The War in Context  
  Iraq + war on terrorism + Middle East conflict + critical perspectives     

Nothing 'new' in this war
By Andrew J. Bacevich, Washington Post, March 19, 2005

"We are redefining war on our terms." So declared an exuberant George W. Bush just two years ago as the U.S. military completed its stunning demolition of Saddam Hussein's regime.

The president seemingly had good reason to boast. In its initial stages, Operation Iraqi Freedom surpassed all expectations, affirming the verdict first rendered more than a decade before by Operation Desert Storm: The United States, the greatest power the world had ever seen, had apparently mastered the art of war. America's armed forces appeared invincible.

Two years later war is no longer doing the president's bidding. In recent weeks, much of the news from the Middle East has been about the movements for democracy and free elections in Iraq and neighboring countries. But the claims that "freedom is on the march" cannot conceal this fact: In Iraq, protracted conflict is draining the lifeblood from America's armed services. [complete article]

Two years later, Iraq war drains military
By Ann Scott Tyson, Washington Post, March 19, 2005

Two years after the United States launched a war in Iraq with a crushing display of power, a guerrilla conflict is grinding away at the resources of the U.S. military and casting uncertainty over the fitness of the all-volunteer force, according to senior military leaders, lawmakers and defense experts. [complete article]

'They can't train you for the reality of Iraq. You can't have a mass grave with dogs eating the people in it'
By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian, March 19, 2005

Soldiers' advocates and peace activists believe the first signs of opposition within the military could slowly grow - as it did for Vietnam - turning disgruntled soldiers and their families into powerful anti-war advocates. A number of Iraq veterans have begun to speak out. The root causes for more widespread dissent are there. Longer and repeat deployments have worn down regulars and reservists. So has the rising toll, with more than 1,500 US soldiers dead and 11,000 wounded. Recruitment and re-enlistment rates are down - especially for African-Americans, a 40% drop in the past five years - increasing the strain on the Pentagon. [complete article]

Many Iraqis losing hope that politics will yield real change
By Robert F. Worth, New York Times, March 17, 2005

Nothing like a scientific poll is possible yet in Iraq. But as the national assembly's first brief meeting came and went, broadcast into thousands of Iraqi homes on television, a sampling of street opinion in two Iraqi cities found a widespread dismay and even anger that the elections have not yet translated into a new government. The interviews - which included members of Iraq's major religious and ethnic groups - indicated in particular a striking sense of disillusionment among Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population but were brutally suppressed under the rule of Saddam Hussein. [complete article]

Marking time
By Rod Nordland, Newsweek, March 18, 2005

It's always dangerous making predictions, and nowhere more so than in Iraq. When voters defied terrorist attacks to cast their ballots in the Jan. 30 election, some officials forecast that as soon as the votes were counted the newly elected National Assembly would agree on a new government, which would immediately take over from Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's interim administration. That was the "big bang" theory, and it was almost instantly proved wrong. [complete article]

Iran stands to benefit from political developments in Iraq
By Ardeshir Moaveni, Eurasianet, March 18, 2005

An indicator of the nature of the UIA's relationship with Tehran would be the future Iraq government's position on the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK). The group, which is armed and dedicated to the overthrow of the Islamic leadership in Iran, has enjoyed sanctuary in Iraq for years. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. If the UIA-government decides to change the existing stance on the MEK, especially if Iraq removes sanctuary status for the group, Iran would register a major political victory, according to Shaul Bakhash, a Middle East specialist at George Mason University. [complete article]

Iraq's leaders set to form government next week
Daily Star, March 19, 2005

Shiite and Kurdish leaders said Friday that Iraq's next government could be formed within a week as they courted Sunnis and outgoing Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to join a coalition. [complete article]

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A gruesome find, with a difference
By John Ward Anderson, Washington Post, March 19, 2005

When more than 80 bodies, many of them slain Iraqi police officers and soldiers, were found last week at four sites in Iraq, a fifth gruesome discovery attracted little notice.

In the violent city of Ramadi, a center of insurgent activity 60 miles west of Baghdad, the bodies of seven men were found neatly lined up in an unfinished house on the western outskirts of town, according to witnesses. Each had been shot in the head or torso. Some witnesses said the bodies were then secretly buried in a local cemetery.

Witnesses said they never went to the local police or foreign military forces to report finding the bodies, fearing that they would be accused of complicity in the slayings or that the killers would return to punish them for talking. [...]

Witnesses also said the event went unreported because the dead men were foreigners, all Sunni Muslims and members of al Qaeda in Iraq, the radical group headed by Abu Musab Zarqawi that is at the forefront of the insurgency. Now that details of the slayings have surfaced, Zarqawi is vowing revenge. [complete article]

Insurgency is fading fast, top marine in Iraq says
By Eric Schmitt, New York Times, March 19, 2005

The top Marine officer in Iraq said Friday that the number of attacks against American troops in Sunni-dominated western Iraq and death tolls had dropped sharply over the last four months, a development that he called evidence that the insurgency was weakening in one of the most violent areas of the country. [...]

Several senior military officials have noted, however, that many insurgents fled before or during the Falluja battle to fight elsewhere in Iraq. And although there are fewer lethal attacks in western Iraq, commanders say, remotely controlled bombs used against American and Iraqi forces in other parts of the country have become more deadly. [complete article]

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Ukrainians sold missiles to Iran, China, prosecutors say
By Aleksandar Vasovic, AP (via WP), March 19, 2005

Ukrainian weapons dealers smuggled 18 nuclear-capable cruise missiles to Iran and China during the rule of former president Leonid Kuchma, prosecutors said Friday. The missiles have the range to reach Israel and other U.S. allies in the region.

The Kh-55 missiles were smuggled out of the former Soviet republic four years ago, the prosecutor general's office said in a statement. The missiles, which can strike targets 1,860 miles away, were sold illegally, according to the statement. [complete article]

Comment -- It's hard to judge how valuable these missiles could be to Iran or China, but the value of this story to hawks in Israel and the US cannot be underestimated.

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Bomb hits Christian area of Beirut
By Bassem Mroue, AP (via Boston Globe), March 19, 2005

With Lebanese politicians deadlocked over the formation of a new government as Syria withdraws its forces, a car bomb rocked a largely Christian neighborhood in north Beirut early today, injuring nine people and causing extensive damage.

The target of the attack wasn't immediately clear, but it added to the political turmoil after the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops to east Lebanon and Syria. [complete article]

Talks in Lebanon stall, threatening election
By Dexter Filkins, New York Times, March 19, 2005

Political leaders trying to form a new government in the wake of the last month's upheavals said Friday that negotiations had stalled, raising the possibility that nationwide elections scheduled for this spring might be postponed. [complete article]

Does U.S.-Hizbullah-Iran dynamic augur for compromise?
By Rami G. Khouri, Daily Star, March 19, 2005

At the start of the second month of the crisis sparked by Rafik Hariri's murder, with Syria withdrawing gradually from Lebanon, a fresh focus of diplomatic and political activities seems to revolve around the newfound American enthusiasm to define Hizbullah's role in Lebanon.

President George W. Bush has blurred the clarity of U.S. policy this week by subtly raising the possibility that Hizbullah could be viewed as something other than "terrorists."

"We view Hizbullah as a terrorist organization. I would hope that Hizbullah would prove that they are not by laying down arms and not threatening peace," the president said in a carefully crafted statement framing a new approach to the organization. [complete article]

Syria's leader moves to consolidate his power
By Hassan M. Fattah, New York Times, March 19, 2005

When Bashar al-Assad inherited the presidency of Syria from his father five years ago, there was talk of a new era. An ophthalmologist trained in England, the soft-spoken young Assad favored economic reform and openness to dissent. He shunned the personality cult of Arab dictators, declining to paper the country with his image.

Last week, though, his picture was on every street corner as Damascus held a well-orchestrated rally celebrating his rule.

The posters are the most visible and recent sign that Mr. Assad, 39, has shifted tactics, starting a campaign to consolidate power and shore up his position in the midst of the international crisis over Syria's three-decade domination of Lebanon.

"Bashar is learning that his father did things for a reason," says Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma and the Web site, who is spending 2005 in Damascus. "If you're going to be a dictator you're going to have to act like one." [complete article]

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Rice puts Japan at center of new U.S. vision of Asia
By Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, March 19, 2005

Condoleezza Rice, on her first foray into Asia as secretary of state, outlined on Saturday a new U.S. vision of Japan's increasing importance as a global power and challenged China to open its political system and work harder to "embrace some form of genuinely representative government."

In a speech to about 500 professors and students at Sophia University here, Rice offered an expansive view of Japan's role in the world -- including unambiguous support for its campaign to win a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council -- that suggested the administration viewed the longtime U.S. ally as a counterbalance to the rising regional influence of China. [complete article]

Roh publicly belittles alliance with U.S.
By Richard Halloran, Japan Times, March 19, 2005

In a little noticed speech, President Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea has once again disparaged his nation's alliance with the United States and cast doubt on whether this partnership should continue. Roh told graduating cadets at the Korean Air Force Academy that South Korea was fully capable of defending itself against North Korea, thus undermining the reason for posting American combat forces in his country.

At the same time, the president asserted that the U.S. would not be allowed to deploy U.S. forces out of Korea without his government's approval, thus putting a crimp into Pentagon plans to forge American troops in Korea into a flexible force that could be swiftly deployed to contingencies outside Korea.

The U.S. government has evidently chosen to ignore Roh's remarks as scant reaction has come from Washington. [complete article]

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Secret U.S. plans for Iraq's oil
By Greg Palast, BBC News, March 17, 2005

The Bush administration made plans for war and for Iraq's oil before the 9/11 attacks, sparking a policy battle between neo-cons and Big Oil, BBC's Newsnight has revealed.

Two years ago today - when President George Bush announced US, British and Allied forces would begin to bomb Baghdad - protesters claimed the US had a secret plan for Iraq's oil once Saddam had been conquered.

In fact there were two conflicting plans, setting off a hidden policy war between neo-conservatives at the Pentagon, on one side, versus a combination of "Big Oil" executives and US State Department "pragmatists".

"Big Oil" appears to have won. The latest plan, obtained by Newsnight from the US State Department was, we learned, drafted with the help of American oil industry consultants. [complete article]

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Fake cable labeled writer a spy for Iraq
By Howard Kurtz, Washington Post, March 18, 2005

Someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to produce a document accusing journalist and activist William Arkin of serving as a spy for Saddam Hussein.

The Pentagon says the supposed Defense Intelligence Agency cable is a forgery. Arkin says it's "chilling" and is demanding an investigation. The NBC News military analyst says he became aware of the bogus document when a Washington Times reporter called about the spying allegation and sent him a copy.

"There are a lot of reasons, I guess, why people would want to do me harm," Arkin said yesterday. One, he said, is the recent publication of his book "Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs and Operations in the 9/11 World." Another, he noted, is a series of past scoops that embarrassed the Bush administration. [complete article]

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Two years after war, U.S. troops stuck in Iraq training local troops
By Tom Lasseter, Knight Ridder, March 16, 2005

Hopes for withdrawing American troops rest on Iraqi army units such as the one the 3rd Infantry is advising - the 302nd battalion, regarded as one of the best in the country. It has primary control and Americans act mainly as advisers.

Yet American soldiers in Baghdad are trying to build a professional force of Iraqi troops who speak a language they don't understand, sometimes have scores to settle and often think of themselves as Sunni or Shiite Muslims first and Iraqis second.

The area around Haifa Street is predominantly Sunni. Most of the Iraqi troops who patrol the area, however, are Shiite. Saddam, a Sunni, viciously oppressed the Shiites, and they're now frequent targets of the Sunni-led insurgency. Thousands have been killed by car bombs and assassinations.

