The War in Context  
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Army details scale of abuse of prisoners in an Afghan jail
By Douglas Jehl, New York Times, March 12, 2005

Two Afghan prisoners who died in American custody in Afghanistan in December 2002 were chained to the ceiling, kicked and beaten by American soldiers in sustained assaults that caused their deaths, according to Army criminal investigative reports that have not yet been made public.

One soldier, Pfc. Willie V. Brand, was charged with manslaughter in a closed hearing last month in Texas in connection with one of the deaths, another Army document shows. Private Brand, who acknowledged striking a detainee named Dilawar 37 times, was accused of having maimed and killed him over a five-day period by "destroying his leg muscle tissue with repeated unlawful knee strikes."

The attacks on Mr. Dilawar were so severe that "even if he had survived, both legs would have had to be amputated," the Army report said, citing a medical examiner.

The reports, obtained by Human Rights Watch, provide the first official account of events that led to the deaths of the detainees, Mullah Habibullah and Mr. Dilawar, at the Bagram Control Point, about 40 miles north of Kabul. The deaths took place nearly a year before the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Among those implicated in the killings at Bagram were members of Company A of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, from Fort Bragg, N.C. The battalion went on to Iraq, where some members established the interrogation unit at Abu Ghraib and have been implicated in some abuses there. [complete article]

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Russia says Hizbullah should play role in Lebanese politics
By Nayla Assaf, Daily Star, March 12, 2005

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that Hizbullah should be allowed a role in the country's politics. His statements came at a time when sources close to the party told The Daily Star that they were holding ongoing meetings with representatives of Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir to defuse the mounting political tension in the country.

Lavrov's comments came one day after unprecedented statements by Washington that it would reluctantly acknowledge Hizbullah's political role if the party disarms.

Also on Friday, Hizbullah's number two official told reporters that the party intends to "become more active in entering internal political life," without, however, surrendering its arms.

After meeting with leading Lebanese opposition member, Walid Jumblatt, Lavrov said: "It is in the interests of Lebanon, and the whole Middle East, for Hizbullah's political role to be taken into account." [complete article]

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Is Syria ready for democracy?
By Joshua Landis, Syria Comment, March 12, 2005

It is clear that at every level of government in Syria, as at every level of the army, sectarian apportionment of office has been very carefully worked out over the years. Any change to the balance and traditional divisions causes great concern and discontent from those communities that have been hurt or short-changed.

"So what is the answer," I asked my friend? He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know," he confessed. "But it is clear that George Bush doesn't have the answer for us. We must solve it ourselves," he added. Everyone here is taking sides in the battle of ideas begun with the invasion of Iraq. Most Syrians are sticking by their president. [complete article]

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U.S., allies may have to wait out Iran elections
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, March 12, 2005

The United States and Europe are reluctantly prepared to wait until after Iran's presidential election in June and the formation of a new government for a final answer to the new joint effort to get Tehran to abandon any ambition to develop a nuclear weapon, according to U.S. and European officials.

Their goal is to get Iran to respond sooner to the new negotiating position announced yesterday, which includes economic carrots as well as punitive sticks if Iran balks. But U.S. and European officials have also concluded that Tehran's current government is a lame duck with diminishing leverage, and any agreement it might make may not endure after the election that will bring in a new government.

"Any durable agreement will need support from the government beyond June," a European official said. Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, a reformer, will leave office after his two terms expire this summer, and many political analysts in Tehran believe a conservative is likely to win. [complete article]

See also, Iran rejects U.S. nuclear incentive (BBC) and Iran offers to curb nuclear plans (FT).

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Syria 'pledges pullout timetable' (BBC)

Syrian intelligence posts remain active in North (Daily Star)

Hezbollah stakes out bigger political role (AP)

Hamas to participate in Palestinian vote (AP)

Kurds, Shi'ites agree on power-sharing deal (Boston Globe)

Iraqi leaders urge calm after suicide bomber kills 47 (Daily Star)

Barzani says Kirkuk issue must be settled now (AFP)

Poland to cut back its troops in Iraq in July (AFP)

Rice downplays Ukraine withdrawal of Iraq troops (AFP)

Saudis detail alleged Libyan murder plot (WP)

Blair relents on terrorism bill (FT)

IEA says world must turn away from oil (FT)

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Iraq war compels Pentagon to rethink big-picture strategy
By Mark Mazzetti, Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2005

The war in Iraq is forcing top Pentagon planners to rethink several key assumptions about the use of military power and has called into question the vision set out nearly four years ago that the armed forces can win wars and keep the peace with small numbers of fast-moving, lightly armed troops.

As the Pentagon begins a comprehensive review that will map the future of America's armed forces, many Defense Department officials are acknowledging that an intractable Iraqi insurgency they didn't foresee has undermined the military strategy.

In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Pentagon unveiled a new agenda that promised to prepare the military to fight smaller wars against terrorist networks and to swiftly defeat rogue states.

With Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pushing for a "lighter, more lethal and highly mobile fighting force," the Pentagon scrapped as outdated the requirement that the U.S. military be large enough to simultaneously fight two large-scale wars against massed enemy armies. And it spent little time worrying about how to keep the peace after the shooting stopped.

Something happened on the way to the wars of the future: The Pentagon became bogged down in an old-fashioned, costly and drawn-out war of occupation. [complete article]

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U.S. to back Europeans on incentives for Iran
By Robin Wright and Peter Baker, Washington Post, March 11, 2005

President Bush has decided to back European allies in their plan to offer economic incentives to persuade Iran to abandon any effort to build nuclear weapons, a sharp shift in policy for a government that had long refused to bargain for Tehran's cooperation, senior administration officials said yesterday.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to announce the decision as early as today, culminating an intense negotiation over recent weeks that brought U.S. and European leaders together in their approach to Iran after a long split. By agreeing to try incentives first, U.S. officials believe they will later gain European support for taking the matter to the U.N. Security Council if talks fail. [...]

Rice said Iran would have to commit to not using its civilian nuclear power program as a cover for secret weapons development and would have to submit to intensive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. She did not discuss particular incentives, but those on the table include accelerating membership for Iran in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and permitting Tehran to purchase badly needed spare parts for its aging passenger jets. [complete article]

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Lebanon is not Ukraine
By Charles Harb, The Guardian, March 11, 2005

[Lebanon's] governance is built on a sectarian and feudal consensual system. It is an aggregate of religious minority groups that coalesce around local feudal lords in return for services. Each sect is given a clear share of power. For example, the president of the country has to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the head of parliament a Shia Muslim. Governance tends to be built on consensus between the various parties, leaving no room for accountability or programmatic politics. When majordifferences between the factions emerge, the country is thrown into crisis. And when external players get involved, crisis has the potential to turn into civil war. That was the case first in 1952, again in 1958 and 1969, culminating in the 15-year civil war between 1975 and 1990.

It may be that the current situation is no different. With increasing economic problems, friction between the parties was already growing. The geopolitical earthquake triggered by the war on Iraq was tightening the security noose in Lebanon. By endorsing the unifying effect of Hariri's death on the wider Lebanese population, opposition leaders appeared to represent a drive towards freedom and the US project for "the greater Middle East".

However, four internal factors need to be kept in mind. First, the Shia Muslims, one of the largest segments of the Lebanese population, have not joined the opposition. Although there is antipathy towards Syrian hegemony, "Lebanon" is not united behind current developments.

Second, some of the leaders of this "insurrection" are power players who held no grievance towards Syrian tutelage while they profited from it. Many of those promoting this free and democratic revolution are the same autocratic warlords who tore the country apart 15 years ago and have been undemocratically jousting for power ever since.

Third, the opposition has not offered any programme of reform of corrupt institutions or platform for a new beginning. Fourth, freedom of expression and democratic practices were not suddenly born with Hariri's assassination. Lebanon's media is one of the freest in the Middle East, and its consensual democratic system has been in place for decades. [complete article]

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Top U.N. envoy to present Syria with ultimatum
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, March 11, 2005

A top U.N. envoy will tell President Bashar Assad that Syria will face political and economic isolation if he does not completely and quickly withdraw from Lebanon, U.N. and U.S. officials said yesterday.

In a meeting set for tomorrow, Terje Roed-Larsen plans to inform Syria that the international community is united in insisting that Damascus comply with U.N. Resolution 1559 -- and is prepared to impose wide punitive sanctions if it does not act quickly, the officials said.

"If he doesn't deliver, there will be total political and economic isolation of his country. There is a steel-hard consensus in the international community," a senior U.N. official said. [complete article]

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U.S. would accept Hizbollah role if it disarms
Reuters, March 10, 2005

The Bush administration would accept a political role for the Lebanese group Hizbollah if it disarmed, U.S. officials said on Thursday, a stance they said was not new but reflected recognition of the political clout of the militant Shi'ite Muslim organization.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice carefully avoided the stock U.S. phrase that Hizbollah is a terrorist organization in remarks to reporters, two days after Hizbollah showed its political power by drawing hundreds of thousands of people to central Beirut for a pro-Syria rally. [...]

"Obviously we'd like to see them disarmed as U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 requires. Once disarmed they could undertake any political role in Lebanon that they can win democratically at the polls. This doesn't constitute any change in the U.S. position," a senior Bush administration official said.

A State Department official, who asked not to be identified, said there was a recognition among U.S. officials of Hizbollah's political power but denied any policy change.

"We do have to live in the real world and unfortunately in that world people we really don't like do sometimes get into elected office. Hizbollah -- just like Hamas in the Palestinian territories -- is a political force. But just because we recognize -- as we always have -- that reality does not mean we have changed our policy toward them," the official said. [complete article]

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A revolution made for TV
By Mary Wakefield, The Spectator (via, March 12, 2005

... it's a tricky business, the Cedar Revolution -- a bit bogus, unrepresentative, but a great PR success. On Monday Syrian troops began to withdraw peacefully from both northern and southern Lebanon. Bashar al-Assad would never have got round to ratifying the Taif accord without pressure from America, and it's unlikely that Bush would have had such unconditional support from France, Germany or England without those photographs of freedom fighters in the Place des Martyrs.

But, like everything about Lebanon, there's another side to the story. The same photographs that ensured international support have given Bush an excuse to use the sort of language that sounds better coming from Clint Eastwood. In response to the news that Syrian troops were beginning to pull out, the White House said, 'This does not add up to Syria leaving Lebanon. We will continue to hold their feet to the fire, not accept half-measures and call a spade a spade.' And as 500,000 Lebanese gathered in Riad el-Solh Square to protest against American interference, Bush ignored them entirely and spoke over their heads to the teenagers in the Place des Martyrs. 'All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience,' he told them. 'The American people are on your side. Millions across the Earth are on your side.' It's an odd way to promote democracy in the Middle East -- to ignore an eighth of the country’s population. [complete article]

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Which way will Lebanon go next?
By Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, March 11, 2005

When Rania Malik made a decision in 1993 to return to Lebanon after a decade of living in the United States, she did so largely because of her confidence in one man - Rafik Hariri, the billionaire property tycoon who had been appointed prime minister a year earlier.

