The War in Context  
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Syria to redeploy Lebanon troops
BBC News, March 5, 2005

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has announced the phased redeployment of Syrian forces in Lebanon. Addressing Syria's parliament, Mr Assad said troops would withdraw to the eastern Bekaa Valley and then to the Syrian border.

The US said Mr Assad's pledge was "not enough" and called for a full pull-out. Syria has been under intense pressure to withdraw from Lebanon since the February car bomb death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Lebanon's main opposition leader, Walid Jumblatt, called Mr Assad's announcement a "positive start" but demanded a clear timetable for the withdrawal. In the Lebanese capital Beirut, members of the public jeered as they watched the broadcast in a central square. [complete article]

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Lebanon's X factor: Hezbollah
By Mitchell Prothero, Salon, March 5, 2005

In order to understand the role both Hezbollah and Syria play in Lebanon, and the centrality of Israel to Lebanese politics, it is essential to have some knowledge of the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. After the civil war in Lebanon broke out in 1975, pitting the Maronite Christians, who were afraid of losing their traditional powers, against the Palestinians, the Sunni Muslims, and the Druze, a nonorthodox Muslim sect, the Christians were in danger of being defeated. The prospect of a Palestinian victory was anathema to Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad, who feared that Palestinian attacks on Israel would lead to Syria's being drawn into a war with Israel. Syria also viewed Lebanon as part of its historic territory (in 1920 the French carved Lebanon off from various Ottoman Empire provinces that had made up what are now Syria and Lebanon). Accordingly, with U.S. and Israeli consent, Syria sent 40,000 troops across the border to prop up the Maronites and preserve a balance of power. In 1989, again with American consent, the Syrians defeated and exiled a renegade Christian general, Michel Aoun, who was battling both the Syrians and Lebanese Muslim forces.

Since then Syrian forces have remained, although the 1989 Taif Accord between the two nations called for their phased withdrawal from Lebanon. Syria has continued to treat Lebanon as a quasi-protectorate. There are currently 14,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, as well as a pervasive intelligence network.

The Israeli invasion of 1982, masterminded by then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, was intended to eliminate the PLO in Lebanon. "Operation Peace in Galilee" succeeded in driving the PLO fighters out and into exile in Tunis, but it killed thousands of Lebanese and made bitter enemies of the Shiites, who had --because of their resentment of the Palestinians -- originally welcomed the Israelis. Israel formed a de facto alliance with the Lebanese Phalange, a Christian militia, and welcomed the post-invasion election of the pro-Israel Christian Bashir Gemayel. But Gemayel was assassinated by a Syrian agent, wrecking Israel's long-term political plan. Israeli troops and Israel's proxy Lebanese army remained in occupied south Lebanon, which Israel dubbed "Free Lebanon."

Fresh from its victory in driving out the Americans -- who were ostensibly neutral but were increasingly regarded as pro-Maronite and pro-Israel -- Hezbollah turned its sights on freeing this territory, waging a 15-year guerrilla war against the Israeli forces while developing a political and humanitarian wing that increased its popularity even outside the Shiite areas. By 2000, the Israelis had suffered enough casualties that it unilaterally quit Lebanon, a victory that put forth Hezbollah as the only Arab army ever to defeat the Israelis. [complete article]

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Syria poised to start Lebanon troop pull-out
By Brian Whitaker, The Guardian, March 5, 2005

The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is expected to announce a large withdrawal of troops from Lebanon in a parliamentary speech today.

He is under intense international pressure to do so. This week in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Abdullah is reported to have told Mr Assad, on a visit to the country, that Syria must comply with UN demands immediately if it wants to avoid serious trouble.

A former Lebanese cabinet minister with close ties to Syrian and other Arab governments told Associated Press yesterday that Mr Assad would outline "a mechanism for the practical implementation of the Taif accord".

The 1989 agreement, which ended Lebanon's 15 years of civil war, requires Syria to pull back to the border and eventually leave the country.

"It will be a Syrian withdrawal according to the Taif agreement - a redeployment to the Beka'a region [of eastern Lebanon]," the former minister said.

Lebanese sources say Syria, which has about 14,000 soldiers in Lebanon, will keep 3,000, and will say this is in compliance with the accord.

Witnesses said Syrian forces around the villages of Falougha, Hammana and Dahr al-Baydar in the mountains west of the Beka'a valley were digging in and strengthening their defences. [complete article]

Comment -- The New York Times, perhaps in an bid to win back readers who are switching to The Onion, reports that on 'Thursday, Syrian troops were seen digging trenches, in what Syria's Foreign Ministry described as "preparation for a withdrawal." '

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U.S. wants guarantees on Iran effort
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, March 4, 2005

The Bush administration is now seeking guarantees from Europe that allies will back punitive measures against Iran if diplomatic talks do not result in agreement by the Islamic republic to permanently abandon any ambitions of developing a nuclear weapon, according to U.S. and European officials.

As it moves into a crucial phase of deliberations on Iran, Washington wants any agreement on a new package of incentives for Tehran to include an understanding on a general timeline, so that Iran cannot drag out negotiations for several months, as it did on a temporary agreement last year.

The administration faces serious skepticism inside its own ranks about how far to go with Europe in offering incentives to Iran, for fear the Europeans will not agree to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council if the diplomatic effort does not produce results fairly quickly, according to U.S. officials. [complete article]

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Italy seeks U.S. answers over hostage shoot-out
By Roberto Landucci and Robin Pomeroy, Reuters (via Yahoo), March 4, 2005

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi demanded explanations from the United States on Friday after American forces in Iraq wounded freed hostage Giuliana Sgrena and shot dead a secret service agent.

Berlusconi, a close ally of President Bush, said he was stunned by the shooting and had summoned the U.S. ambassador to explain how American troops had fired on Sgrena as the Italian reporter was being driven to Baghdad airport.

"We were turned to stone when the officials told us about it on the telephone," Berlusconi told a news conference. "I immediately summoned the U.S. ambassador ... who will have to clarify the behavior of the U.S. military for such a serious incident, which someone will have to take responsibility for." [complete article]

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Anger against Iraqi insurgents grows
By Sameer N. Yacoub, Associated Press (via Yahoo), March 4, 2005

As more people lose loved ones to the relentless violence, Iraqis are becoming increasingly angry at insurgents, even staging public demonstrations condemning militants.

While it is impossible to precisely gauge public opinion, it is clear many Iraqis have grown tired of two years of insecurity, and some are directing their wrath at those behind the bombings and attacks.

"I demand that they be put in the zoo along with the other scavengers, because that is where they belong," said Bassam Yassin, who lost his brother to an insurgent attack in Mosul. He spoke Wednesday after relatives of victims protested outside a police station in that northern city.

Iraq's majority Shiite Arabs and ethnic Kurds have long criticized the largely Sunni Arab insurgency, portraying the militants as terrorists, loyalists of the Saddam Hussein regime and foreign fighters.

But the insurgents are now also being criticized publicly by prominent Sunnis, including opponents of the U.S. presence.

"The real resistance should only target the occupiers, and no normal person should consider dozens of dead people to be some kind of collateral damage while you are trying to kill somebody else," cleric Ahmed Abdul-Ghafur told worshippers Friday at Um al-Qura, the main Sunni mosque in Baghdad. "Everybody should speak out against such inhumane acts." [complete article]

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Iraq insurgents seize initiative
By Jim Muir, BBC News, March 4, 2005

A spate of recent attacks in Iraq has underlined the determination of the insurgents to regain the initiative, following general elections which they had vowed - and failed - to disrupt, and which many Iraqis see as a qualified success.

Five weeks on from the elections, the new parliament has not yet convened.

The formation of a government has got bogged down in protracted and complex negotiations between the political factions which emerged from the polls with seats in the new assembly.

There are fears that a prolonged delay could signal a loss of momentum and play into the hands of the insurgents in the make-or-break weeks that lie ahead.

"The insurgency is already taking advantage of the paralysis in government," a senior security official said.

"If there is more delay in forming a new administration, I have no doubt that there will be bad repercussions - there already are, and it's getting bigger every day." [complete article]

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Are we serious about Arab democracy?
By Tony Karon,, March 3, 2005

If Washington accepts that given the choice, Arab electorates will most likely choose candidates quite different from those the U.S. would prefer to see in power, we could be in for a profound change in the region's prospects. But that requires dispensing with the Cold War mentality that puts the outcome above the process, i.e. better a pro-U.S. autocrat than a democratically elected socialist (or, these days, Islamist). Henry Kissinger once justified U.S. support for the Pinochet coup in Chile by saying "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people." If a similar attitude prevails in Washington if Arab electorates choose Islamists to lead them, the current moment of democratic hope will come to nothing. Once the floodgates of democracy are open, slamming them shut because we don't like the outcome will inevitably ensure the long-term survival of terrorism and extremism. [complete article]

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Political change beginning across Middle East
By Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay, Knight Ridder, March 4, 2005

Iraqis and Palestinians have voted in free elections. Lebanese have demonstrated peacefully to demand an end to Syrian occupation. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, long-serving rulers have made modest concessions to democracy.

For President Bush and his aides, the rapid-fire cascade of events across the Middle East in recent weeks is further proof that their decision to push democracy in the region and make it a top foreign policy goal was the right one.

Yet it's unclear whether the surprising changes coursing through an energy-rich region full of ethnic and religious conflicts will make the United States safer.

Nor is it clear that the United States can steer the events it helped to unleash in a democratic, peaceful direction. [complete article]

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The shadow of another Iraq
By David Hirst, The Guardian, March 4, 2005

A velvet revolution, Ukrainian style, that will set an example for the whole Middle East? That is how Lebanon's so far peaceful "democratic uprising" likes to see itself. Certainly, something new and profound is under way.

Lebanon's strength - and weakness - was always the multiplicity of religious sects on which its whole political system is based. When the system worked, it did so far better than any of its neighbours'; when it broke down, it did so disastrously. During its 16-year civil war Walid Jumblatt, the same Druze chieftain who now leads the opposition, warned the interfering Arabs: "One day the fire will spread to you." It didn't. What he leads today has a better chance of doing so.

It is, if anything, a triumph over confessionalism. Not complete, not invulnerable. Thanks in part to Hizbullah, Syrian-backed but domestically popular, it is the country's Shias who are chiefly reticent. Yet, in impressive measure, the people now stand in one trench, the regime in another. And that, not sectarian antagonism, is the faultline that will principally define the course of events.

If assassinations sometimes accelerate history, Rafiq Hariri's brutal, spectacular but popularly unifying demise is surely one of those. Many Syrians just don't believe their government was behind it: it couldn't be so stupid. But diabolical plot, or massive self-inflicted injury, the outcome is the same. For the Lebanese, their Syrian overlord was instantly guilty until it proved itself innocent. [complete article]

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The buzz on the Syrian street: Let's leave Lebanon
By Rhonda Roumani, Christian Science Monitor, March 4, 2005

One week ago, Hind Aboud took the two-hour drive from Damascus to Beirut to pay her respects to Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who was assassinated last month. On his grave she placed photos of two of Syria's most sacred monuments - the Umayyid mosque and St. Paul's church - and left what she called a letter from all Syrians.

"Hariri is not only for the Lebanese, but he is for the Syrians as well," says Ms. Aboud, a Syrian lawyer who works in Damascus and considers Mr. Hariri a role model for all Arabs.

Syrians share a special affinity to the Lebanese because of strong historical, family, and business ties: a large portion of the Syrian and Lebanese population have relatives living across the border.

But many Lebanese blame Syria for Mr. Hariri's murder, and many of the Syrians interviewed say they are feeling resentful, isolated, and fearful of the growing anti-Syrian sentiment. As the international pressure mounts for Syria to withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon, many here agree that it's time for their troops to go. [complete article]

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Saudis tell Syria to pull out of Lebanon
By William Wallis and Roula Khalaf, Financial Times, March 3, 2005

Saudi Arabia on Thursday told Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, adding a powerful regional voice to international demands for an end to Damascus's grip on its smaller neighbour.

The Saudi message came at a crisis meeting in Riyadh between Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto Saudi ruler.

The move deepened Syria's isolation and was a sharp rebuff for Mr Assad, who has in the past enjoyed the support of Riyadh.

Saudi officials were quoted by agencies as saying the crown prince warned that Syria had to move its 15,000 troops out of Lebanon or face strains in its relations with the kingdom. [complete article]

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U.K. warns Syria of 'pariah' status
BBC News, March 4, 2005

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has warned Syria it risks being "treated as a pariah" if it fails to withdraw its forces from Lebanon.

In a BBC interview, Mr Straw said more UN peacekeepers could be deployed in Lebanon to replace Syrian troops.

His comments come a day after Saudi Arabia joined growing calls for Syria to withdraw its forces. [complete article]

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Saudis vote in force in Shia area
BBC News, March 3, 2005

Men in southern Saudi Arabia and the largely Shia-populated Eastern Province have turned out in their thousands to vote in municipal elections.

Some voters queued from dawn on Thursday in the second stage of the country's landmark local elections.

"We're overjoyed," said Hasan Khater, 25, after taking a picture of his three brothers in front of a polling station.

Women were not allowed to vote, while half the members of local councils are to be elected and the rest appointed.

BBC correspondent Heba Saleh says Shias are hoping the election, though a limited exercise in democracy, will not be a wasted opportunity and will help end discrimination against them. [complete article]

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Shot at democracy stuns Egyptians
Mubarak's bid could mark revival of politics in one-party state

By Paul Schemm, San Francisco Chronicle, March 3, 2005

Surrounded by a phalanx of black-clad riot police, protesters unfurled bright orange banners on the steps of the Supreme Court in Cairo as scores of demonstrators demanded the release of jailed opposition politician Ayman Nour.

While the demonstration earlier this week by members of Nour's Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party wasn't exactly on the scale of the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine, or even the protest by tens of thousands of Lebanese that brought down that government Monday, it was a sign of the increasing political ferment in Egypt.

The daring protest came just three days after President Hosni Mubarak called for an amendment to the Constitution to allow multiparty presidential elections for the first time in Egypt's history -- a decision that may mark the revival of politics in a country where one party has held a lock on power for more than 50 years. [complete article]

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Israel to seize more Palestinian land
By Khalid Amayreh, Aljazeera, March 3, 2005

The Israeli government has ordered the confiscation of large swathes of Palestinian land in the West Bank.

The area to be seized encompasses more than 10sq km of land in the southern West Bank, especially in the Hebron region.

According to the confiscation orders, which were published on Wednesday, the Israeli army will expropriate the land extending from the village of al-Burj to southern Yatta.

This covers hundreds of acres of farmland, including numerous olive groves, and will further diminish the size of any prospective Palestinian state in the West Bank.

