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The ends of the world as we know them
By Jared Diamond, New York Times, January 1, 2005
New Year's weekend traditionally is a time for us to reflect, and to make resolutions based on our reflections. In this fresh year, with the United States seemingly at the height of its power and at the start of a new presidential term, Americans are increasingly concerned and divided about where we are going. How long can America remain ascendant? Where will we stand 10 years from now, or even next year?
Such questions seem especially appropriate this year. History warns us that when once-powerful societies collapse, they tend to do so quickly and unexpectedly. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise: peak power usually means peak population, peak needs, and hence peak vulnerability. What can be learned from history that could help us avoid joining the ranks of those who declined swiftly? We must expect the answers to be complex, because historical reality is complex: while some societies did indeed collapse spectacularly, others have managed to thrive for thousands of years without major reversal.
When it comes to historical collapses, five groups of interacting factors have been especially important: the damage that people have inflicted on their environment; climate change; enemies; changes in friendly trading partners; and the society's political, economic and social responses to these shifts. That's not to say that all five causes play a role in every case. Instead, think of this as a useful checklist of factors that should be examined, but whose relative importance varies from case to case. [complete article]
Jared Diamond's new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed, is available here.
New color code
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The truth about terrorism
By Jonathan Raban, New York Review of Books, January 13, 2005
In his November 3 victory speech, President Bush, sounding the keynote of his second administration, pledged to "fight this war on terror with every resource of our national power." By saying "this" rather than "the" Bush stressed the palpable, near-at-hand quality of the war whose symbols have grown to surround us in the last three years -- the tilted barrels of security cameras, BioWatch pathogen-sniffers, and all the rest of the technology of security and surveillance that Matthew Brzezinski somewhat overexcitedly details in Fortress America. Voters, at least, have been impressed. Responding to the exit pollers' question "Which ONE issue mattered most in deciding how you voted for president?" 32 percent of Bush supporters named "Terrorism" (as against 5 percent of Kerry supporters), 85 percent of Bush supporters said that the country was "safer from terrorism" in 2004 than it was in 2000, and 79 percent said that the war in Iraq "has improved the long-term security of the United States." Bush's successful conflation of security at home and military aggression abroad, his insistence that Iraq "is the central front of the war on terror," was the bravura rhetorical gambit that drove much of his electoral strategy.
If you live, as I do, in an American city designated as a likely target by the Department of Homeland Security, the sheer proliferation of security apparatus in the streets assures you that there is a war on. Yet the nature and conduct of that war, and the character -- and very existence -- of our enemy, remain infuriatingly obscure: not because there's any shortage of information, or apparent information, but because so much of it has turned out to be creative guesswork or empty propaganda. [complete article]
FOIA eyes only
By Eric Umansky, Slate, December 31, 2004
Over the past month, the biggest scoops in the news business have come from ... an organization that's not in the news business. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the American Civil Liberties Union has uncovered thousands of government documents detailing torture of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. One FBI memo about Gitmo cited "strangulation, beatings, placement of lit cigarettes into the detainees' ear openings, and unauthorized interrogations." It also repeatedly referred to a "cover-up."
The White House has long insisted that detainee abuses, first detailed at Abu Ghraib, were isolated, unrelated to interrogations, and certainly not happening at Gitmo. While the documents don't prove that torture was official policy, they do, as an acerbic Washington Post editorial put it, "establish beyond any doubt that every part of this cover story is false." [complete article]
See also, What prominent conservative commentators have said about prisoner abuse (Reason).
Electoral tempest in Iraq
By Tony Karon, Haaretz, December 31, 2004
The Bush administration's vision of remaking Iraq as the Arab world's first pro-United States, Israel-friendly, free-market democracy has suffered many nasty reality storms over the past year. But the elections planned for January 30 are starting to look a lot like a tsunami forming on the horizon that will wash away all illusions.
Israelis, having lived the aftermath of "liberating" southern Lebanon's Shi'ites from the tyranny of Palestinian fedayeen, only to see them turn to Hezbollah to get rid of the "liberators," are likely to be less prone than many Americans to wishful thinking about the virtues of occupation. And Washington could certainly do with a little help from a friend in comprehending the problem. Official optimism over Iraq continues to radiate from the White House: Two weeks ago, President George Bush even awarded medals to two of the authors of some of the more egregious human errors of the Iraq shambles. [complete article]
Sunni militants warn Iraqis to boycott poll
By Michael Howard, The Guardian, December 31, 2004
Three of Iraq's most extreme Sunni Islamist groups warned Iraqis yesterday not to vote in next month's elections and threatened to kill anyone who took part.
A statement, posted on the website of the Ansar al-Sunna group and co-signed by the Islamic Army in Iraq and the Army of the Mujahideen, told Iraqis not to take part in "the farce of democracy and elections". It said: "Anyone who accepts to take part in this dirty farce will not be safe."