But Mr. Hariri's murder in a massive car bomb last month and the subsequent political turmoil has made Mrs. Malik, a schoolteacher in her 30s, think long and hard about her future in this small Mediterranean country.

"I remember Hariri going on television and telling us Lebanese expatriates to come back, and we trusted him so much that we did," she says. "Now I feel like my parents did in 1975," the year civil war broke out in Lebanon. "My sense of security has gone," she adds.

Such was Hariri's larger-than-life reputation among the Lebanese, that his death has created a sense of national loss and foreboding about the future. That foreboding was reinforced by the announcement Thursday that Prime Minister Omar Karami has been renamed as premier, just 10 days after mass street protests led to his resignation and the collapse of the government. [complete article]

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Peacefully, Lebanese recapture their north
By Jad Mouawad, New York Times, March 11, 2005

While political fires raged in Beirut, here on the peaceful Mediterranean coast, along what was for 29 years the northern front of the Syrian Army, a small unit of Lebanon's 11th Army battalion was busy Thursday erasing all signs of the occupation.

In the capital, an hour's drive south, Syria appeared to be tightening its grip on Lebanese politics, sharply dividing the country between opponents and supporters. Omar Karami, who resigned 10 days ago under pressure from opposition protesters, was reappointed prime minister by President Émile Lahoud on Thursday. Both are Syria supporters.

The appointment, backed by a majority of pro-Syrian deputies, threatened to plunge the country into deeper political turmoil and was denounced by opponents of Syria's influence in the country.

But there was little evidence here of the turmoil in Beirut. About a dozen Lebanese soldiers were repainting a one-story shack in white and red - the national colors - after planting the Lebanese flag atop the building. Across the street, three stone houses that had been deserted 48 hours earlier by the Syrian Army left few clues that 80 soldiers had once lived there. [complete article]

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Israelis kill Palestinian militant linked to Tel Aviv bombing
By Greg Myre, New York Times, March 11, 2005

Israeli soldiers on Thursday tracked down and killed an armed Palestinian militant who Israeli military officials said had helped orchestrate a recent suicide bombing and was planning further attacks. Palestinians criticized the action, saying it could jeopardize the fragile truce.

Israeli military officials said the militant, Muhammad Abu Khazneh, was a member of Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the bombing deaths of five Israelis at a Tel Aviv nightclub on Feb. 25. It was the deadliest single attack since the truce was announced Feb. 8.

Overall, the number of killings has dropped significantly since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, called for an end to violence. The two-week period between Thursday's incident and the Tel Aviv bombing was one of the longest without a killing on either side since the fighting erupted in September 2000. [complete article]

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U.S. held youngsters at Abu Ghraib
BBC News, March 11, 2005

Children as young as 11 years old were held at Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison at the centre of the US prisoner abuse scandal, official documents reveal.

Brig Gen Janis Karpinski, formerly in charge of the facility, said children and women were detained at the jail. [...]

Brig Gen Karpinski said US commanders were reluctant to release detainees, an attitude she called "releasophobia".

In her interview, she said Maj Gen Walter Wodjakowski, then the second most senior army general in Iraq, told her in the summer of 2003 not to release more prisoners, even if they were innocent.

"I don't care if we're holding 15,000 innocent civilians," she said Maj Gen Wodjakowski told her. "We're winning the war." [complete article]

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Army, CIA agreed on 'ghost' prisoners
By Josh White, Washington Post, March 11, 2005

Top military intelligence officials at the Abu Ghraib prison came to an agreement with the CIA to hide certain detainees at the facility without officially registering them, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. Keeping such "ghost" detainees is a violation of international law.

Army Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, who was second in command of the intelligence gathering effort at Abu Ghraib while the abuse was occurring, told military investigators that "other government agencies" and a secretive elite task force "routinely brought in detainees for a short period of time" and that the detainees were held without an internment number, and their names were kept off the books. [complete article]

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Democrats slam report that clears Pentagon
By Demetri Sevastopulo, Financial Times, March 10, 2005

Democrats on Thursday lambasted a Pentagon investigation into abuses at Abu Ghraib and other US military prisons, which found that no Pentagon policy was responsible for abusive treatment of prisoners.

The Pentagon on Thursday released a summary of the Church report, its most comprehensive investigation into prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report found evidence that the military had "missed opportunities" to prevent abuses, but concluded that no senior Pentagon officials or policies were responsible for the kinds of abuses committed by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

Admiral Albert Church, who conducted the investigation, on Thursday told the Senate armed services committee there was "not a single overarching reason for the abuses". But Democrats said his report did not address the accountability of senior Pentagon officials. [complete article]

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Pentagon seeks to transfer more detainees from base in Cuba
By Douglas Jehl, New York Times, March 11, 2005

The Pentagon is seeking to enlist help from the State Department and other agencies in a plan to cut by more than half the population at its detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in part by transferring hundreds of suspected terrorists to prisons in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Yemen, according to senior administration officials.

The transfers would be similar to the renditions, or transfers of captives to other countries, carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency, but are subject to stricter approval within the government, and face potential opposition from the C.I.A. as well as the State and Justice Departments, the officials said.

Administration officials say those agencies have resisted some previous handovers, out of concern that transferring the prisoners to foreign governments could harm American security or subject the prisoners to mistreatment. [complete article]

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Ex-CIA lawyer calls for law on rendition
By Shaun Waterman, UPI (via Washington Times), March 8, 2005

A former general counsel of the CIA is calling for Congress to legislate on three controversial areas of the war on terror: interrogation, detention and rendition, in which suspected terrorists are handed over to third countries.

Jeffrey Smith, who was the CIA's top lawyer from 1994 to '95, told United Press International that it was time to end the uncertainty and secrecy surrounding these three practices and provide a legislative basis for them.

Smith, who was an adviser to the campaign of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, argues that it is time for Congress to "step up to the plate."

"I believe the time has come for the United States to adopt laws covering these practices."

"Much of this," he said of the deployment of expanded powers of detention and other new techniques in the war on terror since Sept. 11, 2001, "has been done by presidential order without any real oversight or authorization from Congress." [complete article]

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The strange case of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali
By Elaine Cassel, FindLaw, March 7, 2005

Twenty-three-year-old, Houston-born American citizen Ahmed Omar Abu Ali has been returned to Virginia after twenty months in solitary confinement in a Saudi Arabian prison. But he returned only to face arraignment, on February 22, in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia.

The charge is that he conspired to commit terrorism- and, indeed, the FBI says that he admitted as much in the course of interrogations in Saudi prison. He is alleged to have plotted to assassinate President Bush - but is not charged with that conspiracy.

The case is far from as open-and-shut as the FBI might suggest. Indeed, a number of aspects of the prosecution are deeply troubling. [complete article]

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Iraq allies accused of failing to investigate civilian deaths
By Sarah Boseley, The Guardian, March 11, 2005

Experts in public health from six countries, including the UK, today castigate the British and American governments for failing to investigate the deaths of civilians caught up in the conflict in Iraq.

Twenty-four experts from the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, Spain and Italy say the attitude of the governments is "wholly irresponsible". They say the UK government's reliance on "extremely limited data" from the Iraqi ministry of health is "unacceptable" because it is likely to seriously underestimate the casualties.

Their hard-hitting statement, published online by the British Medical Journal, comes nearly five months after the Lancet published a household survey of civilian deaths in Iraq which estimated that about 100,000 civilians had died - most of them women and children.

The study caused controversy and was dismissed by the British government as unreliable, partly because the authors admitted that, under the difficult circumstances, it could not be precise.

The experts lambast the government for criticising the data without conducting inquiries of its own. "The obvious answer to removing uncertainties that remain is to commission a larger study with full official support and assistance, but scientific independence," they say. [complete article]

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U.S. quits pact used in capital cases
By Charles Lane, Washington Post, March 10, 2005

The Bush administration has decided to pull out of an international agreement that opponents of the death penalty have used to fight the sentences of foreigners on death row in the United States, officials said yesterday.

In a two-paragraph letter dated March 7, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice informed U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that the United States "hereby withdraws" from the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The United States proposed the protocol in 1963 and ratified it -- along with the rest of the Vienna Convention -- in 1969.

The protocol requires signatories to let the International Court of Justice (ICJ) make the final decision when their citizens say they have been illegally denied the right to see a home-country diplomat when jailed abroad.

The United States initially backed the measure as a means to protect its citizens abroad. It was also the first country to invoke the protocol before the ICJ, also known as the World Court, successfully suing Iran for the taking of 52 U.S. hostages in Tehran in 1979.

But in recent years, other countries, with the support of U.S. opponents of capital punishment, successfully complained before the World Court that their citizens were sentenced to death by U.S. states without receiving access to diplomats from their home countries. [complete article]

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Crucial Shiite-Kurdish deal struck in Iraq
Daily Star, March 11, 2005

Iraq's clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance and a Kurdish coalition have struck a deal that will allow a new government to be named when the National Assembly convenes next week, officials in both political groups said Thursday. [...]

The Shiite-Kurdish deal calls on the government to begin discussion on the return of about 100,000 Kurds to the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk and talks about redrawing existing Kurdish regions to include the city in Iraq's new constitution.

It also gives the Kurds just one major Cabinet post - one less than they demanded - in return for making one of their leaders, Jalal Talabani, Iraq's first-ever Kurdish president. One ministry will go to the country's Sunni Arab minority.

The Kurds agreed to back conservative Islamic Daawa party leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari for prime minister.

As part of the deal, any land agreement will be incorporated into the country's new constitution, which must be drafted by mid-August and approved by referendum two months later. [complete article]

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40 killed by suicide bombing in Shiite mosque in Iraq
By Robert F. Worth and Edward Wong, New York Times, March 10, 2005

A suicide bomber went into a Shiite mosque in Mosul today and detonated explosives strapped to his body, killing about 40 people and wounding at least 60, officials and witnesses said.

The explosion took place in midafternoon as the Sadaan mosque in Mosul's al Tamin neighborhood was packed with mourners gathered for the funeral of a man who had died two days earlier, said Sadi Ahmed Pire, the head of the Mosul office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The union is one of the two main Kurdish political parties. [complete article]

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Crisis looms in Kirkuk over power-sharing
By Neil MacDonald, Financial Times, March 9, 2005

American diplomats were trying to avert a political crisis in Iraq's ethnically volatile northern province of Kirkuk this week, amid Sunni and Turkoman claims of being strong-armed out of key government posts by the Kurdish majority in the newly elected provincial council. [complete article]

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A.Q.Khan sold Iran nuclear centrifuges
Associated Press (via IHT), March 10, 2005

Pakistan's information minister acknowledged on Thursday that a rogue scientist at the heart of an international nuclear black market investigation gave centrifuges to Iran, but insisted the government had nothing to do with the transfer.