Israel has already annexed more than a 100sq km of West Bank land, ostensibly to build a gigantic separation wall which snakes through Palestinian towns and villages, reducing some of them to virtual detention camps. [complete article]

Comment -- As celebrations about the spread of democracy across the Middle East have led at least one commentator to declare that "the Arabs' Berlin Wall has crumbled", the contruction of another wall - no less imposing and no less charged with symbolism - continues apace. The prospect of democracy speading across the Middle East does not imply that Israel is about to get lots of new friends.

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Unraveling the A.Q. Khan and future proliferation networks
By David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, Washington Quarterly, Spring, 2005

The most disturbing aspect of the international nuclear smuggling network headed by Abdul Qadeer Khan, widely viewed as the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, is how poorly the nuclear nonproliferation regime fared in exposing and stopping the network's operation. Khan, with the help of associates on four continents, managed to buy and sell key nuclear weapons capabilities for more than two decades while eluding the world’s best intelligence agencies and nonproliferation institutions and organizations. Despite a wide range of hints and leads, the United States and its allies failed to thwart this network throughout the 1980s and 1990s as it sold the equipment and expertise needed to produce nuclear weapons to major U.S. enemies including Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

By 2000, U.S. intelligence had at least partially penetrated the network's operations, leading to many revelations and ultimately, in October 2003, the dramatic seizure of uranium-enrichment gas-centrifuge components bound for Libya's secret nuclear weapons program aboard the German-owned ship BBC China. Libya's subsequent renunciation of nuclear weapons led to further discoveries about the network's operations and the arrest of many of its key players, including Khan himself.

The Khan network has caused enormous damage to efforts aimed at stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, to U.S. national security, and to international peace and stability. Without assistance from the network, it is unlikely that Iran would have been able to develop the ability to enrich uranium using gas centrifuges -- now that country's most advanced and threatening nuclear program. Suspicions also remain that members of the network may have helped Al Qaeda obtain nuclear secrets prior to the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The damage caused by this network led former CIA director George Tenet to reportedly describe Khan as being "at least as dangerous as Osama bin Laden." [complete article]

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West must recognize diversity of Islamic activism
International Crisis Group, Daily Star, March 4, 2005

Reacting to the spectacular and violent events of Sept. 11, 2001, many Western observers and policymakers have tended to lump all forms of Islamism together, brand them as radical and treat them as hostile. That approach is fundamentally misconceived.

Islamism - or Islamic activism (we treat these terms as synonymous) - has a number of very different streams, only a few of them violent and only a small minority justifying a confrontational response.

The West needs a discriminating strategy that takes account of the diversity of outlooks within political Islamism; that accepts that even the most modernist of Islamists are deeply opposed to current U.S. policies and committed to renegotiating their relations with the West; and that understands that the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war and occupation of Iraq, and the way in which the "war against terrorism" is being waged all significantly strengthen the appeal of the most virulent and dangerous jihadi tendencies. [complete article]

Read the full ICG report, Understanding Islamism (35 page PDF).

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'Spiritual leader' who approved Bali bomb jailed for 30 months
By Daniel Howden, The Independent, March 4, 2005

An Indonesian court has sentenced the cleric Abu Bakar Bashir to 30 months in prison after finding him guilty of conspiracy to commit the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings.

A panel of judges said that although the 66-year-old, accused of being the spiritual leader of the radical Islamist network Jemaah Islamiyah, had not been directly involved in the attacks, he had given his approval to the bombers who killed more than 200 people, mostly foreign tourists.

"The defendant has been proven legally and convincingly to have committed the crime of evil conspiracy that ... left other people dead," the chief judge Soedarto said yesterday. "The defendant knew that the perpetrators of the bombing were people who have been trained in bomb-making in Pakistan and Afghanistan."

The sentence was greeted with outrage by British relatives of the Bali victims. "For us, conspiring is as bad as lighting the fuse," Sue Cooper, whose brother Paul Hussey was killed, told The Independent. "This is an insult to the people that died. It's four days in prison for each person killed." [complete article]

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Political survivor Chalabi reaches out to Iraq insurgents
Agence France Presse (via Yahoo), March 3, 2005

Shiite secular politician Ahmed Chalabi, long known as a vehment opponent of Saddam Hussein, called for talks with Iraq insurgents in the latest twist in a controversial career built on reinvention.

"We have already started this process, we are meeting with people who want to fight the occupation," Chalabi told AFP.

The political chameleon, accused last year of trading US intelligence to Iran after providing volunteers for the 2003 US-led invasion, described the contacts as being with "those the insurgents look up to" and not the actual fighters.

"We've had several meetings. There is a genuine interest in working and cooperating together to end the foreign presence in Iraq so they do not feel they have to fight to defend the country against foreign occupation."

On Sunday, Chalabi met leaders of the Committee of Muslim Scholars, an influential grouping of Sunni clerics, thought to have links with the resistance, who called for a boycott of milestone January 30 elections. [complete article]

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'I just want to survive and go home with all my body parts'
By Rory Carroll, The Guardian, March 4, 2005

The city was quiet but the soldiers sitting and swaying inside the Stryker were animated by their favourite debate: was it better to be five metres or 20 metres from an explosion?

The front gunner belonged to the 20-metre school, figuring the greater distance reduced your chances of losing limbs to the blast. The two rear gunners scoffed and said that would increase the odds of being hit by shrapnel, which fanned upwards and outwards.

Five months of patrolling Mosul had furnished evidence for both views and the discussion was as well-worn as the Stryker's tyres.

Sergeant David Phillips, 23, sighed and patted his flak jacket. "I just want to stay alive and go home with all my body parts." He spoke for 150,000 American soldiers in Iraq.

Yesterday the number of US military deaths since the March 2003 invasion crept over 1,500. [complete article]

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Key Iraq wound: Brain trauma
By Gregg Zoroya, USA Today, March 3, 2005

A growing number of U.S. troops whose body armor helped them survive bomb and rocket attacks are suffering brain damage as a result of the blasts. It's a type of injury some military doctors say has become the signature wound of the Iraq war.

Known as traumatic brain injury, or TBI, the wound is of the sort that many soldiers in previous wars never lived long enough to suffer. The explosions often cause brain damage similar to "shaken-baby syndrome," says Warren Lux, a neurologist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

"You've got great body armor on, and you don't die," says Louis French, a neuropsychologist at Walter Reed. "But there's a whole other set of possible consequences. It's sort of like when they started putting airbags in cars and started seeing all these orthopedic injuries." [complete article]

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American jails in Iraq bursting with detainees
By Edward Wong, New York Times, March 4, 2005

The American military's major detention centers in Iraq have swelled to capacity and are holding more people than ever, senior military officials say.

The growing detainee population reflects recent changes in how the military has been waging the war and in its policies toward detainees, the officials say.

The military swept up many Iraqis before the Jan. 30 elections in an attempt to curb violence and halted all releases before the vote. Other detainees have been captured in ambitious recent offensives across the Sunni Triangle, from Samarra to Falluja to the Euphrates River valley south of Baghdad. [complete article]

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Emergency war funding wins backing
By Mike Allen, Washington Post, March 4, 2005

House Republican leaders overcame earlier concerns and decided yesterday to give President Bush most of the emergency war spending money he requested last month, including $600 million for a compound in Baghdad that will be the largest U.S. embassy in the world.

The leaders said they plan to approve all but $800 million of Bush's $81.9 billion request in emergency funding for Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terrorism. They cut back dramatically on the foreign aid portion of the request, because they said some of the proposed spending was not for emergencies or was potentially wasteful.

The Republicans -- backing off many of their complaints about the size and vagueness of the White House's request -- agreed to fund the project that had drawn the most criticism: construction of the embassy in Iraq, which will have the largest staff of any in the world. [complete article]

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Bush won't call PM
By Sheldon Alberts, National Post, March 2, 2005

The White House sought yesterday to paper over its obvious annoyance with the Martin government's decision to not participate in the U.S. missile defence initiative.

Senior Canadian officials said yesterday that George W. Bush had yet to return a telephone call Paul Martin made to him last week. The Prime Minister had hoped to explain Canada's reasons for saying no.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's decision to postpone a visit to Ottawa was a direct response to the Liberal decision. [complete article]

Comment -- Perhaps Prime Minister Martin could have avoided offending his overbearing neighbors by instead of issuing a blunt "no", he'd simply told the Americans: Get back to us when you've demonstrated that your missile defense system actually works.

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President Bush makes surprise visit to the CIA
By David Stout, New York Times, March 3, 2005

President Bush paid a surprise visit to the Central Intelligence Agency this afternoon, where he discussed the C.I.A.'s new role with its director, Porter J. Goss, and sought to reassure agency employees.

"I know there's some uncertainty about what this reform means to the people of the C.I.A., and I wanted to assure them that the reforms will strengthen their efforts and make it easier for them to do their job, not harder," Mr. Bush said in a question-and-answer session at agency headquarters in Langley, Va.

The president's visit, which had not been announced in advance, came a day after Mr. Goss said he felt overwhelmed in his new job, and that he was not entirely clear what it was as a result of the intelligence-overhaul bill that created the powerful new post of national intelligence director, which overshadows the C.I.A. chief's position.

Mr. Goss, in a speech on Wednesday in Simi Valley, Calif., said he devotes five hours a day to preparing intelligence briefings for the president, a function that will be largely taken over by John Negroponte, assuming that Mr. Negroponte, a former ambassador to the United Nations and to Iraq, is confirmed by the Senate as the new national intelligence director.

"The jobs I'm being asked to do, the five hats that I wear, are too much for this mortal," Mr. Goss said in an address at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, according to The Associated Press. [complete article]

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Hezbollah set for key role in Lebanon
By Mark MacKinnon, Globe and Mail, March 3, 2005

When Lebanon's pro-Syrian government collapsed this week in the face of mass protests, it was hailed as a breakthrough for democracy in the Arab world. But opposition figures say it also created a political vacuum that may leave the militant Shia group Hezbollah holding the balance of power in the country.

Hours after Prime Minister Omar Karami and his cabinet announced their resignation on Monday, Lebanon's myriad political groupings began tense negotiations over who would run a caretaker government to oversee a parliamentary election scheduled for May. With parliament almost evenly split between pro-Syrian loyalists and the opposition, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah looks to hold the deciding seats.

The opposition is now actively appealing to the militant group to remain true to its roots as a liberation movement and join the push to oust Syria from Lebanon. In recent remarks, Walid Jumblatt, one of the main leaders of the anti-Syrian opposition, has gone out of his way to praise Hezbollah's head, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, as a "great leader," and has repeatedly called on him to join the opposition. [complete article]

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Don't rush on the road to Damascus
By Flynt Leverett, New York Times, March 3, 2005

The assassination last month of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, has given new life to an old idea: using the issue of Lebanese independence to undermine Syria's strategic position. Drawing on the language of a United Nations Security Council resolution passed last summer, President Bush and senior officials are now calling on "the Syrian regime" to remove its military and intelligence personnel from Lebanon and cede any political role there.

Administration hawks like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (who, as President Reagan's Middle East envoy, oversaw the collapse of America's foray into Lebanon's civil war) and the National Security Council's Elliott Abrams (whose previous involvement in Lebanon policy helped generate the Iran-contra scandal) believe that such a course would allow the establishment of a pro-Western government in Beirut that would accommodate Israel and help to project American influence. They also believe that it would set the stage for the Syrian regime's collapse, removing another Baathist "rogue state."

The turmoil unleashed in Lebanon by the Hariri assassination - which reached a high point this week with the resignation of the Syrian-backedprime minister, Omar Karami - may indeed represent a strategic opening, but not for the risky maximalist course that some in the administration seem intent on pursuing. [complete article]

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Syria under pressure: worse trouble may lie ahead
By Hassan M. Fattah, New York Times, March 3, 2005

After decades of controlling Lebanon's political and economic life, Syria is facing the prospect of political and economic tumult as its hold over Lebanon grows weaker.

Under increasing pressure to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad is showing signs of a siege mentality, many opposition figures say. On Wednesday, President Bush, in his bluntest terms yet, insisted that Syria leave Lebanon.

In recent weeks, the Syrian government has cracked down on hard-won freedoms, censoring publications more heavily and increasing pressure on opposition figures. Last week, professors at some Syrian universities were given directives not to discuss subjects like Lebanon, the Kurdish minority or Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who was assassinated in Beirut two weeks ago. And people in Damascus expect worse to come.

Like his father before him, Mr. Assad has tried to deal with his problems by closing ranks within his government while scrambling to buy time. Last week, for example, he announced that Syria would pull out of Lebanon, and in an interview with Time magazine published Tuesday, he said he expected the job to be done in a matter of months. But so far, many Syrians say, Mr. Assad has proved less adept than his father at playing political cat-and-mouse. [complete article]

Comment -- In contrast to the NYT's characterization of the ailing Assad regime, Joshua Landis observes from Damascus that:
Bashar's government is much stronger than many think. There has been great speculation abroad -- and in Syria -- that the wheels are about to go flying off the regime, that the President is not really in charge, or even more darkly, that a shadowy subterranean power-struggle is taking place within the top ranks of the government, presaging a coup or possible collapse.

Yes, Syrians have been intensely worried for the last two weeks. The chilling silence that came from the Palace during the two weeks following the Hariri assassination led many to suspect the worst and to much nail biting.

Nevertheless, the pressure has been much relieved in the last two days. Bashar is back at the helm, giving interviews and taking a positive line on Lebanon. The decision making process is painfully slow here, like most things.
Syria still has considerable clout in Lebanon, and it does not all derive from intimidation as the opposition would have us believe. The fact is Lebanon remains a divided country and many do not want to see Syria driven out ignominiously.
As for how Syrian leaders regard Lebanon, Landis provides this telling remark from a high-ranking Ba'thist: "The relationship between Lebanon and Syria is special. It is like Monaco and France." Monaco is a principality with a population of 31,000 residing on a 370 acre pocket of France's Mediterranean coast. Lebanon's 3.7 million citizens might not be flattered by the comparison.

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Palestinians recoiling from suicide bombs
By Joshua Mitnick, Christian Science Monitor, March 3, 2005

When news spread that a suicide bomber killed five Israelis in a Tel Aviv nightclub last weekend, members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade sought refuge.

Fearing reprisal from Israel, the Palestinian militants huddled inside a grungy dorm room near what used to be Yasser Arafat's bunker. But they weren't there to cheer the attack. Instead, they frowned on the blast that shattered the Israeli-Palestinian truce declared last month.

"We are not with this operation. The timing is wrong," said an Aqsa member wearing black-and-white Fila sneakers who called himself Abu Yazan. "We are now talking about a period of [truce]. The rules state that we do not attack."