Last week, insurgents pulled two men out of their cars in the middle of the road in Haifa and shot them in the head. Residents say followers of the radical Sunni Wahhabi sect kill Shiites and ethnic Kurds in the area indiscriminately. [complete article]

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Patchwork of progress and perils in Iraq
By Jill Carroll, Christian Science Monitor, March 18, 2005

Last week, Diyala Province felt the benefit of American reconstruction money: two farm cooperatives got under way, providing a much-needed source of income for several families in the often violent province.

This week, the area felt the sting of the insurgency: A suicide bomber drove into an Iraqi Army checkpoint, killing several soldiers.

Two years after US forces rolled into Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, contradictory forces are tugging at the war-torn country. Iraqis turned out in droves to vote for an 275-member assembly that took its seats Wednesday. Many are enthusiastically tapping into a world long closed to them by sanctions - snapping up satellite TV dishes and imported food.

But an aggressive insurgency has stymied crucial tasks of rebuilding and providing security, disillusioning ordinary Iraqis who thought the US presence would bring rapid change. [complete article]

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Bulgaria to pull troops out of Iraq by year's end
AP (via WP), March 18, 2005

Bulgaria intends to cut the number of its troops in Iraq in July and to completely pull them out by the end of the year, the defense minister said Thursday.

"By the end of March, we will present in parliament a draft decision for a gradual withdrawal of troops from Iraq by the end of 2005," Defense Minister Nikolai Svinarov told reporters. Parliament has the final say on troop deployments abroad.

Svinarov declined to elaborate but said that after the current 460-member battalion ended its mission in July, the next contingent would be "downsized by 100 troops." [complete article]

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Questions are left by CIA chief on the use of torture
By Douglas Jehl, New York Times, March 18, 2005

Porter J. Goss, the director of central intelligence, said Thursday that he could not assure Congress that the Central Intelligence Agency's methods of interrogating terrorism suspects since Sept. 11, 2001, had been permissible under federal laws prohibiting torture.

Under sharp questioning at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. Goss sought to reassure lawmakers that all interrogations "at this time" were legal and that no methods now in use constituted torture. But he declined, when asked, to make the same broad assertions about practices used over the last few years.

"At this time, there are no 'techniques,' if I could say, that are being employed that are in any way against the law or would meet - would be considered torture or anything like that," Mr. Goss said in response to one question.

When he was asked several minutes later whether he could say the same about techniques employed by the agency since the campaign against Al Qaeda expanded in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks in the United States, he said, "I am not able to tell you that." [complete article]

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CIA, White House defend transfers of terror suspects
By Dana Priest and Walter Pincus, Washington Post, March 18, 2005

The CIA and the White House yesterday defended the practice of secretly transferring suspected terrorists to other countries, including some with poor human rights records, and reiterated that proper safeguards exist to ensure detainees are not tortured.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan would not answer repeated questions about whether President Bush was aware of -- or believed or discounted -- assertions made recently by freed detainees that they were tortured by other governments after they were transferred abroad by the CIA. But he said the United States has "an obligation not to render people to countries if we believe they're going to be tortured."

It is illegal under U.S. and international law to send someone to a country where torture is likely. To abide by the law, the CIA obtains a verbal assurance of humane treatment from the intelligence service of another country before it transfers suspected terrorists, a practice called rendition. Many intelligence and counterterrorism experts, however, say such assurances are ineffective and virtually impossible to monitor. [complete article]

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'Something was going to happen - it was going to be me or him'
By Nicholas Blanford, Richard Beeston and James Bone, The Times, March 18, 2005

Days before Rafik Hariri's assassination last month, the Lebanese politician had played host to Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, at his mansion in west Beirut. Mr Hariri had a warning for his old friend: the Syrians were after them.

"He told me that in the next two weeks it was either going to be me or him," Mr Jumblatt told The Times. "Clearly he thought something was going to happen."

Something did. On February 14 Mr Hariri was killed when 600lb of explosives apparently buried in the road outside St George’s Hotel in Beirut blew up beneath his car.

The blast has echoed round the world. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have demonstrated in Beirut, the world has united in demanding Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon and the drive for democracy in the Middle East has been given a huge boost.

Syria has repeatedly protested its innocence and no irrefutable evidence of its involvement has yet emerged. But a reconstruction of events leading to Mr Hariri's murder, and interviews with at least a dozen Western, Lebanese and even Syrian officials, leave not the slightest doubt that the plot was hatched in Damascus. [complete article]

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Beware the results of Arab democracy
By Tony Karon, Haaretz, March 18, 2005

If the Bush doctrine is a clear-eyed attempt to weaken the appeal of terrorism by creating genuine democracy in the Arab world, giving the Islamists and other radical groups a peaceful channel to challenge their regimes, then it is indeed a shift of profound significance. Having Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups participate in electoral politics is infinitely preferable to allowing them to serve as a mythic symbol of popular frustration, unburdened by any accountability for good governance.

But whether the Bush administration is pursuing democratization fully cognizant of the consequences of success - oblivion for many of its traditional allies, and the empowering of long-time nemeses - is an open question. The triumphalist rhetoric of recent weeks suggests that when it comes to the consequences of Arab democracy, many eyes in Washington remain tightly shut. [complete article]

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Afghan crime wave breeds nostalgia for Taliban
By N.C. Aizenman, Washington Post, March 18, 2005

"We are savage, cruel people," the kidnappers warned in a note sent to Abdul Qader, demanding $15,000 to spare the life of his son Mohammed, 11. The construction contractor quickly borrowed the money and left it at the agreed spot. But the next morning, a shopkeeper found the boy's bruised corpse lying in a muddy street.

A wave of crime in this southern Afghan city -- including Mohammed's killing two months ago and a bombing Thursday that killed at least five people -- has evoked a growing local nostalgia for the Taliban era of 1996 to 2001, when the extremist Islamic militia imposed law and order by draconian means.

Residents reached their boiling point last week, after a second kidnapped boy was killed. Hundreds of men poured into the streets, demanding that President Hamid Karzai fire the provincial governor and police chief. Some threw rocks at military vehicles and chanted, "Down with the warlords!" Witnesses recalled some adding, "Bring back the Taliban!" [complete article]

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Afghanistan from Taliban to heroin
By Paul Rogers, Open Democracy, March 17, 2005

American and western assessments of the security situation in Afghanistan have become more positive in recent months (see Carlotta Gall, "Optimism on Afghan Security", International Herald Tribune, 8 March 2005). The United States military has reported a fall in attacks against their units from ten to fifteen a week to around five a week. This partial improvement in security – at an annual cost to the United States alone of $10 billion – had started to encourage some aid organisations to return to parts of the country they had abandoned because of the risk to their workers.

This trend was thrown into sharp relief by the murder of a British development specialist, Steven MacQueen, in Kabul on 7 March. According to Afghan security informants, assailants followed him from a restaurant, used two 4x4 vehicles to block his car, and shot him. MacQueen had worked with the rural development ministry for two years and had had been due to leave the country within a few days. Kabul sources report that he was deliberately targeted.

A single incident may not be enough to reverse the renewed optimism of some aid agencies, which are reluctant to believe that it represents the start of a new campaign against the several thousand expatriates working in the country – and, by extension, against the government of President Hamid Karzai. If it proves to be so, the prospects for continued post-war reconstruction will certainly diminish further. But even if it does not, the project Steven MacQueen was working on when he died – a rural credit scheme designed to free farmers from dependence on growing opium – reflects a serious potential source of instability in Afghanistan: the massive increase in opium production since the United States and its allies terminated the Taliban regime in November 2001. [complete article]

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Afghans delay legislative elections
By Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, March 18, 2005

Parliamentary elections scheduled for spring will not take place until at least September, President Hamid Karzai said Thursday, confirming a long-rumored delay in a key step toward democracy.

Officials have faced logistical problems, including a lack of census data and district boundary disputes, in preparing for the election. But the parliamentary vote, originally slated to coincide with last October's presidential election, has also been repeatedly put off because of disagreements among Afghanistan's ethnic and political factions.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is on a weeklong tour of Asia, let slip during a news conference with Karzai here Thursday that the elections would take place in the fall . "I hope that I've not broken a story," Rice said after a reporter inquired about her statement, as a perturbed-looking Karzai stood next to her. He then confirmed the elections would probably be held in September. [complete article]

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Jordan cracks down on unions as dissent grows
By Ibon Villelabeitia, Reuters, March 17, 2005

The men from Jordan's intelligence services came looking for Ali Hattar two days after he gave a speech calling for a boycott of the United States.

"I knew my words would make them angry and that they would arrest me," said Hattar, a leading union activist who faces a two-year prison term for "slandering" the Jordanian government.

Jordan, a close U.S. ally, is hardening its stance against the country's increasingly militant unions, long-time bastions of dissent and opposition to the kingdom's pro-Western policies and its diplomatic ties to Israel.

"The government wants to silence us, but I am not afraid of speaking," said Hattar, a blunt-speaking 58-year-old engineer.

Hattar is being charged under a vague defamation law that makes it a crime to "insult" the government, legislation that has been used to suppress dissent at union halls and mosques. [complete article]

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Funding scarce for export of democracy
By Peter Baker, Washington Post, March 18, 2005

In the weeks after a popular uprising toppled a corrupt government in Ukraine, President Bush hailed the so-called Orange Revolution as proof that democracy was on the march and promised $60 million to help secure it in Kiev. But Republican congressional allies balked and slashed it this week to $33.7 million.

The shrinking financial commitment to Ukrainian democracy highlights a broader gap between rhetoric and resources among budget writers in the Bush administration and on Capitol Hill as the president vows to devote his second term to "ending tyranny in our world," according to budget documents, congressional critics and democracy advocates. [complete article]

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Roads out of Baghdad become no-go zones
By Dan Murphy, Christian Science Monitor, March 172005

Mohammed Ghazi Umron has a front-row seat for the perils of Iraq's roads: the cab of his truck. And while this Shiite in his 30s enthusiastically voted in Iraq's January election, from where he sits the country is as dangerous as ever.

The road north through Baquba? "Pretty dangerous," he says. Due south through Mahmudiyah? "It's bad, but I haven't heard of any drivers being killed there in a few weeks." How about west through Abu Ghraib and on to Fallujah? "Very, very dangerous. We try not to go past Abu Ghraib."

The volley of mortar fire that dropped a few hundred yards short of where the opening session of Iraq's new parliament was held Wednesday rattled the ceremonial gathering and was a reminder that the city remains under siege.

Nearly two years since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq, Baghdad is still one of the most dangerous cities in the world. It is ringed in peril. Travel in any direction a few miles outside city limits and the risks intensify. The ferocity and growth of these no-go zones underscores the need for additional Iraqi security forces in and around Baghdad as the US begins to reduce its manpower here.

Because of kidnappings and murders on the road immediately south of Baghdad, that area has been dubbed the "triangle of death" by journalists. The areas immediately north and west of the city that have long been called the Sunni triangle has also become shorthand for a no-go zone. [complete article]

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Iraqi assembly gets off to quiet but telling start
By Caryle Murphy and John Ward Anderson, Washington Post, March 17, 2005

Dhari Fayad, temporary speaker of Iraq's newly elected National Assembly, stood before his fellow delegates for the first time Wednesday and recalled those "who sacrificed themselves ... for the sake of the Iraqi people," including "the martyrs of the mass graves and the martyrs of the north of Iraq."

Suddenly, someone shouted at Fayad from the auditorium floor: "Kurdistan! Kurdistan!"

Bowing to his colleague's wish that he refer to Kurdish-populated northern Iraq by another name, Fayad, 78, corrected himself and said, "Kurdistan."

The inaugural session of Iraq's new parliament was a largely ceremonial affair during which its 275 members took their oaths of office. But as Fayad's exchange with a Kurdish delegate suggests, it foreshadowed the daunting tasks that await this country's novice legislators, including finding the right balance between Kurdish aspirations for self-governance and Iraqi unity. [complete article]

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Berlusconi accused of bowing to U.S. over Iraq
By Crispian Balmer, Reuters (via Yahoo), March 17, 2005

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was accused on Thursday of bowing to pressure from the United States after he apparently backtracked on an announcement that Italian troops would start withdrawing from Iraq this September.