It was the first time the Pakistani government has admitted that Abdul Qadeer Khan actually gave material to Iran, though they have said in the past that his criminal group sold technology and blueprints to several countries.

"Dr. Abdul Qadeer gave some centrifuges to Iran," Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "He helped Iran in his personal capacity, and the Pakistan government had nothing to do with it."

Ahmed originally made the comments at a seminar in Islamabad organized by a local newspaper group, in which he stuck by Pakistan's insistence that despite his crimes, Khan would never be handed over to a third country for prosecution.

"I support the idea that the government should tell the people about these sensitive matters," Ahmed said in a speech at the seminar, an audio tape of which was also obtained by AP. "I am not a spokesman for a cowardly nation. Yes, we supplied Iran the centrifuge system. Yes, Dr. Qadeer gave Iran this technology. But we are not going to hand over Dr. Qadeer to any one. We will not." [complete article]

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Syria's exit may mean more power for Hezbollah in Lebanon
By Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, Knight Ridder, March 9, 2005

If Syrian forces leave Lebanon in the face of growing international and Lebanese pressure, the Islamic militant group Hezbollah - entrenched in this Bekaa Valley hamlet and across much of eastern and southern Lebanon - is ready to fill the military and political vacuum.

Should it succeed, the anti-Syrian democratic protests that have attracted so much international attention since opposition leader Rafik Hariri was assassinated Feb. 14 could prove stillborn. Instead of clearing the way for pro-Western democrats, Syria's withdrawal could bring to the fore a virulently anti-Western political force believed to be responsible for attacks on U.S. Marines and the American Embassy in Beirut and for kidnapping dozens of foreigners.

Uncertainty may rule the streets of Beirut after dueling protests for and against Syrian involvement in Lebanon's affairs, but loyalties are crystal-clear in this town built around Roman ruins 6 miles east of the Syrian border.

Hezbollah's green and yellow flags flutter along its streets. Taped to nearly every shop window and plastered across intervening concrete walls, the face of Hezbollah leader Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah broods at passers-by, as it does throughout Lebanon's predominantly Shiite Muslim east and south. [complete article]

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Egyptian diplomat rebuts Bush's views on Mideast
By Daniel Williams, Washington Post, March 10, 2005

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Wednesday offered a point-by-point rebuttal of President Bush's argument that the Middle East is opening to an era of democracy stimulated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

In an interview, Aboul Gheit criticized Bush's speech Tuesday to the National Defense University at Fort McNair, in which the president listed elections held by Iraqis and Palestinians and anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon as signs that "clearly and suddenly, the thaw has begun" in the largely authoritarian Middle East.

"What model are we talking about in Iraq? Bombs are exploding everywhere, and Iraqis are killed every day in the streets," Aboul Gheit said. "Palestinian elections? There were elections seven years prior."

As for Lebanon, Aboul Gheit noted something that Bush did not: Tuesday's huge pro-Syrian demonstration mounted by Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that the State Department labels a terrorist organization. The rally showed that "there are other trends in society," Aboul Gheit said, warning that U.S. pressure might lead ethnically and religiously divided Lebanon into chaos. [complete article]

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Bush administration advises Israel to be quiet on Lebanese politics
By Steven Erlanger, New York Times, March 10, 2005

The Bush administration has told Israeli officials, including the foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, to hold their tongues on the politics of Lebanon in order not to help Syria and its main supporter there, Hezbollah, Israeli officials said today.

But Israel is making no secret of its desire to see Syria out of Lebanon, representing a new consensus on the part of the Israeli political and strategic elite that the days of Syrian-sponsored stability in Lebanon are over.

The Israeli view is that Hezbollah, which is financed and supplied by Iran and Syria, would be more weakened by a Syrian withdrawal than restrained by a continuing Syrian presence. [complete article]

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U.S. called ready to see Hezbollah in Lebanon role
By Steven R. Weisman, New York Times, March 10, 2005

After years of campaigning against Hezbollah, the radical Shiite Muslim party in Lebanon, as a terrorist pariah, the Bush administration is grudgingly going along with efforts by France and the United Nations to steer the party into the Lebanese political mainstream, administration officials say.

The administration's shift was described by American, European and United Nations officials as a reluctant recognition that Hezbollah, besides having a militia and sponsoring attacks on Israelis, is an enormous political force in Lebanon that could block Western efforts to get Syria to withdraw its troops. [...]

The United States and France sponsored a United Nations Security Council resolution last year calling for Syrian troops to leave Lebanon, and a special United Nations envoy, Terje Roed Larsen, is to press for the troop withdrawal. Officially, Mr. Larsen's mission is also to demand the disarmament of Hezbollah, but as a practical matter that objective has receded, various officials say.

"The main players are making Hezbollah a lower priority," said a diplomat who is closely tracking the negotiations. "There is a realization by France and the United States that if you tackle Hezbollah now, you array the Shiites against you. With elections coming in Lebanon, you don't want the entire Shiite community against you."

The new posture of the administration was described by its officials, who asked not to be identified because of longstanding American antipathy toward Hezbollah.

"Hezbollah has American blood on its hands," an administration official said, referring to such events as the truck bombing that killed more than 200 American marines in Beirut in 1983. "They are in the same category as Al Qaeda. The administration has an absolute aversion to admitting that Hezbollah has a role to play in Lebanon, but that is the path we're going down." [complete

Comment -- If this report is accurate, it will be interesting to see what kind of neocon backlash it's going to unleash. Michael Ledeen, who describes Hezbollah as "the world's most lethal terrorist organisation," is, I imagine, hopping mad!

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Lebanese lawmakers bring back Pro-Syrian prime minister
By Jad Mouawad, New York Times, March 9, 2005

Nine days after Lebanon's pro-Syrian prime minister, Omar Karami, was forced to quit under pressure by opponents of Syria's occupation, he was voted back into the post today by the Lebanese parliament.

Mr. Karami was chosen by 71 deputies out of a current total of 126, according to the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation television. Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud, is bound by the choice of the parliament - dominated by pro-Syrian deputies - and will appoint Mr. Karami on Thursday.

The nomination of a Syria loyalist angered those who have sought an end to the influence of Damascus in Lebanon and threw the political system into deeper turmoil. Opposition parliamentarians have said they would not join a government that failed to meet their demands, including the dismissal of the Lebanese security chief and the full withdrawal of Syrian troops.

Parliamentary elections are due to be held in May but the laws governing those elections have not yet been written. With a purely pro-Syrian government in charge of writing those laws and setting up the polling, accusations of impropriety and gerrymandering are bound to create further tension.

Tens of thousands of Lebanese have been demonstrating since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14 and calling for a withdrawal of Syrian troops. The protests led to Mr. Karami's resignation last week and forced the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, to say he would start withdrawing his troops from Lebanon, which they first entered in 1976.

But Syria has seems now to have regained the initiative, emboldened by a huge pro-Syrian rally in downtown Beirut on Tuesday led by Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group. [complete article]

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Fadlallah blasts U.S. calls for 'democracy'
By Karine Raad, Daily Star, March 10, 2005

Senior Shiite cleric Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah said Wednesday the U.S. administration's concept of spreading democracy in the Arab and Muslim region meant complying with Israel's demands and proceeding to naturalization with the Israeli state.

Fadlallah indicated that U.S. embassies - which have always been fortresses for spying and conspiring against regional regimes, as well as popular and liberation movements against "Zionism" - cannot turn into light houses of freedom and democracy in the blink of an eye.

In his weekly meeting, Fadlallah stressed that change, according to Islam, is implemented based on the free will of a person or a nation and cannot be imposed by foreign forces. [complete article]

Comment -- George Bush likes to talk about "freedom" and "democracy" but a phrase he's unlikely to ever help popularize is "self-determination." It can't be delivered. It's unspreadable. If it doesn't grow from within, it won't grow at all.

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Lebanon after the Syrians
By Tony Karon,, March 9, 2005

"Beirut," in Middle East conversation, has long served as a synonym for civil chaos. But in recent weeks the mushrooming protest movement to eject Syrian troops from the country had begun to paint the Lebanese capital in a new light. Pundits wondered whether the protests presaged a wave of Eastern Europe-style pastel-shaded revolutions that would sweep aside Arab autocracy, and President Bush had warned the Syrians to leave in order that the "good democracy" of Lebanon could flourish unmolested. But a reality check came Tuesday in the form of a gigantic pro-Syria demonstration, which drew 500,000 people -- more than seven times the largest crowd drawn by the anti-Syria protestors, and a spectacular feat in a country whose total population is a little over 4 million. The divisions that had spun out of conrol in the 1970s and sparked Lebanon's civil war clearly remain a latent presence, and the "good democracy" of Lebanon may be a good deal more complex than the Bush administration would prefer. [complete article]

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The enemy within
By Sidney Blumenthal, The Guardian, March 10, 2005

In the heat of the battle over the Florida vote after the 2000 US presidential election, a burly, mustachioed man burst into the room where the ballots for Miami-Dade County were being tabulated, like John Wayne barging into a saloon for a shoot-out. "I'm with the Bush-Cheney team, and I'm here to stop the count," drawled John Bolton. And those ballots from Miami-Dade were not counted.

Now that same John Bolton has been named by President Bush as the US ambassador to the UN. "If I were redoing the security council today, I'd have one permanent member because that's the real reflection of the distribution of power in the world," Bolton once said. Lately, as undersecretary of state for arms control, he has wrecked all the nonproliferation diplomacy within his reach. Over the past two decades he has been the person most dedicated to trying to discredit the UN. George Orwell's clock of 1984 is striking 13.

The euphoria that Bush's European trip marked a conversion on the road to Brussels is fading. For it was Bush himself who decided to reward Bolton with a position where he could continue his crusade as a "convinced Americanist" against the "globalists," especially those at the UN and the EU. [complete article]

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Britain 'dismayed' at Israeli move not to prosecute over journalist's death
Agence France Presse (via Yahoo), March 9, 2005

Britain said it was "dismayed" at the Israeli army's decision not to prosecute an officer thought responsible for the killing of a British journalist in the Gaza Strip.

There was no evidence on which to convict the officer over the death of 35-year-old James Miller in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah in May 2003, military advocate general Avihai Mandelblitt announced.

"I was dismayed to hear of the military advocate general's decision," British Foreign Office minister Baroness Liz Symons, whose remit includes the Middle East, said in a statement.

"I deeply sympathise with James's family, who have worked so hard to secure justice for James. The British government will continue to raise James's case with the government of Israel," she said. [complete article]

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War mistake tests Italy's patience
By Sophie Arie, Christian Science Monitor, March 10, 2005

They've had the tears, the tributes, and the angry accusations. Now, Italians want answers.

In an effort to solder their strained relations, the United States and Italy have agreed that they will join forces to investigate how an Italian intelligence agent was shot dead by American troops as he accompanied a rescued hostage, journalist Giulia Sgrena, to the Baghdad Airport last week.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi hopes the joint effort will soothe his country's raw emotions. "We can be satisfied," Mr. Berlusconi said, according to La Repubblica newspaper. "Because in this way [President] Bush has assumed responsibility for his friendship with me. He has done everything possible."