The comment was a rare jab at a suicide bomber - especially coming from a fellow militant - and it reflects a growing consensus among Palestinians that the attack had damaged the standing of newly elected President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as the livelihoods of Palestinians. [complete article]

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U.S. troops deaths in Iraq top 1,500
By Todd Pitman, Associated Press (via Yahoo), March 3, 2005

The number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq has topped 1,500, an Associated Press count showed Thursday after the military announced the deaths of three Americans, while car bombs targeting Iraqi security forces killed at least three people in separate attacks.

Two suicide car bombs exploded outside the Interior Ministry in eastern Baghdad Thursday, killing at least two policemen and wounding five others, police Maj. Jabar Hassan said. Officials at nearby al-Kindi hospital said 15 people were injured in the blasts, part of the relentless wave of violence since the Jan. 30 elections.

A car bomb also targeted a police convoy exploded in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of the capital, killing one civilian and wounding three, said Hussein Ali of Baqouba Hospital.

Amid the violence, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi extended the state of emergency, first announced nearly four months ago, for another 30 days until the end of March. The order remains in effect throughout the country, except in northern Kurdish-run areas. [complete article]

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Firms tap Latin Americans for Iraq
By Danna Harman, Christian Science Monitor, March 3, 2005

Last week, El Salvador President Elias Antonio Saca stood at the country's international airport, welcoming home a unit of soldiers returning from service in Iraq. He called them "heroes" and passed on President Bush's personal thanks. School children waiting on the tarmac waved American and Salvadoran flags.

Police Sgt. Roberto Arturo Lopez is heading to Iraq soon, but he expects no such attention - when he leaves or returns. That's because he, like a growing number of Salvadorans, will play a different sort of role in Iraq: that of a hired US hand.

El Salvador, the only Latin American country to maintain troops in the US-led coalition in Iraq, has 338 soldiers on the ground. But there are about twice as many more Salvadorans there working for private contracting companies, doing everything from the dishes and the driving to guarding oil installations, embassies, and senior personnel.

Private security firms contracted with the Pentagon and the State Department are dipping into experienced pools of trained fighters throughout Central and South America for their new recruits. With better pay than what they can earn at home, some 1,000 Latin Americans are working in Iraq today, estimates the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). These recruits are joined by thousands of others - from the US and Britain, as well as from Fiji, the Philippines, India and beyond. Close to 20,000 armed personnel employed by private contractors are estimated to be operating in Iraq, making up the second largest foreign armed force in the country, after the US. [complete article]

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After temporary gains, Marines leave Iraqi cities
By Dan Murphy, Christian Science Monitor, March 3, 2005

Walking in from the desert before dawn, the marines entering the ancient city of Hit bristled with armaments.

Flak jackets bulged with extra ammo clips. Packs were heavy with spare mortar rounds and grenades. Many of the men recalled the last time they entered the city in October, calling it a miracle that none was killed in a determined insurgent ambush.

Yet pulling out of the city five days later, every one of those mortars and grenades remained intact. The 250 marines, most from Bravo Company of the 1st Marine Division's 23rd Regiment out of Houston, had fired fewer than 100 rifle rounds. There were few signs of the fighters that made Forward Operating Base Hit one of the most mortared US positions in Iraq.

It was much the same story in a recent Marine offensive across Anbar Province, the center of Iraq's insurgency. As part of "River Blitz," Marines took over trouble-spots like Hit, Haditha, Baghdadi, and Ramadi with hardly any shots being fired.

But from the upper ranks to the most junior boots on the ground, few believe the relative ease of this operation means the insurgency in Anbar is over. Instead, the militants are fleeing before the marines arrive, only to return when the marines withdraw. The temporary nature of the Marine takeovers is hampering US efforts to get local cooperation on security. [complete article]

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Derelict plants are crippling Iraq's petroleum industry
By James Glanz, New York Times, March 3, 2005

The five spindly towers, each 325 feet tall, were silent, with no flames burning at their collapsed and blackened tips. But Abdul Raof Ibraheem, production manager at this huge propane and butane plant, knew very well what could happen if, say, a military helicopter were to fly over.

"Any spark," Mr. Ibraheem said, motioning with his hands. "Explode."

The plant spews out invisible, odorless but extremely flammable waste gases because officials do not want to shut down the damaged equipment for repairs. Properly functioning, the plant would burn off those gases in flares at the top of the towers. But if engineers tried lighting the damaged tips now, they could blow up the entire complex.

"Of course," Mr. Ibraheem said sheepishly, "it's dangerous."

Iraq is facing enormous pressure to convert its rich oil inheritance into a measure of comfort and prosperity. Despite having 100 billion to 200 billion barrels of oil reserves, the third most in the world by some estimates, Iraq still must import half its gasoline and thousands of tons of heating fuel, cooking gas and other refined products.

And with the petroleum sector crumbling, Iraqi officials must soon decide whether to invest in time-consuming repairs and upgrades, or try to extract everything they can from the creaky equipment, as Saddam Hussein did. It is a tricky decision: Because the rebuilding effort is financed from oil revenues, shutting down the system for desperately needed repairs cuts back on the money available for further repairs. [complete article]

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Republicans criticize $81.9 billion spending bill
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times, March 2, 2005

The White House request for $81.9 billion in emergency money, mostly to finance military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, is drawing increasing criticism from leading Republicans on Capitol Hill, who say it includes too much extraneous spending and should be pared back.

Ordinarily, a bill to pay for wartime operations would be sacrosanct among members of the president's party. But the so-called supplemental spending bill also includes other expenditures, like relief for tsunami-stricken nations and aid to the Palestinian Authority.

The bill was the main point of contention Tuesday at a Senate Budget Committee hearing, where several Republicans sharply questioned Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, about why the measure included money for items that, they said, are not directly related to military operations. [complete article]

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Was George Bush right about freedom and democracy?
By Fred Kaplan, Slate, March 2, 2005

A question is haunting the blue states of America: Could George W. Bush be right? Is freedom indeed "on the march"? Did the war in Iraq uncork a white tornado that's whooshing democracy across the region and beyond?

In just the past two months, free elections were held in Palestine and Iraq; a rigged election was overturned and an honest one re-held in Ukraine; the Egyptian president pledged to hold competitive elections soon, too; and a popular uprising against Syria's occupation of Lebanon forced Beirut's puppet government to resign -- all this, amid President Bush's proclamation that the main aim of American foreign policy is to advance the cause of global freedom.

It's a huge stretch to view these uprisings as a seamless wave of democracy; but it would go too far in the other direction to see them as strictly discrete events, each unrelated to the other. The evidence suggests that we're seeing at least a stream of wavelets; that the participants in one country have been inspired to take action, at least in part, by the example of participants in other countries. And therefore, the inference can be drawn, still others, elsewhere, might be inspired to take similar actions, or make similar demands, in the weeks and months ahead. [complete article]

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New poll finds Bush priorities are out of step with Americans
By Adam Nagourney and Janet Elder, New York Times, March 3, 2005

Americans say President Bush does not share the priorities of most of the country on either domestic or foreign issues, are increasingly resistant to his proposal to revamp Social Security and say they are uneasy with Mr. Bush's ability to make the right decisions about the retirement program, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

The poll underscores just how little headway Mr. Bush has made in his effort to build popular support as his proposal for overhauling Social Security struggles to gain footing in Congress. At the same time, there has been an increase in respondents who say that efforts to restore order in Iraq are going well, even as an overwhelming number of Americans say Mr. Bush has no clear plan for getting out of Iraq. [complete article]

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A less super superpower
By Jonathan Schell (introduction by Tom Engelhardt), TomDispatch, March 3, 2005

One of the most difficult things to judge in the world today is the extent of American power. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the United States possesses a far larger pile of weapons than any other country, that the American economy is also larger than any other country's and that America's movies and television programs are consumed globally. America is widely accorded the title "only superpower," and many of its detractors as well as its supporters describe it as the world's first truly globe-straddling empire. On the other hand, it is not yet clear what the United States can accomplish with these eye-catching assets. For power, as Thomas Hobbes wrote in one of the most succinct and durable definitions of power ever offered, is a "present means, to obtain some future apparent good." Power, after all, is not just an expenditure of energy. There must be results.

Measured by Hobbes's test, the superpower looks less super. Its military has been stretched to the breaking point by the occupation of a single weak country, Iraq. Its economy is held hostage by Himalayas of external debt, much of it in the hands of a strategic rival, China, holder of nearly $200 billion in Treasury bills. Its domestic debt, caused in part by the war expenditures, also towers to the skies. The United States has dramatically failed to make progress in its main declared foreign policy objective, the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction: While searching fruitlessly for nuclear programs in Iraq, where they did not exist, it temporized with North Korea, where they apparently do exist, and now it seems at a loss for a policy that will stop Iran from taking the same path. The President has just announced that the "end of tyranny" is his goal, but in his first term the global democracy movement suffered its greatest setback since the cold war -- Russia's slide toward authoritarianism. [complete article]

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Cleric guilty of conspiring in Bali nightclub bombings
By Raymond Bonner, New York Times, March 3, 2005

After a trial that lasted for several months, an Indonesian court today acquitted the radical Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir of the most serious terrorism charges in connection with the bombings in Bali and of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, and convicted him of only one count of criminal conspiracy.

The five-judge panel then sentenced the soft-spoken 66-year old cleric to 30 months in jail, but said that he would receive credit for the 10 months he has already served while awaiting trial.

Mr. Bashir, the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyaah, a suspected terrorist organization, was acquitted on six of the seven counts, including charges that he had been to a terrorist training camp in the Philippines. Even on the one count on which he was convicted, in connection with the Bali bombings, the judges said he had no direct role in those bombings, but that he "knew that the perpetrators of the bombing were people who have been trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan." [complete article]

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Europe risks U.S. sanctions over China arms sales
By Julian Borger and Nicholas Watt, The Guardian, March 3, 2005

America and Europe were yesterday being drawn ever closer into a trade war after senior US congressman issued a blunt warning to the EU over its plans to lift a 15-year-old arms embargo on China.

Talking explicitly about how it would retaliate for the first time, Richard Lugar, the powerful republican head of the Senate foreign relations committee, warned that the US would stop sales of military technology to Europe.

His Democratic counterpart, Senator Joseph Biden, warned that the lifting of the ban would be "a non-starter with Congress". Their tough words came after a meeting with President George Bush in the White House.

Analysts warned the looming row could undo the repairs made to the US-EU relationship by Mr Bush's visit to Europe last month. "Europe can do defence trade with China or it can do defence trade with the US. It can't do both," said Daniel Goure, a Pentagon consultant and a vice president of the Lexington Institute, a military thinktank. [complete article]

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Did murder of Hariri unleash 'Cedars Revolution'?
By Robert Fisk, The Independent (via Arab News), March 2, 2005

Today, the "opposition" -- Christian Maronites, Sunni Muslims and Druze though not, to be frank, many Shiite Muslims -- will gather at the 18th century palace of the Jumblatt family in the Chouf mountains at Mukhtara where Walid Jumblatt, the new would-be tiger of Lebanese freedom, has ensconced himself for his own protection. No recent member of the Jumblatt family has died in his bed. Indeed, it was Walid's claim that the Syrian Baathists had murdered his father Kamal in1977 that set off this unprecedented revolution in the Arab world. The Lebanese people, according to Walid Jumblatt, have struck down the Syrian-sponsored Lebanese government. The Lebanese people want the truth: Who killed Rafik Hariri? "One voice... one flag..." Jumblatt said yesterday. He wanted "the removal of foreign elements (sic) from Lebanon" and the end of "foreign interference" in Lebanese affairs.

But neither Walid Jumblatt nor the Lebanese are naive. They know that America's support for Lebanese "democracy" is fueled by Washington's anger at Syria's alleged support for the insurgency against American troops in Iraq. Jumblatt himself showed his own feelings about the US involvement in Iraq when he said last year that he wished a mortar fired at the hotel in which US Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying in Baghdad had hit Wolfowitz himself. His remark cost Jumblatt a US visa. So President Bush's support for the "heroes" of Lebanese freedom is very conditional. [complete article]

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Beirut protests leave Hizbollah with a dilemma
By Roula Khalaf, Financial Times, March 2, 2005

Lebanon's opposition, flush with success after forcing the collapse of the pro-Syria government, has intensified appeals to Hizbollah, the Shia Islamist movement, to join its ranks.

Ghazi Aridi, an opposition parliamentarian close to Walid Jumblatt, one of the main opposition leaders, on Wednesday met Hizbollah officials for the first time since the assassination last month of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

Shia Muslims are the only large community that has not joined what the Lebanese refer to as the "intifada for independence" - the protests against Syrian dominance over Lebanon that helped topple the government on Monday. Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims have all taken part.

"We want them [Hizbollah] to join us or be half way between us and the Syrians," Mr Jumblatt told the Financial Times.

The appeals to Hizbollah have left its leadership in a quandary. The party is supported by Syria (as well as Iran) and is reluctant to turn against its backers. But it is also a popular movement in Lebanon; its guerrilla campaign drove Israeli troops out of Lebanon in May 2000, earning Hizbollah respect, including from Lebanese Christians. The party is now Lebanon's best organised political movement and has nine members in parliament. [complete article]

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Lebanon opposition demands Syria withdraw
Washington Post, March 2, 2005

Lebanon's opposition demanded on Wednesday the full withdrawal of Syrian military and intelligence services and the resignation of Lebanese Syrian-backed security chiefs.

The opposition, in a statement after a meeting, said pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud must accept these demands before they would join any discussions on forming a new government.

"The core of our pressing demands on the road to salvation and independence is represented by a full withdrawal of the Syrian army and intelligence from Lebanon," said a statement released following the meeting.

Lawmaker Ahmad Fatfat called on Syria's president Bashar Assad to withdraw. Fatfat and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said the opposition would agree on taking part in discussions of forming a new government only after Lahoud accepts the demands. Prime Minister Omar Karami quit Monday after two weeks of protests against his pro-Syrain government. [complete article]

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Winds of change stir in Mideast, but their direction is unclear
By Tyler Marshall, Los Angeles Times, March 1, 2005

Over 60 dramatic hours ending Monday, events in the Middle East highlighted both the hopes and risks of change in the region as the Bush administration pursues its agenda of reform.

In Lebanon, an unpopular, Syrian-backed government was brought down by pressure from the streets. In Egypt, the head of a one-party state loosened his decades-old grip on power by announcing plans for multiparty elections. And in Syria, an authoritarian regime handed over Saddam Hussein's half-brother to Iraqi authorities.

Within the administration, the developments were quietly hailed as signals that the president's vision to spread democracy in the Middle East was not naïve and misguided, as critics had said, but an idea Arabs genuinely wanted to embrace.