The statement described democracy as "un-Islamic" and polling stations as "centres of atheism".
With elections due on January 30, the threats will do little to encourage the Sunni Arab minority to vote. Their participation is seen as essential to the elections' credibility. [complete article]
The bullet and the ballot
By Patrick Cockburn, The Spectator (via Antiwar.com), January 1, 2005
A month before the Iraqi election and Iraqi officials still claim they have the resistance on the run and that life for ordinary Iraqis is slowly getting better. Neither point is true. A better guide to the state of government morale is ministers’ enthusiasm for foreign travel.
In the Iraqi press it is a standing joke that at any one time half the government is representing Iraq abroad. From the safety of Washington, London, Moscow, Geneva or Dubai ministers speak optimistically about Iraq turning the corner after the poll on 30 January. On the rare occasions that they return to Baghdad they lurk in the Green Zone, protected by bodyguards from Western security companies.
Before Christmas I went to the Iraqi Airways office in the lobby of the Palestine Hotel to buy a ticket on the flight from Baghdad to Amman. It is the safest way out of the country because resistance fighters and bandits largely control the road across the desert to Jordan. I had to wait for my ticket because the man behind the counter was busy on the phone. I could hear him patiently explaining to some official at the ministry of planning that their minister could not have a first-class ticket on the plane the next day because, unfortunately, the cabin was already full up with the minister of oil and his entourage. 'We should be called Ministerial Airways,' he said impatiently as he put down the phone. [complete article]
Battle in Mosul kills 25 insurgents, one soldier
By Slobodan Lekic, Associated Press (via WP), December 30, 2004
Insurgents tried to ram a truck with half a ton of explosives into a U.S. military post Wednesday in the northern city of Mosul then ambushed reinforcements in a huge gunbattle in which 25 rebels and one American soldier were killed, the military said Thursday. Warplanes fired missiles and strafed gunmen during the fight.
The assault on the outpost, which U.S. soldiers finally repulsed, appeared to be better coordinated than past attacks, with guerrillas apparently pulling out their strongest assaults in an effort to derail Jan. 30 elections, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Hastings said.
"The terrorists are growing more desperate in their attempts to derail the elections and they're trying to put it all on the line and give it all they can," Hastings said. [complete article]
Comment -- US military officials are growing more desperate as they insist on clinging to rhetorical devices that had already lost credibility at least a year ago. If they want to stick to a line that has proved consistently reliable it is that "we expect the situation to get worse before it impoves."
Iraq's Kurds enjoy self-rule and are trying to keep it
By Richard A. Oppel Jr., New York Times, December 31, 2004
Even at night, on a busy thoroughfare in this Kurdish city, the sedan is an easy mark for the Kalashnikov-toting police at the checkpoint. It has Baghdad license plates and, more alarmingly, Arabs in the front seat. "What are you doing here?" the police demand, motioning the car to the side.
It was a routine exchange, but one that reveals how far Erbil and the entire Kurdish region have drifted from the rest of Iraq and toward an informal but unmistakable autonomy that Kurdish leaders are determined to preserve.
Residents in northern Iraq already call the area Kurdistan. The territory, stretching from Kirkuk on the region's southern edge to the Tigris River in the west and to Turkey and Iran in the north and east, is patently a world apart from the rest of Iraq.
There is a building boom, with new apartments, hospitals and shopping centers. The gleaming 10-story Hotel Erbil, opened in October, is often sold out, its 167 rooms renting for $68 to $193. Markets bustle, and even the devalued dollar goes a long way, with decent-quality Turkish-made pullovers for $12 and a Pepsi and shwarma sandwich - the Iraqi hot dog - for a little more than 50 cents.
While extensive areas of Iraq remain plagued by violence, the Kurdish sector is calm, with tight security maintained by swarms of Kurdish police officers and militiamen. Reconstruction projects, lagging in many parts of the country, are moving briskly ahead.
The Kurds have veto power over most laws passed by the central government in Baghdad and have their own 80,000-member military, the pesh merga, whose troops are far better disciplined and skilled than most of their new Iraqi counterparts.
In many places it is impossible to find an Iraqi flag. But the Kurds' red, white and green standard with a shining sun in the middle flies everywhere, even atop an Iraqi border guard compound in far northeastern Iraq. [complete article]
Justice expands 'torture' definition
By R. Jeffrey Smith and Dan Eggen, Washington Post, December 31, 2004
The Justice Department published a revised and expansive definition late yesterday of acts that constitute torture under domestic and international law, overtly repudiating one of the most criticized policy memorandums drafted during President Bush's first term.
