind, a grin spread across his face. “Barack Obama,” he said. “Obama tells us everything is possible.”

A new black consciousness is emerging in France, lately hastened by, of all things, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States. An article in Le Monde a few days ago described how Obama is “stirring up high hopes” among blacks here. Even seeing the word “noir” (“black”) in a French newspaper was an occasion for surprise until recently.

Intelligence agencies undermine nuclear smuggling trial

An engineer is on trial in Germany for allegedly attempting to help Libya develop a nuclear bomb. But the network the man was allegedly part of was under surveillance by intelligency agencies, with the CIA getting involved early on. The Swiss government has even gone so far as to eliminate evidence by secretly shredding thousands of documents.

The story should really begin in Stuttgart, the southern Germany city where the case has now been on trial for the past two weeks, where defendant Gotthard Lerch, 65, can be seen on Thursdays and Fridays in Courtroom 18, and where an international smuggling ring, which sought to sell the makings of a nuclear bomb to Libya between 1997 and 2003, is acquiring a face. It’s the wrong face if you go by Lerch’s defense lawyers, but the right one, according to the federal prosecutors. The face of the defendant, at any rate, is that of an elegant older man with grey hair and an occasional smirk. He stands accused of having been part of a ring of which US President George W. Bush once said he would capture and eliminate, “each and every one.”

Oil CEOs: high prices, fat paychecks

As consumers around the world struggle to fill their gas tanks, captains of the oil industry are getting a raise.

Starting with info provided by Capital IQ (which, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP)), BusinessWeek asked executive compensation research firm Equilar to analyze compensation of the chief executives of the 25 largest publicly traded global oil and gas companies (see the accompanying slide show for the full list of CEOs and what they were paid). Equilar’s study found that for the 12 CEOs at the largest U.S.-based, publicly traded oil companies, median total compensation increased by more than four times the rate of that of executives in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index as a whole.

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