Despite this windfall of good news, however, Middle East specialists inside and outside the administration remained cautious. [complete article]

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Tripoli hit with turmoil
By Nicolas Tohme, Daily Star, March 2, 2005

The hometown of outgoing Prime Minister Omar Karami was thrown into a panic Tuesday, one day after his resignation, as gunmen drove through the streets firing weapons into the air. Parents in the port city of Tripoli rushed to pull their children out of schools, which closed along with banks, other businesses and universities after leaflets calling for a general strike were distributed.

The leaflets said: "We are calling for a general strike in Tripoli ... in order to confront the plot of the opposition ... which is seeking to burn all of Lebanon."

The main squares and internal roads of the northern city were swarming with Internal Security Forces personnel Tuesday, while the army set up several checkpoints, including one at the northern entrance of Tripoli, in the Bab al-Tabbaneh area.

Karami supporters toured the city with loudspeakers to call for massive participation in Fadi Ahmed's funeral, the Karami supporter killed after the premier announced his resignation late Monday.

A first report said Ahmed, 22, was killed when gunshots were fired across the city as hundreds of angry Karami followers vandalized the offices of opposition parties, including that of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The administration of the Islamic Charity Hospital, where Ahmed was rushed for treatment, staged a protest on hospital premises in support of Karami and strongly denounced Ahmed's death.

However, disputing the original description of events, the Tal-based ISF station reported Tuesday that Ahmed was killed by his own brother over personal differences. [complete article]

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U.S., France tell Syria to leave Lebanon
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, March 2, 2005

In a tough warning to Syria, the United States and France on Tuesday demanded an immediate and total withdrawal of all Syrian troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon. They also urged other nations to help chart a more stable future for Lebanon, including sending international monitors to observe its crucial spring elections.

At a news conference with French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also said the United States and France were looking at what could be done to "stabilize" Lebanon if Syria leaves, hinting at possible support for an international presence to ease the transition or fill the security void. But she said discussions had just begun and would not comment on reports circulating here that the two nations were exploring the option of a U.N. mission.

The diplomatic offensive came as the Bush administration made new allegations that groups based in Syria helped plan the suicide bombing that killed five Israelis in Tel Aviv on Friday. The allegation was originally made by Israel, but Rice said Tuesday that it was supported by "firm" new evidence. [complete article]

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Lebanese opposition has learned much from Ukraine
Daily Star, March 2, 2005

When opposition members decided to put a red and white scarf around their necks as a symbol of the Lebanese flag after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, they were not recalling the Ukrainian experience that took place five months ago, but were rather based on that experience. The international public opinion that strongly supported the popular protests against the Russian-backed regime and that sympathized with thousands of Ukrainians who supported their opposition, has become ready to accept and support a similar climate in any part of the world.

It was easy for the Lebanese opposition to benefit from the coverage of the foreign media, which influences both the Western politics and public opinion, to show what was really happening in Lebanon, unlike what previously took place when the Lebanese situation was not fully understood. Based on the recent Ukrainian experience, which is very fresh in Westerners' minds, it was easier to understand the Lebanese situation more than anytime before.

Therefore, the scarf was a smart approach used by the opposition to reach international public opinion, which could in turn understand and prompt Western governments to support the establishment of democracy in Lebanon, just like Europe and America did regarding Ukraine. Democracy is the password to the minds of Westerners in addition to equally important passwords, mainly protests and "peaceful" demonstrations. Holding candles, waving flags and staging unified marches under one slogan are all factors that support an undeclared plan based on the Ukraine experience. [complete article]

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U.S.: IAEA must refer Iran nuke breaches to U.N.
By Louis Charbonneau and Francois Murphy, Reuters, March 2, 2005

Washington accused the U.N. atomic watchdog on Wednesday of failing to meet its "statutory obligation" to refer Iranian breaches of its non-proliferation obligations to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.

Washington accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy program. Tehran denies this, insisting its nuclear ambitions are limited to the peaceful generation of electricity.

"The Security Council has the international legal and political authority that will bring this issue to a successful and peaceful resolution," U.S. ambassador Jackie Sanders said in the text of a speech delivered at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) board of governors.

"The (IAEA) board cannot ignore forever its statutory obligation to report this matter to the UNSC," Sanders said, referring to what she described as Iran's "non-compliance" with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

She said the Security Council (UNSC) also "has the authority to require and enforce a suspension of Iran's (uranium) enrichment-related and (plutonium) reprocessing activities," something Tehran has done voluntarily. [complete article]

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Iran's arguments for nuclear power make some sense
By Paul Hughes, Reuters, March 2, 2005

Iran's argument that despite vast oil and gas reserves it needs nuclear power to meet booming energy demand holds more water than U.S. officials give credit.

But Tehran, which denies U.S. accusations that it is secretly seeking nuclear arms, is on shakier ground with its insistence on producing its own fuel for atomic reactors through uranium enrichment -- a costly endeavour, both economically and politically, for the Islamic state.

In the absence of a "smoking gun", Washington often says the fact Iran is the No. 2 producer in OPEC and sits on the second biggest natural gas reserves in the world is enough to make its atomic ambitions suspicious.

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee of Britain's parliament said last March that based on a study it commissioned: "It is clear ... that the arguments as to whether Iran has a genuine requirement for domestically produced nuclear electricity are not all, or even predominantly, on one side."

Some U.S. arguments against Iran "were not supported by an analysis of the facts" the committee added, noting that much of the natural gas flared off by Iran -- which U.S. officials say could be harnessed instead of nuclear power -- was not recoverable for energy use. [complete article]

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Palestinians, yearning for own state, win global support on reforms
Agence France Presse (via Yahoo), March 2, 2005

The Palestinian Authority has emerged with ringing support from the European Union, the United States and other world powers for an ambitious raft of reforms intended to create a viable Palestinian state once an elusive Middle East peace becomes reality.

The endorsement from 23 nations and six major international organisations, including the United Nations, came during a carefully scripted day of talks Tuesday in London haunted by a suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv four days earlier that killed five people and shattered what had been a promising Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire.

"We've got a script that is clearer today that ever before," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair, host of the London Meeting on Supporting the Palestinian Authority.

"Everyone now accepts the two-state solution... Doing it is the great task, but nobody can be in any doubt about what people want us to do." [complete article]

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Judge, lawyer on Saddam tribunal killed
By Todd Pittman, Associated Press (via Yahoo), March 2, 2005

Gunmen killed a judge and lawyer working for the tribunal that will try Saddam Hussein and members of his former regime, a day after the secret court referred five of the ousted dictator's aides to trial for alleged crimes against humanity, officials and a relative of the slain men said Wednesday.

News of the deaths came as two car bombs exploded in the capital, killing 10 Iraqi soldiers and wounding dozens of others. The first blast targeted an Iraqi army base in central Baghdad, killing six troops and wounding at least 25. A second car bomb an hour later at an army checkpoint in south Baghdad killed four soldiers, police said.

The two slain men were judge Barwez Mohammed Mahmoud al-Merwani and his son, lawyer Aryan Barwez al-Merwani, according to the judge's son, Kikawz Barwez Mohammed al-Merwani. He said gunmen in a speeding car raked the pair with gunfire as they were trying to get into a vehicle outside their home. [complete article]

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Cleric's trial tests U.S. antiterror fight
By Farah Stockman, Boston Globe, March 2, 2005

Abu Bakar Bashir, a firebrand 66-year-old cleric, stands accused of being East Asia's equivalent of Osama bin Laden and of leading the Muslim extremist group responsible for killing hundreds in the bombings of the Bali nightclubs and a Marriott Hotel here.

His trial, approaching its climax this week, is a landmark in the worldwide legal fight against terrorism and a high-profile test of Indonesia's justice system, six years after the world's most populous Muslim country overthrew its dictator and started a democracy. Busloads of Bashir's chanting supporters have been cramming into a cavernous auditorium to watch the testimony.

At the same time, in the eyes of some within and outside the Bush administration, the case is a test of whether Muslim nations are able to deal with important accused terrorists through trials, or whether the US must find new ways on its own to bring the most dangerous suspects to justice.

But as a five-judge panel deliberates on a verdict that's expected tomorrow, American officials worry that the United States itself is also seemingly on trial, along with its tactics in combating terrorism.

A State Department translator testified on Jan. 13 that US officials had tried to pressure the country's former president into skipping a trial and "rendering" Bashir to US officials, perhaps to be sent to a third country where torture is allowed. [complete article]

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Detention of American is defended
By Dan Eggen, Washington Post, March 2, 2005

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday strongly defended the Bush administration's decision to detain alleged al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla for more than two years without criminal charges, arguing that the government has the right to hold alleged enemy combatants in the war on terrorism "for the duration of hostilities."

But Gonzales, testifying at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Justice Department's budget, also said that the administration "has no interest in holding someone indefinitely" and will eventually seek to "dispose of the matter" through criminal charges or other actions.

Gonzales's remarks came after a sharply worded decision Monday by U.S. District Judge Henry F. Floyd, who ruled that detaining Padilla indefinitely without charges is illegal and that he must be charged with a crime or freed within 45 days. The government has said it will appeal. [complete article]

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Lebanon faces a critical week
By Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, March 2, 2005

Syria's domination of neighboring Lebanon looks increasingly in doubt following the Monday resignation of Omar Karami, the Lebanese prime minister, a move that has generated the greatest political upheaval in this tiny Mediterranean country since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Flushed with victory at unseating the pro-Syrian government and buoyed by the presence of thousands of protesters, the Lebanese opposition is gearing up for a showdown with key Lebanese allies of Syria, including President Emile Lahoud and the heads of the intelligence services.

"This week is going to be a very critical week," says Nizar Hamzeh, professor of politics at the American University of Beirut. "Either the country will emerge united in terms of forming a transitional government or ... if there are no concessions between the two sides, Lahoud will have the choice of resigning or forming a military government."

The rapid pace of developments in Beirut comes amid growing indications that Damascus has decided to withdraw almost all its 14,000 troops as a precursor to readjusting its relationship with Lebanon. [complete article]

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Iraqi politicians seek more time to develop new government
By Hannah Allam, Knight Ridder, March 1, 2005

A month after Iraq's landmark elections, negotiations to form a new government have stalled and could last several more weeks because of disputes over territory, the role of religion and minority representation.

The delay has brought an end to election fever, with Iraqis growing more frustrated that the mostly Shiite Muslim parliament they voted into power on Jan. 30 still hasn't confirmed a prime minister or sorted out key Cabinet posts - necessary steps before the new parliament can convene.

Other key areas remain far from settled. There are no clear favorites in discussions over who'll hold the "big five" ministries: defense, interior, finance, oil and foreign affairs.

There also appears to have been little progress in determining who'll sit on the committee that will draft a permanent constitution for Iraq and, in doing so, determine whether the country becomes the secular democracy envisioned by the Bush administration, a conservative Islamic state or a battleground for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. [complete article]

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Unease among Kurds as leaders eye Baghdad power
By Gareth Smyth, Financial Times, March 1, 2005

Jalal Talabani, at 72 one of the great survivors of Kurdish politics, is likely to become president of Iraq after the main Kurdish parties took 75 of 275 seats in Iraq's new assembly.

But Iraq's 5m-6m Kurds are at a testing time in their troubled history.

There is little jubilation within the Kurdish heartland, where many people express scepticism at their leaders' talk of the "big prize" of constitutional autonomy that has always eluded the 25m Kurds spread across Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran.

The roots of the scepticism are a sense that Kurdish energies should not be diverted into propping up Iraq, and a frustration at the behaviour of the Kurdish leaders. [complete article]

See also, Though battle-hardened, Iraq's Kurdish militia struggles for role (CSM).

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Karzai names strongman Dostum his chief of staff
By Yousuf Azimy, Reuters, March 1, 2005

Afghan President Hamid Karzai appointed a controversial regional strongman as his personal military chief of staff Tuesday, despite calls by rights groups for him to sideline warlords.

Karzai's spokesman Jawed Ludin said General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who finished fourth in October presidential elections, had been named chief of staff to the commander in chief, a post held by Karzai.

The appointment was announced on national television.

Asked earlier about charges that Dostum was guilty of human rights violations and war crimes, Ludin told a briefing: "Let's not talk about that because that's a completely different issue."

"That's a completely separate discussion, and I think that's for the future, but as things stand, everyone in Afghanistan has the right to basically fulfil their responsibilities and be given opportunity to do so." [complete article]

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The House of Saud's eternal dilemma
By John R Bradley, Asia Times, March 1, 2005

Descendants of former US president Franklin D Roosevelt and Saudi Arabia's first king, Ibn Saud, celebrated this month in Miami the 60th anniversary of the first Saudi-US summit at the Suez Canal's Great Bitter Lake, where the foundations were laid for a "special relationship" between the two countries based on an oil-for-security alliance.

What no one realized on February 14, 1945, of course, was that the foundations of that "special relationship" were being laid on active fault lines, and that a seismic shift would one day shake it all down to the ground again.

Pulling in one direction was the internal demands of the Wahhabis, already given control by Ibn Saud of the kingdom's schools, mosques, religious police, media and, ultimately, the government itself. Pulling in the other direction was the crucial alliance with the United States that Ibn Saud formalized in his meeting with Roosevelt. The seeds of future instability were thus sown, with the al-Saud torn on the one hand between the jihad-inspired Wahhabi religious establishment needed to impose order at home and, on the other, a Western colonial power the Wahhabis saw as their eternal enemy, but which Ibn Saud recognized as the guarantors of his own security, and therefore survival. [complete article]

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U.S. must charge Padilla with crime or release him
By R. Jeffrey Smith, Washington Post, March 1, 2005

A federal judge in South Carolina ruled yesterday that the Bush administration lacks statutory and constitutional authority to indefinitely imprison without criminal charges a U.S. citizen who was designated an "enemy combatant."

Rejecting a series of arguments put forward by the government, District Court Judge Henry F. Floyd said the indefinite detention of Jose Padilla -- who the administration has said is a terrorist supporter of al Qaeda -- is illegal and that Padilla must be released from a naval brig in Charleston, S.C., within 45 days or charged with a crime.

In a strongly worded 23-page ruling, Floyd said "to do otherwise would not only offend the rule of law and violate this country's constitutional tradition, but it would also be a betrayal of this Nation's commitment to the separation of powers that safeguards our democratic values and our individual liberties." [complete article]

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ACLU, ex-detainees to sue Rumsfeld over abuse
By Will Dunham, Reuters, March 1, 2005

Human rights lawyers will file a lawsuit in federal court on Tuesday against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on behalf of eight men who say they were tortured by U.S. forces in custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, sources familiar with the case said.

The lawsuit charges that officials at the highest levels of the U.S. government shoulder ultimate responsibility for the physical and psychological injuries sustained by the men while in American custody.

It was the latest development in a scandal over ill-treatment of U.S. war prisoners that has drawn criticism from around the world.