But for now, Italy - a close American ally that sent some 3,000 troops to Iraq - remains on edge, its pride dented by the wartime mistake. Many here fear that justice will never be served. The recent history of how US friendly-fire cases were resolved doesn't raise their hopes.

The death of Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari has revived anger over the way America dealt with its own soldiers who killed Italians by mistake in a much more clear-cut case in 1998. [complete article]

U.S. bullets found in body armor of dead Bulgarian
Reuters (via Yahoo), March 9, 2005

Bulgaria is now sure U.S. forces killed one of its soldiers last week in a "friendly fire" accident, mainly because of poor communication, army and Defense Ministry officials said Wednesday.

Defense Minister Nikolai Svinarov said spent bullets removed from rifleman Gurdi Gurdev's body armor were of U.S. issue. Gurdev had been sprayed with automatic weapons fire after his unit shot warning rounds to halt an Iraqi vehicle in the dark.

"They were 7.62x51 Winchester," he said. Results from a U.S. investigation will be revealed on March 11 in Baghdad.

Gurdev's death happened the same day U.S. forces killed an Italian security agent and wounded journalist Giuliana Sgrena.

The incidents have drawn sharp criticism from the two U.S.-allied states, and officials from both countries have demanded the United States punish those responsible. [complete article]

Comment -- "Trigger happy" is another way to describe pre-emptive war. Should we expect American soldiers patrolling the streets of Baghdad to behave differently from their commander in chief?

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Hezbollah enters the fray
By Ashraf Fahim, Asia Times, March 10, 2005

The problem faced by the US and Israel at the moment is one of overreach. With its demonstration on Tuesday, Hezbollah has put paid to the idea that the Lebanese are united in their opposition to Syria or in favor of disarming the Shi'ite militia. And as an integral part of the Lebanese political process, Hezbollah will have considerable pull in the formation of any future government.

Had the US focused exclusively on a Syrian withdrawal, it might be in a more tenable position. Nasrullah has emphasized that Hezbollah supports a Syrian pullout, but only under the Taif Accord - an Arab agreement - rather than Resolution 1559. It is precisely the anti-Hezbollah provisions of 1559 that alienate many Lebanese, who see those provisions as intended to benefit Israel.

While Hezbollah has a surprisingly moderate domestic political platform - one observer called it "almost social democratic" - the rub so far as Washington is concerned lies in its external policy, particularly on the "peace process". Rumors in the press that the Lebanese opposition has been in talks with the Israeli government have been seized on by Nasrullah, who has said that the group would not agree to negotiations, even if the Lebanese government did. Its Syrian patron's long-standing policy is that Lebanon and Syria must negotiate an agreement with Israel together because of Israel's strategic superiority.

It will not be easy for the US to sideline Hezbollah. Regionally, the group has close religious ties to Iraq's new Shi'ite-dominated government, which makes threatening it risky - Nasrullah studied in Najaf with many of the Da'wa Party's clerics, whose candidate (Ibrahim Jaafari ) may become Iraq's next prime minister. In addition, popular Arab support makes tackling Hezbollah difficult. And though Syria appears weak at the moment, its support, and the support of Iran, still makes Hezbollah a potent military force. [complete article]

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Half a million gather for pro-Syrian rally to defy vision of U.S.
By Robert Fisk, The Independent, March 9, 2005

Nasrallah's take on the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war was predictable. The crowds were meeting on the front lines that had separated the Lebanese during the civil war; indeed, on the very location of the Christian-Muslim trenches of that conflict. "We meet today to remind the world and our partners in the country," Nasrallah said, "that this arena that joins us, or the other one in Martyrs' Square, was destroyed by Israel and civil war and was united by Syria and the blood of its soldiers and officers."

This was an inventive piece of history. Israel certainly killed many thousands of Lebanese - more than the Syrians, although their soldiers took the lives of many hundreds - but the half million roared their approval.

So what did all this prove? That there was another voice in Lebanon. That if the Lebanese "opposition" - pro-Hariri and increasingly Christian - claim to speak for Lebanon and enjoy the support of President Bush, there is a pro-Syrian, nationalist voice which does not go along with their anti-Syrian demands but which has identified what it believes is the true reason for Washington's support for Lebanon: Israel's plans for the Middle East. [complete article]

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"This is true democracy"
By Joshua Landis, Syria Comment, March 9, 2005

I was out doing errands much of the day and all the shops [in Damascus] had the TV on. Store owners and errand boys alike were leaning over their counters watching the demonstration with amazement and gratification. "This was the true Lebanon," they insisted. "People from every part and every religion," they intoned, repeating the line that the Lebanese opposition has been using for the last two weeks to insist that it expresses the true Lebanon. "George Bush asked for democracy. This is the true democracy," I was told repeatedly.

Today, Syrians will demonstrate. Many have told me they will go. The school in which my wife teaches has closed for the day because it is in Mezze, the section of town where the demonstration is to begin; the director fears that the kids will not be able to get home because of the crowds. The UN offices are only opening for half the day. It would seem that all of central Damascus will be closing early today.

This is the first demonstration of its kind that most Syrians can remember and they are excited. Perhaps the government will learn that it needs the people and their support? Perhaps the people will learn that the government needs them? The Lebanon example is bearing its first fruit here. [complete article]

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Syria to quit Lebanon before poll
BBC News, March 9, 2005

Syria says it will leave Lebanon before the country's general election in May.

"We will withdraw as soon as possible, without delay and probably a long time before the election," said Imad Moustapha, Syrian ambassador to the US.

Syrian troops have already begun pulling out of southern and northern Lebanon, Lebanese officials say.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud is due to begin talks with parliamentary deputies after which he is expected to name a new pro-Syrian prime minister. [complete article]

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Data is lacking on Iran's arms, U.S. panel says
By Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt, New York Times, March 9, 2005

A commission due to report to President Bush this month will describe American intelligence on Iran as inadequate to allow firm judgments about Iran's weapons programs, according to people who have been briefed on the panel's work.

The report comes as intelligence agencies prepare a new formal assessment on Iran, and follows a 14-month review by the panel, which Mr. Bush ordered last year to assess the quality of overall intelligence about the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

The Bush administration has been issuing increasingly sharp warnings about what it says are Iran's efforts to build nuclear weapons. The warnings have been met with firm denials in Tehran, which says its nuclear program is intended purely for civilian purposes. [complete article]

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'Rendition' realities
By David Ignatius, Washington Post, March 9, 2005

What's gained by transferring a prisoner to his home country for interrogation is emotional leverage, according to Arab and American intelligence chiefs. A hardened al Qaeda member often can't be physically coerced into giving up information, no matter how nasty the interrogator. But he may do so if confronted by, say, his mother, father, brother or sister. That family contact is possible if he's near home; it's impossible if he's in an orange jump suit and warehoused at Guantanamo Bay.

I asked the head of an Arab intelligence service once about the widespread belief in his country that prisoners were tortured. People sometimes referred to his headquarters as the "fingernail factory," I said, because they assumed that vicious methods were used, such as ripping out prisoners' nails. This official insisted that torture didn't work. He cited cases in which prisoners had been broken through softer and more clever measures -- applying family pressure or, in one remarkable case, ignoring a defiant, self-important prisoner until he all but demanded to be questioned.

The head of another major Arab intelligence service explained how his men cracked an al Qaeda suspect who had refused to talk to the Americans; their main "weapon," he said, was that they prayed five times a day in the man's presence.

These "nice" interrogation stories don't change the fact that hideous methods have been used in rendition cases. And in some instances, the CIA should have known that torture was likely -- and stopped it. That's wrong; no agency of the U.S. government should ever turn a blind eye to torture. But I think you can oppose torture and still find circumstances where rendition might be appropriate. [complete article]

Comment -- David Ignatius is making what, on superficial appraisal, might seem like a reasonable argument. But what exactly is "emotional leverage" and "family contact"? Listen to Ignatius and you can picture the mother of a terrorist-suspect admonishing him to be a good boy and cooperate with the authorities. On the other hand, another form of emotional leverage would be to ask a suspect if he wants to see his sister being raped or to threaten to blow up his parents' house. In either case, the suspect's body is left without a scratch. Does Ignatius really imagine that the interogators and their superiors and those they represent can all have clean consciences so long as no one actually gets blood on their hands?

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Bomb hits Baghdad after headless bodies found
By Elizabeth Piper, Reuters (via Yahoo), March 9, 2005

A suicide bomber in a garbage truck packed with explosives killed two policemen near a Baghdad hotel Wednesday, and police found 41 corpses, shot or decapitated, in the heartland of Iraq's insurgency.

Al Qaeda's wing in Iraq, led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said it carried out the Baghdad attack that wounded at least 20 others -- part of its relentless campaign to bring down the government and drive out U.S. troops.

The killings of the 41, found in Qaim near the Syrian border and near Latafiya south of Baghdad in what has become known as the "triangle of death," bore the marks of the insurgency -- some were shot in the back of the head, others beheaded. [complete article]

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Italy calls shooting an accident
By Alan Cooperman and Bradley Graham, Washington Post, March 9, 2005

Italy's foreign minister said Tuesday that the killing of an Italian intelligence agent and wounding of an Italian journalist by U.S. troops in Iraq was an accident, but he demanded that the United States conduct a thorough investigation and punish those at fault.

In a somber speech to Parliament, Gianfranco Fini disputed the U.S. military's version of the events that led to Friday night's shooting near Baghdad International Airport. The car carrying journalist Giuliani Sgrena to the airport -- less than an hour after her release by insurgents who had held her hostage -- was coming to a halt when it was riddled by gunfire at a U.S. checkpoint, Fini said. He also said the slain intelligence agent, Nicola Calipari, had made a series of phone calls in an effort to alert Italian and U.S. authorities. [complete article]

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Pro-Syria voices push back
By Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, March 9, 2005

Lebanon's Shiite Hizbullah organization spearheaded a massive rally in central Beirut that drew at least 500,000 demonstrators who protested Western interference in Lebanon and denounced the UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for a withdrawal of foreign forces.

The huge crowds packed central Beirut and dwarfed recent anti-Syrian rallies, sending a powerful message to the Lebanese opposition and the international community that the Shiite party is a political force to be reckoned with.

"Now we see that the majority of Shiites are behind Hizbullah and if we want to talk about democracy and people power, we are witnessing this," says Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a professor of politics at the Lebanese-American University and author of "Hizbullah: Politics and Religion."

"What does the US have to say about that, Hizbullah will ask, 'Is the US going to turn around and say ... that's the kind of democracy we are not interested in?' This is the double-edged sword that a lot of people have been cautioning the US about." [complete article]

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'Coming out party' for Hezbollah in Lebanon
By Jim Maceda, NBC News, March 8, 2005

There was a sea of humanity as far as the eye could see. The crowd was truly large and absolutely dwarfed anything we'd seen from the pro-democracy, "Independence Intifada" camp over the last eight or nine days.

