The War in Context  
  Iraq + war on terrorism + Middle East conflict + critical perspectives     
Iraq's Sunnis rethink strategy
By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, February 5, 2005

Influential Sunni Arab leaders of a boycott of last Sunday's elections expressed a new willingness Friday to engage the coming Iraqi government and play a role in writing the constitution, in what may represent a strategic shift in thinking among mainstream anti-occupation groups.

The signs remain tentative, and even advocates of such change suggest that much will depend on the posture the new government takes toward the insurgency and the removal of former Baath Party officials from state institutions. But in statements and interviews, some Sunni leaders said the sectarian tension that surged ahead of the vote had forced them to rethink their stance.

Iraqis voted Sunday for seats in a 275-member transitional parliament, which will appoint the government and draft the constitution this year. In all likelihood, the parliament will be dominated by members of the country's Shiite Arab majority and by ethnic Kurdish Sunnis from northern Iraq, leaving Sunni Arabs and others who oppose the presence of foreign troops in Iraq with little representation.

"We are taking a conciliatory line because we are frightened that things may develop into a civil war," said Wamidh Nadhmi, the leader of the Arab Nationalist Trend and a spokesman for a coalition of Sunni and Shiite groups that boycotted the election. "The two sides have come to a conclusion that they have to respect the other side if they want a unified Iraq." [complete article]

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Newly elected Sadr supporters call for troop withdrawal
By Jonathan Steele, The Guardian, February 5, 2005

Newly elected MPs supporting Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric whose militias fought the US army in Najaf and part of Baghdad last year, will push for US and British troops to leave Iraq within a year, according to the deputy governor of Basra.

"Troop withdrawals should start next month and finish by January 2006. I think this is realistic," Salam al-Maliki told the Guardian at the heavily guarded governorate building in Basra.

The US is planning to pull out 15,000 military personnel in the coming weeks, but will still have 135,000 in Iraq whom it has no firm plans to withdraw from the country.

Mr Maliki, a declared "Sadrist", is high on the combined Shia list, the United Iraqi Alliance, which appears to have won last Sunday's vote. He is sure to be in the national assembly. [complete article]

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Shia scientist may be best hope for ending Iraq insurgency
Agence France Presse (via Tehran Times), February 5, 2005

As bombs rained on Baghdad in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Hussein Shahrastani made a daring escape from the dreaded Abu Ghraib prison, where he had been jailed 10 years for refusing to work on Saddam Hussein's weapons program.

Today, he is widely touted as the right man to become Iraq's new prime minister and could be the best hope for ending the country's deadly insurgency.

Torture and solitary confinement were the crucible for this soft-spoken man, now a confidante of Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the number-seven candidate on the frontrunning Shiite parliament list.

Shahrastani's strong advocacy of healing Iraq's divisions and his personal story make him one who could offer the olive branch to rebels and calm cries for revenge against former Baathists favored by religious fundamentalists and Shiite political figures. [complete article]

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Bank heists fuelling Iraq's terror
By Paul McGeough, Sydney Morning Herald, February 5, 2005

He chuckles. As an insurgency heavy, still determined to fight the US in Baghdad, Abdul recalls the chaotic looting when Saddam Hussein fell - especially when his gang made off from the vaults of the Rasheed Bank in a 40-seater Kia bus bulging with boxes of tightly packed US banknotes.

They were ferocious days. Crowds were protesting outside the banks, demanding their deposits; hardened criminals were inside, blasting open the vaults; and bewildered American soldiers looked on, not knowing what to do. Abdul (a pseudonym to preserve his anonymity) is uncertain of how much money there was - but he's sure it was hundreds of millions.

During our meeting at a Baghdad hotel, he pauses to sip a soft drink before he reveals the unholy alliance in which the city's most notorious criminal now channels the Baghdad banks' stolen millions to the insurgency that has reduced Iraq to chaos. [complete article]

3 French extremists in U.S. custody in Iraq
By Sebastian Rotella, Los Angeles Times, February 5, 2005

U.S. troops in Iraq have detained three French militants and police here rounded up 10 of their comrades from a group that sent raw youths from Europe to take part in the conflict with America, officials said Friday.

The first confirmed capture of European Islamist fighters turns attention on the increasing movement of militants from countries such as Italy, Germany, France and Belgium to Iraq, European officials say. Several of the recruits reportedly have died in Iraq, but investigators were unaware Friday of any being held by U.S. forces other than the three Frenchmen.

The makeup of the group illustrates the evolving profile and speedy radicalization of Iraq-bound extremists, authorities said.

"This is a new and spontaneous generation," said an official in the French Interior Ministry. Unlike previous militants, they had never been to Afghanistan or Bosnia, considered traditional training grounds for Muslim extremists. [complete article]

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Iraqi police use kidnappers' videos to fight crime
By Christine Hauser, New York Times, February 5, 2005

In one scene, the videotape shows three kidnappers with guns and a knife, preparing to behead a helpless man who is gagged and kneeling at their feet.

In the next, it is one of the kidnappers who is in detention, his eyes wide with fear, his lips trembling, as he speaks to his interrogators.

"How do I say this?" says the kidnapper, identified as an Egyptian named Abdel-Qadir Mahmoud, holding back tears. "I am sorry for everything I have done."

In the first week after the elections, the Iraqi Interior Ministry and the Mosul police chief are turning the tables on the insurgency here in the north by using a tactic - videotaped messages - that the insurgents have used time and again as they have terrorized the region with kidnappings and executions. [complete article]

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Kurds back Talibani as next interim president or prime minister
By Charles Recknagel, RFE/RL, February 4, 2005

Iraqi Kurds are moving quickly to create a strong bargaining position for themselves as they look set to become the second largest group in the National Assembly after the Shi'a.

The parties of the Kurdish Unity List that competed in the election for the National Assembly on 30 January met in the northern city of Irbil on Thursday to insist that a Kurd becomes Iraq's next president or prime minister.

The parties chose Jalal Talabani as their candidate. Talabani is the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- one of the two main Kurdish factions in northern Iraq.

Ballot counting for the National Assembly is continuing, but the Kurdish Unity List is widely expected to win the largest bloc of seats in the new body after the largely Shi'a United Iraqi Alliance. Kurdish and Shi'a voters turned out in large numbers for the election, while many Sunni Arabs appear to have stayed home over security concerns and calls by some community leaders to boycott the election. [complete article]

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Barzani: Turkey should get used to Kurdish state
By Cetiner Cetin, Zaman, February 4, 2005

Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Mesud Barzani has said it is unacceptable for Turkey to declaring Kerkuk (Kirkuk) as a "red line".

Turkey should not interfere with Iraq's internal affairs, Barzani said: "It is our very natural right to have a state. This fact should be seen from now on and accepted." Barzani spoke to Zaman at his compound in Erbil yesterday (Feburary 3) where he spoke about a possible Kurdish state and Kirkuk. Barzani said their first priority at this moment is a federal Kurdish state: "We cannot agree with Turkey on two issues. One is the Kirkuk issue and the other is the situation of a federative Kurdistan within Iraq." The Kurdish leader expressed that they do not want Ankara to intervene in the region and added that Turkish military intervention in the region might be tragic for both parties. [complete article]

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Naming U.N. names
Editorial, Washington Post, February 5, 2005

The first and most important point to make about the preliminary report on corruption in the United Nations' oil-for-food program is that it is not a whitewash. Despite dark hints that Paul A. Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman who led the investigation, was too chummy with the U.N. bosses, Thursday's report did name names. Most notably, it accused Benon Sevan of having received the rights to purchase millions of barrels of discounted oil from Iraqi officials while he was serving as the director of the oil-for-food program. Suspicions that Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general, would try to sweep the story under the carpet also have not proven correct. Mr. Annan has announced that he will pursue disciplinary proceedings against Mr. Sevan and other U.N. officials.

The question now is what, if anything, these findings say about the United Nations itself. Congressional critics who see something unique or unusual in this report of U.N. corruption should look harder at the behavior of American, British and other companies in Iraq during that period: The vast majority of the oil smuggling had nothing to do with the United Nations and everything to do with the Western companies and governments that were benefiting, one way or another, from the Iraqi sanctions. More to the point, U.N. Security Council members, including the United States, turned a blind eye to allegations of corruption while it was going on, and they may have even used it to benefit U.S. allies in the region. Mr. Volcker has said that he has found more openness and willingness to share documents about these issues in the United Nations than in some corners of the U.S. government. [complete article]

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Afghanistan: A cry for justice
By Sima Samar and Nader Nadery, International Herald Tribune, February 3, 2005

Millions of ordinary Afghans had hoped that they would benefit from the establishment of the rule of law after the Taliban fell. But while some courthouses are being reconstructed and limited efforts are being made to train judges and lawyers, much of Afghanistan lacks a functioning judicial system. In a national poll we conducted, 65 percent of respondents had little or no faith in the current judicial system, with courts staffed by untrained or corrupt judges often acting under the orders of the warlords.

The power of Afghanistan's central government is limited, with private armies controlling large parts of the country and continuing to commit human rights abuses. The U.S. military has fought the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the south and east, but has not prevented infighting among warlords, often over control of the opium trade. Civilians are the most common victims of these bloodbaths, and local militias as well as common criminals often enjoy impunity from prosecution. [complete article]

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Israel's latest land grab is part of an old strategy
By Jonathan Cook, Daily Star, February 4, 2005

The latest legal maneuvers by the Israeli government to confiscate Palestinian land in East Jerusalem have rightly caused outrage, even among senior Israeli officials.

Last summer, it emerged that the government secretly resurrected a 55-year-old piece of legislation drafted in the immediate aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Using the 1950 Absentee Property Law, Israeli officials have the right to seize the holdings of any Palestinian landowner they define as "absent."

The renewed application of the law came to light only after an Israeli lawyer pressed the army for a promised entry permit into Israel for his client, Johnny Atik, a Bethlehem farmer who needed to reach his fields. His land lies on the Jerusalem side of the "security barrier." The permit never arrived; instead Atik received a letter advising him that his land had been passed to the office of the Custodian of Absentee Property. His fields now declared state property, he is ineligible for compensation.

Atik is not alone. Many other Palestinian residents of the West Bank have been receiving similar letters - an Israeli policy that can only be characterized as a huge land grab. According to Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, as much as half of east Jerusalem could be confiscated in this manner. [complete article]

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Homeland insecurity
By William Finnegan, The New Yorker, January 31, 2005

In November, 2001, President Bush signed a law requiring that all cargo on commercial flights be screened. That is a D.H.S. responsibility. Two years later, less than five per cent of cargo on passenger planes was being screened. Clark Ervin, a veteran of the first Bush's White House who was appointed the department's inspector general, found, in 2003, that he could sneak weapons and explosives past the screeners at fifteen airports. At the same time, he noted, senior managers at the Transportation Security Administration were giving themselves the largest annual bonuses of any federal agency. Ervin produced a series of reports on other gross lapses -- in contract monitoring, in port security -- in what he called a "dysfunctional bureaucracy." In December, the White House replaced him. [complete article]

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The propaganda president
By Jack Shafer, Slate, February 3, 2005

If "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il of North Korea and George W. Bush ever meet, I suspect the two will bond like long-lost brothers. Both men are first-born sons of powerful fathers who partied like adolescents well into their adult lives, after which they submitted to their dynastic fates as heads of state.

Both avoid critical thought, preferring to surround themselves with yes men and apply propagandistic slogans to the onrushing complexities of justice, culture, economics, and foreign policy. Bush churns out buzz phrases with the best of them: He believes in "compassionate conservatism" and fancies himself part of the "army of compassion." He's the "reformer with results" who embraces the "culture of life." He shouts his paeans to "liberty" and "freedom" (a combined 27 times during last night's State of the Union speech, according to today's Washington Post) while reducing civil liberties at home.

But slogan-chanting is only one small part of an effective propaganda operation. Successful propagandists must also discourage dissenters who might disrupt the party line. And the two best ways to keep people stupid and nodding is by shutting down the information flow and by stiffing the press. At these chores, Bush excels. [complete article]

Comment -- Likening Bush to Kim Jong-il is stretching it a bit. To my mind the regal analogy is more accurate. King George W. doesn't have to make much effort to stifle his Washington journalist-courtiers -- they all too happily stifle themselves.

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Allawi faces defeat as Iraqi cleric's team leads the polls
By Borzou Daragahi, The Independent, February 4, 2005

The coalition of Iyad Allawi, the Iraqi interim Prime Minister appointed by the Americans, is heading for election defeat at the hands of a list backed by the country's senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, partial results released yesterday indicate.

The results from Baghdad - where Mr Allawi was expected to do well - show the one-time CIA protégé with only 140,364 votes compared to 350,069 for the alliance, which is headed by a Shia cleric who lived in Iran for many years.

Among the mostly five Shia provinces tallied so far, the alliance's lead is even wider. It has 1.1 million of the 1.6 million votes counted at 10 per cent of polling centres in the capital and the Shia south. Mr Allawi's list was second with 360,500.

"Large numbers of Shia voted along sectarian lines," said Sharif Ali bin Hussein, head of the Constitutional Monarchy Party. "Americans are in for a shock. A lot of people in the country are going to wake up in shock." [complete article]

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Kirkuk's Sunni Arabs complain about ballot
By Neil MacDonald, Financial Times, February 3, 2005

Sunni Arab politicians in the ethnically unstablenorthern Iraqi province of Kirkuk claim that their constituents were shortchanged during Sunday's elections by a scarcity of ballots in their districts.

The complaints indicate that local elections, which were held simultaneously with the parliamentary vote, are proving divisive in ethnically and religiously diverse provinces such as Kirkuk, where Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkomans are all competing for political advantage.

At stake is Kirkuk's possible absorption into the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which already controls three largely Kurdish provinces covering what used to be the US-imposed "No Fly Zone" after the 1991 war against Iraq.

In spite of a national strategy by prominent Sunni organisations to boycott the elections, Sunni Arab voters in Kirkuk were given special dispensation to take part in provincial voting, specifically to thwart Kurdish candidates from dominating the poll. [complete article]

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Many Iraqi troops not fully trained, U.S. officials say
By Eric Schmitt, New York Times, February 4, 2005

Less than a third of the 136,000 members of Iraqi security forces that the Pentagon says are trained and equipped can be sent to tackle the most challenging missions in the country, and Iraqi Army units are suffering severe troop shortages, two top Pentagon officials told a Senate panel on Thursday.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said about 40,000 of Iraq's forces "can go anywhere in the country and take on almost any threat," but he quickly added that the remaining forces were useful in less demanding jobs, like police work in relatively stable southern Iraq.