The case will be filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights First in U.S. District Court. The two groups scheduled a news conference later on Tuesday to announce details. [complete article]

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State Dept. study cites torture of prisoners
By Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, March 1, 2005

The State Department's annual human rights report released yesterday criticized countries for a range of interrogation practices it labeled as torture, including sleep deprivation for detainees, confining prisoners in contorted positions, stripping and blindfolding them and threatening them with dogs -- methods similar to those approved at times by the Bush administration for use on detainees in U.S. custody.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approved in December 2002 a number of severe measures, including the stripping of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and using dogs to frighten them. He later rescinded those tactics and signed off on a shorter list of "exceptional techniques," including 20-hour interrogations, face slapping, stripping detainees to create "a feeling of helplessness and dependence," and using dogs to increase anxiety.

The State Department report also harshly attacked the treatment of prisoners in such countries as Syria and Egypt, where the United States has shipped terrorism suspects under a practice known as "rendition." An Australian citizen has alleged that under Egyptian detention he was hung by his arms from hooks, repeatedly shocked, nearly drowned and brutally beaten. Most of his fingernails were missing when he later arrived at Guantanamo Bay. [complete article]

See also U.S. cites array of rights abuses by the Iraqi government in 2004 (NYT) and Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (State Department).

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Major arrests show a shift in Iraq
By Jill Carroll, Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 2005

The arrest of seven key insurgents in the past two weeks, including Saddam Hussein's half-brother and top aides to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, are giving a much-needed morale boost to Iraq's counterinsurgency efforts.

Indeed, some Iraqi officials see the momentum beginning to shift since the Jan. 30 elections. They say Iraqi citizens are providing more tips, and that a series of videotaped confessions by captured insurgents shown on Iraqi TV are helping discredit the rebels. "We are very close to al-Zarqawi, and I believe that there are a few weeks separating us from him," Iraq's interim national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie told the Associated Press.

Analysts agree that the string of arrests are likely to hurt the insurgency. But the decentralized nature of the uprising makes it difficult to dismantle. A massive car bombing in Hilla, Iraq, Monday underscored the point. The bomb exploded near a line of recruits for the Iraqi security forces in the southern Iraq town, killing more than 100 people, one of the largest death tolls from a car bomb in Iraq. [complete article]

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Israeli appointment may up Tehran stakes
By Harvey Morris, Financial Times, February 28, 2005

In the diplomatic war of nerves over Iran's nuclear ambitions, last week's appointment of the first air force chief to head the Israeli armed forces will have added to concerns within the Tehran regime that its enemies might eventually decide to resolve the issue by force.

A number of commentators noted that, if Israel were to decide to mount a pre-emptive strike to knock out Iran's nuclear facilities before it achieved the capability to make a bomb, Major General Dan Halutz, a former fighter ace, would be the ideal man to oversee the task.

Israeli officials are understandably non-committal about their intentions towards a state they have long regarded as the country's biggest strategic threat. After meeting Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, earlier this month, Shaul Mofaz, the defence minister, said both agreed that diplomacy was the preferred tool to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

However, Silvan Shalom, Israeli foreign minister, turned up the heat on the nuclear debate this month when he claimed Iran would have the technology to build a bomb within six months. [complete article]

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A scorned idealist
By Aluf Benn, Newsweek, March 7, 2005

Natan Sharansky is George W. Bush's favorite author. Since his re-election, the U.S. president has used every opportunity to praise "The Case for Democracy," the new book by the former Soviet dissident, now an Israeli cabinet minister. "That thinking, that's part of my presidential DNA," Bush told The New York Times. Last Wednesday, appearing with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder in Mainz, Bush said: "Sharansky's book confirmed how I was raised and what I believe." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice quoted Sharansky's ideas in her Senate confirmation hearing in January.

Sharansky's political gospel stems from his personal struggle against totalitarianism -- nine years in the Soviet prison system. For years, he's argued that international relations must be based on moral clarity, distinguishing "free societies" from "fear societies." This distinction has important strategic implications, he writes, since democracies avoid fighting each other, while dictatorships need external enemies, and hence export war and terror, to tighten their grip domestically. Like Bush, then, Sharansky is calling for the exporting of democracy and the toppling of authoritarian regimes everywhere. He prefers a hostile democratic leader to a friendly tyrant, and firmly rejects any affinity for "our dictator." [complete article]

Comment -- If George Bush agrees with Sharansky that a hostile democratic leader is preferable to a friendly tyrant, there's an easy way he could make that clear: acknowledge that back in 1953 the Eisenhower administration made a fateful error when the CIA toppled Mohammed Mossadegh -- Iran's democratically elected prime minister -- and backed instead a US-friendly dictator, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the Shah).

Had the United States and Britain valued Middle Eastern homegrown democracy fifty years ago, we might by now have already made significant strides in moving away from our reliance on oil. Moreover, in the absence of Western military and economic support, most of the autocratic leaders who have crippled the development of the region would have fallen by the wayside. But America and Britain were driven by what they perceived as self-interest back in 1953 and in spite of Bush's high-flown rhetoric there's no indication that narrowly defined self-interest is currently any less instrumental in shaping US foreign policy. Grand ideas are nothing more than tinsel when they glitter inside a small mind.

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Egypt's Islamist problem is Bush's, too
By Shadi Hamid, Pacific News Service, February 28, 2005

When Egypt's strongman President Hosni Mubarak announced Feb. 26 that Egypt would, for the first time in its history, hold multi-candidate presidential elections, some in the international community hailed the move as courageous. Others, particularly in the United States, called it a resounding victory for the Bush administration's "forward strategy for freedom." It was neither.

To be sure, events in Egypt in the past four weeks have been fascinating and unpredictable. Beginning in late January, numerous Egyptian activists were detained, including Ayman Nour, the young, dynamic leader of the liberal Al-Ghad party, arrested on Jan. 29 on clearly bogus charges. Human rights activists believe that, due to his medical needs, Nour's life may be in danger. Despite U.S. displeasure and growing domestic anger, Mubarak called opposition demands for constitutional reform "futile." The tension mounted when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice postponed a trip to Cairo in part due to concerns over Egypt's high-handed measures to silence domestic opponents.

With Mubarak's dramatic announcement, it seems as if U.S. pressure paid off. Yet, U.S. involvement in the Ayman Nour controversy and the Egyptian regime's contradictory responses raise challenging questions that remain unanswered.

Nour's arrest was not unique. An estimated 15,000 Islamists languish in Egypt's jails, political prisoners who have no recourse to due process or a fair trial thanks to the now 24-year-old Emergency Laws governing the country. While the Bush administration has rightly expressed outrage over the imprisonment of Nour, a secularist, America has for decades remained silent about the Egyptian regime's consistent suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest and most influential opposition group. This despite the fact that the mainstream Islamist opposition long ago unequivocally committed itself to non-violent, peaceful participation in the country's political life. [complete article]

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New openings for Arab democracy
By Nicholas Blanford and Gretchen Peters, Christian Science Monitor, February 28, 2005

When Egyptians head to the polls later this year to elect a president, they will face something they have never seen before on the ballots: options.

In a surprise announcement Saturday, Egypt's long-ruling president, Hosni Mubarak, ordered constitutional changes that would open the door for the first-ever multiparty presidential elections in the world's most populous Arab country. The move is the latest indication of a cautious democratic shift under way in the Arab world.

Since the beginning of the year, the region has seen national elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, landmark municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, and unprecedented mass demonstrations in Lebanon calling for an end to Syrian tutelage.

The question remains whether these developments are truly the initial flourishings of a nascent democratic transformation or merely halfhearted measures by autocratic regimes which have no intention of promoting genuine change. What happens next is key, observers say.

"I will be encouraged only when I see a real grass-roots movement emerging," says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian social analyst. "What I see happening in Lebanon is encouraging. In Egypt, I can see signs because there are a number of people who have pushed Mubarak into opening up the elections. On the other hand, in Syria unfortunately, it's a very disappointing state of affairs and we seem to be heading in the wrong direction." [complete article]

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U.S., France urge Syria to withdraw from Lebanon
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, March 1, 2005

The United States and France ratcheted up pressure on Syria Tuesday, calling for an immediate and total withdrawal of all Syrian military and intelligence personnel from Lebanon and deployment of international monitors to observe Lebanon's crucial spring election.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also said that Washington and Paris are looking at what can be done to stabilize Lebanon in the event of Syria's withdrawal, hinting at possible support for a United Nations or international presence to assist in a transition or fill a security void.

At a joint press conference with French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, she said their staffs would meet later Tuesday to look specifically at what the two nations can do to help ensure Lebanon has a free and fair election. They will also explore possible steps to help "stabilize" Lebanon if Syria does comply with U.N. resolution 1559, which calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops. [complete article]

See also, Lebanon realignment and Syria, Juan Cole's helpful summary of Lebanese history right up to the present.

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Setbacks in Lebanon, Iraq could threaten Syria's Assad
By Jonathan S. Landay, Knight Ridder, February 28, 2005

Syrian President Bashar Assad, under mounting pressure from a string of political setbacks over Lebanon and Iraq, is facing tough choices that leave him vulnerable to internal challenges.

There are no assurances that such challenges would move Syria toward democracy, though, as sought by the Bush administration. A change in leadership also could set off a political upheaval that would breed more chaos and anti-American terrorism in the Middle East.

In Lebanon, the collapse Monday of the pro-Syrian government lent new energy to political factions that blame Syria for the Feb. 14 slaying of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and are demanding that it pull thousands of its troops and intelligence agents out of the country.

Meanwhile, Syria's surrender to Iraq on Sunday of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein's half-brother and 29 other former Iraqi Baathists has cast doubt on Assad's denials that his regime has been harboring leaders of Iraq's anti-U.S. insurgency. [complete article]

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Lebanon's government quits as anti-Syria protests swell
By Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, February 28, 2005

In an unexpected move Monday in front of the country's parliament, Prime Minister Omar Karami gave his resignation, effectively terminating the rule of the current Syrian-backed government.

The announcement was aired live on television and was greeted with jubilation from tens of thousands of Lebanese protesters who gathered just a few hundred yards from the parliament building.

"The government didn't fall now. It fell Monday when you all gathered here. You are the ones who are going to make Lebanon independent," Akram Shehayeb, an opposition member of parliament, told the throng of flag-waving protesters.

The resignation was the most dramatic moment yet in the series of protests and political maneuvers since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. [complete article]

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Fragile Syria must withdraw from Lebanon
By Patrick Seale, Daily Star, February 28, 2005

Syria was fragile before the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It is now in danger. The huge bomb which destroyed his motorcade on Feb. 14 threatens to blow up the Syrian regime itself. Judging from its relentless pressure on Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon - and its thinly veiled accusations that Syria killed Hariri - the United States, in particular, seems intent on overthrowing the government of President Bashar Assad.

Neoconservatives in Washington, still in the grip of their ideological vision to "democratize" and restructure the Middle East, are pressing for Syria to be the next target for "regime change." Arab leaders are desperately worried that the region, already in a highly volatile state because of the war in Iraq, will be further gravely destabilized. Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, flew urgently to Damascus, where he was followed by General Omar Suleiman, the powerful head of Egypt's military intelligence service. Both have urged Assad to defuse the crisis by applying the 1989 Taif Accord, which provides for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. [complete article]

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Local reporters getting warned
By Joshua Landis, Syria Comment, February 27, 2005

Syria reporters are getting their hands smacked here for the first time in years. The AP reporter wrote up the story on the Islamic Jihad attack in Israel. He got a call from the Islamic Jihad office here in Damascus taking responsibility for the bombing in Tel Aviv. Six hours later, the same person called him back and denied that Islamic Jihad was responsible. Too late, the reporter had already filed. Then the Syrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bushra Kanafani called and chewed out the AP reporter. She said that as a "muwatin Souri" or Syrian citizen he was not being responsible for filing the report.

The same call came to another Syrian reporter I spoke to concerning an article he had written in an Arabic paper on Friday about chaos in the foreign ministry and how Syria could not get its story straight.

This tells us:
1. The heat is back on in Damascus. Until recently one could write pretty much as he pleased. Now the foreign ministry is trying to shut people up.

2. Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the Tel Aviv bombing without informing the government. The Syrian government probably had no foreknowledge of the Tel Aviv bombing and is severely embarrassed by the Islamic Jihad announcement. The reporter I spoke to said, "Islamic Jihad is much more irresponsible and rash than Hamas. There is going to be elections in Gaza soon and IJ is not popular and will lose. Thus, they organized the bombing to stake out their position on the extreme." Obviously there is confusion in IJ ranks. The Gaza office denied responsibility when Damascus was taking credit. [complete article]

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Bomber's family shunned by whole town
By Conal Urquhart, The Guardian, March 1, 2005

Scores of chairs lined the rooms and corridors, and jugs of coffee and water and trays of figs were ready to welcome men paying their respects.

But the family of Abdullah Badran, the 21-year-old who blew himself up at the entrance to a Tel Aviv night club on Friday, killing five Israelis, were left alone in their grief.

For seven days after a burial a Palestinian family receives mourners, normally a big social event involving colourful banners and patriotic music.

But yesterday seven members of the family occupied the otherwise empty chairs and when asked if Abdullah's death had achieved anything they all shook their heads, and one said no in English.

Abdullah's brother Ibrahim said they were mystified and angered by his death. [complete article]

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Revenge of the Kurds
By Andrew Lee Butters, Time, February 27, 2005

Jalal Talabani knows what it's like to be a marked man. In 1989, after Saddam Hussein's army had ravaged the Kurdish population of northern Iraq with chemical weapons, the dictator offered amnesty to all Kurdish soldiers who fought against him--except one. Saddam ordered his minions to hunt down Talabani, a chief of the Kurdish separatist guerrillas known as the peshmerga. If Talabani was caught, Saddam vowed, he would put him to death.

It's a testament to Talabani's knack for survival that he not only managed to elude Saddam's forces but also is now poised to assume the job of his former nemesis. A coalition of Kurdish political parties, which Talabani helped lead, came in a strong second in Iraq's national elections, winning 75 of the new Assembly's 275 seats. That gave the Kurds, who make up 17% of Iraq's population, enough clout to demand top jobs in the new government. While the victorious Shi'ites last week tapped Ibrahim al-Jaafari for Iraq's most powerful position of Prime Minister, Talabani, 72, has emerged as the most likely successor to Saddam as Iraq's President. And though the post is intended to be largely symbolic, Talabani plans to use the position of titular head of state to protect Kurdish interests. "I must have the right to participate with the government in ruling the country," he told TIME in an interview at his headquarters in the northern Iraq mountain stronghold of Qala Chwala. "We want to be partners in reshaping Iraq."