"It's a world record. The withdrawal of an announced withdrawal in half a day," said Francesco Rutelli, leader of the opposition, center-left Daisy party.

Berlusconi told a television chat show earlier this week that he wanted to begin reducing Italy's 3,000-strong contingent in September, but he later said he had never set a fixed date for any pullout.

"It was only my hope ... If it is not possible, it is not possible. The solution should be agreed with the allies," he told reporters on Wednesday evening.

Opposition politicians lambasted Berlusconi's change of tack, which came just hours after he received a phone call from President Bush. [complete article]

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House approves war funding
By Shailagh Murray, Washington Post, March 17, 2005

The House yesterday overwhelmingly approved an emergency war spending bill giving President Bush most, but not all, of the aid he is seeking for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and to help tsunami victims in the Indian Ocean region.

The $81.4 billion bill passed 388 to 43, a rare landslide in an otherwise bitterly divided chamber. Bush applauded the House "for its strong bipartisan support for our troops and for our strategy to win the war on terror."

Despite the bill's easy passage, many lawmakers said they were annoyed to find non-urgent items riding on the back of immediate, combat-related spending needs. Reflecting that frustration, the House stripped out $592 million for a new U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad. [complete article]

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Why graft thrives in postconflict zones
By Mark Rice-Oxley, Christian Science Monitor, March 17, 2005

Five Polish peacekeepers are arrested for allegedly taking $90,000 worth of bribes in Iraq. Several Sri Lankan officials are suspended for mishandling tsunami aid. US audits show large financial discrepancies in Iraq. Reports of aid abuse taunt Indonesia.

Two of the world's biggest-ever reconstruction projects - Iraq and post-tsunami Asia - are facing major tests of credibility, as billions of dollars of aid and reconstruction money pour in.

And according to a major report released Wednesday by Transparency International (TI), an international organization that focuses on issues of corruption, the omens are not good.

From Iraq and Afghanistan to Cambodia and Bosnia, from the wrecked coasts of Asia to the kleptocratic carve-up in some African countries, crisis zones are proving to be fertile soil for corruption, the report argues. [complete article]

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CIA's assurances on transferred suspects doubted
By Dana Priest, Washington Post, March 17, 2005

The system the CIA relies on to ensure that the suspected terrorists it transfers to other countries will not be tortured has been ineffective and virtually impossible to monitor, according to current and former intelligence officers and lawyers, as well as counterterrorism officials who have participated in or reviewed the practice.

To comply with anti-torture laws that bar sending people to countries where they are likely to be tortured, the CIA's office of general counsel requires a verbal assurance from each nation that detainees will be treated humanely, according to several recently retired CIA officials familiar with such transfers, known as renditions.

But the effectiveness of the assurances and the legality of the rendition practice are increasingly being questioned by rights groups and others, as freed detainees have alleged that they were mistreated by interrogators after the CIA secretly delivered them to countries with well-documented records of abuse. [complete article]

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Coming in from the cold, ex-spies tell it all
By Scott Shane, New York Times, March 15, 2005

These days, more and more American spies who come in from the cold go right back out, on book tours. And their portrait of the Central Intelligence Agency is none too flattering.

Since December, three former C.I.A. case officers who did the most sensitive work of the government - persuading foreigners to betray their countries or their causes - have published memoirs. Two more such books will be out in May, making a dozen firsthand accounts published since the late 1990's. This swelling library of increasingly candid C.I.A. memoirs reflects a striking cultural change at the agency.

"There used to be a feeling of 'Don't even think about writing a book,' and I shared that feeling," said Floyd L. Paseman, 64, who worked for the agency in Asia and Europe for nearly 35 years. Yet today Mr. Paseman is just out with "A Spy's Journey" (Zenith Press), in which he recounts helping foil Libyan hit men trying to assassinate an American ambassador, finding himself in a sniper's gun sights after recruiting an Iranian agent and - a more frequent hazard - fending off colleagues dispatched to the field without language skills or common sense. [complete article]

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Judge blocks transfer from Cuba of 13 Yemeni detainees
By Siobhan McDonough, AP (via WP), March 14, 2005

A federal judge has blocked the government from transferring 13 Yemenis from the U.S. detention center for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, until a hearing is held on concerns the detainees may be mistreated in another country.

The judge's ruling temporarily blocks any plans by the government to transfer the detainees to prisons in other countries.

Lawyers for the Yemenis are worried the government will try to move them from the Guantanamo Bay facility to another country to "warehouse them in a prison, provide them with no legal process and, in effect, avoid the American court process altogether," Marc Falkoff, an attorney for the detainees, said yesterday. [complete article]

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Pakistan 'lost' Bin Laden trail
BBC News, March 15, 2005

Pakistani forces had their best chance of capturing Osama Bin Laden last year, but they lost the trail, President Pervez Musharraf has told the BBC.

Gen Musharraf said the intelligence services had their strongest indication about the al-Qaeda leader's whereabouts eight to 10 months ago.

He said the "dragnet had closed" along the border with Afghanistan, but Bin Laden fled. [complete article]

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The Atlantic divide over fighting terrorism
By Jonathan Schell, YaleGlobal, March 16, 2005

Last March, a new word entered Spanish vocabulary: "9/11" of the United States has found an echo in Spain's "M-11," the March 11 terrorist attack on Madrid. Yet the first annual commemoration and accompanying international conference on terrorism could not have made clearer the vast gulf between Americans and the Spanish, or even international response to the same threat. Civic courage, and not fear, is the message Spain wants to convey to those attempting to terrorize the public.

From the start, the countries' responses differed. In Spain, the attack upon civilians in four Madrid railway stations – killing 191 and wounding some 2,000 people – prompted immediate, huge public demonstrations. Viewed from the United States, where no such response occurred after 9/11, the response at first seemed puzzling: Why demonstrations? Did Spaniards imagine that marches with placards would reach the hearts of people who carry out massacres? On second thought, the logic of the act became apparent: Terrorism is an attack upon civilians, not soldiers; it is meant to strike fear into other civilians. It made sense, then, for civilians, not soldiers, to respond with a clear message: We are not intimidated. Since intimidation is the purpose, the demonstration scored an immediate victory over terrorism. At a stroke, it removed the point of the attack. [complete article]

See also, Terrorism and its consequences: a tale of three cities (Fred Halliday).

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Washington and Hizbullah trade blows on disarmament
By Adnan El-Ghoul and Mayssam Zaaroura, Daily Star, March 17, 2005

U.S. President George W. Bush slammed Lebanese resistance group Hizbullah calling it "a terrorist organization with American blood on its hands" and insisted U.S. policy toward the party had not changed. Bush's attack follows what has been widely seen as a softening of attitude within the White House after comments the president made earlier in the week hinting that if Hizbullah disarmed the U.S. would recognize it as a political party.

He said: "Hizbullah is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations for a reason. It is a party that has killed Americans in the past and it will remain on the list."

But despite the strong attack, Bush again appeared to leave open the possibility that Hizbullah could become a recognized political party if it disarmed and disavowed violence. [complete article]

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Palestinian groups extend truce
BBC News, March 17, 2005

Palestinian faction leaders meeting in Cairo have agreed to continue an informal truce with Israel.

The final statement from the 13 Palestinian groups agreed to maintain an "open-ended" stop to hostilities, but did not specify a timeframe.

The gesture was tied to Israel's commitment to end attacks and release prisoners, Palestinians officials said. [complete article]

See also, Sharon welcomes militants' offer of ceasefire (FT).

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Israel formally gives up Jericho
BBC News, March 17, 2005

Israel has formally handed over control of the West Bank town of Jericho to the Palestinian Authority.

Its troops began dismantling concrete blocks at the main checkpoint earlier on Wednesday and the handover was completed after several hours.

Palestinian security forces will now patrol the town, but everyone leaving Jericho will still have to stop at an Israeli checkpoint on the outskirts. [complete article]

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Confident Iran
By Paul Rogers, Open Democracy, March 10, 2005

A striking theme emerged from an international conference last week at the Institute for Political and International Studies in Tehran, the Iranian foreign ministry's think-tank: confidence.

The conference was addressed by Iran's foreign and defence ministers, and the head of the Expediency Council, Hashemi Rafsanjani. The assurance they exuded was backed up by presentations from a range of Iranian analysts, as well as many informal discussions on the conference fringes.

Rafsanjani's contribution is especially significant, given his position as former president and speaker of the Majlis (parliament), and the fact that he may be a candidate in the June 2005 presidential election. His and other speakers' quiet satisfaction conveyed the sense that the leadership is not necessarily convinced that the United States would go as far as attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. Rafsanjani and his colleagues may well be wrong about this, but it does appear to be their view. [complete article]

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Secretary of spin?
By Richard Cohen, Washington Post, March 17, 2005

I have only a glancing acquaintance with George Bush's good friend Karen Hughes. I met her on the first Bush presidential campaign and was awed by her uncanny ability to answer a question over and over again, each time with the same inflection, volume and, of course, words. This left me suspecting she had a computer chip implanted somewhere in her body or that she was naturally one of those people who, no matter how forceful your complaint, respond with the wholesome but empty phrase "Have a nice day." When she comes before the Senate for confirmation in her new job -- undersecretary of state -- Hughes should not have a nice day.

I have no animus toward Hughes, and this should not be seen as anything personal. It is just that Hughes, once a counselor to the president and always an intimate, represents an administration that values truth only in the abstract. In its day-to-day dealings with the American people, it has the ethical approach of a slippery door-to-door salesman -- anything to make the sale. Until the Bush administration vows to become more forthright, the Senate ought to put the Hughes nomination in mothballs. [complete article]

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Sheep in wolf's clothing
By Fred Kaplan, Slate, March 16, 2005

Of all the administration's war-pushing neoconservatives, Wolfowitz has seemed the most genuinely, if somewhat naively, idealistic -- the one who really believed that toppling Saddam would have a domino effect throughout the Middle East. He may even consider himself vindicated by recent developments -- though this would be a bit self-deceiving. Before the war, Wolfowitz theorized that democratic governance in Iraq -- presumably presided over by his comrade, Ahmad Chalabi -- would light the fuse that spread Western values across the region like wildfire. He also assumed that a democratic Iraq would be a modern Iraq, led by secular Shiites, and wistfully recited de Tocqueville to this effect.

Still, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney seemed to favor war chiefly for old-fashioned geopolitical reasons. His fellow Pentagon senior neocon, Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, seemed focused on Israel's well-being. But Wolfowitz appeared to take seriously -- or more seriously than did his colleagues --democratic rationales that are consistent with the values of the World Bank. [complete article]

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Neocons take over the world? Maybe not
By Paul Woodward, The War in Context, March 17, 2005

While opposition swells to the appointment of Paul Wolfowitz as head of the World Bank, President Bush's choice (following so close on the heals of his selection of John Bolton as US ambassador to the UN) will be interpreted by many critics of the administration as a sign that the neoconservatives are again in the ascendency. But not so fast.

Power functions as a center of gravity and in Bush's first term neoconservative power was centered in the Pentagon and the Office of the Vice President. With the departure of Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz from Defense, undersecretary for intelligence, Stephen Cambone -- the last remaining high-ranking neocon there -- is now more vulnerable than ever.

The Pentagon's "a-few-bad-apples" strategy for defending itself against torture accusations isn't working. As more and more evidence comes out that there were institutional failures in the way prisoners have been treated in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan, this has become an issue that refuses to go away. If heads finally roll, Cambone's may be one of them. Meanwhile, it's still conceivable that Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, will get charges pinned on him by the Plame investigation prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald.

As for John Bolton's move to the UN, it's significant that he will no longer be a policymaker and that he failed to be chosen to replace Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage. If the fulcrum of power for the last four years has been the Pentagon, there are increasing signs that it is now shifting to the State Department. Condoleezza Rice is shaping her own power center and with the appointments of Robert B. Zoellick as her deputy and now Karen Hughes as undersecretary of State for public diplomacy, State under Rice clearly feels no need to kowtow to the neocons.