Pentagon officials displayed a chart showing 79,116 Iraqi police and Interior Ministry officers, and 56,949 army and other military troops. General Myers said he had more confidence in the military figures than the police ones, saying the police figures might be inflated.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz told senators that Iraqi Army units had absentee rates of up to 40 percent partly because many new soldiers had failed to return to duty after going home on leave. [complete article]

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Wolfowitz says no nationalist insurgency in Iraq
By Vicki Allen, Reuters, February 3, 2005

Iraq's elections showed that U.S.-led forces are not fighting a nationalist insurgency but an "unholy alliance of old terrorists and new terrorists" trying to destroy Iraq's newly forming government, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said on Thursday.

Buoyed by the turnout and less violence than expected in Iraq's elections on Sunday, Wolfowitz said it showed that a two-year process to establish a new Iraqi government "despite setbacks and tragedies, is still on track," rebutting statements from some Democrats that it has become a quagmire. [complete article]

Villagers take up arms against militants
Agence France Presse (via IOL), February 3, 2005

Inhabitants of an Iraqi village killed five insurgents who attacked them for taking part in the country's historic election, police said on Thursday.

The insurgents launched the raid after earlier warning the inhabitants of Al-Mudhiryah, south of Baghdad, against taking part in Sunday's vote, said a police captain who requested anonymity.

Another eight insurgents and three villagers from the same tribe were wounded in the clashes late on Wednesday, said the police official.

Eight cars belonging to the attackers were set ablaze.

The village, which is near Mahmudiyah in Babel province, is made up of Sunni and Shi'a Muslims.

"We call on the government to intervene to stop the Salafists who have been threatening our country," tribal leader Sheikh Abu Mohammed said, referring to Sunni hardliners. [complete article]

60 hours of terror
By Ellen McCarthy, Washington Post, February 4, 2005

They came for Hamin Dizayee in the dim light of a Baghdad dawn, brandishing their pistols and AK-47s. They said they had a warrant for his arrest. And as they forced him into the back of a police car, blindfolded and handcuffed, he was certain it was just a mistake.

After all, he was an Iraqi and an electrical engineer. His construction company had recently won a subcontract with a U.S. company to help rebuild the Ministry of Defense. And, after five years living in Northern Virginia, he had good relations with the U.S. military, which had trained the Baghdad police. They would straighten it all out at the police station. Dizayee stayed calm.

At least that is how he recounts it now, from the comfort of an Arlington apartment where he has been recuperating from back surgery. He plans to return to Iraq this weekend.

But when the police car stopped after a 15-minute drive and he was moved into an unmarked car, he realized something was very wrong. These men, despite their uniforms, were not the police. He was in the hands of kidnappers.

Dizayee's terrifying ordeal, the 60 hours of negotiations to free him and the ransom paid by his company have, improbably, made him even more determined to resume his work in Iraq, where kidnapping has become a major, if unacknowledged, obstacle to reconstruction. [complete article]

Comment -- Paul Wolfowitz should already know that if he goes up to Congress and says that there is no nationalist insurgency in Iraq, at least 50% of the people who hear what he said are going to conclude that there is a nationalist insurgency. But on this specific point -- though not necessarily any of the inferences he draws from it -- I'm inclined to agree with Wolfowitz. Why? I haven't come across a single piece of evidence that the insurgents are attempting to rally Iraqis to a popular cause. On the contrary, as Newsweek recently reported, today in Baghdad "in many neighborhoods you can come across 'renunciation centers,' where those who get death threats must go to publicly proclaim they'll no longer work with any organization targeted by the insurgents." This isn't how you build a movement. In fact, the primary recruiting tool that the insurgents rely upon is the occupation itself. And this of course begs the question: In the absense of occupation forces, would Iraqis dispatch the insurgency as swiftly as the villagers of Al-Mudhiryah rose up against the Salafists in their midst?

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How will the U.S. know when to pass the baton?
By Mark Mazzetti, Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2005

In addressing Congress and the nation this week, President Bush spelled out his idea for an "exit strategy" from Iraq: U.S. troops can begin pulling out as soon as new Iraqi security forces are strong enough to keep the peace themselves.

But U.S. officials acknowledged Thursday that they were still struggling with the crucial element of that plan: how to measure the progress of Iraqi troops to determine when the point of self-sufficiency has been reached.

Critics in Congress have grown impatient, demanding to know how Washington will gauge when the Iraqis are ready to take over. The military's top uniformed commander offered few details. [complete article]

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Iran-Contra figure to lead democracy efforts abroad
Washington Post, February 4, 2005

Elliott Abrams, who pleaded guilty in 1991 to withholding information from Congress in the Iran-contra affair, was promoted to deputy national security adviser to President Bush.

Abrams, who previously was in charge of Middle East affairs, will be responsible for pushing Bush's strategy for advancing democracy.

The White House also announced yesterday that Faryar Shirzad, a deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, will take on added responsibilities for humanitarian affairs, stabilization and reconstruction efforts.

Prior to joining the NSC staff, Shirzad was assistant secretary for import administration at the Commerce Department. Before that, he was the lead coordinator of international trade policy for the Bush-Cheney transition team.

The White House had earlier tapped J.D. Crouch, the U.S. ambassador to Romania, for the No. 2 job at the National Security Council, under national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. [complete article]

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Rice: attacking Iran is 'not on agenda'
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, February 4, 2005

Despite tough new language on Iran, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that a U.S. attack on the Tehran regime is "simply not on the agenda" for now.

After talks Friday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Rice said the United States and its allies still have "many diplomatic tools" that they will pursue "fully" to ensure that Iran's theocracy does not subvert its legal nuclear energy program to develop a nuclear weapon.

Rice's statement followed a round of questions on whether the Bush administration has developed a new Iran policy that includes ousting the clerical regime that assumed power after Iran's 1979 revolution.

President Bush, Vice President Cheney and other top foreign policy officials have recently indicated that the administration intends to have a more robust policy in confronting Iran. [complete article]

Onward to Iran?
By H.D.S. Greenway, Boston Globe, February 4, 2005

Iran's historical nightmare is foreign intervention, whether it be by the Soviets and British in the past, or the American coup against a democratically elected government in the 1950s. With American armies on their borders in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with Bush calling them part of an "axis of evil," some believe that nuclear weapons have become an emotional necessity for Iranians.

Senator Joseph Biden said that even if Iran was a full democracy like India, it would want nuclear capability, like India. What the world needed to address was Iran's emotional needs, he said, with a nonaggression pact. [complete article]

A bankrupt export of democracy
By Tony Karon, Haaretz, February 4, 2005

Being the "leader of the free world" requires a following, but Bush today finds precious little support in the free world for his export of democracy.

So, as much as Bush wagged his fingers at the petty autocrats who serve Washington's purposes in various hot spots, he can't really do without a Musharraf or a Mubarak. And while Iran may be at the top of Bush's "regime-change" wish list, Tehran is well aware that the U.S. military is badly overstretched in Iraq - as is the record-breaking U.S. budget deficit, which grows by $4 billion each week that the troops stay in Iraq. The U.S. quite simply cannot afford another major war of choice right now, and occupying a country three times the size of Iraq may be beyond its capability until it reintroduces the draft. Britain has made a point of not only begging off an Iran adventure, but actively agitating against a military option for dealing with Tehran. [complete article]

Comment -- Anyone wondering whether US forces will soon invade Iran should take a few minutes to look at a map. You don't have to be a military expert to recognize that a country (the United States) that for the past thirty years has actually been taking quite small steps as it attempts to reassert its military strength is not about to invade a country (Iran) the size of France, Germany, Britain and Spain, combined!

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Koranic duels ease terror
By James Brandon, Christian Science Monitor, February 4, 2005

When Judge Hamoud al-Hitar announced that he and four other Islamic scholars would challenge Yemen's Al Qaeda prisoners to a theological contest, Western antiterrorism experts warned that this high-stakes gamble would end in disaster.

Nervous as he faced five captured, yet defiant, Al Qaeda members in a Sanaa prison, Judge Hitar was inclined to agree. But banishing his doubts, the youthful cleric threw down the gauntlet, in the hope of bringing peace to his troubled homeland.

"If you can convince us that your ideas are justified by the Koran, then we will join you in your struggle," Hitar told the militants. "But if we succeed in convincing you of our ideas, then you must agree to renounce violence."

The prisoners eagerly agreed.

Now, two years later, not only have those prisoners been released, but a relative peace reigns in Yemen. And the same Western experts who doubted this experiment are courting Hitar, eager to hear how his "theological dialogues" with captured Islamic militants have helped pacify this wild and mountainous country, previously seen by the US as a failed state, like Iraq and Afghanistan. [complete article]

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Shia alliance sees strong showing in poll results
By Neil MacDonald and Steve Negus, Financial Times, February 3, 2005

With the final results of Iraq's parliamentary elections still at least a week away, the first tallies released from several provinces point to an extremely strong showing by the Shia Islamist-led United Iraqi Alliance.

The results seemingly bolstered an announcement by the head of the Alliance list, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, that the Shia-dominated electoral coalition would not accept anyone from another party as prime minister.

Partial results released on Thursday by the Iraqi electoral commission consistently placed the Alliance first, with more than two thirds of the 1.6m votes so far counted and confirmed from the Baghdad and five southern majority-Shia provinces. [complete article]

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Sunnis allege coercion
IWPR, February 2, 2005

Some people in the largely Sunni west of Iraq are complaining that United States troops tried to coerce them into taking part in the January 30 elections.

People in the town of Ramadi, about 100 kilometres west of Baghdad in the Anbar governorate, said they felt that raids conducted by US troops prior to the election were part of an effort to force people to go to the polls.

"They arrested us on January 29 and released us in January 30," said Fahmi Abid al-Dlemi, a Ramadi resident. "Afterwards, they asked us whether we were going to vote, and we told them we were."

Haitham al-Harithi, a university student in Ramadi, told a similar story, "After seizing us, they said they'd release us if we agreed to go and cast our ballots." [complete article]

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The Shiite earthquake
By Juan Cole, Salon, February 1, 2005

The elections held on Jan. 30 in Iraq were deeply flawed as a democratic process, but they represent a political earthquake in Iraq and in the Middle East. The old Shiite seminary city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, appears poised to emerge as Iraq's second capital. For the first time in the Arab Middle East, a Shiite majority has come to power. A Shiite-dominated Parliament in Iraq challenges the implicit Sunni biases of Arab nationalism as it was formulated in Cairo and Algiers. And it will force Iraqis to deal straightforwardly with the multicultural character of their national society, something the pan-Arab Baath Party either papered over or actively attempted to erase. The road ahead is extremely dangerous: Overreaching or miscalculation by any of the involved parties could lead to a crisis, even to civil war. And America's role in the new Iraq is uncertain. [complete article]

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U.S. general says it is 'fun to shoot some people'
By Will Dunham, Reuters (via ABC News), February 3, 2005

A senior U.S. Marine Corps general who said it was "fun to shoot some people" should have chosen his words more carefully but will not be disciplined, military officials said on Thursday.

Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who led troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, made the comments at a conference Tuesday in San Diego.

"Actually it's quite fun to fight 'em, you know. It's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up front with you, I like brawling," said Mattis. [complete article]

Comment -- Gen. Michael Hagee, commander of the Marine Corps, would have us believe that Lt. Gen James Mattis didn't choose his words carefully when he said it's "fun to shoot some people" and that in fact Mattis "intended to reflect the unfortunate and harsh realities of war." Is Gen. Hagee implying that one of the harsh realities of war is that sometimes it turns a soldier into a psychopath? If not, how exactly would Mattis have phrased his statement had he paused, reflected and taken the trouble to find exactly the right words?

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Evolution takes a back seat in U.S. classes
By Cornelia Dean, New York Times, February 1, 2005

Dr. John Frandsen, a retired zoologist, was at a dinner for teachers in Birmingham, Ala., recently when he met a young woman who had just begun work as a biology teacher in a small school district in the state. Their conversation turned to evolution.

"She confided that she simply ignored evolution because she knew she'd get in trouble with the principal if word got about that she was teaching it," he recalled. "She told me other teachers were doing the same thing."

Though the teaching of evolution makes the news when officials propose, as they did in Georgia, that evolution disclaimers be affixed to science textbooks, or that creationism be taught along with evolution in biology classes, stories like the one Dr. Frandsen tells are more common.

In districts around the country, even when evolution is in the curriculum it may not be in the classroom, according to researchers who follow the issue.

Teaching guides and textbooks may meet the approval of biologists, but superintendents or principals discourage teachers from discussing it. Or teachers themselves avoid the topic, fearing protests from fundamentalists in their communities.

"The most common remark I've heard from teachers was that the chapter on evolution was assigned as reading but that virtually no discussion in class was taken," said Dr. John R. Christy, a climatologist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, an evangelical Christian and a member of Alabama's curriculum review board who advocates the teaching of evolution. Teachers are afraid to raise the issue, he said in an e-mail message, and they are afraid to discuss the issue in public. [complete article]

Comment -- President Bush drew a healthy round of applause during the State of the Union, when he declared:
In America we must make doubly sure no person is held to account for a crime he or she did not commit. So we are dramatically expanding the use of DNA evidence to prevent wrongful conviction.

Was he taking a gamble with his fundamentalist Christian supporters? Probably not. The legal value of DNA evidence to both prosecutors and defence lawyers is beyond question. Yet 67% of the Americans who voted for George Bush (according to a recent CBS poll) do not believe in evolution. But no evolution, no DNA. Can't have one without the other. I guess if you skipped your reading assignment on evolution you wouldn't understand why.

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Insurgents ambush 50-strong Iraqi police convoy
By Gideon Long, Reuters, February 3, 2005

Iraqi insurgents staged a major ambush on a road near Baghdad Thursday, killing two policemen, wounding 14 and leaving at least 16 missing on the worst day of violence since last Sunday's election.

The attack came a day after guerrillas in the north dragged Iraqi soldiers off a bus and shot 12 of them dead, and suggests the country's 22-month-long insurgency is far from over, despite its failure to stop last weekend's vote.