In a statement published on the department's Web site, the head of its Office of Legal Counsel declares that "torture is abhorrent both to American law and values and international norms" and goes on to reject a previous statement that only "organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" constitute torture punishable by law.
That earlier definition of torture figured prominently in complaints by Democrats and human rights groups about White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, who oversaw its creation and is Bush's nominee to become attorney general for the second term. The new memo's public release came one week before the start of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Gonzales's nomination. [complete article]
Another pass for Pakistan
Editorial, Washington Post, December 31, 2004
Today Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf will break yet another of the promises he has made to his country and the world since seizing power in a 1999 military coup against an elected government. A year ago, in exchange for parliamentary support for a package of laws increasing his powers as president, extending his rule through 2007 and curtailing elected government through the creation of a military-dominated national security council, Mr. Musharraf pledged to resign from his post as Army chief of staff by Dec. 31. It was to be a modest step toward returning Pakistan to civilian rule, if not democracy. Yet now Mr. Musharraf is reneging, claiming that his continuance in uniform is essential to the country's "unity." He is wrong, of course -- but sadly, his chief ally, President Bush, is unwilling to hold him accountable. [complete article]
AMERICA'S RESPONSE TO THE TSUNAMI
Are we stingy? Yes
Editorial, New York Times, December 30, 2004
President Bush finally roused himself yesterday from his vacation in Crawford, Tex., to telephone his sympathy to the leaders of India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia, and to speak publicly about the devastation of Sunday's tsunamis in Asia. He also hurried to put as much distance as possible between himself and America's initial measly aid offer of $15 million, and he took issue with an earlier statement by the United Nations' emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, who had called the overall aid efforts by rich Western nations "stingy." "The person who made that statement was very misguided and ill informed," the president said.
We beg to differ. Mr. Egeland was right on target. We hope Secretary of State Colin Powell was privately embarrassed when, two days into a catastrophic disaster that hit 12 of the world's poorer countries and will cost billions of dollars to meliorate, he held a press conference to say that America, the world's richest nation, would contribute $15 million. That's less than half of what Republicans plan to spend on the Bush inaugural festivities.
The American aid figure for the current disaster is now $35 million, and we applaud Mr. Bush's turnaround. But $35 million remains a miserly drop in the bucket, and is in keeping with the pitiful amount of the United States budget that we allocate for nonmilitary foreign aid. According to a poll, most Americans believe the United States spends 24 percent of its budget on aid to poor countries; it actually spends well under a quarter of 1 percent. [complete article]
The tidal wave that touches our safe shore
By Joel Achenbach, Washington Post, December 30, 2004
After 9/11, some international relief groups saw a decline in contributions from Americans, but that seems to have changed this week.
"We haven't seen in the last five or 10 years such an outpouring of support," said Dianne Sherman, spokeswoman for the humanitarian organization Save the Children, which since Sunday has received more than $1 million in donations over the Internet. Catholic Relief Services, based in Baltimore, had received $1.1 million in donations as of early yesterday afternoon, most of it through the organization's Web site, spokeswoman Karen Moul said.
The holidays have put people in the mood to give, Sherman said, but that doesn't explain the phenomenal response. Another factor, she said, is that the visual images from Asia have unearthed a painful memory.
"It is a little bit of a flashback from 9/11 when you saw the people walking the streets of New York in a state of trauma, looking for their loved ones."
This may be one of those events that cause a dramatic, if perhaps temporary, shift in our attitude toward the world. [complete article]
It's about aid, and an image
By David E. Sanger, New York Times, December 30, 2004
As Asia suffers through a 9/11 of its own - a natural calamity instead of a man-made one, but at least 25 times more deadly - President Bush's response in coming weeks may well determine his success in repairing relations strained by three years of relentless American focus on terrorism.
It took 72 hours after the tsunamis washed away countless villages and tens of thousands of lives before Mr. Bush appeared in public to declare that the United States had the rudiments of a plan for addressing "loss and grief to the world that is beyond our comprehension." His aides said it took that long to understand the magnitude of the tragedy and to plan a recovery effort that must stretch from remote villages of Indonesia to the eastern coast of Africa.
But the aid effort that has now begun presents Mr. Bush with an opportunity to battle, with action rather than just words, the perception that took root in his first four years in office that he is all about America first.
"It's a tragedy but it is also an opportunity to demonstrate that terrorism doesn't drive out everything else," said Morton Abramowitz, who served as American ambassador to Thailand a quarter century ago and went on to become one of the founders of the International Crisis Group, which helps prepare governments to respond to unexpected shocks. "It's a chance for him to show what kind of country we are." [complete article]
Comment -- It was often said that 9/11 was the result of a failure of imagination, yet it has produced an even greater failure of American imagination if this is now the only metaphor through which we can comprehend human suffering. The destruction that swept across South Asia on December 26 should not be seen as a parallel to 9/11. A death toll that now exceeds 110,000 people puts into perspective the deaths of fewer than 3,000 Americans on September 11.