And if anyone is still convinced that the neocons are the dominant force in Washington, try to imagine who among their ranks would countenance the suggestion that Hezbollah has a role to play in the political development of Lebanon?

An administration that allowed itself to be controlled by a handful of ideologues is not about to now humiliate itself by publicly casting them out. For Bush to do so would be to do the unthinkable -- admit error. So, though we are not witnessing a neocon purge, they are clearly being scattered. Whether the rest of the world can effectively deal with them individually now that the cabal has been broken up, remains to be seen.

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Wolfowitz nomination a shock for Europe
By Edward Alden, Christopher Swann and Guy Dinmore, Financial Times, March 16, 2005

President George W. Bush's decision on Wednesday to nominate Paul Wolfowitz as the next president of the World Bank marks the second shock this month to Europeans who thought Mr Bush would present a kinder, gentler face to the world in his second term.

Instead, along with the nomination last week of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations, Mr Bush has put forward two men who have been the most passionate advocates for the view that if the US leads, the rest of the world will follow and fall into line.

"Wolfowitz has been seen as a symbol of the go-it-alone approach of the Bush administration," said Devesh Kapur, a Harvard political scientist and co-author of the official history of the World Bank. "Along with the nomination of Bolton, the US is putting the biggest sceptics of multilateralism in charge." [complete article]

Israel pleased with choice of Wolfowitz
By Herb Keinon, Jerusalem Post, March 16, 2005

Senior Israeli officials reacted with satisfaction Wednesday to news that US President George W. Bush tapped Paul Wolfowitz as his choice to be the next head of the World Bank.

Wolfowitz, currently Deputy Defense Secretary to Donald Rumsfeld, is slated to replace James Wolfensohn, who will end 10 years as World Bank President on June 1.

Wolfowitz's appointment to head the World Bank will have significance for Israel since the World Bank is expected to play a key economic role in Gaza after Israel's withdrawal. [...]

The World Bank is expected to supervise the implementation of hundreds of million of dollars worth of projects to rebuild Gaza. One official said that Wolfowitz would likely ensure that the Palestinians fulfill strict conditions regarding reform and democratization in order to get the money. [complete article]

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Pentagon has far-reaching defense spacecraft in works
By Walter Pincus, Washington Post, March 16, 2005

The Pentagon is working to develop a suborbital space capsule within the next five years that would be launched from the United States and could deliver conventional weapons anywhere in the world within two hours, defense officials said.

This year, the Falcon program will test a launcher for its Common Aero Vehicle (CAV), an unmanned maneuverable spacecraft that would travel at five times the speed of sound and could carry 1,000 pounds of munitions, intelligence sensors or other payloads. Among the system's strengths is that commanders could order a CAV -- an unpowered glide vehicle -- not to release its payload if they decided not to follow through with an attack.

The first-generation CAV, expected to be ready by 2010, will have "an incredible capability to provide the warfighter with a global reach capability against high payoff targets," Gen. Lance W. Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, told the House Armed Services Committee last Wednesday. [complete article]

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Bush seeks to ban some nations from all nuclear technology
By David E. Sanger, New York Times, March 15, 2005

Behind President Bush's recent shift in dealing with Iran's nuclear program lies a less visible goal: to rewrite, in effect, the main treaty governing the spread of nuclear technology, without actually renegotiating it.

In their public statements and background briefings in recent days, Mr. Bush's aides have acknowledged that Iran appears to have the right - on paper, at least - to enrich uranium to produce electric power. But Mr. Bush has managed to convince his reluctant European allies that the only acceptable outcome of their negotiations with Iran is that it must give up that right.

In what amounts to a reinterpretation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Mr. Bush now argues that there is a new class of nations that simply cannot be trusted with the technology to produce nuclear material even if the treaty itself makes no such distinction.

So far the administration has not declared publicly that its larger goal beyond Iran is to remake a treaty whose intellectual roots date back to the Eisenhower administration, under the cold war banner of "Atoms for Peace." To state publicly that Iran is really a test case of Mr. Bush's broader effort, one senior administration official said, "would complicate what's already a pretty messy negotiation."

But just three days before the White House announced its new approach to Iran - in which it allowed Europe to offer broader incentives in return for an agreement to ask the United Nations for sanctions if Iran refuses to give up the ability to make nuclear material - Mr. Bush issued a statement that left little doubt about where he was headed. [complete article]

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Rice seeks details on Pakistani's nuclear help to Iran
By Joel Brinkley and Steven R. Weisman, New York Times, March 16, 2005

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to press President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan for more information on the help a rogue Pakistani scientist, A. Q. Khan, is believed to have given Iran to develop a nuclear weapons program, a senior administration official said Tuesday.

Speaking on the eve of talks that Ms. Rice plans to hold with Indian and Pakistani leaders on the first leg of her trip to Asia, the official said that Pakistan had been helpful in the past on sharing information from its own investigation of Dr. Khan, but that the administration wanted more. [complete article]

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Iran says may present EU with take-it-or-leave-it proposal
Daily Star, March 15, 2005

Iran, complaining of the slow pace of negotiations with the European Union over its nuclear program, said on Monday it may soon present the EU with a take-it-or-leave-it proposal to finalize the talks. Iran insists its nuclear program is aimed at peaceful power generation, but the EU and United States fear the country may be seeking to develop atomic weapons.

The EU says Iran has a right to use nuclear power, but wants it to scrap plans to produce its own reactor fuel - a process which would also give it the capability to make bomb-grade material.

Cyrus Naseri, one of Iran's main negotiators with the EU, told state television that Tehran did not want a confrontation.

"But if they don't respond to what we believe is a logical stance, then they can choose their own path and we are prepared to deal with its consequences," he said.

"It's not like we have no time limits. It might not be long before we put on the table our final proposal and give them a deadline to either accept or reject it," Naseri added.

"We are not far away from this stage." Naseri recognized that such a strategy meant the two sides "might be moving toward an agreement or toward a confrontation." Iran has frozen sensitive nuclear fuel work like uranium enrichment while its talks with the EU continue. [complete article]

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Rice advises against India-Iran pipeline
By Anne Gearan, AP (via The Guardian), March 16, 2005

The United States and India papered over differences on U.S. arms sales to Pakistan and an Indian natural gas pipeline deal with Iran on Wednesday, ahead of a possible visit to India by President Bush later this year.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed future sales of sophisticated F-16 fighter planes to both India and rival Pakistan with her Indian counterpart before flying to Pakistan, but said no announcement is imminent.

India wants to buy the U.S. weaponry while denying it to Pakistan. The neighboring rivals have fought three wars since their 1947 independence from Britain.

Meanwhile, the United States wants India to scotch a potential deal to build an oil pipeline from Iran to serve the expanding economy in India, the world's largest democracy. [complete article]

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Coming to terms with China
By Chalmers Johnson, TomDispatch, March 15, 2005

I recall forty years ago, when I was a new professor working in the field of Chinese and Japanese international relations, that Edwin O. Reischauer once commented, "The great payoff from our victory of 1945 was a permanently disarmed Japan." Born in Japan and a Japanese historian at Harvard, Reischauer served as American ambassador to Tokyo in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Strange to say, since the end of the Cold War in 1991 and particularly under the administration of George W. Bush, the United States has been doing everything in its power to encourage and even accelerate Japanese rearmament.

Such a development promotes hostility between China and Japan, the two superpowers of East Asia, sabotages possible peaceful solutions in those two problem areas, Taiwan and North Korea, left over from the Chinese and Korean civil wars, and lays the foundation for a possible future Sino-American conflict that the United States would almost surely lose. It is unclear whether the ideologues and war lovers of Washington understand what they are unleashing -- a possible confrontation between the world's fastest growing industrial economy, China, and the world's second most productive, albeit declining, economy, Japan; a confrontation which the United States would have both caused and in which it might well be consumed. [complete article]

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New Iraqi parliament meets for first time
By Caryle Murphy, John Ward Anderson and Daniel Williams, Washington Post, March 16, 2005

Amid tight security and the sound of explosions, Iraq's new parliament met for the first time Wednesday as Iraqi politicians and citizens alike urged lawmakers to stop bickering, form a new government and tackle the country's numerous problems, particularly the violent insurgency.

The source of the blasts, which apparently came from mortars, was under investigation by the U.S. military. The explosions rattled windows in the auditorium inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, where lawmakers gathered at 11 a.m. (3 a.m. EST) for the first meeting of a freely elected parliament in Iraq in almost 50 years.

U.S. helicopters hovered overhead, and several bridges approaching the Green Zone were closed because of the threat of suicide bombings, car bomb attacks and other potential insurgent strikes. [complete article]

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Shiites and Kurds at impasse over oil-rich zone's fate
By Edward Wong, New York Times, March 16, 2005

On the eve of the first meeting here of the new constitutional assembly, the major Shiite and Kurdish political parties have yet to agree to form a coalition government and will have to continue talks later in the week, senior officials on both sides said Tuesday.

Nevertheless, the assembly is still expected to vote for a president and several other high-ranking officials at its first meeting, on Wednesday, Iraqi officials said.

The Kurds and the Shiites, the two blocs that won the most votes in the Jan. 30 elections, have to resolve disputes on several major issues that are hindering moves toward an alliance, the officials from the two groups said. The two sides are deadlocked over conflicting visions of the future of the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk and the status of the Kurdish militia, among other things, the officials said.

The wrangling is continuing into its seventh week after the elections, and there is evidence that it is deeply shaking the public's trust. Many Iraqis defied insurgent threats to take part in the country's first free elections in decades and now are expressing growing disillusionment with the top parties, accusing them of selfishly grabbing for power at the expense of the country. [complete article]

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Italy plans withdrawal, further eroding U.S.-led coalition
Associated Press (via MSNBC), March 16, 2005

Italy, one of Washington's most stalwart allies in Iraq, announced it could begin pulling its troops out in September, an acknowledgment by Premier Silvio Berlusconi that Italian public opinion is heavily against the war.

The announcement Tuesday by the conservative leader was the most high-profile crack in what the U.S. administration has boasted in the past was a solid alliance. The Netherlands is ending its mission this month, and Poland plans to withdraw some troops in July. [complete article]

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2 years after invasion, poll data mixed
By Dan Balz and Richard Morin, Washington Post, March 16, 2005

Two years after President Bush led the country to war in Iraq, Americans appear to be of two minds about the situation in the Middle East: A majority say they believe the Iraqis are better off today than they were before the conflict began -- but they also say the war was not worth fighting in the first place, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The January elections in Iraq have helped to shift public opinion in a positive direction about the future of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, with a clear majority of Americans (56 percent) saying they are now confident that Iraqi leaders can create a stable government -- a dramatic turnaround since just before the elections.

The poll also shows that more Americans believe the war has improved the chances of democracy spreading in the Middle East than believe it has diminished those prospects.

Despite the optimism about the future, the poll suggests there has been little change in the negative public opinion about the decision to go to war. Fifty-three percent of Americans said the war was not worth fighting, 57 percent said they disapprove of the president's handling of Iraq, and 70 percent said the number of U.S. casualties, including more than 1,500 deaths, is an unacceptable price. [complete article]

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Iraqi TV has a hit, starring insurgents
By Thanassis Cambanis, Boston Globe (via IHT), March 16, 2005

Iraq's wildly popular new television show features a nightly parade of men, most with bruised faces, confessing to all kinds of terrorist and criminal acts.

"Terrorism in the Hands of Justice" is the Iraqi government's slick new propaganda tool. Its televised confessions, the police say, aim to discredit the armed resistance and advertise the government's success at cracking down on gangs.

If it is meant to showcase a brave new Iraq, the television show is disturbingly reminiscent of the bad old Iraq. The show, which appears six nights a week on the state-run Iraqiya network, has a strong flavor of Saddam Hussein-era strong-arming.