Police said insurgents attacked a police convoy Thursday between Diwaniya, 180 km (112 miles) south of Baghdad, and the capital. Police initially feared 36 were missing but reduced the number as some began returning to Diwaniya.

U.S. forces sealed off the site of the ambush, near the Abu Ghraib area on Baghdad's western fringes. Police said some of the wounded were treated in hospital in Diwaniya.

At least a dozen civilians were also killed in Thursday's bloodshed, the worst this week. [complete article]

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WARNING! Saddam Hussein 'death' photos used as worm bait
By Dawn Kawamoto, CNET News, February 3, 2005

Photos of a "dead" Saddam Hussein are the lure for a new mass-mailing worm, Sophos warned on Thursday, in the latest instance of attackers using well-known figures as bait.

The Bobax.H worm purports to offer photos that show that the former Iraqi leader has been killed after attempting to escape from custody, the antivirus company said. [...]

The attachments in the Bobax.H e-mails carry a number of different file names, and the body of the message varies too, Sophos said. Examples of message bodies include: "Saddam Hussein - Attempted Escape, Shot dead. Attached some pics that i found" and "Osama Bin Laden Captured. Attached some pics that i found." [complete article]

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No exit
By Fred Kaplan, Slate, February 2, 2005

Much can be challenged and attacked in tonight's address, but one charge leveled by the president's critics -- that he hasn't laid out a strategy for our continued presence in Iraq -- was firmly laid to rest. Those who thought President Bush might use Iraq's election as the occasion to withdraw U.S. troops had their illusions dashed tonight. "We will not set an artificial timetable for leaving Iraq," he said. "We are in Iraq to achieve a result -- a country that is democratic, representative of all its people, at peace with its neighbors and able to defend itself." Only when those results are achieved, he added to stormy, bipartisan applause, will our troops come home.

Some might dispute this strategy or these preconditions for withdrawal, but if they do, let them devise their own plans and start a substantive debate. Why do I doubt this will happen?

Still, that is quite a list of preconditions, and, by the most optimistic of appraisals, it suggests we're staying in Iraq for many years. Take just those two last criteria of success -- that Iraq must be "at peace with its neighbors and able to defend itself." This requires not just a trained police force but also a well-equipped army. Iraq has few if any tanks or fighter planes, and few surviving soldiers or pilots who could operate them. Nor is the U.S. military training effort (which the president acknowledged is just beginning to get serious) geared toward defending borders or repelling an invasion. [complete article]

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Two words that didn't make it into the State of the Union: environment and tsunami. The closest Bush got to the environment was to say that our ability to make more money means we "need reliable supplies of affordable, environmentally responsible energy." On the subject of the largest human disaster in living memory, nothing.

Global warming: scientists reveal timetable
By Michael McCarthy, The Independent, February 3, 2005

A detailed timetable of the destruction and distress that global warming is likely to cause the world was unveiled yesterday.

It pulls together for the first time the projected impacts on ecosystems and wildlife, food production, water resources and economies across the earth, for given rises in global temperature expected during the next hundred years.

The resultant picture gives the most wide-ranging impression yet of the bewildering array of destructive effects that climate change is expected to exert on different regions, from the mountains of Europe and the rainforests of the Amazon to the coral reefs of the tropics.
[complete article]

Swept into the world
By Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2005

Nine days after giant waves struck Little Andaman island, a child was born in a soccer stadium and the Onge tribe of hunters and gatherers took a step away from extinction.

The rain forest that surrounds the tribe, along with traditional Onge wisdom, saved it in a catastrophe that killed more than 150,000 people across southern Asia. Now some experts fear that the tsunami's aftermath will prove more dangerous than the waves.

The Onge are one of five endangered hunter-gatherer tribes that have lived for tens of thousands of years in the forests of India's far-flung Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where the pressures of modern development have threatened to wipe them out.

The birth of a girl, at a makeshift relief camp at the stadium, raised the Onge population to 97. Although the outside help that arrived after the tsunami may have improved the odds of survival for the anemic mother and her newborn, activists fighting to protect the archipelago's indigenous people say the aid, including inappropriate shelter, food and clothing, is among several post-disaster shocks that have endangered the ancient societies. [complete article]

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National security's hard men
By Fred Kaplan, Slate, February 2, 2005

Condoleezza Rice flies off to Europe this week, presumably to mend rifts in the Atlantic alliance. She seems to be staffing her State Department with pragmatists and diplomats, as opposed to ideologues and obstructionists. But don't infer just yet that the Bush administration plans a second-term shift to a more conciliatory foreign policy. Quite aside from whether Rice herself is an advocate of "soft power" (and much evidence suggests otherwise), the intense focus on her doings and whereabouts is a distraction from the churnings in those other two buildings -- the White House and the Pentagon -- where the real decisions get made and the prevailing concept of power is unequivocally harsher. [complete article]

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Halliburton doing business with the 'axis of evil'
By Jefferson Morley, Washington Post, February 3, 2005

The award for oddest geopolitical couple of 2005 goes to the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Houston-based Halliburton.

You might not think that a charter member of President Bush's "axis of evil" could enlist the oil-services firm once run by Vice President Cheney to bolster its bargaining position with an international community intent on curbing its nuclear ambitions.

But that is apparently what happened last month. [complete article]

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Documents show U.S. condoned Iraq oil smuggling
By Elise Labott and Phil Hirschkorn, CNN, February 2, 2005

Documents obtained by CNN reveal the United States knew about, and even condoned, embargo-breaking oil sales by Saddam Hussein's regime, and did so to shore up alliances with Iraq's neighbors.

The oil trade with countries such as Turkey and Jordan appears to have been an open secret inside the U.S. government and the United Nations for years.

The unclassified State Department documents sent to congressional committees with oversight of U.S. foreign policy divulge that the United States deemed such sales to be in the "national interest," even though they generated billions of dollars in unmonitored revenue for Saddam's regime. [complete article]

All players gained from 'oil-for-food'
By Maggie Farley, Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2005

It was the summer of 1990, and Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard had just stormed into oil-rich Kuwait. The U.N. Security Council, hoping to induce Iraq to withdraw and disarm, responded by imposing sanctions.

Nearly 15 years, two wars and a regime change later, those sanctions and the multibillion-dollar "oil-for-food" program that followed them still shadow the United Nations. Eight investigations are underway in Washington and New York into how Hussein subverted and the U.N. mismanaged a program that was meant to deny the Iraqi dictator funds for weapons but instead buoyed his regime. [complete article]

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Nuclear evidence could point to Pakistan
By Glenn Kessler and Dafna Linzer, Washington Post, February 3, 2005

The Bush administration's claim this week that North Korea appears to have been the supplier of converted uranium to Libya is based on evidence that could just as easily point to Pakistan, a key U.S. ally, as the source, according to analysts and officials familiar with the data.

Two senior staff members on the National Security Council have toured China, Japan and South Korea in recent days to brief top officials that U.S. scientific tests strongly suggest North Korea provided Libya with uranium hexafluoride gas, which can be processed into material for a nuclear weapon. Their trip came as U.S. officials are trying to build a united front with key allies if, as expected, North Korea soon agrees to restart six-nation talks on its nuclear programs.

China and South Korea, in particular, have been skeptical of administration assertions that North Korea has a clandestine uranium-enrichment program. Michael J. Green, the NSC's senior director for Asian affairs, brought a handwritten message from President Bush for South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, according to reports in Seoul.

The questions raised yesterday about the administration's evidence are significant in light of the controversy over the administration's allegations -- later disproved -- that Iraq had illicit arms. Several experts said the administration has to be careful in making its case to allies, given resulting skepticism. [complete article]

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Bush vision at odds with Arab allies
By Dan Murphy and Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, February 3, 2005

Shortly after Sunday's vote in Iraq, President Bush called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah, and Jordan's King Abdullah. The purpose: to talk about ways to build on changes in Iraq. For Mr. Bush, the election is just the first step in his broader vision for the Middle East, one in which freedom and democracy will spread quickly.

But at just about the same time, Egypt was cracking down on political opponents of Mr. Mubarak. Saudi Arabia and Jordan recently arrested dissidents.

Herein lies Bush's problem, say analysts. While opinion polls show that most Arabs want free elections, some of democracy's biggest opponents are today's Arab leaders. It took foreign occupation to conduct these elections. So a key question remains: Will Iraq's vote stir democratic change throughout the region? [complete article]

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19 killed in insurgent attacks in Iraq
By Jason Keyser, Associated Press (via WP), February 3, 2005

Insurgents struck back with a vengeance following a post-election lull, waylaying a minibus carrying new Iraqi army recruits, firing on Iraqis heading for work at a U.S. base and gunning down an Iraqi soldier in the capital, officials said Thursday. Two U.S. Marines were killed in action.

At least 20 people, including the Marines, died in insurgent-related incidents starting Wednesday night, according to U.S. and Iraqi reports. Insurgents had eased up on attacks following Sunday's elections, when American and Iraqi forces imposed sweeping security measures to protect the voters.

In the deadliest incident, insurgents stopped the minibus south of Kirkuk, ordered army recruits off the vehicle and gunned down 12 of them, said Maj. Gen. Anwar Mohammed Amin. The rebels allowed two of the soldiers to go free and ordered them to warn others against joining Iraq's U.S.-backed security forces, he said. [complete article]

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Top Shi'ite clerics begin to press for an Islamic constitution
By Thanassis Cambanis, Boston Globe, February 2, 2005

Top Shi'ite clerics, emboldened by what they perceive as a massive turnout by their followers for the coalition of Shi'ite religious parties, have already directed their attention to advocating for an Islamic constitution, several of them said in the aftermath of Sunday's election.

The turnout for the top-finishing electoral slate, a coalition of Islamist parties supported by the Shi'ite clerical establishment, has convinced leading clerics in Najaf that religious parties will have a majority in the Transitional National Assembly that will write Iraq's next constitution.

The clerics of Najaf who orchestrated the Shi'ite political party coalition say they expect a constitutional debate between hard-core Islamists, who want Koranic law to be the constitution's primary source, and moderate Islamists, who want a milder form of religious law. This debate, they say, will dwarf any challenge from secular parties.

US officials are counting on Islamists who oppose a direct role for clerics in government to prevail; otherwise, they fear, Iraq's Shi'ite majority could push the country in the direction of neighboring theocratic Iran. The officials say Iraq's Shi'ite clergy has supported democratic principles, including elections, and shown political restraint since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Interviews with clerics representing the leading schools of thought in Najaf reveal a major debate between the moderate and extreme Islamists, and a growing belief that clerics will shape the constitutional debate far more than secular politicians. [complete article]

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Sunni clerics offer their cooperation
By Doug Struck, Washington Post, February 3, 2005

Leading Sunni Muslim clerics who boycotted Sunday's elections said Wednesday that they would "respect the choice of those who voted" and work with a new government, even though they considered the election invalid.

The statement, issued by the Association of Muslim Scholars, contained renewed criticism of the election but appeared to suggest that the influential Sunni group wants to be included in forming a new government. Ballots from Sunday's vote, which are still being counted, are widely expected to show light turnout in Sunni-populated areas and result in correspondingly low Sunni representation in Iraq's new National Assembly.

Many of Iraq's major political groups, however, have said assembly seats should be apportioned to give Sunnis an equitable share of power, saying they would put rivalries aside for the sake of national stability. [complete article]

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Low voting rate risks isolation for Sunni Iraqis
By Dexter Filkins, New York Times, February 3, 2005

As poll workers tally the ballots from Sunday's election, Iraqi and Western officials say, it is increasingly clear that the country's once powerful Sunni minority largely boycotted the voting, confirming the group's political isolation.

While Shiites and Kurds, who make up more than 80 percent of the population, turned out to vote in great numbers, a Western diplomat said Monday, the turnout in Sunni areas appeared to be "quite low."

The thin turnout means the Sunnis, many of whom already feel deeply alienated from the American-backed enterprise here, could be vastly underrepresented in the national assembly. The 275-member parliament will oversee the drafting of a constitution, which is to be put before Iraqi voters later this year. [complete article]

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Iraqi refugees overwhelm Syria
By Scott Wilson, Washington Post, February 3, 2005

Sabbah Zaker had a small, sturdy construction company in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and although he did not agree with the U.S. invasion, he accepted a $10,000 contract last summer to renovate schools and health clinics across his ethnically mixed home town. A few months later, his name began appearing on the walls of his neighborhood as a warning from insurgents not to cooperate with the Americans.

Zaker, a Christian, had been agonizing over whether to leave Iraq since August, when a series of church bombings shook Mosul and Baghdad. The graffiti made the decision for him, and last September he sent one of his four sons to this city in northern Syria to find a place for the family to settle. Zaker, his wife and their sons now sleep on the floors of a cramped apartment across from a church.

"Our people hated me, and I didn't even know what was in their hearts," said Zaker, 52, who wore a tightly knotted tie on a recent morning despite having no place to go. "If the situation continues like it is in Iraq, more of us will come. And the money is running out."

Although regional and global concerns about Syria's 450-mile border with Iraq have focused mostly on foreign Arabs slipping across to join the insurgency, a growing number of Iraqis like the Zakers are moving in the opposite direction. U.N. officials say they are witnessing the exodus they had expected 22 months ago, when the United States and its allies invaded, and the Syrian government and international aid agencies say they are seeing the first worrisome social effects of the migration.

Syrian officials say 700,000 Iraqis from various ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds have arrived since the U.S.-led invasion, far more than in any other country in the region. The flow has spiked in the past four months. [complete article]

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Electricity was top concern for Iraqi voters
By Nancy A. Youssef, Knight Ridder, February 2, 2005

When millions of Iraqis braved violence Sunday to elect a National Assembly charged with crafting a new constitution, they also elected local assemblies in hopes of getting something far simpler: electricity.

Residents in Najaf and elsewhere said the election finally gives them an elected local government they can hold accountable for turning on the power. And they're threatening to flex their newly acquired voting muscle, saying if the government doesn't fix the electricity by the end of the year - when the next election will be held - they'll be ready to vote out the scoundrels.

"We gave them (the interim government) an excuse because they didn't have the authority. But if the people vote for them, that means they are legitimate," said Adnan Mehdi Shaed, 36, who exchanges currency in Najaf. "I want them to fix the electricity." [complete article]

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Kuwait intensifies crackdown on Islamist militants
By Roula Khalaf, Financial Times, February 3, 2005

Islamist extremists have taken their fight against the US military presence in Iraq to neighbouring Kuwait, the small oil-rich emirate that acts as a transit route for US troops.