And without wanting to dispute the idea that America is poorly represented by its government, the notion that Bush now has an opportunity to show the world "what kind of country we are," yet again invokes the image of a nation that is the victim of misunderstanding. If only the world could see how good we are! The truth is, America - like every other country - in the very condition of its existence and its relationship with the world is demonstrating, day in, day out, what it is. It may have a problem, but its not just an image problem.
Falloujans get an unsettling look at their city
By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times, December 30, 2004
Yasser Abbas Atiya swore he'd sooner sleep on the streets of his beloved hometown of Fallouja than spend another night in the squalid Baghdad shelter where his family had been squatting.
Thirty minutes after he returned home this week, however, Atiya had seen enough. He left in disgust and had no plans to go back.
"I couldn't stand it," the grocer said. "I was born in that town. I know every inch of it. But when I got there, I didn't recognize it."
Lakes of sewage in the streets. The smell of corpses inside charred buildings. No water or electricity. Long waits and thorough searches by U.S. troops at checkpoints. Warnings to watch out for land mines and booby traps. Occasional gunfire between troops and insurgents.
"I thought, 'This is not my town,' " Atiya said Tuesday after going back to the abandoned Baghdad clinic his family shares with nearly 100 other displaced Falloujans. "How can I take my family to live there?"
The initial clamor by an estimated 200,000 refugees to return to the homes they had fled last month is being replaced by a bitter resignation that the city remains largely uninhabitable and unsafe. Hopes of quickly restoring normality to the restive Sunni Muslim city are fading, raising questions about whether Fallouja will be ready to participate in the Jan. 30 national election. [complete article]
Pentagon said to offer cuts in the billions
By Eric Schmitt, New York Times, December 30, 2004
The Pentagon plans to retire one of the Navy's 12 aircraft carriers, buy fewer amphibious landing ships for the Marine Corps and delay the development of a costly Army combat system of high-tech arms as part of $60 billion in proposed cuts over the next six years, Congressional and military officials said Wednesday.
The proposed reductions, the details of which are still being fine-tuned and which would require Congressional approval, result from White House orders to all federal agencies to cut their spending requests for the 2006 fiscal year budgets, which will be submitted to lawmakers early next year.
Since the November elections, the White House has been under growing pressure to offset mounting deficits and at the same time pay for the unexpectedly high costs of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which combined now amount to more than $5 billion a month. [complete article]
Getting an education in jihad
By Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, December 29, 2004
The handsome, 35-year-old teacher had many things to live for -- a PhD, a steady job, a healthy salary -- but still he decided to leave home, make his way to Syria and then sneak over the border into Iraq, intent on fighting Americans, even if it meant dying in a suicide attack.
In the beginning, the schoolteacher had struggled to decide how he felt about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. It spelled humiliation and sorrow to Arabs. But as an Arab who had tasted the despair of despotism, he had a small spot of hope.
"At first, I thought, 'OK, the Americans want to bring democracy to the region,' " he said.
That was before he turned on the television to the grainy images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. "The human triangle. The woman dragging the man by the leash," said the teacher, a broad man with a clipped beard and intense gaze. "These images affected me deeply. The shame the Americans brought. I was fervently monitoring the TV images, not so much the words as the pictures."
He remembered that President Bush called the war on terrorism a "crusade." He thought about American helicopters being used by the Israeli army to attack Palestinians. And he decided that sitting impotently in Lebanon wasn't enough.
Over dates and sweet coffee in a middle-class living room here, he recently spoke in measured tones about his fervor to fight in behalf of Muslims against U.S. troops -- and his decision to leave the battle in Iraq to make his way home again.
The story of the teacher, who spoke on the condition that neither he nor his hometown be named, reflects the oft-stated notion that the war in Iraq has opened a regional Pandora's box of jihad. In a region where so many people feel helpless before repressive governments and U.S. policy, the road to Iraq has become a trail of independence in the minds of some men, a way for young Muslims to come of age and to join the battles they see on television. [complete article]
Bin Laden strikes out
By Juan Cole, Antiwar.com, December 29, 2004
Osama bin Laden's latest video was broadcast on al-Jazeera on Monday, in which he commanded Muslims to boycott the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq and expressed his approval of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi had been a rival of bin Laden's in Afghanistan, and had earlier declined to share resources with al-Qaeda. But in recent months, al-Zarqawi changed the name of his group from Monotheism and Holy war to Mesopotamian al-Qaeda and pledged fealty to bin Laden.
