Six years after Saddam Hussein, Nouri al-Maliki tightens his grip on Iraq

Baghdad has always produced more than its fair share of surreal conversations, but few can match the one I had with three Iraqi intelligence officers in the garden of a newly opened restaurant a few weeks ago. The three were former members of Saddam’s notorious Mukhabarat. Now “reformed”, they worked for the newly established Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INSI), a highly independent security service which some in the Iraqi government accuse of being too close to the US.

After a few pleasantries, which included frisking my shirt for wire-tapping devices, we sat around a plastic table while the most senior officer told me that his men were actively monitoring intelligence and military activities inside the government of Nouri al-Maliki. The two other officers looked in opposite directions as their colleague spoke.

“We have our own eyes and follow what they are doing there,” the senior officer said. “Maliki is running a dictatorship – everything is run by his office and advisers, he is surrounded by his party and clan members. They form a tight knot that is running Iraq now. He is not building a country, he is building a state for his own party and his own people.”

As a waiter in a white shirt and black trousers approached, the senior officer fell silent and his colleague ordered tea. Only when the waiter moved away, the senior officer continued: “We compile reports on their activities, generals’ and military units’ movements, and their corruption, the positions they are taking in the government and the contracts they are obtaining. But we don’t know what to do with these reports because we don’t trust the government.”

The charges voiced by the INSI officers are heard, in hushed tones, more and more around Baghdad these days. Critics say Maliki is concentrating power in his office (the office of the prime minister) and his advisers are running “a government inside a government”, bypassing ministers and parliament. In his role as commander in chief, he appoints generals as heads of military units without the approval of parliament. The officers, critics say, are all loyal to him. He has created at least one intelligence service, dominated by his clan and party members, and taken two military units – the anti-terrorism unit and the Baghdad brigade – under his direct command. At the same time he has inflated the size of the ministry of national security that is run by one of his allies. [continued…]

Is Obama wrong on Iraq? Baghdad violence worst in year

April was the bloodiest month for violence in Baghdad in more than a year, another sign that Iraq’s security gains are beginning to reverse.

President Barack Obama acknowledged Wednesday night that violence has risen in recent weeks, but he said the levels of violence were still below last year’s.

Calling recent bombings “a legitimate cause for concern,” Obama said “civilian deaths . . . remain very low compared to what was going on last year.”

But statistics kept by McClatchy show that in Baghdad alone, more than 200 people have been killed in attacks so far this month, compared with 99 last month and 46 in February, according to a McClatchy count. [continued…]

Busting the torture myths

In the space of a week, the torture debate in America has been suddenly transformed. The Bush administration left office resting its case on the claim it did not torture. The gruesome photographs from Abu Ghraib, it had said, were the product of “a few bad apples” and not of government policy. But the release of a series of grim documents has laid waste to this defense. The Senate Armed Services Committee’s report—adopted with the support of leading Republican Senators John McCain, John Warner, and Lindsey Graham—has demonstrated step-by-step how abuses on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan had their genesis in policy choices made at the pinnacle of the Bush administration. A set of four Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel memoranda from the Bush era has provided a stomach-turning legal justification of the application of specific torture techniques, including waterboarding.

As public and congressional calls for the appointment of a prosecutor and the creation of a truth commission have proliferated, President Barack Obama stepped in quickly to try to turn down the heat. A commission would not be helpful, he argues, and he has made plain his aversion to any form of criminal-law accountability. Republicans, meanwhile, bristle with anger as they attempt to defend against the flood of new information. But, in the end, Obama’s assumption that the torture debate has run its course and that the country can now “move on,” as conservative pundit Peggy Noonan urged, may rest in some serious naïveté: Karl Rove and Dick Cheney have different ideas. They’re convinced that Bush-era torture policy is a promising political product for a party down on its luck. Its success on the political stage is just one more 9/11-style attack away. [continued…]

U.S. plans new talks with Syria

The Obama administration is dispatching two high-level envoys to Syria in coming weeks for a second round of talks focused on securing the Iraqi border and supporting the Arab-Israeli peace process, said officials briefed on the trip.

The diplomats’ visit is the latest sign of a reconciliation between Washington and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, which is partly driven by the U.S. desire to weaken Syria’s strategic alliance with Iran.

Syrian officials said this week they hope the diplomatic thaw could lead to an easing of trade sanctions enacted by the Bush administration. The sanctions were aimed at curbing Damascus’s support for militant groups operating in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. [continued…]

Suspects in Hariri’s death released

A judge on Wednesday ordered the release of four high-ranking Lebanese security officers, all being held here in connection with the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The decision was seen here as a blow to the political movement led by Mr. Hariri’s son, and it underscored the legal pitfalls of a divisive international trial.

The judge, Daniel Fransen of a special international tribunal, said there was not enough evidence to indict the four men, who have been detained without charge since September 2005 and are widely believed to have had some knowledge of the killing or involvement in it. They were the only suspects in the custody of the tribunal, which is based in The Hague and was formed under United Nations auspices after Mr. Hariri’s death in a powerful car bombing on Feb. 14, 2005. [continued…]

Peres: Bombing Iran may not be the ‘best solution’

President Shimon Peres said Wednesday that attacking Iran would only postpone its ability to build an atom bomb.