The question is, How much of the country do Talabani and the Kurds want to reshape? The Kurds are holding out for at least six Cabinet posts, including head of the crucial Oil Ministry. They also say they are owed money from the U.N.'s oil-for-food program. A U.N. spokesman told TIME that $3.7 billion in Kurdish money was handed to the Coalition Provisional Authority. So far the Kurds have collected about $1.4 billion of that. They also want assurances that the Kurdish-dominated north will retain the autonomy it has enjoyed since the end of the first Gulf War, when the U.S. established a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds, and that the new Iraqi constitution will not impose Islamic law, as some prominent Shi'ite clerics have demanded. But some Kurdish ambitions could trigger ethnic disputes that would reverberate beyond Iraq's borders. The Kurds' election success has emboldened those who want to expand the southern boundaries of Kurdistan to include Kirkuk, the oil-rich city that is home to Kurds, Arabs and Turkomans. For U.S. officials, the nightmare scenario is that the Kurds break away from Iraq altogether--splintering the nation and inciting restive Kurdish minorities in such neighboring countries as Iran, Syria and especially Turkey, which has threatened to intervene to prevent the establishment of an independent Kurdish state. [complete article]

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Car bomb kills more than 100 in Iraq
By Saad Sarhan, Jackie Spinner and Fred Barbash, Washington Post, February 28, 2005

A suicide bomber slammed into a crowd on a busy street in the city of Hilla Monday morning, killing at least 106 people, police and rescue officials said.

It was one of the most lethal single attacks by insurgents since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. Hilla is 60 miles south of Baghdad, in Babil province.

The blast occurred in an area where people were lining up outside a health clinic to get blood tests mandatory for government jobs, officials said. The clinic is next to a vegetable market that was crowded with women and children. [complete article]

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Shiites see an opening in Saudi Arabia
By Scott Wilson, Washington Post, February 28, 2005

As thousands of Iraqis braved the threat of attack to vote last month, more than a dozen men gathered in Mohammed Mahfoodh's spacious salon here. Lined with sofas and lit by a glass chandelier, the room is a frequent meeting place for the leaders of a Shiite Muslim community that for decades has been subjected to government neglect, religious persecution and job discrimination.

Recalling the scene later, Mahfoodh said his neighborhood was noisy with celebration that evening as many people returned from the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca in the west. But the main event was on the television screen in his living room, which remained on most of the night.

"There was something there that appealed to us here," said Mahfoodh, 38, who edits a cultural magazine called the Word that can only be distributed here underground. In Iraq, he said, "they are struggling to build a new state, with equal rights for all, while radicals are trying to defeat them. This idea, this kind of struggling, is happening here." [complete article]

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Bush weighs offers to Iran
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, February 28, 2005

The Bush administration is close to a decision to join Europe in offering incentives to Iran -- possibly including eventual membership in the World Trade Organization -- in exchange for Tehran's formal agreement to surrender any plans to develop a nuclear weapon, according to senior U.S. officials.

The day after returning from Europe, President Bush met Friday afternoon with the principal members of his foreign policy team to discuss requests made by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac in particular. More discussions are expected this week, but the White House wants to move quickly to finalize a list of incentives to offer Tehran as part of European talks with Iran, officials said.

The new willingness to engage, even if indirectly, marks a significant change from a position that Iran deserved no rewards for actions it is legally bound to take under terms of the Nonproliferation Treaty. But Bush's talks last week convinced him that a united front -- in offering carrots now and a stick later if Iran does not comply -- would be more effective, U.S. and European officials say. [complete article]

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Iran and Russia defy U.S. by signing nuclear fuel deal
By Anton La Guardia, The Telegraph, February 28, 2005

Iran and Russia yesterday signed a nuclear fuel deal despite strong American opposition, clearing the way for the Islamic regime's first nuclear reactor to start operating next year.

The agreement was signed at the Bushehr atomic plant in southern Iran. Alexander Rumyantsev, head of Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency, said the first batch of enriched uranium fuel was in Siberia ready to be shipped.

"This is a very important incident in the ties between the two countries and in the near future a number of Russian experts will be sent to Bushehr to equip the power station," he said.

Iran will have to repatriate all spent nuclear fuel to Russia. Moscow hopes this will allay American worries that Iran may use the spent fuel, which could be reprocessed into bomb-grade plutonium, to develop arms. [complete article]

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Pressed, Iran admits it discussed acquiring nuclear technology
By Elaine Sciolino and David E. Sanger, New York Times, February 28, 2005

As the International Atomic Energy Agency prepares to open a meeting today to review Tehran's nuclear program, Iranian officials have reluctantly turned over new evidence strongly suggesting that Iran discussed acquiring technologies central to making nuclear arms and hid that fact for 18 years, according to American and European officials.

The officials said the evidence, a document dated 1987, was handed over after I.A.E.A. investigators confronted Iranian officials with evidence gathered in interviews with members of the network run by Pakistan's top nuclear expert, A. Q. Khan. The document, according to officials who have seen it, includes an offer by Mr. Khan's representatives to provide a package of technologies - for a price that ran from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a European diplomat - including the difficult-to-master process of casting uranium metal. [complete article]

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Opposing agendas snarl Shiite, Kurd cooperation in Iraq
By Jill Carroll, Christian Science Monitor, February 28, 2005

In the month since Iraqis rushed to the polls in support of democracy, getting anything done has proved a painstaking process of consensus-building that's now focused on two political groups whose interests are diametrically opposed.

The national assembly that will write the country's permanent constitution cannot meet until key government positions are assigned. And central to determining how power will be allocated are the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), religious Shiites who hold the majority of seats, and the once-powerless Kurds, who control the second-largest number of seats in the assembly.

The two groups are at loggerheads on a number of issues. The Shiites are determined to use Islam as a legal cornerstone, something the staunchly secular Kurds reject. The Kurds say they will cooperate only with those who offer them control of oil-rich Kirkuk - a promise that Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Shiite choice for prime minister, has said the UIA will never make.

But the Kurds are showing little inclination, publicly at least, to compromise. "Even if we are forced to fight for our rights" with guns, we will, says Abduljalil Feili, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in central and southern Iraq. "We prefer negotiations and a political solution. [But] we will use all the options we have." [complete article]

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Shiite dissenters rally around al-Jaafari
By Sameer N. Yacoub, Associated Press (via Yahoo), February 26, 2005

Shiite political dissenters who threatened to withdraw their support from the United Iraqi Alliance's choice for prime minister rallied around Ibrahim al-Jaafari on Saturday after his endorsement by Iraq's most influential cleric.

The Shiite Political Council, which has about 30 seats in the upcoming National Assembly, had threatened to withdraw from the alliance after it nominated al-Jaafari on Tuesday for the powerful post.

It complained that the clergy-backed alliance, which won 140 seats in Iraq's landmark Jan. 30 elections, had forced the withdrawal of the man they were backing for premier -- the secular Shiite Ahmad Chalabi.

The alliance has been negotiating with other parties to gain another eight seats, but that would still be far short of the majority it needs to get its way in the 275-member assembly, where a two-thirds majority is needed for serious decision-making -- including electing the president.

But the group decided to back al-Jaafari after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the nation's most influential Shiite cleric, "gave his blessings to the nomination" Friday, said Ali Faisal, the council's political coordinator. [complete article]

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As Americans adapt to protect themselves, civilians pay dearly
By John F. Burns, New York Times, February 27, 2005

It was a bright, warm afternoon down by the Tigris River in central Baghdad on Saturday, the kind of day that hints at the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

Then the intimidators came, quickly and murderously, and another of the city's historic institutions was left to mourn its dead and ponder the price that is being paid daily in the effort to build what American officials, and their Iraqi allies, refer to as the "new Iraq."

The killers came at 3 p.m. to the Daniel cloth market in the Naher district, a place that was central to Jewish commercial life in the centuries before the 1950's, when Baghdad was home to a large Jewish population. Entering the covered market, the armed men headed straight for the shops of Arab merchants selling a fabric used to make uniforms for the new Iraqi Army.

Four men were questioned about sales to the military and then shot to death, three of them in their shops and the fourth after being led out into the street, witnesses said. The killers fled. [complete article]

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Syria hands over Saddam's adviser
By Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian, February 28, 2005

The Syrian government, under intense pressure from the US and others in the international community, made its first significant concession yesterday by handing over to the interim Iraqi government Saddam Hussein's half-brother and former head of the Iraqi secret police, Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti.

Iraqi officials said the move was an apparent gesture of goodwill on the part of the Syrian president, Bashar Assad.

Mr Hassan is the last of Saddam's three half-brothers to be captured and was 36th on the US list of 55 most wanted members of Saddam's regime. All but 11 of the 55 have been found.

Mr Hassan, who had a US bounty of $1m (£555,000) on his head, was also wanted for alleged involvement in the present insurgency. The US placed him 29th in its list of those most-wanted in connection with the insurgency.

Qassem Dawoud, Iraq's national security adviser, was reported by Kuwait's Al-Rai Al-Aam daily on December 28 as claiming that Mr Hassan had taken refuge in Syria after the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and was supporting insurgents, mainly financially. The interim Iraqi government requested his extradition. [complete article]

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Divergent paths: Canada breaks with U.S. over missile shield
By Clifford Krauss, New York Times, February 27, 2005

"If a missile is going over Canadian airspace, I want to know, I want to be at the table," Paul Martin said while still running for the leadership of the Liberal Party in April 2003.

His support for a missile defense system was consistent with more than a half century of Canadian national security policy of sharing responsibility for continental defense with the United States, even in times when the two countries sharply disagreed on Cuba, Vietnam and most recently Iraq.

But on Thursday, Mr. Martin, now prime minister, reversed course and said that Canada would not take part with Washington in the development of a missile defense shield, essentially because he faced a rebellion on the issue at a Liberal Party conference next month.

Mr. Martin tried to frame the decision as a matter of priorities, preferring to emphasize increased cooperation with the United States on securing the borders against terrorists and building up the armed forces, even though the Bush administration had asked for little more than moral support for the new system.

Many national security experts, however, consider his announcement to be a fundamental shift in relations, more abrupt even than the decision by Mr. Martin's predecessor, Jean Chrétien, not to take part in the invasion of Iraq. [complete article]

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Within CIA, worry of prosecution for conduct
By Douglas Jehl and David Johnston, 2005

There is widening unease within the Central Intelligence Agency over the possibility that career officers could be prosecuted or otherwise punished for their conduct during interrogations and detentions of terrorism suspects, according to current and former government officials.

Until now, only one C.I.A. employee, a contract worker from North Carolina, has been charged with a crime in connection with the treatment of prisoners, stemming from a death in Afghanistan in 2003. But the officials confirmed that the agency had asked the Justice Department to review at least one other case, from Iraq, to determine if a C.I.A. officer and interpreter should face prosecution.

In addition, the current and former government officials said the agency's inspector general was now reviewing at least a half-dozen other cases, and perhaps many more, in what they described as an expanding circle of inquiries to determine whether C.I.A. employees had been involved in any misconduct.

Previously, intelligence officials have acknowledged only that "several" cases were under review by the agency's inspector general. But one government official said, "There's a lot more out there than has generally been recognized, and people at the agency are worried."

Of particular concern, the officials said, is the possibility that C.I.A. officers using interrogation techniques that the government ruled as permissible after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks might now be punished, or even prosecuted, for their actions in the line of duty. [complete article]

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Inside the committee that runs the world
By David J. Rothkopf, Foreign Policy, March/April, 2005

September 11, 2001, was a catalytic event that revealed the core character of the Bush administration's national security team. As rival factions fought for the president's ear, the transformative ideals espoused by the neocons gained ascendancy -- triggering a rift that has split the Republican foreign-policy establishment to its foundations.

The inner circles of the U.S. national security community -- members of the National Security Council (NSC), a select number of their deputies, and a few close advisors to the president -- represent what is probably the most powerful committee in the history of the world, one with more resources, more power, more license to act, and more ability to project force further and swifter than any other convened by king, emperor, or president.

At the same time, the political party controlling that committee has a grip on power in Washington unprecedented in recent history. For the first time in nearly eight decades, the Republican Party has won control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives in two consecutive elections. Yet, despite this political monopoly, the elites who exert the most influence on this little-understood, shadowy committee are being buffeted and pulled apart by forces from within.

An increasingly bitter philosophical debate pits the supporters of the policies of former President George H.W. Bush and many of his one-time team of foreign-policy experts, led by former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, against those who back views embraced by President George W. Bush and his team, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. What Scowcroft calls the "traditionalists" of the Bush 41 team are pitted against the "transformationalists" of the Bush 43 team, pragmatists vs. neocons, internationalists vs. unilateralists, the people who oversaw the end of the Cold War against those who oversaw the beginning of the War on Terror. Of course, the irony is that many of these people were not too long ago seen as parts of a whole. All are or once were close. What happened? [complete article]

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Winston Churchill, neocon?
By Jacob Heilbrunn, New York Times, February 27, 2005

Douglas J. Feith was becoming excited. After spending an afternoon discussing the war in Iraq with him, I asked what books had most influenced him. Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy and a prominent neoconservative, raced across his large library and began pulling down gilt-edged volumes on the British Empire. Behind his desk loomed a bust of Winston Churchill.

It was a telling moment. In England right-wing historians are portraying the last lion as a drunk, a dilettante, an incorrigible bungler who squandered the opportunity to cut a separate peace with Hitler that would have preserved the British Empire. On the American right, by contrast, Churchill idolatry has reached its finest hour. George W. Bush, who has said "I loved Churchill's stand on principle," installed a bronze bust of him in the Oval Office after becoming president. On Jan. 21, 2005, Bush issued a letter with "greetings to all those observing the 40th anniversary of the passing of Sir Winston Churchill." The Weekly Standard named Churchill "Man of the Century." So did the columnist Charles Krauthammer, who in December 2002 delivered the third annual Churchill Dinner speech sponsored by conservative Hillsdale College; its president, Larry P. Arnn, also happens to belong to the International Churchill Society. William J. Luti, a leading neoconservative in the Pentagon, recently told me, "Churchill was the first neocon." Apart from Michael Lind writing in the British magazine The Spectator, however, the Churchill phenomenon has received scant attention. Yet to a remarkable extent, the neoconservative establishment is claiming Churchill (who has just had a museum dedicated to him in London) as a founding father.