There are so many different ways to describe it. On one level it was it was a "coming out party" for Hezbollah.

It was probably the first time Hezbollah organized such a political gathering, put down its weapons, downplayed its military aspect, picked up a Lebanese flag and just melted into the crowd.

The demonstration was organized by Hezbollah, but it was much bigger than Hezbollah’s agenda. It combined many disparate groups, mostly Shiites, but also a lot of Lebanese government officials, as well as Amal, another pro-Syrian Shiite group.

But there was one overriding message: that [the pro-Syrians] are another face of democracy. It was, "We want peaceful change as well, but we want to do it our way. We don't want international intervention, we don't want our friends like Syria pushed into a corner and we want to show you that." [complete article]

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Push for nuclear-free Middle East resurfaces
By Walter Pincus, Washington Post, March 6, 2005

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and several Arab countries have said they plan to push discussion of creating a nuclear-free Middle East at the May conference of nations that have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

For Arab nations, it is a way of highlighting their complaint that Israel's possession of nuclear weapons has been a major factor behind any proliferation in the region, and that the United States employs a double standard in demanding no nuclear weapons programs from Iran and Arab states. [complete article]

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Report shows Israeli support for West Bank settlements
By Steven Erlanger, New York Times, March 8, 2005

A long-awaited report into Israeli government support for illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank, formally delivered to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today, describes widespread state complicity, fraud and cynicism, illegal diversion of government money and illegal seizure of private Palestinian land.

The report, which was written under American pressure, finished in early January and withheld until now, accuses the government of Mr. Sharon and previous Israeli governments of "blatant violations of the law" and complicity in helping settlers construct illegal outposts in violation of stated Israeli government policy. The report describes almost a state within a state, devoted to promoting illegal settlement activity in the occupied West Bank.

"No one seriously intends to enforce the law," says the report, written by Talia Sasson, a former chief state prosecutor. "It seems as if the violation of the law has become institutional and institutionalized. There is blatant violation of the law by certain state authorities, public authorities, regional councils" in the West Bank "and the settlers," Ms. Sasson writes, according to excerpts published today by the Israeli daily Maariv. "Everything is done for appearances' sake, as if a regulated institutional establishment were acting within the confines of the law." [complete article]

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Settler leaders contradict Israel claims
By Amy Teibel, Associated Press (via Yahoo), March 8, 2005

Settler leaders on Tuesday painted a picture of widespread state complicity in setting up unauthorized West Bank settlement outposts, contradicting Israel's repeated claim that it is trying to dismantle outposts in line with an internationally backed peace plan.

The settler leaders confirmed reported findings of a government-sponsored study on the outposts to be released Wednesday. Excerpts were published Tuesday in the Maariv daily. [complete article]

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Writing is on the wall for Sharon, settlers warn
By Conal Urquhart, The Guardian, March 8, 2005

"Sharon, Lily is waiting for you." The message being spray-painted around Israel contains menace: Lily, Ariel Sharon's wife, died of lung cancer in 2000; now hardline Jewish opponents of the prime minister are willing him to join her.

The alternative version of the graffito - "Sharon, Rabin is waiting for you" - is a more direct threat. It refers to Yitzhak Rabin, the former prime minister who was assassinated in 1995 in protest at his moves towards making peace with the Palestinians.

Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir, is one of two poster boys for Israel's extreme right, a group estimated to number several thousand who mostly live in West Bank settlements. The other is Baruch Goldstein who died, in the eyes of a minority of Israelis, in glory after killing 29 Palestinians as they prayed in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Both represent the pinnacle of Jewish violence, an undercurrent which is mostly submerged but is expected to re-emerge in opposition to the Israeli government's plan to withdraw from its settlements in the Gaza Strip in July. [complete article]

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Israel's strategic goal: phase out Palestinian labor
Haaretz, March 8, 2005

[Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon] said that Israel's strategic goal is to phase out Palestinian labor by 2008.

Israel made the decision in response to more than four years of fighting with the Palestinians, Ya'alon told the security conference. Before the outbreak of violence in 2000, more than 150,000 Palestinians worked in Israel, most in menial jobs Israelis refused to fill.

The Palestinian economy has traditionally relied heavily on work in Israel. During the recent round of violence - when workers were barred from entering Israel - unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip skyrocketed, leading to high poverty rates.

"Our goal is to stop any kind of Palestinian working in Israel by 2008. This is our policy, this is our political directive and this is because of what has happened here over the last four and a half years," Ya'alon said. [complete article]

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Soldier who denounced abuses in Iraq given psychiatric exam
Agence France Presse (via Yahoo), March 8, 2005

An army sergeant was given a psychiatric examination and sent out of Iraq after he reported that members of his counter-intelligence team in Samarra were abusing prisoners, according to army investigation documents.

The case was contained in a new batch of army criminal investigation files released in response to a court order obtained as a result of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Unions.

Other documents detailed investigations into alleged abuses by soldiers, harsh interrogations by special operations forces, shooting deaths of prisoners during a riot, and a death in US custody of a prisonr at Abu Ghraib.

But the sergeant's case was unusual in that his superior officers responded to his allegations that members of his counter-intelligence unit were abusing prisoners by having him examined by a military psychiatrist.

The documents show that the commander of the 223rd military intelligence battalion and his executive officer, who had previously led the counter-intelligence team, met with the psychiatrist after she initially gave the complaining sergeant a clean bill of mental health.

The psychiatrist later told investigators "her chain of command put undue pressure on her which forced her to decide to send the sergeant back to the United States," according to the documents. [complete article]

Comment -- Now hasn't this approach been used before? Treat dissent as a form of mental illness -- are the Pentagon's Cold Warriors applying some of the tricks they learnt from studying the Soviet Union?

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U.S. military says it may abandon Abu Ghraib for safer location
By Rawya Rageh, Associated Press (via Boston Globe), March 8, 2005

Incessant attacks against Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison may force the U.S. military to return the facility to Iraq's government and take their own high-security inmates to a safer place, a U.S. military official said.

As the United States mulls a plan to pull out of the facility, located on the outskirts of the capital, U.S. military figures show that a crackdown against insurgents before and after the Jan. 30 landmark parliamentary election has bloated Iraq's prison system to the breaking point.

"The reason we would like to move our operations from Abu Ghraib is that it has been regularly targeted with attacks from insurgents. The new facility would be within the larger Baghdad International Airport complex, making it less susceptible to attacks," Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for Iraq Detention Operations, told The Associated Press. [complete article]

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U.S. soldiers accused of sex assaults
By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian, March 8, 2005

Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Brigade - the same military unit whose troops fired on the car carrying the freed Italian hostage Giuliana Sgrena - were under investigation last year for raping Iraqi women, US army documents reveal.

Four soldiers were alleged to have raped the two women while on guard duty in a Baghdad shopping precinct. A US army investigator interviewed several soldiers from the military unit, the 1-15th battalion of the 3rd Infantry Brigade - but did not locate or interview the Iraqi women involved - before shutting down the inquiry for lack of evidence.

Transcripts of the investigation, obtained by the Guardian from the American Civil Liberties Union, show only the most cursory attempts by the investigator to establish whether the women were raped.

The soldiers claimed the women were prostitutes, or denied any knowledge of any one in their unit having sex while deployed in Iraq. The statements went largely unchallenged. "I know the women were Iraqi. I however don't know if they were raped, or were prostitutes, or just wanted sex," one soldier told investigators. [complete article]

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Militants scour Europe for Iraq fighters
By David Rising, Associated Press (via Yahoo), March 6, 2005

Islamic terror groups are becoming increasingly active in Germany and coordinating with militants across Europe to recruit fighters to join the insurgency in Iraq, equipping them with fake passports, money and medical supplies, security officials say.

One of the best examples of the cross-continent cooperation involves an Algerian man arrested in Germany and now on trial in Italy for allegedly helping Muslims from Somalia, Egypt, Iraq and Morocco recruit some 200 militants from around Europe to fight in Iraq.

Many in Germany's Islamic communities have shown sympathy for Muslims fighting jihad, or holy war, in places like Chechnya or Bosnia, but authorities say a growing number of sympathizers are taking an active role themselves since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"The war in Iraq has somehow mobilized this scene so that people who before just had some sort of contact or sympathies with extremist groups now think they have to do something," Manfred Murck, deputy head of the Hamburg government agency that tracks extremists, told The Associated Press.

"It's a main topic that brings people to action that they otherwise might not have taken. In past years they were talking about jihad, but not doing anything." [complete article]

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Hizbullah is not a problem - it is part of Lebanon's solution
Editorial, Daily Star, March 7, 2005

Civil violence is a red line that should never be crossed - "If we cross it, the country will return to square one in the history of the Lebanese crisis." These are words of experience and wisdom, and they came from Hizbullah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

Nasrallah is the custodian of other commonsense concepts that found public expression on Sunday. For example, he called for a national dialogue to cement the things on which all parties concur. He was making clear that Hizbullah is Lebanese and that despite some differences in approach from some groups firmly entrenched in the opposition camp, there are, in fact, many points of agreement, including national unity and the parliamentary system.

He also said the "time was ripe for a safe withdrawal" of Syria's military presence in Lebanon, and that because Syria had been successful in its policies in Lebanon, the withdrawal would not cause instability, as long as the withdrawal was conducted sensibly and carefully. This means, Nasrallah said, that the best mechanism for such a withdrawal is the 1989 Taif Accord, which Syrian President Bashar Assad announced Saturday would be implemented.

By the same token, Nasrallah emphasized that a Syrian withdrawal does not give a green light for other powers to step into Syria's shoes: "Sovereignty and freedom means to be masters of our own destiny. We are ready to unite with the opposition in the fight for true freedom and independence." If sovereignty means anything at all, then it means independence from the United States and Israel as much as it means independence from Syria. Sovereignty means sovereignty - it cannot be interpreted one way for one party and another way for another party. This is why, Nasrallah maintains, Hizbullah cannot support UN Resolution 1559.

Nasrallah has a point, and Lebanese of all persuasions would be advised to listen more closely and afford the Hizbullah leader the respect he is due. [complete article]

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Huge pro-Syrian protest fills square and streets in Beirut
By Leena Saidi and Jad Mouawad, New York Times, March 8, 2005

Hundreds of thousands of pro-Syrian protesters poured into a central Beirut square this afternoon, in answer to a call by the militant Hezbollah group for a demonstration to counter weeks of huge rallies demanding that Syrian forces leave Lebanon.

Thousands in the huge crowds waved Lebanese flags, as called for by the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah.

Others held up banners proclaiming in English, "Thanks to Syria" and "No to Foreign Interference," as well as pictures of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, his ally, President Émile Lahoud of Lebanon, and Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

It was Mr. Hariri's assassination on Feb. 14, with many in the opposition accusing the Syrians of being responsible for the killing, that set off huge opposition protests in Beirut, leading to today's protest.