In declaring "infidels" all who vote under the "infidel" interim constitution negotiated by Iraqi politicians with U.S. civil administrator Paul Bremer last winter, bin Laden is seeking to counter the decree of grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani that Iraqis must vote in the upcoming elections or they will be consigned to hell. Bin Laden is arguing, according to the Aljazeera.net in Arabic, that the interim constitution that is the framework for elections is artificial and pagan ("jahili," pertaining to the Age of Ignorance before Islam) because it does not recognize Islam as the sole source of law.
Bin Laden's intervention in Iraq was ham-fisted and clumsy, and will benefit the United States and the Shi'ites enormously. Most Iraqi Muslims, Sunni or Shi'ite, dislike the Wahhabi branch of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia, with which bin Laden is associated. Nationalistic Iraqis will object to a foreigner interfering in their national affairs. [complete article]
Baghdad bomb kills 28 in "trap" for police
By Waleed Ibrahim and Omar Anwar, Reuters, December 29, 2004
At least 28 people have been killed in Baghdad overnight after insurgents blew up a house that police were raiding, flattening neighbouring homes.
The police were lured into a trap, the Interior Ministry said on Wednesday. But neighbours said officers responded to a genuine call. [complete article]
Sadr eases Baghdad fuel woes
By Zynab Naji and Hussein Ali, IWPR, December 27, 2004
In a bid to win the support of the local population, firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army has begun organising fuel distribution in eastern Baghdad to ease the growing shortages.
With fuel shortages and distribution problems now affecting people in almost every Iraqi city, inhabitants of the areas covered by the Mahdi Army have been widely appreciative of their efforts.
Baghdad's fuel crisis reached its height in December after a series of sabotage operations hit pipelines. Added to administrative incompetence and corruption at the oil ministry, this ended up with cars queuing for up to three kilometres at some gas stations as they waited to fill up.
Abu Hazim al-Khazali, a member of the economic committee of al-Sadr's organization, said, "We formed a special committee in the Mahdi Army to prevent black market fuel sellers touting outside petrol stations.
"We control the petrol stations in Sadr city fairly, and we have been cooperating with businesses, such as the Gas Company of Al-Habibia, to make sure they sell to citizens at the official price." [complete article]
Nuclear capabilities may elude terrorists, experts say
By Dafna Linzer, Washington Post, December 29, 2004
Of all the clues that Osama bin Laden is after a nuclear weapon, perhaps the most significant came in intelligence reports indicating that he received fresh approval last year from a Saudi cleric for the use of a doomsday bomb against the United States.
For bin Laden, the religious ruling was a milestone in a long quest for an atomic weapon. For U.S. officials and others, it was a frightening reminder of what many consider the ultimate mass-casualty threat posed by modern terrorists. Even a small nuclear weapon detonated in a major American population center would be among history's most lethal acts of war, potentially rivaling the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Despite the obvious gravity of the threat, however, counterterrorism and nuclear experts in and out of government say they consider the danger more distant than immediate. [complete article]
Director of analysis branch at the CIA is being removed
By Douglas Jehl, New York Times, December 29, 2004
The head of the Central Intelligence Agency's analytical branch is being forced to step down, former intelligence officials say, opening a major new chapter in a shakeup under Porter J. Goss, the agency's chief.
The official, Jami Miscik, the agency's deputy director for intelligence, told her subordinates on Tuesday afternoon of her plan to step down on Feb. 4. A former intelligence official said that Ms. Miscik was told before Christmas that Mr. Goss wanted to make a change and that "the decision to depart was not hers."
Ms. Miscik has headed analysis at the agency since 2002, a period in which prewar assessments of Iraq and its illicit weapons, which drew heavily on C.I.A. analysis, proved to be mistaken. Even before taking charge of the C.I.A., Mr. Goss, who was a congressman, and his closest associates had been openly critical of the directorate of intelligence, saying it suffered from poor leadership and was devoting too much effort to monitoring day-to-day developments rather than broad trends. [complete article]
Main Sunni party pulls out of Iraqi election
By Michael Howard, The Guardian, December 28, 2004
Iraq's largest mainstream Sunni Muslim party pulled out of the election race yesterday, saying the violence plaguing areas north and west of Baghdad made a "free and fair vote" on January 30 impossible.
"We are withdrawing," said Mohsen Abdel Hamid, leader of the Iraqi Islamic party, as he announced the latest setback to plans to stage the country's first credible elections.
"We are not calling for a boycott, but we said we would take part only if certain conditions had been met and they have not," he said.
The moderate Islamist party wanted the poll postponed by up to six months, hoping that huge security problems and a lack of public awareness about the vote in Sunni Arab-dominated areas could be rectified. [complete article]
Iraq edges towards civil war
UPI (via Military.com), December 28, 2004
Iraq faces the prospect of civil war as Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's government loses credibility and violence against U.S. forces increases, according to almost a half dozen former and serving administration officials.