Since its debut a month ago, "Terrorism" has become a fixture in Iraq's cafes and living rooms.

Government officials brag that the show has ruined the image of jihad in the country, exposing members of the resistance not as holy warriors but as street criminals and thugs who attack Americans and Iraqi security forces for pay.

It also raises a host of disturbing questions. The bruised, swollen faces and hunched shoulders of many of the suspects suggest that they have been beaten or tortured. The neat confessions of terrorist attacks at times fit together so seamlessly as to seem implausible. And the suspects are presented to the public without any legal process to protect them, presumed guilty, with no word about rule of law as a weapon in the arsenal against terrorism. [complete article]

See also, Iran's 'desert vampire' executed (BBC).

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In Mideast, Shiites may be unlikely U.S. allies
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, March 16, 2005

A quarter-century after its first traumatic confrontation with the Shiite world, when the U.S. Embassy was seized in Iran, the United States is moving on several fronts to support, recognize or hold out the prospect of engagement with Islam's increasingly powerful minority.

The White House is now counting on a Shiite-dominated government to stabilize Iraq. In a tactical shift, the United States is indirectly reaching out to Iran, backing Europe's offer of economic incentives to get Tehran to surrender any nuclear weapons program.

And in Lebanon, President Bush suggested yesterday, Washington might accept Hezbollah as a political party -- if it renounces terrorism, as the Palestine Liberation Organization did in 1988. "I would hope that Hezbollah would prove that they're not [a terrorist organization] by laying down arms and not threatening peace," he said in a joint appearance with Jordan's King Abdullah. [complete article]

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Bush sees Hezbollah in politics
By Sonni Efron, Los Angeles Times, March 16, 2005

In an apparent overture to an organization on the U.S. terrorist blacklist, President Bush suggested Tuesday that Hezbollah should put down its arms and become fully integrated into Lebanon's political mainstream.

During an Oval Office appearance with Jordan's King Abdullah II, Bush was asked if he would support a political role for Hezbollah, a group tied to the 1983 truck bombing at a Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans.

"We view Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and I would hope that Hezbollah would prove that they're not by laying down arms and not threatening peace," Bush told reporters.

Middle East experts said Bush's remarks appeared carefully scripted to send a message to Hezbollah that the United States might accept a role for the militant Shiite Muslim group once Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon. By doing so, Bush probably hopes to lessen Hezbollah's opposition to a Syrian pullout, they said. [complete article]

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Lebanon's meaning in the wider Arab context
By Rami G. Khouri, Daily Star, March 16, 2005

Something very important to the Arab world continues to take place on the streets of Beirut, and it is not primarily about being pro- or anti-Syrian. Neither is it mainly about political anthropology - the counting of headscarves, bellybutton rings, beards and designer shoes among the street demonstrators, in order to note their ethnic, religious and ideological identity.

Having attended all the demonstrations, I am convinced that Lebanon these days represents a historic, unprecedented drive for national self-determination by Arab citizens. The Lebanese seek to define three crucial aspects of their national identity and power structure that no Arab citizenry has ever done in the past eight decades or so of nominal Arab independence: first, the nature of their sovereignty and political configuration; second, the nature of their relations with neighboring states and foreign powers; and third, the relationship among their own military-security sector, the average citizen, and the institutions of governance. [complete article]

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From 1559 to regime change in Washington think
By Joshua Landis, Syria Comment, March 16, 2005

The struggle between Syria and the US is far from finished. Syria's role in 1559 is largely finished. The word from many western embassies here the day Syria confirmed to Larsen that it was moving out its security forces completely and quickly from Lebanon was that 1559 was over as far as Syria was concerned.

The only real leverage 1559 offered the US was European sanctions. When Bush went to Bruxelles, he got the European powers to agree to support 1559 to the extent that it required the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon - that meant sanctions, a big club.

With Syria's withdrawal, the club is gone. Europe is not behind disarming Hizbullah in the immediate future or naming it a terrorist organization, which would require Europe to move with the US to shut it down. Europe has always been reluctant to join the US in the use of sanctions against Syria. Chirac's about face following the Lahoud extension shifted the balance of the EU against Syria. Now that Syria is withdrawing, Europe is returning to former anti-sanctions position.

From the point of view of the embassies in Damascus, their leading role in Lebanon is over. The foreign reporters will eventually pack their bags and leave the Meridian and Sheraton hotels in down town Damascus and return to their main postings. Some will go to Beirut and follow the ins and outs of Lebanese politics. But the Syrian action is largely over. The spotlight moves from Damascus to Beirut. Many in Washington, however, will struggle to keep the focus on Damascus. [complete article]

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U.N. team finishes Hariri inquiry
BBC News, March 15, 2005

A UN team investigating the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Lebanon has completed its fact-finding mission, say Lebanese officials.

The team will present its findings to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan when the members return to New York.

The report's conclusions are expected to be released to the UN Security Council at the end of March. [complete article]

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Karen Hughes sells brand America
By Fred Kaplan, Slate, March 15, 2005

As part of his plan to improve America's image in the Muslim world, President Bush has appointed his longtime adviser, Karen Hughes, as the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. Condoleezza Rice, announcing the choice on Monday, said, "We must do more to confront the hateful propaganda, dispel dangerous myths, and get out the truth."

Hear, hear. The question is: Can that be accomplished by this peculiar tool called "public diplomacy?"

Hughes' most notable predecessors -- two similarly strong women -- ended up fleeing the post in horror. Charlotte Beers, a brilliant advertising executive, took the job a month after 9/11 with a mandate to re-brand America, and got run out of town a year later when her marketing campaign prompted storms of outrage and ridicule from its intended audience. Margaret Tutwiler, James Baker's press secretary during the presidency of Bush's father, followed with her customary can-do gusto, and lasted a mere six months before throwing up her hands and taking refuge as vice-president at the New York Stock Exchange. [complete article]

See also, Ultimate Bush insider joins Rice at State Department (Jim Lobe).

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U.S. military says 26 inmate deaths may be homicide
By Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt, New York Times, March 16, 2005

At least 26 prisoners have died in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002 in what Army and Navy investigators have concluded or suspect were acts of criminal homicide, according to military officials.

The number of confirmed or suspected cases is much higher than any accounting the military has previously reported. A Pentagon report sent to Congress last week cited only six prisoner deaths caused by abuse, but that partial tally was limited to what the author, Vice Adm. Albert T. Church III of the Navy, called "closed, substantiated abuse cases" as of last September.

The new figure of 26 was provided by the Army and Navy this week after repeated inquiries. In 18 cases reviewed by the Army and Navy, investigators have now closed their inquiries and have recommended them for prosecution or referred them to other agencies for action, Army and Navy officials said. Eight cases are still under investigation but are listed by the Army as confirmed or suspected criminal homicides, the officials said.

Only one of the deaths occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, officials said, showing how broadly the most violent abuses extended beyond those prison walls and contradicting early impressions that the wrongdoing was confined to a handful of members of the military police on the prison's night shift. [complete article]

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Exam sought to prove Saudis tortured Va. man
By Jerry Markon, Washington Post, March 15, 2005

An attorney for an American student charged in a conspiracy to kill President Bush called yesterday for an independent medical examination, which he contended would show that his client was tortured while in Saudi custody.

The development came as the student, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was arraigned in U.S. District Court in Alexandria and pleaded not guilty. Normally a routine proceeding, the arraignment set off a round of courtroom fireworks that reflected the combative -- and complicated -- nature of the case. [complete article]

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Evangelists focus efforts on converting Muslims
By Steven G. Vegh, Virginian Pilot, March 16, 2005

There are few books Kevin Greeson likes better than the Quran, Islam's holiest scripture.

Greeson, a Christian missionary in South Asia, said the Quran's mention of Jesus is a perfect starting point for engaging Muslims in dialogue that eventually can lead to their conversion to Christianity.

"It is the most effective evangelistic tool I've seen," said Greeson, who works for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Conference. "I don't mean to say Muslims are our enemy, but using the Quran as a bridge has allowed us to go deep, deep, deep into enemy territory."

The world's approximately 1.2 billion Muslims are the top target of evangelical efforts to spread Christianity, and Greeson is among mission professionals who discussed strategies Tuesday at a four-day conference, "Breakthrough Among Muslims," held at Regent University. The Alliance for Missions Advancement sponsored the event.

Open to debate is whether such evangelization builds or burns bridges, especially when the United States is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. [complete article]

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Chavez casts himself as the anti-Bush
By Kevin Sullivan, Washington Post, March 15, 2005

President Hugo Chavez has recently accused President Bush of plotting to assassinate him, made suggestive comments about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visited Fidel Castro in Cuba, bashed the United States on the al-Jazeera television network and traveled to Libya to receive an award from Moammar Gaddafi.

Such bluster and anti-American showmanship are nothing new from the fiery former paratrooper. But concern in Washington has been rising as Chavez has worked feverishly in recent months to match his words with deeds.

Since threatening to cut off oil shipments to the United States, which buys 1.5 million barrels a day from Venezuela, Chavez has been traveling the globe looking for new markets and allies to unite against "the imperialist power." He recently signed energy deals with France, India and China, which is searching for new sources of oil to power its industrial expansion. Chavez also has made a series of arms purchases, including one for military helicopters from Russia. [complete article]

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Egypt activists say real reform would bar Mubarak from race
By Daniel Williams, Washington Post, March 16, 2005

After digesting President Hosni Mubarak's proposal for multi-candidate elections this year, opposition groups say that it does not go far enough to ensure a competitive vote and that one way to ensure a real free-for-all campaign is for Mubarak not to run.

Although Mubarak proposed last month that the constitution be amended to allow a competitive race instead of a referendum on a single candidate, the details are still vague. Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, which dominates the Egyptian legislature and local governments, has floated the possibility of allowing only officials of authorized political parties to run. Officials have also suggested a requirement that parliament and local councils approve nominees. Parliament is due to pass new election rules in May.

Mubarak has yet to declare his candidacy, but party officials have indicated he will be the nominee. Mubarak has ruled Egypt for 24 years and would bring to any presidential race the vast advantages of incumbency: name recognition, access to news media and control of the government bureaucracy and police, opponents say.
[complete article]

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Report: Iraq coverage wasn't biased
By David Bauder, AP (via BG), March 13, 2005

A study of news coverage of the war in Iraq fails to support a conclusion that events were portrayed either negatively or positively most of the time.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism looked at nearly 2,200 stories on television, newspapers and Web sites and found that most of them couldn't be categorized either way.

Twenty-five percent of the stories were negative and 20 percent were positive, according to the study, released Sunday by the Washington-based think tank.

Despite the exhaustive look, the study likely won't change the minds of war supporters who considered the media hostile to the Bush administration, or opponents who think reporters weren't questioning enough, said Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director.

"There was enough of both to annoy both camps," he said. "But the majority of stories were just news." [complete article]

Comment -- Associated Press kindly provided the redeeming headline and for most news editors across America it was good enough. The problem is, if twenty-five percent of the stories were negative and 20 percent were positive, that means that a whopping forty-five percent of the stories were biased! The implication of the headline is that an equal mix of bias - positive and negative - means the biases get cancelled out. But if less than six out of ten surveyed news articles covering the war were objective and the director of the so-called Project for Excellence in Journalism takes comfort in this statistic, American journalism is in trouble.

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Excess fuel billing by Halliburton in Iraq is put at $108 million
By Erik Eckholm, New York Times, March 15, 2005

Excess billing for postwar fuel imports to Iraq by the Halliburton Company totaled more than $108 million, according to a report by Pentagon auditors that was completed last fall but has never been officially released to the public or to Congress.

In one case, according to the report, the company claimed that it had paid more than $27 million to transport liquefied petroleum gas it had purchased in Kuwait for just $82,000 - a fee the auditors tartly dismissed as "illogical."

