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On anniversary of fall of Baghdad, supporters of radical cleric demand U.S. military pullout
By Antonio Castaneda, AP (via Boston Globe), April 9, 2005

Tens of thousands of Shiites marked the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad with a protest against the American military presence at the square where Iraqis and U.S. troops toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein two years ago.

The protesters back Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric whose militia led uprisings against U.S. troops last year, and their large numbers reflected frustration both with the U.S. government and anger toward the Sunni Arab-led insurgency.

"This huge gathering shows that the Iraqi people have the strength and faith to protect their country and liberate it from the occupiers," said Ahmed Abed, a 26-year-old who sells spare car parts.

U.S. officials, who are slowly handing security to Iraqi forces, have refused to set a timetable for withdrawal, saying the troops will stay until Iraqi forces are able to secure the country. [complete article]

Comment -- Hmmm. Haven't we seen this before? Tens of thousands of people gathered in their capital city calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops - but no doubt the hypocrite-in-chief would like to claim that Baghdad should not be confused with Beirut. Nevetheless, al-Sadr has shown he can pull the people out. Now all he needs is some assistance from a helpful PR outfit to come up with a catchy, feel-good brand name. (How about the Green Revolution? That has a wholesome ring to it along with being the color of Islam.) Hook the cameras, thence the eyes of the world and before long, Washington might start to wobble.

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Al-Sadr followers hold protest marches
By Antonio Castaneda, AP (via Yahoo), April 8, 2005

Gunmen fired on supporters of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Friday, killing one person and wounding two others as they made their way to protests planned for the second anniversary of Baghdad's fall to U.S.-led troops.

In the poor New Baghdad neighborhood, meanwhile, four children were killed Friday when they came across explosives while digging through garbage for metal scraps, witnesses and police said. It was unclear what caused the blast.

"It's really ironic," said Qais Mousa, who saw the explosion. "We are living in a rich country, while these poor innocents are dying in this horrible way."

After dark Friday, al-Sadr supporters marched and chanted through the city, hanging anti-U.S. banners on columns surrounding Firdos Square, where a jubilant crowd pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003, as U.S. troops spread through the capital.

Al-Sadr had urged his supporters to gather Saturday at the square, and a group was at the landmark along with police after the 11 p.m. curfew. U.S. and Iraqi officials said they were preparing for Saturday's demonstration. [complete article]

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Bush to tell Sharon no on settlement expansion
By Steve Holland, Reuters (via Yahoo), April 8, 2005

President Bush said on Friday he would tell Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon privately what he has been saying publicly: there can be no expansion of Jewish settlements under the U.S.-backed Middle East peace plan.

"You bet," Bush said when asked if he would raise the issue on Monday when he meets Sharon at his Texas ranch.

"What I say publicly, I say privately," Bush told reporters aboard Air Force One as he returned from Pope John Paul II's funeral. "And that is the road map has clear obligations on settlements, and that we expect the prime minister to adhere to those road map obligations." [complete article]

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Hamas supporters threaten to end truce
By Ibrahim Barzak, AP (via Yahoo), April 8, 2005

Tens of thousands of Hamas supporters paraded through downtown Gaza City on Friday, threatening to end a monthlong truce if Jewish extremists follow through on a pledge to hold a rally at a disputed holy site in Jerusalem next week.

Israeli authorities, trying to avert violence, tightened access at the site and stepped up preparations to bar Jewish demonstrators from the area during Sunday's planned march.

The hilltop site in Jerusalem's Old City is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The Al Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third-holiest site, is located there, built above the ruins of the biblical Jewish temples.

Jews opposed to Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip want to rally at the site in a move aimed at sabotaging the pullout. [complete article]

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Think tank: Remove MeK from terror list
UPI (via Washington Times), April 7, 2005

A Washington think tank is lobbying members of Congress to have the Iranian Mujahedeen e-Khalq organization removed from the U.S. foreign terrorist list.

Iran Policy Committee member Raymond Tanter, a former National Security Council official under the Reagan administration, said "Iran's nuclear clock is ticking very fast" and many of MeK's supporters see it as a way to create change in Iran so that moderate Iranians can decide the nation's future.

MeK is a leftist group with elements in France and Iraq, and, following a philosophy mixing Marxism with Islam, has opposed Iran's leadership for more than 40 years. It was labeled a terrorist group because of explosive attacks in cities that killed civilians and because of its support by Saddam Hussein, but has reached a truce with coalition forces.

The meeting, held Wednesday, drew over 80 members of Congress. IPC counts former civilian and military officials as its members. It stated in a release Thursday that Wednesday's meeting was initiated by the Iran Human Rights and Democracy Caucus of the U.S. House of Representative. [complete article]

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Rumsfeld memo on intelligence criticized
By Walter Pincus, Washington Post, April 8, 2005

A memo signed last week by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gave one of his top aides authority over efforts to improve intelligence operations within the department, but it is being interpreted by some senior intelligence officials as a challenge to the new director of national intelligence, a position John D. Negroponte has been nominated to fill.

In the memo, Rumsfeld said his goal is to "forge a close and productive relationship between the Department of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence," or DNI. To that end, he designated the office of Undersecretary for Defense Intelligence Stephen A. Cambone as the "lead office to synchronize" ongoing Pentagon efforts and "to develop and manage the implementation plan for intelligence community reform legislation." [complete article]

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Same committee, same combatants, different tune
By Dana Milbank, Washington Post, April 7, 2005

Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. is a conservative Republican from North Carolina who voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. So it jarred all the more yesterday when Jones turned his fury on Richard N. Perle, the Pentagon adviser who provided the Bush administration with brainpower for the Iraq war.

Jones, who said he has signed more than 900 condolence letters to kin of fallen soldiers, pronounced himself "incensed" with Perle. "It is just amazing to me how we as a Congress were told we had to remove this man . . . but the reason we were given was not accurate," Jones told Perle at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. Jones said the administration should "apologize for the misinformation that was given. To me there should be somebody who is large enough to say 'We've made a mistake.' I've not heard that yet." [...]

Perle wasn't about to provide the apology Jones sought. He disavowed any responsibility for his confident prewar assertions about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, heaping the blame instead on "appalling incompetence" at the CIA. "There is reason to believe that we were sucked into an ill-conceived initial attack aimed at Saddam himself by double agents planted by the regime. And as we now know the estimate of Saddam's stockpile of weapons of mass destruction was substantially wrong." [complete article]

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An old U.S. foe rises again in Iraq
By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, April 8, 2005

Over the loudspeakers set up in this small town in a backwater of southern Iraq, the commands came in staccato bursts. "Forward!" a man clad in black shouted to the militiamen. "March!"

Column after column followed through the dusty, windswept square. Some of the marchers wore the funeral shawls of prospective martyrs. Others were dressed in newly pressed camouflage. Together, their boots beat the pavement like a drum as they goose-stepped or double timed in place.

Over their heads flew the Iraqi flag, banners of Shiite Muslim saints and a portrait of their leader, Moqtada Sadr -- symbols of their militia, the Mahdi Army, twice subdued by the U.S. military last year but now openly displaying its strength in parts of the south.

"At your service, Sadr! At your service, Moqtada!" the men chanted in formation. "We hear a voice calling us!"

"The tanks do not terrify us," others joined in. "We're resisting! We're resisting!" [complete article]

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Talabani offers amnesty to insurgents
By Ellen Knickmeyer, Washington Post, April 8, 2005

Iraq's new Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, took office Thursday and immediately offered an amnesty aimed at drawing in Sunni Muslims from an armed insurgency increasingly seen as faltering. He left open the possibility of forgiving insurgents who had killed combatants. [...]

Talabani offered amnesty to those who turned away from the Sunni-led armed resistance, saying they had been misled by foreign terrorists.

"We should find the political and peaceful solutions with those Iraqis who were deceived into joining the terrorists to afford them amnesty and invite them to join the democratic process," Talabani said.

Distinguishing between Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters, Talabani offered no clemency for the "criminal terrorism that is imported from abroad." [complete article]

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Thorny issues loom for Iraq leaders
By Dan Murphy and Jill Carroll, Christian Science Monitor, April 8, 2005

Breaking the deadlock over forming Iraq's interim government came down, in the end, to a simple compromise: Kurds dropped their immediate demand that the oil-rich city of Kirkuk be added to their autonomous section of Iraq, and Shiite Arabs said they wouldn't insist on dismantling the Kurds' peshmerga militia.

The country's two main political powers have essentially deferred these and other difficult issues until a time when Iraq's politics may be calmer and the two sides may be closer. It's a position that many observers expected to have been reached within weeks of the election.

But this was a compromise between radically different factions in a country where threats and the gun have long stood in for dialogue. [complete article]

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Iraq may still break apart
By Peter W. Galbraith, Boston Globe (IHT), April 8, 2005

On Wednesday, Iraq's National Assembly chose Jalal Talabani - a lifelong Kurdish rebel - as Iraq's first ever democratically elected head of state.

Talabani's personality could not be more different from Saddam Hussein, whose seat he now holds. While Saddam was insular, paranoid and ignorant, Talabani is gregarious, widely traveled and has an appetite for knowledge as large as his legendary love of food. He is a humanist who opposes the death penalty, perhaps the starkest contrast to a predecessor whose regime murdered well over 500,000 of its own citizens.

President George W. Bush's supporters rightly will trumpet a democratic process that has replaced Saddam with a leader of the very people Saddam once gassed. But democracy can also be inconvenient, especially for an administration that has made the spread of freedom its top foreign policy goal for the Middle East, but which also is deeply committed to preserving the region's existing states. [complete article]

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Control freak
By Wade Boese, The American Prospect, April 7, 2005

During his four-year tenure as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton prided himself on his frank manner, mistrust of legally binding international agreements, and zealous aversion to any constraints on U.S. freedom of action. But although Bolton can point to a few successes on his watch, his uncompromising mindset prevented some potential nonproliferation breakthroughs. His legacy as he seeks confirmation as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is largely one of jilted and discarded treaties, offended diplomatic counterparts, and lingering proliferation dangers that the Bush administration refused to confront directly. [complete article]

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How many government agencies does it take to teach soldiers Arabic?
By Fred Kaplan, Slate, April 6, 2005

I've just read one of the funniest and saddest government documents I've run across in years. Published by the Pentagon (the source of most such things) under the title "Defense Language Transformation Roadmap," it details the official plan for improving foreign-language skills among U.S. military personnel. The plan is meant to fill an urgent need. It was ordered by the deputy secretary of defense, administered by the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and coordinated with the service secretaries, combat commanders, and Joint Chiefs of Staff. And to read it is to see, with your own increasingly widening eyes, the Pentagon's (or is it the federal government's?) sheer inability to get anything done on time.

The document -- only 19 pages, so take a look -- traces, all too clearly, the project's shameful chronology. It got under way in November 2002 -- over a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- when the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness was directed to have the military departments review their requirements for language professionals (interpreters, translators, area specialists, and so forth). This review was a bust -- or, in the document's more delicate language, it "resulted in narrowly scoped requirements based on current manning authorizations instead of ... projected needs." [complete article]

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U.S. unready for rising threat of 'moles'
By Faye Bowers, Christian Science Monitor, April 8, 2005

Amid all the criticism of the US's faulty intelligence-gathering, a new concern is surfacing about America's premier national-security agencies - their vulnerability to counterespionage.