In last Tuesday's suicide bombing attack at a mess tent at Mosul, 22 were killed -- 18 of them Americans -- and 50 wounded.
"We can't afford to keep taking that kind of hit," a Pentagon official said. "We can't afford it in terms of American public opinion, and it causes us to loose credibility with the Iraqi public."
Upcoming January elections will not improve the deteriorating security situation, these sources said, all speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitiveness of the topic.
Plus a new threat has arisen.
"We are starting to play the ethnic card in Iraq, just as the Soviets played it in Afghanistan," said former CIA chief of Afghanistan operation Milt Bearden.
"You only play it when you're losing and by playing it, you simply speed up the process of losing," he said. [complete article]
New Bin Laden tape urges boycott of Iraq elections as bomber targets Shia leader
By Borzou Daragahi, The Independent, December 28, 2004
An audiotape said to be the voice of Osama bin Laden called on Iraqis to boycott the 30 January elections yesterday as a top Shia politician was targeted by bombers and the main Sunni Arab party withdrew from the poll.
The tape, broadcast on al-Jazeera satellite television, featured a man purporting to be the al-Qa'ida leader endorsing the militant leader Abu-Musab Zarqawi as his deputy in Iraq and calling for a boycott of the elections. [complete article]
Iraq's Shiite leaders disagree on whether new government should be religious or secular
By Hannah Allam, Knight Ridder, December 27, 2004
Top Shiite Muslim leaders, who are expected to wield the most power after next month's parliamentary elections, are locked in a fierce dispute over whether the new Iraq should be a constitution-based democracy or an Iranian-style state in which clerics reign supreme.
Several Shiite politicians say the debate nearly caused the disintegration of a powerhouse Shiite slate assembled under the auspices of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, Iraq's most prominent cleric. A breakdown was averted when religious parties backed by Iran agreed to expand the number of secularists and religious moderates on the slate.
"There was a huge fight," said the spokesman for a secular party on the Shiite list, who didn't want to be named for fear of reprisal. "At one point, the threat was, 'We're going to go tell Sistani.' In the end, the people who stayed on the list are really bitter about it."
The debate still simmers and could boil over after the Jan. 30 elections, which will choose a national assembly to draft a new constitution. [complete article]
Attacks on Iraqi Shiite leaders raise fears of civil strife
By Erik Eckholm, New York Times, December 28, 2004
A suicide car bomber set off a huge explosion outside the Baghdad headquarters of Iraq's largest Shiite political party on Monday morning, killing 9 guards and visitors and wounding 67, the Interior Ministry said.
The leader of the party, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who has emerged as one of the country's most powerful political figures before the national elections next month, was inside the building but unhurt in the blast, which could be felt across central Baghdad.
The attack underscored the fragility of the electoral process here and evoked the lurking threat of sectarian strife or even civil war. Mr. Hakim's son, in an interview after the explosion, ascribed the attack to die-hard Baathists and Sunni Islamic militants, whom he accused of trying to undermine the elections. [complete article]
Jet is an open secret in terror war
By Dana Priest, Washington Post, December 27, 2004
The airplane is a Gulfstream V turbojet, the sort favored by CEOs and celebrities. But since 2001 it has been seen at military airports from Pakistan to Indonesia to Jordan, sometimes being boarded by hooded and handcuffed passengers.
The plane's owner of record, Premier Executive Transport Services Inc., lists directors and officers who appear to exist only on paper. And each one of those directors and officers has a recently issued Social Security number and an address consisting only of a post office box, according to an extensive search of state, federal and commercial records.
Bryan P. Dyess, Steven E. Kent, Timothy R. Sperling and Audrey M. Tailor are names without residential, work, telephone or corporate histories -- just the kind of "sterile identities," said current and former intelligence officials, that the CIA uses to conceal involvement in clandestine operations. In this case, the agency is flying captured terrorist suspects from one country to another for detention and interrogation.
The CIA calls this activity "rendition." Premier Executive's Gulfstream helps make it possible. According to civilian aircraft landing permits, the jet has permission to use U.S. military airfields worldwide. [complete article]
The cabinet of incuriosities
By Ron Suskind, New York Times, December 28, 2004
As President Bush remakes his administration for his second term, the most important member of his new cabinet may turn out to be the one he was unwilling - or unable - to replace: Treasury Secretary John Snow.
In some ways, Mr. Snow was the first selection of this new cabinet, just now settling into its full ensemble. Mr. Snow's prenuptial agreement, when he replaced the obstreperous Paul O'Neill two years ago, is similar to the ones his newly arrived (or at least newly promoted) second-term colleagues have just signed: all policies come from the White House. Read the script with ardor and good cheer.