As the afternoon wore on, the enthusiastic, cheering crowds filled the square in central Beirut and spilled over into streets to the north and the south.

Loudspeakers blared out endlessly over a public address system, carrying the message that Syrian troops should maintain a presence in Lebanon. Calls for no foreign intervention referred to the United States and Israel. [complete article]

Comment -- When tens of thousands of Lebanese protest against the pro-Syrian Lebanese government it is hailed around the world as an impressive expression of the will of the Lebanese people and their desire for self-determination. As Newsweek describes it, this is "people power!" Now half a million Lebanese (from a city of 2.25 million) take to the streets and what are we witnessing? Hezbollah's organizational efficiency; the blind loyalty of the Shiite masses; the past; a political exercise of no real significance.

George Bush just declared:
Today I have a message for the people of Lebanon: All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience. Lebanon's future belongs in your hands. And by your courage Lebanon's future will be in your hands.
As for today's message from Lebanon, it was apparently the wrong message and so can happily be ignored - at least, that appears to be the attitude of the White House.

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Looking back: John Bolton vs. the World
By Nicholas Thompson, Salon (via New America Foundation), July 16, 2003

When Jesse Helms, R-N.C., urged his fellow senators in March 2001 to confirm a longtime friend as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, he gave an endorsement that was, quite literally, out of this world.

"John Bolton," Helms said, "is the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon, or what the Bible describes as the final battle between good and evil."

Bolton, who passed by a 57-43 vote, plays a much more important role than the flow charts suggest. He's a hard-line conservative whose intellectual and moral views are simpatico with those of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and most of the higher-ups in the National Security Council and Defense Department. Well before the accuracy of the president's rationale for waging a war in Iraq was questioned, Bolton was installed to help forge the administration's aggressive new foreign policy. His philosophy? To exaggerate slightly, Bolton believes the relationship between America and the rest of the world should resemble that between a hammer and a nail. [complete article]

Comment -- What does the choice of Bolton tell us about George Bush's frame of mind? The swaggering cowboy is back. Playing the role of diplomatic statesman -- as Bush attempted to do in his recent trip to Europe -- was something that he couldn't stomach for long. Now he and the rest of the White House are intoxicated by a whiff of success in the Middle East and it's back to the old hubris.

Trapped inside a self-reinforcing, self-aggrandizing bubble, they currently seem happy to ignore what for others would be troubling facts. Though the Iraqi elections were a qualified success they have yet to result in the formation of a new government and Kirkuk presents what is becoming an intractable problem. And now, even while Syrian troops are moving east in Lebanon, pro-Syrian demonstrators in Beirut seem to outnumber the opposition. There's no doubt that the Middle East is in flux, yet the Bush administration, clearly beguiled by the conviction that it is the prime instrument of change, fails to appreciate that the outcome may not be to their liking.

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Bush names hardliner Bolton as U.N. envoy
By Guy Dinmore and Mark Turner, Financial Times, March 7, 2005

John Bolton, a senior state department arms-control official and one of the most hawkish members of the Bush administration, was nominated on Monday as the next US ambassador to the United Nations.

A sceptic of international law who once declared "there's no such thing as the United Nations", Mr Bolton has been nominated at a critical time for the world body which is undergoing a review this year. He told a 1994 conference sponsored by the World Federalist Association: "If the UN secretary building in New York lost 10 storeys, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

Mr Bolton is known as a strong supporter of Taiwan, and has taken a tough line against North Korea, which once denounced him as "human scum".

As undersecretary for arms control and international secretary, Mr Bolton took the robust approach that international organisations and treaties were useful as long as they served US national interests. [complete article]

Bush to U.N.: Drop dead
By Fred Kaplan, Slate, March 7, 2005

Just as it looked like George W. Bush might be nudging toward multilateralism, he goes and appoints John Bolton as his ambassador to the United Nations. There could be no clearer sign that the contempt for the international organization, which was such a prominent feature of Bush's first term, will extend into his second term with still greater force and eloquence. [complete article]

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Syrian troops move east, not out
By Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, March 8, 2005

The aged and battered Syrian Army truck lumbered to a halt in a thick cloud of gray diesel smoke as a soldier shoved a rock beneath a back wheel and another lifted the hood to inspect the engine.

It was not an auspicious start to the redeployment of 14,000 Syrian soldiers from Lebanon, which formally got under way Monday following a presidential summit in Damascus.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said that Syrian troops will immediately pull back from northern and central Lebanon to the Bekaa Valley in the east, near Syria's border. But a complete troop withdrawal will be deferred until after later negotiations. And for many Lebanese, the departure of Syrian troops is far less relevant than the dismantling of Syria's extensive intelligence network.

"The Syrian military intelligence is involved in everything from the border of Israel in the south to the border of Syria in the north. They are running the military, the economy, and the politics of Lebanon," says a retired Lebanese military intelligence officer. [complete article]

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U.S. killing of Italian officer stokes anger against war
By Ian Fisher, New York Times, March 7, 2005

Most Italians have never supported the war in Iraq, nor liked having their troops there. But their misgivings found a physical form on Sunday, in the shape of a coffin lying in state and holding the body of an Italian intelligence officer killed in Iraq - by an American bullet.

"There is something behind all this," Marta Belziti, 31, a distant relative of the dead intelligence agent, Nicola Calipari, said as she left the white marble of the Vittoriano monument in Rome, where thousands of Italians paid their respects to Mr. Calipari's body and his widow. "The Americans aren't telling the truth." [complete article]

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U.S. checkpoints raise ire in Iraq
By John F. Burns, New York Times, March 7, 2005

When an Italian journalist was driven up Baghdad's airport road toward an American military checkpoint on Friday night, she was driving into a situation fraught with hazards thousands of Iraqis face every day.

The journalist, Giuliana Sgrena, 56, ran into fierce American gunfire that left her with a shrapnel wound to her shoulder and killed the Italian intelligence agent sitting beside her in the rear seat. She had been released only 35 minutes earlier by Iraqi kidnappers who had held her hostage for a month, and the car carrying them to the airport was driving in pitch dark.

But the conditions for the journey, up a road that is considered the most dangerous in Iraq, were broadly the same as those facing all civilian drivers approaching American checkpoints or convoys. American soldiers operate under rules of engagement that give them authority to open fire whenever they have reason to believe that they or others in their unit may be at risk of suicide bombings or other insurgent attacks.

Next to the scandal of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, no other aspect of the American military presence in Iraq has caused such widespread dismay and anger among Iraqis, judging by their frequent outbursts on the subject. Daily reports compiled by Western security companies chronicle many incidents in which Iraqis with no apparent connection to the insurgency are killed or wounded by American troops who have opened fire on suspicion that the Iraqis were engaged in a terrorist attack. [complete article]

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Many missteps tied to delay in armor for troops in Iraq
By Michael Moss, New York Times, March 7, 2005

The war in Iraq was hardly a month old in April 2003 when an Army general in charge of equipping soldiers with protective gear threw the brakes on buying bulletproof vests.

The general, Richard A. Cody, who led a Pentagon group called the Army Strategic Planning Board, had been told by supply chiefs that the combat troops already had all the armor they needed, according to Army officials and records from the board's meetings. Some 50,000 other American soldiers, who were not on the front lines of battle, could do without.

In the following weeks, as Iraqi snipers and suicide bombers stepped up deadly attacks, often directed at those very soldiers behind the front lines, General Cody realized the Army's mistake and did an about-face. On May 15, 2003, he ordered the budget office to buy all the bulletproof vests it could, according to an Army report. He would give one to every soldier, "regardless of duty position."

But the delays were only beginning. The initial misstep, as well as other previously undisclosed problems, show that the Pentagon's difficulties in shielding troops and their vehicles with armor have been far more extensive and intractable than officials have acknowledged, according to government officials, contractors and Defense Department records. [complete article]

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Kurdish towns benefit from Iraq insurgency
By Scheherezade Faramazi, Associated Press (via Yahoo), March 6, 2005

The contrast between Iraq's Kurdish provinces and the insurgency-wracked cities to the south is evident in the 100 or so laborers gathered at the main square of this Kurdish town, looking for work.

They are among many Iraqi Arabs who have come from unemployment-stricken Baghdad and other cities to earn $10 for eight hours of work in a relatively safe environment. That they are Arabs among historically hostile Kurds suggests that ethnic coexistence is not dead in the new Iraq.

What draws the laborers, some as young as 14, as well as legions of investors, is a Kurdish economy that is flourishing on investment and capital that has been driven out of the insurgency areas.

"We expect terrorism to continue for another year or two," said Mohammed Karim, director of the Board for Promoting Investment in Sulaymaniyah. "We don't hope for this to happen, but if it does continue, the economy of the north will continue to flourish." [complete article]

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'Al-Jazeera': And now, the other news
By Isabel Hilton, New York Times, March 7, 2005

In one sense the story of Al Jazeera began in 1995, when Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani overthrew his father and became the emir of Qatar, a tiny Persian Gulf state that sits on one trillion cubic feet of natural gas. As Hugh Miles puts it in "Al-Jazeera," his fascinating account of the world's most notorious television station, the new emir wanted Qatar to be like Switzerland, "rich, neutral and secure." A television channel was part of the plan.

The emir was helped by the failure of another experiment: in 1994 the BBC had agreed with a Saudi-financed station to supply a news service in Arabic; the partnership collapsed in 1996 over Saudi objections to the content. It left 250 BBC-trained journalists and auxiliary staff members out of a job; 120 of the newly unemployed signed on with the emir of Qatar and Al Jazeera was born.

Today Al Jazeera is the bete noire of the Bush administration. Back then, it was a beacon of light in an Arab media world that was dark indeed. The station's bold reporting and provocative talk shows outraged repressive governments across the region. The State Department Human Rights Report on Qatar in 2000 commented favorably on Al Jazeera's willingness to carry criticism of Qatar's own government. [complete article]

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Anti-Muslim bias 'spreads' in EU
BBC News, March 7, 2005

Muslims in Europe have faced increased discrimination since the 11 September attacks, according to a new report.

The study by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) covers 11 EU members states.

It looks at "widespread" negative attitudes towards Muslims, including unbalanced media reporting which depict Muslims as "an enemy within". [complete article]

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China doubts U.S. data on North Korean nuclear work
By Joseph Kahn, New York Times, March 7, 2005

The Chinese foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, expressed doubt on Sunday about the quality of American intelligence on North Korea's nuclear program and said the United States would have to talk to North Korea one-on-one to resolve the standoff.

Mr. Li's assessment, made at an extended news conference during China's annual legislative meeting, amounted to a double slap at the United States. Washington has repeatedly sounded the alarm about North Korea's nuclear efforts and has pressed China, North Korea's only significant ally, to be more active in seeking seek a solution.