Because the US has reached such lone, superpower status, government officials say, at least 90 countries - in addition to Al Qaeda - are attempting to steal some of the nation's most sacred secrets.

It's not only foes, like members of terror groups or nations that are adversaries of the US, but friends as well. The top five countries trying to snoop on US plans and cutting-edge technology, according to an official who works closely with the FBI on this issue, are China, Russia, Israel, France, and North Korea. Others running close behind: Cuba, Pakistan, and India. [complete article]

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First the U.S., now China tries to woo India
By Scott Baldauf, Christian Science Monitor, April 8, 2005

Like the prettiest girl at a fairy-tale ball or in a Bollywood movie, India suddenly has lots of suitors calling.

A week after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to India, talking of India's growing strategic and economic importance on the global stage, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will make his first-ever visit to New Delhi with virtually the same message.

In talks starting Saturday, China and India aim to resolve 43-year-old boundary disputes and set the stage for a growing cooperation on trade and security issues.

Yet beneath the surface of this seeming popularity, there is a larger game at work. Neither the US nor China can afford to ignore a growing regional player like India, or to have it working directly against them. Beijing in particular has reason to be wary of Delhi, as the US courts India to be a counterweight to a rising China. But many Indian officials and scholars say the future of Indo-Chinese relations may be less competitive and aimed more at allowing each other to grow large enough to make the world multilateral once more. [complete article]

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China's environmental suicide: a government minister speaks
By Andreas Lorenz, Open Democracy, April 6, 2005

Andreas Lorenz: China is dazzling the world with its booming economy, which grew by 9.5%. Are you pleased with this speed of growth, and what effect is it having on the environment of China?

Pan Yue [China's deputy environment minister]: Of course I am pleased with the success of China's economy. But at the same time I am worried. We are using too many raw materials to sustain this growth. To produce goods worth $10,000, for example, we need seven times more resources than Japan, nearly six times more than the United States and, perhaps most embarrassing, nearly three times more than India. Things can't, nor should they be allowed to, go on like that.

Andreas Lorenz: Such a viewpoint is not exactly widespread in your country.

Pan Yue: Many factors are coming together here. Our raw materials are scarce, we don't have enough land, and our population is constantly growing. Currently, there are 1.3 billion people living in China – twice as many as fifty years ago. In 2020, there will be 1.5 billion people in China. Cities are growing but desert areas are expanding at the same time; in these fifty years, habitable and usable land has been halved. [complete article]

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Israel considers barring Palestinian workers
By Andrea Stone, USA Today, April 5, 2005

The Israeli government is considering a plan that would prohibit Palestinians from working within Israel's borders, according to two senior Israeli officials.

Israeli national security adviser Giora Eiland linked the move away from employing Palestinians inside Israel to the country's planned withdrawal of Jewish settlements in Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank this summer.

The goal is to "reduce mutual dependence" between Israelis and Palestinians, Eiland said in an interview Sunday. "For us, it is too dangerous" to allow Palestinians to enter the country when Israeli security officials regularly apprehend would-be attackers at border crossings.

The proposal comes as the international community is trying to bolster the Palestinian economy in the West Bank and Gaza. [complete article]

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The genie in the ballot box
By Uri Avnery, International Herald Tribune, April 8, 2005

The Western, and of course Israeli, media publish enthusiastic reports about demonstrations for democracy in Egypt and against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak has even promised that other candidates may run in the coming presidential election. But that was said mostly to placate President George W. Bush. In practice, there is no chance at all that the situation in Egypt will change. No serious candidate will be allowed to stand against Mubarak.

But assume for a moment that truly democratic elections take place. In this hypothetical situation, who would win? One of the plausible answers: the Muslim Brotherhood. They have deep roots among the people. Their infrastructure has a history of 50 years and more. The Egyptian upper class, which is secular, liberal and open to the world, may find itself suddenly under the yoke of religious fanatics.

This dilemma exists in most of the Arab countries: In truly democratic elections, the Islamic forces will win - forces that completely reject the vision of a secular, democratic and liberal state that Bush talks so much about. [complete article]

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Hizbollah hints at disarmament compromise
By Roula Khalaf, Financial Times, April 7, 2005

Lebanon's Hizbollah is signalling a willingness to discuss the fate of its military wing as the Shia Islamist group adopts a more assertive role in Lebanese politics and positions itself for the aftermath of Syria's withdrawal from the country.

In an interview the Financial Times, Sheikh Naim Qassim, deputy head of the party, said Hizbollah would be ready for talks with other Lebanese groups on the future of its fighters, but after the dispute over Shebaa Farms, a small strip of land near the Lebanese-Israeli border, was settled.

Although it includes stiff conditions, Mr Qassim's statement is the first sign of a possible future compromise over the Lebanese organisation's fighting arm as it faces the loss of Syria's protective umbrella in Lebanon. [complete article]

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Fateh and Hamas: a coalition in the making?
By Mahdi Abdul Hadi, Daily Star, April 8, 2005

We are currently witnessing the historic transformation of Hamas from a popular movement based on armed struggle and opposition to the established Palestinian order. Hamas has managed to firmly place itself within that order in a bid to confirm its position, power and legitimacy both inside Palestinian society and outside.

It is doing so at, for it, a politically advantageous time and after much thought. Indeed, what we are witnessing now is the unfolding of a four-point doctrine laid down by assassinated Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin some two years ago: First, the implementation of a ceasefire, whether formal or not. Second, a bid, through the ballot box, to take a share of political power on the internal Palestinian scene, while distancing itself explicitly from the Oslo Accords. So far, this has expressed itself in the movement's successful municipal elections campaigns and the decision to stand for the legislative elections currently scheduled to take place in July. The third point of Yassin's "agenda" was to challenge other Palestinian factions' - read Fateh's - dominance over Palestinian political legitimacy, realizing that only through elections can the movement punch its proper weight in society, and, what is more and often ignored, determine the extent of its popular power base. [complete article]

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U.N. Security Council orders probe into Hariri assassination
By Leila Hatoum, Daily Star, April 8, 2005

The United Nations Security Council unanimously endorsed a draft resolution establishing an international investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The move will increase international pressure on Syria and Lebanon's current government, which have been accused by the Lebanese opposition of responsibility for the attack that killed Hariri and 14 other people.

The UN investigation commission will have the power to "interview all officials and other persons in Lebanon" which could see a number of high profile Lebanese and Syrian officials being summoned for questioning by the team when it begins its probe, which UN sources said could start as early as next week. [complete article]

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Shiite Jafari is named Iraqi prime minister
By Ellen Knickmeyer and Fred Barbash, Washington Post, April 7, 2005

Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite politician and former exile who battled Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, was named prime minister of Iraq Thursday after two months of old-fashioned political haggling.

Jafari's appointment to the country's most powerful job followed the swearing in of Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani to the post of president, designed to be largely ceremonial under Iraq's interim set of laws. A council composed of Talabani and two vice presidents then invited Jafari to form a government.

The formal beginning of a new democratically elected government was yet another landmark for this war-weary nation. Voters chose a national assembly in January, which paved the way for the naming of the leaders of government which, in turn, is to pave the way for a new constitution and another election next December. [complete article]

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A Kurd is named Iraq's president as tensions boil
By Edward Wong, New York Times, April 7, 2005

A Kurdish militia leader who fought Saddam Hussein for decades was named president on Wednesday by Iraq's national assembly as Mr. Hussein watched the proceedings on a television inside his prison.

The militia leader, Jalal Talabani, will be the first Kurd to serve as president of an Arab-dominated country. But immediately after his appointment, tensions among Iraq's political groups erupted, as some Shiite and Kurdish members of the assembly demanded that the interim government resign as soon as Mr. Talabani, 72, is sworn in on Thursday.

That government, led by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, has infuriated many officials from the main Shiite and Kurdish parties, which will dominate the new administration. They accuse Dr. Allawi, a secular Shiite, of having brought back into the government former senior members of the Baath Party who played key roles in oppressing ordinary Iraqis, especially Shiites and Kurds.

The debate on Wednesday foreshadowed what could be a harsh purging of former Baathists once the new leaders, including the prime minister and cabinet, are installed. [complete article]

See also, Kurds celebrate rise of one of their own (WP).

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Power struggles stall Iraqi provincial councils
By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2005

As Iraq's National Assembly gathers today to name a president after weeks of political squabbling, less publicized post-election battles are still raging at the local level in several of the nation's 18 provinces.

In Najaf province, a power struggle between the outgoing governor and his successor has fueled armed clashes in recent weeks between two rival security forces.

Newly elected council members in Diyala province are afraid to gather for their first meeting, mindful that eight of their predecessors were assassinated, a council member said.

In northern Al Tamim province, home of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, newly elected Turkmens and Arabs are boycotting council meetings, claiming that the Kurdish majority is refusing to share power.

And in the southern province of Basra, an ultra-conservative religious party that came in a distant second in the local election has won control of the council by forging alliances with other slates, sidelining the winner, which was one seat short of a majority. [complete article]

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Handoff to Iraqi forces being tested in Mosul
By Steve Fainaru, Washington Post, April 7, 2005

The two dozen Iraqi soldiers marched in formation into downtown Mosul, streets emptying in their path. The men trained their rifles on potential bomb threats: a donkey-drawn vegetable cart, a blue Opel sedan, a man with a bulge beneath his tattered gray coat.

Less than a month ago, U.S. forces patrolled these dangerous streets. But on this humid morning there were only the Iraqis and a lone U.S. adviser, Marine Staff Sgt. Lafayette Waters, 32, of Kinston, N.C., who blended unobtrusively into the patrol.

This is Area of Operations Iraq, slightly more than two square miles in the heart of Iraq's third-largest city. It is also at the center of the U.S. military's strategy to hand off counterinsurgency operations to Iraqi security forces and ultimately draw down the number of American troops. [complete article]

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Evolution in Iraq's insurgency
By Jill Carroll, Christian Science Monitor, April 7, 2005

After the lowest monthly US casualties in a year, insurgents have come back this week with widespread strikes, killing several Americans and pulling off a sophisticated attack on Abu Ghraib that showed an evolution in planning and tactics.

Attacks on US forces have dropped 22 percent since the Jan. 30 election, to about 40 a day, about the rate they were a year ago. In March, 36 US troops were killed, the lowest figure in a year, according to, which tracks casualties announced by the government.

But this week, four soldiers and a marine were killed - and Saturday's well-organized attack on Abu Ghraib prison, in which 40 US troops and 12 prisoners were injured, suggests that fighters may be shifting to fewer but better executed operations, including ones that directly engage US forces. [complete article]

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A new paradigm for the fight against terror
By Fernando Henrique Cardoso, International Herald Tribune, April 7, 2005

One of the most surprising political developments since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been the extent to which the fight against terrorism has divided the democratic world. A seemingly unbridgeable gulf emerged between those who wanted to counter terrorism primarily by "taking the battle to the enemy" and those who tended to minimize the threat. Most of us did not feel comfortable with either position, yet most policymakers, intellectuals and civic leaders couldn't offer anything coherent or articulate of their own. Since the Madrid summit meeting last month on democracy, terrorism and security, this is no longer true.