The fuels report, by the Defense Contract Audit Agency, was one of nine audits involving a subsidiary of Halliburton, Kellogg, Brown & Root, that were completed in October 2004, in the month before the American presidential elections. But the administration has kept all of them confidential despite repeated requests from both Republican and Democratic members of Congress. [complete article]

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In oil-rich Iraq region, an ethnic chasm grows
By Edward Wong, New York Times (IHT), March 15, 2005

Muhammad Ahmed realized how wide the chasm between Kurds and Arabs here had grown when he recently ran into a former classmate on the serpentine streets of this troubled city.

Ahmed, a Kurd, and his friend, an Arab, studied together at Kirkuk's oil institute nearly two decades ago. But shortly after Ahmed started work at the state-owned company North Oil in the late 1980s, the government of Saddam Hussein, intent on solidifying Arab control of Kirkuk, forced him out of his job and made him and his family move north, where they joined tens of thousands of other exiled Kurds.

That mass relocation planted the seeds for a bitter ethnic antagonism that has grown into the most incendiary political issue in Iraq, outside of the Sunni-led insurgency, and the one that more than any other is delaying formation of a new government. When Ahmed met his classmate again, he discovered that his friend was still working for North Oil, one of as many as 10,000 employees helping to tap the region's vast troves of oil, estimated at 10 percent to 20 percent of the country's reserves. [complete article]

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Kurds, Shiites meet to discuss forming coalition government
By Susannah A. Nesmith, Knight Ridder, March 14, 2005

Kurdish leaders flew to Baghdad on Monday to hammer out an agreement with a Shiite alliance that was the leading vote-getter in January's national elections, in the hopes of creating a coalition with a majority big enough to form a government.

The meeting, which started at 5 p.m. local time, wasn't expected to produce a final agreement. Both sides said they planned on taking a draft back to their parties for approval Tuesday, but insisted that Wednesday's scheduled first meeting of the National Assembly would go ahead as planned, even if no coalition had been formed.

The two sides differ on a variety of issues, from the status of the Kurdish militia to the number of ministries that each group should control. They're disputing the share of Iraq's oil revenues that the semi-autonomous Kurdish region should receive and have even debated how Iraq's supreme court should be appointed.

There's also been discussion of how quickly Kurds whom Saddam Hussein forced to leave the city of Kirkuk will be allowed to return. Kirkuk, which controls vital oil reserves, isn't part of present-day Iraqi Kurdistan. [complete article]

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Iraq poll victors 'are paralysing the country'
By Oliver Poole, The Telegraph, March 15, 2005

Iraq's interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, criticised the winners of the January elections yesterday, saying they had "paralysed" the country by failing over the past six weeks to agree on the shape of a new government.

The new parliament meets for the first time tomorrow in a sitting intended to usher in Iraq's first elected national administration for decades.

But the two main political blocs - the Shia and the Kurds - have yet to reach an agreement, plunging the country into a political limbo.

Talks between the two groups began last night in a marathon session intended to find a solution. But a Shia spokesman said "differences" remained and a Kurdish official said that negotiations had "hit a dead end".

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Mr Allawi said the impasse was "paralysing life in this country". [complete article]

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Dutch and Ukrainians leave Iraq
BBC News, March 15, 2005

Two members of the US-led coalition in Iraq have begun their phased withdrawals from the country.

About 150 Dutch troops arrived back in their country on Monday, while a similar number of Ukrainians were expected home on Tuesday.

However, the withdrawals coincided with a vote in the Italian parliament, expected to endorse the country's continued involvement in Iraq. [complete article]

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Tortuous trail: from a bombing in Iraq to fury at a family in Jordan
By Dexter Filkins, New York Times, March 15, 2005

The mysterious phone call to Ahmed al-Banna came earlier this month, three days after a suicide bomber had carried out the single deadliest attack in Iraq since the war began.

"Your brother has been killed in a martyrdom operation," the caller said, using a common euphemism to describe a suicide bombing. "Congratulations." The caller claimed to be telephoning from Iraq, representing a militant group called Brothers in the Gulf.

The Bannas are a well-respected Jordanian family, whose elder son, Raad, had left Jordan a few weeks before, ostensibly to hunt for a job. He was 32, a lawyer who had once lived in America, worked for the United Nations and liked cowboy hats and Harley-Davidsons.

But exactly what else the caller said - and more important, whether Mr. Banna really was the bomber - remain a topic of fierce debate. [complete article]

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Bush orders policy to 'contain' Chavez
By Andy Webb-Vidal, Financial Times, March 13, 2005

Senior US administration officials are working on a policy to "contain" Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, and what they allege is his drive to "subvert" Latin America's least stable states.

A strategy aimed at fencing in the government of the world's fifth-largest oil exporter is being prepared at the request of President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, senior US officials say. The move signals a renewed interest by the administration in a region that has been relatively neglected in recent years.

Roger Pardo-Maurer, deputy assistant secretary for western hemisphere affairs at the US Department of Defense, said the Venezuela policy was being developed because Mr Chavez was employing a "hyena strategy" in the region.

"Chavez is a problem because he is clearly using his oil money and influence to introduce his conflictive style into the politics of other countries," Mr Pardo-Maurer said in an interview with the Financial Times. [complete article]

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U.N. finds evidence of official cover-up in Hariri assassination
By Robert Fisk, The Independent, March 14, 2005

Yesterday, frogmen were sent into the sea off the Beirut Corniche to recover the wreckage of the one car in the Hariri convoy that was not taken away by the authorities because it was blasted over a hotel wall into the Mediterranean by the force of the explosion. If they successfully recover parts of the vehicle, they may be able to discover the nature of the explosives. First reports that Hariri was killed by a car bomb are now being challenged by evidence that the explosives - estimated at 600kg - could have been buried beneath the seafront avenue.

A unique photograph handed to The Independent in Beirut - which is now also in the hands of the UN investigators - was taken on the afternoon of 12 February, about 36 hours before the bombing. It shows a drain cover in the road at the exact spot where the explosion was to tear a 30-foot crater in the highway, instantly killing Hariri and many of his bodyguards.

The section of roadway is marked off by "no parking" signs which have been left there innocently by staff of the nearby HSBC bank. But a mysterious object can be seen on the left edge of the drain cover. Both the metal cover and an extensive area of roadway around it were atomised by the bomb. [complete article]

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After Syria, a U.N. role in Lebanon?
By Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, March 15, 2005

The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon has spurred some members of the United Nations Security Council to assess the possibility of dispatching a stabilization force to fill any security vacuum that might arise.

After all, the Lebanese government for years has justified Syria's troop presence by saying it was helping ensure peace and that a hasty departure could destabilize the country that has a history of civil war between its many competing sectarian and political influences.

Past peacekeeping efforts in Lebanon have ranged from the disastrous Multi-National Force (MNF) mission in 1983 - that was driven out of Beirut by a barrage of suicide bombers - to the impotent UN peacekeeping effort in south Lebanon. [complete article]

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Rallies highlight rifts in Lebanon
By Scott Wilson, Washington Post, March 15, 2005

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese rallied at the grave of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on Monday to mark the one-month anniversary of his assassination and to intensify pressure on Syria to immediately withdraw its troops from a country that appears split into two rival political camps.

The demonstration covered wind-swept Martyrs' Square and stretched for blocks into side streets, likely surpassing the size of the rally organized last week in Beirut by Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Muslim movement at the forefront of support for Syria's three-decade presence here.

In a crowd that Lebanese police officials estimated at close to 1 million people, some demonstrators waved placards that read "100 percent Lebanese," a direct challenge to Syria's supporters here and the delicate balance among Lebanon's sectarian parties that has prevailed since the country's civil war ended more than 15 years ago. [complete article]

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Israeli barrier to enclose Palestinian-claimed areas
By Josef Federman, Associated Press (via (BG), March 15, 2005

The final route of Israel's separation barrier around Jerusalem will encompass large areas claimed by the Palestinians, including their intended capital and the biggest Jewish settlement in the West Bank, Israeli officials confirmed yesterday.

The route also would place a holy site in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem on the Israeli side of the barrier, while leaving a Palestinian refugee camp in Jerusalem encircled by a separate fence, the officials said. [...]

Israel began building the barrier in the West Bank two years ago, saying it was needed to keep out Palestinian attackers. Palestinians say the structure, which dips into the West Bank, is an attempt by Israel to impose a border without waiting for a peace deal.

The section around Jerusalem is especially sensitive. The Palestinians hope to establish their capital in east Jerusalem, a traditional Arab commercial, religious, and social center. Israel, which captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, claims all the city as its capital. [complete article]

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U.S.: Israel shirking its promises on settlement boundaries
By Ze'ev Schiff, Haaretz, March 15, 2005

srael has still not kept a promise that it made the United States last April to demarcate the built-up areas of every West Bank settlement, for the purpose of setting limits on the settlements' growth. As a result, the U.S. has halted the work of the Israeli-American task force that was supposed to deal with this issue.

Israel's commitment on demarcating the settlements - along with a promise to give Washington a list of unauthorized outposts slated for evacuation, including the planned evacuation dates, within 30 days - was contained in a letter sent by Dov Weisglass, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's bureau chief and now his senior adviser, to Condoleezza Rice, then U.S. national security adviser and now secretary of state, on April 14, 2004. [...]

The joint task force was supposed to work on the basis of aerial photographs of the settlements. However, Israel had no updated photographs, a fact that attorney Talia Sasson also noted in the report on the outposts that she submitted to Sharon last week. And in the 11 months since Weisglass sent his letter, the government has made no effort to rectify this: It has neither commissioned such photographs from a private company nor utilized Israel's own satellite to take such pictures (the latter proposal was nixed by the Defense Ministry). As a result, the American experts have repeatedly postponed their planned trip to Israel. [complete article]

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Hamas to conduct secret primaries
Daily Star, March 14, 2005

Hamas will conduct secret primaries to choose its candidates for parliamentary elections in July, the Palestinian group's first major electoral test, a West Bank leader said Sunday.

Over the weekend, Hamas announced it is participating in the elections, challenging Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement, which has dominated Palestinian politics for four decades.

Hamas' decision to compete, coupled with its observance of an unofficial truce with Israel, is a major step in what some see as the group's gradual transformation into a political party.

Mohammed Ghazal, a senior Hamas leader in the West Bank, said Sunday in a telephone interview the group would hold an underground registration drive among members and supporters ahead of primaries that would also to be held in secret.

As part of the truce, Israel has said it would stop chasing militants, except those who pose a danger to Israel, but Ghazal, a university lecturer who on Saturday announced Hamas' decision to participate in the election, said Hamas does not trust such assurances, saying: "We are still working underground." [complete article]

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Palestinians discuss formal truce
BBC News, March 15, 2005

The main Palestinian factions are due to meet later today in fresh efforts to persuade militant groups to agree a fully-fledged ceasefire with Israel.

The Hamas group has so far resisted, but it may be willing to continue an informal lull in attacks, say analysts.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will chair the discussions in the Egyptian capital, Cairo. [complete article]

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Huge turnout for anti-Syria rally in Lebanon
Associated Press (via MSNBC), March 14, 2005

Monday's protest easily surpassed a pro-government rally of hundreds of thousands of people last week by the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah. That show of strength forced the opposition to try to regain its momentum.

While there were no official estimates of the size of the crowd, police officers privately estimated it at about 1 million people. The officers refused to speak publicly because it was an opposition rally. An Associated Press estimate by reporters on the scene put the number at much higher than the approximately 500,000 who attended the March 8 pro-Syrian rally. [complete article]

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1559 is finished - the game is up
By Joshua Landis, Syria Comment, March 13, 2005

"It's all over." That is how one reporter described the situation in Lebanon after touching base with Western Embassies in Damascus. "There is no more threat of sanctions. No use of force," he was told. Now that the Syrians have agreed to withdraw their troops, UN Resolution 1559 is dead."

The resolution demanding the disarming of Lebanese parties cannot be carried out. France and Russia have opposed it. Hizbullah demonstrated that it is much too strong.