As Mr. Bush learned in his first term, this is a difficult agreement for some of America's most accomplished people to sign. They may be publicly hailed for their innovation and decisiveness, but those qualities are rarely demanded in their cabinet jobs. Consequently, cabinet members often feel like imposters. This president's mission is to tame the unwieldy federal bureaucracy, not empower it. [complete article]
Problems mount for Iraqi vote
By Annia Ciezadlo, Christian Science Monitor, December 28, 2004
Planning an election is difficult even under the best of circumstances. As one United Nations consultant remarked, it's "the largest logistical operation that a country undertakes outside warfare." To pull it off, many postconflict nations need at least a year.
Iraq is aiming for eight months.
But with election day less than five weeks away, the Iraqi effort to choose 18 provincial councils and a 275-member National Assembly that will appoint a central government and draft Iraq's constitution is facing serious logistical problems. The short time frame, coupled with the insurgency, is forcing Iraq's election commission to sacrifice both voter education and the safeguards necessary for a fair election. The logistical hurdles also raise questions about the legitimacy of the Jan. 30 vote. [complete article]
See also, Iraq rejects U.S. talk of adjusting vote result (Daily Star).
Iraq 2004 looks like Vietnam 1966
By Phillip Carter and Owen West, Slate, December 27, 2004
Soldiers have long been subjected to invidious generational comparison. It's a military rite of passage for new recruits to hear from old hands that everything from boot camp to combat was tougher before they arrived. The late '90s coronation of the "Greatest Generation" -- which left many Korean War and Vietnam War veterans scratching their heads -- is only the most visible cultural example.
Generational contrasts are implicit today when casualties in Iraq are referred to as light, either on their own or in comparison to Vietnam. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, for example, last July downplayed the intensity of the Iraq war on this basis, arguing that "it would take over 73 years for US forces to incur the level of combat deaths suffered in the Vietnam war."
But a comparative analysis of U.S. casualty statistics from Iraq tells a different story. After factoring in medical, doctrinal, and technological improvements, infantry duty in Iraq circa 2004 comes out just as intense as infantry duty in Vietnam circa 1966, and in some cases more lethal. Even discrete engagements, such as the battle of Hue City in 1968 and the battles for Fallujah in 2004, tell a similar tale: Today's grunts are patrolling a battlefield every bit as deadly as the crucible their fathers faced in Southeast Asia. [complete article]
Insurgents infiltrating coalition, U.S. says
By Bryan Bender, Boston Globe, December 25, 2004
Iraqi insurgents and their informants have been infiltrating US and coalition organizations, Iraqi security units, and political parties in growing numbers, posing a daunting challenge to efforts to defeat the guerrillas and create a stable Iraqi state, according to US military officials, Iraq specialists, and a new study of Iraqi security forces.
Officials in Baghdad insist they are putting systems in place to review new recruits for the Iraqi security forces and Iraqi and foreign workers who mingle daily with large numbers of American and allied troops. Yesterday, US authorities announced that a new assessment team will conduct a wide-ranging probe into security lapses at US and Iraqi government facilities.
But the apparent suicide attack that killed 21 people inside a US Army base in northern Iraq this week brought home what US officials have quietly been warning for months: insurgents in Iraq, including Iraqis and foreign fighters, are increasingly operating within their midst.
And in many cases, they appear to be gathering better intelligence on US military movements and the activities of the new Iraqi government than coalition forces are gathering on guerrilla plans. [complete article]
Militants say they taped Mosul blast
By Richard A. Oppel Jr., New York Times, December 27, 2004
The militant group Ansar al-Sunna posted a video on the Internet on Sunday claiming to show the explosion at a military mess tent in Mosul that killed 18 Americans and 4 others last week. The group, which earlier took responsibility for the attack, said its suicide bomber had spent a long time observing the camp and had slipped inside during a changing of the guards.
The authenticity of the five-and-a-half-minute video, which was posted on a Web site that has carried other messages from insurgent groups, could not be determined. The video shows three men dressed in black, their faces cloaked, discussing plans for the attack. Then it shows a fireball four stories high ripping through the top of a large light-colored tent. [complete article]
Bush sending the wrong message as chaos smolders in Iraq
By Ronald Brownstein, Los Angeles Times, December 27, 2004
Millions of Americans probably learned about last week's horrific attack on U.S. troops in Mosul while wrapping Christmas presents or stuffing packages into the SUV after a last-minute shopping blitz at the mall.
That jarring juxtaposition may be the perfect symbol for the Iraq war. This grueling, grinding conflict is skittering through American life like a tornado that tears one house to the ground in every neighborhood, while leaving all those around it unscratched.