Organized by the Club of Madrid, the association of former heads of state and government, the event brought together scholars, representatives of nongovernmental organizations and research institutes, and official delegations from more than 60 countries and the world's most important international institutions.

The final document of this conference, the Madrid Agenda, contains a long list of practical policy recommendations, but more broadly, its underlying principles can be seen as a new framework: a new global consensus on the issue of terrorism. [complete article]

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Egyptian judges threaten to disrupt elections unless reforms are implemented
AFP (via Daily Star), April 7, 2005

Egypt's judges have rallied mounting calls for political reforms, asking for a long-due separation of powers between the judicial and executive branches and threatening to disturb upcoming presidential polls. The Egyptian Judges' Club - Egypt's equivalent of a judges' union - presented a draft law to Parliament via left-wing opposition MP Abu al-Ezz al-Hariri late last month that seeks to amend the current judiciary law and guarantee their independence from the executive branch.

"A new judiciary law must be passed during the current parliamentary session [ending in June] before we consider supervising any future elections," said a statement released by the Judges' Club general assembly in Alexandria.

The judges are due to meet on April 14 and examine whether "to abstain from supervising the elections if a new law is not passed," one union member said. [complete article]

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Democracy is not about to sweep Central Asia
By Ahmed Rashid, International Herald Tribune, April 7, 2005

The overthrow of President Askar Akayev in Kyrgyzstan has raised the possibility of popular movements erupting elsewhere in the region. But in the other four Central Asian countries, where far more repressive regimes remain in power and no viable democratic opposition has been allowed to function, the resulting instability would be much greater.

Much of the blame for the current state of Central Asia must rest with the United States, Russia and China, which have failed to move the region's regimes closer to democracy.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Central Asia was a forgotten corner of the world. The leaders and regimes of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had barely changed since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and they had refused to carry out desperately needed economic and political reforms.

After Sept. 11, when the United States leased military bases to conduct the war in Afghanistan, the region's peoples and regimes reacted in distinctly divergent ways. Most people embraced the U.S. presence in the hope that it would lead to American pressure on their regimes to carry out democratic reforms. The regimes, however, hoped the U.S. presence would strengthen their dwindling political legitimacy at home and bolster their international credibility. [complete article]

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Tycoon leads U.S. group to Gaza
By Yaakov Katz, Jerusalem Post, April 7, 2005

In line with right-wing efforts to thwart the planned evacuation of the Gaza Strip, controversial Jewish multimillionaire Irving Moskowitz will arrive in Israel on Thursday at the head of a delegation of right-wing US Jewish figures opposed to the disengagement plan.

Moskowitz, 76, operates the Hawaiian Gardens casino outside of Los Angeles and is reported to be a staunch supporter of the Ateret Kohanim Yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City as well as its objective to settle Jews in predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods. [complete article]

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Israel 'at odds with Washington'
BBC News, April 6, 2005

Israel has acknowledged it has differences with the US over the expansion of West Bank settlements.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said Israeli was sticking to a plan to add 3,500 new homes to the settlement of Maale Adumim, linking it to Jerusalem.

On Tuesday, US President George W Bush said the international peace plan known as the roadmap called for a halt in the expansion of Jewish settlements. [complete article]

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Israel defends settlement plan in face of Bush demands
By Matt Spetalnick, Reuters (via WP), April 6, 2005

Israel signaled on Wednesday it was sticking to a plan to extend its largest West Bank settlement to Jerusalem, despite President Bush's demand for a halt to all Jewish settlement expansion.

The controversy threatened to raise tensions between the two close allies ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's talks with Bush in the United States next week.

Palestinians fear the expansion would largely cut off the West Bank, which would form the bulk of a future state, from the eastern part of Jerusalem, which they want as its capital -- a demand Israel rejects. [complete article]

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Europe influence seen as positive
BBC News, April 6, 2005

Europe - and France in particular - are seen as benevolent forces in a world largely scornful of US influence, a poll taken in 23 countries suggests.

The survey found that, on average, 58% of people want Europe to play a bigger role than the US in world affairs.

France emerged as the single country with the best reputation abroad. [complete article]

See poll report, In 20 of 23 Countries Polled Citizens Want Europe to Be More Influential Than U.S. (PDF).

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Through the Vatican white smoke
By Austen Ivereigh, Open Democracy, April 4, 2005

Pope John Paul II has fallen silent. An historic papacy – at almost twenty-seven years, the second longest since St Peter's – has drawn to a close. The election of John Paul II's successor is the most solemn task facing the 117 cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave, as both the election chamber and process is known. Following the funeral in Rome, and the nine days of official mourning, the cardinals will file into the Sistine Chapel and begin balloting. Only when a candidate has a two-thirds majority will he be elected: white smoke – the fumata bianca – will curl up from the chimney above St Peter’s Square and the announcement will ring out: habemus papam!

It is a process dictated by tradition, a less static one than most believe (there have been drastic changes to the election process over the centuries) but one that belongs to a pre-democratic age. The only electoral college is the College of Cardinals; they are appointed by the pope, and they elect his successor. There is no involvement by local churches in the process, although most cardinals are also bishops of major dioceses around the world, and certainly no suffrage: not even bishops have a say in the succession. [complete article]

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Root out this sinister cultural flaw
By Karen Armstrong, The Guardian, April 6, 2005

In 1492, the year that is often said to inaugurate the modern era, three very important events happened in Spain. In January, the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the city of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Europe; later, Muslims were given the choice of conversion to Christianity or exile. In March, the Jews of Spain were also forced to choose between baptism and deportation. Finally, in August, Christopher Columbus, a Jewish convert to Catholicism and a protege of Ferdinand and Isabella, crossed the Atlantic and discovered the West Indies. One of his objectives had been to find a new route to India, where Christians could establish a military base for another crusade against Islam. As they sailed into the new world, western people carried a complex burden of prejudice that was central to their identity.

Western Europe found it impossible to live side by side with people of other faiths. Islamic Spain had been the great exception. As was customary in the Muslim world, Jews, Christians and Muslims had coexisted there for centuries in relative harmony. But the Catholic monarchs brought their ingrained anti-semitism to the Iberian peninsula, and the chief targets of their Spanish Inquisition were Jews. Ever since the armies of the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem in 1099, Jews and Muslims had become the epitome of everything that western Christians believed they were not. [complete article]

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The myth of an Israeli strike on Iran
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi, Asia Times, April 6, 2005

There is much talk these days of an impending Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, fueled most recently by a London Times article indicating that the Israeli parliament had given the initial nod to the planned attack - to take care of what the Israeli politicians of various persuasions regularly describe as the "biggest existential threat" to the Jewish state.

Yet a careful examination of the various logistical, operational feasibility as well as geopolitical and regional aspects or consequences of this much-debated scenario leads us to the opposite conclusion, namely, the impractical and unworkable nature of the so-called "Osirak option", named after Israel's successful aerial bombardment of Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. [complete article]

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Guarding Pakistan's nuclear estate
By Kaushik Kapisthalam, Asia Times, April 6, 2005

Even as media and public attention in the United States and South Asia has focused on the issue of nuclear-capable F-16 fighter jets going to Pakistan, there has been a series of interesting developments within the US regarding policy toward Pakistan's nuclear program.

Publicly, Bush administration officials have been remarkably guarded, and even nonchalant, about Pakistan's leaky nuclear program, even as one revelation after another came out regarding nuclear proliferation from Pakistan to Iran, Libya, North Korea and other unnamed countries. After exerting pressure behind the scenes on Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf, the US has quietly accepted his explanation that all proliferation acts were the responsibility of one man, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, and lent its blessings to Khan being pardoned and kept under house arrest in Pakistan.

The official Washington spin is that the administration of President George W Bush has persuaded Pakistan to end its nuclear trade once and for all and that it is better to move forward than dwell on the past.

Despite this public posture, many experts and former government officials in Washington and elsewhere are not so sanguine. [complete article]

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Afghanistan likely to have permanent U.S. military
By Peter Spiegel, Financial Times, April 5, 2005

Afghanistan's defence minister on Tuesday gave one of the clearest signs yet that Kabul is open to permanent basing of US forces in the country, saying his government was in discussions with the US that could include air bases in Afghanistan after the current nation-building process ends.

General Abdul Rahim Wardak said the details of what would constitute a long-term US presence were still under discussion. But he signalled Kabul was eager for "enduring arrangements" that could include permanent air bases or "pre-positioned" military equipment that would be used by rapidly deployed US forces in a crisis.

"We will certainly seek enduring relations and partnerships with our international friends," Gen Wardak told a gathering of military analysts in London. "This will prevent the repetition of the catastrophic disengagement of the international community from Afghanistan in the 1990s, which cost us all so dearly."

The discussions have been under way for several months, but both US and Afghan officials have been reluctant to discuss the issue given geopolitical sensitivities in the region, particularly in neighbouring Iran. [complete article]

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Up to 18 militants dead in Saudi shoot-out
AFP (via Daily Star), April 6, 2005

Up to 18 militants, including a number of most wanted Al-Qaeda suspects, have been killed in three days of clashes with Saudi security forces in the north of the kingdom, a security source said on Tuesday. "Up to 18 gunmen have been killed, including some on the [most wanted] list," the source told AFP of the deadliest clashes so far in a two-year-old wave of Islamist violence.

Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Mansour al-Turki told AFP that the three-day gunbattle in Al-Rass, about 320 kilometers north of Riyadh, had ended but security forces were still combing the area to evacuate casualties and collect evidence. [complete article]

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Send Bolton wandering
By Fred Kaplan, Slate, April 5, 2005

John Bolton, President George W. Bush's stunningly unsuitable choice to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, undergoes Senate confirmation hearings Thursday and, while there's only an outside chance he'll be rejected, that chance is worth promoting one last time.

It's difficult to rally enough votes to shoot down any executive-branch nominee, because most senators believe a president has a right to appoint his own team. This is the argument that a group of hawkish ex-officials made in a letter sent Monday to Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the foreign relations committee. Referring to an earlier letter, sent by a group of retired U.S. ambassadors who urged rejecting Bolton, the hawks wrote:
While the signatories are certainly free to oppose the Administration's positions, their differences seem to be with a man twice elected by the American people to design and execute security policies, rather than with one of his most effective and articulate officials.
Yet when it comes to John Bolton, this argument should not apply. For, in some respects, Bolton's fundamental views are at odds with trends in President Bush's foreign policies. [complete article]

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White House has tightly restricted oversight of CIA detentions
By Douglas Jehl, New York Times, April 6, 2005

The White House is maintaining extraordinary restrictions on information about the detention of high-level terror suspects, permitting only a small number of members of Congress to be briefed on how and where the prisoners are being held and interrogated, senior government officials say.

Some Democratic members of Congress say the restrictions are impeding effective oversight of the secret program, which is run by the Central Intelligence Agency and is believed to involve the detention of about three dozen senior Qaeda leaders at secret sites around the world.