Over the past month security forces have clashed several times with suspected militants, leaving three policemen dead and another 11 wounded.

This week, however, the government intensified its crackdown, launching raids on suspected hideouts of militants. Eight militants were killed and another 14 were arrested. [complete article]

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Israel to quit West Bank cities, free Palestinian prisoners
By Aluf Benn, Arnon Regular and Amos Harel, Haaretz, February 3, 2005

A special ministerial team approved on Thursday afternoon a draft of security arrangements with the Palestinian Authority that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will present on Tuesday's summit with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

The ministers decided to release 900 Palestinian prisoners, 500 immediately and another 400 in three months.

A cabinet minister said no Palestinians with "blood on their hands," a reference to attacks that caused Israeli casualties, would be freed under the decision.

It was also decided to gradually transfer to the PA security responsibility for five West Bank cities, starting with Jericho. Bethlehem, Qalqilyah, Tul Karm and Ramallah will follow but the order of their transfer to the PA has not yet been determined. [complete article]

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Sharon and Abbas to meet next week in Egypt
By Chris McGreal, The Guardian, February 3, 2005

Ariel Sharon and the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, are to hold their first summit next week in Egypt, the highest-level talks between the two sides for more than four years.

They had already agreed to meet and yesterday the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, offered to host the summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday.

There is growing international pressure to secure a comprehensive ceasefire by Palestinian armed groups and an Israeli commitment to curtail its attacks.

Mr Mubarak's office said he had made the offer in the light of the delicacy of the present stage the peace process, and "in an endeavour to seize the auspicious opportunity to achieve tangible progress on the Palestinian track". [complete article]

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Outposts built despite Israeli vow, report says
By Dan Ephron, Boston Globe, February 3, 2005

Israelis built four new settlement outposts in the West Bank last year and significantly expanded 12 others, according to an Israeli watchdog group, despite the government's pledge nearly two years ago to dismantle such unauthorized communities and freeze settlement expansion.

The Israeli group Peace Now, which monitors construction in nearly 250 settlements and outposts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through visits and flyovers, presented its findings for 2004 on the same day that Israeli and Palestinian leaders said they would meet at a summit next week at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan, in the most tangible sign yet that 4½ years of fighting could be drawing to an end.

But the annual report on settlements underscored what has been a fixture of the conflict for decades and a sore spot for Palestinians: that Israel, in times of both conciliation and confrontation, and in defiance of international pressure as well as its commitments as part of the US-backed "road map" to peace, has persistently expanded its presence on land Palestinians claim as part of their future state. [complete article]

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Land seizure bid heightens tension over Sharon plans
By Ben Lynfield, Christian Science Monitor, February 2, 2005

There was a sense of respite, but not relief, as this town bordering Jerusalem learned Tuesday that Israel's attorney general had thwarted one of the biggest Israeli seizures of Palestinian land since 1967. The seizure could have included about a third of Beit Jala property remaining from previous expropriations.

"It's a good sign, but I can't be sure what will happen over time," says Mayor Raji Zeidan of the decision. "They could use other methods in the future to take the land."

Although thwarted, critics say the land maneuver offers a window into the intentions of the Sharon government regarding the future of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, even as it readies to withdraw from Gaza. [complete article]

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Parties say violations hurt Sunni turnout
By Anne Barnard, Boston Globe, February 2, 2005

As reports pour in from thousands of Iraqi poll observers, several political parties are alleging polling violations and logistical problems on Sunday that they say helped depress the election turnout among the country's disaffected Sunni Muslims.

In Kirkuk, where Sunni Arabs vie with Kurds for control, Sunni leaders said Kurdish officials opened extra polling stations in Kurdish neighborhoods but forced Arab villagers to walk long distances.

In Aadhamiya, a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad, most polling centers did not open, and at those that did, many Sunnis found their names missing from voting lists, according to party observers.

And in Samawa, in the heavily Shi'ite south, one woman told an observer for the Constitutional Monarchy Party that a female poll worker warned her that if she did not vote for a slate of prominent candidates for Shi'ite Islamist parties, the clerics would nullify her marriage.

Iraq's interim president, Ghazi al-Yawer, acknowledged yesterday that tens of thousands of voters were shut out because polling stations ran out of ballots. According to the leaders of two parties whose efforts to reach out to Sunni voters have been praised by US diplomats, many of those excluded prospective voters were Sunnis in key areas in the north, including restive Mosul and Kirkuk. [complete article]

Iraqi Christians claim their votes blocked
By Eric Fleischauer, Decatur Daily, February 2, 2005

Even as Iraqi Muslims proclaimed Sunday's elections a success, the Christians of that country complained that they were prevented from voting both in Iraq and in the United States.

Christian Assyrians, 1 million of whom reside in Iraq, claim that Kurdish officials in North Iraq blocked the delivery of ballot boxes from Assyrian-dominated villages, leaving many Assyrians disenfranchised. They also claim that election officials placed U.S. voting locations in areas that maximized the distance expatriate Assyrians had to travel.

Susan Patto, chief of staff to the secretary general of the Assyrian Democratic Movement in Iraq, said officials failed to deliver ballot boxes to five towns in the Ninevah Plain of Northern Iraq. All are predominantly populated by Christian Assyrians. [complete article]

(Additional background information on Iraqi Christians.)

Influential group of Sunni clerics calls Iraq's vote illegitimate
By Sameer N. Yacoub, Associated Press (via Boston Globe), February 2, 2005

Iraq's leading Sunni Muslim clerics said Wednesday the landmark elections lack legitimacy because large numbers of Sunnis did not participate in the balloting which the clerics had asked them to boycott.

Emboldened by the elections, which U.S. and Iraqi authorities cited as a victory for democracy, the police chief in Mosul demanded the insurgents hand over weapons within two weeks or he would ''wipe out'' anyone giving them shelter.

Large numbers of majority Shiite Muslims and Kurds took part in Sunday's election for a new National Assembly and regional parliaments. Although no results or turnout figures have been released, U.S. officials say turnout appeared much lower in Sunni areas where the insurgent is strongest.

In its first statement since the balloting, the Association of Muslim Scholars said the balloting lacked legitimacy because of low Sunni participation. The Association called months ago on Sunnis to shun the polls because of the presence of U.S. and other foreign troops. [complete article]

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Iraqi president rejects withdrawal of U.S. troops; Shiites project big win
By Tom Lasseter, Knight Ridder, February 2, 2005

Iraq's interim president and defense minister said Tuesday that withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq was out of the question for the time being, in a stark reminder of the danger posed by the Iraqi insurgency even in the wake of Sunday's election.

As Iraq reopened its international airport and allowed traffic back on the road, President Ghazi al-Yawer said it would be "complete nonsense" for foreign troops to leave the country right away. [complete article]

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Handicapped boy who was made into a bomb
By Paul McGeough, Sydney Morning Herald, February 2, 2005

Amar Ahmed Mohammed was 19 years old. But the fact that he had the mind of a four-year-old did not stop the insurgency's hard men as they strapped explosives to his chest and guided him to a voting centre in suburban Al-Askan.

Before dawn yesterday in Baghdad, his parents strapped his broken remains to the roof of a taxi to lead a sorrowful procession to the holy city of Najaf. There, they gave him a ceremonial wash and shrouded him in white cotton before burying him in the shadow of the shrine of Imam Ali, the sainted founder of their Shiite creed.

Unlike the hundreds of others in the region who knowingly volunteered for an explosive death, Amar died because he did not know. He had Down syndrome. [complete article]

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Kurds 'hold balance of power' in Iraq
By Gareth Smyth, Financial Times, February 1, 2005

The Iraqi Kurds are now the "arbiters" of politics in Iraq and can win the "big prize" of autonomy, Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's interim foreign minister, has said.

Mr Zebari, a leading official in the Kurdistan Democratic party, said he expected the Kurdish list to take 75-85 of 275 parliamentary seats and hold the balance between the main Shia list, topped by Abd al-Aziz Hakim, and the list of Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister.

"We will be the arbiters of many key decisions," he said in an interview with the Financial Times.

Since the high Kurdish turnout in Sunday's election, the KDP has been consulting the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the second main party on the list.

Mr Zebari said the two parties would keep "a coherent and united [Kurdish] position - if we are going to side, hypothetically, with the Shia list, it is because they are going to run the government according to what we want. We will pick and choose". [complete article]

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Fresh hope and doubts from Arabs elsewhere
By Hassan M. Fattah, New York Times, February 1, 2005

As Eissa al-Tayib sat glued to the television on Sunday evening at his home in the village of Nital, a 45-minute drive to the south of Amman, his mind began racing. The news of the Iraqi election astounded him, and it was becoming clear that the process, if not the results, could have major implications for much of the Arab world.

Would this bring peace and stability, Mr. Tayib wondered, or would it create division and civil war? And what about other Arab nations?

"If your rights are guaranteed," he said Monday in his dusty convenience store set along a highway, "you won't see this election as a problem."

The voting in Iraq offered Arabs outside that country two conflicting pictures: Iraqis were freely voting, but they were doing it under an occupation; they were choosing a group of legislators to draft a constitution, but they were voting for political parties that are sectarian and, many say, divisive. [complete article]

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Within Shiite bloc, diverse views emerge
By Dan Murphy, Christian Science Monitor, February 2, 2005

Far from being monolithic, Iraq's Shiites differ on everything from how to organize the state to the role of clerics in government. These divisions will be played out as the new parliament writes the constitution.

"Since the American invasion we've been suffering a lot because of some religious figures,'' says Muslim Hussein, who at age 40 is the oldest of 11 children. "We followed those parties into trouble before, but since they've been in charge in Najaf, they've forgotten us. They just look after their own favorites and family members." [complete article]

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Iraqis count the votes and enjoy the quiet
By Doug Struck and Karl Vick, Washington Post, February 2, 2005

Iraqis held their breath at the unaccustomed quiet in the capital Tuesday, reveling in post-election euphoria as officials began what they said could be a week-long count of ballots and political jockeying began over the next government.

The interim government reopened the borders, turned on the lights at the airport to allow commercial flights to land and lifted the daytime curfews imposed in a largely successful effort to prevent disruption of Sunday's national elections.

Residents slowly returned to the streets and stores in Baghdad, proudly displaying the fading purple ink on their fingers to prove that they had voted and swapping stories of their bravery in ignoring insurgents' threats and going to the polls.

The optimistic mood has been prolonged by a sharp drop in violence in the city since Sunday. Few dared to believe the suicide and car bombings had ended, but the respite was a tantalizing reminder of the pleasures of normal life. [complete article]

Comment -- Though the election has been widely criticized for many reasons, one dimension that has received little comment is the degree to which insurgents may now be assessing the vote as a referendum on their own operations. While George Bush and his supporters are capitalizing on the fact that the election was not thwarted, this will be of little concern to the average insurgent. Their attention will be directed towards the street, mindful that if there has been a shift in mood it could now expose them to new risks. Limited Sunni participation in the election does not necessarily imply the insurgents will continue to enjoy passive support from bystanders who previously looked the other way. The assumption of many observers has been that the effect of early elections would be to further marginalize the Sunni population, but if feelings of exclusion now fuel a desire for greater inclusion, it may be the insurgency itself rather than the wider Sunni population that becomes increasingly marginalized.

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Anger as American troops kill four inmates in jail riot
By Kim Sengupta, The Independent, February 2, 2005

American troops killed four detainees and injured six others to quell a riot at a prison in British-controlled southern Iraq.

The deaths, on the day the elections were held, drew an angry response from the Iraqi interim government which called for the troops to be put on trial if they were found to have used excessive force.

The US authorities said the soldiers had used "lethal force" on the inmates corralled into compounds, surrounded by razor wire, at Camp Bucca after failing to quell rioting. They also admitted that no American soldiers had been seriously injured by stones thrown by the inmates and the disturbance had lasted just 45 minutes before the decision was taken to open fire. [complete article]

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Iran open to ties with U.S.
By Barbara Slavin, USA Today, January 31, 2005

Iran's top national security official said Monday his government wants better relations with the United States, but he advised the Bush administration to stop threatening Iran and said his country will not yield to demands that it permanently stop its effort to enrich uranium -- which the White House says is intended to make a nuclear bomb.

In a rare interview, Hassan Rowhani, Iran's equivalent of national security adviser and the nation's chief negotiator on the nuclear issue, repeated Iran's assertion that its nuclear program is only for the production of energy. Iran agreed in November to suspend efforts to enrich uranium, but Rowhani said the suspension could last only for "some months, not years," while Iran talks with Britain, Germany and France about concessions on trade and other matters. [complete article]

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Iran's bloggers get caught in crossfire of 'war on terror'
By Michael Theodoulou, Christian Science Monitor, February 2, 2005

Iran's dissenting and liberal voices, reeling from a crackdown in cyberspace by their country's old guard, now worry about a new challenge from an unexpected quarter: America.

The alarm sounded when the online news site Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) said that The Planet, a leading international Web-hosting firm based in Dallas, abruptly terminated its contract. Now, other Iranian websites that rely on US Webservers are bracing for similar action.

The independent voices may be getting caught up in a larger battle, some analysts argue. The shutdown, they say, may be collateral damage from "war on terror" efforts to silence Internet communications from the "axis of evil." [complete article]

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Rumsfeld seeks to revive burrowing nuclear bomb
By Walter Pincus, Washington Post, February 1, 2005

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sent a memo last month to then-Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham saying next year's budget should include funds to resume study of building an earth-penetrating nuclear weapon designed to destroy hardened underground targets.

An Energy Department official said yesterday that $10.3 million to restart that study is expected to be included in the Bush administration's budget, which is to be released next week.

The study, which had been undertaken at the Los Alamos, Sandia and Livermore national laboratories, was halted late last year after Congress deleted $27.5 million for it from the fiscal 2005 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. [complete article]

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Law gives spending power to Special Operations forces
By Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt, New York Times, February 1, 2005

Congress has given the Pentagon important new authority to fight terrorism by authorizing Special Operations forces for the first time to spend money to pay informants and recruit foreign paramilitary fighters.

The new authority, which would also let Special Operations forces purchase equipment or other items from the foreigners, is spelled out in a single paragraph of an 800-page defense authorization bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in October. It was requested by the Pentagon and the commander of Special Operations forces as part of a broader effort to make the military less reliant on the Central Intelligence Agency, according to Congressional and Defense Department officials.

A Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, said the new authority was necessary to avoid a repetition of problems encountered in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. During that conflict, Special Operations troops had to wait for the C.I.A. to pay informants and could not always count on timely support because the agency's resources were often stretched thin, the Pentagon concluded. [complete article]

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Surfing the Web with Big Brother
By William Fisher, IPS (via, February 1, 2005

Is the U.S. government spying on its citizens' e-mail and Web surfing habits?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a group that defends civil liberties on the Internet, believes the answer is probably "yes." Earlier this month, the San Francisco-based watchdog filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other U.S. Department of Justice offices.

It is seeking documents that would shed light on whether the government has been using the USA PATRIOT Act, which curtails some civil liberties as part of the "war on terror," to spy on Internet users and collect secret information about their online activity without a search warrant. [complete article]

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Iraqi Kurds see chance to press for statehood
By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times, February 1, 2005

A cane leans on the door and the old tribal leader sits in the sun below the citadel. With a whisper, he could summon 1,000 armed men. He chooses not to.

But make no mistake, he says, the time has come for the Kurds to grab the oil fields, seal the northern mountain passes and seize their independence.

Karim Agha is a proven ally of America, but he is also part of a growing number of Kurds whose push for an independent state could splinter Iraq and undermine U.S. policy in the region. Despite a strong showing in Sunday's election that would give them unprecedented influence in a new national government, Kurds are debating whether it's time for them to declare their own state. [complete article]

As Iraqis celebrate, the Kurds hesitate
By Peter W. Galbraith, New York Times, February 1, 2005

Of all the remarkable things that happened at the Iraqi polls on Sunday, perhaps the most striking was pulled off by the Kurdish independence movement. With almost no advance notice, hundreds of Kurds erected tents at official polling places in Iraq's Kurdish areas and asked those emerging from the ballot booths to take part in an informal referendum on whether Kurdistan should be independent or part of Iraq. From what I saw, almost everyone stopped to vote in the referendum, and the tally was running 11 to 1 in favor of independence.

This news will not be welcomed by American and British officials, who have studiously ignored the Kurdish independence movement, pretending that the unity of Iraq is not at issue in the country's transition to democracy. Those who organized the independence referendum - mostly representatives of Kurdish nongovernmental organizations - had sought a meeting last February with the American administrator in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III, to show him their petition with 1.7 million signatures asking for a vote on independence. Neither Mr. Bremer nor his main deputies would see the group. Thus the actual voting on Sunday caught coalition officials by surprise - in part because Kurdistan, strongly supportive of the American presence in Iraq, has not been a priority for our diplomacy. [complete article]

Kurds set to win two-thirds of vote in tense Iraq oil city
Agence France Presse (via Yahoo), February 1, 2005

The main Kurdish alliance is set to win two-thirds of the vote in Iraq's tense northern oil centre of Kirkuk, fanning Turkish fears about Kurdish ambitions for the ethnically divided city.

The alliance is also set to take a quarter of the seats overall in Iraq's new national assembly, giving the long-oppressed minority a major say in the drafting of a new post-Saddam Hussein constitution, one of its leaders told a Kurdish daily.

With just one district still to complete its count of Sunday's ballots, the Kurdish alliance has won 68 percent of the vote in Kirkuk, the Kurdish weekly Hawlati (Citizen) reported Tuesday.

If confirmed, the result would give the Kurds 26 of the 41 seats on the provincial council. [complete article]

Turkey slams U.S. failure to halt Kurds' designs on Kirkuk
Daily Star, February 1, 2005

Turkey criticized the United States for failing to halt Kurdish efforts to dominate the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, and warned it could take action if attempts to take control plunges the city into ethnic turmoil.

"Some people are looking the other way while mass migration (of Kurds to Kirkuk) takes place," the Wall Street Journal quoted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan as saying in an interview given on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos.

"This is going to create major difficulties in the future."

Turkey believes Iraqi Kurds, who voted in large numbers in Sunday's election, are trying to take control of Kirkuk at the expense of local Arabs and Turkish-speaking Turkmens.

Ankara fears this could herald a concerted drive to build an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq which might in turn reignite separatism among the Kurds of southeastern Turkey. [complete article]

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Urgent tasks loom after Iraq polling
By Anne Barnard, Boston Globe, February 1, 2005

With Iraq still counting millions of ballots from Sunday's historic national elections, US and Iraqi officials looked ahead yesterday to their most pressing challenges, from taming an insurgency that mounted a record 250 attacks on election day to coaxing the many Sunni Muslims who did not vote into accepting the new government.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, in his first public statement after the vote, appealed to all Iraqis -- ''those who have cast their vote and those who have not" -- to unite to build a new Iraq.

US and Iraqi officials said, meanwhile, that Iraq's fledgling security forces had scored a major victory in limiting casualties from the wave of attacks to 34 killed.

But a US diplomat cautioned that their ability to fend off attacks on polling stations -- on a day that 100,000 of the total 130,000 security personnel were on the job and car traffic was halted across the country -- does not mean Iraqi forces are ready to take on the insurgency. [complete article]

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Palestinians given control of cities in West Bank
By Donald Macintyre, The Independent, January 31, 2005

Israel has agreed to allow the Palestinian Authority to deploy its own security forces in five West Bank cities this week in the latest of a series of confidence-building steps designed to entrench the still fragile and undeclared truce.

After a weekend meeting between the Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz and the former Palestinian security minister, Mohammed Dahlan, a senior PA security official was yesterday quoted as saying the forces would deploy from Wednesday in Ramallah, Tul Karm, Qalqiliya, Jericho and Bethlehem. [complete article]

Palestinian girl killed at school; death may derail informal cease-fire
By Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, Knight Ridder, January 31, 2005

The Israeli military is investigating claims that its soldiers fatally shot a 10-year-old Palestinian in the face and wounded her 7-year-old schoolmate Monday in their schoolyard in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.

The incident prompted a retaliatory barrage of Palestinian mortar rounds against Jewish settlements in the predominantly Palestinian coastal strip. Israel later denied that its soldiers were responsible for the shooting.

The shooting and the mortar attacks, which injured no one, could derail an informal cease-fire brokered by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas last week to end more than four years of bloodshed between the warring sides. [complete article]

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Russian scientists ready to help proliferators, claims U.S. expert
By Khalid Hasan, Daily Times, January 30, 2005

Russia's 600 nuclear scientists are a danger to the world since, according to a survey, 21 percent of them are willing to work for anyone if paid the right price, including North Korea, Iran and Syria.

This was stated by Prof Michael Nacht of the University of California, Berkeley, at a meeting organised by the Woodrow Wilson Centre on Thursday.

According to the professor, who worked for the Clinton administration in a senior advisory capacity, the motives of some Russian nuclear scientists may not be entirely monetary, since they believe that by contributing to nuclear proliferation, they would weaken the unchallenged power of the United States. Russia still considers itself a major player in world affairs and would like to regain the position it had before the collapse of the communist state. Some Russians believe that to make the world safe from proliferation is to make it safe for the United States. Helping another state acquire nuclear capability would amount to "sticking it in the eye of America," the University of California academic said, adding, "They see America as king of the hill and they would like to bring the king down for a host of reasons." [complete article]

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Under pressure, Qatar may sell Al Jazeera station
By Steven R. Weisman, New York Times, January 30, 2005

The tiny state of Qatar is a crucial American ally in the Persian Gulf, where it provides a military base and warm support for American policies. Yet relations with Qatar are also strained over an awkward issue: Qatar's sponsorship of Al Jazeera, the provocative television station that is a big source of news in the Arab world.

Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other Bush administration officials have complained heatedly to Qatari leaders that Al Jazeera's broadcasts have been inflammatory, misleading and occasionally false, especially on Iraq.

The pressure has been so intense, a senior Qatari official said, that the government is accelerating plans to put Al Jazeera on the market, though Bush administration officials counter that a privately owned station in the region may be no better from their point of view. [complete article]

Third journalist was paid to promote Bush policies
By Anne E. Kornblut, New York Times, January 29, 2005

The Bush administration acknowledged on Friday that it had paid a third conservative commentator, and at least two departments said they were conducting internal inquiries to see if other journalists were under government contract. The investigative arm of Congress also formally began an inquiry of its own.

The Department of Health and Human Services confirmed having hired Michael McManus, who writes a weekly syndicated column and is director of a nonprofit group called Marriage Savers. Mr. McManus was paid $10,000 to help train counselors about marriage, an arrangement first reported in USA Today, but officials said he was paid for his expertise rather than to write columns supporting administration policies.

At the same time, the Government Accountability Office told the Education Department it was investigating a $240,000 contract with the commentator Armstrong Williams that came to light earlier this month, requesting that education officials turn over any paper or video materials related to the case. Another conservative writer, Maggie Gallagher, admitted earlier this week having a $21,500 deal with the Department of Health and Human Services. [complete article]

U.S. teens 'reject' key freedoms
BBC News, February 1, 2005

A significant number of US high-school students regard their constitutional right to freedom of speech as excessive, according to a new survey.

Over a third of the 100,000 students questioned felt the First Amendment went "too far" in guaranteeing freedom of speech, press, worship and assembly.

Only half felt newspapers should be allowed to publish stories that did not have the government's approval.

The US government has committed itself to spreading "freedom" abroad. [complete article]

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Judge rules detainee tribunals illegal
By Carol D. Leonnig, Washington Post, February 1, 2005

A federal judge ruled yesterday that the Bush administration must allow prisoners at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to contest their detention in U.S. courts, concluding that special military reviews established by the Pentagon as an alternative are illegal.

U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green said that the approximately 550 men held as "enemy combatants" are entitled to the advice of lawyers and to confront the evidence against them in those proceedings. But, she found, the Defense Department has largely denied them these "most basic fundamental rights" during the reviews conducted at Guantanamo Bay, in the name of protecting the United States from terrorism.

Green's ruling directly conflicts with one issued by another federal court judge in Washington two weeks ago. U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon, who heard the case of a smaller group of detainees, wrote that their bid for freedom is supported by "no viable legal theory." Green went beyond the question of whether detainees had rights and found the "combatant status review tribunals" illegal.

The conflict will now head to higher courts. Still, Green's decision was a legal victory for the detainees and for the civil liberties groups that filed claims on their behalf last summer. It underscored the ongoing legal battle over how to implement a landmark Supreme Court ruling last summer that gave the detainees the right to contest U.S. accusations and challenge their indefinite detentions. [complete article]

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Iran attempts to pull plug on web dissidents
By Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2005

After toiling for years to silence dissent within the Iranian republic, the mullahs have turned their war against free press to the last reserve of open political debate: the Internet. Since the summer, Iran's Web loggers, or bloggers, and online journalists have been demonized as CIA collaborators, their work whitewashed from many Iranian computers with filters.

"They can't accept the free exchange of ideas and equality offered by the Internet," said Sayed Mustafa Taj-Zadeh, an advisor to reformist President Mohammad Khatami. "They had to crack down on it."

The Web logs hadn't been around for long. When they made their debut in Persian cyberspace in 2001, frustrated politicos hoped a new horizon had opened up. At last, repressed Iranians had found a space they could clutter up with words, ideas, flights of fancy. The Internet was ubiquitous, anonymous. And for a short and glorious time, it was free from the censure of the mullahs.

In their first year, nearly 3,000 Persian blogs sprang to life. In a nation where apathy has saturated the younger generation, there were hopes for a political awakening on the Internet. [complete article]

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ESSENTIAL READING: Unmasking the insurgents
By Rod Nordland, Tom Masland and Christopher Dickey, Newsweek, February 7, 2005

The key to defeating the insurgents, Iraqi officials now believe, is to find ways to separate and eliminate the most radical groups, like Zarqawi's, from those others that may be willing to make peace. (Similar strategies were tried, and succeeded, in Algeria and Egypt in the 1990s.) Taking out a key bombmaker producing Zarqawi's arsenal is a solid step in the right direction. But to understand how this might work, it's important to look at the very beginnings of the insurrection, in those months when the Bush administration first seriously threatened war against Saddam and started massing its troops, but hadn't yet made its move. As the world pondered the question of whether Saddam would give up the weapons of mass destruction that, in fact, he no longer had, he was preparing another kind of surprise for the Americans.

A Newsweek investigation shows that long before U.S. and other Coalition troops blasted across the border into Iraq on March 20, 2003, Saddam had put aside hundreds of millions of dollars (some sources claim billions) and enormous weapons caches to support a guerrilla war. Since the aftermath of his defeat in the 1991 gulf war, Saddam had started preparing secret cells of younger officers from his military and intelligence services, according to Ali Ballout, a Lebanese journalist who had close ties to the former dictator. They were meant, at first, to help him defend against a coup. "He was very good at that," says Ballout, who often acted as an intermediary between Saddam and foreign leaders. Later, some of these officers would provide core leadership in the resistance. [complete article] (6 page article)

Comment -- For many opponents of the war in Iraq and critics of the Bush administration, the development of the Iraqi insurgency has in some sense served as proof that the invasion of Iraq was an ill-conceived venture. As a result, greater attention has been given to indications that the insurgents may be thwarting American ambitions than to a serious examination of the nature of the insurgency itself. Characterizing the insurgency as a resistance movement engaged in guerilla warfare, some observers imagine that the driving force at work here is Iraqi nationalism. Anyone who sees the insurgency in this way needs to read the above article carefully. Newsweek's Rod Nordland, Tom Masland and Christopher Dickey, provide the most comprehensive overview of the insurgency to date. Their account makes it clear that young suicide bombers now serve as the linchpin for this whole operation.

Islamist suicide bombers are often regarded as the most intense expression of Islamist sentiment, yet they might better be seen as aspiring stars in the theater of terrorism. Their performances are directed by shadowy figures who applaud the show but studiously avoid the stage. A macabre form of vanity draws the bomber to the spotlight, but those who insist that the show must go on have no suicidal intentions of their own -- simply the expectation that they will be able to draw on a steady supply of new recruits.

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Making sense of Iraq's vote
By Tony Karon,, January 31, 2005

... even as President Bush claimed vindication for his Iraq strategy in the spectacle of millions of Iraqis braving terror and intimidation to go to the polls, the real author of Sunday's election -- Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani -- confined himself to a simply thanking voters for turning out, and expressing regret that his own Iranian birth prevented him from joining them. It may be easily forgotten in the post-election spin that Sunday's vote was not the Bush administration's idea -- quite the contrary. The U.S. had never intended for Iraqis to democratically choose the body that would write their new constitution; Washington had envisaged an election only after a constitution had been written by a body appointed by, and under the tutelage of the U.S.