“I’m not sure that bombing the nuclear facilities is the best solution. You know, the moment there are centrifuges, you can destroy the centrifuges. You cannot destroy the know-how to create centrifuges. You can postpone,” he told Channel 10.

Asked whether Israel could accept a nuclear Iran, the president said: “Attacking the nuclear sites is not the only option. The West has other options. First of all we can tell the Iranians ‘If you launch a nuclear attack, it doesn’t matter against whom, it will elicit a nuclear response.’ Secondly, we can monitor their missiles. It is easier to monitor launching devices. If, like they say, they are not interested in developing nuclear weapons, why do they need launchers?”

Peres also said the new Israeli government of hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should work for a peace agreement with the Palestinians. [continued…]

Israel to EU: Criticism of Netanyahu government unacceptable

A Foreign Ministry official has been warning European countries that unless they curtail criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, Israel will block the European Union from participating in the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

The main target of the offensive is EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who recently called for a freeze in upgrading ties with Israel over its peace process policies.

Several days ago, the deputy director for Europe at the Foreign Ministry, Rafi Barak, began calling European ambassadors in Israel regarding the attitude toward the new government. The first conversations were with France’s Jean-Michel Casa, Britain’s Tom Phillips and the Charge d’Affaires of the German embassy. [continued…]

The binationalism vogue

Several factors have combined to rouse greater interest in the binational option. First, there is a growing realization that the chances of establishing an independent, viable Palestinian state no longer exist, aside from an entity along the lines of a Bantustan. Second, the status quo that has emerged, though it appears chaotic, is in practice quite stable and could be characterized as de facto binational. Third, the diplomatic positions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government inevitably lead to a diplomatic deadlock and a deepening of the policy of annexation.

Under these circumstances, it appears that the continued preoccupation with establishing a Palestinian state is not just hopeless, but also injurious, since the delusions that it fosters enable the continuation of the status quo.

Nothing serves the interests of Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman better than the demand that they recognize the principle of “two states.” What happens if they agree to it? They do not intend to offer the Palestinians any proposals more generous than those Mahmoud Abbas already turned down in talks with Ehud Olmert. And in the meantime, they would have a free hand to expand settlements. Even the impassioned pleas for the Obama administration to finally enforce the “road map” lead to the same smokescreen of imagined progress toward a dead end. [continued…]

Torture tape delays U.S.-UAE nuclear deal, say U.S. officials

A videotape of a heinous torture session is delaying the ratification of a civil nuclear deal between the United Arab Emirates and the United States, senior U.S. officials familiar with the case said.
In the tape, an Afghan grain dealer is seen being tortured by a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi, one of the UAE’s seven emirates.

The senior U.S. officials said the administration has held off on the ratification process because it believes sensitivities over the story can hurt its passage. The tape emerged in a federal civil lawsuit filed in Houston, Texas, by Bassam Nabulsi, a U.S. citizen, against Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan. Former business partners, the men had a falling out, in part over the tape. In a statement to CNN, the sheikh’s U.S. attorney said Nabulsi is using the videotape to influence the court over a business dispute. [continued…]

Bretton Woods III?

A few years back, before this crisis erupted, several economists were concerned about the sustainability of the large global imbalances fueled by the so-called Bretton Woods II system. These economists recognized, in the tendency of export-led economies to manage their exchange-rate systems, the origin of large trade and current account surpluses that, via large foreign reserve accumulation, were financing the mirror image of those surpluses, namely the large U.S. trade and current account deficits.

These surpluses, primarily in several export-led Asian economies and also in oil-producing countries, ballooned to extensive proportions in 2007 and 2008. The purchases of U.S. government bonds by these investors helped keep long-term interest rates low and led many investors to seek high-yielding investments, especially in some emerging markets.

Although we are not (yet) witnessing a U.S. dollar crisis, the Bretton Woods II system is still at the center of the debates on the origins of this crisis. Understanding the nature of this crisis is fundamental in order to understand what reforms need to be undertaken for this not to happen again–and to understand what the global economy will look like after this crisis. [continued…]

How to prevent a pandemic

The swine flu outbreak seems to have emerged without warning. Within a few days of being noticed, the flu had already spread to the point where containment was not possible. Yet the virus behind it had to have existed for some time before it was discovered. Couldn’t we have detected it and acted sooner, before it spread so widely? The answer is likely yes — if we had been paying closer attention to the human-animal interactions that enable new viruses to emerge.

While much remains unknown about how pandemics are born, we are familiar with the kinds of microbes — like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), influenza and H.I.V. — that present a risk of widespread disease. We know that they usually emerge from animals and most often in specific locations around the world, places like the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia.

By monitoring people who are exposed to animals in such viral hotspots, we can capture viruses at the very moment they enter human populations, and thus develop the ability to predict and perhaps even prevent pandemics. [continued…]

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