By law, the White House is required to notify the House and Senate Intelligence Committees of all intelligence-gathering activities. But the White House has taken the stance that the secret detention program is too sensitive to be described to any members other than the top Republican and Democrat on each panel. [complete article]

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Iraqi parliament elects Kurd as new president
By Caryle Murphy and Fred Barbash, Washington Post, April 6, 2005

Iraq's National Assembly broke weeks of impasse Wednesday by electing a new president, Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, and two vice presidents.

Two senior Iraqi political officials said that the new appointees will move quickly to choose Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite politician, as Iraq's new prime minister, the most powerful political post in the new government.

The decisions come in the face of mounting popular dismay over the time lag between the country's successful democratic election on January 30 and the organization of a new government charged with writing a permanent constitution for Iraq and replacing the interim Iraqi government led by Ayad Allawi. [complete article]

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Iraq rebels hit back after U.S. offensive
By Adrian Blomfield, The Telegraph, April 6, 2005

The US military claimed a fresh victory in its offensive against Iraq's insurgency yesterday, striking a militant hideout with helicopter gunships and artillery.

But the insurgents kidnapped a senior Iraqi general, one of their most notable coups in the past two years, and detonated bombs across the country.

The violence seemed typical of the seesaw security situation recently. US gains in the coalition's struggle to impose its authority were balanced by setbacks elsewhere. Two Iraqi battalions mounted an operation to search for weapons in eastern Diyala province on Monday but insurgents returned fire from well-entrenched positions. Fighting lasted most of yesterday. [complete article]

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Iraq insurgency has killed 6,000 civilians
Daily Star, April 6, 2005

Guerrillas and criminal gangs have killed 6,000 Iraqi civilians over the past two years and wounded 16,000, according to the first comprehensive government estimate of the toll from the insurgency.

"These people in the insurgency are involved in looting, terrorism, killing, kidnapping, drug dealing, beheading and all that," Human Rights Minister Bakhtiar Amin told Reuters.

"There are around 6,000 Iraqis who have been killed by these people and 16,000 who have been wounded," he said, citing figures compiled from records kept by the health, human rights, interior and other ministries. [complete article]

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The Iraq war has only set back Middle East reform
By Shibley Telhami, Daily Star, April 6, 2005

It's true that U.S. advocacy of democracy cannot be ignored by regional governments and that some moves in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are in part related to the new American posture. But the effect of the Iraq war itself has been mostly negative.

The war has made the region more repressive, not less, over the past two years. Moreover, had the United States employed its power and international support after the Afghan war to support reformers in the region and push for Arab-Israeli peace, the Middle Eastern reform would be much farther along. Our strategic actions in the Middle East have had more impact on the prospects for reform than our direct advocacy of democracy.

Few in the Middle East directly associate signs of real change with the United States, and they are justifiably skeptical about the chance of real change. Most remain suspicious that the future will parallel the past: Facing internal and external pressure in the late 1980s, governments reacted by providing short-term relief to withstand this pressure, only to freeze and in some instances reverse the moves at the earliest opportunity. [complete article]

Democracy in the Middle East: Handle with care
By Turi Munthe, RUSI, April, 2005

The blisteringly adverse popular reaction to the Iraq war in the Middle East did not come because the Arab world was particularly in favour of Saddam Hussein, it emanated out of a profound mistrust of US motives. No one believed the Weapons of Mass Destruction line, nor did anyone buy the hastily promoted (though long-considered) Wolfowitzian 'liberation' line. To the Arab world, the war was an energy war. Nobody believed that the US could act on principle, because the history of US-Middle Eastern relations has been dominated by (often cynical) pragmatism.

The US today has two weapons to combat what is now rife and deeply imbedded hostility in the Arab and Muslim world. The first is its leverage on Israel, the second is proving its real commitment to the people of the region by standing firm on the principle of democratic reform as a principle. No ground is more fertile. Recent UN development reports show that over 80 per cent of the Arab world places democracy at the very top of its political wish list.

The Bush Administration looks unlikely to put any serious pressure on the Sharon government (disengagement, let us remember, is an entirely home-grown Israeli policy), so the second option is the only one available. Here, the US Government has one bitter pill to swallow. [complete article]

The shape of things to come
By Omayma Abdel-Latif, Al-Ahram, March 31, 2005

When Mohamed Mahdi Akef, the Muslim Brotherhood's supreme guide, told a press conference last Wednesday that the group was planning to hold a rally to protest the current political stalemate, one reporter asked whether he was apprehensive of the authorities' reaction.

"We have become fearless," Akef said.

The group's decision to take their case for political reform to the street -- it is the first time the Brotherhood has organised a rally to address a domestic issue -- created havoc in downtown Cairo.

The announcement that the rally would be held in front of the Peoples' Assembly on Sunday at noon left the security apparatus edgy but on full alert. And on the day of the demonstration the security arrangements turned parts of Cairo into an almost citizen-free fortress. [complete article]

Syrian Muslim Brotherhood slams Baathists
AFP (via Daily Star), April 6, 2005

The Muslim Brotherhood, banned in Syria on pain of death since 1980, called on Monday for an end to the ruling Baath party's 42-year grip on power and for the organization of free and fair elections. The movement, which was behind an armed uprising in the 1980s that marked the biggest challenge to the Damascus regime to date, called for a national congress of all political parties to ward off what it said was a "threat of invasion," an allusion to growing U.S. pressure on the government.

"The Muslim Brotherhood urges the organization of an inclusive national congress that would represent all political tendencies and religious and ethnic groups, whether based inside Syria or in exile, to form a national force capable of facing the challenges," the group said in a statement.

"The Muslim Brotherhood calls for an end to the state of emergency (in force ever since the Baath party seized power in 1963) and the winding up of the courts of exception which have been the instruments of injustice." The banned party called for the "adoption of a law on political parties and the organization of free and fair elections for a national assembly that would draw up a new Constitution to deal with the needs of the moment and usher in a democratic republic." The Islamist group warned of the "huge earthquake on our borders which threatens to invade," an allusion to U.S.-led forces in Iraq. [complete article]

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Lebanon united on Hizbullah's weapons
Daily Star, April 6, 2005

Hizbullah's Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and members of the opposition agreed Tuesday that the issue of disarming the resistance party is an internal Lebanese issue and need not involve any foreign interference.

Nasrallah met on Tuesday with members of the late former Premier Rafik Hariri's parliamentary Dignity Bloc, Beirut MPs Mohammed Qabbani and Walid Eido to discuss the latest developments in Lebanon.

After the meeting, Qabbani said the two parties agreed on certain national principles, particularly the implementation of the Taif Accord and the rejection of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 and foreign tutelage. [complete article]

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Arab report sees little reform, faults U.S. action
By Jonathan Wright, Reuters (via Yahoo), April 5, 2005

In a long-awaited report contested by the United States and Egypt, Arab intellectuals and reformers said they saw no significant advances toward democracy in the Arab world in the year after October 2003.

The third Arab Human Development Report (AHDR), released on Tuesday under U.N. auspices, says most reforms were "embryonic and fragmentary" and did not amount to a serious effort to end repression in the region, which has some of the world's most authoritarian governments.

The United States, which says its policy is to promote democracy in the region, contributed to an international context which hampered progress, through its policy toward Israel, its actions in Iraq and security measures affecting Arabs, it said. [complete article]

See the Executive Summary (19-page PDF) or purchase the complete Arab Human Development Report 2004.

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U.K. panel: U.S. troops too heavy-handed
By Ed Johnson, AP (via Yahoo), April 5, 2005

U.S. troops in Iraq are provoking civilians and hampering rebuilding with an excessive use of force, British lawmakers said in a report Tuesday.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee also found that the slow pace of reconstruction had fueled the insurgency in Iraq and suggested the country had replaced Afghanistan as a training ground for international terrorists.

"Excessive use by the U.S. forces of overwhelming firepower has also been counterproductive, provoking antagonism toward the coalition among ordinary Iraqis," the report said, echoing the concerns of British officials.

Some have complained that the U.S. military is too heavy-handed in Iraq, compared with British soldiers, who often patrol on foot and in berets instead of helmets in an effort to win the trust of local Iraqis.

The committee of lawmakers, representing three parties, said foreign fighters had played a leading and deadly role in the insurgency.

"However, the evidence points to the greater part of the violence stemming from Iraqi groups and individuals, some motivated by religious extremism and others who have been dispossessed by policies adopted by the coalition since the war, such as de-Baathification and the disbanding of the Iraqi security forces," the report said. [complete article]

See the complete report, Foreign Policy Aspects of the War against Terrorism (145-page PDF).

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Zarqawi said to be behind Iraq raid
By Ellen Knickmeyer, Washington Post, April 5, 2005

Insurgent groups led by foreigners and Iraqis asserted Monday that guerrilla leader Abu Musab Zarqawi's organization was responsible for a major assault on Abu Ghraib prison Saturday that U.S. officers called one of the most sophisticated attacks of the insurgency.

Rocket barrages forced Marine guards to abandon a prison watchtower at the height of the precision-timed offensive, which employed mortars, rockets, ground assaults and a car bomb, a U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, said Monday. [complete article]

U.S., Iraqi troops battle dozens of insurgents
By Andrew Marshall, Reuters (via Yahoo), April 5, 2005

U.S. and Iraqi forces battled dozens of insurgents in a remote area east of Baghdad and three soldiers, two American and one Iraqi, were killed in the fighting, the U.S. military said on Tuesday.

The battle erupted on Monday afternoon when two Iraqi army battalions were carrying out a "cordon and search operation" in eastern Diyala province, it said in a statement. [complete article]

Actors in the insurgency are reluctant TV stars
By Caryle Murphy and Khalid Saffar, Washington Post, April 5, 2005

Iraq's hottest new television program is a reality show. But the players are not there by choice. And they don't win big bucks, a new spouse or a dream job.

Instead, all the characters on "Terrorism in the Hands of Justice" are captured suspected insurgents. And for more than a month, they have been riveting viewers with tales of how they killed, kidnapped, raped or beheaded other Iraqis, usually for a few hundred dollars per victim. [complete article]

Iraqi insurgency 'running out of steam'
By Steve Negus, Financial Times, April 4, 2005

Britain's senior military officer in Iraq said on Monday that the country's Sunni-led insurgency was flagging, thanks to a series of recent political and military defeats over the past six months.

Since he arrived in October, guerilla attacks had fallen to 300 a week from 500, thanks largely to a series of setbacks that had "helped to take the wind out of the sails of parts of the insurgency", Lt Gen Sir John Kiszelysaid in a briefing prior tohis departure later this month. [complete article]

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U.S. yet to accommodate China's rise
By Philip Stephens, Financial Times (via Yale Global), April 1, 2005

Go back two or three years and the issue that most occupied the best foreign policy brains was how America would (or should) deploy its unrivalled power in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001. More recently, brows have furrowed over the strategic implications of President George W. Bush's determination to overturn the authoritarian status quo in the Middle East. Like much else, though, foreign policy is a slave to fashion. So the issue of the moment is no longer how the global system adjusts to the American imperium but rather how the US accommodates the world's rising powers, above all China.