Initially, the plan had been to hand power to returning exiles after toppling Saddam Hussein. When the exiles proved too unpopular, the U.S. then sought to have its handpicked Iraqi Governing Council write the new constitution. Even after the IGC proved incapable, the Bush administration consistently rejected Sistani's demand for democratic elections. Instead, U.S. administrator J. Paul Bremer proposed, that a constitution-making body be appointed by a series of caucuses comprising handpicked elites around the country. Sistani was having none of it. He insisted on democratic elections, used his influence among Shiites on the Governing Council to block Bremer's scheme, and then brought his supporters onto the streets to warn that anything short of democracy would be deemed illegitimate by the Shiite majority.

And it was this pressure from the Iranian-born Ayatollah -- certainly an unlikely Tom Paine figure -- that forced the administration to scrap its own plans for Iraq and agree to hold elections by the end of January 2005. [complete article]

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For Iraq's insurgents, what next?
By Scott Peterson, Christian Science Monitor, February 1, 2005

... experts say it is premature to suggest that Iraq's insurgency - driven by extremists among the once-powerful Sunni minority, who are determined to force out the US - is beginning to lose. Three US troops were killed south of Baghdad Monday while conducting security operations.

"One day, election day, [US and Iraqi forces] made it very difficult to target," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary, University of London. "We still have the same Iraq today as we did on Saturday, with a big security vacuum."

"Statistically, the US won on the day - it highlights the fact that in locking down the country, the US military can do it with 150,000 troops," says Mr. Dodge. "The political message [from the vote] - if there is a popular affirmation of the next government - sends a much more important message to insurgents." [complete article]

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Basra intellectuals united by fear of rise in religious intolerance
By Jonathan Steele, The Guardian, February 1, 2005

They sit in a shabby living-room, a Sunni, a Christian and two Shias, united by two things: fear that Iraq's religious parties will have done well in Sunday's elections, and anger with British occupation officials for having given the Islamists what they feel is excessive power.

While many urban professionals in Baghdad worry about insurgent violence, their counterparts in Basra are terrified by the Shia parties that already rule Iraq's second city.

Shadowy Islamist forces acting for them have been assassinating opposition politicians, burning shops selling alcohol, and forcing women to wear the veil.

The struggle between secular and religious parties is nowhere so sharp as in the Shia south-east, and particularly Basra, a city with a long liberal tradition. Voters chose local governments on Sunday as well as a national assembly, and Basra's intellectuals are waiting to see who comes out on top here with great anxiety.

Fears that the election will produce Shia dominance are misplaced, they say, and the real issue is whether in post-Saddam Iraq religious intolerance will gain the upper hand. [complete article]

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Election euphoria unlikely to trigger a democratic domino effect
By Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, February 1, 2005

If the Arab world were to be placed in a psychiatrist's chair, its emotions in the wake of Iraq's elections would probably be described as conflicted.

The Arab regimes adopted a cautious "wait and see" attitude yesterday as the votes were counted. But they fear that Iraq's induction into representative politics, which they supported in theory, could yet backfire on them.

For most regional governments, stability in Iraq is the overriding concern. Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, spoke for many when he said he hoped the elections "will lead to a process in which all ... Iraqis participate and open the way for the restoration of calm".

Turi Munthe, a Middle East expert at the Royal United Services Institute, said: "Continuing violence in Iraq does not serve anybody's purposes in the region. The partial success of the elections is probably seen to some extent as positive. All the region's governments are worried about civil war." [complete article]

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Together, again - Judith Miller and Ahmed Chalabi
By Jack Shafer, Slate, January 31, 2005

Citing unnamed "sources," [the New York Times reporter, Judith] Miller claimed [last night on MSNBC's Hardball] that the Bush administration had recently made "belated and sudden outreaches" to Ahmed Chalabi, "to offer him expressions of cooperation and support." She continued, "And according to one report, he was even offered a chance to be an interior minister in the new government. But I think one effect of this vote is going to be that the Iraqis themselves will decide who will hold." [complete article]

Comment -- Though Judith Miller doesn't know what a reliable source looks like when it comes to intelligence, there's little question that she is well informed about the inside workings of the Bush administration. The suggestion that administration officials have already been stating their preferences about the make-up of the new Iraqi government gives the lie to the White House's current celebration of Iraqi democracy. Did millions of Iraqis risk their lives yesterday so that with the help of a hidden American hand Ahmed Chalabi could get one step closer to realizing his ambitions?

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Even in the wake of suicide blast, 'they didn't want to go back home'
By Karl Vick, Washington Post, January 31, 2005

The young man wore a winter jacket over his explosive vest and approached the polling station with his hands in the pockets.

"Take your hands out of your pockets," said Ali Jabur, the Iraqi police officer in charge of patting down voters on the street outside. The young man obliged by throwing his arms wide, and blew them both to bits.

Three hours later, in streets still littered with the bomber's remains, some very determined voters streamed into the Badr Kobra High School for Girls, intent on casting the ballots that they called a repudiation of the terrorist attacks meant to scare them away.

"I would have been happy to have died voting at the time of this explosion, because this is terrorism mixed with rudeness," said Saif Aldin Jarah, 61, a balding man with white hair who leaned on his daughter, Shyamaa, as he shuffled into the afternoon sunlight after casting his ballot.

"When terrorism becomes aimless and without a goal, it becomes rudeness," Jarah said, holding aloft a finger stained purple with indelible ink. "How could they force people not to vote?" [complete article]

Comment -- Setting aside the question of whether Iraq was ready for an election, the most striking thing about yesterday was the strength of ordinary people who were armed with nothing more than courage.

We live in a culture where access to weaponry is seen as a pre-requisite for courage. As a nation we dare not face the world unless armed to the teeth. While we now celebrate the courage of Iraqis in the face of terrorism, we shouldn't forget that we just ended an election season where security - not courage - was presented as the only effective response to danger. Instead of being told that bravery is the antidote to fear, we were assured that we do not need to feel fear if we can feel safe. Even now, President Bush is promoting the idea that global freedom is a requirement for American security. As a man shielded by the most sophisticated security apparatus ever created he dare not acknowledge that ultimately freedom and security are at odds.

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Millions of Iraqis defy insurgent threats to vote in elections
By Hannah Allam and Tom Lasseter, Knight Ridder, January 30, 2005

Sunday was a rare day of jubilation in this war-weary nation. A surprise majority of Iraqis cast ballots in their first independent elections in half a century, voting for democracy and defying the insurgency that tried to silence them with a barrage of attacks that killed at least 44 people.

At first cowed by the gunfire and explosions, hundreds, then thousands, and finally millions of Iraqis cast ballots for a new national assembly, the first elected body since the U.S.-led invasion overthrew Saddam Hussein nearly two years ago. [complete article]

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Beyond the bullets, a new constitution is the crucial issue for this democracy
By Jonathan Steele, The Guardian, January 31, 2005

Whoever wins yesterday's election, the crucial issue for Iraq over the coming months - apart from the future of the insurgency and whether foreign troops give a timetable for leaving - will be the process of writing Iraq's first democratic constitution.

The 275 members chosen yesterday for the national assembly will be in charge of the process. Will the new constitution enshrine Sharia law? Will it protect women's property and divorce rights? Will it maintain the system of federalism that was written into Iraq's temporary constitution by the Americans a year ago? If it does not, will this provoke the Kurds in northern Iraq to break away? [complete article]

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Mixed message as Sunnis go to polls
By Rory McCarthy, The Guardian, January 31, 2005

Higher than expected numbers of Sunni Muslim voters appear to have turned out at the polls yesterday in the regions of Iraq that have been worst affected by the insurgency.

Election officials in Baghdad made early claims suggesting more voters than expected in the provinces across central and northern Iraq, where resentment at the US occupation has been strongest. [complete article]

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Polls stand empty in Sunni stronghold
By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times, January 31, 2005

Fear of insurgent attacks and a call by Sunni Muslim clerics to boycott the elections prevailed Sunday in the turbulent Al Anbar province as most voters stayed at home despite U.S. promises to protect those who showed up to cast ballots.

Unofficial figures from the province showed that only about 17,000 of as many as 250,000 eligible voters in Al Anbar participated in the first national election since a U.S.-led coalition deposed Saddam Hussein. The mostly Sunni province is home to the restive cities of Ramadi and Fallouja. [complete article]

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In Samarra, fear keeps voters away
By Ibon Villelabeitia, Reuters, January 30, 2005

Heavily-fortified polling centres were deserted and streets empty as Iraqis in the restive Sunni Muslim city of Samarra stayed home, too frightened or angry to vote in the country's historic election.

"Nobody came. People were too afraid," said Madafar Zeki, in charge of a polling centre in Samarra, in the Sunni heartland, where the insurgency has been bloodiest.

According to preliminary figures provided by a joint U.S. and Iraqi taskforce who safeguarded Sunday's vote, fewer than 1,400 people cast ballots in the city of 200,000. [complete article]

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Despite troops' pleas, fear keeps many away from the polls
By Steve Fainaru, Washington Post, January 31, 2005

The large turnout seen in many parts of Iraq -- and in many parts of Mosul -- did not materialize in the southeast quadrant of the city. A month-long campaign of violence by insurgents in the Sunni Muslim neighborhoods of al-Whada and Palestine proved effective. At 10 a.m., three hours after the polls opened, site No. 31, one of 40 in Mosul, had not had a voter except for 15 Iraqi soldiers who were protecting it. A cluster of men stood within 25 feet of the entrance, saying they were too frightened to go in.

The low numbers made for a dramatically different day for the soldiers of C Company. Instead of protecting voters on the periphery of the polling sites, as occurred in most areas, the company's platoons spent much of the day on raids in which they would burst into homes in search of insurgents, only to wind up urging the occupants to vote. [complete article]

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The al-Sistani factor in Iraq election
By Mohamad Bazzi, Newsday, January 30, 2005

Al-Sistani's foray into politics has implications far beyond today's election. It could become a decisive event in the history of the world's 170 million Shia Muslims. Al-Sistani represents the dominant theological school in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, which rejects the Iranian model of rule by clergy. The Najaf clerics believe their role is to be spiritual leaders and not to participate directly in politics. But conditions in Iraq have forced al-Sistani into a political role, and that could change the historic debate regarding the position of clerics. [complete article]

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For Shiites, a sense of triumph
By Dan Murphy, Christian Science Monitor, January 31,2005

Najaf, the shrine city that serves as the symbolic heart of Shiite Islam, came out in force Sunday to vote in an election that many here hope will put Mr. Hussein and his Sunni-dominated Baath Party safely into history.

While Iraq's majority Shiite Arabs also hope for better government and a share of power that reflects their status as Iraq's majority, there seemed to be something cathartic in the act of voting, which combined a rejection of the past with hopes for a safer future.

Unlike Baghdad and other points north, where voting was plagued by violence and the doubts of Sunni Arabs about their position in society, turnout here appears to have been massive, close to 80 percent, according to preliminary estimates. Families poured out into the blockaded and peaceful streets and many proudly displayed their stained fingers - ink was used to prevent voting twice - to passersby.

"This is an enormous day for us. Finally, we're able to vote for people we know, people from Najaf who we can judge by words and deeds,'' says Hasan Salim, a carpenter who says he woke up at 6 a.m. thinking of his two dead brothers, lost to Hussein's regime. [complete article]

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'I remember how we fought hard for many years for this'
By Gareth Smyth, Financial Times, January 31, 2005

Turnout was high yesterday morning as the Kurds of northern Iraq went to the polls. Old and young, men and women, city-dwellers and villages, walked to polling stations or travelled in buses from far-flung valleys high in the mountains.

Threats from insurgents to attack polling stations cut no ice with people who had survived some of the worst brutalities of Ba'ath party rule under the ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

"Kurdish people were tortured, and we have the same rights as anyone in the world to vote without being blown up," said Bariar Kamal, a man of 20 in Arbil with jeans and slicked-back hair. "I'm young but I still remember how we fought so hard for many years for this."

Most voters had few thoughts of political nuances in Baghdad or the winds of international diplomacy blowing in Iraq.

"We are free to vote, and we are voting for Kurdistan," said Mohammad Qadr, a man in Arbil in his 60s with a traditional Kurdish turban and baggy trousers. [complete article]

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Kurds seek presidency in power deal
By Michael Howard, The Guardian, January 31, 2005

Iraq could soon have its first Kurdish president, following behind the scenes talks between leading Shia and Iraqi government figures and Kurdish officials.

Though Kurds stress any deal will have to wait until the election results are known, the two main Kurdish leaders, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, said yesterday that they would demand one of the two top offices of state, prime minister or president.

With the prime minister's position likely to be filled by either the incumbent Ayad Allawi, or by an as yet unknown candidate from the Shia list, the less powerful presidency could go to Mr Talabani, veteran leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who heads the joint Kurdish list for the national assembly. The post of speaker of the transitional assembly would go to a Sunni Arab, perhaps Adnan Pachachi. [complete article]

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Birth of a nation?
By Fred Kaplan, Slate, January 30, 2005

Few sights are more stirring than the televised images of Iraqi citizens risking their lives to vote in their country's first election in a half-century, kissing the ballot boxes, dancing in the streets, and declaring their hopes for a new day of democracy.

And yet, the challenges and uncertainties that seemed so daunting last week—about Iraq's security, society, and governance -- are unlikely to turn less daunting next week, next month, or the month after.

Yes, as President Bush said in his address this afternoon, the Iraqi people showed the world they want freedom. But this has never been in doubt. The real questions of democracy are what people want to do with that freedom, whether their contesting desires and interests can be mediated by a political order, and whether they view that political order as legitimate. Voting for leaders is a vital but very early step in this process. [complete article]

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U.S did not safeguard $8.8 bln of Iraq money-audit
By Sue Pleming, Reuters, January 30, 2005

The U.S.-led authority that governed Iraq after the 2003 invasion did not properly safeguard $8.8 billion of Iraq's own money and this lack of oversight opened up these funds to corruption, said a U.S. audit released on Sunday.

The U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction was scathing in criticism of how the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) handled Iraqi money until it handed over power last June to Iraq's interim government.