Some of this reverence has its origins in the writings of the neoconservative husband-and-wife team Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb. As the co-editor of the British monthly Encounter in the early 1950's, Kristol (who deplored imperialism in his youthful Trotskyist incarnation) began falling under the influence of Tory intellectuals and started his march to the right. Himmelfarb, a historian of England, has always championed a return to Victorian virtues, which Churchill, more than anyone else, embodied in the 20th century. Writing in The New Republic in November 2001, Himmelfarb observed: "Among other things that we are rediscovering in the past is the idea of greatness -- great individuals, great causes, great civilizations. It is no accident that Churchill has re-emerged now, at a time when the West is again under assault." [complete article]

Comment -- So how good was the idol of neocons when it came to spotting a tyrant? In 1935 Churchill wrote:
Although no subsequent political action can condone wrong deeds, history is replete with examples of men who have risen to power by employing stern, grim, and even frightful methods, but who, nevertheless, when their life is revealed as a whole, have been regarded as great figures whose lives have enriched the story of mankind. So may it be with Hitler.

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Extremists: Iraq's hidden war
By Babak Dehghanpisheh, Eve Conant and Rod Nordland, Newsweek, March 7, 2005

When the kidnappers came for Zeena al Qushtaini, she was dressed, as one friend put it, "in the latest fashion." She wore a $5,000 watch, her hands were manicured and her hair was highlighted to accent her blue eyes. Many of her friends were women's rights activists, but few were as conspicuously modern as Qushtaini. She was a divorced, single mother in her late 30s who supported two children with a full-time office job. She also ran a pharmacy with her business partner, Dr. Ziad Baho.

It was evening at the pharmacy, and Qushtaini and Baho were behind the counter when six men in business suits burst in brandishing automatic weapons. The men wrapped duct tape across the mouths of Qushtaini and Baho, then took them away in a pair of SUVs. Relatives of the two captives waited for a ransom demand that never came. When the bodies were found 10 days later, beside a highway just south of Baghdad, Baho had been beheaded. Qushtaini was dressed in the long black gown favored by Islamic fundamentalists. A scarf covered her hair -- something she never wore in life. It was bloodied from the single bullet to the side of her head.

The twin messages, of her life and her death, were unmistakable. There are a lot of women in Iraq who are looking forward to the freedom that Iraq's experiment with democracy promises them. And there are hard-liners who would kill them for it. Qushtaini was one of many prominent Iraqi women who have been slaughtered, apparently by Islamic extremists; 20 have been killed in Mosul alone, and a dozen more in Baghdad. Just last week the corpse of a female television presenter turned up with a bullet hole in her head. Raiedah Mohammed Wageh Wazan had been kidnapped by gunmen in Mosul on Feb. 20. Her husband decided not to hold a funeral procession after being warned against it by insurgents. [complete article]

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Kurds vow to retain militia as guardians of autonomy
By Edward Wong, New York Times, February 27, 2005

The camouflage-clad militiamen marched down from the mountains in four columns of hundreds each, stomping their boots in unison.

"Keep looking forward!" an officer yelled.

"Kurdistan or death!" the soldiers shouted at once, their words thundering over the sound of heels striking the ground.

Here at a training camp in the eastern hills of Iraqi Kurdistan, there is little doubt about to whom these soldiers owe their allegiance.

Many say their first loyalty lies with a major Kurdish political party. Then they offer it to Kurdistan, the rugged autonomous region in northern Iraq the size of Switzerland. There is little mention of the nation of Iraq or the Iraqi Army.

"All of the pesh merga of Kurdistan, we're fighting for Kurdistan," one of the soldiers, Fermen Ibrahim, 25, told a visitor, calling the militia by its Kurdish name, which means "those who face death."

As political jockeying rages in Baghdad to determine the shape of the new government - how Islamic it will be, whether it has strong or weak central powers - one of the most troublesome issues emerging is whether political parties, especially those of the Kurds and Shiites, can keep their private armies. Kurdish leaders say they intend to write into the new constitution a system granting considerable powers to individual regions, one that will legitimize their use of the pesh merga. [complete article]

Comment -- Edward Wong makes just one reference here to the 15,000-strong Badr Organization, the militia (that's supposedly not a militia) of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq - the political organization that will arguably exercise the most influence in the new Iraqi government. Yet a couple of days ago, Hannah Allam, reporting for Knight Ridder wrote:
Officially, the Iran-backed Badr militia is now the Badr Organization, a political party whose leaders say it's disarmed. In reality, Badr fighters were so emboldened by their sect's victory at the polls that they're again roaming southern Shiite territories with weapons displayed, according to witnesses and Iraqi authorities. [...] Hadi al Ameri, the leader of the Badr Organization, was among the powerful Shiites elected to Parliament last month and is said to be a top contender for defense or interior minister.
When is someone going to make this organization the subject of a feature article? It's long overdue!

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Iraq's serene south asks, who needs Baghdad?
By James Glanz, New York Times, February 27, 2005

The fake palm trees with the Vegas-style lights are still in their places above what was the Dolphin Restaurant on Watan Street, swaying on the roof as garish survivors from the 1980's, when wealthy men from Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia would come to party through the weekend on perhaps the hottest stretch of casinos and nightclubs in the gulf.

Along with its cheesy palm trees, Basra has survived years of shelling during the Iran-Iraq war, brutal persecution by Saddam Hussein, total neglect of the local infrastructure, and two invasions by American-led forces. The worn but gracious city that has emerged - the de facto capital of a proud, abruptly liberated and comparatively peaceful south - seems to be in a different country from the grim battlefield that much of Iraq has become.

And if no inconsiderable number of people here have their way, the provinces of the south, home to rich oil reserves but kept poor by Saddam Hussein, will soon become a separate country, or at least a semi-autonomous region in a loosely federal Iraq. The clear southern preference for profit over politics could make it a place where foreign companies willing to invest hard cash are able to do business. [complete article]

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Israel lays blame on Syria for bombing
By Laura King, Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2005

Israel on Saturday declared that Syria was responsible for a Palestinian suicide attack on a Tel Aviv nightclub that killed four Israelis, wounded dozens and threatened to taint the conciliatory atmosphere that has taken hold since the death of Yasser Arafat.

Although issuing no warning of imminent action against Syria, Israeli security officials suggested that a campaign of assassinations could resume against senior members of Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian militant group whose Syria-based leadership claimed responsibility Saturday for the previous night's attack.

"Israel sees Syria and the Islamic Jihad movement as those standing behind the murderous attack in Tel Aviv," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's office said after a late-night meeting of senior security officials.

Israeli government officials said a planned military pullback from five West Bank cities and towns was on hold while Israel assessed security efforts by the Palestinians. [complete article]

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Israel says truce over with Islamic Jihad after Tel Aviv blast
Agence France Presse (via Yahoo), February 26, 2005

Israel ordered the resumption of military operations against the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, after evidence emerged linking it to a deadly Tel Aviv bombing that cast a shadow over fledgling progress in the peace process.

Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz also hit out at Syria, which long played host to Islamic Jihad leaders, accusing it of involvement in Friday night's blast, but his comments were roundly rebuffed by Damascus.

The Palestinian leadership had earlier accepted assurances by the main armed factions, including Islamic Jihad, that they were not behind the bombing in which four Israelis died and 53 other people were wounded.

But a videotape later surfaced in which a man known as a militant of the group and speaking in front of its colours, said he was about to carry out a suicide attack. [complete article]

See also, Islamic Jihad says it was behind Tel Aviv bombing (NYT).

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President of Egypt calls for open election
By Megan K. Stack and Sonni Efron, Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2005

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called Saturday for a constitutional amendment to allow other candidates to run against him for the first time, a surprise move that could be a historic turning point in a country that has endured decades of repressive rule.

The announcement by Mubarak, a staunch U.S. ally, came a day after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a trip to the Middle East this week amid mounting tension over the autocratic Egyptian leader's crackdown on political opponents.

If the presidential race later this year unfolds as Mubarak described Saturday, it will represent a major shift, a stirring of political air significant not only to Egypt but in the broader Middle East, where a spate of elections and demonstrations has coincided with President Bush's calls for democratization.

Skeptical analysts said that the elections could fall short of expectations, a common phenomenon in a region that has heard much heady talk but seen very little serious political overhaul. [complete article]

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Syria's dead end
By Joshua Landis, Syria Comment, February 24, 2005

The squeeze has been placed on Syria, and cracks are beginning to form in the ordinarily stolid constitution of a people accustomed to disappointment and hardship. Everyone wants to criticize the government as their anxiety overflows the lip of well practiced patience. With a minimum of prodding, one gets a flood of complaint. The leadership has led the country into a blind alley. It will be the people who pay the exit price.

Everything turns on European sanctions. Unlike the US, Europe is Syria’s major trading partner. Sixty per cent of Syrian trade is with European states. France has already called for sanctions. Will Germany and Britain follow suit? If Germany and Britain agree to join an economic embargo of Syria, the entire EU will be pulled behind them, whether they like it or not. Spain and Greece, the states which have traditionally been most outspoken in Syria’s defense, will be mute. Surely the European powers will look for ways to stop the sanctions train before it leaves the station.

The problem for the European states is that once they attach their wagons to America’s economic sanctions engine, they are hostages to George Bush’s Syria policy. Once imposed, sanctions are likely to continue for decades. In all likelihood, they will not end until there is regime change in Damascus. Even if the European powers enter into a sanctions regime with the US for the sole purpose of forcing Syria from Lebanon, they will not be able to escape sanctions until the entire list of American demands are met. America’s list of demands is endless. It wants Syria to end support for the Palestinian resistance and Hizballah. It demands Syria pull out of Lebanon; it wants Syria to give up its WMD; and it wants Syria to arrest a long list of Iraqis accused of financing and organizing the resistance in Iraq. Syria will never meet all these demands. Not so long as is a Baathist state. [complete article]

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Trying times for Damascus
By Sami Moubayed, Al-Ahram, February 24, 2005

The mood in Syria is starting to turn sour, as Syrians have been watching the news from Lebanon over the past week, and seeing the anti- Syrian propaganda that is coming out of Beirut. The rhetoric has provoked reactions of fear, anger and disgust among most Syrians. Many locals are saying: it is time to leave Lebanon if that is what all the Lebanese are asking for.

Two camps exist today in Damascus. One camp, represented by the majority of Syrians, is very upset at the anti-Syrian rhetoric, and angered and saddened by former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri's death, yet enraged that the assassination has been used by the Lebanese opposition and the United States to settle old scores with Syria.

This group is wondering why, if the Syrians are so unwanted, they have stayed in Lebanon for so long; why the Lebanese -- many of whom are now in the opposition -- have been so eager to win the blessing of Syrian statesmen; and why Syria renewed Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's mandate, arousing the anger in Lebanon and costing Syria its reputation in the international community. This group now feels that the Syrians must leave Lebanon, and argue that they should have withdrawn before United Nations Resolution 1559 was passed.

The second camp is composed of hard-liners who still believe that if the Syrian army leaves Lebanon, Israel will seek to destabilise Lebanon, that chaos will prevail, and that civil war will break out again. Indeed, this view has been echoed by Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. This group of Syrians still argues that the Syrians have the majority vote in Lebanon, despite all the propaganda being aired on Lebanese satellite television, and that Syria will reach an agreement with the US and France to stay in Lebanon, just as it did after the Gulf War in 1991. [complete article]

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A high-risk nuclear stakeout
By Douglas Frantz, Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2005

Nuclear warhead plans that Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan sold to Libya were more complete and detailed than previously disclosed, raising new concerns about the cost of Washington's watch-and-wait policy before Khan and his global black market were shut down last year.

Two Western nuclear weapons specialists who have examined the top-secret designs say the hundreds of pages of engineering drawings and handwritten notes provide an excellent starting point for anyone trying to develop an effective atomic warhead.

"This involved the spread of very sensitive nuclear knowledge, and it is the most serious form of proliferation," one of the specialists said. Both described the designs on condition that their names be withheld because the plans are classified.

The sale of the plans is particularly troubling to some investigators because the transaction occurred at least 18 months after U.S. and British intelligence agencies concluded that Khan was running an international nuclear smuggling ring and identified Libya as a suspected customer, according to U.S. officials and a British government assessment.

Interviews with current and former government officials and intelligence agents and outside experts in Washington, Europe and the Middle East reveal a lengthy pattern of watching and waiting when it came to Khan and his illicit network. [complete article]

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Iran was offered nuclear parts
By Dafna Linzer, Washington Post, February 27, 2005

International investigators have uncovered evidence of a secret meeting 18 years ago between Iranian officials and associates of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan that resulted in a written offer to supply Tehran with the makings of a nuclear weapons program, foreign diplomats and U.S. officials familiar with the new findings said.

The meeting, believed to have taken place in a dusty Dubai office in 1987, kick-started Tehran's nuclear efforts and Khan's black market. Iran, which was at war with Iraq then, bought centrifuge designs and a starter kit for uranium enrichment. But Tehran recently told the International Atomic Energy Agency that it turned down the chance to buy the more sensitive equipment required for building the core of a bomb.

There is evidence, however, that Iran used the offer as a buyer's guide, acquiring some of the pricier items elsewhere, officials said. [complete article]

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Afghans accuse U.S. of secret spraying to kill poppies
By Carlotta Gall, New York Times, February 27, 2005

Abdullah, a black-turbaned shepherd, said he was watching over his sheep one night in early February when he heard a plane pass low overhead three times. By morning his eyes were so swollen he could not open them and the sheep around him were dying in convulsions.

Although farmers had noticed a white powder on their crops, they cut grass and clover for their animals and picked spinach to eat anyway. Within hours the animals were severely ill, people here said, and the villagers complained of fevers, skin rashes and bloody diarrhea. The children were particularly affected. A week later, the crops - wheat, vegetables and poppies - were dying, and a dozen dead animals, including newborn lambs, lay tossed in a heap.

The incident on Feb. 3 has left the herders of sheep and goats in this remote mountain area in Helmand Province deeply angered and suspicious. They are convinced that someone is surreptitiously spraying their lands or dusting them with chemicals, presumably in a clandestine effort to eradicate Afghanistan's bumper poppy crop, the world's leading source of opium. [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:

Democratic terrorists?
By Christopher Dickey, Newsweek, February 24 2005
Beirut is not the heart of the world, although it's often hard to convince the Lebanese of that. Long gone are the days when whole generations of spies, journalists and other shady characters hung out at the waterfront bar of the St. George Hotel and called it "the center of the center of the Middle East." After the shadow of full-scale Syrian occupation fell over the country in 1990, effectively ending Lebanon's 15-year civil war -- and also its independence -- the old libertine and libertarian mystique faded. Lebanon still had a certain freedom and energy, its fractious people remained more independent-minded and its battered institutions more democratic than those of many other Arab nations, but as it sank to the status of a vassal state, Lebanon's spirit no longer seemed to have much relevance for the rest of the region.

Now, very suddenly, it does. In the days since former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was blown up on Feb. 14 (while driving in front of the St. George, as it happens), Beirut has become the new epicenter for democratic hopes in the Middle East.