For the military personnel on the front lines -- and their families and friends -- the war is exacting bitter costs. For all other Americans, even for the officials whose decisions sent the troops into battle and shaped the conditions under which they are fighting and dying, the war is imposing no discernible consequences. Like the Civil War, when a rich draftee in the North could hire a poor man to take his place, and Vietnam with its loophole-ridden draft, the Iraq war risks being stained by systemic inequity. [complete article]
What can the U.S. do in Iraq?
Report by the International Crisis Group, December 22, 2004
In Iraq, the U.S. is engaged in a war it already may have lost while losing sight of a struggle in which it still may have time to prevail. Its initial objective was to turn Iraq into a model for the region: a democratic, secular and free-market oriented government, sympathetic to U.S. interests, not openly hostile toward Israel, and possibly home to long-term American military bases. But hostility toward the U.S. and suspicion of its intentions among large numbers of Iraqis have progressed so far that this is virtually out of reach. More than that, the pursuit has become an obstacle to realisation of the most essential, achievable goal -- a stable government viewed by its people as credible, representative and the embodiment of national interests as well as capable of addressing their basic needs. [complete article]
As nuclear secrets emerge in Khan inquiry, more are suspected
By William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, New York Times, December 26, 2004
When experts from the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency came upon blueprints for a 10-kiloton atomic bomb in the files of the Libyan weapons program earlier this year, they found themselves caught between gravity and pettiness.
The discovery gave the experts a new appreciation of the audacity of the rogue nuclear network led by A. Q. Khan, a chief architect of Pakistan's bomb. Intelligence officials had watched Dr. Khan for years and suspected that he was trafficking in machinery for enriching uranium to make fuel for warheads. But the detailed design represented a new level of danger, particularly since the Libyans said he had thrown it in as a deal-sweetener when he sold them $100 million in nuclear gear.
"This was the first time we had ever seen a loose copy of a bomb design that clearly worked," said one American expert, "and the question was: Who else had it? The Iranians? The Syrians? Al Qaeda?"
But that threat was quickly overshadowed by smaller questions.
The experts from the United States and the I.A.E.A., the United Nations nuclear watchdog - in a reverberation of their differences over Iraq's unconventional weapons - began quarreling over control of the blueprints. The friction was palpable at Libya's Ministry of Scientific Research, said one participant, when the Americans accused international inspectors of having examined the design before they arrived. After hours of tense negotiation, agreement was reached to keep it in a vault at the Energy Department in Washington, but under I.A.E.A. seal. [complete article]
Freeing ourselves to take bold diplomatic action
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, December 26, 2004
The [Middle East] now has the feel of being on the cusp of profound change. It's not just the obvious flashpoints: An increasingly chaotic and costly war in Iraq. Tensions with Iran over its nuclear program, with rumblings of U.S. military planning on yet another front. The unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict entering unknown territory with the death of Yasser Arafat and the pending withdrawal of Israel's troops from the Gaza strip.
It's also the hint of new forces reshaping the Middle East -- and challenging U.S. interests -- in unknown ways: "Energy terrorism" targeting petroleum pipelines and workers in several countries and further roiling oil markets. Rising sectarian fears among Sunni Muslims about Shiite intentions regionally, playing off the change in Iraq's balance of power. Increasing violence and rippling instability even in authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia.
A year ago, in his major speech on the Middle East, Bush warned that it would be "reckless to accept the status quo" in the region. "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe," he said at the National Endowment for Democracy. Without political change, the region "will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export."
Yet many in the Muslim world -- even admirers of the United States -- believe the Bush administration still charts Middle East policy with a double standard. It wants democratic change in Egypt, but it also wants President Hosni Mubarak's loyalty and intervention on Arab-Israeli peace. It wants Saudi Arabia to open up politically, but it also wants the royal family to crack down on Islamist dissidents and do whatever it takes to protect the oil fields. It wants free and fair elections in Iraq, but it also wants a pro-American government that will write a constitution to our liking. [complete article]
China expands. Europe rises. And the United States . . .
By Fred Kaplan, New York Times, December 26, 2004
It's a risky business to predict the decline of the American empire. Ask Paul Kennedy, the Yale historian, who issued such a forecast in his 1987 book, "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers," only to witness an almost immediate American resurgence.
Yet the signposts, at the end of this year, are ominous. As an economic power, the United States no longer sets the rules, much less rule the game. As a military power, it vastly outguns the rest of the world, but has a harder time translating armed might into influence.
On March 1, the European Union announced that it was raising import tariffs on a long list of American products, and would go on raising them each month until Congress repealed a subsidy for American exporters that had been ruled illegal by the World Trade Organization. Congressmen railed against this intrusion but finally gave in. Americans realized that, in the global economy they largely created and for 60 years dominated, they could no longer do whatever they wanted. [complete article]
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