President Bush last month sent a high-level envoy to Beijing to present fresh intelligence data that the Bush administration contends shows that North Korea's nuclear program is more advanced than previously thought and that it has been selling nuclear materials around the world.

One task of the envoy, Michael Green, the official handling Asian affairs at the National Security Council, was to dispel Chinese skepticism about the quality of American intelligence, administration officials and Asian diplomats said at the time.

But when asked by a Japanese journalist on Sunday to describe China's understanding of North Korea's nuclear program, including whether the country had produced nuclear fuel from enriched uranium as well as plutonium, Mr. Li answered pointedly and with a hint of sarcasm.

"Concerning whether North Korea already has nuclear weapons or anything about the question of uranium enrichment, I think that here you may know more than I do," Mr. Li said. "Or to put it another way, I definitely don't know any more than you do." [complete article]

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Hezbollah declares full support for Syria
By Hassan M. Fattah, New York Times, March 7, 2005

The Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah declared its full support for Syria today, presenting a direct challenge to opposition groups after Syria promised to gradually withdraw troops from Lebanon.

Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, spoke to reporters today in his stronghold in southern Beirut, breaking weeks of relative silence over the crisis concerning Syria's presence in Lebanon. He called for Lebanese to "express their gratitude" to Syria by joining a demonstration on Tuesday against United Nations Resolution 1559, which calls for Syria's withdrawal and Hezbollah's disarmament.

"I invite all Lebanese to this meeting to refuse foreign interference," he said.

Although he acknowledged that a Syrian pullout was a reality, he stressed that Syria must be able to leave with honor - a reaction to repeated statements by the Bush administration and Lebanese opposition groups calling for a quick and complete pullout of Syrian forces. [complete article]

For more background on the historical roots of the tension between these two countries, see Q&A: What is Syria's role in Lebanon? (CSM).

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Stark choice for militant Hizbullah
By Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2005

Syria's stated intention to begin disengaging its military forces from this Mediterranean country poses the most serious challenge to the militant Shiite Hizbullah organization since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

A Syrian withdrawal threatens to deprive Hizbullah of its Damascus-sanctioned political cover to pursue an aggressive anti-Israel agenda. "What is at stake is Hizbullah's future as a militia, as an armed force, and also as a pan-Islamic movement," says Samir Kassir, columnist for Lebanon's leading An Nahar newspaper.

The choices facing the powerful organization are stark. If it chooses to adapt to the new realities in Lebanon, it is likely to face the isolation and eventual dismantling of its military wing, the Islamic Resistance, which drove Israeli occupation forces from south Lebanon in May 2000 and is now deployed along Israel's northern border. The Islamic Resistance has about 300-400 full-time guerrilla fighters and several thousand reservists. [complete article]

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Italy prepares for agent funeral
BBC News, March 7, 2005

Italy is preparing to bury the body of Nicola Calipari, a secret agent shot dead in Iraq by US troops as he escorted a released hostage to freedom.

Italy's president, prime minister and senior intelligence officials are expected to attend Monday's funeral.

Some 10,000 mourners filed past the flag-draped coffin bearing the body of the intelligence officer as it lay in state on Sunday and through the night. [complete article]

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What Iraq's checkpoints are like
By Annia Ciezadlo, Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2005

As an American journalist here, I have been through many checkpoints and have come close to being shot at several times myself. I look vaguely Middle Eastern, which perhaps makes my checkpoint experience a little closer to that of the typical Iraqi. Here's what it's like.

You're driving along and you see a couple of soldiers standing by the side of the road - but that's a pretty ubiquitous sight in Baghdad, so you don't think anything of it. Next thing you know, soldiers are screaming at you, pointing their rifles and swiveling tank guns in your direction, and you didn't even know it was a checkpoint. [complete article]

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U.S. rejects Syria's withdrawal plan for Lebanon
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, March 6, 2005

The United States yesterday rejected Syria's announcement of a gradual withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon as inadequate and charged that Damascus is defying a U.N. resolution, as well as demands from the international community and its own Middle East allies.

In unusually sharp language, the White House said President Bashar Assad's "half measures" were "not enough." Rather than make a phased pullout with a vague timeline, Damascus must withdraw "completely and immediately" all its military forces and intelligence agents, White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said. [complete article]

Syria offers gradual pullback of its troops from Lebanon
By Hassan M. Fattah and David E. Sanger, New York Times, March 6, 2005

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria refused on Saturday to comply with President Bush's demand that he withdraw all of his country's troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon, telling the Syrian Parliament that he planned instead to order a gradual pullback to Lebanese territory near Syria's borders.

President Assad insisted that his "gradual and organized withdrawal" would fulfill Syria's obligations under a United Nations mandate drafted by the United States and France in September and under the Taif accord, a 15-year-old agreement that was negotiated with Arab nations and that Syria has never put into effect.

Shortly after his speech, a Syrian cabinet official, Buthaina Shaaban, told CNN that Mr. Assad meant that the troops would be moved to the Syrian side of the border. [complete article]

An Arabian Spring
By Christopher Dickey, Newsweek, March 14, 2005

Over the last decade and a half, most of the world has forgotten how bloody Lebanon once was. Syrian intelligence officers have decided who runs the country. Syrian officials have grown rich in the smuggling business. Syrian workers, meanwhile, have filled menial jobs, earning low salaries and widespread contempt from the more sophisticated Beirutis. Many of the kids now demonstrating in Beirut's streets have no first-hand memories of the bad old days. But the leaders of Lebanon's opposition know just how dangerous their country can be, especially when the Syrians start to play rough. They remember the ruthlessness of President Hafez Assad, Bashar's father, who died in 2000 after more than 30 years in power. They recall the way he used every tool at his disposal, from diplomacy and bribery to terror and massacres, to defeat Israeli and American designs in Lebanon.

"Bashar al-Assad is reading from the old playbook of 1983 or 1984," says a former Lebanese intelligence officer who saw the secret wars of that time firsthand. That's one reason so many Lebanese were so quick to blame Damascus for the Valentine's Day bombing that blew up former prime minister Hariri. "Hariri sent messages to the Syrians through the French, the Saudis, the King of Jordan and the Egyptians, asking for guarantees for his physical security," says the intelligence source. "The Syrians replied there was no way they would hurt him. Weeks later, he was dead."

The Lebanese opposition is gambling that the age of 24/7 satellite news and the Internet is just too public for the Syrians to get away with Hafez Assad's old tactics. "He was able to do what he did," says one Shiite political analyst in Beirut, "because the world ignored or allowed it. That's not the case today."

Walid Jumblatt, the hereditary religious and political leader of Lebanon's Druse community, has become the most prominent voice of opposition to Syrian rule -- and he spent much of last week holed up in a heavily guarded castle among the hills south of Beirut. "I've got to expect anything," he told NEWSWEEK. "It's total chaos. Who is controlling who in Lebanon? And on whom should you rely to ask for protection?"

Jumblatt knows that if the opposition is going to win, it's going to have to find a modus vivendi with Lebanon's Shiites, a plurality of the population that has tended to ally itself with Syria. To do that, he'll have to come to terms with Hizbullah. Lebanese see the "Party of God" as a heroic militia that fought Israeli occupation. Washington brands it an international terrorist organization. "They have their legitimacy," says Jumblatt. "They have their institutions. They are in Parliament. Maybe their military role, if they accept, will be reduced, will be over. But they are really part of Lebanon." [complete article]

For comments on President Assad's address to the Syrian parliament, see Joshua Landis.

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Sistani urges formation of government
By Alissa J. Rubin, Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2005

The senior Shiite Muslim cleric in Iraq called Saturday on members of the transitional national assembly elected more than a month ago to move quickly to form a government.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's comments were directed primarily at members of the United Iraqi Alliance, which was formed with his backing and which won a slim majority of assembly seats in the Jan. 30 elections.

The mostly Shiite alliance includes several strong political organizations that are trying to translate their power in the coalition into a dominant position in the new administration. The discord has slowed the process of forming a government. [complete article]
Latest - Shi'ites set deadline to form new government

Drawn-Out talks on assembly upset Iraqis
By Salih Saif Aldin and John Ward Anderson, Washington Post, March 6, 2005

Five weeks ago, Hasan Khatab Omar defied dire warnings and cast a ballot in Iraq's first free elections in almost half a century. Insurgents branded him a traitor and bombed his house, he said, and neighbors called him a government agent.

"We thought it would be for a noble cause," said Omar, 55, the owner of a small food shop in this predominantly Sunni city about 90 miles north of Baghdad. "Now we are weeks later, and what has changed? Nothing. I think I risked my life for nothing." [complete article]

A man of candor and caution
By Caryle Murphy, Washington Post, March 5, 2005

The man who would like to lead Iraq's first democratically elected government in more than two generations admits that he cries. And in that, he finds no shame.

"I am a practical person," said Ibrahim Jafari. "God created a stomach for us, and so there is food. We get thirsty, so there is water. And he . . . created the tears that have to be used for a purpose: to show emotion. If an emotion comes and you don't use tears, it means there is something abnormal in the person. . . . Life without emotion . . . has no meaning."

Rarely do Arab politicians lay bare such personal thoughts. But Jafari, Iraq's interim vice president and a leading candidate to become its next prime minister, invited a group of U.S. journalists to join him for lunch Friday at his well-guarded home in Baghdad's Green Zone. [complete article]

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Italy rejects U.S. version of Iraq shooting
By Robin Pomeroy, Reuters (via Yahoo), March 6, 2005

Italian hostage Giuliana Sgrena, shot and wounded after being freed in Iraq, said Sunday U.S. forces may have deliberately targeted her because Washington opposed Italy's policy of dealing with kidnappers.

She offered no evidence for her claim, but the sentiment reflected growing anger in Italy over the conduct of the war, which has claimed more than 20 Italian lives, including the secret agent who rescued her moments before being killed. [complete article]

See also, Outrage as US soldiers kill hostage rescue hero (The Observer).

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For Iraqi Kurds and Turkey fever sure beats death
By Peter Galbraith, Daily Star, March 5, 2005

"There is no such place," the Turkish intelligence officer told my son earlier this month. He was going through our luggage at the Turkish end of the Habur bridge that separates Turkey from northern Iraq, and had found a chess set with the place of origin, "Kurdistan," carved into it. After initially insisting we return the set to Iraq, he loaned Andrew a screwdriver to gouge out the offending word.

Fifty meters away from the Turkish intelligence post, at the other end of the bridge, is a sign that reads "welcome to Kurdistan of Iraq." The operative question is how long the "of Iraq" will be there. The Iraqi flag does not fly at the border crossing or anywhere else in Iraqi Kurdistan (though a pre-1991 version of the flag does fly on a few public buildings in the sector controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). The Kurdistan flag, a green-white-red tricolor with a bright yellow sun, is ubiquitous. The Kurdistan government - not the authorities in Baghdad - controls the Habur crossing. There are no central government offices in Kurdistan and the Kurdistan government does not allow the Iraqi Army to send its forces into the region.