The prosaic reality is that all three of these things will remake the geostrategic landscape in the coming decades. The huge uncertainties inherent in each of them - and in the interactions between them - do much to explain why that terrain is still wrapped in a dense fog. Logic says that a world free of cold war nuclear confrontation should be a safer place. But we have learnt that dangerous certainties can seem more reassuring than unpredictable upheavals.

In this context, it is fair to say that the implications of China's rapid emergence as a global power have been neglected. The war in Iraq, the hunt for al-Qaeda, the promised US drive to democratise the Middle East and the splintering of the transatlantic alliance have all grabbed more headlines. China, and for that matter India, have been there in the background. But only recently have the geostrategic implications of China's economic power gained serious attention beyond the think-tanks. [complete article]

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China premier's Asia tour to highlight India ties
By Jo Johnson, Richard McGregor and Farhan Bokhari, Financial Times, April 5, 2005

Signs of improving relations between China and India, two Asian states whose rise poses unprecedented foreign policy challenges for the US, will be in evidence this week when Wen Jiabao, China's prime minister, makes his first tour of south Asia.

"India and China between them account for over one-third of humanity and are the two powerhouses of Asia," said Nalin Surie, India's ambassador to Beijing. "Our two countries are in the process of rediscovering each other. Relations have progressed steadily over the last five years."

Mr Wen, who arrives in the Pakistan capital Islamabad on Tuesday, will attempt to balance the need to maintain good ties with Pakistan, Beijing's most enduring ally in south Asia, with deepening relations with India, its new-found and long-term priority in the region. [complete article]

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U.S. and Iran oppose plan for nuclear moratorium
By Guy Dinmore, Financial Times, April 4, 2005

The US has rejected a proposal by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for a five-year, global moratorium on the construction of new facilities for enriching uranium and reprocessing plutonium.

One month before a conference to review the nuclear weapons non-proliferation treaty (NPT), the US and Iran find themselves in uncommon agreement in their joint opposition to the plan put forward by Mohamed ElBaradei.

According to diplomats in Vienna, where the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency is based, the US wants to expand its private civilian nuclear power industry, while Iran insists it should not be denied access to such technology.

Mr ElBaradei argues that the world already has more than enough capacity to fuel its nuclear power plants and research facilities. His proposed moratorium is intended to give the international community a breathing space to work out revisions to the treaty, widely acknowledged to be in danger of collapse. [complete article]

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Afghan officials urge donors to shift focus
By Carlotta Gall, New York Times, April 5, 2005

President Hamid Karzai and his top ministers made an urgent plea to international donors at an annual aid conference in Kabul on Monday to shift their focus to helping the country's struggling private sector and to let the Afghan government take a controlling lead in development planning.

Mr. Karzai said his government considered building the infrastructure - including energy, aviation and telecommunications - to be an urgent priority to provide the foundation for private sector development. Urban development, completely neglected in the past three years, would be a priority too, he said.

The conference follows months of debate and recriminations over why the billions of dollars in aid that have poured into Afghanistan since the former Taliban rulers were ousted more than three years ago have accomplished so little. [complete article]

See also, The Bush administration's Afghan Spring (Tom Engelhardt) and Opium vs. democracy in Afghanistan (NYT).

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Seven Islamist militants killed as Saudi gun battle rages for a second day
By Brian Whitaker, The Guardian, April 5, 2005

A bloody confrontation between Saudi troops and suspected Islamist militants entered a second day yesterday as gunmen hurled grenades at the forces besieging them.

Seven suspects were reported dead and an eighth was critically wounded. "Security forces are continuing mop-up [operations] at the site," an interior ministry statement said.

The battle erupted early on Sunday when security forces tried to raid a house at al-Ras, in the northern Qassim region, where the suspects were believed to be hiding. The forces were initially unable to storm the building because of the intensity of gunfire from inside, according to a security source. Witnesses said the house had later been secured, but gunfire then erupted from another building nearby. [complete article]

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Backing seen weakening for Abbas
By Charles A. Radin and Sa'id Ghazali, Boston Globe, April 5, 2005

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is being hailed internationally for his peacemaking efforts with Israel, is failing on virtually every important domestic front and is rapidly losing support in the territory he governs, Palestinian and Israeli officials, activists, and analysts say.

Violence has surged in the West Bank. Firing by Al Aqsa Brigades gunmen at Abbas' own headquarters last week was just the most widely publicized of numerous recent incidents in which militants disrupted public order and scorned efforts by members of Abbas' administration to rein them in. The same day, other gunmen torched a Palestinian Authority checkpoint in Tulkarem. Abbas' interior minister was fired on recently by Al Aqsa gunmen in Jenin.

Numerous attempts to disarm the gunmen have failed. Abbas's programs for injecting new blood into stagnant ministries and getting rid of ineffective and corrupt officials are stalled. And Abbas -- generally known by the nickname Abu Mazen -- is incurring deepening enmity both from the Palestinian establishment, which is resisting him at every turn, and from the young guard of the ruling Fatah movement, whose members believe he is not fulfilling his principal commitments. [complete article]

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Israel 'is sealing off Jerusalem Arabs'
By Chris McGreal, The Guardian, April 5, 2005

Ariel Sharon told the Israeli parliament yesterday that he would press ahead with the construction of thousands of homes to link one of the largest Jewish settlements with Jerusalem, despite US concern that it would jeopardise the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.

The Palestinian leadership says the plan to build 3,500 homes between Maale Adumim and Jerusalem is another step toward sealing off the city's Arab neighbourhoods from the rest of the West Bank.

Israel has already accelerated the construction of an 8 metre high concrete "security barrier", seized land and expanded other settlements.

Palestinians have accused Mr Sharon of using the political credit gained overseas for his unprecedented plan to remove Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip as a cover to consolidate Israel's grip on Arab East Jerusalem and prevent it from becoming the capital of a Palestinian state. Israel claims the entire city as its capital. [complete article]

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Israel to dump 10,000 tons of garbage a month in the West Bank
By David Ratner, Haaretz, April 4, 2005

Israel has decided to transfer garbage beyond the Green Line and dump it in the West Bank for the first time since 1967. The project was launched despite international treaties prohibiting an occupying state from making use of occupied territory unless it benefits the local population.

In addition, pollution experts say such use of the Kedumim quarry - located in an old Palestinian quarry between the Kedumim settlement and Nablus - will jeopardize Palestinian water sources. [complete article]

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Church's global agenda includes economics, Islam and science
By Laurie Goodstein, New York Times, April 4, 2005

The next pope faces challenges so urgent that many church leaders and analysts worry that even a pope with the charisma and capacity of John Paul II will have to resort to a strategy of triage.

The rich nations pose one set of concerns: the Roman Catholic Church is withering in Europe, the continent that once supplied it with priests, cathedrals and intellect, while in the United States, the church is self-consciously struggling to make its message relevant in a materialistic society where even religion is market driven.

The poorer countries pose a different set of concerns: in Latin America, home to 4 of every 10 Catholics in the world, priests say they cannot compete effectively with the exuberant, proliferating evangelical and Pentecostal churches. In Africa and Asia, growing Catholic populations often live uneasily among Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.

The Roman Catholic Church is, more than ever, a global institution with global problems. With more than one billion members, amounting to half the world's Christians and 17 percent of the world's population, it is the largest and wealthiest religious or charitable institution on the planet.

But the biggest concerns of the new century - the turmoil within the Muslim world and the explosive shift of economic power to India and China - did not draw the focus of John Paul. As he proved, the church's leader is capable of changing the course of history. But the church has to make choices. [complete article]

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Does freedom prevent terrorism?
By James L. Payne, The American Conservative, April 11, 2005

Fighting terrorism has come to be the justification for much of what government does these days, particularly in the Bush administration's campaign for freedom and democracy. "The only force powerful enough to stop the rise of tyranny and terror," said President Bush in this year's State of the Union address, "is the force of human freedom." Last August, Bush explained his thinking on how to fight terrorism: "I believe that democracy can take hold in parts of the world that are now nondemocratic, and I think it's necessary in order to defeat the ideologies of hate."

In the abstract, a formulation that marries such positive concepts is appealing. Freedom is a good thing, democracy is a good thing, and putting an end to terrorism would also be a good thing. But empirically, does the relationship hold? Is it true that in free and democratic countries terrorism doesn't occur? [complete article]

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Speaker of parliament elected amid rancor
By Juan Cole, Informed Comment, April 4, 2005

[T]he Iraqi parliament finally decided on a Sunni Arab speaker, Hajem al-Hassani, on Sunday. Although this step does break the logjam to some extent, it is not exactly a huge breakthrough in and of itself. It is now forgotten that it was supposed to be a pro forma decision taken the very first time the parliament met. There is also some evidence that the selection of speaker has alienated the Sunni community rather than pleasing them.

If the parliament stays deadlocked very much longer, the intrepid Anthony Shadid reveals, there is serious talk among the grand ayatollahs in Najaf about bringing millions of protesters out into the streets to force the politicians' hands. (Actually the subtext here is that such massive Shiite protests would put pressure on the Kurds to give up some of their maximalist demands and come to a compromise. Such an ultimatum in the streets would be extremely dangerous, especially if it threw Kirkuk into chaos). [complete article]

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Al Qaeda claims raid on Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison
Reuters, April 3, 2005

Al Qaeda's wing in Iraq Sunday claimed responsibility for a brazen overnight raid on Abu Ghraib prison that wounded 44 U.S. soldiers, according to an Internet statement, and said more attacks would follow.

The U.S. military said dozens of insurgents carried out Saturday's attack on the notorious prison outside Baghdad, detonating two suicide car bombs and firing rocket-propelled grenades at U.S. forces before the assault was repelled. [complete article]

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We need a post-Zionist leap of faith
By John Rose, The Guardian, April 2, 2005

Does the religious and historical attachment of so many Jews to the "land of Israel" justify the Zionist project? The idea of a Jewish homeland continues to pose two problems. The first is the denial of Palestinian rights, especially the rights of the dispossessed refugees, who see an Israel built on their homeland. And the second is what "homeland" means for the Jewish majority that lives outside Israel.

There is an interesting and unexplored link between these two problems. Resolving the second can contribute to resolving the first. But that means Jews in the west renouncing our automatic right to be potential citizens of Israel. [complete article]

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For the advocate of universal democracy, human rights don't begin at home
By Michael C. Desch, The American Conservative, March 28, 2005

For those who became politically aware during the 1970s, no cause added greater moral urgency to the Cold War than the Soviet Union's refusal to allow Jews to emigrate to Israel. And apart from signs demanding "Free Soviet Jews" in front of almost every synagogue or temple in America, nothing symbolized the plight of captive Soviet Jewry better than the tribulations of Anatoli Shcharansky.

In 1973, after being denied permission to emigrate to Israel, he became one of the leading Jewish refuseniks lobbying for greater human rights in Brezhnev's Soviet Union. After four years of waging this campaign, constantly harried and harassed by the KGB, he was arrested in 1977 and tried and convicted of being an American spy in 1978. He served nine years in the gulag, much of it in solitary confinement.