"The CPA provided less-than-adequate controls for approximately $8.8 billion in DFI (Development Fund for Iraq) funds provided to Iraqi ministries through the national budget process," said the report, released on the same day Iraqis voted in elections. [complete article]

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Zarqawi and the D-word
By Fawaz A. Gerges, Washington Post, January 30, 2005

If President Bush wanted to conjure up someone from central casting to act as a foil to his inauguration call for worldwide freedom, he couldn't ask for a villain more fitting than the terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, who, on the eve of Iraqi elections, denounced democracy as an "evil principle."

In a widely disseminated Internet audiotape, Zarqawi didn't merely say that he opposed the mechanics or timing of the U.S.-run elections being held today in Iraq to choose a 275-member assembly and transitional government. And he didn't say he thought Iraqis should wait and vote after U.S. occupation forces depart. No, Zarqawi said that he opposes any elections under any circumstances.

In doing so, he sets up a clash with more at stake than the outcome of today's voting. In the audiotape, which surfaced last Sunday, Zarqawi, the most feared and wanted militant in Iraq, declared a "fierce war" against all those "apostates" who take part in the elections. He called candidates running in the elections "demi-idols" and the people who plan to vote for them "infidels." And he railed against democracy because he said it supplants the rule of God with that of a popular majority. This wicked system, he said disapprovingly, is based on "freedom of religion and belief" and "freedom of speech" and on "separation of religion and politics." Democracy, he added, is "heresy itself."

The questions Zarqawi raises go way beyond the elections in Iraq to the whole issue of modernization of the Arab world. Is democracy un-Islamic? Is there a fundamental clash between the principles of representative government and the principles of Islam? [complete article]

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A painful birth
By Peter Beaumont, The Observer, January 30, 2005

Across Iraq hospitals have been a prime target for mainly religious political groupings which have sought to associate themselves with the most visible areas of social provision. [Mohammed] Nasser [director of Basra Children's and Maternity hospital] knows other hospital administrators in his province who have been shot for challenging the squabbling political groups operating on their wards.

All this explains Nasser's cynicism about the electoral process, and in particular the Islamic political parties.

'They would come and ask - "What is your plan for marking such a religious occasion?" I told them we are only here as doctors to help our patients.

'If I speak,' he tells me, 'I speak without fear. Privately it is the view of most people here in Basra that they want to vote for the secular candidates, but many are afraid to say it. They want to vote for the most competent person. Not,' Nasser adds significantly, 'someone who belongs to another country. Not someone who does not belong to Iraq.'

He means the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) and its allied Badr Movement, which spent the Saddam years in Iran.

He means, too, the Office of the Martyr Sadr - the organisation of Moqtada al-Sadr which, with its Jaish Mahdi militia, launched an abortive uprising across the south last summer.

Nasser is not alone in criticising the Shia parties. As election day dawned in the Shia-dominated south and centre, deep divisions have appeared to confound long-held notions of the homogeneity of Iraq's Shia majority, who many had believed would vote en masse for the religious parties on the electoral list pulled together under the tutelage of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Instead, what has emerged is enthusiasm for secular politics in all areas of Shia society which - if polling and anecdotal evidence is correct - suggest not only an increasingly vibrant political discourse but also that the power of the Shia religious parties has been over-estimated. [complete article]

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Iraqis fight a lonely battle for democracy
By Michael Ignatieff, The Guardian, January 30, 2005

The election in Iraq is without precedent. Never, not even in the dying days of Weimar Germany, when Nazis and Communists brawled in the streets, has there been such a concerted attempt to destroy an election through violence - with candidates unable to appear in public, election workers driven into hiding, foreign monitors forced to 'observe' from a nearby country, actual voting a gamble with death, and the only people voting safely the fortunate expatriates and exiles abroad.

Just as depressing as the violence in Iraq is the indifference to it abroad. Americans and Europeans who have never lifted a finger to defend their own right to vote seem not to care that Iraqis are dying for the right to choose their own leaders.

Why do so few people feel even a tremor of indignation when they see poll workers gunned down? Why isn't there a trickle of applause in the press for the more than 6,000 Iraqis actually standing for political office at the risk of their lives?

Explaining this morose silence requires understanding how support for Iraqi democracy has become the casualty of the corrosive bitterness that still surrounds the initial decision to go to war. Establishing free institutions in Iraq was the best reason to support the war - now it is the only reason - and for that very reason democracy there has ceased to be a respectable cause.

The Bush administration has managed the nearly impossible: to turn democracy into a disreputable slogan. [complete article]

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The great Middle East shake-up
By Steven R. Weisman, New York Times, January 30, 2005

On the eve of war two years ago, President Bush said a democratic regime in Iraq "would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example for other nations in the region." Since then, there have been elections in Afghanistan and among the Palestinians that, along with the prospect of self-rule in Iraq, have stirred ripples of reform and hope in parts of the Middle East.

But today, as Iraqis vote in their first modern election, the war in Iraq is also transforming the Middle East and its relations with the United States in directions the Bush administration might not have expected.

Even many of the region's skeptics about the war say Iraq might, in the end, build a relatively stable democracy. But some of America's most steadfast allies, knowing how shaky their own hold on power is, fear that the Iraqi insurgency may encourage violent anti-government dissidents or Islamic militants in their own countries.

Among many ordinary Arabs, moreover, Iraq's example also has been more alarming than inspiring. Whatever hopes these citizens have for democracy, they have started to wonder if Iraq has paid a high price to get there by first descending into violence, sectarian strife and greater susceptibility to those who preach hatred of the United States.

Two questions are on their minds: Even if democracy takes root and grows in Iraq, will a more stable Middle East follow? And if civil war consumes Iraq, how quickly will instability engulf its neighbors? [complete article]

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Deadline for troop withdrawal ruled out
By Bradley Graham and Peter Baker, Washington Post, January 30, 2005

The Bush administration has for now ruled out creating a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq after today's elections, but military commanders have charted a plan to have Iraqi security forces begin taking the lead in combat operations in certain parts of the country as early as spring.

U.S. officials have identified areas in southern and northern Iraq that have remained relatively free of violence as the best candidates for a piecemeal shift in military responsibilities over the months ahead. Under this approach, as Iraqi forces take on more of the counterinsurgency mission, some U.S. troops would assume an emergency backup role or shift to training Iraqi units, and others might leave the country, according to administration officials and others familiar with the plan.

Under optimal conditions, commanders anticipate possibly being able to withdraw, sometime this spring or summer, three of 20 brigades in Iraq, or about 15,000 troops. That would lower the level of U.S. forces in Iraq to where it was before it was raised to 150,000 troops last month.

More reductions, however, are considered unlikely until the end of 2005 or early 2006. Officials said they will look at establishing a phased pullout predicated on achieving certain benchmarks, basing it on conditions on the ground rather than dates on a calendar. [complete article]

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Who's dying in our war?
By Rone Tempest, Los Angeles Times, January 30, 2005

Some months after the Americans took over the sprawling Balad Air Base, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, someone posted an enigmatic sign on the main gate asking: "Is Today the Day?" Soldiers at the base, which the U.S. military renamed Logistics Support Area Anaconda, or Camp Anaconda, take turns speculating about what the sign means. In the tense months leading up to today's planned national elections in Iraq, the population at the base has swollen to more than 22,000 soldiers and civilian contractors. Some Camp Anaconda residents -- installed in relative comfort inside the 15-square-mile compound that now features four dining halls, two swimming pools, a first-run movie theater and a Burger King franchise -- have concluded that the sign is a military safety message: "Stay Alert!"

For the 90 California National Guard soldiers who make up Alpha Company, a Petaluma-based arm of the 579th Engineer Battalion of Santa Rosa, and regularly venture outside the base to patrol the treacherous canal-veined perimeter, the sign carries a more ominous meaning. The soldiers are part of one of the most star-crossed National Guard units in Iraq. Since arriving at Anaconda last March, one out of five in Alpha Company has been killed or wounded. Three of the nine California National Guardsmen killed in Iraq by the end of 2004 were from Alpha Company. [complete article]

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Iraqis defy the violence to turn out and vote
By Hala Jaber and Jenny Booth, The Times, January 30, 2005

Suicide bombings at polling stations and rocket attacks have failed to prevent Iraqis turning out in larger than expected numbers to vote in national elections.

Despite 27 deaths, national turnout was as high as 72 percent by 2pm (11am GMT), a far higher figure than anticipated, according to one official from Iraq’s Electoral Commission. Officials told a news conference that the turnout was as high as 90 percent or more in many Shia areas.

UN election observers reported queues outside polling stations even in the northern city of Mosul, which has been torn by violence since the summer. A handful of voters had turned out even in the former rebel strongholds of Fallujah and Ramadi. [complete article]

Iraqis show mixed response to polls
Aljazeera, January 30, 2005

A number of Mosul's Kurdish residents have defied death threats and an unstable security situation and headed towards the polls, but in some other Iraqi cities no one is voting.

As polls opened across the country, early signs showed a poor turnout of voters in Mosul. US soldiers were seen driving around city blocks asking why residents were not voting.

Despite a heavy US and Iraqi National Guard presence and no civilian vehicular traffic, six explosions rocked the city. The general hospital had no immediate word on casualties.

Voter turnout was heavy in Al-Qadisiya district of the city, however. A polling station for the city's Kurdish population is located in the heart of the district.

Polling stations in several towns in Iraq have not opened five hours after nationwide voting started on Sunday, the country's electoral commission said. [complete article]

Election highlights Iraq divide
By Dhia Hamid, Agence France Presse (via The Australian), January 30, 2005

The mood was grim in the Sunni Muslim heartland, where a deadly insurgency has gripped cities for almost two years since Saddam's downfall.

The head of the local council in Samarra said nobody would vote in the election - blaming the dangers for the population.

"Nobody will vote in Samarra because of the security situation," said Taha Hussein.

Election staff did not turn up in time to open voting stations in the centre of the city - which was the target of a US battle against insurgents last October - and few police were seen on the streets.

One polling station in the al-Kalaa district open 90 minutes late and Iraqi commandos took up positions outside.

US military vehicles were also in the streets and helicopters hovered overhead.

Three mortars landed on the al-Khansa school in western Samarra, that was to be used for voting. Police said there were no casualties.

Six explosions, each seven minutes apart, rocked the centre of Mosul, which is now said to be one of the key bases of al-Qaeda's frontman in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and extremist Sunni groups. [complete article]

Summary of attacks on election day
Aljazeera, January 30, 2005

The Independent Iraqi Election Commission has set up 5500 polling centres around the country to offer Iraqi people the chance to vote, but election day has been marred by bombs and mortar attacks.

The latest figures indicate at least 41 people have died in attacks throughout Iraq. [complete article]

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EMAIL UPDATES -- Click here to sign up for weekly email updates -- a digest of key articles from the last seven days. (Please include your name in the message and put "subscribe" in the subject line.)
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Noteworthy articles from the last seven plus days:

Iraqis' big issue: U.S. exit plan
By Scott Peterson and Dan Murphy, Christian Science Monitor, January 28, 2005
... the one thing every Iraqi agrees upon is that occupation should end soon. Though the United States is certain to play a major military role here for the near future, Iraqi politicians face intensifying pressure to speak out against its presence.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi got political mileage out of a recent Arabic statement on his party's website that called for a "conditions- based withdrawal" and talked of a timetable.

After US complaints, Mr. Allawi, who worked closely with the CIA in the 1990s and is the current US favorite, gave a slew of interviews to foreign media, saying there was no timetable, and telling the BBC it was "premature" to talk about a pullout.

"He's got two messages that verge on the contradictory," says a Western diplomat. "He doesn't want to give the impression ... that he wants to get rid of [US-led forces]. But his message to Iraqis is that, 'we have a plan' to do so."

"Iraqis are struggling with exactly the same paradox," adds the diplomat. "They want the multinational forces to leave, but ask them if they want them to leave tomorrow, and they say 'no.' "

Researchers who rushed into print a study of Iraqi civilian deaths now wonder why it was ignored
By Lila Guterman, The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 27, 2005
When more than 200,000 people died in a tsunami caused by an Asian earthquake in December, the immediate reaction in the United States was an outpouring of grief and philanthropy, prompted by extensive coverage in the news media.

Two months earlier, the reaction in the United States to news of another large-scale human tragedy was much quieter. In late October, a study was published in The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, concluding that about 100,000 civilians had been killed in Iraq since it was invaded by a United States-led coalition in March 2003. On the eve of a contentious presidential election -- fought in part over U.S. policy on Iraq -- many American newspapers and television news programs ignored the study or buried reports about it far from the top headlines.

The lessons of the failed Osirak raid
By Joseph Cirincione, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 27, 2005
The words that mattered the most on inauguration day may not have been the president's address, but the few comments offered by Vice-President Richard Cheney. "Iran is right at the top of the list," he told radio host Don Imus on January 20. With a nod towards diplomacy, he then came close to endorsing military action, noting, "the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards." Back in June 1991, then-defense secretary Cheney gave a photograph of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak to the man who commanded the Israeli air force during the raid on the site in 1981. "With thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi Nuclear Program in 1981," Cheney wrote, "which made our job much easier in Desert Storm." Cheney may have forgotten that the Reagan administration condemned the raid when it took place, as did most nations in the world. He may not know that the raid did not cripple the Iraqi nuclear program, but accelerated it. The raid was a tactical success but a strategic failure.

American consumers are weakest link
By Gary Duncan, The Times, January 27, 2005
America needs to act to put its economy in order and rein in "self-indulgent consumers" before its vast government borrowing triggers a global economic crisis, experts claimed in Davos yesterday.

The day after the White House forecast a deficit of $427 billion this year, some of America's most prominent economists sounded warnings of a dollar crisis.

Fred Bergsten, the director of the Institute for International Economics in Washington, told delegates at the World Economic Forum that he feared that the beginning of such a crisis could come within days or weeks if President Bush's budget proposals did not convince financial markets that the deficit would start coming down over the next few years.

"The dollar would come down sharply, US inflation and interest rates would be pushed up sharply and the world would follow a much slower growth pattern. Trade would be a big casualty it would be poison for US trade policy," he said.