In the American embassy in Damascus, the view is that the game is finished. Now everyone is trying to understand who won.

Did the US win because Syria pulled out its troops? Or, did it lose because it got too greedy with 1559 and insisted on stuffing in the articles on Hizbullah and local "terrorist groups," which no one else will now support.

Perhaps Syria won? Yes, it pulled out its troops, but they weren't really necessary to preserve its influence in Lebanon. Syria proved that it has plenty of local supporters in Lebanon. It is not out of the game by a long shot. All the chest pounding by Rice and US diplomats may be premature. [complete article]

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Beirut demonstrators demand full withdrawal
By James Sturcke, The Guardian, March 14, 2005

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Beirut today in the biggest anti-Syria protest since the assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

The crowds demanded a full withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and an international investigation into the killing of Mr Hariri on February 14.

The protest, in Beirut's Martyrs' Square, comes after a pro-Syria rally last week, organised by the Shia group Hizbullah, which drew an estimated 500,000 demonstrators. Today, protesters also denounced the reinstatement last Thursday of the prime minister, Omar Karami, who is a staunch supporter of Damascus.

Meanwhile, Syria continued to withdraw its troops today. Under intense international pressure, some Syrian troops have already gone home and others have pulled back to the eastern Beka'a valley. Syrian intelligence vacated offices in two northern towns today, having shut down offices in towns to the east of Beirut last week. [complete article]

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Massive pro-Syrian rally in Lebanon
Aljazeera, March 13, 2005

More than 300,000 pro-Syrian protesters rallied in southern Lebanese city on Sunday chanting "Death to America" and "Death to Israel", and denouncing the U.S.-backed UN 1559 resolution, photographers who were present at the scene reported.

Responding to a call from the pro-Syrian Shiite parties Amal and Hezbollah, thousands of demonstrators gathered in the southern town of Nabatiyeh, 70 kilometers (45 miles) south of Beirut on Sunday, with many waving Lebanese flags, denouncing UN Security Council Resolution 1559, that stipulates a full withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and disarming Hezbollah and other Palestinian factions. [complete article]

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Beirut on the brink of an abyss
By Peter Beaumont, The Observer, March 13, 2005

Before Hariri's murder - blamed by many Lebanese on Syria, whose army and intelligence services have lingered in the country for 30 years - you could buy [an AK-47 assault rifle] for $100 (£52). These days, say Lebanese, you would be lucky to find a weapon for $700.

It is not a sign that violence is imminent. Rather it is an indication that a nation that has already experienced the abyss of civil war from 1975-1991, has looked over the edge again - and is afraid.

That fear is being driven by a spiralling distrust in a society whose rival parts - Christian, Sunni, Shia and Druze - have lived in wary coexistence since the war's end. And it is fuelled by wild rumours.

It is a sense of foreboding that was redoubled last week by the dramatic decision of Lebanon's most powerful group - the Shia Hizbollah - to refuse to support a newly united 'opposition' in demanding Syria's departure, instead staking its leadership of a rival bloc with last Tuesday's massive pro- Syrian and pro-government demonstration called by its charismatic leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

Suddenly, after weeks of the 'Cedar Revolution', peopled largely by Lebanon's well-groomed middle-classes, which has forced the resignation of one pro-Syria government and helped to propel Syrian forces towards a final withdrawal, the faces on the streets were of the Shia poor. [complete article]

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Israelis say elected Hamas role could hamper talks
By Matthew Tostevin, Reuters, March 13, 2005

The participation of Hamas militants sworn to destroying Israel in Palestinian elections could pose problems for any eventual Middle East peace negotiations, Israeli officials have said.

Hamas announced on Saturday it would compete in this July's parliamentary vote, a step welcomed by President Mahmoud Abbas, who is trying to get the Islamic group to agree a formal ceasefire and join the political mainstream.

But Israeli spokesman Avi Pazner said the participation of Hamas could "pose problems to (Abbas) and for the future of negotiations between us and the Palestinian Authority."

"One has to be very cautious on this subject, but at the moment, all Hamas wants and is preaching openly, is the destruction of Israel. This movement is extremely dangerous, not only to us but also to the Palestinian Authority," he said.

Israel has said it would not negotiate with Hamas, which has spearheaded a suicide bombing campaign during a 4 1/2-year-old uprising. It has repeatedly urged Abbas to disarm the militants instead of courting them.

This week, Abbas is due to meet Hamas leaders in Cairo to try to get them to formally agree to respect his February 8 ceasefire with Israel and possibly give them a greater political role. [complete article]

Comment -- The prospect of seeing Hamas and Fatah fight it out at the ballot box instead of on the streets of Gaza was probably not what Ariel Sharon's senior advisor Dov Weissglas had in mind when he predicted last year that disengagement "supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians." As for the Israeli government's passion for promoting democracy among Palestinians, it appears that Natan Sharansky -- George Bush's champion of democracy -- got it right when he quoted Ariel Sharon saying, 'I understand that in the Soviet Union your ideas were important, but unfortunately they have no place in the Middle East.'

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Israel delays action on settlements
By Molly Moore, Washington Post, March 14, 2005

The Israeli cabinet Sunday decided to delay action against illegal settlement outposts, even as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon acknowledged that evacuation of the outposts is required of Israel under the terms of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

Less than a week after a government-sponsored report accused Israel of funding and building Jewish settlement outposts across the West Bank in violation of its own laws and international mandates, the cabinet sent the report's recommendations to a ministerial committee for more study.

"The evacuation of unauthorized outposts is part of Israel's commitments according to the road map," Sharon said at the cabinet meeting, according to a statement issued by his office. He said the ministerial committee "will consider the ways of implementing the opinion." The road map is also backed by the United Nations, Russia and the European Union. [complete article]

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Iraqi gov't talks at impasse as insurgents kill Kurdish cameraman
AFP (via Yahoo), March 14, 2005

Talks on forming Iraq's government were at an impasse over Kurdish demands on the ethnically-divided city of Kirkuk and their peshmerga fighters, while a car bomb killed two south of Baghdad and a cameraman was assassinated.

With the historic first session of the country's new parliament just two days away, Kurdish chieftain Jalal Talabani said Monday that negotiations with Iraq's election-winning Shiite list had fallen into deadlock.

"There are disagreements about two points. The first is the fate of the peshmerga, and the second one is concerning Kirkuk. Our negotiations with the (Shiite) alliance continue," Talabani told reporters as he announced he was heading to Baghdad for Wednesday's session of the 275-member national assembly.

He added the Kurds wanted to seal an agreement with the Shiite list, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), and then bring other parties into the new government, including outgoing prime minister Iyad Allawi who has so far refused any post other than premier. [complete article]

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Overhauling Iraqi security forces could cause collapse, analysts say
By Hannah Allam, Knight Ridder, March 13, 2005

Iraq's fledgling security forces are in danger of collapse if the newly elected government follows through on promises to purge the ranks of former regime members, politicians and analysts here warn.

The dismantling of Saddam Hussein's military is widely viewed as one of the gravest mistakes of the U.S.-led occupation, and the Bush administration has worked in the past year to reverse it by helping the interim Iraqi government restore the jobs of some highly skilled troops who served under Saddam.

Now, analysts say, the incoming government led by Shiite Muslims is at risk of repeating the error that was blamed for swelling the mostly Sunni insurgency. [complete article]

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Fallujah, tent city, awaits compensation
By Juan Cole, Informed Comment, March 13, 2005

Readers often write in for an update on Fallujah. I am sorry to say that there is no Fallujah to update. The city appears to be in ruins and perhaps uninhabitable in the near future. Of 300,000 residents, only about 9,000 seem to have returned, and apparently some of those are living in tents above the ruins of their homes. The rest of the Fallujans are scattered in refugee camps of hastily erected tents at several sites, including one near Habbaniyyah, or are staying with relatives in other cities, including Baghdad.

The scale of this human tragedy-- the dispossession and displacement of 300,000 persons-- is hard to imagine. Unlike the victims of the tsunami who were left homeless, moreover, the Fallujans have witnessed no outpouring of world sympathy. [complete article]

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Taking aim at Iran
By Uzi Mahnaimi and Tony Allen-Mills, Sunday Times, March 13, 2005

For the past few months, elite Israeli commandos have been training for an assault on Iran's nuclear facilities. One more full rehearsal has been scheduled for next month, said senior Israeli intelligence sources last week.

The news that Israel is planning unilateral action to end what it considers an imminent Iranian nuclear threat comes as American and European diplomats are announcing new initiatives for negotiation with Tehran.

Although publicly committed to the diplomatic effort, Israeli officials say the "point of no return" will come later this year when they calculate Iran will be in a position to start processing uranium. They say Ariel Sharon's inner cabinet has decided to act alone if the impasse has not been broken. [complete article]

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U.S. is urged to back 2 nuclear treaties
By Bryan Bender, Boston Globe, March 13, 2005

Diplomats representing more than a dozen countries have urged the United States to embrace a set of proposed treaties to stem the spread of nuclear arms. They accuse Washington of backing away from a collective approach to arms control and helping to erode a three-decade framework for controlling nuclear weapons.

Meeting in the Norwegian capital over two days earlier this month, the diplomats and European, African, and Asian nuclear specialists blamed the United States' refusal to support two major treaties -- which would halt production of weapons-grade material and stop all nuclear testing -- for providing greater incentive for other nations with nuclear ambitions to cling to their weapons programs.

In the process, they said, Washington may be reinforcing Iran's and North Korea's sense that nuclear arsenals are critical to their security. [complete article]

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Iran demands more U.S. concessions
BBC News, March 13, 2005

Iran has urged the US to offer it further incentives to resolve the dispute over its nuclear programme. The US should unblock frozen Iranian assets, lift sanctions and stop "hostile measures", a senior Iranian negotiator told BBC News.

President George W Bush announced a major change in US policy on Friday. He said the US would back European talks to resolve the stand-off and, unlike before, was prepared to extend economic incentives to Tehran.

These included the lifting of a decade-long block on Iran's membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and objections to Tehran obtaining parts for commercial planes. But Iran rejected the offer as "insignificant" and vowed to exercise its "legitimate right" to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. [complete article]

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Europeans investigate CIA role in abductions
By Craig Whitlock, Washington Post, March 13, 2005

A radical Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar was walking to a Milan mosque for noon prayers in February 2003 when he was grabbed on the sidewalk by two men, sprayed in the face with chemicals and stuffed into a van. He hasn't been seen since.

Milan investigators, however, now appear to be close to identifying his kidnappers. Last month, officials showed up at Aviano Air Base in northern Italy and demanded records of any American planes that had flown into or out of the joint U.S.-Italian military installation around the time of the abduction. They also asked for logs of vehicles that had entered the base.

Italian authorities suspect the Egyptian was the target of a CIA-sponsored operation known as rendition, in which terrorism suspects are forcibly taken for interrogation to countries where torture is practiced. [complete article]

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Jihad express
By Christopher Dickey, Newsweek, March 21, 2005

The most fanciful park in Paris, and one of the least known, set among the city's poorest immigrant neighborhoods, is the Buttes Chaumont. A craggy mountain rises out of a taciturn lake, and a narrow path leads across what's called the "Bridge of Suicides." Muslim boys trained there last year for holy war in Iraq. Several were in their teens, born and raised in France, and many knew nothing more about guns and bombs than what they'd seen in movies. Some spoke no Arabic. But they heard the call to jihad that was raised by radical Islamist preachers, and they answered it. One died in Fallujah. Three are known to be imprisoned in Iraq, at least one of them in Abu Ghraib. Three others are jailed in France. One blew himself up in an attack on the road to Baghdad airport.