During his incarceration as a prisoner of conscience, Shcharansky's stature in the West grew. As the citation for his Congressional Gold Medal noted, he "became a living symbol of Soviet human-rights abuses in the post-Helsinki era." Released in 1986 as part of a spy exchange with West Germany, he received a hero's welcome in the West where he was rechristened Natan Sharansky by Israel's ambassador to West Germany and whisked to Israel to make aliyah. The New York Times put it succinctly: he had become a "Jewish saint." [complete article]

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Poll: Most Israeli Jews say Israeli Arabs should emigrate
By Yoav Stern, Haaretz, April 4, 2005

A majority of Jewish Israelis believe that the state should encourage Israeli Arabs to emigrate, according to a survey conducted by the Dahaf Institute on behalf of Madar, the Palestinian Center for Israel Studies.

The survey, conducted in mid-March among a representative sample of 501 Jewish Israelis, found that 42 percent agreed that the state should encourage Israeli Arabs to emigrate, while another 17 percent said they tended to agree with this. This compares to 40 percent who disagreed or tended to disagree.

Dr. Assad Ghanem, the head of Madar's research department, said Sunday that the results did not surprise him, as other surveys have produced similar findings. [complete article]

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Hamas is the big winner these days
By Danny Rubinstein, Haaretz, April 4, 2005

The demand for reforms in the Palestinian security services is an old story. It was discussed already during the days of the late Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, when his successor, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), was still serving as the first prime minister of the PA. The main elements of the reform plans include a reduction of the security services from twelve to three, and the retirement of hundreds of officers and commanders. Members of Egyptian security helped to formulate the plans. Consultants from Europe and the United States offered advice. The Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), which is the Palestinian parliament, made decisions on the subject. Ostensibly everything is ready - but for some reason nothing is happening.

Instead of reforms, there have been incidents in recent days that testify to a lack of order and control. Near-anarchy where security is concerned. Why doesn't Abu Mazen - who at the time resigned from the premiership because Arafat did not meet his demands for reforms - carry them out immediately, and why is he allowing Palestinian internal security to deteriorate? [complete article]

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Indifferent to death: tragedy of the traumatised children of the intifada
By Sandra Jordan, The Observer, April 3, 2005

'Sawerney! Sawerney!' the children shout as they swarm around ('Take my picture! Take my picture!'). This is Yibna, in Rafah, one of the most desolate sites of destruction in the Gaza strip, where Palestinian children play in the ruins of their demolished homes. Despite the ceasefire - and the danger - they still chase Israeli tanks. This is their playground.

'Money!' they demand. When you tell them you have none, their mood changes. 'Shalom,' they say sullenly - Hebrew for peace.

Some of these youngsters are not responding well to peace. Their latest grievance is with the Palestinian police, newly dispatched to co-ordinate with the Israeli army guarding the border with Egypt. 'We hate the police,' says 11-year-old Ahmed. 'They try to stop us throwing stones. They pull us by the ears. Sometimes, to make an example of you, they'll cut your hair really short.'

He scowls. 'We hate Abu Mazen [Yasser Arafat's successor as President of the Palestinian Authority]. We are not afraid to die for Palestine.'

For all their bravado, these are children who laugh one minute and burst into tears the next. Three-quarters suffer from anxiety and nightmares. Many suffer flashbacks of violent events. According to research by the Gaza Community Centre for Mental Health, 55 per cent of kids in 'hot' areas such as Rafah have acute post-traumatic stress disorder. [complete article]

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Abbas declares West Bank state of alert amid chaos
Daily Star, April 4, 2005

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday placed West Bank security services on a "state of alert," deploying troops across the territory in a bid to curb rampant security chaos. On Sunday, a Palestinian security chief, Tawfiq Tirawi, who quit in protest at unchecked lawlessness in the West Bank and Gaza Strip withdrew his resignation Sunday at Abbas's behest, officials said.

Security forces began moving into the main West Bank cities late Saturday, despite the fact Israel has only transferred security responsibility to Palestinian forces in Jericho and Tulkarem.

The move came just hours after a similar state of alert had been declared in Ramallah following an incident earlier this week in which gunmen opened fire inside Abbas's Muqataa headquarters compound. [complete article]

See also Abbas starts to reorganize West Bank security forces (NYT).

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Syria pledges to withdraw from Lebanon by end of April
By Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, April 3, 2005

Syria has pledged to pull all its soldiers and intelligence agents out of neighboring Lebanon by the end of April, a U.N. envoy said Sunday after holding closed-door talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The announcement in Damascus, the Syrian capital, was the clearest timeline to emerge yet from Assad's government, which has been uprooting its military bases in neighboring Lebanon under pressure from the international community.

The United Nations offered to send a team into Lebanon to monitor the withdrawal, U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said. It will be up to the Lebanese government to decide whether to allow the international oversight, he said. [complete article]

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Insurgent violence flares in Afghanistan
AFP (via Daily Star), April 4, 2005

Eleven people were killed and eight wounded in four separate incidents in Afghanistan, marking a surge in an anticipated Taliban offensive against the U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces, police and the Interior Ministry said Saturday. Suspected Taliban insurgents attacked government district offices in the southeastern province of Helmand on Saturday, killing four policemen and injuring three others, officials said.

Dozens of suspected insurgents from the country's ousted Taliban regime stormed the Disho district office during the attack, provincial intelligence chief Dad Mohammad said.

Saturday's attack followed three other deadly incidents on Friday, and came in the wake of several rebel strikes during the past two weeks. [complete article]

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Islamist terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or fiction?
ICG (Reuters), March 31, 2005

A heavy-handed U.S. approach to fighting terrorism in the Sahel would risk fuelling exactly what it aims to prevent: a rise of Islamist militancy.

Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction?, the International Crisis Group's latest report, examines the vast region bordering the Sahara Desert and including Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad. It finds that even without firm evidence of a major terrorism threat, the Sahel deserves greater attention, because its vulnerability is clear.

"There are enough indicators -- including the presence of groups seeking to take advantage -- to justify caution and greater Western involvement out of security interests", says Mike McGovern, Crisis Group's West Africa Project Director. "But it has to be done more judiciously than it has been so far". [complete article]

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U.S. says Israel must give up nukes
By Amir Oren, Haaretz, April 3, 2005

The State Department yesterday called on Israel to forswear nuclear weapons and accept international Atomic Energy Agency safeguards on all nuclear activities.

This is the second time in about two weeks that officials in the Bush administration are putting the nuclear weapons of Israel, India and Pakistan on a par.

The officials called on the three to act like Ukraine and South Africa, which in the last decade renounced their nuclear weapons. [complete article]

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A fierce debate on atom bombs from Cold War
By William J. Broad, New York Times, April 3, 2005

For over two decades, a compact, powerful warhead called the W-76 has been the centerpiece of the nation's nuclear arsenal, carried aboard the fleet of nuclear submarines that prowl the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

But in recent months it has become the subject of a fierce debate among experts inside and outside the government over its reliability and its place in the nuclear arsenal.

The government is readying a plan to spend more than $2 billion on a routine 10-year overhaul to extend the life of the aging warheads. At the same time, some weapons scientists say the warheads have a fundamental design flaw that could cause them to explode with far less force than intended.

Although the government has denied that assertion, officials have disclosed that Washington is nevertheless considering replacing the W-76 altogether. [complete article]

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Europe's boys of jihad
By Sebastian Rotella, Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2005

The case file of the French homeboys who joined the Iraqi jihad contains a startling photo.

It's the mug shot of Salah, the alleged point man in Damascus, Syria, who authorities say arranged for guns and safe passage into Iraq for extremists from Paris. Salah has a serious expression beneath a short Afro-style haircut. He looks as if he's posing, reluctantly, for a middle school yearbook.

When Salah left for Damascus with the jihadis last summer, he was 13 years old.

"He's just a little kid!" exclaimed Ousman Siddibe, a leader of Good Boys of Africa, an African-French community association in Paris' Riquet neighborhood. "We have some husky guys around here, but he's not one of them. And he's got an innocent face."

Salah, the son of African immigrants, remains a fugitive two months after police here broke up the alleged terrorist cell. His odyssey is a drastic example of a trend, investigators say: Not only are Islamic extremists in Western Europe radicalizing faster, they are also younger than ever. [complete article]

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Terror broker
By Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau, Newsweek, April 11, 2005

Hardly anyone was more surprised by Iraq's insurgency than Osama bin Laden. The terrorist chief had never foreseen its sudden, ferocious spread, and he was likewise unprepared for the abrupt rise of its most homicidal commander, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. Bin Laden and his aides knew the Jordanian-born Palestinian from Zarqawi's Afghan days, but mostly as a short-tempered bully and a troublemaker. So in the late summer of 2003, unwilling to sit on the sidelines, bin Laden sent two of his most trusted men to assess the Iraqi resistance and carve out a leading role for Al Qaeda. "The resistance happened faster than we expected, and differently, so we were not prepared to assist and direct it," one of the two envoys later told a senior Tali-ban official. "The sheik sent me to see how we could help." [complete article]

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U.S. relied on 'drunken liar' to justify war
By Edward Helmore, The Observer, April 3, 2005

An alcoholic cousin of an aide to Ahmed Chalabi has emerged as the key source in the US rationale for going to war in Iraq.

According to a US presidential commission looking into pre-war intelligence failures, the basis for pivotal intelligence on Iraq's alleged biological weapons programmes and fleet of mobile labs was a spy described as 'crazy' by his intelligence handlers and a 'congenital liar' by his friends.

The defector, given the code-name Curveball by the CIA, has emerged as the central figure in the corruption of US intelligence estimates on Iraq. Despite considerable doubts over Curveball's credibility, his claims were included in the administration's case for war without caveat. [complete article]

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Green light for Iraqi prison abuse came right from the top
By Andrew Buncombe, The Independent, April 3, 2005

America's leading civil liberties group has demanded an investigation into the former US military commander Iraq after a formerly classified memo revealed that he personally sanctioned a series of coercive interrogation techniques outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. The group claims that his directives were directly linked to the sort of abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib.

Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reveal that Lt General Ricardo Sanchez authorised techniques such as the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners, stress positions and disorientation. In the documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Gen Sanchez admits that some of the techniques would not be tolerated by other countries.

When he appeared last year before a Congressional committee, Gen Sanchez denied authorising such techniques. He has now been accused of perjury. [complete article]

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You can't handle the truth
By Joseph Cirincione, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 2, 2005

The president's commission on intelligence delivered half a report. Like the general played by Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men," the commission acted as if America can’t handle the truth. The commissioners would have us believe that those who provided the false intelligence were solely to blame, and the senior political leaders who ordered and presented the claims to the public were passive victims. Conservative pundits have quickly declared, "case closed," and urge us to focus on rearranging the deck chairs on the intelligence ship. But buried deep inside the report is evidence that contradicts the commission's own conclusions and raises serious questions about their recommendations. Most damning is the tale of two CIA analysts who were removed from their positions for "causing waves" when they questioned the reliability of the defector known as "Curveball."

This story only appears 200 pages into the report. It is at the very end of the Iraq section (pg. 192) after Conclusion 26 that finds no evidence of politicization of the intelligence.