Dangerous doctrine
By Roger Speed and Michael May, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April, 2005
The United States has more than 6,000 deployed strategic nuclear weapons consisting of warheads delivered by long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), bombs, and cruise missiles. About 3,000 additional intact warheads are retained in reserve or inactive stockpiles. There are also a few hundred "tactical" (non-strategic) nuclear bombs carried by relatively short-range, dual-capable (conventional and nuclear) aircraft stationed in Europe and a few hundred submarine-launched cruise missiles kept in storage in the United States.

U.S. weapons reportedly have a wide range of yields. U.S. ballistic missiles carry only high-yield warheads (more than 100 kilotons), but some nuclear bombs and cruise missiles reportedly have flexible low-yield options, down to less than a kiloton. [1] The accuracies of U.S. strategic delivery systems are reportedly around 100 meters.

The NPR [Nuclear Posture Review] argues that the several thousand nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal will not be adequate to implement the Bush doctrine: "New capabilities must be developed to defeat emerging threats such as hard and deeply buried targets, to find and attack mobile and relocatable targets, to defeat chemical or biological agents, and to improve accuracy and limit collateral damage. Development of these capabilities, to include extensive research and timely fielding of new systems to address these challenges, are imperative to make the New Triad a reality."

The administration apparently believes that if it can limit "collateral damage"--unintended death and injury to civilians and unintended property damage--nuclear use would be more politically acceptable and credible. Most weapons in the current arsenal would produce unacceptably large collateral damage, so the administration argues that new low-yield, high-accuracy nuclear weapons must be sought. To that end, the Bush administration has sought to authorize the weapons labs to renew previous programs to examine a broad range of new nuclear weapons concepts, including low-yield weapons.

Pentagon seeking leeway overseas
By Ann Scott Tyson and Dana Priest, Washington Post, February 24, 2005
The Pentagon is promoting a global counterterrorism plan that would allow Special Operations forces to enter a foreign country to conduct military operations without explicit concurrence from the U.S. ambassador there, administration officials familiar with the plan said.

The plan would weaken the long-standing "chief of mission" authority under which the U.S. ambassador, as the president's top representative in a foreign country, decides whether to grant entry to U.S. government personnel based on political and diplomatic considerations.

The Special Operations missions envisioned in the plan would largely be secret, known to only a handful of officials from the foreign country, if any.

The change is included in a highly classified "execute order" -- part of a broad strategy developed since Sept. 11, 2001, to give the U.S. Special Operations Command new flexibility to track down and destroy terrorist networks worldwide, the officials said.

"This is a military order on a global scale, something that hasn't existed since World War II," said a counterterrorism official with lengthy experience in special operations. He and other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the proposal is classified.

Kurds name their price for putting Shia party in power
By Patrick Cockburn and David Enders, The Independent, February 24, 2005
The Kurds are to stick to their demand for the oil city of Kirkuk and a degree of autonomy which is close to independence as negotiations begin to form the next Iraqi government. The coalition of Shia parties, the United Iraqi Alliance, has 140 seats in the 275-member National Assembly but despite its electoral triumph other parties are waiting to see if it will hold together. The coalition was cobbled together out of disparate groups under the influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

"The coalition is not as strong as we thought - with all of the weight of Sistani, it didn't get an absolute majority," said a Kurdish politician who asked not to be named. Nevertheless Iraqi Shias, 60 per cent of the population but never previously in power, feel that their moment has come.

The Kurds are in a strong position to press their demands because they have 75 seats. In the past they were always the core of the opposition to Saddam Hussein and their leaders have far more political and administrative experience than returning Shia exiles. The Kurds are the only people to support the US occupation.

Kurdish leaders say they will refuse to compromise over Kirkuk or the autonomy of the three northern Kurdish provinces from which Saddam Hussein retreated in 1991. They will also reject applying Islamic law in Kurdish regions.

Why Europe ignores Bush
By Tony Karon,, February 21, 2005
Machiavelli's advice to political leaders was that it's more important to be feared than to be loved. That's no help for President Bush on his European tour; in spite of the warm words he's exchanging with European leaders, the reality is that the Bush administration is neither loved nor feared in growing sectors of the international community -- increasingly, it is simply being ignored.

New evidence of this trend, which has developed in the wake of the war in Iraq, emerges every week: Last Friday, Russia's President Vladimir Putin pooh-poohed the U.S. claim that Iran seeks nuclear weapons, and Moscow agreed to move ahead with delivering the nuclear fuel for Tehran's reactors despite Washington's opposition. And in case you missed the message, Russia has also agreed to supply advanced surface-to-air missiles to Syria, the latest focus of U.S. ire in the Middle East -- again in defiance of Washington's stated wishes.

It's hard to avoid the irony in Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's suggestion, in the wake of the fall of Baghdad, that the U.S. should "forgive Russia, ignore Germany and punish France" for opposing the war. On this trip, and Rice's preparatory one, it's more than clear that in fact they're trying hard to forgive France and Germany. And it's equally clear that Russia has no interest in U.S. "forgiveness" -- President Putin is ignoring the Bush administration.

In Iraq, to be a hairstylist is to risk death
By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2005
A bomb rips through a women's hair salon, shattering wall-length mirrors and shredding posters of coiffures.

In another neighborhood, gunmen fire wildly into a busy barbershop, killing the owner and three teenage boys waiting for haircuts.

At yet another shop, a masked visitor presses a note into the palm of a horrified haircutter. The message: "Our swords are thriving for the neck of barbers."

Iraq's insurgency has long targeted local police, government leaders and national guardsmen as a means of destabilizing the nascent democracy, but now guerrillas have taken aim at a far more unlikely line of work.

In what some describe as a Taliban-like effort to impose a militant Islamic aesthetic, extremists have been warning Iraqi barbers not to violate strict Islamic teachings by trimming or removing men's beards. Giving Western-style haircuts or removing hair in an "effeminate" manner, they say, are crimes punishable by death.

The real Afghanistan
By Pankaj Mishra, New York Review of Books, March 10, 2005
Few countries in modern times have had to wait for better days as long as Afghanistan has. A bright future seemed imminent in late 2001, when the United States overthrew the Taliban regime. But the past seems hard to shake off in Afghanistan, and no events in it more so than the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979, and the American decision to help radical Islamists wage a jihad against Soviet communism.

The next two decades of war killed more than a million Afghans and displaced up to six million besides destroying much of Afghanistan's basic infrastructure -- dams, bridges, irrigation systems -- and littering the country with land mines. The United States lost interest in Afghanistan soon after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, while Afghans continued to pay a high price for having hosted one of the bloodiest battles of the cold war. In late 2001, the United States was faced with fresh responsibilities in Afghanistan. It was obliged not only to engage in nation-building -- a task President Bush rejected during a presidential debate with Al Gore in 2000 as unsuitable for the United States -- but also to provide basic security to more than 25 million people in a country as big as Texas. As it turns out, the way the Bush administration conducted the war, and dealt with its aftermath, has complicated both tasks.

Iranian distrust of America is 50 years in the making
By Behzad Yaghmaian, USA Today, February 22, 2005
The recent revelation of secret U.S. reconnaissance missions inside Iran and President Bush's inaugural speech, which included his promise to end tyranny around the world, brought back memories for me and many Iranians. Those recollections include a coup d'etat in 1953 that led to a distrust of America that lingers today.

I was born a few days after America helped overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and reinstalled the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Afterward, my birth was never mentioned without some reference to Mossadegh and America. As a child, I remember being afraid of America.

Later, though, in high school, I became a fan of America, especially its music and movies. I loved Westerns and saved pictures of movie stars. Yet, like many Iranians, I could not shake my misgivings.

As I grew older, these conflicting feelings of admiration and distrust became stronger. For example, I grew fond of U.S. political and social values. But I also realized that America had stolen from me the possibility of growing up in a free and democratic Iran. As a result of the CIA-planned coup d'etat, I grew up in a corrupt dictatorship.

We aren't fighting to win anymore
By Andrew J. Bacevich, Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2005
Americans of a certain age will recall Douglas MacArthur's pithy aphorism: "There is no substitute for victory." The remark captures an essential element of our military tradition. When the United States goes to war, it fights to win, to force the enemy to do our will. To sacrifice our soldiers' lives for anything less -- as MacArthur charged was the case in Korea and later unambiguously became the case in Vietnam -- smacks of being somehow un-American.

But among the various official statements being issued to explain events in Iraq, any mention of military victory has become notable by its absence. Tacitly -- unnoticed even by the war's critics -- the Bush administration has all but given up any expectation of defeating the enemy with whom we are engaged.

In the early days of the insurgency, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez vowed to use "whatever combat power is necessary to win," displaying all the pugnacity of a George Patton or Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf. "That's what America expects of me," declared Sanchez in December 2003, "and that's what I'm going to accomplish." Senior commanders no longer make such bold promises. Nor do senior civilian officials in Washington.

Indeed, today the Bush administration's aim is not to win but to relieve itself of responsibility for waging a war that it began but cannot finish. Debate in national security circles focuses not on deploying war-winning technologies or fielding innovative tactics that might turn the tide, but on how we can extricate ourselves before our overstretched forces suffer irreparable damage.

Talking with the enemy
By Michael Ware, Time, February 20, 2005
The secret meeting is taking place in the bowels of a facility in Baghdad, a cavernous, heavily guarded building in the U.S.-controlled green zone. The Iraqi negotiator, a middle-aged former member of Saddam Hussein's regime and the senior representative of the self-described nationalist insurgency, sits on one side of the table.

He is here to talk to two members of the U.S. military. One of them, an officer, takes notes during the meeting. The other, dressed in civilian clothes, listens as the Iraqi outlines a list of demands the U.S. must satisfy before the insurgents stop fighting. The parties trade boilerplate complaints: the U.S. officer presses the Iraqi for names of other insurgent leaders; the Iraqi says the newly elected Shi'a-dominated government is being controlled by Iran. The discussion does not go beyond generalities, but both sides know what's behind the coded language.

The Iraqi's very presence conveys a message: Members of the insurgency are open to negotiating an end to their struggle with the U.S. "We are ready," he says before leaving, "to work with you."

Flirting with Armageddon: welcome to a new arms race
By Paul Harris and Jason Burke, The Observer, February 20, 2005
It was 1.22am last Monday on the frozen Alaskan island of Kodiak when the missile flared upwards into the night sky. As the rocket's flames disappeared into darkness, United States military chiefs waited with baited breath to see if their multibillion dollar 'Son of Star Wars' defence shield would work.

Thousands of miles away on the Pacific island of Kwajalein another missile was primed to intercept the Alaskan launch, soaring to destroy its target in the upper atmosphere and thus 'save America from nuclear devastation'. It never made it. The test failed.

On Kwajalein metal supports holding the interceptor rocket failed to disengage. If it had been real the enemy nuke would have hit its target. The system has now failed in six out of nine tests. Many experts believe it simply does not work.

But this does not deter the Pentagon. It is in a frenzy to put a missile shield around America. The threat from nuclear attack is now once more at the centre of strategic planning. The missile defence shield is not seen as a throwback but as a vital part of defence. Nuclear weapons too remain in US plans, it is now looking at developing a whole new range of 'bunker buster' nukes.

A new nuclear arms race is gripping the world. Many experts believe the likelihood of such an attack is greater now than it was during the Cold War. North Korea has already claimed it has nuclear weapons, Iran could be on the brink of building them. Both nations could trigger arms races among their neighbours. The international system set up to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons has sprung a series of leaks. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has warned of a 'cascade' of states going nuclear.

Deep roots hold Syrian influence in Lebanon
By Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2005
The sandbags and tanks are long gone, and soldiers are rarely seen in the streets. Syrian military control isn't on display anymore in Lebanon, aside from some army bases and the clutches of soldiers who stand guard at checkpoints on country roads.

These days, Syrian influence has quietly permeated the parliament, the president's office, the financial sector and virtually every other institution. Syrian soldiers were meant to keep the peace after Lebanon's civil war. Instead, Syria has taken over.

"It's a creeping annexation," said former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel. "Syria considers its presence here not as something temporary, not as a foreign occupation, but as something natural. They think that Lebanon is a part of Syria."

Pressure to withdraw Syrian soldiers, whose ranks in Lebanon are estimated to number about 16,000, has swelled since former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated last week in Beirut. Damascus, the Syrian capital, has responded to the calls with defiance.

To Syria, Lebanon is a freewheeling market, a place to earn and keep money. It's also a crucial bargaining chip in case of negotiations with Israel. Moreover, many Syrians view this graceful, sun-washed Mediterranean country as a fundamental part of the historic Syrian nation.

In the balance
By Nir Rosen, New York Times, February 20, 2005
There were two days left before election day, and Gen. Rostam Hamid Rahim, guerrilla war hero and a member of Iraqi Kurdistan's regional Parliament since 1992, was determined that every Kurd vote. Known as Mam (Uncle) Rostam, he told me he had joined the Kurdish nationalist militia, or peshmerga ("those who face death"), at age 15, in 1968. In 2003, he led the peshmerga into the northern city of Kirkuk -- the fourth-largest city in Iraq and its most ethnically mixed and contested -- following the American-led invasion of Iraq. Now 51, he still wore an olive shirt tucked into baggy olive pants, with a sash wrapped around his waist and a khaki vest: the traditional Kurdish garb. A black-and-white-checkered scarf encircled his head; he moved it back every so often to scratch his closely cropped hair.

On this Friday afternoon, Rostam had already visited a polling station around the corner from the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdish party Rostam belonged to, led by Jalal Talabani. (Rostam is the union militia's field commander for Kirkuk.) His next stop was the Panja Ali refugee camp, next to the Shorja neighborhood where Rostam was born. Saddam Hussein destroyed the neighborhood with bulldozers in 1991 to punish rebellious Kurds and expel them north to the three provinces of Iraq (Erbil, Sulaimaniya and Dohuk) that Hussein had earlier cordoned off as Iraqi Kurdistan. Hussein's Kurdistan was intended to give the Kurds some autonomy -- and to provide a dumping ground for Kurds pushed out of the wealthier areas bordering it, above all the city of Kirkuk and the oil-rich province, also called Kirkuk, for which it serves as a capital. Hussein had even renamed the province Tamim, Arabic for "nationalization."

Now, in the wake of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, hundreds of Kurdish families had returned to Kirkuk, some living in tents, others in hastily constructed houses. In the camp, Rostam sat down along with other local Kurdish officials, including the deputy head of security for Kirkuk, who fought with Rostam against Hussein years before. Surrounded by a hundred men from the refugee camp and its nearby polling station, gesticulating for added emphasis with his broad thick shoulders and arms, Rostam repeated the same message he had been telling Kurds throughout the city whenever he campaigned: "You have to vote, for the sake of our future." Rostam exhorted his audience to vote for the party representing the Kurds and, taking their victory for granted, asked that "when the election results are announced, please don't shoot in the air."

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