The boys had little impact on the Iraq war. But they represent a growing threat to Europe -- and, some studies suggest, to the United States. Over the last three years, starting even before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Jordanian terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi and groups close to him developed a sort of underground railroad to smuggle zealous fighters from Europe through Turkey and Syria into Iraq -- and home again, if they survived. Now those recruits have been joined by a stream of young Islamists from Western Europe who are making their own way to the battlefield. Some are looking for Paradise as "martyrs," some just for street cred back home and some for serious combat experience in urban warfare. "Those who don't die and come back will be the future chiefs of Al Qaeda or Zarqawi [groups] in Europe," says French terrorism authority Roland Jacquard. [complete article]

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Syria vows phased Lebanon exit
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, March 13, 2005

In talks with a top U.N. envoy, Syria promised yesterday to withdraw one-third of its 15,000 troops and 5,000 intelligence agents in Lebanon by the end of March, as the first stage of an operation that would end its 29-year military presence in that country, according to U.S. and U.N. sources.

Under strong pressure from the United States, Europe, Arab governments and anti-Syrian street protests in Lebanon, President Bashar Assad also pledged to move all remaining military and intelligence assets into Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley by the end of the month. In addition, he vowed to shut down Syria's intelligence headquarters in the capital, Beirut, by April 1. Syrian intelligence services have played a critical role in manipulating Lebanese political life.

A joint Lebanese-Syrian military commission will then meet on April 7 to determine the date of the final withdrawal of all forces, according to Western sources familiar with the negotiations. [complete article]

See also, an event that escaped the attention of the media, 500,000 marched in Damascus last Wednesday (Joshua Landis).

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Hezbollah leader's new fray: Lebanese politics
By Neil MacFarquahar, New York Times, March 13, 2005

When Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah organization, addressed the hundreds of thousands of party faithful who gathered in the largest rally in Lebanon's modern history on Tuesday, his usual theme of liberating Jerusalem went unmentioned.

Instead, Sheik Nasrallah, a 44-year-old bearded cleric, focused, uncharacteristically, on the future of Lebanon.

The speech was also remarkable for its venue - downtown Beirut - and the absence of the trademark Hezbollah backdrop, its green and yellow banner with a fist brandishing a Kalashnikov rifle. Manar Television, the organization's satellite channel, ended its somewhat triumphant reporting with a tight shot of Sheik Nasrallah, standing on the balcony of a sparkling white sandstone building and in front of a Lebanese flag.

"Today Sayyid Nasrallah has become a national leader," the announcer intoned.

With the Feb. 14 assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri, Lebanon lost a rare man who succeeded in appealing to some extent across the patchwork of often murderous sects who compete for the spoils in this tiny and mountainous country. The question is whether anyone can fill his shoes as a kind of national arbitrator. The huge march on Tuesday served as Sheik Nasrallah's opening bid for the job. [complete article]

Guns or ballots?
By Kevin Peraino, Newsweek, March 21, 2005

As Mustafa Haj Ali, a top Hizbullah official, points out: "The resistance gave us our popular support. Nobody can deny that." But it's hard to build an independent nation out of a philosophical negative, and that is the dilemma facing Hizbullah. Some analysts view Lebanon as a potential model for a new Middle East, despite its sectarian rifts, because Beirut, its capital, is secular and the country as a whole is multiethnic. Opposition figures like to say that Lebanon will have to choose between becoming "Hong Kong or Hanoi." Despite the large pro-Syria rally, most Lebanese want their country to regain its sovereignty. In a 2004 poll by the Beirut weekly Ash Shiraa, 56 percent of Lebanese rejected Syria's occupation. But before Lebanon can start to assert itself, Hizbullah, the country's most influential force, will have to decide what role it wants to play in the country's, and the region's, future. The organization remains virulently anti-American and anti-Israel -- and its leaders have dismissed the U.S. and U.N. demand (under last year's Resolution 1559) that its fighters lay down their arms. But Hizbullah is redefining itself -- edging away from militancy and steadily raising its political profile. The so-called Party of God has essentially given up on its once declared goal of turning Lebanon into an Islamic republic. What's more, Eyal Zisser, a Hizbullah expert at Tel Aviv University, estimates the group could win almost 40 of Lebanon's 128 parliamentary seats in the May election -- meaning the organization is leveraging its street popularity into substantial political clout. [complete article]

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Abbas welcomes Hamas poll pledge
BBC News, March 13, 2005

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has welcomed news that the Hamas militant organisation plans to take part in the July parliamentary election.

He told reporters that the move would contribute to the participation of all Palestinians in political life.

Hamas said it was a way of stopping the mainstream Palestinian grouping, Fatah, from dominating the political scene. [complete article]

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The interregnum
By James Bennett, New York Times, March 13, 2005

Arafat's core insight, derived in the 1960's from Frantz Fanon, was to reject the ascendant pan-Arabism of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser and to posit instead a Palestinian exceptionalism. He believed that a distinct Palestinian nationalism would take shape through armed struggle with Israel. After Israel humiliated Nasser and the Arab armies in the Six-Day War in 1967, Arafat and his vision emerged as the heroic alternative. The Palestinians are divided by class, religion and geography, yet, drawn together by opposition to Israel, they have attained a national coherence that other recovering wards of British colonialism -- like the Iraqis -- lack.

As the struggle for nationhood took shape, a yearning grew not just for any state but for a democratic one. In their diaspora, Palestinians worked or studied under dictatorships and democracies and appreciated the difference. Those living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza after the Six-Day War came to resent authority. Liberated in a way by their very statelessness -- lacking a glass house -- Palestinians developed what the political scientist Khalil Shikaki has called a "culture of criticism," freely ridiculing Arab autocrats and declaring they could do better. Hardest for some Palestinians to admit is the influence of Israel, of the parliamentary debates and acerbic press they followed on television and in the newspapers. To be Palestinian is to be intimately, painfully acquainted with paradox. It is to know that, in part, you owe your national character and your democratic dream to the very people who occupied your land and compromised your rights. [complete article]

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Iraqis find irony in Bush's stance on Lebanon, Syria
By Susannah A. Nesmith, Knight Ridder, March 12, 2005

Many Iraqis found bitter irony in President Bush's insistence last week that Syria must withdraw from Lebanon before it holds elections, for Iraqis have lived with foreign tanks in their streets for two years and voted barely a month ago under the watchful eye of the U.S. Army.

"He must have forgotten that his army is occupying Iraq," said Sa'ad Abdul Aziz, 21, an engineering student at Baghdad University. "What about the Republican Palace that they are using as a U.S. embassy?"

While many here were glad to see Saddam Hussein driven from power by the U.S.-led invasion, almost two years later they bristle at the sight of American soldiers patrolling their streets and are deeply embarrassed that the U.S. embassy occupies Iraq's version of the White House. [complete article]

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Varieties of Islamic law offer options for Iraq
By David Rohde, New York Times (IHT), March 14, 2005

Iraq's new government will have a fateful question to address when it begins meeting this month. What role will Islam have in the constitution? The answer could shape how well the country holds together.

The Shiite religious parties that won big in the January elections have called for strict Islamic laws to govern marriage, divorce and inheritance. Secular Sunni Arabs and Kurds oppose those efforts. And the Bush administration has made it clear that its goal is not an Islamic Republic of Iraq.

But the choices may not be that stark, if experience in the broad Islamic world is any guide. Islamic law - Shariah - is a widely used label.

But in a surprisingly dynamic process, many systems have emerged under it that try to strike a middle ground between Islamists, who want to stone adulterers to death, and secularists, who want a pure separation of law and religion. [complete article]

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Iraqi confessor was 'tortured to death'
By Catherine Philp, The Times, March 12, 2005

The body of an Iraqi man, who this week confessed on television to staging insurgent attacks, was returned to his family yesterday after he was tortured to death in custody, his father claimed.

Khalid Jouli said that the body of his son, Qahtan, was delivered to the family home in the Sunni town of Samarra by commando units from the Interior Ministry.

He had been arrested for his suspected involvement in attacks against Iraqi security forces, to which he confessed on Terror in the Grip of Justice, a nightly show on the state-run al-Iraqiya station that features the confessions of insurgent suspects. [complete article]

See also, Terror confessions on TV grip Baghdad (The Times).

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Iraq looting was 'highly organized,' report says
By James Glanz and William J. Broad, New York Times (IHT), March 14, 2005

In the weeks after Baghdad fell in April 2003, looters systematically dismantled and removed tons of machinery from Saddam Hussein's most important weapons installations, including some with high-precision equipment capable of making parts for nuclear arms, a senior Iraqi official said last week in the government's first extensive comments on the looting.

The Iraqi official, Sami al-Araji, the deputy minister of industry, said it appeared that a highly organized operation had pinpointed specific plants looking for valuable equipment, some of which could be used for both military and civilian applications, and carted the machinery away.

Araji said his account was based largely on observations by government employees and officials who either worked at the sites or lived near them.

"They came in with the cranes and the lorries, and they depleted the whole sites," Araji said. "They knew what they were doing; they knew what they want. This was sophisticated looting."

These types of facilities were cited by the Bush administration as a reason for invading Iraq, but they were left largely unguarded by coalition forces in the chaotic months after the invasion.

Araji's statements came just a week after a UN agency revealed that about 90 key sites in Iraq had been looted or razed after the U.S.-led invasion. Satellite imagery analyzed by two UN groups - the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission - confirm that some of the sites identified by Araji appear to be totally or partly stripped, according to senior officials at those agencies. Those officials said that they could not comment on all of Araji's assertions, because they had been barred by the United States from Iraq since the invasion. [complete article]

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New strategy for Turkoman group in Kirkuk
By Soran Dawde, IWPR, March 9, 2005

The main Turkoman political group in Kirkuk is rethinking its strategy as a result of its failure to make gains in the January elections.

In a dramatic turnaround, a leading official in the Turkoman Front indicated the group was now willing to countenance a federal Kurdistan, as long as the disputed city of Kirkuk retained a special separate status that gave all ethnic groups a say in how it is governed.

The front, a major Turkoman political force which is aligned with Turkey, has come under pressure to change since the January 30 ballot, and now looks set to reform itself.

The oil-producing area around Kirkuk makes the city a highly desirable asset, and many Kurds view it as the future capital and economic heart of a future autonomous Kurdish entity. But as Iraq's boundary lines are currently drawn, the city lies outside the three governorates that together make up the Kurdish-administered region.

Besides the Kurds – tens of thousands of whom have returned to the area after being forced to move by Saddam Hussein’s ethnic policy of “Arabisation” - there are significant Turkoman, Arab and Assyrian communities who all have an interest in the city’s future. [complete article]

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Nations urged to unite in terror fight
By Charles M. Sennott, Boston Globe, March 13, 2005

On the first anniversary of the Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people, a summit of world leaders, diplomats, and some of the globe's best minds on terrorism presented a new international agenda to help governments balance democracy and security.

As the dignitaries expressed their wide-ranging strategy Friday, the nitty-gritty politics of counterterrorism was playing out in a lengthy, bitter battle in the British Parliament, where Prime Minister Tony Blair pushed through a new antiterror law despite intense criticism from opposition members.

While British parliamentarians were arguing over security vs. civil rights, eight foreigners suspected of terrorism were granted bail and ordered released from London's high-security Belmarsh prison into what is effectively house arrest. The eight include an Islamic cleric who Spanish authorities believe provided theological inspiration for the terrorist cell that carried out the Madrid train bombings and who British authorities say is linked to Al Qaeda.

For the politicians and terrorism analysts who gathered last week in Madrid, word of the impending release of the cleric known as Abu Qatada provided a case in point of how difficult, politically divisive, and morally confounding is the battle against terrorism within the context of democracy. [complete article]

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Noteworthy articles from the last seven plus days:

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. Though the rapid assault on Baghdad in March 2003 went smoothly, it is the bloody two years since that have diverged from the Pentagon's blueprint. [...]

As the Pentagon begins its assessment, it has 145,000 troops stationed in a country they were supposed to have left months ago. And with tensions rising between Washington and the two other countries labeled by President Bush as part of an "axis of evil" -- Iran and North Korea -- there is a growing belief within the military's ranks that the White House's rhetoric about preemptive war is out of sync with the U.S. military's strained resources.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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