An analyst with WINPAC (the CIA's Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center) was in Iraq in the summer and fall of 2003 and reported serious doubts about the reliability of Curveball's claims that Saddam built mobile biological labs and conducted biowarfare experiments. We now know that the analyst was correct. Curveball lied. There were no mobile biolabs or bioweapons of any kind. The commission reports that in late 2003, the CIA did not want to admit that "Curveball was a fabricator…because of concerns about how this would look to the 'Seventh Floor' and to "downtown.'" Instead, says the commission, the analyst was "read the riot act' by his office director who accused him of 'making waves' and being 'biased.'" He was kicked out of WINPAC. The same punishment was meted out to a chemical weapons analyst in Iraq who pressed for a reassessment of the CIA's claims of a large-scale CW program. He, too, was forced to leave WINPAC.

To most reasonable observers, this would be a clear case of senior management not wanting to change a threat assessment that was heavily used by the White House "downtown." Political considerations trumped the findings from the professional analysts. However, the commission does not agree. . They label this "bad management" and a "failure of tradecraft." [complete article]

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A failure of policy, not spying
By Ashton B. Carter, Washington Post, April 3, 2005

President Bush praised the Robb-Silberman commission report for its scathing and perceptive analysis of "intelligence failures" in the "axis of evil" states of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Indeed, the report contains many useful recommendations for improving intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. But the fallacy in the administration's appointment of a commission to study intelligence failures is that there is almost never such a thing as a pure intelligence failure. Intelligence failure is usually linked to policy failure.

It's easy to see why Bush, or any president, would not want to call attention to that link. But the commission should have. [complete article]

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Rebels wound 44 U.S. troops in attack on Abu Ghraib prison
By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times, April 3, 2005

More than three dozen insurgents launched an audacious strike Saturday against the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, wounding 44 U.S. troops and 13 Iraqi detainees.

The large-scale attack represented a rare direct assault against a well-fortified U.S. position. It was also one of the more sophisticated strikes against American troops since President Saddam Hussein was toppled from power two years ago.

Between 40 and 60 heavily armed men swarmed the prison, detonating two car bombs and peppering the facility with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms and mortar fire. [complete article]

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Justice: Iraq fraud can be tried in U.S.
By Matt Kelley, AP (via Yahoo), April 1, 2005

Contractors for the former Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq can be sued in U.S. courts under an anti-war-profiteering law, the Justice Department contended in a federal case Friday.

Government lawyers said the federal False Claims Act applies to contracts issued by the CPA, which ran Iraq from shortly after the 2003 invasion until it handed over power to an interim Iraqi government last June.

Although much of the money the CPA used was seized from the former government of Saddam Hussein, U.S. government or military workers distributed it, making fraud against the CPA equal to fraud against the U.S., a group of Justice Department lawyers said in a court brief.

The brief came in response to a judge hearing a fraud lawsuit against the security firm Custer Battles LLC. Two former employees are suing Custer Battles, saying the firm fleeced the CPA out of about $50 million. The company denies any wrongdoing. [complete article]

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Iraqi politicians complain of flaws in interim law
By Edward Wong, New York Times, April 3, 2005

After weeks of factional haggling that have prompted warnings of increasing civil distress, several leading Iraqi politicians have begun saying that flawed measures in the interim constitution are partly to blame for the failure to form a new government.

The document, which Iraqi officials co-wrote with the Americans, was approved in March 2004 and is the most enduring political legacy of the formal American occupation. It is called the transitional administrative law, or as the TAL, and sets the timetable for elections and the rules for installing a government, and it tries to address difficult issues, like the question of property restoration for Kurds exiled from the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Senior politicians, particularly Shiite Arabs, are now attacking the TAL for enshrining a process that they see as contributing to the deadlock. They are especially critical of the measure that requires a two-thirds vote by the national assembly to appoint a president, and they point out that the law fails to set a deadline for the appointment.

"This is really sort of a weakness in the TAL," said Adnan Ali, a deputy head of the Dawa Islamic Party, the Shiite party whose leader, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is the top candidate for prime minister. "It's an obstruction rather than an assurance. This should have been done differently." [complete article]

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Political impasse alarms Shiite clergy
By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, April 3, 2005

The protracted delay in naming a new Iraqi government has alarmed the country's powerful Shiite Muslim clergy, who worry that growing popular frustration may endanger the government's legitimacy, senior clerics and their representatives say. As a last resort, some said they may support mass protests as a way to break the impasse.

For now, the clerics are urging patience, and many said they expect a limited breakthrough as early as this week, perhaps Sunday. But one senior representative, echoing the suspicions of others, suggested the United States was at least partially at fault for the deadlock and warned of more forceful intervention by the most senior clergy, collectively known as the marjaiya, if delays persist.

"In the event they cannot form a leadership for the assembly and a government, the marjaiya will not remain with its hands shackled. It will not simply stand and watch. It must do something," said Ali Rubaii, the spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Ishaq Fayadh, one of the four most senior clerics in Najaf who operate under the leadership of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. [complete article]

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Iraqi assembly makes progress, elects speaker
By Mariam Karouny, Reuters (via Yahoo), April 3, 2005

Iraqi politicians elected a Sunni Arab to be the speaker of parliament Sunday, ending a political impasse and taking a decisive step toward forming a government nine weeks after historic elections.

In a ballot, the members of the 275-seat National Assembly voted overwhelmingly to elect Hajem al-Hassani, the current industry minister, as speaker. Hassani, a religious Sunni, is an ally of Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

"We passed the first hurdle," Hassani told reporters afterwards. "The Iraqi people have proven that they can overcome the political crisis that has plagued the country for the last two months." [complete article]

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Despite chaos, the regions get on with it
By Nicolas Rothwell, The Australian, April 2, 2005

Although the "good news" blogs that compile instances of Iraq's progress tend to present an over-rosy picture, the consistent progress being achieved on the ground, away from the headlines, highlights one of the stranger truths about post-Saddam Iraq: the country has devolved into a set of local fiefs, each effectively administering itself.

The lack of a central government with democratic legitimacy since the election result was announced has been an inconvenience rather than a disaster.

Several key networks and power centres combine across the country to maintain a degree of order. Almost every village or suburban district is presided over by a dominant land-owning family or regional political chieftain.

Religious leaders in local mosques have great influence, while local mayors and even police commanders have also taken on critical authority.

All these structures have grown or have strengthened immeasurably in the two years since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime and the shattering of the Baath Party's surveillance and patronage system. [complete article]

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Berger pleads guilty, but offers no explanation
By Mark Sherman, AP (via Seattle PI), April 2, 2005

Samuel "Sandy" Berger knew better than almost anyone the ground rules for handling classified documents. As President Clinton's national-security adviser, he routinely reviewed the government's most closely held secrets and determined what needed to remain off-limits to the public.

But yesterday afternoon in federal District Court, he admitted to sneaking classified documents out of the National Archives in his business suit, cutting up some of them in his office and then lying about it.

U.S. Magistrate Deborah Robinson didn't ask why and Berger didn't explain. [complete article]

Comment -- Observations from readers of Laura Rozen's War and Piece blog who have security clearances suggest that, contrary to the claim of AP's Mark Sherman (Berger "knew better than almost anyone" the rules for handling classified documents) Sandy Berger may have simply demonstrated how easy it is for the inner klutz to come out when the guiding hands of trusted staff are no longer present.

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Record number of terror warrants approved
By Mark Sherman, AP (via SF Chronicle), April 1, 2005

The government requested and won approval for a record number of special warrants last year for secret wiretaps and searches of suspected terrorists and spies, 75 percent more than in 2000, the Bush administration disclosed Friday.

Assistant Attorney General William E. Moschella revealed the figure in an annual report to Congress. Last year's total of 1,754 approved warrants was only slightly higher than the 1,724 approved in 2003. But the number has climbed markedly since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, as authorities have moved aggressively against terror suspects. In 2000, there were 1,003 warrants approved under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Since passage of the Patriot Act, the FBI can use such warrants in investigations that aren't mostly focused on foreign intelligence. [complete article]

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Coalition bloc to challenge Afghan chief in parliament
By Carlotta Gall, New York Times, April 1, 2005

Election season opened in Afghanistan on Thursday, five months before the scheduled parliamentary elections, as Yunus Qanooni, who came in second to President Hamid Karzai in October's presidential voting, announced that he had formed a coalition of opposition parties.

Eleven political parties and one independent candidate have joined forces in forming the bloc, known as the Afghanistan National Coordination Front, and have named Mr. Qanooni to lead the group for a year.

The front, with members from the three major ethnic groups - Pashtuns, Tajiks and Shia Hazaras - represents the first attempt to forge a serious opposition to Mr. Karzai's government. Even before the elections, it will monitor the government's activities and serve as a check on Mr. Karzai and his cabinet, Mr. Qanooni said at a news briefing. [complete article]

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

Organizational reforms can't prevent people from being wrong
By Fred Kaplan, Slate, March 31, 2005
Reading beyond the executive summary [in the WMD commission report] reveals that the intelligence failure on Iraq had little to do with management, interagency disputes, or sloppy organizational charts. Rather, the main causes were twofold. First, on many points, well-placed intelligence analysts were simply wrong; it's as plain as that, and it's hard to see how any reshufflings or new directives might have overwhelmed human fallacy. Second, everyone knew President Bush was gearing up for war; he, therefore, wanted, needed, to find Iraq worthy of invasion; and the heads of intelligence, doubling as administration appointees, accommodated that disposition.

The commissioners try to skirt this political dimension of the intelligence analysts' findings. "In no instance," the report states up front, "did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgment." However, it goes on, "That said, it is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence agencies worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom."

Later on, the report elaborates: "Some analysts were affected by this 'conventional wisdom' and the sense that challenges to it -- or even refusals to find its confirmation -- would not be welcome." This "climate" was shaped, the report continues, by a "gathering conviction among analysts that war with Iraq was inevitable."

How Bush learned to love the Bomb
By Leigh Flayton, Salon (via Der Spiegel), March 30, 2005
In a barren stretch of Nevada desert 85 miles northwest of Las Vegas, a large modular tower and a steel crane, once used for testing nuclear bombs, stand in plain view of anyone passing through the area known to the U.S. government as U6c. They are easily detected by satellites orbiting overhead. Later this year, scientists at the Nevada Test Site will use the structures to conduct an experiment called Unicorn, which will help determine whether the site is prepared to resume full-scale nuclear tests if ordered to do so by the president. Unicorn, which works with plutonium and high explosives, will resemble an old-fashioned underground nuclear test from the Cold War era, when bombs were placed in towers aboveground and lowered beneath the surface by custom-built cranes.

In recent weeks, the Bush administration has focused the world's attention on stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons. During his trip to Europe in February, President Bush spoke with urgency about shutting down Iran's nuclear program and securing Russia's aging post-Soviet stockpile. North Korea's declaration last month that it already possesses a handful of nuclear warheads has raised new concerns about tensions in Asia. And most security experts agree that nonproliferation is now critical to stopping the worst nightmare scenario: A terrorist attack on a major city using radioactive material.

Nuclear watchdogs in U.S., however, warn that the Bush administration is fueling a new arms race. They contend the government is violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the 1970 international agreement that states that countries with nuclear weapons must work toward disarmament. The Bush administration, they charge, is pouring money into new nuclear weapons programs and performing nuclear tests, spurring other nations to do the same.