And, should there be any doubt about where all this is heading, the people of Kurdistan voted in an advisory referendum on Iraq's election day on whether Kurdistan should remain part of Iraq or be independent. Two million people voted (almost the same number as in the regular ballot) and 97 percent chose independence. [complete article]

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U.S. adopts preemptive counterintelligence strategy
By David Morgan, Reuters (via WP), March 6, 2005

The Bush administration has adopted a new counterintelligence strategy that calls for preemptive action against foreign intelligence services viewed as threats to national security, officials said Saturday.

The first national U.S. counterintelligence strategy, which President Bush approved on Tuesday, aims to combat intelligence services from countries hungry for U.S. military and nuclear secrets, such as China and Iran, both at home and abroad, counterintelligence officials said.

Officials at a counterintelligence conference at Texas A&M University described the strategy as an extension of the post-Sept. 11 foreign policy initiative known as the Bush doctrine, which calls for preemptive action against nations and extremist groups perceived as threats to the United States. [complete article]

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Rule change lets CIA freely send suspects abroad to jails
By Douglas Jehl and David Johnston, New York Times, March 6, 2005

The Bush administration's secret program to transfer suspected terrorists to foreign countries for interrogation has been carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency under broad authority that has allowed it to act without case-by-case approval from the White House or the State or Justice Departments, according to current and former government officials.

The unusually expansive authority for the C.I.A. to operate independently was provided by the White House under a still-classified directive signed by President Bush within days of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the officials said.

The process, known as rendition, has been central in the government's efforts to disrupt terrorism, but has been bitterly criticized by human rights groups on grounds that the practice has violated the Bush administration's public pledge to provide safeguards against torture. [complete article]

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Power and law: A new ruling in the Padilla case
By Joanne Mariner, FindLaw, March 2, 2005

As shaped by men like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and justified by some (now notoriously) inventive lawyers, the Bush Administration's approach to fighting terrorism can be summarized in a phrase: the president's inherent power. A series of legal memoranda drafted by government counsel argue that the president possesses inherent authority to have people detained without charge, interrogated mercilessly, and kept in a legal limbo for unlimited lengths of time.

But while these lawyers focus on the Constitution's grant of power to the president as Commander in Chief, they ignore constitutional principles like the separation of powers and the concept of individual rights. They also disregard an entire body of statutory law that sets limits on the government's power to detain, question, and prosecute people suspected of wrongdoing.

In an important decision issued Monday in the case of so-called enemy combatant José Padilla, a U.S. district court judge in South Carolina rejected the government's approach. His ruling, rather than deferring to the government's broad claims, directs the reader's attention to the letter of the law.

In a relatively succinct opinion, Judge Henry F. Floyd touches on separation of powers principles, the difference between battlefields and civilian settings, and - in a couple of brief but compelling references -- underlying civil liberties concerns. But the linchpin of his ruling is the Non-Detention Act, a federal statute passed in 1971. [complete article]

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Terrorists at the table
By Sebastian Rotella, Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2005

The Moroccan wanted to die as much as he wanted to kill.

When Abdenabi Kounjaa helped unleash Al Qaeda's jihad on Europe last March, the drug dealer-turned-holy warrior got both his wishes.

Traces of his DNA were found in a van that terrorists had used before planting backpack bombs that killed 191 people aboard four commuter trains here March 11. And four of his fingers were found in the rubble of a hide-out where seven barricaded fugitives immolated themselves three weeks later, capping a rampage that helped topple Spain's center-right government.

Almost a year later, European investigators are still sifting through the human debris and other evidence to better understand the enemy within. Their findings lead to locales as disparate as Casablanca, Morocco; Paris; Damascus, Syria; and Amsterdam. It traces the rise of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, or GICM, the organizing force for militants whom police have battled in the wake of one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Europe's modern history.

Many of the extremists are either European-born or longtime residents who immigrated from North Africa. Police see this generation of militants as more improvised and violent, more tactically primitive and politically sophisticated than ever. [complete article]

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Britain's mainstream Muslims find voice
By Lizette Alvarez, New York Times, March 6, 2005

Inayat Bunglawala had just finished his talk on "Islamophobia and the Media" at the London Muslim Center when a man stood and berated him. "Where is your beard and your thobe?" Mr. Bunglawala said the man shouted, referring to the long garment worn by some Muslim men. "How dare you come to the mosque without them. How dare you preach about the new Koran."

Then something unusual happened on that day in January, said Mr. Bunglawala and others who were there. The several Islamic militants in the room were chased outside by the crowd, and a fistfight broke out. The militants, followers of Abu Abdullah, a firebrand imam, quickly retreated. "These jihadis are like schoolhouse bullies," said Mr. Bunglawala, the communications director for the Muslim Council of Britain, the country's largest Muslim organization. "We sense a feeling of enough is enough now."

If the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks plunged the Islamic population in Britain and elsewhere into a state of alarm and dread, then the Iraq war and its aftermath have had an unforeseen consequence here: they have helped galvanize and embolden a core group of mainstream British Muslims to find its voice and make demands. [complete article]

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Analysts see Bin Laden, Zarqawi as independent operators
By Walter Pincus, Washington Post, March 5, 2005

Abu Musab Zarqawi has told Osama bin Laden that he would be willing to discuss a suggestion by the al Qaeda leader that Zarqawi consider broadening his future operations to include possible attacks inside the United States, according to senior intelligence officials.

"Let's talk some more. I have ideas, you have ideas," was the way one senior counterterrorism official described Zarqawi's message, which was a response to an earlier communication sent by bin Laden. The exchange, obtained by U.S. intelligence, took place months ago, officials said.

"This was not a threat for tomorrow, but it confirms where we may be going," the official said of the exchange. "It was two heavy hitters talking about a possible partnership." [complete article]

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Chavez: No oil if U.S. 'gets a little bit crazy'
Associated Press (via MSNBC), March 4, 2005

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez warned Friday that his nation, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, would cut off oil supplies to the United States if Washington tries to "hurt" his country, news reports said.

"We want to supply oil to the United States. We are not going to avoid supplying of oil unless the U.S. government gets a little bit crazy and tries to hurt us," he told reporters during a visit to India, according to Dow Jones Newswires.

"If there is any aggression, there will be no oil," Chavez said.

Later, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez Araque took his government's case against the United States to the Organization of American States, indirectly accusing Washington of repeatedly violating Venezuelan sovereignty. [complete article]

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U.S. draws jeers for abortion comments at U.N.
By Deborah Zabarenko, Reuters, March 4, 2005

Jeers and catcalls greeted the top U.S. delegate to a global women's conference on Friday as she stressed Washington's opposition to abortion and support for sexual abstinence and fidelity.

After withdrawing an unpopular anti-abortion amendment from a key U.N. document, the United States joined in approving the declaration that reaffirmed a 150-page platform agreed 10 years ago at a landmark U.N. women's conference in Beijing.

However, top U.S. delegate Ellen Sauerbrey drew boos from the audience, which included some of the 6,000 activists who came from around the world, when she commented on Washington's interpretation of the document. [complete article]

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Oral history helps island survive tsunami
By Margie Mason, Associated Press (via Seattle P-I), February 28, 2005

The ground shook so hard, people couldn't stand up when the massive earthquake rattled this remote Indonesian island - the closest inhabited land to the epicenter of the devastating temblor.

But unlike hundreds of thousands of others who thought the worst was over when the shuddering stopped, the islanders remembered their grandparents' warnings and fled to higher ground in fear of giant waves known locally as "semong."

Within 30 minutes, Simeulue became the first coastline in the world to experience the awesome force of the Dec. 26 tsunami. But only seven of the island's 75,000 people died, thanks to the stories passed down over the generations.

"After the earthquake, I looked for the water to suck out," said Kiro, 50, who like many Indonesians uses one name. "I remember the story of the 'semong' and I ran to the hill." [complete article]

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Noteworthy articles from the last seven plus days:

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.

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

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.

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.

Egypt's Islamist problem is Bush's, too
By Shadi Hamid, Pacific News Service, February 28, 2005
Those of us who work for political reform in the Arab world were heartened by President Bush's bold inaugural speech, in which he pledged to make the spread of democracy the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy. No longer, Bush assured us, would the United States excuse or tolerate dictatorship. He neglected to mention why it always had. Democratization in the Middle East has always presented a unique and confounding dilemma. While U.S. policymakers have the stated desire of promoting democracy, they have also aimed to curb the growing power of the Islamists -- the group that stands to gain most from the democratic atmosphere the United States is trying to foster in the region. The fear of the Islamists coming to power through democratic elections makes spreading democracy in the Arab world a less desirable objective.

This dilemma is especially relevant in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood continues to be banned from electoral participation. Details of who will be able to run for president remain unclear, but it is unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood will be allowed to contest the elections. Candidates will most likely need the endorsement of a legal political party and clearance by parliament, where Mubarak's ruling party commands more than 90 percent of the seats.

If President Bush is serious about democracy -- and it appears that he is -- his administration must develop a more coherent stance toward the phenomenon of political Islam. Simply by virtue of their street legitimacy and mass support at the grass-roots level, the Islamists cannot be wished away. Moreover, it is impossible to imagine how Egypt could ever join the ranks of the world's true democracies if it fails to incorporate the political group that commands the largest electoral constituency in the country.

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.
Mubarak ordered parliament to adopt an amendment that stipulated that any potential candidate be a member of an official political party, which must also win the endorsement of parliament, a body heavily dominated by his own ruling National Democratic Party.

Many expect that the need for parliamentary approval will block participation by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamic party, which could be a powerful contender against Mubarak.

And despite observers' optimism, Ayman Nour, the country's most well-known advocate for democratic reform, was jailed last month on what human rights groups call trumped up charges.

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.

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.

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.
As a global inquiry into Khan's network enters its second year, investigators from several countries and the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna are trying to answer two vital questions -- how much damage did Khan do and how did he stay in business for so long?

The challenge has been made tougher by Pakistan's refusal to allow outside investigators to question Khan, who is under house arrest in Islamabad, and because his network began systematically shredding papers and deleting e-mails in the summer of 2002, after realizing it was under surveillance.

Investigators said the previously undisclosed destruction of records is making it harder to discover whether the network sold its deadly wares, including the warhead plans, to as yet unidentified countries or even extremist organizations. It also increases the chances that remnants of the ring will re-emerge. "Regrettably, they had a long time to destroy evidence," said a senior investigator who had interviewed members of the network. "They knew they were being watched."

A detailed chronology of the long history of Khan and the spies who watched him, based on extensive interviews and hundreds of pages of public and confidential records, provides an unusual look at the inherent tension between gathering intelligence and taking action, which allowed the scientist and his network of engineers and middlemen to operate unchecked.
See also Unraveling the A.Q. Khan and future proliferation networks (18-page PDF) (David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, Washington Quarterly, Spring, 2005)

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