His warnings were echoed by Stephen Roach, the chief economist of Morgan Stanley, the Wall Street investment bank, who said that the US Federal Reserve was "in denial" over the threat posed by America's balance of payments and budget deficits. He pinned much of the blame for the economy's vulnerability on "self.indulgent" US consumers, who, he said, were the "weakest link" in a global economy that could be derailed at any time. "For me, something just doesn't add up. The American consumer is an accident waiting to happen."

The Middle East's Generation X
By Allegra Stratton, New Statesman, January 31, 2005
Washington has long feared the Middle East's pear-shaped population. Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilisations (1996), argued that the large number of unemployed young males was a 'natural source of instability and violence'. Six months before 9/11 - where at least half the hijackers were under 25 - the CIA reported on 'the doomed future of youngsters living in the Middle East'. Yet the Bush administration tends to downplay all this. When Andrew Natsios, administrator of the US Agency for International Development since 2001, made an explicit link between youth bulges and terrorism in testimony to the US Senate, his words were edited out of the transcript on Usaid's website. 'The administration's policy,' says Rich Cincotta of Population Action International, 'has to agree with their religious backers. This would not include suggesting that what we need right now is condoms in the Middle East.'

During the Clinton years, when Nato's Major General William Nash helped oversee the restoration of Bosnia's sovereignty, he initially followed the manual: policing borders, confiscating weapons and keeping ethnic factions separate. Then he realised that the real problem was idle young men, and so he put them to work. Now, in Nato and UN circles, employing the local rebels with a cause is a critical element of post-conflict recovery.

Not so in Iraq. When military contractors tried to set up a programme to find jobs for the country's 400,000 ex-soldiers, almost all under 30, they were ordered to stop. The US military preferred to hire foreign workers from Bangladesh and India because, as Colonel Damon Walsh, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority's procurement office said, 'Iraqis are more vulnerable to bad-guy influence'. Unemployment among young Sunnis is said to be running at nearly 80 per cent.

2020 vision
By Fred Kaplan, Slate, January 26, 2005
Who will be the first politician brave enough to declare publicly that the United States is a declining power and that America's leaders must urgently discuss what to do about it? This prognosis of decline comes not (or not only) from leftist scribes rooting for imperialism's downfall, but from the National Intelligence Council -- the "center of strategic thinking" inside the U.S. intelligence community.

The NIC's conclusions are starkly presented in a new 119-page document, "Mapping the Global Future: Report of the National Intelligence Council's 2020 Project." It is unclassified and available on the CIA's Web site. The report has received modest press attention the past couple weeks, mainly for its prediction that, in the year 2020, "political Islam" will still be "a potent force." Only a few stories or columns have taken note of its central conclusion:
The likely emergence of China and India ... as new major global players -- similar to the advent of a united Germany in the 19th century and a powerful United States in the early 20th century -- will transform the geopolitical landscape with impacts potentially as dramatic as those in the previous two centuries.

In this new world, a mere 15 years away, the United States will remain "an important shaper of the international order" -- probably the single most powerful country -- but its "relative power position" will have "eroded." The new "arriviste powers" -- not only China and India, but also Brazil, Indonesia, and perhaps others -- will accelerate this erosion by pursuing "strategies designed to exclude or isolate the United States" in order to "force or cajole" us into playing by their rules.

How the U.S. became the world's dispensable nation
By Michael Lind, Financial Times, January 25, 2005
In a second inaugural address tinged with evangelical zeal, George W. Bush declared: "Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world." The peoples of the world, however, do not seem to be listening. A new world order is indeed emerging - but its architecture is being drafted in Asia and Europe, at meetings to which Americans have not been invited.

Consider Asean Plus Three (APT), which unites the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with China, Japan and South Korea. This group could become the world's largest trade bloc, dwarfing the European Union and North American Free Trade Association. The deepening ties of the APT member states are a big diplomatic defeat for the US, which hoped to use the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum to limit the growth of Asian economic regionalism at American expense. In the same way, recent moves by South American countries to bolster an economic community represent a clear rejection of US aims to dominate a western-hemisphere free-trade zone.

Consider, as well, the EU's rapid progress towards military independence. American protests failed to prevent the EU establishing its own military planning agency, independent of the Nato alliance (and thus of Washington). Europe is building up its own rapid reaction force. And, despite US resistance, the EU is developing Galileo, its own satellite network, which will break the monopoly of the US global positioning satellite system.

The participation of China in Europe's Galileo project has alarmed the US military. But China shares an interest with other aspiring space powers in preventing American control of space for military and commercial uses. Even while collaborating with Europe on Galileo, China is partnering Brazil to launch satellites. And in an unprecedented move, China recently agreed to host Russian forces for joint Russo-Chinese military exercises.

The US is being sidelined even in the area that Mr Bush identified in last week's address as America's mission: the promotion of democracy and human rights. The EU has devoted far more resources to consolidating democracy in post-communist Europe than has the US. By contrast, under Mr Bush the US hypocritically uses the promotion of democracy as the rationale for campaigns against states it opposes for strategic reasons. Washington denounces tyranny in Iran but tolerates it in Pakistan. In Iraq, the goal of democratisation was invoked only after the invasion, which was justified earlier by claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was collaborating with al-Qaeda.

Closing the neocon circle
By Michael Hirsh, Newsweek, January 25, 2005
Natan Sharansky can bestow no higher praise than to call George W. Bush an honorary "dissident." And the Israeli cabinet minister says he is elated that the U.S. president, in his second inaugural speech last week, appeared to fully embrace Sharansky's vision of foreign policy. "It's clear to me that he read my book," Sharansky, a squat cannonball of a man with a heavy Russian accent, told Newsweek. "I only wish that my mentor, Andrei Sakharov, were alive to see this," Sharansky added, referring to the Soviet nuclear scientist who risked his life and career to help open up the Soviet Union.

Bush, in his Jan. 20 address, did prove himself a dissident in one sense. When the president declared that "the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," he was delivering a dissent from traditional U.S. foreign policy, one that could have been lifted whole from the pages of Sharansky's new book, "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror." (Public Affairs; New York). Bush, in fact, has been pressing the book on aides and friends in recent weeks and urging them to read it. And it is clear that Bush's speech -- as well as Sharansky's influence -- could have huge consequences for America in the coming years.

Europe vs. America
By Tony Judt, New York Review of Books, February 10, 2005
America's cultural peculiarities (as seen from Europe) are well documented: the nation's marked religiosity, its selective prurience, its affection for guns and prisons (the EU has 87 prisoners per 100,000 people; America has 685), and its embrace of the death penalty. As T.R. Reid puts it in The United States of Europe, "Yes, Americans put up huge billboards reading 'Love Thy Neighbor,' but they murder and rape their neighbors at rates that would shock any European nation." But it is the curiosities of America's economy, and its social costs, that are now attracting attention.

Americans work much more than Europeans: according to the OECD a typical employed American put in 1,877 hours in 2000, compared to 1,562 for his or her French counterpart. One American in three works more than fifty hours a week. Americans take fewer paid holidays than Europeans. Whereas Swedes get more than thirty paid days off work per year and even the Brits get an average of twenty-three, Americans can hope for something between four and ten, depending on where they live. Unemployment in the US is lower than in many European countries (though since out-of-work Americans soon lose their rights to unemployment benefits and are taken off the registers, these statistics may be misleading). America, it seems, is better than Europe at creating jobs. So more American adults are at work and they work much more than Europeans. What do they get for their efforts?

Not much, unless they are well-off. The US is an excellent place to be rich. Back in 1980 the average American chief executive earned forty times the average manufacturing employee. For the top tier of American CEOs, the ratio is now 475:1 and would be vastly greater if assets, not income, were taken into account. By way of comparison, the ratio in Britain is 24:1, in France 15:1, in Sweden 13:1. A privileged minority has access to the best medical treatment in the world. But 45 million Americans have no health insurance at all (of the world's developed countries only the US and South Africa offer no universal medical coverage). According to the World Health Organization the United States is number one in health spending per capita -- and thirty-seventh in the quality of its service.

Political Islam put to the test in southern Iraq
By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, January 25, 2005
Among the fault lines that define Sunday's vote for an Iraqi parliament, the divide between religious and secular is one of the most decisive. The slate that has attracted the most attention is a coalition known as the United Iraqi Alliance, which brings together Iraq's most prominent Shiite parties and, many Iraqis believe, has the blessing of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Its campaign is steeped in religious imagery, and its success in the elections would ensure a voice for the country's conservative clergy in the writing of a new constitution.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, those parties have effectively run Basra. Under their leadership, power and water supplies remain sporadic, city officials have been accused of corruption, and political killings have sown fear in the city. Judging by the opinions of residents, what may be postwar Iraq's first experiment in Islamic rule may also be its first failure.

"How long has it been? Two years?" Salah Abdullah, 34, asked while shopping at a cell phone store downtown. "Show me one person from the parties who has paved the road. Either you're a thief working for them or you are on your own."

"They failed," he said dismissively, jabbing his finger. "They're riffraff, and they've used religion as a cover."

Basra, a onetime jewel of the Middle East scarred by three wars in 25 years, has become a surprising, unintended laboratory for the marriage of political Islam and democracy in the Arab world. In Egypt, Syria, Persian Gulf states and elsewhere, authoritarian rulers have often cited the popular support for Islamic parties and their grass-roots networks as an argument against democracy. But here in Basra, simply being in authority appears to have sapped that support. The biggest challenge those parties faced was not taking power, residents said, but what to do once they were in charge and saddled with the unenviable task of making sense of postwar Iraq.

Shiites are coming, Shiites are coming
By David Hirst, Los Angeles Times, January 23, 2005
For the first time in centuries, Shiites are about to come into their own as the rulers, or at least the politically dominant community, in a key Arab country -- a transformation that has been inexorably underway since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

In the Arab world, the rulers of all 22 states (except for largely Christian Lebanon) have traditionally hailed from the orthodox Sunni majority. Until now, that has included the two countries, Iraq and Bahrain, where Shiites actually make up the majority. The correction of this anomaly in the Iraqi elections on Jan. 30 cannot but be momentous, given Iraq's history and geopolitical weight in the region, and the tumultuous conditions in which it is taking place.

Iraq, after all, is where, in the bloody struggle over the Prophet's succession, Islam's great schism first took root; where, for centuries, Shiites living under Sunni Ottoman rule bore the brunt of the empire's conflicts with Shiite Persians; where, in the 1920s, Shiites led the rebellion against British mandatory rule but ended up grossly underrepresented in the Sunni-dominated, modern Iraqi state that Britain created; where, after the rise of Baathism, the Sunnis turned minority rule into despotism of the most narrow, chauvinistic and brutal kind at Shiite expense.

But even though it may be long overdue, the idea of electorally established Shiite dominance of Iraq nevertheless deeply troubles Arab regimes, whether they are pro- or anti-American, republic or monarchy, with or without Shiites among their populations.

Saudi clerics point militants toward Iraq
By Scheherezade Faramarzi, Associated Press (via Yahoo), January 24, 2005
Fundamentalist Islamic leaders in Saudi Arabia are telling militants intent on fighting "infidels" to join the insurgency in Iraq instead of taking up Osama bin Laden's call to oust the Saudi royal family at home, say Saudi dissidents who monitor theological edicts coming out of the kingdom.

Iraq as a battleground offers the solution to a quandary facing the Saudi clerics who have to both placate the kingdom's rulers and keep their radical base happy.

"If they preach that there ought to be absolutely no jihad, they would lose credibility and support among their followers. So what they do is preach jihad -- not in Saudi Arabia, but in Iraq," said Abdul-Aziz Khamis, a Saudi human rights activist in London.

"To them, Iraq is the answer to their dilemma."

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 gave the Saudi government the opportunity to send men there to wage holy war against communism, supported by the United States.

It also opened the field for the Saudi regime to spread a rigid form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. The royal Al Saud family adheres to it, as do Saudi-born bin Laden and his followers.

Today, Iraq, more than anywhere else in the world, is where the future of political Islam is being shaped. It has become a free-for-all for extremists and anti-American movements.

Dream on America
By Andrew Moravcsik, Newsweek, January 31, 2005
Not long ago, the American dream was a global fantasy. Not only Americans saw themselves as a beacon unto nations. So did much of the rest of the world. East Europeans tuned into Radio Free Europe. Chinese students erected a replica of the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square.

You had only to listen to George W. Bush's Inaugural Address last week (invoking "freedom" and "liberty" 49 times) to appreciate just how deeply Americans still believe in this founding myth. For many in the world, the president's rhetoric confirmed their worst fears of an imperial America relentlessly pursuing its narrow national interests. But the greater danger may be a delusional America -- one that believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the American Dream lives on, that America remains a model for the world, one whose mission is to spread the word.

Secret unit expands Rumsfeld's domain
By Barton Gellman, Washington Post, January 23, 2005
The Pentagon, expanding into the CIA's historic bailiwick, has created a new espionage arm and is reinterpreting U.S. law to give Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld broad authority over clandestine operations abroad, according to interviews with participants and documents obtained by The Washington Post.

The previously undisclosed organization, called the Strategic Support Branch, arose from Rumsfeld's written order to end his "near total dependence on CIA" for what is known as human intelligence. Designed to operate without detection and under the defense secretary's direct control, the Strategic Support Branch deploys small teams of case officers, linguists, interrogators and technical specialists alongside newly empowered special operations forces.

Military and civilian participants said in interviews that the new unit has been operating in secret for two years -- in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places they declined to name. According to an early planning memorandum to Rumsfeld from Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the focus of the intelligence initiative is on "emerging target countries such as Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia, Philippines and Georgia." Myers and his staff declined to be interviewed.

U.S. plans new tack after Iraq elections
By Robin Wright and Josh White, Washington Post, January 23, 2005
The United States plans to revise its approach to the insurgency after Iraq's elections next week, beefing up the new Iraqi military by bringing back more troops and officers from Saddam Hussein's former army and moving Iraqis into the front lines after earlier false starts.

The broad goal is to let Iraqis assume increasing responsibility for the stabilization of Iraq and to diminish the American face on the campaign against the insurgents, according to U.S. and allied officials. The shift reflects the growing consensus among U.S. and Iraqi officials that the current strategy may be spurring greater opposition and deeper anger at the coalition, possibly even making the counterinsurgency unwinnable as it is now being conducted, they say.

The administration has been talking for weeks about a further intensification of Iraqi training. But the more significant shift being pursued is an acceleration in the deployment of Iraqi forces against the insurgents. "It's time now to get them out into the fight," said an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the subject.

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