Syria moves to keep control of Lebanon
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, March 31, 2005
Syria is working covertly through a network of Lebanese operatives to ensure Damascus can still dominate its smaller neighbor even after it withdraws the last of 15,000 troops, in defiance of a U.N. resolution demanding an end to Syria's 29-year control over Lebanon, according to U.S., European and U.N. officials, and Lebanon's opposition.

Although Syria shut down its notorious intelligence headquarters in downtown Beirut, Damascus is establishing a new hidden presence in the capital's southern suburbs, bringing in officials who will not be recognized, say Lebanese opposition and Western sources. The move would contradict a pledge by President Bashar Assad to withdraw Syria's large intelligence operation from the Lebanese capital as of today.

In Beirut, chaos is building
By Christopher Dickey, Newsweek, March 30, 2005
No one is really laughing out loud, quite. The death count is already too high for that, and the clowns have still got guns and bombs, wiretaps and torture rooms. But there is, still, something grimly ludicrous about the disarray of Lebanon's secret police and security services right now. As one of my good friends in Beirut puts it, "We are seeing the collapse of this regime in a very embarrassing, very clumsy, almost comical way -- but it's scary. You're just sitting here watching the whole thing come apart."

The headlines of the last few days and hours are symptomatic of the chaos building beneath the surface. Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami, unable to form a new government, will resign again, maybe. Syria has notified the United Nations in a formal letter that after 29 years it will withdraw its troops from Lebanon "before the coming elections." But nobody's sure just when that is. Theoretically the elections will take place before the Lebanese parliament's term expires on May 31, but they could be stalled. Just four days ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told a bunch of Spanish journalists that even if a timetable is announced next week, the final troop withdrawal "requires several months."

Golan elephant and the Lebanese crisis
By Ashraf Fahim, Asia Times, March 31, 2005
At the center of the ongoing crisis surrounding the Syrian presence in Lebanon, a 38-year-old elephant has been loitering almost unnoticed. While the world scrutinizes Syria's promised withdrawal, gawks as the Lebanese opposition and Hezbollah flood the streets of Beirut in their war of demonstrations, and debates whether the Bush administration deserves credit for inspiring the "cedar revolution", little attention has been given to a principal factor binding this Levantine Gordian knot - the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan heights.

Though not as glamorous as the more polarizing Israeli occupations in the West Bank and Gaza, Golan is of immense importance because it is the last tangible redoubt of Syrian-Israeli enmity and the physical embodiment of their 57-year ideological and territorial conflict. With Golan quiet since the armistice agreement of 1974 (established after the 1973 "October" War), Lebanon has long been the proving ground for the Levant's principal antagonists.

New Arab rallying cry: 'Enough'
By Dan Murphy, Christian Science Monitor, March 31, 2005
At a demonstration here Wednesday, kifaya was the mantra. About 500 secular and democracy activists returned again and again to the one-word slogan - the Arabic word that translates to "enough" - at the heart of their invigorated campaign to bring democracy to Egypt.

Kifaya has become the name of a movement and the buzzword of what some Western commentators are calling the "Arab Spring" - the rise of democratic expression around the region. In rallies from tiny Bahrain to Egypt, demonstrators are shouting kifaya to dictators, kifaya to corruptions, and kifaya to the silence of Arabs eager for change.

There's no question that the freedom rhetoric of the US and President Bush has helped crack the door for political activism in the Middle East. A look behind the slogan, however, reveals a complex web of secular and Islamist activists who say they share Bush's zeal for democracy, but expect real political change will lead to a repudiation of the US.

Behind diplomacy, Iran sees a fight coming
By Scott Peterson, Christian Science Monitor, March 31, 2005
From Washington, the rhetoric calls for diplomatic solutions to the nuclear standoff with Iran. But Tehran also hears a growing drumbeat for war that echoes the build-up to US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

In preparation for any strike on its budding nuclear facilities, Iran is making clear that the price will be high - burnishing its military forces, boosting its missile program, and warning of a painful response against US and Israeli targets in the region.

"They see a fight coming, regardless of what they do, so they are getting ready for it," says a European diplomat in Tehran, referring to ideologues who think a US invasion is a "very real prospect." Even moderate conservatives fear the "Iraqization of the Iran dossier," says the diplomat. The result is that Iran is "constantly trying to project strength" and is developing a new doctrine of asymmetric warfare.

Deaths spur calls to overhaul Iraqi police
By Anne Barnard, Boston Globe, March 31, 2005
The Iraqi government's unprecedented admission that its police tortured and killed three Shi'ite Muslim militiamen while they were in custody has set off angry complaints from newly elected Shi'ite legislators who are engaged in a political battle for control of the police.

Shi'ite leaders have beamed gruesome images of the dead men to Iraqi television sets, displaying their bruised, scarred bodies as an argument for radically reshaping the police force, which is crucial to the fight against the country's bloody insurgency.

In a series of steps rarely seen in Iraq, US-backed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's interim government has acknowledged the men "died under torture by police," arrested six police officers in the case, launched a high-level investigation, and paid the men's families about $2,000 each plus a $500 monthly stipend.

Case allegedly shows U.S. practice of secret arrests
By Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2005
He was writing from prison, but at least he was alive. The smuggled letter from Abdel Salem Hila was the first his family had heard from him since he had vanished 19 months earlier.

It was, in a way, good news.

"I am writing this letter from a dark prison," the letter began. "I don't know why I am imprisoned…. I'm imprisoned in Afghanistan by the Americans."

Hila's family had seen him off in September 2002, when he'd left on a business trip to Egypt. Upon landing in Cairo, Hila checked into a downtown hotel, later placed a nervous telephone call to his family in Yemen -- and disappeared.

When Hila turned up again, he was in solitary confinement at the U.S.-run Bagram air base in Afghanistan. The journey was so disorienting, he said, it took him four months to realize what country he was in. He was later moved to the American detention center at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to his letters to family members.

Hila's case is apparently part of a broader pattern of secret "renditions," a process by which U.S. agents covertly force foreign suspects from one country to another outside the bounds of international law. The United States began to use renditions during the Reagan administration, and the practice is believed to have mushroomed after the Sept. 11 attacks.
See HRW briefing, Cairo to Kabul to Guantanamo.

A jihadist's tale
By Scott MacLeod, Time Magazine, April 4, 2005
Ra'ed al-Banna loved America. During his nearly two years in the U.S., al-Banna, a lawyer by training, made a living as a factory worker, a shuttle-bus driver and a pizza tosser. He went to the World Trade Center and the Golden Gate Bridge, grew his hair long and listened to Nirvana. He told his family back in Jordan about the honesty and kindness of Americans. "They respect anybody who is sincere," he told his father. He said he had planned to marry an American woman until her parents demanded that the wedding take place in a Christian church. After a visit home in 2003, he set off again for the U.S., hoping to find a wife, have a family, settle down. "He was hoping for a job that earns a lot of money," says Talal Naser, 25, who is engaged to one of Ra'ed's sisters. "He loved life in America, compared to Arab countries. He wanted to stay there."

He never got the chance. After he was denied entry at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport for apparently falsifying details on his visa application, al-Banna's life took a turn that led him down the path of radical Islam and ultimately to join the insurgency against the U.S. in Iraq. His odyssey ended on March 3 when al-Banna's brother Ahmed received a call on his cell phone from a man identifying himself as "one of your brothers from the Arab peninsula"--the term radical Islamists use to signify the core of the Muslim world, centered on the holy city of Mecca. Al-Banna's family says that as far as they knew, Ra'ed was in Saudi Arabia working at a new job. But the voice on the other end sounded Iraqi, Ahmed says. "Congratulations," the caller told him. "Your brother has fallen a martyr."

Sharon, Bush and the settlements
By Aluf Benn, Haaretz, March 27, 2005
The efforts to expand the "settlement blocs" in the West Bank and to fill sensitive areas between the Green Line and the separation fence with thousands of housing units are intended to expand "the narrow waistline" around Israel's population centers.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to take advantage of international support for his plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip to establish facts on the ground in the West Bank. He has made no secret of his intentions: In the December 2003 Herzliya speech in which he first presented his disengagement plan he declared that Israel would "strengthen its control of other parts of the Land of Israel, which will be an inseparable part of the State of Israel in any future agreement."

Follow the money
By Michael Hirsh, Newsweek, April 4, 2005
By many accounts, Custer Battles was a nightmare contractor in Iraq. The company's two principals, Mike Battles and Scott Custer, overcharged occupation authorities by millions of dollars, according to a complaint from two former employees. The firm double-billed for salaries and repainted the Iraqi Airways forklifts they found at Baghdad airport -- which Custer Battles was contracted to secure -- then leased them back to the U.S. government, the complaint says. In the fall of 2004, Deputy General Counsel Steven Shaw of the Air Force asked that the firm be banned from future U.S. contracts, saying Custer Battles had also "created sham companies, whereby [it] fraudulently increased profits by inflating its claimed costs." An Army inspector general, Col. Richard Ballard, concluded as early as November 2003 that the security outfit was incompetent and refused to obey Joint Task Force 7 orders: "What we saw horrified us," Ballard wrote to his superiors in an e-mail obtained by Newsweek.

Yet when the two whistle-blowers sued Custer Battles on behalf of the U.S. government -- under a U.S. law intended to punish war profiteering and fraud -- the Bush administration declined to take part. "The government has not lifted a finger to get back the $50 million Custer Battles defrauded it of," says Alan Grayson, a lawyer for the two whistle-blowers, Pete Baldwin and Robert Isakson. In recent months the judge in the case, T. S. Ellis III of the U.S. District Court in Virginia, has twice invited the Justice Department to join the lawsuit without response. Even an administration ally, Sen. Charles Grassley, demanded to know in a Feb. 17 letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales why the government wasn't backing up the lawsuit. Because this is a "seminal" case -- the first to be unsealed against an Iraq contractor -- "billions of taxpayer dollars are at stake" based on the precedent it could set, the Iowa Republican said.

Panel ignored evidence on detainee
By Carol D. Leonnig, Washington Post, March 27, 2005
A military tribunal determined last fall that Murat Kurnaz, a German national seized in Pakistan in 2001, was a member of al Qaeda and an enemy combatant whom the government could detain indefinitely at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The three military officers on the panel, whose identities are kept secret, said in papers filed in federal court that they reached their conclusion based largely on classified evidence that was too sensitive to release to the public.

In fact, that evidence, recently declassified and obtained by The Washington Post, shows that U.S. military intelligence and German law enforcement authorities had largely concluded there was no information that linked Kurnaz to al Qaeda, any other terrorist organization or terrorist activities.

In recently declassified portions of a January ruling, a federal judge criticized the military panel for ignoring the exculpatory information that dominates Kurnaz's file and for relying instead on a brief, unsupported memo filed shortly before Kurnaz's hearing by an unidentified government official.

Kurnaz has been detained at Guantanamo Bay since at least January 2002.

"The U.S. government has known for almost two years that he's innocent of these charges," said Baher Azmy, Kurnaz's attorney. "That begs a lot of questions about what the purpose of Guantanamo really is. He can't be useful to them. He has no intelligence for them. Why in the world is he still there?"

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